So often, the habits that experts recommend to increase happiness aren’t compatible with actual daily life. Who has time to sit down for an extended meditation session when you’re juggling 1,000 different things?
Fortunately, there is plenty you can do to boost your well-being throughout the day in just a few minutes. Here are five research-backed happiness “hacks” that take five minutes or less, but pay dividends all day long.
1. Tackle your hardest task.
Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of Inner Mammal Institute and author of “Habits of a Happy Brain,” believes that humans can essentially rewire their brains. How so? By understanding that we have certain “happy chemicals” that were inherited from earlier mammals — and using that knowledge to develop habits that turn those chemicals on.
One of those chemicals is dopamine, which Breuning describes as “a sense of accomplishment,” and you can stimulate dopamine by going straight at your most difficult task of the day — ideally pretty early on. Have an email you’ve been putting off? A particularly challenging stretch of child care? A deadline you need to hit, or a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off? Tackle it first.
(If the task you’re taking on isn’t something you can complete in five minutes or less, break it into smaller chunks. Then start with one.)
Ultimately, the goal is to “focus on a specific target,” Breuning said, and to celebrate yourself when you’re done. It might feel counterintuitive to tackle a hard task when you’re looking for a feeling of happiness, but stimulating dopamine in your brain can help keep you humming along (and feeling proud of yourself!) all day long.
2. Take 10 deep breaths.
In a December study led by a team of researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, experts broke down the four pillars they believe are essential to cultivating mental well-being: awareness, connection, insight and purpose. All these sound pretty lofty, but the pillars can be broken down into small daily habits that, over time, train the brain.
When it comes to awareness, for example, one of the simplest exercises to try is just breathing. Close your eyes and focus on the act of taking 10 breaths, the researchers suggested. That’s it! (Or consider 4-7-8 breathing. Or roll breathing. Or any of the hundreds of other types of focused breathing. Just find one or two methods that feel good to you so you’ll actually stick to it.)
Ultimately, research really does show how powerful mindfulness meditation can help to lessen feelings of anxiety and stress both in the moment and in the longer term. But the good news is that you don’t need to spend a huge chunk of your day doing it.
3. Listen to a happy song. (Bonus points for dancing!)
When you’re exhausted or dragging, press play on an upbeat song. Research shows hearing happy music is on par with mindfulness meditation.
For example, in a 2016 study of older adults with Alzheimer’s, listening to music improved their sense of well-being and mood and lowered their feelings of stress. On the other end of the spectrum, studies have shown that singing to babies in the NICU helps to keep them “quietly alert” and reduced parental stress.
Bonus points for dancing or moving your body along with the music, which can help increase your energy levels even further while zapping stress.
4. For a few minutes, focus on the people who’ve got your back.
According to Breuning, another key “happy chemical” is oxytocin, which people tend to think of as the love hormone, though she thinks of it as more closely tied to feelings of trust. To stimulate oxytocin quickly, she recommended thinking about the people you trust. Ask yourself: “If I need support, who will be there?” Breuning said.
You might go ahead and connect with that person by sending them a quick text or giving them a call, (or if you’re together at home, giving them a quick hug). And those simple moments of social connection with someone you love and admire are a big-time happiness booster.
But just thinking about who is in your “herd” can be enough, Breuning said. It stimulates your brain’s oxytocin, which helps you feel safe and secure.
5. Do something kind for someone. (Or just think kind thoughts!)
Research shows that daily acts of kindness are a simple way to boost happiness and they don’t have to be big. What matters is that you’re deliberate about it.
“Intentionally set a goal to be kinder to others,” experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest. “Express sincerely felt kindness to a co-worker. Make a special effort to extend kind words to a neighbor. Hold the elevator for someone or take time to help a loved one.”
Experts also now understand that it can be equally powerful (at least from a happiness-boosting perspective) to simply spend some time cultivating a sense of kindness toward someone in your own head — whether or not that person even knows it.
The Center for Healthy Minds recommended thinking about things you admire about that person. Then “recall situations where they expressed these qualities and then imagine expressing your appreciation,” the group noted. “You can then extend this to people you don’t know very well and eventually even to people you find challenging.”
By spending some time sending happy thoughts someone else’s way, you’ll bring a bit of joy into your own life.