We Tested Common Happiness Advice. Here's What Actually Worked

There are lots of tips out there on how to be happier, but these habits are truly worth trying.

For years, experts have been recommending the same healthy lifestyle habits to reduce stress and improve your mood. (In fact, we published a list of them recently.) The advice stands the test of time for a good reason: Studies show they work over and over again.

But we live in 2020, when our lives are directed by our phones, busy schedules, the news cycle and more. We’re so burned out at work that it’s become an official medical diagnosis. The pressure to have it all, and to balance it once you do, is immense.

All of this makes some of the most common happiness tips ― like meditating or setting aside 10 minutes of your day to go for a walk ― feel kind of... impossible?

So, we decided to sort through a few of the suggestions and give you a list of which happiness habits are worth trying and which were a bit more difficult. Several people in the HuffPost newsroom volunteered to practice one habit for a month.

Here’s how it went:

What Definitely Worked

Getting outdoors can really boost your mood.
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images
Getting outdoors can really boost your mood.

Doing a quick daily meditation.

Research shows meditation can alleviate stress and increase your overall mood. One of our editorial directors committed to the practice this month by using the Headspace app and doing a three- to five-minute meditation each day. His conclusion? “I was surprised at how much it helped me.”

“The more I did it, the better I felt ― and not just when I was meditating,” he said. “By spending a little time each day trying to quiet ― or just slow down ― my mind, I began to try it when I wasn’t meditating. Like, if something was driving me crazy at work or I had a frustratingly slow commute, I’d stop, take a second, do some deep breathing and I was shocked at how much better I instantly felt.”

Walking outside for 10 minutes a day.

Studies show that getting outside and around greenery, even if only briefly, can make you happier. But we often stay chained to our desks or get lost in our weekend tasks instead of taking a real break. A senior culture reporter on our team decided to take on the challenge of spending time outside as a way to give his mind a reprieve.

“Being a New York resident working in digital media, I’m aware I spend far too much of my time indoors ― my doctor tells me I have a Vitamin D deficiency, even ― and am completely reliant on screens,” he said.

But the habit worked ― and even provided an added benefit.

“To my surprise, I felt the biggest shift in management of my weekend time, and found my productivity went up substantially,” he said. “Given the mild weather we’ve experienced in the Northeast thus far this winter, I found it easy to [extend] my 10-minute outdoor commitments beyond that time frame. Often, I’d feel compelled to talk a longer walk, visit a new neighbourhood or run a much-overdue errand.”

Practising grounding exercises.

Similar to meditation, grounding exercises make you more mindful in the moment and help quell anxiety during stressful times. Experts recommend engaging your senses: Pick five things you see, four things you can physically feel, three different sounds you hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

A senior audience editor tried practicing this exercise over the past month. He squeezed it in whenever he had a few moments waiting in line or commuting.

“The few times I did it on the subway was quite calming — I found myself noticing little things like conversations going on between old friends or couples in my car, the slight noise bleed from a podcast someone is listening to, even the clickety-clack of the wheel on the track,” he said. “It made me feel more connected to the city and reminded me to pay attention to things around me a bit more.”

The main problem he found was that a few minutes didn’t feel like enough, and that longer meditation sessions might be more useful. Still, not bad for a quick trick.

Reading before bed.

There are a host of happiness-related perks that come with reading a physical book ― especially before you go to bed, since it gets you away from sleep-destroying screens.

Our executive editor tried reading every night before bed to reap some of these benefits, because she felt she didn’t read enough last year (and because she wanted to increase her happiness, obviously). She succeeded.

“I read three books in January, which is more than the last six months of last year,” she said. “And I felt better about myself at bedtime because I wasn’t lamely clicking around Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or all three, in search of I don’t know what.”

Practicing the habit didn’t come without its challenges, including a struggle to keep up with it consistently and the need to spend time processing a book (which is difficult right before you turn the lights out). That said, she’s excited to continue reading before getting that shut-eye. Win.

Finding a therapist.

Talking to a professional can do a great deal to improve your wellbeing. You don’t need to be dealing with a crisis or a severe mental health issue to go to therapy (but, of course, the process definitely helps with those things, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking assistance for them).

A senior reporter in the newsroom decided 2020 was going to be the year he tried therapy as a way to navigate some major stressors in his life. The result?

“It definitely, definitely helped me,” he said. “I think one of the biggest barriers to people getting therapy or other mental health help is how intimidating the process can feel.”

That said, not everyone can get access to therapy. (“One of the biggest limitations, of course, is cost and insurance. It can be a tricky thing to navigate,” the reporter said.) Programs like Talkspace and BetterHelp aim to alleviate some of those problems, and there are also other ways to make mental health help less expensive.

What Was A Struggle

Establishing a good sleep routine is important, but a challenge.
Marjan_Apostolovic via Getty Images
Establishing a good sleep routine is important, but a challenge.

Establishing a solid sleep routine.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has never been slangry (that is, angry from a lack of sleep). Sleep can alter our moods drastically. Experts stress that it’s vital to create a solid, consistent rest routine where you get six to eight hours of sleep each night. One of our front-page editors volunteered for this task.

“To do this, I tracked my sleep using a Fitbit Blaze,” she said. “That helped me to realise that I sleep so much better ― longer and more soundly ― on the weekends. During the week, I’m so stressed out by work and the news that I sleep less and wake up more often.”

Unfortunately, with major stories like the Australia wildfires, impeachment and the coronavirus ― just to name a few ― the news in January was hardly kind to our mental health. (Shout-out to the masses of people who are also too buzzed by the news to sleep: People in media feel your pain.) That made it difficult for our editor to get her sleep in check.

“By the end of the month, I was neither more rested nor happier. In fact, the opposite was true,” she said. “However, I was more educated about my sleep cycle. Since I could see the benefits, I am determined to keep trying.”

Reading self-development books.

Reading a book by someone you admire or someone who overcame struggles can help you reframe your own perspective. An audience editor put this theory to the test by turning the pages of self-help books. It ultimately didn’t go so well.

“I learned that most self-development books aren’t totally my style,” she said. “I tried to read a few of the popular ones, like ‘The Four Agreements,’ but found the books to be a bit lofty.”

“However, I was able to find one that resonated, ‘Find Your Fuckyeah: Stop Censoring Who You Are and Discover What You Really Want’ by Alexis Rockley,” she continued. “I realise that this book probably said all of the same things as the other self-help books that I tossed, but it felt more grounded in science and facts, which I appreciated.”

Countering negative thoughts.

Many experts recommend pushing back against automatic negative thoughts to improve your happiness. You can do this by asking yourself a simple question in the moment: Does what I’m thinking accurately capture what’s really going on?

One of our audience editors said she often ruminates on worrisome thoughts and potentially catastrophic outcomes, which is why she was up for this particular challenge. And while it did work, it wasn’t necessarily the easiest habit to stick to.

“It was exhausting at times to recognise and challenge every single negative thought throughout the day for a month, so there were times when I would just intentionally not practice the habit,” she said. “When I did recognise I was having a negative thought, sometimes I would beat myself up for thinking that way to begin with. Over the month, I tried to be more patient, consistent and accepting of the process.”

Overall, she’s hoping to be more vigilant about how she talks to herself, and she said the exercise did help with that. But as a general tip, it is a little lofty. Plus, some mental health experts say it’s important to let yourself feel all your feelings ― including the crappy ones. Pushing aside every single negative one might not be completely beneficial.

That said, this doesn’t mean these tips don’t work. Happiness is not one-size-fits-all, so the habits that stick won’t totally be that way, either. However, it was nice to get a sense of what was realistic and what was more of a challenge. Hey, we’ll try anything in the name of joy (and journalism).

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