33 ½ Science-backed Methods to Boost Your Mood and Be Happier | Part I

Want to lead a happier life in 2016 (and beyond)?

This list includes valuable tips, exercises and “hacks” to be happier and lead a more meaningful life. All of these recommendations are backed by psychological science. In case you are interested to learn more, I´ve included links to some research articles that have examined the corresponding topic. No. 12 – 22 can be found here, No. 23 – 33 ½ will be published shortly. The pieces of advice are ordered (roughly) by difficulty/level of effort etc. Share and enjoy!

1) Smile, Baby

Conventional wisdom holds that people tend to smile because they are happy. And while that is certainly true, it turns out that the other way around makes sense as well. We get happier because we smile. This is called facial feedback hypothesis and it has been shown to hold true over many studies. Accordingly, one way to better our mood is to make ourselves smile – even if we don´t feel like it in that particular moment. A popular method in order to achieve this is to hold a pencil between your teeth for a minute or so.

2) Eat (dark) Chocolate

Consuming moderate amounts of chocolate, especially the darker, less sugary type, has been shown to improve peoples´ mood. Whether this is just a consequence of the pleasurable eating experience, or caused by specific psycho-active ingredients in the cocoa, is still under debate. It works, anyway. But don´t overdo it. You know what I mean…

3) Please don’t stop the Music

Listening to happy and/or you favorite music is associated with elevated mood. It seems that there´s music that has a general happiness-inducing quality (e.g., Happy by Pharrell Williams) but otherwise, it´s more important that you really, really like what you´re listening to. By way of example, I´m really into heavy metal – a type of music that was once seen as fostering aggression and antisocial behavior. In the meantime, it became clear, that the emotional consequences of listening to music should be attributed to the fit between music and listener.

Nico - Family - Mappalicious4) Catch the Sun

Low levels of Vitamin D seem to be associated with depressive disorders, especially S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder a.k.a. winter blues) – and it´s comparably difficult to generate enough intake just from food. Our body is able generate this vitamin, but we need exposure to sunlight in order to pull off that stunt. That´s why we need to go out regularly, even when the weather is not all that great. You don’t need to take an actual sunbath – just being outside is enough (even when it´s cloudy), especially around noon-time. Sitting in the sunlight inside of the house does not help. What´s more, sunscreen seems to inhibit the process that generates the vitamin. For more advice, please see this article on Psychology Today.

5) Go green

Paying heed to No. 4 will additionally help you with this one: the so-called biophilia hypothesis states (among other things) that spending time in green environments (parks, forests etc.) helps to fight off stress and boosts our mood. Basically, the equation goes: the greener, the better, so you´ll profit more from a stroll in a nearby forest than a walk in the park. Long-term studies have found that moving from an inner-city area (lots of concrete, few greens spots) to a more rural area is greatly beneficial for several aspects of our psychological and physiological health.

6) Shake that Booty

Now, I´m perfectly aware of the fact that dancing may not be the most favorite subject among lots of my fellow men. Actually, psychologists have described a specific facet of our personality by the name of dance confidence – and that tends to be a bit lower with the not-so-fair sex. Nevertheless, regular dancing – even when you do it on your own in your living room – has tons of positive side effects, e.g., lifting your mood, boosting your immune system, and fighting stress by decreasing the concentration of cortisol in your blood.

7) Hit the Pillow

It is known that people need different amounts of sleep, and that the need for sleep changes over our lifetime (generally becoming less the older we get). And yes, there are people out there that claim to get along with just four hours of sleep per night. But the truth is: those folks are probably killing themselves very slowly. Most “normal” adults need at least seven to eight hours of good rest per night. Anything below that level for prolonged periods of time will very likely lead to performance problems (e.g., concentration disorders) – and yes: bad moods.

Nico - Workout - Mappalicious8) Move your Ass

Most people start exercise regimens at the onset of a new year to lose some pounds in order to look better in their Speedos once summer comes along. As less known fact: regular physical activity, especially endurance exercises like jogging, swimming etc. at medium intensity might just be one of the strongest anti-depressants out there.

9) Put down that Smartphone

Now, I certainly don´t belong to the type of people that engage in simple-minded smartphone (and social media) bashing – but: there are more and more studies that show detrimental effects of too much smartphone use. Especially among heavy users, there seem to be several adverse effects such as concentrations disorders – and also, a kind of separation anxiety when not having access to one´s favorite toy, e.g. due to low battery. Bottom line: the tool is fine, but don’t get attached to it.

10) Don’t be a Hater, stop the Gossip

Research shows the more meaningful conversations you have (as opposed to small talk and gossip), the happier you will be. Additionally, certain types of expressions on social media, such as swearing and verbalizing aggression, seem to be associated with bad moods and even adverse health conditions, e.g., a higher risk rate for cardio-vascular diseases. So, watch your language, young ladies and gentlemen.

11) Practice Gratitude

Cultivating gratitude seems to be the Swiss Army knife of Positive Psychology. It´s one of the most thoroughly researched positive interventions. Mostly, it comes in the form of keeping a gratitude (or: www for “what went well”) journal; please see this post on Greater Good Science Center´s website for more detail). The power of gratitude lies in its ability to counter the effect of what psychologist like to call the hedonic treadmill. We get used to almost all circumstances and things in our lives, whether they be desirable or undesirable. That´s why it´s helpful to actively focus our attention on all the good things in our lives once in a while. Also, it doesn’t cost thing.

Please note

Science shows that you do not have to practice all of these things (at once) to be happier. Rather, you should find out which of these activities best fit your personality and current way of life – so you´ll find it easy to sustain them. Please refer to: To each his own well-being boosting intervention: using preference to guide selection.

I´ve got 99 Words for Happiness, but the Germans only have One

In earlier posts, I´ve shared with you my personal feeling that Positive Psychology and the German language seem to be a bit of a mismatch, as my mother tongue is impoverished with respect to words describing positive experiences and states of being. Later on, I shared a study that is able to demonstrate that some languages are indeed happier than others – in that they are able to “hold” more positivity.

Today, I stumbled upon another piece of evidence pertaining to that matter. Below, you´ll see screenshots of the two most important translation websites in Germany. On the left, you can see the English words, a wide array positive states (of mind). On the right, the German translations are displayed. As you can see, all those English words are translated into the same German expression: Glück.

If Wittgenstein was right, and “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”, then having only a single word for what really should be a wide spectrum of words (corresponding to a wide spectrum of feelings) can be likened to being color-blind. It´s an impaired state of perception, or at least an impaired ability to convey one´s perceptions. And what good are emotions if they cannot be accurately named and shared?

Glueck - Luck

Glueck - Luck

Study: Some Languages are Happier than others. Hint: German didn´t make No. 1

A couple of weeks ago, I was musing about the notion that the German language may just not be the perfect vehicle for Positive Psychology – as I feel my mother tongue may lack specific positive words, or at least displays a certain lack of breadth and differentiation at the positive end of the “language scale”. While this “lost in translation” effect was based on my intuition and personal experience, recent research supports my notion at least to some extent. As part of a large-scale study, researchers collected the most frequently used words in all of the major languages of the world – and then had them rated for positivity/negativity by natives speakers.

Finding No. 1: Positivity

Each and every language is positively skewed. Means: across languages, positive words are used more often than negative words.

No. 2: Distribution

Some languages are heavily inclined to the positive side (e.g, Spanish), while others are more balanced (e.g., Chinese). German is located in the lower middle part, so we use positive words less often than a lot of other languages (including English).

I think this study is able to shed some light on why someone might feel the aforementioned “lost in translation” effect when trying to bring Positive Psychology to a culture other than the “typical” Anglo-Saxon context. It just might be a (slight) case of an emotional mismatch.

There´s a Lack of Positive Words in the German Language

A couple of times in the past, I´ve written about how immersing yourself in Positive Psychology is somewhat hard when you´re German – because it seems to be a slightly “Un-German” topic. Today, I´d like to explore this topic from a slightly different angle – that of language. Oscar Wilde supposedly said “Life is too short to learn German.” And he may have been right. It´s pretty complicated and therefore awfully hard to learn as a foreign tongue. Yet, it is the language of Goethe, Schiller, and Rammstein – that´s something to explore.

Speaking of the metal band Rammstein: there´s this thing about German pronunciation that makes just about everything sound like a declaration of war – even if you say something like “I love you”. There´s a funny video about this on Youtube. The guys overdo it a little, but then, this may just be what it feels like to a non-German ear:

But I digress. What I really want to talk about: I feel there´s a lack of positive words in the German language. Positive Psychology was (sort of…) invented in the U.S. – and most research papers and books are written in English. When I came to Penn, obviously I had to study the subject in English, too. But now that I´m back in Germany, I try to “sell” the topic over here, which has to be done in German of course. And that´s where the problems begin.

There´s this myth that the Inuit have an unusually high number of words to describe snow. We have “50 Shades of Grey”, they supposedly have 50 shades of snow. Actually, this is not true. But the idea behind the myth seems highly intriguing to me. In short it says: when something is valued very highly in a specific culture this tends to influence the use of language. Specifically, people pay more attention to the subject because of its importance, thereby learning to make more subtle distinctions, that ultimately are reflected in the amount of different words that can be used to talk about the subject.

To a certain degree, this idea mirrors one of Wittgenstein´s most famous dictums:

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.

When I do not have a word for something, that makes it hard to think about that subject, because it cannot be “grasped”. And it makes it even harder to speak about “that something” to other people. That idea is (probably) embodied in another Wittgenstein quote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Which brings us back to my problem of “selling” Positive Psychology in German:

Where there are no words, you can´t “spread the word”.

When I first tried to talk and write about Positive Psychology in German, oftentimes I felt a lack of the “right” words. For example, the German language has the same word (ergo: a lack of distinction…) for the subjects of “Happiness” and “Luck”. Both are signified by the noun “Glück”. So whenever I talk about happiness and positive emotions in the context Positive Psychology, I have to use an awful lot of extra words to get across the intended meaning.

But it´s not only a lack of distinction. Sometimes, I even feel there are no words. For instance, the brilliant Jonathan Haidt gave a lecture on the subject of “awe” in one of our MAPP classes. This moved me very much and I wanted to talk about my experience with friends back in Germany. The problem is: obviously, there is no adequate translation for “awe”. If you type “awe” into a translation machine, you’ll get the German equivalents of “veneration” or “reverence”, “rapture” or “entrancement”. All the suggestions entail a very religious or, at least, old-fashioned connotation. They are not part of a modern, non-religious German “language game”. Therefore, talking about “awe” in German in a scientific (or just everyday) context seems awfully hard.

This bears some interesting implications. Whenever I fill in a questionnaire on happiness or life satisfaction (e.g., here on Marty Seligman´s website), there´s an interesting phenomenon when I look at the results. These will be displayed in the context of different normed groups. E.g., your scores will be compared to other people of your age, your educational background, but also your ZIP code (when provided). Now here´s the thing: Comparing my results to other people from my ZIP code (ergo: other Germans) will always put me in a higher percentile. This means: based on the same raw scores, the algorithm will display that I´m quite happy when comparing myself to other men in general, or other Ph.Ds, but that I´m extremely(!) happy when comparing myself to other Germans.

Now, there´s a couple of different explanations for this phenomenon. The easiest one would be: on average, the German respondents in that data base are not all that happy – and that´s why I score (relatively) higher vis-à-vis that group. But it may also be a phenomenon of language. What if Germans were just as happy on average as, let´s say, U.S. citizens, but were reluctant to use positive self-descriptions in an extreme specification – just because it´s not part of our “happiness language game”? Maybe, via studying Positive Psychology in English in the U.S., I became a little less German, thereby being able to mitigate the dissonance of describing my life in a very positive light?

I guess Positive Psychology has to integrate cultural perspectives more and more in order to be equally “useful” for all the people on this planet. Recently, the Scientific American published a piece by the name of “Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy” citing different studies that were able to show that the concept and meaning of happiness can vary significantly between different cultures (notably, between more Western and more Eastern cultures) – but has also evolved over time. Very though-provoking.

Which brings me to the final question for today:

Could Germany be a better place if somebody invented new positive words?

“The German” per se (as a stereotype”) is depicted as a sober-minded person. We´re perceived as being diligent, orderly, industrious, and a lot of other helpful attributes. But we´re also depicted as being rather anxious, risk-averse, and just not that open-minded (think “German Angst”). This is not just an academic discussion. The German economy has been doing comparably well over the last couple of years – but how long will this last? We´re really not that good at building and financially supporting start-ups. Forbes regularly updates a large list of all those startups that are valued at more than one billion $ in terms of private equity funding. Only one of those is based in Germany.

What if all this were (at least to some extent) a consequence of a lack of the right positive words? Would we become more optimistic, less risk-averse, and more open-minded if we were able to enhance our language, if we were able to broaden the (far) positive side of our verbal aptitude? I think it´d be worth a try. In 1999, a German publisher of dictionaries (together with ice-tea brand Lipton) hosted a contest for the invention of a new word. We have a German word for the state of being “full” (= not hungry any more) – but there´s no positively framed expression for being “not thirsty any more”. As far as I know, the winning word has not made it into our regular language use, but I guess it was worth the effort.

So why shouldn’t we – for starters – find a more awesome translation for “awe”? I´m eager to hear your suggestions…