Unexpected ways to boost your happiness from getting dirty to planning a trip

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Listening to sad songs can actually boost your happiness, according to a study (Stock photo) (Image: Getty Images/Westend61)
Listening to sad songs can actually boost your happiness, according to a study (Stock photo) (Image: Getty Images/Westend61)

You might think that listening to words of woe when you’re feeling down would make things worse, but surprisingly the opposite is true.

“Some studies have shown listening to sad music can uplift your mood, possibly by providing a form of catharsis – a way of letting emotions out and allowing you to express yourself – or by making you feel less alone in your feelings,” says Dr Nicole Main, psychologist and UK Clinical Lead at Wysa, the mental-health app used by NHS consumers and employers. “Other researchers believe sad music may trigger a mix of emotions, including nostalgia and tenderness, which can also lift our mood.”

We all know that exercising, eating well and socialising with loved ones spark joy, but there are more surprising activities also scientifically proven to be good for our mental health, writes Natasha Holt.

Make someone else smile

Research has shown making someone else smile, even a stranger, helps our own wellbeing because it fulfils our psychological need for connection with others. “Psychologists have found engaging in prosocial behaviour – taking actions designed to help other people – is an effective way of making people feel happier,” explains Dr Deborah Lee of Doctor Fox Online Pharmacy (doctorfox.co.uk). “Just making someone else smile can give you a ‘helper’s high’ which may be described as feeling the ‘warm glow’ from the effects of helping someone else.”

Unexpected ways to boost your happiness from getting dirty to planning a trip eideziqkeiqhhinvMaking someone else smile can in turn make you happier (Stock photo) (Getty Images/Westend61)

Get cultural

You don’t have to be an art buff or a culture vulture to get a psychological boost from visiting a museum or gallery – studies show simply engaging with culture can lower our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Social activities such as visiting museums and galleries or going to a concert have been shown to correlate with better wellbeing, and lower scores of anxiety and depression,” explains Dr Main. “They can expose you to new ideas and perspectives and provide an opportunity for relaxation and escape, which can reduce stress. Often these activities are social too, so engaging in them can foster a sense of community and connection.”

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Find a quest

“Having a purpose in life is known to improve human health and happiness,” says Dr Lee. “Research has shown humans flourish when they have optimal mental and physical health. Rather than just drifting, they need to set and achieve personal goals. Knowing your passion and commitment has been shown to boost the immune system and help you live longer .” So find a project to excite you, and get stuck in!

Eat lots of fruit and vegetables

Eating fruit and vegetables is clearly essential for our physical health but a short-term study has also shown a positive correlation between a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and improved overall wellbeing, happiness, creativity and positivity. “Fruits and vegetables are rich in fibre and polyphenols which can help to support a healthy gut and nourish the gut-brain axis to support mental health,” explains nutritionist Jenna Hope (jennahopenutrition.com).

“Additionally, incorporating more fruits and vegetables into the diet can help to naturally displace foods higher in sugar, saturated fats and artificial ingredients. This in turn may help with balancing blood sugar levels, supporting energy and mood too.”

Unexpected ways to boost your happiness from getting dirty to planning a tripA study has shown there is a positive correlation between a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and improved overall happiness (Stock photo) (Getty Images)

Have sex only once a week

A 2015 study of more than 30,000 Americans over 40 years showed that having sex once a week is the optimum amount for maximising happiness. “Sexual intercourse facilitates bonding between a couple and helps them feel close,” says Dr Lee. “Interestingly a different study showed having sex more often than usual doesn’t increase happiness. Once a week seems to be the optimal amount, in terms of happiness, fulfilment and enjoyment.”

Chat to a stranger

“It might sound terrifying to some, but chatting to a stranger can be beneficial,” advises Dr Main. “These conversations can give you a fresh perspective, as you’re interacting with someone who doesn’t have preconceived ideas about you.” Surprisingly, even just passing the time of day with someone you don’t know can help, as proved by a study of Turkish bus commuters.

“Those who engaged in positive interactions with bus drivers reported better moods and life satisfaction compared to those who didn’t. Chatting to a stranger can also help to foster a sense of connection, which can help counter feelings of loneliness,” adds Dr Main. “And because approaching people we don’t know can make us feel uncomfortable, afterwards you’ll enjoy a real sense of achievement and satisfaction.”

Check out the stars

It’s well known that getting out in nature is good for our mental health but, surprisingly, going outside and looking at the stars at night can have the same effect – even if you’re just sitting there watching them twinkle. One study showed stargazing had a meditative effect and its participants reported a wide range of benefits, including experiencing positive emotions.

“Going outside at night to stargaze gives us the feeling of being connected to nature,” says Dr Lee. “Stargazing is a stress reliever and can also be a social activity keeping you connected to other people.”

Get dirty

Although we may not have realised it, there’s probably a good reason why children love playing in the dirt. “There’s been research into the benefits of exposure to certain types of bacteria found in soil,” explains Dr Main. “Mycobacterium vaccae found in dirt, has been shown in some studies to stimulate the production of serotonin, which can lift your mood.” One study, carried out on mice, showed those that ingested the bacteria navigated a maze twice as fast as those who didn’t – and proved less anxious too.

Unexpected ways to boost your happiness from getting dirty to planning a tripKids love playing in the dirt - and there is probably a good reason why (Stock photo) (Getty Images)

Wriggle out of a boring task

Whether it’s hiring a gardener or cleaning your house, outsourcing a job that you find really dull is actually good for your mental health. According to Harvard professor Ashley Whillans, outsourcing chores can make you feel as happy as receiving an $18,000 (£14,000) pay rise. Dr Lee believes that’s because saying no to things we don’t want to do is good for us.

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“Saying no can make you happier,” she says. “If there’s something that we can’t do, or don’t want to do, then it’s empowering to be able to refuse to do it. Saying no is about self-care, maintaining a good work-life balance and not becoming overwhelmed. By not doing that task, we can use our energy positively elsewhere.”

Plan a trip

There’s nothing like planning an exciting holiday to lift the spirits, but research has shown that you don’t even have to book it and go to reap some rewards. A study by New York’s Cornell University showed it’s the anticipation that increases our happiness.

“The act of visualising a trip or holiday can be a form of mental escape in itself,” says Dr Main. “Guided imagery, where you bring to mind a peaceful place or experience, can help to relieve anxiety and stress and improve sleep. And if you actually have a trip planned, organising the practicalities of it can help you to feel productive and boost your sense of purpose and achievement.”

Natasha Holt

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