How to be happy: 6 science-backed ways to cultivate happiness

Yael Cooperman, MD - Contributor Avatar

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD, Ro, 

Written by Kaitlin Sullivan 

Yael Cooperman, MD - Contributor Avatar

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD, Ro, 

Written by Kaitlin Sullivan 

last updated: Aug 26, 2021

4 min read

Living a happy life looks different for everyone. But the actual feeling of happiness is consistent across the board, and there are some universal habits scientifically proven to produce those feelings. 

We often can’t control what happens to us in life, however, we do have power over our habits and how we react to things that interfere with our happiness. Here are six research-backed habits proven to boost happiness.


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1. Keep scrolling to a minimum

There are plenty of studies that show that the amount of time a person spends on social media impacts their well-being. The more time you spend on social media, the more unhappy you’re likely to be.

In one study, participants reported they felt more negative emotions when spending a lot of time on social media. Real-life interactions had the opposite effect, increasing feelings of well-being and minimizing negative emotions (Wirtz, 2020). 

So how do you make it happen? One way to cut down is by deleting apps off your phone to prevent muscle memory from taking you down a social media rabbit hole. Another option is to add an app to your phone that sets a daily time limit on certain websites, for example, Instagram or Facebook. When you reach the allotted time, you’ll be blocked from accessing it for the rest of the day. 

2. Get regular exercise

We’ve heard it a thousand times. Exercise is good for your heart, muscles, bones, and much more. It’s also pretty great for your brain, too. 

A study of more than 1.2 million American adults found exercise had more of an impact on mental health than other factors known to affect happiness, such as education and income. 

Researchers also found that while all types of exercise were associated with feelings of happiness, the biggest boost was seen in those who played group sports. So how much activity does science say you need? It seems that 45 minutes of physical activity 3–5 days a week produces a significant positive effect on mental health, no matter how old you are (Chekroud, 2018). 

That doesn’t mean you need to start running marathons, though. Regular and vigorous exercise typically produces the best results, but even exercising just one day a week for 10 minutes helps boost happiness as well (Pengpid, 2019; Zhang, 2018). The trick is to pick something you like doing, whether it’s dancing, hiking, or taking your dog for a walk. If you have fun doing the activity, it’s a lot easier to stick with an exercise routine. 

3. Be kind

You don’t need time, money, or physical health to be kind, so this may be the easiest path to happiness on the list. And research finds that random acts of kindness appear to produce more positive emotions. 

Analyzing decades of kindness, research also shows that committing random acts of kindness is more effective at generating happiness than planned acts of generosity, such as scheduled volunteering. People who were consistently kind typically had higher self-esteem, a greater sense of self-efficacy, less depression and anxiety, and improved physical health (Hui, 2020).

Random acts of kindness can be as simple as paying a stranger a compliment or offering to return their cart when they’re done loading groceries into their car. 

4. Get outside

The healing power of nature has gotten a lot of attention from scientists in recent years––and with good reason. 

Spending two hours a week in nature, whether that’s completely off-grid, in an urban park, or even in your backyard, significantly improves both physical and mental well-being. Researchers have also found people who travel outside their neighborhood to access nature are more likely to spend more time outside compared to those living in nature-rich spots (White, 2019). 

The type of outdoor space might matter, too. A study found that spending time in nature increased feelings of happiness, with specifically wooded grasslands and blue spaces (like water) having the greatest effect (Stieger, 2020). 

The positive effects of habitually getting outside also appear to be long-lasting. A Danish study that followed almost a million people over three decades found that kids who spend more time outside had a higher likeliness to be happier adults. 

On the flip side, kids who grew up in urban areas with little green space were up to 55% more likely to develop a mental health condition independent of other known risk factors. If you grew up without green space in your life, no worries––there's always time to make up for it now (Engemann, 2019).

5. Speak to yourself the way you would speak to a friend

Negative self-talk has huge consequences for your overall well-being. Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to be kinder to others than to ourselves. For instance, you wouldn’t tell a friend who didn’t get their dream job that they’re a failure––but that’s the message you might send yourself. 

Speaking to yourself with the same kindness and grace you’d show a friend is key to happiness. Count your wins and acknowledge that if you’re bummed about a setback, it doesn’t define your entire life path. 

Think of a few things you’re proud of or people in your life for whom you’re grateful. Gratitude on its own can also foster an overall sense of well-being and prevent you from fixating on the negative (Braun, 2015). 

6. Invest in good relationships

Having secure, healthy relationships is one of the most potent factors to a person’s happiness. That doesn’t just mean romantic relationships; any social connections you treasure in your life are important. 

Started in 1938, the Harvard Study on Adult Development is considered the most extensive study of its kind. Researchers tracked more than 700 men over a span of nearly 80 years, starting when they were teenagers. The study found that of all the factors that play into a person’s happiness, good relationships ranked first (Harvard Study of Adult Development, 2015). 

Making time to catch up with the people you care about is likely to have a significant impact on happiness for both of you. It’s never been easier to connect with others, so make sure you’re taking care of meaningful relationships, even if it’s with just a few people. 


If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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Every article on Health Guide goes through rigorous fact-checking by our team of medical reviewers. Our reviewers are trained medical professionals who ensure each article contains the most up-to-date information, and that medical details have been correctly interpreted by the writer.

Current version

August 26, 2021

Written by

Kaitlin Sullivan

Fact checked by

Yael Cooperman, MD

About the medical reviewer

Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.