Five happiness hacks for when you're stuck at home

Being house-bound can have a significant negative impact on your mental wellbeing. Here are some great tips on how to boost your happiness and protect your mental health, even when leaving home isn't an option.

Why bother with happiness?

Being stuck at home can be wonderful. Who doesn't want to spend time snuggled up on the sofa, enjoying some well-deserved relaxation? But what if you're confined to your home for longer than a day?

COVID-19 has been a game-changer. Who could have imagined that something sub-microscopic could be causing such extensive global disruption? One of the consequences of coronavirus has been the measures introduced (world-wide) to limit its spread. This has meant – for many people – periods of extended time confined to home, a part of the house, or even a hotel room. This limitation of movement can have a significant impact on mental health.

Researchers from Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences looked into the emotional impact on over 2,000 people of being restricted to their homes. They found significant adverse effects on mental wellbeing. And the more time people spent in their homes, the more pronounced these effects became.  

So if you can spend some time outdoors, you should. But suppose you can't get outside due to COVID-19 restrictions? In that case, it is even more important to prioritise your mental health and focus on what you can do to promote your happiness from the comfort of your home.

In recent years, the study of happiness has become increasingly popular among medical researchers. Previously the field of psychology primarily focused on illness. But more and more there is an emphasis on what makes life worth living - 'positive psychology'. A significant component of this research has been into the area of happiness.

Happiness feels great – you already know that – but its benefits don't stop there. A review of nearly 300 studies looking into happiness found that it leads to a variety of significant outcomes in life. People who are happier tend to:

  • Have closer, more meaningful friendships

  • Have higher levels of marriage satisfaction

  • Be in better physical health

  • Be less likely to become depressed - and have enhanced coping mechanisms if they do develop depression

This report found evidence that positive emotions preceded these fantastic results. The happiness came first, and then these terrific effects followed!

Here is a guide to some great proven strategies that can maximise your happiness, even if you can't get yourself out the front door.

Keeping a gratitude journal can boost your ability to savour the good things in life

Recording things that you are grateful for in your daily life is a fantastic way to improve your happiness. The act of experiencing gratitude can enhance your ability to savour the good stuff in the world around you.

One study into gratitude and savouring found that 'when pleasant daily events were rare, higher levels of momentary savouring enhanced positive mood more.' So, the worse things are, the more of a happiness boost you can get from savouring the best bits of your day.

This same study also found that people that developed the habit of savouring regularly were more likely to stay happy, even when things were going wrong. The authors of the study describe that 'habitual savourers' were able to 'make the most of the least.'

Researchers in California performed an interesting series of studies into gratitude. In one part of their research, they asked 201 students to keep diaries. The study participants were split into three groups and asked to record either one of the following:

  • Events in their life they were grateful for

  • Things they found irritating

  • Or all significant events that occurred – whether negative or positive

They found that the students in the 'gratitude' group 'felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic regarding their expectations for the upcoming week.'

Other surprising advantages – beyond increasing happiness and wellbeing – included fewer physical symptoms, being more likely to help others and better sleep quality.  

So, what can you do to get these great benefits?

Keeping a 'gratitude journal' is a simple way to work on gratitude and savouring - and in so doing - improve your overall happiness.

A good way to start is by writing down three things in a day that you are grateful for. It doesn't matter how you do this. You could take pen to paper and get writing, or you could post on social media. It's totally up to you! The most important thing is to get started, aim to make it a habit and be aware of the fantastic benefits this could bring you.

Hitting pause on the telly can make your viewing experience more enjoyable

It might be hard to believe, but research has found that watching television with breaks is more enjoyable than binge-watching your favourite series.

Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt, even to extreme life changes. One study looked at a group of people who were major lottery winners and compared them with those who had not won. They found no difference in their overall happiness levels. In fact, the lottery group were less able to experience joy from routine day to day events.

This seems a bit unbelievable – but it can be explained by what psychologists call 'hedonic adaptation.' This is the term used to describe the human ability to return to a stable level of happiness despite new life events and changing life circumstances.

We're basically very good at getting used to things – and once we're used to something, it has less of an impact on our overall happiness.

But what has all this got to do with you watching the telly?

Hedonic adaptation occurs even while we are enjoying something. Because of this, the intensity of the experience (watching television, listening to music etc.) decreases over time. One way to prevent an enjoyable experience diminishing is to take a break from it – and in so doing, disrupt the process of hedonic adaptation.

In one series of studies, people were instructed to watch different types of television show. One group watched the show continuously, whereas the other group watched with an advertisement break in the middle. Those who watched the show with an ad break enjoyed the second half of the show more than the group watching without interruption.

In fact, when participants were shown a documentary about ducks, those who had watched with the ad breaks were willing to donate more to the suggested wildlife sanctuary. And when viewing a comedy sitcom, the group who had seen it with tv ads were willing to pay more for the box set.

So, if you want to get the most out of your favourite shows, you should pause them every now and then, and take a break. You don't need to watch ads – you can fill the time however you want. When you do come back to the telly, you'll have broken the process of hedonic adaptation, and maximised your enjoyment for the rest of the show.   

Calling friends and family can keep you connected to the outside world, even when you're house-bound

The importance of staying in touch with friends and family cannot be overstated. There are enormous wellbeing benefits of maintaining your social connections.

Humans are social creatures. Epidemiologists have consistently found, through time, that intact social relationships predict health and wellbeing.

One study that looked at 222 students found that the happiest 10% of the group all reported 'rich and satisfying social relationships.'

Shared human experiences are more rewarding. In another study, people were instructed to eat chocolate with strangers. Even though they were not allowed to communicate with each other, the experience of eating chocolate was most enjoyable when other people were present.

Unfortunately, when social connections break down, it can cause a significant detrimental impact on happiness and wellbeing. An article by the American Psychological Association describes that when our social ties are cut 'negative emotions may overwhelm us'. The paper also describes how social disconnection poses a challenge to physical health - through weakening immune defences and can even lead to a rise in rates of disease.

So, it's crucial that even when you are physically isolated, you don't become socially isolated.

Talking with people on the phone is a brilliant way to build on your social connections. It has advantages beyond just texting. If you have access to video calls – fantastic. But even with an old-fashioned phone call, you will experience someone else's voice and tone, as well as finding out what's going on in their lives.

In all likelihood, the benefits won't just be for you. The person on the other end of the call is going to get the same rich social encounter and all the benefits that brings with it.

So, if you have someone in mind to give a call to, don't hesitate. And if you're in the middle of something great on the telly and your phone rings – why not answer it? You could be helping not just yourself but increasing happiness on the other end of the line, in some other part of the world.

 

Loving-kindness meditation could make you happier through preventing mind wandering and increasing social connection

Meditation is a useful technique to stop the mind from wandering and increase your focus on the present moment. This can boost happiness levels. Loving-kindness meditation has the added benefit of promoting social connection.

The human brain is wired to wander. Scientists believe that this is 'a remarkable evolutionary acheivement that allows people to learn, reason and plan.' However, it can come with an emotional cost.

 

We spend approximately half of our waking time with our mind wandering and not focusing on the present moment.  This is true regardless of what activity we are doing. But unfortunately, irrespective of whether we are thinking of pleasant or unpleasant thoughts – we tend to be less happy when we are not focused on the here and now.

In fact, one study found that being focused on what you are doing has five times more of an impact on your happiness levels, than what the activity actually is. When it comes to happiness, how you're doing something, matters more than what you're doing.

So how can we stop our minds wandering so much of the time and become more focused on the present moment?

Research has proven time and time again that meditation is an effective way to calm the mind and allow our attention to focus on the here and now. Those who regularly meditate are not just more engaged when meditating, but experience less brain wandering even when performing other tasks.

Loving-kindness meditation is a practice used to increase warmth and caring for yourself and others. It involves sitting calmly, usually with the eyes closed. At the start, the focus is often on breathing. Then as the meditation progresses, you are asked to direct warm and tender feelings toward others and/or yourself.

One study into loving-kindness meditation found that it can lead to a wide range of positive emotions, including 'love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, and awe.' These benefits actually increased week on week as participants became more familiar with the practice.

Loving-kindness meditation has also been shown to increase social connection. Which, as discussed above, has a host of happiness advantages on its own.

There are plenty of excellent guides online with audio available to get you started with practising this form of meditation. You could gain two happiness boosts from this – increasing your ability to be present in the here and now and growing your sense of social connection.

Home workouts could decrease your risk of developing depression

It probably comes as no surprise to hear that exercise is good for you. It has enormous physical health benefits. And now there is increasing evidence that it contributes significantly to overall wellbeing.

People who are more physically active are less likely to develop depression. This is true across all age groups, and throughout all continents.

As well as physical activity potentially preventing depression, there is mounting proof that it can help treat depressive symptoms if they do develop.

One study looked at the effect exercise can have on older people's happiness. 120 older people were randomly assigned to either be in an exercise programme or not. The researchers found that 'after 2 months of the exercise education programme in the experimental group, the level of happiness scores among older adults was significantly increased.'

In a study looking at happiness amongst teenage girls, those who regularly exercised were substantially happier than those who did not.

So, exercising is definitely important when it comes to happiness. Having said that, we've all had days when it's hard to drag ourselves up off the couch (even in pre-COVID times).

Worryingly, research into isolation has shown that physical activity levels decrease when people are confined to a small area.

The Mars500 project was an experiment into the effects of social seclusion. Its intention was to simulate a 520-day journey to and from Mars. In the first three months, the participants' physical activity levels decreased dramatically, and this reduction continued throughout the mission. The crew spent 700 more hours in bed on the 'return journey' than they had on the 'outward journey.'

This decrease in physical activity has also been seen in the COVID-19 pandemic. Fitbit Inc. reported that the average step count for a week in March 2020 was substantially reduced (7-38%) compared to the same week in 2019. These results were present across multiple countries and 30 million users.

So, even though we humans are less likely to exercise in times of confinement, we've never needed the benefits of physical activity more.

Home workouts are a great way to combat this problem of inactivity. There are excellent resources online – from beginners to advanced. Many are free and require no equipment. If exercise is new to you, make sure to check in with your doctor before starting a new physical activity routine.

What next?

Being restricted to a confined space could have a significant detrimental effect on your psychological wellbeing. Therefore, it's more important than ever to focus on your mental health. Putting time and effort into promoting your happiness is an effective way to do this.

To summarise – the five happiness hacks covered are:

  1. Keeping a gratitude journal – to savour the good things in life

  2. Hitting pause on the telly – to maximise your enjoyment when watching

  3. Giving friends and family a call – to keep you socially connected

  4. Trying loving-kindness meditation – to help you focus on the here and now

  5. Starting home exercises – to decrease your risk of developing depression

You don't need to suddenly attempt everything on the list above. The most successful habits are achievable, sustained, small changes. Why not start with one of the above, and see what benefits it can bring you?

You could notice an improvement in your psychological health. And the benefits don't stop there. Remember, happiness itself has a long list of other advantages. Happy people are likely to be less focused on themselves and be more loving, forgiving and trusting. Positive emotions can even lead to more meaningful friendships and better physical health.

Coronavirus has made 2020 a year that won't easily be forgotten. Humans have had to adapt to a whole new range of unusual limitations. Living with the possibility of our movements being restricted is just one of those.

If you are struggling with your mood and need someone to talk to, take a look at this excellent list of available services for supporting your mental health.

Hopefully, by using some of the above tips, you can turn being house-bound into a positive experience. Even in this new COVID-19 world, there are opportunities to live a richer, more enjoyable life.

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