Happiness Hacks: The 10 Most Unexpected Ways to Be Happy, Backed By Science

We love happiness at Buffer.

We’ve renamed customer support as customer happiness.

Happiness is baked into our culture and values and the DNA of every person who works on the team.

If there’s a smile to be had or a positive outlook to take, we’ll do our best to find it.

As such, we’re always keen to test out new ways to improve on this value of happiness at work, at play, and at home. We’ve tried science-backed ways to be happier, productive ways to be happier, and lessons from historians, writers, authors, and experts.

Might there even be some unexpected ways to be happy?

I pulled together some research about the many unexpected and counterintuitive ways to find happiness, and I’m happy to share with you what I found. These 10 insights cover a wide range of happy ideas, many of which might seem new and original.


1. Embrace opposing feelings, at the same time

Cheerful + Downcast = Happy

Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being

The above quote from psychologist Jonathan Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering sums up the idea that happiness can come from noticing and embracing a wide spectrum of emotions—good and bad.

Adler and his colleague Hal Hershfield performed a study on this so-called mixed emotional experience and how it relates to positive, psychological well-being. They monitored participants who went through 12 weekly therapy sessions and who filled out questionnaires before each.

The results: Feeling cheerful and dejected at the same time was a precursor to improved well-being in the following sessions.

For example, someone might say, “I feel sad because of the recent losses in my life, yet I am also happy and encouraged to be working through them for a positive outcome.” According to Adler:

Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being.

And Hershfield followed up with a another study about mixed emotions and health. After studying participants over a 10-year span, he and his team found a direct correlation with accepting one’s mix of emotions (e.g., “taking the good with the bad”) and good physical health.


We’ve enjoyed sharing among our team about mindful meditation and reflection. This process was even highlighted in a 2012 study by psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala of Boston University who found that mindfulness helped participants overcome anxiety disorders by accepting their wide-range of feelings and working toward improvement.

2. Keep your happy friends close, geographically

The sweet spot: a happy mutual friend, living a mile away

The town of Framingham, Massachusetts, was the focus of a multi-generational study on happiness, known as the Framingham Heart Study. Beginning in 1948, the study has tracked three generations of Framingham residents and their offspring to discover trends in the way that happiness moves among a population. A few of their takeaways:

  • Individual happiness cascades through groups of people, like contagion.
  • The more happy people you add to your life, the greater positive effect it will have on you. (This is not true of sadness.)
  • Geographically close friends (and neighbors) have the greatest effect on happiness.

Below is the chart that summarizes this last point about geographic closeness. Basically, researchers broke down the happiness effect based on a participant’s relationship to others (the so-called “alters” in the chart) and their proximity to one another.

framingham study

The breakdown:

  1. Nearby mutual friends (literally off the charts, the actual probability percentage is 148 percent)
  2. Next-door neighbor
  3. Nearby friend (a person whom the participant named as a friend but the “friend” did not reciprocate the label)
  4. Nearby alter-perceived friend (a person whom the participant did not name as a friend but who claimed to be friends with the participant)
  5. Nearby sibling
  6. Coresident spouse
  7. Distant sibling
  8. Non-coresident spouse
  9. Same block neighbor
  10. Distant friend

Proximity of nearby mutual friends, according to the study, included those who lived with one mile of each other. Others fall into the “distant friend” category.

Is it possible to have mutual friends that close by? I’d love to hear your experience. Personally, it reminds me of the happiness and fun of dorm life, big-city living, and vacationing with friends.

3. Learn something new, even if it’s stressful

Master a new skill—stress now, happiness later

If you are willing to push through a bit of added stress in the short-term, you can experience huge gains in happiness for the long-term.

Learn a new skill. Take on a bit more stress. And research says you’ll be happier on an hourly, daily, and long-term basis.

The gains from this investment in time and energy were documented in a 2009 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Participants who spent time with activities that increased their competency, met their need for autonomy, or helped them connect with others reported decreased happiness in the moment yet increased happiness on an hourly and daily basis.

The key, according to the study, is to choose the right new skill to master, challenge to undertake, or opportunity to get out of your comfort zone.

The greatest increases are experienced (with) any behavior that a person feels they have chosen, rather than ought to do, and that helps them further their interests and goals

4. Invest in good counseling

Therapy is 32 times more effective than cash

Can money buy happiness?

Not according to research by psychologist Chris Boyce. At least, not as well as a regularly-scheduled counseling session.

Boyce and his colleagues compared the data sets from thousands of  reports on well-being and noted how well-being changed either due to therapy or due to sudden increases in income, like receiving a pay raise or winning the lottery. Basically, do we get more happiness for our buck by paying for therapy or by receiving cash in hand?

The results were incredibly lopsided.

Therapy was 32 times more effective than cash.

It would take a $40,000 raise to equal the benefit from $1,300 worth of therapy.

Bigger happiness impact- Therapy or cash


This study certainly highlights the value of counseling, and it also points to the general benefit of intangible experiences, relationships, and communication over possessions, things, and money. If you’re seeking happiness, never be afraid to question if you’re looking in the right places.

5. Press pause on the breathless pursuit of happiness

Chase happiness at a safe speed

Here’s a cool story about cats.

One day this old alley cat crossed paths with a younger cat who was frantically running around, trying to catch its own tail. The older cat watched carefully for awhile. When the young cat stopped for a breather, the older cat asked, “Would you mind telling me what you are doing?”

The young cat said, “Sure thing! I went to Cat Philosophy School and learned that happiness is in our tails. So I am going to keep chasing my tail and someday I will catch it and get a big bite of happiness.”

The older cat responded, “Well, I have never been to Cat Philosophy School, but I agree: Happiness is in our tails. However, I have found that when I just wander around enjoying life, it follows me everywhere I go.”

This idea of not chasing happiness was highlighted in a 2011 study by Yale psychologist June Gruber and colleagues who found that pursuing happiness may lead to increased expectations that, if gone unmet, would actually have the opposite effect of happiness.

So instead of chasing happiness to the extremes, we may be better off pursuing happiness calmly and rationally. Trying new happiness experiments is a great way to go, so long as you keep expectations in check.

6. Say no to almost everything

Specifically, say “I don’t”

The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything. Warren Buffett

Overworked and overburdened is a recipe for unhappiness. So if you want to be happy, might be some quick wins by saying no!

So then, how should you say it?

Say I don’t.

Believe it or not, the phrase “I don’t” is up eight times more likely to work than saying “I can’t.” It’s more than doubly effective versus the simple “no.”

The Journal of Consumer Research ran a number of studies on this difference in terminology. One of the studies split participants into three groups:

Group 1 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals they should “just say no.” This group was the control group because they were given no specific strategy.

Group 2 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “can’t” strategy. For example, “I can’t miss my workout today.”

Group 3 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “don’t” strategy. For example, “I don’t miss workouts.”

And the results:

How to Say No

  • Group 1 (the “just say no” group) had 3 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 2 (the “can’t” group) had 1 out of 10 members who persisted with her goal for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 3 (the “don’t” group) had an incredible 8 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.

Results from this study make a pretty great blueprint on how to say no. I’d love to hear how this works for you if you decide to add this to your happiness toolbox.

7.  Celebrate strengths, recognize weakness

Allow yourself permission to be yourself

You’ve perhaps heard the old maxim, “You can be anything you want to be.” Strengths Finder author Tom Rath has an amendment:

You can be a lot more of who you already are.

When we’re able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists.

Psychologist Paul Pearsall calls this “openture” (his coined phrase for the opposite of “closure”). Pearsall’s desire is that people embrace imperfections and celebrate strengths.

Research has shown that wedging ourselves into places we don’t fit can lead to undesirable results. As an extreme example, a study from Joanne Wood of the Univeristy of Waterloo asked people with low self-esteem to say to themselves “I’m a lovable person,” and at the conclusion of the exercise, participants felt reaffirmed in their low self-esteem rather than empowered to change.

If happiness seems elusive because you feel a need to be someone you aren’t, then the words of Tom Rath should be comforting. Celebrate what you’re good at and appreciate that we all bring unique characteristics to the table.

8. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

The Samurai approach to happiness

Samurai warriors had two essential elements to performing their best: They trained extremely hard and they prepared for the worst.

The latter element, so-called “negative visualization,” has its roots in Stoicism. Oliver Burkeman wrote a book about counterintuitive happiness, including sections on this idea of Stoic thought. In an interview with writer Eric Barker, Burkeman explained:

It’s what the Stoics call, “the premeditation” — that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated.

Another benefit of this visualization is that you feel more in control when you have planned for all outcomes. Navy SEALs undergo psychological training so that they feel in control at all times. And according to neuroscience, the brain can continue to function as normal so long as we maintain the illusion of control (via training and visualization).

9. Give up your favorite things

Just for a day or two, not forever (phew!)

Here’s a gem of an idea from Eric Barker, author of the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog:

Denying yourself something makes you appreciate the things you take for granted.

The scientific elements at play here are self-control and willpower. Researchers who conducted an overview of 83 studies on self-control concluded that willpower wanes as the day goes on, yet you can train willpower just as you would a muscle. Exerting self-control leads to more self-control over time.

Harvard professor Michael Norton has a great way of thinking about this:

The idea is that the things that you really like a lot, stop. Stop it. So, if you love, every day, having the same coffee, don’t have it for a few days and, when you wait, and then you have it again, it’s going to be way more amazing than all of the ones that you would have had in the meantime.

The problem with that is, on any given day, it’s better to have a coffee than not, but if you wait three days and don’t have it, it’s going to be way better once you finally do. Interrupting our consumption is free. It actually saves you money and gets you more happiness out of the money spent. It’s like the best of all worlds, but we’re completely unable to do it, because we always want to watch the thing or eat the thing right now. It’s not “give it up forever.” It’s “give it up for short periods of time, and I promise you you’re going to love it even more when you come back to it.”

Think daily coffee, Netflix binging, iPhone games, etc. Find more happiness by practicing patience with the things you love.

10. Keep your daydreams grounded

Expect great things rather than fantasizing about great things

Is there such a thing as a grounded daydream?

Hopefully so. A German research project found that students who fantasized about the future met below average results in their real-life futures. The following occurred with those who fantasized:

  • Put in fewer job applications
  • Received fewer job offers
  • Earned lower salaries
  • Were more likely to struggle academically
  • Failed to ask their crush out on a date

Here’s the chart from the series of studies. The specific explanations can be found in the full report, but generally-speaking positive numbers are good and negative numbers are less so.

expectations vs fantasy

London School of Economics professor Heather Kappes says, “Wild fantasies dull the will to succeed.” This would appear to be true of the participants in the study.

So instead of wild daydreaming, perhaps it is better to remain grounded, hopeful, and eager to see happiness in one’s future. After all, once you get a vision and idea in mind, it’s difficult to extract it. Social psychologist Dan Wegner even came up with a psychological theory on the topic, dubbed the Ironic Processes of Mental Control:

in order to insure that you aren’t thinking about an unwanted idea, you have to continually turn your mind to that very idea. How do you know that you aren’t thinking of a white bear driving a red Ferrari unless you think about whether you’re thinking it?

Maybe you can apply the same to happiness, albeit remaining firmly grounded while doing so.

Over to you

Which of these unexpected happiness hacks ring true to you?

Are there some you agree/disagree with?

I’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments! We’re always eager to find out what works for you and to learn new experiences in living happily.

Image credits: Death to the Stock Photo, BMJ, PMC

  • http://bbrano.tumblr.com/ Branko Kral

    In my experience knowing that what the crowd does is not always the right way, and finding what makes you happy without influence of others, works wonders. Sometimes that means following whims and impulses and always it means believing in own mind power.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Branko! Great advice! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here. I like the idea of following whims and impulses – very freeing! :)

      • http://bbrano.tumblr.com/ Branko Kral

        Thanks for the article Kevan, I love how you used your data driven writing style to write about this. I shared it with some friends. There’s a Norwegian movie called Loop where an old philosopher hops around on an alpine meadow and stares at straws of grass in a very trippy way ha. Fade in fade out, and he’s sitting in a studio explaining that we are told not to follow impulses as we grow up – even though that’s what keeps you present and happy.
        Have a happy day :)

  • David Friedlander

    Interesting post, Kevan. The big surprise for me was that nearby happy friends and neighbors have a much bigger impact than a happy spouse! I would imagine happy co-workers are also important since we often spend more than half of our waking hours with them. You also didn’t mention regular exercise and eating well, but maybe those are more obvious factors.

  • http://blog.getvero.com Jimmy Daly

    Love this post, thanks Kevan!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Jimmy!

  • Anna Lapushner

    Excellent post. And as Mr Buffet advises, The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything. Remember to limit your time with negative people at work, and associate with those that are positive and solutions-focused.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Anna! Thanks for the comment! Mr. Buffett sure knows his stuff, doesn’t he. :)

      • Anna Lapushner

        You’re welcome :-) Yes he does.

  • http://hubskills.com/ Partha Bhattacharya

    Hmm.. daydreams are bad you say, Kevin. But a while back I read this article – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/03/mind-wandering_n_4024852.html – in HuffPost that encourages daydreaming. As for me I’m a perpetual daydreamer. :) Nice post Kevin. Thanks. :-)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi there, Partha! Good point. I wonder if the difference here is fantasizing vs. daydreaming, or getting carried away with your daydreams and losing focus on real life? Just a guess. Thanks for adding to the conversation! :)

  • Philip Fifi Bachinger

    Superb lifehack, thanks for sharing!

  • Caroline

    Such a happy read! Thanks for posting :) Great way to start the day. Especially glad to see the idea of embracing opposite feelings. It’s so easy to put too much energy into the negative feelings and letting them consume you. A change in attitude towards them can make such a difference. I’ll save this post for sure, everyone needs a happiness reminder now and then :)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi there, Caroline! Thanks so much for the comment! You’re exactly right – it’s so helpful to have a counterbalance to negative feelings. Great reminder! :)

  • Sheena Sharma

    Great article!! #1 was really great to read about, as I am a generally happy person, but also have mixed emotions from time to time. The point about having a close friend is great as well – I live less than a half mile from 3 of my good friends, and it is really great to know that there’s someone close by in case I need a “wine down” night.

  • Kara Humphrey

    Saving this article, for sure. Lots of points that are really speaking to me at this moment in life… Especially #7.

    I’ve always focused on trying to rid myself of weaknesses, but am now realizing that they will always be a part of my life. Might as well focus on getting better at what I do best! Recently took Gallup’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment, and it’s really opened my eyes… Am starting to understand parts of my personality that I could never really pin down. It’s been such a valuable experience. Hoping to continue on with that trend over the next year!

  • http://stancebranding.com/ Justine Espersen

    This makes me happy just reading this :) Thanks for taking the time to write this!

  • jontarkmail

    Lol, embrace opposing statements has been baked into the educational system for 100 years now, as a part of the NWO promotion.

    George Orwell would be proud of you.

    We are all equal, just some of us are more equal than the others.

  • Leigh Mitchell

    Love your ideas Kevan – I am struggling with a hard project right now and this advice was exactly what I needed – happiness outside of the happy box :)

  • http://www.gumptionade.com Bob O’Connor

    Fine post, Kevin. May I suggest another happiness hack?

    Why not invert? Instead of searching for things that will make you happy, identify something that makes you miserable and get rid of it. Your happiness will increase by subtraction. Here are four ways to be unhappy:

    – Spread yourself a mile wide and an inch deep
    – Commute a long way to work by automobile
    – Don’t get really, really good at some little thing
    – Don’t sleep enough

    I have some other candidates for removal in a blog post, if you please: http://gumptionade.com/less-miserable-part-1-2/

    Again, well done.

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  • JulesLightner

    These are some great tips. #1 and #7 rang especially true for me, and the thing that helped/helps me the most with them is mindfulness meditation. I took the meditationSHIFT course and it helped me learn to acknowledge and accept certain things about myself that I couldn’t change. It also helped me be okay with feelings and emotions that I would historically try to “get rid of,” which would ultimately lead to denial or suppression – neither of which are very healthy.

    Oh, and the “just say ‘no'” tip – two thumbs up on that one.
    Good article!

  • rayfilwong

    fantastic information that is so applicable

  • Marina Johnson

    Great post kevan, not just the content but how it’s written and references and examples. I am going to re-read it again soon.

  • Dana Mitchell Tolliver

    Great article. I’m inspired to share. I always focus on self improvement, positivity and joy. # 6 really works for me. I say I don’t especially to myself to keep myself from being overworked and overburdened. “I don’t do anything that keeps me from taking care of myself or keeping promises that I make to myself!” I come first then I am better able to help others.

  • Kari Guy

    Therapy 1300 vs. cash 40,000 got me. I’m as low as a person can go. Low self esteem, always a mom, married 32 yrs but just lost the love of my life 5 short months ago. We were living and he was working in ND in oil fields. The only thing I have accomplished in 5 mo is got packed (with a little help from my son who’s 20) and moved back to CO where were from. Son now has full time job, daughter (27) is recovering from severe burn trama. Dealing with his creditors. But I still haven’t left the house but 7 times. So low afraid to sleep at night, can go 2 days without sleep. Been to Dr. Been to hospital. Where to start? I turned in a few applications but no verifiable experience. Ran office for my husbands construction co. for 17 yrs. I know I need therapy just need to find my bootstraps. Sorry for rant, but this article HAS given me hope. Any suggestions would be welcome. Please don’t hate on me though. I’m teetering!!!

    • Danielle

      I am sorry to hear that Kari, I hope you start to do better soon. Life is crazy and it is hard with so much coming at you at once. I am glad you found this article. Someone is looking out for you, and possibly trying to help? I hope you continue to believe that what your feeling now isn’t who you are. Life truly is amazing and I hope you are able to start experiencing it soon! – Stand Tall and Be Brilliant.

    • sue

      Dear Kari, It seems you have done like many women ,you have been there for everyone but yourself.Did you know your best friend is yourself? I didn’t know it for years.I have 5 grown kids,10 grandchildren,nurse for 25 yrs and divorced .I had a b/f that I built up his business and he died in the night next to me in the night.One of my children was burned and I spent 15 yrs back and forth to Cincinnati Shriner’s Hospital.I did everything for everyone and 6 yrs ago found out why my lower legs swelled ,I had genetic lymphedema and all those years on my feet was collapsing the lymph system in my legs so no more nursing for me. I drive a crap car that has 230,000 miles and been hit by a deer X3.Guess what? I am happy,content,at peace and have direction in my life! I started out going to college just to lock in some old college credit into a degree.It eventually led me back to something I had left behind me long ago…Art. I began painting and after 2 art shows I have won Best of show,and several awards and the college purchased 2 paintings that are hanging permanently on their walls.I just graduated with an AA and will start at SIU in the fall .I suggest rediscovering yourself and keep things around you that bring you joy ,force yourself to try new things that you can get passionate about,take care of your best friend (yourself) pamper yourself by eating well,sleep,walk in nature,get toxic thoughts out of your mind and get determined and say”I am going to live for us both and I am not going to waste another second.” There is displaced homemaker programs try taking a class in something you always wanted to do! @suenoko

  • Ashutosh Samal
  • Erin Paasch

    Great post, Kevan. Looking forward to seeing if #2 works for me – we just moved into a condo and are excited to meet our new neighbors.

    I can definitely attest to #3. Ever since I left college I found that I’m never happier than when I’m taking a class on the side. I think it’s important to pick something that doesn’t have a lot of stress involved (like tight deadlines, especially if you’re working). I almost always pick self-paced courses.