Health and Wellness

The secret to a happier weekend? Chocolates, video games and selfies, researchers say

Criene | Twenty20

Let's face it: We're all constantly searching for ways to live a happier life. But the abundance of information out there can leave the average person overwhelmed. This is especially true for those who are busy and are just looking for some simple but non-generic tips.

That's why I dove into the vast amount of data available and interviewed psychologists and experts to find some of the most surprising and useful research about happiness and how we can bring more of it into our lives.

What I discovered was a handful of interesting, science-backed things we can do to boost our happiness. While these are all activities you can do any day of the week, many experts agree that weekends are key to helping raise your levels of happiness.

According to research from Richard Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, there's a "weekend effect" among workers in every field, in which their mood improves from Friday to Sunday evening.

So if you're planning to try any of the activities below, consider doing them on a weekend.

1. Turn on a sappy romance

We've all seen our share of sappy romance movies, where two people at first can't stand each other, but are locked in a passionate embrace by the time the credits roll. It can all seem a bit unrealistic.

But in fact, watching such elevated versions of intimate relationships can have a positive effect on your own romance. Through an online survey, researchers asked 275 participants about their romantic expectations, beliefs and experiences, as well as their level of commitment to their current partners.

The results showed that the expression of romantic beliefs had a positive impact on relationship satisfaction. In other words, if we operate with a positive — or even idealistic view — of relationships, then we're more likely to approach our relationships in ways that strengthen the connection.

And those who endorsed romantic beliefs were less likely to suffer from unmet relationship expectations. The researchers suggested that this might be because "romantic beliefs lead individuals to approach a relationship in a way that fosters positive outcomes." For example, if you believe your partner to be your soulmate, you're more likely to overlook a given disagreement or temporary annoyance.

Read a romance novel or watch a movie about two people falling in love. Idealizing relationships can be a great way to strengthen your own.

2. Eat chocolate...but be mindful about it

Despite plenty of anecdotal evidence (and your weird aunt's many claims), there is little scientific support for the assertion that chocolate increases happiness.

However, adding an extra ingredient into your chocolate consumption can turn it into a mood booster: Mindfulness.

Researchers at Gettysburg College found that eating chocolate in a deliberate, slow way in which its color, taste and tactile sensations were examined led to an increase in positive mood. They divided 258 participants into four groups and instructed each group to do one of the following:

  1. Mindfully consume crackers (intended as a control food)
  2. Mindfully consume chocolate
  3. Non-mindfully consume crackers
  4. Non-mindfully consume chocolate

While eating their assigned foods, participants followed audio-recorded directions (different for each group), and both before and after consuming their assigned foods, answered questionnaires about their moods.

Those eating chocolate mindfully showed greater increases in positive moods than any of the other categories. There was also a correlation between self-reported liking of the food and impact on mood ratings: Those who liked chocolate experienced a greater boost of positive moods after mindful consumption.

So stop feeling guilty about eating sweets — just be sure you're really thinking about them as you satisfy your sweet tooth.

3. Get off dating apps

A lot of people see weekends as the perfect time to open their dating apps. But if you're looking for happiness in love, researchers say that's the least likely place you'll find it.

One study from a team of psychologists tested how skillful sophisticated machine learning was at predicting individuals' romantic desire for one another — and the machines failed. Researchers asked participants to answer more than 100 questions about their personality traits and preferences in romantic partners.

Next, they used an advanced algorithm to predict which other participants each would be attracted to, based on their corresponding responses. Subjects then took part in four-minute speed dates, noting their level of interest in each person they met.

The algorithm failed to identify any pattern in the participants' answers sufficient to predict whether any two subjects would be likely to connect. As the study's authors put it, "compatibility elements of human mating are challenging to predict before two people meet."

If you're single and looking to spark up a real connection, keep in mind that apps can't predict whether you'll hit it off with someone; your odds of success are much higher if you simply approach someone in person.

4. Play video games

While spending your life with a Nintendo controller glued to your hands isn't the most fulfilling way to live, there may be some benefits to gaming — particularly for the elderly.

A team of researchers from Singapore's Nanyang Technological University found that Wii-type games allow the elderly to socialize and exercise while playing. They studied a group of 45 residents from a senior home and found that the games improved functional abilities like hand-eye coordination and balance, which in turn reduced the incident of falls among the elderly.

In addition to the physical benefits, the study found that "seniors who played Wii games were better off in their psychological well-being, compared to seniors who engaged in traditional activities (i.e., bingo, art classes)." They scored significantly higher in self-esteem and significantly lower in loneliness, compared to those in the control group.

Of course, the findings were limited to active games that involved physical motion. So sitting on the couch playing Fortnite probably wouldn't generate the same positive results.

5. Snap a selfie

While endlessly photographing yourself can seem a bit narcissistic, studies say it can be an effective way to give yourself a jolt of joy.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, assigned 41 college students to three different groups:

  1. The first was instructed to take a selfie of themselves smiling each day.
  2. The second was instructed to take a picture of something that made them happy.
  3. The third was instructed to take a picture of something they thought would make someone they know happy, and then send that picture to them.

Over a period of four weeks, the researchers collected almost 2,900 measurement of the subjects' moods, and found that those in all three categories experienced upticks in their happiness levels.

Their reasons varied: The first group reported that their smiles became more natural over time, the third group said they became more appreciative of the little things that brought them joy in life and the third group reported feeling more connected to the people they sent the photos to.

Instead of using your phone as a texting tool, turn it into a happiness booster by snapping a picture of yourself smiling — or of something that lifts your mood — once a day.

6. Create a relaxation room

When feeling stressed or anxious, turning on calming music can be as relaxing as a massage.

Researchers studied a group of 68 participants who suffered from feelings of anxiety. They randomly assigned them to three treatment conditions:

  1. Therapeutic massage
  2. Thermotherapy control group (in which warm heating pads and towels were placed on various parts of the body)
  3. Relaxing room control group (where they listened to calming music)

Participants attended weekly one-hour sessions a total of 10 times within 12 weeks.

All three groups showed significant improvements on anxiety tests following treatments, but researchers didn't find that massage or thermotherapy was more effective than simply relaxing and enjoying music.

They hypothesized that the common elements to the three groups — a safe environment, the opportunity to take time out from life and encouragement to practice deep breathing — may have been responsible for the improvements.

Instead of paying $200 for a massage, create a relaxation room in your home that can serve as a refuge from the rest of your busy life and household — even if it's just for half an hour. And don't forget to make a playlist of calming music.

7. Start planning your next vacation

Sadly, no matter how long a vacation may be, its impact after you return to work will probably be minimal. (In fact, studies have shown that on the first day of work resumption, the positive health and well-being effects from the time off is likely to vanish completely.)

But before you despair that a break will never truly refresh you, the secret might be to put greater weight on what happens before the vacation itself. Beyond actually going on an extended holiday, simply planning or thinking about taking a trip can boost your overall happiness.

That was the finding of a team of researchers in the Netherlands who surveyed 1,530 Dutch adults about their feelings of happiness before and after taking a vacation.

While they similarly found that feelings of happiness and relaxation dropped off after a trip, they discovered that the largest boost in happiness came in the planning stages of a getaway.

Vacationers displayed higher levels of happiness than non-vacationers for weeks, and sometimes even months, before the holiday began.

Start planning your next trip months in advance. You'll give yourself plenty of time to imagine lying on the beach, wandering historic streets — or whatever else your ideal escape involves!

Alex Palmer is a journalist and excavator of fascinating facts. He is the New York Times best-selling author of "The Santa Claus Man." "Happiness Hacks," published by The Experiment, is his latest book. Alex's writing has appeared in Lifehacker, Best Life, Mental Floss, Slate, Esquire and many others.

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