The weekend looms in front of you, along with all the cool options: barre class, snagging a reservation at a hot new farm-to-table restaurant, or maybe trying to figure out how to make your house HGTV ready. These trendy pursuits are all worthwhile, but you might be better off choosing an activity that you–and maybe only you—would consider “deeply pleasurable.” And yes, it might mean you’re about to get up to some “dorky” stuff, but as long as it makes you happy, then it’s A-OK!
“Too many people ignore activities that make them happy in comparison to activities that they are told are good for them,” says Ruth Krigbaum Rich, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Peabody, MA. “Happiness is very personal. We live in a society in which everyone is trying to better themselves, but returning to your authentic self is part of the happiness equation.”
And it appears that your mind/body may also respond to the difference between a “have to” activity versus a “want to” activity. For example, if you’re picking a HIIT class because it burns calories, ask yourself if you would be better off choosing a workout that is more likely to result with you smiling and laughing with friends, like—bowling. Because when it comes down to it, your overall health and longevity may be more dependent on your happiness than on your fitness level and how much you sweat in an hour.
“We achieve a deep relaxation and pleasure in an activity that absorbs us,” Ms. Rich says. “Finding an activity that is creative and tactile, but also a bit of a challenge, and where you can make friends who share your interest may be healthier in the long run than one that merely burns fat.”
Ms. Rich and her husband, for example, have taken up tango classes. “We can’t think or talk about anything else while we are dancing and when we went out with another couple from the class, we talked about tango all night because it is so absorbing,” she explains.
Here are some suggestions for activities—not the coolest clubs on the block—that have been shown to make people happy.
- Sing! If you’ve seen those Choir Choir Choir videos, you know that even watching people sing will make you happy, and singing with strangers will turn those strangers into friends faster than doing other activities with them. In a 2015 study that looked at adult education classes over seven months, singers bonded faster with each other than those who were taking other classes. Researchers postulate that, eons ago, singing may have begun as a way to communicate with our own tribe and the tribes of others and so it’s a natural bonding act. So, find a non-auditioned chorus (or join the one at your church or synagogue) and sing for an hour or two each week. You’ll make friends, do your body good, and learn a new skill all at once.
- Play tennis….or pickleball! Did you love kickball in fourth grade and then stop playing sports when suddenly the world divided into those who couldn’t and those who were klutzes? Well, don’t let a lack of natural athletic ability stop you from heading to your local rec center or gym because there is a good chance that it offers tennis or its much easier equivalent, pickle ball (you stand closer and use paddles, almost like ping pong without a table). A recent Danish study found that those who played social sports lived longer than those who swam, ran or jogged. Researchers believe that the companionable aspects of these physical activities are actually more beneficial to our health than the physical aspects.
- Volunteer. About one-quarter of Americans volunteered in 2015 and 94% of those who did, said it improved their mood. Volunteering does not mean martyrdom, so if you’re already stretched too thin, this one’s not for you, but, if you’re spending too much time by yourself, think of something you’re good at and share it with others. Good with computers? Volunteer to help senior citizens learn to Skype with their grandchildren. Are you a yogi? Head over to a daycare center and give a weekly class to underpaid workers. Even an hour a week will help others and make you happy at the same time.
- Read a book (on paper, not a screen) for 20 minutes a day. Avid readers are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives. Need to find time to read? Easy. Before bed. This solves three present-day problems at once: being on screens, sleep issues, and finding time for a book. Here’s the solution: Put your phone and computer in another room (you can do it! No one on Facebook is as compelling as Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, or Isabel Archer), get into bed (room should be cool) and read your book. Your eyes will probably close before you hit the 20-minute mark, but that’s okay! The same study about avid readers found that books have the power to help us make decisions, including look for a new job or end a bad relationship (Isabel Archer couldn’t, but you can!). Also, getting off your screens will set an example for your kids, as studies show that teens who use screens the least are the happiest.
- Buy a friend some coffee. Surprise! While we often think that if we “get” something we will be happier, it turns out that it’s giving that makes us happy. Even more surprising? It’s not how much you give that matters, but that you give. Yup. Just the act of giving causes us to feel good about ourselves and our lives. In other words, simply buying a co-worker her morning coffee will make you just as happy as building a school or donating your car to public radio.