4 Surprising Activities That Increase Happiness

Here’s how to feel happier without necessarily earning more money.

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A 2013 survey sponsored by Ally Bank questioned more than a thousand people to find out what makes them happy. The survey focused on money, but as an outgrowth of the questions, some interesting findings popped up about what really makes people feel good.

Everyone knows that enjoying the intimacy of a long-term relationship improves your chances to be happy. And it helps if you're lucky enough to be in good health, have some close friends and enjoy a positive relationship with children or grandchildren. But the survey revealed four other significant factors that can and do contribute to a higher level of personal happiness.

Exercising regularly. Almost 60 percent of respondents said that taking part in a regular exercise program makes them feel happy. Why? Engaging in exercise is a positive, helpful way to cope with stress. Studies indicate that exercise mimics the effects of antidepressants. It helps increase your energy levels, and boosts your levels of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in your brain – the ones associated with the much-talked-about runner's high. Participating in a sport or an exercise program can give you a sense of accomplishment. And a good workout has also been shown to improve people's sleep patterns, as well as promote the development of new brain cells that can increase memory and learning capabilities. And, by the way, sexual activity definitely counts as exercise.

Enjoying your work. In America, work is not only the activity that takes up most of our time, it is an identifying characteristic that is central to our lives and our sense of who we are. So, 68 percent of those polled said enjoying work increases overall happiness. Other studies have also showed that Americans who feel they are successful at work are twice as likely to report that they are very happy compared to people who don’t feel successful. Work can engage our interests and our skills, and empower us to create value both in our own lives and in the lives of others. The secret to finding happiness at work is to develop a sense of accomplishment, and hopefully receive some recognition for your efforts.

Eating healthy. The foods we eat indirectly but indisputably influence the functioning of our brains. One key to improving your mood is to cut back on sugary and salty snacks in favor of nutritious alternatives. A 2009 study published in "JAMA Psychiatry" found that people who ate a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, vegetables, fish and whole grains reported 30 percent fewer depressive symptoms than those who consumed a typical American diet. In addition, of course, people who eat right are less likely to get sick, recover more easily if they do get sick and they likely live longer than people who are overweight or consume a poor diet. In addition, certain foods affect our brain chemistry and help us stay happy. It's no coincidence that we turn to carbohydrates including cookies, ice cream, pasta and peanuts when we are feeling blue. Carb-rich foods stimulate release of the compound serotonin, which can improve our mood and lift our spirits. And then there's chocolate. It boosts levels of brain chemicals like phenylethylamine and anandamide that can give us a euphoric or “in love” feeling.

Saving money. The Ally survey clearly shows that it's not how much you earn that makes you happy; it's how much you have left over. A surprisingly high 84 percent of people acknowledged that saving for a rainy day makes them feel more secure and more in control of their lives, leading to an overall sense of well-being. And the more you save, the more likely you are to be happy. Some 57 percent of those who boasted $100,000 or more in savings were extremely or very happy, versus 42 percent of people who squirreled away $20,000 to $100,000 and 34 percent who had less than $20,000 to their name. A majority of the savers also said that adding to their retirement account, or their regular savings account, gave them a sense of accomplishment and made them feel more independent and even proud of themselves.