Do exercise, nature and socializing make people happier? Research suggests we don’t really know | CBC News

Hannah Ali feels happiest when she can walk her dog Ella and socialize with her friends.

“Humans are social animals. So spending time with your friends, your family… that’s what makes you happiest, I think,” said Ali, a Toronto resident.

As an immigrant to Canada, Ali says she knows many people who have also left family and friends behind in their home countries, and sees how the loss of those social connections is affecting them.

“You miss the social aspect,” she said. “I think that’s really affecting their mood and overall quality of life here.”

But a Current overview of the research on the subject suggest that despite decades of scientific study, experts still don’t know if some of the most common happiness-enhancing strategies — such as socializing — actually work.

Happiness is a feeling that people can chase all their lives. This often involves specific activities, such as meeting friends or going for a walk outside.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) decided to investigate whether there was any robust evidence that these activities were effective. They started by searching Google for terms like “scientifically proven ways to be happier” and looked at the recommended activities in the links on the first 10 pages of results.

Based on this, they identified the following five most common ways in which people are advised to pursue happiness:

  • conviviality.
  • be in nature.
  • express gratitude.
  • Train.
  • mindfulness/meditation.

After reviewing dozens of studies that have focused on these five strategies, they found that there isn’t much rigorous research showing that they make us happier.

A woman sits on a bench with a cup of coffee and pets her dog.
Toronto resident Hannah Ali sits with her dog, Ella, on the city’s waterfront. She says walking her pup and hanging out with friends improves her mood. (Jennifer LaGrassa/CBC)

The review’s senior author warns that the results should not discourage those who enjoy the proposed activities.

“If you’re someone who, for example, works out every day and really enjoys it, you should definitely stick with it, and if you find it makes you happy, that’s great,” said Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at UBC.

“All we’re saying is that there’s no really compelling evidence that this exercise is general for the typical person…or that these other strategies reliably promote happiness.”

The review’s lead author, Dunigan Folk, says that while people shouldn’t stop doing what makes them happy, the results are important to those who invest the time or money in trying to feel good.

“It can be frustrating when you try something that the consensus, at least, thinks has strong science and it doesn’t work for you, and that can lead to feelings of hopelessness,” said Folk, a graduate student in psychology at the UBC .

VIEW | what makes you happy People weigh:

“The evidence is not yet available”

The study defined happiness as “subjective well-being,” which includes having more positive than negative feelings and being satisfied with life overall.

Researchers searched the literature for randomized controlled trials that followed what they believed to be the most current and robust experimental standards. In particular, they wanted to ensure that the studies were involved large number of participants and so did the authors of the studies predetermined how they planned to analyze the data, both of which increase the likelihood The results could be reproduced.

The authors reviewed studies that had at least 45 participants, depending on the design, or 86 if only one intervention was tested.

A man smiles on one side of the photo and a woman smiles on the other side in a separate photo.
Dunigan Folk (left) and Elizabeth Dunn are both at the University of British Columbia. They said they found it surprising that there wasn’t as much high-quality evidence on some of the popular activities people do to feel happier. (Submitted by Dunigan Folk and Elizabeth Dunn)

They narrowed down more than 11,000 studies to 57 that were peer-reviewed and met their criteria. Most articles were published after 2000.

They found that for the five most widely reported strategies, there is very little robust research to suggest that they reliably improve mood.

“It’s not like there’s strong evidence that these things don’t work,” Folk said.

“It’s just the fact that these studies tended not to meet the standards for high-quality evidence, and so it’s difficult to know exactly what impact these behaviors have on happiness.”

While there’s little clear evidence supporting their effectiveness, gratitude and social interactions, like talking to strangers and being more outgoing, have a little more research to support their impact on happiness, according to the researchers.

“There isn’t necessarily evidence yet that these strategies are really helpful in terms of promoting happiness at the population level,” Dunn said.

But experts who incorporate activities like exercise and mindfulness into their work say happiness can be a nuanced concept and that the researchers’ criteria are too limiting.

Two experts who spoke to CBC criticized three aspects of Dunn and Folk’s approach in particular:

1. They only included studies with patients who had a baseline level of happiness.

Dunn and Folk limited their search to studies involving people who had not been diagnosed with a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression.

Eli Puterman, Canadian research chair in physical activity and health at UBC, says it’s “a big mistake” because people are trying to be happier often have depressive symptomssome research.

“So you exclude the people who would need these [activities] most,” said Puterman, who is also an associate professor of kinesiology at UBC.

“If you’re already happy, how do I make you happier?” I can only move your happiness and wellbeing if you have low wellbeing.”

On one side a man is holding up a phone with a video of a person exercising and on the other side a man is smiling.
Eli Puterman (left) is an Associate Professor in the University of British Columbia’s School of Kinesiology and Bassam Khoury is an Associate Professor of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University. They are both critical of Dunn’s and Folks’ findings, but agree that the field could always use more robust evidence. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC, Submitted by Bassam Khoury)

According to Puterman, most randomized controlled trials of physical activity focus on people who have a diagnosis or symptoms of a mental disorder.

He says these studies often include findings related to mood, but these may be a secondary finding and not the initial focus, so they would not have been captured in Dunn and Folk’s review.

That research, Puterman says, has reliably shown that people who exercise experience improved mental health and well-being — whether they have mental symptoms or not.

Similarly, Bassam Khoury, associate professor of educational and counseling psychology at Montreal’s McGill University, whose research focuses on mindfulness, says a lot about it Mostly promising Research into the effectiveness of mindfulness has been conducted in people with a clinical diagnosis or symptoms of a psychiatric disorder.

2. They excluded smaller studies and those that had not committed to how the data should be analyzed.

Khoury says that when setting a high threshold for the size of the studies they wanted to include, Dunn and Folk did not adequately consider that wellbeing research studies can struggle to retain participants.

Typically, researchers need to monitor mood for a few hours a week for several months. Longer studies run the risk of dropping out. And studies with large numbers of people that span a longer period of time often cost more money.

That’s why, he says, mindfulness-based intervention studies can be more challenging than, say, other types of social science experiments, where researchers may only need to spend 15 to 20 minutes with each participant.

But just because a study is smaller doesn’t mean it should be disregarded, says Khoury.

Meanwhile, Puterman says refusing to include studies that didn’t precommit their analysis was “flawed” because that approach has only become standard over the past decade, while much of the research in this area has been published before that be.

He therefore fears that the researchers may have discarded “some of the most important research results in this field”.

Folk acknowledges that the research is not without its flaws, even though the study had a large number of participants and the researchers pre-determined how they would analyze their results. However, he says these are currently the best standards to measure research against and ensure it is of higher quality.

3. Her definition of happiness was narrow.

The authors acknowledge that they used a very strict definition of happiness and did not really consider other feelings that might indirectly affect a person’s mood.

Khoury says this approach means the review didn’t capture other positive effects of the five strategies that could have happiness as a by-product.

In particular, they didn’t look at studies that measure quality of life, which is commonly used in mindfulness research, he says.

Khoury points up a systematic overview from 2020, which did not look specifically at happiness, but found that mindfulness strategies can increase the well-being and quality of life of people who do not have mental health problems.

A man walks through downtown Toronto on a bright and sunny day in July 2023.
Researchers say their work is a call for the scientific community to conduct more robust studies that conform to current research standards to provide more evidence that these types of happiness strategies work. (Jennifer LaGrassa/CBC)

Khoury called Dunn and Folk’s conclusions “somewhat premature and unnuanced” and said that it is precisely these nuances that make the study of the field so complex.

“I shouldn’t meditate just because I want to be happier,” he said. “I should come to meditate [because I] I want to be more aware, more present, more understanding and maybe a better person.

More rigorous proofs are required

Both Khoury and Puterman agree that more robust studies are needed, but disagree on how the review supports that goal.

“We need better studies, we need better evidence… [but] I don’t think you’re going to dismiss all of the evidence so far,” Puterman said.

He says he would have liked to see researchers review all available research and rank it according to how good or bad it is, and then separately rate the studies that met their high quality criteria.

Dunn and Folk hope their findings will be a call to action for the research community.

“One thing we … found is that the public really cares about these approaches,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot of interest in them, so I think we have to work hard to reach them.” [a] stricter test.”

People sit and talk around a bench in Toronto.
Social interaction, specifically talking to strangers and being social, was among the mood-enhancing activities that the researchers found provided more robust evidence of increasing happiness than others. (Jennifer LaGrassa/CBC)

As for Ali, while she’s surprised by the review’s findings, no amount of scientific research is likely to make her reconsider her choices about where she finds happiness.

“It certainly won’t change my mind,” she said. “I will continue to do things that make me happy.”

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