Even the smallest tweaks in your life can make you much happier. Take eating fruits and vegetables. In a recent study from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, upping servings substantially increased happiness. When people went from zero to eight servings a day, they experienced happiness gains that were the equivalent of someone moving from unemployment to full-time work. “The size of the effect was remarkably large, and quite smooth,” says Andrew Oswald, Ph.D., professor of economics and behavioral science and co-author of the study. “It is very rare to see such incredible uniformity in data.”
Happiness ratcheted up with each additional serving. “Having two more servings per day increased happiness by about a quarter, and having four more increased it by a half,” he says. The results convinced Oswald to eat several more portions of produce a day.
The study followed some 12,000 Australians who kept food diaries and periodically had their happiness measured. (Happiness and life satisfaction scores were adjusted to account for other changes in people’s lives.) Gains started long before the added nutrition could have affected physical health. That shorter-term gratification is good news for researchers, since the ability to assess the physical benefits of eating more produce—such as preventing cancer—won't likely be known until decades after that fruit smoothie or steamed broccoli.
Down the line, it might be possible to tease out an antioxidant connection between optimism, which is a component of well-being, and carotenoid, an important nutrient. (There are something like 600 carotenoids in nature, and you can find them in carrots, pumpkins, kale and spinach. Learn about the components of all kinds of produce at Fruits & Veggies More Matters.)
Small fitness changes can boost happiness, too.
Oswald says epidemiologists have known for some time that changes in exercise create a similar happiness effect, and that engaging in negative activities, like smoking, make people unhappy. And it can happen fast. New research from Brazil shows that exercising just four times a week for four weeks significantly reduces depression symptoms. Study participants were even able to lower their dosage of antidepressants.
That insight—that you feel happier even before a better diet has time to influence your actual health—is great news for anyone looking to start a lifestyle change, says Greg Chertok, a sport and exercise psychology consultant and member of the American College of Sports Medicine. “Making any choice for better health is empowering. We feel more autonomous almost right away.”
Problem is, when you make a resolution and don’t follow through, you feel demoralized by your failure. Part of the challenge, he says, “is that we tend to set these very grand and glorified goals, when we’re often not ready for them. It’s the beginning of the week, or the month, or the year, for example. But that’s so arbitrary, and not valid reason for a change.”
Experts say sticking to goals, whether it’s eating more salads or getting back in shape, depends on three ingredients:
Know why you want to change. Most people have a difficult time maintaining goals that are driven by external factors, Chertok says. “That’s why experiments that compensate people financially for making lifestyle changes don’t usually work.” What are the reasons you want to make these changes? “Chasing after goals that don’t mean much to us leaves us empty. Everyone has to find their own why.”
To be effective, your reasons have to be meaningful. Saying “I want more energy” isn’t a bad thing, but when the goal is linked to something specific and important, it’s much easier to follow through. “So if a father has a hard time keeping up with his kids at the playground, a goal like ‘Several times a week, I will spend 30 minutes running around the park with them’ is more powerful.” Yes, it’s a fitness goal. But it’s also a commitment to larger values.
Make goals measurable. The American Council on Exercise’s guide to goal setting says it’s important that goals be easy to measure. “Exercise more,” for example, is too vague. A commitment to take a walk four times this week is specific. “Eat healthier” is also weak. Promising to cut out desserts on weekdays is more concrete. The council suggests firm timeframes, such as losing a certain amount of weight in 90 days.
Choose goals for humans, not super-humans. As sexy as it can seem to come up a headline-worthy goal—I’m going to run a marathon! I’m going to do 100 pullups! I’ll lose 20 pounds this month!—moderate goals are a much smarter approach. “People think the act of stating the goal is enough, but it’s not. Major parts of your lifestyle have to change in order to support those goals.” Instead, Chertok suggests breaking goals down into doable pieces: promise to run a 5K every month, to do an upper-body workout three times a week or to eliminate fast-food from your diet.
Smaller goals are more easily accomplished. “And that’s such an important facet of human psychology,” he says. “When we start achieving goals, we become more motivated to achieve more difficult goals.”
So take a realistic step forward, notice your accomplishments, and, as Chertok says, “stay focused on what you can do this day, this week, this month.”