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Starting 2024 on a Happy Note!

January 19, 2024

A classical guitar concert of Croatian-born Ana Vidovic performing in Girona, Spain, on Sept. 3, 2022.
A classical guitar concert (like this one of Croatian-born Ana Vidovic performing in Girona, Spain, on Sept. 3, 2022) will relax your mind and lighten your mood. Bring a friend to make it social! Photo credit for this photo and all photos in this story Eric Zillmer.

Eric Zillmer, PsyD, is the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is also the director of The Happiness Lab at Drexel University, which examines what contributes to well-being and how to build empowering conditions of a life worth living.

How are you doing this far in 2024?

Everyone is wishing each other a HAPPY New Year, but are you personally doing anything to ensure it will be happy for you?

The Happiness Lab at Drexel University investigates the meaning of happiness and its place in our lives and society. The study of happiness is based on positive psychology, an evidence-based subject matter within psychology that researches well-being, health and happiness.

Join me on a virtual trip around the world to visit places and people that are happy. Let’s bring some happiness souvenirs home to reverse engineer lifestyle adjustments to get you on a more joyful path.

Ready? Bon voyage!

This lava field, photographed on April 23, 2023, is now the site of the current recent volcanic eruption and seismic activity near the town of Grindavik, Iceland,.
This lava field, which I photographed on April 23, 2023, is now the site of the recent volcanic eruption and seismic activity near Grindavik, Iceland, which was evacuated. Icelanders have harsh living conditions but remain some of the happiest people on our planet. 

1. Worry Less (Iceland)

Our first stop is in Iceland, which finished third in the 2023 annual World Happiness Report.

One thing that’s evident when you visit Iceland, like I did in April of 2023: Icelanders don’t worry too much about happiness compared to Americans, who are obsessed with it. How do they do it? Well, one popular Icelandic saying is þetta reddast,” which roughly translates to the idea that everything will work out. It’s a commitment to being cautiously optimistic, believing that the glass is always half full and looking on the brighter side of life.

Try þetta reddast— it’s a keeper.

2. Do Less on Purpose (Holland)

Exhausted from doing too much in 2023? Are you constantly trying to manage stress and recovering from burnout? You are not alone. Holland, fifth in the World Happiness Report, has a special national “sport:” “niksen” (actively doing nothing or next to nothing). What would this look like for us high-intense Americans? Go on a stroll in the best walking city in the U.S. — Philadelphia — with no destination in mind. Find a bench in one of our public parks and do … nothing. In our high-stress society, where our jobs and lives have become increasingly complex, it is OK to occupy yourself with doing something trivial on purpose. It will make you more efficient and happier — doctor’s orders.

3. Surround Yourself with Beauty (Mauritius)

Mauritius is the highest-ranking African country on the World Happiness Report. Why? Besides Mauritius being culturally inclusive, it is over-the-top beautiful with lush vegetation, fantastic beaches, stunning topography and friendly people. While the Mauritian coastline does not look anything like our coastline, we can commit to bringing more beauty into our lives. Does your space look like nobody lives there? Well, it shouldn’t! Find somewhere in your home or your office where you invest in making things look beautiful, and then spend some time there.

Four men in black and white clothing and hats playing music on a street.
In Croatia, music is part of everyday life, as seen in this picture I took of musicians playing on the street of its capital, Zagreb, in the historic Gornji Grad (upper town) neighborhood on May 31, 2022.

4. Bring Music into Your Life (Croatia)

Croatia has a fantastic food scene and some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, including more than 1,200 islands. When I visited in 2022, I found music to be one of the most unique aspects of Croatian culture. Music is one of life's great mysteries and is essential for experiencing human life and creativity. Music is also therapy for your brain since it is processed, imagined and understood everywhere in the brain. One can’t help but be mindful.

Philadelphia has a tremendous eclectic music scene, so why not catch a concert? My favorite is the Philadelphia Orchestra and its captivating music and artistic director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Drexel’s most recent commencement speaker). Or, if I may suggest, as president of the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society, why don’t you explore the beauty of the classical guitar? You won’t be disappointed, and you will feel, well, happier.

A close up of potted plants
My Old City home garden on Jan. 9, 2024. Working with plants can bring the outside inside and brings happiness.

5. ‘Pura Vida’ (Costa Rica) 

Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is one of the original celebrated Blue Zones, where people live the longest. The Central American country celebrates the “pura vida” lifestyle — the good, simple life.

If someone asked me what would make you immediately happier, I would say go outside and spend time in nature. This is easy to do in Costa Rica, but difficult to do in an urban environment. Still, you can bring nature into your home by starting a small house garden; you do not need much space to start one. There are many fantastic garden stores in and around Philly to get you started (one of my favorites is BESPOKE in Collingswood, New Jersey, which is run by two Drexel alumni).

It is impossible to tend to your plants and not be in the present. Research suggests that gardening boosts positive emotions and soothes stress and anxiety. A personal garden inside your home allows us to bring the outside inside. Going green at home is a beautiful way of creating a space you would want to spend time in. Job # 1 is to take care of yourself first. It is stress relief for your body and your mind and a great antidote to perfectionism. It reminds us to accept that Mother Nature is bigger than all of us and bonds us closely to the sequence of seasons. Go green!

6. Take a Micro Break (Japan)

Full disclosure: I was born in Tokyo, Japan, so I pay special attention to Japanese culture. There are many exciting things to learn from Japan, but one remarkable fact is that it is culturally accepted to fall asleep at work or during a social event. The practice is called “inemuri,” which means to be sleeping while being present.

Before teaching at Drexel, I worked as a psychologist in a sleep disorders lab at Eastern Virginia Medical School. I know firsthand that a good night’s sleep has been the gold standard for feeling refreshed and energetic. But I also learned from research and patient care that napping is a very effective way to recharge your batteries. Sleep is cumulative, and the most essential part is to get good sleep, not the number of hours spent continuously in bed.

More recently, there has been a focus on micro-resting. Brief breaks can also be very efficient in giving your brain a break. With no rest or breaks, our capacity to focus declines rapidly. Find a quiet place, shut your phone off, lie down or sit comfortably and take a five-minute break. Do this several times a day, and you will feel more refreshed and energetic, which will make you happier! A few minutes of pause can go a long way to improving your mental health and overall well-being. It sounds counterintuitive, but it works. Next time, instead of another cup of coffee, take a micro break!

A man in a hat standing under the sign for the World Happiness Museum.
The author at Copenhagen’s Happiness Museum in November of 2023. 

7. Let’s Get Cozy ‘Hygge’ (Denmark) 

Copenhagen is home to the world’s only Happiness Museum, which is a must-see for any happiness researcher (that's why I visited back in November). Among the happiest people on our planet, the Danes do many things right. One is the concept of “hygge,” which means being in a state of coziness and a contented mood. It is related to creating an atmospheric environment that brings people together and feels safe, and it’s where simple, everyday things matter most. This can be most appreciated in one’s home, but how can you bring hygge, and therefore happiness, into your home? You could find a favorite chair, redo your bookcase, bring in some plants and get better lighting. Your home should not be a castle but a liveable space you feel connected to. For the Danes, their home is their hygge headquarters; make it yours, too!

8. Invest in Happiness (Bhutan)

Tucked away in the Himalayas’ eastern edge and far from modern-day civilization, Bhutan is an intriguing mountain kingdom of rich forests and majestic mountain passes. Bhutan has challenges regarding access and its underdeveloped economy, but it makes up for it by focusing on happiness nationally. There is even a saying by the former King of Bhutan that gross national happiness is more important than the gross domestic product. Bhutan was one of the first countries in the world to pursue happiness as a state policy (going a step further than our forefathers did in our Declaration of Independence, which included the iconic call to the ”pursuit of happiness”). But in Bhutan, in contrast to the U.S., happiness is conceptualized as a balance between spiritual and physical/social needs. We can learn from Bhutan that taking care of others, our family, our friends, our colleagues and our community, and investing in their happiness holistically will make one truly happy. In Bhutan, happiness is a concern for everyone. Happiness comes from within, not from outside. When what we know in our minds about happiness passes to our hearts, true happiness is within reach. This is the lofty top of your happiness mountain when you’re the architect of your own happiness. You can visit, but you can’t live there.

Thank you for joining me on a happy trip around the world. Happy New Year 2024!