What makes you happy?
Most of us have vague ideas of what makes us happy. Maybe we’re reasonably happy on a day-to-day basis but we’ve never really put much thought into where those feelings come from or what, specifically, about an experience is making us happy.
My ritual is going for a long walk through the neighborhood with my headphones on, music providing a dramatic soundtrack to my everyday worries, hopes and fantasies. But you might lift your mood by gardening, sipping coffee while reading a book, doodling on a sketchpad, reading your child a bedtime story or hiking with a friend. Below are eleven ways to boost your mood and increase your happiness level.
Redefine what happiness means to you at the present moment — and realize you can be happy now. “Many people especially get the formula for happiness wrong. They think, “If I can work harder right now, I’ll be more successful, and then I’m going to be happier,” says Shawn Achor, author of the book The Happiness Advantage. “And it turns out, that’s not true—partly because every time we hit a goal, our brain changes what success looks like, so happiness is on the opposite side of a moving target, and we never get there. But if guys can create happiness in the present, they can actually dramatically improve their success rates long-term.”
Feel like you’re always on the verge of losing control? Define and claim your territory. “One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future,” writes Achor. “Yet when our stresses and workloads mount faster than our ability to keep up, feelings of control are the first things to go. If we first concentrate on small, manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance.”
Studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective against depression and anxiety than antidepressant medication. There’s a physical component (exerting yourself causes the brain to release dopamine) plus, “when you exercise, your brain records a victory. You’ve been successful. And it creates this cascade of success.
“Writing a two-minute positive email to somebody you know, praising them or thanking them for something, increases your social support dramatically,” says Achor. “And it makes you happier while you’re writing that note.”
“For sustained happiness, we need to change the expectations we have of our goals: rather than perceiving them as ends (expecting that their attainment will make us happy), we need to see them as means (recognizing they can enhance the pleasure we take in the journey). “A goal enables us to experience a sense of being while doing.” Pick goals that involve growth and connection instead of acquisition.
In your job, career and life. It may sound corny, but it’s scientifically proven to work long-term. “Over a decade of empirical studies has proven the profound effect it has in how our brains are wired,” says Achor. “Your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives. In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to be more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for professional and personal growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them.” It’s an exercise that has staying power: One study found that participants who took time out to do this were less depressed and more optimistic — even after they stopped the exercise.
A group of psychologists have discovered something they call the Easterlin Paradox, meaning that physical possessions will make us happier — but only to a point. Experiences become part of ourselves, while iPhones and Italian suits remain separate from who we are. Experiences — whether they’re luxury vacations or a trip to the movies — also create social connections, which have demonstrated mood-boosting benefits.
Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small. A March 2014 survey by psychologists who study happiness identified “ten keys to happier living” and daily habits that make people genuinely happy. In an unexpected finding, the psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire who performed the survey found that the habit which corresponded most closely with being happy—and satisfied with overall life—is self-acceptance.
People tend to avoid people they don’t like—like your workplace arch nemesis — and detach themselves from problems that they wish would go away. “Avoidance adds to stress in the long run,” says family business consultant and psychologist Mario Alonso, PhD. “By facing problems and acting on them you are taking control and that feeling of empowerment will reduce stress.” Even better: a random act of kindness toward the office asshole will automatically make you feel better about yourself even if it goes unacknowledged, maybe especially if it goes unappreciated.
Everyone is good at something. “Every time you use a special skill, whatever it is, you experience a burst of positivity.”
It’s simple, and it works. The next time you don’t feel ok, think of five things in your life you’re thankful for. It’ll turn around a dark moment and possibly your entire day.