How to be happy
14 practical ways!
I have already been asked how I manage to be happy even if I have lupus. Well, happiness often comes from within, and I believe it has more to do with your mind than your body.
Behavioral scientists have spent a lot of time studying what makes us happy (and what doesn’t). We know happiness can predict health and longevity, and happiness scales can measure social progress and the success of public policies. But happiness isn’t something that happens to you. Everyone has the power to make small changes in our behavior, our surroundings, and our relationships that can help set us on course for a happier life.
- Learn how to tame negative thoughts and approach every day with optimism: Don’t try to stop negative thoughts. Telling yourself, “I have to stop thinking about this,” only makes you think about it more. Instead, own your worries. When you are in a negative cycle, acknowledge it. “I’m worrying about money.” “I’m obsessing about problems at work.”
- Treat yourself like a friend. When you feel negative about yourself, ask yourself what advice you would give a friend who was down on herself. Now try to apply that advice to you.
- Challenge your negative thoughts. Socratic questioning is the process of challenging and changing irrational beliefs, and studies show that this method can reduce depression symptoms. The goal is to get you from a negative mindset (“I’m a failure.”) to a more positive one (“I’ve had a lot of success in my career. This is just one setback that doesn’t reflect on me. I can learn from it and be better.”) Here are some examples of questions you can ask yourself to challenge negative thinking:
- “What is the evidence for this thought?”
- “Am I basing this on facts? Or feelings?”
- “Could I be misinterpreting the situation?”
- “How might other people view the situation differently?
- “How might I view this situation if it happened to someone else?”
The bottom line: Negative thinking happens to all of us, but if we recognize it and challenge that thinking, we take a big step toward a happier life.
- Control Breathing: Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and attention deficit disorder. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.
5. Rewrite Your Story: We all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes, our inner voice doesn’t get it right. By writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of our well-being. The process is similar to Socratic questioning (referenced above). Here’s a writing exercise:
- Write a brief story about your struggle. I’m having money problems. I am having a hard time making friends in a new city. I’m never going to find love. I’m fighting with my spouse.
- Now write a new story from the viewpoint of a neutral observer or with the kind of encouragement you’d give a friend.
- Money is a challenge, but you can take steps to get yourself into financial shape.
- Everyone struggles in their first year in a new city. Give it some time. Join some groups.
- Don’t focus on finding love. Focus on meeting new people and having fun. The rest will follow.
- Couples argue. Here’s what your situation looks like to a neutral observer.
Numerous studies show that writing and rewriting your story can move you out of your negative mindset and into a more positive view of life.
- Get Moving: When people get up and move, even a little, they tend to be happier than when they are still. A study that tracked the movement and moods of cellphone users found that people reported the most happiness if they had been moving in the past 15 minutes than when they had been sitting or lying down. Most of the time, it wasn’t rigorous activity but just gentle walking that left them in a good mood.
- Practice Optimism: Optimism is part genetic, part learned. Even if you were born into a family of gloomy Guses, you could still find your inner ray of sunshine. Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think, “I’ll never recover from this.” An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, “This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy.”
- Find Your Happy Place: What factors make a community a place where people are happy? The Knight Foundation and Gallup interviewed 43,000 people in 26 communities to find out.
- Openness: People are happy when they live in a community that is welcoming to all.
- Beauty: Living in a scenic, picturesque or charming community with lots of trees and green space makes people happier.
- Social opportunities: When a community is designed to foster social connections — restaurants, community spaces, sidewalks, trails, and other public spaces — people are happier.
The lesson is that where you live can have a profound effect on your happiness. If you don’t fit in, don’t know your neighbors, or walk outside doesn’t put a spring in your step — find a new place to live if you can afford it. Explore new neighborhoods, rent before you buy, talk to friends, talk to potential neighborhoods and relocate your way to a happier life.
- Spend Time in Nature: Numerous studies support the notion that spending time in nature is good for you. We know that walking on quiet, tree-lined paths can result in meaningful improvements to mental health and even physical changes to the brain. Nature walkers have “quieter” brains: scans show less blood flow to the part of the brain associated with rumination. Some research shows that even looking at pictures of nature can improve your mood.
- Spend Time With Happy People: Studies consistently show that our own happiness is linked with the joy of others. One of the ways we know this is from the Framingham Heart Study, a massive study started in 1948 that has tracked three generations of participants. The study was designed to identify risk factors for heart disease, resulting in reams of data on health, food, fitness habits, stress, family issues, and happiness. Yale researchers reached several conclusions about happiness:
- People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected.
- Social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people.
- A person’s happiness extends to three degrees of separation — meaning that it can influence (and be influenced by) their friends, their friends’ friends, and the friends of people who are friends of their friends.
- People who are surrounded by many happy people are more likely to become happy in the future.
- Each additional happy friend increases your chance of happiness by about 9 percent.
- Geography matters. Our happiness increases when we live close to happy friends and family members.
- Get a pet: Psychologists conducted a series of experiments to determine pets’ role in our happiness. They found that pet owners were happier, healthier, and better adjusted than were non-owners. Pet owners said they received as much support from their pets as they did from family members. And people who were emotionally closer to the pets also tended to have deeper ties to the humans in their lives.
- Marry or stay single: In one study of 24,000 people in Germany over 15 years, researchers found that getting married only triggered a small bump in happiness, measured as one-tenth of a point on an 11 point scale. Of course, there were significant variations among individuals. Some people were much happier after marriage, and sadly, some were much less happy after getting married. The bottom line was that if you are already a happy person, you will not gain much extra happiness from marriage, probably because you already have a rich social network. The additional companionship of matrimony, while nice, doesn’t have a marked impact on your overall sense of happiness.
- Find Purpose at Work: Ideally, we will find work that has meaning to us. But not everybody can quit their day job and pursue charity work or join Teach for America. As a result, we must find ways to find meaning in our day-to-day work. In a column about Why You Hate Work, Christine Porath, a Georgetown associate professor, and Tony Schwartz, chief executive of a consulting firm called The Energy Project, found that the jobs that make us happiest include four characteristics: renewal, value, focus, and purpose.
- Buy time: When you are deciding how to spend your money, consider buying some more time. Harvard researchers found that spending money on convenience items and time-saving services help can lower stress and make us happier. In two surveys of more than 6,000 people in the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands, the researchers found that when people spent money to save time (such as ordering takeout food, taking a cab, hiring household help, or paying someone to run an errand) they were happier than those who didn’t.