The Secret to Deeper Happiness Is Simpler Than You Might Think

Joy comes from doing more of what you value—and noticing the small pleasures already in your days.

You just closed on the house of your dreams, your social media post is blowing up with likes—and you scored reservations at the hottest restaurant in town to celebrate. You're ecstatic, right? Of course, you are!

Your brain is so lit up with dopamine, a key pleasure chemical according to Harvard Health Publishing, that it looks like a fireworks finale. But will all this make you happier? Sure, but only temporarily (sigh). According to a growing number of experts, those exhilarating moments don't permanently raise the setting of your day-to-day happiness. And, by chasing fleeting highs, you may be missing the opportunity for true joy.

"We live in a culture that tells us we're supposed to be euphoric all the time, but that feeling isn't sustainable," said life coach and sociologist Martha Beck, PhD, author of Finding Your Own North Star. "Happiness—real happiness—is quieter and calmer, but that sense of peace is deeply satisfying and can sustain you through life's challenges."

Moreover, true happiness isn't elusive. It's available—you have to know where to look.

Pursue Meaning, Not Happiness

Yes, it sounds counterintuitive, but a study published in 2021 in the journal Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences discussed how people who place a greater emphasis on happiness are often less happy. "Paradoxically, studies have shown that people who have happiness as a goal tend to be less happy," Susan David, PhD, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School told Health.

A single-minded focus on positivity may leave you ill-equipped to cope with setbacks and heartbreak, an inevitable part of life. To avoid that trap, allow happiness to bubble up naturally by pursuing activities that dovetail with your values.

"Having a strong sense of what matters to you, and letting your values guide your actions, can lead to greater happiness," said David. For example, to zero in on what you hold sacred, ask yourself, "What relationships do I want to build? What do I want my life to be about? If this were my last day on earth, how would I act to make it a great one?"

This type of self-reflection helps you make choices that infuse your life with meaning, added Mallika Chopra, founder of Intent.com and author of multiple books, including Living with Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy.

"When you feel like you're living with a deeper sense of purpose, you're answering the age-old question 'Why am I here?'" Chopra said. "There's nothing more exciting or satisfying than feeling like you've found part of the answer." The beauty of this approach is that you can start making values-driven choices today.

While you might link happiness to a future goal (losing 10 pounds, getting married, landing a big job), you don't have to wait for other factors to fall into place to call a friend who is going through a rough patch, write a postcard to your senator urging them not to cut funding for an important program, tutor a student, or volunteer at a dog shelter. "The more you move toward your values, the more vital, meaningful, and happier your life will become," David said.

Make Your Brain a Sunnier Place

When you get big hits of wow—from buying a new pair of shoes, for example, or eating crème brûlée—the brain releases the reward chemical dopamine, but over time you need more and more of those hits to get the same effect, explained Robert Lustig, MD, author of the book The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains.

Meanwhile, stress reduces serotonin, the brain chemical linked to happiness. "As a result, the constant seeking of pleasure, whether it's from shopping, drugs, sex, or food, makes it harder and harder to feel happy," Dr. Lustig said.

So cut back on quick thrills (clicking on a flash sale, for instance) while taking steps to bolster happiness in your brain. Or, as Chade-Meng Tan, author of Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within, said, incline your mind toward joy. "As you go about your day, notice moments of joy when they come up and briefly give them your full attention," Tan said. "They happen all the time, but we tend to miss them because they're fleeting and not intense."

Whatever gives you a little happiness boost—a cold drink of water, the purr of your cat, the fluffy clouds overhead—give it your focus and let that sliver of happiness register in your brain. At the same time, consciously sprinkle in acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity, all of which lead to joy. Hold the elevator for a stranger, help a colleague with a project, or try this: Every hour throughout the workday, take a moment to wish happiness to one person in your life.

"I've taught hundreds of students this exercise, and they've said it changed their lives," said Tan, a Google pioneer. When you incorporate tiny hits of joy and gratitude into your day, you knit together and strengthen the neural structure in your brain linked to positivity. "By training your mind to incline toward joy, eventually those joyful thoughts and feelings begin to occur effortlessly."

Stay Rooted in the Right Now

While anxiety and depression are multifaceted conditions, those with anxiety or depression may share a similar struggle—allowing their mind to stray from the present. "Depression is brooding about the past, and anxiety is worrying about the future," Dr. Lustig said. As a result, learning to stay in the moment can be a powerful tool for improving mental health.

One of the best ways to anchor yourself in the present is mindfulness meditation, or sitting and paying attention, moment by moment, to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. A study published in the journal Neural Plasticity in 2020 discussed how even brief mindfulness meditation had demonstrated increased gray matter concentration in the parts of the brain related to well-being.

Meditation also helps us handle less-than-joyful moods. For example, a 2016 study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that after a 20-minute guided session, meditation novices who were shown troubling photos were better at taming their negative emotions. And let's face it, learning to cope with the tough stuff can go a long way toward making you happier.

"As you start meditating and paying attention to your emotions, you notice that happiness and sadness are like a roller coaster. They both inevitably go up and down," Beck said. "By teaching you to become a witness to your emotions, meditation allows you to get off the roller coaster and watch its movement from the safety of solid ground."

In other words, this emotional insight allows you to see something genuinely profound. Sadness and adversity come with their own helpful lessons and give color, contrast, and dimension to bliss. Without them, we wouldn't appreciate—or even recognize—how "happy" feels.

And remember, while tools like meditation can be helpful, if you find yourself struggling with new or worsening anxiety or depression, reach out to your healthcare provider. They can provide you with resources to improve your mental well-being.

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, anxiety, or mental illness, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

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