Joy isn’t as elusive as it may seem. It grows out of small things you can do every day. Here’s how to help the feeling flourish.

By Jancee Dunn
March 03, 2020
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You may have heard the theory that we all have a “happiness set point.” Experts suspect your DNA and life circumstances help determine this natural mood, around which your moment-to-moment emotions tend to hover. But we also have the power to significantly boost our current level of happiness. It just requires a little effort.

Fortunately, it’s probably not the kind of effort you think. There’s a deeply ingrained myth that lasting happiness unfolds as you achieve your major life goals—say, landing your dream job, or buying a nicer home. “We feel elated only for a very short time, until it becomes the new normal,” says Cassandra Dunn, author of Crappy to Happy: Simple Steps to Live Your Best Life. “The new house is amazing, but after a few months, there isn’t enough storage space and the kitchen needs an upgrade. Then we’re on the lookout for the next thing that will make us happy.”

Even a sudden windfall is unlikely to make you happier long-term. In a famous study from 1978, Northwestern University researchers measured the happiness levels of regular people against those of folks who had won the Illinois State Lottery (prizes ranged from $50,000 to $1 million). The researchers discovered that the happiness ratings of both groups were practically identical.

It turns out that for a deeper, enduring sense of happiness, you must focus on the feeling itself—and do so consistently. In other words, boosting your happiness means cultivating it through your everyday activities and thought patterns. To help you do that, we asked researchers, doctors, and psychologists to distill happiness into its essential elements, and suggest ways to build each one into your normal routine.

Gratitude

Why it matters: The Danes are famously happy people, despite, as Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, puts it, “horrific weather and some of the highest tax returns in the world.” The simple reason? They take time to savor life’s little pleasures, says Wiking—like fresh sheets, a frothy cappuccino, or dinner with friends.

While researching his latest book, The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments, Wiking collected more than a thousand happy memories from people around the world. He found that although milestone events, such as the birth of a child, predictably showed up, so did seemingly smaller experiences, like enjoying cake with Mom. “Our lives consist of these tiny moments, one after the other. That’s how we build our stories and a sense of self,” Wiking says. “The tiny moments are actually the big things in life.”

How to develop it: Paying attention to the good stuff requires a regular, conscious effort, at least at first. The familiar advice to keep a gratitude journal—where you write about who and what you appreciate—really can help train your brain to focus on the positive in your day-to-day experiences. And at the end of each year, reflect back on the past 12 months by celebrating what Wiking calls “the happy 100.” Look through the zillions of photos on your phone, choose your favorite 100 memories, and put them in an album. Invite family and friends to participate too— make it a ritual!

Social Connections

Why they matter: We know that maintaining relationships is good for your physical health. (A 2017 meta-analysis of studies found that a lack of social connections carries a risk that’s comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day!) But mounting research shows that developing meaningful bonds with others is critical for your happiness, too. And ideally, those relationships would exist mostly off-line: While email and social media are convenient ways to keep in touch, studies show that you derive more happiness from actual human encounters. Even a 10-minute catch-up can provide a warming glow of genuine connection.

How to strengthen them: If you’re walking your dog, text a neighbor to join you. Folding laundry? Call your mom. Bring a friend along to the grocery store so you can chat while you toss things in your carts.

And don’t neglect the power of touch. According to Rangan Chatterjee, MD, author of The Stress Solution: The 4 Steps to Reset Your Body, Mind, Relationships & Purpose, our skin is covered with touch receptors, and those nerve fibers go straight to our emotional brain, lowering stress levels. He advises people to practice the “3D greeting”: Whenever you meet someone, make eye contact, ensure there is some form of physical contact—a handshake, or a hello hug—and say something meaningful, like: “It’s so great to see you. I’ve missed you.”

Enough Sleep

Why it matters: Neuroscientist Matthew P. Walker, PhD, author of Why We Sleep, calls shut-eye your “superpower,” and he’s not kidding around. We know from research that slumber and well-being are inextricably linked. In one survey of studies, Walker and a coauthor found that after a night of sleep deprivation, brain scans showed that the participants’ amygdalae (where emotions are processed) were 60 percent more reactive to emotionally negative stimuli than after a normal night’s sleep. Well-rested brains, meanwhile, keep the amygdalae in check, so we react more rationally and process our feelings more effectively.

How to get it: To assess whether you’re rested enough, ask yourself two questions: After waking in the morning, could I fall back asleep at 10 or 11 a.m.? And, can I function optimally without caffeine before noon? If the first answer is yes and the second no, you are likely suffering from sleep deprivation, according to Walker.

And if you’re struggling to get the recommended seven to nine hours of z’s a night, he suggests going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends). While it’s tempting to try to catch up on rest when you can, an inconsistent sleep-wake schedule throws your circadian rhythm out of whack and may leave you even more depleted in the end. Also, no caffeine after lunch—sorry.

Meditative Moments

Why they matter: Meditation is pretty magical. Studies show it can actually physically change your brain to make you more open to happiness; the practice has been found to increase gray-matter concentration in areas related to well-being. But of course, meditation isn’t easy. A good way to start is by building meditative moments into your day. How to create them: You don’t have to sit on a cushion in a quiet place. You can grab a few minutes wherever you are—on the bus, waiting in line at the bank—and simply notice what’s going on with each of your five senses while you slow down your breathing.

As you develop this habit, you can use it to calm your mind and body as needed. In the rush of daily life, we experience a “constant pulse of energy and a sense of urgency,” says Dunn, which activates the fight-or-flight response. Your shoulders are tense; your heart is pounding. “As soon as you become aware of that sensation, take some slow, deep breaths.” If you can extend your exhale (say, breathe in for four counts and out for six), even better, she adds, because that’ll help trigger the opposite of fight-or-flight: the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest-and-digest response.

Self-Compassion

Why it matters: When you mess up, do you give yourself a break? Or do you bring yourself down, using harsh language you’d never unleash on a friend? Many of us do the latter—but those who are compassionate with themselves tend to have greater happiness. And luckily, says Kristin Neff, PhD, associate psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and coauthor of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, we all can learn to be gentler to ourselves. “We’ve learned how to be supportive, how to be warm to others,” she points out.

How to practice it: In times of failure or challenge, Neff says, notice the tone you use on yourself, and strive to lead with warmth and kindness—the way you’d calm a loved one. (Instead of “You’re an idiot,” say, “You had a moment of forgetfulness, and that’s OK.”) “Your heart goes out to yourself, which is so key,” Neff says.

Try to remember that your setback or anxiety is a normal part of being human. You can use soothing touch by gently stroking your arm or even holding your own hand. Neff says it’s also helpful to develop a self-compassion phrase. She tells herself, “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment.” But you can adopt a phrase of your own, like “This too will pass” or “I’m doing the best I can.”

Nature

Why it matters: Researchers have found that being outside has a profound effect on our brains. Nature soothes us; it decreases the production of stress hormones and sends positive emotions soaring. And it doesn’t take long: A 2019 study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham showed that spending just 20 minutes in a park was enough to boost well-being. Yet many Americans spend the vast majority of their time indoors and online, creating a so-called nature deficit. How to soak it up: Aim to fit in a little nature every day, says research psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Joy of Movement. She recommends looking up an appealing green space close to your home or work and escaping there each morning or afternoon. You don’t have to head into the wilderness to benefit from fresh air and sunlight; you can get many of the same benefits walking in a residential neighborhood, she says.

To up the perks even more, add in physical activity (a.k.a. green exercise). “Within the first five minutes of any physical activity in nature, people report major shifts in mood and outlook,” says McGonigal. Importantly, she says, they don’t just feel better—“they feel different, somehow both distanced from the problems of everyday life and more connected to life itself.” If you’re looking for group green exercise, McGonigal recommends the November Project, which organizes free year-round outdoor workouts in cities around the world.

A Little Free Time

Why it matters: Does it feel like every second of your day is accounted for? That kind of non-stop schedule puts you at risk for burnout. But building a few small open stretches of time into the day can make all the difference. Taking short breaks—even just a few minutes—allows your body to reset. The tricky part is, you can’t spend those breaks on your phone. “That tiny device we carry, with all its built-in distractions, is revving up our nervous system and causing us to feel like we’re always ‘on,’ even when we have no reason to be,” explains Dunn.

How to find it: Instead of clicking on a news alert or scrolling through Instagram, play with your dog or cat, read a chapter in a book, sketch the scene outside your window—or just do nothing at all (a concept the Dutch call niksen).

It may help to think of your time as a commodity. A 2017 study published by the National Academy of Sciences showed that people who spent money on things that helped them save time, like a cleaning service, were happier than if they had bought gifts for themselves.

Giving Back

Why it matters: Making others happy makes you happy: fact! “Research shows that people who are more compassionate and generous end up being happier and healthier than others— and may even live longer,” says Emma Seppälä, PhD, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track. A 2017 University of Zurich study found that even the mere act of promising to be more generous is enough to spur a change in our brains that makes us happier.

How to fit it in: You don’t have to start a non-profit to give back. “Each day presents countless opportunities to do good,” Seppälä believes. Brainstorm different ways you can donate time or goods. Train for a charity run. Give blood. Drop off a box of clothes at Goodwill. Adam Grant, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of Give and Take, recommends something called “the five-minute favor,” in which you use five minutes of your day to do something for others—like cleaning out the office fridge, introducing two friends on LinkedIn, or bringing your niece a bunch of flowers—without expecting anything in return. Such acts of kindness will leave you feeling a little bit lighter.

Movement

Why it matters: It’s no secret that a good, hard workout can induce a euphoric feeling, thanks to a rush of endorphins, endocannabinoids (yep, your body makes its own cannabinoids), and other neurochemicals that trigger positive feelings. But lower-intensity exercise can buoy your mood too. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that the equivalent of one hour of moderate activity (such as brisk walking) a day reduced a person’s risk of developing depression by 26 percent.

How to do more of it: You don’t need to hit the treadmill to get exercise. Every bit of movement you do counts (including vacuuming). Dr. Chatterjee advocates what he calls “movement snacks”—bite-size activities such as making a coffee run or playing tag with your kids. He rises to greet his patients an average of 45 times a day, just so he can get out of his chair.

If you’re looking for a more regular form of exercise, McGonigal recommends dance classes, which she says can lead to a sort of collective joy: “Not only are you moving in synchrony with others but many of the movements also reflect what anthropologists and psychologists have discovered are natural expressions of joy, like throwing your arms in the air, swaying, clapping, and stomping.”

Acceptance

Why it matters: Accepting the things you cannot change may be the most challenging step toward happiness, but it’s worth trying— because you really can be happy even when your life looks nothing like what you thought it would.

“When you avoid the reality of your experience, you get smacked with it again and again,” says Jodie Eisner, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City. “But when you accept your experience—from the emotion you’re having to the situation you’re in—you can face it head-on and move through it.”

How to achieve it: Acknowledge your current reality without passing judgment. Remind yourself that things aren’t good or bad— they just “are,” says Eisner. But don’t try to squash your emotions; let yourself feel them. Yes, even the unpleasant ones, Eisner says. “This enables you to process them and also challenge your fear that you won’t be able to handle them,” she says. Practicing acceptance helps you work with the life you have, so you can find contentment in it.

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