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Happiness is a constantly evolving journey that can look different for everyone. While it may seem to come more naturally to some, it’s impossible to be happy all the time—no matter what social media wants you to believe.
But, even amid challenging times, there are ways we can cultivate happiness. The key is learning to find beauty in both the good and not-so-good moments. As an added perk, understanding what makes you happy and satisfied in your own life can positively impact your overall health and well-being.
Read on to learn more about happiness and our top tips for how to be happy in life.
“Happiness is the internal experience of contentment and satisfaction. It can be generated by pleasing external events and/or an internal sense of peace and acceptance,” says Sheila H. Forman, Ph.D., a psychologist, author and Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) instructor.
Happiness is highly personal and varies from person to person, which is why many experts describe it as “subjective well-being.” Research suggests that happiness depends on emotions that a person deems desirable. For some, feeling loved might make them happy. For others, happiness could stem from feeling accomplished at work.
How you define happiness and what makes you happy can change throughout the years. depending on your life circumstances. It’s essential to take the time to check in with yourself every so often to see what’s most important to you and what is making you happy at that moment in time.
Although happiness is a subjective experience, some general activities and practices can help cultivate more happiness in your life. Below are eight ways to do just that.
Exercise is not only good for your physical health, but your mental health as well. Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can help improve mood and reduce stress. It can also increase endorphins—hormones that have a natural pain-relieving and mood-boosting effect.
Depending on your current activity levels, there are several ways to get more active. If you’re not used to exercising, start slow with light activities such as walking or swimming. Don’t be afraid to mix it up and try different types of exercise—you never know what you might enjoy.
Sleep is essential for your physical and mental health. When your body lacks the rest it needs, you’re more likely to feel tired, irritable and stressed. You may also have difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
If you’re not getting enough rest, try to aim for at least seven hours of sleep each night. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society, those who regularly get less than seven hours of sleep are at higher risk for adverse health consequences such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Research is beginning to uncover a strong link between diet and mood, especially when it comes to the detrimental effect a high-sugar, high-fat diet can have on brain health over time. On the other hand, a diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins has been linked to improved mental well-being.
Making small changes to your diet can affect how you feel. For example, try adding an extra serving of vegetables to your meals for one week and see how you feel. Are you more satisfied after mealtime? Does your digestion feel better? Mixing them with other foods such as rice dishes can make them more palatable and easier to eat. As you adjust to eating more nutrient-rich foods, you can experiment with increasing your serving amounts and variety.
Humans are social creatures and need meaningful personal connections to thrive and avoid loneliness. Research shows that people who report having strong social relationships have significantly lower levels of anxiety and depression—and may even benefit from immune system support.
“It’s not just about the amount of time spent with others. How that time is spent, whether it’s satisfying and whether the experience feels successful can determine whether socializing leads to happiness,” says Robert Pate, Psy.D., director of clinical training at California Baptist University and a clinical psychologist at Greenline Psychological Services.
Because social contentment is different for everyone, it’s important to find the type of socializing that feels good to you. Maybe it’s spending time with family or friends, joining a club or social group, or even volunteering—any of these are valid methods for connection, explains Dr. Pate.
“There is a growing body of research suggesting that practicing gratitude can help individuals to not only experience more happiness, but even to overcome mental health symptoms following various traumatic experiences,” says Dr. Pate.
Journaling can be one way to explore gratitude, explains Dr. Forman. “I tell my patients that happiness is an inside job. One tool I give them is to keep a happiness journal,” she notes. “Each night before they go to sleep, they are to reflect upon one moment from the day when they felt ‘good’ on the inside. Since our brains have a strong negativity bias, the purpose of this exercise is to train the mind to notice and feel good when it happens.”
Mindful meditation is a form of mindfulness that has been shown to help reduce stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression. In addition, meditation may help improve focus and concentration, as well as increase self-awareness, positive states of mind and well-being.
If you’re new to meditation, many online resources are available to help you get started. There are also apps like Headspace and Calm that offer guided meditation.
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One of the quickest ways to boost happiness is to do things you enjoy. Find hobbies that make you happy and make time for them regularly.
Hobbies could include reading, hiking, playing a musical instrument or gardening. When you do things you enjoy, your cortisol (otherwise known as your “stress hormone”) levels decrease, and you feel happier and more relaxed.
Not only will helping others most likely increase their happiness but it can also help you feel more fulfilled. When you help others, your brain releases oxytocin and endorphins, both of which help create a rewarding, self-reinforcing habit—meaning acts of kindness become easier over time.
Try giving an unexpected compliment or helping someone carry their grocery bags. Even small gestures can brighten someone else’s day.
Unfortunately, happiness isn’t always easy to attain. “Everyone feels down from time to time. But, when feeling down lasts for awhile and gets in the way of one’s ability to live, such as preventing them from showing up for work, engaging in activities they used to enjoy or results in changes to eating or sleeping habits, it’s time to consult a mental health professional,” advises Dr. Forman.
If you’re struggling with learning how to be happy, you’re not alone. Mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, can make it difficult to fully enjoy life. But that doesn’t mean you’ve “failed” at being happy. Finding professional help can be an essential first step in managing symptoms and beginning to feel better, notes Dr. Forman.
Practicing balance, staying connected to others and exploring gratitude are also crucial pieces of the happiness puzzle. So, if you’re wondering how to be happy, know that it’s a journey—and one that’s worth taking.
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Lindsay Modglin is a nurse and professional writer who regularly writes about complex medical topics, as well as travel and the great outdoors. She holds a professional certificate in scientific writing from Stanford University School of Medicine and has contributed to many major publications including Insider and Verywell. As a passionate advocate for science-based content, she loves writing captivating material that supports scientific research and education. In her spare time, you can often find her exploring nature with her husband and three children.
Dr. Rufus Tony Spann is a nationally certified school psychologist, licensed professional counselor, yoga teacher and reiki master. Over the years, he has served as a department chair, adjunct professor, assistant professor, speaker and trainer. Dr. Spann owns private practice You in Mind Psychotherapy and Consultation, which focuses on providing culturally responsive therapy, and he assists many therapists of color in receiving their independent licenses. He also is part of a research team looking to develop a new instrument that measures clients’ perceptions of whether counselors are effective in their ability to discuss the contextual dimensions of race, ethnicity, and culture (REC) with clients. Dr. Spann is a founding team member and the former chief clinical officer of Hurdle, a digital health platform for people of color.