Everybody wants to be happy in their lives, that’s an ultimate, universal goal. As much as different people give their unique interpretation to what would make them happy, science assures us that there are proven ways to introduce more joy in our lives and capitalize on this wonderful feeling.
1. Acknowledge negative emotions.
A team of Berkeley researchers in their 2017 study entitled “The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence,” concluded that people who are more accepting and less judging of their mental experiences may attain better psychological well-being, to a large degree because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion when faced with stressors.
Key to Action: Don’t engage in emotional avoidance! Acknowledge any negative emotions you have; don’t fight them, just let them be. Breathe, relax, and know they will pass.
2. Smile to increase happiness.
What’s in a smile from an evolutional and physiological point of view? Evolutional theories claim that the human smile evolved from fang-flashing as a way to convey friendliness and affiliation. From a physiological standpoint, smiling releases dopamine and serotonin; the former increases the feeling of joy and well-being, while at the same time decreases depression, and the latter is associated with reduced levels of stress. Scientists advices us to smile, even when we don’t feel like it. The “faking till you make it” aphorism is backed by science; the more we smile, the more messages we sent to our brain that we are happy, and the more likely we are to believe and truly feel it.
Key to Action: Find reasons to smile. Even if you don’t feel it, practice smiling. The position of the lips and muscles will send your brain a “happy message” and you will feel an instant lift.
3. Learn self-acceptance.
Research from the University of Hertfordshire assures us that self-acceptance is the key to a happier life, though it’s a happiness habit many people practice the least. Accepting who we are, instead of fighting it, can be liberating, as it shows us the path to self-actualization and improvement. “Despite my flaws, I can be happy” could be the key-phrase to let us pursue happiness instead of restraining and depriving ourselves.
Key to Action: Create your personal acceptance mantra, such as: “I love and respect my self truly and deeply, despite my flaws and weaknesses” and repeat daily. Consider writing it on a post-it note and sticking it to your bathroom mirror.
4. Practice gratitude.
Professors’ Emmons and McCullough seminal work on gratitude shows consistently that when we are grateful for what there is in our lives, we are also happier. Instead of taking things for granted, or, even worse, downplaying them, we need to keep gratitude lists: what are the things, people, situations, etc. in our lives that we are grateful for? Try to do this in writing, even keeping notes on your smartphone, and you will notice a big improvement in your subjective feeling of happiness.
Key to Action: First thing in the morning count your blessings; repeat just before bedtime.
5. Appreciate everything.
Learn to say thanks. James Roberts and a team of researchers from Baylor University found that people who try to become happy by accumulating material gain tend to feel worse because they appraise their life satisfaction negatively. Appreciation and gratitude serve as buffers for the negative effects of consumerism. The researchers concluded that people who can appreciate what they have can happily engage in materialistic pursuits; they are not mutually excluding. The key is to cultivate the positive emotion of appreciation.
Key to Action: Write “thank you” notes; tell a friend or relative of a specific thing they did that made a difference for you; compliments others. Appreciate yourself by allowing yourself to feel good without conditions and having some extra time to enjoy something you like.
6. Express your love.
A seminal Harvard study following a group of men for almost 80 years shows that our relationships and the degree of satisfaction in our relationships have a powerful influence on our health, according to Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the study and psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too,” he notes.
Key to Action: Invest in your relationships. Text, call, email, connect. Even better, go out with the people you care about and spend quality time with them. Listen more and talk less.
7. Accomplish your goals.
Let me first note that there’s a distinction between accomplishment and achievement. Accomplishments describe internally motivated goals, the person’s willingness to pursue their interests and passions, and invest time and effort that lead to a sense of internal satisfaction. Achievement is most commonly associated with some tangible reward and is measured in monetary or other metric. People who achieve are not automatically happy. People who pursue their interests and get in the flow of doing things accomplish what they desire, even if it doesn’t come with a check; it comes with a sense of increased happiness. People who accomplish what they intend find joy in the process, not just the end result.
Key to Action: Don’t postpone for tomorrow what you can start today! Identify what you like, your interests, the activities that attract you and devote time in them. See if you can get engrossed and lose yourself in it, having a flow experience.
8. Have meaningful experiences.
A significant component of happiness is to have meaningful experiences. Professor Roy Baumeister of Florida State University found in his research that people with meaningful lives give to others, contemplate about the past, think about the present and the future and their interconnectedness. He also noted that meaningful lives involved stress and challenge as well as self-expression.
Key to Action: Identify your personal and cultural identity and heritage; become more of a “giver” and less of a “taker;” find meaning in life difficulties and strive to understand and overcome them.
9. Spread kindness.
Dr. Keiko Otake, Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues conducted a “Counting Kindness Intervention” study and found that participants felt happier simply by counting their own acts of kindness for one week. Engaging in keeping track of acts of kindness also made participants become more kind and grateful. Finally, the researchers found that happy people notice more the happy events in their daily life and are more motivated to perform.
Key to Action: Commit random and targeted acts of kindness on a daily basis. Then count them and keep track of them for a week. You will notice an increase in your sense of joy and happiness.