It’s perfectly normal to feel down, or as though you’re not the most joyful version of yourself. In these moments, and in life in general, you might find yourself wondering how to be happy.
“Happiness is not about the absence of negative emotion and the abundance of positive ones; it is about pursuing a life of meaning and purpose and living in accordance with your values,” explains Judy Ho, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist in Manhattan Beach, CA. “When you do this, you will inevitably come across both highs and lows emotionally, but all lead to a deeper sense of joy.”
So while happiness may look different to everybody, there are a number of changes and habits (big and small) that can lead you to a more joyful path.
Creating new habits and routines can be difficult, “But often simple lifestyle changes can have a profound influence on our mental health,” explains Joshua Hicks, Ph.D., professor, department of psychological and brain sciences, Texas A&M University. That’s why we’ve crafted a list of simple habits that will increase your levels of joy and fulfillment.
Ahead, find expert-backed tips to help you lead a fuller, more content life. Who knows, you just might find out more about yourself in the process.
While it might seem like happiness feeds gratitude, it actually works the other way too. Practicing gratitude “can lead to people feeling more positive emotions and feeling an increase in motivation to engage in their life and make healthy choices,” explains Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in MA. Chait suggests maintaining a gratitude journal where you can jot down things both big and small that you feel grateful for.
Starting a “mind-body morning routine” can go a long way toward setting you up for success each day and crafting an overall more positive mindset, Ho explains. Some morning routine ideas include a stretching routine, reading an inspirational quote, and setting your intentions for the day.
Ho suggests making a “joy list,” or creating a list of activities that bring you joy and committing yourself to doing one of those activities every day. By having a dedicated list of things that make you happy (like going for a walk or visiting your favorite coffee shop), you will always have something to fall back on as a pick-me-up on a bad day or something to begin each day with a more positive outlook.
We know that exercise is good for our bodies, but did you know it’s also good for our mind? “Research has consistently shown that exercise helps improve mental health,” Chait explains. “Exercise leads to a release of endorphins which affect mood, and regular exercise can lead to a sense of success and to an improved self-confidence.” Try going for a long walk, dancing in your bedroom, or a yoga flow.
Dehydration can negatively impact your mood and cognitive processes, research finds. So while drinking enough water might not seem like a top priority, if you’re looking to be happier…it definitely should be. Feel free to switch things up with lemon water, seltzer, or tea.
“Having goals and feeling a sense of accomplishment” is one of the “main factors that have been shown to contribute to happiness,” Chait says. By setting out to do something important to you and accomplishing it, you create a sense of pride that Chait says has been shown to increase happiness. These goals can be big or small—if it’s something that speaks to you, that’s what matters most.
Ho suggests challenging yourself by doing what she calls “getting into flow.” When time allows, do an activity that you are both capable of but also challenges you. The activity should be fun and interesting, as opposed to something where you may seek external validation or reward. Think: a challenging yoga pose or learning to knit.
Making a plan each day will help you in terms of “understanding what you are doing and why you are doing,” Hicks says. Doing so “will make the task feel more meaningful and give you more motivation to pursue your daily goals,” in turn creating a sense of pride and accomplishment.
One of the best ways to ensure personal growth is to check in with your values. Identifying your top values and evaluating if you are honoring them helps provide clarity to your day-to-day and allows you to connect with yourself. These are not things you can check off like goals, but ideas that you believe in and contribute to your character, like integrity and spirituality.
If you have trouble making decisions, you may feel unsettled or unclear on your life path or day-to-day routine. “Values-based decision making” can help, Ho says. Whenever you feel you are up against two decisions, ask yourself which choice honors your values (like the ones you identified above) more.
Personal growth and maintaining healthy habits take work—and it’s perfectly fine to fall short sometimes. “Cut yourself some slack when you fail,” Hicks says. “Try not to ruminate over lapses of self-control. As long as you commit to practicing it you will get better.” Try reciting some positive affirmations as a way to ensure you stay kind to yourself while on a path toward happiness.
Deep breathing is a great way to reduce stress and center yourself so that you can continue moving forward with your goals. “When you engage in deep belly breathing, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system and your body starts to relax,” Nicole Issa, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and founder of PVD Psychological Associates previously explained in conversation about how to relieve stress. Try these mindful breathing exercises.
Being outdoors can boost your happiness big time. “When we are in nature we tend to forget about ourselves and our problems,” Hicks says. “Something about this process not only helps us destress but taking a step back from our problems can sometimes help us see them in a different light.” A simple walk in the park, visiting a nearby trail, or even taking your lunch break outside can do wonders.
Try out “practical mindfulness,” Ho suggests. This means doing something “present-minded with complete focus and no distractions.” It can be something simple, and ideally something you do every day—like making coffee, showering, or brushing your teeth. It’s all about being present, in the moment, and savoring it for exactly what that moment is. This type of mindfulness can help you take on the rest of your day with a calm, positive headspace.
Ho also suggests trying a walking meditation, which helps you stay mindful and active at the same time. Go for either a brief or long walk, and as you walk “narrate your surroundings to yourself so that you can be focused on the environment and what’s going on, noticing the little details as opposed to being lost in your thoughts,” Ho explains.
Going to therapy is often one of the best things a person can do for their overall wellness. “If you find that you can’t get out of your rut, committing to see a professional is a great option,” Hicks says. “Sometimes it just takes advice from an expert to give us insight and get us back on the right track.”
The relationships we have with others have an extreme impact on our emotional health and happiness. In fact, Hicks emphasizes making connecting with friends and loved ones a top priority. “A simple positive interaction with another human being does wonders for our mental health and well-being.” A cup of coffee with an old friend, a catch-up session over video, or putting yourself out there by making new friends in your community are all things you can do to reap those social benefits.
Connecting with others is crucial, but connecting with ourselves is another important aspect of social wellness. Solitude is a “biological need,” one study reveals. It “supports identity development as well as intimacy with others” and even “promotes happiness.” So feel free to take the time you need to recharge your social battery and reconnect with yourself.
Boundaries are key for establishing healthy relationships—which are the only kinds of relationships you should accept on your journey toward a happier you. The first step toward setting healthy boundaries is to acknowledge when you’re doing too much for others and not enough for yourself, as well as “learning to say no,” as explained in our 14-Day Happiness Challenge.
Finding a new hobby is a great way to connect with yourself and meet new people. “Hobbies help us relax and help mitigate boredom and other things that are antithetical to happiness,” Hicks explains. “Interacting with people who make us feel authentic is very important for our experience of meaningfulness.”
The reward we get from helping others through volunteering often leads to an increase in happiness. “Helping someone else leads to increased positive emotions,” Chait explains. “Volunteering also often includes some amount of social interactions which has been shown to be a strong contributor to happiness.” It also offers the opportunity to try new things—like working with animals or children and offers the opportunity to learn new skills.
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