When people are asked about what they want in life, some say financial security. Some say what they want will be found in a career in something they love. Others say it is found in having a family. Some want to become singers, actors, or dancers. Some want to own a business, and some people want to backpack across the globe. Despite these varying answers, what lies at the root of all of them is a desire to be happy.
Naturally, all of us want to be happy. However, it seems that life often gets in the way of our happiness. We might find ourselves forced to move to a new city or country, suffering the loss of a relationship, or struggling to make ends meet. But we continue to wonder how to be happy.
No matter what we do, we want to be happy. Happiness doesn’t mean laughing and being joyful all the time or having everything go our way at each turn in life. Happiness does not equal perfection. To be happy, we need to feel content. We need to feel at peace with ourselves and accept our life circumstances.
When life circumstances are difficult, happiness can seem like a distant concept. Still, even in the most challenging circumstances, our personal definitions of what happiness can make all the difference. Two people in the same difficult situation can experience that situation differently based on their perspective.
In this article, we’ll explore the concept of happiness, what makes people happy, and offer some practical tips to help you increase your happiness levels and improve your quality of life as a result.
What is happiness?
Many of us chase happiness with the belief that it is a destination. Directly or indirectly, we go to great lengths to align our lives so that we’ll one day reach a perfect state of bliss. We might work and toil endlessly, thinking that to suffer now is to reap the rewards later.
We might jump from relationship to relationship believing that happiness will be found with the perfect partner. We might leave our homes and family behind and believe that happiness is something ‘out there’ that we must find.
Psychologist and researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the 2007 book The How of Happiness, defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Former American president Abraham Lincoln famously said, ‘Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,’ implying that happiness is a choice we can make for ourselves.
Living a happy life is often a by-product of doing something we love and aligning our thoughts, words, and actions with our core values.
The happiest people are not only those who have achieved fame and fortune but those who have mastered the art of being peaceful and content with whatever happens in their lives and are not trying to force things to be different.
‘Happiness is a function of accepting what is,’ claims American author and self-improvement leader Werner Erhard. Happy people are those who know themselves, accept their life circumstances, and do what they can to help themselves and others live well.
How to be happy in practical ways
Below we’ve outlined eight science-backed ways to be happier. Each method of achieving happiness outlined below is supported by extensive scientific and psychological research.
If you’re struggling to find happiness in your life, or you’ve got caught up in the bustle and stress of everyday life (as so many of us do), then consider the ways to improve your happiness and well being we’ve included below and try to apply them to your life.
Some people love to exercise. Others sweat at the mention of it. However you feel about exercise, there’s no denying that it’s one of the most effective ways to boost your happiness levels.
Exercise elicits the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the brain’s feel-good chemicals and are the body’s natural painkillers. They are the reason behind the immediate mood lift that exercise provides.
You may have heard of the runner’s high – a wave of euphoria and mental clarity that people achieve after running. The runner’s high happens because the brain floods with endorphins.
Research proves that even light exercise such as walking or jogging reduces cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body. Cortisol and adrenaline are the body’s stress hormones. They are released when something overwhelms us or puts us into a state of fight or flight, such as excessive demands at work, a threat to our well-being, or a global pandemic.
Stress and the release of its associated chemicals are healthy in small doses because it motivates us to take action and make a change. However, when it persists, it can impact our health and well-being.
By jeopardizing our health and well-being, stress is an obstacle to happiness. Since exercise is known to counter stress, it ultimately makes us happier.
Further research shows that exercise improves our mental health. It is a proven way to reduce mood issues and disorders such as anxiety and depression and make you more resilient in the face of difficult emotions.
A study on the relationship between physical activity levels and life satisfaction was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. According to the researchers, higher physical activity levels had positive outcomes on participants’ cognition and affect.
The study reports that ‘18–30-year-old young adults with moderate or high physical activity had higher life satisfaction and happiness, and better-perceived health.‘ It also highlights a ‘positive relationship between physical activity and life satisfaction in older adults.’
The food you eat has a significant impact on how you feel. There is a myriad of fad diets and indefinite articles in wellness magazines that tout the miraculous benefits of this or that new diet, but what it all really comes down to is the quality of the food you eat and how you eat it.
You don’t need to follow a particular weight-loss or muscle-building diet to be happy (unless that’s part of an important personal goal). The main thing is to nourish your body with enough vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, oils, healthy fats, and plenty of water to keep your brain and body operating smoothly.
You may have a particular weight or appearance in mind, and that’s great. Setting a body-based goal and working toward achieving it can make us feel more confident, one of the key ingredients in being happy.
Still, suppose you focus too heavily on a particular body image and diet plan and forget to take a holistic approach to your physical health and well-being. In that case, you might set up another obstacle to your happiness. Remember that happiness comes from within and does not have to be measured by your appearance.
The gut-brain connection
Recent research on the link between gut health and brain health highlights that the two are interconnected. The gut and brain are connected through nerves and chemical messengers that can affect the quality of bacteria in the gut microbiome.
Serotonin is a brain chemical responsible for mood and emotional regulation. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 95 percent of the body’s serotonin supply is manufactured in the gut.
Research proves that heavily plant-based diets are key players on the path to happiness. Healthy oils and fats, such as those found in nuts and oily fish, also increase happiness levels.
Since ancient times, it’s been emphasized that happiness is not found in external things such as wealth, fame, and other types of material success, but rather it comes from within. Greek philosophers and Eastern practices noticed a long time ago that the mind is a powerful tool and can be used to attain happiness or can be used to perpetuate our suffering.
In recent years, scientific research on the effects of mindfulness on the brain and body supports what the ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers have been telling us for thousands of years.
Mindfulness is about living in the present moment as fully and authentically as possible. It’s about becoming an observer of our thoughts and learning to accept them, along with our emotions, with as much openness and non-judgment as we can muster.
It’s about becoming less reactive to our thoughts and more of a compassionate witness to what’s happening in our lives.
Living mindfully is one of the most effective ways to be happy. When we live mindfully, we bring calm focus to everything we do and experience. That means we are aware of our thoughts and feelings, as well as our physical sensations.
We pay attention to the parts of our body that are stressed and those that are relaxed. We notice when we feel angry, sad, joyous, and excited and accept those feelings without trying to force a change.
Mindfulness is a long-standing practice in the East but was only made popular in the west in the 20th century. Jon Kabat Zinn is one of the founders of the modern mindfulness movement.
Kabat Zinn founded Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a mindfulness technique used by many to reduce stress and improve overall life satisfaction. Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
Gratitude is thankful appreciation. Multiple studies have found that when we focus on gratitude, on being thankful for the people and things in our lives, rather than complaining or focusing on what we lack, we elicit an improved mood, increased life satisfaction, and greater overall happiness.
Dr. Emmons and Dr. McCullough, psychology researchers at the University of Miami, conducted a study on the effects of gratitude. Participants were asked to journal about their experiences weekly.
The researchers found that groups who were asked to focus on things they were grateful for reported significantly higher levels of happiness and well-being than participants who were asked to write about things that bothered them.
This was also more than those who wrote about their experiences without focusing on either the positive or negative aspects of their experiences.
“Our theorizing has led us to suggest that gratitude, per se, may help to boost positive affect more generally, which is consistent with the facts that (a) the gratitude intervention elicited more gratitude and more positive affect than did the hassles condition, and (b) gratitude and positive affect were correlated,” explain Emmons and McCullough.
Gratitude is a daily practice. It is not a quick fix to our difficulties and may not immediately solve our problems, but its long-term benefits are profound.
When we shift our focus onto the things in our lives that we are grateful for, such as our health, our family, our friends, our social connections, our pets, we simultaneously take our attention away from negativity and allow ourselves to focus on positive thoughts.
‘Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.’ – Eckhart Tolle.
There are many things to be thankful for, and they aren’t always obvious. It’s easy to be grateful for the obviously positive things in our lives, such as those we love, our paycheck, or the roof over our heads. However, we can also be grateful for our difficulties and challenges.
It is through difficulty and challenge that we grow as individuals. The adversities we face in our lives teach us important, invaluable lessons that we may not have learned had things always been smooth.
Some trauma survivors even express gratitude for their experiences. Despite the damaging impact that trauma can have on a person’s health and well-being, many trauma survivors report being grateful for having had the chance to grow through their adversity. This is known as ‘post-traumatic growth’ and is the reason why many trauma survivors become healers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night to stay healthy, yet most U.S adults do not meet this recommendation, and to the detriment of their happiness.
Research proves that getting enough sleep, not too much, and not too little, is one of the keys to happiness. Not only does sleep improve your memory, enhance your cognitive abilities, improve your physical health, and strengthen your immune system. It also boosts your mood, improves your ability to pay attention and concentrate, and dramatically boosts your happiness levels.
Researchers Kahneman and Krueger found that sleep quality directly correlates to self-reported happiness levels in a study on life satisfaction. Their research shared the same results as the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which found that those who get a healthy amount report greater happiness and level of life satisfaction than those whose sleep habits are unhealthy.
Another reason why sleep is such a key ingredient in achieving and maintaining happiness is because it is a preventative measure against negative mood, depression, and fatigue, all of which dampen our happiness levels.
Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, ran experiments involving participants who had varying levels of rest. In his experiments, Walker found that tired participants responded more with higher reactivity to negative images than those who were well-rested. Walker’s results suggest that a brain without sufficient sleep is more prone to negativity than a well-rested brain.
6. Help others
Helping others is a great way to feel happier. According to various studies, doing acts of kindness and compassion for others has been found to increase life satisfaction and happiness levels.
Helping others is not just about giving money, although charity donations go a long way in making us feel better about ourselves. Other than money, you can help others by donating your time.
Volunteer in your local community, help friends or family with their tasks and responsibilities, or simply offer a smile or a kind gesture to a stranger. Offering an act of kindness to someone else doesn’t cost much and often doesn’t cost anything, yet the rewards are far-reaching.
Helping others out of the kindness of our own hearts leads to what is known as a virtuous cycle – helping others makes us happier, and when we’re happier, we’re more likely to help people.
There is even scientific evidence to support the benefits of helping people. Psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues conducted a study where participants were asked to carry out five acts of kindness once a week for six weeks.
The researchers found that participants experienced a significant increase in happiness and well-being when compared to control groups.
Another study highlights that acts of altruism (selflessness and concern for the well-being of others) make us more likable and strengthens our social connections, which in turn increases our happiness and well-being even more.
7. Spend time in nature
Spending time in nature offers profound benefits for your happiness levels. Multiple studies backed by strong evidence report that time spent in nature positively correlates to good mood and well-being.
In today’s world, we’re glued to technology. Many of us spend at least an hour a day scrolling through our social media, watching our friends’ lives from behind a screen, and maybe even comparing ourselves to others.
These unrealistic standards of appearance and success aim to make us buy the latest beauty products, gadgets, or fashion items.
“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. Some of them are bent, some of them are straight, some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree, and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. You don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it; you appreciate the tree.” – Ram Dass.
Taking some time to unplug and immerse ourselves in nature is more than just a nice idea – it’s important for our health and well-being.
In nature, we’re far less likely to compare ourselves to others and much more likely to appreciate the nuances and minute details of the natural world, and by association, the nuances and details of ourselves.
Whether you take a walk by the cliffs, wander through the forest, or simply take a stroll through your local park, you can reap significant benefits by getting outside and taking in some fresh air.
Research carried out by the David Suzuki Foundation involved 10,000 participants and a commitment to get out in nature for at least 30 minutes a day for 30 days. The research yielded some extremely positive results. After the study, participants reported a broad range of benefits, including:
- Increased sense of well-being
- Increased work productivity
- Greater happiness
- Improved energy levels
- Improved sleep
- Reduced stress and fewer feelings of negativity
8. Let go
Letting go is a prerequisite to being happy. Letting go does not mean that you abandon your tasks and responsibilities. It does not mean that you neglect to take care of yourself and those around you, and it doesn’t mean that you stop working toward achieving what you want in life. It means that you let go of things that don’t serve your highest well-being and happiness.
Many of us hold onto grudges. We remember times we’ve been hurt and have the same arguments over and over again in our heads, but as we remember and mentally relive the experience, we find different ways of winning.
We hold someone who hurt us or disagreed with us in low esteem and may even feel seething anger when we think about them or what they’ve done.
Letting go means freeing yourself from your mental prison. It’s about recognizing how the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings you’re clinging to are not serving you well but instead getting in the way of your happiness.
For example, if you’re holding onto past anger, the reality is that it’s eating away at you and not actually changing the past.
Of course, sometimes we’re deeply hurt or betrayed by those whom we feel close to, and the idea of forgiving them seems out of the question.
Yet, letting go is not just about forgiveness. It’s choosing to leave what happened in the past, not thinking that what someone else has done is acceptable or even tolerable. Instead, prevent it from occupying your precious time and energy.
It doesn’t mean that you need to allow that person back into your life, it simply means that you have emotionally moved on and put boundaries in place to protect yourself from continuing to be affected by what has been done to you.
Happiness is not a final destination. It isn’t something ‘out there’ that we must suffer now to achieve later, nor is it a direct result of excess wealth or fame.
Happiness is a way of being and is something we can foster and cultivate in everything we do. If you’re struggling to feel happy in your life, consider the tips and evidence on how to be happy that we’ve outlined above.
There are real rewards to be earned by applying the above to your life. To finish, consider the following quote,
“There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.”