5 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health and Increase Happiness

Young woman enjoying the airYour mental health affects your overall health more than you may realize. When you are stressed out, angry, or sad, your body suffers, too—whether it be in the form of digestive issues, headaches, back pain, or any number of other physical symptoms.

Most people I meet in my practice want to improve their well-being and increase their daily happiness, but they often feel powerless to make it happen. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our problems are entirely outside our control or caused by other people. Simply by changing our own actions and establishing new habits, many things may begin to improve. When you are happy and at peace, your body feels better and you’re able to respond to challenging situations in more effective ways.

Unfortunately, many people turn to pills to achieve that outcome. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011), about 35 million adults in the United States take antidepressant medication. Medication alone generally won’t make a person feel better, but there is a great deal of research to support the effectiveness of psychotherapy and lifestyle changes, and medication in combination with those things has been shown to be helpful for some people.

Here are five things you can do to start feeling better without the aid of pharmaceuticals:

1. Exercise

I love my workout videos. In one of my favorites, fitness trainer Jillian Michaels says, “When you feel strong in your body, you feel strong in your mind.” I agree, and so does mental health research! Numerous studies have linked regular exercise to improvements in mood and decreased anxiety (e.g., Childs and de Wit, 2014; Aguedelo et. al., 2014; and Shoenfeld et. al., 2013).

In essence, exercising helps your brain chemicals to work correctly. When they do, many things about your health and well-being improve. Exercise is so good for mental health that, in many studies, it has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant medication (e.g., Blumenthal et. al., 1999). I frequently recommend at least 45 minutes of vigorous exercise—think workout class or a run/jog in the park—about five times a week. Making this part of your routine can help lift your mood, decrease anxiety, boost self-confidence, reduce negative thinking and worries, and improve sleep. Plus, it’s one of the best anti-aging secrets! When you exercise, your body is more effectively oxygenated, which helps prevent signs of aging.

2. Eat ‘Happy’ Foods

“Happy” foods—foods that either improve mood or help to make you feel calmer—can be a bit of a catch-22 because some of these foods help in the moment but make things worse in the long run. These foods are what we often call “comfort foods,” such as macaroni and cheese, pie, and fries. They do work to make you feel better quickly, so they’re an easy trap to fall into.

Researchers believe that comfort foods may be comforting because they alter the brain’s response to sadness. A better strategy, however, is to make a habit of eating foods that build up the brain’s “good chemicals” over time and keep them at healthy levels. These are the foods we often call “super foods,” such as wild salmon (or other fish high in omega-3s but low in mercury), berries (especially blueberries), whole grains, green vegetables (kale is the king of them all), avocado, nuts, and seeds.

3. Volunteer or Make a New Friend

Social support is one of the best predictors of health and longevity. Volunteering is a great way to both get out of your own head (spending too much time in your head may lead to excessive worrying) and to make new friends. Resolve to make at least one new friend this year, and volunteer at least a few hours a month.

4. Understand Your Thinking Style

One of the reasons we sometimes get into a funk—and we all do from time to time—is that we make “thinking errors.” To eliminate these errors, familiarize yourself with what they are and begin to notice when you do them. Thinking errors (sometimes called “unhelpful thinking styles”) can lead to anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration, and low self-esteem.

Below are a few examples:

  • Taking things personally: Most people’s reactions to you are about them, not you. For example, if your boss is short-tempered and demanding, it’s more likely related to his or her personality style than to your work performance. If you take it personally, you are likely to begin feeling angry, nervous, or depressed. If instead you can see it for what it is—a particular personality and communication style—you can focus on learning effective ways to work with this type of person.
  • Catastrophizing: That’s the fancy name for “making a mountain out of a molehill.” If someone dies, that’s catastrophic, but almost anything short of that is simply a problem to be solved, a challenge to overcome, or something to be understood. When you notice yourself using language like “terrible,” “awful,” and “horrible,” you are probably catastrophizing. Time to shift your words! Instead of saying, “This is horrible! How will I get to work if they can’t fix my car today?” you can say, “Darn, this is really inconvenient, so I need to find a way to solve this problem. Let me start thinking of possible solutions. Maybe my friend Martha can give me a ride.” Here’s another example: Instead of thinking, “It’s terrible that Sophie is so rude to us at meetings,” think to yourself, “Sophie’s rudeness is unpleasant, but maybe she’s not very good at dealing with pressure. I’ll just be kind to her and try to get to know her better. Maybe eventually that will help improve things.”
  • Making assumptions and jumping to conclusions: I don’t have any data on this, but I’m pretty sure this leads to many divorces. Partners (on both sides) are very good at making assumptions about the other partners’ thinking, behavior, and intent, and often jump to conclusions. One of my favorite questions in marital therapy is, “Did you ever ask him/her if that’s what he/she was thinking, intended, meant, etc.?” People generally do not check their assumptions, and most of the time their assumptions are wrong.

5. Get Some Sleep

We’re back to the brain chemicals! Your brain needs to sleep because that’s how it regenerates and keeps itself filled with happy brain chemicals. If you are not sleeping well, it can contribute to developing mental health issues or exacerbating existing ones.

Working with a therapist can help you learn effective techniques to calm your mind and relax your body after a busy day.


  1. Aguedelo, L.Z., Femenia, T., Orhan, F., et. al. (2014). Skeletal muscle PGC-1α1 modulates kynurenine metabolism and mediates resilience to stress-induced depression. Cell, 159 (1): 33-45. Retrieved from http://www.cell.com/cell/abstract/S0092-8674(14)01049-6
  2. Blumenthal, J.A., Babyak, M.A., Moore, K.A., Craighead, W.E., Herman, S., Khatri, P., Waugh, R., Napolitano, M.A., Forman, L.M., Appelbaum, M., Doraiswamy, P.M., and Krishnan, K.R. (1999). Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression. Archives of Internal Medicine, 159: 19, 2349-56.
  3. Childs, E., and de Wit, H. (2014). Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Physiology. 5: 161. Retrieved from http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4013452/pdf/fphys-05-00161.pdf
  4. Pratt, L.A., Brody, D.J., and Giuping, G. (2011). Antidepressant Use in Persons Aged 12 and Over: United States, 2005-2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: NCHS Data Brief, 76. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.pdf
  5. Schoenfeld, T.J., Rada, P., Pieruzzini, P.R., Hsuesh, B., and Gould, E. (2013). Physical exercise prevents stress-induced activation of granule neurons and enhances local inhibitory mechanisms in the dentate gyrus. The Journal of Neuroscience. 33 (18): 7770-7777. Retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/18/7770.abstract

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Chantal Marie Gagnon, PhD, LMHC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Benjamin

    March 12th, 2015 at 12:19 PM

    Get some sleep but not too much sleep because then that could be an indication of being depressed and not getting happy! But with saying that I always think well I know I feel better when I get the amount of sleep that I really do need. When I am working on a lack of sleep or just a true deprivation I can feel it in every part of my body and then nothing feels good at all!

  • Abbey

    March 13th, 2015 at 10:04 AM

    Just getting out of the house for a walk on days when you can… that can be such a life improver! I know that the temptation can be strong to stay inside those four walls where you feel the most safe and secure, but let me tell you, there is something that is rejuvenating in such a good way when you break a good sweat!

  • barbette

    March 13th, 2015 at 11:33 AM

    I know that times can be hard, but I swear we all have to give ourselves a swift kick in the rear from time to time. Yes I think that all of those things listed help, but I also think that we have to remain mindful of how much we do have compared to others, and how much worse things could be. I know that there is a temptation to get down and sometimes those feelings are beyond our control, but you know what? I have to change my perspective and look at how things could be, and gosh that makes me more than grateful for how it really is.

  • Cindy

    March 13th, 2015 at 1:49 PM

    I believe in CBT and in this case I believe in utilizing REBT. We are emotional creatures and I believe that we need to examine our emotions because they influence our thoughts and behaviors. I am also a proponent for exercise while dealing with stress and anxiey because exercise helps our body to produce natural endorphins. I know this is true because I was disaabled for a long time and was on a walker because I needed a hip replacement. Now that recovery has reached a point to where I can walk again, I can attest that a good brisk walk can and does improve my mood. And in the end I feel that attitude is everything!

  • sj

    March 13th, 2015 at 2:08 PM

    I feel so a lone & down i have done for a while now. I find it hard to fit in have any kind of relationship and i really feel like im wasting mylife and often i don’t see the point in living. I mess up jobs in im always late or calling in sick & i don’t know why. I just think given the choice i wouldn’t have chosen to be born. Ppl will think I’m mad for saying this but i wouldn’t life is a hard & lonely place. I just dunno what to do anymore i hate the way i think but year in year out notjing ever seems to change and i feel trapped in this poor existence :(

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    March 13th, 2015 at 2:44 PM

    Thank you for your comment, SJ. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Kennie

    March 14th, 2015 at 8:22 AM

    Hi SJ

    My heart really went out to you after reading your post. I too, have struggled with these thoughts for years. I wanted to recommend a book that really helped me. Here is a brief synopsis by Mark Batterson’s book “In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy day”.

    “Your greatest regret at the end of your life will be the lions you didn’t chase. You will look back longingly on risks not taken, opportunities not seized, and dreams not pursued. Stop running away from what scares you most and start chasing the God-ordained opportunities that cross your path. In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day is inspired by one of the most obscure yet courageous acts recorded in Scripture, a blessed and audacious act that left no regrets: “Benaiah chased a lion down into a pit. Then, despite the snow and slippery ground, he caught the lion and killed it” (2 Samuel 23:20 -21). Unleash the lion chaser within!

    What if the life you really want, and the future God wants for you, is hiding right now in your biggest problem, your worst failure…your greatest fear?”

    Story Behind the Book

    “Our best days often start out as our worst days. And our greatest opportunities are often disguised as our biggest problems. You can land in a pit with a lion on a snowy day, and it will seem like the end of the road. But God is in the recycling business. He recycles past experiences and uses them to prepare us for future opportunities. That is the story of my life. And that is the story of your life. Look in the rearview mirror long enough and you’ll see that God has purposely positioned you everywhere you’ve been—even when it seemed you’d taken a wrong turn.”

    If you decide to read it, I have other great books that have helped as well.

  • Stephanie

    April 18th, 2015 at 6:46 AM

    Kennie, I love what you wrote! I will read the book you mentioned. I have come to realize that with God, all of our mountains are “climb-able”.
    Recently, I read “running on faith”, by triathlete and Ultraman, Jason Lester. Amazing book… Truly an inspiration! There was a part in there that I printed out and keep on my fridge. I read it every time I think about needing a reminder of why I am where I am. It is slighly paraphrased, but here it is:

    “if you are not ready to walk a certain path, you can do all the preparation you like and things may still not fall into place. If doors just won’t open for you, there might be a good reason. You’re probably trying to force something to happen before God thinks you are ready. You have some learning and growing to do first. When the time comes, He will open the door and the things you’ve been trying to make happen will start coming to pass. In short, where you are right now is where you’re supposed to be. When your mind and spirit are ready to take you down a new path, God will open a new door for you. As long as you are paying attention to where God is leading you, you will always be where you are meant to be. God’s got your back.

    This reminds me that the road of life’s journey is not always clear, easy, or smooth. But it is where I am supposed to be.

  • Kennie

    April 19th, 2015 at 6:43 PM

    Thanks for the paraphrase on your fridge. I will print it out as well. Great stuff.

    God Bless

  • Molly

    March 14th, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    Time with my friends who really know me and get me?
    Now that is what makes me happy
    and how I would choose to spend most of my time if I had nothing else to do or any other responsibilities!
    They are the ones who make me laugh and keep me sane

  • Dr. Chantal Gagnon

    March 14th, 2015 at 11:25 AM

    Hey thanks for the great discussion everyone! Freud said “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” So, weather a brisk walk outside, changing our thoughts and perspective, or beginning a gratitude practice, the point is that our minds and bodies need us to do a variety of things to keep them healthy. In other words, our stress and negative emotions don’t release themselves on their own. Proactive actions on our part is what helps to get rid of the feelings weighing us down.

    And SJ, I’m sorry you are having a tough year. Believe it or not, I am too! I can honestly say that this has been the most difficult year of my life. But it can get better for you! I see that every day in my work. For me, a good therapist, a regular workout routine, some time in nature, and a few great friends always do the trick. I would encourage you to connect with a therapist you like and begin a new activity (like volunteering). You might be amazed at how that can begin to improve things!

    -Dr. Chantal

  • Chandler

    March 16th, 2015 at 3:36 AM

    It could very well be the hardest to implement into your busy life, but I strongly agree that when you add some kind of exercise routine into your life, after a while you are just going to feel better plain and simple.
    And you ill even get to the point where you feel bad when you don’t do it, it becomes such a habit and a habit that actually makes you feel better.
    So what are you waiting for?

  • Idalia

    March 16th, 2015 at 4:21 PM

    I feel hopeless all the time. I don’t have a friend or a group who listen me when I’m in a crisis. I have to pass the crisis alone. I try everything and I still feeling empty. I take my meds daily and the psychiatrist change me some meds again but I don’t see any improvement. I try to exercise or do any activity and I get bored easily. So I didn’t found anything interesting in my life. I always think if I disappear maybe my daughter will be and feel better.

  • Christina S.

    March 17th, 2015 at 2:50 AM

    Hello, Idalia.
    I really wanted to reply to you because I can really relate to everything you said. I am 35 and have bipolar disorder II. My main struggle in it is the depression side. I have struggled with depression my entire life, even as a child. I know that party of it comes from the bipolar (which I wasn’t diagnosed with until I was in my early twenties), and part of it comes from the abuse I suffered growing up. Many times I wanted to kill myself. But what stopped me when I was younger was a fear of hell. Now I have 2 daughters, my oldest was born when I was 19. She helped to change some of my thoughts. I knew people who’s parents had killed themselves, and how that affected them. It hurt them more than anything. They felt like their parent didn’t love them enough to try and live for them. They struggled through life alone, without their parent. All they wanted was that parent who killed themselves. Even now, whenever things get so bad that I too think that maybe I should give custody of my girls to someone else, or put them up for adoption when they were younger, and kill myself, that maybe one of these other people would be a better parent than me, that I will never be able to get better and give them a better life, I remember that they CAN’T be a better parent than me, because they can’t EVER be their one true mother, and offer them the live that only I can. It would destroy them and scar then for the rest of their lives, and actually do then more harm than good. They would be so crushed, devastated, hurt, that they may even want to commit suicide themselves! Then that would make ME responsible for the death of my children! Killing myself, giving my children to someone else to raise, would actually be the most selfish thing I could do, even if I don’t intend it to be. It would not do them the good that I originally think when the thought first goes through my head. And I do love my girls way too much to EVER do those things to them. Obviously, you do too. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t think that you daughter is better off. It’s obvious that you care and would never wasn’t those things to happen. So, I’m telling you what I tell myself whenever I have similar thoughts, because they help me. I remember that I DO have something to live for, something to try for, and that’s my girls. They are the reason I get out of bed when all I want to do is stay there and give up. I know what you mean when you say that you feel hopeless. I have felt like that so much. I have been a single mom for almost 16 years now. I have struggled to provide all of this time as well. It seems like everything I do, fails. For every one step forward I make, I get shoved 3 steps back. Especially this past year and a half. It’s been very hard to have hope when things seem so bleak. But, again, I have to remember WHY I won’t give up: my 2 girls. When I learned that I had bipolar, I researched what it was, then decided that I would do my best to control IT, rather than letting IT control ME. This has worked for the most part, as long as I stay stubborn and determined, and unwilling to give up. And believe me, there are times, some times lasting for weeks or months, that I DO want to give up, and feel so unmotivated that it’s so hard to even get out of bed, let alone do anything else! It took me a while to learn to control the mania side of my bipolar, and now that isn’t so bad. But me and depression still battle it out. I have been on one antidepressant or another for over 12 years. I honestly can’t function as well without it. I just recently went through a change of meds, getting off of one back in October because of its negative effect on me, and wasn’t and to get a new one until last month. So, that’s 4 months without an antidepressant, and I’m still adjusting to the new one. And through it all, I still have to try and remind myself of my reasons for living. Continue with my determination to be stronger than my illness.
    I can also relate to not having friends. It wasn’t until recently that I got them. I’ve didn’t most of my life not having friends. And I only have 3 now. But, I know it’s difficult to be the friend of someone like me. I try my best to not overwhelm them with my problems, and be there for them equally. If you like, you can look me up on Facebook or Google+ if you have either one. I use both regularly. I probably went on too long here as it is, but I could share more of my experience with you that may be able to help, as I can relate to everything you said. I wouldn’t mind becoming your friend. Being alone isn’t easy.

  • Christina S.

    March 17th, 2015 at 3:09 AM

    I realized I misspelled quite a few things in my above post. This is due to typing on my phone which uses auto correct, and it being almost 5am when I wrote it and not having been asleep yet. I’m not going to correct every misspelled word, but there is 1 I want to. That is where I said that they “can’t offer them the live that only I can”. “live” should be “love”. I felt that was important to reiterate, because nobody else can offer the love that you can offer to your child, the love that she so desperately needs and would be living without if you were gone. How would that affect her if she no longer had that? Or didn’t know that you truly loved her?
    I’m sure you (or anybody) can read around the rest of the misspellings my phone did that I didn’t catch. I apologize. I tried, but they slipped by.

  • Dr. Chantal Gagnon

    March 17th, 2015 at 7:29 AM

    I know that when you feel so isolated and depressed that it can be easy to think that your child will be better off without you. But actually, it’s the opposite. Children who have a parent commit suicide are more at risk for mental health problems and for suicide themselves.

    I would suggest that you find a good therapist, or even an intensive outpatient program that can provide you with the help you need. Even though it doesn’t seem like it right now, things can get better with time and treatment.

    Here is some information about how to get help for crisis: https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    And here is the link to find a therapist on GoodTherapy: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html

    Dr. Chantal

  • Ric

    March 17th, 2015 at 10:23 AM

    eat happy foods… but not too many happy foods… otherwise you might be kind of unhappy the next time you go to put on your fave jeans! ;)

  • India

    March 21st, 2015 at 8:27 AM

    On a day like today, at least where I live, I say to get outside and enjoy this beautiful tableau of nature and beauty that God has placed all around us!
    We all spend far too much time cooped up inside, when really, this is what life should be all about.

  • Deborah Jackson

    July 22nd, 2015 at 10:01 AM

    Great article. Will post on our Art Therapy FB page.

  • jodie

    September 26th, 2015 at 1:28 AM

    I struggle everyday with anxiety and depression I feel I have wasted most of my life feeling this way. I can’t keep a job as I get to overwhelmed and can’t cope with how I feel. The only place I feel safe is at home but I am missing out on life.

  • Dr. Chantal Gagnon

    September 26th, 2015 at 7:28 PM

    Thank you for taking the time to comment Jodie. I’m sorry to hear that you struggle with so much depression and anxiety. I would suggest that you find a good therapist who is trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and perhaps this approach will help you make progress. Good Luck!

  • Jackie

    April 27th, 2016 at 11:00 AM

    I feel many of your same sentiments Christina I wish you victory over your depression and anxiety.

  • Kelvin

    July 10th, 2017 at 1:12 PM

    A fundamental question is where does happiness come from? If therapy is the answer to regaining lost happiness then where did it disappear too? The dilemma is even those people who are fortunate to have gained this elusive feeling of happiness do they really know where it emanates from and how to tap into it. We have tools to probe beneath the waves and search the heavens but none to fathom the qualities of our humanism.

  • Chantal M. Gagnon

    July 11th, 2017 at 6:37 AM

    Great comment Kelvin! Yes, people who practice happiness habits understand where happiness comes from. It comes from a combination of good self-care and a learned ability to transcend ego – this means learning to connect with your higher self (sometimes called spirit self). When you do that, your consciousness shifts and joy becomes your natural state.

  • Kelvin

    July 13th, 2017 at 3:15 PM

    But how do you connect to the self, what are the necessary tools to do this. It all sound very spiritual to me I need something practical. I have read countless books and theories but nobody can answer my question. Thank you Chantal for giving it a go.

  • Chantal M. Gagnon

    August 1st, 2017 at 11:05 AM

    Meditate 20 minutes first thing every morning. That’s a practical way to connect both to self and spirit!

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