We often have many misconceptions about what truly makes us happy. Many of us are accustomed to thinking, “I’ll be happy if or when ‘X’ happens.” Regardless of the goals we want to achieve or changes we want in our lives, the underlying motivation is often a hope that once these things are accomplished, we will be happy.
While achieving our goals or experiencing exciting life changes can lead to a short-term mood boost, they don’t seem to have the same effect after some time has passed. This is due to our brain’s tendency to become adapted to any changes we experience, with research demonstrating that people’s levels of happiness typically go back to baseline some time after the change has taken place.
It isn’t realistic to be happy all the time. In fact, our painful emotions and challenging times can contribute to growth and help us better recognize as well as appreciate the positive feelings when they do arise. Striving solely for happiness can actually have the opposite effect, so it can be helpful to focus on pursuing meaning and purpose, both of which are strongly linked to happiness.
Research has estimated that genetics account for about 50% of one’s happiness set point. This means that regardless of your baseline happiness level, or “set point,” you can become happier by regularly practicing habits that don’t just lead to a short-term burst of happiness but that increase your sense of meaning and purpose.
Striving solely for happiness can actually have the opposite effect, so it can be helpful to focus on pursuing meaning and purpose, both of which are strongly linked to happiness.
Similar to physical exercise, you can train your brain and see results over time no matter what level you are starting at when you begin. Below are seven habits that can help increase your happiness.
7 Habits to Increase Your Happiness
1. Practice enjoying the present moment.
Many people spend a lot of time worrying about the future or feeling sad about the past; both can prevent them from experiencing the present moment. The only moment in which you can experience happiness is in the present—not in the future when X, Y, or Z will happen. When you are present, you are able to truly savor and enjoy the current moment.
Practice savoring the present by tuning in to each of your senses. You can practice savoring the moment while engaging in activities such as taking a shower, cooking, taking a walk, eating your favorite food, or being in nature.
2. Regularly schedule time away from technology.
Frequent technology use can contribute to stress, less connected relationships, and being less present. Reducing your technology use can help you practice being more present and savoring the enjoyable moments, which can contribute to an increase in overall happiness and well-being.
Try taking a break from technology for a half or full day one time per week and observe how you feel. If starting off with a half or full day feels like too much, start smaller with 1 hour and work your way up from there.
3. Make space for enjoyable activities and novel experiences.
Engaging in novel experiences can help boost your mood and reduce the natural tendency to take things for granted. There also may be more benefits than just engaging in the activity, as research demonstrates that the anticipation you feel prior to the activity can contribute to more happiness than the activity itself.
Reflect about hobbies or activities where you are fully present and enjoy the process versus the outcome. Create a menu of these activities, put it up somewhere you will see daily, and pick 1 to 3 activities to try from the menu each week. If you have difficulty coming up with ideas, think about taking a class where you learn a new skill or pick an activity that you enjoyed when you were younger.
4. Practice gratitude regularly.
Our brains are hardwired to adapt to any life changes that occur. For many people, this leads to a tendency to take things for granted, which can have a negative impact on their moods and relationships.
Research has demonstrated that practicing gratitude regularly can increase your appreciation for your life as well as increase your happiness in the long-term. There are many ways to practice gratitude. One way to start is to write out 3 to 5 things you are grateful for a few times each week. Another way to practice gratitude is to write something you are grateful for once each day for 1 month and put it in a jar; then read the contents of the jar whenever you are having a tough day.
5. Focus on relationships you find fulfilling.
Spending time with those we love seems like a no-brainer when it comes to increasing happiness. However, due to juggling multiple tasks and the busy nature of life, spending quality time with others can be difficult to prioritize. You may also find that when you do spend time with loved ones, you have a difficult time being present.
Try to prioritize spending time primarily with those who you enjoy spending time with, not those you feel obligated to spend time with. When you do spend time with others, practice being present and eliminate distractions whenever possible.
6. Practice self-compassion.
It’s no secret that we are often our own worst critic—supporting ourselves during a difficult time can be challenging. Practicing self-compassion can contribute to an increase in happiness and overall well-being by helping you build resilience when experiencing challenging situations and difficult emotions.
Practicing self-compassion can also help you improve how you relate to yourself and others. Next time you notice that you’re engaging in negative self-talk, try asking yourself what you would say to a friend and how you would support them in a similar situation. Then practice applying that same support to yourself. There are many ways to practice self-compassion, including specific guided meditations and journal exercises.
7. Clarify your values and examine whether your life reflects those values.
Regardless of any positive life changes that occur or goals you may achieve, if you’re not living a life according to your true values, it is unlikely that any of these things will bring you lasting fulfillment.
Take some time to clarify your values and consistently check in with yourself regarding the following questions. Think about different areas of your life (work, health, relationships, etc.) and ask yourself:
- Am I living a life that reflects my values in these areas? If not, what areas have room for improvement?
- What makes me come alive and excites me to my core?
- What meaningful activities can I engage in that reflect my values?
- What goals can I work towards that reflect my values and are meaningful to me?
This list is by no means exhaustive. At the end of the day, happiness means something different to everyone. It’s helpful to have realistic expectations and remind yourself that improving your mood can take time and effort. You can also view this as a trial-and-error process, as you practice new habits to increase your happiness, continue doing what works and leave what doesn’t.
If you’re experiencing persistent feelings of sadness that you can’t seem to resolve, talking to a therapist could help. Search for a therapist who practices online or near you here.
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- Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F. (2011). The relationship of clergy burnout to self-compassion and other personality dimensions. Pastoral Psychology, 61(2), 149–163. doi: 10.1007/s11089-011-0377-0
- Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
- Emmons, R. A., & Mccullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. doi: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687
- Kahneman, D., Diener, E., & Schwarz, N. (1999). Well-Being the foundations of hedonic psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
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