If you asked for my most profound takeaways from my 20s, I’d open with everything I’ve learned about happiness. I went into this decade assuming if I did everything right — got the right grades, the right job, the right man — then I’d be happy. And now I’m leaving this decade with a new perspective, knowing happiness isn’t found in the big things; it’s found in the ordinary little ways to be happier. Right here, right now.
A big shift happened after I read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, one of the rare self-help books that actually helped me. Rubin studied the age-old philosophies on happiness and test drove her findings, creating her own personalized happiness project that sparked similar missions all over the world. Because that’s the thing about happiness: You can’t bottle it up for the masses, creating a one-size-fits-all approach. And yet some of Rubin’s wisdom — to act the way you want to feel, for instance — have contributed to my own happiness project of sorts. Her book was one of my contributing factors in creating a sustainable approach to cultivate happiness, even when absolutely nothing is going the way I want. Even when it would be super easy to complain and wallow and cling onto the misery.
Most people assume that happiness comes from the emotional highs in life — getting married, starting a family, getting a big promotion — when science has a very different view on true, lasting happiness. Research shows that happiness is within all of our reaches, no matter the circumstances, with very small and deliberate changes.
1. Change Your Attitude
A study from Harvard University showed that optimists are 50 percent less likely to have a heart attack, proving that a positive attitude can statistically protect your heart. Pessimists, on the other hand, were reported to have lower levels of happiness than optimists and more health-related problems than those with a look-on-the-sunny-side attitude. It’s all about perspective, which is totally in your control.
2. Think and Speak Kindly To Yourself
Part of that attitude change has to start on the inside, with your thoughts. How many times have you said truly awful things to yourself, things you’d never say to someone you love? You’re such an idiot. You’re going to fail. Everyone hates you. These thoughts aren’t motivating you to be better; they’re just making you be a big *sshole to yourself. Try loving yourself the way you love other people. I’m not saying it’s easy to unstick those long-established thought patterns and habits, but try. That slight shift in perspective has the power to make you way happier, promise.
3. Smile and Laugh
It’s neuroscience, folks. Neuroscientist Alex Korb wrote in Psychology Today that, in addition to making others happy, smiling tricks your brain into feeling happier, too. The same goes for laughing (which, as your mom always said, just might be the best medicine). Research shows that laughing actually produces happiness, affecting our psychological and physiological well-being.
4. Cut Toxic People Out Of Your Life
Along the same lines, make sure you aren’t keeping downer, dysfunctional, toxic company. Research shows happiness is contagious, meaning the company we keep matters. It’s not easy to walk away from decade-long friendships or end an abusive relationship, but it’s one of the quickest ways to boost your happiness every single day. Surround yourself with people who make you laugh and feel good — people who are happy, themselves — and you’ll feel the radiating effects in your own life.
5. Build Your Support System
We’re social creatures, which science 100 percent backs up. We all know that isolation is one of the most depressing and damaging experiences, but did you know having good friends can actually help you live longer? Research shows that strong social support actually lengthens your telomeres — the part of each cell that protects DNA and affects how you age — and a lack of friends can shorten our telomeres, leading to a shorter life.
6. Get More Sleep
You understand the basic science behind hitting the sack to recover and recharge, but do you know how much your lack of sleep affects your daily happiness? Not only does sleep affect your sensitivity to negative emotions like fear and anger, but according to the Huffington Post, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to lasting brain damage. So stop making excuses and get to snoozing.
7. Keep Good Smells Around The House
Could the key to happiness be right under your nose? Research cited in Reader’s Digest shows certain scents can actually boost your mood. Start incorporating Christmas-tree pine, lemony citrus, peppermint, and even fresh-cut grass into your daily smells to increase your overall happiness.
8. Make Your Bed
As part of The Happiness Project, Rubin found that making your bed is one of the quickest ways to boost happiness, (and her idea is backed up by other sources, too.) Rubin attributes this to creating an inner calm with a neater room, and sticking to a consistent ritual. “Sometimes the steps toward happiness seem insurmountable,” Rubin writes. “Especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed, picking one little task to improve your situation, and doing it regularly, can help you regain a sense of self-mastery. Making your bed is a good place to start, and tackling one easy daily step is a good way to energize yourself for tougher situations.”
9. Forgive Yourself
Forgive yourself for all of the things you’re holding — the grudges, the past choices, the betrayals. Just let it go.
10. Say No
Sometimes the quickest way to happiness isn’t by saying “yes,” but by learning to say “no.” Specifically, say no to things that stress and deplete you. In doing so, you’ll be able to free up time for the things that make you happy.
11. Be Generous
When studying the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, some of the happiest countries in the world are the mode generous. In fact research published in Science magazine shows giving as little as $5 “may be sufficient to produce non-trivial gains in happiness on a given day.”
12. Get Outside
Stuck in a rut? Get some fresh air. According to a study by the London School of Economics and Political Science, the key to happiness is being outside, specifically near the sea on a warm sunny day. In fact, participants reported higher levels of happiness in all natural environments — mountains, forests, and farms — than in urban environments. Another study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory.” So what are you waiting for? Get outside, stat!
13. Get Moving
Exercise is one of the best ways to get happiness-boosting chemicals, like endorphins, into your brain, and it’s something that research proves again and again. “For some people, exercising at high intensity three times a week for just 30 minutes at a time can provide the same benefits as some of the most powerful psychiatric medications,” psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar told Real Simple. “Yoga, for its part, seems to have additional calming (and happy-making) effects on both the brain and the parasympathetic nervous system.”
14. Start A Gratitude Journal
Taking some time to focus on the positives in your life can have a profound impact on your overall attitude. Whether you spend each morning jotting down your gratitudes in a journal, or you simply play the “name three things you’re grateful for” bedtime game with your kids, research shows being grateful is a key component to happiness. In one study published in The Journal of Happiness, participants who wrote three letters of gratitude over a three-week period showed increased happiness and life satisfaction, and decreased depressive symptoms.