Exerting effort can get you far in many areas of life. Want to run a marathon? Train hard. Earn better grades? Study hard. Land a new promotion? Work hard.
To achieve goals, hard work and determination are often required. But what if the goal is to be happier? How much effort is required to live a more joyful life and to feel happier?
An initial Google search of “how to be happy” may give the impression that the answer to this question requires a great amount of effort. Countless websites and blogs are devoted to providing suggestions on how to obtain happiness. Many provide how-to lists that guarantee you’ll be happy after checking them off.
Thousands of books have been written on the subject, providing readers with a wide range of suggestions from changing mindsets to switching jobs. But who’s to say what makes one person happy will do the same for another? Must you read as many books as you can and try out all the suggested methods until you find the one that sticks?
Taking in the Good with the Bad
And what if your efforts to become happier aren’t always effective? (Which, by the way, is entirely normal and understanding). A problem that can arise when pursuing self-improvement is people often strive to feel positive emotions only and avoid negative ones at all costs. Even worse, they may find themselves riddled with immense guilt for feeling anything other than the happiness they so desperately are trying to achieve.
While happiness may look different for everyone, two concepts ring true for us all. One, happiness is best attained when you fully indulge in enjoyable experiences while also effectively coping with the more difficult ones. You automatically set yourself up for misery when you set unrealistic goals such as, “I will be happy 100 percent of the time” or “I refuse to feel any negative emotions.” Fully embracing the highs and lows that make up the human experience instead of running from or refusing to welcome any of the negative will lead to a happier, healthier existence.
Two, it is not enough to “think” yourself happy or to simply “read” yourself happy. Locking yourself in a room full of self-help books and articles simply won’t suffice. According to a 2014 article in Psychology Today, it is difficult to think yourself into a happier mood without first changing your behavior. In short, happiness requires action. The article goes on to explain that when you do something new or different, you boost feelings of happiness.
Behavior activation, a low-cost behavior therapy used to treat people suffering from depression and other mood disorders, is based on this idea that mood and behavior are related. It proposes that when you change your behavior, your mood changes. Practitioners often use a form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps patients change negative thought patterns. While important, behavior activation focuses on physically engaging in activities that meet personal values such as exercising, meeting friends for dinner, or working on a job-related goal.
Because everyone has different preferences in terms of what makes you feel happy, activities will be individualized. You may find joy in going for a bike ride while others may prefer meeting a friend for coffee. Whatever your preference, the following suggestions, all of which require engagement with the outside world, have been supported by scientific research to induce feelings of happiness:
1. Help Others
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that helping others often leaves you feeling better than you were feeling beforehand. A 2016 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that both giving and receiving social support correlates with a reduction in negative psychological outcomes. Moreover, fMRI tests revealed that giving, but not receiving, reduced stress-related activity in the brain. It also revealed greater reward-related activity.
Helping others can take many forms. Donate your time to a cause you deem important or simply lend a listening ear to a friend who may be struggling.
2. Make Social Connections
In the same way taking care of your body (i.e., exercising, eating clean, etc.) will lead to increased feelings of happiness, so will tending to your relationships. In 1938, Harvard scientists documented the emotional and physical well-being of 268 male students in a study that spanned over the course of 75 years. The findings? Good relationships are vital to our health and happiness. According to the study, the quality of your relationships matters more than the quantity.
As most of us are well aware, relationships require work, whether it’d be with a romantic partner, a friend, or family member. Be willing to put in the necessary work to keeping your current relationships healthy while remaining open to new ones.
3. Keep It Positive
It may seem obvious that positive relationships and experiences make for a happier life, but it’s a truth that can be often easily forgotten. Humans tend to gravitate toward what feels safe and uncomfortable, whether it has a positive influence on their lives or not. You may be in unhealthy relationships or repeating unhealthy habits (e.g., constantly checking social media) without even realizing it.
Think of the people you’re closest to. Do they add positivity to your life? Or do they leave you feeling depleted and discouraged? The people you surround yourself with have a huge impact on your health and happiness, so if you can think of people who aren’t adding to it, it may be time to cut ties.
Additionally, your daily habits play a big role in determining your general mood. If your days consist of repeating one negative habit after the next, it will inevitably impact how you feel about yourself and the world you live in. Think of the habits you’d like to change. Perhaps you spend too much time on Facebook or have a habit of putting off important tasks. We are all guilty of having unhealthy habits. What matters is that you can identify and then modify them into more positive, beneficial behaviors.