Near the end of 2011, I woke-up in the middle of one random night and realized that, somehow, I had forgotten how to be happy. Over a ten year period, I had experienced a host of traumatic and unpleasant experiences, but I never really learned how to process the negative (and amplify the positive) in a way that was truly healthy. The funny thing is…I had convinced myself that I was dealing with things well…and that I was indeed processing grief and managing stress. (We humans are so good at kidding ourselves sometimes.) I sat-up in bed and discovered that the proof is in the pudding. What I had been doing was not creating joy or happiness in my life. So, at the beginning of this year, I set out to learn more about happiness, and how it can effect my ordinary life.
To my surprise, I was not the only one to ponder the depths of happiness (I’m not sure why this surprised me). This topic has been discussed in great lengths by the most scholarly to the most ordinary person. There was a lot of information to process, but I kept pressing forward through it all. After sending surveys to friends, watching movies and youtube videos, reading books and blogs, talking to strangers and those that knew me well…I started recognizing some patterns and paradoxes with the concept of happiness. A few months ago, I decided to post my daily tips on Facebook as I was processing each topic. This particular social media served two purposes: it made me get up in the morning and actually process my thoughts everyday, and it also allowed me to get some feedback from friends and what they thought about a given tip.
Below is my list of “Happiness Tips” as they came to me. I thought about putting them in a list from “most to least important”, but I eventually decided against that. There will be tips that will deeply move you more than others. I didn’t want to taint the thought process that someone might go through if they found something at the bottom of the list…and then didn’t do it because it wasn’t at the top.
I will tell you the happiness tips that really changed my life included: you have the power to choose happiness everyday, feelings follow actions (so smile more to feel happier), get enough sleep, music has a powerful effect, exercise often, people are happier when they are growing/learning, meet new friends, lighten up and play (it is easy to be heavy, hard to be light). I don’t implement every single tip with ease everyday. I do, however, find that somedays I need a particular tip more than others to turn my unhappy day around. I also know that I’ve probably missed some really great insights to help with my happiness. At some point, I needed to stop adding more ideas and actually “do what I already know” (which is one of my favorite heuristic that I tell myself). At any rate, after much prompting from my friends and family, here is my compiled list of “Happiness Tips” that I’ve been working on the last 6 weeks. I hope they bring some happiness in your life (because they brought about a tremendous change in mine).
Here’s to finding happiness in our everyday, ordinary lives!!!
Happiness Tips For Your Ordinary Life
1. Feelings follow actions (so smile more).
Studies show that feelings follow actions. If you smile more during the day, you will feel happier.
2. Get enough sleep (but not too much).
If you get 8-9 hours (no more, no less) of uninterrupted sleep, studies show that you are among the happiest people on the planet.
3. Music, singing and dancing.
Listen to music that will make YOU feel happy or bring back happy memories. When do you this, make sure you also take time to dance and sing. All these activities produce happy hormones in your body.
4. You can only change yourself.
You can’t change other people (so don’t try). You can, however, change yourself. You can also choose happiness everyday. And happy people know this.
5. Married couples need frequent dates (without children).
Attention Married Couples!!! The key to happiness in your marriage is to have frequent dates (without kids) where you are giving each other undivided attention.
6. Exercise frequently.
If you make it a habit to get 30 minutes of exercise everyday (double your resting heart rate), you will be happier and healthier overall. If you want to be really happy, add a 1 hour cardio workout each week.
7. Organize your clutter and tackle a nagging task.
Outside clutter and chaos effects inner peace and happiness. Build a system in your life where you can capture and tackle nagging tasks that constantly roll around in your mind.
8. Growth, goals and learning new things.
People are happier when they are growing. We live most of our life “in the mean time”, and research shows that the process of striving after a goal (growth) is what brings happiness. (End goals are important…but “goal attainment” is a fleeting moment and doesn’t provide the same amount of happiness as overcoming a challenge and novelty found in the journey towards a particular goal). In what ways are you currently growing?
9. Find a hobby you enjoy doing and meet new people.
Be yourself and find what YOU truly enjoy doing (not what other people think you should like or what other people are doing). When you do find a hobby or activity, join a group of like minded individuals to connect with. New people and new experiences (as a result of your new identity) are powerful sources of happiness.
10. Have positive thoughts (or gratitude) FIRST thing in the morning.
Pay attention to the first few thoughts you have in the morning. Happy people always wake-up with thoughts of gratitude or positive self talk.
11. Start your day before everyone else in your house.
“Beat-up your family.” Do I have your attention now? The gist is to wake-up before the rest of the people in your house (especially the littles). My husband and I wake-up together at 5am (a few hours before my daughter). That means I can have some quiet moments with my husband, take a shower, get myself organized, check my email and get my bags packed before my day really starts. It’s tough to wake up earlier (and some days it’s impossible when we don’t feel well or when I have a child that’s getting up before the sun), but it has made a huge difference in the quality of our mornings and the happiness level throughout the day when it does happen successfully. Another key element to remember…go to bed on time. That way you feel refreshed when you wake-up earlier. (Remember, those people that get 8-9 hours of sleep tend to be happier.)
12. Speak well of others.
Happy people always speak well of others. If you’re having a disagreement or conflict with someone, you should deal directly with the people involved rather than complaining about it to those who are neither part of the problem nor part of the solution. In other words, “If you don’t have something positive to say, don’t say anything at all.”
13. Share what you’re learning.
You will boost your happiness when you share what you’re learning or what you know with others.
14. Lighten up and be a treasure house of happy memories.
For all those parents out there…this one is for you!!! Studies show that marital satisfaction nose-dives after children are introduced into the picture. The only indicator as to why this happens is because you will most likely squabble more often, have fewer adventures, and spend less time alone or with each other. To change this unhappy trend, make sure you take the time to be a treasure house of happy memories (lighten up and have more fun together)!!! It takes a little planning and effort, but you will always have a great return for your investment.
15. Make time for play.
The absence of feeling bad isn’t enough to make you happy. You MUST strive to find sources that make you feel good. One way to feel good is to MAKE TIME FOR PLAY. Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor to having a happy life. Play isn’t just idle time…but an opportunity to experiment with new interests and to draw closer to other people.
16. Friendships (we are hard wired for connection).
Having strong social bonds is one of the most meaningful contributors to happiness. Everyone needs close long-term relationships…the ability to confide in others…and a need to feel like you belong. Studies show that if you have five or more friends with whom to discuss an important matter, you’re far more likely to describe yourself as “very happy”.
17. Healthy food and eating right.
Long-term happiness requires you to give-up something that brings happiness in the short-term. For now, I’m talking about food. In the long term, you’ll discover that healthy foods = happy moods.
18. Maximize happiness during a pleasant experience.
Research shows that happy people have just as many pleasant experiences as un-happy people. The difference is happy people know how to maximize their happiness while a pleasant experience is occurring. The trick is the squeeze out every ounce of happiness and then reminisce often.
19. Reframing your thinking.
Are you facing a difficult or unpleasant situation in your life? You may not be able to change it, but you can change the way you think about it. Studies show that happy people know the power of reframing their thoughts from obstacles into opportunities…from the negative to the positive.
20. Helping others within your limits.
For people who give within their limits, research shows that helping others can bring joy and happiness.
21. Alone time and self-care.
Research shows that a bit of alone time can make us more capable of empathy towards others. Empathy is one of the foundations of happiness…because the social connections empathy builds are such a crucial part of our well-being. Ironically, in order to best nurture our connections with others (and our own happiness) we need to spend time alone and away from others from time to time.
22. St. John’s Wort and other herbal supplements.
There is scientific evidence that “St. John’s Wort” (an over-the-counter supplement) is useful for treating mild to moderate forms of depression and anxiety. For those days when you can’t get out of your “funk”…
23. Change the position of your body to effect your feelings.
Research shows that the position of our body is directly linked to the position of our heart. For example, if you keep your hands literally open, your heart will not get bound up in things like anger. If your shoulders are slumped over and you have a frown on your face, you will feel more depressed than if you pull your shoulders back and smile. Feelings follow actions. Watch how your body is positioned to change the way you feel.
24. Get dressed and make your bed in the morning.
Sometimes it can be fun to hang out in your sweats all day (especially in bed), but if you’re feeling lethargic, powerless or directionless…not getting dressed may make you feel worse. Put on your clothes (including your shoes) so you feel prepared for whatever the day might offer. While you’re at it, make your bed!!! Studies show that making your bed and getting your body ready, as insignificant as they seem, can give a real happiness and energy boost during your day.
25. Be your significant other’s best friend.
Research shows that the quality of a couple’s friendship plays a huge role in the happiness and satisfaction level when it comes to romance and passion. Try to find specific ways to develop your friendship with your spouse to boost happiness levels in bed.
26. Fight right and express feelings appropriately.
Learn what it means to “fight right” (use gentle words, keep a sense of humor, DO let the sun go down on your anger, etc). Contrary to popular belief, aggressive “venting” or immediate backlash doesn’t relieve bad feelings…but fuels them. (And to clarify, I DO mean let the sun go down on your anger. If you can take some time to sleep on it, you will often find that in the morning you’re not as angry. With a little bit of distance and rest, somehow you can manage to get your sense of perspective back. Whereas if you unload your anger at the moment, you will just get more and more worked up. Obviously, if you can calm down and discuss things in a civil manner, by all means do so before you leave or go to bed.) Also, studies show that blowing up, punching a pillow, yelling or slamming doors makes you feel worse (not better). If you’re feeling angry or sad, instead of expressing negative emotions in a dramatic way around others, try to act the way you wish you felt by finding a calm way to express your feelings. Also, take steps to distract yourself until you can be alone to feel the full extent of your emotions in a safe environment. Once those strong initial feels have passed, seek clarity and forgiveness on that specific issue that caused the problem in the first place (don’t try to bring up other non-related issues).
27. If spent wisely, your money can help buy happiness.
As the current financial downturn is making vividly clear, money contributes to happiness mostly in the negative (the lack of it brings much more unhappiness than possessing it brings happiness). Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy lots of things that contribute mightily to happiness. For example, philosophers and scientists agree that having strong ties to other people is the KEY to happiness…and money can pay for a plane ticket to visit your sister, a babysitter for a date night with your sweetheart, or pizza for a birthday party with friends. Whether rich or poor, people make choices about how they spend money, and those choices can boost happiness or undermine happiness…some purchases will give you great joy while others are a waste in terms of happiness bang for the buck. If you spend money thoughtfully, in the right way, it can do a lot to boost your happiness. The secret to using money to buy happiness is to spend money in ways that support your happiness goals and don’t put you in debt.
28. You are enough.
The FIRST thing we usually think of when I wake-up is “I didn’t get enough sleep”…and the LAST thing we think of is “I didn’t get enough done”. We always live and think that we are not enough. Yes, you are imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that you are also brave and worthy of love and belonging. You are enough.
29. Make some plans for future fun.
Lay the groundwork for some future fun. Studies show that having fun on a regular basis is a pillar of happiness, and anticipation is an important part of that pleasure. Try to involve friends or family…people enjoy almost all activities more when they’re with other people than when they’re alone.
30. We need lots of hugs (for at least 6 seconds each time).
We are social beings, and although we all fall in different places on the introversion/extroversion scale, we all need to have a sense of connection with people. While some of that connection can come from having a conversation with others, touch also plays a HUGE role in feeling connected. A recent study has shown that giving five hugs a day can boost happiness levels by 25%. In addition to the amount of hugs you give/receive, if you can hold each hug for at least six seconds, you can optimize the flow of mood-boosting chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin. As my friend put is so well yesterday, “Life is hard. So we need to give each other lots of hugs.”
31. You can choose happiness everyday.
The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish is misguided. It’s more selfless to act happy. It takes energy, generosity and discipline to be unfailingly lighthearted, yet everyone takes the happy person for granted. No one is careful of their feelings or tries to keep their spirits high. They seem self-sufficient…they become a cushion for others. And because happiness seems unforced, that person usually gets no credit. On the other hand, some people cultivate unhappiness as a way to control others. They cling to unhappiness because without it they’d forgo the special consideration that unhappiness secures…the claim to pity and attention. Some people are just unhappy because they won’t take the trouble to be happy. But, of course, all this doesn’t matter to a person who is so bent on being unhappy. It is within your power to choose happiness. Everyday.
32. End gossip (giving and receiving) in your life.
Despite its bad reputation, studies show that GOSSIP plays an important social role by reinforcing community values (it makes people feel closer to each other, it unifies people who “play by the rules” by not violating social and moral codes, and it exposes the misbehavior of those who cheat on their spouses, act arrogant, don’t return phone calls, take credit for others’ work, and the like). Although gossip may serve an important social function, it’s really NOT kind to talk about other people…even if it is accurate. Long-term happiness requires you to give up something that brings happiness in the short-term. Everyone can agree that gossip is fun in the moment. However, most people will admit that they feel bad after a gossipy conversation. The key is to not only stop telling unkind stories, make unkind observations (even if it is factually accurate), or being too inquisitive about sensitive subjects…you have to be willing to stop listening to gossip. If you need some convincing, here is an interesting tidbit about gossip that really changed my mind. Another reason to not say critical things about other people is the idea of “critical trait transference.” Research is currently being presented that people unintentionally transfer to you the traits you ascribe to other people. So, if you tell someone that another friend is arrogant, unconsciously your friend will start to associate that quality with you. On the other hand, if you say that they are brilliant or hilarious, you are now linked to those qualities. What you say about other people will stick to you…even when you talk to someone who already knows you well. So you will do well to only say good things about others.
33. Stop ruminating and start reframing your thoughts.
One concrete cause of unhappiness is rumination (a way of responding to distress that involves repetitively focusing on the symptoms of distress, and on its possible causes and consequences). Studies show that by dwelling on irritating feelings and episodes, you amplify their power in your mind. Many of us believe that when we feel down, we should try to focus inwardly and evaluate our feelings and our situation in order to attain self-insight and find solutions that might ultimately resolve our problems and relieve unhappiness. However, numerous studies over the past two decades have shown that to the contrary, over thinking ushers in a host of adverse consequences: It sustains or worsens sadness, fosters negatively biased thinking, impairs a person’s ability to solve problems, saps motivation, and interferes with concentration and initiative. Although people have a strong sense that they are gaining insight into themselves and their problems during their periods of rumination, this is rarely the case. What they do gain is a distorted, pessimistic perspective on their lives. So, stop ruminating and start reframing your mind.
34. The positive benefits of journaling.
Studies have recently shown that those people who kept a “gratitude journal” (and wrote only about happy times) experienced an overall happier outlook than those who didn’t. Conversely, research has also shown that people who write about their traumatic experiences, negative feelings and failing health felt better overall and visited their doctor less frequently. The journaling process is a way to clean up your energy system by getting your thoughts, emotions and underlying premises out on the paper…where you can see them plainly and deal with them in a much more concrete way…and be able to identify positive and negative patterns in your life.
I’m finding over and over that gratitude is a key element for a happy life. People who cultivate gratitude get a boost in happiness and optimism, feel more connected to other people, are better-liked and have more friends, are more likely to help others…they even sleep better and have fewer headaches. Philosophers, religious leaders, and contemporary scientists all agree that GRATITUDE is a key to happiness. Studies show that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives…they even feel more physically healthy and spend more time exercising. Gratitude brings freedom from envy…when you’re grateful for what you have, you’re not consumed with wanting something different or something more. That, in turn, makes it easier to live within your means and also to be generous to others. Gratitude fosters forbearance…it’s harder to feel disappointed with someone when you’re feeling gratitude toward them. Gratitude also connects you to the natural world, because one of the easiest things to feel grateful for is the beauty of nature. Have you found ways to cultivate a grateful spirit? How do you remind yourself to feel grateful when life is proceeding as usual?
36. Examine your heuristics.
Heuristics are “rules of thumb,” the quick, common-sense principles people apply to solve a problem or make a decision. They aren’t really “rules for living” that you consciously try to apply…rather, they are deeply imbedded, often unconscious, rules that you use to come to a decision to answer a question or decide a course of action. Everyone has their own idiosyncratic collection of “heuristics” for making decisions and setting priorities. Take some time to identify your personal collection of rules. When I sat down to identify some of my heuristics, I found that a handful of them were negative and others were unhelpful. “I don’t have time” ran through my head dozens of times each day. I worked to change that heuristic to “I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.” What heuristics are shaping your behavior? As you are floating through the day, and there are thoughts running through your head…ask why is that true and question things instead of living like they are true. If you can catch the ones that are causing you to feel unhappy or ones that contradict themselves (and will just make you crazy), you can turn your heuristics into something that’s helpful and contributes to your overall happiness.
37. Spend time in wild nature and in the dirt.
Many studies show that even a limited dose of nature, like a chance to look at the outside world through a window, is good for your health and overall happiness. The author Richard Louv argues that modern children suffer from what’s called “nature-deficit disorder” because they have been shut out from the benefits of unstructured physical contact with the natural world. A related and relatively new idea in medicine is the “hygiene hypothesis.” According to this concept, children who are exposed early in life to the bacteria, fungi and viruses found in everyday dirt, have a lower incidence of infections, asthma, allergies, and eczema compared to kids raised in “clean” urban environments. For years, parents have have taught their children not to play in dirt. Recent studies are showing that dirt may actually be good for all us. Scientists have found that dirt contains a strain of bacteria that acts as a natural mood-enhancer. The bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, increases levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that boost mood and the sense of overall well-being. All humans crave a connection with nature. From gardening and horticulture to taking a stroll through the park or hiking through the mountains, man has found solace in nature for centuries. But with a rapidly deteriorating environment, shortage of open spaces, fear of “stranger-danger” during outdoor playtime, and an emerging culture of technology-obsessed youth, American life is punctuated by nature deprivation and a disconnect with the world around us. So, make some plans to play in the dirt and spend time in wild nature this year to easily boost your happiness levels.
38. Meditation and Prayer.
There is new research indicating meditation and prayer can physically change the brain in astonishing ways…by strengthening the brain circuits connected with happiness and a positive attitude in similar ways that we strengthen muscles when we exercise. Several studies suggest that these changes through meditation and prayer can make you happier, less stressed…even nicer to other people. It can help you control your eating habits and even reduce chronic pain, all the while without taking prescription medication. When is your best time to be still?
39. Watch how you “treat” yourself.
Resist the urge to “treat” yourself. Often, the things we choose as “treats” aren’t good for us. The pleasure lasts a minute, but then feelings of guilt, loss of control, and other negative consequences just deepen the lousiness of the day. So when you find yourself thinking, “I’ll feel better after I have a few beers…a pint of ice cream…a cigarette…a new pair of jeans,” ask yourself – will it REALLY make you feel better? It might make you feel worse. Recognize when you are trying to treat yourself in the short-term…and attempt to choose better options that will have positive long-term happiness effects in your life.
40. Be fully present in the moment.
Current research is showing that computers and cell phones are making our lives easier, but they are also stealing away precious moments that we can never get back. Put your electronic devices and other distractions away when you are with people…and be present in the moment. No matter how out-of-control your day is, no matter how stressful your job or life becomes, the act of slowing down and being present can become an oasis. You don’t have to chase extraordinary moments in life to find happiness. It’s right in front of you…as long as you’re paying attention. The days are long, but the years are short…so be present.
I think it’s funny that the descriptions get longer as the days go on…