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 recognise 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.
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 (our senses are so important). You can practice savoring the moment while engaging in activities such as taking a shower, cooking, taking a walk, eating your favorite food, being in nature, etc.
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.
Acknowledge your gifts and talents. Whether you realise it or not, you have knowledge and skills that other people do not have. Work with your strengths. Find ways to share these with others for fun and fortune.
Be true to yourself; Pursue your passions. Find work/hobbies that you genuinely enjoy. When you do what you love, you will be so fulfilled that you’ll never again watch the clock in anticipation of quitting time. Also, by following your own interests, you will attract people to you who share your excitement, dedication and joy.
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/ focus on the positive, 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.
Eliminate your bad habit of only focusing on the negative aspects of your life because it makes those things seem disproportionately important. Although it is important to acknowledge challenging thoughts, it is equally important to make a habit of observing the good things in your life every day.
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 (or mobile notes); then read the contents whenever you are having a tough day. In time and with practice, your brain will start to access the list as/when needed.
5. Focus on relationships you find fulfilling:
Spending time with those we enjoy being around and with loved ones might seem 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 prioritise. You may also find that when you do spend time with loved ones, you have a difficult time being present.
However, carefully choose who you spend time with. You may not have a choice who you work with, but you definitely choose your personal relationships. If you’re spending your free time with abusive people, who are constantly mistreating you or not in sync with your values, then you are abusing yourself. Spend your time with loving people who are not judgmental. Pick friends who are supportive, caring, and accept you for who you are.
Don’t take 'crap' from anyone. If you find yourself with someone who is disrespectful to you, let them know that you do not appreciate being treated that way. If they continue, simply remove yourself from the situation. Don’t allow others to ruin your good feelings.
Try to prioritise 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-love/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.
Avoid perfectionism as it can lead to procrastination. One example that is not obvious on being hard on oneself through perfectionism is 'procrastination', which is all about a conscious or unconscious fear of failure. A solution is to take imperfect action which is better than taking no action. You can always learn as you go along and tweak or correct what you may not have been ready to do when you began. The important thing is taking the first step. If the fear is too great, it might be worthwhile to reflect on acceptance. Have you experienced painful rejections either as a child or as an adult?
Practicing self-love can also help you improve how you relate to yourself and others. Next time you notice that you’re engaging in negative self-talk or being hard on yourself, 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-love/compassion, including specific exercises.
Own your feelings. People can tell you to “feel your feelings.” This can be a concept that is difficult to understand. The trick is to acknowledge your feelings, and understand they are normal. If you feel like crying - find some privacy and cry. Work to understand why you feel as you do. Avoid numbing your feelings with drugs or alcohol or ignoring them.
Don’t judge yourself because you have feelings. Having feelings is normal. You should not feel guilty about them. If you have to cry that does not make you less of a man or woman. How often have you proclaimed, “I’m such a screw up!” The fact of the matter is that you are not a failure; you have merely not met the success you desired from a particular endeavour. Respect yourself and give yourself a break. As a reminder; “If you're not failing, you're not trying often enough".
Learn what your feelings are telling you. Your feelings are communicating important information to you. Just like physical pain tells you when you have an illness or an injury, emotional pain or anger is telling you that something you are doing, or that is being done to you, is not right for you.
Take care of yourself in all areas. Eat well, exercise, get proper rest. Maintain a clean and uncluttered home and work environment. Spend money within your means. When your health, your home, and your finances are in order, not only do you have less to worry about - you are sending a constant positive message to yourself that everything is okay. The opposite could be related to: delaying gratification (a sense of underserving or fear of success); a quiet cry for help/attention; wanting to be cared for by others (unconscious causes related to attachment issues); etc. If those areas are not the way they should be, it might be worthwhile reflecting on the true motives behind them.
7. Clarify your values and examine whether your life reflects those values:
First of all, know your own value. Don’t assume someone is better than you. Find ways to assess your skills, abilities, and achievements without comparing yourself to others. When you do see someone who has already achieved what you haven’t yet, try to understand that you cannot know what advantages they started with or what sacrifices they may have made.
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 true values in these areas? If not, what areas have room for improvement?
What meaningful activities can I engage in that reflect my own choices and values?
What makes me come alive and excites me to my core?
What goals can I work towards that reflect my values?
Am I surrounding myself with people that uplift my sense of self and/or support my values?
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 related issues on your own, talking to a therapist could help.