Happy Thoughts: 21 Science-Based Ways to Be Happier
Are you curious which thoughts can help you be happy? There are a bunch of science-based cognitive strategies that can help you think happy thoughts and increase your happiness. We'll cover them here.
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What Are Happy Thoughts?
Happiness is often thought to consist of two parts: hedonia (e.g., pleasure, enjoyment, absence of distress) and eudaimonia (e.g., growth, meaning, purpose) (Huta & Waterman, 2014). And there are two primary ways to create these states—your thoughts and your behaviors. Here, we'll focus on thoughts to be happy. Lots of research has explored how we can think happy thoughts and what the precise benefits are. In this article, we'll talk about these strategies so that you can start using your thoughts to generate happiness.
If you want to learn more about your current level of happiness & well-being, consider taking our well-being quiz to get your personalized report.
1. I Accept the Things I Cannot Change
The more time we spend feeling upset about the circumstances in our life that we can not control, the less happy we are. On the flip side, acceptance is linked to positive well-being (Ranzijn & Luszcz, 1999). That's why adopting this happy thought is a great first step towards happiness.
To strengthen these happy thoughts, you might consider trying mindfulness, which is thought to help promote self-awareness, other-awareness, self-acceptance, and other-acceptance. It can be beneficial because we focus on and accept our thoughts and sensations without judgment.
2. I Know Myself
You might not that realize that thinking this happy thought is important for happiness, but indeed it is. If we're living our lives to please others or in ways that are not authentic, we're likely to be less happy. In fact, authenticity is key to optimal functioning and well-being.
Researchers suggest that authenticity is achieved once basic needs are met (food, shelter, relationships, etc...) and then we can turn inward to understand ourselves. Inauthenticity occurs when we focus extensively on meeting other people's expectations and demands (Goldman & Kernis, 2002). So a first step in achieving happiness is to "know ourselves" and then take action on what we know about ourselves.
3. I Know What I Need to Be Happy
Knowing our needs is another important step to happiness. That's because if we don't know what makes us happy, we'll likely do all sorts of things we think will make us happy that don't really make us happy. For example, many of us pursue acquiring the things we want—things like fancy homes, cars, or items—even though these things don't really make us feel better. If we instead focus on meeting our psychological needs, needs like autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Vlachopoulos & Michailidou, 2006), our efforts are more likely to make us feel better.
Here's how to start satisfying these needs:
Working towards these three psychological needs can help us become happier.
Video: How to think happy thoughts
4. I Am Valuable, Worthwhile Human Being
In my research, I found that the factor most closely linked to unhappiness was the extent to which someone "feels good about themselves". Indeed, if we have low self-esteem and don't like ourselves much, we might struggle to believe in our ability to achieve outcomes like happiness (Miller Smedema, Catalano, & Ebener, 2010; Tafarodi, & Swann, 2001). That's why working on these happy thoughts may just be the most important thing we can do.
We can start by developing some self-compassion instead of being so mean to ourselves. We can also work on building greater confidence to take the risks that will teach us that we are indeed worthy human beings. We might also benefit from using positive affirmations, or words that remind us of the good things we believe, or want to believe, about ourselves. These are some strategies that can help you develop thoughts to be happier.
5. I Notice the Good Things in Life
Another way to boost our happiness with our thoughts is to focus our attention on the good things, the things that give us joy. When we deliberately train our attention to notice the good (and ignore the bad), we can improve our well-being. Here's an exercise that may help you train your attention towards the good.
6. I Can Change How I Feel
The truth is we actually can change how we feel. One way to do this is with positive reappraisal, an emotion regulation strategy. Positive reappraisal involves thinking about how our present situation is not as bad as it might seem. For example, we might realize that we can actually learn a lot from the situation, even though it's hard. Or, we might find that we're grateful it's no worse than it is. Positive reappraisal has been shown to contribute to positive outcomes (Troy, Wilhelm, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010). By learning to shift our thoughts with positive reappraisal, we shift our emotions too.
7. I Can Improve My Relationships
Developing strong, supportive social connections is one of the best things we can do for both our physical and emotional health. In fact, relatedness (or our sense of being socially connected to others) is considered to be an essential need for human functioning, growth, and well-being (Van den Broeck et al., 2016). Social connections help us be more resilient in the face of stress and even improve our physical health (Holt-Lunstad, Robles, & Sbarra, 2017). So when seeking to have happy thoughts, it’s key to remember that you can develop new social connections and improve the ones you already have.
8. By Making Others Happy, I Make Myself Happy
One of the most strong and effective ways to increase happiness is through generosity and kindness. For example, research has shown that people who buy gifts for others, donate to charity, or volunteer tend to be happier (Lane, 2017). Given how strong this research is, many in the field believe that generosity, or kindness broadly, is the thing that is most likely to contribute to our happiness.
Even though kindness may be more of happy behavior than a happy thought, thinking happy thoughts related to kindness is even beneficial on its own. For example, loving-kindness meditation, which involves generating love and compassion toward yourself, then loved ones, acquaintances, strangers, and then all living beings has broad benefits for our mental and physical health. This type of meditation has been shown to improve well-being and increase daily experiences of positive emotion (Fredrickson et al., 2008). This suggests that cultivating loving, positive thoughts is a great way to increase happiness.
9. I Am Grateful For...
The more appreciation or thankfulness we feel, the happier we tend to be. Grateful thinking even improves mood (Watkins, Woodward, Stone, & Kolts, 2003). Gratitude is perhaps one of the easier skills to build because we all can do it and there are lots of research-supported ways to do it. For example, writing about how we’re grateful for a past experience has been shown to increase happiness (Witvliet, Richie, Root Luna, & Van Tongeren, 2019). We can also write a gratitude journal or gratitude letters to boost our happiness (Kaczmarek et al., 2015).
10. My Goals Are...
Knowing our big and small goals can be a great way to increase happiness. That's because setting small attainable goals can help us experience more wins, which can boost our mood. Achieving certain life goals can also help us increase our happiness in more long-lasting ways. For example, if we hate our job, we might have a goal to get training in another field that can help us get a job we like more. In this way, setting and working towards goals increases happiness.
In addition, achieving goals actually helps us satisfy important psychological needs like competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which all enhance well-being (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999). Lastly, just the mere experience of working towards goals can help people experience more meaning in life. Researchers speculate that this is because goals help us explore and understand what is personally meaningful (Emmons, 2003). That's why having happy thoughts related to your goals can be an effective way to increase happiness.
11. I Believe in Myself
In addition to setting goals, we need to believe that we can actually achieve our goals. We need to have what is referred to as a growth mindset—or the belief that we can improve and grow. By
maintaining beliefs about our ability and likelihood to succeed, we are actually more likely to succeed. That surprised even me! But it's true. The more we believe that positive outcomes will come true, the more likely it is that they will (Benson & Friedman, 1996). Of course, this is not true in every case (it's mot magic!), but it certainly does help to believe in yourself.
To help cultivate positive beliefs that help us with manifestation of our dreams, we can do things like creating a vision board—a poster of our goals, values, and dreams. We can also engage in exercises that help put us in a more positive, optimistic mood, exercises like exploring what happiness feels like.
12. I Am Adaptable
The more flexible and adaptable we are, the easier it is to be resilient. And when we are resilient, we are less affected by the negative events in our lives. To adapt to situations more effectively, we need to let go. For example, when things don't go according to plan, we can end up ruminating on it for a long time. These negative thoughts keep us stuck and unhappy. And if we are rigidly attached to a specific future, we might worry excessively, again getting stuck in our negativity. By letting go, we can let our lives take us where they may, directing ourselves when we can and being open to whatever happens. That's how adaptable thoughts can help us be happier.
13. I Pursue Things in Life That I Find Meaningful
We often give a lot of weight to finding our one purpose or the one thing that gives our lives meaning. But the truth is that meaning in life can come from lots of different things. Research suggests that the factors that make up a meaningful life include values, principles, purpose, accomplishment, and excitement (Morgan & Farsides, 2009).
You'll notice that each of these factors involves happy thoughts—thoughts like valuing your life, viewing your life as exciting, and recognizing your accomplishments. Focusing on these specific happy thoughts can likely help you increase your sense of meaning and purpose, and therefore, your happiness.
14. I Won't Give Up
We'll all go through hard times. A big part of making it through is being committed to not giving up. We may not reach all of our goals or realize all of our dreams, but if we remember to tell ourselves we are not going to give up, then we keep moving forward. Sometimes when we're feeling sad or bad, it can feel like all we have is the choice to keep going, knowing that one day in the future won't be as bad as today. This grit, perseverance, or sticktoitiveness is just as important for achieving our happiness goals as it is for achieving any other goal.
15. I Know My Strengths
We all have strengths and weaknesses. It's important to recognize our weaknesses so we don't become overly confident and arrogant. But it's also important to recognize our strengthens, as this can boost our self-confidence and self-esteem. When you know your positive qualities, it can be easier to feel good about yourself and cultivate happy thoughts.
16. The Good Things in My Past Are...
One way to use happy thoughts to generate positive emotions in the present moment is by reminiscing on good things that happened in the past (Quoidbach, Mikolajczak, & Gross, 2015). This reminiscing technique is sometimes referred to as savoring. To savor, just try to recall a very positive experience from your past. Now, try to recall all the details of why it made you feel so good. As those positive emotions bubble up, try to hold onto them for as long as possible.
17. The Good Things in My Future Are...
Another way to use happy thoughts to generate positive emotions in the present moment is to anticipate—or look forward to—future positive events (Quoidbach, Mikolajczak, & Gross, 2015). We actually do this naturally when we look forward to upcoming events like weddings, holidays, or birthdays.
To increase happiness, we can intentionally use these types of happy thoughts for more events. For example, each day we might set aside a minute to look forward to some fun event we're doing on the weekend or to getting to spend time with our partner that night. By making space to have happy thoughts about small but positive future events, we can increase our happiness.
18. I Forgive
When we hold onto negative thoughts about others, we take away space we can use for happy thoughts about others. Perhaps that's why failure to forgive has been linked to depression, and forgiveness has been linked to positive emotions (Maltby, Day, & Barber, 2005). By reminding yourself that you forgive, you can open your eyes to old grudges you may be holding onto and start working on letting these go.
19. There Are Tools I Can Use to Help Me Create Happy Thoughts
Some of us have more difficulty than others thinking positive and creating happy thoughts. But an important thing to keep in mind is that we can actually change the way our brain works—a concept known as neuroplasticity. This applies to our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions—we can train our brains in ways that help us become happier. For example, our positivity workbook helps you strengthen connections in the brain for positive concepts by memorizing positive words. We also have a bunch of activities that can help you develop happy thoughts, positive behaviors, and positive emotions.
20. I Know What I Want to Feel
You might expect that positive emotions always make people happier, but it's not quite that simple. It turns out that experiencing the emotions we want to experience makes us happier, regardless of what those emotions are (Tamir, Schwartz, Oishi, & Kim, 2017). For example, if we prefer excitement, we might feel happiest when we're sky diving or river rafting. On the other hand, if we prefer calmness we might be happiest when we're reading a book or laying on the beach. That's why knowing what you want to feel is so important for your happiness.
21. I'm Invested in My Happiness
If we’re invested in our own happiness enough to put in the required effort, we’re less likely to actually increase our happiness. That's why develop happy thoughts around our motivation to increase happiness is key to achieving it. Just as we would need to study math to change parts of our brain to get better at math, we need to practice engaging in positive behaviors and thinking happy thoughts to strengthen the parts of our brains that can make us happy. Sometimes that task can feel like a lot, but at least it's possible—we really do have some control over how happy we are.
Video: How to Be Happy Every Day
Thinking happy thoughts is essential when we want to be happier. The practices described here can help you build these skills and hopefully improve your life.