How to Be Happy: 21 Science-Based Ways to Be Happier
Want to be happy? The science has shown us lots of ways to start increasing our happiness. So check out these high-impact ways to be happier.
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What Does It Mean to Be Happy?
Happiness is made up of 1.) hedonia, which includes positive feelings and emotions and 2.) eudaimonia, which includes a sense of meaning and purpose (Huta & Waterman, 2014). Given there are these two parts, we sometimes talk about happiness as if it means different things.
When we are feeling good we might say, "I am so happy right now." If we're thinking of happiness more in terms of meaning, we might say, "I just want to be happy", suggesting that we want something more purposeful from our lives. If we want to be happy, we first must know how we define happiness. So ask yourself: How do you want to be happy?
How to Be Happy
Most of us seek both parts of happiness: hedonia and eudaimonia. From this point on, we'll focus on science-based strategies that can help you be happier in both of these ways. Here are a bunch of things to try. Before starting, you may want to take our well-being quiz to get your free personalized well-being report.
1. Be Happy by Building Your Gratitude Skills
The reciprocity effect—or our tendency to want to repay people who have done something for us or given something to us—suggests that gratitude is at least somewhat innate to us (Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008). But gratitude is about more than repaying acts of kindness. To be happier, we can further cultivate an "attitude of gratitude". This type of gratitude is at least as much about the grateful thoughts we have as the grateful behavior we show others. For example, we might experience gratitude for the little things in our lives—the clean air we breathe, a warm bed to sleep in, or a smile from a stranger. These are not things we have to repay but yet they are given to us all the same.
To cultivate this "attitude of gratitude" we just need to become more aware of the things we already have in our lives that we are grateful for. No need to force it. Just notice and look for things that you'd rather have than not have. It'll get easier and help you become happier in time. If you need help, getting a gratitude journal can be helpful.
Video: Want to be happy? Be Grateful.
2. Be Happy by Being Yourself
Many of us live our lives according to someone else's map. Our jobs, our appearance, our goals, and even our dreams may not be our own. Sometimes it can be hard to tell, though, when we're not being ourselves. We may just have a sense that the path we're on is not right or a sense of ill-being from pursuing goals we don't really believe in.
This inauthenticity can occur when we focus too much on meeting other people's expectations (Goldman & Kernis, 2002). To be happier, we need to start identifying whether our actions are designed for the sole purpose of pleasing someone else. Or, are our actions designed to help us live our values and pursue our purpose. Once we are authentic and in alignment with our true selves, happiness emerges more easily.
3. Be Happy by Getting Your Needs Met
Our core psychological needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Vlachopoulos & Michailidou, 2006). Autonomy is the sense that we can choose our direction in life. Competence is the sense that we are effectively using our capabilities. Relatedness involves feeling socially connected to important others. These are the main things we need to be happy.
Unfortunately, American culture teaches us that happiness emerges from money, success, power, and prestige. Although these things may give us a sense of competence and autonomy, they don't always. So, often we end up chasing and even achieving goals that don't make us happy.
That's why if we want to be happy, we need to start digging deeper and asking ourselves what we really need, not what we want. If we "want" a million dollars, what is the underlying thing we really "need"?
Here's an example from my life. Like most people, I want money—I grew up poor and I know that money can indeed decrease stress and make it easier to reach other goals that enhance happiness. But do I need a lot of money? No. The core need that underlies my "want" for money is autonomy. More specifically, I desire security and freedom, which are aspects of autonomy. I have worked enough minimum-wage jobs to know that not having enough money will keep me from being able to choose my direction, job, or experiences in life.
By exploring the needs underneath the wants, you too can better understand what actually makes you happy and go after it. Knowing my need helped me prioritize building my own business instead of seeking out a high paying job. In the longer term, this has helped increase both my sense of security and freedom, and therefore, my happiness.
4. Be Happy by Knowing Your Worth
One of the most difficult challenges to being happy is having low self-worth. If we don't like ourselves much (or if we treat ourselves poorly like we are not worth much), we can struggle to be happier.
But how does one who already doesn't believe in themselves give themselves the chance they need to increase happiness? How does one who doesn't think they are worth helping begin to help themselves? This is something I've been thinking and reading a lot about lately. And I don't think there are any simple answers.
There are lots of science-based strategies that can help boost self-esteem. For example, practicing things like self-compassion and reversing negative self-talk are good places to start (Hardy, 2006). But it seems to me that shifting negative thoughts is only the first step. It takes behavior to back it up.
The thing is that when we feel bad about ourselves, we unconsciously create experiences that reinforce our beliefs (Swann Jr, 2011). We might choose jobs that we're overqualified for, relationship partners who treat us badly, or friends that take us for granted. And we use this information from our experiences to convince ourselves that we are right--It's true! We are worthless after all.
So when we get to the point where we genuinely want to be happier and do what's required to be happier, we can feel like we're going up against the world. That's why I think happiness requires more than knowing your worth; it requires acting on this knowledge. Setting strong boundaries and being assertive may be just as important as undoing negative thoughts. Because until you create a life that reinforces the idea that you are worthy, you'll always feel like you are fighting for it.
5. Be Happy by Investing in Your Happiness
People who knew me as a kid would likely say I was a mostly happy but intensely emotional kid. I had high highs and low lows. This was part of the reason I ended up pursuing psychology. I wanted to understand emotions...so I could learn how to control mine. I was so invested in this goal that I spent 10 years studying psychology, emotion, and well-being. But I did more than read books and articles, I tried every single strategy I found. You could say I was super invested in my happiness.
Now that I'm an expert in the field, people often ask me: "Are you happy?" My answer always is: "It depends."
Am I 100% ecstatic all the time? Definitely not. But that is a completely unreasonable goal. That's not even possible. Emotions are not stable and we must experience sadness sometimes in order to know happiness.
But am I happier than I was when I started this journey? Oh my goodness, yes! I have more happy days and the bad days aren't as bad. That's because I've dedicated a lot of time to building the skills that help me to regulate my emotions—to increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions. Now that I've got this down, I've been focusing more lately on learning how to boost eudaimonia, or meaning in life. And I'm dedicated to that too.
In sum, if we’re invested in our own happiness and put in the required effort to building the skills that generate happiness, there is no stopping us. At the end of this article, there is a little tool to help you start investing in your happiness more easily.
6. Be Happy by Investing in Your Relationships
Developing healthy relationships is one of the best things we can do for our physical and emotional well-being. Social connection, which includes both having more connections and strong connections, is sometimes thought to be the most important determinant of our health and happiness. For example, social connection has been shown to be one of the strongest predictors of mortality (death) (Holt-Lunstad, Robles, & Sbarra, 2017). That's why investing in our existing relationships, and building new relationships, is so important.
To improve your social relationships, it can be helpful to build new friendships. Consider joining a group of like-minded people, attending meetups on topics you're interested in, or joining a Facebook group on a more obscure topic.
To strengthen existing bonds, try to be vulnerable and express yourself. Self-disclosure, which is the act of revealing personal information to others, can help establish mutual understanding, intimacy, and trust, all things that can improve your relationships (Varnali, & Toker, 2015). So do your best to be honest and genuine whenever possible.
7. Be Happy by Shifting Your Attention
Another way to be happy is to shift our attention in ways that boost positive emotions. Here are 3 ways:
Focus on the future: To start, we can focus our attention on future positive events. For example, we can direct our attention to the joy we will experience on our wedding day or how nice it will be to lay our head on our pillow tonight after this long day.
Focus on the present We can focus our attention on present positive things by savoring the moment. When we savor, we focus our attention on something enjoyable that we are experiencing right now. We might take an extra few seconds to really enjoy a joke someone told or to fully taste the dessert we are eating. This attention to what is good in the moment is great for happiness.
Focus on the past: Lastly, we can replay pleasant events from the past. This strategy is sometimes called positive autobiographical recall. When we do this, we may be directing our attention to that awesome vacation we took last year of the first time our partner said, "I love you". To shift our attention to past events, we can write about them or meditate on them (Quoidbach, Mikolajczak, & Gross, 2015). By deliberately training our attention in these ways, we generate positive emotions that can help us be happy.
8. Be Happy by Changing How You Feel
It's not always easy to change how we feel, but the more we practice this skill, the easier it gets. To start, we can work on future-focused positive thoughts, otherwise known as optimism (Quoidbach, Mikolajczak, & Gross, 2015). To cultivate optimism, we might challenge ourselves to think about how something scary might turn out alright or even great. Maybe that presentation we have to give at work impresses our boss. Or, maybe that argument we're expecting to have with our partner leads to greater mutual understanding. Although some of us think we're protecting ourselves by thinking about all the horrible things that could go wrong, we're actually a lot happier if we try to think of the best possible outcomes of our situations.
We can also change our thoughts about present circumstances by using cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal involves changing our perspective on a situation in order to reduce its negative impact. By shifting our thoughts with positive reappraisal, we shift our emotions too. Perhaps that's why cognitive reappraisal has been shown to contribute to positive outcomes (Troy, Wilhelm, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010).
9. Be Happy by Being Kind
One of the most surprising ways to increase happiness is by being kind. Doing things like buying gifts for others, donating to charity, or volunteering tend to make us happier (Lane, 2017). Kindness and generosity of all sorts contribute to happiness. Just be sure to be kind in ways that fit you—ways that feel good to you.
One way to cultivate kind-heartedness is with loving-kindness meditation. This activity involves generating love and compassion toward yourself, loved ones, acquaintances, strangers, and all living beings. By slowing building love and mentally imagining it spreading outwards, we can develop a kind spirit, which may have numerous benefits for our mental health (Fredrickson et al., 2008). All in all, the research suggests that being happy means being kind.
10. Be Happy by Setting Meaningful Goals
Setting attainable life goals, and achieving these goals, can help us be happy. Why? Well, simply setting and working towards goals can help us better understand what is meaningful to us, engage more in these activities, and therefore, experience more meaning in our lives (Emmons, 2003).
Furthermore, achieving goals helps us satisfy psychological needs, perhaps particularly the needs for competence and autonomy (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999). Achieving goals can help us feel competent when we are successful, and it can help us feel autonomy because we are taking self-directed action without the direct influence of others. As a result, we can experience greater happiness and well-being.
To set achievable goals, be sure they are clear, small, and trackable. That way you can see how you are progressing and whether you are on the right track. And don't forget to re-evaluate every once and a while. You want to be sure the goals you are striving for are still what you want.
11. Be Happy by Developing a Growth Mindset
A growth mindset—or the belief that we can improve and grow—has a huge impact on whether we do grow and improve. It's not that we magically arrive at whatever destination we desire. It's that we're open to learning and working hard, and so we are more likely to do the things we need to be happy or achieve any other goals we set for ourselves.
Another key type of mindset to develop is a challenge mindset. When we have a challenge mindset, we view difficult situations as challenges that we are equipped for, or maybe even excited to take on. If we have a threat mindset, we view challenges as these giant obstacles that we don't think we can overcome. By having a challenge mindset, we stay positive in the midst of a challenge, and as a result, we are more successful.
12. Be Happy by Believing You Can Be Happy
I've recently gotten really interested in the science of manifestation. It's actually quite controversial in the field of psychology. Given the lack of research and evidence behind "The Secret" and "Law of Attraction" type approaches to achieving your dreams, the academy and researchers have basically lambasted the whole idea of manifestation. Indeed, there are a lot of unsubstantiated claims made about how we can manifest our dreams, but the scientific community has largely thrown out this entire approach without thinking critically about the ways it does work and the research that does support it.
For example, there is actually a lot of evidence that believing in something makes it more likely to come true (Benson & Friedman, 1996). Our positive expectations actually do lead to positive outcomes. BUT, this is not true all of the time and not for the reasons people might tell you.
It's because of a variety of mechanisms, things like self-fulfilling prophecies. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to be true because it is brought about as a result of believing it. For example, I might think that my coworker Jane hates me. Because I think this, I act uneasy around her and I am mean to her. So even though she didn't hate me to begin with, my belief makes her end up hating me.
Another reason positive beliefs can contribute to positive outcomes is because when we feel confident about something, people are more likely to believe us and think we're competent too. So we can get others to support us more.
And finally, positive beliefs reduce stress. This is thought to be one of the main explanations behind the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when we take a placebo, or inert pill, and think it is the real pill. This placebo pill affects us like the real pill would. Our belief that something works actually makes it work.
Overall, the research on belief has me convinced that we can indeed manifest happiness and other goals, especially if we understand the reasons why manifestation actually works.
13. Be Happy by Pursuing Things You Find Meaningful
In addition to positive emotions, a huge part of happiness is a sense that your life is meaningful or the things in your life give you a sense of meaning. So what are some things that give you that sense of meaning? Here's what the research says (Morgan & Farsides, 2009).
Five things that give life meaning:
Working on any of these can help you increase meaning in life and be happier.
14. Be Happy by Not Giving up on Happiness
Happiness is not easy. It's natural for our emotions to go up and down. A big part of making it through is not giving up. We may not reach all of our goals or be happy all of the time, but if we are committed to not giving up, then we have no choice but to keep improving. Sometimes when we're feeling sad, we do need a break to rest and recuperate. But if you don't give up on your happiness, then you'll keep doing the things that improve it, even if only a little bit at a time. The truth is to be happy, we have to work hard and persevere in the face of difficulties.
15. Be Happy by Recognizing and Using Your Strengths
Although we all have weaknesses, we also all have strengths. It's important to recognize our strengths because when we know what we're good at, we often have greater confidence and pursue activities that further increase confidence.
To better understand your strengths, it can be helpful to make a list of your positive qualities. Then think about how these positive qualities can benefit you in different areas of your life. Appreciate and celebrate these positive qualities and try to go easy on yourself for any perceived weaknesses.
16. Be Happy by Using the Tools Available to You
Keep in mind is that we can actually change the way our brain works. This applies to our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. And there are lots of tools now that can help us do this. For example, our positivity workbook helps you strengthen the positive connections in your brain by memorizing positive words. We also have a bunch of activities that can help you develop the skills that can help you be happier.
There are also online courses that help you increase happiness. Our Happiness Program is one, but there are others at places like Mindvalley.
17. Be Happy by Being Forgiving
If we’re holding onto negative emotions directed toward another person, we're only hurting ourselves. If we're forgiving, we reduce our own stress. Failure to forgive may even contribute to depression (Maltby, Day, & Barber, 2005). These changes in mental health may also harm physical health. So if you’re holding onto any grudges, try to get past them.
18. Be Happy by Choosing to Feel What You 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.
19. Be Happy by Cultivating Acceptance
Acceptance has been strongly linked to well-being (Ranzijn & Luszcz, 1999). Non-judgement is key to experiences like mindfulness and self-love. To develop acceptance, you might consider trying mindfulness, or work expressing your true self.
20. Be Happy by Spending Money Thoughtfully
More money does not equal more happiness. But spending our money in certain ways can increase happiness. For example, spending money on time-saving purchases can lead to greater life satisfaction (Whillans et al., 2017). We might hire someone to babysit the kids. Other material but time-saving purchases might include buying a Rhumba, which saves us time vacuuming. The goal is to free yourself up to spend more time doing more things that make you happy.
Another way to use our money to increase happiness is to spend money on experiences or on people. We might buy a vacation for ourselves and our significant other, take a friend to the amusement park, or go out to dinner with the family. These experience purchases that are also experience gifts for others are a good way to increase the happiness of ourselves and the ones we care about.
21. Be Happy by Being Adaptable
The more adaptable we are, the more resilient we are likely to be. And resilience ensures negative events have less of an impact on us and our happiness. So it can be beneficial to develop adaptability.
To adapt to situations, it can be helpful to develop a mindset of "letting go". When things don't go according to plan, we have to make a conscious effort to move on and not get stuck ruminating for a long time. Instead, we can strive to just follow the current of our lives and be open to whatever comes next. That's how being adaptable can help us be happy.
Video: How to Be Happy Every Day
There are so many things we can do when we want to be happier. The practices described here can help you build these skills and hopefully improve your life.