How to Be Happy in 14 Little Steps

Are you happy? The question seems simple enough. But when you really take the time to assess your level of happiness, you may find you're out of balance and you could be wondering how exactly you can fix it.

The truth of the matter is that a happier life means many things to different people. According to the 2016 Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, only a third of Americans reported that they were, indeed, happy. And a General Social Survey identified what is called "happiness inequality" in the United States, which means that in our country levels of joy differ across racial, economic, and gender circumstance.

Though we all want to be more positive, very few of us know how to go about bringing more pleasure into our lives, while pushing aside our negative thoughts. Fortunately, if you follow these tips of how to be happy, you'll hopefully find that life satisfaction could be more in reach than you think.

Set boundaries.

If self-care is a priority for your overall happiness, it's important to give yourself permission to say 'no.' "Be diligent about your boundaries," advises Virginia Williamson, a Connecticut-based marriage and family therapist. 

"It's easy to fall into a pattern of overextending ourselves, both personally and professionally, only to feel taken advantage of, run down, or resentful. Create limits for yourself and others, and be consistent about maintaining them. This sets the stage for happier relationships, which greatly impacts the quality of our lives."

A strategy to get the better hang of saying 'no,' and bringing happiness into your life? According to psychotherapist Laura Leinwand, instead of responding with immediate rejection, set a deadline—allowing yourself to become comfortable with whatever decision you make, while also honoring your relationships.

And while the concept of 'no' may at first seem a bit self-centered, Leinwand explains that "healthy boundaries and enables others to have clarity about what they can expect from you."

Use aromatherapy for self care.

Not only do essential oils, like lavender and peppermint, have a calming effect, but they also help to clear your mind when you're stressed.

"Aromatherapy is an excellent mood booster when you've hit a slump," offers Reiki Master healer and sex and relationship coach Cara Kovacs. "Citrus scents wake you up, lavender or ylang ylang can soothe, and warm scents like vanilla or clove can make you feel warm and safe. Keep essential oils by your desk or in your purse, she suggests. 

To get started, put a few drops on your palms, rub them together, and gently waft them over your face. This simple ritual is both calming and elevating. Plus, it makes you pause and luxuriate in a moment.

"Appreciating the present is one of the best ways to feel lighter and happier," says Kovacs.

Recite affirmations to combat negative emotions.

"Affirmations are statements or propositions that are declared to be true," explains author Shawngela Pierce, who studies naturopathic medicine.

Regarding how they can make you happy, Pierce references a 2015 brain-imaging study published in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Journal, where scientists reviewed what happens in the brain when people practice self-affirmation. They found that participants who were affirmed showed increased activity in the region of the brain that processes self-worth and valuation. 

One easy way to get in the daily habit of using affirmations is to come up with five aspirational sentences about yourself beginning with the words, "I am." For example, "I am living my best life," "I am loved," or "I am healthy." Then, repeat those statements aloud first thing in the morning and again before you go to sleep at night. This will boost your self-esteem and program your subconscious to think more positive thoughts.


Bring nature into your home.

Your spirit isn't the only thing that may be in need of a happiness makeover. Sprucing up your home and integrating more natural elements, like plants, wood, organic soy candles, or wallpaper covered with nature scenes, could be the key to greater health and happiness. Or, you know, you could just tune into decluttering queen Marie Kondo's show on Netflix to freshen up your home.

While you've got the design bug, be mindful of certain colors that are said to naturally make you happier. Color expert Sue Kim told Country Living that yellow, sky blue, violet, green, and sage, are shades known to give mood boosts. 

"Everything we surround ourselves with impacts our emotional state," says holistic interior designer Nora Bouz, who is also the founder of Lucida, Wellbeing by Design, an interior design practice. "When we are mindful of what goes into our homes and how they're arranged, they will transform into powerful places that support healthy habits and increase joy. Being out in nature (and therefore bringing natural elements into your home) can help reduce stress and induce positive emotions, a 2010 study by the Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found."

Ready to get started? "Common houseplants, such as Peace Lilies, Areca Palms, Dwarf Date Palms, and Boston Ferns, have the ability to remove toxins from the air, according to the NASA Clean Air Study," Bouz says. If you don't exactly have a green thumb, use fabric and wallpaper with plant motifs that will at least instill the feeling of nature," she says. 

Also, keep your windows clean so that natural light can enter your home. In areas where you spend extended periods of time and natural light is not accessible, use daylight bulbs which mimic the sun's color temperature, she suggests.

And don't forget about sound. Noise machines that loop birds, water, and wind, also help bring the outdoors in.

Or, better yet...actually go outside.

"Have you ever noticed that your mood elevates when you spend time outside," asks registered dietitian and performance nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, RDN, LD, CD. "That’s because human skin is able to create serotonin, a feel-good neurohormone. Exposure to sunshine helps the brain to regulate sleep cycles. Sitting by a sunny window is nice, but for the full serotonergic benefits, you need to get some skin in the outdoor game.

Lincoln-Nichols also advocates for incorporating more vitamin D into your diet. Foods with vitamin D include a variety of fish, yogurt, eggs and (fortified) orange juice.

"Low levels of the 'sunshine vitamin' have been associated with feelings of depression and sadness," adds Lincoln-Nichols. "Make it a habit to regularly (and safely) soak up adequate amounts of sunlight, especially if you live in a temperate climate with long days and short nights. Just don't forget the SPF!

Have more chocolate to boost your levels of happiness.

When it comes to your emotions, trust your gut. According to research from the California Institute of Technology, about 90 percent of your serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found in the brain that scientists refer to as the 'happy chemical' because it contributes to well-being. 

"We are what we eat, and studies have shown that the connection between gut and brain greatly affect our mood," says Dixie Lincoln-Nichols, certified health and wellness coach and creator of Inside Outer Beauty Market. "Eat foods that increase happy feelings. Dark chocolate, for example, reduces the stress hormone cortisol. Protein-packed quinoa contains flavonoids, which are a group of plant chemicals found in fruits, veggies, grains, tea, and wine. Flavonoids have been said to have a calming effect."

Take a walk.

It's been proven that exercise can affect your mood. Sure, a sweat session at the gym can serve as a distraction from whatever problems you're facing. But you don't need an intense hour of spin class or running on the treadmill to reap the benefits either. 

A 2016 study conducted by psychologists at Iowa State University found that going for a 12-minute stroll, even without a walking partner or being outdoors, could improve your mood significantly. You can even exercise while cleaning or doing the laundry. Got a stack of heavy towels or pants? Use them as resistance during a set of lunges or squats, or you can lift your hamper above your head a few times to strengthen your arms and shoulders.

"We need our physical choices to help our emotional state," explains Fati Marie, personal growth and positive mindset coach at Four Moons Spa. "Moderate exercise allows the body to get into the balanced state that it needs to stabilize hormones and release endorphins."

Make a bucket list.

Giving yourself something to look forward to is yet another way of how you can become happier. In the 2007 Journal Of Experimental Psychology, researchers tested how people respond to future events versus reflecting back on them after they happen. 

Turns out, study participants' emotional reactions heightened when they thought about the occasion before it actually occurred. For example, the subjects got more excited about a ski trip in the future than they did about a getaway in the past. Whether it’s anticipating a new book or movie that's coming out, trying out a dish at a trendy restaurant, or planning a vacation, you'll feel happiest creating a list of things you want to see, do, or experience, rather than checking them off and remembering how fun they were.

Need a few ideas to get you started? Here we have a full list of simple activities that you can do alone (or with close friends).

Keep a gratitude journal.

While adopting an attitude of gratitude won't necessarily change your circumstances, it can shift your energy and alter your perspective. 

"Don’t just say you're thankful for a specific thing or person. Instead analyze how grateful you are," recommends Dr. Caroline Leaf, neuroscientist and author of Think, Learn, Succeed, who has also served as an advisor on a mental health initiative committee for the White House. "Keep a record of every time you're grateful, every time you're feeling down, and how your attitude affects your ability to think and act in a particular situation," she recommends. Also, try setting a daily phone alert to remind you to take a second to appreciate your life.

If you think about it, writing to expel negative thoughts is a concept as old as time. That's why we have so many great books in the world. To get you started on picking the perfect journal, we've got a suggested list of 20 notebooks where you're bound to find the one that's right for you.

Listen to music to drown out negative thoughts. 

Besides the fun you'll have dancing to upbeat tunes, there's actually science to back up the notion that uplifting songs can positively impact your brain.

"Music has been found to reduce pain, alleviate anxiety, increase immune functioning, and increase positive emotions," says Azizi Marshall, founder and CEO of the Center for Creative Arts Therapy, an arts-based psychotherapy practice and training center in Chicago. "Music has a direct link to your emotions, so when you're stressed out, sing along and feel the anxiety leave your body."


Pay it forward.

Being kind to others and giving back ignites the pleasure centers in the brain that are responsible for releasing endorphins. It's what is commonly referred to as "the helper's high," according to scientists of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I know life already feels too hectic, so the idea of adding more to your plate seems ridiculous," suggests mental health professional Kryss Shane, MS, LMSW. "However, sometimes doing for others can bring a sense of peace and a new perspective to your own life."

Shane suggests using something you're good at to help. If you love to bake, bring cookies to to a local hospital's staff. Or, if you adore shopping, find a charity that accepts toys, winter coats, or other items for people in your community who can't afford them. Perhaps you're great at giving advice. Contact your local high school and offer to mentor an academic or sports team. "By combining what you love to do and focusing on those in need, you get to see how your talents can bring happiness to others."

Spend less time on your phone.

Disconnecting from technology, social media, and work frees up time to engage in other hobbies and activities that bring you joy. But let's face it: If you have a job that requires you to check your email frequently, or you can't resist posting that adorable photo on Instagram, perhaps you can start with the small goal of not checking your phone 20 minutes before bed.

Researcher YoungAh Park, PhD of Kansas State University reports that people who unplug after work hours solve problems in a more proactive manner and are more engaged at work.

"One cause of stress and burnout can be the lack of an end to our workday," says certified life coach and public health professional Nancie Vito, CHES. "It isn't very relaxing to constantly check email or respond to texts, etc. We need time to replenish and recharge our batteries." 

Flipd, the free Android and iOS app, allows you to lock time-consuming apps and games for a set of period of time, helping you to create a distraction-free zone without thinking about it. If you have an iPhone, take advantage of the settings available with the new 12.1 operating system. Think of the "Downtime" function as giving your screen a nap. When you select this, only the apps and phone calls you select will get through so you won't miss a call from the babysitter, but you can ignore, well, everyone else. Or, try "App Limits," which lets you schedule daily times to use certain apps. For example, if you're at work, you can obstruct Facebook, or when you're at home, you can block the workplace chat app, Slack.

Fake it 'til you make it.

There's a reason why Dick Van Dyke encouraged fans to "put on a happy face" in the 1963 musical film, Bye Bye Birdie. It actually works. Smiling, particularly when you don't feel like it, can impact how you feel and reduce stress. However, in spite of the benefits, you shouldn't feel pressured to do so. There's nothing more annoying (and, frankly, sexist) than walking down the street and having a stranger tell you to smile.

An amusing study by the University of Cardiff in Wales found that people who could not frown due to botox injections were happier on average than those who could frown. Similarly, research from the University of Kansas showed that smiling helps reduce the body’s response to stress and lower heart rate in tense situations.

Read a book or watch TV.

As if you needed another excuse to bury your nose in a good book. 

In a study by Mindlab International at the University of Sussex, researchers concluded that reading for six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 68 percent. A 2015 study found that those who read for 30 minutes a week are 20 percent more likely to be satisfied in their life than non-readers, and 21 percent less likely to experience feelings of depression. 

And binge-watchers, those marathon TV sessions on the couch could actually pay off in the long run, at least where your emotional well-being is concerned. According to a 2013 Netflix survey, 73 percent of participants reported feeling positive after streaming their favorite feel-good shows, and 76 percent of adults said that watching multiple episodes was "a welcome refuge from their busy lives." So, go ahead, have a guilt-free streaming sess.

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Last modified on Saturday, 31 October 2020 10:21

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