The pursuit of happiness is a core part of life. It’s what humans have chased for thousands of years, attempting to find it through relationships, experiences, and even material goods. But despite how much you try to have a positive outlook, you might find yourself in a rut at some point. Work feels like an uphill battle, you struggle to connect with your partner and friends, and the activities you once loved just don’t bring joy anymore. It’s like you’re waking up on the wrong side of the bed every day. What gives?
“Depression is like glasses you wear on your brain,” says Acacia Parks, PhD, chief scientist at Happify—a company that aims to make positive psychology both accessible and interactive. “You see whatever is happening to you through a filter that makes everything look bad.”
Stanford University’s Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology Laboratory provides a straightforward resource on depression that distinguishes various clinically diagnosed forms of depression from the feelings of sadness we commonly refer to as “depression,” which is an important differentiation to keep in mind when considering happiness and mental health.
Everyone feels down at times, and while some depressive symptoms point to a need for clinical intervention, Parks, who has spent years researching the psychology of happiness, says that feeling amazing all the time just isn’t realistic. Negative and positive emotions each play an important role in being human. The good news is that there are scientifically supported techniques that can help you figure out how to be happy.
Here are some ways you can shift to a more cheerful, healthful, and sustainable mindset:
Let the facts reveal the truth.
Depression can trigger deep feelings of loneliness. It can be so overwhelming that you end up feeling isolated from your closest companions, even when they try to help. But it’s important to remember that you are not alone: One in every six adults will experience depression at least once in their life according to the Centers for Disease Control. Women especially need to focus on how to be happy, as they tend to suffer from higher rates of depression than men. In fact, overall, only 33 percent of Americans say they are very happy and the fact is that everyone experiences unhappiness sometimes.
“You might look at your circumstances and feel you have no one to connect with,” says Parks. “But once you overcome that, you can look at the exact same circumstances with a different filter.”
One way to rekindle social connections and experience a surge of happiness is by writing a gratitude letter, says Parks. Think about a person you feel grateful for, such as a friend or relative. Then, write a letter describing why you’re glad they’re part of your life. Use specific examples of their behavior and how it has enriched your life.
“You can stop there,” says Parks. “But if you want the full effect, read your letter to the person.”
It’s an intense experience, but you’ll feel better immediately. It’s also a powerful reminder that you’re not alone.
“You’ll become closer to them. The gratitude letter will help you build more social resources if you don’t have a lot of positive emotions,” she says.
Be your own mirror.
It’s all too easy to blame your lack of happiness on a set of circumstances. Maybe you missed out on a big promotion at work or you were ghosted by someone you really liked on a dating app. Those situations, of course, will make you feel sad, but they don’t necessarily cause depression.
Parks suggests that a shift in perspective may be an essential part of making space in your life for happiness. For example, don’t think of a setback in your career as a sign that you’re not good at your job or a valuable contributor to society—try to see it as a challenge that you can overcome, and look for areas of improvement. Consider taking a class to improve your skills, finding a mentor, or volunteering in your field to build your experience and confidence.
Baby steps will help you not only feel better on a day-to-day basis, but also support your success in the long run.
“Certain people take problem-solving approaches and look at situations as threats, whereas others see them as challenges,” says Parks.
Take a look at what’s within your control—then take action.
Observe the art of the ritual.
Humans tend to focus on the negative rather than the positive. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s actually a good thing for our species.
“Generations ago, all the people who didn’t pay attention to negative things got eaten by tigers. But the memories of bad things can drown out the memories of good things, and that’s really bad for us if we let it happen,” says Parks. “The biggest thing about how to be happy is looking at where you direct your attention.”
No matter how bad your day goes, something good probably happened (whether or not you acknowledged it). So how do you zoom in on it? Parks recommends a nightly ritual where you jot down three positive things from your day.
“It sounds easy, but it can be a challenge when you start out. It eventually gets easier because you’ll get better at noticing things as they happen during the day, and you think to yourself, ‘I need to remember to write this down later.’ Before you know it, you achieve a better balance of positivity and negativity,” says Parks.
Rituals like this will play a big role in your journey toward experiencing more happiness and appreciation. They give you something to rely on for comfort, no matter how your day goes.
“Make sure when something good happens, it gets the attention it deserves,” she says.
Fuel your well-being.
When you’re feeling unhappy, the last thing you feel like doing getting off the couch and hitting the gym. However, a recent study of more than 10,000 people revealed that those who moved around frequently throughout the day—even if they didn’t engage in any rigorous exercise—experienced higher levels of happiness. Even a brief walk or stretch can help get mood-boosting endorphins pumping through your body.
Physical activity isn’t the only fuel our bodies need to be happy, though. Our diet impacts how we feel from head to toe. A recent study found that people who switched to a modified Mediterranean diet (which focuses on eating lots of whole grains, fresh produce, and lean proteins while reducing consumption of sweets and processed food) experienced significant improvements in their moods. So put down the Ben & Jerry’s and dig into a colorful, intentionally prepared plate or bowl of fresh, well-balanced food instead.
Another important element of how finding and maintaining happiness is not overindulging when it comes to treating yourself. Shopping sprees, binge-watching TV, and eating a box of cookies might feel okay in the moment, but the positivity is fast fleeting, and you won’t find the satisfaction you’re really looking for. Instead, try to nourish your soul by doing something more meaningful.
“Research finds that we want to do nice things for ourselves when we’re down, but if you actually do nice things for other people, you’ll feel way better,” says Parks. “Doing nice things for other people—community service and volunteering—reliably lead[s] to people feeling better.”
Even something that seems small, like helping someone load their groceries into their car or giving your spare change to someone in need, can amp up your happiness.
Know what to savor.
Maximizing your happiness isn’t always about hitting major life milestones (although that certainly doesn’t hurt!). Bliss can be experienced in some of life’s smallest moments, like getting a whiff of your favorite perfume, feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, snuggling with your pet, hearing your favorite song on the radio, or listening to children laugh at the playground on your way home from work. But how can you relish in the seemingly mundane occurrences of your daily routine?
“Savoring techniques will help you get the most of everything, from your meals to your walk from the car to the office. There are so many things out there that you can stop and deliberately savor,” says Parks.
Savoring involves intentionally appreciating the sensory details of an everyday experience. Take your morning coffee for example. You could just dump it in your travel mug and guzzle it down on your commute. But instead, try savoring it. Breathe in the nutty aroma as it brews. Pour the coffee into your favorite mug and feel it gently warm up your hands as you bring it to the table. Personalize it with perfect amount of cream and sugar. Then, take a sip and try to taste all the subtle flavors of the brew.
“Exercises like this will give bursts of happiness often enough to get you moving from negative thoughts on to something better,” says Parks.
Getting in the habit of finding authentic satisfaction throughout your day will help you learn how to be more satisfied with life in general. You won’t have to wait for something big to happen to feel joy.
“People who do this can learn how to experience gratitude, even when bad things are happening. Those moments are the building blocks of resilience to stress,” says Parks.
How many hours a day do you spend mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, and other social media? It might seem harmless in the moment, but it could actually be impacting your overall happiness. It’s hard to feel content with your own life when you’re constantly barraged with posts of your friends’ romantic weddings, tropical vacations, graduations, career advancements, and happy families.
“People who are happy are not looking at other people and comparing themselves. But social media can foster social comparisons whether you mean to or not, and it’s antithetical to happiness,” says Parks.
Keep in mind that social media is a highlight reel—everyone is sharing the most picture-worthy moments of their lives, not their typical experiences. If social media is causing you to experience feelings of missing out, limit the amount of time you spend on those platforms. Chatting with your friends through email, text, phone or (better yet) in-person get-togethers gives everyone the opportunity to be more honest about their lives.
“Emails from friends are more nuanced. They’re more likely to talk about their problems, as well when they’re doing awesome,” says Parks.
Mindfulness meditation is another way to tune into yourself and discover what really matters. It helps alleviate feelings of anxiety by allowing you to acknowledge perceived threats (like the fear of always being unhappy) and put them into a more healthy perspective.
“Trying to change how you feel is like psychological quicksand. If you flail around, you will sink. But mindfulness meditation is a way to receive the message of what’s making you anxious and let your body know you’re handling it,” says Parks.
Interested in trying it? Consider signing up for a mindfulness-based stressed reduction program or exploring the mindfulness and meditation apps your phone puts at your fingertips. The exploration of possibilities can be exciting, while a continued practice will calm your mood and improve your outlook over time.
The Journey to Bliss
Believing you can’t be happy until everything, from your career to your love life, falls into place is a myth. The reality is that a happy life is not built on circumstances—it’s achieved through healthy habits, appreciation of meaningful moments, and seeing life through a generally positive lens, even when things aren’t going according to plan.
“You need positive and negative emotions to deal with everything in life. It’s not about getting rid of the negative emotions, but remembering the good things that happen. If you can then look at them side by side, the bad things have less power over your life,” says Parks.
Experiment with a variety of techniques to see what works for you. Meditation might not be your cup of tea, but creating a gratitude journal might be really effective for you. Regardless of which particular practices capture your attention and loyalty, make a few mindfulness exercises (from savoring a beautifully made salad to jotting a note of gratitude on a Post-it) part of your everyday life.
“Happiness involves sprinkling positivity throughout your day, allowing you to feel more expansive, connect with others, and plan for the future,” says Parks.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how to be happy. But by engaging in self reflection, setting realistic expectations for your emotions, experiencing meaningful engagement with others, and treating your mind and body with care, you will get out of your own way and let genuine happiness enrich your entire life.