Last updated November 12, 2018.
Ah happiness, that elusive state of being that everyone wants. It can’t be bought or sold. So how do you find it?
Poets and philosophers have pondered this question for ages. And as writer Eric Weiner explores in The Geography of Bliss, people travel to the ends of the earth to find the secret to happiness, while many natives of Iceland and Bhutan seem to have perfected the art of contentment.
More and more, scientific studies are showing that happiness is a choice. Each of us holds the key to our own personal version of contentment – like Jill Scott sings in One is the Magic Number.
When I lived in San Diego, these cool photographers I knew would have an 11/11 party every year. They thought it made a perfect day to focus on yourself, and making the things you want happen in your life.
Some people believe all those ones add up to a positive message from the Universe. But even if you’re not into new-agey stuff or numerology, it’s a great day to remember each of us has a lot of power over how happy and fulfilled we feel.
Here are 11 easy ways to get closer to your happy place:
1. Interact with five or more people daily.
There’s a lot of research if you can connect to five or more people in a day you actually are happier, says naturopath April Blake, based in Marin. It turns out people who work at home alone with no company besides their laptop tend to be more depressed than the rest of us. Force yourself to go out for lunch, join a professional group or a play group if you’re home with kids.
That old saw about laughter being the best medicine? It’s turning out to be true. Laughter increases production of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Laughter also brings more oxygen to your cells and it boosts your immune system, says Blake. Watch a funny movie, or try laughter yoga. Yogis lead as you sit in a chair and do silly movements with your arms and legs and laugh. Your body doesn’t know the difference, and pretty soon you’re laughing for real.
3. Write down 11 things you’re really thankful for in your life.
Got your list? Now take a few minutes to appreciate them, suggests Erica Matluck, a naturopath and nurse practitioner with One Medical in San Francisco. “Everyone in our culture is so focused on everything that’s wrong and there’s not enough attention to the things that are going well,” says Matluck.
4. Go for a walk.
Exercise, whether it’s just walking, running or weight lifting, is a quick way to lift your mood. In fact, a study from the University of Bristol found that exercise improves your well-being and the way you see yourself. It’s so effective that it can be an effective treatment for anxiety and clinical depression.
5. Don’t be so picky.
Or as Malcolm Thaler, an MD in New York put it, studies show that “lowering your expectations is a key to happiness.” Being happy depends on not how things are going, but how what’s happening measures up to your expectations, according to an MRI study by the University College of London.
6. Spend some time outdoors.
“Every time you go outside and look at trees or sky it’s like ‘oh yeah, I’m supposed to be living in the relaxed state,'” says Blake. A 2014 study by the American Chemical Society found that living near green space can make people feel happier for years. To test the theory, they compared the mental health of people who moved from a gray urban area to a greener one, with people who made the opposite move. The people who relocated to the greener area were happier for a full three years after the move.
7. Add some play to your day.
“Play like a kid as often as you can, says Julia West, an RN who offers an online anxiety management program. “It could be playing games, indoors or out, crafts, athletics, or any pastime that strikes your fancy. Find something that’s totally engrossing, in-the-moment and outcome irrelevant.”
8. Narrow your choices.
“The more options there are, the easier it is to regret,” says Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College professor and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. His theory is that the vast number of choices in everything – shoes, restaurants, online mates — that people in the west have makes us less happy. Studies have found it leads to depression and loneliness. Numerous studies back up his theory, including one of people offered chocolates. The subjects were more satisfied when they had fewer kinds of chocolate they had to choose from. Schwartz suggests deciding on on your goal, consider your different options. Pick the option that best fulfills your goal and don’t worry about the others. Less really is more.
9. Listen to music you love.
When we listen to music we like, our brains release dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel good. Favorite songs caused chills of pleasure, and increases in heart rate, breathing and body temperature, researchers at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute reported. In fact, we don’t even have to hear the song; just thinking about the sounds of Happy by Pharrell or Florence + the Machine’s Dog Days Are Over can make the brain release dopamine. Try it!
10. Do something nice for someone else.
Numerous studies have found that treating someone, volunteering or spending money on others makes people feel happy. That’s probably what explains random acts of kindness like shoveling snow for a neighbor, giving someone else the open seat on the train or holding a door open for a stranger. We feel good when we help someone else. Whether it’s buying coffee or paying a toll for someone in line behind you, why not pay it forward?
11. Just smile.
Growing up, one of my dad’s favorite sayings was, “Smile; it increases your face value.” Apparently, he was right. More than one study has found that when you smile, it reduces stress and elevates your mood, whether you’re happy or just going through the motions. Any smile made people feel better, even when University of Kansas researchers Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman had subjects prop up the corners of their mouths with chopsticks! But the 2012 Grin and Bear It study found the biggest mood lift came from a genuine smile, aka smize that includes the muscles around the eyes.
What makes you feel happier? Tell us in the comments.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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