Happiness is something that we all strive for, yet many of us find it challenging to grasp and even harder to maintain. Especially during these difficult economic times, happiness can feel like it is hiding just behind next week’s paycheck, a new job, or a distant raise. However, as Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard University recently pointed out, “money alone can buy you happiness, but not much.”(1) It appears that happiness has less to do with money than we might imagine, and more to do with the people around us, how we live our lives, the way spend our time, and how we perceive ourselves and understand our life experiences.
Based on the latest research in psychology and my experience as both a psychologist trying to understand happiness, and as a human being searching for my own happiness, here are 11 ways to live a happier life…that have nothing to do with money!
1) Practice Gratitude
No matter where they are or what they are doing, happy people recognize that they always have something to be grateful for. Research in the field of Positive Psychology has shown that people who practice gratitude are happier, less stressed and less depressed!(2) Happy people can easily find gratitude in the world around them, whether they are looking at the cracks in the pavement in the concrete jungle or the sun setting over the ocean. It is possible to find gratitude even in smallest of things, like a delicious meal, a good book, a challenging yoga class, or a smile from a stranger on the street.
Each of us has a choice on how we focus our attention. Choosing to focus on gratitude for the beauty and uniqueness of life instead the stressors and problems will make you feel happier and more relaxed.
2) Find a place of Flow
In Positive Psychology, the concept of “Flow” is defined as the “complete immersion in activity for it’s own sake.”(3) When we are in flow, such as when we are running a race, writing a song, or reading a great book, our self-awareness dissipates, time seems to stop, and we become focused, peaceful, and attentive to the task at hand. People who frequently experience flow tend to be happy, productive, creative and focused.
You can reach a state of flow by putting special attention to tasks that you find intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable. In other words, carve out some time to do what you LOVE! For more information about how to find your flow, explore Dr. Mikhal Csíkszentmihályi’s book, Finding Flow.(4)
3) Smile More
If you are feeling down or having a rough day, it is possible to cheer yourself up by simply thinking of a person, place or situation that makes you smile! Indeed, research in psychology has shown that the physical act of smiling will make you feel happier, even if you are just flexing the muscles of your mouth and not intentionally smiling!(5)
While scientists are not yet completely certain why the simple of act of smiling makes you feel happy, it has been suggested that smiling contracts the facial muscles, leading to more blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobes, which in turn triggers release of dopamine, one of the pleasure chemicals in the brain.(6) So bust out the comedies and get your giggle on (or maybe let someone tickle you a little bit)!
4) Embrace Your Mistakes
We are all perfectly imperfect in this human form, and it is only natural that we make mistakes (sometimes very often!) Living in denial about your mistakes or getting wrapped up in your ego will only you make you miserable and block you from learning valuable lessons that will help you grow and improve.
By embracing your mistakes, you will be able to forgive yourself, and the bonus is that other people might actually like you more! According to Dr. Eliot Aronson’s “Pratfall effect” in Social Psychology, making mistakes makes competent people seem more attractive, and more human to others.(7) Happy people seem to intuitively know this, embracing mistakes as learning experiences and not judging themselves too harshly.
5) Maintain an Optimistic Attitude
Happy people tend to respond to negative events in a more optimistic manner than unhappy people. Positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman defines optimism as “reacting to problems with confidence and high personal ability,” specifically, recognizing that negative events are temporary and limited in scope.(2) Research has linked optimism with a plethora of positive outcomes including longevity, recovery from illness, overall physical health, enhanced coping skills and problem solving in difficult situations.
Overall, optimism is a central component of staying happy and healthy, so when in doubt, look on the bright side.
6) Surround yourself with Supportive People
Even though this life can sometimes feel like an individual journey, we need other people around us in order to feel happy. In fact, recent research has indicated that social relationships are the strongest predictors of happiness, much stronger than income or wealth.(1) For example, according to Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking study, making a good friend causes an increase of happiness equal to tripling ones salary, belonging to a social club is equivalent to doubling one’s salary, and so on.
The take home message here is that social support is a huge indicator of happiness and wellbeing. People with perceived positive social relationships even live longer!8 So be social, surround yourself with people who make you feel good, and release those who make you feel bad.
7) Learn when to say “No”
As psychologist Dr. Thema Davis so beautifully puts it, “saying yes to happiness means learning to say no to things and people that stress you out.”(9) Happy people know that they must say NO to people, ideas, and behaviors that do not serve their highest good. Saying yes to everyone and everything can lead you to feel overwhelmed, increase your stress, and leave you less time and resources to take care of yourself! This is especially true when you agree to do things that do not resonate with you, or allow yourself to be pressured into situations you are uncomfortable with.
The stress that results from feeling overwhelmed can severely dampen one’s happiness and wellbeing. Before you commit to anything or anyone, ask yourself, does this serve my highest good? If the answers is no, then learn to say NO.
8) Unplug & Spend More time in Nature
Although it may feel natural after a lifetime of conditioning, human beings were not designed to spend our day hunched over a desk with electronics plugged into our ears and eyes. No, we are meant to be spending time outside, away from the buzz of technology, the radiation from cell-phones and the blaring of screens. Happy people understand that it is their human birthright to give themselves quiet time to reflect and find serenity. According to the July 2010 Harvard Health Letter, time outdoors in nature has been linked to happiness because light elevates people’s moods, as does vitamin D, a byproduct of spending time outside.(10)
If you really want to maximize the benefits of outdoor time, spend time in green nature – even five minutes of “green exercise” can lead to improvements in mood and self-esteem, according to researchers at the University of Essex.(10) Even better, combine your outside time with meditation, yoga, or other therapeutic movement arts. There is a plethora of research demonstrating that all of these will further enhance your mood and overall well being.
9) Practice Forgiveness
This one can be challenging for the many of us who have been wronged and/or who have experienced traumas perpetrated by other people in our lives. But as my life partner, sound healer Jimmy Ohm always says, “forgiveness does not mean that what happened was ok, it just means you no longer want to carry the pain.”(11) When we hold on to anger, resentment and fear towards people, they are actually occupying a space inside of us, blocking us from feeling truly happy and fulfilled.
Dr. Fred Luskin of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project has found that forgiveness is a huge predictor of happiness and wellbeing, explaining how “forgiveness is the experience of peacefulness in the present moment.”(12) For more on his research, visit his website, Forgive For Good.(13)
10) Try New Things
Happy people are not afraid to push their boundaries and try new things. Research by psychologist Dr. Rich Walker has shown that people who engage in a variety of experiences are more likely to retain positive emotions than people who have fewer experiences.(14) Sure it might seem scary at first, but what’s the worst that could happen? By going beyond your comfort zone, you might actually surprise yourself and exceed your own expectations for what you are capable of accomplishing. And hey if it doesn’t go as planned, at least you still tried, didn’t you?
As Dr. Alex Lickerman M.D. writes in Happiness in this World, trying something new requires courage, it opens up the possibility for you to enjoy something new, it keeps you from becoming bored, and perhaps most importantly, it forces you to grow.(15) So what have you always wanted to try but you didn’t think you had the guts? What are you waiting for?
11) Look in the mirror every morning and say “I Love you!”
For many of us, self-love is the greatest challenge and blockage to happiness. Years of being told by family, educators and especially the media that we are not good enough, not successful enough, not attractive enough, not capable enough and so on has left many of us feeling beaten down and unworthy. The truth is that no matter who you are and what has happened in your life, YOU ARE WORTHY OF LOVE! Say it out loud to yourself until you believe it.
Psychologists have long known that self-esteem is intrinsically connected to happiness, but how does one build self-esteem? I believe we build self-esteem through practicing self-love and self-acceptance. One of the simplest things you can do is to look in the mirror every morning and say, “I love you!” For some, this may come easy, and for others, it may be extremely challenging. I know that at first I tried and tried to do this and I would break down in tears because I felt so unworthy. Eventually through practicing daily mantras of self-love and self-acceptance, I was able to learn to love myself. And while the path to unconditional self-love is a life-long journey and not a destination, today I feel happier than I have ever felt. I hope that these happiness tips will help guide you on your journey as much as they have helped me on mine.
1. Miller, J. (July 23rd, 2013). Putnam: Strongest Predictors of Happiness are Social Relationships. The Chatauquan Daily. Retrieved July 9th, 2014 from: chqdaily.com
2. The Pursuit of Happiness. Mindfulness and Positive Thinking: Optimism and Gratitude. Retrieved July 10th, 2014 from: www.pursuit-of-happiness.org
3. Cherry, K. (Date Unknown). What is flow? Understanding the Psychology of Flow. About.Com Psychology. Retrived July 10th, 2014 from: psychology.about.com
4. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.
5. Korb, A. (July 31st, 2012). Smile: A Powerful Tool. Psychology Today. Retrieved July 11th, 2014 from: www.psychologytoday.com
6. Wenk, G. (December 27th, 2011). Addicted to Smiling: Can the Simple Act of Smiling Bring Pleasure? Psychology Today. Retrieved July 10th, 2014 from: www.psychologytoday.com
7. Manage Train Learn. Likeability: The Pratfall Effect. Retrieved July 11th, 2014 from: www.managetrainlearn.comt
8. Public Relations Bureau (June, 2009). Social Support, Networks and Happiness. Retrieved July 11th, 2014 from:www.prb.org
9. Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis. www.DrThema.Com
10. Harvard University Health Letter. (July 2010). A Prescription for Better Health: Go Alfresco. Retrieved July 10th, 2014 from: www.health.harvard.edu
11. Jimmy Ohm MccLain. www.facebook.com/jameslmcclain
12. Taran, R. (March 7th, 2012). Forgiveness: Making Space for More Happiness. Huffington Post Healthy Living. Retrieved July 12th, 2014, from: www.huffingtonpost.com
13. Forgive for Good. www.LearningToForgive.com
14. Time Magazine. Health and Happiness: Try New Things. Retrieved July 12th, 2014 from: content.time.com
15. Lickerman, A. (April 1st, 2010). Happiness in this world: Trying new things. Psychology Today, retrieved July 12th, 2014 from: www.psychologytoday.com