You can be sure that some activities, done regularly, will make you feel happy.
#1 Be grateful – The powerful antidote to negativity about bad life experiences is an “attitude of gratitude” about good experiences. Research indicates that people who appreciate things feel a strong sense of satisfaction, and are more optimistic. As such, they are much happier.
TO DO – Power up your sense of gratitude, start a weekly “gratitude journal” in which you write about things that make you feel grateful.
#2 Stay optimistic – If you are pessimistic, feeling happy is almost impossible. Everything gets filtered through a dark, negative attitude, and is colored accordingly. Instead, be optimistic about life. Work to enhance your coping skills, so you feel energized and more goal-oriented.
TO DO – Be more optimistic, write down how you see your life going if things go right. This visualization exercise will help activate your “optimistic muscles.”
#3 Don’t overthink – When you worry constantly about problems (“self-focused rumination”), like a dog gnawing at a bone, you will naturally feel bad, sad and depressed. This rut is remarkably self-defeating. So is routinely comparing yourself negatively to others.
TO DO – Break this harmful bad habit, don’t indulge in it. Switch your focus to something enjoyable instead, like exercise or a movie.
#4 Be kind – The ultimate happiness secret is being kind. When you go out of your way to be kind, you will feel good about yourself and eliminate negative feelings including guilt and emotional distress. When you are kind, you immediately turbo charge a positive attitude.
TO DO – Exercise kindness by engaging in volunteer activities – you couldn’t possibly spend your time in a more rewarding way.
#5 Become social – The overarching message of Barbra Streisand’s song, “People Who Need People,” is that such people “are the luckiest people in the world.” Psychologists agree that the need for social inclusion is one of every humans’ strongest motivational forces.
TO DO – Be social to be happy, so make time for others.
#6 Learn to cope – Stress is universal and may be brought on by a wide variety of problems. You can’t become happy if you don’t know how to cope with stress. Address your problems by focusing on finding solutions. Take things step by step.
TO DO – Develop a strategy and an action plan. Seek advice. If the stress is emotional, not situational, do something that makes you feel good. Go on a hike. Listen to soothing music. Visit a friend. Writing about stress can help alleviate it.
#7 Forgive others – Often, old bromides contain the most truth and, thereby, remain timely. “Forgive and forget” is one such maxim. Psychologists confirm that people who hold on to anger, resentment and hostility hurt themselves both emotionally and physically. Of course, forgiving someone who has done you wrong is not easy.
TO DO – One way to try is to write a forgiveness letter to that individual. Include details about how the person wronged you. Then forgive him or her in writing. You don’t have to send the letter. Getting the hurtful emotions out is what counts. When you do that, you free yourself of them.
#8 Seize the moment – Do you live in the future, planning how wonderful things will be when you become rich, lose weight, marry your true love or get a better job? Or do you live in the past, regretting actions that you took or didn’t take. Why not live in the all-important present? Think about it: The present really is all you have.
TO DO – Be in the present is to focus on your current activities. As psychologist William James wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” Pay attention to your life. Make each moment in your life meaningful. Don’t waste a minute.
#9 Be joyful – Do you savor your life and enjoy each minute? If not, why not? With the right attitude, even the mundane can be exquisite. Eating breakfast can be a blissful experience if you make it so. So can getting into bed and falling asleep.
TO DO – Use your imagination to enrich your life. Recall wonderful experiences from the past. Make them real again in your mind. Research indicates that nearly one in three individuals gains valuable perspective on current challenges after engaging in “positive reminiscence.”
#10 Become goal-oriented – People who strongly commit to goals commit to life. Of course, their goals need to be sensible, achievable and truly fulfilling. Are yours? Many people set the goal of becoming rich or improving their physical appearance. But research indicates that being wealthy or beautiful does not guarantee happiness. Indeed, such “extrinsic goals” can get in the way of the more important “intrinsic goals” that can truly make you happy. These differ from individual to individual. For one person, it is learning to cook. For another, it is swimming every morning before breakfast.
TO DO – Life without goals is empty. Commit wholeheartedly to yours.
#11 Become spiritual – Research indicates that religious people are much happier than nonreligious people. They are also in better health, cope more effectively with disease and deal better with trauma than people who are not religious.
TO DO – Being spiritual – the “search for the sacred” – helps people achieve inner serenity and peace. Religion and spirituality can give meaning to your life.
#12 Stay physically and mentally fit – If you don’t meditate, you should. Meditation represents the “cultivation of attention.” A period of meditation is a patient, nonstriving time when you let things go, detach from standard thinking and stop making your customary judgments about everything.
TO DO – Do you exercise? Exercise is one of the best ways to immediately feel good about yourself. Do you act like a happy person? Believe it or not, you can fool yourself into feeling happy when you smile and laugh. It’s hard to be sad when you’re smiling.
Psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize.
SONJA LYUBOMIRSKY is professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She received her B.A. from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford University. Lyubomirsky and her research have been the recipients of many honors, including the 2002 Templeton Positive Psychology Prize and a multiyear grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. She lives in Santa Monica, California, with her family. Her next book, The Myths of Happiness, will be published by The Penguin Press in January 2013.