Happiness can be elusive. Especially when you are feeling down and wonder what possibly are the goals, habits, and things that make you happier in life.
And happiness can mean different things to different people. At the same time, we arguably all want to be happy.
But research suggests that pursuing happiness as a life goal paradoxically may make us unhappy. Because when we focus too much on happiness, we often feel that we do not have enough time in a day to achieve it. Put differently, happiness as a goal can be overwhelming, and it is not apparent how to get there.
On a physiological level, happiness is the right body chemistry that produces a pleasant sensation in the mind. Modern happiness research backs this view. A thorough and entertaining introduction to how your body chemistry affects your state of mind is the acclaimed ‘Meet Your Happy Chemicals’ by Loretta Graziano Breuning.
So, instead of aiming at the lofty goal of happiness, how about then to focus on activities that support the happy chemicals in your body?
Look at Happiness as a Neurological State
While talking about body chemistry might sound too simplistic or even inadequate, it most certainly is practical.
It is practical because there are activities proven to trigger the hormones dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin in your body.
These four hormones make you happy, and so the task is to optimize their levels in your body.
I was reluctant to look at myself as a biological machine that I can condition through hormones that will put my mind in a positive state.
What about the deeper meaning of life? Fulfilling your purpose? Or make your contribution to humanity?
All of these questions are relevant, and if you choose so, life-defining. But first, you have to take care of yourself and get your life in order.
And that means that you are a positive, happy, and financially independent person that is not a burden to others and the world.
And as it turns out, the most effective way to put yourself into a positive frame is to program your biology with things that will make you happier.
Life may not always be sunshine and roses. Yet, the only reasonable goal in life to spend as much time as possible in a good mood. And this is not only your right. It also, in fact, is your duty to be a positive addition to humanity, hopefully.
Chunk Happiness into Daily Goals, Habits, and Things that Will Make You Happier
Rather than focussing on happiness as a goal, systematically pursue the things that will make you happier. Best, implement habits to do these things daily.
You can then stop fretting about becoming happy at all costs and enjoy a more positive mood as the happy chemicals run their course.
You can start anywhere from the below list of things that make you happier.
The order I have chosen here suggests a personal transformation sequence where one step builds upon the other. But this is certainly not the only sequence that would work.
Practice Positive Imagination and Control Your Attitude
If you are not happy with your life today, you will need to allow yourself to be happy in the future.
You need to be able to imagine a positive future and act toward it. Excessive pessimism is a failure of positive imagination and an act of self-sabotage.
Merely visualizing a better future alters your brain chemistry and makes you happier today. And then you have to, of course, also act on your positive imagination by controlling your attitude that you can make positive changes.
Becoming happy is a lot about not resisting and not standing in your way by being open to positive change.
Inspirational writer William Arthur Ward said that ‘happiness is an inside job.’ Indeed, it is this melange of perception, imagination, and attitude that he had in mind.
And the key to positive imagination is to build a bridge from your current reality to a more desired state. Rather than fact determining your vision, it is the power of your positive imagination that drives reality and happiness.
The positive attitude that imagination can determine your reality was best expressed by the Buddha, who said, ‘There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way’.
Meanwhile, common thinking tells us that success precedes happiness. In reality, it is the other way round.
Our attitude affects everything in our quest for success. And with a healthy dose of happiness, success becomes much more attainable.
Understanding the connection between positive imagination and happiness does not automatically mean that we can always act according to this knowledge.
But gladly, there is a way to short-circuit the potential manipulations of our minds.
And this way involves how we can use the interface of our body to affect our mind.
Practice Gratitude to Level up Your Mood
When you get out of bed in the morning, what thoughts do you have? Another tedious day at the job you dread? Do you have an ‘I hate Mondays T-Shirt’?
Better try to channel excitement and gratitude for the day ahead. Make this a morning ritual and write it down. About what and to whom am I grateful today?
Studies have shown that such a gratitude journal reduces depression and increases happiness.
Expressing thankfulness for the good things in your life develops a gratitude attitude that steadily elevates your mood. And when you are in a more positive mindset, you will achieve more with ease.
Also, when out of gratitude for your own life, you commit small acts of kindness to other people, this can further fuel your happiness.
Gratitude is a muscle that requires practice, so mentally run through the things you are grateful for often. We live in a society that compares upwards, which can produce feelings of discontent and inferiority. Comparing yourself to those who have less and feeling grateful for what you have is an excellent antidote to toxic envy.
And perhaps you want to take it even a step further and feel gratitude for something you haven’t achieved yet. Now, that is a high form of positive imagination.
Fake a Smile to Produce Real Happiness
Psychologist and best-selling author Richard Wiseman’s fascinating book ‘The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life’ begins with a William James quote: ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.’
So, the central tenet of the ‘As if Principle’ is that if we convincingly act with the perception and conviction that something is real, it will become a reality.
And for smiling, the simple act of forcing a grin onto your face may release the feel-good chemistry in your brain that will change a bad mood towards a feeling of happiness.
Take the benefits of laughter to a social format, and you have laughter yoga. Look if your community offers laughter yoga and experience first-hand that laughter is the best medicine. Following the principle, ‘fake-it-until-you-make-it,’ greet fellow participants with a forced belly-belching laughter until it becomes real.
And yes, a twenty-minute session of hearty laughter will leave you in high spirits due to a rush in happy chemicals. The hormones epinephrine and dopamine will lower your stress and make you feel more comfortable. At the same time, endorphins, aka the body’s natural pain killers, will relieve chronic pains. Your immune system also receives a boost, your abs get a workout, and your heart and lungs gain strength.
Health experts call laughter internal jogging.
And once you had a good laugh, the next activity comes much easier and more natural.
Take Charge of Your Health by Exercising Regularly
There is an activity that can half your risk of major illnesses, such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. It also reduces your risk of early death by up to 30%.
This activity is free. Any ever so small dose of it is better than none. You can adapt it to any environment and preference in style. And it has an immediate effect. Yes, duh, exercise.
Exercise provides you with a host of positive effects on the body and mind you’d be foolish to pass on as part of your routine.
Moving your body gives your mood a boost, enhances your confidence, and keeps you healthy. Regular exercise elevates your entire game.
In ‘The Story of the Human Body – Evolution, Health, and Disease.’ Harvard Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, Daniel Lieberman discusses what he calls mismatch diseases.
These are lifestyle diseases rampant in today’s modern societies like obesity, diabetes type 2, and cardiovascular diseases due to a lack of movement and an inadequate diet.
And the mismatch is between what our prehistoric bodies evolved for and our modern sedentary lifestyle.
Regularly working out will make taking care of the next activity easier because the right fuel’s vital role becomes more apparent: eating well.
Yummy, Eating Well is one of the Things that Will Make You Happier
Your body and mind need wholesome food to stay in good shape.
Eating is a profoundly cultural, aesthetic, and outrageously pleasant activity, and savoring a good meal can bring tremendous joy.
Unfortunately, healthy eating often gets brushed aside in a hectic lifestyle, and the focus is on nutrition rather than good, wholesome food.
There are many different diets around, and there always seems to be the latest nutrition innovation around the corner that will change everything.
Yet, there is no need to get anxious about the latest trends; instead, keep things simple and enjoy your food.
Best-selling author Michael Pollan describes in ‘In Defense of Food – An Eater’s Manifesto’ three rules for eating well that make it easy to provide your body and brain with a good diet.
Three Simple Rules For Eating Well
First, choose natural and straightforward food. Try not to eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t eat or not recognize as food. Also, stay away from products with more than five ingredients, such as highly processed ready-made meals full of sugars and additives. In a nutshell, eat real food.
Second, eat plants, especially green leaves such as arugula and spinach, as these vegetables provide the most nutrients from the soil. And plants have antioxidants that help neutralize toxins in your body.
Eating plants doesn’t mean that you have to go completely without meat, fish, and dairy. But choose your products wisely. Always favor natural products over mass-produced, plasticized, and highly-fertilized food. Favor your local farmers’ market over the large discounter when sourcing food. Again, eat real food.
And third, make sure you don’t overeat, even if you follow a healthy diet. Caloric restriction is proven to have anti-aging effects.
It is a good idea to track what you eat in a journal. By only reviewing what you consume, it will be easy to weed out the junk.
So, with the right attitude, regular exercise, and wholesome nutrition, it’s time for another keystone activity: sleeping.
Make Sleep a Vital Part of Your Health and Productivity Habits
Good sleep changes everything. Yet, sleep deprivation is endemic. Too often, appearing as busy and sleeping little is seen as a sign for a driven and dynamic life.
In reality, sleeping better may well be your best lifehack for a healthier and more productive life.
Poor diet and lack of exercise receive more attention in the News as causes for modern-world health problems.
But sleep deprivation is not a minor problem. Continued lack of sleep can lead to many modern diseases like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, anxiety, and depression.
Sleep Science has long established that sufficient sleep is the bedrock of good health.
We need sufficient sleep for three main reasons:
First, sleep restores and repairs the metabolic process, which is vital for recovery and avoids straining our bodies and minds too much.
Second, sleep conserves energy by lowering body temperature by about one °C and reducing our bodies’ metabolic rates by 5-10%.
And third, sleep facilitates brain processing and consolidates memory. And dreaming stores our experiences and helps us deal with emotional challenges.
So, where to start if you are not getting your 8 hours of sleep and often feel sluggish during the day? Start a sleep and dream journal and observe how better sleep affects your health, mood, and general productivity.
A great read on the path to becoming a sleep expert is Matthew Walker’s highly acclaimed ‘Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams’
Control Your Time to Be Happier
If you look at the list of things that make you happier so far, you will notice two overarching topics, freedom, and health.
Positive imagination and attitude, as well as smiling and gratitude, nudge you towards freedom.
And exercise, a healthy diet, and a good sleep pattern sustain your long-term health.
So now it is time to focus on growth. And an integral part of positive change is how you spend your time. This is freedom.
So when you have control of your schedule, you will feel happier. Just ask how many employees in large companies who follow orders are thrilled with their jobs.
If you can choose when you work, it suddenly does not feel like work anymore because it has become something you want to do. It has become a pleasure.
Research confirms that this feeling in control, or having the freedom to do, is essential in daily wellbeing.
The Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler believed that we reach true happiness by achieving full self-reliance. According to Adler, seeking freedom from being helpless and unfree is a fundamental desire.
When considering your career and lifestyle, make control over your time a priority, and you will be happier.
Move Towards Your Desired Goals Every Day
A tragic misunderstanding of happiness is the belief that it comes from external things or goals that you might achieve one day in the distant future.
And until you own what you desire or have reached the goal you strive for, you can’t be fully happy. Far from it!
Above all, happiness is an inside job, and then it has more to do with where you’re heading than where you are today.
So when you know what you would like to have achieved one day, make sure you are moving in the right direction, and you enjoy the process every day.
An excellent strategy is to create effective systems of activities that you do regularly that move you towards your goals daily.
Create a system of all the things that will make you happier discussed here so far, and you will dramatically increase your odds to maximize your lifetime you spend in a happy mood.
So, What Is it Really that Makes You Happy in Life?
So here they are, the things that will make you happier: Positive imagination and attitude, smiling, practicing gratitude, regular exercise, healthy diet, enough sleep, control of your time, and having a system that moves you towards your goals every day.
And if you are in a bad mood, you are likely to be deficient in one or more things on that list.
Seriously? What about money, love and family, friends, social achievements and recognition, and a deeper meaning in life? Aren’t they important for happiness?
They are, absolutely yes. But to obtain money, companionship, and meaning in your life, you first need to be a healthy and happy person.
And you can achieve this by ‘programming’ yourself with the things that will make you happier.
Because here is the thing: Of course, the purpose of life is to be happy, but happiness is not a goal. It is a by-product.
Don’t Focus on Happiness – Do Things that Will Make You Happier Without Thinking about Happiness
In a Harvard study over nearly 80 years, researchers showed how to live a healthy and happy life. The answer? Embracing community and having good, intimate relationships. Well, be a positive, healthy, and thriving person, you will have good relationships.
What about money? Like having good relationships, lasting wealth results from living well and systematically putting yourself in the position to achieve. Just following the money will not make you happy.
And how about meaning and purpose? You will discover your purpose in life when you live well and program yourself to be happy. Otherwise, finding your purpose can feel almost oppressive, as, for some of us, it is quite hard to figure out.
According to Jonathan Haidt, author of the acclaimed ‘Happiness Hypothesis,’ happiness lies in the match between you and your environment. This match includes relations with others, alignment of your belief with your work, and your relationship with something larger than yourself, aka meaning.
But it is a good idea to fix yourself first by taking care of the things that will make you happier, and only then unleash yourself into the world.
A Final Word on the Things that Will Make You Happier
There are quite a few people in this world who seem to be addicted to unhappiness.
And as much as you have every right, in fact, duty, to pursue happiness, you have the same right to run away from toxic people as fast as you can.
Also, happiness is nothing that you achieve and then keep. Satisfaction is the result of actions. Actions that you perform for the duration of your life.
Solon, an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet who lived 630 – 560 BC, once said, ‘Count no man (and woman!) happy until the end is known.
Solon’s saying reminds us to see life in its entirety in the sense of eudaimonia, which is the ancient Greek concept of happiness.
Eudemonia best translates as human flourishing. And as such, to the ancient Greeks, happiness was not an emotional state but rather an appraisal of whether somebody had reached excellence and truly made the most of life.
And even if life starts well, reaches spectacular prosperity in the middle ages, yet ended poorly, this person’s eudaimonia was not complete.
But the things that will make you happier listed here work. They universally work in making you happy, at a young and very old age. All you have to do is systematically keep doing them.