What determines our happiness quotient? Depends on whom you ask. Some researchers believe that genetic factors determine our set point and that a malfunction with the gene for serotonin output (aka the feel-good hormone) makes it harder for some people to see the sunny side of things, in general, and may even be directly linked with clinical depression. Meanwhile, other docs argue that there’s still not enough evidence to prove a direct link between genes and happiness (or mood) and/or depression. They argue that stressful life events (raising children, job loss, divorce, death of a loved one), and how equipped we are to handle them, are better predictors of happiness. Factors that we can control, including our social circles and how we choose to spend our free time, are instrumental in how we get through the tougher times, as well as our day-to-day level of happiness, says Christopher Peterson, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. “Living a meaningful life, one that involves purpose and doing good — when those things are in place, then we begin to feel this emotion that people define as happiness,” says Dan Baker, PhD, author of What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better.
The good news, he says, is that we can train ourselves to be happier (yes, even in the midst of a recession, unemployment and reduced retirement funds!). Just like most things in life, it starts with taking a few small steps toward that change.
Each morning before you get out of bed, do two things:
1. Focus on something that you’re going to do that day that holds meaning for you and think about how you will do that. Let’s say you want to weed your garden. Even if you can devote only 15 minutes to it today, think about how that will help the garden look better and allow it to thrive.
2. Next, be appreciative of something and hold that thought for 20 seconds. (Do it again before lunch and at night before sleep.) “Even in difficult times, we can find something to appreciate,” says Dr. Baker. Be sure to build up your inventory, and don’t overlook something as simple as being appreciative for your cozy slippers or the soothing sound of rain tapping on the window.
Keep a gratitude journal. This is similar to the above in terms of being mindful of what you appreciate in your life. But the act of writing things down sets some powerful changes in motion and is a wonderful tool for training yourself to become a more grateful person: Research shows that people who keep daily or weekly gratitude journals for three weeks or more reported feeling better physically, having a more optimistic outlook on life, exercising more and even sleeping better. These are the same traits and characteristics that grateful people report having.
Use constructive self-language. In a word, watch your inner dialogue. If you’re the queen or king of the negative pep rally (I can’t believe how cluttered my closet is. I’m such a slob. I’ll never get out from under. No wonder I didn’t get that promotion….), you must stop. You are literally setting yourself up for a downward mood spiral. There’s even the science to prove it. Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD, author of Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive, studied just this and found that for every negative event or thought we have, there needs to be a minimum of 2.9 positive events to get ourselves back on the road to feeling good. Summed up simply, negative thoughts lead to a negative state of mind. Positive thoughts equal feeling positive. It’s not rocket science, and yet it’s amazing how many of us still fall into the negative thought trap.
Keep your distance from Debbie and David Downer. People who gossip and complain incessantly are sources of negative energy. “Instead, aim to surround yourself with good energy and people who have the outlook and vitality that you are seeking,” says Jonathan H. Ellerby, PhD, spiritual program director at the Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, and author of Return to the Sacred: Ancient Pathways to Spiritual Awakening.
Take time to smell the roses and freshly cut grass. Smell is one of our strongest senses and can evoke pleasure and satisfaction. Feeling a bit tense? Break out the lawn mower. A new study found that breathing in the air from a freshly mown lawn releases chemicals in the brain that help relieve tension. Urban dweller? There are scented oils, perfumes, candles and even cleaning products made from the scent of grass. It’s not clear whether they’ll have the same effect as breathing in the real thing, but it can’t hurt to try. The scents of citrus, eucalyptus, mint and pine can also brighten your mood.
Play with your happy friends. The feel-good boost you get from being with others actually enhances your brain’s cognitive ability and overall sense of well-being. If your social circle is wide and also happens to consist of mostly happy people, then you’re two steps ahead of the pack. Studies show that hanging around with happy people makes us happy. (But we didn’t really need a study to tell us that, did we?)
Don’t wait until your life is in order before reaching out to help others. Someone who’s just lost a job might think he’s got nothing to give at the moment. But in fact, volunteering or helping out a friend — especially when we’re feeling distressed — is an amazing way to enhance our overall mood. “Helping others gives you meaning and purpose beyond your own life. It also distracts you from your own woes,” says Dr. Peterson. “It’s a standard therapy technique. Depressed? Go work in a soup kitchen and you’ll understand what problems really are.
Engage in activities that bring you joy. Something as simple as creating a scrapbook, knitting, baking, playing the piano or guitar — in which the mind and the hands are engaged — can provide a great source of contentment and satisfaction. But the benefits go beyond the ones that come with engagement. “One of the biggest predictors of happiness is how much time a person devotes to leisure activities,” says Dr. Peterson. “These things give us meaning and purpose and identity.” He says that roughly 80 percent of us say that our jobs don’t provide this satisfaction, so it’s critical to find this sense of well-being and satisfaction by spending time with friends and family, and doing things like coaching a little league team, singing in the church choir, and the like.
Don’t rely on others to validate your physical beauty. The rush that we get from seemingly positive comments like “Your hair looks great!” or “Wow, you lost a few pounds!” is fleeting, points out Catherine Baker-Pitts, PhD, a New York City–based psychologist specializing in cosmetic surgery and body image issues. She says that when the aura fades, some of us get depressed and start seeking out this validation again. Her advice:
• Gravitate toward people, activities and interests that feel nourishing, not punishing.
• Look at yourself with rose-colored glasses, and emphasize your own competencies rather than dwelling on critical observations.
• Connect with how you feel in your body and what your body can do for you, rather than treating it as a mannequin to be looked at in a shop window.
Have a game plan for dealing with difficult people or situations. If someone in your life has an opinion or criticism for everything you do, strategize ahead of time on how you’ll handle your next encounter. Dr. Baker says that this will allow you to be proactive and in control of the situation, rather than reactive and emotional. Proactive encounters are empowering and help keep us emotionally grounded and happy.
Take feel-good breaks. Spend two minutes petting your dog or 10 seconds on a really good hug and your body will thank you with the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Known also as the cuddle hormone, oxytocin is stimulated by touch. In addition, if you head outside to catch the last 10 seconds of that beautiful sunset, you’ll automatically reduce your anxiety by counteracting the sympathetic nervous system, which is a just a scientific way of saying, your body and brain likes what it sees.
Listen to music. When your brain likes what it hears — whether it’s Mozart or Michael Jackson — it interprets this arousal with increased heart and breathing rates. This positive response triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward.
Don’t think of antidepressants as cure-alls. These drugs have had profoundly positive effects on many people’s lives. But experts caution that these meds shouldn’t be the only treatment for depression and anxiety. “I would never bad-mouth prescription antidepressants because of the miracles that I’ve seen [with the use of these drugs],” say Ann Pardo, MS, director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. “But a lot of us are just taking the pill without practicing the necessary lifestyle changes that allow for true happiness. Taking a pill is essentially the CliffsNotes version of feeling better. You’re cheating yourself out of the full experience.”