Finding happiness seems like a pretty straight-forward task. Just turn your frown upside-down or maybe book a spa day, right? Not quite, says Christine Carter, happiness expert and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less, who says that we may be trying too hard to be happy.
“There’s so much emphasis in our culture on happiness, but it’s important to recognize that the need to be happier is in and of itself a particular form of unhappiness,” she says. “It’s almost like the glass is, by definition, half empty if what you need is to be happier.”
Another mistake she sees: mistaking pleasure for happiness. “We pursue pleasure and gratification as though it’s the same as a positive emotion like joy, gratitude, confidence or awe,” she says. But constantly seeking pleasure can leave you dissatisfied. “When something is gratifying, it stimulates the reward system in our brain and release a little hit of dopamine. Dopamine’s primary function is to create craving or desire — it leaves us wanting more.”
Instead of chasing the elusive happiness fix, we asked Carter, as well as other happiness experts, psychologists and life coaches how they fight negativity and cultivate joy every day. Try these 11 simple, expert-endorsed tips.
11 Tricks to Finding More Happiness Every Day
1. Make a Wish
According to Carter, one of the best predictor’s of a person’s happiness is their connection to other people. “That’s the thing that’s going to move the needle the most — not the pursuit of happiness for ourselves, but for other people,” she says. One way to do that? Make a wish for someone to be happy, says Chade-Meng Tan, author of Joy on Demand, and former Jolly Good Fellow at Google. (Yes, that was his real title!) “As you take a deep breath and a moment to wish this person happiness, you are creating a useful mental habit,” he says. “You feel more joyful and sincere goodwill is picked up unconsciously by others and creates trust that leads to highly productive and positive collaborations.”
2. Put Pen to Paper
“Gratitude is one of the most powerful positive emotions we have related to happiness and connectedness.”
You already know that journaling about a stressful or emotional event can have long-term physical and psychological benefits. Well, it can do wonders for your happiness, too. Tara Newman, a business and leadership coach, trains herself to find silver linings with her journal. “Define happiness for yourself so you aren’t derailed by what makes other people happy,” she says. And don’t just focus on specific outcomes. Newman suggests using all your senses. Think: What does happiness look, feel, smell and taste like? “Practicing happiness every day makes it easier for us to grab hold of those feelings when things get hard,” she says.
3. Say Thanks (More Than Once)
“Gratitude is one of the most powerful positive emotions we have related to happiness and connectedness,” says Carter. That’s why she’s builds several gratitude practices into her daily schedule. “It becomes habit,” she says.
Every morning, Carter pulls out her planner and writes down her gratitude list of three things. When her family gathers for dinner, they each share one thing they’re thankful for that day. “It shifts my attention away from what might not be working to what is working,” she says. Better yet, Carter tells her husband what she appreciates about him every day. “Even just thinking about what you’re grateful for in another person can improve the relationship,” she says.
4. Lend a Hand
“For me, happiness isn’t just feeling good. It’s also about doing good,” says Dr. Timothy Sharp, Chief Happiness Officer at The Happiness Institute. “I get my greatest pleasure and satisfaction when I’m doing what I can to help others and/or contributing in some way to causes that are important to me.” On a daily basis, that can mean surprising his colleagues with coffee or sending a fruit box to a friend going through a tough time.
5. Find Your BPO
A hectic schedule and a never-ending to-do list has a way of sucking some joy out of life. That’s why Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey, co-founders of Shine, the text-based service that promotes positive mental health, hone in on their BPO — aka biggest possible opportunity. “By remembering the big picture opportunities, you’re reminding yourself the purpose behind your work and what you do, which research says helps with feelings of gratitude and joy,” they say. Try starting your day with a few moments to focus on your BPO and the little things that lead to it.
6. Go with the Flow
Stress can seriously lower your cheerfulness levels. “It’s hard to feel really joyful when you’re tense and overwhelmed,” says Carter. To dial back stress, she gets in a work groove by blocking off one and a half hours, sans interruption. “It’s a sacred time for me to be able to engage deeply with my work,” she says. After all, crossing a bunch items off your list of to-dos can make you feel great.
7. Reframe Your Commute
“Acknowledge your wins and lessons learned. This is the silver living.”
From road rage to delayed trains, commuting can often feel anything but happy. That’s why Sumati Gupta, clinical psychologist and a professor at Barnard College, hones in on her surroundings en route to the office. “When walking to work, I try to focus on what’s pretty around me for one block,” she says. Think: trees and architecture, instead of trash and crowded streets. “Honestly, it makes me very grateful that I get to live in New York City. It’s a really cool place, at least when you look up.”
Hirabayashi and Lidey opt for biking to work, rather than hopping on the train. “What we love about biking is you can’t be plugged in, and as a result, it gives our minds time to wander, helping us feel more balanced overall,” they say.
8. Do Sweat the Small Stuff
Most of us are pretty good about celebrating the big wins — a promotion at work or snagging a race PR. But acknowledging those everyday wins (say, a nice convo with a co-worker or making it to your fave workout class) can give you an instant mood boost, too. “Humans are hard on themselves and often fail to acknowledge how far they’ve come,” says Newman. “Acknowledge your wins and lessons learned. This is the silver living.” Think back on your day and remember the good that came from it.
9. Press Pause
Always working in the fast lane? “When things feel hard, it’s usually because I’m forcing them or I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. So I slow down,” says Newman. “It might be for 15 minutes or I might rearrange my schedule to give myself more space to just be. Doing less creates the space for me to let happiness back in.” Another way to create some “me” time in your schedule to slow down: Say ‘no’ more often.
10. Have a Cuppa
One way to find calm: Pour a cup of tea. Every morning, Gupta makes a mug full of chai from scratch. “I’m focused on the act of making the chai and sipping it. In those moments, there’s nothing else I have to do,” she says. “I drink it mindfully and am grateful that I have the time to do just that.” Spend a few extra minutes making your morning tea or coffee and really focus on the task at hand. It’ll be like a moving meditation.
11. Read Something Inspiring
An instant happiness booster for Carter involves reading poetry. “There are some Mary Oliver poems that, when I read them, I feel a sense of elevation,” she says. “It’s a way of fostering positive emotion.” If poetry isn’t your jam, pick up something you’ve always been curious about. It can give you the same sense of inspiration and awe.