When I was younger, I didn’t know how to be happy – at least, not on any consistent basis.
Through my late teens until my late 20s, I went through a lot of depression and disappointment. I never had to go on medication for it, but the world looked very bleak at times. One memorable week I had suicidal thoughts every night.
But lately I’ve had a lot of happiness, and since spreading it around isn’t going to reduce it – in fact, just the opposite – here are some suggestions on how to be happy, based on my experience and on psychological research.
(If you’re severely depressed, talk to a doctor or other professional who’s trained in dealing with severe depression. These tips, while they will probably help you, are mainly for people who are experiencing mild unhappiness, or are average in their happiness and want to be above average.)
1. Take steps to improve your physical health.
I realise, of course, that when you’re unhappy (or mildly depressed), taking extra time and effort to prepare nutritious meals and to move your body seems daunting. But if you can take even one small step (and keep on taking it), it will pay off in increased energy and motivation.
Last week’s post was all about how to be healthy. It’s a great place to start when figuring out how to be happy – my mood has lifted more from eating well and getting fit than from doing any other single thing.
2. Set a growth goal and work on it
Money doesn’t – over the long term, anyway – make you happier. Nor do possessions, status, or beauty. (Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell something.)
What does make you happy is a sequence of new positive experiences of:
- taking more control in your own life and acting in accordance with your self-perception and your values,
- building your competence through a series of appropriate challenges, and
- increasing your connectedness to other people.
As it happens, that’s a neat summary of what this whole site is all about.
As I look back over my life, one of the things that helped me overcome my depressive tendencies (and learn how to be happy) was gaining self-confidence through building genuine skills and achievements and setting my own direction. And another was becoming close to some good friends, especially my wife.
More recently, as I’ve taken on some new challenges, I’ve become even happier.
3. Be grateful
Gratitude, and a positive attitude in general, is an excellent way of reminding yourself that you actually have it pretty good. One reason that the effect of a new possession or a new haircut quickly wears off is that it becomes the norm, the baseline, and you stop paying attention to it.
There are two ways you can go from there. Get something else new that you might be happy about for a little while (the consumerist approach), or continue to pay attention to how happy you are with your current circumstances (the gratitude approach).
The first way is known as the “hedonic treadmill”. You never get any further ahead.
The gratitude approach, on the other hand, will increase your overall level of happiness. It’s one of the most reliable methods to be happy. I know that few things give me a lift as much as reflecting on something I can be grateful for.
4. Learn to manage your attention
I talk about this over and over, because as far as I’m concerned, attention is the key to success, the one that unlocks all the doors. It’s not just part of being happy – it’s part of being anything.
What you see depends on where and how you look. You can always find negatives if that’s what you’re looking for – or, alternatively, you can find positives instead.
If your life schema – your view of how life works, that you formed based on your early experiences – is a dark and scary one, you’ll naturally notice the dark and scary aspects of life. (That confirms to you that you understand the world, and understanding is a form of control.)
Likewise, if you’re currently in a depressed mood, you’ll find it easier to access depressing memories. Memories are keyed to emotion, and it’s easier to remember the ones that fit how you feel right now.
But when you learn to direct your attention – typically through meditation – you start to be able to see what you decide you want to see.
What’s more, what you pay attention to shapes your brain, and meditation actually changes your brain in a way that makes it easier to have positive feelings. Long-term meditators naturally become happier. They learn how to be happy by doing it.
I’m not an experienced meditator by most standards, but I do find my short daily meditation makes me happier.
5. Deal with the past
You know what happens when you tell yourself, or someone else, your sad, sad story?
You reinforce that story. You make it stronger, truer. You engrave the patterns of it deeper into your brain. You make yourself, once again, the person who went through that pain. A younger, less wise, less capable and sadder person, who doesn’t know how to be happy.
You don’t have to be a hostage to your past. You can change the story, write yourself a new character. You can break free and star in a new story. But only once you believe that.
One of the ways I’ve found to be happy lately is to let go of a significant disappointment that I’d been carrying for 20 years. I didn’t realise how heavy it was until I dropped it.
6. Connect to your world
I’ve mentioned connecting to your human world already, under growth goals. When you isolate yourself, when you fort up against the world, it’s hard to be happy. But when you enjoy fun with friends, when you connect at an emotional level, when someone else sees you as you are and accepts you – that’s happiness.
It’s not just the human world, either. As I mentioned in my How to be Healthy post, connecting with the natural world by going kayaking is one of the things that makes me happiest. Gardening, pets, or even having a plant on your desk – anything to open up connection beyond yourself – will help you to be happier.
7. Do something for someone else
Helping someone else makes you happier for a few reasons.
Firstly, as social creatures we’re naturally wired to feel good about helping each other.
Secondly, helping someone else is likely to enhance your feelings of control, competence and, especially, connectedness.
And thirdly, we tend to base our happiness on comparisons with other people. Focussing on someone less fortunate for a while is a good way to remind yourself of the fact that, by comparison, you’re in a good position. You count your blessings. You’re grateful.
Of course, doing things for other people can be irritating and frustrating sometimes, too. It’s all about what you pay attention to.
How to be Happy – the ebook
There’s a lot more I could say about happiness – so I’ve expanded this post into an ebook, How to be Happy. A couple of parts of it are based on blog posts here and elsewhere, drawn together into a single place and made easier to apply, but most of it is brand-new material that I’ve never offered anywhere else.
It’s free to my members - just sign up below with your email address and that will become your login to the site (you’ll be sent a password).
Once you’ve subscribed, log in here. That should take you to a Members’ Content page with a download link for the How to Be Happy ebook.
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