It’s believed that 50 percent of our happiness comes from our genetic set point for happiness and only 10 percent from our life circumstances. So factors such as how healthy, wealthy, or attractive you are don’t matter as much as you might think. The great news is that the remaining 40 percent is determined by how you think and behave in your daily life — and this is largely under your control. Here are ten happiness habits cultivated by people actively seeking to achieve greater happiness.
1. Happy People Make Time To Meditate
The average person thinks over 50,000 thoughts every day. Meditating teaches you to control your thoughts so that you can focus on the positive ones and more readily let go of the negative, self-defeating ones that inevitably arise.
On a biochemical level, meditation causes the brain to release dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, each of which has been linked to different aspects of happiness. On a more metaphysical level, Deepak Chopra, one of meditation’s greatest proponents, proclaims, “In meditation, we go beyond the domain of negative thought patterns and ‘stuck’ emotions, into the domain of pure awareness. We enter the silence in the mind that is not imprisoned in the past or fearful about the future. This silence is the birthplace of happiness. It’s the eternal now where all possibilities for creativity, love, and joy exist.”
Developing a regular meditation practice can be challenging, but once it’s established you’ll almost certainly enjoy the process and the rewards so much that you won’t want to skip your daily mental vacation. A surprising number of the world’s busiest and most productive people make it a top priority to meditate every day. So can you.
2. Happy People Exercise Every Day
If there is one thing most happy people have in common, it’s that they believe in the physical and emotional benefits of physical exercise. Exercise increases levels of the major feel-good brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins. And you don’t have to knock yourself out to achieve the elusive state known as “runner’s high” to feel happier from exercise.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, 30 minutes of biking, hiking, cycling, weightlifting, and even doing chores around the house will increase endorphins. Moving meditations like tai chi, Pilates, and yoga also trigger endorphin release. So does taking a brisk walk.
Gretchen Rubin, author of the international blockbuster The Happiness Project, is considered a top authority on happiness. No surprise then that her readers frequently ask her how they can be happier. Her response is that the most important thing they can do is get plenty of sleep and exercise.
Conversely, when normally happy people are forced to stop exercising, such as due to an illness, they often become less happy and even depressed. That’s how powerful exercise is.
3. Happy People Connect With Friends
There’s impressive evidence that the best predictor of happiness is the amount of time spent with family and friends. Researchers at Harvard University have been following the lives of 268 men since 1938 from young adulthood through old age in hopes of finding the ultimate answer to what makes us happy. Study director Dr. George Vaillant sums up the results of this unprecedented study in these few words: ”The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
While keeping in touch by phone, texts, and emails is better than nothing, keep in mind that they do not replace face-to-face contact. So make a point of getting together with your friends in person. And while you are with them, give them a hug. A heartfelt hug can make you and them happy by increasing oxytocin.
Of course, being a friend is more than spending time together and having a good time. Being a good friend means being helpful, generous, kind, and forgiving, all of which will nourish your relationships while simultaneously increasing your happiness and theirs.
4. Happy People Spend Time Outdoors Every Day
There are many reasons you should spend time outdoors every day. It can improve your memory, concentration, creativity, and productivity. It can boost your immune system, reduce stress, and make you healthier. It can also make you happier.
A series of studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that being outside in nature makes people feel more alive. Richard Ryan, lead author and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester states, “Nature is fuel for the soul. Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.” These studies found that spending 20 minutes a day outdoors is enough to matter.
On days you can’t get outside, you can experience similar benefits by simply taking the time to remember times you’ve spent in nature. How convenient is that? And if you can multi-purpose by meditating, exercising or spending time with friends while you’re outdoors, even better!
5. Happy People Unplug
Christine Carter, Ph.D. is a sociologist and happiness expert at the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She recommends doing one activity every day completely unplugged from your electronic devices. This can be done while taking a walk, meeting a friend for a cup of coffee, or engaging in your favorite hobby. She finds that disconnecting with technology allows you to reconnect with who you really are, what is truly important to you, and what really makes you happy.
Experts believe excessive use of technology is making us more impatient, impulsive, forgetful, and narcissistic. It is destroying our relationships with others. In other words, being constantly plugged in is making us less happy.
6. Happy People Savor Their Good Experiences
It’s easy in this hectic world to let the good things that happen to you slide by unnoticed. But that is missing an opportunity to increase your happiness. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, points out, “Just having positive experiences is not enough to promote lasting well-being. If a person feels grateful for a few seconds, that’s nice. That’s better than feeling resentful or bitter for a few seconds. But in order to really suck that experience into the brain, we need to stay with those experiences for a longer duration of time — we need to take steps, consciously, to keep that spotlight of attention on the positive.”
When you don’t let a good experience sink in, you are leaving happiness on the table. He recommends that when you have a positive experience you should intentionally notice it, spend a few extra moments lingering on it, and visualize it to really let it take hold in your mind. This helps build a reserve of happy experiences for you to draw on.
7. Happy People Are Grateful
According to gratitude expert Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., gratitude increases happiness by reducing underlying negative emotions such as regret, envy, frustration, and resentment. Interestingly, even if you struggle looking for things to be grateful for, the simple act of searching — of asking yourself “what am I grateful for?” — can help.
Dr. Alex Korb, a neuroscience researcher at UCLA, believes, “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place.” Looking for things to be grateful for increases both feel-good brain chemicals and neuron density in parts of the brain associated with emotional intelligence.
8. Happy People Avoid Things That Make Them Unhappy
This may be blindingly obvious, but happy people make it a point to avoid situations that make them unhappy. They minimize contact with people they find difficult or emotionally draining. They know which activities and circumstances make them happy and which ones don’t.
They understand the difference between immediate gratification versus the satisfaction of achieving long-term goals. They realize that downing a pint of ice cream will only make them happy for a few minutes, but maintaining a healthy weight that makes them look good and feel great is the kind of long-term happiness they really want.
9. Happy People Actively Work At Being Happy
Abraham Lincoln remarked that “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” There’s a lot of truth to this. Happy people make a daily choice to be happy regardless of their circumstances.
Dr. Daniel Gilbert is known at Harvard University as Professor Happiness. He finds that most people believe there are two kinds of happiness: “Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.” This belief unfortunately prevents people from taking active measures that can greatly increase their chances of being happy. It’s OK to work at happiness. Happiness achieved this way is no less real than that which wafts your way organically.
There’s benefit in the simple act of making an effort to be happier. A pair of studies published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that those who actively tried to feel happier reported the highest level of positive moods. This supports the case that you really can think yourself happy.
10. Happy People Make Time To Play
Conversely, you can work too hard at trying to be happy. Happiness has often been compared to a butterfly. The harder you chase it, the more elusive it can become.
So how to get around this dilemma? Watch children at play. They know how to be happy naturally without working at it. The average child smiles 400 times each day. The average adult? A paltry 10 times per day. Happy people take time every day to let their hair down. They engage in unproductive activities just for the fun of it. Go to a park and throw a frisbee or shoot some baskets. Sing in the car or shower, even if you sing badly. Turn on some music and do a silly dance when no one is looking. If you need a nudge, observe kids or pets at play and follow their lead. Find some fun people to hang out with. Remember what you loved to do as a child and make time to do it now.
But Accept That You Won’t Always Be Happy
Happy people accept the fact that they won’t feel as happy as they would like all the time. It’s not possible — nor desirable — to feel on top of the world every day. According to Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, you shouldn’t expect to feel happy all the time since the human brain is just not wired that way.
She states in her book Habits of a Happy Brain, “When you feel good, your brain is releasing dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, or endorphin. You want more of these great feelings because your brain is designed to seek them. But you don’t always get it, and that’s natural too. Our brain doesn’t release a happy chemical until it sees a way to meet a survival need, like food, safety, and social support. And then, you only get a quick spurt before your brain returns to neutral so it’s ready for the next ‘survival opportunity.’ This is why you feel up and down. It’s nature’s operating system!”
Believing you must always be happy is an unrealistic goal that will lead to disappointment and, ironically, the thing you are trying to avoid — unhappiness.