How to Be Happy RIGHT NOW (and in the Long Term)
Every month, over 40,000 people on Google search “how to be happy.” Maybe that’s how you found this post.
There are entire fields of study on happiness. On the one hand, it’s pretty disappointing that so many of us feel the need to turn to a search engine or scientific analyses for answers on something so core to the human experience. On the other hand, it’s reassuring that clearly we value happiness.
Or at least, we want to value it.
With rising depression rates, especially among teens, it makes sense that we’re trying to find ways to be happy.
In this article, we’ll discuss what it means to be happy, sources of happiness and unhappiness, and things you can do in the short and long-term to stay happy.
What is happiness?
Happiness. What’s the first thing that comes to mind?
For me, it’s the yellow smiley face. (Fun fact: the color yellow is associated with happiness according to color psychology.). A close second is the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Third is the “Don’t worry, be happy” bumper sticker and song.
Being happy is so subjective. It can look and feel different for everyone.
You know those people who seem to always be happy? Yes, I’m talking about the bubbly ones. Smiley folks. There’s literally an adjective describing their personality: “happy-go-lucky.”
Well, my understanding is that these people have a cheerful, easygoing attitude and demeanor that we interpret as happy.
But someone who smiles and laughs a lot isn’t always happy.
And people who have a serious exterior? (Ahem, looking at you RBF). Well, those people could be perfectly happy and we’d have no idea. They’ll have the last laugh...but probably won’t actually laugh.
According to positivepsychology.com, happiness is the state of “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” Because it is a state, it can come and go.
That said, theorists seem to agree that happiness is neither totally fleeting nor a stable long-term trait.
What does this mean for you? It means that achieving a state of perfect “happiness” might be futile. Chasing it sets you up for failure as you wonder “What’s wrong? Why aren’t I happy all the time?”
It’s okay to not be happy all the time. And if happiness is what you seek, I have some ideas for you.
Because with a bit of intentional action, you can make happy moments more frequent.
What makes people happy?
Researchers have long been searching for the secret for how to be happy.
As I read some of the research, I began to wonder whether people who study happiness are more likely to be happy than those studying other subjects, like disease. Or are they less happy because “those who can’t do, teach,” etc.? Someone should study THAT.
Anyway, here are a few things that researchers have found to make people happy:
Individual income (up to a point, after which money doesn’t increase happiness)
Labor market status;
Experience of positive emotions (AIPC, 2011).
To summarize, having enough money, good health and relationships, and feeling positively are associated with being happy.
Not exactly earth-shattering stuff. Bet you could have guessed these.
What's not as clear? Exactly how to get the good money, wellness, relationships, etc.
Dan Buettner, author of the Blue Zones of Happiness, traveled the earth to interview the happiest people around the world. He sought out consistencies among these happy people. In his conclusion, he lists nine lessons for how to be happy:
Curate an Inner Circle
Sleep Seven Plus
Find the Right Community
Does anything stand out to you?
I was surprised that so many of his lessons involved relationships and interactions with other people. Personal connection plays a tremendous role in our experience of happiness.
Remove—or control—sources of unhappiness
As much as you may seek out things that bring joy to your life, if you’re regularly triggered by unpleasant experiences that dampen your joy, finding happiness will be that much more difficult.
Having sources of unhappiness while trying to be happier is like swimming with shoes on. They drag you down. It’s possible to swim with shoes on, of course. It’s also possible to be happy even in the face of a looming source of unhappiness. But it’s a lot more difficult to do.
Some sources of unhappiness you don’t have control over, like an illness, trauma, or other circumstances. Amazingly, we see countless examples of people finding joy and happiness in their lives in spite of tremendous pain and adversity. We'll talk about perspective more below.
So ask yourself: what factors can I control?
Some things that are possible to control and are standing in the way of your happiness might include:
Being in debt
Hating your job
Being in a toxic relationship
Having a long commute
Not setting boundaries
Having a negative self-perception
The tricky thing, of course, is that the steps required to remove these sources of stress are themselves difficult and unpleasant. No one said this happiness thing was easy.
However, getting rid of unhappiness forces may be worth the temporary discomfort.
Eliminating the stress of debt, a job you hate, or a painful relationship can allow you to experience more happiness and swim freely.
How to find happiness
Creating future happiness is like investing in a retirement savings account.
Like most things worth waiting for, setting yourself up for a happier future is difficult now, but rewarding later.
By beginning to do the hard work to remove sources of unhappiness in your life, you can set yourself up for more happy moments down the road.
What are some things you can do to start tackling sources of unhappiness?
Saving up money and budgeting to gradually pay off debts.
Attending networking events to start learning about new job opportunities
Breaking up with the person who’s causing you pain
Moving closer to your job, or seeking remote work opportunities
Creating and enforcing boundaries around your time
Forgiving someone and letting go of a past grudge
Participating in the community and reaching out to people to connect socially
Getting therapy to work through negative self-perception
Getting rid of unhappiness sources isn’t easy, but it can be tremendously freeing.
Finding purpose through small actions
In addition to removing sources of unhappiness, finding the things that make you happy—really, truly satisfied, are a part of the long-term happiness strategy.
How do you find things that make you happy? Contributing meaningfully to something greater than yourself. Connect with something, or someone.
The Japanese concept of Ikigai means “reason for being” or “your purpose” and is attributed to longevity and—you guessed it—happiness. I’ve recently had the pleasure of being a part of GvG17’s Ikigai MVP: “Minimum Viable Purpose” session.
During the event, experts spoke about ways to find purpose in your professional and personal life. Then, over the following weeks, participants tested out new actions that put them on the path to their purpose.
In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, Rubin spends a year pursuing different habits in mission to learn how to be happy. In the process, she creates her own personal 12 commandments, one of which is, “Be Gretchen.”
Rubin explains this to mean complete self-acceptance of who she is, what she likes, what she dislikes. It also means saying “no” to the things that just don’t make her happy.
Finding your purpose, and striving towards it, are some lofty goals.
Luckily, you can start small.
By starting to align your actions with things that matter most to you, you can start setting yourself up for long-term happiness.
That being said, depriving yourself of all happiness now to enjoy it all later is futile.
I was recently inspired by a story on one of my favorite blogs, the Mad Money Monster. Lisa and her husband talk about their personal finance journey and shared a story about their decision to stop chasing early retirement in exchange for a happy life.
Lisa talks about how freeing herself of the “dream” and pressure of early retirement has allowed her to enjoy the present more fully. Though she is still responsible and frugal with money, Lisa and her family enjoy small indulgences now.
Think about how you can strike a balance between setting yourself up for future happiness while also finding joy today.
Practical things you can do RIGHT NOW to be happy
Based on happiness and positive psychology research, there are some activities that can make you happy in the short term. Here are a few you can try today:
Write a thank you to someone who has done something for you. Showing gratitude increases happiness.
Get out in nature. Take a 15-minute walk in the great outdoors.
Perform a random act of kindness. Doing for others creates a physiological "helper’s high" that makes you feel good.
Call an old friend. Hearing the voice of someone you love and taking some time to care for them can make you both feel great.
Practice letting go and accepting. Even if you’re not religious, the serenity prayer is a powerful reminder of how acceptance can set you free.
Take a mini digital detox. Unplug for a few hours.
Write down your achievements. What are you proud of that you’ve achieved? Take a moment to appreciate yourself.
Do something that puts you in a state of flow. "Flow" occurs during activities that are so engaging, you lose track of time.
Laugh. Watch a funny movie or look through old photos with someone you love.
Listen to your favorite songs. Better yet, dance to them to get those endorphins flowing.
Try one or a few of these out. If you feel a boost in happiness after or during the activity, considering practicing them on a regular basis and making the action a habit.
Build happiness habits
Want to incorporate happiness habits regularly? Here are some apps aimed at making happiness part of your life:
Happier, a mobile app by Nataly Kogan, helps you build skills associated with happiness. The key principles are: acceptance, gratitude, intentional kindness, the bigger why, and self-care. The app works as an on-the-go gratitude journal that lets you share happy moments with the community.
Happify is a website that offers "tracks" that you can choose to focus on, all related to their five key happiness skills: savor the moment, thank those who matter, aspire to meaningful goals, give of yourself, and empathize with others.
Headspace is a meditation app that provides guided meditation through tracks, one of which is happiness. Founder Andi Puddicomb narrates the guided meditation. The adorable graphics featured in the app make it hard not to smile.