There are a lot of unhappy people trudging around these days. After all, the 21st century had a bit of a rough start. It began with the whole Y2K computer scare, followed shortly after by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Then, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started. And then there's the global economic meltdown that's affected nearly every nation on the planet. Good times.
Yep, there are plenty of reasons for all of us to be unhappier than ever, but we continue to crave happiness. Luckily, we can actually whip up a bit of our own when our lives and surroundings are short on it. By creating happiness strategies, a term that University of California at Riverside psychology professor and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky came up with, we can instill happiness in ourselves.
In the spirit of good feelings all around, we did some digging and found 10 ways to drum up a little happiness of your own whenever and wherever you like.
Hang Out With Smiling People
When you see someone smiling, what emotion do you imagine he or she is experiencing? Is it safe to assume that person is happy? Sure it is. We humans associate smiling with happiness, and if we hang out with happy people, we can become happier as well.
One heart study has been following 4,700 people in Framingham, Mass., for the past 20 years. It's churned out all kinds of data, including a report that showed happiness is contagious. Happy people tend to be at the center of social networks that are made up of other happy people. As it turns out, the emotion appears to radiate and spread throughout the group.
The study also discovered that knowing another happy person increases your own happiness by 15.3 percent. It found that friends of the same gender top the list of potential happiness spreaders. So the next time you could use a happiness boost, find a friend in a good mood. Just be sure not to turn your friend into a Debbie Downer, too.
Be a Smiling Person Yourself
It can really sap positive energy to be constantly nitpicking another person all the time -- and dealing with his or her potentially negative resulting reactions -- so lay off any nagging you might feel like dredging up and see what happens as a result. It can prove to be a serious mood lifter. Not all close relationships will see felicitous outcomes, but many will. Constantly worrying about every little thing in life (especially if a mile-high to-do list is involved) can trigger negative emotions that are easy to transfer to the people you love in your life.
To get things rolling, why not take a second look at the dynamics of your relationships and your goals for them, whether those relationships are with your partner, siblings, children, parents or roommates? See if there are areas where you could lighten up a bit and work in a little happiness instead. Will it really matter if the laundry/dishes/dusting is accomplished this exact second? Could you both squeeze in a few minutes together laughing on the couch or companionably going for a walk? Most chores can wait -- up to a point. Spending time with the people you care about is precious indeed. Not only will these people tend to be happier, you won't be expending so much energy trying to micromanage your own expectations. And those two factors can definitely help lift a person's mood.
Treat Yourself to a Tasty and Healthy Meal
Fresh foods are happier foods than processed foods. How would we know? Well, the chemicals in the brain that create feelings of happiness are produced by some of the foods we eat.
What to nosh on then? Complex carbohydrates -- like legumes and whole-grain breads -- slowly release glucose, which provides lasting energy and protects against chronic fatigue. Folate, which is found in foods like spinach, is a B vitamin that's essential to the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood. The pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine contains tyrosine and phenylalanine, a pair of amino acids that occur in protein-packed foods like fish, meat and beans.
The mere act of eating right can help you trick yourself into being happy. Make sure you keep your eating habits in perspective, though: Putting yourself on a diet may be going too far and could actually make your good mood plummet. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman points out that depression is caused by feelings of failure and helplessness. Unfortunately, dieting often leads to both of these feelings when the dieter doesn't stick to it. Try eating right -- but on an unofficial basis.
Test Your Green Thumb
If you find healthy produce a little pricey, try gardening as a way to knock yourself up the happiness ladder a few notches and get good grub. It combines healthy eating with exercise (more on that later), along with sunshine and general productivity. All of these ingredients have been proven to increase optimism, zest, energy level and sense of self. You'll get that special satisfaction that goes along with encouraging a fruitful garden, and you'll enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes when the growing season is over and you're harvesting your bounty.
Of course, if flowering plants are more your thing, that counts, too. All that weeding, raking and pruning can be cathartic and energizing as you free your flowers to enjoy the sun's warmth and the soil's nutrients. Spending time outside can have a serious restorative effect on quality of life and happiness levels. This can be especially true for elderly and developmentally disabled populations, but of course everyone can greatly appreciate the effect.
Try the 5 Percent Trick
Sometimes, happiness tends to evaporate when we're feeling overwhelmed by all of the tasks we face in our personal and professional lives. Leisure time is quickly becoming history. Even when we're not at work, we devote very little time to our passions. Instead, we fill our free time taking care of all of the things that accumulate in our lives while we're working, like cleaning the house or going to see a doctor.
These things still need to be done, however, and when they're allowed to accumulate they tend to look more like a mountain than a laundry list. Taking things a little at a time helps you gain a happier outlook on all the stuff you've got going on in your life. Psychotherapist Dr. Nathaniel Branden suggests a simple solution for people who feel overwhelmed with life: the 5 percent rule. Saying something like "If I were 5 percent more responsible today, I would _________." By filling in the blank, we can identify -- and fix -- things we might not even know are bugging us in an incremental and bite-sized manner. Overwhelming situations can become more manageable, lending us a happier outlook as a result.
Crank the Tunes
File music, especially stirring, memorable or upbeat tunes, with the other pleasing (if not all recommended) stuff such as food, sex, gambling and drugs that can produce a positive response. The brain starts pumping out dopamine and we're right back in happy town. And a lot like the way those smiling people you may surround yourself with will help cheer you up, so can listening to music with others. The shared experience, along with the personal, can help trump any sad feelings you're having by weaving you in to a positive social fabric.
Music therapy is one practice experts are increasingly suggesting to help lift the blues, and for treating patients who are suffering from issues such as injury-related language impairments or dementia-related maladies. Extensive research in the area is still currently somewhat limited, but the results so far are largely in favor of adding melodic therapy. After all, a rousing favorite song can't hurt, and just might help.
Use Your Money to Do Something Nice for Someone Else
People like to congratulate themselves when they commit a selfless, altruistic act, like donating to charity or helping a stranger in need. While these things certainly are nice and make the world a cheerier place, there's actually no such thing as a truly selfless act. It sounds a bit cynical, but MRI studies show that when we do an act of kindness for someone else, we're actually getting something in return -- pleasure. The brain's reward center, the region that's activated when something good happens to us, also comes to life when we do something nice for someone else.
This means chemicals that produce happy feelings -- like dopamine -- flood our brains when we cover the toll for the person in the car behind us or pick up an extra cheeseburger for a homeless guy when we're out at lunch.
A 2008 study found that people tend to get happier when they spend their money on others. Uninformed participants who worked at a medical supply company received $5,000 bonuses. The researchers found that employees who spent one-third or more of their money on someone else scored a full point higher on a five-point happiness scale.
It's your money; buy some happiness with it.
Volunteer for a Favorite Cause
If just forking over some cash isn't enough to put a smile on your face, consider volunteering in person. You may even live longer for it. So how does this differ from simply cutting a check to your favorite charity? Well, for one, it's all about spending meaningful time with other people, folks who share your particular passions and interests, and with whom you can form a unique social bond. The companionship experienced among a team of volunteers can forge rewarding and lasting future relationships.
Plus, there's the thrill of seeing the impact your contribution is making firsthand. It's one thing to get a good feeling as soon as you drop a check in the mailbox or click a button on the computer; it's another to have the visual and emotional memories that come with doing good work in person.
Go Work Out for Once
Even a single workout can noticeably change your mood -- and for a lot longer than anyone previously thought. A 2009 study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine found that the post-exercise "glow" can last as long as 12 hours, happily affecting your entire day.
Just one workout can have an effect, but adopting a regular workout regimen can have a lasting impact on your mood. For example, a study conducted at Duke University followed two groups of depressed participants, one on a dedicated exercise regimen and another on a regimen of the antidepressant Zoloft. After four months of exercise or Zoloft, both groups' regimens were discontinued and after an eight month period, the researchers revisited the participants. They found that overall, the group that exercised was happier than the group that had taken the drug.
Get a Pet
Pets are admittedly a big commitment. Depending on the species of the pets, they'll probably live a long time and require a lot of day-to-day care over their lifetime. But if the Internet has taught us anything, it's that pets provide us with endless giggles at all the silly things they do, whether cat, dog or more exotic pet species. Animals can inspire a lot of joy; from their silly physical antics to their goofy personality quirks.
But pets have been increasingly proven to promote happiness in a very tangible way. For example, services are springing up around the United States that pair vets -- the veterans of recent wars, that is -- with dogs that need a loving home. These animals provide the sort of unquestioning and nonjudgmental companionship that many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) find hard to manage with human confidantes. And that sort of therapy can definitely boost happiness levels.
Get more on techniques for acquiring a positive attitude on the next page.
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