At any time of year, about half of us are searching for how to be happier, according to MaryAnn Troiani, a clinical psychologist and the author of Spontaneous Optimism: Proven Strategies for Health, Prosperity & Happiness. And that number is higher in November and December. "Stress and anxiety overwhelm us during the holidays," says Troiani. "Even people who are generally content may become blue." One of the main reasons: The images associated with the season shine a light on what may be missing in your own life. "When people are bombarded with commercials, greeting cards, and movies showing perfect families and friendships, they may start to question the quality of their own relationships," says Adam K. Anderson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. "This can make them feel lonely and less fulfilled." Try these simple steps to be happy—today and throughout the year.
How to be Happy Step #1: See the Big Picture
"Becoming more spiritual is about letting go of control, being willing to go with the flow, and appreciating the surprising things that come your way when you do," says Robert J. Wicks, the author of Bounce: Living the Resilient Life. "You need to change your mindset and remember that there are other forces at work." But realizing you aren't always in the driver's seat doesn't necessarily mean you have to believe in God; it just means you shouldn't dwell on what's upsetting you when your perfect plan doesn't work out. "When something goes wrong, take a step back, agree to just let whatever happens happen, and try to find something positive about the turn of events; it will help you relax and keep everything in perspective," says Wicks. Something else to keep in mind: You may not control what happens, but you decide how you react and what kind of person you are. This outlook helps you avoid the "why me" and "life isn't fair" thoughts that can bring you down.
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How to be Happy Step #2: Create a Peaceful Ritual
In the best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert healed from a hurtful divorce by spending month meditating at an Indian ashram. That's obviously not realistic for the majority of us, but we all could use somepeace—away from the Internet, TV,smartphones, and Twitter (find happiness without leaving home—Give your own Eat, Pray, Love a try)! And there's evidence to show that a little break is enough. All you need to do is take a few minutes each day to focus on your breath. "Be aware of the sound it makes as you inhale, the feel of it as it enters your lungs, the way your body loses tension when you exhale,"says Anderson. "It's okay if you're a little bored at first. Acknowledge that thought and then let it go." This helps develop mindfulness, or being in the moment. "Cultivating this quality allows you to become more flexible when dealing with tough situations, to be open to an experience without labeling it good or bad," says Anderson. And the benefits don't stop there. A study in Psychological Science showed that those who meditated regularly for three months had longer attention spans and performed better at detail-oriented tasks, while researchers from Stanford found that this daily practice helps you deal with anxiety.
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How to be Happy Step #3: Give Yourself a Tune-up
There's a reason that music is a prominent part of almost every religion in the world. "It expresses beliefs, emotions, and attitudes that words can't convey," says Donald Hodges, Ph.D., a professor of music at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Part of the reason it causes a rush is physiological—songs trigger the release of endorphins, those feel-good hormones that give us a natural high. Another component is emotional: "Hearing certain tracks remind us of past events and the joy we felt then," says Hodges. Studies from Wake Forest University and Seattle University found that listening to music does everything from lowering anxiety and blood pressure to helping you deal with pain. Just use it the right way: Hodges notes that numerous studies have found that when music is always in the background, it may lose some of its potency to speak to you emotionally. So try to make it the focal point. Rather than turning on the TV when you get home, relax to one of your favorite CDs.
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How to be Happy Step #4: Increase Face Time with Friends
You texted your sister, G-chatted with a guy you like, and sent status updates to your 300 friends on Facebook, but when's the last time you met anyone for lunch? There's nothing wrong with social networks (in fact, they're a good way to keep in touch), but if you're feeling alone, the solution can't be found solely online. Seeing someone on a monitor doesn't have the same intimacy level as face-to-face contact does, and it can result in you feeling more disconnected than ever. "That loneliness should act in a similar way to thirst, motivating you to change your behavior in some way," says John Cacioppo, Ph.D., the director of the Center of Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. "There's a deep need to have a sense of belonging that comes with having personal interactions with friends." Don't let your real-world relationships languish—make a date at least once a week.
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How to be Happy Step #5: Do Good, Feel Fabulous
"Whenever you spend time or energy on someone else—be it picking up lunch for a swamped co-worker or shoveling your neighbor's car out of the snow—the other person gets the helping hand and you walk away with a lighter spirit and a good feeling about yourself," says Wicks. The reason for that high: By being compassionate and helping somebody out, you become more aware of all that you have and are generally happier with your lot in life. Spend a Saturday morning at a soup kitchen or drop off an action figure at a Toys for Tots drive this month.
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How to be Happy Step #6: Surround Yourself with Nature
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that spending as little as 20 minutes in natural surroundings makes you feel relaxed, vital, and energetic. Although the study didn't address why nature is revitalizing, Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods and an upcoming book about the restorative power of the natural world, has a theory: "Spirituality begins with a sense of wonder—something that's more likely to occur when you're outside than while on your computer." To put it another way: When you catch sight of a deer or you hear a woodpecker pecking, it fills you with amazement. So disconnect and get outside for a hike with your family or a 30-minute run.
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How to be Happy Step #7: Forgive and Forget
Here's the easiest trick in the world for dealing with situations in which someone makes you mad: Try to imagine what's motivating them. The guy who cut you off in traffic may be racing his pregnant wife to the hospital, or your boss may have snapped at you because she's dealing with budget issues. Who knows? It isn't always about you. "Realizing that you're not at the center of everything should be a relief," says Anderson. "It frees you up to be forgiving and understanding." In the same way that you're striving to become a better person, assume others are too. Trying to accept their imperfections—as well as your own—is what spirituality is all about.
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More on How to be Happy:
Finding My Happy Weight
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How to Live Happily Ever After