Happiness isn't as simple as a smiley emoji. Here, experts explain what joy actually is—and how you can genuinely achieve it.

By Mirel Zaman
February 02, 2020

Happiness has become the latest wellness obsession. People are so intent on becoming happier that they’re game to swallow adaptogens and cannabis oil, go to acupuncture sessions and take cold showers, purge their diets of sugar, detox from their phones, and try a million other things that promise the same goal: more joy. More energy. Less stress. Better life.

“Many women were raised with this idea that they could be everything and have it all. We were given this belief that we could effortlessly have families, powerful careers, and hot bodies at the same time,” says Ada Calhoun, a writer who interviewed hundreds of women and experts about mood in middle age for her book Why We Can’t Sleep. “Add to that this narrative we’re fed via social media that everyone else is succeeding at these things and the fact that we have this narrow idea of what happiness is.” The result is a pervasive sense that we could be—and should be—happier. (Related: How to Be As Happy IRL As You ~Look~ On Instagram)

The truth is, we’re not necessarily displeased; we’re just thinking about happiness wrong, says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Hardwiring Happiness. We’re under the impression that it looks and feels a certain way. And when our experience doesn’t match that, we think we have to catch up.

What's a person to do? Here, experts share the most common misconceptions about happiness and what you can do to feel this emotion in a more meaningful way.

Most of us are actually doing fine.

“Research shows that if you ask people throughout the day to rate their mood, most of them feel either neutral or positive [both of which are good] most of the time,” says Hanson. (There are, of course, exceptions to that: people with clinical depression, people who suffer from intense pain, people whose basic needs for food and shelter are not being met.) A survey from the University of Chicago confirms this fact. Though the number of people who say they’re “not too happy” has doubled since 1990, that still represents about 13 percent of U.S. adults.

Why, then, don’t we feel better? “People confuse happiness with excitement,” says Dan Harris, an ABC News anchor and the author of 10% Happier. We may also give too much weight to specific times we felt unhappy, says Hanson, which can then imbue us with an overall sense of dissatisfaction. Shifting your thinking about happiness from a mental high to a quieter, underlying sense of serenity can help you shake free of the idea that we’re all emotionally doomed. (If you need more convincing, know that having a cynical attitude can hurt your health.)

Being happy doesn’t mean you always feel good.

“Bad stuff happens to everyone,” says Hanson. “When it does, it’s normal to feel sad, irritated, or rattled. Being a happy person means having an underlying sense of well-being that lets you return to your baseline more quickly.”

Worth noting: Sometimes in-the-moment stress is actually necessary for long-term happiness. In a study in The Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers looked at people who spent time “increasing competency,” meaning doing things like training for a race or taking a class that would help their career. Those activities are stressful, and people tended to feel less happy in the moment as they pursued them. But overall they felt much happier than others each day—and in the long term too. (Here's how Negative Nellies can end their pessimism once and for all.)

Your happiest moments are in your control.

You may have heard of the “hedonic treadmill” (more on hedonic happiness later), a theory that suggests that people quickly get used to positive life changes. Meaning that if you get a raise and feel elated about it, after a few pay periods, your mood reverts to normal, and you’re left looking for the next thing that will give you an endorphin hit. “It’s more complicated than that,” says Hanson. There’s a deep well of research showing that positive short-term experiences can have a lasting impact on your baseline mood, he says. But it doesn’t just happen. You have to know how to make happy moments sink in so they can change your brain, a process known as positive neuroplasticity. (This drunk yoga retreat will definitely lift your mood.)

Hanson suggests a three-step routine:

  1. When you feel happy—grateful, relaxed, appreciated—sit on the feeling for a breath or two.
  2. Really feel it in your body.
  3. Focus on what’s enjoyable about it.

Savor your happy moments as you would a good glass of wine or a fantastic meal. It may sound simplistic, but it works, says Hanson. “Each step elevates the way your brain converts passing experiences into lasting changes in your mind and mood,” he says. (These mindfulness exercises will help you stay grounded too.)

It’s OK to ruminate on the past.

We’re told to let go of the past, move on, and look forward. But wishing you’d done things differently isn’t always bad. In a recent study, Clemson University researchers found that thinking about the advice you’d give your younger self can help boost your view of yourself now. That’s especially true if you follow the advice, says study author Robin Kowalski, Ph.D. If present you would advise younger you to manage her money more effectively, for instance, it can motivate you to look at the state of your finances now and make some productive changes. This technique keeps you from regretting the past, which can be harmful. And it makes you feel more empowered and prouder. “We can all learn from our past, including mistakes,” says Kowalski. (Related: Trying to Be Happy Is Making You Miserable—Here's Why)

Don’t fall back on self-care.

Tending to your needs is good. “But science shows that happy people focus on others. Happiness doesn’t come from focusing on yourself,” says Laurie Santos, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Yale University and the host of The Happiness Lab podcast.

There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to a night out or a spa trip. But if you’re looking to boost your mood in the long term, find little ways you can help others. (Being kind to others can actually help reduce social anxiety.) Santos suggests volunteering or donating money to charity, but she says any random act of kindness can work: Offer to do some errands for your parents the next time you visit, take a friend to the spa and treat her to a massage, give a coworker a compliment. (See: The Problem with the Wine-and-Bubble-Bath Style of Self-Care)

There are two types of happiness—and both are good.

They’re known as hedonic and eudaemonic, says Hanson.

  • Hedonic is what you feel when something makes you happy: an exhilarating workout, a new pair of jeans that fit perfectly, a pay raise, a cuddle from your cat.
  • Eudaemonic happiness is what you feel when you’re comforting your kid who woke up in the middle of the night, or after spending hours on an intense volunteer project. No one would call these activities fun, but they’re deeply fulfilling.

“We think that because eudaemonic well-being is difficult or hard-won, it’s more legitimate. But that’s bogus,” says Hanson. Both are essential for overall happiness. In fact, the easy hits of happiness can actually motivate you to pursue experiences that offer eudaemonic well-being. “If I’m depressed, I make my bed and put out fresh flowers,” says Hanson. In other words, do things you know will lift your mood or make you feel good, even for a second. Then use that three-step routine (stay with the feeling for a breath, feel it in your body, focus on what’s enjoyable about it) to internalize the happiness, so you can ultimately feel good enough to take bigger, and maybe more difficult, actions toward happiness later.

The bottom line: There’s no right or wrong way to feel good. Every happy moment has the power to profoundly improve your baseline mood if you just give it the chance.

How to Truly Boost Your Happiness

1. Gratitude

“Just making lists of things you’re grateful for is not enough,” says Hanson. You need to turn the idea of what you’re thankful for into actual experiences of gratitude.” You feel thankful dozens, maybe hundreds, of times a day without even trying: When you notice it’s snowing outside and your house suddenly feels extra cozy. When you overhear a funny interaction. When you get your paycheck. You don’t have to write these moments down. Just take a few seconds to sit in the feeling, says Hanson. The faster it passes, the less impact it has on your brain. Hold on to it, imprint it in your mind, and let it increase your baseline happiness. (Here's how to practice gratitude to see the most benefits.)

2. Socializing

Maybe you haven’t seen your best friends in months or even exchanged much more than a “miss you” text. Don’t sweat it. People hear that having friends is essential for mental and physical health, and they think, You need to have a million friends you talk to all the time. Not so, says Harris. “Having a few high-quality relationships is what’s important,” he says. Meaning: Someone you can call if you need help, want to vent, are feeling lonely, or just want a laugh. That said, it’s worth taking some positive action in this area. Invite an almost-friend out for a drink, or send a “let’s reconnect” message to someone you’ve lost touch with. Even if nothing comes of your first attempt, making the effort will pay off in the long run.

3. Exercise

Your workout habit is doing amazing things for your happiness level, says Harris. “Exercise functions as an antidepressant,” he says. Studies show it changes the brain in the same way an antidepressant medication would, adding volume to the hippocampus, the area linked to happiness that tends to be smaller in people with depression. It doesn’t take much exercise to change your mood. People who work out once a week, or just 10 minutes a day, are happier than people who never work up a sweat, the Journal of Happiness Studies reports. And it doesn’t matter if you’re partial to yoga, boxing, powerlifting, running, or dancing. All movement is great for your mood.

Shape Magazine, January/February 2020 issue

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