Though we all know what happiness is, achieving it remains a mystery to most of us. At best it's elusive, a joyful state that crops up when the circumstances are right. But the latest research shows that happiness is right at your fingertips. You can strengthen and develop it, much like a muscle, until you can summon it anytime-even if you generally tend toward a glass-half-empty outlook. "Research shows that our ability to experience happiness is 50 percent influenced by genetics, 10 percent by events, and 40 percent by intention," says Dan Baker, Ph.D., founding director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, in Tucson, Arizona. "It's a side effect of living purposefully, standing up for what you believe in, and developing your full potential." By doing so, you can elevate not only your state of mind, but your health too. Fortunately, one of the easiest ways to achieve happiness is to break free of daily stressors and focus on the little things in life that bring you joy. To make it even easier for you, we've put together 10 simple steps to follow.
Play up your strengths
"As you're seeking contentment, it's better to focus on your assets rather than try to compensate for your weaknesses," says M.J. Ryan, author of 365 Health and Happiness Boosters. If you're not sure where your talents lie, pay attention to the compliments you receive. Do people at work say you have a knack for reports? If so, look for opportunities to write. Also, get comfortable discussing the expertise you do have. If your community board wants to advertise an event and you studied communications in college, speak up! Showing confidence-and backing it up with action-allows others to see you in your best light, which creates a positive cycle, says Canyon Ranch's Baker. The more you talk about your strong points, the more real they become, the better you feel, and the more likely you are to continue putting your best foot forward.
Get a hobby
If you've realized a creative pastime can make you content but you have difficulty fitting one into your packed schedule, consider this: "Creativity helps people adapt to life by making them more flexible and open to experiences," says Dean Keith Simonton, Ph.D. "This, in turn, fosters self-esteem and satisfaction." Since the benefits come from the process rather than the product, you don't have to paint like Picasso to feel the effect. If a drawing class seems too ambitious, add an "openness hour" to your day several times a week, suggests Simonton. During that time, try something that sparks your curiosity; perhaps cooking a new recipe or reading poetry. Another way to broaden your horizons is to change your routine. Try a different restaurant or take in a concert rather than a movie. Break from the daily grind and watch as your mind expands-and your happiness level rises.
Simplify your life
Money doesn't buy happiness. In fact, extra dough not only fails to bring joy after basic needs are met, it actually prevents it. "People who say making a lot of money is important to them are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and headaches-and less likely to report being satisfied with their lives," says Tim Kasser, Ph.D., author of The High Price of Materialism. According to Kasser's research, time affluence- feeling you have enough time to pursue the things you want to-is a better predictor of a satisfied life than income. To avoid thinking about material possessions, drop catalogs into the recycling bin before flipping through them, or suggest to a friend that you catch up over tea rather than at the mall. And if that rush you get from buying a new outfit intervenes, just remember: "Those pleasures only bring the kind of happiness that disappears quickly," says Kasser. "To achieve lasting contentment, you need to focus on experiences, not things."
Decide, and then move on
Less is truly more when it comes to choices. Too many options can paralyze you, prompt you to make a poor decision, or leave you second-guessing yourself. A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that the fewer stores people went to, the easier it was for them to make decisions-and the more content they felt. "When we think there's a more attractive alternative out there, even our good decisions leave us unsatisfied," says Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., author of The Paradox of Choice. "People who continually seek out the best of everything-be it a job, a mate, or a laptop-are more stressed and less fulfilled." To reduce anxiety, don't revisit a decision once it's made. "Say to yourself that good enough is good enough," suggests Schwartz. "Keep repeating the mantra until you believe it. At first it will be unsettling, but after a few weeks, you'll feel liberated." Finally, arbitrarily limit your options-whether you're searching for a soul mate or a sole mate. "Make a rule: 'Three online profiles and I pick, or two stores and I decide.' End of story."
Accept the fact that some people won't like you
No, it's not easy to cope with the idea that the woman three cubicles over can't seem to warm to you. But if you continue to fret over it, it'll bring you down-and it won't change her opinion. While friendship buffers stress, negative relationships can pose real roadblocks to happiness. "If you take everyone's judgment to heart, you surrender your own ability to view yourself clearly," says Baker. Next time you find yourself thinking about your office nemesis or worrying over a comment made against you, pause for a moment and recall the last compliment you received from someone you trust. Remind yourself that he or she has a good sense of your character. Then think of the things you've accomplished that mirror that compliment. This simple act will turn you into your own biggest ally and make you feel powerful and in control.
Widen your circle of friends
"Relationships with close friends are one of the best vehicles to happiness," says author M.J. Ryan. "These bonds give us a sense of purpose and come with just as many emotional benefits as a romantic partner does." Additionally, research shows that friends keep us healthy, reduce anxiety, and even foster longevity. In fact, friendships are so critical to a woman's well-being that the opposite of friendship-social isolation-has been found to be as damaging to one's health as heavy smoking is, according to the Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School. To make the most of your ties to others, put the same energy into your relationships with your friends as you would into a relationship with a significant other. Be enthusiastic, set aside time for special activities together, and keep each other updated on your daily lives. Your reward? Your pals will do the same for you, which will create feelings of support, belonging, and gratification.
Accentuate the good
There's a reason people tell you to stop and smell the roses: It's not just the flower's perfume that makes life better, but also the appreciation of it. "Gratitude is the cornerstone of happiness. It's all about noticing what's right in our lives instead of what's wrong," says Ryan. In a study from the Universities of Miami and California, Davis, people who were instructed to keep gratitude journals, recording every instance in which they were thankful, reported higher levels of enthusiasm, optimism, and energy than those who did not keep such diaries. The lesson? "Don't wait for something big to happen to you to feel happy," says Ryan. "Make yourself happy by noticing the good that's already there." To do so, start a simple ritual. Write a phrase like "Be grateful" on a piece of paper and put it in your pocket or another place you'll notice it. Each time you touch or see the note, name one thing you appreciate. Before you know it, gratitude-and daily bliss-will become automatic.
Match your intentions to your actions
You have goals, both big and small; you make to-do lists and set priorities. So why don't you feel fulfilled? "We find happiness when we derive pleasure as well as meaning from what we do," says Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., who teaches Harvard's popular positive-psychology class. In other words, you may say family comes first, but if you work 14-hour days, you're creating an internal conflict that chips away at your chances of happiness. When researchers from the University of Georgia examined the lives of people who reached 100, they found one of the most common things the centenarians shared was a sense of purpose they continued to pursue. If you work long hours but want to spend more time at home, start by leaving the office 15 minutes earlier each day until you're there for just eight hours. And instead of saving all of your vacation days for one trip, set a few aside for your kids' school events or for spending an afternoon lounging with your partner.
Silence toxic self-talk
When your boss called on you at the big meeting this morning and you mangled your answer, did you replay the scene in your mind for the rest of the day? If so, you probably have a habit of ruminating on your shortcomings-as do most women, says Susan Nolen- Hoeksema, Ph.D., author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. "My research shows that thinking about your mistakes obsessively drags you down and gives you an increasingly negative disposition. One problem leads to another and then another, and all of a sudden it seems as if your whole life is a mess," says Nolen-Hoeksema. "Over time, this pattern makes you vulnerable to depression and anxiety." But it's easier than it seems to break the cycle. Do something active and you'll be forced to refocus: Go for a jog, pop in one of your favorite Pilates DVDs, or clean out those cabinets you've been neglecting. After you've cleared your mind, take a small step toward easing your concern, rather than dwelling on it. Still thinking about your morning goof-up at the office? Send a short e-mail to your boss with a correction. Worried about a rattle in your car or the state of your savings account? Make an appointment with a mechanic or a financial advisor. Just one small action can pop the bubble of worry surrounding you.
Although it's been proven time and again that working out lifts your mood, builds muscle, bolsters metabolism, and improves sleep quality, we often let our gym time slide. If a tight schedule is keeping you from lacing up your sneaks, keep this in mind: A study from Northern Arizona University found that energy levels, fatigue, and mood improved after just 10 minutes of moderate exercise. After 20, the effects were even greater. This means just two or three short bouts of exercise each day are enough to improve your attitude. A good way to squeeze them in? Start walking every day, says Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. If you know you won't go out on your own, form a walking group with colleagues and take two 10-minute breaks during the day to stroll around the building. Talk with friends while walking or jogging instead of over meals, or walk your dog a few extra blocks. Bonus: Your interactions with others will increase, which will give your mood a double boost.