Let’s be honest—figuring out how to be happy with yourself in the moment can be a bit of a struggle. Many of us find ourselves thinking, I’ll be happy when… and then focus on achieving those goals. Although there is nothing wrong with trying to make your future self happier, we should be cultivating our current happiness, too. This slight obsession we have with figuring out our own happiness may be due to the fact that we’re bad at it—or at least that’s what some research says.
“We aren’t always particularly good at it, and we seem to be getting worse,” says Sherry Benton, Ph.D., who has more than 25 years of experience in counseling psychology. According to the World Happiness Report 2017, the United States ranked third among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in 2007, but it has since declined to the 19th spot (in 2016).
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What’s interesting is that some of the things that we think may make us happy actually won’t do so in the long term. Based on scientific research conducted over the past 40 years, Benton says that most of us need a basic level of financial security and stability to be happy. But beyond that, making more money doesn’t necessarily add to our happiness.
Things like raises, promotions, new houses, or other new possessions feel good for only a few fleeting moments, but they have no long-term benefits.
“Things like raises, promotions, new houses, or other new possessions feel good for only a few fleeting moments, but they have no long-term benefits,” she says. So what tends to push the needle when it comes to happiness? Family, friendship, social connections, new experiences, gratitude, and compassion are a few factors. “Real happiness is not a destination—it’s a journey,” Benton tells us. “We experience happiness in the here and now from the choices we make in our daily lives.”
With that in mind, we asked Benton and Dimitriu to help explain what we can do now to be happy.
Embrace Experiences Over Things
Pursue new experiences, rather than new things. Book vacations, take fun strolls in the park, purchase tickets to concerts or unique performances. You can opt for some solo time exploring the city or invite your friends to go on an unexpected adventure. “Go someplace new or do something new,” Benton suggests.
Not only is meditating helpful in reducing anxiety and depression, but it will also help keep you grounded. And did we mention its health benefits? “Mindfulness meditation for just 10 minutes per day can lower blood pressure and pain levels,” says Benton. YouTube has a number of free meditations to follow, or you can download an app like Calm or even Peloton for a selection of meditations.
Make a Daily Gratitude List
We become more satisfied when we focus on what is good and right in our lives. Dr. Dimitriu says, “Sincere gratitude helps shift our focus to what is right, not what is wrong or missing.” It’s as simple as getting a journal and writing down five things each day that you’re grateful for. Maybe you had a really delicious coffee, or a great phone call with a loved one, or a low-key day full of your favorite TV shows. “Take time to turn off your steady stream of negative and worrisome thoughts each day,” says Benton.
Cultivate an Active Social Support Network
“We all do better when we have a community we feel connected to,” Benton explains. No matter what, carve out time to spend with family and friends because these will be the people who will always have your back. You can plan a friends’ road trip to a new city or take your parents out for lunch on the weekend.
When we are compassionate and caring toward others, we end up becoming happier in our own lives. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, mentor at-risk youth, or simply help out a family member or friend. “There is a belief that a lot of anxiety and possibly depression can come from being too inwardly focused or preoccupied with one’s self and one’s needs. In these cases, any distraction, especially one that shifts the focus to the world outside or other people, can help,” says Dr. Dimitriu. “Volunteering and helping other people is one of the most effective ways to focus outside of one’s self. Additionally, the act of helping others can also make us feel better about ourselves—and there may be specific [benefits] to doing it for free or without anything expected in return.”
Avoid Being Judgmental
In case you didn’t know, happiness is connected with the release of dopamine, a substance that carries signals between your brain cells. “When we become judgmental and critical, the dopamine system shuts down,” Benton says. “Then we become unhappier and dissatisfied with our lives.”
Yes, a trip to the gym is always good, but working out in fresh air is even better. Benton says research indicates that simply being outdoors makes us happier. Try walking, biking, or really anything that will just get you moving. “Exercise helps improve mood, anxiety, and also sleep quality. More importantly, exercise keeps our body and mind healthy. Specific to the brain, exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function, mood, and may even help regrow new neurons by increasing levels of BDNF—brain-derived neurotrophic factor—which is like MiracleGro for our neurons,” explains Dr. Dimitriu.
Engage in Activities That You Find Completely Absorbing
Ideally, you are trying to get yourself into a mental state known as “flow.” Such activities include creating something, participating in sports, cooking, writing, playing music, knitting, fishing, sailing, and so much more. Flow is when we forget about ourselves and our own egos and are completely focused on the experience, according to Benton.
Enjoy Your Work
It can be difficult, but you should prioritize finding a career that you genuinely enjoy (for the most part). Benton says to try to find a work situation that uses your strengths, where you can experience some success, and where you enjoy your co-workers’ company. Dr. Dimitriu adds, “A career, much like a car or a bed, is important because we spend so much of our lives in it. All work will always be demanding, but it helps to be doing something that is personally meaningful and creates a sense of purpose or a ‘need’ to be at work.”
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
No excuses—you should try to get at least seven hours of sleep every night. “It makes a big difference in your energy, enthusiasm, and general happiness throughout the day,” Benton explains. If you have trouble falling asleep (we’ve been there), think about implementing a bedtime routine that will help you unwind at night. A few hours before bed, you can read a book instead of scrolling through your phone, take a warm bath with soothing Epsom salts, drink a warm cup of tea, or write in your daily gratitude journal.
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