Don’t wait for a bad mood to pass. Lift yourself up with these strategies.
There are many ways to define happiness. Some experts describe it as “a combination of life satisfaction and having more positive emotions than negative emotions.” Others view it as consisting of three parts: feeling good, living an “engaged life” (using your strengths to obtain gratification), and feeling part of a larger purpose.
Whatever happiness means to you, you can expect to experience more of it as you get older. A study from Stony Brook University shows happiness increases after age 50, with peak satisfaction in our 70s and early 80s.
Researchers aren’t sure why this happens, but one explanation is that we tend to focus on fewer, more meaningful activities or interests as we age, says Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and author of Broadcasting Happiness.
But bad days happen at every stage of life. While some factors that affect happiness might be outside of our control, such as genetics or certain life circumstances, there are always actions we can take to amp up our own good feelings.
Here are six simple practices that can help you smile wider, be more satisfied with life, and feel better—today, tomorrow, and beyond.
1. Step Outside
Enjoying nature is a great way to put some pep back in your step. Living near green spaces is associated with better mental health. Even just looking at images of nature scenes can reduce anger, fear, and stress and stimulate the parts of your brain associated with happiness, positivity, and emotional stability.
Spending time in the great outdoors also exposes you to sunlight, which can help your body produce vitamin D. Low levels of the nutrient have been linked to depression, but soaking up even 15 minutes of sun per day can lift your spirits in the present and over the long term.
Or double your pleasure by going for a walk. Researchers at the University of Cambridge used a phone app to study 10,000 men and women, and found that people are generally happier if they’d been exercising in the previous 15 minutes.
2. Have an Attitude of Gratitude
Think about or write down what you’re thankful for. Even if there’s not time to write down everything, simply expressing gratitude creates an instant mood boost.
For a longer-term lift, Gielan suggests a 21-day gratitude challenge: Try to make thank-you emails, handwritten notes, or genuine compliments a practice for three weeks straight. “Your brain quickly starts to recognize how much social support you have in your life,” she says. And social support is the best proven predictor of happiness.
3. Pass on Some Wisdom
“As we age, giving back one’s knowledge, wisdom, and experience is a great source of joy,” says Prudence Hall, M.D., founder of The Hall Center in Santa Monica, California. “Whether it’s sharing with grandchildren or the world at large, giving back and being in service is a natural evolution of who we are and brings almost instant belonging and happiness.”
If you’re a lawyer, for example, look for pro bono opportunities in your community. A therapist? See if there’s a health or community center that might need counseling services. Share a physical feat like taking a dance class with a friend, or spend time teaching your grandchildren to read, Dr. Hall suggests. “Become a person who is respectful, awe-inspiring, and loving. What returns to you is respect, inspiration, and love.”
4. Think and Act Creatively
Negative thoughts have a way of spiraling, leading you to contemplate all of the ways a setback is going to bring you down. This detrimental practice is called brooding, and according to a Georgia Institute of Technology study, it sends you into a black hole of negativity.
The better option: self-reflection, or pondering an issue and taking positive steps to address it. This not only leads to feeling empowered, but it also sparks creativity. Why is that a good thing? When researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro contacted people throughout the week, those engaging in creative activities—crafting recipes, making art, or writing—were much more likely to report being happy.
5. Do Something Nice for Someone
The fastest way to find happiness yourself? “Create it in others,” Gielan says. Being kind rewards the human brain with a release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin. Her challenge: “Do one small meaningful act for someone else each week to brighten their day.”
Surprise your spouse with a cup of coffee in the morning, hold the door for the person behind you, or find a book a friend might enjoy. Any small action counts—and comes with big mood-boosting rewards.
6. Focus on the Here and Now
Studies find the best way to stay cheerful is to stay centered in the present—even when it’s not all that pleasant. In contrast, a wandering mind and daydreaming can bring people down.
The best way to re-center? Sit quietly for a few minutes, and try some deep, calming breaths. Focus on your breath moving in and out of your body, and gently guide attention back if your mind starts to wander.
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