We all have two choices every day: to be happy or to be unhappy. We have to accept that life circumstances and our genetic makeup are not the key to our happiness, and that it’s what we do and what we think in our daily lives that increases or decreases our happiness. We can practice happiness daily and exercise our happiness muscle. While stress is inevitable, we have to make the choice to focus on the positive. Happiness is a mind game.
It’s funny how one negative thing can get so much attention. We can spend our life worrying about diseases, terrorism, enemies, and cultivating fear and anxiety, or we can spend our mind’s limited resources loving the world and making it better. We need to be more positive and more loving, to open ourselves to be the best versions of ourselves, and to focus on the things that move us forward.
The following happiness exercises will inspire you to cultivate positive emotions, increase your happiness levels, and improve your overall well-being. Select one or two of these exercises that work best for you and begin training your happiness muscle.
1. Be grateful and journal
Writing down 3-5 positive things you are grateful for is probably the easiest way to practice happiness. Have a gratitude journal and spend no more than 5 minutes jotting down a few things that bring you joy. Whenever your brain is tempted to focus on the negative, consciously shift your focus to the people or things you are grateful for: the rain, the fact that you don’t have to breathe the air in Shanghai, or the ability to make choices – to say Yes or No. The purpose of this exercise is to train your brain to scan the world for positive things you are grateful for. Use your mind resources to think positively, as the brain can’t process the positive and negative at the same time.
2. Build relationships
It has been proven that rich family and social connections are a deep and fulfilling source of happiness. In cultures that are not material successful but have strong family connections, people are very happy. The key is not quantity, but quality. Develop and nurture 3 to 5 deep, high-quality relationships and devote your time and energy to those. Honor, respect, and nurture them. Express admiration and affection, communicate, be supportive and loyal, and hug as often as possible. Avoid the disconnected and shallow relationships that just overwhelm and distract you, and don’t contribute to your happiness.
3. Anticipate with optimism
Find the silver lining in a cloud, look at the bright side, feel good about the future, and trust that, somehow, your goals can be accomplished. Practice optimism by visualizing the best possible future for yourself. Think about things you are looking forward to – accomplishing a goal, a vacation, a meeting, an event. Close your eyes and visualize that experience in detail. Try to live it. Picture yourself reaching your goal, see the beach, the sunny days, the people you love to be around – as the brain can’t tell the difference between visualization and reality. When you anticipate a pleasant event, you actually live it twice and you double the positive effect of that event on your life. Besides, studies have shown that optimists set more and greater goals, they persevere and engage fully when life gets difficult, and they are physically healthier. When you have something to look forward to, you feel motivated, enthusiastic, and in control of your life.
4. Perform acts of kindness
You can feed a stranger’s parking meter, visit an elderly relative, write a thank you letter, donate blood, call your sister, or bake some cookies for a neighbor or a friend. Being kind and helping other people will help you perceive others more positively and, at the same time, it will give you a sense of awareness for your own good fortune. You will feel thankful by comparison, and you will become more optimistic and confident. Also, thinking about your next positive move will prime your brain for happiness while helping someone else have a better day.
5. Find your true meaning
Reconnect with your great, meaningful moments and create a positive future for yourself by doing the things you are excited about, like studying for a degree, starting your own business, educating your children, or working on a project. Commit to lifelong goals and ambitions and set positive expectations for your future. You create meaning in your life especially when you give to other people. Provide support to something bigger other than self, or think about past, present and future. Wake up and decide to be excited, to do something nice for somebody, or to work on a project you enjoy. Focus on the things that make your life significant and worthwhile, and you will feel enriched, inspired, and more satisfied at a deeper level.
Physical exercise may be the most effective instant happiness booster of all. Why? Because first, it makes you feel in control of your body and your health, and it gives you a sense of self-worth when you become better and stronger. Then, it serves as a positive distraction from your worries, hassles, and anxieties, and a well-deserved time-out from your stressful day. Third, it provides opportunities for friendship, support, and social connections. When you exercise, you feel good not only because you accomplish something, but because you become healthier and stronger. Physical activity reduces stress and anxiety, builds muscles and bones, improves sleep, reduces the risk of diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, helps control weight, reduces depression, increases confidence, and overall improves your quality of life. Make physical exercise a weekly and daily habit and you will become a little happier day after day.
7. Live in the moment and savor life’s pleasures
We oftentimes postpone our happiness by thinking that tomorrow will be better than today or imagining that what counts most will happen in the future. In fact, being in the present and savoring the positive experiences in your life is one of the most important happiness exercises. Live in the present by being mindful and relishing the present, ordinary moments. Slow down and take pleasure in the senses. Enjoy your meal. Enjoy the people in your life. The sunset. The nature. A good book. A summer road trip or your children’s laughter. Reminisce with friends and family or just by yourself. Travel back to mental destinations and recall positive memories and images. Replay happy days and celebrate good news. Savor and enjoy!
Scan your day and your world for the things that are positive, and in time you are going to notice a pattern. Your brain will unconsciously spend its resources looking for the positive, and you are going to notice all the positive things around you, which will make it easier for you to choose happiness even when life is hard.
How do you practice happiness? What would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments below.
For more tools and resources on happiness check out my Resources page.