So what does help make you happy? If you google that phrase, you find a lot of lists that boil down to the same things: get outside, spend time with friends, meditate, volunteer, practice gratitude, exercise. And those are helpful. I wanted to create a different list, however, one that explains both the what and why of things we can do to cultivate happiness in our lives.
But first, it’s important to clarify a few things about happiness. First, no one can be happy all the time. In fact, experiencing negative emotions or moods is key in being able to appreciate positive or neutral moods and emotions. Secondly, happiness is an individual feeling for people: what makes one person happy might not make another person happy. Thirdly and finally, you can decide whether cultivating happiness is important to you. It might not be and that’s ok. A wonderful article in the Guardian talks about why happiness is important (“Why Does Happiness Matter?”, 2014). In short, it says that happiness makes us healthier, more productive, nicer, and more altruistic, all of which have positive impacts on our community.
So how can we cultivate happiness in our lives? The list below is a collection of ideas and practices I have pulled from articles, my own coaching, and my personal experiences. I hope they help spark some creative thinking in your own life!
- Practice mindfulness. So often we only express appreciation for positive things when things are going badly. When I have a cold, for example, it makes me truly appreciate being able to breathe through my nose after my sinuses have cleared. Only after a week (or many weeks) of cloudy days does a day of sunshine make me realize how much I have missed seeing blue sky and felt the warmth of the sun through my office window. Remembering to be mindful of these wonderful things more often helps keep the happiness alive and fresh in my mind, which can help me sustain the feeling of happiness longer.
- Remember that happiness levels off. If something happens that brings us a burst of happiness, say a pay raise or a new house, we adjust to it fairly quickly. Mindfulness can help with this: it helps us appreciate the present and how we’ve arrived there. Expressing gratitude can help as well. Another thing that can help is to write down or journal how you feel during bursts of happiness so you can have a record to look back on and relive. I have a video of myself talking about an exciting moment in life and when I go back and watch it, I feel that same feeling again and again.
- Practice doing things that used to make you happy or might make you happy even if they don’t right now. Happiness is an emotional state. You can practice being happy just like any other skill. Things like positive affirmations, finding one positive for every negative, engaging in a hobby, talking to a friend, all can help you “learn” how to feel happy. With practice it becomes easier. How can you practice happiness in small ways during your day?
- Switch the idea of “feeling happy” to “feeling valued”. This idea is encapsulated in the article “What It Means to Matter” by Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky. His idea is that when we both feel valued and add value to our community, we become happier and healthier. What does feeling valued look like for you?
- Remember that circumstances matter. The old saying used to be “money can’t buy you happiness” and some older studies showed that after a certain amount of income, happiness plateaued. Newer studies, however, seem to contradict this. Having our basic needs met and being able to indulge in wonderful experiences does impact happiness. Circumstances aren’t everything though. As usual, it’s a balance of things: circumstances, personality, mindset, and practices.
- Happiness can be a mixture of emotions. For some it’s excitement, joy, and thrill, for others it’s contentment, fulfillment, and love. You can also experience different types of happiness: a burst of joy at unexpected news versus the prolonged contentment that things are going well for you. What does happiness feel like for you? Can you identify different types of happiness in your life? Do you tend to value some types of happiness over others?
- Identify things that bring you short-term happiness versus long-term happiness. These things look different: enjoying a latte vs putting money in your savings account. Hanging out with a friend vs exercising for your future health. Take stock of what your list looks like and how balanced it is. Pay attention to what percentages of each type support your mental and physical health. Do you need to do more short-term or long-term? What would it feel like?
- Find activities, hobbies, and/or practices that get you into a “flow” state, also known as “being in the zone”. This article from Headspace articulates the benefits of flow well: “What is a flow state and what are its benefits?” Headspace defines flow as a “very active, moving meditation” and “it can leave us feeling ecstatic, motivated, and fulfilled”, all of which are emotions that are linked to happiness.
We all are living with new stressors and rapid changes. Some clients of mine express guilt at seeking happiness while so many others are struggling. When we talk about finding happiness or work on adding more of it to our lives there needs to be an acknowledgement that we have the opportunity and privilege to do so. There is also the acknowledgement that small moments of happiness, flow etc keep us motivated, fulfilled, and able to move forward. Acknowledging these things and finding balance can be difficult, but is ultimately immensely satisfying. I hope this article allows you to spend some time thinking about what brings you happiness as well as the benefits it can add to your wellbeing.
Olivia Beisler is a Nationally Board Certified Health and Wellbeing Coach. While completing her Master’s degree in Integrative Health and Wellbeing Coaching at the U of MN, Olivia took courses that focused on different areas of integrative and alternative health including mindfulness, functional nutrition, physical activity, lifestyle medicine, mind-body transformation, and end of life transition/care.
Her coaching focuses on working one on one or in small groups, partnering with clients instead of prescribing or educating, holistic health, mind/body connection, and fostering self-compassion and self-awareness. She loves combining aspects of allopathic and integrative medicine, working on personal growth, and bringing creativity and the arts into her coaching sessions. She intentionally works to create a safe space for vulnerability and to explore the liminal spaces and intersections of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.