12 Simple Actions for Lasting Happiness

JumpHawaiiWe’ve all heard that to improve our happiness we should do things like “cultivate gratitude,” “live your purpose,” and “be in the now.”

These statements are great and I agree with them all, but I’ve heard from several people that they can be too vague. In the end they’re still left wondering:

“OK, but what do I do?”

So for those of us who are action-oriented, here are 12 simple things to do which can raise your happiness set point, the baseline experience of how happy you are that you return to regardless of whatever good or bad is happening in your life.

You can do these actions in any order and with any frequency you like. Note that the impact on your happiness set point is cumulative, not immediate, and their impact increases the more consistently you do them. For the most lasting change, do at least one of them every day for a year.

1. Write a List of Happy Moments

Take out a piece of paper and a pen and write a list of times in your life that you felt happy. Big or small, doesn’t matter. Just write them down.

Why this works: Psychology has demonstrated that we are all subject to cognitive biases that change how we perceive our experiences, and that we’re predisposed to pay more attention to negative things as a basic survival strategy. This practice focuses your brain on positive things, which over time can shift your bias towards recognizing the good things in your life.

The paper and pen is recommended over using a keyboard because it turns out that the kinetic experience of writing also helps us learn new things.

2. Stand Up Straight and Smile

Stand up and in a relaxed (not forced) way, pull back your shoulders and extend your chest a bit. Picture your shoulder blades trying to touch in the back, and imagine giving your heart a little extra room in your chest. Next step: Smile. Imagine it starting in your eyes, then pulling the corners of your mouth upward a bit. Relax the muscles in your forehead and in your body overall as you do this.

Why this works: Studies have shown that how we hold our bodies can affect our outlook on the world and how we see ourselves. Collapsing the chest is associated with feeling defeated or depressed. Other studies have demonstrated that too much sitting is bad for our health. Now think about how much time we spend sitting with our shoulders forward doing things like reaching for keyboards, steering wheels, food, books, game controllers, etc. Regularly taking conscious breaks to stand up straight is a great way to counteract this.

There’s also research showing that smiling releases neuropeptides that fight stress, plus endorphins and other neurotransmitters that make you feel good. As an added bonus, a lot of people smile back when you smile at them and that just feels good on its own.

3. Eat Slowly and Pay Attention to Your Food

Whatever you’re eating, take a moment before you put it into your mouth to see the color and smell it. When you put it in your mouth, pause so you can fully taste it. Feel the texture of the food on your tongue, against your teeth and the roof of your mouth. Chew slowly and see if the flavors change. While you’re chewing, imagine the effort that it took to get this food to you. Bonus points for extending gratitude for the soil, plants, and all the people involved in that chain of production.

Why this works: Feeling happy is strongly related to how present you are in the moment as opposed to thinking about something else or daydreaming. Eating slowly and consciously is a great way to practice this awareness in very concrete way. As an added bonus, if you’re trying to change your eating habits this practice will support that.

4. Share Unexpected Thank Yous

Notice little things that people around you are doing that you appreciate. Write a note and give it to them to let them know that you noticed and to thank them for it. For example: Thank the supermarket bagger for being attentive to the weight in each bag, or thank the bus driver for picking you up and giving you a ride, or thank your neighbor for being your neighbor.

Why this works: Many studies have shown that regularly practicing gratitude improves happiness, and even improves health. Many of the greatest outcomes are from sharing gratitude with the person in question – that raises the happiness level for both. As for the idea of doing unexpected things,  that’s related to #5:

5. Play

Play non-competitive games. Use your imagination. Joke around. Go down a slide. Be silly. Wear a costume. Just let the goofy part of yourself out, even if just for a few minutes. Then laugh until it fills you up.

Why this works: Play has been proven to be important for adults as well as children. It’s how we learn, bond, shake off stress, and release neurotransmitters associated with happiness. Without play we’re less creative, less empathetic, and less connected to each other. Not only that, it’s fun!

6. Be Generous

Do something generous that stretches you a little bit, and don’t do it anonymously. Let someone go ahead of you in a line. Buy coffee for a stranger at the cafe. Pledge to support a friend’s fundraising drive. Volunteer at a school. Be generous with your time and give someone your full attention.

Why this works: Humans are social creatures, and altruism is a key part of what makes our social systems work. Being generous in a way that increases social bonds has been clearly shown to increase happiness, even more than donating anonymously.

7. Practice Listening

When you’re in conversation with someone, give them your full attention. Watch out for any tendencies you might have to be distracted by thinking about what you’re going to say, or if you’re just waiting for your turn to talk. Really listen and let yourself be surprised by what you say in response instead of having it be planned out.

Why this works: Having deeper, more connected conversations is associated with being happy. Consciously listening in this way helps develop and reinforce empathy, which is key for social connection, which in turn reduces our sense of isolation or separateness, raising our sense of safety and happiness.

8. Invite a Sense of Awe and Wonder

Drop yourself into a situation which is bigger than you are and let time stop while you experience it. Watch the sunset. Stare at the stars. Dive in the ocean. Hike through the mountains. You can also watch videos and listen to music which swell your heart and fill you with awe.

Why this works: A recent study found the experience of awe made people feel like they had more time and made them more patient. In our time-starved world, that’s a huge bonus. Allowing yourself to feel wonder is also related to the Buddhist concept of being in “beginner’s mind,” the sense of openness, of looking at things with new eyes. This is connected to mindfulness and being in the moment.

9. Move Your Body

Walk. Run. Dance. Do yoga. Hike. Cycle. Skateboard. Swim. Simply get up and move around as much as you can, whenever you can. Then do it again.

Why this works: Exercise releases endorphins, which make you feel happy. Also, it’s easier to feel happy if you’re healthy, and it’s easier to stay healthy when you’re active.

10. Pretend Others Want What’s Best For You

Most of us have experienced being shamed, and we’ve all been criticized. These experiences hurt. As a result, we are on the alert for it, often imagining that other people are judging us, even when they don’t say anything out loud.

Turn this habit around and imagine instead that people are cheering for you, that they want you to succeed and are wishing you the best. If they don’t speak up, you don’t know what they’re thinking, so you may as well imagine it’s something nice.

Why this works: There’s no concrete scientific evidence that this exact practice works. However, in our experience, doing this makes crowds less scary, reduces anxiety, and generally made it easier to be ourselves and to approach others. It’s also related to the well known concept, “assume positive intent,” which can reduce judgement and is a key component of collaboration.

11. Hang Out With Happy People

You know there are some people who make you feel better just by being around, and there are others who leave you feeling drained or bitter. If you want to feel happy, make a conscious effort to spend more time with happy people, and minimize the time you spend with negative people.

Why this works: This one’s partially borrowed from Jim Rohn’s work saying that we’re the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with. It’s also extrapolated from research that shows health outcomes can spread within social circles like a virus.

Of course, if you want happy people to choose to hang out with you, you need to do #12:

12. Stop Complaining

There are healthy complaints and unhealthy complaints.

Healthy complaining helps you vent out negative emotions and supports solving the problems you’re complaining about.

Unhealthy complaining usually involves a frustration that’s not current or is about something too big to solve, and it’s spoken to someone who can do nothing about it. Unhealthy complaining is often habitual, and over time contributes to stress and feelings of powerlessness. Habitual and unconscious complaining can erode relationships, stifle creativity, and reduce productivity. For more on healthy vs. unhealthy complaining, read the Intro to NoCo (no complaining).

If you catch yourself complaining, ask yourself if the person you’re complaining to can help you solve your problem. If they can’t, then ask yourself why you’re choosing to complain to them at this time. There may be a more direct way to achieve this desire without complaining.

This is simple but not easy. If it were easy, then there would be no need for the No Complaining Project. And there would be no point to this project if it wasn’t worth it. It is worth it. Go NoCo today.

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