“Happiness is an inside job” is one of my all-time favorite quotes. Every time I consider it, I rediscover the notion that happiness is really not predicated on external circumstances. Happiness is a natural way of being.
But because it can be elusive at times, we think it’s some accidental occurrence or the exception rather than the norm. Sometimes there’s an almost superstitious outlook about how much happiness we’re allowed before things go downhill. How often have you heard people say that something negative happened because everything was just going too smoothly? “Should’ve known.”
Spoiler alert: that’s not really the way it works.
We humans are actually pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy. Think about something you really want in your life: a baby, a house remodel, a new relationship. “If only I had that,” you think. “Then I’d be happy.” But what we don’t always take into consideration is the stress that can come with the situation that we think we so desperately need to be happy. Remodeling a house or being up in the night with a baby are both, in reality, stressful situations.
As it turns out, getting to a happy place is much simpler than chasing illusory external stimuli. Happiness really does come from our internal mindset, and people who are consistently happy have been found to share some specific habits. Happiness isn’t a personality trait, it’s a choice.
Make Deliberate Decisions
Research from the University of Southern California’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging shows that we all have up to 70,000 kinds of thoughts every day: optimistic, pessimistic, compassionate, damaging. What’s more, your body actually responds on a physiological level to every thought you have by secreting hormones that impact your nervous system.
Another study revealed that people’s positive thoughts and emotions can actually lead to personal success and a healthier physical state. Part of this may be due to the fact that responding positively to situations opens up a path to more favorable circumstances rather than a feeling of living in a world of threatening circumstances. One way to achieve this sort of mental disposition is by making deliberate decisions to engage in behaviors that are beneficial.
For example, choosing to be grateful every day might sound annoying when you hear someone going on about it, but the truth is, it works to bring about happiness. Try letting go of a long-held complaint and replacing it with some thankfulness. This brings your focus to what’s right in your life rather than what’s wrong.
Another place to foster contentment in your life is in relationships with others. As a social butterfly, I sometimes forget that having a smaller number of really good, upbeat friends is way better for me than trying to be everyone’s best friend. When I spend too much time with people who have a negative outlook or who drain me emotionally, I pay for it.
Not that my friends or I don’t have rough days. We do. But if happiness is what you seek, surround yourself with people who see the good in life, who lose the complaints, who call you on your stuff with kindness, and who make you feel renewed when you’re around them. Be this sort of person to others in your life as well— choose to uplift and encourage. A kind word to the barista, a compliment to the man in the elevator, or a thank-you to your partner for their contributions can make a true difference.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret: happiness has a funny way of boomeranging back to you. Try being a bright spot in someone else’s day and see if you don’t feel good yourself.
The words you use also have a huge effect on your perspective. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg found that just a single negative word stimulates activity in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. Gloomy words bring on gloomy thoughts, and words of anger actually shut down function in the brain’s frontal lobe, the place where logic and reasoning are moderated.
Lastly, be mindful with your time. Start by jotting down what you do during a regular day: surfing the web, working, watching TV, texting, taking a walk, etc. Then make a separate list of the five things that are the most important to you. Are your lists reflective of one another? If not, see where you can eliminate what you’ve been doing mindlessly and out of habit for that which actually propels you forward into the life you want. By swapping out one banal activity for one meaningful one, even for just 30 minutes at a time, you’ll be well on your way to a happier frame of mind.
You know I love to talk about this one. What you eat really, really influences how you feel and how you move through your life. When you’re nourishing your body with real, whole foods and not putting junk into your system, you automatically feel better. What’s more, eating healthy gives you a strong and solid foundation in many areas. If you’re chronically sick or just plain feeling blah, your body has to focus on healing itself rather than being a tool that propels you into a fun endeavor. Eating well makes exercise and weight loss easier and gives you stamina. It also sustains healthy brain function and mental acuity.
Start your day with protein, some good fats, fiber, and essential nutrients. Try a green smoothie, an omelet with loads of veggies, or some grain-free pancakes with fresh organic blueberries. Have warm quinoa with mashed sweet potato and a piece of chicken at lunch. Snack on an apple and almond butter. Grill some salmon and asparagus for dinner.
Cooking at home is an excellent way to nourish yourself and can also be a way to simplify a hectic life. I know it seems easier to throw a prepared meal on the table (or eat it standing at the kitchen counter), but in reality, cooking even something simple will force you to slow down and change your focus.
Try picking a healthy and delicious recipe, shop for the ingredients ahead of time, and then pick a quiet night or weekend day to make it. Savor the prep process. Include other members of the household. Laugh. Be willing to mess it up or go off script. Express gratitude that you can nourish yourself so well (it counts even if you say it in your head). Care for your body and mind by feeding them good food and good thoughts.
Allow Time for Quiet
Sometimes I suggest meditation to people I see struggling with anxiety or unhappiness. I always giggle a little when I get a “like I have time for that” or a “do I look like I want to sit on a mountaintop” response. The beauty of meditation is that you can do it anywhere, for any amount of time, and no, you don’t always have to sit cross-legged and say “om”. (I mean, that’s fun, but it might not be your thing.)
Meditation can be done in a yoga class, with a mediation group, when walking your dog, or on the bus using an app. Even five minutes of mindfulness to re-center and disconnect from a hectic environment can do wonders to up your happiness.
Meditation can also be an aid to better sleep. Along with nutrition, good sleep is a building block for health and happiness. Set up your sleeping area to be peaceful and distraction-free and spend the hour before bedtime without your phone, computer, or TV.
The flip side of restful sleep is how you wake up. If a loud alarm complete with multiple snoozes just isn’t doing it for you, try a gradual sound or light alarm. Waking up gently is very effective in creating a happy day. Once awake, take a little time to set intentions for the day or reflect on what you’re thankful for in your life.
Another quote I love is “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Choose thoughts that support your well-being. Trust your inner guide to lead you to happiness. Stress, fear, anxiety, and self-doubt aren’t part of that. Take good care of yourself; remember that the body you have now is the same one you’ll have when you’re 90, so be good to it. Eat well, make exercise fun, breathe deeply, and be grateful. And know all the way to your toes that being happy is not only your natural condition, it’s what you deserve. It’s all up to you.