How much can leaning in to positive feelings impact your mind-body health? Consider a recent study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, involving women who had recently been treated for breast cancer: As they increased their sense of eudaemonic well-being — the kind of happiness that comes through having a sense of connection and purpose in life — through mindfulness training, they showed a better immune response, even despite the underlying worry about their illness. “It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a lot of stress in the world, and yes, a lot of things can bring you down. But it’s even more important to be aware of all the things that can still make you happy, despite what you might be up against,” says psychiatrist David Baron, DO, senior vice president and provost of the Western University of Health Sciences and former deputy clinical director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Harness the power of a positive mindset with these happiness tips.
1. Know there’s more than one path to happiness.
“Happiness is about being present and finding a sense of purpose (spiritual well-being); nutrition, exercise, and rest (physical well-being); learning and curiosity (intellectual well- being); friendship, love, and social interactions (relational well-being); and dealing with painful emotions and experiencing pleasure (emotional well-being),” says psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy, and author of Choose The Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness. “We of course do not need to be thriving in each of the areas, but introducing change in any one or more of these dimensions will positively affect our overall happiness.”
2. Get crafty.
“Certain hobbies, like needlepoint, knitting, or crocheting, force you to be present and focused on the task at hand, which can help keep your mind engaged and your anxiety from taking over,” notes Charmain Jackman, PhD, a licensed psychologist and the founder and CEO of InnoPsych, Inc. Research backs her up: A recent survey in the journal Perspectives in Public Health revealed that crocheting made respondents — mostly women between the ages of 41 and 60 years old, living in 87 different countries — feel calmer, happier, and more useful. And an earlier survey of knitters, in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy, showed similar mood-boosting results.
3. Donate to a good cause.
Being generous with your time and/or money could give you a boost, too. One study, published in the journal Nature Communications, revealed via functional magnetic resonance imaging that generosity and happiness are linked on a neural level. Participants were given a weekly monetary endowment and those who committed to spending it on others (e.g., taking friends out to dinner, buying gifts, etc.) over the next month ended up performing more generous acts in general and showing an increased level of happiness than those who agreed to just spend the money on themselves.
4. Simply remember your favorite things.
“Your mind, body, and spirit are all connected, and the more we can strengthen the relationship between them, the better — and happier — our lives will be,” says Jessica Schatz, a meditation leader and integrative wellness and biomechanics coach based in Los Angeles. She recommends making a list of about 10 things that complete this sentence for you: “I am following my joy when…” Responses could be making a delicious cup of tea, calling a friend, or reading a good book. Then consciously incorporate those items more regularly into your routine. “Research shows that an hour or two of a meaningful and pleasurable experience can affect the quality of an entire day, or even a whole week,” notes Ben-Shahar.
Research shows that the act of smiling itself could make you happy. (You grinning yet?) A recent review of 138 studies published in the journal Psychological Bulletin revealed that facial expressions did have an impact on emotions wherein smiling was found to make people feel happier — and frowning actually makes them feel sadder. “Even forcing a smile triggers a chemical reaction in your brain and releases neurotransmitters, like dopamine, which naturally increases happiness,” says Dr. Baron.
6. Sit in a room with a view.
When you can’t be outside in nature, situating yourself next to a window can help: One recent study in the journal Ecological Applications revealed that having a view of trees, plants, and/or grass from your window could improve happiness and lower levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
7. Try a mind-body exercise.
Think qigong, yoga, or tai chi. “The practice of qigong allows simple, gentle movements and meditations that help to harmonize our physical, mental, and emotional states of being,” says Chris Shelton, author of Qigong for Self-Refinement. He suggests doing what’s called the “Dry Cry” (or “Heart Healing Sound”): Focus on a situation from the past or present that creates emotional pain for you. Inhale and imagine a pink cloud filling up in your heart as you do. As you exhale, make the “haaa” sound (either audibly or under your breath) and imagine that cloud of emotion leaving your body and landing on the ground in front of you. An analysis of 10 qigong studies in Frontiers in Psychology found that the practice improved adolescents’ psychological well-being.
8. Say no sometimes.
When it comes to our happiness, less is quite often more. “We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much,” says Ben-Shahar. “Knowing when to say ‘no’ to others often means saying ‘yes’ to ourselves.”
9. Appreciate the small stuff.
Start your day with a positive thought. “What’s something small that you can appreciate as soon as you wake up? If you’re making your bed and plumping the pillows, instead of thinking of it as a chore, use the moment to appreciate that you have a comfortable bed to sleep in,” says Judy Kuriansky, PhD, a clinical psychologist on the faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University. “The simple little things that we take for granted every day are the very things that give us control and happiness in life.”
10. Make a to-do list.
When you’re juggling several different goals, the simple act of making a plan can help eliminate intrusive thoughts and allow you to focus, according to research from Florida State University. “Take a piece of paper and literally dump out all the things clouding up your mind. Goals, dreams, lists, chores, or whatever else you need to remember to do today — write it down,” says Mika Morris, a trainer and sports nutrition specialist based in San Diego. “It can clear up space for you to be in the moment, instead of spending your day feeling overwhelmed.”
11. Keep moving.
Working out won’t just make you healthier but happier. A study of more than 2,300 young, middle-aged and older adults in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that those who had a higher physical activity level were happier and had greater life satisfaction, regardless of age. “To get both the physiological and mental benefits of exercise, do something that’s fun and gets your heart rate up at least three times per week,” says Baron.
12. Play some music.
“All of the Olympic athletes I work with have a special playlist that gets them in whatever mood they want to be in when they work out,” notes Baron. But you don’t have to be breaking a sweat to see sound benefits. One study in The Journal of Positive Psychology revealed that when college students listened to 12 minutes of uplifting classical music, with the hope that it would improve their moods, they reported greater levels of happiness.
13. Do something nice for someone.
The more acts of kindness you do, the more you’ll benefit, too. When participants in one study, published in The Journal of Social Psychology, performed a variety of kindness activities over the course of one week, their happiness soared. And researchers found a positive correlation between the number of kind acts and the size of their happiness boost.
14. Reframe minor upsets.
“Oftentimes, when we’re feeling unhappy, we have automatic negative thoughts. For example,
‘I really wanted to get my kid the fanciest toy. I can’t get them what I wanted, and that means I’m a bad parent,’” notes Baron. Try instead to allow yourself a different interpretation, he says. Remind yourself that your inability to afford something right now is temporary, just like stuff, and then tell yourself five things that you do regularly that truly make you a good parent.
15. Try a change of scenery.
Whether you’re gazing up at the night sky, wandering in a park or exploring downtown, notice the beauty around you. A study published in Scientific Reports shows that happiness can be boosted when you’re in a more scenic location — and what that looks like (a big city, a rustic farmhouse, an ocean view, etc.) can vary from person to person.
16. Put your feelings on paper.
Got a journal? Good. Science suggests that jotting down your thoughts in it can boost happiness within minutes. “Every day, write down and visualize one thing that you are grateful for and another that you are looking forward to,” says Ben-Shahar.
17. Start your day with movement.
“The first thing I do in the morning is put my hands on my belly and feel my breath, to feel more connected,” says Schatz. Try it, then move your body, she says — even if it’s just for five minutes. “Do yoga, dance, go for a run, whatever makes you happy.” A recent study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that when adults started their day with a 30-minute walk on the treadmill, their cognition and executive function improved throughout the day.
18. Eat your fruits and veggies.
One study in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed the food diaries of more than 12,000 people and found that those who increased their fruit and vegetable consumption (from almost none to up to eight portions per day) over the course of two years also experienced greater happiness and well-being. “Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health,” says Ben-Shahar.
19. Recall happy memories.
“When you’re depressed, it can be difficult to drum up positive thoughts in those moments,” says Baron. “When you’re feeling good, you tend to remember things that make you happy. So write down those memories when they pop up, and review them when you’re down and need a mental boost and it’s just not coming to you naturally.”
20. Hang out with a friend.
It doesn’t matter if you’re inside, outside, on the phone or on your computer. “The No. 1 predictor of happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us,” says Ben-Shahar.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, How To Beat Stress, in 2022.