Develop an Attitude of Gratitude
In a Japanese study of 175 people published last year, happy and unhappy participants experienced the same number of negative moments each day. The big difference: The contented subjects had more frequent and intense positive moments.
One way to feel happier is to recognize good things when they happen. If you have trouble counting your blessings, try keeping a gratitude journal. Several studies show that people who record what they appreciate experience greater happiness, less anxiety and even better sleep. Gratitude, I've found, is also an excellent antidote to grumpiness.
Share the Love
The Japanese study also found that contented people's happy experiences most often involved connecting with someone. In an earlier study, positive-psychology researchers Ed Diener, Ph.D., and Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., discovered a similar pattern. "One hundred percent of the very happy people had good relationships," says Diener. It didn't matter if the strong bond was with a partner, a friend, or a parent the important thing was that the person had at least two out of three of these essential relationships. "We have what looks like a necessary condition for greater happiness," says Diener.
It's not surprising, then, that marriage also correlates very strongly with overall happiness. In a National Opinion Research Center poll of 3,500 people that was released last year, 42 percent of the marrieds reported that they were very happy, compared with only 19 percent of the singles. What's going on here? Experts theorize that people benefit from having a reliable emotional partner in their life.
The fastest way to improve your relationships: Set aside inviolable time for them, experts suggest. (I'm on top of it; my husband and I just scheduled a date night.)
Help Yourself by Helping Others
After recovering from a bout of depression, philosopher John Stuart Mill said, "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." He came to believe that "those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind.... Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way."
Helping others makes us feel capable and full of purpose, experts note, and it lets us quit stressing about our own problems for a while. (I can attest to this; I'll bet you can, too.) In a study published in 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers could literally see the joys of giving. Subjects were hooked up to a brain-imaging mechanism and asked to click yes or no to charity-giving opportunities. When they donated, the machine registered a boost in blood flow to a part of the brain associated with recognizing a reward.
That doesn't mean you have to book your already hectic schedule with endless community-service commitments. Small gestures work, too, says Stephen Post, Ph.D., coauthor of Why Good Things Happen to Good People. You could pay the highway toll for the car behind you, or try to be pleasant to everyone you encounter for a day (it's harder than it sounds).
Choose to Choose Less
Having a lot of options isn't always so great, says Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. In a 2006 study of job seekers, he found that "maximizers" (those who searched until they found the best position) were less happy with their choices than "satisficers" (those who took the first good one).
Schwartz explains that too much choice can cause anxiety and lead people to blame themselves if their decisions don't turn out as well as they expected. His recommendation: Learn how to accept good-enough options.
Introduce Your Body to Your Mind
Fred B. Bryant, Ph.D., coauthor of Savoring, says you can increase happiness just by articulating it. In several experiments, subjects instructed to visibly express their reactions while watching a funny movie reported greater pleasure than their more subdued counterparts. So get your body involved when you're feeling good. Jump up and down or dance around. (Evidence that this technique isn't as silly as it sounds: I unleashed a self-congratulatory "yahoo!" after my last set of tummy crunches and felt a lot more revved up.)
Be More Forgiving
A conciliatory attitude can help counteract feelings of depression, powerlessness, and anxiety about future hurts. What's more, in a 2006 study of over 200 subjects, Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., author of Forgive for Good, found that forgiveness training even reduced participants' stress by 25 percent.
So how do you let go of anger and resentment toward others? Take into account the stresses that contributed to the wrongdoer's behavior, remember his positive traits, and consider requesting an apology. And if your motivation starts to falter, keep in mind that forgiving is really a gift you give yourself.
Pick Out the Positives
"Many people say things happen for the best. I don't agree with that," says Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., a Harvard University psychology professor and author of Happier. "But some people are able to make the best of things that happen and that's a key to happiness." One way to do this: Reframe your thoughts. This wisdom struck me last year, when my father was in the hospital with heart disease. Instead of dreading my visits with him, I started to see them for what they were: my last, precious chances to connect with him before he passed away. It also gave me the opportunity to care for him as he had done for me when I was a child.
Once we start trying to reframe, it can quickly become a habit. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., writes that humans have "a remarkable ability to manufacture happiness. For example, when people in experiments are randomly awarded one of two equally valuable prizes, they quickly come to believe that the prize they won was more valuable than the prize they lost."
Check out the next page for tips on how to schedule time for joy builders.