Happiness, the thinking often goes, is one of those things you either have or don't have based on some unknown combination of life circumstances and natural disposition. You have a good day at work; someone does something that cracks you up and, voila. Bliss! Rough day at work, someone was a jerk and suddenly you're miserable.
But positive psychologists have long believed that happiness is actually a quality that can be cultivated -- a habit, or series of habits that can be practiced.
"There are lots of ways you can make yourself happier for the moment," said Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside. "[But] if you really want to change your happiness, it's a life-long practice."
Here are a few recommendations for small changes you can make to quickly (and easily!) change your mood:
There's a reason why people always talk about faking it 'til you make it: "When we smile, the muscles in our face send signals to our brain that help create -- biologically -- a better mood than when we frown," said positive psychologist Barbara Holstein, EdD, who has a private practice in Long Branch, N.J. It might sound silly, but Holstein encourages people to sit for a minute and just grin. Or better yet, smile at someone. This helps establish immediate connection -- another key to feeling upbeat.
2. Schedule something fun.
"Everyone needs something to look forward to," Holstein said, and while dreaming about a fantasy trip, or a job you'd love to have 5 or 10 years down the road can provide a boost (as can having fun right-this-minute), there's value in putting something tangible on your calendar within the coming weeks or months. The anticipation of having a nice experience coming up not-too-far-down-the road -- like dinner at a new restaurant or a day trip to the country -- breeds joy.
3. Express gratitude.
Numerous studies have shown that gratitude is intimately connected with happiness, and there are lots of ways to find time for a few, focused moments of reflection daily. Give it some thought in the car, Lyubomirsky said, or on the subway on your way to work. To take it to the next level, write gratitude letters to a specific person (which you don't even have to send), or try a gratitude journal -- just don't feel pressure to write in it every day. In her research, Lyubomirsky has found that writing just once a week may provide the most pronounced results, in part because it keeps it from feeling like a chore.
4. Be kind to someone.
Do something small and simple, like letting someone go ahead of you in line at the grocery store, Lyubomirsky suggested, or call your 85-year-old great aunt who loves to hear from you, Holstein said. Acts of kindness increase well-being because they're concrete. Another idea? Focus on one person -- a boyfriend or girlfriend, a parent -- and for one week really think about what you could do to make them happier. Then do it.
5. Walk. Better yet, walk outside.
"When you exercise, chemicals are released in the brain that cause happiness," explained Nancy Mramor, Ph.D., a psychologist with a private practice in Pittsburgh, Pa. "Fifteen to 20 minutes of walking and the chemicals start kicking in, and the more you do it, the stronger that reaction in the brain becomes." For a double-whammy, take your walk in nature (or at least, in relatively fresh air and sunlight if you're a city person). Studies show that putting one foot in front of the other outdoors ... even for just a few minutes ... can help boost mood.
6. Eat something healthy.
"Hangry" people are not happy people, and sometimes the simplest mood-upping-fix is a quick nosh on something relatively healthy, Mramor said. "Dark chocolate, in moderation, is a good thing," she added. "Eat a balanced snack with proteins, carbs and fats, which balances blood sugar and improves mood." Maybe grab an apple with some cheddar cheese or peanut butter, spread an avocado on toast or dip into a greek yogurt with whatever fruit topping suits your fancy.
7. Pretend you're relocating.
In her research, Lyubomirsky has asked men and women to imagine that this month is the last month they're going to live in their hometown."People really change," she said. "They change what activities they do -- they savor their friends and their neighbors." What might you embrace, or what nearby adventures might you finally prioritize if you were moving soon?
"'Flow' refers to activities that you get involved in, where you forget time and place," Mramor said. "That can happen with writing, with music, with cooking. There have even been books written about how knitting causes happiness because it causes 'flow.'" As long as you're not throwing yourself into your chosen activity to distract yourself from other problems in your life, tapping into that feeling can produce big happiness gains. So get dancing, painting ... fill-in-the-blank.
9. Call a (not-just-on-Facebook) friend.
A main contributor to happiness is social contact. For the biggest emotional payoff, think beyond Facebook or Twitter acquaintances and get in touch with someone you're genuinely close to. "It can be e-mail -- it doesn't have to be face-to-face -- but it has to be with someone you know in order for that to really work," Mramor said. Here's an idea: combine two happiness hacks and call a friend while you take a walk outside? Or go meet a friend for an hour or two at the end of the day, even if you're tired or feel like you have too much else to do. It's truly good for your health.