10 ways to truly be happier

Want to learn the key to happiness? Try these steps to let go of negativity and lead a happier life

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The key to happiness

Lots of things contribute to our happiness, including how well we eat and how much we exercise. Now, the first-ever World Happiness Report (WHR), published in 2012, shows that where we live might also put a smile on our face. The United Nations’ report, which measured social and economic well-being globally, ranks Canada fifth happiest among all nations after Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands.

According to researchers, we all have an innate level of happiness. Just how much we can change this “set point,” or even if it truly is a set point, is hotly debated among experts in positive psychology-a field that focuses on nurturing positive emotions rather than correcting negative ones. Kassam and others contend that notwithstanding emotional lows and highs, sooner or later we tend to revert to our individual happiness set point. This explains why external factors-such as rising levels of income-don’t make us happier.

Other experts, including Randy Paterson, psychologist and director of counselling centre Changeways Clinic in Vancouver, believe it is possible to alter our happiness beyond what we experience on average, by making intentional day-to-day attitude changes and developing certain skills.

At the very least, we can count on the following 10 insights into the science to brighten our day, and possibly point us toward a new path to happiness.

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birthday cake

1. Don’t try too hard

Why do we sometimes feel so disappointed at our own birthday party? Research published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2011 showed that putting too much stock into the pursuit of happiness for its own sake can backfire. The trouble is the expectation that, for example, the party itself will make us happy; that leads to too much focus on the end point versus simply engaging in the activities that make us happy-in this case, socializing with friends and family in a pleasant atmosphere. “When people have expectations [that they must be happy], this can lead them to become disappointed when their current emotional state doesn’t match their happiness ideal,” says June Gruber, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University. “It is critically important to try to liberate oneself of psychological expectations, especially those focused on happiness, and instead foster greater acceptance of one’s current happiness state.”

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Setting short and long term goals

2. Set personal goals and go after them

People who strive to reach personal goals engage in more purposeful leisure and are, therefore, happier, according to research by Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University. He says “purposeful leisure” is any activity that involves self-improvement and reflects a sense of choice-for example, taking a language course, pursuing a hobby or trying a new sport. “It may seem obvious, but it doesn’t go without saying: Happiness comes from acting toward those goals.”

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3. Don’t underestimate your ability to bounce back

We find our way to happiness even when things aren’t working out the way we want, according to research by Kassam published in Psychology Science last year. “Our research shows that people tend to get over negative events much faster than they expect.” The theory is that we have an emotional immune system-much like our physiological one-that fends off negative emotions.

Can we boost this emotional immune response? The research has yet to provide a conclusive answer, Kassam says. One thing we do know, however, is that you get over negative emotions quicker when you’re in a situation that you can’t do anything to change.

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4. Manage the day’s slippery slope

When researchers at the University of Vermont examined Twitter feed keywords to measure for happiness, they found that happiness peaks in the morning between 5 and 6 a.m., declines steeply until midday, and then gradually hits a low in the evening around 10 or 11 p.m. “It’s part of the general unravelling of the mind that happens over the course of the day,” explains Peter Dodds, lead author of the study and an applied mathematician at the university.

What can you do to counter this? Emotions are ruled by expectancy, says Vancouver’s Paterson, so manage your expectations. “Allowing for the possibility of challenges, and not counting on too much, may enable us to accept more readily the events of the day and maintain an even mood.” For example, if you prepare mentally for not getting a job promotion based on objective reasons-such as a poor economic quarter-your disappointment will be tempered by less internalization and negativity. Essentially, Paterson says, “don’t count your chickens ’til they’re hatched.” He also suggests maintaining a “long-horizon” perspective. If we can recognize the proverbial grand scheme of life, we can minimize negative reactions to daily frustrating minutiae.

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laughing friends

5. Visit-in person-with someone you care about

One of the strongest determinants of happiness is enjoying meaningful relationships with friends and family. That’s according to most research into happiness, including the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. But what is “meaningful”? To begin with, it involves being with the actual person rather than just their online persona, says Paterson. “Beyond this, we can say that a meaningful relationship with, say, your sister or a partner or a friend is one that is authentic, where you set out to understand what the person is actually thinking and experiencing.” Paterson adds that a meaningful social bond is one in which the goal is, at least in part, to benefit the other person rather than solely benefiting yourself (by being amused, by having loneliness held at bay or by gaining comfort).

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how to volunteer

6. Forget retail therapy

A study of high-school students published in Applied Research in Quality of Life earlier this year supported something we probably already know intuitively: The desire for materialistic possessions-regardless of actually obtaining the possession-leads to lower life satisfaction. James Roberts, the study’s author and a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Texas, says, “Material possessions cannot deliver on their promise to make us happy. As human beings, it’s how we feel about ourselves, our relationships with others and our involvement in the larger community that brings happiness and contentment.”

Based on his decade-long study of the psychology of consumer behaviour, Roberts contends that a love of material possessions can in fact undermine how we feel about ourselves, costing us personal relationships and, ultimately, our happiness. The key is to be aware of what he calls “the consumer tsunami” washing over us, and to make choices that have us spending more time supporting the social relationships that are the sources of our happiness. This may include volunteer or charity work, which has been shown in numerous studies to boost personal happiness.

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7. Find the amount of spare time that’s right for you

Roberts’ research also showed that the happiest students were those who found the “sweet spot” between having too much free time and too little. “Just as too little free time leads to stress and anxiety, too much leads to boredom,” he says. This “sweet spot” varies for everyone. You’ll know you’ve struck it when you’re not stressed or bored or lonely-in other words, when you’re content.

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laughing happy couple

8. Focus on the good, not on getting over the bad

Research at Indiana University has shown that happier people tend to focus on the things that make them happy, whereas unhappy people tend to focus on trying not to think about negative things. Explains the university’s Carducci, “Happier people really do focus on the positive“-it’s the proverbial glass half full. “If we attend only to what we haven’t yet attained, we will inevitably experience disappointment,” explains Paterson. One strategy to counter this is reallocating our attention. “If we make a conscious effort to focus on what we’ve done, we are more likely to see ourselves as making progress.”

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woman trying on dress

9. Dress the part

Next time you wake up unhappy, slip into your favourite hot-pink blouse, or whatever makes you feel good. Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. investigated why women choose to wear certain clothes in the morning, and found that the choice depends heavily on their emotional state. Two clothing items that signal someone may be unhappy: jeans and baggy tops. More than 50 percent of women in the study said they wear jeans when they feel depressed, and 57 percent chose to wear a baggy top-only two percent said they would wear one when feeling happy.

Women also revealed they would be 10 times more likely to don a favourite dress when feeling happy than when depressed. “Many of the women in this study felt they could alter their mood by changing what they wore,” says Karen Pine, the study author and a psychology professor at the university. “This demonstrates the psychological power of clothing and how the right choices could influence a person’s happiness.”

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10. Be empathetic and grateful

Paterson points out that in clinical psychology, “tragedy and the misfortune of others can awaken our compassion for people, but also our appreciation of our own good fortune and its temporary nature.” He adds that the uncomfortable emotions have not been given their due. “It is through them that we attain many of our greatest traits and skills: empathy, compassion, altruism, trust.”  

And that applies to both real-life situations and fiction: As reported in Best Health’s September issue, watching a movie about a tragedy can actually make us happier. Researchers studied college students and found that comedies, action flicks and tragedies all fix mood in the short term. However, tragedies appear to do something more: By showing bad things happening to someone else, they channel our attention to our own good fortune.

We can cultivate a sense of gratitude by consciously reminding ourselves of the positives in our own lives, Paterson adds. “We can also engage in mindfulness exercises to focus our attention on the world of the present, pulling back from our regrets about the past and our fears of a catastrophic future.”

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