How to be Happy (Like this guy)!
The most popular question I get asked as a personal growth coach is, “What do I need to do to be happy?” Because I get asked about finding happiness so often, I’ve put together my top ten secrets to being happy. Many people just like you work for happiness their entire lives and never find it. It’s not for lack of trying–chances are if you’re reading this, you know how much work it takes to be happy, and how exhausting it can be. Chasing happiness sometimes feels counterproductive, like the faster you run toward it, the longer the road gets. That’s probably because you’re working toward what you THINK will make you happy, not what WILL make you happy.
Secret Number One: You probably have it backward.
Harvard researcher Shawn Achor discusses happiness in his TED Talk (it’s totally worth taking ten minutes out of your day). Achor talks about the typical approach to happiness. That is that we do what we need to do in order to get what we think we need to have in order to be happy. According to research from Harvard and UC Berkeley, this do-get-be paradigm is backward. Instead, you should focus on being first. When you know who you are meant to be, you will do what you need to do to live true to that person. You will find that by living consistently with your purpose, the things you want to have will come naturally.
Secret Number Two: Learn to enjoy your own company.
It’s easy to hide unhappiness in the company of others. When you feel well-liked, you escape from the pain of feeling lost. Unfortunately, all that pain floods back in the quiet moments when friends and lovers are in their own beds and your only company is yourself. Spend time with yourself in mindful practice to discover the things that are truly important to you. Make peace with your past mistakes and “awkward” parts, and learn to embrace who you are and what you stand for. You may consider keeping a journal to document your self-discovery and to reflect on internal change.
Secret Number Three: Start with gratitude.
If you watched Shawn Achor’s TED Talk, you heard him talk about the importance of gratitude and the research behind it. If you haven’t, I’ll shamelessly plug it again and say it’s worth your time. Gratitude can literally change your brain. Achor’s research at Harvard found that people who practice intentional gratitude three times per day had more neuron activation in the parts of the brain responsible for focus and learning. That means people who practice gratitude work more efficiently, stay focused, and learn faster than people who don’t. They also found that people who practiced gratitude daily were less bothered by things like traffic and work stress. Their bodies were healthier, and they were more satisfied with their lives as a whole. A daily gratitude practice is possibly the MOST important thing you can do to be happy.
Keep your eyes out for my upcoming book, Gratefully You, a prompted gratitude journal based on this scientific research.
Secret Number Four: Invest in yourself.
By this point, you’ve taken the time to learn about yourself and your needs. You know your priorities and your dreams. You can separate your needs from the needs people have imposed on you. Now it’s time to invest in those priorities, dreams, and needs. Investing in yourself will always pay dividends. It may not pay off financially right away, but what you’ll gain in confidence is worth it. Take music lessons, learn to paint, or learn a new language. You won’t regret it. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it aligns with your goals. This goes along with Secret One; you’re learning how to be true to who you are.
Secret Number Five: Set healthy boundaries.
If you grew up the way many people, including myself, did, you learned that your own desires matter less than your charity to others. We’re taught from preschool on that when someone asks us for something, we give it. It’s nice to share. Don’t tell people “no.” Help people who need it. While charity and service are important parts of a fulfilling and well-rounded life, moderation is key. You need time to decompress, destress, and relax. That time doesn’t need to fit around everyone else’s schedule and needs. You get to say “no.” You get to take a day off and do nothing. You get to send the kids off with a sitter so you can have a nice date night (or even a nice self-care night). Learning to say “no,” and learning to be okay with it, are vital parts of living true to yourself and building lasting happiness.
Secret Number Six: Define “happiness.”
Maybe I should have put this at the top! Before you can be happy, you have to know what happiness means to you. My definition of happiness is, “Being free to see the world, make my own rules, and learn what I want to learn.” That’s what makes me happy. Your definition may be vastly different and that’s okay. Some people are happiest when they can operate in a predictable structure. Others are happy when they get to be around new people frequently. One rule for defining happiness is that you don’t focus on having. If your definition includes “having a boat/big house/big family” you need to think deeper about what those concrete things mean to you. For example, a big family could represent a desire for companionship or love. Think conceptually rather than concretely, and consider what your definition of happiness says about what you’re “about.”
Secret Number Seven: Practice breathing.
I know, we all know how to breathe. Most of you have been doing it since you were born. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about a technique called “diaphragmatic breathing.” It’s a way of breathing that helps you relax, promotes neuronal generation, and increases happy hormones in the brain. There’s a nerve that runs through your abdomen called your vagus nerve. When you breathe deeply with this technique, you activate your vagus nerve and calm your brain. Brain scans have shown that people who do deep breathing every day over several months actually have thicker brains. That means more neurons, which means more brain activity. Diaphragmatic breathing also promotes relaxation and calm, which can help make you happier and more resilient to stress.
How do I breathe right?
At first, you’ll need a lot of support to get the feeling right. The best way is to sit on a wooden chair, or on the floor, with your hands right under your butt. This forces you to breathe from your diaphragm instead of your chest. The goal here is to breathe deeply without your shoulders or chest moving. Instead of sitting on your hands, you can put one hand on your shoulder and the other on your belly. When you breathe in, you should feel the hand on your belly move but the hand on your shoulder should not. Eventually, you will learn to breathe from the diaphragm without sitting in weird positions.
Next, breathe in for a slow count of 4.
Hold your breath for a slow count of 4.
Breathe out for a slow count of 6.
Hold your breath out for a slow count of 2.
Repeat for 5 minutes. For best results, do this 4 times per day.
Secret Number Eight: Feel your feelings.
Feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are. It’s important to feel all of your feelings if you ever want to be happy. Anger, sadness, jealousy, whatever emotions you experience are important. That doesn’t mean you should treat people poorly, or that your feelings are correct, but they’re still an important part of your human experience. Allowing yourself to feel everything, even the negative, will help you find more joy.
Sometimes you don’t feel your feelings because you’re afraid to feel the unpleasant ones. Other times, you don’t feel your feelings because you don’t know what the feeling is. You can expand your emotional vocabulary to find more feeling words and learn what they mean to you. Find out more about expanding your emotional vocabulary here.
Secret Number Nine: Push yourself.
Get out of your comfort zone. People are creatures of habit. We love our little routines, but our brains THRIVE on change. One of the simplest ways to spice things up and figure out how to be happy is to do the opposite of “normal.” That is especially true if you do something new. Go on a spontaneous road trip, take dance lessons, pick up Spanish, learn street magic. Do something weird! Don’t spend a lot of time picking the “right” thing. It doesn’t matter. Research has shown even if you pick “the wrong thing,” your horizons open and your brain learns to explore the world. Just jump.
Secret Number Ten: Treat Yo’ Self!
Little victories matter! Celebrate small wins like a great day at work, a not-terrible workout, or saving $5 on chicken at the market. Get a scoop of ice cream, buy a new shirt, or spend a night at home curled up with your favorite movie. No matter your budget, health goals, or schedule, you can always find ways to celebrate yourself. Studies consistently show that people who take time to appreciate their little victories are happier, healthier, and more successful than people who only care about the major milestones.