Finding What Makes You Happy:

9 Research-Backed Concepts & Activities

This guide was created by condensing the latest scientific research on happiness into nine concepts that when applied to your life can dramatically improve the amount of happiness you feel on a daily basis.

Each concept has actionable activities that you can use today in your own life to start experiencing more happiness without making drastic changes to your routine. But, before we get into the list, it’s important to look at what happiness is and where we should start looking for it.

How to Best Use this Workbook to Find More Happiness

Use the table of contents provided below to navigate the different sections of this guide. For each method listed, there are suggested activities you can do to explore this concept for yourself.

1. Opportunities to Make Yourself Happy are Everywhere

2. Happiness Creates More Happiness

3. What is Happiness? And How Can You Find it?

4. The Science Behind What Makes us Happy

5. Nine Concepts of Happiness and the Activities You Can Do Today

The suggested activities are just that – suggested. Explore each method any way you like. Some will resonate with you and intrigue you more than others, and that’s okay.  Improvise and have fun with it!

Lastly, each happiness method has been assigned one of three categories based on our type of needs: mental, physical, or spiritual. I suggest rotating your activities through all three types to promote overall balance.

Opportunities to Make Yourself Happy are Everywhere

We all strive for happiness – after all, happiness energizes us and connects us to our environment and provides hope. Many times, we get in a rut with the thought that a significant event must occur for us to be happy:

“Once I change my job, find the love of my life, leave this town… Then I will be happy.”

Maybe that’s true, and you will have a sense of relief when those significant events happen, but in the meantime, you might be missing out on opportunities for happiness today. So, why wait for happiness? Why not get it where and when you can?

Happiness Creates More Happiness

Making time to partake in activities that make you happy every day has a cumulative effect over time, meaning the more moments of joy you have, the more moments of joy you will have.

Psychology and neuroscience professor Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson and her colleagues have produced several exciting studies exploring the impact of positive emotions. Specifically, one study describes how positive emotions lead to an upward spiral of more positive experiences. In other words, the study concluded that happiness begets more happiness.

In a recent blog post I explained a concept I call “happiness integrals” based on basic calculus.  The idea is that there are infinite possibilities to find joy (aka happiness integrals). Some happiness integrals can last a fraction of a second and others can last hours. The idea is that a happiness integral can beget more happiness so the duration of the integral is not as important as the quantity of integrals. In this workbook I offer nine science based suggestions (recipes, if you will) for sparking happiness integrals.

Finding ways to spark joy is pretty easy to do when you’re generally a happy person. The challenge is to motivate yourself to do things you know will bring you happiness when you are feeling down, depressed, or blue.


My intentions for this guide are:


To share ideas supported by science that you can use to perform your own experiential research on what sparks happiness for you.


To make it easier for you to encounter joyful events every day.


To inspire you to start your own list of self-tested happiness activities to which you can refer when you are in much need of happiness and can’t think of what to do.

Before we get to the list, let’s talk a bit more about happiness.

What is Happiness? And How Can You Find it?

Although we all know what happiness feels like when we are experiencing it, operationally defining happiness is more complex. Some psychologists define happiness as the feeling of pleasure (hedonistic), others say it is the sensation of a life well lived (eudaimonia). A more modern take is that happiness comes from a commitment to and participation in life.

My favorite definition of happiness right now is from Tal Ben-Shahar: “happiness is the experience of whole-person wellbeing” – in other words, it is a holistic experience of wellbeing.

In this article, I use the terms “happiness” and “joy” interchangeably. There are many discussions about the difference between happiness and joy.

Some say happiness is generated by outside factors whereas joy comes from within. Others say happiness and joy are the same state and are simply differences in intensity. I tend to lean toward the notion that happiness and joy are variations of intensity and have many overlapping characteristics. They are both considered positive emotions, and thus for the purpose of this article, they will be used interchangeably.

The Science Behind What Makes us Happy

It has been well established that stress and negative emotions lead to poor health outcomes.  However, there are now studies that suggest positive emotions can actually improve health outcomes and longevity.  

Dr. Kubzansky, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has researched how positive emotions – specifically enthusiasm, hopefulness, and engagement in life – are associated with a decreased chance of heart attack and stroke.  

The mechanism(s) by which positive emotions impact physical health is being explored, and one idea from Dr. Fredrickson and colleagues is that positive emotions facilitate the regulation of the vagus nerve which impacts cardiovascular activity as well as many other essential bodily functions. Another idea is that positive emotions like joy increases the likelihood of engaging in healthier behaviors.

Lastly, Dr Jennifer Stellar’s work has shown specific positive emotions like joy, pride, contentment, and awe predict lower levels of inflammatory response. Regardless of the mechanism, it is clear that happiness directly and positively impacts our overall health.  

Nine Concepts of Happiness and the Activities You Can Do Today:

1. Build Meaningful Connections with People

“The best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer someone else up.” ― Mark Twain

One of the most scientifically supported ways to increase happiness is through human connection. Your connections can not only help you to feel happier, but they can also be a source of support that can get you through hard times.

The longest running study of happiness by Harvard concluded that healthy relationships are one of the most important factors to living a healthy life. Taking an active approach to maintaining and growing your relationships with other human beings might be the most impactful thing you can do today to ensure your happiness tomorrow.

Creating positive and meaningful relationships in your life is not something that happens overnight – it requires cultivation and time. The good news is that there is happiness to be had connecting with people who aren’t friends as well! Research has shown that connection with anyone, including strangers, can bring about wellbeing.  

In an interesting study with bus and train commuters, Nicholas Epley and his co-authors discovered that commuters who engaged with strangers reported a more positive experience than commuters who did not.  What I think is remarkable about this study is that even if the commuter anticipated they would have a negative experience interacting (vs. sticking to themselves), they still reported a positive experience.

As social animals, our desire for connection is so deep, that we don’t even need to talk with strangers to feel connected. Wesselmann and co-authors found that even making eye contact with strangers can elicit feelings of well being.

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Connect with your support system frequently. Even when you might not feel like reaching out. Actively listen to during conversations, ask questions and let them know you care.  You will be surprised at how something so simple can deepen your relationships and grow your happiness.

Option 2:

Connect with a stranger. There are so many ways you can do this. You can acknowledge someone in passing by making brief eye contact combined with a “hello”, a smile, or simply a nod. If that is easy for you, strike up a conversation. Ask your cashier how their day is going or compliment them on their smile (only if you like their smile) or anything else that is socially appropriate.
Even if you are a generally introverted person, making an effort in this regard can do you a lot of good for you and others.

There are times people will not reciprocate, but most of the time they will respond in some matter. If they don’t respond, remember not to take it personally and move on. It is a bit like fishing, if you don’t get a bite, you don’t stop fishing, you simply cast another line.

2. Go outside (Physical)

The natural environment has a powerful effect on our psyche. Get outside as much as you can. Breathe in fresh air and reflect about your place in the environment. Happiness can be derived from the feeling of connectedness that you can cultivate between yourself and the natural world. There is more to life than what humans have built around themselves. Having respect for your environment can lead to a greater feeling of respect for yourself.

Studies mostly from Japan have shown a decrease in salivary cortisol, a stress hormone, as well as a decrease in pulse rate after individuals spend time in the forest. In addition, there is some research to support the smells of the forest also contribute to feelings of relaxation and tranquility.

Time spent in nature can be used as a source of happiness for our brains that is attainable and repeatable. Like this National Geographic Article says:  

“Our sensory system evolved in the natural world, and when we’re in those spaces, our brains become relaxed because these are things that we were designed to look at, hear and to smell.”

The natural world is our link to how we once lived and can help inspire creativity, reduce stress, and improve happiness.

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Option 1: Plan on spending time in nature at least once a week. This could be going on a hike or swimming in the ocean. Even taking a walk through a city park can do wonders for your mental health and improve your mood. Use the app AllTrails to help you find green places to hike, run, or cycle around your area, it even works in cites!
Mindful Questions: The next time you’re in nature, try this effective mindfulness technique to facilitate being present and connected with nature. (This is a favorite of mine, by the way.) Find a comfortable spot to sit (you can also do this while walking but when doing it for the first time, it might be simpler to sit for a minute or two. Take a few intentional breaths and get in touch with your senses by asking yourself the following questions.

What do I see right now?


What do I hear?


What do I feel? In other words, what tactile sensations are you experiencing, such as a breeze against your right cheek, the warmth of the sun on your upper back, blades of grass between your fingers.


What do I taste?


What emotions if any do i feel right now?


How am I breathing (shallow, deep, from my diaphragm or upper chest)?

3. Get your Body Moving (Physical)

I know, but it really works. Physical activity releases endorphins in the short term and makes you healthier in the long term. You don’t have to become a gym rat to enjoy the mood-boosting benefits of regular exercise. Even something as simple as deciding to walk somewhere for an errand instead of driving can be an incredible benefit to you.

The connection between happiness and even a small amount of exercise is clear and established. Our bodies were designed to move, but for many of us, our daily activity has been built to hinder movement. We sit in cars on our way to an office where we sit all day. Breaking routine and simply moving, even for 10 or 15 minutes can help keep you healthy and make you feel happier. There is so a mountain of research on how exercise helps your mood, it’s a no-brainer at this point.

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Commit to moving your body at least 10-15 minutes per day, then do it! You don’t have to dedicate the same amount of time each day. For example, you may take a 90-minute yoga class on Monday and then walk around your neighborhood on Tuesday. Use an app to keep track of your how many consecutive days you purposively got some exercise. I like the Habit List app because you can keep track of multiple activities in one spot!

Option 2:

If you’re finding that you’re forgetting to move and exercise, make a list of your favorite physical activities ahead of time and how long it takes to do them. Make sure you have a variety of activities with varying duration for those busy days. Carve time out in your calendar each day and keep track of your progress using Habit List.
Remember to praise yourself when you have moved for consecutive days. If your day got away from you and you can’t do it, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk around your office a few times – just move.

I had a friend who would find an empty conference room during the day, do 10 or so push ups, a few jumping jacks, and then go back to her desk. It was fun for her because she felt like she was sneaking in her exercise.

As you get more comfortable with moving every day, increase your duration or change up your activities.

4. Plan a trip (Mental)

Is there a place in the world that you have always wanted to visit? Why not plan a trip there? It might sound strange, but would you believe planning for a trip can make you feel comparably happy to how you would feel post post-holiday?

Well, the idea that planning is the happiest part of a vacation is exactly what this study seems to indicate. There is something about the anticipation that excites us. Once the trip is over, the anticipation is gone. The duration of the trip and the distance you go does not matter – it’s the anticipation that counts, so make sure it’s a trip you’re looking forward to taking!

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Think about a place that you always wanted to visit and plan a trip there. The more detailed you get the better. Look at ticket prices, local attractions, any gear you may need to purchase, and the types of experiences you want to have. When you’re done planning, go back to what you were doing. Later, come back to the idea and think about how you could actually make it happen. Come up with a savings plan or whatever else you would need to address to make the trip happen. Keep revisiting and refining your plan so it’s as real as any other thing in your life.

Option 2:

Go on the trip! It’s true that planning is sometimes the happiest part of trip but new experiences and connecting with others (see Connect With Others section) can bring you great joy, especially if you experience awe.
Dr. Jennifer Stellar discusses how awe impacts health and well being in her TED talk. Try to think of a place that you could visit that would give you a sense of awe and make that place where you plan to go.

5. Volunteer (Spiritual)

Helping other people is one of the easiest ways to feel happier. When you actively give back to your community through volunteering you help yourself as well. Volunteering opportunities exist everywhere, and you won’t have to look far to find something that aligns with your values.

Like this study suggests, the amount of volunteering a person participates in each week directly contributed to their overall happiness. Humans have a predisposition to feeling good about helping others. The value that volunteering brings is measurable in the billions of dollars, so that’s something to make you feel happy too!

Random acts of kindness usually have a more significant impact on the giver than they do on the receiver. The cool thing about random acts of kindness is that it works just as well, if not better, with strangers. Specifically, there is significant research that shows volunteering is correlated with health and happiness.

There is also evidence to support that one’s motivation for helping others also impacts the number of health benefits you receive. A study of Australian volunteers showed that volunteers whose motives were more altruistic in nature (rather than motivated by self-interest) felt more connected with their community and displayed more feelings of well being.

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Get out there and volunteer! Opportunities to volunteer are available basically anywhere. Websites like can help you find a good place to volunteer that is in your community. Modern technology makes it easier to volunteer than it has ever been, so no excuses!

Option 2:

Help a friend or family member. Take an elderly friend to the doctor’s, help a friend with a task that is difficult for them. Anything you can think of to help someone who cannot help themselves could work here.
You’ll notice that the more you help other, the more that you’ll want to help.

6. Stop seeking approval from others (Spiritual)

Everyone wants to feel accepted. Seeking the approval of others is natural. The trouble comes when you rely on approval from others to know if you’re doing the ‘right’ thing or not.

The only person’s life you can live is your own. Tying your happiness to what someone else thinks devalues your own personal wisdom of what is right for you. Here is a helpful article with ways to stop seeking approval from others and here is an interesting article about how seeking the approval of others on social media can negatively impact your emotional state.

When you stop seeking approval from others, you begin to connect to your own guidance system, and you feel more at ease. It takes time, but the effort is worth it.

On a similar topic, here is a story of someone who was afraid of rejection (which is a form of needing approval) and decided to face it head on by trying to get rejected at least once a day – on purpose!  After his experiment, he learned that the fear of rejection was worse than actual rejection. He was empowered by facing his fear.

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Take some time to identify where else does the need for approval stands in your way of self-acceptance. Reflect and make a plan to encourage self-acceptance. The exploration of why you seek approval may bring up a mix of emotions, but once you are able to let go of seeking approval, you will experience joy.
Mindful Questions: The next time you have a moment to stop and think. Take inventory and ask yourself the following.Where in my life do I seek the approval of others?

Where in my life do I seek the approval of others?


What is it about that area of my life that leads me to be influenced by other opinions over mine?


What is the underlying insecurity I feel that leads me to seek the approval of others?


What am I afraid of if others do not approve of my actions?


What is one thing I can do differently today by not seeking someone’s approval first?


How does seeking external approval impact your actions?

7. Get Curious (Mental)

Curiosity is defined as a strong desire to know or learn something. Curiosity and exploration are associated with wellbeing and happiness. Dr. Kashdan and Dr. Silvia state in the Handbook of Positive Psychology:

“People who are regularly curious and willing to embrace the novelty, uncertainty, and challenges … are at an advantage in creating a fulfilling existence compared with their less curious peers.”  

If you are curious about the benefits of curiosity, check out this article that summarizes them both quite well.

Curiosity is also a primary component of mindfulness. When we are curious our focus is directed toward a particular subject which aids in being present. Mindfulness and being present are also triggers of happiness and wellbeing so you get an added effect.

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Pick any activity or topic that interests you and get curious. Dive into it and look at it from different perspectives

Option 2:

Try a new activity that is interesting to you and stay open and curious to what you experience, feel and learn. Steer away from thoughts of judgment and replace them with thoughts of inquiry.

Option 3:

Explore a new avenue of an established interest. For example, if you love to cook, explore and experiment with a new cooking technique. We tend to be more curious when it is a topic that already brings us joy.
New experiences create new feelings. The more newness that you build into your life the less stale things feel and the easier it will be to find happiness.

8. Meditate (Mental & Spiritual)

Calming your mind through meditation is a proven way to increase happiness. If you start thinking about happiness as a feeling related to a muscle, your brain, then you can begin to see the value of strengthening that muscle through mediation.

It might seem intimidating to start meditating regularly, but once you are able to adopt a practice, it will be hard to stop.
Recent studies like this one clearly show a direct link between the act of mediation and increased happiness levels. The correlation of frequent meditation and happiness is no surprise to anyone who practices it. Meditating strengthens your ability to cope with adversity while forcing you to live in a more mindful frame of consciousness.

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Try the introductory package of Headspace, an app that introduces you to a mindful meditation practice. The format is informative and approachable. It is a great introduction to mindful meditation that makes starting (or restarting) a meditation practice fun. After one week, see how you feel.

Option 2:

This is an alternate activity for those who are not new to meditation. Increase the duration or frequency of your meditation practice and explore how that impacts your mood.
Meditation is not something that you become great at overnight, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Take as much time as you need, and seek a mentor if things aren’t clicking.

9. Practice Gratitude (Mental)

I left my favorite for last – Gratitude. A gratitude practice is one activity that has significantly impacted my overall happiness, but don’t take my word for it.

Recent fMRI studies suggest that the conscious act of gratitude rewires our brain to be more sensitive to gratitude later. In other words, the act of regularly recognizing what you are grateful for allows you to be able to see more positive things in your life to be grateful for.  

Bottom line, gratitude and appreciation changes the architecture of our brains so we see more of the positive – a positive loop of gratefulness!

Suggested Activities:

Option 1:

Each morning before you get out of bed or if you prefer, before you go to sleep at night, list three things you are grateful for right now. You can keep a small notepad by your bed, use an app like Gratitude, or simply state your gratitude statements to yourself outloud or in your head. Choose what time and which way works best works for you. Whether you choose to write or say your gratitude statements, start each sentence with, “I am grateful for …”.

Option 2:

If you’re finding that you’re forgetting to move and exercise, make a list of your favorite physical activities ahead of time and how long it takes to do them. Make sure you have a variety of activities with varying duration for those busy days. Carve time out in your calendar each day and keep track of your progress using Habit List.
The Habit List app is also helpful for a gratitude practice because in addition to keeping track of your frequency, you can also set up an alarm to remind you.

Next Steps to Help in Your Search for More Happiness

Before we conclude I would like to suggest how you can start your own list.

Get a jar, box, or other receptacle you like. Whenever you engage in an activity that brings you happiness, write it down on a piece of paper and drop it in the jar.

If any of the activities above resonated with you, you could also add a description of them to your jar.

After some time, if you are feeling down and aren’t sure what to do about it, you can reach into your jar of happiness and choose a suggestion. Keep picking until you find one you can do as soon as possible.

You can be as creative as you like with this idea.

I had a client who had three different colors of paper for her jar. Each color represented the amount of time it took to complete the task (e.g. green for minimal prep time, yellow moderate, and pink for significant time needed). Going on a trip was on pink paper for her. You can also assign a color to the kind of activity (e.g. physical, mental, or spiritual). Get as fancy or as simple as you want, but have fun and use it.

I would love to hear which of these nine were your favorite and watch for more happiness methods to come in my newsletters. In the meantime, below is some room for you to list any activity that brings you joy whether time intensive or not.

My first ones would be my personal dance party in my living room, spending time near the ocean, going on a bike ride, and enjoying a nice dinner with a friend. Now it’s your turn. I look forward to hearing from you!

Mindfully Yours,