Finding What Makes You Happy:
9 Research-Backed Concepts & Activities
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
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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!
5. Volunteer (Spiritual)
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.
6. Stop seeking approval from others (Spiritual)
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.
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)
“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.
8. Meditate (Mental & Spiritual)
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.
9. Practice Gratitude (Mental)
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!
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!