Whatever life throws at some people, they are happier than other people in the same circumstances. Why? What do they know that others do not? What are they doing that most people do not? Or is it the other way around? What are they not doing that other people are? Would you like to learn the five fastest steps to happiness?
Masters of happiness seem to have the ability to make and keep themselves happy in virtually any situation. Even after a major bereavement, they seem to recover their levels of happiness faster than most.
Before we focus on the five fastest steps to enduring happiness, let’s look at several that don’t quite make the top five but are still in the top ten of factors known to improve happiness levels.
- Practise and express gratitude. Unhappy people complain about and criticise nearly everything. Happy people spend more time practicing and expressing gratitude. Taking the time to appreciate the good things in your life, big or small, can have a big impact on your happiness. Make a mental or written list of three things you’re grateful for each morning, or write a gratitude journal at the end of each day. Share them with a friend or family member, or simply reflect on them in your mind. Tell the people that you appreciate how grateful you are to them.
- Identify your values and set realistic goals. Happy people have goals and know their values. The unhappy have no goals, and because they have no awareness of their values, they are buffeted by whatever is most influential at that moment. Once you know what you value and what you want to achieve, you can start to take steps towards those goals. Having goals to work towards can give you a sense of purpose and direction, and that is known to elevate happiness levels. When you achieve your goals, it gives you a sense of accomplishment and boosts your confidence. Make sure your goals are realistic and achievable to avoid setting yourself up for disappointment. That also means letting go of perfectionism. Nobody is perfect, and striving to be perfect will only lead to disappointment and frustration. Accept yourself for who you are, flaws and all.
- Learn something new. Acquiring new knowledge and skills can keep your mind active and engaged, and it can also give you a sense of accomplishment. Taking a class, reading an interesting book, or watching an informative documentary on a topic that interests you. Unhappy people tend to think negatively about learning, skills, and knowledge. Happy people are the opposite. Related to the happiness-inducing desire to learn and set goals is the setting of self-challenges. Stepping outside of your comfort zone can help you grow and learn. Try something new that you’re a little bit scared of, or take on a challenge that you’ve often thought about but never acted upon.
- Forgive yourself and others. Holding on to grudges and resentment can weigh you down and make it difficult to be happy. Forgive yourself for your mistakes, and forgive others for the wrongs they have done to you. Forgive does not mean forget. If someone has deliberately harmed you, you can get them out of your life ASAP and then forgive them. You forgive them, not for their benefit but for yours. You don’t want a festering psychological wound to impair your happiness.
The big five of happiness
1. Be present
- Live in the present moment. It’s easy to get caught up in the past or worry about the future. The only moment you have is the present. Make the most of it by focusing on the things you can control and letting go of the things you can’t. Depression, for many people, comes from focusing too much on regrets and harms from the past. Anxiety comes from worrying too much about the future. Try to focus on the present moment and appreciate what you are, what you do, what you have right now. If I were to give this approach a name, it would be “positive mindfulness”, paying attention to the positives in the present moment.
- Meditate. Meditation can help you focus on the present moment and let go of negative thoughts and worries. There are many different types of meditation exercises, so find one that works for you and stick with it.
- Be present in nature. Spending time in nature has been shown to have a number of benefits for mental and physical health. Go for a walk in the park, hike in the woods, or simply sit outside and enjoy the fresh air.
2. Connect with others
- Spend time with loved ones. Strong social connections are essential for happiness. Make time for the people who matter most to you, even if it’s just a quick phone call or coffee date; nurture your relationships. People who have the best quality of relationships are the happiest. Take time to form and maintain great relationships.
- Give back to others. Helping others is a great way to feel good about yourself and to make a difference in the world. Find a cause that you’re passionate about and volunteer your time or donate to charity. Even a small act of kindness can make a big difference. People who give altruistically are happier than those who do not.
- Be kind to yourself and others. Treat yourself with the same compassion and kindness that you would treat a friend. And be kind to others, even when they don’t deserve it.
- Spend time with positive people. The people you spend time with have a big impact on your happiness. Surround yourself with positive people who support you and make you feel good. Avoid any contact with negative people; in fact, it is wise to get them out of your life ASAP.
3. Exercise and self-care
- Take care of yourself. Make sure to get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and exercise regularly. Taking care of your physical and mental health will give you the energy and resilience you need to live a happy life.
- Get enough sleep. Most adults need around 7–8 hours of sleep per night. When you’re well rested, you’re better equipped to handle stress and cope with the challenges of life while staying happy.
- Eat a healthy diet. Eating nutritious foods gives your body the energy it needs to function properly. It can also help to improve your mood and mental health. People who eat unhealthily are more likely to experience all sorts of happiness-impairing problems.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress, improve your mood, and boost your overall health. Exercise releases endorphins, the body’s happy chemical. People who exercise regularly are much happier than those who do not.
- Do things you enjoy. Make sure to schedule time for activities that you find fun and fulfilling. This could be anything from reading to playing music to spending time in nature or pursuing a hobby. Happiness isn’t just about doing things that make you happy; it is also about not doing what depletes your happiness. If you have a job you hate, and that applies to the majority of the population, change; do something you enjoy.
4. Choose your thoughts
The only person who can control your thoughts is you. Yes, others can influence your thoughts if you let them. At any time, you can choose to think of things that induce happiness or misery. Which will you choose?
None of us can control the random thoughts that jump into our heads, but we can choose what we dwell on. Choose the thoughts that make you happiest. However happy you are, there is always a happier thought waiting for you.
Some people, usually miserable, pessimistic cynics, claim that “choosing thought to induce happiness is a Pollyanna approach to life”. In over 35 years of providing coaching and therapy, never once have I heard a happy person express such a thought. Which is not surprising: happy people have learned that controlling their thoughts makes enduring happiness happen.
5. Choose your emotions
Our thoughts have a huge influence on our emotions. How do you control your emotions? At the most basic level, you choose what you think of and dwell on. Over time, people seem to lose awareness that they are in control of their emotions. How does that happen? We form habits of thought and emotion. The happiest people are those who have formed habits that maximise their happiness.
If you want a life of happiness, here are the five big reasons:
- Control your thoughts
- Control your emotions
- Connect with others
- Keep yourself fit and healthy
- Focus on the present.
Of the techniques we have covered, which are you going to adopt today to start your journey to happiness mastery?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.