A few years ago, at a low time in my life, I realized that if I didn’t put my ingrained habits of stress and anxiety behind me, they would probably kill me. Although you couldn’t tell from the outside — I looked like a successful mother, wife, and businesswoman — I was miserable almost all of the time. The truth is, I had no idea how to be happy.
Throughout my life, I’ve always had a plan. But when the health business I co-founded collapsed, I was all out of plans. Determined to turn my life around, I decided to put everything else on hold and dedicate thirty days to figuring out how to be happy. The results were astonishing — and lasted much longer than the initial month-long project.
I used scientific research on hormones, neurotransmitters, psychology, and mindfulness that I’d amassed over many years to create a daily plan that I hoped would change my life. And guess what? It did! Here are seven practices that help me feel more joy in my life:
1. Be grateful
Love the life you have, and it will get even better. Gratitude — the simple act of being thankful — registers as optimism in your brain. Every time you have thoughts or express words of gratitude, you’re predisposing your brain to choose optimistic thoughts more frequently.
To help create an attitude of gratitude, keep a “gratitude journal”—a special notebook where you spend several minutes every day writing down things you’re grateful for. You’ll probably find that this practice trains you to be on the lookout for things to write down, and you may surprise yourself by discovering just how much you have to be thankful for.
The health benefits of exercise are numerous, but let’s talk about those endorphins. Endorphins are released during both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, creating a powerful effect on mood. An endorphin rush can feel euphoric, but it also has lasting effects. According to research from the University of Vermont, the mood benefits of just twenty minutes of exercise can last for up to twelve hours.
3. Be kind to others
Altruism not only takes your mind off your own troubles, it feels good to give. Acts of kindness release a gratifying flood of dopamine into your brain—giving you an instant sense of reward. Look for opportunities to volunteer in your local community, or simply help out folks in need when the opportunity arises.
Even when you’re busy, kind gestures like sending a thank you card, paying a stranger’s parking meter, or donating to your favorite charity don’t take much time. Kindness can even be as simple as a smile; studies have shown that even fake smiles legitimately improve mood.
4. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones
Friends don’t only make us happier, according to scientists, they help us live longer! Oxytocin, “the hormone of love,” floods your brain and body when you’re in close proximity to the ones you love. Having close friends may increase your life expectancy as much as quitting smoking. Plus, friends make your life a lot more fun. We all get busy, but to live a happy life, it’s important to make time for the people that matter to you.
5. Get enough sleep
Being chronically sleep-deprived can throw off your serotonin balance — a critical hormone for happiness. Maintaining a regular sleep pattern—going to sleep and waking up at roughly the same time each day — sets your internal circadian rhythm, which helps to regulate a number of hormones.
When you sleep, your organs recuperate, your cells regenerate, your thoughts suspend, and when you wake up, you are literally a new person. That means you can leave behind whatever was troubling about your day and start over with a clean slate in the morning.
6. Notice your thought patterns, and change the negative ones
You’ve heard, “you are what you eat” — but how about “you are what you think”? You simply won’t be happy if the conversation going on in your head is all about everything that’s going wrong. Complaints, worry, and criticism — whether spoken out loud or simply uttered internally — become habits when they’re frequent enough.
Changing the habit of negative thinking is probably the single most important step I found to create joy in my personal experiments with creating a happy life.
When you are alert but relaxed, your brain can slip into soothing alpha waves — like a mini massage for your brain. Meditation may have numerous health benefits, ranging from reduced stress to slower aging, and yes — increased happiness. Not sure how to do it? I promise, meditation is not as hard as it seems. Try these three simple meditation techniques.