In the 1971 bestselling book How to Be Your Own Best Friend, psychoanalysts Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz, Ph.D. present happiness as a concept that needs to be learned and mastered, like a form of art: “Too many people think there is something that will make them happy if they can just get hold of it. They expect happiness to happen to them. They don’t see it’s something they have to do."
That's the thing about happiness: It needs to be pursued. But why is happiness so difficult to achieve? And why is it so much harder for some people to be happy than others? Our early ancestors are partly to blame: “Human beings evolved in a dangerous world, where we had to recognize threats to survive,” explains Nancy Etcoff, an HMS assistant professor of psychology in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry. “As a result, our brains are wired to be much more sensitive to negative emotions and sensations than positive ones.”
Furthermore, some people are genetically predisposed to happiness, while others aren't so lucky. According to a happiness study of 1,300 sets of identical and fraternal twins, it was discovered that the identical twins reported similar happiness levels, while the levels among fraternal twins were more variable. This was true whether the twins were raised together or apart, leading the researchers to believe that humans are born with a "genetic set point" of happiness—that is, a baseline quotient that can be nudged up or down due to everyday circumstances but otherwise remains consistent.
Is this to suggest that we have no say over our happiness? Not at all. Once you decide to be happy, you'll see that happiness isn't hard to find—you just need to know where to look. You can start by looking within. Here are 15 actionable ways you can choose happiness. Every. Single. Day.
This means embracing everything that makes you you: your talents, your strengths, and yes, even your flaws and weaknesses. Why should this be your first step toward a happier you? Because self-acceptance is more or less the foundation for happiness. In fact, the two are directly correlated, says Robert Holden Ph.D in his book Happiness Now!: Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST. "You enjoy as much happiness as you believe you're worthy of," says the author. "The more self-acceptance you have, the more happiness you'll allow yourself to accept, receive and enjoy."
Ditch Your Baggage
Part of self-acceptance is forgiving yourself for previous missteps—they're part of your story and therefore part of you. Why not take it one step further by extending that forgive-and-forget mindset to past relationships? Let bygones be bygones and release any negative feelings that are sapping your energy—energy that could be better spent channeled into your pursuit of happiness.
Live Your Best Life
We all bear the burden of other people's expectations, but if the path you're on isn't bringing you joy, or if the mask you're wearing isn't allowing your true self to shine, then shut it down. Change your trajectory, because you're in the driver's seat when it comes to how you life your life—and you only get one.
Nothing cures a "Woe is me!" spiral quite like a dose of volunteer work. Roll up your sleeves (and get out of your own head) by organizing a community clean-up, donating blood to the American Red Cross, fostering rescue animals, volunteering at a soup kitchen, bringing non-perishable items to a food bank—you get the idea.
If your knee-jerk reaction to adversity is to mentally throw in the towel, retrain your brain to view things through a rosier lens. This is easier said than done, so baby steps: Start by simply recognizing when your pessimistic side chimes in, then make note of the situation in a journal. Do this for a few weeks, and see if any patterns emerge. Is your negative thinking linked to a fear of failure? Of vulnerability? Of intimacy? Only some serious introspection will help you get to the bottom of things, so you can move on to a happier you.
Your newfound optimism might even be good for your health. When exposed to the viruses that cause colds and flu, people with a more positive outlook not only get sick less often but recover faster.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
Everyday life has no shortage of speed bumps that slow your happy roll. Instead of letting petty annoyances get you down, get in the habit of stepping back to look at the big picture: Will this matter in one week, one month, or one year in the future? Will you even remember it happened? If the answer's no, then take a deep, cleansing breath and shake it off.
Stop Being Materialistic
Shopping for that must-buy item can help fill a void, but the effect is only temporary, which is why many of us fall into the vicious cycle of overconsumption. Break the pattern by focusing on real ways to find happiness (the other items in this list are a great place to start). After all, money doesn't buy happiness, even if you're rolling in dough. In fact, research shows that $60–$75K is the salary sweet spot when it comes to emotional well-being. Earnings above $75K are shown to contribute to one's overall life satisfaction, but that extra income doesn't affect—positively or otherwise—one's day-to-day mood.
Don't Compare Yourself to Others
This isn't easy, since social media makes it so easy to peek into the lives of other people—and where social media scrolling begins, self-doubt soon follows. But remember that what you're seeing isn't representative of your connections' everyday lives; it's a curated selection of what they want you to see, so take the Facetuned selfies and obviously staged snapshots with a grain of salt (and purge your friends lists so they only include people you really care about IRL).
While you can't always control your feelings of envy and doubt, what you can control is how you react: When you're feeling down in the dumps because you're not like someone else, focus instead on aspiring to be the best version of yourself.
Set a Goal
Did you know that striving toward a goal—and doing so persistently and with a can-do attitude—has been shown to lessen the likelihood of depression and anxiety? It makes sense if you think about it: Diligently working toward a goal helps keep the mind and/or body busy so that negative thoughts have a harder time creeping in. Actually reaching the goal, on the other hand, offers mood-boosting feelings of accomplishment as a reward.
If your daily routine has you stretched too thin, learn to say no to unnecessary obligations so that some time is set aside just for you—because we all need a little "me" time every day to recharge our batteries, whether it's by reading a good book, heading to yoga, or settling in for a Netflix binge.
There's no shortage of studies linking exercise to improved mental health and well-being. Better still, you don't have to be a triathlete to reap the benefits—just 30 minutes of moderate activity five times a week are all that's needed, so take your dog for a walk (or borrow a friend's) or sign up for a dance class and get those endorphins flowing.
Live in the Moment
By always focusing on the future, whether it's the next five minutes or the next five years (or beyond), we miss out what's happening in the present. Find the beauty and joy in the right now by delighting in details—think the warmth of your morning coffee, the sound of a friend's laugh, or the smell of clothes just out of the dryer. Once you become more mindful of your surroundings, you're likely to find that your days are full of many happy little moments.
Not only does mindful meditation help you live in the moment, it comes with some serious health benefits, including improved sleep and lessened anxiety. New to meditating? It can be as simple as hiking, journaling, or listening to music, as long as your mind and body are offered the opportunity to reconnect.
Why wait until Thanksgiving to be thankful for the blessings in your life? Use every day as an opportunity to be grateful for your loved ones, your health, your triumphs, and your challenges—they're a chance for personal growth and advancement. Practice gratitude by documenting your daily blessings in a journal, by meditating, or by simply letting the people in your life know that you're grateful for them.
Surround Yourself With Positive People
Did you know that your likelihood of happiness increases simply by keeping company with happy people? Research shows that happiness is contagious, so say bye-bye to those Negative Nancies in your life and let the sunshine in.
Harvard Medicine. The Contagion of Happiness.
University of Minnesota. Is Happiness Hiding in our Genes? September 1, 2016
American Psychological Association. Colds and cognition. February 2013
Kahneman D, Deaton A. High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2010;107(38):16489-93. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011492107
Zainal NH, Newman MG. Relation Between Cognitive and Behavioral Strategies and Future Change in Common Mental Health Problems Across 18 Years. J Abnorm Psychol. 2019;128(4):295-304. doi:10.1037/abn0000428
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need? May 14, 2020
Cleveland Clinic. Meditation. August 1, 2018