In addition to being a TED speaker whose talk has millions of views (and counting), happiness expert Shawn Achor has written several books on the subject. He has also been interviewed by Oprah twice (an activity that has been shown to boost happiness dramatically).

And in an interview with Arianna Huffington for her LinkedIn Learning Series, Thrive, he gave five practical tips for how to be happier.

The best part? None of the things on the list takes more than 15 minutes to do daily. But the benefits are tremendous: because of neuroplasticity, you can actually train yourself to feel happier.

That's right: If you keep up the following habits for 21+ days, you will change your brain for the better. It's proven:

1. Meditate.

You knew this one was going to be on the list. You've heard it countless times already--so why don't you have a meditation practice yet?

Because you think it'll take too long.

But Achor says it doesn't need to be a big deal--it can be as little as two minutes. He himself takes that much time to "just take my hands off my keyboard and do nothing; just quiet everything for just two minutes, and just watch my breath go in and out."

Achor says even just that brief time single-tasking helps him. "[T]hat simple action cause[s] my brain to have that moment of quiet, that noise-canceling moment. When you have that, your brain actually gets resources back to scan the world for why I could feel happy in that present moment."

2. Keep a gratitude journal.

You also knew this one was going to be on the list. There's a good reason that it's on every list like this--it works.

Plus, Achor says, "what I now know based upon research is your brain cannot feel grateful and depressed at the exact same time."

In other words, you're physiologically incapable of being depressed when you're feeling appreciation.

You can do your list in the morning or at night. I recently recommitted to doing mine at night just before bed, which I've noticed puts me to sleep in a great mood.

I'm also a fan of doing a "Great Things That Happened Today" list, instead of a general gratitude list. It's a nice way of recapping good things that happened that day. Sometimes it feels like life moves so quickly, there's no time to reflect on the day. This is a good way of reflecting and highlighting what went well, which trains your brain to expect more of the same.

3. Look for a moment of wonder.

Maybe it's a pretty bird in a tree you see after work. It might be a moment of looking at the silhouette of a building at sunset. It could be the simple act of watching your sleeping child.

When you seek a single quiet moment of wonder, "[y]ou're actually quieting the part of your brain that's constantly looking for threats," says Achor.

And the prefrontal cortex, which lights up during these moments of wonder, is also your creative center. "The part of your brain that sees different connections between different aspects in your life, that part is turned on to its highest possible level when we take the time to look for those moments of wonder."

4. Exercise.

Again, this doesn't need to take long. According to Achor's research, doing just 15 minutes of mindful cardio has the same impact as taking antidepressant medication. (The side effects are a lot better, too.)

"[The] simple act of movement causes the brain to record a victory," says Achor, "which cascades to the next task, to the next task. So what happens is you start believing your behavior matters again."

5. Praise someone.

This is my favorite one on the list, for its elegance. The idea here is to just send one praising email or text to a different person each day, for 21 days.

The beauty of the exercise is that it not only boosts your own levels of joy, but you're also gracing the recipient with a moment of feeling both seen and appreciated--which spreads the joy.

It's easy, too. For three weeks, you just tell someone something you like about them, or something they did you appreciated.

  • To a friend: "Hey, I know it was a small thing, but when you treated me to coffee the other day, I felt loved. :)"
  • To a spouse: "I was really touched that you were so quiet getting ready this morning because you didn't want to wake me. Thank you <3"
  • To a sibling: "Have I ever told you how much I admire your brilliant wit? It makes me laugh but also makes me think."

"[W]hen people write these positive emails, when you share with that other person why they're meaningful, what happens is you actually receive so much," Achor says.

"Because not only do you realize you have these people that are meaningful in your life, but you've just meaningfully activated them. And what happens is if I ask you, or anybody who's doing this course, after doing this for three days in a row, or 21 days in a row, if we ask them about their social connection, the breadth, the depth, the meaning in their social relationships, their score is off the chart."

And that's really the potential here: that you can realistically and meaningfully turn up the dial of your own personal happiness. 

Little changes add up. 

Published on: May 29, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.