There's a lot to be said for being happy. It makes you better at your job, healthier, likelier to have good relationships, and can even extend your life. Plus, if you've tried both being happy and unhappy, then you already know being happy is much more fun.
Knowing that happiness is good for you won't make you happier, of course. If you're unhappy to begin with, thinking that you're missing out on all the benefits of happiness can just make you feel worse.
There are times in our lives when it's normal to feel sadness, and we shouldn't try to talk ourselves out of it. If you've just lost a loved one, are going through a breakup, have lost your job, or have suffered another adverse life event, feeling sad is healthy and natural. Conversely, if you've been unhappy for a long time and don't know why, or you think you may be battling depression, it's smart to seek out a professional therapist or counselor to help you sort things out.
But for many of us, happiness is a habit that we can cultivate. That's because, thanks to evolution, the human brain is designed to pay more attention to negative thoughts and stimuli than positive ones. It's worth learning how to pay more attention to the positive thoughts in our brains and stimuli in our lives because our natural tendency is to downplay them. That makes us unhappier than we should be.
In a thought-provoking post on the Psychology Today website, Tchiki Davis, PhD, a consultant and expert on happiness technology, offers several simple techniques that will get you thinking positive and increase your general happiness. You can find the full list here. These are some of my favorites:
1. Ask yourself if you're thinking positive.
It's an important issue to consider, and on her website, Davis offers a simple self-assessment that will help you figure out just how much of a positive thinker you are (or aren't). But beyond that, the simple act of asking the question will help you start thinking more positive thoughts more often. That's because of a phenomenon called metacognition, a fancy word for thinking about thinking, which is a powerful memory aid. Asking yourself regularly whether you're thinking positively will help you remember to focus on the positive. That's a great first step.
2. Memorize a list of happy words.
It may sound unlikely that simply memorizing lists of words associated with happiness would be enough to make you happier, and yet it can. Davis explains:
It's because when you force your brain to use positive words frequently, you make these words (and their basic meaning) more accessible, more connected, and more easily activated in your brain. So when you go to retrieve a word or idea from your memory, positive ones can come to the top more easily.
I'm guessing you can come up with plenty of words that you associate with happiness, but if your vocabulary fails you, here's a lengthy list of words that psychologists have measured on the "valence" scale, with higher numbers signaling greater positivity. Not surprisingly, love, joy, and baby are among the highest scorers.
3. Use associations.
Ivan Pavlov famously trained his dogs to drool whenever he rang a bell, by associating the sound of the bell with food in their minds. You can train yourself the same way, creating associations that you can use to your own advantage.
Here's a simple example I used on myself: After a weekend meditation workshop, I wanted to give myself random reminders to be in the moment and enjoy the world around me. So I assigned that function to crows, both because I see them fairly often in the rural/suburban neighborhood where I live, and also because they are very special, extremely intelligent birds. I'm left-brain dominated and analytical, and very bad at simply enjoying the moment. But, even two years later, every time I see crows while driving down the road, I get an instant reminder to live in the moment and enjoy this life while I can.
4. Practice gratitude.
There's plenty of evidence that being grateful for the good things in your life, even very simple things, will make you happier. So every morning before getting out of bed, I mentally list three things I'm thankful for. Some friends of ours ask each family member to say something they're grateful for before eating dinner every evening. There are all kinds of ways to give yourself a daily reminder to focus on something you have to be grateful for. Pick one that works for you.
5. Spend a few minutes each day writing about something that made you happy.
In a fascinating experiment, subjects were asked to spend 20 minutes every day writing about an "intensely positive" experience. A control group was simply asked to write about a neutral topic. The group who wrote about positive experiences reported greater levels of happiness--and made fewer trips to the doctor over the next three months.
So it's well worth the time to spend a few minutes each day writing about something that made you truly happy. Similarly, Davis suggests savoring as a daily practice--when someone gives you a gift or pays you a compliment, to stop and dwell on how good these things make you feel. Or else, spend some time thinking about a delightful experience from your past.
6. Celebrate your successes, even the small ones.
You can begin with the items on this list. If you've started practicing gratitude on a regular basis (even if it isn't every day) or you've spent some time writing about positive experiences--take that as a win, and an event worth celebrating. Davis says we have a tendency to minimize our own accomplishments (I know I do), and that we should fight that tendency by going out of our way to congratulate ourselves when we do something right.
She also recommends giving up all-or-nothing thinking, which is a great way to make ourselves unhappy unnecessarily. Say you decided to write about a positive experience every day last week. But then you only did it on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. Our human tendency is to berate ourselves over the three days we missed instead of congratulating ourselves for the four days we met our goal.
So fight that tendency by congratulating and even rewarding yourself for the four days you did do the exercise rather than focusing on the three days you didn't. This is the nature of success. There will be detours and missed opportunities, and I can pretty much guarantee that you will fail to meet your own expectations. It's almost never a straight line from where you are to where you want to be. Making sure you enjoy the small achievements along the way is one of the surest ways to make yourself as happy as you can be.