Each year, people spend billions trying to boost their moods with medications, therapy, treatments, entertainment, vacations, and more. None of these are bad things necessarily, but research has shown that there are a variety of effective things we can do to increase our level of happiness for no charge at all. Here are eight of them:
It may sound ridiculous, but just the physical act of smiling has been shown by researchers to improve mood. It seems counterintuitive because everyday experience suggests that the causal arrow runs in one direction – when we feel good, we smile. But psychological studies since the 1980s have shown that the causal arrow can run in the opposite direction as well – when we smile, we feel good. The brain recognizes that the physical act of drawing the corners of your mouth up toward your eyes is associated with good feelings, and so when it senses the body smiling, it adjusts your mood to complete the association.
This is a simple practice, but it’s important to note that “simple” is often very different from “easy”. Quitting smoking is simple: don’t light a cigarette and put it in your mouth. Losing weight is simple: take in fewer calories than you burn. But countless people (including myself) who have tried these things and failed will tell you that these simple actions can be anything but easy. It can be the same with smiling. Those suffering from serious depression or facing very difficult events in their lives may find forcing a smile very difficult. Even people without those problems will discover that smiling for no reason, when you really don’t feel like it, can feel strange at best and even slightly crazy. It’s easy to abandon the effort simply because it feels embarrassing. So try it with no one else around. When you have some privacy, hold that smile until it starts to feel at least a little genuine.
Even better, try it out on a stranger with whom you interact during your day like a grocery store clerk or gas station attendant. You will probably get a smile in return; as research also shows that smiles are contagious 1 If you do receive a smile, not only will you know that you have brightened someone’s day but you will be taking advantage of the research that shows that exposing yourself to happy things can boost your mood as well.
2) Fill Your Space and Time with the Happy and Positive:
Many of us as children facing parental efforts to get us to eat healthy foods heard the phrase “you are what you eat”, or the corollary “garbage in, garbage out”. Yet food is not the only thing that we consume. The images, sounds, smells, and physical sensations we take in can and do have an impact on our moods. As a result, one strategy for mood-boosting is to be mindful of what we are taking in.
Foul moods can attract us to things that make us feel like someone understands our pain. Like many a teenager, dark moods led me in my youth to put on my headphones and crank up the angriest heavy metal music I had available. The music was both a reflection and affirmation of what I was feeling. Sad or angry music, dark or violent TV shows or movies, tragic poems and the like provide us at times with the understanding that we are not the only people ever to hurt emotionally. There is some benefit to that kind of solidarity among sufferers – it is better to hurt and feel understood in your hurt than to be in pain and feel like the only one on the planet who is suffering. Unfortunately, the research suggests that the overall impact is one of increasingly dark moods. On the other hand, if your goal is to actually feel better mentally and emotionally, the research suggests that exposing yourself to happiness is a much better bet.
A playlist of happy songs, a go-to collection of favorite comedies, access to uplifting photos or works of art: all can be parts of a toolbox to which one can turn to improve mood. As a music junkie and a grumpy morning person, I had a great time seeking out upbeat songs that I really enjoyed for a Spotify playlist that has become my soundtrack for getting ready in the morning. You are now more likely to find me singing and even dancing a bit before work than to finding me grumping and cussing. I have another playlist of mellow music or go for some gentle classical or acoustic to create some peace and calm when things are stressful. Be mindful of what you consume, because it becomes a part of you.
3) Turn off the Tube:
The fact that consuming negativity through various media decreases happiness may be why watching TV seems to have that effect. There is no shortage of bad news, violent images, dramas that include the worst of human behavior, etc. on television. But watching TV has been shown in a variety of studies to be bad for life satisfaction for a variety of other reasons as well. Several studies showed that TV has a negative impact on how people feel about money and material goods, tending to make people feel less satisfied with their income compared to others and more desirous of money and stuff 2. Another found that it reduced happiness because it decreased the amount of time people spent relating with others.3
One German study demonstrated that a little bit of television watching actually increased happiness relative to those who watched no TV or lots of TV. And based on the section above, watching uplifting and inspiring shows and movies is probably good for you. But if you want to boost your happiness, getting out into nature is generally a better bet than zoning out on the couch in front of the tube 4.
4) Spend Time in Nature:
You don’t have to be a tree-hugging hippie or an avid outdoors enthusiast to know that there is something good for the human heart in experiencing a beautiful sunset over the ocean, an awe-inspiring mountain range, a pristine forest, or a field of fragrant flowers. This can particularly be true for those of us who live in concrete jungles. When I get a chance to be out of the city and in a place of natural splendor, the stress melts away and joy begins to take its place. I am certainly not alone in this.
Many studies show that even brief experiences in natural settings boost mood, even for people with mood disorders. And there is even evidence that consistent time in nature doesn’t just boost mood, but can increase emotional functioning, life satisfaction and nearly every aspect of personal wellbeing. 5 There is a reason that humans spend lots of our vacation time, money and energy seeking out the world’s most beautiful places.
There is also a reason that when we can’t be out in nature, millions of us choose screen savers of nature scenes, landscape art to decorate walls, and plants and flowers to freshen up homes and offices. The fact that so many of us integrate nature in these small ways into our everyday lives is a manifestation of our need to connect with nature. Fortunately for city dwellers, the evidence also shows that when people are unable to get out into an actual natural setting, “virtual nature” still helps – viewing photographs or videos of nature can also boost mood. The effects are not as strong, but they are still there. Research presented at the American Psychological Association has even shown that prisoners in maximum security prisons who saw nature videos had less psychological distress and exhibited less violent behavior.
So for a boost in happiness, spend time outdoors in places where you can connect with nature. If you can’t get out in to nature, bring nature to you by bringing plants and flowers into your home or workplace. And if you can’t connect with nature directly, do so through virtual means like photographs, art, screen savers, videos, films or sound machines that produce nature sounds.
5) Care for Your Body:
Though the western world has often held a dualistic view of body and mind, modern science has steadily been showing that there is not as much separation between the two as previously thought. The brain is directly affected by what happens to and in the body. Therefore what we do to the body can have a direct impact on our moods.
Physical exercise is a proven way to improve mental and emotional health. Aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for pleasure and feelings of happiness. Michael Babyak at Duke University ran experiments on people experiencing major depression. Some were given an exercise regimen, some were given prescription anti-depressants, and some were given both. What he found was that while all three groups got similar benefits in terms of mood increase, the exercising group had dramatically lower rates of relapse into depression. It seems that exercise is significantly better at keeping moods up than meds.
Here again, the key is to find a form of exercise that you genuinely enjoy and want to do not just for the physical and emotional benefits, but for the experience itself. If you don’t have an activity that springs directly to mind, it may take some trial and error. If you experiment with new team sports or individual activities, you may be surprised at what resonates with you. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. I was lucky enough at one point to be renting a house with a pool in the backyard, and found that I really enjoyed working up a good sweat and increasing my heartrate by mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges in the Texas heat before jumping in the pool for a refreshing cooldown. You don’t have to have done it in gym class for it to count as exercise.
What we do with our body matters, but so does what we put in to it. Nutrition is important not only for feeling good physically, but for feeling good mentally and emotionally. Eating a lot of junk food over time contributes significantly to depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and dementia 6.
High intake of refined carbs and sugars can exacerbate our response to stress. Poor diet also tends to lead to impaired sleep and reduced physical activity, both of which negatively affect our neurochemicals and can lead to major depression. It can also lead to obesity, which contributes to depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breathing and musculoskeletal problems, and cancer. Cutting unhealthy food out of your diet as much as possible can improve not just your physical health, but your mental and emotional health as well.
It should probably not be surprising, then, that replacing bad food with nutritious food can further improve mood. An overall nutrient-rich diet with a variety of vitamins and minerals helps deal with stress. Specific nutrients can be especially helpful with mood. Vitamin D (which one can also get by soaking up sunshine) and the B vitamins (particularly B-6, B-12 and folate) help fight depression. Eating foods that contain magnesium and selenium seem to help reduce anxiety. Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like kiwi fruit, salmon and walnuts) can help fight mood disorders, depression and even schizophrenia. Too little omega-3 fatty acids can increase risk the risks of these problems and attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia and bipolar disorder as well. And we don’t have to give up all the sweet stuff to stay happy. Dark chocolate can help boost mood, sustain clarity of thinking during intense mental effort, and improve vascular health.
Eating healthy can be difficult also because of what we often think of as “comfort food”. Donuts are my own Achilles heel. Not only are they delicious, but I associate them with happy childhood Saturday mornings when my father would bring home donuts for us to munch on as we watched our favorite cartoons. The occasional indulgence in comfort food is not a bad thing and can provide a brief shot of pleasure, but if you are looking for a meaningful and more sustained improvement of your mood, find healthy foods that you enjoy and stick with them.
6) Savor the Good, Let go of the Bad:
One of the most important things you can do to increase the enjoyment of life is to be intentional about how much time you let your mind dwell on things you find pleasant and good rather than on things you find unpleasant and bad.
Modern science has proven that the brain is not immutable but has plasticity, meaning that it can and does change. As Dr. Rick Hanson explains, the brain can change because of things that happen to us (experience-dependent neuroplasticity for those who love scientific terms) but it can also change because of how we use it (self-directed neuroplasticity). Hanson’s research demonstrates that when something good happens to us, we can actually begin to “hard-wire” the goodness of the event into our brain with a conscious process of savoring. He breaks it down into four steps, remembered best with the acronym H.E.A.L., which stands for Have an Experience, Enrich it, Absorb it, Link positive and negative material so that positive soothes and even replaces negative.
So make a point of not quickly turning away from a beautiful sunset, a delicious snack, the clean smell of laundry out of the dryer, the feeling of holding a loved one’s hand, a favorite song, or whatever makes you feel good. Be fully present with the experience and allow yourself to soak it in. In other words, stop and smell the roses…and then stay a while if you can and enjoy the rose’s color and texture as well as its odor. Think about the care someone took to plant and tend the roses. Remember a happy time that you gave or received a rose. Think about how pleasant things in life like the roses help balance out the difficult things in life. In doing so, you’ll be training your brain for happiness.
Unfortunately, the same principle applies to negative experiences. It is important to reflect on and learn from the bad things that happen, but when we let our minds go over and over and over something that has caused us anger, shame, fear, sadness or other negative emotions the negativity begins to get hard-wired into our brains. As Hanson puts it “Since neurons that fire together wire together, staying with a negative experience past the point that’s useful is like running laps in Hell: You dig the track a little deeper in your brain each time you go around it.”7
One concrete way to savor the good and spend less time thinking about the bad in life is be consciously and consistently grateful. Oprah Winfrey made gratitude journaling nationally famous, but the practice is more than just a fad inspired by a talk-show host. Experiments on gratitude journaling by Dr. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading gratitude researcher, have documented significant increases in life satisfaction and positive feelings, decreases in negative feelings and improvements in amount and quality of sleep 8. Other studies found a variety of other benefits to being grateful. It opens the door to more new relationships. It also decreases aches and pains, envy, resentment, frustration, regret, depression and symptoms of PTSD. At the same time, it increases self-esteem, self-care and resilience. Gratitude has also been shown in MRI studies to stimulate both the part of the brain that regulates stress and the part that produces sensations of pleasure. While gratitude journaling or expressions of gratitude are generally most powerful when done in a heartfelt and mindful way, Dr. Emmons notes also that it pays to put gratitude into practice even if we don’t feel particularly thankful, since the feelings often follow the behavior…a literal example of “fake it ‘til you make it”. He also recommends smiling, saying “thank you”, sending thank-you notes and making gratitude visits. All in all, spending time thinking about, listing out and thanking others for the good things in our lives pays dividends in our own happiness and wellbeing.
7) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
Not only does it matter what we spend time thinking about, but it also matters how we think about things. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” is a perhaps overly scientific way to say “changing your self-talk”. How we talk to ourselves is important and can have an enormous impact on our moods.
We are constantly interpreting the events in our lives, and almost every event has many possible interpretations. In a very real way, we create our own reality when we choose how to interpret what happens to us. It can be easy to fall into a pattern of interpreting things in the worst possible light, or at least in a generally negative light. One of the keys to enjoying life is to interpret what happens to us in ways that lead to resilience, realistic optimism and personal growth. Harvard researcher Shawn Achor finds that we can find happiness in “choosing the most valuable reality.”An example may be helpful. Being turned down for a job can be interpreted by an applicant as evidence of one’s own stupidity and worthlessness or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, interpreted as evidence that the employer is intimidated by one’s brilliance and greatness. The first interpretation is obviously self-defeating and the second is likely not grounded in reality. A better interpretation of such an event might be for the applicant to be proud of the effort and courage it took to go after the job, to recognize that there are many reasons that other applicants might have been a better fit for the employer, and to find if there are new skills they could develop to have a better chance the next time around. This is the essence of what Achor terms “reality architecture”. The event of being turned down for a job may not be subject to change, but the reality that a person experiences as a result of the event is. Psychologists have developed formal exercises that can help retrain the brain to stop interpreting things so negatively and start interpreting them in ways that facilitate happiness.
Dr. David Burns developed a rubric in The Feeling Good Handbook to provide a systematic way to change your self talk. Simpler and less labor intensive methods include affirmations and mantras. Marisa Peer, the celebrated life-changing therapist to the rich and famous, gives speeches and workshops on the power of the beliefs we have about ourselves. She has those she helps write messages to themselves around the house, repeat affirmations and the like to change a their negative thinking patterns into beliefs such as “I am enough” and “love is available to me”. Affirmations may sound overly simplistic or even call to mind the hapless Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley sadly murmuring into his mirror “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” But there is a reason that wealthy and powerful people continue to seek out Marisa’s help: her methods work. Consider the fact that the placebo effect is perhaps the most thoroughly researched and documented healing modality in human history. Virtually every study of a medication or treatment must be compared to a control group taking a placebo. And in virtually every study people receiving a placebo experience noticeable healing. One innovative study on knee surgeries showed that those who believed they had undergone surgery actually experienced healing, even though they had not.
In short, through your habits of mind and their manifestations in self-talk you can be your own worst enemy or your own best friend. And it may just be helpful to think in that way. How would you talk to a best friend that you love and value when helping them make sense of the events in their life? Why not talk to yourself the same way?
8) Be Mindful:
Mindfulness has become a major trend in the United States with major corporations, professional sports teams, top-tier universities and many others are incorporating mindfulness into what they do because it does so much to improve focus, performance, resilience and much more. The list of documented benefits for physical, mental and emotional health is astounding. In short, mindfulness has become so popular because it works. Quite simply, regular mindful practice makes it easier to find peace, enjoyment and fulfillment in life regardless of circumstances.
But what is mindfulness? The term is generally used to describe the practice of maintaining full present-moment awareness and acceptance of what is going on inside and outside of us – our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings. Some of the most common mindfulness-developing activities include yoga and meditation.
Yoga has become massively popular in the west, and for good reason. Yoga has been shown to be very effective at improving physical health, but perhaps even more impressive is its effectiveness at boosting mental and emotional wellbeing. Scientists have documented that practicing yoga can be effective in improving emotional intelligence, memory and cognitive function, life purpose and satisfaction, regulation of emotions, sleep quality, quality of life during menopause, self-confidence and resilience under stress. Research also suggests that it increases social interaction; helps cope with relationship losses and difficulties; enhances spirituality and facilitates personal transformation. Studies also show that it can work in treating depression, anxiety, addictions, functional psychosis, ADHD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, pre-radiotherapy sleep disturbances and has even been shown to reduce seizure frequency for those with epilepsy.
While some may be intimidated by pictures of yogis contorted into unthinkable physical positions or sweating buckets in a hot yoga studio, rest assured that there are enough different styles and methods of yoga to accommodate people of virtually any age or physical condition.
If yoga is still unappealing or unavailable, meditation is another option. A great deal of research has been done in recent years on new and experienced meditators showing that meditation is particularly effective at changing the structure of the brain. Like yoga, misconceptions about meditation may prevent many from ever trying it. For some, the word “meditation” conjures images of monks in caves living lives of extreme asceticism or religious devotees seeking states of spiritual transcendence. Yet much like yoga, there are countless forms of meditation and many or even most are completely accessible and useful in modern life and devoid of religious content (and therefore compatible with any religious belief).
The most basic example is meditation on the breath. For this meditation, find a comfortable position in which the spine can remain straight and comfortable – this can be done cross-legged on the floor, seated on a cushion, sitting in a chair, lying down or standing straight up. Once you have found a comfortable position, bring your attention to your breath. Observe the breath for a moment and then consciously begin breathing slowly and deeply, all the way into the belly. Keep your awareness focused on the breath from beginning of inhale to end of exhale. When the mind become distracted by thoughts, emotions or physical sensations, gently and non-judgmentally return mental focus to the breath. That’s it! You can do this for a few minutes or a few hours.[notehis is another example of “simple” not being the same as “easy”. When faced with silence, the mind tends to chatter and wander. Many find the process of continually returning focus to the breath to be more difficult than they imagined. Other common forms of meditation beyond breath awareness include focus on a mantra (repeated word or sound), an image or object, a prayer, an internal visualization, etc. Even in these forms of meditation, the practice is to gently return your awareness to whatever your focus is centered upon every time you get distracted.[/note] The more often and longer you do it, the greater the impact on your life.
While yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, focused prayer and the like are among the most common ways to learn to be mindful, in reality mindfulness can be practiced just about anywhere, anytime, doing anything. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading thinker in the field and the developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique has noted that you can practice mindfulness just by focusing on your breathing, especially when feeling intense emotions. Consciously maintaining slow, steady breath is a powerful mindful practice of its own, particularly when coupled with the practicing of noticing the thoughts and emotions that arise and letting them go. Mindfulness can be tuning in carefully to what is coming through your senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. This can be done while eating, doing chores, exercising, driving, etc. To be happy, as the mindfulness folks say, just work on being here, now.
Mood boosting in a nutshell:
There are a variety of ways to increase the enjoyment of life from the very simple and short-term to the more complex and long-term. Note also that to make maximum use of your time you can use many of these suggestions in combination with one another – a form of multitasking that is actually healthy. For example, to take advantage of both the mood-boosting benefits of exercise and the healing power of nature, you can look for forms of exercise outdoors – walking is more pleasant outdoors on a lovely day than on a treadmill. If it is available you can go hiking, rowing, swimming, surfing, rock climbing or find other ways to get your exercise out in nature. Bring healthy snacks along. Instead of listening to a podcast or music, practice mindfulness while doing any of these activities outdoors. For even more benefit, do these things with someone you love.
The ability to enjoy life comes from the choices we make, the habits we develop, the ways we spend our time (and where and with whom) and how we treat our own mind, body and spirit. Make the effort, I promise you it’s worth it!
January 6, 2018 | Ryan Rynbrandt
- Ulf Dimberg, Monika Thunberg and Kurt Elmehed (January, 2000) Unconscious Facial Reactions to Emotional Facial Expressions, Psychological Science 11:1
- See Richard Layard (2005) Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (New York, NY: Penguin); Luigino Bruni and Luca Stanca (2006) Income Aspirations, Television and Happiness: Evidence from the World Values Surveys. Kyklos 59:2, 209-226 and Joseph M. Sirgy et al (1998) Does Television Viewership Play a Role in the Perception of Quality of Life? Journal of Advertising 27:1 125-142
- Luigino Bruni and Luca Stanca (2007). Handbook on the Economics of Happiness (Elgar)
- Frey (2008). Happiness: A Revolution in Economics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) p 9
- For an in-depth review of the many studies demonstrating a link between wellbeing and time in nature, see Capaldi, C.A. et al (2015, Dec 20). Flourishing in Nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention. International Journal of Wellbeing 5(4)
- Wolpert, Stuart. “Scientists learn how what you eat affects your brain — and those of your kids.”UCLA newsroom. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 July 2008. <http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/scientistslearn- how-food-affects-52668>. See also Rao, Asha et al (April-June, 2008) Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses, Indian Journal of Psychiatry 50(2): 77–82.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/
- Dr. Rick Hanson (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence (New York, NY: Harmony Books)
- Emmons and McCullough (2003). Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 2, 377-389