While we may associate fame, fortune or physical beauty with personal contentment, you needn’t be a gorgeous blonde with a handful of platinum credit cards to be happy. In fact, researchers have found the things that make us happy are often relatively simple. Perhaps as a result, the majority of us claim to feel satisfied with our lives.
If you’re feeling blue about your life, realize that it’s normal to have emotional ups and downs. Lingering sadness that lasts for several weeks, though, can be a sign of depression so talk to your doctor. But if you’d simply like to improve your outlook on life, feel better about yourself and get more pleasure out of every day, consider these techniques.
1. Set your sights. A recent study found that setting goals that fit with your personality—called self-concordant goals—and striving to achieve them affects your level of happiness and self-satisfaction. Other studies reveal that this kind of goal-setting enhances your sense of well-being, too. Don’t worry about what you think you should want. Instead, choose objectives that are personally important to you—you’re more likely to reach them.
2. Make it a priority. It may sound strange, but you can decide to be happy, says Victoria Moran, author of Fit from Within: 101 Simple Secrets to Change Your Body and Your Life. "The old Lincoln quote about ‘most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be’ is true," says Moran. "You do this by seeing happiness as the norm and depression as the anomaly instead of the other way around." You can dwell on the positives in life—or you can get bogged down by the negatives. It’s up to you.
3. Master skills. Maybe it’s the fact that you can finally do a headstand in yoga class or that you learned a new computer program in just a week’s time. Either way, competence and autonomy are critical to individual happiness, says recent research. The reason seemed to be rooted in our perceptions of ourselves—when we’re able to do something well, it enhances our overall self-esteem. Accepting new challenges—like taking that kick-butt body sculpting class that looks so hard—improves your self-confidence as well.
4. Stay in touch. Friendships seem to have a protective effect on health; they also affect our day-to-day satisfaction with our lives, says recent research. Edward Diener, the Joseph R. Smiley distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, has been studying happiness, which he defines as "subjective well-being," for years. In one of his studies of college students, he found that the happiest 10 percent had two elements in common—they had good mental health and rewarding social relationships. The bottom line? Having people in your life that care about you—and who you care about—is an essential component of happiness for most women.
5. Think long-term. While it’s easy to get sidetracked by immediate desires—such as setting aside an important work project to watch your favorite TV show—staying on target affects self-esteem and overall happiness levels. Realize too that a bad mood is usually only temporary—it doesn’t have to undermine how contented you feel with your life. It’s also important to put negative experiences behind you—don’t constantly dwell on the past or on ways you could have handled certain situations differently. Strive for closure on painful events—whether it’s a divorce or job loss—and move forward.
6. Work toward your goals. You only have so many hours in the day, but by doing things that are important to you every day, you’ll feel more contented. What’s your mission in life? What’s most important to you? If you can do something toward that goal each day—whether you love to make people laugh or you want to write children’s books—you’ll be "living for your mission," says Moran, instead of for external things like a bigger house or a nicer car. That gives you a satisfaction that material things cannot.
7. Exercise. If you’re feeling down, working out is one of the proven ways to lift your mood. In fact, studies show that exercise reduces anger, confusion, fatigue and tension. Best of all, the positive effects kick in after only 10 minutes. Even if you’re pressed for time, a few short walks interspersed throughout your day can help reduce anxiety and lift your mood. Remember, regular exercisers are less depressed and have a more positive outlook on life. That’s another good reason to make hitting the gym a priority.
8. Celebrate small achievements. Too often we focus only on an outcome rather than the process of getting there. While goals are important, you need to let yourself feel happy about the progress you’re making along the way. "Nobody feels perfect, so allow yourself to enjoy the fact that you’re lifting more weight than you did last month, for example, or that your jeans are looser, even if you’re not down a whole size," says Moran.
9. Laugh! A study published several years ago found that when adults forced themselves to laugh for one minute, they reported feeling happier afterwards. When you laugh hard, you flood your system with endorphins which make you feel good. Whether it’s renting your favorite video, hanging out with your funniest buddy or simply playing a game with your kids, laughter simply makes you feel happier.
10. Focus on the big picture. You probably know someone who flips out over even the most minor of setbacks. Take this approach and you’ll undermine your chance for happiness. "We need to control how we look at the world," says Diener. "We need to train ourselves not to make a big deal of trivial little hassles, to learn to focus on the process of working toward our goals—not waiting to be happy until we achieve them—and to think about our blessings, making a habit of noticing the good things in our lives."
So, the next time your mood seems bleak, take a closer look at your life and realize how fortunate you really are. By appreciating what you have—and working toward your overall goals—you can become the type of person who always sees the glass as half-full, not half-empty. And chances are you’ll feel happier as a result.