Feeling happy is good for your health. There are many reasons why… happiness is associated with less stress and I probably don’t need to explain why that’s good for you. If you’re feeling happy it’s easier to stick to healthy habits – for example, one study found that people that call themselves happy are more likely to exercise than those in a less good mood, happy people also eat more fruit and vegetables.
Happiness also directly affects your body – for example, happier people may have better immunity and there’s a link with a lower risk of heart disease with a few different studies showing the positive effect of positive mood.
It’s even been proven – those who have an optimistic outlook live up to 15 per cent longer than those who think more pessimistically.
Plus, being happy just feels good.
The problem is though that sometimes, especially considering the last year, creating the state of happiness may not feel so easy.
But hard is not impossible.
Happiness is a state of mind and changing the way you think or altering your brain behaves in both the short and long term can help you get closer to it.
Over the years I’ve written about a lot of techniques, either from experts or studies, proven to help shift you to a more positive mindset and some of the best are here.
Just using one of them might not create instant happiness, but try a mixture and you’ll keep edging yourself closer and closer to your happiest self.
21 Ways to Be Happier
1. Try the 5 Whys
The thought pattern that makes us most unhappy is rumination – the constant going over and over in our head about something that’s upsetting us. But this trick from psychologist Tony Crabbe author of Busy: How To Thrive in a World of Too Much helps switch off that thought process and can solve all manner of problems.
All you do is ask why something is bothering you so much. When you come up with the answer, then ask why that also worries you?
Repeat the process and by the fifth time you ask why, you’ll reach the root cause of what’s bothering you – at that point, you normally be able to find a solution to the problem, or, more likely, realise it’s nothing that you should be feeling that down about
2. Get Outdoors
A study looking at what happened to people’s brains when they walked outside for 90 minutes found that the part of their brain that triggers rumination – switched off.
If The 5 Whys isn’t working for you, head outside for a walk, or go play on a swing, then try it.
3. Look After Your Gut Bugs
The bacteria in our gut can actually have a strong effect on mood.
It’s believed that some bacteria actually emit substances that can reach the brain and trigger a rise in levels of anxiety and negative thinking.
Crowding out negative bugs with more positive ones can help reduce levels of these chemicals, and so, you want to the good bugs to thrive.
This means doing a few simple things: eating a varied plant-based diet (see this post on how to build a more interesting salad to help with that one), consuming less processed food and adding occasional servings of fermented foods like kimchi, kefir and miso. But, if you really want to target stress and anxiety directly, you might also want to try some B-GOS
This prebiotic has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in people taking it but it also had a strong positive effect on anxiety. Anxious people tend to pick up negative things around them – but after taking a supplement of B-GOS they were more inclined to focus on the positive.
4. Take a Gratitude Walk
You’ve probably heard that listing three things that you feel grateful for each day can help create a more positive mindset (and it does – I’m definitely more Eyeore than Tigger but find it really helps) – but gratitude walking can power up the process even further.
The basic version of this sees you simply walking while thinking what you’re grateful for, but I like to add in taking pictures too as it gives you something to look back on if you’re feeling a bit down.
Or, try a colour walk – these see you seeking out certain, happy-making colours – like yellow or orange – while you walk. The combination of the movement, being outside and the power of colour can work wonders.
See more about taking a colour walk here.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Say No
A doctor once told me this was one of their New Year’s Resolutions and it’s a good idea as having things you don’t want to do hanging over your head drains mood (and cancelling closer to the time normally brings more stress than just saying no in the first place!).
The doc’s process was that before they committed to doing something they would ask; “Would I want to do this if it was today?” If the answer is no, the answer will probably also be no in a few weeks’ time.
If you find getting out of things difficult just say ‘that date rings a bell, I just need to check on it’ – then say no by email!
6. Tell Yourself it’s Going to be a Fabulous Day
First thing, as you wake up tell yourself this is going to be a good day. You can even list why or what you hope to achieve.
You see, when you wake up deciding it’s going to be a bad day, it usually becomes one found scientists at the US’s Pennsylvania State University. “When you wake up in the morning with a certain outlook for the day, in some sense the die is already cast,” says the study’s author neuropsychologist Martin Sliwinski.
The study found that people who woke up dreading the day actually performed less effectively and experienced more stressful moments.
One reason behind this taps into the trend for manifestation and the idea that your brain likes to give you what it thinks you want – if you’re telling it you’re going to have a bad day it thinks you want one.
You then start to notice the negative things that are going on rather than the positive and next thing you know, it IS a crappy day.
Wake up telling yourself it’s going to be a good day sets you mind on a more positive path.
I admit, I kind of rolled my eyes at all of this at first, but then I read You Are a Badass by Jennifer Sincero. The first time I read it, it annoyed me, I couldn’t finish it, but it kept nagging at me and so I tried again and this time it clicked.
See also May Cause Miracles by Gabrielle Bernstein. The first time I interviewed her I didn’t get it – now, I think she has a point.
7. Celebrate Your Wins
When something goes right, jump up and down, clap your hands or high-five your friends.
Researchers at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington found that physically expressing happiness boosts the joy you feel.
8. Find Your Happy Team
Happiness is a contagious emotion. Surround yourself with happy people and you’ll kick your own positivity up a notch say experts.
This doesn’t just mean looking for people who make you laugh, also look for people who are great at solving problems, who don’t get emotional about setbacks, or who have lots of energy and good health.
All of these are either traits or side effects of optimism which helps you feel more positive.
9. Get a Joy Song
Happy music makes us see things more positively.
In research at Denmark’s University of Groningen people asked to look for happy faces in a set of emoticons saw more of them while listening to songs that made them feel good – even when there weren’t actually any happy faces in those emoticons.
Find the tune that makes you happy and play it when you need a lift.
If you need some suggestions – check out this list of positive songs to start your day right.
10. Retrain your Brain
The book Wired For Joy by Laurel Mellin is full of tips and tricks to help you see the world with happier eyes.
One tip is Emotional Housecleaning which sees you releasing some of the negative things you’re feeling by expressing them – this makes room for more positive thoughts to come in their place.
All you do is complete the following four sentences with whatever comes to mind.
I feel angry that
I feel sad that
I feel afraid that
I feel guilty that
If you find that you get stuck in a negative spiral, turn it off by reversing the exercise. Try instead completing a different four sentences.
I feel grateful that.
I feel happy that.
I feel secure when
I feel proud of.
Now how do you feel?
11. Make Your Bed
I once interviewed Gretchen Rubin author of The Happiness Project and I asked her for the tip that had helped the most of her readers – and this was it.
‘It’s crazy but it’s like a gateway drug that just means you start the day planning to be happy – and once you do that, you look for things that will make it happen,’ she explained. (Aha – another expert that believes in the ‘if you build it they will come’ idea of happiness.)
Making your bed is also one of the key steps suggested for a great healthy morning routine, something else that can make you feel good right from the start of you day.
See more about setting, and sticking with, good morning habits here.
12. Get a Happiness Journal
And write in the simple things that made you smile in a day – a song that made you sing out loud, a fun event you went to, a fun meme you saw.
If you’re ever feeling down, grab the book and read it over to yourself.
This idea comes from a study from Harvard Business School where people put down a note of the good things from their day in a time capsule. When they read them back to themselves three months later, it wasn’t the big things like promotions that gave them the most joy, but remembering these fun, small moments.
13. Fake a Smile
Making the shape of emotions actually triggers them in your brain – if you turn your mouth into a smile and hold it there, you will start to feel better (in the famous study that proved this the volunteers put a pencil between their teeth).
There was a debate whether this actually worked, but a study analysing the result of all the data in 2019 found yep, yes it does. And it’s super easy to do so, why not give it a try.
This is also suggested as one reason why studies show that people who have Botox tend to find their mood improves -they can’t frown and it actually reduces feelings of negativity (although you might not want to go quite that far!).
14. Look for Solutions
Bad things happen – that’s life. But, optimists who generally have a positive, happy outlook on life treat setbacks very differently from pessimists.
Optimists don’t just accept the negative and feel sad about it, they either try and change things, or look at what they can learn from a situation.
Make like an optimist.
If something bad happens, ask yourself, what about this situation can I act upon? What can I not change and just need to deal with? What can I learn from it to make my life better in the future?
15. Draw a Pizza
Or a cake, or an ice cream the size of the Empire State.
Strange but true, researchers at New York State’s St Bonaventure University found that drawing comfort foods actually made people feel happier possibly because drawing the food stimulated the reward centre of the brain.
The best bit about the study though was that drawing the food didn’t make people feel hungrier, in fact, it might even help reduce food cravings by cheering you up!
16. Find Your Ikigai
This Japanese word loosely translates as your reason for living.
That might sound like it should be some huge goal like having kids or retiring worth millions but it’s not.
Ken Mogi, author of The Little Book of Ikigai explains that part of the concept of ikigai is experiencing the ‘joy of little things’ – like being somewhere that makes you happy, spending time with someone you love or doing something you truly enjoy.
Identify people, places, activities and things that tap into your ikigai and incorporate them into your day as often as possible.
17. Eat More Good Fats
We’ve become a bit scared of fat but it is essential for health so you should aim to get fats from healthy sources like nuts, seeds, olive oil and oily fish as part of your daily diet.
Research is suggesting that inflammation in the brain interferes with our ability to make neurotransmitters that improve mood; however, avocado. nuts, seeds and olive oil contain alpha-lionelic acid (ALA), a fat that helps fight inflammation. ALA also increases levels of dopamine and serotonin that promote good moods.
Nations that eat high levels of oily fish also have the lowest incidences of depression and the reason is that omega-3 fats in oily fish help us cope better with stress.
It doesn’t have to be hard to get your fats – a yummy breakfast of avocado on toast will give you some, you could then try some canned tuna for lunch (my friend Katie over at The Terrible Cook has a super quick and easy Tuna Salad recipe you might want to try if you normally find canned tuna boring) and then try a delicious chicken and cashew nut stir fry at night.
18. Happy Breathe
This is one to use if you’re finding yourself getting stressed or het up about something.
Slow your breathing to 2.5 slow, steady breaths a minute. Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of about 10, hold for a second then breath out from your mouth for a count if 10-14.
Repeat for 15 minutes. It actually changes your brainwaves to a more calming pattern says a study from Italy’s University of Pisa.
19. Get a Happy Bag
Gretchen Rubin says we should all have one of these to pull out when we need cheering up.
It contains things you know make you happy – like a list of your favourite songs, the book you always read as a child, something you love doing. Engage your mind with something fun and the negative thoughts don’t have room to hang around too.
20. Throw Away Negative Thoughts
This is one of my favourite mood boosting studies.
Researchers asked two groups of people to write down the thoughts that were getting them down. One group were then told to screw up the piece of paper and throw it in the bin – and that group got the biggest bump in mood.
So easy and super satisfying too.
21. Look Forward to Something
Happiness is not just one feeling. In fact, scientists say there are 16 different types of happiness. And excitement and enthusiasm are two of them.
So, start to look forward to things. Actively plan what you’re going to do and tap into the buzzy feeling you get as you do that.
I’m aware that as I write this in Dec 2020, plans go awry often – and so you might not want to get too excited in case plans have to change – but the thing you’re looking forward to doesn’t have to be a big event like a holiday, you can create a buzz around reading a book you’ve been looking forward to or watching a favourite TV show.
Remember, happiness can come from the simplest of things.
So there you have it, 21 ways to feel happier in 2021. If you’ve got anything else that works for you then please add it in the comments so we have more tips to help make people happy.
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.