4. Count Your Blessings
Researchers agree that one of the best ways to keep a positive attitude is to focus on your blessings. Robert Emmons—a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who has done groundbreaking research on gratitude—says people who are grateful enjoy higher levels of happiness, optimism, joy, and love. Conversely, those who are ungrateful experience feelings of loneliness, depression, and lack of meaning in life.
So what is the best way to express your gratitude? Experts have discovered several effective exercises, ranging from keeping a gratitude journal to writing a thank-you letter to someone deserving. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, suggests writing down three blessings each day. In a study where people performed this exercise, 94 percent of severely depressed people became less depressed, and 92 percent became happier, with an average mood improvement of 50 percent in just over two weeks.
5. Buy Some Happiness
The relationship between money and happiness is a complicated one. Many people think that more money guarantees more life satisfaction, but studies show that once a person’s basic needs are taken care of, more money doesn’t necessarily mean more joy.
Consider the following data: In 1972, when the average salary was equivalent to about $25,000 by today’s standards, 30 percent of Americans rated themselves as “very happy.” Fast forward three decades and the percentage of very happy Americans in 2004 remained nearly stagnant, hovering at just 31 percent, despite the fact that the average annual income had jumped to $38,000.
“Most people fool themselves into thinking they need more money than they actually do,” says Brooks. “At about age 34, a lot of [people] realize what they do to make a living doesn’t have anything to do with their passion. We make superficial choices. That’s the tragedy of materialism—it holds us back from our most creative nature—to create value, to serve others. The data is very clear on this one.”
Even if you do get the big raise you’ve been dreaming of, odds are the happiness that comes from it will be short lived. “Humans tend to adapt to their circumstances very quickly,” Brooks says. “Almost immediately the increased income becomes the new ‘normal.’ It takes just three months for the happiness of the salary increase to wear off. And you’ll get used to the big fancy house within six months.”
Interestingly, studies show that regardless of what income level people attain, they still usually report that their “required income” is about 40 percent higher than what they are currently earning.
The good news is that money can buy happiness—as long as you give it away to someone in need.
“Giving away money will bring you happiness,” Brooks says. “People who give are richer, happier, and healthier. The data is undeniable. Happier people give more, and people who give are happier and earn more money.”
Experiments spearheaded by Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, measured how happy people felt after either spending money on themselves, or giving money to prosocial causes, such as paying for someone’s meal or donating to charity. One experiment measured the change in happiness of workers after they spent a bonus of between $3,000 and $8,000. Those who spent more of their bonus on others were happier. In fact, those who spent one-third of their windfall on others experienced a 20 percent increase in happiness compared to those who spent nothing on prosocial causes.
In another experiment, college students were given a small amount of money with instructions to spend it that same day. One half of the group was told to spend the money on themselves, and the other half was told to spend it on someone else. The study concluded that students who spent the money on others felt significantly happier.
Other studies, cited in Brooks’ book, Gross National Happiness, show that people who donate are less likely than nongivers to suffer from depression—people who donated each year were 34 percent less likely than nongivers to say they had felt “so sad nothing could cheer [them] up” in the past month; they were also 68 percent less likely to have felt hopeless.
6. Fake It Till You Make It
“Feelings follow actions,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. Rubin, who spent a year testing a slew of happiness theories from the Buddha to Oprah, has first-hand knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. “You need to act the way you want to feel. It’s crazy how effective it is.”
There is plenty of data to support Rubin’s finding. Research shows that simply going through the act of smiling actually makes you happier. In one study, people who were instructed to smile while watching cartoons rated them to be funnier than other subjects who were told to furrow their eyebrows.
But why is it so effective? When you feel depressed, your brain sends signals to your facial muscles, telling them that you’re sad; the face responds by adopting an unhappy expression, in turn signaling the brain that you’re in a miserable mood. Consciously choosing to change your facial expression so it doesn’t reflect your negative emotions is one way to change the message to the brain, which will then respond by changing your mood.
Another sure-fire way to boost your mood is to laugh out loud—whether you find something funny or not. Laughing releases endorphins, oxygenates the blood stream, and strengthens abdominal muscles. If you don’t want to laugh alone, you can even attend laughter yoga classes, where people get together and do laughing exercises. Practiced in 53 countries around the world, laughter yoga is now a growing trend in the U.S. as well.