The answer is complex, because happiness is complex. For one thing, there’s a genetic component to mood, notes positive psychologist Suzann Pileggi Pawelski author of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts. Children of more naturally upbeat people tend to be more joyful too.
Brain chemistry also plays a role. Telling someone with anxiety or depression to "just cheer up" completely misses the mark — and is rude and hurtful to boot.
All that said, there is good news. Research has shown that at least a portion of your happiness is well within your control. “Happiness doesn’t just happen," says Pileggi Pawelski, "but healthy habits certainly can determine our individual wellbeing.” You can influence your mood in a real and enduring way, just by taking a few simple actions.
We looked into the latest positive psychology studies and spoke to top happiness experts, who clued us into the most powerful steps you can take make your outlook brighter.
Build strong relationships.
“Connections with other people are the single most important component of happiness,” Pileggi Pawelski says. Just look at Harvard's 80-year study on emotional wellbeing and adult development, which found relationships were crucial to feeling your best. "The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period," says the director of the study, Robert Waldinger, MD, in his TED talk.
All you need is one solid relationship to experience the mental perks, Pileggi Pawelski says. Someone you can call in the middle of the night if you're having an emergency; someone you can lean on during a super-stressful times; someone you can share positive experiences with too.
Even if you've got a group of besties you love, the effects are so powerful that it's worth putting in some time to strengthen those bonds. Set aside at least two nights a month to spend face time (IRL or digital, if you're in a long-distance friendship) with your pals.
Or join a club to meet people with common interests, suggests Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. Get creative. “You could start a podcast or New Yorker article club,” Rubin suggests. “I once new someone who started a cereal and Serial group, where they’d eat different cereals like Coco Puffs while they listened.”
Do things that help you grow.
Build on your passions, or take steps to strengthen your weak spots. Start a blog; take a photography class; download a language app; hire a financial coach. The goal? Never stop learning.
Listen to music you love every day.
Listening to one song won't lift your mood for any sustained period of time, but listening to a few faves daily can keep you feeling as groovy as your tunes.
Do a good deed.
You don't have to start volunteering every week. But try to keep an eye out for opportunities to take small, kind actions throughout your day. We're talking about things like giving a pregnant woman your seat on public transit, looking your barista in the eye and sincerely wishing them a good day, or celebrating friends' accomplishments a little extra.
A review in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine confirms that this strategy works. The research found that being altruistic is associated with greater well-being, happiness, health, and longevity.
Change your mindset.
This tip can feel overly simplistic or like magical thinking — but it really works. Focus your attention on what's going well in your life rather than what's going poorly, suggests Pileggi Pawelski. (So: The nice weather vs. the fact that you just missed your train, or your upcoming happy hour with your friends vs. the crappy day at work you're having.) It'll elevate your mood in the moment, and help train your brain to keep noticing the nice things.
To get yourself into the habit of giving more weight to happy events, consider using a gratitude journal. Research indicates that gratitude can make you feel more "positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships," notes Harvard Health.
Go a step beyond by savoring good moments, says Pileggi Pawelski. This method is proven to increase happiness, and it's easy to do. Look for the "small, daily, magical moments in our lives," she says, and take an extra second to intentionally appreciate them. That good weather? Spend a breath or two enjoying the feeling of the sun on your skin.
You don’t have to do a full-on, sit-down, traditional meditation session to weave mindfulness into your life, says Pileggi Pawelski. The practice, which emphasizes focusing on the present moment, will train you to turn your attention away from negative events, she says.
A Harvard study affirms how insanely powerful mindfulness is — it literally changes the brain in ways that may be linked to improving the way we manage stress.