If you asked a hundred people what they most want in life, you might get a variety of answers that seem different. Some would say they want to make new friends and others want a different job or bigger house. Still, the underlying goal is almost always to be happier in life.
While almost everyone wants to learn how to be happier or at least less sad, happiness can be fleeting, elusive, and often isn’t in the places we expect to find it. Thankfully, many psychologists have researched the habits, routines, and lives of happy people. Piecing together this research has helped us to come up with scientifically proven ways to live a happier and more fulfilling life.
This article will define what happiness really is, where it comes from, and give you actionable steps to be happier and live a more fulfilling life.
What is happiness?
After decades of debate, we still don’t have one singular definition of happiness. Some experts define happiness as an emotional state or a mood, while others argue it’s more of a mindset or way of thinking. Others describe it as a feeling of overall contentment, satisfaction, or wellbeing.
Rather than entering into a debate about which definition of happiness is correct, it may be more useful to consider what most people mean when they say “I just want to be happy.” Most of the time, what they’re seeking is a feeling of contentment and satisfaction. They’re most likely to find it when they actively work to create a more fulfilling and meaningful life, rather than just trying to maintain a positive emotional state.
How to be happy: 20 proven ways to be happier in life
Being happy doesn’t mean feeling cheerful or satisfied every day, which isn’t realistic. Still, it’s always possible to find purpose, spend your time doing more meaningful things, and even learn how to find joy and contentment in small moments or a simple life. Making small changes in your routine, mindset, and habits can improve your life in ways that make you happier.
Below are 20 scientifically proven ways to boost your mood, improve your quality of life, and feel overall happier and more satisfied.
1. Prioritize your health by eating and sleeping well
Your physical health is the foundation for your mental health, so living a healthier lifestyle is one of the best starting places for happiness. Since sleep and nutrition are two of the building blocks of health, start by addressing these first.
There’s a strong link between depression and poor sleep, so getting 7-9 hours of good sleep each night is critical for your mood. Your diet also has a major impact on your mood. Diets high in whole, nutritious foods have the opposite effect, protecting against depression. When you take better care of your body, you’ll feel healthier and happier.
2. Practice gratitude and appreciate what you have
It’s easy to get tricked into believing that you’d be happy “if” or “when” you reach a certain goal, but happiness can usually be found within the life you already have. Believing you need to do or have certain things to be happy means that happiness is always a few dollars, pounds, promotions, or circumstances away.
People often say that happiness is found within, meaning within yourself and within the life you already have. There is a lot of truth in this saying because a number of studies have shown that gratitude has a measurable effect on happiness. Starting a gratitude journal where you list things you’re grateful for or appreciate is a great way to begin this happy habit.
3. Make more time for what matters most
A happy life is one that’s fulfilling and meaningful, so making more time for things that really matter to you is one of the most important paths to happiness. If you have a job you hate or you’re in an unhappy marriage, it’s even more important to make time for people, activities, and things that spark joy.
Start by making a list of what makes you happy, people that you love seeing, and activities that are meaningful and enjoyable. Next, make a point to dedicate more time to reconnect with old friends, socialize, and do things you love. It won’t take long for you to notice the way these small changes in your routine change your mood.
4. Be optimistic and look for the good in everything
Optimism is a positive mindset that you can cultivate with practice and one that is known to make people feel happier. With consistent practice, you can work on making optimism your default state of mind simply by looking for the good every day. A sense of humor can also help foster positivity by reminding you not to take things (including yourself) too seriously.
A more positive and optimistic mindset does more than just change your thoughts. It can also change the way you see and experience the world. Work to cultivate optimism by being more intentional about finding something good in each person, situation, and experience in your life.
5. Strengthen and deepen your closest relationships
Research consistently shows that the happiest people are those with the best and closest relationships, so improving your social life is one of the best ways to become a happier person. This doesn’t always mean that you need a lot of friends to be happy. In fact, the quality of your relationships is much more important than the quantity.
Having just one, two, or three really close relationships can improve your quality of life more than having dozens of superficial relationships. Instead of trying to build a massive network of friends, focus on deepening and strengthening your closest relationships by opening up and spending more quality time together.
6. Get outside and be more physically active
Being more physically active is known to improve your mood and energy levels, and being outside has the same effects. Combine these benefits by exercising outdoors when weather permits. Sunshine and fresh air both have mood-boosting effects, and exercise does the same.
Studies have shown that getting more exercise and spending time in nature both cause your brain to release certain mood-boosting chemicals like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin.
This means that time in nature and physical exercise are like natural anti-depressants that can help you feel happy without drugs or a prescription.
7. Unplug and go offline more often
Recent surveys suggest that most Americans are now spending between 12-17 hours per day in front of a screen. Excessive screen time can have negative effects on both your physical health and mental health, and spending too much time on social media use can be especially harmful. Excessive social media use is linked to loneliness, low-self esteem, and higher rates of depression and anxiety.
When possible, unplug from your devices, turn off your TV, put your phone down, and find other things to do that don’t involve screens. Substitute this time for more active, social, and find real-world hobbies and activities that bring you joy. If this is hard for you to do, start small by setting specific times that are designated as device-free (like meals, morning walks, or an hour before bed).
8. Be more present by using meditation or mindfulness
It’s easy to get stuck in your head or distracted, but this can cause you to miss out on some of the important moments in life. Mindfulness and meditation are two practices that can help you break this habit and spend more of your time truly living rather than just existing.
Researchers have found that developing a meditation mindfulness routine can help you feel happier, even if you can only dedicate less than a half-hour per day to these practices.
There are a number of simple ways to begin a meditation or mindfulness habit, including downloading a meditation app like Simple Habit or Headspace. Alternatively, try tuning into your breath or 5 senses.
9. Be creative by bringing ideas to life
A growing number of studies show that creativity may be another key to happiness. If you don’t consider yourself “a creative person,” it may be because you’re defining creativity too narrowly. There are countless ways to be creative even if you don’t draw, paint, or make music or crafts, including:
- Redecorating your space
- Starting a blog or podcast
- Making playlists or photo albums
- Perfecting a recipe
- A DIY or home improvement project
10. Do good deeds and help others
The research on happiness has repeatedly shown that helping people and making a positive difference in the lives of others helps to make people happier. You could volunteer in your community, donate your time or talents for a cause you believe in, mentor a kid or foster a pet.
Even simple or random acts of kindness like holding doors, buying a coworker a latte, or taking a moment to help a stranger can make you feel better. Knowing you’ve done something good that helps other people or a cause you believe in is a great way to bring more meaning, fulfillment, and happiness into your life.
11. Never stop looking for meaning
A belief system is important to have because it also provides you with a sense of meaning and purpose in life. While this doesn’t have to come from a religious or spiritual set of beliefs, many people find comfort, community, and hope in believing in something greater than themselves.
It could be argued that making or finding meaning is the whole point or purpose of life, so don’t skip out on these steps. Unlike some of the other steps to be happy, meaning-making should be an ongoing pursuit that helps you reflect on what matters to you, your life purpose, and how to make sense of difficulties and hardships.
12. Try new things and go on more adventures
Novelty and adventure are known to cause your brain to release feel-good chemicals like dopamine, which is one of the main neurochemical ingredients of happiness. Traveling to new places, exploring new hobbies, or just doing new things can all bring more adventure into your life. Trying new things also helps to build your self-esteem, courage, and confidence, which is can also make you a happier person.
13. Set quality of life goals
Goals represent positive versions of your future, which keep you motivated and active, while also giving life a sense of meaning, direction, and purpose. This is why having some goals for your future is important if you want to be happier and more satisfied in life.
The key is to set goals that will bring you lasting forms of happiness. These are the goals that will help to improve your overall quality of life, including goals that enhance your relationships, improve your mental health, or give you a sense of purpose.
14. Devote yourself to lifelong learning and growth
The happiest people are often people who consider themselves lifelong learners or students of life. Even after they’ve finished college and earned a lot of letters behind their names, happy people are continuing to push themselves to learn, grow, and improve.
The specific learning path you choose isn’t that important as long as you pursue things that are meaningful and important to you. There are many ways to do this, including diving deep into researching a topic that interests you or signing up for courses or workshops. You could also tune into podcasts or even consult with a coach or therapist if you have an interest in personal growth.
15. Find activities that put you in a state of “flow”
Flow is a concept coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who describes flow as a state of being “at one” with a task or activity. Flow activities are proven to make you happier by increasing your engagement, fulfillment, and sense of purpose.
There’s no one activity that will put everyone into a flow state, but it is possible to find your “flow” by considering which tasks, activities, or hobbies:
- Are enjoyable and rewarding, not just because of the outcome of the activity
- Are challenging and effortless at the same time and keep you engaged
- Make you lose track of time, or make time seem like it passes slower or faster
- Give you tunnel vision where you’re able to focus solely on the activity
16. Redecorate the spaces you spend the most time in
Most people don’t realize just how much their surroundings affect their mood, but studies have shown that lighting, art, plants, and the way a space is decorated have a huge impact on how you feel. This is why redecorating the places where you spend the most time (like your office, living room, or bedroom) can help to make you happier.
Walking into a space that’s clean, has lots of natural light, and is decorated in ways that reflect your personal taste can provide a long-term ROI on your happiness. Even small things like buying a houseplant, ditching your black-out curtains, or putting pictures of loved ones on your desk can make the space feel better to be in.
17. Find lessons and opportunities in hardships
You might think that the happiest people are those who have experienced the least hardships, but this isn’t necessarily true. In some cases, it’s even possible to turn hardships into lessons or find ways to make meaning from them, which is exactly what some of the happiest people do.
This doesn’t mean you need to flip on the happy switch anytime something bad happens. It does mean trying to look for lessons, meaning, and opportunities in each experience, even the bad. For example, try looking back at some of your hardships and identifying what you learned or how you grew as a result of them.
18. Repair broken or damaged relationships
Some of the best research on what makes people happy highlights the importance of having close, strong relationships with other people. For example, married people tend to be happier than single people, and a life without friends is known to make people less healthy and happy.
Still, unhappy marriages, bad blood with family members, and toxic friendships are unlikely to make you happier. Sometimes, it’s possible (and worth it) to try to repair a broken friendship or improve a strained relationship. Here are some small ways to begin the process:
- Open lines of communication by reaching out
- Ask if they’d be willing to talk on the phone or meet up
- Make it clear that your intentions are to make things better, not worse
- Be vulnerable by letting them know you care about them or miss what you had
- Focus the conversation on ways you can improve the relationship and follow through
19. Smile, laugh and use humor
The most visible sign of happiness is a smile or laugh. When it’s genuine, smiling, laughing, and finding humor can be a great way to invite more joy into your life. A well-timed sense of humor can lighten the mood, ease tension, and positively change the mood in a room. Humor can also be a buffer against stress, which can be the grim reaper of happiness.
Find small ways to bring more smiles and laughter into your life by watching comedy skits or movies, sharing funny memes with friends or coworkers, or telling a few jokes. Even in tough situations, there may be a glimmer of humor or irony that can help break through the tension and stress.
20. Be yourself and live authentically
Authenticity and happiness are also linked, and studies show that being more genuine and true to yourself can make you a happier person. Opening up more and letting people see the real you may feel like a risk, but it’s often one worth taking. Being more open and genuine with other people can improve your relationships, deepening feelings of trust and closeness.
Authentic living is an ongoing process that involves knowing and showing your true self, which feels a lot better than hiding parts of yourself or pretending to be happy when you’re not. For example, being true to yourself means making choices based on the things you want, need, and care about. It also means avoiding the urge to mimic someone else or live up to their expectations.
15 Unhappy habits to avoid
If your goal is to find happiness, be happier, or be happy again (i.e. after a breakup, divorce, or other hardship), there may be some bad habits you need to break. These include negative thoughts that may be renting space in your mind, or they could be bad habits or rigid routines that are keeping you stuck.
Below are 15 bad habits that you may need to break if you want to be happier and stay happy:
- Isolating yourself from other people: Loneliness and social isolation is a recipe for unhappiness and make it almost impossible to feel truly fulfilled, satisfied, and happy. Close, strong, and healthy relationships are an essential ingredient for happiness and good health.
- Seeking instant gratification: If your goal is to find lasting happiness, avoid turning to drugs, alcohol, or material things. These can bring instant rushes but not lasting happiness. Instead, opt for activities and interactions that have a longer return on investment (i.e. long term goals, closer relationships, etc.).
- Trying to buy or achieve happiness: While shiny, new things can be fun to buy, keep in mind that no amount of money or things will bring the lasting kind of happiness you’re seeking. If you need proof, just look at how many celebrity millionaires or lottery winners have ended up alone, addicted, or even dead from overdoses or suicides.
- Complaining too much: If you spend most of your time talking about the things in your life that aren’t going well, negative thoughts are probably renting a lot of space in your head. Work on this by trying to stop complaining and find positive things, highlights, and good news to share with loved ones.
- Comparing yourself or your life to others: There will always be someone who has something you want or is better at something than you, so comparisons are another happiness trap. Finding things in common with people is more likely to help you connect while also being more content with yourself and your circumstances.
- Fighting your emotions: Constantly tracking your moods or trying to turn bad emotions into good ones usually backfires. If you can relax, accept, and allow these feelings to come and go, you might find you don’t get as stuck in them when they show up.
- Living in the past or the future: It’s easy to get stuck in your mind thinking about the past or the future instead of actually being present in your life. Your past can’t be rewritten and your future can’t be predicted, but you always have the power to choose what you do now. Remembering this can keep you from falling into this happiness trap.
- Rigid routines and rules: People who are anxious or have a lot of fears often cope by setting up rigid rules, routines, and schedules for themselves. These can provide a false sense of security by keeping you within your comfort zone, but this isn’t always where happiness is found.
- Being complacent or settling: Happy people are often the people who take action, are always trying something new or striving to improve themselves or their circumstances. Complacency can be the enemy of happiness, so avoid the trap of settling for less than what you really want.
- Mindless and distracted living: In our fast-paced world, it’s really hard to avoid the trap of living mindlessly or getting distracted from the things that really matter most. If this happens to you, try to be more intentional about how you spend your time and energy.
- Being a workaholic: A good job can help you become financially stable and makes it possible to have a better quality of life, but your job shouldn’t be your life. If it is, it’s usually a sign that you need to work on enriching your life outside of work.
- Neglecting self-care: Self-care is a buzzword that is often misunderstood, with some people claiming that bottles of wine, Netflix binges, and pints of ice cream are their form of self-care. True self-care always involves a positive return on investment, meaning it gives back in the form of a better mood, more energy, or improved health.
- Surrounding yourself with toxic people: Limit your interactions with toxic friends or people who drain you, take advantage of you, or dampen your mood. Instead, choose your company wisely by investing more into the relationships that are reciprocal, rewarding, and allow you to be your true self.
- Giving too much of yourself to others: While being generous and giving back can make you happier, giving too much can leave you feeling depleted and drained. This is a common happiness trap that good people fall into all the time. Avoid it by prioritizing yourself, setting boundaries, and not overcommitting your time or energy to others.
- Setting expectations: Expectations can be another trap that keeps you from being happy. Expectations that are set too high can lead to chronic disappointment, keeping you from ever feeling content. The key to avoiding this happiness trap is to set flexible expectations that adjust according to what’s happening in the moment.
Most people want to be happy. The problem is that there isn’t a guidebook or map to find happiness, and it’s easy to get wooed by shiny, new things. Happiness isn’t something we can buy, achieve, or grasp in our hands and hold onto for a lifetime. Instead, it’s something we need to constantly work to cultivate in our minds, our hearts, and our lives. We usually don’t need to travel far distances or climb to great heights to find it because happiness is something that is always within our reach.
How can I let go of the past and be happy?
Letting go of the past can be tough, especially if you’ve experienced a lot of trauma, loss, or hardship. You cannot change the past, no matter how much you think about it. You can, however, refocus your attention to the present, where change and improvement are still possible.
How can I learn to be happy without drugs or alcohol?
Substances provide a temporary and artificial form of happiness, which is no substitute for the real thing. When you connect with authentic happiness that comes from meaningful relationships and activities, you might find drugs and alcohol aren’t as tempting.
How can I find happiness again after a divorce or breakup?
It takes time to grieve the loss of a relationship, but there are small ways to move through this process more quickly. Fight the urge to isolate, withdraw, or shut down and instead push yourself to see people you love and do things you enjoy to find happiness after a breakup.
Why can’t I control my thoughts?
Trying too hard to change, stop or control unwanted thoughts can actually get you more caught up in them because it feeds them with your time, energy and attention. Accepting these thoughts and refocusing your attention elsewhere is often more effective at getting unstuck.
How can I be happy for my ex?
Being happy for your ex isn’t easy, especially if unresolved issues, bad blood, or lingering feelings are involved. Be patient, take space, and prioritize your own happiness. As time passes and you move on with your life, it’s easier to be happy for an ex, especially if you feel happier.