How to Be Happy, According to Experts

Fortunately, it's probably not the kind of effort you think. There's a deeply ingrained myth that lasting happiness unfolds as you achieve your major life goals—say, landing your dream job, or buying a nicer home. "We feel elated only for a very short time until it becomes the new normal," says Cassandra Dunn, author of Crappy to Happy: Simple Steps to Live Your Best Life. "The new house is amazing, but after a few months, there isn't enough storage space and the kitchen needs an upgrade. Then we're on the lookout for the next thing that will make us happy."Even a sudden windfall is unlikely to make you happier long-term. In a famous study from 1978, Northwestern University researchers measured the happiness levels of regular people against those of folks who had won the Illinois State Lottery (prizes ranged from $50,000 to $1 million). The researchers discovered that the happiness ratings of both groups were practically identical.It turns out that for a deeper, enduring sense of happiness, you must focus on the feeling itself—and do so consistently. In other words, boosting your happiness means cultivating it through your everyday activities and thought patterns. To help you do that, we asked researchers, doctors, and psychologists to distill happiness into its essential elements, and suggest ways to build each one into your normal routine.


Why it matters: The Danes are famously happy people, despite, as Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, putting it, "horrific weather and some of the highest tax returns in the world." The simple reason? They take time to savor life's little pleasures, says Wiking—like fresh sheets, a frothy cappuccino, or dinner with friends.While researching his latest book, The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments, Wiking collected more than a thousand happy memories from people around the world. He found that although milestone events, such as the birth of a child, predictably showed up, so did seemingly smaller experiences, like enjoying cake with Mom. "Our lives consist of these tiny moments, one after the other. That's how we build our stories and a sense of self," Wiking says. "The tiny moments are actually the big things in life."

Social Connections

Why they matter: We know that maintaining relationships is good for your physical health. (A 2017 meta-analysis of studies found that a lack of social connections carries a risk that's comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day!) But mounting research shows that developing meaningful bonds with others is critical for your happiness, too. And ideally, those relationships would exist mostly offline: While email and social media are convenient ways to keep in touch, studies show that you derive more happiness from actual human encounters. Even a 10-minute catch-up can provide a warming glow of genuine connection.How to strengthen them: If you're walking your dog, text a neighbor to join you. Folding laundry? Call your mom. Bring a friend along to the grocery store so you can chat while you toss things in your carts.

Enough Sleep

Why it matters: Neuroscientist Matthew P. Walker, Ph.D., and author of Why We Sleep, calls shut-eye your "superpower," and he's not kidding around. We know from research that slumber and well-being are inextricably linked. In one survey of studies, Walker and a coauthor found that after a night of sleep deprivation, brain scans showed that the participants' amygdalae (where emotions are processed) were 60 percent more reactive to emotionally negative stimuli than after a normal night's sleep. Well-rested brains, meanwhile, keep the amygdalae in check, so we react more rationally and process our feelings more effectively.How to get it: To assess whether you're rested enough, ask yourself two questions: After waking in the morning, could I fall back asleep at 10 or 11 a.m.? And, can I function optimally without caffeine before noon? If the first answer is yes and the second no, you are likely suffering from sleep deprivation, according to Walker.


MomentsWhy they matter: Meditation is pretty magical. Studies show it can actually physically change your brain to make you more open to happiness; the practice has been found to increase gray-matter concentration in areas related to well-being. But of course, meditation isn't easy. A good way to start is by building meditative moments into your day. How to create them: You don't have to sit on a cushion in a quiet place. You can grab a few minutes wherever you are—on the bus, waiting in line at the bank—and simply notice what's going on with each of your five senses while you slow down your breathing.


Why it matters: When you mess up, do you give yourself a break? Or do you bring yourself down, using harsh language you'd never unleash on a friend? Many of us do the latter—but those who are compassionate with themselves tend to have greater happiness. And luckily, says Kristin Neff, an associate psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, we all can learn to be gentler to ourselves. "We've learned how to be supportive, how to be warm to others," she points out.How to practice it: In times of failure or challenge, Neff says, notice the tone you use on yourself, and strive to lead with warmth and kindness—the way you'd calm a loved one. (Instead of "You're an idiot," say, "You had a moment of forgetfulness, and that's OK.") "Your heart goes out to yourself, which is so key," Neff says.


Why it matters: Researchers have found that being outside has a profound effect on our brains. Nature soothes us; it decreases the production of stress hormones and sends positive emotions soaring. And it doesn't take long: A 2019 study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham showed that spending just 20 minutes in a park was enough to boost well-being.Yet many Americans spend the vast majority of their time indoors and online, creating a so-called nature deficit. How to soak it up: Aim to fit in a little nature every day, says research psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Joy of Movement. She recommends looking up an appealing green space close to your home or work and escaping there each morning or afternoon. You don't have to head into the wilderness to benefit from fresh air and sunlight; you can get many of the same benefits walking in a residential neighborhood, she says.

A Little Free Time

Why it matters: Does it feel like every second of your day is accounted for? That kind of non-stop schedule puts you at risk for burnout. But building a few small open stretches of time into the day can make all the difference.Taking short breaks—even just a few minutes—allows your body to reset. The tricky part is, that you can't spend those breaks on your phone. "That tiny device we carry, with all its built-in distractions, is revving up our nervous system and causing us to feel like we're always 'on,' even when we have no reason to be," explains Dunn.


Why it matters: Accepting the things you cannot change may be the most challenging step toward happiness, but it's worth trying— because you really can be happy even when your life looks nothing like what you thought it would."When you avoid the reality of your experience, you get smacked with it again and again," says Jodie Eisner, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City. "But when you accept your experience—from the emotion you're having to the situation you're in—you can face it head-on and move through it."