Your Happiest Day Ever

Don’t go chasing waterfalls. You shouldn’t have to win the lottery, skydive or move to Hawaii to live your happiest life, either. You’ll find excitement in those adventures, for sure, but lasting joy comes from the habits you practice every day.

If you’ve got a bucket list, by all means, go ahead and leap out of that plane and ride an elephant in Nepal. But you can make any regular old workaday Wednesday pretty awesome, too. How? Fill it with “positive intentional activities,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a California-Riverside professor who wrote the book on increasing joy through small measures, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. These are “simple, intentional, and regular practices meant to mimic the myriad healthy thoughts and behaviors associated with naturally happy people.” Translation: Do stuff every day that makes you feel fulfilled, optimistic and grateful.

In honor of the United Nations-recognized International Day of Happiness on March 20, we’re bringing you the quintessential step-by-step guide.

You will see immediate results, but keep at it. Just as you wouldn’t expect to lose all your excess weight by exercising for one day, you can’t expect everlasting bliss by following the routine on the next three pages for just 24 hours. “Happiness takes practice,” says Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life.

Don’t feel compelled to try each of these strategies at once. Even just one of the activities that follow can make a difference by sparking what positive psychologists call an upward spiral. “A burst of positivity this morning may lead me to have a creative thought at work, for example, which will make me happier and more approachable, which will lead me to become closer to a friend or colleague, which will strengthen my immune system, and so on,” explains Lyubomirsky.

Launch your upward spiral today!

6 a.m.: Slap the snooze button.

In one study, Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist at Princeton University, and his colleagues asked 909 working women to reconstruct every aspect of their previous day and assess how they felt throughout their activities. The two factors that had the most potential to wreck their moods for the day? A poor night’s sleep and tight work deadlines. You may not be able to control your deadlines, but you can try to catch more ZZZs. Everyone is different, but many studies show that negative health and mood consequences become noticeable once sleep duration dips below seven hours for several nights in a row. If you’re feeling sleepy for much of the day, try going to bed just 30 minutes earlier or waking up 30 minutes later—it won’t hurt to cheat for a few minutes in the morning, if you  must.

6:30 a.m.: Get sweaty.

Exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your body, most notably endorphins, morphine-like neurotransmitters that block your perception of pain and promote feelings of well-being. Exercise also warms up your body’s core temperature, which relaxes muscles and gives you that feeling of Zen that comes after a hot shower. And its effects aren’t just temporary. In a famous 1999 study, subjects with depression were divided into three groups: One group took the antidepressant Zoloft, another group followed an exercise program, and the third group did both. After 16 weeks, depression had eased for the majority of participants in each group. But a follow-up six months later found that the exercise-alone group was the least likely to relapse. (Always talk to your health care provider about depression treatments that will work best for you.)

8 a.m.: Ommmm.

You don’t have to sit in the lotus position on a straw mat in a silent room to meditate. In fact, you can meditate while you exercise (rhythmic exercises such as running, walking and swimming are best) or while you’re on the train heading to work. Simply clearing your mind and becoming more aware of your bodily sensations and breath for minutes at a time can qualify as meditating—and any meditation counts toward greater subjective well-being (its acronym, SWB, is what scientists like to call happiness). Meditation has been shown to significantly reduce stress in cancer patients, ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety, boost immunity and improve sleep. For a tried-and-true program, start with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Meditation practices (MindfulnessCDs.com).

10 a.m.: Grab java with a co-worker.

“Let’s get coffee sometime!” You’ve probably said a thousand times. Today, actually do it. Connecting with a pal—or a potential one—can make a difference in as many ways as there are options at Starbucks. In a study of very happy people, the researchers—two pioneers of the positive psychology movement, Edward Diener, Ph.D., and Martin Seligman, Ph.D.—found that the predominant difference between the top 10 percent of “consistently very happy” subjects and those of average happiness was the quantity and quality of their social relationships. The happy folks spent the least time alone, the most time socializing, and rated their relationships favorably. The lesson? Any time spent strengthening bonds with family and friends is not time wasted. An even stronger incentive: Over 100 studies have linked strong social relationships to lower mortality, scientifically demonstrating that having friends (or not) has as much to do with your health as tobacco or alcohol use. Have friends, live longer!

11 a.m.: Whisper sweet nothings into your partner’s inbox.

Just as it doesn’t take hang-gliding and mountain-climbing for a supremely satisfying life, candlelit bubble baths aren’t the cornerstones of a happy marriage or romantic partnership. The small stuff carries the most weight. It’s those everyday gestures—the spontaneous hugs, unsolicited compliments and shared ideas—that keep a relationship fresh and healthy. Peter Fraenkel, Ph.D., of the Ackerman Institute for the Family’s Center for Work and Family in New York City, recommends each partner initiate three of what he calls “60-second pleasure points” each day. Text your wife, “You looked great this morning.” Send your husband a review for a movie and suggest seeing it together. Rub your partner’s back while you’re both watching television. Yes, it can take less than a minute to work on your relationship! The stronger your bond, the happier both of you will be.

12:30 p.m.: Have a picnic.

The benefits of sunshine on our mood are well-documented. Vitamin D (which our skin manufactures when it’s exposed to the sun’s UV-B rays) protects against depression and insomnia, which is why people are more prone to SAD (seasonal affective disorder) during the winter. But it’s not just sunlight that cheers us up. Even on cloudy days, going outside can boost your mood. One study found that people who went outside for just 20 minutes a day felt more positive than those who didn’t. Another study showed that hospital patients whose windows offered a view of greenery recovered faster, used less medication, and were released sooner than those whose windows faced a wall. So plant yourself on a patch of grass and never mind those ants marching toward your chicken salad sandwich.

1 p.m.: Go with the flow.

Whether you’re writing, crunching numbers, brainstorming, working with clients, cleaning or whatever, try to lose yourself in what you’re doing. Positive psychology thought leader Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., coined the term “flow” to express “complete absorption in what one does.” This absorption has been shown to play a large role in our overall well-being. You know you’re in the flow when you look at the clock after a period of steady work and realize that much more time than you thought had passed. You feel accomplished, productive and even physically satisfied, just as you might after a jog or a good meal. It’s easiest to get in the flow when our work draws from our core strengths (you’re detail-oriented, for example, and get in a zone when you’re copy editing). But if your day job doesn’t tap into your core strengths, try for it at home. (Crafting with your kids? Gardening? Making little soap carvings of all your neighbors? OK, maybe not that last one.)

5 p.m.: Help an old lady cross the street.

Or buy a homeless person a meal. Or help a co-worker finish a project. Being selfless and charitable is, by any moral code, a good thing. But there’s also a selfish side effect: Performing kind acts makes you feel good, too. Lyubomirsky has studied the effects of kindness and personal happiness extensively and found that doing charitable acts not only increases happiness, but also connectedness and flow.

6:30 p.m.: Rewrite the supper script.

Asking the same questions—“How was your day?” or “What did you learn at school?”—tends to yield the same answers (“fine” and “nothing”). So change the conversation. Part of being happy in a relationship—with your co-workers, friends, significant other, or kids—is being open to surprise. “Don’t have any expectations,” Kashdan says. “Get rid of your labeling, and be curious and interested…. Anything can happen in a social interaction.” Instead of asking what your child learned, say “I read this article about a fish that has humanlike teeth! Can you imagine!” (That’s the Pacu fish, btw.) Your family members may surprise you, and you’ll learn more about them than what they had for  lunch.

8 p.m.: Make some plans.

While swimming with dolphins may not be the ultimate path to happiness, planning to swim with them might actually help you. Researchers in The Netherlands wanted to find out if people who went on vacations were happier afterward than people who had stayed home. It turns out they weren’t. But the people who went on vacations reported much higher levels of satisfaction before their trip than the folks who had no plans. “The anticipation, the planning and preparing, and looking forward are the most important parts of a vacation,” Kashdan says.

9 p.m.: Veg out (guilt-free).

That Kahneman study asking women to reconstruct their days and rate their happiness at each moment? It found, overwhelmingly, that subjects were pretty darn happy when they were chilling, watching the tube. So unless your TV habit has negative consequences—keeping you from finishing your work or spending enough quality time with your family, for example—there’s no reason you shouldn’t catch up on the first season of True Detective, Lyubomirsky says.

10 p.m.: Celebrate Thanksgiving year-round.

Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotion,” Lyubomirsky says. There are dozens of studies demonstrating the positive effects that cultivating gratitude can have on your SWB. Lyubomirsky’s research has found that giving thanks formally every night can begin to feel like a chore, so make entries once a week or so. Whether it’s “mint chocolate chip” or “an easy commute” or “good health,” you’ve surely got plenty to celebrate.

Now, turn off the light and go to sleep. Tomorrow will be even better.

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