That's the biggest key to happiness, according to Stanford engineering professor Bernard Roth and author of The Achievement Habit. For example, giving reasons for being chronically late to meetings or explaining your inability to spend more time with family as being too busy at work are indications that your priorities are out of whack, and realigning them will lead to greater happiness. "Reasons are often just excuses," he writes. "We use them to hide our shortcomings from ourselves. When we stop using reasons to justify ourselves, we increase our chances of changing behavior, gaining a realistic self-image, and living a more satisfying and productive life."
2. STOP SAYING "SHOULD."
I should really work out tonight, I should really eat better, I should spend more time at home. The word implies reluctance and guilt. Start saying "want" instead of "should." The positive language will help you clarify and prioritize what you really want to be doing at the moment — and it can help you see healthy behaviors you're not psyched about (you really do want to be eating better) in a motivating way.
3. BE GRATEFUL.
It's simple, and it works. The next time you feel like shit, think of five things in your life you're thankful for. It'll turn around a dark moment and possibly your entire day.
4. SHIFT YOUR "HAPPINESS PARADIGM."
Redefine what happiness means to you at the present moment — and realize you can be happy now. "Guys especially get the formula for happiness wrong. We think, “If I can work harder right now, I’ll be more successful, and then I’m going to be happier," says Shawn Achor, author of the book The Happiness Advantage. "And it turns out, that’s not true—partly because every time we hit a goal, our brain changes what success looks like, so happiness is on the opposite side of a moving target, and we never get there. But if guys can create happiness in the present, they can actually dramatically improve their success rates long-term."
5. WORK OUT — IF JUST FOR 7 MINUTES.
Studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective against depression and anxiety than antidepressant medication. There's a physical component (exerting yourself causes the brain to release dopamine) plus, "when you exercise, your brain records a victory. You’ve been successful. And it creates this cascade of success. So you start developing more positive habits," says Achor.
6. THANK SOMEONE.
"Writing a two-minute positive email to somebody you know, praising them or thanking them for something, increases your social support dramatically," says Achor. "And it makes you happier while you’re writing that note."
7. PRETEND YOU'RE AN OLD MAN LOOKING BACK ON YOUR LIFE, AND GIVE YOURSELF SOME ADVICE.
8. MAKE A SIMPLICITY LIST.
Write down five or 10 things that are most important to you in life that you want to accomplish. Boiling things down creates clarity and will get you started on a plan that much faster.
9. WORK ON YOUR HAPPINESS PERCEPTION.
Tal Ben-Shahar, author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, says that's about realizing that happiness is the goal to where everything else leads. "It's about finding the overlap among the three questions, 'What gives me meaning,' 'What gives me pleasure?' and 'What are my strengths?'" Determining those things, and focusing on them even for a slice of your day, will boost your mood long term.
10. SET GOALS THAT ARE MEANS, NOT ENDS.
"For sustained happiness, we need to change the expectations we have of our goals: rather than perceiving them as ends (expecting that their attainment will make us happy), we need to see them as means (recognizing they can enhance the pleasure we take in the journey)," says Ben-Shahar. "A goal enables us to experience a sense of being while doing." Pick goals that involve growth and connection instead of acquisition. (See #18.)
11. WRITE DOWN THREE GOOD THINGS THAT HAPPENED EACH DAY.
In your job, career and life. It may sound corny, but it's scientifically proven to work long-term. "Over a decade of empirical studies has proven the profound effect it has in how our brains are wired," says Achor. "Your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives. In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to be more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for professional and personal growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them." It's an exercise that has staying power: One study found that participants who took time out to do this were less depressed and more optimistic — even after they stopped the exercise.
Few things contribute to depression more than viewing a temporary condition as a terminal calamity. Things are rarely as bad as they seem.
13. CONCENTRATE ON SMALL, MANAGEABLE GOALS.
Feel like you're always on the verge of losing control? Define and claim your territory. "One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future," writes Achor. "Yet when our stresses and workloads mount faster than our ability to keep up, feelings of control are the first things to go. If we first concentrate on small, manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance."
14. CREATE A 20-SECOND RULE.
Achor recommends reducing a "barrier to change" by 20 seconds — make a potential good habit 20 seconds easier to accomplish, or a bad habit that much more difficult. Achor found that moving his guitar 20 seconds closer to his desk resulted in him practicing more.
15. MAKE A DATE.
Make sure that you're budgeting plenty of time for social interaction with friends and family. In a famous study, scientists studied the well-being of 1,600 Harvard undergrads over a period of 30 years. They found that the happiest ten percent of the students were the ones who had the strongest social relationships — and that was a more accurate predictor of happiness than GPA, income, SAT scores, gender or race.
16. SMILE, DAMMIT.
Forcing a fake smile reduces stress, according to a University of Kansas study in which subjects were asked to plunge their hands into a bucket of ice water while forcing a smile. Researchers monitoring the subjects recorded lower blood pressures in the people who smiled through the icy experience. And the smilers reported less anxiety than those who showed neutral or distressed expressions.
17. DO SOMETHING NICE, EVEN FOR A JERK.
People tend to avoid people they don’t like—like your workplace arch nemesis — and detach themselves from problems that they wish would go away. “Avoidance adds to stress in the long run,” says family business consultant and psychologist Mario Alonso, PhD. “By facing problems and acting on them you are taking control and that feeling of empowerment will reduce stress.” Even better: a random act of kindness toward the office asshole will automatically make you feel better about yourself even if it goes unacknowledged, maybe especially if it goes unappreciated.
18. SPEND MONEY, BUT ON EXPERIENCES, NOT THINGS.
A group of psychologists have discovered something they call the Easterlin Paradox, meaning that physical possessions will make us happier — but only to a point. Experiences become part of ourselves, while iPhones and Italian suits remain separate from who we are. Experiences — whether they're luxury vacations or a trip to the movies — also create social connections, which have demonstrated mood-boosting benefits.
19. EXERCISE YOUR SIGNATURE STRENGTH.
Everyone is good at something, says Achor. "Every time we use a skill, whatever it is, we experience a burst of positivity."
20. FORGET AGING.
Romanelli offers a quote from the actor John Barrymore: "You don't age until your regrets outnumber your dreams." By that measure, you can stay young in perpetuity.
21. TAKE A BREAK AT 1:11.
Set the alarm on your phone for that time, every day. Why? Romanelli says it's important to have a regular time that's just for you to take a moment to feel peaceful and relaxed. 1:11 is easy to remember.
22. BE OK WITH WHO YOU ARE.
Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small. A March 2014 survey by psychologists who study happiness identified “ten keys to happier living” and daily habits that make people genuinely happy. In an unexpected finding, the psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire who performed the survey found that the habit which corresponded most closely with being happy—and satisfied with overall life—is self-acceptance.
23. ASK FOR HELP.
Realize that you can't and shouldn't be Superman. Asking for help takes the pressure off what's stressing you — and the social interaction will have a doubly happy-making effect.
24. PLAN TO DO THINGS YOU WANT TO DO, NOT HAVE TO DO.
According to a review of 47 studies published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014, mindfulness meditation was effective in reducing depression, anxiety and pain. The technique involves being still and concentrating on the present moment, while focusing on relaxing areas of tension throughout the body. The study's author said that as little as two-and-a-half hours of the practice per week was enough to see significant results. The best part: You can do it anywhere, anytime, and it won't cost you a cent — a depression-lifter in itself.