What makes someone happy? The 2018 World Happiness Report shows that Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland may have it figured out — they score highest on a "happiness scale" out of all the countries on Earth. Having a national social support network and being able to generally trust the government and fellow citizens raised those scores, the report's editors say. But plenty of measures of happiness are entirely personal, including generosity, compassion, and physical and mental health. That means there's a lot that individuals can do to de-stress and make themselves happier.
People who have intrinsic goals (such as being more skilled or compassionate) tend to be happier than those with extrinsic goals (making more money or buying a nicer car, for instance), says Jim Hjort, a licensed clinical social worker who founded the Right Life Project based on this idea. But goals can be tied together for a win-win, such as developing a skill that will further your professional life.
There are many ties between eating and happiness. Sometimes a particular food is the focus; chocolate, for instance, is known to induce happiness. Sometimes it's the experience; just about everyone has had a blissful moment of nostalgia when smelling or tasting a food that was a childhood favorite. Skipping meals also sends some people straight into "hangry" mode, which is most certainly not a happy place.
Committing to too much at once can result in stress, the antithesis of happiness for most people. Jill Liberman, a behavior therapist and author of the self-help book "Choose Happy," says some people say "yes" too much because they seek acceptance and approval. They may be valuing the opinion of others over their own self-respect, and it's self-respect that can lead to long-term happiness. Say "no" and take time for yourself.
Money actually can buy happiness — mainly when it's spent on others. Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, a business administration professor at the Harvard Business School, co-wrote "Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending" and found people who were given money and told to spend it on others were happier than those told to keep it. Their work also found that spending more on others is a predictor of happiness.
Gratitude journals have been shown to increase happiness and improve practitioners' sleep patterns. The University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center offers tips to keep in mind: Focus on people, rather than things, and observe how life would change if people or possessions were taken away. The center advises writing only a couple of times a week to preserve the significance of the practice. All that is needed is a small notebook and a pen.
The advice to buy experiences rather than stuff is often touted as a key to happiness, but which experiences are worth the money? Young people tend to get the most happiness from extraordinary experiences, but older people get the most happiness from ordinary experiences, according to a study by educators at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
Take the time and energy to fully appreciate positive experiences, whether they are ordinary or extraordinary. Being intentionally mindful of what is happening can make the experience more intense and emotionally stimulating.
Mindfulness-based meditation practices can help people deal with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, eating disorders, and substance abuse. Based in Buddhist teachings, the meditation practice can start with a simple five- or 10-minute exercise that involves focusing on one's breath and letting thoughts float by without judgment. There are many free guided exercises online, including several from the University of California at Los Angeles' health care system.
Elea Faucheron, founder of the life-coaching group Move Think Smile, says taking part in activity that forces the mind to focus on the present is one way to move past a day's troubles. The activity can be inexpensive and fun, such as creating art from materials found around the house or hosting a cook-off with friends or family.
Achieving a goal can lead to feelings of accomplishment, success, self-worth, and happiness. Falling short could have the opposite effect, though, so setting multiple unrelated goals could be a good way to keep from getting caught up in a single "failure." The goals could be professional, personal, physical, financial, spiritual, or dietary. Just one or two wins can make a difference in your mood.