“Being happy doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It means that you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.” ~ Gerard Way
In a recent interview with my dear friend, Dr. Jo Ilfeld, we talked about that elusive “h” word: happiness.
Most of us can come up with a handful of reasons to deny ourselves happiness – even when things are going great. For instance, have you ever found yourself drowning in blessings, yet focusing on that one thing that still isn’t quite perfect in your life? You’re not alone. We all do it.
Happiness can seem like an unattainable goal, but as Dr. Ilfeld reminds us, tapping into your joy doesn’t have to be complicated.
Here are three of her secrets to becoming (and staying) happier in just a week – and the science behind why they work.
Secret #1: Count Your Blessings
The Strategy: Each night, write down three things that went well during your day and why.
This “happiness intervention” activity (created by positive psychologist and bestselling author, Martin Seligman) is a great way to count your blessings. By keeping track of what is positive, what is going well in your life and what makes you smile, you’re retraining your brain to look for the good stuff, rather than focusing on the problems. This strategy supports the old adage that “energy flows where attention goes.” The best part? It only takes five minutes. Dr. Ilfeld recommends adding this to your nightly routine for at least a week.
The Science: Thoughts directly affect our biology. Happy and optimistic thoughts can create a healthy, thriving, joyful state.
As Dr. Ilfeld explained, being happier doesn’t mean being a perky Pollyanna all the time. But it does involve looking on the bright side. There is a whole field of scientific research that supports the notion that our thoughts can literally change the actions of cells in our bodies. Loving, supportive thoughts create healthy cells, while negative or destructive thoughts support the disease process. (For more on this, I recommend reading “Buddha’s Brain” by Dr. Rick Hanson) When you look for things to be happy about, you’re shifting your internal state for the better, on both a physical and a psychological level.
Researchers are also finding other tangible benefits to being happier, aside from happiness itself. For example, happy employees tend to get more promotions than their unhappy counterparts. What does this mean for you? Success doesn’t lead to happiness, but happiness may lead to success – in work, health and relationships.
Secret #2: Utilize Your Strengths
The Strategy: Identify your top five strengths and use them in your daily life.
The next tip from Dr. Ilfeld involves using a free test called VIA (Values in Action), which you can find online at www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu. It reveals what your top five strengths are and some creative ideas for using them. Not only is it helpful to know what you’re good at, but people who are making a conscious effort to use their top strengths every day are actually happier, says Dr. Ilfeld. She recommends consciously using your top five strengths for one week, whether at work, in your relationships or simply in everyday life.
The Science: Playing up your inherent strengths can help you feel fulfilled, confident and happy.
Dr. Ilfeld referenced University of Pennsylvania studies that involved people who tried to take their top strengths and use them in creative ways each day for a week. The results showed that, six months later, people who used their strengths were happier than those who didn’t make any effort to do so.
Secret #3: Move Your Body
The Strategy: Get up and get moving!
I know, I know – you’ve heard it before. Exercise helps to improve your mood. Before you make any judgments, however, consider the following: Exercise gives your brain a focus fix, helps you to create new brain cells and releases endorphins. As Dr. Ilfeld points out, there are many studies out there that show exercise is as effective as, or even more effective than, antidepressants, since the effects of exercise last longer than drugs. A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that just 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise a day is effective in not only treating depression, but also preventing it.
The Science: Exercise upgrades your brain, and boosts your mood.
When you’re happy, your brain is flooded with those feel-good hormones we all want: dopamine and serotonin. They not only boost your mood, Dr. Ilfeld explains, but they also signal the learning centers of your brain to work at higher levels. When you’re happier, therefore, you process, organize and retrieve information faster and more efficiently. The real kicker? When the brain is in this state, you recover from stressful situations with more ease. You can think more quickly on your feet, come up with creative solutions and analyze complex ideas. So even though your brain does this on a day-to-day basis anyway, a happy brain actually does these things better.
Why Choose Optimism?
As Dr. Ilfeld points out, optimism doesn’t change whether or not you have stress in your life; it just changes how resilient you are at dealing with it. Maintaining happiness is a practice – it’s the process of directing your thoughts over and over again to what is good. It truly is a choice, and it’s one only you have the power to make for yourself. Daunting, yet incredibly empowering, isn’t it?
Try these happiness secrets for a week and see how your attitude shifts. The results might just convince you that “think positive” isn’t just an empty cliché.
Sara Gottfried MD is the author of the new book, Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years. She’s the two-time New York Times bestselling author of The Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet.
If you’d like to learn more about Jo Ilfeld Ph.D., you can visit her website at www.successreboot.com.