How to Be Happy: 10 Extremely Practical Tips to Try Now

How happy are you really? If there's room for improvement, learn how to be happy with these tips.

A few years ago, I had a sudden realization: I was wasting my life. I stared out the rain-spattered window of a New York City bus, and saw the years slipping by.

"What do I want from life?" I asked myself. "Well…I want to be happy." I had many reasons to be happy: My husband was the tall, dark handsome love of my life, we had two delightful girls, and I was a writer living in my favorite city. I had friends, I had my health, and I didn't have to color my hair. But too often I sniped at my husband or the drugstore clerk. I felt dejected after even a minor professional setback. I lost my temper easily. Is that how a happy person acts?

I decided to begin a systematic study of happiness. (A little intense, I know. But that's the kind of thing that appeals to me.) I spent a year test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and tips from popular culture—happy colors, happy books, and all. "If I followed all the advice for how to feel happy," I wanted to know, "would it work?"

Well, the year is over, and I can say: It did. I made myself happier. And along the way, I learned a lot about how to be happier. Use these tips to start your own Happiness Project. I promise it won't take you a whole year.

1. Don't start with profundity. When I began my Happiness Project, I realized pretty quickly that, rather than jumping in with lengthy daily meditation or answering deep questions of self-identity, I should start with the basics, like going to sleep at a decent hour and not letting myself get too hungry. Science backs this up; these two factors have a big impact on happiness.

2. Do let the sun go down on anger. I had always scrupulously aired every irritation as soon as possible, to make sure I vented all bad feelings before bedtime. But studies show that the notion of anger catharsis is poppycock. Expressing anger related to minor, fleeting annoyances just amplifies bad feelings, while not expressing anger often allows it to dissipate.

3. Fake it 'til you feel it. If I'm feeling low, I deliberately act cheery, and I find myself actually feeling happier. If I'm feeling angry at someone, I do something thoughtful for her and my feelings toward her soften. This strategy is uncannily effective.

4. Realize that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Challenge and novelty are key elements of happiness. People who do new things―learn a game, travel to unfamiliar places―are happier than people who stick to familiar activities that they already do well. I often remind myself to "Enjoy the fun of failure" and tackle some daunting goal.

5. Don't treat the blues with a "treat." Often the "treats" I chose weren't good for me. While it's easy to think, I'll feel good after I have a few glasses of wine…a pint of ice cream…a cigarette…a new pair of jeans, it's worth pausing to ask whether this will truly make things better.

6. Buy some happiness. Our basic psychological needs include feeling loved, secure, and good at what we do. You also want to have a sense of control. Money doesn't automatically fill these requirements, but it sure can help. I learned to look for ways to spend money to stay in closer contact with my family and friends, promote my health, work more efficiently, eliminate sources of irritation and marital conflict, support important causes, and have enlarging experiences. For example, when my sister got married, I splurged on an expensive digital camera that gave me a lot of happiness.

7. Don't insist on the best. There are two types of decision-makers. Satisficers make a decision once their criteria are met. When they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they're satisfied. Maximizers want to make the best possible decision. Even if they see a bicycle or a backpack that meets their requirements, they can't make a decision until they've examined every option. Satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers, so I learned that sometimes, good enough is good enough.

8. Exercise to boost energy. I knew, intellectually, that this worked, but I'd tell myself, "I'm just too tired to go to the gym." Even a 10-minute walk can brighten my outlook.

9. Stop nagging. I figured if I stopped nagging, my husband would never do a thing around the house. Wrong. If anything, more work got done. Plus, I got a surprisingly big happiness boost from not nagging. I replaced nagging with the following persuasive tools: wordless hints (for example, leaving a new lightbulb on the counter); using just one word (saying "Milk!" instead of talking on and on); not insisting that something be done on my schedule; and, most effective of all, doing a task myself. Why did I get to set the assignments?

10. Take action. Some people assume happiness is mostly a matter of inborn temperament: You're born an Eeyore or a Tigger, and that's that. Although it's true that genetics play a big role, about 40% of your happiness level is within your control. Take time to reflect, and make conscious steps to make your life happier. It really does work.

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