Most people spend a lot of time being unhappy.
If you Google the research on happiness and how many people are happy, you’ll find that unhappy people outnumber the happy ones. The majority people in the U.S. (3 to 1) are unhappy with their work and in general.
Those statistics are daunting and sad. We have one opportunity to live our lives on this beautiful planet, and yet so many of us aren’t enjoying the adventure. In fact, many people find life difficult, unpleasant, or downright painful. But if you ask anyone what they long for most, it’s happiness. We all just want to be happy.
Life presents everyone with challenges and pain, so happiness can’t hinge on avoiding these things. We know wealth doesn’t create sustained happiness. In fact, some of the happiest people live in poorer countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica, and Panama. Achievement, fame, power, and material things don’t foster ongoing happiness.
So how do you become a happy person?
I know from my own experience that being a happy person begins with a decision. You choose happiness as an important value in your life — a way of being that is essential to who you are. Then you make choices and take actions proven to optimize happiness and contentment. Some of these choices and actions might surprise you.
Here are 10 unexpected ways you can become a happy person:
1. Stretch yourself
Challenging yourself to do something that is out of your comfort zone, a bit difficult or complicated, or that makes you a little scared is actually a great way to foster happiness. When you are engaged in something that requires focus and concentration, you’re in a state of flow that is deeply satisfying and rewarding.
And when you realize you can achieve something you found hard or scary, you get a boost of confidence and self-esteem that cultivates ongoing happiness.
Stagnating, following the same old routines, and remaining limited by fear or self-doubt will make you feel bad about yourself and resentful of others.
Happy people are proactive in choosing ways to stretch themselves.
2. Ignore hurtful or unpleasant people
So much unhappiness stems from negative interactions with other people. If you can avoid these people or choose to release them from your life, then do so. You will save yourself a lot of grief and suffering. But often we can’t avoid them. We have family members, work associates, or neighbors who will remain in our lives.
Rather than responding to their unpleasantness, simply observe it without judgment, and allow it to float by. Easier said than done, I know. Some of these people really know how to push our buttons, but often they are acting out from their own pain and fear. With practice, you can learn to detach from their words and behaviors and have empathy for them without engaging in a painful discourse.
This doesn’t mean you have no boundaries. You always have the option of walking away, stating your frustration calmly, or enacting logical consequences.
Happy people strive to rise above conflict.
3. Exercise daily, eat mindfully
One of the most often sited causes of unhappiness is poor health. When you don’t feel good, if you’re overweight, if you are constantly tired or in pain, it’s very hard to be happy. Good health is so critical to our well-being that it should be a top priority in our lives.
Exercise not only improves health, but it has been shown to release dopamine in your brain — a neurotransmitter necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness. It also boosts energy and relieves stress, both necessary for a happy life.
Your food choices also impact happiness. Some foods make you sluggish and lethargic, like sugary, fatty, processed, and high glycemic foods. These foods also contribute to weight gain, which in itself causes many health problems. Choose fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts, lean meats and fish, and limited healthy fats. Avoid processed and junk food, and consume a minimal amount of sugar.
Happy people prioritize exercise and healthy eating.
4. Leave a bad job
You spend so much of your time at your job. If you are unhappy in your job, you will be unhappy for most of your life. Seek out your life passion, find something you absolutely love doing — or at least something you enjoy, even if it means taking a cut in pay or changing your lifestyle.
I know it’s scary and unsettling to think about letting go of something secure with a regular paycheck. You don’t have to let it go until you find something better. But focus your energy on finding something better. Just knowing you will be free from your bad job will boost your happiness. Job satisfaction has been shown to be far more important than a big salary.
If you absolutely can’t leave your job, do everything in your power to make the one you have better. Identify what is causing you the most unhappiness, and brainstorm strategies for implementing change. Sometimes just one shift is enough to tip the scales toward more enjoyment and satisfaction with your job.
Happy people don’t work in jobs they hate.
5. Stop thinking
Ruminating about our problems, frustrations, and worries is a huge source of unhappiness. Consider all of the times you’ve replayed unpleasant situations or worried about something in the future that never came to pass. Rather than living in your negative thoughts, live in the present moment. Focus on the task at hand, the people around you, the conversation you are having now, the beauty in nature.
Take some kind of positive action to engage your mind and energy so you can’t focus on negative thoughts. If you’re stuck in traffic, lying in bed trying to sleep, or anywhere you can’t physically do something, actively choose to think about happy memories or things you feel grateful for rather than dwelling on the negative. Thoughts create feelings, so choose your thoughts carefully and manage them mindfully.
Happy people proactively change their negative thought patterns.
6. Stop comparing
Sometimes we don’t know we’re unhappy until we see that our neighbor has something we don’t have. Comparing ourselves to others makes us feel resentful and jealous, and fosters unnecessary longing and frustration. There will always be people who have more and less than we do, who are more and less attractive, popular, or fortunate than us.
Rather than comparing, find a role model who inspires you to become your best self. Or set your own standards of integrity, excellence, and success, and work toward those every day.
Happy people don’t measure their own self-worth against what other’s have.
7. Love process more than results
Happy people find more pleasure in doing than achieving. They view practice, diligence, and daily work as something to enjoy and savor. Results are short-lived, but the process of achieving those results is on-going. Rather than postponing happiness until you grab the golden ring, find happiness in every step along the way.
Life is a series of present moments. If we don’t enjoy and savor each moment because we are waiting for some future outcome, we’ll never find happiness.
Happy people celebrate daily action and moment by moment effort.
8. Stop controlling people
We think we’ll be happy when we get those around us to do what we want them to do or become the type of person we think they should be. We try to control others so we feel safe and validated. This always causes problems in our relationships. Those we try to control will resist, either actively or passively, causing everyone grief and resentment.
Also, when we make those we care about behave inauthentically, we are missing the experience of knowing them intimately and honestly. It is through this intimacy that we gain the full joy and depth in a relationship.
Allow those you love to be themselves without judgement, criticism, or expectations. Enjoy their uniqueness and respect their choices and decisions. This will free you from frustration and conflict.
Happy people embrace others just as they are.
9. Prioritize fun
Our lives are so busy and complicated that we often forget to have fun. We sit in front of our computers and televisions and mindlessly zone out because we feel stressed and tired. We don’t appreciate all of the adventure, beauty, humor, and excitement we could enjoy with a minimal amount of effort or expense.
In your own community, there are so many opportunities for hiking, biking, music events, sports, dancing, etc. You can so easily create your own fun by organizing family games or outings, inviting neighbors or friends over for a casual dinner, or taking a day trip somewhere new and different.
Balance the time you spend at work and with chores and responsibilities with things that are light-hearted, fun, and entertaining.
Happy people appreciate the importance of fun and know how to create it.
10. Look for the good in the bad
Bad things happen to the happy and unhappy alike. You can’t prevent certain painful and difficult things from happening, but you can choose how to respond to those situations.
Even in bad circumstances, there is always some good — there’s always a lesson, a positive benefit, and unexpected blessing. After an appropriate amount of grief, happy people make a conscious decision to seek out the good in any bad situation. And they further choose to focus on the good rather than allowing the bad to continue causing them pain.
Happy people understand context and recognize that good things are always around the corner. They want to look on the bright side, not because they are in denial or don’t feel pain, but because they don’t want to waste time being unhappy for longer than necessary.
Happy people are optimistic and positive.
Of course we can’t be happy every moment of every day. But we can be happy most of the time if we change certain actions, choices, and thoughts in order to foster happiness. We can learn to retrieve happiness more quickly when we lose it temporarily and can reinforce a solid happiness set-point through awareness and practice of these actions.
Would you consider yourself a happy person? What actions or life choices have impacted your ability to be a happy person? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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