If the events of the past year have left you feeling emotionally deflated, you’re not alone. Cheer has been in short supply during the pandemic, and you may be in serious need of a mood boost. Yet while this slice of time may have been unusually stressful, people often struggle to find happiness even in normal times. This is why the field of positive psychology first emerged in the 1990s. It sought to answer the questions: Why is it sometimes hard to be happy? And is there a way to help people improve their mood and life outlook?
As it turns out, the answer to the second question is yes. You can do a lot to improve the quality of your daily life and feel more fulfilled.
Test out this recipe for improved happiness, which includes a mix of three physical and emotional strategies. Try each of these options for a week. Assess whether one or more of these positive steps increased your happiness — and keep doing it!
Get out and get active
Fresh air and exercise is a powerful mood-lifting combination. If you’re vaccinated against COVID-19, take the opportunity to get outside, pull off your mask, and get moving. Regular exercise can help to improve both your health and your mood. Aerobic activity like walking, biking, or running releases mood-boosting hormones that can reduce stress and confer a sense of well-being.
Also, when your muscles contract in a repetitive pattern, as they do when you are walking, swimming, or doing activities such as yoga, it bumps up levels of a brain chemical called serotonin, which is targeted by many antidepressants. Higher levels of serotonin are associated with better mood. In fact, one study found that just 90 minutes a week of activity provided mood improvements similar to an antidepressant. When combined with medication, exercise can even help mood disorders that have been resistant to other treatments.
How much movement should you strive for? Research shows that ideally you should try for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week, or a vigorous 20 minutes three times a week. But if you can’t do that much, remember that some is always better than none. Even a quick 10-to-15-minute walk can elevate your mood, at least in the short term.
Appreciate small daily pleasures
Little annoyances can spoil the best day — you misplace your keys, stub your toe, or encounter a grouchy coworker. But the reverse is true as well. Studies show that taking the time to appreciate small, pleasurable moments can make you feel happier. Focus on small daily events the same way you would big ones like a wedding day, the birth of a child, or a relaxing vacation. After all, it’s those little moments that make up most of your life. Savor time spent gardening (yes, potted plants count) or sitting in a sunny window with a cup of tea; laugh with family members over a good meal; or settle in with a good book. Also, celebrate tiny milestones and achievements, a project well done, or a daily goal met. Make a conscious effort to pause and enjoy small pleasures like these every day.
Limit your decisions
It may sound like a dream to have endless options, but in truth having lots of choices can generate more worry. Happiness does depend partly upon choices — after all, it would be highly stressful not to have any control over your life. However, research has found that people given more options have more opportunity for regret. Do you wish you’d chosen a different insurance carrier, outfit, cellphone plan, dessert? Would another selection have been better? This is why people who run meditation or spiritual retreats often limit selections. Not having to make numerous decisions all day long can be freeing.
A simple exercise can help you ease the choice burden. Decide that if a decision won’t bring major consequences, you’ll limit the amount of time you give yourself to pick, or you’ll give yourself fewer options. Don’t allow yourself to second-guess the decision once it’s made. Save the heavy deliberations for bigger, more consequential issues. However, even when making these choices, try to avoid looking back.