For most adults, happiness doesn't just happen automatically. Yet, many of us expect it to be that way. You may dutifully plan out virtually every aspect of your life from your career to what to eat for dinner, and in so doing assume that it will bring you happiness.
This assumption would be incorrect in most cases, however. Because unless you actively pursue it, happiness can be quite elusive. Part of the problem adults have is that, as a child, your parents will ensure your happiness by planning entertainment and making sure you have fun.
Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, a social psychologist, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Positivity, pointed out in TIME that even in college, your relationships with friends tend to continue to drive the happiness you experienced as a child.1
"But after that, the scaffolding of having a good day is taken away, and nobody is telling you how to provide that for yourself," she says.
And therein lies the problem. Left to your own devices (be honest), your day probably consists primarily of what has to be done, with very little, if any, time left for what you want to do. And that's not a recipe for happiness.
You hear a lot in the media about people ticking items off of their "bucket lists…" i.e. the list of experiences you wish to have before you "kick the bucket." Such lists usually consist of extraordinary experiences, like world travel or completing a marathon, but are these really the moments that will make you happy?
One study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that while younger people tend to value extraordinary experiences, as people get older they tend to place more value on ordinary moments, such as drinking a good cup of coffee or "having a long and fun conversation with my son."2 The researchers explained:3
"Younger people, who view their future as extensive, gain more happiness from extraordinary experiences; however, ordinary experiences become increasingly associated with happiness as people get older, such that they produce as much happiness as extraordinary experiences when individuals have limited time remaining.
Self-definition drives these effects: although extraordinary experiences are self-defining throughout one's life span, as people get older they increasingly define themselves by the ordinary experiences that comprise their daily lives."
This is good news, because it suggests that learning to savor the small things in life can make a big difference in your level of happiness.
In many ways happiness is a choice, and you can create it by following a certain routine. In fact, happy people tend to follow similar habits that set them apart from their sad and stressed-out peers. If you'd like to join them, read on. These are the top tips positive psychologists have to offer to, as TIME put it, "infuse your days with more pleasure."4
1. Make Happiness Your Goal
It's thought that genetics account for about 50 percent of your "innate" happiness while life circumstances make up another 10. The rest is under your control, and the first step to harnessing it is to choose it and believe you can be happy.
Research shows, for instance, that when people were told to attempt to feel happier when listing to music, they were (as opposed to those who were told to simply relax).5 It was the intention to become happier that made a difference.
2. Know What Makes You Happy
If it's been awhile since you've felt truly happy (that carefree joyous state you probably had as a child), you may have forgotten what it is that gets you there. Take time to reflect on what gives you joy (and not just the "obvious," like your family, but also little things, hobbies, and interests).
3. Prioritize Happiness
If you have an hour free, do you spend it doing something fun? Or do you spend it catching up on housework, tackling an extra work project, or otherwise working? The latter is a "minor form of insanity," according to happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener, PhD.6
And it certainly won't help you get happier. To break free of this trap, make a point to schedule your weeks around events (or ordinary activities) that make you feel truly happy and alive.
4. Savor the Pleasant Moments
People who take the time to savor pleasant moments report higher levels of happiness, regardless of where the day takes them.7 If you don't already do this, keeping a daily diary of pleasant moments and whether or not you truly savored them, might help.
You might be surprised at how much happiness is to be had in your everyday life. Try appreciating the scent of your coffee, relishing in the feeling of your soft bed, or enjoying the sunrise before you start your day.
5. Protect Your Time
There's only so much time in a day, so be sure to protect your attention and time from unnecessary and unproductive distractions. This includes texts, tweets, and emails, which take you away from the true pleasures in life. If necessary, turn off social media completely.
Research suggests that the more time people spend on Facebook, the more their moment-to-moment happiness declines and the less satisfied with life they become.8
6. Think Happy Thoughts
Simply thinking about a positive event, and smiling as a result, can make you happier and more upbeat (more so than simply fake smiling). A genuine smile includes the facial muscles around your eyes, and can actually prompt brain changes linked to increased mood.
7. Spend Money on Experiences, Not 'Things'
Research suggests experiences make us happier than possessions; the "newness" of possessions wears off, as does the joy they bring you, but experiences improve your sense of vitality and "being alive" both during the experience and when you reflect back on it. However, experiences won't make you happy either if you're only doing them for bragging rights… and not because you really want to.
8. Be Playful with Your Significant Other
If your relationship with your significant other has become all about "business," it's a sign that you need to lighten up and add some fun back in. This can be as simple as sending your spouse a playful text, cooking a new recipe together, or enjoying a romantic bubble bath.
9. Have a Back-Up Plan for Bad Days
When you're having a bad day and your mood is sinking, have a plan in place to lift it back up. This could be calling a close friend, watching a comedy, or going out for a jog – you know what works best for you.
10. Find Your Sense of Purpose
Happiness isn't only about pleasure; it's also about having a sense of purpose. The term "eudaimonic well-being" originated with Aristotle, and describes the form of happiness that comes from activities that bring you a greater sense of purpose, life meaning, or self-actualization. This could be your career or it could be gleaned from volunteering or even taking a cooking class.
11. Socialize, Even with Strangers
Having meaningful social relationships is important for happiness, but even people who engage in "social snacking" report greater happiness. Social snacking describes the little ways you connect with others, including strangers, on a daily basis. In general, the more you mingle and chat with the people around you, the more cheerful and brighter your mood is likely to be.
12. Get Away
Taking time away from the daily grind is important for helping you recharge. And while even a weekend getaway can give you a boost, a longer trip is better to help you create meaningful memories. These memories can be tapped into later to help boost your happiness. Experts recommend a two-week vacation, ideally, even if it's to a locale close to home.
13. Do Acts of Kindness
When people make a point to conduct three to five acts of kindness a week, something magical happens… they become happier. Simple kind acts – a compliment, letting someone ahead of you in line, etc. – are contagious and tend to make all of those involved feel good.
14. Plan Your 'Sunday Funday'
Plan your day off a week in advance to maximize the pleasure it brings you. Experts suggest incorporating PEP – or, physical, escape, and people – for best results. This means, try to do something physical, something that allows you to escape and relax and something that gets you involved with others whose company you enjoy.
One of the best parts of being happy is that the feeling of happiness – whether you equate it with optimism, joy, well-being, personal achievement, or all of the above – goes hand-in-hand with healthier habits. People who are in good spirits tend to eat better, exercise more frequently, and get better sleep than those who are not. This could be, in part, because leading a healthy lifestyle helps you achieve your goals, leading to happiness.
It could also be that such habits lead to better health, which in turn lends itself to a better mood and happiness. Positive thoughts and attitudes are able to prompt changes in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and chronic disease, and provide stress relief. It's even been scientifically shown that happiness can alter your genes!
A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.9 This falls into the realm of epigenetics—changing the way your genes function by turning them off and on. So try out the happiness tips above. You don't have to do them all, of course. Even a few will likely make a difference in your feelings of happiness and also, as a result, boost your physical health.