7 Science-Backed Ways To Be Happy Right Now


Let’s start with some bad news.

The happiness model we’re taught from a young age is actually completely backward. We think we work hard in order to achieve big success and then we’re happy. That’s how I grew up! That’s what my parents taught me.

We think the scribble goes like this:


Study hard! → Straight A’s! → Be happy!

Interview lots! → Great job! → Be happy!

Work overtime! → Get promoted! → Be happy!

But it doesn’t work like that in real life. That model is broken.

We do great work, have a big success, but instead of being happy, we just set new goals. Now we study for the next job, the next degree, the next promotion. Why stop at a college degree when you can get a master’s? Why stop at Director when you can be VP? Why stop at one house when you can have two? We never get to happiness. We just always push it further and further away.

Now what happens when we snap “Be happy” off the end of this scribble and stick it on the beginning? Then these important six words look like this:

Be Happy First.jpg

Now everything changes. Everything changes. If we start with being happy, then we feel great. We look great. We exercise. We connect. What happens? We end up doing great work because we feel great doing it. What does great work lead to? Big success. Massive feelings of accomplishment and the resulting degrees, promotions, and phone calls from your mom telling you she’s proud of you.

The research shows that shows happy people are 31% more productive, have 37% higher sales, and are three times more creative than their counterparts.

So what’s the first thing you must do before you can be happy?

Be happy.

Be happy first.

Being happy opens up your learning centers. Your brain will light up like Manhattan skyscrapers at dusk, sparkle like diamonds under jewelry store lights, glow like the stars in the black sky above a farmer’s field.

American philosopher William James says, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.”

The Happiness Advantage author Shawn Achor says, “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.”

William Shakespeare says, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Now, it’s one thing to say “Be happy, everybody!” and leave it there.

But we all know it’s not that easy.

Why not? Because our brains get focused on negative things. We can’t stop! I do this all the time. And you know what? Everybody does. Every single person gets stuck focusing on the negative sometimes. I’ve spoken on stages with the best-known motivational speakers, Fortune 500 CEOs, and political leaders from around the world. Do you know what they’re all doing backstage? Freaking out. Sweating. Thinking something might go wrong.

The problem isn’t that we get stuck focused on the negative sometimes.

The problem is that we think we shouldn’t.

And that prevents us from taking action.

Action? That’s right. I’m talking about intentional activities. Studies show these happiness hits work like little happiness hacks that slowly shift our brain to being more positive focused.

I’ve sifted through positive psychology studies to find what I call The Big 7 ways to train your brain to be happy. Many of these studies have been discussed in journals, conference keynotes, and research reports, but I’ve brought them together here. These activities all meet my “3 S” criteria of being simple enough that I can do it, shareable enough that we can do it together, and short enough that they can be done in less than half an hour in middle of a busy day.

So what are The Big 7?

Let’s break it down:

3 Nature Walks

Do you suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD)?

I do. I am developing a hunchback. My thumbs occasionally get fried from too much texting. We are all becoming addicted to our cell phones.

We need to take more breaks and get outside.

Pennsylvania State researchers reported in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology that the more physically active people are, the greater their general feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. The American Psychosomatic Societypublished a study showing how Michael Babyak and a team of researchers found three thirty-minute brisk walks or jogs even improve recovery from clinical depression. Yes, clinical depression. Results were stronger than those from studies using medication or studies using exercise and medication combined.

And why nature? Less keyboards. Less screens. More fresh air. More perspective. More reflection. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it turns out trees release a chemical called phytoncides which are actually shown to help reduce cortisol levels. Other benefits? Lower blood pressure, greater activity of parasympathetic nerves that promote relaxation, and a reduced activity of sympathetic nerves associated with “fight or flight” reactions to stress.

The 20-Minute Replay

Writing for twenty minutes about a positive experience dramatically improves happiness. Why? Because you actually relive the experience as you’re writing it and then relive it every time you read it. Your brain sends you back. In a University of Texas study called “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words,” researchers Richard Slatcher and James Pennebaker had one member of a couple write about their relationship for twenty minutes three times a day. Compared to the test group, the couple was more likely to engage in intimate dialogue afterward, and the relationship was more likely to last.

Seriously? Journaling? Aren’t journals just a pile of blank paper stapled together with a picture of a cat on the front of them for twenty bucks? Yes! Yes, they are. Total ripoff, right? But they work. Turns out an area of your brain called your visual cortex has an area within it called area 17 which actually replays the highlights of your day as you recall and write them down. (This is partly why I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit The Journal of Awesome has outsold most of my books. Yes, a book I’ve written with no words in it has outsold many books I’ve written with words in them.)

5 Conscious Acts

Carrying out five conscious acts of kindness a week dramatically improves your happiness. Depending on your personality it’s not always natural to think about holding the door open for a couple minutes as a room exits, shovelling our neighbor’s sidewalk and walkway, or writing a Christmas card to the apartment building security guard we see every morning. But Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, did a study asking Stanford students to perform five acts of kindness over a week. Not surprisingly, they reported much higher happiness levels than the test group. Why? They felt good about themselves! People appreciated them.

In his book Flourish, Professor Martin Seligman says that “we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

High-Challenge, High-Skill Tasks

Get into a groove. Be in the zone. Find your flow. However you characterize it, when you’re completely absorbed with what you’re doing, it means you’re being challenged and demonstrating skill at the same time. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this moment as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Do you get that feeling from painting in the basement? Leaving your cell phone and watch at home and going for a long run before everyone wakes up? Taking nature pictures? Hitting the batting cage? In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi describes it using a wonderful image which I’ve redrawn below:


Ten Long Deep Breaths

A research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at brain scans of people before and after they participated in a course on mindfulness meditation and published the results in Psychiatry Research. What happened? After the course, parts of the brain associated with compassion and self-awareness grew while parts associated with stress shrank.

Studies report that meditation can “permanently rewire” your brain to raise levels of happiness. If you’re having trouble getting started, try an app like Calm or Ten Percent Happier.

Five Gratitudes

If you can be happy with simple things, then it will be simple to be happy.

Find a book or a journal, or start a website, and write down five things you’re grateful for from the past week. More if you have them! Once you get going it will become easier. But the key here is actually writing them down. I wrote five gratitudes a week for four years on my blog 1000 Awesome Things. Some people write in a notebook by their bedside.

Back in 2003, researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough asked groups of students to write down five gratitudes, hassles, or events over the past week for ten weeks. Guess what happened? The students who wrote five gratitudes were happier and physically healthier. Charles Dickens puts this well: “Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many, not your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

20 Pages Of Fiction

There’s a Game of Thrones quote I love that says:

“The man who reads lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”

We need to read books — real books on real paper — more than ever before. We spent over four hours a day on our cellphones right now. In a world of endless dings and pings we need to get back to single-tasking.

A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology showed that reading triggers our mirror neurons and opens up the parts of our brain responsible for developing empathy, compassion and understanding. What does EQ help with? Becoming a better leader, teacher, parent and sibling. Another study from Science Magazine in 2013 showed that reading literary fiction helps improve empathy and social functioning. And, finally, a 2013 study at Emory University showed MRIs taken the morning after test subjects were asked to read sections of a novel showed an increase in connectivity in the left temporal cortex. What’s that? The area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. The MRIs were done the next day. Just imagine the long-term benefits of cracking open a book every day.

So those are The Big 7.

We know it’s important to be happy first, and these are the seven ways to get there.

Remember: Just like riding a bike, doing a somersault, or juggling — you can learn to be happier.

Happy people don’t have the best of everything.

They make the best of everything.

Be happy first.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Quiet Revolution and Thought Catalog.