Happiness is ephemeral, subject to the vagaries of everything from the weather to the size of your bank account.
We're not suggesting that you can reach a permanent state called "happiness" and remain there. But there are many ways to swerve off the path of anxiety, anger, frustration, and sadness into a state of happiness once or even several times throughout the day. Here are 20 ideas to get you started. Choose the ones that work for you. If tuning out the news or making lists will serve only to stress you further, try another approach.
1. Practice mindfulness. Be in the moment. Instead of worrying about your checkup tomorrow while you have dinner with your family, focus on the here and now -- the food, the company, the conversation.
2. Laugh out loud. Just anticipating a happy, funny event can raise levels of endorphins and other pleasure-inducing hormones and lower production of stress hormones. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, tested 16 men who all agreed they thought a certain videotape was funny. Half were told three days in advance they would watch it. They started experiencing biological changes right away. When they actually watched the video, their levels of stress hormones dropped significantly, while their endorphin levels rose 27 percent and their growth hormone levels (indicating benefit to the immune system) rose 87 percent.
3. Go to sleep. We have become a nation of sleep-deprived citizens. Taking a daily nap or getting into bed at 8 p.m. one night with a good book -- and turning the light out an hour later -- can do more for your mood and outlook on life than any number of bubble baths or massages.
4. Hum along. Music soothes more than the savage beast. Studies find music activates parts of the brain that produce happiness -- the same parts activated by food or sex. It's also relaxing. In one study older adults who listened to their choice of music during outpatient eye surgery had significantly lower heart rates, blood pressure, and cardiac workload (that is, their heart didn't have to work as hard) as those who had silent surgery.
5. Declutter. It's nearly impossible to meditate, breathe deeply, or simply relax when every surface is covered with papers and bills and magazines, your cabinets bulge, and you haven't balanced your checkbook in six months. Plus, the repetitive nature of certain cleaning tasks -- such as sweeping, wiping, and scrubbing -- can be meditative in and of itself if you focus on what you're doing.
6. Just say no. Eliminate activities that aren't necessary and that you don't enjoy. If there are enough people already to handle the church bazaar and you're feeling stressed by the thought of running the committee for yet another year, step down and let someone else handle things.
7. Make a list. There's nothing like writing down your tasks to help you organize your thoughts and calm your anxiety. Checking off each item provides a great sense of fulfillment.
8. Do one thing at a time. Edward Suarez, Ph.D., associate professor of medical psychology at Duke, found that people who multitask are more likely to have high blood pressure. Take that finding to heart. Instead of talking on the phone while you fold laundry or clean the kitchen, sit down in a comfortable chair and turn your entire attention over to the conversation. Instead of checking e-mail as you work on other projects, turn off your e-mail function until you finish the report you're writing. This is similar to the concept of mindfulness.
9. Garden. Not only will the fresh air and exercise provide their own stress reduction and feeling of well-being, but the sense of accomplishment that comes from clearing a weedy patch, watching seeds turn into flowers, or pruning out dead wood will last for hours, if not days.
10. Tune out the news. For one week go without reading the newspaper, watching the news, or scanning the headlines online. Instead, take a vacation from the misery we're exposed to every day via the media and use that time for a walk, a meditation session, or to write in your journal.