Want to be happier? Here’s how to make it happen

Psychologists are taught to help people make and reach personal goals by ensuring the goal they set is “SMART”, which is an acronym for:
  • Specific
  • Measured
  • Attainable
  • Realistic (some people use the word ‘relevant’ here instead of realistic)
  • Timely

Making sure goals are SMART is fine for areas like weight loss or exercise, but not really useful for more ‘wishy washy’ areas like happiness and contentment. (Google ‘making SMART goals’ if your particular resolution relates to something straightforward and you’d like a bit of extra help … there’s heaps of info available.)

It’s much harder to set and measure goals around happiness, kindness or positivity, so I decided to give it a go. We’re using happiness as an example, mainly because there are a lot of quite useful websites around at the moment about it!

The first step is to think about what you mean by the word happiness. Some definitions I have heard are: “Feeling good”; “Not being sad”; “Feeling content” and, “That state when I don’t let things bother me”.

How would you define happiness for you?

The next step is to think about what happiness feels like? How does your body feel when you are happy? In my experience, kids find this question a lot easier to answer than adults. An eight-year-old once told me that being happy feels like “you are all light and floppy and sort of full of bubbles”. Can you relate to that?

How does being happy feel for you?

The third step in this exercise is to think about what you do when you are happy. How do you act? Would other people be able to tell you are happy from what you do, and if so, how? What would they see? This is a bit of a funny one, because if you think about it you will see that ‘happy’ actions actually contribute to the feeling of happiness, and so it goes around in a cycle. One example offered by a client is listening to music – when they are happy they listen to uplifting music and this in turn contributes to them feeling happy. When they are not happy they don’t put any music on, and so they don’t get the enjoyment from music that can lead to feeling happy. It sounds simple, but it is true for so many things: exercise, hobbies, seeing friends, even smiling. In fact, one of the websites listed below actually recommends that you make a point of smiling at people even if you are not feeling particularly happy, because smiling is likely to make you feel happier (partly because people tend to be friendlier and more helpful to smiling people – it’s just in our nature). I’m not talking here about crazy over-the-top fake smiling, just making a conscious effort to arrange your face more on the side of a smile than a frown whenever you think of it (and this includes when you are alone).

Other ideas about how to encourage happiness are:

  • Make yourself laugh. Watch a funny movie. In fact, give yourself some laughter therapy by making sure you watch or listen to something funny every day for two weeks.
  • Eat healthily. Not for weight loss or to look better, just because that's what happy people tend to do.
  • As above, look after your body. For example, use nice shower gel or deodorant etc and give your body some care and attention.
  • Look for ways you can show kindness. For example, use a skill you have to help someone else without expecting anything in return.
  • On the same theme, give something to someone else, whether it is a gift, your time or a compliment.
  • Be thankful. Say thank you and think about things you have been thankful for. In one of the websites below (Making Australia Happy) they even go so far as to say contact someone who has made a positive difference in your life and say thank you.
  • Look for things to be grateful for in your day-to-day life. Make a point of shifting your attention to what is good in life. See the two websites about gratefulness, below, for more on this theme.
  • Exercise regularly. Again, this is not to look good or lose weight, just to feel good. Choose an exercise you like to do even it it's not the most 'effective'.
  • Try something new, like a hobby or sport you've always wanted to do, or haven't done in a while.
  • Give yourself something you think is beautiful, whether it be flowers, a movie, some music, a picture or even a beautiful postcard or picture to stick on your fridge.
  • Many books and websites talk about meditation for contentment. In my experience even the mention of meditation can put people off because it sounds like something only "hippies or Buddhists" would do. In fact, meditation is simply noticing your thoughts as they go by, and not getting too hung up on them. Many people find the word 'mindfulness' works better for them than 'meditation'. Russ Harris has a CD called Mindfulness Skills that gives some good examples of how you can practice mindfulness.
  • Practise relaxing your mind and body. If mindfulness or meditation is not your thing, you could try relaxation or visualisation CDs. I particularly like the ones by Gillian Ross or Stephanie Dowrick, but these don't suit everyone. I've heard that there are 'relaxation' apps for the iPhone for just a few dollars.

If you would like some 'homework' from this column, here it is:

  • Make a list of three or four behaviours that you know you do when you are happy.
  • In the next week, make sure you do at least one of these each day, no matter how you feel.

By the end of the week you will probably notice that you feel pretty good!

*Please note that occasionally feeling ‘unhappy’ is not the same as being depressed (see my column on depression for related symptoms). One of the most notable symptoms of depression is ‘not enjoying things that you usually would’ so if you are experiencing depression you might find the above exercise tricky, frustrating or even depressing! If that’s the case, please have a look at www.beyondblue.org.au for further information and help.

And for further information on happiness, please have a look at the following websites:

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