For years I looked to others to boost my mood. I’d wait for friends and boyfriends to notice that I was down and expect them to make me feel better. It never happened. Relying on others actually made me feel worse, because it was impossible for them to know what would make me feel good. Gradually I accepted that it was up to me to make my day and my life better.
Here are four tips for creating your own happiness, rather than waiting for someone to do it for you:
1. Take Responsibility
When my best friend passed away unexpectedly, all I wanted was to feel better. I wanted the emptiness inside to be filled, and I wanted all of the hurt to disappear. I had hoped that my friends and family could quell some of the pain, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't make it go away. Only I could. I had to figure out what felt good to me, what made me smile again. While I wasn't responsible for my friend's death, I was the only person responsible for helping me get over it.
"Although the percentages vary slightly from study to study," Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP and Dr. Michael B. Frisch say in their book Creating Your Best Life, "it's safe to posit that 50 percent to 80 percent of our daily contentment is completely under our control."
Taking responsibility for how you feel isn’t easy because it means you have to be honest with yourself. You have to admit that you're annoyed because you said yes when you really wanted to say no, that it was you and only you who ordered a round of shots last night and subsequently missed a meeting this morning. We choose to avoid taking responsibility for our actions, decisions, and happiness because it feels easier to blame someone else, but imagine what your life would look like if you took more responsibility for it?
Knowing I could make myself feel better meant that I could rely on myself to take care of myself. I no longer needed to wait for the feeling, I could go out and create it on my own — feed it to myself.
Try it: Take five minutes to write down what taking responsibility for your happiness in your work, family, and personal life would feel like. Look at this assessment each morning. Then pay attention throughout the day to when you are blaming others or complaining. Ask yourself how you can change the situation to produce your desired outcome. It's okay to start small: If you go to a restaurant and there’s a draft, instead of talking about the draft, ask to move. You just took control of your own happiness.
2. Listen to Your Needs
There are days when I wake up in a funk. I feel tired, maybe down about something I can’t even put my finger on. To boost my mood I ask myself one question: Cynthia, what would make you feel better right now? Then I listen for the response. By asking that one question, I pay attention to my wants and needs so I can meet them.
To listen, I sit still and close my eyes. What would make me feel better? Sometimes I need to take a walk, clean up my room, scream into my pillow, put on loud music and dance, or other times I’m pouring myself a cup of tea, calling a friend, or eating a piece of chocolate. If I want to feel optimistic and inspired, I read quotes.
Asking the question and then listening to what you need means you not only devote your energy in the moment to caring for yourself but also start to trust that you'll be able to take care of yourself consistently, no matter what is happening around you. "Happy people have self-efficacy," Miller and Frisch write, "...the belief that your life is in your hands, and that you have the ability to control your own behavior and shape your own destiny."
Try It: To answer the question, "What would make me feel better today?," think about the last week and the good days you had. What made those days better than the others? Maybe you took a dance class, finished a project, or drank more water during the day. Write down what worked. For the next week, keep a log of your activities, then look back again to see what you did on the days you felt best. Then start doing at least one of the activities that make you feel better each day. You'll begin to notice that you have more good days.
3. Get Grateful
The other day I was on the phone with a co-worker who asked me a question she'd already asked me two previous times during the week. I felt the irritation and frustration in my body. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, then thought about why I was grateful to have this person in my life. I thought about how much I’d learned from her over the years, how without them I may not have a steady income. The more I rattled off what I appreciated, the better I felt.
Michael McCullough, psychology professor at the University of Miami, and Robert Emmons, psychology professor at UC Davis, are scholars who study gratitude. They’ve concluded that “people who express gratitude in any number of ways — such as thanking someone else verbally, writing down a list of blessings on a regular basis, or mailing a letter to someone who has made a difference in your life — have the power to increase life satisfaction and hope.”
For me, the most effective way to practice gratitude is to write down the things I'm grateful for, then read the list aloud each morning. Another method is to recite what you're grateful for throughout the day or whenever you need help shifting your mood. Some people set an alarm on their phones, and when it goes off, they rattle off a couple things they cherish in their lives. Others remind themselves with sticky notes on their mirrors or computers.
Try it: Marty Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that writing down what you’re grateful for on a regular basis makes you happier. At the end of each day, scribble down three things that you’re grateful for or that went well. Then next to them, write an explanation of why you’re grateful or why the event went well. Seligman found that making this list for a week increased happiness and decreased symptoms of depression for up to six months of follow up.
4. Do Something You’re Good At
A boy in a creative writing class I teach talks all day long about video games. When I asked him what he loves so much about them, and why they make him so happy, he said, “I’m good at them.” What makes him happy is the confidence he feels when playing the game.
Have you stopped to think lately about what you’re good at? What are your strengths? What do you like about yourself? Maybe you know you’re a great listener, or your friends tell you you’re great at organizing events. Maybe you make people laugh. When are you most confident? What are you doing? When you identify your strengths and put them into practice, you feel happier.
Seligman found that an exercise called Identifying Signature Strengths had lasting effects on boosting happiness. Participants were first tested to identify their strengths and then asked to use the strengths they scored highest on in a new way every day for a week. This activity left participants happier up to six months later.
Try it: Go to the website of The Via Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people build character, and take the VIA Survey, which assesses what you're best at. Then commit to using your strengths in a new way for a set period of time. If creativity is your strength, enroll in a sculpting or painting class. If leadership is a core strength, organize a regular get together with friends.
Each day we choose how we want to live in the world. We can either be dragged along with it or take responsibility for how it unfolds. Making ourselves happy doesn’t just happen, it’s something we have to commit to, to make time for, and turn into a daily practice.
Image: Bustle Stock Photo