Monthly Archives: April 2016

Uncovering Happiness

When I was living in San Francisco during my twenties, I built a successful career in sales. At night, I lived fast and partied recklessly, abusing drugs and alcohol with a like-minded group of drifting souls. Eventually my despair and shame grew so deep that I isolated myself from my family and friends and lost myself in my addictive behaviours.

Occasionally, in some of the seedier bars I frequented, I would come across a mess of a man who was so strung out that he repulsed me. I remember saying to my friends, “God help me if I ever turn out like him.” I thought, since I was managing to succeed at work, I was in control of my self-abusive behavior. But one night, after many hours of partying, I saw the truth of who I had become. When I found myself slumped beside that man and his equally dazed companion in the back of a broken-down limousine, I saw my own reflection in his wasted face and realized I was throwing away my life. I jumped out of the limousine, determined to transform myself.

As for so many others, it was mindfulness practice that turned things around for me. My family urged me to spend a month away at a retreat center. During that time, I questioned everything I did and all that I believed. Answers began to come to me: I wanted to stop abusing my body. I wanted to find the purpose and meaning of my life. I wanted to be happy.

I wanted to heal myself, and eventually, I realized, I wanted to help heal others who faced some of the same challenges that had nearly broken me. I trained as a clinical psychologist and began running Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programs focusing on helping people relate to stress better and not relapse into depression. Now having worked with my own depressive tendencies and with hundreds of clients, I know that uncovering happiness is not about simply being drunk on life but is found in a profound and enduring experience of learning how to lean into loving ourselves and others in good times and in bad. It’s a happiness based on a sense of common humanity, connectedness, and purpose. While I still get hooked by self-judgments and negative thoughts, I have learned to be grateful for the good moments and a bit more graceful during the difficult ones, knowing that all things in life come and go. I’ve come to believe that I’m benefitting from natural antidepressants that are present in the human brain.

When you hear the word antidepressant, you probably think of a pill: a medication used to treat your illness. Medications are one kind of antidepressant. But they’re not the only kind.

Science is now showing that we also have natural antidepressants within our brains: mindsets (thoughts and behaviors) that build us up instead of tear us down and allow us to help ourselves improve our own moods.

These natural antidepressants can be gathered into five main categories: mindfulness (the one I focus on in this piece), self-compassion, purpose, play, and mastery. By developing these natural antidepressants, you can strengthen your brain’s ability to act as its own antidepressant that can be as powerful as—or even more powerful than—the antidepressant medications.

I recognize the value of antidepressant medications, and I believe they can play an important role in the treatment of clinical depression. I’ve seen pharmaceuticals be lifesavers for some depressed patients, giving them the help they need to engage in necessary psychological treatment.

However, I also believe these drugs are heavily overprescribed and overused. For many patients, antidepressants cause more harm than good. They can create a cascade of mental health problems that go far beyond the depression they were prescribed to treat. Too many people get caught in the trap of jumping from one drug to the next or taking multiple prescriptions in order to offset serious side effects caused by individual drugs.


Whether you are on antidepressants and they’re working for you, you’re on them and want to get off of them, or you are not on antidepressants at all, cultivating natural antidepressants can support your ability to get better at overcoming the depressive cycles. Whatever your experience with depression has been—whether you just have the blues, you have chronic low-grade unhappiness, or you’ve experienced one or more major depressive episodes—you have the power to change the way you feel. By getting help in understanding how depression works and making the choice to nurture your natural antidepressants, you can become stronger and more resilient.

Science shows that we have natural antidepressants within our brains and, with some work, they can be as powerful as—or even more powerful than—medication.

The Depression Loop

I’ve found during my work with depression that it’s helpful to envision it as a kind of circular process: an automatic loop rather than a linear set of events. Clients find it useful to think of it as a cycle, a spiral, or even a traffic circle. If you live someplace where there are lots of traffic circles or if you have ever driven on one, you know how confusing and maddening they can be.

You’re driving on a straight road, minding your own business, maybe humming along with a song on the radio, and suddenly a traffic circle looms ahead. It just kind of appears on the street ahead of you. Your mind instantly starts anticipating entering the circle, how the cars may stream in, and how you’re going to exit. A feeling of fear or anxiety arises; your hands start to sweat and grip the steering wheel. As you enter, you search for a sign for a way out, and halfway through the circle you realize that you have to switch lanes to jockey for a position so you’re ready for your exit. Meanwhile, you drive by other entrance points that each admit streams of new cars into the circle. You see your exit, but you realize that you either have to speed up or slow down. If you miss your exit—which is so easy to do—you have no choice but to loop around again hoping that next time you’ll make your way out.

Falling into the depression loop is a lot like entering a traffic circle. You’re living your life, feeling fine, minding your own business, and all of a sudden you find depression looming. Maybe it’s just a feeling you wake up with, a moment when you suddenly fall prey to a shaming inner critic that says something like “there’s something wrong with me/ you,” or a response to hearing some negative news. Once you’re in it, you try valiantly to get out. But it’s so easy to get stuck.

Just as various roads lead you into a traffic circle, the depression loop has four entrance points: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors. Any one of these can lead you into the depression loop. Once you’re caught inside the loop, your mind goes around and around, struggling to get out. Streams of thoughts enter the loop as your brain struggles to figure out “What’s wrong with me?” As one of my students says, “The bloodhound is sniffing around for the villain (and much analysis is required).” The brain anxiously defaults to reaching back into the past, referencing and rehashing negative events to try to figure it out. Simultaneously, the brain jumps into the future, planning, rehearsing, and anticipating some upcoming hopeless catastrophe. As all this happens, the brain pours stress into an already stressful situation.

You may see an exit, but as you try to leave the loop, you find yourself blocked by more depressive thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors. Before you know it, the traffic gets even heavier with the addition of streams of fear and anxiety when you begin to perceive that you’re becoming trapped in the self-perpetuating depression loop. You’re desperate for escape, but, sideswiped by fear and negativity, you become so overwhelmed that you just keep going around and around and around. Soon a sense of learned helplessness sets in: you can no longer even see the exit, so you stop trying to break free and begin to believe you may never escape.

This was a common occurrence for one of my patients, 30-year-old Sandy, who had experienced bouts of depression her whole life. Typically she would feel fine for a while, but then at times, seemingly out of nowhere, she would become depressed. Sandy would lose interest in activities she usually enjoyed and have trouble finding the motivation she needed for everyday tasks. Feelings such as unworthiness and guilt would begin to flood her mind, and in response, she tended to isolate herself from her family and friends and make choices that fueled her depression rather than pull her out of it.

Sandy experienced depression as a persistently reinforcing loop that dragged her down. Negative thoughts would trigger troubling feelings (or vice versa) that in short time would turn into an ever-present depressed mood state. This would make it tough for Sandy to get out of bed in the morning. Doing the activities she usually enjoyed felt nearly impossible, and instead of partaking in life, Sandy would often end up sitting in her apartment feeling terrible about herself, eating too much, drinking too much, and sinking deeper and deeper into a morass of gloom.

Sandy didn’t know this, but each time she experienced a bout of depression and got lost in the depression loop, her brain actually changed. When we practice anything in life over and over again, it starts to become automatic; in psychology, we call that a conditioned habitual reaction, and in neuroscience, it’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Right now 80 billion to 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, are interacting with what some have said are one trillion connections, called synapses, in an unimaginably fast and dynamic network. When we do something over and over—whether it’s something we’re trying to learn, such as improving our tennis stroke; or something we’d rather not learn, like an anxiety response to dogs after being bitten by one — neurons in our brains fire together. As we repeat these actions, they eventually wire together, making the process an unconscious habit.

One day Sandy came to see me looking particularly distressed, and she told me that she’d received an email that a client of hers was angry with her work. In exploring it together, we realized that this kind of cue triggered worries about losing that client, increasing her anxiety, and making her heart race and her breathing become shallow. Her mind spiraled with negative hopeless thoughts about the future of her business, and she began to avoid doing her work. Sandy knew she was getting depressed, and this spiraled into more fear. Her response prevented her from dealing with the client’s email in a logical, objective way.

Sandy was ready to start breaking this cycle when she finally recognized her depressive loop for what it really was: a deeply conditioned habit (or trauma reaction). In fact, just understanding the concept of the depression loop was enough for Sandy to start effecting a change in her relationship to depression. She was able to see it in action in her daily life and name it. The moment she saw it occurring, she was able to stand apart from it in a space of awareness that was separate from the loop itself and gain perspective. She no longer felt she was the loop—rather, she was the aware person viewing the loop. In this space, she found a sense of freedom and a “choice point,” a moment in time when she was aware enough to choose a healthier response.

cars driving in a loop

The first step in uncovering happiness and experiencing freedom from the depression loop, then, is learning how to objectively see this loop in action instead of getting lost in it. The moment we notice the depression loop in action is a moment we’ve stepped outside of it, into a space of perspective and choice.

From there, we have more work to do. The brain habits we have can be deep-seated. The helplessness we’ve learned can stick with us. The beauty is, though, that science is now showing us that through intentional repetition and action, we can change our brains for the better.

And one of the most helpful ways to do that is to counteract our tendency to want to believe we are a problem to be fixed. Instead we can be present for what comes up in our lives and make choices in the small space that opens up between a stimulus and our response. That’s where mindfulness comes in.

Once we notice the depression loop in action we’ve already stepped outside of it, into a space of perspective and choice. From there, we have more work to do.

Being Versus Doing

We are hardwired to solve problems. When a problem arises, we want “to do” something about it. That’s how we’ve evolved and have made the wheel, our first tools, the chairs we sit on, the houses we live in, and even how to read and understand these words. Problem solving is an essential part of life. But contrary to the brain’s belief, life itself is not a problem to be solved; it’s a constantly evolving experience to be lived.

Here’s how problem solving gets us trapped deeper in the depressive loop:

The moment we experience an uncomfortable emotion, the brain sees it as a threat because of its potential to lead to depression. We’re supposed to feel well, and when we don’t, there is a discrepancy between where we are and where we “should be.” This mind thinks, “There is something wrong with me.” It perceives a defect, a deficiency, an unworthiness. The brain sees this as something “to fix” and uses self-judgment to tell us that something is wrong with us or maybe conjures up doomsday scenarios to prepare us for possible catastrophes. Then, because of these potential threats, the brain remains on high alert to see if any more signs of relapse arise. The voice inside the mind inquires anxiously, “Is it gone yet? How about now?” This only adds pressure to an already stressful state of being. The more the brain focuses on this gap, the more it highlights it in our minds and strengthens the belief that “something is wrong with me.”

This only sinks us deeper into the depression loop, which spurs the brain “to do” something more, continuing to add more fuel to the fire.

But when we’re doing this, where are we? We’re not in the present—and that’s exactly where we need to be to take charge of our brains and see the choices to make a change by using mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about balancing the brain’s implicit agenda by training it “to be” with what’s there instead of needing “to do” something about it. In using mindfulness to learn how to be with our feelings, we send a message internally that we’re worthy enough to pay attention to. This closes the gap between where we are and where we think we should be (which makes us feel unworthy), and that disrupts the depression loop.

Right now you can choose to stop what you’re “doing” for 30 seconds and practice this state of “being.” Just take a breath and acknowledge how you are. Is your mind racing, or is it calm? Is your body tense anywhere, or is it relaxed? Are you feeling anxious, bored, restless, excited, tired, or any number of other emotions?

Breathe in, breathe out. You have arrived.

Here’s an opportunity to stop reading and begin working on developing mindfulness. It’s a short exercise that you can immediately start using to help move away from the conditioned loop of depression and into a space of hope and possibility.

Learning how to be is a one-minute practice that can be done anywhere and anytime as a barometer of how you’re doing. As best you can, treat this as an experiment in your life. Try it out at first in the moments when you aren’t sinking and see what you notice. Like any habit, the more you integrate this into your day, the stronger it becomes in your short-term memory, and the more likely it is to be retrieved during the difficult moments.

Note: First, see if you can set aside any judgments of whether this practice will or will not work for you. Engage this just with the goal of being aware of your experience.

Breathe: Take a few deep breaths. Notice your breath as you breathe in and out. You might even want to say the word “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale. This is meant to pop you out of autopilot and steady your mind.

Expand: This is the process of expanding your attention throughout the body and just feeling your body as it is. You can start by noticing the positioning of your body. Then you can move to being curious about how your body is feeling. Imagine that this is the very first time you’ve ever felt your body. You may feel warmth or coolness, achiness, itchiness, tension, tightness, heaviness, lightness, or a whole host of sensations. Or perhaps you notice no sensation at all in other areas. When you’re here, also be aware of how emotions are being expressed in the body. Calm may be experienced as looseness in the back or face. You might also notice painful feelings. Maybe this comes up as tension in the chest or shoulders. If there is physical pain, see what happens if you get curious about the sensation of it and allow it to be as it is. If it gets too intense, use this as a choice point to become aware of what matters in the moment or what you need. Maybe you need to get up, move around, and roll your shoulders. Awareness is the springboard to getting in touch with what matters.

That’s it! It may sound too simple to be impactful, but, again, set aside your judgments and let your experience be your teacher.

Just practice being, breathing, and expanding into the body in mini moments throughout the day to train your brain to be in that space of awareness and choice that will lead you to a more balanced and mindful life.

To help you remember, you might consider posting signs in your environment that say “Just Be.” Just as signs on the road remind us to slow down or watch for children crossing, signs around the house or office can remind us to be how we want to BE. Or maybe put a note in your digital calendar to pop up a couple times per day as a reminder. Or the best way to remember may be to share the idea with a friend to remind each other from time to time.

The benefits are enormous—it just takes intention and practice.

Like any habit, the more you integrate mindfulness into your day, the stronger it becomes in your short-term memory, and the more likely it is to be retrieved in difficult moments.

Natural Antidepressants


A flexible and unbiased state of mind where you are open and curious about what is present, have perspective, and are aware of choices.


You understand your own suffering and use mindfulness, kindness, and openness to hold it nonjudgmentally and consider it part of the human condition.


You are actively engaged in living alongside your values, are inclined toward compassion for others, and possess an understanding of how your existence contributes value to the world.


A flexible state of mind where you are engaged in some freely chosen and potentially purposeless activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying.


You feel a sense of personal control and confidence and are engaged in learning to get better and better at something that matters.

Five Major Mind Traps

These voices keep us stuck in the depression loop. One of the keys to cultivating an antidepressant brain is realizing you are not these thoughts or the stories they tell. Here are some ways to avoid falling into these traps.


Whenever you hear advice about how to work with challenges you have, you might notice the voice of doubt: “This might work for some people, but it’s probably not going to work for me.” The motive of this voice is to keep us safe from failure or disappointment, but ultimately it keeps us away from new experiences that can be supportive.


Longing to be elsewhere, our minds settle on the belief that the current moment is never enough, we’re not enough, or we can’t do enough, it’s all so empty. The problem with this kind of thinking: When the awaited event does occur, happiness may not come with it. This motive of trying to fix the current moment leaves you in a perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction.

By focusing on the idea that you’re not where you “should be,” your brain is constantly reinforcing the message that something is wrong with you, which then highlights a gap of deficiency that only grows wider as it tries harder. The root problem is not what you don’t have, but the fact that you really don’t feel whole or complete.


Someone might be walking down the hallway at work humming his favorite tune, and thoughts come up: “Does he think everyone wants to hear him? Uh, what is he so happy about anyway?”

Meanwhile, who’s suffering? We’re the ones in pain, but our brains think if we project our irritation onto another person, we’ll find relief from the pain. If these voices continue to come up in our relationships and aren’t discussed, the feelings turn into resentment that inevitably eats away at the relationship like a cancer. But voices of irritation can alert us that something isn’t right and, with awareness, we can use this information to be constructive.


Have you ever had the idea to do something that’s good for you—hang out with friends, exercise, meditate—but you hear this voice: “I want to do it, but I’m too tired. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

If we’re actually tired—maybe we haven’t slept enough or had an exceptionally taxing day—we need to listen to our bodies and rest. At other times, these sluggish voices are just another sign we’re avoiding being with ourselves because we fear that it will be uncomfortable. If we can recognize it, we can face it and when we can face it, we can work with it and break free.


These days our brains are being trained to be noisier, busier, and more distracted. You’re sitting alone waiting for a drink. Your eye catches your phone: “I wonder if I received any new messages. Nope, not one since a minute ago. What about Facebook, anything there? Some new updates, not that interesting. Twitter? Ah, that’s an interesting tweet. I wonder when the drink is going to come?”

When there’s a space empty of doing, restless voices rise up. We feel compelled to fill the spaces, but we don’t realize that in these empty spaces, we have a choice between doing and being; it’s where possibility and opportunity emerge, and where there is a chance to make changes for the better.

Take a Self-Compassion Inventory

Here are a few questions to help you gauge the strength of your self-compassion muscle. (Note: if you find it’s low, don’t worry, just like a muscle, it can be strengthened.)

1. Where does the inner critic pop up? At work? When you walk past the mirror? In relationships? In relation to parenting?

2. What are the repercussions of being so hard on yourself? Does it add to the depression loop?

3. When something difficult arises in life and you fall under stress, where do you rank on the priority list of people to take care of? Do you apply caring to your suffering or try to avoid it?

4. When things are tough, do you tend to compare yourself with others, thinking that they have it together? Or do you have a balanced perspective, knowing that all humans struggle?

5. What would the days, weeks, and months ahead be like if your stress and inner struggles were met with more understanding and caring?

From Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. Reprinted by arrangement with Atria Books, Copyright © 2015 Elisha Goldstein.


5 Science-Backed Strategies for More Happiness

Did you know that happiness has its own holiday?

Four years ago, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed March 20 to be the International Day of Happiness. It’s easy to understand why they see happiness as something to celebrate: Happy people are healthier; they get sick less often and live longer. Happy people are more likely to get married and have fulfilling marriages, and they have more friends. They make more money and are more productive at work. Based on decades of research, it has become clear that happiness is not just a personal issue; it’s a matter of public health, global economics, and national well-being.

But it doesn’t come easy, as most of us know. Disappointments and annoyances grab our attention like gnats, and even the good things in life seem to lose their luster over time. Add to that a crammed schedule and mounting obligations, and happiness might just seem out of reach—achievable for other people, perhaps, but not us.

Fortunately, research suggests that happiness is something we can cultivate with practice. The Greater Good Science Center has collected many happiness practices on the website Greater Good in Action, alongside other research-based exercises for fostering kindness, connection, and resilience. Below are 11 of those happiness practices, grouped into five broader strategies for a more fulfilling life.

1. Acknowledge the Good

If we don’t feel happy, it’s tempting to look for things to fix: the job that isn’t prestigious enough, the apartment that’s too cramped, our partner’s annoying habit. But focusing on all the negatives isn’t the surest route to feeling better. Instead, a simple way to start cultivating happiness is by recognizing the good.

In the Three Good Things exercise, for example, you keep a journal devoted solely to the positives in your life. Each evening, you write down three things that went well and add some detail about each, including how they made you feel. For example, you might recall a heartfelt thank you from a coworker, a quiet moment drinking tea, or your daughter’s infectious laughter. Importantly, you also briefly explain why you think each good thing happened—which focuses your attention on the enduring sources of goodness that surround you.

A 2005 study invited participants to do this practice daily for a week, and afterward they reported feeling happier and less depressed than when they started. In fact, they maintained their happiness boost six months later, illustrating how impactful it can be to focus on the good things in life.

Many of those good things lie just outside our doorstep, and we can practice noticing them on a Savoring Walk. Here, you take a 20-minute walk and observe the sights, sounds, and smells you encounter—freshly cut grass, an epic skyscraper, a stranger’s smile. Each time you notice something positive, take the time to absorb it and think about why you enjoy it. On your subsequent Savoring Walks, strike out in different directions to seek new things to admire.

In a study by Fred Bryant of Loyola University Chicago, participants who took Savoring Walks daily for a week reported greater increases in happiness than participants who went for walks as usual. “Making a conscious effort to notice and explicitly acknowledge the various sources of joy around us can make us happier,” write Bryant and Joseph Veroff in the book Savoring.

If you have trouble seeing the good that’s already around you, another strategy is to create some. In Creating and Recalling Positive Events, you carve out time for yourself and fill your schedule with enjoyment.

When you have a day free, don’t rush around doing chores; instead, try three different happy activities:

  • Something you do alone, such as reading, listening to music, or meditating.
  • Something you do with others, such as going out for coffee, riding your bike, or watching a movie.
  • Something meaningful, such as volunteering, helping a neighbor in need, or calling a friend who’s struggling.

If your go-to happiness practice has been Netflix and a bowl of ice cream, this exercise can reconnect you with different sources of satisfaction. These three activities should offer you a sense of pleasure, engagement, and meaning, all viable paths to a satisfying life. A 2014 study found that even psychiatric patients with suicidal thoughts found value in doing this exercise, reporting more optimism and less hopelessness afterward.

2. Add Happiness Through Subtraction

Even after we identify the positives in our life, we’re still prone to adapting to them over time. A good thing repeated brings us less satisfaction, until it no longer seems to contribute to our day-to-day mood at all; we take it for granted. That’s why, sometimes, it’s a good idea to introduce a little deprivation.

In Mental Subtraction of Positive Events, you call to mind a certain positive event—the birth of a child, a career achievement, a special trip—and think of all the circumstances that made it possible. How could things have turned out differently? Just taking a moment to imagine this alternate reality creates a favorable comparison, where suddenly our life looks quite good.

In a 2008 study, participants who performed this exercise reported feeling more gratitude and other positive emotions than participants who simply thought about past positive events without imagining their absence. Mental Subtraction seems to jolt us into the insight that the good things in our lives aren’t inevitable; we are, in fact, very lucky.

If imagining absence isn’t quite enough for you, what about experiencing it for real? In the Give It Up practice, you spend a week abstaining from a pleasure in order to appreciate it more fully. This pleasure should be something that’s relatively abundant in your life, such as eating chocolate or watching TV. At the end of the week, when you can finally indulge, pay special attention to how it feels.

In a 2013 study, people who gave up chocolate savored it more and experienced a more positive mood when they finally ate it at the end of the week, compared with people who ate chocolate as usual. This exercise may not only open your eyes to a single pleasure (like the miracle of cacao), but make you more conscious of life’s many other pleasures, too.

3. Find Meaning and Purpose

Creating and Recalling Positive Events reminds us that pleasure isn’t the only path to bliss; meaning can also bring us happiness, albeit a quieter and more reflective kind.

In the Meaningful Photos practice, you take pictures of things that are meaningful to you and reflect on them. Over the course of a week, look out for sources of meaning in your life—family members, favorite spots, childhood mementos—and capture about nine or ten different images of them. At the end of the week, spend an hour reflecting on them: What does each photo represent, and why is it meaningful to you? Jot down some of those thoughts if it’s helpful.

Amid the chores and routines, life can sometimes feel dull and mundane. Reigniting our sense of meaning can remind us what’s important, which boosts our energy and gives us strength to face life’s stresses. In a 2013 study, college students who completed this exercise not only boosted their sense of meaning, but also reported greater positive emotions and life satisfaction as well.

We can also boost our energy and motivation by fostering a sense of purpose, and theBest Possible Self exercise is one way to do that. Here, you journal for 15 minutes about an ideal future in which everything is going as well as possible, from your family and personal life to your career and health.

In a 2006 study, participants who wrote about their Best Possible Selves daily for two weeks reported greater positive emotions afterward, and their mood continued increasing up to a month later if they kept up the practice.

This exercise allows us to clarify our goals and priorities, painting a detailed picture of where we want to be. This picture should be ambitious but realistic so that it motivates us to make changes, rather than reminding us how imperfect and disappointing our lives are now. When we reflect on our future this way, we may feel more in control of our destiny.

4. Use Your Strengths

Just as we hunt for things to fix in life, we also tend to obsess over flaws in ourselves; our weaknesses loom large. But what if we put more time and attention into our strengths and positive attributes?

The Use Your Strengths exercise invites you to consider your strengths of character—from creativity and perseverance to kindness and humility—and put them into practice. Each day for a week, select a strength and make a plan to use it in a new and different way. You can repeat the same strength—directing your curiosity toward a work project one day and toward your partner’s interests the next—or work on different strengths each day. At the end of the week, synthesize the experience by writing about what you did, how it made you feel, and what you learned.

In a 2005 study, participants who engaged in this exercise for a week reported feeling happier and less depressed, and that happiness boost lasted up to six months. Use Your Strengths may help us transfer skills between home and work—applying our professional creativity to our children’s school assignments or our domestic kindness to our co-workers—and give us a confidence boost all around.

5. Connect with Others

The practices above invite us to turn inward, tinkering with our attitudes and the way we view the world. But decades of science also suggest that turning outward and connecting to the people around us is one of the surest routes to happiness.

As a first step, you can try an adapted version of the Best Possible Self exercise for relationships to give you insights into what kinds of social connection you desire. In an ideal life, what would your relationships with your spouse, family, and friends look like?

One way to feel an immediate boost of connection is through Random Acts of Kindness. Random Acts of Kindness don’t have to be flashy or extravagant; they can be as simple as helping a friend with a chore or making breakfast for your partner. You can also extend your circle of kindness to strangers and community members, feeding a parking meter or offering a meal to someone in need.

In a 2005 study, participants who performed five acts of kindness on one day a week for six weeks reported increases in happiness. (This didn’t happen when they spread out their acts of kindness across the week, perhaps because a single kind act may not feel noteworthy on its own.) Researchers also suggest varying your acts of kindness over time to keep the practice fresh and dynamic.

Some of your acts of kindness may involve giving, and the Make Giving Feel Goodpractice helps ensure that giving does, indeed, bring happiness. Researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, among others, have found evidence that being kind and generous does make us happier, but they’ve also found that acts of giving are most effective when they meet these three criteria:

  • It’s a choice: Give because you choose to, not because you feel pressured or obligated to.
  • You connect: Giving can be an opportunity to make connections with the people you’re helping, so choose activities where you get to spend time with recipients, like helping a friend move or volunteering at a soup kitchen.
  • You see the impact: If you’re donating money, for example, don’t just give and move on. Find out what your money will be used for—like new classroom supplies or a cooking stove.

In a 2011 study, participants were offered a $10 Starbucks gift card to use in different ways: They either gave it to someone, gave it to someone and joined them for a drink, or used it on themselves while drinking with a friend. The ones who gave the card away and spent time with the recipient—connecting with them and seeing the impact of giving—felt happiest afterward.

Of course, the pursuit of happiness isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and mugs of tea and smiling children. Sometimes we need to tackle our insecurities and weaknesses, and we can’t just ignore our draining jobs and nagging relatives. But the practices here represent the other side of the coin, the one we often neglect: seeing, appreciating, and mobilising the good.