Happiness, we’re often told, is one of those things you either have or don’t have. It’s framed as something that is given (and taken away) based on our unchangeable internal disposition or fleeting external factors: You’re born an optimist—or you’re not. You’re having a good day—or you’re not. Either way, it’s out of your hands.
This simply isn’t true. You make happiness happen. Positivity is a skill that can be built and strengthened, and cultivating an optimistic outlook benefits more than your mood. “When we’re happy, we’re more empathetic, emotionally tough, and creative. Our relationships improve. Our physical health gets a boost. It’s a gift that keeps on giving,” says Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., meQuilibrium’s Chief Science Officer.
But sustained positivity takes work because humans are naturally negative creatures. After all, explains Shatté, we survived as a species by scanning for threats in the wild. “Some animals have wings. Humans had negativity,” he says. This now-outdated instinct can keep up from savoring the good things that happen, because “our brains are so wired towards the negative that we compromise on the positive.”
It’s up to you to make happiness happen. Here are six proven ways to infuse your life with more joy:
- Look for the Good
Make a habit out of consciously scanning for contentment by listing three good things that happened to you at the end of each day. “This goes against our natural wiring, so we have to schedule it and practice it,” Shatté says. Review your list first thing the next morning, before beginning your daily routine. Over the course of ten days, he says, this simple technique can rewire your brain so that you’re more attuned to positive occurrences.
- Do a Reality Check
Despite what you may see on social media, nobody is always happy. “We develop expectations that life should be easy,” Shatté says. “But the truth is, we all experience embarrassment and frustration. And everyone feels sad and experiences loss.” Happiness is not about trying to feel joyful all the time or denying negative emotions; it’s about facing negative events with an open mind and being able to pivot when things don’t go your way. Reframe adversity—both big and small—as an opportunity to strengthen your positivity.
- Ban “Future Talk”
Much of our unhappiness stems from fear and anticipation, Shatté says, because the unknown is inherently scary. To feel happier, resist focusing on the future and stay grounded in the present moment, even if it’s for ten minutes a day. Shatté institutes this policy with his own family: “Schedule time to ban all ‘future’ talk and relish what’s in front of you,” he says, whether it’s sharing a meal with loved ones, spending a few moments outdoors, or enjoying your favorite playlist or podcast during your commute.
- Boss That Negativity Back
If you’re bracing for a difficult phone call or a tense meeting, make plans to counteract it with a positive experience. Don’t leave it to chance—strategize it. For instance, when Shatté has a tough conversation, he cycles through a list of people he calls for an uplifting “antidote” conversation afterward.
- Beware of Unloading
Venting and complaining serve a purpose, but when you’ve had a horrible day, resist the urge to unload on your partner or family the second you arrive home. “It defines the tone for your evening and gives everyone else permission to complain, which creates a cycle of negativity,” Shatté says. Instead, set the stage for a more pleasant evening by discussing at least one good thing that happened before getting into the tough stuff.
- Use the ‘WIIFM’ Philosophy
While there are plenty of ways to boost your mood in the moment, creating lasting happiness is a lifelong process. Shatté urges clients to focus on the “cost-benefit analysis” of why happiness matters. He believes in the ‘WIIFM’ philosophy: “What’s in it for me?” he says. “Think about your life now and what it could be like later. Yes, there’s short-term effort required to be happier—but consider the long-term gain.” The steps you take now can benefit both your present and future self.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist and wellbeing expert. For over 15 years, she has been helping consumers live healthier, more fulfilling lives, writing for outlets such as The Boston Globe, Time, and Women’s Health. Kara has also collaborated on several books on women’s health and resilience. Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin