Happiness doesn’t have to be complicated—and it doesn’t have to be big.
In fact, the secret to happiness, surprisingly, is relatively simple. It lies in our attention—namely in where we direct it.
As happiness expert Paul Dolan, Ph.D., writes in his book “Happiness By Design”: “Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention. What you attend to drives your behavior and it determines your happiness.”
Here are five ways you can use your attention to cultivate happiness:
1. Notice Your Joy
This sounds obvious, but many of us become so engrossed in day-to-day responsibilities that we don’t take the time to reflect on what actually brings us joy. The great news is that this, too, can be small and simple.
Journalist Rob Walker, author of the book “The Art of Noticing,” suggests asking ourselves: What makes me happy as I’m walking down the street? Maybe it’s birds chirping or the bright blue sky. Maybe it’s seeing an older couple holding hands.
You also might consider variations of this question: What makes me happy as I’m eating lunch, sitting on this train, or chatting with my spouse?
2. Notice Your Negative Thoughts
Negative thoughts can quickly become background noise. We stop listening to them, but they still sink our mood. To hamper this hurtful process, set a timer on your phone to ring at different times of the day. When it does, jot down what your mind is telling you.
Next, remind yourself that these thoughts aren’t flawless facts, and you don’t need to get entangled in their drama. Because your thoughts are separate from you.
In her book “Stop Self-Sabotage,” clinical neuropsychologist Judy Ho, Ph.D., recommends gaining distance from your thoughts by adding these phrases: “I notice that… I’m having the thought that.” For example, you might tell yourself: I notice that I’m having the thought that I’ll never get this promotion.
3. Notice Your Breath
Several studies have linked mindfulness to happiness (along with other positive emotions, including relaxation, inspiration, hope, gratitude, and awe).
To boost your bliss, Erric Solomon, co-author of the book “Radically Happy,” suggests taking a “mindful mini-break”: “Feel the breath going into your lungs and the breath going out,” he says. “Don’t worry about thoughts or emotions coming; let them come, but keep your attention on your breathing.”
Carve out a few moments to notice your breath throughout the day—when a meeting ends early or your lunch date is running late.
4. Notice Your Surroundings
Once each day Walker, who works from home, sets his timer for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and listens to the sounds of his New Orleans neighborhood—everything from birds to boats to his neighbor’s voice. This exercise is inspired by John Cage’s famous piece of music, 4’ 33”, which involves the pianist not playing the piano for that amount of time.
Walker also turns seemingly boring, mundane moments—like shopping—into magical ones. He might look for the silliest product on sale and, while waiting in line, invent stories about other shoppers.
5. Notice Your Emotions
Feeling happy all the time isn’t possible—and it’s not good for us, anyway. Instead, what nurtures our mental health and well-being is acknowledging and accepting all of our emotions, according to different studies.
So, the next time you feel a “negative” emotion, instead of thinking about it or shoving it away, Solomon suggests focusing on the sensation in your body. This way, your emotion “doesn’t devolve into looping thoughts and stories.” Rather, he says, it becomes “energy within the body.”
Happiness starts with managing our attention so that we’re not only focusing on what matters to us; we’re also focusing on what ultimately helps us feel incredibly alive: our breath, our feelings, and the world around us.