The weather, your workload, the size of your feet — there are plenty of things that are beyond your control. Much of the research coming out of the mushrooming "science of happiness” has found, however, that your mood is not necessarily one of them.
"We have a lot of control over our moods," says William Fleeson, associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, who has shown in studies that subjects can actually change the expression of basic personality traits on demand and lift their spirits in a matter of minutes. "We're not slaves to our genes, and we don't have to wait for someone else to do something good to make us feel better."
Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, theorizes that 50 percent of our happiness is determined by genetics and only 10 percent by major life circumstances. That means an impressive 40 percent is generated by our daily thoughts and actions. With numbers like that, it's certainly worth considering the specific behaviors that could lead you down the path to bliss.
Put your mind to it
The idea that we can affect our moods by changing the way we think isn't a new one (2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, "We are disturbed not by events, but by the views that we take of them"). But today, many psychologists are focusing their work on just how to bring about that shift in perspective — cognitive therapy. "It's the most researched psychotherapy intervention today, and in many studies it's been found to be as effective as antidepressants," says Alice Domar, a psychologist and director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Research in Waltham, Massachusetts.
A few techniques to try on your own couch:
Be curious. Inquisitive people are more likely to derive meaning and pleasure from any given day, according to a study published in Motivation and Emotion. But trawling YouTube won’t quite cut it. The key is to engage in activities outside your comfort zone, says Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University — especially those that require skill. "That's when you get so absorbed that you're completely engaged in the moment, which creates very positive energy," Kashdan says.
Give thanks. Expressing gratitude has been shown in numerous studies to improve mood — as long as you don't overdo it. When Lyubomirsky asked two groups to jot down things they were grateful for, either three times a week or once a week, only the latter group felt significantly happier. "When something you're doing to improve yourself starts to feel like a chore, it's not as effective," Lyubomirsky says.
Change your tape. "Our brains are like tape recorders, and they often replay the same negative thoughts," Domar says. Needless to say, the refrain doesn't do much for your mood. Write down a negative thought you often have — for example, "I'm a slob." Ask yourself: Does this thought contribute to my stress? Where did I learn this thought? Is this a logical thought? Is this thought true? "These questions will help you get at an accurate restructuring of your original thought," Domar says. In this case, you might end up with: "My house is cluttered, but pretty clean." By repeating that thought, you'll stop generating anxiety with unreasonable negativity.
Don’t dwell. With all due respect to Socrates, many psychologists find that the unexamined life can in fact be well worth living. "Rumination — whether rehashing things from the past or worrying about the future — worsens and lengthens periods of depression and can make everyday bad moods more intense," says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, professor of psychology at Yale. Break the contemplative cycle by doing something constructive to distract yourself: Go for a run, get a manicure, play with your dog — just avoid television. ("It's pretty mindless, so it's easy to ruminate while you're watching," Nolen-Hoeksema says.) Even looking at pretty pictures can be enough to improve your mood. For a study, Nolen-Hoeksema left one group alone with their thoughts and showed another group pleasant images. "After only ten minutes, the people who'd been looking at pictures were happier and more motivated; the ruminators were in a bad mood," she says.
Act the part
When you're feeling down, meeting up with friends (let alone mingling at a cocktail party) sounds less than appealing — but making the effort can really pay off. "Anything we do to promote our social relationships is a great way to achieve happiness," says Elizabeth Dunn, assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
Speak up. Even if you're naturally shy, acting extroverted will have a positive impact on your mood, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Before interacting with others, subjects were instructed to act either extroverted or introverted, or were not told anything at all. "We interviewed them afterward, and the people told to be extroverted had a lot more fun. There was a whopping difference," Fleeson says.
Talk to strangers. It runs counter to your mother’s counsel, but interacting with a stranger is a safe way to improve your mood. "It's a strong social norm to be cheerful around someone we don't know, to make a good first impression. And when we act cheerful, we begin to feel that way," says Dunn, who conducted a study with couples in which she found that people rated their moods much higher than they'd expected after interacting with a stranger, as compared to with their partner. In another study, Dunn simply told participants that in three minutes they would be talking with a stranger — and that anticipation alone boosted people's moods.”
Do a good thing. "If you want to be happy, practice compassion," preaches the Dalai Lama — sure, that's easy to say when you're a bodhisattva. But a UC Riverside study actually found that gestures as small as doing your roommate's dishes or buying a friend dinner can enhance your mood. Participants were asked to carry out five “acts of kindness” every week for six weeks. At the end, the ones who performed all five acts in one day showed significant increases in happiness, Lyubomirsky says.
Shift your social network. Watch out for Debbie Downer, because her negativity can be infectious (seriously — it's called “emotional contagion”). "You're unfortunately stuck with some people — an annoying boss, for example — but you can adjust the mix in other areas of your life so you're around those who boost your mood more," says Christine Padesky, clinical psychologist at mindovermood.com.
It’s no secret that exercising and eating well can make us feel better — what's new is proof that it doesn't take much.
Work it. "A brisk five- to ten-minute walk is all you need to get a mood benefit. No sweat required," says Robert Thayer, professor of psychology at California State University Long Beach. Experts say there are a host of factors at play, including the unleashing of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain; psychologically, it allows for a break from the stress in your life. "You get the best effect from outdoor exercise — and there's not a big difference between sunny and cloudy days," says Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. Another argument for getting out of the gym: "We tend to do a lot of social comparison in that environment and end up more depressed." Plante also discovered that listening to music can maximize the mood-improving capacity of exercise.
Breathe deeply. Exercise that is rhythmic, repetitive, noncompetitive, and involves diaphragmatic breathing (from your belly) yields the biggest mental payoff, says Kate Hays, a sports psychologist in Toronto, Canada. Yoga has the additional benefit of increasing levels of GABA (a neurotransmitter associated with happy, calm feelings) and lowering levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.
Go fishing. "Almost everyone in our society is deficient in fish oil [omega-3 fatty acids], which has powerful effects on brain function and mood," says Andrew Weil, director of the program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona. In fact, omega-3s can have a greater positive effect on mood than prescription antidepressants, according to an independent analysis of studies that were conducted by the American Psychiatric Association. Try to eat oily, cold-water fish three times a week, and take a fish-oil supplement (Weil recommends two or three grams daily). Make sure the supplement contains both EPA and DHA, the two most critical omega-3s, says Joseph Hibbeln, a lipid biochemist and psychiatrist at NIH.
Drink up. It's simple enough: Dehydration makes you lethargic, and water restores energy levels. We're typically most dehydrated when we wake up, so two eight-ounce glasses are a good antidote for morning gloom. A recent study also found that water can make exercise more pleasurable: Subjects who drank water before getting on a treadmill and then every 20 minutes during their workouts reported that their moods rose and remained better afterward.
Set a happy scene
Even your physical surroundings can change your mind.
Create a greenhouse effect. If you foresee a stressful period, buy yourself flowers. In a recent study, 27 women were sent fresh flowers; another group received scented candles. "Within a week, the women who got the flowers reported feeling less anxious, less depressed, more compassionate at home, and more enthusiastic at work," says Nancy Etcoff, director of the Program in Aesthetics and Well-Being at Harvard. She attributes the lift to our innate human attraction to vegetation, once a signal of food and water.
Add background music. "Music can affect the pleasure center of the brain, the same area activated when you have an orgasm," says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychology at McGill University. And the positive effect can last even after the music is over — as long as you're listening to something you like.
Take a whiff. As with music, smelling any scent appeals to you (whether it’s gasoline or Diptyque’s Figuier candle) can improve your mood. The areas of the brain that process olfaction and emotion are linked, so the functioning of one area directly affects the other, explains Rachel Herz, visiting assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School. After we're exposed to a scent for about 20 minutes, we no longer smell it — but the good mood will stick around.