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9 Simple Habits to Make You Happier

Easy ways to spark joy today

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Michelle Gibson / Getty Images
Video: How to Be Happier at Any Age

On any given day, it's easy enough to find things to feel bad about, whether you are contemplating personal woes or the woes of the world, from wildfires to war to divisive politics. We all could use a little more joy.

Luckily, daily opportunities for joy are there for the taking, experts in the art of happier living say.

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“We often view happiness as this kind of passive experience … determined by good things that may happen to us or things that may not happen to us,” says psychologist Scott Glassman, author of A Happier You: A 7-Week Program to Transform Negative Thinking Iinto Positivity & Resilience. But, he adds, we can and should make bliss happen, every day. “Your happiness muscles can atrophy,” Glassman warns, if you don’t use them. 

Here are nine ways to flex those muscles.

1. Greet the dawn

Sunsets are awe-inspiring. But sunrises are special in their own ways, says neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and Aarhus University in Denmark. “One of the things that really brings me joy is to get up before dawn and watch the dawn come,” he says. “Dawn has this magical quality whereby we come to realize that life is cyclical and that things will basically follow the same rhythms, but there will be something new. There will be something joyful.” Getting up with the dawn can also help us get into a rhythm in which we sleep when it’s dark and feel alert when it’s light, improving both sleep and well-being, Kringelbach explains.

2. Go outside and draw something

Spending time in nature, whether you are hiking through a forest or sipping coffee on your patio, is a proven mood booster. If you feel truly connected with nature, the mental health benefits are even greater, research shows. One way to boost that connection is to find something that attracts your eye — a flower, a tree, a hillside — and draw it, Kringelbach says. (If you are at a loss for how to start, he says, you can find excellent drawing tutorials on YouTube.) When you draw, “you really have to look at the shapes in front of you, and you see in a completely different way,” he observes. In the process, “you become engaged in the now.” Photography can provide the same focus, he says, if you know how to carefully compose your image, looking for areas of shadow and light. The key is “to open yourself to experience by allowing yourself to see things for what they are.”

3. Listen to some birds

Just tuning in to birds singing can lift your mood, whether you encounter the birds in your backyard, in a park or even on a recording, studies suggest. Even people who are depressed report feeling better after hearing birds, the studies find. To get a bigger boost from the mourning dove’s coo or the trill of the red-winged blackbird, take a moment to really notice how it makes you feel. You can sample bird songs on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

4. Talk to a stranger

A sense of connection to others boosts happiness, even if we don’t know the people we’re connecting with very well or at all, research reveals. In one famous study, people who went to a coffee shop and made an effort to connect with the barista — with a smile, eye contact and a little chitchat — got a mood boost not experienced by those who just went in and got their java. Bonus: The employee probably experienced an improved mood too.

5. Get an ice cream cone with a friend

A sweet treat, a delicious meal or a perfectly crafted cappuccino can add a little pleasure to your day. But you can increase your sense of elation by sharing the treat, suggests Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast. “Being around other people when we’re engaging in enjoyable activities can make those activities better,” she says. For one thing, we might talk about how much we are enjoying the ice cream or the meal or the coffee drink, enhancing our mutual appreciation. But, Santos says, research shows that just seeing someone else experience pleasure increases our own, even if we don’t say a word about it.


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6. Smell a fresh towel …

… or some cinnamon or a lemon. Gretchen Rubin, author of several books on happiness, including Life in Five Senses, says that engaging your senses is a way to connect anew with the world and spark a little joy. Scents can be particularly evocative, she says. The fact that so many people temporarily lost their sense of smell, or feared losing it, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic may make the comfort of scent even stronger these days, Rubin says. Taking a moment to really smell something “ties us to the present moment and the experience of our bodies,” leaving us more energized and engaged. One of her favorite scents: a hardware store. 

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7. Play a kid’s game … or an adult version

“Something that is crucial to everyday happiness is finding more playmates and play spaces … in which you can let down your guard and where you find yourself laughing a lot,” says Catherine Price, author of The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again. Play isn’t just for kids and doesn’t have to be childish, she says. But Glassman, the psychologist, says that if you struggle to lighten up and have fun, it can help to ask yourself, If I were a child right now, what would I be doing? The answers might include playing a board game, doing some coloring or going to a playground. You might choose the same versions kids do (a rousing game of Apples to Apples or Pictionary, for example) or versions reinvented for adults, such as coloring books featuring complex geometric designs, or playgrounds outfitted with strength-training equipment.

8. Try swing dancing …

… or snowboarding or axe throwing or pickleball. Price says those are among the activities she’s tried alone or with her husband to find fresh sources of fun and bursts of happiness. Trying new things that you are not very good at can be “hilarious,” she says, if you go into them with a carefree attitude. She suggests trying any activity that piques your curiosity. If you don’t come away with a new passion, Price adds, you may at least collect a funny story. Don’t underestimate the power of a good laugh: It can reduce stress and trigger the release of feel-good hormones, studies show.

9. Gaze at a baby, a puppy … or an axolotl

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The axolotl is one of the cutest amphibians.
Paul Starosta / Getty Images

As parents and grandparents know, holding, gazing upon and smelling a baby can trigger feelings of delight. Those sentiments are so hard-wired into human brains that we can get similar bursts of good feeling from interacting with creatures that share babylike traits, such as puppies and kittens, Kringelbach says. “It’s like a lock in a key,” he says. No babies, puppies or kittens in sight? Kringelbach suggests going online and searching for photos of an axolotl (a cute, baby-faced salamander) taken by photographer Tim Flach. The result, he says, should “bring joy to your face.”

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