Life in the 2020s has been rough, with waves of COVID-19 and other world-disrupting crises coming one after another. We all could use a little cheer right now.
Luckily, daily opportunities for joy are there for the taking, experts in the art of happier living say.
“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 into 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.
Join today and save 43% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Here are eight ways to flex those muscles.
1. Greet the dawn
Sunsets are awe-inspiring. But sunrises are special in additional 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. “I think 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 with 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. Talk to a stranger
A sense of connection to others boosts happiness, even if we don’t know the people whom we are 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 employees probably experienced a mood improvement, too.
4. 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 get a bigger 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.
5. Smell a fresh towel…
… or some cinnamon or a lemon. Gretchen Rubin, author of several books on happiness, 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.
6. 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 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 (say, 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.
7. Try swing dancing …
… or snowboarding or axe-throwing. 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.
8. Gaze at a baby, a puppy … or an axolotl
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? Kringlebach 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.”
Kim Painter is a contributing writer who specializes in health and psychology. She frequently writes for AARP's Staying Sharp and previously worked as a health reporter and columnist at USA Today.