So much of the time when we talk about happiness, we talk about it as if it were something to find:

  • Self-help gurus, career coaches, and bloggers alike issue practical advice about “how to find what makes you happy.” A case in point: these “10 tips on how to find happiness in life.”
  • Philosophers debate “the true meaning of happiness,” charting the pathway to finding it.
  • Therapists listen to their clients’ problems in order to help them find greater peace, life fulfillment, and contentment (i.e., happiness).
  • Even our Constitution embraces “the pursuit of happiness”— as if joy and contentment in life were something to be looked for and found.

But what if happiness were less about “finding” and more about “minding”? As the second-century Greek philosopher, Epictetus, once said: “[Human beings] are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

Why Happiness Requires Using Your Head

Those ancient words of wisdom from Epictetus used to show up in my graduate school classes with Dr. Albert Ellis. (Dr. Ellis is widely known to this day as “the grandfather of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” (CBT)— a branch of psychology that focuses on changing the thought patterns that can feed unhealthy or self-defeating behaviors, such as drug or alcohol abuse.)

Epictetus saw long before Ellis’ invention of CBT that how we think about our situation and the circumstances of our life directly relates to how we feel. If we’re feeling miserable and want to change that fact, we may not be able to change the events that happen to us— but we can learn how to think differently about them.

In other words, you may not have to go searching for happiness, because you can use your mind to achieve greater happiness here and now.

3 Mental Exercises to Lift Your Spirits

That’s the liberating implication of new findings by Harvard researchers. They set out to explore whether some simple mental exercises, when practiced, had any impact on the moods of patients in substance abuse treatment. What the researchers found was that three of the mental exercises in particular significantly boosted their subjects’ in-the-moment happiness.

On that note, consider giving one or more of these three quick and easy mood-boosters a try:

1. Reliving Happy Moments

Select a photo of yourself that captures a happy moment or experience from your past. (The event may have happened yesterday or years ago; and the photo can be of literally anything, so long as it is a photo of you— happy.)

Then, take five minutes to reflect on what’s happening in the picture, writing down whatever comes to mind. Maybe you’re hiking with a friend, cheering on your favorite sports team, or traveling to a new country. Maybe you’re laughing with your kids over a silly board game. Spend a few minutes recalling the happy details of that experience.

This exercise yielded the greatest gains in happiness for the participants in the Harvard study, and it may for you as well.

2. Savoring

This exercise, which is even simpler to do, was the second most effective at boosting happiness levels in the Harvard study. Study participants were asked to describe and savor two positive experiences from the preceding day.

You can do the same. Think back on yesterday’s events, and pick two things that you enjoyed, were fulfilling, elicited awe or gratitude, and/or created a sense of connection with another human being. Spend a few minutes simply reflecting on these two experiences—savoring them—and meditating on why they gave you joy.

3. Rose, Thorn, Bud

This exercise was the third most effective at boosting moods in the Harvard study. Participants were asked to list a highlight (“rose”) and a challenge (“thorn”) from the preceding day, followed by a pleasure they anticipated the following day (“bud”).

This exercise may be especially useful for anyone who struggles with catastrophizing. If you find yourself anxiously obsessing about a challenging situation in your life, making it worse than it needs to be, this exercise can provide a more positive and realistic perspective. The outcome: a happier mood.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider giving one of these exercises a whirl. Then let me know how it went, by leaving a comment below. The million-dollar question: Did you feel happier after?

Dr. Beau Nelson

Dr. Beau Nelson

Dr. Beau Nelson heads the Clinical Services and Neurosciences departments at FHE Health, a nationally recognized behavioral health provider treating addiction and mental health conditions. Learn more about FHE Health’s treatment programs here.

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