So much of the time when we talk about mood boosters, 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.”
Philosophers debate “the true meaning of happiness,” charting the pathway to finding it.
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.”
Epictetus saw 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.
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. Perhaps you’re laughing with your kids over a silly board game. Spend a few minutes recalling the happy details of that experience.
This mood booster yielded the most significant gains in happiness for the participants in the Harvard study, and it may work for you as well.
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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. Do you find yourself anxiously obsessing about a challenging situation in your life? Or making it worse than it needs to be? This exercise can provide a more positive and realistic perspective.
The outcome? A happier mood.