In 2019, I traveled to all 50 states to find out how Americans achieve internal happiness regardless of external circumstances. During my journey, I interviewed more than 500 self-described happy people to learn how they create more joy in their everyday lives and chronicled my journey and learnings in the American Happiness documentary.
We often complicate the notion of happiness, but what I discovered by talking to many people who’ve achieved happiness and good habits was that there are a number of simple tweaks you can make to improve your happiness levels immediately, and build habits that put you on the path to long-term happiness.
The first part of creating more internal happiness is becoming self aware of what’s currently creating it—and on the flip side—what’s draining it. Start with the concrete step of writing a list of the things that bring you joy versus the things that don’t. Key to this exercise is that this list should be things you can control. From there, reflect on how you can manage your time doing more of the things you love while limiting your time on the things that decrease your happiness.
Create a “Words to Live By” list
Often, people think once you achieve a life goal you’ll achieve long-term happiness, but that wasn’t the case for the majority of people I spoke with. For them, happiness was a muscle they needed to continuously exercise and reevaluate. Reaching your goals is great, but many people discover the satisfaction is fleeting. If you look deeper, you’ll find that what we often crave is the emotion associated with the achievement instead of the achievement itself. This insight provides an opportunity to gain more control over your attitude.
Create more positive emotions daily without having to reach some far off achievement by writing down a list of words to live by. For example, how do you want to feel today? Calm? Free? Energized? Happy?
List a handful of words that embody the emotions and experiences you want to be feeling – the feelings you have when you reach a goal. Once you have your list, you can start to shift your activities, thoughts, and content to align with those words. When you’re making a decision on what to do or prioritize, revisit the list to examine if the activity fits in. This helps to create a more positive, purposeful day.
Start your morning on your own terms
Starting your morning on a positive note is one of the most impactful things you can do to develop day-to-day happiness. This doesn’t require hours of your time, but it has the power to transform your day.
Instead of immediately rushing into the day or grabbing your phone to scroll through social media, take a minute to yourself without any distractions to set intentions for the hours ahead. What do you want to achieve, how do you want to achieve it, and with what attitude? Purposefully decide how you want to experience and react to situations instead of being reactive all day. This exercise forces you to be more present and intentional with your actions and emotions.
Follow the sparks
During my journey across the U.S., I learned that roughly 70% of self-identified happy people had made a work or life shift that was seen as a “step back” by family and friends. These “crazy” or “not practical” changes to their lives ultimately catapulted them forward, all because of a spark of excitement or interest they decided to act on. So, instead of ignoring those feelings and your curiosity, explore them. Read an article, watch a documentary, or reach out to a friend who can provide you with more insights. Don’t make excuses on why your vision is not possible, practical or reasonable. Instead, pursue those feelings and see where they take you.
Michelle Wax is the founder of American Happiness Project, a movement across 50 states focused on creating more joy in the everyday.