How to Be Happier: Follow This 14-Step Daily Formula
NOTE: This is an excerpt from my book The Happy Life Formula, which is all about the science of happiness and how to apply it in our lives to become happier, healthier, and more successful.
Creating a happy life starts by creating happier days.
And creating happier days comes down to the deliberate addition of activities proven to raise our happiness. Simple as that. Happiness is no secret.
The good news is most of those happiness-boosters are immediately effective — they increase your happiness either while you’re doing them, or right afterwards. This means you’ll reap the rewards of increased happiness as soon as you add said activities to your day. By as early as tomorrow, you can start feeling a lot happier.
To make this process of baking happiness into your day as easy as possible, I’ve created the happy day formula — a template for a day that’s optimized for happiness.
The promise is simple: if you follow just a few of the 14 steps outlined here, you’ll experience a happy and fulfilling day. If you follow all 14 steps, you’ll probably pass out from bliss.
Ready? Let’s start in the morning…
A Happy Morning (Steps 1-4)
Let’s say you just woke up. What are the first activities to consider for a happy day?
1. Have Sex First Thing in the Morning
I don’t need to give you any evidence that sex can make you happier. The question is what is the best time of day to have sex?
According to Dr. Michael Breus, often referred to as “the sleep doctor,” the best time for most people is actually in the morning. In an article on medium.com, he writes:
“So, when is the best time for sex? There is no one-size-fits-all answer … For most chronotypes, morning is an excellent time for sexual activity. Morning is when those sex hormones — in particular testosterone — reach their peak for the day, in both men and women. In the 24-hour cycle of the body’s ‘desire rhythm,’ morning is prime time.”
Now, I understand that morning sex isn’t possible, nor convenient or desirable, for everyone. Obviously, you can have a perfectly happy day without morning sex.
Still, if the opportunity presents itself, why not go for the happiness boost along with an afterglow of other benefits, including improved circulation, increased immune function, and better oxygen supply throughout the body?
Daily meditation is massive if you’re trying to become the happiest version of yourself. Benefits range from increased happiness to improved immune function, better mental health, higher stress resilience, improved learning, lowered anxiety, better concentration, and so on.
Meditation literally grows the part of your brain responsible for happiness.
Most research is done on mindfulness meditation, but all types of meditation are beneficial and will raise your level of happiness.
Whether it’s mindfulness or loving-kindness, or walking or dancing meditation, it doesn’t matter. What’s crucial is that you do it every single day so you create a habit of it.
(Check out our beginner’s guide to meditation here.)
3. Move Your Body (Preferably Outside)
I would love to tell you that exercise is highly overrated and not necessary for having a happy day, but I would be lying. If anything, exercise is underrated.
If you want a happy day, exercise will help you get it. And if you find a way to do it in the morning, even better.
Why in the morning? Because exercise floods your brain and body with happiness-boosting chemicals that lift your mood for up to 12 hours. Tom Rath explains Eat Move Sleep:
“When a team of researchers assigned a group of college students to exercise, then tracked their mood the next day, they made a surprising discovery. After just 20 minutes of a moderate-intensity workout, the students were in a much better mood compared with a control group of students who did not exercise. The researchers expected this result based on previous findings. What surprised them was the durability of this increase in mood. Students in the group who exercised continued to feel better throughout the day. They were in a better mood 2, 4, 8, and even 12 hours later.”
The type of exercise — yoga, dancing, jogging, weight lifting, skateboarding — is of secondary importance. If it’s high-intensity, great. If you intrinsically enjoy it, great. If you do it outside, even better.
The key is to move your body early in the day so you fully benefit from the mood-enhancing effects of exercise.
4. Prime Your Mind for Happiness
According to Wikipedia, priming is “an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus (i.e., perceptual pattern) influences the response to another stimulus.”
John Bargh, a social psychologist and expert in all things priming, defines it this way: “Priming refers to the incidental activation of knowledge structures, such as trait concepts and stereotypes, by the current situational context.”
Basically, priming means activating a particular association or representation in your mind, which will then influence your behavior and thinking.
A person getting primed with stereotypical perceptions of old people will tend to walk more slowly. Likewise, a person getting primed for rudeness will tend to behave more rudely, whereas a person getting primed for politeness will behave more politely.
If you’re shown an image of the Apple logo, you’ll become more creative. If you’re a woman and you’re shown a photograph of Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton — two powerful female political figures — you’ll deliver a more confident and empowered speech.
Remember the priming studies in part 1 of the book. Four-year-olds told to think of something that makes them happy outperformed the other kids, completing tasks faster and with fewer errors. Doctors primed for happiness were twice as fast at making the right diagnosis.
The point is everything in your environment is unconsciously priming you at all times. You can either neglect this fact, or you can use it to become happier, healthier, more disciplined, more confident, and generally more successful.
Here are some ideas for priming yourself for a happy day:
- Don’t read the newspaper. Most news is negative — it’s all about war, drama, death, fights, rape, murder, fears, concerns, risks, failures, etc. If you’re reading that stuff, you’re priming yourself for being scared, stressed, pessimistic, and miserable.
- Instead, read an inspiring book. Read a personal growth book or a biography of someone you admire. Reading about a person who’s happy, self-disciplined, motivated, and successful will prime you to become like that person. By exposing yourself to the right kind of literature, you can literally prime yourself for greatness and happiness.
- Replay past successes. Replaying a happy life event or a past success in your mind can prime your mind for more of the same. Think about a day or an event in your past when you were happy and fulfilled, when everything was going your way. Now replay that event in your mind, as if you were rewinding a videotape and playing it back.
- Generate feelings of gratitude. Find a way to feel grateful for all the good things in your life. Maybe write a gratitude journal, or try to remember three things to be grateful for. Whatever works for you. If you’re feeling grateful in the morning, you’re more likely to feel grateful throughout the rest of your day.
- Try a loving-kindness meditation. The goal of meditating on loving-kindness is to generate positive feelings, especially feelings of kindness for yourself and other people. Kindness is one of the best happiness-boosters known to humankind, and if you can prime yourself for kindness in the morning, you’ll be more likely to experience it during the rest of your day.
Get creative with this. There are endless ways in which you can prime yourself for happiness.
A Happy Work Day (Steps 5-12)
Morning’s over, time to go to work!
5. Happify Your Commute
Unless you’re working from home, you’ll commute to work — whether by foot, car, bus, train, or in any other way. For many people, commuting is a dreaded experience and a waste of time.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re creative about it, you can easily use your commute in a way that contributes to your happiness.
One idea is using your commute to practice mindfulness. When walking to the bus stop, train station, or your car, pay attention to the sensations of your legs moving through space or your feet touching the ground. If you’re in a train or bus, put away your phone and observe what’s happening within and around you. Wherever you are on your commute, bring your attention to the moment-to-moment sensory experiences.
This type of informal mindfulness practice can be done anywhere and anytime.
Other ways of using your commute to your advantage include reading books, listening to audiobooks or podcasts, or calling a friend or family member.
Instead of seeing your commute as an obstacle, why not make the best of it?
6. Meet Your Work Colleagues with a Hug (If Appropriate)
Virginia Satir, a highly-accomplished psychotherapist, once famously said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”
That statement is surprisingly accurate. According to research we discussed in part 2, hugging is an excellent friendship, intimacy, and happiness-booster.
If it’s appropriate in your workplace, go ahead and meet your colleagues with a hug every morning.
7. Make Progress on Meaningful Work
Many people falsely equate comfort with happiness. They believe if they could just lay back, relax, and spend their days chilling on a beach, they would be happy.
This is far from the truth. Human beings feel best when they are active, when they are engaged in something they enjoy, and especially when they feel like they are making progress on meaningful work.
Nothing feels as good as making progress — feeling like we are moving forward, feeling like we are getting closer and closer to accomplishing our dreams and aspirations.
This phenomenon is referred to as the progress principle. Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor, found out about it when she analyzed over 12,000 diary entries from over 200 employees in seven companies. Here’s how she explains here findings in her book, appropriately titled The Progress Principle:
“Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
Making progress on meaningful work is the single greatest thing you can do to boost your mood and motivation.
It’s as simple as this: If you’re making progress on meaningful goals, you’re motivated and happy. If you’re experiencing setbacks on meaningful goals, you’re discouraged and miserable.
A happy day requires progress. You can’t just goof around all day long and expect to feel great for wasting your time. If you want happiness, you need to create a sense of accomplishment by working hard and actually getting important things done.
8. Use Your Signature Strengths
Ever notice how doing something you’re good at makes you feel confident, powerful, in control, and happy? Or how doing something you suck at makes you feel insecure, powerless, and inferior?
That’s natural. We tend to feel good doing what we’re good at; we tend to feel bad doing what we’re bad at.
This is another principle we want to keep in mind as we go about our work days. We want to use our strengths as often as possible to ignite feelings of confidence and happiness. More precisely, we want to use our best skills and our signature character strengths we learned about in part 2.
To feel as happy on your job as possible, you need to find ways to use your strengths. The more you use them, the happier you’ll become.
If you haven’t done so yet, head over here and fill out the 15-minute survey to discover your signature strengths.
Once you know them, reflect on ways you can use them at work. Here are some examples:
- If you identify self-control as a strength, you may try to work with as much discipline as possible. Block distracting websites. Don’t check emails all the time. Get as much meaningful work done as possible.
- If one of your strengths is love, surprise your coworkers with small gifts that show how much you care about them (e.g., a flower or a cup of coffee).
- If you claim curiosity as a strength, find a person who shares your area of interest and learn how she increases her expertise in that area. Set up weekly lunches to discuss this interest.
- If one of your signature strengths is creativity, do some of your assignments in different and creative manners. If your work doesn’t leave much room for creativity, ask your boss if you can relocate your work in new and different environments.
- If perseverance (think persistence, industriousness) is a strength for you, set yourself weekly goals and do your best to meet them.
The more you use your natural strengths in work and life, the happier you will become.
9. Frame Your Job in Happy Ways
Depending on how you currently view your job, it may be a massive source of happiness or a source of misery. If the latter is the case and you dread going to work every day, you have two choices:
- Quit your job and find one that suits you better.
- Reframe the meaning you attribute to your job.
If you opt for option one, make sure you look for a job that suits your signature strengths. Look for something that excites and fulfills you, not just something that pays you well.
Option two is the easier one. It’s called job crafting and is all about viewing your job as electing a cathedral for the glory of God instead of merely laying bricks.
You can craft your job in three distinct ways:
1) Task Crafting. This involves taking on more or fewer tasks, expanding or diminishing the scope of tasks, and changing the way tasks are performed.
To perform task crafting, ask yourself the following questions: What tasks can you add into your working day that you find meaningful? What tasks can you outsource or substitute that you don’t find meaningful? How can you redesign unwanted tasks by adding new techniques or technologies that help you craft your work to become more in line with your strengths and interests?
2) Relational Crafting. This is about reframing your social relationships at work by changing the extent or nature of your interaction with others.
To perform relational crafting, ask yourself, what’s the purpose of interacting with each other? What can I do to improve other people’s lives? How can I be more helpful? How can I be of service to this person or that person?
3) Cognitive Crafting. This involves changing the way you think about your job by changing how you perceive tasks, or viewing them as part of a collective whole, rather than a separate job.
To perform cognitive crafting, ask yourself how you’re making the world a better place through your work. How are you contributing to humanity? How are you improving people’s lives? What’s the bigger meaning of what you’re doing?
You spend so much of your time at work; please make sure you view it as meaningful.
10. Sprinkle in Some Random Acts of Kindness
Bestselling author Ryan Holiday once said, “Here is how to guarantee you have a good day: do good things.”
As we’ve learned in part 2, acts of kindness are incredibly beneficial for our well-being. Sonja Luybomirsky explains in an interview that almost any act of kindness is good for us.
“We have found that almost any types of acts of kindness boost happiness. And two hot-off-the-presses studies reveal even bigger benefits. An experiment we just published in PLOS ONE showed that when 9- to 11-year old kids were asked to do acts of kindness for several weeks, not only did they get happier over time but they became more popular with their peers.”
Being kind makes you happier and more popular. And it gets better.
“And another big intervention we just finished at a company in Spain showed that asking some employees to be generous to a randomly chosen list of colleagues (we called this our “Secret Santa” manipulation) produced huge benefits (for increasing happiness, connectedness, flow, and decreasing depression) not just for the givers, but for the receivers and even for observers. The recipients of kindness “paid the kind acts forward” and even acquaintances of the givers became happier and were inspired to act more generously themselves.”
If you want happiness for yourself, do a nice deed for someone else. Here are some ideas on how to sprinkle in some random acts of kindness into your workday:
- Bring your coworker a cup of coffee when he looks like he needs a pick-me-up;
- Remember people’s birthdays and bring them a small gift;
- Support someone else’s idea like you’re his or her cheerleader;
- Welcome and get to know new employees;
- Offer to help your coworker with a task she doesn’t enjoy;
- Take a pic of a coworker and give it to her so her family can see her on the job.
Small, seemingly irrelevant gestures are all it takes.
11. Spend Lunch Talking About Stuff that Matters
A study concluded that “happy people are socially engaged with others, and this engagement entails matters of substance.”
This gives us a description for a happy lunch break: spend time with others, and if possible, talk about stuff that matters. You’ll get to know your coworkers better, build stronger friendships, and you’ll feel happier too.
Bonus points if you find time for a quick walk outside or a short exercise session.
12. Use Your Breaks Wisely
If you want to have a truly happy day, maybe don’t waste your breaks by checking social media or reading about the latest catastrophic event on your news app — both of these have been shown to lower happiness.
Instead, use your breaks for some happiness-boosting activities. Here are some ideas:
- Go for a quick walk outside
- Do some stretching
- Chat up a coworker
- Call your mother
- Send a positive message to a friend
- Find something kind to do for a coworker
- Read some articles you’ve saved on Pocket or Instapaper
- Take a nap
Go for a coffee run for the whole office
If you’re creative, you can come up with endless ideas to use your breaks proactively. The key is to be deliberate about it and have some kind of plan.
Without a plan, you’ll do what’s easiest, and that’s rarely something that contributes to making you happy.
A Happy Evening
It’s around five or six p.m. and you’re done with work. You’ve got another four to six hours remaining in your day. What’s next?
13. After Work, It’s Time for Socializing, Movement, Exercise, and Flow
After a hard day’s work, it’s time for leisure — an excellent opportunity to generate some more happiness.
The key to using your leisure time in a happiness-supporting way is to be active, not passive.
Remember that comfort doesn’t equal happiness. The latter takes effort. I know, you’d rather go home and watch TV than engage in any activity that takes even the tiniest amount of effort.
But you know how it works: Even though you may not feel like going to the gym, the yoga or dance class, the library, the park, or your karate training, once you’ve overcome the initial resistance, you start feeling better and end up being proud and happy for following through with your plan.
If you’re honest with yourself, you know that spending quality time with your family or friends, working out, or reading a book will make you happier than passing out in front of the TV or laptop.
The fact is research has shown that the average state of someone watching TV is mildly depressed.
Now, I am not saying you should never watch TV ever again in your entire life. Watching 30-60 minutes per day is probably fine, especially if it’s in a social context. However, mindlessly watching TV for hours and hours on end is a terrible idea — and you know it.
Since watching TV (or playing video games, or frittering away on social media) is clearly not a great option, what else are you supposed to do?
I suggest choosing activities that fit into at least one of the following three buckets:
- Social activities. We are social beings. Healthy relationships and time with other people are paramount to our happiness. Remember the results of a study we discussed in part 2: Happy people have thriving social lives. Without a doubt, spending your leisure time socializing in one way or another will make you happier. After work, you may go for a drink with some coworkers, meet an old friend for coffee, join a weekly yoga/dance/cooking class, spend quality time with your family, or visit your (grand)parents.
- Flow activities. Flow doesn’t just make you happy — it’s one of the healthiest states you can be in, period. The experience gets triggered in different circumstances for all of us. You may experience it while practicing a sport you enjoy, reading a captivating book, spending time in nature, playing certain games, practicing yoga, meditating, or anything else. Figure out what makes you flow and give some of your leisure time to it.
- Exercise and movement. If you haven’t had the chance to exercise yet, post-work is the time. You can go for an extended walk in a nearby forest or park, play a sport with a friend, hit the gym, do a home workout, go jogging, or practice your favorite yoga poses.
The idea is to use your leisure time in a deliberate way for activities that make you happy. Socializing, flow, and exercise are really just three of many possibilities.
Keep in mind that your post-work activities will likely differ from day to day.
On Monday, you may hit the gym, grab a beer with an old friend, join your family for dinner, have some playtime with your kids, and then go to bed.
On Tuesday, you may go for a long walk with your spouse, play some video games (hey, if that puts you into flow, go ahead), have dinner with the family, read a book, and head to bed.
On Wednesday, you may play some tennis with a friend and then go out for dinner.
On Thursday, you may watch your favorite show on TV and then read a book until it’s time for bed.
The point is you want to fill up your leisure time with activities that make you happy. Yes, these activities take more effort than just heading home and watching TV, but they’re also a lot healthier and will make you a lot happier.
You need to be proactive about it. I told you that becoming happier takes effort, didn’t I?
A Happy Bedtime
Alright, the day is over. Time for a quick evening routine before you hit the sack.
Step 14: Journaling
Five to 10 minutes of journaling before bed is a great way to end your day on a high.
What you write about is up to you, but I suggest incorporating the following two science-based exercises into your practice:
- Write down three things that went well for you that day and briefly explain why they happened. The items you jot down can vary from the extraordinary (your sister gave birth to a child) to the mundane (you met a friend in the bus on your way at work).
- Write down three to five things you’re grateful for. The things on your list can be relatively large in importance (your child taking their first steps) or relatively small (the sun was shining on your walk). It helps if you really try to feel the emotion of gratitude, instead of just jotting down a few things as fast as possible. It also helps to be specific, instead of generic and superficial.
These practices have been empirically proven to make people happier, so give them a try.
Putting it All Together
Happy days can take all kinds of forms, shapes, and colors.
One day makes you happy because you achieved progress on an exciting new work project. Another day makes you happy because you experienced flow while playing squash with a friend. Another makes you happy because you created a stronger bond with your spouse and kids. Another makes you happy because you’re in awe of the beautiful natural landscape of the Grand Canyon. Another makes you happy because you experienced a profound feeling of kindness during meditation. Another makes you happy because a stranger smiled at you on your commute. Another makes you happy because you volunteered to help disaster victims and are flooded with gratitude from the people you helped.
There is no one perfect day for happiness. Sometimes, you may use countless strategies from this book and still feel miserable. Other times, the tiniest things can create incredible bouts of happiness seemingly out of nowhere.
We don’t have control over that. All we can do is create our lives around a set of activities and circumstances that we know are proven to tip the balance toward happiness.
This way, we increase the odds of experiencing a truly satisfying day. It may not work every time, but over the long-run, it will surely make us a lot happier.
That being said, here’s what a typical day optimized for happiness could look like:
You start off with 10 minutes of meditation followed by a 20-minute morning workout. Then you mindfully eat your breakfast, trying to really savor the taste of your food and smell of your cup of morning Joe. Under the shower, you keep the mindfulness momentum going, trying to feel every drop of water as it’s hitting your skin. On your way to work, you listen to an audiobook that explains more about happiness-related concepts such as optimism, hope, and signature strengths.
At work, you greet your colleagues with a smile before heading full-on into the hardest task of your day. You fiercely concentrate on the task at hand, get fully absorbed in it, experience flow, and make great progress. Ah, that feels great! You can literally feel the Progress Principle working in your favor, and you’re excited about getting closer to finishing your project.
After two hours of focused work, you decide to go for a quick walk to get your blood flowing and catch some sunshine. On your way back to the office, you stop by a coffee shop to surprise Fiona with her favorite type of coffee. She’s positively surprised and thanks you for “making her day!” After five minutes of catching up with her, you head back to your office.
For lunch, you grab some Chinese food and head to the nearby park to meet Karen. She’s a good friend of yours, and the two of you try to meet at least once every two weeks. You are both into architecture and the conversation starts to flow immediately. It’s obvious you two are completely in your element and enjoying every second together. Energized from this riveting conversation, you head back to the office.
After a productive but exhausting afternoon, you are excited to head home where you meet your spouse, kids, and pet. You talk about the day’s happenings with your spouse before having dinner with the whole family. After dinner, some of your coworkers come over for a round of poker and some beer.
It’s been a lovely evening. Before bed, you take out your journal and write about all the cool stuff you experienced throughout the day — how you made great progress on your project, brought Fiona coffee, enjoyed a great conversation with Karen, and had a blast of an evening with your buddies. Feeling grateful about all of that, you turn off the lights and fall asleep in no time.
I’ve made it sound a bit corny, but I’m sure you’d agree that this sounds like a pretty happy day.
The elements making this day so pleasant are meditation, exercise, mindfulness, productivity, making progress on meaningful work, lots of positive social interactions, the use of signature strengths, proactivity, planned leisure activities, journaling, and more.
What this sample day shows well is that happiness doesn’t happen by itself.
It’s not a walk in the park. Instead, it takes deliberate effort, planning, and discipline on your part. In this case, you needed effort, planning, and discipline for the morning ritual, making progress on important work, meeting Karen for lunch, planning the evening with your buddies, and so on.
Creating happy days isn’t easy, but it’s well worth it.
Is This Realistic?
You may be skeptical right now.
This sample day sounded a bit too perfect. The daily structure is too rigid. The 14 steps are too hard to pull off. You certainly don’t want to exercise every day, let alone plan exhausting leisure activities from Monday to Friday. Besides that, you’re just not the meditation-type person.
Before we move on, I’d like to address this skepticism by saying two things:
First, you really don’t need to follow all the 14 steps. You don’t need to meditate or exercise regularly to be happy. Even if you follow just two or three of the recommended steps, you will be significantly happier than most people. Pick what you like and focus on that.
Second, we don’t possess enough willpower to pull of all 14 steps on a regular basis. We may skip the morning meditation, sleep on our commute, or feel too tired to do anything worthwhile after work. That’s okay. As long as we give it our best, our willpower will continue to grow. Someday, maybe one or two or 10 years in the future, we’ll have the necessary willpower to pull of all the 14 steps of the happy day formula on a regular basis.
As of right now, the happy day formula isn’t realistic for most of us. Our job, over the years and decades to come, it to make it realistic.
If we keep doing our best and keep working on ourselves, we’ll eventually get there. And once we do, we’ll be rewarded with levels of happiness beyond what we can imagine right now.
Thanks for Reading
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