Surprising Ways to Help Yourself Feel Happier Right Now

Gretchen Rubin
·5 min read
Photo credit: Flashpop - Getty Images
Photo credit: Flashpop - Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

Gretchen Rubin is the bestselling author of several books, such as Outer Order, Inner Calm and The Happiness Project, about how to be happier, healthier, and more productive, and she hosts the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. For OprahMag.com each week, she’s weighing in on how we can all find a little bit of calm, even during a pandemic.

Help! How do I make my environment more cheerful while spending so much time at home during this pandemic?—Kerry Watson, San Francisco

These are challenging times, Kerry.

Often, when I feel overwhelmed and need a lift, my first impulse is to lighten my load. I look for something I can stop doing, a responsibility I can shrug off, or some way to let myself off the hook.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

“I need to take it easy,” I think. “I need to find a way to ask less of myself.”

But as part of my research when I was writing my books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I tried a counter-intuitive strategy—and discovered that I’m often better off if I do just the opposite.

Of course, it’s true that sometimes, I do need to—mindfully—drop certain tasks or responsibilities. But sometimes, instead of asking less of myself, I’m happier when I ask more of myself.

Try it.

For instance, you can give yourself a big shot of energy and cheer by tackling something you’ve been procrastinating about. Make your will. Take your lamp to a repair shop. Get caught up on photo albums. Schedule an overdue medical screening. Organize a Zoom “party” for a friend’s birthday. Mail a care package to a relative you haven’t seen since the coronavirus hit.

Studies show that hitting a goal releases chemicals in the brain that give you pleasure—plus, you’ll have the benefit of accomplishing something that’s important to you. Tackling something we’ve been dreading, but know we need to do, gives a surprising lift. And if you're having trouble sticking to a goal, remember, accountability is key; a 2015 study at the Dominican University of California found that participants were more likely to achieve their goals when they shared them with friends. Also, remember, the task is often easier than we expect—I’ve procrastinated for weeks about writing an email that, when I finally sat down to do it, took me about 45 seconds to write.

If a to-do list isn't just the thing to cheer you up, you might want to consider doing a good deed for someone else. It really works: In fact, research has found that helping others can actually relieve stress—a "helper's high," as it's been called. And there are endless ways to spend energy helping other people without spending a ton of time. Consider making an e-introduction of two people who would benefit from the connection, recommending a service-provider to help that person get more work, calling someone who might be feeling lonely, donating money to a cause you support.

I believe that one of the best ways to make ourselves happier is to make other people happier. Making the effort to be a force for good in the world, no matter how small the good deed, shows us that we’re living up to our values. And that’s a great feeling.

Finally, another surprising way to bring more happiness to your life is to push yourself to grow. “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing or that, but simply growth," John Butler Yeats, Irish artist and the father of Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats, once wrote. "We are happy when we are growing.”

We can create an atmosphere of growth by learning something new (like a new recipe once a week, or learning to play the ukulele), pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone (training for a marathon, trying yoga), teaching something (sign up to be a reading tutor, training your puppy to do some new tricks), or improving something (getting your finances in better order, or updating the communications system for an organization you’re involved in).

I have a friend who wrote a novel while going through a bitter divorce. “It’s a terrible book,” she told me, “and I haven’t worked on it since I got through my break-up. But making progress on something gave me a sense of control and creativity during a tough time.”

It’s true that asking more from ourselves is a demanding way to give ourselves a boost. For me, sometimes the thing that will do the trick is something quick and easy, such as taking a deep whiff of a great smell like grapefruit or cinnamon, taking a quick walk outside, or doing 10 jumping jacks. Another favorite happiness hack? Research confirms the effectiveness of one of the easiest, most popular ways to get a quick jolt of cheer: listening to an upbeat song (my current favorite is Dolly Parton’s “Mule Skinner Blues”).

But to make a more enduring elevation of our frame of mind, asking more of ourselves gives us a deeper and more permanent lift in our spirits.

Have you ever asked more of yourself—and gained a big happiness boost from that sense of accomplishment and growth? Let me know in the comments below.

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