My kids’ glee about going back to school—New class! New teachers! New supplies!—makes me happy. And just a little wistful. Come September, I miss that fresh-start feeling. Although raiding the office supply closet likely won’t help, it turns out there are proven tactics that can bring the bliss.
Break out of routine
Just having something different for breakfast, walking to work in a new way, trying a workout at the gym, or otherwise breaking free from your usual routine can give you uplifting perspective on your daily existence.
Stop and smell the rosy shower gel
A whole lot of people seem to operate on one speed these days: rush. One problem with a fast-paced existence is that if you never take time to savor life’s pleasant moments, you’re missing out on a whole lot of joy. In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, 101 men and women recorded whether or not they savored positive activities; those who did had higher levels of happiness. Go on, inhale the pinot grigio, and feel the soft rug beneath your bare feet.
Talk with strangers
The monotony of commuting can be a real buzzkill (taking the bus to school: so much more entertaining). One effective remedy is to strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger. In a study done at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, people headed to work by train either chatted with fellow commuters or didn’t engage. The talkers reported having the most pleasant commute. Psychologists refer to these interactions as “social snacking,” small ways of connecting with other people. Bonus: They’re calorie free!
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Plan for fun
If you fail to plan for happiness, it usually won’t happen; good times don’t just show up on your doorstep like a pizza delivery. As happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener, PhD, founder and managing director of the consulting firm Positive Acorn in Milwaukie, Ore., notes, church devotees don’t say, “Can we reschedule church because something came up?” You need to have that church mentality about whatever it is that gives you pleasure. If your weeks are full, find the next blank spot on your calendar.
Deal with time nibblers
Manage the people who eat into your free time, aka your family. Productivity consultant Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out ($12, amazon.com), suggests announcing to everyone that it’s your time to recharge your batteries. Plan something you enjoy doing and rope in a friend to make sure you use that time for fun.
Have a lunchtime happy meal
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Take a walk in the park
A growing body of research has established a link between nature, feelings of vitality, and generally good mental health. One 2014 study featured in the journal Environmental Science & Technology compared 100 people who moved from the city to more natural settings to those who did the reverse; the rural dwellers were found to be overall happier over the course of three years.
A quick walk on a trail in the morning before you head to the office or cruising the park during a work break will also give you a rush of endorphins. Suddenly, that work deadline won’t seem nearly as bad.
Buy some joy
And by that experts don’t mean a latté or some overpriced accessory. Purchasing experiences maximizes happiness, says Michael Norton, PhD, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending ($13, amazon.com). Studies show that people who forked up for music concerts, a series of crochet lessons, or just a dinner out had more bliss than those who paid for tangible goods.
Think yourself less busy
One of the job hazards of being an adult: the pressure of an endless to-do list. Look at the positives of your workload, encourages Amit Sood, MD, author of the Mayo Handbook For Happiness ($11, amazon.com) and chair of the Mind-Body Initiative at Mayo. Tell yourself, say, I’m glad to help so many people. Or, It’s awesome I can work from home some days. With practice, he says, your gratitude threshold changes and you become automatically grateful for the many little—and larger—gifts that life offers.
Crush the stress
The anxiety over who to sit next to in the school cafeteria when you’re a kid pales next to the stressful realities of grown-up life. For calmer days ask yourself, Will this matter five years from now? Dr. Sood notes that he tries to zoom out of the experience and get a big-picture perspective; if the unpleasant event or situation won’t matter five years from now, he won’t let it mater in the moment.
Relish what makes you rock
So maybe you won’t be scoring Most Valuable Player at the office this year, unlike the glory days of your high-school athletic career. Still, there’s plenty of admirable stuff about you to bask in. It’s a more effective route to joy than trying to fix what’s not, says Willibald Ruch, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich who studies happiness and character strength. A good way to pinpoint your strong suits: fill out the free Values in Action Inventory of Strength Survey, developed by experts; you’ll get a ranked list of your 24 strongest qualities.
Be a kid again
Do something a little silly or fun, recommends Gabrielle Bernstein, author of Add More -ing To Your Life: A Hip Guide to Happiness ($11, amazon.com). Even jumping on your bike for a post-work ride with friends will make you feel more carefree. There you go: that back-to-school buzz, without the homework or tests.
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