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When you were a kid, happiness was as natural as, well, hugging a warm puppy. You had friends coming over to play. You had sweet bedtime stories. You had new adventures daily, and every goal achieved, whether it was tying your shoes or riding a bike, earned you lavish praise. Sure, you were frustrated or sad at times, but you also had a lot of people invested in maintaining your happiness.
Fast-forward to today. Outings with friends require careful coordination of schedules, the two-wheeler has given way to the killer abs class you squeeze in at lunchtime, and your bedtime reading is work-related. Somewhere you lost touch with that feeling of contentment. But what if the ability to be happy was still within you, waiting to be tapped? "Being truly happy -- carrying a sense of purpose and a measure of optimism and love into each day -- is a state everyone can achieve," says Dan Baker, PhD, the leading authority on the subject and author of What Happy People Know.
The trick is to recondition your mind. To do that, Baker developed this three-step "Get Happy" workout. Do these exercises for just 10 minutes every day, and by the end of the month you'll begin viewing your world in a much more optimistic way.
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"People often focus their minds on negatives," says Baker. "Performing an 'Appreciation Audit' forces you to block out negative emotions and helps you focus on positive feelings."Try the following exercises:
People often put off doing things -- traveling, learning a new skill, going after a better job -- until they feel less stressed and overwhelmed. What they don't realize is that trying new things, pursuing new goals, and having new adventures is what makes happy people happy. "Happiness is a side effect of an action that you take," explains Baker. "Those who aren't content to wait for things to happen have a higher happiness index than people who are passive."
For this exercise, pick one area of your life (such as job performance or a friendship) and focus on improving it. Then ask yourself what you could do today that would make you believe you're one step closer to that goal. What new skill would make you better at your job? Perhaps you can take a seminar to learn how to polish your PowerPoint presentations. Or maybe you have a friend you used to talk to regularly, but now you only e-mail. Find 15 minutes and pick up the phone. "It's not a lot to do," says Baker, "but you'll feel more empowered for having taken this action."
Happy people define themselves in many ways, whether it's as being quick-witted, curious, a strong leader, or generous. These qualities make up who they are at their best. In his book, Authentic Happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD, refers to these personality traits as signature strengths. The more of them you can identify within yourself, the better. "It's like having a diversified psychological portfolio," says Baker. If there's a downturn in one part of your life, your other strengths can help you through the tough times.
To do this exercise, write down the three qualities that make you proudest of yourself, such as your sense of humor, caring, creativity, or spirituality. (Need help? Take the quiz at www.authentichappiness.org to determine all the ways in which you shine.) Then decide how you can put each of these strengths into practice as soon as possible. For instance, if you have a good sense of humor, aim to inject some levity into at least one situation this week. If you're a good listener or advice giver, reach out to a friend in crisis. Using your strengths in this way will give you a sense of accomplishment that you can build on -- and inject contentment and peace into your life every day.
Originally published in FITNESS Magazine, September 2006.