Earlier in my life, if you had told me that happiness was a choice, I would have told you that you were crazy. After all, no one chooses to experience things like the pain of low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression. But what I’ve come to realize is that happiness isn’t about leading an obstacle-free life — instead, it’s about learning how to change what you focus on and how you react to circumstances, regardless of whether they’re good or bad.
After dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression throughout my life — despite achieving outward success, wealth, and respect — I suffered a devastating breakdown at the age of 36. I can tell you unequivocally that money, success, and accolades aren’t going to make you happy. Happiness is the culmination of all the little actions, choices, and habits that fill your day.
I’ve identified 12 things that will help anyone begin to lead a happier life, especially if they’re added to your life one at a time, in the order in which they’re given:
Step 1: Exercise
Exercise is the single most important thing you can do to improve your life right now. It will begin to make you feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable of handling life’s challenges — also, it will improve your sleep, and it’s a natural antidepressant that will help your attitude and outlook. Simply walking 20 minutes every other day is a great start.
Step 2: Take Charge of Your Mind
If you want your thoughts and attitudes to be positive, you must fill your brain with encouraging ideas. Make motivational books and audio recordings part of your daily ritual. You’ll find that your attitude is improved and that you have learned new tools to eliminate your own self-doubt and self-criticism.
Step 3: Learn to Be Easier on Yourself
Until you give yourself permission to break free of the cycle of self-blame and negativity that causes you to be stuck, demanding perfection from yourself in every situation, you’ll never have a chance to be a truly relaxed, content, and happy person.
Step 4: Play to Your Strengths
We all possess special abilities and unique talents. And if you want to be happy, you need to recognize, use, and share them. Make it a goal to spend more time doing things you enjoy and are good at.
Step 5: Eliminate Stressors
Start by identifying the two or three things that cause you the most stress on a consistent basis, then determine if there are concrete things you can do to lessen or even eliminate the pressure. If you can’t eliminate or change a stressor, such as a job you hate but can’t afford to quit, challenge yourself to handle it differently.
Step 6: Live in the Present
If you’re ruminating on what’s already happened or fretting about what might come to pass, you’re exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by choosing to dwell on things you can’t change or control. In order to practice being in the present, forgive yourself and others for any past wrongs. Also, identify what, exactly, you dread about the future, and then plan how you’d deal with the worst-case scenario. Once you have begun to take control of your past- and future-oriented thoughts, you can truly begin to appreciate the present moment.
Step 7: Spend More Time with Positive People
Gradually, you need to gravitate more toward positive influencers and less toward negative influencers. I know that it’s hard to put distance between yourself and a person who has been a big part of your life, but you’re at a crossroads. Would you rather maintain relationships that are familiar but built on negativity, or would you rather form new ones that will propel your happiness-journey forward?
Step 8: Strengthen Close Relationships
The quality of the relationships you have with the people you are the closest to can make or break the quality of your life. So, starting with your immediate family members and the people you see every day, and then working outward, reach out to the people who are meaningful to you, and tell them how important they are to you — especially your parents, children, and significant other.
Step 9: Be Friendlier
You can’t make others’ pain, stress or grief just magically disappear, but you can help them feel just a little bit lighter and happier on their journey, even if only for five seconds. When you make friendliness a habit, you’ll attract kindness and smiles in return, and you’ll feel great about yourself for making a positive difference in the world.
Step 10: Help Others
Reaching out a helping hand to someone who isn’t as fortunate as you tends to quash selfish impulses and highlight your own blessings. Giving of yourself doesn’t have to involve money, either — remember that your time, talents, and compassion are just as valuable as cash, if not more so. And if you have kids, you’ll be setting a wonderful example for them.
Step 11: Deepen Your Relationship with Your “Higher Power ”
No matter what your specific spiritual beliefs are, seeing and feeling a higher presence in your life will enable you to move away from self-centeredness and focus your energy and concerns on the greater community. It’ll also provide solace and give meaning to unfortunate events and troubling life circumstances.
Step 12: Develop an Attitude of Gratitude
It’s important to be aware of all of your blessings, and to honor and thank those whom you owe for them. Once you start recording your blessings, you’ll be amazed by how long the list of people you have to thank for them is. And the humility that comes from knowing you owe so much to so many others will, in turn, spur you to give back more often to those less fortunate than yourself.
I can tell you from experience that happiness is something that’s largely within your control. No, you’ll never wake up and have the perfect day, with everything going just the way you’d like it to. But you can choose how you respond to life, and I promise that will make all the difference.
Todd Patkin is the author of “Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and — Finally — Let the Sunshine In.”