How can we truly feel happy right now, in this moment when our 401(k)'s and house values are tanking? When our jobs are threatened or already lost? U . S . News posed this question to leading happiness researchers to find out what tools we can employ to stay upbeat in gloomy days. While it's true that some lucky folks are born with sunny dispositions, others, according to the latest studies, can learn to be happy. How? "We need to move away from the concept of trying to fill our days with frequent pleasurable moments and fewer negative moments," explains Todd Kashdan, a professor of positive psychology at George Mason University and author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. "What truly provides satisfaction is having a meaning and purpose in life, which is doubly important in the midst of this current economic nightmare." Ten other secrets:
1. Spend $20 on an experience rather than an item. A February study from San Francisco State University shows that you'll feel more invigorated by doing things than by purchasing things. When researchers asked 154 men and women ages 19 to 50 to recall how they felt after recent purchases using discretionary income, they found that money spent on theater tickets, ski trips, and fine dining brought more pleasure than that spent on designer jeans, diamonds, and the latest cellphone. "Wonderful experiences remind us of the thrill of being alive, whereas purchasing something inevitably leads to comparisons," says Ryan Howell, the author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at SFSU. "You love your 27-inch plasma until you see your friend's 60-inch one."
2. Pursue meaningful life goals. Having life aspirations that you're working to achieve is a major factor in determining happiness, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. Doing things for the sole purpose of improving wealth, gaining fame, or improving your personal appearance, she adds, probably won't do much to enhance life satisfaction because, like new possessions, they bring only temporary joy. Her research has shown that the goals associated with positive feelings are attainable, involve personal growth, and have some intrinsic value. "In today's economy, you probably need to be flexible about your goals and adjust them if need be," she says. An unemployed stockbroker, for example, may find new fulfillment teaching at a business school.
3. Be open and receptive to what's happening right now, in the moment. Even if you're facing massive credit card debt or a balloon mortgage payment that you're not going to be able to make, try to tune in to your situation with a sense of neutral observation. "These are, of course, negative events, and you should expect to have negative thoughts when you go through them," says Kashdan. "But you should also cultivate an open and curious attitude where you direct your attention to what's happening without making judgments on yourself or the situation." Certainly, you need to implement solutions, but when you start to brood—H ow could I have been so careless in my spending? —treat the anxious thought like uncomfortable conversation, thanking your mind for the comment and moving on to other, more pleasant topics like the warm spring weather.
4. Nurture meaningful relationships. They come in especially handy when you can't quiet those disparaging thoughts. "Happy people are open to the idea of sharing their experiences and emotions with others," Kashdan says. In fact, those who report leading meaningful (aka joyful) lives nearly always have meaningful relationships to go along with them. What's more, a study published last year in the British Medical Journal found that surrounding yourself with cheerful individuals can make you feel happier too. "It doesn't matter if you have 3,000 Facebook friends or two close buddies," he adds. "You only need to have that sense of belonging or acceptance." And it's when you're in a crisis that friends often prove how much you really mean to them. "You may be pleasantly surprised to see how many people are there for you when you're not your usual funny, witty, or playful self," Kashdan says.
[Here's how to get yourself infected with happiness.]