The pursuit of happiness may feel futile at times, especially as we've watched our 401(k)s and house values tank. How can we truly feel happy when life gets tough? U.S. News posed this question to leading happiness researchers to find out what strategies we can employ to stay upbeat. While it's true that some lucky folks are born with sunny dispositions, others, according to a growing body of research, 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 in Fairfax, Va., 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." Here are 13 other secrets:
1. Spend $20 on an experience rather than an item. A 2009 study from San Francisco State University backs this up: 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 dollars 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 probably won't do much to enhance life satisfaction because, like new possessions, they bring only temporary joy, she adds. 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 to what's happening right now, in the moment. Even if you're facing massive credit card debt or a mortgage payment you're not going to be able to make, try to examine 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—How 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.
4. Nurture meaningful relationships. They come in especially handy when you can't quiet those negative 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 in 2008 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 says. "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 matter 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.
5. Recognize your strengths. In tough times, we get to test our mettle and see what we're made of, says Kashdan. The bestselling book Man's Search for Meaning, written by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl more than 50 years ago, has seen a recent spike in sales as people search for ways to draw on their inner strength after losing their jobs, homes, and health insurance. As Frankl writes, "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
6. Count your blessings. We all hate to hear, "Well, at least you have your health," when times are tough—especially if those words come from those who are financially secure. Being grateful, though, has been shown to improve happiness, says Lyubomirsky. The key to conjuring those feelings may lie in spending time with others who are less fortunate. Visit a cancer ward at a local hospital, or volunteer at a soup kitchen for an afternoon. Stop for a moment to chat with the homeless fellow you pass every day on the sidewalk.
7. Keep an optimism journal. It may sound corny, but evidence suggests this can actually improve your outlook on life. In one study, Lyubomirsky asked volunteers to spend 10 minutes a week writing about their dreams for the future and how to achieve them. She then measured an increase in their optimism levels two months later. When she checked in with them again after six months, she found that they were still happier, even if they had given up their journaling. "Of course, I would encourage you to journal a little every day," Lyubomirsky says. "It's like diet and exercise; you get out of it the effort that you put into it." You can start simple. "Every time something bad happens, think of one positive side to it," she suggests. "It's really hard at first, but then it gets easier."
8. Seek advice from your neighbor. It may be more informative than your own best predictions about what will make you happy. That's according to 2009 research published in the journal Science, which found that women made more accurate forecasts about how much they would enjoy a five-minute speed date when they read about another woman's experience with the man rather than seeing his photo and reading his profile. So if you're trying to determine the restaurant where you're going to spend that $20, rely on a friend's or food critic's recommendation rather than the menu you see posted in the window, says study author Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.
9. Get out and sweat. When you're feeling down in the dumps, there's no better pick-me-up than exercise. Studies indicate that burning off 350 calories three times a week in sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants. That's most likely because exercise increases the production of "feel good" brain chemicals like endorphins and proteins that improve connections between brain nerve cells.
10. Do unto others. Practicing acts of kindness has been shown to enhance well-being. When Lyubomirsky and her colleagues conducted an experiment in which individuals were asked to perform five considerate acts on a particular weekday—like donating blood or feeding a friend's pet—the study participants reported higher levels of pleasure than members of a control group who did no such acts. "These little acts give you a sense of purpose beyond money that you've earned," says Kashdan. And generosity doesn't have to be a one-way street: Neighbors can find ways to connect by trading favors. A psychologist, for example, can offer some counseling in exchange for handyman work around the house. "These acts of kindness are occurring all the time and remind us that we live in a benevolent society," Kashdan adds. "We saw it happen after 9/11, and we're seeing it again with the economic crisis."
11. Meditate. Research suggests that meditation promotes brain changes that may boost happiness, reduce stress, and make you nicer to others. In one study published in 2011 in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, researchers analyzed the brain scans of 16 people before and after they embarked on eight weeks of meditation. After completing the course, brain regions associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, while areas associated with stress shrank. Spending half an hour meditating or breathing deeply by yourself each morning could prove helpful.
12. Have in-depth conversations. Skip the small talk and engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations. A study published in 2010 in Psychological Science found that compared to unhappy folks, happy people have about twice as many substantive conversations and only about a third as many trivial ones. In fact, the study's happiest participants said that 46 percent of their total conversations were meaningful.
13. Turn up the tunes. Music activates brain regions that release the feel-good chemical dopamine, research suggests. It also relaxes the body. In one study, for example, patients who listened to music while undergoing a colonoscopy had reduced anxiety levels and needed a smaller dosage of sedatives than those who went music-free.
Updated on 3/8/2012: This story was originally published on April 22, 2009. It has been updated.