3 Ways to Truly Feel Happier

The formula for happiness is about what not to do as much as what to do.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

Over the 30 years that I have been a psychologist, I have realized that a huge happiness depleting paradox runs rampantly in our culture: Our craving for happiness leads to less of it! In other words, if you truly want to feel happier, it will likely come from already seeing where it exists in your life versus often feeling like you have to go out and get it.

I'd be misguided and grandiose to say I have the exclusive formula for happiness. And not to scare you off from reading the rest of this brief post, but I like to think I "know less" now at 59 years old compared to when I was starting my career in my late 20s. What I mean is that similar to exploring the universe, the more we learn, the more we see there is to learn. 

That all said, I poured over the current happiness literature when writing my recent book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens. I will share here with you, based on my findings, my one Don't and two Do's for you to immediately begin to feel happier:

Don't: Try to Be Happier

Consistent with how I began this post, Shawn Achor, a popular researcher and corporate trainer says, “The biggest misconception of the happiness industry is that happiness is an end, not a means. We think that if we get what we want, then we’ll be happy. But it turns out that our brains actually work in the opposite direction.” In other words, as we strive toward "being happy" as the goal, we forget that what’s really important is the journey. 

The ironic bottom line is that we’re not happy when we’re chasing happiness! We’re happiest when we’re not thinking about it, when we’re enjoying the present moment because we’re lost in a meaningful project, sharing time with someone we care about, working toward a higher goal, or helping someone who needs us.

Do: Embrace Acceptance

I personally use strategies from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to practice acceptance skills. I also use these skills to help my coaching and counseling clients deemphasize control of thought. As much as I believe that we are what we eat, I also believe that we are what we think.

ACT explains that our negative and positive thoughts are “just thoughts,” and they’re not a way to judge how good or bad you are feeling. Instead, people are advised to let their thoughts be and not waste energy trying to change them.

ACT includes a process called defusion and expansion. This is where you experience the troubling thought without reacting to it. The key here is to just accept the thought—that's it—just be with it and don't be about reacting to it. The goal is not to totally ignore your thoughts but to realize that your reactivity, more often than not, is just an exercise in futility.

To further practice acceptance, you can embrace the well-known serenity prayer. I love this prayer as it certainly encourages us to think with acceptance:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

Do: Practice Gratitude

Many studies now show that people who regularly keep a gratitude journal report better physical health, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future. To keep a gratitude journal, set aside time daily to record several things that you are grateful for. I encourage my clients to write three to five gratitudes in their journal either when they wake up or when they go to bed.

I used to keep a gratitude journal, but more recently, to change things up, and keep my gratitude practice feeling "fresh", I started keeping a "Gratitude Jar." It really is a wonderful way for me to feel happier, even on some of my darker days. I write down what I am grateful for on colored Post-it notes, and every so often I reach my hand in and review them. For those more technology-oriented, go to the App Store and search "gratitude" and you will find many user-friendly free and minimal fee-based apps offering innovative, appealing ways to record and track your gratitude.

If you really stop specifically trying to be happier and give yourself the opportunities to practice acceptance and gratitude as a lifestyle, you will enjoy your life more. So don't keep looking at the "happiness scoreboard" while practicing acceptance and gratitude. Just embrace them and be open to their amazing benefits.

Click here for more about Dr. Jeff.


Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)

Achor, S. The Happy Secret to Better Work, https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work