Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The 10 Vital Happiness Rules

How to stay happy, regardless of the circumstances.

The most important thing to realise about being happy is that it is “how” not “what.” Things will not make you happy. Affluenza—coined as the dogged pursuit of “more”—is particularly prevalent in Western societies and will often be pursued at the risk of “overload, debt, and anxiety.” An awareness of this behaviour can stop us from falling into its clutches—more does not make people happy and Professor Leper of Stanford University found, paradoxically, too much choice actively makes people unhappy.

Happiness won’t arrive, it has to be cultivated. Only behaviour and its consequences will make you happy. Being happy requires you to work your “how” muscles and to be aware; you need to consciously focus on the good things and not the bad. This is not to bury your head in the sand, some things need to be faced up to, but you need to focus on those things you can have agency over.

To be happy you need to concentrate on the following:

1. Worry only about things you can change. Do as much as you can and then park it. Accept you have done the maximum and then leave it alone. We are not in control of everything!

2. Be proactive, not reactive. If something bothers you, tackle it. Don’t complain about it. Reactivity is a form of passive/aggressive behaviour—you will never resolve anything just go on being annoyed. In this way, you deny your ability to tackle things, which can add to feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Act to change things you don’t like or in turn, forget about them. Resentment or annoyance only affects the person feeling these.

3. Get outside, preferably in nature with trees, flowers, birds, animals—all of these make humans happy. If you can’t, then bring nature to you—a plant or a window box. A view of trees or nature from a hospital bed has been shown to speed up recovery.

4. Contact—we all need human interaction but you must be available for this. If you walk around looking at your shoes, you won’t see when someone nods or smiles at you. Make overtures to other humans—say hello on your walk or comment on the weather—be friendly and this will be returned by most people. Join a group, smile, get involved; care about something or someone.

5. Realise that small things are actually the big things. It is the patchwork of small events and comforts that make up our life. A conversation here, a cup of coffee, a glimpse of a robin, the scent of roses, fresh rain on the grass, a hot bath, a good book, a friendly wave. (Add your own small joys.) These are the fabric of life but to realise their full impact we must acknowledge and recognise this—work your happiness muscles!

6. Belonging. Humans need to belong to something, to feel part of something bigger. This can be your family, a religious group, a volunteer programme, a book group, your friends, your office, your community, your country. Being part of a community is good for us and embeds us in our life and gives us purpose.

7. Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. If you think you have nothing, imagine a hurricane takes everything you have and you are naked and alone. Now recognise that is not the case and that you do have some things. Gratitude for what we have and a recognition of that is good for our mental health and makes us happier. Keeping a gratitude diary for a month, where you note three things to be grateful for at the end of each day, has been shown to improve depression and raise happiness.

8. Limit your exposure to social media and news channels. Too much of either has been shown to raise anxiety levels and reduce happiness. Watch comedies and feel-good films and read books with happy outcomes, play music that makes you happy.

9. Look after yourself. If you put the wrong fuel in your car, it will run badly. If you miss its service or MOT it won’t run well. Humans are the same. Feed yourself well, get enough rest, take regular, moderate exercise, do things or mix with people who make you laugh—think radiators, not drains in terms of who you befriend. Some people are just not a good fit for our personalities and that’s OK but we need to limit our contact with these people.

10. Be kind to yourself and others. Lose that critical voice in your head that tells you off or calls you an idiot. Instead cultivate a nurturing voice, one of encouragement and kindness—the way you would talk to a friend, a beloved pet, or a small child. Recognise that life can be hard and kindness goes a long way towards mitigating that.

None of these will guarantee your happiness. We are living in difficult and turbulent times. However, it is well known that what you pay most attention to, is what you will get. Trying not to do something will mean that you concentrate on the negative—try not to think of a pink elephant and it will occupy your thoughts. Try to diet and you will think of food all day long. Give up drinking and you will long for a glass of wine. However, think of being healthier or adding fruit to your diet or noticing three positive things in your neighbourhood and that’s what you will focus on. Happiness needs attention in order to flourish. Exercise your “how-to” happiness muscles and you will benefit for as long as you choose to invest in this behaviour.


James, Oliver, Vermillion, New Edition (December 2007) Affluenza

Three Gratitude Research Studies: Seligman, Dr Martin E P, Emmons, Dr Robert A and McCullough, Dr Michael E