Happiness just can't be forced. Studies have shown that trying to feel happier in a given moment backfires and can actually make people feel worse. And simply paying attention to one's level of happiness tends to make the glass look half-empty. So how can you gain the many rewards of happiness—which include better health and stronger relationships—without forcing it? Recent findings suggest rather than striving to boost happiness in the moment, a more effective route is to maximize your odds by making a concerted effort to plan your time around activities you think you will enjoy.
In a study reported at the end of 2014 in the journal Emotion, researchers named this concept “prioritizing positivity” and investigated its association with various measures of well-being in 233 adults who had a wide range of ages. Results show that people who followed this approach were more satisfied with life in general, and they reported more frequent positive emotions and fewer depressive symptoms. Those who prioritized positivity with concrete plans and activities also had more psychological and social resources, such as resilience, mindfulness and positive relationships.
“Reflect on the activities that bring you contentment or joy and make time for these events in your daily life,” says study co-author Lahnna I. Catalino, now a professor at Scripps College. “For some people, this could mean regularly setting aside time for gardening and cooking; for others, it could mean making time to connect with good friends.” These kinds of efforts can be difficult for those battling depression, but they are in line with what therapists often advise. Of course, you cannot will yourself into a state of happiness, but you can be fairly certain you will enjoy more days that include the things that bring you pleasure.