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Munch on nuts, clear clutter — and turn that frown upside down
Add a few of these instant get-happy tricks to your arsenal, so you can whip them out whenever you need a burst of bliss. Experts say you won't find true joy in a paycheck or miracle wrinkle-remover. According to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, of the University of California, Riverside, life circumstances account for only 10 percent of happiness. Half depends on our genetic "set point," which is kind of like the weight our body bounces back to after that crash diet. And about 40 percent of our happiness is influenced by what we do deliberately to make ourselves happy.
Next time you need to turn around a hellish day at work or brighten up a draggy afternoon, try one of these proven tips to lift your mood and make you smile.
1. Flip through old photos When you're feeling down, break out your kids' baby albums or pics from your favorite vacation. It may actually make you feel happier than a square of Godiva chocolate would! That's what researchers at the United Kingdom's Open University found after they examined how much people's moods rose after eating a chocolate snack, sipping an alcoholic drink, watching TV, listening to music, or looking at personal photos. The music and chocolate left most people's moods unchanged; alcohol and TV gave a slight lift (1 percent), but the winner by a long shot was viewing pictures, which made people feel 11 percent better. To keep your spirits high at work, upload your favorite pics to your computer and set them as a rotating screensaver. Or splurge on a frame that flips through digital photos; amazon.com has plenty of options at a wide range of prices.
2. Munch on nuts For a mood-lifting snack, stash walnuts in your desk drawer. Or sneak salmon into your salad for lunch. They're both packed with omega-3 fats, which may make people less prone to depression — and easier to get along with, say researchers from the University of Pittsburgh. They measured the blood levels of omega-3 fats (a reliable indicator of consumption) of 106 healthy adults and gave them psychological tests. Those with the highest omega-3 blood levels scored 49 percent to 58 percent better on the tests than those with the lowest blood levels.
3. Inhale a calming scent Fill your office with a fragrant candle or diffuser to calm down during a deadline-packed day. In an Austrian study, researchers wafted the smell of oranges before some participants and lavender before others. The two groups felt less anxious, more positive, and calmer when compared with participants who were exposed no fragrance at all. Add a few drops of either oil to a room diffuser (we like the Scentball, available at amazon.com) and use in your office on stressful days.
. 4. Open your shades To feel happier in seconds, let the sunlight stream in when you first wake up. One study of more than 450 women found that those who got the most light, particularly in the morning, reported better moods and sleep. Got more time? Eat breakfast near a window that gets plenty of daylight, and put exercise equipment near a bright view. Some researchers speculate that combining exercise with morning light exposure may amplify light's beneficial effects on mood, sleep, and alertness, says Anthony Levitt, MD, a University of Toronto light researcher.
5. Walk around the block If you work in a windowless office, make sure you step out to see the sun a few times throughout the day. "A couple of studies show that people who get more light exposure during the day have fewer sleep problems and less depression, and evidence suggests that light can keep you alert and productive," says Daniel Kripke, MD, a University of California, San Diego, light and sleep expert. If you have more time, a longer bout of exercise may also spark a smile. "Lots of people skip working out when their moods aren't ideal because they don't have the mental energy to switch gears," says mental health and exercise expert Jack Raglin, PhD, of Indiana University. "But the trick lies in finding the right workout to match the mood you're in." When you're battling blues, try something low-key and mindless. "Studies have shown that even mild exercise — about 40 percent of your max heart rate — can lift your mood," says Raglin. "So if you're not up for the usual high-energy stuff, do some leisure activity you enjoy, such as digging in your garden or walking in a park. View it as mental recreation, not exercise." If you're angry, pick something that makes you focus. "As tempting as it may be, skip the kickboxing," Raglin advises. "You can't punch away anger. Instead, do something that involves your mind and keeps you from focusing and ruminating on what has you angry. Play racquetball, or take an aerobics class you've never tried. Learning new moves will free your mind from what's upsetting you."
6. Clear away clutter Disorganized heaps of paper in your cube or on the kitchen counter can make you anxious. For some, "clutter is a reminder of things that should be getting done but aren't," says Elaine Aron, PhD, author of "The Highly Sensitive Person." "It can make you feel like a failure." For a quick fix, straighten up a few surfaces in your office or in the areas of the house where you spend the most time. "It's when every bit of space is messy that it's most disturbing," says Aron. Don't bother to organize unless you have a chunk of time. Instead, arrange papers, books, and other detritus of daily living in neat piles or store them in baskets. "Just the illusion of order is enough to ease the mind," she says.
7. Think fast Turn your thoughts into a race — it can lift the blues in minutes, says Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin, PhD. For example, when your mother-in-law is driving you crazy, give yourself 30 seconds to make a list of all the ways she's been helpful to you in the past — you'll feel better fast. (If nothing nice comes to mind, quickly jot down other ways she bugs you; speed thinking negative thoughts can still improve your mood, Pronin found.) Researchers believe that rapid thinking may release feel-good brain chemicals — or it could just be a helpful distraction.
8. Cue up YouTube A hearty laugh produces a chemical reaction that instantly elevates your mood, reduces pain and stress, and boosts immunity, studies show. Stanford University researchers literally saw this on fMRI scans, where they traced changes in brain activity to a region called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), which rewards behaviors such as eating and sex (and laughing) by releasing dopamine, a natural opiate. When stress builds up or you feel as though you may snap at any minute, make yourself giggle: Watch a funny video clip online, or stop by the office of a wisecracking pal for a quick chat. Also, keep an eye out for the unexpectedly silly side of daily life to combat negative thoughts. "At the end of a recent worry-filled day, I turned on a news channel that referred to its meteorologists as the Weather Team That Tells the Truth," says Thomas Crook, PhD, a clinical psychologist and former research program director at the National Institute of Mental Health. "I thought the implication that other weather teams lie was hilarious. I laughed and immediately felt my worries melt away."
9. Rethink your retail therapy Before you plunk down that credit card at the mall to feel better, read this. To get more happiness for your dollar, splurge for experiences instead of stuff. Psychologist Miriam Tatzel, PhD, of Empire State College surveyed 329 shoppers and found that "experiencers" — consumers who are easygoing about spending on a great meal out or a concert, for example — are happier than those who lavish their money on material goods such as clothes or jewelry. Added bonus: Experiences allow you to spend quality time with family and friends; a new pair of shoes is a solo endeavor.
10. Put on a happy face There's good evidence that just smiling and looking like you're happy will make you sunnier. Studies show that even muscular changes in your face can elevate your happiness, as can good posture, says Lyubomirsky. Call it the blush effect: To apply blush to your cheekbones properly, you need to smile. Smiling works, she says, because "if you act like you're a happier person, you can experience all these positive social consequences. You make more friends. People are nicer to you. And these things can have real consequences."
11. Zone out Rest, peace, quiet, and solitude can also create joy. Some research suggests that we may have an inborn need to zone out once in a while. In an exploratory study, researchers observed three babies who turned away or blocked their eyes in response to overstimulation. Mothers who recognized this behavior and gave their children needed downtime had happier, easier babies. Give yourself a time-out during a hectic day: Push your chair away from your desk, kick up your feet, and close your eyes. Think about something that takes your mind off the daily grind, like fun plans for the weekend.
12. Chat up a friendly neighbor Socializing with a cheerful person in your neighborhood increases the likelihood that you'll be happy too. Surprisingly, this had even more of a mood- boosting impact than spending time with an upbeat sibling, according to a recent study. How often you get together matters most, say the researchers: People who live within half a mile of buoyant friends increase their odds of being happy by 42 percent. If your friends live farther away (within a 2-mile radius), the chances drop to 22 percent — probably due to fewer get- togethers. Other research found that "very happy" people visit with neighbors 7 more times a year than unhappy people.
13. Chop veggies It's a favorite unwinding technique of Andrew Weil, MD, a Prevention adviser and leading integrative medicine expert. After a particularly emotional and stressful day during his residency, Weil went straight to the supermarket. "I bought ingredients and spent several hours cooking in the kitchen. There was something about chopping vegetables, making order, creating something wonderful — that whole process neutralized my negative mental state," he says. On the menu: soup, vegetable lasagna, and poached salmon. Weil still uses the method — along with exercise, yoga, and meditation — today. "I still like to cook; it's a very satisfying feeling."
14. Do a good deed People who volunteer are likelier to be happier than those who don't — regardless of how much money they make or other socioeconomic factors. Pitching in for a regular cause in your community is ideal, but you can make a difference in other ways in mere minutes. Researchers believe volunteering boosts happiness because it increases empathy, which makes you appreciate all the good stuff in your own life.