America was founded on the right to pursue it. The Dalai Lama says seeking it is our life's purpose. It is in high demand — yet the basis for happiness remains elusive. Psychologists define it as an emotional state that arises in association with positive feelings, such as joy, contentment, and empathy. Biochemists say it's a physical experience created by neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain. While there is no single way to increase your happiness, you can cover your bases by doing things that feed your emotional — and physical — self.
You're probably familiar with some of the feel-good basics: Regular exercise reduces stress and fatigue and boosts well-being by increasing energy, self-confidence, and endorphins (“happy” hormones). And making time to nurture our families and friendships is a must. “If we've learned anything in 50 years of research, it's that happiness is most dependent on the quantity and the quality of social relationships,” says Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Saying you don't have time for your friends is like saying you don't have time to be happy.” Recent research has uncovered more ways to build on these fundamentals. Here are four things you can do right now to take your well-being to the next level.
Reset your brain
“When it comes to brain chemistry, if you don't use it, you lose it,” says Joe Dispenza, DC, author of Evolve Your Brain, (Health Communications, 2007). “When you think differently, you create new circuits in the brain, which creates new patterns in behavior and feeling.” Meditation can open up those circuits and may boost happiness in two ways. First, it cultivates contentment by increasing blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain — the source of the higher-level thinking that enables you to chart your own course instead of just reacting to your environment. Second, it enables you to recognize and minimize thoughts that lead to unhappiness — such as those that center on guilt, blame, judgment, and pessimism — and favor those that foster a more positive state of being.
Reflect and anticipate
It's true that happiness is in the now, but thinking about positive things in the past and those that you anticipate in the future can actually elevate your happiness in the present moment. “Savoring past pleasurable experiences boosts your positive emotions in the present, and positive emotions are the key to happiness,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness (Penguin, 2008). The key is to relish the contentment the event triggered, not rue the fact that the experience is now behind you. And the act of anticipating happy events — such as watching a funny movie — can be equally as uplifting. Recent research has even shown that you don't need to actually laugh to reap the effects: Men who were planning to watch their favorite comedies saw a significant increase in mood-enhancing hormones even before the movie started. If you don't have the time to focus on happy memories during a stressful day, look forward to watching your favorite knee-slapper that night.
Eat dark chocolate
Food does more than fuel your body — it also feeds your brain. There's a reason that carb-laden “comfort foods” make us feel good: Carbohydrates break down into glucose, the brain's primary energy source. They also help the body manufacture serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with contentment. While you certainly don't want to overdo it, indulging a little can give you an extra jolt just when you need one. “Dark chocolate is the perfect brain food,” says Cheryle Hart, MD, author of The Feel-Good Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2008). Sugars fuel the brain, caffeine provides an energy lift, and magnesium helps the body manufacture serotonin. Hart suggests one or two ounces of an organic, high-quality dark-chocolate bar, such as Green & Black's or Dagoba, in the midafternoon, when serotonin typically dips to its lowest level of the day.
Spend money (on someone else)
Whether having more money boosts happiness over the long-term is up for debate. But researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that using your own money on someone else's behalf produces a happiness surge. The researchers gave students either $5 or $20 and told half the students to buy something for themselves and the other half to spend it on someone else. Those who donated their money to charity or bought a gift for a friend reported a significantly bigger increase in well-being. And there was no difference in the uptick in good feelings between those who spent $5 and those who spent $20, suggesting that even small gestures have a big impact.
Counteract the menopause blues
Declining estrogen and progesterone instigate a corresponding drop in serotonin, which can lead to the dip in well-being associated with menopause. To keep your mood from dropping too low, take a two-pronged approach. First, give your body everything it needs to manufacture serotonin by taking the supplements listed in " Mood-Boosting Supplements." And, second, prioritize activities that make you feel your best. “Anything that nurtures your spiritual self, whether it's yoga, meditation, or prayer, boosts your serotonin, as does talking about your problems to a therapist or friend,” says Cheryle Hart, MD. Also, resist the urge to alleviate your angst with shopping sprees. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness (Penguin, 2008), has conducted research that shows that undertaking a rewarding activity — whether it's a hobby, sport, or new friendship — has a much longer effect on your well-being than spending money on yourself. “A new bag offers only a temporary boost, whereas pursuing an activity can provide an upturn each time you do it,” she says.
Brooklyn-based writer Kate Hanley is the founder of msmindbody.com. For her long-term rewarding activity, she's learning how to sew.