In my practice, we talk a lot about cultivating the good habits that are foundational to creating a healthy and happy life: wholesome real food, restorative rest, movement, relaxation, protection from toxins and connection. But in the whirl of our fast-paced, over-scheduled lives, there is another element which is often overlooked – and that’s joy. I believe it’s a life-saver!

You can’t calculate optimal joy levels in the by-the-numbers way we measure blood sugar or blood pressure. But that intangible thing called joy – or pleasure, happiness, fulfillment, contentment, call it what you will – is just as important as any concrete number. Why? Because those good-feeling moments of positive human emotion, be they long, short, big or small, can have a powerful impact on our overall wellness. So, how to pack a bit more pleasure into your day and start reaping the health benefits? Try embracing a few of these joy-enhancing concepts and adding them to your repertoire:

Think positive – and feel-good chemicals follow.

Not in a head-in-the-sand kind of way, but in a sensible and thoughtful way. For example, avoid feeding into the kind of unkind chatter that does nobody any good — water cooler gossip, mean-spirited comments, harsh judgments of others. Instead, make your stock-in-trade thoughts and conversations ones that uplift and inspire, that help fill you up with good feeling and loving energy. Doing so will also promote chemical changes in the body that help calm inflammation, boost the immune system by encouraging the release of proenkephalin, dopamine and serotonin, and keep your primary stress hormone cortisol under control – a key player in the development of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Make happiness a habit.

If feeling upbeat and positive isn’t your natural default, it’s still possible to work more happiness into your life. How to do it? Try practicing a few of the classic ‘happy habits,’ which U.K.- based charity Action for Happiness   identified in a survey of 5,000 people as having a consistently positive impact on happiness and well-being:

  1. Giving: do things for others
  2. Relating: connect with people
  3. Exercising: take care of your body
  4. Appreciating: notice the world around you
  5. Trying out: keep learning new things
  6. Direction: have goals to look forward to
  7. Resilience: find ways to bounce back
  8. Emotion: take a positive approach
  9. Acceptance: be comfortable with who you are
  10. Meaning: be part of something bigger

And to this list I would add one more happiness-including habit, and that would be gratitude. In the words of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Wise words, indeed!

Make Space for More Fun

Being an adult is serious business, especially when you are living in serious times. However, that’s all the more reason to make space for – and even schedule – more time for carefree and unselfconscious fun. Fun exists purely for its own sake and has no greater purpose than to connect you to joy. So don’t let your fun flag droop. Not only does having fun allow you to stretch physically and mentally, it lets surprise, curiosity, and creativity flow — while getting rid of stress and triggering the release of feel-good endorphins.

But why do we do so little of that as we age? We get caught up in the belief that responsibility should trump frivolity. I recommend rethinking this and making a weekly fun date a priority, because an hour of fun can do more for your well-being than many a well-intentioned, and browed-furrow, health intervention. A fun date can be as simple as a living-room dance party (by yourself or with others); a wild game of paddle ball on the beach or horseshoes at the park; or a rambunctious game of tag at the playground with your children. It could be seeing a comedy show with friends or corralling them together for a high-energy game night. Or it could be something totally kooky that nobody but you could dream up but that makes you shine from the inside out.

Ironically, unless you program it in your calendar — it’s Sunday morning, time to dance! — your responsible self might conspire to make you forget the commitment to stay in “productive” mode. Overrule that urge by having one or two fun co-conspirators (of any age) in your life and committing to at least one short session per week that serves absolutely no “getting things done” purpose but getting your fun freak on.

More Experiences, Less Stuff

When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, psychology research says that real-life experiences deliver longer-lasting satisfaction than material goods. When people make major purchases, studies show they initially report happiness akin to what’s generated by experiences like travel, concerts, and get-togethers with loved ones. Over time, however, the satisfaction with the object fades, while happiness from experiences increases. That’s because the mind “adapts” to the object and it loses its exciting veneer. You may even start to compare the object to what other people have and find it lacking. Conversely, the recollections of an experience, the tales you tell about it, and the relationships that grow from it, become a meaningful part of the story of your life. And that delivers a deeper satisfaction. Revisiting it through memory or conversation can rekindle happy feelings and boost mood.

Seek and ye shall find.

We are often told to find work that speaks to your soul. It’s an admirable goal, but not every job will meet that criteria. If your work isn’t especially fulfilling, but absolutely necessary to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, pursue purpose in other areas of your life. Those who pursue purpose tend to be among the longest-living and most vital people I know. They stay connected to a personal motivation that guides them as they meet the demands and challenges of life. They feel tethered to a role, an identity, or a set of activities that feel meaningful, to themselves and to their community—and this literally gives them something to live for! Keep in mind, finding personal motivation or purpose is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, and often it’s neither headline-worthy nor flashy. It doesn’t (usually) strike like a bolt of lightning; it tends to grow over time from a commitment to a certain way of being present in life, with all its twists and turns. In other words, take it slow, go with the flow and embrace the journey.

Find joy – and mindfulness – in small moments.

Cultivating personal purpose and, by extension, joy, begins by asking yourself, “What lights me up?” First thing in the morning, take a moment to scan the day ahead. What small moment is likely to result in an experience of happiness or contentment today? It might be the most trivial thing, like dropping your child off at school, taking a walk with a coworker, or picking out some beautiful, fresh greens at the market. Then, when these moments happen, acknowledge how these actions make you feel in both body and mind—grounded, capable, connected to others, appreciated, loving, or beloved. These are all facets of meaning, purpose and, ultimately, happiness! This very simple mindfulness practice will help you to cultivate the seeds of meaning and contentment that will grow and deepen over time. They foster that “lit-up” state of vitality and joy that purposeful people radiate—a cornerstone of health and longevity.

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