If anyone knows the secret to happiness, it’s surely the people who have dedicated their careers to studying it. The first thing they’ll tell you? Being happy all the time isn’t a feasible—or even desirable—goal.
“It’s not a yellow smiley face,” says positive psychology expert Stella Grizont, founder and CEO of Woopaah, which focuses on workplace wellbeing. “It’s being true to yourself and all the emotions that come up.” Instead of trying to force that frown upside down, true happiness stems from surrounding yourself with lots of love, being of service, and having a good time, she says.
Grizont was among 18 leading happiness experts surveyed by TIME about their daily habits, and the professional insights they’re most likely to apply to their personal lives. The results are illuminating—and could help all of us boost our mood and wellbeing.
The meaning of happiness is, to an extent, subjective. But nearly every expert we surveyed emphasized the same cocktail of ingredients: a sense of control and autonomy over one’s life, being guided by meaning and purpose, and connecting with others. And they largely agreed that happiness can be measured, strengthened, and taught. “The more you notice how happy or how grateful you are, the more it grows,” Grizont says.
Other questions we asked—like “is happiness a choice?”—sparked disagreement. Most experts landed somewhere in the middle, especially since countless external variables influence mood. “Part of it is a choice, part of it is innate,” says Tal Ben-Shahar, co-founder of the online Happiness Studies Academy. “And the part that is a choice is the choice to work hard at it.”
Experts were divided on whether happiness can be bought. As author and podcaster Gretchen Rubin put it, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy many things that contribute mightily,” such as exciting experiences. Spending money on others is also linked to happiness. Still, many of the most reliable ways to increase happiness levels are free, like meditating and practicing compassion, gratitude, and altruism.
One of the most striking lessons centered on the importance of acknowledging negative emotions, rather than suppressing them. The idea that dodging resentment, fear, or anger is healthy is one of the major misconceptions about happiness, they agreed. We err when we assume that focusing on happiness means acting like a “Pollyanna,” ignoring the very real difficulties of life,” says Judith T. Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Instead, the experts say, we should aim to accept and appropriately deal with difficult feelings.
Illustration by Timothy Goodman for TIME
So what works?
The experts we surveyed had a handful of happiness habits in common. Spending time with family outside of the house, and with friends in a non-professional setting, were big ones: the majority did both at least once a week, and many gathered socially three to four times a week. John Zelenski, a psychology professor at Carleton University, describes social relationships as the chief building blocks of happiness. We all stand to benefit from close friendships, romantic partners, and a “general sense of respect and belonging in a community,” he says.
Pursuing hobbies, such as art, music, cooking, or reading, was also universally important. Most respondents carved out space for these interests five to six times a week. Mental well-being has long been linked to sufficient sleep, and our respondents prioritized getting at least seven hours a night. Exercising or playing sports was another shared habit, with respondents saying they fit it in three to six times weekly.
An additional key to unlocking happiness might be basking in nature. More than half of the experts reported doing so at least three times a week. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that when she’s stressed, she takes a walk and “marvel[s] at flowers, plants, birds, insects.”
She also counts breathing exercises, reading poetry, and watching stand-up comedy among her go-to coping strategies on bad days. Other experts overcome unhelpful thoughts, anxieties, and stressors by revisiting favorite books, listening to upbeat songs, or journaling. Some described asking a friend for a hug or letting it all out with a good cry.
When she’s feeling down, Jenn Lim, author of Beyond Happiness, does things she knows will make her smile, like surprising a loved one with a gift. She also reminds herself to stay curious and be gentle on herself. In addition to pausing to “identify and embrace” her emotions, she asks herself if the bad day was within or outside of her control. “If it’s within my control, then I can act better on it,” she says. And if it’s without, she knows to let it go.
Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, frequently revisits her personal definition of happiness: choosing to cultivate moments of meaning and enjoyment. When things look bleak, “I remind myself that whatever I’m facing has been faced by others as well,” she says. Being happy is, after all, a universal and ancient pursuit. Take comfort in the knowledge that even people who are steeped in happiness science find it to be an elusive concept at times—and that they don’t allow that to deter them from pushing closer toward it.
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