When I think about all of the clients I’ve coached over the past 13 years, I can usually sum up what they were looking to achieve to this one simple thing: To be happy and healthy.
The happiness and health connection has always been super interesting to me. Research continues to associate happiness with physical and psychological wellbeing, showing that people who are happy tend to live longer, ward off more disease, and even battle a cold faster.
But what I’ve learned through coaching clients is that the things you do to get healthy aren’t always the same things that make you happy. And that being healthy doesn’t always equate to happiness.
That might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often that is assumed. I can personally recall dozens of clients who truly believed that all they needed to do was get down to that dress or belt size and then they would be happy — only to find disappointment after they achieved their specific goal.
Early in my career, I learned to direct that narrative quickly while also incorporating “happiness homework” into clients’ specific programs. Some of my suggestions might have caught them off guard at first, but along the way, they always realized and appreciated the reminders of including them along with their other health habits (such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and working out).
What Makes Us Happy?
Happiness is what we live for, yet many of us have a narrow — or even skewed — view on what actually creates happiness in our lives.
If you ask Americans what would make them happy, many might answer with material goods, personal accomplishments, or a high-paying job. These are things that our culture associates with success, and therefore that we think will provide us happiness. So we may, for example, choose a career path that provides a high salary instead of choosing one that we love that pays less.
Studies demonstrate that lasting happiness has little to do with these outer “trappings,” but comes instead from our relationships, gratitude, compassion, and outlook on life.
Loretta Graziano, PhD, explains that nature offers us four kinds of happiness. We need all four, she suggests, to feel the full measure of fulfillment. If we rely on just one or two to cultivate wellbeing, we miss out on optimal happiness — and in turn, health.
1. Endorphin happiness: Ironically, this is triggered by physical pain or fear (such as touching a hot stove or, for our ancestors, running away from a predator). Humans experience endorphins as euphoria, but nature saves them for moments when they help you do what’s necessary to survive.
2. Dopamine happiness: This is produced when you feel a sense of reward. For example, when you cross a finish line.
3. Oxytocin happiness: This comes from trust. It can be stimulated through actions like massage, or by bonding relationships such as that between a mother and her child.
4. Serotonin happiness: This is triggered when you feel important or needed.
Understanding these different forms of happiness makes it easier to recognize why certain recommendations (e.g. a gratitude journal) might not be the end-all-be-all for everyone. It takes work and intention to get a more rounded result.
With these four ideas in mind, it’s possible to identify personal goals within each area that can increase your happiness and positive outlook on life. You can also incorporate them into your other healthy habits. Below are my recommendations for ways to eat, train, and live more happily.
How to Eat Happy
Eat fat. Our brains are made up of mostly fat. If you don’t eat enough, you are starving your opportunity for optimal, positive brain chemistry. Feed yourself omega-3-rich foods and/or supplements, and focus on eating a healthy fat source at every meal.
Focus on the good. When we try to eat healthy, many of us focus on what we “can’t” eat, such as junk food or alcohol. Change your mindset to instead focus on shopping for and preparing foods that are nourishing to your body, such as high-quality proteins, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. The positive switch in attitude will help keep you on track.
Make it social. Intellectual conversations have been shown to improve our overall mood. Eating with others serves as a great environment for not only enjoying good company, but also healthy dining. Start a dinner club or arrange to have a meal with friends or family at your place regularly. Focus on healthy foods and lively conversation, and at every meal, try to keep all distractions minimal by turning off all electronics.
Balance your intake. Make sure you’re focusing on high-quality protein, fat, and fruits and vegetables at every meal. Balancing these foods helps equalize the nutrition going in, which will help keep your energy levels stable, hunger in check, and mood up. If you usually consume a carbohydrate-dominant breakfast, such as cereal and juice, try a more nutrient-balanced breakfast instead, such as eggs and veggies. Notice the difference in how your energy and mood maintain until the next meal.
How to Train Happy
Cross some finish lines. Dopamine happiness is triggered through reward. Setting up some future finish lines is a great way to prompt that feel-good hormone release. The finish lines could be as simple as being able to do five pull-ups on your own up, or as challenging as taking part in an ultra-endurance event. Make your finish lines important to you, write them down, and stick with them.
Partner up. Find a friend or group of people with similar goals to help keep your fitness fun and social. These relationships will not only help you stay accountable to your fitness plan, but will also fill your happiness quotient by giving you an additional opportunity for social engagement. Make a goal to invite a friend for a daily or weekly walk, or join a group or club that meets regularly to work out.
Change it up. Variety is key to avoiding boredom. I’d recommend that you continuously assess your program and make changes to it at least every four to six weeks, seeking out professional guidance if needed.
Have fun. Workouts don’t have to be serious. Find an activity that makes you smile and that you have fun doing, such as shooting hoops or a dance class. Make a point of doing one of these types of exercise at least one day per week.
Use a device. Having an activity or heart-rate monitor can help you cultivate your dopamine happiness. It will not only remind you to boost your activity each day, but also give you the instant gratification and neurochemical boost as you celebrate what you’ve done.
How to Live Happy
Meet your needs. Studies have shown that once people’s basic needs are met (food, clothing, shelter), additional money doesn’t generally increase happiness levels. This is because we tend to acclimate to whatever income we receive. Consider how to apply the resources you have in ways that serve your overall wellbeing the most, such as toward quality food, exercise, recreational opportunities, and other forms of personal fulfillment.
Take notes. Keep a gratitude or happiness journal to reflect on the positive things in your life. Include either bigger elements you’re grateful for (such as a loving family), or small moments in the day that made you smile (such as seeing the first crocuses bloom in your yard) — or both. Pick one day a week to write in your journal to start, working your way up to every night. This daily practice before bed can improve your sleep quality and help give you a better perspective on the next day.
Do breathwork. Take time each day to meditate and center yourself. Breathing helps lower cortisol (your stress hormone) and can balance — if not improve — your mood. If you’ve never meditated before, try a yoga class, or download an introduction app on your phone. Make a point of practicing the method that works for you daily.
Pay it forward. Take the time to do something for someone else, engaging in random acts of kindness as often as you can. Remember, the intention is to be random, not premeditated, and not to do so for reward or recognition. For example, try opening the door for another person, letting someone else go in front of you in line, or paying for another person’s coffee.
Send happy mail. Get in a regular habit of sending a text message, email, or handwritten letter to friends, family, or coworkers. Words are a great way to show appreciation, and can be a fun surprise for the receiver — while also boosting your mood. If you struggle with consistency, schedule time each week to pick a person to send some happy words to.
Smile more. Smiling helps you exude more confidence. Even if you’re faking it, over time these actions can help improve your mood and the mood of others around you — emotion often follows action.
Embrace the power of touch. Make a point to hug or hold hands with your loved ones often throughout the day — especially if you have younger children. View a full-body massage as an essential part of your healthy routine, whether done professionally or simply by a loved one.