How to be happy: 21 expert-approved tips to become your most optimistic self

How to be happy: 21 expert-approved tips to become your most optimistic self

How to be happy is one of those notoriously difficult-to-answer questions – and it’s seemingly on everyone’s mind right now, with global searches of ‘how to be happier’ reaching an all-time high in March 2023. Happiness means different things to everyone though, so it’s tricky to create a one-size-fits-all happiness prescription.

That said, HELLO! has been working with the University of Warwick to determine the things we all need in our lives to put us on the right path to happiness, and we’re pleased to report, they’re all easy to add to your everyday life.

Read on for our expert advice on how to be happier, simply by adding daily habits into your routine. But first, let us debunk some happiness myths.

Spending time outside benefits our happiness© Shutterstock
Easy daily habits can make us happier

What chemical makes you happy?

Dopamine is often referred to as ‘the happy hormone’ and serotonin is also spoken about in regard to happiness too but does either truly make a difference to our happiness levels?

DISCOVER: Why you’ll never be happy without this one key thing 

Does dopamine make you happier?

“Dopamine is a brain neurotransmitter that influences feelings of pleasure and wellbeing and forms a key part of the brain’s reward system,” explains Dr. Sarah Brewer, author of Cut Your Stress.

“You get a dopamine surge when you experience something pleasurable such as praise, falling in love and eating delicious food. A healthy diet and lifestyle with sufficient sleep and exercise, listening to music you love, indulging in meditation and exposure to natural sunlight can all naturally lift dopamine levels and happiness,” Dr. Brewer continues.

READ: ‘I cried myself to sleep every night – until I tried this simple trick’

Dopamine’s contribution to happiness isn’t confined to initiating fleeting bursts of joy, though, explains clinical psychologist Dr. Aria. “Dopamine is involved in motivating us and propelling us towards rewarding experiences.

“A dopamine deficit can lead to a decrease in motivation and pleasure, yet inflating dopamine levels doesn’t promise perennial happiness,” he cautions. “A little like a pivotal character in a play, dopamine plays a substantial part, but the intricacies of happiness require a cast of neurochemical actors.”

Smiling older lady outside© Shutterstock
Daily habits contribute to our happiness

How about serotonin, can it boost happiness?

“Sometimes called the feel-good hormone, serotonin influences happiness as well as appetite, the way we select certain foods and satiety,” says Dr. Brewer. She explains that serotonin also gives us a little ‘high’ and makes us feel good to help lift a low mood and increase self-confidence.

READ: Why an image overhaul can genuinely make us happier – a neuroscientist explains 

But Dr. Aria explains that serotonin doesn’t necessarily make us happy. “Serotonin plays a vital role in regulating mood, but the relationship with happiness isn’t straightforward,” he says.

“Low serotonin levels are linked to depression, but increased serotonin doesn’t necessarily result in happiness. While optimal serotonin function contributes to emotional well-being, it’s one piece in the intricate puzzle of human happiness,” he concludes.

Does vitamin D help with happiness?

Vitamin D is another topic often discussed in relation to happiness, but can vitamin D make us happy?

Vitamin D is involved in mood regulation, according to Dr. Brewer. “A total of 14 studies, involving almost 31,500 people, found that those with the lowest vitamin D levels were up to twice as likely to develop depression as those with highest levels.”

Quite how it lifts your mood to promote happiness is not fully understood, though.

READ: Ultimate vitamin D guide: The best supplements, foods and health benefits 

Does money make you happy?

No, according to Professor Andrew Oswald, who has dedicated his career to the pursuit of happiness.

He told us that if he could tell people one thing about happiness, it would be that money isn’t as important as you’d think.

Young woman smiling with headphones in© Shutterstock
A number of tiny tweaks can improve our happiness

“Money matters, but not as much as seems widely believed by politicians and the public,” he confirms. “We know from ONS data, for instance, that parts of rich London have lower happiness than some parts of Northern England where pay is starkly lower.”

Nutritionist Rob Hobson agrees that money alone can’t make us happy, explaining: “On the one hand, money means you can afford things that make life easier and less stressful, but money can’t buy you friends or help you to forge new meaningful relationships.

“These are the things that go deeper to make us happy than ‘stuff’,” he adds.

Expert tips for happiness

1. Smile more

People often wonder if smiling makes us happy, and the answer is yes.

Being told to smile when you’re feeling low is among the most irritating things, but smiling can actually lift your mood and lower stress.

A smile, be it genuine or fake, spurs a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing hormones including dopamine and serotonin. Your brain doesn’t know if it’s genuine, and releases the happy hormones regardless.

Young woman smiling with a coffee© Shutterstock
Smiling can make us happier

“The phrase smile until you are happy or be happy until you smile, comes to mind,” says neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart.

“Whilst lasting happiness isn’t a product of outward expressions, smiling is a simple and research-backed way to change how you feel in the moment,” confirms Dr. Aria.

2. Fake a laugh

Along the same lines, fake laughter can create feelings of happiness. Back in the 90s, Indian doctor Madan Kataria discovered that fake laughter could have the same physiological benefits as genuine giggles – including eased stress and boosted mood.

Young woman laughing merrily© Shutterstock
Even fake laughter can make us happier

Think about the last time you guffawed with your friends; we bet you felt so much lighter afterwards. For the same effect, try fake laughing – while it might feel strange, forced giggles quickly feel genuine, releasing a cocktail of feel-good emotions into our bodies.

3. Revisit the past

While dwelling on the past isn’t always good, it is a way to instantly boost your happiness.

If you’re feeling low, life coach Phil Drinkwater advises tapping into a happy memory. Your brain doesn’t know if you’re happy in the current moment, or remembering a happier time, so locking onto a joyful memory can give an instant happiness boost.

RELATED: ‘How learning something new helped me find happiness again’ 

“Try to remember times in your life when you felt abundant, content, or proud,” Phil says. “This can be useful in changing your mood in the moment.”

4. Make midweek plans

How often do you catch yourself counting down to the weekend? Most weeks, we’d wager.

But making the most of the midweek can seriously improve your happiness, according to positive psychology practitioner Sophie Cliff.

RELATED: ‘I spent 20 years on a deadline – but when I stopped, I found true happiness’

“Instead of living for the weekend and counting down the days until Friday, make a pact with yourself to make the most out of your midweek,” she says.

“The midweek makes up the majority of our lives, so embracing it is a great place to start when it comes to adding more joy to our lives,” she continues.

Young smiling lady in a jumper© Shutterstock
Making the most of the midweek can support happiness

By celebrating the week, you’ll inject joy into every day – making the most of the midweek doesn’t have to mean heading out for an expensive meal with friends on a Wednesday, though.

Anything from following a brand new recipe to spice up Tuesday night to joining a different gym class can help make the most of the weekdays, helping you disconnect from the typical working week, rather than saving joy for the weekends, says Sophie.

“Enjoying a mid-week break can help to generate positive emotions and boost our wellbeing,” Sophie adds. “Monday to Friday can be really challenging and you deserve to have the opportunity to let go of some stress and reward yourself with something you enjoy doing.”

DISCOVER: ‘I’m about to turn 40 – this is how I’m tackling my midlife crisis’

5. Smell your favourite scent

For an instant dose of dopamine (the happy hormone) unstopper your favouite perfume, light an uplifting scented candle or spritz a refreshing room spray – and watch how it sparks optimism.

Why does scent have such a big impact on happiness? “Our sense of smell is the only one of our five senses that is directly connected to the part of the brain that controls mood, memory, behaviour and emotion,” says Antonia David, head of education at skincare brand Elemental Herbology.

RELATED: My beauty routine helps clear the cloud of depression — but it’s not always easy 

Our favourite fragrances stimulate nerves in our noses, which send messages straight to our brain, directly affecting our mood. And while we all have positive connotations with certain scents, from our mum’s favourite perfume to the scent we wore on our wedding day, there are certain essential oils that are known for their positivity powers.

Look for fragrances with neroli, mimosa and lemon for a mood boost.

6. Listen to your music on shuffle

We can all agree that listening to our favourite song has the power to be incredibly uplifting, but according to exercise psychologist Dr. Josephine Perry, who works with David Lloyd, if we switch our playlist to shuffle, it’ll make us even happier.

“Music is powerful because it releases happy hormone dopamine, but for an even bigger hit of happiness, put your playlist on shuffle,” Dr. Josephine advises. “If you know which song is coming up, you get nowhere near as big a buzz as if you don’t know what’s next.

young woman listening to music on headphones and smiling
Listening to our music on shuffle provides a dopamine hit

“When you hear the first few beats of a track you love, you get an extra dopamine buzz, so music on shuffle will give you a bigger boost of happiness.”

Next time you open up your Spotify account or Apple Music app, make the switch to shuffle and see how much happier you feel.

7. Eat breakfast

Breakfast is often referred to as the most important meal of the day – and while not strictly true, if you’re skipping your morning meal it could be drastically impacting your happiness.

If you suffer from anxiety, eating breakfast could be key to managing your worries and boosting your mood, confirms nutritionist Charlotte Faure-Green.

Young woman smiling white she eats breakfast© Shutterstock
Breakfast plays an important part in our happiness

Failing to eat in the morning (whether it’s because you’re rushing, you’re fasting or you’re anxious) can cause anxiety because it increases the amount of stress hormone cortisol in your body.

If you’re already stressed or anxious, you’ll likely have higher levels of stress hormones in your body anyway, so the additional cortisol caused by not eating will cause your anxiety to spike. The answer? Eat breakfast.

“If you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, it is important to break your fast within 45 minutes to an hour of waking up to turn off the cortisol response from overnight fasting,” confirms Charlotte. “This lowers adrenal activity that the brain may perceive as a stressor.”

Next time you have a big day ahead of you, make sure to stop for breakfast – it’ll make the world of difference.

8. Go outside

Perhaps the simplest way to inject positivity into your day, adding one or two simple nature-full tweaks to your daily routine has been scientifically proven to work wonders for your happiness, strength of mind and general wellbeing.

Young woman smiling outside© Getty
Spending time in nature is an easy route to happiness

A study by the American National Library of Medicine found that spending just 20 minutes per day in the sunshine can improve your mood and quality of sleep significantly. How? It’s mostly down to the happy hormones nature helps us produce – and the negative ones it reduces.

READ: ‘How nature cured my heartbreak after a brutal breakup’ 

Time spent in nature sparks a series of happy reactions inside us, reducing our cortisol (stress) levels, increasing our levels of serotonin (the happiness hormone), and it can even cause us to produce the love hormone oxytocin (which is great if you’re feeling lonely).

So, next time you take a break from work and reach for your phone for a scroll, nip outside instead and wait for the happy vibes to flood in.

9. Failing that, watch a nature documentary

While we’d all love to spend 20 minutes a day basking in the great outdoors, sometimes it’s just not possible. Whether it’s a busy workday, a frantic evening spent ferrying the kids around, or the weather isn’t playing ball, some days you simply can’t make the time to spend time in nature.

But we have good news. An international study conducted by Professor Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that even watching a short clip of a nature show leads to significant increases in positive emotions including awe, contentedness, joy and amusement.

Collaborating with BBC Worldwide, the study asked over 7,500 participants from the US, UK, Singapore, India, South Africa and Australia to complete a short survey to establish their mood state before being shown clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II series. Professor Keltner’s study also found those watching had substantial decreases in emotions such as nervousness, anxiety and fear.

RELATED: How nature can make you happier – without going outside 

10. Be kind

Whether it’s helping a stranger carry their bags down the steps at the station, joining a friend on a DIY project or donating to charity, being kind to others can make us happier in an instant.

“Kindness leads to the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin and happiness hormone serotonin, meaning we get a rush of good feelings when we practice being kind,” explains Jo Howarth, founder of The Happiness Club.

Being kind has also been found to increase our sense of satisfaction with life, as well as decreasing stress and anxiety. “It is a huge part of building emotional resilience,” Jo adds. “The more we practice kindness, generally the happier we are.”

11. Text a friend

Texting or emailing someone might not feel like much – most of us do it each day anyway, but it can make all the difference. “Message someone you love simply to tell them you love them,” says Jo Howarth.

Older woman texting and smiling© Shutterstock
Messaging friends can make us happier

“I made a habit of doing this simple act in my life and it boosts me every time. I love telling the people close to me that I love them, it makes me feel amazing to do it because I know it makes them feel amazing to hear it.”

12. Fight rudeness with kindness

We’ve all been there; someone pushes past you on the street and you respond in a similarly aggressive way, but transformational coach Aysha Bell urges us to think before we react.

“If someone pushes past you, you don’t need to push back,” she says. “You can just smile. If you have it in you to be kind back rather than returning their aggression, do that.

“Normally, nine times out of 10, the person will be really grateful you didn’t push them back, and you smiled at them. You can change the whole cycle of your day and their day.”

Maybe they won’t go on to be rude to someone else!

READ: What is craniosacral therapy and will it make me happier? A life coach explains all 

13. Give compliments

If you love someone’s outfit, tell them! “Giving compliments can have a profound effect on both the giver and the receiver,” says Jo. “It’s really simple to do and it costs absolutely nothing.”

14. Make time to rest

Resting is crucial to our happiness, and very few of us set aside time purely to rest.

When we should be resting, we often fill the gaps with more tasks or mindless social media scrolling. But this sense of always being ‘on’ is not good for our happiness levels. As life coach Julie Leonard explains, it leads to increased stress, anxiety and a general feeling of unhappiness.

READ: The 20-minute ritual that switched off my busy brain instantly

“As humans, we’re not designed to be constantly busy or for our brains to be functioning 24/7,” Julie cautions. “We need time to decompress, to process our day, our thoughts and our emotions. Rest is essential to complete the stress cycle and reset back to a healthier level.”

“Rest needs to have priority status. It’s an activity to be planned and appreciated in its own right,” explains Julie.

To become your happiest self, diarise rest time. “Planning downtime means it is more likely to happen,” says Dr. Emma Hepburn, author of A Toolkit for Happiness. This can be in the long term, such as making sure you use all your allocated annual leave from work to ensure you have planned rest periods throughout the year, to daily breaks.

“Write your lunch breaks and tea breaks into your calendar – block them off as protected time,” Dr. Emma advises. “Plan what you will do in these pockets that will help you relax.”

15. Spend time with friends and family

As well as resting, set aside time to spend time with your loved ones, be they friends, family or even pets.

Portrait Of Smiling young African American Woman With Child Taking Selfie© Getty
Spending time with friends and family makes us happier

“The family environment gives us unconditional love and a sense of belonging,” relationship expert Anna Williamson says. “Our loved ones come with nostalgia and memories, and this can invoke feelings of love hormone oxytocin, and feel good chemical dopamine. When our feel-good memories are flying around we feel a lot more stable and a lot more content.”

Dr. Emma Hepburn reiterates the importance of time with loved ones, urging us to make it a priority, not just something we fit in around work and admin.

DISCOVER: Try this expert-approved 5-minute hack next time you’re feeling lonely 

“Make time with friends a key activity, not an add on to fit into your schedule,” she advises. “Create regular times or traditions, for example, make a deal to meet every Friday, the last day of the month or every other Thursday.” Creating a plan makes you more likely to make time for it.

16. Eat comfort food

We all know the joy that comes from a steaming bowl of soup or tucking into our favourite meal from childhood – and it turns out, comfort food is a great mood booster, which is also nutritionist approved. “Comfort foods or foods that incite memories of our childhood trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, which is interpreted as pleasure,” nutritionist Charlotte Faure Green explains.

17. Cuddle a pet

You don’t need to tell us twice… “Pets are uncompromising and can give an enormous source of comfort,”  Anna Williamson explains. “In fact, pets are proven to be incredibly beneficial for reducing anxiety and low mood.”

Woman Cuddles her dog at home on the sofa© Shutterstock
Our pets can support our happiness

Our furry friends can boost dopamine and oxytocin, plus, as Anna says, they’re fluffy and lovely and they give unconditional affection.

If you don’t have a pet,- puppy yoga or a cat café are cute ways to get your happiness fix from animals.

 READ: I tried puppy yoga for the first time to see if it made me happier 

18. Treat yourself

It likely comes as no surprise that indulging in a little treat is an easy way to boost your mood.

Treating yourself at the end of a difficult encourages you that better days are coming. Think self-care rituals such as a dreamy bath with bubbles, or an evening snuggled down with your favourite TV show.

These treats are acts of self-kindness that according to Dr. Tara, say: “Okay, today didn’t go well, but I’m going to do something nice for myself to help to keep me resilient and get up tomorrow and make it a better day.”

“When I treat myself to a bath with essential oils, I know I’m doing something for myself to reduce my stress levels, which will make me feel happier on a whole different level than something that I buy myself,” says Dr. Tara.

19. Think grateful thoughts

If you’re experiencing low mood, it can be difficult to feel grateful, but if you manage to practise a little gratitude, your mood is likely to improve.

Being grateful for little blessings in our lives also stops us from focusing on what we’re missing in life, as Aysha Bell explains: “When we’re in a state of gratitude we’re less likely to be thinking about what we don’t have.”

If you’re thinking about how happy you are to live in a warm house, with cosy surroundings, you’re unlikely to be dwelling on the fact you don’t have the log burner you covet, for example.

Every time a negative thought creeps in, banish it with three things you’re grateful for. For example, if you desperately want to skip your morning run, think how lucky you are to have the health to run, how great it is to have somewhere near home to run and how you’re privileged to own the running gear you have.

Looking for more happiness inspiration? Watch our video for easy ways to feel instantly happier…

WATCH: 12 simple steps to happiness

20. Eat chicken, dairy and bananas

Some foods can give us a short-term boost in the happiness department, according to Charlotte Faure Green.

She explains that diets low in protein amino acid tryptophan are associated with low mood disorders and poor sleep. Animal products such as dairy, chicken, turkey and tuna are high in tryptophan, but can also be found in lower amounts in oats, bananas, nuts and seeds.

Go ahead and pile your plate high with these, but Charlotte does note that while these foods may give you a little mood boost, they need to be consistently present in your diet for lasting effect.

“The real impact is in your overall dietary picture,” she says. “One day isn’t going to make or break your mental wellbeing.”

21. Stay active

Exercise is super important for raising happiness levels, but not because it releases endorphins as many people believe.

Exercise, be it walking, spinning or swimming, makes us happy because it gives us a sense of achievement. “Dopamine, our reward chemical kicks in very quickly when we exercise, which is a nice way of feeling much more positive,” Dr. Josephine explains.

Smiling Senior Couple Jogging In The Park© Shutterstock
Exercise helps boost dopamine levels

When you set goals – be it to run a faster 5km or touch your toes in yoga – and you achieve them, you get an instant dopamine buzz.

Being active also eases anxiety, which boosts happiness. “When you’re anxious, one of the physiological responses is that you get very focused on what is ahead of you. Exercise forces you to have perspective and concentrate on what is happening in that moment, which helps ground you so you can relieve anxiety symptoms,” says Dr. Josephine.

Subscribe to HELLO!’s Pathway to Happiness for your ultimate guide on how to be happier