What Really Makes People Happy
So, the basic, scientifically proven recipe for raising our spirits appears to be deliciously straightforward: sex, exercise (other than sex), and service (other than...never mind). But for those times when your sweetheart and your running shoes are out of reach and your next volunteering gig is a few days off, uplift is also available in instant fun-size packets.
"Even if you're just sitting in a chair, there are things you can do to change the pace of the day in a way that's recuperative and uplifting," says Karen Bradley, a visiting associate professor of dance at the University of Maryland. "Take a minute to write your name in cursive with your eyeballs, or count your teeth with your tongue, or just hum along with some music. The muscles around your eyes will relax; your jaw will relax; you will start to breathe more deeply." (Caution: All that droning and eye-rolling may not have the same calming effect on observers.) Bradley also loves "the 20-minute 'Google Earth vacation.' You pick an exotic location, choose your resort hotel, decide which restaurants to visit and what you'll eat. I've gone everywhere: New Zealand, Machu Picchu, the Galápagos Islands. It reminds you that you're not the center of the universe—it opens your mind and gives you perspective."
Evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy likewise looks outward to find "momentary joys." "I'll take a walk and wait for little flashes of discovery in the natural world," she says. "Recently, I watched my dog leap through the air, over a creek, to chase a wild turkey—something I'd never seen her do before. I can't jump creeks anymore, so I enjoyed being part of her abandon!"
Any minor shift in outlook—including a little vicarious creek jumping—can make a dismal picture less dispiriting. Yale psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, an expert on depression, has studied our penchant for self-punishing rumination when we face a problem—a tendency that many of us have indulged during the past eight months. She found that a simple, ten-minute imagery task (such as picturing clouds in a bright blue sky or a cheery stack of watermelons in a pickup truck) can turn brooding into focused action. "The quality of your problem-solving markedly improves," says Nolen-Hoeksema. "When you're ruminating, the negative thoughts are so strong that it's hard to inhibit them. But even after a moment of distraction, those thoughts aren't activated anymore. It's like pressing the restart button when your computer is acting up."
Remember, too, that crafty reprogramming of the mind doesn't necessarily depend on what you're thinking about, but how you're thinking about it. Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer once assembled three groups of football-averse women to watch the Super Bowl; the group assigned to make six "novel distinctions" about the game ("It didn't matter if it was about the players' rear ends—anything," Langer explains) enjoyed themselves significantly more than the group that had to take notice of just three things, or nothing at all.
What we can learn from the mindful Super Bowl party, Langer says, is that "when times are tough, the way out is in actively noticing new things. The essence of happiness is that feeling of engagement with the world and with other people."
In other words, instead of waiting for this daunting moment to pass, we can try to seize and shape it, to lighten it—however we please.
So send the link. Start the conversation. Report for duty. Make the novel distinction. Move. Roll your eyeballs around. Go to the game. Grab somebody's hand. And, yes—if you do just one thing—only connect.
A friend tells a story about going to see an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She was drawn to a room where a crowd had gathered in a semicircle before a canvas, obviously mesmerized. As she approached the painting—Vincent van Gogh's breathtaking Starry Night—and joined the group, she felt gathered up into their shared, awestruck stillness. Tears welled in her eyes: For one transcendent instant, she'd found her hive, had found her between.
"We are incomplete creatures," says Jonathan Haidt. "We cannot live alone; we cannot find our own meaning alone. We realize our potential, we become alive, only when we find the 'between.'"
Chances are, the between is closer than you think. It could be waiting for you in someone's eyes, in a phrase of music, in a starry night. You can find it. Just keep looking up.
What do you do to lift your spirits? Leading thinkers (including one New York City taxi driver) share their secrets
From the May 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.