Happy girl in a field of sunflowers.

How Can I Be Happy When I’m Not Happy?

Kristen Peairs
February 8, 2024
December 14, 2023

If we’re feeling like a gray cloud hangs over us, there are ways to feel happier.

Some ways work quickly, others take time. What will work for each of us will depend on what factors are contributing to our current emotional state. For example, if we’ve been unhappy for months or years, everything from our biochemistry to our mindset to our habits may need support in shifting before we can fully experience the effervescent lightness of mood we’re seeking. However, if our unhappiness is more transient, it may be much quicker for our body’s systems to shift gears toward supporting a more cheerful state.

As with all things in life, no one strategy is right for every person, but the strategies listed below are a worthy place to begin.

1. Give Up the Idea That We Can’t Be Happy Until Someone Else Is Happy

How many times in life do we find ourselves in situations where a friend, family member, or colleague is unhappy and because they are unhappy, we are unhappy? The truth is that we can be happy regardless of what’s going on in the minds and hearts of others. I admit that it can be very challenging to feel good feelings when someone around us is suffering, but when this happens in my own life, I pause and ask, “What is gained by both of us feeling terrible?” And the answer is “not much, if anything at all.” Learning how to tap into our own inner joy is a skill all by itself. One of the ways that I help myself reconnect to my joy is by going on little adventures. Whether I take an hour to explore a park or 20 minutes to pop into a store I’ve never been to, these adventures are nearly always guaranteed to spark my happiness.

2. Give Up the Idea That We Can’t Be Happy Unless a Specific Condition Is Met

Much like the previous strategy of “giving up the idea that we can’t be happy until someone else is happy,” “giving up the idea that we can’t be happy unless a specific condition is met” invites us to remove our mental connection between our happiness being dependent upon an external condition. Think of the number of times we set goals for ourselves that sound something like, “ When I’m making “x” number of dollars, then I’ll be happy”…or….”When I find the right partner, then I’ll be happy.” Statements that link our happiness to external circumstances can keep us in a hamster-wheel of striving for goals that may or may not happen and may or may need result in the happiness we crave. It is possible to be happy regardless of whether our goals are achieved. In fact, feeling happiness while on whatever journey our life is taking us on can actually help us be healthier, more resilient, and capable of achieving the conditions we want.

3. Name the Feeling We’re Feeling

While naming the feeling we’re feeling might seem counterintuitive to experiencing the happiness we desire, research shows that the simple act of specifically naming our feeling can free us from the hold the distracting feeling has on us. How does this work? It works by shifting our brain away from the fight/flight area (amygdala) toward the thinking area (prefrontal cortex). In other words we activate our thinking selves which gives us a lifeline out of the emotional swamp we’ve been caught in.

Feelings tend to be very nuanced. If we can tune into the feeling and match it with its specific name, we can then pause, reflect on it, and mindfully choose a follow-up step to help us on our way. For example, we might notice we’re “sad,” but upon deeper examination, realize “hopeless” is the more nuanced name for our experience. With this realization, we can begin to consider what has sparked this feeling and make plans to address it.

4. Create Something New From the Feeling

Sometimes an unhappy feeling can be used as a source of inspiration for new creation. The act of creating something new can transmute a feeling we don’t like into one we do like. For example, putting our feeling into words can yield a poem or a story, putting our feeling into color can yield paintings and pictures, and putting our feeling into food might look like a buffet of tasty treats. The possibilities are endless.

Read “How Creativity Can Boost Our Mental Health” to learn more about creativity and happiness.

5. Use Our Smiling Muscles

The act of moving our lips into a smile releases positive endorphins into our brain whether we are happy or not. Practicing smiling in the car, in front of a computer, in the bathroom, and everywhere else can end up helping us feel like smiling for real. No one needs to see our efforts. In fact, it might be easier to notice results if no one else is around. Smiling is happiness-inducing stimulation for our brain that we can do nearly anywhere. For best results, we can practice using our smiling muscles every day, multiple times a day.

6. Exercise Our Laughing Muscles

We don’t have to have anything funny going on to go through the act of laughing. Laughing involves smiling, breathing, vocalizing, and moving…all of which are great for inducing a barrage of happiness inducing endorphins. A practice called Laughter Yoga is designed to help us get the benefit of laughter anytime we want. Very simply, it begins with vocally repeating the words, “Ha Ha Ho Ho.” When I’ve done this, I notice that my feeling state tends to shift quite quickly.

7. Move Our Body To The Rhythm

With movement comes endorphins. To induce the release of happiness-inducing endorphins, we can move to the music in our head, the feelings in our body, or the sounds of our environment. The movement might look like dancing, running, walking, or something else entirely. Regardless, movement can help shift our mood with pleasurable ease.

In summary, there are endless strategies we can use to feel happy when were don’t feel happy. From the strategies listed above, which one are you likely to try first?

Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs is a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Massage Therapist, and Professional Educator. Throughout her 20-year career, she has worked with many people suffering from a diversity of chronic health conditions. Understanding how food affects the brain and the whole body has been a key factor in the success of her healing strategies. At Nivati, she has researched, written, and filmed over 100 health and wellness videos for their content library. Kristen is currently writing a cookbook for people living with food allergies and intolerances.