How to Be Happy: 15 Steps to Take Today - Dr. Axe

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How to Be Happy: 15 Life-Changing Steps


How to be happy - Dr. Axe

Who doesn’t want to be happy? Aside from just feeling better on a daily basis, there is even scientific research to show us that being happy has concrete health and life benefits. As researchers point out,

Positive emotions contribute to important downstream life outcomes, including friendship development, marital satisfaction, higher incomes and better physical health. People who experience frequent positive emotions have even been shown to live longer. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis of nearly 300 findings concluded that positive emotions produce success and health as much as they reflect these good outcomes.

How can you be very happy? This is as much a matter of science as it is an art. Your mind is made to experience life from a place of joy and contentment. In fact, positive words and thoughts actually activate brain cells and reverse the signs and mental strain of depression.

On the outside, when you see happy people, it just seems to be easy, like it’s a personality trait. But in reality, they are always choosing happiness. Choosing to see the good, letting go of what they cannot control, and allowing peace to live in their life.


If you follow the 15 steps described below, there’s a good chance you can learn how to be a happier person.

Related: What Is Eustress and Why Is It Good For You?

How to Be Happy?

Happiness in its truest meaning is contentment. And contentment doesn’t start as a feeling, but as a choice to look at all that you have and all that is good in your life, and experience those good things more than you dwell on the bad.

You might assume that happiness is something that some people feel based on their current circumstances — like their occupation, family, and health for example. But the more we learn about what results in happiness, the more we see that feeling happy actually requires effort and is much like a skill; with that effort, happiness is likely achievable for anyone.

As science tells us, “happy people become more satisfied not simply because they feel better, but because they develop resources for living well.”

  • Happiness is an attitude and a choice, way more than we would like to believe.
  • It’s a byproduct of both releasing yourself and others from the burdens of life and choosing to live out of what you can control, rather than harping on the things you cannot.
  • The cool thing about happiness is that it is cumulative, meaning small feelings of daily joy can lead to significant improvements in your mood.
  • Happiness usually works in a cyclical pattern, with feelings of being happy leading to even more happiness. As researchers explain, “Positive emotions contribute to judgments of life satisfaction, well-being, and happiness in daily life and they are proposed to trigger upward spirals toward improved emotional well-being and happiness.”

Related: Happiness Study: What Makes Us Happy and Healthy?

15 Life-Changing Steps

So how do you find happiness? The best habits happen in small manageable steps. Want to drink more water? Then start by adding just an extra half a glass or a full glass per day. Then add to it another half a glass the next week.

Little by little you build the habit until it feels like a comfortable part of your life. Happiness works the same way!

Maybe this week, you try to just decrease how much you complain, then next week, try practicing gratitude.

To start your own “upward spiral” of happiness, here are 15 steps to take:

1. Choose to Be Grateful

It may seem cheesy, but gratitude is a part of being happy that you have complete control over. It is so easy to complain about all the little things out of your control that frustrate you, especially if you work around a job with other people complaining about the same things.

Instead, focus on the things you can control. Start with your own thoughts!

Try spending five minutes every morning saying or writing down everything you are grateful for. Or, as part of healing prayer, regularly thank God for everything you have. Just fostering gratitude opens up places of joy for all that you have walked through and all the blessings that you have.

This practice also helps bring attention to the things you are thankful for in your life that are going well. It’s easy to focus on the negatives sometimes; even research supports that “like any emotional state, feelings of joy, gratitude, interest, and contentment typically last only a matter of minutes…moreover, positive emotions are less intense and less attention-grabbing than negative emotions and are more quickly to diffuse.”

Being swept up in financial worries, a struggling relationship or a health concern is far too common, but when we make a point to reflect on what we do have, we reap the many mood-lifting benefits of gratefulness. Studies have shown that by practicing forming “gratitude lists,” we can actually noticeably alleviate worry and boost our mood.


Aim to do gratefulness practice every day if you can, either in the morning or before bed. Finding the “extraordinary in the ordinary” can lead to some serious positive changes in your life.

According to one study,

Gratitude is an important human strengths that contributes to subjective happiness. Grateful individuals are especially appreciative of the contribution of others to their happiness… Results imply reciprocal relationships among gratitude, subjective happiness, and good social relationships. Consequently, compared with unhappy people, happy people report close and satisfying relationships and feel more gratitude in their lives.

2. Choose to Forgive

We know from studies that a major cause of depression stems from a lack of forgiving others. When we hold resentment or anger against someone that we haven’t yet forgiven, we are stuck in the past.

One of the key traits that leads to happiness is living in the present moment as much as possible, instead of harping on uncontrollable events that have already taken place. If forgiveness is holding you back from experiencing joy here and now, then it’s time to release the anger you’re holding.

Ask yourself, is there anyone that I haven’t forgiven? Even How to be happy - Dr. Axeyourself? Sometimes, even if we have forgiven someone in our mind, it takes a few times of practice to really forgive them in our hearts. Forgiveness isn’t just forgetting, but actually releasing them from a debt that they may truly owe us.

As the saying goes, refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Is any grudge worth damaging your own life and happiness?

Who is it that you need to forgive and let go of, so that you can move on and live your life to the fullest?

Keep in mind that forgiveness is an act of kindness and compassion. Kindness towards others takes us out of our own mind and away from our own worries, plus it’s also contagious and usually leads to even more kindness.

If you tend to be shy, often keep to yourself, or don’t know where you could potentially be of service, start small and keep in mind that every kind act and positive intention counts.

3. Use Positive Words

Want to know how to be happy when you’re alone? If you want to learn how to be happy with yourself, start by focusing on your self-talk. Whether you are talking to yourself or others, the words you say and think have power.

As it says in the Bible, “The power of life and death is in the tongue…” – (Proverbs 18:21)

How to be happy - Dr. AxeNeuroscientist Andrew Newberg, M.D., has been doing studies that actually prove this is true – that positivity through words can literally change your brain.

He studied the brain and the effects of the spoken word or thoughts and found that even a single negative word increases activity in the amygdala, or the fear center of our brain. The body begins to release stress hormones and neurotransmitters that interrupt your brains normal activity.

Angry words shut down the functioning ability of the frontal lobe which moderates logic and reasoning centers. Prolonged exposure to negative people or your own negative words, really can affect your ability to experience and expect joy and happiness.

Research shows that speaking positive words, or even holding a positive word (like love, peace, joy, etc.) in your mind activates the frontal lobe and the motor cortex, which can move you into action and create an “upward spiral.”

4. Encourage Others

Happiness is said to be contagious, as we can lift others up by demonstrating what joy is all about.

Practice recognizing the best qualities that others around you have to offer, instead of focusing on their flaws. Show appreciation and respect for the good things that your family, coworkers, and friends do for you each and every day, and ultimately encourage them to seek out happiness for themselves.

While it seems that encouraging others is a selfless act, being motivating and kind to those around you actually has benefits for your own happiness too.

As studies suggest, “happiness is increased simply by counting one’s own acts of kindness.” Therefore, paying someone a compliment, giving them a confidence boost and recognizing their accomplishments can make your day, in addition to theirs!

“A strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate”, states a study entitled “Altruism, happiness, and health: it’s good to be good.”

5. Be Intentional with Your Time

Pay attention to how you currently spend your time each day. Start by making a list of what you do when you’ve got some free time: reading, watching TV, reaching out to family, working, exercising, etc. Write these activities down and estimate how many hours you are putting effort towards these things daily.

Now write down a list of the top five things that are most important to you. How do your two lists compare? What are you spending time focusing on that isn’t serving your higher purpose, priorities, and goals?

The most successful people in the world learn how to let their schedule reflect their truest priorities. If you can switch out 30 minutes of TV watching each day with 30 minutes of “you” time — maybe by taking a relaxing walk in nature (especially if you live in a city), cooking a new recipe, reading an inspirational book or trying energy healing — imagine how different your week would wind up feeling? Rewrite your schedule so that your day looks proportional to your values.

Practicing time management in this way, by eliminating wasteful activities and blocking off dedicated time for the things that make you happiest, is a great way to feel more joy each and every day.

The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” ― Michael Altshuler

6. Make a “Bucket List”

How to be happy - Dr. AxeMake a list of all of the things you’ve always wanted to do, but have been putting off for one reason for another. Interested in paddle boarding? Always wanted to try snorkeling? Prioritize the things that bring you joy and make a point to do the activities that are novel to you and would help bring you feelings of excitement and happiness, even if they seem small and trivial.

When we write down our goals it makes them real. So write down your goals for the things you want to do and write down tangible steps you want to take each week, month or quarter to make this “bucket list” items a reality.

As research points out, small feelings of joy add up and create a bigger sense of happiness, so don’t neglect the little things that bring a sense of accomplishment and a smile to your face.

Take a risk, meet some new interesting people, and throw a bit of caution-to-the-wind if you need to. As studies tell us, “very happy people are more extroverted, more agreeable, and less neurotic.”

“It’s not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes us happy.” — Charles Spurgeon

7. Examine Your “Inner Circle”

How to be happy - Dr. AxeChoose your friends and circle of influence carefully. Write down five people who make you better and three people who may be holding you back in life.

Schedule time with those five positive people who are encouraging you and adding happiness to your life, and simultaneously choose to give less time to the three people who are deflating your life.

He who walks with the wise, will be become wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.” – Proverbs 13:20

Choose friends that will hold you accountable, be honest with you and encourage you towards your goals and dreams. When you share your time with people that build you up and encourage you, then you can build lasting relationships, and these contribute directly to true happiness.

Studies have revealed that “happy people that have better social relationships have more pleasant everyday lives.” For example, very happy people have highly satisfying relationships with friends, romantic partners and family members and that, compared to their less happy peers, they report more positive events and emotions in their daily lives relative to negative ones.

Put your energy towards building meaningful deep relationships, even if it means having fewer of them.

8. Get Moving

How can you make your mood happy almost instantly? Move your body!

Start doing whatever type of exercise you enjoy and can stick with for more than a few weeks. Whether that be weight training, Burst training, running, Cross-fit, Barre, Pilates or group fitness classes, whatever type will get you to stay more physically active is a good option.

Exercise can really boost your overall mindset; studies have demonstrated that physical activity causes your body to increase HGH and endorphins, which help to improve your mood and self-esteem. There’s evidence that inactivity can lead to increased feelings of unhappiness, while regularly exercising does the opposite.

9. Get Inspired, Such as By Reading

How can you be happy again after loss or disappointment? Spend time bettering yourself in some way every day. Whether it is reading a book, magazine articles, or listening to uplifting music or motivational podcasts, find something that inspires you to keep moving forward, then include it in your daily routine.

Aiming to dedicate 30 minutes every day to reading an inspirational book or message of some sort is an excellent way to feel happier.

Reading can also take your mind off of problems that are filling you with worry by introducing you to new concepts and ideas. By reading another person’s viewpoint, you are able to open your mind, to see someone else’s viewpoint, and to be reminded that you are not alone in any problem.

10. Find and Follow Your Purpose

Start exploring why you are here on earth. Ask questions about yourself:

  • What is it that you love to do?How to be happy - Dr. Axe
  • What activities make you feel your best?
  • What do people love best about you?

Whether by taking personality profiles, or trying new hobbies, it is part of the journey of life to discover what we were designed to do. There is a plan and purpose for your life and a reason for you to be here. Isn’t it time to discover what that is?

What is your life’s true, deeper purpose and what legacy and impact do you want to have on the world? Your purpose could be to serve orphans, raise great children or help cure diseases, for example; whatever it is, focus in on what actions you can take to move towards this higher purpose.

It can be easy to get off track and to lose sight of the bigger picture, focusing on our small day-to-day obligations and forgetting what the end goal really is.

It takes some self-control to go after our true purpose and to stay focused over time, but the end result is an enormous sense of accomplishment and ongoing motivation to stick with higher goals.

“The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.” — David Viscott

11. Focus on Being the Solution

Focusing on solving others’ problems — and not ruminating on your own — is one of the best ways to feel happier. Serving others is an important two-fold practice: it brings more happiness to the lives of those who we serve, and we also feel more positive and joyful ourselves when we help other people, therefore we are able to deal with our own issues better.

Look at some of the great helpers of the world, like Mother Teresa for example; she had almost no material possessions, but was full of joy.

As researchers have concluded,

“Kindness and gratitude bear close relations with subjective happiness…Happy people not only desire to be kind, but they are also more attuned to the recognition of kindnesses, and more likely to behave in kind ways.” — A study on “Happy People Becoming Happier Through Kindness”

12. ACT Now

How to be happy - Dr. AxeWhat are three things that you know you need to do or want to do, but haven’t for whatever reason? Write down the three most important goals you want to accomplish, and then next to each goal list the things that are causing you to stall.

If procrastination keeps you from going after your goals, make a plan to drop any excuses and to start being more actionable.

Write down concrete steps and a timeline for what steps you will take and when you will do them.  If you want to get a degree, then set dates for how long you want to save, what you want to research, or when you will fill out your application. Make short, meaningful, realistic steps and check them off as you accomplish them!

Part of setting goals (and where many people get stuck) is overcoming obstacles. So it is good to think about the hurdles as well. How can you overcome the delays you are experiencing? At what step are you consistently getting stuck?

Does it mean shifting around your schedule or seeking help from someone more experienced than you are? Uncertainty about your next step and feeling ill-prepared are common, but it’s important to keep making progress toward your goals with the tools you have right now. Why wait for tomorrow when you can start today!

“If you wait for perfect conditions, you’ll never get anything done.” – Ecclesiastes 11:4 LB

13. Tell Your Money Where to Go

For many of us, we have become accustomed to living in debt. Whether we buy a car, house or want to buy a great Christmas gift, we have been taught to rely on our credit rather than money we actually have to purchase and to live. This creates a burden that will hang over your head all of the time.

Dave Ramsey said, “You must gain control over your money, or the lack of it will forever control you.” And he’s right.

Financial problems are one of the biggest causes of depression in the world today. Put money in its proper place and start to track your budget more closely. Maybe you will notice you’re spending a large amount of your income on wasteful purchases that don’t ultimately bring you any closer to experiencing happiness?

Look back at the lists you made of how you most like to spend your time and what your top goals are; now think about whether or not your current spending habits are supporting those activities and goals.

Keeping spending in check takes some self-control, but it can really pay off down the road. Studies show us that “self-control” may boost well-being by helping people avoid frequent conflict and to balance vice-virtue conflicts by favoring virtues.

Self-control positively contributes to happiness through avoiding and dealing with motivational conflict. Ask yourself what you can do to practice more self-control around money and to give yourself the best chance of avoiding added stress that comes from accumulating debt.

14. Go on a Mission Trip or Support a Mission

Billions of people around the world need help every single day. You can literally be a hero to someone and save someone’s life by How to be happy - Dr. Axevolunteering your time or resources to a charitable cause.

There are endless ways to help support different missions: you can volunteer to help a cause like those that provide clean water to populations in need, one that fights for animal rights, supports children living in impoverished areas, and many more.

Whatever mission it is that resonates with you most, there is a way to help support it. Going on a mission trip is an excellent way to meet other people who have similar values and passions as you do, so you can build up your inner circle with even more supportive and encouraging like-minded people.

If a mission trip is not a possibility for you, keep in mind there is plenty you can do within your very own home town to help others. Think about your own strengths and knowledge- what can you  do to help others through your natural abilities?

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”  Peter 4:10

15. Improve your Diet

Eating healthier can improve the health of your mind, body and spirit. Amazingly, the very foods that you eat can serve as natural remedies for anxiety, can fight depression, and can boost your mood. A healthy diet fosters happiness by not only allowing you to avoid life-crippling illnesses and conditions, but also by providing you with actual mood-boosting essential vitamins, trace minerals, healthy fats and more.

In terms of dietary choices, what makes people happy, according to studies?

  • Eating anti-inflammatory foods, especially 5+ servings of vegetables and fruits every day. Fresh fruits and vegetables provide important antioxidants that help with brain function, mood, energy levels, and ward off inflammation and stress-inducing diseases.  While you want to always try to eat more vegetables than fruits, both are packed with vitamins and minerals.
  • A healthy breakfast (assuming you’re not doing intermittent fasting). By doing this alone, you could be improving your diet by 33 percent! A healthy, filling breakfast gets your whole day started on the right foods —  giving you the energy and focus you need to practice all of the previous steps.
  • Avoiding ultra-processed foods, and perhaps periodically doing a whole body detox. By planning for a few weeks to “clean out” your body, you will leave yourself feeling more energized, and ready to get moving!
  • Drinking enough water daily in order to stay hydrated, and avoiding too much alcohol, caffeine and sugary drinks.
How to be happy - Dr. Axe

Related: Effects of Negative Thinking + How to Overcome Negativity Bias

Final Thoughts

  • How do you improve your own happiness? Many studies suggest that happiness is about more than luck or temporary feelings; being happy actually requires effort and is much like a skill; with that effort, happiness is likely achievable for anyone.
  • Research tells us that if you want to be happy in life, some of the most important priorities and habits include: practicing gratitude and forgiveness, speaking positive words, having a life purpose and living with intention, having positive relationships and focusing on others, exercising, and eating a healthy diet.

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