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Can Happiness Be Learned?

Happiness Isn't a Feeling — It's a Skill That Can Be Learned

For most of my life, I clung to the belief that I wasn't happy because I "just wasn't wired that way." At 13 years old, I escaped with my parents from the former Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States. There's a saying that Russians are good at three things: suffering, making others suffer, and complaining about suffering. It would be funny, if I didn't also think it was true. As a Russian Jewish immigrant, suffering had always been something I was good at.

Until a few years ago, my "grin and bear it" mentality stopped working. On the outside, I had achieved much success — a great career, loving family. But on the inside, stress, anxiety, and self-doubt overwhelmed me. I wasn't present for my family and wasn't doing my best at work. I lived with a near-constant feeling of dread.

Almost by accident I discovered dozens of studies that linked happiness to practising gratitude. Being a cynic, initially I thought they were ridiculous. But research by leading psychologists from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania showed that consistently practising gratitude — writing down several things you're grateful for every day or expressing thanks to others — improved both emotional well-being and health.

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I didn't think this simple practice would work for me. But I needed to try something new, so I decided to do a 30-day gratitude experiment. For a month, I wrote down three good things about my day. To my surprise, after a few days, I started feeling better. Within weeks, I felt more present and less stressed, and I was able to experience joy in the simplest everyday moments, like getting a hug from my daughter or enjoying my morning coffee.

What I learned was that happiness isn't just something you feel. It's a skill you can cultivate through practice, just like anything else you want to get better at. You can do it any time, and you don't have to wait until you have done enough, achieved enough, or perfectly arranged everything in your life. And the practices that help cultivate your happier skills are simple and don't require more than a few minutes a day. To help you fit these scientifically based practices into your busy schedule, I created a "Five-Minute Happier Workout," which I share in my book, Happier Now.

I recommend doing your "Five-Minute Happier Workout" in the morning, if possible, since the way you start your day significantly impacts how the day goes, including how you feel.

Step 1: Acceptance

Tuning in to your emotions allows you to make better decisions. Spend one or two minutes being still and silent. Just hit pause on your day and be. Close your eyes if you can. Be who you are right now, witnessing your thoughts and feelings without judgement, without feeling bad or needing to fix anything.

Acknowledging your difficult emotions — stress, anxiety, even loneliness — helps you experience them for a shorter amount of time and with less intensity. Accepting your emotions as they are helps you to make the best decisions about how to move forward, rather than to simply react from instinct.

Step 2: Gratitude

Being appreciative of the little things makes you happier. Write down three things you're grateful for. Be as specific as possible. "I'm grateful that there was less traffic on my way to work this morning" is better than "I'm grateful to have a job."

Practising gratitude regularly helps to develop a gratitude mindset, which has been shown to make you happier, regulate your mood, stimulate the brain's reward and pleasure centres, and increase your ability to cope with everyday stresses and traumatic life events.

Step 3: Intentional Kindness

Doing something nice makes you feel better and helps you connect with others. Do something kind. It can be as simple as texting a friend to check in. You can also combine gratitude with intentional kindness by sending an email or text to someone you appreciate and telling them why you feel that way. If you can't do something kind now, make a plan and set an intention to do it later in the day. Be specific about what you'll do.

Every kind act causes your brain to release oxytocin, which makes you happier. These small, positive interactions help you feel less isolated and more supported, which is especially helpful if you're going through a challenging time.

Step 4: The Bigger Why

Meaning increases motivation. Think about a few things you have to get done today and how they might serve a grander purpose. For example, is something on your to-do list helping another person or a group or organisation you're part of?

We derive a sense of meaning when we connect something we're good at to serving someone else or something bigger than ourselves. Having a sense of meaning increases your motivation to get stuff done, boosts your resilience, and helps you get through challenges with less stress.

Step 5: Self-Care

Treating yourself with compassion increases confidence and energy. Spend a few seconds talking to yourself in a supportive, kind way. If you're facing a challenge, remind yourself that you're more likely to get through it if you treat yourself with compassion rather than harshness.

Talking to yourself in a supportive way has the same benefits as getting support from a friend or family member. We're often our own harshest critic, and this is an opportunity to boost our confidence with a short pep talk.

When you're done, say thank you to yourself for sticking to your commitment and for taking some time to cultivate your happiness skills. You deserve your own gratitude.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Even the Difficult Ones) by Nataly Kogan.

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