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How to be happy

The pursuit of happiness is one of life’s fundamental quests. But what does it mean to be happy? And where can we find what we’re searching for?

The real answer is that happiness is already within us. As former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder of the Headspace app, once put it: “To seek happiness is natural. But to look for it outside of ourselves, as though it is dependent on something in the future, is one sure way to never find it.”

Granted, our sense of happiness can sometimes become clouded by circumstances, thoughts, or feelings; we might even think it is something we’ll never experience again. But it’s always there, even if buried deep. All we have to do, in understanding how to be more happy, is make the mental space to rediscover and reconnect with this most natural emotion.

That’s where meditation can help, because happiness is essentially a state of mind. When we learn meditation, we are learning how to be happy. Because by sitting with the mind and allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, we are nurturing the mind to be calmer, clearer, and more content — essentially creating the conditions for happiness to arise.

Remember the blue sky

Headspace’s Blue Sky animation is a good place to start when examining the nature of the mind, the principles of meditation, and how to have a happy life.

It compares the mind to a bright blue sky, obscured by the clouds of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Meditation is what fosters an awareness that allows us to see our negative thoughts and storylines for what they are — passing cloud cover. With clarity, we come to understand the blue sky is always there, no matter what we are feeling.


Watch a 1-minute meditation video

The blue sky is a perfect metaphor for the mind. And no matter what happens in life, it's always worth looking for it.

Remember the Blue Sky - Headspace

We could easily compare our underlying happiness to the blue sky, too. As Andy says: “Happiness is not the fleeting emotion of excitement that comes and goes, but rather a deep sense of contentment that is everlasting.”

Of course, as we all know, knowing this and experiencing this can be two different things. But once we cut through all the mental noise and see through the illusion of thought — happiness, contentment, love, and kindness are the innate qualities we can increasingly experience.

"Internally, the habitual patterns or our conditioning can sometimes be very strong,” says Andy. “So we may naturally have a restless mind or frequently feel frustrated, irritated, sad, critical, and so on. We might mistakenly believe this is who we are, or the sum total of the mind, but this forgets that thoughts and feelings are simply on the surface of the mind.”

It’s not only thoughts and feelings that can obscure our happiness; high expectations and being attached to a certain outcome can also hinder how happy we feel. We’ve all heard it said: “If only I could have this or that, or be here or there, I’d be happy …”

But this kind of thinking — whether it puts huge expectations on ourselves or others — removes us from the present moment and projects us into the future; it removes us from reality to an imagined place … and happiness in the moment becomes impossible.

The good news is that the mind can be trained to become stronger, like a muscle, and so accessing this healthier and happier place — free of expectation, free of storyline, free of self-made obstacles — becomes easier to do, with patience and practice.

Meditation for happiness

So how exactly do we exercise the mind and learn how to be a happier person? Firstly, we should remember that happiness does not always need to leave us jumping for joy with a broad smile on our face.

Sometimes, an underlying sense of ease and contentment is enough … and meditation can help to support that. It is a tool that offers skills and techniques that can be applied to everyday life.

Among these techniques, as taught on the Headspace app, is noting — the skill of stepping back from the mind and simply noting what arises without getting caught up in a train of thought.

When we sit to practice, distracting thoughts and feelings will arise … but we let them go by returning to our focus to the breath. The more we note and release a thought, the more we teach ourselves to let go of unhelpful thoughts when they arise during the rest of our day.

Andy explains: "We do not need to note every single thought or feeling, but simply notice when we are caught up in something so completely that we have lost our awareness. The moment we realize we’ve been distracted, we use ‘noting’ to create a bit of space, and to gain some clarity and learn more about the habits, tendencies, and conditioning of the thinking mind.”

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Take two minutes, try the noting technique

The Noting technique - Headspace

Visualization is another technique to help create that space in the mind and body for thoughts to move and change. With a sunlight visualization, for example, we imagine rays of light filling our body from crown to toe, melting away negative thoughts, tension, or troublesome feelings, and allowing us to embrace how to get happy.

“There's an idea that happiness exists somewhere else,” says Andy. “So when we literally chase after happiness, we move away from the present moment to another place. Ironically, the more we chase it externally, the further we move away from happiness.”

There is also the loving kindness technique, where we focus on the happiness of others to help us learn how to find joy in ourselves.

“The interesting thing is that when we focus on the happiness of others, we immediately find ourselves in the present moment,” says Andy. “ So not only are we benefiting others by having a more open, empathetic mind, we are also benefiting ourselves by being more present and experiencing more happiness.”

The Headspace app offers specific guided meditations and courses to help us unlock many of the key attributes of happiness, like self-esteem, healthy relationships, appreciation, and kindness. It also offers resources for overcoming some of the experiences that can get in the way of being happy, like stress, sadness, everyday anxiety and pain.

The science of happiness

Humans have evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And through our actions, we can further boost the elements of our brain that help with becoming happy.

Dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are three of the chemicals that play a key role in our happiness. A study published in the journal ‘Cognitive Brain Research’ found meditation increased dopamine release by 65%, while other research has suggested meditation can also boost endorphins and serotonin.

Among the key areas of the brain activated when we experience happiness is the prefrontal cortex — our emotional regulator and processing center. Studies using MRI scans show that a regular meditation practice can make the prefrontal cortex thicker. And while it does so, the amygdala, which regulates our stress and fear, shrinks and improves our ability to cope with uncomfortable situations.

But there is of course more to happiness than chemicals, and leading thinkers on the topic are increasingly teaching us how to change the brain to help us with how to be happy in life.

2 science-backed ways to increase happiness

1. Build productive habits. Professor Lauri Santos, who teaches The Science of Well-Being as an online Yale University course, advises students “the data suggests that becoming happier is a lot like learning to play the violin or row crew. They’re not impossible to do. You just have to commit to practicing.

"About 50% of our happiness is genetic. So yes, some people are predisposed to being unhappy, and they might not think it's worth it to seek out these resources, or even realize they could feel better,” she says. “People also assume that our mood is dictated mostly by what happens to us, but that's only 10% of it. The good news is that 40% of our happiness is under our conscious control, and 40% is a lot. It's just a matter of doing the work."

The real magic here is how our brain’s biology and our habits can combine to rewire the mind, making us happier. Through a process called neuroplasticity, the brain changes over time as it reacts to new experiences and actions. So the more we allow ourselves to be happier and engage in habits that bring us joy, the more content we naturally become.

2. Start a meditation practice. A regular meditation practice for just ten minutes a day is enough to make significant improvements to our well-being.

Research of 121 volunteers found that 10 days of Headspace resulted in a 16-percent increase in happiness. In that same study, people reported feeling substantially fewer negative emotions than the average person after using Headspace for 10 days.

With meditation, we can also change the brain through this same neuroplasticity process and effect positive change to help us with staying happy.

None of us know how to be happy all the time. That would be impossible, and not even desirable, as our rich range of emotions is what makes life interesting.

But what we can control, with practice, is how we react to these feelings to not give them too much power over us. By ceasing the search for always being happy, we can shift our perspective and live in comfort with all the emotions we experience in life. And the more we can make these shifts, the happier we will ultimately feel in our lives.