How to be happier, make big changes and feel better

For longer than I care to admit, when I thought about how to be happier my mind went to my job. My body. My relationships. That is, once I graduated. Got a job I liked. Left a job I hated. Lost the last 10 lbs. Then I would be happier. 

I dutifully held my feet to the fire. Found fault in what I did wrong so I could redirect my efforts. And, of course, repeated my positive affirmations. So why wasn’t I happier? Or more satisfied? 

Well, I was doing it wrong. Giving up when I made a mistake made me feel worse than the mistake itself. Chastising myself didn’t make me do better. And then when a happy thing did happen, it didn’t make me happier. At least not for long. 

Today, I feel better than I ever have and am making bigger changes in my life. I’ve figured a lot of things out along the way, and books are part of that journey. Here are three that helped me and I continue to refer back to the concepts in each of them. (And pinky swear, I read them all the way through!)

The How of Happiness: The best news from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work is that we control up to 40% of our happiness. Research indicates that we’re born with about 50% of our “happiness setpoint.” Only 10% is related to circumstances, like a cash windfall or diagnosis. The rest is up to us and Sonja offers ten happiness activities to consider, based on your individuality. I especially like her work on gratitude, that goes beyond the typical advice. (BTW, I got to meet Sonja in 2019 when we both spoke at the MSMU Women’s Leadership Conference. I geeked out a little.)

Photo by Andre Furtado:

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: As a recovering perfectionist, this book offers practical advice for making big changes through small steps. Do you ever start out gung ho with, say, eliminating sugar, but then eat an Oreo and then think “what’s the use?” If you feel like “change is hard” Robert Maurer shows you that it doesn’t have to be. 

Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself: At least  92% of clients who coach with me need more self-compassion. If you’re over 50, for sure you’ve come to believe that chastising yourself for a Cheetos binge will prevent you from buying the next bag. Yeah, not so much. Kristen Neff shows how to be happier and healthier by being kind to yourself. Treat yourself like you would a good friend and you’re more likely to break out of unhelpful patterns. 

There you have it, proven strategies for how to be happier, make big changes and feel better about yourself. One small step at a time. 

I’ll be happy when I…

In my young adult years, I answered that question with things like things like:

…graduate from college

…pass the CPA exam

…start my “real” job

Later it was:

…make more money

…change careers

…buy a house

Like you, I’d heard that happiness has to come from inside. But what the heck does that actually mean?

The cool thing is, scientists are researching happiness.

In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky notes that “only about 10 percent of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations – that is, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.” She also reveals that half of our happiness is baked in – it’s our set point.

That means that fully 40% of our happiness is dictated by intentionally pursuing it.

We know happiness comes from the inside. But what does that actually mean? Ever wonder, "how can I be happy now, without waiting for it to come to me?"
Photo by Alyssa Stevenson on Unsplash

But don’t confuse this with hedonistic gratification, or the momentary pleasure derived from good food and fine wine, a Broadway show or a sell-out concert.

Lyubomirsky says of the people who intentionally pursue happiness, “They make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings.” And it’s these things that have a powerful affect on happiness, beyond our circumstances and set point.

The book lays out everyday happiness strategies including practices of gratitude and positive thinking, social connections, living in the present moment, managing stress, caring for your body and soul, and committing to your goals.

Interestingly, the research also indicates that the success of the practice in making someone happy depends on the person. Your friend might derive happiness from practicing gratitude, but for you the pursuit of personal goals lights you up. As you try different strategies, notice which ones are a genuine fit for you.

So many of us waste time waiting for future happiness that keeps us from fully enjoying – being happy in – the present moment. What a difference to live from a place of happiness, knowing we can create our own rather than waiting for it to come to us.

Want more on this? Read my post on What if Happiness was Your Starting Point here.


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