You are now in the main content area

International Day of Happiness: 6 non-negotiables to live a happy life

Easy action items to begin today
By: Lindsey Craig
March 17, 2023
Four people stand with their backs to the camera, with their arms around each other, staring out at hills and a valley below as the sun sets.

Building physical activity into the day can make us feel happier, says psychologist Diana Brecher. “Exercising outdoors, especially in nature, such as in a park, also increases a sense of well-being.” (Photo: Helena Lopes/UnSplash)

Did you know you can have an impact on how happy you are?

Three factors indicate our happiness, explains Toronto Metropolitan University psychologist Diana Brecher – genetic, circumstantial, and things that are under our control.

Research shows that 50 per cent of our happiness is based on our genetic makeup, Brecher says, such as our temperament. Ten per cent is based on life circumstances - and notably – 40 per cent comes from how we choose to live our lives.

“So if you're really lucky, you have all three - a genetic predisposition to happiness - you were raised in a safe, loving home, and you choose to engage in all kinds of activities that bring happiness,” she said.

“But even if your genetics lead you to be less happy, and your life circumstances were challenging, 40 percent of your happiness is still completely up to you, by what you choose to do and the attitudes you bring to situations,” she continued.

On International Day of Happiness, as we consider how to live a happy life, Brecher says we can feel joy by taking a few small, concrete actions each day.

“If you know what you need in the course of a day to be well, you can orchestrate that to happen,” she said. “And one good day after another turns into a happier life.”

Brecher says to achieve this, there are six non-negotiable items we should strive for each day.

“These non-negotiables honour the mind, heart, body and spirit,” she explained.

Below, learn about Brecher’s six daily non-negotiables to help create a happy life.

1. Meet your social needs

Aim to connect with a friend or loved one at least once each day.

Making this social connection is crucial, and whether it’s in-person, by phone, video call, email or text message, what matters most is that you feel the benefit from that engagement.

“The go-to method of communication for one person might be different for someone else. What’s most important is that you come away from that conversation feeling like you’ve genuinely connected,” she said.

She also says it’s important to talk about how you’re feeling with others, noting that sharing how we feel can help us feel a sense of belonging and connection.

“That’s important at any time, but especially given the impacts of the pandemic on our mental health,” she said. “Many people are struggling with a range of aftershocks - whether they’re financial, or the impact on their relationships, job change or loss. There are a whole host of challenges. This is an unprecedented time.”

2. Honour your body

The second non-negotiable is to honour what your body needs each day.

“Ask yourself, what do you need in the course of a day to feel well?” Brecher asked.

Whether it's going for a walk, jog or bike ride, doing yoga, an exercise class or playing a sport, it’s important to move every day.

Not only does physical activity make us more equipped for life’s physical demands, there are countless mental and emotional benefits too – including helping us cope with stress, improving our focus and concentration, giving us more energy, helping us sleep better, boosting our mood and more.

Given that many people are commuting less lately, some people are also moving less – and that needs to change.

“If, suddenly, you don't have that 45- minute commute to the office anymore, why not use that time to go for a walk or a jog or perhaps an exercise class?" she said. "Many of us now have this extra time - there are lots of effective ways we can use it." 

She also says those who are heading into the office, where possible, could consider an active commute - whether by walking, riding a bike, taking public transportation, or a combination. 

3. Engage your mind

Engage your mind in something that stimulates you each day.

This could involve playing a musical instrument, painting, building a model ship or pursuing a creative hobby.

“Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Whatever it is, fill your mind and spirit with it,” Brecher said.

Given that life can throw us a curveball and leave us feeling upset or frustrated by various situations, the psychologist explained that thoughtfully planning activities in advance can help give a sense of control.

“Relying on last-minute spontaneity could leave you empty handed, but if we can take control of something, it feels like a win. So whether it’s a plan to build or learn something, get that plan in motion,” she said.

She says doing so gives us a sense of gratitude - which can happen in three “time zones.”

“You can be grateful for something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will be happening. It’s another way of saying you’re looking forward to this wonderful thing you’re expecting. So, happiness is connected to our appreciation for the good things in our lives,” she said.

4. Nutrition

Eat with care and intention.

It’s important to choose foods that are good for our bodies and minds, Brecher says, noting that the food we eat has an impact on our overall energy, health and well-being.

We need to be intentional about what we eat, how much and how often.

“So often we turn to food for comfort and stimulation. A far more adaptive choice is to turn to food for nutrition and energy, and to our communities and our work for comfort and stimulation, respectively.”

5. Constructive rest and sleep 

Strive for constructive rest (from the work you are doing) and adequate sleep.

For the first part, Brecher says to focus on “not just flaking out on the couch” at the end of the day, but perhaps sitting in a yoga pose, doing some light stretching, or taking deliberate screen breaks to rest your eyes.

“This is where we really need to listen to what our bodies need,” she said.

Just as our bodies go through sleep cycles every 90 minutes, so too do our bodies go through 90-minute energy cycles during the day – and this too should be recognized.

“If you're feeling the urge to stand after sitting for a long period of time, give your body the chance to stretch. Don’t force yourself to sit through something when your body is saying, ‘I need to move around’.”

Exercise ‘snacks’

Mini exercise “snacks” can help with this, too.

For instance, adding reminders to the calendar on your phone or your computer can prompt you to get up and move a bit every hour or so. 

“Maybe you can step outside, get some fresh air and walk around?” Brecher said, noting that the app, “Big Stretch Reminder” can be programmed to pop up on your screen with a customized message encouraging you to get active. “These movements that we build into our day, every day, is what will sustain us long term.”

Good sleep hygiene is also key. We need to be intentional about getting the sleep we need to feel rested, energized and productive, she says. That means, if you need seven hours of sleep a night to feel rested, make sure to get seven hours.

“Our bodies want routine, the same way children want routine. Try to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time. If you find yourself falling asleep at 9 p.m., don't fight it. If you wake up at 6 a.m. and feel well rested, don’t toss and turn, simply start the day,” she said.

6. Work it - when to do what

Brecher also says to consider the various stages of the day (peak, trough (low point) and recovery) in terms of when we’re most or least productive, and structure our work accordingly when possible - since this can also affect our mood and performance.

If you’re a “morning lark” - i.e. you typically go to bed early and get up early, research by Daniel Pink shows that your best energy and mood is first thing in the morning - so that’s when you should tackle more complex, analytical work.

This also applies to “Third Birds” - those who tire around 11 p.m. and rise around 7 a.m.

But if you’re a “night owl”, research shows you should tackle more creative thinking in the late morning, since your mood improves with creative thinking and you’re looser and more flexible in your thinking. 

The more complex, analytical work should come at night, when you are your best - focused and energized.

For all three types, administrative tasks, such as scheduling meetings, are best done mid-afternoon - since that’s when energy usually dips.

"If you're trying to complete a project when you're exhausted and unfocused, you’re not going to be in a very good mood. But if your energy is soaring and you have a clear mind, you'll feel much happier as you're completing it," Brecher said.

Tools for a happier life

In addition to these six non-negotiables, Brecher said another tool to have at the ready could be a “joy kit” (first developed by Bonnie St. John & Allen Haines, authors of Micro Resilient Strategies).

“They describe it as a first aid kit for your mood,” Brecher said.

To create a “joy kit”, simply collect anything that brings you joy and a smile on your face. It could be tangible things to put in a box, or a digital file. Fill it with mementos, photos, videos, music, scents - anything that reminds you of moments of joy you have experienced at some point in your life.

“Keep it handy, and pull it out when you need a lift,” Brecher said.

As we recognize International Day of Happiness, she adds, “Of course, going on a dream trip can make you happy, but most of us can't all do that all the time. But if we can do these things each and every day, we’ll be well on our way to a happier life.”

More News