As Black women, we're prone to taking on too much, which means we're usually moving at such warp speed we seldom pause to take a breath, much less consider how we can bolster our sense of joy. It's not that we sit around moaning about how stressed we are. In fact, a recent University of Pennsylvania study found that Black women report more satisfaction with their lives than their White counterparts, in part because our expectations are more aligned with our economic realities. Yet, as we juggle our numerous commitments in a recession economy, many of us experience a slow leak in our joy. What we're really craving is the kind of contentment that puts a smile on our face no matter how low our bank balance drifts or how many nerves our loved ones are trampling. The problem is that happiness can feel so elusive. Like love and lightning, it seems to strike of its own accord.
But here's the good news: The latest in mood research shows that happiness isn't just a great hope; it's also a quest—a state of being that is within our ultimate control. Research conducted by David Lykken of the University of Minnesota shows that we're all born with a happiness set point, a dose of inherent joy that accounts for about half of our bliss bank. The same study notes that another 10 percent or so is based on our levels of income and education. That leaves us with approximately 40 percent to play with—and that's where you come in. The first step is understanding that happiness isn't about having a perfect life; it's about choosing behaviors that can increase your joy. Writer Alice Walker puts it this way: "Any happiness you get, you've got to make yourself." Read on for surefire strategies to boost your bliss.
"I'm always anxious about things that will happen tomorrow," says Claire Sulmers, a fashion journalist in New York City. "I'm always thinking about the maybes and what-ifs." To quiet her champion-level worry brain, Sulmers learned to meditate. "It forces me to be still for at least 15 minutes each day," she says. "I focus on breathing and concentrate on the present moment." Researchers at the University of California Davis Center for Mind and Brain found that daily meditation has been linked to higher levels of telomerase—the enzyme that combats feelings of stress and promotes a sense of well-being. Another boon: Telomerase retards the cellular breakdown that leads to aging, preserving energy and vitality. So get cozy in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and breathe in through your nose for five seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth. Can't spare the full 15 minutes? Just five minutes of intentional breathing is enough to release tension from our bodies and lower blood pressure.
Savor other people's happiness
"Happiness is contagious," says Lama Choyin Rangdrol, an African-American teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. "Celebrate other people's joy and accomplishments as though they are your own. Join the party of happiness as a way of jump-starting and maintaining your own happiness."
Turn off the small screen
Your television is one of the biggest joy stealers: A 2008 University of Maryland study showed that the unhappiest people watch six or more hours of television each day. Not only does the barrage of advertising leave you yearning for things you don't have, but the time spent cradling the remote robs you of simple everyday experiences that can tip your happy meter. Instead of sitting on the sofa watching other folks having fun, go out and find your own. Even an activity as simple as putting on your shoes and going for an afternoon stroll is a step in the right direction. Even better, take a class in something you love or join a group that will force you to engage in an enjoyable activity outside your home consistently.
Forget the gym, head for the outdoors
A good mood may be only minutes away, but you're going to have to leave the house to get it. According to researchers at England's University of Essex, light exercise done in a natural environment—such as a park, outside by a lake or even in the backyard—elevated both mood and self-esteem in participants. The best news? You don't need to work out for hours to reap the rewards. The most significant happiness spike was felt after only five minutes. And here's another reason to lace up those sneakers: We all know that regular exercise is good medicine, but did you know that it can work as well as some of the most effective antidepressants? Renowned happiness researcher Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., found that 30 to 60 minutes of exercise four times a week can be as effective a mood enhancer as some of our most powerful psychiatric medicines.
Give what you can
When you're broke, it might seem counterintuitive that offering a hand—or even a couple of dollars—can lift your spirits. But when psychologist Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver gave two groups of students a small amount of cash to spend, the group that spent it on charity or gifts for others were far happier than the group of self-indulgers. When we give to others, we send a message to ourselves that our presence on the planet makes a difference—and that makes us feel great about ourselves. "Volunteering with children brings me a sense of peace when I'm stressed," says Sharron Steele of Washington, D.C. "The appreciation of the kids reminds me that little things make a big difference." Find your perfect cause at volunteermatch.com or 1-800-volunteer.org.
Stepping away from your everyday can help you gain perspective by giving you the me time you need to relax and refocus. Think quiet countrysides or serene beaches, not clubs and bars. The idea is to be in a place that allows you to tune in to yourself. Can't manage to swing the next flight to Jamaica? Take a day off from work for a home retreat. "Carve out a period to do absolutely nothing," suggests life coach Valorie Burton. "It might be 20 minutes to an hour. Sit or lie somewhere comfortable and pleasant and just be." If you're someone whose brain gets noisy when you just sit still, then read an inspirational book, take a long luxurious bath with lavender and Epsom salts, or go for a walk in a place that's conducive to a moving meditation, such as a churchyard or botanical garden.
Star in your own music video
Go ahead and pump up the volume, preferably while using your hairbrush as a mic or belting out your best shower solo. Better yet—get up and dance. Whether you choose to do Zumba (a kind of Latin dance exercise that sisters across the country are using to get back in shape) or simply to bust a move in your living room, you'll experience an immediate lift. "My quickest strategy to bring myself happiness is to put on one of my favorite tracks and pretend I'm in a music video," says Tiffany Dufu, mother of two and president of The White House Project in New York City. "I've brought myself five-minute—okay, maybe one-hour—bursts of joy this way ever since I can remember. In fact, when I was a little girl, I used to imagine how boring it would be to be a grown-up because I couldn't do my videos." Dufu has figured out that it's really hard to stay somber when you're grooving to an up-tempo tune, especially one that calls back on a happy memory. That's because activities like singing and dancing power up your mood by boosting the level of the feel-good hormone serotonin in your brain.
Get yours in bed—freely and frequently
In other words, plan to pay attention to your sweet spot just as often as you can. Research conducted at Duke University showed that you can reduce your physiological age by as much as six years just by having an orgasm 200 times a year—that's nearly four times per week. Who wouldn't want to cheer about that? But there are more immediate benefits as well: When you orgasm, you also release oxytocin, a chemical that can put you in a euphoric state for hours.
Declare your love
Experts say the single greatest predictor of joy is also one of the simplest: building and maintaining strong bonds with family and friends. Call up three people and tell them how much you love them, then go ahead and explain exactly what you so enjoy about their presence in your life. "There is nothing like an amazing girlfriend on the other end of the phone who always knows how to make you laugh at the absolute worst moments," says Karyn MacVean, a mother of two in Phoenix. If you're lucky enough to have such people in your life, don't wait another moment to tell them how much they mean to you.
That's right. You can pray yourself happy. According to a 2006 Pew Research report, a spiritual practice, even an occasional one, can reset your mood. "After a big challenge or crisis, I work to restore my joy through prayer," says Mia Hall, a faculty adviser in Brooklyn. When we surrender our problems to a higher power, we free ourselves from an enormous emotional weight. But the best news is for the steadfast: A 2007 study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that those who attended a faith service weekly—and nurtured friendships with three to five other members—reported the strongest satisfaction with their lives.
Squeeze in your z's
"Tired people are unhappy people," says professor and clinical psychologist Dr. Angela Neil-Barnett of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. "A lack of sleep places individuals at higher risk for depression and anxiety." So make sure you get eight to nine hours of shut-eye each night. For tips visit sleepbetter.org.
Pack your own personal happiness kit
"You know that you're going to have a down day at some point," says Bonnie St. John, author of How Strong Women Pray and Live Your Joy. "Why not prepare a first aid kit for your emotions? Fill a box or a bag with things that you know will cheer you up." What's in St. John's kit? "I have a picture of my teenage daughter when she was 5. I have a note my late mother wrote to me that says, 'Cherish yourself.' And chocolate is an essential." St. John reaches into her kit—a red tote bag—about three times a month. What might be the staples in your kit?
Create thinking space
When you finally take on that mile-high stack of papers you've been avoiding, your sense of accomplishment will send up the needle on your joy-o-meter. Set an alarm to do just five minutes of work at a time. For decluttering ideas, browse flylady.net.
Do only the next necessary thing
Some of our unhappiness stems from reviewing events we can't go back and fix, or worrying about what might befall us next year. Stop bracing for the worst and just do what's in front of you today. As writer Mark Twain once noted: "I've lived through some terrible things in my life—some of which actually happened." Not only is fretting an enormous waste of energy, but it also leaves less time for what can actually bring us calm—tackling our challenges as they arise.
Pay down your debt
Maybe money can't buy happiness, but owing nothing certainly brings a restful night's sleep. Just a few dollars each month toward retiring your debt will make you feel as if you're making progress. And to all you superwoman sisters: It's not selfish to put your financial health ahead of everyone else's. "One of the defining attributes of our culture is our dedication to loved ones," says Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments in Chicago. "So many women I meet put themselves in debt to help others. You have to make sure that you are financially stable before you help anybody else. That includes creating a budget, paying down debt and saving for retirement. Only then can you really help others." Go to myezbills.com and doxo.com to store and track all your online and paper bills in one place.
Learn to love nature's healing foods
Take broccoli, for example. Among nutritionists, it's a superstar, with as much calcium as a glass of milk, more vitamin C than an orange, and more fiber than a slice of whole wheat bread. It also fights breast cancer and may combat Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, so be sure to include it in your weekly menu.
"One of the ways I refill my happiness cup is to get together with close girlfriends for a good chat," says Kelly Vizzini, mother of three in Colorado Springs. Don't wait for a special occasion. Invite your girls for afternoon tea or signature cocktails or a slumber party talkfest. Studies show that social interactions with cheerful, supportive people can fill our cup to overflowing.
Believe in silver linings
Pema Chodron, author of When Things Fall Apart, recalls the day three decades ago when her then husband approached her in their yard in New Mexico with some news: He was having an affair and wanted a divorce. "I remember the sky and how huge it was," she wrote later. "I remember the sound of the river and the steam rising up from my tea. There was no time, no thought, there was nothing—just the light and a profound, limitless stillness. Then I regrouped and picked up a stone and threw it at him." As difficult as that experience was, Chodron, now a Buddhist teacher, says the pain she felt led her on a spiritual journey she might never have undertaken. "When there's a big disappointment," she notes, "we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure."
Buy less, do more
Psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich compared how happy we are when we invest in experiences—like travel or entertainment—versus possessions, such as cars, clothes or computers. Those who purchased experiences reported feeling more and longer lasting pleasure. And experiences go hand in hand with another key ingredient of happiness—positive social interaction. To begin your joy ride, visit excitations.com.
Go for a healing massage
If you're feeling low, relief may come in a pair of hands. Massage therapy has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. For a double dose of relaxation, add a few drops of lavender essential oil, which studies show also reduces stress. If you don't have the cash to splurge on a full-body rubdown, $25 at your nail salon will buy you 30 minutes of heaven in the pedicure chair, while someone rubs the pressure points on the soles of your feet.
Talk to someone
Having a loyal confidante to turn to when you're overwhelmed can ease tension. Just make sure it's a friend who truly wants what's best for you. And don't hesitate to connect with a good therapist. "I was in need of an emotional overhaul," says Ayana Jordan, a medical student in New York City. "Working with a therapist I was able to find happiness from within, rather than looking to the outside world for validation." To find a therapist, ask trusted friends for referrals or go to locator.apa.org.
Not because the other person deserves it, but simply because you need to put down the weight of that grudge you've been nursing. And while you're at it, forgive yourself for what you think was your biggest mistake. Just let it go. Forever.
Practice active gratitude
"Pause and reflect on what brings you joy here and now," suggests Andrea Pennington, M.D., founder and president of the Pennington Center for Health and Wellness in Silver Spring, Maryland. "By bringing your attention to these things, you amplify your sense of pleasure." In fact, research from UC Davis shows that actively practicing gratitude can increase a person's joy by 25 percent.
Find work you feel passionate about
Stuck in a job rut? "Don't make money your goal," says poet and author Maya Angelou. "Instead pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can't take their eyes off you." If you feel trapped in a go-nowhere gig, Pamela Mitchell's The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention can help you map out a plan for where you want to be, one step at a time. Even the planning—the dreaming with a purpose—will lift your mood.
Motivational speaker and executive coach Bonnie St. John learned to do exactly that. She's the first Black woman to ever win an Olympic medal as a ski racer—and because she had to have her right leg amputated when she was just 5 years old, she did it all on one leg. "If a one-legged African-American girl from San Diego with no money and no snow can go to the Olympics as a ski racer, anything is possible—including choosing to be happy," she says. "Joy is not dependent on everything that's going on around you. You can be the source of the joy in your own life. My life is proof of that." But how exactly can you "choose joy" if circumstances don't seem to be cooperating? "You take action to create the life you want," says St. John. "When I talk about joy, I'm not talking about flipping a switch so you can experience a constant 'ha, ha, ha!' But choosing to be joyful for one hour a day will give you the energy to make something good happen in your life."