How to create the conditions for happiness

Take a moment to visualize your perfect day. Does it involve a great night's sleep, followed by a hot breakfast, maybe a stack of fluffy pancakes drizzled with fresh maple syrup and a glass of freshly-squeezed juice? How about a leisurely stroll through a sun-dappled park?

If this sounds like a remote fantasy, you may want to reconsider how you spend your Sundays. The fact is most of us are hardwired to seek out things that make us happy — such as a good meal, physical activity or time with friends — yet we routinely put off things that promote our well-being.

Don't be too hard on yourself. Dr. Tim Sharp, clinical psychologist and founder of Australia's Happiness Institute, says we may not even realize we're doing it. "I think it is natural and self-evident [to want to be happy], but we've been distracted away in many ways from what we know is inherently right," he says.

Part of that distraction stems from our tendency to place a premium on work over personal time.

"Certainly in Australia and most of the developed countries we have become far too materialistic, and this is not necessarily because of capitalism, but we've confused material conditions with happiness. We've confused business with happiness."

While he clearly doesn't advocate selling all your worldly goods and moving to a cave in the Himalayas, Sharp suggests that with a little conscious effort, we can temper certain excesses and learn to create a simple, "happiness inducing context" in our busy lives.

Here are five small changes that can lead to huge gains in happiness.

Make it easy

You're far more likely to exercise if your gear is laid out in full view, and your gym does not involve a thirty-minute drive through traffic.

"The more decisions you have to make, the more steps you have to take in order to get to the exercise the less likely you are to do it. So you can have your clothes there ready, and you'll be more likely to put them on. If you're exercising close to home, you're more likely to do it," says Sharp.

Other tactics include keeping a store of healthy meals in your fridge and a standing date each week to do something you like, whether it's going to a movie, having a coffee with friends or simply sitting on the couch for a marathon veg-out session.

Just say no

And to that effect, the reverse also holds true. If you constantly dangle temptation in front of your face, you can bet that entire box of donuts isn't going to end up eating itself.

"Rather than tempting yourself with all sorts of unhealthy food choices, don't have them in your house," Sharp recommends. "If you open up your pantry and there's an apple and an orange and a banana and there's also chocolate biscuits, that's a difficult choice! Why put yourself in that position?" asks Sharp.

No brainer

Whenever we have an assignment due, we know blowing it off to go fishing will probably get us fired. This clear set of consequences is often all it takes to motivate us to get the report done. Now, what if you convinced yourself a happiness-related activity were equally important?

"Let's just say you decide meditation is going to be a good strategy for your mental well-being," says Sharp. "It's not a 'Should I?' It's just what you do. If I'm going to brush my teeth every morning at 7:30, I'm going to meditate at 7:45. It's a part of my day."

Think of it as a facet of your job — only one you really, really like.

Tangible reward
Sometimes we need a gold star for our efforts, even if it's proverbial. Sharp recommends assembling a team of personal cheerleaders to encourage you along your journey.

"Buddying up with someone, whether it's a teacher, or your wife, or a friend, and sharing your goals with that person so they can turn around and say, 'Oh, good on you,' can be really important. It's fantastic sometimes to get a pat on the back from everyone else," says Sharp.

Keep an eye on it
Just like your trusty workout clothes, keeping a visual tally of the positive things you want to achieve will serve as a constant reminder to keep at it.

"Notes on the fridge, or sticky notes above the computer, automatic reminders on your phone or computer ... having those reminders makes it a lot easier. And then if you start doing the right sorts of things, it becomes self-fulfilling. You feel good, so you want to do more good, and it feeds off itself in a positive way," says Sharp.

By making it simple to reinforce these positive habits, you should eventually forget you had to make an effort in the first place.

(Photo credit: AFP)