While self-help manuals offer countless complex strategies for boosting your mood, the most effective ways to become happy often require no effort at all. As simple as a walk on the beach, or two scoops of ice cream, here are five ways to instantly — and involuntarily — get happy.
The scent of nostalgia
Whether it's the smell of freshly-baked cinnamon buns cooling on a windowsill, or a juicy steak charbroiling on a hot grill, a whiff of something delicious can instantly lift the spirits. And while your stomach may play a role, Dr. Alan Hirch, a neurologist who specializes in smell and taste loss, says there's something a little more complex going on in the brain.
"Smell goes directly to the limbic system, which is the brain's emotional center. It's pure affect of our emotional sense," he says. "So more than any other sense, smell can draw up memories and invoke nostalgia from images of the past."
Recent studies have taken a closer look at the link between comfort foods and emotion, and found, unsurprisingly, that when we associate a certain food item with a happy memory, any contact with that particular meal can immediately make us feel good. It's something to think about when you're deciding on a second helping of mashed potatoes at the company picnic.
Let the sun shine
There's a reason you've tacked a magazine spread of Maui to your wall. For many, there's nothing like a bit of sunshine to perk up a flat mood.
"I love being tanned," says publicist Madga Jarota. "It sounds lame, but vitamin D makes a huge difference."
Of course, irresponsible sun exposure can actually increase your risk of getting melanoma. So be sure to slather on the sunscreen before stepping out for your daily dose of Vitamin D.
Dance, dance revolution
You may not care to admit it publicly, but let's be honest: at one point in your life, alone, and in the privacy of your bedroom, you've danced your tail off to a techno song.
Whether you care for the genre or not, songs that include a thumping bass line, inane lyrics and a 180 bpm have an indescribable capacity to raise spirits.
"Dance music, or anything that goes "unce, unce, unce" makes my heart beat faster, [my] chest tighter, and makes me feel like I want to scream …With joy. It doesn't feel like a heart attack, despite aforementioned description," jokes Toronto resident Edie Bandell-Vandenberg.
A side effect of dance music exposure is impromptu dance parties. The kind of spontaneous breakouts between two or more people that end in flailing limbs, lung-straining singalongs and unrestrained laughter.
And as everyone knows, nothing forges lifelong bonds faster than shared laughter — and the blackmail potential of the recorded images.
Waves of happiness
If I asked you to think of the most relaxing image out there, you very well might picture the ocean, stretches of sand and the gentle roar of waves.
In case you've ever wondered why spas tend to pipe ocean soundtracks through their speakers, seashore locations consistently reign at the top of lists of happy places. Research also shows binaural sounds — noises that results from the interaction between two different auditory impulses (such as the rush of the ocean) — increase relaxation.
Coupled with sunshine, and a cold drink, a visit to the shore is often enough to put anyone in a good mood.
You've got mail
Spend any time with a loved one, and it's easy to see why healthy social relationships are regularly found to be the greatest factor contributing to overall happiness.
So in an age of electronic interaction, receiving a personal letter in your physical mailbox can give you an unexpected thrill.
"I love opening my snail mail and finding a package," says engineer Valeh Aleyaseen. "This happened to me today and it was awesome!" Environmental services professional Maria Nicolaidis agrees. "Receiving a letter, pen and paper, is a lost art that I miss so much."
The best part is that, in this case, giving is as joyful as receiving. Try sending an old friend a postcard just to let her know she's on your mind. Your friend will get an unexpected thrill — and so will you.
The excitement before a trip
A clean house
Music from the ice cream truck
A beautiful sunset
A sleeping cat
The feeling of wind brushing against your face on a warm summer night
The earth's smell after a thunderstorm
Walking in the bread section of the market
(Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)