A Therapist Describes 3 Ways To Reclaim Your Hope And Happiness

Which path to happiness will you choose today?

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | March 2, 2023

Happiness is the holy grail of mental healthcare. We all want to wake up feeling inspired, move through our day with cascading positivity, go to sleep feeling warm, loved, and fulfilled – and repeat it again the next day.

Unfortunately, happiness is not something we can ever truly wrap our arms around. A large part of the human experience is dealing with life's inevitable ups and downs. Some days, things seem to click. Other days, we feel like we're playing defense or simply attempting to minimize the damage.

The truth is that life is too dynamic for any of us to ever feel like we have a firm grip on happiness. It's important to understand this so you don't start to think there's something wrong with you every time you temporarily lose touch with your positivity.

It's also important to understand that happiness comes in different forms and flavors. Sometimes, digging yourself out of a mental rut is more about matching the right flavor of happiness to your needs than it is about rediscovering your happiness in an abstract, all-encompassing sense.

Here are three research-backed pathways to happiness you can choose from when the voice in the pit of your stomach tells you it's time to make a change.

#1. Tap into 'passive happiness'

Being happy can mean many different things. Sometimes, it's about laughter, love, movement, and passion. Other times, it's more about balance, calm, quietude, and serenity.

Don't overlook these 'passive' states of happiness. They can help you bridge the gap between the times you are having fun while, say, being physically active or at a social hour with a group of friends.

Passive happiness is a natural complement to active happiness. Both states are fleeting, so when one fades try your best to invoke the other. Here are a few ways you can tap into your passive happiness:

  • Practice mindfulness. Focus on the present moment, act purposefully, and allow your internal thoughts to enmesh with your external environment. According to a recent study published in Acta Psychologica, mindfulness can mitigate emotional dysregulation.
  • Be grateful. Take time throughout the course of your day to reflect on the things that are most important to you. Spend time in nature. Show appreciation for others and be thankful when you receive it back.
  • Forgive. Let go of the past. Don't harbor resentment or hold grudges. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that forgiveness, as opposed to revenge, helped restore people's sense of humanity and belongingness. If you find yourself being reluctant to forgive someone who has hurt you, ask yourself what your personal barriers to forgiveness are and take time to reflect on how remaining in an unforgiving state is affecting your emotional well-being.

#2. Tap into 'flow states'

Another pathway to happiness has to do with finding and engaging in activities that capture all of your attention. These activities can put you in a trance-like state, called a 'flow state,' where you are fully engrossed in your current task.

Flow states can be especially helpful if you've been ruminating on a specific negative thought or if you're finding it difficult to regulate your emotions.

There is no shortage of activities that can induce a state of flow – the trick is finding one or two that work for you. For example, it might be a physical activity like cycling, tennis, or golfing. It could be a hobby like knitting or doing a puzzle or crossword. You might even be able to find a state of flow at work when you're locked in on completing a challenging yet fulfilling task.

#3. Tap into meaning

A third pathway to happiness has to do with using your strengths to contribute to a cause that is greater than yourself – in other words, tapping into feelings of fulfillment that come from helping others in need.

This can be counterintuitive because it often involves hard work and sacrifice. However, knowing that you are using your energy to create a positive change in the world can re-instill that warm glow you feel when you know your efforts are not being wasted.

In line with this, a recent study published in PLOS-ONE found that meaningful endeavors such as acts of heroism, parenthood, and educational and occupational achievement, almost always involve some amount of pain and sacrifice. However, they imbue us with a strong sense of meaning and commitment, as (1) effortful behavior is more likely to lead to a sense of competence and (2) undergoing difficult endeavors with other people builds social bonding, which is also a powerful source of meaning.