Start right here with 10 steps to happiness

It doesn't take much. Adjustments to your life can be small and yet still have a huge effect. By Liz Hoggard
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The Independent Online

Remember, you deserve to be happy. We all do. It's good for you, so don't be embarrassed about making it a priority. You can pick up clues from what you like to think about, read and do with your free time. It's like being your own life detective - no one is more expert on what gives you pleasure. Remember life is not a competition. Authentic happiness comes from setting yourself higher goals or standards, not from comparing yourself with others. A happy life is one created by you - a unique creation that cannot be copied from someone else's recipe. Scientists are beginning to identify the roots of positive emotions. The following tips are based on the latest cutting-edge research into the new "science of happiness".

1 Have one hour of totally uninterrupted conversation with your partner every week. In the best relationships, we constantly make a bid for each other's attention: it could be a kiss, a squeeze, a text message. If you are single, call a friend you haven't spoken to in months. Friendship - fun, joy, mimicry, telling jokes - is an adult version of children's play, enabling us to develop valuable physical, social and mental skills. Give yourself permission to be warmer - people love it and no one will think you weird or intense.

2 Identify the hobby or activity that completely absorbs you, where you feel most yourself ("This is the real me") and time seems to stand still. It could be working, making music, playing sport. Psychologists call this a "flow activity", and people record the highest level of gratification afterwards. Being able to forget who we are temporarily is very enjoyable.

3 Be less of a perfectionist. People divide into two categories: "maximisers" and "satisfiers". The maximiser insists on looking at all the alternatives when out shopping before deciding what to buy. The satisfier, on the other hand, says: "That's good enough, that'll do me." The maximiser is doomed to misery in the modern world, because there is so much choice. Going out for a simple bite to eat turns into a trawl for haute cuisine, full of regret for all the choices not made.

4 Don't be a party wallflower. Self-absorption undermines happiness because it stops you from being brilliant at developing close relationships. Think of the most confident person you know and ask yourself how they behave, what they say, then practise doing these things yourself. This is called modelling, and psychologists say successful people do it without realising. Maintain eye contact, touch people (it releases the hormone oxytocin) and use changes in vocal pitch to make yourself sound more interesting. Talk to the other person about topics you think they might be interested in. If feedback is negative, or the conversation turns out to be boring, don't give up. Try a different topic or a different guest.

5 Have a good laugh at least once a day. It increases the blood-flow to the heart, jogs the muscles and provides an internal massage for all the organs. Having 100-200 belly laughs a day would be the equivalent of a high-impact workout and burning off 500 calories. On a bad day, give yourself a break. Switch off serious news and listen to a comedy station or CD of stand-up comedy.

6 Take half an hour of exercise three times a week and your general feeling of happiness will improve by 10-20 per cent. It doesn't need to be anything too masochistic. Gardening, amateur dramatics, even vacuuming counts: anything that gets you moving. Watching soaps on TV is a sign of mild depression. People who garden or go to the theatre are happier than those slumped in an armchair.

7 Smile. People think you look more sincere, sociable - and attractive. And, yes, faking it can work as smiling actually releases feel-good chemicals (endorphins).

8 Be your own best friend. Literally. You would defend a friend to the hilt if others bitched about them, so do the same for yourself. You can fight off your own pessimistic inner voice (usually distorted thinking based on strict parents or teachers) by concentrating on what went right during the day - it could be a pleasant conversation or a great haircut. And if something embarrassing happens, regard it as temporary. If you think about bad things in terms of "always" and "never", you have a permanent pessimistic style. Optimists blame bad events on temporary downturns ("sometimes", "lately"). They don't assume that everything is ruined. Of course, "reframing" (learning to identify and dispute automatic pessimistic thoughts) takes practice. Research shows that it takes 21 days to create a new habit pathway in the brain.

9 Give yourself a treat, whether you think you deserve it or not, and really savour it. We all need animal pleasures - a hot bath, glass of wine, a massage. Or have sex. Touching and orgasm release endorphins, whether it's going solo or with a partner.

10 Do a good turn for someone. It may sound worthy, but scientists have proved that altruism gives longer-lasting pleasure than a bar of chocolate or buying a new outfit. It triggers a cascade of positive effects, making us feel generous and capable. Anyone witnessing the good deed also benefits - they experience an emotion that psychologists call "elevation".

Liz Hoggard is the author of 'How to Be Happy: life-changing insights from the TV series Making Slough Happy'

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