I Spent Months Trying to Feel Happier. Here’s What Worked (& What Very Much Didn’t)

You know those people who seem entirely unburdened by the crushing weight of their own existence? Those people whose anxiety typically hovers at non-calamitous levels? Those people for whom the words cognitive behavioral therapy mean nothing? I am not one of those people. I have never been one of those people. Instead, I’m a person for whom happiness takes work of the professional and pharmacological sort. So I embarked on a little challenge: to try four scientifically proven ways to feel happier (backed up by studies and expert opinions) to see if being more social or meditating every morning could move the needle, happiness-wise. From the good (exercise!) to the not so good (journaling—not for me!), here’s what I found.

16 Ways to Keep a Positive Mental Attitude When All You Wanna Do Is Scream

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They’re Not Kidding When They Say Meditation Is a Practice

The first method on my list? Meditation. Over the past ten years, I’ve written about a dozen stories about meditation—what might happen if you start meditatingan introduction to mindfulness meditation and a guide to chakra meditation, among others. Still, I was never really able to stick to meditation myself (bold of me to refuse to practice what I preach, I know). The thing is, when meditation is referred to as a ‘practice,’ that’s not a misnomer: It takes work. Every time I’d try to restart my meditation practice, I’d find myself thinking, I’m definitely doing this wrong. But here’s the thing: That’s OK.

Back in September 2019, I worked with Michelle Zarrin, an inspirational speaker, meditation teacher and spiritual guide, on a story about tips for sticking to a meditation practice. Her insights proved crucial to getting over the feeling that I was “failing” at meditation. She stressed that beginners shouldn’t expect to become experts in one day. “With meditation practice, all we have to do is maintain the discipline each day,” she notes. Even if you don’t feel like you’re getting something out of your mindful minutes at first, you’re still building the base for a successful practice.

While I still can’t say that I meditate regularly, I have found it to be a helpful tool for calming myself down and opening myself to new perspectives. If you, too, struggle to stick to consistent meditation, I have a few tips. First, don’t underestimate the power of guided meditation apps like HeadspaceCalm or Insight Timer. These easy-to-use platforms have free and paid options, including meditation timers, courses, group meditations and more. Though I mostly stick with Headspace’s timed guided meditations—20 minutes a day—there are tons of more advanced options as you get comfortable with the basics.

Also, each time I feel like I’m doing it wrong, I remind myself that not doing it “perfectly” (whatever that means) is part of the journey. Especially if you’re a perfectionist, a Virgo or both, not being immediately good at something is a hard pill to swallow. Try to remember that perfection isn’t the goal and resist the urge to throw in the towel because you’re not immediately an expert. “The more we expect results from our meditation practice,” Zarrin says, “the less we will attain results.” Going into a meditation practice expecting to be transformed immediately will only set you up for failure.

Know that it will take time to see results and, as corny as it sounds (who am I, even?!), simply enjoy the journey.

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Exercise Is a Great Option If the Stillness of Meditation Freaks You Out

Part of why I’m not an expert meditator is that I find the stillness (and relative silence, even in a guided meditation) uncomfortable. Movement, on the other hand, as a means to feel happier, is something I continue to get behind.

Exercise and I have always had a tumultuous relationship. At best, it’s sunshine, roses and defined triceps; at worst, it’s toxic. I typically get really into working out, I go too hard, get burnt out and then stop exercising for months (or years). But after my last bout of prolonged gym aversion, I challenged myself to get my relationship with exercise to a healthier place than it’s ever been. Once I got through the initial soreness that’s to be expected after neglecting the treadmill and dumbbells for a while, my body felt lighter and looser than it had in a long time. I also noticed that I was falling asleep easier and waking up more refreshed than usual. Mentally, I felt happier. Not happier in the sense that all of the world’s problems had gone away, but happier like a little dark cloud that had been hanging over my head moved slightly to the left.

It wasn’t just a placebo effect: Countless studies have shown that there’s a clear relationship between exercise and the brain. A few years ago, I spoke to Barbara Nosal, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at Newport Academy, who told me that 30 minutes or more of daily exercise “increases the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to the regulation of mood and social behavior, as well as sleep, appetite and memory, all of which contribute to a balanced mind and body.”

And helpfully—especially for the time-crunched among us—you don’t even need to do that much exercise to reap the rewards. During a study published in the Journal of Neurology and Clinical Practice, researchers found that low-intensity exercise for a cumulative total of 52 hours over the course of six months—about two hours a week—is enough to see serious brain benefits, including global cognition, processing speed and attention span and executive function (a set of mental skills that helps you get things done).

So yes, even though a 45-minute rowing class might feel like a chore on occasion, the mental and physical benefits are worth the hassle.

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Alexander Spatari/getty images

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Brunch with Friends (Even If Your Social Battery Runs Out Easily)

Alongside regular exercise, the other method I found most beneficial to my mental health was prioritizing social time with friends and family. As I embarked on my little happiness experiment, I came across a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing by Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, watching over patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. One of the top five regrets of the dying, she found, was not staying in touch with friends and family. She writes, “Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks, and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

Now, as far as I know, I have plenty of good years left, but I took Ware’s words to heart and put more effort into socializing as a means to feeling happier. Knowing that I do still need a good amount of alone time, I strategically planned ways to spend time with my loved ones that varied in terms of how emotionally draining they’d be. If I knew my Friday and Saturday would be spent bopping from bar to bar with a larger group of friends, I’d decide to take Sunday off and allow myself time to recharge. When I was feeling burnt out from in-person interaction, I opted to call an out-of-town friend for a quick FaceTime catch-up. (Not the same, for sure, but still fulfilling.)

Unsurprisingly, quality time with my favorite people made me feel happier—even if I do occasionally overschedule and end up feeling drained. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people who had more social interactions were happier on average than those who interacted less. In the study, researchers examined 256 participants, assessing the quantity of social interactions using an unobtrusive electronically activated voice recorder and self-reports of social interaction, happiness and social connectedness. They found that the more time people spent interacting socially during a particular hour, the happier they felt. In other words, someone who spoke to others for 40 minutes was happier during the hour than someone who spoke for only ten minutes during that 60-minute period.

Even if I have to counter a weekend of three-hour brunches and an ill-advised karaoke session (ill-advised on the part of those listening to my friends and I) with a quiet day featuring a new book, a YouTube yoga class and some meditation, I can’t overstate how much even this ambivert gets from palling around.

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Lastly, Journaling Might Work for You, but It Very Much Did Not for Me

Finally, the part of my happiness experiment I clicked with the least: journaling. Trust me, I’ve seen the aesthetic morning routine TikToks in which a woman who looks like she’s spent an hour and a half in hair and makeup wakes up, immediately opens her monogrammed journal and pours her heart out onto its pages. I’ve also read the research that supports journaling as a method for feeling happier. Case in point: this 2013 study by researchers at the University of Michigan that showed that, among people with major depression, journaling for 20 minutes a day lowered their depression scores significantly.

It's not for me, folks. I wanted to like journaling, I really did. I just not one of those TikTok girlies. I tried journaling first thing in the morning, in the middle of the day and before I went to bed. When I say journaling, by the way, I mean this: I’d leave my phone in another room, sit down with a notebook and try to put pen to paper for ten to 15 minutes. Some days I found myself regurgitating the events of my day: ‘I woke up kind of late today and felt super tired, then I made coffee and got to work.’ (Snooze.) Other days I wrote about how much I wasn’t liking journaling: ‘What do people get out of this? What am I even supposed to be writing? Are those TikTokers faking it and just scribbling nonsense?’

It’s important to note that I take responsibility for this experiment flopping: I write for a living, meaning my brain has filed any kind of writing as ‘work.’ Journaling, from what I’ve heard from others, isn’t supposed to feel like work at all. It’s supposed to be a creative outlet where you’re free to do or say whatever you want. And I really can see it being that for someone who’s less used to writing every day. Even though my attempts at journaling have fallen short of life changing, I’d still recommend it to anyone who doesn’t do what I do.

Happiness Takes Work, but I’m Bummed to Report It’s Totally Worth It 

While my experiment didn’t result in my transformation into one of those carefree people I mentioned above, it did force me to take more responsibility for my own happiness. Did I know that exercising and seeing my friends more would make me happy? Of course I did, but as someone who can be a bit lazy—and skeptical—when it comes to self-improvement, forcing myself to actively seek happiness and fulfillment proved to be really rewarding. (Even if I do still sometimes roll my eyes at the manifestation and vision boards of it all.)   

And honestly, who knows, maybe no one is naturally light and unburdened. Maybe some of you are just *that* good at journaling.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...