There are 1,440 minutes in a day, and while we can’t expect every moment to be blissful, we each have the means to increase our sense of joy, connection and well-being in our daily lives.
Two main strategies will help you achieve this. One, through simple actions you can train your brain to “tilt toward positivity,” says neuroscientist Alex Korb, Ph.D., author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. Two, you can live more harmoniously with your body’s natural rhythms by aligning activities like eating, sleeping and when you turn on and off the lights to your circadian clock.
Throughout the day this built-in internal timer regulates everything from body temperature to the release of hunger hormones. Follow these cues and you’ll flourish, disrupt them and you’ll experience an avalanche of disturbances, from insomnia and weight gain to foggy thinking and depression. “Circadian rhythm hygiene is every bit as important to good health as washing your hands,” says Christopher Colwell, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Circadian and Sleep Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
With expert advice, we’ve put together a template of what these two strategies would look like in an average day. Consider it a tick-tock of contentment. Adjust the timing to your needs but try to follow the general principles for a week or two. You’ll likely find you experience more happy moments each and every day.
6:30 a.m.: Wake up to an alarm clock that mimics the rising sun.
A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology shows that gradual light exposure during the last 30 minutes of sleep can increase alertness, enhance both mental and physical performance, and improve mood. The Soleil Sleep Spa and the Philips Wake-Up Light both combine dawn simulation with nature sounds like morning birds or ocean waves.
6:45 a.m.: Devote a few minutes before you get out of bed to a mindful check-in.
Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., author of MBSR Every Day: Daily Practices from the Heart of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, suggests asking yourself questions like, “How am I starting this day? How is my body feeling? How am I feeling emotionally?” If you notice you’re tense, Elisha suggests widening your arms to expand your chest, opening your mouth a few times to stretch out the jaw muscles and dropping your shoulders. “You want to begin your day from a place of ease,” Elisha says.
6:50 a.m.: Make Your bed.
This simple act creates a small sense of satisfaction and pride that sets a positive tone for the rest of your day. Charles Duhigg, author of the best-selling book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, notes that a daily tidying of the sheets correlates to better productivity and a greater sense of well-being.
7 a.m.: Shower with intention and attention.
“Mindful showers have transformed my life,” Elisha says. “I always thought of the morning shower as one of those daily tasks you have to do.” That changed when he bought a bar of rose-scented soap. The fragrance evoked sensory memories of the summers he spent at his grandmother’s house in Burlington, Vermont, and summoned feelings of love, warmth and comfort. Now, Elisha begins his showers by holding the bar of soap, inhaling its scent for a few deep breaths and paying attention to the feeling of the warm water against his skin. “The small splurge on a special soap is a way of taking care of yourself, and that can boost your feelings of self-worth,” he says.
7:30 a.m.: Eat breakfast within the first two hours of waking up.
“Delaying any longer than that and you’re skipping a meal, and that depletes your physical and mental energy,” says Lisa Dierks, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program. The ideal breakfast will include a protein, a grain and a fruit or vegetable. For example, plain Greek yogurt topped with berries and low-sugar granola.
8 a.m.: Take your first 10-minute dose of daily exercise.
Don’t have time for a lengthy workout every day? No sweat! Shorter bouts of exercise can boost your well-being just as effectively as a single sustained session. Maybe even more. One recent study at the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University showed that walking briskly for 10 minutes, three times a day, was significantly more effective in lowering blood pressure than a single half-hour session.
8:30 a.m.: Find ease during your morning commute.
Whether we battle bumper-to-bumper traffic or crowded subway cars, the commute to work can be stressful. The road to relaxation? Cultivating a sense of community with your fellow commuters. When Elisha finds himself getting tense on the drive to Los Angeles’ Center for Mindful Living, which he co-founded and where he practices as a clinical psychologist, he turns inward rather than venting at the drivers around him. “I ask myself, ‘What am I really needing right now? What are the other drivers around me needing?’ ” The answer often leads him to silently recite, “May we all have more ease and patience in this traffic.” This creates a shift, Elisha says, “that completely transforms my experience. I go from disconnection to connection and the whole frustrated mind seems to dissipate.”
9 a.m.: Center yourself before you transition to a new activity.
We often carry around the equivalent of an emotional doggy bag as we move through our day, bringing the stress of a harried morning to an important meeting or the fatigue of a three-hour business meeting to giving our kids a bath.
“A lot of time our focus gets stolen,” says Sam Chase, author of Yoga & the Pursuit of Happiness and co-owner of New York’s Yoga to the People studio. To begin a new activity fully present, he suggests slowing down for a moment of transition. “When I’m about to go into a new situation, I’ll pause and take three breaths right at the doorway,” he says. “That helps me let go of what I was doing and open myself up to whatever I’m entering without distraction.”
12:30 p.m.: Choose a true happy meal for lunch.
Skip the fast food and opt for a mix of protein, veggies, whole grains and healthy plant-based fats like those found in avocados or olive oil. “I think of food as edible happiness,” says chef and nutritionist Karen Wang Diggs, author of Happy Foods: Over 100 Mood-Boosting Recipes. “On the most fundamental level, food, beyond just sustaining us, has the capacity to nourish us on a deeper level.” When we eat heavily processed meals that are heavy in refined carbs, like white rice or pasta, and sugar, we set in motion a series of physiological responses that lead to the release of stress hormones, mood swings, fatigue, and, as a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed, a higher risk of depression.
1 p.m.: Take your second dose of daily exercise.
Want to get even more benefit from your brisk walk? Seek out some greenery—a tree-lined street, a local park, an urban garden amid city skyscrapers. Studies show that a walk in nature reduces activity in the part of the brain associated with rumination, that endless loop of doomsday thinking and self-reproach. Another way to put more bounce in your step is to share your walk with a co-worker or two. Strong relationships with co-workers are one of the most important factors in workplace satisfaction.
3 p.m.: Beat the mid-late afternoon slump with a healthy alternative to a sugary snack.
Karen suggests half an avocado with a sprinkling of sea salt and a dash of lemon juice; a slice of turkey or ham wrapped in a romaine lettuce leaf or ½ cup full-fat yogurt with a tablespoon of sunflower seeds. Instead of a cup of coffee—caffeine after 2 p.m. can interfere with sleep—try this energizing alternative: Keep a bottle of an essential oil, like rosemary or peppermint, in your desk drawer or purse. Place three drops in the palm of your hands, rub them together, hold your palms up to your face and inhale deeply for three breaths.
4:30 p.m.: Pause for a moment to consider your personal values.
Make a habit of taking a break from meetings and emails for a moment of self-reflection and inspiration. Erica Brown, a Jewish scholar and educator, suggests thinking about a different aspiration or emotion each day. In her new book Take Your Soul to Work: 365 Meditations on Every Day Leadership, she suggests pondering questions like, “What does your authentic self look like when no one is looking?” “When is the last time you shared something of beauty with those who work with you?” and “Name something you love so much that it can never fail you.”
6 p.m.: Build a better to-do list.
Before you leave your workplace for the day, create a to-do list for tomorrow. Along with jotting down the tasks you need to complete, make sure you’re carving out time in your day for things you love to do. Researcher Lahnna Catalino, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, calls this “prioritizing positivity.” Her research shows that it’s a far more effective tactic for achieving happiness than striving to feel joy, contentment, gratitude or peace every second of the day. Prioritizing positivity means different things to different people, Lahnna says. Two activities that elicit positive emotions in most people are connecting with a loved one and doing something physically active.
7 p.m.: Enjoy dinner with family or friends.
Close relationships with other people are a keystone to happiness, and the dinner table is a natural place for connecting. A new study of more than 11,000 adults shows that face-to-face interactions with friends and family members offer powerful protection against depression; contact by phone, text or emails don’t have the same power. Plus, a slew of studies have shown family meals lead to a wide range of benefits, including better grades and fewer incidences of behavior like smoking and drinking in teens.
7:30 p.m.: Close down your kitchen.
Scientists are discovering that when you eat is nearly as important as what you eat. “Our bodies are designed to take in calories over 12 hours and fast for 12, says Christopher, the neuroscientist. Research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego has shown that disrupting this natural order by, say, snacking at midnight or 2 a.m. leads not only to poor sleep and weight gain but also to the kind of metabolic disorders seen in people with diabetes. Now, a study just completed at Christopher’s lab suggests that mistimed eating can also impair memory and learning.
8 p.m.: Take your final dose of exercise.
Go for a post-dinner stroll but avoid intense aerobic exercise. We fall asleep when our core body temperature drops, says Christopher, and when you do a heavy workout you raise the body temperature, thwarting slumber.
9 p.m.: Eliminate sources of blue light two hours before you hit the hay.
“Light is a huge anchor for sleep,” says Colleen Ehrnstrom, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Denver, and co-author of the upcoming book End the Insomnia Struggle (coming October 2016). Just as the light of dawn awakens us, the dimming of light cues our body to produce melatonin, a hormone that quiets alertness and preps us for slumber. The kind of blue light that’s emitted by our electronics devices is especially disruptive. You can filter out some of the blue light by lowering the brightness of your screen, donning glasses with orange lenses or covering your screens with an orange filter. (You can find a range of products at lowbluelights.com.)
10:30 p.m.: Transition to bedtime with a nightly ritual.
“We often think that going to sleep is like shutting off a computer,” Alex says. “You just hit the power button and you shut your brain down. But, in fact, your brain requires a little more time to relax and unwind.” Along with brushing your teeth and cleansing your skin, prime yourself for sleep with simple yoga stretches, prayer or meditation.
11 p.m.: Lights out.
Spend your last few minutes of wakefulness noting a few things that you’re grateful for. These can be both big—the good health of your family—and small—the lemons ripening on your windowsill. Keeping a gratitude list will make you more optimistic, healthier and alert. You’ll also be more likely to make progress toward an important personal goal and more likely to help others.
Shelley Levitt is an editor at large for Live Happy magazine.