C'mon, Get Happy!

Can doing five simple things each day make you a whole lot happier all year? Two brave teens took our challenge to find out.

Real talk: It’s been a year. After five zillion (yes, that’s the official number) hours of Zoom school and wearing masks so long we’ve forgotten what our own chins look like, we’re all ready to feel a whole lot happier. The good news is that folks who study the science of happiness say increasing your joy is simpler than you might think. While it’s easy to assume it takes a major life change (like winning the lottery) to radically improve your mood, the truth is that adopting small, happiness-boosting habits can pay off big-time. Sound too good to be true? To put this theory to the test, we recruited two teens who said they’d love a little more joy in their lives and challenged them to try five expert-recommended happiness habits every day for two weeks. What were these habits, and did they actually make our subjects happier? Read on to find out.


1: Make Your Bed Each Morning

WHY IT WORKS: “The way you start your day really matters,” says Marline Francois-Madden, a therapist who works with teens. “If you get up and make your bed first thing, you’ve helped organize your space.” Making your bed not only tidies up your room, it gives you a feeling of productivity, all in about the same amount of time it takes you to brush your teeth (another important thing to remember to do each morning!).

HOW THEY DID: Emmanuella made her bed every day: “I didn’t think this habit would have a big impact on my mood. But now I don’t feel complete unless my bed is made.”

Daniel made his bed 12 out of 14 days: “At first it felt really weird to make my bed in . . . I can’t remember how long. But it felt great crossing something off my list first thing each morning.”

HOW TO DO IT: No, pulling your comforter over a tangle of sheets doesn’t count. Smooth your bottom sheet. Pull up your top sheet. Lay your comforter over both. Fluff your pillow. You’re done! 

2: List At Least Three Things You’re Grateful For

WHY IT WORKS: “Expressing gratitude creates what I call an upward spiral,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., who studied gratitude in high school students for a book about happiness. Teens who expressed gratitude ate more healthily, felt more motivated at school, and experienced more happiness—all of which gave them more things to be grateful for.

HOW THEY DID: Emmanuella found 37 reasons for gratitude, including: “my family, vanilla-scented perfume, my glasses, pizza, clean water, a pretty tree, soft pillows, virtual movie night with friends, a bite of food after being hungry. I never knew I had so much to be grateful for each day.”

Daniel found 21 reasons for gratitude, including: “Zoom, my calculator, my parents, my learner’s permit, my soccer team, Covid vaccines, good weather, an internet connection, sunsets, and my friends. I’m learning to appreciate basic things like health and sunshine!”

HOW TO DO IT: Grab some paper or open the notes app on your phone. Did you eat something delicious? Did someone do you a favor? Did you see or do something that made you smile? Make a note of it! Don’t forget to review your list at the end of each day. 

3: Give Someone a Compliment

WHY IT WORKS: Praising others doesn’t just make them feel good. It also builds your connection to them. Plus, giving compliments triggers a release of oxytocin, a hormone that makes you feel good. 

HOW THEY DID: Emmanuella gave 14 compliments: “I’m normally a shy person, so it was really hard at first. But I complimented my friend on his dog, my teacher on her hat, and my mother on a dress she made. They all really appreciated the compliments. Then I decided to switch things up and give myself a compliment. I appreciated my compliment too!”

Daniel gave 14 compliments: “I complimented my mom’s lasagna. She was really happy, even though she already knew it was amazing. Even when people know they’ve done a good job, they’re always happy when you point it out.”

HOW TO DO IT: Be sincere and specific, so the person knows you mean it. Instead of telling your dad he looks nice, say his haircut makes him look smart. Better yet, compliment something other than a person’s appearance—your best friend’s laugh, or your mom’s parking skills.

4: Get 10 Minutes of Physical Activity

WHY IT WORKS: When you move your body, your brain produces endorphins, chemicals that can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise also helps you sleep at night, so you wake up feeling rested instead of groggy and grumpy. 

HOW THEY DID: Emmanuella’s favorite activity was dancing. “I haven’t had the chance to be active lately—mostly I’m sitting in front of a screen. But I danced most days for the challenge, and it was nice to get my body moving again! Some days I danced for longer than the 10 minutes just because it brought me so much joy.”

Daniel added new activities to his routine. “I’m already really active because I’m on the track team and two soccer teams. But I went for a bike ride with a friend, which was a nice way to hang out after months of only seeing each other on Zoom.”

HOW TO DO IT: “Even if it’s just going for a walk or bike ride, being active should be a part of your daily life,” says Stephanie Savo, a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. Other great options include dancing in your room (check out TikTok for moves or invent your own), doing a yoga routine, or jumping rope. 

5: Do Something You Love

WHY IT WORKS: Studies have shown that when people are immersed in activities with no payoff other than pleasure—in other words, hobbies—their heart rates and stress levels go down, making them feel calmer and, yes, happier.

HOW THEY DID: Emmanuella watched movies, did her hair, and wrote poetry: “I wrote some poetry, and it felt so good to channel my creativity. I also love to do my hair. Even though it’s time- consuming, it feels really good to take care of myself.” 

Daniel worked on his art, practiced driving, and baked: “I baked some blueberry muffins for my family. Baking makes me feel relaxed—and also hungry! I was desperate for the muffins to come out of the oven. Luckily they were delicious.”

HOW TO DO IT: This one should be a no-brainer, but it can actually be hard to take the time to do something with no goal beyond joy. Schedule a date with yourself each day to do something fun: Doodle, skate, read a comic book, snuggle with your dog. It all counts!

One Week Later...

Emmanuella: “The challenge helped me realize that there is so much more to life than constantly doing schoolwork. My favorite habits were doing things that I love, making my bed, and complimenting people. After doing them for two weeks, these activities felt intrinsic to my day. I plan to continue doing them from now on.”

Daniel: “Whether it was complimenting a teammate or seeing my mom happy about the fact that I was making my bed, my days started improving once I noticed that other people’s days were improving as well. I did hate making my bed at first, but even that got easier. I hope I can continue doing all of the habits.

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