How to Get Back to Happy in 2022

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When you think of starting over, what do you picture? Whatever it is, all it takes to initiate a new beginning is the courage to try — sometimes under new circumstances, and other times, in the life you currently have. In this month’s Shondaland series, you’ll hear the stories of incredible people who have turned their challenges into catalysts, and some who have decided to step into something new all on their own.

Our moods are at an all-time low. Depression rates have tripled in recent years. Many people have reported feeling continuously stressed or anxious. Indeed, we’ve deviated a bit from a sense of happiness. But there’s good news: Getting back to a place of happiness is doable.

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  • If there was ever anyone to talk with about happiness, it would be the woman behind The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin. The best-selling author wrote the popular book in 2009 after realizing something was missing in her life — beyond her solid marriage, successful career, and healthy children. She set out to explore areas in which she could make herself happier and in the process became an expert on the art of happiness. Now Rubin dedicates her days to helping others find their own sense of happiness through her Happier podcast, her many books, and the Happier App.

    “The research shows that about 50 percent of your happiness level is genetically determined,” says Rubin. “So, some people are Eeyores, and some people are Tiggers, from birth. About 10 to 20 percent is life circumstances. That’s like age, health, wealth, income, occupation, and marital status. You have some control over that. And all the rest is very much shaped by your conscious thoughts and actions. So, that’s where we can really do our own Happiness Project. And that’s a lot. It can make a big difference.”

    With that, Shondaland caught up with Rubin, who gave us some strategies for returning to our own state of happiness in 2022.

    NICOLE PAJER: How the heck do we get back to a place of happiness?

    GRETCHEN RUBIN: You often will see advice like “this is the best way,” or “this is the right way,” or “these are the three most important things you can do.” But we’re in different circumstances, we have different interests, different values, different weaknesses, and different strengths. So, you really have to begin by looking at yourself. The essence of The Happiness Project is “Well, what do I need, because maybe I’m feeling like I’m staying up way too late binge-watching TV, and I’m exhausted all the time?” Or maybe “I feel like I’m disconnected with my friends. Because I’m not going to the office, I’m not going out after work the way I used to. So, I need to work on my friendships.” Or maybe “Because now that I’m working from home, I’m just working all the time, and I’m not taking time to read a novel or walk in the park.” So, the first thing to do is to look at your own life and say, “What do I need?”

    How to Get Back to Happy in 2022
    © Amazon The Happiness Project, Tenth Anniversary Edition: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun

    $11.19

    NP: What’s a good way to get in touch with what you really need?

    GR: Writing it down. With journaling, people can identify patterns, get a greater sense of control, and get more perspective. But it can feel very overwhelming. A one-sentence journal, even for a very busy person, is manageable. It’s enough to track your moods, your energy level, and to start to notice those patterns in yourself. Some people like the convenience of an app; it’s always in your pockets. So, there’s a one-sentence journal in the Happier App. And some people want to go analog with a pen and paper. You can jot down whatever you’re thinking and feeling and let patterns bubble up. You could track something specific, like your mood. If you’re going through a big transition that’s causing you a lot of anxiety, you might start tracking “okay, I’m starting my side hustle” or “I’m starting this new job with my new career and just taking notes about that.”

    A one-sentence journal is also really valuable to remind you of how far you’ve come. Many of us are very forward-looking and think about everything that we need to do. This can be like your “ta-da” of reminding you of everything that you’ve accomplished. And many people get a lot of encouragement and energy when they remind themselves of what they’ve already done. So, if you’re feeling really anxious because you’re starting a new job, writing down something like “oh, I finally figured out how to get into Excel” or “now I know the secret ladies’ room,” or whatever it is, can help you gain perspective and a sense of control.

    Notice what’s causing you anxiety. Do you keep writing about interpersonal challenges? Or is it new technology that seems to be emerging? You can spot patterns that way. And then you can flip back over a month and realize, “Wow, I may feel like I’m still new here, but I sure know a lot more than I did when I started.” Some people use it as a gratitude journal. We can make ourselves happier by focusing on the good things that have happened to us.

    NP: Why is January 1 a good time to start thinking about happiness?

    GR: It’s a catalyst for self-reflection. I’m a big fan of anything that gets us to stop and think about our lives, whether that’s January 1, a milestone birthday, or an important anniversary. In the tumult of everyday life, we often don’t step back and think about “well, what can I do to be happier?” The most important step is to stop and think about it. And there is something about starting a new year where it feels like a clean slate, a fresh beginning.

    On the Happier podcast, which I do with my sister, we always do a one-word theme for the year. So, you pick a theme that is your grand aim. In 2021, my word was “open.” I wanted to be open to new ideas, new ways of working. My sister’s was “butterfly” because she wanted to come out of her pandemic cocoon and engage with more people. A one-word theme is a really fun way to think about your grand intention for the whole year.

    We also do a “21 for 21” list, which is where you write down 21 things you want to get done. These are things like “I need to get my Real ID” or “I want to make a playlist of new music” or “I want to try cryotherapy” –– things that I would really like to get this done this year, some fun, some challenging. People have done so many fun things with these lists, like 21 fun things they want to do, 21 restaurants to eat at, or 21 hikes to try. I want to delegate 22 things in 2022 because I am not good at delegating. But I love to delegate once I’ve done it.

    We also do a challenge every year to do something for a certain amount of time. So, we did walk 20 in ’20, where people would walk 20 minutes in 2020. And then for 2021, we did read 21 in ’21, challenging people to read at least 21 minutes a day in 2021. Anybody can do this. They could say, “I want to garden,” or “I want to make art,” or “I want to practice guitar.” There is an excitement and a magic to the year. It kind of captures our imagination. And we should harness that.

    NP: How can we make those 2022 resolutions stick?

    GR: Sometimes people expect to be motivated by motivation. They’re like, “You know what I want from 2022? I want this, this, this. And I want it so badly that it will happen because I’m so motivated.” And that is not how change happens. So, never expect to be motivated by motivation. You always have to think about “well, how am I going to make this actually happen? How do I make it concrete and manageable and really identify for myself the way that it would happen?” If you say, “I want to eat healthier,” that could mean 100 different things. Do I mean I’m not going to eat junk food? Do I mean I’m giving up sugar? Do I mean that I’m going to cook a healthy dinner every night? Does it mean I’m going to go to the farmers market every Sunday? Does it mean I’m going to stop drinking caffeine? Am I going to have a sober January? There’s a lot of different ways, all of which could be really great for people. But we really need to get to the point where it’s very specific and very concrete so we know how to monitor whether we’re doing it or not.

    NP: How hard is it to reconnect with your own sense of happiness?

    GR: One thing that’s been very striking to me ever since I wrote The Happiness Project is how many people are surprised by the idea that they have any control over their happiness at all. They think that they just have to take things as they come, whereas in my observation, for most people there’s some low-hanging fruit. If only to go to bed a little bit earlier to increase your energy level or to keep your keys in the same place every night so you’re not searching for your keys. With a little bit of reflection, it is possible to make small changes. And small changes can often have surprisingly big results. We just need to take time to step back and say, “What would a happier life look like for me? And what are some steps that I could take to try to create that?” Not everything is within your control, but some things are.

    NP: What are some of the changes you’ve made to your own life that have made a big difference in your own happiness?

    GR: I quit sugar. I’m one of these super low-carb people that you read about. I’ve become much more zealous about things like getting enough sleep and getting morning light. I walk for at least 20 minutes a day. I do high-intensity weight training twice a week. I try to stand up more throughout the day. I’ve noticed a difference in my own level of energy and cheerfulness as I’ve taken care of my body.

    I do a lot more to engage with other people. I’ve started a couple of groups. I’m in so many groups now because I love groups as a way to engage with other people. It’s efficient for time and energy. Friendship takes time, and a lot of busy people don’t have a lot of time. So, I’m a big fan of that. I’m always looking for new ways to build the habits that will add to my happiness.

    NP: What other tools do you have for us to help with finding happiness?

    GR: I have different techniques for helping people stick to their habits, like my Don’t Break the Chain Habit Tracker. Some people love this as an accountability tool. You mark off every day when you stick to a goal. The streak is what works for them. Some people don’t like Don’t Break the Chain. It makes them feel choked and like the stakes are too high. I’ve created all these tools that are within the Happier App and with the journals, and they’re all very different because different people really thrive using different tools, even though often we try to jam ourselves into a single model.

    I also have a personality framework quiz on the Happier App that can help you figure out if you’re an upholder, questioner, obligor, or rebel. Anybody can use any tool potentially, but it’s definitely true that if you know which tendencies you belong to, you’re much more likely to know what’s going to work for you.

    And one of the quickest, easiest ways to make yourself feel happier is to listen to your favorite upbeat song. So, if you need an emergency hit right now, turn on your favorite song, and that might do the trick, at least in the short term.

    Nicole Pajer is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, AARP, Woman’s Day, Parade, Men’s Journal, Wired, Emmy Magazine, and others. Keep up with her adventures on Twitter at @nicolepajer.

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