Our founding fathers worked tirelessly to ensure all U.S. citizens would be given the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” According to our founding documents, happiness is a core value of American society.
However, America has never been so unhappy. Just look at the rate of depression in teens today: at any given time, as many as 15% of adolescents are suffering from at least some symptoms of depression. In the U.S., the leading mental health disorder in teens is depression. In the 2019 World Happiness Report, America finished in 19th place, well below countries like Finland, Iceland, and Luxembourg.
Many experts point to America’s obsession with digital technology, and high rates of addiction, as general reasons why teens are getting so unhappy. For some, depression can be triggered by a major event. For example, if you just experienced the death of a loved one, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or any other major disappointment, it’s normal to feel sad. But your sadness shouldn’t go on forever.
What many teens don’t realize is that happiness is within their reach. You aren’t doomed to stay unhappy forever. You just have to take some action.
Five Things That Can Make You Happier
Below, we’ve outlined a few things you can try that are shown to increase happiness.
1. Get some exercise.
A mountain of evidence shows that exercise makes you happier and less anxious, too. It helps you release endorphins and build mastery. One recent literature review found that strength training improves your mood, even perhaps as well as mainstream therapies and antidepressants! (Gordon, 2018). While most research has looked at aerobic exercise or weight lifting, experts agree that you can choose any kind of workout you like, as long as it’s intense enough! The more you’re interested in the activity, the more motivated you will be to continue it for a while. To receive all the benefits of exercise, you need to be active least 3 times per week, for 30 minutes at a time.
2. Schedule fun activities.
Take out your calendar regularly and jot down something fun or rewarding you can do every day of the week. The possibilities are endless; the only rules are that you need to enjoy the experience. “Frequent positive experiences are both necessary and sufficient to produce the state we call happiness,” says Dr. Ed Diener, an expert on psychological wellbeing and an editor of Journal of Happiness Studies. “Thus, what we call happiness seems actually to be comprised of the frequent positives versus the infrequent negatives in our lives.”
In order to have this abundance of positive moments in our life, we need to create them. So, for example, tomorrow you can call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, and schedule a trip to the beach. On Wednesday you can curl up with the novel that everyone’s raving about and participate in a Paint Night. On Thursday you can jot down ice-skating, and on Friday you can go to a concert. “Attempting to cause as many positive events as you feel capable of–and being successful at most of them–is the quickest and most effective way to achieve happiness,” says Dr. John Reich.
3. Make yourself productive.
Accomplishing tasks make people happier, according to a concept in psychology called Behavioral Activation. As an example: when you’re feeling down, you might feel better after you cook a stew. Not just because you’ll get to eat it later, but because the very act of producing something gives you a sense of mastery! For the same reason, you’ll probably feel more upbeat after you clean your room, get your bike fixed, make your bed, or change the broken lightbulb. When teens actively go through their to-do lists, they increase their feelings of purpose and meaning in life. Accomplishments, however small, lift your mood and make you feel good about yourself. That’s why you’ll also feel happier when you finish a painting, build something by hand, or complete another type of creative project.
4. Contribute to the greater good.
Altruism is directly connected to happiness. Neuroscience imaging shows that people feel as good when they help others as they do when they eat. This feeling of pleasure has been dubbed the “helper’s high.” Whether it’s your time or your charity, giving to others is like giving to yourself. Ninety-four percent of volunteers say volunteering improves their mood, while 96% say it makes them feel more fulfilled. How many hours do you have to volunteer to get these benefits? Some researchers say 100 hours a year (about 2 hours a week) while others say it’s enough to just volunteer 40 hours a year!
5. Get enough sleep.
This might be the easiest and simplest advice of all. If you’re like most American adolescents, you’re not getting your minimum 8 hours of sleep per night—and you’re probably paying for it during the day. Lack of sleep leads to negative mood, concentration problems, impaired cognition, health issues, and more. Several studies have found that Americans are, as a whole, chronically sleep-deprived. The more sleep you lose, the more “sleep-debt” you have, and the worse you feel. Your sleep-debt can build up over days and months until you are functioning at a fraction of your optimal self—which is a pity. Sleep deprivation can also increase your risk of developing clinical depression.
On the other hand, being well-rested makes you happier. The Oxford-affiliated Living Well Index found that sleep was the most important factor in determining one’s happiness—even more than one’s income or social support. Those who said they were consistently “well-rested” also had the highest scores of wellbeing. So get your zzzs!
If You Have Depression
Reading this and shrugging, you don’t get it? Shaking your head no, this is never going to work, and anyway, I don’t have the energy for any of the things you mentioned?
Well. You might have depression. According to the DSM-5, when your sadness lasts longer than two weeks, and/or when you lose interest in many things you used to like, you probably are depressed.
If you’re concerned you might have depression, talk to someone. Whether it’s your parents, a teacher, school counselor, or even your best friend’s parents, any trusted adult can help point you in the right direction.
Thankfully, depression is so common, and treatable. You may benefit from a combination of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), and antidepressants if necessary. If your depression is really severe, it’s a good idea to consider mental health rehab centers for teens. There are residential (RTC), intensive outpatient (IOP), and partial hospitalization (PHP) programs specializing in teen depression. There are also dual diagnosis programs for teens who are struggling with both depression and addiction.
So, to answer your question.
Can you ever be happy?
The answer is yes.
With the right support, happiness is within your reach.