Lessons in happiness: The surprisingly simple things that help you lead a happy life

Life can often be difficult. There will always be ups and downs. But sometimes, it can become so challenging that we find ourselves slipping into sheer misery — when everything, even the smallest thing, feels like a never-ending uphill struggle.

Because you'll need to be at the top of your game and have a successful, productive work life – happiness should be a priority. The opposite can hold you back and have a negative impact on your creativity, business and/or career.

Happiness is something we all strive for. Look on any self-help website or bookshelf and you’ll find that ‘being happy’ is the ultimate life goal.

So how do you get it? And when the world feels like it’s against you and nothing seems to be going right, how can you lift yourself from the depths of despair and laugh again?

The greatest thing about hard times is that they always teach us a lesson. They show us how strong we can be, and how we can adapt to keep our heads above water.

For me, I’ve learnt a few simple things that always put me back on track. Sometimes, it’ll take me a while to get there — but overall, the following tips and tricks never fail me. If you feel like you need a boost, refer back to this checklist like I do — and life and work will soon be happier again.

1. Acknowledge the Golden Triangle

A good friend of mine has this theory. He thinks happiness is based on three key things – home, love and work. He calls it the Golden Triangle. Something that we should all try to stand in the middle of, so we don’t slide off into oblivion.

He believes that if one of these isn’t going too well, but the other two are stable – all is pretty good with the world. But if two are out of kilt, that’s when things become challenging. All three – and it feels like the world is falling apart.

I love this simple theory. One must work on all three to ensure a happy, balanced life. If you’re feeling low, look at your own Golden Triangle. What steps can you immediately take to improve any of those three? Can you make any changes that will head you in the right direction? Write them down and set the wheels in motion. You’ll feel better for just addressing the situation and making an effort, however small, to move forward.

2. Accept what you can’t change and adapt

Now that you’ve considered what you can do to improve your life, accept that there will always be things you can’t change. Unmovable challenges that cause nothing but frustration.

Last year, my husband and I discovered we had rats in our new, period home. Rats! Naturally, we did all we could to eradicate them (poor little things – but they do spread disease) and after they'd been dealt with, they decided to die under our house. Which meant three or four months of the most horrendous smell of decay, followed by a daily fly infestation for weeks!

As we couldn't do anything about it, we just had to put up, and shut up. What we could change was our attitude to the situation. Yes, you can choose to be miserable and allow problems to take over. Or you could laugh, look on the bright side and make the best of things. Chose the latter and it will get you through those difficult times.

Accept the situation for what it is, change your attitude and learn to adapt, you’ll feel happier and in control.

3. Start each day with happy music

I like to wake up to the Today programme on Radio 4, but always listen to some happy tunes afterwards. Disco is good fun. Or a little soul music.

Presently — because the weather’s nice — I’m enjoying a little Cuban music. It doesn’t half put a smile on my face. It’s so upbeat and fun. I end up dancing in the kitchen while cooking breakfast, and start the day as I mean to go on — laughing, smiling and feeling fantastic.

If you need a little inspiration, check out these 100 awesome happy songs or follow my Spotify playlist where all those tracks can be found.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what difficulties you face, you can always find a silver lining.

4. Count your blessings and be grateful

Some wisdom from my grandmother and one that still holds true today: count your blessings. Wake up every day and say out loud what you’re thankful for. No matter how big or small.

This morning, I reminded myself how grateful I am to be 37 years old and still have so much life in me; to have no back pain and be able to leap out of bed; to feel rested after a good night’s sleep; to have a wonderful family and friends; to have a business that I enjoy with great clients; to be able to live in a lovely house I can call my own and — most importantly — to have no ‘dead rat smell’ to contend with.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what difficulties you face, you can always find a silver lining.

5. Exercise

If I could recommend just one thing that would make you happy, it would be exercise. Exercise has the power to not only transform your body, it can also improve your mind. It even positively impacts every other aspect of your life — from your relationships and career to what you eat and how you feel.

Last June, I injured my back and it put me out of action for roughly 10 months. With many other things going wrong in my life, not being able to exercise only added to my gloominess.

Just recently, my back has recovered and I can move again. I’ve hit the bike and picked up my weights. I’m running outside. It’s been so long since I worked out that I’d forgotten the huge change exercise can make.

After just a week of daily exercise, I’m eating better — choosing colourful, fresh foods and feeling lighter and healthier as a result. I’m making more of an effort with my appearance, choosing clothes from my wardrobe I’ve not worn in a while. I’m brighter and happier to be around — friends and family have noticed a change. My thoughts are positive and I’m clearing my head more often, figuring things out to make my life better. All because I put on my trainers and go for a little run, or jump on my spinning bike.

Start each day by moving your body, and you’ll not only feel amazing — you’ll feel in control of your life and that’s the key to happiness.

6. Do simple things you enjoy

Whenever I’m feeling low, I always remember something valuable I learned in my early twenties — to do very simple things that make me happy. Things that are free or don’t cost much at all.

This means different things to different people. For me, it’s hot baths by candlelight, sketching things or curling up with a good book. Perhaps baking some nice cookies or riding my bike in the sunshine. Maybe going on a nice walk in the countryside or playing Fallout 4 in my pyjamas.

Whatever simple act or thing that makes you happy, do it – and do it often. Give yourself permission to prioritise exclusive time for yourself every day. It’s so important.

7. Don’t spend money you haven’t got

You might think a good shopping spree will make you happy, but the feeling is fleeting and will soon be replaced with anxiety when you start to worry about how much you’ve spent.

Happiness, I’ve found, lies in not buying things. Happiness is knowing you have money in the bank, no debts and complete control over your finances.

There are plenty of things you can do for free. Exercise, reading, gardening, cycling your bike — there’s more to life than consumerism. Besides, having more stuff has only been proven to weigh us down. As Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club famously says: “The things you own end up owning you.”

If you’re struggling, satisfy your need to spend by looking at what you’ve already got. For example, if you want some new clothes — put on some happy music (see above) and have a wardrobe sort-out. Aim to put together three or four new outfits that you’ve not considered before. Seek inspiration from fashion blogs if you need to. You’ll not only feel great because you’ve resisted the urge to splurge — you’ll also have some new things to adorn.

Whatever simple act or thing that makes you happy, do it — and do it often. Give yourself permission to prioritise exclusive time for yourself every day.

8. See the best in everyone

My mother is an inspiration. She is the most positive person I know. She sees the absolute best in everyone. You could say she’s one of life’s innocents, but she’s simply compassionate. She has so much empathy that she can only ever presume everyone means well. Even the bad guys.

Because of this, she’s extraordinarily happy. She has no drama in her life, just plenty of happy times. Sure, she occasionally gets down about how some people are. But she soon talks herself out of it and finds the positive aspect.

I try and follow in her footsteps and look for the best in everyone. It really helps when I’m faced with difficult people or situations.

9. Don’t make assumptions or take anything personally

Oh the dramas we can make up in our heads! That person didn’t say hello to me in the street! What did I say? Did I do something wrong? Have people been talking about me behind my back? Stop. Assumptions are just that — assumptions. You’ll waste time and energy assuming what’s happening with other people, so save yourself the hassle and let those thoughts go. It’s not easy, but it’s a habit you can adopt.

Next time you find yourself wondering about something or someone, give yourself a break. It’s a waste of your precious life.

Now that you’ve ditched assumptions, learn not to take anything personally. Nothing people do is because of you. Everyone is dancing to their own music and making their own assumptions. As long as you try and lead a life that’s true and don’t set out to deliberately hurt anyone you can’t go wrong.

10. Help others if you can

Volunteering is a wonderful thing. Not only are you giving something back to the world, you’ll also experience the most amazing joy of helping out.

Is there a local charity or organisation where you can volunteer some spare time to help? There are so many lonely, elderly people out there who would benefit enormously from someone to talk to every week. Or what about a community gardening project?

Even just helping a friend or neighbour can lift your spirits. Open up yourself to the world and it’s awesome what you get back.

11. Be thoughtful to those you love

Nothing makes me happier than having good friends. I’m so lucky to have people in my life that I care about and who care about me. I often like to show my gratitude by doing something thoughtful. I might send a card or letter. Perhaps simply send a text to someone if I know they’re facing a challenging day. It could be the smallest thing, but it will make you feel so good about yourself. And it’ll make your friend happy too.

I received a gift from a relatively new pal called Emily last night. She’s from San Francisco and we met through Mike — a mutual American friend who lives in Manchester. It was hilarious. I sat down next to her in our local pub, and we just started talking and hit it off immediately. She calls me her ‘soul sister’.

Anyway, Mike’s mother was visiting from California and had brought a gift from Emily to give to me. It was some beautiful chopsticks Emily had purchased in Japan but never used. And they came with a little note about just that, and how she thought I’d really appreciate them. I tell you. I did. I was tearful. Just the thought that someone was thinking of me, and caring about me — it made me so happy.

Be thoughtful to those you love and great things will happen.

Embrace who you are, and stop trying to change your personality to please everyone. It will never work. You are wonderful. And there are many people who will agree.

12. Accept that not everyone will like you

Some people like coffee, others prefer tea. Some with milk, some without. We all have different tastes and there’s nothing wrong with that. Equally, not everyone is going to like who we are. Accept this and move on.

The point is — do you like yourself? Do you think you’re a good person? Do you have people in your life who agree? Good. Stick to that and don’t worry about those who dislike you. You could be the nicest, most placid person in the world and some people will still not like you.

Embrace who you are, and stop trying to change your personality to please everyone. It will never work. You are wonderful. And there are many people who will agree.

13. Surround yourself with positive people

Whether family, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, distance yourself from negative characters and instead surround yourself with more positive souls.

For me, I make an effort with people who are fun and easy to get along. The kind of people who see the lighter side to life. Who don’t demand a lot from me and give me energy rather than drain it. Who I can go without seeing for months and then easily pick up where we left off. Who aren’t hard work.

If you must have a relationship with a difficult person — whether family member, acquaintance or professional contact — limit the time you spend with them, try to be kind and patient, but keep them at arm’s length.

14. Ditch the pressure to be perfect

We exist in an age when it feels as though our whole lives are on show to the rest of the world. And because there are more opportunities than ever before, there’s a growing pressure to be perfect — to lead hugely exciting, successful lives that are varied and wonderful.

Let me stop you there. This article was never going to preach to you about perfection. I’m not going to suggest you do yoga and start chanting every day. Although, that would be perfectly fine — if it makes you happy. No. Ditch the pressure to be perfect. It’s ok to eat pizza, drink too much alcohol and mess up. You’re human, for god’s sake.

I love pizza and alcohol. I don’t have them all the time. But I don’t deny myself the pleasure either. I just know that pizza bloats me, and booze gives me hangovers. As long as I’m aware of the consequences, and lead a relatively balanced life, then I’m all good. And screw anyone who says otherwise.

Life isn’t about perfection. It’s about balance. Happiness lies in recognising you are in control and are allowed to give yourself the odd treat.

Equally, don’t worry if you’re not an ‘entrepreneur’ or travelling the world with just a laptop, engaging millions of followers on your successful blog. You’re allowed to be ‘normal’ and whatever you want to be. Working for someone else is just as rewarding, and often better for most because you certainly have a lot less stress and more stability.

Life isn’t about perfection. It’s about balance. Happiness lies in recognising you are in control and are allowed to give yourself the odd treat.

15. Be kind to yourself

I’ll admit. Things got so tough for me last year that I had a really bad day when I struggled to even get out of bed. I’ve never suffered from depression, but I think I got a glimpse of it. And boy, do I hope to never go through that ever again.

I felt so hopeless. I had no energy or will to get up. I felt like a complete failure.

Eventually, I dragged my ass out of bed and tried to put my makeup on. You know, to be brave and face the world. But my face looked so pitiful in the mirror — I kept crying. I looked at myself in the mirror and said in-between sobs: “Katy, you’re a good person. You’re caring, kind and daft. You’re going to get through this and all will be ok.”

It worked. I remembered that I’m a person too. I’d been on auto-pilot for so long that I’d forgotten to prioritise myself. I was burnt out, and it was time I realised that I needed to be kinder to myself. To make time for just me; doing things that I enjoy.

Depression happens to us all. Sadly, it’s chronic for some. For the rest of us, we’ll only suffer a few episodes in our lives. Whether you hit rock bottom or you’ve just had a bad day, remember to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that it’s perfectly normal to have times when you feel low. You’re not a superhero! Give yourself a break.

16. Be daft, be silly and laugh a lot

I come from a long line of ridiculously mad people. And I mean that in a good way. My family are incredibly good fun. They are daft and silly. And that’s wonderful.

We don’t do drama. We don’t dwell on things. We hardly ever fall out. Life is just fun and lighthearted. We’re there for each other through the difficult times, granted. But most of the time it’s just lots of laughs.

If there’s one important thing I’ve learnt from my parents, brother and extended family — it’s to laugh as much as possible and not take life too seriously.

17. Just be where you are, right now

The power of now is something we could all employ a little more of. Don’t worry about what’s already happened, forget about the future — just focus on what’s going on right now.

If you’re walking to work, notice the sights and smells around you. Look at the sky, smell the cherry blossom on the trees — take a deep breath. If you’re with friends on a Sunday but you keep worrying about Monday morning, bring yourself back to the present. Because now is all we ever really have.

Don’t worry about what’s already happened, forget about the future — just focus on what’s happening right now.

18. Thank the heavens, you’re alive!

Whenever I take the tram to work, I sometimes notice elderly people sitting nearby and I think: “Gosh. That will be me one day.” And then I consider this — when I’m their age, I don’t ever want to be sat looking at younger people and feeling envious of their youth. I want to live such a full and happy life that I never feel that way.

I’m alive. I’m so lucky. And I try to remember that every time I face difficult times. You should too. Because we really are blessed with the greatest gift of all — and that’s the chance to live in this world, make the best of what we have and be happy.