Want To Feel Happier? Try Out These 7 'Micro-Acts' Of Joy

Experts explain the science behind how these little positive habits can make a big difference.
Reflecting on your values and leaning into a sense of awe are just two ways to feel more joy.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images
Reflecting on your values and leaning into a sense of awe are just two ways to feel more joy.

During the cold days of winter and through the tough realities that many of us face on a daily basis, it’s hard to feel a zest for life. But while you may not be able to control the seasons or the challenges that arise, experts say you can work to increase joy in your life to help deal with the gloom.

A key way to do this is through daily, small moments — what some experts are calling “micro-acts.” The idea was coined by folks behind The Big Joy Project, a joint effort between researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and documentarians with the film “Mission: Joy.”

The Big Joy Project created a web-based global study that challenged people to take part in 7-minute micro-acts of joy. While it’s not a clinical term, “a micro-act of joy is a little activity or exercise or practice that is pulled from the scientific literature on what are called positive psychology interventions,” said Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, the science director at the Greater Good Science Center.

These micro-acts are “exercises or activities or practices that have been shown to result in improvement in a skill that is central to experiencing more joy in life, or just shifting the proportion of experiences that a person might have in a given day that is more conducive of joy,” Simon-Thomas said.

After practicing micro-acts of joy for a week — that is, seven minutes a day for seven days — people’s happiness and peace of mind and well-being went up 25.59%, according to Peg Callahan, the producer and co-director of “Mission: Joy.”

Below, experts share examples of micro-acts of joy and why to add them to your day-to-day life:

1. Dwell in awe.

Simon-Thomas said one major kind of micro-act of joy is putting yourself in a position to be awestruck. “That is how we feel when we’re in the presence of something vast and extraordinary that challenges our mundane, day-to-day ongoing thoughts,” she said.

This can include being out in nature, taking in uninterrupted ocean views or rolling hills. “The research on awe shows that people who spend more time out in immersive nature experiences or in highly creative contexts where they’re having this emotional experience of awe have reaped the benefits, aside from the fact that it’s just pleasant,” Simon-Thomas explained.

Research shows that when people experience awe, it creases a sense of common humanity, making people more likely to be generous, said Simon-Thomas.

2. Celebrate someone else’s joy.

Listening to what experiences bring those around you happiness can be another micro-act of joy.

“This comes from a practice that in scientific circles is called capitalising on positive events, and the idea is to start a conversation with another person about what’s going really well in their life or something they’re proud of or something that has inspired them,” Simon-Thomas explained.

To best feel the joy, ask detailed questions that intentionally carry the conversation forward.

“The point is to recognise the joy that we glean from connecting with other people around positive experiences and moments,” Simon-Thomas added.

3. Make a gratitude list.

There’s a reason why mental health professionals often encourage gratitude lists.

“We know that when people practice gratitude, they feel a little bit less self-centred, they feel a little bit more warm and fuzzy and optimistic and they often link that to the efforts and the presence of other people in their lives,” Simon-Thomas said.

Tim Bono, a lecturer in psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, added that the practice of gratitude is also one of the fundamentals of positive psychology.

“There’s a lot of things drawing our attention to negative things — and there are a lot of negative things in the world [and] we should be giving attention to them — but making sure that is balanced also by taking time for gratitude for the things that are still going well,” said Bono, who is not affiliated with The Big Joy Project.

Otherwise, it’s easy to get trapped in the cycle of bad news. This can heighten your natural negativity bias, the cycle of seeking out all the bad things in the world, Emma Mahony, a therapist at A Better Life Therapy in Philadelphia, previously told HuffPost.

Making a gratitude list is a simple way to create micro-acts of joy in your life.
franckreporter via Getty Images
Making a gratitude list is a simple way to create micro-acts of joy in your life.

4. Engage in random acts of kindness.

“We encourage people to try the random acts of kindness practice, so pick a given day [and] just imagine what you could do to bring some brightness to another person,” Simon-Thomas said.

You could do this for a stranger, a neighbour or a close friend; the act of kindness can be anything from holding the door for someone at work, making banana bread for your neighbour or donating to a cause you believe in, she said.

“If we set the intention and write those things down and then act on them in a given day, there’s lots of evidence that those acts of kindness are as rewarding at a neurobiological level as getting rewards or benefits or gains for oneself,” Simon-Thomas said.

5. Do a little self-reflection.

Another micro-act of joy? Reflect on how you can support or uplift others, Simon-Thomas said.

Oftentimes, we diminish our own abilities by telling ourselves there is nothing we can do to help others, or that we’re not useful — which is a flawed perspective, she noted.

“There usually is some way that people can approach a situation or contribute, if not the situation right in front of them, in another way that might counter the circumstances,” Simon-Thomas said.

This mindfulness reflection can help change your perspective and remind you that you can do good in the world.

6. Think about your values.

According to Simon-Thomas, “when we act in accordance with our values, in what is most meaningful and aligned with our sense of purpose ... we feel better as people.”

It’s important to reflect on your values and write about what matters most to you. Maybe that’s spending time with family, practicing your religion, taking care of in-need animals or advocating for at-risk communities in your area — there is no wrong answer here. Your values are unique to you.

“Ultimately, doing something where you feel like the work that you’re doing or the efforts that you’re putting out to the world are connected to something beyond just you, whether that spending time with other people or spending time with organisations that align with your interests or your values. That is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of the investment of time and effort that you’re putting into it,” Bono said.

7. Prioritise your connection with other people.

“If we had to reduce all of positive psychology down to a single piece of data, it would really be about the strength of our connection to other people,” Bono said.

Connect with people as much as possible. “If you have to make the choice between spending extra time at work every night of the week or every once in a while closing your laptop and finding some friends and going out and strengthening the bond you have with them, make sure that you’re balancing it so that you are really prioritising your connection to other people,” Bono added.

Additionally, your social connections will come in handy during your highs and lows.

“Other people help us extend the good days and optimise the happiness from that. And they also help us persevere through the difficult times,” Bono said.

Focusing on seemingly small moments of joy is important for lifelong happiness.

While Bono was not familiar with the term “micro-act of joy,” he said the idea well-documented in research.

“I think a lot of times when people think about what’s going to bring them joy or happiness, they think about the one-time big things,” Bono explained. This could mean saving up for a big two-week vacation, buying a house or getting a raise at work.

“We assume we’re going to do this one thing and then we will be happy, but, in fact, when you look at the research, there’s this idea of hedonic adaptation. It’s the notion that whatever one-time thing we do ... those things are exciting at first, but eventually, they wear off, because we humans are adaptable. We very quickly get used to the circumstances of life,” Bono said.

But we don’t adapt to every facet of life, he noted. One of those aspects? The small, daily chronic conditions of life.

“Now, that can be a two-way street ― we don’t adapt to a difficult coworker, we don’t adapt to a really stressful commute to work every day because those are chronic and changing,” Bono said. “But, on the flip side, I love this idea of micro-acts of joy because if we can make joy a sort of chronic changing condition of life ... over time, those accumulate to become a lifestyle of joy and happiness.”

Once these ongoing joy-inducing behaviours, like holding the door for someone or smiling at a stranger at the grocery store, become part of your lifestyle, they can lead to sustainable increases in our overall joy and positive affect, Bono said.

Life is not intended to be all joy. But focusing on your joy throughout your lifetime can prepare you for the harder days.

“The idea that the pursuit of happiness is not about being happy all the time ... we are going to go through high points and low points, and as important as it is to know how to pursue happiness and joy, it’s also important to acknowledge that there’s going to be some dips along the way,” Bono said.