IstockphotoJudy Dutton, with additional reporting by Kimberly Holland
These days it can feel like the age of anxiety is winning over the pursuit of happiness. An uncertain economy is just the tip of our worry iceberg. In fact, in a recent poll of Health readers, 48% of you say you worry more today than you did a year ago.
Here's another anxious thought: Scientists say women are wired to worry-at least more so than men. In our poll, 54% of you said you worry more than your spouse, with only 12% claiming your partner worries more than you do.
That's thanks, in part, to the hormonal roller-coaster women ride month to month and through the years. "The highs and lows can make women prone to feeling everything from anxious to depressed," says Jerilyn Ross, a licensed independent clinical social worker, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, and author of One Less Thing to Worry About.
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And while men tend to be linear problem solvers, "Women are more in touch with their emotions, and worry is an emotion," points out Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist and author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Your-self from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life.
Still, experts say that with some practice we all can learn to be a little less worried and a whole lot happier. Here's your recipe for a more joyful life. Read on and say, "So long, dark side."
1. Find your joy
One of the keys to finding happiness in tough times is "simply being aware of what is happening right now, without wishing it were different," says James Baraz, a meditation instructor and founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
That may require a little less multitasking and worrying and more stopping to smell the roses, says Lori Hilt, an anxiety specialist at the University of Wisconsin. "When we get caught up in cycles of brooding and worrying, our minds are stuck in the past or the future," she says. "Get out of the cycle by focusing on the present, noticing the cool breeze on your skin, the taste and texture of a bite of food."
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"When I'm blue, I'll mix up a fruity drink, insert one of those festive straws-umbrella open, of course-and pretend I'm at a party. It's impossible not to feel happy when your drink has a pretty paper umbrella!"
-Diana Estill, 55, Murphy, Texas
2. Lighten Up
Looking for joy means looking for reasons to smile. Happily, just the act of smiling makes you happy! Even a forced grin tells your brain, "My mouth muscles are moving up, so I must be happy," and leads to a release of happiness-inducing endorphins, psychologist Sybil Keane, PhD, says.
"Because of the threat of layoffs, my job is stressful. I cope-people think I'm nuts-by watching those funny cat videos on YouTube. It's a nightly ritual that always cheers me up!"
-Termeh Mazhari, 25, Great Neck, New York
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"If something sad happens in my life, I look for the comedic spin. I find that the more humiliating the situation, the funnier it can be-or end up being. That's how I survive."
-Kathy Griffin, comedian and star of Kathy Griffin My Life on the D List and author of Official Book Club Selection
3. Get moving
Physical activity is a powerful ally to greater well-being and joy. "Exercise, yoga, or any kind of regular movement helps get you out of your head," Baraz says. "In addition to being a healthy activity, it triggers endorphins that have a profound effect on lifting your spirits. It makes you come alive."
"I row myself into a better mood. Being out on the water, I forget about all the day-to-day things that cause worry and focus more on what I can do every day that will make a difference."
-Linda Jackson, 51, San Francisco
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4. Look for a joy buddy
It's harder to be happy when you're isolated. That's why Baraz suggests that you find a partner in your pursuit of happiness, what he calls a "joy buddy." Having someone rooting for your well-being and reminding you to look for the good in your life is a very effective way to stay on track, he says. That buddy can be a friend you trade positive text messages with every day or a joy group you meet with once a month.
Surrounding yourself with other happy people can hike your odds of being upbeat by 9%, studies show. But steer clear of complainers: Downer friends bring you, well, down, says change expert Ariane de Bonvoisin, author of The First 30 Days: Your Guide to Making Any Change Easier, and founder of First30Days.com.
"Heading to the park with my dog, Scoobie, is my favorite cure, no matter what's weighing on me. It's impossible to worry when I'm surrounded by dogs running and tumbling over one another-there's something about the innocent joy of their play that relaxes me."
-Carol Huang, 43, New York City
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5. Practice Being Happy
Most people discover that happiness isn't related to objects or experiences, though those things can give us fleeting pleasure, says Baraz, whose book Awakening Joy will be out in January. "Studies show that happiness comes with certain states of mind and heart, such as generosity, kindness, or gratitude," he says.
Getting there may take practice, but the more you consciously focus on the feeling of joy-whether it comes from giving a compliment or laughing out loud with your kids-the more deeply that feeling will register and the happier you'll be.
"Digging in the soil makes me happy. It helps me feel as if I have control over something. And the pride I feel when I look at my garden makes me feel successful. The connection with nature brings me into the now."
-Angie Mattson, 36, Charlotte, North Carolina
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6. Do a song or dance (really)
If an apple a day keeps the doc away, Baraz would say a song does, too. He believes that singing is one of the surest roads to finding joy. "It's hard to stay in a funk if you're singing regularly," he says, and research bears him out: University of Manchester researchers discovered that an organ in the inner ear (that responds to singing sounds) is connected to a part of the brain that registers pleasure. So singing, alone in the car or in a crowd at church (and even if you're very, very bad at it), makes you happier. If singing isn't your thing, Baraz says, paint, dance, or write.
"When I was in the minuses in my bank account, I was beside myself with worry. So in the middle of changing my clothes, I would dance, nude. The movement helped move the worry right out of me, and the nude part worked symbolically for setting me free."
-Elisabeth Manning, 39, Marin County, California
7. Be very still
Regularly taking a little quiet time-meditating or perhaps sipping a warm cup of tea-helps you appreciate the moment and your life, Baraz says. "Being still reminds you that life isn't about racing as fast as you can to get to the end of your to-do list."
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"Whenever I start turning over all of my worries in my head-bills, car, kid, marriage, everything-I wash dishes. I may not be able to control how much my mortgage payment is, but I can wash the dishes. Once I focus on the present, everything else seems to just fall away."
-Jen Matlack, 39, Bethel,Connecticut
I do 15 minutes of meditation a day. It takes 5 minutes to clear my mind, so I have 10 minutes of relaxation. I generally focus on a word, such as 'gentle,' and repeat it silently until my mind clears.
-Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent
IstockphotoJudy Dutton, with additional reporting by Kimberly Holland