'I'm a Wellness Psychologist—These Are My 5 Secrets to Happiness'

My decision to focus on wellbeing came from my own struggles with stress and happiness. As a young mother, I was running my own company, caring for my children alone as a military wife and making efforts to stay involved in my community. I was on autopilot; not paying much attention to my own thoughts or happiness. I soon found myself with a devastating autoimmune disorder that threatened to take my life and leave my two toddlers and unborn child motherless.

Despite reaching this point in my 20s and 30s, I had always aimed to inspire healthier, happier living, starting back in high school, when I started performing puppet shows for younger children. But I didn't find organization and wellness psychology, it found me. When I was well into my career as a psychologist, I had a role working for a wellness company in Baltimore, helping employees meet the demands of work and home life and still have the health and energy to laugh, exercise, and do something fun. It felt like a natural progression to study the mental and behavioral phenomena in individuals and groups and then translate that into ways of developing more health and happiness.

Most of us aren't taught much about happiness or how to create it for ourselves. Many grow up believing that if they are not happy, then something must be wrong with them or have not acquired what is necessary for happiness. Not only did I want to figure out how to save my body, and find happiness; I wanted the rest of the world to as well.

I set out to dig deeper into the neuroscience, psychology, and sociology of health and happiness. When I first started working with clients, the focus or intent was to assist them in achieving physical health-related goals. Some want to lose weight, others to reduce high blood pressure, cholesterol or other biometric indicators of health. Some came because they could recognize they were under a lot of stress but didn't know what to do about it.

The funny thing was, the more my clients worked on their mindset and feeling of happiness, the better and more improvement was made with their physical health. Now, even if a client has physical health goals, we focus on the thinking first.

The shift I made is the shift to focus on what is working. I start most of my sessions with clients by asking them what is going well. Sometimes the answer is "nothing." Of course, I give everyone, including myself, full permission to feel all emotions and never to dismiss the painful experiences, but I focus my practice on deliberately seeking out what is working or going well and see how we can apply that to our current challenges.

My clients are my teachers, as well as my students, and through the years, I have identified five secrets to happiness.

Secret to Happiness 1: Mood Magic

The first is something I call "mood magic." Happiness stems from our mood and our mood is related to our thoughts. We must practice enough awareness to identify how we are feeling and what mood we are in.

This can take some investigative work to figure out our shifts in mood and deliberately engage in what I call "mood magic," those activities that are uplifting, energizing, and feel good. Your mood magic activity will be unique to you.

One of the resources I have my clients create is a Vitamin "P" list. The list consists of at least 20 things that bring them happiness. When we are feeling unhappy, we often can't or don't remember what elevates our mood. Having the list allows my clients to quickly identify and act on something they know works for them.

One of my clients found great joy in gaming. She was a little embarrassed as a lawyer and grown adult to admit how much fun it was for her, so she shied away from it. She identified that the community and connection was part of the fun, and she was happy to be involved regardless of whether she won or lost.

Relationships and social experiences are key factors in our happiness, which was fulfilling both for my client. After working on giving herself permission and setting some parameters like time limits, it was game on! Gaming became her go to mood magic.

Secret to Happiness 2: Good Mood Food

Food is my second secret to happiness. Food science is more than understanding how to mix the proper ingredients for the perfect souffle. The biochemical structure of happiness includes hormones like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and even melatonin. We can assist our bodies in producing these feel-good hormones with the right food.

One of the things I work towards with my clients is clean eating. Sugar addiction is rampant, and studies have shown the more sugar you consume, the more likely you are to experience depression and other mood disorders.

One client of mine was struggling with her mood in the afternoon. She said she would wake up happy, but in the afternoon she was exhausted and grouchy. She was a pretty clean eater, so we were both surprised to discover her afternoon crash was linked to her lunchtime smoothie. Thinking she was getting something healthy, she was downing this sugar bomb every afternoon and wondering why her mood then dropped. Smoothies have become popular, but I've seen as much as 60 grams of sugar in one bottle. That's the same amount as almost three servings of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream!

I also didn't give my kids soda, but we found ourselves at a popular food chain for lunch one day. I let them get the lemonade, thinking it was so much better than soda. I looked up the sugar content when I got home (this was long before the days of smartphones) and nearly fell over. To teach my children a valuable lesson I had them measure the amount of sugar they consumed in their drink into a bowl. I offered each of my three children to eat that bowl of sugar. They all thought it was absurd and disgusting and I don't think they ever got the lemonade again.

A Psychologist's 5 Secrets To Happiness
Psychologist Stephanie Bolster McCannon focuses on organizational well-being and has five secrets to happiness. Getty/iStock

Secret to Happiness 3: Music

My third secret to happiness is music. Neuroscience indicates we have a whole host of physiological responses to music, including reducing stress and improving mood and brain function. Music that makes us feel happy is usually written in a major key and has a fast tempo.

I had a client switch his regular listening tunes to upbeat, faster tempo music. He claimed this one shift improved his mood and happiness so much he started mixing his own upbeat melodies. He was surprised to find how much happier he was just by what he chose to bob his head to.

Some research suggests that even in the womb, babies can pick up on and react to happy music. Music therapy is being used to boost mood and happiness in a variety of patients. For example, research has shown that children in hospital showed increased happiness—measured by smiles—with music therapy then play therapy. It's a simple tool to improve your mood.

Secret to Happiness 4: Movement

"I like to move it, move it, I like to move it, move it..." It's difficult to hear this song played and not "move." Toe-tapping, shoulder swaying, hip-swinging-just hard to stay still with this song, one that was popularized again by Madagascar 2. Moving is my fourth secret to happiness. Once again, we are back to stimulating the release of endorphins.

Movement has been proven to increase the production of endorphins, and more and more research is showing that movement is related to mood, and indicating that people who are active and move around frequently are happier people.

I had a client who was struggling to lose weight, and under a lot of stress. She was a lawyer and worked long days and, she just didn't want to go to the gym after work. So, I had her start incorporating workouts during her workday. I would have her go to the stairwell in her office to walk up and down for a few minutes and then taught her some yoga moves she could do at her desk during her lunch break.

I have also have gone into offices and done movement breaks with the office members; I called them "movement minutes"; all short workouts that could be done in one to two minutes. I have seen that a lot of female workers didn't want to work out in the middle of their workday. This way they didn't get sweaty. And, it was fun too, people really loved taking that break.

Wellness Psychologist Stephanie Bolster McCannon
Stephanie Bolster McCannon with her family. Stephanie Bolster McCannon

Secret to Happiness 5: Values

What's most important to you? Values provide a fast way for us to make decisions and provide a roadmap for behaviors and relationships and when followed, we experience happiness.

It seems natural then that unhappiness would stem from not living according to our values. Unfortunately, I have seen a decline in clear, known values that people are able to easily identify. Participating in and acting in ways consistent with your values creates meaning, and when we can fulfill things that are meaningful, we can experience happiness as a result.

I have seen that it is easier to find happiness when we can identify our top five individual values and make choices based on these. To increase your level of happiness, figure out what you value most and make decisions accordingly.

A recent client was feeling very unhappy, and decided to use the health and wellness coaching offered by her employer. I became her coach. At first, it was difficult for her to pinpoint why she felt so unhappy. She had a high-paying job, a great husband and kids, and had the material items she wanted and needed. In fact, she was upset with herself that she couldn't muster up more happiness given her comfortable lifestyle.

Shouldn't all of her accomplishments have made her happy? After going through a values exercise, it was clear to her that over time, she had set aside activities she valued most. One of her top five values was adventure. As a young girl she did a lot of hiking and exploring. She set her adventurous self aside since getting married, keeping up with her profession, and having children. We created a plan that allowed her to plan adventures alone and with her family. She set up weekly, monthly, and yearly adventures. She told me she felt like she got her wings back and was so much happier.

We are unique, worthy bio-individuals. While there are positive practices everyone can adopt to create more happiness, it is important to identify what works best for you. For instance, knowing what your "mood magic" is. Creating a list to go to when you need some self-care or a "pick me up" is super helpful for everyone, but what is on the list is going to be different for each person. There is no one eating plan on the earth that is best for all of us. In fact, while healing from the autoimmune disorder, my body could not tolerate bananas!

A simple step could be evaluating how much you move or listen to music now, or just considering your values. Why not take a few quiet moments with yourself and ask what you would do or buy if you had $1,000 to spend but had to spend it all today and just on yourself. What comes up for you? Now, ask what you would do or buy if you had $10,000 to spend, but it all had to be spent today and on someone else. These answers will clue you in on what matters most to you. There are no wrong answers and no judgment.

Remember, your happiness is in your hands, and there are many positive practices you can adopt to improve your health and happiness, living a life that feels good to you.

Stephanie Bolster McCannon is an organizational psychologist and author of BolsterUp! The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Happy Healthy Human. She is the CEO of BolsterUp, a well-being coaching company that supports emotional, mental, and physical mastery. You can follow her on Twitter @StephMcCannon

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.