When it comes to living in accordance with our value systems, many of us are good at ticking off the big things. Family, work, love. But what about fun? Are you making room in your life for pure, unadulterated pleasure? The kind that makes you feel lighter in your life, no matter when work projects are due or your roof needs replacing?
"Joy is not for just the lucky few," says James Baraz, a meditation teacher and cofounder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California "It's a choice anyone can make."
And it's an important one to boot. Research shows that joyful people are at a lower risk of having heart attacks, have healthier blood pressure, lower cholesterol, body weights, and overall stress levels. Studies also show that happy people are more likely to exercise, eat healthy foods, sleep better and avoid smoking.
So how can you sneak in more joy without it feeling like another chore on your to do list? Here's how to usher more happiness into your day-to-day life.
Know your joy
Think about it: what makes you feel bright and alive? Swimming in the surf? Digging around in a vegetable garden? Making soup? Having sex? Make a list of the activities and moments that fill you with joy—from small incidentals like cold brew from your favorite cafe and popping open a bottle of champagne—to the big things, like two-week vacations in Paris. Put the list where you can see it, like inside the medicine cabinet or in your planner.
"Think back to what gave you joy in your younger years," psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, California, and author of Play told TIME. The goal is to recapture that carefree feeling of fun where there's no goal other than present-tense delight.
Imagine your joy
Any activity performed repetitively changes the structure of the brain, but even imagining an activity can have an impact. This is why athletes perform visualizations of touchdowns and grand slams in preparation for the big game.
"We stimulate the same brain regions when we visualize an action as we do when we actually perform that same action," Srinivasan Pillay, author of Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders, told Business Insider.
Every morning, imagine yourself happy. Put yourself in the situations performing the activities on your happiness list. By actively imagining yourself engaged in the activities of happiness, you can encourage changes in your brain that will predispose you to create more real-life joy in daily life.
Embody your joy
When you're in the throes of delight, really pause to make a note of how it feels in your body. Savor the moment as it's upon you. The brain's survival instinct primes us to note and remember negative experiences (stove = hot) more than positive ones, but you can strengthen your your neurological happiness pathways by really marking pleasurable experiences as they occur. Is your mind bright? Does your heart feel expansive? Some psychologists call this "memorizing" the feeling. Psychologist Rick Hanson calls this "taking in the good." Either way, you are strengthening neural pathways.
"As with any positive state of mind," Hanson says, "if you can develop a strong 'sense memory' of the experience, you can reactivate it deliberately when you want to." You can call to mind, in other words, the experience of eating a strawberry ice cream cone on the dock while you're standing on a subway platform.
Make joy central
"Don't fit joyful activities into your days—fit your days around them," happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener told TIME. "Do you ever hear devoted church attendees say, 'Can we reschedule church because something came up?' You need to have that church mentality about whatever it is that gives you pleasure."
And remember, every time you let some other activity intercede, it's taking time away from more worthy activities.
"Every tweet, text or email distracts us from the good experiences and people in our lives," he said.
Though still nascent, research has shown the association between social media and increased stress and anxiety. After just 20 minutes on Facebook, study participants reported feeling in a worse mood compared to those who had simply Internet surfed. When downtime moments arise, rather than hit up social media, glance at your joy list. Do something from it, embody it, memorize it, and repeat it as necessary.
"A key to steering your own happiness is reflecting on the things that make you come alive," Barbara Fredrickson, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Positivity, told TIME.
"They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world," writes author Tom Bodett. "Someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for."
Put those on your joy list.