Happy Triggers Take a Little Practice To Perfect, According to Therapists

Photo: Stocksy / Alba Vitta
The word "trigger" has a negative connotation, but did you know that it can be incredibly positive, too? “Triggers, as a general psychological concept, are experiences that trigger a memory or memories,” says clinical psychologist and certified executive coach Sarah Sarkis, PhD. “We know this concept of triggers in relation to post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety-producing memories. But did you know the same memory system works for happiness triggers as well? We can leverage the power of our memory system to facilitate a cascade of happy triggers.”

Curious about how happy triggers benefit your daily life? Keep reading to find out everything there is to know about happy triggers, including examples and how to incorporate them into your daily life.

Experts In This Article
  • Sarah Sarkis, PhD, clinical psychologist, certified executive coach, and senior director of performance psychology at Exos
  • Tanya M. Nichols, PhD, Dr. Tanya Nichols is presently a postdoctoral fellow in Child Welfare and Trauma-Informed Care in the Center for Excellence for Children in State Custody at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Dr. Nichols is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Diversity-Equity-Inclusion professional, and Founder of Black Girl Wellness, LLC. She has a passion for youth and families, young adults, maternal and infant mental health, and women’s mental health, in addition to holistic wellness, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her professional experience has included providing mental health treatment to youth, families, and young adults in a number of school-based and community settings. She graduated from Loyola University Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and completed her doctoral studies in Clinical Psychology at the University of Virginia. She was a predoctoral psychology intern at Yale University where she provided trauma-informed mental health services to children/adolescents, families, and young adults in a community mental health clinic. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Cornell University Counseling and Psychological Services. Dr. Nichols has also worked at the University Counseling Center and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement as a Staff Psychologist and Project Manager of Diversity Programming and Initiatives, respectively, at the University of Mississippi.

What are happy triggers?

According to psychologist and Black Girl Wellness founder Tanya M. Nichols, PhD, happy triggers refer to the rituals and routines that we embrace to promote positive memories and foster favorable experiences. “Happy triggers are the things you do or the products you use that bring you peace and joy,” she says. Alternatively, she points out that happy triggers can also refer to the grounding routines that you perform at the beginning and end of each day. Some examples could include everything from a steady exercise routine and a dedicated skincare regimen to daily meditation practice and a sequence of evening sun salutations.

The benefit of happy triggers

Dr. Sarkis, who is also a writer and EXOS Performance Advisory Board Member, says that happy triggers are a useful concept when trying to form new habits. “They are the jolt of memory and motivation that fuels an action,” she says.

In that way, happy triggers act as helpful anchors in our daily lives. “They add value to our lives and ground us to our feelings amidst our busy and full lives,” says Dr. Nichols. “Happy triggers are the simple pleasures that we can control through a mindful activity or regular routine that connects you more deeply to yourself and allows you to savor the little things.”

In addition to creating a grounded sense of calm throughout the day, Dr. Sarkis says that happy triggers are incredibly beneficial when it comes to pulling yourself out of a funk. “The advantage of happy triggers is that you can leverage the way your memory system and neurochemicals work together to spark happiness,” she says. “Practicing this type of technique allows us to access the memory system of happiness that is neurochemically wired inside our brains. Just like we can go down the rabbit hole of fear, what if thinking, and traumatic events, so too can we initiate and prompt mood enhancing triggers.”

Happy triggers require practice

Simple as they may seem, there’s more than meets the eye with happy triggers. “When it comes to chasing happiness there aren’t any magic pills or secret recipes,” says Dr. Sarkis. “In order to achieve a sense of happiness, you have to practice (that’s code for doing over and over again) habits that make you feel good. These habits can be behavioral (like starting an exercise routine) or cognitive (like observing your negative thinking patterns) or emotional (like practicing gratitude).”

It’s then how these actions make you feel that transform them into happy triggers. “Happy triggers are simply the spark that ignites action, in the form of behavior(s), which then promotes a sense of well-being,” Dr. Sarkis says. “Happiness is an inside job. You have to practice and behave your way into a sense of happiness.”

How to establish happy triggers

Happy triggers aren’t universal—they vary based on a person’s interests, values, and individual needs. “For one person, it might be using an item that has personal significance or meaning such as drinking coffee from a special mug or using your morning commute as time for yourself, to connect with loved ones, or even listen to podcasts,” says Dr. Nichols. “Think about the little things that can have a big impact on your mood and energy and fold them into your daily rhythm.”

If you’re unsure how to find your happy triggers, begin by practicing presence. “Be present in what brings you joy,” says Dr. Sarkis. “Start to engage yourself in a practice of observation around what brings you happiness, joy, and a sense of well-being. Likewise, what gets in the way. The more curious you get about what makes you happy, the happier you will become."

Part of being present is engaging all your senses. “If you have ever suffered from any type of traumatic triggering event, you already know that it is a whole-body experience—meaning, all of your senses are engaged in the triggering memory,” says Dr. Sarkis, noting that that’s why PTSD can be so difficult to experience and overcome. “But on the flip side, the same is true in identifying and engaging your own unique happy triggers.” With that in mind, she says to focus on your entire body when identifying your happy triggers, not just your mind or physical feelings individually.

Focusing on a whole-body experience, Dr. Sarkis says to ask yourself questions like, what does happiness smell like to you? What does happiness taste like to you? What does it sound like? What does it look like?

Once you’ve tuned into all those things, Dr. Sarkis says to think about all the things you’re willing to do to prioritize those things in an effort to optimize your overall sense of well-being and happiness. “Include group and individual things,” she says. “And remember, happiness doesn’t have to cost money. So yes, get a massage, a manicure, a facial, attend a live event. But also, watch the sunrise and set, listen to the sound of waves or rain, connect deeply with a loved one. Make at least one of your items something you are a complete novice at currently. Turns out, we need a little risk in our lives in order to spark happiness, too.”

The final word

We’ve likely all heard it before, but Dr. Sarkis reminds us that it’s not the destination but the journey that lends to an overall sense of happiness. “Instead of focusing on being happy, invest in the process of doing things that bring you happiness,” she says. “You can’t hunt for happiness directly. You have to find it through secondary means like deep fulfillment, intimate connection, service to others, and so on.”

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