Moments of joy may feel out of reach when you live with depression, but you can take steps to bring them closer.

When you’re living with depression, happiness can feel painfully elusive. You may experience feelings of emptiness, difficulty focusing, and lack of energy to get through the day.

Perhaps you may also find yourself dwelling on how happy you used to be and wishing you could just get back to that joyful version of yourself.

There are no quick fixes with depression, and it may take some time to find the right combination of treatments for your symptoms. But experiencing positive emotions, even when you’re in the midst of an episode of depression, is possible.

What’s happiness?

From a mental health perspective, there’s no formal definition of happiness. It’s generally understood as an emotional state that may include a variety of positive emotions, including joy, serenity, contentment, and pride.

By some definitions, happiness may also involve a sense of fulfillment and purpose in one’s life. In research settings, the term “subjective well-being” is often used in place of happiness to mean the same thing.

Joy is the experience of enjoying something. It’s a temporary feeling of elation, well-being, or satisfaction. It can contribute to feelings of happiness.

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Both happiness and joy may be possible, even if you live with depression. It will present some challenges, though, if you leave your condition untreated.

A reduced ability to experience joy is a formal symptom of depression for some people. However, it can be managed and it typically responds to depression treatment.

You could still experience happiness, because even though joy is connected to happiness, it usually involves other emotions, too. Also, the opposite of happiness isn’t depression, but sadness, another symptom of depression.

But not everyone living with depression experiences the same symptoms. It’s possible to have depression and not feel sad. You may feel irritable, fatigued, and unmotivated instead, for example.

Even if you do feel sad, there are ways to overcome this emotion and reassess how you feel and think.

Biologically, there are also many factors that contribute to your ability to experience happiness.

Research indicates that a few chemical messengers in the brain, called neurotransmitters, play a key role in your mood. Some of these include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins. Hormones like cortisol and oxytocin may also be involved.

It’s possible to boost your levels of these neurotransmitters and hormones by incorporating some changes into your lifestyle. Doing so increases the chance that you experience positive emotions.

Nutrition, exercise, sunlight exposure, and physical touch can all have a powerful effect on your ability to manage depression symptoms, including emotions.

Certain antidepressant medications also increase levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.

Other symptoms and features of depression, like disruption to your sleep cycle, may also affect your mood. Addressing these individual symptoms may help you feel joy.

For example, if you’re having trouble sleeping, you could ask a health professional to help you treat that specific challenge. Once this happens, this could also increase your chance to connect with moments of joy and happiness.

Here are some actionable steps you can consider to enhance your mood, even when you’re experiencing an episode of depression.

Establish a routine

Formal symptoms of depression like low motivation can make your days feel shapeless, particularly if you’re working from home. Sticking to a daily routine can go a long way to making you feel happier and more in control.

Establishing a routine doesn’t mean you need to map out every hour of your day. In fact, it’s a good idea to start small.

Try to think about what you’d like to prioritize in your daily life. It could be a morning walk, or texting a trusted friend to check in every lunchtime, or going to bed at the same time each night.

Be gentle with yourself

Feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing, or unearned guilt can be part of the list of depression symptoms.

If you’ve been living with depression for some time, they may have become so familiar that you barely notice them. But trying to actively combat negative self-talk can have a powerful effect on happiness.

Self-compassion has been shown to directly correlate with wellbeing, and improve emotional coping skills.

Try to notice when you’re being hard on yourself, and replace those thoughts with gentle, generous ones.

For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “I’m a failure for feeling this way,” you could instead think something like, “I deserve safety and happiness. I’m doing the best I can.”

If you’re not sure where to start, here’s an exercise: Try to imagine what you’d say to a friend if they were in your exact position. It’s likely you’d come up with kind words of support. You too deserve to hear those.

Work on regaining a sense of purpose

It’s possible that if you’re having difficulty experiencing joy and happiness, you’re also experiencing challenges connecting to a sense of purpose.

Developing this sense of purpose when you have depression can make all the difference.

Try to identify your core values — those you want to live by. Then consider linking those values to specific actions in your life.

For example, if compassion and empathy are two of your core values, try to support someone in need through actions that reflect them.

For more on how to regain a sense of purpose when you live with depression, you can check out this article.

Get creative

Creative pursuits like writing, painting and playing music have been shown to significantly boost people’s self-reported sense of well-being.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as being especially “artsy,” there are plenty of ways to be creative. For example, cooking, knitting, or doing DIY projects around the house.

Whatever sparks your interest may be worth trying.

Spend time with a pet

If you’re a pet owner, you probably already know just how soothing their presence can be when you’re in a low moment.

Animals offer unconditional love and uncomplicated companionship, and they can also fulfill our need for physical touch. Research also shows that hugging your pet releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which promotes happiness and reduces stress.

Move your body

There’s a wealth of evidence confirming that physical activity is one of the most effective natural ways to improve your mood.

When you exercise, like practicing running or biking, the body releases endorphins. These natural substances inhibit pain and create a sense of well-being. You may have heard of “runner’s high.”

Working up a sweat can feel extremely difficult when you live with depression and experience symptoms like fatigue or low motivation.

But, your physical activity doesn’t need to be intense. In fact, research suggests that there may be more benefits to longer, low intensity exercise. For example, walking around the neighborhood for 30 minutes.

During this kind of activity, the body increases the production of proteins that improve nerve cell connections in the brain, which can relieve symptoms of depression.

Try meditation

Meditation has been shown to influence certain parts of the brain involved in depression, including the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala (or fear center).

Both these regions can become overactive in people with depression, interacting in a way that spikes stress hormones and contributes to fear and stress.

Research suggests that meditation can help to break this cycle. Mindfulness meditation can be especially helpful in the pursuit of happiness, because it encourages a focus on the present moment.

By grounding yourself in the here and now, rather than focusing on the future or past, you can open yourself up to more small moments of joy.

Consider professional help

Therapy is a recommended tool for managing the symptoms of depression.

A therapist can help you to identify thought patterns that are inhibiting your happiness, and they can help you work on changing them over time.

For some people with depression, antidepressant medications can also help. These medications can increase your levels of feel-good chemicals like serotonin, and can create more space for positive emotions.

Consider talking with your health team about what options make sense for you.

If you live with depression and are going through a particularly low episode, happiness and joy may seem elusive realities.

However, it’s possible to experience these positive emotions even with your diagnosis.

Relying on professional support can help, as well as introducing life changes including a nutrient-dense diet, more physical activity, and regaining a sense of purpose.

You deserve happiness and to enjoy life. Depression may act as a dark filter that may make you believe otherwise. But managing all symptoms of depression is possible. You can do this.