Things are different now

Many years ago, the idea of living happily with HIV was almost unthinkable. But treatment has transformed how we live with HIV today.

Happiness is an elusive concept. It has different meanings for different people but is so often the thing we most want for ourselves and for those we love. It is unrealistic to expect to feel happy all the time. Rather, we should see life as made up of lots of moments and to look for happiness in these moments.

So, what can we do to really enjoy the moments that make us happy? And how can we make more of them?

This webpage will help you take stock of the things in your life that make you happy and the actions you can take to change the things that don’t. It contains ideas to help you manage life’s ups and downs and suggestions on how you can increase the good feelings you have about yourself.

Setting the foundations

Emotional well-being relies on a solid foundation. So, let’s start with the basics.

  • Eat well

Make sure you eat regular healthy meals. And take the time to relax for a moment when you sit down to eat. Eating with friends can also feel good and will help you deal with stress (see Healthy).

  • Get a good night’s sleep

Not enough sleep can trigger emotional and mental health problems. Conversely, sleeping too much can make you feel tired and reduce your motivation to do anything else. Put some effort into managing your sleep hygiene (see Healthy).

  • Do some exercise

Regular physical exercise will keep you healthy and help you manage stress, anxiety and depression. It will also assist you to sleep soundly at night. Exercising with someone else can also make it more enjoyable (see Healthy and Connected).

  • Stay connected

While it is healthy to enjoy your own company, it is also important to not isolate yourself. Focus on spending regular time with friends or make friends by taking up an activity with other like-minded people. (See Connected).

  • Be kind to yourself

No one does it perfectly all the time. Most people have things in their lives they would like to improve or change. If your list is long or scrambled, try to work out some priorities. Then set some goals, the smaller the better, because nothing succeeds like success, no matter how small.

Do things you enjoy

Doing something you really enjoy may sound easy but a lot of people struggle with this. You may be too busy with other commitments, it may seem too self-indulgent or you may be in a slump and find it hard to get motivated. Whatever the reason, you deserve to do things you enjoy, so plan to do them and then do them.

It might be something as simple as taking a relaxing bath, watching a movie, going for a swim, working on your garden or spending time with a friend. Or it could be something more stimulating like learning a new skill or volunteering for a cause you support.

When you enjoy yourself you experience eustress, a mild kind of ‘positive stress’ that not only feels good but is good for you. Plus, the distraction of focusing on something new stops you worrying about the daily grind or what might happen in the future.

Be mindful

Many people find that ‘mindfulness’ is a useful tool to deal with stress. Mindfulness is about living in the present moment. It helps cut through worries and other mental clutter by letting you experience ordinary, everyday activities through each of your senses. This process can slow your thoughts and help you refocus in a more relaxed way.

Take a few minutes to experience what you are doing. Sit quietly with your eyes closed and listen. Identify as many sounds as you can. Now, open your eyes and consider what you see – one thing at a time, e.g. a table, a clock, a chair. Some people find it useful to touch or point to each object and say its name out loud.

Breathe.  Concentrate on inhaling, exhaling, and tracing the path of the air as it travels throughout your body. The exercise should bring moment-by-moment awareness of sensations and a sense of the environment around you.

Remember … listening, seeing, feeling, smelling and tasting are elements of just being. Taking a few short mindful breaks each day can help keep you calm, clarify your thoughts, and improve your sense of well-being.

Practice meditation

Meditation can help you become more relaxed and happy. The practice of meditation simply involves sitting still and using various techniques to give your mind a rest from the thoughts inside your head. Meditation allows you to know yourself better and feel more mentally clear, relaxed and content.

There are many different meditation techniques. When people report difficulties when first meditating it is often because the technique they have chosen is not right for them or they have high expectations.

Start simply. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Focus on your breathing. Feel the breath as you breathe in as it makes its way through your nose into your lungs, then feel it as you exhale. Count your breaths going in and out.

Other techniques involve focusing on a phrase or mantra, listening to sounds or on relaxing different parts of your body in sequence.

Meditation takes practice. Start with short meditations of a minute or two and increase your practice over time. As you get comfortable with the stillness you can explore different techniques and find what works best for you.

You can practice meditation by yourself (including using guided meditations) or better yet, join a meditation group with a friend.

Move with yoga or tai chi

Both yoga and tai chi involve specific physical movements that can improve your general fitness and your sense of well-being.

Yoga uses a series of specific postures. Most yoga also uses some meditation techniques that focus on breathing, increasing oxygen to your brain and quietening your mind, leaving you feeling happier, refreshed and relaxed. Yoga is also great physical exercise, increasing flexibility, balance, muscle strength and heart health.  It can also help you sleep more soundly. It’s usually best to start off in a beginner’s class but after that yoga is great to practice at home.

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition designed to stimulate the flow of ‘Qi’ through the body and major organs. Unlike yoga’s focus on postures, tai chi uses a series of flowing movements. Focusing on the movements and controlling your breathing keeps your mind in the present, making you more relaxed. Tai chi can release tension while increasing flexibility, strengthening muscles and improving digestion.  Tai chi is best learnt through an instructor and then can be practiced with others or on your own.

Is alcohol helping?

Alcohol has a peculiar relationship to happiness. People often drink to celebrate, and a little alcohol can help you relax, feel good and socialise. However, alcohol is a depressant and can lead to emotional and mental health issues.

People think that there are only two types of drinker: moderate or alcoholic.  But the line is much fuzzier than that.

Think about your own alcohol use.  It is a problem if it is negatively affecting your life: impacting on your health, causing you to make decisions you regret, preventing you from eating well, creating problems at work or affecting your relationships. If you are worried about your alcohol use, start by talking to your GP.

What about other drugs?

People use drugs to feel good but just like alcohol they too can become a problem.

Some recreational drugs can interact with HIV treatments, increasing the effect of the recreational drug to unpleasant or dangerous levels. They may also stop particular HIV treatments from being processed properly. Plus there is always the risk that you will forget to take your HIV treatments while under the influence.

If you regularly use drugs, have an honest conversation with your doctor so they are fully informed and can prescribe you the right HIV treatment.

Think about the impact that drugs are having on your life, positive and negative, and decide whether your drug use is helping or hindering your happiness. If you’d like help, talk to your doctor or contact your nearest HIV organisation for advice.

Facing mental health issues


Many people with HIV have mental health issues. If you do, just know that you are not alone and that help is available.  It is common to recover from mental illness, particularly if you seek help. Many people do get better and feel better.

There are numerous mental health illnesses but two common conditions are:

  • Depression

Everyone feels unhappy from time to time, but if you have feelings of unhappiness that last for a long time and begin to interfere with your daily life, you may have depression.

Depression must be diagnosed by a doctor but symptoms may include feeling unhappy, poor concentration, irritability, sleeping too little or too much and tiredness.  People with depression often struggle to find hope, meaning or enjoyment in the kind of things they usually enjoy.

  • Anxiety

Everyone feels anxious from time to time but people who have anxiety may worry constantly, feel they cannot cope, be irritable, feel like crying, or be unable to concentrate or relax. Other physical symptoms can include sweating, breathlessness, a racing heartbeat and headaches.

Treating mental health

There is no reason for you to deal with mental health issues on your own. In fact, the sooner you ask for help, the better.

  • Peer support

Sharing your experiences and feelings with another person living with HIV can be liberating.  HIV organisations offer this type of peer support and can also refer you to other specialty services if need be.

  • Counselling

Just talking through your concerns can help you plan how to approach them. This may be all you need to get back on track. Or you may benefit from counselling with structured goals and strategies that continues over a longer term.

  • Medication

Prescribed medications are not a cure but they can relieve some of the symptoms and help your recovery. If you are prescribed medication, counselling will usually be an important co-therapy.

Remember to tell your doctor if you are taking any over-the-counter treatments such as St John’s Wort as they can interact with HIV treatment.

What makes you happy?

Everyone is different but the things that make most people happy are often quite modest. Catching up with a friend, going out for a meal or a coffee, seeing a great film or learning something new are simple things we can all do.

We all have things we’d like to do better, but in the meantime:

  • Be kind to yourself
  • Don’t judge yourself too harshly
  • Reward yourself when you achieve something but don’t punish yourself if things aren’t perfect
  • Don’t bottle up your worries
  • Be very careful about isolating yourself
  • Look for new things to do
  • Join in
  • Ask for help when you need it

Remember, life is made up of lots of moments. So, spend time doing things that you enjoy, grab those happy moments and learn to appreciate them. Gratitude is one of the foundation stones of happiness.

Finally, remember to smile. The simple act of producing a smile can help you feel relaxed and increase your sense of happiness.