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2 Essential Habits for Your Health and Happiness

How to spark a chain reaction of positive change.

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What if you decided to change one simple habit and discovered that your life became better in all sorts of ways that you never could have anticipated?

Such is the case when you adopt a “keystone habit.” Keystone habits are those that spark a cascade of other positive changes, often unrelated to the original change. These chain reactions "help other good habits take hold,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.

Keystone habits have what I like to call “spark power.” And two seem to have megatons of such power, igniting numerous other beneficial changes. For each below, I'll reveal the direct benefits, followed by the unexpected and sometimes incredible “keystone benefits.”

Keystone Habit #1: Gratitude

Anxiety. Depression. Catastrophic fantasies. Angry scenarios. Negative predictions. There are swarms of negative thinking habits that waste time, cause stress and suffering, and sap you of self-esteem and self-compassion. Since it’s hard to change these slippery old patterns, why not replace at least some of them with a positive thinking pattern instead—like the keystone habit of gratitude.

Training yourself to focus on gratitude is relatively easy. One method is to keep a gratitude journal. Another is to practice the iconic “Three Good Things” exercise. In this exercise, every night for one week, you either write down or mentally note 3 good things that happened that day, along with your best guess as to why they happened. Easiest of all: Practice "counting your blessings" as they occur.

Direct benefits. It’s not surprising that "the gratitude attitude" affects other mental habits. When your mind is filled with gratitude, there’s less psychic space for negative thoughts and feelings. The conscious and deliberate practice of gratitude triggers the following beneficial changes, according to psychologist Robert A. Emmons:

  • Gratitude boosts happiness levels. In fact, cultivating the gratitude attitude actually raises your happiness set-point, according to Emmons.
  • Gratitude increases other positive emotions, such as joy, optimism, pleasure, and enthusiasm.
  • Gratitude reduces depression and blocks negative emotions like envy and resentment.
  • Gratitude leads people to become more optimistic about the future.

Keystone benefits. Gratitude practice also has an amazing "spark" effect. For example, research indicates that:

  • People who keep gratitude journals on a regular basis exercise more regularly. Think of the synergy!
  • People who keep gratitude journals report fewer health problems and recover more quickly from illness.
  • Gratitude strengthens self-control, according to the work of psychologist David DeSteno.
  • Gratitude reduces impulse buying and increases savings behaviors.
  • Gratitude strengthens relationships, by helping us acknowledge when others have helped us.
  • Gratitude helps people rebound from stressful, even traumatic, situations.

Keystone Habit #2: Exercise.

Direct benefits. A list of the many health benefits of an exercise would fill a dictionary-sized book. To name just a few, moderate exercise can:

  • Improve health by lowering blood pressure, lowering diabetes risk, strengthening bones, and much, much more. (See this blog for details.)
  • Increase longevity, even in small doses.
  • Lift your mood and reduce stress.
  • Keep your memory and your brain healthy. (Details here.)
  • Beef up your immune system.
  • Help you maintain a healthy weight.

Keystone benefits. Exercise also possesses the amazing power to foster other good habits. “When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly,” Duhigg writes, citing numerous research studies to back up this claim. Even as infrequently as once a week. That’s a small investment that can spark keystone benefits such as these:

  • Eating healthier.
  • Becoming more productive at work.
  • Smoking less.
  • Becoming more patient.
  • Using credit cards less.

It’s incredible to think that even the simple habit of regular exercise one day a week could get the ball rolling and create the potential for so many positive rewards.

How will they help you?

Keystone habits might vary from person to person. You might clean out one junk drawer and find yourself keeping better financial records and losing weight. A keystone habit that transformed my life was quitting smoking.

But if you want to cultivate a habit that might have positive reverberations throughout your life, exercise and gratitude seem especially powerful choices.


Duhigg posits that the answer lies in “small wins.” A short walk, a moment of thanks—those may spark greater changes, even transformation, by instilling confidence and the desire to achieve greater goals. Or, maybe it’s a question of energy—exercise creates more of it and gratitude dissolves negative thoughts, freeing your mind for better ideas. Or, maybe the answer lies in your choice to deliberately practice these habits. Such a decision builds character and may inspire you to seek out more opportunities to express your goals and values in your life and world.

Did you ever adopt a good habit that sparked other positive changes in your life? Please share in Comments!

(c) Meg Selig, 2015

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more tidbits on health, habit change, and happiness, follow me on Twitter or Facebook.


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