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Happiness and Habits: Make Small Changes, Get Big Results

Practical ideas for improving mental health and emotional well-being.

Ethan Robertson/
Source: Ethan Robertson/

Would you buy cheap day-old bread from the bakery if you could afford artisanal baguettes?

Probably not. However, forgetting you’re no longer a broke college student would make it easy to mindlessly continue this unappetizing habit.

The same principle applies to your mental health. Constantly digesting toxic words, feelings and reactions takes a toll on your emotional state.

The good news is it’s easier than you think to switch out the crap for a cleaner, meaner mental health diet. Making small changes to your daily routine can go a long way toward improved emotional well-being. Mindfulness awareness of what you want to change in your life, and why, is key.

Many people pursue therapy or self-help with the goal of feeling happier. A fine goal indeed, as long as you realize that happiness largely stems from implementing happy-promoting habits.

The upside of happiness is anyone can achieve it, regardless of childhood experiences, broken relationships, or a negatively-biased brain. The following four steps can help get you on the right side of happiness.

1. Practice the right type of positive thinking (which may not include positive affirmations). Research reveals that repeating positive affirmations such as “I am worthy,” may backfire. The general problem with positive affirmations is that they target the conscious mind, but not the unconscious. Getting to the root of why you aren’t experiencing positive emotions or healthy relationships is crucial. If deeply held beliefs are blocked by the unconscious mind, you’re only getting a partial view of the problem. Attempting to affirm something incongruent with a deeply held negative belief, results is an inner battle. Worse, this wasted energy is squandered on inaction. Unrealistic positive thinking fools your brain into perceiving that you’ve already reached your goal, thereby reducing your readiness to execute a plan. A better strategy is to be positively realistic about your options.

2. Confront your pain. A misconception about happiness is that if you’re nice, you work hard, and you look on the bright side, then life will correspond. Admirable traits for sure, but there’s a lack of awareness about the importance of problem-solving. In order to achieve a happier mindset, you have to recognize that life is filled with pain and suffering. When I ask psychotherapy clients how much discomfort they’re willing to endure to achieve their goals, they look at me like I’m an alien. “I didn’t come to therapy so we could talk about pain and suffering—I do enough of that on my own. I came here so you could help me find happiness,” is typical. However, the unpopular, but essential remedy is to confront pain head-on.

3. Choose prosocial people. Humans are wired to connect. A recent study followed nearly 1,500 older people for ten years. The results found that those participants with a large network of friends outlived their peers with fewer friends by more than 20%. Just as the saying goes, ‘you are what you eat,’ the same applies to the people around you. The more time spent on intentionally nurturing healthy relationships with emotional well people means you’re less likely to get caught up with drama and negativity.

“Friends encourage you to take better care of yourself. And people with wider social networks are higher in self-esteem, and they feel they have more control over their lives,” says psychology professor and researcher, Sheldon Cohen, PhD.

4. Focus on the CBT three. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is primary concerned with the quality of our thoughts, and how these thoughts influence our feelings, which then inform our behaviors. Too often, people who are depressed or anxious spend too much time focusing on the negative events in life. Just as you don’t want to be overly optimistic, you don’t want to dwell on everything that could, or may be, going wrong. Key is recognizing the CBT thoughts-feelings-behaviors triangle and its connection to your mood. This article offers an in-depth look into changing your thought process with CBT principles.

Happiness is a great goal—but the answer is not spending your time on forced positivity; it is to rise above the negative events in your life. As tempting as it may be to believe in a recipe, the truth is happiness is achieved through intentional focus on healthy behaviors.

You just need to make the time and energy to do so.


For more research-based, happy-promoting habits, check out The Happiness Course: 14 Lessons for Achieving Calm, Confidence + Contentment.

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Copyright 2016 Linda Esposito, LCSW