The Practice and Habit of Happiness

Delight, not discipline, is the key to keeping your New Year's resolutions.

Posted Dec 26, 2019

Luca Upper. Unsplash.
Source: Luca Upper. Unsplash.

Ask someone what they want in life and chances are they’ll say something along the lines of “I want to be happy.” When you ask them why they aren’t happy, they can usually point out the causes of their discontent without hesitation: they work too much, make too little money, don’t feel motivated, sleep too little, sleep too much.

With the New Year approaching, millions of Americans will be making their resolutions: start running, go on a diet, work less, spend more time with loved ones, spend more time outdoors. Yet 1 in 4 actually stay committed to their resolutions after 30 days and only 8% succeed in fulfilling them long term. 

Why? Forming desirable habits is hard work.

We often develop bad habits unconsciously, but it takes conscious effort to change them or form desirable ones. It is difficult to maintain this conscious effort because most of the time we resolve to give up something that brought us comfort or we resolve to show more self-discipline (which connotes images of ruler-toting nuns more than frisbee-loving dogs). 

In short, breaking undesired habits and starting desired habits is hard and usually somewhat unpleasant. 

So, what if we replaced “discipline” with more “delight” and character development as a motivator?  

If you want to form new desirable habits this year, you’d do well to foreground your happiness, your desire for delight, and your capacity for wonder to make a new habit stick. 

But first, let’s clear up what happiness is and is not.

Happiness as Practice, Not Pursuit

We often think of “happiness” as cheer or the kind of pleasure that comes from instant gratification. Stemming from the Greek thinker Aristtipus, this approach – called Hedonic happiness – suggests you should seek as much pleasure as you can and generally avoid as much pain as you can. You can see how this approach is a slippery slope: Addiction in all of its forms – from alcohol to shopping, gambling to Facebook scrolling – is fed by the dopamine rush of these pleasure palaces.

But there is another kind of happiness that derives from deep satisfaction and fulfillment – a deep delight with all of life – that is especially relevant to new habit formation. While this delight is more enduring than the fleeting pleasures of cold ice cream on a summer day or the thrill of driving a new convertible, it doesn’t always feel good. 

This conception of happiness is aligned with Aristotle’s definition in The Nichomachean Ethics. In his mind pleasure and amusement are meant to serve our ideals, to rejuvenate us so that we may pursue worthy goals. Aristotle writes: “...it would be absurd if the end [of life] were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and suffering aimed [only] at amusing ourselves…the happy life seems to be a life in accord with virtue, which is a life involving serious actions.”

While dieting or cutting back on screen time may not feel enjoyable in the short term, these measures contribute to a longer-term goal of a healthier, happier you. In this sense, our aim should not be the pursuit of happiness, but the practice of it to develop a stronger character. 

To lead a more fulfilling and delightful life, we can take a page from Aristotle’s book and think of happiness as a skill to be cultivated or a practice to be learned, a practice shaped by the rewarding virtues and habits of character you wish to embody. 

How Habits Work

The human brain is wired (and re-wired) through positive and negative reinforcement. Habits form as we learn to identify a cue with a certain reward and enact a specific behavior to obtain that reward. For example, you see food, eat food, and dopamine floods your brain making you feel good. Trouble arises when we transpose triggers for the same reward. You come to associate food with feeling good and may find yourself stress eating for the emotional reward rather than satiating a physical need. Thus a “bad habit” is established.

As a behavior becomes a habit, it becomes automatic: we hardly even think about doing it. This is because the neural pathways in our brains actually change. Catherine A. Thorn, now at The University of Texas-Dallas, established that the circuitry underlying the behavior moves from the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for conscious thought and, therefore, “choice”) to the basal ganglia (part of the limbic system). When we want to rid ourselves of a bad habit, we tend to focus on changing our behavior. The problem is that once a habit is firmly rooted, we have little conscious control over our actions. 

Let’s say that you want to spend less time scanning social media each day and more time each morning developing the work that lights up your curiosity. Yet, within thirty minutes of waking up, your body moves almost unconsciously in search of your phone to get dopamine hits from your texts, emails, and social statuses. React, react, react.  On some level, this phone habit is pleasurable - yet not exactly character-building for the kind of deep, fulfilling life you sense you could lead.

To regain some conscious control over this habit involves a degree of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a practice of switching your attention from reacting to any given stimuli to heightening your awareness of sensations and thoughts as they arise. By shifting your attention from anxiety to curiosity, you can look at your situation and emotions in a more objective, and even wondrous, light. So, as your hand reaches for your phone, you can become more aware of the urge. You can even be amused at what a strangely wired biological creature you are. You can begin to feel sensations come and go. Slowly, you can step out of fear-based, reactive behaviors and consider better ways to obtain the outcome you seek.

But trying to develop a “mindfulness habit” alone is not enough to help most people reverse an undesirable habit. What is the desired character outcome you want from a new habit? How will that desired outcome fulfill the perceived pleasure you think you want from the undesired habit?

Get curious. Buried within your response might be a fruitful discovery of how you can get your wants met with a more productive and delightful habit first thing in the morning. Maybe rather than checking your texts to feel connected and “get rolling” for the day you discover that taking a walk first thing in the morning invigorates you, helps you feel connected to your surroundings, and lets you reflect upon your dream endeavor without distraction. 

Instead of attempting to regulate our actions and restrict our indulgences, we can mindfully focus on the rewards we desire – vitality, lucidity, genuine connection, a sense of accomplishment – and find other, beneficial behaviors that give us a deeper reward. In other words, for some kinds of desired habits to last, focus on enriching your life, not depriving yourself.

Focus on Reward, Not Routine

Be careful, though. You can’t simply remove a bad habit without some risk. Build up a positive habit – a new healthier foundation – first. Then you can begin to reverse the old habits that no longer serve you. 

Next time you feel the urge to indulge in a bad habit, pause to consider what may have triggered your habitual response. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, our triggers fall into five categories: a place, time of day, particular people, specific emotions, or rituals. Notice what time of day you start craving cookies, or who triggers your anxiety-induced, self-soothing behavior. Then consider why you crave that comfort. Is it the sugar rush? Boredom? The opportunity to walk to the cafeteria and socialize with colleagues? Experiment with other, healthier ways to achieve the same end and see what relieves your unhealthy impulse to sugar binge or self soothe. By learning to identify our triggers and the rewards we’re seeking, we can replace our negative habits with positive ones that better fulfill our goal. 

So rather than tackle the big life changes that often feel like you must endure unpleasantness or sacrifice some essential indulgence, start with the “quick wins.” Begin building one positive habit in a small, easy way that makes you feel good not just neurochemically but character-wise about yourself (or at least, don’t make you feel bad). Make your bed every morning, take an afternoon walk rather than a snack break, try yoga or meditation to relieve your end of day stress rather than rely on happy hour to wash your troubles away. 

Then, tell yourself what the “noble” growth outcome of this new habit could be: If you run a half mile today, you’ll have more energy for your best work and you’ll improve your chances of being a healthy parent. In the long run, you might even start eating better, procrastinate less, do your dishes every day, spend less and save more to take that vacation you’ve always dreamed of. You see, habits like exercise may seem like a small change but in fact, they have the power to change your self-perception and increase your self-esteem to affect other changes that ripple outward throughout your life.

So rather than depend on sheer willpower to change your life in a new year, try adding a bit more curiosity, delight, and virtue to your days.