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Nils is a lifestyle coach and co-founder of njlifehacks.com, a blog dedicated to helping people live a better life through relentless self-improvement. Nils is on his journey to becoming the greatest version of himself and loves sharing what he learns along the way.
What makes people happy? What’s the difference between happy people and miserable people?
Simple. They have different habits – they act and think differently.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, whether you drive around in a Lamborghini or an old Chevy truck, whether you’re good-looking or plain, whether you live in a warm or cold climate, or whether your self-confidence is high or low.
The main difference (other than genetics) between happy and unhappy people are habits. Happy people engage in more happiness-boosting habits while unhappy people engage in more misery-inducing habits. It’s as simple as that.
Happy people engage in more happiness-boosting habits while unhappy people engage in more misery-inducing habits. It’s as simple as that.
And that’s great news, isn’t it? Because it means that your happiness lies in your very own hands. You can choose which habits to cultivate in your life. If you want to be happier, simply install more happiness-boosting habits.
In today’s article, I want to help you with that. I have researched the science of happiness for the last couple of months and I have found a total of 31 habits common to all happy people. It’s these positive habits that make the difference between being happy with you lot in life or being unhappy and leading a miserable existence.
Picking just a few of these habits and installing them in your own life will make a major difference towards living a happier, healthier, and more successful life.
1. Happy People Experience Flow Often
Flow is a state of complete absorption and full involvement in the present moment. It is marked by intense concentration, a sense of timelessness, and a loss of self-consciousness. It’s a deeply healing and enjoyable state and one that greatly contributes to our happiness.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, explains some of its benefits in her book The How of Happiness:
The experience of flow leads us to be involved in life (rather than be alienated from it), to enjoy activities (rather than to find them dreary), to have a sense of control (rather than helplessness) and to feel a strong sense of self (rather than unworthiness). All of these factors imbue life with meaning and lend it a richness and intensity. And happiness.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
The more often you experience a sense of flow, the happier you will be. So, figure out what puts you in a flow state and do more of that.
2. Happy People Exercise Regularly
If you’re not yet exercising on a regular basis, you are not serious enough about your health, your growth as a person, and your happiness. There, I said it.
The fact is that exercise is too good a medicine to ignore. First of all, there are all the amazing physical benefits you’re getting, ranging all the way from increased energy, to lower blood pressure, to higher insulin sensitivity, to increased lifespan, to weight loss, to better sleep, and so on.
Even more importantly, though, are the mental and psychological effects. Exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and other psychological ailments while improving people’s mood, making them more self-confident, and of course, boosting their happiness.
Just read what Sonja Lyubomirsky (again, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers!) has to say about the power of physical activity in The How of Happiness:
Surveys show – and large-scale randomized interventions confirm – that exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
“Surveys show – and large-scale randomized interventions confirm – that exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities.”
So please, for the sake of your own health and happiness, start the habit of regular exercise if you haven’t already. You don’t need to hit the gym or go jogging. Any type of exercise will do the trick, whether it’s tennis, yoga, badminton, football, triathlons, mountain climbing, or trek running.
3. Happy People Stop and Smell The Roses
Stop and smell the roses – in the scientific literature this is referred to as the practice of ‘savoring’. According to Wikipedia, savoring is ‘the use of thoughts and actions to increase the intensity, duration, and appreciation of positive experiences and emotions.’
Savoring is all about recognizing something good in your life (e.g. a beautiful flower, a colleague bringing you a cup of coffee, or the sun shining on your face) and then basking in the positive feelings associated with that thing. Instead of letting a positive experience float by like nothing even happened, savoring means taking the time to acknowledge, appreciate, and fully enjoy it.
The research shows that this simple practice is a potent happiness booster. Sonja Lyubomirsky shares some insights in The How of Happiness:
The habit of savoring has been shown in empirical research to be related to intense and frequent happiness. Moreover, savoring is associated with many other positive characteristics. For example, in several studies, people who are inclined to savor were found to be more self-confident, extroverted and gratified, and less hopeless and neurotic.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
Throughout your daily life, see if you can slow down from time to time, notice what’s good right here in the present moment, and take full advantage of that goodness by appreciating and enjoying it.
4. Happy People Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is similar to savoring. It is defined on mindful.org as ‘the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.’
Mindfulness involves being able to observe whatever is present in the here and now (e.g. thoughts and emotions) in a nonjudgmental way. Most often, it is developed through the practice of regular meditation.
If you’re unfamiliar with this technique, you may wonder why anyone would try to develop better awareness of their thoughts, emotions, or actions. What’s the point? It’s hard to explain how it works exactly, but the science shows mindfulness provides benefits ranging from improved health, stronger immune system, less pain, all the way to better stress resilience, less anxiety, depression, etc. As far as happiness is concerned, Sonja Lyubomirsky talks about the benefits mindfulness brings to the table in The How of Happiness:
A series of studies conducted at the University of Rochester focused on people ‘high in mindfulness’, that is, those who are prone to be mindfully attentive to the here and now and keenly aware of their surroundings. It turns out that such individuals are models of flourishing mental health. Relative to the average person, they are more likely to be happy, optimistic, self-confident and satisfied with their lives, and less likely to be depressed, angry, anxious, hostile, self-conscious, impulsive or neurotic.” – Sonja Lyubomirky
Mindfulness is one of those things that take a lot of time and effort to develop. But if you want freedom from your thoughts as well as increased happiness and well-being, I would argue it’s well worth your time. In fact, in my opinion, mindfulness is the #1 skill you can ever learn in your entire life.
Practice mindfulness if you want freedom from your thoughts and increased happiness and well-being.
5. Happy People Meditate
Want to know the #1 way to increase your mindfulness? It’s meditation, another powerful technique for improving our overall well-being, our health, and our happiness.
Meditation literally changes the physical structure of our brains and rewires them for increased happiness. Shawn Achor describes some of the research in his book The Happiness Advantage:
Neuroscientists have found that monks who spent years meditating actually grow their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy. [And] research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function.” – Shawn Achor
Most of the research on meditation is done on mindfulness meditation. However, experts assume that any meditation practice will help people become happier. Just try a few different practices and find out what works for you.
6. Happy People Spend Time Outside
Spending time outside – especially in nature – is one of the easiest ways to improve our levels of happiness, while also giving our health a nice little boost.
One study, for example, showed that taking a walk in a natural environment increases people’s mood and decreases the number of negative thoughts they experience. People who walked in the city didn’t show any of these benefits.
Research on exercising in nature – sometimes called ‘green exercise’ – has been dubbed by some people as exercise squared. While regular exercise is already well known for its positive effects on self-esteem and mood, exercising outdoors accelerates this effect, producing increases in self-esteem and improvements in mood above and beyond that of just exercise alone.
I love Barbara Fredrickson’s advice in her book Positivity:
When the weather is good, you need to be ready. Locate a dozen places you can get to in a matter of minutes that will connect you to green or blue, to trees, water, or sky. These have been shown to boost positivity. Perhaps a few natural spots bloom just steps from your door. If so, explore them thoroughly. Make them your own.” – Barbara Fredrickson
7. Happy People Pursue Meaningful Goals.
Think about some of the happiest people you know. Chances are that they live very active lives, right? They are always doing something. They have big plans. They have ideas. In other words, they have goals they are pursuing.
And for good reason. Goals give us purpose, meaning, a sense of enthusiasm, a reason to get up in the morning. And most importantly, they make us incredibly happy. Sonja Lyubomirsky puts it beautifully in The How of Happiness:
People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers or raising more children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person and you will find a project… Working towards a meaningful life goal is one of the most important strategies for becoming lastingly happier.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
Happy people have projects. If you wonder, what makes people happy, what are your projects?
8. Happy People Spend Ample Time With Friends and Family
We are social beings and we feel best when we’re interacting with other people. One interesting study beautifully illustrates this point. The researchers took a sample of 222 college students, measured their happiness, and then focused on the happiest 10 percent. Martin Seligman, a leading researcher in the field, explains the results in his book Authentic Happiness:
These ‘very happy’ people differed markedly from average people and from unhappy people in one principal way: a rich and fulfilling social life. The very happy people spent the least time alone (and the most time socializing), and they were rated highest on good relationships by themselves and by their friends. All 22 members of the very happy group, except one, reported a current romantic partner.” – Martin Seligman
Happy people spent the most time socializing and the least time alone.
If you want to become happier, invest in growing and nurturing your social circle. (Here's our post on how to be more outgoing.) Hone in on your conversation, listening, compassion, and empathy skills. And most importantly, make time for friends and family.
9. Happy People Celebrate Other People’s Successes
Happy people don't wonder what makes people happy. They do their best to be the cause of happiness in others.
We have just established that having a rich social life and healthy relationships is paramount to happiness. Now here’s one-way happy people nurture and improve their relationships. It’s called ‘active and constructive’ responding.
Many researchers study relationships. They study what works and what doesn't work in “average” relationships. Time and time again, researchers find, how we celebrate our relationship is a far better predictor of a good relationship than how we fight. Martin Seligman explains how it works in his book Flourish:
People we care about often tell us about a victory, a triumph, and less momentous good things that happen to them. How we respond can either build the relationship or undermine it. There are four basic ways of responding, only one of which builds relationships.” – Martin Seligman
So, there are four ways of responding when someone tells us about a victory. Yet only one builds happiness: active and constructive. Here’s a graphic showing the differences between the styles (taken from the book Flourish):
Your Partner Shares Positive Event: “I received a promotion and a raise at work!”
TYPE OF RESPONSE
Active and constructive
“This is great! I am so proud of you. I know how important that promotion was to you! Please relieve the event with me now. Where were you when your boss told you? What did he say? How did you react? We should go out and celebrate.” Nonverbal: maintaining eye contact, displays of positive emotions, such as genuine smiling, touching, laughing.
Passive and constructive
“That is good news. You deserve it.” Nonverbal: little to no active emotional expression.
Active and destructive
“That sounds like a lot of responsibility to take on. Are you going to spend even fewer nights at home now?” Nonverbal: displays of negative emotions, such as furrowed brow, frowning.
Passive and destructive
“What’s for dinner?” Nonverbal: little to no eye contact, turning away, leave the room.
Your Partner Shares Positive Event: “I just won 500 dollars in a charity raffle!”
TYPE OF RESPONSE
Active and constructive
“Wow, what luck. Are you going to buy yourself something nice? How did you buy that ticket? Doesn’t it feel great to win something?” Nonverbal: maintaining eye contact, displays of positive emotions.
Passive and constructive
“That is nice.” Nonverbal: little to no active emotional expression.
Active and destructive
“I bet you are going to have to pay taxes on that. I never win anything.” Nonverbal: displays of negative emotions.
Passive and destructive
“I had a bad day at work today.” Nonverbal: little eye contact, turning away.
So, if you want to improve your relationships and become happier, rejoice in other people’s successes. When someone tells you of a victory, celebrate with them. Respond with enthusiasm. Ask them to share the experience with you. Let them bask in the feelings of success.
10. Happy People Engage In Deep Conversations
Think back to some of the best conversations you’ve had recently. What did you talk about? The weather? The latest sports results? Your favorite music? Celebrity gossip news? Miley Cyrus’ new album?
Probably none of these things, right? We enjoy talking about stuff that matters to us. We like it when we get a chance to become vulnerable, raw, and personal. In other words, we are happiest when we engage in deep conversations, not shallow small talk.
And research agrees. When scientists study the conversation habits of happy people, they find the exact same thing. Christopher Peterson shares some insights in his book Pursuing The Good Life:
First, happier participants spent more time talking to others, unsurprising finding given the social basis of happiness. Second, the extent of small talk was negatively associated with happiness. And third, the extent of substantive talk was positively associated with happiness. So, happy people are socially engaged with others, and this engagement entails matters of substance.” – Christopher Peterson
Becoming happier means going beyond the small talk and engaging in deep conversations about subjects that truly matter to you as a person.
11. Happy People Let Go Of Materialistic Tendencies
Many people in our society equate happiness with materialistic success – a big mansion, fancy clothes, a fast sports car, a yacht, and so on. I would argue, however, that the majority of people who possess such things are not necessarily happier than you or me. Why? Because such possessions are a sign of materialism.
And materialism is bad news. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains some of its negative effects in her book The Myths of Happiness:
A mountain of research has shown that materialism depletes happiness, threatens satisfaction with our relationships, harms the environment, renders us less friendly, likable, and empathetic, and makes us less likely to help others and contribute to our communities.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
Happiness and materialism just don’t go well together. Happy people are usually the ones who leave the pursuit of money and “stuff” behind and focus instead on experiences, friendships, passions, hobbies, and other more fulfilling ventures.
12. Happy People Give Freely
“True happiness consists of making others happy,” says an ancient Hindu proverb.
If you think about it in your own life, I am sure you would agree. Helping others feels great. Being kind, generous, helpful, and willing to give freely to others is one of the cornerstones of true happiness.
A great example is volunteers. They provide help for no financial gain with the sole intention of benefitting less fortunate people. And guess what? Volunteers are among the happiest people you’ll ever meet. Adam Grant shares a great study proving this observation in his book Give and Take:
One study of more than 2,800 Americans over age twenty-four showed that volunteering predicted increases in happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem – and decreases in depression – a year later. And for adults over sixty-five, those who volunteered saw a drop in depression over an eight-year period. Other studies show that elderly adults who volunteer or give support to others actually live longer.” – Adam Grant
If you want more happiness, start giving more. Give the gift of time, money, advice. Act more and more without having a hidden agenda. Don’t worry about getting anything in return. Remember, the mere act of giving and helping provides more than enough in return.
13. Happy People Practice Gratitude
Happy people are more grateful than unhappy people. In fact, that’s one of the core reasons why they are happier in the first place. The emotion of gratitude has consistently been one of the strongest happiness boosters known in scientific literature.
Take the following study for example. Participants were randomly split into three groups and told to write in a journal once a week for the upcoming ten weeks. The groups were asked to describe in a single sentence:
- Five things that they were grateful for (gratitude condition)
- Five things that they were displeased about (hassle condition)
- Five neutral events (events condition)
At the end of the ten weeks, participants in the gratitude condition reported feeling more optimistic about their future and better about their lives as a whole. They reported fewer health problems and even spent more time exercising than people in the other groups. Most importantly, though, they were a full 25 percent happier than the other participants.
If you want to feel more happiness in your life, it’s as simple as flexing your gratitude muscle. Try out some gratitude journaling, write a gratitude letter, or find other ways to become more grateful.
14. Happy People Forgive (Themselves and Others)
The Buddha once said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned. “
What a great metaphor, perfectly illustrating how our inability to forgive harms ourselves more than anybody else, including our wrong-doers. If we want happiness, we need to learn to forgive ourselves and others, to let go of negative emotions of anger, hate, hostility, grief, vengeance, resentment, and so on.
According to Christine Carter, a happiness expert and sociologist, forgiveness comes with many benefits such as increased happiness, better health, more empathy, and so on. In an article on the GreaterGood website, she sums it up like this:
Few people fully realize the huge impact the ability to forgive can have on their happiness… But important it is: forgiving people tend to be happier, healthier, and more empathetic.” – Christine Carter
15. Happy People Are Hopeful and Optimistic
A few months ago, I read a book called Making Hope Happen, written by Shane J. Lopez, the leading researcher studying the science of hope. The essence of the science of hope can be summarized in a story Shane tells at the very beginning of the book. I’ll spare you the details, but the conclusion was the following:
Through my work with John, I realized that how we think about the future—how we hope—determines how well we live our lives. John’s transformations, from thriving to suffering and back to thriving, were simple and compelling. When he had clear hopes for the future, his life was good. When John had a sudden break with the future, he felt his life was not worth living. As John reconnected to a meaningful future, his life became good again, and he was excited about it. And his health mysteriously stabilized.” – Shane Lopez
The point is: When we are hopeful about the future, we feel excited, enthusiastic, motivated, and happy. When we aren’t hopeful about the future, we feel anxious, depressed, and devoid of meaning.
If you want more happiness right now, envision and believe in an exciting future.
16. Happy People Comfort Themselves in Hard Times
Another major difference between happier and less happy individuals is how they treat themselves during tough times.
Unhappy people tend to be self-critical – they beat themselves up, blame themselves, and just generally put themselves down and make themselves feel like total losers. Happy people, on the other hand, tend to be self-compassionate – they comfort themselves, utilize self-care, reaffirm their values, and do their best to get back on track.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that self-criticism has been shown to be strongly related to anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction in life, low self-esteem, and increased risk for suicide. Self-compassion, on the contrary, comes with many health benefits such as more optimism, more positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, excitement, and interest, better relationships, more productivity, less anxiety, less depression, and generally higher emotional well-being.
Kristin Neff, an expert in the science of self-compassion, sums it up nicely in her book Self-Compassion:
The research that my colleagues and I have conducted over the past decade shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives. By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing the human experience, difficult as it is, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. At the same time, self-compassion fosters positive mind-states such as happiness and optimism.” – Kristin Neff
Becoming happier means learning to treat yourself with respect, love, care, warmth, compassion, and kindness – just like you would treat a good friend.
17. Happy People Use Their Character Strengths (Often)
Each one of us has certain distinct character strengths. Some people are particularly courageous, others are very honest, empathic, loyal, intelligent, optimistic, or integer.
Research has found that using our biggest strengths – what they call ‘signature strengths’ – makes us incredibly happy and fulfilled. Here’s how Shawn Achor describes it in his book The Happiness Advantage:
“When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full six months later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.”
When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full six months later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.” – Shawn Achor
It bears repeating: The more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.
If you want to take advantage of this, I suggest doing two things. First, take the official signature strengths test to find out your top strengths. Second, find ways to use your strengths as often as possible.
18. Happy Poeple See Their Jobs as a Calling
Quick story: A person walks past a construction site and meets three builders working there. He asks each one of them what they are doing. They first one says that he is laying bricks. The second one says that he is building a wall. The third one says that he is erecting a cathedral for the glory of God.
The first two builders see their work as normal jobs, whereas the last one sees it as a so-called ‘calling’ – work as an end in and of itself with a belief that it contributes to something larger than himself, to the greater good.
Research has found that people who view their jobs as callings – no matter what they’re actually doing! – are a lot happier, engaged, and more satisfied than people who interpret their work as “just a job” or “just a way to make money”.
Begs the question, how do you view your job? Are you laying bricks or erecting a cathedral in the name of something larger than yourself?
19. Happy People Have Things to Look Forward To
Happy people tend to live active and somewhat busy lives. They meet up with friends after work, go on a hiking trip with the family on the weekend, and play tennis every Wednesday morning with a friend. This busy lifestyle provides an unintended but powerful source of happiness: anticipation.
Research has shown that anticipation is one of the largest contributors to our happiness. In fact, anticipating an event oftentimes makes us happier than the event itself. Sonja Lyubomirsky shares these insights in The Myths of Happiness:
For example, a month before embarking on a guided twelve-day tour of several European cities, eager travelers report expecting to enjoy their trip significantly more than they actually do during the twelve days… [and] researchers who studied a thousand Dutch vacationers concluded that by far the greatest amount of happiness extracted from the vacation is derived from the anticipation period.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
If you want to feel happier, simply put something on the calendar. Plan a vacation. Create plans for the weekend. Join a weekly cooking, tennis, yoga class. Or book a weekly spa or massage appointment. Find things to look forward to.
If you want to raise your levels of happiness, spend your money on experiences. Experiences are what life is all about, and they are what make or break our happiness.
20. Happy People Spend Money On Experiences
What makes you happier? A new car or a trip to Polynesia? The research is clear: it’s the trip. Richard Wiseman, a famous psychotherapist, notes in his book 59 Seconds:
In terms of short- and long-term happiness, buying experiences made people feel better than buying products.” – Richard Wiseman
If you think about this, it makes sense. After all, experiences are what life is all about, and they are what make or break our happiness. If you’re on your deathbed, you remember all the good old times with your friends and family, not the good old times with your Lamborghini or your jewels.
Bottom line, if you want to raise your levels of happiness, spend your money on experiences. Go on holidays with your family. Visit the local museum. Learn a foreign language. Take a trip to Machu Picchu. Go kite surfing, water skiing, bungee jumping, hiking, or kayaking.
21. Happy People Spend Money to Benefit Others
Happy people have another trick up their alley to use money in service of their psychological well-being: They spend it to benefit others rather than themselves. According to the research, that makes people a lot happier. Richard Wiseman explains in 59 Seconds:
Ask people whether they will be happier after spending money on themselves or others, and the vast majority will tick the ‘me’ box. The science shows that exactly the opposite is true – people become much happier about providing for other rather than themselves.” – Richard Wiseman
Spending money on other people works so well because it’s an act of kindness, which we’ve seen earlier is one of the strongest happiness boosters we’re currently aware of. And don’t think you need to spend a lot of money to make use of this strategy – even small gifts such as bringing a tired colleague a coffee or bringing your spouse some flowers will have a shockingly big effect.
22. Happy People Limit Their News Consumption
Here’s a surefire way to feel unhappy, miserable, and pessimistic: watch the news. Multiple studies are now proving the detrimental effects news have on our psychological well-being. One of them showed for instance that:
Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.”
Shawn Achor, the happiness researcher we’ve met a couple of times in this article, sums up the research perfectly in his book The Happiness Advantage:
Studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.” – Shawn Achor
The message is clear. If you care about your happiness and well-being, limit your consumption of the news – or better yet, completely eliminate it.
23. Happy People Aim For “Good Enough”
You’ve probably heard of ‘The Paradox of Choice’ before. The paradox is that more choices don’t equal more happiness, but less. Research in recent years has shown over and over again that an overabundance of possibilities to choose from can have terrible effects on our well-being, especially when combined with regret, adaptation, social comparison, and concern about status.
Interestingly, not all people are affected by this happiness-robbing paradox in the same way. So-called ‘maximizers’ feel the negative effects much more strongly than so-called ‘satisficers’. The difference lies in their decision-making styles:
- Maximizers always try to get the very best in everything
- Satisficers are happy with getting something that’s good enough
It’s this desire to maximize every decision that can be so detrimental to people’s happiness. Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener explain the dynamics in their book Happiness:
Once maximizers have made a choice – whether it is accepting a job offer, signing a recording contract, or marrying their high school sweetheart – they are likely to second-guess themselves and wonder whether they could have made a better choice. The funny thing is, although maximizers sometimes achieve better outcomes than satisficers – getting a bit more money for that recording contract, for instance – they also tend to be less happy with their achievements. In fact, they turn out to be less happy in general. Maximizers, according to a series of studies by Schwartz, are lower than satisficers in happiness, optimism, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, and higher in depression and regret!” – Ed Diener
In a nutshell, satisficers are a lot healthier and happier than maximizers.
The good news is that satisficing can be learned and applied by anyone. The key is to move from the illusion of perfection towards a realization that in 99.9 percent of cases, good enough is good enough. Make a decision. Move on with life. And don’t second-guess your choices. That’s a recipe for improved happiness and well-being.
24. Happy People Don’t Overthink
If you have tendencies to overthink and often find yourself ruminating about your flaws, problems, and shortcomings, you probably know what’s coming. Research has shown that overthinking can be detrimental to our happiness and well-being. Sonja Lyubomirsky, the happiness researcher I’ve quoted so many times before, goes as far as saying the following in her book The How of Happiness:
The evidence that overthinking is bad for you is now vast and overwhelming. If you are someone who is plagued by ruminations, you are unlikely to become happier before you can break that habit. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that if you are an overthinking, one of the secrets to your happiness is the ability to allay obsessive overthinking and to reinterpret and redirect your negative thoughts into more neutral or optimistic ones.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
Later in the book, she mentions that overthinkers are some of the unhappiest people she ever sees in her studies. The point is, happiness and overthinking do not go together. Happy people are either naturally carefree or have learned to let go of their tendencies to overthink.
But if you’re a chronic overthinker, you already know all of that, right? You know best just how much it sucks. So, what can you do about it? In my opinion, the best way to slowly, slowly let go of this misery-inducing habit is mindfulness. I used to be one hell of an overthinker (and I still struggle!), but mindfulness has helped me tremendously in so many ways.
Bottom line: If you’re an overthinker, you must get a handle on that problem. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to find true happiness and fulfillment.
Those that are truly happy, do not obsess over questions like, “what makes people happy?“
25. Happy People Don’t Compare Themselves to Others
Speaking of overthinking, one trap we too often fall into is comparing ourselves to other people. We get caught up in such philosophical questions as: “How are they doing?” “What did they achieve?” “What kind of car are they driving?” “Are they more successful than me?” “Or am I more successful?” And, of course: “How do I measure up?”
The happiest among us simply don’t engage in that kind of thinking very often. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, the happier a person, the less social comparison they do. She writes in The How of Happiness:
The happier the person, the less attention she pays to how others around her are doing.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
Here’s the good news: Simply practicing some of the strategies in this article will automatically help you loosen the grip of overthinking and comparing yourself to others. Especially gratitude, mindfulness, and self-compassion have shown great promises in that regard.
Happiness has intrinsic goals and core values. They make decisions based on those values.
26. Happy People Pursue Intrinsic Goals
Social psychologists differ between two types of motivations or goals that people pursue. One increases people’s happiness while the other decreases it.
So-called extrinsic goals are all about “making it”, about achieving a certain outcome such as getting rich, famous, or influential over other people. These goals are just means to an end and they have been shown to make people miserable, depressed, and generally less successful in life.
The other type of goal are intrinsic goals and they are all about enjoying the process. They represent a person’s values and deeply held beliefs. They fulfill a person’s core human needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. This is the type of goal that has been shown to drastically improve people’s health, happiness, and overall success in life.
Here’s how Edward Deci, a leading researcher in the science of motivation, puts it in his book Why We Do What We Do:
…strong aspirations for any of the intrinsic goals—meaningful relationships, personal growth, and community contributions—were positively associated with well-being. People who strongly desired to contribute to their community, for example, had more vitality and higher self-esteem. When people organize their behavior in terms of intrinsic strivings (relative to extrinsic strivings) they seem more content—they feel better about who they are and display more evidence of psychological health.” – Edward Deci
Happiness means making the switch from extrinsic goals to intrinsic goals. This requires finding out your core intrinsic values by asking such questions as, “Who are you at your best?” or “Which 3 words best describe you?” Once you have the answers, you need to start making decisions based on those values.
27. Happy People Make The People Around Them Happy
A study done by Harvard researchers followed 4,739 people for 20 years, measuring how friends, siblings, neighbors, and social networks are affected by the happiness of other people. Their findings are absolutely fascinating. For example, they found that your chances of happiness increase by 42 percent when a friend who lives within half a mile of you gets happy. When the friend lives a mile away from you, your chances of happiness still increase, but only by 25 percent. When a next door neighbor gets happy, your chances of happiness increase by another 35 percent.
The point is, your emotional state influences the people around you, and vice-versa. If you alienate the people around you, their misery will influence you and make you more miserable as well. If you infect the people around you with happiness, their resulting happiness will make you happier as well.
Dr. Christakis, an author of this study, concludes that happiness is contagious:
You would think that your emotional state would depend on your own choices and actions and experience, but it also depends on the choices and actions and experiences of other people, including people to whom you are not directly connected. Happiness is contagious.” – Nicolas Christakis
Happiness is just as much a collective phenomenon as it is an individual one. Happiness is contagious. If you want to be happy, make the people around you happy.
28. Happy People Remember The Positive
Here’s another key difference between happy people and unhappy people: The happy people remember and reminisce about positive experiences while unhappy people ruminate about negative experiences.
Ruminating on negative past events is a form of overthinking, which, as discussed earlier, is a surefire way to feel anxious and miserable. Ruminating on positive past experiences – what we refer to as ‘reminiscing’ – does quite the opposite. It makes us happier, healthier, and more self-confident.
Sonja Lyubomirsky describes a study proving the powers of reminiscing in The How of Happiness:
Participants were first asked to make a list of happy memories and personal mementos (such as photographs, gifts, and souvenirs) and then instructed to engage in positive reminiscing twice daily for a week. As the researchers predicted, those participants who reminisced on a regular basis showed considerable increases in happiness, and the more vivid the memories conjured, the greater the gain in happy feelings.” – Sonja Lubomirsky
It's your choice whether you want to ruminate on negative experiences or reminisce about positive ones. If you want more happiness, choose the latter.
The mere act of trying to become happier has a positive effect on happiness. Becoming happier may be as simple as trying. Are you trying hard enough?
29. Happy People Try to Be Happy
Do happy people just try harder to become happier than their miserable peers? I honestly do not know. But what I know is that the mere act of trying to become happier has a positive effect on happiness.
Two recent studies proved this. The first one split participants into two groups and asked them to listen to “happy” music. The group that was told to actively try to feel happier reported higher levels of positive emotions afterward.
The second study again split participants into two groups and asked them to listen to “happy” music over a two-week period. And yet again, the group who was told to focus on increasing their happiness experienced significantly greater increases in happiness than those who were simply told to focus on the music.
==>>Find out more about how music can affect your mood.
Becoming happier may be as simple as trying. Are you trying hard enough?
30. Happy People Act Happy
“You become what you pretend to be,” is an old saying that is worth remembering. Why? Because it’s true. According to scientific research, simply acting like a happy person will make you happier. Sonja Lyubomirsky provides proof in The How of Happiness:
Remarkably, pretending that you’re happy – smiling, engaged, mimicking energy and enthusiasm – can not only earn you some of the benefits of happiness (returned smiles, strengthened friendships, successes at work and school) but can actually make you happier.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky
Our minds and bodies are deeply interrelated. Change your mind and your body will follow suit. Change your body and your mind will follow suit.
Happy people smile more – and smiling makes people happier. Calm people breathe deeply – and breathing more deeply calms people down. Change your physicality and your mind will follow suit. Act as if you’re happy and you’ll become happier.
31. Happy People Spend Time With Their Furry Friends
Pets – furry or not – can be a significant source of happiness in our lives. Allen McConnell, a leading researcher in this field, explains in a piece on Psychology Today:
In one study involving 217 community members, pet owners exhibited greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, were less lonely, were more conscientious, were more socially outgoing, and had healthier relationship styles (i.e., they were less fearful and less preoccupied) than nonowners. [And] pet owners were happier and healthier than nonowners.” – Allen McConnell
If you’ve been thinking about getting a pet, this may provide a further positive argument.
Happy People Work on their Happiness (bonus)
In this post is based heavily on research found in about half a dozen books on happiness. These books answer a large swath of questions. Specifically many of the books answer the questions below.
- What is happiness?
- What makes people happy
- How can I become happier?
- How can I be happy alone?
- How to increase happiness when you are sad.
- How to make others happy.
- Why you should be happy.
- Health benefits of happiness.
- How wealth effects happiness.
The point of all of this is that happiness may not bring itself. Happiness may not come to you easily. You may have to hunt it down.
It is easy to obsess about things and wallow in the sadness, but if you are unhappy and actually want change, you may have to read more from some of these happiness books and take some action to make changes to improve your happiness situation.
You can find a nice big list of some of the best books on happiness here: 18 Best Books on Happiness
Happiness isn’t determined by your looks, the car you drive, the money you earn, or the clothes you wear. Instead, happiness is determined by your behavior – your thoughts and actions. In other words, happiness is determined by your habits.
Engage in the habits of happy people and you will become happier. Engage in the habits of miserable people and you will become miserable. It’s as simple as that.
If you try many of the happiness habits on this page and still feel constantly depressed and angry, you may want to seek some professional assistance. There may be deeper underlying issues that are keeping you from the happiness that you need to talk to a therapist or psychologist to handle properly…
Today, I have given you lots of happiness-boosting habits, and if you adopt even just a few of them, I am convinced it will make a big difference in your overall health, well-being, and happiness.
Now I’d love to hear from you. What specific habits make you happy? Can sad people transform themselves to happy people with these steps?
Related Posts on Improving Happiness:
- Signs you are Truly Happy
- Happiness Quotes: 81 Quotes About Happiness and Finding Joy in Life
- 35 Songs About Finding Happiness and Joy in Life
Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.
8 thoughts on “31 Habits of Happy People – Backed by Science & Psychology”
What a MONSTER article!
Really enjoyed the intro:
“The main difference (other than genetics) between happy and unhappy people are habits. – made it very clear that happiness is something we can control.
And that’s great news, isn’t it? Because it means that your happiness lies in your very own hands. You can choose which habits to cultivate in your life. If you want to be happier, simply install more happiness-boosting habits.”
Reminds us that we are in control of our happiness – and here’s how to make that happen.
Very well done.
Keep up the good work!
Nils – this is such a mood booster. Strong choices for being happier. I am pleased that I use most of them. Reassuring and affirming for me. I will be sharing this article. Thanks.
Thanks so much Virginia! It’s funny that you mention getting a mood boost from merely reading about these ideas. There was actually a study in Marci Shimoff’s book ‘Happy For No Reason’ that talked about this effect:
“In 1977, Dr. Michael Fordyce, a psychologist and author of ‘The Psychology of Happiness,’ published the groundbreaking results of his experiment showing that students asked to study the habits of happy people actually increased their happiness and life satisfaction by just learning about the subject.”
Certainly works for me as well.
Thx, glad you liked it! 🙂
Couldn’t agree more. A smile, just like happiness, is contagious!
I love how Joseph Campbell puts it, “The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
The influence of a happy person happinizes 🙂
It’s now getting summer here in Switzerland, which means I’m spending more time outdoors – definitely feel the mood boost as well!
Hey Laura! As always, thanks so much for your kind words. I’m sure your kindness brings you a lot of happiness 😉
And yeah, building a happy life takes more effort than one would imagine.
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