Perhaps we’re thinking about happiness in the wrong way. It’s an attitude, yes, and some of us are genetically happier people, but it’s also a byproduct of very specific habits we do consciously or subconsciously throughout our lives.
And while habits can get a bad rap — the word often conjures negative practices, like smoking or biting your nails — I personally love them. Plus, the right good habits can make you a happier person.
To hack your mind for maximum happiness, start these six habits now.
Make Time for Stillness
Whether it’s your smartphone alerts, your coworkers’ music, or ambient television chatter in the background, noise is everywhere. Finding quiet is no small feat, but it should be a daily priority and habitual practice. Silence is a precious commodity nowadays — as is its bosom buddy, stillness.
It’s no wonder more people are using Breather to rent rooms by the hour to “get peace and quiet on demand,” or why power napping at YeloSpa or in a Metronaps pod is all the rage. But even if you can’t afford one of those luxury sleep breaks, you can still optimize your quiet time with the Power Nap HQ app. It monitors your sleep and aims to wake you at the best time, to avoid grogginess. It also tracks the data so you can identify your patterns and see what works best for you.
And lest you feel guilty about sneaking in an afternoon snooze, just remind yourself that napping is good for your heart and weight, and it makes you happier. Sweet dreams.
Send a Weekly Thank-You Message
Sure, amping up your casual “thank yous” is a fine start. But to really reap the rewards, go a little bigger: Put your gratitude in writing. Maybe a text message or an email is all you can commit to — and that’s OK. But the occasional handwritten thank-you note (even if it’s short) carries so much more weight, if only because it means you managed to locate a stamp and someone’s actual address.
Whatever the medium, take a moment once per week to tell someone — whether it’s your spouse or baby-sitter — that you appreciate them. Don’t overthink it: No one’s judging your literary prowess. And don’t be afraid to occasionally direct the note to yourself. Being kind to ourselves is often the first step in showing it to others.
Schedule Workouts Like Meetings
Exercise’s superpowers extend way beyond body sculpting. It can alleviate and stave off everything from depression to Alzheimer’s — exercise is as close to a natural, free panacea as you can get. And fortunately, you don’t have to be an endurance athlete to stack up the happiness benefits: Turns out, only 20 minutes of exercise each day (that’s the key) will give you every mental benefit. Easy, right? But underused gym memberships prove it isn’t easy.
Start to rethink your relationship with exercise: You wouldn’t bail at the last minute for a work meeting, right? So reframe exercise with the same level of commitment. Decide how many times per week and what times of day work best (to avoid actual scheduling conflicts), then add the workouts to your calendar.
If you live in a city with Classpass, you can sign up for unlimited classes per month at hundreds of participating studios to try workouts like boot camps, barre, cycling and more. The bonus here is you have to sign up in advance — and they charge you $20 if you cancel within 24 hours. That may sound severe, but it could be the kick in the pants you need to eliminate workout flake-outs.
If you’re in a smaller town (or hate group exercise), check out free and cheap websites and apps that help you work out at home or outdoors.
Shut Off Your Phone While Hanging Out
Social connections breed happiness and longevity (the difference in longevity between those with robust social ties and those without is as big as the gap between nonsmokers and smokers). But how do we measure the quality of the time we spend with those who matter to us?
The bond you build with someone differs greatly if you persistently multitask in their presence. Think about the last face-to-face conversation you had without any electronic interruptions or outside distractions. How did you feel after that time together? Probably pretty full — in all the right ways.
Being present with the people you love is not only a gift to them, but also to yourself. Challenge yourself to focus exclusively on the people you’re with whenever your personal and professional commitments allow. And if that never seems to happen, notify your office of specific times when you will be turning your attention elsewhere — you may be surprised how much respect that commands.
Reflect and Write About the Bad Stuff Once a Month
Tragedy and misfortune are integral to the human experience. And while some of us seem to be dealt a more challenging hand than others, no one is untouched by difficulty. What does distinguish us, however, is how we deal with these issues: in other words, our resilience, or the ability to maintain stability when life throws us curveballs.
Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, speaks to the power of cultivating resilience. The argument goes that you need experience adversity to grow, and without growth you’ll have little long-term happiness.
But how do you grow from adversity? It’s not achieved passively — one does not grow merely by experiencing “bad” things. Nor is growth a byproduct of optimism (all you pessimists can breathe a sigh of relief). Rather, it is through the deliberate processing of an event — the “sense-making,” as Haidt refers to it, a kind of active storytelling.
A good way to make sense of adversity is by crafting a narrative and writing about it. Jamie Pennebaker’s research shows that people who write about trauma (not necessarily for an audience; just for themselves) visit the doctor fewer times the following year.
Every month we experience challenges great and small. Carve out 30 minutes each month to retell the story of these difficulties in writing, giving yourself a blank page to explore how you feel about the hardships, and what you hope to make of those feelings. Adversity demands catharsis, and catharsis is healing. So let the ink flow.
Volunteer When You Can
The only thing that makes us happier than healing our own adversity is attending to the suffering of others. Anyone who’s mentored or volunteered will tell you that giving back can do as much for you as those you serve.
Altruism gives our life meaning and direction — and while writing a donation check is both valuable and rewarding, it doesn’t always offer the same warm, fuzzy feeling. Checks are often the default, in part because many people find the volunteer process daunting (What? where? when?). But startups like VolunteerMatch are letting you enjoy more of the give-back goodness without the pain of open-ended searches.
Search by keyword or cause (youth, health, arts and culture) to find a listing of nearby opportunities. You can also opt for virtual volunteer opportunities and filter by event date and whether it’s best for kids, seniors, or groups. Or, if you like giving back while on the go, check out Volunteer Global, which offers international volunteer opportunities. Find a way to volunteer that fits your lifestyle and passions, and make it part of your routine. Even better, join with friends or family.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the “thinking person’s stylist.” She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.
This piece originally appeared on DailyWorth in January of 2015.