Blog entry

Getting the Happiness Habit

Submitted by Damian on Fri, 25/10/2013 - 14:38

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

It’s the holy grail, what we want most for ourselves and our loved ones. But the oh-so-desirable state of happiness can seem elusive, like it’s playing hard to get. There is no need for pessimism though - over a decade’s worth of research has shown that it is possible to grow your happiness. Neuroscience has revealed that the brain is ‘plastic’, more malleable than we once thought and you can develop new neural pathways at any stage in life. There are habits that happy people have, and by practising them, it is possible to raise the bar on your happiness, whether you’re one of life’s natural optimists, or, like Churchill, have a frequent visitor in the shape of a black dog.

The first thing to bear in mind is that happiness isn’t all 'ha ha ha, hee hee hee'. Yes there are those peak moments of bliss and ecstasy, but they’re just that – memorable moments. It’s great to scale those heights, but there are other sources of happiness too – deeper ones such as the things that give your life meaning and purpose. Developing the habit of happiness is more about raising your underlying level of satisfaction with life, than it is the peaks of high emotion. This is a route to a more sustainable form of happiness.

The second thing to consider is that ‘happiness is not a spectator sport’. Yes there is an evidence base to what makes us happy and what doesn’t, much of which is plain common sense but it’s how you use the knowledge that will make the difference to your happiness. Nearly half of your happiness is under your direct voluntary control, so there’s a lot you can play for, even if you are more of an Eeyore than a Tigger.

Like any habit, it gets easier with practice. The more often you do it, the more automatic it will become. Take one of the habits of happiness – gratitude. This is about noticing the good things in life. The brain has a ‘negativity bias’, our tendency is to notice what’s wrong first before we notice what’s right. By actively recording life’s positives you’re training the mind to notice them. The more you do it, the more your brain will automatically tune in and spot those good things and the more effortless it will become.

We tend to think of habits in terms of breaking a negative pattern of behaviour but you can form positive habits too. Start with something that’s small and manageable like keeping a daily gratitude journal - a track record of the good things in life. Being motivated helps of course but intrinsic motivation is even better. This is where you’re motivated to do something for its own sake. Extrinsic motivation – being motivated to do something for appearance’ sake, money, status or any other external reward, will not strengthen your resolve. A habit can take root in as little as 3 weeks and the more repeats you get in early on in the process, the faster it will become automatic.

There’s another bonus too to practising the habits – you’ll be activating the area of the brain associated with positive emotion, the left pre-frontal cortex. Happy people have more activation on the left side of the pre-frontal cortex whereas unhappy people have more activation on the right. People who meditate regularly have been found to have a thicker left pre-frontal cortex. So the more often you savour life’s positives (habit no1) or build your connections with others (habit no5), the more you’ll be physically developing your capacity for happiness. 

Spending summer-in-the-city of Bristol? Come along to the 'How of Happiness', a one-day workshop in the Happiness Habits, Sat 10th August, 10-4, at Hamilton House on Stokes Croft. £65/£55. Tickets in advance from

Happy Mondays: The 8 week course in the Habits begins on September 30th at the Unitarian Chapel, Brunswick Square, Bristol. 7-830pm £200/£160 early bird/concessions

The 8 Habits of Happiness

·      Savour positive experiences

·      Practise gratitude

·      Use your strengths

·      Live life with meaning & purpose

·      Nurture your relationships

·      Learn optimism

·      Build your resilience

·      Set positive goals