Happiness Habits

Text: How do you create your happiness?

Happy is a word we probably use several times a day without really thinking about it. The dictionary definition is “the state of pleasurable contentment of mind”. Sounds nice.

I think about happiness a bit differently. Many years ago I stumbled across the fact that Aristotle talked about happiness – “being well and doing well” – as an activity rather than an emotion or state… a reframe I found to be so simple, but extremely powerful.

If you think of happiness as a state, it will always be fleeting and out of reach. If you can think about it as an activity, you can be where your feet are and immerse in the present.

Our wellbeing and happiness are everything. It’s something we create – which I talked about in my Purpose & Happiness post a few years ago. It’s often the first thing I coach people on. The approach I take is to help you build habits that integrate wellbeing and happiness habits into your workflow.

On Phoebe Zhang’s Balanced Achievers podcast last year, I shared a bit about my personal wellbeing and mindbody practices that I’ve been doing since I was 12. Wellbeing has been core to the work we do at Dynamic4 since day one, and still is 22 years on. What that means might surprise you. Dynamic4 Fitness was half of the business for the first few years.

Success Will Make Us Happy. Right?

I’m a big fan of Shawn Achor’s happiness research. A key finding is the belief most of us hold that we’ll be happy when we achieve a particular goal and experience success. It’s inherent in many of the things we’re taught, and we often over-index for goals.

In his energetic, insightful, and hilarious TED talk, he says our brains actually work in the opposite order. “…if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. We’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier”. This was another powerful but profound reframe for me.

“If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, we’ve found that every single business outcome improves.”

Shawn Achor

To quantify that… in a range of contexts, it was found that we are at least 30% more effective and productive when we are positive.

One of the things I love about Shawn Achor’s work is his focus on the practical things we can do to create positive mindset habits… to increase our happiness. Happiness is something we need to create… and keep creating. It’s a practice. A habit.

How Do You Create Your Happiness?

From the research, there are simple actions we can take that literally change our brain chemistry and make us feel good – they also activate the learning centres in our brain, and make us more creative and open to new ideas.

For me, I find being mindful, meditation, and other happiness habits are key to helping me keep a sense of perspective. Part of this is regular reflection, including recognising and celebrating the wins – as they happen. There’s always more to be done and it can be easy to fixate on the next thing. I keep working on my happiness habits, knowing that success follows happiness. It feels good and helps me sustain a healthy headspace.

Shawn Achor outlines some simple habits in his book The Happiness Advantage, which I recommend. Another great free resource is the Greater Good in Action website by the University of California, Berkeley. Have a look, and experiment with some of the practices.

I’ll briefly share some practical, quick and easy things you can do to build happiness habits. If you already know and do things I cover here, great! Take a moment to reflect and see if there’s something to refine.

Take a Breath

Breathing is one of the most basic things we do continuously every day, but many of us don’t pay too much attention to what’s going on. Breathing is life. It’s key to our overall health, and how we breathe has a big impact on our brain and nervous system.

There’s plenty of ancient and Indigenous knowledge on using breathing for a positive impact on body and mind. Over the past decade or two, more and more studies have been done to understand how our breathing impacts our brains. A 2017 study showed several brain regions linked to emotion, attention, and body awareness are activated when we pay attention to our breath.

Focusing on and changing our breathing patterns is a simple but powerful tool to calm our brain – it literally changes our brain chemistry. These breathing exercises are called breathwork, and there are many different methods. The thing most have in common is they get you to bring your attention to your breath, taking slow, deep breaths – using your diaphragm, the large muscle located below your lungs.

What are the benefits of this practice? Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system – which helps us move from being stressed to relaxed. Studies have found a wide range of benefits, including reduced anxiety, a lower heart rate and blood pressure, better sleep, increased focus, and improved memory.

We’re often juggling multiple competing priorities, and it can be a challenge to carve out the time and headspace to focus on the work we need to do. I find taking a moment to breathe is a good way to consciously change gears and turn off distractions at the start of a working session.

Take Action with a Simple Deep Breathing Exercise

There are many breathing methods, and you might find they affect you differently – feel free to experiment. What’s the best one to use? I’d say it’s the one you’ll use and stick with. Don’t get distracted by trying to find the perfect method. Just start.

Getting Started

I recommend starting your work sessions with a simple breathing exercise as a way to help get your brain into positive.

If you have a breathing technique you already use and already have a routine, continue with that.

If this is new to you or not something you’re really into, all I ask is that you experiment with it for a week. If it’s working for you, you’ll want to continue – if it’s not, don’t push it.

This exercise is as simple as doing a couple of minutes of breathing.

It’s best to choose a place where you feel comfortable and stable. An office chair is pretty good.

The Exercise

Breathe in through your nose – and feel your belly fill with air.

Breathe out with your lips slightly apart – and feel your belly lower.

Focus on the breath coming in slowly… and going out slowly. You might want to close your eyes while you do this.

See if you can breathe out for the same amount of time that you breathe in – try counting to four or five to start. With practice, you’ll be able to do it comfortably for a longer count.

That’s it. There are endless techniques to experiment with, but if you haven’t done any breathwork before – start simple, feel the benefits, and go from there.

Reflect on the Positive

A gratitude journal is an often recommended practice. Why’s it worth trying? It’s easy to lose perspective and focus on all the things that aren’t going how we hoped or the endless list of things we need to get done.

This practice helps us to be on the lookout for the good things that are happening – and to celebrate them rather than taking them for granted. Research has shown this helps us be in a more positive mood, be more optimistic, and sleep better.

Take Action with a Simple Gratitude Journal Exercise

It’s really simple and only takes a couple of minutes.

All you do is write down three good things that happened in your day – with how it made you feel, who was involved, and why it made you feel good. Three new things each day.

Shawn Achor’s research has shown that doing this for 21 days in a row causes the brain to retain a pattern of scanning for the positive.

I recommend you just write it down wherever you normally make notes. Don’t get distracted by thinking you need to find a special notebook or app. It’s important to write it down though, rather than just do it in your head.

There are more advanced versions of this practice, but start simple.

Bonus: Random Acts of Kindness

Now that you’ve identified good things that happened during your day and who was involved, an extra step is easy – a simple act of kindness that also makes us feel great and builds strong connections. Send a brief message to one of these people praising or thanking them.

These are a couple of actions that flow naturally into reflecting on your strengths and assets.

Solve Problems That Matter

In my book Solve Problems That Matter, I go into a lot more detail on all of the things I’ve covered in this post… and plenty more.

It’s a playbook with actions and worksheets to help you take a human-centred design and living systems approach to design, build, and launch your idea. Ideas that customers love, make money, and do great things for people and our planet… all while increasing wellbeing.

Let’s Collaborate

We specialise in coaching, training, and working alongside leaders.

A key way we do this is by designing and delivering action learning experiences with masterclasses, workshops, innovation sprints, and leadership, design thinking & innovation programs. These sessions build personal, team, and organisational capability to solve problems that matter with more:

  • Clarity on your purpose, goals, and approach to navigate complexity and make progress
  • Momentum to achieve your goals by building the workflows, rhythms, and habits for success
  • Confidence to move forward with more certainty and less risk while increasing your wellbeing


Ready to have fun collaborating to solve problems that matter?

Book a free 15-minute discovery call.