Happy Habits: 5 Uncommon Routines for Happier Days & Years

We all want to be happy, right?

The trouble is, it’s surprisingly hard to choose to do things that really make us happy. For example:

  • Will eating or abstaining from that second bowl of ice-cream make you happy?
  • Will watching Netflix or going to the gym make you happy?
  • Will buying that new iPhone or saving the money for a down payment on a new house make you happy?

Happiness is hard because it’s often at odds with what feels good in the moment. And left to our instincts, we tend to choose what feels good now over what will make us genuinely happy in the long-run.

Of course, every once in a while we break out of this default behavior and will our way to happiness-producing choices. But as anyone who’s ever tried a new diet knows, willpower alone is not a sustainable strategy for success.

If you want to be consistently happier, you need to make consistently better choices. And the key to consistently better choices is habits.

For example, if you can get in the habit of exercising after work, you’ve changed your default from Netflix to exercise. The habit of going to the gym means you don’t have to make the hard decision between the pleasures of the moment and happiness in the future—it’s simply your default now. It’s just what you do after work.

Consistent happiness is about habits.

What follows are 5 slightly unusual habits you can implement that will lead to a more consistent level of happiness in your life.


1. Try a Morning Music Meditation

We all love the idea of early morning routines and habits:

  • Waking up at 5:30 and going for a run before work.
  • Having plenty of time to do some yoga and make a healthy breakfast before starting our day.
  • Maybe carving out some time to work on that side project we keep putting off—writing a novel, starting a blog, getting that Etsy shop off the ground.
  • And of course there’s meditation… Wouldn’t it be great, we think to ourselves, if I could spend 20 minutes every morning calming my mind and grounding myself before the stresses of the day began?

Like I said, we all know how great it feels to imagine doing these things, and yet, Monday morning rolls around, the alarm goes off and… all our good intentions fall away, we hit snooze for another hour, then fall back into the same old rushed and hectic morning routine we’ve always had.

As a psychologist, whenever I see someone failing to follow through on a really good goal—one that will really benefit them and that they clearly want—the first thing I look for is reward.

See, we’re all animals, you and I. True, we’ve got these fancy human brains that can do things like make complicated plans for the future and think analytically about things, but we’ve inherited our motivation system from our more primitive ancestors. And in fact, it works in basically the same way:

  • Try something new.
  • Was it pleasurable or painful?
  • If it was pleasurable, do it again.
  • If it was painful, don’t do it again.

Behaviors that are followed by a pleasurable reward tend to get reinforced, meaning we’re more likely to do that behavior again in the future. The key, though, is reward; no matter how good the action is, if it’s not rewarded in some way by something enjoyable, the odds that we keep doing it are slim.

To make a behavior a habit, you have to reward it in a meaningful way.

This is the mistake I see people making over and over again with morning routine habits…. They try all these new routines and behaviors like meditating and exercising, but there’s no reward! What’s more, most of these activities, especially in the beginning, are the opposite of enjoyable—exercise and meditation, for instance, are really hard and uncomfortable at first.

The key to better morning habits is to make them enjoyable.

One recommendation I often give my clients who want to create a more peaceful, calm morning routine—which I think is an awesome goal!—is to try a music meditation.

Now, meditation can mean all sorts of things to different people, but the basic idea is that meditation helps calm and focus your mind, in particular, your attention. When you practice paying attention to your breath or a mantra or really any kind of sensation for an extended period of time, you’re strengthening this muscle of attentional control.

But here’s the cool part: You don’t have to confine yourself to traditional breathing meditations—anything that helps you focus your attention and observe without thinking will work.

One of my favorite ways to meditate is with music because who doesn’t love listening to some of their favorite music, right?

Here’s what you do:

  • Make a playlist of a handful of your favorite songs.
  • Set your alarm to wake up half an hour earlier than usual.
  • When it goes off, remind yourself that you don’t have to do anything uncomfortable like sit in a goofy pose “watching” your breath for half an hour or go running in the cold. Instead, you get to listen to your favorite music!
  • Then, go put on some nice headphones and start your playlist.
  • As you’re listening, keep your focus on the sensation of music. Try not to think about the meaning of the lyrics or memories of listening to a particular song. Instead, just try to enjoy the music itself. Listen to the music without thinking about it.
  • When thoughts or memories inevitably pop up, simply remind yourself that the goal is to just listen to and feel the music and return your attention to the pure sound.
  • That’s it!

If you’ve struggled to start a new morning routine or to start meditating or doing mindfulness, I think a music meditation is a great way to get started.

The big advantage is that it’s simple and really enjoyable, which means it’s a lot easier to get in the habits of doing it. Then, once it’s established as a habit, you can play around with it and modify it into another morning habit like traditional mindfulness meditation or exercise.

2. Make Time to Be Sad on Purpose.

Okay, this one probably sounds really counterintuitive, if not plain idiotic. But hear me out…

As a psychologist and therapist, the number one thing I see making people unhappy is that they have an unhealthy relationship with difficult emotion. In particular, they look at feelings like sadness or anxiety or anger as if they were viruses to be eradicated or at least avoided.

But here’s the problem: If every time a painful emotion pops up you either try to get rid of it or distract yourself from it, you’re training your brain to be afraid of that emotion. Which means your brain’s going to be even more on the lookout for painful emotions in the future. And when they do appear, you’re going to respond with an even stronger fear response and impulse to avoid it.

When we fight or run away from our emotions we train our brains to be afraid of them.

Of course, this isn’t surprising. It’s natural to want to get rid of or avoid things that hurt and feel bad, including “negative” emotions like guilt, sadness, fear, etc.

But there’s a crucial mistake in this line of thinking: Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

The pain in your finger when you touch a hot stove certainly feels bad, but you wouldn’t say it’s bad that you feel pain when you touch something hot. In fact, it’s good that you feel pain because it causes your hand to quickly get off the stove before you get a serious burn and damage your skin.

Similarly, uncomfortable emotions to indeed feel painful, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad things to be avoided.

Emotional pain, just like physical pain, is a feature of the mind, not a glitch.

But when you constantly try to avoid or “fix” painful feelings, you’re essentially creating a phobia of your own emotions. And because you’re emotions are always going to be there, you’re setting yourself up for chronic suffering.

The way out of this vicious cycle is to do the opposite of your instinct: Instead of running away from painful emotions, try approaching them instead.

Emotional pain is inevitable. Bad things happen and we feel bad as a result. But you don’t have to suffer the extended pain of feeling bad about feeling bad. You don’t need to be afraid and ashamed of painful feelings and moods.

This second layer of difficult emotion is actually the thing that causes the most emotional distress and suffering. And thankfully, you can eliminate this added emotional suffering. The key is to foster a healthier relationship with your own emotions.

By deliberately approaching your difficult feelings like sadness, for example, you’re training your mind to see it not as a threat but as something normal and natural and not to be feared.

Here’s a little habit to get you started that I call Scheduled Sadness:

  • Pick a time of day that’s relatively quiet. Early evening often works well.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes on your phone.
  • Sit down with a blank piece of paper and start writing about anything and everything you can think of that makes you feel sad. It could be personal (like grief over your recently deceased relative) or universal (sadness over the plight of refugees in a foreign country). It can also be extremely small (feeling a little hurt that your spouse didn’t notice that nice thing you did for him/her after dinner).
  • The goal is to simply list the things that make you sad. Don’t elaborate too much on them or analyze them. Just get them out. Sort of like brainstorming. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation or anything like that.
  • Once your 10 minutes is up, throw the paper away.
  • Repeat each day or at least a few times per week.

Note: You can do this exercise with any difficult emotion. For example, with my clients who are very anxious, I often have them do “Scheduled Worry” where they write down all the things they’re anxious about.

Remember, the key idea is that, instead of running away from your difficult emotions, you’re approaching them. This is the best way to retrain your brain to be tolerant and accepting of emotional difficulty instead of terrified of it. And when you’re not terrified of your own “negative” emotions, they hurt a lot less, are easier to manage, and don’t stick around nearly as long.

3. Schedule Calls with Long-Distance Friends.

It’s a fact of modern life for many of us that—for better or worse—we’re largely free to live wherever we want. This freedom makes it easier to explore exciting career opportunities or live in completely different geographies and cultures than we grew up in. But it also makes it harder than ever to remain genuinely connected with good friends who don’t live in the same place.

Yeah, yeah… We’ve got Facebook, and Twitter, and Snapchat, and Tick-Tock, but be serious: How many good friendships do you really maintain and nurture via social media? Yeah, not many.

But it’s hard to think of anything that leads to happiness in a stronger way than regular interaction with good friends.

We’re social creatures to our core. Maybe you’re not a life-of-the-party extrovert… Maybe you don’t have dozens of friends… Maybe you love your alone time more than almost anything… But none of that changes the fact that you need positive relationships in your life to be happy. Full stop.

And when it comes to friendships, nothing beats in-person, face-to-face, meatspace interactions. But a close runner up is a good old-fashioned conversation over the phone.

No, there’s no sexy app for it, but calling people is still the best way to keep the relationship going because it’s the only medium that facilitates conversational depth and intimacy—or, at least, it’s the only one that allows for it.

But calling people on the phone can be challenging.

There are a thousand and one reasons for this that I don’t want to spend the time listing, but the point is this: Making time to call long-distance friends and maintain the friendship won’t happen automatically or easily. You must make a plan for it. Specifically, you must schedule it. Just like a work meeting or doctor’s appointment.

Think about it: To stay physically healthy, you check in with your doctor at least once a year, right? In fact, it’s so important that as soon as you finish your appointment you book the next one out a whole year in advance. That way, you never miss an annual physical.

I’d argue that social and emotional health is very nearly as important as physical health. And one of the primary elements of social and emotional health is consistent, high-quality interaction with friends. And if you’re best friends don’t happen to live in the same place, you must make time to call them.

So schedule it!

I know it sounds strange, but if your happiness in large part depends on regular communication with good friends, then it’s too important not to schedule in your calendar.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Pick one good friend whom you wish you stayed in touch with more.
  • Send them a text saying this: “Hey friend, I’d love to catch up some time. What are some good days and times to schedule a call?”
  • Enjoy your call.
  • Before you hang up, schedule you’re next call while you’re still on the phone.
  • Immediately after you hang up, set a reminder in your phone for that next phone date.

There’s no cocktail of drugs, self-help advice, or therapy that can compare with the benefits of simply talking with a good friend. And making it a habit is even better. So schedule it!

4. Learn to Draw.

I think one of the most underrated tools for dramatically improving your mental health and emotional wellbeing is a hobby.

Trouble is, most people hear the word hobby and they think of an old man collecting stamps or an old lady crocheting with yarn.

Now, I’ve got nothing against stamp collecting or crocheting, but the term hobby encompasses far more than that. A hobby is any kind of activity you engage in regularly that is meaningful or enjoyable, primarily for its own sake, and typically involves some amount of learning and growth.

  • Playing basketball could be a hobby.
  • Volunteering at a soup kitchen could be a hobby.
  • Writing songs for the Ukeleili could be a hobby.
  • Baking sourdough bread could be a hobby.
  • Angel investing could be a hobby.
  • Blogging could be a hobby.
  • Birding could be a hobby.
  • Administering a George R.R. Martin fan club forum could be a hobby.
  • Making jewelry could be a hobby.
  • Painting with watercolor could be a hobby.
  • Tinkering with old cars could be a hobby.
  • Teaching CrossFit could be a hobby.
  • Making instructional yoga tutorials on YouTube could be a hobby.
  • Podcasting about Pokemon could be a hobby.
  • Triathaloning could be a hobby.
  • Writing Harry Potter fan fiction could be a hobby.
  • Writing online reviews of local restaurants could be a hobby.
  • Amateur geology could be a hobby.
  • Reproducing vintage travel posters from the 1920s could be a hobby.

The opportunities for hobbies are endless. And the power of a good hobby to make you happier is massively underrated.

Here’s why:

  1. Hobbies are done for their own sake. Most of our days and lives are filled with instrumental activities—things we do for the sake of something else. We take the kids to school because they need an education. We make lasagne because the family needs to eat. We study for the MCATs because we need to get into medical school. Etc. The trouble is, all that delayed gratification its exhausting after a while. And as important as it is to do things we don’t particularly enjoy because they’ll lead (eventually) to something good, it’s also important to have a few consistent things that are done simply for their own sake.
  2. Hobbies are fun. If you’re an adult, ask yourself this question and answer as honestly as possible: How much fun do I have on a regular basis? If your answer scares you, might be time for a hobby.
  3. Hobbies lead to learning and growth. For some reason, once we finish school and start a career, we kind of assume that the period of learning and growth in our lives is done. And while it’s understandable to want a break after decades of education, no one really wants a total break from learning because it’s something everyone craves and benefits from throughout the lifespan. Of course, what we learn doesn’t have to be academic in nature. If you feel a vague sense of “Something’s missing in my life…” a really good candidate is opportunities for learning and growth.

So learn to draw. Or any other hobby that sounds appealing.

I titled this section Learn to Draw because drawing has a few features that make it an especially good candidate for a hobby if you’re not sure where to start:

  1. It doesn’t require any special abilities or characteristics.
  2. You can do it anywhere.
  3. It’s cheap.
  4. There are tons of free resources online to get you started.
  5. It leads to immediate, tangible results. Which is important because it makes learning faster (direct feedback) and also because it makes the rewards and successes more visceral (look what I just drew!)

Okay, there’s the case for taking up a hobby or reinvesting in an old one as a means to boost your happiness.

But there’s one small issue we should cover before moving on…

Sticking with a hobby can be hard because the early stages are often difficult—it just takes time to, for example, get okay at playing guitar or painting with watercolors.

So, what we need is a way to ensure that we stick with our hobby through the slow, challenging initial period and make it through to the other side where the benefits of the hobby start to outweigh the costs.

I’m sure there are lots of ways to do this, but here’s my favorite: The Seinfeld Strategy. The Seinfeld Strategy is a clever little technique that comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to maintain a habit of writing new material for his stand-up routine.

Psychologically speaking, it’s one of the simplest and most powerful devices I’ve ever seen to build a new habit and stick with routines even when they’re hard. And I think it’s a great way to build in some accountability when you’re trying to get a new hobby off the ground.

If you’re interested, I wrote up a guide to what The Seinfeld Strategy is and how to use it here. But here’s the basics:

  1. Get out a monthly calendar and put it somewhere you’re bound to see it every day (say, on your fridge or desk at work).
  2. Get a big red marker. Each time you successfully spend some amount of time on your hobby, put a big red X through that day’s square.
  3. Try not to break your streak.
  4. If you do miss a day, note how many days in a row you had, and that number now becomes your next goal.

I’m telling you, it’s amazing how motivating keeping all your little squares filled up with red Xs is!

5. Get up Early on the Weekends

Sure, it’s been a long week, you’re exhausted, maybe you think you’re sleep-deprived, etc… So you sleep in on Saturday morning. And again on Sunday morning.

And it feels… GLORIOUS!

I’d like to suggest, however, that sleeping in on the weekends is not a great idea, mostly for two reasons:

1. It’s not actually great for your sleep.

Sleeping in on the weekends is the biggest cause of Social Jet Lag, which itself is the biggest cause of the Monday Blues and a significant factor in why many people develop full-blown insomnia.

When you wake up late on Saturday and Sunday, you teach your brain to expect a late wake-up time on Monday and Tuesday as well. Then, when you don’t get it, you feel like garbage—in fact, it’s the exact same process that happens when you cross time zones. You’re confusing your biological clock with the one on the wall.

So, no matter how sleepy you are, the benefits of a consistent wake-up time, even on the weekends, almost always outweigh the fleeting pleasures of sleeping in on the weekends.

2. Sleeping in on the weekends has tremendous opportunity cost.

In case, like me, you were snoozing during that lecture in Econ 101, Opportunity Cost is the idea that if you spend a dollar on X, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend it on A, B, C, D, E, F, etc.

It’s a useful concept because it teaches you that you can’t make a good decision based purely on the obvious upsides—you also have to consider what you’re giving up. And if what you’re giving up is big enough, it may outweigh the obvious benefit, making the overall decision non-optimal.

For example, if you only slept for 4 hours one night, then yes, sleeping in for another hour or two is probably worth almost anything you’ve given up by sleeping in. But that’s not the situation most weekend snoozers find themselves in. Instead, they got seven hours instead of their ideal eight and decide that they finally have the chance to get the holy grail of 8 hours of sleep.

Trouble is, most people probably don’t actually need eight hours and are perfectly fine on seven or seven and a half hours. Which means that extra hour or two on weekend morning could be spent on something that would have a significant benefit to their health and happiness.

For instance:

  • Exercising.
  • Meditating.
  • Quiet time with your spouse before the kiddos wake up.
  • An opportunity to work on your hobby or side project.
  • A chance to make a nice healthy and delicious breakfast for once.
  • Time to call up a good friend or even write a letter/email to one.

Look, sleep is important, no doubt. But at a certain point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. For most people, getting eight hours instead of seven isn’t actually doing much good—in fact, because of social jet lag, it may actually be more harmful than good.

But in any case, you have to balance the cost with the benefit: How else could I spend that hour or two of sleeping in on the weekends? And would that actually be better for me than an eighth hour of sleep which, admittedly, feels really nice, but probably isn’t really doing much for my sleep health overall?

The bigger point is this: Think carefully about your weekend mornings. They’re an opportunity. Maybe an extra hour or two of sleep is the best use of that time. But maybe there’s something better if you can plug your ears and avoid the Siren’s Call of sleeping in…


All You Need to Know

Happiness is not something you can do or find or achieve. Not directly anyway.

Happiness comes from habits. Good habits. Habits that, even if they seem challenging in the moment, have hugely outsized positive returns in the medium to long run.

I’ve given 5 examples of unusual or counterintuitive habits that will likely lead to a noticeable improvement in your happiness:

  1. Try a Morning Music Meditation.
  2. Make Time to Be Sad on Purpose.
  3. Schedule Calls with Long-Distance Friends.
  4. Learn to Draw (i.e. find a hobby).
  5. Get Up Early on the Weekends.

Pick one, give it a shot for a few weeks, and see what happens. You just might be happy with the result.

10 Comments

Alan Stillman January 6, 2020 Reply

Nick,
This is a nice list. I want to give a shout out for musical mediation.

There is a genre of music called Postive or Posimusic that I have been using for 30 years often while I exercise or sometimes as a meditation. I can’t say enough good things now how much it has helped me.

Here are a couple of sources

https://www.mindprod.com/livinglove/methods/songs.html

On the above I might suggest:
Be gentle with yourself
It’s a beautiful life
12 Pathways

https://www.empowerma.com/monthly-posi-music

Nick Wignall January 6, 2020 Reply

These are great! Thanks Alan

James January 6, 2020 Reply

Good point about songs, there are songs that as soon as I hear them they remind me of a sad time and I tend to try and ‘run away’ I know there are certain times in my life when such songs are so clear in my mind that I can almost ‘touch’ the moment. Also I took up art a few years ago after illness it’s been great even though I am of little talent and I hated art at school it’s one of the best things I ever did.

Nick Wignall January 6, 2020 Reply

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, James. —Nick

Christie Hoagland January 6, 2020 Reply

Excellent advice… Everyday, on my way to exercise at a pool, I set three intentions for the day. My car radio is OFF and I take the time to have a small cry or say gratitudes out loud. Car rides can be wonderful times to let yourself – feel.

Nick Wignall January 6, 2020 Reply

Christie, yes! Very much agree about quiet car rides!

Sindy H January 6, 2020 Reply

Great article, thanks Nick! I love the patient take on cultivating good habits vs the strong-arming attitude of goals/resolutions that’s so prevalent. Thanks for addressing overcoming the hump with developing the new habits/hobbies.

Literally just told my husband at lunch that I need to get up early on weekends to make them more enjoyable.

Cheers, have a great week.

Nick Wignall January 6, 2020 Reply

Thanks, Sindy 🙂

Paul West January 15, 2020 Reply

Hi Nick. I am in Lincolnshire UK and semi retired age 74 with son 47 and daughter 45 both successful and they have great children who are a credit to
me.
We have had an awful past year with the loss through cancer of a dear daughter in law – a grand daughter age 13 contracted type 1 diabetes and I have just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. But we are strong together.

Your article was timely, inspirational and really helpful to suggest ways I and my family can manage our lives with better focus and clearer aspirations. I shall be
adopting much of your suggested actions and hope they improve my life and relationships with family and friends as I suspect they should. Best regards Paul

Nick Wignall January 15, 2020 Reply

Thanks for the kind note, Paul. Glad the article was helpful.

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