All the things that are good in life (great relationships, thriving communities, virtuous achievements, happiness) are founded on what my professor Angela Duckworth called “the accretion of mundane acts.”
Eating your vegetables. Practicing kindness. Building the tiny elements of a skill. Cultivating your mind to be resilient and optimistic.
Day in, day out. The accretion of mundane acts.
No one likes to admit this. We prefer to celebrate the achievements once they are complete, fawning upon the violin solo, the record-breaking swim, and the fulfilled & happy person as though they arrived ready-made that way. We aren’t interested in the work that happens behind the scenes. Our culture likes to hold up accomplishments as both inspiration and judgment, which inspires just as much shame within people as it does motivation.
What I want to do today is shine a light upon what goes on behind the scenes of happy people: their mundane acts. What are the things that happy people do differently, and turn from an idea into an action into a recurring habit?
Each habit is based upon research, and they are designed to be as small, achievable, and easy as possible. To start, choose just one new habit that inspires you, and start practicing it today. Once you’ve turned it into a default behavior, pick up another one. The accretion of these mundane acts will lead to nothing short of happiness.
Send a thank-you email every morning
People who are grateful are happier, more energetic, more hopeful, experience more positive emotions, more helpful, more forgiving… and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely.
Each morning when you get to work, or open your computer, start your day by sending a thank you email or text to someone.
It takes less than two minutes to do (people overestimate how long it takes, and it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece!) It will impact your mood and contribute to your positive relationships, both of which are essential to flourishing.
Meditate for five minutes
Meditation helps you to learn how to separate your thoughts from your identity, giving you crucial space to nourish your well-being and cultivate your mind in a more positive direction. Meditation takes many forms, including the traditional sitting practice or simply through bringing awareness to the present moment.
The practice of mindfulness is correlated with lower levels of depressive syndromes, higher levels of subjective well-being, and higher levels of well-being.
Don’t know how to meditate? I recommend using an app like Headspace which will guide you through the process. You can also try spending five minutes just being present and noticing your breathing the next time you’re waiting for someone, on the bus, or walking down the street.
Have a meaningful connection
We truly need other humans to flourish. The probability of dying early is 20% higher for obese people, 30% higher for excessive drinkers, 50% higher for smokers, but 70% higher for people with poor social relationships.
Make a conscious effort to prioritize at least one moment of meaningful connection in your day. Meaningful doesn’t have to mean a deep or intimate conversation. It can simply be an interaction where you truly connect, seeing someone for their humanity and they seeing you for theirs. High-quality connections can be found in so many moments: when you’re buying groceries, walking through the door of your office, or partnering with someone on a project at work.
Ask yourself the three powerful questions
This is my favorite exercise ever, created by one of my professors at Penn, Dr. James Pawelski. It focuses your emotions on three powerful positive states — hope, pride, and gratitude — and it does so while connecting you with another person. It acts as a silver bullet to help you to take perspective, notice the good, and build a sense of optimism.
Ask another person to share one thing they’re grateful for, one thing they’re proud of, and one thing they’re excited for. Then, you share the answers to the same questions with them. If there is no one around, journal these questions instead.
Doing acts of kindness is the most reliable booster for well-being that we know of from scientific research.
There are a few ways to do this. You can adopt a ‘helper’s mindset’, where you keep your eyes peeled throughout the day for opportunities to jump in and help someone else. Maybe that’s unloading the dishwasher even though it’s not your turn, picking up groceries, or supporting a coworker in a tough moment. You can also decide, in advance, who you would like to help, and how you would like to do it, setting aside time to do so. The research tells us that these acts of support do not have to big: in fact, we often derive the most personal satisfaction from the smallest acts of kindness,
Consider these five habits to be your new daily to-do list. All together, they will help you to improve your mood, strengthen your relationships, and add up to something far bigger than you can imagine: true, lasting happiness.
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