How happiness experts stay centered, optimistic, grateful and satisfied in their busy lives—and how you can, too
What makes you happy?
Besides the big stuff like family, health, work and faith, you probably treasure at least one small, regular ritual that brings you peace, joy, sanity, flow and reflection. Unwittingly over the years, you have probably developed and perfected a strategy for cultivating qualities proven to feed a positive outlook: gratitude, optimism, awe, compassion, mindfulness and physical health, for instance. And it’s probably not by writing in a leather-bound gratitude journal every night or sitting in the lotus position chanting “om” each morning.Happy habits don’t need to be formal or fit idealized notions of tranquility or all-out jubilation, but they should be personalized.
My ritual is going for a long walk through the neighborhood with my headphones on, music providing a dramatic soundtrack to my everyday worries, hopes and fantasies. But you might lift your mood by gardening, sipping coffee while reading a book, doodling on a sketchpad, reading your child a bedtime story or hiking with a friend.
We asked positive-psychology leaders how they practice what they preach. How do they stay centered, optimistic, grateful and satisfied in their busy lives? They share their surprising answers below.
1. “First thing in the morning I get on my treadmill, and I get a bridge partner on the Internet. I have an air desk so I can walk for an hour at 3 mph and play bridge at the same time.”
—Martin Seligman, Ph.D.,director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and author of Learned Optimism, Authentic Happinessand Flourish
2. “A good conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee and jogging along the Hudson River in New York City are two of my favorite activities.”
—Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation
3. “Even when I’m totally off my game and out of my normal happiness routines—which include writing down what I’m grateful for, getting enough sleep, hiking with my dog, allowing myself to just work on one thing at a time, etc.—I still always make an effort to connect with strangers. I look passersby in the eye and smile. I chat with the barista. I dish out compliments (“Love your shoes!”) in the grocery store. It’s almost a game for me: Who smiles back? Who brightens? Who chuckles? And it rarely fails to lift my spirits.”
—Christine Carter, Ph.D., senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parentsand The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work
4. “Before breakfast every morning, I start a meditative routine on a yoga mat with a foam roller. I work through trigger points in my legs, hips, back and chest. Then I move to a series of plank and lunge poses. Often my 3-year-old daughter will climb onto my back to add 50 pounds of weight. She knows Daddy starts the day by working out. She knows I don’t talk when I work out, so I can hear her breathing next to my own, and we often get synchronized. Taking care of my body, noticing and appreciating what is happening in the present moment, connecting to my daughter: all mushed up together in a daily 10-minute routine.”
—Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillmentand Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life
5. “I make sure I ask myself what I need emotionally in the moment, then try to provide it directly. This often involves some physical touch like putting both my hands on my heart so I can feel cared for and supported, and then speaking to myself with the same warmth, compassion and encouragement I would show to a good friend. When I’m struggling, I say things like ‘I’m sorry this is so hard right now. I’m here for you.’ ”
—Kristen Neff, Ph.D., associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
6. “Every other week, I take my 1-year-old son Leo to the Dallas aquarium. Very few things in this world make me as happy as watching someone I love become overwhelmed with awe at something as ordinary as a swimming turtle. Awe, like joy, is contagious, and I want to see the world through eyes like Leo’s.”
—Shawn Achor, happiness researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Workand Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change
7. “I love to run and/or walk along the Charles River here in Boston, in all seasons. But the biggest delight I share with my wife, Alicia, is our annual weeklong visit to Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. We look forward to it all year as a boost and culmination of being active, outside, with a new group of friends, doing yoga and tai chi, participating in new dances, and being almost completely away from our digital connections and devices.”
—John J. Ratey, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brainand Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization
8. “Kickboxing class is my coffee-free pickup. It is not violent (I box to a four-count beat with music) but rather an exhilarating way to get my feel-good hormones racing through my body.”
—Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love
9. “I try to reflect on human kindness by thinking of those who have reached out to me or offered help.”
—Fred Luskin, Ph.D., director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects at Stanford University and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness
10. “For me, it’s going on a brisk walk through parklands or by the water. I walk fast enough to get my blood pumping and clear my head. Sometimes I listen to music or an audio program, but mostly I just breathe deeply and listen to my own thoughts, allowing them to untangle in my mind.”
—Domonique Bertolucci, author of The Happiness Code: Ten Keys to Being the Best You Can Beand 100 Days Happier: Daily Inspiration for Life-Long Happiness
11. “I just try to make anything I have to do, or that I can do, into something that I enjoy—by learning about it, savoring it, doing it better than I did it before. When I was younger, I depended much more on specific activities like rock climbing, mountain climbing, painting or reading…. Now, in the ninth decade of life, I am just grateful to be alive…. [And] the people I love… are just as essential now as they ever were.”