How Small, Positive Habits Helped Me Improve My Daily Happiness

UPDATED: May 23, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 9, 2019
How Small Positive Habits Improved My Daily Happiness

@claudia82 via Twenty20

No matter how small, habits matter. According James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, our habits contribute to the building of our identity, both in a negative and positive way. Because of this, building a system of habits that are in line with the person we want to be can be more effective than setting big goals that lead to a big transformation. Over time, it is the effects of these habits that help us change and grow.

Related: The 5 Daily Habits Rachel Hollis Swears By

Most of our daily habits are small and, because they’re automatic, we barely notice them and how they affect our life. We check our phones while waiting for the elevator. We flip on the coffee pot before getting dressed for the day. What if we used these small moments to create habits that improve our happiness and our well-being?

Improving My Daily Happiness With Positive Habits

When I first heard Clear on a podcast, it was during a period in my life where things just felt off. My days felt hurried and messy. I was moving from task to task but feeling disconnected and discombobulated—like I was spinning. By the evening, I had no idea what was good and bad about my day.

When I feel this way, my tendency is to respond by believing I need to get my sh*t together, whatever that means: maybe make more money, publish something big somewhere consequential or lose a little weight. Surely there has to be some big goal I can set that will give my days more purpose…

The problem with that line of thinking is that I respond with more wheel spinning. I become hyper-focused on a singular goal and I know won’t be satisfied until I get there. This doesn’t address the underlying problem, that my day-to-day life isn’t serving me like it could.

Clear’s work helped me to move past that mindset. While I tend to think big picture, his work helped me to see the benefit of looking at the small picture for increasing my satisfaction, starting with my habits.

The Small Habits That Made a Big Difference

To be perfectly honest, when it came to settling on the habits I needed to add to my days to improve my happiness, I felt overwhelmed. There are any number of things that could have done the trick, but after talking with Ashley Hampton, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and entrepreneurial coach, and Melissa Green, Psy.D., who specializes in using positive psychology to build happiness, I felt a little more clear on what I wanted to accomplish. Specifically, I decided to add a gratitude practice, intentional acts of kindness and an earlier wake-up time into my days.

“Write down three good things that happened that particular day,” Dr. Green suggests. “Even if you just do that for two weeks consistently, the research in positive psychology has seen a big shift in mood. It trains you to start looking for those good things that are happening.”

When it came to intentional acts of kindness, Dr. Green explained that because human beings are wired to need each other, we actually thrive on the feedback we receive when we have done something that benefits another person.

Lastly, I knew that an earlier wake-up time would be what I needed to feel less frenzied, to feel more collected before hitting the ground running as a work-at-home mom.

Creating a System of Habits

“It is difficult for people to create habits because they don’t realize that their thoughts influence their feelings, influencing their behaviors,” Dr. Hampton says. “So they’re not attacking all three pieces in order to make them congruent.”

With this in mind, I dug into the science of habits, as outlined in Clear’s book. Habits are acted out in a loop of cue, craving, response and reward. Understanding this can be instrumental in breaking old habits and building new ones.

When you’re building a habit, remember this:

  • A cue should be
  • A craving makes a habit
  • A response should be
  • A reward makes the response

This characterization of habits helped me think about what it would look like to build that congruent system Dr. Hampton referred to, setting myself up for success as I added happier habits into my life.

My gratitude practice, for instance, is something I’ve done inconsistently, hoping I’ll just remember to do it at some point each day. This time, I’m creating a system I know will work by stacking it into a series of habits I already have in place.

My cue is climbing into bed at the end of the day. My gratitude practice is now the very first thing I do after I slip under the covers. Taking a note from Clear’s book, I transform my craving into a temptation—I’m always anxious to dig into whatever novel I’m reading at the time, so I set the precedent that I get to crack open a book as soon as I write down my three good things from the day. I keep the response easy by making sure I keep a pen and my gratitude journal on my nightstand. Lastly, I reward myself by checking off “gratitude journal” on my to-do list, a simple act of celebration that has a big impact.

I’m working on applying this same system to my other two happiness goals, rising early and intentional acts of kindness. For example, I’m making getting up early more attractive by making the first thing I do in the morning one of my favorite things—drinking coffee and flipping through a magazine for 10 minutes. When it comes to intentional acts of kindness, one cue I decided on was seeing my children for the first time in the morning, and that I would show them affection or share something special with them.

Celebrating Small Wins

In all of this shifting and changing of my day-to-day habits, there is perhaps nothing I’ve connected with more than the importance of being present enough to celebrate the small wins. This is the detriment of being too ambitious, too focused on reaching massive milestones—we lose track of the importance of what we are doing every day.

When it comes to finding ways to celebrate, it comes down to being self-aware enough to know what truly feels like a pat on the back. For Dr. Hampton, and many of her clients, creating a ritual out of checking items off your daily list is an act of celebration. In Clear’s book, he gives examples like monetary rewards, paying yourself a small sum for a daily habit.

Whatever those little acts of celebration look like, Clear writes that they all need to have one thing in common: They need to harness the power of instant gratification by immediately following the new habit being built.

“Moving forward propels you for future motion,” Dr. Hampton says. “Because, if you take one step forward, you’re likely to take a second step. So, one step forward needs to be celebrated as much as two steps forward. It’s all important.”

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Bulletproof Habits

Mary Sauer

Mary is a freelance writer living in the Midwest. She writes primarily about family life, food and mental health. Mary’s work has been featured by Vice Munchies, SheKnows, Babble and DailyWorth.