5 Simple Science-Backed Habits for Greater Happiness and Success

The French-German theologian, philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer once said, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.”

But what does it take to be truly happy?

This must be the question at the forefront of our mind on a daily basis. The sad truth, however, is that it rarely is. And while this is something you hear about in the media, in newspapers and videos, unfortunately very few have gone on to answer it.

Here's the thing:

A popular opinion the academic community held for a long time was that happiness is heritable and extremely stable over the course of people's lives. The logic went that you're basically a victim of the wiring of your neuro-psychology and no matter how hard you try, you'll always return to your baseline levels of well-being.

In other words, your genetics will determine the levels of happiness you'll experience in life, and if you're not born with it, you're screwed. Not very inspiring, right?

However, new research from Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, together with her colleagues, have proven this belief wrong.

What Determines Happiness?

Based on a body of research in the field of positive psychology, they were finally able to identify the most important factors that determine happiness. Here they are:

  1. Genetically determined set points - 50%
  2. Life circumstances or situations - 10%
  3. Intentional behavior / activity - 40%
Genetic Set Point
Intentional Activity

In the words of professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, "The key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities."

Isn't that great news? This means that all of us could be measurably happier if only we figured out what precise behaviors and activities we should engage in.

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Is There a Formula For Happiness?

In his book Authentic HappinessMartin Seligman, who is often called the "father of positive psychology," translates this 50-40-10 ratio into the happiness formula: H = S + C + V, where H is happiness, S is the set point, C stands for circumstances and V represents the factors under our voluntary control.

While I tend to agree with the formula proposed by professor Seligman, I cannot help but question the figures presented by professor Lyubomirsky and her colleagues. 

And again, I don’t suggest to have it all figured out and I'm not even remotely a world expert on happiness, so take this with a grain of salt.

Considering how they managed to come up with these numbers, the pool of quantitative and qualitative data available, as well as the interpretation behind them is rather debatable. Oh, and the "Round Number Bias" together with the "Oversimplification Fallacy" deserve an honorable mention here.

Viewed from this perspective, it is relatively difficult to say that happiness is a formula. Why? Because happiness is not a hard science, as it is way too complex to quantify.

Having said that, I do agree with the overall principle behind their findings:

While you may not have any control over the cards you're dealt, you do have control over how you play those cards.

While you may not have any control over the cards you're dealt, you do have control over how you play those cards.

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It's about understanding that there are things that are within your control and things that are not, and recognizing the importance of focusing on the former, not the latter. Nothing new, right? This is what the Stoics advised us to do over 2,000 years ago.

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. Some things are within your control. And some things are not.


What this means is that the deciding factor in your success and happiness doesn’t lie in the external conditions or circumstances. It lies in how you choose to respond to them.

In other words, it’s not what happens; it’s what you do about it that matters.

It’s not what happens; it’s what you do about it that matters.

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Science-Backed Practices For Greater Happiness and success

Now that you understand the overarching philosophy behind it, it's time to talk about the tactics, the daily practices that will help you achieve heightened and sustained levels of happiness in your life.

In the same book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares some of the most important thinking and behavior patterns they've noticed in the happiest participants in their studies:

1. They devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships. 

2. They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have.

3. They are often the first to offer helping hands to coworkers and passersby.

4. They practice optimism when imagining their futures.

5. They savor life's pleasures and try to live in the present moment.

6. They make physical exercise a weekly and even daily habit.

7. They are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., fighting fraud, building cabinets, or teaching their children their deeply held values).

8. Last but not least, the happiest people do have their share of stresses, crises, and even tragedies. They may become just as distressed and emotional in such circumstances as you or I, but their secret weapon is the poise and strength they show in coping in the face of challenge.

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In yet another remarkable book written by Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge, he shares Shawn Achor's 5 daily practices that will make you significantly happier, if done consistently over time. (Unlike myself, Shawn Achor is a leading happiness researcher and the bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage).

Here are the 5 practices, quoted from the book:

1. Each morning, write down three things you're grateful for. Not the same three every day; find three new things to write about. That trains your brain to search your circumstances and hunt for the positive.
2. Journal for two minutes a day about one positive experience you've had over the past 24 hours. Write down every detail you can remember; this causes your brain to literally re-experience the experience, which doubles its positive impact.

3. Meditate daily. Nothing fancy; just stop all activity, relax, and watch your breath go in and out for two minutes. This trains your brain to focus where you want it to, and not get distracted by negativity in your environment.

4. Do a random act of kindness over the course of each day. To make this simple, Shawn often recommends a specific act of kindness: at the start of each day, take two minutes to write an email to someone you know praising them or thanking them for something they did.

5. Exercise for fifteen minutes daily. Simple cardio, even a brisk walk, has a powerful antidepressant impact, in many cases stronger (and more long-lasting) than an actual antidepressant!

According to Shawn, if you do any one of these things faithfully for just three weeks, twenty one days in a row, it will start to become a habit - a happy habit. You will have literally begun to rewire your brain to see the world in a different way, and as a result, to be happier on an everyday basis.

An interesting thing is that you don't have to do all five at once - in fact, Shawn actually recommends that you don't even try to do that, but instead start with just one and keep repeating it until it becomes a habit, then add another, and so on.

There's a powerful body of research behind all of these ideas, but these are not the only activities you could engage in to noticeably increase your happiness levels.

I would personally add to it the practice of forgiveness, the practice of having a positive outlook/perspective on life, and the practice of reading a good book on a daily basis.

From my experience, however, the 5 happiness practices shared by Shawn Achor are a very good starting point. You can add to it and make up your own list later on, but for now, do your best to embed at least one practice in your daily ritual until it becomes a habit, then add another, and so on. 

If you'll do these simple disciplines consistently, every day, you'll soon discover that you're slowly but surely becoming a happier version of yourself. 

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Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

Henry David Thoreau

As we've discovered already, our genes play an important role in determining our levels of happiness. But so do other factors, including our circumstances, our environment and most importantly, our intentional thoughts and actions.

As you embark on your own quest to a happier you, remember to focus on the journey, not the destination. It’s more about what you do every single day. It’s about the accumulated effect of those small disciplines you do on a consistent basis.

Thinking about the destination is good, but make sure you don’t paralyze yourself with overthinking. Take the seemingly insignificant steps today that will make your life better in the future. Remember that every single minute counts because in the end, your minutes make up your life. And successful minutes turn into successful days, which in turn build a successful life.

Every single minute counts because in the end, your minutes make up your life. And successful minutes turn into successful days, which in turn build a successful life.

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I hope this message served you well. 

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Daniel Cerescu

I'm Daniel Cerescu, and I'm the guy behind this blog. Even though most of the material on this website is free, I aim to make this free content better than anyone else’s paid stuff. My mission is to inspire and empower those who refuse to settle for anything less than an extraordinary life to live with passion, lead with purpose, and make their mark on the world.