The Secret To A Happy Life Is Hidden In Your Daily Habits

“The key to being happy is knowing you have the power to choose what to accept and what to let go.” ~Dodinsky

It hit me as I cruised along at full speed on a busy motorway on my way to a friend’s house.

Shaking like a leaf, I pulled myself out of the car and stood by the side of the road. I desperately gulped in the fresh air, a frantic attempt at calming myself down.

This was the ninth day in a row I’d experienced a wave of panic so intense, it felt like I was about to die. It was utterly unbearable.

I’d been worrying about all the work I had left to do on my Master’s dissertation and berating myself for taking a day off to spend time with friends when I should have been working. All of a sudden, my throat closed up, my chest tightened, and my hands shook so much that I was convinced I would lose control of the car.

This was the final straw.

I’d been waiting for a magic solution, a miraculous savior, a quick fix that would snap me out of my near-constant state of worry. I’d been waiting for the universe to wave its wand and finally grant me a normal life. It wasn’t happening.

I wasn’t willing to face up to the work I needed to do in order to stop indulging in my bleak hypothetical predictions about the future. And more importantly, I didn’t even know what the work was. But that day, I made the decision to find the key to a happy life and to start putting in some serious elbow grease.

I just couldn’t live like that any longer.

That was three years ago.

What You Practice, You Get Good At

The problem is, for a very long time, I practiced worrying. About everything.

I worried about what people thought about me. I worried about what might happen to my health. I worried about whether I would have the career I wanted.

I also practiced managing this worry, and the myriad of unpleasant emotions that accompanied it, with food, alcohol, and sex. I used substances (and other people’s bodies) to make myself feel good, to take my mind somewhere else, and to give myself a moment to relax.

But underneath, the worry was still there; these “fixes” just masked it. Instead of paying attention to what was actually going on in my head and realizing that my thoughts were creating a reality that didn’t actually exist, I practiced covering up my desperation, hoping that this fix would be the one that actually worked.

I was constantly feeding habits that gave me short-term satisfaction or relief, that I knew were ultimately destructive. And I know I’m not the only one.

Many of us spend our days acting mostly out of habit—the foods we eat for breakfast, the route we take to work, even the thoughts we entertain. These become the actions we practice, over and over again.

And what we practice, we get good at.

What Do You Practice?

Here’s a little something to reflect on: What habits are currently running your life? What thoughts do you think every single day? And are these serving you, or not?

We might not think of habits as a practice, but that’s exactly what they are. Each and every day, we’re practicing being the type of people we want to be, whether we realize it or not.

My anxiety, despite being a very real (and often terrifying) experience for me, was a habit. I was practicing being the type of person who was constantly stressed out and worried about everything. Nowadays, however, I practice being the type of person who recognizes these thoughts, knows her limits, takes care of herself, and makes a different choice each time her old pal worry comes out to play.

Think about it:

  • How many times a day do we complain about things not being the way we want them to be?
  • How many times a day do we disengage from connection with others and allow ourselves to be distracted by technology?
  • How many times a day do we worry about things that haven’t even happened yet?

The answer is likely: a lot.

We’re experts at this stuff. After all, the key to mastering any skill is repetition; if we repeat a specific action enough, eventually we’ll gain fluency and competency at it.

This is why the true secret to happiness lies in our daily habits rather than in the “magic fixes” we often think will make us happy.

Daily Practices for a Happier Life

So what if we became conscious of the habits that are running our lives and switched them on their head?

What if we started practicing things we actually wanted to get better at? And what if, instead of making it some huge, life-changing mission, we simply set the intention to live this way, making small steps toward it wherever we could?

Remember: What we practice, we get good at.

With this in mind, here are a few suggestions for habits we could start practicing daily in order to live a happier life:

  • Kindness
  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Acceptance
  • Non-judgment
  • Presence
  • Listening
  • Forgiveness
  • Relaxation

The way these look in our lives will be different for everyone, but the intention behind them is the same—to notice our destructive habits and to make a different choice.

Personally, I’ve found three super effective ways to start bringing new practices into our lives.

1. Notice your autopilot.

We have to recognize our habitual autopilot mode in order to do something about it.

Becoming aware of the way we live our daily life—the choices we make, the people we surround ourselves with, and the stories we tell ourselves—helps us to remember who we really are and what we really want. It also helps us make more conscious decisions about how we act so that we choose our response rather than react out of habit.

The best way to do this is to first make a list of all the times you already know you tend to slip into autopilot.

For example, you might recognize that you frequently spend your lunch break scrolling through Facebook, and then you feel bad about yourself after comparing yourself to other people. Or, you might notice you regularly worry about worst-case scenarios when you’re lying in bed at night.

Once you’re aware of what you’re doing, you can commit to making a different choice the next time you’re in that situation, practicing a habit that doesn’t serve you.

I have to be honest here. This takes time.

In the beginning, it was difficult for me to recognize when my “worry” head was on because it felt so natural to me. But once I started paying more attention to my habitual thoughts and behaviors, I found it much easier to switch the script in those moments and instead practice some deep breathing to relax myself.

Action step: Take a moment to think about the times you already know your habitual autopilot-self takes over. What could you do to in those moments to break that pattern, re-engage with the world, and make a different choice?

Remember: What we practice, we get good at.

2. Focus on your physical sensations.

Another great way to practice new habits is to focus on how they make us feel in our bodies. I like to think of this in terms of openness (expansion) and tightness (contraction). I usually feel pretty open and soft in my heart space when I practice kindness, for example, and tight and tense in my belly when I practice being rude.

Our sense of expansion or contraction in our body can act as an “mindful shortcut,” giving us an easy way to determine what might be going on in our heads.

If we focus on how we physically feel in our bodies and the sensations our habits bring up for us, we can really start to distinguish between the ones that currently serve us and the ones that definitely don’t. Since our physical sensations often directly relate to our emotional experience, it’ll also provide us with a little motivation to continue practicing the things that make us feel expanded.

The issue most of us run into here is that we mostly walk around feeling completely out of touch with our bodies. In fact, it wasn’t until I really started to dive deep into yoga that I realized my body was constantly giving me important signals—and I was totally ignoring them.

The best way to begin observing your body is to sit in stillness and just notice your bodily experience, even if you start with just a few moments a day. The more you “check in” with your body, the more you’ll be able to tune in to what it’s trying to tell you.

When I started paying attention to my body, I noticed how different thoughts affected me in completely different ways. My worry made my body feel tight, tense, and achy, for example, whereas calm thoughts made my body feel soft, relaxed, and open. This helped draw my attention to my worrisome thoughts and choose to focus on my breathing in the present moment instead of on my “faux” reality.

Action step: Start your day by asking yourself one of these questions:

  • “How do I want to feel today?”
  • “What do I want to practice today?”
  • “How do I want to live today?”

Then check in with yourself regularly throughout the day (setting up a reminder on your phone helps!) to observe how your body’s feeling. Pay particular attention to your heart, solar plexus, and belly areas. Is there a sense of expansion or contraction? Does this align with how you want to feel? What are you currently practicing? And does this align with what you want to practice?

Remember: What we practice, we get good at.

3. Set an intention.

We can also practice new habits by simply affirming to ourselves that it’s our intention to practice them.

Intentions are perfect because they’re designed to be a guideline rather than a goal. With goals, it’s far too easy to beat ourselves up if we don’t reach them, but with an intention, we can just start over again.

If we set an intention to be kind, or compassionate, or generous in the morning, we’re also far more likely to jump at opportunities to practice this as we move through our day. It helps us make decisions that are more aligned with the people we want to be, since our intention will still be fresh in our mind.

For example, I’ve recently been setting an intention to practice forgiveness. I realized that I’d been holding on to so much resentment, anger, and blame toward myself (and others) about my anxiety. I felt so much rage about my past—the years I’d spent constantly trying to please other people at the expense of my own needs; my first boyfriend’s extremely controlling behavior, which left me feeling utterly weak; and the pressure I’d felt growing up to be “perfect.”

So every morning I listen to a forgiveness meditation, which includes repeating to myself, “I see and feel the pain you’ve caused me, and it’s my intention to forgive you.” Then, as I’m about to go into my day, I remind myself that it’s my intention to continue to practice forgiveness.

Have I forgiven everyone (or myself) yet? No. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that every single day, I’m practicing.

Action step: Decide on at least one new habit you’d like to start practicing. How can you set this intention for yourself each day? How can you remind yourself of this intention when you go off track?

Remember: What we practice, we get good at.

About Becki Sams

Becki Sams is a mindfulness teacher and expert in women's health, well-being, and empowerment (one client calls her “the womb whisperer”). Her work’s been featured in Glamour, Metro, and Thrive Global. Becki leads monthly women’s circles and shares sanity-saving tools to help prevent overwhelm, quit people-pleasing, and set healthy boundaries—in ANY scenario. Come say hi at beckisams.com and download her free 3 scripts to say no (without feeling rude, guilty, or hurting anyone's feelings).

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