The 9 Habits Positive Psychologists Swear By For A Fulfilling Life

Experts reveal the behaviors that help them flourish and feel happier on a daily basis.
Taking care of your mental health is important, and you can do so by following an exercise regimen, spending time with friends, meditating and more.
FreshSplash via Getty Images
Taking care of your mental health is important, and you can do so by following an exercise regimen, spending time with friends, meditating and more.

Between doomscrolling social media, replacing breakfast with coffee and not getting any fresh air, we are certainly aware of the behaviors that are harmful to our physical and mental health. But, unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into these behavior traps.

What seems to be harder is following habits that actually help you feel better and set you up for a more well-rounded, supportive and fulfilling life.

Positive psychology experts, who focus on the strategies and behaviors that help people flourish, say there are definitive, research-backed habits that can let you do just that. And these are practices they personally swear by, too.

The behaviors they follow are likely things you’ve heard before, but the good they do for your emotional and mental state cannot be overemphasized. Below, experts share the habits they practice to have the most fulfilling life possible:

1. They cultivate enriching friendships.

“The most important thing that I will prioritize is social connection,” said Tim Bono, a lecturer in psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “So, if I know that friends are getting together for dinner, or to go watch a movie or something else like that, I will make it a point to modify whatever I need to about my schedule to spend time with them.”

Why? Research shows ― again and again ― that the strongest predictor of happiness and well-being is the time we spend with other people.

Gregory Sullivan, the program director of the Positive Coaching and Athletic Leadership master’s program at the University of Missouri, added that you should focus on developing your “3 a.m. friends” — the people you can call, and who would call you, if there is an emergency in the wee hours of the morning.

Research has suggested “that the key to a healthier, happier life wasn’t about wealth, or fame or working harder, but ... your ability to engage in positive relationships keeps you healthier and happier,” Sullivan said.

“It’s really telling that when we talk about well-being, the surgeon general of the United States, Vivek Murthy, has identified loneliness as his number-one health issue in the United States right now,” he noted.

If you feel like high-quality relationships are missing from your life, you should focus on developing some, Sullivan stressed.

2. They practice gratitude.

Bono said that he’s intentional about the practice of gratitude, which is known to help with things like stress and general disposition.

“I don’t have necessarily a formal gratitude practice,” Bono explained. “When I’m standing in a long line at the grocery store, or stuck in traffic or something like that, often my mind will want to go somewhere else. But I will try to think, ‘What are some good things that have been going on over the last week or so?’”

Maybe you’re grateful for the nice dinner your partner made, happy hour plans with your friend, or the sunny weather — there’s no wrong answer. Like Bono, you can have an informal gratitude practice or try something structured, like writing in a gratitude journal or using a gratitude app.

3. They counteract their negativity bias.

“We have this innate negativity bias. It’s something that we inherited from our cave man ancestors” who were focused on survival, Sullivan explained. “We still have pretty strong remnants of that in our brain and our DNA.”

This can affect individuals differently, but as a species we’re constantly searching for negative information over positive information, Sullivan said.

“We have an opportunity to create more of a harmony of negative to positive emotions,” he said. “The goal is to find a harmony between negative emotions and positive emotions that really support your well-being.”

Negativity and positivity both need to exist for a well-rounded life, but you can work to reduce negativity by doing a few things, according to Sullivan:

  • Assess your media and social media diet.
  • Go for long walks or exercise when you feel like you’re ruminating or worrying too much.
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Engage in random acts of kindness.
Social connection is a major key to lifelong happiness.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Social connection is a major key to lifelong happiness.

4. They move their body in a way that feels good.

“I prioritize exercise,” Bono said, even on days when he doesn’t feel like doing it. “That investment of that hour or so, getting a run in, often gives me the energy and just gives me a boost to my day, I think, to optimize my productivity in the other hours.”

It’s important to find a type of movement that feels good and will bring you joy both in the moment and afterward.

“The connections are pretty strong between our mental health and exercise,” said Sullivan, adding that exercise can aid in the treatment of depression and anxiety.

5. They connect to their values.

It’s important to connect your values to specific actions.

“Everybody has values, but we stop at creating values and we don’t really connect them” to specific actions, Sullivan said.

Common values that people hold are kindness, honesty, family, courage and trust, according to Sullivan. So if you value kindness, connect it to an action like giving your neighbor a new plant, smiling at a stranger or penning a handwritten note for a friend.

“What you’re doing is you’re converting that value into a behavior,” Sullivan explained. “You’re creating habits associated with your values.”

Do this enough and you’ll eventually reframe the way you think about yourself. If you focus on being kind and doing things that you consider kind, you’ll eventually think of yourself as a kind person, Sullivan noted.

“And you start asking yourself, ‘What would a kind person do here?’ And it just adds another level of meaning and well-being to your life,” he said.

6. They practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is an easily accessible tool — and one that doesn’t cost anything, either. It’s simply the act of being in touch with your thoughts and feelings, withholding any judgment of them, and letting them go, Sullivan said. He added that for him and many others, it also involves a focus on breathing to get through difficult thoughts or feelings.

There’s been great research that’s shown mindfulness in reducing anxiety and depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse,” Sullivan said. “It physically has been connected to lower blood pressure and to improved sleep.”

Researchers have found that in “as little as 12 minutes a day, training your mind to be more present is enough to effect a significant positive change,” Sullivan continued. “So that is something that I am a huge advocate for, and I’m a practitioner myself. It’s something that ... would be on the very top of the list if someone came to me and were wanting to work on their well-being.”

7. They meditate.

Similar to mindfulness is meditation, a habit that Bono practices.

“I found that to be a very good way of bringing awareness to thoughts that are perhaps becoming intrusive, that are not good for me, and having the ability to redirect attention away from them,” Bono said.

There are many ways to meditate. For example, you can pay attention to the physical sensations throughout your body or perform a mantra meditation, repeating a word or sound.

Meditation helps you assess your thoughts without judgment and redirect your attention to the thoughts that better your mind, Bono said. He added that you can use meditation to catch comparison thoughts, intrusive thoughts or feelings of jealousy — all things that can take away from your happiness.

8. They try to get enough sleep.

Sullivan noted that he pays close attention to the amount of sleep he gets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night.

Being well-rested enables us to “better regulate our emotions, our actions,” Sullivan said, noting that those are “direct pathways to our well-being.” Beyond this, good sleep helps ward off disease and benefits your immune system.

9. They avoid ‘numbing’ behaviors.

In a society where distractions are rampant, it’s never been easier to keep your mind off the difficult emotions you may feel.

“As a country, we’re moving in a direction and we’re doing more things that enable us not to feel the full array of emotions,” Sullivan said.

“The time that we spend on social media and how we get engaged in the comparison game, the binge-watching of TV ... use of alcohol, drugs, gambling, is really frightening to me as a numbing agent. A huge part of well-being is to experience daily the full array of emotions that are available to us. And I think that we’re using a lot of these numbing agents not to feel.”

If you take part in lots of numbing behaviors, work to stop some of them and actually embrace the feelings ― both positive and negative ― that you have, Sullivan suggested.

He recommended the How We Feel app, which can help you take account of your emotions at different parts of the day.

“It enables someone to really start to experience how ephemeral emotions are,” Sullivan said. “We may feel anxious in the morning, but we don’t feel anxious in the afternoon. We may feel sad in the morning, but we don’t feel sad in the afternoon.”

In the end, feeling uplifted and joyful may be preferable for most, but feeling that way constantly is not realistic. It’s important to accept your full range of emotions.

“Both positive and negative [emotions], they’re all necessary for our well-being,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s one of the things that people misunderstand about positive psychology, that it’s all about positive emotion. But it’s about the full array of emotion.”

You don’t have to try all of these behaviors. Instead, pick the ones that resonate.

“Think about [these habits] as a buffet. They affect different people differently,” Bono said. “So, try out a couple different ones.”

If you struggle to meditate, spend your time cultivating friendships instead. Or if you can’t get yourself to commit to exercise, consider starting a gratitude journal and working to counteract negativity bias.

“See which ones you can most easily incorporate into your day, and which ones are giving you the biggest benefits to your psychological and mental health,” Bono said. “Then, continue to focus on those as you go forward in your day. It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”

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