The 7 Habits of Health and Happiness
Mar. 16, 2023 Psychology Today
Increasingly lost amid the 24/7 frenzy of modern life is an important but unglamorous truth: most of our quality of life results from the routine physical, emotional, interpersonal, and mental habits we engage in each day. Advertising to the contrary, habits, not hacks, are the real secrets to success, health, love, progress, and fulfillment.
Consider a few examples:
- While millions of people pursue dreams of prosperity by purchasing lottery tickets—a strategy whose success probability approaches zero—financial experts have long since identified the fundamental habits of wealth building, such as spending less than one earns, smart and consistent investment, use of compounding interest, and maintaining a long-term financial perspective.1
- CRISPR technology is amazing, but gene therapies do not solve most modern health problems. Research conclusively demonstrates, for example, that less than half of our lifespan is explained by genetic factors.2Our lifestyle and environmental exposure habits explain most of our longevity potential.
- Greek mythology notwithstanding, romantic love is rarely the instantaneous result of Cupid’s arrow or Love Potion Number 9. Instead, love is demonstrably more likely to result from habits in our communication and behavior towards prospective intimate partners.3
The above illustrates just a few of the many instances where the slow force of habits exceeds the effects of even the most popular or expensive quick-fix remedies.
Just how powerful are habits? For the typical person, there is no single greater source of influence on their quality of life. Right now, beneath our noses (literally; you probably underestimate the physical and emotional effects of your breathing habits),4 and conscious awareness, habits are nudging our choices, compelling our actions, shaping our results, and, ultimately, deciding our destinies.
If habits were part of your home, they would be the foundation. If your life were a train, habits would be the tracks on which it traveled. And if your level of health and happiness were depicted as a farm, habits would comprise the quality of your seed and soil. The science is clear: if you want a better life, you need better habits.5
The Seven Habits of Health and Happiness
If certain habits reliably produce wealth, increase lifespan, and foster love, there must also be habits promoting happiness and health. Not surprisingly, studies confirm precisely this prediction; certain habits predispose happiness and health, whereas the opposing habits prejudice us towards depression and disease.
The most practical and persuasive finding from the habit literature, however, is that habits perpetuate happiness and health and that the habits of mental well-being and happiness and the habits of physical health are mostly the same habits.6
Research shows that cardinal habits related to:
- physical activity
- stress management/coping
… either predispose our risk for depression and disease (figure above) or promote our capacity for happiness and health (figure below). Collectively, these seven habits function as the nucleus of our quality of life.
Habits comprise our mental and physical health foundation because of their repetitive influence. Although no single instance of exercise, healthy self-talk, or act of kindness toward our spouse, for example, may seem particularly significant, when repeated over time, habits’ effects compound into remarkable results.
For comparison, consider that gravity is invisible yet relentless enough to bend light and shape the universe. Water is mindless, yet it can gradually erode even the tallest mountain. And habits are unconscious, yet their quiet consistency molds our futures as skillfully as a sculptor carves a block of clay.
If the power of habits were expressed in a children’s story, they would be best represented by the humble tortoise from Aesop’s fable—discreet and unassuming, yet as reliable as Newton’s laws of physics. Facing 21st-century threats of rapid change and future uncertainty, habits are the steady and redoubtable force we can still count on to improve the quality of our lives.