A wealth of psychology research informs us how to increase our well-being and happiness. It’s not doing any single big thing that will increase your happiness, but rather a whole host of small things.
I believe that this remains a key, overlooked point. With all due respect to Bobby McFerrin, you cannot just “be happy” through sheer willpower alone (no more than you can will away depression, ADHD or anxiety). It takes small changes and small efforts — every day — to enable change.
And here’s the kicker for the most effective behavior change march toward happiness — those small, positive behaviors should be incompatible with the unhealthy behaviors you want to change. Psychologists have known for some time that if you have a few bad habits you want to get rid of, you need to replace them with good habits that make continuing with the bad habits virtually impossible.
For lasting behavior change, replace bad habits with good habits that are incompatible with the bad ones.
Let’s look at a few examples to see how this might work in real life.
Keep in mind, these are just some random examples pulled from real life. But these examples demonstrate how small, daily changes can make all the difference in achieving larger behavioral goals.
Stop smoking. Many people try to stop smoking, but find it impossible because of the habit of the actual act of smoking, as well as the nicotine burst of energy it provides the body. Nicotine gum and patches can help with the latter, but the former problem — the physical act of smoking — remains.
There are many incompatible behaviors to smoking that can be turned into good habits. Go talk to a quit-smoking buddy or other friend you’ve enlisted to help when you have a craving (since smoking is often a social act, this keeps the socialness, but takes away the cigarette). Chew gum. Grab a cup of coffee. You can actually chart out the week on a calendar to identify different good habits you will employ to combat the bad one each hour of each day.
Biting your nails. This bad habit is harder to do if you have your nails regularly maintained by a manicurist (even men). Your desire to not be embarrassed by your nails in front of a professional can be a strong motivator (similar to seeing a therapist each week and reporting on your weekly progress toward change). Or take the nail-biting urge as a sign to break out the emery board to give your nails a clean-up.
Nail biting is often a symptom of nervousness or boredom. Recognizing which it is in your instance can also help you identify good habits to employ to combat the bad one. For instance, if it’s boredom, and you turn to your nails, you can recognize, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m just bored. Let me engage in some activity a little more interesting or stimulating in order to take my mind off of my nails.”
Interrupting others. Some people have a hard time putting the brakes on their own thoughts. Learning mindfulness techniques makes such interruptions incompatible; a mindful person actively listens and processes what’s being said, waiting for the appropriate time to chime in.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about how they’re approaching the situation. Taking the time to do so will make it harder to be in the mindset of interruption or thinking about your own thoughts that you want to interject.
Remember, for lasting behavior change, you need to find a way to replace bad habits with incompatible good (or better) habits.
Here’s a Tool That Will Help: Daily Challenge
It’s hard to engage in these tiny behavior or habit changes on your own. We’re notoriously bad when it comes to self-policing our own behaviors, so it helps to put some daily structure around things. This is one of the reasons psychotherapy works — it holds people accountable to a neutral third party for their behavior change.
I think I’ve found something that’ll help. For the past eight months, I’ve been working with the good folks over at MeYou Health, who have come up with a wonderfully creative service called the Daily Challenge.
Daily Challenge is an online service that helps you improve your health (and emotional health) one small, simple action at a time.
The program is free for all to join and sign-up is quick and easy — you can even use an existing Facebook account. Each morning you receive an e-mail with one small well-being challenge. Once you complete the challenge, click ‘Done’ and you’ll be able to share how you completed the challenge, connect to friends, encourage others, earn points and stamps, receive your well-being score, and lots more!
It’s important to understand that it’s not just about doing push-ups or eating salads. Daily Challenge gives you simple ideas for living better on a variety of themes, including emotional health and self-improvement topics like Stress Relief, Strengthening Self-esteem, Strong Family, Setting Goals, and many others!
The challenges are written by experts in their particular fields, and are meant to be simple enough that you can repeat them or customize them to make them your own. Hopefully it will make the journey to well-being both interesting and fun.
Behavior change for your health or emotional health is not easy. If it were easy, there’d be little need for therapists, coaches, and others. The good news is that through services like Daily Challenge, it is far more doable today than it was a decade ago.