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Three Simple Habits that Boost Your Happiness, According to Science

Habits & Productivity Happiness
Three Simple Habits that Boost Your Happiness, According to Science


  • What a happiness expert learned from his life’s low point
  • How the “Success Triangle” will help you achieve your goals
  • The surprising truth about how motivation works

Neil Pasricha is the founder of the Institute for Global Happiness, one of the most popular TED speakers of all time, and the #1 internationally bestselling author of The Happiness Equation and the Book of Awesome series. Srinivas Rao recently hosted him on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss how to defeat decision fatigue, and use simple, research-backed techniques to add more joy to your life.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.

Srini: Can you tell us a bit about your journey?

Neil: Five or six years ago, a couple of personal struggles came to a head at once. One was my wife telling me that it wasn’t really working out from her perspective. Getting a divorce is heartbreaking—I don’t care how long you’ve been married. It hurts. On top of that, my best friend at the time was really struggling with mental illness, and sadly, he didn’t make it. He ended up taking his own life. These two things happened very close together, on top of me having to sell the house and find a new life for myself.

So I started a little blog. It was, just as a way to put a smile on my face before I went to work every day. I ended up writing [about one awesome thing] every single weekday for four straight years, from 2008 to 2012—and the blog took off. It won Levy awards, it got 50 million hits, and it turned into a series of books called The Book of Awesome. Those books hit the New York Times bestseller list, I shipped a million copies, and I had a TED Talk about the whole thing.

Now it seems like I should say, “Well that’s the end, and everything turned out great.” But the truth is that the whole time that was happening, I wasn’t happy on the inside. I was stressed. I’d lost 40 pounds. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I was trying to process a divorce, living alone, without any friends in my city. On the personal side, I wasn’t succeeding.

It took some time to get back on my feet. I sought out some therapy, and after about a year, I met Leslie—she was a public school teacher. We fell in love, and I found myself shifting from just observing awesome things on my blog to enjoying awesome things, like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake with somebody.

“Action causes motivation.”

Leslie and I end up getting married, and we fly to Southeast Asia for a honeymoon. On the flight home, Leslie says to me, “I’m not feeling well.” We have a layover in Malaysia, and she goes to the pharmacy. I’m stressed, and we get on the plane for our 12-hour flight home. She goes to the bathroom, then comes back to our seats. She’s like, “I’m pregnant!”

We have no one to tell, except the flight attendant. So she gives us a muffin, and writes “Congrats!” on the back of a receipt paper. I then spend the next nine months writing “Nine Secrets to Happiness for My Unborn Child,” which turned into a 300-page Word document.

That letter then became a book called The Happiness Equation. It’s meant to not be just the observation of awesome, but the application of it. Leslie has now had our son. His name is Hudson, and he’s just a pure joy.

Srini: Wow, that was beautiful. It seems like you started out in the space of post-traumatic stress, but you evolved into significant post-traumatic growth. Do you think there is something that distinguishes people who navigate a situation like that with the response you did?

Neil: There may be some inherent qualities that people have from a young age, but I think the desire to move and study and grow is something you can learn. I could have just as easily written 1000 terrible things, but “awesome” put me in a certain head space. I basically created a gratitude journal—I focused on something positive, and journaled about it and thought positively about it at the end of the day.

And now I have all the positive psychology research to back that up. There’s a University of Texas study saying that 20 minutes of journaling a day dramatically increases your happiness. There was another big study on the power of writing down just five [things you’re grateful for] per week—which happens to be the exact number of awesome things I was writing.

In another study from Penn State University, they had one group of people taking antidepressants, one group taking three brisk 20-minute walks per week, and one group doing both. The group just taking the three 20-minute walks [did the best]. So if you want to jack up your happiness a bit, go for a brisk walk.

Srini: [Shifting gears a bit,] let’s talk about your successes. I think that if there isn’t some level of intrinsic motivation involved, like if it is all about external [results], it’s really hard to succeed.

Neil: I totally agree. In my book I write about the four simple words that block all criticism: “Do it for you.” Your own satisfaction must be enough. Take John Lennon—in the last interview he did before he died, he was asked, “What do you think will have a longer legacy, your music with the Beatles, or your solo music?” He said, “That is for others to judge. I don’t stand back and criticize—I do.” When you struggle internally to make sure that what you’re doing is satisfying to you, that’s when you’ll do your greatest work.

A week or two after first starting my blog, I start getting hooked on the fact that there’s a blog counter, a way to measure my success. I stayed up late every night cranking on this thing so hard, just to hit all these numbers. The problem is, the numbers never end. And you lose track of your internal reason for doing something when you’re given the shiny external [motivator].

Studies have taken 11-year-old girls and said, “Why don’t you teach this girl the piano, and you get to feel rewarded by the fact that she gets to learn it.” Then they tell these other girls, “If you teach her piano, you get a ticket to the movies.” The ones that are given the extrinsic reward of the movie ticket get frustrated more easily. They give up, they yell, they’re upset—whereas the ones that just have the intrinsic reason go all the way. They care deeply about the results.

Now, external [motivators] pop into view everywhere you look. There’s always a stat counter, or a performance evaluation, or someone saying, “Good job!” So how do you keep that internal focus front and center?

I think the secret to getting anything done is to flip the words “motivation” and “action.” Most of us think that you’ve got to be motivated, and then you have action. But actually, it’s the opposite—action causes motivation. By doing the blog post one day, the next day I’m like, “Well, I did it yesterday. I’ve got a string of [consecutive days] of doing this, so I can do it today.” Just do it, even if it sucks, to bridge you to the next day, and you’ll have newfound energy.

Srini: For people who are incredibly driven by external motivators, is it possible for them to shift their focus to an internal motivator?

Neil: A tool I use to answer that question is something I call the “Success Triangle.” Picture a triangle with three S’s on the corners. One S stands for “Sales,”—how well something does, or how many it ships. The second S stands for “Social,” which is all about critical reviews—how well it does in the eyes of people you respect. If it’s a book, is it reviewed by the New York Times Book Review? Is it nominated for a prize? Does another author who you respect say they liked it? Then the third S is “Self,”—how do you feel about it? What’s your intrinsic feeling?

The reason I use the Success Triangle is that I’m convinced that you can’t have all three of them. In some ways, they actually block each other. Let me give you an example: You might have intrinsic motivation (“Self”) for building a deck, or baking a beautiful cake, or creating a great lesson to teach to your students. But you can’t sell those things, and they’re not really critically reviewed very often, [so “Sales” and “Social” are lacking].

“Sales” and “Social” can also block each other. A couple years ago, The Hurt Locker won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It was one of my favorite movies of the year—I was glued to the screen. Its domestic box office was $19 million. That same year, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, which was nominated for no Academy Awards, made over $200 million.

The point is, you’ve got to decide up front which one you want. It could be sales success—for my first book, I was like, “How do you sell a million copies?” I did that, but I never got reviewed in any newspaper—not one. I never got any award nominations. It was a commercial hit, but it wasn’t a social hit.

“The average person makes over 300 decisions a day. We all have decision fatigue.”

So pick which one you want on the Success Triangle, and then aim for that. You’ve got to be comfortable thinking, “I probably won’t get all three.” Even someone like Kanye West—he’s got the sales success, and maybe the social success, but I don’t know how he feels about it himself. What makes him keep going? Who knows. I just don’t think you can get all three.

Srini: You’ve worked up close and personal with CEOs and people at the highest levels of achievement. What have you learned about human behavior?

Neil: Well, one thing is that the average person makes over 300 decisions a day. We all have decision fatigue. So at the front of the grocery store, you’re met with all the different kinds of chocolate bars, but you’re tired because you just picked from 30 kinds of salsa and 12 kinds of fish sticks. That’s why, when people are buying a new car, they’ll spend an extra $2,000 to rust-proof the car, because they’re like, “Well at this point, I’ve spent $30,000, so whatever.”

What I’ve found is that people filter their decisions using a framework that I call the “Space Scribble.” Think of every decision you make on a two-by-two matrix, with Time on one axis and Importance on the other. Everything takes either a lot of time, or a little, and it’s either not very important, or a big deal.

The first thing that these super-leaders do is to automate any low-time, low-importance decision. A lot of people think about how they’re getting to work every day, instead of just following the Waze app. Or I’m thinking about what to take for lunch every day, and who I’m going to eat with, and where we’re going to go, instead of just making double the amount of dinner the night before, and taking leftovers. There’s so many things that go into that square of low time and low importance.

“Do it for you.”

Then the next square is low-importance, high-time decisions. These are things like sending emails and text messages—the average person checks their phone 150 times a day! Successful leaders regulate those things. One of the CEOs I worked with had no social media. He had no phone, so no texting either. He limited every access point to himself down to simply in person. It sounds like a terrible thing to do, but actually it made him extremely efficient, because he would simply walk around and talk to people. If you wanted something from him, you had to meet with him. That was inconvenient to you, but it was way better in terms of the quality of the decision or advice you’d get from him, because he’d thoughtfully consider it, instead of checking his texts and all that stuff.

My wife and I, we regulate fixing our house. It’s a really old house, and every day or two, something breaks—the door squeaks, or the toilet’s still running funny. So we made a little chart on the inside of one of our cupboards, and each time we see something wrong, we just write it on that chart. Then one Saturday morning a month, we fix all those little annoying things about our house in one fell swoop.

For the decisions that are high importance but low time, like picking your kids up from daycare or saying hi to your team in the morning, those leaders would just effectuate it. “Effectuate” is a big word, but it just means, “Get ‘er done.” You just execute.

The beautiful thing about this model is that once you automate, regulate, and effectuate your decisions, you’re left with only the high-time, high-importance decisions, the big ones like, “Where am I going to work? Who am I going to be with?” You finally have room to debate those decisions, to mentally chew on them over a long period of time, and give them the energy that they deserve.

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