monicagazalounsplashWould you celebrate a job promotion with Trader Joe’s Two-buck Chuck, when you could afford a mid-range Cabernet?

Probably not. However, forgetting you’re no longer a broke college student would make it easy to mindlessly support this headache-inducing habit.

The same principle applies to your mental health. Constantly digesting toxic  words, feelings and reactions takes a toll on your emotional state.

The good news is it’s easier than you think to switch out the crap for a cleaner, meaner mental health diet. Making small changes to your daily routines can go a long way toward improved emotional well-being. The first step is mindfulness awareness of what you want to change in your life, and why.

Many people pursue therapy or self-help with the goal of feeling happier. A fine goal indeed, but what’s often misunderstood is that developing happiness largely stems from implementing happy-promoting habits. And I know what you’re thinking, habits aren’t sexy.

Rise and grind aside, anyone can achieve happiness, regardless of childhood experiences, broken relationships, or a negatively-biased brain. The following four practices can help get you on the right side of emotional well-being and happiness.

1. Practice the right type of positive thinking (which may not include positive affirmations). Research reveals that repeating positive affirmations such as “I am worthy,” may backfire. The general problem with positive affirmations is that they target the conscious mind, but not the unconscious. Getting to the root of why you aren’t experiencing positive emotions or healthy relationships is crucial. If deeply held beliefs are blocked by the unconscious mind, you’re only getting a partial view of the problem. Attempting to affirm something incongruent with a deeply held negative belief, results is an inner battle. Worse, this wasted energy is squandered on inaction. Unrealistic positive thinking fools your brain into perceiving that you’ve already reached your goal, reducing your readiness to execute a plan. A better strategy is to be positively realistic about your options.

2. Confront your pain. A misconception about happiness is that if you’re nice, you work hard, and you look on the bright side, then life will correspond. Admirable traits for sure, but there’s a lack of awareness about the importance of problem-solving. In order to achieve a happier mindset, you have to define your problem, articulate why it’s a problem for you, and work toward change. When I ask psychotherapy clients how much they’re willing to suffer to achieve their goals, they look at me like I’m an alien. “I didn’t come to therapy so we could talk about pain and suffering—I do enough of that on my own. I came here so you could help me find happiness,” is typical. However, the unpopular, but essential remedy is to confront pain head-on.

3. Choose prosocial people. Humans are wired to connect. A recent study followed nearly 1,500 older people for 10 years. The results found that those participants with a large network of friends outlived their peers with fewer friends by more than 20%. Just as the saying goes, ‘you are what you eat,’ the same applies to the people around you. The more time spent on intentionally nurturing healthy relationships with emotional well people means you’re less likely to get caught up with dramanegativity.

“Friends encourage you to take better care of yourself. And people with wider social networks are higher in self-esteem, and they feel they have more control over their lives,” says psychology professor and researcher, Sheldon Cohen, PhD.

4. Focus on the CBT three. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is primary concerned with the quality of our thoughts, how they influence our feelings, which then inform our behaviors. Too often, people who are depressed or anxious spend too much time focusing on the negative events in life. Just as you don’t want to be overly optimistic, you don’t want to dwell on everything that could, or may be, going wrong. Key is recognizing the CBT thoughts-feelings-behaviors triangle and its connection to your mood. This article offers an in-depth look into changing your thought process with CBT.

Happiness is a great goal—but the answer is not spending your time on forced positivity; it is to rise above the negative events in your life by doing something about them. As much as you may want to believe in a recipe for happiness, the truth is, happiness is achieved through intentional focus on healthy behaviors.

You just need to make the time and energy to do so.

A version of this article originally appeared on Psychology Today.


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Yours in happy-promoting habits,