Maintaining the Happiness Boost Over the Long HaulSeptember 26 , 2012

The data is clear.  Adopting one of the five life habits  (gratitude, meditation, exercise, conscious acts of kindness and finding meaning in your life) for 21 days will significantly increase your happiness and help you tap into all the proven benefits of a more positive brain .   And in many studies, these benefits are maintained for as long as six months after the initial 21-day period.

So could doing something for 21 days be enough for a year of increased happiness?  Five years?  Could these simple 21 days of activity provide a permanent boost to your emotional states?

Maybe.  The science is quiet on this question so far; the studies just haven’t been taken out long enough to prove ultra-long-term change.  But we do know that these habits can change the patterns through which you see the world .  You build stronger neuro-pathways around seeing what’s good in life and how you can positively affect the world which can lock in these benefits for a long time.

But the genetic and societal influences that guide us into more negative mindsets are still there.  So it’s likely that over longer periods of time, the benefits of any of these 21-day bursts will fade if they are not maintained in some way.  So what should you do?   Mix and match some of the following techniques:

OPTION 1: Keep doing the habit as prescribed

Do you love your gratitude practice?  Does sending out your kindness email make you feel more connected and generous?  Does meditation calm you down and bring more focus to your workday?  Then make it a regular part of your life.

 Many of these habits are self-reinforcing.  They feel good so people keep doing them.  We call them habits because we’re hoping it becomes a regular part of your routine and as constant as brushing your teeth.  If you enjoy these things, keep doing them.  There is no reason to stop at 21 days just because that’s the experimental period.

 OPTION 2: Adapt the habit to better fit your life

Some of you may find you enjoy these activities, but that doing them every day is a little much.  No problem.  Experiment with what works best for you.  Maybe you meditate every other day, only do your gratitude on weekday evenings, exercise three days a week, or schedule a couple times a week to reflect on the core of meaning in your life.  While it’s good to stick with 21 consecutive days to kick off the habit, after that, it’s up to you.  Empower yourself to do what works.

OPTION 3: Integrate the ideas into other life activities

A great way to extend the benefits is to generalize these activities into other areas of your life.  This can multiply the number of times these desirable neuro-pathways fire and strengthens them.

Here are some ideas about how to further integrate these concepts into your life (use these as a starting point for your own brainstorming):

  • Gratitude. Go around the dinner table and ask each person what they are grateful for.  Or get a gratitude email buddy or email group and share what’s good in your life with them on a regular basis.
  • Meditation.   Practice focusing on your breath when you are doing some mundane activity like folding laundry or going for a walk.  Or get really mindful while washing the dishes – feel the slipperiness of the soap, the hot water on your hands, etc.
  • Exercise.  If a regular run or trip to the gym doesn’t work for you, create more opportunities to walk in your life.  Start a lunchtime walking club at work.  Take the stairs instead of the elevator.  Park further from your building.
  • Conscious Acts of Kindness. Look for other opportunities to help others.  Hold the door.  Smile more.  Organize a trip to a soup kitchen or a park cleanup.  Pitch in on a project at work that you don’t ‘need’ to do.  Get together with friends to send love or appreciation or well-wishing to anyone that might need a pick-me-up.
  • Journal on meaning. If writing isn’t your thing, spend a couple minutes at the end of a focused hour of work to appreciate what you’ve accomplished.  Reflect on what it might mean for your life or for work colleagues or for anyone that may be helped by what you’re doing.

OPTION 4: Repeat a 21-day habit every few months

Commit to taking on one of these habits every few months.  If you really love one of the habits, renew it at some regular interval.  Or try out a different one of the five on a quarterly basis.  The benefits last at least that long and coming back to one of the habits after a break can give it more freshness and give you a good happiness boost.

OPTION 5: Stop at 21 days

If you find that you struggled through the 21 days of this habit and you can’t find any enjoyable way to generalize the concept into your life, then it’s okay to let it go.  Forced struggle is not a path to increases in happiness!  Not every habit works for every person.  If you gave it the proverbial old college try of 21 days, switch to one of the other habits.  With five to choose from, you’re likely to find something that works for you.

Give yourself as much flexibility as you need to integrate these habits into your life.  There is not a right way that works for everyone.   Play with these ideas and have some fun!

 Eric Karpinski

The Happiness Coach

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