Happiness and Habits: Changing our behavior

By | April 12, 2021

Welcome back to the second part of our discussion on happiness! In the last post, I shared some of the work of Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University, who teaches on the science of wellbeing and has developed courses, a podcast, and even an ADA Accelerator Series webinar to share her knowledge. As dentists, we understand the value of evidence based science, so how can we look to the evidence to be happier?

Dr. Barto

There are misconceptions about happiness that are important to understand. Evidence shows that we can control more of our happiness than we think. Happiness is only about 40% heritable, while the other 60% is in our control. In addition, life circumstances (i.e. a tragic accident, winning the lottery, landing your dream job) only affect happiness for a very short period of time. This means that happiness isn’t built into our genes or determined by circumstance, happiness comes through changing our behaviors.

These misconceptions about happiness are important to understand so that we can practice strategies to combat these fallacies. Invest in experiences over stuff. Be intentional about savoring, appreciating and expressing gratitude for experiences. Reset your happiness reference points by avoiding social comparison, interrupting your consumption and increasing variety to break up adaptation.

Many of these concepts of changing behavior are easy to understand but hard to put into practice. If happiness comes from changing behavior, how can we put these concepts into daily practice?

Social Connection & Community

Research shows that happy people spend more time with others and have a richer set of social connections than unhappy people. Studies even show that the simple act of talking to a stranger on the street can boost our mood more than we expect. Connecting with friends, family and even strangers increases happiness for everyone and makes experiences richer. Make more time for making social connections by:

  • Calling family members and friends.
  • Chatting with a coworker you don’t know very well.
  • Taking time to genuinely connect, without distraction, with your partner or children.

Kindness & Contribution

Helping others makes us happier than we expect. Performing acts of kindness and spending money on others makes everyone happier, no matter the size or amount of the gift. Research shows that happy people are motivated to do kind things for others.

  • Perform acts of kindness beyond what you normally do. These do not have to be over-the-top or time-intensive acts, but they should be something that really helps or impacts another person.
  • For example, help your colleague with something, give a few dollars or some time to a cause you believe in, say something kind to a stranger, write a thank you note, give blood, and so on.

Savor & Appreciate

Savoring is the act of stepping outside of an experience to review and appreciate it. Savoring intensifies and lengthens the positive emotions that come with doing something you love.

  • Savor an experience every day such as a nice shower, a delicious meal, a great walk outside, or any experience that you really enjoy. Enhance the experience by sharing the experience with another person, thinking about how lucky you are to enjoy such an amazing moment, keeping a souvenir or photo of that activity, and making sure you stay in the present moment the entire time.
  • Share you appreciation for others by sending them thoughtful messages. Consider taking 30 minutes to write a letter to someone explaining why you are grateful for them and mailing it. In studies, this activity produce a significant boost in happiness that is sustained for 1-3 months.

Meditation, Mindfulness, and Presence

Being in the present moment is the happiest way to be. Our brains have a Default Mode Network, or a mind wandering state, in which we are in for 46.9% of our waking hours. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. When we can decrease mind wandering, we reduce errors, increase presence, and boost happiness.

Meditating just five minutes a day is an opportunity to strengthen your ability to stay in the present moment, and reduce mind wandering. Studies show that meditation literally changes the brain and builds grey matter. Meditation is a practice of intentionally turning your attention away from distracting thoughts toward a single point of reference (e.g., the breath, bodily sensations, compassion, a specific thought, etc.). Schedule a quiet time to yourself to meditate every day between 5-20 minutes. This can be first thing in the morning, right before bed, or even in your car during a lunch break. There are free guided meditations online to help you get started. Check out an app like Insight Timer, Calm or Headspace.

It is also important to cultivate mindfulness and presence throughout your daily actions. When you are driving, exercising, cooking, doing chores, etc. try to bring your mind out of a wandering state by bringing your attention to your breath or the physical activity.

Sleep, Exercise, Hydration & Healthy Nutrition

Healthy practices matter more than we expect. Sleeping 7-8 hours a night, exercising at least 30 minutes a day are the two most important. Both are integral to mental health and cognitive function. Studies show that actually moving your body for 30 minutes a day can be as effective at reducing symptoms of depression as a prescription of an SSRI. Exercise boosts mood, creativity, sleep quality, and life-satisfaction.

  • Sleep: Set a consistent bedtime to maintain a reliable rhythm. Set a digital sunset and turn off your devices at least 60 minutes before going to bed.
  • Exercise: Schedule at 30 minutes of movement everyday. Take a walk, do weight resistant activity, practice yoga, or throw on some headphones and dance around your room to cheesy pop songs.
  • Hydration: Aim to drink about 3 liters of water a day. Research shows drinking lots of water can aid in relieving headaches, indigestion, fatigue and stress, as well as improve the physical appearance of our skin and aid with weight loss.
  • Healthy nutrition: Aim to eat whole, plant based foods. Cut out excess processed foods and prepackaged snacks. The benefits to overall physiological health are numerous and the evidence is strong. This will be an individual topic on its own.

Invest in Time & Experiences

Prioritizing time over money, or “time affluence,” is associated with greater happiness. Time affluence means being wealthy in time, not money. Research show that sacrificing income or spending money to “buy” time makes you happier. Just as we discussed above, studies show that experiences bring more happiness than material items. Invest in experiential purchases.

Rest & Relax

Rest, relax, and enjoy. Cultivating rest is a difficult practice because it means letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. As many professionals are high achievers, we can find it difficult to stop working even after we have left work. Take time to set work/life boundaries and dedicate one day every week time to rest. Turn your phone off, stop checking email, pursue a hobby instead of cruising the internet, take a nap!

Creativity & Play

Play is more than just fun, it is essential to our heath. Dr. Stuart Brown [https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_play_is_more_than_just_fun?language=en] explains that play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation. While it may feel like taking time for play is a waste of time, it can actually make you more productive. Play is a path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. Different types of play include:

  • Rough-and-tumble play: wrestling with your dog.
  • Ritual play: board games, sports.
  • Imaginative play: cooking, storytelling, playing with children.
  • Body play: yoga, hiking, dancing.
  • Object play: puzzles, dentistry.

Simplify & Organize

Decluttering your life will create space for other opportunities. Make your bed every day, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle, give away unused clothing.

Time in Nature

Spend time getting outside every day. Being in nature reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. According to research, time in nature may even reduce mortality. Perhaps time in nature is an opportunity for you to get your daily movement or play in.

Intention and Focus

Energy flows where attention goes. Picking an intention for the day is a way to direct your attention and energy. Positive intentions or affirmations are important because our words and internal dialogue can shape our reality. Think of this like planting a seed of positivity in your brain, or reprogramming your subconscious. Intentions can be a word, phrase, prayer, mantra, affirmation, etc. When you write your intention, you’re more likely to follow through. Write it like a statement in the present tense. Here are some examples:

  • If you anticipate challenges cases -> I can overcome any obstacle.
  • If you are struggling with the team -> I am a strong leader.
  • If you have a heavy workload -> I am highly productive and organized.
  • If you are focusing on your health -> I am becoming healthier and fitter every day.
  • If you are struggling with positive body image -> I love and accept myself just the way I am.

A daily focus a bit more practical. This can be one thing on your “to do list” that is a non-negotiable, a key thing that you must give your attention to today. Setting a focus can look like:

  • Complete ___ task
  • Remove distractions when working
  • Be more assertive for a more productive meeting
  • Eat healthy, whole, unprocessed foods
  • Take time for self-care
  • Express appreciation to ___ this person in my life
  • Be patient with my children


Research has found that the simple act of writing down your goals makes you significantly more likely to achieve them. Additionally, being held accountable to your goals makes you 35% more likely to achieve them. Writing down your goals with set benchmarks is a recipe for success. Rewriting the same goal every day until it is achieved is a way to increase focus and success. Another trick is to write the goal as if you have already accomplished it. Let’s say my goal is to complete and publish an article, I would say “I am a published author in the Journal of ____.”


Make time for gratitude every day. Gratitude is a positive mood or emotional state in which you recognize and appreciate what you have received in life. Research shows that taking time to experience gratitude can make you happier and even healthier. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude improves psychological and physical well-being, improves resilience to stress, and improves sleep quantity and quality.

  • Write down 3-5 things everyday that you are grateful for, focusing on experiences over stuff. They can be little things or big things, but it is imperative to focus, feel, and imagine each thing you write down. Take a journey back into the experience, imagine the person, or visualize the scene.


Celebrate your wins. Our brains are wired to focus more on the negative, so to combat this negativity bias we must deliberately focus on the things that go right. In a study where participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day for one week, participants experienced increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms, with the positive effects lasting for a full six months. Not only can celebrating your wins increase happiness, it can boost productivity and motivation. Celebrating the goals you have achieved provides a satisfaction and internal reward to fuel and motivate further action and progress. Celebrating wins, focusing on the good things, and positive emotions leads to a positive spiral.

Daily Journaling

We have arrived at the time to take action. Knowing how to become happier isn’t simply enough, we must take action and put the knowledge into action. I have created a simple journal page that can be used daily to integrate all that we have learned about well-being to be happier humans. I recommend trying this journal template for one week to see how it feels. You can copy and print seven copies, or just write your own list in an empty journal or blank paper. Schedule 5-10 minutes with yourself to complete the journal. This typically works best first thing in the morning or right before bed. You will have an opportunity to set an intention, write three goals, three things you are grateful for, three wins to celebrate, and a focus. You will also have a reminder to complete your daily habits for healthy living including sleep, exercise, hydration, and meditation. Along the side you will see a list of daily rituals. This is set up as more of a reminder to guide the daily practices we want to cultivate for happier lives. This is not a to-do list! Simply circle or write in an activity you plan to do related to that practice. Track how you feel after a week of using this journal activity. Lastly, as Voltaire said, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” If you forget to complete the journal, or feel too overwhelmed simply pick one or two practices you can fully commit to. Remember, happiness doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work and a commitment to the daily habits and rituals to cultivate deep, long lasting happiness.

Editor’s note: Originally published in the San Antonio District Dental Society Newsletter, August/September 2020, Volume 49, Number 2, Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Shivani Kamodia Barto currently practices as a general dentist in San Antonio, Texas. She graduated from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in 2018. Shivani has always been an active leader in organized dentistry, as well as environmental sustainability in dentistry. She was in the 2016-17 cohort of the Dow Sustainability Fellowship in which she founded the first ever dental glove recycling program, and she is currently in the 2020-21 cohort of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership program. She believes that community engagement and vulnerable connection between other dentists is key to greater fulfillment and success in this profession. In addition, Shivani has been a yoga teacher since 2012, and is passionate about leading other health care professionals to integrate mind, body, and spirit. By sharing her journey through yoga, fitness, nutrition, mindfulness, sustainability, and more, Shivani hopes to lead our profession to the next level.

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