The Smallest Steps Can Lead You to a Happier Life

Making a tiny change each day and seeing an improvement can help move us out of what psychologist Martin Seligman—University of Pennsylvania professor, past president of the American Psychological Association, and best-selling author—calls “learned helplessness” and into “learned optimism”—the idea that we can cultivate a positive perspective and a feeling of control over our lives. 

Research has demonstrated that small steps (and small successes) build healthy habits and are significantly more likely than setting big goals—which often trigger fear and procrastination—to lead to sustainable, long-lasting behavior changes that improve our well-being. 

Seligman’s Five Components of Human Flourishing

One of the founders of positive psychology, Seligman developed the PERMA™ theory of well-being to define human flourishing and help people to achieve it. PERMA is an acronym that represents what Seligman identified as the five components of well-being: Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment/Achievement. 

The PERMA model provides the perfect framework for thinking about the kinds of incremental, small steps that build good habits and help you to enhance your happiness and well-being over the long-term.

1. Positive Emotions
Strive to experience more positive emotions and to focus and reflect on them. Do more of whatever makes you feel happy, bring joy to the everyday, and focus on your personal strengths. 

Limit Distractions:
Turn off computer and phone notifications. Airplane mode is your friend! The more time you spend with your phone or on your computer, the more likely you are to experience depression, sleep problems, higher stress levels, and increased anxiety. 

Practice Self-Care:
Self-care has been clinically proven to increase happiness. A regular self-care routine contributes to your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.  

  • Stay hydrated. 
  • Get enough sleep. It improves memory, awareness, and creativity, among other benefits. 
  • Add steps to your day and stretch regularly.
  • Replace one processed snack with a healthy snack.
  • Take regular breaks, especially if you work on a screen. 
  • Get outside. Quality time in nature makes for lower cortisol levels and higher serotonin and dopamine levels.
  • Don’t slouch. Posture affects mood.
  • Breathe more deeply. Deep breaths trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which naturally brings you into a calmer state.
  • Bring Joy to Your Daily Routine:
  • Upbeat, happy songs lift your mood. Binaural beats help you focus or relax.
  • Keep a gratitude journal and/or a joy list. 
  • Smile! Physically smiling reduces stress, even when it’s not caused by happiness.

2. Engagement
Increase your engagement with life. Get energized with work and hobbies that fit your passions and interests. Don’t be afraid try new things, as novelty has been shown to arouse the senses.  

  • Make art or music or engage in other creative pursuits.
  • Find inspiration in motivational quotes, by calling someone you admire, or watching a documentary on one of your heroes.
  • Engage in play. Board games, lawn games, and organized sports all work. 
  • Challenge yourself. Embrace humans’ love for novelty and learn something new.

3. Positive Relationships
A key factor in the quality of your life is your connections to your fellow humans. Strengthen existing relationships you enjoy and make new friends. 

  • Put your phone down, look up at the sales clerk, and make small talk.
  • Give consensual hugs. Hugs generate oxytocin, which may provoke greater trust, empathy, and morality in humans, boosting our overall wellbeing.
  • Practice random acts of kindness, which boost your serotonin and dopamine levels in addition to increasing peer acceptance.

4. Meaning
Purposefully seek meaning through work, volunteering, mentoring, or leisure. Meaning, which is the M in Seligman’s PERMA model, also relates to living an authentic life—only you know what truly gives your life meaning. 

  • Spend time with someone with whom you can be your true self.
  • Schedule a therapy session.
  • Write about what matters to you. 
  • Take time for large- and small-scale reflection: on your day and on life dreams.
  • Be awed. Get outside. Watch the sunrise or sunset.

5. Accomplishment/Achievement
By keeping your eye on your goals while simultaneously ensuring there is a healthy balance of priorities in your life, you can achieve eudaimonia. Positive psychologist Christopher Peterson asserts that eudaimonia, or the process of fulfilling one’s nature, is more important for the quality of your life than hedonism, which focuses on pleasure. 

To ensure you’re on your own authentic path, you can take small actions that revolve around self-knowledge checking in with yourself. Do you feel balanced? What matters to you? Do your goals need any adjustments? 

  • Enjoy time alone.
  • Practice expressive writing in your journal. 
  • Meditate. 
  • Maintain healthy boundaries. 
  • Perform progressive muscle relaxation and/or body scans from your resiliency toolkit.
  • Savor pleasures through mindful enjoyment.
  • Celebrate your accomplishments. A pat on the back or listening to your favorite victory song can go a long way.

Positive psychologist Dr. Lynn Soots calls the sum of what you get when you pursue all these aspects of wellbeing “flourishing.” “Flourishing is the product of the pursuit and engagement of an authentic life that brings inner joy and happiness through meeting goals, being connected with life passions, and relishing in accomplishments through the peaks and valleys of life.” And it all starts with a small step. 

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