What do happy people do differently? What habits do they include in their arsenal of habits that improve their mental health so much? While there are many things a person can do to become happier, there are some universal habits for mental health that have the power to make every person live a happier and healthier life.
The most powerful (yet simple) mental health habits that you can embrace in your life are:
- Taking care of your sleep cycle.
- Daily journaling.
- Taking a break.
- Trying to keep an open mind.
- Try not to sweat about the small stuff.
If you want to know how these habits improve your mental health, you’re in the right place. Besides the many benefits of these habits, I’ll also show you how you can include these habits into your own routine.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
Best habits for mental health
There are many habits that can have a powerful effect on your mental health, like making your bed every morning, or limiting screen-time before going to bed.
But some habits are even more important than others. In this article, I’ve listed the 7 most important habits for your mental health. If you are able to include these habits in your arsenal, your mental health will surely improve.
A couple of years ago, my personal mantra was:
I’ll sleep when I’m dead!
I woke up every morning at 06:00 AM in order to beat the traffic. And even though every study suggested that you need at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep, I never went to sleep before midnight. From Monday to Sunday, I was working my ass off on less than 6 hours of sleep. On the weekends, I had to make up for all this deprivation by sleeping till 10 AM, sometimes even 11 AM.
It was only after I read “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker that I realized how much of an idiot I was. Dozens of studies have shown the impact sleep deprivation has on your mental health. This one study already highlights a couple:
- Sleep deprivation impairs the working memory of the human brain.
- Sleep deprivation worsens your ability to focus.
- Being sleep deprived affects your ability to control your emotions.
- Sleep deprivation plays a role in mental ilnesses, for example anxiety, stress and Alzheimer’s disease.
Even though some people can function on <6 hours of sleep – some are even a bit boastful about it – the book taught me that you can’t thrive when you’re sleep-deprived. Oh, and coffee only makes things worse in the long term.
What I now (try to) do is to turn my sleep routine into a positive habit for my mental health. I’m working on the following habits:
- Sleeping close to 8 hours on average.
- Avoid social jetlag by going to bed and waking up at the same times throughout every day of the week.
- No more than 3 cups of coffee (I sometimes drank as much as 8 cups a day).
- Journaling before going to bed, so that I can get peace in my head.
Even though these sleep habits might not be impressive to sleep doctors, it’s a vast improvement over what I used to do. I now try to prioritize my sleep and have noticed a big improvement in how often I feel tired, groggy, and sleep-deprived.
The World Health Organization recommends that adults aged 18-64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity throughout the week. That’s 2 and a half hours per week, which isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things.
What do you get for those 2 and a half hours you spend exercising? According to a large review article from the researchers of the University of Naples, scientifically-proven benefits of exercise include:
- Increased confidence and emotional stability.
- Improved cognitive functioning and reduced risk of developing dementia.
- Positive body image.
- Improved self-control.
- Decreases in anxiety and depression.
- Decreased feelings of hostility and tension.
- Reduction and prevention of addictive behaviors like smoking and alcohol consumption.
Moderate exercise also promotes sleep quality, as reported in a systematic review of previous findings by Feifei Wang and Szilvia Boros.
This makes it especially powerful to turn exercising into one of your mental health habits, as it helps you improve the quality of your sleep as well.
We’ve written an article about the benefits of exercising for your happiness which includes a lot more information.
There is plenty of scientific research on the benefits of journaling. In addition to helping you sort out your thoughts, journaling is good a really powerful mental health habit, and there’s more than enough evidence to prove it:
- A 2013 study conducted at the University of Michigan showed that among people with major depression, expressive journaling for 20 minutes a day lowered their depression scores significantly;
- According to another study, visual journaling can help decrease stress, anxiety and negative affect levels in medical students, a demographic known for being more prone to stress and burn-out;
- Journaling can also help with self-efficacy: according to a 2008 study, the self-efficacy of undergraduate college students was improved after weekly journal assignments.
No wonder why many successful people are known journal writers.
We’ve written dozens of articles on the positive effects of journaling on your mental health. These are all grouped in our journaling section. This section contains everything you need to know to turn journaling into the most powerful mental health habit in your arsenal.
Walking is an underrated activity. Sure, we all do it, but mostly to get from point A to point B. But what if I told you walking is a really powerful mental health habit?
According to a 2018 review conducted by scientists from the UK and Australia, walking can have many mental health benefits, including:
- Walking alone or in a group can be used as a treatment for depression, and there is some evidence that walking can also prevent depression;
- Walking can lower anxiety;
- Walking can have a positive effect on self-esteem;
- Walking can be used as a potentially promising intervention to decrease psychological stress;
- Walking can support and improve psychological well-being;
- Walking is associated with higher subjective well-being.
Walking can also have a restorative effect, according to a 2010 study. The researchers compared people with good and poor mental health, and the effect of walking in either rural or urban settings on people’s mood and personal project planning.
They found that both urban and rural walks benefited people with poor mental health more, improving their mood and reflection on personal project planning.
We’ve written more about the benefits of walking on your mental health here. This includes 3 tips that you can use to turn walking into one of your mental health habits.
5. Take it slow
Whether it’s a break from screen time or a break from work, it’s important to slow down every once in a while. This mental health benefit closely relates to mindfulness.
According to a 2012 paper, practicing mindfulness is related to greater emotion differentiation and fewer emotional difficulties in young adults. In another study, a short mindfulness intervention was shown to benefit emotion regulation on a neurobiological level – meaning that mindfulness can change how certain areas of the brain work.
How can you incorporate mindfulness as one of your mental health habits? By simply taking conscious breaks more frequently.
A good place where you can apply this is your eating habits. One of our writers – Maili – wrote about this:
My lunch is 10 minutes and I usually wolf it down while discussing something with a colleague. At home, my dinners are usually spent watching Netflix or reading while eating. This means that I’m never fully concentrated on one thing, and I’m neither present nor paying attention.
Eating is a good place to apply this mental health benefit journey because it’s something we do every day, but we rarely give it our full attention. Instead of scarfing down your meals, learn to pay attention to them.
- Focus on the looks and the textures first.
- What colors are in the meal?
- What does it smell like?
- Take a small bite and notice how it feels on your tongue.
This may sound silly to you, but this is a powerful and easy way to turn something simple into a mindfulness intervention. In other words, you can turn simple stuff into a mental health habit if you consciously try to take it slow.
We’ve written more articles on mindfulness and taking it slow:
- The many benefits of mindfulness (with examples)
- Calming yourself through self-soothing
- 5 lifechanging benefits of being patient
6. Try to not let the small stuff get to you
Our minds can run away from us sometimes and get stuck ruminating the same thoughts over and over again. It’s pretty clear that you aren’t doing yourself any favors by playing a problem over and over again in your head without trying to find a solution. Getting stuck in that negative loop will only serve to deepen the distress.
So it’s clear that you shouldn’t worry too much about things. Whether it’s something that has already happened, something that might happen but probably won’t, or something that you have no control over anyway: worrying about this stuff only affects your mental health negatively.
In fact, this study found that a whopping 91% of your worries end up not materializing at all.
Therefore, you should try to make a habit out of not worrying so much about this stuff.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”Matthews
One of the best ways to turn this into a habit is to simply stop trying to control everything.
Here are some helpful tips that you can use to turn this into a mental health habit:
- Know that nonreaction is often not a weakness but a strength.
- Journal about the things that you worry about. This makes you more self-aware of how much energy you spend worrying about things that don’t matter in the end.
- Don’t assume the worst whenever something bad happens.
- Distract yourself, possibly with another positive mental health habit. (read a book, go for a walk, or exercise for 15 minutes!)
- Learn to laugh about situations. Embrace the power of humor when presented with a potentially bad situation.
We’re written a lot of articles about these topics already:
- How to not let things bother you
- 5 helpful ways to stop yourself from ruminating
- How to stop worrying
- 4 ways to stop living in the past
If you find it really hard to stop worrying and it starts to affect your everyday functioning, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. In that case, it might not be as simple as following some of these tips, as there may be underlying causes and problems that need to be addressed.
7. Try to keep an open mind
Most people like to think of themselves as open-minded. And to an extent, most people are, but many of us are not as open-minded as we think we are. And that’s not necessarily for a lack of trying – keeping an open mind can be difficult sometimes.
Being open-minded comes with many obvious benefits for your mental health: open-mindedness means you are open to new experiences and are able to change your mind when presented with new information. It also means you are confident in what you know and what you don’t know. In other words, being open-minded means that you don’t find it hard to say “I don’t know”.
Being open-minded has also been found to increase your mental health by studies. A 2015 study showed that being open-minded has a positive effect on a group’s learning capacity because it helps the group find and establish a shared vision.
We’ve published a previous article that discusses the benefits of being open-minded in depth.
How can you turn this into one of your mental health habits?
- Make a habit of asking questions whenever you don’t know something.
- Learn to not dismiss someone else’s opinion just because it’s not aligned with yours.
- Practice intellectual humility (or in other words, practice saying “I don’t know”).
Something that I’ve found helpful in turning this into a habit is to journal about the things that conflict with my beliefs. By journaling, I try to write about the things that would otherwise keep me up at night. But I not only write down my own thoughts, I also try to explore opposite arguments.
For example, whenever my girlfriend and I get into an argument, I try to write about both perspectives. This often allows me to keep an open mind and keeps me from stubbornly resisting to change my stance.
There are obviously many more habits that will improve your mental health, but these 7 habits are the most simple and powerful. If you embrace these habits and make them a part of your daily routine, I’m sure your mental health will benefit.
Did I miss something? Would you have liked to see other mental health habits on this list? Or do you want to share your own experiences with some of these habits? I’d love to continue this topic in the comments below!