What Habit Would Add the Most to Your Happiness? Does It Fall in These Five Categories?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: Do you want to foster habits in one of these five areas?

My current writing project is a book that will be called Before and After, about the most fascinating subject ever, the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits–really? (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. Or not.

When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.

When I think about the habits that I wanted to cultivate, or talk to people about their happiness challenges, it seems as though just about every habit that people seek to make or break falls into the “Big Five”:

1. Eat and drink more healthfully

2. Exercise regularly

3. Rest and relax

4. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress

 5. Organize, clear, and simplify

Does this ring true to you? Are there any habits that you try to foster that don’t fall into one of these categories?

The Big Five reflect the fact that we often feel both tired and wired. We feel exhausted, but also feel jacked up on adrenaline, caffeine, and sugar. We feel frantically busy, but also feel that we’re not spending enough time on the things that really matter. We want to use our time well, but we fritter away hours on activities that are neither particularly fun nor particularly productive.

I call these habit areas the “Big Five,” but I really want to come up with a catchier phrase. Any suggestions?

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  • Ralph Bormet

    The Personal Empowerment Rule of Five. How about that for a title?

  • AliB

    What about being nice to people habits – like calling your mum regularly or remembering birthdays

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! so obvious once you point it out. Thanks, excellent addition.

  • Ray Janikowski

    Yep, you covered mine. I am so looking forward to your new book. I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from your blog posts.

  • Libby

    Agree with AliB–there should be a Connecting with People category. It’s so easy to feel too busy to phone a friend, make a date, call Mom, etc., and if I make a point to put these things on my schedule, I feel a lot happier.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes. absolutely. Adding it now.

  • BKF

    I concur with your thoughts.

    The Five Fundaments? the fundamental five? the Core or Central or Universal Five habits?

    (sorry if they are tacky!)

  • BKF

    p.s. i’d like to stay calm and cool and kindly through all the ups and downs of family life like your friend who wanted to stop screaming at her kids. it sure does help me stay Zen- like and loving if I have all these five habits working for me though….

    • CCT

      Yes, this was my thought – how to be nicer, more loving with my family. Although maybe if I was on track with these 5, that would come more easily to me. (put your oxygen mask on first idea)

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Money management isn’t here? I’m surprised it is not on a big five list. It certainly was on my list as a desperately important issue for many years, and has only stopped being a monster issue since I established a good job / benefits / retirement. I am pretty sure it could still become an issue again.

    • gretchenrubin

      Many money habits fall into #4 – save regularly, pay down debt regularly.
      But you’re right, other money habits wouldn’t be captured by #4.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        Yes, it took me a long time to really get into the idea of thinking beyond money as being SOLELY the issue of being able to just pay the bills, or what was I going to do if I was broke. Then prioritizing my goals in terms of the financial means to get there–whether it was buying the next car or a vacation or helping my kids or a big ticket purchase like my dream sewing machine–started to make me think of money less as a threatening subject and more as a possibility .. . and so forth. There are always those saving – pay down debt – do the bureaucratic stuff like with taxes aspect, but there is also learning to manage finite resources wisely . . .

  • Robyn Temples

    You could active listening to the list

  • lolabelle

    I liked before when you named things after birds, like the BlueBird of Happiness and the Pigeon of Discontent. Is there a conscientious bird or animal you could use for the name? Or how about The Five Strives?

    • gretchenrubin

      Good idea…I must ponder this.

      • lolabelle

        Maybe a play on the 7 Deadly Sins?

    • nielmalan

      The Fingers of Fitness? See the hand print at the top of the post?

      • gretchenrubin

        Yes, but because of readers’ comments, I now have SEVEN on this list. So…seven?

        • nielmalan

          The Seven Vertebrae of Virtue?
          Sticking to the anatomical analogy here.

    • lisamary101

      In my case, these would be the Five Mockingbirds, because they all can be imitated without one’s underlying essence never changing.

  • AliB

    Another thought – aren’t they all really healthy habits – physical health (food, exercise, rest); mental health (relaxing, organising, progressing); social health (family, friends, relationships). The second category is the widest – I guess financial things would fall in there because they are organising – getting your tax done, saving receipts, making a budget – they are a weight off your shoulders mentally when done….

    • gretchenrubin

      Very true, though for me personally, abstract categories are less instructive than more concrete categories.

  • Sonya

    Where is ‘keep learning’ in this list? Like read one or two books a month etc.

    • gretchenrubin

      I would put this as either 3 or 4, depending on how you frame it.

      #4 is meant to describe habits that you want to do, in order to make consistent progress in an area. Like learning.

  • Michele

    Five Golden Rings

  • dogbaker

    #1 be grateful daily

  • Mbembe

    I would like the habit of positive self-talk.

  • DB

    This definitely rings true to me. I find that when I maintain a consistent routine that supports all of these healthy habits, that I do feel more relaxed, and I do end up getting more accomplished. I even seem to have more time to relax, or at least, I enjoy the relax time more. And, in general, I feel happy and content. What I am currently struggling with is how to maintain these healthy and rewarding habits when my routine is disrupted or must change for some reason. Is this something you will discuss in your book? Kind regards, D

    • gretchenrubin


  • Kathy Sasso

    How about being in the present moment? It’s not directly related to resting and relaxing…more about being more conscious at all times. If you add it, then I suggest “Six for Success”.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I like your title ‘six for success’ and I love the mindfulness one.

  • I’ve got to say that starting a daily exercise routine and changing my diet have SIGNIFICANTLY improved my life. Sure, this hits number 1 and 2, but it’s also affecting 3, 4 & 5 (and being nice to people), indirectly.
    For a little over a month I have been waking up at 4:25 a.m., taking time to read and meditate (studying the Bible and praying), then heading to the gym. This time would have sounded ungodly to me before, but I’ve gotten in the habit of winding down around 8:15 p.m. and getting to bed by around 9 p.m. I never hit snooze anymore–I set my alarm across the room and get up and stay up as soon as it goes off. I prep my meals on Sunday so I have no excuse for unclean eating during the week. This saves us money, keeps the kitchen clean and keeps me to be happier and more productive. Not to mention, I’m nicer to people, including my husband, when I start my day off like this. I had no idea that changing one or two habits would affect my life in such a wonderful way!

    • summerdawson

      what kind of meals to you prep? I’m dying to eat healthy but have no imagination and hate to cook

      • Ann

        In my home we prepare the meat on the weekend by roasting and barbecuing it. Then in the week we only need to cook potatoes or rice and veg. We are plain eaters, but it is healthy and can be jazzed up with side dishes. We freeze part of the meat in meal sized portions.

      • You have to be okay with leftovers, of course–something that has taken me some time to get used to. I usually cook a big bag of chicken breasts and some tilapia and pair the meats with different vegetables or toss them in salads. I also pack two servings of nuts to eat between meals. Sunflower seeds and dark chocolate almonds are my favorite. I also eat what I like to call “second breakfast” around 9:30 a.m., so I make oatmeal and egg white pancakes the night before to bring with me to work. I mash up about 1/4 of banana, mixed with vanilla extract and cinnamon to spread on the top instead of using syrup. When I have time to make dinner (instead of eating more of our already prepped meals) I love love LOVE zucchini crust pizza and tariyaki tuna wraps.

        I’m working on posting recipes and meal prep plans on my blog: http://nogritnopearlblog.wordpress.com/. You’ll find them under “Kitchen Creativity.”

    • Elizabeth

      You are the perfect example of how one positive behavior has a real ripple effect. And ultimately a happier, healthier you leads to a happier world. The Buddhists say “heal yourself and you heal the world”. It’s true!

  • I know we already discussed this, but to me points 1, 2, 4 and 5 are just a no-brainer (of course one needs to take care of them, but it seems to me that either one *decides* to do it or nothing else will help) and point 4 is not that relevant (is it really a habit?).
    I would rather like to stop the habit of letting my bad mood influence my reactions to others (especially –alas– family members). It is unhealthy and I always regret it, but I keep on indulging in it.

  • Crochet Maniac

    Pivotal Practices?

  • Cultivate social relationships. At least once a weeek, I make sure that I arrange lunch with a friend. Another good category is “financial goals.” Every Monday (it is actually on my calendar) I do 5 random acts of kindness.

  • The random acts of kindness is under spiritual goals.

  • youonlylawonce

    Relationships with people isn’t there. Maybe it can go under #5.

  • Anna Kate

    I would add my faith, or the spiritual realm as well as family and friends. I go to church no matter what each Sunday, and try to go each Wendsday. The church and its connection to family, friends, and God is one of the main fabrics of my life. I love church. And am very happy to be there.

  • Beth

    Perhaps the “Five to Feel Alive” instead of the “Big Five”?

  • deezcats

    How about “the easy-as-pie forever five”. All are actually easy if you set your mind to it; and they are forever goals.

    Love your blog, books, and suggestions!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for the suggestion and the kind words —

  • joellis

    #4 is the pivotal habit for me. My procrastination pulls me into quicksand – the more I thrash about avoiding the task, the more daunting it becomes. As for the five habit types, perhaps they are Foundation Habits or Anchor Habits, Perhaps the ability to develop some habits are built on other habits–“Rubin’s Hierarchy of Habits” after Maslov’s handy pyramid?

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Good thought! My first reaction was ‘what hierarchy’? but thinking it through, they really do have a sequence — we just don’t follow it (i.e. many a very accomplished, savvy, wealthy person has lousy health habits, and not all of us go on from the bare survival basics to develop spirituality).

  • Gabriele

    I was inspired by your Happiness At Home to isolate the habits I most need in my everyday life. I came up with five, as well. Prayer, Study, Nourish, Move, and Create. A little later I felt prompted to add Serve. I made a display to help me remember. I write about it here.

    • gretchenrubin


  • BKF

    The Seven Staples/ The Essential Seven/The Supreme Seven…

    • gretchenrubin

      The essential seven…that has a good ring to it.

      • BKF

        I guess, although it lacks alliteration, the “se” and “en” sounds are repeated….

  • Jeanne

    I like “The Big 5.” Says it all. With the added bonus that if you add any, you can just up the number (The Big 6 anyone?).

  • Goldberry

    The “Big Five” covers a lot of ground, but I have two more habits/resolutions that are important to me and are not included there:
    1) Take it easy. Stay cheery. Smile. Free yourself from moody reactions.
    (it’s about being better in relationships, not acting or reacting with impatience, frustration, etc.)

    2) Pay attention to what you are doing and where you are going, esp. in
    the kitchen, in stores, and on the road.
    (it’s about not being absent-minded, avoiding accidents caused by thinking about other things while doings simple tasks, etc.)

    BTW, the “free yourself” phrase comes from you, Gretchen!

  • Tracey

    Call it ROSEE (Rest, Organize…), or Tips for a ROSEE Life.

  • The way you talk about these categories of habits sounds to me a bit like a scientific classification — after all, you are studying habits, not just trying to improve them. Perhaps it would make sense to talk about habits in “orders” or “domains” or “families.” Or maybe pillars? The Taxonomy of Habits? (I found the word taxonomy after Googling genus and phylum — it’s been a long time since I took biology, but that was the type of classification I was thinking of.) Obviously, your system doesn’t follow a rigid scientific method, so using this type of name would be more of a riff on the idea.

    I’m almost done reading “Happier at Home,” and it is great — every time I sit down to read it my mind starts churning with ideas. If it weren’t for other responsibilities I wouldn’t put it down!

  • Kate

    I am wondering about where all the ‘thought’ habits would fit, habits like meditation, but alss catching yourself thinking negative thoughts and then changing those thoughts, or habits of spirituality – regular prayer, or keeping a journal, or practising gratitude, and a host of others that are a critical part of my happiness. I don’t see them fitting in the big five??

    • gretchenrubin

      In Before and After, I’m focusing on concrete habits, not habits of mind (such as negative thoughts, pessimism, etc.)
      Gratitude journal would fit into “Consistent progress.”

      I want to create an additional one that’s something like “Engage more deeply with others”

  • Amanda

    To me, these all seem like “foundational” habits – recognizing that it isn’t a real word… Build a strong foundation with these (5, 6, 7…) habits and life will be stable. Your I-Beam for success…

    • gretchenrubin

      Good idea, but one of my 21 strategies is the Strategy of Foundation, and I use the word slightly differently there, so this would be confusing in the book…

  • Lynn

    First, Good List. 🙂 I’m doing ‘One Little Word’ this year and you have my Actions all listed there!

    I agree with adding a creative / mindful / spiritual aspect to the list. It’s active self care, just like exercise. I would say it isn’t specifically religion, but whatever helps you feel connected, hopeful and balanced. I find if I do yoga and meditate in the morning before I go to work that I can stay calm and cheery even though my job is to help very upset people all day long.

    With Money, I want to agree there too…at first I thought it may fall under #5. But since it requires planning and consistent actions like not impulse buying and staying within our budgets, it could be a core habit of it’s own.

  • phoenix1920

    Another comment about how financial discipline is worthy of its own category. (In fact, I see exercise and eating healthy as being linked.) However, I don’t see financial well-being and discipline as being a part of #4. For me, my savings and paying off debt was one decision made years ago when I set up how much I have taken from my check and how much I want to send the bank for my mortgage, student loans, and car. Decision done and progress is being made. But this is not the end, by any means, to ensure my financial well-being. There are so many components, depending on your goals and your finances, and even those with great savings and little debt still need to keep discipline in keeping up with a budget, analyzing whether you need to dedicate more time and energy to earning more and then doing it, and ensuring you don’t overspend and keep up with ever-changing priorities in terms of finances. In some ways, ensuring you eat/drink/exercise healthfully is very similar to ensuring your relationship to money is healthy. Spending money without thought, even if you have plenty, is as unhealthy as eating junk food constantly. There are SOO many people who have finances as a goal–and so many blogs about people trying to do better on that front. A lot of the discussion on those blogs are about habits.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      its ‘resource management’ from the most basic level to deployment of goods and generosity — just heard a fascinating NPR story yesterday about a single lady farmer in ND who was canny enough to amass $37 million and left it to 3 institutions at her death. Now there’s a person who got beyond paying bills on time and having a good credit rating.

  • Carol

    They’re all “Quality of Life” habits. Or even “Life Changing” Habits. I agree with some of the other comments that personal relationships and spirituality rank should be in this top group.

  • Phyllis White

    5 Commandments for a Better YOU!

  • jenny_o

    Seven Keys?

  • Sherri Gibson

    Referring to your hand at the top. How about the “High Five”?!

  • Molly

    Where you write “The Big Five reflect the fact that we often feel both tired and wired. We
    feel exhausted, but also feel jacked up on adrenaline, caffeine, and
    sugar. We feel frantically busy, but also feel that we’re not spending
    enough time on the things that really matter. We want to use our time
    well, but we fritter away hours on activities that are neither
    particularly fun nor particularly productive.” This may be the most insightful thing you’ve ever written!! I think it sums up how most of us feel these days. As Americans? I wish I just didn’t feel so wound up, anxious, etc. all the time!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that it struck a chord with you —

    • Elizabeth

      I thought I was a reasonably healthy living person and then I started my own business…. and then over time I got in to MAJOR overwork mode… long hours working for yourself are still long hours. And finally my health crashed and now I’m recovering, a long road back. It is easy to buy into overworking and so not worth it. I think more of us need to dial it back down and show friends and family what that looks like.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I see this is one of your endlessly fascinating posts!

    Was just remembering Stephen Covey’s well known ‘Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” — something I relied on for a long time but never fully implemented. He had a category of things he called ‘sharpening the saw’ which I think included three things that should in his mind just happen all the time no matter what. “Physical, Mental, Spiritual , Emotional – Social.” Those didn’t get a whole lot of discussion from him because he seemed to assume (haha!) that any person with their head even slightly together had THOSE knocked.

    Everything else, I believe, was in the category of projects, concerns and goals that one chose to invest time, effort and resources to accomplish. And of course leaving a legacy–whether of 10 children, lots of money, a beautiful garden, or whatever, was up to the individual to choose.

    To me this seems like something of a ‘first world’ analysis. I can’t assume that I have my basics so nailed down that I can just focus on my legacy. Nor can I assume that resources are outside the Maslow-security zone either. But I thought it was an interesting look at the subject.

  • I could certainly improve in all of those areas, but I think #4 would help me the most and could actually trickle down into the other 4… or maybe the other 6 with the new additions… although I couldn’t readily find the 7th in the comments.

  • martha campbell

    The picture of the hand gave me the idea of “the High Five” as a name.

  • Elizabeth

    How about: The Eternal Five, or The Eternal Quest?!

  • Me

    Beehive Five to match your Power Hour label. A natural dwelling.

  • Paula

    I love the Essential Seven but think there’s one very important one that is missing – speak kindly to YOURSELF and others. Those negative voices in our heads often de-rail other happiness habits. Fostering compassion for ourselves nurtures the seeds of happiness that we plant within our minds. How about the “Essential Eight?”

  • Lina

    Some of my most important habits are spiritual in nature. As a Catholic, I pray the Liturgy of the Hours each day and regularly (and habitually) receive the Sacraments, which has a profound effect on who I am and on every other facet of my life as a wife and mom.

  • StPauliWoman

    Haven’t read all the comments but the Big Five is used in the field of Psychology so perhaps you don’t want to use it. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits.

  • junebug

    Perhaps this falls into the category of AliB’s comment, but every other month I try to send a snail mail card to 3 people; sometimes people I haven’t spoken to in years, sometimes to those I speak to regularly. This exercise forces me to think about the people I don’t live with but care about for at least a solid 5 mins every other month. Also, it’s infrequent enough that (1) it doesn’t waste a lot of paper and (2) I don’t end up spending an excessive amount of money on the high quality stationery that I love. Plus, I know people (clients, friends, family) feel special when they receive a written note (as opposed to an e-mail) every once in a while.

  • Jill

    I like “7 Daily Wins” (kind of the opposite of “7 Deadly Sins”). : ) Just a thought.