10 Common Mistakes That Prevent You From Being Happy and Healthy Today, Backed by Science

I’m fascinated by the link between the way we live our daily lives and the health and happiness we enjoy.

There are choices that you make every day, some of which seem completely unrelated to your health and happiness, that dramatically impact the way you feel mentally and physically.

With that said, here are 10 common mistakes that can prevent you from being happy and healthy, and the science to back them up.

1. Avoiding deep and meaningful connections (like marriage, close friendships, and staying in touch with family)

Ultimately, the human experience is about connecting with other people. Connection is what provides value and meaning to our lives. We’re wired for it and research proves just that.

For example, people with strong social ties were found to be healthier and have a lower risk of death. Additionally, it was found that as age increases, the people with stronger social ties tend to live longer. And it seems that friendships can even help you fight cancer.

The benefits of deep relationships extend to marriage as well. Being in a long-term relationship decreases the risk of depression, suicide, and substance abuse. And one study of almost 6,000 people found that marriage led to increased longevity while never marrying was the strongest predictor of premature death.

Finally, multiple studies (here, here, and here) show that strong family ties are one of the primary reasons the people of Okinawa, Japan have incredible longevity despite being one of the poorest prefectures in the country.

What do all of these different studies tell us?

Connection and belonging are essential for a healthy and happy life. Whether it’s friendship, marriage, or family — humans need close connections to be healthy.

For more about the connection between loneliness and health, I suggest reading the New York Times best-seller Mind Over Medicine, which was written by Dr. Lissa Rankin.

2. Sitting all day.

You might want to stand up for this. The internet has gone crazy over this infographic that describes the harmful effects of sitting all day.

The short version is that “recreational sitting” like sitting in front of a TV screen increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and death, regardless of your physical activity. Obviously, sitting at a desk for work isn’t too good either.

This troubling data doesn’t come from small sample sizes either. These trends held true in one study with 4,500 people, another with 8,800 people, and a final one with over 240,000 participants. If you’re looking for more details on the health risks of sitting, this New York Times article covers some of the basics.

3. Never stopping to just breathe.

A few years ago, I was speaking with a yoga instructor who told me, “I think people love my class because it’s the only time in their entire day when they just sit and breathe.”

That provides some interesting food for thought. From the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, do you ever take 15 minutes to just sit and breathe? I rarely do. And that’s a shame because the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are huge. Meditation reduces stress and anxiety. Meditation improves your quality of life and boost your immune system. Meditation has been shown to decrease anger and improve sleep, even among prison inmates.

4. Not joining a religion — or otherwise becoming part of a community.

There is an interesting and growing body of medical research that has discovered the positive health effects of religion and spirituality. The science doesn’t necessarily say that there is anything inherently healthy about religion, but it’s all the by-products that come from practicing religion that can make a big difference.

For example, people with strong faith often release control of their struggles and worries to a higher power, which can help to relieve anxiety and stress. Religious groups also offer a strong source of community and friendships, which is critical for health and happiness. In many cases, the strength of friendships formed with fellow believers can last for decades, and those strong personal ties are crucial for long-term health.

If you don’t consider yourself to be a religious person, then the lesson to takeaway from this body of research is that we all need a sense of belonging and community in our lives. It’s important to share your beliefs (whatever they happen to be about) with a community of people. People who have a community like that to lean on find themselves happier and healthier than those who lack that type of support.

As a starting point, you can read studies on the religion-health connection here, here, and here.

5. Ignoring your creative abilities.

Expressing yourself creatively reduces the risk of disease and illness while simultaneously strengthening your health and wellness. For example, this study from the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that art helps to reduce stress and anxiety, increase positive emotions, and reduce the likelihood of depression, along with many other benefits.

Another study, which was published in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, discovered that creative writing improved the immune system response of HIV patients. For more ideas on why creating art is healthy, read this: The Health Benefits of Creativity.

6. Spending all day indoors.

Exploring the world around you — whether that means traveling to faraway lands or hiking through the woods in your area — provides a wide range of mental and physical benefits. For starters, the benefits of sunlight (and the negative effects of artificial light) are well-documented in research.

Additionally, researchers have begun to discover that wilderness excursions — known as “adventure therapy” — can promote weight loss, improve the self-esteem of people with mental illness, and even reduce the rearrest rates of sex offenders.

The central theme that runs through all of these studies is that exploring the outdoors and spending time in nature can increase the confidence you have in yourself and improve your ability to interact with others.

7. Spending your time consuming instead of contributing.

When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.
—Eleanor Roosevelt

Contribution is an essential part of living a life that is happy, healthy, and meaningful. Too often we spend our lives consuming the world around us instead of creating it. We overdose on low quality information. We live sedentary lives and passively eat, watch, and soak up information rather than creating, contributing, and building our own things.

As I wrote in this article

“You can’t control the amount of time you spend on this planet, but you can control what you contribute while you’re here. These contributions don’t have to be major endeavors. Cook a meal instead of buying one. Play a game instead of watching one. Write a paragraph instead of reading one. You don’t have to create big contributions, you just need to live out small ones each day.”

8. Working in a job that you don’t love.

As you might expect, it’s dangerous to work too much. In Japan, the overtime and workplace stress has become so bad that they actually have a label for the people who die because of it: karoshi, which literally means “death by overwork.”

Basically any way in which your job makes you feel stressed is bad for your health — unpredictable commutes, tension and disagreement with your boss or coworkers, feeling undervalued or unappreciated. Even working overtime increases the risk for coronary heart disease, independent of outside factors.

What can you do about it? No one strategy will work for everyone, of course, but the principles in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor offer a great place to start.

9. Eating alone.

Brian Wansink, a Cornell professor and author of Mindless Eating, has written that when people eat alone they are more likely to have a large binge feeding. Additionally, diets suffer when people eat alone. Lonely diners tend to eat fewer vegetables and less healthy meals. It seems that we make less of an effort to eat well when we are by ourselves than when someone else is involved.

Given that an estimated one out of three people eat lunch at their desk, it’s easy to see how these little choices add up to big health problems over the long-term.

10. Believing that you are unworthy of health, happiness, and love.

Brene Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston and she has spent 10 years studying vulnerability. In recent years, her work has exploded with popularity as she delivered one of the most popular TED Talks of all-time and has written multiple best-selling books including Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.

As Brown studied fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability, she discovered one key insight…

There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who struggle for it. And that was that people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.

That’s it. They believe they’re worthy. The one thing that keeps us out of connection is the fear that we’re not worthy of connection.
—Brene Brown

If you allow your fear or vulnerability or shame to prevent you from showcasing your true self, then you will be preventing yourself from connecting fully with others. If you want to be able to move past fear, judgement, and uncertainty and into a healthier and happier life, then you have to give yourself permission first. You have to decide that you’re worthy.

For much deeper and more useful discussion of vulnerability, I suggest reading Brown’s books: Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.

What Do You Need to Be Healthy?

Living a healthy life is about much more than just diet and exercise. Don’t forget about the 10 areas above because they play a significant role in your health and happiness.

As Lissa Rankin often says, “What does your body need to heal?”

In many cases it’s not a better diet or a new workout program, it’s one of these areas that might be impacting your health and happiness without you even realizing it.

38 Comments

  1. Amazing job on this James (that’s a lot of research!). I’m guilty of being on the wrong end of some of these. I know a big one is sitting down all day. I try to switch standing and sitting when I can. Standing seems to make me a little bit more alert too.

    I love #3. It’s easy to get into the mindset that you have too much to do so that you don’t deserve a break to just BE, but it’s so good for you. That’s why I love nature – it helps me to understand that it’s ok to stop and appreciate life. When I see a sunset, I have no choice but to stop what I’m doing and look. What a wonderful, beautiful world we live in!

    Thanks for the reminders!

    Cheers,
    Stephen

  2. I loved all of this. I’m doing a lot of things right, that must be why I’m so happy and healthy. Of course even so, none of us is perfect and I have a few things to keep working on, and probably will until the end.

    Thank you. I know I don’t comment often but I love getting these emails.

    -Roberta

  3. Great article again!
    I’d just like to comment on a structural point of it: I think writting the titles about what you shouldn’t do instead of what you should do is not the best way to make things remembered. I’ve heard that, when you write or tell a sentance in negative form, the brain tend to remember the positive (and obviously opposite) statment, and get it all wrong.
    Otherwise, the content is really good! I think I got to think about the point 3 and 4 the most, thank for helping me to put that in y sight ;-)

    • @Esther L. I tend to agree with you that conscious input, negative or positive, will imprint on the sub-conscious. Even so, I think it is reasonable to investigate the “problem” first, then move on to (positive) solutions.
      Speaking for self only: I take what is given here, in fact copy and highlight. But not just read it: hopefully “action” some things.

      And I read a great thing about “action” recently (was it James?). There are two parts: (1) Movement – which is a good start (eg my copy and highlight; or read about and think); (2) Implement – actually do it; or at least start to do it step-by-step – cf James’s “2 minutes” article from the GTD guy.

      So I suggest take what is written (wherever) and make it “positive”, how you want, for you. Make it yours (aka “own it”) – and think and act for you.

      I hope this helps, but no matter if not.

  4. Thanks for a great article . I’ve not known about your site for long but so far have enjoyed and appreciated all of them . Thanks for doing so much research on our behalf . My big failing is not belonging to any group although I play the piano for the local church when Im needed . Apart from that I don’t belong to any community as my partner of 13 years and I seem to be so self sufficient we only meet upfor walks etc with a small circle of friends . (We are both pensioners now ) You’ve reminded me that we need to contribute to society as wel as take from it . That will be my next objective . Thanks again James and keep up the good work . Pam

  5. What a wonderful article!?! It spoke to my soul. Instinctively we know all these things,your article just laid everything out beautifully. Thank you James.

  6. Really insightful and helpful article, James. Thanks for this. It reminds us to deliberately get out, move, create and help others. And , why we need each other!

  7. Excellent article James, also the links – as usual. Thanks.

    In fact “12 Common Mistakes That Prevent….” ?

    You mention them of course, but perhaps include in list?

    Maybe one or two of us also need to address:
    11. Diet (per se, apart from #9)
    12. Exercise (per se, apart from #2 and #6)
    :)

  8. James

    this is one of your best articles to date! Great resources and such a measured passion behind your words to explain the subject matter!

    Related to the subject of your article, have you seen this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend.html

    I just saw it yesterday for the first time, and then your article this morning. Love synchronicities like that!

    Be well

    Darren

  9. If you don’t love someone, no one on earth can tell you that you must love that person. That applies to yourself as well as it does to another person. I don’t think anyone can move from self-hatred to self-love just by thinking it.

    If you think you it’s possible to just feel love for yourself because you need to feel love for yourself, think of anyone you ever loved who didn’t love you back. Could you somehow force that person to change and love you? No. Then why should it work any differently with self-love?

  10. Thank you for bringing these facts together in one life-changing article. Perhaps we need to commit to these systems of health and happiness to reach our goals of health and happiness. I read and enjoy almost everything you put to blog. Keep up the good work.

  11. A few of these I feel are directed straight at me. #1 – Yes I am guilty. I push people away because I am afraid of being hurt and I already have a hard time making friends as it is. #3 – I always had these “to do lists” everyday and they were so long that I knew it was going to be impossible to get everything done. This year, for some reason, I decided it was ok to not do anything. Just sit back, relax & enjoy the moment. Running is usually my time when I breathe and meditate which is really weird but it works for me. I am proud to say that in 2013 I have said No to the “to do lists” and I am healthier and happier than ever before.

    #1 is still a work in progress.

  12. This article is very useful for enhancing health and happiness and I appreciate you for writing in a scientific way. Please keep writing. Thank you.

  13. Really great article, thank you for sharing your insights! Just thought I would point out that I think that the title of #7 is flipped, isn’t it?

  14. Wow! The very question ‘What does your body need to heal?’ took my breath away. Are you sure you didn’t write this article just for me?!

    Thanks for making my pause (while sitting, no less) to consider my lifestyle and the changes that should (and need) to be made.

    Here’s to “creating, contributing, and building our own things.”

  15. Great – I find myself asking these questions to myself daily. So how do I leave my job permanently? :)

    Thank you what you do, I look forward to reading your articles!

    Betty

  16. I love #4 (joining a religion). I can’t imagine my life without my Catholic faith. Since God made us, He knows exactly what we need to be happy. When I’m not sure about something, He always gives me the answer. :)

    I’m way guilty of #7 (spending too much time consuming instead of contributing). I love to read, learn, and synthesize, but have trouble stopping to actually implement what I learn. I think it’s a personality thing.

  17. Awesome blog post James. You’ve provided some great inspiration to me lately. My wife sent me the link about three weeks ago and I’ve been growing in strength ever since. I’m a husband and father first. I’m also an IT project manager by trade but I now define myself by my hobby which is racing sailboats. I lift weights and exercise daily still that i can perform well on the water and s I’ve come to realize to preform well in all aspects of my life. I’ve been wandering through the fog for several years, as I’ve mov,ed away from some of my habits from my roots.Of the 10 items you’ve listed all of them are important values that i learned growing up. I plan on getting back to them and incorporating back into my daily process. Here’s to ya James.

  18. Ironic that I was scrolling down with the intention of getting a 10,000 feet grasp of the subject. Well, this advice was almost wasted. Great post!

  19. Hi James, thanks for all the awesome posts. Keep them coming. You know I subscribe to many different newsletters; sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t, but I delete them everyday since I don’t like to clutter my mailbox. But there is one exception — yours. I read them all, maybe not on the same day, but I do read them all. And I don’t delete your newsletters. I like to keep them and sometimes read them again.

  20. James,

    I just love the amount of real scientific experiments you found on this topic. Far too often you see facts about health and happiness that are observational or anecdotal rather than real scientific base double blind studies. Not that observational type of studies do not have a value, but a real scientific study proven fact has always held a lot more sway to me.

    Some great research here, and of course, some great mistakes to avoid!

    -Steve

  21. Wow! You are amazing. Yes I also feel like you were also speaking to me. I am sure we can all do the research ourselves, But Thank God we have you.

    Keep doing what you do.

    Thanking you for another great post,

    Wallace H.

  22. Wow! This article pretty much explains why I am, the way I am. I’ve been consistently guilty of numbers 1, 4, 5, 6 and 10 pretty much my entire life. To sum it up, I’ve never participated in life (sports, happiness, friends); always watching from the safe sidelines. But I think it all boils down to number 10. If a child or youth isn’t able to overcome their vulnerability and believe they are worthy of happiness and a sense of self worth, it can carry on to a very miserable adult life…and overcoming it at age 41 feels almost impossible.

  23. Thanks, now I understand why I’m not feeling good. A lot of my habits are going beyond your article. Now I have to get it correct. Thanks again, James.

  24. Great stuff, yet again. I am a huge fan of Lissa Rankin and Brene Brown. I’m working through the online Gifts of Imperfection course right now, and I am so thankful for everyone bringing this important information to surface. I’m trying to get the message out there in my little community, wish me luck :)

  25. James, Great article in distilling so much helpful thinking into one article. I especially thank you for introducing me to Brene Brown. Wow, her work is so thought provoking and makes such sense but yet not realized. Transformational is the only way to describe her work. So much of what you said about the spiritual ties into her work and the sense of value – the source of our ultimate value. Many thanks, Steve

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