August 15, 2023

How to Build Successful Habits and Improve Mental Health

By Tyell Gustavson, Master Health Volunteer; & Ashley Yaugher, PhD, Health & Wellness Faculty

Group of People in a line

Many of us have heard the common riddle, “What came first: the chicken or the egg?” Although the answer to that question may be a thought-provoking dilemma without an answer, psychologists have recently found the answer to a similar one, “Does success cause happiness, or does happiness cause success?” 

Research tells us that happiness leads to success, not the other way around. Those who believe that success causes happiness may be delaying their happiness with a counterproductive thought process: believing that they can only achieve happiness after achieving a certain goal. Psychologists have found that improving mental health, such as experiencing happiness, leads to key factors of success such as increased productivity, creativity, and even a longer life span, not the other way around (Bryan & Bryan, 1991; Cohen et al., 2003; Danner et al., 2001; Kopelman et al., 2006; Lyubomirsky et al. 2005)! 

Positive psychology has become an important topic over the past few decades. Positive psychologists study people who are above the curve; those who live happy, productive, long lives, to learn how others can also enjoy the rewards of being happy and content (Achor, 2011). An important part of positive psychology is its focus on strengths that people have and how they can improve said strengths. Here are two steps that can help you start building on your strengths and improving your mental health today: 

1. Knowing what your strengths are is the first step to growth. Some of the strengths that individuals can have include influencing others for good, having and pursuing meaningful goals, finding new ways to use strengths, relationship building, strategic thinking, leading, holding a strong value system, compassion, hope, and optimism (Achor, 2011; Clifton, 2007; Healthdirect, 2023, Waters et al., 2022). In 2003, Don Clifton, “the father of strengths-based psychology,” famously asked, “What if we study what’s right with people versus what’s wrong with people?” (American Psychological Association [APA], 2003). Today there are many evidence-based surveys available that show people their strengths and weaknesses such as the Myers-Briggs (Briggs, 1987) or the StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Clifton, 2007), among others. Once you start thinking more about what your strengths are, you can begin to build on them.

2. The next step to growth is learning how to improve the strengths that you currently have and learning to gain new ones. Contrary to popular belief, people at all stages of life are capable of change and growth (Dweck, 2006). Shawn Achor, a professor at Harvard and a leading researcher on positive psychology, stated that “happiness is not just a mood- it’s a work ethic” (Achor, 2011). Research shows that when people practice specific actions/mental processes, the part of the brain involved grows, making the brain more effective at the activity (Fabr, 2011). Therefore, changing habits can help improve both strengths and mental health. Habits take time to develop, but they can change our perspective on life. There are many activities and habits that can help improve your strengths and develop new ones, including investing in your social support network (social relationships are an excellent way to achieve better well-being and lower stress), capitalizing on the positive, finding patterns of positivity instead of negativity, growing through failure, focusing on small and manageable goals, meditating, practicing mindfulness, conscious acts of kindness, and exercising regularly (Achor, 2011). Some activities work better for some than they do for others, so look for things that you already know work for you or try to find new habits to develop from this brief list of ideas to get you started.

Happiness is not a result of success but rather leads to it. Everyone can improve their strengths and find activities or develop new habits that increase happiness. There are many steps that you can take to improve your mental health; start with what you know and grow from there!

Resources to learn more:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
- Call or visit Utah 211 for local resources (e.g., housing, food resources, treatment providers, etc.): 
- Call 988 Suicide & Crisis Line (988): 
- Learn more about warning signs:
- Learn more about techniques and benefits of mindfulness:
- Get involved with suicide prevention in Utah:
- Learn more about positive psychology: