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2 Key Ingredients for Finding Happiness

02/26/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

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"Practice is the hardest part of learning, and training is the essence of transformation."
-- Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

I talk to a lot of people who know a lot about happiness. They know that gratitude is important and that counting their blessings can help. They know that sleep and exercise are essential. Yet they often say, "I read about happiness and stress all the time. Why am I still so unhappy?" For many, it's because transformation happens outside the pages of books and beyond the words of wise bloggers. Real change requires more than knowledge; it requires practice and other people.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Lasting change takes consistent, repetitive practice. Drs. Fred Luskin and Kenneth Pelletier, authors of

Stress Free for Good

, have collectively taught thousands of people to be less stressed. They emphasize that "When it comes to creating better emotional well-being, the three words that matter more than any others are... 'practice, practice, practice.'"

Buddhist monks, indisputable experts in cultivating happiness and self-improvement, agree. Yongey Mingur Rinpoche, in The Joy of Living, invites his meditation students to practice for "short periods, many times." It's the repeated practice, weaving meditation throughout days over and over again, that builds new perspectives and habits.

Cultivating health or happiness usually requires changing habits, and that takes a lot of repetition and a lot of time. Changing even the least sticky habits takes at least 20 days of repetition. Other, more difficult-to-change, habits can take hundreds of days.

The bottom line is clear: without repetition, even the best suggestion for health or happiness will not take root. But practice isn't enough. Most of us need another ingredient -- other people.

Enlist Your People

We are much more likely to make lasting changes when we have a community of support. Preeminent happiness scientist Sonja Lyubomirksy, author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, observes that a "critical factor underlying the success of a happiness activity is social support." People with social support are more likely to take medication, to keep New Year's resolutions, and to keep weight off. That's because other people provide at least three critical agents for change: guidance, accountability, and belief that the change is possible.

Guidance. The expertise of someone wiser and more experienced can make the difference between success and failure. A guide can provide information, help us navigate challenges, and provide perspective on our work. Again, Yongey Mingur Rinpoche offers wisdom: "The interesting aspect regarding the [Buddhist] masters of the past and present is that they shared a similar process of training... They reached their full potential by following the lead of a teacher wiser and more experienced than themselves." Enlisting a teacher seems like common sense, but all too often, self-help resources imply that we can go it alone. We'd be wiser not to.

Accountability. Other people also provide accountability, which is critical for making lasting changes. Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog, writes, "One of the best ways to change your habit environment is to set up accountability. Create a challenge and tell people about it." Other people remind you of your own goals, provide objective feedback, and help you stick to your plan. Without others, it's easy to slack off and revert to old behaviors.

Belief. Social support fosters one of the keys to making real change: belief that the change is possible. "And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group," writes Charles Duhigg, author of the The Power of Habit. He reports that most people who transform their lives have communities, even if they're small, that make the change believable. We don't fully understand this phenomenon, but it may have something to do with the change seeming real when we see it through other people's eyes. In any case, what we do know is that groups are powerful catalysts for change.

The next time you find yourself reading about how to be happier, less stressed, or to transform your life, remember the missing small print -- true change requires practice and people. So gather your people and make a plan to practice. You won't be disappointed.

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