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3 Things I Learned About How to be Happier

07/16/2013 08:26 am ET | Updated Sep 15, 2013

Stop chasing the BIG HAPPY

When my family fled Russia in 1989, I had a rough time. After a few months in refugee camps in Austria and Italy, we finally made our way here and then spent a year living in the projects, on welfare, in Ypsilanti (outside Detroit). When I finally got on my feet I decided that to make up for the hardship I was going to chase the American dream, which for me meant being HAPPY. And the way I thought you got there was by achieving a LOT and making a lot of money. So for the next 20 years I did just that -- a series of impressive jobs, starting companies, publishing books, getting the fancy stroller and the fancy car, you name it. By the time I was in my early 30s, I really appreciated my life and had learned a lot but I was not happy. Mostly, I was really exhausted.

My father is a scientist, so I turned to science on happiness and had a "holy crap" moment: I was doing it all wrong. While chasing some unachievable state of the BIG HAPPY I had ignored so many of the small happy moments that were part of my everyday -- the sound of my daughter's footsteps as I put my key in the door and she ran to meet me, grabbing our favorite Spanish Latte with my husband on a morning walk, hearing a friend tell me I made her smile. I became a lot happier when I started focusing on these small moments, elevating them out of the routine, pausing to actually be grateful for having them in my life. (No wonder research shows that people who write down a few things they are grateful for every day report feeling more optimistic and less stressed.)

Create experience out of routine

I juggle running a start-up with being a mom to a very active 9-year-old, so I get what it's like to be really busy. Forget busy, what I mean is totally overwhelmed. But one of the most important things I've realized is that taking a few extra minutes to make an experience out of something that is otherwise just part of the routine is one of the best way to feel -- and help my family feel -- happier.

The other day it was a horrible rainy cold Monday morning, we were late to get up and get going, and I read a really frustrating email as soon as I picked up my phone. My first instinct was to just take out cereal for everyone for breakfast so we could get through this terrible morning faster. But instead, I decided to make crazy looking pancakes, with turkey bacon for hair and whip cream for beards. My husband and kiddo laughed as soon as they saw them, I felt awesome for helping them laugh and everyone's morning became, well, happier.

Find your happier must-dos and stick to them with your life

Every morning I wake up and go for a 3-mile walk. In the sun, rain, snow, wind, doesn't matter. I am a total zombie for the first 10 minutes of it but by the time I get back home I am awake and have more energy for my day. It's my way to disconnect (I listen to music and don't check my email) and have some me time.

When I have a rough day ahead of me I try to start it off by eating something awesome. There is a bakery nearby that has the most amazing yogurt parfait. I will take time to drive there, get it, and sit and eat it while reading a magazine (not business) or a few pages from my favorite book. Another place across town has my favorite oatmeal. I will fight traffic to get there because I know I will have a happier day afterwards.

Having these small routines that I know help me feel more positive is huge. It helps to to know that I can look forward to something that I know I enjoy -- and if you look at the science, a lot of research shows that anticipating a good experience is a great happiness boost.

For more on happiness, click here.

For more by Nataly Kogan, click here.