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By Michelle Gielan and Shawn Achor

It’s the time of year when the craziness starts back up again — with renewed intensity. Back to school, new projects at work and an inbox that went from relatively quiet to overflowing. As a working mother of two, the stress and craziness has made the bliss I felt while on vacation this summer seem like a distant memory.

The real problem is that during hectic times, we often do the exact opposite of what we should do to be successful. We hunker down. Start cranking through the to-do list. Take everything seriously. Drag our kids around Target to get all their supplies.

And we push off plans with friends until “things calm down.” If we work hard now, then we can be happy later.

Our research shows that’s the wrong approach. If we’re striving for success, both for ourselves and our kids, focusing on happiness in the midst of the chaos is significantly more fruitful than merely working towards accomplishing the next goal.

My husband and fellow researcher Shawn Achor and I have isolated a number of small happiness habits that boost learning and performance — and can make us better at everything we do.

Studies have shown cultivating a more positive, optimistic mindset can increase productivity by 31 percent, chances of promotion by 40 percent and decrease the negative effects of stress by 23 percent. And this is just a snippet of an overwhelming body of research that shows focusing on fostering gratitude, being solution-focused when faced with a problem and staying meaningfully connected to the people around us pays dividends. (Shawn has a fantastic, hilarious TED talk on the subject.)

As married happiness researchers we do gratitudes together and with our son before bed. My husband proposed to me by listing three things he was grateful for about our relationship.

Here are four of the top researched habits we’ve found to be effective at creating happiness and optimism and making it contagious for those around you. Try doing one of these habits for 21 days — they take just minutes.

1. Direct your focus.

Each day, make a goal to simply add three smiles to your day. Sounds too easy, but when you smile, your brain changes and you actually feel happier. If you're at work or dropping your kids off at school — there are always people we see that we may not acknowledge. Instead, try to consciously smile at them and see the reaction you get. This habit is powerful because you are showing your brain that there are people in your community you can connect with and it widens your circle.

Smiling also increases the amount of perceived social support you have as people you know smile back.

2. Practice gratitude.

Write down or say out loud three NEW things you are grateful for — ideally with someone else each day. They can be simple, like “I’m grateful for this coffee,” or “I’m grateful for the sunshine,” but you cannot repeat any over the course of 21 days. Doing this trains your brain to see more positives in the world. Your brain actually gets better at being more positive.

3. Spread positivity.

Each day just say a nice compliment to three different people, like “you have the best smile” or “you are so compassionate!” It has to be a real compliment to work. But when you do it, watch how much it recharges your battery, as you realize you have the power to make a positive world. The more meaningful and specific you are with others, often the greater the benefit.

4. Challenge yourself.

Use your supercharged battery to fill up someone else’s battery by doing one random act of kindness EVERY day, like picking up someone’s mail for them or getting them a coffee when you know they are feeling drained. This is obviously good for the recipient, but it’s also often a bonus for you.

Curious which habit might be right for you? Take our happiness quiz to get your happiness battery score and custom habit.