The 9 Habits of Happy HSPs

A happy HSP

As an HSP you deserve to feel happy, at peace, and even successful. Can certain habits help you thrive? 

As highly sensitive people, it’s all too easy to focus on our sensitivity as something to be overcome: how to stop feeling overwhelmed, how to recover from overstimulation, or how to find meaningful connection when people don’t always understand us due to the stigma around being sensitive. Even the scientific literature often focuses on the negatives associated with sensitivity and how to overcome them. That makes it easy to forget that, as sensitive people, we have a right much more than just not being stressed out. In fact, you deserve to be happy. Joyful. At peace. And even successful — whatever that looks like for you. 

With that in mind, I took a look at the highly sensitive people (HSPs) I know who are happiest in life — as well as what the research says — and the times that I have been happiest in my own life. What I noticed is a set of habits that come up over and over, and seem to help HSPs thrive. Of course, each sensitive person is different, and you may find that some habits resonate with you as more important than others, but here are the nine habits of happy HSPs. 

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9 Habits of Happy Highly Sensitive People

1. Use your strong emotions to fuel your happiness. 

There is no question that highly sensitive people experience emotions more strongly than other people on average. Often, we pay most attention to those strong emotions when they’re negative: HSPs can feel sad or distressed more easily, and are at risk of getting “stuck” in overwhelming negative emotions. A less well-known fact, however, is that the opposite is also true: Highly sensitive people become happy more easily. Even very small emotional cues, like a animal or a heartwarming gesture, can send us soaring into a good mood. 

The happiest HSPs I know are the ones who use this to their advantage, building lots of positive emotion sources into their lives. This can be as simple as physical cues, like a friend who displays dozens of pretty glass bottles filled with water and plant cuttings on her wall, shelves, and kitchen window — they are aesthetically attractive and fill her home with life and greenery, helping boost her into a positive mood just by being around them. 

In other cases, positive emotional cues can involve the people in your life. For example, you might make a point to do a brief phone call with a friend every day after work, or at least on stressful days — especially a friend who tends to fill you with energy and laughter. This is a habit I started during the pandemic when there was no other way to connect with people, and I still do it to this day because it makes me feel so good. 

Positive emotional cues can be almost anything as long as they make you feel joy. The important thing is you build them into your life, either as habits and routines you follow or as changes to your physical space. 

2. Master the art of creating space in your life. 

One of the biggest game changers an HSP can utilize is the practice of creating space in your life. By creating space, I mean:

  • Commit to fewer things.
  • Choose carefully where you spend your time.
  • Cut out any projects and activities that no longer feel rewarding.
  • Give the remaining things in your life your full attention.

Easier said than done, I know, especially if, like me, you have small kids at home or have a demanding career. In my experience, however, it’s not those external obligations that hold HSPs back from making space in their lives. It’s a sense of attachment: We feel guilty giving up our obligations. We feel like we’re letting someone down. Maybe we even feel we’re letting ourselves down, for example by not pursuing all of our creative projects or hopes in life. 

But this thinking is holding you back. 

In reality, you’ll achieve more of your hopes in life if you focus on the few most important ones. And your friends and loved ones will be okay if you step back from some things or stop doing so much. Yes, even the organizations you care about will find other organizers and volunteers. And here’s the secret: using your time better will actually do more for the people and things you care about than stretched-thin you ever could. 

(If this is hard for you, you may want to read more tips here or learn about how your perfectionism is holding you back.) 

3. Take hold of the physical side of being sensitive

Being highly sensitive includes being sensitive physically. This can be hard at times: you may feel pain more strongly, develop physical side-effects from stress, and medication may even hit you like a speeding truck. 

But it’s important to recognize the incredible power that your physical sensitivity gives you. Your physical sensitivity means that subtle sensations can carry special joy for you, from a cozy blanket to a bowl of miso soup. The happiest HSPs tend to be those who surround themselves with subtle but pleasing sensations. That includes adding touches such as a scented candle in the bathroom or playing ambient or Classical music while you journal. But it also means removing loud and overpowering sensations from your day-to-day life. For example:

  • Switch to decaf. I love coffee, but I realized I’m far too sensitive to caffeine and my mind would race too much to focus after drinking my morning caffeine. HSPs in general are extra sensitive to caffeine. I now brew my copy three-fourths decaf, with just one-fourth regular to give me a tiny wakeup. 
  • Have quiet times. This may involve a conversation with your partner, family or roommates, or it may be a habit you have to set with just yourself, but having designated quiet time each day makes a world of difference for HSPs. 
  • Know how music affects you. I used to play very upbeat music while I worked because I could tell it gave me energy. Energy, however, is not productivity. I eventually realized that my adrenaline music was distracting me more than it was helping, and I now play white noise-type sounds while I work. (My preferred app is Ananada, which uses binaural tones to further maintain concentration.) 
  • Remake your space. If needed, seek permission from your landlord to paint rooms in your home the way you like them. 

4. Be authentic at all times.

I believe that HSPs are happiest when we march to the beat of our own drum and create a life that works for us, even if that is a quirky or unconventional life. It’s impossible to do that if you are not being authentic to yourself, your needs, and your sensitivity. Being authentic means acting on the outside in a way that accords with who you are on the inside. It means honoring what you see as your “true self.” 

Psychologists have learned a surprising amount about the true self, and all of it is encouraging. Research suggests that your true self is your best self; it is associated with acting morally, having control over your life, and experiencing self-discovery. Researchers have also found that authenticity itself is a “bedrock of wellbeing.” The more authentic you are to yourself, the data suggests, the more self-esteem, energy, and sense of purpose you will have. It even makes you better at achieving goals and coping with setbacks. 

In other words: People who act authentically stand out, but they are also happier. 

You can practice authenticity as an HSP by being honest about your feelings, being open about your sensitivity and who you are, and saying what you mean even when you know people won’t agree. 

Which brings us to…

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5. Practice being honest about your feelings

Let’s face it: most people are dishonest about their feelings on some level. HSPs are most likely to fall into this trap when we think our feelings will be rejected, judged, or criticized, or when we think we’ll hurt or inconvenience someone else. However, honest emotional expression is essential to HSP wellbeing. We are creatures who feel our emotions deeply, strongly, and for much longer than others do. If we cannot share our joys or express our frustrations, it’s like being an athlete who can’t play or a singer who cannot sing. 

Not expressing our negative feelings also tends to make a bad situation worse. It leaves others unaware that there’s a problem at all, making it more likely to happen again and again, and it gives bullies permission to treat us poorly. 

As an HSP, you deserve better — and I’ve noticed that the HSPs who seem to thrive the most are those who have learned to speak up honestly and respectfully about their own feelings. 

Here are some steps you can take to be more emotionally honest:

  • Start by simply expressing opinions that others won’t share. Expressing feelings is hard. Expressing opinions is often easier. We all have our share of opinions that our friend group won’t share, whether it’s not liking everyone else’s favorite show or believing in ghosts. By sharing these opinions, you start to build the “muscle” of being different from the group or saying something risky. That makes it easier to share emotions, too. (Personally, although I am a sci-fi lover like most of my friends, I don’t remotely enjoy Star Trek. The looks I get when I say that! But it’s also sparked some of the most interesting sci-fi conversations I’ve had.) 
  • Remember who’s actually to blame for awkwardness. If someone did something rude, inconsiderate, or crappy, then addressing it may be awkward. It might even ruin the vibe of a conversation or social event. Guess what? That is not your fault. The person who did the rude thing is the one who created the awkwardness. Address it directly and firmly. The more awkward it is, the less likely they are to do it again. 
  • See rejection for what it is: a bright neon sign. There will probably be someone (or a specific group of someones) who repeatedly rejects of your emotions. Their disapproval may say more about them than it does about you. When someone disapproves of you, you can reframe that as a sign that the person is not a good fit for you, rather than viewing it as proof you did something wrong. Frankly, it was very kind of them to be so obvious about their disapproval of you — it makes it easy for you to see which people need less of your time and attention, or might even need to be out of your life. 
  • Be honest with yourself, too. We HSPs are not immune to smuggling emotions. Maybe you disguise your anger as sadness, because sadness is more socially acceptable. Or maybe you’re irritable when you’re overstimulated (I sure am). Ask yourself: am I really angry at this person, or am I hungry/tired/feeling overwhelmed? Am I really upset about this current issue, or was it just the latest thing in an already-stressful day? If needed, take a few minutes somewhere quiet to sit with your feelings and ask them questions. You cannot be honest with others unless you have clarity with yourself as to what the real cause of your feelings is. 

Remember: if someone is sincere, mature and well-meaning, then emotional honesty won’t alienate them. It will actually help them by giving them the information they need to treat you well. 

6. Understand how to regulate your own emotions (even if your parents didn’t).  

While HSPs are fluent in the language of emotions, we don’t necessarily have a higher emotional intelligence (“EQ”) than other people. That’s because emotional intelligence is a set of skills; no one is born with them, but HSPs may have an edge if we practice them. (Think of it this way: if emotional intelligence is like basketball, being an HSP is like being tall.)

One of the hardest of these skills for HSPs is emotional regulation, because our strong feelings can feel impossible to manage. In fact, psychologists have found that HSPs do less emotional regulation than other people, and that this contributes to us feeling more negative emotions overall. If you can start to develop this one skill, you will likely experience fewer negative emotions, more positive ones, and feel less overwhelmed by emotions in general. 

So how do you do it? One of the most important steps is to remind yourself that emotions are temporary and will pass, no matter how overwhelming they feel. This sounds very simple, and yet it’s something many of us never learned and internalized growing up — especially if our parents handled their big emotions poorly (like screaming) or tried to avoid acknowledging emotions altogether. 

Elaine Aron, Aron, author of the book The Highly Sensitive Person, offers HSPs five steps for HSPs to regulate their emotions:

  • Accept your feelings.
  • Do not be ashamed of them.
  • Believe you can cope as well as others do.
  • Trust that your bad feelings will not last long.
  • Assume there’s hope — you can do something about your bad feelings eventually.

You may also want to read more about how to calm yourself down and how to deal with negative emotions

7. Learn the five gifts of sensitive people — and which ones you excel at 

The HSPs who thrive tend to be those who accept that their sensitivity comes with gifts and focus on those gifts, rather than seeing it as a set of difficulties to overcome. In my book Sensitive, my coauthor and I identify five key gifts of highly sensitive people: 

  • Depth of processing, the ability to think thoroughly and deeply and make connections that others miss. 
  • Depth of emotion, which includes passion and the ability to inspire and rally others.
  • Empathy, the ability to understand what others experience and bring people together. 
  • Sensory intelligence, or deep awareness of one’s surroundings, and 
  • Creativity, which often draws on all of the other gifts to produce innovations, breakthroughs, or works of art. 

The important thing about these gifts is that you do not need all five of them to do amazing things. Most HSPs will excel at one or two of these gifts more than the others, even though we all carry these gifts in some way. The important thing is to identify the one(s) that you exemplify and then lean into those specific gifts

For example, you do not need to be an empath or artist in order to use your sensory intelligence to be a star athlete if that’s what you’re called to do. (In our book, we argue that both football legend Tom Brady and hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky are HSPs). Similarly, you can be a total klutz and not an athlete at all if you are using your depth of processing to do great work as a medical researcher, or using your creativity to make music that stirs your soul. The goal is not to fix your weaknesses — that only makes you average. Instead, the goal is to find the gifts you’re strongest at and follow them as far as they will take you. 

Personally, although I’m often good at reading people, I will never be an empath; that is simply not the strongest of the five gifts for me. Creativity and depth of processing, however, are at the heart of both my career and my hobbies. The more I lean into them, the more of my goals I achieve and the happier I am overall. I believe the same is true for any HSP who leans into their strengths. 

8. Go to therapy preventatively, not just when you need it.

I am a big fan of going to therapy before there is a major problem in your life. Waiting until there’s a crisis is like waiting until your house is on fire to fix the wiring. (To be clear, if you’re in crisis, therapy still helps and is completely worth getting.) 

This is especially true for HSPs, because we are prone to carrying more stress and worry in our day-to-day lives. We also get more benefit out of therapy than the average, less-sensitive person, owing to the sensitive Boost Effect. As an HSP, it’s also just nice to have someone who will seriously listen when you try to talk through all the emotions and self-analysis you have in your head. 

Here are some modalities that I believe are especially useful for HSPs:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a good standby (especially when your not in crisis) because it helps you reframe difficult emotions and retrain your mental habits, giving you the tools you need when you do run into a crisis in life. CBT also defrays feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, which are common for HSPs.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is good for HSPs who struggle with emotional regulation or feeling flooded and overwhelmed by emotions. It’s a specialized process that helps you take charge of and manage your emotions, not only learning from them but getting out from under them so they are helpful rather than overwhelming. (Note: DBT is often given only in a group setting, but this is aimed more at individuals who have emotional disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder. For the average HSP, you may want to seek out a therapist who offers DBT in an individual setting.) I know one HSP who turned herself from an anxious mess into one of the wisest, most capable people I know through several years of hard work and DBT.
  • Somatic therapy focuses not on the mind but on the body, and all the ways we feel our emotions in the body. This ingenious approach recognizes that emotions are stored and triggered in bodily sensations — like how you clench your teeth when you’re anxious, or how a simple touch in the wrong place can hurtle you back to a past trauma. To address these emotions, somatic therapy may use dance, stretching, breathwork, mind-body exercises, or countless other physical sensations. (These are tailored to the individual; not everyone can dance, and not everyone wants to.) A good somatic therapist will pair this with more conventional methods like talk therapy. 
  • Mindfulness therapy is especially good for preventative therapy, as it helps you build greater overall self-awareness and awareness of your feelings and thoughts in the moment. Over time, this results in ever greater insight into yourself and others, and an ability to “step back” from a situation and handle it calmly. Mindfulness therapy sometimes involves practicing mindfulness meditation as well, but not always, and you can use this kind of therapy whether you meditate or not. 

9. Talk openly and confidently about your sensitivity. 

One last habit I’ve noticed: the HSPs who seem happiest also seem to be the ones who are most comfortable just causally mentioning that they’re sensitive. This rarely takes the form of a lecture on what it means to be an HSP. Rather, it’s very matter-of-fact statements like:

  • “I’m pretty sensitive to noise, so I’m going to sit that event out.” 
  • “You’d never know it, but I’m actually a pretty sensitive person.” 
  • “I think people should be more sensitive, not less.” 
  • “I’m sensitive and I think it’s one of my greatest strengths.” 

There is a quiet confidence to these statements that indicates someone is truly proud and open about their sensitivity. And I think it works both ways: when you start to talk about your sensitivity openly like this, it makes you proud on the inside, too. It no longer feels like a dirty secret to be embarrassed about. It becomes normal.

And that, ultimately, may be the root of happiness for many HSPs: knowing you are normal. Knowing you are okay. Giving yourself permission to be a highly sensitive person and to be proud of it. Once you are proud, the shame melts away and you can be happy with yourself. And that is the most important kind of happiness of all. 

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