Tips to happiness

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Here are a list of things you can do yourself to increase feel-good hormones and give you more power over your psychological well-being. These are very practical things, many of which you have already heard. All these have been shown to be significant contributors to our state of body and mind, so do consider taking the steps to incorporate them into your lifestyle – they will make a difference. It can be difficult to start something new but if you persevere for a few weeks the new activity becomes hardwired into your brain’s neurological pathways and it becomes a habit you no longer need to make an effort to maintain. Things we discuss here cover Diet, Exercise, Laughter, Unplugging from Devices, Socialising, Sleep, Being in Nature, Yoga, Meditation and Gratitude.

Diet

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I know it can seem boring and you’ve heard it before but your diet can have a profound effect on your sense of wellbeing. If you eat a lot of processed food and things with a high sugar value, you are much more likely to experience elevated stress levels and nutrient deficiencies will also bring your general mood down. You don’t need to engage in some insane diet, just see to it that plenty of vegetables and fruit (organic!), beans and grains make up a significant part of your plate. It may seem like a hassle in the beginning and your tendency will be to go back to some quick and easy microwave dinner or swinging by your local takeout, but after a few weeks it will become ingrained as a habit to buy and prepare food that is better for you and you will start to feel the benefits.

If your budget stretches to it, I also recommend taking supplements each day. But first consult your doctor and ask their lab to do a broad-spectrum blood analysis and identify any deficiencies you may have. There’s no point in swallowing Vitamin C supplements if you already eat a lot of fruits rich in that. Also, if you drink a lot of coffee, reduce that to just a few cups in the morning hours. Anything that stimulates your central nervous system is best taken in moderation or not at all.

Exercise

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Again, this one can seem like an ordeal to begin with but just keep it simple and reasonable. Something small and enjoyable each day is best but engaging in some kind of cardiovascular or weight training twice a week reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Exercise has both physiological and psychological benefits and they strengthen each other; if you feel physically better, you also feel better about yourself and life in general becomes brighter.

To increase your chance of success, you need to be honest with yourself. If you really don’t like the gym environment and have a history of giving up on your workouts, then acknowledge that maybe that is not the best route for you. Instead commit to taking a brisk 20-30 minute walk through your local forest, park or neighbourhood each day. The important thing is you don’t need to get in your car or take a bus or train to get there. Keep it easy to engage in so you simply need to step outside your door and begin.

By far the best is to find an activity you like. Maybe walking is too boring for you. So, get yourself a second-hand bike and start cycling instead. I like swimming and there is a pool only a 15 minute walk from my home that I try and make use of. It can feel like a huge effort to get there but once I’m in the pool, I love it. And we’re not looking to achieve Olympic level results. You just want to keep your heart rate elevated and to enjoy the activity.

Laughter

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I understand when you’re feeling blue or stressed someone slapping you on the back and commanding ”Smile!” is unhelpful, patronizing and pretty damn irritating. Laughter, however, can be achieved even at low points in life and is worth aiming for because it has significant physical and mental health benefits.

The increase in oxygen intake from laughter stimulates your vital organs and your brain releases endorphins that relieve pain and improve feelings of happiness. The initial laughter response is, in itself, a wonderful feeling that activates a certain level of (positive) physiological stress. And in the immediate aftermath it decreases your heart rate and blood pressure, which feels good, is relaxing and soothes tension. And that’s just in the short term.

If you can find ways to laugh regularly, despite your difficult circumstances, it will generate long term improvements to your immune system, encourage the release of neuropeptides that fight stress and illness and increase your body’s ability to produce its natural painkillers. Your level of life satisfaction will rise, general mood improves making it easier to cope with difficulties and connect with others and it can raise your self-esteem.

Get a humorous or satirical book by a gifted author. I won’t make suggestions as humor is very individual but having a well written book that can make you chuckle or laugh out loud is worth its weight in gold. It’s also a great way to break the habit of staring into your phone in the evening when you have a wonderful book to look forward to while wrapped up cozily in bed. Reading books has become unpopular with the rise of digital, but reading an actual book with real pages is actually quite a unique and powerful experience and holds many pleasures and benefits.

Listen to podcasts or watch videos of comedians that tickle your funny bone and let you forget about your troubles for a while. Or, on your own or with a friend, treat yourself to an evening of stand-up comedy. It’s ok to distract yourself from the hardships of life with something that is life affirming and stimulates feel-good endorphins.

Find a laughing yoga class. It’s totally weird but definitely worth it. A bunch of people get together and you simply start to force yourself to laugh. And you keep going. After a while your brain starts to feel a bit left out and so forgets there’s nothing funny going on and begins to get into the spirit of things. And then the laughter starts to become natural and real and feels very healing and liberating. It’s awkward and weird at first but it is well worth going along and giving it a try. This is about your mental health and wellbeing; get over your feelings of awkwardness, they’re not important and are only in your way. You really think a thought/internal dialogue that uses the threat of looking a bit silly to prevent you bringing more happiness into your life is your friend?

If you have one, spend time with a friend who is good at making you laugh and let them know how much you appreciate it. Funny, happy people have a contagious affect on the people around them.

As you progress along in our conversations and begin to clearly see and understand how your mind lures you into meaningless, untrue and negative thought patterns, you will come to laugh at yourself and how sneaky and ridiculous our minds can be and how you were once suckered into believing the things it told you.

Unplug

Reduce your screen time, it is a bigger factor than many people realise. Too much device usage is associated with higher stress levels and mental health disorders. Do you find it difficult to stay off your phone or laptop or leave them at home whenever you go out to buy groceries? Is it hard to resist staring into your social media feed when it’s nearly time for bed or you’re already in bed? Well, the fact that it’s difficult should tell you clearly that you have an addiction and that is no surprise. We have been conditioned to experience our devices as an irremovable part of ourselves, a lifeline, a means to experience life. None of that is true but it can feel that way. In particular, social media algorithms are designed to elevate certain hormones such as cortisol and dopamine. It doesn’t matter to tech companies whether you get feel-good hormones or if you get outraged and angry. Their priority is your engagement and nothing gets that better than making you upset about something. Become aware of how you feel in your scrolling and consider exercising some restraint and creating a new habit by turning off your device between certain hours of the day or leaving it at home. You don’t need to be contactable 24/7. It will only take 3-4 weeks and this new lifestyle will become your default and you won’t feel like you’re missing out on something.

Social (IRL)

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We all know humans are social creatures. This is not just about preference or enjoyment, we also have biological, psychological and sociological drivers that compel us to connect with others. We all need to feel seen, heard, understood and loved. This is often satisfied through family, friends and workplace. But many people don’t feel truly connected with family members, friends or colleagues, some people don’t have a job or work in an isolated way and others do not have a circle of valued friends. In such cases, we need to take the initiative and start to evaluate the things in life we value and enjoy learning about or engaging in. Then we can start looking for a local group who shares these interests and attend a gathering or an evening class. This can be a big step outside of the comfort zone for us introverts but the act of straightening your spine and enrolling in a course or social group and dragging your ass there is very empowering and can open doors into an entirely new life for you. There are platforms that specialize in bringing people together in this way. Meetup.com is a popular site to find a local interest group.

It can be as simple as playing a team sport, volunteering at a local charity, joining a book or craft circle or starting an art class. You have to take the initial first steps; life tends to sweep in and support you with feedback once you take the initiative and begin. And, if you do this and it doesn’t resonate, then try something else! If you give up on the first attempt you are not really showing life your commitment to improving your circumstances. Just keep going, one small step at a time, it will pay off for you.

Sleep

Sleep is our most powerful and natural recovery method. Sleep is not just a biological necessity for muscle repair, the immune system and memory consolidation. Even slight sleep deprivation affects concentration, mood and judgement. Chronic lack of sufficient sleep has also been linked to medical conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and poor mental health. How much sleep you need per night varies from person to person but generally speaking school kids up to 13 years old should be getting between 9-11 hours per night, teens 8-10 hours and adults 6-9 hours. These may vary but if you are sleeping less than these amounts it may be something you need to investigate with your doctor. Oversleeping can also be an indication that something is out of balance or there is an underlying medical condition to be looked into.

If you have trouble falling asleep at night you might want to eliminate all the obvious reasons first. Are you drinking caffeine or too much alcohol late in the day? Are you staring into your phone or laptop soon before you’re due to go to sleep? Are you physically inactive throughout the day? All these things will make it difficult to fall asleep, so address these first.

If you’re still struggling to fall asleep then I recommend some form of meditation. On my Youtube channel you will find meditations that will help quieten your mind’s incessant noise and help you drift off to sleep. There are also many resources on the internet with meditations specifically designed to help with falling asleep. There are also apps that have the sound of waves rolling into the beach, rain falling or other such relaxing sounds that can be very pleasant and helpful. Give them a try and find one that works for you.

Nature

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Spending time in nature is not some hippy, new-age inspired platitude; being in nature has an observable impact on our stress levels. Studies show spending as little as 10 minutes in nature shows a measurable reduction of stress and anxiety. It may seem difficult to be in nature for 10 minutes per day when you live in the midst of a metropolis but most cities have access to parks and reserves. So, find a place not too far from home or work and be on the lookout for how easily your mind will slip in and find excuses why you can’t do that/don’t have the time. As well as being palliative and treating existing stress or anxiety, it is also preventative and can mean the difference between being prescribed pharmaceuticals with their inherent side effects later on. Obviously there are also physical benefits from being outside in the fresh air or taking a hike, but just the mere act of being in nature has significant impact on your psychological well-being. Try and make this a priority.

Self-nurturing

We cannot rely on the world to deliver us what we need to feel loved and cared for. It is important we take this responsibility upon ourselves and not make our feelings of being treated well dependent upon another person or on our external circumstances. I believe every person should meet their own needs to feel loved, secure and at peace so we are never entering into a relationship with people or life that is based upon need or a sense of lack. Then, when things go our way or we enter into a loving relationship, we are not placing the burden of our happiness on another’s shoulders. Instead we are in a position to receive their love without conditions or dependencies and share our own in the same way. To be our own source of happiness and love is true freedom and optimal mental health.

So, light some candles, run a hot bath, treat yourself to a spa, read a book that inspires you or makes you laugh, get a new haircut, listen to a beautiful piece of music, go to an art gallery or performance on your own, contact a cherished friend you rarely see or hear from, take the time to prepare and cook your favourite meal and eat it by candlelight and soft music, learn to meditate or do yoga, get a massage, enjoy and explore the sensuality of your own body, learn art or a musical instrument, take up dance lessons or do anything that fills you with joy and delight. Have a dedicated time at least once each week that is just about you caring for you and become the source of your own wellbeing.

Yoga

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Yoga is an excellent practice for both physical and mental health and there is plenty of scientific research to back it up. The physical and mental relaxing effects of yoga help reduce stress and anxiety, increase flexibility, relieve tension and can alleviate physical pain. Suppressed emotions and memories can be stored physically in our somatic structure and yoga can release blockages and knots that allow emotions and tensions to be freed while encouraging the release of feel-good hormones such as endorphins. Yoga can also develop mindfulness, leading to better concentration and awareness that helps you recognize and observe sensations, thoughts and feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them.

I’m no expert in yoga. I maintain a simple daily practice and teach school kids some of the basic asanas (postures) to begin their classes in a more focused and relaxed way, and I have found it to be a very rewarding practice. Additionally, yoga is something you can do privately at home or outside on a sunny day or, alternatively, join a class potentially leading to a new social circle for yourself.

Meditation & Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that encourages being fully present with your current experience. Meditation is a broader term that can include using imagination, exploration and visualization techniques. I use both extensively in my work with clients. The efficacy of meditation has been repeatedly proven scientifically and anyone who avoids trying it because it’s too “woo-woo” is standing neck-deep in ignorance. However, while simple to learn, it can be challenging to maintain. Not every single person has the temperament for it or benefits from it, which is perfectly fine, it just means another form of treatment would suit your personality better.

I was first taught by Buddhists in 1996 following a serious car accident that left me with post traumatic stress and have been using and exploring the various practices ever since. I use meditation and mindfulness techniques to heighten awareness of negative and destructive thought patterns and unpleasant emotional states and to cultivate acceptance, compassion, gratitude, peace and happiness.

If you are of a religious inclination, I consider meditation to be the highest form of prayer, asking for nothing, pleading with no-one, simply coming to know your own true nature and experiencing the sense of openness, equanimity, peace and love inherent in your source.

You’ll find the essential meditative practices for free on my Youtube channel here.

Gratitude

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When you feel life sucks it can be hard to feel grateful. But practicing gratitude is enormously beneficial. As well as improving your mood, people who regularly express gratitude are happier with lower rates of stress and depression, have more robust immune systems, feel more loved and connected and become more engaged in taking good care of themselves. This is not because their lives are all rainbows and champagne. This is often people living under extremely difficult circumstances who have learned the art and benefit of gratitude. They become happier in spite of their circumstances.

Here’s something you can try. Try it twice a day for a week. That’s not a lot of time or energy invested to see if it improves your mood.

When you’re alone, walk around your home or seated on the sofa, bring your hands to your heart and simply start saying “Thank you” over and over. As well as saying the words, feel it – this is very important. Feel the sensation and emotion of being truly grateful and do this for about 10 minutes. Don’t allow yourself to stop because you feel discouraged or your mind insists you have nothing to feel thankful for. Simply invest 100% into this simple practice. You do not need something to be grateful for. You are simply practicing the art of gratitude. Later, things to become grateful for may arise spontaneously; the feel of sunlight on your skin as you wait at the bus stop, friends, fresh water, the sound of kids laughing, etc.

We often believe life should deliver exactly what we desire and if it doesn’t then that’s not a good life. Life is life and it includes difficulty and hardship. That’s why it is so important to learn to include everything in your gratitude for life. When life feels like it’s going wonderfully, that happy place is usually preceded by times that were not great at all, that really seemed to suck the life out of us. And we may forget those difficult times needed to have happened in order for the good times to be possible now. We cut life up into individual segments and separate good from bad. But that is simply not how life is. Life is seamless. It is a complete package and each hardship is intimately connected with something wonderful in the future.

If my exercise is not your cup of tea them simply try keeping a journal of everything in your life you feel grateful for. Sit down and consider what practical and personal things you are thankful to have: a home, a job, access to clean water, friends, kids, internet, food, clean air, books, sunshine, a comfy bed, stars to look at etc. And each day add to your journal anything positive you can identify that happened in your day. Continuing this exercise will raise your awareness of things you are grateful for and this regular focus will gradually increase your general mood.

In both exercises you are basically hacking your brains neurology. As you continue to feel more gratitude you will begin to rewire neural pathways that lead to a more positive experience of life. If you continue believing life is unfair, stuck in the past, anxious about the future, etc. you will strengthen those neural pathways instead. And our lives become what we think. In that sense we do create our own reality. The way we perceive the world is our experience of the world. We’re not talking about delusion here; we’re talking about choice.

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