Here’s how my typical week-day starts: My alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m., but I snooze it until 7 a.m. – and by that I mean my alarm is set up so that it will ring every 10 minutes, pulling me out of a deep sleep and often a dream every single time. What’s interesting is that I have trouble falling asleep when I go to bed at night, but absolutely no trouble nodding off again after my alarm goes off. Explain that head-scratcher to me, would you?
Once the final alarm goes off at 7, I turn the radio on to listen to the news and traffic. I don’t know why, because I always hear the same thing every morning 1) the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and 2) there’s traffic. By 7:45, I’m dressed, everyone’s been fed, and I’m out the door. At the end of the day, the same pattern emerges: Drive through traffic to get home, feed everyone, watch depressing news, go to bed.
It’s no surprise then, based on this “exciting” routine, that if I were to rate my psychological well-being on a scale from 1 to 10, it would hover around -3.7. Why? Because I’ve done nothing throughout the day or evening to benefit my well-being, aside from telling myself that eating cereal for dinner is culinary creative license and therefore, cool.
Well enough is enough. When my alarm went off Monday morning and the news lady said that 12 inches of snow had fallen and the roads were a disaster, I decided that I would write a blog on well-being. Specifically, 5 little things I can do every day that’ll put a smile on my face – and not make me want to punch the plow guy who turned my car into a snow fortress. And regular readers of my blog know that I rarely do fluffy, unless I’ve got research to back it up. So here are the results:
Commit at least one act of kindness per day.
On the one hand, the research is pretty straightforward: Doing nice things for others gives you that warm feeling in your tummy that not even apple pie can beat. When you commit an act of kindness you’re more likely to experience positive emotions, and sometimes, the person who you’re nice to pays it forward, causing a chain reaction of yummy feel-good feelings. But here’s another interesting stat from the research: We feel much happier when we do a kind act for others than when we do something nice for ourselves, like get a massage or buy a pair of shoes. In fact (and this one took me by surprise), we’re actually happier when we spend money on someone else than when we spend money on ourselves. The researchers in this study theorized that the feeling we get when we’re more self-focused is short-lived, while seeing the look of joy on someone else’s face lasts longer. So here’s your first mission: Do something nice every day. Hold the door open for someone; give another driver the right of way; buy a friend a coffee; give that extra change in your pocket to someone in need.
At the end of the day or the week, list the things you’re grateful for.
It’s been dubbed “an attitude of gratitude” – and this is some powerful stuff. Counting your blessings and/or the positive things that happened during your day really puts things in perspective – and reminds you that you really are a lot better off than you think. I’ve tried this before, and initially, had trouble coming up with things to be grateful for. So I got back to basics: I’ve got two arms and two legs. I have eyes to read this, fingers to type this, and the knowledge to create it. I’ve got a car that’s in good shape, friends that can tolerate my presence pretty well, an education, a roof over my head, etc. You’d be amazed at how quickly this exercise will pull you out of a bad mood. And even if you’re life isn’t going so well – you’re ill, don’t have much money in the bank – remembering the little things is what keeps you going, and gives you hope that circumstances will get better. Once you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up.
Spend 5 minutes a day visualizing a better future.
I’ve always had trouble with this particular exercise because I lack the patience to visualize or meditate or focus on happy thoughts. My mind just isn’t used to it and, in fact, is masterfully skilled at thinking up the worst possible scenarios. It’s a gift, really…if you’re Stephen King. Well, according to research, you don’t have to spend hours of introspection to achieve the mood-boosting benefits of visualization: If all you have is 5 minutes, that’s all you need. Visualize an aspect of your life where you’re struggling. So if you’re single and want to be in a relationship, imagine yourself with someone who makes you smile. See yourself as already being well-established in the relationship, with all the awkwardness of getting to know someone already done. Focus on how great the relationship feels. If you’re in between jobs, visualize yourself shaking hands at the end of an interview. Imagine your desk, your colleagues, your first paycheck. Imagine yourself spending money with ease and confidence because you have money coming in again. Remember, don’t focus on how it’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen. Focus only on the end result.
Most people are either thinking regretfully about the past or anxiously about the future. We are rarely focused in the moment. I was once so preoccupied about a problem that I drove all the way home without conscious awareness. It shook me up, and reminded me that I think way too much. Mindfulness is about being aware of the present, no matter what’s going on. I’ve always found that the worst part about a problem or an anxiety provoking event is the waiting for it to happen. Once I’m in the middle of it, it’s like my instincts take over. I have no choice but to be present, and somehow, that actually makes me feel less anxious. A great way to practice mindfulness is to tune into your senses. What do you hear going on around you? What can you smell? How does the seat you’re sitting on feel? Eckhart Tolle (who I am totally enamored with, let’s face it), is a master of mindfulness. I really recommend his Power of Now book.
“If your relationship to the present moment is not right – nothing can ever be right in the future – because when the future comes – it’s the present moment.”
Engage in mind-body exercises.
Yoga and Tai Chi not only engage that magic mindfulness we just discussed, they also have physical and mental health benefits. Here’s another mind-body exercise that popped into my research: Qigong. It consists of slow movements and deep, relaxing breathes. Studies show that it reduces anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions as well as fatigue. I’ve never done it myself, but apparently, it’s been around for 4000 years and is a common practice in Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. So really, you can’t go wrong.
Of course, if none of these work, you can always spend the day looking at cat memes, but I’ll do you one better: Search for “faith in humanity restored” in Google, and I guarantee you’ll feel better in no time.
Blackwell, S. E, Rius-Ottenheim, N., Schulte-van, M., Yvonne, W. M., Carlier, I. V. E., Middlekoop, V. D., Zitman, F. G., Spinhoven, P,m Holmes, E. A., & Giltay, E. J. (2013). Optimism and mental imagery: A possible cognitive marker to promote well-being? Psychiatry Research, 206(1), 56-61.
Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G., J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC Public Health, 13, 119-138.
Jamieson, S. D., & Tuckey, M. R. (2016). Mindfulness Interventions in the Workplace: A Critique of the Current State of the Literature. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Advanced online publication. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000048
Johansson, M., Hassmén, P., & Jouper, J. (2011). Acute effects of Qigong exercise on mood and anxiety. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(S), 60-65.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013). How do simple positive activities increase well-being? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 57-62.
Nelson, K. S., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16(6), 850-861.
Yanmei, W. (2009). Cultivating positive emotions and well-being: Recording happy events and expressing gratitude. Psychological Science, 32(3), 598-600.