Rumination describes a tendency to compulsively focus on the symptoms and causes of your unhappiness and distress. It is the need to constantly ponder on the things that are causing you distress without taking any positive action to identify and make changes. It is that point at which you are wallowing in unhappiness with the mistaken belief that by focusing on your distress and your past failures you will find a way out to resolution and happiness.
There is strong evidence that happier people are more creative, healthy, productive, wealthy and successful, they live longer and they develop a greater number of significant, lasting relationships. Plus, research shows that this is a two-way relationship; it isn’t only our success that creates happiness, our happiness creates success. Here are our ten top tips for creating a sustainable boost to your levels of happiness:
1. Appreciate the sad times
Sad times are important. If we didn’t experience sadness then we wouldn’t appreciate the things that make us happy. It is often through the sad things in life that we find the greatest life meaning and wisdom.
2. Focus on your strengths
We all have our own personal strengths. Strengths are traits such as curiosity, wisdom, honesty, kindness, courage, perseverance, forgiveness and enthusiasm. Understanding and using our strengths in all elements of our lives help us to feel more energised, effective and happy. It is not enough just to recognise our strengths we need to be putting them into practice, and finding new ways of using them.
3. Learn to be grateful
People who practice being grateful become significantly happier than people who don’t. Try it for yourself. Over the next 8 weeks, once a week, spend 10 – 15 minutes writing down 3 – 5 things that you are grateful or thankful for. By spending just a few minutes a week counting your blessings and focusing on the big and small things that you are grateful about you can sustainably increase your levels of happiness.
4. Adopt the ‘As If’ Principle
Research has shown that by acting as if you are experiencing an emotion, you are more likely to experience it. By adopting a powerful pose (think of an athlete expressing triumph) you are more likely to behave in a powerful, confident way, (you don’t need to do this in front of people, you can hold the pose for 2 minutes in private and still feel the benefits). By smiling, even if you don’t feel like it, you will feel happier. Sitting up straight will help you both appear and feel more confident.
If you want to feel enthusiasm, confidence, bravery, or happiness act as if you are experiencing them and the feelings will follow.
5. Be kind to others
Committing acts of kindness and helping others can boost your levels of happiness. Try it for yourself. Over the next few weeks, for one day a week, complete 5 acts of random kindness. Examples include, donating food to a food bank, cooking a meal for someone, smiling at others, or buying/picking flowers for someone. Vary your acts, so you are not completing the same ones every week.
6. Practice meditation
Meditation has been shown to decrease feelings of anxiety and depression and to boost levels of wellbeing. There are lots of books, CDs, and YouTube videos that can tell you more about meditation. WorkGuru has three Mindfulness meditations that you can download.
7. Share with others
There is a lot of evidence that having the support from people close to you, whether they are a supportive partner or family, or close friends, has a positive impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. Keeping your friends in your thoughts as you face a challenge has been shown to help you meet the challenge more easily, and sharing news of a positive event with others will give you an extra boost of happiness beyond that of the positive event itself.
8. Improve your physical health
Our mental and physical health are deeply entwined. Happiness is good for our physical health, and our physical health is important for our mental health. What small steps could you be taking to begin to improve your physical health?
9. Pursue goals that are important to you
Having a life goal that is positive (focusing on what you want to achieve not what you want to stop or prevent), important, meaningful, and focused on personal growth, is linked to long-term levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Spend sometime thinking about life goals that are important to you.
10. Live by your values
We all have core values. Values are the things that give our life meaning, a map by which we navigate the world. Our core values are the values that we just would not want to compromise on. Sometimes in life we lose sight of our core values. Spend some time thinking about the values that are really important to you.
Our brains have developed through a process of evolution. In their current form our brains have been around for about 100,000 years; a mere drop in the evolutionary bucket. It is important to remember evolution as we consider our behaviours today. Why have certain behaviours evolved? How might those behaviours promote survival or reproduction?
The way we live today is very different to that of our evolutionary ancestors when there were no cities, no agriculture and no technology. We would have lived as foragers. There are still some (an extremely small number) of forager societies living in the world today.
Anthropologists who have studied these societies observe the immediacy of people’s lives, the extreme focus on the present. If your hunt has been successfully you return to camp to eat, if not you search for an alternative food source. People live by the motto “If it is not here and now what does it matter where (or when) it is?”
In foraging societies there is little if any gap between the efforts you make and the feedback you receive about your efforts. In our society there is often a long delay between the efforts we make and the payoff. By the time we do get feedback it may be too late for us to change what we are doing. Take for example farming. Farmers need to plough the fields, plant the seeds, water the fields, monitor for weeds and pests, harvest and store the crop. By the time it is done it will be months before the farmer knows if they have been successful. It is much harder to resort to a plan B if it has all gone wrong.
Some researchers suggest that it is the move 10,000 years ago from a foraging society that focused on immediacy to an agricultural society where there is more uncertainty and a greater delay before outcomes are known, that has led to us experiencing anxiety. We evolved to live in a foraging society where our actions had immediate consequences but modern life means that we are living very differently.
What does this mean for us now? Well, I am not suggesting that we move back to living in foraging societies, but there is a lot that we can learn from that way of life. We live a life now that is very focused on the future – we hurtle towards that future at great speed without taking the time to enjoy the here and now.
Being aware that our brains did not evolve for the way that we live today can give us new understanding and compassion for our feelings of anxiety.
Being happy is good for you! There is strong evidence that happy people are more creative, healthy, productive, wealthy and successful, they live longer and they develop a greater number of significant, lasting relationships. There is even research that shows that this is a 2-way relationship; it isn’t only our success that creates happiness, our happiness creates success (so happy people are more likely to be successful rather then just successful people are more likely to be happy).
The pursuit of happiness however isn’t straightforward – the more we strive towards it the more difficult it can be to obtain. Just the perception of a wide gap between where we are now and where we want to be in terms of our happiness levels is enough to create unhappiness and discontentment.
We cannot achieve happiness by trying to avoid negative experiences or thoughts. The more we try to avoid something the more significant it becomes (try telling yourself to stop thinking about chocolate – the more you try the more you think about it!).
Negative experiences are important. How can we appreciate the things that make us happy if we don’t experience the things that make us sad? It is through the bad things that happen to us that we often find the greatest life meaning and wisdom. Without sadness we would not appreciate our happiness.
Psychologists suggest that the optimal ratio of positive to negative experiences is 3 positive events for every negative event. A negative event has a greater impact on us so we need to counteract it with 3 positive events.
The extent to which we experience happiness isn’t predetermined.
It is estimated that 50% of our capacity to experience happiness is genetic (dependent on our genes), 10% is environmental (our life circumstances) and 40% is within our control. It is that 40% that we can directly influence.
We all have our own ‘happiness spectrum’, a scale that is normal for us. Some of us might be more naturally happy than other people. Events such as marriage, a promotion, winning the lottery might provide a boost to our levels of happiness but they will eventually return back to the ‘normal for us’ state (psychologists call this hedonic adaption).
Research has shown that there are things that we can be doing every day to influence that 40% of happiness that is in our control, things that can help us to sustainably boast our happiness levels to the top of our ‘normal for us’ spectrum and reduce the risk of hedonic adaption; simple cognitive and behavioural exercises that can reliably improve our levels of happiness.
It is fairly easy to temporarily boost happiness levels (doing things that we enjoy such as feeling the sun on our face, eating chocolate, having sex), these things are important, but what we are focusing on is achieving a sustainable, long-term boost to our happiness levels.
Examples of happiness-increasing activities include meditation, thinking optimistically, expressing gratitude, and acting kindly towards others.
Incorporating these elements into your everyday life can help you to sustainably boost your happiness. Try it for yourself. Over the next 8 weeks, once a week, spend 10 – 15 minutes writing down 3 – 5 things that you are grateful or thankful for. By just spending a few minutes a week counting your blessings and focusing on the big and small things that you are grateful about you can sustainably increase your levels of happiness.
If you were to ask me what one thing is essential to building mental resilience I would say self-awareness. There are lots of components to resilience – positive emotions, cognitive flexibility, life-meaning, social support, active coping styles (all of which I am sure we will look at in more detail in future blogs) – but underpinning it all is self-awareness. Knowing yourself, your energy patterns, the way you think, the things that drain you, the things that energise you, the things that sustain you, what your values are. Being your greatest supporter and your greatest friend.
I am a work psychologist and executive coach and I have been working in the work and wellbeing field for over 15 years. But it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition that put me at a high risk of heart attack and stroke and led to me experiencing bouts of fatigue that I really began to understand the concepts of stress and resilience. If I wanted to move into a healthy old age then becoming more resilient was an imperative not an option; and I think that is true for everyone. Being resilient isn’t about ‘doing less work’ it is about maintaining a life style that you love alongside keeping yourself mentally well. The same as for our physical resilience, most of us have an awareness of what we eat and drink and our exercise levels because we know the benefits of good physical health. Being physically resilient doesn’t mean doing less it means doing the things that we know will help us to keep well.
One of the things I never knew until I experienced fatigue was that it has both a physical and an emotional component. Fatigue drains both my physical and my mental resources. It leaves me feeling exhausted and emotionally vulnerable. When I am fatigued I find it harder to manage conflict and complexity. I have to be very careful about what I focus my mental energy on – because it is finite.
There has been lots of learning for me. I love my job, I love working hard, working long hours and travelling the country. I didn’t want my health problems to stop me from doing something I loved. And it hasn’t – it just means that I have had to develop my self-awareness to help me take better care of myself. So here are some of the things that I have learnt:
Plan your week as a whole
This has been a big one for me. There are some things that I find more draining then others: physically long days outside of the office, networking, intense meetings, hospital visits. I don’t know what my energy levels are going to look like in a few weeks or months ahead. So I try and plan my diary so that each week I have at least 2 mornings working from home. I know that not everybody has this option – but this is about what works for me.
I like to work long hours – I run my own business so long hours are part of the job description – this isn’t about not working those hours it is about having a variety of activity during the week – because if I don’t pace myself my fatigue can take a hold.
Use your weekends
There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t do some work (see the bit about running my own business) and for me that is fine. But one of the things that I have had to learn is that I can’t work a full working day 7 days a week. I need to spend my weekends with family and friends, taking the time to do the household chores and re-charging my batteries for the week ahead. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me, in order to increase my effectiveness I have to spend some time away from work. Time-out increases my energy, helps keep my thinking creative and agile, and gives me the time to do the pesky chores, which once out of the way will help me to keep focused during the week.
Align your head and your heart
Ok, this may sound like a bit of a poncy one, but I am a firm believer that if your work and your life reflect your core values then it is going to be more joyful and less draining. We all have values – they are the things that give our life meaning, a map that guides us through the world. Some of those values are more important to us than others (at WorkGuru we have 2 exercises to help you identify and priorities your values); these are the ones that we wouldn’t wish to compromise on. Sometimes in life we lose sight of what those values are.
My values are about creativity, honesty, respect, openness being genuine and really believing in what I am doing. When I work in a way that doesn’t reflect these values then I lose my energy and motivation, I become frustrated and risk feeling burnt out.
Listen to your body
It was whilst lecturing to postgraduate University students on workplace stress that I suddenly had the revelation that my head and my body didn’t always agree with each other. My head can tell me “I love all the challenges we are facing at the moment, I am feeling stimulated and energised, it is great to be so busy” but my body is saying, “I’m knackered”. I have a tendency to listen to my head and not notice what my body is trying to say.
Two things that have helped me to listen to my body are Mindfulness and yoga. In Mindfulness meditation you learn the use of the body scan (our module on Mindfulness includes 3 guided meditations one of which is a breath-body meditation that includes a body scan); this involves bringing your awareness to each part of your body and just checking on how it is. Doing this on a regular basis helps you to begin to see connections (maybe noticing how tense your shoulders become after certain meetings, or after long car journeys), and helps you to begin to recognise early warning signs of stress. Yoga works in the same way; through regular stretching and movement you become more attuned to your body, learning to recognise when it is out of kilter.
Physical exercise is important
Finding time for everything that you want to do in life is difficult if not impossible – but don’t neglect exercise. Try to build it into your everyday routine: walking or cycling to work, taking the stairs, walking at lunchtime, taking the dog for a walk – and if you don’t have a dog taking yourself for a walk. Ring-fence time for more vigorous exercise. The gym isn’t for everyone so find something that suits you and put it in your diary. The problem with exercise is that the less you do the more difficult it becomes – but keep going it will get easier and more enjoyable.
When my fatigue is bad getting out of bed in the morning is often a challenge – I don’t have the same surge of energy that propels me into the day – the idea of exercise feels like too much of a hurdle; and it often is. When I am fatigued my energy becomes a very very precious commodity and not one to be squandered lightly. If I were to exercise the way I normally do I would not have the energy to do any work. But I also know that not doing anything lowers my resilience. The answer for me has been short walks, and on days where my work tasks are routine and don’t require too much energy, or at the weekend – a short bike ride.
When my fatigue has lifted I increase my exercise thinking of it as making a deposit in a savings account – building up resilience for when I am going to need it again.
Make changes now
And finally, make changes now. Having a chronic health condition gave me an imperative to change the way I was living. Increasing resilience and managing stress wasn’t a ‘nice thing to do when I have some time’ thing any longer – it was something that I had to take seriously. And for that I am grateful. I now work in a much more effective way, I find time to do the things I love outside of work, I have got back in touch with the things that are important to me, I have learnt to prioritise and, I think I am a much nicer person to be with. Without my health problems I would have still known the theory on mental resilience, but I am not entirely sure I would have put it into practice.