Writing down the good things that have happened during the day, getting out into nature and setting realistic goals can all help you achieve a more positive outlook. Here are five ways to add that spring to your step
CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian
Have realistic aims
Many of us would like to be happier, but there is no quick fix. “I would argue that becoming upbeat is an action,” says Dr Melanie Rendall, the principal clinical psychologist at the Homerton University Hospital NHS foundation trust. “It is learning to take that small step in a direction that moves us towards what is important to us, and making space on that journey for a mind that will, invariably, throw all sorts of nonsense at us to send us off course.”
Pressure to feel a certain way – what Dr Rendall calls the ‘shoulds, oughts and musts’ of a goal-oriented culture and relentless self-comparison – can lead us further away from what we truly value and what might really make us happy. So, rather than aiming to be happy in the future, take little actions that make you feel better now.
Count your blessings
“Gratitude work is one of the most effective ways to increase happiness,” says Sally Baker, a senior therapist at Working on the Body. “At the end of your day, preferably just before sleep, jot down in a notebook all the things that happened to you during the day that you are grateful for. In challenging times, it can be difficult to recall anything to feel grateful for but, as you commit to this nightly process, more things will come to mind.” Sally says doing this for three weeks will significantly affect the way you view your life.
Challenge negative thoughts
Neil Morbey, of Positively Mindful, says the paradox of being upbeat is accepting that we can’t always be happy – and we don’t need to be. “Dropping the sense of need is a quick way to allow negative emotions to come and go more easily,” he says. “A quick way to do this is to acknowledge feelings and flip thoughts. For example, ‘I’m feeling lonely and that’s OK. I don’t need to not feel lonely.”
We are far more fulfilled by the feeling of helping others than by acquiring the hallmarks of success. As Professor Will MacAskill, a co-founder of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, writes, “Above an income of about £20,000 a year, there is no increase in hedonic happiness.” Instead, acting altruistically, donating some of that income to a cause you care about and forming good relationships with family, friends and members of your community can have a significant effect on your overall level of satisfaction. There are hundreds of ways to volunteer your time, energy and skills to help others, meet people and make connections along the way. Look on volunteeringmatters.org.uk to find activities close to you.
There is much anecdotal and scientific evidence that exercise, daylight and fresh air – being in nature – can have a huge effect on your mood. As the NHS website puts it, “Physical activity is known to be beneficial for health, including mental health. Ideally, individuals should take part in physical activity that they enjoy, which may include outdoor exercise.” That could be running, wild swimming, sports, gardening or walking to work.
And try to stick at it. As Sally says, “It takes 20 minutes of exercise before the happiness endorphins are released in your brain, making you feel exhilarated and happy, so don’t give up at 19 minutes!”