Happiness is accessible to us all. But in these uncertain times, it is easy to forget how to find joy in our lives. As Vanessa King, of Action for Happiness and author of 10 Keys to Happier Living, explains: “As a species, we don’t like uncertainty – having a sense of control in our lives is a core psychological need.”
However, she adds: “Being happy isn’t about bouncing around on cloud nine all of the time. It’s about looking out for things that give us a sense of meaning, purpose and connection, and finding little moments of happiness every day.”
Play the long game
We are surrounded by images on social media of people living incredibly glamorous lives and it is natural to want that for ourselves. We might get an instant buzz from buying a pair of shoes, but the high is short-lived. It’s what’s called the hedonic treadmill and relates to our tendency to pursue one pleasure after another. Instead, ask yourself what you can do to bolster your resilience and feel happier day-to-day. A lot of research shows us that small things such as a daily walk, done regularly, will do just that.
Build strong connections
The number-one thing that makes us happy is human connection. Having people you trust to share the good and bad times makes us happier, healthier and live longer. Close relationships provide love, meaning and support, and increase our feelings of self-worth, while broader networks (colleagues, neighbours, teams) give us a sense of belonging. Prioritise shared activities, talking to loved ones, giving/receiving support and nurturing connections.
Help other people
Helping others is not only good for them, it makes us feel happier and healthier too. Helping activates the reward centre in our brain and I like to think of it as social glue: if you help somebody, they are more likely to help somebody else and that creates stronger, kinder communities and a happier society for everyone. It’s the perfect ripple effect.
Take a phone break
Our mobile phones are designed to be addictive. Ask yourself whether you are controlling your phone or your phone is controlling you. Also think about how you are using it. If you’re on social media to connect with people who matter to you, or to read about people doing amazing things, that’s great. But mindlessly doom-scrolling isn’t so good. How can you better spend your time? Learning exposes us to new ideas and helps us to stay curious and engaged. Put your phone down to join a club, learn to sing or take up a new sport.
Moving our bodies regularly is important to our overall wellbeing, especially at this dreary time of year. Our body and our mind are connected and moving our bodies is very good for our brains. This doesn’t mean you need to do a 10k run or spend hours in the gym. If you sit for six or seven hours at a desk, you will feel more depressed and lethargic. So stand up, stretch, go for a walk or do some yoga and feel your mood improve.
Every cell in our body has a biological clock set by daylight. Getting a dose of daylight every day is particularly important if you struggle to sleep, because your body regulates itself during daylight hours. It gets dark early in January, but even on a dull, grey day, your body will get the light and vitamin D it craves to function smoothly. Make it fun and engaging. Listen to an audiobook or podcast or meet up with a friend.
Set a sleep schedule
Our bodies do necessary maintenance work while we sleep, such as consolidating memories and banking learning. We are much more likely to feel down when we are sleep-deprived. Set a bedtime alarm an hour before you want to go to bed. Wind down by turning off the TV and devices, and light candles or run a bath. Invest in an alarm clock and leave your phone in the kitchen. Try going to bed an hour earlier two nights a week.
Be nicer to yourself
A big mistake we all make is to treat our thoughts as facts. I often ask people: if a friend messes up, how would you talk to them? Now, how would you talk to yourself in the same situation? People are much tougher on themselves, and this negative dialogue runs through the brain all day. This triggers the threat system in our more primitive emotional brain to say we are in danger. Turn your inner critic into a coach who will guide you in a compassionate, constructive way.
It’s OK to feel sad
Dr Chris Johnstone, an author and trainer for resilience, talks about “active coping”. This involves first acknowledging how you feel. Whether you are angry or sad, paying attention to that feeling reduces its power over you. This comes from what’s called “acceptance and commitment therapy”, which is about noticing emotions, not trying to suppress them. Acknowledge the feeling, then do something that will make you feel better.
The evidence around mindfulness is really strong. You can start practising mindfulness today via an app and in doing so you will be learning to take more control over where you are placing your attention – it could be your walk to work, the way you eat or your relationships. Mindfulness is openly experiencing what is already there. It helps us to tune in to our feelings and stops us from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. It is an ancient tool that is very good for our current times.