For many of us the notion of happiness is tied to success. If I work harder, I’ll be more successful and once I am successful, I will be happy. That is of course, once we’ve finished our degree, got that job, that promotion, have the dream house, find the partner… With this way of thinking, we never get there – once a goal is reached, the goal posts are moved and happiness is still over there, in the future somewhere.
Few of us take regular time out of our day to reflect upon what we’ve achieved and have to be thankful for. Yet right now is the only point in time that really matters – the past is no more and the future is not yet here. To be happy, we need to focus on these things, right now.
The concept of giving thanks is not a new one but there is certainly an increasing body of scientific evidence demonstrating that doing exactly that can significantly change the way we feel. Shawn Achor spent years studying and lecturing in Positive Psychology at Harvard and then when on to establish his company, Good Think Inc. He is now making public the things that he has learned through 10 years of studing the research - both his own and other people's. One of the key messages is that a few simple daily ‘thought exercises’ can make a big difference to how we feel.
You can shape your thoughts to be more positive
Thinking about the things we are grateful for changes our brain chemistry. We release endorphins and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which in turn help us to feel good. Making a habit of doing this on a daily basis literally alters our view of the world as we start to look for the positive - we feel better about ourselves, the day ahead and those around us. When living in a more positive mindset, our energy and whole way of being shifts, which in turn brings in more positive feedback from others, further reinforcing a sense of wellbeing.
The Happiness Advantage
When operating with a positive mindset, we perform better, Achor calls this The Happiness Advantage, which is also the title of his book. Studies have shown that when feeling good, intelligence, creativity, memory, focus and energy levels all increase. With better performance and a sense of ‘flow’, we feel more satisfaction within our jobs and our lives, further reinforcing the positivity.
Happy mind, happy body
Crucially, in my line of work as a nutritional therapist, changing the way we feel directly impacts our physical biochemistry. Our mental state can have significant influence over our physical wellbeing and therefore, for my clients to get the most out of a nutrition programme, it needs to encompass both body and mind. Positive (or negative) thinking alters hormone levels, gene expression and our immune system. This in turn can influence a whole host of ‘physical’ health issues including weight management, inflammatory conditions (e.g. eczema, arthritis, cardiovascular health) and energy levels.
So what are the exercises?
Make time each day to do the following:
1. List 3 ‘gratitudes’
Write down 3 new things for which you are grateful
Write a short paragraph about one positive thing that has happened in the last 24 hours – in doing so we re-live the positive experience
Do some physical exercise every day – even if just a 30 minute walk
Breathing exercises, mindfulness, guided meditation – whatever works for you - give your brain the space it needs to work well
5. Random acts of kindness
Contact someone in your social circle and thank him or her for something you appreciate about them or do something nice for a complete stranger.
Achor has even created a free iPhone/android app, I Journal, to make this process as easy as possible.
We may not have time to do all 5 exercises every day, which is fine. Number 1, 2 and 5 don’t take much time at all – if you have a smart phone or a notepad, its a very pleasant way to kill some time while on the bus or train. I often suggest breathing exercises to clients as a great way to calm the mind and body before sleep. If you don’t already engage in regular physical exercise, then start by taking the stairs instead of the escalator or lift, jump off the bus a few stops early and walk the last 20 minutes. It doesn’t have to be ‘formal exercise’ to have an impact – anything is better than nothing at all.
Achor suggests we start by setting the goal of doing the above exercises for 7 consecutive days. I've found it such a nice process that I'll have no problem in keeping the habit going.
Happiness, to be enjoyed today!
If these few simple steps have been shown time and again to increase happiness levels then we'd be crazy not to make a little time for them each day!