A 7-day guide to the pursuit of happiness
It can take just minutes to break through a foul mood if you know the right tricks. Here are some scientifically tested methods to help you beat the blues.
In the drudgery of the everyday, it can be easy to become lost in boredom and self-pity. Yet some people seem remarkably resilient to life’s blows: exuding the cheeriness of Mary Poppins on even the gloomiest day.
How do they manage it? While some people may be blessed with a sunny temperament, there are some tried and tested ways that should help anyone to improve their mood. Often the techniques take just minutes to practise, yet can have lasting benefits for your general life satisfaction and well-being.
Diarists have long known that putting your feelings into words can help quell our emotions and put them in perspective, but it’s only recently that scientists have realised just how potent this simple action can be: spending 15 minutes a day on your journal can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, strengthen the immune system, and improve your performance at work. The benefits can persist for months. It’s far more effective than letting your frustrations bubble over in other ways; as BBC Future’s Claudia Hammond recently explained, venting your anger aggressively only aggravates a bad mood.
It sounds corny, but it works: people who made a conscious effort to practise five small acts of kindness, for just one day a week, reported greater life-satisfaction at the end of a six-week trial. It’s part of a growing body of research showing that more generous people are happier and healthier, as BBC Future recently explored.
Imagine your life without a close friend or partner. It hurts, doesn’t it? Yet a 2008 paper found that people who performed this kind of “mental subtraction” ended up feeling a mood boost later on. Perhaps it stopped them taking their loved ones for granted; heaps of research has shown that regularly giving thanks and feeling gratitude improves life satisfaction.
Psychologists have started to understand the importance of having a “purpose” in your life – people who see their life as having a meaning tend to be more mentally resilient to short-term knocks. Research suggests that simply looking through old pictures is one way to remind yourself of those things that make your life meaningful – be it your family or friends, charitable work or an important career achievement. Stirring up old memories connects you with your past and helps you to put recent events in a broader perspective, which can also take the sting out of fresh disappointments and anxieties.
If the daily grind is getting you down, it can be easy to get caught up in everyday worries. That’s why scientists are increasingly interested in the positive benefits of feeling awe. Whether it’s a view of the starry sky or attending church, feeling wonder at something much bigger than yourself broadens the mind. Scientists have found that it makes people happier, more altruistic, less impatient and less anxious. Even spending a few minutes writing about an awe-inspiring experience can help.
Things that once gave us pleasure can quickly lose their intensity over time, leading to the so-called “hedonic treadmill”. You can try to rediscover that initial joy by giving up a source of enjoyment – such as your favourite food or drink – for a week. After seven days, you will find that you have reset the “treadmill”, so you feel the full pleasure anew. In the meantime, the practice might have encouraged you to look for other entertainment, which could become a new source of pleasure in itself.
If abstaining for a week sounds a bit too much like hard work, you can at least try to practise mindfulness during your favourite activity. When taking a sip of coffee, for instance, concentrate on the complex symphony of flavours washing over your taste buds. This too has been shown to help you appreciate the small pleasures in life, easing stress and anxiety.
There’s an Italian proverb “La lingua batte dove il dente duole” – “the tongue hits where the tooth hurts” – that perfectly describes our mind’s tendency to dwell on the pains of our past. Unfortunately, psychologists have shown that feelings of guilt, in particular, often backfire. Not only is it a cause of anxiety and unhappiness, but the feelings of hopelessness can make us more likely to give in to temptation in the future. For this reason, deliberately spending a few minutes trying to cultivate good feelings towards yourself can boost your happiness and your willpower.