INFORMAL wellbeing! (Circumvent your brain's resistance to change)
Did you smile at the cute pup? Who wouldn't. ...and there, you've just make a step to an optimistic outlook.
Positive psychology (the study of what makes people more likely to thrive, even though adversity) has been a growing field since the 1980s, and Seligman (amongst others who look at the elements of a positive mindset eg: Purpose, Gratitude, Support) has found that a positive mindset can be connected to:
- Greater life satisfaction
- A higher “cheerfulness” rating
- Lower reports of depression
- Better health eg: lower blood pressure, lower risk of cardiac events and even longer life
- A greater sense of wellbeing
And, even better, even if we are naturally pessimistic, we can “retrain” our brain to behave more positively by taking advantage of its neuroplasticity. (ie. If repeated negative exposure can cause the brain to behave in one way, repeated positive exposure can help it behave in another).
Take our response to lockdown for example:
Even if we have been feeling down, and a focus on this has caused the brain to function in a certain way, changing our behaviour – through having more hugs (or of course exercise, getting out in the sun, practicing gratitude, mediation and so on…ie. other pursuits known to stimulate “happy hormones” or “happy neurotransmitters”) – can result in more positive pathways being build, or the negative ones being dampened. Gratitude, and savouring the “little wins” is one way of improving our mental and emotional health overall.
Shift our focus
BUT, another reason is that this also begins to shift our focus from what society makes us think defines success and happiness (often wealth/the show of wealth along with titles or achievements) to what is fundamentally meaningful.
Virtues such as kindness, generosity, temperance, perseverance, are essential not just to finding our own contentment but enhancing that of those around us. These must not be undervalued.
When you think about what someone might reflect on when they look at what you brought to their lives, they are likely to speak of your virtues, your traits, how you made them feel – and barely mention your external achievements.
Similarly, when you think about what you love about your friends – how likely are you to mention “their amazing life!”? Again, it will be simple pleasures – friendship, sense of humour, feeling comfortable, thoughtful (not their house and car).
Gratitude, and the little moments reminds us of this.
How does this impact the way we see the world?
Cultivating a positive mindset can help us buffer the stressors that naturally come with life. However, having a more optimistic outlook can better help us manage, than if we “succumb” to negativity.
But change is hard – so how long does it take to adopt these new habits?
Change is hard - especially when it is a change in habits of a lifetime (which can include negative thinking) that, even if they haven't served us well, we resist. Further, Our brains evolved to keep us safe, our bodies to perform the vital tasks efficiently...as such we do recognise fear more easily than happiness, and, physically we tend to do things that keep us comfortable. The irony of the latter is that after a while it can become too uncomfortable to make any change at all - even when you recognise staying the same is no longer what you want.
So one way to work to beat that rut now is to look at change as having three zones, the first is the "comfort zone" (the place where we spend the most time), the next is the "stretch zone" and the third is the "panic zone". Understandably neither our brain nor our body wishes to get into the panic zone, BUT stretching - well, stretching can actually feel quite nice. Therefore, we can do something - anything at all - that pushes you a little into the stretch zone every day. Perhaps one day you might lift a slightly heavier weight, you might walk a little further, you might take the first steps to learning a new skill. When you get used to the stretch, you'll find that becomes comfortable, and suddenly your old "panic zone" has moved to become the new "stretch zone".
...and then trick the "stretch zone" by making INFORMAL changes!
While journaling is something I love and find helpful – I realise it takes both discipline and a level of formal preparation (you need a journal/journal app at the very least, and then you have to use it). So informal alternatives may be:
- Positive affirmations while doing your teeth.
(eg: I rise to any challenge today may bring; even if I cannot control anything else I can control my breathing; my time and energy are valuable and I spend them wisely; who I am is more valuable that what I own…etc)
- A Gratitude stretch – before you get up stretch and think about
o People you are grateful for in your life
o Things you are grateful for in your life
o One thing you are proud of about yourself
(Then what you will notice is, especially with thoughts 1 and 2, if you do this enough, there will be patterns – people who always come up, things that always come up. Then ACTIVELY choose to spend more time engaging with those people or things, because doing so will energise you for the more exhausting moments, AND give you a truthful reason to say “Sorry I’m already doing…”)
- Engage in some self compassion! NOT SELF ESTEEM – that is often comparison based.
a. Often we feel “guilt” because we are looking to others to validate our sense of self worth. The more we can build our sense of value, the more we are likely to say yes when we mean it, and do a good job. (eg: take screen shots of when people thank you or compliment you to remind yourself you did well)
b. Engage in little things that make you feel good – eg. a hobby (eg. reading…and remember it doesn’t mean you have to read a whole book, rather maybe a chapter or an article)
c. Remind yourself of your own value – keep a post it collage of positive words and descriptions of your strengths
- Do one thing to make someone else smile
While engaging in things that WE enjoy definitely raises our positivity, research shows that even just seeing the act of kindness towards others makes us feel even better. It doesn’t have to be expensive – just dropping a text, or sharing something funny – even stroking your pet can make them feel good – and you’ll feel great too!
- Reflect on this morning positively
Even before you got to reading this something positive will have happened. Perhaps you noticed the sun shining, or someone you love said something funny or nice, maybe your hot drink was just right, perhaps your bed was comfortably cosy, your shower invigorating, or maybe you just felt good – identify one thing that has already made you smile.
- Pick a word, any word…
Pick any of the following words, and focus on being it today!!
Kind, Warm, Helpful, Self-disciplined, Focused, Flexible, Balanced, Pleasant, Tolerant, Open, Honest, Genuine, Trusting, Forgiving, Content, Patient, Optimistic, Hopeful, Ethical, Fair, Loyal, Appreciative, Generous, Happy, Healthy, Lighthearted.
(and for extra credit, try one that is more “unusual” for you!)
- “Thank you steps”
On a short walk, say “thank you” after every step…your body is getting you there so it’s great to thank it, but I also love this because when I tried it on my dog walk it “tapped into” the sense of fun I had as a child kicking up leaves.
- Speak kindly to yourself
When you plant a seed, you don’t say things like “I’ll give you 10 minutes and you’d better grow”, so although you might want something, treat that desire like a seed – plant it, do all the things to nurture it, and be patient. (…and don’t forget, sometimes, you might grow more than you thought!!) A challenge I give my students is for every -ve statement they have about themselves or someone else – they need to give 2 positives (and if they struggle, one solution is to not offer the negative!)
- Set a positive intent for today such as: Today will be a great day!
This immediately makes you feel energised, and if you need a little help knowing you’ll be ok – think of 3 good/nice things that happened yesterday!
- If you catch yourself enjoying a moment – take another one to savour it
We so often rush through our day, yet - how much will that extra moment take, compared with how much it will give? Stop, breathe, and remember that affirmation from earlier – even if I can’t control anything else right now, I can control my breathing in this moment!!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt