Hi friends! For #mentalhealthmondays this week, I wanted to shift focus away from travel for a minute and talk about living a happy and mentally healthy life. This is something I’ve been learning about and focusing on recently, and I think it is incredibly important!
I’m reading a book called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, where the author discusses his time spent studying the mental health of students at Harvard. I’ve been finding the suggestions laid out in the book really helpful in conjunction with other methods I’ve learned from therapy. That’s not to say I don’t have my usual cranky or blue days, but I’m working on finding effective ways to manage those feelings. Here are four strategies that I’ve been learning to implement in my life.
1) Write a list of affirmations
This is a strategy my therapist recommended in one of my sessions with her. (Translation: This information could cost you $90, but I’m giving it to you for free! 😉 )
I sat down and made a list of positive things about myself that I can read when I am struggling with low self esteem. Something I learned from The Happiness Advantage was to focus on things that are actually true. It’s not helpful to affirm myself by saying something ultimately meaningless like “You’re great at everything!” Because obviously that isn’t true. But there are specific things I’m good at, and I can affirm myself in those areas to remind myself that I have skills that positively impact the people around me. When writing my list, I tried to focus on things like how I’m a good listener and a good friend; how I make my family laugh; how I feel proud of my academic accomplishments. If you need help thinking of or articulating things to write down, talk to someone close to you! I can guarantee that they can express some ways you bring joy to their life.
A key to this strategy is doing it every day, something I haven’t been very good about doing (yet!). I try to set aside a second in the evening before bed or in the morning while I’m getting ready for the day to read my list—out loud, so it really sticks in my head. I also use “I” statements (e.g. “I am a valued friend”) because saying it like it’s a fact (because it is!) will really help you start to believe it.
In my list of affirmations, I also wrote down a couple of things I know I’m not good at, but that I do need to be reminded of. These include “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me except God” and “I don’t have to compare myself to anyone else.” I encourage you to do this too: find areas you want to change your mindset and frame them as positive affirmations. One of the biggest ways I’ve seen the affirmation strategy help is this: when I catch myself comparing myself to another person, for example, the reminder that “I don’t have to compare myself with anyone else” pops into my head. It gives me the strength to push the comparison away because I know that’s not the kind of thing I want to dwell on. Repeating affirmations to yourself means they’ll be there as reminders when you need them.
2) “I’m fortunate because…”
This strategy is discussed in The Happiness Advantage. To summarize, Achor lays out a pretty unfortunate scenario: a bank is robbed while you are there, and you are shot in the arm during the robbery. Personally, when I read that scenario, I was like, how awful. I would be really negative if something like that actually happened to me.
But Achor goes on to say that happy people look at every situation as glass-half-full. When something bad happens, they can still say, “I’m fortunate because [fill in the blank].” I’m fortunate because I was only shot in the arm, instead of being killed.
I was struck by this strategy because it’s not what I normally do. I usually feel sorry for myself when something bad happens. But Achor writes that our brains can be trained to think differently, so that’s something that I’ve started working on.
Happy people can reframe a less-than-perfect situation; they also recognize that bad situations are only temporary.
The tough part for me hasn’t been saying something like, “I’m fortunate that xx didn’t work out because it wasn’t the right job/relationship/opportunity, and there’s a better fit out there for me.” It’s been getting myself to actually believe it. But I know that, while it takes time, the process of growing that belief will be worthwhile.
3) Three good things per day
I’ve actually been seeing this one affect my happiness levels over the past week.
It’s simple: set an alarm on your phone, either for the nighttime before you go to bed or the next morning. At your chosen time each day, write down, and be as specific as possible, three good things that happened that day. You can do this with a friend or your family if you want accountability.
Mine have included things like a movie night with my parents, having the perfect evening weather to sit outside or go for a walk, and seeing my sister light up at a gift I bought her. Usually, I wouldn’t think about these good things very much. Right before the movie night, I was feeling grumpy and sad, and that’s the part of the day that would typically stick in my memory. But writing down a couple details about what made the fleeting positive moments in a day good is actually healthy for your brain. Achor states that just doing this for a week or two can boost your happiness for months after; that’s how powerful a strategy it is.
It’s cool to realize that, even on bad days, there are still good things sprinkled throughout. Starting this habit means you will be looking for good things during the day; you will be more mindful in the moments that make you happy.
4) Examining automatic thoughts
This one is for when you find yourself trapped in a pit of negative feelings. I’ve been there, and it feels impossible to climb out again. But as my therapist would say, feelings come from thoughts. It’s your job to recognize those thoughts and turn them around. Just as negative thoughts can put you in the pit, positive thoughts can help you get out.
I remember one day at work when I was feeling really awful. I was going through my phone and noticed some notes I had taken at a therapy session, and one of them was “Write down automatic thoughts.”
I had to think hard to figure out why I was in the pit that day. I realized that a lot of it came down to social media. I had been looking at a few peoples’ pages and feeling worse and worse. Why?
I wrote down what looking at those pages made me feel like. She has more friends than I do. She has better luck in relationships. People love being around her and not me. I’m not good enough.
Honestly, I feel kind of silly just looking at the list I had made. That’s the importance of stating the thoughts that are behind your feelings—once they are articulated, you are in control of them, instead of letting them control you. I could see that many of them were not founded in reality.
Beside each of the thoughts I had written down, I wrote something positive. Instagram isn’t real life! Just because someone posts a lot of pictures with their friends on doesn’t take away from the fact that I have plenty of amazing friends too. She might be more outgoing than me, or get along better with certain types of people, but just because our personalities are different doesn’t mean mine is bad.
Instead of letting myself wallow in sad feelings, I fought the subconscious thoughts that had put me there in the first place. And it helped a lot. There will always be pesky thoughts, but the better you get at recognizing them, the easier they will be handle.
What are your strategies for cultivating happiness in your day-to-day life? If you try any of mine, let me know how it goes!
For more posts on mental health, click the ellipsis at the top right of the page and select Follow blog via email. Thanks for reading!