‘Science shows that when we’re happier, we actually function much better in all areas of our lives,’ says Vanessa King, author of new book, cialis dailies canada List Happy: 75 lists for Happiness , Gratitude and Wellbeing.
A leading expert on the science of happiness, head of psychology and a board member of Action For Happiness (a UK-based charity that helps people enhance their wellbeing and build a happier world), Vanessa is passionate about translating the latest science of positive psychology into the practical ways we can feel better every day.
‘Happiness isn’t just the outcome of things going well in life, it actually contributes to it,’ she says.
‘When you feel happier, you are more open to ideas, more flexible in your thinking, more open to other people, you perform better at work and perform better at school, and studies have shown we even take better care of our health when we are happier.
Here Metro.co.uk talks to Vanessa about the how of happiness.
What is happiness?
We most readily associate it with pleasure, that feel good hit in the moment, that little jolt of joy. But research shows that pleasure is just one small piece of the happiness menu.
What else is on the happiness menu?
In terms of a menu, there are a huge array of scientifically proven ways to creating a happier life: giving and doing kind things for others, relating and nurturing our connections with others, exercising and taking care of our body – which includes physical activity, getting enough sleep, eating good food, getting outside in daylight, not sitting too long. It’s also about cultivating greater awareness.
Yes, living life mindfully. This means being aware in the present moment rather getting stuck in your head, dwelling on the past or catastrophising about the future.
Living mindfully may involve practising meditation, but it’s not just about spending ten minutes a day with your eyes closed.
Living mindfully is being present when you go out for a walk, when you drink a cup of tea, eat your food.
Another big piece of living a happier life is to keep on learning new things and having new experiences, because that keeps our mind active and engaged and alert.
Learning new things and getting deeper into our hobbies and passions can be sources of fun and fulfilment, and connections with others.
But what do we do when we find ourselves worrying or feeling down?
There are scientifically proven habits and practices for the mind that give us a sense of hope. They can be tiny things like something to look forward to at the end of tough day as well as focussing on longer term goals.
Happiness is also about developing resilience.
Everybody’s life has ups and downs. So, the key of resilience is all about having of toolkit to help us bounce back.
How do we build resilience?
Start by being aware how you undermine your own happiness by creating a lot of stress and anxiety and worry by catastrophizing or ruminating or falling into thinking traps.
And how do we become aware of those and get ourselves out of them before they take us into a downward spiral?
There’s a lot of new research around the psychology of pleasant or positive emotions, and how we cultivate those.
These positive emotions will help build resilience because the research has shown that when we’re in a pleasant emotional state, we are more open to ideas, more open to others and are better at creative problem solving. And little by little, this sort of thinking builds our resources and helps buffer us against tough times.
Pleasure is just one small piece of the happiness menu.
Sometimes it’s not outside factors, it’s our own inner critic that makes us feel unhappy. We can be our own worst enemy.
Acceptance is a big piece of happiness – being comfortable with who we are.
We need to become our own compassionate coach towards ourselves rather than a harsh critic. Being aware of our strengths and thinking about how we can play to those strengths rather than just dwelling on our weaknesses is important.
It helps to pan out too so you’re not just focussed on yourself – how can you create meaning by contributing and being part of something bigger than ourselves?
If you’re feeling down, where the best place to start?
At Action for Happiness, we have a free smartphone happy called the 10 Days of Happiness, which encourages you to take action every day and train yourself for a happier life. I am also a great fan of making lists.
What’s a good list to write to improve our happiness?
Make a list of 100 things that you’re grateful in your life today. Gratitude helps you cultivate the sense of noticing the good that’s already there and squeezing more of a psychological benefit from it.
Our brain is evolved to focus on what’s wrong, because that kept us safe kept us out of danger. Your brain is constantly scanning the environment for danger and it can overlook the things that are good.
Writing my list of 100 things I’m grateful for is what started me off on becoming interested in the science of happiness. I was an accountant and my career wasn’t making me happy. I started to practice gratitude and my focus begin to shift and I started to become interested in why that was happening.
Gratitude is a very powerful practice, and it changed my life.
What other happy techniques can transform our lives?
Cultivating joy. Joy is a really lovely, playful, freeing sort of emotion that has many benefits. As well as being uplifting, joy can be really important to cultivate if you’re going through difficult times.
A very good friend of mine is an artist, but she has extremely challenging care responsibilities – caring for both an ailing father and husband. She says: ‘the more gloomy the day, the more actively she seeks joy.’ She’ll often send me pictures of her windowsill garden with one beautiful purple hyacinth or a dog doing something funny. She is actively seeking moments of joy and whimsy and shares her pictures on social media and she’s actually built up this really lovely, joyful community of people. And this is somebody who is in a really difficult situation, not of her choosing.
What else can help?
I encourage people to go on an awe walk. Awe is a pleasant emotion that many of us don’t think about. Researchers have found that cultivating a sense of awe takes us out of ourselves and helps us put our problems in perspective.
For example, when you look at the night sky, your worries might seem smaller, you might feel more connected, because everybody on your side of the planet can look at the same sky. And, of course, light from those stars is millions of years old. That’s pretty amazing.
The research showed that going out and looking for things which inspire awe not only reduce the amount of stress people experienced, but it actually made them more likely to help others.
You can feel sad, but you can also enjoy going for a walk and looking up into the sky and enjoying the sun on your face.
What’s your opinion about ‘toxic positivity’, which insists you’re positive no matter what?
When people encounter positive psychology research, they can think it’s about suppressing the negative and ‘counting your blessings’.
But whatever you are feeling – emotions are carrying useful information. Unpleasant emotions, like fear, anger can be positive emotions. Because without anger, we don’t address injustice. Likewise if we’ve lost someone, it’s normal to feel sad.
Positive psychology is about feeling all our emotions but then asking – what can we do to make today or tomorrow slightly better? It’s called active coping, and we know that when people have strategies for active coping, they are more resilient and able to cope better with difficult times.
So, it’s not all or nothing. It’s not about thinking only positively. You can feel sad, but you can also enjoy going for a walk and looking up into the sky and enjoying the sun on your face. You can manage both of those.
How to feel joyful
- List ten moments you’ve experienced joy, whether recently or in the past. This might be a time you were able to dance freely and unselfconsciously, when your sports team won an important match, playing with a young child, making music or special time with friends.
- Pick one of the examples from your list and visualise yourself back in that moment. Take 10 minutes to relieve that time in your mind: what was your location and connect with what you could see, hear and smell? Let your mind wander freely through the details. Repeat this once or twice a day for the next week.
- List the 10 people in your life with whom you share the most joyful moments. When and how do you keep in touch with them? When will you see them next?
- List ten ways you could spread a little joy – perhaps sending a thoughtful card, or inspiring picture or quote, making someone a treat, or just ringing them for a chat to share something uplifting
- Create a joy playlist – 10 songs, piece of music or soundscapes that you find joyful
List Happy: 75 lists for Happiness , Gratitude and Wellbeing. (DK, £12.99)is out now.
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