by Sheryl A. Isaacs, MS
Child Therapist and Family Therapist
Many of us have heard it said to "Count your blessings." I grew up hearing my mother tell me this quite often. This has actually been shown to be true. To have an overall sense of well being and satisfaction with life we need to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness. What things are going well in our life? One way to help cultivate this attitude of thankfulness is to keep a "Blessings Journal." Jot down all the things that you are thankful for. You can then review it at times you believe that things are not going so well.
Some other phrases that many of us have heard is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," "pay it forward" and "random acts of kindness." Kindness has been shown to be instrumental in the level of happiness that we feel and has been shown to help depression as a "positive activity intervention." Why is this true? When we focus on others we "get out of ourselves." We quit focusing on the negative emotions that may be occurring and are able to increase our positive emotions. There are many opportunities to help those around us. As a family you could draw names and then be secret agents for the week delivering random acts of kindness in a stealth manner to the family member whose name you draw. The actions do not have to be large. What would make their life a little easier for that particular moment? Possibly doing the dishes or helping with groceries, the ideas are endless.
It has also been shown that it is important to have a purpose in life. Where do you find meaning in life? What things are important to you in life? Having a purpose in life has been shown to decrease substance abuse and depressive episodes. Journaling about your daily activities can help you to assess which activities and people increase your feelings of well being. This will help you to get closer to what activities and people you find meaningful in your life. What activities do you engage in that put you "in the zone?" What are the activities that you can get lost in? It can be a creative outlet like dancing, writing or art. Perhaps it is an activity like teaching, working with children or helping others. Maybe you feel in the zone when you are in prayer or during meditation. Pay attention to those things and think about what your purpose is for this life.
How many of you have seen the SNL skit with Stuart Smalley? He looks in a mirror and says "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. Dog gone it, people like me." Many people laugh at this skit and it is funny. The truth is that positive affirmations can indeed increase your overall level of satisfaction. Affirmations work best when they are personalized to you. We all have faulty cognitions that we have picked up through life. Some common negative cognitions are related to not being "good enough" like "I'm stupid," "I'm worthless," and "I'm hopeless." One way to help combat these thoughts is to utilize a recipe card and write the evidence against the thought on one side and write your affirmation on the other side. Let's say that you are working on "I'm stupid." You could list the time that you got a good grade on a report, got into college, were able to solve a problem or were told by others that you were smart. Your affirmation might look like "I am a smart person and capable of learning."
Mindfulness has been proven to increase overall life satisfaction. So many of us are hurried through life rushing from one appointment to the next. How can you be mindful when you are so busy? It is difficult and does take practice. The first thing that you can do is practice on focusing on your breathing. Just take a few moments and really focus on your breathing, in and out. If your thoughts wander bring yourself back to focusing on your breathing. When you are engaging in activities become aware of all your senses. Engage your senses in the activity. At times when you feel yourself spacing out, notice how your body feels and engage your senses. What do your hear, smell, taste, feel, see? Take time to enjoy nature. Get out and hike, go to the beach or take a walk. Feel your feet on the path you are walking and engage your senses. It takes practice...sometimes a lot of practice. Studies have also shown that mindfulness can decrease negative affect, lower stress, lower emotional reactivity and reduce anxiety. Those are great reasons to learn to be mindful!
Self acceptance is another component to well being in life. We usually are very hard on ourselves and at times can be our own worst enemy. When mistakes are made we can berate ourselves like no other. It is important to learn to be kind to ourselves. One strategy is to step back from the mistake or event and think about what would we tell a friend? Would we be giving the same negative barrage of words and adjectives? Most likely not. Think about specific situations that you have been hard on yourself and write down what you would tell a friend about those situations. We all make mistakes. Look at mistakes as real life learning experiences. We all have set backs in life but if we keep moving forward we will eventually get to where we are going!
Six Tips to Increase Happiness:
1. Count your blessings
2. Be kind to others
3. Find your purpose in life
4. Use positive affirmations and self-talk
5. Be mindful
6. Accept yourself