We’d all love to increase the amount of happiness in our lives wouldn’t we? Happiness is that elusive goal we all seek, but sometimes struggle to find. Evolution didn’t necessarily shape us to be happy (just to keep us alive), so to a certain extent, being happy means developing new habits and ways of thinking that prime the brain for receiving happiness.
Many of these habits and mindsets are well-known; like employing gratitude, or allowing difficult emotions to pass through us. The difficult part comes in making these regular features of our lives. It’s easy to forget to be grateful everyday or to do an act of kindness every week. Unless we make these regular features of our everyday lives however, they won’t shift our basic outlook or help make us happier.
One technique we can use to help embed these mindset shifts and behaviours is to write about them in our journal. This works in two ways.
This list of prompts is not exhaustive and you don’t have to do all of them. They’re just prompts that have worked for me in the past. If you’re new to journalling, it might be a good idea to take a few and see how you get on with them. Switching questions in and out until you get the perfect mix for you. Pay attention to what happens when you’re journalling and during the day as well and your intuition will guide you as to which prompts work best.
I try to keep my daily prompts minimal as I don’t want to make keeping my journal a chore. It takes literally a minute to jot down the answers below, but makes the world of difference to how I feel.
Expressing gratitude is one of the simplest things we can do to lift our mood. The brain’s inherent negativity bias can make us overly focused on what is wrong with our world, but when we express gratitude, we start to let in the good. By dwelling on the good things, we become more content and happier. We start to feel safer and less anxious. This isn’t about false positivity but about redressing the balance of information in our brain. There is always good as well as bad in our lives. Seeing this balance is key to lifting our mood.
Labeling our emotions is one of the easiest ways to loosen their destructive power. Lieberman and Cresswell demonstrated in their research that labeling difficult emotions, calms the brain (specifically the amygdala which is the threat response area of the brain). If you ever feel like you can’t shake off a feeling of uneasiness or stress, try taking a moment to label what is there. Sometimes these aren’t feelings that we want to admit to (e.g. I feel shame), but labeling it and being with it can be the mechanism for allowing us to let go of it. On the other hand, recognising our happiness or joy or contentment can highlight how much time we spend in a positive state of mind. This is another way to offset the negativity bias.
Even as adults we need time and space to have fun and play to support our mental health. It’s good to be aware of when this isn’t happening so we can make more time for it during the week. You can find great ideas for having more fun as an adult on the blog ‘Daring to live fully’.
How much time do you take to celebrate your successes? Probably not very much if you’re like most of us. We can increase our confidence when we reflect on our positive qualities and capabilities. These don’t have to be big wins like a job promotion either. It could be learning a new skill, doing something for the first time or taking a mindful pause before responding in a difficult situation. Any small steps that contribute to your growth and happiness as a human being.
Similarly, we can improve our resilience to difficult situations when we use them as learning tools rather than sticks to beat ourselves with. All human beings fail and face difficulties and understanding that our failure makes us just like other humans allows us to face it with more dignity and thoughtfulness.
Being kind to others triggers reward centres in the brain that make us feel good, so trying to include at least one altruistic, compassionate act in our week can help to lift our mood. This has the added advantage of making others feel good as well!
Loneliness is a very real epidemic in Britain today with 1 in 4 people saying that they feel lonely. Feeling lonely has very real affects on health and mortality and obviously happiness. Workplace automation, the break-up of communities and digital communication have all made their mark and this will be a difficult tide to turn. Letting in and reflecting on our feelings of being loved can help us to feel less lonely and also help us to reflect on how we can allow more love into our lives. Perhaps your spouse took the dog for a walk before an early train so you didn’t have to or a friend sent you an article they thought you might like that made you feel seen and known. Remembering and holding these small acts of kindness increase our sense of feeling loved.
Making time to take care of ourselves is important to make sure we can keep giving our energy to our families, friends and work. Again, this question helps us to reflect on how well we’re taking care of our-selves and what we can do to improve the situation. If you want to, you can even track your self-care on a daily basis if that helps you to create healthy habits.
Often the self-critic looms large in our mind, focusing on all the things that we’ve done wrong or haven’t handled well. We can turn the tables and start to retrain our brain to offer a more compassionate voice by using this prompt. Our most compassionate supporter would see the good in us and our intentions. They would frame the week’s events in a less critical way that helps us to reflect on positive steps we can take to remedy things or improve next time. They would also celebrate our successes and help us feel good about the things that went well.
This is a great question for uncovering the limiting or self-critical thoughts that have been silently passing through your mind and affecting your decisions. Thoughts like “I’m not good enough” or “It’s not my fault that they didn’t like the report”. When we start to become aware of these thoughts we can hold them up to the light and question them. Are they true? Are they helpful? Is there another possibility?
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