Keeping up a positive state of mind can seem challenging – but research suggests that chasing happiness, rather than success or money, may be the key to good health.
Studies have linked happy emotions to healthier hearts, stronger immune systems and longer lives.
One 2005 study even found happiness can mitigate chronic aches and pains.
So, short of quitting our jobs and moving to a remote tropical island, how can we foster more of the feel-good factor on a daily basis?
Some 16 years of practice, and poring over research, means therapist Richard Nicholls has grown to gain a good understanding of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to boosting our sense of happiness.
Using his podcast, Motivate Yourself, he was able share these ideas to see how they work in the real world, examining feedback from his thousands of listeners.
Now, he has turned his most successful ‘happiness exercises’ into a book, 15 Minutes To Happiness.
By making the effort to monitor the workings of your mind, Nicholls believes you can improve your wellbeing in just a few minutes’ each day.
Here, he shares three of his favourite happiness-boosting exercises to integrate into your daily routine…
1. Write your feelings in a journal
Keeping a personal journal is a great way to gain a better perspective on things. Research has even shown it to have similar benefits to counselling, but it needs to be done properly.
Writing a journal shouldn’t be about wallowing in self-pity; it should be a tool to help you to see alternative ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.
Think of it as a way of looking back over what you’ve written, so you can see the changes in your attitude over time.
Doing this will create a wonderful domino effect that will make you even more optimistic for the future. So grab a notepad and a pencil and get writing – it doesn’t need to be perfect. If you’re going to write about something that happened that day which made you unhappy, also write about the thoughts you had that allowed the unhappy feeling.
If you’re writing your journal by hand, remember to date your entry. This way you can see exactly where you were in life at the time and can also help you to see where the gaps are.
Pick some specific days to write and stick to them – two or three days per week is fine. Just find a topic you want to write about and have a brain dump for 15 minutes.
If you’re not sure, ask yourself a few questions: How do you feel right now? What’s on your mind? Actually write the words, ‘Today I feel…’, or, ‘I want…’, and see what comes next.
Remember to write quickly – then your inner critic can’t get in the way of the process. Go back and re-read previous entries from time to time, notice how time and experience can change how you think and feel about what you wrote about. It will help you see how you’ve developed and move you in a positive direction.
2. Use ‘thought stopping’ to quell negative thoughts
‘Thought stopping’ is a technique that originally used something such as an elastic band on your wrist to interrupt your thoughts.
If you were obsessing over something, you’d pull back the elastic band, let it go and it would give you a little shock and help you move on with your day.
When we actively try to suppress a thought, we find we will have a substantial increase of those thoughts. It’s like telling someone to not think about a pink elephant – all they’ll think about is pink elephants.
But if you tell someone to deliberately think about a blue goose, then it’s quite unlikely they’ll think about a pink elephant.
In the case of emotional and mental health, trying not to think about things that would upset you actually encourages your brain to focus on it even more, so you need to take more control over where your thoughts go.
This is how ‘thought stopping’ should work. Instead of trying not to think about something, you should instead deliberately think about something else.
As soon as you notice you’re obsessing over a thought, you need to shout, as loud as you can in your head – ‘Stop’ – as many times as you like (if it’s just the once, let it ring out in your mind for three or four seconds at least).
Picture something that represents the word stop: a traﬃc light, a road sign, a penguin holding up a placard.
Once you’ve moved your focus away from the obsessive thought, you’ll have more control over where it goes next.
3. Check for double standards
This exercise will help you recognise if there are any expectations you have for yourself that have been set too high.
Grab a pen and some paper and sit down for 15 minutes. Have a think about the standards you set yourself in one particular area of your life, whether that’s in your relationship, at work, as a friend or as a parent.
Pick one area to work on and write a list of your expectations. Maybe you want to be the employee that always leaves their desk empty at the end of the day, or the dad who never loses his temper?
List as many behaviours or traits that you expect of yourself as you can.
Go through the list again, only this time see those standards as someone else’s – someone that you are close to and have great respect for.
Pick a close friend or family member and cross off any expectations that you think it would be unfair for you to have of them.
Now ask yourself what effect crossing off those expectations would have if you applied them to yourself. Does everything work out OK despite it?
Make a new list of all the expectations you crossed off from the different areas of your life.
Pick one that you crossed off and think about how you’d act differently if you no longer had this expectation, and deliberately integrate it into your day.
Maybe you create an expectation that you’ll send an email without rewriting it twice first, or deliberately leave the vacuuming for 24 hours after you first feel the need to do it.
When you feel ready, the following day, the following week or maybe further ahead if you need to, look through your list again and pick another one to integrate into your life.
15 Minutes To Happiness by Richard Nicholls is published by Blink Publishing, priced £8.99. Available now.