Positive Psychology shows us how to increase happiness by focusing on the positives and training our brains to use our strengths.
Are you feeling discouraged about your health, your job, or the political climate in our country?
Are you worried about a loved one who is struggling?
Do you feel stuck in a toxic or unfulfilling relationship?
Are you lonely or wondering if you’ll ever find the one?
You’re certainly not alone in feeling down and discouraged. Problems – our own and those in the world around us — have a way of casting a dark cloud over our entire lives. You may find yourself plagued with negative thoughts, self-criticism, and expecting the worst.
Most people would like to be happier, or at least more content and relaxed. Positive psychology strives to help us understand how to increase happiness, more optimistic, and resilient. So, whether you have clinical depression or you’re down about a recent setback, positive psychology can be applied to your everyday life to improve your mood and wellbeing.
What is positive psychology?
Positive psychology is a newer branch of psychology that studies happiness and how our lives can be more fulfilling. Positive psychology helps us recognize and use our strengths and notice more of our positive emotions and experiences. Many positive psychology strategies have the added benefit of being quite simple and accessible.
These tips or strategies aren’t intended to solve all your problems or cure depression. I hope they’re simply a reminder of the little things we can do for ourselves to create more positive energy and emotional well being.
Ways to use positive psychology to increase happiness
1) Gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most popular positive psychology approaches– and for good reasons. According to Happify, people who practice gratitude regularly “experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.”
You’re probably familiar with keeping a gratitude journal or a daily practice of recording several things we’re thankful for. But there are plenty of other ways to experience the positive effects of gratitude. Here are just a few other ideas:
- Snap pictures of things you’re grateful for and take a few minutes daily to look through your virtual photo gratitude journal
- Volunteer or giving back to your community
- Write a thank you note
- Spend time in nature and appreciating its wonder and beauty
- Share the best part of your day with family or friends during your evening meal
- Call a friend and let them know you’re thinking of them
- Write something positive about your family and post it on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror
- Bring coffee and bagels for your coworkers or employees
- When you look in the mirror, instead of focusing on your flaws, say thank you to your body for all it does (“Thank you legs for carrying me all around town.”)
2) Humor. There’s a reason that videos of laughing babies and goats in pajamas are so popular — they make us feel better by quickly shifting our focus onto something fun, hopeful, and uplifting.
We all know from experience that laughter is good medicine! And research confirms that laughter reduces physical pain, improves mood, counteracts stress, and increases resiliency. So, there’s no need to feel guilty — watching those goats in pajamas is probably time well spent!
3) Smile more. It turns out that you don’t even need to have a good belly laugh to experience these mental and physical health benefits. The simple act of smiling can shift your mood from negative to positive.
Ron Gutman reviews the research on the connection between smiling and wellbeing in his seven-minute TED Talk. Smiling not only increases happiness and emotional wellbeing but also reduces stress, makes you more likable and appear more competent, and is associated with longer-lasting and more fulfilling marriages. To harness some of the amazing powers of smiling, all you have to do is smile more.
Since smiling is contagious, try to spend more time around others who smile often. You also might intentionally watch something funny or do something silly like play a game of charades or jump on a trampoline (just don’t get hurt – that’s not going to make you smile!).
4) Visualize success. Another way to stay motivated and think positively is to visualize yourself acting in new ways. This creates a mental picture of success which strengthens your confidence and reinforces positive or optimistic thinking. To do this, find a quiet place to sit, relax your body, and close your eyes. Paint a mental picture of yourself successfully completing your big work assignment or giving your presentation with confidence. Really tune in to all the details from your voice and posture to your self-talk.
Visualization exercises help to relax the body and mind. They create a sense of calm and wellbeing that can translate into greater confidence and focus and less stress and tension.
If you struggle with visualizing success, or just want to try something different, you can visualize a desired state of mind, such as relaxation, contentment, or peace of mind. Imagine yourself in a comfortable, pleasant place – someplace that you associate with your desired mood. Create a visual image of yourself in this place by imagining every detail and using all your senses. If you’re walking through a tranquil forest, notice the cool breeze on your back, the birds chirping, the smell of the wildflowers, and how the sun reflects off the gentle stream. Notice how your muscles relax, you breathe deeply, and you feel a deep sense of peace and contentment.
A guided visualization like this is a mini-vacation for your mind!
5) Self-compassion. Most of us are incredibly hard on ourselves. We’re judgmental and critical, finding fault with every little imperfection. By fixating on and amplifying our mistakes and flaws, we train ourselves to focus on the negatives. Not only does this damage our self-esteem and self-confidence, but it also dampens our mood and interferes with our ability to enjoy positive experiences and events in our lives. Self-compassion is the natural antidote for self-criticism. When we treat ourselves with kindness and grace, we are acknowledging our imperfections and struggles and loving ourselves anyway.
Here are a few ways to practice self-compassion:
- Loving touch. For example, try giving yourself a hug or neck massage.
- Compassionate self-talk. Here’s an example: Snapping at my husband doesn’t make me a terrible person. I had a rough day at work and took my frustration out on Ted. Apologizing and a long, hot shower will probably help me feel better.
- Notice what you need and giving it to yourself. For example, I’m hungry, so I make time for a proper meal or I’m tired, so I resist the urge to finish up some work and go to bed early.
People who practice self-compassion are less likely to suffer from depression, insomnia, and physical aches and pains. And self-compassion is associated with greater psychological well-being, motivation, and greater relationship satisfaction. To learn more about self-compassion, read this article: 5 Simple Ways to Practice Self-Compassion.
6) Anticipate, savor, remember. There are three simple ways to increase the enjoyment of pleasurable experiences.
- Anticipate. Think about the excitement of a young child on Christmas morning. It’s almost palpable! Part of what makes Christmas so fun for kids is the anticipation – all of the traditions and talk about the holiday (writing a letter to Santa, reading Christmas-themed books, decorating the tree, and so on) that add to the enjoyment. You can boost your happiness in the same way. When you know in advance of an upcoming enjoyable event, say a vacation or birthday party, try to spend time anticipating the joy it will bring. This might include looking at travel websites or shopping for a gift. The key is to think of these activities as part of the enjoyment rather than as chores. To increase the joy of anticipation, look at your calendar, both what’s coming up this week and what’s further in the future, and actively choose to focus on the fun and excitement.
- Savor. The second part of amplifying your happiness is to savor the good times. Life is so rushed that it’s easy to let things pass without fully engaging in them. The idea behind savoring an experience is to be fully present. So, when you’re at your son’s piano recital, avoid distractions like texting or thinking about your to-do list. Try to put everything else aside and just enjoy this moment in time.
- Remember. And the final way to increase your pleasure is to look back and reflect on the good times. Most of us do this by looking at photos and retelling stories. You also might do it by making a scrapbook, keeping a journal, or even looking through your old calendars. Remembering in these ways helps sharpen our memories and allows us to re-experience some of the joy we felt when the event first occurred.
How will you use positive psychology to increase happiness?
As you can see, these positive psychology tips are things you can easily incorporate into your everyday life. Choose one or two of the tips that appeal to you and set an intention to practice them. With practice, positive psychology can help you increase happiness with these free and easy hacks.
©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com
Ditch Your Rigid, Perfectionist & Self-Critical Thinking
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