While I was pondering on what to write this time round, as we topple (or is it tipple…??) towards wintery times and the festive season, an image of a potted plant looking a tad weary came to mind. Maybe that too is how some of us might be feeling just now. So, what to do about it? It’s so easy to get caught up in negative thinking. I do understand why my brain gets stuck there – it’s trying to make sure that I pay attention to the bad stuff that’s around so that I avoid danger and stay safe. That’s worked well for survival of our species so far.
However, we know that anything that we practise we get better at, because it gets wired into our brain through the process of neural plasticity. Through regularly resting our minds on worries, self-criticism, things that make us angry and so on, that habit gets engrained. I was flicking through some brainy websites when I uncovered a bit of research suggesting that negative thinking speeds up brain decline and raises the risk of dementia. That gave me a bit of a kick into beginning to think about ways to help this hard-working brain to focus on happiness habits in order to strengthen it. There is bound to be a benefit for the heart too.
There is more to happiness than the pursuit of pleasure. While I welcome what, so I am told, the Greek philosophers called hedonic wellbeing – the fun and the frolics – we all need more than that to experience true happiness. Aristotle is said to have been one of the first to explore the concept of eudemonic wellbeing. This gives us a sense of purpose and deeper contentment on our journey through life. The trick is in getting the balance right.
So how can we water our happiness seeds so that they grow stronger as we build up that happiness muscle? To make happiness a habit requires the repetition of behaviour so that it becomes automatic. There are lots of suggestions about happiness habits around in print and online. In her easy-to-read Little Book of Happiness, Miriam Akhtar offers a list of twelve evidence-based ones to choose from. The trick is to focus on one at a time rather than being overwhelmed by the long list! I’ll share with you some of her suggestions that ring true for me.
Research shows that adopting an ‘attitude of gratitude’ generates positivity, life satisfaction, hope and enthusiasm. It is also said to lower stress hormone levels and can decrease depression, anxiety and loneliness. Something as simple as saying ‘thank you’ or reflecting on what went well (instead of getting stuck in what went wrong mode) has multiple benefits for us. that certainly rings true for me. Something as simple as letting someone go ahead of me in the supermarket queue, giving way to another driver as the traffic crawls through Colne or passing a stranger a freshly laid egg as I wander back from letting my hen chums out of bed in the morning can give me a nice warm feeling. Acts of kindness are said to be contagious too, so if we do something kind for someone then they are likely to do something kind for someone else. I have certainly noticed that in traffic jams.
Optimism is said to play a big part in the wellbeing process, linked to better quality of life as well as improved psychological and physical health (including, interestingly, a lower cardiac risk) as well as enhancing resilience. Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty person? While there are downsides to optimism (for example, underestimating the risk of rain here in these northern parts and so failing to pack waterproofs), they seem to be outweighed significantly by the benefits. We develop our preference as we move through life and we can learn to become more optimistic by thinking flexibly. Challenging unhelpful or negative thinking is a step in the right direction.
Appreciation and savouring the positive stuff that is around right now is another happiness habit worth practising. To pause for long enough to take in the good – be that a lovely view (of which there are many around here, even in the depths of winter), a tasty bit of festive food (or even booze), the company of family and friends… the list is endless. Using all our senses to really notice and appreciate those positive experiences in life. Relishing, cherishing, basking, luxuriating, delighting, marvelling and finding the wow factor. What a lovely habit to develop.
Practising mindfulness is considered to be another happiness habit. Meditation has been around for thousands of years but it is only recently that there has been scientific research into the practice of mindfulness, a specific type of meditation, as it has gained popularity in the Western world. The research reveals a long list of benefits including improved control of emotions, better self-awareness, reduced depression and anxiety and increased positive emotion. Because of the pace of modern life and the pressures we face every day we can end up, unwittingly, practising mindlessness rather than mindfulness. We are on automatic pilot, doing things habitually and oblivious to what is happening around us.
We can bring ourselves into the present moment by doing some conscious breathing. Wise words from Thich Nhat Hanh, a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist: “Breathing in, I calm my body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment”, and “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor”. So doing a bit of conscious breathing in the stressful moments that may overwhelm us during busy or difficult times in the wintry months could be helpful. We can “be here now” (as Ram Dass wrote back in the early 1970s) and embrace a mindful moment instead of a mindless one, take in the good and nourish our inner being. What a lovely present to give ourselves during the next few months.To finish, here’s a poem by Danna Faulds for you to savour and relish.
It only takes a reminder to breathe, a moment to be still, and just like that, something in me settles, softens, makes space for imperfection.
The harsh voice of judgment drops to a whisper and I remember again that life isn’t a relay race; that we will all cross the finish line; that waking up to life is what we were born for.
As many times as I forget, catch myself charging forward without even knowing where I’m going, that many times I can make the choice to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk slowly into the mystery.
BE ON YOUR OWN SIDE
Melva is running a series of Being on Your Own Side resilience courses, which include some mindfulness practices, at the Colne Open Door Centre. The courses consist of four one-and-a-half hour sessions in small groups of up to six people. They are free and open to everyone.
Contact the Colne Open Door Centre (01282 860342 or email@example.com) if you want more information.