Vanessa King: Five tips for a happier you
Vanessa King is the in-house Positive Psychology expert at Action for Happiness, a movement for positive social change. Vanessa is one of only 250 people worldwide to have completed a masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studying with the founder of the field, Martin Seligman. She specialises in translating psychological research into practical actions that help people enhance their happiness, well-being and resilience. We caught up with Vanessa to get her top five tips to help us beat the January blues.
1. Move more
As human beings we’ve evolved to move, yet in the last fifty years or so our lives have become increasingly static. We drive or take public transport; for many of us our work lives are desk or laptop based and we don’t even need to leave the comfort of our sofas to change channel on our TVs.
John Ratey, one of the fore most experts on exercise and health says that sitting could become the biggest disease of the 21st century. We know that physical activity is good for our bodies but how many of us appreciate there’s a significant benefit for our minds too? A growing body of scientific research is showing that moving is also important for our brains. Regular physical activity improves our ability to think more effectively, learn and importantly can increase our happiness. In fact it can be as effective as medication for some types of depression.
2. Get out of your comfort zone and try something new
Want to be more creative? Well get out of your comfort zone and try something new. For example you could learn a new skill, follow some new blogs, cook new types of food and recipes, walk a different way to work or when not commit to learning a new skill. Where our brains are concerned it’s use it or loose it. Just like our other muscles, our brains get and stay stronger for longer when we try to learn new things.
This can fuel our creativity. Ideas happen when our brains make connections between seemingly unconnected things. And what's great is that our sub-conscious does much of the work. A good example of this is Steve Jobs who attributed his idea for the game-changing feature of Apple computers to having attended a random typography class after he had dropped out of college. Years later this was key to his realisation that a focus on graphics could make his computers distinct from what had gone before and the Apple Mac we know today was born.
As well as exercising our brains and filling our fuel tanks for ideas, learning new things can increase our sense of mastery and our self-confidence. It can also be a great way to meet other people too.
3. Press your pause button
Our lives today are busy, busy, busy. There is always a lot to do: work, home, friends and family. This means we are often rushing from one thing to the next and this can take it’s toll on our ability to think clearly (and creatively), increase our stress levels and make us miss small moments of enjoyment and awareness that can make a big difference to our day. Our minds are often racing too – for example thinking about what we need to get done next.
Scientific research shows that habitually taking time, even if just a few minutes - to pause, breathe and perhaps notice what’s around us in the here and now, can help us feel calmer and more in control. Not only does noticing good things feel good, over time this can literally build our psychological resources, making us more flexible and open to ideas, better at problem solving and more open and trusting of others.
So in between tasks or meetings, why not give yourself a minute or two to just stop and breathe. Perhaps count your breaths in and out for a minute or so. Then look around you. What do you notice? Perhaps the sun shining, birds singing, a favourite colour, someone smiling, or an interesting piece of street art.
4. Help someone
Psychology and neuroscience research shows that when we help others or do kind things, it isn’t only good for them but it also can have a positive impact for us, making us feel happier. It’s a win-win! It can help us feel connected to others (an important ingredient for psychological wellbeing) and takes our minds off our own worries and concerns for a moment.
It’s likely that you do kind things when the opportunity arises but why not have a day per week when you actively do five acts of kindness that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. It doesn’t matter if these are small, for example it could be stopping by an elderly neighbour to say hello, helping a colleague who is struggling, buying a coffee for a stranger or baking something for a friend. In a study where people did this one day per week for six weeks it increased the giver’s happiness.
5. Take action
Ed Diener, one of the world’s leading experts on happiness says that happiness is a journey not a destination and best achieved sideways on. Life has ups and downs and it’s unrealistic to expect to be full of joy and glee all the time. We all face times when life isn’t going well or we just feel a bit stuck or down.
The good news is that recent psychological research is showing that if we can find things we can take action on, even if these seem small and unconnected to how we are feeling, it can help build our sense of self-efficacy that can get us through those grey times. For example, deciding to take a little more care of yourself, such as deciding to eat a really healthy breakfast can set you up for a better day. The tips above may give you some other ideas too.
Check out http://www.actionforhappiness.org for more about Vanessa King and Action For Happiness.