You can program a positive state of mind with our proven exercises
When we have a legal issue, we call in a lawyer. When the pipes burst, we ring up a plumber. When tax time rolls around, we schedule an appointment with our accountant. So why, when it comes to one of the most instrumental aspects of our personal and professional lives—being happy—are we so remiss about deferring to the experts? To help you make up for lost time, we consulted a squad of qualified sources, from lifestyle coaches to licensed psychologists, who were only too happy to share their insights and ideas about how to put—and keep—a smile on your face and a spring in your step. After all, shouldn’t happiness be a top priority on your daily to-do list?
Gregg Steinberg, author of the best-selling self-help book Full Throttle says, “Happiness in everyday life is all about mastering our emotions. You can be miserable even when you are successful, and you can be happy even if you are not successful. Your emotional mastery is key to your happiness.”
Steinberg, who is a tenured professor of human performance and teaches a course called “Mental Health and Happiness” at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., coaches people to develop an emotional toughness that will help them achieve their best possible state and to create effective emotional habits so that you will return to your best state under pressure. One of his favorite tips involves dealing with colleagues who drain you and create unhappiness. “To change this [dynamic], I tell people to make up a story about the colleague so that they see that person in a more empathetic and compassionate way. For instance, for a colleague who is very annoying and is constantly needing your attention, you can make up a story about how that person never got any attention at home from their mom and dad as a child, so they seek out attention elsewhere to make up for this deficiency. With that story in mind, you will see the colleague as less annoying and you will be happier and less drained.”
Retrain Your Brain
At 19, Joseph McClendon was broke and living in a cardboard box. Depressed and ashamed, he felt he had nothing to live for. While riding his motorcycle one day, he contemplated swerving into oncoming traffic and ending it all. But then, in the blink of an eye, the semi-truck in front of him blew a tire, and everything changed. McClendon remembers the incident in his new book, Get Happy NOW! “Seconds before, I wanted to die. But now I had no choice, and I watched in horror as a 100-pound chunk of flying, jettisoned rubber propelled backward toward my head. A part of me welcomed the irony and an end to my pain, so I braced for the impact. But instinctively my physical reflexes kicked in and I ducked. The chunk missed my head, but it hit me in the shoulder hard and knocked me off my bike, sending me cartwheeling like a rag doll…. Life has a way of shaking you up.”
From that moment, McClendon realized he wanted to live. That awareness initiated the transformation of a once-homeless man into one of the top performance coaches in the country, with a client list that includes Fortune 500 executives. In this latest book, he explores happiness—“a fundamental element of life that so many humans are missing.”
Here is one of many exercises in the book—this particular one “designed for clarity and focus.” Get out a pen and give these three areas some thought:
1. Take a moment to think realistically about where you are and what you want to change. Think about the things that stress you and detract from your success. If it’s paying bills late and accruing hundreds of dollars of late fees as a result, be open and honest with yourself about why you avoid looking at bills…. If you have problems in business or in a relationship, write them down. The point of this exercise is to honestly understand where you are, in order to navigate out of it.
2. I’m successful in many areas, but the things I’d like to work on to be happier overall are: _____________.
3. I could be much more understanding, patient or focused on certain things. I could increase my character traits (patience, love, giving, joy, discipline) and become better at: ______________________ .
Now, with these insights in mind, you can move forward to solutions, and one small step at a time, implement habits that result in a happier you.
Another exercise McClendon recommends, substantially shortened here, helps you replace negative thoughts with positive ones the instant those rotten thoughts crop up. So if you’re at work and you find yourself thinking, I suck at numbers. I can’t do this, immediately replace that put-down with one of McClendon’s favorite positive phrases: I freakin’ rock!
Gratitude = A Better Attitude
Melanie Greenberg, a licensed clinical and health psychologist who has a Psychology Today blog called “The Mindful Self-Express,” believes that writing a gratitude diary is one of the “ingredients of a healthy, balanced life.” Yeah, you’ve heard it before; that’s because it works. Here’s her advice for a new approach:
1. Find a notebook that either has an attractive cover or that you can decorate yourself with a picture that inspires you.
2. At the end of each day, take 15 minutes to write a gratitude entry.
3. Begin by reflecting on all of the people and things that helped you or brought you pleasure that day. It might be the sight of a beautiful flower, the sunshine, the taste of good food, a joke or call from a friend, a hug from your spouse or child, a creative project, exercise, or an organizational tool. You might be grateful to yourself for getting an important project done.
4. Close your eyes and focus on the feelings of gratitude that these things bring you. Really breathe and absorb the feeling of being helped and supported.
5. Now write a diary entry that expresses your gratitude for these things. You may choose to make a list of items or pick just one or two to focus on. Write a sentence or paragraph, draw a picture, make a collage, paste a photograph, or write or print out a poem, song or prayer.
6. At the end of each week, read over your diary entries and add any other thoughts or insights that may come up. Think about how being grateful has helped your health, well-being or relationships that week and record that.
7. At the end of the month, review the whole journal, noting any changes in happiness that you observe.
Start ’Em Out Young
Of all of the life lessons we teach our kids, one of them should surely be how to be happy, and Educational Insights has made it all that much easier with the brand-new The 7 Habits of Happy Kids. The game, which promotes “playtime that lasts a lifetime,” was inspired by The New York Times best-selling book of the same name, written by Sean Covey. “The 7 Habits of Happy Kids Game teaches kids about the underlying principles of true happiness, such as personal responsibility, integrity, the importance of relationships, life balance and service to others,” Covey says. “No matter how old or young, rich or poor, these principles always apply, and no one can ever be truly happy without following them.” As players progress around the 7 Habits game board, they draw cards that prompt them to perform activities based on these all-important traits, such as teamwork or listening (after everyone lists a favorite ice cream flavor, the cardholder has to repeat them back, matching each person to the correct flavor).
Dirty Socks and Seat Belts
Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one day on a cross-town bus when she found herself asking, “What do I want from life, anyway?” The result is both a top-selling memoir and a popular blog titled The Happiness Project, where she writes about the tools and techniques necessary to achieve the ideal state of bliss. For one thing, she has started compiling a list of the “bare minimum” things we should do on a daily basis in order to be happy and healthy.
“The list doesn’t include major challenges, like ‘Quit smoking,’ ” Rubin says, although she admits this is obviously an important goal.
Instead, she chose “concrete, very essential things” to do as part of her everyday routine. As you read them, think about what you would add to this list of self-caring activities.
- Wear your seat belt.
- Take prescription medications properly.
- Go for a 10-minute walk (preferably outside).
- Put your keys and wallet away in the same place.
- Take something with you. For instance, drop your dirty socks in the hamper on your way from your bedroom to the kitchen.
- Charge your phone.
- Connect with someone close to you.
- Go to bed in time to get a good night’s sleep.
What’s Good Posture Got to Do With It?
Who knew simply sitting up straight could make you happier? At least that’s what Michael Mercer, a psychologist from Barrington, Ill., says. Mercer is the co-author of Spontaneous Optimism: Proven Strategies for Health, Prosperity & Happiness, and maintaining good posture is just one of the five techniques he has come up with for instantly raising your happiness quotient.
1. Stand up straight and take big steps. Walking with your shoulders back, your head held high, and taking long, brisk steps exudes confidence and positivity, whereas if you’re slouched over and dragging your feet, you come off as and feel like a gloomy Gus.
2. Speak in a cheerful voice. A surefire way to lift your mood is to use a cheery voice. In other words, if you sound happy, you are happy.
3. Use upbeat words. Upsetting words are the trademark of pessimists. For example, a pessimist would say, “I have a problem,” while an optimist would turn it around and say, “I have an opportunity to do better next time.”
4. Have an upbeat attitude. The chief method for becoming an eternal optimist is to concentrate on solutions, not problems. That way you avoid all the complaining and blaming and focus instead on how to remedy the situation. When you find yourself worrying, focus on this phrase: For every problem, there is a solution.
5. Be a good role model. There’s an old saying that goes, “What goes around, comes around.” So keep in mind that when you help someone else, you’re also helping yourself.
In his books The Art of Serenity and The Spirit of Happiness, T. Byram Karasu takes readers on a spiritual journey to self-fulfillment. So it comes as no surprise that Karasu’s recipe for happiness involves a sprinkling of peaceful reflection: “In your mind, always go to joyful places,” advises Karasu, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
“Everyone, even the most unfortunate of us, will have something joyful in our past. You should write those episodes down in detail, in chronological order. Then find a moment of solitude and visualize those memories and try to re-experience the emotions associated with them. Do it again the following few days until they are fully registered and remembered instantly when needed. Thereafter, take a few meditative minutes each day to evoke one of those emotionally joyful memories. Usually, the first one will bring the person to a good mood; if not, then the second, the third, etc., must be evoked until happiness does set in.”
Look for the Silver Lining
When Aurora Winter’s husband was only 33, he died suddenly, leaving her a widow with a 4-year-old son to raise. Heartbroken and scared, she wrestled with the nagging feeling that his loss was the worst thing that had ever happened to her. But when she allowed herself to wonder if there was possibly any good to come from it, she began to feel empowered. The former film and TV producer’s journey toward a renewed sense of faith, hope and joy is the basis of her book From Heartbreak to Happiness: An Intimate Diary of Healing. Winter has since become a speaker, life coach and founder of the Grief Coach Academy, an organization that works to reduce the time it takes for people to get over similar heartbreak. What she has discovered along the way is that the majority of our pain isn’t actually caused by a situation but rather by our thinking about the situation. “Only 10 percent of our happiness is due to life circumstances,” believes Winter. “About half of our happiness is habitual or genetic, and 40 percent can shift in a moment, by thinking about the situation differently.”
To help others dealing with a death, divorce or other painful life event, Winter offers these three steps to faster healing:
1. Express your feelings. If you can’t feel it, you can’t heal it. Putting off dealing with your feelings is like putting off dealing with your taxes. They don’t go away, and the consequences just get worse and worse. So have a good cry, hit a punching bag or stand outside and give a good yell.
2. Accept the situation and then see how you can best navigate it. Thinking the river should flow uphill doesn’t change its direction. Resistance creates stress. Acceptance empowers you to make wise choices.
3. Get support. Again, if you had a broken arm, you would go to the doctor and get it set immediately. Yet often people with broken hearts hesitate to invest in their well-being. Don’t make this mistake. Create a support team of friends and family, or talk with a coach or therapist.
There’s an App for That
If after all this advice, you feel like you still need some help maintaining your high spirits, consider downloading the app “Healthy Habits,” which promotes the idea that by creating better habits, we create happier lives. “Habits are those little things we do without thinking, the default behaviors or thoughts that help us speed through our day,” says Jo Masterson, a vice president at 2Morrow Mobile, the makers of the iPhone- and Android-friendly app. “That is great if our habits are good ones; however, some of our habits make life harder and less happy—think procrastinating, overspending or gossiping.” The app provides a daily reminder of the healthy but sometimes dreaded habits we should follow. “Start each day by doing the one thing you need to do but dread doing,” Masterson explains, comparing it to “eating that frog.” “Just get it done and out of the way. You will feel both powerful and lighter in spirit.”