Just seven simple steps to happiness
Don't wait until you are feeling low to work on feeling better, Shane Martin tells Áilín Quinlan
CAN you make yourself happier? Absolutely, according to psychologist Shane Martin, who's so convinced that the right strategies can help us increase our happiness level that he's created a special programme to teach them.
It's the kind of course, he says, that will often take place "in a community hall up a bendy road" – because Martin's eight-week Moodwatcher programme sets out to teach the simple principles of creating happiness to everyone.
It's not just for people who are feeling low, he says. We all need to understand the science of happiness before our lives are hit by crisis – not when we're struggling to cope with the aftermath.
"Why wait until we are unhappy to explore happiness?" he asks.
"The concern I have is that we keep the best psychology solely for people who don't cope, to help them get stronger.
"But we have to be much more innovative than that in the current climate. I firmly believe that we should bring psychology to the people rather than waiting for people to queue up for it when they have symptoms.
"We are in very, very challenging times. I've never met as many frightened people as I have in the last year or two.
"There's very little hope out there, but I believe we have an innate capacity within ourselves to cope much better than we think at times like this."
This is not a support group; Martin has great respect for support groups he emphasises, but Moodwatchers is different – for one thing, it's about imparting information.
There's no talking or 'sharing' of personal experience, so the course attracts plenty of men, who are traditionally notoriously sharing-averse: "It's a psychology course for everyone so you'd get nurses, doctors and people with an interest in psychology.
"You might get people who are feeling a bit down or people who are depressed, but nobody knows why they're there because there's no sharing," says Martin, whose programme has now been incorporated into the mental health organisation GROW's mental health awareness programme, which began in the Droichead Arts Centre in Drogheda in mid-October.
So okay, then, what's the thinking behind Moodwatchers?
Studies show that up to 50pc of our personality is genetic, so some of us may be primed to be unhappy, particularly if there is depression in our family.
However, what this also means, explains Martin, is that there's another 50pc which is changeable if we know how to do it: "Science has uncovered things which we can do and strategies that we can practise that will leave us more vulnerable to happiness than unhappiness," he explains:
1 RATIONAL THINKING Simply put – avoid making assumptions. When we're stressed, it's hard to think straight: "We all can engage in illogical, unhelpful, self-damning thoughts, particularly when stressed. It's important to teach people not to make assumptions," he says.
It's also a bad idea to make decisions when you're emotionally disturbed or upset.
Martin points to research by American psychologist Martin Seligman and his team.
Children who were taught skills like identifying emotions, problem-solving and rational thinking were only half as likely to have moderate to severe symptoms of depression compared to children who were not taught the skills.
2 EXERCISE Even a brisk 30-minute walk every day lifts mood, energises your body and alleviates stress. Numerous studies have confirmed the mental as well as physical health benefits of regular exercise, which creates a natural chemical 'high' by releasing endorphins, or 'feelgood' chemicals).
Exercise also helps the release or 'burn-off' of excess adrenaline, which contributes to a stressed or edgy feeling, while research shows that exercise can alter serotonin levels.
Serotonin contributes to a range of functions including appetite, libido, sleep and mood.
Research shows that regular exercise can alter serotonin levels, resulting in improved mood, a sense of well-being and reduced levels of depression. Studies show that the effect of exercise is immediate and can last up to 12 hours.
3 COMPASSION Adopting a compassionate approach to your challenges – we often over analyse and blame ourselves for the problems we face, says Martin (inset).
Some self-compassion is crucial. Practising kindness towards others also has beneficial effects too – studies showed that the bereaved recovered more quickly from depressive symptoms if they helped others, while a study showed that alcoholics who help other alcoholics in AA have twice the recovery rate of those who don't.
4 PRACTISING GRATITUDE Studies found that writing down three positive things that happened to you during the day increased happiness and decreased depression for six months.
Grateful individuals also report higher positive mood, optimism, life satisfaction, vitality, religiousness and spirituality, and less depression and envy than less grateful people.
Research has also found that the practice of gratitude (counting blessings) is linked to fewer physical symptoms, more optimistic life appraisals, more time spent exercising, and improved well-being.
5 INCREASING FLOW Being in flow means being totally engaged so that you forget your worries and stresses, explains Martin. "Flow is when you get lost in something you're doing, like gardening or playing the piano – something you really love doing.
"A lot of people I met who had become depressed had stopped doing the thing they loved."
6 SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS "There have been horrendous changes in the fabric of life in Irish society – houses are being built very close to each other but people are very far apart.
"Children who live on the same road are in different school uniforms, and live inside with the TV or computer – they don't even know each others' names," warns Martin, who says it's very important not to detach yourself from your family, friends and community.
Research has shown, he says, that social ties and increased contact with family and friends are associated with a lower risk of illness. What's more, studies show that social connection doesn't just help us survive health problems, but the lack of it causes them.
7 MINDFULNESS Tapping into our spiritual self. It may be religion, it may be an inner belief or a belief that you are being looked after, but research is emphatic about the powerful effects of mindfulness on our health.
Studies have found that meditation can strengthen your immune system and help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and anger.
GROW is a Mental Health Organisation that helps members recover from all forms of mental breakdown, or prevent it happening.
Infoline – 1890 474 474