Monday 27 May 2019

International Day of Happiness: Fifteen simple steps to happiness

The power be to happy lies within all of us, writes Ailin Quinlan, who talks to psychologist Michaela Avlund about the skills and habits we can use to promote optimism, gratitude and compassion in our lives

Focus on the good things that happen to you each day
Focus on the good things that happen to you each day

Ailin Quinlan

As so many of us have learned, real happiness does not lie in fortune, success or the latest designer jeans - happiness actually comes from within. But it can be nurtured through the development of a range of special skills and habits, which promote qualities such as optimism, gratitude, hope, empathy and compassion - for oneself as well as for others.

1 Focus on the good

"Our survival instinct encourages us to focus on what goes wrong, in order to protect ourselves from danger," says Avlund.

However, she explains, in order to increase your happiness, you must reverse your instincts and instead, consciously focus on the good things that happen to you throughout your day.

Such positive incidents can be very simple - giving more attention to the beauty of your surroundings during a walk you had, for example, or savouring the pleasure you experience at the sight of a cluster of small birds descending on your bird-table. "This creates positive emotion and activates the feel-good hormones of dopamine and serotonin and makes us feel better. It also strengthens our immune system, which does not perform well when we are suffering from severe stress."

Over time, warns Avlund, prolonged stress can contribute to mental and physical illness.

Read More: Harvard professor's steps to Happiness

2 Nurture positive relationships

Be assertive about showing others how you feel and think, she says, but listen to others and be open to their thoughts and ideas.

"Research shows that to have a lasting positive relationship with someone, you need to establish a 5:1 positive to negative ratio in your interactions," says Avlund.

Positive interactions can involve something as simple as smiling to participating in an act of kindness or simply saying something nice to someone. Consciously adopt the mindset of wishing others well, she advises.

3 Practise forgiveness

Forgiveness is about letting go of something that is stressing your system.

It's not about tolerating hurtful behaviour from others, explains Avlund, but about simply releasing it and thereby refusing to dwell on it. Allow yourself the freedom of moving on from a situation or person who hurt you, she counsels, pointing to the film Unbroken, which focuses on real-life former prisoner of war and torture victim, Louis Zamperini, who years after his ordeal, met with many of his former captors to express his forgiveness.

4 Distance yourself

Take a step back from people with whom, despite your best efforts, you do not get on. If you have tried and failed to heal a toxic relationship, allow yourself to move on, all the while wishing that person well. You need to spend time with people who inspire and encourage you to reach your potential.

5 Bring meaning into your life

You do this by engaging in something that you love doing and which holds a special meaning for you. Spend as much time as possible at this chosen pursuit. It could be a job that you love, or a hobby that you find deeply meaningful and satisfying to you. Some people even change jobs in order to become involved in something they consider more meaningful, Avlund points out. This is the 'Flow Concept'.

Research has shown that when you are very absorbed in doing something for its own sake, you experience intense enjoyment, and cognitive involvement. If you're not in a position to incorporate 'flow' into your career, bring it into your leisure time by putting aside the time to do something you enjoy, like painting, writing, gardening, photography or cooking.

Make sure that you spent at least five minutes a day on this meaningful activity. This period of time will gradually become longer, but start by allowing yourself that short daily window.

Doing something that is meaningful to you creates positive emotions, which boost your sense of wellbeing - it combats the negative influence of having to do something you don't like in your day, and provides you with psychological escape, Avlund advises.

6 Meditate

Be mindful. Take time out of your day to pause and connect with who you are and what you want to be. We all need stillness in which to connect with ourselves, Avlund explains.

We are stimulated throughout the day by a bombardment of information and images from TV, radio and the internet, and this can make it difficult to focus. So begin by spending as little as one minute to breathe and simply be still. You can gradually build on that, reaching a point where you can comfortably take out up to 10 minutes a day to enjoy mindfulness. This can be done through a single session or in a few sessions of several minutes each. Do it anywhere, says Avlund - standing in a queue, walking to work or sitting at home. "It simply involves withdrawing from your surroundings for that period of time.

"It makes you feel more at home in your body and more at one with yourself. You are giving yourself a break from external stimulation and just being at home in your body."

7 Discover the deep strengths of your personality

Positive psychologists, such as Martin Seligman, have outlined six different groups of personality or 'signature strengths', explains Avlund. These include:

* Wisdom and knowledge: being open-minded, seeing the bigger picture, love of learning, creative and original, curious and able to make good judgements

* Courage: having enthusiasm, being honest, being persistent, being brave and full of energy

* Love and humanity: socially intelligent, tuned into other people's feelings, generosity, able to love and be loved

* Justice: standing up for others, a good team worker, able to motivate and organise other people

* Temperance: able to forgive, to have self-discipline, not taking harmful risks, humble and modest

* Transcendence: able to be grateful, recognise beauty, having a sense of purpose, having hope, optimism and a sense of humour.

Find out what your signature strengths are, and build on them in your day-to-day life: "People who are happy will build on what they are good at," explains Avlund. If you want to discover your strengths and learn how to tap into them, visit authentichappiness.org and take the Values In Action (VIA) survey.

"This will help you know your characteristic strengths and explain how to develop them. People who are successful in living a happy life are using their personality strengths in their daily lives.

"This is good for you because you're going with who you are and with what gives you energy and makes you happy, able to function well and get on with others. You are not fighting yourself."

7 Practise thinking positively

Most of us have negative loops going around in our mind, Avlund warns: "Sometimes these negative thought patterns paralyse our initiative and stop us from connecting positively with other people and even ourselves."

We can 'catastrophise' by assuming something is much worse than it really is, she explains.

Become more aware of how you automatically think, and then start to consider different ways of interpreting a particular situation. For example, Avlund says, somebody may not respond to your greeting, but instead of assuming that they deliberately ignored you, be open to the simple possibility that they may not even have heard you.

In other words, pinpoint and challenge your negative thinking patterns and 'convert' your interpretation of an action into something that will help you feel more optimistic and inclusive.

8 Laugh

The psychologist Martin Seligman describes humour as part of authentic happiness. Enjoy laughter and be aware of the lighter side of life. "Humour does not necessarily solve a problem, but it could weaken the momentary hurtful impact of an adversity and also resolve a conflict or an argument that could otherwise have turned very unpleasant," Avlund says, adding that people who rate the highest humour levels experience less irritability and depression in dealing with life stressors.

Humour also seems to help withstand pain and fears surrounding illness, bereavement and death, she says, adding that laughing with, rather than at, someone can be another form of helpful humour.

9 Problem solve

"Mental health problems can result from an overload of unresolved issues," Avlund warns. Train yourself to assess your problems and to brainstorm to find solutions.

"For example," she says, "your relationship with a particular person may be very poor. Think about what you can do to sort it out. Can you have a chat with the person?

"Might it be worth asking someone else to talk to them? Should you bring them a gift or should you simply wait for them to 'come around'?"

Take each potential solution and assess it, she says: "Doing this makes you happier, because unresolved issues can weigh you down. If you try to resolve it and succeed, then the problem is gone and you feel a sense of achievement. But even if you don't succeed in healing that relationship, at least you have tried and you're more ready to move on and leave the problem behind."

10 Set a goal

We all need an aim in life and we're happier when we're working towards something. "Be specific about a goal and how to achieve it - and perhaps who you need get on board with you to achieve that goal," Avlund advises. "Make a deadline. If it works, you get a great sense of achievement.

"If you don't manage to make your goal, think about why it didn't work. Consider what you need to do that makes it work and come up with a better plan."

11 Be self-kind

Practise compassion towards yourself when you think about yourself, especially when you feel that you have failed in something. "Write yourself a letter of encouragement, the kind you would write to a good friend. We often say things to ourselves about ourselves - things that we would never dream of saying to anyone else about their lack of success in achieving something.

"We tend to put ourselves down, and we shouldn't do this because it depletes our energy and makes us less capable of noticing the good opportunities which present themselves. We simply don't see them because we're so deeply entrenched in our own negativity."

12 Re-frame

Turn a negative experience on its head, says Avlund. Learn to view life with more optimism, she suggests.

"This is a skill you need to learn. It's about re-framing. Look at what happened and expand your perspective on it."

If a loved one dies, for example, accept the natural feelings of loss and grief, but also allow yourself to feel privileged that you got the opportunity to know this person, and that you were able to have him or her in your life.

13 Spirituality

Many people find great happiness through cultivating spirituality in their life. Try taking a bird's eye view of your life when you are struggling through tough times, Avlund suggests.

See how hardship can make your spirit stronger. Try viewing your life from the perspective of a loving creator: "A lot of people find it helpful to look at their lives from the viewpoint of a loving creator, and to think in terms of a benevolent higher power which protects and helps them."

Ways to access spirituality also include taking time out in silence, connecting with nature, performing acts of kindness, consciously connecting to something bigger than yourself or developing a cause or passion belonging to a movement bigger than yourself.

14 Re-think your own story

Think about your past, she says.

"Highlight positive experiences, when you felt you were loved. If we are to be free from the past and to be happy, we must look for times in the past that were good. We should remember times when we had a lot of love and care - times that we may have forgotten about."

If you recall someone who helped you in the past, or who made a difference in your life, write a thank-you letter to that person, she suggest. "Doing this can actually increase our sense of happiness and wellbeing because it makes us fully aware that someone thought we were of value and worth caring about."

15 Be good to your body

* Exercise: 30 minutes of exercise a few times a week has been scientifically proven to have a strong positive impact on mood.

* Eat healthily and you'll feel better: research has consistently shown that a diet of healthy meals and lots of fruit, vegetables and good quality meat are good for you.

* Get enough sleep: you can't be happy when you're tired!

* Spend time outdoors: numerous studies have found that being outdoors in nature increases your sense of happiness and vitality. (www.gratitude.ie)

* Michaela Avlund will be at the Mind, Body, Spirit and Yoga Festival in the RDS, Dublin, from March 14-16. Avlund will provide a guide to the positive psychology life skills that can bring lasting happiness and wellbeing within everyone's reach through a talk on 'The Power to Change Your Brain' and a workshop on how to develop positive relationships

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