Friday 23 August 2019

How to be happy: The essential expert tips

In a new five-day series running in the 'Irish Independent', Dr Paul D'Alton shares his tips to help you feel happier. Today, he shows us how to stop living on automatic pilot

Dr Paul D'Alton, director of the Masters (Msc) in Mindfulness-Based Interventions at the School of Psychology UCD,
Dr Paul D'Alton, director of the Masters (Msc) in Mindfulness-Based Interventions at the School of Psychology UCD,

Over the last few weeks I have noticed something about how we end our conversations. We very often finish with the simple words 'mind yourself'. I have been surprised by just how frequently we say it to friends and colleagues. 'Mind yourself' is also what we say to our loved ones when they experience a bereavement or other significant loss.

But, what does 'minding yourself' mean? More importantly, how do we 'mind ourselves'? There is a science behind it, over 100 years of psychological research seeking to understand the human mind, to improve our mental health and to help us live happier lives.

Each day this week in the Irish Independent I will take readers through five of the most important evidenced-based ways to live a happier life. This virtual course in how to mind ourselves starts today and concludes on Friday. Each day we will look at one of these important steps in order help us to live a happier life:

1. Not living our lives on automatic pilot

2. Don't believe everything you think

3. Don't forget your body

4. Stay connected

5. Don't get trapped by happiness

Today is step one: not living our lives on automatic pilot.

Most of us will have gotten up this morning, showered, had some breakfast and managed to get ourselves into work or get the kids to school, but have little memory of doing it. We can sometimes drive for miles and remember very little of it. We can return to the car park and have no memory of where we parked the car. This is called psychological automatic pilot. Our evolution has given us this ability to go on automatic pilot because at times it is very handy.

There are lots of times during the average day when autopilot is not only efficient, but necessary. The problem arises when we get stuck in automatic pilot - when automatic pilot becomes our default position as opposed to one we choose.

The problem with living our lives on automatic pilot means we can sometimes find ourselves feeling sad, stressed, angry and not know why. The other problem with living on automatic pilot is that we can end up never feeling relaxed, never being able to unwind.

Even when we get to the end of the week, or the end of day, finally make it home through the traffic, we still can't relax. We eventually make it to bed and can't sleep - we are tired but wired.

It can seem at times that we have minds that have minds of their own. For some of us these minds of ours can cause havoc. Thankfully over the last 50 years or so we have come to understand the human mind a bit better. We have a better understanding of the downside to living on autopilot and how this connects to the tired but wired experience many of us have.

In the 1960s the psychiatrist Aaron Beck came up with the idea that the way we think, and the things we believe, play a major role in creating how we feel. He identified a thought-feeling connection that explained how emotions and mood come about. His therapy based on this is known as cognitive (thinking) behavioural therapy (CBT).

CBT is based on understanding that the way we think influences how we feel. For example, my boss doesn't say hello to me on the corridor and my automatic thought is 'I've done something wrong, I'm in trouble'. Such a thought will generally result in feelings of worry and perhaps a dip in mood.

An alternative thought when my boss doesn't say hello on the corridor might be 'she's forgotten her glasses again and didn't see me'. This thought will result in a very different feeling. Our thoughts are very powerful and can influence our mood very directly.

How we think affects how we feel. However, there are two problems with this. The first problem is that a lot of the time we are actually on automatic pilot and as a result are unaware of our thinking. The thoughts that we are unaware of are just as powerful in affecting how we feel as the thoughts we are aware of. The second problem is that our thoughts are not always accurate.

So we can have lots of thoughts that we are unaware of and are also inaccurate, but nonetheless affect how we feel.

For example, we have a thought like 'my boss just ignored me on the corridor' but we are not tuned into this thought because we are on automatic pilot. But later in the day we find ourselves feeling sad, agitated, panicky or hopeless and not knowing why.

We have missed the 'thought trigger' that brought a change in mood because we didn't even realise what we were thinking. We have ended up well down the spiral of negative mood and not even noticed how we got there.

Perhaps the most pervasive harm of living on automatic pilot is on our general quality of life. We can end up going through our lives on high-alert, unaware of the tension in our bodies. Our minds get stuck in the past or fretting about the future. We can live our entire lives in the past or in the future and never be in the present.

If we want to live happier lives, we need to learn how to 'mind ourselves' properly. Learning to 'mind ourselves' starts with getting to know how our own mind works.

We need to take the driving seat and learn how to manage these minds of ours. There are two parts to this; coming out of automatic pilot and challenging our own thinking.

Learning how to switch out of automatic pilot:

This will take time, and like learning anything new we have to repeat it over and over again until we have the hang of it.

Learning to manage our mind is no different. By doing the exercise below three times a day over the next seven days you will begin to master the knack of switching from automatic pilot to awareness. This means that we can interrupt the spiral of low mood and worry.

People generally find it helpful to put a reminder in their phone or somewhere visible to do this exercise three times a day. This exercise can seem deceptively simple but the trick here is repetition. 'Minding ourselves' requires commitment and effort. By repeating this exercise three times a day we are building the brain muscle of awareness and taking a big step to living happier lives.

Today we have looked at the first part of the problem - living on automatic pilot - and introduced the 'take three' strategy to build awareness and interrupt the spiral of negative moods.

Tomorrow we will look at how to challenge our thinking in step two, 'Don't believe everything you think', on the path to living a happier life.

Dr Paul D'Alton is director of the Masters (Msc) in Mindfulness-Based Interventions at the School of Psychology UCD, president of the Psychological Society of Ireland and head of the Department of Psycho-oncology at St Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin

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