Today I want to give you an emergency blog. It’s for the days you feel like crap; hopeless, disappointed, angry, frustrated or just extremely sad. I will present several positive psychology tools that are fairly instant mood-lifters, thought-shifters and hope-inspirers. Although raising emotional wellbeing is for most more of a long term project, which requires their commitment and effort, there are ways of lifting ourselves out of an emotional scrap pile in the short term.
Tal Ben-Shahar defines happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning” within the total sum of our life experience. Happy people feel pain at times just like everyone else, but overall they regularly enjoy positive feelings and perceive their lives as meaningful.1 You will notice below that many emergency tools are either pleasurable or meaningful. Ben-Shahar points out that happy experiences act like candles in a dark room, which combined eventually light up an entire space. He calls such experiences happiness boosters.2
Step 1: Contemplate and write down: What makes you feel good? What have you always enjoyed? What happiness boosters can you pursue without others and/or substantial cost? Is it lying in a hammock reading, listening to music, or riding a bike? Perhaps you haven’t experienced these activities for some time. Step 2: Now make one of these happen.
Seligman points out that “other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.”3 When we are in the dumps, the care, love and kindness of others are like balm to our souls. If there is someone available in your life that will listen, try to understand, and aim to comfort you, then do not hesitate to contact them when you need them most. Sometimes when we are feeling very low we fail to do this, arguing in our messed up heads that we are a burden, depressing company, too needy and generally too useless for bothering others with our troubles. But in an emotional emergency this thinking is WRONG: it is now time to turn to another human being and let them help you. If you do not have someone in your family or a friend, get yourself to a doctor (tell the receptionist that it is an emergency and you need to see the doctor today), to a hospital, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14. I can only say that if it was not for the tireless, loving support of my friends I would not be here today.
Step 1: Imagine your younger self: What did you love to do? Was it going to the zoo, the beach, the bush, or jumping on a trampoline? Did it involve building a sand castle, swimming, eating ice cream, painting, or dancing? Was it lying under a tree day-dreaming? Write it all down. Step 2: Make one of these happen now.
This is a journal exercise by Robert Holden, Britain’s foremost happiness expert. It involves reflecting on your life and compiling a list of “experiences, relationships, places, people, books, songs, pieces of art, events, adventures, and other moments that you are truly grateful for”. Holden stresses that this project is rarely finished in one sitting, but that every new entry will make you feel more positive. It is important that you are specific: Title each entry and then write down exactly what you are grateful for and why. Holden notes that his happiness students consistently rate this exercise as one of the most useful.4
One of the most successful interventions to improve emotional wellbeing is exercise. Lyubomirsky writes that research has shown that aerobic exercise is equally effective at treating depression as the anti-depressant medication Zoloft. Additionally, exercise is cheap, has little or no negative side effects and provides better long term benefits.5 Countless individuals have overcome depression simply by taking up rigorous physical activity. Choose an activity that you are: 1. not averse to; 2. have a reasonable fitness for (walking is fine if you don’t usually exercise); 3. is sensible to do at this hour (no running at the beach at midday or in dark parks at midnight); and 4. that you can do today/right now without needing to buy equipment. And then do it.
Recently a friend of mine passed a homeless man just before entering a Subway. When placing his order, my friend decided to get an extra sub, although it placed him in a momentary quandary as to what to get. He resolved to order the same for the homeless man as what he was having. When he handed it to the homeless man with a ten dollar note, he was unprepared for the flow of thanks he was showered with. “I walked away feeling like a king,” he told me later. You can learn more about how to choose and perform an act of kindness in Blog Post 7. If you do this activity correctly you will end up feeling great.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of gratitude; it is a powerful happiness intervention. Lyubomirsky calls it a “metastrategy” and “an antidote to negative emotions”. Gratitude in its many forms renews our sense of wonder and appreciation and neutralises feelings of envy, hostility, irritation and worry.6 Compose a letter to someone who has been kind to you but whom you have never properly thanked.7 Deliver it to the person today if possible. If you cannot visit them, post the letter, and if you don’t know where they are don’t worry – the exercise will still make you feel better.
I have used this happiness tool repeatedly during times of hopelessness and despair. It usually leaves me with a list of about 5-8 things I really want to achieve in my life. Because hope is so strongly tied to goals (see Blog Post 39), this exercise is highly beneficial in the short term. But I also like its long term function: the list can be referred to when making decisions. If you do this, be neither stupid nor shy: I want to win lotto is the former; I want to get married to a wonderful person is bold but why not? I want a harmonious family might just mean we are more willing to give in at times, and I want to be a lawyer will get us closer to enrolling at uni.
Blog Posts 23-25 are devoted to meditation, a practice with awesome long term benefits. If you use meditation as a short term emergency tool, and don’t usually meditate, you will need to give it your best shot. Keep trying to focus on the meditation and don’t give up if your mind keeps interrupting. (It is normal that the mind butts in – it happens after meditating for a long time!) Just focus on the imagination. Eventually it can lead you to a peaceful state of mind. I liked some guided meditations by Brahma Kumaris Australia and YouTube clips by The Honest Guys, but there are many to choose from.
So there you have it. These are the official shortcuts to feeling a little better. There is one more though:
Go and practice/perform one of these happiness boosters now, and if you want to feel even better, do three.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016