For most of recorded history, psychology has focused on studying what makes people unhappy. Only within the last 20 years have psychologists started actively studying what makes people feel good, so there’s now substantial data verifying things your grandmother has probably been telling you for years.
Scientists have learned that just like treating a physical illness doesn’t make a person healthy unless they are also exercising, eating well and caring for themselves, treating mental illness doesn’t necessarily make a person feel good unless they are also taking proper care of themselves. In addition to treating mental illness with things like medication and therapy, there are exercises you can do to actively promote mental health and well-being. Here are a few examples.
How many times did your grandmother remind you to count your blessings and be grateful for what you have? Well, she was right. Research shows people who write down 5 things they are grateful for once a week feel more optimistic and satisfied with their lives. They also report better health and spend more time exercising.
We all have 2 thought streams continuously running through our minds: a conscious thought stream and a subconscious thought stream. By tapping into and becoming aware of our subconscious thought stream, we can influence how we feel.
One of the best ways to do this is to spend 15 minutes a day free writing whatever thoughts come into your mind without concern for spelling or punctuation. Use this time to make sense of things that happen in your life and to look for good things that can come from them. Research shows people who did this regularly healed old emotional wounds, decreased their stress, improved their relationships and boosted their immune systems.
If you’re not a naturally optimistic person, optimism can feel unrealistic and even annoying, but people who practice optimism are less likely to suffer from depression, more likely to persevere in the face of challenges and more likely to be successful. With practice, optimism is a skill that can be learned.
Try making note of any pessimistic thoughts that cross your mind, then attempt to replace them with a more positive outlook. With practice, thinking more positively can become habitual.
Believe it or not, a study showed that a year after either winning the lottery or being paralyzed in an accident, people were nearly as happy as they had been before. Humans can adapt to almost anything.
Continually trying new things to avoid adapting to the “same old” routine is one of the best ways to promote happiness. Trying something new on a regular basis-even something as simple as watching a movie outside of your typical genre-can help you safely experience new emotions and keep life feeling fresh.
Self-awareness is valuable, but there is such a thing as over-thinking. Experts have found when you spend too much time ruminating, it can worsen feelings of sadness and interfere with your ability to solve problems. It can also drain your motivation and break up your concentration.
If you are an over-thinker, it’s a good idea to find an activity, like exercising for example, that is engaging and engrossing enough to reliably hold your attention. This way, whenever you find yourself starting to over-think something, you can quickly distract yourself with that activity.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky says, “The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstressed.” Likewise, in his book about drug addiction, Johann Hari wrote, “Connection is the opposite of addiction,” and he makes a compelling case for why this is true.
As humans, we are social creatures who cope best with the support of one another. Without social support, it is much more likely we will turn to addictive substances and activities to soothe ourselves when we face difficulties.
Investing time to maintain social connections is not only fun, but it will also help you stay healthy when confronting challenges. Setting aside time to call or meet a friend at least once a week can dramatically improve how you feel.
Your grandmother undoubtedly instructed you to be kind, as have most philosophers, writers and religious thinkers. Because of this, the benefits of being kind probably won’t feel surprising. Research shows people who go out of their way to do kind things for others experience significant improvements in their levels of happiness.
What might be surprising is that acts of kindness that happen as a part of your normal routine don’t seem to have the same effect. Apparently, it’s the act of consciously going out of your way to help someone else that makes you feel good.
One final thing to keep in mind while practicing mental wellness-based on studies of twins, researchers estimate approximately 50% of our happiness is genetic. We all have what they call a happiness set point. It’s similar to a weight set point. We can influence our weight to some degree by how we eat and exercise; but, left unchecked, there’s a certain weight we tend to maintain. Similarly, we can influence how we feel with certain exercises; but, left unchecked, there’s a certain level of happiness we tend to maintain.
For some people, feeling good will come more easily and last longer than for others. Don’t get discouraged if your genetic set point means you have to work harder than someone else. Be gentle with yourself and take a long-term vision. Practicing healthy habits will influence and improve how you feel over time, even if your results are not as immediate as someone else’s.