by Liberty Stembridge, Lifestyle Columnist
Published in Lifestyle on 15th December, 2018
Living well doesn't just mean eating well and exercising, it also includes your mental health. Happiness is an elusive feeling for many of us and a lack of it can severely impact your quality of life, both physically and mentally. Research has shown that happier people tend to have lower cortisol (the stress hormone that can contribute to a variety of chronic illnesses) and a better functioning immune system, meaning they get sick less.
It's easy to see happiness as this future "goal" to be achieved, but as corny as it sounds, that's not how it works - happiness comes from the journey. No matter where you are in life, even if you're not exactly where you want to be, there are ways to wake up happier and healthier every morning.
Monday mornings often don't get off to a great start for many of us. They include a lot of groaning, bemoaning having to get up and leave your bed and depressing thoughts about having to commute to work or school.
This doesn't get your day off to a good start and sets you up for an equally negative and depressive day. Not everyone naturally wakes up on a Monday morning feeling chipper and bright, and that's okay - but you can change that. By practicing positive thinking in the mornings, you can change your whole state of mind and set yourself up for a better day. Consistent practice may even get you to a point where you wake up every morning and naturally start to think positively.
To start off, try listing three things that you're grateful for every morning before you even get out of bed. They can be as simple as a pet, a new food you tried, your job or your family. This habit of "grateful thinking" is scientifically proven to help rewire your brain to think positively and be happier.
If the thought of exercise makes you want to cry rather than jump for joy, you're not alone. Whether you like it or not however, exercise is a powerful and effective way to alter your mood and wake up happier. The endorphins released when you exercise not only improve your mood in the present, but help to train your brain to become happier in the long-term too.
The physical benefits of exercise are fairly obvious but can go a long way towards bettering your mental health too. If you've ever woken up after a night of binge-eating and drinking feeling awful, you'll know that how you feel in your own body can totally alter your mood. Feeling more confident, strong and capable in your own body can help to boost your self-esteem and leave you waking up happier, completely naturally.
The key is to find a form of exercise that you enjoy, whether that's swimming, hiking, weightlifting, yoga, running or rock climbing. Whatever it is, try to make it a habit to exercise for at least 10-15 minutes, roughly 3 times a week. It may not transform your entire life, but most people find that regular exercise keeps them happier, healthier and more motivated.
Sleep is often seen as something that can be sacrificed in pursuit of a higher goal, such as studying or working or relaxing in front of the TV. In truth, sleep is not something you should be skimping on, at all. Sleep deprivation has many nasty consequences including higher cortisol levels, less motivation, lowered mood and increased risk of injury.
Getting enough sleep at night is an essential part of a happy and healthy life. Studies have shown that adults that get eight hours or more of sleep per night are generally happier, more productive, have healthier bodies and better relationships.
Getting into a good sleep routine isn't easy though, especially if you've been sleeping poorly or been out of a good routine for a while. Start by trying to get up at the same time every day, a little earlier than you normally would, no matter how hard it is at first.
Then, start going to bed a little earlier. Ditch the electronics before you sleep and swap them for a book, a cup of tea or some stretching. Slowly but surely, you will start to adjust your sleep routine into something resembling eight hours of good, restful sleep.
Have you ever heard the phrase "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with?" Well, that's true to a certain extent. Our relationships help to mold and define who we are, and the people we spend the most time with are our biggest influences. Unhealthy, toxic relationships are often the cause of unhappiness or mental illness, and if left that way can lead to a seemingly inescapable spiral.
So it's important to make sure that we have only good relationships in our life if we want to be happy, and this applies to everyone. Of course, there are some people who aren't necessarily the best for you, but that you have to put up with to get by (such as annoying co-workers, teachers etc).
The main relationships in your life such as your family, best friends, significant other or children are the ones to focus on the most. It does, of course, need to be said that not all relationships can be saved, or are worth saving. If someone is truly a toxic or negative influence in your life or if they are in any way abusive towards you, it's probably best to cut them off completely.
Many of our relationships however are not necessarily toxic or negative, but could definitely stand to be improved. As we grow older, it's easy to grow away from people, especially family, and this is good, but it can lead to relationship issues, especially if there were previous problems that weren't dealt with. Learning to communicate properly, show love often and be open and honest in all your relationships will help you to improve them, no matter who you're with.
Both the mind and body benefit from better relationships. Being surrounded by people who you feel you can be open and honest with, who you love and who love you, without the stress of resentment or emotional distance, will help you to maintain better mental health and wake up feeling lighter and happier.
Nature heals the soul, and can quite literally change your mental health. Maybe you're a total city person- the idea of going on a country walk doesn't appeal to you at all- that's okay, but don't forgo the amazing health benefits a little time spend outdoors can offer. Studies have shown that living in leafier areas with more natural wildlife, tree's, grass and so on actually has a protective effect on your mental health.
Cities are full of opportunity, people to socialize with, jobs to get, parties to go to, interesting events to try, new hobbies and much more, but city life could be having an effect on your mental health. The hustle and bustle of a city produce both air and noise pollution, which can damage both your physical and mental health.
Luckily, however, you don't need to ditch your city apartment for a cottage in the country if you don't want to. Studies have shown that even just one short burst of exposure to nature can improve your mood for the rest of the day, so it may be worthwhile considering incorporating a morning walk or run to get your day off on the right foot.
Meditation is a powerful tool, one of the most effective ones available to you if you're looking to create long-lasting happiness.
There are many things in life that give us little bursts of happiness for a while such as a relaxing vacation, eating a nice meal, going out for a night, but these don't have any real staying power. Meditation does. Dutch researchers found that although many people book themselves relaxing vacations to unwind and "be happy again" in reality, the effects of such a vacation wear off in around two weeks.
This makes sense of course because you can't be on vacation all the time, and even if you were, you probably wouldn't be happy all the time - eventually, you'd get bored.
What makes meditation such an effective tool is its ability to quiet the mind and actually change the way our brains function. When we focus on the present moment, we're using different neural pathways than usual. We're not worrying, we're not over thinking or planning, we're just peaceful and the more you meditate, the more your brain gets used to behaving in this way.
With practice, meditation can even change the very structure of your brain, research has shown that meditation can shrink the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls anxiety and fear. Meditation can even help to build new neurons in the brain.
With consistent practice, meditation can bring a new kind of happiness into your life and leave you waking up happy every morning.
How can visualizing happiness actually make you happy? It can, and very effectively so. The power of visualization has been incorporated into spiritual practices for thousands of years, and in more modern times has used by professional athletes, CEO's and other highly successful individuals as a way to get what they want, ever since the Soviet Union started using visualization to compete in competitions during the 1970s.
When it comes to visualization, seeing really is believing, and it can make you happier. Research has even found that it can make you physically stronger and mentally more resilient. Studies suggest that when we actively imagine a situation we want, we are essentially training our brain into using new neural pathways - one's that correlate with our desired outcome.
So when it comes time to actually produce the action, we find it a lot easier to do so because we have essentially prepared our brain for this exact scenario. This strategy can work for anything from athletics to business to waking up happier.
There's lot's of different ways to go about starting a visualization practice and it can be confusing at first. The general idea is that you need to quiet your mind (meditation is a good pre-visualisation practice) and start to vividly imagine a scenario in which you are feeling happy. In this instance, the scenario isn't particularly important and doesn't need to be grandiose, it can just be you waking up in the morning as you usually do.
The focus should be on how you are feeling. Imagine in as much detail as possible what it feels like to wake up in the morning and feel joyous and happy, think about the sights, smells and sounds in the room while keeping a focus on that happy feeling. With enough practice, you should start training your brain to expect happiness when you wake up in the morning, and be better prepared to produce that feeling when you wake up, even on a Monday.
If you want to help yourself, start by helping others. Being of service to others in need is a great way to get out of your head and gain some perspective. Volunteering your time for those who are less fortunate than yourself is scientifically proven to make you more grateful, improve your social skills and generally increase your happiness levels.
Of course, this does depend on what kind of volunteering you are doing and maintaining a good work-life balance is equally as important if you want to avoid burnout. Just a few hours of volunteer work a week can make a huge difference, however, and you might make some friends along the way. You can start volunteering either by looking for local charities or searching online using websites like do-it.org.
Learning a new skill isn't necessarily going to make you happy, but it can contribute to the feeling. If you're finding that life is starting to feel a bit mundane and boring, picking up a new hobby or learning a new skill is an invaluable way to get you focused and excited on something new. For a lot of people, the usual routine is to get home from work and collapse, and this can create a fairly monotonous cycle that can be hard to break out of.
Instead of sitting in front of Netflix or on your phone, go out to a class one evening or weekend. It could be anything, so long as it excites you or even just intrigues you enough to attempt it.
There's a lot of great things about social media, such as its ability to connect and inspire people all over the world - but there's a lot of negative aspects to it too, and if left unchecked it can have serious effects on our mental health, without us even realizing it. Research shows that people who spend less time on social media tend to be less depressed and less stressed, as well as having more self-confidence.
This makes sense because when we use social media, we're unconsciously comparing our lives to everyone else's, and this just isn't fair to ourselves. If you want to live a freer, happier life without feeling chained to your phone, try giving up social media for three days, or even just at mealtimes or in the morning and see what the effect is.