We all know the importance of exercise for our overall health and well-being. We log miles on the road or treadmill, spend time in the gym on a stationary bike spinning to music, dancing in a Zumba class to a desired sweat level or lifting weights for strength and improved bone density. We track our aerobic activity to increase our cardiac capacity and endurance. We choose healthy foods to limit our saturated fat, caffeine and alcohol consumption. We are proud to talk about our workout routines or beloved sports with others, sharing our stories and maybe picking up a few pointers.
Our physical health requires attention and work. But what about our mind? What do we do on a regular basis to bring health and well-being to the area above our neck? Do we have a mental practice to build our mind’s endurance and resilience? Hmm, why not? Why do we assume our mental health is a given state of wellness…a state we don’t have to work towards maintaining or improving?
I think the answer lies in our assumption that our thought patterns, perceptions and feelings occur naturally…
We are born an optimist or a pessimist, pragmatic or emotional, anxious or calm, a worrier or a planner, happy or sad. And research supports that some of this is true.
Genetics do play a part in our happiness… actually, 50%. In The How of Happiness, psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky describes this 50% as our ‘set point.’ However, the remaining factors are in our control, assuming all our basic needs are met— food, shelter and safety. This is good news! About 40% of our happiness and well-being is a result of how we handle ourselves day to day, our intentional activity. The remaining 10% is determined by our circumstances—where we live, our careers, financial security, etc.
Think about this for a moment: 40% of our feelings of happiness are within our control by the choices we make moment by moment throughout our days. Doesn’t it then make sense to learn behaviors proven to positively impact our mood and happiness? Yes!
So let’s look at a few good choices.
- Recall Three Good Things. Each evening as you are winding down, bring to mind three things that went well during your day with a bit of detail as your remember them, including how you felt in the moment. They do not have to be major events or important moments. A good thing may be as simple as remembering your delicious cup of coffee, the gentle morning kiss from your partner, the warmth of the sun on your face as you left the house, or a phone call from your best friend. Recalling and savoring such highlights brings back those moments and the positive feelings of well-being that go along with them, reminding you that even if there were some stressful moments there were also many good ones.
- Take a Savoring Walk. Walk outside for twenty minutes with a focus to notice your surroundings. Observe the sights, sounds and smells around you—notice the gentle wind, the vibrant hue of autumn maple leaves, and the architectural details of the buildings you walk past. Take time to absorb these details with all your senses. In a study done at Loyola University Chicago, participants who took Savoring Walks daily for a week reported greater increases in happiness than participants who went for walks as usual. “Making a conscious effort to notice and explicitly acknowledge the various sources of joy around us can make us happier,” write Bryant and Joseph Veroff in the book Savoring.
- Take a Mindful Pause. This is a helpful action to take when our patience is tested or we are having a challenging moment… when we can’t see any good in the moment, can’t seem to calm our nerves, or slow our heart rate… when things are heading south. The Mindful Pause is a simple way to give us space: stop, take three slow breaths, and then mindfully proceed from this place of ‘reset.’ Taking slow deliberate breaths has an immediate, positive impact on our mind and body; a calmer state allows us to choose our response. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wisely described it this way: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
These three suggested behaviors could be first steps towards creating happier moments for us, helping our minds find ways to hold onto the positive. When we consciously look for the good, savor the good and choose to be mindful in our actions we are creating a happier life, moment by moment.
Minding our minds, just as we deliberately tend to our bodies, is a habit that builds our happiness muscles. Well worth it!