Even if you have not been diagnosed with a mental illness, day-to-day stresses can easily drain your life of fulfilment and contentment.
There is no shortage of evidence-based strategies that can help to pull you out of that rut – the scientific field of so-called ‘positive psychology’ is now 20 years old and has provided countless techniques to boost your mood.
But how do we find the time to apply them in our daily lives? Sandi Mann, a lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, offers one solution. Building on her experience as a clinical psychologist, she has some suggestions that might help. As she outlines in her book, Ten Minutes to Happiness, her programme takes the form of a daily journal, to be completed in six parts:
1. What experiences, however mundane, gave you pleasure?
2. What praise and feedback did you receive?
3. What were the moments of pure good fortune?
4. What were your achievements, however small?
5. What made you feel grateful?
6. How did you express kindness?
Much of the programme builds on a vast amount of scientific research showing that taking a little time to reappraise your day in these ways can slowly shift your mindset so that you eventually find more happiness in your life. When we feel low, it can be easy to overlook the things that are going right – and keeping this journal brings them to the forefront of your attention.
Mann stresses that the benefits do not just come from the immediate lift as you write the entries; re-reading your previous entries can help you cope with difficult situations in the future too. Thanks to our ‘associative’ memory, a dark mood – caused by one bad event – may lead you to preferentially remember other sources of stress and unhappiness. Whenever that happens, leafing through the pages of your journal may help you to break out of that ruminative spiral.
The sixth point builds on recent research into the power of kindness. Various studies have found that selfless acts not only increase the well-being of those around you, they consistently boost your own mood too. Spending a bit of money to help a stranger, for instance, makes you far happier than using the same cash to treat yourself, a finding that has been replicated in more than 130 countries.
Focusing on those occasions should ensure you make the most of those warm feelings while also encouraging you to look for new opportunities the next day. (You can read more about this research in BBC Future’s archive story: Does it pay to be kind to strangers?)
A 10-minute review of your day can’t work miracles, of course – and Mann stresses that anyone who suspects they may suffer from depression should still see their GP for professional medical care. But for those who generally feel ‘low’ and stressed, without severe clinical symptoms, this might just help put you back on the right path.
If you find Mann’s approach interesting, you may also enjoy her counterintuitive research on boredom. In a series of experiments, she has found that short periods of tedium can bring great benefits.
Students asked to copy out the phone book, for instance, tended to come up with more creative solutions to common brain teasers at a later point, compared with those who were spared the tedium. Mann suspects that the boring activity encourages the students’ minds to wander and daydream, encouraging more flexible thinking in the creative task.
“If you find yourself stuck on a problem, just take some time out – to be bored – and you might find that creative solution pops into your mind,” Mann told BBC Reel. This is particularly important today, when we may always be tempted to turn to social media to occupy our minds. “One way that we can embrace [this] in your lives is to stop swiping our boredom away,” she added. You can view the video above.
Over time, you might even find that your tolerance increases so periods of waiting that once felt agonising become an opportunity for calm and reflection. “Paradoxically, the best way to deal with boredom is to let more of it into your lives.”
David Robson is a senior journalist at BBC Future. He is d_a_robson on Twitter.
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