Happiness Exercises: Take Action To Improve Your Well-Being
As I reach the end of the 10-week free Yale Happiness Course, I definitely recommend this course if you are ready to commit time and effort into making yourself feel better mentally. One of the key points is the G.I. Joe fallacy, which is the false notion that knowing about a mental bias is enough to overcome it. Knowing isn’t enough! Taking repeated action is required to achieve lasting change.
As such, much of the course is based on “rewirements”, but I think of them as “happiness exercises” because they only work temporarily for me. When I do them, I feel better immediately and for a little while afterward, but the effect wears off. This is similar to my experience with diets, in that diets don’t work.
Once you go back to your original eating habits, you’ll go back to your original weight. Therefore, any changes you make should be something you can maintain for the rest of your life.
Can you really change your life to include these habits? Well, here are the happiness exercises, along with a short description from the Yale course. Try each one for a week and discover which ones work best for your personal situation. I found the prompts to commit acts of kindness and initiate social connections were the most helpful, and a really do hope to keep them up forever. (I’ve already been working on the sleep and exercise bits for a while.)
Savoring is the act of stepping outside of an experience to review and appreciate it. Often we fail to stay in the moment and really enjoy what we’re experiencing. Savoring intensifies and lengthens the positive emotions that come with doing something you love. For the next seven days, you will practice the art of savoring by picking one experience to truly savor each day. It could be a nice shower, a delicious meal, a great walk outside, or any experience that you really enjoy. When you take part in this savored experience, be sure to practice some common techniques that enhance savoring. These techniques include: sharing the experience with another person, thinking about how lucky you are to enjoy such an amazing moment, keeping a souvenir or photo of that activity, and making sure you stay in the present moment the entire time.
Gratitude is a positive emotional state in which one recognizes and appreciates what one has received in life. Research shows that taking time to experience gratitude can make you happier and even healthier. For the next seven days, you will take 5-10 minutes each night to write down five things for which you are grateful. They can be little things or big things. But you really have to focus on them and actually write them down.
Random Acts of Kindness
Research shows that happy people are motivated to do kind things for others. Over the next seven days, you will perform seven acts of kindness beyond what you normally do. You can do one extra act of kindness per day, or you can do a few acts of kindness in a single day. These do not have to be over-the-top or time-intensive acts, but they should be something that really helps or impacts another person. For example, help your colleague with something, give a few dollars or some time to a cause you believe in, say something kind to a stranger, write a thank you note, give blood, and so on.
Our social connections matter. Research shows that happy people spend more time with others and have a richer set of social connections than unhappy people. Studies even show that the simple act of talking to a stranger on the street can boost our mood more than we expect. Over the next seven days, you will try to focus on making one new social connection per day. It can be a small 5-minute act like sparking a conversation with someone on public transportation, asking a coworker about his/her day, or even chatting to the barista at a coffee shop. But you should also seek out more meaningful social connections, too. At least once this week, take a whole hour to connect with someone you care about— a friend who’s far away or a family member you haven’t talked to in a while. The key is that you must take the time needed to genuinely connect with another person.
Research suggests that ~30 minutes a day of exercise can boost your mood in addition to making your body healthier. For the next week, you will spend each day getting your body moving with at least 30 minutes of exercise. Set aside a location and time (write it in your calendar!). Then hit the treadmill at the gym, do an online yoga class, or throw on some headphones and dance around your room to cheesy pop songs. This isn’t supposed to be a marathon-level of activity; it’s just to get your body moving a bit more than usual.
One of the reasons we’re so unhappy in our modern lives is that we’re consistently sleep deprived. Research shows that sleep can improve your mood more than we often expect. For the next week, you must get at least seven hours of sleep for at least four nights of the next week. I know, I know. You’re super busy this week. There are deadlines to meet, friends to see, errands to run, etc. But sleep is going to make you feel better— both physically and mentally. So pick four nights this week, note them in your calendar, and get ready to get some much needed sleep. Also be sure to practice good sleep hygiene too— no devices before bed and try to avoid caffeine and alcohol on the days you’re getting your sleep on.
Meditation is a practice of intentionally turning your attention away from distracting thoughts toward a single point of reference (e.g., the breath, bodily sensations, compassion, a specific thought, etc.). Research shows that meditation can have a number of positive benefits, including more positive moods, increased concentration, and more feelings of social connection. For the next week, you will spend each (at least) 10 minutes per day meditating. Find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed while you’re meditating. If you are new to meditation, you can try one of three guided meditations available on SoundCloud. And remember— meditation isn’t about the meditation itself; it’s about building a skill that we can use later. Lots of people find it hard at first, but stick with it and see if it allows you to feel a bit calmer over the course of the week.
For all of these exercises, you should find a way to track them – physical notebook, Notes smartphone app, daily planner, or the unpolished-but-free ReWi app (iOS, Android). By keeping track, you make it much more likely that you’ll maintain a streak and eventually make it a life-changing habit like eating healthier foods or regular exercise.
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