Feeling good can reduce your stress and improve your health. “Most people don’t realize that stress has objective negative physiological effects,” Dr. Sarah Pressman says, including bodily changes that are linked to disease morbidity, severity and even survival: “That said, researchers have shown that even during major life stresses, like what we are all facing now with this pandemic, raising positive emotions is still possible, and their presence is an important determinant of stress reduction and future well-being.”
Rewarded in 2015 by the AXA Research Fund, Dr Pressman’s research project aims to identify specific positive emotions that are most powerful against the negative stress impacts. Today, she gives us 5 tips to manage stress and be happy.
Social relationships are absolutely central to feeling positive, but can also be quite toxic to well-being when they are bad. Spend time cultivating relationships with the people who energize you and who are supportive of you, and positive emotions will certainly raise your well-being and help you in times of stress. What matters most for stress is your perception that people are there for you. That means that even in these times of social distancing, just sending someone a note that you are there for them, sharing distress over a video conference, or actually helping someone by dropping off something they need at their apartment or ordering something for them online.
Often times, positive experiences happen during the day, but are gone and forgotten in a blink! Think of how quickly you drink your delicious morning coffee, or how quickly a piece of chocolate disappears from your mouth. Taking the time every day to truly notice the positive things that happen can help you remember them and carry them with you throughout the day. We are always in a rush, and it is so much easier to focus on the bad things that are happening and let them invade our thoughts, as opposed to letting the small positive uplifts stay in our minds.
A good example that I use of this phenomenon is to have students in my classes do a chocolate meditation. It really shows how we can take something positive that is normally over in a second and forgotten immediately, and make it last. Savoring positive events helps fights the natural tendency to over focus and ruminate over all of the negative things going on right now, and provides your body with a much needed break from stress.
Along the same lines as #1, spending time trying to make other people happy is one of the best ways to improve our own mood. Volunteering your time for a charity, helping a friend who needs something, spending time with people worst off than you in some way...these are all ways of not only momentarily improving your mood, but also increasing your sense of life purpose and potentially your life meaning. These deeper cognitive constructs can improve your well-being over the long run and have a slew of long term wellness benefits. Helping those that are having a hard time can activate something called a "downwards social comparison" which can also help you realize how good your life situation is, and make you more grateful for what you have now. Even in times of social distancing, you can volunteer to help someone who lives alone get what they need, you can donate your skills to various online projects going on, or even donate money to a cause that aligns with your personal values. You will be amazed at how good this will make you feel.
Despite the materialistic messages we regularly get advertised to us (e.g., you need this new car, you need a new iphone, your house should be bigger!), research has shown that time and time again, the most "bang for your buck" for happiness occurs when you spend money on experiences. Why is this? Most things that we buy are quickly adapted to (this is called "hedonic adaptation") such that the excitement we felt at first, quickly dissipates. Experiences (e.g., going on exciting trips, going to cultural events, spending times with a loved one in a new place), however, are part of who we are, they contribute regularly to social relationship quality, and can even define our passions and life purpose. Right now, our ability to spend money on experiences is limited, but you can start planning your dream vacation for when the COVID crisis is over, and you will be amazed at how looking forward to that positive experience will lighten your mood. You can also spend money on things that will be a source of joint entertainment and social connection by purchasing games and puzzles you can play with the other people you are living with. Finally, for parents or caregivers, if there is a way to spend money on something that will give you a break while your kids are out of school, take it. Is there an online tutor who can buy you an hour of time? A new educational game or show that will allow you a second to breathe? Leisure is critical for reducing stress and enhancing well-being, so finding a way to purchase a few minutes of restoration time would be money well spent in a time when parents likely have almost no free time, especially those balancing homeschooling and working.
Even as a health psychologist, it's still a shock to see the strong interconnections between our minds and our bodies. Think about how hard it is to be happy when you haven't gotten enough sleep, when you eat poorly, or when you haven't been active recently. On the flip side, can you think of a time when you had a rush of endorphins from a great workout? A time you woke up feeling perfectly well rested and how you carried that happy feeling with you all day? Our health behaviors and our health are intimately connected to our happiness. Researchers regularly cite exercise as one of the best ways to fight depression, but of course, it's hard to make someone exercise. Thus, along with the message of spending money on experiences, I think it's critical that people spend time, money and resources on their health in whatever ways they need to. If getting fitness in requires a personal trainer or a fancy gym membership, that is money well spent (or given the closure of gyms, consider buying a nice piece of home exercise equipment and/or live streaming fitness classes). If it takes paying for someone to make your meals to eat healthy, consider it. Feeling sleep deprived? Prioritize your rest, cancel your evening's plans, and get the Zzz that your body and mind need. Your health is something worth being selfish about for the sake of living a long and good life, but also for the sake of your happiness.
Beyond that, positive psychologist experts are working their way into many domains to introduce activities like practicing gratitude, savoring, goal setting, etc. in workplaces, schools, and at home because of the ample work showing that these positive activities are good for many wellness outcomes, for example, increased immune function critical for protecting us against illness. One group I've been especially impressed with is the "Doctor Payaso" group who is bringing much needed joy and humor into hospitals all over Mexico, and convincing medical administrators on the value of this effort.
At this point, however, no broad application has been made at governments level to work, health and education locations. That said, considering the growing focus on happiness, for example, in global happiness reports, as well as the focus on "Gross National Happiness" by many countries, and some places instituting social wellness approaches (e.g., the UK hire of a "minister of loneliness"), there might be more to come soon.
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