Updated Jan. 8, 2019
Regularly engaging in stress-reducing mental exercises is like an emotional detox, disrupting habitual negative thought patterns, promoting joy, and enabling the body to thrive. Regardless of your disposition, you can develop more positivity, nudging your emotional state in order to improve your health, by fostering “learned optimism” — a positive psychology concept — to bring about more joy. With Blue Monday, the worst day of the year, coming up Jan. 21, here are 10 ways to do just that.
1. Make Connections
Relationships with other creatures (animal or human) are one of the primary ways we find happiness. Connection elicits positive emotions and releases the feel-good hormones serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. To connect with an animal, volunteer or visit a local shelter. Three great ones: Felines and Canines in Edgewater, PAWS Chicago in Lincoln Park, and Wright-Way Rescue in Morton Grove.
2. Serve Others
Like connection, philanthropic pursuits build feelings of happiness as well as purpose and meaning. My top pick for volunteering: Culinary Care, located in Chicago, where volunteers can help bring joy, care, and the nourishment of a free meal to cancer patients and their families.
3. Move It
Physical exercise relieves stress, raises endorphins that boost mood, helps flush toxins through increased circulation and sweat, and reduces inflammation, provided we don’t overdo it. Also, studies show that the sense of accomplishment in achieving an exercise goal gives us a feeling of happiness.
4. Breathe Deeply
Deep diaphragmatic breathing, allowing the belly to expand, calms the mind and the sympathetic nervous system involved in the fight-or-flight response and can lower blood pressure and heart rate.
5. Hug It Out
Research shows that giving and/or receiving four hugs daily increases the happiness hormones serotonin and oxytocin. Extra points for genuine embraces, not shoulder squeezes.
Giving yourself over to comedy provides great brain “workouts” that can improve everything from happiness hormone levels to heart health.
7. Stop Complaining
Try going an hour without grumbling and grousing, and focus on the positive things in your life. Next, try a day, a week, and so on.
8. Challenge Negative Thinking
For example, think back to times when you were sure disaster would prevail, only to find that nothing bad happened. This is important for those of us who think in black/white and always/never terms.
9. Replace, Don’t Erase
It is important to note that squelching thoughts doesn’t work. The mind does not understand not thinking about something. For example, when we think, “I am not going to think about having that vanilla latte,” that’s then exactly what we do think about. Rather than try to ignore certain thoughts, focus on substituting new thoughts; think of finding a great healthy smoothie, for instance, versus banishing the vanilla latte.
10. Share Good News
Studies show that simply telling someone about a happy event brings — you guessed it — even more happiness.
More from Make It Better:
- 12 Simple Diet Swaps to Make You Healthier
- The Best and Worst Foods for Better Sleep
- The Complete Guide to Working Out at Home
Nan Foster is an integrative health coach living in Marin county, California, and author of “Gutsy: The Food-Mood Method to Revitalize Your Health Beyond Conventional Medicine.” For more information, visit nanfosterhealth.com. The Ceres Community Project of Marin and Sonoma Counties in California is Nan’s favorite nonprofit organization. Ceres creates health for people, communities, and the planet through love, healing food, and empowering the next generation.