What to we need to understand before we begin?
Being a more positive person is a great ambition, because research has shown it produces health benefits mentally and physically as well as improving your work and family life.
Psychology, for much of its existence, has studied what can go wrong with us mentally (the latest diagnostic inventory has over 360 classifications for what can be wrong with you), but in the past 25 years we’ve started to look more at what makes us excel and flourish – this is the field of positive psychology.
It’s important to understand that our brains are naturally negative – 80 per cent of our thoughts are negative, and 88 per cent of these are inaccurate. We spend a large proportion of our time worrying about things that didn’t, or never will, happen. There are exercises that help us make a new habit to bring into view the things that are going right.
How to we put this into practise?
Simple exercises have been shown to have measurable benefits. They are not hard and when you do them short-term they have real impact long term.
Exercise 1 – Gratitude: Just prior to going to bed, write down three things that happened during the day. Think about these and who or what facilitated each good thing happening. Doing this every night for two weeks, or once a week for 10 weeks, can have a significant impact on happiness, wellness and performance at work and/or school up to six months later. In fact, recent research has shown this exercise is more effective, on average, than antidepressants.
Exercise 2 – Strengths: Look at your strengths and, each day for one week, think about how you will use that strength a bit more or use it in a new way. For example; if your strength is a love of learning, give yourself 10 minutes a day to learn or research something new. You probably know your strengths already, but if you would like another view you can complete a survey at the Institute of Character and gain a free report outlining your strengths.
How do we stick to our goal?
Outside of these exercises it is important to try to get enough sleep (seven to nine hours each night), spend time outside each day (half an hour), eat well (vegetables, nuts and fish), be active (10,000 steps a day) and lift your heart rate occasionally (20 minutes every third day).
Use these exercises as tools going forward. When you are down about your day, stop and think about the three best things that have happened. If you have an unpleasant task to do, see if you can use your strengths to tackle it. We don’t function well if we are physically tired or not nourished well, so plan to eat good food and give yourself the time to exercise. Stay proactive to keep your mental health in check.
What are the roadblocks to watch out for?
A key bump in the road to being positive is not looking after yourself. Our brain is a muscle and a heavy consumer of our energy – 20 per cent of metabolic energy goes to running our brain. If we are not taking care of ourselves our brain won’t function properly and self-regulation will be one of the first cognitive functions to be impacted – meaning we will feel grumpy and lose our ability to prioritise.
When we get stressed or are under pressure at work, in family or financial circumstances, looking after ourselves tends to be the first thing we drop for the benefit of those around us. It should be the last thing we drop.
How can I stay motivated?
One of the key tools to stay aware of how we are feeling and putting actions in place is the act of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness – a state of active, open attention on the present – has a number of benefits, one of which is helping us to be aware of our thoughts and emotions and managing them deliberately rather than reacting on autopilot.
Making these actions a way of life will result in a more positive outlook, so once you start to see and feel the benefits you will naturally stay motivated to use these ideas regularly.
Where do I find more information?
The Mental Health Foundation has some great resources on the five ways to wellbeing – the same factors linked to happiness. Your workplace may have a wellbeing programme, or could access one through a provider like Synergy Health . Strategic HRs leadership programmes teach these practices for helping leaders stay in a good head space.