We often dismiss simple ideas as not meaningful enough to make a difference. But when it comes to our emotional health, tiny actions have a huge impact.
I used to think that if anything were easy or quick, then it wasn’t going to make a difference. Only achievements that were gained through hard work, and a healthy dose of struggle and suffering, were worthwhile.
I applied this to everything in my life, including my happiness.
Happiness, in my mind, was this huge prize given only to those who worked incredibly hard, achieved great things, and constantly improved themselves until they were as close to perfect as possible.
When I first encountered the science behind gratitude, I dismissed it because it seemed too simplistic. Write down a few things I appreciate and that’s going to make a difference? No way, I thought, too easy. (Obviously there’s more to it, but I robbed myself of the gifts of gratitude for years because it wasn’t hard enough.)
I meet people all the time who dismiss “small things” like gratitude or acts of kindness as too insignificant to make a difference in how they feel. “I know this works for others, but it just won’t work for someone like me,” is the most popular excuse I hear.
And it’s the exact excuse I used. It took getting to a very dark place in my life to hit pause on excuses and just try the practices.
The small things, it turns out, are the big things.
But with a caveat: We have to do them and make them part of our daily lives.
These tiny practices – I share five of them below – can and will change your life, make you happier, more peaceful, better able to handle stress and get through life’s challenges. Each is backed by scientific research. But these practices will only do that if you commit your intention and your attention to them – and a few minutes of your time every day.
So here’s my call to action to you: Give these a try for a week and see how you feel.
You don’t have to believe in them or in their ability to make a difference. When I first started my gratitude practice, it was an experiment I expected to fail and prove how smart I was, knowing that it wouldn’t work. Approaching it as an experiment helped me relax some of my expectations and judgment, and just do it.
So here are 5 incredibly simple scientifically proven practices that will help you live happier.
1. Write down 3 things you’re grateful for.Gratitude helps to counter our brain’s natural negativity bias, which focuses our attention on the negative, stressful, imperfect, or annoying rather than good, warm, beautiful, and comforting.
Be specific with your gratitude: Less “I’m grateful to be alive” and more “I’m grateful to be able to take a few minutes to enjoy this cup of coffee.” Consider doing your gratitude practice to start your day – which will lead you to have a better one – or before you go to bed – which has been linked to better sleep.
2. Reframe “This is not how it should be” thinking.We waste limited reserves of our mental and emotional energy fighting with reality and our feelings. The traffic is slower than you expected and you feel angry. You’re stressed when you don’t want to be stressed, so you feel more stressed.
Research shows that when we acknowledge difficult emotions, we feel them less intensely. And when we accept that things are how they are, we give ourselves a chance to decide how to react or what to do. So identify your “this is not how it should be” thoughts, hear them, and practice accepting that this is how things are. From that place of clarity, ask yourself what you can do to best serve the situation or your well-being.
3. Do something kind.We’ve evolved to feel good when we are kind. When we do something kind, our brains release oxytocin, known as the “hug hormone,” which makes us feel really good. Researchers have shown that even kids as young as 2 years old feel happier when they give a gift than when they receive it.
Hold the door for the person behind you. Check in on a friend. Listen without interrupting. Acknowledge the people you tend to walk by with a smile. Tiny acts of kindness towards people you know as well as strangers have a significant impact on how you feel.
4. Take a 20-minute walk.Researchers have found that even a 10-minute walk outside has immediate mood-boosting effects. If you’re super busy, get creative about fitting in your walk. Do a walking meeting at work. Take your family with you after dinner. If possible, take your walk during the day to reap the extra benefits of daylight.
Taking a walk is a great way to rest constructively. Alternating periods of work and rest has been shown to be the best way to optimize your productivity and creativity. So your daily walk has more benefits than just improving how you feel.
5. Uncover your purpose in your to-do list.Take a look through your to-do list. As you go through each item, ask yourself: “Does this help someone else? Does this contribute in some way to something that is meaningful to me?”
Having a sense of meaning is an essential ingredient to being happier. Psychologists identify two parts of meaning: Connecting to your strength and using it to contribute in a positive way to another person or a cause you care about. Reminding yourself how the tasks you do every day help others will help you live with a greater sense of meaning and encourage you to find new ways to share your strengths with others.
Happiness isn’t a feeling, but a skill you can build and improve through practice.
Each of the practices above takes just a minute to do, but if you make them a regular part of your routine, they will make you not only happier, but more connected, resilient, and energized to live your best life.
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