Happiness is: harnessing the power of everyday optimism
Small habits practised every day can help put you in a positive frame of mind.
Feeling blue? Finding it hard to turn life’s lemons into lemonade? You’re not alone. COVID-19 is harbouring another epidemic in the form of widespread stress, depression and anxiety. (More: How to keep calm and remain positive in lockdown.)
But the good news is that even within the confines of home there are practices scientifically proven to improve happiness and sense of wellbeing. Coronavirus has cast a light on the role of positive psychology to help people through this strange and stressful time.
At its most fundamental, positive psychology entails small things people can do every day to put them in a positive frame of mind. Sound deceptively simple? Maybe so, but the body of evidence behind this branch of psychology is so compelling it convinced Dr Timothy Sharp to branch off from clinical psychology to specialise in the field for almost 20 years.
“Traditionally, psychology has been focused on what’s wrong with people, such as stress, dysfunction and depression; it investigates where they’re going wrong in life and how to help them,” says Timothy, founder of The Happiness Institute and Adjunct Professor at UTS Business School and the RMIT School of Health Sciences. “Around 20 years ago some leading psychologists turned it around and said, ‘For so long we’ve been wondering what’s wrong with people, what about if we asked what’s right with people?’ It had never been done in a structural way. It was the birth of a formal discipline that adds a new dimension to traditional psychology.”
Scientific evidence shows that practising optimism can have a direct impact on human health, both mental and physical. It can lead to the release of feel-good hormones and protect the body against ailments such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Above all, the cultivation of positive emotions and attributes such as gratitude, resilience and compassion lays a solid foundation for a life rich in meaning rather than one preoccupied by the ephemeral joys of consumer culture.
For so long we’ve been wondering what’s wrong with people, what about if we asked what’s right with people?’
The breakthrough of positive psychology was discovering that optimism is something we can all learn. Focusing on what is going right rather than what is wrong in life will, of course, come more easily for some than others. “It is a skill and like any skill, the more you practise the better you get,” says Timothy, who has seen the practice of positive psychology have a powerful impact on the lives of chronically stressed and anxious people.
He emphasises that there is no silver bullet. Some people who start flexing their optimism muscle will be able to perceive a difference in their outlook overnight; others will take weeks or months.
“Just remember, you can’t go to the gym once and expect to be fit for the rest of your life,” says Timothy. “Try and embed these systems and practices into your day-to-day. Like everything else in life, you have to keep working at it, but it really is worth it.”
Five simple ways to practise optimism
Smiling releases neurotransmitters called endorphins – a chemical that makes us feel happy and lowers stress levels. Don’t feel like smiling? Fake it ’til you make it. The brain doesn’t differentiate between real or fake smiles as it interprets the positioning of the facial muscles in the same way.
Escape the news cycle
Constant scrolling through the news can lead to acute anxiety. Limit your news fix to checking a credible news source just once a day and make a point of searching for positive news stories. The daily news feed on a site such as The Good News Network is a guaranteed uplift.
Yes, many people will find the notion of keeping a gratitude journal to be a little naff, but it’s really a powerful example of mindfulness in action. The act of articulating uneventful yet positive things is a way to bank feelgood emotions. They don’t have to be big: a cup of tea in the sun, a walk with your dog or simply avoiding the peak-hour commute are all good examples.
There are plenty of things we can’t control at the moment but establishing a daily routine is a key to feeling in control. Cultivate healthy habits – it’s much harder to be happy when you’re tired, hung over and subsisting on junk food. If you’re isolating at home, try to get up at the same time each day, plan for coffee breaks and a proper lunchtime and set a work knock-off time.
Don’t expect yourself to master what is essentially a new way of life (and hopefully a temporary one) for society. Be kind to yourself and others when it comes to setting expectations in our coronavirus-addled world.
If you or someone close to you is struggling with mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
RACV has partnered with Lifeline to support Victorians impacted by the summer bushfires and COVID-19.