Reflect On Social Connections
There’s a description of this exercise on the Exercise page.
I think I need to rotate when these exercises occur, since which people I see tends to be somewhat day-dependent. For today, one of my longest social connections was with a two-year-old, and I have to wonder whether that even counts. But I decided to include it anyway. The contrast between my interaction with my daughter and my viola instructor was interesting and amusing.
Today for my gratitude journal I decided to focus on a friend, which gave me the double boost of thinking about gratitude and thinking about social connection. I wrote down five specific things that I’m grateful for in that friendship – some ongoing characteristics, and some past instances of kindness or understanding. This was a wonderful exercise for me; I carried the warmth of it for hours.
Take A Daily Vacation
Today’s exercise is a marvelous idea that I saw online somewhere and now can’t find again. The idea is to take a daily “vacation” – a short bit of time devoted to doing something relaxing, where you consciously choose to indulge in that “I have no responsibilities because I’m on vacation” mindset. It could be a cup of tea, your favorite music, sitting in your favorite spot in the garden, a warm bath, a walk in the sunshine… anything that is available to you and that feels like relaxation.
Quite honestly, I don’t know that I could do this every day. (I always wonder, when I read ideas like this, whether the writer can possibly have small children.) But I’m trying it out today. Since it’s gray and cold here, my plan is to take ten minutes around lunch and sit down with a cup of hot chocolate and a view of some trees, telling myself that I’m on vacation. Vacation, after all, is mostly in my mind. Afterward I’ll write a few lines in my journal about it – what I did and how it felt – and decide whether it’s a useful happiness exercise.
CBT An Anxiety
My sense of happiness boosts is that they comes in different flavors. Some work directly on my mood, without getting my intellect involved. Going outside is a great example of that; so is spending time with friends. Others take just a touch of thinking, like the Three Good Things exercise. It isn’t all cerebral, but there is an element of analysis and deliberate focus.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is definitely at the intellectual end of the scale for me. If you haven’t tried it before, CBT focuses on retraining your thought patterns. Since thoughts can lead to and/or reinforce emotions, by changing your thought patterns you can change your emotional state.
My experience is that this is partly true. At this point in my life there is a distinct physical state that I associate with depression, and trying to think my way out of that state has been unsuccessful (or even counter-productive). When I’m in that state, I’m much better off staying out of my brain. But at other times, CBT can be a useful way to confront some of the ongoing anxieties that can sit, leech-like, in my brain, draining away little streams of happiness.
CBT is a collection of techniques, but for today’s exercise I chose to use the “Vertical Arrow Technique” described on page 122 of The Feeling Good Handbook. I’ve also seen this technique, or a similar one, described as the “five why’s.” In essence, I started with something that is a nagging source of anxiety to me: the fact that my kids seem to want to be glued to their screens all the time. I wrote this at the top of a page, then put an arrow under it, pointing down. The arrow represented the question “If this thought were true, why would it be upsetting to me?” I then wrote down the next layer down of my anxiety, drew another arrow, and repeated as long as I still had deeper negative thoughts.
I don’t always find this technique to provide instant solutions, but it certainly can help clarify my anxieties, and sometimes show where my fears are a little excessive.
Find The Good In The Bad
Thanks to our negativity bias, we’re all too quick to notice when something doesn’t go our way. One thing we aren’t good at is revising our opinion after the fact. If we pause and think about it, many of the things that at first seem “bad” end up having positive effects. These can be small, like when my two-year-old woke me up at 4am for food – which made me realize that I’d forgotten to set my alarm for my appointment later that morning. Or it can be much bigger. We’ve all heard stories of people who go through something difficult, like losing a job or going through a breakup, only to realize an opportunity to take their life in a new and better direction afterwards.
Today’s happiness exercise is to write about at least one recent event that seemed bad but led to good. It can be small, even tiny. I’ve found in the past that this exercise helps me to extend that skill into my day-to-day life, so that when I feel frustration or disappointment, I can sometimes remind myself to keep an eye out for the good consequences. It’s surprising how often there are good consequences.
Reflect On Social Connections
It’s old news that our happiness is deeply influenced by the social connections in our lives. Closer connections with other people have been linked not only to feeling happier, but to being healthier – even living longer. This article published at the Association For Psychological Science talks about the “upward spiral” thought to exist between health and social connections, from research by Barbara Fredrickson, a leading positive psychology researcher.
For most of us, that doesn’t easily translate into action. Knowing that married people live statistically longer doesn’t make it any easier for single people to find a partner. But there are a couple of actions I’ve been able to take away. First, I know that when I’m feeling a little rough, I tend to avoid social interactions. That instinct has become a trigger for me. When I feel myself reacting that way, I try to do exactly the opposite: I specifically look for opportunities to connect with people.
Second, Fredrickson recommends a fairly simple journal exercise related to social connections. At the end of the day (or, if you’re like me, whenever it makes sense to journal), take 10-15 minutes to write down the three longest social interactions of your day. Include how connected you felt to the other person and how in tune with them you felt. (I got this exercise from Dr. Fredrickson’s excellent coursera course, Positive Psychology.)
I’ve tried keeping a gratitude journal multiple times. Or perhaps it’s been the same journal, done in multiple fits and starts. I’ve had days that I really connected to the process, and felt warm and happy doing it; and other days that it felt like just another task to complete, dredging up things to be grateful for.
This is one reason that I’ve decided to mix up my happiness exercises day to day. But I wonder now if I haven’t been approaching it wrong in the first place. Previously my technique was just to plunk down with a blank book, start with “I am grateful for…” and list off a bunch of things. My perfectionist brain felt it was important to write at least mostly new things every time, which meant that every day’s entry got harder.
But recently I saw another approach. Instead of listing off multiple things, this suggested that I write down one thing I’m grateful for, followed by five specific reasons I love it. So for example, I might decide that I’m grateful for one of my children – and then look for five specific things that I appreciate about that child.
So far I like this approach. We’ll see how it is going forward.
Three Good Things
This is one of the classic positive psychology exercise – there’s even a web site devoted specifically to this one exercise. And for good reason!
The essence of the exercise is to write down three good things that happened in the last 24 hours, reflecting on why they happened and why they made you happy. Most descriptions prefer you to do this in the evening, looking back over the day. But evenings can be crazy for me. I do better to set aside 10-15 minutes in the morning, so I can write without interruption or stress. There’s a more involved description of the exercise on Action For Happiness.
My three good things for today:
- Picking up my two-year-old after she woke in the morning, and getting a hug.
- Playing a fiddle tune on my viola.