Lately, being happy has felt really hard. Work is stressful, I constantly feel like I am behind on housework, and I can’t seem to do anything to help the love of my life unwind. Overall, I’ve been feeling like I am carrying a weight on my shoulders that is just growing, and it’s getting to the point that my stress is seeping into my sleep and I’m waking up multiple times a night.
For the last two months, I accepted that this is going to be a difficult season of life which might involve some sacrifices, including doing fun things with J, time that I could call my own, and a second job that I didn’t like so I could keep the part-time job I love. I thought I would find joy in the whirlwind, but every day I felt like I was fading and sinking deeper into this dark place that I was not enjoying. I was feeling stuck and I wanted to get out, but I was not sure where to start. I needed a game plan.
As I have done the research and tried to implement different things in my life, I have found that these are the actions and mindsets that have helped me the most.
1. Find something you love that you can do for 15 minutes a day.
If you’re like me, you probably initially responded to that with, “I can’t think of anything that I love to do anymore.” If that is the case, try to find something new or to adjust your attitude. Look up podcasts to anything you remotely like to see if there is a topic you want to learn more about, try to train your dog or cat, attempt to create different types of art or cooking styles, try different sports or workouts, see if you like something relaxing like meditation or yoga, find a genre of book you enjoy, etc. Stick with anything that remotely catches your eye for about a week or until it loses your interest. The point is to give yourself something to look forward to every day. For example, I’m going to think about the book I am writing for 15 min a day and make the effort to at least write a few notes, but only you can decide what will be the best motivating factor for you.
2. Focus on the happiness of others.
This is a surefire way to at least feel less upset. When you are thinking about other people’s problems, your own problems are put on the backburner, giving you some energy and creative space to obsess over something else for a moment. This could be bringing a treat for your coworkers, talking to a struggling friend, volunteering at a nursing home, or babysitting so your friends can finally get a date night. You can start simple with playing peekaboo across the crowd with a fussy toddler, but the more personal and specific you get, the more helpful it will end up being for you. J and I were listening to a podcast the other day where a mom joked that the perfect mother would have cookies waiting for her kids every day when they came home from school. J teased that he would not mind that, so the next time I went grocery shopping I grabbed a roll of cookie dough and surprised him with cookies when he came home from campus. Just doing that little thing helped me remember my value in his life and I just loved seeing that big smile on his face. That day was ordinary otherwise, but the appreciation and love on his face made it ten times better. Even the days that I pack his lunch and he says nothing, I feel better knowing I made his crazy day a little bit easier.
3. Find an outlet for your emotions.
In order for emotions to be processed, they must be acknowledged. I have never met someone who bottling up emotions works for because the feelings tend to build rather than fade, but there are a variety of healthy ways to deal with those emotions including listening to music, journaling, mental dialogue while working out, talking to a loved one, making lists and ending with one focused on gratitude, or creating art that represents your emotions. I’ve found that I prefer to deal with different emotions in different ways. Sadness fades best after listening to a few songs that reflect how I feel. Anger disappears quickly after ranting to myself during a hard workout (anger is usually a mask for a deeper emotion, so working out helps me get to the real emotion faster). Disappointment becomes less present when I force myself to create something because it gives me a sense of accomplishment, whether I draw, bake, or write a meal plan. However, journaling is kind of my catch-all solution. Though it works particularly well when I am confused, I think it is particularly important to reconnect with happiness. I try to jot notes of happy or funny moments in my phone that I can journal about later, so I can relive those happy times when I put it on paper and then every time I read it after. Sometimes, all I need to do is go back and read those moments in my journal for me to realize that the tiny thing I am upset over really doesn’t matter because so many other positive tiny things outweigh it. You will discover what patterns work best for you to process different emotions as you try different things. Keep at it until you find what works for you!
4. Don’t let others control your happiness.
I know this is easier said than done, but slowly building your emotional resilience is possible with lots of practice and it has a huge impact on both your happiness and your ability to develop resources that allow you to live well.((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3126102/)) Within my first hour of work today at the job I love, a girl yelled at me for leaving something in the common area, saying this is not my house, it is not her job to clean up after me, and that I was really inconsiderate of the others using that space. I felt like crying. I put a ridiculous amount of effort into making sure I clean up after myself and am being considerate of those around me, so it felt like an attack on my character. I had to take a step back and have a positive conversation with myself with comments like, “You did not do that intentionally, “You nearly always clean up after yourself, so it’s ok that you aren’t 100% perfect,” “There are probably other things going on her in her day, and she is just taking it out on you,” “You did not deserve to be spoken to like that. This is her problem, not yours.” etc… Was I still thinking about it for the rest of the day? Yes, but it allowed me to get just enough space from my emotions concerning the incident that I was able to enjoy other moments after that, so they were just tainted rather than ruined. By the end of the day, I felt like I had done something huge simply by putting effort into not letting this little scene ruin my day. I still have marathons of work to do with this idea, but the baby steps are where we have to start to reclaim our happiness.
5. Volunteer 2hrs a week.
It’s crazy to think that something so small can have a large impact on happiness levels, but it can drastically help decrease loneliness, which is frequently has a large impact on depression. Only about half of Americans feel like they have frequent, meaningful social interactions, and it just gets worse as we age, so actively attacking loneliness is clearly something that should be high on the priority list. ((https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-solution-for-loneliness/?redirect=1)) This is one I need to start doing because I frequently feel isolated since my old friends moved away this last year and many people are not open to new relationships. However, two hours of volunteering can do a surprising amount of good for mental health. Just two hours a week can have such a large impact on loneliness that it helps recent widows feel the same amount of loneliness that happily married women of the same age doing the same amount of volunteering ((https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/73/3/501/3938841)). Think about that. Volunteering eases the loneliness of women who recently lost the love of their life, the partner they thought would always be there, so much that their loneliness levels are the same as those who have not felt that extreme loss of their other half. Why exactly that is? I don’t know. Maybe it helps you feel important. Maybe it will give you a place in your community. The human mind is a strange place that longs for connection, and volunteering for just two hours a week apparently helps provide just enough to ease the cloud of loneliness that hides the path to the happiness we are looking for.
6. Work out.
There are many scientific reasons why you should work out, many of which you can find with a quick google, but I am listing it because I think it is the most efficient reset button for your emotions. It clears your head by putting all your energy into your body, allowing you to dilute powerful emotions to a point where you can process them better. I find this helpful especially when I have emotions that are so strong my head literally feels like it will explode. Even sleep does not reset my emotions as it does for some people, but pushing my body seems to release all my emotions with my sweat (nasty image, but it felt suitable). It clears my mind and lets me approach the day with a blank slate, rather than accumulating on top of the emotions of yesterday. Plus, I’m not in fantastic shape, so it does not take much to have a hard workout and thorough mind-cleanse!
If you consistently get over 7 hours of sleep, are at a healthy weight, never feel drowsy during meetings or while driving, and don’t have any dependency on caffeine, then you can skip over this point. Sleep deprivation makes it difficult to concentrate and increases stress hormones, neither of which helps you be happy ((https://www.apa.org/action/resources/research-in-action/sleep-deprivation)). Adults (28-64 years) need 7-9 hrs of sleep a night and teens (14-17 years) need 8-10 hrs, ((https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need)) and only about one in a thousand people can actually function on 6 or fewer hours of sleep effectively without getting sleep-deprived ((https://www.apa.org/action/resources/research-in-action/sleep-deprivation))! How much you need specifically will definitely vary from that of those around you, so you might have to experiment with different lengths to find what works best for you. I have discovered that consistently getting 7-7.5hrs is my sweet spot, but J needs 8-9hrs. Especially in the USA, sleep deprivation is a huge problem, and it makes it so much harder to think properly and feel logical emotions. When I am tired, I am much more likely to get ridiculously upset about stupid things, such as forgetting my gloves in the apartment on a cold day (yep, I have cried over that before), and I pretty sure I am not unique in this. Sleep helps give you the capacity to see the world the way you want to rather than through a fogged, emotion-driven filter.
8. Be a better friend.
If you don’t feel like you have friends, then try to be a better friend to a few of your favorite acquaintances. If you don’t have any acquaintances, finding a way to have consistent face-to-face human interaction once in a while would probably be a good place to start. There is such a wide variety of ways you can connect a little better if you put a little bit of creative thought in: volunteer together, join the same health class, think of a goal you can work towards as a group, call someone you haven’t talked to in a while, take a night class and chat with your peers, work out with your neighbor, talk about the other person’s perspectives more than your own, and the list could go on. One of the biggest regrets people have is losing friends or not making the effort to be a good friend ((https://hbr.org/2017/07/being-too-busy-for-friends-wont-help-your-career)). If you are feeling that regret in any way, find a way that you can be a better friend just today: send a text, try talking more about the other person than yourself, drop cookies off, or say hi to that coworker you sit next to but rarely talk to. Even the smallest connections can make a big difference.
9. Come up with a goal.
This can be as simple as “take a single dancing class” and “make my bed 4 days this week” or as complicated as “get a master’s degree.” The only requirement is to make it manageable enough that any amount of success will boost your confidence. No matter how well you dance, the fact you went will give you a sense of accomplishment. Yes, it is just making your bed, but people who make their beds are more likely to keep a job and own their own house ((https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-candy/201208/make-your-bed-change-your-life))! You may have not gotten into the nine masters programs you applied to, but you narrowed down the schools you want to attend so you can tailor the skills you develop to what they are looking for and be a better applicant next time. Part of why this is important is because it both sets you up for success no matter how it turns out and helps you practice seeing the good in each experience. Overall success correlates just as much with confidence as it does with competence, so any little thing you can do to build your trust in your capacity to do hard things will go a long way to helping you build large changes ((https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/))! (Read that footnote article! It’s amazing how big an impact your perspective of yourself has on your life)
10. Spend more time outside.
Going outside is one of those things that I often find myself avoiding, but I am so happy I did it once I have spent five minutes in the fresh air. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that people who spend more time outside tend to be happier. ((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4157607/)) Simply breathing in the phytoncides emitted by plants can have a relaxing effect, and there is an increasing amount of research that shows the many benefits of being outdoors, but one of my favorites is that nature is associated with happiness. ((https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580568/)) Do you ever hear that one song that reminds you of car rides with that old boyfriend or smell the cinnamon roll recipe that wafts you back to Sunday mornings baking with your mom? Sounds and smells can have strong associations with powerful emotions, and most people have positive emotions associated with being outside. Hikes bring me back to the deep conversations I would have with my grandfather in the mountains, swings bring me back to the carefree excitement of childhood, and chilly mornings remind me of the happy companionship I found in frigid 5:00 AM jogs with my neighbor. One of the nice things about increasing your happiness by spending time outside is that it is so simple. Your brain already has most of the associations, so you just have to move your butt out the front door to use them, which requires probably the least amount of mental energy of all these suggestions
BONUS: Practice Gratitude.
This one is so important that it is going to get its own post, but practicing gratitude can be life-changing, so don’t wait for my next post before getting started!
One common theme I saw as I researched happiness is that you need to process the emotions and then put your find something else to focus on. In a sense, happy people take care of themselves and spend every other moment focusing on other people or productive projects. I think I could do better with every single one of the suggestions I made today, but I have already started to see results as I am more aware of how I need to take care of myself and how important it is to participate in the world around me. I am going to comment on one more thing I noticed about myself as I researched and thought about this topic. I realized that I was trying to avoid hard things, watching more tv, sleeping more, and socializing less. None of those things helped. In fact, they drove me much further into the dark pit I felt I was living in.
Things started to get better when I faced my problems head-on. I wrote in my journal about my struggles and what about them made them hard. I put more effort into the things I could control, set small goals to help me find accomplishment, and forced myself to hope. I was reminded that making it through difficult times involves moving with the hope that there will be something better as long as I keep walking. Especially when things are hard, I hope you will also use this list as a way to remind yourself of the dream you are working towards and keep walking.