How to control your mood and stay satisfied with life.
SCOUTERS AND SCOUTS tend to be a pretty jovial bunch. How else can you explain the watermelon cheer? But even though cheerfulness is mandated in the Scout Law, they, too, can become blue.
For many people, the end-of-year holiday season can be a time of particular sadness. In an uncertain economic climate, people may be more inclined to ruminate on disappointments and worries.
If you feel as if your cup is half empty, there’s cause for optimism. In recent years, researchers in the field of positive psychology have found that human beings have an amazing capacity to influence their own happiness through deliberate effort. And by “deliberate” we don’t mean buying a new car. Studies indicate that having more money and material things doesn’t have a huge impact on one’s happiness. Deliberately seeking happiness, however, can.
The Set Point Theory of Happiness suggests that 50 percent of an individual’s base happiness is inherited—out of his or her control. Even after extremely joyful or terribly traumatic events, our happiness level eventually returns to a natural “set point.” Another 10 percent of our well-being is based on our life circumstances: where we live, whether we are healthy, wealthy, married, or attractive. That leaves 40 percent of our potential happiness that is within our ability to control through thoughts and behaviors.
Below you’ll find 10 of the most effective ways psychologists, doctors, and clergy say an individual can increase his or her happiness and satisfaction with life. Give these strategies a try during the next month. You’ll quickly recognize just how many of them reflect the guiding principles of the Scout Oath and Law.
1. Know yourself better. “Self-knowledge is crucial to happiness,” says Mario Alonzo, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who developed a personality test called PsychDNA.com. “Exploring your personality and figuring out what makes you feel energetic and significant can have a profound effect on your ability to influence your own happiness.”
2. Stop comparing yourself to successful people. Think about it: There will always be someone richer, more attractive, smarter, and more accomplished than you. Instead think about the many people who have greater struggles than you do, perhaps someone who is disabled, hungry, or homeless. That may help you with the next tip.
3. Count your blessings. If 40 percent of happiness is derived from intentional activity, this is one of the easiest ways to nudge yourself out of woe-is-me thinking. A few times a week before going to bed, write down three things you feel grateful for, suggests Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Counting your blessings is one of the most powerful mood-lifters known to man.
4. Practice gratitude. Another happiness-boosting exercise: Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has made a difference in your life. Not an e-mail. A typed or handwritten letter on real stationary, using a real postage stamp. Even better: hand-deliver it and read it aloud to your benefactor. See The Gratitude Project at scoutingmagazine.org/gratitude.
5. Take a brisk walk outside. Exercise is one of our most effective natural mood-lifters. Studies have shown that regularly breaking a sweat can be as effective in treating depression as anti-depressant medications. You don’t need to join a gym. Walking outside in bright sunshine is ideal. A University of Toronto study of more than 450 women found that those who got the most light, particularly in the morning, reported better moods and sleep. Researchers speculate that combining exercise with morning light exposure may amplify light’s beneficial effects on mood, sleep, and alertness.
6. Eat sardines. Coldwater fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which researchers believe have not only strong heart-health benefits but significant effects on brain health. Studies by Capt. Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., a neuroscientist with the National Institutes of Health, link docosahexaeonic acid (DHA), an omega-3 essential fatty acid found in fish, to lower incidences of depression and suicide. Dr. Hibbeln, an Eagle Scout and acting chief of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, believes some emotional illnesses in modern societies could be reversed by boosting intake of omega-3 fatty acids and reducing consumption of omega-6 fats found in processed foods.
7. Go to bed by 10 p.m. Adequate sleep—seven to eight hours for most people—is essential to a strong immune system and a healthy brain. Your mood suffers when you’re tired. You cannot react quickly or think clearly without good quality sleep. No wonder sleep problems are one of the classic symptoms of depression and other anxiety disorders.
8. Strengthen relationships. Studies link a strong social life with good health and increased happiness. People who have four or more close friends are more likely to describe themselves as happy than people who don’t have close friends.
9. Join an organization or club. You already have this one nailed! Interacting with like-minded people toward a common goal provides some of life’s greatest joys. A Harris Interactive survey of 16,124 Scouters commissioned by the Boy Scouts of America in 2003 found that 85 percent of respondents said that volunteering “adds more fun to my life.” More than 25 percent said the experience reduced stress and built self-esteem.
10. Help others. If you made a list of the times when you felt most happy and satisfied with life, chances are some of them would connect to helping others. Many studies have shown that giving of one’s time, talent and money to others in need is one of the most effective ways to boost happiness.
In researching her book The How of Happiness, Dr. Lyubomirsky found that happy people are healthier, live longer, are more productive in work than unhappy people. Happy people also earn more money, have stronger relationships with friends and loved ones, and cope with life’s challenges better than people who are unhappy. Remember that 40 percent of happiness is driven by what you do. So, helping others may be the most selfless thing you can do to help you.
JEFF CSATARI is a contributing editor at Men’s Health. His latest book, The New Abs Diet Cookbook, co-written with Daniel Zinczenko, is available at menshealth.com/abs-diet-cookbook.
THE GRATITUDE PROJECT
My assignment from Men’s Health magazine: Call a different friend once a day for 30 days and report back: Did this experiment in connecting with friends make me feel any happier about life?
Actually, it made me anxious. Small talk on the phone has never come easy to me. So, as a mood-lifter this task was counterproductive, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. Dr. Lyubomirsky suggested that I change my approach. She urged me to keep a daily gratitude journal and also write letters of thanks—gratitude letters—to people in my past who have sacrificed for me.
For my first letter, I wrote to my old Scoutmaster, R. Bryon Breese, who also is my uncle. And though I’ve seen him hundreds of times since the mid ’70s when I was a Scout in Troop 26, I had never taken the time to thank him for the profound effect he and Scouting had on my life until now.
Writing that letter was a game-changer. It had an immediate impact on my mood. This man was woodsman and a gentleman, and writing the letter forced me to recognize just how much he contributed to my becoming the man I am today. Reflecting on all I learned from him made me feel truly blessed and immensely happy—if not a bit guilty for having waited so long to say thank you.
So, here’s my challenge to you: Do the same, but don’t wait as long as I did. Pick up a nice writing instrument and some quality stationary—this is a keeper, remember—and pen a heartfelt note of thanks to your Scoutmaster or someone else who had a profound impact on your life. You’ll make that person’s day, and you’ll gain instant happiness. A warm feeling of gratitude and satisfaction will wash over your entire body and trump the trials and tribulations of even the most difficult days.
HOW DO YOU HELP IMPROVE YOUR MOOD—ESPECIALLY DURING THE BUSY HOLIDAY SEASON? SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS BELOW.