Feeling stressed or down? These science-backed tips will boost your mood quickly.
So often, the habits that experts recommend to increase happiness aren’t compatible with actual daily life. Who has time to sit down for an extended meditation session when you’re juggling 1,000 different things?
Fortunately, there is plenty you can do to boost your well-being throughout the day in just a few minutes. Here are five research-backed happiness “hacks” that take five minutes or less, but pay dividends all day long.
1. Tackle your hardest task.
Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of Inner Mammal Institute and author of “Habits of a Happy Brain,” believes that humans can essentially rewire their brains. How so? By understanding that we have certain “happy chemicals” that were inherited from earlier mammals — and using that knowledge to develop habits that turn those chemicals on.
One of those chemicals is dopamine, which Breuning describes as “a sense of accomplishment,” and you can stimulate dopamine by going straight at your most difficult task of the day — ideally pretty early on. Have an email you’ve been putting off? A particularly challenging stretch of child care? A deadline you need to hit, or a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off? Tackle it first.
(If the task you’re taking on isn’t something you can complete in five minutes or less, break it into smaller chunks. Then start with one.)
Ultimately, the goal is to “focus on a specific target,” Breuning said, and to celebrate yourself when you’re done. It might feel counterintuitive to tackle a hard task when you’re looking for a feeling of happiness, but stimulating dopamine in your brain can help keep you humming along (and feeling proud of yourself!) all day long.
2. Take 10 deep breaths.
In a December study led by a team of researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, experts broke down the four pillars they believe are essential to cultivating mental well-being: awareness, connection, insight and purpose. All these sound pretty lofty, but the pillars can be broken down into small daily habits that, over time, train the brain.
When it comes to awareness, for example, one of the simplest exercises to try is just breathing. Close your eyes and focus on the act of taking 10 breaths, the researchers suggested. That’s it! (Or consider 4-7-8 breathing. Or roll breathing. Or any of the hundreds of other types of focused breathing. Just find one or two methods that feel good to you so you’ll actually stick to it.)
Ultimately, research really does show how powerful mindfulness meditation can help to lessen feelings of anxiety and stress both in the moment and in the longer term. But the good news is that you don’t need to spend a huge chunk of your day doing it.
3. Listen to a happy song. (Bonus points for dancing!)
When you’re exhausted or dragging, press play on an upbeat song. Research shows hearing happy music is on par with mindfulness meditation.
For example, in a 2016 study of older adults with Alzheimer’s, listening to music improved their sense of well-being and mood and lowered their feelings of stress. On the other end of the spectrum, studies have shown that singing to babies in the NICU helps to keep them “quietly alert” and reduced parental stress.
Bonus points for dancing or moving your body along with the music, which can help increase your energy levels even further while zapping stress.
4. For a few minutes, focus on the people who’ve got your back.
According to Breuning, another key “happy chemical” is oxytocin, which people tend to think of as the love hormone, though she thinks of it as more closely tied to feelings of trust. To stimulate oxytocin quickly, she recommended thinking about the people you trust. Ask yourself: “If I need support, who will be there?” Breuning said.
You might go ahead and connect with that person by sending them a quick text or giving them a call, (or if you’re together at home, giving them a quick hug). And those simple moments of social connection with someone you love and admire are a big-time happiness booster.
But just thinking about who is in your “herd” can be enough, Breuning said. It stimulates your brain’s oxytocin, which helps you feel safe and secure.
5. Do something kind for someone. (Or just think kind thoughts!)
Research shows that daily acts of kindness are a simple way to boost happiness and they don’t have to be big. What matters is that you’re deliberate about it.
“Intentionally set a goal to be kinder to others,” experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest . “Express sincerely felt kindness to a co-worker. Make a special effort to extend kind words to a neighbor. Hold the elevator for someone or take time to help a loved one.”
Experts also now understand that it can be equally powerful (at least from a happiness-boosting perspective) to simply spend some time cultivating a sense of kindness toward someone in your own head — whether or not that person even knows it.
The Center for Healthy Minds recommended thinking about things you admire about that person. Then “recall situations where they expressed these qualities and then imagine expressing your appreciation,” the group noted. “You can then extend this to people you don’t know very well and eventually even to people you find challenging.”
By spending some time sending happy thoughts someone else’s way, you’ll bring a bit of joy into your own life.
Mindfulness practice, at its core, is the opposite of an anxious mind.
What Is Mindfulness?
“There have been many tragedies in my life, but most of them have not happened.” —Mark Twain
Anxiety lives in fears of the future that haven’t happened yet. How often does what you worry about actually happen? Take a second to reflect on the last spiral of worry that took over you. While bad things do happen, the odds are that it was much worse in your mind than what happened or what may happen.
The truth is, most of what we worry about never happens. We’re hardwired to be perceiving and responding to threats. It’s what has kept us alive evolutionarily; other mammals can fight with fangs and claws, but we are “thinking mammals.” We can hardly spend a few moments without thinking. This makes sense, as it’s what has kept us alive. This often causes an emergency response, despite the veracity of the actual threat.
Fear (the core of anxiety, really) is our body’s ancient response to perceived peril, no matter how negligible it actually is. It can present itself as a stress-related physical symptom, making us desperate to get rid of it. This constant state of worry and threat-scanning and detection can wear us down. This can make us avoid any danger signs, even when they often are just signs.
Unfortunately, this is often a trap. What we constantly avoid, we strengthen (i.e., the confrontational conversation or passing by the area where you were robbed), reinforcing its danger, no matter how harmless it may be and usually is.
Our propensity to plan, especially when it stems from anxiety, can also easily become excessive and counterproductive, taking us away from the pleasure and richness of the moment, the only time we can actually feel joy, happiness, pleasure, and peace. We’re also conditioned by capitalism to look for the next thing, taking us away from the now, and everything is usually OK right now unless it’s an emergency or crisis. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness practices rewire the brain toward savoring the present moment, instead of dwelling on anxiety, which is often living the state of perceived fears. In mindfulness practice, we learn the wisdom in prioritizing. Things that we’re worrying about often aren’t urgent.
It’s easy to forget you have time to deal with many of the stressors you chronically worry about, and you’ve dealt with them well your whole life! In fact, thinking about bad things happening is worse than just dealing with them! Showing up 20 minutes late to the event wasn’t that bad after all, right?
Worry can also, covertly, feel enjoyable; it’s easy to worry even when everything is OK now. I’m personally an expert at this. The mind can think that worry is what prevented something bad from happening, which can mistakenly reinforce it, despite its factual falseness. Worry often tricks us into thinking we’re “taking action” to prevent danger, when we may actually be reinforcing it.
Mindfulness practice helps you see and prevent these mental pitfalls from decreasing your unnecessary suffering and worrying. What can be better than that? When stuck in traffic, do you want to be fuming like everyone else, or kicking back, relaxing, at ease, savoring life’s blessings? Mindfulness reveals this choice for you, no matter how elusive it felt prior.
Jason Linder, MA, LMFT, is a licensed bilingual (Spanish-speaking) therapist and doctoral (PsyD) candidate at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego.
What is mindfulness?
The modern mindfulness is the brainchild of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor emeritus of medicine. He defines it as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
In simpler terms, mindfulness helps sustain attention to feelings, emotions and thoughts in the present moment without getting carried away by them. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, and from an ancient tradition, it has evolved into a modern mind training. It is a quality that some people possess naturally, but it can also be trained and improved. Mindfulness is the bridge in between our mind and present moment that helps us understand and better react to stressful, overwhelming situations.
Benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness is a powerful practice that can help with improving wellbeing in terms of physical and mental health. From the physical point of view, mindfulness training can help with stress relief, lowering blood pressure, reducing pain and improving sleep. Mindfulness gives people a larger perspective on life, clear thinking and patience. Our minds don’t have switch off buttons for unwanted thoughts; however, it is possible to train yourself to control them. Systematic training improves focus attention and concentration. It results in having more energy to become fully engaged in important activities of everyday life instead of getting carried away by worries and intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness meditation helps develop better resilience and can help people recover faster from tension and stress.
Research on mindfulness has been expanding rapidly in the last decades. The evidence for the benefits of mindfulness is promising and proven in several trials with clinical and social applications.
People have their mind wandering almost 50 percent of the time they are awake. That means their mind is not where their body is; instead, they’re thinking about things that happened in the past, could happen in the future or might never happen at all – all while being involved in many other daily tasks. Evidence suggests that a wandering mind leads to unhappiness.
However, the brain can be trained to sustain focus and attention in the present moment. Introducing mindfulness training in daily routines has the potential to improve mental and overall health treatment outcomes.
Clinical applications of the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have proven to be effective in several studies and trials. Researchers report that MBCT can decrease the severity of depression symptoms of currently depressed patients in just eight weeks. A number of trials show a positive effect of mindfulness on brain changes and immune responsivity, and even influence the healing process of skin diseases related to psychological stress. In the context of mental health, mindfulness encourages people to develop a more compassionate and accepting relationship with their own thoughts and feelings.
There are many mindfulness techniques, but all of them focus on the same: paying attention and accepting your thoughts on purpose, without judgement. You can practice mindfulness where and when you want; it doesn’t necessarily need to be a lengthy process and can take a couple of minutes – on your break from work, for example.
Mindfulness starts with posture. You can choose whether you want to sit comfortably, lay down or even walk, but you need to have your back straight. You continue with breathing exercises and scanning your body. By focusing on your physical sensations, you can switch to focusing on sensory aspects as sounds, smells and touches. It’s important to observe the feelings and thoughts you’re having without judgement and let them go.
This focusing exercise is just an example of many meditation techniques. Guided meditations are popular and can be easily accessed on many resources online.
Let’s imagine that you’re a reasonably healthy adult with all of your basic needs met, people who care about you in your life, and things you enjoy doing available to you … you should be pretty happy, right?
It turns out, even in this incredibly lucky scenario, most of us still struggle — stress, anxiety, frustration, overwhelm, letting ourselves and others down, disappointment, hurt feelings, anger, feeling like you’re always behind … it all creates a sense of unease that is not aligned with our fortunate circumstances.
So how do we go about enjoying life, finding a sense of peace and calm and purposeful focus?
I’ve found mindfulness practices to be the key. They’re not a magical solution to anything, but they do ease the suffering we experience in our lives.
Those of you who who have practiced meditation for awhile know what I’m talking about. Let’s look at a few ways to deepen into the practice, if you’re interested.
Step 1: Drop Into Direct Experience of the Moment
Most of us are caught up in our thoughts about our lives, ourselves, other people, the world around us … most of the time. We’re stuck in a movie in our minds, a storyline or narrative about the situation. This causes all of our trouble — frustration, disappointment, stress, anxiety, overwhelm, unhappiness.
The practice here is to drop into the direct experience of the moment. Not the thoughts about the moment (though those will come up), but the actual sensations happening in the moment.
You might notice the sensations present in different parts of your body, including how your breath feels, but also how your torso feels, seeing what you can notice in your neck and head, in your arms and legs. You might notice the sensation of air on your skin, or ground beneath your feet. You might notice sounds or light or colors or shapes.
Whenever you notice yourself caught up in thoughts or ideas, in a narrative or fantasies … drop back into the direct experience of the present moment. Experience everything with beginner’s mind, as if this were the first time you ever experienced this before.
This is a practice that you can get better at, returning again and again to direct experience. You move from concepts and thoughts and ideas and storylines, to direct experience. Just observe, just notice, just be curious.
If you’re feeling frustrated or stressed, try this and see if it shifts anything for you. See if you’re caught up less and present more.
Practice this for at least a month (though it’s really a lifetime practice).
Step 2: Bring a Sense of Friendliness Towards the Experience
After you’ve practiced dropping into direct experience … you might try a new way of relating to that direct experience.
Instead of just noticing as an impartial observer … see if you can bring a feeling of warmth, friendliness, gentleness, kindness, even love to your relating to this direct experience.
For example, if you see someone on the street, you can just notice that there’s a person there … or you can feel a friendliness towards them. Welcoming them into your experience like you would welcome someone warmly into your house.
In the same way, you can bring a friendliness and warmth and welcoming towards anything you notice in your direct experience. You notice the sensation of air on your skin, and you might feel friendly towards these sensations. The same with anything you hear, see, smell, touch. The same with how you notice nature all around you, or sensations in your body.
It’s a continuation of the practice of direct experience, but with a shift in how you relate — it’s unconditional friendliness to anything you bring your awareness towards.
Practice this for at least a month as well.
Step 3: Drop the Sense of Self, and Motivation from Gain & Loss
Once you’ve practiced the two steps above, you’ll be grounded in a view of reality that is much more free of conceptions and storylines, more open and unconstrained.
The next step is to notice that when you’re in direct experience, there is no self. I mean, there’s a body and brain, but it’s not separate from everything around it — it’s interconnected, not identifiable as something distinct from the world around it. Just as you might pick a drop of water in the ocean and say, “This is a separate drop of water!” … it’s only separate in our minds, in concept. In reality, it’s not separate but a part of everything around it.
This might sound pretty philosophical, but what is very real is noticing whether everything you do is motivated by a desire for gain or desire to avoid a loss. For example, you might want someone’s praise or affection (gain), or you might want to avoid them getting mad at you (loss). You might be scrolling through and posting in social media looking for validation (gain) or worried about missing out (loss). You might buy something because of how you think it will make you look or feel (gain) or because you’re feeling worried or insecure about a situation (loss).
All of these actions motivated by a sense of gain and loss are completely normal — we all do it. But they all come from a sense of separate self — we are trying to gain something for the self, trying to avoid a loss for the self. Helping this separate self get what it wants or avoid what it doesn’t want becomes our biggest activity and goal in life. It is what makes us frustrated or angry when we don’t get what we want, or hurt or sad when we get what we don’t want, or anxious or stressed when we might gain or lose something.
Being motivated by gain or loss is what causes our struggles in life. And that stems from the sense of separate self.
What’s another way? Dropping the sense of separate self. Just being present with direct experience. Feeling a friendliness and even love for everything and everyone around us. And then being motivated by that love — I act from a place of love and compassion for everyone around me (myself included, but not only myself).
Try it! It’s an incredible practice. Be directly with your experience, dropping your sense of self, of separateness from everything around you. Start to appreciate how connected you are to the world — you breathe in air from the world, eat food from the world, drink water and get information and heat and clothes and shelter and love from everything and everyone around you. You’re completely interconnected and interdependent. Dropping the conception of self, like you drop other concepts, return to direct experience.
And then watch your actions and see if they’re motivated by a desire for gain or desire to avoid loss. See if you can come from a place of love and compassion for everyone in the world, every living being. It’s a really powerful place to be moved from.
People in the study were asked to journal about their most stressful experiences.
Accepting negative emotions is the best way to deal with them in the long-run, new research finds.
People who are more accepting of their darker moods have better psychological health.
Dr Iris Mauss, one author of the study, said:
“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health.”
Psychologists are still not sure exactly why acceptance is so powerful, said Dr Mauss:
“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention.
And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”
The results come from research on over 1,300 people.
Those who most strongly resisted negative emotions, or judged them excessively, were more stressed.
Over six months, the people who did best were those who let their dark moods run their course, with little judgement or criticism.
They had fewer symptoms of mood disorders like depression.
Dr Brett Ford, the study’s first author, said:
“It turns out that how we approaach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being.
People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.”
The researchers ruled out being richer as a factor, Dr Mauss said:
“It’s easier to have an accepting attitude if you lead a pampered life, which is why we ruled out socio-economic status and major life stressors that could bias the results.”
People were asked to journal about their most stressful experiences, in one of three studies the researchers conducted.
In general, those who did not feel bad about feeling bad had the highest levels of well-being and psychological health.
Next, the researchers want to look at where the habitual acceptance of negative emotions comes from.
Dr Mauss said:
“By asking parents about their attitudes about their children’s emotions, we may be able to predict how their children feel about their emotions, and how that might affect their children’s mental health.”
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Ford et al., 2017).
Six months later, 80% had recovered from depression, researchers found.
Rumination — thinking about the causes and consequences of depressing events — is common in depression.
However, simply realising that you don’t have to ruminate can be liberating, new research suggests.
When people learned to reduce how much they ruminated, 80% had recovered after six months (including 10 weeks of therapy).
Professor Roger Hagen, who led the research, said:
“Anxiety and depression give rise to difficult and painful negative thoughts.
Many patients have thoughts of mistakes, past failures or other negative thoughts.
Metacognitive therapy addresses thinking processes.”
One of the problems in depression is that people…
“…think too much, which MCT [metacognitive therapy] refers to as ‘depressive rumination’.
Rather than ruminating so much on negative thoughts, MCT helps patients to reduce negative thought processes and get them under control.”
Taking control of your thoughts is an important part of modern cognitive therapies.
Professor Hagen said:
“Instead of reacting by repeatedly ruminating and thinking ‘how do I feel now?’ you can try to encounter your thoughts with what we call ‘detached mindfulness.’
You can see your thoughts as just thoughts, and not as a reflection of reality.
Most people think that when they think a thought, it must be true.
For example, if I think that I’m stupid, this means I must be stupid.
People strongly believe that their thoughts reflect reality.”
Many patients who took part in the study were pleasantly surprised, said Professor Hagen:
“The patients come in thinking they’re going to talk about all the problems they have and get to the bottom of it, but instead we try to find out how their mind and thinking processes work.
You can’t control what you think, but you can control how you respond to what you think.”
Imagine getting into a political discussion with someone who is highly passionate about their beliefs. If the conversation is a good one, those beliefs will likely, at some point, come under question. If their emotional PH is high enough, they’ll interpret that as not only their ideas being threatened, but their identities too. Soon, you’re not having a conversation anymore, but a back-and-forth defense match. It’s not about listening, it’s about being right. You reach for over-generalizations, they argue with singular, personal anecdotes, you make sweeping assumptions, cite studies you read once-upon-a-time, their faces widen with bewilderment at how you cannot possibly see what’s so logical and self-evident to them.
This is a really common example of what happens when people allow their emotions to color their thoughts.
Being passionate is fine. Feeling a lot is fine. But when you lose your ability to differentiate what you feel from what you think, you debilitate yourself. Your arguments lose their edge. You can no longer think clearly. You panic. Irrational fears take hold, because you have corresponding emotions which make them seem true.
Twist your wrist really hard with your opposite hand. Enough so that it hurts a bit. Enough so that the sensation is comparable to what you feel in your chest when you have anxiety. Are you panicking as you twist your wrist? No, because you haven’t assigned meaning to that sensation. In other words, your emotions are not coloring your thoughts right now, because you know better – and that is the key.
Your emotional child cannot run the show. Your mental parent must do that, which is something you develop over time.
It’s rare to see an intelligent person become overly-emotional about one fixed, definitive idea. They’re often passionate about concepts, topics, or subjects, but never singular “truths.” This is because well-read, studied, informed people are aware of complexity, possibility, valid, opposing arguments. They know they don’t know everything, and they also know that almost nothing is black-or-white.
You must learn to apply the same logic to your emotional life.
Most things people become extremely emotional about lack depth. They get stuck on one idea, and convince themselves it is unfailingly, unquestionably true. They assume they know everything. They leave no room for growth or learning or possibility.
Your feelings can inform your thoughts, but they cannot color them. Your feelings should be utilized as a mechanism to guide you – show you what makes you comfortable and uncomfortable. From there, your mind must discern. Is this discomfort healthy, or indicative of a problem? Is this pain coming from true hurt, or making meaning of a situation where there is none? From there, you can choose a course of action. You are no longer flailing around, being thrown by temporary, subjective, illogical, inapplicable emotions. You are using your feelings to guide you, not govern you.