Happy Habits, Episode 2: Wash Your Hands and Scrub Your Brain


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**To watch the accompanying video, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFWdcyY1rWU

Humans are thinking beings. You can try arguing the opposite, but that would require thinking, and you’d lose the argument. Sometime around 1637, René Descartes said, “Cogito, ergo sum.” The English translation, “I think, therefore I am.” After several decades of studying psychological theory, and now assisted by Google translator, we’re ready to offer an expanded version of Decartes maxim: “Cogito ergo sum ego possit cogitare et in tempore angustiae triumphi.”

Or, in English, “I think therefore I am able to think myself into trouble or triumph.”

We all have a few mental habits that don’t contribute to happiness or well-lived lives. We can overthink, underthink, make up excuses, feed our paranoia, gather false evidence to bolster our irrationality, and fail to consider authentic evidence that contradicts our perspective. We can dwell on and inflate the negative and literally worry ourselves sick. There are endless lists of thinking errors. If you want to make yourself miserable, you could diagnose yourself by doing an internet search for your particular irrational ways of being. But for now, we hope you’ll put your brain to work on these Happy Habits instead.

Happy Habit #3: Three Good Things

One of the most well-known evidence-based happiness assignments is Martin Seligman’s Three Good Things activity. Here’s what to do: Every night, for at least a week, before you go to sleep, identify and write down three things that went well for you during the day. Then take a minute or two and reflect on why they went well. Seligman doesn’t say this, but we think it might be a good idea to then fold the paper, give it a little kiss, and tuck it under your pillow. That’s where the tooth fairy left you money, right? Who knows what magic lurks under there?

Just in case you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, here’s a one-minute video of Seligman describing the activity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac .

Seligman claims that after doing this for a week, most people just keep doing the three good things activity it because it’s a positive experience that reorients the brain toward wellness. We hope this is true. We suspect it requires self-discipline. Let us know!

Happy Habit #4: Create an Alternative Reality

As we noted in a previous post, our surroundings aren’t always comforting. In fact, sometimes they’re obnoxious, boring, frightening, threatening, or disgusting. The sad truth is you cannot always go Forest Bathing and you can’t listen to music 24/7. But you live in your brain, no matter what. You can use your imagination to change your focus and reduce the impact of the less desirable aspects of your surroundings.

The first thing to do is build up your supply of mental happy places. The goal is to create or remember a beautiful, relaxing scene or two—imagined or real surroundings that you personally find awesome. It can involve a river, a mountain-top, a sandy beach, or a lovely garden. It can be your bed, all warm and comfy. It can be your favorite pub, with your favorite drink in front of you and your friends all around. It can be church, with everyone singing. It can be a basketball game, a concert, a museum. Build these scenes in your mind to fit your definition of safe, relaxing, happy places.

Don’t worry about what “should” be your happy places. The important thing is to elaborate your visions. Add in all the details (sights, smells, sounds, and physical sensations). And then practice going there. This is one way some people survive trauma, combat, abuse, or unthinkable deprivation. They use their minds to go elsewhere. It’s an amazing human ability, and can be helpful in situations far less compelling than traumatic ones. You can use your happy places to disrupt the drag of daily life.

Got a dirty diaper to change? Imagine the soft breeze and the light green grass. Got someone in need of you sitting by their bedside? Hold their hands and drift back to that concert you attended. Smile with your eyes. Got people who need you to feed them? Remember the cheese dogs at the fair. Have an impossible amount of internet work to do? Take five-second breaks and imagine that spectacular three-pointer that won the game last year. To keep these places fresh and available, tell someone about them, or write them down, or sketch them. You can also boost their power if you take a minute and consider what makes them safe and happy. These are sanctuaries of your own making. Use them, not to avoid life, but to provide yourself with pleasant breaks from challenging times.

There are many sites devoted to using imagery. Two examples include: https://www.mentalhelp.net/stress/visualization-and-guided-imagery-techniques-for-stress-reduction/

https://www.wikihow.com/Be-in-Your-Happy-Place

Happy Habit #5: Meditation and Relaxation

In 1975, Herbert Benson of Harvard University published a ground-breaking book titled, The Relaxation Response. Now, thousands of publications and websites are available to help you relax your mind and body. Some resources advocate mindfulness meditations. Others focus on physical relaxation. We’re big fans of relaxing, especially in stressful times. Stress depletes your immune system. Relaxing builds it back up.

For some people, trying to relax triggers anxiety. This could stem from self-consciousness or performance anxiety. It can also be hard for people with trauma histories to relax. If this is true for you, take it slowly. Be patient with yourself, involve a support person if that helps, and realize that time and practice will help overcome your obstacles. Finally, remember all Happy Habits are about self-care. You get to be the judge of which ones work for you. Don’t take our word or anyone else’s word for what should work for you without testing and practicing it yourself.

Here’s a simple relaxation guide, similar to what Benson wrote about:

  1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Relax your muscles, beginning with your toes, progressing up to the top of your head. As you move through your muscle groups, try to keep everything relaxed.
  4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, you might choose to say a simple word or count your breaths up to four. There are differing opinions on this. Breathe easily and naturally. If your mind wanders, come back to your breath.
  5. Try to set aside at least 10 minutes. More is better; less is acceptable if that’s all you have. If you need to be precise with your time, set your phone alarm, but only with a very gentle, pleasant sound. Leave a few minutes to just sit and mentally return to the here and now. Don’t rush back into your hectic life if you can help it.
  6. Accept yourself. Don’t judge. Try to have a passive attitude. Watch yourself relax. Let thoughts come and go. No scolding! Offer yourself mindful and nonjudgmental acceptance for your efforts.
  7. Practice this as often as you can. Daily practice can make a huge difference in your stress level. You’re teaching your mind and body that it is possible to chill, let go, and relax.

Here’s a 20 minute guided practice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIr3RsUWrdo

Roughly 2000 years ago, the philosopher Seneca wrote, “There are more things to alarm us than to harm us, and we suffer more often in apprehension than reality.”

It’s your mind. Give it a good scrub. And then use it to stay healthy.

Here’s the Rita and John video that goes with this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFWdcyY1rWU

 

 

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