Tony Stevens is the YWRC Business Manager, our employment advocacy expert, and wellbeing advocate. To read more from Tony on his journey for peace, health, and happiness click right here:

I decided to revisit the wellbeing habits I’d started to develop before the world got flipped-turned upside down. I recently learned about these “happiness hacks” during my positive psychology studies. Embedding them into my daily routine has gradually shifted my mindset from the negative side of the ledger towards the more cheerful shores of the emotional spectrum. Little by little, life seems more hopeful, more optimistic, and more purposeful.

These habits were powerful even in the pre-coronavirus world, but with COVID-19 breaking onto our collective conscious like a tsunami I believe they off a genuine opportunity. I want to share these practices with you because I believe cultivating a more optimistic mindset will be vital as we learn to navigate this challenging new status quo.

1. Gratitude diary

Each day I begin by reflecting on three things in my life that I am grateful for – once the morning admin is out of the way of course. I write these down in a diary over a strong black coffee and aim to think of three new things every time. This encourages and conditions my brain to consciously search for positive experiences and contributes towards an avalanche of positivity I carry into my day – often I’ll catch myself smiling while I’m doing it!

Our mindset is not hard-wired and just like working out a muscle, we can train our brains to think more positively through consistent practice. There is an overwhelming amount of research that links regular gratitude expression to numerous social, physical and psychological benefits including increased happiness, more social resources, stronger relationships, and better sleep. I’ve found it contributes strongly to reducing depression and is a panacea for toxic emotions like envy and resentment.

2. Kindness feedback loop

The next thing I do, before I settle in for the day’s tasks, is send a kind email to someone in my social network praising or expressing appreciation towards them. This has been a game changer for me in progressing my mental wellbeing. Not only does it kickstart my day by stimulating positive emotions, it makes me feel like I am adding value to peoples lives, and subsequently – feel more socially connected. At a time like this I can’t stress enough how powerful that connection can be.

What I love about this is that you are creating a feedback loop of kindness. You email your colleague Jen saying how awesome she is and afterwards feel fabulous for being a nice person. She then emails you back an equally lovely message making you feel marvellous again. You are spinning a web of appreciation that invests in those who are meaningful in your life and then returns that investment to you by promoting positive cognitions.

Now that we are physically unable to see our friends and family this practice might be a wonderful tool at your disposal to inject some kindness into people’s lives while making you feel more optimistic and connected. If you help people feel valued, it will change their day – and yours.

3. Movement

Exercise saved my life. It gave me something to focus on when the world seemed liked it was against me. I fell in love with calisthenics, a form of bodyweight training meaning “beauty in strength”, and it provided me with a form of physical expression that helped shaped my identity while keeping me mentally and physiologically healthy. It gave me goals to strive for, a sense of accomplishment when achieving them, the fulfilment of developing new skills, aesthetic confidence, and the pure pleasure of learning and striving for mastery.

The beautiful thing with exercise is there are so many ways to move your body, and like wine there is a methodology out there for everybody. Clinical studies have shown that as little as 15 minutes of exercise per day is as effective as antidepressants at reducing depression. Exercise helps boost your mood through the release of what is essentially narcotics, neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. This is where the idea of the “runner’s high” comes from.

Now that I’ve hooked you with the science it’s time to get esoteric. Physical movement, whether that is yoga, dancing, or doing handstand push-ups, is a metaphor for life. Motivation, frustration, triumph, discipline, connection, setback – all the hallmarks of the human condition are represented in the way we move our bodies. It has a meaning broader than simply stimulating a healthy nervous system. It is a form of self-love that helps us realise we can overcome any challenges that come our way; to redefine what is possible and rewrite the narrative of what we are capable of.

4. Mindfulness meditation

I look at meditation like brushing your teeth, or mental flossing if you will – something you do to keep your mental gums from decaying and preventing legions of cerebral plaque like stress and anxiety from taking up permanent residence.

I’ve been meditating on and off for about two years and have only recently developed some consistency – but it’s been totally worth the effort. Like any skill, meditation take practice and consistency to reap the full benefits. Start off small and grow your practice over time. I started with short five-minute practices and have slowly built up to 15-minute meditations every evening.

My top tip would be to set aside perfectionism – we are all made perfectly imperfect. If you’re anything like me then you are your own biggest critic. This judgey inner voice can creep into meditation and take over the steering wheel if it decides you are not meditating correctly. Self-compassion is important here and gently reminding yourself that there is no right, wrong, or perfect way to do this.

If meditating is not for you there are alternative ways to seek mindful moments in your day, like taking a walk in nature, yoga, or even vacuuming (just ask my friend Manu). I also like to put some of my favourite songs on and sing at the top of my lungs when no one is around (which is quite often these days). It’s almost impossible to feel glum when your belting out the lyrics to your favourite song.

5. Positive reflection

With this practice I revisit my diary in the evening and challenge my brain to reflect on something positive that happened to me that day. Without thinking too hard, I simply jot down whatever comes to mind about that experience whether it’s a collection of words or a few brief sentences. Sometimes it’s obvious what that experience was and sometimes I have to push my brain really hard to think of something. Welcome this effort – that is where the benefit truly lies. It is this process of encouraging your brain to reanimate a positive experience that works behind the scenes to cultivate a joyous mindset.

This practice works really well in tandem with a gratitude diary, bookending your day with some lush mental flossing. Even the act of writing itself is a beneficial activity, helping to consolidate your memory, boosting creativity, deepening your thinking, and even providing some sense of stress relief.

Keeping the habits alive

Maintaining good habits like these has been one of the biggest challenges on my wellbeing journey, and I know I’m not alone on this. But I have found some helpful tips I’d like to leave you with that might make it easier:

1. With any of these habits, you want to practice them in such a way that is authentic and indigenous to you. To be successful they need to be something you want to do, something that is meaningful to you, not something you feel you should do. Maybe writing kindness emails is not your thing but there is a myriad of ways to express kindness. Even just smiling at someone can change their day for the better. So next time you go grocery shopping make sure you flash your pearly whites at the heroes keeping us fed and supplied throughout this civil emergency.

2. Tiny changes are easier to stick to than a full makeover. Even just adopting one of these practices and focusing on that for 21 days could have a huge impact. Once you feel comfortable with that practice you can explore other ways to promote happiness. Importantly, key to being consistent is establishing a routine and scheduling set times to engage in the practice. What works for me is programming everything into my calendar. I don’t demand strict adherence to the schedule but having the structure there helps.

3. Keep the habits alive by doing the baseline. Having an accessible, easy starting point is a good idea and you can always grow your practice from there. For example, begin with a 15 minute workout every second day. If you feel like doing more you always can, but 15 minutes is not usually an intimidating timeframe for most people and you can progressively increase it at your leisure.

4. Understand that motivation ebbs and flows and you won’t always feel like crushing your goals. It’s important to show yourself self-compassion when you are not feeling motivated and give yourself a break without plunging into self-judgement – this is a perfectly normal, and regular human experience. When your motivation is back you can capitalise on this to build some momentum.

5. Our brains are wired to attack any threat – including ourselves. But self-compassion is a stronger motivator than self-criticism. What helps me to calm that critical inner voice is asking myself the question: “is this how I would speak to a friend who was seeking help?” Try to engage with your emotions and thoughts in the same way you would approach a cherished friend.

6. Congratulate yourself on your efforts towards developing positive habits. No matter how small or trivial they may seem, celebrate them – every time. Our brains are constantly looking for cause and effect so don’t wait long to celebrate your successes.

7. Adopting any of these habits does not mean ignoring challenging thoughts and emotions that arise. Rather than curing you of negativity, these habits are tools to help encourage a balanced mindset and avoid being sucked into a negativity vortex. Optimism is great – rational optimism is better.

Also – there’s nothing wrong with the occasional snack binge.

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