Courtesy of Paul Filitchkin
We all know how tough these times can be. Personally, we may feel that we have lost control over our lives, unable to partake in the many activities that we hold dearly to us.
Here's the good news: there are mental techniques like mindfulness and gratitude backed up by robust scientific research that can help us tide us through these tough times just a little better. If you haven't started building these simple positive habits in your life, this might be just the time to do so.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a mental state where we are fully engaged with whatever we're doing at the moment, without any distraction or judgment, and being aware of our feelings and thoughts at the same time.
If you have ever found yourself absolutely focused on a single activity, perhaps when you are playing an instrument, doing sports or otherwise being "in the zone", you have experienced mindfulness.
It has been proven to lead to a greater sense of well-being and decrease anxiety. With just a little bit of practice, it is easy to be mindful, be more present, and ultimately be happier.
What is gratitude?
A simple, but life-changing question: what are you grateful for? Everyone has their answers, no matter how small or big they are, but one thing is true: multiple studies have shown that expressing gratitude can lead to greater positivity, including helping you deal with difficult situations, build longer-lasting relationships and remembering good experiences.
Furthermore, expressing gratitude to others encourages them to do the same. It's an amazing positive feedback loop - the more we do it, the better we all feel.
1. Pick a trigger for mindfulness or gratitude
Courtesy of Frank Busch
How many times have you sat down today? Most people wouldn't know the exact answer, nor would they even realise that they were in the process of sitting down! This, among other activities like walking, passing through a door and drinking water, can become powerful opportunities along the day to practice just a few moments of mindfulness or gratitude. Over time, mindfulness and gratitude may just become ingrained in you, and become a part of your life.
This is the easiest and most powerful way to learn these techniques. To begin:
Choose an activity that you perform regularly throughout the day
These could be:
Taking a sip of water or any beverage
Passing through a door
Seeing yourself in the mirror
Checking social media
Ideally, this activity should occur at least 7 times a day.
Practice mindfulness or gratitude when this activity occurs
For instance, when you sit, focus on all the sensations you feel: the smell in the air, the pace of your breathing, the texture of the chair. Or think of something you feel grateful for.
It's really that simple! All you need to do is to stick to this for the next week and make it a habit.
2. Maintain a gratitude journal
Courtesy of Gabrielle Henderson
Like most skills, gratitude and mindfulness can be trained. The more we practice them, the better we are at bringing them into our everyday lives and spreading positivity around.
One of the easiest gratitude exercises with robust evidence supporting it is gratitude journaling. This just means taking the time to note down the things that you are grateful for. You can pick a schedule and a medium that works for you: you could take 10 minutes every few days to write down five to ten things that fill you with gratitude, or you might prefer spending just a few moments everyday to type down one activity in your phone using an app like Grateful or Presently (iOS, Android).
All we ask is for is open-mindedness: just write what comes to mind. It can be as simple as the taste of coffee in the morning, or someone that you really care about. Just keep to it for a few weeks, and you might notice a higher level of life satisfaction!
3. Practice meditation
Courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio
Meditation is an ancient practice, with proven benefits to your mental health. To begin, just follow these steps:
Find a comfortable spot and sit down
Relax, and gently close your eyes
Focus on your breath without trying to change it. Notice the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation
When you get distracted, simply notice the distraction, then gently come back to the breath
However, meditation requires a discipline to commit at least a few minutes to it everyday, and the willingness to let mindfulness become a part of your life. That's why this is best done in conjunction with step one: let both exercises reinforce each other, allowing you to train up and become more comfortable with being mindful over time.
This NYTimes article perfectly encapsulates all you need to know about meditation, with some guided exercises to ease you into the practice.
4. Truly savour your life
Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema
We've all had those really uplifting yet fleeting moments: staring deep into the eyes of someone you love, taking in a majestic vista, or savouring a really delectable dish.
What if we could learn how to really enjoy these moments? Now, beyond noticing what's positive in your life, begin to slow down and really pay attention to the things that bring you happiness. When you fully experience the joy, beauty and happiness around you, you'll find more satisfaction and gratitude in your life.
This technique is called savouring, and research has found that those who learn to deliberately appreciate and maximise the positive moments in their lives feel happier and less stressed.
While savouring does involve appreciating the present, it can also include past experiences and future aspirations.
Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff book on savouring, Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience lists four ways to savour, each with an associated emotion.
Luxuriating - pleasure. When you are filled with physical pleasure, such as when one bites into a creamy, decadent slice of cake or gets a relaxing massage.
Thanksgiving - gratitude: When you reflect on the good times in life or express your thanks to someone you love.
Basking - pride: When immersing yourself in the pride of an accomplishment, like a good run.
Marveling - awe: When one is awestruck by the beauty of the world, like a starlit night sky.
So, to practice, pick one or two ways to savour that resonates with you the most, then choose from one of these:
Reminisce on something in the past
Savour something in the present
Anticipate something in the future
You may have noticed that these methods require some practice, which is necessary. We need to acquire habits through repeated exercises that fundamentally cause changes in the way we think and prime us to be more positive. But don't worry - just pick a few methods and try them! You'll see the benefits soon enough.