Now, don’t get me wrong - attending to your happiness is something you should do every day. But I didn’t want to miss marking the World Health Organisation’s annual global reminder that our mental health matters.
It’s true that we can start making our lives happier any old day of the year, but our brains are more prone to noticing specific milestone dates than we think.
Due to what Wharton psychologist Katy Milkman calls “The Fresh Start Effect”, we feel more motivated to adopt new habits and behaviours on days that feel significant - think January 1; the first day of spring; or your 40th birthday.
So I’m dropping this newsletter a day earlier than usual so that you can begin your own fresh start on World Mental Health Day.
I’m often asked to boil down all the happiness science to a handful of tips. I plan to cover lots of these in upcoming newsletters – things like the value of social connection; or performing random acts of kindness. But I quickly want to run through some simple tips that often get overlooked:
Go to Bed
Good mental health requires the right amount of sleep. It’s hard to benefit from all your other wellbeing practices if you aren’t getting enough sack time. So try going to bed 15 minutes early tonight, or waking up just a bit later tomorrow morning. You may need to sacrifice something – like missing the end of your favorite TV show – but it’s worth it.
The quality of your sleep also matters. So try to teach your body and mind that bed is exclusively a place of rest. That might mean banishing your smartphone to the hallway or resisting the urge to turn your bed into a home cinema or work space.
Get Up and Exercise
But if you’re now looking for something to drop from your daily routine to free up time to sleep, please don’t cut down on exercise. Most research shows that exercise makes us feel good. For example, just thirty minutes of cardio a day can be as effective at reducing symptoms of depression as taking an anti-depressant medication.
I know personally how tough it can be to spring out of bed and hit the elliptical – but I’ve learned a couple of tricks. I lay out my workout clothes the night before – so I have fewer excuses when the alarm goes off. And I also bundle exercise with a guilty pleasure – I only ever allow myself to re-watch my favorite TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer while I’m on the exercise machine.
Be Kind to Yourself
If there’s one happiness practice that gets overlooked the most, it’s got to be self-compassion. If you read the two previous tips and thought to yourself: “I suck at getting more sleep!” or “I never exercise because I’m always so weak-willed and lazy!” then you need to focus on being nicer to yourself.
We often judge ourselves harshly and can be deeply critical of our alleged failures to achieve our happiness goals. But that drill-sergeant mindset is totally counterproductive. You can’t bully yourself into being happier. So firstly, accept that your trash-talking inner monologue is an expression that you want to help yourself do better. But then try to counter that self-criticism with a bit of self-compassion – encourage yourself with the sort of kinds of words you might hear from a good friend or loved one. Try using phrases like…
“We all struggle.”
“At least you took a step in the right direction.”
“I’m proud of you for trying.”
“Tomorrow you’ll do even better.”
I really hope you’ll try to do one new thing today to improve your happiness (HINT: donating some money to a mental health charity or checking in on a friend who’s struggling seem particularly apt today), but if you can’t do anything else, just try to be a good friend to yourself.
Happy World Mental Health Day!