What makes you happy? Mindfulness, Hygge and beyond.

It’s International Day of Happiness, a good time to think about what makes us happy and steps we can take to improve.

Our emotional wellbeing can have an impact, both positive and negative, on our physical health. It’s a fact backed by countless studies including the annual World Happiness Report.

In 2017, Norway topped the polls of the World Happiness Report. They’re joined in the top four by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. The rankings look at the main factors that are considered to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, income and good governance.

The 2017 report also examined the social foundations of happiness and it’s importance and demonstrated how work is also a big part of our happiness with unemployment being linked to lower scores.

Within countries, differences in happiness appeared not to be explained by discrepancies in income, but by difference in mental health, physical health and personal relationships.

Patients with chronic illness and chronic pain have higher rates of depression and we know that depression can worsen our experiences of illness and pain – the physical and the psychological are intrinsically linked.

When faced with troubles – stress at work or home, financial worries or health worries, it can be easy to focus on these and lose sight of what keeps us happy. In psychiatry sometimes these are referred to as protective factors – unique facets our lives that keep us safe and happy. For some, it might their family, their spouse, pets – to be honest it can be anything, as long as it works for you. Imagine the scene from Harry Potter – where he has to visualise a happy memory that Harry Potter before he could fly a broom – it’s the same principle! By understanding those principles that truly make us happy, we can call on them in times of need.

Not losing sight of those factors, or the bigger picture, are similar to concepts explored by mindfulness. A Buddhist philosophy that promotes the focusing on the here and the now, and quietening our minds to the external stressors. Mindfulness is gaining popularity in and outside of medicine and it’s ability to help with problems such as anxiety are becoming more apparent. There are lots of really useful online tools for mindfulness and if you’re someone who has anxious tendencies, they are worth exploring.

One way to naturally boost those happy feelings are exercise. There is a unique sense of wellbeing that comes after a work out or after exerting yourself. The process itself promotes the release of endorphins that boost our mood. Not to mention the added benefits on the body, the heart, improved sleep etc.

In honour of International Happiness Day, I have been reading about Hygge.

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A cosy, bubble of good feelings that has come from our Danish cousins – it might not be that much of a coincidence that they made into the runner up position on the World Happiness Index after all.

Hygge, which has been open to some speculation, has saturated our media – newspapers, blogs, insta posts, of late. So popular, the Oxford Dictonary short-listed it as a word of the year in 2016 (it lost out to ‘post-truth’). But what is it all about? In short, it’s an approach to living that embraces the positive and enjoyment in everyday experiences which are thought to be core in the attitudes of Scandinavia.

Whether you choose to follow the teachings of mindfulness, the concepts of Hygge, you work it out in the gym or another path to happiness, remember this: your emotional health is as important as your physical health. We are well when we are holistically well, our body and mind working well together.

 

 

 

 

Your sense of self: the magic five.

Self Confidence.

Self Esteem.

Self Worth.

Self Belief.

Self Respect.

All priceless. All fragile. All unique.

Our sense of self is intricately tied to our personalities, experiences, belief systems and the bubble we find ourselves in. It can take a life time to build and a second to shatter.

 

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On the face of it, the five S’s may all seem similar concepts but each one is a like a snowflake – outwardly uniform but subtly different to the next.

In today’s society when we are so often judged on how well we do our job, how many exams we passed, how productive we are, what material possessions we have or don’t have, it can be easy to conflate our self-confidence by listing our many achievements. However to face and accept our flaws and weaknesses takes real strength. It’s our self-esteem that allows us to look at these facets of our character and not be lessened by them. A robust sense of self esteem enables to us own our flaws, learn from them, use them, grow from them.
Alexander Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism in 1709 and told us “To err is human, to forgive is devine”. Whether you have faith in a higher power is immaterial, and whilst Pope may have been talking about literary critics, his words ring true when considering self-esteem.

Mistakes, flaws and errors are part of what makes us human. Being able to forgive ourselves is part of our ongoing development. We need to acknowledge and accept these to be able to move forwards.

Valuing what we can offer our friends, our family, our colleagues, the wider community or, more importantly, ourselves helps to re-affirm our sense of worth and place in the world. We all have a place.

What we do with that place, to a greater or lesser extent, has much to do with our self-belief. Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If we never change what we put in to something, how can we ever expect a different result?

At a couple of stages in my professional life I have had attacks of “Imposter Syndrome”, a pervasive feeling that at some point I would be uncovered as a fraud. I lacked the confidence and belief in myself and my abilities. The first was immediately after medical school. For years as I rotated through my house officer (residency) jobs, I kept all my old med school notes and textbooks – just in case the university called to tell me they had made a mistake and I hadn’t actually passed my finals!

The second time was shortly after I qualified as a GP. I worried all the time that I would be “found out” and that I wasn’t really “good enough” to do my job. Thankfully with time, supportive colleagues and a helpful husband, I learned to settle in my work. I still have moments when doubt starts to creep in, but using strategies I have developed over time to refocus my self-belief and confidence, I can pick myself back up.

Having a goal – whether it be in your work, your home life, weight loss or fitness goals – and the effort and drive it takes to reach it – all relies on your self-belief. That intense faith you place in yourself that you will reach your target. This one (as they all are) is tricky. It’s vulnerable to knocks along the way and this can lead you to deviate from your goals.

An analogy I often use with patients when we talk about goal setting is to imagine climbing a mountain. When you are in the foothills looking at the summit, it can seem an awful long way up. It’s easy to think of at least ten reasons not to start the journey – it’s a long way, it’ll be hard, I’m not prepared… But if you think of that same journey as a series of shorter journeys, perhaps from the foothills to base camp. From base camp to the next rest stop, and then to the next and so on until you reach the summit. Then at each rest stop allowing time to gather yourself and evaluate your progress. Whilst the journey might still seem a challenge, breaking it down to smaller chunks makes it more manageable.

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A buzz phrase in medicine, and education generally, is SMART. A tool for setting goals, it tells us that goals should be:

Specific (what are you going to achieve)

Measurable (how will you know when you achieve it)

Achievable (is it within your ability – if your idea of art is drawing is limited to stick people it might not be achievable to think you’ll open at the Tate Modern or MOMA in twelve months time)

Realistic (perhaps you are a great artist but accept it might take ten years for an opening in prestigious galleries) and

Time Specific (when are you going to achieve it by)

Either way to get to our goal takes self-confidence to learn our strengths, self-esteem to accept our weaknesses, self -worth to believe we have value and the right to dream and self-belief to push on and achieve it.

Which leaves the toughest one of all, self-respect.

Underpinning all of these is the respect we have for ourselves. Our esteem, worth, belief and confidence are, in general, internal concepts. They are what we think. Our respect is generally what we do to ourselves in the physical sense. Self-respect doesn’t care what happened in the past, it’s about what you are doing right now.

If the other four S’s are talking the talk, your self-respect is walking the walk.

No one, in any shape or sphere can or should take your self-respect. The only person who has any right to your self-respect is you. If you have a bad day, or week, or even a bad month your esteem, confidence, worth or belief might take a beating, but it’s your self-respect that will build you back up.

Self-respect is lifetime work. There will always be critical voices and adverse life events ready to knock you. However if you can ensure you respect you for you, you’ll make it through. Imagine your self-respect as a small seed, planted in the ground. To grow, it needs to be nourished and fed to flourish, ignore it and it will risk withering and decaying.

Having respect for yourself means taking care of your body, your mind and your actions. Be proud of you. Don’t settle for something that is less than you deserve. Forgive yourself, we have all done things we are not proud of, but berating yourself for these for the rest of your life won’t get you anywhere. Surround yourself with positive people and influences. Take care of your body – you only get the one. Don’t compare yourselves to others. Theodore Roosevelt told us that “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Treat others with respect but do not allow others to disrespect you.

“Self-respect cannot be hunted. It cannot be purchased. It is never for sale. It cannot be fabricated out of public relations. It comes to us when we are alone, in quiet moments, in quiet places, when we suddenly realize that, knowing the good, we have done it; knowing the beautiful, we have served it; knowing the truth, we have spoken it” Alfred Whitney Grisworld

 

–Alex