I've made no secret of the fact that I am someone who has a history with depression and eating disorders; in fact I've written about this here and here. I'm also someone who has used my past battles as opportunities to re-examine elements in my life that were no longer serving me, in an effort to bring more authenticity, wisdom, compassion and gratitude into my life. For instance, one of the most important changes I've made as an adult was my mid-career overhaul - leaving a thriving practice as an human resources professional in the corporate world to return to school as a mature student, pursuing a Master's degree in counselling psychology. It wasn't easy, and I'd be lying if I said my bank account didn't miss the comfortable income, benefits and perks that a career in private practice doesn't offer. But for me, all these years later, the benefits of working as a mental health counsellor and life coach far outweigh any of that.
These days, it's quite common for me to be counselling clients one-on-one through their own challenges, helping them use their current state of dissatisfaction as their own launching pads for something better. I'm often asked what the secret is to a happy state of mind, and my answer invariably sounds something along the lines of "it takes a LOT of daily work." Happiness doesn't magically materialize overnight. It requires the same amount of dedicated maintenance as you would tend to and nurture an exotic plant. When pressed to provide more specifics, I usually offer the following advice as a good start to achieve a happy state of mind:
1. Do The Work
By this, I mean get in touch with who you are and what really matters to you. What do you value in life? Your values are the lenses through which you see yourself and the world around you. Only with a clear understanding of what matters to you will you be able to identify the needed steps to live authentically true to yourself. As part of this values exercise, it's important to develop insight into your current avoidance strategies and limiting beliefs; these are the ways in which you get in your own way. We all have a tendency to sometimes avoid what really matters to us; usually this is because we're too busy listening to our internal voice of worry or fear, which is the voice that moves us away from our valued direction. I won't sugar-coast this, undertaking this work can be challenging, especially if your inside voice is a master of negativity. This is where a few sessions with a counsellor who has been trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is a form of mindfulness-based counselling, can really help you. Do the work; this is the biggest gift you can give yourself in life. Honouring and pursuing your valued direction will ultimately increase your self-esteem, sense of fulfillment and resilience.
2. Practice Mindfulness Daily
Mindfulness is a present-moment awareness of one's body, thoughts, surroundings and feelings. It's about regulating our focus of attention by staying grounded in the present moment with openness and curiosity, and in a non-judgmental way. So many of us are operating mindlessly in our day to day lives. How many times have you gotten behind the wheel of your car for your daily commute, and reached your destination thirty minutes later, only to realize that your mind was on something else entirely? How often do you find yourself multitasking over the course of your day - emailing your boss while having dinner with your kids, with the TV blaring in the background? These, of course, are examples of mindless living. The beauty of cultivating a mindfulness practice is that it rewires our brain to help us regulate our emotions; in this way, we will be able to respond rather than react, thereby reducing the likelihood of acting impulsively in the heat of the moment.
The mindfulness concept of radical acceptance is also an important one to emphasize here. The very nature of being sentient is such that pain, be it emotional or physical, is inevitable. There's no escaping it. However, how we choose to react as a result of our pain will determine whether we suffer or not. Earlier this month, I wrote about the pain of having to put my beloved dog, Happy, to sleep. In this deeply personal blog post, I described the painful moment during which he passed, and how I turned toward the pain mindfully. As counter-intuitive as the concept of radical acceptance may sound to many, it's vital for us to turn toward our pain, if that's what we're feeling in the present moment. Resisting pain will only add a secondary source of pain to our bodies and minds, and this is when true suffering manifests. My daily mindfulness practice has been a life-saver for me; it's what's kept me grounded during some of the most heart-wrenching moments of my life, like grieving the loss of somebody who meant the world to me.
3. Get Moving
Studies have long shown that regular exercise alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression, boosts self-confidence, improves our stress response, and increases relaxation. Whether you enjoy going to the gym or prefer working out at home, the point is to get your body moving. So whether you like walking, running, cycling, rowing, swimming, weight training, or prefer team sports, as the advertising geniuses behind one of the greatest corporate slogans ever once said, "Just Do It".
4. Enjoy Some Green Time
As delicious (and healthy!) as green juices are, I'm actually talking about reconnecting with nature here. The Japanese have long espoused the virtues of the practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing. Indeed, an emerging body of research has shown that spending time in nature can lower our cortisol levels, pulse rate, and blood pressure - all of which can optimize our mental and physical wellness. Long ago, I used to be a devoted gym rat who would wile away my mornings attending indoor group exercise classes set to thumping beats of blaring music. I have since traded in my gym membership in favour of getting my fitness time outdoors, while enjoying the sights and sounds of nature. Most mornings before work, you will usually catch me on my 5K walks either at the beach or within one of Toronto's ravines. Plus, the truly delicious part of getting my exercise with Mother Nature is that I'm able to reward myself afterward with a meditation of the most relaxing kind - on a sandy shore taking in the sounds of the waves, observing beautiful sunrises, and gazing at a gaggle of geese who are synchronized-swimming. I usually combine the meditation practice with some mindful photography, and the resulting pictures become awe-inspiring reminders of my sweet moments of early-morning daily bliss. Now what's better than that?
5. Fill Your Joy Jar
This one's all about gratitude. Some people prefer writing in a gratitude journal. Me? I prefer using a bling-ed out clear cookie jar with daily notes of gratitude written on 2x2 note cards. I also prefer calling it a Joy Jar, rather than a gratitude jar - sounds snazzier somehow. The point of this bedtime practice is to review my day, and seek out all the moments that brought me simple pleasures - whether it was a gorgeous sunrise, a delicious cup of coffee, a hearty laugh, a genuine moment of connection with someone, a great parking spot, or the absence of traffic on my commute home. Get into the habit of filling up your Joy Jar, and you too will soon notice a positive shift in your mindset.