Be Your Own Mental Mechanic

Humans are thinking beings. You can try arguing the opposite, but that would require thinking, and you'd lose the argument. Sometime around 1637, Rene Descartes said, "Cogito, ergo sum."

The English translation, "I think, therefore I am." After several decades of studying psychological theory, and now assisted by Google translator, we're ready to offer an expanded version of Descartes maxim: "Cogito ergo sum ego possit cogitare et in tempore angustiae triumphi." 

Or, in English, "I think therefore I am able to think myself into trouble or triumph."

We all have a few mental habits that don’t contribute to happiness or well-lived lives. We can over think, under think, make up excuses, feed our paranoia, gather false evidence to bolster our irrationality, and fail to consider authentic evidence that contradicts our perspective. We can dwell on and inflate the negative and literally worry ourselves sick. There are endless lists of thinking errors. If you want to make yourself miserable, you could diagnose yourself by doing an Internet search for your particular irrational ways of being. But for now, we hope you’ll put your brain to work on these Happy Habits instead.

Three Good Things

One of the most well-known evidence-based happiness assignments is Martin Seligman’s Three Good Things activity.

Here’s what to do:

Every night, for at least a week, before you go to sleep, identify and write down three things that went well for you during the day. Then take a minute or two and reflect on why they went well.

Seligman doesn’t say this, but we think it might be a good idea to then fold the paper, give it a little kiss, and tuck it under your pillow. That’s where the tooth fairy left you money, right? Who knows what magic lurks under there?

Just in case you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, here’s a one-minute video of Seligman describing the activity: here's a one-minute video of Seligman describing the activity.

Seligman claims that after doing this for a week, most people just keep doing the three good things activity it because it’s a positive experience that reorients the brain toward wellness.

We hope this is true. We suspect it requires self-discipline. Give it a try and let us know how it worked for you!

Create an Alternative Reality

Talk Nice to Yourself.

People, we all talk to ourselves. Oh, yes we do. We mutter, scold, assess, complain, ridicule, protest, and say all sorts of things. Some of us self-instruct. Some of us are self-rewarding. But most of us reprimand ourselves, get angry, and wildly defensive. Many of us grew up with some scolding and judgement by authority figures, and we absorbed those voices and made them our own.

We want you to try a new voice. Remember someone who loved you. Who admired you. Who talked nice to you. If you can’t, then make someone up. The idea is to import that person’s voice into your head and crowd out the scold voices. Become your own cheerleader.

Got a dirty diaper to change? Compliment yourself on your skill and good cheer.

Got someone in need of you sitting by their bedside? Hold their hands and drift back to that concert you attended. Smile with your eyes. Tell yourself that you are kind and amazing.

Got people who need you to feed them? Remember the cheese dogs at the fair or one of your favorite foods and think about what good job you do appreciating good things.

Have an impossible amount of Internet work to do? Feeling a bit downtrodden and picked on? Maybe even ranting? Is that helping? Likely, no. Tell yourself it is just fine to rant but also fine to sing. Tell yourself this is about the hardest time you remember, and look at you! Surviving.

Children driving you nuts? Take five-second breaks and breath, noting you are doing your best. Tell yourself thanks even if no one else does. And integrate the next section into your efforts. Use that lovely imagination you’ve got to both shift your inner dialogue and relax your weary, uptight body.

Imagery and Relaxation

In 1975, Herbert Benson of Harvard University published a ground-breaking book titled, The Relaxation Response. Now, thousands of publications and websites are available to help you relax your mind and body. Some resources advocate mindfulness meditations. Others focus on physical relaxation. We’re big fans of relaxing, especially in stressful times. Stress depletes your immune system. Relaxing builds it back up.

For some people, trying to relax triggers anxiety. This could stem from self-consciousness or performance anxiety. It can also be hard for people with trauma histories to relax. If this is true for you, take it slowly. Be patient with yourself, involve a support person if that helps, and realize that time and practice will help overcome your obstacles.

Finally, remember all Happy Habits are about self-care. You get to be the judge of which ones work for you. Don't Take our word or anyone else’s word for what should work for you without testing and practicing it yourself.

A simple relaxation guide

Here's a simple relaxation guide, similar to what Benson wrote about:

  1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Close your eyes.

  2. Relax your muscles, beginning with your toes, progressing up to the top of your head. As you move through your muscle groups, try to keep everything relaxed.

  3. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, you might choose to say a simple word or count your breaths up to four. There are differing opinions on this. Breathe easily and naturally. If your mind wanders, come back to your breath.

  4. Try to set aside at least 10 minutes. More is better; less is acceptable if that's all you have. If you need to be precise with your time, set your phone alarm, but only with a very gentle, pleasant sound. Leave a few minutes to just sit and mentally return to the here and now. Don't rush back into your hectic life if you can help it.

  5. Accept yourself. Don't judge. Try to have a passive attitude. Watch yourself relax. Let thoughts come and go. No scolding! Offer yourself mindful and nonjudgmental acceptance for your efforts.

Practice this as often as you can. Daily practice can make a huge difference in your stress level. You're teaching your mind and body that it is possible to chill, let go, and relax.

There are lots of YouTube videos and Internet resources devoted to relaxation and imagery.

Feeling more like reading? You may also want to check out: 

Wikihow: How to be in Your Happy Place

Visualization and Guided Imagery Techniques for Stress Reduction

REMEMBER: It's your mind. Keep it tuned up. Change the oil. You need to get the best mental mileage possible.