The Sassy Psychologist: Beating the winter blues with a dose of happy

It's Bell Let's Talk Day. On Bell Let’s Talk Day, Bell will donate more towards mental health initiatives in Canada by contributing 5¢ for every applicable text, call, tweet, social media video view and use of their Facebook frame or Snapchat filter.

Winter Blues getting you down? What better time to start a new practice?  ...a new self-help/therapeutic routine that can seriously make you feel better? Let me start with a few weird questions first. What are you usually thinking about when you are brushing your teeth, or taking a shower, or washing the dishes? What goes through your mind while you are waiting in traffic or standing in line for your lunch? I want to argue that the answers to these questions might hold the secret to experiencing more happiness. Let’s talk. 

Activities like washing the dishes or brushing your teeth are generally considered “mindless” but are they, in fact, “mindless”? My thought:  They are often absolutely NOT mindless and are instead executed with a ton of anxious, distorted, and false thinking pattern. I gotta tell ya, as I was blow drying my hair this morning, I couldn’t stop rehearsing a speech I had prepared for my boss in the hopes that our meeting would go off without a hitch. But that’s just it. If you find yourself planning, or preparing, or rehearsing relentlessly during these “brainless” moments, it’s time to consider the fact that you are mightily contributing to your stressful life.   

It sounds a bit nuts but, I’m telling you, using your downtime effectively can significantly decrease your stress and increase your well-being. You see, when you are planning, or preparing, or rehearsing, you are, knowingly or (often) unknowingly, trying to control an outcome.  Were you running your TODO list in your head whilst bathing? If so, you may have been trying to control how your day unfolded – unknowingly rigid about last-minute surprises. Were you planning your kids’ meals for the next few days whilst brushing your teeth? If so, you may have been trying to control what they ingested – unknowingly uptight about going with the flow. Were you planning your speech at the work meeting? If so, you were likely trying to control its outcome and/or the way you were perceived – unknowingly anxious about mistakes and unfavourable perceptions.   

What I’m saying here is that when we worry, we are (often) unknowingly trying to control the outcome of something. Of course, we need to learn to let that go and with the help of therapy you can learn to lessen your grip and allow for those “unfavorable” or feared things to happen. You will survive them.

What now? Once you’ve learned to let that stuff go, what can we do with our downtime?  What must we do in those “brainless” moments in order to start feeling the health benefits? For this, I turn to Positive Psychology. 

Positive psychologists study how positive emotions and positive character are created and perpetuated. Strategies in Positive Psychology have been found create more lasting happiness – creating foundational evidence that performing certain activities can actually increase happiness.  Isn’t this great news?!

Personally, it’s only when I made significant progress in dealing with my psychological wounds, did Positive Psychology techniques resonate with me; i.e., I do not use these strategies with my clients who have clinically significant symptoms and barely able to function. Instead, these strategies should be used with individuals who have worked on themselves enough and are decently functioning in their lives and in society. 

My argument here, that favours the use of Positive Psychology techniques, is that our brain manufactures emotions as a result of the thoughts we are thinking; i.e., our thoughts have a chemical signature that are translated into emotions. Therefore, if our thoughts affect the way we feel, wouldn’t we want to create the most positive emotions we could in any given moment. …and what better moments to create great emotions than when we are doing “mindless” tasks.   

What I’m saying is that we need to pay attention to what we do with our air time. What are we giving our attention to in our downtime? Look, I’m not saying you must never plan or rehearse or prepare anything in your minds every again. I’m saying that we need to remember what good feeling thoughts are. We need to fantasize, just for the hell of it. We need to remember amazing memories, just for the way it makes us feel. We need to think about our next vacation, or better yet, our ideal vacation, just for the lightness of it. Now, you might ask me: Why should we fantasize? We should I ignore reality? Why should I have my head in the clouds? Simple.  Because, you will temporarily feel better. Because you will take time away from your worrying. Because you will take time away from your depression. And the better you feel, the better your feel. Your body then slowly becomes accustomed to these new positive feelings and your body will thereby create and be ready for chemicals that will facilitate more positive emotions. Period. Worth a try, no?

Now, if this technique does not resonate with you, here are three more that you can try to execute in the name of feeling better.  These are techniques that have received empirical support from scientific researchers, in their ability to increase feelings of happiness.

1)      Take one week to write a deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who has been especially kind to you but you never officially thanked them.

2)      Write down one thing that went well each day for one week.  Also mention the causes behind these good things.

3)      Look up a list of character strengths on the internet.  You will see characteristics like: ambition, humility, humor, kindness, leadership….  You are to acknowledge how you exhibited at least one of these character strengths once every day for one week and explain how.  For example, if on Tuesday, you acknowledge displaying Leadership, you are to acknowledge that and explain why.

Positive Psychology strategies have a reputation of seeming “too easy” and being “too good to be true” but, please, try them out.  You will be amazed at how great they can make you feel if you stick with it. 

Dispenza, J. (2007).  Evolve your brain: The science of changing your mind.  Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005).  Positive psychology in progress.  Empirical validation of interventions.  American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.  

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.