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A new approach to mental health

The Little Book of Happiness is the third in my trilogy of practical books, based on positive psychology, the science of wellbeing. I first got into positive psychology when I was looking to self-medicate out of depression. Not only did I find a way back to feeling good but I’ve gone through the last decade without a single visit from the black dog. It also led to a fresh sense of purpose – to help others on the path to happiness. This is my ‘ikigai’, the reason I get up in the morning, which is one of twelve habits of happiness in the book.

The first book, Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression, revealed how to apply the science of happiness to recover wellbeing and went on to be the subject of a bibliotherapy study (books as therapy) which showed that positive psychology can work as well as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). The second, What Is Post-traumatic Growth, explored resilience and how adversity can act as a springboard to growth, or in other words ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger’.

Since I wrote that first book, there’s been a seismic shift in the way we talk about mental health. Back then I kept quiet about my despair, the irony was not lost on me that I was a happiness expert with a history of depression. People in the public eye from celebs to the young royals, have opened up since about their mental health. Like Princes William and Harry, I was a child whose parent died suddenly, their privilege was no protection from the devastating consequences of an early bereavement. Now we have campaigns like Time to Talk and Heads Together which encourage us to talk about mental health and challenge the stigma around it.

However, I don’t think that it’s enough to talk about mental health, what we really need to do is change the way we tackle it. Even the term needs to be re-packaged. It still amazes me to hear broadcasters talking about ‘suffering from mental health’, as if that’s a bad thing rather than good! We want mental health, it’s mental illness we want less of. The current approach is based on reducing distress through mood-altering medications or talking therapies. CBT, for example, which is the talking therapy of choice, teaches practices to challenge negative thinking. What’s missing is the focus on growing our wellbeing. Mental health is like a muscle – if you invest your time and energy in developing it, it will grow. What you focus on expands. Positive psychology gives us the practical knowledge with evidence-based practices that can increase our experience of positive emotions and help us develop optimistic thinking, with all their benefits for mental health.

The Little Book of Happiness describes twelve of these happiness habits.

  1.  Learn to play
  2.   Express gratitude
  3.   Savour the positive
  4.   Harness your strengths
  5.   Live with meaning
  6.   Learn optimism
  7.   Value relationships
  8.   Practise kindness
  9.   Get physical
  10.   Turn to nature
  11.   Practise mindfulness
  12.   Strive for Success

We’re constantly being told to eat five-a-day of  fruit and veg for physical health, if we adopted the same approach to these habits, then we’d feel better, function better and make progress towards the number one goal of humanity – greater happiness.

The Little Book of Happiness, is published on 4th July, by Gaia Books, part of Octopus Publishing.

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It calms the mind, lifts the mood and acts as an instant digital detox. Getting a regular dose of green space, aka Vitamin G, is often overlooked as a way of growing wellbeing. Spending time in nature feels good and there’s a body of evidence to show that it does us good too. Getting out into the wilderness is a natural healer of mental health. It used to be known as the ‘camp cure’ or ‘wilderness therapy’.

Stressed urbanites would take time out to go camping as a remedy for the wear and tear on their nervous system. Now that we appear to be more in touch with our small screens than the great outdoors, doctors are prescribing ‘green therapy’ to help people press the mental reset button and recover their wellbeing. It is nature’s energy drink for the wired and tired. Green exercise and forest bathing are part of the modern version of the ‘camp cure’.

Benefits of Green Therapy

  • Lowers stress levels
  • Counteracts mental fatigue
  • Helps relaxation
  • Improves focus and cognitive functioning
  • Reduces anger
  • Grows confidence and self-esteem
  • Improves physical health
  • Boosts mental wellbeing

Top up your Vitamin G  Exercise is one of the most effective natural antidepressants, alleviating mild-to-moderate depression and lowering anxiety levels to produce a more positive outlook on life. Taking it into nature adds extra benefits. Green exercise is doing physical activities like walking, running or horse-riding in a natural environment. Health professionals suggest setting your own pace and that if you ‘start low and go slow’ you’re more likely to enjoy it and do it again. It only takes around five minutes of getting physical in a green space for it to start generating positive emotions. Green exercise in a ‘blue environment’ such as a lake, river or the sea produces the greatest improvement in mood.

Forest Bathing: A walk in the woods is not only enjoyable but it can also boost your wellbeing. The fresh air, the smell of damp earth and trees, the many shades of green and brown from foliage to moss to bark and the satisfying crunch of twigs and leaves underfoot. “Shinrin Yoku” is the Japanese therapy of bathing or basking in the forest, fully immersing yourself in the forest through the senses. Forest bathing activates the body’s brake – the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering stress hormones, replenishing our energy stores and building vitality. Even a 20-minute dose of shinrin-yoku is enough to alter cerebral brain flow to induce a state of relaxation.

How to Forest Bathe

Forest bathing is first and foremost about ‘being’ with nature rather than ‘doing’ anything so let go of any need to achieve anything. It is simply slowing down into a meditative state and experiencing the forest through the senses.

  • Take your time, ideally a whole morning or afternoon so you can really unwind. However even a short burst of forest bathing can have a positive effect.
  • Stand in one spot and immerse yourself in the environment. Open yourself up to the forest through the senses.
  • Look around. What can you see? Trees, vegetation, earth, sky, animals.
  • Notice your feet planted on the ground, pick up twigs, leaves or stones and feel their texture. 
  • Close your eyes and notice what you can hear. Tune into the birdsong, wind in the trees, the soothing sound of running water or the rustling of leaves.
  • Breathe in slowly and notice the quality of the air. How does it feel on the skin? The cool breeze, the warmth of sun.
  • Then notice the aromas around you – pine, birch, the sweet scent of blossom or pungent wild garlic.
Turn to Nature is one of 12 happiness habits in Miriam Akhtar’s new book The Little Book of Happiness. Find out more about where to go camping in the forest. 
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By Miriam Akhtar MAPP

I’ve never been much of a fan of New Year’s Resolutions and making a vision board can leave me feeling surprisingly flat. Recently at a Positive Psychology Masterclass, my co-trainer Bridget mentioned hearing Prof Martin Seligman talk about ‘prospection’ and how it could be the key to creating a happy future. You might consider your ‘prospects’ when changing jobs or think about how to attract ‘prospective’ buyers for your home, but ‘prospection’ is not a word you hear much. So what exactly is it? And why does it matter so much to wellbeing?

Prospection is the ‘mental representation and evaluation of possible futures’ and is part of a new attempt in psychology to turn the lens towards the future, opening the door to a greater understanding about the way we think and feel. The ultimate purpose is to enhance our capacity to conceive of and build a better future. One of the core skills of a happy person is the ability to visualise a positive future with all the good feelings that go with that, something that is a real challenge in depression. As someone with a history of depression I know my optimism muscle can quickly lose its tone if it doesn’t get a regular workout. Psychology spends much of its time focusing on the past to sort out the present but the future is largely ignored. Seligman, together with colleagues Roy Baumeister, Peter Railton and Chandra Sripada have published ideas on the theme generating a new word for humankind – Homo Prospectus.

One thing I know for sure is that if you want to make a real difference to your future happiness then you have to go beyond intellectual curiosity, beyond acquiring knowledge to doing the practices. Fortunately we now have a range of positive psychology practices with the evidence to support their efficacy.  If, like me, you find that imagining a better future doesn’t come naturally, then it can help to start with gratitude, to turn the spotlight towards the good things in the past. At least here you already have the reference points of positives that have already happened.  Gratitude is about noticing the good things that you already have in your life. By developing your ability to find the glass half full in the past, it can then help you cultivate optimism towards the future.

Three good things is the classic gratitude exercise. Ask yourself:  What is good in my life? What am I grateful for? What has gone well? And how did I contribute to the good thing happening?

Sometimes it can feel like a dry little exercise but with practice you’ll start connecting with a heartfelt positive emotion. This next practice changes the time perspective, applying three good things to the future.

Looking forward to tomorrow: Think of 3 positive things that are happening tomorrow. Then choose one item from the list.  What exactly are you looking forward to? What kind of positive emotions do you think it might generate?

As you list the emotions, see if you can anticipate how they will feel in your body. Relax and stay with it for a couple of minutes. This practice is a really good one to start developing your optimism muscle. If you want to take it to the next level, I recommend the ‘Best Possible Self’ exercise, which involves spending 15 minutes a day for a minimum of 4 days writing about how you would like your life to be when everything works out for the best. These instructions from the Greater Good Science Center are useful to help you navigate around some of the obstacles that can block you if your optimism muscle is a little flabby.

Best Possible Self: Take a moment to imagine your life in the future. What is the best possible life you can imagine? Consider all of the relevant areas of your life, such as your career, academic work, relationships, hobbies, and/or health. What would happen in these areas of your life in your best possible future? For the next 15 minutes, write continuously about what you imagine this best possible future to be. 

As a coach I like to regularly check in with the practices I share with clients, so this year I’ve used the precious days between Xmas and New Year, to revisit the Best Possible Self exercise. Over 4 days I picked up my laptop first thing in the morning and headed to one of my favourite cafes in Bristol to reconnect with it. It worked! The writing flowed, each day building on the ideas that emerged from the previous day. And it left me feeling good – a tiny flame of optimism had been lit.  This practice is known to boost the mood, leading to higher levels of positive emotions, happiness and fewer visits to the doctor further down the line!

Imagining a Better 2019

What helps us look forward to a better year?  To go further with prospection you could see the New Year as a project, in which you aim to lay the foundations of wellbeing to flourish and prosper.

The Positive Psychology Foundations course is an online training which you can use for your personal wellbeing or pass onto others through your professional practice.

We use Seligman’s PERMA model as the basis for the 8 webinars with additional foundations on Resilience, Mindfulness and the Physical Body to reflect some of the wider ingredients of wellbeing.

From January 1 2019 –  A free mini-trial, which acts as a taster of the course becomes available. Jump straight in here.

On January 8 2019 – Join us for a free webinar on Positive Psychology for Me, You and Us, which will give you a flavour of the course. If you can’t join us live, there will be a replay button so that you can tune in at a time to suit you.

From January 22 2019 – Join the 7th cohort of the Positive Psychology Foundations wherever you are in the world from the comfort of your sofa or replay the webinars at a pace that works best for you.

Pictures courtesy of Pixabay.

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Mindfulness has become the new black in the world of well-being. What began as a spiritual practice in Buddhism, has been put under the microscope and found to have multiple health benefits. Neuroscience has made a remarkable discovery. Mindfulness meditation activates the home of positive emotions in the brain, which is the left pre-frontal cortex. Regular practice of this form of meditation can develop your capacity for happiness without having to do mental gymnastics!

In a nutshell, mindfulness is about developing your awareness. You’d think that something so straightforward would come easily, but in the 21st century where we are bombarded 24/7 by digital devices and multiple demands, it’s no surprise that the average attention span is shorter than ever. We weren’t designed to be constantly on the go, frantic and frazzled.

Mindfulness reminds us that we are a human being rather than a ‘human doing’. The practices draw attention, without judgement, to what is going on in the mind, body and around us. This helps us to tune into how the mind operates. ‘Monkey mind’ is the constant internal monologue swinging from one critical thought to another. Mindfulness helps us slow down and recognise these thoughts and feelings. As like the weather, they come and go, so we are less likely to get sucked into the drama of our thoughts. This can help with rumination (overthinking problems) which dampens down emotional reactivity being triggered into an overreaction.  

 Mindfulness practices               

Meditation is probably the most recognised form of mindfulness, where you can start with something as simple as noticing the breath going in and out. The senses are a good way into mindfulness. Try doing the washing up by hand. Slow down and notice the sensation of hot and cold water on the hands, the sound of water running into the sink, the fragrance of washing-up liquid and the welcome sight of the dishes going from dirty to clean.

Mindful walking is another readily accessible practice. Next time you go for a walk, tune in with each of your senses. Ask yourself:

  • What can I see? Notice what is around you – grass, trees, people, buildings.
  • What can I hear? The sound of birds, wind, traffic, people chatting.
  • What can I smell? A whiff of coffee, something cooking, the sweet scent of flowers.
  • What can I taste? Toothpaste, a hot drink or maybe digestive juices in the mouth.
  • What can I feel? Try taking your shoes off to really appreciate the sensation of contact with the ground.

You can even bring mindfulness into your me-time. Craft activities such as knitting, mosaics and quilting are good ways of becoming present. “There’s a bonus too – making things with your hands produces serotonin, the feel-good hormone which lifts the mood and calms the mind, according to the authors of Craftfulness,  a new book exploring the link between crafting and well-being.

Ryvita has teamed up with Miriam Akhtar, Positivity Coach to be part of their Positivity Panel alongside Davina McCall. The panellists were handpicked to help inspire women across the nation to feel confident and happy, whatever their age, through advice, tips and tricks. Head to https://www.ryvita.co.uk/living-well to find out more.

Pictures courtesy of pixabay.com under creative commons licence.

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Reaching the menopause is a major transition in life and often coincides with empty nest syndrome or a longing to do something totally different after clocking up 30 years at work. Despite all the negativity about age, there are many ways where life gets better as we get older, which I mention in my previous blog on embracing ageing. The end of the reproductive years can herald the arrival of new fertility in other areas.

If you’re wondering what to do next, then exploring your strengths is a good place to start to help you move from the PMS years into a new phase of PMP (Post Menopause Positivity!)

You at Your Best

Many people find it easy to list their weaknesses but struggle to name their strengths – it comes in two forms. Your strengths of character are the positive qualities you have like courage or kindness. And then there are your performance strengths – what you do well, whether you have a talent for communication or the gift of emotional intelligence. Playing to your strengths is a win: win for your personal and professional life. They enhance your performance at work – your greatest potential for growth comes from developing your strengths rather than fixing your weaknesses. Using your strengths also increases your well-being – finding new ways to apply this can lead to higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression symptoms according to positive psychology research¹.

It is easy to lose sight of your strengths when you’re caught up in the daily grind of life and they may well have changed as you’ve matured. Ask your friends, family and colleagues to spot your strengths. Or you can take the free test at www.viasurvey.org and download your results. You may even have gained some of the strengths that show up in mid-life – wisdom or generativity, which is the desire to help others and make a difference in the world.

Ready for the Encore  

Freedom from the see-saw of hormonal highs and lows often sparks a motivation to take a new path. For some, having an ‘encore career’ is driven by financial need in an era of insecure workplaces and dwindling pensions. For others, it’s about doing something more meaningful. Getting to know your strengths better will give you clues about what direction to move forwards in and with this, you’re more likely to succeed because you’re drawing on what you’re good at. There’s a bonus too, as playing to your strengths is energising. They provide you with a source of fuel to power your new venture.

You might tap into that wisdom you’ve gained to mentor those who are starting out or freelance as a consultant. It might mean starting a business – ‘olderpreneurs’ in their 50s are more likely to succeed than entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s ². My own encore began when I went back to university in my 40s, which opened up a whole new working life as a coach and trainer, where I get to play to my strengths every day. I love my work which gives me a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Happiness is a U-shaped curve and once we get past the mid-life crisis, people become happier – there’s so many reasons to be positive post-menopause!

Ryvita has teamed up with Miriam Akhtar, Positivity Coach to be part of their Positivity Panel alongside Davina McCall. The panellists were handpicked to help inspire women across the nation to feel confident and happy, whatever their age, through advice, tips and tricks. Head to https://www.ryvita.co.uk/living-well to find out more.

¹Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson C. (2005). Positive psychology in progress. Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.

² https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/05/business-booming-growing-army-olderpreneurs

Photos by David Bazo on Unsplash, Hebehard via Pixabay

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‘Positivity’ is a word that means different things to different people but in the science of well-being it represents the frequent experience of positive emotions. The top ten positive emotions are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. In fact love is the most frequently experienced positive emotion because it combines all the other feel-good emotions. Love is our supreme positive emotion, flooding us with feel-good hormones every time we experience a moment of connection and warmth.

But is there more to positivity than just good feelings? It turns out that the answer is yes. Positive emotions not only feel good, they do us good too. They are the superfoods of optimal well-being.  To understand why, you need to know a little about their nature. Emotions are our internal guidance system – they let us know if something feels good or bad so we can navigate our way through life. They act a bit like traffic lights.

Negative emotions like anger, fear or disgust deliver a warning. The message is Stop! You need to pay attention – something is not right here.

Positive emotions act as a green traffic light. The message is yes, this feels good and we can continue along this path. But it doesn’t just stop there. Positive emotions are much more than pink, fluffy stuff. The reason why we need to get more positivity into our lives is because this type of emotion perform useful roles.

They broaden your mind so that you’re able to think outside the box, be creative and think flexibly. It was a lightbulb moment for me when I first learnt this. I used to think that the way to get creative was to put myself under maximum pressure and pull all-nighters. Now when I have something to write, I go for a walk in the park first or bounce up and down on my rebounder to get the creative juices flowing.

They build your inner resources that you can draw on to help you function better. Positive emotions are fleeting – a moment of joy or calm, but they accumulate to form psychological resources – like a sense of who you are and where you’re heading in life. They build intellectual resources that help you process new information and solve problems; social resources that support you in making new bonds and deepening existing ones. Even physical resources – positivity can help build a stronger body. Think of how children love to play outdoors. Climbing trees makes them feel good and this develops muscles, strengthens the cardiovascular system and improves balance. One of the reasons why play is good for us.

Positivity also helps you bounce back from adversity. If you’ve had a bad day and then have a laugh, the positive emotions will dissolve the effects of stress, bringing down your blood pressure and taking you from the ‘fight or flight’ – from the stress response, back into a state of rest and digestion. Positivity can even help you recover your well-being.

These are the benefits of positivity, but there are barriers that get in the way of positive emotions. Negative emotions are the bigger experience – you can be paralysed by fear or weighed down by sadness and the brain has a negativity bias – you notice what’s wrong before you tune into what’s right. What this means is that we need to work a little bit harder to overcome these obstacles to get more good in. The positive news is that what you focus on grows, and with practice positivity will flow more easily. Check out my  Mood Boosting Plan for more ideas and inspiration into how to get more good in.

Ryvita has teamed up with Miriam Akhtar, Positivity Coach to be part of their Positivity Panel alongside Davina McCall. The panellists were handpicked to help inspire women across the nation to feel confident and happy, whatever their age, through advice, tips and tricks. Head to https://www.ryvita.co.uk/living-well to find out more.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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Ageing tends to get a lot of bad press. The negative stereotype of a downhill slide into a state of decrepitude is so strong that it’s easy to lose sight of the positives that come with age. So here are some of the ways in which life actually gets better as we become older, and how we can make the most of the third act.

We #getmore happy

Countless surveys have shown that once the mid-life crisis is out of the way, we get happier as we age. We know who we are and what we’re about. As life gets shorter, the need for meaning grows. We want to spend our time on the people and activities that really matter to us.  A deeper, more meaningful happiness begins to emerge. The recipe for this form of satisfaction is to channel your energy into something that is truly significant for you.

Mental well-being improves

Emotional stability increases with age while anxiety and depression levels fall. We don’t get so caught up in the dramas of life and are less likely to be blindsided by adversity. When negative emotions do arise, we tend to have more control over them and deal with them better than we did when we were younger. You can top up your resilience by doing more of what makes you feel good.

We care less…

…and don’t sweat the small stuff. Confidence grows with age. We become more comfortable in our own skin and are less bothered by what others think of us. Build your confidence further by getting to know your strengths. What are your positive characteristics? Maybe it’s courage or kindness. What are your talents? You might be an innovator or have a gift for making people laugh. Try and find new ways to use your strengths as early studies in Positive Psychotherapy have shown that it increases well-being.

The age of the sage

There are some strengths that emerge in mid-life. ‘Generativity’ is the desire to nurture and guide people, to make things better in the world. You may be motivated to contribute to a cause or become a mentor. One of the quickest ways of getting a happiness boost is to help others. The other strength is ‘wisdom’ – the practical ‘know-how to navigate through life’. Although we may not be able to remember someone’s name or find our car keys, neuroscience shows that our brains grow smarter in some ways – we are better at solving complex problems and at synthesising ideas.

Second chances

Mid-life can be a time of immense change with divorce on the rise, children fleeing the nest and insecurity at work, but there is also the  potential for a new lease of life. Make the most of the second chances to do what you’ve always wanted to do. It might be launching an encore career, reconnecting with old friends or taking a mid-life gap year, whatever it is, just go for it.

There are gains as well as losses as we age and one of the best ways of maintaining your well-being is to practise optimism and gratitude.  Appreciate the good that you do have in your life and remember that it is not so much what happens to us, but how we respond, that counts. Optimism has been shown by research, outlined in Guy Robertson’s book ‘How to Age Positively (pictured right), to dramatically improve how people get on with ageing.

Ryvita has teamed up with Miriam Akhtar, Positivity Coach to be part of their Positivity Panel alongside Davina McCall. The panellists were handpicked to help inspire women across the nation to feel confident and happy, whatever their age, through advice, tips and tricks. Head to https://www.ryvita.co.uk/living-well to find out more.

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Looking after your mental well-being is often considered as something you have to do in your head – trying to think your way to a happier place. However, one of the most under-rated ways to increase your well-being is through the body-mind connection. Only trouble is, many of us have a love-hate relationship with the body and don’t like to pay much attention to what is going on beneath the neck. So here are some tips on how to reconnect the body and mind for your greater good.

Learn to value your body  

We can become so fixated by how it looks that we lose sight of all the positives that the body does. The brain is a powerful computer that makes everything happen, the stomach provides energy, your skin protects you and your feet and arms take you places. What can you value about your body?

Fall in love with your body 

It’s all too easy to get hung up on our imperfections and fail to appreciate our finer points. So, try standing in front of a mirror (pluck up the courage and do it naked) and find five things you like about your body. A good head of hair? Soft skin? Elegant fingers? Lovely eyes? Curves like a cello? Long legs? What do you like about your physical self?

The body scan

Get to know what’s really going on with your body. The body scan is a mindfulness practice that helps you tune into your internal landscape, the physical and emotional sensations. It’s a good way to calm and centre yourself if something has upset you. Lie down, take some deep breaths and start with one of your feet – feel deeply into the body – muscles, bones, the blood flow. Is it hot or cold? Tense or relaxed? Numb or tingling? Notice everything as you scan the body from your toes to the top of your head, paying attention to what is present without judging it.

Use your body as a first-aid kit

Tal Ben-Shahar, a psychologist at Harvard, once said that not exercising is like taking depressants. It can be hard to manage your mood when you’re feeling down. This is where the body can help you feel better, faster. By moving your body, you release endorphins which help you feel good without having to do any mental gymnastics. The key is to do something that is a pleasure rather than a pain. Go for a walk, dance, garden, bounce on a trampoline – whatever feels good to you. Physical activity is one of the most effective tools in combating depression.

And breathe…

One of the simplest ways of reconnecting the body to the mind is to use the breath. If you’re feeling stressed then breathing deep into the belly can act as the body’s brake, taking it out of the  ‘fight or flight’ response and  into a state of relaxation. There are many benefits to abdominal breathing – it reduces anxiety and depression, increases happiness and optimism, strengthens your ability to manage emotions and curbs impulsive behaviour. One technique, based on a yoga practice, is four-seven-eight breathing. Breathe in through the nose for four, hold for seven and then exhale through the mouth for a count of eight.

Ryvita has teamed up with Miriam Akhtar, Positivity Coach to be part of their Positivity Panel alongside Davina McCall. The panellists were handpicked to help inspire women across the nation to feel confident and happy, whatever their age, through advice, tips and tricks. Head to https://www.ryvita.co.uk/living-well to find out more.

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