The fresh start that a New Year offers can be energising but the fact that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and researchers across the world are warning us that it could inflict long-lasting emotional trauma on an unprecedented global scale is, in contrast, daunting. When the UK first locked down in March in the midst of our fear and confusion the first, powerful signs of hope were the rainbows appearing in many of our windows. Created mainly by children the colourful rainbows represented not only our collective support for the NHS but also of the agreement that we, as a community, made to care for each other and for the vulnerable members of our communities.
The promise of a vaccine and the potential for a return to normality means that we’re entering 2021 with high expectations and the start of the New Year has given us something that we’ve been missing for a long time; hope and what’s called the`fresh start effect’. Starting over after the year we’ve just had feels more energising than usual and fresh starts give our motivation a boost by focusing our attention on what we really want out of life. It’s a brand new episode in our lives, in which positive changes are possible, so let’s remember what the rainbows symbolise and not squander the powerful `fresh start effect’ to 2021.
With this in mind, I have compiled a New Year Tool Kit inspired by scientific studies of what really does make us feel good and comprised of some key habits that can help us respond with resilience, creativity and grit to the challenges that we are likely to face into the predictable future. Many of these habits are modest but it’s frequently the small changes that turn out to be the most nurturing and therefore they can be as powerful as more challenging ones.
Take care of yourself
Our happiness as parents influences our children’s happiness in a variety of ways. Anxiety tends to run in families. Up to 50 percent of children of anxious parents develop anxiety disorders themselves (Stixrud & Johnson, 2018, p. 83). Emotions in general are contagious and numerous studies have established a robust link between mothers who feel depressed and problems in their children, such as acting out and other behaviour problems. This is because it disturbs children to see their parents upset and unhappy and children’s behaviour expresses this.
There is also evidence that the opposite side of this equation is true; happiness is particularly contagious so when we do what it takes for our own wellbeing and model happiness – and all the skills that go with it – our children are likely to imitate what we do and we will reap the rewards
Children don’t need perfect parents but they do benefit from parents who can serve as a `nonanxious presence’. When we are not unduly stressed, worried, angry or tired, we are much better able to comfort a young child, manage their behavioural challenges and respond to our teenagers limitations without impulsively saying or doing something hurtful. When we can be a `nonanxious` presence we can do a world of good – other than showing your child love and affection, managing your own stress is the best thing that you can do to be an effective parent.
How to be a Nonanxious Presence
- Make enjoying your kids a top parenting priority.
- Don’t fear the future.
- Commit to your own stress management.
- Make peace with your worst fears.
- Adopt an attitude of nonjudgement acceptance.
(Stixrud, W., & Johnson, N. 2018, p.95)
One of the fundamental characteristics of humanity is the need to belong thus connecting with the people around us is the basis of our happiness. When this need is met we feel a sense of wellbeing, while loneliness, on the other hand, can bring us down. Spending quality time with the people around us, taking the time to have a daily conversation about something that interests your children and your partner and taking the time to check how they are doing is essential for their wellbeing and for our own. Every time that I start feeling particularly unsettled and sorry for myself, I try to reach out to someone who I know needs support and helping them helps me to feel connected and loving. It also gives me a perspective on my own disquiet.
Friends are the family you choose
Make the time to contact your friends and have a few laughs. When you have good news, share it because it will make you happier. Positive emotions are amplified when we share them with others. When a friend or relative shares positive news with us, we don’t need to whoop or cheer, but we do need to respond enthusiastically. It isn’t enough to be positive and loving or to smile quietly and assume that our friend knows we are glad for them. Our response to good news needs to be active. Positive Psychologist, Shelly Gable (et al, 2004), calls this active constructive responding and her research has shown that our ability to respond enthusiastically to another’s news strengthens our relationship and is more important than how we respond to their bad news.
Cultivate a strong, supportive network of friends, neighbours and colleagues and make the effort to keep in touch with your former colleagues. One of the reasons that friendships flounder is because it’s easy to think that no one will want to hear from you. You may not think that you aren’t interesting or funny enough, but 99% of the time people are more concerned with how they came across than how you did – they have their inner critic too.
Friends are important to all of us and they are especially important to teenagers; a parent’s role is to encourage them to have a wide range of relationships – with their peers, family, teachers, neighbours and others in the local community.
The Latin root of the word emotion, emovere, means `to move’. Our bodies and minds are linked; the part of the brain that tells the body to move is adjacent to the part that’s responsible for clearheaded thinking. To keep our brains at peak performance, our bodies need to work hard. There is also close overlap between our motor control functions and our mental control which is one reason why exercise is so beneficial for enabling us to develop self-regulation.
Exercise also provides glucose and oxygen to the brain, which promotes neurogenesis, i.e. the growth of brain cells. In fact, it’s often said that exercise does more to help clear thinking than thinking does; this is in part because it stimulates and strengthens the prefrontal cortex’s control functions. Exercise is therefore good for the brain and for the body. It increases levels of dopamine, (the chemical that motivates you to seek rewards) serotonin (that motivates you to get respect from others), and oxytocin (that motivates you to build social alliances).
Exercise is also essential for a state of relaxed alertness. In his book, Spark, John Ratey (2008) noted that when students exercised heavily as part of their school curriculum, their academic performance dramatically improved. In Finland they mandate twenty minutes of outdoor play for every forty minutes of instructional time. I was privileged some years ago to work as the guest teacher of English in the community schools across the city of Copenhagen where there was a similar, very valuable daily balance of classroom teaching and outdoor play.
It’s not surprising then that lots of new research is showing that regular exercise, is probably just as effective as drugs for treating some types of depression and keeping active is one of the best happiness habits that we can cultivate. You don’t need a serious gym habit to achieve this. Aim for a daily walk, a weekly swim and perhaps a regular online Zoom yoga or dance class.
Exercise should be strenuous, but it shouldn’t feel like it’s killing you. A good rule of thumb to achieve the right level of intensity is that while you are exercising you should be able to talk but not sing!
Being physically strong and flexible is critical for good health and it will make you feel more confident.
Get back to nature
Humans have a biological need to be in touch with nature, it’s called `biophilia’. Nature has a way of resetting and relaxing us and we need this now more than ever. Studies show that children feel and perform better after they’ve been immersed in nature – or even if they’ve just looked at nature posters. This is not a new observation. In George Beard’s 1881 book on nervousness, he wrote about how noises like the sounds of the wind and rustling of leaves are rhythmical, while the sounds of civilization are unrhythmical, unmelodious and therefore annoying, if not injurious. According to Stixrud & Johnson (2018, p.208 -209) walking in nature `cleans’ our prefrontal cortex of its clutter, provides us with a sense of balance and enables us to perform better on tasks that demand working memory. The Japanese call this: shinrin-yoku, or `forest bathing’.
Studies suggest that just under half the adult population are spending more time outside than before Covid-19 and most of them reported that nature is important to their health and happiness. This is what we need to remember in 2021 and beyond; green spaces, little plants, huge trees, it doesn’t matter; we all need the beautiful, life – affirming natural world. Julia Bradbury writing in The Times (09.01.2021, Weekend, p.9) suggests that without realizing it we’re all now practising mindfulness: gazing out of our windows at the changing seasons, not just hearing bird song but listening to it.
So even if you’re not the backpacking type, make the effort to plan trips where you and your family are surrounded by natural beauty – even if it’s just an excursion round your local village or to the local park. It may not feel like it’s making much of a difference but it is, and the longer that you stay in the park, by the river or on the beach the more you’ll experience its benefits.
Three Good Things
Often attributed to the godfather of positive psychology, Martin Seligman research shows that when people write down three things that went well for them each day, it can have a profound effect on their levels of wellbeing. A simple yet powerful technique that can train our brains to notice the good stuff is called `Three Good things’. Appreciating the things that go well in our daily lives is, according to positive psychologists, one of the most effective ways of safeguarding our wellbeing. Rather than letting good experiences simply just pass through our minds like water through a sieve, the `Three Good Things’ exercise forces us to:
- Remember a positive experience,
- Write it down
- Savour it.
Every time this exercise is done, it is likely that more neural structure will be built in the area of our brains that process positive emotions thus continually lessening the effect of our negativity bias.
Studies suggest that by regularly looking for chances to take in the good, you can train your brain to keep on the lookout for positive experiences that will promote the release of happy hormones such as dopamine, which in turn makes your brain more receptive to further positive experiences in the future.
Shawn Achor (2011) in his book The Happiness Advantage explains that doing this activity daily will improve your well-being over the longer term so make a habit of reflecting at the end of each day on Three Good Things which happened to you that day.
Three Good Things is also a great exercise to do with young children in order to help them build a `habit of happiness’. So establish a regular daily routine of encouraging your children to list the Three Good Things that happened to them too. Remember that these can be significant or everyday happenings.
Believe in yourself
In order to accomplish anything at all you need to believe that you have power to succeed. Remember the times when things have gone well for you and you’ve made a difference.
Keep a diary of your ten happiest memories and experiences and list the positive changes that you’ve already accomplished in your life.
Be positive about your future
Dream happy dreams and do whatever you can to make them come true.
For very practical inspirational advice on getting started with a new habit check out the recently issued Ted Talk – “The 1 minute Secret to Forming a New Habit” Watch HERE
To form better habits embrace a `better-than-nothing attitude’.
In this very short talk sociologist, author & mother Christer Carter shares a very simple step to shift your mindset and help keep you on track to achieving your grandest ambitions.
Wishing you all a very happy 2021!
Dr Ruth M MacConville
Achor, S. 2011, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, London: Virgin Books
Bradbury, J., 9.01.2021, `When I was having trouble- walking was therapy’.
The Times, Weekend, p. 9.
Gable, S. L. et al, 2004, What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228 – 245
Johnson, N., & Stixrud, W., 2018, The Self-Driven Child, The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives, New York, Viking,www.penguin.com
Ratey, J.J., 2008, Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, New York, Little Brown.