Whether or not you get the Winter Blues, winter unquestionably makes us more likely to stay home, to indulge in comfort foods, and watch too many movies. The cold and dark days can at times make us feel a little down. Thankfully, research shows three practical and powerful ways to help you prevent the winter funk:
The greatest secret to happiness – as demonstrated by science – is connection with others. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical wellbeing. Research shows that it is even good for our health, lowering inflammation levels in our body and even lengthening our life. This is especially true if we relate to others in a kind, compassionate and altruistic way.
Here are two tips to boost your social connection:
Empathy: We are all wired to empathize with other people. When you see someone smiling or crying or angry – the micro muscles in your face ‘mirror’ that person’s emotions. In other words, you automatically sense what others are feeling. But these days we spend so much time looking at our phone or not looking at others, that we stop empathizing. You might ignore the person at the supermarket cash register. You might even miss that glimmer of emotion in the eye of a loved one. Tap into your natural ability to empathize by looking at people in the eye and exchanging a word and a smile or two.
Random acts of service: Research shows that when we are kind and compassionate to others, we not only feel better, we become healthier and happier. We naturally connect. Whether it’s helping someone across the road or helping out a colleague at work, it is so easy to brighten someone’s day.
Why not use the winter months as an opportunity to learn some stress-reducing techniques that can help you all through the coming year?
Most of the year, we fuel up on adrenaline. We drink too much coffee, overschedule ourselves and wait until the last minute to complete projects. Why? We are caught up in the idea that we need to constantly be in a high-intensity mode to be productive. But the reality is that we are burning ourselves out. By constantly depending on our fight-or-flight response (sympathetic nervous system), we exhausting our body and mind. We’ve also forgotten how to relax as a consequence and many depend on alcohol and sleep medications to wind down.
Use the winter as a time to learn to engage your ‘rest and digest’ response (parasympathetic nervous system). It won’t make you less productive, but it will undoubtedly lower your stress levels and give your body a break to recuperate. Take a breathing workshop (interaction plus skill-building all at once!). Breathing in particular is a great way to lower stress and to tap into your relaxation response. It lowers your blood pressure and heart rate.
Research shows that each emotion is tied to a particular type of breath: anger is tied to a short and fast breath and happiness to a deep and slow one. By deepening your breath, breathing into the lower abdomen, and lengthening the exhales, your body automatically relaxes. You can also download a meditation app or take some online yoga classes.
We are often operating on high gear – always rushing from one thing to another and multi-tasking. Even when we’re doing something we enjoy (watching our favorite show or hanging out with family or friends), we often are doing something else at the same time (checking our phone, folding laundry, running errands). We hardly ever give ourselves the opportunity to fully savor our experiences. Yet research shows that savoring will boost the fulfillment and pleasure manifold. Here are a few activities that, when savored, can boost your mood and well-being.
Go for a walk in nature. Even if you live in the city, you can find a park or focus on the trees and birds around you. It will help to lift your mood. Getting out into the light and sunshine, as little as there may be of it, may also help boost your mood.
Practice gratitude. We tend to focus on the negative – a phenomenon psychologists call the Negativity Bias. A number of research studies now show that by practicing gratitude and recalling and noticing all the things that are going right, you will feel happier and more energized. Gratitude has even been shown to be effective for lessening depression.
Make Time For Laughter. Watch some comedies. Go to comedy shows. Laughter helps make you more resilient by lowering your stress. It also boosts your relationships, making you more open to other people and more likely to connect. Research shows that laughter is even good for your health: it can lower cellular inflammation and lower your cholesterol while boosting your immune function.
Celebrate being idle. We live in a culture of productivity. We even feel guilty when we’re not doing something useful. However, research shows that our mind can only come up with creative insights when it is in alpha-wave mode, i.e. in an idle, daydream state. So celebrate the winter as a great time to just do nothing. Don’t focus and concentrate on your phone, social media or TV. Just let yourself relax completely or do household tasks that don’t demand much focus. By helping you detach and daydream, being idle and carefree will jumpstart your creativity, helping you see things from different perspectives and – who knows – leading you to come up with some serious inspiration genius for 2016!
This article was originally posted on Psychology Today.
To learn more about the science of happiness, see my new book, The Happiness Track.