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Vanessa King explains the small steps that add up to happiness

Your happiness is important – there’s more to it than simply a nice feeling. Research shows it does us good too. Happier people are less likely  to catch colds and more likely to be physically healthy. They tend to be more engaged and productive at work and even help other people more.  But when we think about making changes to feel good or function well – we can focus on big actions – which are often hard to start and keep up. Science is showing that it’s actually small steps, practiced regularly, that add up and make a difference. Good news, as starting small is easier to fit into our busy lives.

Our happiness isn’t just for us, it’s for others too. It’s catching. Ever worked with a grumpy colleague and found that his or her mood had a ripple effect on everyone around them? Well science has shown our moods are contagious across our (real) social networks, up to three degrees of separation! This means our moods have a knock-on effect, not just for the people we are in direct contact with, but the people they then connect with and so on. This doesn’t mean we need to be full of the joys of spring all the time, but perhaps understanding this ripple effect makes us more aware of how our feelings impact on others and encourages us to take action.

So what are some small actions you could start today?

Your daily three good things

Put a notebook and pen by your bed. Before you go to sleep take a few moments to reflect on your day and write down three things that you were pleased about, enjoyed or were grateful for (however small), along with a few words on why. Try to do this each night this week. Experiments have shown that doing this simple activity each night for one week made people happier and less likely to experience depression-type symptoms for up to six months – not bad for an investment of a couple of minutes per day!

Why does this work? Well it turns out that as humans, we are hard-wired to focus on what’s wrong. In evolutionary terms, being able to spot potential danger helped us survive as a species. Luckily, for the most part, we no longer face the same day-to-day risks, yet our brains are still more likely to notice and dwell on what’s wrong than on what’s right and miss out on the physiological and psychological benefits of pleasant emotional experiences.

Practicing this activity helps us pay a little more attention to the good things that happen to us, as well as what’s wrong, and can have powerful and lasting impact as to how we feel. (Even on our worst days we can usually think of a few tiny good things if we try.)

Press pause

There’s a lot around about mindfulness at the moment. It takes practice but we can also start small. Set a reminder on your phone for three or four points in the day. When the reminder pops up, pause for a minute and focus on your breath. Focus on how the air feels as it comes in and out of your nose. If you mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. After a minute or so – notice how you feel. Perhaps a little calmer or more spacious?  It can lower our stress levels and help us think more clearly.

Use your strengths

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone. And we’re all different.  Yet often, we compare ourselves to others and beat ourselves up about what we’re not good at. It’s human to want to improve. Research is now showing that we can do and feel better if we focus on using and developing our strengths rather than getting stuck on our weaker areas. A strength is something we’re naturally drawn to using, an area we learn quickly and, importantly, are energised by rather than depleted. So think back to a time you felt you were at your best. See if you can identify one or two strengths you were using? How could you use that more or in new ways each day this week?

Nurture three connections

Other people matter for our wellbeing and happiness, and we matter for theirs. Yet it’s often our close relationships that, in our busy lives, we take most for granted. This week, why not think of three people important to you and get in contact with them –  pick up the phone to call a good friend you haven’t spoken to for ages, or drop a note to someone you are grateful for, telling them why they matter to you. Or nurture a new connection – invite a colleague or neighbour for a coffee. You’ll make your world, and theirs, a happier place.

Vanessa King’s 10 KEYS TO HAPPIER LIVING is available to buy now. She is a lead Positive Psychology Expert for Action for Happiness.

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Image credit: Erika Thornes