10 habits that'll make you a happier person

It's the simple things in life - and a few simple habits - that bring us closer to happiness, say those who study emotional well-being

13 May 2018 - 00:00 By CLAIRE KEETON
Exercise, regular sex and living in the moment are just some of the practices that can bring people closer to happiness.
Exercise, regular sex and living in the moment are just some of the practices that can bring people closer to happiness.
Image: 123RF/Bowie15

Laughing, spending time with family and pets, going to the beach, reading books and being kind: these are what children who do not have long to live wish they could have done more of. They also rank telling special people they love them and eating ice cream as important in making them happy, says Cape Town paediatrician Dr Alastair McAlpine.

Therapists, doctors and academics say the simple stuff that makes these kids happy also makes adults happy.

The pursuit of happiness may be elusive, but these 10 tips could bring it closer:

1. GET ENOUGH SHUT EYE

Sleep is essential for the body's recovery and memory and to cope emotionally, says Professor Kevin Thomas, who specialises in neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town.

"We know from neuroscience research that we have a much more negative bias when we are sleep deprived. We are able to take on daily stresses better after sleeping."

2. CHALLENGE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS

Stress is inevitable but cycles of negative thinking - which erode happiness - are not, psychologists say. Dwelling on distressing thoughts fuels anxiety and depression, conditions that affect up to one in five adults in South Africa.

Cognitive behavioural therapist Despina Learmonth says: "If individuals struggling with negative ruminations were to write down and then say all of the negative thoughts that went through their minds in just five minutes, I think they may be shocked."

She recommends breathing and meditation to quieten the mind.3

3. SLOW DOWN, BE IN THE MOMENT

Mindfulness - defined as being attentive to the present and alert to your thoughts and feelings - is increasingly being adopted as a way to reduce stress and find contentment.

Cape Town psychologist and mindfulness specialist Linda Kantor says: "Our minds perpetually wander, usually to 'me, myself and I' or the past, and we miss what's in the present. We have the power to regulate our thoughts.

"It is increasingly important to teach people to slow down and stop, to be intensely focused in the moment. Happiness is often in the moment," she says.

4. CHOOSE RELAXING HABITS

Make it a habit to take time out, however brief, to relax every day, therapists say.

Andreas Banetsi Mphunga, a counsellor in Khayelitsha, suggests activities like going for a walk, meditating, listening to smooth music, dancing or colouring.

5. BE ACTIVE

Any exercise - simply getting up and moving - is an antidote to depression and anxiety.

Learmonth says: "Exercise [gives] the chance to experience your body's own amazing feel-good endorphins."

The benefits of exercise increase by being outdoors in the sun, and in tranquil and wild places. Being in nature has a quietening effect on the brain.

6. MAKE TIME FOR FRIENDS AND SEX

Meeting people face-to-face is more beneficial than connecting online. Mphunga suggests: "Communication is always better face-to-face when we can observe emotions that words cannot communicate. Sexual intimacy is good for relationships too, and boosts immunity."

Social isolation is said to be more of a health risk to longevity than smoking and high blood pressure.

7. PUT SCREENS SECOND

Screens have the potential to interfere with productive work, relationships and sleep. Thomas advises: "It's not healthy being up on work e-mail at 1am. We need to set firm boundaries."

US psychologist and author of iGen Professor Jean Twenge says: "Tech bosses limit their kids' time on smartphones. Why shouldn't we?"

Johannesburg psychologist Shai Friedland reinforces this point about boundaries, warning of the perils of the rise of technology: "The problem with this is that mentally the person never leaves work, which can also lead to stress and burnout."

8. VALUE COMMUNITY

Making your home in areas with green and public meeting places, like parks and libraries, boosts well-being.

The World Happiness Report reveals that social support is listed as the second-biggest contributor to happiness, following income per capita in first place.

9. CREATE MEANING AND ORDER

Money gives security and opportunity, but meaningful work and free time are as important to being happy, experts say.

"There is a common misperception that success is happiness. Success is a temporary high. We very quickly go back to where we were before. We need to start thinking about life in a different way," says Harvard's happiness guru Dr Tal Ben-Shahar.

He lauds the value of creativity, spirituality, music and humour in his work on happiness.

10. BE KIND AND GRATEFUL

Being altruistic, generous - with time and money - and grateful all contribute to people's sense of well-being and purpose in life, researchers say.

McAlpine says he prioritised kindness after his patients, four to nine years old, said they were "especially grateful for kindness, for anyone who held their hand or had a kind word for them".

Science proves that showing kindness makes both parties feel good, as does counting your blessings.

Learmonth says: "Start implanting more positive thoughts into your mind and you will retrain your brain to seek out positive ideas."

McAlpine's young patients are an example of this. They did not spend time moping
about their lives being cut short or dwelling on regrets.

He says: "By and large they were not angry or upset. They were positive about what they had had."


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