Today, Britons are experiencing the bleakest day of the year: Blue Monday, so named for its potent combination of cold nights and post-Christmas melancholy.
It’s tempting to indulge ourselves in this nationally recognised downward spiral, but it’s more important to focus on how to make the day – or, indeed, any day – better.
Having a good day is something many of us see too little of: last summer, the Office for National Statistics revealed that UK happiness levels had failed to rise for the first time in five years, while 2016 proved the most anxiety-ridden on record, with seven out of 10 employees citing stress as the number one hazard at work, according to a TUC report.
Many of us have settled into treating this daily dissatisfaction as a casual disappointment, something to be endured and joked about with friends. I’ve lost track of the number of conversations that have gone: “What happened to you today?” “Oh, just work.” “Yeah, me too. Have a drink.”
It’s a crushing shame to write off so much of our lives in that way. But here’s the good news: research in behavioural economics, psychology and neuroscience suggests that we have more control over the quality of our day-to-day lives than we realise.
We might not be able to turn a terrible day into an extraordinary one, or a dodgy boss into a saint, but once we understand just a little of what it takes for our brain to function at its best, it becomes clear how and why we can get quite significant boosts to our sense of wellbeing and productivity from small tweaks to our daily routines.
Your brain gets a surprisingly strong kick from learning new things. And those new things don’t have to be all that exciting to have a positive effect. Neuroeconomist George Loewenstein has found that simply giving volunteers the answers to factual questions visibly activates their brains’ reward systems – no doubt one of the reasons that game shows are so popular.
This is useful to know if you’re feeling uninspired, because it means that an oddly useful way to perk yourself up is to decide to find something worth learning. If you’re on an interminable training course that’s going far too slowly, for example, decide to find something noteworthy about the way it’s being taught – something that could improve the way you communicate your own ideas to others. If you’re engaged in the most boring task on the planet, perhaps you can at least find the quickest or slickest way of doing it. You’ll enjoy yourself more as a result.
Getting some distance:
When we’re dealing with a challenging situation, we don’t always make good choices. Neuroscientist Amy Arnsten has found that dealing with “even quite mild uncontrollable stress” can dampen activity in our brain’s prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for careful reasoning and self-control.
Our brain is busy launching a defensive “fight-flight-or-freeze” response, leaving less mental energy available for thinking things through properly. Unfortunately, this means that just as you need to rise to some kind of challenge, your reactions are less thoughtful and more kneejerk. No wonder you might say something you later regret when you’re under pressure, or find your mind goes blank when put on the spot.
Research has found that you can quickly dampen your stress response by asking yourself a question that puts you at some distance from the difficult situation around you. For example, you might ask: “What will I think about this looking back in a year’s time?” or “If someone else were in my shoes, what would I advise them?” This kind of “distancing” can do just enough to take your brain off the defensive – making it easier to think more wisely and behave more gracefully in the face of whatever provocation has set you off in the first place.
It’s tough when we don’t see eye-to-eye with someone. Our natural instinct is to try to persuade the other person of our point of view, yet we know that people tend to filter out any evidence that contradicts their existing viewpoint. You’re usually fighting a losing battle.
Happily, there’s a better way to handle conflict. It’s inspired by Anatol Rapaport, author of the classic book Fights, Games and Debates, and it works like this: start by describing the other person’s point of view in a way that’s as compelling as possible. Make them feel that they couldn’t have put it better themselves. Then, highlight all the places where you actually agree.
Next, explore how you could both somehow be right about the thing you disagree on – perhaps in certain circumstances your approach would be spot on, while in others they might have a point. Finally, decide what action you can take based on your points of agreement.
Focusing on your common ground in this way makes a surprising difference to your chances of finding a way forward and saving your relationship.
Random acts of kindness:
When we’re feeling worn down, it’s not an obvious strategy to try giving someone else a boost. But have you ever noticed how good you feel when you bother to stop to help someone who’s looking for directions, or when you give up your seat to someone who needs it more than you? You’re not alone. Martin Seligman, eminent psychologist and leading expert on what it takes for human beings to flourish, says “kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested”.
The UN’s World Happiness Report confirms that this phenomenon crosses cultural boundaries; in every part of the world, people seem to find it uplifting to be generous.
And your random act of kindness doesn’t have to be big to immediately lift your mood. Try giving an unexpected compliment, offering help when you might otherwise look the other way – perhaps even let someone cut in front of you with a smile, rather than a grimace. And then notice how great it makes you feel.
End on a high:
You can permanently lift the way you remember a day by asking yourself one simple question at the end of it: “What went well today?” Research has found that when we look back on an experience and consider how good or bad it was, our brain doesn’t actually assess every single moment.
We tend to average just two points: the peak, and the end point (so it’s known as the “peak-end effect”). Of course, you can’t go back and invent a peak that didn’t happen. But you can always make sure to end each evening by reviewing the day’s minor triumphs. They may be small – perhaps you remembered your umbrella – but by raising your average, you add some shine to the way the day gets stored in your brain’s memory banks. And repeated day after day, that ultimately changes the way you feel about your life.
By Caroline Webb, as published in The Telegraph on 16th January 2017