I work as a psychologist in a small Alaskan town where winters are long and many people, including myself, experience the winter blues. With my clients and in my own life, I use and recommend the following six strategies for increasing well-being year-round.
1. Attitude of Gratitude
About four years ago, after reading a new study on the positive effects of gratitude on mood, I decided I wanted to become more appreciative of what I have. My husband Bob agreed to join me, and we eventually made it into a game in which every day we each say five things we're grateful for, and whoever is first to remember the exercise that day goes first, because the second person has to think of five additional things. If you want to make this exercise a regular part of your life, the trick is to keep it interesting by adapting it in a way that works for you. Some people I've worked with use it in their morning devotions, others like to write their list in a journal, and some prefer to use it as a nightly mental ritual in bed before falling asleep.
Reframing involves intentionally taking a different perspective. You've probably experienced such a shift in perspective unintentionally, for example, when you learn that an irritating coworker is a single parent working two part-time jobs to support her two children, one of whom has cancer. Such shifts in perspective involve thoughts such as "maybe my situation isn't that bad," followed by feelings of relief, gratitude, and compassion towards the other person -- all of which feel better than irritation, frustration, anxiety, or anger. In its simplest form, reframing involves asking yourself, "Is there another way to think about this problem that would help me feel less stressed?"
3. Wise Elder
One of my favorite thought-change tools comes from the psychotherapist Yvonne Dolan, and it is called Wise Elder. It is easier to understand if you do it, so here you go:
Step 1: Think of a problem or situation that brings up negative thoughts and feelings of stress.
Step 2: Now close your eyes and imagine that you are 90 years old, with a lifetime of experiences, learning, and wisdom. When you have a picture of yourself at this older age, imagine that you are looking back on yourself and your current situation. What advice would your 90-year-old self give you today? Do you notice a positive shift in your feelings as you tell yourself this advice?
4. Growth Opportunity
Growth opportunity is a type of reframe that comes from the Buddhist idea that all obstacles are opportunities for growth. With this approach, obstacles are seen as a normal part of life, to be expected and handled as compassionately as possible, with no need for the negative, judgmental thinking and behavior that make them more difficult. Growth opportunity involves asking yourself what you can learn and how you can grow from an experience, for example, the experience may help you develop a new outlook, greater empathy, or more appreciation for what you have.
5. Values Compass
When you have tried and tried changing yourself, and either the change is not happening or it is going so slowly that you feel too discouraged to keep trying, imagine your value priorities as an internal compass that keeps you motivated along the path of well-being. With this strategy, you do not ignore your own contribution to your stress, but rather, focus on the values that give you a sense of purpose, as a way to motivate yourself to keep going when the going is tough. You encourage yourself with these kinds of thoughts: Okay, apparently I am not able to change this, at least for now, so I need to accept myself the way I am, the situation for what it is, or this person for who they are. How can I live my life and make good choices despite this difficulty, in a way that fits with my values?
There are many kinds of meditation: sitting meditation, walking meditation, loving kindness meditation, and yoga, to name a few. All of these various forms begin with attention to the breath. Breath is a tool in itself that connects your mind with your body. When you focus on your breath, you create a bridge that, as Thich Naht Hanh says, allows your mind to listen to your body, creating a one-ness of body and mind. If meditation is new to you, start small -- five minutes a day, increasing the time as you are able.
As you practice any one of these well-being boosters and begin to feel better, you may begin to notice that they contribute to the well-being of those around you too.