Lifestyle

How to be happier: 13 ways to improve your mental health – MLive.com

Meditation is among the proven strategies that can help people cope with stress and anxiety.
Feeling depressed? Anxious? Stressed out?
Join the club.
More than one-third of Michiganders reported experiencing symptoms of depression, stress and or anxiety in the previous two weeks, based on a federal Census survey taken in March.
More serious cases of depression and anxiety often require the help of a therapist, perhaps even medication. But just like physical health, individuals can do much on their own to improve their mood. There are numerous strategies backed by research to help people ease stress and depression, and create a happier environment for themselves.
In fact, happiness is not a feeling, but a byproduct of how people live their lives, social scientist Arthur C. Brooks and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb agreed in a Sept. 29, 2021, discussion on Brooks’ podcast series “How To Build A Happy Life.”
Research indicates the three building blocks of happiness are enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose, according to Brooks, a Harvard professor who has written extensively on the subject. (Brooks defines enjoyment as activities that generate pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. Satisfaction, he says, is “the joy from fulfillment of our wishes or expectations.” Purpose is a life with meaning.)
Gottlieb, author of the best seller “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” stresses the importance of social human connection, the lack of which is a common theme among her psychotherapy patients. “People without connection … they’re the people who come in and say, ‘I’m not very happy,’ " she said.
Larry Beer, a Kalamazoo clinical psychologist, also says that connection — or lack of it — is a key factor among people struggling with mental-health issues.
Lack of connection is “one of the reasons that people commit suicide,” he said. “Connection is an antidote in some ways to depression.”
Below are some specific strategies backed by research for improving one’s mental health.
1. Spend time with friends.
As Gottlieb and Beer point out, human connection is key. Loving, supportive family members can lift our spirits, but family relationships are often accompanied by feelings of guilt, obligation and resentment. Our relationships with friends less likely to carry that baggage, which makes friends an invaluable support system.
Various studies confirm the importance of friendship.
“Adults with strong social connections have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index,” says a post on the Mayo Clinic website. “In fact, studies have found that older adults who have meaningful relationships and social support are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections.”
2. Participate in volunteer work.
Among the benefits of volunteer work: It’s an opportunity for social interaction, gives people a sense of meaning and purpose, can build confidence and self-esteem, and creates a sense of accomplishment.
“One of the biggest benefits of volunteering is that the more you do it, the happier you become,” WebMD says in an online post. “You don’t need to already be happy to benefit from it or participate. In fact, studies show that people who start with lower levels of well-being may get an even bigger boost in happiness from volunteering.”
There’s even a name for it: “The helper’s high.”
3. Keep a gratitude journal.
People can improve their mental health by consciously counting their blessings, experts say.
One study at University of California Berkeley divided 300 people who sought counseling services into three groups. One group was instructed to write a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks; a second was asked to write on their deepest feelings about negative experiences, and the third group was not assigned any writing activity. The group that wrote the gratitude letters had “significantly better mental health” after the writing exercise ended, and that was still true two months later, the study found.
In documenting her recovery from alcoholism, best-selling author Mary Karr has about talked her own experience with writing a nightly list of reasons to be grateful for the day. She was introduced to the practice by her 12-step sponsor, and Karr initially resisted it. But it really worked in easing her depression, she says.
“I just started trying, instead of sitting there with my arms crossed and my lower lip stuck out and my baseball cap pulled down over my eyes,” she said in 2020 interview. " I just started trying s— that people who were happier than me suggested I should try. It was so simple.”
4. Join a church or other religious congregation.
Being part of any social group — a book club, a golf league, a civic organization — can improve our sense of social connection. But joining a religious congregation has additional benefits.
“Religion gives people something to believe in, provides a sense of structure and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs,” says the National Alliance on Mental Health.
NAMI lists other benefits of religion: The feeling of community and belonging; the rituals that can help people cope with life challenges, and the focus on compassion, forgiveness and gratitude.
A 2005 study of 37,000 people found those who regularly attended religious services were less likely to suffer from depression and other psychiatric illnesses than those who didn’t.
“The higher the worship frequency, the lower the odds of depression, mania, and panic disorders,” said Dr. Marilyn Baetz of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, s researcher involved in the study.
5. Practice meditation.
Meditation trains participants to be fully present in the moment and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by events around them.
Numerous studies show that meditation can help with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and those effects are comparable to other existing treatments. There are free online tutorials to teach the techniques and guide you through the process.
6. Manage your expectations.
It’s no secret that unrealistic expectations can contribute to stress, anxiety and depression. So it’s important that people feeling stressed examine their expectations and, if needed, work on adjusting their mindset.
The WebMD website offers specific tips on managing your expectations: Practice gratitude; crush comparisons to others; be kind to yourself, and seek professional help if you can’t rid yourself of unrealistic expectations on your own.
“Adjusting unrealistic expectations can bring enormous benefits and a renewed sense of peace,” WebMD says.
7. Make time for fun.
Many people “think fun is frivolous,” Gottlieb said on the How To Build a Happy Life” podcast. “They don’t realize it’s actually essential. People think, ‘Well, that’s optional, if I have time,’ and then, of course, they don’t make the time because they think it’s not necessary. And it absolutely is.”
When her clients say they don’t have time for fun, Gottlieb said she has them track how they spend their time over a 48-hour period, and inevitably there is wasted time. “They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I spent like an hour and a half mindlessly scrolling through the Internet,” she said.
And when clients say they don’t even know how to have fun, “I always say to people ‘Follow your envy, it tells you what you want,’” Gottlieb said. “And so when you are envious of someone or something or some experience, that’s a clue to what might be enjoyable for you.”
8. Exercise.
Many, many studies link exercise to improved mental health, particularly in regards to people with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.
Some studies have even found exercise is as effective as antidepressant drugs — and without the negative side effects associated with the drugs.
Thirty minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic website. But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference.
9. Spend time in nature.
A 2019 review of the research on the impact of nature and mental health found contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases in mental distress.
In fact, even a view of nature outside the windows of one’s home or work is related to less mental distress, and children who grow up around more greenspace are significantly less likely to have psychiatric disorders later in life, including depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance use disorder, studies have found.
10. Get a pet.
Pets can provide love and companionship; alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness, and lower levels of depression and anxiety and improve life satisfaction, studies show.
Plus, owning a dog gives people more reason to go on walks and visits parks — other activities beneficial to mental health.
However, studies also show that the benefits of pet ownership can be offset by the practical demands of caring for an animal.
11. Get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation is strongly correlation to mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, experts say, although there are times when insomnia is a symptom vs. a cause of mental-health issues.
That said, improving sleep can help improve mental-health issues, and it’s important for people who feel anxious or depressed to practice good sleep hygiene.
Click here for tips on how to improve your sleeping habits.
12. Avoid alcohol.
The link between alcohol and mental health offers a chicken-and-egg dilemma. People who drink heavily are much more like to have mental-health disorders, but is that because they drink? Or do they drink because of the mental-health problems?
Here’s what we do know: Alcohol is a depressant that can disrupt the brain chemistry. While drinking can initially make people feel more relaxed and uninhibited, it also can trigger an increase in negative feelings, such as anxiety, depression and/or anger. Alcohol also can increase the side effects of some anti-psychotropic drugs.
In some cases, people with depression who stop drinking may find their symptoms improve within a few weeks, experts say.
13. Eat right.
Just as diet can impact your physical health, it also can effect your mental health. So improving your diet can improve someone’s mood, give them more energy and help them think more quickly, says Mind, a U.K. mental-health organization.
Those with mental-health issues should be an point of eating regular, healthy meals; staying hydrated; getting enough protein and managing caffeine, Mind says. Click here for the website’s specific tips, including information on how diet can affect drugs that people take for mental-health disorders.
To be clear, while self-help strategies can make a significant difference in one’s mood, many people experiencing depression, anxiety and/or other mood disorders can benefit from professional help.
If you need that help, reach out to your primary care physician or your health-care insurance to get a list of mental-health providers in your community. The Psychology Today website also maintains a directory of licensed providers by geographic area.
This story is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative covering mental health issues in southwest Michigan, created by the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. SWMJC is a group of 12 regional organizations dedicated to strengthening local journalism. For more info visit swmichjournalism.com.
More on MLive:
A holistic approach is key to student mental health and retention
Finding solutions for Kalamazoo homeless include overcoming prior trauma, criminal backgrounds
Isolation, pressure and substance use: Children and teens facing ‘mental health tsunami,’ experts say
Saying these words could help someone who is contemplating suicide
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