Do you want to be happier, have more energy and less stress? Awesome! Each month, this column will present common sense information about how to get (and stay) happy and healthy. I do not believe that any one piece of information or intervention will work for every single person. We are all different. What I do believe is that any positive change you make in any area of your life will create positive changes in other areas of your life.
So what are these areas? Well, I wish I could take credit for it, but, many years ago, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow said that humans have a hierarchy of needs. At the foundation is our biological needs. This makes sense right? If you are exhausted, sick, hungry and homeless, you probably do not care very much about getting in shape or improving your self esteem. Ironically, many of the people with whom I have worked over the past 15 years can trace many of the “roots” of their problems back to this first area. Think about when you have the flu and an earache. What happens to your patience? Concentration? Overall mood? Impatient, indecisive and irritable right? Let’s be honest, most people do not want to be around you when you are like that. When you are sick, they can justify and overlook your disposition; however, if you are like this most of the time then it probably is starting to impact your relationships. One of the first things I suggest people take a look at, is their overall health. How well are they sleeping ? Are they eating a relatively nutritious diet? How much exercise they are getting, and are they in pain a lot. When they make even small changes in one or more of these areas, many people start having more energy, improving their concentration and generally being more pleasant to be around.
The second level of the hierarchy is safety. When people think of safety, they often think of making sure they do not get robbed, but there is much more to it than that. We need to not only have a sense of physical safety, but also psychological safety. That is, we need to live in a world in which most people (including ourselves) abide by the principle, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” In many cases, we are our own worst critics. People bombard themselves with negative self talk and, essentially, make themselves feel stupid, inadequate or less-than. This often results in feelings of depression, anxiety and desperately seeking others (friends, relatives etc) to tell them they are okay. It is easy to make your external environment a safe place to be. It is much harder to make it safe inside your own head, but until you do, those negative messages are going to hold you back from feeling truly happy and achieving your goals.
So what can people do? Most people’s negative thoughts are so automatic, they do not even realize they had them. I encourage people to focus less on trying to figure out what they thought, and more on trying to see the positive in every situation. What did you learn? What could have been worse? What positive could come out of this? It is also helpful to start the day with a journal, meditation or list that provides an outline for all of the positive things they are going to accomplish. Get pumped! At the end of the day repeat the process and identify one or two things from the day that they are grateful for. Example:
(Morning) Today I am going to go to work, finish the monthly reports and then go workout with Tom.
(Evening) Work was okay. I am grateful to just have a job. I was kind of tired during my workout, but it was a great stress reliever and it was good to see Tom. (Isn’t that better than: “I hate doing monthly reports, my job sucks and all that stress made me have a terrible workout.”)
Once you are eating well, sleeping well and not so negative, irritable and distracted, then you can start addressing the next tier in the hierarchy: Relationships. Believe it or not, these don’t happen over night or run on auto-pilot. People have to work to keep a relationship going. People need to know what makes their spouse/children/friends tick. What are they interested in? What is rewarding to them. Too often people choose gifts and rewards that they would like themselves. For example, my husband is a reserved guy. For his birthday, he is happy going out to dinner and spending time with the family. I am a bit more outgoing. I like big gatherings with lots of my friends. What do you think I did for his birthday the first year we were together? Yup! I threw him a huge party—and a surprise one at that. Not one of my better choices. People should keep a running list on their iphone of what their friends like, so when it is holiday or birthday time, they will have something to reference.
But rewards are not the only part of a relationship. Sorry! The other big one is communication. Tired, sick, depressed people are typically awful listeners. They want their basic needs to be met, and conversation is simply extra noise. Once people are out of the sleep-deprived, sluggish, stress-induced fog, they have more energy to do things like listening and saying what they need. Unless I missed it in an RSS feed somewhere, humans still cannot read minds. Figure out what your needs are, so your friends do not compare the relationship to herding cats. Then—hold on to your hats—you must tell other people what your needs are. Be clear, concise and specific. Telling my 11 year old to clean his room is probably not going to get the job done. Put everything back where it belongs on your shelves and make your bed. Now that gets results. When people are vague in their requests, then misunderstandings occur leading to tension in the relationship and a whole host of other stuff that we’ll discuss in future articles.
For now, eat, sleep, exercise, be nice, look at the bright side and say what you mean. You might be surprised at how things so simple can make such a huge difference.
Dr. Dawn-Elise Snipes PhD, LPC, CRC, NCC is a psychotherapist and a nationally renowned speaker and counselor educator. She recently moved to Northern Virginia with her 2 children, husband, 3 dogs, 3 cats, and 2 birds. She uses a cognitive behavioral, reality-based approach to helping people find the happiness in their lives.