Size matters: small things make us happy

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It really is the small things that make us happy.

This is what’s made me happy this week.

1.    Treating myself to a coffee on the way to work, and it wasn’t even Friday

2.    Buying My Lovely Husband (MLH) a caramel donut, to make him happy

3.    Having the first draft of a feature signed off with an accompanying email that says, “I like it. I have no changes. Consider this signed off.” Bliss!

These are small, trivial acts. The don’t cost very much, if anything. I haven’t booked a safari trek to South Africa and I haven’t bought a new car. In fact, if I did, I’d only worry about what I’d spent to get them.

So, if it’s the small things that make us most happy, why don’t we do them more?

1.    The treat

Remember the vanilla latte I bought on the way to work? This is exactly what I’m talking about. But what constitutes a ‘treat’? you ask. Well, let’s look at the evidence. Elizabeth Dunn (UBC), Daniel Gilbert (Harvard) and Timothy Wilson (Virginia) wrote ‘If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right’ in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, which summaries research into eight recommendations. One is to buy lots of small-ticket items – my coffee, or a trinket necklace, a new scarf or a car magazine – instead of fewer large items – the TV you don’t need, the reverse cameras for your car (sorry, that’s a private dig at MLH, I digress), the uber-expensive leather jacket.

Studies prove you’ll be happier by the frequency of the purchase, rather than its greatness.

2.    The good deed

If you walk into a shop and buy something meant for someone else, the chances are you’ll feel pleased with yourself. I certainly felt pretty smug with MLH’s caramel donut.

Why though? Again, let’s look at the evidence. In the Journal of Social Psychology’s ‘Acts of Kindness and Acts of Novelty Affect Life Satisfaction’, 86 participants took a survey measuring life satisfaction. Then they were split into three groups. One group performed daily acts of kindness for 10 days. The second simply did something new each day. The third group did what the hell they wanted. The results showed that the groups that practiced kindness and engaged in novel acts were both significantly happier. The third group didn’t get any happier. 

So to come back to the question, why are we happier when we’re nicer? Human nature. The small deeds that make others happy, in turn, dials up our happiness barometer. In addition, the more we feed off others’ happiness, the more likely we are to do more good again and again and again. Oh dear, my husband could get very fat from all the caramel donuts…

3.    The positive feedback

Forget constructive feedback. Sometimes we just need a pat on the back and nice words. Let’s see why. Findings from a study by Harvard Business School showed that when people were reminded of their best work, they work more creative and less stressed. It’s a little gift of confidence. And it’s the difference between a good and a bad day. So why don’t people praise us more, and why don’t we tell the people we admire that we admire them? Because we’re a society that hates braggers. And we all resist the urge to seek praise. It might be fashionable to think that praise is bad, but when it comes on an unexpected day, from an unexpected place, it can be a powerful thing indeed.

What makes you happy? Are you treating yourself to the right things? Partaking in random acts of kindness? And are you giving praise to people around you? Remember, it’s the small things, after all.

Follow me on Twitter, if you fancy it! @akmanvell

Exercise yourself happy

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It’s been the month of juice diets, 5:2 eating and new exercise regimes. If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I think Mindlessness, as opposed to Mindfulness, is the healthiest way forward, and hence, we must move more! So, as I drink in the fitness decisions taken by friends and loved-ones around me, I start to think: when is the best time to exercise?

Inspired by a recent talk by Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School on happiness at work, I’d like to explore what role exercise plays in our happiness.  Stay tuned to become happier!

Jolly said:

“95% of senior executives I work with tell me they are ‘Hurry Sick’ – addicted to email and disillusioned with inefficient meetings.

“Realising that they have achieved everything that would make them happy, but finding they were unhappier than they had ever been is at the heart of the mid-life crisis. This pattern is not what is going to inspire the next generation of employees to join and stay loyal to an organisation.”

Stress the body and de-stress the mind

Stress, over time, can:

  • Cause key connections between nerve cells in your brain not to function well
  • Impair your memory and the ability to take in new information
  • Increase your risk of suffering from depression and anxiety.

So, how can exercise-stress trigger happiness?

  • As your heart-rate goes up, say hello to feel-good serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine – these are good folks to have around
  • A substance to protect your brain from emotional disorders and repair damage that stress and depression cause − Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – appears
  • Now for the good bit: opiate-like endorphins kick in, leading to a happy-sigh state of well-being.

Did you know that 20 minutes of exercise can produce mood enhancers that last as long as 12 hours?  Cambridge University studied of 334,000 people and Ulf Ekelund, who led the study, said:

“This is a simple message: just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive.

“Although we found just 20 minutes would make a difference, we should really be looking to do more than this – physical activity has many proven health benefits and should be an important part of our daily life.” 

When to exercise?

So, hopefully you’re planning to work-out, but when should you do it?

Your body’s circadian rhythm determines whether you’re a lark or an owl, and I’m afraid there’s not much you can do to change it! (I’m a lark, and can be found quietly flagging between 16.30 and 18.30.)

Circadian rhythm is affected by the 24-hour pattern of the earth’s rotation. These rhythms influence body functions, like: blood pressure; body temperature; hormone levels; and heart rate, all of which play a role in your body’s readiness for exercise.

I may be bias, but experts have said that morning is your best time to exercise.

“Research suggests in terms of performing a consistent exercise habit, individuals who exercise in the morning tend to do better,” says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer with the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.

“The thinking is that they get their exercise in before other time pressures interfere,” Bryant says. “I usually exercise at 6 a.m., because no matter how well-intentioned I am, if I don’t exercise in the morning, other things will squeeze it out.”

Summing up

If you stay sedentary your body can become more sensitive to stress, so even minor triggers – you know, the washing machine breaking; organising a Hen Party; or having a crap date ­− leaves you mentally exhausted.  Look, I’m not the ‘fit and fun police’, but if you can squeeze in 20 minutes exercise a day and you’re physically able to, why not try it and see if you land sunny side up?

Picture citation: Jeanette Goodrich, Fitness and health concept in tag cloud (CC BY-NC 2.0)