9 small steps to happiness

Rachel Kelly, mental health campaigner and author of Walking on Sunshine, offers her tips for reaching and maintaining happiness

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1. Do sweat the small stuff (but only the small stuff)

I’m suspicious of the idea that we can go out and grab happiness directly. For me, in the words of the poet Raymond Carver, ‘Happiness comes on,/Unexpectedly’, as an indirect consequence of the way we think, and our actions - whether it’s tending a garden or trying to help others. And the best way of allowing this kind of indirect happiness to flourish, I’ve found, is to be calm and grounded. For me the two are intrinsically linked. I often feel joyful as a result of feeling calm. While we can’t grab happiness, we can learn to become steadier.  

2.  Small steps

My own experience, and also that of those who attend the workshops I run for mental health charities such as MIND and Depression Alliance, is that small steps are most effective, and have been the easiest way for me to make sustainable changes. Small tilts of the rudder work best: I’ve found that every time I try a more dramatic approach, I set the bar too high and end up feeling a failure. 

3.  One size doesn't necessarily fit all

I also believe in a salad bowl approach – no one size fits all, and I’m wary of the claims made each successive trend that seizes the self-help world, be it mindfulness or gratitude. I’ve needed no less than 52 different strategies, one for each week of the year and which reflect seasonal pressures. They span everything from poetry to psychobiotics, breathing to prayer and diet, mantras and a sprinkling of mindful breathing techniques.

4. Be perfectly imperfect 

Though I’m a great believer in this salad bowl approach, it is not the case that I’m always happy. Of course I can be sad. We all have to engage with what Freud described as ‘ordinary human unhappiness’ . But being calmer has made me stronger at coping with the inevitable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  It’s meant that while I’m still perfectly imperfect, on the whole I feel steady and well – and some days I even feel as if I’m walking on sunshine.

5. Embrace the new day 

Like many who have a history of being anxious or depressed, mornings are still my most difficult time of day. It’s even worse when I open my curtains and it’s still dark. I use various strategies in the narrow crescent of time before the day properly starts: I’ve learnt that the way I first greet the day has an effect on the way it unfolds thereafter. However chaotic life is around me, I take the time for some slow awakening stretches and breaths – a good tool for taking the temperature of my mind and observing what has risen to the surface overnight. And odd as it sounds, I open the window and lean out to taste the weather – helping my mind and body unite. These behaviours make for a happier day but they are also an important reminder that I live best when I look after myself first, before tending to others.

6. Mindful moments

In the chaos leading up to Christmas, I’m in danger of feeling like a joyless robot programmed to complete tasks and carry out chores. We become constantly caught up in the next deadline and cease to live our lives in the present moment. I’ve been helped by punctuating my day with 'mindful moments' – choosing one or two activities that act as a call to attention. One of the activities I have chosen is hand washing, which I know doesn’t suit everyone: you can choose whatever routine activity suits, be it polishing your glasses or brushing your teeth. So however many thoughts are whizzing around my head, when I wash my hands I give myself permission to let them drift out of focus and I become aware instead of all my senses in the now. The hot water on my skin, the smell of my favourite orange blossom or lavender soap, the sound of silence and gentle splashing. These pockets of peace ground me in my body and I return to work or to my To Do list feeling a little restored.

7. Words you say

In an effort to live more consciously and considerately I’ve tried to pay more attention to the way in which I communicate with others. I know that I can be guilty of plotting my reply while others are talking rather than concentrating on what they’re saying, and this is particularly unhelpful when communicating with young minds that want to be heard and understood. 

I also try to bear in mind that sometimes no reply at all is better than one that negates someone’s emotion or experience. In expressing my own emotions I’ve found it helpful to be more careful with the words I use; saying ‘I feel stressed’, for example, rather than ‘I am stressed’. I am not the feeling, nor will I always experience that emotional state – it is temporary.

8. Turn control into curiosity

We all know that feeling of trying to herd and cajole others – and the instinct to control can 
quickly snowball into frustration and anger when we come up against resistance. A mantra I’ve come to rely on is: 'turn control into curiosity'. 

Every time I recognise that familiar impulse to impose my will on another person, I now pause and explore the feelings that are fuelling this urge to take over. I’ve found I’m often the most keen to control my surroundings when I’m feeling out of control or unsettled myself. Once I’ve come to this realisation, I’m able to shift my attention inwards and try and regain a sense of balance and calm. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: the only person we truly have any control over is ourself.

9. Beat stuffocation  

It’s the time of year when stuff triumphs.  We inevitably accumulate more things, yet often the best things in life are not things. It's liberating, then, and calming, to get rid of the excess and live in a clearer space. Our outer environment affects our inner environment and vice versa. 

Given that my mind can tend to be anxious, I’m particularly keen on having a calm house. Cultivating a home life that is less wasteful and more ordered is a simple way of nurturing my mental health. Nineteenth-century artist William Morris’s process of elimination was to keep only things that are useful or beautiful. I follow his advice, but also never throw out something which has been a personal gift of a child or a friend.

Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness by Rachel Kelly is published by Short Books 9.99 and is available on Amazon.

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Last updated: almost 3 years ago