Something to smile about

Our wellbeing depends so much on getting on with other people. The friendly support of others makes us happier, more able to cope with pain and difficulties, even physically healthier. And it works the other way, too: doing things for others and expressing appreciation measurably lift our own spirits.

Yet it is so easy to forget to be nice to each other, to be more dissatisfied than grateful. There is a biological reason for this curmudgeonly inclination; psychologists call it the negative bias. Evolution taught us to be suspicious first and count our blessings later. Even now, when we are comparatively safe from predators – perhaps all the more because we expect comfort and convenience – we are more irked by what we don’t like than appreciative of what we have.

We are more upset to lose £10 than thrilled to gain it. We are more stricken by our failures than we are buoyed by our successes. We dismiss the compliments of friends and family as if they count for nothing, while one criticism can rankle for ever.

The negative bias is so strong that researchers have calculated it takes at least five compliments to soften the effect of one snarky comment. The world is full of people making mistakes, doing objectionable things, getting our way and needing (we think) to be put right. But there are better ways to make changes than by criticising (a topic for another day). And all of them begin with a smile rather than a frown – literally, or in your tone of voice, or the set of your shoulders, and in your state of mind.

See what happens to your relationships when you try giving anyone five compliments for every criticism. But what counts as a compliment? A rush of effusive praise is likely to make them suspicious (“You must want something…”); or sceptical, no longer trusting anything you say; or anxious, because praise can make us more afraid of being a disappointment the next time, and more anxious to please than to do something for its own sake.

Any sincere “Thank you!” or “I like how you…” or “Well done!” Any gesture of respect, any nod of acknowledgement; asking someone for their point of view, paying attention when they are speaking – looking at them, instead of at your phone or the television – is an effective way to counter your own and other people’s negative bias.

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, we can do much for our own happiness, and sustain our many and varied relationships, by actively looking for opportunities to express appreciation.

And the first form of compliment is a smile. Smiling is a universal human signal that is both a greeting and an offer of peace. It communicates friendliness instead of hostility. A genuine smile cannot be faked. It awakens wellbeing in both the smiler and the smiled at. It is the simplest and quickest way to affirm a positive bias and dispel that prevailing tendency to discontent.

Change your life…one step at a time

Every year, the calendar kindly starts over at Day 1. Traditionally, a time for rethinks and new beginnings. But perhaps you are sceptical about making New Year’s resolutions? With good reason: most resolutions collapse before Day 31. Why is it so difficult to make changes that are supposed, after all, to make you feel better about yourself?

St Paul famously fretted, “Why do I keep doing what I wish I wouldn’t, and keep not doing what I should?” The answer is that he didn’t understand how the brain works. Our behaviour is chiefly governed, not by ideals, not by threats, but by habit. Like Google remembering your search history, the brain expects to do what it has done before.

Habit is unconscious, involuntary behaviour. That is its value, and its curse. Value, because it saves time and energy; you don’t have to keep reinventing what to do or how to do it. Curse, because habits kick in automatically. Even when it is bad for you, habitual behaviour feels familiar, and takes less effort; and that seems comforting, even if you hate yourself for it later. Habits override your best intentions, and whoops – before you know it, you’re doing it again.

‘We are what we repeatedly do,’ as Aristotle observed. Our lives are shaped by what we repeatedly do…and by what we repeatedly say, hear, think, believe, imagine. Don’t shame yourself for what does not work in your life, as if your character were fatally flawed. Habits are learned. They can be unlearned, and new ones planted.

Habit is all about connections. The brain links one habitual action to another. To grow a new habit, embed it into your usual routine: practise your affirmations or your Arabic in your daily shower.

To unlearn a habit, you interrupt the automatic chain of events. If you habitually have a cigarette with your morning cup of coffee, and then cut out just the cigarette, you will feel bereft as the brain gropes for the missing link. But invent a new routine – drink orange juice instead, take the dog for a run – where the smoke has no place and would spoil the pleasure.

When I was a child, a wire-and-plastic brace was fitted on my teeth that abruptly put an end to my comforting habit of thumb-sucking. I would have outgrown it anyway; I only remember stopping because of its brutal suddenness. But unlike childish behaviours, our most addictive habits do not gradually cease. Like water, they run along grooves dug deep by frequent use.

To etch a new habit takes time and repetition, reminders to yourself and more repetition, until it becomes automatic. To get out of an old rut, you need strategies to avoid sliding into old patterns while you nurture new ways.

Either way, if you want to change something in your life, it is practical psychology to pin it to a definite date, like the New Year. An external structure such as a timeline, or a planned programme or support system, helps you to put a decision into action and to monitor your progress.

But improving aspects of your life is not about forcing yourself. The secret of lasting change is to make a new behaviour feel more natural and satisfying to do than to not do. One foot automatically follows the other when the way is clear ahead.

Relaxation for Busy People

“Christmas has been cancelled this year.” My father made this same joke every year, when we children were beginning to get excited. A few decades ago, our Christmas was a one-day, one-present-each event. It was a brief, magical moment in a mostly monotonous calendar of working days and plodding Sundays. Even so, my father was harassed by the disruption and what must have been a quite modest extra cost.

Since then, Christmas, far from being cancelled, has swelled like an insatiable beast. It feeds on people’s time, energy and money for weeks or even months on both sides of the day itself. For many people, the harassment snuffs out the magic. A host of mounting pressures – to get more done, and done in time; to spend more than you really want or can afford; to eat and drink more than is healthy or comfortable; the heightened emotional cost of loneliness, or else of strained relationships – are all the more stressful when the season is supposed to remind us of peace and joy.

Not that anyone talks much these days of goodwill to all mankind. ‘Goodwill’ is out of date and ‘mankind’ is sexist. You are more likely to hear people redefining Christmas as “all about family time and loved ones,” and, after all the extra stress and overwork, looking forward to some bingeing (box sets, luxuries) and a few days of mindless torpor.

The difference between torpor and real relaxation is that torpor can leave you feeling dissatisfied and irritable rather than rested. A habit of relaxing during your busiest times, instead of after, restores your depleted energy as you go. Torpor is a form of collapse, an attempt to switch off living for a while because it has become too overwhelming. Relaxation is the natural counter to anxiety and activity. It is the easing-up between one effort and the next that stops you getting overwhelmed in the first place, so that you do not pile up a debt of fatigue and emotional burnout to add to the other burdens you will carry into the New Year.

Christmas coincides with the transition we make at the end of each year from one stage of our lives to the next. I am reminded of a primary school I know of, where for the last five minutes of every class the children sit and think about what they have accomplished in the lesson just ended, and consider the new activity they are about to begin. Instead of classes that end with a jangling bell and an eruption of noise and rush, this small pause allows one period to lead calmly and purposefully on to the next. The same principle works whenever there is much to do and little time. Pockets of calm between your activities give you breathing space and help you keep things in perspective

Calm first: then carry on. This is practical psychology, and not only because stress impairs us. I am still amazed how, when (against my impatient grain) I pause and relax for five minutes – before leaving the house, for example, or before sleeping, or on waking – that is when my mind clears, and allows something important I had forgotten, or a solution to a problem, or renewed calm to float into my awareness.

Don’t tell yourself that you will relax later, when you have time. Even one minute, now, to pause and relax will put you back in control, stop your mind running on auto-pilot, and bring your life back into focus. Calm first. Then carry on.

Like all other Christmases past and future, this Christmas will come and go. You can navigate the pressures more freely when you are relaxed and (forgive the pun) more present.

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