Monday, December 22, 2008

Try this at home

Improve Your Mood with This 2-Minute Exercise
By: Dean Anderson : 12/16/2008 12:09:25 PM : 206 comments

Would you be willing to spend two minutes doing a special exercise that could improve your mood and make your life a little (or a lot) easier?

No, this isn’t a gimmick that will get you off the hook for the kind of exercise that makes you breathe hard and sweat a lot. You’ll still have to do that. And it’s not going to make it a breeze to pass up temptations and stick to your food plan.

But this exercise might help you appreciate and enjoy these things–and the rest of your daily duties--a lot more, and avoid feeling sorry for yourself.

You don’t need an expert to tell you that a good mood is like money in the bank. It helps you let the many minor irritations and problems of your daily life roll off your back like water, and gives you the optimism, creativity, and stamina you need to handle whatever life throws at you.

But how do you get yourself into a good mood when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or so many little things are going wrong that you’d have to be unconscious or really snockered not to feel pretty anxious and upset?

The answer is simple: practice gratitude.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And if you’re trying to go from feeling down about your situation to feeling good about it, the shortest path is to be grateful for what you’ve got.

I have to admit that, for many years, this kind of claim drove me crazy. I was stuck in a very long, deep, and unpleasant struggle with major depression and PTSD that had already wrecked my marriage, my business, and left me living on disability benefits with 3 kids to support. To have someone tell me that I should find something to be grateful for struck me as either ignorant or cruel.

Then one day I was sitting in the lobby at my therapist’s office, running through all the problems I wanted to talk with her about that session, when a another client came in. She was carrying a baby, had a toddler in hand, and asked me if I could watch them for a second while she got the other kids out of the car. She came back in with two more young kids, sat down and started crying a little bit while trying to get the kids interested in playing with a few toys. She apologized and explained that she and the kids had just lost their apartment and were living in the car, after her husband had gone to jail for child and spousal abuse.

Well, I’m sure you can guess the rest of the story. I ended up telling my therapist I felt pretty silly getting all caught up in my own worries after hearing about this woman’s troubles, and was feeling grateful that my life wasn’t really as difficult as it could be.

I can’t tell you that this single incident “cured” my problems with depression and anxiety, but it definitely did change my thinking about the power of gratitude, and gave me a great tool I still use whenever I’m starting to feel a little down.

It’s incredibly simple. Just sit down for two minutes and think about what you have to be grateful for today. Come up with 3-5 things that make your life better than it would otherwise be at that moment, and write them down. These don't have to be big things--in fact, this will probably work better if you focus on little things that change from day to day. Putting the same things on your list every time will make the exercise less effective. So you might include something like being grateful for not having a headache, or enjoying your morning coffee that day, or having a pleasant moment with a family member or friend.

If you have the time, think for a minute or two about how and why you have those things in your life, and how to keep them there. If what you’re grateful for is having certain other people in your life, think about how you can let them know how you feel.

If life is pretty hard right now, this may feel a little artificial, trivial, or phony at first. But do it at least once a week anyway–fake it until you make it, if you have to.

If life is really hard today, and things to be grateful for don’t spring to mind, go spend an hour volunteering at the local food bank, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter–or anyplace where you’re likely to find other people having a hard time. Or get on the message boards at Sparkpeople or another site you’re involved in, look for someone else having a hard time, and say something encouraging to them.

The distance between a bad mood and a good mood often isn’t nearly as far as we think it is, and the shortest route is often to practice a little gratitude for what you already have.

You don’t have to take my word for it–there is lots of scientific research supporting the practice of gratitude. And there is a pretty large and active community of gratitude practitioners on the SP message boards you can talk to about this.

Why not give it a try yourself, right here, right now.

What do you have to be grateful for today?

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