There are periods in our lives when it feels like it’s just too much. Logically, we know it won’t last. But it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. During times like these, I turn to what my friends and I call the happiness diet.
The happiness diet isn’t a special combination of foods that relieve stress and anxiety, although these foods do exist and should be explored. The happiness diet is a diet for your mind. It’s taking control of what you let in. You decide what you consume, when, and how much.
If you want a simple way to take control of your physical and mental wellbeing, keep reading.
You are what you consume
Until my mid-thirties, I wasn’t very mindful about the type of media I consumed. I grew up watching Days of our Lives. As an adult, I was keen on anything that would make me forget about my problems and stress in my life. I watched a lot of mind-numbing TV, played games on social media, and listened to whatever was on the radio.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this in moderation of course. But for me, there was no moderation. I was consuming close to 100 percent mindless content. And that left no room for things that could help me grow and feel more positive.
Then in 2009, the amount of time I spent traveling for work quadrupled. I came to a point where I couldn’t listen to one more talk radio show or song from my iPod. I was bored with hotel TV and the free newspapers they offered. I needed more.
I started listening to audiobooks, then podcasts, and more audiobooks. In the evenings I started reading books again. I’d go days, and sometimes weeks without using social media. And guess what? My life was getting better. I was getting better. And this is how I discovered the happiness diet.
I initially published this post in May of 2016. After a year and a half of blogging, it was a post I felt excited to share publicly with all of my friends and family. I even talked close to 100 people into joining me for a 30-day happiness diet.
I’ve been meaning to update this post to share an experience I had a couple of years later. Jer and I were visiting family over the holidays and there was a winter storm making its way across the state. At that point, it had been years since we had a television. I was used to paying attention to the weather. But my information came from an app on my phone or a similar website.
The family members we were visiting enjoy having constant background noise. You can be sure that there is always a TV or radio playing. And unless it’s a sports ball game, it’s probably the news.
I was aware that there was a chance of a winter storm going into the weekend. But the constant news warnings and reports of crashes and cars in the ditch sent me over the edge. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I was more anxious than I’d felt in years. All I could see was my life flashing before my eyes on those icy roads so I insisted that we pack up and head home immediately.
After I was safely home and out of the danger of a winter storm (and the TV news), I realized what had happened. A month later I had coffee with a friend and I was telling him about my experience. They have been TV free for several years as well and he recounted a similar experience while visiting his family. Since then I’ve been hyper-aware of how the news media can trigger fear in me.
I’ve published hundreds of posts so it takes some time to get back and update them. I’m writing this update in 2020 during what is presumably the beginning stages of a global pandemic. It seemed like a great time to revisit the happiness diet and share some new experiences.
Just as I was about to start writing this, my city and the entire country broke out in protests and riots over a viral video of a Minneapolis police officer murdering an innocent black man. I held off as long as I could on writing this and I still struggle to find the right words.
We’re not even six months through the year and there’s been more overwhelming news than in the last decade. I imagine there’s plenty more to come with the looming presidential election. And I’m not sure, but I think covid-19 is still a thing.
Still, I remain hopeful that this is the veil being lifted for some must needed change.
In this post, I’ll cover how you can use the happiness diet to feel better both physically and emotionally. I’ll share experiences we’ve had over the years, and especially the previous six months. And I’ll highlight great resources to help you get started on your own happiness diet.
What is the happiness diet?
The happiness diet starts by paying attention to the things that make you feel good as well as the things that don’t make you feel good. If you don’t have a clear list in your mind, you might want to start by taking notes over the next week.
Here are some things that make me feel good:
- Chilling outside with my husband, Jer, on a warm summer night
- Going on long hikes with friends
- Spending time in nature
- Nourishing alone time
And here are a few things that make me feel bad:
- Listening to someone gossip and share secrets about their best friend
- Seeing people point fingers and name-call over politics on social media
- Hearing people use their words to intentionally hurt other people
- Allowing myself to overload on war, greed, and injustice in the news
- Feeling like I wasted too much time or energy on something that isn’t improving my life
There are many other things in each category I’m sure. These are the first to pop into my head. What comes up for you?
The next step is to think about whether or not the things that make you feel bad are necessary. If a friend is always sharing her best friend’s deep dark secrets, what do you think she says about you when you’re not around? Have you ever seen anyone change their mind by being shamed about their politics? Is it possible to stay up on the important news that you need to know without binging on TV news and websites each day?
From here you should easily be able to identify things you can cut completely or set a time limit for. For example, I don’t allow myself to use my phone for the first hour of the day. I use Screen Time to limit the amount of time I can spend on social media. And generally speaking, I don’t intentionally seek out the news.
But the real magic comes when you replace those things that were draining you with positive and uplifting content. For example, by not using my phone for the first hour of the day, I’m able to read, journal, and meditate. By not having a TV, I spend more time listening to podcasts, reading books, and watching documentaries. Overall, I’ve come a long way in being intentional about how I spend this one wild and precious life.
How does this make you happier?
Just as the foods we eat can give us energy or drain us, the fuel we feed our mind can do the same. I shared a story in the beginning about how the weather report on the TV news turned me into a panic monster. Alternatively, positive content has the same, if not more, power to shape us.
I tend to wake up kind of crabby. I’ve always been this way. It’s not that I don’t like mornings. When I’m alone, camping in the woods, I’ll eagerly get up before the sun. But as an introvert, subjecting myself to immediate stimulation and people asking me questions or making demands can make me fly off the handle. I need time to settle in and let my mind, body, and soul to wake up and find its center.
The first thing I do after brushing my teeth and drinking some water is to spend 15 minutes reading something spiritual-ish. Being reminded that I’m part of something bigger fills me with hope and a greater purpose. After that I journal. The very first thing I write down is everything I’m grateful for. Could you imagine if the entire world did those two things before heading out the door to work each morning? I bet we’d all be a lot calmer and kinder.
This positive media continues throughout my day because we humans have something called the negativity bias. This is our tendency to register negative information more easily. We also tend to continue to dwell on the negative and ruminate.
Let’s say you received feedback on a project at work. 95 percent of the feedback is really positive. Your team highlighted what you did well and offered suggestions to make it even better. Then that one guy, you know the guy who tears everyone down and stomps on their backs to fast track his way up the ladder? Yeah, that guy tells you how horrible your work is and questions how you were able to get your position. You go home and rather than think about all of the amazing compliments on your hard work, you pick apart every word Negative Nestor said.
And it’s not just our human interactions. Happiness expert, Shawn Achor, found that just “three minutes of negative news in the morning increased the likelihood of feeling unhappy six to eight hours later.” Achor believes this negative news could trigger “learned helplessness” which has been connected to a higher likelihood of depression. No doubt, what we feed our minds is powerful.
Maybe you’re enlightened enough that you no longer fall into this trap. Personally, I’ve got a long way to go. So to keep myself in check, I keep the healthy messages coming in.
Learn more about Achor’s research on happiness in his hilarious TED Talk.
The five-step happiness diet
1 – Turn off the News
I already shared one story about how the news can instantly take me from calm to chaos. For that reason, I haven’t paid much attention to the news for years. Then in March of 2020, the WHO categorized covid-19 as a pandemic and life as we knew it came to an end.
When big things like this happen, you can’t really avoid them. If it’s important news, you will hear about it. You’ll see it on social media and hear it on your favorite podcasts.
With little information and our nation in panic mode, I too felt uneasy and began turning to the news for answers. It didn’t take long before I was asking, how do I know which of this conflicting information is true and how do I know who to trust?
Having had such a long hiatus from mainstream media, I was taken aback by how many headlines seemed borderline unethical. There was controversy and half-truths presumably used to incite clicks. Eventually, I’d had it and took week-long media fast with a friend.
During my time away, I happened upon a podcast from one of the world’s top experts on infectious disease. Each week he unpacks the latest studies and offers the straight-up truth. Other than periodically checking in on state and local regulations, this is the only way I currently stay informed on the pandemic. And I feel so much better.
Choosing to not stay on top of the 24:7 news cycle doesn’t mean you don’t care. By choosing to put your mental, emotional, and physical health first, you’ll show up stronger when real crises arise.
2 – Limit Social Media
Social media is a powerful connection tool. 20 years ago, I could never have imagined that grandparents living 500 miles away could watch their grandson’s first steps on their phone. And I’ve personally made and nurtured many wonderful connections online.
But with everything good, there’s also some bad. At this point, we’re all aware that social media can have negative effects on our wellbeing. It can also be a real time sink. I know firsthand how easy it is to log in to find something and an hour later I find myself trying to remember why I logged on in the first place. All this scrolling keeps us from the people and activities that bring true meaning to our lives.
You don’t need to cut social media entirely. Instead, be mindful of what you are taking in and the amount of time you engage. I use Screen Time to monitor my usage and stay vigilant about how I’m feeling in response to the medium and other users. You can learn more about breaking your social media addiction in this post.
Then watch this TED Talk to learn more about the dangers of social media and what you can do about it.
3 – Fuel Your Mind with Positive Media
The technology that distracts us from our everyday lives can also be the source of endless uplifting content. You can watch TED Talks at the gym, instead of the news or whatever is playing on the televisions. Instead of listening to the radio on your commute, tune into a podcast that informs, challenges, and inspires you. And rather than turning on the TV when you get home from work, start exploring some interesting new books.
Here are some of my favorite resources to help you feel happier.
Books and Audiobooks:
4 – Get Outside
There have been countless reports in recent years about the healing power of nature. There’s even an emerging group of people called Forest Therapy Guides. And I know from personal experience that nothing makes me feel better faster than getting outside.
Getting outdoors boosts vitamin D levels, improving protective effects against everything from osteoporosis to depression. Enjoying more exercise will help reduce stress so you can feel happier. Time in the outdoors has even been shown to improve concentration. So the next time you’re feeling down, head outside for a 20-minute walk.
5 – Connect IRL
IRL is an abbreviation for in real life—as opposed to connecting online. While online connections are great and I can’t imagine the covid-19 lockdown without them, there’s nothing that beats face to face connection.
In the book, Thrive – Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, social interaction was a core value in all four regions the book highlighted. Whether you find yourself to be more introverted or extraverted, we all need human connection.
While together, be cognizant of gossip. Talking about other people is usually just talking about our lives. Sometimes we’re sharing a fun memory or story. Other times we’re sharing how we were hurt and seek advice. But there’s also the other extreme in which talking about others can be toxic.
I hate to admit that I’ve done my fair share of this. Not to make excuses, but I heard a lot of gossip growing up in a small town. Unfortunately, that’s part of how I learned to communicate. But as we learn better we can do better. And I try really hard not to gossip today.
Here are some guidelines to create stronger connections from Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead.
THE SEVEN ELEMENTS OF TRUST
BOUNDARIES – You respect my boundaries and when you’re not sure what’s okay, you ask.
RELIABILITY – You do what you say you’ll do.
ACCOUNTABILITY – You own your mistakes and apologize.
VAULT – You never share experiences that aren’t yours to share.
INTEGRITY – You practice your values rather than simply professing them.
NONJUDGEMENT – We can ask for what we need and talk about how we feel without judgment.
GENEROSITY – Extend generous interpretations to the words and actions of others.
And when in doubt, think before you speak.
How to make it Work
All of these things take practice. If you’ve been obsessively looking at the news during every break for the last 20 years, it’ll take time to break the habit. Start by going news free for the first hour of your day and then add to it once it becomes a habit.
I’ve also found it helpful to group positive behaviors together. For example, reading an uplifting book is part of my morning routine. I often listen to podcasts while exercising in nature or working in the garden. Find ways to make your positive experiences more enriching.
The important thing is to start small. Pick one tiny thing and start today and once that becomes a habit, add more.