Production for 2018’s season of American TV series “Younger” finally got underway last month and I am probably not the only one eagerly anticipating the show’s return. In part, lead actor and two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, both in character and off camera, emanates vibes of hope and appreciation, and this positive energy is contagious. Foster shared her mantra on a recent talk show
“The idea of youth is how you look at the world, with hopeful optimism and trying new things.”
This was in relation to how she convincingly pulls off her role in “Younger” where she plays a 40-something divorced mother passing herself off as a 26-year-old millennial in order to land a job.
The idea of hopeful optimism and being appreciative of the small, simple things in life is gaining traction in psychological care. The evidence supports this: Many studies have demonstrated how expressing gratitude helps alleviate mental health difficulties and chronic occupational stress (American Psychiatric Association, 2017). In fact, positive effects can be felt just after four weeks of a gratitude-based writing activity.
Gratitude is greatly aligned with mindfulness, a practice that is increasingly being recognised as a form of exercise for our mind. Saying thank you for the present (in every sense of the word) keeps us focused on the here and now, rather than us getting lost in past regrets or overwhelmed with future, unrealised wants.
These words may sound straightforward and anyone can repeat a cliché, isn’t it? You may wonder how to apply this in real life, where we oftentimes are somehow too busy to afford the time for activities that appear to offer little by way of swift, tangible results. We are too busy to ponder and be mindful, but not too busy for our devices.
The ubiquity of instant gratification through smartphones and delivery services (South Korea has pampered us living here with its online shopping and payment systems) makes us forget that life was not always this speedy, in addition to encouraging our need for quick outcomes. Moreover, merely having a smart device around can impact our cognitive functioning. Simply hearing, seeing, or sensing device notifications causes distractions that impair how we perform tasks (Stothart, Mitchum, & Yehnert, 2015). Even the physical presence of a smartphone (get this, it does not even have to be your own phone) can negatively impact performance on cognitively demanding tasks (Thornton, Faires, Robbins, & Rollins, 2014). Little wonder why most of us may now have difficulty focusing on the simple things.
On top of this, as adults, we easily grow impatient. We forget that our personality is an amorphous grouping of our preferences that have slowly built up over our lifespan. It was our ceaseless practice of small actions that eventuated as reflexive habits and behavioural quirks. We now take things that we had spent decades learning and honing for granted, take it out on ourselves for not picking up or sticking with a new routine, and give up in the face of slight difficulty.
Well, what’s one to do about this? It is basic enough and it starts with saying thank you to yourself, being compassion toward yourself, and being appreciative of your own efforts.
A way I like to reframe skill acquisition for my clients is to introduce the idea of baby steps. We aren’t even going to call it walking; let us just start with putting a foot forward and feeling the weight of us on this new ground. We can’t walk if we can’t crawl; can’t crawl if we can’t feel our feet on the ground.
Being kind to ourselves is at the heart of it all. It is easy to feel discouraged after the gazillionth time failing at building a new habit or routine, and to resign ourselves to a vicious cycle of defeat and demoralisation.
Remember, we weren’t born into this world with our current level of general knowledge and linguistic abilities. These know-how and skills came about following hard effort and no doubt several roadblocks in life. Therefore, having a simple, actionable plan serves as an anchor for us to regroup and remember what it is we hope to build into a positive routine.
Here are some excellent self-care steps that researchers and practitioners recommend to kick-start this process of habit creation:
- Say thank you: Every day, jot down one thing that you are grateful for that occurred over the last 24 hours. It does not have to be a profound or special event. This is where the notion of hopeful optimism is relevant. We may forget to be grateful for the littlest of things, while children, with their wide-eyed curiosity and playfulness, are appreciative even of a plain sheet of paper to doodle on or shred into bits. Try looking at mundane, commonplace occurrences with a new lens. In Korea’s spring season, something to be grateful for could be as simple as an afternoon with clean air and no smog.
- Take a mindful break: Every day, take a few minutes to stop whatever you are doing and concentrate on mindful breathing or mindful listening. Shift your attention from your actions to your breath (for mindful breathing) or the sounds around you (for mindful listening). Many clients report that even a brief mindful break results in a calmer, happier them. These breaks can be scheduled with a cue, for instance, whenever your notification sound goes off (that message can surely wait for a minute!) or in line when grabbing a coffee break.
- Be intentionally, consciously kind: Every day, send someone a short message of kind words, perhaps concern, praise, or thanks. We feel good when we help others feel good; social psychologists have found that kindness begets kindness.
Keep it simple and less is more. The accompanying infographic breaks down a few more self-care steps into an easy five-day plan for you to try from today. Just keep these five items in mind and repeat them regularly to form a new habit of gratitude and kindness. And keep your smartphone out of sight while you do so.