How To Be Happy (First Tip: Stop Trying So Hard...)

In the third extract from the This Book Will Make You... series as part of our Say No To January campaign, Dr Jessamy Hibberd and Jo Usmar show you how to be happy beyond the 'I'm good, how are you?'...

Isn’t it wonderful how everyone’s always fine, good or even great? It makes everything seem so nice and normal. Except feeling permanently fine isn’t normal.

Our ability to experience and process a range of thoughts and emotions is what makes us human, but unfortunately those thoughts and feelings can often be pretty dark.

In order to reach genuine happiness throughout your day-to-day life, you shouldn't be afraid of facing your problems and certainly shouldn't hide behind the 'I'm alright' facade. The feeling of being content comes from within, so the first steps to happiness are self-induced.

First up, you can feel happier. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based on the belief that your thoughts, mood, physicality and behaviour are all interlinked so by changing one you’ll change the others. Whatever has happened to you to make you feel low – be it a catastrophic life event, some terrible news, a delayed response to something that happened a long time ago or just your default mood – there are simple practical steps you can take to feel better. It’s amazing how small changes can make a huge difference.

Stop dwelling on all the bad stuff. When you feel low you underestimate your ability to cope so you begin to see everything with a negative bias and you’re even more likely to recall negative memories (‘This is just like the time when….’). Thoughts become gloomier and sadder:

“Wow, that was rubbish’ ➙ ‘Nothing goes right for me any more’ ➙ ‘Life is so unfair’ ➙ ‘I should just give up’

’I’m wasting my time’ ➙ ‘Nothing will ever make me feel better’ ➙ ‘No one even cares what I do’ ➙ ‘I should just give up’

This tendency to make sweeping generalisations when we feel terrible is really common. Something that happened to you personally becomes a representation of worldwide unfairness. You’ll shift from the reality of what’s going on around you to what’s going on in your head.

Yet, despite thinking things over for days, weeks, months, you’re not actually progressing. You’re not actually doing anything to solve the problem, you’re just dwelling on it and whenever you dwell on a negative experience you physically as well as mentally relive it – your body will get tense, your heart rate will speed up and you might start sweating.

  • To stop this pattern, when you next notice you’re dwelling on a perceived failure and feeling anxious physically say to yourself, ‘This isn’t getting me anywhere’ (which is true otherwise you wouldn’t be ruminating) and focus your attention elsewhere – distract yourself.
  • Make a cup of tea, phone a friend or go for a run to calm your body down. Then write down some encouraging phrases on Post-it notes and secrete them away in places you can find when you’re feeling down.
  • For example, if you have a nightmare boss write ‘It’s their problem’ on a note and whenever they’re being particularly hideous sneak a peek at it and remind yourself that, damn right it’s their problem.
  • Think about when you last did something well and reflect on that instead. Thoughts can’t change the future or unpick the past so ruminating or dwelling on negatives is a waste of time. Instead use what you know now to make a positive plan for what to do next.

This Book Will Make You Happy by Dr Jessamy Hibberd and Jo Usmar (published by Quercus Books) is out now.