Keeping Your Mind Happy and Healthy in Winter

The winter months can be long, especially here in the UK. After the bonfires and fireworks of November have fizzled out, our thoughts turn to December which is naturally busy, full of activity and anticipation running up to the festive season. We are “Human Doings” and need to wake up in the morning, knowing that we have things to do – things that give us meaning, purpose and connection with others. That’s why for many people, Christmas ticks a lot of happiness boxes.

woman stood by window looking outside at snow

Image: Toa Heftiba

We invite the fresh new year into our lives, often by making bold new resolutions for life to be better. Typically, gym memberships and Lycra are involved or perhaps a commitment to another big life change. However, by the middle of January, the blues have often hit and we can end up feeling quite low. The third Monday in January has even been labelled “Blue Monday” – the most depressing day of the year!

So how can we avoid this slump and stay positive?

Go backwards, first

Sometimes striving to create a fantastic new year can make us more unhappy, especially if we believe that last year was not good enough.  This can create a “Happiness Trap” (Russ Harris) where we constantly chase this thing called “happiness”, rather than noticing and enjoying the good stuff we already have.

woman working in coffee shop

Image: Andrew Neel

Instead of charging ahead, take some time early in the new year to look back. Find an hour, perhaps in a coffee shop with a writing pad and sit quietly, thinking about the year that has passed. Taking it month by month helps us remember things. Ponder the following questions and write down your answers:

  • Looking at this past year, what am I really pleased about?
  • What turned out much better than I expected?
  • What unexpected, joyful things happened?
  • What has been slower to work out than I expected?
  • What has flourished and been easier that I was expecting?

It’s not about ignoring the tough times during the year, but instead, boosting the good. Experts say we need a ratio of 3 good thoughts to balance a single negative thought, so it’s vital we recognise and store the good stuff.

Reduce the gap

Experts in mental wellbeing know that our minds can generate a big gap between our future desires/expectations and our current perception of events. We are bombarded with images of how great life could/should be every time we look at our friend’s social media postings.  It appears like everyone is having a party or holiday all the time, doesn’t it? This creates the perception of lack in our lives, driving us to make big, courageous resolutions to remedy the feeling of “not good enough”.

So why not drop the BIG new year’s resolutions altogether? Perhaps be compassionate with yourself and acknowledge the positive steps already taken and commit to re-focusing, rather than seeing it as starting from scratch?

If you do want to make things better, choose smaller goals and take smaller actions. This reduces the pressure, expectations and helps avoid the big January slump.

positive quote

Image: Brigitte Tohm

Trying to fit three visits to the gym each week, into our already busy lives is just too big for most people to sustain long term. When we can’t manage, we tend to beat ourselves up! Dr Bob Maurer, expert on all things “small” suggests that if you want to get fit, try one minute walking on the spot, during the TV adverts.

If you struggle with anxious or angry thoughts, perhaps aim for 5% less anxious thoughts. Maybe start noticing your irritable thoughts as a first step and then commit to breathing for 30 seconds before reacting. A good question to ask is “What am I taking far too seriously about this?”

Other small actions include buying a nice pen If you want to write a book or spending 5 minutes googling local dance lessons if you want to start dancing. If you keep meaning to start painting, do a 5 minute sketch rather than spending 2 long, frustrating hours.

Shaping a positive brain

In recent years, research has proved that our brains are “plastic” and patterns of thoughts and behaviours can be shaped and changed. The field of Positive Psychology has given us tangible, ways to grow happiness, learn optimism and feelings of joy, by building new neural pathways in our brain.

good vibes only sign

Image: Mark Adriane

The practice of deliberately noticing and recording the good stuff every week, is one way to help our train our brain differently. It’s like practicing a skill in sport: if you want to play good tennis, your practice your forehand swing repeatedly – if you want to get better at seeing the positives in your life, you practice doing so.  As well as priming our brain for positivity, being grateful can help people cope with stress and can even have a beneficial effect on heart rate (Action for Happiness).

Some people suggest keeping a “gratitude journal” and recording at least three positive things per day, including small things like eating a tasty pie or having a good conversation.  To make it easier to get into this habit, perhaps aim to do this once or twice a week.

Carve little spaces

It’s very easy to find ourselves at the end of busy day, thinking “what on earth was that all about? I’ve spent all day doing jobs and things for other people – what about me!”  We have been conditioned to see selfishness as negative – but that’s not always the case.  If we don’t keep ourselves well and happy, we can’t be at our best for our families or loved ones.  Create space in your day for yourself. If you find this difficult, start small: lock yourself in the toilet for 5 minutes with a book or dance around the lounge to your favourite song.  Get familiar with the activities you value and really want to do: if you have been saying for 20 years that you want to join a Morris dancing group, perhaps its time to do so? If you really want to cook different meals, make the space to explore recipes and plan a different meal each week.

ipad recipe stand

Image: Jeff Sheldon

Keeping positive in the winter months needs to be easy, so embrace small changes and take time to appreciate the good stuff, especially the small things!

About Jen:

Occupational therapist, coach, writer and life-long artist Jen Gash began her career working in a variety of roles in health, social care and wellbeing services. She is passionate about how our living environment, both physical and social, interacts with who we are and what we do! She is author of “Enabling Positive Change” and “Coaching Creativity” and the founder of Discovery Party.