Miriam Akhtar is a Positive Psychologist whose courses range from Positive Youth to Positive Ageing. She is a contributor to the World Book of Happiness and author of both Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression and What is Post-Traumatic Growth? (www.positivepsychologytraining.co.uk).
Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem every year.However, these statistics increase dramatically when it comes to motherhood. 81% of mothers in a recent study said that they’d experienced a problem with their mental health. Motherhood creates the perfect storm of hormones combined with physical, financial and psychological stressors that can push women over the edge. To further compound the problem, too often a mother’s depression will also affect her child’s behaviour. A French study published in the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics found that children are more likely to develop behavioral or emotional problems later in life even if their mother’s symptoms of depression were mild.
The good news is that there are practicesthat can help to counter depression –a set of thinking tools which act as natural antidepressants, that I describe in my new book Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression released on April 19.
One simple techniqueis gratitude. You may have grown up with a grandparent passing on the homespun wisdom to ‘count your blessings’. Well,it turns out that they were spot on. Research has shown that practising gratitude is one of the most potent ways of increasing happiness and reducing depression symptoms. This all comes from asking the simple question: ‘What is good in my life?’
The art of appreciation is about noticing what is right inyour life rather than what is wrong. It is about training the mind to seewhere and how the glass is more full than empty. Taking this more positive approachhelps to overcome the brain’s ‘negativity bias’, which means we default to noticing problems before we see the positives, one of the key barriersto happiness. Of course, when you’re feeling down, it is often astruggle to see any positives, but if you look hard enoughthere will always be something to be thankful for.
Gratitude is a strategy that works by stimulating positive emotions, so that we‘feel’grateful rather than just ‘thinking about’gratitude. I certainly went a while before thinking gratitude in my head translated into a feeling of gratitude in my heart. But when it does work,gratitude becomes a powerful mood booster and a step towards greater emotional wellbeing.
Personally, I do gratitude as part of a daily walk around the park. Noticing what’s around me provides plenty of fuel for being thankful.
Psychologist David Pollay recommends, you could think of gratitude as having four foundation stones:
- Key People –gratitude reminds you of the key relationships in your life, the people who love and support you; this is significant because we know from research that having good relationships is a characteristic of the happiest people on the planet.
- Your Strengths –gratitude acts as a reminder of your positives –your natural abilities and your positive characteristics.
- Your Achievements –gratitude for what you have achieved reminds you of the road already travelled.
- The World Around You –gratitude acts as a reminder of the wonders of the world and miracles of nature, such as how mighty oaks can grow from tiny acorns. An optimistic thought that can help you through the struggle.
People who practise gratitude, such as by writing a gratitude diary, tend to be happier than those who don’t. There is also evidence to suggest that finding ways to be grateful in the middle of a trauma, appreciating for example that you still have your health, are better equipped to cope positively with the distress.
Gratitude techniques: Three Good Things
You can cultivate an attitude of thankfulness regardless of current circumstances. One of the simplest and most powerful ways is through an exercise called ‘three good things’ or ‘three blessings’. Think of three specific things that are good in your life or have gone well for you. If you do this at bedtime as a means of reflecting on the day, it can lead to improved sleep and a greater sense of refreshment the next day.
A good way of amplifying the benefits of practising gratitude is to express it to others, thanking people for things they have done for you. Gratitude nurtures relationships, helping them to flourish. It is enriching for both the giver and receiver, setting up a loop of happiness in which your gratitude makes both you and the recipient feel good and
the goodwill then bounces back and forth between you. Gratitude is a great way of connectingwith people and also stops you from taking them for granted.