According to the CDC, only 17 percent of U.S. adults currently live in a state of optimal mental health. Additionally, doctors are seeing an increase of patients complaining of exhaustion, chronic stress, anxiety and depression. With mental health moving in a direction that sharply contrasts our rising productivity and innovation, a number of questions arise about societal changes of the digital age.
Namely, if technological advancements over the last 50 years have improved our lives, why do we feel more overwhelmed and drained than ever before? With all of today’s modern conveniences and comforts, shouldn’t we feel more content? Furthermore, in an age of advancement and progress, why does our mental health seem to be lagging so far behind?
Some culprits lie in today's lifestyle and expectations, which have changed dramatically following rapid technological growth. While we have clearly benefited from recent tech advancements, we have also collectively become more distracted, self-preoccupied and increasingly addicted to speed and achievement.
As we move faster and reflect less, our resistance to psychological problems has ultimately decreased. With less patience and time to relax, we are now more prone to anxiety, depression and burnout than ever before. The lifestyle of the digital age has inadvertently depleted our well-being, rather than advancing optimal mental health.
In order to offset these costs and actually benefit from technological progress, we need to intentionally practice healthy psychological habits, many of which were automatically built into our former, slower-paced lives. Prioritizing our well-being starts with making concerted efforts to regularly recharge ourselves, rather than just regularly recharging our devices.
The following 10 habits, identified from research on well being, quality of life, and emotional intelligence, provide insight into lifestyle adjustments that can ultimately recharge happiness and restore our emotional health. If we remain too busy and device dependent to make such adjustments, we likely will see the numbers for exhaustion and mental health problems soar, rather than our quality of life and contentment.
1. Practice Daily Self-Renewal Routines
Self-renewal practices that are routine, habitual and daily have the greatest effect on our happiness. Furthermore, consistent self-caring attitudes and behaviors are keys to avoiding burnout and enhancing quality of life. In order to prioritize self-care, identify self-renewal practices that leave you feeling calm, centered and ready to meet the challenges of your day. Rather than solely filling your time with responsibilities and screens, put effort and thought into what recharges you and make time to do it daily. Self-renewal routines are highly personal and can be small activities (i.e. meditation, listening to music, journaling, reading) to care for yourself each day and especially during periods of stress. In addition to practices that leave us recharged, self-caring behaviors include obtaining the necessary sleep, nutrition and exercise, areas we often neglect when we are overcommitted.
2. Build Daily Alone Time Into Your Schedule
Prior to our on-demand world, we had fewer distractions and regular quiet time built into our day. As things have become more instant, time for quiet reflection has been replaced with excessive multi-tasking and device checking. According to Frisch's Quality of Life theory, five to thirty minutes of time alone in a place with no distraction is a basic tenet of increasing contentment and well-being. Rather than mindlessly engaging in tasks, prioritize consistent, quality alone time to renew and recharge. The objective of quality alone time includes getting in touch with feelings, goals and relaxing. Committing to daily alone time can open possibilities for increased awareness and self-reflection.
3. Take Technology Breaks & Decrease Device Dependence
Excessive electronic use distracts us from our priorities and is linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, technology has grown so rapidly that excessive device use has become the norm with limited awareness of our dependence. Take regular technology and social media breaks, especially when spending time with family and friends. Be more mindful of how you spend your downtime and avoid unintentionally donating all your free time to your device. Reduce device dependence by moving your phone away from your nightstand and investing in a traditional alarm clock, a shift that can help replace morning device checking with a self-renewal routine. Turn off unnecessary push notifications, such as Facebook alerts, and delete apps that overly consume your time. Keep social media on your phone to a minimum and turn off alerts that distract you. Make an effort to have device-free time with your family (such as device-free dinners) and try to go on electronic diets, where you are more mindful about media consumption and reduce mental junk food. Reducing screen time and device dependence starts with auditing your use and being honest about what applications might be subtracting value from your life, rather than adding to it.
4. Practice Optimism
Our 24-hour news cycle inundates us with tragic events that may contribute to a more negative view of the world. Make an effort to look for the good things without being solely focused on the negatives. Optimists have higher rates of achievement, better health outcomes and better ability to fight off depression. Optimism relates to how we explain our success and failures. An optimistic explanatory style can impact how energized you become in the face of setbacks whereas a pessimistic explanatory style leads to helplessness, undermining our ability to cope. Pessimism and optimism are thinking habits that can be modified which means optimism can be learned and mastered. To boost happiness and optimism, Martin Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology, recommends an exercise called "What Went Well." For one week take10 minutes every night to write down three things that went well and why. In addition to engaging in exercises of gratitude, pay attention to the habitual way you explain events. Catch negative views where you see defeats as permanent and pervasive and adopt an attitude of hope and realistic optimism, even in the face of adversity.
5. Add Boundaries to Your Schedule & Learn to Worry Well
With increased focus on productivity, we face more pressure to achieve all of our aspirations and can become over-scheduled in multiple areas of our lives. Although achievement is valuable to our well-being, too much activity and involvement can overwhelm our stress defense and rob us of time to recharge. To avoid a chronic stress breakdown, be more aware of your limits and avoid temptations to fill your calendar with unrealistic demands you can’t meet. Be more mindful of how you spend your time and what contributes to inefficiency and distraction. Work on cutting back obligations and learn to say “no” in order to have more time for spontaneous, unhurried activities. When working on task completion, block out uninterrupted time in your calendar for projects and and limit distractions, such as email, to speed up efficiency during these time-blocks. Additionally, learn to “worry well” with the help of a realistic goal sheet that can serve as an intentional weekly guide for task completion. Rather than an ongoing commentary in your mind or a haphazard, long to-do list that can overwhelm, create a more targeted goal sheet at the beginning of the week that divides tasks by day. When you are not working on your specific goals in your designated block of time, give yourself permission not to worry about tasks and remind yourself of your plan to attend to it on a future date. A visual goal sheet, like this one, can help prioritize goals and place boundaries on your worries and time.
6. Give Back
In the age of selfies and oversharing, we can easily become consumed with image and appearance. According to Well-being Theory, such preoccupation with the self is counterproductive to our well-being and is linked to increased depression and poor health. Investing in the common good and focusing on causes bigger than yourself can increase meaning, purpose and well-being. Mindfully commit to the greater good and incorporate moral practices into your lifestyle, such as consistently volunteering, donating and finding a cause that is not overly focused on your personal success or failure. If possible, involve your loved ones by starting a family journal for logging random acts of kindness and engaging in family community service projects together. This will not only increase meaning and connection as a family, but can also build empathy and kindness in children.
7. Create a Vision for Your Future & Identify Life Goals
When we are overextended and busy, we can easily neglect time for identifying and committing to meaningful goals. According to Quality of Life Theory, an additional tenet of contentment includes creating and pursuing life goals that fit your values, strengths and interests. Spend time creating a vision of personal, career and family goals for the future. Have a visual reminder of these goals and reference them as you plan your days. Goals are more easily met when you have them written and broken down into small, realistic steps. In addition to having a visual of your goal, embrace beliefs and activities that are conducive to your vision and avoid actions that derail you from your priorities. Creating time to identify life goals and reflect on your progress can help build purpose, meaning and a lifestyle that matches your values.
8. Learn how to Delay Gratification (Again)
On-demand technology has trained us to expect things instantly. As a result of getting things when we want, our threshold for waiting has decreased and when we are delayed, we are now more likely to give up, lash out or become more frustrated than we need to be. The ability to wait and delay gratification is a key component of emotional regulation and emotional intelligence. Because this ability has been inherently altered in the digital age, pay extra attention to your frustration level when you wait. Keep in mind that important goals may take time, devices may sometimes run slower than we want and waiting might not be as significant as it seems in the moment. Embrace experiences where you have to delay gratification as opportunities to strengthen your emotional intelligence and rebuild your patience. The ability to work on a long-term goals and avoid quick fixes will be key to enhancing happiness as there are no shortcuts to improving lasting emotional well-being.
9. Practice Self-Compassion
As we look at others’ images on social media, we are more likely to compare our lives and become overly judgemental and critical. Comparisons and self-shaming are increasingly common and counterproductive to positive mental health. Avoid competitive attitudes that encourage you to feel better about yourself by being better than others. Instead, strive for your “personal best” and celebrate others’ good fortune. Additionally, rather than linking your self-worth with each failure and success, actively practice self-compassion. Research shows that individuals who speak to themselves with self-compassion lead healthier, more secure and more productive lives than those who are self-critical. When faced with setbacks, speaking to yourself like you would speak to a friend facing a failure will help you recover and provides an effective path to authentic happiness.
10. Make Time for Meaningful Relationships & Plan Anchor Events
When we are busy and feel connected virtually, we sometimes are less inclined to make efforts towards actual relationships that need real-time nurturing. A longitudinal Harvard study following men for 75 years found higher levels of happiness and health in individuals with strong social relationships. Additionally, individuals who were more isolated and less satisfied in their relationships experienced poorer health outcomes and led shorter lives. This study speaks to the benefits of investing in meaningful relationships. However, overinvestment in career and personal goals sometimes leaves little time to focus on interpersonal relationships. Rather than solely focusing on tasks or obligations, make time for social connections. Proactively plan "anchor events" where you dedicate a window of time to engage in a pleasant, enjoyable activity with others you care about. Bring back family meals. The simple act of eating together has been linked to reducing risks of teenage sex, alcohol and drug use. Ensure that weekends are not overrun by domestic chores and pencil in pleasant activities with others in your calendar.
A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook - Stahl and Goldstein
The Language of Letting Go Cards - Beattie
Time Timer - Visual Timer for Time Management
Self-Compassion Guided Meditations and Exercises - Dr. Kristen Neff
Authentic Happiness - Dr. Martin Seligman, U Penn
The Gottman Institute - A research-based approach to strengthening relationships - Drs. John and Julie Gottman
Getting the Love you Want Couples Workshop - Dr. Rick Brown
10% Happier - Guided Meditation - A clear, simple approach to meditation with a NY Times bestselling author and some of the most respected (and cool) meditation teachers on the planet.
Worry Knot (Google Play) - Worry Knot teaches you to manage your worry with lessons, distractions and a proven worry management technique