Celebration in isolation

A number of my family members and friends have birthdays near the beginning of the year. The usually joyful question of; “What are you doing for your birthday this year?” has recently been met with; “Well we can’t really do anything can we?” In the UK we are in our third Covid-19 lockdown so, admittedly, opportunities are not as abundant as usual. An exercise I often use with coaching clients, called A Beautiful Day (adapted from Proyer et al. 2016) might provide some help, not just for the big days but when you need an unbirthday pick-me-up too. I hope to explain this exercise, talk about what insights it can bring and outline some of the science behind it.

Planning a beautiful day

To plan a beautiful day for yourself, you start by thinking about what things really bring you pleasure. I know many of the people and things we love may be out of reach at present, so it’s important to stick within the realms of what is possible. If I had a magic wand I would miraculously be able to fit into a size 8 swimming costume and be teleported to a beach in Mauritius where I would swim in the crystal clear ocean and eat the most delicious seafood with all my close family and best friends. But this exercise is not about wishful thinking, it is about realistically interrogating the who, what, how and why of what brings us joy in our everyday life. We are actually not always good at predicting this, but I invite you to think about it and test it out. Write down all the things you feel you really love doing, seeing, experiencing. Try to think about engaging all your senses and be creative. Make a plan for a day that incorporates as many of these elements as possible and try it out.

If you’re feeling stuck here are some ideas based on my views or things clients have told me. Focus on things you can do, not on things you can’t.

 

  • I love candles and fairy lights, I have them in my home but rarely light them/ turn them on.
  • Sitting by an open fire with my favourite drink and watching the flames.
  • Reading my book in a bubble bath.
  • Dressing up and wearing my favourite jewellery.
  • Playing a board game with my family rather than scrolling social media.
  • My daily walk often feels like a chore to tick off the list but I live in a beautiful place and love to watch the ducks.
  • I love lasagne and I haven’t made it for ages.
  • My sister always makes me laugh, but we are always in a rush when we speak.
  • Lying on the sofa in the dark listening to Pink Floyd (substitute favourite music).
  • I love playing my piano/ reading poetry/ drawing/ baking but I never get round to it.
  • I haven’t made popcorn and watched “The Princess Bride” (substitute favourite film) in years.
  • Putting clean sheets on my bed then having an early night with a good book/ box set/ or even partner!

 

Once you have decided the realistic elements of your beautiful day and got buy in from other people, where necessary, set a date and go for it.

What can this exercise teach us?

After you have had your beautiful day, it’s important to reflect on it. How did you feel? What were the things you enjoyed most? Was there anything you didn’t enjoy as much as you thought you would? What would you do differently if you did it again? The idea is to learn as much as you can about the nature of the things that help you to experience positive emotions and also perhaps the things which may block or sabotage these experiences. This will be different for everyone but insight into your actual experience, rather than what you predict might happen, is a key starting point. If you can understand the things that help you experience positive emotions you can find ways to incorporate these activities into your life more systematically.

What is the science?

Why might this exercise help wellbeing from a scientific point of view? Psychologically there are probably three key factors underlying the benefits. Firstly, we are bringing and directing our attention to be mindful of our experience. We encourage ourselves to be present in what we are doing rather than mindlessly going about our day on autopilot. This quality of attention is good for our wellbeing as well as providing an opportunity to learn about ourselves and grow. Mindful awareness can change our perspective and the way we interact with the world and invites focus on and appreciation of “what is”.

Secondly, we are facilitating engagement with positive emotions. We know that positive emotions are good for us and they open us up to new ways of thinking, relating and being. They promote curiosity, creativity, playfulness and ultimately foster resilience. Positive emotions can also counteract or at least balance the impact on our mind and body of negative emotions and experiences and there have been plenty of those lately for many people.

Thirdly, planning a beautiful day sets our intention to fun, being kind to ourselves, embracing the fullness of life and giving ourselves permission to be human beings rather than human doings. Of course we all do need to get things done in life to survive and thrive but all too often we are so focused on these competitive drives that we are unable to enjoy just being. If the pandemic has taught us anything, hopefully it is to enjoy and celebrate the life we have and wholeheartedly allow ourselves to experience the beauty life has to offer us while we can.

Depending on what activities you choose, the beautiful day exercise also allows for the opportunity to connect with loved ones. Fostering relatedness is also a key foundation of wellbeing.

Mindful attention, openness to experience and setting our intentions in line with our positive values are three key mechanisms that underlie many positive psychology interventions. You can try them all out as part of this exercise. So don’t just have a nice day, have a beautiful day.

References: Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S. & Ruch, W. (2016). Nine beautiful things: A self administered online positive psychology intervention on the beauty in nature, arts, and behaviors increases happiness and ameliorates depressive symptoms. Personality and Individual Differences, 94:189-193. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.01.028

Read more about Sarah Monk and her other articles HERE

 

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