Ordinary, day-to-day activities have been found to enhance mental health. So, if you want to feel happier, you could try finding pleasure in the little things.

Adapted from a 2021 article by Elettra Scrivo.

Going for a walk, having a snooze, and moisturising our hands are everyday activities that we often do without thinking too much about them.

But these little things that significantly, yet effortlessly, improve our wellbeing.

‘Non-exercise’ activities

In fact, any type of physical activity or movement, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, may make us feel better.

A 2020 study from the Central Institute of Mental Health, Germany, showed that even ordinary activities such as climbing stairs instead of taking the lift, or walking to the train station instead of driving, can significantly enhance wellbeing and improve mental health.

According to the study’s authors, very little literature has focused on the unstructured, ‘non-exercise’ activities that make up around 90% of our everyday life activities.

However, when participants were given movement sensors and assessed for seven days, it was found that they felt more alert and energetic directly after non-exercise activities.

Higher levels of energy were also found to be associated with improved wellbeing and better mental health status.

Co-first author Dr Markus Reichert, a researcher at the Central Institute of Mental health, said: “We specifically asked participants not to change their daily routines, but we excluded things like playing football and swimming.”

It seems that whatever gets the body moving — whether it’s playing with the kids or running for the bus — can produce even the lightest bout of energy that unconsciously improves our mood.

Patrick Smith, an associate professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University, USA, explains: “Most of the activities that seem to benefit people’s mood don’t have to be at the level where you’re getting a runner’s high.

“Our bodies are really designed to be moving and everything else in the body is wired to reflect that.

“On a mental level, physical activity also teaches us that we are able to control bodily sensations, and that even if we are under strain we are going to be ok.”

Taking time to sleep

But just as our bodies are designed to move, they are also designed to rest.

Sleep, perhaps the greatest non-activity of all — despite being a very busy time for biological processes — is essential for the most basic functioning of the body and mind.

Chronic sleep debt may lead to long term mood disorders like anxiety or depression, whilst good quality sleep has been linked to increased wellbeing, immunity and fertility.

It also allows for the brain to consolidate memories, process information and undergo different ‘maintenance processes’.

Heather Darwell-Smith, a sleep psychotherapist at the London Sleep Centre, says: “Sleep helps us reach what nature biologists call homoeostasis, or the natural tendency of reaching stability, both on a physical-chemical level and an emotional one.

“It keeps all the systems ticking over the way they need to.”

But despite the common ideal of getting eight solid hours, different people may require varying amounts of sleep.

To establish your own natural sleep cycle, try going to sleep without an alarm.

Work out what time you want to wake up and then count backwards by seven and a half hours.

If your alarm wakes you up, try going to sleep half an hour earlier until you can wake up without an alarm.

Dedicating time and effort to creating an effective sleep routine can be restorative.

As Darwall-Smith says, “getting your sleep right is the most radical change you can make.”

Enjoy the moment

Another practice that may support mental wellbeing is mindfulness.

This is a mental exercise which enables people to become aware of their feelings and emotions, pivot away from negative thoughts, and engage with the world around.

Mindfulness meditation can be practised at any time anywhere, because it simply involves sitting silently and noticing thoughts, different breathing sensations and feelings, without allowing the mind to wander off in negative loops.

Fabrizia Bevilacqua first began practising mindfulness during the lockdown last March, and now continues to dedicate 20 minutes to it every day.

She also turned to different forms of yoga, the movements of which not only relax her physically, but help her to accept her emotions and respect her body.

“Mindfulness has helped me confront reality for what it is without overloading it with ulterior stress or bad energy,” she says.

“Nidra yoga, aimed at achieving a total physical and mental relaxation, helps me acquire lucidity and attentiveness without disturbing my mind and its quiet time.

“I have a better night’s sleep, I smile much more and I feel lighter.”

Self-care for mindfulness

But being present and aware of one’s surroundings can mean different things for different people, and doesn’t necessarily involve meditation.

For Carlie Porterfield, it’s about practising a self-care and beauty routine that allows her to enjoy the small moments of her day, process her feelings and relax.

She began a self-care routine midway through 2020, after finding herself feeling anxious due to the pandemic.

Doing things for herself, like painting her nails or putting on a face mask, helps her to feel grounded.

“The problem with anxiety is that you focus a lot on ‘what ifs’ and worst case scenarios, getting caught up in a negative spiral,” she says.

“Doing something for myself, even just applying lotion, distracts me from this… In that moment, that’s all I focus on and it helps me feel in control.”

Simple comforts

The ordinary can be powerful. Walking up a flight of stairs is not climbing Mount Everest, and there’s no marathon medal for running to the bus.

But these simple, daily activities are all achievable and may help to improve wellbeing and increase our energy levels.

And in times that often feel bleak, these simple steps might just bring us some much needed comfort.

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