Most of these are backed by research and many only require minutes per day. Some will be obvious (though people often still don’t take them seriously), while for most people at least one or two should be new.
In roughly descending order of likely power:
While this is one of the obvious ones, and broadly covered in popular media, I will mention two consequences of inadequate sleep that have been well established and bear underlining. One, when you’re sleep deprived you think you’re functioning better than you actually are. And two, sleep deprivation increases emotional reactivity, usually with a negative bias. Sleep is the first thing to nail down if you possibly can.
As with sleep, this one is well documented. So many benefits across the board, and another fundamental key to mental health. There are lots of variations and recommended regimens, but I think 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week is generally a good minimum, allowing recovery on the off days.
Breathing is the only part of the autonomic (think automatic) nervous system that we can easily and directly control. Anxiety and other high-arousal states such as anger are activations of the sympathetic, fight-or-flight system. Through regulating breathing we can activate the calming parasympathetic nervous system, putting the brakes on stress and negative arousal.
If you do nothing but slow your breathing for a sustained period of 5-10 minutes it can give you 3 or more hours of calming effect.
By lengthening every out-breath you get additional benefit since every in-breath is sympathetic activating and every out-breath is parasympathetic activating. Chanting and singing can achieve the same effect. If you distract your mind from negative thoughts while you’re doing this slowed breathing, by visualizing or thinking about something that gives you a feeling of gratitude (also parasympathetic activating), even better. This is good for all levels of stress and anxiety, including panic attacks.
Obviously nutrition is another essential input that affects health and well-being. It’s also complex and many aspects are controversial in relation to mental health, which is why I put breathing ahead of it.
A balanced diet with a minimum of junk food is hard to argue with, and in the long-term the brain is affected by cardiovascular health. For example, cardiovascular disease is a risk factor for dementia.
I’m not a nutritionist, and won’t attempt to enter the heated debates about things like sugar, carbohydrates, and gluten, except to say that if you want to experiment with eliminating things and find that they work for you for whatever reason then go for it.
There’s some very interesting research coming out about the role of the microbiome in the gut, but it’s mostly experimental at this point.
Information about supplements is even more confusing. It seems now that Omega 3 supplements — perhaps the mildest supplement interventions — have no value for cardiovascular health and significantly increase the risk of prostate cancer for men. They are touted for depression but the research evidence is mixed.
If you’re going to take anything stronger like St. John’s Wort, my view is that you might as well try antidepressants under medical supervision rather than dabble in trying to treat yourself.
5. Minimize other “external” mood regulators.
External mood regulators include a wide swath of things from alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, and party drugs, all the way through TV and other screen-related entertainment. Most of these are mood boosters, though some like alcohol and opiates also have mixed euphoric and depressive effects.
The problem is that when you artificially boost your mood you are depleting pleasure neurotransmitters, which then leave you with less than you started with.
You then become reliant on the external regulators to feel normal. Without them you then may feel sub-normal: depressed, irritable, and out of sorts.
This is one aspect of withdrawal. In severe cases, such as meth addiction, one can lose the ability to feel any pleasure for extended periods of time and ordinary experience can feel meaningless.
The more you use any of these things, the more potential you have for making your moods even more unpleasant and unmanageable.
Many people don’t realize that time spent watching video and computer screens affects our moods too, which is part of their addictive quality. More specifically there is some emerging evidence of associations between amounts of screen time and depression.
6. Went Wells.
Because it is so simple this is one of my favorite interventions. It has been shown in studies to be equally effective to medication for mild to moderate depression if done consistently over time.
The practice is to each day simply list 3–5 things that have gone well (usually at the end of the day). The bar is super-low: it could be that you liked the socks you picked out for the day, or that you had a nice lunch. It’s best if you write them down — a journal is an easy way to do it — and if you can also jot down what your role was in making each thing happen, even better.
Another very low-effort/potentially-high-reward intervention for anxiety and depression. Created by Stanford psychologists, Woebot is a chatbot that delivers cognitive-behavioral therapy via text and links to videos and other media.
It can be as effective as in-person therapy. It’s fun, educational, and only takes minutes a day. Woebot is free for now (as of Feb. 2108), but at some future point there may be a charge subsequent to a free introductory trial period.
If you’re reading stuff on Thought Catalog, Medium, and similar sources you’ve probably read more on the benefits of mediation than I could recount.
9. Gratitude lists and savoring the good.
These are slightly different versions of the went-wells. Instead of the low bar of whatever went well during the day, gratitude involves more actively cultivating feelings of gratefulness.
It’s also less structured in that you can just think of anything that makes you grateful, and there are no guidelines about how long to make the list, when to do it, etc. However, as mentioned above, gratitude is parasympathetic activating, so the more you practice it, the more you’ll be counteracting those high-arousal states like stress, anxiety, and anger.
Doing a gratitude list with a partner can be enjoyable, for instance as a pleasant ritual to calm yourselves in preparation for sleep at bedtime.
If you have trouble coming up with items you can use the letters of the alphabet as prompts, e.g., D — I’m grateful for my dog, E — I’m grateful for exercise, F — I’m grateful for good food, and so on. The more you actually pause to feel the sensations of gratitude in your body, the better.
Savoring the good is another variation of enhancing positive feelings. As it sounds, it simply means stopping and directing your attention to soak in moments of good feeling, rather than just sailing past them. There are hundreds of possibilities each day: the warmth of the shower, the feeling of a good stretch, the glow of a nice compliment, appreciating the beauty of nature, and on.
10. Being of service to others.
A common feature in articles about happiness, doing good for others almost always makes us feel better ourselves. It can provide feelings of satisfaction, openness, connection, caring, and gratitude (for being in a position to help as well as vicariously for the one helped), as well as taking us outside of our cloistered selves.
One caveat: use sparingly if you tend to overdo this already. For people who are natural caregivers and sometimes burn themselves out in taking care of family, friends and strangers, you might want to focus on some of the above interventions that involve caring more for yourself.
I’ll end with this oldie but goodie. We came from nature and we are nature ourselves. A walk in the woods or by the ocean may not always be available in urban environments. But even a small city park, noticing the clouds or the trees along the streets, some cuddle time with your dog, cat or other pet — these are in some ways obvious but almost always restorative.
Studies have shown that just looking at a natural green environment can boost one’s spirits.
There’s a whole branch of psychology called eco-psychology devoted to the mental benefits of nature. And yes, you could call these external mood regulators, but unlike others mentioned above they’re organic and scaled appropriately to our nervous systems.