You want to be happier.
You want to experience that sense of contentment and joy - the feeling that all is right in your world. But one of the hardest things about living with long-term pain, is accepting the fact that things aren't so right in your world after all. And trying to find happiness, trying to maintain a sense of optimism in the face of such difficult circumstances, brings with it its own set of challenges.
When you live with chronic pain, there are so many issues that have to be managed throughout the day. Even seemingly minor things - such as deciding to cook a meal from scratch if your energy is low - can have big repercussions for hours or days down the line.
Instead of thriving and enjoying, life is often spent in survival mode. The focus switches to getting through the next 24 hours as you struggle to cope with pain that can overwhelm and isolate you, or threatens to drag you into an emotional void from which it can be hard to escape.
And of course there's disappointment too.
Take last week, for example.
I'd been looking forward to an invitation to a barbecue from a new friend. I had anticipated it for several days - only to realise that I simply couldn't make it.
So I was forced to make that call - the call I've made so many times before. It's the one that begins, "I'm so sorry I can't be there.... I really wanted to go..."
Instead of attending the weekend celebration - sitting outside, listening to music and laughing with others as we
enjoyed the smoky taste of food grilled over charcoal - I stayed in, and wondered how long it would be before the pain lowered to a more manageable level.
In such times it can be hard not to feel disappointed.
So is it really possible to find happiness in the midst of such challenges? Or is there something more meaningful we can search for that can give us a joy and fulfilment instead?
1. Manage Our Expectations
It took me years to learn this lesson - and in many ways it's an ongoing process. But I realised when I had lowered my expectations of myself and others, I tended to be less stressed and less disappointed.
I'm a perfectionist by nature, so this has been incredibly hard for me.
But I am learning that when I let go of my expectations, especially big ones, I am able to feel so much happier.
This has helped me:
be less critical of myself when my body simply can't manage to do all the things I want it to do
realise that in life other people will let us down and disappear at the time we could do with them most. All we can do is love them and let them go, while we treasure and appreciate those who remain.
So now I tell myself, if I can do something on a given day, no matter how small - that's wonderful. I will savour and treasure the memories of that day to keep me positive when times are harder.
And appreciate those who remain constant when times get tough.
2. Get Enough Sleep
There are some basics that need to be in place if we want to become happier. And one of the main things is to have a well-rested brain - but I know from firsthand experience that when pain levels are so severe it can be impossible to sleep at all.
If you're not working, you might also find that although you're physically tired, your brain hasn't been active enough during the day to switch off properly at night.
Or you might find you have so much to do that a combination of poor health, work, child care commitments and stress can make you so over-tired, that you cannot sleep at all as your body is too exhausted. I've found that taking magnesium or using magnesium spray on your legs can help relax muscles to give some pain relief, and it also promotes sleep too.
I've also noticed that one of the ways to promote better sleep is to get outside for some fresh air during the day, even if you can't get further than your front door.
But if you can reach the park, surrounded by grass or trees, or somewhere where you can really take in deep breaths of air, it has a relaxing effect on the body later on during the day.
Using a good quality sleep mask and blackout curtain liners can greatly aid my ability to switch off. And some people love lavender essential oil too, though personally it makes me too drowsy the next day.
3. Eat a Healthy Diet
Nowadays, the average person eats 500 calories more per week than they did during the 1970s - and most of these calories come from junk food or ready meals.
One of the best things you can do for your body is to make the decision to follow a healthy diet.
It should include looking at what foods might trigger your pain, and seeing if eliminating them from your diet makes a difference, and also making the effort to eat clean food - that is, eating food in an unprocessed state as possible.
If you find this daunting, then the simplest way to have a healthier diet was to drink a green smoothie on most mornings. It's such an easy thing to have for breakfast. I invested in a smoothie maker a couple of years ago - and I must say, it's absolutely fantastic!
I'll be honest.
I don't particularly love greens or vegetables - but by adding kale, spinach and even broccoli to my morning smoothies, and then adding aromatic herbs and spices which I love, I feel I've already got my day off to the best possible start - and that simple act makes me feel much more positive about the day ahead.
4. gentle movement
My doctor once advised me to join the local gym for a very gentle exercise class. I dutifully went along for the induction and one yoga session (with a very stressy teacher!) - and that was the end of my gym experience!
If you're not a gym person - the easiest thing is to find simple ways to incorporate more activity into your daily life.
For beginners, I especially like gentle yoga dvds such as Fiona Delf which is aimed at people who have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue.
Researchers have shown that for those who have pain conditions, Lifestyle Physical Activity is a great way of. So put on your walking shoes and take a short stroll round your neighbourhood. Taking in the local scenery can work wonders for your mood.
Even if you have to use a walking frame or crutches, it's better to go out there, inhale the fresh air, and walk slowly to build up your functional ability, than stay indoors.
And if the weather isn't too great, gentle walking on a treadmill is also a good way to build up stamina. You can even find a scenic walking video on youtube, and pretend you're taking an afternoon stroll round Paris or Milan...
5. Accept that your mood might be low at times
There are some people who are truly blessed to feel happy all the time. No matter what happens to them, they are able to face life with a Pollyanna response to their trials, and carry on regardless, automatically seeing the bright side of every situation.
But most of us aren't like that, and with good reason.
We are actually hardwired to feel experience more negative feelings than positive ones. It was the way our ancestors protected themselves from dangerous situations in the past.
Certain medication can also have an effect on our mood, making us feel lower than we normally would. I've definitely found that some pain medications can make my mood worse.
Positive thinking often encourages us to ignore these negative emotions - and instead focus on the more joyful feelings of cheerfulness, serenity and hope.
Positive psychology, however, recognises that negative emotions are part of the complexity of human life, and can actually be used as signposts that focus our attention on a specific matter.
feeling low can be a sign that we need to withdraw for awhile and allow ourselves time to heal.
guilt can help prevent us from repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
fear can be the catalyst that tells us to flee a situation in order to protect ourselves.
Negative emotions can also spur us on to greater achievements.
I remember an old university friend who didn't do much coursework from one month to the next, but when she and her boyfriend split up, she fuelled the hurt she felt into writing truly powerful essays.
We don't want to become trapped in our negative emotions though - we need to recognise and acknowledge them, then move on. So if you feel that you're stagnating in these emotions, then get all the help you need from a medical professional or doctor.
6.find something that gives your life a sense of purpose...
Does your life have meaning? Is there a goal or intention that absorbs your mind and helps you transcend whatever situation you find yourself in?
When your daily existence is largely about managing pain or health levels, it can be easy to forget the joy that can come from having a purpose in your life beyond yourself. Your life has shrunk. Places have become inaccessible, old friends disappear, and you might find yourself becoming less sociable as you try to manage the simplest of every day tasks.
It's easy to see how all of this can sap your joy.
Yet despite all this, it is vital to find something that gives you a sense of meaning and purpose.
Before I was born, my mother experienced some ongoing health issues. It wasn't easy for her, managing her health and a houseful of young children, but one of the things she loved to do was sing. So she gained a sense of purpose by continuing to sing - both at home and in her local church.
Years later, I was touched when my mother and I were on holiday, and an elderly lady came and clasped my mother to her bosom. She told me that she could still remember the songs my mother had sung decades earlier. She said that in those years she was struggling with some issues of her own, and whenever she heard my mother sing it helped encourage to deal with whatever she was facing.
So take a few moments to think back to what you love or used to love to do. How can you find a way of adding it to your life now?
7. practise gratitude
Previously, scientists thought that our capacity to change our brain and way of thinking was fixed by the age of 30 - after that it was all downhill.
But the good news is - it seems they got it WRONG!
Researchers have now discovered that happiness is a state of mind which can be brought about and maintained through good habits. They realise that, just like the human body, the brain can be exercised - and by exercising it in the right way we can transform and rewire our way of thinking.
Perhaps the simplest habit to adopt, and one that can have profound benefits, is practising gratitude. In this way, we're deliberately making the choice to look for and appreciate the good, even in the smallest of things.
As a child, I was brought up to say prayers every morning and night - expressing thanks to God, and expressing appreciation and love for the kindness of others.
It takes one month of practising a good habit for it to sink in you brain. Why not get a head start with our activity happiness planner:
8. Change Your Vocabulary
It's so easy to get into a negative mindset - especially if your daily life is beset with pain. After all, it's frustrating when you find you can no longer do things for yourself in a way that you could previously.
In these situations, it's very easy for us to get into the habit of complaining about our lot in life. Do you find yourself saying:
I'm fed-up with x
I'm annoyed about y
I couldn't go to z and it's made me feel really low
In a way, it's perfectly natural. If you're body is in survival mode...
Yet while it's important to acknowledge our negative emotions, it's vital that we don't get stuck in a rut of prolonged venting about any and everything.
If you've been in pain for years, it's hard to imagine that things could ever be any different, but we need to see our feelings of anger and annoyance as a temporary response to our situation.
I'm not going to say we don't have a right to feel, fed up, or annoyed or angry. But perhaps we could change how we express it:
I'm fed up about x today
I'm annoyed about y but later on I can still get to watch my favourite comedy that I've been looking forward to all week
I couldn't go to z and it's made me feel really low but I'm learning to listen to my body, and hopefully in a couple of days I'll be able to go to x instead...
These are just a few of the steps we can take to add more positive emotions to our lives. If you'd like to receive a free 28 day Happiness Activity Planner then click on the link below and we'll send you one right away.