Last week I told you that research shows that you can become thirty-one percent more productive if you just get happy. At least, companies could get that “Happiness Advantage” when their employees followed certain exercises designed to increase their happiness. I know, however, that for people who are stressed out or feeling down, getting from where they are to a happy state can seem impossible. For those people I have an interim step: implement the Three-Legged Stool. (Of course, if you are truly depressed or anxious, you really should get yourself to see your medical doctor or a therapist first!)

A 3 Legged Stool

The Three-Legged Stool is a little speech I give every one of my therapy clients (yes, I’m a psychotherapist in my other life) who suffers from some kind of depression or anxiety. There has been a fair amount of research showing the connection between the three steps I recommend and getting rid of, or at least easing, depression and anxiety. Although I have not done any research on the connection between the three legs and true happiness, my clients’ experiences gives me a strong suspicion that a good grounding in any or all three legs of the stool is also a good springboard to happiness, even in those who are not clinically depressed or anxious. So I offer it to you now.

There are three things you can do to feel better quickly. I think of them as the three-legged stool because having a decent amount of each in your life is like having a stool with three sturdy legs supporting you. While you can actually come out of anxiety and depression (and presumably feel happier) without working on any of the legs of the stool, feeling better seems to take longer and be more difficult for those who do not improve at least one of the legs.

The first, and possibly the most powerful, of the three legs is physical exercise. (This is, in fact, one of the exercises used at companies trying to get “The Happiness Advantage”.) The kind of exercise that works is the kind that gets your heart rate up. You can call it aerobic exercise, cardio work, or just plain breathing harder. The point is not that you are trying to attain the perfect body but that you are making your heart beat a little bit faster for a little while on a regular basis. The recommended dose I have read about is one-half hour per day, four to five days a week, but I find that almost any amount of exercise has some beneficial effect for my clients. So, as long as your doctor says it is all right, go ahead and walk fast, do step aerobics, or go for a bike ride in the great outdoors or the comfort of your local gym. Heck, you could even draw the shades, turn on the radio and do the Twist to the Golden Oldies station. It doesn’t matter how you get your heart pumping. It only matters that you do.

The second leg is decent nutrition. This is a sore spot for most of us as we try to balance eating right with having enough time to do all the things we are committed to doing. The idea of having to spend hours cooking every meal can be daunting, especially for those of us who never got comfortable in the kitchen. And fast food is just so very fast!

Don’t worry that I am going to get all radical on you here. I am not suggesting that you throw out everything in your fridge and only eat macrobiotic, locally grown, organic, freely given fruits and vegetables. Instead, try making small changes as you go along, like adding a piece of fruit to your daily lunch, trading in one cheeseburger for a salad per week, or actually cooking at home on Sundays. Those kinds of small changes over time are much more likely to stick and bring lasting benefits for you than jumping into a complete, extreme overhaul.

One more thing. If you find yourself actually getting anxious fairly frequently, you should cut back on certain things: (i) caffeine; (ii) chocolate; (iii) sugary treats; (iv) starchy foods; and (v) nicotine. All right, don’t shoot the messenger. And maybe you don’t have to cut them all out. However, you should know that people with actual anxiety disorders are more likely to react to those things by getting more anxious. So monitor yourself. If you’re feeling stressed, look back on what you had in the past hour or so. If it’s on the list, it may be contributing to your stress. Sadly, what we tend to reach for when the pressure is on (that bag of chips, cigarette, or chocolate bar) is probably something our body reacts to negatively.

The third leg of the stool is your social network. There is something about each of us that needs social contact, which is face-to-face interaction with people. Phone calls are nice. Email, instant messaging and Skype can be fun. But none of these count as social networking. What you need is regular face time with others. Some people need more than others, but some amount of contact is a basic human need for everyone. People who spend all their time on the computer, even if they are communicating with others online, simply are not getting their necessary dose of social networking. (Okay, video Skype calls are probably better than just voice calls for this, but nothing beats being in the same room with a friend.)

Strangely enough, people who are depressed often withdraw from other people, which is exactly the opposite of what they need. They think, “I feel crummy. I don’t want to go out, and I certainly don’t want anybody to see me looking like this. I’ll wait until I feel better to be with my friends.” However, because of the way we are hardwired, this lack of human interaction actually makes them feel worse. At this point they say, “Look at me. I’m a mess. I’m really not going out now.” And then they feel worse than ever. It is a vicious downward spiral. If you find yourself on it, force yourself to get out and see someone in your social network. Now. No excuses.

Who is part of your social network? They don’t need to be your closest friends to whom you tell your deepest, darkest secrets, although those friends can obviously be part of your network. Your social network is broader than that and is made up of the people in your life who make you feel good about yourself when you are with them. They can be friends or family, but just because a person has such a label does not mean he or she is necessarily good for you. I have heard of plenty of partners, parents, adult children, siblings, and so called “friends” who left my clients feeling worse after each contact. Anyone who brings you down, or has you questioning your worth when you are with them, is not who we are talking about here. (I highly recommend working on changing those relationships immediately, including limiting or ending them if change is not forthcoming.) Additionally, spending time with your young children does not count as social networking. While children can be great and very rewarding, they don’t give you the same kind of social connection you need. You get that from other adults.

So, if you have people in your life now who make you feel good about yourself, seek them out and spend time with them as one of your first steps toward happiness. If you don’t have such people in your life now, or they are all too far away for regular face-to-face interactions, it is time to build a new network. Take a class where you will meet others with similar interests. Go to a friendly church, mosque, or temple. Volunteer for some good cause where you will be working with others. I have even been known to send clients who have just moved to the area and know nary a soul to sit in a cafe or local mall, just to see real people. It’s a start.

That’s the speech. If you want to feel happier, a good place to start is to work on at least one of the three legs of your own stool—preferably the shortest, or least strong. You don’t have to do so to become happier, but if you do I suspect you will find it improves your mood quite quickly.


Photo credit: Besceh31, via Wikipedia—http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TabouretAFDB.jpg

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