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by Aubrey Wursten

Sustaining mental health, just like maintaining physical health, requires one vital strategy: prioritizing needs. Just as you might want to do something about your grotesquely broken leg before bothering with that annoying ingrown toenail, you need to put true mental and emotional needs before mere desires. In her piece “How to Be Happy: Ten Ways to Stay Mentally Healthy, Including Putting People and Passions First,” Celia Dodd gives some tips based on the wise words of Mark Williamson, the director of Action for Happiness.

Make Friends (with Yourself)

As the title suggests, Dodd focuses a great deal on nurturing vital relationships. And the most basic human relationship you must maintain is the one with yourself. After all, you can temporarily avoid an annoying colleague by slipping out for a therapeutic hot fudge sundae at lunch. But you have to take yourself with you everywhere you go, so you had better learn to get along with yourself.

Dodd offers some tips on showing yourself some appreciation, one of which is to treat yourself more like you treat your other loved ones. If your friend tragically destroys the pies she is supposed to bring to the PTA bake sale you are coordinating, do you scream at her that she is hopelessly worthless? (If you do, please don’t ask me to bring anything to your next PTA fundraiser.) Of course you do not. It’s just pastry.

So if you are the incompetent baker who ruins the treats? It’s still just pastry. Avoid blowing minor bloopers out of proportion, and learn to laugh at yourself. Not only is this a much more logical response, but laughter offers a plethora of mental and physical health benefits, from endorphin production to increased immunity. (HelpGuide.org lists an amazing array of the perks of laughter, in case you need more motivation to giggle.)

Stop Idealizing Others

As Dodd continues, you should resist the temptation to “compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” People wisely do not wear signs emblazoned with lists of their faults. For one thing, they would look slightly odd. (It might also be difficult to coordinate their “fault signs” with their outfits.) But more importantly, we are taught to show people the best that is in us.

Psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson counsels us to avoid jumping to conclusions and thereby “fanning the flames” of unhealthy thinking. Consequently, when you see your perfectly coiffed neighbor flawlessly juggle her endless list of admirable activities, remember that on the inside she might look like you do when you roll out of bed.

Even the best of us feels harried at times, and some of us just need some extra practice in managing stress. Instead of seeing it as a character flaw, remember that we are all simply wired differently. As Williamson notes, positivity is essential in personal bonds. And a positive approach to your relationship with yourself will enhance the connections you have with others.

Put Down the Credit Card

Dodd goes on to advise us to “put people before things,” devoting more of our time to loved ones. You can’t share an affectionate laugh with your new set of golf clubs. (At least, not without looking as crazy as the person wearing the “fault sign.”)

Material possessions offer no emotional support, despite how you might feel as you carry your beloved new shoes out of the store. The high of binge shopping is quickly followed by a letdown. The warmth of a good relationship, however, grows ever more comforting as it is nurtured.

Love What You Do

Along with fostering human associations, we need to emphasize activities that help us feel fulfilled. A prime example is meaningful volunteer service. Not only does research consistently indicate that volunteering helps keep depression at bay, but Dr. Suzanne Richards et al. have found that it results in a shocking 22% lower risk of death. (Of course the real motivation is to benefit others, but can you help it if it accidentally benefits you, too? Of course not.)

Another suggestion involves learning something new. An informative piece on NHS  delineates some ways that gaining new knowledge aids in improving mental health. Have you always wanted to try underwater basket weaving? Okay, probably not. But surely you have secretly harbored an interest in obtaining a skill you do not currently possess. Now is the time to go for it.

Get Your Groove On

Finally, bribe yourself into exercising. Pay yourself in golf clubs or shoes. I know I advised you not to rely on useless material possessions, but lay that advice aside long enough to use any means necessary to motivate yourself. Physical exercise provides immeasurable mental health benefits. The Mayo Clinic points out that physical activity has many of the same advantages as laughter. The activity need not be overly vigorous or dull. Turn up the radio and the disco lights, and dance yourself happy. Your body and soul will both thank you.

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