Seven small things for wellbeing

Dr Sarah Vepers shares her 2020 wellbeing journey, talking about celebrating the small things in life and gives her top seven tips for improving your wellbeing.
Dr Sarah Vepers

Having recently given myself a second ‘lockdown haircut’ and completed a virtual training day on wellbeing (added bonus: learning about features of Zoom I didn’t know existed; ‘stamps’ anyone?!) I find myself reflecting on this past year. One thing I am grateful for is the time and dedication that has been spent towards considering health and wellbeing, on both institutional and personal levels from Trusts, departments, trainees, and Royal Colleges alike.

I have learnt to not feel guilty about spending time for myself, taking more time to exercise despite the usual settings being closed on and off (mostly off) and doing other things that I enjoy. I actually managed my goal of reading five fiction books in 2020! A meagre goal but compared to not even finishing one in 2019, for me, it is a win worth celebrating. Another step in my self-education: celebrating the small things, the small wins, is something I can take forward in my home life and my work projects. I find starting something can be one of the hardest steps and setting small, accomplishable goals can really help – making slow, steady progress on something is better than no progress at all. This all-or-nothing approach of the past did nothing for my wellbeing and small successes ensure I feel much better about myself (even if it is just getting out of bed and taking a shower on the more difficult days). Success it seems, breeds more success.

I find starting something can be one of the hardest steps and setting small, accomplishable goals can really help

My 2020 wellbeing journey crossed the path of many concepts and helpful tidbits. Not least having my interest piqued by a colleague regarding such notions as the ‘positive psychology’ movement and developing a ‘growth mindset’. This led to taking a ten-week wellbeing course in the latter half of 2020. Positive psychology looks at happiness and the whys, whats and hows of living a good life (rather than simply living). It focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses and on positive experiences. Building a growth mindset (a term coined by Dr Carol Dweck) moves away from the belief of innate, fixed abilities and focuses instead on effort and belief that improvement can happen, leading to progress and learning. This for me means looking at situations in a new light – even if it is not helping me right now, or I am not enjoying something, maybe I can still learn from it. Something reflected in Brother David Steindl-Rast’s TED talk on gratitude: "Does that mean that we can be grateful for everything? Certainly not. We cannot be grateful for violence, for war, for oppression, for exploitation. On the personal level, we cannot be grateful for the loss of a friend, for unfaithfulness, for bereavement. But I didn't say we can be grateful for everything. I said we can be grateful in every given moment…"

We can look for the positives or the learning moments instead; being grateful for the times spent with that friend, the opportunity to start afresh or to celebrate someone’s life. Sometimes this might involve phoning a friend (an actual friend, a colleague or supervisor you trust, an allocated or chosen mentor) to help gain a little perspective, I know that I can struggle with negatives or perceived criticism. Even just looking at it with an outside view can help – what would you say to a friend in the same situation, what might you want a friend to say to you in this situation?

More and more is being published on these subjects and the evidence base is growing. Even something as simple as spending a couple of minutes a day writing down three good things that happened each day for a week can lead to lasting effects on wellbeing.

Wellbeing and happiness have different meanings to different people so don’t feel pressured in to doing it the same way as everyone else if something doesn’t work for you

I don’t want to preach generic interventions like ‘resilience training’ and free yoga, as they certainly aren’t the answer to everything (though I am grateful to a nameless app with free yoga for healthcare workers right now) however just taking a few minutes for yourself every day or even every week can make a world of difference. Wellbeing and happiness have different meanings to different people so don’t feel pressured in to doing it the same way as everyone else if something doesn’t work for you (try and lay to rest the “I should run, I should eat better, I should practice gratitude everyday” type thoughts). I can’t remember who said it now but I always remember the phrase “don’t should on yourself”. If all you can manage is making sure you have something to eat or keeping your children/pets/houseplants (delete as appropriate) alive that week then celebrate that. Finding what works for you is not a one-size fits all solution and finding things that you enjoy and bring meaning to your life are no exception.

A few suggestions which will hopefully serve as a gentle reminder to spend just a little time for you:

  1. Make bite-sized goals and celebrate the small wins!
  2. Write down at least one good thing that happened today (even a note on your phone counts)
  3. Move around for a few minutes in a way you enjoy (kitchen disco, running, walking the dogs/children, interpretive dance if you fancy it…)
  4. Focus on something you are grateful for (and if it is a person, or even a pet, thank them)
  5. Phone (or Zoom or WhatsApp) a friend
  6. Focus on taking a few deep breaths (you don’t need to spend hours meditating if you don’t want to, even one will do)
  7. Even if it’s just for 5-10minutes, do something, anything (within reason) just for you. Maybe read a book, drink some nice tea, crochet, bake a cake, cuddle a pet (I would suggest your own and probably not a stranger’s that you’ve met on the street…)

Some useful resources

The Art of Brilliance

The International Positive Psychology Association