Ask the expert: Go beyond stress management by tipping the scales to happiness

As a psychologist and parenting researcher, I hear about stress a lot. People ask me for ways to decrease their stress, or they share how high their stress levels are. It is an unfortunate bind that many, many people have in common.

As I have developed as a professional and person, I have realized the key to managing stress is not just decreasing stress; it is also increasing happiness. If we are only focused on decreasing stress, it still leaves us in a neutral state -- it isn't negative, but we also aren't tipping into the positive. Here, I share the best tips I have found to decrease stress and increase happiness.

Underlying stress points

Anything we want to change must first start with better awareness. We must first identify what is causing us to be stressed.

Sounds easy, right? Most of us know the common reasons for stress: work, relationships, money, kids, etc. However, what may be more challenging is to really identify WHY those are triggering to us.

For instance, "My supervisor is making me so stressed. I just wish she would learn to communicate better." If we identify this as our source of stress, we are going to have a really challenging time feeling better because we are externalizing our issue. We are considering WHY it bothers us so much that our boss communicates the way she does. Once we can identify what in US is the reason we become stressed, we can then start to find new ways of coping.

Boundary-setting skills

Many of us become stressed because we have difficulty setting appropriate boundaries. We say yes when we should say no. We allow complaining or gossip to pull us into negative thinking. It is so common that entire books are written on the topic.

Instead, to decrease our stress and increase our happiness, we need to first identify what our top priority is. Perhaps you have a top priority at home and a top priority at work. Write a list of the things that matter the most to you. From there, realize that if you say "yes" to anything that does not contribute to or enhance that list, then you are saying "no" to the things that matter most. In other words, any "yes" is a "no" to other things (sometimes our most important things).

I had a hard reality in my own life recently when I realized that many of my "yes" responses in the evenings were a "no" response to my kids and family. Then at the end of the day, I would go to bed feeling guilty that I didn't spend time with them but that I "had to go" to this or that event. I had to take a hard look at my priorities and make some hard "no"s so I could say the very best "yes" to my kids.

Attentional skills and gratitude practices

After realizing your stressors and setting better boundaries, now we have to make the most of things. I love calling this "Living my best life."

I want to live my best life every day. I have talked to so many people who want this as well but sometimes just don't know how to do that. Two skills found to be influential in increasing personal happiness include giving mindful attention to good, positive things in your life and practicing gratitude.

One easy way to adjust your attention is simply choosing a different answer to the most common question, "How are you?" Instead of just saying, "Fine" or responding with something that is bothering you, maybe you share one positive that has happened recently.

There is certainly a time for venting. I believe in having space for that. But I also find that all of us have good and not-so-good things that happen to us every day. For a week, try to focus on the good things that happen when you answer the "how are you?" question and see how it goes.

I love the practice of writing gratitude letters. Not only is it powerful for the receiver of the letter, but it is also so powerful for us to sit and reflect on what we are grateful for.

For this, for the next month, write one handwritten note each week to a friend, family member or co-worker to share how much they mean to you. Last year around the holidays, I received a letter in the mail and it shifted my entire week.

Random acts of kindness

Very few things are more effective at spreading happiness than performing random acts of kindness. Each year around the holidays, my kids and I create a calendar of kind acts we can do in their school and our community. Things like, bring a hot meal to a friend, say three kind things to your teacher, write a kind note to your principal, give a candy bar to your janitor, hold the door open for someone, etc., are easy for both kids and adults to do.

Create a plan for doing one or two small random acts of kindness this week. You may be surprised at the positive impact this has on your stress level.

Take one small step today

As you are finishing this article, I hope you can find just one small thing to do differently today. Living your best life really is right there waiting for you. And I'd love to hear from you. Email me at batramme@iue.edu and visit my website.

Beth Trammell is an associate professor of psychology at IU East.