Posted by: counselorcarmella | April 23, 2012

Happy Places

I’ve recently been talking a lot with clients about  mental happy places.  That term sounds like so much therapy mumbo jumbo, but I really do like it. We all need “happy places.”  These are scenes  or situations we call to mind  that help us feel a little more positive or peaceful.  Being able to shift our mental focus to something uplifting comes in handy  when we’re upset or having a bad day.  Happy places are another tool in the coping toolbox along with things like distraction,  talking with someone,  exercise, prayer, thinking about  what we’re thankful for, and other  consciously chosen activities that help us feel better. 
A lot of times,   happy places involve  time spent with  young children or animals.  Sometimes, happy places are actual  favorite spots   from a childhood home or  vacation. Some people think about  happy times with family members or friends and recreate the scene in their minds. Remembering  special moments from childhood can be  great happy places for those who have good memories to draw from. Making  cookies with  Grandma or the time you and your  Dad rode rides together at the amusement park can be  great “happy places.” Recalling sleep overs with a best friend can be, as well.   Some people even have  important interactions with  teachers or  adults from church or another community organization on their list of “happy places.” 
Others think about   where they made a meaningful connection with God or some aspect of sacredness.  This could be a particular church or a place in nature, for example. They may include  recalling certain  Bible verses, hymns, or  creeds as part of that experience. These recollections may involve  conversations with  spiritual mentors or others wise about the meaning of life and where strength and purpose comes from.   Or, someone may just remember the feelings of awe or  peace or thankfulness they had while sitting alone by a lake or watching a sunset. 
Kids make great happy places.  Thinking about  fun times with kids is great because kids get so into  their pretend worlds and  are so in the moment.  They  say such funny things and  get excited about  small discoveries a lot of us adults take  for granted. Whether its your own kids or grandkids,  favorite students you’ve had during your career as a teacher or  child care provider, or  interactions with the children of  friends or co workers, you’ve  probably run across more than a few of these moments.
My clients are always coming in with funny anecdotes about the special kids in their lives, little things that made the  grown up person laugh or feel special.  They  get excited about school pictures, artwork, voicemails, the gift of a bird feather or rock or flower, and actual in-person interactions and look forward to the next time they’ll have the chance to hang out with   the children who  give them so much joy. These kids are usually nieces or nephews or grandchildren or  their own little ones, but not always.  Sometimes, they’re the children of a friend  or co worker. Kids pull us into their world and allow us to connect with that less serious part of ourselves that  enjoys things like swing sets, coloring books, stories with talking animals and silly rhymes, and cartoons.
Pets and animals are another frequent “happy place.”  Many clients recall favorite pets from childhood and  quality time with  the animals they have now. I hear funny  little anecdotes about cats and dogs all the time.  Less often,  clients talk about horses,  pet birds, and  other animals. Our pets make us feel unconditionally loved and accepted. They give us something  to care for, make us laugh,  offer affection, and  entertain us with their unique personalities.  They provide companionship and often  build bridges socially, too.
I’ve known folks who had pet birds.  I’ve been surprised to learn about how birds have personalities, preferences, and  habits just like cats or dogs.  They make better companions than I ever could have imagined, since they enjoy a lot of attention and  are very interactive with their human families.   These interactions become the memories  that are cherished as happy places. Real bird enthusiasts become very knowledgeable on the subject and often want to share this interest with others, so it is a good social outlet, as well. Several clients who enjoy horseback riding  picture the barn and stables where they ride  as their happy place.  They picture the horses,  think about the sounds and smells, and recall interactions with the animals and other people there.  They think about how it feels when they’re riding and  working with such a powerful but sensitive animal.
Many people enjoy watching tropical  fish. You can’t hug them, but they are relaxing and show a certain amount of  personality, too. There’s a reason those tanks are in so many doctor’s offices.  One young lady I knew helped out on a pig farm. She found it very  peaceful and had a lot of respect for the pigs as  unique intelligent animals.  Some people  enjoy watching the squirrels that scamper around their yard. Other clients  think about the birds that come to their bird feeders with their various colors, bird calls, and  flying patterns.  We had lots of hummingbirds around my home as a kid. We kept feeders up and  the energy in those tiny bodies fascinated me.  They would swarm and  zoom around us.  Observing them was a great distraction and   very entertaining. I still smile when I think about them.  
Moments with  adult friends or family members can be happy places, too. This morning, a co worker was telling me about   a surprise Thanksgiving visit from one of her grown children.  That will be  a happy place for her, I’m sure.  Some people like to look back on  vacations with friends or   special times they had with their spouse.  Fun or romantic experiences with loved ones make great happy places. Often, the  settings for these experiences are beautiful and relaxing, such as  beaches or mountains, and the meaningful time with loved ones  and the good feelings  all go together to create the  entire “happy place”  memory.  
Others recall how it felt when they   sang that special solo,  scored the points that won the game, completed a marathon, or  won an art contest. They remember the cheers and hugs and  how proud they felt after working  so hard to accomplish something.  They remember  being congratulated and feeling special and  happy.   
I often encourage clients to make a list or  keep some pictures around to remind them of their happy places. Keeping snapshots in a wallet or  in  an office is an example of this. Objects can  serve as props or cues to connect us  with our happy places, too. For example, playing a CD with  the sounds of crashing waves and seagulls on it can help  someone shift gears to thinking about  being at the beach. Souvenirs or trinkets from travels can help us remember the special places and people that were part of such experiences. Little gifts or cards from loved ones we’ve saved in a special place can help bring them to mind on a bad day. 
Some people find happy places in reading things they find uplifting.  This could be the Bible or another sacred text.  It could also be  true stories about  meaningful  personal experiences found in magazines like Guideposts or in books like the Chicken Soup series.  Some people enjoy poetry about nature.  Other people prefer looking at books or magazines with  good photography and  peaceful settings. Others just  like to picture themselves wrapped up in a favorite blanket on a comfy couch or  glider, with a  good book, being lost in the story and   perfectly content and comfortable. Music can help  promote  a sense of calmness and safety   and can serve as part of the “happy place”  recollection.  Some people prefer quiet music. Others gravitate towards certain songs that have inspirational or  happy lyrics. 
The more  vivid the memory, the better.  For that reason, adding sights, sounds,  and even smells, tastes, or textures,  can help make the experience of connecting with those  memories  more real.  The more senses involved, the better.    
Its also worth noting that happy places can also involve things someone is looking forward to.  Imagining what an upcoming  visit with  family or   next month’s vacation will be like can be a happy place. Imagining   the next time we’re at a place where we feel happy or with people  who are very special to us can  give us a lot to look forward to. Some people make up their happy places.  They can create imaginary scenes or hypothetical settings  that involve things that give them comfort and enjoyment.  They create the setting, decide who is there with them, think  about conversations or experiences they would have, etc. Imagination is a great thing and this is a great use for it.  
Happy places are very individual.  Each person has  to decide what memories or  scenes make them feel most peaceful and  content.   Give it some thought and try and  see what you come up with as far as your mental happy places and how you can access those  thoughts. You might have some in mind already, but you may  come up with others while you brainstorm.

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