Aberdeen psychologist Dr Emma Hepburn – also known as @thepsychologymum – helped people the world over with her Instagram illustrations over the pandemic. Her latest book offers up 53 practical tools to improve everyday happiness
Lead image credit: Chris Close
Happiness can often seem like a rather unobtainable concept. Is it a revelation to some people that happiness is a skill that we can learn?
Yes. I think we often see it as something that just happens. Shifting focus to see it as a skill we can build into our lives means we can take small, daily actions that impact positively on how we feel.
In your new book, A Toolkit for Happiness, you talk about building ‘a happiness sandwich’. Could you give us the basics on this?
The basic filling would be doing things that create positive emotion or make you feel good, as well as things that give you meaning. Connections, managing stress and how we respond to our emotions – including difficult ones – are also crucial ingredients.
The book outlines 53 tools we can use to feel better daily. What one thing would you recommend we start with right now?
Planning and building small pockets of feel-good emotions into your day is absolutely crucial. These positive emotions are essential for our wellbeing, yet we often add them in as afterthoughts once we’ve got through our to-do list. Build in things that make you feel joy, help you relax, enable you to feel connected, feel wonder or make you laugh as an essential part of your day.
What are some of the biggest happiness myths out there?
That happiness is about feeling happy all the time. In order to improve our happiness and wellbeing, we need to allow and learn to respond to difficult emotions too. Often people see difficult emotions as something they shouldn’t have, or as a failure which means they’re not coping. If we shift to see difficult emotions as a common human experience that is an essential part of brain functioning, then we can learn to navigate these which, longer-term, makes us happier.
Your Instagram posts gained a huge following over lockdown, with your illustrations and practical tips creating a community of support. When did you realise they were having such a positive effect?
During the first two waves of the pandemic I worked in staff wellbeing in the NHS. It was quite a stressful time, and I was hearing a lot of difficult things. Drawings helped me relax and make sense of how the pandemic was impacting on us. When I shared these they got such a positive response that I realised they were helping other people make sense of what was happening too. Seeing them being shared and used in school lessons and wellbeing centres led to the creation of my free ebook on dealing with the pandemic.
Glasgow has a starring role in the new book. What made you decide to drop some free books at locations around the city?
I remember when I first read about happiness in a quote from the Dalai Lama. I was sitting in my car in the Gorbals, and it was a revelation to me that we could work towards happiness in our lives. Subsequently I applied to be a clinical psychologist and trained in Glasgow. I wanted to give something back to the city and as giving improves happiness, I felt this was a fitting way to mark the book’s publication.
What would be a truly happy day for you?
A lie-in, a book and cup of tea in bed. Spending time with my family doing something we enjoy. Eating good food and then ending the day with a bath, listening to a podcast. These are the things that make me happy and it’s ultimately having time to do these small, daily things that bring us meaning.
A Toolkit for Happiness: 53 Ways to Feel Better by Dr Emma Hepburn is available now, priced at £14.99 hardback and also available as an ebook