Do you relish the end of a project, excited about its completion because you feel proud of your achievements and look forward to the appreciation or admiration of colleagues, friends and family? Or are you the type to say ‘it’s no big deal’ even if it really was, preferring not to remind people of your hard work in case they point out where you got it wrong? I recently read Denise Duffield-Thomas’ thoughts on the benefits of celebration for your fiscal health, which got me thinking – does celebrating make a difference to your mental health?
Celebrators, rejoice (again)! Acknowledging successes does lead to better mental health. The act of stopping and paying attention to what we’ve achieved has several elements of good mental health practices, as you can see below.
Focusing on what we have achieved is a way of making us feel more abundant and happy with what we have got. When we stop to celebrate, the focus is on what you have done and where you have got to. Celebrating says ‘where I am right now is great and worthy of attention!’ and it’s the act of saying this, regardless of the event or your life status, that invokes the positive feelings. Listing what you are grateful for on a daily basis is one of the most quoted and prescribed elements of positive psychology research, as it is such as simple practice but has been shown to reliably increase people’s feelings of satisfaction with their lives. When we don’t stop to celebrate, we miss out on the opportunity for gratitude and the feelings of satisfaction. When we achieve and simply fixate our gaze on the next goal, the next something we don’t have, the focus is on lack, which leads to feelings of pessimism and dissatisfaction.
Reaching a goal in the past gives us tangible evidence that we can do it again – and this is a great confidence boost that means we are more likely to keep succeeding. Think of a woman who wants to lose 15 kilos. So far she has lost five. If she celebrates this fact, her confidence increases. The thoughts are something like ‘I’ve done this – I have achieved weight loss – I can do the same again two more times and lose all the weight’. Then consider not celebrating. The thoughts are more like ‘I’ve lost five, but I still have ten to go. I’m not even half way yet’. The confidence is just not there. The external event is the same, but the mindset going forward is different – and a celebratory attitude is correlated with actually reaching the end goal. That’s why exercise and nutritional plans often tell you to ‘reward’ yourself for reaching your smaller goals along the way to your big one – the reward is their form of celebration.
This is another cornerstone of positive psychology research which has been shown to improve people’s feelings of satisfaction with their lives. Positive reminiscing just means remembering something good that happened in your life, and allowing yourself to re-experience the positive emotions you had as you remember the event. Celebrating usually involves looking back at where you started from and comparing it to where you are now, and noticing and enjoying the growth that has taken place – aka positive reminiscing, aka good for you!
I’ve written before about the importance of self-care to psychological wellbeing. Taking care of ourselves feels good, and it helps us to feel like our lives are enjoyable, and not lived just for other people, or as an endless list of busyness and ‘have tos’. Celebration is a big act of self-care. It says to other people, the world, yourself, that you and your achievements matter. And for all the perfectionists out there - you don’t have to do it perfectly in order for it to be worthy of celebrating. There’s probably always something we could have improved, but thinking that way comes back to focusing on where we are lacking, which is not associated with optimal mental health. Celebrating a goal, despite the fact you perceive imperfections (e.g. it took you longer than you’d hoped, it doesn’t look like you expected) is great self-care because you are putting the focus on what is good and what you do have, instead of on the flaws, where perfectionists like to fix their gaze, but which makes us unhappy.
So are you ready to put this idea into action? What have you achieved recently that you are proud of – but didn’t necessarily tell anybody about? Find a way to celebrate it. It doesn’t have to be public if that’s not your style, but you do need to stop and reflect and FEEL GOOD ABOUT IT! It can be as simple as a daily practice before you sleep of reviewing your day, and allowing yourself a few minutes to focus on and feel happy about the things you did that worked out well. It might be buying yourself a small gift when you reach a milestone along the way to your goal. Even an evening glass of wine can be re-contextualised from desperately needed stress relief to a celebration of the patience and determination you have shown throughout the day (remember, you don’t have to have done it perfectly to celebrate!). The way you celebrate is up to you. What’s not up for negotiation is the celebration itself – at least not if you want to increase your feelings of satisfaction and confidence, and maximise your chances of reaching your future goals.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.