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Fewer Americans ‘thriving’ today than past year, poll finds, but these hacks can help

By Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Fewer Americans are “thriving” today than 13 months ago while daily stress and worry remain steady and near pre-pandemic levels, according to a new life satisfaction poll released Wednesday by the polling firm Gallup.

The percentage of Americans who said they were “thriving,” compared with “struggling” or “suffering,” fell 6 percentage points to 53% in February from a 14-year high of 59% this past June. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in January was partly responsible for the downturn, Gallup said, as devastating pictures of the growing humanitarian crisis filled news feeds.

The ongoing pandemic and the emergence of yet another highly contagious coronavirus variant, BA.2, is another “probable factor” in the downturn, Gallup said. Rising inflation, which is at a 40-year high, and rising energy prices also played a role, the polling group said, as Americans became more pessimistic than optimistic about the economy.

Politics also played a role. Rates of thriving improved dramatically among self-identified Democrats (16-point increase) and Independents (7-point increase) from just before the election in 2020 until the high in June 2021, while life satisfaction for Republicans took a downturn (5-point decrease).

“Democrats were by far the primary source of the overall national improvement of the thriving percentage in the first half of 2021,” Gallup said in a statement, adding that the percentages have been falling since. Life satisfaction has fallen nearly 9 points for Independents and approximately 5 points for both Democrats and Republicans.

For this poll, Gallup surveyed over 2,900 US adults across all 50 states and the District of Columbia who are part of a polling panel. Panelists were asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of zero to 10, and anyone who rated their current life at or above seven and their anticipated life in five years an eight or above were considered thriving.

Coping with stress

With so much going on, it’s no wonder people are stressed and feeling less positive about life, experts say. But there are some stress-busting techniques that can make a difference. CNN spoke to stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by The American Institute of Stress. She gave us five tips last fall that still apply today.

Step 1: Awareness building. To start, Ackrill suggests reflecting on your relationship with stress and how you typically handle it.

“What typically triggers you, and what typically helps you in stressful situations? What mindsets work best for you? Take a few moments to jot down your reflections. Knowing your motivators, strengths, needs and what works best for you will help you work with your brain during stressful times,” she said.

Step 2: Learn to calm yourself. Ackrill has some simple “calm down to power up” skills you can learn and practice to shift your mindset when you start to feel stress.

One is breathwork. Bring your attention to your breath, slow it down, and breathe in to the bottom of your lungs, a technique called soft belly breathing.

“For adults, there is a lot of research around a rate of about six breaths per minute, so counting five in and five out is a great start,” Ackrill said.

There are also apps for breathwork, as well as another technique called progressive relaxation, and even technologies to give you feedback on changing your physiology, she said.

“For example, learning to raise your heart rate variability — a measure of the subtle changes in heart rate that occur with your breath — is a good indicator of balancing your system and reducing health risks,” Ackrill said. “There are programs to measure and train skin conductance, breath rate, temperature, etc., and many require only your smartwatch or phone.”

Step 3: Build resilience habits. Start by brainstorming what drains you and what energizes you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, she suggests. Then focus on boosting what recharges you and kicking anything that drains you to the curb.

“Pick one or two small habit shifts to ‘play’ with over the next few weeks,” Ackrill said. “Make sure to pick things you can do easily: Maybe try going to bed 15 minutes earlier, drinking one full water bottle before lunch, checking in with two friends each week or walking outside at lunch. Your success with the tiniest of choices will empower you to feel more in control.”

Step 4: Put YOU on your calendar. Schedule a weekly meeting with yourself to check in on what is and isn’t working, Ackrill said. Then proactively schedule self-care and prioritize recharging, and “stay accountable to what really matters to you.

“Then, build in fun and celebrations of successes,” she added. “The good news is that you can continually tweak your habits to grow stronger, happier and healthier.”

Step 5: Reach out to others. Research has found meaningful social connection supports resilience and longevity,” Ackrill said.

“It’s not about being popular, but more about being present and open with others,” she said. “Stress can make us feel alone or shameful, like somehow others are coping so much better than we are. But the truth is when we reach out and connect, we are healthier and happier.”

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