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May 13 22

A Positive Mindset Can Increase Longevity

by Beth

In my last post, I wrote about how your mindset regarding stress determines its impacts on you. Your mindset shapes your health and well-being in many profound ways. In her recent book, Breaking the Age Code, Yale professor Becca Levy discusses her research showing that your beliefs about aging determine how long and how well you live.

Her most surprising study tracked middle-aged adults for 20 years and found that those with a positive perception of aging lived 7.5 years longer on average than those with negative beliefs about aging. In another study Levy and her colleagues followed hundreds of adults for 38 years. Those with the most positive views of aging had an 80 percent lower risk of heart attack.

Levy has also shown that among people who have the gene variant which puts them at high risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, those with positive age beliefs were 50 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with negative views. This means someone with the variant who has a positive perception of aging has the same risk of developing Alzheimer’s as someone without it. Positive age beliefs are associated with better memory, better hearing, and faster recovery from accidents.

How is it that our beliefs regarding aging can have such a powerful impact on our health and longevity? One reason is that people who have a positive view of aging are more likely to do things that are good for them, like exercising, eating healthy diets, and following their doctors’ advice. Another reason is that the cortisol levels of people who have positive views of aging decrease by 10 percent from age 50 to age 80, while cortisol levels rise about 40 percent over the same period for people who have negative attitudes. Their negative beliefs about growing old are stressing them out. Chronic stress can trigger chronic inflammation, which causes all sorts of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

Sadly, American society has negative stereotypes about aging. There is ageism in hiring. Advertising bombards us with negative messages. Companies present aging as something scary that we should try to avoid so we buy more anti-aging products. Social media is also full of negative messaging about aging.

The good news is that changing your beliefs is relatively simple. The key is to increase awareness. One exercise, called age belief journaling, starts with writing down any portrayals of aging that you notice in advertising, on shows, in conversations, etc. After one week, you count how many examples are positive and how many are negative. For the negative portrayals see if you can come up with a way the image could have been more positive. Another exercise is to create a portfolio of positive examples of aging, like someone in your family or a character in a book. This can help make images of positive aging more salient in your mind. You want to focus on the positive aspects of aging, of which there are many!

Apr 13 22

A Meaningful Life is Stressful

by Beth

According to David Robson, author of The Expectation Effect, the phrase “stressed-out” started being used in 1983 after a Time cover story declared that people’s fast-paced lives were emerging as a major source of illness. By 2014, a survey showed that 75% of Americans believed that stress had a negative impact on family life, 74% reported it negatively affected work, and 70% said stress hurt their health. While it’s true that chronic stress caused by job demands, long commutes, social media, and constant distractions can be bad for us, our expectation that being stressed-out is hurting us may be an even bigger problem.

Research shows that stress is bad for you if you believe it’s bad for you. A study that followed over 28,000 people for eight years found that high levels of anxiety increased mortality by 43%. But that was only for the people who believed their stress was harming them. Those who experienced high levels of stress but didn’t believe it impacted their health had even lower mortality rates than participants who experienced very little stress. Our mindset about stress determines how it impacts us.

Fortunately, we can reduce the negative effects of stress by reframing how we think about it. “Eustress” is good stress. It’s the energizing, beneficial feeling that comes from taking on challenges. It can lead to growth and resilience. It can focus your attention and increase motivation.

Stress is an inevitable part of goal pursuit. It signals you care about something. A study of almost 400 adults found that every measure of stress, including having experienced more stressful events in the past, currently being under a lot of stress, and stressing about the future, was related to a greater sense of meaning in life.

Viewing stress as an integral part of a meaningful life helps me to reframe it as good. I remind myself that I can choose to feel burdened by everyday hassles, or to see them as a sign of a full life. If I feel stressed because of a deadline, I make a mental note to be grateful for work that I enjoy. When having to find time to get to the grocery store and cook dinner causes stress, I think about how important it is for my health and the health of my family. Preparing for a trip is less stressful when I remind myself how fortunate I am to have a reason to travel.

The next time you feel stressed, try connecting the source of your stress to your values. Why are you doing whatever it is that’s stressing you out? This can help you see how the stress you are experiencing is contributing to a full and meaningful life.

Mar 15 22

Using Regret for Good

by Beth

In his latest book, The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink argues that regrets can be used to make us better. Instead of ignoring our regrets or ruminating about them, we can reflect on them to gain insights into how to live a better life. Regrets can signal what really matters to us. They can teach us lessons for how to act differently in the future.

Pink collected 16,000 regrets by surveying people in 105 countries. He found that most of the regrets fell into one of four categories.

  • Foundation regrets stem from making choices that don’t allow you to have a stable life. Some examples are not saving enough money, not taking care of your health, and not working hard enough in school. “If only I’d done the work.”
  • Boldness regrets involve playing it safe instead of taking a chance. They include not asking someone on a date, not having started a business, or not speaking up. “If only I’d taken the chance.”
  • Moral regrets occur when we don’t do the right thing. A common one is marital infidelity. Many people mentioned regretting having been a bully. “If only I’d done the right thing.”
  • Connection regrets result from relationships ending, like letting friends drift away or becoming estranged from family members. “If only I’d reached out.”

According to Pink, these core regrets reveal what we humans value the most. Foundation regrets represent our need for stability. Boldness regrets stem from our need to grow and make an impact. Moral regrets demonstrate that people want to do the right thing. Connection regrets show how important relationships are to us.

Pink suggests three steps that we can take in using regret to improve our lives.

  1. Inward – the first step is to reframe the regret using self-compassion. Recognize that you aren’t the only person with this regret and that regret is part of the shared human experience. Treat yourself with kindness rather than contempt.
  2. Outward – the second step is to talk about your regret. Disclosure helps to relieve the burden by making sense of what happened. Sharing your vulnerabilities and weaknesses leads people to like you more.
  3. Forward – the third step is to determine what lesson you can learn. What will you do differently in the future? Has your regret taught you to speak up, to take a chance, or to reach out?

I think one of the most important insights from this book is that connection regrets are the most common. This isn’t surprising since relationships are the top source of well-being. We choose not to reach out because we feel awkward or think the other person doesn’t care. The truth is, reaching out isn’t as awkward as we expect, and the other person does care. So the next time you wonder whether you should reach out, the answer is always yes!

Feb 17 22

Paying Attention to Your Attention

by Beth

A lot of different things impact your well-being. Attention is near the top of the list. Your ability to focus and the choices you make regarding what you pay attention to are both critical for your well-being.

A lack of focus impacts your performance, your stress levels, and your relationships. Productivity drops 40% when you try to focus on more than one thing. Your brain releases the stress hormone cortisol when you try to multitask. Your capacity to connect with others is diminished when you don’t focus on what they are saying and how they are feeling.

A lack of focus also impacts your ability to create memories. Do you sometimes forget where you left your keys? It’s possible that you didn’t forget, you just never remembered. You weren’t paying enough attention for your experience to be encoded as a memory. You can’t remember something you didn’t pay attention to in the first place.

It’s not just paying attention that matters, but what you pay attention to. It determines the experiences you have, and those experiences make up your life. You can choose to pay attention to the good things that happen or the bad. You can choose to focus on the story your spouse is sharing or on your text messages. You can choose to pay attention to your daughter’s volleyball match or to your social media feed. Your life is the sum of these choices.

We live in a world full of distractions. This makes it hard to focus on any one thing. And it means we must make constant choices about where to focus our attention.

Strengthen your ability to focus by getting enough sleep, practicing meditation, and minimizing distractions by turning off notifications or putting your phone away. Choose to pay attention to experiences that will bring you a happier, more fulfilled life. I choose to pay attention to the people around me, the book I’m reading, the words I’m writing, the food I’m eating, the music I hear, and the nature that surrounds me. What about you?

Jan 19 22

It’s Not You, It’s Your Environment

by Beth

Dan Buettner wants you to know that if you’re struggling with health problems or your weight, it’s probably not your fault. In his latest book, The Blue Zones Challenge, he explains that people who live long, healthy lives don’t have more willpower than those who don’t. Their secret is that “they live in an environment where the healthy choice is not only the easy choice, but often the only choice.”

Rates of obesity, diabetes, and dementia among Americans have exploded over the past 50 years. So what changed? We haven’t all become less educated, irresponsible people who don’t take care of our health. What changed was our environment. With the increased availability of fast-food restaurants, highly addictive junk food, mechanical conveniences, and online shopping, the easy choices result in an unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle.

As a National Geographic Fellow with a grant from the National Institute on Aging, about 20 years ago Buettner identified five regions in the world where people lived the longest. He called them blue zones and he and his team identified nine lifestyle factors shared by people in all the zones.

One of the biggest insights from Dan’s work was that people living in the blue zones weren’t trying to live healthier lives. They were healthy because they lived in places where eating healthy food, moving naturally throughout the day, and connecting with friends and family were the norm.

Over the past several years, Buettner has helped more than 50 American cities reshape their environments to improve people’s health and longevity. Now he’s helping individuals with his 4-week guide to optimizing our homes and social networks for a healthier life. Here are some things you can do:

  • Find a buddy or small group of people to join you on your Blue Zones journey
  • Keep a bowl of fruit on your counter; keep unhealthy food out of your house or hidden away
  • Make a weekly meal plan and prep what you can ahead of time
  • Start a container or outdoor garden
  • Put your running or walking shoes by the door so you can see and easily access them
  • Tape a reminder note on your dashboard to park far away from the entrance
  • Schedule walking meetings at work
  • Plan a routine gathering with friends (book club, happy hour, work out session)
  • Volunteer for a new organization

If you want to live a long, healthy life, stop blaming yourself for making unhealthy choices. Instead, make changes to your environment so the easy choice is the healthy choice.

Dec 26 21

Cultivating Curiosity

by Beth

Several years ago, I started choosing a word each January that I wanted to focus on for the coming year. I chose mindfulness one year, gratitude another, and compassion. The word I’ve picked for 2022 is curiosity. Curiosity is a desire to seek out new experiences or knowledge. Research shows that curiosity is related to happiness, achievement, stronger relationships, and better health. It also helps you learn and makes learning more fun.

I want to embrace curiosity more fully this year for two additional reasons: 1) curiosity makes life more meaningful and 2) curiosity enhances empathy.

Curiosity is a key ingredient for creating a meaningful life. It encourages us to engage more fully in life by being more open to new experiences. Being curious leads us to explore, discover, and grow.

I love to learn, but I’m risk averse. My preference for playing it safe can keep me from trying new things or venturing outside of my comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong, I have no plans to skydive or bungee jump this year, but I do plan to lean into my curiosity to be more open to meaningful opportunities. I will try to be more curious about the unknown than fearful of it. 

One of my favorite shows is Ted Lasso. The characters and the story are great, but what I love most are Ted’s positive life lessons. The one that really stuck with me was his suggestion to be curious not judgmental. It sure feels like there is a lot of judgment going on these days. We are so divided over politics, vaccines, what should be taught in schools, etc. 

It’s hard not to judge people who disagree with us on such important issues, but it doesn’t help. Surely we would get along better and make more progress if we were curious about why people feel the way they do. Curiosity can motivate us to be open to viewing the world from other perspectives. I may never understand people’s positions on some of these big issues, but having curiosity in my daily exchanges with others will very likely increase my empathy and improve my relationships. 

Todd Kashdan, author of the book Curious?, calls curiosity the engine of growth. I believe that I can grow to become a better person if I spend the next year cultivating curiosity in the pursuit of more meaningful experiences and making an effort to replace judgement with curiosity. What about you? What will be your word for 2022?

Nov 22 21

In Praise of Pride

by Beth

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, but is it really that bad? Pride is a positive emotion and there is a lot of research showing the benefits of experiencing pride. A sense of pride can motivate us to work to achieve our goals to better ourselves or to help others. Anticipating future pride increases performance, perseverance, and self-control in resisting temptation. In one study, participants who were told their scores on a cognitive test were especially high spent twice as long working on another task as participants who were not induced to feel pride. In another study, 40% of the people who were asked to think about how proud they would feel if they could resist temptation were able to refrain from taking a bite of cake. Only 19% of the people in the control group resisted the temptation to eat some cake.

So why is pride considered a sin? That’s because there are two distinct types of pride: authentic pride and hubristic pride. Authentic pride is feeling good about yourself, experiencing a sense of competence or accomplishment. You’ve worked to achieve your goal and you are proud of the result.

Hubristic pride involves egotism and arrogance, the feeling that you are better than others. Hubris is self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. It’s associated with insecurity and anti-social behaviors like aggression and dominance, whereas authentic pride is associated with confidence and pro-social behaviors like generosity and compassion.

Pride is good when paired with humility. It’s nice to do things that give you a sense of self-respect and satisfaction. Anticipating feeling proud can provide the motivation needed to learn to speak a new language or play a musical instrument, to get good grades or a promotion at work, to lose weight or get into shape.

Pride is bad when you feel your accomplishments make you superior to other people. When your drive to achieve is fueled by anxiety or a fragile ego. Recognizing that you may do some things well, but that you can’t be great at everything can help keep you humble. Hubristic pride may be a sin, but authentic pride is a virtue, not a vice.

Oct 13 21

Life is Short; Make Good Choices

by Beth

Your time on earth is limited. You might not be here tomorrow. If you’re lucky enough to live to 90, you’ll have almost 4,700 weeks. That’s where Oliver Burkeman got the title for his new book, Four Thousand Weeks. This finitude means you can’t get everything done. You must make tough choices about how to spend your limited time.

Embracing this truth can set you free. It can empower you to accomplish more of what matters to have a more joyful, fulfilled life. Accepting that you don’t have time for everything means you have to decide what to focus on and what to neglect. It means learning to tolerate the discomfort of knowing that balls will be dropped.

Making these choices is hard. But being in a position to make such choices is pretty amazing. The fact that you are alive is a miracle! Contemplating the certainty of death helps you realize that all you have for sure is the present moment. Each day you have is a blessing. You don’t have to make choices; you get to make them.

So how do you decide? If something really matters to you, do some of it today. Don’t wait until you have more time. Don’t worry if you are settling or if you won’t do a good enough job. Making any choice at all is settling and nothing you do will be perfect.

Here are some more suggestions for how to spend you limited time:

  • Don’t use busyness to distract you from the reality of your short life.
  • Get comfortable with having problems. Life is but a series of problems.
  • Don’t use the present solely as a path to a better future. Use some of your time to do things for their own sake. Find pleasure in a good hobby.
  • Planning doesn’t eliminate uncertainty; it just pushes it further into the future. Taking steps to reduce the chance that bad things will happen is smart. But remember that a plan is your present-moment statement of intent. It does not ensure that things will go your way.
  • Don’t overvalue your existence. It’s highly unlikely that you will put a dent in the universe. Spend your time doing things that give you a sense of meaning.
  • Life will always feel uncertain and out of control. Everyone is winging it! So let go of your impossible standards and get to work doing what you can to help.

Burkeman covers a lot of ideas in this book. My main take-away is that I should be grateful for my limited time here, and I should spend each day doing things that matter to me. I choose to exercise, make healthy meals for my family, tend my garden, write blog posts, and give talks about well-being. What about you?

Sep 17 21

How to Spend More Time on Meaningful Activities

by Beth

Two types of activities contribute to our well-being: 1) activities we like to do because they bring us immediate pleasure and 2) activities we want to do because they give us a sense of meaning in life. We tend to spend a lot more of our time on activities we like for a couple of reasons. First, our brains have a present bias, which means we prefer immediate gratification over something that will benefit us in the future. Second, the reward system in our brains reinforces this by making us crave what feels good in the moment.

This is why I’d prefer to stay snuggled in bed rather than getting up to start a Peloton ride. It’s why I keep scrolling through my Twitter feed instead of writing a blog post. And why my fingers are stained from eating Takis instead of making a healthy snack. This craving for activities that bring immediate pleasure can prevent us from doing things that would bring us greater life satisfaction.

In order to live a more meaningful life, we need to figure out how to resist the temptation to do what we like, so we can do more of what we want. Mindfulness can help.

Urge surfing is a mindfulness technique that has been shown to help addicts resist temptation. The first step is to notice and acknowledge that you have an urge to do something. Next is to refrain from doing it. Yep, this is the hard part, but cravings are temporary. They are like a wave that grows bigger, crests, then crashes on the shore. It might be easier to delay action at first. This will help you see that the craving will go away. I’m trying to restrict my eating to a smaller window of time, so I delay or skip breakfast most days. I still get a feeling of hunger some mornings, but I’ve learned to distract myself and then it goes away. The process of mindfully noticing a craving without acting on it because you know it won’t last long gets easier with practice.

Turning your attention to the negative aspects of the activity you are craving also helps. Imagine how tired and sluggish you’ll feel when you get a sugar crash after eating those cookies. Or the disappointment you’ll experience tonight if you skip exercising.

Savoring is another mindfulness technique that can motivate you to engage in more meaningful activities that require effort. In this case you want to think about the positive aspects of the experience. When it comes to exercise, I think about how much I enjoy listening to the music while I ride, how energized I’ll feel for the rest of the day, and the sense of pride that comes from doing something that aligns with my value of healthy living. To get started on a blog post, I think about how much I enjoy entering a state of flow when writing and how it supports my goal of helping people increase their well-being by sharing information.

Resisting the momentary urge to give in to a craving and mindfully savoring the future benefits of an effortful activity can help you spend more of your time in ways that will give your life more meaning.

Aug 17 21

Sharing Mental Health Struggles

by Beth

This summer we witnessed more professional athletes sharing their mental health struggles. Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to tend to her mental health, then Simone Biles chose not to compete in gymnastics events at the Tokyo Olympics due to her state of mind.

Naomi and Simone followed the example of other athletes who have also shown the courage to speak openly about their mental health challenges. In 2016, before the Rio Olympics, Michael Phelps shared that he had faced depression and suicidal thoughts. In 2018, Kevin Love had a panic attack during an NBA game, which led him to talk about his battle with anxiety and depression. Another NBA player, DeMar DeRozan, opened up about his depression earlier that same year.

It’s especially powerful when professional athletes talk about their mental health struggles because people see them as superhuman. But they are human, they have feelings, and they aren’t always OK. Having the courage to share their stories and admit when they are not OK helps them and helps others.

Over 50 million American adults suffer from issues related to their mental health, yet, as common as it is, there is a stigma surrounding it. When people speak openly about their challenges it helps to normalize the anxiety, fear, and depression so many are feeling. DeMar has said that he is trying to do his part “to make sure there is zero shame or stigma for anyone working to make their mental health a priority”. Athletes who share their stories help to promote understanding and empathy among those without mental illness. They also let those who are struggling know they are not alone, which could encourage them to seek help. Michael Phelps told Naomi that she may have saved a life by speaking up. 

People who talk about their mental health challenges often report feeling much better, experiencing greater self-awareness, stronger social connectedness, a sense of purpose, and personal growth. According to Michael Phelps, “life became easy” once he began to talk about his feelings. Naomi said it “taught me so much and helped me grow” and Kevin Love wrote that “being able to speak about it has been therapy for me as well.”

I’m so grateful to the athletes and other celebrities who have been brave enough to share their mental health stories. We all either suffer from mental health issues or know someone who does. People who speak up and encourage open dialogue about mental health help us all.