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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.

Jul 22 21

The Wonders of Walking

by Beth

Walking is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being. I make sure to get as many steps in each day as I possibly can. On vacation in Spain last week, I averaged over 16,000 steps a day! Walking is easy to do and it makes me feel good.

If you need motivation to walk more, here are some of the many benefits of walking:

  • Boosts energy – walking increases oxygen flow and levels of hormones that elevate energy levels. One study found walking to be more energizing than caffeine consumption.
  • Improves mood – multiple studies show that walking reduces anxiety, depression, and negative moods.
  • Enhances creativity – according to a Stanford study, walking increased creative output by an average of 60%.
  • Boosts immune function – a study of over 1,000 people found that those who walked for 20 minutes at least 5 days a week had 43% fewer sick days and those who did get sick had lesser symptoms.
  • Lowers body weight – a Harvard study showed the effects of obesity-promoting genes were cut in half for people who walked briskly about an hour a day.
  • Improves sleep – a 4-week study of nearly 500 people found that those who averaged the most steps reported significantly better sleep quality
  • Eases joint pain – walking protects joints by lubricating them and strengthening supporting muscles. Walking is recommended for reducing arthritis-related pain.
  • Reduces risk of disease – walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week has been shown to reduce heart disease risk by 19%. A meta-analysis of 42 studies found that walking reduced blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, body fat, and depression.
  • Reduces breast cancer risk – an American Cancer Society study found that women who walked more than 7 hours a week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer.
  • Slows memory decline – a recent study of 250 older adults who started walking three times a week for 40 minutes found that they gained white matter, the brain’s wiring, and cognitive improvements.

Pretty impressive, huh? I encourage you to set a goal to walk a certain number of steps each day. Walking outside boosts your well-being even more given the positive impact of being in nature. And walking with a friend adds the most important factor for well-being, social connection!

Jun 14 21

The Joy of Cooking

by Beth
Mise en place

For most of my adult life, I considered cooking a chore. I didn’t find much joy in meal planning, grocery shopping, or preparing dinner at the end of a long day. I focused on finding as many quick, easy, kid-friendly recipes as I could. Over the past few years, I’ve come to view cooking in a very different light. It’s a mindful practice that gives me a sense of meaning and lets me use one of my top strengths.

All three of these are strategies that have been shown to boost well-being:

  • Strengths – One of my top strengths is learner. When I stopped eating meat, I needed to learn how to cook more plant-based meals. I started reading books and following vegetarian cooks on Instagram and I took a plant-based cooking class online. Learning about the health benefits of different foods and how to prepare new recipes made cooking much more enjoyable because I was using one of my strengths. All sorts of different strengths, like curiosity, achiever, adaptability, or focus, can be applied to make cooking more fun.
  • Meaning – As I learned more about the impact that food has on my mental and physical health, the health of my family, and the health of our planet, I began to see the value of carefully choosing what foods to buy and cooking healthy meals. I now derive a real sense of meaning from both shopping and cooking. Buying more organic food is good for the environment. If I buy fewer processed foods and sugary snacks, my family will be healthier. Using spices and sauces to make flavorful plant-based recipes can encourage them to embrace more nutritious meals. I now view cooking as an important way to keep myself and my family healthy.
  • Mindfulness – One of the first things you learn in most cooking classes is the concept of “mise en place”. This is a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place”. Chefs are taught to have everything they will need to make a meal setup before starting to cook. All the ingredients should be washed, chopped, and measured ahead of time. This allows the cooking process to be a mindful, relaxing experience. You can calmly focus on each aspect, noticing the flow of water as you wash produce, the array of colors in the assembled ingredients, the smell of fresh herbs as you chop, and the aroma of onions as they brown.

These positive strategies can be used to make any chore more enjoyable. If there is something you must do around the house or at work that you really don’t like, try to intentionally apply one of your strengths while doing it. Look for the value for yourself or for others in what you’re doing. Focusing on the why can make it more meaningful. And, finally, give it your full attention. The experience of being present can make any task more pleasant.

May 14 21

Embracing Lifequakes

by Beth

A recent article in the Washington Post reported a survey showing that 66% of people returning to work after the pandemic are considering changing fields. This is not as surprising as it may sound. Disruptions in our lives often cause us to rethink things. They provide an opportunity for us to reevaluate our lives and consider new possibilities.

In his book, Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, Bruce Feiler refers to lifequakes as signature events that upend and reshape our lives. A global pandemic certainly counts as one! He found that 90% of people come to view these life changes as something positive over time.

Post-traumatic growth is the positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. Experiencing adversity builds our resilience. We learn coping skills that can help us weather the next storm. Difficult experiences often strengthen our relationships and give us a renewed appreciation for life. They can also lead to a desire for change.

Even minor disruptions that force us to do things in a new way can result in improvements in our lives. In 2014, workers on London’s underground went on strike. Some of the Tube stations were closed, forcing people to find alternative routes to work. When the stations reopened, many of the commuters did not return to their prior routine because they had discovered a better route.

The pandemic has disrupted all of our lives, and it has caused many people to reassess what they want to do and how they want to work. There are restaurant and healthcare workers who would like to find jobs where they will be less exposed if there are future outbreaks. Others want to move away from the travel or entertainment industries and into jobs that are less vulnerable to pandemics. There are people who want a career that gives them more meaning. And after spending more time at home with their families, some people realize they don’t want to return to jobs with long commutes or excessive travel.

According to Feiler, most of us will experience three to five lifequakes. Rather than resisting them, we are better off accepting them as an integral part of life and embracing the positive changes they can bring. How have you grown as a result of your experiences over this past year? What strategies helped you to cope? Who helped you to get through the challenges? What new possibilities might you want to pursue?