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Mar 21 19

Help the Environment to Boost Your Well-Being

by Beth

Some of the things I’ve been doing for my “year of less” have not only been making me happier, but they are also giving me a greater sense of meaning. That’s because they are good for my well-being and also for the environment.

Owning fewer things means less clutter, which has been associated with less stress. It also means you have more time (since you have fewer things to clean, organize, and maintain) and more money to spend in ways that positively impact your well-being, like sharing experiences with friends and family.

Owning less means buying less, which benefits the environment. Consumerism increases pollution, depletes natural resources, and adds more waste to landfills. So instead of dropping by TJ Maxx when I’m out and have some spare time, I head home and use that time to read or meditate or walk the dog. Any of these options is better for my well-being and I consume less because I likely would have bought something that I didn’t need.

What I eat impacts my well-being and the planet. Eating less meat is healthier. It has been associated with lower weight and lower risks of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

It is also good for the environment. According to Colin Beavan, author of How to be Alive, “One day of eating only plants saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, and 20 pounds of CO2 equivalent.” I try to eat a plant-based meal most days for lunch and for dinner I cook mainly fish, vegetables, legumes, and sometimes chicken. Doing this makes me feel good and gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I am also doing good.

Our lives are meaningful when we feel that we are making a positive difference. Helping others is one of the most powerful ways to experience meaning. And what better way to help others than to adopt behaviors that will positively impact future generations!

Feb 12 19

Choosing “Less but Better”

by Beth

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about choosing one word or idea as a theme for the year. This year my word is “less”. Instead of making a list of all the things I intended to do, I resolved to dedicate 2019 to choosing less.

I’ve always appreciated simplicity. I really do believe that less is better! So here are some of the things on my 2019 list of less:

  • Owning less. Every February I do spring cleaning. I never understood why people would want to be cleaning out their closets on a beautiful spring day! I wrote a blog in 2012 about the joy of de-cluttering. This was long before I learned about the KonMari method, but this year I’m following Marie Kondo’s suggestion to consider whether my possessions spark joy. My criteria for keeping something used to be whether I might need it someday. Considering how much I really like it has made it a lot easier to get rid of things.
  • Doing less. I used to love crossing things off my to-do-list. The more I did each day the better I felt. Well those times are over! This year I’m embracing Essentialism: the pursuit of less but better. Instead of trying to get more done, I’m focusing on doing what really matters. Each day I make sure I have time to go for a long walk, meditate, or connect with someone I care about. Like only keeping things that bring me joy, I’m deliberately choosing to eliminate nonessentials so I can work on projects that inspire me.
  • Using less plastic. I was so moved by the National Geographic issue “Planet or Plastic” that I took the pledge to use less plastic. I bought Etee wraps to use instead of saran wrap, I never use straws, I rarely drink from plastic bottles, and I don’t use lids. Not using lids means you don’t need straws, but do be careful when riding in the car! All of these are small things, but each time I make a choice not to use plastic I feel I’m doing good. 
  • Eating less sugar. Over a decade ago I started eating fewer bad carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, and potatoes. The past couple of years I’ve made a point of eating less red meat. My focus this year is sugar. I know, my husband often reminds me that sugar is a carbohydrate, but it was so hard to eat less of my beloved bread and potatoes that I conveniently excluded candy and desserts from the category. This year I’m trying my best to eat less sugar.

What about you? Want to join me in embracing less but better? Maybe you’d like to spend less time scrolling through social media or in meetings that aren’t necessary. Where could choosing less make a positive difference in your life?

Jan 21 19

Deep Work for Well-Being

by Beth

In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task is an essential skill for success. I would add that deep work is also a skill that can build greater well-being.

Deep work includes things like reading, writing, and thinking. Shallow work refers to non-cognitively demanding tasks that can be done while distracted, like answering emails or formatting documents.

Deep work is linked to well-being through its impact on learning, flow, and meaningful work.

Learning – Many models of well-being include either learning or growing as key factors for thriving. Learning exposes us to new ideas and helps us stay curious. It also gives us a sense of accomplishment and boosts our self-confidence. People who keeping learning throughout their lives have greater ability to cope with stress and report more feelings of hope and purpose.

Flow – When we experience flow, we lose our sense of self, forgetting about our worries and concerns, our sense of time is distorted, the experience is intrinsically rewarding, and our performance soars. Athletes describe it as being “in the zone”. They are achieving personal bests, yet their performance feels effortless.

Meaningful work – Having a sense that your life is meaningful is one of the most important factors for well-being. People who have meaning in their lives are happier and are more engaged in their work. They experience less stress, anxiety, and depression. Making progress on meaningful goals that are important, but not urgent often requires deep work.

Unfortunately, the ability to do deep work is a rare skill today. Most of us go through our lives in a state of continuous partial attention. Technology prevents us from focusing. One of Newport’s tips for deep work is to schedule blocks of hard but important intellectual work on your calendar. You should include where and how long you will work. Ninety minutes is a good goal. Eliminating distractions like email and social media is also key. Close your email, put your phone away, and turn off notifications.

Deep work requires discipline, but it can significantly impact your success and well-being. Many leaders, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, follow the 5-hour rule, dedicating 5 hours a week for deliberate learning. What about you? Do you schedule time to focus on meaningful work that lets you experience flow and continue to learn and grow? Why not start now?

Dec 12 18

How Meaning and Purpose Differ

by Beth

Meaning in life is a critical component of well-being. Research has made this very clear. What isn’t as clear is exactly what meaning is and how we can build a more meaningful life. Fortunately, research is converging on some answers.

Michael Steger is a psychologist who has dedicated his work to the topic of meaning in life. He explains that meaning comes from reflectively interpreting your life and that there are three dimensions you can reflect upon: 1) sense of coherence, 2) purpose in life, and 3) significance.  

Coherence is interpreting your life in a way that makes sense. You understand who you are and how you fit into the world. Purpose is an overarching aim for your life. It gives you goals and a sense of direction. Significance is the feeling that your life matters because it is worthwhile or valuable. You can think of coherence as being a cognitive dimension of meaning in life, purpose as motivational, and significance as evaluative.

Sources of meaning are different from these three dimensions through which we experience meaning. Sources of meaning are what impact these dimensions. Meaning in life is very personal and we draw meaning from different sources. Each of us has had different experiences that we need to make sense of in our own ways. What gives me a sense of significance will be different from what you find to be worthwhile. You might have a clear purpose that contributes to your sense of meaning, while I may experience meaning through my relationships, my spirituality, or living authentically.

Meaning in life is a broader concept than purpose. Having a purpose can enhance your sense of meaning, but you don’t have to have a single, all-encompassing purpose in order to experience meaning. It is more likely that you have multiple, small scale purposes or goals that change over time. So don’t worry if you haven’t “found your purpose”. There are many other ways to have a meaningful life.

The key is to make more of the moments in your life matter. Spend time learning and growing in order to realize your potential. Nurture your relationships. Find ways to be of service to others. What will you do to make life more meaningful in the coming year?

Nov 15 18

Do Talk to Strangers

by Beth

Researchers Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder conducted a study where they asked some of the participants to engage in conversation with a stranger on their commute. Those participants reported having a more positive experience than the ones who were asked not to interact with anyone. In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Fredrickson explains how micro-moments of connection boost our well-being.

Yet most of us are reluctant to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Two common reasons for this are that we either don’t think the other person wants to talk or we feel awkward because we don’t know what to say.

Epley and Schroeder found in a related study that people tend to underestimate a stranger’s interest in talking. We all have a basic need to belong, to feel connected to others, so don’t assume people don’t want to talk.

Now what about your fear of experiencing awkwardness? In her book Cringeworthy, Melissa Dahl defines awkwardness as “self-consciousness with this undercurrent of uncertainty”. She believes there is value in experiencing awkward moments. They help you to grow by realizing they aren’t as terrible as you may think.

If you do experience a cringeworthy moment, recognize that awkwardness is something everyone has experienced. Who hasn’t tripped in public, had a conversation with food in their teeth, or walked around with toilet paper on their shoe?

Dahl suggests using humor to deal with awkwardness. Turn your experience into a funny story that you can use to connect with others by bonding over our mutual human absurdity. It may also help to realize that not as many people as you think notice the embarrassing things you do. Studies of the “spotlight effect” show that people don’t pay nearly as much attention to us as we think they do.

Try to be more attuned to moments where you can connect with others. Dare to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the subway, or in an elevator, or standing in line behind you. You will likely both be happier as a result!

Oct 16 18

How to Expand Your Sense of Time

by Beth

Do you feel like time is rushing by too fast? I’m guessing that’s something most of us have in common. Our hectic, over-scheduled lives leave us feeling pressed for time. Time also seems to go faster and faster as we age. Have you ever wondered why? I think the answer is fascinating!

In her TED Talk, psychologist Lila Davachi explains how our sense of time is influenced by our memories. The more memory units we have of an experience, the longer that experience seems. When we are young, much of what we do is new or exciting and we are more likely to remember these types of experiences. As we age, life becomes more routine. Our brains compress these repetitive experiences into fewer memory units, so our estimates of time shrink. Days full of routines run together.

This means you can alter your sense of time by making more memories. An experience that’s very eventful may feel like it’s passing quickly in the moment, but because it generates more memories that time will expand. Time management expert Laura Vanderkam found that people who reported feeling they had more time were more likely to have done something interesting that day. Making memories gave them the sense of having more time. Another study showed that people who experience awe feel like they have more time.

If you’d like to expand your sense of time, add some adventure to your days. By adventure I don’t mean climbing Mount Everest. Doing anything novel will give you the feeling of more time. Eat in a different restaurant, go to the theater, read a new book, learn a new skill, meet new people, park in a different lot. Or try something potentially awe inspiring, like visiting an art exhibit, spending time in nature, or watching a sports event.

Shaking up your daily routine keeps things interesting. It can also provide meaningful experiences that will make your life more memorable and time more expansive.

Sep 21 18

4 Ways to Experience More Joy

by Beth

Experiencing frequent positive emotions is an important aspect of well-being. Joy is a positive emotion that I’d like to experience more often. What about you? Here are a few ways to build more joy into your life:

  1. Savor joyful moments – When you experience a happy moment, notice it, feel it fully, and try to hold on to it for a few seconds before getting distracted by something else. Say to yourself, “Isn’t this great?” We are often so busy that we don’t take time to appreciate the moments of joy that we do experience. Savoring is a way of enhancing and prolonging positive experiences. According to Brené Brown, sometimes when we experience joy we start to worry that what caused our joy might be taken away. She calls this dress-rehearsing tragedy. I am definitely guilty of this. I used to think I would jinx something good if I were too happy about it. Now I make a point to practice gratitude each time I experience joy.
  2. Reminisce about joyful moments – According to psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener, your happiest days are behind you. In his TEDx talk he explains that while you can’t control when you will next experience a moment of joy, you can recall a happy memory to feel joy at any time. Reminiscing lets you experience joy more often. One trick to make it easier to access happy memories is to play a specific song during a joyful moment, like a vacation. This will make the memory stickier or easier to recall.
  3. Anticipate joyful moments – Looking forward to something good generates positive emotions. I just finished planning a family trip for the Christmas holidays. I enjoyed sharing the news with the kids, because I knew they would be excited about the trip and that thinking about it would bring them joy. One study found the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks. Planning things that you can look forward to is another way of experiencing more moments of joy in your life. Research shows that anticipation leads to more intense emotions than reminiscing.
  4. Celebrate the joy of others – It is natural to feel jealous at times when someone else experiences success. But a better way to respond is to share in their joy. Try not to compare yourself to others. That is a sure way to reduce the amount of joy you experience. Instead, use the good fortune of others to experience more joy yourself. Sharing in their happiness can elevate your own mood. So celebrate with them!

Aug 20 18

Why You Should Take More Breaks

by Beth

According to Anne Lamott, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Human beings are not machines. We need down time in order to function at our best. Constantly being on with no time to rest or disconnect negatively impacts our productivity, health, and relationships. Yet society today pushes us to go, go, go. We feel guilty if we aren’t doing something productive and we pride ourselves in being busy. The ideal employee is available 24/7.

This has to stop! We need to take breaks throughout the day, disconnect from work when we are home, and go on vacations.

We perform better when we take breaks. In his book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz proposes a 90-minute work cycle for maximizing productivity. He cites a study of violinists in which the top performers typically practiced for three sessions, none of them longer than 90 minutes, with breaks between each session.

In his book, When, Dan Pink identifies five rules for restorative breaks: 1) something beats nothing, 2) moving beats stationary, 3) social beats solo, 4) outside beats inside, and 5) fully detached beats semi-detached, meaning don’t think about work or use your phone during your break.

We also need to disconnect from work when we are home, using the time to connect with family and friends, engage in fun activities or relaxing pastimes, and go to bed early enough to get a good night’s sleep.

Vacations are also important. Yet according to a survey of over 2,200 U.S. employees, only 54 percent take their paid vacation time. In another study of Millennials, 59 percent reported feeling a sense of shame for taking or planning a vacation.

Not taking vacations has serious mental and physical health consequences. Men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to die of a heart attack. Women who don’t take vacations are 50 percent more likely to die of a heart attack and 2 to 8 times more likely to suffer from depression. The risk of burnout is also higher if you don’t take vacations.

We need to change the way we think about breaks. Breaks help us to be our best selves. The ideal employee is the one who goes for a walk outside in the middle of the afternoon, doesn’t send emails from home at night, and comes back tan and rested after a week at the beach. Is that you?

Jul 16 18

Your Words Impact Your Well-Being

by Beth

Last summer I heard a talk by Johannes Eichstaedt. He discussed the research he and his colleagues are doing as part of Penn’s World Well-Being Project. They are using language in social media to measure psychological and physical well-being around the world. It’s fascinating!

They analyze tweets to correlate words with outcomes. The difference among words that predict male versus female users is pretty funny. But on a more serious note, they have found associations between word use and things like depression and heart disease. Twitter can actually predict life satisfaction and positive emotions better than income.

The correlational nature of the research means it’s impossible to determine whether a situation leads to word choice or vice versa, but there is evidence that the words we use can impact our well-being. Your language influences your thoughts. If you tell yourself you are stressed, you are sending that message to your brain. Your brain will respond by secreting the stress hormone cortisol, and too much cortisol hurts your health by increasing inflammation. Constantly telling yourself you are stressed reinforces the neural networks associated with stress. This makes them stronger, which means your brain is more likely to generate stressful thoughts.

I read a study a few years ago where researchers found that telling people they had gotten a good night’s sleep positively impacted their performance, while telling them they had slept poorly had a negative impact on their performance. I used to spend the day complaining after a night of not sleeping well. Since reading about the study, I try my best not to think about it when I’ve slept poorly. I can definitely tell the difference. Not talking about how tired I am helps me feel more energized despite a lack of sleep.

In Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Newberg and Waldman explain how a single word can impact your brain. Positive words promote cognitive brain function, while negative words activate the fight-or-flight response, which hinders cognitive function.

We all know that our words can impact others. It’s also important to recognize the power that our words can have over our own well-being.

Jun 15 18

Smartphone Use Impairs Focus and Memory

by Beth

In her book, How to Break up with Your Phone, Catherine Price presents research showing the negative impact smartphone use can have on our brains.

In order to focus, our brains have to ignore distractions. This is hard to do because our brains are wired to look for and pay attention to novelty. The links, ads, and apps on our phones make ignoring distractions virtually impossible. And the more we give in to distractions, the more we reinforce the neural circuits associated with a lack of attention. That means the more we read online, the better we become at not staying focused.

Smartphone use also hurts our memory and capacity for deep thought. To start with, every minute you spend looking at your phones is a minute you are not attending to the world around you. So those are memories you won’t have.

Next, what you are paying attention to at each moment is held in your working memory. In order to convert that information into a long-term memory, your brain has to use mental energy to connect the information to schemas, which are networks of other connected memories. The more schemas a memory is connected to, the greater your capacity for complex thought.

Your working memory can only hold a few things at once. When it becomes overloaded, your ability to connect information to schemas is impaired. Smartphone use overloads your working memory, which means it’s harder for your brain to transfer information to long-term memory. So, basically, you are less likely to remember things.

Kinda scary, huh? I’d rather not do something that hurts my focus, memory formation, and ability for complex thinking. On the other hand, I’m not willing to stop using my phone. Instead, I’m working to change my relationship with it. I am trying to be more intentional about when and why I use it.

My first step was to download an app to track my phone use. It’s already helping! It lets me see how much time I spend on my phone and it sometimes asks me if I really want to unlock my screen. Sometimes I do, but other times I realize I’m just bored and I choose to put it away.

How about you? Would you like to change your relationship with your phone?