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Mar 20 18

Be Happy in Spite of

by Beth

People are often surprised to hear that we get happier as we age. It seems like a paradox, because old age is filled with aches and pains and losses. But it’s true! Older people experience as many positive emotions as younger people, but fewer negative ones.

In his book, Happiness is a Choice You Make, John Leland discusses many of the reasons our happiness increases as we age. One is that older people are “happy in spite of”. Many of us think we will be “happy if only” all of the bad things would go away or “happy when” we achieve a specific goal. Older people have learned that there will always be bad things, but they can choose to be happy in spite of them.

Studies show that older people experience more mixed emotions. They can be sad about some things, while being happy about others at the same time. They have learned that life doesn’t have to be all good to be good. You can be happy despite negative circumstances. It depends on your attitude and what you choose to focus on.

Older people know that life is too short to wait around for happiness. They don’t let small stressors get them down. They have figured out what makes them happy and spend more time doing those things.

Fortunately, you don’t have to grow old to be happy in spite of. You can change your mindset right now by recognizing that happiness won’t magically come when you graduate or when you get married or when you lose five pounds or when you can afford a bigger house. You can be happy now – in spite of any problems you might be facing.

Be grateful for what is good in your life. Savor happy moments. Do what you love. Help someone. Appreciate your family and friends. And don’t waste time on worry or regret.

Stop waiting to be happy when and start being happy in spite of!

Feb 16 18

What’s Your AQ?

by Beth

A lot has been written about the importance of IQ, your intelligence quotient, and EQ, your emotional quotient, for success. A lesser-known quotient, your AQ, can also have a big impact on performance and happiness. AQ is your adaptability quotient or your ability to adapt to and thrive in an environment of change. Despite the fact that “change is the only constant,” many of us have trouble accepting and dealing with it.

People with a high AQ recognize the need for change and adjust accordingly. This helps them to be more resilient, which boosts both their success and their well-being. When a situation changes, you may need to adapt your plan or possibly even move on to another goal. The sooner you recognize the need for change and take action, the more successful you will be. You will also be happier, because much of our unhappiness comes from wishing something were different than it is. Accepting that things have changed and choosing to move forward can minimize your suffering.

Here are some tips for increasing your AQ:

  1. try to accept change, rather than fight it, by reminding yourself that change is inevitable
  2. alter your mindset to view change as making progress, something exciting, or an opportunity to learn
  3. think about different ways to achieve your goals so that you will be ready to change direction if necessary
  4. stay open to the possibility that you might need to choose a different goal and that’s OK
  5. keep your focus on the things that you can control
  6. make sure you have a strong social network who you can turn to for support

People with a high AQ accept that change is inevitable and recognize that the sooner they adjust to a new reality, the better.

Jan 16 18

Use Design Thinking for Positive Change

by Beth

Are there things you’d like to do differently in 2018? According to one study, only 9% of people achieve their New Year’s resolution. We often give up trying to change our behavior because of the way our brains react to failure. Let’s say you resolve to go to the gym before work 3 days a week. Then, as luck would have it, the East Coast is hit by a “bomb cyclone” of freezing temperatures and you just can’t force yourself to face the frigid morning air, so you miss a day or two. Your brain considers this a failure, and, in an attempt to prevent you from wasting time repeating a failed behavior, it will suppress your motivation to try again.

Design thinking can empower you to make positive change that will stick. It’s the creative process used by designers like architects or engineers to solve problems. Design thinking is iterative, meaning it’s a repetitive process of making small improvements to come up with a better design. This means there is no failure; each stage in the process becomes a starting point for a better solution.

Using design thinking can trick your mind, making it easier to change your behavior. If your goal of going to the gym 3 mornings a week isn’t working, you haven’t failed, you just need to come up with a way to improve your plan. Maybe you’ll be more likely to go in the afternoon when it isn’t so cold and dark. Or perhaps you should pay in advance for a month’s worth of exercise classes. Or promise to meet a friend at a certain time.

Don’t approach your goals with the expectation that you will succeed. Expect that you will need to tweak and adjust things as you go along. Thinking of your goal as something that will continually evolve prevents you from experiencing failure, which keeps you motivated. Even when you come up with a plan that works, circumstances will change and at some point you will need to adjust your plan again. Use design thinking to make small, continual, positive changes as you build a better life.

If you’d like to learn more, here are a couple of books to check out:

Designing Your Life and Well Designed Life

Dec 12 17

Wishing You a Phubbing Free Holiday

by Beth

I love to celebrate the holidays by giving and receiving presents. But this year, I’m going to do my best to also give the gift of presence. The holidays offer many of us the chance to spend time with family and friends, but technology can prevent us from connecting in a meaningful way.

Have you heard of “phubbing”? It’s a new word that refers to snubbing someone by checking your phone. It was popularized by an advertising campaign in Australia in 2012 that encouraged people to “Stop phubbing”. A few years later, researchers in the United States surveyed people to determine the effects of phubbing on relationships. Forty-six percent of respondents said their partners phubbed them, and 23 percent said it caused problems in their relationship. In another survey of women who were in a romantic relationship, 62 percent reported that their partner phubbed them daily.

Checking text messages and social media on our phones is an addictive behavior. Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, has admitted that the site was designed to create something addictive by exploiting “a vulnerability in human psychology”. A former vice-president at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, recently admitted feeling guilty for his part in creating “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”. I use Facebook and I love that it lets me keep in touch with family and friends who live far away. But I do make an effort to limit the amount of time I spend on it.

Most of us don’t realize just how much time we spend on our phones. Our son downloaded an app that tells him how often he checks his phone and how much time he has spent on it each day. This is a great way to become more aware of your behavior. You will likely be shocked if you decide to give it a try.

My wish for everyone this holiday season is that we all make an effort to limit the amount of time we spend on our phones, so that we can enjoy quality time connecting with our loved ones. If you can’t resist the temptation, leave your phone at home or in another room. Or download an app that will help you stop using your apps. Notice how nice it is to give your brain a break and to see how much the people around you appreciate the gift of your presence.

Nov 13 17

Finding Flow

by Beth

Flow is a mental state that occurs when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you are completely immersed in the moment. You lose your sense of self, forgetting about your worries and concerns, and your sense of time is distorted. Athletes describe it as being “in the zone”.

Experiencing flow is good for our well-being and our success. The actual state of flow is void of emotion. We are so wrapped up in the moment that we don’t notice how we are feeling. Yet on reflection, people report having enjoyed the experience. This makes flow a powerful source of intrinsic motivation.

Neurochemicals are released in our brains when we experience flow, helping us to learn better. In a study done by DARPA, military snipers who were trained while in a state of flow learned 230 percent faster than normal. The focus that accompanies flow can dramatically improve performance. According to a 10-year study by McKinsey, top executives were five times more productive when they were in flow.

There are three main conditions for achieving flow. First, skills must be well matched to the challenge of the task. When a challenge exceeds our level of skill, we become anxious and stressed. Alternatively, if the task is too easy for our skill level, we become bored and distracted. A balance between the two produces a degree of focus and satisfaction, which makes the experience enjoyable and contributes to optimal performance.

Second, we need clear goals with feedback regarding progress. Goals give direction and structure to the task, and feedback helps us adjust our performance in order to maintain the flow state. Playing sports or video games are often associated with flow because they provide both a clear goal and feedback.

The third condition is to eliminate distractions. Studies show that it takes up to twenty minutes of focus before you become fully immersed in an activity. So you have to shut down email and social media and put away your phone in order to maintain focus.

See if you can find more opportunities to experience flow. Find an activity that you enjoy and that requires a certain level of focus. This can be anything: a project at work, a hobby, or cooking dinner. Eliminate distractions and commit to it for at least 20 minutes. You’ll appreciate the way it makes you feel and the sense of accomplishment you will gain!

Oct 17 17

How Curiosity Helps You Learn

by Beth

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”  – Albert Einstein

Did you know that curiosity helps you learn better? It also makes learning more fun.

That’s because curiosity impacts your brain activity and chemistry. In one study, psychologists gave volunteers over 100 trivia questions and asked them to rate how curious they were to know the answers to each question. Then they used an fMRI machine to monitor the brain activity of the volunteers while they reviewed the questions and their answers.

Results showed greater activity in the area of the brain responsible for memory formation for the questions people had been more curious about. The participants were later tested on the trivia questions, and they were more likely to remember the right answers to the high-curiosity questions.

What’s even more interesting is that the researchers included random pictures of people’s faces in between some of the questions and answers. Participants were also given a memory test for those faces, and results showed that recognition was higher for faces that had been presented during states of high curiosity.

This means that curiosity puts our brain into a learning mode, which helps us learn the things we are motivated to learn and anything else there is to learn in that moment. So teachers can make it easier for students to learn math by using problems that are tailored to their interests.

The brain scans also showed that the region of the brain associated with reward and pleasure was activated when people were curious. Dopamine, a feel-good chemical, is released in the brain when we perceive something to be novel, uncertain, or challenging. So we experience higher levels of dopamine when we are curious about something.

All of this points to the value of stimulating curiosity to enhance learning. Schools and workplaces alike will benefit from tapping into people’s natural curiosity when designing learning experiences. Start with questions that will spark curiosity.

What are you interested in? How can you use that to learn more yourself?

Sep 11 17

Focus on the Positive to Build Your Well-Being

by Beth

I gave a TEDx talk at George Mason University yesterday. The title of my talk was “How Focus Builds Well-Being”. I’ve been studying well-being for many years now, and what I’ve learned is that our well-being is up to us. It depends on what we pay attention to, what we focus on.

I highlighted three things that you can choose to focus on in order to build your well-being: people, the positive, and the present moment. Nurturing my relationships, directing my attention to what is good, and spending more of my time focused on the present moment have all boosted my own well-being. Research shows that these things can help us all to thrive.

The last few weeks I’ve been working especially hard to stay focused on the positive. My husband and I have just become empty nesters. Our son is in Paris and our daughter is in Boston. And our house is very quiet.

There are so many small things each day that remind me that our children are gone. I miss them so much! It would be easy for me to focus on their absence. But I know that I have a choice. So I choose to focus on the positive.

Alex and Emily are both so happy! Each time I talk to them I hear it in their voices and in the stories they share. They are enjoying their classes, their new friendships, and their new experiences. So I choose to focus on their joy.

And I choose to focus on the fact that my husband and I did our job. As parents, our job was to prepare our children to become happy, well-adjusted, independent adults. It was the hardest, longest, most frustrating, and most rewarding job I’ve ever had. And we did it!

I also choose to focus on the exciting new chapter that my husband and I are entering in our lives. We both have work that we love and that we can pursue now with less guilt about not always being there for the kids. And we have more time to nurture our relationship and enjoy our own new experiences. It’s going to be great!

Aug 29 17

Why Sleep is so Important

by Beth

As summer winds down, our lives start to get busy again. The demands of work, school, and other activities can make it hard to get enough sleep. And that can hurt your well-being. A lack of sleep causes anxiety and depression and impairs your brain functioning. It also weakens your immune system and contributes to weight gain.

These are all good reasons to make an effort to get more sleep, but what happens to your brain when it’s asleep may convince you even more. During sleep your brain creates and organizes memories. Throughout the day your brain encodes memories, but they aren’t stored for the long-term until you go to sleep. Your brain also processes complex information while you sleep. This explains why we learn something better after sleeping on it. It’s never a good idea to pull an all-nighter. If you stay up late trying to learn more, a lack of sleep will keep you from remembering it the next day.

Another really important function of sleep is the cleaning out of toxins in your brain. Researchers injected dye into the brains of mice and discovered that when they were asleep the dye flowed rapidly, but it barely flowed at all when the mice were awake. That’s because the space between their brain cells and ours increases by 60 percent when we sleep. This allows toxic proteins that are by-products of neural activity when we are awake to be cleared from the brain. Not getting enough sleep can prevent your brain from flushing out toxins that may contribute to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night should be a priority. Here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Turn off televisions, smartphones, laptops, and tablets at least 30 minutes before going to bed to limit your exposure to blue light.
  • Don’t bring your phone into your bedroom. Buy an alarm clock if you need one.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime.
  • Keep your sleeping environment dark, quiet, and cool.
  • Set an alarm clock to go to bed. Work backwards from when you need to wake up to make sure you will get 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
Jul 26 17

Protect Your Telomeres to Live Longer

by Beth

I recently attended the World Congress on Positive Psychology in Montreal, Canada. It was exciting to hear about the latest research being done in the field. I was especially intrigued by the studies that Elissa Epel presented regarding the effects of stress on cellular aging.

Epel and her colleague, Elizabeth Blackburn, have written a book called The Telomere Effect. In it they describe the role of telomeres in the aging process and identify positive psychology interventions that can protect telomeres to slow disease and lengthen lives.

Telomeres are protective end caps on our DNA. The process of cell division causes them to shorten throughout our lives, but stress and other conditions can make them shorten more rapidly. The shorter our telomeres, the higher our risk of disease, including heart disease, cancer, and dementia, which leads to a shorter life.

Epel discussed her research on parents experiencing the stress of caring for chronically sick children. Results show that the way we respond to stress affects our telomeres. According to diary entries, caregivers who ruminated more about their situation, demonstrating a threat response to stress rather than a challenge response, had shorter telomeres. Caregivers who participated in a mindfulness retreat showed a significant increase in the length of their telomeres in just three weeks!

Here are some other steps you can take to protect your telomeres:

  • Be social. Social connections lower your stress levels, which prevents telomere shortening.
  • Move. Sedentary behavior is associated with shorter telomeres. Exercise appears to have the greatest impact when you are stressed.
  • Get enough sleep. People who sleep more, at least seven hours, have longer telomeres.
  • Look on the bright side. Optimism is strongly associated with longer telomeres.
  • Eat a Mediterranean diet. Foods that lower inflammation, like vegetables, fruits, fatty fish, olive oil, and nuts, prevent telomere shortening.
Jun 13 17

Arts and Nature; A Double Dose of Well-Being

by Beth

My husband and I recently attended a concert with friends at Wolf Trap. Located in Vienna, Virginia, Wolf Trap is the only performing arts center that is also a national park. The 117-acre park offers recreational activities, dining venues, and over 80 performances in a majestic outdoor amphitheater each summer.

We love attending events at Wolf Trap and as I swayed to the music and looked over at the lush forest beyond the sloping green lawn, I realized that Wolf Trap is built around two key factors for well-being: arts and nature.

The link between nature and well-being is clear. Studies show that exposure to nature reduces stress, boosts mood, and increases mindfulness. Research at Berkeley found that after standing in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees, people were significantly more likely to help someone who dropped something as they passed by. Being in nature activates the region of the brain associated with empathy and love, which inspires feelings of compassion.

There is growing evidence of the impact of arts on well-being. The arts can reduce stress and increase learning and creativity. They bring people together, and social connection and community are critical for well-being. A recent study of low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in New York City found that the neighborhoods with greater cultural resources had lower crime rates, fewer cases of child abuse and neglect, and children with higher test scores.

The arts and nature can both provide awe-inspiring experiences. Awe gives us a sense of hope and meaning. It also has health benefits, like decreasing inflammation.

Unfortunately, people are spending less time in nature these days and when we are outside our attention is often focused on our smartphones. People are also attending fewer arts events. Summer is a great time to enjoy the beautiful outdoors and there are many places where you can attend concerts in parks or amphitheaters. Do yourself a favor and make plans to see a show!