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Jul 9 24

Embracing Awe

by Beth

I wrote a blog about awe just before the Rio Olympics. Anticipating the Olympics in Paris has made me think about awe again. In his book on the topic, Dacher Keltner defines awe as “the emotion we experience when we encounter vast mysteries that we don’t understand.” It brings us joy, meaning, and a sense of community. Awe is linked to increased creativity, enhanced cognitive capacities, and greater kindness and compassion.

When you experience awe, your sense of self disappears. You feel like you are a small part of something much larger. Keltner demonstrated this in a study where one group of people spent time in Yosemite National Park and another group visited Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. When he asked the participants to draw themselves on a piece of paper, the self-drawings of the people looking at the awesome view of the park were 33 percent smaller than those of the people looking at the wharf.

Experiencing awe reduces our stress levels. We ruminate less about the past and worry less about the future because awe helps put these concerns into perspective. Feeling part of a larger whole can also reduce the loneliness that so many people experience today.

Keltner identifies eight wonders of life that can inspire awe:

  1. moral beauty – acts of kindness, strength, courage, and overcoming obstacles by others
  2. collective effervescence – shared experiences during events, like concerts or graduations
  3. nature
  4. music
  5. visual design, art, and architecture
  6. spirituality and religion
  7. epiphanies – moments when we learn something profound that reshapes our world view
  8. life and death

Research shows that people experience awe two to three times a week. The most common source of awe is moral beauty. Here are some ways to up your awe:

  1. Watch the Olympics – the remarkable physical and mental strength displayed by the athletes and the challenges they overcome is truly awe inspiring
  2. Attend a live sporting event – in addition to witnessing the moral beauty demonstrated by the athletes, you will experience the collective effervescence of watching and celebrating together with others
  3. Take an awe walk – spending time in nature and focusing on trees, water, a sunrise, a sunset, or the night sky reminds you of the vast mysteries of the natural world (watching a National Geographic documentary also works)
  4. Go to a live concert – you will be awed by the complexity of the music, the emotions you feel, and the collective effervescence you experience while moving in unison with others
  5. Visit a museum – looking at art can stir your emotions, cause you to see the world in a different way, and connect you to something larger than yourself
  6. Read books or watch movies of inspiring people

Regular doses of awe can boost your well-being. What will you do to bring more awe into your life?

May 20 24

Just Add Water

by Beth

Over the years, I’ve learned that any time I feel a headache coming on, if I drink water, it almost always goes away. Headaches are one of the many ways dehydration can negatively impact our physical and mental health.

Dehydration can lead to lower blood pressure. When this happens your heart rate increases to maintain blood flow, which can strain your cardiovascular system. It also causes the headache. Dehydration puts stress on your kidneys, impairs muscle function, can lead to heat exhaustion or heatstroke, and negatively impacts digestion and nutrient absorption.

Dehydration also affects mental health. It has been linked to anxiety, depression, fatigue, difficulty focusing, and confusion. Not drinking enough water can cause a decrease in the mood regulating hormone serotonin. One study of over 3,000 adults found those who drank more water had a lower risk of anxiety and depression. Another study found when people drank less water than usual, they felt less happy and more tense. Dehydration can cause neurons to die off, which negatively impacts memory and cognition. This can happen quickly, which is why people lost in the desert often make poor decisions.

How much water we need depends on age, weight, climate, and activity level. Rather than trying to drink a specific amount of water each day, focus on drinking water throughout the day. I start my day with a big glass of water to help my body recover from overnight dehydration. Sometimes when you have a hunger craving you are actually thirsty. That’s because the hunger center and thirst center are very close to one another in the brain. If you have a craving, drink a glass of water first to see if that satisfies it.

In addition to water, coffee and tea, especially green tea, are healthy beverages that can help you stay hydrated. They both have high levels of polyphenols and anti-oxidants that contribute to health and longevity. Consuming coffee or green tea regularly may reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and dementia.

Drinking plenty of water is a simple thing that is so important for your physical and mental health. Making sure to drink enough water, coffee, or tea throughout the day is an easy step that you can take to positively impact your well-being. As summer approaches it is even more critical to make sure you are staying hydrated!

Apr 22 24

How Rituals Make Life Better

by Beth

I’ve written before about the many routines that I’ve incorporated into my daily life. They make it easier for me to remember to do things that are good for my well-being. These routines bring me closer to my goals.

So how are rituals different from routines? According to Harvard professor Michael Norton, routines are something we do, whereas rituals are about how we do them. They are “emotional catalysts that energize, inspire, and elevate us.” Rituals add something to our lives that enriches them, helping us savor our experiences. They impact us on an emotional level.

In his book, The Ritual Effect, Norton gives many examples of rituals. There are traditional rituals that have been passed down for centuries, like religious events, rites of passage, or tea ceremonies. There are also rituals that have been newly created by individuals, couples, or groups. Maybe it’s eating a square of dark chocolate after dinner or walking to the farmer’s market with your spouse every Saturday morning or using a special plate for family birthdays.

Rituals can help us feel more in control when facing challenging situations. They can increase feelings of trust in relationships. Rituals can help alleviate performance anxiety. Family rituals can increase our sense of belonging. And rituals can give us a greater sense of meaning in life.

The same set of behaviors can be viewed as a routine by one person and as a ritual by another. We can also change the way we think about our behaviors. I’m trying to be more mindful of some of my routines so that I can shift from a “habit” mindset to a “ritual” mindset. According to Norton, focusing on how I perform these daily behaviors can bring more pleasure and purpose, and maybe even a bit of magic, to my life.

Mar 26 24

Why We Can’t Get Enough

by Beth

Most of us know what we should do and what we shouldn’t do to be happier and healthier. Yet knowing is a lot easier than doing. Despite being aware that certain behaviors aren’t good for us, we keep doing them. We struggle to make short-term sacrifices that would reap benefits in the long run. Why? Because we aren’t wired that way.

In his book, Scarcity Brain, Michael Easter describes how our brains developed in times of scarcity, where survival depended on taking as much as we could get when we were lucky enough to find it. Unfortunately, a scarcity mindset is maladapted to our current world of abundance. This evolutionary mismatch affects many of our behaviors ranging from overeating to excessive phone use to overspending.

The scarcity loop is a three-part habit cycle: 1) opportunity is the chance to gain something of value, 2) unpredictable rewards entails the suspense of knowing you’ll probably get a reward, but you don’t know when or what it will be, and 3) quick repeatability means the behavior can be repeated rapidly which reinforces the loop. Casino slot machines are a perfect example of the scarcity loop in action.

Our brains developed this behavior cycle when food was scarce. Those who survived were motivated to repeat a behavior over and over until they found a bush with berries or an animal to chase down. With an abundance of food, the scarcity loop causes us to overeat. In addition to food, humans crave information, things, and influence. That’s why the scarcity loop also drives us to scroll through social media, buy products online that have a limited-time discount, and swipe-swipe-swipe on dating apps.

Recognizing how the scarcity loop affects your behavior is the first step in trying to tame it. Being mindful can help you notice when you’re caught in the cycle. You can stop the loop by removing the opportunity, removing the reward, or slowing the repetition.

Removing junk food from my house means I don’t have the opportunity to eat it. Cooking my meals and eating whole foods makes repetition much slower than grabbing take-out or a bag of chips. Keeping my phone in another room removes the opportunity to check it constantly. You can also leverage the scarcity loop to do things that are good for you. Having healthy food in your home increases the opportunity to eat it. Taking different routes when you run can make the experience more unpredictable.

The next time you reach for one more cookie or click on next episode, pause to remind your scarcity brain that you may already have enough.

Feb 15 24

Realizing Your Potential to Achieve Success

by Beth

Adam Grant wants us to redefine success as how far we’ve come rather than how well we are doing in comparison to others. “The true measure of success is not the height if the peak you’ve reached, but how far you’ve climbed to get there.” He also wants us to place less value on innate ability and to celebrate learning instead. We can all work to become better. Amen to both!

Yet both suggestions are easier said than done. Social comparison is a natural human tendency and learning is hard! First, we need to make intentional efforts to remind ourselves what our ability level was in the past, so we can appreciate what we have achieved. We also need to make the pursuit of mastery a little easier. Grant provides several suggestions for this in his book Hidden Potential:

1) Embrace discomfort – We learn by challenging ourselves and this requires doing things outside our comfort zone. Struggling to learn a foreign language is a great example. When I was learning Spanish, I was so embarrassed by how poorly I spoke. But I knew the only way to get better was to keep speaking it despite how uncomfortable I felt.

2) Have fun – Another key to building skills is to have fun. Deliberate play is a way to structure learning so that it’s enjoyable. You can add variety by changing up the routine or turn learning into a game. When you make learning fun, you are more likely to stick with it.

3) Reject perfectionism – Perfectionists obsess about details that don’t matter, avoid challenges that might lead to failure, and berate themselves for mistakes. All three of these are major impediments to learning. We do much better when we strive for progress rather than perfection, understanding that mistakes are the path to growth.

4) Ask for and give advice – Feedback is focused on what you did right or wrong in the past. Advice focuses on what you can do better in the future so you can improve. Giving advice to others can also help you. We tend to give people advice that we could also use. Grant cites a study where high school students who gave advice to younger students earned better grades themselves.

You have the potential to achieve your goals. Celebrate the progress you’ve already made and keep learning!

Jan 11 24

New Year, New Habits

by Beth

Over the years, I’ve been adding well-being habits to my daily routine. Discovering the science of positive psychology led me to practice gratitude and start meditating to boost my happiness. After reading more about the negative impact of eating meat on my health and on the planet, I stopped eating meat. Learning about hormesis, that small amounts of stress enhance health and slow aging, led me to add habits like intermittent fasting, HIIT workouts, and cold showers to my routine.

This year I’m adding new habits to flatten my glucose curves. Reading the Glucose Revolution helped me understand the negative impact glucose spikes have on my health.

Eating carbs floods our bodies with glucose. Some of it is stored in the liver and muscles and the rest is stored as fat. When we eat more glucose than our cells need for energy, the result is a glucose spike. Spikes cause our cells to release free radicals. Too many free radicals lead to a state of oxidative stress, which causes heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cognitive decline, and aging. Bottom line, glucose spikes are not good for us!

But there is good news! You don’t have to give up carbs to avoid glucose spikes. There are several hacks you can use when eating starch or sugar to slow down the amount of and the speed at which glucose is absorbed. And that will flatten your curves.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Eat fiber first, then protein and fat, then carbs – There are three ways fiber reduces glucose absorption: 1) it slows gastric emptying, 2) it reduces the action of the enzyme that breaks starch down, and 3) it creates a mesh that makes it harder for glucose to enter the blood stream. Fat also slows gastric emptying.
  • Start with something green – Because fiber reduces glucose spikes, a good hack is to eat your veggie first. If are going to a restaurant or party and don’t plan to eat veggies, have a few baby carrots or something green before heading out.
  • Eat a savory breakfast – In a fasted state carbs are digested more quickly, so breakfast is the worst time to eat sugars and starches. A glucose spike from a sweet food is worse than from a starchy food because it also creates a fructose spike, so it’s better to have a savory breakfast.
  • Eat dessert, not a sweet snack – If you are craving something sweet, don’t have it alone as a snack. Wait until after a meal so the food you’ve eaten will minimize the glucose spike.
  • Don’t eat carbs alone – Just like eating sugar alone causes a much bigger spike, so does eating any carb alone. If you are going to eat a carb, add some fiber, protein, or fat. Put some butter or olive oil on your bread, add veggies to your pasta, eat some peanut butter with your apple or cheese with those crackers, have some nuts with your beer.
  • Move after you eat – Every muscle contraction burns up glucose, so moving after meals reduces spikes. Glucose goes to muscles instead of fat reserves. Go for a 10-to-20-minute walk after eating or do some push-ups, squats, or planks.
  • Add vinegar – Consuming vinegar flattens glucose spikes. The acetic acid in vinegar temporarily inactivates the enzyme that transforms sugar and starch into glucose, so it is absorbed more slowly. Choose vinaigrette for your salad. Drinking a tablespoon of vinegar with water or tea up to 20 minutes before or after your meal will also do the trick.

Flattening your glucose curves will not only make you healthier but you will experience fewer cravings, less hunger, and increased energy. Why not give it a try with some of these hacks?

Dec 15 23

Managing Expectations for Greater Happiness

by Beth

Have you ever heard the saying “happiness equals reality minus expectations”? It is true that expectations have a significant impact on our happiness. We are happier when reality is aligned with or slightly better than what we expected.

Denmark consistently ranks as the happiest country in the world. Researchers were curious as to why Danes are happier than people living in Sweden and Finland, countries that are similar to Denmark in many ways. They conducted a study comparing the countries and found that the biggest difference was that Danes have much lower expectations. Unrealistically high expectations, from parents and social media, may be contributing to the unhappiness younger generations are experiencing these days.

As we approach the holidays, trying to set realistic expectations can help us avoid disappointment. What are some of the expectations you have regarding gifts, food, relaxing, or everyone getting along? How likely is it that those expectations come true? Adjusting what you hope for so that it is more realistic can bring you greater joy over the holidays.

There is a caveat here, however. Realistic expectations are important for happiness, but so is anticipation. The excitement and positive emotions experienced while looking forward to something can add more joy to your life. Thinking about the upcoming holidays can boost your current happiness.

So what should you do? I think the best way to approach things is to make plans that you look forward to and to anticipate the joy you think those plans will bring. Yet try not to have specific expectations. You can anticipate the positive emotions you hope to feel, while avoiding imagining exactly how things will go.

I am very much looking forward to the holidays. I anticipate that having some time off and celebrating with my family will be wonderful. I expect to experience joyful moments together, to eat some delicious meals, and to make some happy memories. But realistically, I don’t expect everything will go according to plan. I will manage my expectations so that I won’t be too disappointed if our flight is delayed, or the weather is bad, or some of the meals aren’t that great. It won’t all be perfect, but there will be many moments of joy and looking forward to them puts a smile on my face!

Nov 13 23

Using Mindful Optimism to Stress Less

by Beth

In her book, The Mindful Body, Ellen Langer proposes that a mindless view of events causes stress. Stress relies on two things: 1) we assume something is going to happen and 2) when it does, that it’s going to be awful. She explains that we can reduce stress by challenging these two points. First, we can’t predict what is going to happen next. If we generate reasons why the event might not happen, we will feel better. Second, nothing is inherently positive or negative. Considering how something you think is negative might have hidden advantages can diminish stress. Instead of thinking this terrible thing is definitely going to happen, reflect on the fact that it may or may not happen and, if it does, there will be some positive aspects.

Defensive pessimism is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. We think by expecting something bad to happen that we will be in a better position to handle it, but our expectations can shape reality. Hoping for the best sounds nice, but it acknowledges that the worst is a real possibility. The stress caused by worrying the worst might happen can negatively impact your health, your effectiveness at work, and your relationships.

Mindful optimism is a better approach. You make a plan, then live fully in the moment with the expectation that everything will be fine. It’s like buying insurance. We can worry or we can relax, and things can turn out good or bad. Langer explains why it’s better to relax and expect the best. If things turn out well, you haven’t wasted time worrying. If things don’t turn out as you hoped, then you are stronger and better able to deal with it.

Making choices can be stressful. Understanding that the outcome of every decision is unpredictable can reduce stress. You should make the best decision based on the information you have with the understanding that there is never a single right choice. Langer suggests that rather than worrying about making the right decision, it is better to make the decision right. Choose a plan and then do everything needed for the plan to work. Regretting a decision makes no sense because you can never know if the choice not made would have been better.

Events don’t cause stress. Having a negative view of events causes stress. We often stress about daily hassles. When you feel stressed, ask yourself if it is a tragedy or just an inconvenience. And if you are worried about something, remind yourself that it may not happen and, if it does, it won’t be all negative.

Oct 16 23

Using Mindfulness to Improve Your Health

by Beth

For years, Ellen Langer’s research has fascinated me. She is a psychology professor at Harvard who studies mindfulness, which she defines as the process of actively noticing things. One of her first studies was the Counterclockwise study in the 1970s. She housed elderly men in a retreat that was “retrofitted to suggest that time had gone backward twenty years” and asked them “to behave like younger versions of themselves”.  A week later their vision, hearing, strength, and physical appearance had improved. She concluded that our minds determine our body’s health.

Langer’s latest book, The Mindful Body, summarizes her research to date supporting what she refers to as mind-body unity, that every thought affects every part of the body. Here are a few of her findings:

  • People who were labeled “low prediabetics” with a blood sugar level of 5.7 were significantly more likely to get diabetes than people labeled “high normal” with a level of 5.6.
  • Using clocks to make people think they had slept more or less time than they actually had, performance on a variety of physical measures was worse for those who thought they had only slept for five hours.
  • People who were told they had a “tiring” gene had less endurance and poorer lung capacity when running on a treadmill.
  • On a vision test using a standard eye chart, people could read lines they couldn’t before when the chart was reversed, putting the largest type at the bottom. When words get smaller it creates the expectation that at some point you won’t be able to see them.

Being more mindful of our bodies and experiences can have a positive impact on our health. Langer proposes that a powerful way to do this is to pay attention to symptom variability. If we are diagnosed with a chronic disease, we expect our symptoms will stay the same or get worse. Noticing subtle changes lets us see that symptoms come and go. Noting the circumstances that might be contributing to the fluctuations gives us the opportunity to exert some control over the situation.

  • In one study, participants who recorded their heart rate every day for a week and noted the activity they were engaged in at the time were later able to raise and lower their heart rate when asked to do so in a lab.
  • Pregnant women who attended to the variability of the sensations they experienced reported having an easier pregnancy.
  • Patients with chronic pain who paid attention to the variability in their pain levels reported significant decreases in pain interfering in their lives.

Noticing symptom variability increases mindfulness, which is good for your health. It also helps you realize that you don’t have symptoms all the time, increases the likelihood that you find a solution, and lets you feel more in control. Rather than mindlessly accept a diagnosis or health issue as given, choose to be mindful and notice all the possibilities for improvement.

Sep 18 23

Do You Have a Psychologically Rich Life?

by Beth

In my book, Beyond Happy, I discuss two factors that are important for well-being: happiness and meaning. A couple of years ago, psychologists Oishi and Westgate proposed a third path to a good life: psychological richness.

A happy life brings you joy, security, comfort, and fun – you feel good and satisfied. A meaningful life is about feeling purposeful and significant, like you made a difference.

So, what is a psychologically rich life? It’s a life of curiosity, novelty, adventure, openness, and exploration. It’s best characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences. While a happy life and a meaningful life both contribute to well-being, they don’t capture the full range of human motivation because they can be repetitive and monotonous.

A psychologically rich life is full of interest and excitement. Individuals who lead a psychologically rich life do so via a range of experiences in which they have encountered a wide variety of perspectives and recognized life’s complexity. This leads to wisdom from having “a breadth and depth of knowledge along with humble and relativist mindsets.”

Your life can become more psychologically rich by reading books or having conversations that challenge your perspective, traveling to foreign places, or experiencing dramatic events. Engage in experiences that pique your interest, add more spontaneity and playfulness into your day, find new things to try and learn.

I spent the last few days in New York City. I always feel a sense of excitement walking through the streets of New York. I visited the Metropolitan Museum and went straight to see my favorite impressionist paintings. My curiosity then led me to wander through the modern/contemporary wing. I liked a lot of the paintings more than I had expected I would and realized maybe I need to update my opinion of modern art. Changing my perspective felt really refreshing.

The three aspects of a good life contribute to different life outcomes. A happy life leads to personal satisfaction, a meaningful life to societal contribution, and psychological richness to wisdom. A person who led a happy life might say, “I had fun!” A person who led a meaningful life might say, “I made a difference!” A person who led a psychologically rich life might say, “What a journey!”

What will you do to add psychological richness to your life?