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May 15 23

Using Your Senses to Boost Well-Being

by Beth

Our senses play a crucial role in our well-being. In her latest book, Life in Five Senses, Gretchen Rubin explains how sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch can impact human connection, creativity, energy levels, and more.

Sight provides information about the world around us. It lets us read to learn new things. It helps us understand others by seeing their facial expressions and body language. Our sight allows us to appreciate nature’s beauty, and exposure to daylight regulates our circadian rhythm, which improves our sleep.

Hearing also lets us learn and it allows us to enjoy music and other sounds, as well as communicate with others. Music has a strong influence on our emotions. Hearing laughter can make us happier by reducing tension or strengthening a connection with someone. Using your sense of hearing to really listen to someone can improve your relationship.

Taste and smell work together to help us enjoy food and drink and avoid dangerous substances, like spoiled food. Did you know that we have olfactory neurons in our mouth? Bonding over shared food can deepen our relationships.

Rubin writes that Andy Warhol wore a perfume for three months and then never wore it again, so the scent reminded him of that time. My husband did something similar on family trips using hearing. He would pick one CD and play it over and over again. At the time he drove us crazy, but now every time I hear Mumford & Sons’ first album I’m back in Annecy, France with our 13- and 15-year-old kids.

Physical touch can also contribute to well-being by reducing stress and promoting feelings of connection.

Focusing your attention on your senses can help you be more mindful. When you go for a walk, note the varying colors of green in the trees, try to distinguish different bird calls, notice the smells along the way, and feel the air on your skin.

Paying closer attention to your senses and actively shaping your sensory experiences can help you live a fuller, richer life. You can create different playlists for occasions when you want to be energized or need to calm down or feel like taking a trip down memory lane. Hosting a “Taste Party” with friends is a fun way to try new foods or see who can identify different wines. Fresh flowers add color and a nice scent to your home. A lavender spray in your bedroom can help you relax. Burning a peppermint or eucalyptus candle can help you focus. Listening to Baroque music also helps with focus.

How will you use your senses to improve your well-being?

Apr 11 23

Helping Others Helps You

by Beth

I recently joined the board of Hands On Atlanta and I’m excited to be part of an organization that so closely aligns with my passion for well-being. The mission of Hands On Atlanta is to tackle the city’s most pressing needs, such as education, food security, and sustainability. Thousands of people benefit from the work of the non-profits with whom we partner.

But that’s not all! We also improve the well-being of thousands of volunteers for whom we offer opportunities to serve. Helping people find ways to help others contributes to their own health, happiness, and fulfillment. Here are some specific benefits of volunteering:

  • Health – Research shows that helping people on a regular basis improves our health and longevity. After 10 weeks of volunteering with an after-school program for elementary school children, participants in one study had lower levels of cholesterol and inflammation. A longitudinal study of older adults found those who volunteered four hours a week were significantly less likely to develop high blood pressure. Another study of over 50,000 people in California found that participants who volunteered for more than one organization had 63% lower mortality than non-volunteers.
  • Happiness – Studies show that people who volunteer more have higher levels of activity in the region of the brain associated with pleasure. This euphoric feeling we experience when helping others has been referred to as a “helper’s high”.
  • Stress management – Volunteering can lower stress by expanding our sense of time. Spending time on others makes us feel more effective, so we have the sense that we can accomplish a lot. This makes us feel like we have more time.
  • Social connection – Volunteering provides opportunities for social connection and a sense of community, which can decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Self-confidence – Volunteering can help us develop new skills and experiences, which can boost our self-esteem and sense of competence.
  • Fulfillment – Serving others is one of the best ways to increase our sense of meaning and purpose. It lets us feel that we are part of something larger than our own individual concerns. This is one of the reasons volunteers report greater life satisfaction. It may also explain the link with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Volunteering shifts your focus from yourself and your own problems to focusing on others and their needs.

I encourage you to look for ways that you can serve others. It’s a win-win situation!  Helping others helps you improve your own well-being.

Mar 10 23

A Little Stress for a Longer Life

by Beth

Have you heard of hormesis? It occurs when small amounts of stress trigger biological processes that enhance health, slow aging, and make you more resistant to future stress. Short bursts of stress activate healing and survival mechanisms designed to keep you alive. Hormetic stressors can trigger the repair of cellular damage and DNA, the reduction of inflammation, the elimination of toxins, the production of new mitochondria, improved regulation of blood sugar, and reduced risk of cancer. Pretty cool, huh?

The good news is that there are many small, daily habits you can adopt to reap the benefits of hormesis. Here are some:

  1. Eat more plants – the phytochemicals in plants can activate a hormetic stress response. Plants produce these chemicals in response to stressors in their own environments. Some of the best foods for this include coffee, extra virgin olive oil, resveratrol found in red grapes (and red wine!), strawberries, green tea, turmeric, and pomegranates.
  2. Practice time-restricted eating – taking a break from eating for 12 to 16 hours a day puts your body into a perceived state of stress due to temporary nutrient deprivation. Time-restricted eating has been shown to reduce inflammation and increase the recycling of old and damaged cells.
  3. Do high-intensity interval workouts – intermittent bursts of all-out effort followed by rest stresses your body by briefly starving your muscles of oxygen.
  4. Give cold or hot therapy a try – both heat and cold exposure activate your body’s repair systems. A 1-to-2-minute cold shower or time in a sauna will do the trick. A study in Finland found that people who used a sauna 2 to 3 times a week had a 24% lower risk of death than those who used saunas once a week. The reduction in death rose to 40% for those who went 4 to 7 times a week.
  5. Manipulate oxygen supply – too little or too much oxygen is another way to trigger a hormetic response. Higher numbers of centenarians can be found in places like Tibet, where high altitudes lead to low-oxygen states. Athletes use hyperbaric oxygen therapy to heal injuries and recover faster. Breathing through your nose with longer exhales or holding your breath for as long as you can are easy ways to simulate a low-oxygen state.    

Scientific advances regarding the benefits of hormesis are exciting. I’ve incorporated several of these practices into my daily routine in hopes of adding more years to my life and more life to my years. Which ones will you try?

Feb 9 23

Becoming a Better Learner

by Beth

Jim Kwik’s latest book, Limitless, teaches us how to upgrade our brain and learn faster. In it, he shares strategies for improving focus, memory, reading speed, and study habits.

Kwik begins by identifying what he refers to as the four supervillains of learning:

  1. Digital deluge – the overwhelming amount of information we have access to and how much we consume daily
  2. Digital distraction – the struggle to stay focused while being constantly connected and distracted by notifications
  3. Digital dementia – the deterioration of short-term memory as a result of using our devices to remember everything
  4. Digital deduction – the influence of the Internet over our thinking and decision-making

I must admit I struggle with all four. While I was well aware of how distracted and deluged with information I am, I now see that I no longer need to remember phone numbers or directions, nor think critically on my own. There are plenty of opinions out there with which to simply agree or disagree. I can feel my brain turning to mush!

I’ve started trying out some of the methods Kwik offers for accelerated learning. Here are a few:

  • Listening to Baroque music can help you focus.
  • Visualization can help you remember. Attach an image to a person’s name. Assign talking points to rooms in your house.
  • Avoiding subvocalization, the voice inside your head when you read, can help you read faster.
  • Using your finger to read increases your speed because your eye is attracted to motion.

On a more general level, you can use the FASTER method to learn anything quickly.

  • F is for forget – Forget what you already know, so your mind will be open to new things, and forget everything around you so that you can focus.
  • A is for act – Become more active in your learning, taking notes, highlighting key points.
  • S is for state – Learning is influenced by your state of emotions. Choose states of joy, curiosity, and fascination.
  • T is for teach – Learn with the intention of teaching the information to someone else.
  • E is for enter – Enter learning on your calendar, so you will be sure to spend time on your personal growth.
  • R is for review – Spaced repetition is the best way to reduce the effects of the forgetting curve. Reviewing information over multiple, spread-out sessions improves retention.

Kwik believes “If knowledge is power, then learning is a superpower.” Learning how to learn better and faster can help you live an exceptional life.

Jan 9 23

How to Use Time to Boost Your Well-Being

by Beth

“It’s not about being time rich, it’s about making the time that we have rich.”

In her book, Happier Hour, UCLA professor Cassie Holmes argues that time is the most important resource for our well-being. One of the best ways to increase joy and meaning is to be deliberate about how we invest our time. For starters, we should track how we currently spend our time and rate how we feel during that time. Holmes suggests doing this in half-hour increments for one or two weeks.

Most people find that the happiest hours of the day are those shared with friends or loved ones. The unhappiest times are typically doing things we feel we have to do, like household chores, or things that feel like a waste of time, like commuting. For many of us work is meaningful, but not fun, watching TV feels fun, but lacks meaning, and social media is neither fun nor meaningful.

The next step is to use time crafting to intentionally plan how you will spend your time to maximize well-being. After identifying the activities that bring you the most joy and fulfillment, you want to make sure to block time each week for those activities. We experience the start of an activity more intensely, so spreading out activities that you enjoy will give you more happy hours to look forward to. Instead of binge-watching TV once a week, plan to watch TV in several one-hour sittings throughout the week.

You will also need to include tasks that you dislike, but that need to be done. Holmes offers suggestions for how we can make our least happy hours more fun and meaningful. One is to bundle things you don’t enjoy or that feel like a waste of time with something that makes you happy. Play your favorite music while washing dishes or listen to a podcast on your commute. Instead of sending an email, meet a colleague in person to make work more social.

Another tip is to increase the meaning of a task by connecting with the why of what you are doing. Remind yourself who benefits from your work. Think of cooking a healthy meal as caring for your loved ones. And just as spreading out happy experiences gives you more occasions to look forward to, consolidating your chores into one block of time will give you fewer beginnings to dread.

A final piece of advice is to reframe your time-spending decisions from questions of whether to questions of when. Consider what you are achieving over a week or a month. You are less likely to feel guilty leaving work early to pick up your child if you consider all the hours you have devoted to work over the past months. Happiness is heightened when we take a broader time perspective. How you spend a single hour doesn’t define your life. You can do it all! Just not in one day.

Dec 19 22

To Keep Your New Year’s Resolution, Make it Positive

by Beth

Many people set goals for the new year. This makes sense because January 1 is a “temporal landmark,” a day that stands out from other days. This offers us a fresh start. Unfortunately, very few people stick with their resolutions. There are many reasons for this, but one is that people set the wrong kind of goal. You can increase your likelihood of success by choosing an approach goal.

An approach goal is something you want to do, a positive outcome you hope to achieve. An avoidance goal is something you don’t want to do, a negative outcome you want to avoid. Many goals focus on avoiding something, like “stop eating ice cream at night” or “stop wasting time on social media.”

When you frame your goal as something you want to take away, that causes you to focus on what you don’t want to do. If I ask you not to think about a white bear, that’s all you can think about! If your goal is not to eat ice cream, you have to think about eating ice cream. If all you are thinking about is not checking your phone, you become really focused on your phone.

Most avoidance goals can be reframed as an approach goal. “I want to stop being late” can be changed to “I’m going to show up on time.” “I want to lose weight” can be reframed as “I want to get healthy.” Instead of “I want to stop scrolling through my phone at night,” aim for “I’m going to read in bed at night.” “I’m going to stop drinking soda with my lunch” can become “I’m going to drink tea with my lunch.”

Researchers in Sweden found that people who set approach goals were 12% more likely to succeed than those with avoidance goals. So consider framing your New Year’s resolution positively, as something you aspire to do. What would you like to achieve? If you want to eat better in the new year, instead of resolving to eat fewer calories, add something healthy, like aiming to eat 30 different plants each week. The act of adding something positive will help you not feel deprived and set you up for long-term success. What’s a positive habit that you will add to your daily routine to boost your well-being in 2023?

Nov 22 22

Flexibility Keeps You on Track

by Beth

Establishing habits is a great way to make healthy behaviors automatic. Habits work well for simple behaviors performed in a stable environment. It’s been easy for me to stick to my habit of doing planks in the morning and at night after I brush my teeth. It’s harder to form habits for complex behaviors in less stable environments. When daily challenges make it difficult to follow through with our plans, flexibility can help us maintain our well-being goals.

In an attempt to help Google employees establish the habit of going to the gym, John Beshears and his colleagues asked half of them to exercise at the same time each day. They asked the other half to exercise the same number of times a week, but on a less consistent schedule. Employees who exercised at the same time went to the gym a little more often at the planned time; however, they were unlikely to go at all if they couldn’t make it to the gym at their regular time. Employees who had established a more flexible schedule ended up with better exercise habits because they worked out more at other times.

Having a rigid, all-or-nothing plan for your well-being goals can backfire when life gets in the way. In my ideal world I would exercise every morning and then spend at least an hour writing. I’d meditate after eating a healthy lunch and go for a walk every evening. In my real world this often isn’t possible, so I opt for consistency over perfection. I remind myself that something is always better than nothing. I ask “What can I do instead?”

If an early meeting means I can’t exercise in the morning, I shift my exercise to the afternoon. Some days a walk is the only way for me to stay consistent with my goal of being active. I might also have to move my scheduled writing time to later in the day. Or maybe I can only write for 30 minutes. It’s harder to be healthy when I eat out, but I try to make smart choices. There are days when I can only meditate for 5 minutes, but I don’t skip it. Staying consistent keeps me on track.

Having routines that help you achieve your well-being goals is essential, but it’s equally important to be flexible when your plans don’t work out. Make choices that will keep you moving in the direction of your goals. Rather than giving up when life interrupts your plan, look for a compromise. Ask yourself what you can do instead to still be physically active or how you can still eat something healthy. Be flexible and make a choice that allows you to pursue your overall health goals in a different way. Consistency, not perfection, is what matters.

Oct 9 22

How Discomfort Can Increase Happiness

by Beth

The fascinating connection between pain and pleasure in our brains can explain why too much pleasure may be bad for happiness, while experiencing some pain or discomfort may increase happiness.

In her book Dopamine Nation Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke discusses how pleasure and pain are processed in the same part of the brain. It’s like a see-saw; when you experience pain it tips to one side, pleasure the other. Your brain wants the see-saw to be in balance, so when one side goes down, your brain will work hard to try to tip it back to the opposite side.

If you eat a piece of cake, watch TV, or scroll through your phone you get a tip to the side of pleasure. Lembke explains that your brain will then put a lot of “pain gremlins” onto the other side. It takes time for the gremlins to jump off when the pleasure stops, so the balance leans to the side of pain before returning to equilibrium. This is what makes you want to eat another piece of cake, watch another episode, or keep scrolling.

If you continue to pile things on the pleasure side, your brain gets tired of loading gremlins on the pain side, so it moves the center of the see-saw to permanently tilt the balance toward pain. That’s why addicts need more and more to get the same effect. It may also explain why there is so much unhappiness today. We live in a world of overwhelming abundance with unprecedented access to pleasurable stimuli: drugs, food, shopping, texting, games, social media. In response, our brains are tipping toward pain.

The good news is that the balance can also be tipped the other way. When you have painful experiences, your brain will pile gremlins on the pleasure side of the balance. After you do something uncomfortable, like running in the freezing cold, you get the pleasurable feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

This means that doing unpleasant things can increase our happiness. Experiencing some discomfort can prevent our brains from having to continuously tilt the balance toward pain. The “pains” of living life, running errands on a rainy day, solving a hard problem at work, missing a connecting flight, cleaning the house, or having a difficult conversation, all help to keep things in balance.

We can reframe discomfort as a good thing. Experiencing more of it can create a brain that is tipped toward the side of pleasure. You can increase your happiness by renouncing some pleasure and doing some hard things. Try taking a break from social media, saying no to dessert, doing a HIIT workout, or turning off the TV. And when life throws challenges your way, remind yourself that it might actually be making you happier.

Sep 11 22

Food as Medicine

by Beth

“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” – Ann Wigmore

Dr. William Li is a physician who studies the causes of disease. In his 2010 TED Talk, he discussed his research looking at how to prevent cancer from growing by preventing blood vessels from feeding cancers. His realization that diet accounts for 30 to 35% of all environmentally caused cancers led him to explore the link between food and disease. Instead of just focusing on what foods we should avoid, Dr. Li also looked at what foods we should add to our diet to boost our health defenses. He shares the findings of his research in his book, Eat to Beat Disease.

Some key lessons from his book include:

  • Top foods that prevent cancer by blocking the blood flow that feeds it are soy and broccoli.
  • Mushrooms and olive oil strengthen your immune system.
  • Foods that support your microbiome include fruit, cheese, and fermented foods. Pomegranates and cranberries are especially powerful.
  • Nuts and berries are longevity superfoods that protect your DNA.
  • Cocoa boosts stem cell growth which helps your body repair and regenerate itself.

Dr. Li has a great way of explaining things. He compares normal inflammation to a campfire that keeps us warm at night and that we extinguish when we go to bed. Chronic inflammation is like the campfire getting out of control and setting the woods on fire. It has been linked to most major diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer’s.

On the Healthier Together podcast, host Liz Moody asked Dr. Li to suggest one food to add to your diet and one to remove to prevent specific diseases. Here’s what he said:

  • Diabetes – add dietary fibers like nuts, avoid added sugars like cakes and cookies
  • Dementia – add coffee, avoid ultra-processed foods
  • Chronic inflammation – add foods with vitamin C like strawberries, tomatoes, and broccoli, avoid added sugars (fruit is OK!)
  • Longevity – add coffee, avoid ultra-processed foods
  • Cancer – add green tea, avoid processed meats (classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization)

For details regarding why Dr. Li suggests these foods, listen to the last half of the podcast. And here he explains how a healthy microbiome helps your immune system defend your body against cancer.

Your daily lifestyle choices impact your health. This is especially true of the foods you eat. The good news is that you don’t need to know which foods prevent which disease. All you need to do is eat a wide variety of whole plant-based foods. Eat like your life depends on it . . . because it does!

Aug 8 22

The Relationships That Matter Most

by Beth

You probably know that relationships are one of most important factors for well-being. What you might not know is the kind of relationship that matters most for our happiness: friendships!

In his new book, Plays Well With Others, Eric Barker explains why friends are so essential to happiness. Our relationships with our friends are voluntary, which also makes them extremely fragile. There is no contract or bloodline binding us to our friends. We choose our friends precisely because they make us happy. You can stop liking your colleagues, your spouse, or your children. But if you stop liking your friends, you stop seeing them.

According to Barker, the two keys to maintaining a friendship are time and vulnerability.

  • Time is scarce. When you make time for someone, it sends a big signal that they mean something to you. Recent research involving nearly 6,000 participants found that people underestimated how much reaching out to a friend would be appreciated. A quick call or text to say hello means more than we think. Notre Dame researchers analyzed over 8 million phone calls and concluded that a relationship was more likely to persist when a friend’s call was returned within two weeks.
  • Vulnerability is opening up by sharing your fears and concerns. Talking about your weaknesses, what you are struggling with, and what you are afraid of builds trust. It’s how you really get to know each other. Feeling that you’re known is the foundation of a satisfying relationship. And the better you understand someone, the more you can support them.

Friends aren’t only important for our happiness; they are also good for our health. Oxford professor Robin Dunbar discovered two factors that predict if you will be alive one year after a heart attack: whether you smoke and how many friends you have. Another study by researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that patients with heart disease who had fewer than four friends were more than twice as likely to die.

It may surprise you that friends matter more for your happiness and health than your spouse. But it turns out that friendship is the most critical part of a marriage. Gallup researchers concluded that friendship quality accounts for 70% of marriage satisfaction.

Having friends is important, but having a community is even better. People feel more support from friends who are connected to one another. We belong to fewer communities today than in the past. One way to build a community is to introduce your friends to each other. You could host a gathering at your home or organize a book club.

It takes work to maintain friendships. You must make the time, reach out, and be vulnerable, but it’s worth the effort! In his book about regrets, Dan Pink reports that one of the top regrets is letting good friends drift away by not staying in touch. Working to build and sustain friendships will benefit your health and your happiness.