Strategies for a Happier Outlook
By Christine Norris
Please note: Before making any changes to your diet or routine, always consult your physician.
Fourteen Easy Ways to Improve Your Life
Change can be overwhelming, especially when viewed in terms of life-long restrictions. Instead of just depriving yourself of the things you enjoy, add to your happiness by following these suggestions:
- Learn to laugh. New research reveals that laughter is a positive form of physical or emotional tension that lowers the amount of immunity-damaging hormones in your body. A belly laugh is not only good for your body, but it also boosts your psychological, social, and spiritual health. According to Mada Kataria, a physician in India and author of Laugh for No Reason (Madhuri International, 1999), when you laugh the body releases endorphins which boost mood.
- Get what’s troubling you off your chest. Can confiding one’s innermost troubles lead to improved health? Absolutely, say medical researchers. People who confide their troubling experiences are profoundly and physically relieved of the stress caused by traumas, such as death, divorce, health problems, or job loss.
- Dig around in the dirt. Gardening has been proven to lower blood pressure and to relieve stress. It also has been found to improve balance, increase visual perception, and enhance coordination.
- Make exercise a regular part of your day. Choose something that you enjoy, not something that you view as “work.” If possible, aim for 30 minutes or more of low-impact exercise (such as water aerobics, yoga, walking, or gardening) three to five times per week (as recommended by your doctor). The 30 minutes can be broken down into smaller periods of time throughout the day, if needed. In addition to helping you fight stress, regular exercise has many physical benefits and can improve your mood.
- Write down your feelings. Journaling, also known as “scriptotherapy,” can help you handle emotional wounds, illness, or other problems. By writing your thoughts down on paper, you may feel more in touch with your feelings and can better define your problems.
- Keep your relationships happy. Studies point to the health benefits of being in a happy marriage. If you are unmarried or without your spouse, seek daily companionship with family or friends.
- Practice balance in everyday life. Think moderation in all things to keep your immune system strong and your mind and spirit healthy. Make time to exercise and to get adequate sleep. Find the small pleasures in life and revel in them. Don’t let work take over your life.
- Don’t forget to pray. Many studies conducted over the past three years have found that religious commitment may improve your health. The studies have found that people with firm religious commitments are healthier and less likely to be depressed than people who don’t share a religious conviction.
- Boost your brain power. To keep memory sharp, don’t skip meals. A study of older Americans found that those who didn’t eat adequately had greater memory loss than those who regularly ate well. The researchers found that the poor eaters were seriously lacking vitamin E and other minerals and vitamins tied to memory. Keep your mind active by doing word games, playing bridge or other card games, and watching “Jeopardy” or other quiz/game shows on television. When it comes to memory, “use it or lose it” may apply.
- Help others. Develop a feeling within of “loving kindness and compassion” suggests His Holiness The Dalai Lama in his book, The Art of Happiness (Riverhead Book, 1998), by doing good deeds without expecting anything in return. Volunteer to help others. If physically able, ideas include assisting at a homeless shelter, helping youngsters learn to read at a local elementary school, and running errands for an elderly neighbor. Others may volunteer their time through serving on a community committee, or making phone calls and writing letters from home to help with a cause.
- Allow yourself to feel. It’s okay to be angry, frazzled, confused, or sad. No one’s perfect. Repressing or denying feelings increases stress. Go ahead and acknowledge them. Better yet, vent to someone you trust. Sometimes just getting negative thoughts off your chest can ease the frustration you feel.
- Learn something new. Enroll in an art class. Learn a foreign language. Ride a horse in a Hippotherapy class or enjoy the pool during aquatic exercise. Follow along with a tape on meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi. Find an interesting recipe and cook something new. By keeping busy, you’ll have less time to feel unhappy.
- Take time to relish the simple things. Forget your “to do” list and learn to relax. Bring your partner and watch the sunset. Color, draw, or make paper snowflakes with a child. Brew some tea, sit in a comfortable chair, and really listen to your favorite piece of classical music.
- Call a faraway friend. In today’s hectic world, keeping up with friends over the years isn’t always easy. But it’s worth the effort! A close friendship which spans the years enriches your life in a special way.
Give Yourself a Financial Makeover
Not having your finances in order can lead to future uncertainty, not a good way to achieve happiness. Don’t know where to begin? Here are a few suggestions:
- Take inventory of your credit cards, insurance policies, savings accounts, and investments. Make a list of them, including institution names, important telephone numbers, account or policy numbers, and coverages, and file in a fire-proof lockbox.
- Cut costs, increase savings, and restructure debt. Record all of your expenses for a full month to see where your money is going (including your morning coffee from the local store and any other extra things you purchase throughout the day). You’ll probably be surprised at how many dollars fall through the cracks. If possible, make a commitment to reduce the amount you spend on lunch, clothes, or entertainment. Save this newfound cash or use it to pay off credit card or other debt, such as a car loan. Consider transferring credit card balances to lower interest credit cards and pay off high-interest loans early. If employed, take advantage of your company’s 401K and flexible spending plans.
- Set savings goals. If you want something, you may have to save for it. Examine your finances to see what you can afford to put away each week. If employed, you may consider having the amount deducted directly from your paycheck into a savings account.
- Prepare for the worst. Review your life insurance needs and any policies you already have. Make adjustments where needed. Make a will or review one that you already have. For more information on these end-of-life decisions, please see “Planning for the Future” in the Fall 2005 issue of The Motivator. This article may be viewed and printed by visiting www.mymsaa.org, or copies may also be obtained by calling MSAA at (800) 532-7667.
How to Train Yourself to Be Happy
In her practice based in Spring House, PA, psychotherapist Debra Ettinger, PhD, helps people to expand their capacity to cope with life’s stressors and to reduce levels of depression and anxiety. As part of her therapy she gives them the tools they need to make positive lifestyle changes.
“One technique that can be especially helpful is cognitive restructuring, which basically involves retraining people to see the glass as half full instead of half empty. I also concentrate on helping patients take time for little joys every day, such as meditation, yoga, or couple’s massage,” says Dr. Ettinger. “It’s surprising how powerful simply shifting some of our thought patterns can be in terms of how we feel and behave in our lives. Many of my patients are able to apply these new coping strategies to many aspects of their lives, besides their medical problems.”
Here are some of Dr. Ettinger’s tips for achieving balance, a major factor in happiness.
- Take care of yourself first. Take time to exercise, spend time with friends and family, and learn to delegate tasks that keep you from finding time for yourself.
- “NO” is a complete sentence. Instead of committing time to every volunteer activity or work-related extracurricular duty, learn to politely decline if you would rather spend your time doing other things that you enjoy. Burnout is often a symptom of not knowing how to say “no” to yet another task.
- Pick and cultivate a good support network. Be careful to whom you confide your thoughts, problems, and dreams. Look for people who are truly able to listen, not those who like to give advice and judge you.
- Take “mini breaks” throughout the day. No one can be productive if they’re going nonstop all day. A change in scenery can make a big difference in your outlook. Take the time to admire a beautiful garden. If able, eat lunch in a different room, outside on the patio, or away from the home or office. Take a moment to relax in a chair outdoors to enjoy a simple pleasure such as watching a group of birds fly overhead against the deep blue sky. Most importantly, make the time for uninterrupted conversation with your spouse, other family member, or with a friend, every day. Don’t forget to make time for your pets as well.
- Set appropriate boundaries with friends and family. Just because friends or family feel entitled to ask very personal questions about your life, doesn’t mean that you have to answer them. Look for a polite way to redirect the conversation. You need to decide what is healthy for you and what is not. The same rule goes for attending events. Learn to attend those that make you happy and to decline those that you do not enjoy.
Achieving a happier outlook doesn’t necessarily require financial investment, but rather an investment of your time and interest. Improving your mental, emotional, and sometimes even your physical health, may often be accomplished through small changes in routine and enjoying the countless things that family, friends, and the world around you have to offer.
About the Author
A former editor of The Motivator, Christine Norris is now a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness issues.