Tips to Encourage
Happiness and Calm
Connect with a loved one or pet. Relationships with other creatures
(animal or human) are one of the primary ways we find happiness.
Connection elicits positive emotions and releases the feel-good hormones serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. To connect with an animal,
volunteer or visit with the Marin Humane Society.
Give to and do for others. Like connection, philanthropic pursuits build
feelings of happiness as well as purpose and meaning. My top pick for
volunteering: Ceres Community Project of Marin, where adult mentors
and teens cook healthy meals for cancer patients and their families.
Meditate in Marin. Marin General Hospital offers free mindfulness
meditation and relaxation classes every Monday morning. Spirit Rock
in Woodacre provides a variety of fee-based programs at various
levels. Soulstice Spa in Sausalito offers fee-based meditation and
mindfulness classes every day of the week.
Yoga in Marin. Both meditation and yoga impact hormones by
reducing stress and promoting calm. As a moving meditation,
yoga offers strengthening and toning, with breath work to help
you get centered. With a plethora of studios here in Marin, there
is sure to be one near you.
Exercise. Physical exercise relieves stress, raises endorphins that
boost mood, helps flush toxins through increased circulation and sweat
and reduces inflammation, provided we don’t overdo it. Also, studies
show that the sense of accomplishment in achieving an exercise goal
gives us a feeling of happiness.
Breathe Deeply. Deep diaphragmatic breathing, allowing the belly to
expand, calms the mind and the sympathetic nervous system involved in
the fight-or-flight response and can lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Hug someone. Research shows that giving and/or receiving four hugs
daily increases the happiness hormones serotonin and oxytocin.
Laugh. Laughter and comedy are great brain “workouts” that can
improve everything from happiness hormone levels to heart health.
Go complaint-free. Try going an hour without grumbling and grousing,
and focus on the positive things in your life. Next, try a day, a week,
and so on.
Dispute negative thinking with evidence to the contrary. For example,
think back to times when you were sure disaster would prevail, only to
find that, in fact, nothing bad happened. This is especially important
for those of us who think in black and white and always/never terms.
Replace, don’t erase. It is important to note that squelching thoughts
doesn’t work. The mind does not understand not thinking about
something. For example, when we think, “I am not going to think about
having that vanilla latte,” that’s then exactly what we do think about.
Rather than try to ignore certain thoughts, focus on substituting new
thoughts; think of finding a great healthy smoothie, for instance, versus
banishing the vanilla latte.
Share your good news. Studies show that telling of happy events brings
even more happiness.
Our current culture keeps us extremely busy and just a few min-
utes a day of calming practices can improve mood and immunity.
“From a peaceful center, we can respond instead of react,” says
Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., meditation teacher, author, Buddhist elder
and founder of the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre. “Unconscious
reactions and fear create problems. Considered and compassionate
responses bring peace. With a peaceful and kind heart, whatever
happens can be met with wisdom.”
Meditation allows us to calm the body and eavesdrop on our ever-
present mind chatter, improving our ability to stay focused on the
present and freeing us from attachments to past and future worries,
to-do lists and other anxiety-provoking ideas. Yoga, a moving form of
meditation, offers similar calming benefits plus improved muscle tone,
balance and lymphatic circulation to aid the immune system.
Such practices also produce physiological changes in the brain. A
recent study at Harvard University found that just 27 minutes per day
of mindfulness meditation significantly increased the gray matter of
the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with compassion
and introspection, and decreased gray matter in the amygdala, the
brain’s anxiety and stress center.
According to the National Institutes of Health, this increase in gray
matter can also reduce chronic pain and depression. As if that wasn’t
enough, both meditation and yoga flood the brain and body with feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin, melatonin,
DHEA and endorphins, and the practices lower the stress hormones
cortisol and adrenaline, thereby improving mood and energy, decreasing inflammation and enabling the immune system and organs to do
their best. If you aren’t a yogi or a meditator, physical exercise, laughter, dance and singing are effective alternatives.
As I write in my book Gutsy, so much of what we think and feel comes
from habit — a set of behaviors, emotional reactions, beliefs and perceptions that are on autopilot. It takes continual prioritization in even
a small part of your daily activities to turn new mood-boosting practices into healthy habits. The rewards are well worth the effort. “It’s
like building an anti-stress muscle — the more you practice, the more fit
you become in managing stressful moments,” Haas writes in Ultimate
Immunity (co-authored with Sondra Barrett, Ph. D.). He also recommends
that we slow down, rest and sleep seven to nine hours for similar benefits.
With all this talk about happiness, though, it is important to note
that well-being is not about being cheerful all the time. Studies show
maintaining a range of emotions helps us actually experience happiness and keeps us from becoming manic. The aim is not to erase
negative feelings, but rather to add more peace, awareness and joy to
life for a shift in perspective and health. m
Nan Foster is an integrative health coach living in Marin and author
of Gutsy: The Food-Mood Method to Revitalize Your Health Beyond