What Happiness Does for Your Health

According to the 2012 U.S. Census, people who consider themselves healthy are about 20 percent happier than the average Joe, while those who are unhealthy are about 8.25 percent less happy. So what can happiness do for your health? Here’s a look at five great health benefits of happiness: It boosts your immune system. Repeated studies on the immune system show that people with a high level of positive emotion who were exposed to viruses were better able to ward off illness. It strengthens your heart. Chronic anger and anxiety take a toll on your cardiovascular system; studies show that people with a high level of hope and optimism have a lower risk for coronary heart disease. It may help reduce pain. Many studies dealing with arthritis have shown happier people have less pain and stiffness; it also has been shown to reduce pain related to other conditions. It helps you sleep better. Sleep’s role in our overall health is becoming more widely recognized. We know now that when you sleep better, it improves your cognitive function, your ability to regulate your weight and boosts your immune system. (Not to mention making you way less grumpy!) Studies show a link between happiness and better sleep, contributing to that much-desired “upward spiral” of happiness. It lengthens your lifespan. There’s a strong link between positive well-being and longevity. Even with chronic conditions like heart disease, happier people tend to outlive their grumpy counterparts. Healthy Happiness Habits If you want to boost your happiness so you can increase your health, try some of these scientifically proven methods: Get outside. Being in nature is a natural mood-booster. Practice gratitude. Gratitude refocuses your attention and makes you appreciate the good things in your life. Develop a mindfulness or meditation practice. Slowing down and looking inward has medically proven benefits, and also helps you sleep better. Exercise. It’s good for your physical well-being but also plays a key role in boosting your mood. Eat a healthy diet. Healthy foods lead to a happy brain—and you’ll improve your health, too! This article originally appeared in the October 2018 edition of Live Happy magazine.
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The Power of the Pen

In 2009, Gina Mulligan was diagnosed with breast cancer. As word spread to friends and family, dozens of handwritten letters and cards of encouragement began pouring in, many from people she’d never met. Before long, Gina looked forward to the mail’s arrival each day. The mailman typically delivered late in the afternoon, following her radiation therapy treatments, causing her to approach her sessions with a hint of excitement as she anticipated what might be coming that day. “I would read the letters and just relax after treatments that were so scary,” Gina says. “There was this warmth from being surrounded physically by these cards and letters.” Fast-forward two years: With active treatment behind her, Gina wanted to give back to other women who might not have the support she did. In August 2011, Gina founded Girls Love Mail, a nonprofit whose army of volunteers writes and sends handwritten letters to women who have been newly diagnosed with breast cancer. To date, the organization has distributed some 141,000 letters to women across the United States through its partnering cancer centers and programs. “I realized how powerful it is to get something handwritten,” Gina says. “Those letters were part of my healing.” Though she also received heartfelt emails and social media messages, those didn’t impact her in the same way. “I didn’t print the emails out,” Gina says. “A handwritten letter is more than just the words. It’s the stationery, the ink—all of those personal touches that really come through when it’s written by hand.” Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art—which contains hundreds of thousands of handwritten letters from artists and art-world figures—chimes in: “People have very physical responses to handwritten letters, whether you’re the writer or the receiver. You can really feel the presence of an author in a way that’s difficult to translate in a lot of other media.” But in this age of smartphones, tablets and laptops, it may seem like writing by hand is taking a backseat to these time-saving technologies. Take a 2012 survey of 2,000 British residents that found 1 in 3 respondents hadn’t written anything by hand in the previous six months, while on average respondents hadn’t put pen to paper in 41 days. “It’s novel these days to write by hand—to do something manually,” says Pablo Tinio, associate professor of education foundations at Montclair State University and co-editor of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. That makes you wonder: How can we benefit from setting our screens aside and jotting down our thoughts on paper? Handled With Care A 2003 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that an object’s quality is determined by the perceived amount of effort that went into its production. Researchers conducted three experiments in which undergraduate students were asked to judge the quality of a poem, paintings, and medieval arms and armor. In each experiment, researchers manipulated the perceived effort invested. For example, they told one group of participants that the poem took the writer four hours to compose, while informing a second group that it took 18 hours to complete. The results? Participants rated the objects that required more effort higher in quality each time. “There seems to be an intuitive sense, both from the maker and the receiver, that higher value is placed on something that takes more effort,” Pablo says. That helps explain why handwritten notes often resonate on a deeper level with recipients than those that are typed or emailed, just as they did for Gina. “It’s the difference between writing a condolence email versus a letter,” says Abby Smith Rumsey, historian and author of When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. “Writing signals a kind of intentionality that mechanical means don’t have. People who receive letters know that the person who sent it made lots of choices: the paper, ink, color of ink, the words. They know the person thought about what they were saying before they wrote it because there’s no autocorrect.” But it’s not just the recipient who benefits, as psychotherapist and corporate consultant Maud Purcell points out. “The act of writing clarifies your thoughts and feelings,” she says. When you write a note to a loved one, Maud says, you may be empathizing with them in your mind and heart if there’s something going on with them. “If in writing a letter you’re showing concern for them, if it gives you a sense of connectedness because you’re sharing your own experiences with them—all of these things are very healthy.” In Good Hands Undoubtedly, the ability to send emails or quickly type on our keyboards has positively impacted our lives—but the proven benefits that accompany handwriting can’t be overlooked. Exhibit A: journaling, a method of self-expression that Maud says can be any kind of writing—anytime, anywhere. The value comes as you’re able to get in touch with your thoughts and feelings. “The act of writing brings things that are just below the surface of consciousness to the fore,” Maud says. “If you sit down every morning and write your thoughts and feelings in a stream-of-consciousness way, you may end up inadvertently solving a problem you’ve been wrestling with.” The reason? Writing activates the left side of the brain, which is analytical and rational, Maud explains. While the left brain is engaged, the right side is free to intuit and feel. “Journaling allows the creative part of the brain to kick in so that when we’re not thinking, answers can come to the fore,” Maud says. “Not to say that there’s still not value in the keyboard, but the physical act of writing is more impactful and brings more to the surface. There’s a kind of catharsis that comes with it.” Not to mention the role handwriting plays in learning: Studies have revealed that writing notes by hand helps students better retain information, and some experts believe cursive writing can help kids with dyslexia learn to read more easily. Virginia Berninger, professor emerita of educational psychology at the University of Washington, researched the effect handwriting has on the brain. In a five-year study of children in first through seventh grades, she found that printing, cursive writing, and using a keyboard each make unique contributions to the literary process. “When you write by hand, you have to form the letter stroke by stroke,” Virginia says. “It’s that production that helps our perception of letters in reading.” The idea that production improves perception can help explain the results of a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Researchers found that adults had an easier time recognizing new characters—like Chinese and math symbols—after writing them with pen and paper than they did after producing the characters on a keyboard. “The bottom line is we need to develop kids that are hybrid writers who can print, do cursive, and type,” Virginia says, “because each one of these has its benefits.” Make Your Mark The tension between handwriting and technology isn’t new: Other forms of technology, including the typewriter and telephone, were also once poised to destroy handwriting. The good news? There’s a place for both, as the invention of digital pens—which allow users to scrawl handwritten notes on digital devices—shows us. “While writing letters will probably never be our primary means of communication again, that doesn’t mean we can’t ask handwriting to do different things for us,” Mary says. “I remain optimistic about handwriting—it’s probably not going anywhere.” It seems handwriting has a sort of gritty staying power, and whether we’re scribbling a thank-you letter, penning a journal entry, or learning a new language, we can continue to reap the benefits of this ancient practice that has the ability to reveal our personality, connect with others, calm our minds, and learn easier all at the same time. Take it from Gina, who recalls the power one simple letter can hold: “I received a short note from a woman who told me that I was amazing just the way I was,” Gina says. “Her words were comforting and gave me strength—it was very healing to be told it was fine to just be myself.” This article originally appeared in the October 2018 edition in Live Happy magazine.
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Building on Friendship

Over the last two years, I spent a lot of time helping my colleague Sandy Lewis launch her business. I live in Washington state and traveled to her community in Texas to help. Through many texts and phone calls, I provided advice and served as a mentor. She told me she would never have achieved the success she did without my help. She is always grateful and appreciative. It should be no surprise that we have become close friends, almost like sisters. I value how ourrelationship has matured, that we can be honest with each other with no concern about feeling weak or wrong. Knowing that I am always just a phone call away, she forges ahead and has achieved notable success while growing through the inevitable ups and downs.All this time, her husband, John, had been quietly observing all the positive changes and growth in his wife, knowing that it was through our relationship that she was becoming a strong businesswoman. While I was visiting Texas last year, John told me he was so appreciative of my efforts to help his wife that he wanted to reciprocate.Despite my concerns about the distance, and time and money investments it would take for him to visit me in Washington, he continued to insist. Knowing that my home desperately needed numerous repair and improvement jobs,John asked me to make a list. Although retired from his career in sales,he is an accomplished carpenter and “fix-it” handyman who thoroughly enjoys this hobby. So, despite my concerns, John packed up his four-door Honda sedan with every hand and power tool imaginable, plus a ladder, table saw, chain saw, nails, etc. He then drove 2,200 miles in three days from Kerrville, Texas, to Lacey, Washington. He set to work immediately, rebuilding a fence and new gate.As if that was not enough, he tore out a rotten porch, built a replacement, installed new siding on the house, cut down trees and installed a new screen door and a smoke detector.Here for two weeks, he also fixed my broken toilet, got the automatic garage door to work and repaired a portion of my roof, among other things. He made numerous trips to local lumberyards and home improvement stores.(My responsibility was to supply the investment for all materials).Getting an early start each day, he was like the Tasmanian devil of solving problems and making a difference. Two weeks later to the day, we packed up his car for the return trip, and he drove back to Texas. Who does this?! You can only imagine my delight as I watched the transformation of my home. It was one of the most memorable and heartfelt experiences of my life.My neighbors were astounded, having never imagined such a selfless act of giving that John demonstrated. It has taken me many years to develop an “ask for help” attitude. What I have learned is that most people want to help—some even are desperate to help—and that they have talents and experiences that are hugely valuable.Accepting help can feel daunting or even threatening, but most of the time it is the best path to success.It also fosters relationships that mature over time.And it lends both parties an opportunity to reciprocate—which can lead, as in this case, to a most generous and unexpected surprise. This article originally appear in the December 2015 issue of Live Happy magazine.
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The Strength of Forgiveness

While forgiveness has been cherished and heralded across cultures for centuries, it’s not as common as you might expect. In the United States, for example, its average rank is 19th out of 24 character strengths. The practice of forgiveness is complex, but the research is clear on one thing: It is a process. It’s not something that you do one time and receive dramatic results, especially if you’ve been deeply hurt. Forgiveness involves many character strengths: Bravery—the courage to be vulnerable. Wisdom—seeing the bigger picture. Self-regulation—not ranting, exploding or expressing grudges. Humility—placing attention on the other person. Learning to forgive has great benefits, both physical and psychological. Science shows us this is largely because when we forgive others, we let go of our own suffering.
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How Satisfied are You With Your Life?

If you have ever wondered if you were truly satisfied with your life but couldn’t tell for sure, science has a way to give you the answers. The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS), developed by Gallup senior scientist Ed Diener, is structured to assess the broad scope of satisfaction within your life, meaning your life as a whole. The scale consists of five statements, the first three dealing with the present and the last two dealing with the past, for you to strongly agree or strongly disagree with: In most ways, my life is close to my ideal. The conditions of my life are excellent. I am completely satisfied with my life. So far, I have gotten the most important things I want in life. If I could live my life over, I would change nothing. Depending how you answer, the results should give you a good sense of how things are going in your life in general. There are many factors that go into how we view satisfaction. People who score high on the scale generally have positive social relationships with family and friends, meaningful accomplishments and strong personal growth. People who score lower on the scale may not be happy with how things are currently going. They may have an unfulfilling career path or haven’t surrounded themselves with enough people who care about them. Temporary dissatisfaction, as Ed points out, is common and in some cases, even motivating. It may be time to reflect and make the necessary changes to improve your life if the dissatisfaction persists. The SWLS has been translated into many different languages and has been used in hundreds of studies to give researchers a global understanding of life satisfaction. It, among other similar questionnaires, can be found at UPenn’s Authentic Happiness site. Participating only takes a few minutes of your time and your answers can be part of the research.
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6 Ways to Encourage Post-Traumatic Growth

The old saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is a nice sentiment. Yet the evidence points otherwise. On the other side of hard experiences, some people can get stuck in negative emotions and suffer from mental health. Yet adversity—whether from a one-off traumatic event or a prolonged period of challenge (like a pandemic!)—is not an exclusively negative experience for all people. In fact, it can be a powerful catalyst for deeply positive personal transformation. Enter ‘post-traumatic growth,’ a term coined by psychologists to describe the phenomena of people emerging stronger in the aftermath of adversity. Considered both a process and an outcome, post-traumatic growth is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress but can be experienced alongside it. As is said in coaching, breakdowns precede breakthroughs. The larger the breakdown, the more transformative the potential breakthrough. Underscore ‘Potential’ In the realm of post-traumatic growth, the benefits of potential breakthroughs include stronger self-esteem; more meaningful and authentic relationships; and a greater appreciation of ‘the little things’ and of life itself. Of course, it’s impossible to predict what kind of post-traumatic growth people will have on the other side of this pandemic. Yet there’s reason to be confident many will. After the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, 60% of Hong Kong residents reported stronger family relationships and a third felt better equipped to share their feelings with family and friends. Here are six ways to facilitate your own post-traumatic growth, helping you not just ‘bounce back’ to your former self, but to ‘bounce forward’ from this pandemic in ways that leave you feeling stronger in who you are and able to thrive in whole new ways than you ever would have otherwise. 1. Reconstruct your ‘assumptive world.’ You might not know this, but you live in what psychologists call an ‘assumptive world’ that helps you make sense of this world and your place in it. Trauma has a way of knocking our ‘assumptive world’ off its axis, as our beliefs about how the world (and our lives) ‘should be’ butts heads with reality. Comments like, "I never thought this would happen to me," tend to follow such collisions. Reconstructing your assumptive world after a tough time requires rewriting the story you have about how life in ways that incorporate new experiences without leaving you lingering in emotions of self-pity, blame or powerlessness about the future. After being in an armed robbery and losing my first pregnancy in the second trimester, I had to do just this. Sure I knew these things happened to other people, but I somehow assumed they would never happen to me. My new story reconciled my optimistic outlook that ‘life is good’ but incorporated the reality that ‘bad things can (and do) happen to good people including me. 2. Celebrate new strengths. Adversity has a way of acquainting us with strengths we might never have discovered, or sharpen existing gifts or skills in new ways. The last twelve months have provided a masterclass in many things—from mastering Zoom calls to homeschooling. Take time to identify and acknowledge the talents you’ve uncovered, strengths you’ve sharpened or mastery you’ve gained that will serve you long into the future3. . 3. Deepen your spirituality. Faith in some higher spiritual force—which some call God but which can go by many names—has been a deep source of hope and meaning throughout history. Of course, not everyone who experiences post-traumatic growth suddenly ‘finds God’ in their darkest hour, but research shows having some form of spiritual belief system helps people to weather life’s storms better and emerge better for it. In the aftermath of my brother’s suicide, my own faith couldn’t change the past but it helped steel my resolve to live my own life more purposefully. 4. Foster connection. We forge more meaningful relationships through our struggles and vulnerability than our successes and victories. Unsurprisingly, one of the strongest predictors of post-traumatic growth is a robust support network. So while you may feel tempted to wear a mask or withdraw entirely, make a point of staying in touch with a few people with whom you can reveal the truth of your life.  5. 5. Love yourself harder. When life feels out of control, double down on what lays within it…starting with doing more of what nurtures you—the body, mind and spirit. This includes being extra kind to yourself, particularly in your not-so-gracious moments, cutting out (or at least cutting back) on the less healthy coping strategies like excessive drinking. Create a morning ritual that starts your day strong. My own includes exercise, journaling and reading wisdom literature. It sets me up to turn my breakdowns—large and small—into breakthroughs faster! 6. Embrace discomfort. Calm waters don’t make great sailors. Likewise to live your own potential will require weathering a few stormy times. The whole is looking forward to emerging from this one! So embrace discomfort as a pre-requisite for growing into the person you have it within you to be. Not only that, but sometimes those experiences you’ve thought were ruining your best path forward are really just revealing it.
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6 Steps to Positive Change

Driving home from a family gathering or a dinner with friends, you might conjure up a being who looks like you but behaves differently. He or she was more gregarious at the party, slower to anger at a sister-in-law’s snarky comments and assertive when a colleague offhandedly dismissed a solid proposal. Pretty much all of us, psychologists say, harbor visions of a new and improved version of ourselves. “A vast majority of people want to change at least some aspect of their personality,” says Nathan Hudson, Ph.D., a researcher at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. A study he co-authored found that when it came to tweaking personality traits, 87 percent of participants wanted to become more extroverted while 97 percent said they’d like to increase their conscientiousness. Not very long ago, experts would have said that those hopes were nearly as futile as the wish to be two inches taller. A concept of personality called the “Big Five” emerged in the 1970s, developed by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Oregon. According to this model, an individual’s personality is a blend of five core dimensions. These include the two traits that Nathan mentions above: extroversion (outgoing, talkative, sociable) and conscientiousness (organized, disciplined, trustworthy). The other three dimensions are agreeableness (compassionate, kind and friendly), openness to experience (creative, curious) and neuroticism (people low in this trait are calm and confident while those on the other end of the scale are prone to anxiety, anger and depression). A growing body of research is leading experts to revise the view that these core traits are rooted in genetics and mostly fixed in adulthood. The longest-running personality study ever undertaken, for example, shows that our personality changes dramatically over our lifetime. In 1950, researchers at the University of Edinburgh rated some 1,200 14-year-olds in Scotland on six personality traits, from self-confidence to perseverance. Six decades later, the researchers tracked down and reassessed nearly 200 of those original participants. Their findings: Thanks to small incremental changes over the decades, there was no significant correlation between the traits people had as teens and the ones they displayed as seniors. In other words, they were dramatically different individuals at 77 than they had been at 14. Those findings don’t surprise psychologist and adult development pioneer Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. In a landmark study, she followed a single group of women and men from their years as undergraduates well into middle age. As she notes in her book, The Search for Fulfillment: Revolutionary New Research That Reveals the Secret to Long-Term Happiness, our robust ability for change doesn’t carry a “best by” date. “At any age, anyone can feel fulfilled, can create a sense of meaning, and, essentially can find happiness—no matter what their level of satisfaction was in their youth.” In a personal example, she recently left the rambling home she lived in for 33 years in Amherst, Massachusetts, and moved across the state to Boston to join the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I wanted something new,” she says. “Moving out of my house was agonizing, but also very liberating.” Susan adds, “The great thing is that when you start to tinker with the behaviors that bother you, you’ll start to change the way you think about yourself. Your narrative goes from ‘I’ve always been a worrywart,’ which is high on neuroticism, to ‘I can feel relaxed if I want to.’ Seeing yourself in charge of your personality rather than being run by it may be the key to having your personality suit instead of define you.” One of the clear findings in Nathan’s recent research at the University of Illinois with fellow researcher Christopher Fraley is that small changes can have big payoffs. Yet, “It’s not sufficient to merely make an intention to change a personality trait. People have to actually change their behaviors, week by week, with small, realistic and attainable goals.” Try these six expert tips to begin making real and lasting personality adjustments. How to Get Started 1. Look forward to looking back. “Live your life when you’re young as if you’re looking back on it when you’re old,” Susan advises her students. The same thing holds at any point in your life. Five years from now, you’ll be glad you decided to put more effort into your marriage, signed up for that watercolor class or gave online dating a chance, whatever the outcome. “People think the only way to change is to go completely all off the rails,” Susan says. “But ‘change’ with a lowercase c can be easier to wrap your head around and surprise you in how much it impacts your happiness.” 2. Find your motivation. “You can’t prioritize everything,” says Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Own Way and Enjoy Your Life. “It takes cognitive effort and discipline to make a change from whatever comes most naturally to you, so find the bigger reason for making a change, like stronger relationships or a more satisfying work life.” “People devalue incremental improvements,” Alice says. “But what I call micro-steps might completely solve a problem and have a big impact on your happiness.” Feeling distant from your spouse? If you spend 180 minutes a day together, make a commitment to devote just 10 percent of those moments—18 minutes in all—to being more emotionally connected. Turn off the TV, put away your smartphones and engage in a conversation about something other than politics or household chores. “Over time,” she says, “that can really lead to a relationship that feels closer.” 3. Get real with yourself about what you’re willing to do. Consider obstacles when you’re forming a plan for, say, losing weight or eating healthier, Alice says. Saying you’re going to eliminate all white foods from your diet is unrealistic when your favorite dish at the corner bistro is linguini with clam sauce. You might, however, be willing to replace white bread with whole wheat and experiment with different types of pasta, like brown rice or quinoa, when you’re cooking at home. 4. Respect your temperament. “Acting out of character can have a depleting effect on us,” says Cambridge University psychologist Brian Little, Ph.D. That’s true whether you’re a natural-born introvert trying to behave more gregariously or you’re attempting to temper a combative personality. Brian’s advice is to seek out what he calls “restorative niches,” where you can allow your inborn temperament to roam free. A self-described “lifelong introvert,” Brian sometimes gives daylong presentations. By the end of the morning sessions, he’s feeling depleted and over-aroused. To recharge for the afternoon sessions, he declines invitations to lunch with colleagues and instead spends the hour taking a recuperative, solitary walk. 5. Accept that you’ll experience a mix of positive and negative emotions. Stepping out of your comfort zone is, by definition, uncomfortable. But, says Alice, there’s power in learning to tolerate emotions like anxiety, frustration, doubt or envy. “[It] opens up a world of possibility for what you can accomplish,” she says. “Choosing the most meaningful path over the most comfortable one will help you reach your potential.” 6.  Expand how you define yourself. A rigid self-identity can cause you to underestimate the available opportunities and choices, Alice says. If you define yourself as polite and easygoing, you may not be able to imagine yourself being assertive in asking for what you want. With flexibility, you can give expression to less dominant parts of yourself—the hidden extrovert, the sometime adventurer. “Every new situation provides us with an opportunity to bring any sides of ourselves that we want to that situation,” Alice says. Brian, in his influential book, Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, says there has been a “sea change” in how psychologists view the link between personality and a motivation to change. “Under this new perspective, genes influence us as do our circumstances, but we are not hostage to them,” he writes. The “personal commitments and core projects that we pursue in our daily lives” allow us to rise above what are our natural inclinations. And, he notes, the new science of personality overlaps with positive psychology. Instead of only emphasizing pathology or shortcomings, it’s just as concerned “with positive attributes like creativity, resiliency and human flourishing.” “Change is what our lives are about,” Susan concludes in The Search for Fulfillment.  “No matter how you started out or where you are now, it is possible for you to get back on track with your original goals and dreams, or to find and define new ones. Your life’s script is one that you can write any way you want to, starting right now.” This article was originally published in the October 2018 edition of Live Happy magazine.
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Practicing With Purpose

“When you create a gratitude practice, it’s very intentional and defined,” says Jan Stanley, who has worked with Fortune 500 companies to develop leadership development programs and is now a speaker and teacher on the topics of rituals, practices and habits. She says a gratitude practice helps you slow down and take note of the many gifts in the world around you. Studies are showing that practicing gratitude increases life satisfaction and overall well-being. In fact, one study by Robert Emmons, Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis, indicates that a regular gratitude practice helps people “appreciate life to the fullest”—even during difficult life events. “People roll their eyes because it’s so simple, but even if you start small with the intention of becoming grateful, you will see changes,” Jan says. “Start thinking about not just what you’re grateful for that day, but why,” she says. As you think about what those things mean to you, your appreciation for them grows. Some simple gratitude practices include: Gratitude Journal: Write down what you’re grateful for every day. Focus on one topic and write about why it makes you feel grateful, or list several different things that make you grateful. Gratitude Jar: Keep a jar of glass beads or stones in a central location, and make sure every person in the home or office has an empty jar. “If you’re grateful for something that person did, put a stone in their jar and tell them why,” Jan says. Three Blessings: Each day, write down three things you are grateful for. Candle Ritual: This can be done as a daily ritual or for special family gatherings; each person lights a candle while sharing what he or she is grateful for. “What happens is that you start looking for things throughout the day that make you grateful. It has an amazing, transformative effect,” Jan says. “You start noticing things you didn’t see before and appreciating them.” This article originally appeared in the December 2015 edition of Live Happy magazine.
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4 Ways to Stay Emotionally Healthy Amid a Stressful Election

In order to stay emotionally healthy during the final stage of the election cycle, it’s essential to remain emotionally elevated above the chaos. Recognize that an election cycle that has been this long, this negative and this intense, is bound to have an emotional impact because this event has created a frenzied frequency that people are feeling stuck in. In reality, this election has made the emotional environment that we all inhabit together the most reactive environment in American history. This is especially difficult for those who are more emotionally sensitive and are constantly absorbing the chaos in the environment and becoming more distressed with each day. With years of reactivity from the top-down infiltrating our society, this last stage of the election cycle is like a fever pitch of activity. It’s no wonder so many people feel more reactive and more emotionally exhausted than ever. For this reason, it’s critical that we shift all the emotional reactivity that has trickled down and spread rapidly across social media into intentionality that allows us to stay connected to ourselves and an empowered vision for our future. For the most emotionally sensitive people, this election driven reactivity can create a complete shutdown from overstimulation and isn’t sustainable. At times like this, it’s never been more important to turn our emotional reactivity into epic emotional strength. We can do this by shifting our reactivity to the election into a state of connectedness to the intentions we have for ourselves and our country. Turning emotional reactivity into epic emotional strength comes from following a set of strength training techniques called The Method. The Method works like this: 1. Stay connected to your Self to know if you are in a reaction or in an intention. Check in with yourself as often as you check your phone, so you keep building a connection to your Self instead of continually disconnecting from your Self due to stress. 2. Be intentional with your communications with your Self and others so you're communicating with intention instead of communicating to your Self or anyone else in reaction to something. It’s easy to be in a reactive state and have all of your internal and external communication come from a reactive place rather than an intentional one, so make sure you're communicating intentionally. 3. If you find that you’re in a reactionary state, make a shift by choosing an intention and harnessing all your emotions into an outcome that you want to create. Focus on your outcomes over your reactions. Shift what would otherwise be a chain of reactions you might get stuck in, into a chain of intentions you’ll feel great about, and you’ll feel immediately more elevated and above all of the reactive ruckus around the election. 4. Say and do only what will create your outcomes in order to be productive instead of reactive. No matter how tempting it may be to speak and behave out of reaction, take action that is intentional and designed to create a desired outcome. This will shift all of the distress into success and in doing so you can rise above the reactivity of the election and declare yourself victorious.
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Write Your Way to Well-Being

The 25 women who had gathered in a windowless Seattle classroom for a writing workshop scribbled furiously for more than two hours in response to instructor Rachel M. Fiala’s “prompts.” In 10-minute sprints they wrote about difficult goodbyes in their lives, about their definitions of beauty, about what the sound of rain reminded them of. At the end of class Rachel gave her students an exercise in self-expression and self-discovery known as expressive writing: Over the next four days, for 20 uninterrupted minutes each day, write down your deepest feelings about an emotional upheaval in your life. Tonya Wilson, one of the most enthusiastic students in the class, would write about her mother abandoning her when she was 13. “The exercise was powerful,” she says. “I got to witness myself as that shattered 13-year-old.” Two years have passed since that writing assignment, but, Tonya says, “Talking about it today I can still feel the lump in my throat. I still mourn for that young girl and I think I always will, but now there is someone mourning for her rather than stuffing her in a closet and refusing to acknowledge her existence and her pain.” That first expressive writing assignment spurred a life-changing turnaround for Tonya. It all took place at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, the state prison where she has been serving time for attempted murder in the first degree since 2002. The Power of Personal Storytelling Expressive writing is a highly structured storytelling technique that guides people to describe their deepest worries and most troubling memories, find new meanings in these experiences and then go on to envision bolder and happier futures for themselves. It was developed in the mid-’80s by researcher James (Jamie) W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., now the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who was investigating the health impact of a wide range of traumatic experiences—the death of a spouse, natural disasters, sexual or physical abuse, divorce, the Holocaust. He discovered that writing about these traumas in an open and emotional way led to significant improvements in both physical and psychological well-being. Over the past 30 years hundreds of studies have confirmed the benefits of expressive writing. It helps reduce cancer-related symptoms and fatigue, increases immune functioning. leads to fewer doctor visits and enhances memory and sleep. College students who took part in expressive writing improved their grades and were less likely to drop out. Married couples who explored their conflicts through expressive writing were happier in their marriages than their non-writing counterparts. When asthma patients tried it, their lung functions improved while patients with rheumatoid arthritis showed better joint mobility. Putting pen to paper helped veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress better regulate their emotions; their moods improved, their stress levels declined and they were more likely to experience post-traumatic growth. What’s more, expressive writing enhances your well-being in both the short and long term. Immediately after writing about an emotional topic, people had lower blood pressure and heart rates. That was still true months later. Likewise, symptoms of depression, anxiety and rumination declined in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals. Expressive writing can even improve your social life. In an innovative study that Jamie led in 2001, each participant was asked to wear a small tape recorder before and after writing about a deep-seated emotional issue. The results showed that in the weeks after the writing experiences, people were more outgoing, laughed more easily and more often and used more positive emotion words. Writing from a deeply personal place, Jamie concluded, seemed to make people more socially adept: “they were better listeners, talkers—indeed, better friends and partners. How to Do It Expressive writing follows six simple steps: 1. Set aside at least 20 minutes over four consecutive days for writing. Try to write at the same time each day. The best time to write is when you’re not feeling hurried. You can write in a notebook, a pad, a computer. 2.   Write about the issues, conflicts, stressors or upheavals that are keeping you up at night. That can be something that’s happening in the here and now or an experience from the past that still troubles you. (If you’ve faced a huge loss or trauma in the last couple of weeks, it may be too soon for you to write about it.) 3.  Write continuously once you begin. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. If you want to keep writing after 20 minutes, go ahead. But plan to write for a minimum of 20 minutes. 4.  Really let go and write about your deepest thoughts and feelings around the issue or event you’ve chosen. You can write about the same topic every day or different topics. Explore how the event is tied to other areas of your life—your childhood; people you’ve most loved, feared or felt the most anger toward; your relationships with friends and family; your work life. 5. On your final day of writing, reflect on what you’ve disclosed over the previous three days. How can the meaningful story you’ve constructed help guide your thoughts and behaviors moving forward? Write about how the event is related to who’d you like to become. 6.  Think of expressive writing as a tool that’s always available to you. While it doesn’t replace medical or psychological help when you’re going through a true crisis, a “booster session” can be helpful when you find yourself stymied by a work or personal challenge. The Science Behind the Stories What is it about expressive writing that makes it so effective? “It’s complicated,” researchers say. Joshua M. Smyth, Ph.D., is a professor of biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State and co-author with Jamie of the upcoming book Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. “It seems to help a lot of things a little bit,” Joshua says. It helps people regulate emotions a bit. It helps social relationships a bit. It helps people find their purpose in life a bit, and so on. These small changes feed off one another and over time it leads to big improvements in well-being.” Timothy D. Wilson, Ph.D., the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, sees expressive writing as one technique of what he calls “story editing.” We all have personal narratives, he says, about what the world is like and who we are. Sometimes we develop pessimistic stories and get caught in self-defeating thinking. Revising our stories can help us view events through more optimistic lenses and that, in turn, can lead to positive and lasting changes. “Expressive writing helps us reframe events and our history,” Timothy says. “When you try out a different interpretation that shows in your behavior and your attitude and when you realize a payoff, you build on that new behavior.” This type of writing goes deeper than what most of us think about as journaling. That certainly was the case for John F. Evans, who leads expressive writing workshops at Wellness & Writing Connections in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He’s also the co-author with Jamie of Expressive Writing: Words That Heal. But before he became familiar with Jamie’s work, John had maintained a journal, on and off, through high school, college and early adulthood. During these years he suffered from depression and it wasn’t until he was 40 that he took his first expressive writing workshop. He wrote about something that had remained a never-discussed family secret: the death of his sister when he was 3 years old. Though he would also seek out psychotherapy, the writing, John says, was the beginning of emotional restoration. “I was able to write about my deepest feelings, construct a meaningful narrative and then write about how I wanted to go forward,” he says. “It gave me a measure of control over my life.” That sense of control and narrative was missing from his journals. “When I went back and re-read them,” he says, “I realized they were mainly a place to vent. I kept writing about the same thing in the same way, using the same language. There was no arc in my story; it was a flat line. I was just ruminating on paper.” People who benefit the most from expressive writing use certain types of words throughout the exercise. Their writing includes more positive emotion words, such as love, funny, joy, courageous, calm and thankful, indicating that even while they’re acknowledging painful experiences they’re able to see the upsides. As they move from the first day of writing through the fourth, they go from using mostly first-person pronouns (I, me, mine) to incorporating he, she and they; that shows they’re viewing their emotional upheavals from different perspectives. And, as the days pass, they also sprinkle their writings with words like understand, realize and know, evidence that they’re able to find meaning in loss or distress. When we’re able to “repackage” a stressful event into coherent stories, a couple of important things happen. First, we move toward a sense of resolution that gradually diminishes the power and pain of the disturbing experiences. (Those of us who are brooders and ruminators are especially likely to benefit from expressive writing.) Secondly, we’re less likely to experience intrusive thoughts about the experiences, the kind that disturb our sleep, wreck our focus and even make us less able to stay connected with other people. It’s the equivalent of shutting down those apps that run in the background on our smartphones draining battery life and slowing performance. Closing the Circle Two months after she began serving her sentence, Tonya, in wrist and ankle shackles, would attend the funeral of her mother, who died of her decades-long drug addiction. From her first expressive writing assignment through many more, Tonya struggled to understand and forgive her mother. As she wrote she began to heal. “Expressive writing,” she says, “allowed me to see that my life has a purpose and my pain has a purpose.” She began to see her future as working toward prison reform and real, effective rehabilitation for inmates and others at the margins of society, including addicts. Transformation, she says, can take place only within a support system that sees the value and promise of every life and where people have a stake in each other’s success. In 2015, Tonya described her vision in a poetic and passionate TEDx talk. “True rehabilitation,” she said, “occurs through connections with others. Every time I’ve gotten better it’s because I’ve seen the possibility of healing or strength in another person. Every time I’ve been the model for someone else, lives have changed.” She would conclude her talk to a standing ovation. “Don’t underestimate the value of your own story simply because there is suffering it in,” Tonya said. “You may just be the catalyst for someone else’s rehabilitation. Continue with patience, with compassion and with an open heart." This article originally appeared in the June 2016 edition of Live Happy magazine.
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