In this month’s column, we respond to your questions about happiness and suggest ways to increase your sense of well-being.
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Q: When I turn on the television, I often see advertisements for antidepressants, herbs and other treatments that “guarantee” happiness. Isn’t there a straightforward, no-nonsense guide to real joy—one without pills or other treatments?
A: Secret formulas to instant happiness are as hyped as a used-car salesman’s deals, but real happiness comes from having a purpose in life, which is determined by the choices and changes you can make every day. Make the following actions part of your regular routine, because we know that happy people do these things more often than unhappy people.
- Talk nicely to yourself. Out with the put-downs (Why can’t I do anything right?) and in with encouraging, positive words (Great job!). So give yourself regular pep talks.
- Get really connected. Swap the Facebooking and other electronic communications for heart-to-heart conversations with people you care about and who care about you. Talk to them in person if you can, or telephone them if you can’t meet face to face.
- Say thanks. Keep a daily journal to remind you how much you’re grateful for. Review your gratitude journal each day so you remain optimistic and thankful.
- Get moving. Sitting around brooding perpetuates a cycle of negative thinking. Schedule at least 30 minutes of activity a day to boost happiness.
- Meditate. The process eases stress, strengthens immunity and increases happiness.
- Understand unhappiness when it occurs. When things get you down (which they will), learn from them. Hard times help us see what really matters.
- And most important: Share your passion. It’s great to give to charity or volunteer, but there’s more to the golden rule than meets the eye. Getting involved with a cause that matters to you benefits you as much as others. You don’t have to donate money, just time and passion. You don’t have an obligation to society to find a bigger purpose; you have an obligation to your own health and happiness. And the more you value what you are doing with your mind, the more you’ll do healthier things with your body.
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Q: I’ve recently been running and often hear about a so-called “runner’s high” that has to do with endorphins. What is this?
A: Endorphins are proteins produced by your cells (mostly in your nervous system) that act like narcotics to relieve pain and stress. Aerobic exercise—a workout that makes you sweat in a cold room—increases endorphins. Even a little exercise improves your mood.
Endorphins are powerful. Their release can reduce depression more effectively than many antidepressants. And athletes say strenuous endeavors such as a hilly, long-distance run can produce an endorphin high that lasts many hours.
Endorphin release may allow you to exercise more, too. Many scientists credit endorphin release for a runner’s experience of what’s often described as a “second wind,” a feeling of peace or almost effortless movement.
Regular exercise also provides a sense of purpose and accomplishment that is a crucial ingredient to happiness.
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Q: People say that simply by smiling, someone can be happier. Is that true?
A: We all have friends or family who fit the polar ends of personality: the cheerleader types who smile after getting puddle-pummeled by a bus and the negative types who scowl at butterflies. Scientists aren’t sure how or why, but research has shown that smiling lightens a person’s mood (and frowning drags it down).
Positive emotions play a crucial role in developing the enduring relationships that are critical for your happiness. One example of this is the shared smile between mother and baby. If you add laughter to that smile, you increase the feel-good effect, reduce stress and pain, relax your body and boost your immune system. If you share your smile by making someone else smile, you’ll pass on the benefits to him or her.
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Q: Every winter I feel down even though I haven’t been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. I know it has to do with the sun, but can you explain it?
A: Sunlight and the vitamin D3 it provides both have important effects on mood. Those who are depressed because of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, feel better when they’re exposed to special ultraviolet lights for the home for 20 minutes a day. Another option that’s been shown to work: Go to sports events or arenas where there are a lot of bright lights because any strong lights can brighten your mood.
Also ensure that you’re getting adequate exercise and enough vitamin D3 in supplements (1,000 IU a day) to keep the downside at bay.
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Q: How does adequate sleep affect a person’s happiness?
A: Individuals with insomnia, especially chronic insomnia, are a whopping five times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety! Sleep is the major stimulant for your own growth hormone, which is superior to what you can get from a vial. Your own growth hormone helps keep your skin taut and vibrant. After all, nobody looks all that beautiful with bags under the eyes. So sleep makes you feel better and look better.
We’ve all suffered from sleepless periods, and if you’re not getting adequate sleep for weeks and months on end, it’s time to see a physician. A 2006 Institute of Medicine report estimated that 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer from chronic but treatable sleep disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment, and one such program is GO! To Sleep on the Cleveland Clinic Wellness site. The $40 web-based program, designed for at-home use for six weeks, is smartphone-accessible.
In the meantime, make your bedroom a no-electronics zone to remove distractions that interfere with sleep. Before bedtime, spend 10 minutes to prep for the next day (making a list or lunch), 10 minutes for hygiene and 10 minutes for meditation. Keep the room cool and dark during sleep hours.
Relearning a healthful sleep pattern may take six to eight weeks, but it’s worth the effort. You’ll function better, look much better and be much happier.
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Q: What are the benefits of a good sex life?
A: Sexual intimacy increases the body’s release of oxytocin, a chemical that enhances happiness and pleasure for you and your partner.
The benefits don’t stop there, though. Mutually monogamous sex reduces your risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer and even accidents; it makes you look and feel younger; and it dampens pain. Why? Sex and orgasm increase blood flow to your arteries (that’s why your skin plumps in important areas and certain organs get bigger and harder). This increased blood flow provides more oxygen and nutrients to places that need it most, including your brain, which is really your biggest sex organ. Sex rejuvenates hair and skin for the same reason.
We’d say that it’s nature’s best, and most fun, way of reducing your RealAge (the age of your body based on your health history and practices) and making you more beautiful (for more about how to measure and improve inner and outer beauty, visit our website YOUBeauty.com).
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Q: My friend has been eating a dark chocolate bar with chili pepper in it. To me it sounds disgusting, but she says there are health benefits and it lifts her mood. Is this true?
A: Yes, spicy foods and chocolate make your RealAge younger, but you don’t have to eat them together—that’s up to your taste buds.
First let’s start with dark chocolate. Dark chocolate (it must contain at least 70 percent cocoa)—not milk chocolate—contains natural chemicals that help protect your cells from free radicals that cause inflammation and disease. Dark chocolate also contains agents to lower your blood pressure. A half-ounce a day is the recommended “dosage.”
Spicy foods (and chili peppers in particular) activate endorphins, natural painkillers. The result? For some, it’s all watery eyes, a flaming mouth and tingly lips; for others, it’s pure pain relief and happiness. Chili peppers also contain an active ingredient called capsaicin, which can be found in some topical arthritis creams and is beneficial in relieving joint pain in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Our recommendation is that you eat a half-ounce of 70 percent or greater dark chocolate each day and enjoy spicy food if you can handle it.