Category Archives for Happiness

Wellbeing Wonder Number 4: Positive relationships

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Today’s wellbeing wonder of people is a very important one, especially given that loneliness is on the increase, particularly amongst older people and can be very detrimental to mental health.

Being around people who love and support you is important for many reasons, including good wellbeing. Positive relationships are one of the cornerstones of the PERMA model from Martin Seligman (the father of positive psychology). His research suggests that pain centres in the brain are activated when we are lonely and, being the strong social creatures that we are, we flourish when we have strong, positive connections with others.

Are all relationships good?

Unfortunately, not all relationships are positive. There are manipulative and unhealthy relationships. There are unfortunately some people in the world who are critical, snarky and judgemental. Being around these types of people and the negative energy that they consistently give off can be very draining and it’s very hard to avoid getting dragged into their negative whirlpool. While it’s not always possible to rid them from your life completely, spending less time with this type of person and setting appropriate, healthy boundaries can be a great first step (though they may well complain about this too!).

The importance of positive relationships

Instead, cultivating healthy relationships with people who are more positive and energising to be with can really make a difference to your levels of happiness on a day to day basis. I’m not talking about people who are without the full range of emotions we all have as humans, and of course we all have our difficult and down days, but those authentic people who are genuinely supportive of you and your goals in life. They may well challenge you (and that’s a good thing), but it’s likely to be in helpful and encouraging ways rather than the negative naysayers, who are of course often hiding behind their own fears and projecting them on to you.

As you spend more time with positive people, of course you become more positive too and that’s when relationships of many types can truly flourish. Whether it’s a friendship, work, family or romantic relationship you can support each other in many different ways, whether it’s simply having a cracking good laugh, helping each other through a tricky time or working out how you will conquer the world.

It’s a very beautiful thing and a real wellbeing wonder.

 

Wellbeing Wonder Number 2: Sleep MHAW17

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Sleep is one of those things that when you’re getting enough of it, you don’t even notice it, but when there’s an issue with it (as any new parent will tell you), it can dominate your life.

There seems to be a little bit of conflicting evidence about how much sleep you need…is it 8 hours or 10 hours or is Maggie Thatcher’s 4 hour’s enough for the macho ‘super busy’ amongst us? Well, it depends on you and by the time you reach a certain age, you know how much sleep you need to make you function properly. There is even some thought that women need more sleep owing to the complexity of our brains 😉

For me personally, sleep has magical restorative powers like nothing else and one of the reasons most of us feel so good on and after holidays is the extra sleep and rest we allow ourselves; like the little afternoon naps…

The power of the nap

You either love it or hate it and I’m a lover of a little afternoon nap. Indeed, I’ve got a little sunny napping corner in my house where it’s perfect to curl up for a 20 minute afternoon nap, but not quite comfortable enough to go for an all out sleep.

There’s plenty of evidence that an afternoon nap of around 20 minutes is great for your productivity and learning capacity. Winston Churchill apparently had an afternoon nap every day during the war, so if it’s good enough for Winston…!

Dealing with sleep issues

Unfortunately sometimes sleep becomes an issue and most of us have times where we are struggling with sleep. This can often be due to something stressful or worrying that’s happening in our lives and a changed sleep pattern is often one of the first signs something’s not quite right. You might struggle to get to sleep, or have a consistently disturbed sleep, wake up super early every day or indeed be sleeping far more than usual.

What’s worked for me at times like these is going back to sleep basics and trying to accept that it’s a phase that will most likely pass. And of course, trying to deal with whatever it is that is stressing or worrying you if the most helpful thing, though sometimes that’s easier said than done. So what are the basics of a good night’s sleep?

Sleep Basics

  • Create a calming atmosphere in your bedroom…piles of clothes, or unread books do not a soothing sleep-sanctuary make. You don’t have to make your bedroom into a pinterest-worthy zen-like space, but a bedroom that is calm and soothing is a good start.
  • Turn off your phone and laptop and television well before bed. Yes, we all know that blue light emissions don’t help with sleep, but how many of us actually turn them off the recommended 1 hour+ before bed? If you’re having sleep issues, it’s probably the first thing you should try.
  • Make a conscious effort to relax. It might be having a bath, doing a bit of yoga, or a trip to the gym followed by a sauna, but finding the way that you relax and unwind is an important part of ending the day and helping your brain to switch off.
  • Meditate – I’m a huge fan of meditation (more on that tomorrow) and simply focusing on your breath for a few minutes can be enough to calm a racing mind. There are plenty of apps and youtube sleep meditations – my favourite is the Andrew Johnson’s lovely soothing deep sleep app. There’s an irony of course in that your phone then has to be on…but you can put it somewhere you can’t reach it 🙂

You can read yesterday’s ‘wellbeing wonder’ post about exercise here. 

 

 

Wellbeing Wonders: Mental Health Awareness Week

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This week is once again mental health awareness week (where has the last year gone?!). Last year, I posted a post a day for mental health awareness week and this year I thought I would again.

This year’s focus is ‘survive or thrive’. It’s a really good choice of topic as for many people even without a recognisable mental health problem, they are simply surviving in their life, rather than truly thriving. Often this is due to stress – work, family, financial (or sometimes all three) and there are many people using self-medicating habits to just get through the day or week, rather than truly living a life they love.

Learning to thrive is the cornerstone of positive psychology and something I’ve really been focussing on my own life in the past year and a half. It’s not always been plain sailing but it always makes a difference when I refocus on the things that matter and get back to the ‘wellbeing wonders’ that have helped me to live a life I truly love and thrive. I thought it might be helpful to share them with you as a good reminder to us all!


Wellbeing Wonder Number 1: Move (lots).

We all know that exercise is good for us. There is overwhelming evidence that exercise has a positive impact not just on our bodies, but our minds too; the NHS recommends it for mild depression and research is showing that the benefits to a range of cognitive functions can be significant.

I’ve always thought I was fairly active (walking lots with the dogs and walking around school as a teacher), but to be honest I was kidding myself a bit really and it wasn’t until I really stepped it up that I noticed a huge difference in my wellbeing (both mental and physical).

I started going to the gym most days and, alongside walking in the fresh air (hint: getting outside is also a wellbeing wonder!), it’s now my go-to stress-busting activity and an everyday priority. I work, sleep and feel so much better after my morning exercise and generally go about my day with a spring in my step.

I definitely underestimated the impact until I had to take a break from it due to ill health and could feel myself less able to deal with the daily stresses of life. It felt so good to be back to the gym and I’ve recently taken up ‘running’ (the couch to 5k app is great if you are thinking of doing the same).

The sense of achievement you feel over time is also great for your wellbeing and of course there are the social benefits too; I’ve made some gorgeous friends at the gym and my new ‘running buddies’ are such a lovely, encouraging bunch.

So, my tip is to find something you love to do, and if you don’t know what that is, then try different things until you do!

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3 Reasons Taking Risks Makes You Happy

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Depending on your perspective, risk taking may be something you’re familiar and happy with, or something you balk at. Our personalities, circumstances and life phase sets our attitude to risk and whether we are likely to take a risk. Of course it also depends on what the risk is.

So, what are ‘risks’?
There are many possible ‘risks’ we encounter in our lives; the risks we’re talking about here are not destructive or reckless risk-taking behaviours that are dangerous to your own or anyone else’s well-being; rather they are the roads that appear before us and that we ‘could’ travel down or the risks that we ‘could’ take to follow our dreams – if we just weren’t so fearful / comfortable / secure / stuck. Risks are about making your ideas and dreams into a plan and then a reality.

It could be changing career path from a field in which you are well-established but feel it is not fulfilling you as much as it once did to a new one that you feel more passionate about, or even just moving jobs within the same field. It could be finally trying a new activity that you’ve been wanting to for ages but have been putting off, or travelling somewhere new, perhaps on your own.

Essentially, risks are about putting yourself out there, taking the plunge and going for it!

Depending on your outlook, the risks we mean here are either the secret keys to life’s big adventure, or they are to be avoided as they rock your serene boat way too much. So why should you take risks in life – and how can they make you happier?

  1. Taking calculated risks widens your perspective

If you always do the same thing, with the same people and in the same places, over time your viewpoint may narrow. Going to different places, meeting different people and trying new things means you find out different perspectives and ways of doing things.

Dislike your boss? Well, a new one might be better – ok, they could be worse too, but they’ll be different and you’ll certainly learn things along the way. Always go to the same coffee shops? Well, how about you try a different place? You might find much cooler, funkier places to work where you’ll meet some great people who’ll become your friends (I’m writing this in one of my very favourite coffee shops that I didn’t know existed this time last year).

Fancy visiting a new place but not sure what it’ll be like travelling on your own? Well get the guide books out, ask around and book those tickets! This was also me last summer…and while I can’t guarantee you’ll have the time of your life – you might (I did!) and you’ll definitely broaden your perspective about the world. There’s nothing like travel to make you see your life in a very different light.

  1. Taking even small risks increases your confidence and takes you closer to being the real ‘you’.

Many of us have blips in our self-confidence throughout our lives for one reason or another. At those times it’s tempting to hide away from the world and retreat. While this can help us feel safe for a little while, if it goes on too long, it can be an ever-decreasing circle. If you can put yourself out there and push your boundaries even in very small ways, you can find out new things about yourself, for example what you like and dislike, how you want to live your life, and very definitely what makes you happy.

For example, when I first started lifting weights in the gym (and it took me a while of watching others do it to pluck up the courage), I felt extremely self-conscious. However, I got myself a personal training session, got past the awkwardness and now it’s an essential part of my daily routine. And when I fell off the horse due to illness, I missed it terribly. I realised it makes me happy – I like the changes it’s made to my body, my mind and confidence. There’s something about being stronger that makes you feel stronger in every area of your life. Liking and believing in yourself really is one of the true keys to happiness and being quietly confident about who you are brings a great sense of peace and clarity to your life.

  1. Helps you find your purpose in life

I’m a big fan of positive psychology and according to positive psychology studies – and many other philosophies and religions – living a meaningful and purposeful life is one of the keys to happiness.

Meaning and purpose of course mean different things to us all. It may be finding your ‘calling’ in your job, home life or community. It could be from the way you choose to live your life and in your interactions with others. Often people find their purpose in giving or contributing to others in some way and there is a lot of evidence that can make a positive difference to how happy you feel.

Why-risks-make-you-happy-pupI’ll write another time about my experience of socialising a hearing dog puppy, and I wouldn’t say that training dogs is my calling in life, but certainly it’s helped to give it a little boost of purpose and meaning at a time I was feeling a bit lost and I do feel that I feel I have found my ‘true calling’ recently…so perhaps it’s no coincidence!

It was a risk to me taking on a hearing dog pup – could I fit it into my already busy life? How will we all be when the pup has to go on to the next stage of training? (easy answer = sad but very proud!). BUT, it’s a small risk I’m so glad that I have taken. I’ve met so many lovely people and learnt so much as a result of having her (and she makes me beam with happiness every single morning when she wakes up with the waggiest tail and backside I have ever seen, so that in itself makes me happy!).

On a professional note, it was a huge risk when 6 years ago I left the security of teaching to start my own training company. I’ve been freelance for that length of time and while at times I’ve really missed teaching pupils, I have learnt SO much, had so many different experiences and been able to become involved in many different projects because I am not a classroom teacher. So, yes, a big risk, but those of us who are entrepreneurs, being ready and willing to jump is part of the deal.

Indeed, I’ve just given up the security of a lovely consultancy role which I really enjoyed but needed a bit much travelling for my wellbeing and I’ve decided to fully pursue a new EdTech startup I’ve been toying with for a while, which fits with the purpose I feel I’ve found in my life (I’ll share more details soon!) Scary yes, but I also know from experience it will make me healthier and happier!

So, there you go, 3 reasons risks can make you happier. What risk could you take today?

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7 reasons why holidays are good for our minds

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As I sit here looking out at my chickens sheltering from the pouring rain, I can’t help reminiscing about my recent gloriously relaxing holiday in the sunshine. Sigh!

Since coming home a couple of weeks ago I feel much more calm, relaxed and focussed than before I went.  I can see things more clearly, am full of creative ideas and feel totally motivated to get cracking with them. It got me thinking about why holidays are so good for our minds…

Bring Me Sunshine

Of course not all holidays involve sunshine, but let’s talk about those that do. There is evidence that sunshine is great for our brains in a couple of ways:

  • Sun increases serotonin levels
    Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter that helps to transmit signals between nerve cells in the brain. Low serotonin levels are thought to be a factor in depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. You may have come across SSRIs, popular anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac, which increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. The intensity of light that sunshine brings has the same effect – it increases the production of serotonin in the brain and can boost our mood. It’s why high intensity light (SAD) lamps are recommended for people who have lower moods throughout the darker winter months.
  • Sunshine helps us make Vitamin D
    Also, there is emerging evidence that vitamin D is not only essential for healthy bones but for the production of serotonin – and of course the best source of Vitamin D is from exposing skin to the sunshine. And it’s a great reason for getting outside whether on holiday or not! The NHS suggest exposing your unprotected skin to sunshine for 10-15 minutes a day is enough for light-skinned people to make all the vitamin D they need – any more and it’s time to reach for the sunscreen.

What Do You Mean We Need a Break from the old routine?

Working, washing, cooking, shopping, cleaning, dog walking, gardening…the list goes on for those of us who work, look after a home, bring up children, try to look after ourselves and nurture our relationships with our family and friends. It can be pretty exhausting by itself, but throw in some of life’s curveballs and a bit of extra pressure and it can easily to head in the direction of dangerous levels of stress.

Being on holiday allows us – if we’re lucky – to take a break from all the day-to-day chores and responsibilities – someone else makes all the food, cleans up after everyone and your main task is to spend time with the people you love, relax and have fun – total bliss! Which brings me to…

An opportunity to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with their’s

The airline safety announcement analogy is so very true and on holiday we can get more of a chance to actually do it. Those of us who are mums are so used to putting others first, but good holidays really do allow us to focus on a bit of ‘me time’ and recharge our batteries.

Of course, this does depend on the age of any children you have, who you’re on holiday with and what type of holiday you’re having ; however even just the fact that you don’t have to do any of the usual chores frees up SO much time for you to spend on things you would actually like to do – whatever they may be. Whether it’s a morning yoga session, a swim in the pool, a read of a good book or scuba diving, there just is so much more time in the day on holidays, and the chances are you can get some very good quality me time in there somehow.

(As an aside, if you have small children and they are stuck to you like a limpet for the whole holiday, do not fear, they will be teenagers soon enough and then they’re quite glad for you to have ‘me time’!)

A chance to slow down and relax

Linked to this, is that holidays generally mean more relaxation – whatever that means to you personally. It may be lying on a sunbed for 2 weeks, or lots of activities every day, but relaxation is the order of the day and boy is it good for your mind – and body.

Holidays also remind us of the beauty of living life at a slow pace. Hours disappear messing about in the sand, sitting and chatting in a café or watching the sun go down is time well spent. We don’t hurry to get on with the next thing or worry about walking the dog, washing the dishes and finishing that presentation and what we’re not doing, we just enjoy the moment. Which of course is what mindfulness is all about and if the holiday forces align correctly, there are many beautiful mindful moments.

Seeing things more clearly

Such moments of course gives us the chance to clear the mind from daily ‘clutter’ and allow you to see things with a new perspective, perhaps reassessing aspects of your life, your values and your goals. Holidays give us time to reflect on who who we are and where we are going – and crucially whether this is the direction in which we’d like to keep travelling!

Coming up with creative solutions to niggling problems seems easier on holiday. This may be something to do with travelling to another land – Maddux and Galinsky’s studies found links between living abroad and increased creativity

Reconnecting

Everyday life can chip away at family connections and spending quality time with the ones you love helps to reconnect on a deep level. Lehto, Choi, Lin and MacDermid found in their studies of 265 travellers that going on holiday as a family contributes positively to family connection, bonding, communication and feelings of belonging. This is really important for us all – and especially our children – to feel.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside.

Finally, I am reminded about some of the cognitive benefits of being by the sea – covered more in my post on reasons from psychology that learning to surf rocked my world. Recent evidence suggests that being near large expanses of water is very good for the mind. So, even a trip to the seaside can be great for you if you can’t go on a full holiday.

So there you go, 8 reasons why holidays are good for your mind – which sound like 8 good reasons to book another holiday to me! And remember, holidays need not always be super luxurious to have all, or most of these benefits for your mind – it’s what works for you and your loved ones that’s important – and taking a well-earned break. Now, where did I put those travel guides…?

 

5 Reasons From Psychology that Surfing Rocked My World

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Six months ago I turned 40 and tried surfing for the first time. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I’ve been thinking about how psychology might explain why surfing had such an impact on me.

Surfing gave me a sense of joy I haven’t experienced for a long time. The rush was unbelievable, especially for those few sweet moments when I stood and rode a wave. I finished feeling completely invigorated yet totally calm in a way that I haven’t experienced before. Here’s 5 reasons from psychology why that might be:

1. Experiencing Flow

When surfing I was totally immersed in the moment, concentrating fully on my goal of standing up and riding a wave. No multi-tasking, no ego, no sense of time. Although my mind was extremely busy concentrating it was also incredibly tranquil. In other words, I was experiencing the heightened focus and absorption in an activity positive psychologists call ‘flow’.

Csikszentmihalyi is the granddaddy of flow and he suggests that to experience it an activity should have a balance between challenge and enjoyment, with challenge being the most important factor; what at you’re doing should be challenging, but not so hard that you think it’s impossible – it’s one of the reasons computer games are so addictive. For me, surfing fits that bill perfectly – I found it pretty tricky, but the sense of exhilaration when I manged to ride a wave was worth every dunking, donk on the head from my board and mouthful of Pacific ocean!

Studies suggest flow can lead to greater happiness, increased well-being and a positive sense of self. And while one study of big-wave surfers suggests that the flow experienced in surfing can have a dangerously addictive quality, I think I’ll be ok!

2. Cognitive Benefits of Exercising in the Ocean

There is an undeniable connection between the body, mind and nature that takes place when you’re surfing. Psychology backs this up…

Cognitive Benefits of Exercise
There is much evidence for the benefits of exercise on the mind – this study found that even a single session of moderate exercise impacted participants’ cognitive performance, and this 2013 review of other studies concluded that physical activity was a valuable tool in preventing depression. So surfing is good for your mental and physical health and using up all that energy meant amazing big breakfasts in Woody’s!

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A typically incredibly PB sunset.

Cognitive Benefits of Exercising in Nature
Combining exercise with nature may have particular benefits for the brain; this 2015 study found participants who walked in nature for 90 minutes had reduced brain activity in their subgenual prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with mental health issues. This didn’t happen in the group who walked in an urban environment. So, this probably contributed to my post-surf grin!

Cognitive Benefits of Being in the Pacific Ocean.
It’s been known for centuries that being by expanses of water has many benefits for well-being. In his book ‘Blue Mind’, Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist explores how being by or in water increases calmness, decreases anxiety and increases performance. Most of us would be hard pressed to disagree and we spent much of our holiday by the ocean – the Pacific Beach sunsets were incredible!

3. Parallels with Mindfulness Meditation & Yoga

Surfing has many things in common with other activities shown to have highly positive impact on well-being, such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga. Certainly the instructions to ‘take a breath, relax and wait for the wave’ felt very similar to yoga and meditation.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to alter the structure of the brain, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) associated with anxiety and increase athletes’ sense of flow. And this 2015 study found that those who practiced yoga regularly did not display the age-related decline in grey matter of the control group. So, the parallels between surfing and yoga – you position yourself into a cobra pose before popping up onto the board (and adopting a version of warrior) – may bring additional brain and mind benefits, as does being a total beginner…

4. Playtime with a Beginner’s Mind

I was first introduced to the concept of a beginners’ mind by the brilliant meditation app ‘headspace’ (if you haven’t tried it – you should). The concept of Beginner’s Mind , or ‘shosin’ as Buddhists call it, is all about having the ‘attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconception’ that beginners usually possess.

Being a beginner surfer gave me permission to be rubbish without any need for explanation. I left my ego on the beach – there is no way you can care what people think when you are being dunked unceremoniously by a large wave wearing a wetsuit. There is a real sense of freedom – and fun – in that.

Tiny things felt huge; when I progressed from getting one knee up before tipping off to getting half way up, it felt great. When I stood up, it felt absolutely incredible. When I stayed up – for about 2 seconds before I squealed with glee and fell into the Pacific – it was the most exhilarating feeling ever! The enormous fun that goes with that is something as adults we quite often forget. There are well-documented cognitive benefits of play for children though few studies focus on adults, the success of last year’s adult ball pit Jump In! and this telegraph article examining the trend behind ‘play for adults’, suggests it’s an area of increasing interest and I’d definitely volunteer for a study!

5. Going Out of My Comfort Zone

As an adult I’ve always enjoyed pushing myself out of my comfort zone. While being a mum put a stop to activities like bungee jumping, learning to surf with my son was pretty cool, even though I was pretty nervous before-hand.

Harnessing a healthy level of anxiety has long been acknowledged as important in living life to the full. The Yerkes-Dodson U-shaped curve developed in 1908 explained why we perform better when we are experiencing some anxiety. However, there is a fine line – too much anxiety and arousal and performance drops.

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So, surfing for me was anxiety-inducing to a point, but not enough to make me so anxious my knees knocked and I froze (that was bungee jumping!). And sharing this experience with my son I hope will encourage him to go outside his comfort zone in the future and understand why that’s a good thing.

So there you go, 5 ideas from psychology that may explain my love for learning to surf. I can personally account for the fact that there are so many benefits to surfing; it’s definitely worth a try! While California is not quite accessible every weekend, I’ll definitely be seeking out the best surfing spots in the UK and Europe. Thurso anyone?

 

Update: New research from Michigan State University suggests looking out over the ocean or sea makes you happier!