Happiness is a Conjunction!

“Happiness is completely and utterly intertwined with other people,” writes Eric Weiner, world traveler and author of The Geography of Bliss. After traveling the globe and interviewing both ordinary people and hundreds of “happiness experts”, Weiner found that our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and even the local coffee barista, add to our overall happiness and well being.  In fact, Weiner writes, “Happiness is not a noun or verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective tissue.”

In addition, when we are feeling connected to one another, not only are we happier, we are better able to fight off illnesses such as the flu and, yes, cancer.

Research confirms this link in a 2006 study of over 3,000 nurses. The findings: Women with breast cancer who could name at least ten friends had a four times better chance of surviving cancer than women who could not. Interestingly, you did not need to live next door to these friends. It was not about geographical proximity. Studies show that a longer life span was a result of an overall feeling of connectedness to others, whether they lived half-way around the world or in the same city.

What about Facebook? A 2016 study found that when students update their Facebook status—like, post, share, or comment—they reported lower levels of loneliness. Researchers believe that the drop in reported loneliness is linked to feeling more socially connected. According to researcher Moira Burke, however, participants who only lurked reported an increase in feeling lonely, isolated, and depressed. And other studies have shown that Facebook can cause one to feel left out, thus the expression FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

Another study of 736 men in Sweden came up with similar findings to the nurse’s study, but on the flip side. Lack of social support was found to predict all causes of mortality. In fact, mortality had little to do with the etiology of the disease and had much more to do with lack of social ties. The study also found that lack of social support had the same risk factor of smoking. Other studies have confirmed these findings showing that strong social connections increase longevity by 50%, help us recover from disease faster, and improves overall physical and psychological health.

Steve Coleshows, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the UCLA School of Medicine found that genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation. Simply stated, social connection strengthens our immune system. Again, the reverse is also true. Loneliness can weaken it. After controlling for baseline health status, researchers found that risk of death increased for individuals with a low quantity, and sometimes low quality, of social relationships.

“Social isolation is the public health risk of our time,” says psychologist Susan Pinker. Unfortunately, Pinker explains, only “a third of the population says they have two or fewer people to lean on. It is a biological imperative to know that we belong. Building and sustaining a village is a matter of life and death.”

Not only do relationships and a feeling of connectedness help extend our lives, but studies show people who feel connected have higher self-esteem, and are more empathetic, trusting, and cooperative compared to less connected people. Sometimes this is a self-fulfilling prophesy, however. Less connected people tend to isolate themselves, leading to further isolation. More socially connected people reach out; thus a positive feedback loop occurs, and these people find themselves with more opportunity for social engagement.

Below are some tips taken from Mental Health America to help you create a plan to make, keep, and strengthen connections in your life:

  • Make a short list of friends and family members who are supportive and positive. Also include a list of people you feel the need to stay in touch with regularly such as parents, a close friend or adult child who lives far away, or an aging relative who lives alone.
  • Make a commitment to yourself to call, email or get together with them on a schedule that’s reasonable for you. Try to reach out to make at least one emotional connection a day, but plan realistically. In cases of long distance, consider using web-based ways of keeping in touch, like Skype or Facebook.
  • Share what’s on your mind honestly and openly. Talk about your concerns in a straight-forward way, but try to keep it constructive. Try to be direct about what you need – for example a sympathetic ear, help solving a problem, a fresh perspective, new ideas or a good laugh. Don’t hesitate to ask for the kind of help you’d like. Ask what other people think about your situation, and show them you value their opinion.
  • When you talk, also listen. Ask about someone else’s day, or follow up on the topic of a previous conversation. Showing sincere interest in another person’s life builds relationships and listening to other people’s concerns can often shed a new light on your own challenges. Offer help or advice if asked – listen and respond.
  • Make social plans. Create opportunities to strengthen your relationships with fun things that both you and your friend or relative will enjoy. Looking forward to special activities boosts our spirits, gives us energy and makes us more productive.

You may find that among people you hardly know, one or more can become trusted friends you can rely on—and support—in good times and bad. Even if you feel that you’re so busy you don’t have time to keep up with family and friends you already have, it doesn’t take much time to make new friends. If you’re shy and hesitant about meeting new people, just a few questions can get a conversation going. Think about neighbors you pass regularly, co-workers, people in your exercise class, a cousin you’ve lost touch with, or those who volunteer in the same organizations you do. If you don’t already have people you can talk with regularly about what’s on your mind, it’s worth the effort to build connections for your emotional health. If you find yourself anxious or timid about social interaction, you may want to consider talking to a therapist or counselor to build your confidence in social situations. (taken from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/stay-connected)

For more on social connection and living longer check out the following TED Talk.



We are Designed to Move Our Bodies

Today’s sedentary lifestyle is wreaking havoc on our health. According to James A. Levine, a pioneering spirit paving the way for research on the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle, any extended sitting, such as sitting at one’s desk or behind the wheel of one’s car, can be harmful to our health including increasing the risk of cancers.

Our bodies are designed to move. Certain parts of our body such as the lymphatic system, for example, cannot function properly without physical movement. Our lymphatic system is made up of over 600 vessels and nodes intricately woven together in a complicated but exquisite network and is responsible for detoxifying our bodies by transporting fluids, allocating proteins, and removing cellular debris and foreign material. Because the lymphatic system does not have an in-house pump (the heart) like the circulatory system, these vessels require muscle contraction for it to move and do its job properly. Thus, when we move, the lymph system moves. When we don’t move, the lymph system can become stagnant and cells will literally fester in their own waste.

We can avoid this from happening by simply moving our bodies. Studies show that aerobic activities such as jumping rope or bouncing on a trampoline is extremely beneficial to getting the lymph system moving as well as fostering blood flow throughout our bodies delivering much needed nutrients to all our vital organs.

Not only will exercise of all types help the body fight cancer and other diseases, exercise slows down the release of stress hormones, boosts the immune system, and helps maintain a healthy body weight. The American Cancer Society (2011) recommends thirty to sixty minutes of exercise five days per week. Not only will you be healthier, feel happier and have more energy, but you will be more focused and productive both at work and at home.

This is because physical exercise improves neural functioning, self-regulation and focused attention. How? When we move our bodies, oxygen is pumped into our brains giving us more energy as well as a feeling of euphoria. This is partly due to the endorphin lift we get from exercising. Endorphins act as analgesics or pain killer. They also have a sedative effect relaxing us after a busy day (why I call exercise my happy pill). These feel good chemicals are released in the brain no matter what your choice of activity—golf, aerobics, or dancing—and they all contribute to a healthier, happier you.

Like everything, however, when it comes to exercise, balance is key. Too much exercise can actually result in an increase of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), and in turn decrease white blood cell activity which is responsible for fighting disease. What is too much?  Exercise that is intensive and long term. Rigorous exercise can have negative effects on the body. It can also result in feeling overwhelmed and increase the risk of quitting. When in question, if you are experiencing injuries, exhaustion and depression, you may be working out too much.

And how will you know if you are exercising enough? It is recommended that to get the most bang from your physical activity of choice, break a sweat, but don’t drown in it. Moderation is essential! Studies on exercise and breast cancer, for example, show that simply walking two to five hours each week at a normal speed helps prevent relapse.

So get out of your chairs and move. Walk around the office or walk around the block, but move your body throughout the day!

Positive Thinking is a Super Power

Wonder Woman has her lasso. Humans have positive thinking. In fact, positive thinking is one of our strongest superpowers. The cool thing about this superpower is that it fosters optimism, and optimism gives us a feeling of hope and confidence in the future.

Positive thinking works best when we acknowledge that difficult events will occur in our lives. We know that everything doesn’t always automatically work out, but we carry on and take action anyway. And when we take action—embracing possibilities and looking for solutions, instead of feeling hopeless and giving up—our lives are not only improved, but some studies suggest that our lives can be extended.

If thinking positively is not your strong suit, no worries. Like resilience, positive thinking is a skill. This is good news. That means anyone can learn how to embrace this mental attitude. Even the pessimist in you!

To begin, it is important that we first recognize where we may be limiting our thoughts so that we can change them. For example, if that little voice inside your head keeps telling you that you can’t do something, flip it and reverse it. Tell yourself that you can, and you will. Because the more we believe that we can do something, the more we will start looking for ways to make it happen.

As you practice these positive skills, you will find that you are able to solve problems that may have seemed impossible before taking on this new mindset. In addition, you will notice that your attitude will improve overtime. In fact, as you learn to monitor your thoughts and attitude, you will gain more control of your behaviors and your life.

Dr. Judith Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and colleagues—through their studies of positivity and its effect on mental and physical health—found a strong correlation between positivity and quality and quantity of life (2014). Moskowitz is not alone in her findings. Other studies show similar results. In fact, having a positive outlook on life has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, contribute to better weight control, drop blood sugar, and reduce stress and inflammation, all while boosting the immune system.

Even those dealing with a life-threatening illness such as cancer can improve the quality of their lives through positive feelings. But be careful. This does not mean the opposite is true; that we can cure ourselves with positive thoughts alone or that we somehow caused our illness. This belief can create victim blaming which is not helpful to anyone when they are dealing with difficulties in life such as cancer.

If you are feeling some pressure to be positive when you are experiencing a highly stressful event in your life, I highly encourage you to let the expectation to be positive go. There are times when you simply need to cry, and that is okay. Maintaining a positive attitude 24/7 is unrealistic and can add to the emotional weight you may already be carrying. Feelings of sadness, stress, frustration, anxiety, and fear, for example, are all a normal part of life. Don’t beat yourself up when you are feeling down. Instead, embrace them and move on when you are ready.

There is “a time to weep, a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).