At the risk of sounding immodest, I get a lot done. On any given day, I work, exercise, send and receive several hundred emails, and drive my kids, it seems, across the country and back. Most of the time I don't walk around feeling stressed about my load, but sometimes it feels like life is one giant blur of frantic activity. And while I have beautiful rose bushes in front of my home, I can't remember the last time I stopped to smell them.
Researchers are figuring out ways people like me (and you) can chill out and get more delight out of life. "It's about balance," says Fred B. Bryant, PhD, professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago and co-author of Savoring. "Yes, we need tools to deal with stress, but it's also important to look at how we can intensify the good."
That's because when you do, even the busiest days can feel full and happy, not frazzled. Here are some simple techniques to boost your joy.
What if we told you that you have the power to stop stress before it even starts? That's precisely what a report recently published in Scientific American suggests.
"It turns out that there is only a tenuous relationship between stressors -- the things that cause us to feel anxiety -- and stress, or our response to them," says the report's author Robert Epstein, PhD, founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. "This is good news because it implies that with the right training and preparation, we might be able to face any stressor with calm composure. The idea is to 'immunize' yourself against them." To do it:
1. Sweat to protect. We know exercise reduces stress in the moment and for a period afterward, but new research from Princeton University suggests that working out may actually build new super brain cells that are more resistant to stressors. That means hitting the gym now could help keep you smiling no matter what problems pile on later.
2. Relive what's good. When a friend asks you how you're doing, resist the temptation to download that awful commute; instead, try to recall something pleasant, like the great deal you just scored on a new dress. Recounting stressful events actually makes us, and our bodies, stressed. "When you share a positive memory instead, that can put the brakes on those damaging effects," says Christine Carter, PhD, a sociologist at the University of California–Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.
3. Take a joy break. When we're crazy-busy, our natural inclination is to cut back on pleasurable activities -- as if fun is a luxury. However, research suggests that this is a mistake. One study found that people who engaged in enjoyable leisure activities had lower blood pressure and cortisol scores (two measures of stress) than those who didn't. They were also more resilient in the face of stressful life events. You might not be able to grab your knitting needles in the middle of a hectic day, but you can head out for a short walk or call a friend for a chat, whatever gives you a quick lift.
Make the bliss choice
Ready for some more good news? "Happiness isn't reserved only for the lucky few," says Aymee Coget, PhD, CEO of the American Happiness Association. "The truth is, happiness is something we can choose, every minute of every day." These moves help you consciously embrace joy:
1. Be your own spin doctor. "When someone cuts you off in traffic, the situation may be out of your control, but you get to choose how to respond," Coget explains. You could fume and curse and tailgate the guy, or you could smile. "It's empowering to realize that it's up to you whether you're going to be happy or miserable," Coget adds.
2. Pay it forward. Performing small acts of kindness doesn't just feel good; according to research, it may actually lower stress hormones. But that's not all. A new study conducted by the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School suggests that kindness and happiness form what's called a "positive feedback loop."
"The idea is that by engaging in one kind act, you feel happier. And the happier you feel, the more likely you are to perform another kind act," says study co-author Lara Aknin. Start your own loop today: Treat a co-worker to a cup of coffee, or offer to do the dishes even if it's not your turn. Note how it feels. Then watch the positive feelings snowball.
Savor the moment
Ever watch a child playing? They relish every bit of joy, completely losing themselves in the now. But as adults, we lose this ability. That pure, raw enjoyment is what Bryant calls savoring, which he describes as a complex set of skills that can (and should) be mastered and used daily. Here's how:
1. Take a photo walk. Head outside (or around your house) with a camera and photograph things you find interesting or fun or beautiful. It could be a flower, your child's imperfectly made bed, or the way the sunlight glints off the building next door. "Mindful photography trains us to look for and notice positive features of our environment," Bryant says, "which data show can boost happiness." As this becomes more habitual, you'll be able to see and savor more fully, even without a camera.
2. Slow yourself way down. One of the most powerful ways to savor is to share feelings and events with others as they unfold. Whether you're out with friends, on vacation, or just having lunch with a colleague, stop and ask: What do we want to remember about this day/time/occasion? "By focusing on the experience as it happens," says Bryant, "you can intensify your appreciation of it."
3. Pretend it's about to end. Studies show that people find greater pleasure in things and activities that they believe are scarce or about to end. Imagine that just as you're about to call your best friend, you're told this will be the last time you'll ever talk to her. It may sound morbid, but the effect is the opposite. "When we acknowledge the fleetingness of our lives," Bryant says, "we live more fully in the moment and experience greater happiness and appreciation."
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