New Year’s Resolutions, Take 2

Something felt different at the gym today.

I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but finally it hit me:  there were very few people working out, compared with the throng of just a couple weeks ago.  The crowds in the gym in the first few weeks of the year had thinned out, the wait times for cardio machines had disappeared, and there was no more need to cut in between sets on the weight machines.  People who had vowed to get fit (and possibly lose weight) on January 1st had already broken their resolutions.

That’s how it is every January.  The end of one year and the start of another makes us take stock and decide that, once and for all, we will make positive changes in our lives:  Get fit!  Lose weight!  Stop smoking!  Learn Spanish! Find a new job! Save money!  All of the above!

While roughly half of us make new year’s resolutions with the full intention of becoming better versions of ourselves, only about 8% achieve those goals.  We start off strong, with the promise of a fresh start inspiring us, and then our resolve dwindles until we barely remember what we were aiming for in the first place.  Eight weeks after our loud proclamations, we are back to our usual (perhaps lesser) selves.

But who says that goals to improve should only be made on January 1?  Life — and the calendar — affords us daily opportunities for a fresh start.  It is not limited to just once a year; you can renew your resolve any time you like.  And for those of us who need a special date to make a commitment?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Chinese New Year , celebrated on February 16 this year, is right around the corner.  2018 is the Year of the Dog; according to one website, a Dog’s most defining characteristic is their loyalty and their willingness to help others fix their bad habits.  Find a Dog friend to help you reach your goals!

 

  • Lent (or Great Lent) is another great time to renew your resolutions to become a better version of yourself.  Many denominations decide to give something up during the Lenten season, like chocolate or sugar or alcohol, but a friend of mine told me once that her father, a United Church minister, always advocated picking up a good habit during Lent rather than trying to give up a bad one.  Sounds motivating to me!

 

  • Summer Solstice, and the celebrations that surround this event, is an excellent mid-year opportunity to reflect on how you’re doing with your goals.  Think of it as a mid-year performance review with yourself.

 

  • Although I’ve been out of school for many years, the start of the new school year always seems like a fresh start to me.   No matter how well (or not) I’m doing on my other resolutions, September is when I clean out my closets and junk drawers, creating space for new things and better habits to come into my life.

 

Whatever you celebrate, or don’t celebrate, know that every single day is a fresh start and another chance to commit to being the best version of yourself that you can be.  Have you forgotten your new year’s resolutions already?  Don’t despair.  Decide today that you will be the best version of yourself that you can be.  And then repeat again tomorrow.  And again the next day.  And the day after that.

Before you know it, you will be in the 8%.

 

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Happiness is…a cartwheel and a funny hat

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Today I turned a cartwheel when I got to the office.

You probably don’t hear that very often.  It’s not everyday that someone, outside of a gymnastics coach, goes to work and turns a cartwheel.

It started off as a watercooler discussion among a few of us about a recent Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which stated that many women have an “I hate my body” moment at least once in any given week.  “Not me,” I said.  “I’m not perfect, but I am grateful to my body for allowing me to run, to dance, and even to turn cartwheels.”  The group I was with seemed incredulous at the fact that I could turn cartwheels, as the idea of it doesn’t fit in with my buttoned-down image at work, and after about 90 seconds of goading, I suddenly found myself with my shoes and suit jacket off, turning a full 360 cartwheel in a small 6’x6′ space.

TA DAAAAAA!

Positive body image aside, the simple act of turning a cartwheel filled me with a happiness that lasted the whole day.  I just couldn’t stop smiling at the sheer delight of the spontaneity and physicality of this small moment of joy.

The spillover effect of this joy was another surprise.  I was a little more productive at work, crossing items off my to-do list and wrapping up projects like I was in fast-motion.  It was as if the burst of happiness brought on by the cartwheel gave me a double dose of energy that carried me throughout the day.

But this shouldn’t have surprised me.  It doesn’t take much to make me happy.

I have a hat that I wear in the winter. It is a funny-looking hat with spiky black nubs, and I look comical in it.  But I love that hat.  Every time I wear it, I get a smile on my face.  I am a little friendlier to strangers, chatting with them in the checkout lines.  I feel a little more lighthearted.  It’s a ridiculous-looking hat but I feel absolutely marvelous in it.  It suits my personality and it reminds me not to take myself — or life — too seriously.  The hat makes me happy.  Or, more accurately, I feel happy when I’m wearing the hat.

It doesn’t take a lot to bring on happiness.  Happiness is not a constant state that one achieves only after reaching a major milestone — marrying that guy, losing that weight, landing that job — but, rather, it is a fluid state made up of many and small moments of joy.

Psychologist Ed Diener has shown that the frequency of moments of joy is a better predictor of happiness than the intensity of your positive experiences. In this case, it’s quantity rather than quality that matters:   somebody who has a dozen moments of joy each day is likely to be happier than somebody who has a single truly amazing thing happen. Happiness is the sum of a hundred small things. 

So how can you make yourself happier?

  1. Increase the frequency of the moments of joy in your day.  Turn cartwheels, wear a funny hat, or give your sweetie a big hug, then repeat often throughout the day.
  2. Find new ways to bring small moments of joy in your day.  Just like you wouldn’t want to eat the same foods cooked exactly the same way every day, novelty in experiences can increase your happiness the way a new food can wake up your palate.
  3. Share your moments of joy with others.  People with strong social bonds are happier overall, and sharing your moments of joy can increase everyone’s happiness, just like a rising tide lifts all boats.

So rather than wait until the perfect moment to be happy, focus on the small moment and happiness will find you instead.

The Posts of Christmas Past

Christmas cardsWhen I moved away to attend university, I started sending Christmas cards back home on the first day of December every year.   It was a great way to keep in touch and I loved opening the mailbox in the weeks leading up to the holidays to see the beautiful cards I got in return.

I would start writing the dozen or so cards in the last full week of November so that I could have them ready to mail when the calendar turned the page.  My cousin told me one year that she always felt that Christmas season had started in earnest when she received my card in the mail.

Years later, the dozen cards grew to more than 50, and I started writing them earlier and earlier so that they could be mailed on December 1.  Not content just to sign my name, I would take 10 minutes or more to write out something personal and meaningful to each person, and pretty soon I was starting the holiday tradition before the end of October, just to get them done in time.

This year, for the first time in, like, ever, I decided not to send any Christmas cards.  There were too many other demands on my time, and December 1 rolled around before I could say “Trick or Treat.”  It felt odd to let go of the tradition, and a bit sad to see my mailbox empty of any greetings in return.

Sometimes, we adopt a tradition because it holds special meaning for us, or because it keeps us close to something, but we don’t step back once in a while to see if the tradition still serves its purpose.  My Christmas card habit was putting pressure on me at a time when I had other priorities, but letting go of the task filled me with angst.  Then it hit me:  it wasn’t the Christmas cards themselves that I loved, but the fact that it allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends in a personal and meaningful way.  So why not re-define the tradition?

When you find yourself holding onto a routine that has outlived its purpose, ask yourself:

  1. What was the reason you took on this tradition in the first place?  Whether it’s a habit you adopted yourself or whether you’ve taken on a family custom, there is a motive behind it.
  2. Does the tradition bring you joy?  I love writing and so, for many years, writing the cards was a fun and relaxing activity, but recently had made me feel pressured.  Traditions should connect us to our past but not bind us in obligation.
  3. Is there a different way of fulfilling the purpose?  Why do I have to send cards at Christmas? Why not in the new year, or to celebrate Spring, or for no reason at all other than to say, “I’m thinking of you”?  My purpose for sending cards was to stay in touch with my friends and family.  I’m not limited to doing that just once a year.

In the meantime,

“Dear family and friends,

I didn’t send you a Christmas card this year but know that I am thinking of you…and you may get a card from me in the new year!

Love,

Me”

“I wash my hands of this weirdness.” – Jack Sparrow

handwashing 2

While visiting my hometown recently, I drove by the local hospital which displayed a digital sign that read:

Staff hand washing compliance

95%

My first thought when reading that sign was, “Is the hospital bragging about the 95% compliance rate for hand washing or is it trying to shame the 5% who were not compliant by making them feeling like outliers?”

My second thought when reading that sign was, “Is this metric self-reported and therefore likelier lower than 95%, or did the hospital have cameras set up in washrooms to measure how many people washed their hands?  How can the hospital be confident in the 95% statistic?”

My third thought when reading that sign was that it is amazing that in 2015, in a developed country where fresh, clean water is plentiful, 100% compliance with hand washing in a hospital isn’t a given.  95%?  Really?  Yikes.  I’d hate to be the patient who gets to be treated or fed by the 5% who didn’t wash their hands.

In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that the simple act of washing hands prior to birthing babies decreased mortality rates by 90%.  Just that one simple act.  Since then (or at least since Semmelweis’ death, given doctors didn’t believe his assertion while he was alive), the World Health Organization and medical professionals have touted proper hand washing as the single most effective way of reducing health care-associated infections and incidents of flu, and of generally staying healthy.  In light of this, it’s amazing that there is even hesitation in doing something that we know is good for all of us.

But we humans are a funny animal.  Despite knowing better, we resist or avoid simple acts that can have a positive effect on our well-being and happiness.  30 minutes of exercise a day helps to keep us healthy, yet how many excuses do we give for not exercising on a daily basis?  Each day has 1440 minutes: even setting aside 8 hours a day for sleep (ha!) and 8 hours a day for work, we are left with 480 minutes.  Surely we can exercise for 30 of them.*

Did I mention sleep?  7 to 9 hours per night are needed so that we  can be productive and safe and even stave off aging, but many of us frequently give up sleep in order to watch a marathon session of Orange is the New Black on Netflix, to scroll through images of people’s dinner on Instagram or to catch up on the million errands that never have an end.  We are a nation (or nations) of walking zombies because we’re too tired to set the right priorities on our health and well-being.

So how can we enhance our well-being?

1.  Measure it by the numbers:  20 seconds of hand washing, 30 minutes of exercise, and 7 hours of sleep can do more for our overall health than most of the more expensive and time-consuming alternatives.  Just think about how much money our health care system could save if we all just followed these few simple ideas.

2.  Take time to take care of yourself.  We trade our sleep or other simple health initiatives for other priorities, but if you don’t make time to take care of yourself now, how will you find time to take care of yourself if you’re sick?

3. Think positively and practise gratitude.   A positive attitude helps build a healthier immune system and boosts overall health and studies show that happiness is related to feeling grateful for what we already have.  People who keep a gratitude journal, writing down 3 things a day or a week that they are grateful for,  feel better and tend to be more optimistic about their lives as a whole.

Now to convince the other 5%.

* More than 30 minutes is required for weight loss or for preparing to participate in athletic pursuits such as marathon races and competitive ballroom dancing, but for general overall health, 30 minutes does it.

My Smartphone, My Self

Blog smartphone photo

Yesterday, I had driven three minutes away from my house and was running late for an appointment when that scary shower theme from Psycho started playing in my head.  I had Forgotten. My. Smartphone.

On a road with no easy exit, it would have taken me 20 minutes out of my way to turn back to get it.  Worse, I was not quite sure how to get to my destination, and I normally would have used my phone’s GPS app to find my way.  So the dilemma was, do I forge on and possibly make it on time, or go back for my phone and most certainly be late?

I soldiered on, the memory of my phone sitting on the kitchen counter taunting me.  What if there was an emergency and no one could reach me?  What if I wanted to capture a moment and tweet about it or post it on Instagram?  What if I needed to look something up on Google?  How would I survive the day without my Blackberry?*

But amazingly, without my smartphone appendage, a funny thing happened:

  • I made it to my destination without relying on GPS.
  • I performed with a dance troupe at a festival.
  • I chatted in person with the family and friends who were with me, rather than by text with those who are far away.
  • I shopped for flowers.
  • I planted herbs.
  • I sat out in the sunshine and enjoyed the view.
  • I read a chapter of my book.
  • I wrote out a list of things I needed to do in the coming week.
  • I planned out the design of my invitations for an upcoming birthday party.
  • I cooked supper.
  • I purged my closet of old clothes that no longer fit me.

Turned out, I was so involved in being present and enjoying the day that I actually forgot to retrieve my phone even when I got home.  By the time I remembered it, 9 hours had passed and I realized I hadn’t missed a thing, but I had been filled with so much. I couldn’t believe how much I had accomplished, freed from the distraction of checking for messages and the constant updates on Facebook.

All this, because I forgot my phone.

The day had felt good and purposeful.  Fulfilling.  Satisfying.

And this is what I learned:

1.  Just as turning the TV off can give you back hours in a day to accomplish things, so can setting boundaries around how much and how often you’ll check your phone.  Every moment of the day does not need to be spent with the head down staring at a screen, but should be enjoyed with the head up being present in the world.

2.  Relying on my smartphone has made me lazy about simple things like remembering driving directions or how to spell certain words.  I’d been to my destination before and knew the address, so the GPS lady was not really necessary.  And I used to be a champion speller in elementary school; surely I haven’t forgotten it all already?!

3.  The world will not stop revolving just because someone can’t text you, or because you weren’t able to post that photo of your lunch on Instagram.  We survived before smartphones and, yes, we can survive a few hours detached from them throughout the day.

Yesterday was such a lovely day that, who knows, I may “accidentally” forget my phone at home tomorrow, too.

* (OK.  Stop laughing.  I happen to like my Blackberry.  Yes, I’m retro.)

It’s a good month for a happy life

You know you're Greek kalo mina

On the first of this month, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, enjoying the funny cat videos, food photos and inspirational quotes posted by some of my friends, when it hit me:  all my Greek friends had posted “Kalo mina!”  Every one.

“Kalo mina” means “[Have a] good month!” and it is the Greek way of wishing their family, friends and strangers a good month ahead of them, their way of wishing you well.  In fact, Greeks are notorious well wishers and will wish you well for just about any occasion.

Aside from the usual “kalimera” (good day), “kalispera” (good evening) and “kalinihta” (good night), they find other ways and reasons* to wish you well:

It starts on New Year’s Day with “Kali hronia”, [have a] good year.  We’ve already mentioned “kalo mina”, but the start of the week is not to be outdone: every Monday, you’ll hear “Kali evdomada”, [have a] good week, while on Fridays, it’s “Kalo savatokiriako”, [have a] good weekend.

Just before the afternoon siesta, they wish you “kalo mesimeri”, [have a] good afternoon. A neighbour may see you returning from the grocery store and wish you “kalifagota”, good eating.  Before each meal, it’s “kali orexi”, bon appetit, and as soon as you finish, it’s “kali honepsi”, [have a] good digestion!  Digestion, even!

At the beginning of the summer, it’s “kalo kalokeri”, [have a] good summer, and when you get back from summer holidays, it’s “kalo himona”, [have a] good winter.  Even if it’s only the first day of September.

While the economic crisis has resulted in a drop in overall happiness for Greeks compared to the rest of the EU countries, there is something charming and quaint and, well, happy about all this well wishing.  It fills you with optimism that there is at least one thing each day to be happy about.  (And if it’s a Monday on the first of the month just before afternoon siesta, man oh man, so MUCH to be happy about!)

Many of us go around complaining or whining, about the weather, about our jobs, about our life in general.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we pretended to be Greek for a while and started wishing people well for any little thing instead?   Would it create a ripple effect, a wave of happiness that others would pay forward?  Let’s try this challenge for the next month:

1.  When you feel the urge to complain about something, replace it with a happy thought for whoever is closest to you.  As you can see from the examples above, you can pretty much find any excuse to wish someone well.

2.  Keep track of whether your well-wishing is putting you in a better frame of mind about life in general.

3.  Repeat step #1 for the next 11 months.  Have a happy life!

“Kali prospathia”, [have a] good try!

* Thanks to my sister for providing these examples.

The secret to happiness: love, lattes and Danish

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It turns out that the secret to happiness is no secret at all.

We can spend a lifetime chasing happiness, wondering why it eludes us when, really, it’s within our grasp all along.  Happiness is pretty simple, you see:  someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.  (Thanks for that, Rita Mae Brown.)

Hang on a minute,” you’re thinking.  “I’m single.  Are you telling me I’m out of luck for finding happiness?”  No, no, not at all.  “Someone to love” isn’t limited to just romantic love, that Cinderella-meets-Prince-Charming, heroine-is-swept-off-her-feet-at-the-end-of-the-movie love known as eros.   Luckily, “someone to love” can be defined much more broadly.  There are as many different types of love as there are types of people to love.

For example, filia refers to the love between friends, an easy camaraderie that comes with years of knowing and hanging out with someone who accepts you as you are.  Storge is another type of love, usually describing the love between parents and children, or between siblings.  Think more Anna & Elsa from Frozen than Snow White & Prince Charming.  (Wait.  Snow White and Cinderella both married Prince Charming?  That’s confusing.  But I digress.)  And, finally, agape refers to the love a person can have for many people, including extended family or even strangers.

Surely you have someone to love in your life.  It may not be Prince Charming (that two-timer!  But I digress.) but it may be a parent, a child, a friend or a brother.

The second tenet of a happy life is to have something to do.  Maybe you dream of running away from your “real” life and spending idle time on a deserted island, but that would wear thin very quickly.  People need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and work not only provides income but also gives us a reason to get out of our flannel jammies and move during the day.  Having work to do, including staying at home to raise children, guards against the withering of our brains and our bodies.

Recent surveys have been quoted that up to 70% of Americans hate their jobs or are disengaged from their work.  But people who are working, who are earning and who are contributing to their communities are happier and have lower rates of depression than those who are not working.  Perhaps we have just become accustomed to wearing our complaints about work as some badge of honour.   Maybe the 70% who hate their jobs can reframe their reality by acknowledging that it gives them a reason to get up in the morning, or that it makes them happier overall.  The Danes have got it right:  they have a word, arbejdsglæd , which means “happiness at work.”  I say, let’s be more Danish!

In areas where the economy is depressed or jobs are scarce, it is still possible to fulfill this requirement for happiness. Volunteering regularly is as effective in fulfilling a purpose as paid work.   When researchers at the London School of Economics looked at the relationship between volunteering and happiness in American adults, they found the more people volunteered, the happier they were.  So go help in a soup kitchen.  Offer your labour to a community garden.  Paint an elderly neighbour’s house.  The best part of volunteering?  It not only gives you a reason to roll out of bed, but it also adds to your work experience, adding to your resume and potentially leading to a paying job.

Too much and too frequent idle time leads to boredom, and boredom breeds unhappiness.  As a kid, whenever I said, “I’m bored,” my mom would tell me to go help someone. (And when my mom said “help someone”, she really meant “go clean the bathroom.”  I tried not to be bored too often.)  Being useful to others made me feel purposeful and suddenly, my boredom would vanish.  No paid work?  No worries.  Go help someone.  Volunteer. Contribute your time, your energy, your labour to someone or some cause that needs it.

The third requirement for a happy life is something to look forward to.  Anticipation leads to happiness.  It could be as simple as getting together with friends during the week or planning a vacation 6 months out.  A Dutch study showed that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation, even more so than actually taking a vacation. In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks.

As for me, I look forward to my weekly splurge on coffee.  I generally limit myself to one Starbucks latte every Friday.  No matter how bad my week is, knowing that on Friday morning I can treat myself to a double tall non fat no foam equivalent of joy in a cup, I have a small skip in my step.  Actually, it’s a large skip in my step.  I look forward to that coffee with such glee that my coworkers have named the moments leading up to it as my “Friday Morning Latte Dance.”

Feeling like you need more happiness in your life?  It may already be within your grasp.  Do a quick audit of your life to determine the abundance that is yours already:

1) Do you have someone to love?  A spouse, a child, a parent, a best friend?  Love comes in many forms.  Don’t limit yourself to thinking it needs to be romantic, fairy tale, only-in-movies love to count.

2) Do you have something to do?  Work gives you a reason to get up in the morning.  Hate your job?  Think about the purpose of your work and connect your work tasks with this greater purpose.  Don’t have a job?  Volunteer and help someone who needs your ideas and energy.  Write a book.  Design jewellery.  Build a deck.  Do something.

3) Do you have something to look forward to?  If your calendar is blank, make a date with a friend for a Tuesday.  Plan a vacation.  Research upcoming local festivals that you can attend.  It doesn’t have to be grand.  You could just join me on Friday at Starbucks for a latte.

You don’t have to search far and wide to find happiness.  Have someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to, and happiness will find you.