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.

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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.