• August 2014

The Future of Happiness—How to Harness It

Has stress got the best of you? I see you nodding, barely breathing with your shoulders up around your neck—knowing that if you were only better, faster, stronger, you would be able to beat it.

But how?

That’s the question most small-business owners ask. After all, it is unbelievably stressful to run a company, grow your bottom line, juggle kids, spouses, and aging parents—and still smile, laugh, and stay stress-free.

So when do you make the decision to let the stress go? And, more importantly, how do you actually do it?

That’s the question I asked myself on July 8—the day I turned 50.

I’ll tell you, the build up to that big event was stressful. I felt so much was riding on this milestone. Not just the celebration of the day, but what it meant to me as a woman, business owner, wife, and mother. Would my life radically change? Would my perspective alter? I kept wondering, how would I feel when I woke up on July 9?

A bright, brilliant morning sunrise woke me up on my birthday. The first thing I heard was the sound of the ocean breaking on the beach outside the terrace where we were staying in Bethany, DE. My husband had booked us a week at a family-friendly resort, and it was the greatest gift because the beach is my happy place.

To my joy, and great relief, my first thought was a line that has lived in my head since I saw the 2007 movie, Waitress, starring Keri Russell as Jenna, the genius pastry chef, pie-baker, and mother-to-be. In addition to whipping up masterpieces that she names—such as Marshmallow Mermaid Pie, Falling in Love Chocolate Mousse Pie, and Baby Screamin’ Its Head Off In The Middle of the Night & Ruinin’ My Life Pie—her struggle, albeit extreme, is similar to the battle most women face. How do you find balance and love, and not lose yourself in the process?

Then, in a single moment, everything changes.

(Spoiler Alert!) Just as she’s about to check out, Jenna looks into her new baby’s eyes and says, “Lulu … that’s your name. Little Lulu. We’re going to have so much fun, little girl. We’re going to have so … much … fun!”

So … much … fun!

Yes, I remember thinking when I saw the film in 2007, that’s what I want!

So I took it as a fantastic sign when, on the second day as a 50 year old, I woke up with that line going through my head.

And while I’m not sure of all the details of what a “more fun” life will look like, or how it’ll all play out, I am certainly going to find out!

That’s what we’ll be writing about in this column, “LiveLoveLaughing.com.” My hope is that what we share in each one will bring a smile to your face, a lift to your heart—and, yes, sometimes a tear to your eye. But isn’t that part of the growth process?

Truth be told, I’ve been noodling the idea for this column since I met Tara Sheahan (shown right), founder of Conscious Global Leadership.

She was leading a meditation at the 2011 Conscious Capitalism Conference in San Francisco and we struck up a conversation. That led us to forming a friendship and a business relationship that included adding her to our Inkandescent Speakers bureau.

During our chats, Tara told me that she begins every day with a laugh attack—for real. She spends time each morning laughing, aligning her energy, and meditating on the good stuff in her life. Then, she carries that internal bliss with her throughout the day. It’s contagious, for when you talk to Tara, it’s impossible not to start grinning and laughing right along with her.

In the spirit of finding your full frontal smile, scroll down for a handful of ideas based on a Yoga Journal article that I read in 2013 called Happy Place, by reporter Molly Ginty.

I pulled out the page and tacked it to my bulletin board so I can remind myself daily of its wisdom.

Fleshed out below you’ll find detailed information based on the research that Ginty cites in her piece. I am confident you know instinctively that the suggestions are true. Still, it’s always nice to have science back up our intuition.

Here’s to letting stress fly off your shoulders, allowing your breath to be full and deep, and to having at least one belly laugh a day. — Hope Katz Gibbs


Don’t Worry. BE HAPPY!

SAY CHEESE!

Smiling with the muscles around your mouth and eyes can lower your heart rate after a stressful event, found Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman, doctoral candidates in clinical psychology at the University of Kansas.

“Whether you feel happy while smiling doesn’t matter. Muscle activity alone does the trick,” explain the researchers, who looked at how different types of smiling, and the awareness of smiling, affect individuals’ ability to recover from episodes of stress.

“Age-old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” says Kraft, whose findings appeared in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. “We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits.”

It turns out that smiles are divided into two categories:

  • Standard smiles, which use the muscles surrounding the mouth; and
  • Genuine or Duchenne smiles, which engage the muscles surrounding both the mouth and eyes.

Previous research shows that positive emotions can help during times of stress and that smiling can affect emotion; however, the work of Kraft and Pressman is the first to experimentally manipulate the types of smiles people make in order to examine the effects of smiling on stress. Read more here.

SING

If you want to lower levels of depression and anxiety, start singing. “The respiration involved in singing slows down the heart rate and calms the nervous system,” says Bjorn Vikhoff of Sweden’s University of Gotherburg.

How does he know? Vikhoff and his team studied the heart rates of high school choir members as they sang by attaching pulse monitors to the singers’ ears. They then measured the changes in the choir members’ heart rates as they sang the intricate harmonies of a Swedish hymn.

“When the choir began to sing, their heart rates slowed down,” explains Vikhoff, whose findings were published last summer in Frontiers in Neuroscience, “When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing. You exhale on the phrases and breathe in between the phrases. When you exhale, the heart slows down.”

In fact, it took almost no time at all for the singers’ heart rates to become synchronized.

“The members of the choir are synchronizing externally with the melody and the rhythm, and now we see it has an internal counterpart,” Vickhoff says. “Someday, we even may have prescriptions for stress that include recommended songs—likely those that have a slow, easy tempo and are especially relaxing.”

TRY THE WATER TRICK

It turns out it’s no surprise that being at the beach for my birthday had a calming effect.

Epidemiologist Lora Fleming, and lecturer Matthew White, both from England’s University of Exeter Medical School, are working on a project called “Blue Gym” to study how natural water environments can be used to promote human health and well-being.

And, they have proven that being near water makes us feel at home with ourselves, “perhaps because 60 percent of the human body is comprised of it, and because we gestate in amniotic fluid,” White says.

In one experiment, study participants were shown photographs of ocean views, green fields, or cities, and asked how much they were willing to pay for a hotel room with each of those views. People were willing to pay more for the room with an ocean view, the results showed. White and colleagues have also looked at census data in England to see how living near a coast affects people’s health. They found that people who lived closer to the coast reported better health.

“It’s possible that the people living closest to the coast are simply wealthier and have better access to health care,” he notes, but the study found that the health benefits of ocean proximity were greatest for socioeconomically deprived communities.

Not only that, but the findings could impact you the next time you go to the dentist—or help calm a troubled child, Fleming suggests. In experiments with people in stressful situations, such as dental surgery, when they look at a virtual beach, many people report feeling less pain. Studies are also finding that surfing might improve the well-being of troubled kids.

For those who us can’t (yet) live by the beach, White says the positive effects could be cumulative over multiple visits—and the bigger the body of water, the bigger the impact. While the ocean can calm you more than a river or lake, a water element on your patio might do the trick. Read more here.

We look forward to sharing more Live Love Laughing next month!

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