“Sitting Kills, Moving Heals”

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“Sitting Kills, Moving Heals” is a great book I came across by Joan Vernikos, Ph.D which I highly recommend. Dr. Vernikos, an amazing woman, was the former Director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division. She had the privilege and responsibility of figuring out how to optimize the health and well-being of our astronauts. In her book she explains the parallel of how our earthly sedentary lifestyle is surprisingly similar to the lifestyle of astronauts in space. She details how unfortunately an astronaut’s health rapidly deteriorates in zero gravity during spaceflight, which is similar to how our health on earth deteriorates exceedingly quickly when we adopt a sedentary lifestyle. For example, by not moving much we lose bone density, we lose plasma volume, and we decrease our aerobic capacity. All deterants of good health and well-being!

The book further covers important and fascinating topics about gravity and its relatedness to our daily routines. She writes: “It became my passion to share, in plain language that anyone could understand, the knowledge we acquired from our research at NASA. If astronauts could regain their good health after shaking off the ill effects of spaceflight, so could people suffering similar health problems due to their sedentary lifestyles. My challenge was to provide clear, practical guidance to show the public the value of making use of our old friend gravity, simply through doing everyday activities that were of a different nature than traditional vigorous exercise in the gym.”

Dr. Vernikos also details many gravity, or “G-Habit” building tips like:

- Stretching: “Whenever you are not sure about what to do next, think of that child in you and stretch.”

- Stand Up, Sit Down: Simply standing up from a seated position is HUGE. She writes, “If you do nothing else from this book, this is the single most important habit you can acquire. The key to independence in old age is being able to stand up. It’s no more complicated than that.”

- Stand Tall, Walk Tall: If you’re not sure how to start adjusting your posture, place a book over your head and stand and walk tall. Try it. :)

These are just small samples of the practical and fascinating scientific information Dr. Vernikos shares from NASA astronauts’ experiences in reversing the ill effects of being in space. Think about your day and figure out the many opportunities you can add to your routine to do more momentary standing, walking or lifting that will add to your subtotal of ‘movements’ to keep your health in check.

If you ‘gravitate’ toward this topic I recommend you grab this book!


The Power of Social Norms on Our 2018 Elections

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It may surprise you to know that close to half of the United States voting-age population did not cast their ballots in the 2016 presidential election. Only 55.7% of those eligible to vote actually voted, placing US voter turnout rates far behind other highly developed, democratic countries (according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). But this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, voter turnout rates in the US have not surpassed 63% in over a century! Yet interestingly enough, the day after the 2016 inauguration, protesters flooded major cities and towns across the country (and even around the world). They showed up chanting: “Hear Our Voice” and the 2017 Women’s March turned into the largest single-day protest in United States history.

Yes, you can argue that election results motivated people to march for protection of their rights, and you are not wrong. But what made people comfortable getting out of their house in order to do so was the shear number of people who showed up, like a gorgeous chain reaction (one that we’re now seeing played out in the #MeToo movement). The truth is that if we show people “everyone is doing it”, they will want to join in. This logic fits into a large body of psychological research that suggests that people are heavily influenced by social norms.

If we now apply this logic to low voter turnout in the US, we can see why voting rates have remained relatively low. You may assume people are more likely to vote if they’re worried not enough people are voting, but in fact it’s the complete opposite. People are more likely to vote/busy the polls if they know others plan to as well. (They’re even willing to wait longer in line due to social norms! Just think of those tacos you waited an hour for instead of walking to the perfectly fine restaurant several doors down).

Social norms are thus very effective/powerful when it comes to increasing voter turnout. In fact a 2012 study showed how they can be heavily leveraged by using social media. The study found that when Facebook users were shown an “I voted” button alongside a social message showing which of their friends had voted, they were much more likely to vote than if they were shown an informational message or no votes at all. Researchers concluded that this format led to about 340,000 extra real-world votes. You may think that’s not a huge number, but it matters tremendously when you realize the 2016 election was decided by only 107,000 votes in three states.

Social norms can truly sway elections, and maybe that’s why the powerful 2018 Women’s March new message was “First we MARCH, then we VOTE.” If we are all voting this November, I hope you will too.


The Value of Humor

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We all love to be entertained. We pay to go see stand up comedy shows and funny movies. We seek out certain TV shows and get trapped in the rabbithole of hilarious memes and viral videos. But did you know, seeking out humor is actually good for our well-being? There is research that shows people who incorporate more humor into their lives are on average happier and healthier individuals. Humor is an incredibly important ingredient in our everyday lives. It affects our mental and physical health, as well as the health of our social lives, our work, and society as a whole. 

You’ve heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine”, right? Humor has the ability to affect our physical health. According to the American Psychology Association, laughter decreases stress hormones such as serum cortisol, dopac and epinephrine. There’s a reason we feel this surge of happiness when we are cracking up with our friends and family. Humor also helps people deal with pain and physical adversity. Laughter has been shown to help reduce muscle tension, stimulate the cardiovascular system, dilate the blood vessels (increasing oxygen to the lungs), and reduce blood pressure and heart rate. There has also been research that shows improvement in t-cells and natural killer cells in the immune system. There is no wonder that Hollywood made a film about this phenomenon called Patch Adams. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do! 

The physiological effects of laughter have a direct correlation to our emotional and mental states. Research shows that humor creates feelings of well-being, empowerment and control. It relieves anxiety, distress and depression. Humor can even help people grieve. In Psychology Today, “Dacher Keltner and colleagues found that people who spontaneously experienced amusement and laughter when discussing a deceased spouse showed better emotional adjustment in the years following the spouse's death”. Humor will help you maintain a positive attitude which will give you hope and energy to invigorate your everyday life. Thus rendering the world a much more pleasant place no matter the challenges that arise. 

Humor is especially significant in new and challenging social situations. We’ve all been at a networking event and accidentally called someone the wrong name. (Ok, maybe we all haven’t, but many of us have, and, seriously, it’s nothing personal). Uncomfortable situations like this can be made better when you joke about it. It helps people put their guard down and remember that life is full of silly accidents, you’ve just gotta roll with it and move forward. 

Humor is also incredibly valuable in the workplace. Let’s face it, no matter how laid back you and your coworkers are, there will always be days that are more stressful than others. But then there’s that coworker—or if you’re really lucky, that boss—who helps ease the tension with a little comedic relief about the predicament. When joking appropriately and in relevance to the situation, humor is a great way to move past a difficult scenario. If you are in charge of a team at work, remember that humor is a lot like any other emotion, it’s contagious. So spread the laughter. Your teammates will appreciate it, and so will your business!

Humor is also a very significant part of dating. Having a “good sense of humor” is a common trait that people seek out when describing their ideal partner. Since humor helps build higher self-esteem, it’s easy to spot those people in the room who have this magnetic and confident energy. These people incorporate humor into their social interactions. It makes those around them feel good, and is an attribute that attracts others to them. To be clear, not all humor is beneficial. Professor Rod Martin spent three decades researching laughter and humor and he makes a clear distinction on healthy vs non-healthy humor. If humor is used to put others down just to inflate your own self-worth, you will not gain the positive benefits of humor. Additionally, there are many comedians who have made their life’s work off of being funny, however, they can be deeply depressed individuals who do not incorporate humor in ways that will help their own personal suffering. 

Humor is also an under-used technique in the classroom/lecture hall. That’s right, laughing actually leads to learning. According to the American Psychology Association, “Sam Houston State University psychologist Randy Garner, PhD, found that students were more likely to recall a statistics lecture when it was interjected with jokes about relevant topics”. Joking in a classroom environment helps relieve fear and reduces anxiety in the students. At John Hopkins University, Professor Ron Berk applies this technique to his biostatistics class. “The key to his teaching style, he says, is using humor to enhance otherwise dull statistical methodology by tapping into students' multiple intelligences and learning styles in a way that forces them to think in divergent and real-life ways.” Again, this joking must not be overdone. You can’t be cracking irrelevant and distracting jokes, as that will steer the student away from the topic altogether. But a good balance of fun and real information can be the difference between a pass and a fail.

In our everyday lives it’s one hurdle after another. A never-ending road through the mountains of life. Some days we feel great, others we feel terrible. But if we can find a way to see the humor in things, we can make each day a little more positive. If we can find a way to laugh about the pain and absurdity of this life, then we can struggle a little less and live a little more. 

 

Let’s talk about doing nothing!

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These days everyone is talking about the distractibility of our minds due to the many forms of technology and social media exposure. Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists urge us to be cognizant of the time we spend doing whatever it is you do on your phone or computer.  From checking on your Facebook friends, to playing a game on an app, to feeding on the ‘must know political news’, we can all admit that we waste enough minutes of the day on “unnecessary-surfing’. The price we pay on the quality of our lives from this constant distractibility can be looked at from two angles


First Angle

Keeping our mind busy with “information” however trivial or important it might be, keeps our mind ‘busy’ and robs us of the necessary dose of boredom that our brains need. It turns out that we need to unplug from this persistent tech stimulation so that our mind can wander and settle into a ‘wandering mode’. This state of mind-wandering–also referred to as the ‘default mode’–aids in the activation of the mental place where we solve problems and generate new ideas. This is the same mode that allows us to figure out our future goals and make moral judgments, as we make sense of our lives. Think about the times you are on vacation, or taking a walk, and suddenly ‘new ideas’ might pop into your head! That is this creative space we are referring to here. The place where new connections are formed in our brain. As Dr. Smallwood, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of York states: "In a very deep way, there’s a close link between originality and creativity and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle. In other words, you have to let yourself be bored to be brilliant.”  


Second Angle

The accumulative time wasted on digital usage can be spent on any activity which will be more valuable to your future goals. Think about it, what is your #1 time waster? Do the simple math. Let’s say, you spend 30 minutes a day checking and rechecking your phone, emails and messages. Can you add those minutes per week? Per month? Per year?  How many months or even years of your life might you be wasting if you add all those minutes up?? Be honest, and check the real time wasted on watching aimless shows, gaming, or just checking on your social media connections. Now imagine spending all this time doing something ‘good’ something 'real’, anything else (even “doing nothing” as established before) and how much further along you will be in optimizing your life. 

To sum it all up, occasional boredom (conceptualized here as not being constantly tech absorbed) is a positive stimulus for staying creative and allowing our brains to be engaged in original thinking. If that same ‘constructive-boredom’ from our digital detachment allows us more ‘time’ to optimize our days, then I vote for daily ‘mind wandering’ breaks. Go ahead and try it today; ‘do nothing’ so you can ‘do better’.  

  Maybe it is time to replace your old luggage?

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As summer approaches, some lucky people are getting their luggage ready in preparation for travel. But whether any of us gets to travel this summer or not, we are all already carrying our ‘psychological luggage’ with us.  So let’s address this familiar emotional condition, and call it:  “Dragging your old luggage.”

Think of it this way. Just as we retrieve our old luggage from storage for a planned trip, we have a tendency to pull out our “psychological luggage” as we journey through life. Quite often we find ourselves complaining about different past experiences- our childhood, past regrets, or any unfair treatments we have endured. This state of past thinking occurs naturally as we form our life stories, which we rehash to others, but even more often to ourselves. We tend to carry the way we perceive our past in the same way we lug around a heavy suitcase: it slows us down and exhausts us by the time we get to our destination.

Here’s the problem. Holding on to our life stories packed in our “old luggage” is compounded by our belief that the past holds so much weight in our lives on a daily basis. Not only do we often believe  the past has the power to determine our future, we also assume that much of our present and future abilities are determined by this past. So, if we believe that the past’s power can influence our present, we are, in essence, dragging our old luggage in our journey through life.

So, how do we remedy this situation? Dragging your luggage can become heavy and tiresome, but there’s a simple premise to consider that can help you lighten your load and make your journey more enjoyable. It’s the concept of prospection.

Prospection explains a type of thinking we all engage in when we contemplate our future. So, rather than focusing on aspects of our past, or dwelling on the mishaps of the day, prospection is a thinking activity in which we make mental simulations about our future – even for this afternoon or this evening! In a sense, engaging in prospection is engaging in making mental simulations about our future.

Consider our luggage analogy. We might say that we can use prospection as a tool to choose the contents we want to pack in our new and improved luggage. And indeed positive psychology research tells us that we are very much drawn into thinking about the future, and that we actually spend a lot of time prospecting. Likewise, this type of into-the-future oriented thinking motivates us to keep going forward and make good decisions.

As a matter of fact, you might even be prospecting right now as you are reading this article! Perhaps you are thinking about how you can make sense of this notion of “repacking your luggage”, or whether you’d like to reject or accept the idea, or you may even be thinking how you might apply the concept in your life. All of these thoughts and cognitive activities are constantly, and at times, unconsciously, engaging you in creating mental simulations about your future.

Of course many of you may believe that you already think a lot about your future; but remember, the focus here is on employing the new mental simulations to motivate you and encourage you to action. In other words, your prospection is your GPS tool that allows you to find your way. In fact, it is this GPS, your view of the future, not your past experiences that often drives and motivates you to take action in order to reach your end destination. Acknowledging our mental simulations allows us to open up and inspire ourselves, to unpack our old luggage and start filling it up with some great positive new items.

Let’s return once again to the traveling analogy. So, say you are planning a romantic getaway with your partner, but you had the unfortunate experience of breaking up with a previous partner during a past vacation. Of course, the knowledge of that past negative experience might influence your current travel plans (for example, you probably would not choose the same resort destination), but it is your future thinking that enables you to plan for this new vacation and be optimistic that this getaway will be romantic and fulfilling.  Even if you do have concerns about this upcoming adventure, and thoughts of the hurtful last experience surface, what’s important to remember is that your past experience does not determine your future one; you still plan to get away, and you still trust that you can have a great time.

What is the take-away message?

Accepting and acknowledging past influences is important. We are all influenced by our past. However, we are influenced by it, not controlled by it. We must take into account, and become more actively aware, that we are forever changing, gaining new experiences and new perspectives.  And, more specifically for our topic of the day, we are engaged in prospection. We are generating internal representations of futures and in fact choosing among them. Therefore, there is an enormous advantage in getting more in touch with our internal future simulations. It can allow us better insight into our internal world, which is more future-driven than we sometimes realize. Connecting to our internal mental simulations will empower us to envision new possibilities and direct our goals accordingly.  It will motivate us to pay closer attention to our into-the-future thinking and be more actively selective about what we wish to focus on.

 

Moms, picture the perfect Mother’s Day morning:

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You wake up a little later than usual on Sunday, having gotten a full night’s sleep, and feel completely rejuvenated yet totally relaxed. Your kids come into your room, having made you perfectly plated eggs benedict with your favorite freshly brewed tea. Your husband walks in with the purple orchids he bought you when you first dated. Then you happily eat as your kids read you the heartfelt poems they wrote you and clean up after you finish. Before you know it, you’re being driven to the beach for a beautiful hike with the family, no arguments among the kids, no complaints to report, just a hike filled with laughs and joy.

This is an optimal Mother’s Day morning, filled with thankful thoughts and grateful gifts. But this is often not how most people’s Mother’s Day morning plays out, at least not that flawlessly... But how come? And why is it difficult to have one perfect morning? Maybe more importantly, what can we do to make sure we’re all getting the most out of this Mother’s Day?

Well, let’s start with the primary difficulty, the one that almost every mother is neglected of everyday. GRATITUDE. “Thank you” for their tireless efforts are far and few between. It’s one of many things mothers learn not to expect from family on a day-to-day basis because “They’ll thank us in the long run”, and “We love them so we’ll do it anyways”. Well, on Mother’s Day, the tables have turned my friends! It’s the one day out of the year that we expect our families to shine the spotlight on us, and express the gratitude we definitely deserve. When that doesn’t happen on the one day we expect it to, it doesn’t feel like the perfect day. 

So what can mothers do to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that everyone is getting the most out of this Mother’s Day? Well, for starters it’s important to make your wishes known before the big day. A little nudge from mom expecting the extra effort, and a more giving attitude orients the rest of the families mind that it’s time to be grateful. So start putting the spotlight on yourself! For example, if you just want your kids to write you a meaningful and thankful card this year, let them know! It’s not that kids don’t notice their moms’ efforts, it’s that they’ve become habituated to it, and expect it without showing their gratitude. So be vocal, and let them know you expect those “thank yous” to take shape through the mediums you’d like!

You see gratitude is about bringing the good things to light, and appreciating what you have. If you nudge your kids to be more grateful on Mother’s Day, and everyday, you will all benefit. Gratitude researchers such as Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono illustrate in their book, Making Grateful Kids, how kids who practice gratitude show many positive benefits such as improved mood, more optimism, and stronger social relationships. More so, grateful teens are more engaged with school and hobbies, and thus have better grades and greater satisfaction in life. Gratitude is good for all of us.

I’ll leave you with this tip about making Mother’s Day the most it can be: It’s about YOU, so maybe keep the celebration with family short and sweet. After all, everyone knows some small argument is bound to break out if you’re spending the whole day with family. So, for the second half of the day block out some TLC time for yourself! This could entail anything from going for a spa & massage treatment, meeting up with your girlfriends (without the kids of course), and/or just closing the door and reading, meditating, and contemplating what you are grateful for. 

Happy Mother’s Day.

Transform Your Habits, Transform Your Life

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What are habits? Habits are the small decisions you make and behaviors you engage in every day. They are the choices you deliberately made at some point, and then ceased to think of, but continue doing often and on a daily basis. You know that coffee you have in the morning? At some point you consciously decided that was your choice of drink every morning, to the point that you no longer had to make a decision, and the behavior became automatic. 

Why are habits important? According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40 percent of your behavior on any given day! So in a sense we can argue that about half of your life is spent performing different habits. This means that fundamental elements of your life like your weight, your bank account, and your happiness, are all results of your habits!  

What you repeatedly do, i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day, shapes the person you are, the things you believe, and the character you portray. Though it might be true that elements of your character were inherited from your parents, your way of being in the world today starts with your habits, and those habits shape how you approach your own life everyday. Will Durant, who was an American writer, historian and philosopher wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Powerful!

If you want to optimize your days, it follows that you would want to identify the primary components of a habit. Many researchers have proved that the process of creating a habit is a three-step loop, and it goes like this:
1. Reminder (the cue/ trigger/ stimuli that initiates the behavior)
2. Routine (the behavior itself, what you do, the act, the thought)
3. Reward (the advantage you gain from doing the behavior)

As an example of a common habit, let’s look at the process of answering one’s door:
1. Reminder - Doorbell sounds, triggering you to walk towards the door.  
2. Routine - You open the door.   
3. Reward - Now you know who was there. (and hopefully it’s a welcomed guest).
To simplify habit formation for a moment, we can say that if you want to create new habits, you have to figure out your “Reminders” and “Rewards”, and then create your new “Routines.”  

But how do we create new habits?
One of the ways to start a new habit is by using already existing habits. You need to build on existing reminders, or cues of your current habits to make the process of creating a new habit more automatic. For example, if you want to start eating oatmeal instead of sugary cereal in the morning, it’s best if you put the oatmeal packet by your coffee machine the night before. This creates a new routine, as you’re already using the cue of the coffee by pairing it with the oatmeal. Now, eating the oatmeal has its clear reward of knowing you are treating your body more kindly and becoming healthier. What’s left then is for your brain to reinforce this new habit, as the brain will start craving that ‘good feeling’ that comes from knowing you are accomplishing a goal you wished to be doing.. As simple as it might seem, moving the oatmeal packet the night before will help you greatly in making the ‘right decision’ as to what to eat that morning. Since in essence, it actually takes the decision making process out of your breakfast routine. This routine now sets the stage for this new, automated habit of having  oatmeal in the morning instead of cereal. 

You see, small changes in your behavior will reinforce the belief that you can change. This is a very important ingredient to any habit formation. Much more can be written on habit formation, but for now, go and find a desired small habit you wish to instill, and take action to create it.