We all want to be happier and healthier in the New Year, but getting there can be a bit elusive (or totally daunting). Here are a few simple (and science-backed) ways to be kinder to yourself and others in 2014. It turns out that beyond spending time on ourselves, keying in to the people around us may be an even more powerful way to get closer to a sense of happiness and well-being.
Meditate for a healthier brain
It’s all over the news these days, and with good reason – meditation has the scientific backing to warrant its growing popularity. Studies have shown that meditation can help us not only feel more centered and relaxed, but it can also literally change the setup of our brains, from increasing grey matter density to shifting how the neurons themselves are connected. Recently, it was shown to trigger changes at the level of the gene, particularly genes that govern the stress and inflammatory responses. And in a moment-to-moment way, it just helps you feel better throughout the day, much like shutting down and rebooting a computer. So go check out a meditation class in your area, or find tools online to get you going. Your brain will thank you.
You might not want to hear it, but moving your body is one of the single best things you can do for yourself, both body and brain. Until recently, the adult brain was thought to be relatively unchangeable, but evidence over the last decade shows that it can actually sprout new neurons, particularly in an area called the hippocampus, which is the seat of learning and memory. And physical activity appears to be a strong trigger for this new neural growth. Beyond the long-term benefits that it can offer the brain, exercise also increases endorphins – these little happy-chemicals make us feel good at the end of the workout, and the promise of this “runner’s high” can get us going even when we don’t really feel like getting started.
Get A Practice
Making a routine out of something – just about anything, provided that it’s healthy – can be life-changing, and for some people, life-saving. Having a ritual to come back to is one of the ways to give yourself a sense of security in rough times. It almost doesn’t matter what the practice is – run, walk, practice yoga, write, pray, meditate, chant, have a cup of tea at 6 a.m. while gazing out the window – just so long as it’s a practice. We’re creatures of habit, and giving yourself a healthy one to fall back on (rather than a destructive one) is a key to giving the brain what it wants – structure.
Eat Smarter and Simpler
Any list of ways to be kinder to yourself wouldn’t be complete without the requisite food entry. There’s a handful of foods whose benefits are so well-illustrated that they’re known as the power foods. Among them are:
- Blueberries, or any deeply-colored berry, are packed with antioxidants
- Fatty fish, for the brain-healthy DHA and EPA varieties of omega-3 fatty acids (note that these omegas are different from the omega-3s found in nuts and seeds)
- Leafy greens are rich in folate, iron, and other essential vitamins and nutrients
- Turmeric, my personal favorite, whose anti-inflammatory properties have long been linked to reduced Alzheimer’s risk.
There are many other foods that are good for the brain, and the rule of thumb for the brain as well as for the rest of the body is to drop the processed, pale-colored foods and replace them with as many brightly colored, and whole, foods as you possibly can.
Connect with those around you
OK, the verdict is in: Social media makes us shallow, unhappy and jealous of the people around us. Even worse, it has the unintended effect of disconnecting, rather than connecting, us from the people we love. Real social interaction, on the other hand, improves psychological well-being, happiness, and is even linked to greater health and longevity. So put down the smartphone and talk to the person sitting across from you (whether you know them or not). Or if it’s a choice between Facebooking your mother or calling her on the phone, the phone call is definitely the better choice for a healthy dose of social contact.
Practice mindfulness in everything
Mindfulness is another term that’s exploded in recent years. All the evidence suggests that practicing mindfulness can help us be more present in life, rather than shuffling through it blindly. It’s also been shown to help people quit smoking and lose weight. The key to mindfulness, as Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD has said for many years, is paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally. Observing your thoughts without reacting to them is another way to think about it. Whether you’re feeling generally anxious or trying to get to the other side of an intense food craving, inquiring into your own thought processes and physical sensations – without judging them, but simply observing them – can be an enormously powerful tool to get there.
Ask about those around you
We spend a lot of time focusing on ourselves these days, for better and for worse. So from time to time it’s good to take the focus off yourself and inquire into those around you a little more deeply. Maybe there’s a person in your office who always seems a little sad and could use some conversation. Or maybe your friend has been spending a lot of time helping you through a problem in your life. Try turning the tables a little more this year, and switching attention to the person across from you. Doing so will make the people around you feel more interesting and valuable, and this will make you a more valuable friend in turn.
Be of service
This is an offshoot of the last item, but it plays out in an even cooler and more noticeable way. It’s true that we need to improve ourselves to be good for others (practicing yoga, going diligently to talk therapy, and so on), but the flipside is also true: We need to help out others to heal ourselves. As Rob Schware, PhD, president of the Yoga Service Council and Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, pointed out to me earlier this year, “Gandhi said, ‘if you want to know yourself, serve others.’” And a lot of people have found this to be true. Do some good for those around you, and you’ll find it helps heal you in a way that’s hard to put in words. So give it a try in whatever way strikes your fancy. Finding more ways to help others in 2014 may be just the thing to give yourself a happier, healthier new year.