How To Achieve A Healthier Happy New Year!

What can you do to ensure that 2018 will be a truly happy year?

If there is anything that everyone undoubtedly wants in their life, it is that often elusive feeling of happiness. Famously, a high-profile engineer called Mo Gawdat has even come up with a kind of algorithm for happiness in his book Solve for Happy.

“Happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the way you view the events in your life minus your expectations about how life should behave. Which means that if you perceive the events as equal to or greater than your expectations, you’re happy — or at least not unhappy,” writes Gawdat.

He spends more than 300 pages aiming to explain the basis for this algorithm and his philosophy of happiness. But there is, of course, no miracle recipe that all of us can follow to feel that glow of joy 24/7.

In this article, we do not tell you how to reach Nirvana. Instead, we look at the small things that most of us can reasonably achieve in the New Year so that we may improve our mental and physical well-being.

Here are some steps that you can take starting right now to boost your quality of life. The rest is up to you, so mind that you keep your New Year’s resolutions!

1. Be more active

This year, many studies have focused on the role of physical exercise not only in keeping us fit, but also in improving other aspects of our physical and mental health.

A study conducted earlier this year by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan, Canada, found that women’s perception of their own bodies improves after they exercise. The effect appears to be immediate and doesn’t depend on mood or actual state of fitness after exercising.

Furthermore, numerous recent studies have shown that exercise can counteract and prevent depression, which affects 40 million adults in the United States every year.

As little as 1 hour of exercise each week, regardless of intensity, can keep mood disorders at bay, found researchers from Australia’s Black Dog Institute.

And, if you’re struggling to keep up the motivation to go out for a jog or ride your bike, then there’s a simple fix: just focus on doing the kind of exercise that makes you happy.

“[A]ny movement is better than nothing,” explains Michelle Segar, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, so we should stop feeling guilty about not reaching a set target or not exercising at a certain intensity.

What’s really important is to find the fitness routine that suits us best so we can follow it more easily.

And, while we’re considering what new sports or activities we could take up in the New Year to boost our happiness levels, why not try something off the trodden path? Bouldering has been found to alleviate symptoms of depression, such as low moods, fatigue, and a lack of concentration.

Why not try yoga and meditation?

Speaking of mindfulness, practices such as yoga and meditation have been found to boost the quality of life and increase our sense of well-being.

 Why not give yoga a try in 2018? It’s been suggested to improve resilience and boost happiness.

Various recent studies have suggested that yoga is effective in tackling depression and that it helps to lower anxiety and stress levels. These effects, the researchers found, can last for up to 4 months after participation in a yoga program.

According to a study from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, both yoga and meditation can improve psychological and physiological resistance to stress factors.

This, the authors note, may mean not only that the mental health of people who practice yoga and meditation is not easily affected by negative events, but also that their immune system is better prepared to handle emergencies.

Another study reports that yoga and meditation may even play a role in how our brain contributes to the process of gene expression.

“These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed,” asserts lead researcher Ivana Buric.

2. Get enough sleep

Much research published in 2017 has focused on the prominent role played by a good night’s sleep in our mental and physical health. Sleep, we now know, is important in memory consolidation, fear learning, and keeping our brain well-rested so that we can react appropriately to events during the day.

Don’t underestimate the impact that sleep can have on your well-being.

 

Since people affected by insomnia are twice as likely as their peers to develop depression, it comes as no surprise that a good night’s sleep should be a priority in our search for happiness and wellness.

Ensuring that we are well rested can make our level of contentment peak, says a study that was conducted by the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. The authors of the paper compare this happiness boost with winning the lottery.

They say, “[The benefits of a good night’s sleep] are […] comparable with the average improvement in well-being (1.4-point reduction) shown by [lottery winners in the U.K.] 2 years after a medium-sized (£1000–£120000 in 1998 money) lottery win.”

Aside from the practical things you can do to minimize the possibility of disrupted sleep — such as avoiding looking at a bright screen before bedtime — researchers report that mindset is important.

A study from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL, suggests that people who have a clear life purpose do actually sleep better at night.

So, as you draft your New Year’s resolutions, why not take a step back and consider what your main goals in life are, and how you can achieve them?

3. Settle for a happy diet

This may come as no surprise, but what you eat does influence your mood. Research published in PLOS Online earlier this year argued that eating a fruit- and veggie-happy diet may improve mental health within 2 weeks.

The study authors found that adding more servings of fruits and vegetables to our usual intake could make us feel more motivated and boost our energy levels.

systematic review of multiple studies that investigated the link between diet and mental health concluded that a Mediterranean-style diet consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains could prevent depression.

However, a study published only this month argues that what we should eat to make us happy will largely depend on how old we are.

Thus, young adults (aged 18 to 29) will benefit from eating more white and red meat, while adults aged 30 and over should eat more fruit and veg if they’re looking for a mood boost.

Also, there’s no need to cut down on hot chocolate after the holiday season; researchers confirmed that cocoa can work miracles for your psychological well-being, mood, and potentially even cognitive abilities, too.

4. Make friends with the great outdoors

Research also suggests that, if we want to get that joie de vivre into our lives in 2018, then we had better spend more time outside. Going to the local shopping mall won’t cut it, however. In order to really feel happier, we should spend more time in nature.

One study shows that green spaces make us happy, and, conversely, when we don’t have access to nature, we tend to become depressed.

Higher levels of green space [in a neighborhood] were associated with lower symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress [in the members of the local community].”

Dr. Kristen Malecki, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Moreover, a recent experiment conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia showed that people who took a minute to observe small details in nature and register the emotional impact caused by these felt happier and more connected to their peers.

So, one easy step that you can take to improve your life in 2018 is simply a step outside — and then keep on walking. After all, a leisurely walk on its own has been found to have a positive effect on mood.

Get your creativity on!

Walking has also been shown to encourage creativity, and one study found that people who engage in creative pursuits every day have a greater sense of well-being.

Doing something creative every day can really make you happier, research shows.

 

Another way of boosting happiness in 2018, then, is to take a walk in your local park and plan a creative activity for that day.

This can be anything from cooking and baking, if you’re that way inclined, to painting, writing, or starting a DIY project. The choice is up to you!

If you’re stuck at home on your own, use that time to do something creative, too. A recent study has shown that sometimes we may need some “time out,” away from our peers, in order to really be able to tap into our creative resources.

You can also put on some happy music if you need that extra boost to your imagination. Researchers from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have shown that alert instrumental pieces such as The Four Seasons concerto by Antonio Vivaldi work best for this purpose.

5. Be kind to others and to yourself

Finally, but very importantly, in order to achieve a stronger sense of fulfilment and well-being, you should learn to treat yourself with kindness — and then extend that generosity to others.

Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. found that, although self-acceptance is a habit that can lead to greater happiness, it is one that very few people have formed.

A study conducted earlier this year also confirmed that, if we embrace our negative emotions, we are less at risk of perpetuating them and more likely to achieve self-healing. One of our goals for the New Year should definitely be practicing more self-love and self-care.

At the same time, the care that we show to others, as well as our degree of gratefulness toward our peers, can influence our levels of happiness.

Profs. Phillipe Tobler and Ernst Fehr, from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, showed that generosity is strongly associated with happiness, and we feel more joy when we give.

This supports previous research that indicated that volunteer work brings psychological benefits.

Lastly, remember to just be thankful. Gratitude for what we have, and for the people in our lives, is another important factor when it comes to mental well-being, leading to more optimism and improved relationships.

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25 Minutes of Yoga, Meditation ‘Boosts Brain Function, Energy’

Practicing Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation for just 25 minutes can significantly improve brain function and energy levels, compared with spending 25 minutes quietly reading, according to new research from Canada.

Kimberley Luu and associate professor Peter Hall, of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, report their study in the journal Mindfulness.

Yoga and meditation, once regarded as predominantly Eastern customs, are becoming mainstream in the West.

In the United States, for example, there are 36.7 million people who practice yoga, “up from 20.4 million in 2012,” while some 18 million have used meditation.

The U.S. workforce is rapidly taking to yoga and meditation. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that yoga practice among workers in the U.S. more than doubled between 2002 and 2012, rising from 6 to 11 percent. Meditation practice also rose from 8 to 9.9 percent.

Hatha yoga and mindfulness

Of the many styles of yoga, the one most commonly practiced in the West is Hatha yoga, which combines breathing with meditation and movement and concludes with relaxation. Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga are examples of Hatha yoga.

Mindfulness meditation is an approach that emphasizes paying attention to what is going on in the mind without evaluating or judging it. While yoga often includes some aspects of mindfulness, it can also be practiced on its own.

Prof. Hall explains, “Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation both focus the brain’s conscious processing power on a limited number of targets like breathing and posing, and also reduce processing of nonessential information.”

He explains that he and Luu were interested in finding out whether the two practices might have a “positive carryover effect” that helps people to “focus more easily on what they choose to attend to in everyday life.”

Executive function

In a comprehensive review of the evidence, the two authors had already concluded that there was a need for “more good-quality studies” on the effects of Hatha yoga on executive function.

In that paper, they describe the executive function as “a set of high-order cognitive processes” that allows control of behavior, emotion, and thought independently of stimuli.

The executive function operates through the prefrontal cortex of the brain and other centers that are linked to it. It typically involves working memory, mental flexibility, and inhibitory control.

Many researchers also regard executive function as inclusive of other processes such as decision-making, problem-solving, and attention control because they are closely linked to it or highly dependent on it.

For their new study, the researchers invited 31 healthy, “moderately experienced” practitioners aged 28 years, on average, to complete three sessions of Hatha yoga (including an element of mindfulness meditation), mindfulness meditation (without yoga), and quiet reading (control task).

They used a “within-subjects experimental design,” which meant that the participants did not complete the tasks in the same order (each was assigned the order at random).

Hatha Yoga2Improved executive function, mood, energy

The researchers assessed executive function before each session and at 5 minutes and 10 minutes after each session using a standard test known as the “Stroop interference task.” This test also measures inhibitory control.

The team found that the participants significantly improved their executive function scores after the Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation sessions compared with the before and after scores of the reading session.

However, they note that the improvement only showed in the 10-minute post-session tests and not in the 5-minute post-session tests.

Using a self-reporting tool called Profile of Mood States, the researchers also found that both Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation resulted in significantly improved mood scores compared with reading.

This tool includes a “vigor-activity subscale” that measures energy levels. On this subscale, while both Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation compared favorably with reading, Hatha yoga showed “significantly greater benefits.”

Luu explains that there are “a number of theories about why physical exercises like yoga improve energy levels and cognitive test performance. These include the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts. Though ultimately, it is still an open question.”

Because the participants were not representative of the general population, more studies are now needed, involving diverse groups of people, to find out whether Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation might benefit the wider public.

Although the meditative aspect might be even more important than the physical posing for improving executive functions, there are additional benefits to Hatha yoga including improvements in flexibility and strength. These benefits may make Hatha yoga superior to meditation alone, in terms of overall health benefits.”

How Yoga, Meditation Benefit the Mind and Body

Yoga and meditation have both become increasingly popular in the Western world, and practitioners praise their psychological and physical benefits. Current research also suggests that meditating and doing yoga can boost overall well-being and resilience to stress factors.

Increasingly, yoga practice and meditation have been the focus of research aiming to test their benefits. Recently, we have reported on a wealth of studies pointing to many different advantages of yoga and meditation, including countering cognitive decline, acting on genetic factors that predispose individuals to stress, improving lower back pain, and easing depression.

A new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience now shows that yoga and meditation appear to have a positive effect on the central nervous system as well as the immune system and that it may improve the individuals’ overall sense of well-being.

The study – led by Dr. B Rael Cahn, from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles – was part of a larger body of research addressing different approaches to promoting resilience.

The participants were assessed both before and after participating in the yoga retreat. They had to undergo:

  1. psychometric tests that collected data about their psychological well-beingmindfulness, and psychological involvement
  2. measurements of the brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a protein that promotes the survival and growth of various nerve cells and is involved in immune response, metabolic regulation, and resilience to stress
  3. assessment of the “cortisol awakening response” (CAR), which measured the secretion of cortisol, a hormone involved in the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland (also known as the “HPA axis”)
  4. measurements of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokine levels, which are involved in the functioning of the immune system

After analyzing the data, the team found that engagement in the yoga and meditation practices at the retreat was associated with decreased anxiety and depression levels – as reported by the participants – as well as with an increase in their level of mindfulness.

From a biological point of view, the scientists noted an increase in BDNF plasma levels, as well as a strengthened CAR, suggesting improved resilience to stress factors.

The data also showed an increase of an anti-inflammatory cytokine (interleukin-10) and a corresponding decrease in a pro-inflammatory cytokine (interleukin-12), which led to a reduction of inflammatory processes.

“It is likely that at least some of the significant improvements in both HPA axis functioning as exemplified by increases in BDNF levels and alterations in cytokines were due to the intensive meditation practice involved in this retreat,” suggests Dr. Cahn.

Potential benefits to the nervous system

The researchers believe that the various biological improvements gathered from the collected data indicate an enhanced overall sense of physical and psychological well-being.

They highlight that their results may point to an enhanced functioning of certain elements of the central nervous system, a healthier immune system, and a strengthened sense of focus and awareness.

The observed increased BDNF signaling [is] possibly related to enhanced neurogenesis and/or neuroplasticity, increased CAR likely related to enhanced alertness and readiness for mind-body engagement, and increased anti- and pro-inflammatory cytokines possibly indicating enhanced immunological readiness.”

Moreover, the researchers suggest that there is a thrilling possibility that some of the effects observed in the aftermath of the retreat suggest that meditation and yoga could stimulate the hippocampus to function better.

“An intriguing possible link between the effects on BDNF and the CAR is hippocampal functional integrity, since increased BDNF levels due to physical exercise has previously been shown to relate with hippocampal neurogenesis and likely relate to its positive effects on well-being and depression,” says Dr. Cahn.

Nevertheless, the scientists caution that not all of these positive effects may be due to yoga and meditation. Some, they suggest, may be owed to the individuals’ dietary practices, social interaction, or the impact of the yoga and meditation teachers.

Still, Dr. Cahn and his team are excited by the results of their research and believe that they are grounds for further studies on the potential physical and psychological benefits of yoga and meditation.

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to examine a broad range of pro- and anti-inflammatory markers in a healthy population before and after a yoga-meditation intervention. Our findings justify further studies of yoga and meditation retreats assessing the replicability, specificity, and long-term implications of these findings,” Dr. Cahn concludes.

Frankincense Essential Oil

Frankincense essential oil (Boswellia carterii) has a deep, resinous, balsamic scent. It’s familiar and comforting, yet rare enough in daily life that smelling it makes the moment stand out.

Frankincense’s ability to remind me that every moment is special is one reason I love it.

Below, I’ll share some Aromatherapy recipes with Frankincense essential oil, and talk about the therapeutic effects it can bring to your blends.

1. Turn to Frankincense when you want to calm down and restore yourself after a long day.

I like to make stock blends with Frankincense essential oil.

If you make a single-use diffuser blend (about 5-10 drops of essential oil dropped right in your diffuser), and you absolutely love it, you can increase the recipe and make a small bottle of your blend.

I use a 5 ml amber glass bottle, and I keep it right next to my favorite diffuser.

Here’s a stock blend I make with Frankincense:

Ingredients

  • 40 drops Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
  • 20 drops Green Mandarin (Citrus reticulata)
  • 5 drops Jasmine Absolute (Jasminum grandiflorum)

Use 5-10 drops in your diffuser.

This blend is resinous, with warm floral notes and a hint of bright citrus. All three oils are calming and reassuring—so this blend is the perfect companion for a relaxing evening!

2. Frankincense is a perfect essential oil for your yoga or massage practice.

Frankincense is a resin produced by the Boswellia carterii tree when its trunk is wounded. The resin is brought from deep within the tree to seal and heal the wounds.

I find that Frankincense essential oil brings this same quality to massages and yoga practices. During those times, we can access deep reserves of inner strength and heal in profound ways.

Here’s a diffuser recipe that you can use in your massage room or yoga studio to promote this quality. Make the blend in a 5 ml stock bottle. Use 5-10 drops in your diffuser.

Frankinsence Massage and Yoga Diffuser BlendIngredients

  • 15 drops Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
  • 10 drops Juniper (Juniperus communis)
  • 20 drops Elemi (Canarium luzonicum)
  • 15 drops Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)


Directions

  • Smile!

Frankincense is also very supportive of skin, so it’s perfect for massage oils, too!

 3. Frankincense hydrosols can help you calm and center quickly.

Do you use hydrosols? Hydrosols are aromatic waters with therapeutic properties. They’re excellent for those times when you don’t need the full strength of an essential oil.

Frankincense hydrosol is calming, centering, and skin-loving. There are so many ways you can use it!

  • Spray it on your face as a toner after washing.
  • Spray some on a washcloth and run it over your body right before you get out of the shower.
  • Add a capful to your bath water.
  • Body Spritz after your shower.
  • Use it as a linen spray before bed.
  • Use it as a facial steam. (Add a capful to a bowl of hot water. Lean over the bowl and cover your head with a towel, breathing deeply. You can add one drop of Frankincense essential oil if you like. This is great for your skin or for when you feel a cold coming on!)
  • Spray it on your yoga mat before you begin your practice.

If you start using Frankincense hydrosol, I bet you’ll come up with even more ways to use it every day.

 

4. Use Frankincense for meditation.

Frankincense has a long history of use during meditation and rituals. So what better way to use Frankincense than as incense?

There is actually a way to make incense sticks themselves, but if I’m short on time, I just add essential oils to ready-made blank sticks. That’s the method I’m going to share with you today.

I suggest making one incense stick to start with. Then if you like the experience of burning it, you can make a small batch of them. One stick will take about 20 drops of essential oil.

Here’s a beautiful blend of Frankincense essential oil:

Frankinsence Forest IncenseIngredients

  • 10 drops Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
  • 8 drops Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
  • 2 drops Jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum) OR Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata)


Directions
I use a long, narrow olive dish to make incense. I just lay the stick in the dish, drop the essential oils onto it, and roll the stick in the oils that fall in the bottom of the dish to soak them all up.

If you don’t have an olive dish, you can use a piece of foil folded into a “V” shape. Just be sure to turn the ends up so your oils don’t spill out!

 

Get to know Frankincense.

Feel like you’ve made a new friend (or gotten to know an old friend in a new way)? I hope so! The more you blend with Frankincense essential oil, the more you notice nuances of its aroma and experience the variety of ways it has to support your well-being.