Most of us who haven’t retired yet live busy, stressed-out lives. After all, we’ve got a lot to do: A job to work, children to raise, parents to check on, errands to run. What’s not to be stressed about, right?
The fact is that our responsibilities and obligations aren’t likely to fade anytime soon, but our stress can. It comes down to attitude. The mindset with which we approach the world around us (and the world within us) is the number one factor determining our happiness.
Here are eight time tested guidelines for a life with less stress and more joy:
1. Clarify Your Top Priorities and Control What You Can
Take time to plan and prioritize. The most common source of stress is the perception that you’ve got too much work to do. Rather than obsess about it, pick one thing that, if you get it done today, will move you closer to your highest goal and purpose in life. Then do that first.
Remember also that some things are beyond your control. Has a parent with dementia said something unkind? Remind yourself that while you can’t prevent these remarks, you can control how you react to them.
2. Laugh Often
Laughter is a healthy way of relieving tension. It decreases levels of stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine) while increasing the primary neurotransmitter for contentment, endorphin, our body’s own natural pain reliever. It also brings people together, which is always beneficial. Did your elderly mother try to make coffee with cat litter? Allow yourself to laugh it off instead of getting flustered.
You can also work actively to add laughter to your life. Place a higher priority on spending time with loved ones who make you laugh. Get a daily dose of your favorite sitcom on Netflix-streaming or Hulu if it’s not on TV. Or try Laughter Yoga. Its practitioners note that science has found the body is unable to differentiate between natural laughter and forced laughter. For this reason they actually suggest that people make themselves laugh and have group laughter sessions, advising students to “fake it till you make it.”
3. Have Empathy for Yourself
Those stressed out from working, parenting, or caregiving should try not to be too hard on themselves. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and don’t blame yourself difficulties or bad outcomes. During the hardest times work to soothe and reassure yourself. Try repeating a favorite prayer or self-affirming mantra, reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can under difficult circumstances.
While a few hermits may claim that the solitary life is ideal, the psychological and medical communities agree that it’s important to spend quality time with friends and family. A groundbreaking survey by Gallup in 2008 found that social time is crucial to happiness and well-being. Gallup contacted 140,000 individuals and asked them how happy they had been on the day prior. Respondents were also asked about how many hours they spent socializing the day before (among numerous other questions). Unsurprisingly, there was a direct correlation between social time and reported happiness.
Organize regular monthly get-togethers with friends in a social setting that you can look forward to, such as a dinner club, a Bunko or Mah Jong game, or a movie or book club. Also take advantage of opportunities to make socializing therapeutic. If you become overly stressed from caring for an aging parent, join a support group (many can be found through the Alzheimer’s Association). Even online socializing at sites such as our Eldercare Community Forum can be beneficial.
5. Practice Self Care
Body and mind are interconnected, so our bodies will be best poised to cope with stress when we are well nourished and in reasonable shape. Exercise, of course, is key. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever.” Try incorporating extra activity into you daily routine. Take the stairs instead of using the elevator. Park further away than you need to next time you go to the supermarket.
Nutrition is also crucial. By now most of us understand what constitutes a healthy diet, but how we consume our food may be just as important as what we eat. Take the time to savor your food. Sometimes we can’t avoid scarfing something down quickly to keep us up and running. Even so, at least once a day try to eat or drink something really delicious, like a small chunk of fine cheese, an imported chocolate, or a glass of nice wine.
6. Look on the Bright Side of Life
Optimism, or positive thinking, has been linked by researchers to increased health and happiness. While there’s some evidence that our level optimism is genetic (or heritable), that doesn’t mean we that we don’t have any choice in the matter or that we shouldn’t make optimism a goal. That would be, well, pessimistic.
A recent study reported about in Medical Daily found that optimism is actually important than one’s physical health in determining wellbeing.
7. Get Enough Sleep and Rest
Sleep is restorative and is one of our body’s ways to mitigate stress. Research by Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, found that the happiness to be gained by getting an extra hour of sleep each night is equivalent to getting a $60,000 raise. How do we get more sleep? A recent study by the University of Pittsburgh Sleep Medicine Institute found that learning some simple but surprising guidelines can help improve sleep duration and quality significantly:
- Spend less time in bed. Don’t spend leisure time in bed, in the morning or in the evening. If you want to cozy up with a good book, go for the couch rather than your bed.
- Get up at the same time every day. Your sleep will improve if you can muster the self-discipline to get up at the same time each day, even on weekends or when you haven’t slept well.
- Don’t go to bed until you feel sleepy. Even if it is past your normal bedtime, it is better to stay up and be active than to lie awake in bed.
- Get out of bed if you’re not sleeping. If you’re having trouble sleeping, get up and read or watch a little TV rather than remaining in bed awake.
8. Be Here Now
Another way of putting this is, “Live in the moment.” If we live our lives always waiting for some hoped for point in the future (for example our next vacation) we discard the here and now, which is all we really have. American author Henry James wrote, “Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.”
By Jeff Anderson
Image of laughing man courtesy Flickr user Chris Waits, used via Creative Common License