If winter is getting you down, consider putting a spring in your step—literally—to feel more energetic and happier.
It’s not hard to recognize people who are sad or depressed from the way they carry themselves: slumped shoulders, lowered gaze, downturned mouth, and shuffling gait. Happy people, in contrast, stand up straighter, make eye contact, smile, swing their arms, and bounce along at a brisk pace.
Short days and post-holiday doldrums can take their emotional toll; temperatures in the single digits may worsen the seasonal blues by limiting our exposure to sunlight and causing us, when we do brave the elements and venture outside, to bow our heads, hunker down against the cold, and pull our arms in tightly against our chests.
Posture, it turns out, can affect mood. The results of some recent research point to a connection between how we walk and how we feel.
In one study, undergraduates (who, due to their ready availability and incentives to participate, are the most commonly tested subjects in psychology experiments) were told to attempt to move a gauge as they walked on a treadmill. For one group, the gauge moved when they bounced along at a fast, “happy” clip; for the other, the gauge responded to a slowed, “depressed” pace.”
After being given a list of 40 words—half negative, such as “ugly” and half positive, such as “happy”—the subjects in the depressed group recalled more of the negative words. Another study by the same research team, which used people actually suffering from depression rather than randomly selected undergraduates, produced similar results when half the participants were told to slump. Subjects instructed to sit upright recalled fewer negative words.
Although more research with larger samples (each of the above studies tested fewer than 40 subjects) would be required to draw any broad conclusions, the results make intuitive sense. They also lend support to the framework underlying cognitive-behavioral therapy: making even small changes in behavior can help alter moods.
If walking isn’t an option–say you’re sitting at your desk and feeling in a funk with a deadline looming–try smiling. The act of putting on a happy face can activate neural pathways to boost serotonin and dopamine, two of the neurotransmitters targeted by most antidepressant medications.
To be clear, none of these microphysical adjustments will cure a serious case of depression. If you suffer from more severe, intractable mood problems, please seek professional intervention. But for the garden variety blahs so common this time of year, why not try walking happy? It just might help.
I’m in the business of helping people change—their habits, their thoughts, their behavior. But sometimes staying the course is the wisest choice.
In my first post of the New Year, I outlined my Five-Minute Plan for changing behavior. I committed to trying it out myself by writing for five minutes a day with the goal of blogging weekly.
That hasn’t happened.
At first I felt guilty. After all, how can I expect others to follow my advice if I can’t apply it to my own life? But then I took a more mindful perspective, setting aside the self-judgments and extending to myself the compassion I’d readily give to others.
You see, this isn’t a good time for me to try to change my habits. A family health crisis has consumed my time and emotional energy. So in order to maintain my mental acuity and physical wellbeing, I’ve had to decide what’s most important for me to do right now.
Get enough sleep. Prepare nourishing meals. Keep up with a modest exercise regimen to clear my head and relieve stress. Meditate. Walk my dogs. Talk to my husband and children. Be fully present and on my game at work.
Blogging doesn’t make the cut.
So I’ll be taking a brief hiatus and will return when the time is right, whenever that is.
In the bustle of the holiday season, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. We all have too much to do and not enough hours. So this isn’t the optimal time to start a diet (or work on getting more sleep or initiate a new exercise regimen or stop smoking or cut down on drinking or make any changes you’ve thought about and tried unsuccessfully to implement in the past).
Or is it?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s no perfect time to begin building healthier habits. In fact, the very notion of a “right time” often prevents would-be self-improvers from taking the first step. If you’ve ever told yourself, “I’ll get back on track tomorrow” (after you’ve eaten the package of Oreos and are about to dig into the pint of Ben & Jerry’s) or “I’ll start my diet and exercise program on January 2,” you know what I mean.
Right now—whenever now happens to be—is the best time to lay the groundwork if you’ve decided you really want to change.
Thinking about how modifying unhealthy behaviors would improve your life is the first—and most important—step. Most people skip over this part. They jump right in and try to make drastic changes without really considering the costs and benefits of the work involved. This all-or-nothing approach inevitably ends up backfiring because, if you’re not absolutely convinced the outcome is worth the effort, you won’t stick with it.
So take out a piece of paper or your favorite electronic device and start making a list. Ask yourself, “How would my life be different if I could reach my health goals?” Be as specific as possible. So, for example, rather than saying, “I’d be happier,” itemize the reasons you’d feel better: “I’ll feel proud of myself for sticking with this commitment,” or, “I’ll be able to play with the kids without getting breathless,” or, “I can save the money I spend on cigarettes and buy the iPad I’ve been wanting.”
After you’ve come up with as many reasons you can think of, read them every day for the next week. In my next post, I’ll share my Five Minute Rule for developing new habits.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.