Happiness Habits: Get Physical
This is the fifth in a series of articles based on the twelve happiness habits in The Little Book of Happiness. Habit 9 is to Get Physical and Habit 10 is to Turn to Nature.
Get physical and Go outdoors
You’re probably familiar with the term ‘psychosomatic’ applied to illnesses where the mind has a negative influence on the body, but what about ‘somatopsychic wellbeing’ where the body has a positive influence on the mind? Using the body-mind connection is much under-rated as a means of growing your happiness. Whereas stress has a negative impact on the body’s systems, research is now showing that happiness has the opposite effect, having a protective influence on these same biological pathways. Many happiness practices seem to involve mental gymnastics but one of the best ways to promote mental health is to get physical. Even the simple act of breathing deeply can change your state, break stress and restore calm. Moving the body releases endorphins, which trigger a positive feeling. You don’t have to be a natural athlete to get a dose of these feel-good hormones. Anything that raises the heartrate will do.
‘Not exercising is like taking depressants’ Dr Tal Ben-Shahar
Physical activity has been found to act as a natural anti-depressant. One study carried out at Duke Medical School in North Carolina compared 3 groups with major depression. One group was treated with anti-depressant pills, another did exercise and a third had a combination of both. All three groups recovered but 10 months down the line the group with the lowest relapse rate were the exercisers.
Tips to get started
Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week for its mood-boosting benefits. This can be divided up into shorter bursts such as two x 15-minute walks around the park.
- Do something that is a pleasure rather than a pain to stay motivated. Choose something that you feel drawn to, maybe Argentine tango or gardening.
- Make it social. Find an exercise buddy or join a sports team to get the double benefits of physical activity and social interaction.
- Build it into your daily routine. Take the stairs rather than the lift. Get off the bus one stop early. Turn the housework into a workout.
- Use a fitness app to help you keep count of your daily steps.
- Rate your mood out of ten before and after physical activity
- Do it in nature for an even bigger mood boost (see next happiness habit).
Physical contact can also boost the mood. A hug reduces stress levels and increases oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’. Massage and other physical therapies activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts the body into a state of relaxation. The joy of sex is that it has many other benefits besides the pleasure calming the mind, increasing trust and deepening the bonds of the couple.
Another readily available resource that has a positive impact on the mind, something that we do naturally and automatically, is breathing. It serves as the body’s brake, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing strengthens the ability to regulate emotions, reducing anxiety, depression and impulsivity. Breathing exercises increase happiness and optimism. Here are a couple that I teach in workshops.
The Four Count Breath or ‘Box Breathing’ is a relaxation technique that can help to clear the mind, relax the body, and improve focus.
- Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
- Hold your breath gently while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds.
- Begin to slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
- Repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times. Ideally, repeat the three steps for 4 minutes, or until you feel calm.
The 4-7-8 technique is a breathing pattern based on an ancient yogic practice called ‘pranayama’. When practised regularly, this technique helps people fall asleep faster and more easily. Find a comfortable place to relax. Rest your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth and keep it there during the practice. The following steps should all be carried out in the cycle of one breath:
- Part your lips. Exhale completely through your mouth making a whooshing sound.
- Close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.
- Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath.
- Exhale from your mouth for eight seconds while making another whooshing sound.
It’s recommended that you only practise 4-7-8 breathing for four rounds when you’re first starting out. You can gradually work your way up to eight full rounds.
Just as the physical body can act as a channel to greater wellbeing, so does a natural environment, which is why our next happiness habit is Turn to Nature. Immersion in fresh air and foliage provides an instant digital detox, counteracting the mental fatigue of an over-stimulated mind. Nature is a great healer, reducing stress and boosting health and happiness. Your brain functions better in nature as well as boosting wellbeing. Simply looking at images of nature is calming and linked to higher levels of alpha brainwave activity, which plays a role in serotonin production.
Blue and Green
‘Green exercise’ is physical activity in a natural environment like running, cycling, horse-riding or sailing. If you’re wired and tired, it only takes five minutes of physical activity in a green space to start generating positive emotions. Engaging in green exercise in a ‘blue environment’ i.e. the sea, lakes or rivers produces the greatest improvement in mood.
There’s something deeply refreshing about being out in the woods – the fresh air, aromas of pine or eucalyptus, the smell of damp earth, the leaves overhead and crunching of twigs underfoot. The Japanese have developed a healing therapy known as ‘shinrin yoku’, which means bathing or basking in the forest in recognition of the benefits of therapeutic immersion in a natural environment. Forest bathing is another way of activating the body’s brake – the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering stress hormones, replenishing our energy stores and building vitality. Even a 20-minute dose of shinrin-yoku is enough to alter cerebral brain flow to induce a state of relaxation.
Forest bathing is about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ so don’t feel you have to achieve anything other than being in the woods. It is about entering a meditative state, experiencing the forest through the senses. Allow 2-4 hours ideally so that you have time to relax. However even a short burst of forest bathing can have a positive effect. Take it slow. It’s not about working out.
- Stand in one spot and immerse yourself in the environment. Open yourself up to the forest through the senses.
- Look around. What can you see? Trees, vegetation, earth, sky, animals.
- Notice your feet planted on the ground, pick up twigs, leaves or stones and feel their texture, observing your interaction with the natural objects.
- What can you hear? Notice birdsong, wind in the trees, the soothing sound of running water or the rustling of leaves.
- Breathe in slowly and notice the quality of the air. How does it feel on the skin? Note the smells of nature around you.