Research has shown that once you get past providing for your basic needs, additional money doesn’t materially increase your happiness level, and we all know that meds can only go so far toward adding to our sense of well-being. Are there any other strategies that can move the needle on our happiness scale?
A recent article online in Forbes looked at some research, and found a few tricks and habits that might induce more happiness in our lives. The first is exercise. Cardiovascular exercise (that is, a strenuous workout) functions almost like a wonder drug with regard to a person’s overall well-being, and has recently been associated with the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain known to be affected by depression.
You probably already know that processed sugars can cause unhappy moods, but until recently the reasons have been unclear. A growing body of evidence indicates that our gut microbes affect our mental health in significant ways, and the foods we eat can select for or reduce certain strains of bacteria. Eating a plant-based diet, low in sugar and processed foods, may help promote the body chemistry associated with happiness.
In addition, there is evidence that people who maintain a structured schedule are better at avoiding depression than their unstructured peers. A daily routine is in itself comforting when you’re down or depressed, and the habits you form ensure that you will get out and be social (and maybe get exercise) even if you don’t feel like it.
Speaking of social interaction, there is a body of research that suggests that regularly communing with other people may be the single best thing you can do for your mental health. When we get depressed, there is a tendency to isolate ourselves, but if we have a community to fall back on, people to talk to, a good marriage or life partner who will be there for us, it can have a powerful counter-effect on depression.
Finally, meditation seems to improve mental health. Studies have shown that eight weeks of meditation training seems to do a better job of reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety than antidepressants. Among other things, meditation reduces activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMNN), which is active when our minds are wandering into negative or stressful thoughts.
The article also suggests that you be less self-critical, that you be easier on yourself and exhibit self-compassion. Anxiety and depression are triggered whenever we judge ourselves to be unworthy, ineffective or just not plain good enough. As the song goes, don’t worry; be happy.
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