Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Secret 47: Marry - or Get A Dog

Mental and emotional well-being is closely linked to physical health. "Cogito, ergo sum" Descartes wrote. "I think, therefore I am". More aptly for the human being, a social animal, would be "you acknowledge me, therefore I am."  

part of a greater whole
As creatures whose existence depends on the skills of others, we are poorly equipped to survive in isolation.  Sure, people have survived outside of human populations, but, in general, not only are we dependent on the skills of others, emotionally we fare better when we have a distinct, predefined role to play within a supportive community. Fundamentally, every human wants and needs...
  • to be acknowledged: the fact that you react to me when we cross paths means that I am alive. I exist. This acknowledgment might be given via simple eye contact, a nod of the head, a hand wave, or, better yet, verbal interaction.  "Hello, how are you?" Being ignored can hurt.
  • to be appreciated: even better, if you value what I do and provide me with positive feedback,  I feel even more gratified to be alive. A little appreciation goes a long way. Take a moment to look at this amusing video:                                                                                                                                  If I render a service to you, or give you a material gift, the simple act of saying 'thank you', not only confirms receipt, but makes me feel appreciated (and increases the chances of repetition).  
  • to be needed: I want to believe that someone else is doing better because I exist. This is an incredibly powerful emotion that keeps sleep-deprived parents sane when their infants' cries wake them up for the nth time during the night.
  • to be cared for: someone out there is concerned that I am well.  Studies have shown that merely living together is not as beneficial for health as living with those who sincerely care about you.
  • to be loved: this is the ultimate reward of being a member of a society. A hermit may feel loved by a god-like creature, but I prefer to receive this confirmation through all five senses (rather than simply cerebrally). Being loved and being able to love makes me feel alive and makes life worthwhile.
To ensure a steady supply of the above emotions, people choose to get married. They hope that by getting married they will always be acknowledged by their partner, appreciated and needed, and, best of all, loved.  If all these criteria apply to your situation, then congratulate yourself on being in a wonderful relationship!

Sally Beare quotes several studies that confirm that people who are (happily) married live longer. According to the study by Warwick university, married people - especially men - live up to three years longer.  Note that the assumption is that you are in a healthy relationship i.e. one in which respect and the desire to meet the partner's needs happen on a reciprocal basis.  If you are married to a person who always puts their own wants and desires above yours, you would be better off without this person. Equal partners realize that they are stronger in a partnership, and will take extra care to ensure the partnership continues and thrives. They will urge their partner to seek medical advice when necessary, and will keep an eye out for the well-being of the loved one.  In 'A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness", psychologist Dr. James J. Lynch writes that 'mortality rates in the United States for all causes of death, and not just for heart disease, are consistently higher for divorced, single, and widowed individuals of both sexes and all races". 

Over and over, when unspeakable crimes occur, in which classmates are shot or innocent movie-goers are killed, the perpetrator(s) have been severely lacking in interpersonal and social skills and been isolated long before committing their crime. For whatever reason, they have failed to connect in a healthy manner with a close community of friends. They have lost all moral perspective. Drowning in a quicksand of futility, desperate and filled with hatred, these sociopaths turn against society in the ultimate selfish act of creating bottomless grief for those who are firmly anchored in supportive, loving communities.  It is as if these misfits are screaming:"Look at me, I am not loved, I am not appreciated, nobody gives a damn about me, I am not needed. I am not acknowledged... I will MAKE you acknowledge me, whether you like it or not, by destroying what you love and what appreciates and needs YOU!"

So to keep a sense of perspective, to tend to your garden of healthy, emotional needs, marry a wonderful person, or surround yourself with dear, supportive, genki* friends.  Or, if you are in a hurry, run to the nearest shelter and adopt a homeless dog. The dog will give you unconditional love and will always greet you joyously when you come home - irrespective of your mood.  And that dog, according to the University of Warwick scientists, will triple your chances of making a friend.  And a good friend is great for health!

*genki: Okinawan expression for 'happy and healthy'

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Secret 46: Give Help to Others

"If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path", Buddhist saying

Would you like to:
  • live longer
  • have a better quality of life while you are alive
  • enjoy lower blood pressure
  • lessen your chance of getting a stroke
  • have lower stress levels?
Simple.  It's in your hands.  Choose to be helpful. My father always said: "Given the choice, you are always better off being in a position in which you are able to help others than to find yourself in a position of having to rely on the help of others."

Numerous studies have shown that helping others provides you with the following benefits:

  • you feel part of a larger community
  • you feel cherished and valued
  • you have higher self-esteem
  • you feel empowered
  • this reduces any loneliness you may have
  • it makes your life more worth living
  • it creates the desire to stay alive
  • it gives meaning to your life

  • Life does not exist in isolation
    In Western culture we value the ability of the individual to help him- or herself.  However, as John Donne wrote in 1623 in Meditation XVII: "no man is an island, entire of itself". One of the most interesting insights I gleaned from Jill Bolte Taylor's book: "A Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" is the difference between the two sides of the brain. One side is the selfish, individual side that is vested in its survival (and fears death), the other side is selfless, understands and accepts its dependence and interconnectedness with other living beings and considers itself a minuscule part of a greater universe (and is more accepting of death). The latter supports our desire to help others. The long-living and healthy Okinawans call this 'yuimaaru' or mutual aid and reciprocity

    The healthiest thing you can do (especially if you are prone to self-pity) is to go out and help someone less fortunate for, no doubt, most people are less fortunate. When you shift the focus away from yourself, when you stop thinking about your worries and when you put your concerns aside and start thinking about how you can help someone else AND when you take action, your health will benefit. Sally Beare mentions a study by the University of Michigan that concluded that selfish people die younger than helpful people.  Bitter, angry, inconsiderate people derive less enjoyment from life and make other people's lives miserable.  Who do you want to be? 

    The fact that you have access to a computer and are reading this means that you are in a better position than most. A majority of humans are more concerned with obtaining food for themselves and their children, being safe and having a roof over their head than spending time surfing the Internet. Especially those that suffer from minor mental illnesses benefit from seeking solutions to other people's real problems than masticating on their own perceived and often imaginary problems. Rather than focus on yourself, allow your attention to wander away from yourself and reach out and make someone else's life better - even if it only for a split second.  

    The easiest way to do this is to build the world's shortest and fastest bridge -- smileIn my twenties, I backpacked around sub-Saharan Africa and was always struck by how uninhibited and spontaneously people would respond to my smile. When I returned to the 'civilized' world, in response to a kind smile on the subway, I would receive suspicious glares or be ignored. So whenever possible, smile at others. More often than not the other person will return your smile and for a split second you are both in a better position.

    But don't stop there - 'pay it forward'. For example, when paying at the cash register you might choose to throw some pennies in the change cup, or pay a few extra dollars towards the grocery bill of the next person standing in line, or pay the toll at the highway for the motorist behind you. Perhaps you have an unexpired parking ticket that you can pass on to a fellow motorist? If you have made the world a better place through one daily action, no matter how small, you will sleep better at night.

    Look through your possessions and decide what you can live without. Really think you need all that stuff? Have a look at what one 20 year old decided was enough:

    Hobo Nick walked from Florida to California, and still gave away money that was given to him.

    Donate the unnecessary items or sell them and give your proceedings to a charity of your choice.  If you are concerned about wasteful overhead in charities - when it is 'other people's money', the money is never handled as conscientiously - then give it directly to a person who needs it more than you do. I had a friend whose mantra was to always give the first beggar he saw that day some money. He did not have enough to be able to help every beggar who crossed his path but wanted to contribute as regularly and as fairly as possible. The person who is helpful does not feel helpless, and who wants to feel helpless?

    You do not need money to help. You can give time. Help shovel that snow off your aging neighbor's driveway, or help out in your kids' schools. Help immigrants improve their English (or Russian or Arabic), or help collect clothes for the needy. Help look for that missing child.  Do you have access to a car? Help with transportation. Bring a meal to a friend who just gave birth or who's child is in the hospital. Just listening to someone who needs a shoulder to cry on makes a huge difference.  Make the time to listen to your loved ones.  Focus on that story your child is telling you - the chores can wait (they are always there, your child will one day grow up and leave). There are so many ways you can add a ray of sun to the lives of your fellow human. Dig deep into your creativity and you will come up with endless options on how to help someone in greater need than you. 

    Others have said it more succinctly:

    What goes around, comes around.  Anon

    Treat others as you would like to be treated.  Anon

    In giving you are throwing a bridge across the chasm of your solitude.  
    Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, The Wisdom of the Sands

    When you dig another out of their troubles, you find a place to bury your own.  Anon

    The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.  Nelson Henderson

    We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.  Winston Churchill


    Thursday, October 18, 2012

    Secret 45: Sing in the Shower

    Sally Beare's 45th secret is 'sing in the shower'. I prefer to call it 'the power of music'.  

    Human beings, officially, have five senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. I believe we have more than that - one essential 'sense' is our sense of intuition. It is a sense we often, unfortunately, neglect, but it is an immensely useful and honest one. Especially women are trained not to rely on their sense of intuition. However, this blog is about music i.e our auditory sense. So let me return to our sense of hearing.

    Although we all have five senses, these five senses are not developed equally among us. Just like we are not built symmetrically -- perhaps your left foot is slightly larger than your right foot - our senses are not equally as strong. For example, my most developed sense is my sense of hearing. I am very sensitive to changes in voice and can easily recognize a voice on a phone and pinpoint not just the gender (which most of us can), but also the dialect, whether English is the mother tongue and the sexual orientation. For others, perhaps, their sense of touch is the most highly developed and they are more particular about the fabrics they prefer to wear. The 'noses' or those with a heightened sense of smell are sought after by companies that create new combinations of fragrances. And a visual person will see that tiny stain on my white shirt long before I notice anything (if at all).  The visual individual will derive more pleasure from a beautifully decorated room, a stunning painting or a well dressed person than an auditory individual. Of the five senses, the two most developed senses found in humans are the visual and the auditory sense. Likewise, should you be so unfortunate to lose one sense, your remaining  senses will develop heightened acuity to compensate for the loss i.e. a blind person has a better sense of touch than a seeing person. One gynecologist in Austria decided to take advantage of this skill and only employs blind assistants to do breast exams.  But back to music.  Even if you are not an auditory person, you can derive great pleasure from music.

    Music is good for your health. It helps release emotions and it helps express emotions. You can literally 'be moved' by music. Dancing is a wonderful way to move to music and stay in shape (if you are musical). Music has sent armies into battle, it sets the mood for romantic encounters, announces important events and helps us celebrate. Even if singing is not your forte, you have probably sung 'Happy birthday' on several occasions in public. Think of a happy time during your childhood. What music did you enjoy listening to as a teenager?  When, as an adult, you happen across a favorite tune from your younger years, do pleasant memories surface?  

    my favorite instrument
    Music plays an important part in therapy. Studies have shown that music helps relax patients, reduces pain and accelerates healing. It even plays a role in prisons, when therapists are trying to elicit memories from prisoners and make them more responsive to questioning. One notable child molester was willing to open up and 'share his secrets' about how he managed to lure young boys into his 'care' when a music therapist started visiting him regularly in prison. She would commence each session by playing his favorite music with him. Ultimately she published a book about her findings.

    If you are fortunate enough to be musical, choose an instrument (or your voice) and devote regular time to perfecting your music-making skills. The other day I was present when a group of fourth graders were given the opportunity to interview a 70 year old about his life and his reflections on aging. One astute 9-year old asked: "Is there anything you regret - something you wish you would have done but did not do?" The older gentleman quickly replied: "I used to be a very good flute player but never put time into developing this skill. Today I regret this." 

    When my father was in his middle ages, he decided to take up the piano again. He had played as a child, but WWII turned life to chaos and while building his career and caring for his family he neglected this passion. One of his favorite composers was Chopin, and after a long day at the office he would come home to relax to mazurkas and etudes. Playing the piano brought him immense joy.

    If you have an inclination for music, make the time to express yourself musically. You will strengthen your immune system, keep those brain cells engaged, and it will help you relax more easily.

    an excerpt from Diabelli
    When you sing with someone, you cannot fight with them. Maybe one prerequisite for becoming the leader of a country should be the ability to sing or make music. The President or Prime Minister should be required to sing with other world leaders to solve disagreements. Better yet, dance with each other, rather than rattle sabers. Imagine the effect on world peace if Kim Jong-un of North Korea would waltz with Vladimir Putin of Russia or Bashar al-Assad of Syria would tango with Francois Hollande of France?

    When I hear my son sing away in his room after school I know he is genki and relaxed. His body is in parasympathetic mode - his nervous system is at ease (you don't sing when you are being pursued by a lion). Singing or listening to music increases the amount of sIgA, secretory immunoglobulin A, an antibody found in mucosal secretions. This substance protects the intestinal lining against microbes. Music is a crucial part of a child's development and education, yet is often one of the first subjects whose funding is cut. A happy society is one filled with music.

    While music, especially live music. is powerful, so is its absence or quiet. Listening to natural sounds is a soothing experience. As I type this I am listening to the wind whistle around the house. Last Saturday, we hiked through the falling snow along a creek, and I enjoyed listening to our soft patter patter in the snow mix with the gentle flowing of the water.

    If you are looking for a quick, inexpensive 'pick-up' without side effects, listen to your favorite music or sing your favorite song.  What's the point of having ears if we do not make the most of this gift?

    Friday, October 12, 2012

    Secret 44: Laugh It Off

    'Ha ha ha' is the most health-inducing sound you can make in the English language. Close runner-ups of sounds that benefit your health are music and kind words. Of these, 'ha ha ha' is the easiest sound to generate. When I was a little girl, my grandfather could make me laugh SO hard that I was no longer able to stand or sit, but would roll around helplessly on the floor laughing with tears streaming down my cheeks. I did not know it back then, but my immune system was getting a wonderful boost. Note that tickling someone is not a healthy way to make another person laugh as it is an undesirable action forced on another person. Making others laugh, however, through non-tactile actions or words has been proven to be highly beneficial for health. Laughter speeds up detoxification and prolongs life. 

    Numerous research studies have investigated the health-enhancing effects of deep and hearty, regular laughter. Your ideal home or work environment is one in which laughter occurs often and one in which you are surrounded by upbeat, optimistic people. Optimists have strong immune systems. They deal with the vicissitudes of life in a healthier manner than pessimists. Those who choose to see the world through black lenses do not see as clearly as those who look at the world without any lenses, nor do they laugh as easily. Laughter dissipates stress which is a major contributor to illnesses such a chronic pain, back problems, heart disease and cancer. In one study, the New England Centenarian Study, a subject, Jeanne Calment (names speak volumes - this lady's surname consisted of the word 'c-a-l-m') lived to the ripe old age of 122. Why? Apparently one of the factors was the lady's ability to be 'unflappable and immune to stress'. I venture to guess that she was living in an environment that was less stressful than most and that she had the wisdom to surround herself with calm, contented, kind, thoughtful and humorous folks - in other words - optimistic people.

    One of the teachings in Buddhism emphasizes the importance of choosing one's friends wisely. Chronic stress can be caused by an unhinged boss, an inconsiderate, selfish spouse, endless traffic jams or a major, unwanted change in one's family situation. Excessive stress increases adrenalin and cortisol, blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels rise, free radicals are created, immune and digestive functions are temporarily slowed down, detoxification slows down, and aging speeds up. I once worked for a man who was constantly reading books on 'how to be a great manager' while yelling at his subordinates and abusing them verbally. When the boss was present the atmosphere in the office was tense, on edge, and devoid of laughter or smiles. After 18 stressful months in this toxic environment, I handed in my resignation letter. I could literally feel the burden of unhappiness dissipate from my shoulders the day I turned my back on that office. Ten years later I still carry a reminder of that unpleasant man on my forehead -- a furrow on my brow. Every time I had heard him approach I would start frowning.  I would have preferred the lasting memory to be wrinkles of laughter.

    Unfortunately it only takes one toxic person in power to create an unhealthy environment. So take the extra time to do some legwork and check out the atmosphere of the place you or your children are planning to spend many waking hours - visit the preschool where you are considering enrolling your pre-kindergartners, walk around the schools you are considering for yourself or family members, visit that university, find out more about the office where you are about to sign an employment contract, move in with that person who you are thinking of marrying and keep your ears and eyes wide open. Difficult personalities can be experts at presenting themselves in a most flattering, charismatic manner. Look under the carpet and in the medicine cabinet before you make any kind of commitment. And remember, decisions can often be reversed. But back to laughter....

    I love to make others laugh, whether friends or people I encounter during their average workday. When I lived with my mother, after coming back from a 18-month round the world backpacking trip in my 20ies, my goal was to make her laugh at least once a day. The last time I got a haircut, my hairdresser, who knows me well, started laughing during the first few minutes of me sitting on her chair. At Book Club meetings, I will make the odd comment and set off my fellow readers. Just the other day the dental hygienist was laughing at some of my comments. Likewise I love to surround myself with easy-going, light-hearted people who make me laugh.

    To invite more laughter into your life:
    • keep a book of jokes on your nightstand
    • if you watch TV, watch funny comedies (I always thought comedies were funny - until I moved to the US).  American TV shows like 'Seinfeld' or 'The Nanny' are healthier features to watch from a hospital bed than 'Silence of the Lambs'. Since humor varies so much by culture and person, choose something that is considered funny in your culture and that you find funny.
    • I love watching quick-witted political commentary. If I can get three hearty laughs out of a 30 minute program, it was worth my time to watch. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert always manage to get a few laughs out of me. Laughing before bedtime is a great way to relax.
    • if you like to see movies, choose funny movies
    • see some stand-up comedy (you might want to bring earplugs to protect your hearing. The last stand-up comedian I saw perform live - Carlos Mencia - was painfully loud and would have been funnier if the sound engineer had not been so deaf. You may be better off watching stand-up comedy on a dvd since you have control over the volume and can fast forward through the slower sketches)
    • be careful about watching local news. Instead scan the headlines on-line, and only click on those stories that pertain to you (watching the news on TV is a bit like riding through a house of horrors - you never know what frightening story lurks around the next corner. When you scan the headlines on-line, YOU are the master of ceremonies since you are the one that chooses the sequence of news events). 
    • When eating a family meal, turn off the TV and compete for the best joke (as judged by the loudest laughs).  Laughter is contagious.
    Norman Cousins, a professor at the UCLA school of medicine in the last century battled painful arthritis by watching Marx Brothers movies. He stated that: "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep."  If you know someone who is going through a hard time, or is very sick, you might want to give them Allen Klein's book about 'The Healing Power of Humor' or a book of jokes.

    One of the five healthiest, long-living people described in the '50 Secrets' live in Japan. These people, the Okinawans, even have a single word for being 'happy and healthy'. It is: genki.
    May you always be genki!

    Let me finish with a joke...

    Last night I went to a bar and noticed two larger ladies drinking away and having a good time. They spoke English, but used an accent I did not recognize. I sidled up to them and asked: "So, where are you ladies from?"
    "Wales, you idiot!" one of them yelled.
    I apologized profusely, then repeated my question: "So, where are you two whales from?"
    That was the last thing I remember.

    Caveat: in the 2006 Da Capo Press edition of '50 Secrets of the World's Longest Living People', this secret was mislabeled secret 43 instead of secret 44. Secret 43 is 'Have Faith'.

    Wednesday, October 3, 2012

    Secret 43: Have Faith

    The most difficult path to choose in life is the path of the non-believer.  Choosing faith - any faith -  is easier and, according to Sally Beare, better for your health:

    A meta-analysis of more than 40 studies published by the American Psychological Association in 2000, which followed over 125,000 people, concluded that going to a place of worship – whether a church, synagogue or mosque – can improve your health and increase your life span by eight years. Another study that Beare quotes shows that believers are 1/3 less likely to die after open-heart surgery. Also, churchgoers tend to be less obese and are more likely to stop drinking alcohol and smoking.

    Why would this be?

    Several reasons:

    • A sense of belonging: worshipping with like-minded people addresses the human need to feel part of a group. A group can offer protection, identity and meaning.
    • A sense of meaning. Problems and stresses in life can be explained in the larger context of the religious belief. This may range from the simplistic ‘this happened to you because you angered your god(s)’ (and thus gives you the option to change your behavior to avoid a recurrence of the unwanted incidence) to the more complex ‘you are being tested by your god’. The ability to find meaning in negative events outside of one’s control reduces stress and strengthens immunity.1  (Of course, when the event is overly stressful and painful, it may lead to the person rejecting the religion and becoming a non-believer. An analogy would be a rubber band that rips).
    • Being a member of a religious group gives one immediate social access and reduces feelings of isolation. This is an important factor in a society with a high degree of geographic mobility.
    • It provides a system of checks and balances. This also strengthens the feeling of inclusion. Every religion has behavioral guidelines for its members, whether these are dietary (avoidance of pork, adherence to a kosher diet), how people dress (believers wash their feet and women cover up before entering a site of worship) or how they are supposed to interact with one another (do not cheat on your spouse).  Other followers of the same faith will quickly provide feedback to those who fail to follow the rules – ‘if you do not adhere to our standards, you are not included in our group'. Depending on the religion there is more or less leniency. Adhering to the rules rewards you with a sense of belonging. You are not the lone outcast.
    • Most religions require giving to charity. When people are told to help others, they focus less on their selfish worries. Replacing self-pity with empathy for others is beneficial for mental health.
    • In the Catholic faith the ability to go to confession and ‘restart with a clean slate’ offers a healthy way to reduce anxiety and stress fot the confessor 
    • The ability to communicate with a higher power and believe that one’s prayers are being heard reduces the feeling of being powerless. The believer has a sense of being able to influence the outcome and of not being alone in the universe.
    Praying at a Shinto temple

    The power of prayer plays a significant role in the lives of those who have faith. 

    Scientific studies have shown that benefits of prayer include:

    • A lowering of heart rate, and indirectly blood pressure
    • Reduction in the levels of age-inducing stress hormones
    Communal prayer can accelerate recovery – even over distance 2. One of the leading experts in the power of prayer is Dr. Larry Dossey. He has conducted experiments that show that patients who are being prayed for recover faster. How this happens exactly is unclear, however, since the side effects of praying are less detrimental than the side effects of taking drugs, why not add this option to a patient’s overall therapy? No side effects, and, no bill!

    The most difficult path to choose is that of the non-believer. We are very fortunate, in the Western world, to have the freedom to choose whichever perspective we would like.

    Over to you. 

    1Sociologist A. Antonovsky, an Israeli American sociologist who studied the relationship between health, well-being and stress, discovered that Holocaust survivors who believe that life has meaning had a higher survival rate than those who found no meaning. A prime example for the effect of meaning on health is Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, author of‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  He lived to 92 years.
    2 A double-blind study of 400 heart patients conducted at the San Francisco General Hospital found that those patients that were prayed for were off their ventilators sooner and did not need as many antibiotics and other drugs as those patients who were not prayed for. A study of 40 AIDS patients at the California Pacific Medical Center who were, unbeknownst to them, prayed for, needed less medical care than those that were not prayed for. The believers came from a wide range of religions including Judaism, Buddhism and shamanism.