What if there was a study dedicated to unearthing the secrets to a happy and purposeful life? It would have to be conducted over the course of many decades, following the lives of real people from childhood until old age, in order to see how they changed and what they learned. And it would probably be too ambitious for anyone to actually undertake.
Only, a group of Harvard researchers did undertake it, producing a comprehensive, flesh-and-blood picture of some of life’s fundamental questions: how we grow and change, what we value as time goes on, and what is likely to make us happy and fulfilled.
The study, known as the Harvard Grant Study, has some limitations — it didn’t include women, for starters. Still, it provides an unrivaled glimpse into a subset of humanity, following 268 male Harvard undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 (now well into their 90s) for 75 years, collecting data on various aspects of their lives at regular intervals. And the conclusions are universal.
We spoke to George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004 and wrote a book about it, in order to revisit the study’s findings. Below, five lessons from the Grant Study to apply to your own pursuit of a happier and more meaningful life.
Love Is Really All That Matters
It may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Love is key to a happy and fulfilling life. As Vaillant puts it, there are two pillars of happiness. “One is love,” he writes. “The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”
Vaillant has said that the study’s most important finding is that the only thing that matters in life is relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy (“Happiness is only the cart; love is the horse.”).
It’s About More than Money and Power
The Grant Study’s findings echoed those of other studies — that acquiring more money and power doesn’t correlate to greater happiness. That’s not to say money or traditional career success don’t matter. But they’re small parts of a much larger picture — and while they may loom large for us in the moment, they diminish in importance when viewed in the context of a full life.
“We found that contentment in the late 70s was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income,” says Vaillant. “In terms of achievement, the only thing that matters is that you be content at your work.”
Regardless of How We Begin Life, We Can All Become Happier
A man named Godfrey Minot Camille went into the Grant study with fairly bleak prospects for life satisfaction: He had the lowest rating for future stability of all the subjects and he had previously attempted suicide. But at the end of his life, he was one of the happiest. Why? As Vaillant explains, “He spent his life searching for love.”
Connection Is Crucial
“Joy is connection,” Vaillant says. “The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better.”
The study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction. And in terms of career satisfaction, too, feeling connected to one’s work was far more important than making money or achieving traditional success.
“The conclusion of the study, not in a medical but in a psychological sense, is that connection is the whole shooting match,” says Vaillant.
As life goes on, connections become even more important. The Grant Study provides strong support for the growing body of research that has linked social ties with longevity, lower stress levels and improved overall well-being.
Challenges –- and the Perspective They Give You — Can Make You Happier
The journey from immaturity to maturity, says Vaillant, is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection, and a big part of this shift has to do with the way we deal with challenges.
Coping mechanisms — “the capacity to make gold out of shit,” as Vaillant puts it — have a significant effect on social support and overall well-being. The secret is replacing narcissism, a single-minded focus on one’s own emotional oscillations and perceived problems, with mature coping defenses, Vaillant explains, citing Mother Teresa and Beethoven as examples.
“Mother Teresa had a perfectly terrible childhood, and her inner spiritual life was very painful,” says Vaillant. “But she had a highly successful life by caring about other people.
Creative expression is another way to productively deal with challenges and achieve meaning and well-being.
“The secret of Beethoven being able to cope with misery through his art was when he wrote ‘Ode to Joy,’” says Vaillant. “Beethoven was able to make connection with his music.”
An article written for the Shine August Newsletter
The benefits of a meditation practice as a means of coping with anxiety and stress is well known. It can literally re-shape the brain, transforming our perception of life for the better.
It has helped me to become more focused, more present, calm and more appreciative of everything in my life.
Thousands of studies have shown the positive impact that meditation has on our health and well being. It helps to develop clarity, concentration and a sense of emotional positivity.
There are many different kinds of meditation, with many different approaches. However, what they all have in common is the cultivation of a calm and positive state of mind.
My daily mindful meditation practice has helped me to better understand my own mind and emotional processes. This practice is quite simple, yet transformative.
I meditate between 15 minutes to one hour depending on the day. I usually meditate with my eyes open as it helps me to stay present and more connected with what is happening around me.
These are the steps that I use to anchor myself in the present moment during the practice and I keep coming back to them when the mind wonders during the meditation.
1. To start the meditation practice I sit with an open mind and a curious attitude trying to let go of any expectations.
2. I scan my body and notice if there are any pains or areas of tension. I feel my breath and acknowledge the quality of my breathing.
3. I pay attention to my senses, noticing the noises, smells and temperature around the room (or at the park if the weather is nice!)
4. I feel what is going on with my emotions allowing them to be as they are.
5. I listen to my thoughts trying to accept them regardless of whether they feel positive or not
Through meditation, over time we can notice our automatic behaviours and conditioned thought patterns, allowing the space for us to see them without having to re-enact them. This wider awareness develops into a more compassionate attitude towards ourselves and to the world around us.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
How many times do we find ourselves going head first into an old pattern?
It could be a familiar tension in the neck as the deadlines mount at work, tossing and turning in bed after a petty argument, or even that excessive and prolonged stress that brings a constant feeling of being burnt out.
We consciously know that there has to be a way to successfully manage our daily routine, but it can be frustrating when these patterns just keep showing up.
I have studied patterns of behaviour for a long time now and I have an understanding of why this happens. As a Craniosacral Therapist, I work with an array of clients from different backgrounds, ages and symptoms. What I see is that the body will always try to do it’s best to help and protect us, by comparing and using information from past experiences to choose how to react.
Our body’s system can go into alert/danger and protection mode when in reality this is not always necessary; it can tend to over react.
Lets look at an example: Giving a presentation in a board meeting in front of co-workers at a new job, can make the Central Nervous System (CNS) go into red alert, if it has no experience of how to deal with this kind of situation. The person can present anxiety, tension and a foggy state of mind with no clear train of thought.
A reaction such as this, will not only affect the presentation, it could also peak stress levels and ripple to disturb the whole of the week. It may even dwell within the body for a long time with a high chance to trigger every time the system feels at risk and in need to use this “resource” of high alert again. The person may then build the association that Presentation = Panic. It is like being stuck in a loop and sometimes if not addressed, these patterns can grow to become a state of constant anxiety.
Many of us live this way, as we are so used to this constant feeling of anxiety, that we forget how it used to feel to live with a sense of being calm and still.
Using Craniosacral Therapy, under the safe hold of the practitioner, clients have the opportunity to bring their awareness to the present moment. Once the client experiences this kind of connection, the body can start to relax and unwind, letting go of what is no longer needed. Muscles and connective tissue can re-orient, softening their tone and quality, becoming supple once more. The Central Nervous System and Peripheral Nerves can then glide freely through the bones and fascia. This generates balance and support which can help the body to achieve a much needed level of homeostasis, where patterns of thought, body tensions and stress hormone levels can be brought to a more peaceful, natural state.
This freedom of movement from within can help the CNS to finally let go of old patterns (physical, emotional and mental) that are hard wired within the brain allowing clients to re-connect with their bodies as a whole while gently re-aligning to a more relaxed and spacious quality of being.
Bouts of depression range from the mild and infrequent to the severe and chronic. For serious depression, you should seek qualified help. But for any level of depression, it helps to know that underlying the darkness is happiness—and our brain is equipped with the means to uncover it.
When I was living in San Francisco during my twenties, I built a successful career in sales. At night, I lived fast and partied recklessly, abusing drugs and alcohol with a like-minded group of drifting souls. Eventually my despair and shame grew so deep that I isolated myself from my family and friends and lost myself in my addictive behaviours.
Occasionally, in some of the seedier bars I frequented, I would come across a mess of a man who was so strung out that he repulsed me. I remember saying to my friends, “God help me if I ever turn out like him.” I thought, since I was managing to succeed at work, I was in control of my self-abusive behavior. But one night, after many hours of partying, I saw the truth of who I had become. When I found myself slumped beside that man and his equally dazed companion in the back of a broken-down limousine, I saw my own reflection in his wasted face and realized I was throwing away my life. I jumped out of the limousine, determined to transform myself.
As for so many others, it was mindfulness practice that turned things around for me. My family urged me to spend a month away at a retreat center. During that time, I questioned everything I did and all that I believed. Answers began to come to me: I wanted to stop abusing my body. I wanted to find the purpose and meaning of my life. I wanted to be happy.
I wanted to heal myself, and eventually, I realized, I wanted to help heal others who faced some of the same challenges that had nearly broken me. I trained as a clinical psychologist and began running Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programs focusing on helping people relate to stress better and not relapse into depression. Now having worked with my own depressive tendencies and with hundreds of clients, I know that uncovering happiness is not about simply being drunk on life but is found in a profound and enduring experience of learning how to lean into loving ourselves and others in good times and in bad. It’s a happiness based on a sense of common humanity, connectedness, and purpose. While I still get hooked by self-judgments and negative thoughts, I have learned to be grateful for the good moments and a bit more graceful during the difficult ones, knowing that all things in life come and go. I’ve come to believe that I’m benefitting from natural antidepressants that are present in the human brain.
When you hear the word antidepressant, you probably think of a pill: a medication used to treat your illness. Medications are one kind of antidepressant. But they’re not the only kind.
Science is now showing that we also have natural antidepressants within our brains: mindsets (thoughts and behaviors) that build us up instead of tear us down and allow us to help ourselves improve our own moods.
These natural antidepressants can be gathered into five main categories: mindfulness (the one I focus on in this piece), self-compassion, purpose, play, and mastery. By developing these natural antidepressants, you can strengthen your brain’s ability to act as its own antidepressant that can be as powerful as—or even more powerful than—the antidepressant medications.
I recognize the value of antidepressant medications, and I believe they can play an important role in the treatment of clinical depression. I’ve seen pharmaceuticals be lifesavers for some depressed patients, giving them the help they need to engage in necessary psychological treatment.
However, I also believe these drugs are heavily overprescribed and overused. For many patients, antidepressants cause more harm than good. They can create a cascade of mental health problems that go far beyond the depression they were prescribed to treat. Too many people get caught in the trap of jumping from one drug to the next or taking multiple prescriptions in order to offset serious side effects caused by individual drugs.
Whether you are on antidepressants and they’re working for you, you’re on them and want to get off of them, or you are not on antidepressants at all, cultivating natural antidepressants can support your ability to get better at overcoming the depressive cycles. Whatever your experience with depression has been—whether you just have the blues, you have chronic low-grade unhappiness, or you’ve experienced one or more major depressive episodes—you have the power to change the way you feel. By getting help in understanding how depression works and making the choice to nurture your natural antidepressants, you can become stronger and more resilient.
Science shows that we have natural antidepressants within our brains and, with some work, they can be as powerful as—or even more powerful than—medication.
The Depression Loop
I’ve found during my work with depression that it’s helpful to envision it as a kind of circular process: an automatic loop rather than a linear set of events. Clients find it useful to think of it as a cycle, a spiral, or even a traffic circle. If you live someplace where there are lots of traffic circles or if you have ever driven on one, you know how confusing and maddening they can be.
You’re driving on a straight road, minding your own business, maybe humming along with a song on the radio, and suddenly a traffic circle looms ahead. It just kind of appears on the street ahead of you. Your mind instantly starts anticipating entering the circle, how the cars may stream in, and how you’re going to exit. A feeling of fear or anxiety arises; your hands start to sweat and grip the steering wheel. As you enter, you search for a sign for a way out, and halfway through the circle you realize that you have to switch lanes to jockey for a position so you’re ready for your exit. Meanwhile, you drive by other entrance points that each admit streams of new cars into the circle. You see your exit, but you realize that you either have to speed up or slow down. If you miss your exit—which is so easy to do—you have no choice but to loop around again hoping that next time you’ll make your way out.
Falling into the depression loop is a lot like entering a traffic circle. You’re living your life, feeling fine, minding your own business, and all of a sudden you find depression looming. Maybe it’s just a feeling you wake up with, a moment when you suddenly fall prey to a shaming inner critic that says something like “there’s something wrong with me/ you,” or a response to hearing some negative news. Once you’re in it, you try valiantly to get out. But it’s so easy to get stuck.
Just as various roads lead you into a traffic circle, the depression loop has four entrance points: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors. Any one of these can lead you into the depression loop. Once you’re caught inside the loop, your mind goes around and around, struggling to get out. Streams of thoughts enter the loop as your brain struggles to figure out “What’s wrong with me?” As one of my students says, “The bloodhound is sniffing around for the villain (and much analysis is required).” The brain anxiously defaults to reaching back into the past, referencing and rehashing negative events to try to figure it out. Simultaneously, the brain jumps into the future, planning, rehearsing, and anticipating some upcoming hopeless catastrophe. As all this happens, the brain pours stress into an already stressful situation.
You may see an exit, but as you try to leave the loop, you find yourself blocked by more depressive thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors. Before you know it, the traffic gets even heavier with the addition of streams of fear and anxiety when you begin to perceive that you’re becoming trapped in the self-perpetuating depression loop. You’re desperate for escape, but, sideswiped by fear and negativity, you become so overwhelmed that you just keep going around and around and around. Soon a sense of learned helplessness sets in: you can no longer even see the exit, so you stop trying to break free and begin to believe you may never escape.
This was a common occurrence for one of my patients, 30-year-old Sandy, who had experienced bouts of depression her whole life. Typically she would feel fine for a while, but then at times, seemingly out of nowhere, she would become depressed. Sandy would lose interest in activities she usually enjoyed and have trouble finding the motivation she needed for everyday tasks. Feelings such as unworthiness and guilt would begin to flood her mind, and in response, she tended to isolate herself from her family and friends and make choices that fueled her depression rather than pull her out of it.
Sandy experienced depression as a persistently reinforcing loop that dragged her down. Negative thoughts would trigger troubling feelings (or vice versa) that in short time would turn into an ever-present depressed mood state. This would make it tough for Sandy to get out of bed in the morning. Doing the activities she usually enjoyed felt nearly impossible, and instead of partaking in life, Sandy would often end up sitting in her apartment feeling terrible about herself, eating too much, drinking too much, and sinking deeper and deeper into a morass of gloom.
Sandy didn’t know this, but each time she experienced a bout of depression and got lost in the depression loop, her brain actually changed. When we practice anything in life over and over again, it starts to become automatic; in psychology, we call that a conditioned habitual reaction, and in neuroscience, it’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Right now 80 billion to 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, are interacting with what some have said are one trillion connections, called synapses, in an unimaginably fast and dynamic network. When we do something over and over—whether it’s something we’re trying to learn, such as improving our tennis stroke; or something we’d rather not learn, like an anxiety response to dogs after being bitten by one — neurons in our brains fire together. As we repeat these actions, they eventually wire together, making the process an unconscious habit.
One day Sandy came to see me looking particularly distressed, and she told me that she’d received an email that a client of hers was angry with her work. In exploring it together, we realized that this kind of cue triggered worries about losing that client, increasing her anxiety, and making her heart race and her breathing become shallow. Her mind spiraled with negative hopeless thoughts about the future of her business, and she began to avoid doing her work. Sandy knew she was getting depressed, and this spiraled into more fear. Her response prevented her from dealing with the client’s email in a logical, objective way.
Sandy was ready to start breaking this cycle when she finally recognized her depressive loop for what it really was: a deeply conditioned habit (or trauma reaction). In fact, just understanding the concept of the depression loop was enough for Sandy to start effecting a change in her relationship to depression. She was able to see it in action in her daily life and name it. The moment she saw it occurring, she was able to stand apart from it in a space of awareness that was separate from the loop itself and gain perspective. She no longer felt she was the loop—rather, she was the aware person viewing the loop. In this space, she found a sense of freedom and a “choice point,” a moment in time when she was aware enough to choose a healthier response.
The first step in uncovering happiness and experiencing freedom from the depression loop, then, is learning how to objectively see this loop in action instead of getting lost in it. The moment we notice the depression loop in action is a moment we’ve stepped outside of it, into a space of perspective and choice.
From there, we have more work to do. The brain habits we have can be deep-seated. The helplessness we’ve learned can stick with us. The beauty is, though, that science is now showing us that through intentional repetition and action, we can change our brains for the better.
And one of the most helpful ways to do that is to counteract our tendency to want to believe we are a problem to be fixed. Instead we can be present for what comes up in our lives and make choices in the small space that opens up between a stimulus and our response. That’s where mindfulness comes in.
Once we notice the depression loop in action we’ve already stepped outside of it, into a space of perspective and choice. From there, we have more work to do.
Being Versus Doing
We are hardwired to solve problems. When a problem arises, we want “to do” something about it. That’s how we’ve evolved and have made the wheel, our first tools, the chairs we sit on, the houses we live in, and even how to read and understand these words. Problem solving is an essential part of life. But contrary to the brain’s belief, life itself is not a problem to be solved; it’s a constantly evolving experience to be lived.
Here’s how problem solving gets us trapped deeper in the depressive loop:
The moment we experience an uncomfortable emotion, the brain sees it as a threat because of its potential to lead to depression. We’re supposed to feel well, and when we don’t, there is a discrepancy between where we are and where we “should be.” This mind thinks, “There is something wrong with me.” It perceives a defect, a deficiency, an unworthiness. The brain sees this as something “to fix” and uses self-judgment to tell us that something is wrong with us or maybe conjures up doomsday scenarios to prepare us for possible catastrophes. Then, because of these potential threats, the brain remains on high alert to see if any more signs of relapse arise. The voice inside the mind inquires anxiously, “Is it gone yet? How about now?” This only adds pressure to an already stressful state of being. The more the brain focuses on this gap, the more it highlights it in our minds and strengthens the belief that “something is wrong with me.”
This only sinks us deeper into the depression loop, which spurs the brain “to do” something more, continuing to add more fuel to the fire.
But when we’re doing this, where are we? We’re not in the present—and that’s exactly where we need to be to take charge of our brains and see the choices to make a change by using mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about balancing the brain’s implicit agenda by training it “to be” with what’s there instead of needing “to do” something about it. In using mindfulness to learn how to be with our feelings, we send a message internally that we’re worthy enough to pay attention to. This closes the gap between where we are and where we think we should be (which makes us feel unworthy), and that disrupts the depression loop.
Right now you can choose to stop what you’re “doing” for 30 seconds and practice this state of “being.” Just take a breath and acknowledge how you are. Is your mind racing, or is it calm? Is your body tense anywhere, or is it relaxed? Are you feeling anxious, bored, restless, excited, tired, or any number of other emotions?
Breathe in, breathe out. You have arrived.
Here’s an opportunity to stop reading and begin working on developing mindfulness. It’s a short exercise that you can immediately start using to help move away from the conditioned loop of depression and into a space of hope and possibility.
Learning how to be is a one-minute practice that can be done anywhere and anytime as a barometer of how you’re doing. As best you can, treat this as an experiment in your life. Try it out at first in the moments when you aren’t sinking and see what you notice. Like any habit, the more you integrate this into your day, the stronger it becomes in your short-term memory, and the more likely it is to be retrieved during the difficult moments.
Note: First, see if you can set aside any judgments of whether this practice will or will not work for you. Engage this just with the goal of being aware of your experience.
Breathe: Take a few deep breaths. Notice your breath as you breathe in and out. You might even want to say the word “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale. This is meant to pop you out of autopilot and steady your mind.
Expand: This is the process of expanding your attention throughout the body and just feeling your body as it is. You can start by noticing the positioning of your body. Then you can move to being curious about how your body is feeling. Imagine that this is the very first time you’ve ever felt your body. You may feel warmth or coolness, achiness, itchiness, tension, tightness, heaviness, lightness, or a whole host of sensations. Or perhaps you notice no sensation at all in other areas. When you’re here, also be aware of how emotions are being expressed in the body. Calm may be experienced as looseness in the back or face. You might also notice painful feelings. Maybe this comes up as tension in the chest or shoulders. If there is physical pain, see what happens if you get curious about the sensation of it and allow it to be as it is. If it gets too intense, use this as a choice point to become aware of what matters in the moment or what you need. Maybe you need to get up, move around, and roll your shoulders. Awareness is the springboard to getting in touch with what matters.
That’s it! It may sound too simple to be impactful, but, again, set aside your judgments and let your experience be your teacher.
Just practice being, breathing, and expanding into the body in mini moments throughout the day to train your brain to be in that space of awareness and choice that will lead you to a more balanced and mindful life.
To help you remember, you might consider posting signs in your environment that say “Just Be.” Just as signs on the road remind us to slow down or watch for children crossing, signs around the house or office can remind us to be how we want to BE. Or maybe put a note in your digital calendar to pop up a couple times per day as a reminder. Or the best way to remember may be to share the idea with a friend to remind each other from time to time.
The benefits are enormous—it just takes intention and practice.
Like any habit, the more you integrate mindfulness into your day, the stronger it becomes in your short-term memory, and the more likely it is to be retrieved in difficult moments.
A flexible and unbiased state of mind where you are open and curious about what is present, have perspective, and are aware of choices.
You understand your own suffering and use mindfulness, kindness, and openness to hold it nonjudgmentally and consider it part of the human condition.
You are actively engaged in living alongside your values, are inclined toward compassion for others, and possess an understanding of how your existence contributes value to the world.
A flexible state of mind where you are engaged in some freely chosen and potentially purposeless activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying.
You feel a sense of personal control and confidence and are engaged in learning to get better and better at something that matters.
Five Major Mind Traps
These voices keep us stuck in the depression loop. One of the keys to cultivating an antidepressant brain is realizing you are not these thoughts or the stories they tell. Here are some ways to avoid falling into these traps.
Whenever you hear advice about how to work with challenges you have, you might notice the voice of doubt: “This might work for some people, but it’s probably not going to work for me.” The motive of this voice is to keep us safe from failure or disappointment, but ultimately it keeps us away from new experiences that can be supportive.
Longing to be elsewhere, our minds settle on the belief that the current moment is never enough, we’re not enough, or we can’t do enough, it’s all so empty. The problem with this kind of thinking: When the awaited event does occur, happiness may not come with it. This motive of trying to fix the current moment leaves you in a perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction.
By focusing on the idea that you’re not where you “should be,” your brain is constantly reinforcing the message that something is wrong with you, which then highlights a gap of deficiency that only grows wider as it tries harder. The root problem is not what you don’t have, but the fact that you really don’t feel whole or complete.
Someone might be walking down the hallway at work humming his favorite tune, and thoughts come up: “Does he think everyone wants to hear him? Uh, what is he so happy about anyway?”
Meanwhile, who’s suffering? We’re the ones in pain, but our brains think if we project our irritation onto another person, we’ll find relief from the pain. If these voices continue to come up in our relationships and aren’t discussed, the feelings turn into resentment that inevitably eats away at the relationship like a cancer. But voices of irritation can alert us that something isn’t right and, with awareness, we can use this information to be constructive.
Have you ever had the idea to do something that’s good for you—hang out with friends, exercise, meditate—but you hear this voice: “I want to do it, but I’m too tired. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
If we’re actually tired—maybe we haven’t slept enough or had an exceptionally taxing day—we need to listen to our bodies and rest. At other times, these sluggish voices are just another sign we’re avoiding being with ourselves because we fear that it will be uncomfortable. If we can recognize it, we can face it and when we can face it, we can work with it and break free.
These days our brains are being trained to be noisier, busier, and more distracted. You’re sitting alone waiting for a drink. Your eye catches your phone: “I wonder if I received any new messages. Nope, not one since a minute ago. What about Facebook, anything there? Some new updates, not that interesting. Twitter? Ah, that’s an interesting tweet. I wonder when the drink is going to come?”
When there’s a space empty of doing, restless voices rise up. We feel compelled to fill the spaces, but we don’t realize that in these empty spaces, we have a choice between doing and being; it’s where possibility and opportunity emerge, and where there is a chance to make changes for the better.
Take a Self-Compassion Inventory
Here are a few questions to help you gauge the strength of your self-compassion muscle. (Note: if you find it’s low, don’t worry, just like a muscle, it can be strengthened.)
1. Where does the inner critic pop up? At work? When you walk past the mirror? In relationships? In relation to parenting?
2. What are the repercussions of being so hard on yourself? Does it add to the depression loop?
3. When something difficult arises in life and you fall under stress, where do you rank on the priority list of people to take care of? Do you apply caring to your suffering or try to avoid it?
4. When things are tough, do you tend to compare yourself with others, thinking that they have it together? Or do you have a balanced perspective, knowing that all humans struggle?
5. What would the days, weeks, and months ahead be like if your stress and inner struggles were met with more understanding and caring?
But it doesn’t come easy, as most of us know. Disappointments and annoyances grab our attention like gnats, and even the good things in life seem to lose their luster over time. Add to that a crammed schedule and mounting obligations, and happiness might just seem out of reach—achievable for other people, perhaps, but not us.
Fortunately, research suggests that happiness is something we can cultivate with practice. The Greater Good Science Center has collected many happiness practices on the website Greater Good in Action, alongside other research-based exercises for fostering kindness, connection, and resilience. Below are 11 of those happiness practices, grouped into five broader strategies for a more fulfilling life.
1. Acknowledge the Good
If we don’t feel happy, it’s tempting to look for things to fix: the job that isn’t prestigious enough, the apartment that’s too cramped, our partner’s annoying habit. But focusing on all the negatives isn’t the surest route to feeling better. Instead, a simple way to start cultivating happiness is by recognizing the good.
In the Three Good Things exercise, for example, you keep a journal devoted solely to the positives in your life. Each evening, you write down three things that went well and add some detail about each, including how they made you feel. For example, you might recall a heartfelt thank you from a coworker, a quiet moment drinking tea, or your daughter’s infectious laughter. Importantly, you also briefly explain why you think each good thing happened—which focuses your attention on the enduring sources of goodness that surround you.
A 2005 study invited participants to do this practice daily for a week, and afterward they reported feeling happier and less depressed than when they started. In fact, they maintained their happiness boost six months later, illustrating how impactful it can be to focus on the good things in life.
Many of those good things lie just outside our doorstep, and we can practice noticing them on a Savoring Walk. Here, you take a 20-minute walk and observe the sights, sounds, and smells you encounter—freshly cut grass, an epic skyscraper, a stranger’s smile. Each time you notice something positive, take the time to absorb it and think about why you enjoy it. On your subsequent Savoring Walks, strike out in different directions to seek new things to admire.
In a study by Fred Bryant of Loyola University Chicago, participants who took Savoring Walks daily for a week reported greater increases in happiness than participants who went for walks as usual. “Making a conscious effort to notice and explicitly acknowledge the various sources of joy around us can make us happier,” write Bryant and Joseph Veroff in the book Savoring.
If you have trouble seeing the good that’s already around you, another strategy is to create some. In Creating and Recalling Positive Events, you carve out time for yourself and fill your schedule with enjoyment.
When you have a day free, don’t rush around doing chores; instead, try three different happy activities:
Something you do alone, such as reading, listening to music, or meditating.
Something you do with others, such as going out for coffee, riding your bike, or watching a movie.
Something meaningful, such as volunteering, helping a neighbor in need, or calling a friend who’s struggling.
If your go-to happiness practice has been Netflix and a bowl of ice cream, this exercise can reconnect you with different sources of satisfaction. These three activities should offer you a sense of pleasure, engagement, and meaning, all viable paths to a satisfying life. A 2014 study found that even psychiatric patients with suicidal thoughts found value in doing this exercise, reporting more optimism and less hopelessness afterward.
2. Add Happiness Through Subtraction
Even after we identify the positives in our life, we’re still prone to adapting to them over time. A good thing repeated brings us less satisfaction, until it no longer seems to contribute to our day-to-day mood at all; we take it for granted. That’s why, sometimes, it’s a good idea to introduce a little deprivation.
In Mental Subtraction of Positive Events, you call to mind a certain positive event—the birth of a child, a career achievement, a special trip—and think of all the circumstances that made it possible. How could things have turned out differently? Just taking a moment to imagine this alternate reality creates a favorable comparison, where suddenly our life looks quite good.
In a 2008 study, participants who performed this exercise reported feeling more gratitude and other positive emotions than participants who simply thought about past positive events without imagining their absence. Mental Subtraction seems to jolt us into the insight that the good things in our lives aren’t inevitable; we are, in fact, very lucky.
If imagining absence isn’t quite enough for you, what about experiencing it for real? In the Give It Up practice, you spend a week abstaining from a pleasure in order to appreciate it more fully. This pleasure should be something that’s relatively abundant in your life, such as eating chocolate or watching TV. At the end of the week, when you can finally indulge, pay special attention to how it feels.
In a 2013 study, people who gave up chocolate savored it more and experienced a more positive mood when they finally ate it at the end of the week, compared with people who ate chocolate as usual. This exercise may not only open your eyes to a single pleasure (like the miracle of cacao), but make you more conscious of life’s many other pleasures, too.
3. Find Meaning and Purpose
Creating and Recalling Positive Events reminds us that pleasure isn’t the only path to bliss; meaning can also bring us happiness, albeit a quieter and more reflective kind.
In the Meaningful Photos practice, you take pictures of things that are meaningful to you and reflect on them. Over the course of a week, look out for sources of meaning in your life—family members, favorite spots, childhood mementos—and capture about nine or ten different images of them. At the end of the week, spend an hour reflecting on them: What does each photo represent, and why is it meaningful to you? Jot down some of those thoughts if it’s helpful.
Amid the chores and routines, life can sometimes feel dull and mundane. Reigniting our sense of meaning can remind us what’s important, which boosts our energy and gives us strength to face life’s stresses. In a 2013 study, college students who completed this exercise not only boosted their sense of meaning, but also reported greater positive emotions and life satisfaction as well.
We can also boost our energy and motivation by fostering a sense of purpose, and theBest Possible Self exercise is one way to do that. Here, you journal for 15 minutes about an ideal future in which everything is going as well as possible, from your family and personal life to your career and health.
In a 2006 study, participants who wrote about their Best Possible Selves daily for two weeks reported greater positive emotions afterward, and their mood continued increasing up to a month later if they kept up the practice.
This exercise allows us to clarify our goals and priorities, painting a detailed picture of where we want to be. This picture should be ambitious but realistic so that it motivates us to make changes, rather than reminding us how imperfect and disappointing our lives are now. When we reflect on our future this way, we may feel more in control of our destiny.
4. Use Your Strengths
Just as we hunt for things to fix in life, we also tend to obsess over flaws in ourselves; our weaknesses loom large. But what if we put more time and attention into our strengths and positive attributes?
The Use Your Strengths exercise invites you to consider your strengths of character—from creativity and perseverance to kindness and humility—and put them into practice. Each day for a week, select a strength and make a plan to use it in a new and different way. You can repeat the same strength—directing your curiosity toward a work project one day and toward your partner’s interests the next—or work on different strengths each day. At the end of the week, synthesize the experience by writing about what you did, how it made you feel, and what you learned.
In a 2005 study, participants who engaged in this exercise for a week reported feeling happier and less depressed, and that happiness boost lasted up to six months. Use Your Strengths may help us transfer skills between home and work—applying our professional creativity to our children’s school assignments or our domestic kindness to our co-workers—and give us a confidence boost all around.
5. Connect with Others
The practices above invite us to turn inward, tinkering with our attitudes and the way we view the world. But decades of science also suggest that turning outward and connecting to the people around us is one of the surest routes to happiness.
As a first step, you can try an adapted version of the Best Possible Self exercise for relationships to give you insights into what kinds of social connection you desire. In an ideal life, what would your relationships with your spouse, family, and friends look like?
One way to feel an immediate boost of connection is through Random Acts of Kindness. Random Acts of Kindness don’t have to be flashy or extravagant; they can be as simple as helping a friend with a chore or making breakfast for your partner. You can also extend your circle of kindness to strangers and community members, feeding a parking meter or offering a meal to someone in need.
In a 2005 study, participants who performed five acts of kindness on one day a week for six weeks reported increases in happiness. (This didn’t happen when they spread out their acts of kindness across the week, perhaps because a single kind act may not feel noteworthy on its own.) Researchers also suggest varying your acts of kindness over time to keep the practice fresh and dynamic.
Some of your acts of kindness may involve giving, and the Make Giving Feel Goodpractice helps ensure that giving does, indeed, bring happiness. Researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, among others, have found evidence that being kind and generous does make us happier, but they’ve also found that acts of giving are most effective when they meet these three criteria:
It’s a choice: Give because you choose to, not because you feel pressured or obligated to.
You connect: Giving can be an opportunity to make connections with the people you’re helping, so choose activities where you get to spend time with recipients, like helping a friend move or volunteering at a soup kitchen.
You see the impact: If you’re donating money, for example, don’t just give and move on. Find out what your money will be used for—like new classroom supplies or a cooking stove.
In a 2011 study, participants were offered a $10 Starbucks gift card to use in different ways: They either gave it to someone, gave it to someone and joined them for a drink, or used it on themselves while drinking with a friend. The ones who gave the card away and spent time with the recipient—connecting with them and seeing the impact of giving—felt happiest afterward.
Of course, the pursuit of happiness isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and mugs of tea and smiling children. Sometimes we need to tackle our insecurities and weaknesses, and we can’t just ignore our draining jobs and nagging relatives. But the practices here represent the other side of the coin, the one we often neglect: seeing, appreciating, and mobilising the good.
Emma Seppälä looks at the emerging science around the benefits of loving-kindness meditation.
Many of us have heard of meditation’s benefits. We may have even tried meditation once or twice. And many of us will have found it hard and concluded that “meditation is not for me.” But wait! Did you know there are many forms of meditation? There are mantra meditations, visualization meditations, open-focus meditations, breath-based meditations, and so many more. You just have to find the shoe that fits. An easy one to start with is one that evokes a very natural state in us: kindness.
What Is Loving-Kindness Meditation?
Loving-kindness meditation focuses on developing feelings of goodwill, kindness and warmth towards others (Salzberg, 1997). As I’ve described in my TEDx talk, compassion, kindness and empathy are very basic emotions to us. Research shows that loving-kindness meditation has a tremendous amount of benefits ranging from benefitting well-being to giving relief from illness and improving emotional intelligence:
In a landmark study, Barbara Frederickson and her colleagues found that practicing seven weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe. These positive emotions then produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms), which, in turn, predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
2. Increases vagal tone, which increases positive emotions & feelings of social connection
A study from 2013 found that individuals in a loving-kindness meditation intervention, compared to a control group, had increases in positive emotions, an effect moderated by baseline vagal tone—a physiological marker of well-being.
We don’t usually think of meditation as being able to help us with severe physical or mental ailments, but research shows it can help.
3. Decreases migraines
A recent study demonstrated the immediate effects of a brief loving-kindness meditation intervention in reducing migraine pain and alleviating emotional tension associated with chronic migraines.
4. Decreases chronic pain
A pilot study of patients with chronic low back pain randomized to loving-kindness meditation or standard care, loving-kindness meditation was associated with greater decreases in pain, anger, and psychological distress than the control group.
5. Decreases PTSD
A study reports that a 12-week loving-kindness meditation course significantly reduced depression and PTSD symptoms among veterans diagnosed with PTSD.
6. Decreases schizophrenia-spectrum disorders
Also, a pilot study from 2011 examined the effects of loving-kindness meditation with individuals with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. Findings indicated that loving-kindness meditation was associated with decreased negative symptoms and increased positive emotions and psychological recovery.
Emotional Intelligence in the Brain
We know that the brain is shaped by our activities. Regularly practicing loving-kindness meditation can help activate and strengthen areas of the brain responsible for empathy & emotional intelligence.
7. Activates empathy & emotional processing in the brain
We showed this link in our research (Hutcherson, Seppala & Gross, 2014) and so have our colleagues (Hoffmann, Grossman & Hinton, 2011).
Loving-kindness meditation also benefits your psychophysiology & makes it more resilient.
9. Increases respiratory Sinus Arrythmia (RSA)
Just 10 minutes of loving-kindness meditation had an immediate relaxing effect as evidenced by increased respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an index of parasympathetic cardiac control (i.e., your ability to enter a relaxing and restorative state), and slowed (i.e., more relaxed) respiration rate (Law, 2011 reference).
10. Increases telomere length—a biological marker of aging
We know that stress decreases telomere length (telomeres are tiny bits of your genetic materials—chromosomes—that are a biological marker of aging). However, Hoge et al (2013) found that women with experience in loving-kindness meditation had relatively longer telomere length compared to age-matched controls! Throw out the expensive anti-aging creams and get on your meditation cushion!
11. Makes you a more helpful person
Loving-kindness meditation appears to enhance positive interpersonal attitudes as well as emotions. For instance, Leiberg, Klimecki and Singer (2011) conducted a study that examined the effects of loving-kindness meditation on pro-social behavior, and found that compared to a memory control group, the loving-kindness meditation group showed increased helping behavior in a game context.
12. Increases compassion
A recent review of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) concludes that loving-kindness meditation may be the most effective practice for increasing compassion (Boellinghaus, Jones & Hutton, 2012)
13. Increases empathy
Similarly, Klimecki, Leiberg, Lamm and Singer (2013) found that loving-kindness meditation training increased participants’ empathic responses to the distress of others, but also increased positive affective experiences, even in response to witnessing others in distress.
14. Decreases your bias towards others
A recent study (Kang, Gray & Dovido, 2014) found that compared to a closely matched active control condition, six weeks of loving-kindness meditation training decreased implicit bias against minorities.
15. Increases social connection
A study by Kok et al (2013) found that those participants in loving-kindness meditation interventions who report experiencing more positive emotions also reported more gains in perception of social connection as well.
How many of us are slaves to self-criticism or low self-esteem? How many of us do not take as good care as we should of ourselves?
16. Curbs self-criticism
A study by Shahar et al (2014) found that loving-kindness meditation was effective for self-critical individuals in reducing self-criticism and depressive symptoms, and improving self-compassion and positive emotions. These changes were maintained three months post-intervention.
Immediate and Long-term Impact
The nice thing about loving-kindness meditation is that it has been shown to be effective in both immediate and small doses (i.e. instant gratification) but that it also has long-lasting and enduring effects.
17. Is effective even in small doses
Our study—Hutcherson, Seppala and Gross (2008)—found an effect of a small dose of loving-kindness meditation (practiced in a single short session lasting less than 10 minutes). Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers.
18. Has long-term impact.
A study by Cohn et al (2011) found that 35 percent of participants of a loving-kindness meditation intervention who continued to meditate and experience enhanced positive emotions 15 months after the intervention. Positive emotions correlated positively with the number of minutes spent meditating daily.
Want to give it a shot? I created a recording of the loving-kindness meditation we used in our study that you can download here or watch the clip below:
These 3 workouts can be easily modified and progressed for every fitness level. The workouts in this series are geared toward starting your fitness routine. Each workout trains your entire body, including your lower body, upper body, abdominals and core.
The exercises here only require bodyweight to begin, so if you don’t have any fitness equipment or a gym membership, you will still be able to get a great workout in. Each workout also has some type of cardiovascular exercise in it to help bring your heart rate up.
As you progress into your fitness routines, add in more workouts from our fitness archives and increase the intensity by adding in resistance or weights to the exercises.
For the next three weeks, complete these workouts allowing one day in between each structured workout. For example, on Mondays complete Workout 1, Wednesdays complete Workout 2, and Fridays complete Workout 3. The day following each workout (so for example, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) try to perform some light exercise, like a long walk or easy jog. Perhaps even some light stretching if your muscles are sore. Make sure that you have at least one full day of recovery each week (this could be Sunday).
After these three weeks, we’re sure you will feel stronger and more confident to take your training to the next level.
Complete this workout as a circuit, moving from one exercise to the next. Perform 2-4 sets of each exercise, depending on your ability.
Stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart and knees and shoulder very slightly turned out to the side. Lower down into a squat keeping your weight in your heels. With power, drive through your heels to propel yourself up into a jump straight up. Land softly, rolling from the toes down to the heels and sink down into your squat to repeat. Perform 15 jumps and as you get stronger, progress to 20, then 25.
Narrow Push Ups
Come down to your mat in a plank position with your hands shoulder-width apart and directly under your shoulders. Keep your abs engaged and lower down into a push-up, keeping your elbows in by your waistline.
Press through your palms to push up, making sure to keep your abs engaged and don’t let your back arch or hips sink down. Perform 10-20 push-ups, depending in your strength. To modify this exercise, you can drop to your knees, but be sure to keep a plank position and your abs tight.
Single Leg Deadlift
Stand with feet together and holding dumbbells by your sides. Shift your weight into your RIGHT foot, making sure to keep most of the weight in the heel. Hinge at your hips, keeping your back straight and lift your LEFT leg so that your torso and leg are parallel to the floor.
You should feel a stretch in your RIGHT hamstring and the crown of your head should be reaching forward. Pressing through the heel and engaging the hamstring, straighten back up to standing. Repeat all repetitions on one side, then switch legs.
Start in a plank position on your hands. Keeping your abs engaged and your shoulders directly over your hands, drive your RIGHT knee in towards your chest, using your abs to pull it in. Quickly reach that leg back and drive your LEFT knee in towards your chest. Go as quickly as you can while maintaining abdominal strength. Complete for 30 seconds to a minute.
Sit on the edge of the chair or table and place your hands on the edge so that your fingers are hanging off, facing towards you. Lift your hips of just in front of the chair, with your shoulders over your wrists. Bend your elbows and lower down, making sure to keep your elbows pressing back and your chest lifted (don’t “sink” into your shoulders). Press back up using the backs of your arms. Complete 15 repetitions.
Find an open, flat wall and stand next to it with your back flat against it. Walk your feet forwards about 2 feet or so (about your own thigh-length away from the wall) and lower down into a squat position with a 90 degree bend in your knees.
Make sure to keep your knees in line with your toes, press your tailbone into the wall, and keep your shoulders back. To make this more advanced, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand or on your thighs. Hold for 30 seconds to start, and progress to 60 seconds as you become stronger.
Complete this workout as a circuit moving from one exercise to the next. Perform 2-4 sets of each exercise depending on your ability.
Start standing with feet together, lower into a deep squat position to bring your hands down to the floor. Jump your legs backwards into a full plank position on your hands. Jump your feet back into your low squat position and jump up reaching your hands overhead. (For a modification, take out the jump and just stand up.) Complete 10-15 burpees.
Start by standing with feet together and your weight in your RIGHT leg. Step your LEFT foot back, keeping the weight in your front heel. Your knees should be bent at about 90 degrees, and be sure to keep your torso upright. Powering through your front heel, use the glutes and hamstrings to press up to standing. As you progress, you can add dumbbells in each hand for an extra challenge. Complete 15-20 repetitions on each leg.
Start by standing at the end of your mat with your feet hip-distance apart. Bend forward to reach your hands to the mat in a forward fold, reaching your hands flat on the mat (your knees may bend slightly). Walk your hands out about a foot at a time all the way out into a full plank position. Hold in the plank for a second or two and walk your hands all the way back into the forward fold, and repeat. Complete 10-15 repetitions.
Wide Push Ups
Come into a full plank position on your hands, but position your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Lower down into a push-up and at the bottom of the push-up, you should have a 90-degree bend in your elbows. Press back up to the plank and repeat 15-20 times. This can be modified by lowering down to the knees if needed.
Prisoner Squats with Calf Raises
Bring feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and knees and toes slightly turned out. Place your hands behind your head and retract your shoulders together to open the chest. Squat down, sitting back as if sitting into a chair, keeping the weight in the heels and the chest open. Power through the heels to come back up to standing and then lift the heels off the ground, squeezing the glutes at the top. Repeat 15-20 times.
Laying on your stomach on your mat, extend your arms over your head with your palms facing down. Reach the crown of your head forward and let your nose hover an inch off the ground. Draw your shoulder blades down your back as you lift your arms and legs a few inches off the ground. Think about squeezing your glutes and pulling your shoulders together to engage your entire back. Lower your arms and legs, and repeat 15 times.
Staying on your stomach on the mat, tuck your toes under, placing the weight in the balls of your feet. Place your elbows directly under your shoulders, keeping your forearms parallel to each other. Brace through your abdominals and lift your hips up so that you’re in a straight line from the crown of your head to your feet. Be sure not to let your lower back arch and keep your abs tight the entire time. Hold for 30 seconds for beginners and work your way up to 60 seconds.
Complete this workout as a circuit moving from one exercise to the next. Perform 2-4 sets of each exercise, depending on your ability.
Making sure you have enough space (about a 15-foot hallway is enough), start with your feet together and hands on your hips or by your sides. Step your RIGHT foot forward far enough so that when you lunge down, your RIGHT thigh is parallel to the floor. You should feel a stretch through the front of your LEFT hip, in the hip flexor. Press though your RIGHT heel and power up to bring your feet together and stand up. Repeat, stepping the LEFT foot forward. Complete 10-15, then turn around and lunge back to your starting point.
Starting in a full plank position on your hands, rotate so that your weight shifts to your RIGHT hand as you lift your LEFT arm up in the air above your shoulder. Lower back down and place the LEFT hand back on the floor and rotate to the other side, lifting the RIGHT arm up. Make sure to keep your shoulders steady, and don’t lift your hips too high.
Figure 4 Squats
Start by standing, and slightly shift your weight into your RIGHT leg. Raise your LEFT leg and cross your ankle over your RIGHT thigh, making a “figure 4”. Carefully bend your RIGHT knee and lower into a single leg squat, keeping your hips back and weight in your heels.
You should feel a stretch in your LEFT hip and work to keep the knee open and out to the side. If you feel unsure about this exercise, you can always place a chair behind you for support. Complete 10-15 repetition on each leg, and as you progress, you can hold dumbbells in each hand for an extra challenge.
Military or Dynamic Plank
Starting in a basic plank position on your elbows, you will be pressing yourself up to a full plank. Place your RIGHT hand directly where your RIGHT elbow was to lift up, and as you do so place the LEFT hand where the LEFT elbow was. You should now be in a full plank. To lower back down, bend the RIGHT elbow and place it on the floor where the RIGHT hand was, and repeat with the LEFT. Aim to complete 10 repetitions with the RIGHT arm leading the movement, then repeat starting with the LEFT arm leading.
Single Leg Bridge
Lay on your back on a mat and bend your knees so your feet are flat on the ground. Bring your feet parallel and hip-distance apart. With your heels, close in towards your glutes. Extend your LEFT leg up to the ceiling. Using the RIGHT leg, press into the heel to lift the hips up, creating a straight line from your knee to your shoulders. Be sure to keep the hips parallel to the floor and squeeze the glutes. Lower the hips back down and repeat. Switch to complete all repetitions on the other side.
Dolphin Push Ups
Come down onto your mat, place your elbows on the mat, and have your weight in the balls of your feet. Lift your hips high to come into a downward dog position, only on your elbows. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Try to get your back as flat as possible. Shift your weight forward to bring your chest over your hands, almost getting your back in a flat line. Using your abs and your shoulders, lift your hips back up to your dolphin pose. Complete 15-20 repetitions.
Lay on your back on the mat and place your hands behind your head. Bring your knees up in a 90-degree bend, with your knees directly over your hips. Using your abs, lift your chest and your head off the mat a few inches and rotate to the RIGHT, reaching your LEFT elbow to your RIGHT knee, and simultaneously reaching your LEFT leg out straight to hover off the mat. Come back into the center with your knees over your hips and repeat on the other side. Complete 20 repetitions total.
Deanna is an ACE® certified personal trainer, Balanced Body® Pilates instructor, and NASM® Fitness Nutrition Specialist. She is passionate about inspiring others to lead a healthier lifestyle through fun workouts and healthy food. When she’s not creating new workouts and recipes for her blog The Live Fit Girls she enjoys running with her two dogs and traveling.
The vagus nerve, one of the great mind-body nexuses in the human nervous system.
The cranium has many openings called foramina through which the 12 cranial nerves exit the skull. Muscle pressure on the bones of the skull may change the shape and size of the foramina compressing or stretching the cranial nerves as they pass through these openings. Tensions anywhere from the top of the head to the bottom of the spine may produce an array of symptoms, such as impaired vision, headaches, difficulty with hearing and balance, nausea, digestive upset, impaired speech, difficulty breathing, and many more.
Craniosacral Therapy is well known for it’s subtle and profound effects. It can work on the relief of chronic stiffness and pain releasing tension on muscles, tendons and connective tissue. A great advantage of this is also the release of cranial bones and therefore of the spinal and cranial nerves.
Any trauma to these 12 cranial nerves will result in dysfunction of the structures that they innervate, as well as pain or discomfort.
Here there is a video depicting the importance of the vagus nerve where is described as “a key nexus of mind and body, and a biological building block of human compassion.”
New research says mothers using childcare can reap social, psychological, and financial rewards.
Every weekday morning, Christie Henry went through the same simple routine. She would drop off her two young kids at the childcare center near her home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, unwrapping them from their puffy snowsuits and scribbling their names on the sign-in board by the door.
Henry wouldn’t linger long, since she was always on her way to work. But during the few minutes that she spent at the center each morning, she’d frequently chat with the other parents who bustled in around her—about their children, usually, but often the talk would turn to work, or families, or other issues that happened to be on their mind.
Before long, they’d head back out into the cold and on to work. These conversations were small, uncomplicated encounters, soon forgotten in the bustle of the rest of the day.
But how small were they? New research suggests that Henry’s morning routine might have had more impact on her well-being than she realized. In fact, as incidental as her childcare stops seemed, at least one scientist believes she was doing far more than dropping off her kids and chitchatting.
According to research by University of Chicago sociologist Mario Small, Henry was also building “social capital,” the complex system of interpersonal ties and networks that scientists have linked to a host of benefits, from better health to stronger job prospects.
This is an unusual way of thinking about childcare, especially since the national debate over it usually concerns its impact on children’s emotional, behavioral, and intellectual development.
Research conducted by psychologists John Bowlby and Jay Belsky, for instance, as well as studies published by groups such as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), do suggest that under some circumstances, kids in full-time childcare settings may be worse off than their stay-at-home peers. Yet these negative findings have been contradicted by other studies finding that kids in childcare aren’t at a disadvantage.
But what hasn’t been well studied, at least until recently, is the hidden benefits childcare may bring to parents, especially mothers. In a provocative line of research, Small has found that mothers using childcare reap social, psychological, and even financial rewards; these rewards are especially pronounced for low-income mothers. Even when mothers make few friends through a childcare center, they still benefit from the resources they find there.
Small’s work has profound implications beyond childcare. It suggests that at a time when many are lamenting the decline of strong social connections, many of us may actually be building valuable social capital without realizing it—and these “invisible ties” may carry real rewards.
The perks of friendship
For years, studies have found that enjoying greater social capital can improve quality of life for breast cancer survivors, reduce dropout rates for high school students, and increase the chances that job-seekers find employment, among other benefits. At the same time, researchers such as Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, author of the book Bowling Alone, warn that Americans have been experiencing a steady decline in social capital, with most people having fewer friends, participating in fewer civic organizations, and engaging less with their neighbors than they did fifty or sixty years ago. In other words, we’re learning both how vital our connections with each other are, and how elusive.
It was against this scientific backdrop that Small and his colleagues explored how childcare centers broker social capital for mothers. They drew on rich and varied data sources, including a national survey of 3,500 mothers in 20 large U.S. cities, a survey of 300 childcare centers in New York City, 67 in-depth interviews with mothers who had enrolled their children in childcare, and 23 case studies and observations of specific childcare centers.
When the team compared mothers who used childcare with those who did not (controlling for income, race, age, education, employment, and marital status), they discovered that mothers with children in childcare experienced fewer incidences of financial hardship—events such as having insufficient funds to see a physician, falling behind on rent or mortgage, or borrowing money to cover utility bills—than their counterparts. In fact, poor mothers who were struggling financially before they started to use childcare saw their risk of such events decrease after their child’s enrollment.
What’s more, the analysis revealed psychological benefits: Mothers who enrolled a child in childcare were less likely to experience non-clinical depression than those who did not.
Making friends with other parents through childcare was especially beneficial. Poor mothers who formed friendships at childcare centers were more than 40 percent less likely to be depressed than those who made no friends; for mothers of higher income, the figure was nearly 60 percent. And for mothers of higher income, forming friendships through childcare reduced their likelihood of facing material hardship by more than 40 percent—a benefit that disappeared if they made no friends.
University of Chicago researcher Mario L. Small, above, found that mothers benefit from their relationship to childcare centers, not just to other mothers.
“At first,” Small admits, “I assumed mothers would only make superficial friends through childcare centers. Who has time to sit and gossip when more often than not, mothers need childcare in the first place because they work outside the home?
“Surprisingly,” he continues, “many made strong friendships—they used the word ‘family’ to describe them—in which they would go to the theater and plan trips together out of state.”
This makes sense to Sarah Diwan, who runs BabyPhd, a childcare network comprising 18 home childcare providers and 60 families in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “There’s a shared vulnerability when mothers wonder what’s going to happen to their relationship with their child when they go back to work,” says Diwan. “They often come together over the emotional aspect of dropping off a child.”
Henry, who enrolled both her children in a Baby PhD childcare center, agrees. “The immediate empathy formed through that shared experience,” says Henry, “made it easy for friendships to start.” Today, Henry regularly emails and meets for coffee with three other mothers who used the same center.
“Hi and bye” relationships
Other discoveries about social connections emerged from Small’s study. For instance, many mothers formed relationships that were deeply personal, but only within the domain of childcare. These “compartmentally strong friendships,” as Small calls them, extended mothers’ support systems, even though they rarely resulted in meetings outside the center.
Mothers also made weak “hi and bye” relationships that were nevertheless valuable, because they were made trustworthy by the mothers’ shared ties to the center. “If I were to ask if you would hand your child over to somebody whose name, address, and job you didn’t know, any rational person would answer no,” adds Small. “In the context of childcare centers, many mothers were willing to do just that.”
These types of connections wouldn’t necessarily show up in a survey of social networks, because they aren’t what comes to mind when respondents are asked to list their ties—yet they, along with traditional friendships, dramatically increased mothers’ available social capital. “There’s a kind of psychic safety net,” says Small, “that comes from knowing an extra three or four people in this context. You can stay late at your meeting. You can miss your bus. And you have someone you trust to call. It takes the edge off a lot of things.”
This kind of practical support has been invaluable to Virginia Pace, who also found childcare through Diwan’s network. “It’s really nice to be able to compare notes about things like discipline,” she says, “or what to do when a child is sick.” Although Small could not say quantitatively how long after they enroll their children mothers might begin drawing on this kind of social capital, his interviews with mothers suggest that benefits often appear after as little as six months.
But one of the study’s most striking discoveries was that, for poor mothers, the benefits of social capital accrued regardless of whether they made friends at a childcare center. How could this be? Social capital, it turns out, doesn’t just emerge from relationships with people. It can also be the result of relationships with institutions.
For many mothers, enrolling a child in childcare opened up a world of other resources: access to free healthcare through referrals to government-funded health programs that they might not otherwise have known about, help with finding housing and filing taxes, domestic abuse counseling, museum discounts, and referrals to resources like learning disability experts. By plugging into childcare centers that were themselves connected to other nonprofits and government organizations, mothers effectively multiplied the size of their support networks with no effort required on their part.
In a twist that overturns traditional social network analysis—which predicts that neighborhood poverty reduces access to resources—Small found that childcare centers located in poor neighborhoods were more connected to valuable resources than those in affluent areas. “Government organizations and non-profits that offer social support reach out more to childcare centers in poor neighborhoods,” he explains, “inviting them to inform their clients about the services they provide.” How to choose childcare
Importantly, not all childcare centers do a good job of brokering social capital—they don’t all try to introduce parents for the sake of friendship, for instance. Instead, when social ties form, they tend to do so as an accidental result of center policies.
One surprising factor has to do with timing. “Some centers allow you to drop off your child anytime in the morning and pick them up anytime in the evening,” explains Small. “Others want you to do so within a certain strict window, with cash penalties for being a few minutes late. So everybody beelines to the center after work. And naturally, they sit and talk to other parents.” Furthermore, parents in these centers have an incentive to get to know each other immediately. They exchange numbers, agreeing to help each other out if one of them has a meeting that runs late.
Another factor that encourages social ties is the existence of frequent field trips. In the classroom, one adult can easily supervise ten children. “But,” Small points out, “when you’re at a museum with vases that break or at the zoo with monkeys that bite off toes, you simply need more adults per child. And most centers are not lucrative enterprises. So they need volunteers—and the most obvious ones are parents.”
In both these cases, friendships result unexpectedly—first, from a seemingly burdensome rule, and second, from financial constraints that require childcare centers to rely on parents for practical assistance.
Small, who has no children of his own but has become an expert on childcare by default, suggests the following tips for parents in search of a childcare center that fosters social capital.
Look for a center that holds yearly elections for its parent association, rather than one that’s been led by the same parent for several years in a row.
Look for one in which parents are expected to participate in activities such as fundraising.
Scout around for centers that go on a lot of field trips.
Though it’s counterintuitive, look for a center that sets strict windows for drop-off and pick-up times.
Figure out whether a center is well-connected to other local organizations. This can be tricky—but one sign to look for is a frequently-updated bulletin board full of flyers, posters, and notices advertising local resources.
Grab a coffee, make a friend
This research has implications even for those who take care of their children at home or don’t have children at all, as it reveals a broader truth about how we build social networks. Policymakers and scholars argue passionately for fostering civic engagement as a tool against crime, poverty, and inequity; business experts say who you know is more important than what you know; and self-help writers are eager to teach “networking” for happiness and success. But most of these voices focus on the consequences of social connections, and ignore how they’re formed.
Small’s research points to the fact that many of our most valuable social ties are made in the context of our involvement with institutions. We connect with others, almost without noticing it, in the coffee shops we visit, the churches, synagogues, and mosques at which we pray, and the gyms in which we exercise.
“These are not incidental aspects of our connections,” says Small. “They are the core. To the extent that we are our social networks, we are also the organizations we participate in.”