Happiness Does Not Come From Within

“Happiness comes from within.” We hear this phrase all the time. It is predicated on the belief that if you dig deep enough into yourself, you will figure out who you are and everything else will fall into place. While I agree with the overall message in that you are responsible for your choices, it has become increasingly apparent to me that happiness comes from “with” as much as it comes from “within.” The problem with the relentless quest for self-knowledge and inward focus is that it can become an excuse for self-interest and even narcissism. Don’t get me wrong--it is important to take care of ourselves. Eating well, getting enough rest, being mindful and exercise are valuable pursuits. Mastering a breathing technique to help us relax and taking a hot bath are good stress relievers, and can certainly help us stay strong within your daily stress, but too much emphasis on the self can lead us astray.   When the focus is exclusively on me, myself, and I, we risk missing out on what is most valuable about being a member of the human race--that which lies beyond us.  New York Times columnist, David Brooks, laments how today we live in a culture of “the Big Me” that glorifies personal happiness at the expense of community and relationships. The irony is that studies show that focusing on the “Big Me” actually undermines happiness and wellbeing.   Research shows that the happiest people have close ties to friends and family. Social interaction beyond one’s immediate circle is important too. Studies show that people who connect with other human beings, even strangers on a train or in the checkout line, report brighter moods. Behavioral scientists call this “social snacking.” It may be the healthiest snack in the world. Happiness is not a solo enterprise, and well-being doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We are social creatures and our wellbeing—both physical and mental—depends on our social relationships. It is well known that having a shoulder to lean on can help us navigate our way through a difficult time.  Less well known is the research that shows how doing things for others helps buffer against stress. In a research article entitled “Prosocial Behavior Helps Mitigate the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life,” participants who engaged in “other-focused” behavior, such as holding a door, asking someone if they needed help, and lending a hand, reported better moods and lower daily stress levels than those who didn’t engage in helping behavior. The key is to actively seek pathways that will help us transcend ourselves and escape the echo-chamber of our minds.  As tempting as it is to dive inward, make it a priority to connect, to interact, and to add value.   This article originally appeared on Mind Body Green

Yes, Just 10 Minutes a Day Can Turn Your Life Around

Consider the following experiment: researchers asked employees of an outpatient family practice clinic – nurses, assistants, and receptionists – to complete an online “survey” at the end of each workday. They were unaware of the purpose of this exercise. The survey asked them to spend five to ten minutes writing about events that had gone “really well” that day and to explain why they believed they had gone so well. The participants could write about anything—events large or small, personal or work-related. Responses ranged from a colleague bringing in delicious food to a thoughtful story of a meaningful interaction with a patient or co-worker. One nurse wrote:

A doctor gave me a compliment today because I knew exactly what to do in an emergency situation, and I helped a patient who was having a seizure.

In just three weeks, stress levels and mental and physical complaints declined in small but significant amounts. On the days they wrote about good things, the participants were better able to detach from work stress when they got home in the evening.

This simple practice—writing about three good things that happened—creates a real shift in what people think about, and can change how they perceive their work lives.

Moreover, it creates a positive feedback loop. People who reflect on good things that happened at the end of the day are more likely to share them with loved ones. This, in turn, bolsters social connections which reduces stress even more. Another positive by-product is improved sleep. A good night’s sleep leads to greater alertness and a better mood the following day. Noticing good things may even make you more creative. Research shows positive emotions enhance creative thinking and innovation. Focusing on positive events does not come naturally for most of us. Evolution has programmed us to notice negative events and anything that may be perceived as a threat. This made sense for our ancestors but no longer applies today. As the above study highlights, just because your inclination may be to ruminate on the negative, it does not mean your fate is sealed. By intentionally noticing good things you can overcome the gravitational pull into thinking about what can or did go wrong. Practicing this activity every day will provide you with strength and a positive outlook. Start capitalizing on it today.

Manage Uncertainty With This Tool

When you are feeling overwhelmed try to pinpoint exactly what is bothering you and describe your feelings more precisely. Are you frustrated? Disheartened? Despondent? Exasperated? Instead of resigning yourself to a generalized negative mood for the next few hours, try to label your emotions.

People who are able to differentiate their negative emotions are better at regulating and managing them, according to science. Rather than being consumed by a general feeling of malaise, differentiators are more action-oriented. Knowing what is wrong empowers them to seek a solution and tailor a response to the situation. For example, recognizing that you felt flustered after a disagreement with a colleague might prompt you to speak to the manager or go for a walk outside. Feeling “bad” doesn’t provide you with the same kind of useful information. It just hovers over you like a cloud. And because it is so vague, it can easily spill into other aspects of your life and be the reason you snap at your partner later that day.

People who struggle with emotion differentiation are more likely to feel overwhelmed and helpless. They may also be more vulnerable to unhealthy or unfocused responses like binge drinking or physical aggression. Distressing feelings are more likely to dominate their attention and dictate how they behave.

The good news is that emotional differentiation is a skill that can be learned and deployed on a daily basis. By expanding your emotional vocabulary, you are giving yourself the tools to label and understand an array of nuanced emotional states. Not only will your bad moods be less bad, you will be better equipped to handle stress when it arises.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Marie Claire Magazine.

Stay Connected While Keeping Your Distance

As a psychiatrist, I recognize how valuable everyday interactions are for mental health. We are deeply social creatures who need others as much as we need air to breathe. Studies show that frequent positive interactions with others is at the heart of our wellbeing. People who experience “felt love”—brief moments of connection in everyday life—are happier and healthier compared to those with lower felt love scores. Of course, these moments are best experienced in person. Chocolate tastes better when shared. A hill feels less steep when walking beside another. Pain is less painful when holding a loved one’s hand. Making chitchat with someone you don’t know can brighten your day. This is why I talk to patients about making the most of face-to-face interactions with loved ones and strangers. Presence, I tell them, is everything. But not now. Today, I implore you to take your distance. If you’re under 50 and in good health, COVID-19 is unlikely to kill you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions to protect those who are most vulnerable. Minimizing your physical contact with the outside world might save someone else’s life. Please don’t get on a plane unless you have to. Please don’t visit your parents. Please skip playdates and dinner parties. Work from home if you can. Social distancing might be inconvenient but someone else’s life may depend on it. If you think I’m being too dramatic, listen to Yale professor Nicholas Christakis who studies how humans spread everything from ideas, to behavior, to germs: "If we limit social contact, we can “flatten” the coronavirus epidemic by spreading out the same number of cases across a longer time horizon. That way, we will have fewer sick people at any given point, allowing health-care systems and supply chains to provide precious resources such as ventilators, beds for intensive-care units and, of course, medical staff." So hunker down. Stay put. Do your part to curb the spread of this virus in the community. It’s strange endorsing social distancing when so much of our wellbeing depends on social connection. Seeing inventive ways people are staying connected while physically distanced gives me hope. A video of quarantined neighbors in Siena singing a popular Italian song from their balconies and waving at one another reminds us that we are not alone. Reach out to friends, especially those you know are home alone. Pick up the phone and call your aunt. Send a text to your old roommate who lives in Tennessee. A group chat with NYC friends is helping me feel connected. A friend holed up in Connecticut sends me daily gallows humor memes. Here is what I recommend: 1. Maintain an other-orientation. Self-interest will only make you feel worse and stress you out. 2. Be a beacon. Instead of forwarding or retweeting anxiety-inducing headlines, share goodness and actionable insights to lift people’s spirits. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma started a “songs of comfort” series, Lizzo is leading meditations, Josh Gad is reading bedtime stories, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson created a "Quarantunes" playlist. 3. Consider the people quarantined with you. Set ground rules with family members/roommates/partners. Don’t walk around with your phone in your hand constantly sharing breaking news. Your constant updates will amplify the anxiety in the house, especially if there are kids around. 4. Encourage other-oriented discussions during meals. Sample topics:
  • If you could be any historical figure, who would it be and why?
  • Describe a quality you admire in your best friend.
  • What lesson have you learned that you would like to share with people younger than you?
5. Recreate water cooler moments. Jamil Zaki, professor of psychology at Stanford observes: “When we share physical space, we don’t confine our conversations to urgent matters. We dawdle, kibbitz and goof off. Those in-between moments are urgent — to our sense of place and community. We must keep them around in whatever format we can.” 6. Call friends and family members. Make a pact to talk about something other than COVID-19. 7. Donate to a charitable organization like Citymeals-on-wheels that delivers meals to elderly New Yorkers. Citymeals has already delivered 45K meals emergency meals and will deliver 100K more in the next few days. 8. Schedule a FaceTime lunch with a friend, set up a virtual book club, watch the History Channel's Washington documentary "together," or plan a Skype happy hour. 9. Get creative with gratitude—send a message to someone you are grateful to but never properly thanked-- teacher, a doctor, a mentor, a colleague. I was inspired by these people in Madrid thanking healthcare workers. 10. If you can, continue to pay hourly workers like your dog walker or housekeeper even if they aren’t working. 11. Reach out to an old friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. 12. If you have to go to the store, send a message to an elderly neighbor asking if they need anything and leave it at their door. Becky Wass, a lecturer in Cornwall created a #viralkindness campaign, putting postcards on doorsteps with the message: “Hello, if you are self-isolating, I can help. If just one person feels less lonely or isolated when faced with this pandemic, then I'll feel better about it. Coronavirus is scary. Let's make kindness go viral.” There are many ways to stay close while keeping your distance. My friend Jessica Seinfeld sent me this from a rabbi: “For every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other.” Coronavirus isn’t about any one of us. It’s about all of us.

When the World Feels Out of Control, Here Is What You Can Control

Why are we so afraid of COVID-19? It's “the mix of miscalibrated emotion and limited knowledge explains psychologist David DeSteno. Fear thrives on uncertainty and, at this point, there is so much we don’t know.

How deadly is it? Estimates range from 0.5% to 4% (the seasonal flu is .1%) and the only way to narrow this down is to count the number of fatalities and divide it by how many have COVID-19. Without widespread testing, it is impossible to know the denominator of this equation. Other questions we don't have answers to:

Will the virus peter out during the summer months?

How soon will we have a vaccine?

How many people are asymptomatic?

Why are children less affected?

Unanswerable questions coupled with conflicting information, especially from government officials and experts, further fuels fear. One moment, you’re told it’s no big deal and the next, schools are shutting down. Mixed messages are confusing and amplify uncertainty. It’s no wonder people are panicking.

Here is what we do know. There are actions you can take to help you feel more in control even when the world feels like it is spinning out of control.

1. Check Your Screentime

Are you compulsively checking the CDC website for updates? Did you double your Twitter screen time in the past week? If the answer is yes, it’s highly likely that this behavior is stoking your fears and making you feel even more vulnerable. Think of your attention as a flashlight. What do you want to shine it on?

2. Skip Contagion

This is not the moment to watch movies like Outbreak or ContagionChoose a movie or a series that will be a catalyst for calm or at least a distraction from the current state of affairs. Better yet, get lost in a book. I just downloaded The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larsen, one of my favorite authors. Early reviews describe it as captivating and an engrossing page-turner, an ideal remedy for the relentless negative news.

3. Do You Really Need That Lipstick?

When germs abound, vanity kicks in. study found that when people worry about catching a disease, they tend to focus more on how they look and spend more money on their physical appearance. It’s the “behavioral immune system” signaling to others, “Hey, I’m healthy.”

4. Talk About Something Else

You might think that the best way to solve a problem is to think it through but when information is lacking and fear is driving emotion, this can backfire. There is no benefit to ruminating about the spread of coronavirus. Nor is it helpful to make it a topic of every conversation you have with others. Discovering your friend bought a year’s supply of toilet paper at Costco might prompt you to do the same but it won’t give you peace of mind.

5. Don’t Eat Your Feelings

People tend to eat more and mindlessly when they’re stressed. Don’t let anxiety dictate your diet. Actively decide to make healthy choices that fortify you during this vulnerable period. Research from Yale University suggests that a protein-based diet might help fight the seasonal flu. Rats who were fed the keto diet (high in fat and protein, low in carbs) were better equipped to combat and overcome the influenza virus than rats who were fed the equivalent of Wonder bread and spaghetti.

6. Get Some Fresh Air

Consider skipping the gym and exercising outdoors instead. Hop off the subway before your stop to minimize potential exposure and to put a spring in your step. Spending time outdoors is good for your immunity and your mood. People who report more positive emotions are less likely to catch a cold. Even when they do catch a cold, they don’t feel as bad as the “Debbie Downers.”

7. Snooze

This is not the time to stay up late binge-watching Netflix. People who don’t sleep enough are more likely to get sick after being exposed to an infection. During sleep, the immune system releases proteins called cytokines which protect us against bacteria and viruses. You’ll also feel less stressed when you’re well-rested.

8. The Basics To Keep Yourself and Others Healthy:

• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; before eating or preparing food; upon arrival anywhere. • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. • Stay home when you are sick. • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

I appreciated Dr. Abdu Sharkawy’s take on how to navigate this challenge:

I implore you all. Temper fear with reason, panic with patience and uncertainty with education. We have an opportunity to learn a great deal about health hygiene and limiting the spread of innumerable transmissible diseases in our society. Let's meet this challenge together in the best spirit of compassion for others, patience, and above all, an unfailing effort to seek truth, facts and knowledge as opposed to conjecture, speculation and catastrophizing. Facts not fear. Clean hands. Open hearts. Our children will thank us for it.

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Sara Moss


Senior Advisor to Estée Lauder’s Executive Management, Vice Chairman, powerhouse, pioneer, wife, and mother of four. See what inspires Sara Moss to be the best version of herself.

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My Tip Of the Week on ⁦@TheCharacterLab⁩ : Six ways to stay connected while keeping your distance. https://characterlab.org/tips-of-the-week/keep-your-distance/

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