The Happiness Connection  

Curiosity can conquer fear

I’m not a huge fan of winter. More accurately, I’m not a huge fan of the kinds of winters we have in the Okanagan.

I’d probably love a Hawaiian winter. But as a happiness enthusiast, I do the best I can to be positive during the winter months.

I’ve decided that the icy roads and sidewalks give me an opportunity to for physical adventure that I might not consciously choose.

During the most recent cold snap, I had one of those adventures while driving. We live in a hilly area of town and as I approached the stop sign at the bottom of one of those hills, I realized that the road was like a sheet of ice.

I put all my winter driving knowledge into action, and managed to come to a stop, just in time to prevent my car from sliding onto the busy road at the bottom, but it was a narrow escape.

I took a deep breath to let my racing heart slow, and to let my hands and lower arms stop tingling. Does fear cause a sensation to sweep down your arms and into your hands?

I noticed this phenomenon years ago, but I didn’t think too much about it until recently when I came across a study on body mapping.

Bodily Maps of Emotions was published in 2013. A team of Finnish biomedical engineers wanted to know more about the link between emotional states and sensations in the body.

A group of 701 participants from Finland, Sweden, and Taiwan were shown emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions to induce one of fourteen feelings. To avoid bias, the name of the mood the participants were being exposed to was never used.

The researchers were interested in immediate, conscious reactions not in biological changes like body temperature, or heart rate.

To record these sensations, subjects were given two body silhouettes, and asked to colour the areas of their body where they felt an increase or decrease of activity, or sensation.

For example, I noticed an increase of activity in my head, chest, arms, and hands. I would have coloured these areas of the silhouettes red (high increase in activity) and yellow (very high increase in activity.)

If there were any areas with a decrease in sensation, or activity, I would colour them blue, or light blue.

There was individual variation on the areas of the silhouettes that were coloured, but when the researchers averaged the maps together, patterns emerged for the different feelings.

As you might expect, the research showed that the head was affected with every emotion, but there was only one feeling where the activity was decreased rather than increased.

Depression resulted in a lowering of sensation in the head, which might explain why people in this state find it difficult to engage with what is happening around them.

The body map for fear shows that I am not unique to having increased sensations in my hands and arms. In fact, many of the negative emotions showed increased activity in the hands.

Perhaps this happens to help us with the fight-flight response. You need to have your hands ready for movement if you plan to fight.

As this column is called the Happiness Connection, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the body map for happiness. This was the only emotion that showed an increase in activity in every part of the body, including the legs.

Maybe this explains why we jump for joy.

Love was a close second in this regard, although the legs were far less active.

I won’t attempt to describe the findings of the study for each emotion, but I’ll add the link, so you can look for yourself. http://www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646.full

An important question for any writer to ask themselves is “Who cares?”

I’ve shared this with you because I found it fascinating and expect that some of you will too, but there is another reason.

We know that if you smile, it will boost your feelings of happiness, even if the smile is fake. So, is it possible for you to boost your happiness by imagining an increase in sensation in your entire body?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I think it is worth exploring. When I do my next meditation, I’m going to spend some time with this idea.

Does it matter whether I find a new way to boost happiness or not? No.

In face, as I write these words, I realize that the best lesson to take away from this column has nothing to do with body mapping. Happy people nurture their sense of curiosity, and that’s what the study into body mapping has given me an opportunity to do.

I encourage you to do the same. Find something that interests you, and make some time to be curious.

Satisfaction is the key

My parents are celebrating their 64th wedding anniversary this week.

When I was a child, the thing that stood out most to me about their wedding was the date. Who chooses a Friday the 13th for a wedding day?

There is an interesting story behind their choice. When my father joined the RCMP, they only admitted single men, who were not allowed to marry until they had been in the force for seven years. He and my mother met in high school, so it seemed like an eternity of waiting.

When the RCMP reduced the waiting time to five years, it was exciting news. My dad was approaching that anniversary, and my mom wanted to be married as soon as possible. The first date she could secure the church was Friday, Nov. 13, 1953.

Being married to, and living with, the same person for 64 years is no easy feat. Marriage takes effort and energy. When the going gets tough, you may wonder whether you have made a mistake, and chosen the wrong person.

Some couples decide to end their relationship only to wonder years later if they gave up too soon. Other people stay together, but continue to experience difficult times. They wonder if they should have gone their separate ways.

Regardless of your choice, you will never know if you made the right decision because you can’t go back in time and make a different one. There is no magic ball or easy answer.

There is, however, research that shows creating happy relationships is worth the effort.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the longest running studies on health and happiness. It has been tracking mental and physical health, as well as the personal and professional successes, and failures of its participants for almost 80 years.

The study began in 1938 with 268 Harvard sophomores. All the subjects were men, because at that time, women were not admitted into the college. Nineteen of the original subjects are still alive, but the pool of participants has been widened to include the offspring of these men.

This rich resource of information has allowed scientists to study the correlation between relationships and health. They discovered evidence to show it isn’t your genetic makeup, social class, or IQ that determines your good health and long life; it is the satisfaction you have with your relationships.

According to Robert Waldinger, the director of this study, the people who were most satisfied with their relationship at age 50, were the healthiest at age 80.

Health and longevity is a multi-billion-dollar industry. You will find advice and products to help you eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and obtain adequate amounts of sleep. But perhaps these companies are missing the most important factor, and should be focusing more on ways to help you nurture your relationships.

According to the data collected, these close connections play a larger role in achieving a long and happy life than your genetic makeup, social class, or IQ.

If you are single, don’t despair. It isn’t just your relationship with your spouse that makes you happy. Your connection with family members and friends also contribute to good health, and longevity.

In a time when the average marriage lasts 13.7 years (Statistics Canada), I think my parents have reached a remarkable milestone. As they are in their late 80s, still living in their own home, and both relatively healthy, I’m inclined to agree with the findings of the Harvard study.

Cheers mom and dad. May you continue to be happy and healthy together.

Name your emotions

I consider myself to be a positive person, but that doesn’t mean I am always happy, or that I couldn’t be happier.

I had a situation last week that caused my sense of well being to take a serious dip. As I was driving home feeling far from happy, I decided to take note of how I dealt with my feelings, so I could share my experience with you.

Let’s get real about happiness.

We are programmed to have a range of emotions. Negative emotions help us during moments of threat, and mild to moderately positive ones help us grow and learn. It isn’t wrong to feel unhappy, but it isn’t the best place to spend most of your time.

What did I do to help myself?

Acknowledge how you are feeling.

I began by giving myself time to simply feel negatively. Suppressing your emotions is not healthy. Air them, but don’t focus on them for too long. I found myself thinking about other situations in my life and I noticed the negative spin I was putting on them too. After about 10 minutes I decided I had stewed long enough.

TIP: Set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes. Lean into all those negative feelings, but when the time is up, be willing to let those emotions go.

Put some happiness boosting strategies into action.

Remind yourself that how you view your life is up to you. I wanted to come out of my funk, so I put a few happiness boosting strategies into action.

I was already on a walk with my dog, so getting out into nature was already taken care of. I consciously looked for beauty in my surroundings; the sky was picturesque and the fall colours were amazing. I made myself smile, I’m sure it looked forced, and I thought in detail about three things I was grateful for.

Label the emotions you are feeling.

I was feeling a little better, but I had one more strategy up my sleeve.

I concentrated on my emotions and looked for the best word to describe them. Peeved was the word that felt most accurate, although disgruntled and irritated came close.

Research shows that labelling your negative feelings is an effective way to reduce their intensity.

In one study, participants were shown photos of people with emotional facial expressions. This triggered the amygdala area of their brains causing them to feel similar emotions themselves.

This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion, and is one of the reasons we feel empathy for others. When we look at an unhappy person, we feel unhappy.

The subjects were then asked to name the emotions they were feeling. This simple act reduced the activity in the amygdala, lessen the impact and intensity of how they were feeling.

As I walked down the hill to my house, I continued to try different words to find the one I felt was the best descriptor of my emotions. Was I feeling happy by the time I reached home? No, but I wasn’t feeling so peeved either.

By the time I walked into my kitchen, I was thinking about other things and moving on.

Happy people don’t pretend they are impervious to negativity. They try to choose environments that are positive, and keep their minds focusing on good things, but they have negative emotions too.

What separates positive and negative people is how they choose to deal with unhappy emotions. You can focus on them, or decide to let them go. The choice is yours.


Leap into the unknown

“Get comfortable, with being uncomfortable.”

I love this statement by Jillian Michaels because moving out of your comfort zone cannot be avoided. You might as well accept it, instead of resisting it.

Your comfort zone refers to everything that is familiar to you. The job you’ve had for years, the home you know so well, and the habits you’ve developed are just a few examples. In this zone, you can go about your life with barely a thought.

If you’ve been following my column, you will know that mindless living does not contribute to a positive sense of well-being. Stepping into new situations and living to tell the tale does.

Humans are programmed with a drive to survive. It is your brain’s No. 1 priority. When you move into the unknown, you are less certain this will be the outcome. In your comfort zone, you feel safe, and may mistakenly believe this is the best place to be if you want to live to see another day.

The problem with huddling in the security of the familiar, is that while you are there, the world around you is changing and evolving. The only way to maintain your safety is to change and evolve along with your environment.

It is impossible to move forward without experiencing new challenges, situations, and opportunities. The challenges let you know the areas that need growth, and the situations give opportunities to practice new and existing skills.

Even if you want to remain in the perceived safety of the familiar, the changes occurring around you won’t let that happen. If you are fearful of the unknown and resist new experiences, rest assured that the universe will give you a nudge, a push, or a wallop.

Think about those annoying times when things don’t work out the way you planned. Perhaps you’ve arranged to be picked up after an evening out, but your ride doesn’t arrive. What do you do? If this has never happened to you before, you will find yourself stepping into the unknown.

In fairness, those people who choose to step out of their comfort zone are also affected by events out of their control, but the more accustomed you are to new experiences, the more comfortable you will feel with them.

It is much easier for me to encounter an unexpected situation and deal with it in my stride, than it is for my mother who is less practised at it than I am. But it is never too late to learn new skills and attitudes.

My 87-year-old mom goes to a group exercise program twice a week. It was getting difficult for my father to drop her off and then pick her up an hour later, so a few months ago, she made the decision to take the Handy Dart bus to her class.

My dad still picked her up when it finished and drove her home.

It might not sound like a difficult thing to do, by for my mom it was a huge leap into the unknown. She was nervous, but she did it anyway and she survived the experience.

When my dad injured himself a month or so ago, she was hopeful that I might pick her up, but I encouraged her to take the Handy Dart home as well. It was a similar but different experience, so once again she was nervous.

Yes, some people might judge me and declare me a bad daughter, but my decision to nudge my mom into the unknown has paid off for both of us. I can continue with my normal work day, and my mom is visibly strengthened.

She isn’t worried about making her own way to and from her class, and that independence is showing in her attitude towards life. We both know that if at any time taking the Handy Dart no longer makes sense, I will be her personal taxi service.

I’m sure everyone can relate to feeling nervous when faced with a new experience, but if you are letting those feeling prevent your from stepping into the unknown, there is no time like the present to turn that around.

Think of one thing you have been putting off because it makes you feel uncomfortable, and make a commitment to get it done before the week is over. The only way you will ever feel better about leaving your world of familiarity, is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

More The Happiness Connection articles

About the Author

Reen Rose is an experienced, informative, and engaging speaker, author, and educator. She has worked for over three decades in the world of education, teaching children and adults in Canada and England.

Research shows that happy people are better leaders, more successful, and healthier than their unhappy counterparts, and yet so many people still believe that happiness is a result of their circumstances.

Happiness is a choice. Reen’s presentations and workshops are designed to help you become robustly happy. This is her term for happiness that can withstand challenge and change.

Reen blends research-based expertise, storytelling, humour, and practical strategies to both inform and inspire. She is a Myers Briggs certified practitioner, a Microsoft Office certified trainer and a qualified and experienced teacher.

Email Reen at [email protected]

Check out her websites at www.ReenRose.com, or www.ModellingHappiness.com

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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