With so much chaos happening in the world right now, sometimes just picking up the newspaper can overwhelm us with a sense of powerlessness.
I admit that I fall prone to that as well at times. But I recently reacquainted myself with a world-renowned research study that reminded me I’m not helpless.
According to this study, just the act of changing my mood can contribute to making the world a better place and helping us get through these challenges as unscathed as possible.
A study published in 2008 about the benefits of social contagion shows that we as individuals may be able to influence the world for the better just by being happy.
The study, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), followed a diverse group of more than 4,700 people over 20 years to measure several factors influencing health and happiness.
One of the findings that I want to highlight is that people who live within approximately a 1-mile radius of a happy person tend to be happier — even if they do not know their happy neighbor!
The researchers are not clear how the actual mechanism works — they posit that it is some sort of positive social contagion. The happy person somehow infects the neighbors within a 1-mile radius with happiness.
The study I mentioned focused on happiness, but I want to talk about stress. Stress is one of the main competitors of happiness, and it is an incredibly stressful time we live in. Even when we don’t realize we’re stressed, it’s often there lurking around. In fact, stress can show up in many ways in our lives, such as:
Weakened immune system: Several studies on stress and health found that any stress of significant duration impacted all aspects of immunity.
Difficulty sleeping: Often, people who are stressed find their sleep is impacted because they mull over distressing events.
Irritability: When we’re stressed, we often find ourselves with what I call a “low-grade irritability fever” where the smallest things may get under your skin.
Difficulty in relationships: Heavy stress can also weigh greatly on your interpersonal life and you may find yourself in more conflict than usual.
If you catch yourself struggling in any of these areas, it’s possible that stress is overtaking happiness in some (or many) areas of your life.
Why is that important? Well, think about the study again. If you can increase your happiness, imagine the contagion effect you can have on your community. And if you live in a happier community, research shows your happiness is likely to increase, too.
See? It’s a cycle — and the cycle has to start somewhere. Why not with you?
It may be inevitable that stress will come into your life, but rather than try to avoid stress altogether, the best thing you can do is strengthen your ability to manage stress. Managing your stress means reacting less to things that “trigger” you, which allows you to keep a more even-keel emotional state. It also means that stress doesn’t have to overpower happiness.
There are many different approaches to managing stress, but I find that these five in particular are most effective:
Mindfulness and meditation: It can be something as simple as learning to follow your breathing or to gaze at a candle or listen to calming music.
Meditation is a very helpful tool for stress because it can be proactive or prescriptive, meaning by doing it regularly it can prevent stress. And if stress builds, it can help release stress, too.
Activity: Being active can be a helpful way to dispel stress. Some people like to exercise, go for walks, or even do activities like gardening or cleaning.
Social support: Being social can help combat stress as well. Getting together with friends for dinner, or even to laugh and have a good time, can help decrease stress.
Use your hands: Studies have shown using your hands for things such as knitting, building something, etc., can activate a meditative state and thereby, help calm you down.
Seek help: Of course, if the stress reaches a certain point, I recommend reaching out to a counselor or therapist for additional support.
I’m not implying that life is always easy and that stress won’t come. It’s true that life events can be difficult at times. But we’re not as helpless as we feel when difficult times come.
As Holocaust survivor turned psychologist Victor Frankel said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Why not change yourself in a way that allows you to be aware of your stress signs, mitigate them to raise your happiness quotient, and allow yourself to help make your community a happier and healthier place?
Barbara Cox, Ph.D. is a consultant and coach for innovative leaders and organizations. To learn more about meditation, try one of the free guided recordings at drcoxconsulting.com. Her advice has been featured in local and national publications, including MSN.com and Cosmopolitan and other holistic health and wellness publications. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, San Diego, and started her career as an environmental scientist, most notably organizing environmental projects for the Department of Defense. She has master’s and doctorate degrees in psychology from Alliant International University – San Diego.
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