Sunday, September 18, 2016

Here's the thing about being positive and happy

A few years ago, I had joined a yoga class to get over a particularly stressful period of my life. One evening after class, the yoga teacher drew me aside and said, “Drink plenty of water, at least 10 to 12 glasses a day.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked her. We were sitting on the verandah of a building overlooking a maidan where groups of boys were playing cricket in the mud. The skies were overcast and rain was imminent.

Although I knew why she was telling me to drink more water, I wanted to hear it from her. I wanted to feel assured that this most basic of all remedies would help solve my problem.

She said, “Drinking water boosts serotonin levels in our brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for our sleep, mood swings, depression, and even memory. Water helps maintain the balance of this chemical which in turn makes us feel positive and happy.”

Later, I read about serotonin on the internet and found that drinking more water, regular exercise and meditation, and lowering intake of caffeine and sugar increased production of the chemical and had the exact same effect as swallowing antidepressant drugs, minus the side effects. It also helped to cut down on alcohol, quit smoking, and eat more veggies and greens.

I also learnt something else—serotonin was the hormone that regulated moods and made people happy, and that’s probably why it’s called the happiness hormone.

Now that’s a hormone we can never have enough of.

Besides adequate hydration, there are other ways in which we can try and stay positive and happy at least most of the time, if not all the time.

Take clothing, for instance. The clothes we wear to the office or to a party makes all the difference between our self-confidence and self-doubt. Personally, white and blue shirts work best for me—they boost my mood and morale and make me look good and feel great.

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

Some years ago, researchers from University of Queensland, Australia, found that people, and especially women, “use clothes to improve or mask emotion.”

As lead researcher Dr Alastair Tombs told Australia’s bodyandsoul.com, “We demand many things from clothing. Quite a few people talked about using clothes to change their mood. If they get up and aren't feeling great, they would put on something that would brighten them up.”

When our day doesn’t go too well, or if we feel less confident than usual, we tend to blame the clothes we wear. Dr Tombs termed this attitude as making a scapegoat out of clothes, which the health, happiness and wellbeing site labelled as “scapegoat fashion.”

Our comfort clothing does more than increase our confidence and lift our spirits. It also reflects in our posture, the way we move and sit, our enthusiasm for the day's work, talk to our colleagues, shake hands with a firm grip, make that crucial presentation to clients, and convince the boss.

Thought substitution is another important lesson in positive thinking. In my opinion, it’s the most challenging one. Renowned spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran, who founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in California in 1961, was a great advocate of substituting a negative thought with a positive one without a moment's hesitation. He said, “All we are is the result of what we have thought. By changing our mode of thinking, we can remake ourselves completely.”

Of course, thought change is not easy. It requires a great deal of practice and perseverance, and it doesn’t work in every situation. For example, people who have just had an anxiety or panic attack would be in fear or flight mode to even contemplate a thought reboot. At that moment they would likely be hyperventilating and their minds would be in overdrive, as they desperately seek to calm their nerves, remove the sense of foreboding they cannot fathom and ease the physical symptoms convulsing their bodies.

At such times mystics like Easwaran tell us to be constantly mindful of our thoughts when we are physically healthy and in a better frame of mind—so that we’re well prepared whenever dark clouds threaten to break over our heads.

Finally, this or any article on positivity would be incomplete without mention of the most valuable aid to a positive outlook on life—sleep. Not just sleep for the sake of it, but a minimum of seven to eight hours of quality sleep. Daytime sleep can never compensate for night sleep.

There is scientific evidence to prove a direct correlation between proper and undisturbed sleep on one hand and a sense of optimism and purpose, and overall wellbeing, on the other. Conversely, lack of sleep has the opposite effect.

A good night’s sleep not only helps us look younger, feel healthier and live longer, it also has a positive impact on our performance at work and by extension on our prospects and success in our careers, not to mention in our personal relationships.

Ernest Hemingway is believed to have said, “I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake.” Even if he said it in jest and in a different context, it still underscores the fact that if we don’t get enough sleep our lives actually run the risk of falling apart.

There is a growing list of steps we can take to entertain positive thoughts, experience positive energy, and be positively happy. I wrote about these four in particular because they work well for me, though I'm still my own student. You can draw up your own tailored list of things to do that will make you feel positive and happy. While no one size fits all, the underlying principle is the same—the practice of positive thought at all times of our lives.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much! This is a wonderful post. I've saved it in a folder. I drink a lot of water but not that much. I shall begin today. As for clothes, I am all about comfort. The thought part is a bit like mindful meditation, which I do. Not really substituting but acknowledging, recognizing the thought and then letting it pass on. And sleep. Oh, I love sleep. I'm amazed at people who think it is a waste of time. Sometimes I'll wake, and think ah, I'm asleep. My day may be shorter, but I feel better in it when I've slept a good long time. Thanks again. Your posts always make me think and add to my life.

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    1. Nan, you're most welcome. And thank you for your generous praise. Yes, positive thinking is close to mindfulness, as advocated by the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. As I'm growing older I find it a little easier to overcome negative thought, flow with circumstance, take things in stride. Of course, it's never easy to reverse years of negative conditioning. I'm also beginning to realise the value of good sleep and rest. I believe proper sleep helps prevent age-related illnesses like Alzheimer's. I'm glad you liked this piece, Nan. And thank you again for writing.

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