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Posts Tagged ‘Happiness’

What Fear Can Do

November 3rd, 2016 at 12:58 pm by timigustafson

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously proclaimed in his first inaugural address that there was “nothing to fear but fear itself,” it was intended to encourage people not to despair in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, a.k.a. the “Great Depression.” Much has been argued over the true meaning of his words, not least because they don’t make a lot of sense if taken out of context. Yet, they have lived on in the public discourse ever since, applicable as they seem in every generation.

Indeed, we are experiencing a time of acute fear and anxiety right now. People around the world are worried for countless reasons. There is hardly a place left on earth where populations enjoy relatively tranquil lives – not even in the remote Himalayan country of Bhutan, where achieving happiness for all is a declared goal of the government.

Many of us seem to be affected by an epidemic of worry. Oftentimes, it may start with something concrete, a situation or event one can point to, like the attacks of 9/11. But over time, a specific fear can turn into a state of growing uneasiness.

Worry is circular, it feeds on itself, gets out of hand, and eventually becomes almost uncontrollable, according to Francis O’Gorman, a professor of English literature at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, and author of “Worrying, a Literary and Cultural History” (Bloomsbury 2015).

While today’s world is a risky place and evokes many well-founded concerns, the experience of fear itself creates new risks that can affect a person’s health and well-being, says David Ropeik, an expert on risk perception. In fact, the hazards of fretting over perceived threats may be more harmful than the actual risks themselves, he argues.

The reason is that when a state of fear persists over extended periods of time, our bodies react to chronically elevated levels of stress. Once stress hormones flood the bloodstream without finding relief, they can literally become poisonous and lead to dire, even life-threatening consequences.

The human species could not have survived for long without the experience of fear. The ability to identify certain events and situations as dangerous and respond appropriately is essential for our existence. But these responses are meant to be rare and short-lived. If we cannot switch off this built-in alarm system of ours, it will quickly exhaust us, even turn against us.

In contrast to justified concerns – which can be motivating to take action – fear as a state of mind is paralyzing. It prevents clear thinking. It destroys hope and optimism. It can lead to destructive behavior and make us sick.

The fact that we are constantly bombarded with messages that contain potential threats, whether they occur nearby or halfway around the world, is not conducive to our psychological (and subsequently overall) well-being. We may live in an ever-more globalized environment, but we also must consider our limits as individuals who can only digest a finite amount of information.

No one should retort to a head-in-the-sand attitude. Our lives have become too complex and too intertwined to hide from reality. But if we keep getting overloaded with data that leave us feeling more helpless than empowered, we won’t be useful in tackling the problems we could otherwise help solving. We just end up hunkering down in fear, anger and despair. Not a healthy prospect. Not for anyone of us, and not for the world.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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The Calm Years

September 1st, 2015 at 6:01 pm by timigustafson

Much has been written in recent years about the blessings of life after work and parenting. Aging baby boomers were told that the best was still to come if they only kept dreaming big. What was traditionally considered a time of well-deserved rest and leisure now became “the power years,” where people could finally realize their true potential. But clearly not everyone has bought into this concept. There is a new yearning for rest among today’s older adults, although not quite in the same way their predecessors envisioned it.

In his latest book, titled “Gelassenheit” (calmness), the German philosopher and social critic Wilhelm Schmid advocates a return to a state of mind that is free from excessive stress, depression, and unrealistic expectations.

His prior publications on happiness and love were reasonably successful, but his latest oeuvre quickly became a bestseller, which shows how much of a nerve he hit, and not only among his primary target audience.

Schmid says that we gain – not lose – as we grow older, not just in terms of experience and wisdom but by learning to discern between what’s important and what isn’t.

Our busy lifestyles, overloaded work schedules, countless activities, and insatiable appetite for the next big thing make us restless to the point where we get stressed out and lose sight for the meaning of it all. And yet, it is almost alien to us to forgo something that seems to offer itself as an opportunity. To regain a stage of calmness and peace of mind, he says, we have to learn to sometimes let go of things, even when they are within our reach.

Of course, not everyone is capable of calmness, tranquility and inner peace as a permanent state – nor is that necessarily a desirable goal. Some people seem unfazed no matter what life throws at them. Others are nervous wrecks almost from the day they were born. But nobody is condemned to a particular form of being. We can all change and find ways to become more the person we want to be. That, Schmid says, is the gift of aging.

There is much we can do simply by lowering our expectations. Over time, we have developed unbelievable expectations of what life should have to offer. Entire generations have been told from early childhood on that they will be able to achieve anything they want, if they only put their mind to it. False promises like these must necessarily end in disappointment.

Eventually, as we grow older, we have to choose between becoming bitter over our failures and shortcomings or making peace with our reality. If we succeed at the latter, a state of calmness, serenity, and even genuine happiness can emerge.

Ultimately, Schmid suggests, we should not idealize the “successful life” as it is often defined in terms of material wealth but rather accept our entire existence in all its multiple facets. If we only consider either the positive or the negative that happens to us throughout our lifetime, we cut our perspective short by half.

Calmness, by contrast, requires acceptance of everything without judgment or exclusion. It enables us to see more clearly not only from where we have come but also where we will be going next.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Being “Over the Hill” Can Have Its Upside, Too

February 15th, 2014 at 5:40 pm by timigustafson

Despite the fact that people live longer and are more active in their later years than ever before, aging is still associated with decline, loss, and debilitation. That’s nature’s way, like it or not. But does that mean older folks should despair over their impending fate? Perhaps, but few actually do, according to a series of studies on age and happiness. In fact, feelings of happiness, or at least contentment, seem to be most common among the maturing crowd.

That happiness can peak late in life is nothing new, but no systematic research was conducted before to explain why that is the case. A possibility may be that older people find it easier to derive pleasure from relatively ordinary experiences such as taking a walk, sharing a meal with loved ones, or pursuing a hobby. By contrast, younger generations are more likely to seek satisfaction from extraordinary, exciting experiences, e.g. at work or in sports. But these unique and rare moments are harder to come by and require greater efforts and also expenditures. That could be one reason why, on balance, the aging are better off in terms of finding their rewards.

Another explanation may be a little bit more complex. In his milestone publication, “A Theory of Human Motivation” (1943), the psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his now classic theory of “Hierarchy of Needs,” where he distinguished between a number of human needs, reaching from basic survival to self-actualization when nearly all human potential can be realized.

To illustrate the hierarchical relationship between the different kinds of needs, Maslow famously used a graphic depicting the shape of a pyramid. More basic needs – like food, shelter, health, safety – support higher ones – like self-esteem, respect, creativity, etc. Higher needs cannot be met if there is significant deficiency among the more basic ones, e.g. confidence or self-esteem will not likely grow without a degree of material security.

Although he does not explicitly use the term, we can assume that Maslow would consider the quest for happiness as part of the higher needs, perhaps on par with self-actualization, a level that requires a lot of fulfillment in many other areas. It is easy to see that this can only be achieved with time – in other words, with age.

But what’s also important to see is that the hierarchical structure of our needs is not static but rather is made up of constantly changing priorities. What seems to matter most today, may be forgotten tomorrow. What once counted as must-have, eventually becomes an afterthought. The importance we lend to most things tends to have a short shelf life.

That doesn’t mean everything is relative and therefore meaningless, not even when we look back from long distance. In my own life, I continuously revisit my needs in multiple departments to see if they are sufficiently attended to. Whether it concerns my physical health, my emotional well-being, my work, my relationships to family and friends, they all matter equally, and if one is neglected for too long, I know that others will eventually suffer as well. But I have also enough experience to realize when to be patient, when to relax, when to set priorities, and when to find pleasure and comfort in simple things – like taking a walk.

That doesn’t mean I have no longer any ambitious goals to pursue or dreams to chase. But I also know how to take a break when the chase is over. And that has its rewards, too.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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