Do you know the lonely one?

The front page story yesterday about how loneliness is “lethal” would lead you to think that we just discovered it. The fact is that scientists have known for some time that loneliness and social isolation put people at higher risk for heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. What’s new in the past couple of months is that studies of the genome are yielding information on the specific mechanisms that make it happen.

Because social cohesiveness and cooperation were vitally important in early human history, the brain is rigged to see a lack of strong ties as a signal of danger. Just like any other kind of stressor, that signal puts the body on the alert, even down to the cellular level. In studies of both humans and macaque monkeys, researchers have discovered that social isolation leads to specific genetic changes that turn up inflammatory processes in the body and turn down the production of antibodies against viruses and other pathogens. These genomic adaptations are linked to human evolution, designed for our survival, and are closely related to the body’s stress response.

This heightened fight-or-flight response, activated on a chronic basis, results in increased inflammation and a reduced immune response, leading to significant long-term damage. The mechanism is observed in both directions: a change in gene expression predicts future loneliness, and loneliness predicts future gene expression. In older adults, perceived loneliness leads to an increase of 14% in premature deaths.

Sydney_142It’s worth mentioning that loneliness is not the same as being alone. What matters is whether someone feels connected, and feels satisfied with the connections he or she has. Plenty of people (myself included) relish some solitude on a pretty frequent basis, but that doesn’t equate to loneliness or isolation.

While we often focus on the elderly being socially isolated, loneliness can strike anyone, from the bullied schoolchild to the working adult with social anxiety. In the book “Fear”, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about original fear and original desire. He says original fear started at birth when we were pushed, helpless, out into the world, unsure whether anyone would take care of us. That fear “was born along with the desire to survive. This is original desire.” Original fear and original desire stay with us as we grow, especially the fear that no one will love and care for us. To me, loneliness is one manifestation of that fear.

You may be reading this and thinking, “I’m not lonely – I don’t need to worry about this.” There’s a bigger picture, however, that might concern you. Analysis of social networks by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler has shown that loneliness (like obesity, quitting smoking and other habits and trends) is contagious. So the more time that people in your social network, even those on the fringes of it, spend feeling isolated, the more likely it is to spread to others in the network. Over time, there’s a possibility that more of us start experiencing those feelings.

In a world where connection is constant, but often feels unsatisfying, how can we feel less lonely? How can we help others who are lonely? Forced togetherness is not the answer. Interestingly, some research has shown that a mindfulness based stress reduction program is more successful than social networking or community programs are at reducing feelings of loneliness in the elderly. MBSR has also been shown to turn down the pro-inflammatory processes in the body. The focus on present moment may be guiding attention away from the fear of being alone.

Christakis has said that when you help “the people on the margins of the network, you help not only them but help stabilize the whole network.” It would be wise to consider how we can do more to reach those people and offer them positive social connections. Maybe we can light up the network with love rather than fear.Lights

Making your resolutions reality

Debbie Ford wrote that “New Year’s resolutions often fail because toxic emotions and experiences from our past can sabotage us or keep us stuck with the same old thoughts, patterns and regrets.” It can be scary to look closely at ourselves, to acknowledge some of our fears and emotions. That’s why having a plan for dealing with those negative voices boosts the staying power of your resolutions. Here’s part 2 of stress management as a foundation for resolutions:

Live purposefully — What drives you? What are you passionate about? When you combine  your values with the gifts and strengths you offer to others, that synergy helps you feel engaged, connected, and part of something larger than yourself. If, as Sean Johnson suggests, you ask yourself every day, “What is worth my time, attention, prana, love?”, and then follow that path, your actions will bring you an authentic feeling of happiness, rather than anxiety.

Move more — This advice doesn’t have anything to do with a resolution you might have about exercising more. This is movement for the joy of motion. Just move more, even when you don’t exercise. Walk somewhere that you usually drive – you’ll notice different things! Dance when you’re cleaning the house. Go ice-skating. Take the stairs instead of the elevator at least once a day. Movement is what our bodies crave when we are overloaded with the products of stress. It just feels good to move, so do it!Skaters

Practice compassion — starting with yourself! This is probably the most helpful thing you can do for yourself if you are trying to stick to resolutions. Don’t beat yourself up when things aren’t going as planned. Observe your own struggles, and those of others, with compassion. Try this meditation from Jack Kornfeld: “May I be held in compassion. May I be free from pain and sorrow. May I be at peace.” After you have directed these thoughts toward yourself for a while, turn them to others you know.

Learn something new everyday — Knowledge is power. Are you trying to have a healthier diet? Instead of following the latest fads, read some reputable nutrition literature and educate yourself in a way that will make your actions more successful. Try a different source for the news of the day to get another perspective. Read a book about something you know nothing about — it may be a great distraction from the focusing obsessively on what you are trying to change.Laughing woman

Laugh – then laugh again, and again. The other day I found a little collection of comic strips that I’ve cut out of newspapers. Even though I’ve read them many times, they still make me laugh every time I see them. We laugh for all sorts of reasons – sometimes it’s because things are genuinely funny, other times we laugh because a situation is so absurd, often we laugh just so we don’t cry. Like movement, laughter helps us rid the body of stress hormones. It also helps shift perspective, realize that we are not alone, and take the mind off of problems. Remember that your resolutions are supposed to make your life better, so don’t take them so seriously – resolve to laugh more in 2016!

Out of the holidays, a home

When you think of New York City’s Rockefeller Center at this time of the year, their famous Christmas tree probably comes to mind. It could easily be the most visible holiday tree in the world, because of its size (often close to 100 feet tall), its prominent role in many holiday movies, its presence in New York, and its annual lighting featured on live TV. But its most important role comes after the holidays, when it helps provide affordable housing for one lucky family each year.

Perhaps you’ve heard this story before, but it’s new to me. Every year for the past 9 years, the company who owns Rockefeller Center has donated the lumber from the Christmas tree to Habitat for Humanity for use in building a home. The lumber is marked with the year and “Rockefeller Center tree”. In addition, the company’s employees volunteer their time to work on the build, along with the family who will live in the home, transforming the Christmas tree into a safe and solid shelter. When these families celebrate their own holidays, in new homes far from New York City, they are surrounded by that glorious tree.

Habitat for Humanity estimates that one in four people worldwide lives in poverty housing. For almost 40 years, they have been building, rehabbing and repairing homes for people in need around the world. With the help of 2 million volunteers each year, they have served 6.8 million people in that time period, offering them hope and a chance for stability.

A lack of affordable housing affects people of all ages and races. The MacArthur Foundation is funding $25 million in research to determine what the impacts are, and how best to address the need. Their premise is that “affordable housing may be a ‘platform’ that promotes positive outcomes in education, employment, and physical and mental health…” In other words, if we address the housing issue first, other things may fall into place.

The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote, “If I were to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

So how does a Christmas tree live forever?  When it becomes a home, the platform on which dreams are built.

Wishing you peaceful dreams for the new year…

What will you fight for?

There’s a moment in the film “Fed Up” when Dr. Harvey Karp says that if a foreign nation were “doing this to our children, we would defend our families.” He’s talking about the way food manufacturers market products full of sugar to our kids, leading to addiction that is every bit as powerful as that caused by drugs like cocaine. The potential for a lifetime of health problems caused by the resulting obesity is both real and heartbreaking.

He could just as easily be talking about the gun lobby, though, another instance where big money and weak politicians combine to create open season on our children. The parallels between the two industries, and our lack of political will, hit me as I walked by a neighborhood church last week. On their front lawn was a memorial to victims of gun violence – rows of t-shirts with the names and ages of people in the area who died by guns in 2013.

Would we fight an outsider who was doing this to our children? What do we fight for anymore? I feel like we, as a society, are in a state of learned helplessness. That’s a condition where someone stops looking for a way to help himself, or change a bad situation, because experience has taught that nothing but pain or disappointment comes from trying. We’ve just stopped fighting the way we should be.

Sure, there are people like Tom Harkin in the U.S. Senate who have fought the good fight on school nutrition standards and food marketing to kids, just as there are groups and individuals who have passionately worked for tighter gun laws. But both efforts are uphill battles that seem marked by more defeats than successes. Just this week, there were two or three more school shootings. When the news comes on, we can no longer tell if we’re hearing about yesterday’s shooting or a new one today; we’ve become so inured to such news that hardly anyone is even calling for a change in gun laws.

People on the other side of this debate – for both food and guns – say that it’s about individual responsibility. “Kids need to eat less and exercise more.” “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But we can no longer control everything individually. That just doesn’t work in a modern country where everyone is exposed to huge social networks and an unstoppable media barrage. At this point the only changes that will be of significance are the ones that alter the conditions in which we live, that transform the toxic environment for everyone.

Clarence Darrow said that “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” So let’s stop the helplessness. We all need to stand up and say we’re fed up.

Let the sun shine

I’m smiling at the news that the health benefits of sunshine may outweigh the risk of getting skin cancer from its rays.

Just in time for summer, new research has shown that exposing our skin to sunshine can lower blood pressure, cut our risk of heart attack and stroke, and perhaps help us live longer. High blood pressure is such a common condition (68 million Americans have it) that it leads to 80 times more deaths than skin cancer does. Now it turns out that when our skin gets sun exposure, a compound is released in the blood that actually lowers blood pressure. This effect is separate from the previously known benefits of Vitamin D from the sun.

Today we use the term “sun worship” to describe people who like to sit out in the sun and tan. But ritual worship of sun gods and goddesses goes back for millennia. People have long known and appreciated the life-giving force of the sun. It is the source of all energy and life on earth, through the process of photosynthesis and from the warmth it provides our planet. Sunrise and sunset are magical times of the day, when colors blaze across the sky. In yoga, we do sun salutations to open our practice by welcoming the sun.IMG_2347

So today I salute the sun for these life-giving blessings:

  • Sunlight helps improve mood, and lessens the effects of seasonal depression. As Wilma Rudolph said, “When the sun is shining I can do anything; no mountain is too high, no trouble too difficult to overcome.
  • The sun provides Vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium (keeping bones strong), and may protect against certain types of cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions.
  • The sun powers our hot water heaters, homes, watches, and maybe someday, our cars.
  • The sun gives order to our days, orienting us to time and space.
  • Sunny days get us outdoors, so we get more exercise.
  • The sun stimulates the production of melatonin, which helps us get a good night’s sleep.
  • The sun gives us rainbows.
  • The sun ripens and sweetens the fruit we eat. In the words of Galileo, “The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.”IMG_03521

And isn’t true that when the sun is shining, we feel as if it shines just for us? We bend toward the sun like flowers do, waiting to be opened up, growing just a little bit taller in its light.

Shouldn’t “holiday stress” be an oxymoron?

The emails are starting to arrive. “Holidays Stressing You Out?” says one. “Staying Healthy During the Holidays“, with managing stress as the first topic, reads another. What’s wrong with this picture? The word holiday suggests festivity, recreation, and a vacation mentality. The word stress suggests discomfort, a lack of balance, perhaps even unhappiness. These two words do not belong together.shiny tree

Someone once suggested to me that managing stress is all about managing expectations. While I don’t agree with that 100%, I do think it applies to holiday stress. Much of the stress around holidays comes from what might be considered unreasonable or unnecessary expectations:

  • The expectations we have about  spending time with family and friends.
  • The expectation that we have to give gifts to a specified list of people, and/or the expectation that  we have to spend a certain amount of money.
  • The expectation that we will eat and drink too much.
  • The expectation that we will hold on to traditions, even ones that aren’t serving us anymore.

Another way of putting this?  Too many shoulds, musts, oughts, have tos.

Tips for managing holiday stress are useful, but only as a second step. Like any kind of stress, managing stress around holidays has to start with values clarification, with doing some of the inner work.One of my yoga teachers has observed that for many of us, the default is to do as much as we possibly can, without asking ourselves if it is appropriate, or if we are suffering because of it.

What is values clarification? It could start with questions such as these:

  • What is most meaningful to me about this holiday?
  • What are the things or activities that bring me joy? Which cause me or others to suffer?
  • What do I need in order to be most fully present for the people I love?

When we do this kind of inquiry, we might be able to change our interaction with the holiday for the better. But like coping with any stress, that can’t happen unless we’re willing to make changes, and even rock the boat a little. Doing all the same things in the same old way won’t lead to any significant improvement.

Advice from
Advice from

Once you’ve clarified what’s important to you, and what is going to bring the most happiness to you and those you love, that’s the time to turn to techniques like the planning calendar, keeping up your exercise, and drinking more water. If you start with those things, without stopping to examine your values, you’ll find yourself returning to the default — just using prioritizing and planning as a way to cram more into each day. Even if one of those things you eke out time for is “relaxing”, it might not be as beneficial as it could be if you knew you were living each day in alignment with what’s truly important to you.

Can you wake up each morning during the holiday season knowing that the day will bring you something good? I know of someone who takes a moment before getting out of bed each morning to remember something positive about the day before, and something joyful to look forward to in the day ahead. Stress hormones are typically at a cyclical peak when we first wake up in the morning — so you could do yourself a lot of good by starting each day with a smile instead of a feeling of dread. That’s easier if you’re clear on what you value.

Let’s make “holiday stress” a thing of the past.

Our essence

Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Do you have only the vaguest idea of what that means? Does it matter?

Spirituality is one of those amorphous words that mean different things to different people. That’s part of why it’s a mistake to draw too many conclusions from the new religious affiliation study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. While the number of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion has grown to 20% of adults, 37% of those people say that they are spiritual; and even among those who do affiliate with a religion, many say they are “spiritual, but not religious”.

Spirituality is important for health, which is why it is one of the Six Dimensions of Wellness. Its role is to bring together the other dimensions by providing meaning and purpose to our lives. It is not enough to be physically, intellectually or socially healthy if there isn’t an overarching “world view” supplying significance to our actions. Herbert Benson, in his book, Timeless Healing, discusses the idea that humans might be the only species with a sense of our own mortality. If our brains were not wired to “harbor beliefs” that there is a deeper meaning to life, we could easily be overcome by dread and fear.

More and more research shows that people who are religious or spiritual are healthier and live longer than those who are not. The problem is that most studies are based on religion rather than that vague “spirituality” because it is easier to measure. So it’s somewhat unclear where the health benefits come from – the belief itself, the healthy behaviors required by some religions, or the social support that comes from belonging to the religious community?

Unlike religion, each of us can personally define spirituality. At its core, it is about feeling connected to something larger than ourselves. As we become more spiritual, we focus on others more than just ourselves, and move away from material things as a source of meaning. So how do you tell if and how you are spiritual? One good way is to ask yourself where you are and what you are doing when you have feelings of spirituality. In the Pew study, about 58% of people said that they have a deep connection with nature and the earth. For many, spirituality can be found most easily in nature.

What are your beliefs and values? Are you putting them into practice in your life? For many of us, stress results when there is conflict between our values and our actions. The Dalai Lama says, “I don’t see any difference between religious practice and daily life. One can do without religion, but not without spirituality.” He calls spirituality “the full blossoming of human values that is essential for the good of all.”

Other characteristics of a spiritual nature are compassion for others, having the capacity to love and to forgive, altruism, and the ability to experience joy. Even if you feel that you are lacking in one of these areas, they can all be developed and enhanced through practice. Whether it’s volunteering in your community or engaging in compassion meditation, there is a way to cultivate greater spiritual connection.

The root word of spirituality, spirit, comes from the Latin word for breath. A sense of spirituality may be as natural to us as breathing. We not only need it to live, we need it to live well.

Listening in

We are not just our bodies, but it is important to be aware of what they’re telling us. The more we pay attention to how we feel – in mind, body and spirit – the easier it will be to sense when something is not right. Then we can take steps to bring ourselves back into wellness.

Sometimes conflict arises, though, when we turn to medical professionals who have a one-size-fits-all approach to healing. Too often, that approach involves a prescription for medication as a first step rather than a second or third. Even though we might have doubts about the medication, sometimes we don’t speak up about them.

Dr. Herbert Benson, an authority on mind-body approaches, writes in his book, Timeless Healing, that “…when it comes to the medical profession, we are often intimidated or scared by the subject matter and we disregard our true feelings and reactions, even though brain research tells us that emotions are critically important decision-makers in our minds/bodies.”

Benson believes that physicians underestimate people’s desire and ability to make lifestyle changes, or to try other approaches that don’t involve drugs. He says, “Trust your instincts, and trust the doctor who values your impressions and assessments.” In other words, find the doctor who starts from the premise that you know your body best.

Of course, to know your body best means that you have to pay attention to it. Some of us are very in tune with the nuances of our bodies; others tend to be dissociated. But there are a number of mindfulness practices that help us become more aware.

  • Body scan – this practice involves bringing your attention to each body part, one at a time, starting say, at your left toe, and working your way up. The attention is passive observation only, without judgment.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – this practice has you tense and tighten parts of your body one at a time, then relax them. It helps bring awareness to the difference in sensation between tension and relaxation.
  • Present moment awareness – by sitting quietly and focusing on the breath, we can often become aware of what kind of body sensations are connected to certain thoughts. If you find your mind drifting to something troubling, you may realize the place in your body that reacts with tension to that thought.

It is estimated that 70%-80% of all healthcare visits are stress-related or stress-induced. It makes sense to use lifestyle change rather than medication to treat many of them. We can start by becoming more alert to the interaction of mind and body, and by treating ourselves with compassion. I sometimes practice a compassion meditation from Frank Jude Boccio (found in Yoga Journal magazine) that includes the line, “May I hold myself with softness and care.” There is something about that statement that always reminds me of my innate value, and the need to treat myself well.

Hippocrates said, “The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.”  Learning to tune into our bodies and trust in that force would make us all better healthcare consumers and custodians of the awesome gift we have been given.

My Perfect Day

The warm weather this week has everyone excited. Everywhere I go, people have something to say about it (80 degrees in March!) and a smile on their faces when they talk about it. When I wake up in the morning now, I hear the birds chirping through my open window, indicating another glorious day. I get out of bed with a lightness that is missing in the cold, dark days of winter.

All of that leads me to think about my perfect day. This is a tool that I use with students as a starting point to figuring out their values. If you can make a list of things that constitute a good day for you, it gives you an idea of what is most important to you. What I’ve seen this week is that warm, sunny weather is very valuable to me!

Here are some other things that would make up a perfect (or very good) day:

  • Time spent with friends or family. Whether I reach out to someone, or they make contact with me, it feels good to talk (in person or on the phone) with someone I’ve known a long time. It is a reminder that I have a support system out there.
  • A really yummy meal that isn’t too unhealthy. I love to cook and I love to eat, so this is a significant part of the day. Having healthy food is a bonus because I can feel both satisfied and virtuous about the meal.
  • Some work to do, but not too much. I like the challenge of work and feeling like I make a contribution to something bigger than myself. On the other hand, I like to have choices about how I spend my time.
  • Some physical activity that I enjoy. There’s that good feeling of exhaustion that comes with working my body hard, but not too hard. I don’t need to run a marathon, but I like to get out and move. Running, hiking or yoga all fit the bill.
  • A good book to read. I’ve written before about the important role books have played in my life, along with curiosity and learning. Whether I’m reading novels or non-fiction, I always take something from the books I read.
  • Words of love or encouragement. This could be my kids saying, “I love you, Mom”; a student saying he was helped by my class; a co-worker praising my work; or even a stranger complimenting me on what I’m wearing. Affirmation always brightens my day.
  • Physical contact with someone I love. The skin is the body’s largest organ, and the sense of touch an important way to communicate. Hugs and kisses are a necessity on a perfect day!

When I look at my list of “perfect day” requirements, I see that they correspond very closely to the six dimensions of wellnessPhysical (the exercise and eating); Social (time spent with friends); Emotional (physical contact and words of love); Intellectual (reading); Occupational (working a little bit); and Spiritual (appreciating that warm, sunny day with the birds chirping). Without consciously thinking about it, my desires are reflecting my core values.

Do we know the perfect day when we are living it, or does it exist only in retrospect? Can we wake up every morning with the desire to live it well?

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, Do not say, ‘It is morning,’ and dismiss it with a name of yesterday. See it for the first time as a newborn child that has no name.”

Natural Wonders

Sitting at my desk this week, all I hear is the sound of birds chirping, singing and calling to each other. The distant sounds of the highway fade away to the background. Even the neighborhood dogs can’t compete with the birds in springtime.

I was so taken with the bird sounds a few days ago that I found a web site where you can click on the name of the bird and hear a recording of its song. Check it out at

Relaxing sounds can soothe people, lower our heart rates and stimulate production of endorphins. Of course “relaxing” is in the ear of the beholder; but for me, the sounds of the birds are in that category. There is a reason why so many recordings of guided meditations tend to focus on images of nature, such as waterfalls, mountains, beaches and forests. The natural world has the capacity to nurture us, make us feel calm and supported, even improve our sleep. But thinking about connecting with nature leads to the unfortunate fact that many of us just don’t spend enough time outdoors.

Most alarming is the fact that children don’t spend nearly as much time outdoors as they used to, in fact only half as much time as they did twenty years ago. Very few play outside on their own, yet research shows that unstructured free play in the outdoors has many benefits to them – ranging from doing better in school, to being more cooperative, to just being healthier overall.

Something as simple as a view of nature helps to reduce stress in children who are highly stressed, and daily proximity to nature can help children focus, even reducing symptoms of attention deficit disorder. Playing in nature also serves the important purpose of giving children the opportunity to take appropriate risks, solve problems and develop creativity, which can lead to enhanced self-esteem.

So many benefits! Yet finding the time, a safe space, adults who are comfortable enough in nature to guide children – all are barriers. Luckily, a few organizations are working to make sure that the next generation has a taste for nature:

  • The Children & Nature Network, whose mission aims to “give every child in every community a wide range of opportunities to experience nature directly”, has tips on their web site for starting your own family nature club, along with other ideas.
  •  The No Child Left Inside Coalition is an advocacy group with almost 2,000 member organizations from across the country that seeks to raise awareness in Congress and among the public of the need for more environmental education in schools. The coalition was formed after many programs were cut in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act.

As Thoreau once wrote, “We need the tonic of wildness … We can never have enough of nature.”