Be a child genius

Child in shark costume with sunglasses on

Aldous Huxley once said, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age which means never losing your enthusiasm.”

I would bet that many of us right now have lost some of our enthusiasm for life. Living in lockdown, not seeing friends and family, and filling our days with work, walks, books and chores without anything to look forward to is tough.

So how do we reignite joy and enthusiasm in our lives? Here are some thoughts, but I’m hoping everyone will leave a comment to help us all through this difficult time.

  1. Spend time with a child. Children help us see the world from a fresh perspective.
  2. Make a goal to try one new thing this week, whether it’s making a new dish, starting a new project, or learning a new hobby. When we learn new skills or focus on something fresh, our enthusiasm naturally emerges.
  3. Be curious and ask questions. The act of asking questions stimulates interest and enthusiasm. You can even ask questions of yourself like, “What do I want?”, “What am I grateful for”, or “What’s missing in my life?”
  4. Do something silly and that makes you laugh.
  5. Make a list of everything you love to do, and then take 15 minutes and do one of them a day.
  6. Plan a trip for when this is all over. It doesn’t have to be a big trip, maybe just an overnight getaway, but it will give you something to look forward to.

This week’s #HappyAct is to rediscover your zest for life. We can all be child geniuses. Now it’s your turn—what are your ideas?

Walk a labyrinth

Me at the Burlington labyrinth

A few months ago, I headed out for my regular lunchtime walk in a foul mood. Something happened earlier that morning and it was still bugging me. Just a stupid misunderstanding, but you know what it’s like when you replay it over and over in your head. Despite saying to myself, it’s stupid, let it go, I couldn’t.

I walked to Central Park in Burlington and to my left at the entrance of the park, there was a labyrinth. I stopped and read the plaque.

It said the Burlington Central Park Labyrinth was patterned after the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France that dates back to 1200. It is one of the few permanent labyrinths in Canada that is installed in a public place and is wheelchair accessible.

A labyrinth is a design marvel, an ancient, geometric pattern with a single path that leads into the centre. This labyrinth was a circle, the symbol of healing, unity and wholeness. It is meant to be an oasis for your mind, body and soul, and walking a labyrinth can calm the mind and restore balance.

I thought I might as well give it a whirl.

I started to walk the circular paths, and found myself at first focusing closely on each step, and the lines and patterns beneath me. As I continued to walk, I started focusing more on the journey ahead and my final destination. With each step, my mind began to free. I encountered unexpected twists and turns and just when I thought I knew the path to the centre, the path changed.

I became aware that I could take control at any time, by simply stepping outside the winding circle and give up altogether or walk directly to my final destination, but as I continued to walk, I discovered a strong desire to complete the labyrinth and a strange sense of elation and accomplishment when I did.

I stood in the centre and looked up. The weight on my heart and mind was gone.

This week’s #HappyAct is to walk a labyrinth and clear your mind and soul. Need help finding one? Check out this worldwide labyrinth locator. There are literally hundreds in Canada, many located in churches.

Burlington labyrinth
Burlington labyrinth

Beautiful music for a crazy world

For the past three weeks, I’ve been listening to classical music in the car. I find when I’m in Toronto, I naturally gravitate to classical. It’s almost as if my brain seeks a soothing balm to the incessant noise and traffic, even though the roads and city neighbourhoods were quite blissfully quiet during this recent trip during lockdown.

I was listening to Classical 96.3 whose tagline right now is “Beautiful music for a crazy world” (I thought this was hilarious). I think we all need more beautiful music for a crazy world and there is no music more beautiful than classical.

My love for classical music started in my childhood. My Dad loved jazz, my brother classic rock, but it was Mom who introduced me to classical. Then in high school, I played the flute in my high school and local community concert band, where I developed a new appreciation for some of the great classical compositions as a musician. I also have to thank the parents of one of my friends, Jim and Audrey McMurray for continuing this love affair. I have many fond memories of having a glass of wine before dinner at their cottage, with the sounds of classical music floating in the air alongside the lake breezes and sparkling water.

While I was driving into Toronto, Classical 96.3 played this beautiful composition called “And the Waltz Goes On” by none other than Sir Anthony Hopkins. Even though he is known as an Oscar-winning actor, he has been composing music for the past 50 years and in 2011, released his first classical album called “Composer”.

I loved watching this video clip of Andre Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra perform it. Anthony Hopkins is in the audience, and you see the emotion on his face as these brilliant musicians bring his masterpiece to life. He tears up at one point. The musicians are so expressive, but it is the audience who steal the show. You can see at first their anticipation for what is to come, then the joy and delight on their faces as the music sweeps them away, literally as they begin swaying in the aisles and dancing in their seats. It is so much fun to watch and even more moving to listen to.

I wish I could instil an appreciation for classical music in my children. Believe me, I’ve tried. Perhaps some day, but for now, I’m happy in finding at least my own solace in beautiful music for a crazy world.

Living in a world of 24/7 news

CP24 news page

Kamala Harris. Larry King. Amanda Gorman. Julie Payette. Alexei Navalny.

These names are now as familiar to me as my own family’s. That’s because for the past two weeks, I’ve become a news junkie, hooked on CP24 and CNN.

Two weeks ago, I drove to the city to live with Dave’s Dad to help him out for a bit. John lives on his own so the television and 24-hour news shows are his constant companion.

Until now, my strategy when it came to coping with Covid and the barrage of news was to go cold turkey. It always wasn’t that way.

When Covid first hit, like the rest of the world, I became glued to the television and internet to witness the unbelievable events unfolding from China. I’ll never forget seeing the first images of Chinese officials in white hazmat suits, disinfecting the streets of Wuhan and the abandoned scenes of a city in full lockdown. It seemed impossible, like something out of a science fiction novel or movie script.

I continued watching the news as the virus spread, partly out of necessity for my work. But as the months went on, increasingly I found the only way to stay positive was to disconnect entirely from the constant onslaught of news. From time to time, I’d check my favourite websites or watch the evening news to hear the latest Covid numbers and what was happening around the world.

Now for the past two weeks, I’ve been watching TV news non-stop. With all the news on the Presidential inauguration in the States, the Capitol riots, and Covid-19, it’s been an interesting time to be dialled in to current events.

This is what I’ve learned about how to live in a world of 24/7news:

  • Strategy #1: Don’t watch the news and just focus on daily living. A key aspect of positive mental health is to only focus on factors under your control. Going cold turkey forces you to do that and shelters you from the fear and anxiety of constant bad news. I’ve found this strategy highly effective.
  • Strategy #2: Watch the nightly news or limited amounts of news. One thing mental health experts told us early on during the pandemic was to not watch the news before going to bed. I found when I did this, it was like a black cloak had been draped over me and had a severe negative impact on my mental health. I stopped watching the news before going to bed and eventually stopped watching news altogether.
  • Strategy #3: Become a news junkie. Surprisingly, I have found this also to be an effective strategy. It’s been a very interesting time in the world, and I’ve enjoyed being able to hear the commentary, in-depth coverage and analysis during a key news cycle. I can recite what the TSX is at, oil prices, the dollar, global, U.S. and Canadian COVID numbers and trends, and which vaccines are approved, delayed and being rolled out. I’ve found that when you are inundated with information, it becomes much less scary. It’s like Toronto traffic (when there isn’t a pandemic). If you need to only drive in it from time to time, it can be as scary as hell, but live in it every day, and you begin to zone out and not even notice the craziness of it all. There’s also a certain comfort in being well-informed.

I’ve also developed a newfound respect for reporters in these times. I tip my hat to the news people who have worked long hours and had to “be on” 24/7 this past year without the luxury of being able to take a break. On the other hand, there are some news personalities like Don Lemon on CNN that need to go.

I know when I go home, I will go cold turkey again, and that’s just fine by me. I’m looking forward to some peace and quiet and a break from the idiot box. The most important thing is to be tuned in to your mental health and do what you need to do to stay positive until Covid is yesterday’s news.

Time to sign off for another week. Good night, and good luck.

The year in review: my favourite happy acts from the year of COVID

Two girls graduating

Each year at this time, I select my top ten favourite blog posts for my annual year in review.

I was a bit worried this year that pickings would be slim. Truth be told blogging about happiness during a global pandemic is a bit of a tough slog. With little prospects for fun excursions, and at times struggling with my own mental and physical health, there were many weeks when I wondered what simple act could I share this week to make the world a happier place?

But as I re-read the posts two things hit home. You can feel moments of happiness and gratitude at the most unexpected times and by doing the simplest of acts.

The other realization was happiness cannot be viewed in isolation. We are vastly impacted by events happening around us. My blog this past year has been as much a reflection and chronicle of the times as anything else.

Here were my favourite happy acts from a year that will go down in the history books as a year to remember:

There you have it. Another year under the bridge, another year of happy acts. Here’s to a happier 2021 for us all.

Let the sun shine in

While November is often thought of as a drab and dreary month, there is one redeeming grace. As a blanket of leaves forms on the ground, light floods into spaces that were previously dark or shadowed from canopies.

Let there be light. We need more light right now.

The psychological benefits of light are well-known. Increased hours of sunlight heighten the brain’s production of serotonin, which improves mood, alertness, productivity, sleep and mental wellbeing.  

Recently, we redecorated our sunroom. We love how the light fills the room. It is a very happy room in our house. But you don’t need to redecorate your house to find more light. Here are some simple things you can do to take advantage of the limited light in the darker winter months:

  • Go for a walk each day at lunch or rearrange your schedule to do at least some form of physical activity outside each day in daylight
  • Change your window coverings or clean your windows to let in more light. Using mirrors or rearranging your furniture can also result in more indoor light.
  • COVID is a perfect excuse to keep extending patio season. Visit a local brewery and have a pint outdoors or have your morning coffee bundled up on the front porch. On Saturday, we watched the sun go down sitting on a hay bale in front of a fire at Slake brewery, a new microbrewery in Prince Edward County. It was spectacular.
  • If you can, move your workspace to a place by the window or with better light. If no one is home, I often will dial into meetings from my sunroom.
  • Take Vitamin D during the winter months if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or try a light therapy lamp.

This week’s #HappyAct is to let the sun shine in and keep smiling.

Living a life of no regrets

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other night about regrets and the impact they have on our lives and relationships.

Regret is a negative emotion, but it can have positive outcomes. It can give us insight and help us make sense of the world and our place in it, and impel us to make positive changes in our lives.

Left to fester, however, regret can make us doubt our decisions and path in life, and create a devalued sense of self-worth. It may lead to us withdrawing within ourselves and to feelings of unhappiness and depression.

We can regret actions we’ve taken, or actions we didn’t have the courage to take.

It was a heartfelt conversation, and my friend and I learned this the other night about dealing with regret:

  • First, it’s never too late. It’s never too late to say I’m sorry, to reach out, to take action.
  • Accept that sometimes life has its own plan and your path is where it decides to take you.
  • When it comes to regret and relationships, know that the other person’s perception of what happened may be completely different than yours.
  • Forgive yourself, forgive others and move on. We are all human, we make mistakes.

No one lives a life of no regrets. If someone says they have no regrets, they’re lying. But hopefully our regrets are few and we’ve learned from them.

Watch your thoughts

Lao Tzu quote on thoughts

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny”—Lao Tzu 

For the better part of 2020, many of us have been alone with our thoughts, and understandably, those thoughts have been more dark, troubled and worrisome.

I think this quote in large part explains what is happening in the United States right now. Alone with their thoughts, people have lashed out and acted out. It makes me wonder about America’s destiny. I truly believe they are at a turning point in their history.

Every event of historical significance has begun with a thought or difference in thoughts: the American civil war, Aryan supremacy and the Holocaust, communism.

Our thoughts can be a friend, giving us hope, comfort and fortitude, and urging us to do and act better.

Or they can be our enemy, closing our ears and hearts to differing opinions and causing us to act in shameful ways.

We may feel like the world is out of control right now. But we always have control of our thoughts.

Running is my therapy

Meme from movie Elf, I just like to run
Special guest blog by Mathew Smith
I stumbled upon an activity last summer that made me very happy.
Pound, pound, pound. My feet slammed against the cement sidewalk with a force they haven’t exerted in decades. I was running, actually running!
I hadn’t felt like this since I was a kid. That feeling of speed and energy. It made me smile, one of those you-can’t-help-but-smile smile, a natural smile from that primitive part of the brain. I felt alive! I felt strong! I felt like giant breaths of air were coming into my lungs and going right to my legs bringing them the energy and oxygen they needed to keep pumping.
I turned another corner and had to lean into it–I was running that fast. I could actually feel the wind whip by my face, and the sidewalk was whizzing by. It was exhilarating.
I got home shining in sweat, legs wobbly, gasping for air…no I was not near death, I was feeling better than I’d felt in years. Who knew jogging could do that?
How did someone like me start running?
I was searching for answers as to why I felt so tired, uninspired, and unmotivated all the time. I happen to run, forgive the pun, across a book titled Running Is My Therapy by Scott Douglas. What caught my interest was that Scott’s stories were so relatable. He was using running as a way to boost his energy, feel motivated in life, and ease his mental ups and downs.
Even though I am not an athlete at all I was drawn to the idea of running. Then the science behind it closed the deal for me. There were actual details, facts, studies on how the brain reacts to running. It turns out running does a whole bunch of great things for the brain, your mood, and your energy level. Some scientists claim it is better than any antidepressant.
It is a well-known fact that exercise is great for the body. Running is one of those great ‘cardio’ gems. It gets blood flowing, really flowing for the half-hour or hour you run. But, as an added bonus your body keeps burning calories and moving blood around for hours afterward. This is especially good for the brain.
There is also something special about running compared to other cardio exercises like biking. It seems to harken back to our early years living on the savannah, hunting over long distances to stay alive. Our ancient ancestors were designed to be able to run long distances and those who could survived and past on their running genes.
Studies have found that something happens to the brain when you run, that it almost disconnects with your body,  to be able to deal with the pain and strain your muscles endure. Sounds bad, but, it turns out this is a great thing. You get a big dose of endorphins, which make you feel great, and the break from mind and body clears your head. It’s almost like your brain goes on autopilot as all the energy you have goes into running. Your brain takes a breather. Which is great if you are someone who is anxious, dwells on problems, or just has a brain that feels like it won’t stop.
Then there are the social aspects. I found a running club in town that met two times a week. It was organized by The Running Room store and they touted it as inclusive to everyone. Hmm, I was a bit skeptical. I was picturing twenty gazelle type runners wearing those bright one-piece spandex suits and mirrored sunglasses talking about marathons and half-marathons. I called the store and asked about the running club–was it actually free? As a first time runner would I be okay?
I was told it was free (yippee). I was told there were plenty of first-timers, even non-runners (walkers they are called), and there would be a group I would fit into. I guess I was going to find out on Sunday morning if this was the crowd for me.
Saturday night, 2 am, I found myself driving home a couple of guys I had went out with that night. They were pretty drunk and planning on sleep their hangovers off in the morning, while I knew I had to get up early and make my way back downtown to go running. When the alarm clock went off five hours later I was feeling good.
As I drove to Running Club I recalled the previous night, having a beer with the guys talking about life. They had complained about their jobs and the struggles to make ends meet. They rehashed old memories, their glory days of years past (decades past in most cases). They didn’t mention any future plans, goals, or anything like that. To them, it was like life was something to endure.
The exact opposite atmosphere almost smothers me as I walk in the door of the Running Room. Even though it is eight am on a Sunday morning the room is buzzing with energy. Positive energy. There are half a dozen older ladies huddled by the door in their sweatpants and bright white running shoes. They are gabbing and laughing and saying, ‘good morning’ to all that enter. I’m instantly feeling better. Yes, there are a few one-piece spandex suited gazelles in the room, but, for the most part the crowd is middle-aged non-athletic looking people.
I actually spot a guy I know from my job. I’m kind of surprised to see him because he doesn’t strike me as a ‘runner’. I have only seen him in a chef uniform as he teaches in the culinary arts program at the college. He says, ‘Hi, are you part of the running club?”. I tell him this is my first time. He says this is his first time at this running club. He is with a friend and looking to do the ten-kilometre run. Then he is meeting someone about a second job because the summer is quiet for him and he hates to be bored. Multiple jobs and ten km runs, um, overachiever club?! This makes me worry. Is everyone here like this? Am I going to fit in?
I join a group and go for a run and soon realize something funny happens when you run with people. Your mind starts to relax and you feel more open. It may be that you are not face to face with someone, so it makes it easier to talk, or it could be that you feel good and just want to chat? So, I chat. I found it interesting to hear tidbits of the other runner’s lives because the crowd was so diverse. A mixed bag of people; a computer guy, a student/waitress, a teacher, a chemical engineer, a retired couple.
Our leader that day, Chris, is working on a Master’s degree in poetry. A poet who runs?! I was quickly learning that runners are not the typical athletic type. They come in all shapes and sizes. I might actually fit in here. It’s easy to talk to these people and I quickly feel part of the group. There was so much positive chatter about the future; everything from running goals to life goals. These were happy, motivated people. This was a great atmosphere for sparking happiness.
So what we have is an activity that has scientifically proved health benefits, an uplifting crowd of followers, little cost, and is for everyone under the sun? Who can say no to that? Your #HappyAct this week is to take a step, or many, towards those happy feelings that come with a jog.
Mathew Smith | You can meet up with Mathew every Sunday morning at 8am at the Running Room on Princess St. once the Covid-19 restrictions allow the Running Club to start up again.

 

Play with happiness

Each one of us is struggling these days to stay motivated, find comfort, and stay happy during COVID-19.

On Friday, I participated in a group counselling session offered by my company. The theme of the discussion was dealing with self-isolation. It was interesting to hear how COVID-19 was affecting people in different ways and the strategies people were using to cope with self-isolation. If you’re as lucky as I am to have an employer who is proactively offering opportunities to take care of your mental health, I highly encourage you to take advantage of them.

If you don’t, the good news is there are many wonderful resources online to tap into. Last week, I shared Yale’s online happiness course. Another great resource is the Conference Board of Canada who has been producing short videos on mental health.

Here’s one to watch from Dr. Bill Howatt, Chief of Research and Productivity on the PLAY model to happiness. Dr. Howatt shares that while half of our happiness is genetic disposition, the other half we can directly influence through PLAY:

  • Finding something you’re Passionate about
  • Living in the moment
  • Finding one Awesome thing each day
  • And finally, Laugh, be silly, vulnerable and laugh often

Certainly COVID-19 has forced us to live in the moment, but the others may be a tall order these days. It’s still great advice at any time.

This week’s #HappyAct is to be proactive in taking care of your mental health and PLAY.