The Science of Happiness part 4: the twenty minute rule

Sitting infographic

I firmly believe the greatest risk to my physical and mental health right now is the amount I sit.

The negative health effects of sitting have been known for some time, but stole headlines a few years ago when James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic coined the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” and said “the chair is out to kill us” in an interview with the LA Times.

It’s estimated that in North America, half of our waking hours are spent sitting down. “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death,” says Levine.

The harmful physical effects of sitting are well known. Sitting or lying down for too long increases your risk of obesity, chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers and can shorten your life span.

What was even more startling as I researched this was learning that getting the recommended 30-60 minutes of exercise a day won’t help. You can’t offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise.

Here’s the science behind it. Metabolism slows down 90 percent after 30 minutes of sitting. The enzymes that move the bad fat from your arteries to your muscles, where it can get burned off, slow down. The muscles in your lower body are turned off. After two hours, good cholesterol drops 20 percent.

And that’s only half of it. Sitting too much also has an impact on your mental health.

Dr. Alan Schlechter, a professor on the science of happiness at New York University says the way we tell our brain to grow is to move. We are meant to move, and when we sit down for more than 20 minutes, our body and brains shut down.

There is one simple solution to fighting the chair. Get up and move every twenty minutes.

As one expert said, “Just getting up for five minutes is going to get things going again. These things are so simple they’re almost stupid.”

This week, I’m taking up my armrests and fighting the chair in the interests of my own physical and mental health. I’m going to start booking walking meetings at work, move around more, take the stairs, watch less TV at night and get up and move every 20 minutes. Who’s with me?

The neuroscience of happiness

happy brain

I was sitting in my doctor’s office last week reading a National Geographic article on empathy and the brain. It told the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who survived an explosion in 1848 that drove an iron rod through his left frontal lobe. Those who knew him described him before the accident as friendly and respectful. After the accident he was uncaring and indifferent. It’s a fascinating read on why people commit heinous crimes stemming from a common thread of having a lack of remorse and empathy for others caused by a deficiency in the neuroscience of the brain.

For centuries, the brain has been a mystery to the medical profession and researchers. But we have learned quite a bit about the chemicals our brain produces and how they impact emotions and happiness. Here are a few interesting facts.

  • Dopamine is the chemical that spurs you to action when you want something. The anticipation of the reward releases dopamine which creates energy for you to achieve your goal. One easy way to release dopamine is to always be setting goals before new ones are achieved.
  • Endorphins are the chemicals associated with the fight or flight response and give you the ability to power through situations. You often hear of professional athletes achieving endorphin highs as they train, but you don’t need to push your body to the max to release endorphins in a positive way. Laughing and stretching can release endorphins, acupuncture, and even simple things like eating chocolate, spicy foods or smelling vanilla and lavender.
  • Oxytocin has been referred to as the “cuddle chemical”. It’s released when you experience a closeness or feeling of trust or intimacy. Giving hugs, petting dogs, and simply just socializing with others can release oxytocin.

This week’s #HappyAct is to think how you can get the neuroscience of your brain working for your happiness.

Seven habits of highly unhappy people

happy thoughts

In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shared how having deliberate and mindful habits can help you be successful in business.

So to with happiness.  Psychologists who study happiness say that genetics and life circumstances only account for about 50% of a person’s happiness. The other 50% is driven from attitudes and habits.

Sometimes it’s easier to recognize what makes you unhappy than happy. Here are seven habits to avoid or to watch for to help you be more happy:

  1. Being pessimistic. Nobody likes a pessimist. What’s worse, pessimism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think the glass is half full, it will be.
  2. Focusing too much on yourself and not on others. If you think you are the only one with problems in the world, think again. Thinking and doing things for others will help you take your mind off your own problems and make you feel good about yourself.
  3. Seeing yourself as a victim. This kind of goes hand in hand with #1. You are in control of your own destiny. Don’t blame others if things go wrong.
  4. Not having goals. If you don’t have goals, you’re at risk of stagnating. Even if it’s just to learn a new recipe or getting more exercise, having a goal will give you purpose and make you feel good when you achieve it
  5. Focusing only on the future and forgetting about today. The happiest people find joy in life’s little moments and the gifts of each day.
  6. Overreacting or stressing out over little things. This is a tough one if you are prone to stress or anxiety, but if you can find ways to roll with life’s challenges, you will be more balanced and happy.
  7. Retreating into yourself. It’s great to spend time alone, but studies show interacting with people and having positive relationships are critical to happiness.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

This week’s #HappyAct is to avoid these seven unhappy habits. Have a happy week.

Measuring our Gross National Happiness

Bhutanese childrenWhat if, instead of measuring our Gross National Product, we measured our Gross National Happiness?

It’s not as crazy a concept as you think. In fact, there is one country that has made their Gross National Happiness a priority. Bhutan has been measuring its Gross National Happiness since 1972. The GNH is based on the philosophy that if the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist.

The GNH of Bhutan is based on four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation and nine domains to ensure the happiness of its citizens: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

A person is considered happy if they have sufficiency in six of the nine domains.

Here are a few interesting facts from the Bhutan GNH:

  • The happiest people by occupation in Bhutan include civil servants and monks.
  • Interestingly, the unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force.
  • Unmarried people and young people are among the happiest.
  • Men tend to be happier than women

The 2015 GNH survey showed an increase from the 2015 in their overall GNH from 0.743 to 0.756 with 43.4 of the Bhutanese people being deeply or extensively happy, and 91.2% showing sufficiency in at least half of the domains.

I’m not sure I’m willing to leave my corporate job to become a monk, but there are many things we can learn from Bhutan’s GNH.

First, we need to put a priority on the happiness of people. As a nation, we need to measure how well we are doing at creating the right conditions for our citizens to be happy. And finally, North Americans need to relinquish our obsession with work and material things and go back to the basics. Things like spiritual wellbeing, being physically active and healthy, and developing strong communities.

Tomorrow, March 20th is the International Day of Happiness. This week’s #HappyAct is to measure your own GNH. Of the nine domains Bhutan measures, how do you score? Leave a comment.