10 ways of well-being

by Listener Archive / 06 August, 2011
In a happy new development, the scientific study of human well-being is beginning to move beyond what has come to be known as mere “Happyology”. One of the best-known pioneers of positive psychology, Professor Martin Seligman, last month released his new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Seligman insists he is not recanting the approach that has made him a world-renowned expert on optimism, but he now regrets the title of his best-selling 2002 book Authentic Happiness. Telling reporters he was naive in the past to think well-being was based only on mood, the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania says we need to be much clearer about what he calls the true human desiderata.
“What humans want is not just happiness,” he told Psychologies magazine, as even depressed people can flourish. “I think you can be depressed and flourish, I think you can have cancer and flourish, I think you can be divorced and flourish.”

What’s important, he says, drawing on new research from the University of Cambridge, are things like our relationships with others and, critically, our sense that we are accomplishing something worthwhile. This explains why couples go on having children even though the data clearly shows parents are less happy than childless couples. It explains why billionaires desperately crave more money even when they don’t need it to achieve the lifestyle they want.

According to Seligman, the sense of accomplishment is part of what the ancient Greeks knew as eudaimonia – a feeling of well-being or flourishing. Seligman, who as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998 first began promoting the idea that psychology should be about more than just treating depression and should actively create better mental health, has now coined his own acronym, Perma, to define the five crucial elements of well-being.

Perma stands for positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being totally absorbed in task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

So, how to put into practice here the kinds of ideas that Seligman and others are now using to increase levels of resilience and positive emotion?

It turns out one of the big tricks to feeling good is noticing the good things that happen to us. University of Auckland senior lecturer in psychological medicine Dr Tony Fernando has drawn on these insights in helping patients at the sleep clinic he runs in private practice, as stress and anxiety can be one reason patients have trouble sleeping.

He has a little trick to demonstrate how our radar often misses positive emotions. He asks about the last time you felt really angry. Chances are you can remember the occasion very clearly, with plenty of details on who said what and how you felt. In fact, you’re probably getting angry again just thinking about it.

But when was the last time you felt truly inspired? It will probably take you a little longer to recall this, and the details may be fuzzier.

Fernando believes both gratitude and connection to other people are sure-fire paths to greater daily contentment. Developing awareness of gratitude, say through a regular gratitude diary, can help sensitise our radar to the many events that are already making us happy. For families who eat together, he suggests making dinner time a regular time to list the things we were grateful for in our day.

And although evolution has equipped us with super-alertness to negative events, it has also given us the ability to connect with others as a way to seek comfort. “We are social creatures. Human connectedness is one of the highest forms of happiness.”

But there’s a snag. One obstacle to really connecting with others is the amount of time we spend looking down on or up to people.

“Most of us think in hierarchies. We drive past someone and think their car isn’t as nice as mine, or they aren’t as well dressed. It makes you feel good temporarily because of feelings of power and rank.

“But in fact if you feel more connected to everyone, even the homeless guy, and do as much as you can to relate to the suffering of others, you actually engender positive feelings.”

The idea has been around for millennia as the Golden Rule: you should treat others as you would like others to treat you. “I do not see it as a spiritual principle but more a very humane principle. It goes back to the profound truth that we are all connected, and that the more connected you feel toward other people and other beings, the happier you become.”

The power of human connection is why research has found that volunteering to help others is a force for personal well-being. Helping a friend, doing a favour – “it’s a spiral upwards. They feel better and they help you in return.

“Being selfish is a sure-fire way to feel unhappy. If you focus on yourself and do things just for yourself, you may think it will make you happy, but it’s very short term. Yes, you may have these nice possessions you have gained, but [that counts for little if] people don’t like you and you don’t like people. Part of our core nature is to connect.”

1. Pay off debt

If you’re losing sleep because of debt, then make a plan to get on top of it, because the more control you have over your finances, the more choices you have. Conversely, the more debt you have, the fewer choices you have. Just ask Greece.

Like weight loss, repaying debt is worth the short-term deprivation for the long-term benefit, and also like weight loss, it is helpful to consider the whole exercise as beneficial for your future, rather than as punishment for your past.

So, how do you do it? First, if you are in debt, don’t collect more of it. Step away from the credit card.

Second, reduce your spending expectations. Dun & Bradstreet’s latest survey shows Kiwis are doing just that, with 27% expecting to hold off making a major purchase in the latter part of this year, up 5% from expectations expressed earlier this year.

Third, make those expectations a reality: spend no more than you earn. To help you do that, don’t compare your spending or lifestyle with that of friends or family members who earn more than you do. This is about you and your household, not someone else.

Fourth, ensure you are getting the best deal on interest rates, which may mean amalgamating debt. Talk to your bank.

Fifth, if any lump sums come your way, use them to reduce your debt and enjoy the difference this makes.

Finally, take pleasure in watching your interest payments go down each fortnight, even if the amount seems at first to be infinitesimally small. Every cent you are not paying to the bank or another lender is one more for you. Set small objectives and congratulate yourself (but not by spending) each time you reach a milestone. The effort is worth it. So are you.

– Joanne Black

2. Grow some daphne

There’s a nasty rumour that gardening is just outdoor housework. However, seasoned gardeners know all about the sublime therapy of winter gardening – gentle exercise in the crisp fresh air, with a clear palette of bare earth perfect for dreaming up new planting schemes.

And it’s not necessary even to have a garden to get the uplifting benefits of midwinter’s surprising treasures. Living Earth sales and marketing manager Heather Tait, a well-known gardening guru, says this is a great time for aromatherapy – using plants with a heavenly scent, many of which can be brought indoors in their pots, or can scent a room with just a few sprigs or branches. Try daphne; wintersweet; witchhazel; the early flowered Viburnum burkwoodii; slow-maturing (but worth waiting for) Michelia doltsopa, which covers itself with waxy white cinnamon-scented blooms; potted up daffodils and earlicheer jonquils; even dwarf cyclamen species emit a subtle aroma.

For the more intrepid and discerning gardener, scented Christmas box, Sarcococca confusa, is a sweetly scented evergreen that proves its worth in dry shade, and Tait’s favourite, the strikingly spiky Mahonia japonica, has tiny yellow flowers that smell like honey.

For those who do have a bit of dirt out the back, Tait recommends regular visits. “It’s my experience that venturing outside, cup of tea in hand, to view the garden is a restful experience, helping connect the busy everyday activity with a grounding sense of place.”

The secret of winter garden therapy is partly delayed gratification – getting “a sneak-peek” of the glories to come as branches develop buds, she says. It’s also the joy of what’s still there, like the elegant architecture of bare branches and tall perennials’ dead seed heads. As winter progresses, Tait says, there’s fresh new foliage to enjoy, often of the especially invigorating lime green variety.

Perhaps the biggest secret is the pleasure of seeing that each backyard has its own life, and a much more interesting one than we’ve been led to believe. Tait says given the popular portrayal of gardening in the past decade, “you’d be forgiven for imagining that gardens are ‘installed’ with plants that are botoxed so as not to move a muscle in their pretty heads, so everything must look tidy all year round”.

There’s so much more to enjoy, she says, than immutably neat yuccas, agaves and succulents.

– Jane Clifton

3. Give a little

It may seem counter-intuitive that giving is good for you but the evidence points to donors being better off because of their generosity. “There’s a piece of research that came out a couple of years ago that shows that people who give are happier and more likely to be well than those who do not give,” says Philanthropy New Zealand chief executive Robyn Scott.

“Last year there was also research that showed your mental health was better if you were a giver. In other words, you’re better off all round if you are giving.”

Helpfully, you don’t have to be Bill Gates, who is trying to save millions of lives in sub-Saharan Africa, to get the benefits. They accrue “across the whole spectrum”, says Scott.

So baking scones for the new neighbours, pulling noxious weeds out of the local reserve and dropping in to visit a person who might be lonely are all acts of generosity that should rebound well on you, perhaps because you are engaged, active, purposeful and likely to receive positive feedback.

When it comes to financial donations, there is an inverse relationship between wealth and giving, so those who earn less give proportionately more of their incomes than those who earn more. Philanthropy NZ is trying to encourage more giving among those who can afford it.

“There’s a perception from those who don’t give that in order to give you must [end up] in a loss situation rather than a gain situation,” says Scott. “But by giving you are actually gaining, even if we can’t yet extrapolate the reasons.”

– Joanne Black

4. Bake some bread

There’s a lot to be said for the baking of bread. It goes beyond the obvious: the aroma that only oven-fresh loaves can provide; the pride at producing your own; the satisfaction of having saved the exorbitant amounts you would otherwise have spent at the shops.Baking bread offers a complete cycle of goodness: the physical business of palm meeting dough feels good; everything smells good; and then there is the goodness to be had in the sharing of it. This is the culinary equivalent of knitting a nice cardigan for your best friend – only it doesn’t take as long and the rewards are almost instant.Forget bread makers: this is the hands-on approach to bread baking as a therapy, poetry in motion.

Whenever I feel the need to knead, I thank former Listener food writer Lois Daish. It was her recipe for flat bread in this publication that alerted me to one of the easiest bread recipes there is. It’s been made with such regularity in my household ever since that the recipe is no longer required.

“Bread dough has a velvety feel,” says Daish. “It’s a very sensual thing, almost like caressing warm skin.”


1 cup warm water

2 tsp active dry yeast granules

1⁄2 cup standard flour (or rye or wholemeal)

pinch sugar

2 tbsp olive oil

1⁄2 tsp salt

2 cups (approx) standard flour


3 tbsp olive oil

finely chopped tender rosemary leaves

1 tsp flaky salt

40g finely grated parmesan (optional)

Put half a cup of the water in a large bowl or the bowl of a food mixer. Add the yeast, quarter cup of flour and pinch of sugar. Stir until smooth and set aside in a warm place for 20 minutes. Add the second half cup of water, olive oil, salt and enough of the flour to make a moist dough. Knead for several minutes, using a dough hook or hands. Drizzle a little extra olive oil over the top and cover with a damp cloth. Leave to rise in a warm place until more than doubled in volume. This will probably take 1-2 hours, depending on the warmth of the day.

Preheat the oven to 230°C. Tip the risen dough out of the bowl, gently deflate and knead by hand for a minute or two. Divide in half and form into balls. Roll one ball out thinly on a generously floured bench. Pull it into the right shape and size to almost cover a standard baking tray.

In a small bowl mix the oil, rosemary and salt. Brush half of this mixture lightly over the top of the first pizza bread. If using parmesan, scatter half of it over the top. Bake for about 6-8 minutes until puffy and just starting to develop brown speckles. Remove from the oven and lift off the tray onto a rack. Sprinkle with a little more salt if you wish. While the first tray is baking, roll out the second ball. Place on another baking tray, brush with the remaining oil, rosemary and salt and scatter with parmesan. Bake as soon as the first tray comes out of the oven.

Makes 2 pizza breads.

– Geraldine Johns

5. Keep a gratitude diary

Turning your attention to what you are grateful for helps attune your radar to everything you already have and enjoy, instead of that holiday in Rome you can’t afford. Keep a diary and every few days write down several things for which you are grateful.

Research suggests this deceptively simple exercise can work wonders for mood.

In one 2003 study participants were divided into three groups – one group was asked to keep a journal of negative events and problems they were having; a second group was asked to write about things they were thankful for; and the third group was asked to write about neutral events. The group focusing on gratitude reported higher well-being scores than the other groups after the exercise.

A similar 2008 study with adolescents found counting blessings enhanced well-being. Other studies have found links between people who feel gratitude and their life satisfaction.

Another twist is “three good things”. At the end of the day, write down three things that went well that day, and why. In research by psychologist Martin Seligman, participants who did this exercise for a week had increased happiness and fewer depressive symptoms for six months afterwards. “Six months is far from ‘happily ever after’, but our results suggest that lasting increased happiness might be possible even outside fairy tales,” says Seligman.

– Ruth Laugesen

6. Learn to swim better

Summer will eventually come, based on past experience. So why not increase your confidence in the water in the expectation of days at the beach?

One recent evening at a suburban swimming pool in Karori, Wellington, one lane was full of about 20 adults in two groups, learning or relearning to swim. What was striking was how many of them were laughing. Ranging in age from about 20 to 60, the two groups included a multi-generational Indian family grappling with the basics, as well as young couples mastering breathing and the crawl.

A Christchurch woman, Bett Halligan, is an inspiring example that even as an adult it is possible to overcome your pride and become a learner again. Halligan, 85, resolved a year ago to learn to swim because she needed the exercise for arthritis-stricken elbows and a painful shoulder. It was not an easy decision. She was terrified of the water. Growing up in Liverpool, she had never had swimming lessons.

The first time she entered the water at Christchurch’s Kings Swim School, she was so frightened that director Pam Berry-Mason had to get in with her. “Every time the water moved I panicked. I thought it would knock me over.”

By the end of the first lesson she felt “marvellous”. Now she swims twice a week and her general fitness has improved. “It’s lovely, I look forward to it. It’s more relaxing swimming than I thought it would be. I thought it would just be hard.

“It’s increased my confidence. I can do something that I would not have believed a year ago. You get stuck in a little rut. Now I wish I had done it years ago.

“The water has a softness to it. It’s like swimming through velvet.”

– Ruth Laugesen

7. Read a book

“Too much of everything is never enough,” sang the Pet Shop Boys in their 2009 single Love etc. For anyone who’s ever frittered away an evening on an iPad, grazing on first this website and then that, skimming from app to app, checking in every couple of minutes with their Twitter and/or Facebook accounts, the song strikes an immediate chord: the plenitude and ceaseless avail-ability of modern media induces a hunger for stimulation that can’t be sated, and it would be a hollow satisfaction even if it could.

It’s not just the iPad, either – or any one of those other electronic tablets. Whether it’s a smartphone, a computer, an MP3 player or the many dozens of television channels at our beck and call, the demands on our attention are never-ending – and are combining to erode our ability to keep that attention on any one thing for more than a few moments at a time.

Before it is too late, remind yourself of how it used to be, when all you had to do was turn off the TV and take the phone off the hook to make yourself unavailable … to anything but a book. An old-fashioned paper book, that is. A mono-functional, non-interactive paper book. Not an e-book – especially not if it’s on your iPad or iPhone, just a click away from that latest update on the fate of the Murdochs or seeing if there’s anything in your email inbox.

Isolate yourself, immerse yourself in another world, and pretty soon you will resent anything that tries to lure you away from it. Make it a long book, too, one with which time becomes immaterial, because the end is so far from sight.

First, though, allow yourself one last electronic excursion. Just before being busted for plagiarism in his interviews, British journalist Johann Hari wrote a wonderful column in the UK’s Independent newspaper called “How to survive the age of distraction”, which spread like wildfire among bookish types on – oh, the irony – Twitter (and is still there for the reading on the website: ind.pn/lCYTBv). If anything will shore up your resolve, this will.

Hari says: “We are the first generation to ever use the internet, and when I look at how we are reacting to it, I keep thinking of the Inuit communities I met in the Arctic, who were given alcohol and sugar for the first time a generation ago, and guzzled them so rapidly they were now sunk in obesity and alcoholism. Sugar, alcohol and the web are all amazing pleasures and joys – but we need to know how to handle them without letting them addle us.

“The idea of keeping yourself on a digital diet will, I suspect, become mainstream soon. Just as I’ve learned not to stock my fridge with tempting carbs, I’ve learned to limit my exposure to the web – and to love it in the limited window I allow myself.”

For those who can’t manage this, Hari talks about Freedom, a program you can download to your computer (from macfreedom.com) to save you from yourself by locking you away from the internet for up to eight hours at a time. Freedom indeed.

– Guy Somerset

8. Learn something new

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown was widely mocked when she circulated a memo to her fellow councillors urging them to keep themselves fresh and onto-it by learning a new skill, “like ballroom dancing”. But she had it right. Dementia researchers have increasingly fixed on challenging brain activities as a weapon to stave off -deterioration of the brain.

As Wade-Brown told her colleagues, learning something new literally creates new neural pathways in the brain. This helps make us feel brighter, happier and more energised, because it stimulates a change in brain chemistry. Plus humans are hard-wired to seek novelty, because we find it gratifying. Clearly, ballroom dancing was just a for-instance – though it did work wonders for Rodney Hide.

But speaking from China, where she is leading a business mission, the mayor goes one better: learn a new skill with someone. This increases the pleasure.

Again, she’s onto it. Interacting with people whose company we enjoy produces pleasure-enhancing hormones. If it’s someone who’s feeling down, so much the better, Wade-Brown says. Her instant pick-me-up is “a walk on the beach with my dogs”, but to keep on top form and keep bad feelings at bay, she recommends an active social life full of new experiences.

Alzheimer’s researchers have found the more stimulated the brain, the higher the cognitive function and the better the memory. There is strong evidence that the more the brain learns over a lifetime, the more it is protected from degeneration. This can be purely brain-centric knowledge, such as a new language, or it can be motor-skills type learning, such as crafts, music and dance.

Even without recourse to scientific explanation, however, most of us respond positively to a well-chosen new challenge. Witness the surge in the popularity of handcrafts, with people learning knitting, quilting, joinery and the like.

The men-in-sheds movement (“Sawdust & solutions”, July 23) is a further embodiment of the feel-good benefits of learning new skills in the company of others.

The internet has put vast learning opportunities online, such as the Khan Institute’s site, where a humble householder can log in to take guided courses in such disciplines as calculus, chemistry and cosmology, starting with the most basic skills of addition, and continuing all the way to polynomials, quadratic equations and beyond – for free.

– Jane Clifton

9. Put one foot in front of another

Exercise may have a bad rap as part of the standard naggage of the health autocracy – but for a low mood, it’s better than a drug.

Actually, it is a drug. Even getting the heart rate up a little for a sustained period generates mood-elevating brain chemicals, endorphins.

University of Otago associate professor of sports medicine Dr David Gerrard says even just walking a reasonable distance to and from work can help clear the head. “We have long recognised the evidence of chemicals in the brain being released in response to physical activity. Endorphins elevate mood and enhance self-esteem.”

Looking at the ever-growing mountain of scientific evidence about the various benefits of exercise, it’s hard to think of an aspect of life that it doesn’t improve. Gerrard says it definitely helps in the boudoir. “There is increasing evidence that regular physical activity improves sex life. This derives from improved stamina (more efficient heart and lungs), enhanced arousal in women, and improved sexual ‘performance’ in men, for whom erectile dysfunction – impotence – is a rate-limiting factor.”

Clearly the more effort a person expends, the greater the benefit, but Gerrard says even a modest increase in activity, raising the heart rate for half an hour a day, brings health benefits. Just a brisk daily walk and a new habit of using the stairs instead of the lift will give immediate and long-term improvements to your mood and health.

And as is well understood, exercise is a potent weapon against the most deadly human afflictions: coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer, especially for people with pre-existing risk factors like a family predisposition or tobacco addiction.

The benefits accrue starting immediately, regardless of an individual’s basic level of fitness.

As for kit, some warm clothes and good shoes are enough. Recommended supplementary equipment: a bored child and/or a willing dog.

– Jane Clifton

10. Meditate mindfully

Meditation has been soothing furrowed brows for thousands of years. Mindfulness practices and meditation, with their roots in Buddhism, are attracting increasing attention for their simplicity and effectiveness in helping people detach from their emotions.

At its simplest, mindfulness is about becoming intensely aware of the present moment – of each thought, emotion and sensation – accepting it as it is, then letting it pass. The emphasis is on “owning” each moment of your experience, whether good or bad. Try looking at a flower bud with all your attention, notice each tightly furled petal and the fine gradations in colour and texture. It’s a focus on the experience of being alive.

On a bigger scale, practitioners are taught to live mindfully throughout the day, learning to notice the present moment. Mindfulness meditation can focus on breathing or a scan of the body, developing greater awareness of the body. Adherents say they become better at noticing emotions, and then letting them pass without becoming overwhelmed by them.

A flurry of recent research indicates health and psychological benefits. A review of 15 studies of the use of mindfulness meditation in chronic disease, including pain, rheumatoid arthritis and heart conditions, found participants were likely to cope better with symptoms, have improved well-being and quality of life, and better health.

A 2003 study found an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation led to greater activity in the part of the brain associated with positive emotions and to greater immune function.

Another 2003 meta-study collecting together a large number of earlier studies found that although much of the research had to be excluded because of poor design, what remained found mindfulness-based stress reduction was useful for a broad range of chronic disorders. The study also concluded that the apparent benefits in so many different fields “indicates that mindfulness training might enhance general features of coping with distress and disability in everyday life, as well as under more extraordinary conditions of serious disorder or stress”.

Free guided meditation downloads are available from the University of Auckland website CALM, Computer Assisted Learning for the Mind (www.calm.auckland.ac.nz). The site aims to help students manage stress and depression.

– Ruth Laugesen

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