There’s no doubt about it. Our modern lifestyles are not good for our brains.
With restaurant food delivered to your door 24/7, never-ending dings and digital screens, 70-hour work weeks spent mostly sitting at a desk, air, noise, and light pollution everywhere, and known neurotoxins in our food, clothes, and living environments, it’s no wonder our health is declining.
Add to that a deadly pandemic and the stress and worry that goes with it, and we’ve seen the largest one-year drop in U.S. life expectancy since World War II. Worldwide, depression, anxiety, drug use, and other mental disorders are at record highs while statistics show mental health has reached an all-time low in the U.S. I would bet it’s the same across the world.
Unfortunately, there are many circumstances of our lives that we do not have much control over, like the course of the pandemic, the behavior of others, or our working environments. However, there is one way you can have a huge influence on your mental health and happiness. It’s pretty simple and doesn’t require spending a bunch of money. Your lifestyle habits — the small things you do every day — can have a large influence on your health and happiness.
Science has come a long way in understanding the components comprising mental health and happiness. It’s now known that what you do in your life every day heavily influences your mental health. Unfortunately, there isn’t one single habit that cures depression or guarantees happiness. However, science has proven that there are things you can do to build mental strength and encourage a happier and healthier brain. It requires consciously choosing your lifestyle habits, including diet, exercise, sleep, stress-coping practices, social interaction, and mental stimulation.
Your Lifestyle Controls Your Genes
It was once believed that your genes were the blueprint for your biological destiny. Not so. The primary purpose of the Human Genome Project was to decipher the code of these plans. It found that the genetic differences between individuals were actually quite insignificant and accounted for less than one percent of the total variation. So, why then do some people live to old age with a healthy mind and body while others do not?
The answer is epigenetics.
Epigenetics research is proving that who you are is the product of your life experiences which cause changes in how your genes operate. Genes switch on or off depending on your life. In other words, you are born with certain genes, but your life experiences determine which genes get expressed and which genes don’t.
Below are lifestyle habits that are easy to change and do not cost you a bunch of money. Add one of these to your life regularly, and over time, you should experience some mental health improvements. Then, try adding another one. Before you know it, you will have made some small changes that can add up to a healthier and happier you.
Laughing causes your brain to release endorphins. It takes a big laugh-out-loud guffaw that shakes your insides to get endorphins going. A little chuckle won’t do the job. A good laugh can elevate your mood, reduce pain, anxiety, stress, and depression, and even boost your immune system. The use of humor has proven effective in mental health therapies for several conditions.
Instead of thinking of laughing and having fun as just goofing off, think of it as serious business for your mental health. Figure out what gives you the giggles and commit to laughing daily.
- Learn more: Why Your Brain Loves To Laugh
Get More Sleep
Every aspect of your life is impacted by sleep, from your appearance and health to relationships and success in your professional life, but it hits your brain the hardest. Your brain’s entire electrical and chemical systems are influenced by your sleep – or lack of it. After just one night of skimping on sleep, the results can be seen in delayed reaction times, glucose levels, mood, headache, impaired memory, and hormone balances. Lack of sleep slows down your thinking, impairs your memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making, impedes learning, and contributes to depression. Getting too little sleep on an ongoing basis has also been linked to weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, early death, and a higher risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, some cancers, and multiple sclerosis.
Let Yourself Rest More
Human life used to move at a slower pace, in rhythm with the sun and nature. In the societies of our ancestors, hunting and gathering food and tending to the other necessities of life would have only consumed a few hours a day. That left a lot of time for a person’s brain and body to relax, socialize, or be in a state of rest. Now, most of us sprint through life, working long and coming home to spend hours on the computer or phone, watching TV, or engaging in some other mind-stimulating activity. This modern lifestyle produces chronic stress which shows up as all kinds of mental and physical health problems.
The brain is much more active – and more likely to tire – than any other muscle or organ in your body. Evidence shows that your brain cycles from highest attention to lowest attention every 90 minutes in what’s called an ultradian rhythm. You can only maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs to rest. Honoring the natural rhythm of your brain and seeing brain breaks as part of working, can make you more productive, creative, and innovative.
- Learn more: Why You Need To Give Your Brain A Break
Spend More Time Reading
It doesn’t matter whether you read textbooks, the latest best-sellers, or steamy paperbacks, you are giving your brain a workout with every page you turn. Science has determined that reading benefits your brain in many measurable ways. Science shows reading can reduce stress, improve memory, sleep, and brain connectivity and function while also expanding your vocabulary and social skills. For the most benefit, you’ll want to read a real page, not a screen.
A growing body of research indicates that reading literally changes your brain. Using MRI scans, researchers have confirmed that reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. When you read, your brain is doing a lot more than just deciphering words on a page. Reading is more neurobiologically demanding than processing images or speech. It’s a neural workout. As you read, disparate parts of your brain, such as vision, language, and associative learning, have to cooperatively work together.
- Learn more: 7 Ways Reading Benefits Your Brain
Research has proven many significant benefits of practicing gratitude for mental and physical health. Studies show that consciously cultivating gratitude can increase happiness levels by an average of 25 percent and improve your overall health by, for example, increasing the quantity and quality of sleep. Beneficial outcomes can be achieved by such simple practices as praying, writing in a gratitude journal, placing a thankful phone call, making a mental gratitude list, or writing a thank-you letter to someone.
- Learn more: How Gratitude Helps Your Brain and Mental Health
Exercise is one of the best things for your brain. Some scientists even believe that the main purpose of your brain is to move your body. The benefits of exercise for your body have been well-known for a long time. Because your body and the mind are integrally connected, exercise is also excellent for your brain and, in turn, mental health.
Fortunately, the level of physical activity required to get brain benefits is not all that high. It might surprise you to hear that something as simple as walking produces significant results. It doesn’t even have to be power walking. Just a 30-minute walk can have a positive impact on your brain. Regular walking can reduce your Alzheimer’s risk, lessen depression and mental fatigue while strengthening your legs which is closely linked to cognitive function as you age, and boost brain cell growth, feel-good neurochemicals, and creativity.
- Learn more: 8 Ways Walking Improves Your Brain
Work with Your Thoughts
We all have has pesky, negative, worrisome thoughts. That’s normal. Your brain is naturally negative. This trait, called negativity bias, actually began as an evolutionary advantage. Your brain’s top priority is always your survival, not your happiness. It’s constantly scanning the environment looking for signs of danger, ready to activate reflexes and secrete hormones and neurochemicals preparing you to fight or flee. Your brain learns from and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss with much more gusto than something neutral or pleasant.
You can’t control the random thoughts that pop into your head. That’s impossible and trying to do that leads to its own kind of suffering. However, you do have control over how you respond to those thoughts. Instead of unconsciously going wherever your mind takes you, you can consciously take control of and guide your mind in a different direction by working with your thoughts. There are many ways to do that.
Eat Less or Try Fasting
Over the last few decades, scientists have discovered that long-term calorie restriction and intermittent fasting provide a number of physical and mental health benefits. Calorie restriction means reducing average daily caloric intake below what is typical or habitual, without depriving yourself of essential nutrients. When fasting, a person does not eat at all or severely limits intake during certain times. These are not weight-loss plans. They are health plans.
Research shows that calorie restriction and fasting can improve lifespan, lower weight, increase blood sugar control, slow aging, lower the incidence of heart disease and cancer, and positively impact sleep, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and many mental health conditions. Most of the research conducted so far has been on animals. Initial studies with humans are promising.
Get More Sunshine
I’m betting that you don’t need statistics to tell you that there’s a link between sunshine, mood, and mental health. You can feel it. On sunny days with a crisp blue sky and a big bright sun, you might notice there’s more of a spring in your step. You just naturally feel happier. On cloudy, grey days, it’s much easier for your mood to match the weather. At the most basic level, it’s simple. More sunshine equals more health and happiness. Then, it starts to get more complicated.
Research shows that your brain makes more of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin on sunny days. Serotonin is associated with a better mood and helps you feel calm and focused. Sunlight also determines your production of vitamin D. A deficiency in vitamin D used to be uncommon when people worked outside. today it’s estimated that up to 50 percent of the world’s population may not get enough sunlight.
Sunlight and vitamin D are all interlinked to depression, sleep, and your immune system.
Spend More Time in Nature
Your brain needs what I call vitamin N, nature. Modern research is showing what many of us have known all along, that being in nature has brain benefits. After just an hour of interacting with nature, memory and attention span improved by 20%.
Studies show that being in nature, or sometimes even viewing scenes of nature has cognitive benefits, can reduce anger, fear, stress, and depression while increasing pleasant feelings, attention, and happiness. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, but it also contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to scientists.
So, get outside and take a walk in the sunshine for a powerfully healthy trifecta.
Learn more: Your Brain Needs Vitamin N (nature)