Being in a Good Mood More Often Raises the Effectiveness of Your Immune System

>> Friday

In an experiment by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he and his colleagues followed 193 people by interviewing them every night on the phone for two weeks. Each person was asked how they felt that day. These were their options: lively, happy, cheerful, calm, at ease, sad, unhappy, tense, on edge, angry, or hostile.

Everybody has ups and downs, so the researchers averaged each person's responses over the two weeks to get a general measurement of the person's normal mood.

The researchers then put the volunteers in a quarantined facility and gave each of them nasal drops of either a cold or a flu virus, and then tracked their symptoms for a few days.

So what did they find out? "The people who expressed more positive emotions overall," said Cohen, "were much less likely to become sick with a cold or the flu than those who expressed fewer positive emotions...And when they did get sick, they reported milder symptoms."

Your immune system works better when you're in a better mood. And your immune system does far more for you than preventing you from getting a cold or flu. It is worth taking the time and expending the energy to do things that improve your mood. Here is a good place to start: Top Ten Ways to Raise Your Mood.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot


Getting Perspective On Life: The Trick to Seeing Your Own Life With New Eyes

In the book, Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, Steven Callahan recounts his harrowing experience alone on a life raft. He lost 45 pounds during the trip and went through an amazing amount of deprivation and suffering. His description of what it was like to be back on land gives you a new appreciation for what we all take for granted.

Why would his account give us a new appreciation? Because taking something away for awhile allows you to compare the circumstances you are accustomed to with something worse.

And what you compare your life to determines how happy you are at the moment.

One of the reasons people go on fasts is that food is so amazingly delicious after fasting. Eating is almost like a religious experience. Why? Because eating is wonderful compared with not eating.

When Callahan was found offshore by three fisherman, they took him to their island in the Caribbean. Once ashore, they drove him in a Volkswagen bus to a hospital in another town. On the way there, Callahan was overwhelmed with the colors and the sounds and the aromas. While he was adrift on the ocean, he was surrounded for more than two months by nothing but blue sky and blue sea. He smelled nothing but the ocean and fish. Read his brief account of the car ride:

We pass long stretches of sugar cane fields. Ox carts are piled high with cut cane. I cannot believe how sensitive I am to the smells of the cut vegetation, of the flowers, of the bus. It is as if my nerve endings are plugged into an amplifier. The green fields, the pink and orange roadside flowers, practically vibrate with color. I am awash in stimuli.

The contrast between his previous situation and life on land was dramatic. He appreciated colors and smells we all take for granted every day. Why do we take them for granted? Because they've always been there. We haven't compared their presence with their absence.

During his voyage on the life raft, Callahan was often soaked in salt water for long periods of time. So it was especially pleasurable to simply be dry. When he got to the hospital, they cleaned him up and put him to bed. His description is ecstatic. Why? Because of the comparison between a cold, wet, abrasive, salt-encrusted life raft and an ordinary bed:

I lay back on the sheets, clean sheets, dry sheets. I can't remember ever feeling like this before, though I imagine that I might have felt this way at birth. I am as helpless as a baby, and each sensation is so strong that it's like seeing, smelling, and touching for the very first time.

Comparisons. Your mind makes them all the time. And whether you feel contentment or dissatisfaction largely depends on what you are comparing your life to.

One of the barriers to contentment is that advertisers are constantly giving us perfect images to compare ourselves with — people with perfect homes and cars and spouses and children — and they give us the illusion that this perfection is somehow possible.

The advertisers are taking advantage of the way our minds work naturally. You automatically and naturally compare yourself and your life with others' and with your own ideals and aspirations. When you compare your life to something worse, you feel more satisfaction. When you compare it to something better, you feel dissatisfaction and desire — feelings that may help an advertiser sell products, but feelings that ruin your good mood.

Although the process of comparison happens without your active effort, you can assume control of it. Like your own own breathing, it happens on its own, but you can make it do what you want at any time. All you have to do is pay attention to it.

Why would you want to bother? Because, as Robin Lloyd put it after looking at the research:

People who positively evaluate their well-being on average have stronger immune systems, are better citizens at work, earn more income, have better marriages, are more sociable, and cope better with difficulties.

It makes a difference to feel some contentment. It's good for you mood. And luckily, it can be accomplished pretty easily. It won't last for a long time, but neither does sleeping or exercising. The fact that it doesn't last is no reason to dismiss it. If you're willing to put out a little effort, you can feel satisfied with your life a lot more often.

Here's what to do: When you feel discontented, ask yourself, What could be worse? And really try to think of something specific. You can always think of something, and it's usually pretty easy.

If you feel unhappy because you haven't advanced in your job as fast as you'd hoped, for example, imagine how you'd feel if you lived in a country or a time when advancement wasn't possible. Imagine being an untouchable in India 500 years ago, sentenced to generation after generation of poverty with no chance of escape. Or imagine being born into a North Korean prison and living there your whole life. Imagine real situations other human beings have experienced that are much worse than anything you've ever had to endure.

Try this technique and you'll recognize that in many ways it is a fact that you're lucky to be where you are and who you are. That lucky feeling can put you instantly in a good mood. It's relaxing and peaceful. It won't last very long, but you can always do it again. The technique works every time and it never wears out.

In a way, it is a good thing the feeling doesn't last because as wonderful as contentment is, motivation is also wonderful. Striving for a goal — physical fitness, self-improvement, financial success, whatever — is practical and worthwhile also.

But when you want to feel some contentment, take a little time and think about how your situation could be worse, or how it used to be worse, or think about what others have gone through.

To help you find some real situations you can compare your own life with, read books like Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, and Alive. Their difficulties will help you see your own life with new eyes.


Peace, Love, and Oxytocin

Doctors have known for a long time that oxytocin causes uterine contractions during childbirth. Oxytocin is a hormone. It also causes the mother's milk to "fall" (so the baby can breastfeed after birth). This much has been known for a long time. To induce labor, doctors inject a woman with oxytocin.

But researchers are discovering oxytocin has far more roles to play than this. And all its roles have to do with bonding.

The spike in oxytocin at birth causes the mother and newborn to bond to have feelings of affection for each other.

But childbirth isn't the only thing that releases oxytocin.

Sex does it too. So does massage. Even touching does it. Oxytocin is released in a flood during an orgasm.

So what does all this have to do with raising your mood?

Feelings of affection and bonding feel good. Feeling close to someone is a pleasure. Oxytocin is the opposite of stress hormones. Oxytocin makes you feel calm and relaxed, trusting, generous, and affectionate. It makes you feel unstressed. Some side-effects of oxytocin are: relaxation, lower stress, better face-reading, more open communication, feelings of connection, and feeling less isolated. Oxytocin also reduces pain and improves sociability.

All these results from oxytocin add up to one of the best moods you can have: The experience of feeling loved and loving.

The good news is that many of the things that produce oxytocin are in your control. You can take actions that increase those great feelings. The most important action you can take is to touch more. Touch and hug and hold hands with the people in your life.

In the 1960's, Sydney Jourard did an experiment to find out how often people touched each other in different countries. His study consisted of going to cities around the world and simply counting how many times people touched each other while sitting together in a cafe.

In Paris, the average was 110 times an hour. In San Juan (a city in Puerto Rico) the highest average of any city people touched each other 180 times per hour! In Florida, it was twice per hour, which wasn't quite as bad as London, where they didn't touch at all.

Have we improved how much we touch each other since then? I don't know. My guess is no, we haven't. It might even be less than it was in the 1960's. But that doesn't have to be the case with you personally.

You could do more touching, and it would have a positive effect on your mood, and on the moods of the people you love.

Being touched raises your loved ones' oxytocin level, and it will raise your own at the same time. Studies show getting a massage raises oxytocin level considerably. So does giving a massage. Even being in the same room with someone who has an elevated oxytocin level will elevate your own. Researchers aren't sure yet how this happens, but they have discovered that it happens. It might be something released in the air when oxytocin levels rise.

Another interesting feature of oxytocin is that it can create a positive or negative self-enhancing cycle. When you don't get touched much, your oxytocin level is low, and when it's low, you don't feel like being touched.

The more your oxytocin level goes up, the more you like being touched and want to be touched. Touching then raises your oxytocin even more. It's a positive, upward cycle.

Start today adding touch into your life. Give massages to your spouse. A good way to learn massage is to get a DVD showing you how to do it. Massage is good for your health and is one of the most reliable ways to raise oxytocin.

The physical effects of massage (such as relaxing muscles and moving lymph fluid) are good for your health, but the rise in your oxytocin level may be even better for your health recent research has shown a rise in oxytocin lowers stress, improves immune function, and speeds up the repair of physical injuries, even cuts. Wounds not only heal faster, but oxytocin reduces inflammation.

Massage is a powerful oxytocin-raiser. But even on a smaller and more casual scale, you can touch more and it will make a difference. Any touch that feels good raises oxytocin. Hold hands. Put your arms around your spouse. When you sit and talk, be in physical contact.

When you spend time with your children, make sure you touch and hug them. Raise their oxytocin level. Help them feel loved. When you go out to lunch with a friend, shake hands or do whatever you feel is appropriate to have some physical, friendly contact. It makes a difference.

Keep paying attention, and you'll find lots of opportunities throughout the day to touch and hold the ones you love.

Raise your oxytocin and you raise your mood and the moods of everyone around you.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


Eat Probiotics to Raise Your Mood and Boost Your Immune System

In a study of bacteria, mice were cured of depression and anxiety with probiotics. It reminds me of an earlier experiment done on humans showing that people who took probiotic supplements felt less stressed and had less anxiety and depression than people who had taken a placebo.

In the more recent study, researchers took normal mice, which are usually fairly timid (staying close to walls when they explore and being reluctant to walk in the open). They fed half the mice a brew containing a particular strain of gut bacteria — Lactobacillus rhamnosus (a strain found in some yogurts and probiotic supplements) — and the mice became less timid; they explored more freely.

And when the researchers put the mice under stress (by plunging them in water, for example), the “probiotic mice” were less stressed than normal mice (the stress hormones in their blood didn’t rise as much in response to the stress). You can read more details about the study here and here.

But the researchers wondered how a bacteria in the gut could alter the mice “psychologically.” So they cut the vagus nerve — the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the guts and the brain — and sure enough, this stopped the positive effects of the probiotics.

So somehow the bacteria did something to the mice guts that sent a signal through the vagus nerve to the brain, causing the mice to feel (or at least behave) less anxious and depressed, and to produce less stress hormones.

Probiotics are also good for your immune system, can help prevent gum disease and cavities, and might lower your risks of cancer and heart disease. Read more about how you can use probiotics to improve your health and mood here: Why Are Probiotics Good For You?

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.


A Walk in a Forest Might Be Anti-Cancer

>> Thursday

The following is an excerpt from the fascinating book, The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jim Robbins, science writer for the New York Times and Scientific American.

"Researchers at the Nippon Medical School took twelve healthy men, from thirty-five to fifty-six years of age, out of Tokyo and into the forest. For three days they followed a regimen: the first day they walked among the trees for two hours, the second day for four hours, and on day three they offered blood and urine samples and filled out a questionnaire. They were sampled a week and a month after the trips as well, and these results were compared to samples taken after walks on normal working days in Tokyo, in areas without trees.

"Analysis from the samples taken after the hikes in the forest showed significant increases in 'natural killer,' or NK cells, which prevent the formation of tumors; an increase in anticancer proteins in the cells; and a reduction in the concentration of adrenaline in urine, effects which lasted a week after the trips. Alpha and beta pinene (an aerosol released naturally into the air by pine trees) were found in the air in the forest, but not in the city, and the researchers assume phytoncides (germ-killing aerosols released into the air by the trees) to be the active ingredient in the health effects. Other studies of people who have spent time among trees have shown lower concentrations of the stress chemical cortisol, lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nervous system activity, and less sympathetic activity, which means that people are more relaxed."

Walking among trees makes you feel better. And it also looks like it makes you healthier.



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