Health Take-Away: Recognize your joy this holiday season
It's the holiday season and all around us, we see festive decorations and images of happy people surrounded by loving family and friends. This can be a tough time for people whose lives don't reflect the happiness that others seem to radiate. As our friends and neighbors gather loved ones near and prepare for traditional celebrations, some of us may be asking where is the joy?
Perhaps a more important question is: why is incorporating joy in our lives so important? Joy is a universal need that is essential to our physical and emotional wellbeing. The absence of joy can be expressed in very unhealthy ways. I am a critical care nurse and every day I see the toll that unhappiness can take in the lives of my patients. Most are very ill because of poor lifestyle choices, including alcoholism, obesity, neglecting chronic illnesses or leading a sedentary life.
These are all expressions of needs that have not been fulfilled in life, and among the most basic is joy.
Exactly how joy or happiness is defined is up to each person. Perhaps a better word is contentment. Many of us may mistakenly believe that everything must be going well to experience sheer happiness. That's asking a lot out of life, which is typically filled with both challenge and achievement, happiness and sorrow. By expecting a perfect big picture, we lose the chance to deliberately stop and experience moments of joy when someone or something makes us throw back our heads and laugh.
Treasure these moments and experience them for what they are — joy. In fact, don't wait for something joyful to happen. During this holiday season, we should seek out ways large and small to create happiness for ourselves. The possibilities are endless: a quiet moment with your child in your lap, recalling a funny holiday memory, serving a simple meal prepared for those you love, or watching a hilarious holiday movie. The goal is to shut out everything else in your life — especially regrets about the past and concerns about the future — and sink deeply into the present and savor this one joyful moment.
Social psychologists call this practice "mindfulness," which is achieved by focusing our awareness only on the present. More and more often, healthcare professionals encourage their patients to use mindfulness as a means to make healthy decisions. Rather than mindlessly engaging in behavior that may compromise our health, mindfulness allows us the awareness and intention to pursue healthier choices.
The same idea helps us to increase the amount of joy in our lives. By focusing on what makes us happy — and then deliberately creating that scenario — we can achieve all of the physical and emotional benefits of happiness that contribute greatly to our overall health. Joy creates emotion, which can inspire us to make necessary changes in our lifestyle to enhance our health.
Joy also leads to laughter, which, as the old saying goes, is the best medicine. In fact, laughing improves our physical health by increasing cells that fight infection, by lowering stress hormones, decreasing pain by releasing endorphins, relaxing muscles and increasing oxygen to the body. On the mental health side, laughing adds joy and zest to life, eases anxiety and fear, relieves stress and improves mood. In our social lives, laughing strengthens our relationships, attracts others to us, enhances teamwork, helps diffuse conflict, and promotes group bonding.
For all of these reasons, a growing culture is building around a daily practice of prolonged voluntary laughter, which provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughing. Though you might feel a little self-conscious the first few times, deliberately making yourself laugh is therapeutic and the situation can often lead to genuine laughter. A lot more about the benefits of laughter can be found at www.laughteryoga.org. Meanwhile, in light of the holiday season, maybe you can start with a hearty ho-ho-ho.
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