Redesigning your well-being
THE GREEKS CALLED IT eudaemonia, a word most easily translated as “well-being,” a concept that communicated wisdom of the most practical nature. But if you check out the “well-being” section in any major bookstore today, you’ll find titles on everything from astral projection to vision boarding: “Raise your vibration! Discover your authentic self! Attract the millionaire mate of your dreams!”
But caring about your own well-being doesn’t require you to check your cognitive faculties at the door. As a matter of fact, over the past decade, a growing number of experts—from scientists, to business leaders, even the Dalai Lama—have set out to uncover the variables that make us happy. The University of Pennsylvania houses the renowned Positive Psychology Center, specifically aimed at the “scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” This emerging science of well-being has far-reaching implications for everything from education to healthcare and provides surprising answers to the age-old question: “What makes a good life?” Plato would have been so proud.
As a more intellectually rigorous concept of well-being weaves its way into the fabric of mainstream culture, a number of individuals have started using empirical evidence drawn from realms as varied as neuroscience and behavioral psychology to develop tactics—hacks, if you will—designed to sharpen your mind, boost your productivity, improve your fitness, and strengthen your relationships. We hope you’ll use the discoveries that follow to hack your own well-being and ultimately design a happier, more fulfilling life.
It’s common knowledge that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” right? But recent research in neuroscience suggests that old dogs (and humans) aren’t nearly as obstinate as we once thought they were. Thanks to a quality of the brain called neuroplasticity, it may be possible to literally redesign your own mind.
Neuroplasticity is a term scientists use to describe how the brain changes in response to experience, and, to that end, experts say that the brain is constantly optimizing itself, even as we age. Neuropsychologists have long observed that when one area of the brain is compromised, other regions will reorganize themselves to compensate. After a person has a stroke, for example, the brain can rewire itself so that an area that typically controls movement takes over speech. But neuroplasticity isn’t just compensatory—some researchers believe that by utilizing the brain’s innate capacity for change, it’s possible to build and strengthen brain pathways that lead to more optimal states of mind.
Dr. Dennis Charney, Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is one such researcher. As one of the world’s leading experts in neuroplasticity, Charney is pioneering a movement to develop simple, nonpharmacological exercises that retrain the brain circuits involved in everything from attention deficit disorder to depression.
Charney got his start studying prisoners of war from Vietnam who, despite having endured years of torture and trauma, exhibited a much lower incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder than expected. After conducting hours of interviews and scans of the soldiers’ brains, Charney found that the men appeared surprisingly resilient in the face of stress and also seemed to have developed unusual mental capacities in response to living in solitary confinement (and essentially doing nothing but “exercising” their brains for years on end). One individual, for instance, could multiply up to 12 numbers by 12 other numbers accurately in his head, and another had literally designed a house “nail-by-nail, cabinet-by-cabinet, room-by-room” in his mind.
“When you exercise your brain and you don’t have any outside distractions, you can develop enormous capacities,” says Charney.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be locked in solitary to retrain your brain. Charney’s research team is now developing neuroplasticity based exercises that retrain the brain circuits involved in major mental illnesses. And ironically enough, it appears that one of the most effective ways to induce neuroplasticity is to stress participants out (over and over again) with a near-impossible task. When you challenge the brain with novel and uncomfortable experiences, says Charney, it is forced to adapt. So, the next time you find yourself fidgeting restlessly in meditation or tripping over your own feet learning a new sport, remember that the frustrating phase of learning a new skill is actually your brain rewiring itself to more effectively perform that task in the future.
APPLY IT: Challenge yourself, but keep the stress in check.
To rewire your adult brain, you must put yourself in situations that both challenge you and teach you to perform differently—which for many of us, can be frustrating and stressful. But while a little stress will promote neuroplasticity, panicking while you’re trying to take in new information will cripple the learning process. “Intense negative emotion kicks the limbic system (think: primitive brain) into high gear, causing it to override brain areas that control memory and self-regulation.” According to psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell, “When those deep brain areas are active, they shanghai your cortical neurons. Your IQ plummets. Your creativity, your sense of humor—all of that disappears.”
So how do you keep stress in check? If you find yourself getting excessively frustrated while learning a new activity, try slowing your heart rate by taking several deep breaths or listening to calming music—pianist George Winston is a good start. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system will diminish anxiety and facilitate the learning process and teach your brain to more quickly defuse in stressful situations.
BONUS TIP: Work out immediately prior to learning a new skill.
Research shows that exercise stimulates the release of neurotrophic factors, which essentially act like fertilizer for the brain. These chemicals stimulate the growth of neurons and encourage the formation of new connections, so they play a key role in facilitating neuroplasticity. By going for a bike ride just before you sit down to learn a new language, you may be able to absorb more information and consolidate memories more effectively.
And if you’re having trouble remembering to bring the running shoes to work, you’ve got all the more reason to add in some cardiovascular activity. Studies show that as little as three hours a week of brisk walking can halt and even reverse the brain atrophy (ahem, shrinkage) that starts once an individual hits 40.
We’ve all been there: the midafternoon energy slump. At many companies, employees flock to the kitchen for a sugar high or caffeinated pick-me-up when afternoon fatigue sets in, but a burgeoning field of research suggests that power naps could be much more effective at boosting productivity.
It hasn’t taken long for companies to start taking the implications of that discovery seriously. According to Arianna Huffington, employee sleep is a worthy (and cost-effective) investment. Not only are naps good for the health of employees, she recently argued in a article for Harvard Business Review that they’re good for companies’ bottom lines as well. Sleep researchers have been torturing well-paid volunteers in overnight sleep studies for decades to better understand the relationship between sleep and health, and while a great deal still remains unknown, it seems clear that company-sanctioned naps could benefit employees and companies alike. Studies show naps boost alertness, help consolidate memories, increase learning and creativity, reduce stress, and improve overall mood. So, if organizations let workers sleep for 20 minutes in the afternoon, they’ll be more productive, and executives may be able to squeeze an extra hour of work out of them at the end of the day as well.
So, it should be no surprise that a growing number of corporations, from Google to Ben & Jerry’s, are investing in workplace nap rooms to encourage employees to catch up on shut-eye on the company’s dime. Last year, The Huffington Post purchased a set of futuristic-looking EnergyPods for employees in their New York offices. The pods, which retail at $12,400 apiece, are produced by a company called MetroNaps, and include a built-in music player and an alarm that wakes snoozers with a gentle combination of lights and vibration.
APPLY IT: Burrow like an ostrich.
You don’t need an oversized $12,400 time machine to nod off for a few minutes; in fact, you can create your own cave-like sleeping sanctuary with a fun little accessory called the Ostrich Nap Pillow.
“Neither a pillow nor cushion, bed nor garment,” this hilarious-looking cranial encasing allows you to create a soothing micro-environment where you can doze off just about anywhere. The Ostrich Nap Pillow includes pockets for the head and hands, and its padded sides function both as a head pillow and a sound muffler.
The product debuted on Kickstarter in October 2012, and has raised nearly 300 percent of its $70,000 goal, making it well-poised to become the next Snuggie!
BONUS TIP: Caffeinate before you nap.
What?! Yes, backward as it may sound, research suggests that preceding your nap with a cup of coffee can dramatically enhance napping’s benefits. A study at Loughborough University showed that “caffeine naps” leave individuals feeling more refreshed and alert than a nap or caffeine by themselves.
Caffeine takes about 30 minutes to go into effect, so if you drink a cup of coffee just before you lie down, it will kick in right around the time you wake up. Caffeine also lengthens the second phase of your sleep cycle (which is when your brain reorganizes itself and processes memories)—so it’s great for naps, but not for nighttime when you need deeper sleep.
We’ve all heard doctors harp on how important it is to exercise regularly, but lectures from old men in white coats are rarely sufficient motivation to make it to the gym. After a 10-hour day at work, losing yourself in the latest season of Mad Men with your face buried in a bowl of organic, gluten-free popcorn sounds a lot more appealing than Yogalates. And while early morning workouts may be an option for some people, rolling out of bed before the crack of dawn each morning is hardly sustainable when motivation begins to wane.
There are countless startups in the tech world trying to cash in on the “I’m-not-motivated-to-work-out” problem, but when Charalampos Doukas—a writer at blog Building Internet of Things—started trying out popular fitness apps to shed some pounds, he found their reward-consequence systems weren’t enough to get him off the couch. So using some clever programming and a combination of two gadgets, he created a hack that would cut off power to his refrigerator if he didn’t meet his daily activity goals.
Here’s how he did it: Doukas had been using a device called Fitbit to monitor his daily exercise. The Fitbit is a small, key-sized pedometer that fits in the user’s pocket and uses an accelerometer to track steps taken and calories burned each day. Fitbit’s web app allows users to view and log their daily activity and earn badges when goals are met. Doukas found he quickly tired of Fitbit’s badge-based motivation system, so he started brainstorming other rewards and consequences that might motivate him to work out more. Doukas realized he was going to need something drastic to change his habits. One day he was setting up another gadget the Belkin WeMo switch, which allows you to control power to various electronics in your house from an iOS device, when the idea hit him. Eureka!
Doukas wrote a very simple web script to connect the two devices so that, if he does not meet his daily activity goals, the system cuts the power to his refrigerator. The process is simple: The web script checks his daily activity through the Fitbit API, and every evening it sends him a warning email if his activity is below a certain threshold. Then it checks again an hour later, and if the threshold still is not met, it shuts down the WeMo that controls his refrigerator. So essentially, not meeting his exercise goals results in a stinky mess and no dinner.
APPLY IT: Design your own reward-consequence system.
Doukas’ tech-savvy solution is one of those ideas that make you realize, “Wow, people are amazing.” But you may not be quite as ready to geek out. That’s ok. It may be possible to design an even more motivating accountability system.
Try this: Give a friend $200, and tell him/her that if you don’t meet X goal by X date they should donate it to a charity or a cause you hate (e.g., Michelle Bachmann’s favorite megachurch). If you meet your goal, you get all your money back. If not, you may need to up the ante for motivation (e.g., Michelle Bachmann’s next presidential campaign).
BONUS TIP: Don’t sabotage yourself with overexercise.
While there’s no question the majority of Americans don’t get enough exercise, when it comes to fitness, too much of a good thing can backfire. Especially if you’re doing intense workouts, not giving your body adequate recovery time can be counterproductive—weakening the immune system, disrupting hormone levels, and (ironically) causing the body to store excess fat,particularly around the abdomen.
To avoid overexercise, balance your workouts with plenty of recuperation time. Experts suggest that a helpful equation to remember is: “As intensity increases, frequency can diminish.” So, if you’re really pounding the pavement one day, you should take 24-48 hours off before your next session.
When all else fails, listen to your body! If you’re chronically sore and over fatigued, that’s your body telling you to lay off the workouts. Try swapping a high-intensity spin class for a leisurely walk around the block.
All relationships, if sustained for a long enough period of time, eventually hit a plateau. For the first few years, the chemistry comes easy. Falling in love activates some of the most powerful and pleasurable circuits in the human brain; brain scans of people in love show greater activation of dopamine, a neurochemical that produces feelings of euphoria, joy, ecstasy, and focused attention. “Biologically speaking,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Rutgers University and author of the book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. “The experience of falling in love is similar to a cocaine high.”
But that type of love, Fisher says, isn’t physiologically sustainable. Over time, we get used to the presence of our partner, and the person who once made you go weak in the knees becomes less exciting. Fisher describes this as a shift from passionate love to companionate love. Keeping both elements present is crucial for the long-term sustainability of a relationship.
Research suggests that when committed couples do heart-racing activities like sky diving, bungee jumping, or seeing a horror movie together, feelings of intimacy, passion, and commitment grow. One study found that after going on a roller coaster together, couples communicated more, reported being more attracted to one another, and were more likely to hug and kiss one another after the ride. This may due to a phenomenon called misattribution of arousal—basically, you are more likely to unconsciously attribute your heart pounding out of your chest to the person sitting next to you than to the fact that you were flying through the air at 80 miles per hour.
Capitalizing on that discovery, one married couple from Austin, Texas, decided to see if they could design their leisure time together to “hack” the body’s neurological love system. By incorporating more adrenaline-releasing activities into their dating routine, Jason and Maranda Cook say they have been able to keep their relationship feeling new and exciting for over a decade.
“When things get monotonous and we start to bicker, I know it’s time to do something new together,” says Jason. “I’m a guy that likes novelty, and sharing a new experiences with someone you love brings you closer and reminds you of why you fell in love in the first place.”
APPLY IT: Smack each other silly.
You don’t have to go jumping out of a plane or zip-lining in the Amazon to get an adrenaline high with your loved one. Today’s technologies make it possible to get that pounding-heart, sweaty-palmed feeling without ever having to leave your living room.
If you’ve been looking for an excuse to play more video games, this is it. There’s no better way to induce a synthetic surge in adrenaline than flailing around wildly with a tennis racket in the middle of your living room. Yes, I’m talking Wii Sports.
And if tennis doesn’t do the trick, you may have to resort to more drastic measures: Wii Boxing. After all, working out your aggression this way may be cheaper than couples therapy.
BONUS TIP: Couples who sweat together stay together.
If the image of a chubby couple playing first-person shooters on the couch doesn’t quite suit your palate, consider a simpler way to get the endorphins flowing: Exercise! Go for a hike, play a game of laser tag, or learn ballroom dancing together (which gives you the bonus of close physical contact on top of a workout).
Studies show that women become more sexually responsive after vigorous exercise (hello, hot, sweaty yoga class with plenty of hip openers), and men have higher testosterone levels immediately following a workout. But exercise isn’t just good for your sex life. Many experts believe that couples who exercise together reduce stress in their relationship by developing better communication and sharing common goals.
“When a couple works out together both partners come away with feelings of synchronicity, cooperation, and shared passion. Then you throw in some spicy endorphins and it can be a real power trip for the relationship,” says marriage and relationship therapist Dr. Jane Greer.
photographs by EMILY WATERS cardboard sculptures by ZOE-ZOE SHEEN and EUGENIA BARBUC