Step into the Future: A Simple Technique for Being Happy in the Moment

Have you heard the song Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone) by the band Cinderella? ’80s glam metal may be out of vogue, but the message behind the song rings as true as ever.

We have a tendency to take things for granted while we have access to them. And as soon as we lose that access, we feel regret, wishing we had appreciated it more while we still could.

For thousands of years, Stoics have advocated a technique to handle this problem, commonly known as negative visualization. This technique allows you to better appreciate your current lot in life by vividly imagining how much worse off you could be. While no doubt effective, this approach is a little intense.

Another approach is starting a gratitude journal. One study suggests that logging gratitude in a journal even just three times per week can have a positive impact on our happiness.

In my experience, gratitude journals are more effective when paired with techniques for working with emotions and attachments (e.g. mindfulness meditation or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)). Otherwise, you may feel nagging anxiety while expressing gratitude for something, because deep down, you’re afraid of losing that thing. So along with gratitude journaling, I use Calm for meditation and Moodnotes for CBT.

More recently, though, my favorite exercise for finding happiness in the present moment is what I call stepping into the future.

If I’m waiting for the subway, shopping at the grocery store, or am in a reflective mood, I think about what life will be like, ten or even twenty years from now. The more vividly I can do this, the better.

I then step into the life of my future self and try to emulate how I would think about the present day. Will I wistfully remember certain aspects of my youthful days? What about today will I wish I could go back and experience again? Will my life be drastically different that far into the future due to new obligations or age-related problems?

This exercise typically results in a bittersweet feeling of happiness and acceptance that my future self will likely not have the same lifestyle freedom nor youthful vitality that I currently possess. It almost feels like, for a moment, I was my future self and have just been given the gift of traveling back through time to live as the younger version of myself again. A sci-fi-esque chance to relive my youth; to make the most of time and opportunities I might be at risk of wasting.

It’s impossible to know what your future will look like, but you can safely assume that you’ll continue to age and face the challenges that come along with that. For that reason, this exercise is a strong reminder to appreciate the aspects of your life you may not be able to enjoy in future decades. It’s a reminder that certain goals and dreams should be acted on sooner rather than later. It’s a reminder to choose happiness in the moment.

Push Yourself to Achieve: An Emerging Secret to a Sharp Mind

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When we think of achieving more in our lives, we often think of burning the midnight oil, skipping out on sleep, working through the weekends, and generally pushing our limits. This image is strongly at odds with the low stress lifestyle – chock full of yoga, green smoothies, farmers markets, and meditation – that we often think of when we picture healthy living.

But what if I told you that there’s promising research demonstrating that the stress associated with pushing ourselves is beneficial to our health, especially as we age?

In a recent article New York Times article, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of the forthcoming book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, writes:

Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We’re still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that [critical brain regions] increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment.

Long-term health often requires us to be uncomfortable in the short term. Less cake now for a healthy body later. Pushing ourselves now for a sharper mind into our later years. Goals often operate this way: short term discomfort for long term comfort.

It’s important to note that not all kinds of stress are beneficial in this way. A common way to divide stress is by eustress, moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer, and distress, extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain.

If you’re in a toxic work environment, that’s distress. But if you’re pushing yourself to learn a new skill, and feel stressed out as a result, that’s eustress. When it comes to healthy aging, you’re looking to add eustress into your life.

Ambitious Living = Healthy Living

Perhaps it’s time we start thinking of healthy living as compatible with ambitious living? Examples are easy to find:

  • Optimizing your sleeping habits helps you perform better at work. (This idea that has gained mainstream attention in the last decade.)
  • Eating healthier meals avoids the dreaded food coma that keeps you glued to the couch for hours after dinner.
  • And as we just learned, pushing yourself past your comfort zone, physically and mentally, can keep your brain sharp and healthy as you age.

It’s possible some caveats will emerge regarding how different ways we push ourselves affect our brain health, but for now, the best research available tells us that a healthy brain requires us to strive, set goals, push ourselves to achieve them, and repeat.

Keep on pushing.

Image credit romankphoto

The Problem with Nutrition Research, and an Easy Workaround

There’s so much we still don’t understand about how to live longer while maintaining quality of life. Whether you want to look and feel better, or you’re concerned about the USA’s absurd healthcare costs, it’s a topic worth thinking about.

One approach to this problem is to scour the available scientific literature on the subject and make educated guesses wherever the research is lacking. Unfortunately, conflicting studies in the sphere of nutrition (e.g. studies on saturated fat consumption) are often twisted or cherry-picked to fit the agenda of dogmatic groups claiming to possess the true formula for optimal health. Should you follow a paleo diet, or finally commit to being a vegan? Are eggs good for you if eaten daily, or is the high cholesterol content slowly killing you?

In addition, nutrition researchers themselves often fall prey to influences that hinder unbiased research (e.g. clinging to old beliefs or ties to big business), as The Guardian reported on earlier this year.

When the research is unclear about how to best live a healthy life, another approach is to identify communities across the globe that already live significantly longer than us and look for common factors that they share. Yes, it’s possible that some factors are missing or misunderstood, but this perspective is still a valuable one, as the TED talk below demonstrates.

When the research regarding a food or lifestyle habit is open to interpretation, I’ll happily defer to the healthiest societies on the planet. (If you have another approach that has worked well for you, please do share in the comments below.)

If you enjoy the TED talk and want to learn more, here’s a follow-up on the nine commonalities attributed to longevity.

Six Commonsense Rules for Optimizing Your Diet

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It’s surprisingly hard to get a consistent answer to the question, “What should I eat for maximum health and longevity?”

Almost everyone can agree on the consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a plant-based diet overall. But animal foods, legumes, and grains are constantly under fire.

Respectable MDs and nutritionists in the vegan camp champion whole grains and legumes, and demonize animal products as unhealthy and unethical. From Cornell MD Michael Gregor’s non-profit website NutritionFacts.org:

“Animal products, including eggs, dairy, meat, and animal protein in general may increase inflammation. A single meal of meat, eggs, or dairy may cause a spike of inflammation within hours that can stiffen one’s arteries. Several factors may account for this, such as heme iron, endotoxins, saturated fat, a high bacteria load, TMAO, tapeworms, advanced glycation end products or AGEs, and NeuGc, a foreign meat molecule that may increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.”

(For links to each of the factors mentioned above, visit Gregor’s site by clicking here.)

On the other side of the fence is the paleo crowd. Saturated animal fat? For most people, eat plenty of it! Beef tallow > canola oil. Grains are the devil (especially wheat). From the book Perfect Health Diet by Paul and Shou-ching Jaminet: “Cereal grains — the seeds of grasses — are rich in toxins that poison humans. They are the most dangerous foods.” They then dedicate many pages of their book to backing up this claim.

Both sides offer good points. I’ve found relief from IBS symptoms by removing wheat from my diet, but I also find that I do better with certain legumes than I do with a lot of paleo-friendly starches such as yucca and plantains. Even after a decade of experimenting with my diet, I still have much to learn. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are the rules that have given me the most success in optimizing my diet (and sticking to it):

1. Don’t get lost in the details. Have high-level strategies you can always come back to.

I used to get lost in the weeds when learning about diet. I’d read about goitrogenic foods, for example, wonder if the health implications of those foods applied to me, and then spend two hours tweaking my diet. I would do this a few times a week and end up with a constantly-changing diet. I’d forget what was “good” and what was “bad” to include in my diet. And when you’re hungry and sitting in front of a menu — unsure of what the latest version of your diet lets you eat — you often give up and order the tastiest thing that just might squeeze into some version of your diet, even if it’s far from the healthiest option. Oops.

The same issue can emerge from jumping back and forth between dogmatic diets (e.g. paleo to raw vegan to fruitarian to the latest weight loss diet).

Lately, I’ve done much better by remembering the three simple rules proposed by food author Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” No matter how deep into nutrition research (and dogma) I delved, falling back on these rules has always proved helpful in deciding what to eat when I’m put on the spot.

2. When in doubt, opt for moderation.

Paleo people say grass-fed meat is great for you. Vegans say all meat will put you at risk for a shorter life span. From a nutritional perspective, both sides have research to back up their arguments.

Unless you have a PhD or truly enjoy digging through hundreds of thousands of research papers, your best bet is to find the moderate middle between those two approaches. E.g. cut your meat consumption by 50%, and make sure to have some grass-fed meat and some fish a few times per week, while completely avoiding CAFO meat.

Using this example, if you feel better by cutting meat consumption, see what happens if you take out even more meat from your diet. Keep calibrating until you find the range that works best for you.

3. Keep an eye out for food sensitivities.

Unless you’re extremely lucky, there’s likely to be at least one food out there that doesn’t work well for you. Over the years, I’ve learned that my body doesn’t tolerate tomatoes, cream/cheese, wheat, industrial vegetable oils, chocolate, coffee, inulin/chicory root fiber, and heavily fermented foods (e.g. fish sauce). I can get away with a little bit of these foods, but I experience side effects if I overdo it (poor digestion, lethargy, joint pain, acne, etc.).

I did a rotation diet called the Autoimmune Paleo diet to discover my food sensitivities, along with a food journal. If there are any nagging health issues you deal with, identifying sensitivities is a worthy endeavor. I won’t go too much into detail here, but if you have questions around food journaling or discovering sensitivities, leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

4. Data about your health and nutritional status is important too.

In an effort to optimize my diet, I’ve done lots of lab work (both covered by insurance and out of pocket). A few tests that I’ve done to optimize my diet and overall health:

– Blood sugar testing (finger prick)
– Blood work to determine nutritional status, omega-3/6 levels, heavy metal levels, and small, dense LDL levels
– Organic acids test (I’m still unsure how scientifically validated this test is)
– SIBO breath test
– uBiome microbiome tests every few weeks
– Gut health stool test
– Cortisol test

At a minimum, I’d recommend blood sugar testing (very affordable and useful information), blood labs at least twice a year, and working with a gastroenterologist for testing SIBO/gut health if you have gut issues.

Most recently, I’m concerned with optimizing my sleep, so I have an appointment with a sleep specialist to rule out any issues such as sleep apnea.

5. Learn to cook.

Let’s say you discover that you’re sensitive to soybean and corn oil. If you can’t cook, you’re at the mercy of restaurants who are likely to use these oils without making it explicit on their menu. Having at least a few recipes you can confidently make is like creating a safe space for your dietary needs. It gives you control to put only the healthiest foods on your plate. But at the same time…

6. Find some safe restaurants in your area.

This isn’t feasible for everyone, but if you live in an area that caters to specialty diets, you may be able to identify one or a handful for restaurants that work for you. I’ve written about this topic at length because of how important food and dining out is for your social life.

For many people, the stress of doing a strict diet outweighs any marginal gains in nutrition, especially when you’re sacrificing your social life to stick to the diet. Knowing where you can compromise to maintain a happy life is important.

In California, I’ve found a vegan restaurant and a paleo restaurant that fit my dietary needs quite well.

Conclusion: Diet optimization is a lifelong process.

Your body changes, research evolves, willpower waxes and wanes, and our industrial food supply trudges forward. Therefore, it’s advantageous to stay connected to the latest in health and nutrition. Unfortunately, there’s so much dogma out there, it’s hard to know who to trust. Dr. Michael Gregor of NutritionFacts.org and Paul Jaminet, PhD from the Perfect Health Diet are the two people I trust more than others, so perhaps they may help you as well.

Here’s to your health.


Featured image credit: Gemma Billings