What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of your health? For some, it’s obtaining annual check-ups at the doctor’s office and taking the suitable medications or course of action when ill. For many more, it’s proper nutrition and fitness. A quick login to social media confirms that the diet and exercise industry remains on fire these days, no doubt inspiring us to get moving and achieve our top health. A heavy emphasis on superficiality exists in today’s perceived image of healthcare, and this isn’t such a bad thing; after all, who wouldn’t want to look good as well as feel good?
Undeniably, diet, exercise, and proper self-care are vital for optimal well-being and contribute greatly to keeping us healthy, both inside and out. Yet, sometimes we need to have a broader outlook when it comes to long-term health and longevity. As much as we need a healthy body, we also need a healthy mind. In fact, the way we perceive ourselves and our life is one of the biggest factors in determining longevity. If we dig deep past the superficial and outward layers of our health, we realize that our minds and bodies are connected in more ways than most of us think possible. Taking the time to nourish our minds and mental health will allow the rest of our bodies to follow suit.
A few months ago, I attended a seminar that was conducted by psychologist, Dr. Joseph Shannon. The seminar was called, “Changing How We Feel by Changing How We Think,” and I instantly knew this wouldn’t be the average lecture. He talked a lot about our “habitual beliefs” – also known as mindsets – and how much of an influence they have over stress, anxiety, and other emotions that contribute profoundly to our health.
We’ve all heard of the saying about seeing the world through “rose-colored glasses.” We usually use the phrase in a somewhat negative connotation if we’re referring to someone who is overly optimistic or blissfully happy. The “rose-colored lenses” are actually a mindset, or how we perceive and respond to different life events. Someone who sees the world in gray-colored lenses will have a much different perception. Our mindsets are truly everything when it comes to life and health.
So how do our mindsets come about and how do we change problematic ones? We were born with a few of them, as some of the life experiences of our ancestors became embedded in our DNA. Some mindsets have to do with our inherent personality and temperament. However, many of our mindsets come from learning from those around us and practicing behaviors that were reinforced as children. Did you know that almost all children view their parents as “attractive”? This innate behavior allows children to “model” their parents and learn from them, however this tapers off once the child hits around 12 years old. During the preteen years and after, children would rather emulate their peers rather than their parents.
Luckily, this all means that we have a lot of power over our mindsets and are fully capable of changing problematic ones that affect our health and well-being. Sometimes changing our mindsets means digging deep in our past to find out what triggered a certain belief. Other times, it means looking for evidence. In other words, what justifies us feeling a certain way? Are we learning and growing from our behaviors, or are they keeping us in a rut? Are our mindsets preventing us from obtaining our goals, being in healthy relationships, or leading a life without constant anxiety or fear?
A healthy, optimistic mindset allows for better life choices and prepares us to both effectively deal with and learn from any difficulties. Here are some ways that can help us improve our mindsets and keep our brains healthy:
I was at the beach with my family just the other day. It was the first time that my younger son had ever seen the ocean or felt sand, so I was busy trying to capture the perfect picture. Before I knew it, about 15 minutes of precious time had passed because every picture I was trying to take either came out blurry or wasn’t “good enough.” It finally occurred to me that the reason I was having so much trouble taking the perfect photo was simply because my sons were too busy enjoying the moment and just having fun – and maybe I should put down my phone and join in on the fun, too.
Smart phones are great, but in many ways they prevent us from being truly present in our lives. When we’re engrossed in following social media, checking emails, or trying to take the perfect picture, we are not being very mindful of our current situation. Smart phones have the dichotomous ability of allowing us to stay connected, but keeping us distant from our actual physical relationships. I’ll admit that I’ve tuned out my husband or kids on the rare occasion, simply because I was too busy reading someone else’s post on Facebook. Unless you rely heavily on your smart phone for professional purposes or the like, a mini detox from your device from time to time will probably do your mental health good.
Sometimes it helps to change up the situation a bit in an effort to be more mindful. If you’re doing the same thing every day, it is easy to stay on autopilot and let the beauty of life go unnoticed. Start with something small, like perhaps taking a walk during your lunch break instead of eating in the break room. Go outside and just look around. Try to notice things you’ve never noticed before, like the beauty of a huge tree or the shape of the clouds. How much can you open up your mind just by revering the little things in life?
If you can master the small things, you can start being mindful of the bigger picture. As a side note, did you ever happen to notice the amount of articles and books on European – in particular, French and Danish – parenting? I just recently read an article about Danish babies crying less than their American counterparts. Many believe that a child’s behavior is dictated by genetics, diet, or discipline – much of this is true, and we all scramble to find the magic secrets that help our child expand their culinary repertoire, sleep through the night, and quit the embarrassing tantrums. But at the end of the day, European mothers don’t really have a big secret; they claim that they simply observe their children more and act accordingly. This is all part of the grander scheme of not just being a more mindful parent, but being a more mindful person in general.
Develop and/or revise your life plan
Remember, the term “health” embodies everything, including physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual. What are your long-term goals? Are your current behaviors and mindsets helping you to achieve them or put them off? If you’ve come to a point in life where you feel you no longer have any goals, then it’s possible you’ve succumbed to the comfort of things. We need to both be learning everyday and setting goals for ourselves, even if they are small ones. Be realistic and involve you as the lead actor.
Look back at the things in life that you felt were either successes or setbacks. Setbacks are not failures; they are a type of feedback that will ultimately help you succeed in the future. Identify the factors and circumstances in which you felt you were successful at something. Try to cultivate them to help you in achieving future goals.
Speaking strictly from a woman’s point of view, I know many women (including myself, at times) that view mundane housework, errands, and even their own children as distractions from their life plans. This is an unhealthy mindset that has absolutely no benefit to us or our families. I’ll use the simple task of cooking dinner as an example. Instead of looking at it as a chore, try looking at it as preparing nourishment for your family and bringing them together to talk and laugh. I know it’s not always like this. Moms are busy, kids have activities after school, and we’re all tired at the end of the day. However, trying to view things a little differently can help us see the bigger picture in life and realize that sometimes the grand is hidden in the mundane.
Put your life into action
Sometimes it’s helpful to create a mental “to-do” list each day. I’m not necessarily referring to going to the bank, emptying the dishwasher, or taking the dog to the vet. This type of “to-do” list encompasses your life on a broader level and requires the constant maintenance of a healthy mindset. It involves realizing your life goals and taking the appropriate steps to get there. For instance, where would you like to be 5, 10, or even 15 years from now? Maybe it is being able to step away from your “9-5” and live on a boat somewhere. If this is something that is important to you, then what’s on your “to-do” list today that is helping you achieve that goal?
By focusing our attention on our long-term health and goals, we start realizing unnecessary distractions and unhealthy habits that prevent us from moving ahead. On the flip side, we learn what truly motivates us and helps us to maintain a healthy outlook.
Of course, we need to reward ourselves for hard work. Healthy pleasures keep the momentum going and give us something to look forward to now and then. (Remember, the key word here is “healthy” – unhealthy pleasures in the form of excessive alcohol, recreational drugs, and other risky behaviors are detriments in the long run.) Identify the things that make you happy and make sure they are a part of your life. This task is also helpful in curbing depression and other issues with mental health. In fact, one of the biggest signs of depression is no longer finding joy in the things that once made you happy.
Remember, a healthy mindset is an important, yet often overlooked, factor in determining long-term health and longevity. Keep your brain healthy and active, as this will set the tone for just about everything else.