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The spring season symbolizes growth and rebirth, and the warmer temperatures seem to rejuvenate us after winter’s hibernation. We walk with a lighter step, and can’t help but feel good after spending more time outdoors as the days get longer. With this in mind, I thought I’d start this column with a couple of “happy bits” focusing on those who know how to live a good life, as well as a few tips on how to best enjoy the life we have. Be well…

Happiest Place on Earth

Adrian White, from the UK’s University of Leicester, surveyed 80,000 people worldwide to map out subjective well being and determine the happiest place on earth. Where is it? It ain’t Disneyland, that’s for sure. It’s Denmark. That’s right, Denmark. The land of freezing cold temperatures, a place where people pay 60 percent in taxes, and the country that spawned Hamlet, aka the “dismal Dane.” So why are they smiling? The secret reportedly lies in a “culture of low expectations.” Not pessimists per se, but the Danish tend to set their goals low, evoke a natural modesty, and are generally happy with what they have. Any simple pleasure is a gift. Pretty sound words to live by, huh? They also have a generous welfare system, and ranked highest in White’s survey, which measured health levels, prosperity, and access to education. Switzerland and Austria came in second and third on the list, respectively. The UK ranked at #46 and the U.S. made it to #23.

8 Things That Will Make You Happy

Speaking of happy, as U.S. lifestyles become more isolated, thanks in part to iPods and the Internet, we run the risk of disconnecting ourselves from those we love and the world at large. This disconnection can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression, which can then lead to weakened immune systems and disease. Not good! To reinforce a feeling of wholeness and a connection with the Earth and those that live on it, it makes sense to take the focus outside of yourself and reach out to the world around you. Simple acts of giving, including spending time with friends or nurturing a pet, can help boost feelings of well-being and add richness to our lives. Holistic health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, recommends following these eight processes of connection.

1. Nature and Earth: Whether it’s a lunch break in the park, a walk in your neighborhood, or a long hike in the wilderness, connect with nature and observe the wonders of the earth. Gardening is another nurturing way to commune with the earth, and the process of weeding, planting, and tending a garden or flowerbed can be spiritually rewarding, as well.

2. Animals. My cat, Soleil, proves this one. She’s just shy of her fifth birthday, and I can’t imagine life without her. Research shows that people with pets have less illness than those without. Pet owners also recover from illness faster and tend to be happier. They are a responsibility, but it’s a highly worthy duty. They ask for love, attention, and care (and food, water, and maybe a litter box) and in return, they’ll give you years of unconditional love. When I’m sad, Soleil knows, and she crawls up on my chest and sticks her nose in my face or licks my hand. And I feel better.

3. Family. We can’t live with them, we can’t live without them! Like it or not, we want and need the intimate support of our families, no matter how large, small or dysfunctional. Most of us don’t have the large extended family or “tribe,” and if we do, most of them may live far away from us. We can, however, extend our families in some ways. The members of our church or spiritual community become like family. For others, it may be another type of social network. For me, my local running community feels like an extended family, with warm generous souls of all ages – from teenagers to veteran runners in their 70s — all coming together to do something they enjoy. Which brings me to…

4. Community. People from all walks of life coming together for a common goal. We must often work to create this community, but it’s vital. Your neighborhood, sports team, book club, or any other social club can play a key role in an enriched life.

5. Service. True service means giving your time, talent, and/or treasure with no expectation of getting something in return. To give of oneself in this way can bring us out of our ego-driven mindset and into the world at large. In addition to helping to further a worthy cause, service is a way to acknowledge that we are all one, and that the happiness of one can positively affect the happiness of others. And the happier we are, the healthier we become, individually and collectively.

6. Loving. To love is to experience connection in its highest, purest form. Not to be confused with romantic love, which is one aspect of love, but unconditional love can be shared by all – between friends, coworkers, family, and the man on the street. We have an unlimited supply to give, and the more we dish it out, the more we receive in return.

7. Touch. We need to touch and be touched. Research shows that individuals deprived of physical contact are insecure, poorly adjusted, and more prone to illness. Our society runs risk of becoming touch-deprived; the result of which can lead to more violence. It’s easy to do: a hug, a touch on the shoulder, a squeeze of the hand, all make the giver and receiver feel good.

8. Higher Power. Call it what you want—God, Buddha, Allah, the Goddess, The Force, or just plain consciousness, but there’s a power out there greater than ourselves. Believe in it any way you choose, but know that those that consider themselves a part of, and supported by, something greater than ourselves tend to live less fearfully and more healthfully that those who don’t. There’s a reason the 12-steps programs work. They call into play a higher power, whatever we choose to call it.

Let Gravity Do the Work

Treadmills, stair climbers, elliptical machines, weights, and resistance equipment, and all sorts of other accessories fill most health clubs. Now, Gravity machines are starting to inch their way into the inventory, as noted at one YMCA that added a few machines to their cardio room. Exercisers push with their legs and pull with their arms — up and down diagonally — on the machines’ glideboards.

Roughly 160 health clubs in the United States to date have purchased Gravity machines this year. The new device can offer a range of cardio and strength-training exercises, including Pilates moves, which can be done in a short period of time. The track is adjustable; the steeper the incline, the harder the workout.

The machines were introduced in 2003 by San Diego-based efi Sports Medicine, creator of the Total Gym, a popular item on TV infomercials. Jon D’Alessio, group fitness director at The Jungle Club in Vero Beach, Fla., says the Gravity machine is a fast, efficient way to provide both personal training or group sessions. To keep the interest of men, he developed exercises that simulate golf swings and kayak paddling. Thank goodness for a machine that uses the law of gravity produce positive results!

Cherries for Heart Health

After getting promising results from experiments with rats, University of Michigan scientists say they’re preparing for a clinical study of whether eating tart cherries can help people reduce risk of heart disease and diabetes. During the experiments, lab rats were fed a diet including 1 percent by weight powdered tart cherries. After 90 days, those rates had lower cholesterol and blood sugar than rats that didn’t get cherries. Rats fed the cherries also had less fat stored in the liver, lower levels of a type of cell damage called oxidative stress and increased production of a molecule that helps the body handle fat and sugar, the researchers said. The study suggests the factors are affected by high concentrations of antioxidant compounds found in tart cherries, the scientists said. A Michigan team soon will begin a clinical trial to determine whether a diet rich in cherries would have the same effect on people. Sound promising; with this in mind, consider eating a diet rich in dark, leafy greens and brightly colored fruits and vegetables. / Issue 157 - September 2543
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