by Carolyn Gregoire | The Huffington Post | November 8, 2013
Many of us spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy — not to mention money — taking care of our bodies, and trying to keep ourselves looking and feeling our best. But when it comes to the mind, less attention (literally) is paid. Taking care of the mind can come as an afterthought, and often we think of the mind as something outside of our own control.
“Our life is the creation of our mind,” according to Buddhist scripture. Buddhist philosophy developed an entire science of training the unruly mind to help anyone overcome its constant fluctuations to achieve stillness, and eventually, enlightenment.
But even if it’s not enlightenment you’re after, developing a good relationship with your mind is critical to building a life that is successful on your own terms. Here are eight habits of mind to start cultivating right now for less stress, more creativity, less distraction and more enjoyment in life.
Make time for stillness.
Meditation has been around for thousands of years, and it’s perhaps the single most powerful tool out there for gaining mastery over your mind. The mental health benefits of meditation are virtually endless, from addiction recovery to reduced anxiety and depression to enhanced creativity and improved cognitive function. Meditation can actually increase neuroplasticity, making it possible to literally rewire the brain.
“Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimize in a way we didn’t know previously was possible,” neuroscience researcher Zoran Josipovic, who has conducted brain-imaging studies on Buddhist monks, told the BBC in 2011.
Pursue meaning over pleasure.
Not all happiness is created equal, and in your own pursuit of joy and bliss, keep in mind that the type of happiness you’re after can make all the difference. A recent UCLA study found that eudaimonic happiness — that which was linked to having a larger purpose or sense of meaning in life — was linked with healthy gene activity, whereas hedonic, or pleasure-seeking, happiness was not. Those who were happy because they had a sense of purpose in life had lower inflammatory gene expression and higher antiviral and antibody gene expression than others.
“Eudaimonic happiness is something you build up over a lifetime,” Shimon Edelman, cognitive psychologist and author of “The Happiness Of Pursuit,” told The Huffington Post. “In a sense, it’s a great consolation for older people — it’s nice to know that on that component, people can get more and more happy as they age if they led good lives.”
Read, read, read.
Consider reading your mind’s daily greens. Simply reading a book can lower stress levels, help you sleep better, keep your brain sharp, and also stave off Alzheimer’s.
But before you turn to your Kindle, take note: Reading on screens may drain more mental resources and make it harder to remember what we’ve read after we’re done, as compared to reading on paper, according to Scientific American.
“Whether they realize it or not, people often approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper,” according to the article.
Let it be.
Sweating the small stuff is one of the most toxic things you can do to your mind — not only can it take over your thoughts, but dwelling on what’s beyond your control has been shown to be a contributing factor in the development of depression.
You know that unfinished project that’s been nagging at you? Try just letting it go. According to Arianna Huffington, a great way to complete a project is by dropping it. Huffington recently explained at a Women in Business event in Toronto:
“One of my favorite sayings is ‘100 per cent is a breeze, 99 per cent is a bitch’… That doesn’t mean ignoring my other needs, but it means when I’m in it, I’m really in it. And that means often saying no to good things, to things that you might want to do, but get in the way of sleep, or get in the way of being with your children, or whatever it is that’s also very important to you. Just have a conversation with yourself and say these projects are done, over, and then you have energy for the things you’re really going to commit yourself to.”
Flex your memory muscle.
Thanks to technology, we’re taking in more information than ever before, but we’re also losing our ability to retain that information. A recent poll found that millennials are even more forgetful than seniors, due, at least in part, to their reliance on technology.
Keeping your memory sharp requires some time and attention — but your brain will thank you for it. Certain cognitive tricks and exercises can significantly boost your powers of memory, and make sure that you hold on to those things you never want to forget.
Unplug and recharge.
Constant digital distractions can take a toll on the mind — over-reliance on technology has been linked with increased stress levels, reduced focus and productivity, stunted creativity and poor sleep quality. And Internet addiction is increasingly being recognized as a very real psychological problem.
Many of us never take a break from our devices, even when we’re supposed to be relaxing (nearly 60 percent of Americans stay plugged in to work while they’re on vacation). But allotting yourself some tech-free time could make you more focused, less stressed, and happier.
“[A digital detox] is almost like a reboot for your brain and your soul,” Cisco executive Padmasree Warrior told the New York Times. “It makes me so much calmer when I’m responding to e-mails later.”
Let your mind wander.
In addition to boosting creativity (and being a generally enjoyable activity), daydreaming can actually make you smarter.
According to NYU psychologist Scott Kaufman’s theory of personal intelligence, mind-wandering is an adaptive trait that helps us to achieve personally meaningful goals, and it helps us to access spontaneous forms of cognition like insight, intuition and the triggering of memories and stored information.
Kaufman recently wrote in Scientific American that mind-wandering can offer significant personal rewards:
These rewards include self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion… From this personal perspective, it is much easier to understand why people are drawn to mind wandering and willing to invest nearly 50 percent of their waking hours engaged in it.
Linger on the positive.
Want to wire your brain for happiness? You can start by savoring those tiny moments of joy in your day, whether it’s the smell of fresh coffee or a smile from a loved one. Lingering on these positive moments can help to overcome the brain’s “negativity bias,” which causes us to store negative memories in our brains more easily (and strongly) than positive memories.
“[Lingering on the positive] improves the encoding of passing mental states into lasting neural traits,” “Hardwiring Happiness” author Rick Hanson recently told the Huffington Post. “That’s the key here: we’re trying to get the good stuff into us. And that means turning our passing positive experiences into lasting emotional memories.”
Build daily rituals.
Habit is one of the most effective ways to make any positive change in your life. By developing habits, good behaviors that may have once required a feat of willpower to put into action become automatic — which is why they can also be so difficult to break.
“For the things that you decide matter… the only way to ensure that things that aren’t urgent but are important happen is to build rituals,” The Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz told the Huffington Post. “Build highly specific behaviors that you do at precise times over and over again until you don’t have to use energy to get yourself to do it anymore — until it becomes as automatic as brushing your teeth at night.”
Carolyn Gregoire is a features editor at the Huffington Post | Healthy Living | Yogi @YogaVidaNYC | Writer | Californian | McGillU philosophy | New York City. She has spoken at TEDx and the Harvard Public Health Forum, and appeared on MSNBC and The TODAY Show. | Follow her on Twitter @carolyn_greg