Life is not Always Easy
Like many others, at some point in my life I’ve struggled with serious depression and social anxiety. As a teenager I talked to a therapist about my life issues, and in college I tried medication(Paxil) to help overcome my inability to participate in classroom discussions. Mental health issues, combined with an apathetic attitude, left me feeling like I was left out and never good enough most of my young life.
Instead of giving up or becoming negative and hating the world, I studied self-help and how to change. I spent most of my late teens and early 20’s learning how to socialize and become a better person. It paid off bigtime as I feel I built fantastic mental resilience and healthy coping mechanisms by my late 20’s. I got off medication around 26 and feel like I’ll never need it again.
The biggest take-away from everything I’ve learned is this:
Doing little tasks to change your mood can snowball into feeling productive, which can lead to an overall positive and healthy attitude.
Tackle life one task at a time; it’s a marathon not a sprint.
In no particular order, here are my 10 favorite activities that help keep me happy and optimistic. Included are studies and tips that back them up and explain why you should try them:
1. Garden/Take Care of Houseplants
Although my grandma passed in 2020, the I’ll never forget the lessons she taught me about happiness. She lived passed 100 years of age and was a lifelong gardener, dancer and baker. Of course as a kid, I wasn’t really about pulling weeds and picking beans, but she would pay me to help her so I did it anyways. Now days I’m grateful to have those memories.
Beyond what my grandma taught me, several studies have shown that gardening has numerous health benefits. For starters, pulling weeds and planting plants can be hard work! Exhausting yourself and getting exercise can help improve your sleep which is pivotal for positive mental health. Additionally, being outside in the sun allows the body to generate vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for health and recent studies on covid-19 have shown that vitamin D deficiency can increase covid-19 risks.
Gardening has also been used to help treat addictions like alcoholism. Horticulture therapy has been used for decades and is backed by serious science. This study published on ResearchGate even discusses which plants work best to evoke positive and therapeutic sensation. The participants in the study ranked sunflower, chili pepper, lavender, lemon balm, sweet basil and wild chive as some of the most therapeutic and sensory-pleasing plants.
If you’re in an environment that prevents you from gardening often (I live in Minnesota, for example), get a few houseplants. If you’re afraid of killing a houseplant, I highly recommend getting a Jade Plant and a Pothos plant since they need little attention and water. They are perfect for first time plant-caregivers.
2. Reach out to Fans/Followers
I’ve been blogging on Medium for a little over a year and have accumulated followers on this platform and others. I love interacting with my readers through comments, and I have talked with a lot of talented writers, analysts, entrepreneurs, and data scientists thanks to Medium and LinkedIn. Building a community of like-minded, hardworking people can be inspiring in and of itself!
Beyond meeting inspiring people, building your community can help reduce anxiety and allow you to practice social skills. If you’re trying to develop a personal brand, it can also increase “brand loyalty.” I try to make one or two community interactions a week.
If you’re shy, I recommend trying this: Earlier this year, I saw an article from Business Insider talking about Sheldon Yellen, CEO of BELFOR Holdings. Sheldon makes it a point to send a birthday card to everyone at the company. I felt inspired by this and started making an effort to send a birthday message to anyone in my social networks if I noticed their birthday in my notifications.
This tiny amount of effort goes a long way. It is a kind gesture and super simple way to strike up a conversation. Plus it starts things out in an optimistic light if you’re like me and worry about being liked. You never know what kind of struggles a person is facing, so letting them know that you’re paying attention by sending a birthday wish can totally make their day.
3. Sing Loud and Proud
Secretly, or maybe not such a secret if you‘re my mailman, I love to sing. Working from home and belting in my living room to The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around,” I’m sure half the neighborhood can hear me. I was in choir in 7th and 8th grade, but besides that, the closest I’ve come to a signing career is the two times I tried karaoke in my early 20’s. My grandma used to catch me singing while I mowed her lawn and would always tell me I must be happy if I have a song on my mind. That sentiment stuck with me.
There are multiple health benefits to singing. Singing and/or making music exercises the brain and can release neurochemicals such as β-endorphin, one of the compounds that acts as a natural pain blocker. A study published in Trends of Cognitive Sciences shows evidence that singing is good for posture and breathing as well as mental focus. It is also believed that regularly memorizing new songs can help prevent mental decline in old age too.
Most of my close friends and family know that I’m a huge death metal fan. For the metal-ignorant readers, death metal is not exactly the easiest genre to sing along with. For that reason I keep a playlist of songs that I can easily belt-out-loud. Singing out-of-key is all a part of the experience in my opinion. Top hits from my singalong list include:
Bohemian Rhapsody by QUEEN
Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler
Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen
My Life Would Suck Without You by Kelly Clarkson
Don’t Stop Believing by Journey
I Get Around by The Beach Boys
4. Organize Collections and Declutter
I am a long time player and collector of the card game Magic: The Gathering, and Ihave accumulated a decent collection of cards. If asked, I’m sure my wife would echo the same sentiment my father had when I was a kid and tell you I leave cards everywhere around the house. I don’t think you can enter a room without seeing a card or card accessory somewhere, including the floor.
If I’m feeling stressed or depressed, I look at my cards and start organizing them by color, rarity and value. Even if it is just for 5–10 minutes, it is a little accomplishment that reduces my anxiety and snowballs into feelings of productivity that can carry me the rest of the day. There are known benefits of tidying up, and studies have shown that clutter competes for attention in the brain and can lead to stress and overconsumption of food and media.
Even if you don’t have a collection to organize, there are massive benefits to decluttering and organizing your living space and/or office. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend making a declutter-list. On it put each room in your home and add a few bullet points of things that need to be cleaned/declutterd. Then try to check off one room every week until the place is clutter-free. For example:
5. Take a break from social media
As a blogger cutting my teeth on Medium to earn some side cash, I spend a fair amount of time on social media promoting my work and interacting with followers. It can be a little exhausting and overwhelming at times, especially when promoting doesn’t immediately result in likes or views. It can also lead to serious negative emotions of burnout.
A study published in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology concluded that limiting use of social media can result in less feelings of loneliness and depression. The studied looked at 143 college students over three weeks. The students were split into two groups. One group was limited to 10–30 minutes of social media use, depending on how many platforms they used. The control group was free to use social media as they pleased. The group that limited social media use reported reduced feelings of loneliness and depression.
Additional studies have shown spending too much time on social media can drive the fear of missing out (FOMO) and can leads to self comparison with peers and “influencers.” Influencers on social media tend to flaunt a life-style that many of us wish we could have. The thing is, a large portion of the glam-life portrayed on social media is fake and done for clout.
When I feel my mental health declining, I turn off my phone for an hour or two and stay away from Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Medium and every other social media platform. Instead of endlessly scrolling, I pick up a book, play with the dog, or clean something around the house. If you feel yourself addicted, follow the advice of the study and limit social media exposure to 30 minutes a day for a week or two so you can break away from the addiction.
6. Cook a Quick Meal: Shrimp and Broccoli is my Fav
When I talk to people who don’t cook, lack of time is often cited as a primary reason. However, once you start cooking, you realize a ton of meals can be done in 10 minutes or less. My go-to 10 minute meal is shrimp and broccoli. Shrimp is one of the fastest cooking proteins and great at absorbing flavor. Broccoli is my favorite vegetable because the florets absorb juices and it is hard to mess up.
There are tons of benefits to cooking healthy meals including improved sleep and focus. Eating low-carb meals can help reduce appetite and promote weight-loss, according to numerous studies. Ketogenic diets have even been used to treat epilepsy in children who don’t respond well to medication. If you like shrimp and broccoli, give my signature dish a try.
How to make it
To make my signature dish, I toss a bit of coconut oil in a medium pan with minced garlic and oregano. I let that heat up a bit and throw the broccoli in, adding soy sauce and a cap-full of balsamic vinegar. After letting it cook for a minute, I add the shrimps with a dash of pepper and more soy sauce as needed. Best eaten from a bowl with the sauce mixture poured over.
Find one or two 10-minute meals that only require 1 pot or pan (to limit cleanup stress) and commit to making it once a week. My shrimp and broccoli meal is low calorie and delicious, and I ate it almost every day when I needed to lose weight in my mid 20’s. After finding a meal and learning some technique, you might realize that cooking is fun and doesn’t have to be much work.
7. Do a 10-minute workout
It might not seem like much, but remember that maintaining a positive mental attitude is a lot easier when you snowball the feelings of productivity and accomplishment by completing a bunch of little tasks throughout the day. I find a 10 minute workout is perfect for generating a feeling of accomplishment. It might not get me ripped, but it does get the blood pumping, help me focus, and make me feel better about myself overall.
A study published in the journal Plos One showed that short but intense workouts could be as beneficial as long workouts for maintaining health. The study looked at 3 groups of sedentary men. The control group made no changes to their habits. The other two groups were made to exercise. One group did a moderate cycling routine lasting 50 minutes while the last group did a 10 minute cycling routine that included intermittent 20 second bursts of maximum intensity cycling. The study concluded that high-intensity interval training may result in similar or superior improvements in multiple aspects of health.
If you don’t have workout equipment, there are tons of online resources that explain how to do body-weight workouts consisting of things like deep squats, planks and pushups. I keep a 15lb, 20lb and 25lb kettlebell in my home office and love to do some curls and kettlebell swings before zoom meetings to get my blood flowing and reduce my anxiety. Kettlebells are also great for full-body workouts if you want to put in more than 10 minutes.
8. Practice Speed-reading
Overall, I think I read on the slower-side of the spectrum because I read for enjoyment and comprehension, not for speed. Before enrolling in a data analytics boot camp a couple years ago, I decided to devote some time to learning speed reading techniques. While I still have a long way to go before I’d consider myself a speed-reader, I have definitely improved my speed by following the guidelines Tim Ferris discussed in his article on speed reading.
Tim’s article covers an overview of the principles he taught to undergraduates at Princeton University at a seminar he gave. He shared these stats about the method’s success rate:
“…a single 3-hour cognitive experiment, produced an average increase in reading speed of 386%. It was tested with speakers of five languages, and even dyslexics were conditioned to read technical material at more than 3,000 words-per-minute (wpm), or 10 pages per minute.” — Tim Ferris Blog
If you want to learn the fundamentals of speedreading, I highly recommend checking out Tim’s blog. Otherwise, the gist of it boils down to two techniques. The first of the two techniques he discusses is to use Trackers/Pacers to minimize fixating on words and back-skipping sentences. For example, use a capped pen to lead your vision from word-to-word at a quick pace.
The second technique is to practice perceptual expansion to train your peripheral vision to capture more words. Don’t worry about comprehending the material when practicing. He suggests to keep each line to a maximum of 1 second, and increase the speed with each subsequent page.
9. Call Friends/Family
These days it seems everyone is about texting and digital communication. Phone calls are practically a meme to people my age and younger. A recent study reported 88% of Millennials and Gen-Z prefer texting, and 52% said phone calls give them anxiety. Contrast that with only ~33% of baby boomers feeling anxiety when making calls over the phone.
Regardless, there are benefits of talking over the phone versus texting, which is why I try to make it a point to call friends or family at least once a week. It has been suggested that hearing someone’s voice forms a deeper connection that simply reading their words. It is also easier to understand the meaning behind what someone says when you can hear the inflections of their voice. Plus, if you remember what it was like before cellphones and the internet dominated communication, it can be a calming throwback to call up a friend and chat like old times.
Especially now during the Covid-19 pandemic, try to set a schedule with family or a close friend and carve out some phone time. If you absolutely hate phone calls, I recommend trying an app like WeChat to send voice messages instead of text messages. That way you can still hear someones voice without needing to commit to a phone call.
10. Dance Around the House
My final health related activity is a recommendation to act silly and burst into dance when no one is watching. It is also a throwback to my grandma since she loved to dance. In fact, dancing is something that has always been a part of my life. Growing up, I was enrolled in jazz, tap and ballet lessons since my sister was involved in competitive dance too.
The love for dance stuck with me into my teenage and early adult years, and I got into dance battling people in the club scene. My friends and I would go to night clubs and parties around Minneapolis, and I’d hit the floor to bust a move aiming for the respect of other dancers and/or attention from girls.
It is no secret that moving around and getting exercise is great for the body and mind. A Swedish study published in ScienceNordic looked at more than 100 teenage girls who struggled with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. In the study, one group attended weekly dance classes and the other half did not. The study not only showed the girls who took the dance classes improved their mental health and mood, but also concluded that the positive effects lasted up to eight months after the dance classes ended.
If you’ve never danced before and don’t know how to being, it is super simple. Turn on your favorite song and start moving your body. Do it while no one is looking if you’re afraid of looking silly.
If just starting, try to focus on a beat in the music and start with something easy like bending the knees and rasing your arm in the air. Once you’ve practiced keeping a beat, start to explore more complex movements. There are a ton of online resources that will introduce you to killer dance moves.
Final Thoughts on Happiness
I know I’m not alone in feeling mentally taxed from being stuck at home while being inundated with grim news about the pandemic and American political leadership. Having techniques and strategies to combat poor mental states are becoming more and more important as the weight of the situation chips away at everyone’s resilience. While I endorse trying any and all of the techniques discussed in this article, seek professional help if you are struggling to overcome feelings of anxiety and depression. There is no shame in it, and I can honestly tell you therapy and medication helped me when I needed it.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, check out my others on communication, writing, and analytics:
My 7 Rules for Getting Ahead in the 9–5 World
Get that Corner Office with a View Using These 7 Tips
The Business Side of Data Science: 5 Tips for Presenting to Stakeholders
There is more to Data Science than Algorithms and Modeling