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Scientists urge us to be as attentive to our moods and attitudes as we are to our physical health. Two recent studies underscore the importance of that advice.
Another study, published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, found that happy people tend to live longer and experience better health than their unhappy peers.
"Happiness is no magic bullet," says University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener, the lead author, "but the evidence is clear and compelling that it changes your odds of getting disease or dying young."
Here are six mood boosters to make the world look rosier. Add them to your life, and odds are you'll feel both happier and healthier. If you rarely walk on the sunny side of the street, now's the time to cross over.
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1. Adopt an Animal Companion
Pets provide more than companionship and a warm welcome home. They lend a willing and helpful ear — even if they have fins or feathers instead of fur.
Many pet owners confide in a pet because pets don't judge, condemn or talk back. Studies have found that dog owners are often as emotionally close to their pets as to their closest family members
An astonishing 97 percent of dog and cat owners reported that they talk to their pets, notes Alan Beck, director of the Center of the Human Animal Bond at Purdue University. "The other 3 percent lied," he quips.
People talk to their pets because they don't have to worry about what they say or worry about the response."Just as it's more relaxing to walk in a park than a parking lot, it's more relaxing to be with an animal than to be alone. It's as calming as looking at a sunset." says Beck.
If you'd like to have a pet in your life but don't want the responsibility of owning a dog or cat, you can volunteer at an animal shelter or zoo, offer to walk a neighbor's dog on a regular basis, set up an aquarium, consider a parakeet or put out bird feeders.
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2. Turn Up the Music
Even before we're born, we can hear music, and it holds us in its power throughout life.
Soothing, melodic music blunts stress and provides comfort. Bright, upbeat tunes set toes tapping and boost flagging energy. Relaxing music serves as an easy and safe way to improve sleep. Music helps keep both mind and body healthy and resilient,and it activates specific brain regions involved in emotion and memory.
"If you listen to a song that triggers a memory from your past, it evokes generally positive visual and emotional memories," says Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis. He suggests listening to familiar music that you know puts you in a good mood. "Up-tempo, bright and cheery music is always a good bet," he says. "It will help you get out of bed in the morning in a good mood.
Music remains a part of people's lives no matter how old they are.
"We've just finished a study where we created customized playlists based on music from their past for people with Alzheimer's disease," Janata says.
The researchers found that the men and women were substantially less agitated and anxious when they listened to this music. "We often don't think to play music for people who are no longer able to ask for it, but it's important that we remember."
”Music affects every part of the body," adds research professor Adarsh Kumar of the University of Miami Medical School. "If you relax with music, your body chemistry changes, and your behavior changes."
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3. Have a Good Laugh
Laughter prompts physical changes that help the immune and endocrine systems function better.
There's even more. Scientists know that stress has a negative effect on the heart and causes blood vessels to narrow.
"New information coming out of our lab and others shows that a positive emotion like laughter has the opposite effect, releasing chemicals that allow blood vessels to open," explains cardiologist Michael Miller, M.D., of the University of Maryland Medical Center. "We believe that it's good for your heart to laugh regularly," says Miller, "and now we have direct evidence to support that."
Miller's prescription for laughter is at least one good belly laugh a day. So take yourself a little less seriously, find something that tickles your funny bone, and share this wonderful, free gift of laughter with others.
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4. Get Back to Nature
Head for the great outdoors to boost your mood and your self-esteem. Researchers at the University of Essex in England found that people who participated in outdoor activities were significantly less angry, depressed and tense.
"We evolved in the natural world, and it remains an integral part of our health and well-being," says Yale University social ecologist Stephen Kellert.
Natural settings stimulate the mind. "Exposure to the outdoors facilitates our ability to concentrate, helps memory and restores us," Kellert explains.
Physical exercise and increased stamina associated with being outdoors yield important benefits as people become more sedentary with age. Walking, gardening, fishing, boating and cycling all count. Don't fret if you're not near a mountain range or the ocean. Your own backyard, a local park, a nearby botanic garden or a green oasis in the middle of town will do just fine.
To take advantage of what nature has to offer, choose a specific destination for an outing and make it part of everyday life.
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5. Help Yourself by Helping Others
Volunteers who devote time to community organizations or who informally help out friends, relatives and neighbors report greater happiness and better health than those who don't.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, men and women who volunteer report greater life satisfaction and better physical health than non-volunteers. Adults over age 70 who volunteered 100 hours of their time a year reported less of a decline in health and lower levels of depression than non-volunteers.
"Older adults are pleased to hear that volunteering benefits their health and contributes to their happiness, but that's a byproduct of being a volunteer," says Stephen Post, professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University in New York and author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping. "Doing for others is the key reward."
To tap into this source of well-being, log on to createthegood.org and type in your town or ZIP code.
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6. Try Tai Chi
The gentle movements of tai chi reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep quality, lower blood pressure and relieve chronic pain. These low-impact, slow-motion exercises encourage you to focus on your breathing and your body and allow you to concentrate fully on the present.
"Tai chi contributes to a more positive attitude not only as a result of the exercise but through the support of working in a group," says Chenchen Wang, M.D., research rheumatologist at Tufts University Medical School in Boston.
This mind-body practice teaches you how to stand, walk, lift and breathe in a perfectly natural way, explains Tricia Yu of Taos, N.M., who has taught tai chi for 38 years. Tai chi is suitable for everyone and can be adapted to individual needs, she notes.
"Both yoga, which comes from India, and tai chi, from China, are mind-body practices that reflect millennia of understanding how the mind and body work together," says Yu.
Taking a class is the best way to learn tai chi.
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Nissa Simon writes about health and science.