The Happiness Advantage

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Shawn Achor, a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology, spent more than a decade at Harvard University trying to figure out what makes people happy.  He outlines his findings in a TEDx talk (click on the image below).  His 12-minute talk, which is among the top 20 most viewed TED talks, is worth watching, as Achor is a captivating and funny presenter.  However, if you don’t have time to watch the whole piece, tune in at about the 10-minute mark and you’ll catch his practical tips for becoming a more positive person (or you can keep reading for a summary).

shawn achor_edschipul

In Western society, we think that working harder leads to more success and that, in turn, should result in greater happiness.  But Achor says that 90% of your long-term happiness is predicted by the way your brain processes the world and that you can train your brain to become more positive.  He calls this the “happiness advantage,” and he has found that when you’re operating in this mode, your intelligence, creativity, and energy levels all rise, not to mention your productivity and success!

Achor offers the following 5 tips for training your brain to be more positive, and he says that after 21 consecutive days of these practices, you’ll notice a difference:

  • 3 gratitudes (write down 3 things you’re grateful for that day)
  • Journaling (write about 1 positive experience from the last 24 hours)
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Random acts of kindness (as simple as sending 1 email of appreciation/gratitude every day)

While Achor focuses on work success and productivity, it seems that this brain training could have a farther-reaching impact into other areas of life.  What do you think?

-Katie Huffman

Image by Flickr user Ed Schipul, via CC

Doctor’s Orders: Laugh!

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We’ve all heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but there really is research showing that humor and laughter can improve physical and emotional health.  Here are some of the ways that laughter is good for your health:

  • Relaxes the whole body and even leaves your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes (after a good, hearty laugh)
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Triggers the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormone
  • Increases blood flow and can help protect your heart from cardiovascular disease
  • Decreases pain
  • Reduces anxiety and fear
  • Relieves stress
  • Improves mood- how can you feel anxious, angry or sad when you’re laughing?

Shared laughter is even more powerful than 1205px-Laughter_2_by_David_Shankbonelaughing alone.  It helps build strong and lasting bonds, and it can help heal resentments and disagreements as well as reduce tension in awkward moments.  Laughter also brings people together during painful and challenging situations.

Here are some tips for creating opportunities to laugh:

  • Keep a book of jokes or cartoons on your office shelf.
  • Pull up a funny movie or TV clip on YouTube.
  • Display pictures of you and your loved ones having fun.
  • Pick a screen saver and desktop background that make you smile.
  • Attend a laughter yoga class.
  • Play with a pet.
  • Do something silly with children.

How do you incorporate laughter into your day?

-Katie Huffman

Information from National Humor Month; Image by Frank Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

Pedaling to Stop Traffic

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The following post was written by Mark Andrews, Spirited Life Group 3 participant and pastor at St. Luke’s UMC in Hickory.

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do is admit to my church that I need help.  Somehow, through almost thirty years of ministry I had taken for granted that as the spiritual leader of my congregation, I could never admit any weakness or vulnerability.  But keeping up that façade of invincibility has been catching up to me in these last few years.  In a new appointment with more staff and more administrative responsibilities I found myself less and less able to maintain the persona.

In the midst of this stress I began Spirited Life through the Clergy Health Initiative. At the same time I also took part in a year-long spiritual practices exploration called the School of the Spirit offered through The Lydia Group.  These two programs reinforced each other, and one of the messages that became clearer during this year was what Brene Brown calls the courage of vulnerability.  Somehow, if I was going to get better I must, first of all, admit I was needy, and secondly, ask for help.

With fear and trembling I went before my Staff-Parish Relations Team, then my Administrative Council, and finally, my congregation, asking for a three month renewal leave.  I told them I was weary and needed a rest from my responsibilities, with the hope that I would come back renewed and refreshed to continue ministry.  At each announcement, I received from my people powerful signs of grace, appreciative affirmations, and open-hearted permission to do what I needed.  Such an outpouring would have never happened had I not admitted my need.  And as a result, I have already begun the healing that I had denied myself but so desperately needed.Mark Andrews_bike

On June 1, I will begin my renewal leave by climbing on a bicycle and riding from the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina to the Pacific Coast of Oregon.  I plan to use this trip as a means of support for our United Methodist Women’s efforts to stop human trafficking.  As I ride 4000 miles, I hope to raise $10 a mile ($40,000 total!).  Your donations are welcome (Pedaling to Stop Traffic).

Most of all, I am making this trip for me.  I want . . . no, I need to do this.  I am anticipating a restoration of my soul as I use this time to reflect on my calling and how to fulfill it with greater vulnerability in the years I have left.

But I have already learned one thing — we who serve the needs of others must acknowledge that we have needs of our own, and we must be vulnerable to our congregations if we are ever to receive the help we need.

-Mark Andrews

Second-hand Stress

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In a ryoga-mojo-150x150ecent blog post, Jan Bruce, founder and CEO of meQuilibrium, introduced me to the idea of second-hand stress.  A distant cousin of second-hand smoke, which we’ve long known to be hazardous to our health, second-hand stress is a recognized condition that indicates you can actually “catch” stress from other people.  Who knew that stress was contagious?

Well, YOU probably knew — pastors are among the most empathetic people out there, a trait which allows you to connect with your parishioners, coworkers, friends, and family and support them in so many ways. However, Ms. Bruce suggests that “being attuned to others’ emotions means that you’re potentially leaving yourself wide open to their frantic, messy, grousing, all-around unpleasant feelings, too.”

Humans are biologically wired to mirror each others’ emotions. Stress management expert Joe Robinson says, “Even if we’re not physically imitating what we see, mirror neurons still fire off a simulated version of the activity in your head as if you actually did it. It’s all designed to help us learn, understand, empathize, and connect with what others are doing and feeling.”

Okay, so your kid slams the door on her way in after school, stressed studentthrows her book bag against the wall and starts pacing back and forth in your kitchen, all the while muttering (or yelling) about the injustices of middle school, teachers, fickle friends, and life in general. You, once a teenager yourself and now a caring mother/father, notice the hair on the back of your neck prickling, your heart rate speeding up, and your palms getting sweaty.  You’ve picked up a case of stress from your daughter!

meQ recommends building “an emotional buffer zone, [which] allows you the space to feel, acknowledge, and name your reactions as they are happening.” This will protect you from the harmful effects of your own stress response and help you channel your energy into a positive reaction.

Here are meQ’s 3 tips for buffering against this second-hand stress (some will work better than others in certain situations):

  1. Trap it, Map it, Zap it: Be aware of your body and emotions. Figure out where these emotions are coming from and what thoughts are behind them. Then, decide if these thoughts are based on reality, or are they just your own interpretation of the situation?
  2. Relaxation Techniques: “The more you practice simple relaxation techniques, the faster and more powerfully they come to your aid when you need them.” Check out these quick-fix relaxation techniques from meQ.
  3. Boundaries: Know what your boundaries are and make sure to stick to them. Are there topics you need to avoid with certain people? Are there times of day that should be off-limits for serious discussions with your spouse? Here are some other examples of personal boundaries.

To read the entire meQuilibrium post on second-hand stress, click here.  How do you protect yourself from it?

-Katie Huffman

First image courtesy of meQ; second image courtesy of Flickr user CollegeDegrees360 via CC.

Welcome to the Human Race

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ParkerJPalmer-informal6001Parker Palmer is a Quaker teacher, writer, and world-renowned speaker and activist. He has received ten honorary doctorates in addition to his other academic accomplishments. He is the founding partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal which, according to his wikipedia page, “oversees the “Courage to Teach” program for K-12 educators across the country and parallel programs for people in other professions, including medicine, law, ministry and philanthropy.” By any account, Palmer is successful, leading a fulfilling life and reaching many people with his ministry. And yet, at the height of his success, Palmer, when in his mid-forties, faced for the first time a debilitating depression.

let-your-life-speakIn his book, Let Your Life Speak he wrote about his experience. “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not just between people but between one’s mind and one’s feelings. To be reminded of that disconnection only deepened my despair” [p. 62]. This disconnection was experienced as friends unhelpfully tried to cheer him up, encouraging him to get outside and smell the flowers. He writes, “And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day.”

As someone who has wrestled with depression myself, I can attest to the difficulty of being with friends and loved ones who want to offer advice.  While they mean well, and I would never want to disparage them for the courage to try to walk with me in my suffering, a depressed person really doesn’t want to hear easy answers. As the story of Job reminds us, sitting in silence with the person who is suffering is an immense gift. Job 2:11-13 recounts,

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

In real life this can be so hard to do. When someone we care about is in pain, we naturally want to do all we can to help ease their suffering. But as Palmer goes on to write, “One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery” [p. 63].

Time passed and Palmer found treatment that helped him, though he continued to struggle over the years.  After a while he felt compelled to write publicly about his experience, and he was met with a surprising result–people REALLY responded to his experience with depression.  In a recent interview with Palmer, now in his seventies, he shares what he learned about being vulnerable in this way:

I’ve written nine books… but the one piece that I’ve written that has gotten the most response by far is a chapter in Let Your Life Speak about my experience with depression.  It’s my acknowledgement of weakness, it’s my capacity to be vulnerable which has made me more friends than whatever capacity I have to be smart and strong…

When you start understanding wholeness not as perfection but as embracing everything you are, then you become able to talk about it [weakness] and to invite other people to share those same pieces of their own lives.

For many people, Palmer included, writing and speaking about depression has been part of the healing process.  It can be so hard to take that first step and open our mouths to admit we are struggling, but so often that experience is liberating.  I know for me, when I have the courage to share with a trusted friend about my story, I open up the possibility of receiving new support, deepening that relationship, and allowing the other person to be honest about her own suffering.

Near the end of this short video interview, Palmer reminds the viewer of the Leonard Cohen song that says:

Forget your perfect offeringSunlight Shining Through Forest

Ring the bells that still can ring

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

Thank you Mr. Palmer, for your honesty and vulnerability, and for reminding us all that we are not alone in our suffering.  In fact, suffering is simply part of being a member of the human race.

Other Parker Palmer Resources:

  • I first heard Parker Palmer talk about his experience with depression in an interview on the NPR show, “On Being” with Krista Tippet.  It is a wonderful episode that I highly recommend!  Listen here >>
  • The 4-minute video interview with him talking about writing publicly about depression is excellent.  Click here to watch the short video.
  • His book, Let Your Life Speak, is excellent!  Well worth purchasing or checking out of your local library.
  • The website of his organization, the Center for Courage & Renewal, is pretty fascinating.

Caren Swanson

Healthy Pastor

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The following reflection from Pastor Grace Hackney was originally posted on the Spirited Life blog in January 2010 and is re-posted here with her permission.  Pastor Hackney was a Group 1 Spirited Life participant and is an elder in the Corridor District of the NCCUMC.Pastor Hackney

I want to be a healthy pastor. I know that mind, body and spirit are tightly interwoven. I know that God wants me to be healthy, whole, undivided. I learned as a child that my body was a temple of the Holy Spirit. But I also learned that we are clay pots, easily broken, able to be used even with cracks.  I know from experience that sometimes we are better vessels for the Holy Spirit when we are broken; it is only then that we can get ourselves out of the way and make room for the mighty Spirit of God to work.

I want to be a healthy pastor, in the fullest sense of the word. I was a Health and Physical Education major and captain of the field hockey team. As a young adult I ran a marathon. I married an exercise physiologist. As a young mother, I kept our children away from sodas and fast food and turned off the television except for special occasions.

I want to be a healthy pastor.

Last month I found myself sitting in the dentist’s chair with my mouth stretched open for a full two and a half hours as I received two gold crowns for Christmas. As I lay there unable to speak or move, my mind took me to the past seven years as a full-time elder in the church. “How has ministry changed me?” I pondered.

As a Wesleyan, I would like to say I have moved at least a little bit closer to perfection, or that I have at least glimpsed moments of perfection as I have pastored, preached, prodded, and otherwise served as shepherd of this flock.

Mouth stretched open, I counted the ways my body has changed in seven years: two gold crowns, fifteen added pounds, more gray hair. I have moved from perimenopause to menopause in seven years. I have sweated during the prayer of confession and bled as I broke the Body of Christ. I have joined the apostle Paul in sleepless nights and the Council has been witness to my mood swings, far surpassing those of pubescent girls.

I want to be a healthy pastor. I tell the congregation that I cannot live into my baptism until they live into their baptisms. I cannot be healthy unless they are committed to my health. I tell them, “it takes a community to practice Sabbath.”  The reverse is also true: they cannot live into their baptisms unless I live into my ordination; they cannot be a healthy congregation unless I am committed to their health. We need each other as we seek to be healthy, in the fullest sense of the word.

Wendell Berry has famously said that the smallest unit of health is community. Being a pastor is teaching me that. Women in their 50s are going to go through menopause and are probably going to have dental issues just as surely as teenagers are going to have acne. How we live with each other during these stages of life can be witness to our love of God and neighbor. It means that as pastors, we are fully human, and only striving for the spark of the Divine. It means that daily, we must step off the pedestals our parishioners try to put us on and into the muck and mire of living together. It means we make appointments with ourselves to walk, to ponder, to garden, to knit. It means we care what our church potlucks look like. It means we don’t bring a pound cake to the Trustees meeting because we love George, who is diabetic, and love doesn’t tempt one another.

I want to be a healthy pastor. I wonder if the salvation of the world is actually dependent upon our commitment to each other: body, mind, and soul. I wonder what Church would look like if we really believed that God loved us so much that he gave us his Son so that we could all be healthy, so that we could love one another so much that it would really matter what we ate, how we used our time, how we lived our lives together. I wonder if the non-Christian world would see us and say, “See how those Christians love one another?!”

I want to be a healthy pastor. Will you help me?

-Grace Hackney

Snow day

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With snow in the forecast for much of Central and Eastern North Carolina today, this is a timely reflection from Wellness Advocate, Lisa MacKenzie.

Last week I visited my daughter, her husband, and my 5-month-old granddaughter in Pennsylvania.  It was bitterly cold and snowy, and I realized that I had been missing the crisp mid-winter chill and crunchy snow and the hush that comes with January storms in the northeast.

Looking out the kitchen window one morning, holding baby Guin, I watched cardinals in the cardinal in snowfront hedge against the pure white of fresh snow and thought about the 2 months of winter ahead and the storms that would inevitably come along with the disruption and inconvenience of slippery roads, school closings and frozen pipes. But in all the chaos of storms comes the blessing of solitude and stillness.  I thought that morning that I had been given this gift of space and solitude many times but often didn’t acknowledge the gift—maybe it was the warmth and cuddliness of a baby and the smell of wood smoke along with the softness of the gentle light at dawn that became prayer in the quiet kitchen. That morning I didn’t miss the gift.

I read a recent post about snow days on a blog called the Busted Halo by Christina Gebel. She writes:
What I realized, or perhaps simply remembered, is that snow is a reminder to take pause, with others or even just with ourselves. The presence of snow can be a great spiritual exercise for us, inviting us to quiet down and be with ourselves.
If you want to accept the invitation to pause and go deeper, you might consider a few of these suggestions:
•    Read a good book. Though it might sound cliché, how often have you “been meaning to” read something but never gotten around to it? Maybe there’s a spiritual read you’ve been meaning to pick up. Try starting the book on a snow day and then reading five pages each night as part of your nightly prayer.
•    Have fun. There is no rule that only kids can have fun in the snow. When was the last time you went sledding? Went for a walk in the woods during winter? Went ice-skating? Built a snowman?  A snow day is the time.
•    Take a good look at snow. Snow is symbolic of so much of the spiritual beauty in our lives. Why do you think God made snow the way it is? Would it convey the same feelings if it were a different color? Different texture? Each snowflake is unique, reflecting the diversity of God’s creation. It’s made of water, which can be both soothing and powerful, reflecting the humility and omnipotence of God. Take a glove-full of fresh snow and meditate on the beauty and paradox of God’s creation.
•    Be still. Be quiet. Snow has the ability to quiet a city, but it can also quiet our inner self. Go outside and stand in front of a winterscape. Or stay inside and feel the warmth and the absence of sounds outdoors. Repeat, to yourself, the line from the popular hymn, “For You, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits.”

So now I am home in Apex and it seems to me it’s time for a snow day… maybe you think so too.

-Lisa MacKenzie

Lisa-MacKenzie-90x120

 

 

Image by Flickr user rkramer62 via Creative Commons

The benefits of yoga

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After having been away from my exercise routine for several months, I’m at a point where I’m ready to get back to the gym.  My body and brain are making it loud and clear that it’s time.

When I think of exercise, images of treadmills, weight machines, and spinning bikes come to mind because that’s what has always been part of my routine.  But in the background, I hear the faint voices of friends (and some pastors, too) urging me to give yoga a try.  To be honest, I’ve never really thought of yoga as exercise and have been skeptical of people who rely on it for their primary source of aerobic and strength training.BodyOnYoga

I came across this infographic on the Eat Smart Move More Weigh Less blog and followed the link to the Huffington post article where it originated.  It was fascinating to see how many parts of the mind and body are impacted by yoga and to read about some of the emerging research to support these claims.  (Click on the image at right to see a larger view and to read the article).

I’m searching for something to fulfill a mind-body need, and I think throwing yoga into the mix of my regular workouts might be just the thing.  If you are a yoga fan, what have you found to be its greatest benefit?

Katie Huffman

Supporting your pastor

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8943594714_ae8f9a8656_bIn Spirited Life and on this blog, we typically offer up ways that pastors can take charge of their health and implement new habits in their lives to support their own wellness.  We realized that most of us Spirited Life staff and many of our blog readers are lay people.  What can WE do as parishioners, lay leaders, committee members to help promote the health and well-being of the pastors at our own churches?  Here are some ideas our team generated.

  • Ask pastors about their hobbies and interests and support them in doing those activities.
  • Encourage them to take ALL of their vacation and volunteer to help with tasks in their absence.
  • Offer ‘spaces away’ for pastors to go for time of rest and renewal or uninterrupted work.
  • Limit ‘dropping in’ on pastors, realizing that talking to them for ‘just a minute’ likely will end up as a 15 minute conversation and distract them from other tasks.
  • Affirm and encourage your pastor by giving specific feedback on a sermon or Bible study you enjoyed; mention an occasion where you acted on something she preached or prayed.
  • 5445646178_f8e9522b4c_bWhen it comes to gift giving, think outside of the pound cake.  Here are some alternatives: gift cards for massage therapy, candles, new books, houseplants, hobby-related items.
  • Agree to a walking meeting or suggest an alternative meeting location such as a local park or picnic area.
  • Generate energy around health and well being among your congregation and community: organize a church walking/running group, health fair, or health-related discussion series.
  • Meet with church leadership and discuss what current ministries could be led by lay people instead of clergy.
  • Respect your pastor’s day off and Sabbath time by not calling or scheduling meetings on those days.
  • Encourage your church to observe pastor appreciation month in October each year.

What are other ways that churches can support their pastors’ holistic health?

-Katie Huffman

Images by flickr users NCinDC and hellojenuine, via creative commons.

Do You Need A New Rhythm? ~ Part II

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This is the second in a special series on Sabbath by guest blogger Rev. Dianne Lawhorn. Please read the first installment here. We offer these reflections in the hope that over the next few weeks you will feel invited to deepen your own Sabbath practice. Check back on the next two Mondays to read the rest of Dianne’s thoughts on this important topic.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now this idea of observing a “stop day” isn’t a new one.  It was thought of long before any of us were.  We find it in the biblical concept of Sabbath-keeping.  I love the way that Exodus 20:8 gives us this command: “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy.”  Dr. Matthew Sleeth speaks of this.  He says “In the beginning of time, God created for 6 days and what did God do on the 7th day?  He rested.  God created the world and said it was good.  God created humans and he said they were very good.  God created the Sabbath and he said it was holy.” 

8537281481_7aeec88600_hThe Sabbath was something that God created, observed, and modeled for us, not because God needed it, but because God knew we needed it.  That’s why God provided it for us as a gift,  blessed it for us, and made it holy.  Sabbath was all about helping the Hebrew people to establish rhythms for life that would sustain them.  Their identity was shaped by embracing God’s rhythm of working for 6 days and resting on the 7th day, letting it be a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.  The Hebrew people were no different than we are, they didn’t think they could take a day free from work and still get everything done.  Moses encouraged them to trust that God would take care of their needs.  With baby steps, they learned how to cease from their labors, how to enter Sabbath- rest.  Developing this pattern in their lives involved a radical re-ordering of their priorities.

Do we think we’ve evolved beyond needing this rhythm that God created for the people?  If we are honest, we’ll admit that we need this radical re-ordering of our priorities, now more than ever.  The business, the hurry, the overload of our lives is so much less than what God wants for us.  We’ve been missing out on the pace of a Sabbath day for a long time, on experiencing a rhythm that includes stopping, slowing, and resting.  Can you imagine what this might look like, feel like, and mean to our lives to have a day every week for Sabbath-rest?

So, maybe for pastors Sunday can’t be our Sabbath.  We can certainly claim this kind of a day on another day of the week, can’t we?  I believe Sabbath-rest can be a reality for us, if we recognize the need for it, and create space in our lives for it.  Maybe we, like the Hebrews, could simply take a baby step today by embracing even just an hour of true Sabbath time.

May God guide us as we seek to recover this precious gem that has been lost, so that we can experience a new rhythm of life that includes holy rest.  With a deep breath, a prayer intention, and willing trust in God to provide for our needs, let us begin to reclaim the gift of Sabbath-rest.

–Dianne Lawhorn

DianneDianne is currently the Minister of Spiritual Formation for the Lydia Group which is a resource for spiritual wholeness offering formational teaching, retreat leadership, and spiritual direction.

Image from Flickr user Grand Canyon NPS, via Creative Commons.