Health and Happiness

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Right now, I’m the fittest and healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m also the happiest I’ve been in a long time, and the two are inextricably linked.  I can see a correlation with my development as a runner with Run Dem Crew and my increased reservoirs of well-being, inner strength and balance. That doesn’t mean that I’m naturally healthy or happy. I have to work at both, but it’s time well spent.

 My journey to fitness has been explored here (https://anotherwisemonkey.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/how-i-ditched-an-unhealthy-lifestyle-and-got-into-running/) so I won’t cover old ground again, but will try to identify the factors contributing to my current state. I should also point out that in all our lives there are some things that we can’t control, and sometimes these bring unavoidable unhappiness, but we can learn to do the best we can with what we’ve got. Just because something happened one way in the past, doesn’t mean it has to be that way in the present or the future. I hope no-one feels I’m trying to teach them to suck eggs, and I hope that some of what follows will be useful.

 One of my motivations for this blog post is gratefulness. Two people close to me currently have chronic illnesses. They are often incapacitated and unable to do the things they want to, which is very sad. This has made me appreciate my own good health and made me determined to take steps to safeguard it, although I know that there are no guarantees. I exercise for myself, but also in part for those who can’t, or won’t, or don’t dare to.

 Part of life is death, and I’ve been unfortunate enough to lose some people close to me, while they and I were still young. This has taught to “live life while you’re alive”, to quote the poet Ben Okri. To me, that means being present in your day-to-day life, making valuable connections with others and being alive to the wonder of the world. It doesn’t mean YOLO, or exhausting yourself through being overly hedonistic. I’m becoming more aware of the value of balance in all things.

 So here are my tips for a healthy, happy life:

 1)      Spend time with the people that make you happy

For most people this is friends and family, but I know sometimes relationships go through downs as well as ups. It’s easy when you’re feeling a little negative to just crawl under the duvet and hide from the world, but 9 times out of 10, if you actually make the effort and go and meet that person, you’ll feel better for it. We all need some time alone, and some people are more introspective than others, but regular check ins with the people that mean a lot to you are important so you can feel connected, loved, appreciated and restored.

I used to spend a lot of time chained to the games console, sacrificing hours at a time to unlocking the next level of Zelda or Grand Theft Auto. It’s true, those games are enjoyable in some ways, but the grind I had to put in to beat these games was probably not worth the payback at the end. Who cares about those worlds, apart from maybe a few other gamers that you know? So I’ve ditched the computer games in favour of running, often with others, and catching up with people. Multiplayer games such as Mario Kart and FIFA are better for your happiness and health than one-player games, as they at least bring people together, but let’s be honest, we all spend plenty of hours in private honing our skills before we go public with these games.

A lot of people also suffer from spending too much time online, chained to their laptop, tablet or smart-phone. Again, there’s value in the online world, for sure- it’s fantastic that there’s so much information available at the touch of a button, and the social networks are useful tools for keeping in the loop with multiple people,. But all too often the tool ends up controlling the user, instead of the other way round. The internet is a tool, like a saw, or a vacuum cleaner. Used effectively it can improve the quality of your life, but all too often it takes over and becomes your life. So, to paraphrase the old childrens’ TV programme ‘Why Don’t You?’, “just switch off the internet, go outside and do something less boring instead.”

Real conversations and time spent in peoples’ real lives, as opposed to the highly-selective glossy magazine version that some of us present on the net, is the way forward.

 2)      Eat healthily

Eating healthily makes you feel better and leaves you in a better state of mind. Chaka Bars once said that you don’t see people binge eating vegetables, because there are nutrients in them, and when your body’s had enough, you stop eating. We binge-eat Pringles, McDonalds and Haribo because these foods have little or no nutritional value. Really, what do crisps do for your body? I know it’s hard to give up all the snacks that we’re addicted to, but really, processed food is not good for you, so it should be the exception rather than the rule. Many people unconsciously engage in binge-eating as a way of dealing with anxiety or depression. You get a short-term satisfaction, but ultimately are left feeling even worse than you were before. So next time you find yourself reaching for the junk food, ask yourself, why am I  doing this? Is there something you’re finding difficult to deal with that you’re avoiding. If there is, the short-term pain of actually fronting up to the difficulty will be outweighed by the long-term gain of dealing with it and then moving forward.

To take things a bit further, I’ve gotten into eating seasonally and healthily over the past year. There’s a great website, eattheseasons.co.uk, that highlights what foods are in season each week, and I try to buy and eat those whenever possible. The benefit is you’re eating food that has been produced more locally, therefore helping local farmers and businesses, you’re reducing carbon footprint because it hasn’t had to be transported far, and most importantly, you’re eating delicious food at it’s freshest and best. I now eat a far wider range of food than I used to, particularly seafood, and there are many studies which show a range of health benefits as a result of this.

 Eating is a great thing to do with other people, so if you’re the creative sort in the kitchen, invite friends or family round for a meal or a barbecue. If not, head out to a good restaurant and enjoy yourself.

 3)      Get moving

Run, play sport, cycle, walk- do whatever you would like to do. Exercise not only makes you feel better physically, it makes you feel better mentally, as well. A recent survey showed that just 9% of people suffering from depression relapsed if they fought depression either through exercise alone, or through exercise and medication. This compared to a 37% relapse rate among those who only used medication. I’m very lucky to have found Run Dem Crew, a fantastic community of positive-minded running folk which is based near me in London- you can read more about them here (link). Since joining up with them, my lifestyle has changed massively. It would be possible to run with crew members pretty much every day of the week if you wanted to. The biggest change has been that now a lot of my socialising is based around running, whereas before the majority involved alcohol. Sometimes we go for a beer and/ or some food after a run, but it’s just a completely different mentality to the prevailing UK booze culture, which, in my case, I had grown tired of.

 Whatever sport you want to do, you’re more likely to stick at it and enjoy it if you do it with other people. I know it can be really daunting to go along that first time- it’s like the first day of school all over again- but the benefits are really worth it.  Taking things further, if you’re a goal oriented person like me, once you’ve taken up a sport, give yourself something to work towards, whether that’s a weight-loss goal, participating in a match, entering a race, etc. I find that having a goal to work towards gives me a reason to keep running on the days when I don’t necessarily feel like it- and I always feel better after running, without fail. In the case of running, go online and find yourself a training plan to help you get in shape for that 5K, or whatever it would be. There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience available on the internet, and if you tap into it you can train sensibly and safely, avoiding risk of injury.

 4)      Get outside

One of the biggest benefits I’ve found from running is that it gets me out of the flat and the workplace on an almost daily basis. I’m fortunate enough to have been able to run for a year now, and it’s been a joy to see the local area move through a full cycle of seasons. Being outside connects you with nature. We spend so much of our time chained to our computers or our smartphones, but none of this was part of regular life even 30 years ago, so reboot your system and do what your ancestors have been doing since the dawn of time and get outside. I just feel happier outside, particularly if the sun’s shining. Looking up at the clouds, or the stars in the night sky, can give you a sense of perspective on your problems which is a real blessing. Taking the time to notice the industry of a bee or a the dance of a butterfly will give you a sense of wellbeing which will fortify you for the rest of the day. I love this William Blake poem on this matter:

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5)      Be creative

We are all creative, whether we believe we are or not. Many of us have had negative experiences at school or growing up that have led us to believe that we’re “not that type of person”, but I guarantee you, there will be something you enjoy creating if you investigate. For some, it’s creating art, or music, or writing. For others, it’s DIY, computer programming or cooking. In this modern consumer age, it’s so important to take some time to make our own marks in this world, whether that is something that we share with just one or two other people, or a wider audience. If you haven’t taken time in the last week to make something just for the joy of it, I really recommend you do so. It doesn’t matter how big or small the undertaking, just do it. I guarantee you’ll feel better for it.

6)      Let go of bad habits

We all do certain things that aren’t the best for us. I managed to give up smoking 9 years ago. It was incredibly hard, but the benefits have been fantastic. I feel better, I’ve increased my life expectancy and saved £13,104 on cigarettes. You can read more specifically about my misadventures when quitting smoking here:

https://anotherwisemonkey.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/how-not-to-quit-smoking/

 Not all bad habits are as obvious as smoking, though. Sometimes, we can be guilty of having a negative way of thinking in certain situations. Just because something happened negatively in the past, doesn’t mean that it will in the future. Rewiring your mind to be optimistic and positive can be done quite simply, eg through taking time at the end of each day to write a list of things that you are grateful for. Try it. It worked for me.

 7)      Take in some culture

Go to concerts, the theatre, dance shows. There’s something very energising about watching skilled performers doing their thing in the live arena. If money’s an issue, there’s loads of free stuff in London: go to museums, check out some street art, attend a free talk on the South Bank. Absorbing culture is food for your mind and is best enjoyed with a friend.

8)      Spend time with little people

Children know the things adults have forgotten. They see the magic in things and everything is a new experience. I’ve recently become an uncle and am loving spending time with the little man. A work colleague recently brought her baby into work and it was incredible to see the transformation in the adults in the staff room.

 9)      Be part of something bigger than yourself

I’m lucky enough to work in the teaching profession. I work in and for a community that is complex, diverse and faced with a huge range of challenges. I’m fortunate, because when I get caught up in my own problems, I can apply myself to helping others with theirs. It helps me to have some perspective on my own situation.

So if you’re not lucky enough to work in one of the so-called caring professions, find a way to reach out and get involved in a cause that matters to you. Maybe you will raise money for a charity. Maybe you’ll volunteer time or skills. Helping others is helping yourself. A smile is the shortest distance between two people. Make someone smile on a regular basis.

As part of Run Dem Crew, I’m privileged to hear incredible stories of some of the individuals I run with. I’m constantly inspired by the people I run with, and the young people that I work with. It’s so important to have something that is more important to you than yourself.

10)      Do more of what you enjoy

This is the bottom line and underpins everything. I’m not talking about YOLO here. I’m not advocating a life without responsibilities, or hedonism without any regard to the cost to others. But I’ve found this year that by focusing on the things that I like doing, and doing them as much as possible, I have a smile on my face so much more of the time. We have so many things that we feel we “should” do, and it’s easy for a day to become one long to-do list. If that sounds familiar, be good to yourself. Take the time to build in a little mini-holiday in your day when you get to do exactly what you really enjoy.  You’ll return to the to-do list feeling fortified and refreshed, and those around you will probably enjoy your company more, too.

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