behavior · brain · cognition · happiness · health · Mental · mental health · Nature · psychology

Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime – Scientific American

I’m working on an article for work, and came across this article as part of my research for the article. It pretty much sums up everything I wanted to say (darn it!).

Americans and their brains are preoccupied with work much of the time. Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy. What if the brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and generate its most innovative ideas? “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

In contrast to the European Union, which mandates 20 days of paid vacation, the U.S. has no federal laws guaranteeing paid time off, sick leave or even breaks for national holidays. In the Netherlands 26 days of vacation in a given year is typical. In America, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong workers average 10 days off each year. Yet a survey by Harris Interactive found that, at the end of 2012, Americans had an average of nine unused vacation days. And in several surveys Americans have admited that they obsessively check and respond to e-mails from their colleagues or feel obliged to get some work done in between kayaking around the coast of Kauai and learning to pronounce humuhumunukunukuapua’a.

more via Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime – Scientific American.

The article focuses on mental downtime options like naps and meditation, which are awesome, but I would argue that being awake and aware, but also not actively engaged, like going for a walk or just sitting down and observing a garden, are good options too, especially since getting outside has also shown to be mentally reinvigorating.

behavior · brain · creativity · disease · happiness · mental health · Nature · play · psychology

10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science – The Buffer Blog

I think I’ve talked about ALL of these tips individually on the blog before, so I’m thrilled that somebody combined them into a “Top 10 With Science!” post:


Happiness is so interesting, because we all have different ideas about what it is and how to get it. It’s also no surprise that it’s the Nr.1 value for Buffer’s culture, if you see our slidedeck about it. So naturally we are obsessed with it.

I would love to be happier, as I’m sure most people would, so I thought it would be interesting to find some ways to become a happier person that are actually backed up by science. Here are ten of the best ones I found.

1. Exercise More (7 minutes might be enough)

2. Sleep More

read all 10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science – The Buffer Blog.

I particularly like suggestion #5.

behavior · environment · health · mental health

How to Find a Quiet Space for Meditation

Levitating, Meditating, Flute-playing Gnu
How do you find space to relax and/or meditate? Image via Wikipedia

Work has been really hectic lately, and I’m finding it can be hard to find a quiet place for myself, not only metaphorically, but even physically. My house is full of dog or husband, the bus is impossible, and it seems like there isn’t an empty spot anywhere in the whole 20-story building I work in.

Here is some great advice from blog Quieting the Mind “for finding a quiet space for meditation:”

Make sure everyone in the house knows not to disturb you. If you have young children who can’t understand this, make sure to meditate when your spouse or someone else is home, so they can care for the children during this time. It’s only ten minutes. Surely, someone can ward off any distractions.

Find the quietest room in your house and set a little area that is designated for meditation. Always use the same room and close the door when you meditate. This way, people will know not to disturb you.

Meditate at the same time every day. If your household knows that you wake up at 5 a.m. to get your daily meditation in every day, they’ll learn to respect your privacy during that time.

If all else fails, put up a sign: “Meditating: Do not disturb!” If you get a distraction (one that isn’t an emergency) pretend you don’t hear the person. They won’t continue interrupting you if they don’t ever get a response.

Invite others to meditate with you. They may enjoy it, but best of all, you’ll all have some quiet time. It may take some getting used to for everyone, so allow an adjustment period, but it can really be worth it.

more via How to Find a Quiet Space for Meditation.

How do you make space, both using time and physical space, to find a piece of quiet? I know of more than a few people who use their commute as their quiet time, but that doesn’t work for others (myself included). Where else?

behavior · brain · cognition · emotion

Meditation leads to less mind wandering, more doing

Meditation helps people stay on task and reduce stress. Image by plemeljr via Flickr

Thanksgiving and the Black Friday rush are behind us, but for many it is just the beginning of a crazy month. How to destress from last week’s trials and tribulations (and sales) and stay focused on this month’s tasks, including work? Meditation:

The brains of experienced meditators appear to be fitter, more disciplined and more “on task” than do the brains of those trying out meditation for the first time. And the differences between the two groups are evident not only during meditation, when brain scans detect a pattern of better control over the wandering mind among experienced meditators, but when the mind is allowed to wander freely.

Those insights emerge from a study to be published next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at two groups: highly experienced meditators and meditation novices, and compared the operations of the “Default Mode Network” — a newly identified cluster of brain regions that go to work when our brains appear to be “offline.”

“I think its safe to say this is brain-training at work,” says Yale University psychiatrist Judson Brewer, who conducted the study with psychologists from Yale, the University of Oregon and Columbia University. “It makes sense,” adds Brewer. “Anything you train to do, you do better.”

In fact, some studies have found that too much daydreaming or getting off task can have negative effects:

A study that tracked the daily activities and moods of iPhone users-published in Science magazine last November–found that those whose minds were wandering off task more often were more depressed. People who suffer from attention deficit disorder also have difficulty keeping mind-wandering at bay, which may be why many studies have found that meditation helps those with attention deficit disorder.

more via This is your mind on meditation: less wandering, more doing –

Now truth be told, I am not that great at sitting still and clearing my mind. In fact none of us are. But, even attempting to clear one’s mind for 30 seconds at a time has been found to be truly beneficial. Just focusing on one’s breathing for two or three rounds of breathing in and out has been shown to be calming and rejuvenating.

If sitting still is not your thing, stretching, walking or running are also good ways to clear your mind, and they provided the added benefit of exercise.

Remember to breath deep this holiday season! It will improve your mood and overall ability to handle tense situations in any environment, from shopping to grandma to bad weather.

behavior · brain · emotion · mental health

The One Minute Vacation from The Business School of Happiness

Animation of a diaphragm exhaling and inhaling
Follow this cartoon's directions and fill your lungs all the way to your diaphragm, and push the air out from the same place. Image via Wikipedia

Just a nice reminder to breathe every once in a while, courtesy of the Business School of Happiness:

The mere thought of taking a vacation can bring a smile to almost anyone’s face. The idea of getting away from work loads, demanding children, school and any and all other commitments that make up daily life is immensely appealing.

Unfortunately, time and money may hamper making those visions of relaxation reality. This need not be the case because that the same relaxing benefits of taking a vacation can be found in minutes of simple meditation interspersed throughout the day. In fact, three one minute sessions of deep breathing–taken at pre-set intervals throughout the day may indeed deliver the deep sense of peacefulness that might have seemed elusive.

The secret? Schedule a minute of relaxation every two to three hours–just like you would an appointment or meeting. Mark it on your calendar so you don’t forget. Then, find a quiet place. Lock yourself in a bathroom stall if it is your only option or pull over while driving. Close your eyes and take a series of 10-20 very deep, thoughtful breaths.

more tips on breathing via The One Minute Vacation » The Business School of Happiness.

In all honesty I am the worst when it comes to taking time for myself, even a minute. But I posted this exercise, or at least one very similar, to my desk cubicle at work, and even if I don’t give myself a relaxing vacation every couple of hours, it does remind me that that is an option, and it is much more productive than fretting for those two or three minutes.

It may feel weird at first, but give it a shot: breathe innnn sloooooowwwly until you think you can’t fill your lungs any fuller, and then let sloooooowwwly let it out. There, I bet you feel better already. Remember, the more breathing you do the better it is for your brain.

environment · Me · mental health · Nature · play · smell

A morning communion

deciduous azaleaEnrichment is…

Waking before dawn, and being called out by the morning birds to go participate in the celebration of dawn.

I lie in bed, awaken from being overheated under my down comforter. I had been cold and left the heat on last night, foolishly, for now I am up and alert, at 5:30 in the morning. I toss and turn a little, and lie on my back, hands resting on my chest and stomach, almost as if in meditation or prayer.

I don’t know how long I lie there, but soon enough the light outside changes from cold, harsh street lamps to a softer natural light. Suddenly I hear a bird announcing his presence in the tree above my bedroom. His song is joined by a second kind of beat, the first lolling, the other more short and chirpy. A third chimes in with his sing-songy notes. For whatever reason, I am moved to join them. Not in song, but a need to be witness to this ageless ritual of the morning, of virility, of male posturing, of spring.

It is spring; after a long rainy winter, it is finally starting to be spring. In the dark of my bedroom I feel for my grandfather’s work shirt and a pair of leggings. I find a pair of Converse waiting by the back door. Slowly, so as not to wake the dog or my husband I left behind both soundly asleep, I unlock the door, tie my shoes, and I am gone.

I could easily just stand out in my backyard, listening, still as a newly budding daffodil in this morning gray. But I must move. I must be a part of it. I want to deeply breathe in the cold wet air, to feel the morning on my hands and face. While it is a warmer morning than I’ve felt in awhile, the air is brisk with only one layer on, but walking keeps me just warm enough. I walk north past the church where last weekend the boy scouts had their gardening fundraiser, the yard now empty, abandoned in this pre-morning gray. There are no cars, no people. Just me and birds, and they are the only ones brave enough to break the silence.

I see fat robins picking at things in the street; they must have better eyes than me to make out anything edible in this pre-dawn light, or maybe just being closer to the ground helps.

A pair of runners and their dog cross my path a block up, reminding me that I am not the only human alive. Gaining momentum before charging up a small hill, they do not see me, they are lost in their own morning meditation.

I pass under a series of pink blooming plum trees, and as I pass their fragrance fills my nostrils. It is glorious. I breathe in deeply, letting the fruity blossom smell reach all the way into the back of my throat. My pace is perfect so that I am able to perform a deep, yoga-like breath under each tree, taking the smell in, considering the slightly different fragrance each tree puts off. One is farther along in its blooming cycle, and the white flowers are less fruity than the pink ones, more subtle. As I walk under them the air temperature changes to just a few degrees warmer. It is a pleasant respite from the cool morning air.

The houses on the street are all darkened, except for the occasional porch light or living room lamp left on. They are still asleep. Wise souls. Foolish souls for missing the morning.

The street dead ends onto another cross street, and I turn, starting to make my rectangular route around the neighborhood. Each garden’s plants are in a different state of bloom, from sticks to buds to a few purple and pink azalea blooms already in full show. Some gardeners have already started their new beds this year, others haven’t touched them, or let them go to weed.

My study of the local architecture is distracted by another human; a homeless man with shaggy graying, sun-bleached hair, in baggy clothes and a plastic bag tied to his shirt is walking down the other side of the street, slowly but with a purpose. He ignores me as we walk towards each other on opposite sides of the street. As he passes from my peripheral view I wonder what he is doing out wandering around the neighborhood this time of morning, then realize he could just as easily think the same of me; what is this strange girl doing in just a large flannel work shirt and leggings doing wandering the neighborhood this time of morning?

I see another runner reach his front walkway as I make the final turn onto my street. The light is finally starting to turn yellow, streaming up under the clouds, lighting them with streaks of yellow and orange. The birds are now in full chorus. My hands are chilled, but I am filled with gratitude that I got to see this morning arrive. I lift my up my back gate and carefully swing it open so it won’t scrape the pavement, still trying to keep quiet.

I take a moment, standing on my back porch, letting the bird song and wet, cold morning air drift over me. I want to share this with my entire household. I want to share this moment of awakeness, aliveness, and sense of being a part of the world. But the secret to this moment’s success is that it is a solitary event, it is alone and quiet. Just me and the birds, the plum blossoms, the rhododendron bushes, and the cold wet air.

I go inside to get warm just as the sun splits the clouds open and it starts to rain.