We all experience stress, and over the past 15 months, our collective stress has been amplified by a pandemic, racially motivated violence and polarized politics. Some of us may also be anxious about coming back to campus soon to work. How can we cope with the circumstances around us? Science shows positive relationships can help us construct a more hopeful outlook and even flourish, plus, mindfulness activities relieve stress, while improving concentration and reducing chronic pain. Interested? Read on.
Longest study on human flourishing
In the 1930s, scientists began tracking health-related variables for more than 250 Harvard University sophomores. Thus began a longitudinal study that sought to uncover keys to happiness and human flourishing. The study, initially labeled the Harvard Study of Adult Development, followed participants annually for nearly 80 years, collecting data on health-related variables.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.” Waldinger’s TED talk, titled “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” provides additional information.
Healthy relationships help people cope with adversity, including physical pain and diseases. Waldinger notes, “Loneliness kills…it’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
George Valliant championed the study for several decades and wrote a book summarizing his findings titled “Aging Well.” He identified a dose-response relationship for five variables that predicted resiliency for participants: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having effective ways to cope with adversity, maintaining a healthy weight and at least one stable relationship.”
Coping in a stressful world
One striking finding of this study is that genes and external factors are not as predictive of happiness compared to things that we can control such as physical activity, moderation with alcohol, avoiding tobacco, enhancing coping capacities, maintaining a healthy weight and nurturing our relationships.
There is a growing body of evidence supporting mindfulness activities as a means of improving both mental and physical health. Recently, there has been an increased interest in stimulating the vagus nerve, which is a part of the central nervous system that aids in the functioning of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Research suggests doing so can increase emotional awareness, improve concentration, relieve stress, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain and improve sleep.
Some simple mindfulness activities include the following:
- 5-4-3-2-1: In any moment, stop and notice 5 things you SEE; 4 things you can TOUCH (or are touching you); 3 things you can HEAR; 2 things you can SMELL; 1 thing you can TASTE.
- Take a deep breath on the top of each hour, making sure your exhale is longer than your inhale (e.g. inhale for a 4-count; exhale for a 6-count) and bringing your attention to the breath.
- Pull up a favorite scene in your Calm app and transport yourself to that place. Remember to incorporate all your senses as you imagine yourself in that relaxing, secure place.
About the writers: Lesley Weiss and Adam Dell are licensed mental health professionals who work at the Notre Dame Wellness Center. If you or benefit-eligible family members are interested in scheduling an appointment with either of them, call 574-634-9355 to request an initial appointment.
“Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development” by George Eman Vaillant