Keys to Happiness: Gratitude, Health and Thankfulness

Make every hour of your day a happy hour

Keys to Happiness: Gratitude, Health and Thankfulness

So, the last time I wrote about happiness I discussed the growing body of research showing that happiness can make you healthier—and can help you live longer.

Which is good to know.

If you’re a happy person.

But...you might be wondering: is it even possible to become happier? We all know people who are genuinely happy—doesn’t it seem like they’re just naturally that way?

Well, to those questions—it’s a little bit yes and a little bit no.

To a certain degree, our individual happiness levels are inherent. Researchers now believe we all have a happiness “set-point”…that after a big positive—or negative—event occurs in our lives, after the adjustment period, we revert back to our previous level of happiness.

Take lottery winners, for example. This is a well-studied phenomenon, that winning a lottery seems to bring happiness for a short period of time, but that people do, relatively quickly, return to the same level of happiness—or unhappiness—they knew before the windfall.

But our happiness level isn’t totally inherent. Set point isn’t everything.

In fact, researchers estimate that approximately 40% of our happiness level is potentially changeable by our own actions. 40% is up to us.

And with a 40% slice of the pie, you could make a big difference in how happy you are.

So what are the things you can do to improve your happiness?


There are at least a dozen strategies with a whole lot of research behind them.

But in this post, I’m going to start with just one.

Namely: gratitude.

To start, check out this quote the French novelist Colette: "What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner."

A little funny, right? But also...kinda haunting.

Thing is, most of us can relate to this. I know I can. I’m pretty guilty of just blasting through my days, working towards various things, and not taking time to be thankful for the way things just are.

The advice to “count your blessings” is one of those commandments that sounds trite and vaguely nauseating. But there’s a lot of good research to show that people who take the time—and it doesn’t have to be a lot of time—to be thankful for things in their life, are significantly higher on the happiness scale.

In one study, for example, researchers instructed subjects to write down 5 things for which they were thankful; they did this once a week for ten weeks.

What they found was: “relative to control groups, the gratitude group tended to feel more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives. Even their health received a boost—they reported fewer physicial symptoms (eg. headaches, acne, coughing, nausea) and spent more time exercising."

And this was just one study. There’s a whole body of research to show that gratitude has great power.

So how do you actually put this into practice?

Well, fortunately, there are a lot of ways to cultivate the habit of gratitude. The key is to choose an approach that works for you. Here are some thoughts to get you started:

  • Many people keep a gratitude journal. Writing in it regularly, jotting down the little—and big—things you’re thankful for has a nice way of crystallizing those thoughts.
  • Or, you might consider starting a gratitude ritual that doesn't involve writing anything down. Choose a certain moment or time, like when you’re taking your first sip of coffee for the day, or when you climb into bed at night, to think of three things you're thankful for. 
  • One of my favourite writers on happiness, Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project) wrote this blog post about her newest gratitude prompt: a threshold ritual. She takes a moment to be thankful whenever she’s crossing the threshold from the street outside into her home. A nice idea, no?
  • Remember, the things you’re expressing gratitude for do not have to be big things (although they can be). But it can just be expressing gratitude for some simple thing. Like: I’m thankful that my hair looks good today. I’m thankful that the Italians invented cappuccino. I’m thankful that, in an uncharacteristic show of cooperation, my toddler fell asleep easily today.
  • Try keeping a gratitude board--with sticky notes, for example. Keep it inside your closet door, and you'll see it whenever you open the closet to get dressed.
  • Or make a gratitude collage.
  • Or...Pinterest, perhaps?


See? There's something right there that I'm thankful for. Pinterest.



What's The Big Deal About Hypertension?

Under Pressure

What's The Big Deal About Hypertension?

It’s not the sort of thing you would feel.

It’s certainly not something you can see.

“I feel fine,” is the kind of thing you would say. And all the while, it would be silently damaging your heart. Your eyes. Your kidneys.

Sound scary?

It doesn’t have to be.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is ridiculously common (an estimated 1 in 5 Canadians have it). My dad has it. My mom seems to be developing it. One of my best girlfriends is teetering on the borderline. And not a day goes by that I don’t see several patients with hypertension.

Thing is, checking blood pressure is easy. And—even better—it’s highly treatable. So—why would anyone develop the sort of complications high blood pressure can cook up?

Good question.

The kicker is this: we can only treat hypertension—and stop the damage—if we know it’s there. And, like I said, you don’t necessarily get symptoms when your blood pressure is too high. As a result, many of us have no idea we have a problem. And that, my friends, is why it’s called the silent killer.

But maybe I need to back up a little. What is blood pressure, exactly?

Blood pressure is the force exerted by your blood on the walls of your arteries. A blood pressure measurement consists of two numbers. The “top” number (or systolic blood pressure, if you want to get fancy about it) is the maximum force your vessels receive, when your heart contracts and pushes blood forward through your body. The “bottom” number (or diastolic blood pressure) is the lowest pressure on your vessels, when your heart relaxes between beats.

You may get a slightly different reading at different times of day, or even minute to minute. That’s normal. What we’re interested in? The overall trend, what your blood pressure is like on average. Ideally, you want your blood pressure below 135/85. If you’re consistently over 140/90, we would call that high blood pressure.

So why is hypertension a bad thing? Basically, with chronically high pressure, your blood vessels and vulnerable organs are being repeatedly slammed, bashed, and pushed around...and generally getting beat up just a little more with every heart beat. Your heart itself is also forced to work harder—it’s having to strain against a higher resistance.

And that’s not okay.

As a result, hypertension is a major risk factor for heart attacks. It also happens to be the number one risk factor for strokes.

It’s a piece of cake to get checked. Your doctor can do it in less time than it takes to....well, eat a piece of cake. (Not that I eat cake. Okay...not while checking people's blood pressure, anyway.) Or, you can stick your arm in a public machine at your nearest pharmacy or recreation centre and get a ballpark idea of your measurement.

And if yours is high? No panicking. It’s treatable. Many lifestyle changes have the power to reduce blood pressure. And if yours is resistant to that—usually because you did not, alas, win the genetic lottery on this one—there’s always medication.

Don’t be fooled—just because you feel “fine”. Or just because you’re young, just because you’re female, just because you eat your veggies...none of these things make you immune. More than two years since your blood pressure was last checked? That’s too long. Do yourself a favour. Make a commitment to taking care of you. Getting your blood pressure checked is an excellent way to start.



Five Things Every Man Should Know About His Health

...but doesn't really want to think about. (Happy Father's Day!)

Five Things Every Man Should Know About His Health

So, your husband accidentally cuts his hand with a bread knife. It seems to be bleeding quite a lot, actually…and, well, now his fingers are feeling a bit numb... 

Trouble is, he’s watching the Super Bowl on TV with the guys and, unlike most years, it’s a great game.

What does he do? 

If he’s like many men, he’ll ignore that pesky laceration and go to the hospital only after they’ve handed out the Vince Lombardi Trophy. 

Think I’m joking? Sadly, I’m not. A study done at the University of Maryland found a significant increase in the number of men admitted to emergency after major televised sporting events, and a drop in normal numbers during gametime.

Men are notorious for avoiding the doctor, and not just because of sports. Perhaps it’s along the same lines as the not-asking-for-directions imperative that seems to be part of the Y chromosome.

Guys, what is this about? Denial? Laziness? Almost certainly, there’s a strong embarrassment factor.

Well, it’s time to get over it.

Ladies, send this article to the men in your life…so we can plunge right into the truly nasty stuff. Like erectile dysfunction. And colon cancer. 

Let’s call it your Father’s Day gift to them. And really, it’s an act of love. Remind them: you want them to get healthy, and stay that way for a long time to come.

Get ready, guys—this is not going to be pretty. But don’t wimp out on me now. 

1. Prostate Disease

The prostate gland is, in many ways, a man’s Achilles heel. It seems like any number of things can go wrong with this wretched organ. It becomes enlarged in Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH).  It becomes inflamed or infected in prostatitis.

But the biggie everyone worries about, of course, is prostate cancer. We usually begin screening at age 50. Commonly used screening methods are the digital rectal exam (that’s digital as in finger, not as in cameras and TVs), and the PSA. 

PSA stands for prostate-specific antigen, and it’s a blood test. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect test, and many men will receive false positive results. Much more research is needed on prostate cancer screening, but in the meantime, what’s a man to do?

For starters, sit down and chat with your doctor to discuss the pros and cons of screening. Know your family history. And be on the lookout for unusual symptoms, like blood in the urine, a weak flow, difficult or frequent urination, especially at night.

2. Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of men. Which qualifies it as something you shouldn’t ignore, wouldn’t you say?

Take stock of your risk factors. The major ones are: high blood pressure, older age, diabetes, smoking, family history, elevated cholesterol, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle.  You’ll notice some of these risk factors are under your control. Some aren’t. Work on those that are fixable. See your doctor to get your blood pressure checked, and your cholesterol level done.

You should also know the symptoms of heart disease, chest pain being the most common. And when we say pain, this can be a pressure, a tightening, a heavy feeling…not what you’d describe as pain at all. Heart-related discomfort can also radiate to the jaw, arms, or back. Other associated symptoms may be: shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, palpitations, and light-headedness. Anything along these lines warrants an immediate trip to the doctor.

3. Colorectal Cancer

Nobody likes to think about this one. But it’s a reality of life; it ranks as the third most common form of cancer in Canada. Risk factors include: age, smoking, drinking, and a crummy diet. A family history of polyps or cancers of the colon, breast, ovary, or endometrium will also raise your risk.

Watch for signs. Don’t ignore blood in the stool, a persistent change in bowel habits, a feeling of incomplete emptying, or chronic fatigue. See your doctor with any of these concerns. 

Early detection is important. Caught early enough, colorectal cancer can be cured entirely. Screening usually starts at age 50. A hemoccult test, checking for hidden blood in the stool, is the simplest screening method. 

Sigmoidoscopy is another screening method.  Yes, this is a lighted tube inserted up your, ahem, rear-end. It looks at the lower colon for cancer or polyps. If there’s anything suspicious, a colonoscopy is then done.

Now, say the word ‘colonoscopy’ and most people break out in a sweat. But it’s not as bad as you’re imagining. Dying from cancer, likely, is worse. Besides, they offer you sedation for the procedure. 

4. Erectile Dysfunction

Hey, look on the bright side—at least we don’t call it impotence anymore! And just so you know, it’s quite common. The Viagra people are clearly not going hungry.

Occasional difficulty with erection is practically ubiquitous, but if you’re having trouble more than 50% of the time, you need to be assessed for ED.

This feared condition can affect men of any age, but it’s more common in older age groups. A variety of causes can underlie the problem: hypertension, diabetes, smoking, neurological disease, medication, and psychological issues like performance anxiety, stress, fatigue and depression. Erectile dysfunction is not, by the way, the same thing as low sex drive or problems with ejaculation.

Treatment is tailored to your particular issues and may include medication, sex therapy, surgery, lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, or simply stopping an offending medication. See your doctor for an assessment and to discuss options. And don’t be shy. An awkward visit with your doctor is far preferable to…well, you know.

5. Testicular Cancer

Think cancer is something only older men need to worry about? Think again. Although rare, testicular cancer is a young man’s disease—it’s the most common form of cancer in men ages 15 to 34. A history of undescended testes raises your risk. If caught early, there’s a high potential for cure.

What you should do is check yourself regularly. How? Gently, but firmly, roll each testicle between your thumb and fingers, feeling for abnormal masses or lumps. If you’re not sure what you’re checking for, ask your doctor to show you how to do a self-exam. Yes, even if (horror of horrors)...your doctor is female.

Guys, now you’re armed with a little more knowledge. You’ve got some stuff to get tested.  And a list of symptoms you shouldn’t ignore. 


So. Next time you’re sick, developing a peculiar rash, or bleeding half to death, do yourself (and all of us, the women who care about you) a favour: get checked out. Now. Not at half-time.