I—and many of you I suspect—use this time of year to decide what we can do to have the best year possible. A new year represents new possibilities with unlimited potential. That said, 2021 was a tough year for a lot of us. So, as we bring in the year 2022, here’s a list of things we can do to support our collective health, happiness, and well-being—and give us the best shot at making it an awesome 2022.
When was the last time that you were more than a few feet from your beloved cellphone? How long can you resist the siren sound of a new text message, email, or social media comment? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. In fact, you’re in the overwhelming majority.
There’s no doubt that technology is a powerful tool that can improve the lives of the people using it. Unfortunately, as many of us are discovering, it’s difficult to find the balance between using technology as a tool or succumbing to it as a crutch. This balance has been especially elusive since the emergence of COVID-19, simply because technology for many of us, has been the only way we’ve had to communicate and stay connected.
There’s a growing body of evidence that too much screen time really isn’t good for our physical, mental, or emotional health. There are even studies that show that too much time spent on social media can increase the severity of things such as anxiety and depression, especially in young people whose developing brains are particularly sensitive.
Disconnecting from our cellphones, tablets, and computers helps us manage our addiction to social media, clears the mind, increases focus, lowers stress levels, and encourages us to build real, human relationships. It improves our quality of life, increases our energy by allowing us to recharge, benefits our sleep, and improves our interpersonal communication.
Things such as body language, facial expressions, and all the subtleties that we observe and feel when we talk in person are designed to make sure that we communicate clearly. These features of face-to-face connection strengthen the bonds between us. This important information is lost when we communicate online.
In eastern medicine, digital stimuli, as well as all other stimuli, affect the main organs of digestion: the spleen and the stomach. These organs digest not only food and drink, but everything that comes in through our sensory organs as well. Being mindful and focusing on one thing at a time are critical factors for a healthy body and an uncluttered mind.
A good rule of thumb is to disconnect from phones, tablets, and computers for an hour or two before bed and sleep in a dark, quiet room devoid of electronics. This allows our nervous systems and brains to relax in preparation for sleep. Sleep is how our bodies rest and repair and how our minds process all the stimuli from the previous day. Giving yourself more time in quiet, dark spaces before bedtime will help you have a more restful, rejuvenating sleep.
For some of you, the word “meditate” may conjure images of monks sitting alone on mountain tops. But rest assured, the meditation I’m talking about doesn’t require you to shave your head, wear orange, and move to the Himalayas. Although this is where meditation has some of its origins, it doesn’t need to be all-encompassing, and it can be practiced practically for those of us living in the hectic modern world.
Meditation has profound benefits for the mind and body. I’m a longtime meditator, and I recommend regular meditation practice to all of my patients, because in my experience, it’s beneficial to absolutely everyone. It also has no negative side effects, can be done anywhere at any time, and has zero cost.
Regular meditation practice has been proven to lower stress, which we now know makes us more susceptible to heart disease, strokes, and cancer. Prolonged stress also leads to premature aging, which is an area of study getting a lot of attention lately. And who doesn’t want to feel younger and more vital? In one study published in Translational Psychiatry, 102 women spent six days at a retreat either relaxing or meditating. Blood samples were taken at the beginning and at the end of the retreat. The samples taken at the end of the six days showed improvements in biomarkers related to aging in the women who meditated.
Anyone who has tried to meditate may know that it isn’t easy to slow down the barrage of thoughts that are constantly running through our minds, and I think this is what discourages many people. They think that they “can’t meditate” or are “not good at meditating” simply because they can’t quiet their minds right away. But everyone can meditate. You just have to not put pressure on yourself and know that, like anything else, it takes practice.
Here’s a simple meditation you can try. Begin by finding a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted. Try for 10 minutes at first. Sit, close your eyes, and just relax. This is such a rare thing for most people that your thoughts will probably start coming fast and furious simply because we almost never allow our thoughts to just “run wild.” I say let them come, relax, and focus on breathing in and out slowly. Eventually, your thoughts will slow down, and you’ll feel your body and mind relax. Once this happens, when a thought comes into your mind, acknowledge it, then let it go. Move your focus calmly back to your breath.
Just doing this very simple practice for 10 to 20 minutes per day can have a huge effect on your state of mind and on your ability to deal with adversity and stressful situations, and it will help you preserve a sense of calm and inner peace. Meditation not only has benefits for the practitioner, but in my experience, it also has benefits for anyone who encounters the practitioner. The people in your life will be able to feel your calm demeanor, and this feeling will extend to them as well.
I think this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, spiritual leader, and peace activist, illustrates what meditation is quite beautifully: “Meditation is not evasion, it is a serene encounter with reality.”
What is “mindfulness” and what does it really mean to “be mindful”?
Mindfulness is simply a conscious awareness of the present moment.
It’s an openness and non-judgment about whatever is happening at that moment. Although the focus is usually not relaxation per se, that’s often a natural byproduct. It seems so simple, and yet it’s a lot harder than it sounds.
An article from Positive Psychology explains it this way: “The focus is on increasing our awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and actions that hinder our progress. When we are better able to do that, we can engage with those aspects of ourselves, learn to tweak our language, and choose how to respond.”
The idea of including mindfulness in your life, in a way, is to remove yourself from the chaos of everyday life, even for just a minute or two. This allows you to focus on the present moment and simply observe what’s happening around you, including your thoughts and feelings. Many of our struggles are simply due to how we perceive and judge what we experience, think, and feel. If we’re able to gain some calm and clarity and instead of reacting, simply observe ourselves in an objective way, we can get to a place where we can actually choose how to respond.
Once we’ve acquired this skill, we’re better able to make positive changes about how to interpret both external (what’s happening in the world around us) and internal (our thoughts and feelings) information. This is a critical step in gaining a better handle on what we’re thinking and feeling.
An example of how to put mindfulness into practice is to take an activity that you do every day, such as washing dishes. When you’re standing at the sink, doing the dishes, really focus on what you’re doing. Wash each plate slowly, watching the soap bubbles create shapes over each surface. Notice the smell of the soap and how the light may be filling the kitchen. Wash the dishes with a relaxed, but focused intention. Start with one activity and add more as you’re better able to focus your attention. With time, you’ll find that it not only gets easier, but that it’s actually intensely enjoyable.
If you want to dive into the subject a little more, here’s a comprehensive article, “What is Mindfulness Therapy and How to Apply It,” written by Kori D Miller.
Society tells us that we need to always be wanting, doing, and achieving. As a result, our lives seem to grow more complex with every passing year. Instead of more, more, more, my motto has always been less, less, less. It takes work, but in my experience, a conscious effort to simplify has a huge effect on improving physical health, mental health, and our ability to live a happier, more contented life.
Here are some ways you can simplify your life. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will hopefully give you some ideas and get the simplicity ball rolling.
Declutter: Find a place for all those “things” that are sitting on counters, tables, and shelves. This is a great way to create space in your home and in your psyche. You’ll feel the difference it makes.
Organize: Create routines for your mornings and evenings, organize your finances, plan your meals, and create a daily schedule for yourself that includes time to recharge.
Purge: Periodically go through your possessions and get rid of anything that you don’t really need. This is liberating, and it creates space in your external and internal world.
Say ‘No’: Be clear about your boundaries and prioritize your time. Try to only take on commitments that you know you’re able and willing to fulfill. A ‘no’ doesn’t have to be forever, but it can be a great way to free up time you need for more important things.
Care for Yourself: Because we all have a lot to do on any given day, we also need to take care of ourselves. Make time and space in your life to eat nutritious meals, recharge your soul, and get enough sleep. You’re no good to anyone else unless you’re healthy, rested, and in good spirits.
Simplifying our lives can also help us all create a more beautiful and more peaceful world.
Perhaps the biggest wound we’ve suffered since the emergence of COVID-19 has been our loss of human connection. Lockdowns and quarantines have isolated us from each other at great cost to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Research has proven that the quantity and quality of our relationships increase our lifespan and quality of life. People who have a strong social support network of friends and family are healthier, happier, and enjoy a longer life. The same research shows that a lack of social ties is associated with depression, cognitive decline, and increased mortality.
Finding a way to nurture relationships through a pandemic definitely has its challenges, but if you know that those relationships are an integral part of your health, you can add them to your health care regimen. If you do, you’ll notice an improvement in all areas of your life. Humans are social beings, and having strong, loving, and supportive relationships is just as important as food, exercise, and sleep.
Schedule “coffee” with friends a few times per week, even if you have to do it over Skype or Zoom. Try to be able to see each other so you benefit from all the subtleties body language offers us, such as facial expressions, smiles, and laughter. You and your friend will reap the benefits.
As we start the year 2022, no one knows what the future holds. We can only try to create the best life possible with the tools available to us. There’s nothing more worthy of our attention. With that, I wish you and the ones you love a happy and prosperous 2022. Keep adding to your toolkit of life skills and practices so that you’re better able to build the life that you want and deserve.