Freezing Over

It is time for winter to be over. By the end of February people at the northern end of the northern hemisphere have got all the freeze they need for one year and right now it is time to move on to other weathers. It’s that simple.

Sunshine at 1 pm in DecemberThis may be a surprise, but being from Iceland does not automatically mean that one is a fan of winter and loves being cold. For example, I don’t… At all. And I’m not alone in that. Darkness and cold weather have the side effect of changing many people’s habits and make them less likely to do some of the things that actually help lift mood and improve general quality of life. When it’s freezing outside, many of us are less likely to take walks, go to a gym class, leave the house to visit friends, bike to work, get sunlight on our face, and mow the lawn, and this can leave us inactive and moody. We may blame our low mood on the cold, but chances are it’s largely affecting us indirectly through our change in habits.

Personally, I don’t like too much winter. A three-week winter would be just fine and I don’t need it to get dark at 4 pm at any point during the year. I say this despite having some good winter clothes and a well-insulated place to call home. I’m not the construction worker staying outdoors all day and I’m not the homeless person who sits next to a hot-air vent on the sidewalk to keep herself warm while strangers pass her by and don’t even bother to check if she is dead or alive.

IMG_1397And yet, I complain. I complain to myself in private and once in a while I share my complaints with whomever seems equally tired of ice. In reality, my complaints are relatively senseless. I’ll be fine whether it’s freezing outside or not. Complaining about winter will not make spring arrive any sooner than it plans to and it keeps me in a mentality of unnecessary negativity. A wise woman has told me many times that a wind can be awfully cold or invigorating – depending on how you define it.

So if I were to take her advice, I would put on a scarf, embrace the storm, and get myself out for a walk. An invigorating walk… And then I’d welcome spring whenever it gets here.

But to be completely honest, that type of positivity requires advanced skills. Level 5 positivity skills…

I am at level 3.

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Sleep Good

“I’ll sleep when I die”

IMG_2996That’s what a friend of mine said a few days ago before starting his night shift at work, right after finishing the day shift… I knew he wasn’t serious. Or was he?

To acknowledge my bias, I am a big fan of sleep. Personally and professionally. Russell Foster is too and in his 2013 TED talk he delivered some convincing points on why we should be taking sleep a bit more seriously.To recap some of his statements, sleep is of critical importance for memory consolidation and sleep deprivation is associated with less creativity, memory problems, poor judgment, and loss of vigilance. On top of that, lack of sleep hurts our immune system and tends to result in higher stress levels, which in turn can impact our mood and wellbeing in general. With impaired ability to be creative and integrate knowledge, folks tend to do worse at work and school and be less able to respond effectively to new challenges. Higher stress levels reduce our tolerance for the hassle of daily life and people in our lives are more likely to encounter our bad side. This can’t be good for anyone.

This may sound radical to some, but here it goes: If you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are probably not getting enough sleep!

Now there are a whole lot of people who have no way of getting the sleep they need. Millions of people depend on demanding shift jobs, have multiple responsibilities that cut sleep time, or face living situations that disturb sleep on a regular basis. Many of them are all too well aware of the negative impact of sleep deprivation. And unfortunately, all the good advice in the world is not so helpful if people are stuck in unhealthy situations. But there is another set of people who have the chance to get enough sleep, but choose not to.

Throughout my training and work I have met many young adults who struggle with symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. A large proportion has also had poor sleep habits. Using the laptop, TV, and smartphone in bed has been a consistent part of that, and one that seems to be hard to change. Ironically, people may end up using those bright-light screens when they have trouble falling asleep, only to signal the brain to stay alert. In addition, with many of us staying indoors most of the day, daylight exposure gets cut to the point of confusing our system even more. And to make it through the day, caffeine and other stimulants are used to jump start the brain, which in turn can exacerbate stress and signs of unnecessary anxiety.

My favorite part of Russell’s talk was his bottom line: Listen to your body.

It’s simple, really. Life can be so much better once we stop fighting our body and treating sleep with respect is a great start!

The Happy Trap

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

There you have it. The United States’ Declaration of Independence clearly encourages the pursuit of happiness. So how do you pursue happiness?

The first week at work at my office job as a new graduate assistant in the U.S., I realized that answering phone calls appropriately required more than English language skills and politeness. After picking up a few calls that I thought went just fine, my office supervisor wasn’t pleased. According to her, my voice was “flat”. To me that made no sense, but once I had practiced the right way of answering the phone I finally got it. Apparently, being excessively excited and sweet on the phone (in my Icelandic opinion) was the way to go. It almost made me cringe. Saying “Have a great day!!” with a big smile on my face felt unnatural and too much somehow.

Now, seven years later, I am used to more than one way of speaking. Peppy small talk and greetings do not feel foreign anymore and I have stopped cringing. However, I am no less curious than before about the fact that what is considered appropriate in one culture may be strange and off-putting in another. In Jonathan Rottenberg’s intriguing book, The Depths, about the evolutionary origins of depression, he talks about the strong emphasis that U.S. mainstream culture places on happiness. He even cites research suggesting that U.S. children are more drawn to pictures of excited smiling facial expressions, while Taiwanese children prefer pictures of calm smiles. These and other research findings indicate that the type of happiness generally encouraged in the U.S. is characterised by excitement and high energy.

Reading this made me think of the numerous times I have been asked by American friends and acquaintances, in a high-pitched voice, “Aren’t you excited?!!”  Most often, my honest answer has been “Well, not really, but I am sure [upcoming event] will be interesting/fun/nice and I am feeling good about it”. Not very energetic, really. Simultaneously, the message impinging on U.S. society is that we should all be happy, that we should all try to stay happy, and that not feeling happy is a sign of abnormality.

The downside of this grand pursuit of happiness may be quite serious. As Rottenberg describes in his book, happiness is not a goal we can realistically pursue in the same way we pursue other goals and tasks in life. While we are taught from an early age that goals can be reached by working hard and doing our best, happiness tends to act differently. In fact, humans are not wired to stay happy. On the contrary, feelings of intense happiness are a natural, temporary consequence of reaching important life goals, such as finding a mate, getting a promotion, being acknowledged, witnessing the success of a loved one, and so on, and once we have experienced the bliss of the passing moment, the intensity of our happy-state tends to return back to a neutral level. Evolutionary speaking, this has the adaptive function of keeping us active and motivated to stay on our toes.

So what happens when the expectation of intense, sustained happiness meets the reality of our garden variety moods that include both ups and downs? Unfortunately, the unrealistic, culturally-shaped expectations of how we “should” feel can result in disappointment, to say the least. On top of that, humans have the impressive ability to not only feel bad, but feel bad about feeling bad! This can easily spiral downward and fuel a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with life and prolong low moods that would otherwise have passed by in their own time.

Kind of like a trap, with flashing lights and Pharrell singing in the background.