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The Happiness Diet

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To be happy you would need a) a new, highly paid job b) perfect health c) a partner who looked like Hugh Jackman/Scarlett Johansen c) about $20,000 worth of plastic surgery.

Wrong, wrong, wrong although some of these things may help, temporarily.

However, international studies have consistently shown that happiness is not related to being rich, famous, healthy or gorgeous.

As scientists continue to delve deeper into the realm of “positive psychology” what they know is this: as long as we have enough food to eat and a roof over our head, we have a pretty good potential for bliss.

What we might need, however, are ways to boost the amount of the “happy” neurotransmitters - chemicals that send electrical signals between cells - in our brain.

Physical Therapy

People who exercise regularly often talk about feeling high.

In fact, studies examining the effects of activities such as running, swimming or tennis have found they are associated with significant elevations of endorphins (neurotransmitters that have a similar effect to morphine), says Dr Timothy Sharp, director of Sydney’s Happiness Institute.

It seems that elated feeling you get after exercise, which seems to be more related to aerobic activities that a gentle stroll, can last up to half a day.

Besides improving transmission of endorphins, exercise also improves cardiovascular function which may be good news for those who are feeling blue, says neuroscientist Dr Joseph Ciorciari, of the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

“There is some evidence that people who suffer from depression have poor circulation in the front areas of the brain,” he says.

However, for people with severe depressive orders, a jog around the block shouldn’t be considered a remedy, he cautions.

For those of us who just want to be happier the added benefits of exercise are a sense of accomplishment, stress relief and enhanced self-esteem.

As well as revving up your exercise program, you may like to add a session of acupuncture to your be happy regime.

It increases blood and energy flow and that in itself may give you a physical and psychological boost, says Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner Peter Apte, of Erina, NSW.

“Chinese herbs and acupuncture can also treat underlying conditions that may cause depression, not just mask the symptoms,” he says.

 Happiness Tip: Choose a fitness activity you find fun – skating, tennis, soccer, dance class – and work up a sweat at least three times a week for 30 to 40 minutes. Consider alternative therapies including acupuncture, kinesiology and neuro linguistic programming.

Mood Food

A poor diet can make you feel anxious and fearful, depressed, tired all the time and even suicidal, according to researchers at Roehampton University in the United Kingdom.

But while everyone knows eating plenty of fruit and veggies, lean protein, and wholegrain foods will enhance health, there’s some special foods you should eat if you want to feel happier.

To boost levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that can be low in people suffering from depression, you need poultry, sardines, salmon, fresh tuna, nuts and seeds.

According to the Food and Mood Project in the United Kingdom, turkey and chicken are also good because they contain mood-enhancing tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is converted into serotonin.

And here’s some good news for all of us who love carbohydrates and feel completely miserable on low-carb diets: carbs can help boost the tryptophan too, says Dr Judith Wurtman, author of Managing Your Mind & Mood Through Food (Perennial Library).

In fact, studies from Harvard and Oxford medical universities demonstrate that women on high protein/very low carbohydrate diets lower their serotonin levels, making them more prone to weight gain relapse, depression, excessive craving, bingeing, bulimia, severe PMS and seasonal affective disorder.

For a maximum mood boost, Dr Wurtman recommends you eat a little bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, corn, barley, oatmeal or some crackers or muffins without accompanying protein.

But what about chocolate, which many people swear by as an instant mood lifter?

On one hand, chocolate does contain a naturally occurring substance called phenylethylamine that can enhance endorphin levels and act a natural antidepressant.

On the other, it can addictive i.e. if you don’t have it you’ll feel miserable and it contains lots of simple sugar, which in large quantities is bad for your health. So try to show a little restraint!

As for supplements, a substance called SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine) has received a lot of press as a natural happiness enhancer.

The bottom line, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, is that the real benefits and risks are still unclear.

 Happiness Tip: Put turkey, chicken, fish, nuts, seeds and complex carbohydrates in your grocery trolley. Try making oatmeal cookies for snacks, or turkey on rye with cranberry sauce and snowpea sprouts for lunch. Buy some dark, organic chocolate and have a small amount as a treat. Switch coffee for a herbal tea like green, ginger or berry.

Relax and Feel Good

One of the most simple things you can do to get happier is sit still for 10 minutes a day.

Tibetan monks have been shown to have consistently increased levels of serotonin.

A 2001 study at the University of Wisconsin also made some surprising discoveries about how meditation actually alters the brain and the way we feel.

Researchers used brain imaging to show that meditation shifts activity in the prefrontal cortex – right behind your forehead, from the right hemisphere to the left.

Simply translated this means you are more likely to be enthusiastic, relaxed and happy.

You don’t have to go all yogi and focus on breathing through alternate nostrils.

If you like, you can stare at your favourite Nature photo, or watch a candle or even lie down and relax every muscle in your body.

 Happiness Tip: “Again, the key seems to be “regular” practice which most clinicians and coaches would define as at least 5-10 minutes daily,” says Dr Sharp.

//subhead// Get Out More

Interaction with people may stimulate a brain chemical called oxytocin, often referred to as the love transmitter, says Dr Ciorciari.

“This reinforces a bond between people and makes you feel good,” he says.

As one of the growing army of Australians who work at home, I find that scheduling in lunches with friends, or even just time to talk on the phone noticeably affects how I feel not just that day but that week.

 Happiness Tip: Make an effort to connect to friends, or potential friends, through social activities at least twice a week. Join a hobby class or a sports club if you’re not a pub or club type of person or don’t get regular party invites.

//breakout// 10 More Tips for Happiness

1. Treat yourself like you matter. Cook delicious meals, schedule regular exercise, read books you love, have a facial, get enough sleep (in a comfy bed with good linen and squishy pillows).

2. Schedule what makes you happy – meeting friends, meditation, a movie, sex – into your every day.

3. Practice gratitude. Think your life sucks? Keep a journal and write down even the little things that go right. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky from the University of California has found that people who take the time to conscientiously count their blessings once a week significantly increased their overall satisfaction with life.

4. Live happy. Fill your home with things you love to look at, like art or flowers; things you love to use, such as a CD player or art supplies; or things you love to be reminded of, like pictures of loved ones.

5. Cut down on violent or depressing media – the news, crime shows, horror films. Buy yourself a book of humour, watch a comedy, or make friends with an optimist.

6. Do less. Go slower. Talk on your mobile phone less. Spend a whole day playing truant.

7. Volunteer to visit the elderly, adopt a pet, or deliver Meals on Wheels. You’ll feel good about yourself.

8. Don’t keep delaying pleasure. Ask someone out for lunch, go abseiling, or take the holiday you’ve been thinking about, preferably to a tropical destination. The positive impact warm, sunny weather can have on mental health and mood are real, according to University of Michigan research.

9. If you hate your job, see a careers counselor and work out what you would really like to do with your life.

10. Keep a smiley face or a joke on the bathroom mirror where you see it when you first wake up. Make it something goofy.

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