Archive for November, 2010

Giving Thanks

I mentioned to a colleague the other day that Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays.  (Thanksgiving and July 4th actually.)  She wisely noted that Thanksgiving is one of the only holidays where there is no expectation, other than good food.  There are no presents, baskets of chocolate, or major decorations to contend with.  In fact, the craze for Christmas usually starts the day after Thanksgiving, so even its build up is much more calm and un-frenzied.  Thanksgiving is simply about getting together with people you care about and giving thanks.  (And eating, of course J)

There is a relatively new branch of psychology known as positive psychology.  Positive psychology is founded on “the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.  Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.”[1] It is a branch of psychology that is placing the emphasis on “making normal life more fulfilling”[2] thus expanding the role of psychology outside of its traditional purpose:  the study of, the understanding of, and the treatment of mental illness.

Robert Emmons, a leading practitioner in positive psychology, as well as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology and author of the book, Thanks! How Practicing the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier has conducted multiple studies on the effects of gratitude along with his partner Professor Michael McCullough.  In some of the studies, the participants kept daily or weekly gratitude journals in which they wrote at least one thing for which they were grateful.  (The control group would simply journal about neutral, daily life.)  Emmons and McCullough found, among other things, that those who kept the gratitude journals “performed more regular fitness training, reported fewer symptoms of physical pain, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week(s).  Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals.  [And] Self-guided gratitude intervention resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, energy and improved sleep.”[3] Overall, Emmons has found in his ten years of research on gratitude that it can increase happiness by 25%.  Since this is the case, boy am I glad America has a holiday dedicated to giving thanks.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s all be extra conscious of being grateful and thankful for all our blessings and for all the wonderful people we are lucky enough to have in our lives.  Not only will it serve to make for a happier, more peaceful, more meaningful holiday, but it will increase our own happiness by 25% (at the very least!) and will most likely increase the happiness of those we love as well.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving and giving thanks, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our readers.  I truly enjoy writing this blog and I am grateful that there are many out there who read it and benefit from it.  Happy Thanksgiving all!

[1] Positive Psychology Center,


[3] : “This Thanksgiving, give a healthy thank you for gratitude”

I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve noticed that there seem to more and more foods containing flaxseed at the grocery store.  It’s in crackers, oatmeal, cereal, bars, waffles and more.  Have you ever noticed those eggs that claim they are rich in omega-3s?  Apparently, the chickens that lay those eggs are fed a special diet rich in flaxseed, which is how those eggs become a source of omega-3 fatty acids.  So, what’s the fuss?   Why is flaxseed called a super food?  Why is it being added to so many different things?

Basically, flaxseed is termed a super food because it contains these three ingredients:

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids.  Specifically, ALA, making flaxseed one of the few non-fish sources of this very important nutrient.  (These are the good, heart healthy fats.)
  2. Lignans, known for their antioxidant properties and their cancer-fighting abilities. (More on that later.)
  3. Fiber, both soluble (which helps lower blood cholesterol levels) and insoluble (which aids in digestion and keeps your colon healthy).

The following are some of the health benefits of flaxseed:

  1. Helps with Diabetes:  Flaxseed has been shown in studies to lower blood sugar levels.
  2. Fight/Prevent Cancer:  Particularly breast, prostate, and colon cancer.  Studies show that the ALA in flaxseed inhibits tumor growth.  Also, the lignans in flaxseed help protect against cancers that are sensitive to hormones.  Finally, poor diet is often linked to colon cancer and the fiber in flaxseed is sure to help keep your colon healthy.
  3. Prevent Cardiovascular Disease:  Flaxseed helps our cardiovascular system in a variety of ways including anti-inflammatory actions, normalizing heartbeats, reducing artery plaque build-up, preventing hardening of the arteries, and lowering the LDL levels (bad cholesterol) in your blood.
  4. Help with Inflammatory Issues:  Both the ALA and lignans in flaxseed can help with inflammation associated with some diseases such as Parkinson’s and asthma.
  5. Can Help Balance Hormones:  Lignans are a plant estrogen.  Studies have shown that daily intake of flaxseed can help reduce hot flashes in menopausal women.  Flaxseed has also shown positive effects on menstruating women as well as post-menopausal women.
  6. Ease constipation:  Flaxseed’s fiber is great for regular bowel movements and overall colon health.
  7. Better Immune Function:  The lignans and ALA help prevent inflammation that affects your immune system.

There is more of a chance of whole flaxseed passing through our system undigested, by the way, so it might be better to use ground flaxseed.  Some labels will call it milled flaxseed or flax meal, but it’s all the same.  You can also grind it yourself with a coffee grinder. With ground flaxseed, it is best to store it in the freezer, which will keep it from oxidizing and losing its nutritional value.  The outer shell of whole flaxseed keeps the oil and fatty acids inside well protected, so it can be stored in any dark, cool place.

One of the best things about flaxseed is that it is so easy to add to your diet.  It has a nice, mild and pleasant nutty flavor that goes well with so many different foods.  Flaxseed can be easily added to yogurt, oatmeal, cereal, smoothies, and soup.  It can also be used in baking.  Web MD recommends substituting ¼ – ½ cup of flour with ground flaxseed in recipes calling for 2 or more cups of flour.  Flaxseed can also be easily added to certain savory dishes like beef stew, shepherds pie, meatloaf, chili, or chicken enchiladas.

Sources:  Web MD, Flax Council of Canada,,

Chronic stress is very damaging to both our physical and mental well-being.  (For more about the effects of chronic stress, read our blog titled “The Earth’s Heartbeat”.)  Yet, most of us encounter stress in some form almost every day.  So, what to do?  One very effective way to alleviate stress and to combat its damaging effects is to meditate.

Meditation can reverse your stress response and help shield you from the effects of chronic stress.   When you meditate, your heart rate and breathing slow down, your blood pressure normalizes, you use less oxygen, your adrenal glands produce less cortisol, your mind ages at a slower rate, and your immune function improves.   Besides reversing your stress response, mediation quiets the mind.  As a result, you become more focused, more creative, have a clearer mind, and can even gain a better perspective on stressful situations.

Mediation can be self-taught or you can take classes taught by a certified meditation instructor.  (If you have the time, an experienced teacher can be very helpful when you are just beginning your meditation practice.)  Simply put, the practice of meditation is sitting comfortably in a quiet space, clearing your mind, and breathing in and out.  While it is simple in design, meditation does take practice and discipline.  If you are just beginning, it is recommended you only attempt 5 minutes of meditation at a time (the bare minimum needed to produce desired results) and then build into longer meditations (20 minutes or so.)  You may find it hard at first to clear your mind of its endless chatter, but that is normal.  Whatever you do, don’t let it stress you out!  Simply notice the intruding thoughts, let them go, and re-focus.

For some, it is helpful to focus on one thing during meditation.  This can alleviate distracting thoughts.  You can focus on your breath, even counting how many breaths you take.  Alternately, you can focus on an object such as a painting, a flower, or a candle.  Some like to focus on a particular sound, the classic one being the Sanskrit word “Om”, which means perfection. With this method, you would chant “om” (or any other word you like) with each exhale.  Still another method to help quiet your mind is to focus on a single thought or idea.  Some good ones are love, gratitude, peace, and forgiveness.

Some people who practice meditation find it helpful to use imagery as a tool.  With this method, you imagine you are in a pleasant and relaxing place as you meditate.  It is helpful to be detailed in your imagery, as this will make the place come alive to you, as well as focus your mind more efficiently.  Listening to calming music is another way to clear your mind as you meditate.  There are some great CDs out there specifically geared towards meditation.  Alternatively, you can purchase guided meditation CDs (or through itunes).  These types of CDs involve someone talking you through the meditation.

In the beginning, I would suggest trying all the methods to best figure out which ones work for you.  Remember, don’t get discouraged.  Be patient with yourself and trust the process.  With practice, everything gets easier and the benefits are too great to pass up.  If you stick with it, before long you will find yourself looking forward to your few minutes of peace and quiet and relaxation.  It is amazing how great it feels to just be still.  To just be.

In conclusion, I will leave you with a quote I came across not that long ago:

“Only in quiet waters things mirror themselves undistorted.

Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world.”

Hans Margolius

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