8 hacks for living your best life

written by Michelle Mars

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Are you confused by the sheer volume of information you receive about health and wellbeing? One minute coffee is good for you; the next it’s causing cancer. You read that most of us are marginally dehydrated one day and the next you are bombarded by the perils of over-drinking. Energised by an article on the miracle powers of coconut oil, you buy a kilo jar — only to find out it’s contributing to your heart disease. The list goes on.

Humans are holistic beings. We can’t separate out elements of ourselves and cure the pieces; it’s all about harmony.

One of the reasons for all the confusion is that, while the internet gives us access to a lot of information, Dr Google is not always the most reliable source. Another reason is that profit and popularity incentivise a lot of what we read. However, there are deeper underlying causes for your confusion.

Throughout history, people have thought about health and illness in many different ways. Rationalism and scientific thinking dominate in today’s world, but it’s important to remember this is just one way of conceptualising the world. In the Middle Ages, for example, people believed that physical and mental problems were a punishment from God. This belief gradually gave way to empiricism — believing in what can be seen — and scientific understandings.

Science tells us that if we separate out the elements of a problem we can come up with a solution, a pill or a cure. Yet modern advances in science are now revealing that the idea of the body as a machine made up of isolated elements or component parts doesn’t really work so well. While it’s possible today to see the micro workings of the body in things like energy lighting up various parts of the brain and body via MRI, humans are holistic beings. We can’t separate out elements of ourselves and cure the pieces; it’s all about harmony.

Holistic harmony

Achieving harmony can start with the body or the mind. Mental health advice usually involves strategies like regular exercise and eating well. GPs in the UK prescribe mindfulness meditation for a host of physical and mental ills. The modern world is full of stimulation and stresses and people react to life events — traumas and tensions, joys and excitement — in different ways; physical, mental and emotional responses are often all rolled into one. The world moves so fast that even too much excitement can sometimes be a bad thing.

Our sexual energy is one of the strongest and easiest energies to feel in the body and becoming more mindful of sexual energy is an easy way to learn to meditate.

Self-development is not a new phenomenon but best-practice strategies to achieve change have certainly changed. In a few decades, our understandings have moved beyond behaviourism and self-management strategies, stress management and time management to deeper understandings of the human psyche.

Spirituality is no longer intrinsically linked to religion and spiritual experience is understood as a key to wellbeing. The positive psychology movement has moved our focus to the here and now. Positive psychology, write Shelly Gable and Jonathan in What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology?, shifts the focus from what is clinically wrong to the promotion of wellbeing and the creation of a satisfying life filled with meaning, pleasure, engagement, positive relationships and accomplishment. It’s about being more aware of ourselves, our capacity for gratitude, how we interact with others and being in the here and now — and, yes, mindfulness.

Years of working in the health professions makes me weary of the latest buzzwords. Is mindfulness just a sticking plaster when what we need is trauma counselling to deal with the savagery of life, from the playground to corporate life? Perhaps the answer to that question is yes — but nonetheless mindfulness works and it doesn’t need to be complicated. The old adage “take a breath” is a good clue to the fact that a pause, a breath and a moment of silence can make a huge difference to our perception of something. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be a full hour of seated meditation.

Likewise, many short interventions can be highly effective ways to achieve harmony, health and wellbeing. While I am a yoga junkie and I love tai chi and qi gong, here are some of the shorter interventions that I have found useful for myself and when working with others.

Life hack #1: stand up

Most of us sit at a desk for too long in the day. The harmful effects of prolonged sitting have been equated to those from smoking. The good news is you don’t need to take up jogging to mitigate the harm. All you need to do is stand up. This changes your blood pressure in positive ways, allows you to change posture and shifts your mental and visual focus.

Life hack #2: stretch and move regularly

Our bodies are energetic entities. Science is now beginning to prove what systems such as Chinese medicine have understood for thousands of years: that energy can be used to heal and nourish the body. One way to feel better in your body and clear the mind is to have a routine that combines stretching and breathing, thus encouraging blood and energy to move through your body.

Before lectures that I teach, I spend a few minutes with students doing a simple stretching routine called “waking up your morning spring”. This involves circling the extremities, ankles, knees, hips and so on, in a routine designed to rejuvenate and revitalise the body and mind and bring more energy into your day. An evidence base exists to back up the efficacy of such practices.

You can find many short routines on the internet. Lee Holden’s 10-minute practice is a good place to start.

Life hack #3: take a moment

This simple little technique I learned from the Brahma Kumis yogis is to take a moment to reconnect with your core self. Sit or stand, take a deep breath, close your eyes if you want to and consciously breathe in and out slowly. Move your attention to a point about two fingers up from your mid eyebrow and continue to take a few deep breaths. This point has been variously referred to in science, religions and philosophy as the pineal gland, third eye and seat of the soul.

Most of us commune with technology almost constantly. Instead of checking in with technology, try checking in with yourself. You can do this practice of reconnection in the moments when you’d be checking your phone, like at the traffic lights, when waiting for a lift or standing in a checkout queue. No one will know!

Life hack #4: mindfulness masturbation

Masturbation is rarely mentioned as a self-care strategy. However, it’s a powerful way to change the way you feel. Psychologists call masturbation “self-soothing” and, as Chris from Family Guy reminds us, “It’s free!” If you are feeling a bit stressed or unhappy, it’s often the last thing on your mind — but it helps. You don’t even need pursue it all the way to orgasm to reap the benefits.

Our sexual energy is one of the strongest and easiest energies to feel in the body and becoming more mindful of sexual energy is an easy way to learn to meditate. Simply take a moment post-orgasm, close your eyes, breathe deeply and take your attention to your body. Note where it is tingling and how the energy moves in your body. Then try taking a moment as in life hack number three.

Life hack #5: change your body language

My mother constantly reminded us to sit up straight. She was also fond of getting us to walk in a straight line with books on our heads. While this was all good fun at the time, it seems she was onto something. Recent body language research reveals we can change other people’s perceptions — and even our own body chemistry — simply by changing body positions.

According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, preparatory power posing can serve as a simple, free, nonverbal tool that has the potential to be adopted by and beneficial to almost anyone, including those who are chronically powerless due to lack of physical resources or hierarchical status. Put simply, if we stand and pose with confidence we will feel more confident.

Next time you need a confidence boost, try standing for two minutes in the Wonder Woman pose with your hands on your hips and your legs further than hip distance apart, or try the same pose with your hands raised in the air like you just won an Olympic sprint race.

Life hack #6: turn things upside down

This is a short, simple intervention for those moments when you become aware that you’re feeling tired or stressed. With your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart, your stomach muscles lightly engaged and your knees slightly bent, lean forward from the waist. Hang there comfortably. Then relax and breathe in as far as you can and hold it, then breathe a little more and hold it, and again. Do this again a couple of times. This gives a nice little massage to the intercostal muscles between the ribs and the muscles between the shoulder blades, where many of us carry tension, particularly if we sit for extended periods of time.

Life hack #7: heighten your awareness

How aware are you of the sounds of everyday life? In general, it seems we are much more passive in our relationship to sound than we are in other aspects of our lives. Julian Treasure’s TED Talk on how to listen better is an eye opener.

Humans are constantly surrounded by noise, mostly accidental and unpleasant. We are disconnected from the world around us, adversely affected by incongruous noise. The solution? To become aware of and practise taking control of the environment. Block out unpleasant noises: sing, block your ears if you hear unpleasant noises and create conscious soundscapes. Spend five minutes a day listening to wind, water or birds.

Life hack #8: celebrate the water of life

Punctuate your day with water: a shower, a swim, a visit to the beach or the river, even simply listening to a waterscape on the internet.

Taking the waters is a cure-all dating back centuries. The Greeks and Egyptians used springs and baths for healing. The Victorians believed that hydrotherapy healed, often sitting in steam baths up to their necks or drinking copious quantities of mineral water. As people turn to leisure and lifestyle as the key to health and wellbeing, it’s little wonder that spa tourism is again on the increase.

You don’t need to go on holiday to reap the benefits water has to offer, though. Try having a shower when you get home at the end of the day. This helps hydrate the body, relaxes you and gives you a mental cue that your workday is done.

Taking micro-steps, paying attention to the small details and making even just one change a day makes a difference to the state of your health and wellbeing. Try to tune in to your energy, consciously listen, stretch, pose, pause, take a shower or try some self-soothing — all these things work. It’s just a matter of finding the combination that suits you.


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Michelle Mars

Dr Michelle Mars is a lecturer, researcher and counsellor. Her areas of expertise are gender, sexuality and wellbeing.