Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically…on children than the unlived life of the parent. — Carl Jung
The full truth of this quotation (provided in a comment on my last posting, Confessions of a Selfish Mother) is up for debate, but it certainly captures the central point I was trying to make: parents need to take care of themselves—finding their own inner peace and joy—in order to best take care of others.
Last week readers raised the question of whether or not it would be better to, say, save the planet or take care of women in a shelter, than to spend time on yourself this Mother's Day. I am all for altruism as a route to lasting happiness, and spend a good deal of time volunteering myself. But, perhaps because I am not surrounded by the "hopelessly idle" mothers one reader criticizes, I tend to see the parents around me giving and doing for everyone else first before taking care of their own needs. Depression is a not-uncommon outcome when, for whatever reason, we are unable to take care of our own emotional needs.
I say take the advice of the airlines: put on your oxygen mask first and THEN help those around you. I'm not saying don't help those around you, but rather, that should you become faint from lack of oxygen, you won't be much good to anyone at all. Speaking for myself, I've found that a certain core of peace and centeredness is necessary before I can really be engaged in raising happy, compassionate, and altruistic children.
So if you are thinking of buying the mother in your life gobs of stuff this Mother's Day, consider this: stuff won't make her lastingly happy, but there are other things that you can do that can. And if you are a mother, consider taking the matter into your own hands rather than waiting for a present to make your Mother's Day a good one. Here are some things you can do to that are more likely to bring you real joy:
(1) Go out with your friends and have a few laughs.
The most persistent finding we have from 50 years happiness research tells us that our well-being is best predicted by how connected we feel to other people. Do we have lots of friends? Know our neighbors? Are we close to our extended family? Care about our co-workers? People with a lot of social connections are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness (duh), low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping.
So to bring on some lasting happiness, we need to nurture our social connections. But a girls' night out can—not surprisingly—bring us instant happiness as well, and I'm not talking about the kind you imbibe. The laughter we share with our buddies (or anyone, really) literally changes our body chemistry by retarding that pesky fight-or-flight stress system. A good guffaw—or even little giggle—causes our heart rate and blood pressure to drop and our muscles to relax.
Laughter is contagious, so hang out with a couple of friends or family members who are likely to be laughing themselves. Their laughter is likely to get you laughing too, but it doesn't even need to in order to lighten your mood. Neuroscientists believe that hearing another person laugh triggers mirror neurons in a region of the brain that makes a listener feel as though she is actually laughing herself.
(2) Have your kids or partner give you a massage or pedicure.
There really is such thing as a magic touch. Like laughter, being touched in a positive way can also trigger biochemical reactions that make us feel good. Getting a massage or being touched—even just briefly—by a loved one can increase activation in the orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain where we feel the pleasure in a reward, as when we eat a piece of chocolate or win a pile of money. It also reduces the cardiovascular stress response and decreases our levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Touch is essential to our physical and mental well-being—without it we wither and perish.
So an at-home spa day is a VERY APPROPRIATE and highly recommended (hint, hint) Mother's Day gift. Dacher Keltner's research shows that touch is the primary language of compassion, trust, love and gratitude—so dads and kids reading this might want to consider giving mom a massage or pedicure with a leg rub yourself. This will promote the release of oxytocin in mom, which will make her feel more bonded to you or the person giving the massage.
(Here's the thing about that last suggestion: if you can afford to get the mom in your life a professional massage, she might actually prefer that despite the benefits of feeling more connected to the at-home masseuse. Could be that she feels touched enough by you or the kids and is looking for a bit more of a vacation. I love it when my kids give me "a massage," but it lasts more like 8 seconds than 80 minutes. Execution counts. Ask her what she wants.)
(3) Take some quiet time for yourself.
The appeal of spa time for me doesn't just come from the positive effects of touch—it comes from the possibility of some quiet time for reflection or meditation. Want to turn your brainwaves that signal stress into those that indicate bliss? Start meditating. Do it enough and research suggests that you will increase activity in the area of your brain that is active when you feel happiness (the left prefrontal cortex).
Neuroscience of yester yore held that our brains were pretty much done growing when we reached full height. Now we know that our brain is more like a muscle—use a particular area a lot and it will grow. As science writer Sharon Begley describes in her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, studies of Tibetan monks show that meditation is a particularly effective way to grow the part of your brain that registers positive emotions. We Westerners freely accept that if we want to excel at something like music, or athletics, or learning a new language, we will need to train and practice hard. However, we rarely think that we can also train and practice to be happier—something Buddhists have long known. Meditation is concentrated happiness training. If you don't know how to meditate but are interested in learning, Martha Beck outlines a whole chapter of different techniques in her book The Joy Diet.
If you just read that part on meditation and thought, "Huh. I'm sticking to the pedicure," don't give up on taking some quiet time altogether. Take some time to yourself to begin a gratitude journal. Writing about things you feel grateful for is a simple way to bring more joy into your life. People who "practice gratitude" feel considerably happier (25%) than those in a control group—they are more joyful, enthusiastic, interested, and determined. In one study, researchers had people list five things they felt thankful for once a week for 10 weeks. At the end of the study, participants "felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future."
Those benefits are all the evidence you need to have a guilt-free pass to nurture your own happiness—whether it is by meditating or practicing gratitude, spending a little more time with your friends, or by indulging yourself with the nurturing touch of another person. Do these things this year in celebration of Mother's Day with the intention that they will become a regular part of your activities (we all know one day isn't enough!). For the sake of your kids.
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