Many Americans don’t take good care of themselves. They eat too much (and not enough of the right foods), don’t get enough sleep, and don’t exercise enough. They also suffer from stress, which can make them irritable and moody, and cause lapses in judgment and performance. Because many of us lead busy lives, we can’t seem to find the time to get down to the hard work of self-improvement.

None of this news. But what may surprise you is how much these different problems are interrelated through chemical processes in the brain. According to a new book called Smarts and Stamina, by Marie-Josee Shaar and Kathryn Britton, sleep, eating, exercise and mood all influence the production of four biochemicals in the body—serotonin, dopamine, leptin, and cortisol—which, in turn, affect how we feel and behave. In order to feel optimally healthy, we need to have these in balance, and their book aims to show you how.

Shaar and Britton (both alumni of the Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, founded by Martin Seligman) provide 50 simple tips for helping busy people improve their health by taking one positive step at a time. Each of the tips is designed to affect a particular problem area—sleep, food, exercise, or mood—and is scientifically tested to show it works. In addition, the tips are organized to capitalize on your personal strengths. For example, if you are have trouble sleeping, but are good about exercise, they give you an exercise-focused tip that will indirectly improve your sleeping.

Positive Psychology Press, 2011, 260 pages.
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Examples of tips include things Greater Good readers may be familiar with—e.g. keeping a gratitude journal and focused breathing—which can help with mood, and can also encourage healthier eating or better sleep. Other examples may be novel, such as serving meals on smaller plates to stimulate less eating, or snacking on a light carbohydrate-rich food about an hour before bed to help induce sleep. Each of the tips comes with a section explaining why it’s helpful and how to best plan and execute the skill, starting with a mindful assessment of where you are at currently.

Whatever lifestyle change you wish to make, the authors have a wealth of ideas to get you started. So, if you’ve been contemplating dieting, working out, or sleeping better at night, this might just be the book for you. You may be surprised how easy it is to become a healthier—and more chemically-balanced—person.

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