Monthly Archives: June 2014

#55 Volunteer and Improve Your Health

pink-dotpeople volunteering

There is some link between our happiness and the health of our heart.  Scientists have known this since the 1970’s when it was discovered that those people who are chronically tense, angry, and demanding (Type A personalities) also tend to have higher cholesterol levels and are more prone to heart attacks.  Researchers theorize that chronic irritability releases chemicals which convert lipids in the blood into LDL.

But does engaging in the opposite behavior—altruism, gratitude, savoring, for example—alter our heart health?  Psychologist Hannah Schreier at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues, sought to find out by asking 106 high school students to participate in a study on volunteering.  Half of the students spent about one hour per week helping younger children with an activity—either homework, sports, or a club activity.  They did so for eight consecutive weeks. The other half of the students, the control group, did not do any volunteering.

The student volunteers were tested at the end of the study and found to have lower cholesterol levels than when they began the study.  They also had lower levels of inflammation and lower levels of body fat than the students who were wait-listed.  It did not seem to matter what type of volunteering the student did.

How could such a simple activity, over a short period of time, alter one’s health? The researchers did a further analyses of which students in the intervention group had the biggest gains in health.  They found that those who reported the highest levels (on several personality scales) of empathy for others, altruistic behavior, and the lowest levels of negative mood had the most improvement to their health.  Researchers have established previously that volunteering seems to make the elderly healthier and longer lived.  This was the first study to establish the same effect for teen-agers.  Thus, the effects are likely beneficial for all ages.

If previous entries to this publication haven’t convinced you to start volunteering, you now have another reason—do it for your health.  What’s holding you back?


Schreier, H., Schonert-Reichie, K., & Chen, E.  Feb. 25, 2013.  Effect of volunteering  on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescents.  JAMA Pediatrics, 167 (4), 327-332.  Link to the article:

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# 54 Make Small Talk With Someone You Barely Know



People in a coffee shop     We’ve known for years that social isolation, or loneliness, is bad for our health.  Isolated people have more health problems, and they don’t live as long as people who stay connected to others.  Psychologists have questioned whether it is the subjective feeling of loneliness, i.e., the lack of a close companion to talk to, or whether it is the lack of all types of social interaction with others, that is the important factor asso-ciated with poor health and decline as we  age.

Asked another way, how much connectedness does one need to maintain a sense of well being?  Do we need to be married?  To have a wide circle of close friends?  Someone to talk to about our problems?  Or is it enough to have a brief chat with the mailman and ask the woman at the drycleaners how her son is doing in college?

Researcher Andrew Steptoe of the University College of London led a team which explored this question by tracking lives of 6,500 people age 52 or older over a span of seven years.  As expected, those who were socially isolated were more likely to have died (22% passed away) than those who were more connected (12%).  The feeling of loneliness was associated with early death but not as strongly as was social isolation.  What surprised them, however, is that the amount of social contact with others, even  brief social contact, was associated with longer life spans.  The takeaway is this—even small talk with an acquaintance like the bus driver—could extend your  life.

*  For several days this week, make small talk with strangers, or people you barely know:  the cashier and the bagger at the grocery store, that person at church who doesn’t attend very often, the waitress, the neighbor you see raking leaves in his yard, the man walking his dog in the park, the barista at your favorite coffee shop, the letter carrier. .

*  Imagine for a moment that when you do this, you are adding a day to the length of your life.

*  Imagine this too, that you are adding a day to the length of that person’s life as well.



Steptoe, A.  March 19, 2013. Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences.

(excerpted in:  Scientific American Mind, Sept./Oct. 2013).



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# 53 Act as If You’re Not Anxious





Here’s another one:

“I haven’t accomplished the things in life that I could have because I have social anxiety.  I can’t talk to people.  When the therapist gives me courage, I will do the things I’m afraid to do.”

Real life goes like this:  I saw a man who said he had been crippled by social anxiety all his life.  He had no friends in high school, didn’t date in college.  He never spoke in meetings.  I asked him, “If a miracle occurred in the middle of the night, and you woke up free of this terrible burden of social anxiety, what is the first thing you would do?”  (I learned this technique from David Wexler).  He replied, “Oh, I would be so happy.”  I countered, “No, I asked what is the first thing you would do that very next day?”  He answered, “Well, I guess instead of eating lunch at my desk, I would go into the breakroom where everyone eats, and I would walk up to someone and say, ‘Hi, mind if I sit here?’ and I would introduce myself and sit down and eat lunch with that person. ”  “Great,” I said.  “You know where to begin.  Now go and do it,” and he did.

Real psychotherapy goes like this:  “You are anxious.  What would you do if the fear was suddenly removed?  Confront your fears, do it anyway.  Courage will follow.”

What are you afraid of? How long have you been afraid of it? Write down how afraid you are on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the upper limit. Start with something on the list that is around a 3 or 4.  Now act as if you’re not anxious and do it anyway. What is the number afterward? Do it a second time, a third time, and a fourth time. What is the number now? Has your level of courage risen as your fear has gone down?









Wexler, D.  1991.  The Adolescent Self:  Strategies for self-management, self-soothing, and self-esteem for adolescents.  New York:  Norton.

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# 52 Act As If You Had Self Confidence




“Oh, I wish I could do that, but I have low self esteem.  I will go to the psychotherapist who will give me self-confidence.  Then I will do that.”

What is self-esteem?  At its simplest, it is the felt sum of our pluses and minuses at any given point in time.  When our projects turn out well, when people respond positively to us, when we complete a task successfully, or get positive feedback, our plus column gets a little longer.  When our efforts fail, when people turn away from us, when we face disappoint- ment, our minus column lengthens.  However, there is another important source of minuses.  What many people with low self esteem fail to understand is that by turning  away from an endeavor that might fail, by avoiding challenges, that is not a plus, that is a minus.  Years and years of minuses fill up the minus column.  In fact, low self esteem, or low self worth is shaped more by what we avoid doing than by any actual experience of failure or rejection.

Suppose you are one of those people who say they have low self esteem.  Act like someone who has a positive sense of self.  Do what people do who believe in themselves.  The behavior will become more natural over time and the feelings will follow.


  1. What would you do if you had more self esteem? Be more assertive? Initiate a conversation with a stranger? Learn a new skill?  Do it anyway for a day. Fake it. Write down how much self confidence you have at the end of the day.








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# 51 Do What You Would Do If You Were Not Depressed



Many psychotherapy clients come with a mistaken agenda. Like the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow, they go to see the Wizard in the Emerald City looking for magical gifts–gifts that will give them what they lack.  It goes something like this:

“I am depressed.  When the therapist takes my depression away, I will do things that make me happy, I will go for a walk.  I will wave at my neighbor and  smile.  Oh, if only I didn’t have this depression holding me back.”

The sequence is all wrong.  Real changes in life, real psychotherapy,  goes like this:

“You are depressed,  that’s true.  If you would act as if you’re not depressed, and walk down that sidewalk and smile to your neighbor, you will find yourself becoming less depressed.”  You act first, then the change in your emotional state will follow.

Strange as it may sound, studies show that when depressed people forced themselves to smile, even by biting on a pencil, they felt happier emotionally.  Somehow the movement of the muscles around the mouth triggered an internal sensation of well-being.  In fact a major study of treatment for depression found that when depressed people simply do all the things that non-depressed people do–socialize with others, exercise, pursue enjoyable interests such as art and music, perform kind acts for others–their depression dissipates.  This form of treatment, if it can be called treatment, is more effective than antidepressant medication.

  1. Consider how, when you have felt depressed, you waited for something to happen so you could feel happy. How could you instead take charge of your low mood and act happier? Remember, you cannot fix the feelings first, hoping the behavior will follow. You engage in the behavior first, and the feelings will follow.











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