Set your happiness to music

From cognitive to physical benefits in healthy aging, set your happiness to music.
Set your happiness to music – I will!

I’ve written frequently about ways to get happier (most recently in “Five Ways to Maintain Positivity”) and I’ve mentioned music as a way to motivate yourself to exercise. But music also has a close link to other brain benefits! Your happiness and music are linked!

Tunes for healthy aging

One thing that all of us are concerned with is our healthy aging. And if something can keep our brain healthy, and that something is as wonderful as music – it should be a no-brainer to put some tunes on. Studies in both healthy older adults and stroke patients have shown that making music has a positive effect on cognitive status in healthy aging.

Improved mental health

In fact, a study by the Global Council of Brain Health showed improvements in cognitive function and mental health of those who actively listen to music. Similarly, those who listened to music regularly also reported lower levels of anxiety and depression. Another study showed that upbeat background music can improve our processing speed and memory improves with either upbeat or downbeat background music.

So, music will help you feel happier and also can help you remember things. Calm me down and increase my optimism? All good reasons to set your happiness to music. Use music for your body and your brain: your exercise and your emotions. 

Music instead of white noise

I had been putting on my white noise machine instead of music. Where I work gets impossibly still and quiet, which makes me crazy – listening to the noises in my head (tinnitus). But I think I’ll be putting my favorite Pandora station into my earphones, and only put the white noise on when I need to write. But if having background music on will help me process things faster and improve my memory, I’m all for it. 

What’s your favorite kind of music to have in the background?

No limit to the benefits of exercise

The benefits of exercise are many.
Lifting those weights keeps my bones and muscles strong.

It’s no secret that I exercise multiple times a week. I exercise mostly so that I can do the things I really want to do. Like walk around a store (or a theme park) and run Agility with my dog. But there is no limit to the benefits of exercise in other areas of my life. Like mental clarity. More benefits are sleeping better, and keeping my bones and muscles strong. 

Benefits of exercise to the heart

And the benefits to the heart from exercise have been proven to be limitless. A recent study from the University of Oxford with 90,000 participants showed that the risk of cardiovascular disease was lower in those who were the most active. Five years after the study participants were still benefiting from exercise. 

Daily exercise is crucial for cardiovascular health, blood pressure control, weight loss and overall physical fitness. The researchers also determined that those who exercised had the healthiest BMI (body mass index), were least likely to smoke, and had lower alcohol intake. That’s not surprising. What was surprising, though, was that there was no limit to the cardiovascular benefit the participants received from exercising. “Results showed both moderate and vigorous physical activity drove down instances of cardiovascular disease.”  So – keep exercising and your heart keeps getting the benefits.

Not easy to maintain the level of exercise

It’s not easy to maintain a moderate or vigorous level of exercise a few times a week, though. Just knowing the benefits of exercise is not enough to make you put on your sneakers. Just like with New Year’s resolutions: many people are fired up at the start of the year to “get fit,” and their motivation may last for a few weeks, but they lose interest after a while. They may know the benefits of working out – that’s why they start an exercise in the first place, but that’s not enough to keep them going.

Know your “why”So, as I’ve said before – know your motivator. There must be something that compels you to get on the stationary bike, or climb those stairs, or get on the mat a few times a week besides the benefits to your heart. This is especially important for healthy aging. Know what motivates you, so that you can keep exercising and reap those benefits.

How to prove that you’re amazing

You already know it deep down inside, but you can prove that you’re amazing. Sometimes as we go through our lives, the days run together and, while we keep plugging away at the tasks that will move us forward, sometimes it feels like we’re treading in place. We keep busy, keep doing things but at the end of the day it doesn’t feel like we’ve actually accomplished anything at all.

Goals – big and little

I’ve talked about the importance of setting goals for ourselves regardless of the stage of life we’re in. Working toward a goal every day helps keep us feeling productive. I’ve talked about setting that big goal and breaking it up into workable pieces. Those huge, pie-in-the-sky, goals are then reduced to things that we can get done every day. And by the deadline that we set, that big goal is achieved.

But in doing those smaller tasks we sometimes forget how they’ll move us forward. We don’t feel the incentive or motivation we should when we think about that big goal.

Modified bird-dog plank
Modified “Bird Dog” pose to work on improving my balance.

I test my own balance constantly and try difficult poses. (As we age, we lose our sense of balance unless we actively work on it. See my interview with Kathleen Cameron, Senior Director of the Center for Healthy Aging, about balance and preventing falls.) The “Bird Dog” is a plank exercise in which the opposite hand and foot are on the floor, the others extended. I certainly could not do that when I first started or for a long time after that. So I started on both knees with one arm extended, then both hands on the floor and one leg extended. Eventually I built up my strength and balance so that I was able to perform the full pose. But along the way I was discouraged by my lack of progress.

The Amazing Box

If you’re not seeing the progress you’d like, or if you’ve lost your motivation, it’s time to introduce the “Amazing Box.” This concept was introduced to me by Dr. Perpetua Neo,Doctor of Clinical Psychology.

Your Amazing Box - proof that you're amazing.
Your Amazing Box

The Amazing Box is your instant motivator. If you’re feeling down about the chances of your achieving your goals, it’s time to delve into your Amazing Box. You’ve broken down your “Big Goal” into more manageable chunks, right? Whenever you complete one of those chunks, write down your accomplishment and stick it in your Amazing Box. Or, if you like using digital tools like Google Keep or Evernote, type an entry. Color code your entry if you like! Pretty soon your Amazing Box will have loads of entries, proving that you are, in fact, amazing..

Congratulate yourself! Full plank with bird dog balance!
The Bird Dog plank balance.

My quest to do the full Bird Dog pose was before I learned about the Amazing Box. I could have written down each day’s achievement – like “I was able to hold the modified Bird Dog with my left leg extended for 15 seconds!” Or “I held the full Bird Dog pose for a nanosecond but tipped over onto my chin. I got back up and held it for a second!”

Track your progress in your Amazing Box. You’ll be astonished at how far you’ve come in your journey toward your goals.

Use your Amazing Box for other accomplishments too

So much of our day is spent on seemingly inconsequential tasks that take a great deal of time. Like repotting a plant. Or refilling soap dispensers and cleaning up the mess that inevitably ensues. Use your Amazing Box to brag about these accomplishments too. No one will see it but you, and if those darn soap dispensers make you crazy every time you refill them, you have every right to acknowledge your success in filling them.

Prove that you’re amazing

If you look at the obstacles in your way and feel that they’re insurmountable, look in your Amazing Box and think about the obstacles you’ve already overcome. Your Amazing Box gives you the momentum you need to keep going. The accomplishments you’ve identified in your Amazing Box will boost your optimism, your happiness and your resilience.

Whenever you’re feeling like time is escaping from you, or that you’re not good enough, or that you’ll never achieve anything, dip into your Amazing Box and see just how much you really have done. You have proof that you’re amazing!

Five ways to maintain positivity

I often write about happiness and optimism, because happy and optimistic people are generally healthier and live longer than those who are unhappy or see the negative in everything. But even when you start the day with a positive outlook, sometimes it can be hard to maintain that optimistic mindset. Here are five ways to maintain positivity.

When the sun is shining it’s easier to be positive and optimistic. Everything looks better when it’s bright outside. But how about when it’s nighttime, or it’s gray and gloomy outside? How can you maintain positivity then?

#1 on the list of How to Maintain Positivity: Smile!
#1 on the list of How to Maintain Positivity: Smile! After a workout, I have a big smile on my face.
  1. Smile. That’s it. Just take a breath and show some teeth. Even if you don’t feel like smiling. When we smile, our brain releases the hormones dopamine and serotonin, associated with happiness and reducing stress. Believe it or not, a study performed by a group at the University of Cardiff at Wales found that people who could not frown due to botox injections were happier on average than those who could frown. So, that’s the “fake it until it comes true” path.
  2. Journal your gratitude or express it in some other way. Say, “Thank you” to more people for even the smallest of favors. There is no place for unhappiness in you when you’re feeling grateful to others. Even having others in your life is something to be happy about.
  3. Take a walk. Increase your oxygen intake. When you breathe more deeply, your body is doing something positive. If you exercise regularly, that “exercise high” you feel lasts longer, plus you’re sleeping better.
  4. Listen to a favorite tune. I keep a playlist of songs that make me feel happy. Listening to one usually does the trick when I’m feeling down. Almost anything by the Zac Brown Band puts a smile on my face and gets my toes tapping.
  5. Meditate. Thinking of absolutely nothing for a few minutes helps me maintain positivity. Just breathe. If that’s hard for you, a short guided meditation will also help clear the cobwebs and help you maintain your positivity. If you’d like to try meditating but don’t know where to start, download the Garden Walk Guided Meditation.

These days, it’s important to grab happiness and optimism wherever you can. Practicing one or more of these techniques will help you maintain your positivity.

Do a deep dive to settle your brain

Turn your brain off by using more of it. Do a deep dive to settle your brain.
Turn your brain off by using more of it. Do a deep dive to settle your brain.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to stop your brain from going in a zillion directions is to hunker down with a difficult project. You know the times when you’re thinking about all the things on your to-do list that you haven’t done, and about your sick dog, and about the war overseas, and about the pandemic, and about when you’re going to have the time to go to the store… When your brain says, “Enough! Or I’m going to explode!” So, to stop your brain from exploding, that’s the time to dive into a complex project, one that requires all your mental powers. Turn your brain off by using more of it.

The harder the project the less you’ll be distracted

It may not make sense at first thought, but, really, it makes perfect sense. The more you have to think about the task you’re performing, the less you’re thinking about other things. And you’ll be distracted less by random thoughts. A paper published a few years ago in the Association for Psychological Science journal studied complexity and distraction. It described how subjects were more likely to finish a complex task on a computer when flashing letters appeared on the screen than an easier task.
I’ve described my process to truly focus on a task, and it goes right along with this study. If you have a task that needs doing but you’re finding it difficult to focus, first decide what you want to get done. Then break it down into manageable chunks so it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Turn off your phone and remove any other distractions you can. Now take a deep breath and clear your mind. And then do it. If you’re finding it hard to concentrate, pick a more complex task to accomplish. You’ll need all your concentration and won’t have the opportunity to be distracted.

Or, if you’re too tired and just don’t have the energy, go to bed. You need more sleep (like most adults). Make any notes about your project off the top of your head. That way they’re not churning along with everything else in your mind. Turn your screens off. And attack that project when you’re fresh and energized tomorrow.

Figure this out before you work out

So you’ve been told you should exercise. It’s not just me who’s telling you that… It’s the Mayo Clinic – did you know that you’ll sleep better if you exercise? And Harvard Medical School – did you know that exercise can help prevent cancer? And yet so many people tend to avoid exercise. It’s easy to not exercise if, for example, your parents were not especially active. And it’s easy to keep on watching TV or reading when a show or book is engrossing. So, what will get you out of the chair? Before you work out, you have to figure out your motivator.

Figure out your motivator

In order to keep on exercising – because exercise is not a “one and done” thing – you have to have a really good reason to keep coming back to it. You’re not going to keep on exercising several days a week if you hadn’t been exercising before, unless you have a particularly strong reason to do it. Because, let’s face it, exercise is not the most fun thing on the planet.

I hate to exercise

A great workout eliminates stress.
I do not like getting sweaty… And yet…

I’ve said it before, I do not like to exercise. Not one little bit. And yet, I’m on my exercise mat or on the treadmill 4 or 5 days every single week. Even after all the years that I’ve been exercising, I despise it. The best part of exercising to me is when I’m done for the day. I do not like getting sweaty and out of breath. And the promise of fighting off cancer or getting better sleep are not good enough reasons to work out. So why do I do it?

My 3 big reasons

  1. I get to eat what I like
  2. I’ll be in shape to run my dog in agility
  3. I’ll be more able to face life’s challenges. I’m a big scaredy-cat. I figure if I have the discipline to do what I don’t like to do, I’ll be better able to face anything life throws at me.

What will make you lace up those sneakers day after day?

Those are my reasons. Everyone does different things for different reasons. The prospect of 7 or 8 uninterrupted hours of sleep might very well be your big motivator.

Or playing with the grandkids in the backyard. Or even having a backyard with a beautiful garden is your reason. Last week’s article was about how gardening can relieve stress. But in order to have a garden you have to do the work. Are you able to dig your garden, to kneel down and get those weeds? Perhaps you’ve figured out your motivator and that garden is it.

The key to getting the benefits of exercise is consistency. You have to keep on exercising to get anything out of it. So, you have to think about what will make you lace up your sneakers and get on that exercise mat. You have to figure out your motivator that will keep you working out six months from now, a year from now, for your best life.

Dig in the dirt to ease your stress

I’m watching the snow fly out my window as I’m writing this. It’s kind of strange to think about gardening when it’s snowing, but now is the perfect time. I’ve described ways to ease your anxiety in the past, and digging in the dirt can ease your stress too. 

Gardening promotes health

Dig in the dirt to ease stress.
Digging in the dirt helps to ease stress.

“There are a lot of studies that show how being outside and gardening promotes health. It provides relaxation, enhances mood, and puts our bodies in a state to better handle stresses,” says Dr. Lori Walsh a pediatrician at Advocate Children’s Medical Group. “Our nervous systems are in a hyper state of overdrive, which, if not turned off, puts our bodies in a state of inflammation that contributes to diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. Walsh says. “Gardening helps to take your mind off stresses and starts to focus us on what is happening in the moment, shifting us from overdrive to using your senses and being mindful.”

Planning comes first

But in order to have your garden, your place of refuge, things have to start growing first. Now is the time to plan your garden. If you have a yard, a corner of it is perfect for your garden. Start to research the kinds of things you want to plant – do you want to grow vegetables? Or perhaps a beautiful flower garden. Keep in mind if your planned garden has many hours of sun, or if it will just have a few hours of sun a day. Different plants have different sunlight requirements.

Is your soil optimal for the kind of garden you want? Keep your garden’s soil and fertilizer requirements in mind as well. Know the soil supplements you’ll need to add. And, many of us beginning gardeners overbuy seeds. Your little plants have space requirements too. Research is supremely easy these days – just Google the kind of plants that do well in your area, with the sunlight you get. 


Container gardening is another option, if you don’t have a yard or don’t want to plant in your yard. My dogs would certainly make short work of little plants unless I invested in sturdy barriers. Planting in pots could mean different fertilizers and soil additives.

You can certainly start seeds indoors now so they’ll be ready to plant outside when there’s no danger of frost. Or keep doing your research and visit a garden center when you’re ready to plant. 

Just thinking about your garden, your refuge to escape from the world, can’t you feel yourself getting calmer? Plan to dig in the dirt to ease your stress this spring and summer. And you’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor too – whether it’s good stuff to eat or food for the eyes.

Choose happiness

I choose happiness almost every day. I say almost because, sometimes, reality is too much to bear. Some days the crushing weight of all the bad news in the world combined with bad news closer to home make ear-to-ear grinning happiness impossible.

Day-to-day irritations don’t matter

But most days I can let the day-to-day irritations fade into the background and choose to be happy. Yes, the dog ate something in the yard that didn’t agree with him – all over the rug. And gas went up another dime a gallon. And we had to deal with another unhappy customer wondering why the supply chain issues affected her order.

But those things aren’t enough to make me choose anything other than happiness. 

Think of your happiness as a muscle

Happiness is like a muscle. Use it or lose it. Now, I don’t mean the chocolate cake type of happiness. I mean the deep-down, central to my soul kind of happiness. Yes, chocolate cake will make my taste buds very happy while I’m eating it, but a half hour later it’s a memory. But the happiness I feel when I think of my family, my dogs, my health, the little plants starting to grow outside – that doesn’t go away.

You’re probably laughing to yourself, thinking, “This Fran is a nut. I can’t choose happiness like I would choose a pair of shoes!”

To which I say, “Why not?”

Take responsibility for your own happiness

Deepak Chopra, one of the leading voices in well-being, says that we should take responsibility for our own happiness. It is in our power to be happy. If we leave it to others to make us happy, we can never be happy if we’re alone. That is unacceptable to me. I’m an introvert and I like being by myself much of the time. I like to be happy, so I choose happiness for myself.

I choose happiness.
Work your happiness!

I’ve written about how that happiness comes about in the past. And many times it’s not simply, “OK. I’m happy now.” Sometimes that works, but not very often. What usually does work for me is just closing my eyes and thinking about all the great stuff I have now in my life. I disregard the not-great stuff, because some of that will always be there and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. 

Or I put on my workout clothes and move. Exercise is a great mood-lifter. After exercise I always feel better than I did before. I not only feel happier but I feel less stressed. And after a shower I feel better still.

If you’re feeling blue, you can do something about it. Choose happiness.

Friends can help us navigate tough times

Sometimes watching the news or scrolling through our social media feeds it seems like we’re alone. Bad news everywhere, rising prices, rising interest rates, long lines, supply shortages (still!) It’s easy to get frightened, anxious and stressed and keep ruminating about all the bad things that might happen. That’s the moment you take a deep breath and call your best friend! Our friends can help us deal with the stress as well as lift us up and make us feel better. We know that friends can help us through tough workouts, but friends can help us navigate tough times too.

Friends lift us up

Our best friends lift us up by being near, and friends can help us navigate tough times.
Our best friends lift us up just by being near.

We all have a friend, or if we’re lucky more than one, friend who lights up a room and just makes us feel better by being near. That’s the friend to count on when we’re thinking those dark thoughts. That friend lifts us up emotionally just by being herself. And spending more time with that friend can help us get healthier too.

Dr. Vanessa Chang at Aurora Behavior Health Center says that friends can help us live longer. It’s been shown that people with strong relationships tend to be healthier than people without those relationships. 

Friends help us deal with stress

Friends help us deal with stress. Turning to best friends during tough times can make it easier to cope with life’s knuckleballs. “Knowing people we can count on during difficult times can lessen the burden and even make some events seem not stressful at all,” says Dr. Chang.

And having a friend we can count on can also help keep our mind sharp. A study found that lonely people are 40% more likely to develop dementia than those with solid friendships.

Time to reconnect

So, now is the time to reconnect with friends. During the pandemic you may have grown apart from friends, but now is the time to get back in touch. And despite how in-depth some conversations may seem on social media, the people you’ve “friended” on Facebook may not be the ones who will stick by you through thick and thin. If you still don’t feel comfortable meeting in person with friends, Zoom is still a great way to meet “face to face” without masks. And a free account gives you 45 minutes of uninterrupted chatting. I still “get together” with a few good friends every week over Zoom. Friends can help us navigate tough times, and these days we need all the friends we can get.

Coping with anxiety in the real world

Like it or not, these are anxious times. We’re all dealing with anxiety. From millennials to Gen-Xers to us Baby Boomers. We all have to develop our own ways of coping with anxiety in the real world – our world. Your world is different than mine, so you have to find your own way of coping with your stress and anxiety.

Techniques for coping with anxiety

But, there are techniques that we can all use to cope with our separate anxieties. 

Experts tell us to be more mindful and that will help us cope with stress. But, what does that really mean?

Be mindful

Coping with anxiety in the real world means being mindful of the things around you.
Be mindful of the things around you.

Being mindful to me is to pay attention to the things around me. Inside – to my work, my family, my dogs. And outside – to traffic and sounds, of course, but also to the trees, the birds, the people walking.

Experts will tell you about meditation, breathing exercises and other techniques as they relate to mindfulness. But, for me, if I just take a breath, and try to remember all the joy in my own life, the anxieties of the real world kind of fade. They don’t go away altogether, which is OK – after all, we do live in the real world so it has to have a presence in my life – but the stress is manageable. I’ve also talked about how exercise helps me conquer my anxiety.

What can I really do

If I’m stressing about the situation in Ukraine, then taking a moment to focus on what’s really going around me will make me realize that I can’t stop the Russian forces on my own. That moment allows me to take a step back and focus on the steps I can actually take to help the Ukrainian people.

Coping with anxiety in my real world

If I’m stressing about something closer to home, then taking that moment lets me focus on the steps I can take to solve the problem. And if I can’t solve the problem myself, that moment lets me figure out who to ask to help me.

If you’re anxious and stressed, and if you can’t tune out the world for a moment, definitely try those techniques the experts recommend. But try to just … be … for a little while.