How Talking to Strangers Can Benefit your Social Fitness

How do you feel about small talk or talking to strangers? Are you good at it or do you dread it? Some people are gifted this way and find it easy to engage with someone sitting beside them on a plane or waiting in line for coffee. You can feel that they’re relaxed, and it puts whoever they’re speaking with at ease. We’re not all built this way and for anyone who feels socially awkward or shy, talking with strangers can be a challenge. The great news is that when we’re prepared, small talk is easy and sometimes it magically transforms strangers into friends. 

“Friendship begins with small talk; then grows into a long and deep conversation, the next thing you know you care so much.”

I used to feel overwhelmed when I thought about all the strangers I was going to encounter at networking events. I had all the same feelings you likely have if you feel socially awkward like I do. What am I going to say? How do I start a conversation with someone I don’t know anything about? Are these people going to judge me?

Now I know that yes people are going to judge me because that’s how we’re wired as human beings. Until we get to know someone and discover what we have in common, our brain tells us to be afraid. What I have found though with years of networking behind me is that we have more in common than we think we do. It’s a matter of engaging and we do this by asking questions of others and sharing information about ourselves. I’ll have some tips that I’ve found useful on this topic for you a little later.

There’s science behind why it’s beneficial for us to talk with strangers and engage in small talk but without looking to science we can say that when a stranger wants to chat with us, it’s likely because they’re curious, we look interesting or both. Just a few questions and answers shared, and we know whether this is a relationship for the moment or one that could evolve into a friendship. Either way we’ll learn something, right?

“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”
-Margaret Wheatley, Organizational Consultant

Research on small talk shows that we underestimate how much we’ll enjoy conversations with strangers and how much those conversations can nurture a feeling of connectedness with other people, which is key for thriving, especially as we age. A study conducted at the University of Michigan shows that engaging in small talk can make us feel smarter, happier, and healthier. A surprising result was that casual conversation contributes to a lower risk of heart attack. It stands to reason because we’re connecting with other people, which inherently has a lot of benefit, at any age. It bears repeating that as human beings we are made for socialization and not isolation, so it’s important that we push ourselves beyond what’s comfortable or familiar, so that we can expand our knowledge base, social circle, and our own courage.

You’re only one conversation away from learning something new whether it’s about a family member, an acquaintance, or a community member. I remember recently sitting in a small group of Wellings members, after my presentation at Wellings of Picton. The woman beside me and I struck up a conversation; I learned that she had experienced a car accident a few years ago that impacted her life and her move to Wellings gave her new friends and a community that cared. She was excited about the music we were about to listen to and said that she was looking forward to kicking up her heels, even if only figuratively. A new Wellings member joined the group and introduced herself as Flo, spelling her name with a wide smile; she started asking questions to get to know the people in the group. She joked that her grandson loved Wellings and said that this type of community would be great for young people too. I think he’s on to something. Anytime we can create community and connection we are alleviating some of the stress we all feel in our daily lives, which is magnified when we’re isolated and lessened when we’re in community.

“Smile at strangers and you just might change a life.”
– Steve Maraboli, Behavioral Scientist

It’s important for us to initiate connections with our family, our peers, friends, and our community members, some of whom we may not know yet. While it may feel uncomfortable initially, with practice we become confident and reaching out becomes easier.

Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful when it comes to being prepared for conversation.

  1. I like to open conversation with a compliment whenever possible. It creates an immediate connection; make sure it’s sincere.
  2. Look for commonalities in whatever situation you’re meeting this person. Make sure you’re curious and have a genuine interest in them.
  3. Have a few topics of conversation in your pocket, so you can talk easily. In Canada weather is a great topic to open with and it seems everyone has an opinion. I like to keep it light and focus on what’s good.
  4. Talk about why you’re there, whether it’s a party, a meeting, or some other social event.
  5. Ask open ended questions rather than questions requiring a yes or no answer.
  6. Ask them to tell you a little bit about themselves.
  7. Genuinely listen to their answers and demonstrate it by using verbal and non-verbal feedback like nodding your head and following up with another question.
  8. Wrap up graciously by saying something like “it was a pleasure to meet you” or great chatting with you” and then add that you have somewhere to be or that you’re going to chat with someone else.

I think it’s important to be positive and enthusiastic when we’re getting to know someone. Small talk is the first step in figuring out whether we’re aligned with a new person; it’s also a great tool to deepen a relationship with family or community members without things getting sticky. We don’t have to tell our life story right out of the gate. While we all have an interesting story to share, we can save that for a time when we feel it’s appropriate to go a little deeper with someone, once we get to know them.

What’s really worked for me is practice. The more I’m prepared before I initiate conversation, the more relaxed I feel, and the more I enjoy these encounters. There are so many things we can learn, so many beautiful people we can get to know and so many wonderful stories and shared experiences to uncover when we take a chance and open a conversation, simply by asking “how are you doing?”

The Importance of Having a Healthy Outlook on Life

Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty person? We’ve been conditioned to see glass half full people as optimistic and glass half empty people as pessimistic but why not just put more water in the glass to fill it up? I believe we all have some pessimism, and some optimism in us and it’s our choice to decide how we want to see what’s in the glass. Having a healthy outlook on life means accepting that as humans, we experience the full spectrum of emotions, and we’re responsible for our approach and our response to what happens on this life adventure. 

I consider myself to be a practical optimist. I choose to be hopeful and to have faith that even when things appear to be tough, there’s some growth coming out of it. I may be delusional about what’s possible but I’m owning it because I believe we are all capable of great things. I believe we are all capable of calling on courage to move through fear and we are all capable of calling upon kindness and compassion to override judgement of ourselves and others. Despite how I was conditioned to see life, I chose to flip the script and see possibility instead of limits. Every day now I choose to feel empowered instead of feeling like a victim. While I can’t single-handedly shift outcomes for the world, I can shift the outcome for myself and for situations in my corner of the world in part by having a healthy outlook on life. 

No doubt, there’s a lot more uncertainty in the world today. I love to understand what’s going on in my life and sometimes, when I don’t have all the information, my mind will fill in the blanks with some worst-case scenarios to prepare me in case things go sideways. That’s because as humans, we’re wired for survival and our thoughts set up imaginary circumstances to protect us. But if those scenarios have no basis in fact and are not true, it’s up to us to manage them wisely.  

Fear was so predominant during the Pandemic and in its wake we all have many unanswered questions. Unfortunately, we may never get the answers we’re looking for because some questions don’t have definitive answers. It’s best to accept that uncertainty is part of life and get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s possible to be hopeful and optimistic without having all the answers. 

Because we are wired for survival, it explains why there is so much focus on bad news and why we prefer to stay in our so-called comfort zone. It may not really be comfortable but it’s familiar and familiarity feels safer than the unknown does. When we embrace uncertainty and accept that change is not a bad thing but a sure thing, we open ourselves to a life filled with possibility, where we can choose not to be so hard on ourselves. Having a healthy outlook on life means that we’re softer and more accepting of ourselves and others. It means that we can make space in our daily life to care for ourselves: body, mind, and spirit. We choose to speak softly to ourselves and others instead of being critical. We can give ourselves permission to celebrate whenever we choose courage over fear, and we allow ourselves to make mistakes. We recognize that in fact we can do many things our thoughts previously told us we couldn’t do.   

Here are some ideas to consider when it comes to nourishing a healthy mindset.  

  1. Choose to invest your time with people who make you feel energized not drained. 
  2. Watch what you consume in terms of media. It’s important to be informed about what’s going on in the world but being addicted to news can be toxic. 
  3. Be open minded and recognize that every person has their own experiences and their own viewpoint. We don’t all have to agree but we must be respectful. 
  4. Watch complaining in yourself and tolerating it in others. Complaining is a sign that something needs to shift and it’s really a statement about what we don’t want. Determine what you do want and take some small action in that direction. 
  5. Don’t allow fear to lead, instead call on courage to proceed when things feel uncertain. 
  6. Make some form of exercise part of your routine. It helps with freshening the mind and the body.  

Let’s go back to the glass half full analogy for a parting thought. If you notice someone in your life seems to have a glass half empty, pour some of your goodness into their glass by doing or saying something kind to comfort them. If you feel that your glass is half empty, open yourself to receiving support from someone who may have a very full glass to share. Being available to receive from others is really a gift we give to them when we’re in a time of need and it takes a healthy outlook on life to recognize that when we receive kindness from others we’re filling their glass too. 

Joy Snacks for Pleasure and Longevity

What lights you up about Spring and Summer? After feeling like we’ve been through three winters (LOL) Spring’s arrival helps us to feel lighter. I like to call it the season of hope because there’s so much possibility all around us: in blossoms on the trees and flowers poking out of the ground. It’s so easy to be impressed by Mother Nature when the earth is smiling this way.

I love walking the trail near our home year-round but especially at this time of year. I welcome the sound of a stream rushing, birds singing, the different shades of green; creatures moving through the woods. These are all what I call joy snacks: the small moments of gladness that remind us of all the good there is to appreciate in life. Perhaps you experience something similar on your walks or as you move through your day. I sure hope so.

I think of joy snacks as a valuable ingredient in the recipe for sustainable happiness and here’s why. It’s all about the good feelings we experience when we encounter someone or something that makes us feel joyful. Think babies smiling, someone complimenting you or someone holding a door open for you. These everyday encounters cause our brain to release neurotransmitters or feel-good chemicals into our nervous system. There’s dopamine, known as the feel-good hormone and serotonin, often called the happiness chemical. Easy breezy activities like showing appreciation or kindness, receiving a compliment graciously, going for a walk, or smiling at someone all invite more production of these feel-good hormones and help lift our mood.

“Smiling can trick your brain by elevating your mood, lowering your heart rate, and reducing your stress. The smile doesn’t have to be based on real emotion because faking it works as well.”
-Dr. Diana Samuel MD

Joy is a magical thing and sometimes it’s challenging to believe we deserve it. We’re so conditioned to think that life is difficult, and joy is frivolous. We must become intentional about joy and teach ourselves to be clever joy detectives, packing as much of it as we can into every day. Let’s talk about exercise as a joy snack instead of a chore. Exercise encourages us to focus on the present moment; the experience takes our mind away from thoughts that might make us feel fearful or stressed and the magical piece is that we always feel good after exercise. Instead of looking at exercise as a “got to do it thing,” why not think of it as a “get to do it thing” because you know there’s joy involved. This is especially true when we exercise outdoors in nature and share the experience with someone else.

“The joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.”
–Russel M Nelson

Our ability to experience joy is always there but it may very well be buried to protect ourselves from feeling hurt or disappointed. I understand that because before I became a joy detective, I felt the need to protect myself but not any longer. I’ve learned that joy helps to expand my perspective on life instead of living with a limited perspective, which happens when we’re focused on negative and fearful thoughts about ourselves and our life circumstances. So, joy is medicine that helps us lift our outlook on life to be more positive and optimistic.

In a recent chat with a woman at Welling, she confessed that meeting so many new people in the community made her feel uncomfortable because she couldn’t remember everyone’s name. I suggested she start greeting people by saying hello, friend. Her face lit up in recognition of the fact that folks in her new community really are her friends and it took the pressure off because now she doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable about remembering everybody’s name. That was a tasty joy snack.

There is so much benefit to being a joy detective. Not only do we experience something that feels good, but when we feel joy, we’re inspired to share it with others. We become more open minded and curious, our creativity expands, we spend less time focusing on what’s wrong because we’re looking for what’s going well. We’re more connected to other people, which improves our social fitness and when we’re joyful, we become more resilient, which sets us up for more positive experiences in the future both in our thoughts and the activities we choose to participate in.

I love to share joy snacks with other people, whether it’s having a meal with friends or surprising fellow walkers on the walking trail I mentioned earlier. I leave quarters on the posts of a little bridge that goes over a stream. I imagine someone seeing the money and feeling joyful, as they put it in their pocket, thinking about what joy they can create for themselves or imagining how they might pass the joy along to someone else. So, my challenge to you is to become a joy detective in your own life. Look for ways to pack as much gladness into your day as possible and when you can, offer a joy snack to someone else. You’ll make their day and light yourself up as well.

The Game of Fitting in Versus The Feeling of Belonging

Have you ever felt like you didn’t fit in? I know I did in school, in some workplaces even in some friend circles. As I was trying to fit in, I felt unsure because I didn’t listen to myself. I looked to others for cues on how to behave and what to say. I felt lost and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. We are conditioned (I say conned) into believing that if we work hard to fit in, we will be rewarded by being accepted. We are social creatures, and we need to know that we matter to our tribe. We all want to feel accepted.

I like to remind people that we are all important and we matter but for some of us, it’s a stretch to really believe that because we’ve habitually modified our behaviour to try to fit in or we’ve put others needs before our own, so we don’t see how important we are; we don’t see that we matter. We need to recognize that belonging is different from fitting in. It takes courage and effort in the unlearning, to understand that being ourselves is the secret to belonging.

“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”– Dr. Brene Brown PhD

I just finished reading media personality Paris Hilton’s memoir. When I saw the book, my first thought was that she’s too young, followed by she’s so privileged, why would anyone want to read about her experience? I was curious; I bought the book and I’m so glad I did. The great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels has a reputation as a privileged wild child with a very rebellious spirit……that’s all I knew about her until I read the book. Her parents Kathy and Richard wanted Paris to fit in when her behaviour was taking her off the path, they had in mind for her as a Hilton. They tried everything they could to protect her but nothing stuck. Finally, they had her kidnapped in the middle of the night by two thugs, who transported her to a wilderness school for troubled kids, in the middle of nowhere California. She ran away, was captured, and was sent to another even more remote and wild so-called school.

It was all her parents could think of doing, to keep her safe and while it was done with good intentions, nobody caught that Paris had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Her brain operates differently; she was not meant to fit in. She received the diagnosis around age 20; with treatment, the pieces fell together, and Paris soared. Her mind is hyper creative, she’s accomplished a lot and thanks to the humiliation she experienced at the wilderness camps for troubled kids, the paparazzi following her every move doesn’t scare her. In fact, Paris knows how to cooperate and make the relationship with the media work for everyone’s benefit. She belongs in the spotlight and the world accepts her there. Paris, just like all of us, was not meant to fit in; she was meant to be her true self. When we’re authentically ourselves, we’re not looking to fit it, we’re finding where we belong.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”-Mother Teresa

Dr. Brene Brown PhD, an American professor, author, and researcher has spent decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She talks about the contrast between belonging and acceptance. Acceptance relies on others recognizing us, which is unpredictable at best, whereas belonging comes from within ourselves, as we get to know who we really are. In the process of getting to know ourselves, we learn about our strengths and our gifts; we develop confidence. Trying to fit in makes us feel unstable because it’s dependent on other people’s approval, while belonging feels solid.

If you want to deepen your sense of belonging instead of struggling to fit in, here are a few suggestions to try.

-Experiment with new things. When we step outside of what we consider our normal habits we always learn something, whether it’s discovering a new hobby or it’s that what we’re trying is not for us. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, start somewhere by researching or taking a class on the subject. We are never too old to learn, to dream, to experiment and to grow.

-Ask yourself what makes you feel connected to others. Is it your love of books or movies, your interest in history, food, flowers, or music? Look for groups in person or on-line to explore, learn and connect with like-minded folks.

-Be courageous. Say hello to your neighbours. Meet new people. Start conversations by asking people about themselves and really listening to what they have to say. You might be surprised by how much we have in common.  We’re all human beings going through this life adventure with its high peaks and deep valleys.

-Be kind. We need to learn to be kind toward ourselves first because we’re human and life is challenging. When we learn to treat ourselves with kindness, it becomes easier to treat other people with kindness and graciously receive kindness when it’s offered to us. Our acts of kindness may seem innocent, but kindness is the perfect expression of belonging.  It implies that we have enough within ourselves and can happily share with others to elevate their day.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown teaches us that the greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in. She reminds us that while there are over seven million people on planet earth, there is only one you and you belong just as you are. You have experiences and knowledge that are yours alone; no one else on earth can be you. It’s the most beautiful reminder that you are important, and you matter whether it’s your home life, your work life, or your friend circle. Once you understand this truth, you’ll never need to fit in again.

How to Be There for Someone Going Through a Rough Time

We’ve all found ourselves in a situation where the wheels come off unexpectedly for someone we care about. What do we do? What can we say? Because there’s no handbook on the subject, sometimes we feel so awkward, we do nothing. It’s in our nature to want comfort from others and to comfort people we care about when things go sideways. Let’s try to cut through the awkwardness so we can feel empowered to take meaningful action and be supportive.

“Promise me you’ll always remember that you’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  -A.A. Milne 

Connection and community are key elements of what I call sustainable happiness. We are made to be social, and we want to feel like we still belong when we are going through something. We need to understand that when someone is going through something tough, it is about them and not about us. When we focus on our discomfort around their situation and do nothing, that’s when we are making it about us. Understanding that distinction allows us to put our concerns aside so we can say and do things that express the compassion and empathy we feel for the person going through a rough time. 

Oprah Winfrey taught me that we can’t take anything off anyone else’s journey. The lessons in someone else’s experience aren’t meant for us, they’re meant for the person going through it. What we can do is walk beside them to soothe, support, validate and hold space. It’s important that we read the situation carefully, to know how we can offer the best support.  

If the person is comfortable talking, let them talk and ask questions that allow them to share without you having to inject your opinions or advice. Listening may very well be one of the greatest gifts we can offer another person. Let them know you’re listening by giving them physical cues like nodding your head or asking them to tell you more. Place your hand on their arm if it feels appropriate, to reinforce that you’re there for them. Repeat back to them what you heard them say to show them you are listening. As uncomfortable as it may be, resist the temptation to give advice, just be a good listener. That’s enough of a gift.  

If the person isn’t comfortable talking or talking with you, be respectful, don’t take it personally, rather find something you can do for them. Perhaps send a note, an email, a text, or a phone call to remind the person that you’re thinking of them. Just because someone isn’t comfortable talking don’t stay away; take some kind of action. Investigate how you can help by asking friends and family what that person might need. Preparing food can be helpful if you learn what they like or what food restrictions they might have and remember that flowers are always a beautiful symbol of hope. 

“We’re here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.” – Whoopi Goldberg 

Remember that being there for someone is about helping them get through it, not forcing them to get over it. Grief has no specific expiry date, and we need to feel whatever it is we’re feeling when we’re grieving a job loss, a relationship or friendship ending or a death. When we’re trying to comfort someone, we want to ensure that we don’t get into toxic positivity by reminding the person how lucky they are. Let them feel all their feelings without judgment. Down the road, perhaps you can help them reframe their situation so they can move forward but in the middle of a storm we really need a safe place to hold on to. People going through a rough time need us to be grounded in strength; not in the soup with them. 

“Sometimes it’s okay if the only thing you did today was breathe.” -Yumi Sakugawa

Life can be messy and while it’s uncomfortable, that’s part of the adventure. Resist the temptation to say to someone going through a rough time “let me know if I can do anything for you.” It’s really an empty offer because while it sounds like you want to do something to help, you’re placing the responsibility on the person going through it; chances are they won’t ask. Instead say, “I’m sorry about whatever happened because you are”. It’s genuine and meaningful for the person. Then take some initiative and offer something specific or circle back at another time with a more tangible offer of help.

It’s important to remember that friends are meant to comfort and not necessarily provide counseling. Should you find yourself in a situation that is beyond your scope, help connect the person you care for with some professional help. 

What we really want to do for someone going through a challenging experience is to let them know that they are part of a community, that they’re important and they matter regardless of what’s happening in their life. Simply validating someone’s feelings when they’re sad or overwhelmed lets them know that it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling and reminds them that they are accepted as they are.

How Play Can Change Your Life for the Better

Were you one of those kids who went outside to play with your friends and the only rule was you had to be home before the streetlights came on? Or if you were underfoot in the house, your Mum would say go outside and play and you did. Happily. Nobody had to teach us how to play, we were ready for any adventure and willing to try new ways to enjoy playtime. That’s kids for you, right? 

According to the National Institute for Play in the United States, we can all benefit from play. The unfortunate part is that we’ve been conditioned to believe that play is for children. It’s time to set the record straight. The NIP states that “play is the gateway to vitality.” According to their studies, play makes us more optimistic, it promotes a sense of belonging and community, among other things. In her recent TED Talk on the power of fun, author Catherine Price says that fun is not frivolous or optional; fun is the secret to feeling alive at any age. 

A few years ago, Wellings’ VP of Marketing Natalie Tommy and I were touring some Wellings communities. I remember so clearly when we were visiting Goderich, Ontario. There was an outdoor play and exercise area on the lakeshore. We hopped on swings, a teeter totter, an elliptical and both giggled while we played on the equipment. We were experiencing the freedom children feel when they play. It was both energizing and inspiring; we felt so alive. That’s what it is to have fun and play. When we share the experience with friends, it increases our delight, we let go of perfectionism and simply enjoy the moment. 

Sure, adulting is hard. We have a lot of pressure with our to do lists, the demands of family, work life and the stress we can feel around the use of our electronic devices but somewhere in there, there must be time for play and fun. Play creates connection, encourages lightheartedness, often induces laughter, and makes us resilient. Play makes for good relationships and it benefits our health, especially our immune system.  

“Play is training for the unexpected.”
– Marc Bekoff 

Consider walking, jogging, gardening, and yard chores as play instead of work to get the ball rolling. Are there games you like to play? I’m a secret Scrabble lover and I’ve been known to lie well when playing Balderdash. LOL. Board games are good play, so why not invite a few friends to join you for an afternoon or evening session? Forget the competitive aspect of game playing and you’ll have more fun. Karaoke is hilarious but maybe that’s just when I try to sing. LOL. Participate in a dance class, take up a musical instrument or if crafting is your thing, invite some friends to join you in making crafts around the holidays or doing some baking together.   

Certain activities help with our brain function and memory like card games, chess, puzzles; any game that challenges the mind. There’s golf and one of the fastest growing sports for seniors: pickle ball. If you don’t like sports or don’t feel up to getting out on the course or the court, try sitting outside on a beautiful day and looking for animal shapes in the clouds. Our beautiful imagination has no limitations, and it loves to have fun. 

During the Pandemic some of us became socially isolated and now that we’re resuming more normal activities, we can focus on connecting with other people to keep ourselves socially fit. Get-togethers are good fun and too often, we wait for someone else to arrange them. Why not organize a coffee or tea party for no reason (or make one up) and invite a few friends to bring their favourite sweet treat to share? 

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
– George Bernard Shaw 

A good conversation can feel like play if you keep the topic light, which you can do by steering the discussion with questions about each other that prompt positive memories. Laughter is good medicine, especially in these strange times, so movie nights to watch a comedy with friends or going to a comedy club should help increase the feeling of having fun together. Too often we humans are eager to share our complaints but complaining does nothing to improve the situation. It’s just a signal that something needs to shift, and it may very well be your mindset. 

I encourage you as I encourage myself to make play and fun a priority every day. As often as possible, share your play time with others to increase the benefit. It’ll make for more joy in your day which will make you a better friend and a better partner. I don’t know who started the rumour that life is serious business, but I can tell you that the power of play and fun will light you up on the inside and help transform your life for the better. 

Enjoy this short video clip of Nat and Kat having a blast. Click here to watch the video. 

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone; The Best Is Yet To Come

Human beings are creatures of comfort, aren’t we? We love it when our life circumstances feel comfortable, safe, and familiar. We’ve got a long list of reasons why we don’t want to give up what’s easy in exchange for what might be difficult even though science tells us that there’s great reward in that trade. 

The comfort zone is a mental state where we feel safe, where we’re not being questioned. It’s life under a cozy blanket; we like it because nobody is challenging us, we avoid feeling anxious and life feels certain. Because it’s not enjoyable to feel uncertain or anxious, our mind tells us to stay put but what it doesn’t tell us is what we might be missing out on. Personal growth and having new experiences all require us to get uncomfortable before we can realize the reward.

The comfort zone is the great enemy of courage and confidence.
-Brian Tracy

Why is it so hard for us to get out of our comfort zone and why should we bother? It’s so hard for us mostly because fear of the unknown can be enough to have us procrastinate. Uncertainty and procrastination are the stepbrothers of fear. Terms like I can’t, I’ve never done that, I’m not good at that or I’m not sure are all expressions of fear and uncertainty. It’s our mindset convincing us to avoid challenge or discomfort. The second part of the question is why should we bother pushing out of our comfort zone? Even though new encounters can feel unsafe, pursuing different experiences helps us learn about ourselves and about life. We expand our horizons and reinforce that we can do hard things. Ultimately, embracing new experiences whether they work out for us or not helps expand our comfort zone in the long run.

I’m an introvert who has developed skills that allow me to meet new people, speak in front of audiences in person and on television. It has been such a great education and I have certainly benefited from stepping outside of my comfort zone. I was once a person who feared her own shadow and by taking many courageous steps, I developed a confidence that still surprises me some days. In the process of learning more about myself, I’ve learned that most of us are afraid and while I have great empathy, I also know the joy that lives on the other side of fear, and I know that courage is the superpower to take us through.

Getting to know more about ourselves our likes, and dislikes, learning about different lifestyles, cultures, expanding our knowledge base in areas of interest or new topics all provide fuel for conversation, open new opportunities for connection and friendship, help develop our character and teach us how to manage fear.

Fear feeds all the negative qualities that make you feel bad about yourself: doubt, self-hatred, and despair. Faith feeds all the positive qualities that make you feel good about yourself: self-confidence, self-love, and hope. When you choose faith over fear, you create a positive destiny for yourself.”
Darrin Donnelly

To switch out of our comfort zone we first must be willing to shift something. Notice I don’t use the word change here. No surprise that my brain doesn’t like change because just like you, I’m wired for safety. But if I say that I want to shift something, I can usually sneak under the radar and start implementing small alterations in my behaviour. Yes, micro shifts are where it’s at for me and I encourage you to resist getting overwhelmed by something new to you and take any small action. This way you’re demonstrating to yourself that growth is possible. This is a great place to start. 

Get out of your comfort zone and bring comfort to others.
-Ravi Shankar

Do you have a list of things you’ve always wanted to do? If not, why not invest some time in creating that list because this activity signals to your brain that you’re interested in checking out some new experiences. Then select one thing on that list and research it by speaking with other people about it or exploring online. If you can, take one small step toward experiencing whatever that activity is even if it’s watching videos online about it. Our brain really doesn’t know the difference between a physical experience, a video experience, or an imagined experience. Enjoy playing around without pressuring yourself to do anything.

The road to success is always under construction.
-Lily Tomlin

Change your routine to get out of your comfort zone. Take an alternate route, order something new at your favourite eatery, try a different exercise. If you’re used to being alone, contact someone and ask them to meet for coffee. If you’re not used to writing notes, do that. If you’re not used to giving compliments, try it. If you’re not used to asking other people how they’re doing, do that. If you’ve never volunteered, why not give it a go? You have so much gold to offer this world and tending to your own personal growth creates a ripple effect. Your courage not only demonstrates what you’re capable of, which increases confidence; it also gives other people permission to stretch what’s possible for them. Let’s vow together to live without regret, to challenge any negative or limiting beliefs and to get out of our comfort zone so that we can live life fully, knowing that the best is yet to come.

What Is That Feeling of Happiness And How Can We Get More of It?

One of the top goals for us human beings, especially here in North America, is to be happy.  In fact, the quest for happiness drives many of our behaviours. We look to positive experiences, expecting that they will make us happy. We relish the feeling of achieving a goal or revel in the honeymoon phase of a relationship and while both feel great, the feeling doesn’t last. So, let’s look at what that feeling is and how we can nourish more of it in our lives. 

I’ve been studying and teaching what I call sustainable happiness for a long time but only recently challenged myself to explore the physiological aspect of happiness. Our beautiful brains produce chemicals or neurotransmitters that flood our body with good feelings. I wanted to share what I’ve learned here, so we can all look for ways to tap into this brilliant natural resource. 

There are four main chemicals our brain produces: serotonin, sometimes called the happy hormone, endorphins, think runners high, oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone and dopamine, think pleasure. 

“The art of being happy lies in the power of extracting happiness from common things.” -Henry Ward Beecher  

There’s a very good reason why we may not feel so cheerful on cloudy days. Sunshine helps our brain produce a chemical messenger or neurotransmitter called serotonin. Its purpose is to stabilize our mood; it contributes to our wellbeing and feelings of happiness. It also plays a role in our digestion and sleep.  

If serotonin is low in your body, your immune system, digestive system, and sleep rhythm can be impacted and if serotonin is too low for too long, it can lead to depression. Some people with low serotonin can treat it with diet, by eating foods containing the amino acid tryptophan. Foods such as turkey, chicken, pork, eggs, and tofu are all good sources. Also, light exposure and exercise help with serotonin levels.  The prescription then to increase serotonin, in addition to diet, is to make sure you get daily exercise and exposure to sunlight. If you feel your serotonin levels are off, speak with your healthcare provider, who is very well equipped to help. 

“Happiness is a direction, not a place.” -Sydney J Harris 

Many of us have experienced an endorphin rush after an exhilarating activity like running, which is why we refer to the feeling as runners high. The name endorphin is derived from endogenous morphine, meaning internally produced morphine or natural pain medicine. Endorphins are produced when we participate in both pleasurable and painful activities, providing pain relief and a sense of well-being. Say you sprain your wrist; endorphins flood your body to ease the pain. On the flip side, when you laugh uncontrollably, your body is flooded with endorphins. Research is ongoing but here are a few suggestions to help boost endorphin production in your body.  Exercise moderate to vigorous, hearty laughter, listening to music, including yoga and meditation in your daily routine, having sex, enjoying dark chocolate, and acupuncture treatments all contribute to increased endorphins in the body; it sounds like a great prescription to me. 

“Laughter boosts the immune system and helps the body fight off disease, cancer cells as well as viral, bacterial, and other infections. Being happy is the best cure of all diseases!”  - Patch Adams 

Full disclosure here: I am a cuddle bug. I love to experience that feeling of connection through snuggling; it goes way back to my childhood. I can’t help myself and I don’t want to help myself because now I see that science backs up the theory that cuddling is good for us.  

Oxytocin, known as the love chemical, is released when we’re hugging, cuddling a person or a pet, kissing, and when we’re being kind to one another. Imagine that: you’re producing the love chemical for yourself, while you’re being kind to someone else. It’s no wonder kind people always seem to be so happy.  

Oxytocin plays a role in reproduction, in birthing babies and bonding; any time we’re in a situation that gives us the warm and fuzzies, we’re feeling the effects of oxytocin. Ways to increase this cuddle hormone are staying connected with people you love, doing acts of kindness and hugging. There’s an added benefit if you can hold the hug for between 6 and 20 seconds because you’re lowering the stress hormone cortisol. Music, especially singing in groups, massage and making love all contribute to increased levels of oxytocin. Let’s get cuddling. 

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” -Guillaume Apollinaire 

Finally, dopamine, known as the pleasure chemical, travels through our nervous system and affects many areas of our lives including motivation, movement, mood, sleep and even our heart rate. It’s a big part of our unique ability as human beings to think and make plans. Dopamine also plays a role in our brain’s reward system. The creators of social media understand this very well; it explains why the apps keep us coming back. Likes and shares give us a dopamine hit, so we must be careful to manage how much time and energy we invest in this type of reward system, to keep our happy hormones in check. 

When dopamine levels are low, we can lack motivation and feel chronically tired; low dopamine levels can contribute to addictive behaviour. Ingesting too much caffeine, alcohol or sugar can deplete dopamine, as will high stress. That’s the bad news; the good news is that there are supplements including some B vitamins and vitamin D that you can take to increase dopamine production. 

I’m a big believer in the power of expressing gratitude and showing appreciation; it makes me so happy to see that mainstream science recognizes the benefit of these practices. I believe in the power of exercise, laughter, eating a healthy diet rich in colourful fruit and vegetables and exposure to sunlight. I believe in the power of dancing like nobody’s watching and one of the most important contributors to our happiness: connection and community because sharing our journey with others decreases stress and increases happiness. Here’s to a year filled with your own flavour of happiness and a wish that you share it freely with others.

Moving On To Create Space For Your Best Life

Happy New Year. May this year bring you much joy, kindness, and blessings too many to count. January always feels like a fresh start to me. It’s an opportunity to look at where we can edit out what no longer serves us and invite in new experiences.

Last fall, I spent some time looking at what’s in my clothes closet because it was time for the annual clear out. While I feel very blessed to have a lot of clothes, some of them have been waiting for a turn for far too long. My lifestyle has changed a little during the pandemic and some of my pants seem to have shrunk, so it was time to evaluate what clothing matched my current life.

Timing is everything because as I was thinking about clearing out my closet, I received a call from a local charity, offering to pick up any clothing or household items I didn’t need any longer. All I had to do was leave bags on my porch and they would swing by and pick them up. In a flurry, I edited my wardrobe and my surplus gift drawer, filling bags and my heart, knowing that the beautiful items I was parting with would be well received by someone else.

We humans have a habit of hanging onto stuff, people, and situations sometimes for too long. We’re attached to the past because it’s familiar, so even when situations, relationships and sometimes pants are no longer a fit for our current life, we hang on, allowing these things to take up space that we really need for something or someone more in line with our current circumstances.

I understand the courage it takes to edit people and situations in our life that aren’t aligned with our current needs. It’s been a personal project of mine, over the last ten years or so. Sometimes, those of us who are recovering people pleasers must learn that unless a situation or a relationship is an enthusiastic yes then it’s really a no or a not right now. That means setting healthy boundaries to ensure we’re not compromising ourselves any further.

“If we don’t say yes authentically, we say yes resentfully, and that leads to far more problems than if we’d said no in the first place.”
-Natalie Lue

In my experience, we must let some things and people go to create space for what truly reflects wherever we are right now. I love what Eckhart Tolle says about surrender: “To some people, surrender may have negative connotations, implying defeat, giving up, failing to rise to the challenges of life, becoming lethargic, and so on. True surrender, however, is something entirely different. It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it. Nor does it mean to cease making plans or initiating positive action.

“Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life.”
-Eckhart Tolle

When we yield to the flow of life, in other words, when we accept our circumstances instead of wishing our life could be different, we’re creating space for new opportunities and we’re setting ourselves up to take clear action toward the next steps on our adventure. At this time of year, we’ve been conditioned (I say conned) into thinking that if we make resolutions to change our habits or introduce new ones, we’ll finally achieve our dreams and goals. Then there’s the inevitable lunch bag letdown that sneaks in because the pressure is overwhelming, and we feel disappointed in ourselves once again because we didn’t get something right. It’s such a waste of our precious energy and time. Wouldn’t it feel better and be more productive to focus on some healthy thinking habits and take small action in the direction we want to be going in? For those of us who are recovering people pleasers, choosing to focus on saying no or not right now to an invitation that we really don’t want to accept is empowering. Practicing even this one thing will help you to feel increasingly convinced that the decisions you make are right for you. Choosing to prioritize your own health, happiness and well-being by saying no is not a negative, although at first it may feel that way. Trust me, with practice and kindness, this gets easier.

Habits become habits because we choose something repeatedly until it’s an engrained part of who we are. I wasn’t always a grateful person, I lived in a lack mindset for many decades of my life, thinking I didn’t have enough, I wasn’t enough, and I couldn’t do enough. The result was that I lacked happiness, enjoyment, and satisfaction. Once I started nurturing the habit of focusing on what I’m grateful for in my life, the results shifted. I started noticing all the ways I had enough because I had learned to count my blessings instead of noticing what was wrong with everything. I learned that I am enough exactly as I am, and I am doing enough because I’m committed to doing my best. It’s remarkable how powerful we human beings are when we acknowledge that life is a beautiful, challenging, dynamic experience and every one of us is deserving of all the good life has to offer; all we have to do is create space to receive it.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like the Holidays

December is an exceptional month and one of my favourites. It marks the end of the calendar year, the return of more daylight and many gatherings for religious and family celebrations. It’s a time of both reverence and joyfulness. We all have ways to mark the special occasions we celebrate and outside of the more formal religious traditions, it’s a good idea to make sure our rituals match our lifestyle.

It’s been said that the festive season is the most wonderful time of the year, and it can be. I’ve chosen to stop making the full turkey dinner for our Christmas celebration; instead, my gift to myself is purchasing the meal already made, requiring some easy reheating in the oven. When you add up the time and effort it’s a fair trade with the added benefit of more time for me to enjoy the day.

If the Pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to have a deeper appreciation of what’s important to us, choosing to invest our precious time wisely. It’s not so much how many friends you have but the quality of those friendships. The Pandemic reminded us that we’re all in this together and helped us feel more comfortable caring for each other. These are the things to celebrate during the festive season.

Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”
-Hamilton Wright Mabie

The Danish and Norwegian cultures set the mood for feelings of well-being and pleasure with their tradition of Hygge (pronounced hew-guh). It’s a general living concept that focuses on coziness and enjoying the good things in life with good people. If you’re on your own, simply enjoying your morning cup of coffee or tea in a cozy setting or dressing warmly to enjoy a walk outdoors would do the trick. Perhaps taking a bubble bath will help create that comfy feeling.

Gathering with people is a feature of Hygge, given the long cold winter days. We can create a welcoming atmosphere to share food and drink with friends but consider doing it during the day for lunch or snacks instead of in the evening for dinner. It’s a way to connect over festive food and uplift one another, in a season where some of us may struggle. 

May your walls know joy, may every room hold laughter, and every window open to great possibility.”
-Mary Anne Radmacher 

Nostalgia can take hold in December, when we’re reminded of family and friends we miss or traditions we long for. Recently I learned from an ageless 97-year-old woman at Wellings of Corunna that it’s better to focus on what we can do instead of complaining about what we can’t do anymore. It may be the perfect opportunity to start some new activities that will light you up this festive season or re-ignite some of the traditions you loved before the Pandemic started.

If you long for the gatherings you used to have, organize a gathering with a few friends, where everyone brings some food to share or have everyone contribute to having it catered. Instead of missing all the baking you used to do for family and friends, come up with one or two things you love to make and share your goodies with people around you. How about a special sweet gift for that person who might be challenging to love or who might be struggling in some way?

Consider creating your own holiday cards or purchasing cards and sending them in the mail or dropping off at someone’s door, to lift their spirits and let them know you’re thinking of them. Again, consider someone who might be stressed about something because they need our kindness now more than ever. In fact, kindness is the best one-size fits all, everyone needs it kind of gift.

If you’re considering what to give your family and friends, why not ask them what they need instead of giving them more stuff. Maybe they need help paying bills or they need a night off from taking care of children; your gift could be to pay for a babysitter. One Christmas my husband and I were gifted with a three-month soup subscription and another year we received a three-month cheese subscription. Being creative with gift giving is lots of fun and makes the person receiving your gift feel special.

I find twinkle lights so festive; I have them glowing in our living room, all winter long. They’re inexpensive and rather magical to me. I’m sticking with two traditions that have deep roots in both my husband’s and my family.  My mother-in-law’s white fruit cake is something people line up for and the treasured plum pudding that my Mum and Godmother made will grace our table and will be shared as gifts. These limited-edition homemade treats evoke the spirit of Hygge (which makes me think of a hug) bringing up warm, cozy memories we all have of the festive season.

This year, as you reflect on what’s important to you, enjoy sharing the spirit of the season with others and remember to be a gracious receiver. Appreciation and kindness are two of the most needed gifts of all. Wishing you much joy, peace and Hygge this holiday season.


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