Posts Tagged ‘Whitney Hopler writer’

Well-Being with Whitney: Fasting from Comfort Food

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Who doesn’t love comfort food? Chips, brownies, macaroni and cheese, ice cream — it’s all fun to eat. Holiday food (from casseroles to cookies) is often comforting. Indulging in comfort food is fine once in a while. But eating comfort food regularly is a sign of using it for something it can’t reliably provide: good feelings. God designed food to nourish our bodies in enjoyable ways, but not to be the source of our comfort, as emotional eating leads us to believe. So fasting from comfort foods to lessen our dependence on them is a healthy choice to refresh ourselves in body, mind, and spirit.

That’s easy for me to say, but not to do.

Potatoes, cheese, and gravy sat before me at the table, all piled on top of each other in a deliciously squishy mess of a meal called “poutine” — the signature dish of Montreal, Canada. As I dug into it on a recent trip there, I savored every bite of that tasty concoction featuring not just one, but three of my favorite comfort foods.

Poutine was so comforting, in fact, that I found myself seeking it out whenever I felt stressed on the trip. Wait a minute, I finally reminded myself, poutine isn’t a friend — it’s just food!

Once again, I’d fallen into the trap of emotional eating. That’s something I’ve struggled with since childhood, when I began rewarding myself for finishing school homework by eating chocolate candy. Fasting from comfort foods from time to time is a great way to remind myself that food is meant for my body — not my emotions — and get back on track with healthy eating habits.

What foods do you turn to for comfort, and why? Do you tend to eat brownies when you’re worried? Do you relieve stress with a bowl of popcorn in front of the TV screen?

After you’ve identified what you’re feeling when you eat, you can choose new ways of dealing with those feelings — ways that don’t involve food. So instead of eating a brownie when you’re anxious, you can pray about what’s worrying you, and rather than eating popcorn to try to relieve stress, you can take a walk. Both prayer and walking can actually help you achieve your emotional goals, unlike comfort food, which may make you feel better for the few minutes you eat it but do nothing to help you in the long run.

Try fasting from your favorite comfort food for at least three weeks, since it takes at least 21 days to develop a new habit. Then, when you return to it, do so only in moderation and after you’ve already filled up on a healthy meal or snack. You can still indulge once in a while — just not in an emotionally dependent way. Enjoy a treat occasionally, but get your comfort from more reliable sources: God and caring people.

Well-Being with Whitney: Take Stress Out of Your Holiday Schedule

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Christmas is my favorite holiday, so for years I tried to pack all the Christmas activities I possibly could into my holiday schedule to enjoy as much Christmas season fun as possible. But that approach to holiday planning ironically diminishes fun, because it leads to holiday stress. I learned that the night I drove around for 5 hours to see prize-winning Christmas lights, only to return home exhausted and wishing I would have just stayed home.

The newspaper I worked for as a reporter held a contest each holiday season for readers to choose the best Christmas lights in area neighborhoods. After helping to compile the results, I got so excited that I set a goal for myself to visit each home in a single evening. I carefully planned my route with a map of the winning homes, then set out on my adventure after work. Inside the car, I blasted Christmas carols and munched on popcorn and chocolate candy to add to the festive atmosphere. For a while, it felt like a traveling party. But after an hour or so, I had driven myself deep into a holiday haze. All of the nativity scenes, Santas, wreaths, snowmen, angels, and other decorations started to blur together in my mind. A myriad of blinking lights on houses, driveways, trees, and bushes twinkled so relentlessly that the details of their award-winning designs escaped me and all I saw was yet another bright thing. Yet I still drove on, determined not to miss anything on my frantic quest for fun.

By the time I returned home late at night, I wasn’t feeling the fun at all. I was just exhausted.

Years later, I experienced the most Christmas fun I’d ever had — while stuck in a hospital! That year I had to cancel many of the holiday activities I’d hoped to enjoy, because my son was due to be born around Christmas. His birth was the reason I was hospitalized over the holiday. I couldn’t even go to church for Christmas that year. Yet the simplicity of that Christmas with God, family, and friends was full of joy.

The Christmas season brings so many opportunities to experience wonder that it’s easy to fill up your December calendar completely. But too many good activities can have a bad effect on you. Cramming too much into your schedule affects your soul like gorging on candy affects your body: it causes harmful stress.

So this year when you’re making holiday plans, intentionally schedule some downtime between activities so you’ll be able to rest and reflect just as much as you celebrate. That way, your soul can fully absorb the wonder of the season — and most importantly, connect to the One whose birthday is the reason for it.

Well-Being with Whitney: Napping Away Holiday Stress?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The “napping pod” swung gently back and forth while the person inside slept in darkness (wearing a sleep mask over his eyes) and quiet (thanks to noise-canceling earphones). Although the pod looked like a giant cradle, the person sleeping there wasn’t a baby — it was a businessman wearing a suit. I laughed at that sight when I saw it in an airport lounge. But naps are a serious trend right now, fueling lots of new businesses offering customers places to take “power naps” for stress relief and greater well-being. And now, during the holiday season, naps are more popular than ever. Big meals and Christmas cookies tend to make us sleepy because of the way carbs affect our brains, and naps help us manage stress during the holidays, as well.

I have to confess that I don’t usually take naps. When I worked at The Salvation Army’s USA headquarters (which had a designated napping room), I failed miserably every time I tried to use it, because I worried that I’d be late going back to my desk if I overslept, so I could never relax enough to go to sleep in the first place. Not only that, but I still have a lingering sense of guilt about napping whenever I do (rarely) take an opportunity to do so. It just seems lazy, somehow, to me.

But sleep studies say otherwise. According to the National Sleep Foundation, brief naps (those that last only 20 to 30 minutes) can help improve people’s moods, alertness, and performance. So I shouldn’t worry about naps harming my productivity when they can actually improve it.

In fact, Psalm 127:2 dismisses concerns about skipping sleep in an effort to be more productive and encourages trusting God enough to simply sleep when our bodies and souls need rest: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he grants sleep to those he loves.”

This holiday season, I’m going to try taking some brief naps from time to time, as a way of trying to manage stress better. I won’t be shelling out money to rent a fancy napping pod (and certainly not one that looks like a giant baby cradle!) but I’ll make some time to relax on my bed during some afternoons at home, set an alarm for 30 minutes, and see what happens.

Do you take afternoon naps? Why or why not? How could you reduce your  holiday stress this year by improving the quality of your sleep?

Well-Being with Whitney: Your Holiday Stress Detox Prescription — Patience

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Warm mineral waters from a mountain spring in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia swirled around my husband Russ and me during a recent visit to the place that George Washington helped make famous as a stress relief destination. By “taking the waters” we were hoping for a fun time together and a stress detox. For centuries, people had raved about the water’s power to relax the soul and cleanse the body of toxins. All thoughts about the current pressures in our lives evaporated like the steam that rose from 102-degree water, even though it felt like we were being boiled like tea or mulled wine for a holiday party.

It took patience to stay in such hot water long enough to experience its well-being benefits. We had to stand up, move around, and drink multiple cups of cold water to stay alert while immersed in the pool. But the healing results were worth the effort. By increasing our blood circulation and making us sweat, the water helped our bodies get rid of toxic chemicals that had collected in our muscles. By lowering our blood pressure and immersing us in a peaceful environment, the water signaled our minds to relax and enjoy the present moment.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to be able to achieve such benefits without having to visit a special place? This holiday season, I’m trying to take home the healing lesson I learned at the famous mountain spring: that stress relief doesn’t really come through quick fixes, but through patiently nurturing good health.

So often during the holidays, I’ve been tempted to think that a quick fix of something fun — like eating another Christmas cookie or watching another TV show — will magically relieve stress. But quick fixes only leave me feeling more broken down by stress.

It’s common to respond to holiday stress in unhealthy ways such as eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol, and missing sleep, according to research from the American Psychological Association. For a short while, it feels good to lull on a sofa in front of a holiday movie drinking craft beer and eating chocolate Santas. But once the movie ends, the buzz fades, and the sugar high crashes, you’ll feel worse than you did before. Stress will only surge back when you try to cover it up with a quick fix.

What really works for holiday stress management is the same strategy that works any time of year: patiently taking good care of yourself.

Instead of reacting to the holiday stress that hits you, be proactive by developing a plan to renew your body and soul on a regular basis. Build some margin into your schedule for rest and reflection that will help you stay strong mentally, emotionally, and spiritually during the busy holiday season. Don’t slack off on healthy habits that help you maintain your physical well-being — habits like getting enough sleep and exercise.

Make time to think about what’s causing you the most stress, and then be intentional about doing whatever you can to change those factors. The American Psychological Association research showed that the factors most often causing stress for people included time and money pressures, diet concerns, and family gatherings gone wrong. Let go of unrealistic expectations about these issues and simply try to get through them gracefully. Perfect holidays never actually happen for anyone. But so what? You can still enjoy the season in the midst of imperfect circumstances. Just do your best to reduce stress in advance (like setting a holiday budget, letting go of activities that aren’t really meaningful for you, and enjoying truly meaningful traditions). Then go with the flow for the rest.

Have fun, but in moderation. Instead of having another piece of pie, stop at one. After enjoying some alcoholic punch, drink water for the rest of the party. Go ahead and see a movie, but don’t binge watch several in a row. Make time for enjoyable activities that truly nurture your well-being, such as taking walks, listening to music, and praying or meditating. You can even sit in a hot bath to relax, no mineral springs required (just turn your faucet to a high temperature and throw in some bath salts).

Be patient enough to nurture yourself well. The more patient you are, the more strength you can build to manage stress well this holiday season!

Well-Being with Whitney: What are Your Strengths?

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

How much more could you accomplish if you focused on your personal strengths rather than your challenges? In a world where disappointing situations and discouraging words from others hit us regularly, finding and using our strengths builds our confidence. It’s never too late to get to know our top strengths and learn how to use them well. In fact, it’s an ongoing process.

Recently, I took a the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment, which revealed that my top 5 strengths (out of 34 possible options) are: achiever, ideation, input, intellection, and learner. While the results didn’t surprise me (I already knew that I achieve goals well, love to learn, and enjoy working with ideas and information), the report gave me valuable guidance on how to incorporate those strengths into my decisions. Just like others I interviewed for a story on the assessment at George Mason University (GMU), I found that focusing on my strengths helped me make wise choices. Reminding myself of what I most enjoy and am best at doing also silenced the echoes of old thoughts that had made me anxious in the past about my weaknesses. It’s just that kind of empowerment that I love to write about in my work for GMU as writer-in-residence at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.

We have to be intentional about thinking of our strengths in the stress of our day-to-day demands, which can easily draw our attention to weaknesses that make us feel inadequate. But the more we purposefully focus on our strengths, the more we can do with them.

In the famous Parable of the Talents, Jesus Christ tells the stories of some people who used their strengths well, and some who didn’t. The people who put their strengths to good use got more opportunities to do so. Focusing on strengths opens doors!

Do you know what your top strengths are? If not, take a personality test and talk with people who know you well for clues. Then reflect on, and pray about, those clues to figure out your core strengths. Once you know your strengths, use them as often as you can! Why not enjoy what you do, while making your best contributions to our world in the process?

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: New Ideas and Walt Disney

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Remember the last time you had an unconventional idea that excited you? What happened when you tried to pursue it? All too often, people can discourage those who express innovative ideas, or a lack of opportunities to act on those ideas can disappoint and frustrate them. It’s easy to feel excited by new ideas, but it’s challenging to bring them to fruition. They key to overcome those challenges is persistence. Thankfully, one many who became famous for his unconventional ideas was relentlessly persistent in his efforts to express them: Walt Disney.

Imagine how much less joy there would be in the world without Disney’s pioneering ideas — from beloved animated characters that have entertained generations of children, to the concept of the modern theme park — that have become so popular around the world. I visited the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California to learn how Disney succeeded — and what his life can teach all of us about pursuing our own innovative ideas.

One of Disney’s most famous quotes is, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” But he experienced his fair share of obstacles to overcome while trying to pursue his pioneering ideas.

Disney had to start over numerous times during his career when he lost progress that he’d made on a project. He was laid off from his first job as an artist, opened his own company but couldn’t find enough customers so went out of business, then eventually earned enough money to invest in a new business — only to lose his first popular animated character (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) to a dispute with a film producer. Finally, after much determination and persistence, Disney created the Mickey Mouse character and enjoyed some success.

But despite many years of success after that, Disney still had to overcome challenges to bring his innovative ideas to life. There were always difficult circumstances to work around, such as having to explain fanciful ideas to skeptical people and taking on financial debt for new projects.

In the end, though, Disney pursued his ideas because those ideas made him happy, and he believed they would make other people happy — which they did!

Here’s a challenge: Choose one new idea that’s come to your mind recently, and reflect on why it brings you joy and how it can bring joy to other people. Then plan some specific steps you can take to pursue that idea, even if it doesn’t seem practical. Pray for guidance about it, and ask for help from God to turn it into a reality if it’s meant to be. You’ll never know how much joy you can bring into the world until you try!

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: Creativity and The Silk Road Ensemble

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Searching for happiness? Be creative. Creativity is a major factor in the search for joy. The well-being link between happiness and the creative process was on display powerfully at a concert I attended of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma. As Ma commented in the program notes, the group members “find joy in unexpected connections” they create together musically.

A recent research study from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro found that even simple creative activities like cooking meals or drawing pictures lead people to experience joy. The study concluded that “people who reported feeling happy and active were more likely to be doing something creative at the time.”

Sparks of creative energy flew between the musicians as they joyfully played their respective instruments — representing a wide variety of musical traditions from diverse nations — and  listened to each other. The result? They created wonderful music in which they all complemented in each other. Somehow, a Chinese pipa, Galician Spanish bagpipes, and an Iranian kamancheh all blended together to create harmonious music.

The Silk Road Ensemble’s original arrangement of the classic jazz standard “Take the A Train” was my favorite, since they incorporated many unusual instruments (along with more popular ones, like Yo-Yo Ma’s famous cello) and performed with such playful camaraderie. During the song, the joy was evident on each musician’s face, as well as the faces of those of us listening in the audience. The creative, joyful energy pulled me into a blissful state of mind, where I could let go of my inhibitions and join the celebration. So I snapped my fingers to the beat and swayed in my chair to the music (not worrying that my son, who was sitting next to me, told me I looked goofy).

Not only did Silk Road Ensemble members play music; they did so with so much innovation and happiness that they made something new and notable happen. That type of experience is what Yo-Yo Ma refers to when he describes how a good musician “goes beyond knowing and expressing a tradition and becomes an agent of its evolution, creating something new.”

What do you most enjoy doing as a creative outlet? How often have you made time for it lately? What activities can you say “no” to on your schedule to make more room to say “yes” to what truly brings you joy?

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: Play

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

No matter how old we become, I think we all love to play. It seems obvious that play is linked to happiness. But what’s interesting is that, in order for play to really make us happy, it must be purposeful.

The sense of meaning that comes from pursuing a good purpose is essential to happiness, many research studies have found. For instance, a 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people experienced more happiness when they were engaged in activities that fulfilled a purpose that was important to them than they did from activities that were pleasurable but not particularly meaningful. Not only that, but pursuing happiness tied to purpose led to significant health benefits like lower disease-causing inflammation and higher immunity, while pursuing happiness through meaningless pleasure did not.

At the International Circus Festival in Montreal, Canada recently, I saw purposeful play at its best: performers who had meticulously designed and diligently practiced playful routines, all for the purpose of making people happy. The creativity involved was amazing: acrobats and dancers portraying emotions that go beyond words through their bodies’ lyrical movements; sets, costumes, and special effects that helped tell stories with dazzling technology; animals and actors that performed clever and sometimes mind-boggling tricks.

One of the most famous circus companies in the world — Cirque du Soleil — has its world headquarters in Montreal. Their mission “to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world” has led them to create many memorable circuses with unique themes. In the process, they’ve developed a reputation for inventiveness. Their newest show “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities” is all about optical illusions. So I went to see that show, as well, when it arrived in my area. It was wonderful (and by that I mean, not only was it great, it also sparked wonder in my soul).

But these shows — among the best, most playful circus shows in the world — didn’t actually make me happy. Sure, they gave me pleasure, which led to fleeting happy feelings. But true happiness — joy — didn’t come from just passively watching the shows.

The only true happiness I experienced from those circuses was when I applied their creative inspiration to my life in purposeful ways. Right now, for example, when I’m writing about them, I feel genuine joy because I’m not just watching creative play, I’m actually participating in it myself and working toward a good purpose (creating what I hope is a thought-provoking blog!). I’m not merely deriving pleasure from someone else’s creativity; I’m being creative myself in a purposeful way as I play with the words of this blog. The same principle has worked in other ways with the circus shows. When I joined my son to playfully dance along to circus music, that brought me joy. When my husband and I were inspired to make love playfully after going to the circus together, that was a joyful experience. I wasn’t just observing play; I was engaging in it actively, for a good purpose (to strengthen relationships).

I make no apologies for prioritizing play in my life. Playing is something I believe all of us adults should do on a regular basis, in order to experience more joy, creativity, and wonder in our lives. No matter what our age, we can all be like children when we’re playing — and that childlike state gives us the open minds and hearts we should maintain to keep growing closer to God. The more we play in ways that help us pursue God’s purposes for our lives, the more we’ll enjoy ourselves in the process.

As Helen Keller once said: “Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

Play can help us discover worthy purposes, and inspire us to pursue those purposes.

How have you played in a meaningful way lately? What playful activities bring you joy, and how can you incorporate them into your life more?

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: TV and Movies

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

What is it that really makes us happy? A plethora of research studies have attempted to reveal the science behind happiness. One of the most popular ways of pursuing happiness is by watching a movie or television show. Upbeat movies and TV shows are often marketed to us with the promise of making us happy — at least for the time we spend watching them.

Hollywood is in the happiness business. Many entertainment productions are specifically designed to try to make us happy. But do they actually do so? I studied what research reveals and toured some Hollywood movie and TV studios to learn more.

Being truly happy means experiencing joy — not just a temporary sense of pleasure, but a lasting sense of fulfillment that runs deeper in the soul. Ultimately, joy comes from being in a relationship with God. That’s the source of it. But there are many different ways we can open the gifts God gives us in our daily lives to experience more of that joy (and feel more happy in the process). There are also many ways we try to pursue happiness that don’t deliver the results we’re seeking.

Watching TV and movies seems to be one of those ways we hope we’ll find more happiness, only to be disappointed.

While in Hollywood, I toured two major studios: Paramount and Warner Brothers. Together, these industry behemoths produce lots of popular content that people watch for a quick fix of happy feelings. Both companies have long histories of producing popular comedies (from Paramount’s classic “Road to…” movies with comedian Bob Hope to Warner Brothers’ popular Looney Tunes cartoons) as well as other popular, upbeat productions like musicals and adventures. Both studios also continue to produce entertainment designed for happy escapism today — from Paramount’s Star Trek science fiction franchise to Warner Brothers’ superhero shows.

So how does Hollywood aim to make us happy? By immersing us in stories that touch our emotions. From the writers and designers to the directors and actors, everyone who works on a movie or TV show tries to create a world that seems real to us when we watch it. They want us to connect emotionally to the plot and characters in ways that make us feel good. If they succeed, they make good art — and often, lots of money as well.

Good entertainment is a good way to lift our moods temporarily. And if our entertainment is inspiring, it can influence us to think in positive ways, which leads us in the direction of other choices that actually do promote lasting happiness. My young adult novel Dream Factory describes how people in Hollywood’s golden age tried to do exactly that. They often succeeded, I think, and so do those who work on today’s inspirational shows.

But overall, we don’t get happier from simply watching a movie or a TV show.

Entertainment on a screen — even in productions with the most feel-good elements — doesn’t appear to increase lasting happiness much, despite the fact that so many people turn to Hollywood entertainment to for a dose of happiness. In fact, if we watch too much TV or too many movies, we can actually become less happy.

A University of Milan research study of whether or not watching TV led to more happiness concluded in 2009 that “high levels of television consumption are negatively related to individual life satisfaction.” Not only did TV watching fail to increase people’s happiness, but the more they watched TV, the less happy they became. Those who watched 2 1/2 hours or more of television per day reported the lowest levels of happiness.

Still, we often do experience happy feelings while enjoying a good TV show or movie. Just reflect on how you felt when you watched the latest fun, creative dances on “Dancing with the Stars” or saw a film with an inspiring story, like The King’s Speech. Hollywood entertainment can make us temporarily happy.

So the key seems to be figuring out how to use these experiences we love of watching TV and movies (in moderation) well — to translate the fleeting happy feelings they give us into mindfulness that can lead to greater lasting happiness. Rather than just experiencing positive emotions in front of a screen and then ignoring the experience afterward, we could reflect on the works of art we’ve just seen on TV or on the movie theater. We could discuss what we’ve seen with others. We could think and pray about the show or film’s message. We could respond to it in practical ways by changing something in our lives for the better.

If we let our entertainment lead us to think and act in positive ways, then it can bring more than just temporary happy feelings our way.

Well-Being with Whitney: Lessons from the “Father of National Parks”

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

Wholeheartedly pursuing creative ideas fans a flame of positive transformation. When famous naturalist John Muir — who is considered the father of national parks — passionately worked on his creative conservation ideas, great joy resulted from his efforts.

I visited the John Muir National Historic Site in California to learn more about Muir, who devoted himself to the conservationist cause that he said God had called him to pursue passionately. Muir urged people to explore creation often and care for it well.

The passionate words that Muir wrote about the natural world inspired others to discover joy in it and choose to protect it. “The battle for conservation … is the universal warfare between right and wrong,” Muir wrote, with his zeal for the cause evident. He also wrote that, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

It was Muir’s message of joy waiting to be discovered in nature’s wonders that captured people’s attention. Ultimately, Muir’s contagious joy and hard work putting his ideas into action (such as by founding the Sierra Club) led to the establishment of the world’s first system of national parks.

Muir’s enthusiasm bolstered his strength many times when his ideas caused controversy. He had to battle those whose economic interests were threatened by Muir’s urging to save natural resources rather than deplete them. Lumberjacks who wanted to cut down ancient Redwood and Giant Sequoia trees, for instance, were often at odds with Muir. However, Muir kept working wholeheartedly, and eventually his ideas came to fruition.

I had a fascinating experience while visiting Muir’s home. After saying a silent prayer asking God to thank Muir for the work he did and let him know how much I enjoy the national parks he helped create, I stepped into the living room of his house to discuss his life with a ranger. The front door (which had been firmly closed) suddenly opened wide, but no one walked inside. As the door stood open with no one there, the ranger and I remarked at how surprising that was, and continued our conversation while she walked over to shut the door. A brief flash of light in the living room caught my attention, so I snapped a photo of the area with my digital camera to study it later. (In the past, I had seen orbs show up on digital photos after I saw momentary flashes of light with my natural eyes and had just been praying about something. So now I try to take photos in similar situations, since digital images reveal parts of the light spectrum that go beyond what human eyes usually see.) As I had suspected, a brilliant white orb appeared in the photo, floating over a sofa.

Was the orb Muir’s way of sending me a “thank you” message from heaven for my prayer? I can’t say for sure. But it sure was a thrilling experience!

The joy that comes from passionately pursuing creative ideas keeps renewing its energy over time. When we work on something creative that will bring joy to others, it builds a lasting legacy. And the momentum of that legacy has the power to cross the boundaries of space and time. That’s true whether or not others can communicate with us in the afterlife. The results of our creative work remain right here, bringing joy to new generations of people.

What creative idea is stirring in your soul right now? How can you make time to pursue it, so you can bring joy to others through your work?