blissEric Weiner spent many years as a foreign correspondent for NPR, and in that time visited many of the world’s countries. His travels frequently took him to decidedly unhappy places – or at least, people in unfortunate situations. A self-admitted “grump”, Weiner decided he would embark on a quest to find the happiest places in the world and, of course, write about it in his book The Geography of Bliss. Beginning at the World Database of Happiness in the Netherlands, Weiner checks out a list of the happiest countries in the world, statistically. His journey takes him to Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova (the unhappiest nation in the world, to see what the opposite of happiness looks like), Thailand, Great Britain, India, and ends in America.

How can happiness be measured? According to Ruut Veenhoven at the World Database of Happiness, “you can’t be happy and not know it. By definition, if you are happy, you know it”, and so, you simply ask people how happy they are (p. 12). According to the research, the happiest person ever should be an extroverted optimistic married religious-service-attending educated busy Republican – as people who meet each of those criteria are happier than those on the opposite end of each spectrum. If that doesn’t describe you, well, no worries! The science of happiness seems to be rather subjective. Plus, there’s “reverse causality” (basically the real term for “what came first the chicken or the egg?”): are happy people more likely to be extroverted/get married/go to church/take on more work/etc or does the factor in question make them happy? Well, that isn’t really the question Weiner set out to answer (and it probably isn’t definitively answerable, anyway), he was more concerned with where and why people are happy. The answers to both questions – as much as they can be answered – were not what Weiner expected. None of the usual suspects predict happiness level, not diversity, equality, wealth, income distribution, or climate. Some things are obvious: basic needs must be met (you need food and shelter, for example), and you need enough income to fulfil those needs and not feel stressed, but beyond that… Weiner spent a whole book looking for that answer.

So, what is it? In the end, happiness is a complicated equation. It’s a careful balancing act: add a bunch of culture, some family and friends, a dash of money, a big helping of gratitude and trust, remove envy and excessive thinking. Weiner’s chapter titles give us some insight into his quest; happiness is: a number, boredom, a policy, a winning lottery ticket, failure, somewhere else, not thinking, a work in progress, a contradiction, home. Weiner asks interesting questions and uncovers some interesting approaches to happiness from all over the world. If happiness research piques your interest, The Geography of Bliss will provide you some intriguing food for thought. It’s also an excellent book for group discussion, complete with questions provided by the publisher.

Jessica Seipel is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She has worked for the Howard County Library System, in various positions, since 2003. When not at work, she spends her time reading science fiction and comics, visiting local breweries, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

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All the Bright PlacesIt’s true, I have a love of Teen novels and I’m not going to apologize for it. In all honesty, most of the ones I go for tend to be, well, let’s just say NOT realistic fiction. (Come on, The Raven Cycle has quests for dead Welsh kings, psychics, ley lines, and one of the best hitmen ever written–but you have to wait until book 2 to meet him. And , The Lunar Chronicles? Kick-butt, clever, fairy tale heroines in space–how could anyone resist? And let’s not forget all that exciting dystopian fiction.)  But, I have to admit, I recently succumbed to a very positive review and picked up a realistic teen fiction title that I want to recommend (but only to older teens and adults). All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is an amazing book with a powerful story, particularly concerning mental health. I was trying to think of a summary that would not give too much away, but instead I’ll just give you 10 good reasons to pick it up and read it:

  1. Yes, yes, all the reviews say it, so why shouldn’t I: If you loved The Fault in Our Stars (or Eleanor & Park, or both), you will love this book. It has its own unique magic and is not merely a copycat.
  2. The book deals with first love/first sex compassionately, and still lets it be romantic.
  3. It’s already been picked up to be made into a movie, but, as every librarian, English teacher, book lover, etc. will tell you: “Read the book first; it’s almost always better.”
  4. Violet Markey, one of the main characters, is awesome. She is suffering a major loss in her life, and is struggling mightily, but still manages to be smart, relatable, and authentic.
  5. Theodore Finch, the other main character, is also awesome. He knows something is wrong with Violet, and he wants to help. He also knows something is wrong with him, and Niven lets him react to this in a way that is true to real life. And yet, he is still charming, dear, warm, and someone you want to root for, even though you know its is dangerous to do so.
  6. You will learn a surprising amount about some of Indiana’s “natural wonders.”
  7. If, like me, you tend to go for more “far out” (yes, I know, I’m old for using that expression) teen fiction, or, if you d on’t read any teen fiction at all, this might open you up to it.
  8. The author’s notes. Please, please, please read the author’s notes at the end of the book. If you relate to the book because you or someone you know is struggling with some similar issues, Niven provides some great resources. And if you are not, what the author discusses adds a whole new layer to the lives of the characters.
  9. The mental health issues are not sugar coated. In some ways this makes the book very difficult to read, but I am grateful for the fact that, though it is fiction, the book feels very real and doesn’t try to hide, romanticize, or make light of what is going on with its characters.
  10. You will cry. Okay, maybe this isn’t an enticement, but you’ll suspect pretty early on in the book that it will end with tears, and yet you’ll want to keep going. You’ll have to see it through to the end with Violet and Finch, despite the heartbreak that will stay with you well beyond the pages of the book.
Joanne Sobieck-Lingg is glad to blog about her many, disparate interests (though expert in none, except maybe parenthetical asides). In past lives, she was a writer, proofreader, editor, project manager, teacher, and even co-coordinator of a certain health blog. She has been happily ensconced among the fiction and teen books at the Central Branch of HCLS since 2003.

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5892760393_1666c64567_zOne of the major factors contributing to different forms of stress, bodily afflictions, mental illnesses, high anxiety levels, and general dissatisfaction with modern life can be found in the lifestyles we have voluntarily chosen. For example, our inability (or unwillingness) to bring about an appropriate balance among the various components of what should be a “well balanced life” exacts a heavy toll on our body and psyche. For many people, undue, excessive emphasis on any one aspect of life—such as –office work, career, climbing the corporate ladder, pursuit of wealth, etc. leads inevitably to wanton neglect of other important ingredients of a well-balanced life. This type of personal choice leads to various ailments, imbalances and misalignments. In consequence, anxiety, worry, stress, and mental tension ensue.

Our sedentary lifestyles, with its emphasis on income producing activities, and neglect of other important aspects of living, (such as rest, recreation, exercise, relaxation, and adequate sleep), can and does result in irritability, fatigue and poor physical health. Some of us seem to have no time for anything other than the economic aspects of living. Consequently, we become victims of such an unbalanced life style. The neglected areas of life cry out for attention. They manifest themselves in many warning signs – many physical and mental ailments—and we tend to ignore them at our peril.

So the obvious question is: what should be done? What is the remedy? How do we correct this obvious imbalance? Fortunately, the answer is not far to seek!

thriveVarious aspects of daily life, such as: earning and spending; work and career aspirations; family responsibilities; social obligations; activities that promote physical and mental well being—these must be properly balanced—to produce good health and peace of mind. The resulting improvement in life satisfaction will be immeasurable. Whenever we lose sight of this balancing principle, and ignore the vital contribution that each of these components contribute to our sense of life fulfillment, the result is: physical and emotional distress. Happiness and contentment elude us. Life seems empty—filled with worry, anxiety, tension and stress.

The paradox of our unbalanced lifestyle is this: What we think of as enhancing the quality of life—money, power, position, prestige and recognition (all good things in themselves)- can be pursued to excess, to the detriment of our overall quality of life. This is a trap that should be avoided.

So, it is up to each one of us to recognize the importance of balance in life. Engage yourself in a variety of activities—physical, mental, spiritual, and whatever else you want—but do it NOW. Make it a habit. This would be a wise and welcome choice we can and should make; the benefits would be immeasurable.

Dr. Gopal C. Dorai is an author, economist, statistician, and Professor Emeritus at William Paterson University.

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anti-aging, exercise

According to a Johns Hopkins study, “Most experts recommend exercise as the single most important anti-aging measure anyone can follow, regardless of age, disability or general level of fitness. A sedentary lifestyle accelerates nearly every unwanted aspect of aging.” [JackF]/[iStock]/Thinkstock

Exercise has long-term physical and mental benefits, even reducing arthritis symptoms in older adults

Physical Benefits of Exercise
A lack of physical activity can put you at higher risk for health problems such as diabetes and osteoporosis. In fact, according to Dianne Braun, P.T., a clinical program manager and physical therapist with Howard County General Hospital, “It is not only healthy for seniors to exercise, it can also be dangerous to not exercise. Not being physically active can be risky, as seniors can lose up to 75 percent of their strength from inactivity, making them prone to falls. Current statistics show that one in three people over the age of 65 fall every year and that number increases to one in two by age 80.”

Mental Benefits of Exercise
Not only does exercise help seniors physically, it can also have a positive effect mentally. Physical activity can help manage stress and reduce feelings of depression. “Depression is a big issue for seniors, and just five minutes of exercise a day has been shown to reduce the incidence of depression,” said Braun. Some studies also suggest that regular physical activity can increase various aspects of cognitive function.

How Much Exercise is Enough?
“General exercise recommendations for seniors include 30 minutes of exercise with strength training two times per week,” said Braun. “If you have a fear of increasing pain, or have a heart or medical condition, check with your physician for exercise guidelines. The important thing is to start exercising and make it a part of your daily routine.”

Studies show that exercising regularly and staying active have long-term benefits and improve the health of older adults. According to a Johns Hopkins study, “Most experts recommend exercise as the single most important anti-aging measure anyone can follow, regardless of age, disability or general level of fitness. A sedentary lifestyle accelerates nearly every unwanted aspect of aging.”

The Arthritis Antidote 
Though exercise may seem like the last thing you want to do when suffering from arthritis, exercise is very important to increase strength and flexibility, reduce joint pain and help with fatigue. Physical activity does not have to be at a high-intensity level, but studies indicate that a moderate level of exercise can help with the pain as well as help maintain a healthy weight.

“Strength training and aerobic activity (walking or other) are good for the joints. Many studies have shown a reduction in pain with regular strength training and aerobic conditioning,” said Braun.

Exercise Examples: 

  • Aerobic conditioning activities such as walking, biking, swimming, raking leaves
  • Strengthening activities for lower body: squats, single-leg stance, step-ups and sit to stand from a chair (try not to use your arms and upper body)
  • Strengthening for upper body that incorporates some weight lifting, such as arm raises, overhead raises and biceps curls.
Dianne Braun is a clinical program manager and physical therapist with Howard County General Hospital.

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love yourselfCongratulations! We survived the first full month of winter. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the cold, but I still wouldn’t mind one big snowfall this year! Luckily, February is the shortest month and spring is coming soon. In February, we celebrate our presidents and the people we love. This February let’s also celebrate loving ourselves.

Why is it so difficult for us to love and accept ourselves? I wish I had the answer, but we can start by being grateful for the things we do have. I have a colleague who writes down something or someone she is grateful for each day. A gratitude list might be something that we can all start doing. Even if we don’t write it down, starting each day by reminding ourselves of something we are grateful for may go a long way to helping us get through the day.

We can do ourselves a favor and turn technology off at some point during the day. According to the Kleiner Perkins Caufied & Byers annual internet trends report, 84% of mobile owners use devices while watching television. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, stated last year that American Facebook users spend an average of 40 minutes per day on his site. Now, it doesn’t sound too hard to cut back, does it? A simple change may be all that is needed. Review your emails only at certain times during the day or set a time limit when you are using social media.

What can you do with the extra time you have saved in your day? Do something for yourself. Get in touch with an old friend. Find an exercise or a healthy food that you actually like. Check out the resources and classes and events at Howard County General Hospital. Explore opportunities to continue learning. The library has a collection of The Great Courses on a variety of topics and there are no prerequisites, homework, or exams! You can also learn a language using the library’s online language learning system Mango Languages. (The hardest part will be choosing a language.) Make plans to travel somewhere you’ve never been! If you can’t travel, borrow one of the many travel DVDs available at the library.

The opportunities for you to do something for yourself are limitless. Focus on what’s important to you and don’t forget to have fun!

Nancy Targett is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She lives in Columbia and is the proud mom of three boys and a girl and a Siamese cat.

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© Martinmark |

Meditation . . . mind, body and soul

In today’s busy world, there is often too little time to step back and reflect—on our lives or on the moment in which we’re living. Devices that were designed to help us manage our lives too often end up controlling them, and busy schedules eat up time we should take for relaxation and quiet contemplation. All of this is taking its toll, as more and more people suffer today from stress- and anxiety-related disorders. Meditation is one way we can take back some quiet time, to center our lives and enhance our sense of well-being.

Meditation and Religion
Meditation has been practiced throughout the world for thousands of years, most often as a component of religious beliefs and traditions, and usually involves an effort to regulate the mind in some way.

In the Bahá’í faith, meditation is a tool for spiritual development and a way to reflect upon the words of God. For Buddhists, meditation is part of the path toward enlightenment and nirvana. Christian meditation is used to reflect upon God. Hindus have practiced mediation for tens of thousands of years and the Buddha is believed to have been a Hindu prince who attained wisdom through meditation. In Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, remembrance of God is interpreted through various meditative techniques.

Meditation and Health
More recently, the Western world has adopted many meditative practices, including New Age meditation, which has its roots in the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when many young people rebelled against societal rules and traditional systems of belief. During this era, several secular meditation practices emerged, bringing the realization that meditation can improve health. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a U.S. government entity that is part of the National Institute of Health, notes, “Meditation may be practiced for many reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall health and well-being.”

Biofeedback is one form of meditation that involves becoming more aware of physiological functions such as brainwaves, muscle tone, skin conductance, heart rate and pain perception. Using instruments that provide feedback, the goal is for the individual to eventually be able to manipulate their bodily functions at will to improve their health and conditions such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, headaches and migraines.

“…in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.”
Madhav Goyal, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Meditation Benefits
There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common:

  • A quiet location with minimal distractions
  • A specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying or walking)
  • A focus of attention that sometimes includes a specially chosen word or set of words (a mantra), an object, or a focus on breathing
  • An open attitude that allows distractions to come and go without judgment.

Meditation and the Brain
Today, we can look into the brain with instruments such as MRI and EEG to see how an individual’s body and brain change after meditating regularly, and research suggests that meditation may physically change the brain and body to improve certain health problems. A 2012 study indicated that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain, a process that may increase the brain’s ability to process information. Clinical studies have also suggested that meditation may slow, stall or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging. Results from a 2012 NCCAM-funded study suggest that meditation can affect activity in the part of the brain that processes emotions, and that different types of meditation can have different effects. While studies about the ability of meditation to reduce pain have had mixed results, some have shown that meditation can activate certain areas of the brain in response to pain.

Madhav Goyal, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, led a study that was published in the JAMA Internal Medicine online magazine. He noted, “A lot of people use meditation, but it’s not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything. But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.” Goyal stated that further studies are needed to clarify which results are the most influenced by meditation.

While meditation has been practiced throughout history for many purposes, studies seem to indicate that it holds considerable promise for the field of medicine.

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