How To Actually Invest In Your Happiness

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It was about three months ago when I found myself almost-crying in my Nashville neighborhood’s witchy-yet-charming-in-a-Stevie-Nicks-way-style tea shop. I’m not one for tears, but I was experiencing some profound levels of gratitude. My buddy Sylvia, sitting across from me at the table, was not surprised by the reaction I was having after my first-ever massage, which she had just treated me to as a surprise. “My mom raised me right,” she said, “You gotta take the time to take care of yourself.” I wish I could say that this was a revelation, but the truth is, I kind of just forgot how true it was until I was reminded.

Like many workaholic Americans, I have a difficult time remembering to slow down and invest in my wellbeing in that intangible ~emotional way~. In the South especially, I feel like self-care is seen at best as an indulgence for the wealthy, and at worst, some kind of hoodoo-hippie spiritual silliness. The cultural attitude here makes it difficult to even acknowledge the little voice in the back of your skull warning you to slow down, and do something to reset. It’s almost impossible to shut out the other voice making you feel guilty for “wasting the time,” never mind the possible expense on your feels. Even though the health benefits of meditative activities like yoga have been accepted as genuine, it’s the laments from young professionals that are more striking. They consider yoga, massages, hiking, or enrolling in restorative workshops to be too expensive, and eat too far into what would otherwise be productive time. While it’s possible to invest in your well-being in thrifty ways, as TFD often writes about, clearly, we need an attitude readjustment when it comes to how we view potential monetary costs tied to self-care activities.

Personally, I feel we should start looking at self-care as an investment worth research, thoughtfulness, and real budget consideration, and not as a frivolous expense like an unfortunate Urban Outfitters binge or impulse gel manicure. In my life as a nurse, I am frequently telling worn-out patients, and their exhausted families, to make sure they rest and spend time doing an activity that brings them joy, and not to feel guilty about it. “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” we’re told, and yet how many of us (especially millennials) strive to excel in our careers, explore side gigs, and creative projects? How many of us are actually taking this advice? The self-care guilt factor is real, and it hits me particularly hard when it comes time to part with my well-earned cash.

Lately, I’ve been considering how other countries do it a ‘lil different than the US, in terms of quality downtime and a more holistic approach to well-being. According to a 2013 article in USA Today, the average American gets about 16 vacation days a year, while countries in the EU provide a minimum of four weeks off for their employees, IN ADDITION TO HOLIDAYS. The Guardian ran a piece last year about the US’s work-til-you-drop culture, citing surveys indicating that the average American worker doesn’t even use about five of their vacation days a year. It’s clear to me that I’m in a culture where time off is seen as unnecessary and a loss of “productive time,” but I’m starting to understand that life can’t be all about work. Time off is time spent with family and loved ones, exploring passion projects, taking your dog for a day hike nearby, or catching up on that healthcare appointment you’ve been putting off.

These often intrinsically-social endeavors may not be “productive” the way work hours are productive (i.e., they don’t bring in cash money, especially if you aren’t in a career that provides paid days off), but they can make us feel more productive by instilling a sense of well-being. According to the famous World Happiness Report, these activities are social capital, and the happiest places on Earth have lots of it. The report says, “Social capital probably raises well-being in two ways, one that might be considered intrinsic, and the other instrumental. The intrinsic benefit of social capital is the human yearning for love, friendship, and community. “Man,” Aristotle famously said, “is a social animal.” Social capital is a measure of the quality of interpersonal relations, involving trust, honesty, and mutual support, and these in turn increase mental and physical well-being.” [1]

According to the 2015 World Happiness Report, in Iceland (the second-happiest country in the world) heated pools and hot tubs are considered essential to well-being. In the harsh climate, where winter lingers on with days that provide only a few hours of sunlight, the pools, heated by naturally occurring geothermal energy, provide the essential socialization needed for happy humans. And, while it’s considered a crucial part of life in Iceland, the tubs aren’t free — one must pay a small admittance fee. Considering that these pools are typically outdoors, I’d wager that there’s probably real physical good being done for the folks of Iceland, and the time-honored tradition of getting out of the house and into the fresh air and sunlight (Vitamin D, anyone?). So, while some of us may have the socializing aspect of why relaxing is good for us emotionally pegged, what about physical wellness?

I’ve written before about stress on TFD, but I only touched on the fact that being stressed out can attribute to illnesses like colds and the flu. That’s right, research tells us that emotional stress lowers your immune system, and makes you more susceptible to colds and the flu. [2] Research (in the works) on autoimmune diseases, like Rheumatoid Arthritis, are suggestive of a similar relationship with stress. Reducing stress, not surprisingly, has been shown to produce measurably positive effects on people. For example, empirical data has shown that massages can reduce pain and depression [3], improve mood [4], and boost immune function [5]. So, if someone (let’s say I’m the guilty party in this scenario) finds that getting an occasional, budgeted-for massage helps decrease their stress, evidence suggests that investing in that is an act of self-care that provides more benefits than just the initial indulgence factor. Quality of life is just as important as growing your career and staying healthy. In fact, these three things may be more closely related than they appear at first blush. I’m starting to wonder if overall wellness is achieved through a balance of all three, and self-care activities are the way to keep each aspect of living intact and in balanced proportion.

So long story short, I felt my stress levels rising last week, and I decided not to let it get out of control. I remembered how one TFD writer decided to invest real money in her well-being by buying a pricey (but still budget-friendly) yoga membership. It was inspiring to see the way she took care of her stress and focus on her well-being, the positive effects of which spilled over into her financial life. It helped her keep a budget and meet money goals. I remembered how my friend Sylvia and I got massages not too long ago, and how I felt the stress being worked right out of my shoulders and back.

After checking in with my monthly budget, I chose to invest in myself, and I booked my second-ever massage. I also decided on another favorite-yet-cheaper indulgence of mine (especially now that the weather is warming up): a decent bottle of wine, occasionally enjoyed with a friend out on the porch. I save money by not going out, and I get fresh air and face time with someone bad ass and emotionally uplifting. Hopefully, I’ll reap some physical health benefits too. In fact, I just stuck a tasty $12 rosé in the fridge and texted a friend to ask for her schedule. Soon, we’ll spend a few hours together one afternoon, we’ll watch the sun sink below the tree line, talk about life (or Game of Thrones, ~whatever~), and actually invest in our own personal happiness.

Citations:
1. 2015 World Happiness Report
2. Cohen, Sheldon., Herbert, Tracy B. (1996). Health psychology: psychological factors and physical disease from the perspective of human psychoneuroimmunology. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol 47, 113-142
3. Field, Tiffany M. (1998). Massage therapy effects. American Psychologist, Vol 53(12), 1270-1281. ttp://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.53.12.1270
4. Hodgson, Nancy A., Lafferty, Doreen. (2012). Reflexology versus swedish massage to reduce physiologic stress and pain and improve mood in nursing home residents with cancer: a pilot trial. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Vol 2012. DOI: 10.1155/2012/456897
5. Goodfellow, Linda M. (2003). The effects if therapeutic back massage on psychophysiologic variables and immune function in spouses of patients with cancer. Nursing Research, Vol 52(5), 318-328.

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Keisha is a nurse in Nashville, TN. She likes sandwiches and seeing local bands in dive bars with her boyfriend, who sometimes wears t-shirts with his own face on them. She is on Instagram.

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