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Savvy Psychologist Anniversary Special: 5 Essential Tips for a Happy Life

After a year of hosting the popular Savvy Psychologist podcast, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen has learned a lot. Check out the top 5 most important lessons from the past year - and how you can use them to make 2015 your best year ever.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
8-minute read
Episode #53

It's been a year! After an exciting launch last January, I'm thrilled that the Savvy Psychologist show ended its first year as one of the iTunes Best Podcasts of 2014.

So what have I learned after a year of hosting the podcast? Aside from learning that the best episode ideas come from listeners, and that surprisingly good recording acoustics can be achieved by surrounding myself with piles of laundry, I’ve also read hundreds of scientific papers this year.  So in honor of the first anniversary of the podcast, here are the 5 essential tips for living a happier life in the new year:

Essential Tip #1: Exercise

I can hear you groaning already.  But I’ve been blown away by the research on the mental health benefits of exercise. A 2007 study found exercise was comparable to antidepressants in treating major depression and a 2011 follow-up found it helped prevent depression relapse.  

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Aside from depression, exercise treats PTSD, ADHD, panic, social anxiety - pretty much any mental health challenge you can name.  Plus, it’s been used to help people quit smoking, sleep better, improve energy, sharpen cognitive functioning, and increase libido.  If you could bottle it, you’d make millions.

But what really sold me was a series of studies on exercise and dementia from Savvy Psychologist episode 31, 4 Tips for Alzheimer’s Prevention. Alzheimer’s runs in my family and while I know there’s no silver bullet, I’ll do pretty much anything to prevent or delay the disease.

The clincher was this: A 2011 study looked at the effect of exercise on those with the APOE e4 gene, a gene that puts you at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s.  It’s carried by about 25% of people and differences in the brain regions most affected by Alzheimer’s are already visible in babies who carry the gene.

The study examined 4 groups of senior citizens: those who had the APOE e4 gene and exercised moderately - no extreme marathon runners or boot camp instructors here, just walkers or joggers - those who had the gene and didn’t exercise, and those without the APOE e4 gene who either did or did not exercise.  

The researchers scanned everybody’s brain and then for 18 months, just let the participants do their thing. Then they scanned their brains again. In just a year and a half, those who had the e4 gene but didn’t exercise lost about 3% of their hippocampus, a part of the brain that specializes in memory.  Of those with the e4 gene who did exercise regularly?  Almost no hippocampal loss at all - same as the folks without the gene.

Of course, Alzheimer’s is a lot more than just loss of hippocampal volume, but the general lesson is this: Regular, moderate exercise you enjoy is protective in too many ways to count.   As for me, I’m still honing my system, but thanks to writing the podcast, I (finally) exercise more days than not, and when I fall off the wagon, I’m quicker to get back on.

Check out Get-Fit Guy's show for tons of great tips on how to make daily exercise an essential part of your life. He even has tips on how to Get Fit in Just a Few Minutes a Week.

Essential Tip #2: Play Multiple Roles

I talked about wearing several hats in one of my most popular episodes (no, not the porn one).  It was Why Am I So Tired?, where I review a study of over 1,300 mothers which found that moms who work part time have less depression and better physical health than stay-at-home moms.  

Nowadays, staying home can be a once in a lifetime opportunity or (with the cost of child care skyrocketing) an economic necessity.

See also: 5 Strategies for Stay-at-Home Parents to Transition Back to Work

 

But what is it about part-time work that’s so beneficial?  And how can folks who work full-time, stay-at-home moms or dads, or anyone else for that matter, get in on the action?

Well, I don’t have a definitive answer, but I think a clue lies in an old 1992 study that followed a group of over 300 women for more than 30 years.  The women were followed from 1956 to 1986 and it was found that occupying multiple roles - including being a wife, mother, working, volunteering, churchgoing, and/or belonging to a club or organization in 1956 was linked to good health 30 years later.  And this was even after controlling for income and illness, thereby busting the myth that only rich or super-healthy women can fill multiple roles.

But you don’t have to choose the Leave It To Beaver traditional mix of marriage, parenting, an office job, and church, though you certainly could.  You might also do freelance writing while working as a tattoo artist and playing in a bike polo league.  Or work a day job while you go to community college and mentor someone through AA.  

Or be a stay-at-home parent and volunteer t-ball coach.  Anything goes, as long as it’s more than one thing.  Call it multiple roles or...call it balance.   

For me, I used to feel like I was half-assing everything - work, motherhood, writing - and that I should fish or cut bait and pick one to focus on primarily. But these two studies made me feel validated and I stopped feeling guilty all the time.  Turns out my multiple hats fit just fine.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.