Tips for Creating a Happier and Healthier Lifestyle That Will Last All Year

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When people talk about New Year’s resolutions, it’s often implied that there are quick fixes to health, wealth and, ultimately, happiness. But, all too often, long before the summer solstice rolls around, resolution-based diets have been abandoned, gym memberships have lapsed and old habits have crept back in. 

Instead of making a resolution, how about making realistic lifestyle changes that will last all year? Sustainable changes are all about achievable goals, putting one foot in front of the other and staying focused, even if there are setbacks along the way.

To figure out how to best do this, we called on an expert: Michelle Boyle, a health educator in the Community Health Education Department at Chester County Hospital. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition, Foods and Exercise from Virginia Tech, a master’s degree in Health Promotion from the University of Delaware and is a Certified Health Education Specialist. When it comes to wellness, she knows her stuff.    

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We chatted with Boyle to get her take on how to create healthy, happy lifestyle choices that will last all year long (and, hopefully longer!), so you’ll still be going strong long after others have let their resolutions lapse:

PA Eats: How do you define “happiness?” Is there a health/happiness connection?

Michelle Boyle: Happiness looks different to everyone. What make one person happy might not make another person feel the same way. However, in general, we can all agree that words like “joy”, “peace”, “pleasure”, “cheerfulness” and “contentment” all describe the feelings of being happy.

Words that we don’t typically associate with happiness are “health” and “longevity”, which is what I focus on when teaching my happiness program. There is a growing body of evidence that shows the short- and long-term health benefits of happiness (also referred to in research as “optimism” or “positive outlook”). People that tend to be optimistic often have lower rates of anxiety and depression, lower levels of stress and improved psychological well-being. Those that show gratitude and appreciation throughout all aspects of their life also have lower levels of stress and depression among other social benefits.

And the old adage that “laughter is the best medicine” really does have merit, as laughter is known to decrease your stress hormones while increasing your endorphins (your “feel good” hormones). Laughter also stimulates your organs and even burns calories … and who doesn’t want to do that?!

What are some common misconceptions around happiness, in your opinion?

One is that money buys happiness. To some extent, money can buy “things” you think will make you happy, but mostly it is short-lived. True happiness and joy needs to come from inside your heart and soul. Once that fancy car or new outfit loses its appeal, you are right back to where you started before you purchased the item.

Another is that happy people never have anything go wrong or never experience any stress. In fact, happy people do experience the ups and downs in life, such as medical issues, stress, death of a loved one or the loss of a job. They just have a better way of processing the negative experiences. They are able to reevaluate their priorities to process the positives first.

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Can you give us a few tips for creating a happier/healthier lifestyle in the New Year?

When I present my program, I offer these five tips for boosting happiness:

Write a Gratitude List: You want to answer the question “what am I grateful for today?” Consider keeping a pen and paper next to your bed and before you fall asleep at night, write down everything you can think of that you appreciated from the day. You aren’t going to have perfect days every day, but you can always find something that you are grateful for.

For example, I am a mom of two young and very active boys, and on days that just haven’t gone my way, my gratitude list only has “I am grateful that I brushed my teeth today.” Then I wake up and try again the next day. Writing a list allows you to reflect on the many things that you do in a day that you might take for granted. It just brings your mind back to what’s really important about life, and to help you find the silver lining in every situation.

Practice Reframing: Teach your brain to process the positives first. There is a lot of evidence that shows how negative energy promotes chronic anger and increased cortisol levels, which can lead to many health problems. For example, if you get into a fender bender (that was not your fault) as you are running late to work, your first reaction would normally be to get out of your car to get angry with the other driver. You’re also going to be angry that you will need to deal with getting your car fixed and that you’re going to be really late for work and probably a whole host of other negative thoughts.

However, when you “reframe” the situation, you want to process the positives first, such as: you’re not injured, the other driver was not injured, your car wasn’t so badly damaged that it can’t be driven, you can always reschedule the meeting you were running late for, etc. Reframing any situation allows your blood pressure to stay relatively stable and it helps to keep your cortisol levels balanced as well.

Do a Good Deed for Someone Else: Volunteers tend to report higher levels of happiness because they are giving back. Other research shows that people feel more fulfilled after giving a gift than receiving one. For example, last year during the holiday season, I was in line at a Starbucks drive thru and the woman in front of me paid for my coffee which was such a wonderful surprise. I, in turn, paid it forward by buying the coffee for the person behind me. I felt so happy after being able to pay it forward that my entire outlook for the rest of the day was positive all because of that one experience.

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Be Mindful: Listen to your soul by living in the moment. Put your cell phones and computers away for a few minutes to really connect with whatever is happening around you. Even if it is listening to your children laugh or talk about their day at school or listening to a friend tell the same story for the 30th time. Being mindful allows us to forget what is happening around us that might be causing stress. Many people have a spiritual practice such as praying, doing yoga or meditation to help them tune into what their body and mind need right at this moment.

Practicing forgiveness also falls under being mindful, because you need to be able to forgive someone to ultimately move forward with your life. Letting go of the anger you are harboring allows more space in your soul for happiness or goodness.

Exercise: Moving your body not only helps your heart stay healthy, but also increases your endorphins which combats your stress hormones. Whether it’s walking, running, spinning, boxing, yoga or anything else you enjoy, just getting off of the couch is half the battle.

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Laughing falls under exercise because research shows that even creating a fake laugh stimulates your organs and your body begins to release endorphins which can make you feel better. Laughter is so important for our overall health that there are actually yoga classes built on laughter.

And don’t underestimate the power of deep breathing exercises. Deep breathing is known to decrease your blood pressure and cortisol levels, while increasing your blood flow throughout your body. I teach the 4-7-8 technique for deep breathing:

  • Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 seconds.
  • Hold it for a count of 7.
  • Breathe out for a count of 8.
  • Repeat as many times as you need.

What are some of the best ways we can commit to our goals or resolutions?

I think people should set a realistic goal for the new year. If you set too many goals, it makes it hard to commit to reaching each one because life gets in the way. By setting one realistic and achievable goal, you give yourself a chance to actually accomplish it.

We use the acronym SMART to set goals: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, Time (complete within a certain amount of time). For example, if you want to lose weight in the new year, then create a goal that sets you up for success, such as “I will lose one pound a week over the next three months by walking three days a week for 30 minutes each time and I will take a weight lifting class two days a week for an hour each session.”

A SMART goal like this allows you to measure your success. If you just say, “My New Year’s resolution is to lose weight,” that doesn’t give you any specific targets for helping you to accomplish that goal. Then, when you don’t meet what you think is a goal, you tend to give up quickly.

And make your resolution fun! It doesn’t always have to be a drag. Decide to change something or work on something that you’re actually interested in working on. Don’t say that you want to lose weight or quit smoking if those are things you really have no desire to work toward. Allowing yourself weekly rewards also helps to keep the challenge fun!

Seeking more guidance on issues of health, wellness or weight loss? Visit the Community Wellness and Education department at Chester County Hospital for more info.

Find Chester County Hospital at 701 E. Marshall St. in West Chester; for wellness programs and talks, call (610) 738-2300.

  • Michelle Boyle photo: Chester County Hospital
  • All other photos: Pexels