What makes for a happy life? The age-old question has been the topic of innumerable spiritual and philosophical texts. Before you max out your library card on self-help books, read on for tips from local experts on living well.
Geoffrey Haun, a Williamsport yoga and tai-chi instructor who has been practicing meditation for more than 30 years, tells his clients to relax.
"I say the word 'relax' a lot," Haun said. "Usually people do relax just by saying that."
We can store tension in our bodies without even being aware of it. Some people are so stressed that they don't relax even while sleeping, according to Haun.
"You have to bring consciousness to it and make yourself relax," Haun said.
Relaxation can be achieved through yoga, tai chi, meditation, massage and having contact with nature, according to Haun.
"Take a nice walk along the river or in the woods every day and that can do wonders," Haun said.
Do a body scan
Stress can be relieved through scanning your body for tension and then consciously releasing it, according to Dr. Lynn Bruner, licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Lock Haven University.
"(Body scan) is a technique to help build mindfulness of eating, of walking and of physical sensations in the body," Bruner said.
Every so often, reconnect with your body. Do you feel pain? Is it emotional or physical? What is its source?
"I have a mindfulness bell on my computer - a free download - that rings once an hour, to remind me to check in with how my body is feeling," Bruner said.
By tuning into the present moment, nonjudgementally and compassionately, we can identify stressors and work to remove them.
"Mindfulness practices have been associated with things like reduced levels of anxiety, depression and pain for people with chronic pain conditions," Bruner said.
Mindfulness practices such as body scans also have been linked to reduced relapse in individuals with substance abuse disorders, lower blood sugar for people with diabetes and lower levels of stress hormones, triglycerides and inflammation markers associated with heart disease, according to Bruner.
Cultivate positive mental habits
Examine your habitual ways of being in the world. Do you tend to ruminate on the past or worry about the future? Disconnecting from the present moment can cause unnecessary distress, according to Bruner.
"We have all these habits of thought that get in the way of our own experiencing of the present moment. And we do all that because we tend to assume we can't deal with how we really feel or really think. It's a real trap!" Bruner said.
Most negative mental habits originally form in response to our attempt to take care our ourselves, in Bruner's opinion. By trying to manage difficult emotions, painful memories or stressful circumstances, we sometimes end up forming habits of what Bruner calls "distress management" or "happiness acquisition" - attempts to feel better.
"That's what makes negative mental, physical or emotional habits so hard to break: they are often helping us manage some really tough stuff," Bruner said.
Negative thoughts often are a fixation on an aspect of ourselves that makes us uncomfortable, such as failing a test or experiencing rejection. Typically these thoughts will repeat, Haun said. He suggests breaking the habit by thinking positively about other people.
"It's like a meditation exercise. Think of someone you love. Then, think of someone you feel neutral about, like the cashier at the grocery store, and imagine that same love radiating to them," Haun said.
Next, imagine someone you don't like and radiate love to them, too. Imagine your love is changing them, Haun suggests.
"As soon as you notice you're thinking repeatedly about yourself in a negative way, try to think about other people in a nice way. It helps to break the mental habit," Haun said.
"People who perform acts of random kindness, forgive others or express gratitude have been found to experience increased levels of well-being," Bruner said.
Haun also praised the benefits of selfless service.
"Just go help people, volunteer somewhere, do something good for other people that you don't even know. That does wonders for negative thoughts and emotions," Haun said.
Happy people tend to see their lives as purposeful and meaningful, according to research by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. Developing what Seligman calls "signature strengths," or talents unique to us, can enhance our sense of meaning.
"You have lots of creativity and a wonderful eye for color? Volunteer in a community flower garden or take a painting class. You have a strong sense of fairness? Get involved in a group that promotes human dignity, like the ACLU or a women's shelter," Bruner said.
A sense of meaning helps us to be more resilient - to bounce back from difficult events and to adapt to change more easily, Bruner said.
"Happy people, according to Seligman, also are likely to feel and express gratitude for what they have. They tend to be interested in helping others and have coping styles that emphasize approaching a problem, rather than avoiding it," Bruner said.
It also helps to cultivate a positive self-perception, according to Bruner.
"The psychological research on support shows that it's my perception that really matters. Even if there are lots of folks around me and I have lots of physical resources - like medical care, good nutrition, a safe place to live - if I perceive myself as being without supports, I'll have a much more negative response to stress, in terms of my physical and emotional health," Bruner said.
Ask for help
"Generally speaking, it's good to seek help when emotional problems or issues are having a significant impact on your functioning in the areas of life that are important to you," Bruner said.
If you find that your emotions are interfering with your day-to-day life, it may be time to seek professional help.
Sometimes, taking care of our emotional well-being can be intimidating.
"Think about how much time people spend not feeling and not thinking," Bruner said. "It's so much easier to play 30 games of Candy Crush in a row than it is to acknowledge sadness."
Rather than wasting enormous amounts of energy distracting ourselves from feelings we don't want to be feeling, we should return to the present moment.
"It's easier to ruminate about how people have hurt us in the past, rather than feel the scary vulnerability when we try again to connect," Bruner said.
Myers is a news reporter for the Sun-Gazette.