HEALTH & FITNESS - Meditation can ease stress, increase happiness

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Happiness is "a state of mind or feeling characterized by contentment, love, satisfaction, pleasure or joy."

Financial struggles, demanding careers and media influences on self-image hinder finding true inner-happiness. These life challenges trigger stress hormones that block positive thoughts and result in unhappy thoughts, actions and speech.

Some people are naturally happier than others. It is often said the happiest people are poor. From my experience, I believe this to be true in most cases.

My most fond memory of a happy poor person was when I was 22 walking on a beach in Fiji. As I strolled on the white sand, I noticed an elderly man who glanced at me from afar and waved hello with delight.

I later found myself on a school bus with no windows and broken seats on my way to Nadi to shop. After hours of wandering I returned to the bus station to find an elderly gentleman who bought me a pack of rice snacks that cost about 10 American cents.

He said, "I saw you this morning in my backyard. Here is a gift from Fiji to you ... eat and be merry."

I apologetically explained I had no idea the beach was his backyard and thanked him for the snack. In a way, I felt extremely guilty as I noticed he was not wearing shoes and had holes in his clothing. He went on to explain how wonderful his life is: to have food, water, shelter and a family with three children.

Although this is not true of all poor people, it was an extremely important lesson learned that happiness comes from within. Research has proven that rich, poor and people with severe money issues can be happy.

The term, hedonic treadmill, is known as, "tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals ... as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness."

Beyond financial matters, lifestyle choices, social interaction, community involvement and the approach to solving issues factor into happiness levels. Researchers and psychologists state that intention is the first of many steps needed to achieve happiness. Consciously choosing behaviors and attitudes that lead to happiness versus unhappiness is only possible through yourself.

Throughout my wandering, free-spirited days, I found meditation assisted my happiness and well-being. I was not necessarily in search of happiness as much as I wanted to encounter adventure and personal development.

However, I found meditation enhanced my self-esteem and optimistic outlook. Meditation also helped me realize what makes me happy, such as music, calm environments and positive people. I soon found that the small things in life gave me happiness like fruit-flavored water -- just like the Fijian man was proud and happy to hand me a small bag of rice snacks.

Meditation is "a mind-to-muscle relaxation technique that uses an object of focus to clear the mind thereby resulting in beneficial physiological and psychological changes."

There are various forms of meditation that originated from the eastern world.

Physiological effects were discovered by Indian yogis and Zen masters. Research proves meditation reduces hypertension and respiration rate and increases blood flow to the extremities.

Psychologically, research shows people who meditate remain calm in stressful situations. Meditation also assists in better sleep, relief of headaches and relieves addictions.

An effective form of meditation is to concentrate on a "mandala" (image) or "mantra" (word). For beginners, sitting in a chair or against a wall is appropriate.

Close the eyes, and start counting the length of time of each inhalation and exhalation. Once you are focused on the breath, you can focus on a single image of your choice or mentally repeat a word. The mind will float around with a thought, which is normal.

After time and practice, you will notice the mental and physical uplifting feelings that meditation provides.

Elizabeth Kovar has been working in the fitness industry since 2006 with international experience from India and Australia. She has a master's degree in recreation and tourism and is the associate director of healthy living at the YMCA. She can be reached at ekovar@wwymca.org.

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