Use your senses to boost your happiness says Natasja King
As humans, we are able to experience our world thanks to our five senses. The eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin are the ways in which we interact with what is going on around us. The world can however be very stressful. Listening to or watching the news makes us worried. Seeing your boss’s angry face or hearing your child cry is not pleasant at all. You can’t always get away from the stressors that surround you, but you can use your five senses in a conscious way to help you cope better with worry, lift your spirits and boost your happiness.
Music can have a profound effect on our mood, by either enhancing how we already feel or by changing our mood completely. It’s not just music though. Hearing a seagull, even when it’s a seagull divebombing for your chips in Trafalgar Square, will immediately make you think of being at the beach. Or the relief and hope you feel the first time you hear a lawnmower after a long winter – spring is here!
The effect of music on our mood is fascinating. A group of researchers from Montreal found that listening to your favourite music releases dopamine which stimulates the two areas of the brain which respond to pleasurable stimuli. In other words, listening to your favourite songs can make you just as happy as getting a hug or eating something sweet. Another area of the brain activated by a feelgood song is the cerebellum, which triggers increased blood flow to the legs. Can’t keep your feet still when your song comes on the radio? That’s your cerebellum being activated.
Sound at a particular frequency can also be highly beneficial when you are trying to meditate, study or sleep. Meditation is a form of deep concentration, and of course, studying requires concentration too, but concentrating for long periods can be difficult. By monitoring the brain frequency of the masters of meditation, Buddhist monks, scientists were able to pinpoint the optimum frequency for meditation as the theta brainwave range. (Sleep is in the delta range, concentration in beta range and enhanced mood and relaxation is in the alpha range.) With brainwave entrainment using binaural beats, your brain matches the frequency of the sounds you are listening to. So, for instance, when you listen to binaural beats in the alpha range, you will feel more positive, and in the delta range, you will fall asleep more easily.
When you are struggling to concentrate on a piece of work and it’s making you feel frustrated, try listening to binaural beats specific for concentration. Look for binaural beat music on YouTube or Spotify and listen to it through earphones. It’s important that you use earphones because binaural beats rely on the fact that you hear two slightly different tones, one in each ear, and only when wearing earphones would you be able to pick up the slight difference in tone.
For an instant mood lift listen to “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen. It’s the UK’s happiest song. If you don’t especially like “Don’t Stop Me Now”, try “Mr Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. That’s the Netherland’s happiest song.
Body language experts tell us that wringing of the hands, stroking and touching of the neck are clear giveaways that you are anxious or worried. It’s our subconscious way of using touch to make us feel comforted. You may want to steer clear of these “tells” when you are trying to come across as cool, calm and collected – like when going for an interview – but if touch is the way our bodies naturally give us comfort, why not use it to our advantage?
During a massage, touch receptors are activated which releases oxytocin, a peptide that plays an important role in social bonding, trust and forming meaningful connections – no wonder it is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle chemical”. The release of oxytocin from massage can even provide consolation and comfort during periods of grief, as was shown in a study conducted by a Swedish palliative care provider. In the study, family members who had lost a loved one to cancer were offered hand or foot massages once a week for eight weeks. All the participants used the word “consolation” to describe how they felt after each massage.
Massaging your own hands works just as well. Self-administered shiatsu massage, a traditional Japanese massage of pressure points in the hand, helps relieve chronic pain to such a degree that patients in a study by the University of Alberta fell asleep and stayed asleep for longer periods, despite their chronic pain.
When you are struggling to fall asleep or feel stressed, give yourself a hand massage. A couple of massage techniques you could try is to rub and apply gentle pressure to the whole palm of your hand with the thumb of the other hand and/or to pull on each finger from base to tip gently. Do what feels natural and good for you. We know that the mere sensation of touch is already enough to increase the oxytocin levels, so whatever form your hand massage takes is going to help.
If you have a pet, you are in luck. In a study of university students, it was found that just ten minutes of stroking an animal was enough to lower cortisol levels.
I often find myself craving Strawberry Nesquik when I’m feeling a bit low. I have a very vivid memory of sitting at the kitchen table, patiently waiting for Ouma to mix the pink powder into the tall glass of milk after a tough day at playschool. Forever the taste of ice-cold strawberry flavoured milk will be linked with Grandma and the feeling that everything will be okay. It’s no coincidence that many of our memories are linked to a taste experience. Researchers from the University of Haifa found a functional link between the brain region responsible for taste memory, and the area responsible for encoding the time and place. Food or drink can therefore be used as the trigger to help you recall a happy memory.
Now that a lot of us are working from home, why not use lunchtimes to lift your mood by eating (your version of) your favourite vacation meal? How about spicy couscous salad with fresh pomegranates to bring back memories of Morocco, halloumi in a wrap to remind you of Greece or an egg frittata to bring back memories of Italy?
Our central nervous system, the command centre of the human body, is made up of the spinal cord and brain. The brain is of course encased in the skull, but did you know that two parts of the brain sit outside of the skull – our eyes. That means that our sense of sight is generated by an organ that is an integral part of our central nervous system. No wonder that what we choose to look at can have an immediate impact on our thoughts and emotions. An example of this can be seen in colour science. The colour red has been proven to improve our attention to detail by as much as 31%, whereas blue boosts creative thinking.
Colour can even affect our sense of taste. Researchers from Oxford University and the Polytechnic University of Valencia both conducted experiments on groups of 57 people each. Both teams found that the perceived flavour of hot chocolate improves when drunk from an orange or cream coloured mug. So, whether you’re Spanish or English, hot chocolate tastes more chocolatey from mugs with those colours.
Write down positive affirmations and place them where you see them often (post-it notes work very well). Positive affirmations are statements that you repeat to yourself to help you change the negative beliefs you hold. For instance, if you believe yourself to be weak, a positive affirmation could be “I am stronger than I think.” Even if you don’t consciously read the affirmation, your subconscious mind is still taking note. If you write it on a blue post-it note, it will also help you think more creatively and visualise how the stronger you would feel and act.
Wear bright colours to lift your spirits. Even something as small as swapping black socks for a pair with a colourful stripe can add a sense of fun and cheer you up every time you look at your feet. If you don’t want to wear bright colours, bring colour into your home with bright scatter cushions or towels.
And of course, if you love hot chocolate, you’ll love it even more when you sip from a cream or orange mug.
Of the five senses, our sense of smell has the strongest link to memory and emotion. That’s because the olfactory nerve is just two synapses away from the amygdala (responsible for generating emotional responses) and three from the hippocampus (crucial for the formation of new memories). When it comes to our sense of smell and memory, it’s all about location, location, location. Not only do we link smell and memory very strongly, but studies have also shown that memories linked to smell are unlikely to be forgotten, and the memories are less likely to change over time.
Aromatherapy, which uses essential oils extracted from plants, is the perfect example of how fragrance can aid in emotional and physical wellbeing. The most commonly used essential oil in aromatherapy, lavender, has been proven to lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety even in those having surgery for wisdom teeth removal. Another study, which looked at the effect of the smell of rosemary oil on the nervous system, showed that smelling rosemary leads to enhanced alertness, concentration and improved mood. The increase in alertness was supported by an increase in beta waves when measured with an EEG.
Incorporate aromatherapy into your workday with the use of an aromatherapy diffuser. I have one on my desk that I use every day. My selection of essential oils depends on the type of work I’m doing. If I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed, I use lavender and sandalwood. To help me concentrate, I use rosemary. When I need an energy boost for the 4 PM slump, my go-to essential oils are nectarine or peppermint.
Spray perfume or put on aftershave, even if you are working from home. If it was part of your morning routine when we were all working in the office, the smell and the routine of applying perfume or aftershave could help you feel grounded if working from home is something you find challenging.
Combine your senses
If we can use one sense to improve our mood, imagine what a combination can achieve.
Here are a few ways in which to combine your senses into one feelgood activity:
Touch and smell
Before you go to bed, spray a mixture of lavender, basil, juniper, and sweet marjoram essential oils on your pillow. This exact mixture of essential oils has been proven to enhance sleep. You can make a pillow spray by mixing the oils with water and a bit of salt (the salt acts as an emulsifier). Combine the pillow spray with a shiatsu hand massage, and you’ll be off to dreamland in no time.
Touch and sight
Instead of keeping photos in the Gallery of your phone or on Instagram, print them out, frame them and display the framed photos all around the house. Incorporate the sense of touch by picking up the frames and moving them around. Incorporate the sense of touch even more, by using the photos in creative activities like scrapbooking or collages.
Sight and smell
Sight does not have to be limited to actual images. When we vividly imagine something, it can instantly alter our mood. Say, for example you want to be a calm and confident public speaker. Employ visualisation techniques by imagining yourself on stage, speaking clearly and confidently to rapturous applause from the audience. To help you stay calm, inhale the smell of lavender essential oil while holding this image in your mind’s eye. That mental image will then be linked to the calming scent of lavender. Just before you go on the stage, all you would have to do is take a quick whiff of lavender and the mental image of yourself nailing the presentation will come flooding back.
Sight, smell, sound, taste and touch
Bring all five of your senses together in one glorious themed dinner party. Pick the holiday destination that holds the happiest memories for you and recreate it using all your senses. Play the traditional music of the country, ask guests to dress up, enjoy the smell of the food, make sure there are dishes you have to eat with your hands and of course, prepare the dishes that link back to your happiest holiday memories.
Our five senses are there to help us make sense of the world around us. Use them in conscious manner by choosing what you listen to, what you eat, what you look at, what you touch and what you smell. In this way, you five senses can become tools to help you feel happier and enjoy life.