Wellness and prevention information from the experts at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing

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Live well, live happy: Tips for finding happiness amid hardship

Woman looking through a window

Happiness can feel out of reach when life presents great struggles. But research shows satisfaction and happiness are still possible during our dark hours.

By Mary Farrell, MS, PCC

This is part four in a LiveWell blog series on happiness that launched with  “Live well, live happy” in January.

Being happy can feel out of reach when life presents great struggles.

Though this feeling is valid, research shows that satisfaction and happiness are possible even in the face of difficulties, stress and trauma. Happy people are able to develop strategies for coping and weathering the storms of life.

I personally experienced this recently. I was in the hospital twice with an illness over the course of just a few weeks. While I experienced pain and stress, I also found many unexpected joys. These included giggle-filled visits with friends, tender and loving moments with my parents, and daily deliveries of all things pretty, delicious and inspirational.

Research provides some guidelines for claiming your happiness during difficult times:

  1. Your past holds many lessons that you may apply now.
  • Think back to a time when you encountered great difficulties. What got you through? What supports did you have? What strengths did you use?
  • Now consider how you changed and grew as a result of those past trials. What do you know about yourself? What motivated you?
  1. Consider the intensity of the problem you are facing.
  • To get through it, are you able to develop a plan to deal with it? If so, jump right in!
  • Is it overwhelming to even consider your problem? Then this is not the time to strategize. It is time to step back, regroup and to gather support and comfort. You may need to go for a run or you may need to tend to your spirit, but step away from the problem first for centering and calming.
  1. Be open to growth and resilience.
  • Think of resilience as the ability to hold the positive and the negative in the same space. Resilient people know that life is not one or the other, but both.
  • If you struggle with this, you could seek out help in developing resiliency within yourself. There are books on resiliency, such as “The Chemistry of Calm” and “The Chemistry of Joy” by Henry Emmons, MD. The Penny George Institute for Health and Healing also offers a Resilience Training program inspired by “The Chemistry of Joy” and Mindfulness Training classes based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living.”
  1. This is not the time to go solo.
  • Gather support and reinforcements.
    • If this is not hard for you, seek out some support.
    • If this is uncomfortable for you, consider the following:
      • When we are able to help someone, we feel great. Consider that you would be giving a friend or family member this opportunity.
      • Remember that people are not mind readers. We sometimes assume that others don’t care when in reality, they simply don’t know what we are going through. When we make our needs known, we have a much better chance of having them met.
  1. Find meaning amid hardship.
  • It is important that you find the meaning and it is not imposed on you.
  • The silver lining or meaning may not be readily apparent, but sometimes just trusting that there is meaning beyond what you are experiencing is comforting.

Remember that being happy is not a condition reserved for those without difficulties and stress. It is normal to have difficulties, and there are opportunities for joy, growth and deep connection within the dark hours.

Mary Farrell, MS, PCC, is an integrative health & wellness coach and an exercise physiologist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center. Call 612-863-5178 to make an appointment with her.

Past entries by Mary Farrell in the Live well, Live happy series:


Live well, live happy: How to live in the present


Find an activity that engages and energizes you.

One way to live in the present is to identify and do activities that fully engage and energize you.

By Mary Farrell, MS, PCC

This is part three in a LiveWell blog series on happiness that launched with  “Live well, live happy” in January, followed by “Live well, live happy: The role of relationships in happiness” in March.

What makes me so excited about writing this series on happiness is the fact that our happiness depends so little on our circumstances and so much on what we do with those circumstances. The message is that happiness really is up to us.

It is now early summer ― one of the most beautiful times of year in Minnesota. Winter’s grip is a distant memory and life bursts forth wherever you look. I can be found under a floppy hat, decked out in garden gloves, comfy clothes, wellies and dirt, and surrounded by fragrant and colorful herbs, flowers and vegetables. As I transplant, arrange and water, I am blissfully and completely in my own world. It turns out that as I do this, I am also tending to my happiness and well-being through a process called flow.

What is flow and why is it important to your happiness?

Flow is being fully engaged in what you are doing and fully present in the moment. It can also be thought of as that “sweet spot” between being bored and being overwhelmed. When you are in flow, you might feel simultaneously transported and yet fully in the here and now. You are lost in what you are doing. Though challenged, you feel that you are performing at your best. You may receive some type of reward for the activity, but more often than not, you do it just for the love of it.

Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  has studied flow for decades and the findings are pretty amazing. Flow can benefit us by:

  • leaving us fully energized and engaged
  • tapping into our strengths and filling us with competence
  • improving productivity because flow at its best is absolute focus
  • markedly improving our mental well-being.

Sadly only 23 percent of people regularly experience flow and more than 40 percent have never had the experience.  Most of us have the opportunity for regular flow experiences at work, but we are too distracted by anxiety, to-do lists, or external pressures, to enjoy the flow. Outside of work, we may miss numerous opportunities when we are glued to our smart phones and tablets.

If you are ready to “go with the flow,” here are three steps you can take:

  1. Identify your flow experiences:
  • When do you feel most energized? What are you doing?
  • When do you feel absorbed in an activity? When do you lose track of time?
  • What do you do well? What are your favorite skills to use?
  1. Bring flow to the everyday:
  • Try doing a regular task with excellence, focusing on the details.
  • Control your attention — practice focusing on whatever it is that you are doing at the present time. This takes practice.
  1. Expand your boundaries:
  • Begin to explore new interests by asking yourself: What would my 8-year-old self want to learn?
  • Flow in conversation: Listen closely and learn as much as you can about the speaker.
  • Learn the difference between vegging and vegetating: Instead of TV, play a game or work on a hobby or project that demands your attention.

Flow is mindfulness in action. It’s being fully present in the here and now, and responding to the task at hand with curiosity and purpose. Give it some attention and you will reap benefits far beyond those blissful moments.

Mary Farrell, MS, PCC, is an integrative health & wellness coach and an exercise physiologist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center. Call 612-863-5178 to make an appointment with her.

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Live well, live happy: The role of relationships in happiness

83496526_mother_daughter_web.happiness.relationships.blogBy Mary Farrell, MS, PCC

This is part two in a LiveWell blog series on happiness that launched in January with  “Live well, live happy.”

Studying what makes us truly happy is a fairly recent endeavor. For decades, scientists studied unhappy people and mental illness.

Then along came positive psychology with the notion, “Hey! Why don’t we study people who are really happy and satisfied?” Just as wellness is not merely the absence of disease, so happiness is not simply the absence of mental illness.

The good news is that your happiness depends a tiny bit on circumstances and vast amounts on what we do with those circumstances.

One of the most overwhelming findings is that happy people are deeply connected to others and conversely that deeply connected people are happier. These folks have rich, strong and soul satisfying relationships. It’s important to note that anyone can attain this.

Think for a moment about the best times in your life— your high points and proud moments. If you are like most people, these moments were spent with others, such as a wedding or the birth of a child.

Now think about receiving some good or bad news. What is your first impulse? I’m guessing that it is to share this news with someone close to you. Remember the saying that a close relationship can multiply the joys and halve the sorrows? It turns out to be true.

At the time of this writing, one of my best friends is in hospice with days to live. He is not surrounded by his many degrees, a bank account statement, his car or other stuff. He is instead encircled by family members, friends and loved ones who in turn are blessed by each other and by his strong yet gentle spirit. He has led a good and satisfying life and though there is sadness, there is celebration at what his life has meant.

As you look to boost your happiness through relationships consider that not only will they support your happiness, they may enhance your health through:

  • an enhanced immune system
  • reduction in inflammation
  • reduction in heart disease and high blood pressure
  • lower mortality
  • significant reduction in stress.

Here are some proven and practical ways to build relationships:

  • Make time. In our hyper-scheduled world, this may feel impossible. If that is the case, consider how much time you spend each week on your computer, smart phone or watching TV. Can you spare any of that time for a relationship?
  • Be present. For many of us, our phones have become an appendage. Are you fully present for your loved ones? Research shows benefits of being together even without talking, such as walking together or listening to music.
  • Express admiration, appreciation and affection directly. Even though “I love you” is the most obvious, other phrases can go a long way including: “I appreciate that you make coffee every morning for me,” “I am so proud and excited about what you are doing with your art,” or “I love knowing that I get to have lunch with you!” Additionally, resolving to react actively and constructively to your friends’ news will build strong bonds. “I am thrilled for you — that promotion is well deserved and you earned it!”

Here’s to building your health and happiness through your relationships — what a joyous route!

Mary Farrell, MS, PCC, is an integrative health & wellness coach and an exercise physiologist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center. Call 612-863-5178 to make an appointment with her.


Live well, live happy

56460615.HappinessPhotoBy Mary Farrell, MS, PCC

One thing I enjoy about working for the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing is giving talks on a variety of subjects.

Over the last year, “happiness” has been by far the most requested topic. Of course, the obvious reason for that is people want to be happy. Behind that reason is its antithesis ― many folks are unhappy and don’t know why.

There’s a lot of science behind happiness and a lot of good news to share about what determines it:

  • About 50 percent of our happiness is genetically determined.
    We have a happiness “set point” that we return to, regardless of what is happening in our lives. You can probably think of folks in your life who are upbeat all of the time and others who are more melancholy.
  • What about circumstances?
    By circumstances, I am including where you live, your health, your job, your appearance, and how much money you have or don’t have. Research shows that these things account for only 10 percent of happiness. Most people are surprised by this. After all, so much of our lives can be consumed in pursuit of them.

    So, why do we pursue these circumstances if they don’t much matter? Because they work – for a while. I remember the day I picked up my car. I was thrilled. I loved my new car, and I didn’t mind driving at all. I kept it meticulously clean and banned young children or adults with food. My car seemed to make me happy, until one day it didn’t.

    Suddenly, I didn’t look forward to driving as much. Instead of people checking out my car, I was checking out theirs. In fact, I can’t remember the last time driving was a pleasure.

    Scientists call this the “Hedonic Effect.” Something or someone can make us happy for a while, until normalcy makes it just ho-hum or until the next best thing ― or person ― comes along.

  • So what’s the good news?
    The good news is about 40 percent of our happiness has nothing to do with things, jobs, money, appearance, genetics, or even health. That huge chunk of happiness comes from what we do with the lives we have and how we think. Our daily intentional activities have everything to do with our happiness.

In coming blog posts, I will walk you through evidence-based strategies that lead to lasting happiness ― the things that happy people do and the way they think.

For now, think about the time(s) in your life when you were the happiest. Consider:

  • What was I doing on a day-to-day basis?
  • What made life meaningful to me and what motivated me?
  • What practices or ways of thinking stand out?

These questions help you understand what you value and what actions will contribute to renewed happiness. I look forward to sharing more happiness strategies in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a quote: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” – Abraham Lincoln

Mary Farrell, MS, PCC, is an integrative health & wellness coach and an exercise physiologist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center. Call 612-863-5178 to make an appointment with her.

Past LiveWell blog entries on happiness:


Gratitude — not just for Thanksgiving

78650799_webBy Mary Farrell, MS, PCC

Part of me wishes I had written this in March, or perhaps July. Gratitude is such an amazing tool. It is unfortunate that it gets relegated to Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, November is a great time to talk about the power of gratitude.

Why is gratitude important? Gratitude has been called the “metastrategy” for happiness, and research backs that up. In fact, gratitude has been shown to:

  • help in seeing the positive and savoring the good
  • increase self-worth
  • aid in coping with stress and trauma
  • strengthen bonds with others
  • obliterate negative emotions, including greed, anger and fear
  • reduce physical symptoms, such as headache, nausea and colds.

Beyond “counting your blessings,” here are some practical ways to weave gratitude into your life:

  • Keep a daily or weekly gratitude journal. Benefits come both from writing and from revisiting what you’ve written.
  • Try an exercise called, “What went right and why,” with your family. You can do it around the dinner table or anytime your family comes together. You think about someone who made your day or something you did to make your day go right.
  • Write a gratitude letter. Expressing gratitude directly to someone in a letter is extremely effective. You may or may not send it.
  • Write a list for someone you love that includes “10 reasons I love/like you.” This is a surefire way to reinvigorate a relationship.

I can share a personal experience to demonstrate the immediate power of gratitude. About a year ago, I was doing some advanced coach training. One day, our assignment was to list the 10 things we loved about our partner/spouse/best friend. “Hmph,” I thought, “This is a very bad day for this assignment.”

It was one of those days when I couldn’t think of one reason why we were together. However, I was determined to finish the assignment. After 15 minutes, I came up with, “He makes chicken well.” (You know how easy it is to undercook or overcook chicken.) There! One thing I love about him.

After a few minutes, I remembered that he makes dinner quite often and that is very thoughtful of him. Next I remembered that after a hard day, he is really good about welcoming me home with some of my favorite jazz standards — John Coltrane, Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Next I remembered that he always makes me laugh, even if things get ugly. Next I remembered  …. You can see how this went. I ended up texting this list to him, one at a time, minus the chicken.

To this day, he thinks that is the most romantic thing I ever did. You see, it is impossible to be angry, jealous, worried or resentful when you have gratitude in the mix.

I encourage you to pick one of the gratitude techniques and try it on for size. You may also want to get some support. Is there a friend, colleague or family member that you would like to involve in this endeavor?

Whatever you decide, remember these words from Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk known for interfaith dialogues and his work looking at the relationship between science and spirituality,  “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratitude that makes us happy.”

Mary Farrell, MS, PCC, is an integrative health & wellness coach and an exercise physiologist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center.

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Feeling overwhelmed? Take a step back, and try these six tips.

by Mary Farrell, MS, PCC, certified professional health and wellness coach and exercise physiologist

In my work as an integrative health and wellness coach, I help people clarify, plan for and achieve their goals aimed at reaching optimal health.

Some of my clients are just seeking a “tune-up” for overall health and wellness. Others have chronic health conditions or are recovering from a disease.

Something many of them have in common is that they are more and more overwhelmed. Once they reach a “tipping point,” they can feel paralyzed. At that point, I can help them take a step back to look objectively at their lives, and I can help them manage stress and its effects.

I don’t think this trend is isolated to the people I see. Many of us struggle with managing the daily pressures and stressors of life today.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, here are six tips that you can use to take a step back and de-stress.

  1. If you can take something off your plate, do it. There are two ways to deal with stress. The first is to take away the source. The second is to learn how to better manage the stress that remains. Remove anything that you would classify as not urgent and not important.
  2. Find an activity that helps you take your mind off the stress, such as listening to music, reading a good book, taking a walk, playing basketball, or perhaps an activity like sewing or knitting. These “personal time outs” work wonders.
  3. Ask yourself, “What is the most important thing I need to do right now to improve this situation?” Focus your energies on just that area.
  4. In life, the most meaningful things are often important, but not urgent. Connecting with friends is one example. Take time for those relationships. People often feel stressed when they are not tending to these things.
  5. Carve out pockets of calm and peace. What do you need to maintain to keep grounded? Which rituals and routines bring you comfort? What time do you need to go to bed in order to feel rested? Find these rituals and routines and stick to them like an appointment.
  6. Don’t take on too many changes at once. Remember to zero in on the one thing that would have the most impact for you. Nobody quits for starting out too slow, but they often quit for starting out too quickly.

To learn more about integrative health and wellness coaching, or to make an appointment with Farrell, call 612-863-6316.

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Don’t just do something … stand there!

by Mary Farrell, MS, CHWC

I used to think that I was born to be a runner.  In high school, I discovered that I had no hand-eye coordination for sports involving a ball, and my attempts at learning cartwheels to try out for cheerleading would have landed me in the “YouTube Hall of Shame.” I also discovered that gangly long legs are good for running, so I started doing that.

I was hooked. I couldn’t run fast, but it seemed that I could run forever. I loved feeling that I could outlast anyone, and grew competitive. I ran so many races that I ran out of places to put the t-shirts. I loved the euphoria, the clarity and sense of accomplishment that I felt when I ran. I kept running in college and grad school, as it was my only time of solitude and quiet. I brought my running shoes wherever I traveled and used to discover the back roads of towns, villages and cities. Being a runner was part of who I was.

Then one day, it wasn’t. A serious injury gradually got more serious until I could ignore it no more. Still, I dutifully went to the gym to get my three miles in on the treadmill. I was in excruciating pain-grimacing, hobbling and dragging my right foot. After I was asked three times by separate people if I needed to go to the hospital, I realized that it was time to stop. It is amazing how out of tune we can be with our bodies.

Two spinal surgeries later, I realized that I would never run again. Seven spinal surgeries later, I realize that it is really okay.

So, I discovered walking. I used to run the same route that I now walk with a cane, and I swear that it isn’t the same. I am seeing things I didn’t see before―the glorious way the autumn sunlight shines on the water and the bridges, the rhythm of the timeless waterfall, the laughter of children as they run after baby ducklings in the Spring, and the smiles and “hellos” as I greet others on my route.

I know now that I am experiencing what coaches call “Mindfulness.”  Mindfulness is the non-judgmental awareness of what is happening in the present moment.

People generally walk around on automatic pilot. More often than not, we are not really where we are. When we are eating, we are reading, working or worrying about past or future events instead of tasting each bite of food. When we work out, we are thinking about all that we have to do that day instead of being in tune with our body and what it is doing.

We are also experiencing constant “noise”—the endless tapes that can play in our mind. These can be financial concerns, worry about a job or relationship, or critical self-talk that says that we will never really be smart, slender, attractive or successful enough. Taken altogether we have quite a cacophony going on in the background, don’t we? It is almost too much to imagine peace, calm and purpose.

Mindfulness is a way to break free from being on autopilot and to push back the noise. By waking up to the experience of what’s going on around us, while it’s actually happening, we have the opportunity to make different decisions and to go in different directions. By paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and relationships—without judgment or condemnation—we increase both our freedom and control over life.

Being forced to slow down has allowed me to practice mindfulness in my own life as well as encourage it in my clients. From the unmitigated joy of my puppy’s “welcome home dance,” to the tapestry of languages, fragrances and tastes of the farmer’s market, to the embrace of my partner that takes my breath away—I know that I am never going back to the frenetic lifestyle that I experienced before I was injured.

What are those things in your life that ignite your senses? Is it the cadence and reassuring tone of a loved one’s voice? Is it the laughter and play of a beloved grandchild? Is it the swelling of your heart as you watch your child on the playing field? Is it the quiet satisfaction you feel as you leave work or volunteering, knowing the impact that you have on others?

In addition to those examples, coaches have found that practicing mindfulness is crucial to making positive health and wellness changes. Because mindfulness happens in the moment, I would encourage the following exercise:

Before you begin a meal, ask yourself:

  • Where am I?
  • What is my body position?
  • What is going on around me?
  • Am I really hungry?
  • What does the food look, smell, feel and taste like?
  • What do I really want to eat?

Practicing mindfulness, even for a few minutes a day, is an important part of improving your health. You have nothing to lose but your distractions.