Plan Your Way to Less Stress, More Happiness

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A recent survey by psychologist and self-help author Robert Epstein found that 25% of our happiness hinges on how well we’re able to manage stress. The next logical question is, of course, how best can we reduce our stress?

Epstein’s data, which he presented last month at the Western Psychological Association meeting in Los Angeles, was intended to help answer that question. It involved 3,000 participants in the U.S. and 29 other countries, who responded to an online questionnaire. Participants’ stress-management skills were gauged by asking them to rate their level of agreement with 28 items, such as “I frequently use breathing techniques to help me relax.” The volunteers were also asked about how happy they were and how successful they were in their personal and professional lives.

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The stress management technique that worked best, according to the survey: planning. In other words, “fighting stress before it even starts, planning things rather than letting them happen,” says Epstein. “That means planning your day, your year and your life so that stress is minimized.”

Epstein points to his former professor, the late Harvard behaviorist B.F. Skinner, as a master organizer. (Skinner is best known for his highly influential research on the effects of reinforcement on behavior.) “Skinner was amazing at managing stress. He was quite a planner. Not only did he plan his day every day, but he had a 10-year planner,” says Epstein.

Epstein’s survey was also able to track stress management with participants’ overall levels of happiness. “The association was very strong,” says Epstein, “suggesting that nearly 25% of our happiness is related to our ability to manage stress.” (Incidentally, he remembers his former teacher Skinner as having been a genuinely happy person.)

But the bad news is that, in general, people are really bad at managing stress. “The mean score on our test was 55%. In a course, that would lead to a failing grade: F,” says Epstein.

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You don’t have to be scientist to know that excess stress can lead to a host of ill effects, psychologically and physically — including early death. According to the New England Centenarian Study carried out by Boston University School of Medicine researchers in 2010, longevity is 20%-30% determined by genes and 70%-80% attributable to the environment. And a major characteristic consistent among people who lived to 100, the study found, was the ability to manage stress. “Stress kills,” says Epstein. “Stress is not only daunting, it’s also an important factor responsible for the acceleration of the biological clock.”

“The most important way to manage stress is to prevent it from ever occurring,” by planning, says Epstein. Of course, for some people, the idea of making checklists and calendars, organizing and planning ahead sounds, well, stressful. So Epstein suggests a few other stress-management techniques, taken from his self-help book on stress, that might work better for you:

Relax. O.K., if you could do that, you wouldn’t have any stress to begin with. But you can learn to decompress. Epstein found that study participants who had received stress-management training — even just a yoga class — had higher happiness scores than people who hadn’t. The more hours of training, the higher their scores.

Getting relaxed can be as easy as deep breathing, meditating or practicing muscle relaxation. “It’s important to practice one or more of these techniques every day, before stress ever hits,” says Epstein. “That’s a way of ‘immunizing’ yourself against stress, so that it doesn’t hurt you so much when it occurs.”

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One simple breathing technique: the cleansing breath, which consists of inhaling deeply, holding for a slow count of five and exhaling slowly.

Tummy Breathing. When you’re stressed, you breathe with your chest, so Epstein recommends learning to breath with your gut. Place one hand on your chest and another on your stomach and try to keep your chest still as you breathe more with your tummy. “Abdominal breathing relaxes muscles throughout the body and lowers stress levels,” says Epstein.

Double Blow. Another easy breathing technique. All you have to do is exhale fully, then when all the air seems to be gone, blow out forcefully — this helps fight the tendency to take shallow fast breaths when you’re stressed. “This gets rid of the air trapped in the lower lungs and refreshes the respiratory system,” says Epstein, noting that shallow breathing circulates carbon dioxide and other toxins through the bloodstream.

Epstein says he taught his daughter the double blow when she was just 3 years old. Now 5, when she gets upset, he says he tells her, “Do your blowing.” Epstein says it works every time: “She’ll do this huge ‘Pfff’ and try to blow my head off and then she’ll start laughing. She’ll go from borderline getting upset to absolute cheerful.”

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In a previous study, Epstein found that parents’ stress management was the second most powerful predictor, after love and affection, in outcomes of parenting. “The tragedy is that we don’t teach these things to children,” says Epstein.

Reframing. Last but not least, Epstein says people can reduce stress by reframing, which means thinking about things in a neutral or positive way, instead of negatively. “We don’t have much control over the events around us, but we have almost total control over how we interpret them,” Epstein says.

Often, we make assumptions or blow things out of proportion, only to realize later that we were wrong. So, for instance, if your boss passes you in the hall looking surly without saying hello, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that you’re about to get laid off. Rather, ask yourself whether he might have just received some bad news or was simply being absent-minded.

Correction [June 1, 2011]: This article misidentified Epstein as a Harvard professor. It also mischaracterized the “double blow” technique. Both errors have been corrected.