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Can a performance-minded Olympian, a joy-seeking comedian, and an optimistic spiritual thinker show us the way to feel-good health—even happiness—in an age of seemingly 24-7 bad news, mounting everyday stress, and resulting brain drain?
With a nourished mind, an active body, and meaningful connectedness—to community, a higher power, or even a biochemical-boosting “Hiya!” at martial arts class—health-minded happiness, they attest, is attainable and sustainable.
Mindset, nutrition, nature, and a sense of fulfillment are key to navigating this journey for eight-time Olympic medalist turned wellness advocate and tech entrepreneur Apolo Ohno, who co-founded the brain health and life-coaching company Allysian Sciences after hanging up his short-track speed skates in 2010.
“I think we all often get caught up in the rat race, and I want to help people to start understanding that we have control over our own happiness,” says Ohno, 36. “Our perception, our mind, is a huge component of how we live and the decisions we make daily. And a very strong mind-body connection is absolutely integral to making sure that we have fulfillment and are happy. I want people to recognize the power we have regardless of skill set. Very simple tweaks that you can do in your body and mind and lifestyle make the biggest difference.”
At times, the path to bliss takes creative experimenting, though. A quick wit and
willing body helped stand-up comic Paula Poundstone captain her adventures as her own glee-hunting guinea pig in her insightful and endorphin-releasing-level funny book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.
The mom of three took action in a series of experiments—from learning to swing dance (“I look like I’m chasing chickens,” she quips), to volunteering locally, to finessing a mean side kick that made her kids bust a gut laughing—that put her in the flow of feel-good neurotransmitters. Two months into taekwondo, “I’m walking down the alley carrying 20 to 30 pounds of kitty litter, and I realized I felt good,” says Poundstone, 58. “I definitely felt a sense of well-being and uplift.”
And sometimes we can look within, and upward, to lighten our loads. Texas-based spiritual life coach and Science of Mind practitioner Yvonne Ryba advocates bringing visions of happiness into being via positive thinking and affirmative prayer.
Ryba, 76, even credits these practices for helping her attract companionship and laughter into her life in 2016 after a year of grieving the death of her second husband—as she had done nearly a decade prior after mourning her first husband’s passing. “Again, I needed someone to be here with me,” she says. “So I focused on what I wanted in a companion, and I affirmed it in writing. I wanted somebody who made me laugh and had a great sense of humor—and that’s exactly what I got.”
Mission Apolo: Mind Over Matter
Though famous for his athletic prowess, Ohno tapped into the power of his mind—and nature—to transcend mental, emotional, and physical stressors on his path to Olympic gold. Now he’s sharing what he learned then, and what he still practices as a global businessman in a “hyper-stressed” world, to help others achieve well-being.
“I think that my ability to perceive my challenges is drastically changed when I’m eating properly, when I’m fueling my mind and my body better,” he says. Ohno credits a diet high in whole-food, plant-based nutrition, including adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha and Rhodiola rosea and the adaptogenic mushroom lion’s mane, for boosting his brain performance, fostering a feel-good physiology, and helping him handle stress and make better decisions. The end result: he’s more attuned and equipped to pursue a fulfilling life optimized to bring happiness.
“There’s a direct correlation between the health of our brain and the health of our well-being—and I think a healthy brain is a happy brain,” he says. “I also think what we all strive for is the ability to create and sustain the life we have on earth so it positively impacts ourselves, our loved ones, our families, and our friends. That makes me happy even thinking about it.”
“There’s a correlation between the health of our brain and the health of our well-being. I think a healthy brain is a happy brain.”
Simple lifestyle habits can engender a healthy mind and happiness. Ohno’s wellness routine includes practicing meditation and connecting with nature—research shows both of these release the “happiness hormone” serotonin—and living mindfully in the present moment. “For me, it’s all about centering and grounding and breathing and slowing time down,” Ohno says. “I always feel my mind is the most clear when I’m in the mountains or near the water. That can be going for a walk or a hike, or just looking at water. And I always urge people to just take a half hour or hour out of their time to be in nature.”
His tip for finding fulfillment back in life’s hustle and bustle? “Identify what really makes you happy,” he says, and then focus your energies on those activities and communities. Ohno has done just this, channeling his wellness and tech passions—and his love for communities that are “positive, reflective, uplifting, and collaborative”—into Allysian Sciences, whose app includes cognitive training exercises and a forum for like-minded health buffs to share their success stories.
The journey to health-minded happiness, he adds, is both an inward and outward one. “It’s a conversation you have with yourself that then requires execution. You have to act upon what’s going on inside your brain.”
Experiments in Happiness
Paula Poundstone took action by putting both her not-so-Olympic body and sharp observational wit to the test in her get-happy book. The key finding in her seven-year, hands-on joy quest? “The truth is,” she notes, “the only thing that really makes people happy is ping-pong.”
She’s joking, of course. At least in part: Her tome’s new paperback edition adds table tennis to her lineup of 14 get-happy experiments—which include getting organized, getting quiet, getting earthy, and getting warm and fuzzy—that the sometimes cheeky comic earnestly undertook. “Ping-pong did make me happy,” she says. And a day-long tournament kept her so, even as she embarked on “a horrible errand having to do with family drama that night. I literally went from playing ping-pong to going to the airport, and I still had a bounce in my step until the morning.”
Sustainable happiness became the gold standard in her experiential pursuit. “It wasn’t a matter if I enjoyed doing something. It was a matter if that thing gave me an uplift or some sort of umbrella for the inevitable on-and-off rains of one’s daily life. That’s the real question,” says the wry panelist of NPR’s hit quiz show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me. And the answers? “If I had thought about building to a crescendo of happiness, I would’ve saved the Get Fit experiment until the end.” To this day, in fact, she continues taking taekwondo.
Engaging her heart via real-life interactions has kept her light on her feet with umbrella in hand, at times like a Mary Poppins for seniors. Two years after wrapping her Get Over Here and Help experiment, the author still volunteers twice weekly at a nursing home—in part as a tribute to a lively but lonely, and, sadly, now deceased, resident whose fun and funny ways she chronicles in her book. “Everyone deserves to have somebody that you look forward to seeing and that remembers you,” Poundstone says. And as she keeps giving, she still receives. “I feel better every single time I visit. Something always happens that I’m not expecting—a connection.”
At times, the path to bliss takes creative experimentation. Poundstone was her own glee-hunting guinea pig, finding activities to put her on the path to those feel-good feelings.
The Science of Happy Thinking
Connecting to one’s spiritual side—or, as some call it, the spiritual mind—can also bring lasting happiness, says Yvonne Ryba, a licensed Science of Mind practitioner and leader at the Center for Spiritual Living in Clear Lake, Texas. Ryba’s teachings and practices, based on late religious and metaphysical scholar Ernest Holmes’ spiritual philosophies, promote the healing power of positive thinking.
“Our mantra is ‘Change your thinking, change your life.’ Quantum physics explains this, that we are powerful in our minds, greater than just what we think of as the brain,” she says. “The law of the universe—also called the law of attraction—is that what you think and focus upon, you will create,” so sending out loving and happy thoughts in turn brings the same energies, experiences, and people to you, she adds. Research suggests that positive thinking can help reduce stress, lower depression, boost psychological and physical well-being, and even increase life span.
“Our mantra is, ‘Change your thinking, change your life.’ The law of the universe is that what you think and focus upon, you will create.”
Studies show that prayer also has positive health benefits, including boosting mental health, activating “disease-fighting” genes, and enhancing relationships. Ryba practices an affirmative form of prayer called spiritual mind treatment in which she speaks what she is declaring for herself or others. “Pray knowing that as you speak, you believe that, so it is. Whatever it is we want—health, healing after a surgery, happiness, a new job with great benefits—we can ask for it. You put it in the present tense, because it is always manifesting.”
Ryba, who also works as a spiritual life coach, says such practices are the first steps in taking action to grow joy in your life. “Happiness comes from within,” she adds. “You have to root out the negative things that are preventing you from being happy. And you have to take care of yourself first so you can help others. From this inner place of well-being, you will find other people attracted to you with whom you can share happiness. Just know that you are created to fulfill your potential and learn and love and grow and give and be uplifted and be happy.”