Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success


Reaching happiness and success

Articles about achieving happiness, success and sustaining relationships.

At peace on the beach

The effects of water and nature on our brain and emotions

The health benefits of being near water are legendary. Remember the Ancient Romans and their baths? In the days before beachside was the most common summer holiday destination – the forests of the mountains were popular. One would 'take the air' or 'take the waters' – walking in it, bathing in it, and drinking it (in the case of mineral water). Here in Victoria, the mineral springs at Hepburn or here on the Mornington Peninsula have seen a recent revival.

We might have to deal with the stress of a thoroughly modern world, but our brain and emotions were not designed for it. We evolved to be close to nature, our psyches are soothed by it and this goes back millions of years.

In his TED talk 'A Darwinian Theory of Beauty', the art philosopher, the late Denis Dutton combined evolutionary psychology and a survey into contemporary preferences in art to point out that a 'beautiful' landscape was the same across all cultures (even polar peoples). The ideal landscape consisted of open spaces covered with low grass interspersed with trees – water – and surprisingly, a path. The theory is that all these elements are needed for human survival. Grass for animals to eat (and for humans to hunt), trees to escape predators, and water to drink. In our unconscious, this idyllic scene represents plenty (although where the path fits in is unclear).

Marine Biologist Wallace J. Nichols theorizes that we have a 'Blue mind' (the title of a recently published book) that is activated when we are in or near water. He says this is a 'mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment'.

Girl breathing deeply

How best to use the #1 essential coping tool

People have asked me, if I could only give one coping tool, what would it be? This is an easy one to answer.

When you're in a tricky situation and you're starting to react (your stress bucket is rising and you're about to get stressed, anxious, angry or fearful) – my 'go to' coping tool is the 'Deep breath and step back'.

We've always known that taking a deep breath can help, but we now know that the things that enhance that deep breath and take it to a new level.

Breathing in and out slowly sends a message to our limbic/survival brain that there is no need to fight or run away, because if we can breathe like that there mustn't be any threat. This slow in and out breathing can help you calm down, relax or even get to sleep.

Breathing deeply into our chest can also help stabilise the Vagus nerve which is involved in the 'freeze' part of the stress reaction (fight, flight or freeze).

But what is the optimal deep breath and how can we best use it in a stressful moment?

Aggressive young female boxerWhether we have a 'big' personality (extrovert) or a quiet personality (introvert), there might be times when we would like to stand out more, or blend in more, depending on the situation and the company we're in.

It might also depend on how much we’ve had to drink. Alcohol can make us say or do things we regret later, or help us avoid social anxiety by ‘numbing’ us to the point where we end up doing embarrassing things anyway. It might be a challenge to adapt to people or circumstances but people do it all the time, and so can you. It takes skill and tact, so here are a few ways you can work on moderating your personality – without alcohol.

Tamar Valley clouds - Dalai Lama quote

Why is it so hard to be happy? People are often puzzled as to why happiness doesn't happen to them more often – or as much as it seems to happen to others.

Clue number:

  1. Is the origin of the word itself, and
  2. How the brain creates happiness as an emotion