Easy vegetable lasagna

PREP TIME
15 minutes
TOTAL TIME
1 hour
YIELD
6-8 servings
EQUIPMENT
Lasagna pan Foil Cutting board and knife Mixing bowl Large saute pan
INGREDIENTS
1 box no-boil lasagna noodles
1.25 cup Ricotta cheese
.5 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium eggplant, diced
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 medium yellow squash, diced
1 jar of your favorite marinara sauce
2 cups shredded mozzarella
COOKING DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a large sauce pan over medium heat, heat the olive oil and add the onions and garlic. Saute for 4-5 minutes or until the onions become translucent.
Add the vegetables and stir to combine. Cook for 3-4 minutes more until the vegetables just begin to soften.
Add the marinara sauce and stir to combine. Let the mixture come to a simmer, then remove from heat.
In a mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmesan and eggs. Stir until creamy and completely mixed together.
Place a little of the vegetable mixture on the bottom of a lasagna pan. Place a layer of no-boil noodles. Dollop about 1/3 of the cheese mixture on the noodles and spread it evenly. Sprinkle about 1/3 of the mozzarella over the cheese mixture. Spoon another layer of the vegetable mixture over the cheeses, add a layer of noodles, a layer of cheese spread, and a layer of mozzarella.
Repeat this once more and you’ve reached the top of the pan, ending with a sprinkle of mozzarella.
Cover the lasagna loosely with foil. Place the lasagna pan on the center rack of the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the foil and bake another 10-15 minutes until the cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown.
Remove the lasagna and allow to cool in the pan for about 5-10 minutes.
Serve and enjoy!

credit: Jaymi Heimbach

What your eye color says about you

Your eyes can be a window into your soul, and some say that your eyes — be them baby blue, sexy green or deep, mysterious brown — may reveal even more.

Like how well you tolerate pain. Or your tendency toward alcohol dependence. Or just how generally agreeable you might be.

Eye color and what eye color really means are a constant source of fascination among scientists, academicians and that guy or girl across the bar. As is often the case with these things, though, it’s not that simple. In fact, it gets pretty complicated.

What you see is what you get

“This general question of the relationship between, say, a visible trait — height or body size, or skin color or eye color or hair color — and anything else, whether it’s a disease trait or whether it’s a visible trait, is something that geneticists think about and talk about all the time. And it’s a topic of understandable popular interest,” says Greg Barsh, a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, a nonprofit based in Huntsville, Alabama, and a professor emeritus of genetics at Stanford University.

“We do not think, we do not believe that there is a direct connection of eye color with specific diseases. We do not think that there is a relationship, say, between eye color and diabetes, or eye color and cancer, or eye color and behavior.”

Still, many people are all too willing to make that link between the color of someone’s eyes and, say, how well they react in a motor skills test. (Men with dark eyes reportedly performed better than those with lighter-colored eyes — but only when they blue racquetballs, rather than green or yellow.)

Are light-eyed people from a certain region, for example, really less agreeable than the dark-eyed population of the same region, as one study suggests?

It’s easy to accept the hypothesis of this study, which concludes that “light-eyed individuals have a higher prevalence of [alcohol dependency] than dark-eyed individuals.” Or this piece in Cosmopolitan, based on several popular papers, that concludes:

Brown-eyed people are prone to anxiety.
Green-eyed folks have a higher tolerance for pain.
Those with blue eyes have a lower risk of anxiety and depression, yet are more likely to be dependent on alcohol.
Easy, sure. But believable? Can you really make that jump, that generalization, based solely on the color of someone’s eyes? Or is it, as Barsh suggests, more complicated?
Ancestry, cause and correlation

“Most individuals with blue eye color are of North European ancestry. But there are many other traits that are also correlated with North European ancestry,” Barsh says. “So when someone says, ‘Okay, I looked at a bunch of people with blue eyes and I also discovered that they drive faster, or they die sooner, or that they have a difference in pain tolerance,’ … the default question that always must be asked is, ‘How do you know that isn’t a difference that is genetic and happens to be related to their North European ancestry?'”

Barsh cites an old example popular among geneticists: A discovery is made that people in the Bay Area of San Francisco are more adept, as a whole, at using chopsticks than people in many other areas of the country. Is that because, simply, they[re from the Bay Area?

Or is it because many people from Asia, or many people with ancestors from Asia, have settled in the San Francisco area, and those ancestors were adept at eating with chopsticks?

“The situation with visible traits is actually pretty similar, because visible traits are highly, highly correlated with ancestry,” Barsh says. In other words, blue eyes are usually handed down from ancestors in North Europe. People with ancestors from Asia and Africa are normally dark-eyed.

Still, that doesn’t mean you can come to conclusions about diseases or behaviors just based on ancestry, either.

“One of the major challenges that I think all biologists face is distinguishing correlation from causation,” Barsh adds. “If you have two traits found in one group but not another, it can be very challenging to distinguish whether the relationship between the traits is that one causes the other, or they just happen to be present in the same population.”

So to do this thing right, you have to dive deeply into the genetics of a given population. And genetics are a complicated thing. There’s one main gene — it’s called the OCA2 — responsible for eye color, for example. But several other genes contribute. So assigning a behavior, or the chance of getting a disease to, say, the OCA2 and four or five other genes (among some 20,000 in humans) falls a bit on the simplistic side.
“We know enough about the genes that control skin and eye color that [we know] that is, in fact, all that they do. They don’t do other things,” Barsh says. “No matter how much we learn, we’re never going to learn that eye color has anything to do with intelligence. We know that it doesn’t. It doesn’t have anything to do with behavior. It doesn’t have anything to do with disease susceptibility.”

The only exception, it seems, is that those with lighter skin and lighter eyes are more susceptible to the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays from the sun, which could lead to diseases of the eyes and skin.

Other than that, though, the color of those baby blues is that and only that: A color (or lack of, or a combination of colors) based on genes handed down from your ancestors.

Anything else may just be your eyes playing tricks on you.

Credit: John Donovan

9 ways that dogs tell you they love you

Dogs have lived alongside us for thousands of years, earning the reputation as “man’s best friend” for good reason. But while some people may be quick to dismiss a dog’s devotion as simply a relationship based on need, experts say that’s just not true.

“Dogs have developed the strongest ability of all animals on Earth to form affectionate bonds with humans,” says Dr. Frank McMillan D.V.M., director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society, an organization helping adopters find loving companions. “Dogs don’t just love us — they need us, but not just for food and physical care. They need us emotionally. This is why the attachment bond a dog feels for his human is one of deep devotion and is, as has been often stated, unconditional.”

But how exactly does a dog say, “I love you”? Read on to find out.

Your dog wants to be close to you.

If your dog is always in your lap, leaning against you or following you room to room, it’s clear your pooch is attached to you.

“A dog’s affection is most evident in their desire to be physically close to you. This can sometimes appear to be a clinginess, and it isn’t always easy to distinguish healthy positive clinginess from insecurity, but in both cases your dog is deeply attached to you,” McMillan says.

Your dog gazes into your eyes.

When you and your pup share a long look, your dog is “hugging you with his eyes,” according to Brian Hare, a professor at Duke University who studies canine cognition, and research shows that this “hug” has a profound effect on both man and animal.

When scientists at Japan’s Azabu University took urine samples from dogs and their owners before and after 30 minutes of interacting, they found that the pairs that spent the most time gazing into each others’ eyes showed significantly higher levels of the hormone oxytocin, the same hormonal response that bonds us to human infants. “It’s an incredible finding that suggests that dogs have hijacked the human bonding system,” Hare told Science.

Does your pup jump up, wag his tail and barely seem able to contain contain his excitement when you arrive home? If so, that’s a sure sign of affection.

“This becomes even more obvious when your dog learns, like Pavlov’s dogs, that some sound signals your upcoming arrival, like the garage opener or sound of your car, and they show excitement upon hearing that sound,” McMillan says.

Your dog sleeps with you.

Dogs are pack animals that often huddle together at night for warmth and protection, so when your dog snuggles up with you, it means he considers you to be part of the family. And these canine cuddles may even help you get a better night’s sleep.

You are your dog’s safe haven.

“Much affection in animals and humans is based on how much you can be relied on as a source of comfort and support in scary situations,” McMillan says. “If your dog seeks your comfort during thunderstorms, car rides, vet visits or other frightening occurrences, then you are seeing another aspect of her attachment bond to you.”

Your dog ‘reads’ you and reacts accordingly.

A close bond with your dog may enable him to sense your mood and respond with affection. “Many dogs who sense that you are upset or not feeling well will demonstrate their affection by spending even more time by your side. They might give you licks or rest their head or paws on some part of your body,” McMillan says.

If you’ve ever yawned after witnessing another person’s yawn, you’re aware how contagious the act can be. This contagious yawning is unique to only a few species, and man’s best friend is one of them.

Researchers have even found that not only are dogs more likely to yawn after watching familiar people yawn, but also that dogs will yawn when hearing only the sound of a loved one’s yawn. So if your canine companion yawns in response to your yawns, odds are good that his affection for you enables him to empathize with you.

Your dog focuses on you.

It’s not unusual for dogs to delight in positive attention from virtually anyone, but just because your pooch loves on everyone, doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you most. Pay attention to how your dog acts when in a room full of people. If he stays focused on you or ignores others while awaiting your return, you know you hold a special place in your dog’s heart.

Your dog forgives you.

“Part of the affectionate feelings your dog has for you shows up in their willingness to forgive you for things you do that make them feel bad, such as raising your voice, or misplacing your frustration on your dog by ignoring them,” McMillan says. “Forgiveness is your dog’s attempt to maintain the loving bond they share with you.”

However, even if your canine best friend doesn’t show affection in these ways, it certainly doesn’t mean your pooch doesn’t love you. Just as some people can care deeply without expressing their feelings, so can your pup.

“Be sure not to go through the list above and think that because your dog shows very few or even none of these things, he or she doesn’t love you. Odds are, love is very much there. After all, we’re talking about a dog here,” McMillan says.

And how can you show your dog some love? Engage in playtime, take a long walk, bake some yummy dog treats, or give your pup a homemade toy. Above all, McMillan says the best thing you can do is simply give your dog more of you because that’s what man’s best friend wants most of all.

credit:Laura Moss

Does the CDC want woman to stop drinking

Do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention really want to butt their scientific noses into the business of women and drinking? Well yes … sort of … but it really depends.

The CDC has been making headlines for a recent news release warning that 3.3 million women who drink and don’t use birth control run the risk of exposing a potential baby to fetal alcohol syndrome.

The CDC reported that three out of four women who want to get pregnant “as soon as possible” don’t stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control.

“Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant,” warned CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D. “About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking. The risk is real. Why take the chance?”
Many media outlets took this as a recommendation from the CDC that all women of childbearing age who aren’t on birth control should not be drinking alcohol.

“The CDC’s incredibly condescending warning to young women,” said a blog in the Washington Post.

“Protect Your Womb From the Devil Drink,” blared the Atlantic.

But shaming and guilting wasn’t quite the purpose of the message, the CDC insists.

“We definitely didn’t make any recommendations for women who are pre-pregnant,” Lela McKnight-Eily, an epidemiologist and clinical psychologist on the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention Team at the CDC, told the Huffington Post. “It’s more a matter of women knowing and being informed that if they are drinking alcohol, sexually active and not using birth control, that they could be exposing a baby to a teratogen, and that could cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.”

The CDC said the warning was intended for the women who reported trying to get pregnant right away, but who continued to drink while they tried to conceive.

“Every woman who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant — and her partner — want a healthy baby. But they may not be aware that drinking any alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can cause a range of disabilities for their child,” said Coleen Boyle, Ph.D., director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

“It is critical for healthcare providers to assess a woman’s drinking habits during routine medical visits; advise her not to drink at all if she is pregnant, trying to get pregnant or sexually active and not using birth control; and recommend services if she needs help to stop drinking.”
What the report said
The report surveyed more than 4,300 non-pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 44. The highest risks for fetal alcohol syndrome were in women aged 25-29, women who were married or cohabiting, and women who had given birth to one child already. There was also an increased risk in current smokers over nonsmokers, as well as a link between the mother’s level of education and the risks of alcohol-related problems.

“There isn’t a new guideline. It’s been recommended for decades that women not drink during pregnancy,” McKnight-Eily said. “We think that there are a lot of mixed messages out there, and we want to give women a clear message that there is no safe time, there is no safe amount or type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.”

Credit: Mary Jo Dilonardo

Is there a meditation technique that is right for you?

The data is in, and meditation works; not only does it help us live happier, less stressful lives, but it has measurable effects on physical health too. But if you’ve tried and (feel like you’ve) failed at meditating, it might be because you haven’t found the right meditation type for you. Below, you’ll find seven different ways “in” to a meditation practice; the benefits of each type are similar once you are practicing regularly — whether you find your way into meditation via walking and chanting, taking a class from a Transcendental Meditation teacher, or via meditation paired with your existing faith.

The most important part of meditation is not doing it a certain way, wearing particular clothes while doing it, or being in a specific place — or whatever your preconception of the “right” way to meditate is. It’s about finding what works with your life. Unlike a spin class, there are no rules you have to follow (though it’s useful to get a grounding in how other people meditate). There is only the regular practice and sticking with it, day-by-day. Think of meditation more like making a positive, life-long shift to a healthy eating, rather than a specific diet program (with celebrity endorsement and a thick book) that you follow for a month and then abandon. A truly beneficial meditation practice will take time and persistence.

So check out the styles of meditation below, and try them out — play with what works for you, and what doesn’t. Don’t be rigid about what meditation is, or looks like, or what you think it’s going to feel like. Ask yourself questions: Do you like to move, or does stillness work better for you? How about vocalizations? Do you want to focus on something or nothing? Your particular way into meditation may be different, but the stress relief, reduced anger, feelings of well-being, lowered blood pressure, and other benefits are available to everyone.
Focused meditation is an umbrella term for any kind of meditation that includes focus on some aspect of the five senses, though visualizations are the most popular. Focusing on an image of a flower, a flame, or moving water are all ways to keep the mind gently focused so you are less likely to become distracted. You can also try concentrating on the feel of something — your fingers against each other, the way your breath feels moving in and out of your body, or the alignment of your spine. Focusing on a simple sound (a gentle gong, a bell, or music) or sounds from nature are another option.

Guided meditation is a focused meditation that is led by someone other than yourself and usually includes one or more of the techniques in focus meditation, above. You will get led through breathing instructions and some kind of visualization, body scan, or sound, or perhaps a mantra (see below).

Spiritual meditation is interchangeable with what most of us understand as prayer. If you are already part of a spiritual tradition, this may be an easier way into meditation, because you have already been practicing some elements of it. You can try it as an extension of what you already do in your place of worship if being in the church, sanctuary, mosque, hall or synagogue helps you dive into a quieter, more reflective state, or you can conjure up that feeling at home or in another place. Start with the words you have heard or said yourself, but instead of stopping at the end of a prayer or song, keep sitting quietly. You can ask a question and listen for an answer — sometimes people feel that an answer comes from outside of them; or you can enumerate what you are grateful for. Use your experience of prayer to access that quiet, meditative mind space.

Mantra meditation is when you use a sound or a set of sounds, repetitively, to enter and stay within the meditative state. It may seem like a contradiction to make noise when meditating, because many people have the idea that meditation equals silence, but that’s not the case at all, and mantras have a long history within the tradition. Of course, you can chant quietly, or even whisper your set of words, draw them out, make them more sing-songy, or even quite loud. You can say them in your head and maintain outer silence. You can choose a word or words in any language: (Peace and love and happiness, for example), or a sound like “Ohm.” You can make up sounds or words if you like or take them from another language; the sound or words you choose are really up to you and are simply a way to prevent distracting thoughts.

Transcendental Meditation (often abbreviated as TM by practitioners) is the type that’s most likely been studied by scientists when you hear about the various physical and mental benefits to meditation. With over 5 million practitioners worldwide, it is considered the most popular form of meditation, with the bonus being that it is usually easy to find free or low-cost classes in most places. It is a little more formalized than some of the other meditation types mentioned here, but it useful for beginning or exploring meditation if you are new to it. According to their site, TM is: “… a simple, natural, effortless procedure practiced 20 minutes twice each day while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed. It’s not a religion, philosophy, or lifestyle.”

Movement meditations are exactly what they sound like; instead of sitting quietly, you get to move around the room, the house, a woodsy path, or the garden (or wherever) — usually in a relatively simple and calming way. Walking meditation, most types of yoga, gardening, and even basic housecleaning tasks can be moving meditations. This meditation type is great for people who already sit all day at work and want to move and meditate when not at a desk, and for those people who find sitting still to be a distraction from being able to meditate at all.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that is an ongoing part of life, rather than a separate activity. A great way to address stress in the moment it is happening, and over time becomes more like a mental skill than a time separate from the rest of life. It can be easier to get into a mindful state of mind if one has already been practicing meditation separately.

Credit: Starre Varten

Mindfulness builds grey matter in the brain

You’ve heard how good mindfulness is for you, but did you know it helps you grow new brain cells, changes how your brain functions on a day-to-day level, and even resets your perception of pain?

Various studies have drawn the above conclusions, adding to the growing pile of evidence as to why mindfulness meditation works so well for so many people in so many different ways. It starts with neuroscientists’ increasing understanding that the brain is plastic — which means that, unlike your thigh bone, which grows to a certain size and stays that way for the rest of your life, your brain can and does change as you age. That means it’s possible to literally change how you think, even in middle- or old-age. And changing how you think can meaningfully change the way you perceive stress, pain, negative emotions, and even your perspective on life.

This kind of research is now possible due to the increasing availability (and slow-but-sure cost lowering) of various types of brain scans. It’s now feasible for researchers to do brain scans before and after mindfulness meditation sessions, or long- or short-term workshops. And from those scans they can see exactly how and where the brains in a variety of subjects change. If they see similar things changing in the brains of a variety of test subjects (older, younger, male, female, et cetera) researchers then can find a link between those changes and the practice of mindfulness.

Below are a few of the most interesting studies and what they have found.

Reduce pain

In a before-and-after look at the brains of subjects who had regularly meditated for just four days, researchers behind this 2011 study found that the perception of pain was dramatically reduced: How much? Mindfulness meditation “…significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.” This was, according to researchers, due to increased activity in areas of the brain involved with regulating the understanding of pain signals, the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. In addition to actually feeling less pain, the pain that people felt (what researchers called “pain unpleasantness”) was less intense. That’s because the orbitofrontal cortex was activated— this part of the brain is understood to frame (and reframe) the “contextual evaluation of sensory events” — so pain may still have been present, but it didn’t actually feel so painful.

Grow more brain

A Harvard Medical School study that looked at the brains of 17 study participants before and after an 8-week mindfulness program found that you can actually grow more brain in certain places by doing mindfulness meditation, which sounds amazing: “Analyses…confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR [mindfulness meditation] group compared to the controls.” The study authors go on in detail: “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Build more brain connections

A 2011 study from UCLA looked specifically at female subjects, and measured the brains (via fcMRI) of two groups — those who did mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks and those who didn’t. They found that among the meditators, there were better connections between the parts of the brains linked with sight and sound, as well as greater focus in those areas. What does that mean? “These findings suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.”

Modulate emotional response

A 2013 study via the University of Zurich involved giving a short mindfulness session to 24 people while 22 others (the controls) didn’t participate. Researchers found that those who had been given the mindfulness session were less reactive when shown negative imagery. Through fMRIs, the researchers could see that there was simply less stimulation in the parts of the brain involved in processing emotions (the amygdala, and the parahippocampal gyrus) in the meditators, compared to the controls, who got more upset. According to the study abstract, “…more mindful individuals required less regulatory resources to attenuate emotional arousal. Our findings suggest emotion regulatory effects of a short mindfulness intervention on a neurobiological level.” Being able to keep emotionally calm (or at least calmer) in difficult situations can lead to lower stress levels and is physically healthier, since stress hormones are reduced.

credit: Starre Vartan

5 ways being thankful can improve your life

Some Thanksgiving traditions are best in small doses, like pie binges, chair naps and televised parade coverage. But thanks to a group of scientists at the University of California-Berkeley, the holiday’s namesake spirit of gratitude is quickly outgrowing its November context, fed by research that points to wide-ranging health benefits from a steady diet of thankfulness.

The Greater Good Science Center, based at UC-Berkeley, has been studying “the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being” for 12 years, including a recent study on the science of gratitude. That project aims to explain how feeling thankful affects human health, eventually yielding evidence-based practices to be used in schools, workplaces and medical settings.

“Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions,” UC-Davis psychologist and gratitude expert Robert Emmons writes on the GGSC website. “Despite the fact that it forms the foundation of social life in many other cultures, in America, we usually don’t give it much thought — with a notable exception of one day, Thanksgiving.”

The GGSC recently awarded $10,000 grants to several research projects on gratitude (for which the recipients were surely grateful), and in 2014 will relaunch the online gratitude journal Thnx4.org. The group is also planning a public event that would “help bridge the research-practice gap.” In the meantime, here’s a closer look at some potential benefits year-round gratitude can bring:

1. Less stress, better moods

Grateful people tend to be happier, according to research cited by the GGSC. A 2003 study used a questionnaire to test “dispositional gratitude,” linking it to several measures of subjective well-being and reporting that “grateful thinking improved mood.” A 2010 study tied gratitude to reduced anxiety and depression, stating it’s “strongly related to well-being, however defined, and this link may be unique and causal.” It also noted the potential for gratitude exercises in clinical psychology.

2. Less pain, more gain

Beyond helping us exorcise anxiety, gratitude might also help us exercise. It “encourages us to exercise more and take better care of our health,” the GGSC says, and research by Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough suggests it contributes to a wide range of physical health benefits, including a stronger immune system, reduced disease symptoms and lower blood pressure. It can even make people “less bothered by aches and pains,” the GGSC adds.

3. Better sleep

A good night’s sleep can make anyone thankful, but a 2009 study found the reverse is true, too. Grateful people get more hours of sleep per night, fall asleep more quickly and feel more refreshed upon waking. “This is the first study to show that a positive trait is related to good sleep quality above the effect of other personality traits,” the study’s authors wrote, adding it’s “also the first to show … gratitude is related to sleep and to explain why this occurs, suggesting future directions for research and novel clinical implications.” As the GGSC puts it, “to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”

4. Stronger relationships

Expressing gratitude to a relationship partner — whether a close friend, colleague or significant other — “enhances one’s perception of the relationship’s communal strength,” according to a 2010 study. Feeling thankful for a friend’s generosity or a spouse’s patience helps you appreciate the relationship’s mutual give-and-take, as long as gratitude doesn’t mutate into feelings of indebtedness. “Although indebtedness may maintain external signals of relationship engagement,” the authors of another study wrote in 2010, “gratitude had uniquely predictive power in relationship promotion, perhaps acting as a booster shot for the relationship.”

5. Resilience

Misfortune itself is rarely cause for thanks, but Emmons says a broader sense of gratitude — religious or not — comes from learning to take nothing for granted. “Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times,” he writes for the GGSC. “The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.” Even among war veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome, a 2006 study found that dispositional gratitude predicted things like daily self-esteem, “daily intrinsically motivating activity” and percentage of pleasant days “over and above” the severity of PTSD.

credit:Russel Mclendon

The nuns in this Wisconsin convent have been praying nonstop for 137 years

There are winning streaks and losing streaks. There are running streaks, lucky streaks, straight-A streaks and selling streaks. But did you know there are also praying streaks? At a small convent in western Wisconsin, nuns have been praying nonstop for the past 137 years.

The nuns at the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse have been praying continually since 11 a.m. Aug. 1, 1878. They pray night and day for the ill, the suffering and anyone who sends a prayer request. The nuns haven’t kept track of the exact number of people they’ve prayed for since 1878, but they estimate that they’ve prayed for at least 150,000 in the last decade alone.

And they’re not alone in their pursuit. In 1997, the sisters began asking for prayer helpers due to dwindling numbers at the convent. Today, there are about 180 laypeople who help the 100 nuns continue their round-the-clock prayers.

Known as perpetual Eucharistic adoration in the Catholic religion, constant praying dates back to the 13th century in France. Several Catholic convents have kept up that tradition over the centuries. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are relative newcomers to the tradition, but they are fervently making up for lost time. Over the past 137 years, the nuns have continued praying through floods, a flu outbreak, snowstorms and even a fire at the property next door.

The prayer requests keep coming in person and via phone calls, emails and online forms. So the sisters keep on praying.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Sister Sarah Hennessey said that with all the substitutes and prayer partners, the convent has no trouble keeping up the nonstop prayers. But every now and again there’s a hole in the schedule that the nuns fill by simply continuing to pray past their allotted time.

“If it’s 11 o’clock at night and it’s my hour and another sister doesn’t show up, I can’t just go to bed,” said Sister Hennessey. “You’re like, ‘It’s 137 years — I have to stay awake.'”

Credit: Jenn Savedge

5 surprising ways to great skin!

There’s so much misinformation out there regarding skin care, not to mention plenty of old-wives’ tales (some of which are actually right) and lots of well-intentioned bad advice. That’s because skin care is tricky, and depends on your skin type. However, there are some tried and true rules — most of which violate at least a rule or two you may have heard elsewhere — that really do work for all skin types.

How have I learned the information below? From speaking with skin experts, makeup artists (natural and conventional) and testing out literally thousands of products over the last 10 years that I’ve been reviewing natural beauty products.

1. You don’t need to wash your face with hot water to get it clean.

In fact, hot water can cause redness and irritation in people with sensitive skin, and for those with normal skin, it can still dry out delicate facial skin, leaving it more susceptible to all kinds of issues, from red, flaky dermis to acne. Wash your face with mildly warm to air-temperature water. It will get the job done without irritating your skin. The same goes for the rest of your body; it may feel good to burn it up in the shower, but especially as cool weather draws closer, this is guaranteed to irritate your skin.

2. Oil is good for your skin, not bad.

Many vegetable oils are old-school ways of moisturizing the skin that we have long ignored. (I can’t be the only one who has heard stories of her great-grandmother lathering her hands up with olive oil and then wearing cotton gloves to bed). You can wash your face with coconut oil or slather it on after you’ve showered; same with sesame oil and olive oil (go with the smell you prefer). After using an oil a couple of times, you will notice that your skin — whether oily or dry — evens out and is either less oily or more naturally moisturized. Most new formulations of high-end beauty products contain skin-protecting oils because they work (use argan or sea buckthorn oils on your face if you want to start with a lighter lipid first).

3. You don’t need to scrub to exfoliate.

Scrubbing with most drug-store brand cleansing scrubs is much too harsh for most skin types (more frequent and harder face-washing can actually exacerbate acne, so lighten up). Instead of using toxin- and chemical-packed scrubs in a tube, exfoliate naturally using fruit. As long as you are not allergic (obviously), rubbing the inside skin of a fresh mango, mashed strawberries, or fresh pineapple chunks directly on your face, leaving the natural, fruit acid AHAs on there for a few minutes, then rinsing off, is the best exfoliator you can get. This method may be a little too much for extra-sensitive skin, but works well for all other skin types.

4. What matters most for healthy skin is not what you put on it, but what you eat.

A healthy diet with lots of fresh fruits and veggies, lots of water, and maybe a skin-benefiting tea, minimal alcohol and plenty of sweat-drenching exercise will make skin glow more than any expensive cleanser or moisturizer. You’ll feel great too.

5. Chocolate doesn’t cause acne, but bread and pasta might.

There have never been any conclusive studies linking chocolate-eating to acne, though there have been some that connect high-glycemic foods to breakouts.

credit: Starr Varten

7 steps to a longer life

Earlier this summer, I attended a conference on “life extension” at Cambridge University in the U.K. Scientists from around the world had descended on this small English city to discuss ways of making immortality a reality.

Some claimed that we could be genetically engineered to make us live forever, while others insisted that progressively replacing worn-out body parts with new ones grown in a lab was the way forward.

Although the field of human life extension is making rapid progress, it struck me that the scientists at the conference had missed one of the most obvious ways of extending human life: mindfulness meditation.

Although mindfulness extends human life by reducing anxiety, stress and depression, it also lengthens subjective life span. That is, because mindfulness helps us live “in the moment” rather than trapped inside a foggy daydream, we fully experience more of life, and therefore our life span is effectively increased.

Let me explain. Without realizing it, most of us spend much of our time trapped inside the “busy-ness” of daily life. We are effectively unconscious to the world and sleepwalk through our days. Being locked inside such busyness can erode a vast chunk of our life by stealing our time. Take a moment to look at your own life:

Do you find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present?
Does it seem as if you are “running on automatic,” that is, without much awareness of what you’re doing?
Do you rush through activities without being really attentive to them?
Do you get so focused on the goal you want to achieve that you lose touch with what you are doing right now to get there?
Do you find yourself preoccupied with the future or the past?
In other words, are you driven by the daily routines that force you to live in your head rather than in your life?
Now extrapolate this to the life you have left to you. If you are 30 years old, then, with a life expectancy of around 80, you have 50 years left. But if you are only truly conscious and aware of every moment for perhaps two out of 16 hours a day (which is not unreasonable), your life expectancy is only another six years and three months. You’ll probably spend more time in meetings with your boss!

If a friend told you that she had just been diagnosed with a terminal disease that will kill her in six years, you would be filled with grief and try to comfort her. Yet, without realizing it, you may be daydreaming along such a path yourself.

If you could double the number of hours that you were truly alive each day, then, in effect, you would be doubling your life expectancy. It would be like living to 130. Now imagine tripling or quadrupling the time you are truly alive. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars — literally — on expensive drugs and unproven vitamin cocktails to gain an extra few years of life; others are funding research in universities to try to extend the human life span. But you can achieve the same effect by learning to live mindfully — waking up to your life.

Quantity isn’t everything, of course. But those who practice mindfulness are also less anxious and stressed, as well as more relaxed, fulfilled and energized, so not only does life seem longer as it slows down and you begin to “show up for it,” but it seems happier, too.

In our book “Mindfulness,” Mark Williams and I map out a path to living a happier and more harmonious life using mindfulness meditation. The technique is based on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which professor Williams developed at the U.K.’s Oxford University and with his colleagues at the universities of Cambridge and Toronto.

Although the full program lasts eight weeks, here are seven steps that will help get you started:

1. Go for a walk. Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever and mood booster. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. If you really want to feel alive, go for a walk in the wind or rain!

2. Take time to breathe. Whenever you feel tired, angry, stressed, anxious or unhappy, take a three-minute breathing space. It acts as a bridge between the longer formal meditations in our book and the demands of daily life. See it as a breath of fresh air.

3. Change chairs. Stress tends to drive us in ever-decreasing circles. It’s easy to end up like a hamster trapped in its wheel, forever running but never getting anywhere. You can step outside such stressful cycles by consciously breaking some of your most ingrained habits. So why not see if you can notice which chairs you normally sit on at home, in a café or bar, or at work (during meetings, for example). Make a deliberate choice to try another chair, or to alter the position of the chair you use. You’ll be surprised by how different the world looks and feels.

Mindfulness and appreciating the here and now
4. Appreciate the here and now. Happiness is looking at the same things with different eyes. Life only happens here, at this very moment. Tomorrow and yesterday are no more than thoughts. So make the best of it.

Which activities, things or people in your life make you feel good? Can you give additional appreciative attention and time to these activities? Consciously write them down and gently resolve to pay them more attention. Can you pause for a moment when pleasant moments occur? Help yourself pause by noticing:

What body sensations you feel at these moments?
What thoughts are around?
What feelings are here?
5. Set up a mindfulness bell. Pick a few ordinary activities from your daily life that you can turn into “mindfulness bells,” that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. Consider turning these moments in your day into bells:
When preparing food. Any food preparation is a great opportunity for mindfulness — vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Focus on the feel of the knife as it slices through the different textures of different vegetables, or the smell released as each vegetable is chopped.
When crossing the street. Become a model citizen and use the pedestrian signals as an opportunity to stand quietly and focus on your breath, rather than an opportunity to try to beat the lights.
When listening. Notice when you are not listening, when you start to think of something else, such as what you are going to say in response. Come back to actually listening.
6. Do the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation. Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. For this reason, the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation is my personal favorite; it elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realize this — deep in your heart — then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes. (You can download the meditation from franticworld.com.)
7. Visit the movies. Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the movies, but this time, with a difference. Go at a set time (say, 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only once you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected, the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these.

Most of us only go to see a film when there’s something specific we want to watch. If you turn up at a set time and then choose what to see, you may discover that the experience will be totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally have considered. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness and choice.

And when you watch the film, forget about all this and simply enjoy yourself!

Credit: Danny Penman