Not so long ago, I never would have guessed following my heart would lead me to China. If you would have asked me two years ago, when I was looking to make a move from Ecuador to another international destination, I would have guessed I would be watching the storms in Chile or Mexico or Argentina.
There is a typhoon taking place outside of my window right now. The sheets of rain look like smoke blowing by, and when the wind is not whistling through the trees and buildings, it is blowing so hard as to sound like large wine barrels rolling down a cobblestone road. I have always found storms kind of sexy. This one I am watching in Shenzhen, China, is no exception.
While I did not think my heart would lead me to Asia, when I listened to my intuition, all signs pointed to starting a life there. It took a good deal of courage to move so far from home, but sometimes the biggest plot twists end up delighting us most.
Now that I’ve been a resident of Shenzhen, China for over a year, and I can safely say that being here makes me happy, I’m led to reflect on what this state of happiness can mean for my overall health.
I did some digging into how happiness affects health, and found the effects to be profound. The joy that my move to China brings me has not only made my days bright, but it has kept my brain chemicals and hormones balanced.
As it turns out, there’s science behind chasing your dreams and your overall health and happiness.
1. It forces you to take stock of the stressors filling your schedule
Cortisol is an essential hormone – normal levels help us maintain our energy throughout the day. When you are experiencing chronic stress, though, cortisol levels can skyrocket, resulting in anxiety, insomnia, increased belly fat and fatigue.
We are all operating in a fast-paced world now. Deadlines are often pressing down on us, there is an omnipresent pressure to keep ascending in our field and many of us are expected to work well beyond a 40-hour week. Ultimately, the forces of society can overwhelm us, triggering our cortisol levels to rise and our health and happiness to sink.
I say push back.
Just because I made the move to a new country and my day-to-day schedule might be very different from how it would look if I were back home in the States, it doesn’t mean those stresses simply vanish. I have to make a conscious effort every day to avoid those stressful triggers for me. And the biggest deterrent to burnout from stress? Finding something that truly does fuel my fire.
2. You find what fuels you quickly in a new and different life
An article entitled, “The biology of emotion—and what it may teach us about helping people to live longer” cites a study conducted by Laura Kubzansky, associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health. Kubzansky reported that what appears to reduce risk of coronary heart disease is “emotional vitality,” further defined as having a sense of enthusiasm, of being hopeful and engaged in life. In her research, Kubzansky found that optimism can cut coronary disease in half.
Having enthusiasm and an authentic zest for life comes from following your own dreams. It is important to engage in mindful practices that help you to sit in the tough stuff, to hone that sense of optimism even in the midst of darkness as we will experience it regardless of which paths we choose. But to walk down the road that you know is right for you, that is to live life deeply. Life abroad is what currently delights my soul.
3. Realizing that each day – good or bad – is the result of my choices
This is my fifth year living abroad. There are plenty of days that feel unsexy in the life that I’ve chosen, with communication lost in translation, homesickness and – in China – difficulty breathing some pretty smoggy air.
But I am intentional about keeping my heart and body healthy. I do this by making the choice to remove excess stressors throughout my day and replace them with healthy habits. I work out five to six days a week. I eat a lot of avocados. And, when I drink, it’s usually a glass of red, red wine, which studies show have a myriad of health benefits.
Recently I came across a poem, written so poignantly by artist Nayyirah Waheed, words that I continue to ponder, and hopefully you will too.
do not choose the lesser life.
do you hear me.
do you hear me.
choose the life that is. yours.
the life that is seducing your lungs.
that is dripping down your chin.
And ultimately, by following my heart, I am now in a space where I feel my strongest, and, perhaps, my most alive.