At 26, Rachael Pickworth appeared to be the epitome of success, with a booming corporate-hamper business she had built. Yet on the inside she was “deeply unfulfilled”. The only time Rachael ever felt in touch with herself was when she went on spiritual retreats, including rebirthing practitioner training, silent meditation retreats and yoga retreats. They allowed her to delve deeper into her spiritual self, emerging each time with a greater sense of “meaning, clarity and purpose”.
They were also the catalyst that Rachael needed to step away from the business and heed the call of her “soul” – to become a life coach. Ever since then Rachael, now 44, feels that her working and spiritual lives have aligned perfectly. Spiritual clarity is not the only benefit of such retreats. Research published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior this year suggests they can also alter the levels of feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine in your brain.
“Since serotonin and dopamine are part of the reward and emotional systems of the brain, it helps us understand why these practices result in powerful, positive emotional experiences,” says Dr Andrew Newberg of the study. That boost in mood, he adds, may help “prime” participants for the spiritual experiences they reported.
Sydney psychologist Sharon Draper says that taking a break from everyday life to focus on soulful endeavours encourages mindfulness, which can reduce stress. Heading to a calming environment, being in touch with nature and distancing yourself from commonplace worries can also help you feel “more at peace” with life.
“When people give themselves permission to de-stress and remove themselves from external stressors, they become less tense, they breathe slower and deeper and they feel less affected by negative things,” says Draper. But it isn’t necessary to pack your bags and head to the hills to gain mood-boosting rewards.
Many activities that offer similar benefits can also be found in the comfort of your own home – the key is to find something personally meaningful to do.
Mindfulness exercises are a great place to start. If meditation isn’t your cup of tea, simply find an activity you enjoy and fully immerse yourself in that task. It can be as simple as reading a book or just going for a stroll.
“The key to these mindful activities is to concentrate your attention on your senses,” explains Draper. Stop dwelling on your thoughts and to-do lists. Instead, focus on what you “see, taste, feel, smell and hear”.
Re-engage in activities you enjoyed as a child. Whatever made you happy when you were growing up paved neural pathways that will trigger the release of dopamine as an adult, Draper explains. So if you loved dancing as a kid, turn on some upbeat tunes and let loose. Did you enjoy art? Then grab a sketch book and pull out the pencils.
Exercise can also lift your mood, but don’t just head to the gym because you feel you should. Instead, choosing an exercise you find meaningful, says Draper – be it stretching, gardening or riding a bike – will make it more enjoyable.
Or try something new – enrol in a pottery class, follow a YouTube video on Brazilian dancing, learn to bake. Not only will you get the chance to pick up a new skill, you’ll also be rewarded with a healthy hormonal mood boost. According to Draper, trying new activities elicits such a response in a way familiar ones don’t.
Once you’ve identified what makes you happier, Draper advises doing the activity often. But keep your eye out for anything else that might tickle your fancy, so your brain keeps producing that reward from being challenged. Draper reassures us that we can create a calming environment in our homes while filling our lives with meaningful activities. If you do, she says, “You’ll see that you don’t have to check out of your everyday life to be happy.”
How to recharge at home
• Immerse yourself in nature.
• Treat your body to some healthy indulgences.
• Try a new activity or return to one you enjoyed as a child.