Friends make you happy

It’s official. Social interactions in person make you happy. Not facebook.

And it’s not something that’s been made up, just to support the notion that social support plays an important role in building psychological resilience. There’s research to support this idea! A recent Economist article, “facebook’s bad for you” (August 2013) highlights these findings: Participants in a study who reported high facebook usage were more likely to report poorer life satisfaction, in comparison to those who were infrequent facebook users. In the same study, Kross and colleagues also reported that engaging in face to face social interactions with other people was related to improved mood.

It would be interesting if future work were to uncover that frequent facebook users who tailor their news feed for their wall and/or limit their online social network to friends they regularly meet, report more positive outcomes in terms of mood and psychological well-being compared to frequent facebook users who are indiscriminate news feed consumers and whose online social network includes people they’ve not said two sentences to. It’s lovely that your friends are out there enjoying their strawberry shortcake, sunny Greece, their new washing machine, and home-made bento lunch of grilled fish marinaded in miso and crunchy asparagus, but sometimes it’s better to talk to your friends about it over a cup of tea or coffee!

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Mental wellbeing in Singapore

A recent letter to the Straits Times forum (“Don’t neglect other group of depression sufferers”, 28 August 2013) seems a timely reminder that there is continuing need for mental health online resources to be comprehensive. A recent Straits Times article (“Tearing down barriers”, 30 August 2013) puts the topic of mental wellbeing back in the spotlight.

Efforts to promote accurate perceptions of mental health through a handbook for employers and employees on mental health developed by Silver Ribbon are a step in the right direction, while the online smorgasboard of local mental health resources by independent blogger 灰狼 comes close to a one-stop portal for the individual. A recent epidemiological study reports the prevalence of affective, anxiety, and alcohol abuse disorders in the local population, while WHO provides excellent online resources about mental health including depression.

But there’s always room for greater awareness in the local context. Even beyond annual corporate efforts to raise awareness about mental health in conjunction with World Mental Health Day which is on 10 October 2013.

Finding new friends

It has been well-established that social support plays an important role in building psychological resilience. Ozbay and colleagues (2007) observe that high quality social support is associated with not only better physical health and psychological well-being, but increased productivity. As a Gallup report shows, employees with a close friend at the workplace reported themselves to be more engaged at work.

Building a network of friends and family who will provide high quality social support may however not be so easy if you’ve just joined a new organization or moved to a new office in a foreign land. Establishing a network of friends in the homeland after being away for a while can be a daunting task, although facebook makes it easy to reconnect with long lost friends from school, and meetup has made it even easier to bridge new connections. Learning a new language or joining a dance class can be a good way to make friends who’ll share your passion. Alternatively, learning a new skill, participating in a sport, or volunteering with seniors or a dog shelter can help with the task of forging new bonds. Not to mention the benefits of learning something new!

But for the busy people who haven’t time for hobbies, building a social network of friends at the office can be a good place to start. Here’s a list of things to try:

1. Join the lunch crowd. Round up some colleagues for lunch outside the office if there isn’t already a group that gets lunch together!

2. Organize social events. If getting your colleagues to have dinner once a month is interfering with your current low-salt, low-oil, low-carb diet, try organizing a Saturday morning walk at the Southern Ridges!

3. Start an interest group. A weekly game of badminton could be too tame for some: Instead, incentivize your colleagues to sign up for sailing, fencing, paintball, yoga, and rock climbing through Groupon by promising them food and drink afterwards.

4. Get your RDA of culture. The regular rotation of exhibits at the Flower Dome, National Museum, Singapore Art Museum, and Art and Science Museum means that there’s always something new to see.

With the one-for-one entry offer for the current Princely Treasures from the House of Lichtenstein exhibit at the National Museum with a Today newspaper coupon, and da:ns Festival, Oktoberfest, and Hairspray the musical all coming to town in October 2013, there’s really no excuse for not galvanizing your social network into action!

Can’t get enough of coffee

There’s yet another place in town for the coffee connoisseur. Along with the established Highlander Coffee at Kampong Bahru, 40 Hands in Tiong Bahru, Papa Palheta at Tyrwhitt Road and Loysel’s Toy at Kampong Bugis by the Kallang Basin, coffee beans and brunch are on offer at Common Man Coffee Roasters on Martin Road. There’s also terribly good coffee at The Plain Cafe, and don’t get me started on Vietnamese drip coffee.

It’s certainly the answer to a productive day at work. Too much coffee though, might result in difficulties deciding which things on a long to-do list to actually do, a propensity to enthusiastically vacuum all carpet surfaces and wash dishes that don’t need washing till the wee hours, an uncanny ability to wax lyrical about just about anything, and in general, behaviour not unbecoming of the squirrel in Ice Age. Of course, perhaps this doesn’t happen to everyone.

But nonetheless, it’s of interest to know if all this coffee is actually good for us. A literature review in 2003 by Nawrot and colleauges indicates that moderate caffeine intake up to 400mg a day is not associated with increased health risks including osteoporosis and cancer, although recommendations also include limiting caffeine intake to under 300mg for women. These findings are reiterated in a subsequent review of epidemiological research. The authors of this 2006 review, Higdon and Frei, also document an association between cardiovascular disease risks and coffee consumption.

A recent summary of epidemiological studies and meta-analysis by Butt and Sultan further clarifies that caffeine consumption raises serum cholesterol. As such, moderating one’s caffeine intake has been suggested for individuals with hypertension, as well as children and older adults. In fact, this recent 2011 literature review suggests an inverse relationship between coffee consumption and the risk of some cancers or Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s assuming of course that one drinks coffee or tea in its purest form. Adding sugar and condensed milk to coffee or tea of course may undo the health benefits that caffeine is said to provide.

Interestingly, a recent study also reveals — in contrast to the USDA figures which puts caffeine in an espresso at about 77mg — that espressos on the Gold Coast in Australia had on average 106mg of caffeine. A fifth of the 97 espressos sampled in this 2007 study by Desbrow and colleagues had at least 120mg of caffeine. To consider the thought that the kopi o kosong gao that you’ve been overdosing on recently has much, much less caffeine than some of these espressos perhaps belongs in the category of unicorns, leprechauns and mermaids. 

More importantly, copious amounts of caffeine has deleterious effects on productivity. In a 2010 study by Rosekind and colleagues, employees reporting insomnia or insufficient sleep were found to be less productive than controls. Annual loss in fatigue-related productivity was estimated at US$1967 per employee. This is not surprising given that lack of sleep negatively impacts our capacity to learn and remember things.

The cognitive benefits are illustrated in Harvard Medical School educational videos about why sleep matters. Poor sleep which is linked to not only increased hunger and appetite and greater food consumption but also anxiety and depression — read this Mental Health Foundation (UK) report on why sleep matters — can have a profound effect on work performance.

Perhaps after you read this Huffington Post article (5 May 2013) on the 5 Things You Should Know About Sleep Health in the Workplace, you might want to switch over to light oolong. How about some 包種茶?

Staying well — it’s not just physical!

We’re biased to think of health in terms of physical health. So it’s natural that physical activity and healthy eating are the current buzz for anyone and everyone who is promoting workplace health in their organization.

We’re being fed healthier food choices (Business Times, 7 Dec 2012) and deflected away from the top 5 most unhealthy hawker foods (Men’s Health, 25 August 2013). Unpolished rice is going places — it’s being consumed not just at hospital canteens but food courts. Posters with healthy lifestyle messages are on loudspeaker at your breezy and sprawly neighbourhood playground, West Coast Park. Corporate sports programmes recently gained street cred: IS magazine recently featured a few creative solutions to the problem of promoting physical activity among office workers >> Out of Office: Corporate Fitness Trend in Singapore.

But staying healthy isn’t just having physical wellbeing. Mental wellbeing is important too!