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'Soul work' — yeah, we said it — may be the best way to cure unhappiness

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

It's all too easy to become disconnected and depressed in an overconnected world

Adults are less happy than ever before, according to a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Despite a universally higher standard of living, modern medical care, countless ways to stay in touch with loved ones and Netflix, people are reporting that not only are they less happy than those in previous years, but that they also don't see the situation getting any better for the future.

Why all the sadness when we have so much to be happy about? Maybe it's because we're focusing so much on getting all those modern miracles rather than appreciating what we do have. Or maybe it's because modern technology is a two-edged sword, making us lose sleep and work longer hours. Perhaps it's because even though we have more ways to connect with others, we still feel isolated and alone behind our screens. But whatever the reasons for the unhappiness, there is a cure — and it starts with getting back in touch with your spirit — the divine spark inside you that makes you, you.

Forget "me time," what we all need more of is "be time." Just like our bodies need exercise to be healthy, our spirits need to be exercised to be happy, says Samantha Brody, a licensed naturopathic physician and acupuncturist.

Unfortunately, our society isn't set up for serious introspection and reflection, and it's easy to skip these types of "workouts" since the results aren't as obvious (at first) as a good sweat. So here's a quick guide to setting up your own workout for spiritual health.

1. Mediation is more than stress relief

"Meditation has been shown to reduce blood pressure, increase attention span, and actually increase compassion. In my practice, I’ve seen it help people with anxiety and insomnia as well as assist in helping with overall outlook," Brody says.

Indeed, a recent Norwegian study found that meditation has powerful benefits beyond just relaxation and stress relief. It also allows the brain to process memories and emotions and can help you retain more of what you learn. And for everyone who just checked out, thinking that while all that sounds fabulous, they can't sit still long enough to empty their teacup much less empty their minds, Brody reassures us that there are many different ways to meditate.

More: A beginner's guide to meditation

"It doesn’t have to be just sitting still, facing a wall in silence, trying to empty your mind and turn off your thoughts," she explains. (Although that type is cool too!) Instead, she adds, there is mantra meditation where you focus on a word or a phrase; breathing meditation where you focus on inhaling and exhaling; and moving meditations like yoga or qigong. There are even apps now that will lead you step by step through the process, helping you remember to meditate daily and rewarding you when you do. (My personal favorite is Headspace — it's perfect for beginners or just antsy-pantsy people like me.)

"Whatever you choose, the trick is keep with it, even when it feels like you don’t want to — it’s on the other side of the resistance that you’ll find the biggest rewards," Brody says, channeling her inner Yoda.

2. Stretching is for the body and the soul

Raise your hand if you've ever skipped stretching at the end of your workout because you were in a hurry or snuck out the back door before "final resting pose" in yoga. (Guilty as charged!) Holding still while stretching is an important part of keeping your body and spirit healthy, Brody says.

"From the physical side, it allows for better range of motion in your joints and actually protects you from injury, and from the mental side, many people even feel that when their bodies are more flexible that they are more flexible mentally as well," she explains.

A recent meta-analysis of stretching studies, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, found that regularly doing gentle yoga stretches helped relieve mild depression as well as medication. Plus, it showed that stretching can help relieve insomnia, improve focus and reduce ADHD symptoms and ameliorate anxiety.

But while a yoga class at the gym is an awesome way to stretch (schedule it in your calendar to make sure you go!), it's definitely not the only way to stretch. Just taking a few minutes at home to loosen up your muscles can be beneficial, Brody says. You can even combine it with something else to make it more fun. "I have a rule that if I’m watching TV, I need to be on the floor stretching for at least 20 minutes," she adds.

More: 6 Nighttime stretches you can do in your bedroom

3. Walking is a way to connect with the world again

Walking is great for you — that's hardly news — but the key here, according to Brody, is to do it outside. "Fresh air and sunlight are just as important as moving your body. We’re not designed to sit all day, and certainly not to sit all day inside," she says.

With our artificial lighting, temperature control and nonstop entertainment indoors, it's easy to forget how much our souls thrive in being in nature. But not only does being around plants and animals help your heart, lungs, immune system and a host of other functions, it also provides deep calming and energizing benefits. It's such powerful medicine that the Japanese even have a special name for it: "shinrin-yoku," or "forest bathing."

A recent overview of research on shinrin-yoku found that simply wandering through a forest offers significant therapeutic benefits. And meandering really is just fine. The point isn't to get your cardio in or work up a sweat, but to allow your spirit to "bathe" and soak in nature.

"Even if it’s only for 10 or 20 minutes at a time, and even if the weather isn’t great, it's important to get outside every day," Brody says.

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