Well-being Insights from Unlikely Places

Jancee Dunn has been writing about health and science for more than 20 years, and currently published the Well newsletter for The New York Times, a weekly update on personal health and fitness. Recently, she covered a secret to well-being that may surprise you. You can read the full article here, and below is a summary and some thoughts on how you can adopt her findings into your life.

In short, experts say that toddlers — full of energy, curiosity and laughter — have a lot to teach adults! She interviewed Dr. Hasan Merali, an associate professor of pediatrics at McMaster University and a pediatric emergency room physician, who shares the following:

Try positive self-talk.

Young children tend to coach themselves out loud, a practice known as private speech (such as this popular clip from a 4-year-old snowboarder).

Toddlers aren’t shy about self-talk, Dr. Merali said, and you shouldn’t be, either. Research suggests that for adults, positive self-talk can help with problem-solving, learning, confidence and managing your emotions. I told Dr. Merali I tend to speak harshly to myself, but would try to sub in phrases like “You can do it” instead.

Take any opportunity to move.

Two-year-olds are active for almost five hours a day, according to a review of 24 studies. They move joyfully and instinctively, Dr. Merali said.

Adults can look for ways to move more, even if it’s just for a minute. Take a quick walk around the block, or schedule a meeting on foot rather than sitting down. If you’re home alone, do what Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, has called “full-body karaoke,” singing and moving to your favorite song. Brief bursts of activity have been shown to increase longevity if they add up to 10 minutes per day. Standing up for three minutes every half-hour can help control your blood sugar, too. You can also find ways to be around young kids, “a happiness that is unmatched,” Dr. Merali said. (The nonprofit Generations United features a national database of intergenerational programs and activities.)

Ask questions.

Young kids are not afraid to pose questions, Dr. Merali said. One study found that they asked an average of 107 questions an hour. (This will not surprise their parents.)

I have written a few children’s books, and my favorite part of library readings was question time: “Have you ever been to the moon?” “Can you turn into a cheetah?”

Adults have been socialized to hold back our questions because we’re often worried about what other people think, Dr. Merali said. But asking questions not only helps us to gain information, it’s also an important way to build relationships, he said.

Fix your sleep schedule.

Toddlers thrive on routine, and having a schedule with consistent sleep and waking times will help you, too, said Alberto Ramos, a sleep neurologist and researcher with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. If your schedule permits, and if you have the urge, napping also has a host of benefits, including sharper thinking and reaction times and improved memory. As long as you’re not dealing with insomnia, which can be worsened by napping, Dr. Ramos recommended a short nap — 20 to 30 minutes maximum — in the early afternoon.

Look for opportunities to laugh.

Toddlers “see the world as a comedy club,” Dr. Merali writes. One study found that young children laugh six times as much as adults. But we can seek ways to build playfulness and humor into our day. Listen to a comedy podcast or trade silly texts with someone, Dr. Merali said. Research shows you laugh more when you are with friends, so make time for them, he said. “I get a daily dad joke mailed to me,” Dr. Merali told me. “And during my lunch break, I watch videos.”

What does he watch? “Funny toddler videos,” he said. Of course.