Looking to soothe stress, feel happier, decrease pain and lower your blood pressure and blood sugar in the process? Studies suggest meditation can do all that. But if you’ve tried meditation and it’s just not your cup of tea, don’t force it. A string of recent research suggests that plenty of other fun, familiar activities can offer similar benefits.

Here are five options that may be right for you, if chanting “om” or sitting cross-legged on a cushion isn’t your thing.

Related: Is Your Attitude Hurting Your Health?


It’s no big surprise that working knitting needles brings with it a sense of relaxation — unless of course you’re a novice tearing your hair out over dropped stitches and slip knots that don’t slip. In a 2013 survey of 3,454 knitters from around the world, researchers from the UK’s University of Cardiff found that knitting and purling reduced stress and made knitters feel more relaxed.

The gentle, rhythmic finger movements are calming and can distract you in a good way, they note. Among people with depression, 81 percent felt happier after knitting. In another study, the same researchers found that knitting helped people with chronic pain feel less discomfort even though they sat for long periods of time over their work.

“I am convinced that knitting has somehow reset my brain. The repetitive, meditative and creative aspects are what have gently helped me back to a more fulfilling life,” one study volunteer noted. The researchers have also documented small memory improvements after a knitting session.

Tip: Join a knitting circle at a local yarn store or create your own group with like-minded friends. The British researchers say people who knitted with others were happier than solo knitters. You might even learn a new stitch or two. Don’t knit? Substitute your favorite craft, like quilting. Hobbies that you can lose yourself in appeared to cut the risk of mild cognitive impairment — a step on the road to dementia — in a 2011 Mayo Clinic study.


People who listened to music every day as they practiced deep breathing exercises lowered their systolic blood pressure (the top number) an average of 4 points after six months in a study from Italy’s University of Florence. Kicking back with favorite tunes is more effective at lowering stress hormone levels than chilling out in silence according to one Swedish researcher.

Tip: For stress relief and blood pressure reduction, set aside a half-hour a day for listening to music. That’s what volunteers did in several successful studies. Music’s healing powers emerge when you listen to the style or artist you like. In studies, everything from Kenny Rogers and Frank Sinatra to J.S. Bach and Celtic folk songs has worked.


Scratching your cat behind her ears or rubbing your dog’s belly makes both of you feel good. Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia found that having a pet lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. At the same time, it increases levels of oxytocin, prolactin and norepinephrine — hormones that foster joy, connection and calm.

Tip: Don’t own a pet? Visit a friend who does. Or watch a TV show about pets or animals in nature. In one new study from the University of Rochester in New York, people who watched nature scenes felt more energetic.

Related: How to Choose the Right Dog for Your Lifestyle


Dear diary. . .You won’t believe what happened to me.

Keeping a journal can have profound mind-body benefits. In a University of Texas at Austin study, people who wrote about their stress had higher counts of white blood cells called CD4 lymphocytes in their bloodstream, a sign of stronger immune function, than those who wrote about their daily schedule. Writing about traumatic events can also benefit health. In one recent study from North Dakota State University, people with rheumatoid arthritis or asthma who wrote about a stressful experience for 20 minutes each day over three days were healthier four months later.

Tip: Write spontaneously and focus on experiences that matter to you. Too intense? Try keeping a gratitude journal. Write one sentence each about five things you’re grateful for. Repeat once a week. In a University of California, Davis, study, people who did that for two months felt happier and more optimistic.

Deep breathing

What could be simpler? You’re already breathing. But often, we take shallow, quick breaths that only amplify our anxiety. Taking longer, slower breaths that fill your abdomen brings more oxygen to the lower part of your lungs. This can make you feel calmer, according to a 2013 study in the International Journal of Yoga. It can also slow your heart rate and reduce your blood pressure. And you can do it anytime, almost any place.

Tip: Lie down or sit comfortably with your feet on the floor. Take gentle, slow, deep breaths so that your lower abdomen fills as you inhale. (Put one hand on your stomach and your other on your chest; make sure only the hand on your stomach moves.) Exhale fully. Imagine tension flowing out of your body every time you exhale, suggests the American Institute of Stress.

Sari Harrar is an award-winning health, medicine and science journalist whose work appears in Dr. Oz The Good Life magazine, Good Housekeeping, O--Oprah Magazine, Organic Gardening and other publications.