Sunday, 14 June 2020

Changed your mind? – When changing your mind is good for you


In the last couple of weeks we have all been challenged to look at ourselves and our society and understand the impacts of structural racism. When attitudes and beliefs are part of the fabric of society that we grow up in, they become part of the furniture and we fail to see them for what they are.

 

Some years ago, my husband and I rented a house for six months when we were moving into a new area. A relatively new house, built in traditional brick and flint cottage style and painted cream throughout, it was a lovely cosy house and I loved the style of it. Apart from the light shades. It had bright gingery brown lightshades on the main light and wall lights. I hated the colour. Against the cream walls and carpet they stood out like a sore thumb. As we were only there for six months it wasn’t worth changing them – but every time I walked into the sitting room they annoyed me immensely.

 

Well, for a while anyway. After a while I stopped noticing them and six months later when we moved out, I realised I had got so used to them I hardly noticed them anymore.

 

In the same way as I got used to the lightshades, I think there are sometimes things that we take for granted as part of the furniture, which have been there so long that we fail to notice them anymore. Coupled with that, attitudes have changed over the years, and what was once deemed socially acceptable is now being justly challenged.

 

I was born in the 1960s and brought up by parents who had met whilst working in Senegal in West Africa and believed a person was a person, regardless of the colour of their skin. In the 70 and 80s, I read Cosmopolitan and feminist novels and grew up seeing myself as a feminist – being a girl did not limit my education or work ambitions.  I see myself as non-racist, feminist and accepting of all people regardless of colour, gender and sexual preference. Which is why it comes as a surprise when someone shines the spotlight on things that you have taken for granted and questions the fabric of life that you have accepted as normal. 

 

A few months ago I got into a discussion with my daughter about a once loved story book from my childhood, “Little Black Sambo”. To me, it was an innocent tale with colourful pictures about a boy and a tiger. To my daughter it was deeply racist and full of cultural stereotypes. To start with I robustly defended it – it was written in 1899 and was at the time seen as non-racist as the main character was black which was very unusual at that time. Was it racist if I didn’t see it like that and it wasn’t intended to be at the time?

 

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement I am now beginning to understand how we need to always remain open to challenging our own beliefs and assumptions. It is not up to me to decide if something is racist or not as I am not black and have not had to live with all that that entails in the last 50-something years of my life. But I can be open and kind to other people’s points of view and listen with an open heart and sometimes I will have to change my mind about something I once thought true, or maybe didn’t even notice in the first place. 

 

It always amazes me that the press give such a hard time to politicians when they make a change of policy, screaming “Prime Minister makes a U-turn!!!”. Yes, there is benefit to sticking to a course if it’s based on good values and continues to make sense. But it seems much wiser to me to admit that sometimes we are wrong, or didn’t see the whole picture, or that things have changed and that we need to take a new direction in life.

 

The ability to adapt, to change our minds and our actions is what makes us humans such a successful species. From a positive psychology perspective, openness is linked to happiness, positivity, optimism and is part of a mindset that doesn’t just make us feel good, but also has a physical effect on us, improving our health and our longevity.

 

So for our sake and the sake of society, we need to be open and listen to what others have to say. We still might not agree with one another, but the least we can do is to listen and to try to understand where someone else is coming from. If we have children, it’s easy to dismiss their ideas as we think we know best because we are older and wiser. In some cases we may be, but sometimes their fresher view on life holds a mirror up to us and allows  us to see things in a different light. 

 

There are times when we should hold on tight to what we know to be right, but also times when changing our minds is good for us and society. The only way we can know which path to take is to be open and to listen and to gently question ourselves and others.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Top tips for dealing with anxiety in the midst of the Corona Virus lockdown



Acknowledging that we're scared

Firstly, it's OK to feel scared or worried. It's a natural response to the current situation. Even if we're not worried for ourselves we all have friends and family who fall into the 'at risk' category.  So we can acknowledge our feelings and talking through this with others can help.  If you can't talk to someone else, another thing that might help is writing down the things that are worrying you. Writing is an effective way for us to get our thoughts in order and make sense of a situation, and I have found once I've got something down on paper it stops going round in my head.

It's really important to have self-compassion - don't beat yourself up because you feel you aren't coping, we are all human, we are all flawed, we are all in this together.

Limit your exposure to scary news

We all want to know what's happening, but try not to fuel anxieties by feeding the worries all day. I generally listen to the news at breakfast time because you get the main headlines but it's always mixed in with positive stories and interviews too. I generally avoid the 10 o'clock news because doom and gloom before bedtime does not help you sleep well!

So to keep up with what's going on without being overloaded, decide on a time when you will catch up and think about the situation and time box it.  Then once time is up, switch to focussing on something more fun or productive.

Use social media wisely


 If you have friends on Facebook that keep posting scary stories you might want to unfollow them for a while which means you still remain friends, but their stuff won't keep coming up in your feed. You can still go to their pages to catch up once in a while. 

Instead, use FB and other media to spread messages of hope and cheer and to connect to people. One of my friends has started a daily gratitude post and has invited her friends to join in. Now is the time to celebrate small victories - yesterday for me it was managing to place an online order of fresh vegetables!


Don't believe everything you read on Social Media

When something is forwarded to us from a friend that we know and trust we tend to believe that it must be true, but they've got it from someone, who got it from someone - the internet is rife with rumours such as gargling can prevent Covid-19. So check out your facts. Sometimes simply googling a key phrase you can easily debunk advice flying round the internet. Sometimes the main news channels get the wrong end of the stick too, or inflate things to make gripping headlines, so always take what you read with a pinch of salt, and if you want to know more, check your facts.

Connect with friends

This is really, really important. Whether we are extroverts or introverts, human beings are all social animals and we need social contact for mental health. Ok, so we can't see our friends face to face, but we can message them, phone them, zoom them. A couple of days ago I met online on Zoom with 5 friends for a virtual book group meeting - it wasn't quite as good as the real thing, but it was great to actually see one another and catch up with how we are all coping.

If you are feeling anxious, find a friend to talk to who you know will be a good listener and make you feel better by chatting to you. But also, make sure you listen to them too and see if you can help them, or someone else who is worried. Helping other people makes us feel good.


Connect with strangers

One of the lovely things I've noticed this last week is how friendly everyone is when you do see someone (from a safe distance) in the outside world if you are out doing essential errands or exercising.  And last night down our quiet cul-de-sac we went outside to clap for the NHS at 8pm - we could hear our neighbours clapping and cheers and claps from even further away in the village, it was a wonderful feeling to feel so connected to other people that we couldn't see or talk to.

The response to the government's call for volunteers to help the NHS has also been amazing, and it shows how most people are keen to help others - so if you can help someone else then do so, and if you need help, don't be afraid to reach out.



Exercise and the natural world

Don't forget the importance of exercise - it's not just about physical health, but getting moving is so important for us mentally too. Connecting with nature also makes us feel good, so get outside if you can and walk, run or cycle whilst keeping yourself at a safe distance from others and focus on the trees, flowers and the recent sunshine in the UK.

If you have a garden, get outside as much as you can.

If you can't get out, find something to do inside - a friend of mine shared a top tip that if you are feeling down, put on some music you love and do bad dancing in front of a mirror to make yourself laugh.

Do something you love to do

To stop yourself ruminating, find something that you love to do to distract yourself. Reading, being creative, finding a good box set, playing the guitar, doing bad dancing to happy songs - whatever floats your boat. 

When a close friend of mine was really struggling with depression, her therapist pointed out to her that she was so busy trying to do things that should help her in the future, she had stopped doing the things that she enjoyed right now. It doesn't have to be productive, it doesn't have to be purposeful, it can be silly and pointless, but if it makes you feel good, then make time to do it.

Laugh out loud

Laughter is good for us - it is a great stress relief and releases endorphins that make us feel good and actually block out physical pain. So watch comedy, share funny memes, or even try fake laughter. This might sound bizarre, but in the mid 90s an Indian doctor Madan Kataria came up with the idea of laughter yoga - combining breathing exercises with making yourself laugh. If you want to know more, try looking on Youtube for videos of laughter yoga. I tried it recently when staying away from home in the bathroom of the hotel watching myself in the mirror - you start going "ho ho ho" and pretending to laugh, but watching yourself in the mirror, you look so ridiculous that soon the fake laughter turns to real. Bizarre, but surprisingly effective!


Look for the positive with gratitude

Lastly, my favourite way of keeping positive is to focus on things that we are grateful for. I found writing down 3 good things in a journal before I went to bed very effective at helping me sleep better, plus you start to look for the positive every day rather than focussing on the negative. Or if you don't fancy writing, choose a time every day, such as brushing your teeth when you will consciously think about what you are grateful for. Or do as one of my friends did and add a marble to a glass vase every time you think of something to be grateful for. He did this over a number of weeks and by the end the jar was overflowing. This would also work really well with children as it's a physical representation of all those good thoughts.


So in these scary times, I hope that you might have gained something from my list of strategies to dampen anxiety and to help yourself feel good. Feel free to share any other ideas that you have, it's always good to hear from others.

I hope you and your family and friends stay safe and well.









Saturday, 6 April 2019

What is Flow and Can it Make us Happier ?

For the last week I’ve been reading about flow, and how being in flow can increase our happiness.

The first question to answer is:  What is flow?

Imagine you are are playing football, trying to surf, or playing a piece of music, or doing something else that requires a measure of skill that you love doing. You are doing something challenging, but just within your capabilities. You are completely absorbed and focussed on what you are doing. There’s no thoughts of what you are going to have for tea, or worries about what someone said to you earlier because you are concentrating on what you are doing.  Time flies and you lose all sense of how much time has passed. Your bodily needs go unnoticed as you are so engrossed in what you are doing. You feel ecstatic as you push yourself and feel yourself succeeding. You are not motivated into doing this activity for any external reward, but just the pleasure of doing the activity itself.

Hopefully you can all think of a time when you felt like that, when you were in a state of flow, or as it’s sometimes called, ‘being in the zone’ - it doesn’t have to be sport or music, you can experience flow in all kinds of activities.

Flow is good for us because being in flow gives us an immediate intense enjoyment of the activity that we are pursuing, and because it leads to growth - as we develop our skills we can take on more challenge, which increases our sense of competence and self esteem.

The concept of flow was developed as a topic in Positive Psychology in the 1970s by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, but the ideas of something like flow has existed across different cultures for centuries, most noticeably in some Eastern philosophies including Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. A practical example of this is yoga. In yoga you are focussing on body, breathing, mind and the result is (even as a beginner like me!) you become absorbed in what you are doing and the time flies by.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi did a lot of work on flow and postulated that there were three conditions that needed to be met for a state of flow.

  1. He stated that the activity in which you are involved has clear set of goals and you have a clear idea of your progress. It is easy to see how many sports and games fit this condition as they have clear rules and objectives.
  2. You have to have immediate feedback, so you know how well you are doing, and can adjust what you are doing accordingly.
  3. You have to have a good balance between the perceived challenge of your task and the skills that you bring to it. There is a sweet spot where these two come together, as your skills increase, so must the challenge to keep you completely absorbed and focussed.


In addition to the three conditions described, further work by other people has suggested other factors such as the need to have control over your own actions and to not be interrupted - if you were constantly being interrupted and being given instructions as to what to do next, or asked questions about something irrelevant to what you were doing, this would soon interfere with your state of flow.

So as well as games and sports, what other activities might induce a state of flow?

Doing something creative, such as drawing, painting or making something, reading a book that makes you really think, making music are all obvious examples of activities that could lead to flow. Watching TV or flicking through social media are not normally flow activities because they are passive, there is not much challenge involved.

Thinking about sources of flow in my life - the one that comes to mind is writing these blog posts! I’m completely focussed on thinking about something new I’ve learnt, how to explain it, what to say and how to put it. It sometimes takes a bit of effort to get going because it’s not easy to work out what I want to say, but once I get into it, several hours whizz past and suddenly I realise that I should have started making tea a couple of hours ago! The harder it is to put my thoughts together in a coherent way, the more satisfying it is when I’ve finished - even if no-one reads it, the joy for me is in getting my ideas together and accomplishing that particular piece of writing. 

Most of the things I’ve mentioned so far are mostly leisure activities for most people (unless you are a professional golfer, musician or writer), but we can also find flow in every day activities that we need to do including work.

Some people find it easy to find flow in the work that they do -  a friend of mine who is training to be a nurse told me about her first couple of days on the ward and about how a twelve hour shift just disappeared as she was completely absorbed in doing something new and interesting. She was definitely in flow. 

Although Csíkszentmihályi emphasises that flow occurs when you are operating at a high level of skill and challenge, it seems to me that there are some activities which make not be quite so challenging or require so much skill but are still really enjoyable and satisfying and rewarding which share some of the characteristics of flow which might be closer to most people’s experience of work. 

Thinking again about my own experience as a volunteer in my local Oxfam shop, I love my Thursday mornings sorting out the menswear department. I have a clear goal - to make sure the menswear rail is full of freshly steamed newly priced clothes. It’s not normally difficult, but it’s quite varied, so I have to adjust what I do accordingly. Sometimes there is stuff which someone else has priced and steamed waiting to be put out, sometimes I have to search through bags of donations to look for more. Every week we take out clothes that have been in the shop for two weeks - I then get to decide whether to reprice it and put it out again, pass it on to another shop, or keep stuff back for an occasional menswear sale. I also rearrange stock in the shop so that everything looks nice and attractive to customers. So I guess the skills I’m using aren’t rocket science, but I have accumulated them over a number of years and the fun is in working out how to apply them to get the rail stocked up and to maximise sales for Oxfam. I get my feedback from the way that area of the shop looks when I leave and by looking at the sales figures every week to see how well that department has done. I am motivated by an extrinsic motivation (making money for Oxfam to help end poverty) but also very much by an intrinsic motivation (I love doing what I do.) And as iI work, I become completely absorbed by what I am doing. 

This complete absorption brings another potential benefit to flow - when there is stuff going on that is upsetting or worrying, it’s great to be able to do something to take your mind off it for a while. I remember noticing this very distinctly a few years ago when I lost a very close friend to cancer. For the first few weeks after she died it was there in my conscious almost continuously. But one morning in Oxfam I suddenly realised with a shock that I hadn’t thought about what had happened for a couple of hours as I’d been completely absorbed in what I was doing, and I’d managed to temporarily put my grief on hold.

Thinking about that sense of losing yourself in your activity, does however remind me  that Csíkszentmihályi also stated that there is a potential dark side to flow. If something becomes so enjoyable for its own sake, and you lose a sense of time and other requirements on you, then something could potentially become addictive and be a cause of stress and unhappiness. Many mothers of teenage boys will be able to relate to this as it’s an extremely common problem that they perceive their son’s love of video gaming to be straying into the category of addictive. Gaming offers all the right conditions for flow. A clear set of goals and objectives, immediate feedback, and there is skills that need to be developed and honed, and always new levels and new games to increase the challenge level. On the bright side the gamer has an amazing experience, learns to manipulate a 3D world online (useful for careers in Architecture, Engineering,  Design etc.), and may also learn teamwork with online multiplayer games. On the dark side, as a mother you might also perceive that eating, sleeping and getting homework done might also be useful skills to develop, and that maybe in this case to pull of the flow of gaming isn’t helping!

Learning about flow has been interesting and has left me with more questions to think about. If flow (in the right activities!) is good for us, then how can we get more of it?
Setting ourselves the right level of challenge maybe? Looking for opportunities to push our skills a bit further and get that sense of accomplishment in that sweet spot without taking on too hard a challenge and being overwhelmed.? Maybe minimising interruptions at times when we are embarking on a potentially flow inducing activity and also by choosing activities that we enjoy and pursuing them in a way that gives clear goals and feedback to give us the best chance of flow?

If anyone has any thoughts on their experiences of being in flow, I would be interested to hear about them.

In the meantime, thank you for reading my flow-inspired blog post - I hope you enjoy reading it almost as much as I enjoyed writing it!














Sunday, 17 March 2019

How talking to strangers can make you happier

Most people wouldn’t be surprised to find that having friends makes you happy, but the benefit of social connection goes much further. There’s evidence that having good social relationships reduces stress, helps us deal with stressful events and even makes us live longer. But one of the things I’ve found interesting is evidence from positive psychology research that even short social interactions, such as talking to someone in a shop or the bus can also increase our wellbeing.

I have long been a fan of chatting on the bus when iI see people I know, and have often had a great conversations after bumping into neighbours or people I haven’t seen for a while, but I don’t generally strike up a conversation with complete strangers. However, after reading about some of the research done by Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder I have been reconsidering my actions.

Epley and Schroeder conducted an experiment where they asked commuters on trains and buses to do one of three different things. One group was asked to strike up a conversation with the person next to them, the second told not to engage in conversation, and the third was told to just do what they normally did. Before the commute, all the participants were asked which condition they expected to enjoy most (talking or solitude), and after the commute they were asked questions to see how positive they felt. 

What Epley and Schroeder found was a mismatch between what people expected and what actually happened. Most people thought they would be happy to keep to themselves, but the results showed that people felt more positive when they had talked to a fellow commuter, even if they had predicted the opposite. So why then don’t we talk to people more often? Maybe because we are worried about being perceived as ‘weird’ or that we might encroach on other’s space and they might not enjoy it.

To look at the response of the other person involved, Epley and Schroeder conducted a further experiment in a laboratory waiting room where they looked at the responses of not just the person initiating the interaction, but also the person being talked to. And guess what - they felt better after being talked to too!

So armed with this knowledge, I thought I would try it out. Luckily for me, before I had a chance to try it on the bus, I found a much more relaxed environment at a Champneys Spa where I was being treated to a couple of nights of rest and relaxation. I was there on my own - I fancied a bit of ‘me’ time without having to fit in with anyone else, but I decided I would make the most of trying to talk to the people around.

I arrived in the afternoon, checked into my room and had a bit of an explore and a swim. I didn’t get much of a chance to chat to anyone, and by then I was wondering if my idea to come on my own was a good one. But as I had checked in I had overheard one of the staff talking to another guest and asking whether they wanted to join a table in the dining room to be with other guests as they were on there own. So determined to make an effort, I marched back to reception, and asked one of the receptionists about the dining arrangements. She told me that yes, there was a table called the Champneys table, and if you were on your own, you could join in at 7pm and have a chance to meet fellow guests whilst eating.

Well,  I have to report that talking to strangers on the Champneys table made my stay! That night I met 3 other really interesting ladies, all completely different in ages and backgrounds, but we had a great time talking. We agreed to meet again the next night, when we were joined by a couple more single guests and again enjoyed chatting whist we ate. What was even better was the fact that I then kept bumping into the people I’d talked to the next day, so there was a further chance to chat whilst doing an exercise class, or whilst eating lunch.

One of the guests was particularly interesting to talk to. She was brought up in Scotland and sent to Sunday school in the local Kirk but at an early age she walked out one day declaring that it was a load on nonsense and that she was never going back! At the age of 16 when she was living in London she learnt about buddhism and became a buddhist. She had lived abroad quite a lot with her husband and when she mentioned that she still flew quite often  because she was involved with a charity I asked her what the charity was. It turns out she helped set up a monastery in Nepal for buddhist nuns. She was responding to an opportunity to help a friend who she had met in London when they both became buddhists - the friend had spent 12 years in Nepal meditating in a cave and she mentioned a book about it, called “Cave in the Snow”.  Wow! How interesting. And to think I could have been dining alone, scrolling through facebook on my phone or reading a book.

I still haven’t initiated a conversation on the bus with someone I don’t know, but maybe I will now. And I can see all around me those little interactions that do us all good. Talking to fellow dog walkers. The English preoccupation with the weather. Chatting to customers in Oxfam. My father who used to be shy who now will chat to just about anyone that he meets given half a chance. 

Some people find it easy to chat to people they don’t know, I was a shy child and have overcome that shyness as I’ve grown up, but it still strikes me at times. But it’s good to be reminded that it’s worth making the effort. My son summed it up the other day beautifully for me the other day when he told me that he can talk to just about anyone that he meets now because he’s realised that underneath they are people, just like us.




Wednesday, 20 February 2019

What is Mindfulness? The confusion continues.

In the last few weeks I’ve been reading up about Mindfulness - something I’ve heard of before but never quite got to grips with what it means. I’ve been reading various books on mindfulness, tried meditating and a couple of different workshops, but I’m still slightly confused.

At the heart of this is is the question of how do we define Mindfulness, so I guess wikipedia is a good place to start.

In wikipedia it states “Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other training.”

Another definition from mindfulness for Dummies states “Mindfulness means paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, infused with qualities like kindness, curiosity and acceptance”.

And a third - Dr  Jon Kabat-Zinn states “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”.

So looking at those definitions I can see that mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment. A good start. And we can meditate to be better at it. That’s fine too. But then we to add in being non-judgmental, kindness, compassion, curiosity. And although at one level, I get this, I think this is where I start to struggle as we are now encompassing all sorts of other ideas as well. Not that it’s a bad idea but I feel like the whole concept of mindfulness has grown out and up into something large and nebulous I can’t quite get hold of. 

Last month I focussed on gratitude and keeping a gratitude journal.  Somehow that seemed natural and easy and specific. I understood what gratitude was. I could write down what I was grateful for, and the act of focussing on those things every day spilt out into my everyday thinking and made me feel happier and more alive.

Mindfulness by comparison seems to be elusive. At one level I’m wondering if this is because if I’m not thinking about it I can be naturally quite mindful (as maybe we all are) - I am often absorbed by what I’m doing, or enjoy being in nature, noticing the sights, sounds and smell of what’s going on. I’m also quite good at standing back and observing my own thoughts when I’m feeling emotional - on the one hand I’m feeling something which might pull me one way, but also I am able to stand back and see things logically at the same time. All of these things are being mindful.  But when I start to think about ‘being mindful’ it feels like I’m trying too hard and it feels forced and counterproductive and I get frustrated.  

This frustration with the process reminds me of trying to improve my serve while playing tennis. When I was 11 years old, my Mum bought me a tennis racquet and as I was an only child with no-one to play with, I used to practice hitting the ball against the garage door or practising serving. Years later I started going to proper tennis lessons with some friends, and although they were much better at  returning the ball than me, I found I wasn’t too bad at serving, and could generally get the ball in the square, albeit not very fast. When we started to learn how to serve properly however, I learnt that the technique I had been using was wrong, and I would never improve the speed of my serve without changing my grip and some aspects of what I had learnt to do already. Changing what you have done for years is easier said than done! When you start focussing on what you are doing, the unconcious suddenly becomes uncomfortably conscious and suddenly you are messing it up completely. It takes a while to put things back together again in a new and better way and for the new way to feel natural.

So maybe that’s what’s going on here. Maybe focussing on ‘being mindful’ is a bit like reconstructing what I was doing already which it why it feels awkward. Maybe it will come with practice.

Or maybe my problem with trying to understand what mindfulness is because there is a core idea, but it has been developed by different people in different ways to be a philosophy of life, rather than a precise scientific concept. I was really pleased when I found a blog post on mindfulness.org  that echoed my thinking on this topic. In the post, the author B Grace Bullock PhD states; 

“Despite the broad coverage of the benefits of mindfulness in the media, we neither have a universal definition of it, nor a common understanding of what mindfulness practice involves. 

Some use the term to refer to activities that cultivate attention, awareness, or the retention of information, whereas others identify acceptance, non-judgment, empathy or compassion as key. Practices run the gamut from meditation, to breathing exercises, to movement, to guided relaxation.”

In the article, she goes on to discuss the problem that this causes - without a clear definition of what mindfulness is and how it is practiced, it becomes hard to scientifically assess whether it works. In the blog she explains further, “The problem here is not with the practices themselves, but the fact that mindfulness interventions lack a common thread necessary to make conclusions about their benefits as a whole.”

Reading this blog post was a welcome relief for me. It wasn’t just me that was finding the concept of mindfulness hard to pin down!  And my struggles with getting to grips with mindfulness reflect where I am coming from - as a scientist who is interested in understanding what something is and how it works, rather than someone looking for a philosophy on life.

There clearly is something at the heart of practicing mindfulness that is of value, but I can see now why I am struggling to get to grips with what mindfulness means, and that it may take a while longer before I can both understand it from a scientific point of view, and to find how whether I can benefit personally from practising mindfulness.


In the meantime, I am glad that February is a short month, and in a week and a half I can turn my attention to something new!

Friday, 8 February 2019

The bad beginner's guide to meditation

This month I am focusing on learning about mindfulness and meditation. Unlike keeping a gratitude journal, which I found very easy to start and keep going, meditation is a bit harder to get into, as it's something that requires the discipline of regular practice. 

I have tried meditation before on the odd occasion, such as at the end of a yoga lesson, but I have never tried to meditate regularly, and it was something I was keen to try as there are so many scientific studies that have shown the benefits of regular meditation.

Scientific studies on meditation have shown that it can have a positive effect on happiness and other positive emotions, lessen anxiety and depression, lower stress and even improve physical health. Measuring brain activity during and after meditation shows increased activity in the left side of the brain, and there is even evidence that meditating regularly can actually change the brain. Regular meditation can increase grey matter in the brain, increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory and learning) and decrease volume in the amygdala (which is the part of the brain which is responsible for fear, stress and anxiety).

With that evidence, it really seemed like I should give it a go, but where to start?

There are lots of different types of meditation and ways to go about it - one of the most accessible ways to start is to use an app on your smartphone or download a guided meditation from the internet, so this looked like a good place to start.

I started by trying out  Headspace and Calm -  two well-known meditation apps that I had seen advertised.  Both have some free meditations and resources, but then other content that you can pay for. In the last week I have tried the beginner's sessions on both apps.

So what have I found so far ?

1) Evening is not the right time for me to meditate - I fall asleep!  

Ok, so maybe I should have tried sitting on a chair as instructed, not sitting up in bed, but after dozing off a couple of times I got the message.

Looking at what other people have written about meditation, it's important to pick a time that's right for you. Some people meditate in the morning to clear their mind before a busy day, some people like to meditate before they sleep. Clearly I hadn't quite got the distinction between 'before' and 'sleeping' so it looks like I might need to find a time earlier in the day.

2) It's not that easy to do. 

The basic idea behind meditation is that you are trying to focus your attention one one thing (in the meditations I was trying to do, this was paying attention to your breath) and not letting your thoughts wander. I found it was a bit like trying to put a large octopus in a small string bag. After the first couple of days I was feeling more frustrated than I started.

I even tried a local drop in meditation session ran by my local Kaddampa Buddhists led by a lovely warm lady called Anne.  It was an interesting evening, but the focus was on buddhist teaching, and although she spoke a lot of sense about the evening's topic of anxiety, I really wanted help with how to do meditation, not a new spiritual direction in life.

So I went back to the drawing board and did a bit of reading and googling to see what the experts had to say. What I found out gave me encouragement  Firstly, even the experts have good and bad days. Secondly, it doesn't matter if your mind does wander. You just notice that thought, then gently bring your mind back to your focus. And lastly, it's like running. When you start, you can't expect to run a marathon the first time. You start with a few minutes at a time and build it up. You will get fitter if you run regularly.

So I came back to my meditation apps and I am going to persist and keep meditating for a few minutes every day . I will see how it goes over the next month. Hopefully I can stay awake long enough to find out.







Monday, 4 February 2019

Cultivating Gratitude and Increasing Happiness by keeping a Gratitude Journal



Towards the end of last year, when I started learning about positive interventions to increase our levels of happiness and wellbeing, I was intrigued to learn about the part that cultivating gratitude can play in this process.


Ask people what they think of as gratitude, and our first thoughts might lead us to remembering saying 'Thank you" for a gift received, but gratitude is much broader than that. 

It's a wonder and appreciation of life and the amazing natural world around us. 
It's comparing ourselves to those less fortunate than ourselves and counting our blessings. It's acknowledging the role that other people have had in our lives. It's about savouring what is good in our lives, and focussing on things and events that have made us happy and being thankful for that.

For some people, gratitude has a religious context; when I was younger and an active Christian I would pray each night and saying 'Thank You' to God was an important part of those prayers. Recently I have been watching Marie Kondo's "Tidying up" series on Netflix and I was struck by her instructions that when sorting out old clothes you should say 'Thank you" to them for the service they have given you, and that this makes it easier to part with them. I'm sure that this is related to her own spiritual upbringing. 

Whether you are religious or not, gratitude is a really powerful tool that we can all use to improve our lives.

So why does a grateful attitude make us happier?

There's a whole body of scientific research which I have been reading which probably explains this much better than me, but here's my take on what I've read.

Gratitude helps us savour the good things in our lives, and makes us feel more positive. It's so easy to get caught up in thinking and worrying about the past and the future, but gratitude draws our attention to what is good right here and now, makes the most of the present moment.  This helps us create happy memories which are good for our wellbeing and  creating a positive mindset. 

Gratitude helps us connect with other people. If you consciously think about the good things that you appreciate about your family, you are less likely to be irritated by your teenagers thinking that a floor is a good place for clothes and other irritating habits! 

Gratitude reminds us that almost all of the time, there is a silver lining, however big the cloud, and helps us to be resilient when things aren't going well. 

Gratitude helps us make useful comparisons. Our levels of happiness are strongly related to what we compare them to. If we constantly compare ourselves to our perception of other people having a better life than ours (more money, more friends, better looking) then this has a big negative impact on our self esteem and satisfaction with life. But if we start to draw our attention to what is good in our life and think about it with gratitude, we can redress this balance and get a much more even keeled view of our own lives which will make us happier in the process.

Gratitude stops us taking stuff for granted.  The way our brains are wired is that we adjust to stuff more than we think we do.  This adjustment can be useful when we face tough times, we can adapt to the circumstances and not be down for too long, but the downside is that we very quickly get used to good things in our life, and take them for granted. For example, if you have been driving for a few years, think back and remember the excitement you felt when we drove your first car as a young person - then think about how you feel when when you hop what is probably a much nicer car now - I'm guessing it's not nearly as exciting.

I volunteer in Oxfam one morning a week, and it's a great charity to work for, but one of the benefits for me is that it reminds me of how well off we are in the UK compared to many people living in poverty. I might be having a bad day, but our family has food, shelter, warmth, water, medical care. So just thinking about the people Oxfam supports makes me feel very grateful for what I have, and I'm sure that boosts my happiness levels.

There's lots more that can be said about gratitude, but that's good for a start.

So how can we take an active step to cultivate gratitude in our lives and the benefits it brings?

One method that I have been trying for the last couple of months is to keep a gratitude journal.  This is based on scientific studies that have shown that the simple act of writing down three to five things that you are grateful for, on a regular basis, can significantly improve your wellbeing.  

It's very simple - find yourself a notebook and pen, and set yourself a regular time when you will sit down and jot down 3 good things that you are grateful for. You can aim for once a day, or less often depending on what suits you. The important thing is to be regular, but so that it doesn't feel like a chore! Feeling you ought to be grateful for something isn't the same as really feeling it, and won't have the same effect.

Just write down what you can think of that you are grateful for today. 

It might be something that you have done that you have enjoyed. A conversation with a friend. A lovely sunset. A fun day out. The fact that your day at work was OK when it's normally really hard. The fact that it was raining but you didn't have to go out. Or that you did, but the feeling of rain on your face made you feel alive. Fish n chips. A roof over your head. That you managed to finish tidying a pile of mess. Whatever it was that made you happy today that you feel grateful for, write it down.

You don't have to write loads. It can be a simple list, or you can expand as you wish. 

I write my journal most nights before I go to bed. Thinking about the good stuff before I nod off has also helped me sleep better. I aim for 3 things but some days there's lots more! Looking back on what I've written in the last couple of months also has made me realise what are the best bits of my life. It's often the simple stuff, dog walking with friends, eating a meal with my family. 

And has it helped me feel happier? Yes, I think it has. I feel more positive and even when things don't go well, I think it helps me keep stuff in perspective. I feel closer to some of my family members too.

Try it for a couple of weeks, and see if it works for you.

Let me know how you get on.  I would love to hear how it works for you if you haven't tried it before, or if you keep a gratitude journal already, drop me an email or add a comment and tell me about your experience.