Let’s be optimistic

I think it’s pretty obvious to those that know me that I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

The bright and dark sides of optimism and pessimism
Many psychologists classify the population as predominantly optimistic — some claiming 80% of people are optimistic, others stating that 60% of us are somewhat optimistic. This seems an optimistic appraisal to me. Some experts agree — they believe that optimism itself may affect the validity of research on positivity.

I still struggle with the concept that a positive outlook is a choice, that I could simply choose to be optimistic. But then my better half just sent me this:

october_2019

Optimistic October calendar
Let’s stay hopeful and focus on what really matters. This Optimistic October Action Calendar has daily suggested actions to do throughout October 2019 to help you be a realistic optimist and have goals to look forward to.

I’ve not come across Action for Happiness before, but it could be just what I was looking for.

Action for Happiness
Our patron is The Dalai Lama and our members take action to increase wellbeing in their homes, workplaces, schools and local communities. Our vision is a happier world, with fewer people suffering with mental health problems and more people feeling good, functioning well and helping others.

And there’s an app, too.

Octobers can be such gloomy months; summer has long gone, the nights draw in, the clocks go back. Perhaps that’s why these pick-me-ups are so necessary now. For instance, Stoic Week 2019 is starting up again next week, 7–13 October. I enjoyed it last year, and will give it another go.

And coincidentally, just as I was about to publish this post, a newsletter with links to these articles has just landed in my inbox.

Being depressed in the ‘world’s happiest country’
Finland regularly tops global rankings as the happiest nation on the planet, but this brings a unique set of challenges for young people struggling with depression.

A 60,000-year-old cure for depression
Traditional healers have been entrusted with the well-being of indigenous Australian communities for as long as their culture has been alive – yet surprisingly little is known of them.

Sounds like we need all the help we can get.

Peak wellness

Another Monday has rolled around. We all feeling well?

We’ve reached peak wellness. Most of it is nonsense.
Nourishing these interrelated dimensions of health, however, does not require that you buy any lotions, potions, or pills. Wellness—the kind that actually works—is simple: it’s about committing to basic practices, day in and day out, as individuals and communities.

Unfortunately, these basics tend to get overlooked in favor of easy-to-market nonsense. That’s because, as many marketers (including in the self-help space) are fond of saying, “You can’t sell the basics.” I think that’s naive. We’d be much better off if we stopped obsessing over hacks and instead focused on evidence-based stuff that works.

Mindfulness has been reduced to a ‘hack’ these days.

The problem of mindfulness
A third line of attack can be summed up in the epithet ‘McMindfulness’. Critics such as the author David Forbes and the management professor Ronald Purser argue that, as mindfulness has moved from therapy to the mainstream, commodification and marketing have produced watered-down, corrupted versions – available via apps such as Headspace and Calm, and taught as courses in schools, universities and offices.

My own gripes with mindfulness are of a different, though related, order. In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself. It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place.

Maybe we just need to cheer up! Let’s put on a happy face and fake it till we make it.

Against cheerfulness
Whistling while you work might be worth defending, but forcing yourself to smile when you don’t feel like it amounts to lying to the people around you. ‘Fake it till you make it’ has brutal consequences when applied to the emotions. When conceived as the attempt to trick others into thinking that you feel cheery, cheerfulness is far from a virtue. It’s a vice …

Giving up a commitment to cheerfulness would mean risking judgment for being ordinary, human, mortal. If, however, we could learn to share in the misery of others without trying to cheer them up and send them packing, and if they could do the same for us, then we’d have a shot at true fraternity, the kind that Aristotle prescribed when he said we should live with our friends. … Profound human connection and communion – in other words, love – has no use for forced cheer, and is often sabotaged by false faces. If we want to love better and seek true happiness and friendship, it’s time to cultivate honesty instead of cheer.

Want a better holiday?

Time away from work is great, but is a break from your phone even better?

Leave your phone at home this holiday and you’ll feel better (after you feel worse)
Travellers at this stage were forced to travel in an old-fashion manner, navigating using a printed map, talking to strangers, and reading printed bus timetables. Two of our participants even gave up at this stage as they found the emotional experience unbearable.

Those that stuck it out were glad they did.

Our participants overcame the initial emotions and then started to enjoy the digital-free experience. They found themselves more immersed in the destination, created more valuable moments with their travel companions, and had many more memorable and authentic encounters with locals.

They felt free, happy, excited, and relieved. One participant said: “I feel quite good that I made it this far without technology. I feel quite liberated.” Without the disruptions of digital technologies, they were fully engaged with their holiday experience, demonstrating that a digital-free holiday can contribute to wellbeing.

But if it’s a relaxing holiday you’re after, why not take a trip to Battle Creek Sanitarium, John Kellogg’s medical spa and birthplace of the corn flake?

Dr. John Kellogg invented cereal. Some of his other wellness ideas were much weirder
Kellogg’s interest in the therapeutic powers of electricity didn’t end with light baths. With a device he cobbled together from telephone parts, he began to administer mild doses of electrical current directly to his patients’ skin. Kellogg claimed these “sinusoidal current” treatments were painless and wrote that he’d tested them in “many thousands of therapeutic applications.” While electrical stimulation is used to this day for certain medical purposes, the ever-optimistic Kellogg maintained that it could treat lead poisoning, tuberculosis, obesity and, when applied directly to the patient’s eyeballs, a variety of vision disorders.

Happy Monday everyone!

Mondays, eh? The Book of Life is here to help again.

The true cause of dread and anxiety
It therefore follows that the first step towards breaking the cycle of alarm is to notice that we are behaving like self-hating people convinced that we deserve misery and that this self-assessment is in the process of heavily colouring all our assessments of the future.

Then, very gently, we should start to wonder how a self-loving person might behave and look at matters if they were in our shoes. When panic descends, we should try to reassure ourselves not with logical arguments about the grounds for hope but by wondering what a person who didn’t loathe themselves might be thinking now. If we could reduce the element of internal punishment and attack, how would the situation appear?

And, to help gain a little perspective, try this from Quartz.

To get better at life, try this modern mantra
The word mantra comes from Sanskrit and literally means “mind tool” or instrument of thought. People have used these tools for thousands of years to quiet thinking, cultivate focus, and induce spiritual states. In truth, anyone can use them, and there is scientific proof they work, whether or not you are spiritually inclined. …

“Right now, it’s like this” is an invitation to explore what is present. At the same time, it clearly reassures us that impermanence is hard at work. So even though the mind threatens me with the idea that “it’s going to be like this forever,” this phrase helps me call bullshit on that. It helps me let go of the main message from the mind, “that something has to be done.

Let’s see if this helps.

happy-monday-everyone-1

Just thinking about coffee can improve your focus, researchers say
Future research, with larger sample sizes, is needed to confirm these effects and to parse the stimulating consequences of say, black diner coffee and a milky espresso drink, or various strains of tea, the authors note in their paper. One day, they propose, it might be possible to match the task at hand with the appropriate level of mind-generated arousal.

For now, Chan believes that “[we] need to better understand the ‘meanings’ and ‘beliefs’ we assign to foods and beverages,” he writes. What we feed our minds has a lot to do with what it feeds us in return.

happy-monday-everyone-2

Let’s try it: coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee

Pay less attention?

Some advice, via Daily Stoic, on how to better manage your mood that feels decidedly counter-intuitive.

How to keep your cool: an interview with James Romm
My own favorite is summed up in the quote: “Do you want to be less angry? Be less aware.” Anger often starts from noticing too many subtleties of the way others interact with us. In many cases, we’d do better not to notice the slights and microaggressions that can drive us nuts if we let them. One can will oneself to ignore such things — a practice many long-married couples will instantly recognize!

Looking for connections

As this video from Kurzgesagt explains, “We are living in the most connected time in human history, and yet an unprecedented number of us feel isolated.”

Loneliness
Everybody feels lonely sometimes. But only few of us are aware how important this feeling was for our ancestors – and that our modern world can turn it into something that really hurts us. Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?

I mentioned last year the steps being taken by the government and others to tackle loneliness. Help might be at hand, though. Literally.

Loneliness is bad for your health. An app may help.
Little changed for those in either the control group or the one taught attention-only mindfulness. But the subjects whose training included acceptance and equanimity were measurably more sociable. Their daily routines, after using the app for two weeks, typically included several more interactions with people that lasted at least a few minutes, and their questionnaires showed a decline in their feelings of loneliness.

Because loneliness, like mindfulness, is a subjective state, it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions about why and how a focus on acceptance prompted greater sociability. But David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon who conducted the study with the lead author, Emily Lindsay, believes that “the equanimity piece is key.” The poise it teaches, he says, may help people become less self-judgmental, less self-conscious, more amenable to interacting with others.

Here’s another write-up of the research, from Reuters this time.

Smartphone mindfulness app may help curb loneliness
“Perhaps by practicing monitoring and acceptance daily, even though for a short period of time, we can feel more at peace and free, more centered, and less affected by the possible negative thoughts and feelings generated in our mind,” Zhang said. “So we are closer to who we really are – we are social beings and we inherently need to connect to others.”

A theme which kicks off this stand-up routine from Simon Amstell, from 2010. This is how he starts, once the applause as he walks on stage dies down.

“Hello. Thank you. How are you? Are you all right? Well, this is fun, isn’t it? This is sort of a fun thing to be doing. This is fun, right? I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that.”

Simon Amstell – Do Nothing Live

Don’t worry, though. He ends it on quite a positive, inspirational note. It’s all about letting go.

In praise of pessimism #2

Here’s a nice companion piece to that post earlier about accessing mindfulness therapies via chatbot apps. It includes a reminder of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Want to be happy? Embrace being miserable
The path offers guidance on the elements of a principled existence, based on a cultivated perspective. But not necessarily a happy one.

Still, liberating yourself from the expectation of happiness lightens your load. It makes life a little easier when you are realistic but resolved, rather than deluded, desirous, and determined to have the impossible. By calculating discomfort and struggle into the mix, you can remain cautiously optimistic, knowing there’s surely trouble ahead, but that you will face it with grace.

As we saw earlier, there are a number of apps that can help us build up a solid sense of perspective. Here’s some more about Woebot.

This robot wants to help you control your emotions
A bot cannot really talk to you, of course, but it can call your attention to the way you converse with yourself, and perhaps in time shift your own relationship with angst. That’s the notion behind the Woebot, an app created by Stanford research psychologist Alison Darcy that aims to make emotional mindfulness available to the masses. …

Next, it provided a brief lesson on the power of language in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This mode of treatment for anxiety and depression, CBT, calls attention to thinking patterns and teaches patients to recognize and address their negative tendencies and limiting beliefs with exercises.

It tries to literally change your mind by providing perspective and cultivating attention until you have replaced bad habits with better ones.

I loved the way that the closing paragraph from that first Quartz article above was both simultaneously downbeat and uplifting.

Know that you’ll fail, you will fall, you’ll feel pain, and be sad. You will be rejected. You will get sick. Your expectations will not be met, because reality is always more strange and complicated than imagination, which also mean something more interesting than you know could yet be on the horizon. Know, too, that even so, dull moments will abound. Yet it can always get worse, which is why it’s worth remembering that every day, at least some things have to be going okay, or else you’d already be dead.

And let’s not forget Will Self’s take on all this.

Looking East for answers

I don’t think we modern Westerners appreciate how easy it is for us to dip into Eastern philosophy. It’s all just a mouse-click away (and maybe feels a little superficial because of that?). It wasn’t always like that, of course.

How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis — David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment
But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

And here the detective story begins. It’s a great read, and crazy to think that in the early 1700s, when Hume was building up his body of work, the number of Europeans who had studied Buddhism could literally be counted on one hand.

Now, of course, Buddhist-inspired meditation and mindfulness techniques are big business, with apps like Headspace and Insight Timer on millions of phones. But are they really getting us any further forward?

Meditation in the time of disruption
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.

Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.

The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.

They’re not the only ones wanting a quick fix. Katie Bloom from the Outline enrols on a 10-week introductory ‘happiness’ course from the School of Practical Philosophy.

Enlightenment can be yours for just $10
The fine print reads: “Jobs come and go. Physical beauty fades, markets rise and fall. Even close relationships can end. But the benefits of philosophy last a lifetime.” These benefits — HAPPINESS included — can be gained, according to the ad, by attending the 10-week introductory course at a place called the School of Practical Philosophy.

The clichéd, Hallmark-y, feelgood pop-philosophy isn’t to everyone’s tastes, though.

The classes had more in common with my Catholic K-12 education than with the philosophy courses I took in college. It’s difficult to characterize what we learned, because none of it really cohered. Each week had a theme (“The Light of Reason,” “Beauty,” etc.), and consisted of cherry-picked ideas from eastern and western philosophies and religions, devoid of context and presented as fact. We had souls, we were told; the proof was that our bodies and thoughts and feelings changed, but something inside of us remained constant. There was beauty in everything, we learned one week, a banal-seeming claim that set off an agonizing half-hour argument about whether there was beauty in the Holocaust.

But maybe getting to the bottom of Truth and being one with the fundamental nature of knowledge and existence isn’t what it’s all about, as Katie muses at the end of the course.

Here’s what else I learned. Two Watches looked forward to class all week. His divorce had been awful, his kids lived with their mom, and he was lonely. (“Even close relationships can end,” goes one of the SPP’s subway ads.) He worked in maintenance at Yankee Stadium. He hadn’t gone to college, and he didn’t belong to a church — his life was not teeming with opportunities to talk about the nature of wisdom. The lessons were fun, but the real appeal was community.

The students who stuck around until the final week reminded me of the many lonely people I had met while working in the service industry, people who often tried to turn a short, professional interaction into something lengthy and intimate. It was possible my classmates were not compelled by the notion that “three distinct energies governed the universe.” Maybe they just liked sitting in a room of people who would listen to them. The week before, an elderly widow had confessed in halting speech that it was hard to be kind to her husband towards the end of his life, because his illness changed his personality, made him mean. I watched as the woman sitting next to her, a stranger, squeezed her hand.

Rather than looking for answers, perhaps we’re just looking for people to ask the questions with.

Be mindful, watch more TV

This is great. There are so many mindfulness and relaxation apps out there, this one fits right in.

Multimedia artist Stine Deja satirises the commodification of mindfulness
“I was inspired by the over-branding, commercialisation and digitisation of relaxation. You can literally buy everything and I thought it would be interesting to push the idea of commercial wellbeing to the max,” Stine explains. Her idea came to her after she read a study that showed people to be more relaxed when watching television than when sleeping. The 4K Zen hat, which works like a portable darkroom, is symbolic of more than commercialised mental happiness. It also visualises an ideal of wellbeing as one of isolation, where the user escapes into a virtual universe inhabited only by them.

Taking your mind for a stroll

I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs that have allowed me to take a stroll most lunchtimes, to get my eyes away from my monitor for a while. Here’s a great article on the rejuvenating powers of walking.

Walking as creative fuel: a splendid 1913 celebration of how solitary walks enliven “the country of the mind”
In a sentiment which, today, radiates a gentle admonition against the self-defeating impulse to evacuate the moment in order to capture it — in a status update, in an Instagram photo — Grahame observes: “Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday.”

School wellbeing ideas

Two simple mindful meditation exercises for teachers
Teaching can be hard, and reports tell us those in the profession feel under increasing pressure. A BBC investigation earlier this year found that stress-levels have soared in recent years due to increased workloads. In my 20-years of practice as a psychologist, I’ve found that mind-body strategies such as mindfulness meditation are one of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety – especially for teachers.

Buddhify

Buddhify – mobile mindfulness meditation app for iPhone and iPad
Despite being a very modern approach to mindfulness in terms of presentation and delivery, buddhify is not superficial or frivolous. It is based on years of meditation experience, and a deep understanding of how mindfulness can be best expressed in the 21st century.”

Something to try, as I really need to crack on with my practice, but I’m a little sceptical of shortcut lines like it “teaches you mindfulness while you are doing the everyday activities of your normal day.” But then again I guess that’s the idea, to be mindful all the time, not just when you’re sitting. Interesting.

An antidote to the age of anxiety: Alan Watts on happiness and how to live with presence

"He takes especial issue with the very notion of self-improvement — something particularly prominent in the season of New Year’s resolutions — and admonishes against the implication at its root: I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good "I" who is going to improve the bad "me." "I," who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward "me," and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently "I" will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make "me" behave so badly."

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/06/alan-watts-wisdom-of-insecurity-1/

Mindfulness

Be Mindful is a campaign, by the Mental Health Foundation, raising awareness about the benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness helps people change the way they think, feel and act. It helps them to break free from a downward spiral of negative thought and action, and make positive choices that support their wellbeing.