Monday, November 26, 2007

The darkness of isolation

I've been thinking a little about intrinsic isolation, the darkness of never knowing each others thoughts, never fully understanding.... each of us with our own personal narrative in different colored ink and variances in paper quality.....intrinsically separated...

I’ve also been reading in Jonathan Haidt's Happiness Hypothesis. In particular, one particular paragraph on suicide (pleasant thoughts for Monday!), showing that statistically, people with bonds and responsibilities - those that are "tied down" to family, work or social groups - are less likely to kill themselves. Less likely to sink their little islands.

Of course it is impossible to fully know another's mind/viewpoint/understanding of the world. However, one aspect of the mind we all share is that everyone’s thoughts are defined by change, a constant filling and disposing of ideas. So in that, we are all the same.

Here's one theory/idea: Meditation sessions in groups concentrating on one object such as the breath may be the only times people may share the same thoughts. This is unlike a collective experience, such as watching a film, which is subject to interpretation of the incoming information (the movie) and what it means to the viewer, based on their past experiences, learnings and current physical situation.

However, a meditation – clearing all thoughts but the one - on an object such as the breath is, in my opinion, almost devoid of cultural or background significance. Everyone breaths and, sure, everyone breaths differently, but that breath is still just an in-flowing and outflowing of air. Even that is subject to variance though(especially if someone has emphysema) but less so than a more concrete object such as a candle flame, which may be infused with cultural significance. Even in meditation, people's own skill level will effect their experience. But I think if you took a group of experienced monks, perhaps they would be closest to the ultimate in mind-reading...that is, their thoughts would be aligned.

Here’s another wayward thought! In our efforts to understand each other, see each others point of view, explore our dreams and ambitions and imaginings, we have developed language. Language defines us as apart from the animals…especially in our ability to describe concepts beyond what is actually tangible and immediate. So in a way, our inability to understand each other is a catalyst to us being who we are, it makes us more human. And in our striving to communicate, we forge bonds that enhance not only understanding, but social ties, responsibilities, love and companionship. Keeping ourselves from isolation, increasing our ability to spawn sprogs, and continuing the genetic flow.

And then, taking it a step further (with the power of both our human language and ability to imagine and define imagination…) what if we could step inside someone else’s mind for a bit, totally immersed, to see what it was like. Even then, for the time we were in there, we would not be. Then when we stepped out, we would be us again and the experience would be purely only a memory, which in itself is colored by our own paradigms. We’d definitely have more of an understanding, but it wouldn’t ever be complete without losing all personal identity.

One final thought (from the tumult in my mind) is that, if we were somehow all one mind and all one sketch of feeling and thought process…. I would miss the little glorious moments when, in our current states, minds do actually meet - when we burst into spontaneous laughter together, cringe together, catch a glance across a table..... Those would all be without significance or meaning or delight if they weren't so rare, and therefore so precious.

Dark thoughts welcome…

Thursday, November 08, 2007

It's Adaptation, Amigos

I came out of the airport at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, smack bam into the blasting sunshine. Between me and the airport wall the sun beat down, tumid and enveloping. New York had been cool, bordering on chilly. I remember thinking, damn it's hot.

Dodging taxi offers of around $60 a ride, I found the bus stop and some locals who helped me flag down the bus to Sayulita. Sitting up near the driver and the overridden clutch (actually I have no idea where the clutch on a bus is, but I was sitting near a rather large mound that screeched and swore like a wet cat every time a gear changed), I had a good view of the road and its variability, the roadside stalls featuring an inordinate number of magazines about nail-art, and the passengers who came on and off. We stopped every few minutes - at one point I think we stopped so a man could pick up some cigarettes. He wandered off and we left without him.

Sitting back on the crusty seats wearing my cowboy hat, I felt like Indiana Jones. He definitely would have taken a bus rather than a taxi. Or Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, on her way to Cartagena.

Okay, so I also took the bus because I was way under budget. Okay, I didn't actually have a budget. But I did spend an extra $120 on a taxi from New York's JFK airport back home to pick up my Green Card (which, incidentally, looks just like a credit card), then back to JFK to get the plane. So, in Mexico, I took the bus. Not really so adventurous, just cheap. And fun.

I love the change that a vacation entails: change of routine, change of scenery, change of experience. I'd been planning this trip for so long, there was so much to anticipate. I had imagined it, how it would be, how it would feel, what it would look like. New foods, drinks, smells, flavors, temperatures, experiences.

Once in Sayulita, after finding out by text that my friends hadn't even arrived, I headed down to the beach hoping to find someone from the wedding party. Lugging my suitcase along the sand, sweating in my heavy plane clothes and randomly ear-wigging on conversations felt less Indiana like, but my quest was soon over when I happened upon the French contingent and settled at their table with a gallon of frozen margarita.

Later, at a beach table with my beach food (cerviche) with my beach friends and Texas hat. The novelty of the little beach table deserved a photo...

Sayulita itself is a small town about 45 minutes by taxi, or an hour and a bit by bus, from Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific Coast. The small town is unencumbered by large hotels or chain restaurants. The people - and this came up often in discussion so I feel justified in such a generalization - were genuinely friendly and helpful, almost as if the lack of commercialization had kept things sweet with the locals.

With five friends, representing Australia, New Zealand and Ireland (a perfect target for the French who unfortunately were rugby fans) - we hired a house near the beach. It was beautiful, all primary colours, open spaces and a maid.

The wedding was day two, on a clifftop over looking the sea. After that, we settled in proper.
In a day or so I knew the beach and the strange, short-breaking surf. I knew the cafes and the beach-front bars that served the best margaritas and salsa. I knew that the outside couch on our patio at "home" had fleas and that the hot water didn't work. I knew, with some relief, that my roommate Derek didn't snore.

I'd been reading about how our minds adapt to circumstances in Professor Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis. He, like many psychologists, has studied our incredible capacity for change and its effect on our happiness.
Adaptation enables us to cope in a labile world. Our lives are defined by change, and without the ability to adapt we would desist completely, be overwhelmed.
So, what long-term effects do external changes have on our internal well being? There are dissenting views: one famous study showed that people who suffer paralysis, compared with lottery winners, all within a year or so return to near-abouts their base level of happiness. Others differ in opinion, and cite cases where occurrences such as the death of a spouse or divorce do impact well-being in the long term.
Regardless of where we end up on the life-satisfaction scale, we often anticipate our inability to change as far greater than it is. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Professor Haidt says:

We are bad at "affective forecasting," that is, predicting how we'll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions.....The human mind is incredibly sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels.

I was thinking about this principle in relation to a my friend's impending career change. He is feeling some trepidation regarding a new career move - a looming fear of the certain drop in income that will come with starting his own business. Like many of us, he's always worked for someone, and been paid a salary. He wonders how he will cope on less income, given that he is used to certain luxuries.

What the science points to is that, he will start the new job and at the beginning, in comparison to his previous pay-check, he will feel less satisfied. But as he adapts to the new level of income, each gain or accomplishment will register as a positive change, and give him a boost.

The flip side of adapting to negative changes is our ability to become accustomed to positive ones. The "hedonic treadmill", as described by Martin Seligman, "causes you to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. As you accumulate more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise." (Pg 49, Authentic Happiness). We get used to things, but still want that rush of positive feeling that comes with the change involved in earning more or gaining more.

At Sayulita, what had sufficed for entertainment in the first few days - beach, friends, the wedding, food - was soon to be superceded with more daring adventures. Some people went deep sea fishing. My group went out into the humid jungle and swung down long wires strung between trees - in New Zealand we call it a flying fox, over here they call it a zip line. Awesome.

To me, adaptation is also closely related to mindfulness. Knowing we will adapt, it is even more useful to be mindful of every moment. The future will never turn out the way we imagine it. In the meantime, with all our (read = my) day-dreaming and imagining, we've adapted to circumstance without appreciating it just for what is is....a moment - each little moment being a micro-bite of constant change, constant renewal and constant adaptation.

I took a taxi back to the airport. Done with the bus, time for something new and more comfortable! My driver's name was Jose and we sang to Classic Rock, windows down, barefoot and warm. Maybe I appreciated him and the car more because of the bus experience? It definitely felt like a treat.

At the airport it was hot. I felt the heat, recognized it. I remembered it and the feeling of novelty just days ago.

I wanted to be back on the beach, my beach. I wanted to be with my old friends. I wanted to be drinking margaritas with my feet in the sand.

Then....then I just got in the line to check in. And hoped that they would have something other than peanuts on the flight back.

Monday, October 22, 2007

First pass (and gratitude lists)

Here's my second "just go for it" post....I want to quickly pass on a handy hint, and also record that i have written the first draft of my crappy failure article (for publication outside the US). It meanders, it doesn't really have a theme. It's a good first pass at a potential failure.

Here's the handy hint: write down, before you go to sleep, five things you appreciate, or feel grateful for. Do this every night for a week. Before you do, take a moment to record how you're feeling about life now and in general. Today specifically, the last week, the last month. Briefly, no novels or soliloquies.

I don't want to say why exactly. Just try it. It's cool. It can be surprising.

If you do, would love to hear your thoughts at the end of the week. Or rather, your state of mind. I'm about to write mine..hmmm:

1. I had a lovely breakfast this morning with raspberries, yogurt, cereal and watermelon.

2. I spoke to the coordinator for the Positive Psychology course, giving me some new ideas on how to approach it, and some new challenges too.

3. I decided against going to meditation because I was too tired. This was good, because I was able to stay late at work to help out, and because I was able to chat to Sarah later that night.

4. I actually wrote some of my crappy article.

5. My friend Aaron emailed me today, as did my Dad. Two rarely received emails, both welcome and appreciated.

Gratuitous picture (actually am so tired there was no pun intended but what the hey), then sleep for me...

(a candy floss tree at the Rangers Ice Hockey game)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Failure to fail.... enough

I've being thinking about the benefits of failure and how I need to integrate more chances to fail into my daily life. What the hell, I see you read (actually, that is bollocks because I am always wondering who the hell is reading this, and it surprises me that some people are...hi there!)...I see you read and exclaim@ "You've been away for a few months and now you're all keen to fail??"

Yup. Yes I am.

I've definitely failed at a lot - this isn't an alien experience. In the past year I've failed to get beyond the basic steps of salsa dancing; my yoga practice has come to a grinding halt; I still am as doofy on roller-blades as I was when I bought them ...oh....four years ago? and although I definitely enjoyed DJ classes, I doubt anyone'd be happy if I was spinning at the next party. My room is still undecorated, and I've killed three bonsai trees. At one point I dyed my hair and it went grey. (Yesterday I had it changed again and it is frickin awesome...if I had never dyed my hair grey, I would never have discovered my awesome hairdresser)

For some reason, (like many people I assume), outside of work and career, I've not been afraid to go out and try new things. I've shifted between countries, cities, suburbs and houses of my own accord. I've travelled where I wanted to go, and I've explored the dirtier facets, and the more privileged sides life. Even in my 'romantic' life, I notice a thread running through, whereby my long-term ex-boyfriends were a) very different from me in many ways and b) were risk takers, particularly in how they chose to make money.

Looking at great entrepreneurs and generally, a lot of people who seem to be following their dreams, often working for themselves and creating their own paths, there is a common thread. They take risks. And they fail, again and again. Because - and I know this sounds simple - but failing is a chance to learn (and learning is currency - a new theory of mine I'll come back to in the future (blah blah blah!).

In my own life, it seems that in so many areas, I'm not afraid to fail, and yet when it comes to money, which is intrinsically tied to work, I am very conservative. And those big dreams - the ideal life, the ideal job - they sniff at my heels constantly and are kicked away by a little voice that says that If I can't be really really good at it, why try? What if I invested a whole lot and didn't like it? What if no one cared?

Because failure is a chance to learn. For me. Because failure can be fun. Because failure has the potential to clear the way for stuff that is currently unimagined. Because all successful people fail. Because failure shouldn't be all or nothing. Below is a pick of about how much I learnt at DJ school. See, even my brother, who never went, picked it up....

There is a common phrase - "do something that scares you every day". In the same vein, I want to try doing something that I have the potential to fail at, every day.

In fact, the point is to just do it, and not worry about it being perfect. Like this post....I started thinking about how I'd neglected my blog, and what I wanted to write, and started getting out my positive psychology books and digging for info on the benefits of failure..... and I fell asleep instead!

And so this post is the first thing, my first attempt at a) something that is interesting to me in terms of being integrated into what I want to build into my career, and b) something I could potentially fail at and therefore c) something I can learn from. I already feel like this post is crammed with caveats (such as, my interest in positive psychology is a) a career goal and b) something I AM chasing....and also, that in my current role at the agency I am at, I do learn new things often, some of which require me to attempt things that include a certain amount of risk...but these are not MY risks, my personal, precedented risks)

Okay, so here are a few potential failures to I want to start with:
  • Learn how to use a digital camera; film someone/something;edit it;upload it

  • Think of a topic and write an article for a non-US audience; submit it to a publication/media outlet.

  • Create something that requires an audience and present it

  • Invest money in something that is not a savings account - or at least make a decision based on whether or not this is possible

  • Teach something to someone directly. Gain an understanding the value of transferring knowledge.

The difference between these goals and my various, previous dibbles and dabbles is that these are more in line with enhancing my ability to create something of value (to me, in my working life). Therefore they carry more risk.

As such, I have to open the way for me to make a very bad film, write an article that no one wants to read, make a presentation that people talk right through; invest in something that loses money and teach something that no one wants to learn. These are all possibilities. And they should all be okay. They have to be okay, otherwise I will never start.

So hmm, where to from here? If these are my stated goals then I need a timeline. And priorities. So, I think, every day, I will try to do one thing in line with these goals that edges me forward. That insists that I try. That creates room for more.

And if I fail shockingly at each and learn nothing (see, even saying that seems ludicrous) then at least I will have tried. And anyway, I do want to learn to tap dance....

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Savoring - tasting the tip of each moment

As I've been thinking about how to phrase this post, I've been chowing through a fat-free muffin from the corner store, with watermelon and yogurt. It's barely registering, apart from a cement-like mixture forming in my gums, and I've already almost finished it. Ironically, this post is about savoring.

When you wake up in the morning, what's the first thing that waddles into your brain? For me, it's often what I have to do at work that day, then the activities I have planned afterwards, and then even that I must try and get to bed earlier tonight so as to not wake up so tired tomorrow!

Why our little grey cells rush to and from the present, into the past and future is debatable. What isn't such a mystery, is that staying present, savoring the moment, has proven benefits for reducing stress and increasing feelings of well-being.

Martin Seligman talks about enhancing our every day pleasures by concentrating moment by moment on what we are experiencing. Right now. The concept is closely tied to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness - being aware of external stimuli and internal thoughts, without judgement.
The benefits of savoring and mindfulness include a heightened awareness of what's going on around us, as well as how we're interpreting that in our heads. The result being that we can choose to live each day to its fullest potential. We concentrate better, we get more stuff done. We worry less. Our relationships are improved; if we are fully present, we are more likely to listen, understand, and respond with thought.

Sometimes something unusual or unexpected jolts us out of our reverie ... we tend to remember these times? Because all of a sudden we're not in our heads, we're fully present, we're alive! (My first view of the thing below. It reminded me of a Tiffany bean, one a giant might wear. A giant Chav ;)

Looking ahead to an upcoming vacation can be fun. Except that a) the future NEVER turns out exactly as you think it will and b) there is the added risk of this habituation infecting the vacation itself, implanting thoughts of the next thing, the evening or meal ahead, or even going home or back to work - while you're supposedly relaxing!
Well aware of my own tendencies to day dream, on a recent weekend trip to Chicago I had a bit of a heart-to-heart with my mind to try as hard as possible to be present in each moment. Some people have this knack anyway. I don't, but I have the capacity to try.

Luckily, my trip was crammed full of stimuli. Cycling along the pier near the lake with the wind in my face and the strange, disjointed feeling of lack of sea-smell, despite this vast stretch of water laid out in front of me; the Bean (above), where the shiny contours meld macabre distortions of the people under and outside of its belly - in particular, I noticed a bride in her white puffy dress, gorgeous in the daylight, was reduced to a mulched, squashed little white blip reflected in the mirrored surface; the feeling of cold water chundering over my head as my friend and host, Dave, held me under a fountain/sculpture in a park (don't tell him, I would have gone under anyway, it was stinking hot), and the taste of a sweet frozen margarita after the bike ride. And Dave's chips.

That night we hollered along to a Neil Diamond covers band, Super Diamond , and the next day toured Frank Lloyd Wright's beautiful early century houses. In these cases a bit of study would likely have enhanced my experience - I could only recall the words to one song, "Sweet Caroline" and my knowledge of the greatest architect the US has ever produced is abysmal. Yet there was still an appreciation - the velvet pants, the stick on side-burns, the identical voice; the delight in identifying a FLW house amongst others, and seeing aspects of his style in vastly different houses - one flat, one turreted, but with similar, hidden away beveled glass windows, or manicured lawns in geometric patterns.

Despite the intention, of course my mind did go on its own vacation at various moments, slip-tripping into the past or imagining the future. To stay fully present constantly would surely make people automatons!? It's the tendency to spend the majority of the time in la la land that is dangerous....

I think my attempts at being present helped when I was playing Guitar Hero and driving the Porsche (around the block a few times, only mildly riding the clutch). Okay, honestly it would have been hard to be anything other than present when driving someone else's expensive car on the wrong side of the road. Especially when it's a manual....

Here are some tips for enhancing your experience of savoring:
(from Authentic Happiness, pg 108, Fred B. Bryan and Joeseph Veroff)

(I am paraphrasing and truncating cos this post is already long)

a) Share the moment with others: Share the experience and converse about its value to you. "This is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure"

b) Memory Building: Take mental photographs. Reminisce.
c) Self-congratulation: Be proud of what you are achieving.
d) Sharpening Perceptions: Taste, touch, listen, smell! Use your senses. Be aware of what you are experiencing.

e) Absorption. Try to sense, not think or contextualize the experience. You can do that afterwards.

In terms of increasing mindfulness, I personally advocate meditation (as do practitioners of positive psychology, including Prof. Seligman). Meditation helps to slow the mind and focus on the now.

Another tip is to use a marker to focus - for instance, taking three breaths, on the hour, every hour. Or, when eating, concentrate on the food rather than looking at the computer screen. When talking to someone on the just that. They'll appreciate it (and you'll remember what they were on about).

And in the end, now is all there is. Our very personal, entirely unique series of moments that make up the summation of our lives.

Monday, August 13, 2007

How to write the best birthday card ever

Last week I attended a 'Science of Happiness' seminar in Manhattan. In addition to some very interesting data on the benefits of realizing and expressing gratitude, the tutor described some nifty ideas about gift giving. Well, in fact what she described wasn't supposed to be a tips-and-tricks for greeting card writing, but you'll see how this can be applied....

Studies show that people feel most grateful for a gift when:

1. They think it's valuable

2. The intention of the gift is to be of benefit

3. The gift meets or exceeds social expectations.

So, to enhance the good feelings of your recipient towards your gift, consider how you could apply the above when handing over the package. Something a little more detailed than a note scrawled with "Happy Birthday! From XXX xxxxxx" may actually enhance the value of the gift for the receiver, and for you as well.

For instance, giving away a favorite book. Whether or not it is the ACTUAL book, describing what the tale means to you, when you read it, how it changed your outlook or what you've learnt as a result - all will enhance its worth to the receiver.

Alternatively, if you choose a gift could help the receiver in some way (because of knowledge you have about their circumstances or personality) then again, it is likely to be well received. For instance, buying a new coffee-cup set for that friend who makes a great Saturday morning fry-up, because you noticed that their cups are all chipped or cracked. Make a point of telling them about the thought processes behind it, the effort that went in.

We all like to feel that others are thinking about us. Choosing a gift because you understand the way the recipient THINKS is so much more valuable. What this data implies is that sharing the process, as well as the end result, enhances the experience for both parties.

There are exceptions to every rule of course - re-gifting old crap doesn't apply when it comes to giving away something of value. Although I have to admit I gave away some comedy socks once....although when I think about it, Rule 2 applied in that case - I knew the person I was giving them to was actually going to wear them.

As for Rule 3, meeting social expectations.... well, this one is more difficult. Either the gift does, or doesn't meet social expectations. Wedding lists are the only way that springs to mind to definitely meet social expectations. Either that or the nauseating idea of celebrity-endorsed fodder.

So, next time your gift has a story, tell it! The benefits of the positive emotion of gratitude will be shared between you, in addition to the cake and champagne.