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.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Singing opera requires effort

On Friday evening at a black history event in a large brownstone owned by a middle aged white man where a Yale professor gave a slide show with music to an audience of scholars, locals, musicians, artists of varying ages and sizes and colors, I met an opera singer.

Things I learned from her that I didn’t know about the opera profession:

Opera singing has less to do with the size of the lungs or the position of the larynx than the shape of the face, and the way the sound reverberates in the cheeks, jaw and cheekbones. She indicated that her face was wide from ear to nose, and from eye to jaw. She didn’t look particularly wide/long faced to me, but I took her word. She had a loud voice.

Interested in the processes that a person follows in choosing their career, I asked, at what age did she notice that her voice was different from anyone elses, and at what stage did she decide to pursue opera as a profession?

She said ever since her youngest school days, when singing in groups, her voice had overpowered those around her. In an attempt to assimilate her, the choir master surrounded her with older, bigger singers .

At 16 years old she made a decision to become a singer of opera music. There are plenty of people capable of singing in this way, but few who actually train their voices. The ability to hold each note, to project the sound, to carry not only a song but a story - all these things are learned and require constant refining and constant practice.

This is something that she is constantly explaining - that the voice is not 'natural'. The latent talent was there, which then required honing and polishing through specific techniques and training. The finished product is manufactured.

In New York, opera singers like her work as contractors, slowly building names for themselves, filling in for other opera singers should they become ill. She is her own secretary and agent (although I'm not sure all work in this way.) She is young, mid twenties at a guess. Next year she has a contract that guarantees her work for 12 months. She is greatly relieved.

Here is where this relates to flow - I asked her why she does this for a job, given the risks, the potential for not 'making it', or for being sidelined through sickness or something outside of her control, for being a pawn to other people's tastes.

She explained simply, but with a smile - because there is nothing like being on the stage and singing your heart out; the complete absorption in the theatre.

Flow - effort and concentration, doing something that absorbs you, for tangible, measurable effect. She has to concentrate, to be completely dedicated and when she is performing, be absolutely, deeply immersed. It requires effort, long hours, dedication. And the pay off, besides the obvious appreciation of the crowd, is doing something she loves as well as she can.

If opera singing was 'natural', I doubt she'd be singing now.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Perspective, Appreciation and American Football

A friend was selling me on American Football. I had to take him seriously, he is a Kiwi and therefore surely pre-disposed to thinking that American Football players are pillow-clad pussies. From what I knew of the game, besides the legendary one-hour-of-play, three-hours-of-advertising ratio, the silliest thing about it is that the players, instead of having to think about their own tactics are merely pawns, blindly doing the coach's bidding, banging and crashing into each other without any real skill.

He explained that, from his point of view, the merit of the game was in just that - the skill of each coach as he battles it out with his opponent, planning moves like a chess player, using anticipation and surprise, and manipulating the skills of the players to achieve a planned result, while working in a flexible, ever-changing framework. Yes, the players are pawns. That is the beauty of it. His appreciation of the coach's role changed my perspective.

Now to babies. My mother always told me that my ambivalence towards children would change when I had my own. I never felt that this was sufficient reason to have them - what exactly would make my kids so compelling? Would they do tricks just for me? Is it the endless cups of tea you can train them to bring when they get older? No need for a dishwasher?

Two conversations: Firstly, a friend who had also been ambivalent, and now has a baby daughter. He explained, very succinctly and clearly, the problems associated with having a child, the lifestyle changes, the lack of time for self, the restrictions on freedom both financially and geographically, the need to move house to a less desirable area to accommodate the baby, to forgo travel and films, the sleeplessness.... And then, he described, in succinct and clear terms, the joy of watching her grow, her little arms waving and fingers grasping, the ooos and aaahs of first vowel sounds, and her smiling at him, how everyday is something new, how this little person comes into being. He would sit for hours and just watch her wiggle her fingers. The emotional attachment surprises him, I think, but it's a welcome surprise. Clearly, the benefits outweigh the ambivalence; she gives so much, without even trying. His appreciation of her, just as she is, so far outweighs the negatives as to make them like stains on a shirt you were never that fond of anyway.

Another friend tells me her one year old has started painting pictures with his poo. I tell her she's not helping my ambivalence.

Appreciation, it seems, is a catalyst in refreshing a view into a positive perspective.

Our world, our life, whatever meaning we give to it and the happiness we find in it are intrinsically tied to our perspective. If happiness is what we want, then can we use appreciation as a tool to gaining a more positive perspective?

I saw Transformers a few weeks ago. Now, considering I had no choice but to stay in the theatre, (Dad was blocking my way out), would it have been possible for me to appreciate something about the film, and therefore make it more enjoyable for myself? Probably.

In the very least, changing perspective at least changes a memory - rather than recalling a sense of anger or frustration, (eg at Transformers), my memory of the event may as well be neutral. This wouldn't mean I;d recommend it to anyone else, but at least I'm improving my experience of it.

Some grown up children seem to shed appreciation for their parents. I saw Michael Moore's Sicko last week, and besides convincing me to go back to New Zealand should I ever have a serious illness, the film examined a couple who, because of ongoing chronic illnesses, were forced to move into their daughter's basement.

The daughter hadn't even cleaned the room, it was covered in her kids' junk. The parents, one suffering from cancer, the other having had multiple heart attacks (or strokes, I'm not entirely sure), were then subjected to a tirade by their son who complained of having to move them every few months because of their reduced financial circumstances. The parents responded to his angry words by apologising for the situation - apologizing for having cancer! Apologizing for having had health insurance, but still being unable to pay! They were miserable.

Would it have been possible for the daughter and son to have changed their perspective on this situation through appreciation? In such inevitable circumstances, I'm sure even the hardest of hearts could not have turned away their parents . How they dealt with it though, was up to them, up to how they used their minds.

Appreciation of their parents, especially given the very real possibility that they might not be with them a whole lot longer, could have given the adult children a new perspective on spending time with them.

(a quick note - this IS a Michael Moore film and I have no idea of the background of this family. Also, it is very possible that the whole untidy- room set up was supported by the documentary makers, and the son's anger was in fact directed towards the healthcare system after all).

To appreciate being alive is, in my opinion, at once the hardest to keep top of mind, yet and the most rock-solid in the infinite universe of possible subjects of appreciation. Whether subjectively or objectively, the mere being here, right now, is wondrous.After all, death, or, not-life, is inevitable. Life is not inevitable. Or rather, this life, this one I am living, this one where I get to choose...this is not inevitable. Unless I'd rather be dead, which I wouldn't, then I can consider myself fortunate.

And yet, in wealthy countries, our levels of depression continue to rise despite measurable gains in wealth, health and education. One of the factors involved is our continual desire to be not who we are, to compare ourselves to others and to want what we have not got. Our media feeds it to us everyday, telling us that happiness comes in a bottle, from a fast car, new handbag, or from being prettier and more popular than everyone else.

So it's easy to forget that simply being alive is incredible. Perhaps this is a factor in what makes babies the little delivery vans of joy - here's proof, right here, that life is amazing! Each baby will have its own unique story. Nothing in its life is inevitable, except death.

Would the prospect of death incur a similar response -a reminder that life is incredible, or a reminder that life is so brief? We do not have joy about people being old, cancer-ridden or dependent on us in old age, in the way we thrive on dependence in the young. It's like we hardly believe it'll happen to us. To me. To you.

The parents of the children in Sicko will die, and most likely, before the children do. The lives of the parents, once so precious to their parents, will have expired. But right now, they are alive. And the fact that they are alive, and have unique stories, is in itself incredible.

Sometimes when I'm walking down the sunlit road in Manhattan, on days when the trees are green and there isn't too much traffic, it is easy to appreciate my life just as it is. Then it's also relatively easy to compare: I am better off financially than many of my peers. I live in a great area, my work circumstances are stable. And then, even more, I am better off in myriad ways than women all over the world (the burka clad women of The Bookseller of Kabul often come to mind). I am better off than people living in previous centuries. There are infinite ways to compare my circumstances that lead to a further appreciation of my state - just as there are myriad ways to compare myself unfavorably. And since it is my mind, I can choose.

In a capitalist society choosing to appreciate current circumstances, well, it isn't really the point, right! Especially here, in the heart of capitalism.

Appreciation is the catalyst for gaining a positive perspective, and therefore a happier mind.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Future-thinking and mood

I've been feeling very well lately, very happy. About a month ago I wasn't feeling so chipper, my moods were flat, I felt

Rather than go into detail of the circumstances or probable reasons for these states of emotion, I want to note the type of thoughts my mind generates during these moods.

I've noticed that in my happy moments, my mind thinks towards the future. I am contemplating how I can improve my work life; I am looking forward to my next vacation; I am thinking about the next meeting with a friend; I am even, on occasion, just thinking about how good the day ahead will be.

The other type of thought that occurs during happy times is to contemplate what has happened, recently, that has been enjoyable.

For me in my negative moods, there is an almost absolute contrast. The stories I tell myself are of missed opportunities, relationships that have skewed off the path, reasons why my confidence should be damaged.

One of the most useful things my meditation tutor said during a session was that "You can always trust a happy mind."

So, during times of trouble, if there is no one else around to provide a crutch or a margarita, then at least I try not to put extra pressure on myself to make decisions. After all, feeling blue is tiring enough.

However, when the happy mind is in session (which positive psychology seeks to elongate and clarify) then I seek to encourage contemplation and decision making on many levels.

Tonight, in looking up one of my positive psychology books, Authentic Happiness, I flicked to a page and found, coincidentally, this definition:

Positive emotions (future): Optimism is an emotion oriented toward the future. Optimistic explanatory style is a trait, a strength that when exercised produced the emotions of optimism and confidence.

Optimism is so closely linked with happiness that the two are often thought of as synonymous, and yet they are not the same. A person contemplating good things happening in the future is not necessarily a happy one...yet, when one visualizes such a person, it is more difficult to believe them unhappy than happy. Just as, imagining a person who dwells on mistakes of the past, it would seem logical that they might be dissatisfied and therefore unhappy.

In fact, this gives me an idea for the next time I'm feeling blue: Think of something optimistic (without making a set decision). Logically, it would be reasonable to think of something tangible and absolute, like a planned vacation, or meeting with a friend.

I doubt blue moods are that easily expelled, and yet I think it's worth a try. Given my current state of mind, it might actually be a half-decent idea!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

On the Martin Luther King Steps, at the Lincoln Memorial

Having a dream.

(why) these are a few of my favorite things..

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens....

Really? Really truly? Kettles and mittens? How strange.

Taking the last two weeks as fodder, my favorite things would be....

Huge pummeling waterfalls and exploding steam pipes,
Lightening &`thunder and the Bloomberg-offices-in-Mid-town...

My father, brother and brother's girlfriend have been visiting. We took a tour to Niagara Falls, the huge pummeling waterfall. It doesn't seem quite so impressive from the top, where the cheesy fairground rides and casinos vie for attention.

But from the drenched decks of the Maid of the Mist the air throbs, the boat tips to and fro and the 'mist' comes fast and sleet-like, sideways as much as from above. The churn of water is white and deep and furious, as if giants have formed a drum circle of washing machines. Through the mist the walls of water come down....and it seems impossible that it won't run out, there is just SO MUCH. Wonderful.

Secondly, there is something wonderful and exciting about a steam pipe that blows up a main road in Manhattan. I walked past on my way to dinner an hour and a half after the first explosion and still the muck and gunk from underneath Lexington Avenue erupted into the street, reminding me of Pohutu back home. And smelling a damn sight better.

Of course I am not excited that someone had a heart attack running away from it. Of course I'd be upset if someone I knew got hurt. But there's something about the uncontrollable power of the steam in the ancient pipes that appeals, something in its flagrant disregard for the 6pm rush hour and people's busy schedules.

In New York, the dog-scented summer air is occasionally blasted by sudden thunder storms. A bright blue sky can turn dark grey in minutes. The rain falls, the winds whip up, and the lightening comes in both forks and sheets, glimpsed through and reflecting off the tall glass buildings. How to not love New York? How would it be possible?

Finally, the Bloomberg building. This one's ultra coolness is hard to describe. from the outside it doesn't look particularly amazing . But from inside, everything from the extensive use of glass to the open, help yourself food and drink bars, to the little rooms with banks of Apple computers, screens and modern, yet comfortable's all designed for movement and light and interaction. All lifts go to the sixth floor, (where the food is). From there, escalators snake down and up - some curving - to other floors. The meeting rooms are open and comfortable and decked out with the latest equipment. If you ask nicely enough, you can be 'beamed up' (okay, that's a big fat lie). I was happy just to take some Soy Crisps and a banana. And my first coffee in more than 28 days. And luckily for me, it was bitter and made me jibbery, so no more of that for a while.

My favorite things seem to have something in common. Snapping my mind from its current thoughts, focusing them on the now. Some people have this natural ability, some of us need to work at it. Buddhist thought and meditation is related, and there is evidence that shows that those who live in the moment tend to be more satisfied with their lives.

So there is the potential to practice so that each moment becomes a marvel. I'm practising, but it's not my natural state. So until then, I'll be glad the natural world, and Mayor Bloomberg provide the odd offerings of wonderful things.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sitting here at the end of Harry

So this weekend I did something quite unusual and stayed in. Both Friday and Saturday, only venturing out at get waxed, do some laundry and grocery shopping, buy some new shoes and a skirt, do some DJ practice and go to the gym. Anywhere outside of New York that would take some time. Here, it's all within ..I don't know....200 square meters. Or 500, max.

I stayed in this weekend to spend my last moments with Mr Potter, Hermione and Ron. Friday night I started book six, (again - the details of Horcruxes having faded in the past year or so), and by Saturday was half way through. Given that I'm not the fastest reader, and I DID have all this other stuff to do, I only finished it this morning, Sunday.

Tonight instead of embarking on the final journey (Book 7), I called my Kiwi friends and we had a Flight of the Conchords night of takeaways (delivery) and cocktails. It was fun, but am I really just putting off the inevitable? That whether or not Harry dies (and I don't know and will not guess) either way, it is over between us. All these years, and this is the last. At the same time I HAVE to read it soon, otherwise someone will spill and I'll be forced to defenestrate them.

The book 'Harry Potter and the Deathy Hallows' sits beside me as I procrastinate further, writing a blog post that I haven't thought about in terms of positive psychology, but which I'm devoting time to anyway. Done the dishes. Mucked about on Facebook. Updated my Ipod.

It's not only the end of the series, it's the end of the guessing and the extrapolation. It's the end of passionate discourses with friends on the other sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

What's pretty interesting is that this is the first book I've come across that has no text on with the back cover or the side flaps, except to say, on the front side flap that 'WE NOW PRESENT THE SEVENTH AND FINAL INSTALLMENT IN THE EPIC TALE OF HARRY POTTER'.

How incredible is the human mind...the mind of J.K Rowling that conjured the magical series, and the minds that have developed such an emotional and mental tie to a work we know is entirely of fiction. So much so that - well, in my case - I would forgoe a weekend of real world activities in honor of this large piece of cut up tree + ink.

Don't know what I'm getting at here, really. Think maybe I'm just putting it off.

Righto, then, Harry...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Article - How Depression Weakens the Brain

An article in today's Wall Street Journal notes that a term of depression in a person's elder years may raise the risks of developing dementia later in life. Which made me think...what influence do I have on the happiness of my parents?

Here's a short excerpt...paraphrased...:

People who have experienced a major depression even once in the previous 10 years in late middle age are twice as likely as those who haven't to develop problems in concentration, memory or problem-solving ability after the age of 65, according to several large, studies.

Depression is associated with shrinkage of the part of the brain
related to memory, and while problems with concentration, decision making and memory can be common for people going through depression, studies show a significant portion of older people won't recover their mental sharpness even if their mood recovers.

Also, studies show that people with more days of depression untreated
by antidepressants, at any point in their lives, exhibit an average 10%
reduction in volume in the hippocampus, -- a part of the brain related to memory which may result in subtle changes to their memory capabilities, according to Yvette Sheline, author of the research, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. There is no such effect from days of treated depression.

There is evidence that treating depression, either with medication or
certain types of psychotherapy, not only benefits a patient's psychological well being, but also reduces the frequency or severity of future depression, and seems to spare the brain from injury from the load of chronic stress, say experts. Treatment is particularly important in the long term for people who get depressed young and have repeated episodes throughout their life, psychiatrists say.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Curiosity at work

Given that my key signature strength is Curiosity, I am going to implement it at work, thus, in order to increase my level of happiness while working. That's the theory....:
  • I will try and learn something new about each of my clients' businesses everyday.
Got to admit, at this point that doesn't sound too wildly entertaining...but hey, this is an experiment. And it can only help me in my work-life. As I don't speak much to other people at work, and another of my key skills is Social Intelligence, I'll add in another:
  • I will try and find out one new (and interesting) thing about one person at work, everyday.

The key factor being that I have to find it interesting. So not about babies/decorating/weekend drinking debauchery. Well, the latter could be interesting....but generally isn't!

My I'm in a cynical mood today....

Sunday, July 01, 2007

little tips and still no coffee...

For the last week or so I've been trying out this little positive psychology tip. So far it's going pretty well ;)

Every night before I go to sleep I list five good things that happened today, and five things that I'm looking forward to tomorrow. Okay, so I admit that in the last week there were a fair few entries of "breakfast", "lunch" and "facebook" (yeah, I know, I'll get over the last one soon I promise), but there were also a fair decent number of more substantial items.

One thing I've found that this practice switches the mind away from the little things that went wrong, which can daddle around long after they happened. At one point this last week, something went mildly awry and it was hankering in my brain...yet after this little exercise it dissipated. And given that I can't even remember what the heck it was, I figure something must be working. Either that or I just have a bad memory. The other noticeable difference is that the next morning, on my daily walk to work (dodging yappy dogs and drips from air conditioning units) is that I remember what I have to look forward to.....mmmm, breakfast....

It's been 15 days since my last coffee. I'm aiming for 28 days, like the Sandra Bullock film....

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Preposterousness of Celebrity

Okay, this post got a little out of hand...grab your coffee....

Is there a tipping point when fame becomes a hindrance to happiness?

At the TONY Awards after party I think I hindered the personal happiness of Cynthia Nixon, who played Miranda Hobbs on Sex and the City. I don't watch much TV, and never read celebrity magazines. Which is bad luck for those involved in shows I DO watch, because they become a focus of intense adoration. If I ever meet the creators of South mind becomes confused at the number of ways I could embarrass myself....

Miranda I loved especially- her dry wit, loyalty to her friends, her vulnerability and her courage. Me and Miranda had been through a lot. Seeing her sitting at a nearby table (and having finished wolfing down my assortment of food from the buffet) I dithered, enquired to Danny as to the least offensive way to approach her then launched over to her table. Of course I knew it wasn't 'Miranda' but some part of me wanted to connect to the person I already felt so connected to.

Above is a pic of Danny (the friend who got us into the Tonys) and I. Okay you can't tell we're at the Tony's but we are. We were z-list so went in the back door.

Ms. Nixon kindly set done her cutlery and waited for the diatribe, which I, crouching beside her chair, promptly provided: "I know it was a long time ago but I loved the show, Miranda was my favorite character, wanted to thank you blah de blah de blah.."

She crinkled her eyes at me and thanked me. I added a little blather. She picked up her fork. I duly got up from my crouching position, and as her friends at the table sighed....I suddenly realized I had NO IDEA who it was that I had just spoken to. As a reasonable judge of people's underlying feelings and thoughts, I would also say fairly accurately that while my approach was not hostile or aggressive, it was trying for her. SHE KNEW that I had no idea who she was. There was disappointment and disillusionment on one side, and a kind of gentle, tired resignation on the other.

If I'd have approached this with more wisdom, I'd have thought about what it was in her rendition of the character of Miranda that touched me so much. What aspect of the thought and effort Cynthia put into her work that carried over into the heart of one person watching. Really, it was irrelevant that Miranda was MY favorite character. From her perspective, if indeed I was thankful, I was thankful for her creating a character that helped me (and my friends) through some tough times, made us laugh and entertained us. It was her skill in her craft that allowed that to happen.

The point is, my immediate reaction was obviously a common one. How many fans really think about an actor's motivation or skill behind the weaving of character? The very nature of celebrity ignores these aspects, instead focusing on the person as worthy of attention purely because a lot of people recognize their face.

Fame in most senses is a one-sided relationship - where the fan has a relationship with a celebrity, based on his or her perception of how that person relates to his or her life. They have a history, but it is all one-sided.

Sure, the more savvy fans would restrict their emotional ties to the character, yet so much in our society promotes adoration of the protagonist. To whose benefit?

Walking away from the table, not only did I feel a trifle silly, I also felt a twang of empathy. Remembering the times I'd been approached by overly-friendly people who had no idea who I was. Usually in such cases I jump to the immediate conclusion that they are going to invite me to their church, or to join a pyramid shopping scheme. Now imagine being approached by 10, or even 50 of those people per day!

The next night, I was at another event where I happened upon a man who was a big part of my favorite film of this year, the documentary Air Guitar Nation. Bjorn Turoque (not his real name...duh) has made the art of air guitar his life's focus.

Air Guitar Nation chronicles the American regional try-outs for the world Air Guitar Championships, and the finals in Finland themselves. Without ruining the film for you, lets just say Bjorn puts in extraordinary effort - an almost maniacal focus and belief in himself as the best, despite what the judges may think. The below pic is of Bjorn Turoqe (right) with arch nemisis C-Diddy.

When I mentioned that I'd seen the film and it was my favorite of the year, he said, with some disappointment - "Yes, you were only one of the two people who saw it." (Incidentally, probably because of how he was portrayed in the film, I didn't have any overwhelming desire to make a complete gushing idiot of myself this time. It was, I think, a fairly normal conversation.)

It's unlikely you've seen the film; it had only limited release. So you'll have to trust me when I say that Bjorn desires fame. It is apparent in his words, and more so in his actions. There is a desperateness portrayed in the film - he seems to be seeking not only acceptance, but adoration. Which is not unusual. After all, isn't that what we're led to believe celebrity generates?

If Bjorn really had fame, would he really want it still? Would the outpouring of goodwill and curiosity increase his level of happiness? Almost definitely it would leave him wanting more, as the adoration would be hollow. That is, his fans would adore him, but not know him as - and this is my assumption - he wants them to. This is DESPITE him being in a documentary; the portrayal is still just that, a cut and pasted character that propels the storyline.

And if it is art we're adoring, really, would his fans appreciate the intricacies of the air guitar moves he pulls out? Is that a really silly question? Or am I giving higher credence to Cynthia Nixon's almost 30 year career purely based on my own paradigms?

Does the desire for external approval correspond directly with the amount of art and skill required to perform the role? In other words, if you're really passionate about something for reasons other than gaining fame, does external approval matter? If the skill requires concentration and sweat, passion and internal rewards, what affect does it have when other people compliment your work? And, if the practice, whatever it is, is fairly easy, requires little thought or effort or we then need more or less approval in order to feel happy in ourselves?

Could Flow be a critical factor in the personal well-being of celebrities?

Did Tolstoy crave fame? Michaelangelo? Do U2 or...Bic Runga or the Killers or (insert great living jazz legend) create music so that people will know who they are?

What about Britney and those like her whose songs are not their own, who mould their careers around what will bring in the most public attention... Was the catalyst for her 'fall' the realization that the adoration she craved was empty? Was it because her 'art' couldn't hold her up on its own? Then again, plenty of talented actors/musicians etc fall into drugs and alcohol and depression. Perhaps the aggressiveness of fame, the momentary elation that always needs to be surpassed next time to gain a greater high, overwhelms the internal processes and parameters.

Celebrity is pleasure versus gratification at its most grand and terrific. And in this case, the pull of pleasure is so intense and so powerful...even many thoughtful, talented and committed people fall to its endless cycle of distorted emotion.

Given all of this, in my opinion (which may change!) the best sort of fame must be that which is devoid of personality, yet still recognizes the efforts that go into the art. It must be based on a sense of flow, the intense effort and concentration tied directly to personal, internal rewards. Recognition is not in itself a bad thing, I think. Nor are compliments where given truly.

And for fans, it is best to do no more than appreciate what is on offer, and not to try and work out the person beneath. That person is none of our business - it is their art which they have shared freely, nothing else. And the art should be enough.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Putting feelings into words produces therapeutic effects in the brain

The below is taken from a UCLA press release (21 June) describing recent discoveries in the links between naming emotions, mindfulness and positive feeling. You can read the entire article here, although it is so fascinating I've pasted almost all of it!

Why does putting our feelings into words — talking with a therapist or friend, writing in a journal — help us to feel better? A new brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.

Another study, with the same participants and three of the same members of the research team, combines modern neuroscience with ancient Buddhist teachings to provide the first neural evidence for why “mindfulness” — the ability to live in the present moment, without distraction — seems to produce a variety of health benefits.

When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which
serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger.

But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response? The answer is yes, according to Matthew
D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman. The study showed that
while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions, but exactly what it contributes has not been known.

“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions —labeling emotions — that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.

Many people are not likely to realize why putting their feelings into words is helpful.

“If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it’s because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” Lieberman said. “People don’t do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you’re feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn’t work that way. If you know you’re
trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn’t work — self-deception is
difficult. Because labeling your feelings doesn’t require you to want to feel better, it doesn’t have this problem.”

(Subjects in the study) ...viewed images of individuals making different emotional expressions. Below the picture of the face they
either saw two words, such as “angry” and “fearful,” and chose which emotion described the face, or they saw two names, such as “Harry” and “Sally,” and chose the gender-appropriate name that matched the face.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” Lieberman said. “When you attach the name ‘Harry,’ you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response."....

“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal
region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” he said. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad...

One benefit of therapy may be to strengthen this brain
region. Does therapy lead to physiological changes in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex? Lieberman, UCLA psychology professor Michelle Craske and their colleagues are studying this question.

Combining Buddhist Teachings and Modern Neuroscience
After the participants left the brain scanner, 27 of them filled out questionnaires about “mindfulness.”

“One way to practice mindfulness meditation and pay attention to present-moment experiences is to label your emotions by saying, for example, ‘I’m feeling angry right now’ or ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress right now’ or ‘this is joy’ or whatever the emotion is,” said (David) Creswell, lead author of the study.(...)

Creswell, who conducted the mindfulness research as an advanced graduate student of psychology at UCLA, said mindfulness
meditation is a “potent and powerful therapy that has been helping people for thousands of years.”

Previous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation is effective in reducing a variety of chronic pain conditions, skin disease, stress-related health conditions and a variety of other ailments, he said.

Creswell and his UCLA colleagues — Lieberman, Eisenberger and Way — found that during the labeling of emotions, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was activated, which seems to turn down activity in the amygdala. They then compared participants’ responses on the mindfulness questionnaire with the results of the labeling study.

“We found the more mindful you are, the more activation you have in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the less activation you have in the amygdala,” Creswell said. “We also saw activation in widespread centers of the prefrontal cortex for people who are
high in mindfulness. This suggests people who are more mindful bring all sorts of prefrontal resources to turn down the amygdala. These findings may help explain the beneficial health effects of mindfulness meditation, and suggest, for the first time, an underlying reason why mindfulness meditation programs improve mood and health.

“The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex can turn down the emotional response you get when you feel angry,” he said. “This moves
us forward in beginning to understand the benefits of mindfulness meditation. For the first time, we’re now applying scientific principles to try to understand how mindfulness works.(...")

“This is such an exciting study because it brings together the Buddha’s teachings — more than 2,500 years ago, he talked about the benefits of labeling your experience — with modern neuroscience,” Creswell said. “Now, for the first time since those teachings, we have shown there is actually a neurological reason for doing mindfulness
meditation. Our findings are consistent with what mindfulness meditation teachers have taught for thousands of years.”

Friday, June 22, 2007

What are your Signature Strengths?

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about signature strengths; the concept of signature strengths is pretty obvious. What is interesting about the approach of positive psychology is that it suggests we focus primarily on the top ones (in order to live a more fulfilling, satisfactory life get the drift by now...if not, see the introductory post on positive psychology)

I've done two signature strengths tests, and the top results come out much the same. Also, they feel about right to me.

Mine are, in order....
  • Your Top Strength
    Curiosity and interest in the world

    You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery. In the below picture I am discovering that this is a sit-down rather than a lie-down hammock

Your Second Strength
Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.

Your Third Strength
Love of learning

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Your Fourth Strength
Capacity to love and be loved

You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

Your Fifth Strength
Social intelligence

You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.

You can take an online test to determine your signature strengths here. (The VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire.) Takes about 15 min...

Okay, so now I want to figure out how to further implement these strengths into my life. I know I'm already doing some of it anyway - I'm already drawn to new things, travel and discovery. I love a long chat with a good friend, especially on topics that are new to me or buckle my paradigms. That's the easy part. Now it's time to think outside my current box, (and maybe integrate some of the strengths a little further down the list)....and think about how they can apply to my work, my relationships and my 'inner satisfaction'.

Bravery and valor (I scored lower on this one in another, shorter test)

Fairness, equity, and justice

Hope, optimism, and future-mindedness

Kindness and generosity

Perspective (wisdom)


Honesty, authenticity, and genuineness

Humor and playfulness

Creativity, ingenuity, and originality

Forgiveness and mercy

Industry, diligence, and perseverance


Zest, enthusiasm, and energy (Scored higher on this one in another test)

Spirituality, sense of purpose, and faith

Citizenship, teamwork, and loyalty

Appreciation of beauty and excellence

Self-control and self-regulation

Caution, prudence, and discretion

Modesty and humility