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!