The lost art of joy – Change

“The only thing that is constant is change” ~ Heraclitus

2017 is drawing to a close and 2018 is rapidly approaching. It always seems like such a big transition, moving from one year to the next, but when you think about it, December 31st, 2017 and January 1st, 2018 aren’t going to be that much different. Let’s face it, 11:59pm on the 31st of December is really not much different to 12:01am on January the 1st. Rationally, the transition into 2018 holds no more meaning than the transition from November 30 to December 1, or as 3:36am quietly clicks over to 3:37am. Why does the passage of time matter so much more at the stroke of midnight? 11:57pm is probably feeling a bit irked.

Change in all other parts if our lives is a bit like the movement of the clock. Every now and then, we look to see that change has happened but it’s been happening imperceptibly all around us, the state of perpetual flux.

There are always constants – the immutable sunrise and sunset, the lunar rhythm of the full moon, the soft cycle of the seasons. It’s easy to be distracted by their comforting predictability. And yet, ironically, it is these power of these cycles that creates the constant change all around us that we fail to perceive – the winds, the rain, the tides which ever change our natural world, sculpting our land and changing our oceans over eons.

Change is constant, whether it be in our natural world, in our community, or in our body. How we approach this change is a key to living a life of joy and meaning.

It’s natural to dislike change. Our brains are essentially predictive pattern recognition engines. Our brain understands our environment by using the pattern of the world it’s already learnt to make a prediction of what it thinks will happen, and then it compares that prediction to the current inflow of information. If the brain’s prediction and the inflow of information match, the brain doesn’t need to do any more work. When the brain encounters something it didn’t predict, it has to work a lot harder to process the new information and use that information to update its internal model of the world.

I don’t like to shave, because shaving takes time, energy and resources. By not shaving, I’m being much more efficient (though some would say ‘lazy’).

Our brains are like my shaving habits. The brain would much rather not have to process any extra information because that takes time, energy and resources. By not having to process any more new information, our brains are efficient. Unlike my shaving habits, which probably are born of laziness, the brain likes to conserve energy since there’s only so much fuel the body can spare for it, and the more efficient the brains processing is, the less fuel it needs.

So by keeping things fairly constant and avoiding change, the brain can just plod along rather efficiently without all the extra resources needed if it had to process constant change.

But this puts us in a bit of a bind, since change is happening anyway whether our brains want it to or not.

It becomes the immovable force versus the irresistible object. We can dig in and resist the inevitable, or we can adapt to the change.

If we dig in, if we stay static, if we fail to adapt, then it eventually costs us more in terms of energy. It creates a greater cognitive load – maybe not in the short term, but resisting change is like padding against the current … it takes a lot of work, and it’s cognitively taxing. All that energy for no actual gain, well, we’ve talked about that before in other posts.

We can’t change ‘change’, and by trying to change ‘change’, we expend huge amounts of energy to get nowhere. And it changes nothing, except for diminished motivation, volition and resistance. The futile fighting with ‘change’ makes it hard for joy to flourish, not that it stops us trying sometimes.

John C. Maxwell wrote, “Change is inevitable, growth is optional”. You can certainly keep swimming upstream if you want to, or you can accept that change can not be changed and adapt in productive ways You can channel the energy that would have otherwise gone into resisting change and put it into something that aligns with your values and helps to enhance your life of meaning, in turn helping you to grow your joy, not unwittingly sabotage it.

If you don’t want to get stuck at 11:57pm and you want to move forward into the new year, accept the inevitability of change, and take that first step of committed action in the direction of your values.

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The lost art of joy – Regret

I took my son to see the latest Star Wars movie, “The Last Jedi” this afternoon. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. I don’t want to ruin the enjoyment for anyone.

What I can say is that one of the strong themes of the movie was regret. In this movie, Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, was in self-imposed exile, hiding physically and ‘spiritually’ (from the power of the force), because of the choices he made.

Everyone has regrets, the ‘what could have been’ … the one who got away, the job you could have had, the fight you wish you hadn’t, the investment you didn’t make or possibly the one you did. Like death and taxes, whether big or small, we all collect some regrets as we walk along life’s path.

Regret isn’t necessarily bad, it can be an opportunity to move forward into joy if it’s handled the right way. If regret is eventually going to lead to joy, then it has to spur us on to make adaptive changes. It’s learning from our mistakes. We might realise how we have been too busy to spend our time according to what’s valuable for us, or not given enough, or not looked after ourself enough, and we resolve to eat better, work less, or give more to others. There are so many different examples of how joy can come from acting mindfully and adaptively on our feelings of regret.

But sometimes regret becomes overwhelming, where instead of riding the wave of regret to power us forward, it dumps over the top of us and we are swamped by it’s deluge. They can sometimes merge into an overall feeling of being wrong or bad, it may cause paralysis because you mourn what you could have or should have done, and can’t seem to make a better decision going forward.

If any good, if any joy, is going to come from those experiences we may be regretting, then we have to grab our surfboard. Remember:
1. It’s ok to fail. Failure is inevitable. Without it, there can be no success. What’s done is done.
2. Make lemonade. Learning from what happened takes the lemons that you’re stuck with and makes them into something better.
3. Keep looking forward. Once you stop looking to the past mistakes, you can start focussing on future opportunities
4. Be mindful. Engage in the present moment to enhance your current joy.
5. Be values driven. You’re much less likely to regret decisions that you make if they are based on your values. But if things don’t go according to plan, you can always go back to step 1.

It’s that committed action to our values that ultimately enhances our joy, now and in the future.

The lost art of joy – Striking the right chord

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the joy thief of excessive stress, and about finding the right balance to optimise our emotional homeostasis.

Many people assume that if excessive stress leads to no joy, then having a life of no stress would be the opposite and lead to a life of untold happiness. Except, it doesn’t. No stress may feel great in the short term, but a life of absolutely no stress is a different form of malaise, leading to emotional weakness, something which is just as joy-sapping as excessive emotional strain.

As I said yesterday, it’s all about balance.

So how do you know where the optimum is between not enough and too much? The answer to that lies in the humble guitar string.

I really don’t know a lot about guitars, but I do know that when you first put a new string on the guitar, it’s unstretched – there’s no strain on it at all. If all you did was tied the two ends of the string to the tone peg and the tuning peg, the string would remain limp and lifeless. It wouldn’t be able to do anything useful. It certainly wouldn’t play a note. When the tuning peg is twisted a few times, there is some tightness in the wire. The string is now under tension (i.e. stress). It’s now able to play a note of some form, so it can do some work and fulfil some of the function of a guitar string, though the note’s out of tune.

With a small adjustment, the string reaches its optimal tension and can play the correct note! This is the point where the string is fulfilling its designed purpose. Optimal stress equals optimal function.

With further tightening of the string, the perfect pitch is lost, but the string can still produce a sound of some form. With more tension, the string can still make a noise, but it’s off-pitch, and on a microscopic level, the fibres inside the cord are starting to tear. If the string were wound further and further, it would eventually break.

If this ratio of the tension of the string versus the usefulness of the string were to be plotted as a graph, it would look like an upside down “U”. This is the classic stress/productivity curve.

Each of us has our own particular point where we are in tune. When we know where our sweet spot is, we can operate within it, achieving our best in life without doing ourselves harm. This is the first point that we need to identify on our own personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum productivity.

We also need to understand that a bit more stress is ok. It’s inevitable that we are going to be stressed beyond what we usually cope with at times. Without that challenge, there would be no growth. Challenges usually hurt. You can’t have growth without pain. Our muscles adapt and grow when they are pushed just beyond their optimal load. The key is learning how far we can push ourselves before we start to falter and fail. This is the second point we need to discover on our personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum growth.

We understand where these points are on our own personal stress-productivity curve when we listen to our inner selves and learn from our mistakes. Once we have found our own note, we can sense when our bodies and minds are starting to stray outside of our optimum performance, to listen when we’re not quite in tune. Joy is much more likely to thrive if we are playing our own notes in tune, striking the right chord.

Don’t stress about stress, part 2

ThatWhichDoesNotKillUs

In the last blog post, we looked at some of the different ways of looking at stress outside of the medical field – the stress on a guitar string, the power band of the car engine, and the action of gravity on our bodies. In this post, I want to expand on those metaphors, using them to help us understand how we can respond to stress, and why stress isn’t our enemy, but it actually brings out our best if managed in the right way.

One of the reasons why gravity gives you strong muscles and bones, and zero gravity gives you weak muscles and bones, is because of resistance.

Movement involves work. We do “work” everyday in simple everyday activities, because our muscles and bones have to apply a certain amount of force in order to overcome gravity. Our muscles adapt by growing the muscle fibres to provide that force, and bones remodel themselves to provide the maximum resistance to the loads that gravity and the muscles put through them. We’re not aware of this day-to-day because we never experience prolonged changes in our gravitational fields.

But when we need to do more work than our muscles are accustomed to, our muscle fibres increase in strength, first as the nerve networks that supply the muscles become more efficient, after about two weeks of ongoing training, the fibres themselves increase in size [1, 2]. The growth in muscle fibres is caused by three related factors: mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress [2]. Mechanical tension involves “force generation and stretch”. In other words, the muscle fibres are stretched just beyond their usual capacity, and they actively fight against the resistance. This damages the weaker muscle fibres, which are repaired. The remaining muscle fibres are forced to adapt by growing larger because of the stimulation of growth factors [2].

One of my favorite “Demotivator” posters says, “That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable” [3]. Of course, the phrase that they’ve parodied is, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Why is there truth to that idiom? Adversity occurs when life circumstances come against us. In other words, adversity resists us. In the arm wrestle between adversity and overcoming, work is involved. We have to fight back.

In a similar way, we grow when adversity pushes us just beyond what we have done before, stretching us. We may sustain some damage in the process, but that helps to reduce our weaknesses, and forces us into growth as we heal. When we push back against adversity, the “cells” of our character grow.

Of course, we all know examples where muscles fail under intense or prolonged loads. I vividly remember the pictures of the UK’s Paula Radcliffe, succumbing to the grueling hills and scorching Athens heat with only four miles left in the 2004 Olympic Marathon. Muscle failure from excessive stretch or excessive endurance parallels the allostatic load response, which is what people commonly referred to as ‘stress’.

Scientific evidence that stress is positive

There have been recent studies in animals that demonstrate that stress is physically as well as mentally enhancing.

Neurogenesis is the process of new nerve cell formation. Studies of rodents placed under intermittent predictable stressors showed an increase in neurogenesis within the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain related to learning and memory. Along with this enhancement of neurogenesis, the function of the hippocampus increased, specifically hippocampal-dependent memory, with a reduction in depression and anxiety-like behaviours.

As Petrik et al noted in their review, “Contrary to stress always being ‘bad’, it has long been appreciated that stress has an important biological role, and recent research supports that some amount of stress at the right time is actually useful for learning and memory.” [4]

Lessons from stress

So what can we learn from stress? How do we use the stress that we are exposed to every day to make us grow strong and durable?

Firstly, like the guitar string, we need to learn when we are in tune, at the peak of our productivity. Or like the car engine, what it feels like to be in the power band. When we know where our sweet spot is, we can operate within it, achieving our best in life without doing ourselves harm. This is the first point that we need to identify on our own personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum productivity.

The other life principle to be gained from the car engine analogy is that not all of us are high performance engines. I would love to think that I’m a F1 racing engine – highly tuned, supreme power – but I recognise my limitations. I would even settle for a 5-litre V8, but I know that I’m probably more like a well-tuned V6. We are what we are. Sometimes we apply the most stress to ourselves when we try to drive in the power band of someone else’s engine. We need to accept who we are.

It seems logical that if too much stress is bad for us, then having little or no stress is good for us. But like the new guitar string, minimal stress makes us unproductive. Like zero gravity on the body, little or no stress makes us weak.

And we need to understand that a bit more stress is ok. It’s inevitable that we are going to be stressed beyond what we usually cope with at times. But without that challenge, there would be no growth. Challenges usually hurt. You can’t have growth without pain. In the muscle analogy, at the stretch at which peak growth occurs, muscle fibres tear and the lactic acid build up in the remaining cells can be very uncomfortable. The key is learning how far we can push ourselves before we start to falter and fail. This is the second point we need to discover on our personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum growth.

Once we understand our own individual points of maximum productivity and growth, we can use them as guides to our personal growth and achievement. Actually, I should specify that these are our starting points, since as we face challenges and experience growth, the points will change slightly. We can remap those points and continue in our pattern of growth and development.

Pushing ourselves into just enough stress to achieve growth, then pulling back to rest and restore, is a pattern of growth that is seen in many facets of the natural world and the human body. Body builders and athletes use this method all the time in their training. They push themselves with more repetitions and heavier weights, or longer or faster runs, then they pull back to consolidate their gains. During our adolescence, our bodies naturally go through growth spurts – periods of rapid growth followed by a plateau, before the next burst of growth hormone hits us again. Even tree rings demonstrate that growth and consolidation occur all the way through the natural world.

This is the Stressed-Rest cycle. The studies in animals on neurogenesis strengthen the theory, because it was the animals that experienced bursts of stress that showed enhanced neurogenesis, memory and reduced depression/anxiety behaviours.

If you want maximum personal growth, constant stress does not help. There has to be times of rest. Some people think that rest time is wasted time, reducing productivity. But as explained, without rest time, productivity rapidly falls away. Without rest, stress goes bad, leading to allostatic overload.

So in summary, excessive stress is bad. But if all stress were bad, then we would all crumple any time that something became difficult. So stress is not a force for evil. Stress is part of our normal everyday lives, and is vital if we are to see ongoing personal growth.

We know from living life that we all don’t fall in a heap when things go wrong. We have in-built ways of coping that help us to absorb troubles and adversities and like emotional photosynthesis – turn them into fuel for growth.

This is the science of resilience, the counterbalance to the forces of stress that help us cope and adapt in a rapidly changing natural and social environment, the Yang to allostatic overload’s Yin. A discussion on the science of stress is not complete without a discussion of resilience, which I’ll discuss in the next blog in this series.

References

  1. Hortobagyi, T. and Maffiuletti, N.A., Neural adaptations to electrical stimulation strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2011. 111(10): 2439-49 doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-2012-2
  2. Schoenfeld, B.J., The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res, 2010. 24(10): 2857-72 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3
  3. Adversity. Demotivators [cited July 2013]; Available from: http://www.despair.com/adversity.html.
  4. Petrik, D., et al., The neurogenesis hypothesis of affective and anxiety disorders: are we mistaking the scaffolding for the building? Neuropharmacology, 2012. 62(1): 21-34 doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.09.003