The lost art of joy – Beauty

Cottesloe Beach, Western Australia, at sunset

I like to flirt with photography.

There’s a particular ambience about taking photos, especially landscape photography, at either dawn or dusk. The softer light, the interplay of shadows, all make the end of the day a great time to wander around and take some photographs. I’ve always lived on the east coast of Australia, so I don’t ever get to see the sunset over the ocean, but late last year I was at a conference in Perth, Western Australia, so I thought I would seize the moment. I analysed the weather forecasts, and on the only sunny day of my trip, I skipped the afternoon workshops and went to Cottesloe Beach. There, I sat in front of the Indiana Tea House, the chill of the icy gale creating a stunning contrast to the majesty of the sun dipping into the sea, then the pink and orange glow fading beyond the expansive horizon.

It was a moment of profound beauty, a moment of aesthetic richness in the vast tapestry of the earth’s natural grandeur.

I remember that moment as one of joy. I was cold, and I was tired and I was hungry, but those aren’t the feelings that I’ve tagged to my memory of that event. The joy of beauty trumped my usual hangriness.

That bond between beauty and joy has been confirmed in broader studies. George MacKerron, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex, used an app he created to map the correlation of happiness to activity and location. He has tens of thousands of users and hundreds of thousands of data points. The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise. The next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing).

But what about beauty links it to happiness?

I think it’s a complex answer to a simple question.

Some people believe that physical beauty, especially of people, is related to happiness of those people. The more beautiful you are, the happier you are. That might seem true, but like beauty itself, the assumption is superficial.

Beauty is not specifically related to the usual markers of happiness (colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth, family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values). It’s not something that meets our material needs or aspirations. So the observation that beauty is associated with joy means there must be something deeper to it.

Stendhal, a French writer in the 18th century, wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.”

I think that’s closer to the money.

It may be that our appreciation of beauty is because it is able to encourage the feelings we associate with happiness: calmness, connection (to history or to the divine), wealth, reflection, appreciation, hope.

Beauty offers a portal directly to our emotions. It transcends conscious thought and speaks directly to our soul. It communicates in a language that can never be described in just words.

I travelled from one side of Australia to the other but you don’t have to travel 5,000 kilometres to experience beauty. Beauty is usually all around us, but so often we aren’t paying attention. Mindfulness, being in the present moment, paying attention to what’s around you, can help you unlock the beauty that’s all around you, if you take the time to appreciate it.

See if you can experience something beautiful in your every day life, and unlock the joy it contains.

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The lost art of joy – Friendship

Last night, my family and I had dinner with an old friend.

I should clarify … by ‘old’, I don’t mean ‘geriatric’. I mean that I have known this friend for a long time. She is the person I have been friends with the longest, having first met her in early medical school nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s a friendship that survives despite geographical, logistical and theological differences, because it’s built on the deepest mutual respect and care. I don’t have many friends, but this friend is definitely a keeper.

Friendships mean different things to different people. Some friends are gregarious, a source of instant joy, that person that always makes you laugh even when life makes you want to cry. Then there are those friends who enkindle that deeper sense of joy, because they are steadfast through the tough times.

In the 21st century, our concept of friendship has undergone some pretty radical changes. Before 2004, ‘social networks’ were the people you physically hung out with. Now when you talk about ‘social networks’, people assume you’re referring to Facebook.

Is physical social networking better than virtual? Everyone has their own opinion. We know that humans are wired for social interaction, with specific areas of the brain devoted to social behaviour, such as the orbitofrontal cortex. There are also neurotransmitters and hormones that are strongly associated with bonding and maintenance of social relationships, like oxytocin and β-endorphins. Research has shown that both humans and other primates find social stimuli intrinsically rewarding—babies look longer at faces than at non-face stimuli.

We also know that people who engage in social relationships are more likely to live longer, and that loneliness predicts depressive symptoms, impaired sleep and daytime dysfunction, reductions in physical activity, and impaired mental health and cognition. At the biological level, loneliness is associated with altered blood pressure, increased stress hormone secretion, a shift in the balance of cytokines towards inflammation and altered immunity. Loneliness may predict a shortened life-span.

It’s important to understand what loneliness is, and conversely, what defines good social relationships? Fundamentally, good or bad social relationships are related to the quality of the social interaction. This rule applies equally to real social networks and their on-line equivalents. So quality is fundamentally more important than quantity in terms of friendships, with that quality strongly determined by the connection within those social relationships. For example, loneliness “can be thought of as perceived isolation and is more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships”.

The corollary is that friendship can be thought of as perceived connection within social relationships, or the comforting feeling that accompanies the match between one’s desired and actual social relationships.

So healthy social relationships aren’t defined by the size of your network, but by the strength of the connections that your network contains, relative to what’s important to you. Just because you’re not a vivacious extrovert who is friends with everyone doesn’t mean that your social network is lacking. It also means that you can have meaningful connections to friends through social media, just as much as you can have meaningful connections through face-to-face interactions. It’s not the way you interact, but the quality of the connection that counts.

One way to increase the quality of your social connections is to enjoy your friendships mindfully. Mindfulness is being fully engaged in the present moment. So mindful friendships is to be fully engaged with the other people around you, to use all your senses to connect with those around you. To ignore the other social networks around you on your phone or tablet, keeping them out of sight and out of mind until afterwards.

Try it. At the next Christmas party, or when you’re with your loved ones on Christmas Day, turn off the phone and engage with the people around you as mindfully as you can, and see if you experience a new and improved form of Christmas joy.

The lost art of joy – Thanks

“Gratitude is one of those rare things you get more of by giving it away” ~ John Kralik

What’s the first thing you do when you get a Christmas present? Do you try and guess what’s inside by tapping it, feeling it, weighing it in your hands or shaking it? Or do you excitedly rip it open without stopping to think?

Usually at some point, either before or after the ceremonial mutilation of wrapping paper, there would be a ‘thank you’ to the person who gave it to you. Saying thank you is second nature to most of us. It’s a social norm, a sign of good manners.

We may say thank you fairly often, but are we practicing gratitude?

As I was randomly trawling the internet one day, I read this: “Have I always been thankful for everything in my life? Of course. But I never practiced gratitude until then.” I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before. The article was about John Kralik, whose story has inspired many in the business world. He was a lawyer in LA who was struggling. It wasn’t that Kralik was impolite and never said thank you, but he decided to make a deliberate effort to practice gratitude, so he made a resolution to send one handwritten thank you card to a different person every day for a year. As all good stories go, this simple act helped to turn around his business and his relationships.

Kralik’s story demonstrates that expressing our thanks is one part of the greater whole of gratitude.

Gratitude is a broad behavioural skill which has a number of different aspects, including:
(1) understanding individual differences in the experience of gratitude
(2) appreciation of others
(3) a focus on what you have
(4) feelings of awe when encountering beauty
(5) behaviours to express gratitude
(6) appreciation rising from understanding that life is short
(7) a focus on the positive in the present moment, and
(8) positive social comparisons

The research suggests that people who are naturally grateful tend to be less angry and hostile, less depressed, less emotionally vulnerable, and experienced positive emotions more frequently. Gratitude also correlates with traits like positive social functioning, emotional warmth, gregariousness, activity seeking, trust, altruism, and tender-mindedness. Grateful people also had higher openness to their feeling, ideas, and values, and greater competence, dutifulness, and achievement striving.

Like mindfulness, these effects may be simply an association of gratitude with other personality traits. In other words, people who are naturally optimistic or conscientious are also more likely to be thankful, rather than the thankfulness causing someone to be more optimistic or conscientious. There are a few studies that show that gratitude interventions improve self-worth, body image, and anxiety, although the evidence is that while gratitude was better than doing nothing, it was equal to, not superior to, currently accepted psychological interventions.

What gratitude does do is open you up to joy by intentionally drawing your focus on to the enriching elements in your life. And, if you express your gratitude to others through things like Thank You cards, then other people will reciprocate! Gratitude is joy gone viral.
It’s easy to start practicing gratitude. You can do what Kralik did and write a thank you note. Of you can do a gratitude journal, which is the best studied gratitude intervention. A gratitude journal simply involves writing something down every day that you’re thankful for. It doesn’t have to be long. A single sentence or phrase is good enough.

It doesn’t even have to be written, if that’s not your thing. I had a friend who was determined to do a gratitude journal, but she also had a love of and a knack for photography. So, she decided to take a photo a day of something that she was grateful for, and then post it on Facebook. She had her moments when she doubted herself, when she struggled to find a subject of her gratitude, or struggled to find something unique (especially after day 300), but the end result was amazing. She grew in her gratitude and her photographic skill, and I often found myself blessed by her beautiful images and insights.

So, grow in gratitude and express it in your own unique way, maybe even spreading the joy of gratitude to those around you.

The lost art of joy – The freedom of now

How do drive your car?

We all have our own particular styles – cautious, sedate, zippy, or kamikazi. There are some drivers that drive like a tortoise on tranquillisers. I always seem to get stuck behind them at traffic lights. I would describe my driving style as ‘confident’, though when I quickly nip around them at the lights, I’m sure they would think I’m in too much of a hurry.

Whether we’re on a perpetual Sunday drive or we go like a bat out of hell, there are some commonalities to how we all drive. No one drives the whole journey looking in the rearview mirror and no one crawls along in first gear all the way just in case there might be a red light or a stop sign up ahead. When we’re in control of our car, we drive according to the conditions around us at the time.

In the first two posts of this series, we looked at acceptance and values, or as the Serenity Prayer says, “give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Acceptance and values intersect in the present moment, the ‘now’.

We can’t change what has happened in the past, and we can’t control what is going to happen in our future. We can advance in the direction set by our values and embrace the freedom of living in the now.

Living in the now is just like driving. There’s no point looking in the rearview mirror the whole way. We can’t change the past. Getting lost in the if-only’s of the past means we don’t get to experience what is going on around us, and it effectively stops us moving forward because we’re looking the wrong way. We become stagnant and the lack of lack of forward progress makes it hard for joy to flourish. Neither can we control the future. Sometimes we allow the what-if’s of the inherently uncertain future to slow our progress and hold us back. We don’t know what’s around the bend, and after a while we prefer the familiarity of our rut.

When we move beyond the past and leave the future to our destiny, we can focus on the richness of the present moment. Living in the present moment is both liberating and invigorating – we are no longer being held captive by what has been or what might be, and we can allow our attention to absorb all of the plentiful and pleasing details that are going on all around us, every moment of our lives.

Living in the now is part of the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a skill, and like every other skill, it takes some practice to get good at it. But the practice is worth it, as mindfulness is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, agreeableness, conscientiousness, vitality, self esteem, empathy, sense of autonomy, competence, optimism, and pleasant affect.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but if you’re a novice, then a good place to start is through some apps like Smiling Mind or Headspace.  As you get better at living in the present moment, you will start to enjoy the richness and freedom that comes with it. If you start now, you won’t have to live haunted by the ghosts of Christmas-Past or Christmas-Future, but can have a marry and a mindful Christmas, living in the freedom of now.

The Perspective of Dawn

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Perhaps it was the hypnogogic delirium, but I had an epiphany.

Truthfully, it was probably less epiphany and more of a reminder, that little “oh yeah” sort of moment.

Yesterday I was sitting in an airport lounge at 5am, waiting to be whisked away on my 6am flight to the tropical north to join my family and in-laws for Christmas.

For the life of me, I can’t remember why I decided to book a flight for six in the morning.  I think the flight was cheap, and I thought to myself “6am … that’s not that early …”.  I forgot that to allow for travel time and checking in, I had to get up at 3:30am.  Not even sparrows are awake at half-past three.  In fact, I’m often going to bed at that time of night, so this whole pre-dawn awakening thing was really foreign.

The fact that I was showered, dressed, and sitting at the airport compos mentis was really weird … I think I was slightly delirious.

Still, the whole predawn awakening thing was enlightening. It was a refreshing glimpse of a time of day that I normally spend hibernating. The first thing I noticed was the light. I always thought that dawn and dusk were the same but just lighting from the opposite direction, but there’s a subtle difference in the hue that gives the early morning a softer, fresher glow.

The other thing I noticed was the stillness.  Everyone else in their right mind didn’t book dawn flights and were still snug in their beds, so the usual hustle and busy buzzing that usually fills the streets was absent.

The soft cool breeze on my face, in the midst of the calmed half-light was almost meditative.  It was quite a change to my daily routine of sleeping until I have to drag myself (and the kids) out to our usual daytime occupations.

The stillness and beauty of my new perspective of dawn reminded me of how it’s easy to get stuck in the same pattern.

Our routines are partly a function of necessity – we have to go to work, the kids have to go to school, we have to get groceries, attend social functions, go to church on Sundays.  There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this repetitive normality.  Still, our brain gets used to the usual patterns and it starts to filter out the same input that it gets continually exposed to, and our brains function on autopilot.  This process of automation, habituation and suppression is an advantage for our brains in terms of efficiency and energy conservation, but this leaves a bit of a cognitive void which our brain fills with the internal monologue of our own confabulation.  We drink our own kool-aid, as it were.

This is what people often think of as “the rut”, that existential inertia and stagnation, the first-world malaise of meaningless repetition.

The antidote to the rut is to break the pattern.  When we have a change to our circumstances and we experience something new, our brain has to process things differently.  More processing power is needed, which involves our working memory and our conscious stream of thought.  One small step outside the comfort zone of our routine, and all of a sudden, the world can seem fresh and new again.

This process is enhanced through mindfulness.  When we practice mindfulness, we fully engage in the present moment.  We can appreciate the detail that we so often filter out and ignore.  We can (and should) practice mindfulness at any time, but when we’re engaging in a new experience, immersing ourselves in it mindfully will only enhance it.

The perspective of dawn that I experienced yesterday helped remind me of the power of stillness in an ever-demanding world over-saturated with stimulation.

I hope that this Christmas and New Year, you can take the time to have your own ‘perspective of dawn’ as it were – step out of your comfort zone and experience something completely new, and engage with the experience fully, mindfully.  I hope you gain a fresh insight that you can help propel you forward into the amazing potential that 2017 holds for us all.

From my family to yours, have a very Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year.

Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 3. Mindfulness – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

3. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that we can all become better at.

Mindfulness involves directing our attention towards things in the present moment, and away from those thoughts that drag us into the faults of the past or the fear of the future [1]. Between the various disciplines of psychology and a number of different religions, there are many ways in which mindfulness has been defined. The way I consider mindfulness is similar to that in the ACT framework, which is simply non-judgemental awareness of one’s moment-to-moment experience. In other words, mindfulness involves accepting the experience our internal and external realities simply as they are, without judging them as good or bad, positive or negative. Mindfulness accepts the experience of events fully, without resorting to excessive preoccupation or suppression of the experience.

People who are naturally mindful are more likely to have higher levels of life satisfaction, agreeableness, conscientiousness, vitality, self esteem, empathy, sense of autonomy, competence, optimism, and pleasant affect, and are less likely to have depression, neuroticism, absent-mindedness, dissociation, rumination, cognitive reactivity, social anxiety, difficulties in emotion regulation, experiential avoidance and general psychological symptoms.

So mindfulness is obviously a good thing to have, though before we get too carried away, it may be that mindfulness isn’t the cause of all of these positive effects, but simply a common association. In other words, it might be that people who are psychologically health naturally tend to be more mindful.

For the most part, this is probably the case, but there is evidence for mindfulness as a psychological intervention for those who are not so naturally mindful.  Those who are taught to practice mindfulness skills also demonstrate an increased ability to cope with habitual urges (like a desire to smoke), feelings of anxiety, low mood, and fearfulness [2].

Mindfulness has some overlap with the psychological skill of acceptance. In mindfulness, we not only stop fighting with our feelings and thoughts, but we take a step back to pay attention to them and observe them in a non-judgemental way. With acceptance, we acknowledge the thoughts and feelings, but divert our attention to other things.

To clarify, mindfulness is non-judgementally observing our thoughts, feelings and emotions, not fighting with them to suppress them, or passively allowing our thoughts and feelings to overwhelm us. If our thoughts or feelings were like a hungry lion, mindfulness is standing outside of the cage, observing the different characteristics of the lion, rather than staying in the cage to try and fight it, or passively stand in the cage waiting to become lunch.

Mindfulness doesn’t need special training. Being mindful is simply being aware of your thoughts, feelings and emotions, and accepting them for what they are. Are you happy at the moment? What does that feel like in your body? What does anxiety feel like? Describe the feeling … hot or cold, squeezing, searing, heavy or light? Do you have an urge to do something, like have some chocolate or smoke a cigarette? What is that urge like? Can you put it into words?

Only one word of warning. It would be fair to assume that someone will be reading this who has experienced some severe trauma in their lives. Both acceptance and mindfulness will help to manage the feelings that your trauma will inevitably cause, but if the severity of that trauma causes you to be overwhelmed by your feelings, don’t try and tackle those memories and emotions on your own. Work with a psychologist or doctor who is experienced in mindfulness-based therapies, so there is someone to assist you through the process so you’re not overwhelmed, until you get better and stronger.

Often mindfulness is taught as a contemplative activity, that is, we think about the feelings as we observe them. However, there is nothing wrong with expressing your mindfulness in other ways, like drawing, painting or movement. You can also write them down. I often read through the Psalms that King David wrote, and wonder if he was modelling mindfulness for us in the way he acknowledged and described his feelings in the words that he wrote as prayer and poetry. Find what works best for you as you grow in the skill of mindfulness.

References

[1]        Harris R. The happiness trap : how to stop struggling and start living. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008.
[2]        Keng SL, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clinical psychology review 2011 Aug;31(6):1041-56.