“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr
It’s true that we are hard-wired toward negativity, that we have a ‘built-in negativity bias.’ Rick Hanson explains that as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots. That’s because — in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived — if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick — a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species — then there may be no more chances to pass on their genes.
However, studies have also shown that we are hard-wired for empathy and altruism as well. This is because cooperative behaviour worked on our behalf and helped our ancestors to survive under harsh conditions. So we reap psychological and physiological benefits when we practice altruism, when we do good things for others. In other words, doing good is good for you.
First of all, what exactly is altruism? It is defined as:
A voluntary, sometimes costly behaviour motivated by the desire to help another individual; a selfless act intended to benefit only the other.
So why would we do something that is of no benefit to ourselves?
Giving to and helping other people releases endorphins, which then activate parts of our brain that are associated with trust, pleasure and social connection. This chemical reaction in the brain increases the chance that we will be altruistic and do good deeds in the future, thus creating a positive feedback loop of generosity and happiness.
Evidence suggests that helping others can boost our health. Compassion has been shown to help stabilise the immune system against immunosuppressing effects of stress. Altruistic acts may also stimulate the brain to release endorphins, which are powerful natural painkillers. One study found that participating in charitable activities can be better for our health than lowering cholesterol or stopping smoking
People who are altruistic tend to see life as more meaningful. Altruism is associated with better marital relationships, increased physical health, and enhanced self-esteem. Acts of altruism decrease feelings of hopelessness and decrease depression. It may also neutralise negative emotions that affect immune, endocrine and cardiovascular function.
Helping others has actually been shown to increase our life span. Studies on older people show that those who give support to others live longer than those who don’t.
Quite simply, altruism feels good and is good for you. When you help others, it promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness. So although it is true that we are hard-wired to notice the negative, we are also hard-wired toward compassion and altruism. So the next time you have a choice between acting from fear or acting from caring and compassion, choose the latter, it’s better for you in every way.
What can we do when loneliness, anxiety and depression take hold. We can hold on to hope.
I explored the Crisis of the Heart that is overtaking so many of us in my latest article on Thrive Global.
There is a crisis of the heart impacting us at the moment. It’s showing up as depression, anxiety, and attention disorders. These are also symptomatic of a cognition crisis. Adam Gazzaley, PhD explains it as:
“A crisis at the core of what makes us human: the dynamic interplay between our brain and our environment — the ever-present cycle between how we perceive our surroundings, integrate this information, and act upon it..”
The numbers of people suffering are staggering. In the United States, depression affects 16.2 million adults, and anxiety about 18.7 million. In New Zealand, it is estimated that one in five women suffers from depression, and about one in 10 men; with about one in six people suffering from anxiety.
Gazzaley describes a sharp increase in the number of teens impacted. American teens have experienced a 33% increase in depressive symptoms, with 31% more having died by suicide between 2010 and 2015. And in New Zealand, the percentage of 15- to 24-year-olds struggling with mental health has been steadily increasing, affecting
11.8 per cent in the past year. The estimated number of youth in NZ experiencing psychological distress has gone up from 58,000 to 79,000 in the past year. And tragically, NZ has the highest youth suicide rate among teenagers between 15 and 19 in the OECD.
What is causing this horrific increase, this crisis spiralling out of control? Grazzaley and many others argue that we just cannot keep up with the rapid rise of technology and it is impacting our brains and our well-being.
“Our brains simply have not kept pace with the dramatic and rapid changes in our environment — specifically the introduction and ubiquity of information technology.”
But it’s not only our brains that are impacted; it’s also affecting our emotions and our hearts. Jack Kornfield describes this crisis as:
Our Crisis of Heart.
“No marvellous technological developments alone will stop continuing warfare, racism, environmental destruction, and global injustice. The source of these sufferings is in the human heart. Actions based on greed, hatred, disrespect, and ignorance inevitably lead to suffering.”
Gazzaley echoes this sentiment as he notes that “the increasing complexity, speed, and multitasking of our modern environment has overtaken our capacities, and we live disconnected from our own self and from one another.”
This disconnect from our self and from one another is perpetuating the crisis, and the crisis is spiralling out of control. So how do we get a handle on it, how do we deal with a crisis of the heart? Kornfield asks us to reengage the heart.
If actions based on greed, hatred, disrespect and ignorance lead to suffering, then it makes sense that actions based on their opposites — generosity, love, respect, and wisdom — lead to happiness and well-being.
Numerous studies have shown that there are ways to increase joy, compassion, peace, and gratitude. The benefits of mindfulness and compassion are well researched. The work of Richard Davidson, professor of psychology, is especially interesting. Davidson’s work at Center for Healthy Minds at UW Madison has shown that positive emotions such as loving kindness and compassion can be learned. This is great news; these positive emotions can be learned and nurtured to grow.
But the rapid rise of technology continues, and even as we work to hold on to the positive emotions that we are nurturing, the disconnect that Gazzaley described looms.
But there is hope. Kornfield is working with others to bring principles of heart and compassion into the field of technological development:
“Together with technology leaders, neuroscientists, and contemplatives, I have helped co-found something called the Open Source Compassion to bring principles of heart and compassion into all levels of technological development. We acknowledge that the capacities of modern technology are among the most potent of human creations. We are collaborating with companies and institutions around the world and beginning to formulate a kind of Hippocratic Oath for tech, which reads:
· We will not create technology that causes harm to humans and to life.
· If later we learn that it inadvertently does so, we will change it.
· We will strive to create technology that fosters human well-being and respect.
· We can create technology for profit, but not if it contravenes the first three principles.
· Working at all levels, we will act with professionalism and take these responsibilities as paramount.
Ultimately we must have hope; hope that there can be positive change and that love will prevail. Kornfield implores us:
Let these words be a reminder, a call.
Find your way to quiet yourself and tend your heart.
Promote love and spread the power of compassion in your work and in your community.
In the Muppets’ Christmas Carol Movie, Kermit sings: “Tis the season to be jolly and joyous” . . . But what if you’re not feeling overly joyous? As we enter the holiday season this year, many people are feeling less than joyful. The political scene is grim and there is a lot to feel anxious and unhappy about. And for many, the idea of spending more time with family during the holidays does not fill the heart with glee. How you feel is your choice, daily. But if you want to feel more joy, not only this holiday season, but in general, there is an answer.
Science tells us that happiness and joy are things we can cultivate. Thanks to the advent of fMRI machines (functional magnetic resonance imaging), we can now watch our brains in real time and see which areas of the brain light up when we’re angry, frustrated, or joyful, and we can also watch the brain change depending on what we focus on. The idea that our brain architecture can change has been termed “neuroplasticity.”
In a study done by The National Center for Biotechnology Information, Neural Correlates of Gratitude, it was found that gratitude can be a natural antidepressant. When we consciously focus on what we are grateful for, certain neural circuits are activated; when activated, an increase of dopamine and serotonin is produced, which is similar to how many antidepressants work.
Building new neural pathways may not come easily at first. A good analogy is bushwhacking through a jungle. Imagine trying to walk through a jungle in a dense rain forest. It requires a machete every step of the way to clear the path the first time through. After a few more times, you might lay down some stones to keep the path clear and eventually the path becomes a road and soon it becomes easily travelled. As you walk the path more and more, you continue to reinforce it and make it even stronger. Eventually, this new neural pathway becomes a habit.
To add to the strengthening of some pathways, our brain also has a way to ‘prune’ the pathways used less often. Scientists call this “use-dependent cortical reorganization,” meaning that we strengthen whichever neural pathways we use most often, and lose the ones we use the least. Hebb’s Lawstates “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
So how do we do this? How do we create these new neural pathways and start to rewire our brain towards happiness, compassion, and joy? Many studieshave shown that cultivating gratitude, or practicing Conscious Gratitude, is the most powerful way to start building new pathways.
Seth Godin, best selling author, recently stated in an interview: “I think that gratitude is a profound choice. It is not just something that some people do. There is a way to look at life as either “have to” or a “get to”. There are all these things in life we could do because we have to do them, or there are things in life we do because we get to do them.”
Godin goes on to explain that this has nothing to do with the truth of what is going on in the world around you. It has to do with our narrative about what is going on.
Living life knowing you “get to” do something is better than constantly feeling like you have to. Godin poses the question: “What is the opposite of gratitude?” And he believes the opposite of gratitude is entitlement. “People who believe they are entitled to something, walk around expecting that the world owes them something, whereas the people who are grateful for something are eager to share that gratitude with others, and that lines up exactly with “have to” and “get to.”
So if we agree that being grateful can lead to joy, then how can we start feeling more grateful?
“Look closely and you will find that people are happy because they are grateful. The opposite of gratefulness is just taking everything for granted. ” ― David Steindl-Rast,
“There is a very simple kind of methodology to it: stop, look, go. Most of us are caught up in schedules, and deadlines, and rushing around. And so the first thing is that we have to stop, because otherwise we are not really coming into this present moment at all. And we can’t even appreciate the opportunity that is given to us because we rush by. So stopping is the first thing … and finding something in that moment … I don’t speak of this moment as a ‘gift’, because you cannot be grateful for everything. You can’t be grateful for war, violence, domestic violence, or sickness, things like that. There are many things for which you cannot be grateful. But in every moment, you can be grateful. For instance, the opportunity to learn something from a very difficult experience. So opportunity is really the key when people ask, can you be grateful for everything? No, not for everything, but yes you can be grateful in every moment.”
Seth Godin believes that acting “as if” is underrated. “If you start acting as if you are grateful, you start feeling more grateful and you will become more grateful.”
Here are some things you can do right now to start practicing Conscious Gratitude:
1. Choose a time and focus on gratitude
Choose a specific time everyday where you will stop for a moment and focus on what you are grateful for in that particular moment.
I use 11:11. I have an alarm set on my phone to go off every day at 11:11. I stop whatever I’m doing (within reason- if I’m driving on a highway obviously I don’t stop) and I silently focus on what I am grateful for in that moment. Even if I’m stuck in traffic, I can be grateful for my car or a good sound system or enough money for gas to get me where I am going.
2. First thing in the morning, before your feet hit the floor, be grateful
Before you hop out of bed in the morning, take 30 seconds, (it really does not take more than that) to think about 3 things you are grateful for. This can be done silently in your head. Or better yet, if you have a partner that you share your bed with, ask each other to list those 3 things. It can be as simple as gratitude for a comfortable bed, a warm house, and a good nights sleep. It’s been shown that starting your day in gratitude positively impacts you for the rest of the day.
3. Start a Gratitude Journal
Choose a journal that you like the feel and the look of, and make sure that it is used solely for writing about things your are grateful for. How you write this is up to you; it can be as simple as list making. I like using colorful pens playing in my journal, but use what ever works for you. Make it a routine, try to write in it daily, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day.
4. Start new traditions in your family — like gratitude at meals
This may feel uncomfortable at first; but with time, the practice of going around the table and saying one thing you are grateful for that happened that day, can become a cherished family tradition. It’s a great conversation starter and a wonderful way to lift the energy at any meal time. Another tradition can be saying one thing you are grateful for before going off to sleep. If you have children, it is a wonderful way to end the day just before they go to sleep. Another tradition to reinforce gratitude in relationships is texting to a loved one in the middle of the day, one thing you appreciate about them. This works well with teens and couples with busy schedules.
So this holiday season, if you are hoping to embody Kermit’s words . . .
Tis the season to be jolly and joyous
With a burst of pleasure, we feel it arrive
Tis the season when the saints can employ us
To spread the news about peace and to keep love alive
. . . You can start by practicing gratitude consciously today. And if that doesn’t come naturally, start by ‘acting as if’ you are grateful. And pretty soon, what was once an act will become a habit.
I’ll close with a great interview with Brené Brown talking about Active Gratitude.
I’d love to hear how you practice conscious gratitude.
And as always, thank you for taking the time to visit. I appreciate it.
My reaction was similar to many other people I know when I first saw the hash tag ‘MeToo’ on twitter and on Facebook. I thought ‘Oh another hash tag on social media . . . Ho hum.’ But then in less than an hour, my wall was full of #MeToo from female friends on Facebook. Little did I know at that point how much Actress Alyssa Milano’s post would impact me personally. So personally in fact that I decided I had to get public with it on Thrive.
Of course, what we now know is that Tarana Burke, a native of Harlem, New York, was the original creator of the Me Too movement over a decade ago, before hash tags and social media. But it was Milano’s post, on October 16th that impacted me.
When I saw the original post, I felt vaguely uncomfortable, but ignored it. It wasn’t even when I saw my wall flooded with #MeToo that I really understood it’s impact. It was only later, over coffee with a friend, that it hit me, the full magnitude of how this related to me personally.
What #MeToo did, was to open up a huge, previously taboo, conversation with other women. Looking back at myself in my 20s, I was a ‘party girl’ and a bartender. I had a lifestyle that ‘invited’ that kind of behavior. I had convinced myself that I had deserved and been ‘responsible for’ the intimidation and harassment that I experienced.
Early in my own personal recovery process, I took full responsibility for my actions and my past behavior . . . full and total responsibility. And thus the shame lived on. I first read about this topic in John Bradshaw’s ‘Healing the Shame that Binds You.’ Yes I read the book and yes I talked about the concept. But still, said the little voice in my head, if you hadn’t been that drunk, if you hadn’t put yourself in that situation… I still believed that I was responsible for the treatment on some level because of my own behavior.
What I discovered through conversations with other women is that there are a lot of us who still blame ourselves for what happened to us. “If I hadn’t been that drunk” and “If I had been wearing a bra” and “If I hadn’t been so stoned” then that wouldn’t have happened. And most of us have kept that bottled up inside of us, continuing to blame ourselves for our own ‘reprehensible behavior.’
This campaign has opened up the conversation, opened up the willingness to look at the behavior, not with shame, but with a desire to share the story. We are comparing notes and listening, and we are realizing that we are not alone.
There are so many layers to this problem. Looking at the culture of misogyny and who is in the position of power that enables this to happen. I’m aware of this and of course we still have so far to go. But today, I simply want to express gratitude, gratitude that even after so many years of recovery and therapy, these conversations have helped to heal a part of me that remained buried for over thirty years. I am writing now to say thank you for what was not just another ‘social media craze’ but instead was a catalyst to heal. Healing through deep and nourishing conversations with other women, initiated by a simple comment, ‘Me Too.’
I’ll close with a clip from John Bradshaw
I’d love to hear how the #MeToo campaign impacted you, or how shame itself has impacted your life.
And as always, thank you for taking the time to visit. I appreciate it.
I recently published an article in Thrive: You can’t pour from an empty cup. Most of us know that is true, but how many of us actively practice replenishing ourselves? I just returned from a retreat for women, and in speaking to the women individually, what I discovered was that the biggest factor that they had to overcome to go on the retreat was the guilt! Guilt for taking the time for themselves and guilt using money exclusively on themselves.
We, especially women it seems, have difficulty taking time for ourselves and prioritizing self-care. It often takes an illness or an accident to persuade us to give ourselves the time and care we need.
In an article by Dr. Susan Biali in Psychology Today, Biali describes feeling incredibly unwell, but continuing to push herself. She had an epiphany, that although she had been teaching people about stress management and self-care for over a decade, she had not been practicing what she preached. She explained that when she finally took time out for herself, it felt like she had woken up after being asleep for a long time. But it’s only when you wake up that you notice you were sleeping
But when we are stressed out, self-care is often the first thing we let go of.
Why is that? Barbara Markway, Phd explains in a different article in Psychology Today a few reasons that that is the case.
Our brains go into fight-or-flight mode and our perspective narrows.
We’re so busy trying to solve problems that we’re stuck in “doing mode
We may not have a “go to” list of self-care activities.
So once we wake up, so to speak, how do we practice self-care, what can we put on our list of self-care activities. For those of us that can, a retreat is a lovely way to have time and space for self. But if that is not an option at the moment, here are a few suggestions:
Focus on the sensations around you — sights, smells, sounds — this helps you be present in the moment.
· Go for a walk and breathe in fresh air.
· Listen to running water.
· Take a hot shower or a warm bath.
Do something pleasurable for yourself.
· Get creative! Do some art, journal or play some music
· Take yourself out for a nice meal
Give yourself some spiritual space
· Practice gratitude — journal about things your are grateful for
· Light a candle and meditate
· Walk in nature
Connecting with others is an important part of self-care.
· Go on a lunch date with a good friend.
· Call a friend on the phone.
· Join a support group.
Caroline Myss asks us: “How do you define taking care of yourself?” Think about that and then as Myss suggest: Create a new self-care practice, starting today.
Remember what Audre Lorde says — self-care is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation. Take care of yourself, start today, you are worth it!
To close I’d like to put an invitation out there to ignite a self-care revolution!
There is an excellent article in The Scientific American – Which Character Strengths are Most Predictive of Well-Being? The article written by Scott Barry Kaufman was posted by Lisa Sansom on a Positive Psychology site I follow. In the article, Kaufman explores Which character strengths are most predictive of well-being? In his book Flourish, Martin Seligman, the founder of the field of positive psychology, argued that the five fundamental elements of well-being are:
In his study, Kaufman discovered that all five elements of PERMA were very strongly correlated with each other. People who tended to score higher on one of the elements (e.g., positive emotions) tended to score higher on the other elements (e.g., engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment) and those who tended to score lower on one of the elements also tended to score lower on the others.
That makes sense, but which of the 24 Character Strengths is most likely to lead to well-being? In case you are not familiar with the 24 Character Strenghts, here is a chart:
You can get to know your character strengths by taking the VIA Survey.
Know Your Character Potential
You have many different types of strengths. These can be skills, talents, interests or resources; however these strengths do not reflect the “real” you— who you are at your core. Only by understanding your character strengths can you know how special and capable you really are. Character strengths are the personality characteristics that make you authentic, unique and feel engaged.
The VIA Survey of character strengths is a simple test that takes just a few minutes of your time and provides a wealth of information to help you understand your core characteristics. Created under the direction of Dr. Martin Seligman, the “father of Positive Psychology” and author of Authentic Happiness and Flourish, and Dr. Christopher Peterson, distinguished scientist at the University of Michigan and author of A Primer in Positive Psychology, this self-assessment character survey is regarded as a central tool of positive psychology and has been used in hundreds of research studies and taken by over 2.6 million people in over 190 countries. It is the only free, scientifically validated online character strengths tool available.
It’s well worth the time to take the survey and learn more about what makes you feel engaged.
Back to Kaufman’s study – he found that the top three character strengths that were most strongly correlated with well-being were:
Hope, Gratitude, and Love
But that The single best predictor of well-being was gratitude.
So if you do seek well-being, (and honestly, who doesn’t?) your best bet is gratitude.
I’ll close with a longer video, lasting almost an hour, but an excellent look at these strengths, called A Character Strengths Revolution.
If you take the Signature Strength test, I’d love to hear about your experience. And let me know what you thought of the video. Positive Psychology is a popular topic on YouTube – there are several videos to choose between.
As always, thank you for visiting my blog. I appreciate it.