Author Archives: breathenews
Written in our stars?
At the start of our 8-week mindfulness course we explore how we are born with certain tendencies and predispositions to behave and act in certain ways. For example we inherit paternal and maternal stress and we are born with personality types. These tendencies and personality types can harden over time. The brain wants to fall into patterns of thinking, feeling, expressing and acting or autopilot thinking.
As the neuroscientist Heb noted in the 1940’s “Neurons that fire together wire together”. The more we think, feel and act in certain habitual ways, the more our patterns become engrained. That’s why it’s so important to keep trying new things and walk the road less travelled.
Our autopilot thinking often serves us well. It helps us navigate a busy world full of distraction. However in an increasingly complex world we can overly revert to autopilot thinking. This is particularly true when we feel that we don’t have enough time. When our experience goes unexamined and we take life for granted we fall into the following thinking traps:
- Assuming life is permanent and forgetting the joy to be had from simple things
- We miss opportunities for personal development and creativity
- We find it hard to listen to our gut instinct
- We develop one-dimensional relationships
- We can feel like the spotlight is always on us and forget that we are also part of someone else’s very unique life experience
- We act and react in habitual patterns and fail to examine whether those patterns continue to enable us to thrive
A world of distraction and overly attending to threats
In addition to becoming overly embedded in our habits and routines there are also a number of other factors, which can get in the way of optimal health and wellbeing:
Increasing distraction and choice may lead to an elevation in our stress levels – the average person now absorbs five times as much visual stimulation compared to 1986. The phrase continuous partial attention has arisen over the last few years. We can often feel like we are in a partly switched on anxious state of being. We often face increasing demands on our time as we advance in our careers and build families.
We are hard wired to focus on threats and deficits rather than celebrating successes and abundance – from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense for us to focus on the things that threaten us but this can lead us to overly attending to our deficits. As we noted above neurons that fire together wire together. The more we get into the habit of focusing upon threats the more dark and dangerous the world can feel.
As we age we may start to transition towards looking for more meaning in our lives – this self reflection can be both empowering but also creates uncertainty and upheaval.
These types of pressures can make us feel time poor. A lack of abundance thinking can make us focus more on what we don’t have rather than what we do and overly fixate on our work and our problems rather than the things which bring us meaning and fun.
How much brain hard wiring have you had in your life?
If you are 40 now and haven’t practiced much mindfulness before then that’s 40 x 365 x 24 hours of conditioning or 350,000 hours. In truth we are all naturally mindful at times. Great acts of courage or sporting endevour or love or being in awe of nature all bring us to the moment and help us see the world afresh. The challenge of overly using auto pilot thinking is perhaps greater now because of the level of distraction we face.
We know the hard wiring is their in all of us BUT the research shows that attending an 8 week mindfulness course (which includes single pointed meditation) and practicing some techniques every day makes lasting changes to our outlook and behaviors.
Mindfulness helps us to examine life. Leonardo da Vinci was described as the disciple of experience. In order to grow and thrive we need to keep examining each precious moment of life and not taking any of it for granted. By observing life as it emerges we foster gratitude and a sense of awe. But what are the tools that mindfulness provides us?
A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” or “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”. Another way of being mindful is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focusing our attention on? Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:
- Our thoughts & feelings;
- Each of the five commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
- Our breath;
- Our posture
And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses. The here and now that we attend to can be our inner world or the outer world and to a great extent what we attend to is not within our control. Society, culture, our parents, our peers expect us to attend to certain things more than others. And we often go along with these expectations without truly questioning whether they make us thrive.
What we attend to will determine everything about our lives. It will determine success, wealth, relationships and our spiritual and emotional development. It is the most important tool that we have. For example we may have great emotional intelligence, social intelligence and analytical abilities but if we are so mired in habitual routines and drowning in a sea of distraction we will find it difficult to deploy our skills.
Whether there is truly free will to direct our attention is a mute point but as the great philosopher William James proclaimed in the 1880s
“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life..….At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that free will is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
Up until that point James had suffered a string of failures and suffered depression but at that point he took some personal responsibility. From that point on his life became a glorious success. And the starting point was that he believed that he could change. He decided that he could overcome his hard wiring and the shackles of conditioning.
Learning to sharpen our attention
Lack of attention can rob of us our humanity. It stops us tapping into our wealth of talents. It can take us away from connecting with people and make us feel sad, isolated and lonely. Proclaiming free will and embarking on a course of mindfulness is liberating. It enables us to connect fully with ourselves and with our environment. A mindfulness course not only teaches us to focus but also provides the psychological framework to enable us to thrive.
A framework for mindfulness
My Vipassana meditation teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques, to sharpen the attention, are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be merely creating “bare attention”. It feels relaxing but may merely be a stress management Band-Aid. It’s like sowing seeds on barren ground. When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. A holistic personal development framework complements attention-focusing techniques and enables brain change. Mindfulness provides us with powerful thriving tools:
- Developing kindness and compassion for others
- Learning techniques to overcome our inbuilt negativity bias i.e. developing self love
- Understanding the relationship between posture and how we physically move and mental resilience
- Learning how to regulate our breath in order to reduce base stress levels so that we are better able to see the bigger picture
- Learning techniques to help us focus on one thing – this builds new synaptic connections and more grey matter
- Having tools to observe our inner world of thoughts and emotions. And understanding that thoughts and emotions come and go and do not define who we are for all time
- Finding a teacher
I hope you found this useful. When you are looking for a mindfulness teacher it’s important to understand what their training has been:
- Do they have many years of a personal mindfulness practice either in a Buddhist school or as part of a Yoga tradition?
- Do they have a mental health background and training in evidenced based psychology – this is particularly important if working with vulnerable people.
- Are they continuing a daily personal practice of developing attention (single pointed meditation), continuing professional development to raise their self-awareness and developing kindness and compassion for others ?
How to build mental resilience
- How can we stay engaged and busy at work but not overly stressed?
- When is the right time to push ourselves and when is the right time to sit back?
- How much pressure is good for us?
These are tricky questions and there is no definitive right and wrong answer. That’s because people are complex. If you run or manage a team the relationships you have to each team member and to the group will be rich and varied.
As managers we need to change the way we think of “staff “ and think of them more as our internal customers. Like external customers they need to be listened to and deserve to have high expectations from the organisation. Like our customers the relationship we have with each team member will be nuanced, rich and varied.
We need to remember that people come to a place of work for financial reasons but also because it provides (or should provide) meaning, fun, positive relationships, a degree of autonomy and a sense of shared purpose and structure.
The Gallup organisation, through their Q12 survey, have found the most financially successful organisations have employees who tend to tick those employee engagement boxes.
When we work in a culture like that a heavy workload and tight timetables feel more like a fun challenge than an onerous one. Creating an engaged workplace enables a more resilient culture to flourish and the benefits will flow throughout the team and outwards to your customers and your suppliers.
In such an engaged place of work people develop trust and warm friendships. They feel able to communicate ideas. They are also more likely to put their hands in the air when they feel under prepared or over worked. Stress builds when we are unable or feel unable to express our feelings and motivations. This happens in a culture of distrust when the development of positive relationships are not prioritised.
The starting point for building an engaged, resilient organisation is to build a culture of positive regard for colleagues. It also means changing the idea that people are overheads to one where people are our greatest assets and a source of learning, fun and meaning.
Our next resilience workshop is Townsville, North Queensland
How can we build better mental resilience? How can we feel stretched at work whilst remaining calm, balanced and physically healthy? Find out more at our one day resilience workshop on Friday 27th November
Imagine a world of things that can be sub divided into two separate worlds; the world of clocks and the world of clouds. Within the world of clocks are neat orderly systems that can be defined and evaluated. We can take these things apart and see how they fit together. In the world of clouds are things, which are irregular and dynamic. They are hard to study and change from second to second.
The uncertain nature of clouds makes them beautiful but some how ghostly and not quite there. They are constantly being formed and being destroyed. They emerge and withdraw. They are nature’s great example of the constant wash of creation and destruction. They remind us of our own impermanence. “I wandered lonely as a cloud….”
Does this explain our desire to live in the world of clocks? Things that can be divided and explained provide comfort and protection from the flow and flux. The rational subdivision and explanation of experience pacifies the mind wracked with existential angst. Things can be ordered and kept safe… I can be ordered and I can be kept safe.
From Descartes to Darwin to Freud and on through the 20th century the world of clocks has come to dominate our politics, wellbeing and wealth.
My own background is in the world of clocks. I trained in old-fashioned economics. Pareto, Keynes and the ideas of Milton Friedman were drummed into me. After that I studied to become a chartered accountant. Here I learnt to freeze time at a balance sheet date and talk wisely to people who would pay me to explain how things were, how things are and how things maybe in the future.
I spent most of my childhood and working life understanding how to divide things up and “explain” to other people how things worked and I used information to prophesise how things may be in the future.
My left hemisphere thinking was finely honed. I lived in a world of clocks; of dissected finite time, a world of mine and yours, a world of success and failure. Around about the time of the new millennium this desire to explain and understand the world through dissection started to feel a little hollow. I craved connection to something bigger than me.
The Greeks describe this as Thumos; the desire for union and recognition through the development of a higher self. This is the feeling we have when we recognise, celebrate and unify with one another through the development of the great human strengths of kindness, compassion, bravery and love.
After twelve years in finance I studied to become a massage therapist and found a connection to a higher self through human touch. I felt that I was a good therapist. I felt I was kind and compassionate and provided a nurturing touch, which helped both my healing and my clients.
There were moments when I worked as a therapist that I felt that the world stopped. I would stare at a back and become absorbed in an area of the persons body. It felt like my being was part of the being I was massaging. I experienced euphoric feelings of oneness. There were times where I felt that I could see my molecules and the client’s molecules coming together and merging. In those moments I could see and feel the truth that humans and everything in the universe are emerging systems. We are constantly forming and un forming. We are connected to and of our environment and each other. Dissection of mind and body cannot explain our essence and can only have limited potential in helping us grow.
My years as a massage therapist helped me to develop a holistic view. I started to live and enjoy the world of clouds. I no longer felt lonely as a cloud and fearful of uncertainty but started to enjoy and embrace that uncertainty.
With my imagined or real observation at the molecular level of the floating and fleeting nature of reality I began to experience more freedom in my life. I became grounded in uncertainty and abstraction. The very fleeting and precious nature of life enabled me to grow. I began to gently kiss and caress life as it flowed around me rather trying to hold onto things.
However I still live in a world of clocks. Each time I float as a cloud I feel drawn back to the world of mine and yours. I feel the neediness of my left hemisphere thinking. The desire for comfort, the desire to be liked, the desire for material reward, the desire to hold and grab this precious life and not let this moment go. And the desire to shackle and control my thoughts and feelings and those of the people around me.
I take steps forward and then many steps back. I feel sometimes I have “it’.
It’s just there. It’s there when I see a sunrise or a rainbow. It’s there when I run into the sea or see the light refraction on the bottom of a pool. It’s in the smiles of my family and it’s in the air that brushes my skin.
And then it’s gone again.
After my years of bodywork I became a yoga teacher and this provided me with amazing new tools enabling me to embrace flow and connection.
And after my yoga training I was drawn once more to the world of clocks. I took a masters in psychology and learnt how psychologists like to count like accountants. I was suddenly back in the world of numbers and systems and control. I studied system after system that attempted to explain our inner workings.
But the more time I spent with evidenced based psychologists and exploring their models I began to have the same strange clock like disconnected uncertain and unhappy outlook on life. I felt many of the practitioners I met were not trying to develop Thumos. They didn’t seem kind are altruistic or compassionate or uncertain. There was something about the lack of humility and the lack of positive intention that I found disturbing.
As I studied economics I read more and more work by behavioural economics by people like Daniel Kahneman. I became interested in their ideas that people are more like clouds in their composition and outlook and behaviours.
I learnt how psychology studies were weird ie based on sample populations who were mainly white, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. I also learnt that more 64% of psychology studies could not be replicated. I became concerned at the lack of real evidence behind much of “evidenced based psychology” and disappointed at the way many health practitioners use the evidence based badge of psychology to maximise their wealth.
From my studies of neuroscience I learnt that we are infinite selves within this self. Our 80 billion neurones with 10,000 (plus) possible synaptic connections enable us to perceive the world and ourselves in an infinite number of ways. We can try and explain human behaviour through dissection, correlation and extrapolation but this can only be of limited use in helping us develop Thumos.
We behave in ways depending upon context. Our inner systems of like and dislike can not un see or un experience what we have seen or have experienced. We cannot see or un see what our forebears have seen or experienced. We are guided by inner systems of like and dislike and we are intimately and intricately connected to all that is and all that has ever been.
There seems to be one huge mind which has no barriers and no limits and is filled with knowledge. I learnt through my body work, meditations and yoga that I can tap into this universal sea. When I behave cloud like I can use my intuition. I can tap into a source of knowledge and energy that is infinite. It is always there but my yoga teaching explains to me how it is often obscured by koshas or layers of ignorance that bind me to duality.
With my business background and body work and yoga training I chose to retreat from the world of psychology. In the last 10 years I’ve dipped my toe back into the areas of emotional intelligence coaching and positive psychology but I spend little time with people with similar qualifications to me. Accept some….In my travels I’ve been blessed to meet some people from the world of psychology who are filled with love and positive intention. They are also filled with confidence and humility. I’m blessed that they are my friends and colleagues and if you find a coach or counsellor or clinical psychologist who manage to combine the world of clouds and clocks stick with them!!
And now I’m at a crossroads. I feel love and connection in the world of clouds but mainly earn my living working with clocks. I’m uncertain how to proceed. I’m not sure if I’m on the right track but I can take comfort from the growth, fun and love that I’ve experienced since I first started to explore my cloud like self.
This blog will continue but we have a new way of connecting – please check out www.breathe-magazine.com
This weeks blog is about our likes and dislikes. How they define us and can control us. And what we can learn from them….It takes five minutes to read……
Why do we like things? Is it because…
- the thing stimulates our senses – we like beautiful things, taste etc
- it feeds our basic need for love and to be nurtured
- it validates our sense of self
- it enables us to fit in with others
Why do we dislike things? Is it to avoid pain? Is it to avoid the things we have learnt to dislike? Is it to protect our physical essence? Is it to protect our sense of self?
Some of our likes and dislikes are needed to keep us feeling warmed and loved and to protect us from pain. But some of likes and dislikes are learnt. And where do we learn this information from? And is it to be trusted?
Attract and repel
Our basic mechanism of attract or repel is often submerged. Some of it is a hard wired reaction, which helps us move towards things that nurture and away from things that cause us pain. Some of our likes or dislikes may be learnt from parents, peers, society, social norms etc. Quite often these likes/ dislikes are also submerged and can go unexamined.
When they remain unexamined we often find it hard to understand our reaction to people and events. We may also have a gut instinct view about situations and we simply don’t know the basis for that view. That unexamined interpretation of the world around us can sometimes lead us into conflict. We may find it difficult to appreciate that another persons likes and dislikes may be very different to our own. We may find it difficult to understand and explain other people’s actions and we may form hardened and judgmental views.
A core element of a mindfulness course is to start to examine our own likes and dislikes. We begin to explore whether they serve us or are merely conditioned behaviours. Our hedonic (pleasure seeking and fleeting) “likes” may mask our need for deeper more sustainable things which bring us meaning – such as working for our community, developing close bonds with family and friends, enjoying a connection to nature, fully honouring our body through health and fitness etc
The power of submerged likes and dislikes has the power to make us less mindful – certainly less mindful of difference and less mindful of the impact of our behaviour on others. Submerged likes and dislikes have a powerful ally these days – instant gratification.
I want it now
The improvement in the delivery of services and the democratisation of information means that these likes can be satiated in seconds. This re enforces our reward networks and makes us less tolerant of delay. We may become upset easily by a minor disruption in the flow of good service. A small disruption, such as a delayed tube, can make us feel frustrated and angry (our reward network has not been satiated instantly). Technology, distraction and the non-examination of submerged likes and dislikes may be making us more fragile and less resilient than previous generations. We want it now and we usually get it now. But what is it? Merely fleeting flickers of dopamine as we excite the same reward networks again and again?
Mindfulness is not about completely unravelling our likes and dislikes but through mindful practices we become more aware of our habitual ways of being. In order to become less judgmental and rigid in our thinking we need to appreciate that other people’s learnt likes and dislikes lead them to a world view that may be very different to our own. This appreciation and celebration of difference allows us to be live more harmoniously and cohesively with the people around us. We may also become more resilient as we learn to focus our attention on exploring new things and investing in activities which deliver long term meaning rather than merely satiating instant desire.
The key to this examination is to take it slowly. We are not trying to dismantle our personality! Our friends like us and love us for who we are and who we are becoming. As we investigate the way we are in the world we need to do it with fun, curiosity and a light heart. Taking mindfulness too seriously takes us away from mindfulness rather than towards it. We are trying to uncover some simple truths – the things that enrich our lives and bring it meaning are often the simplest and are usually right in front of us already. We just need to be still and observe them a little more.
Our next mindfulness course is in London on Sept 11th Mindfulness at work
I wrote this workshop for a lovely charity in Brisbane. It’s an organisation that works with children whose parents or siblings have cancer. I gave it to the charity for free and I hope the messages contained here help the kids and their families. I decided to put this workshop online so hopefully more people will start to do these exercises. It takes about 5 minutes to read so let me know how you go.
Part 1 – Listening to your body- what is it trying to tell you? – So many of us are wrapped up in our own thoughts. We are often listening to the voice inside our head rather than listening to others.
The average human brain can absorb about 120 bits of information per second and the average human voice contains about 70 bits of information per second.
Therefore if you are talking to yourself, in your head, you can barely understand what the other person is saying to you.
Developing emotional intelligence starts with two things – Before anything else we need to listen to how our body is feeling. For example if you are short of breath or tense or shaky it means that you may have experienced emotions which have translated into physical sensations.
Emotions are information. They tell you something. They might be telling you an important truth. Or they might be telling you something that is incorrect. For example you might be feeling sick to the stomach because you perceive that someone has gone out of his or her way to do you harm. When in fact any harm was unintentional.
Our perception may be out of line with reality when we feel pressurised or stressed. We can interpret what our body is saying and get the wrong end of the stick.
Quite often, however, people don’t even reflect on how their body is feeling nor do they appreciate that the way their body is affects the way they communicate with other people. We become absorbed in our goals and thoughts and pay little attention to what our body is telling us.
- DO A BODY SCANNING EXERCISE , TALKING TO YOUR BODY , TELLING IT TO RELAX SEQUENTIALLY
- THEN AT THE END OF THE EXERCISE GO BACK TO AN AREA OF TENSION. BREATHE INTO IT AND RECOGNISE THAT IT OFTEN STARTS TO DISIPATE WHEN YOU FOCUS ON AN AREA OF TENSION
- MAYBE START ASKING YOURSELF WHY YOU MIGHT BE FEELING A PARTICULAR SENSATION – MAYBE YOU FEEL TENSE BECAUSE OF HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT A LOVED ONE
- AND THEN CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK. ITS RIGHT TO FEEL HURT AND TENSE WHEN SOMEONE YOU LOVE IS SUFFERING
- BUT THEN OBSERVE HOW IF YOU BREATHE INTO THAT PLACE THE TIGHTNESS GOES. AND THEN ALSO NOTICE HOW MUCH BETTER YOU FEEL
- ITS RIGHT TO FEEL SAD AND ITS RIGHT TO FEEL PHYSICALLY UPSET BUT THEN WE CAN OBSERVE THAT SUCH THOUGHTS, FEELINGS AND SENSATIONS MOVE AWAY IF WE OBSERVE THEM WITH COMPASSION, KINDNESS AND CURIOSITY
When we do an exercise like that we start to observe that our mental and physical states are inter linked. We can also observe how, after doing such an exercise, we are in a better position to help the people we love and we are better able to get on with our lives.
We know that our loved ones would want us to be happy and optimistic and the best way to help them and help ourselves is to observe our pain a little. Acknowledge that it’s there for a very valid reason, then cut ourselves some slack, breathe into it and then watch as we feel more confident and ready to help ourselves and the people we love.
Part 2 – Listening to others
Now the next stage, having observed our own body, is to find a way to be present to what the other person is saying.
EXERCISES 2 AND 3 – Two ways to do this:
2) Take three big breaths in through the mouth and out through the nose – it shuts the monkey mind up!
3) Listen to your feet – as you walk around the room visualise the weight of your body dropping down into the ground – as you do so you feel lighter and ready to absorb information from other people
Part 3 – Putting yourself into someone else’s shoes
Having got your body relaxed and your mind quiet, take a look at the other person and in a non-judgmental way simply observe their face and body. Don’t second-guess what they may be feeling – we often get that very wrong. Life is complex and we often have no idea what’s going on in someone else’s life.
Simply get into the habit of observing them with loving kindness. People just want to tell their story. Let them do that. Try not to jump in and second-guess what they are about to say. Simply smile and be assuring. Let them tell their story. And as they speak, you will learn about yourself. Learn the joy of letting others speak about their truth.
It’s their truth as they see it. You may see the world in a very different way but they have their reasons for their beliefs.
Quite often we come across people we find annoying or obstructive. But these people are our greatest teachers. The people who push our buttons are the ones who have most to teach us about our own insecurities, uncertainties and frailties.
Let them have their time. Try and see the world a little from their point of view and do the following exercise.
EXERCISE 4 – developing positive regard for people – loving kindness meditation
Before you start – when someone annoys you repeat silently “just like me they are looking for love”
Then close your eyes and focus on sending good vibes out to the edge of your body as you breathe out. Then expand the good vibes out into the room and to the edges of the room and then imagine sending them out into the street.
Picture someone you love very dearly. Visualise sending them good vibes and after some time move onto acquaintances and then perhaps try someone you are having a difficult relationship with.
Remember that difficult person is “just like me is looking for love too”.
Part 4 – telling your story
Quite often we might feel that we have nobody to share our fears and darkest thoughts with.
You will find that by doing parts one, two and three every day, people will warm to your love and sincerity. People want to spend time with people who are loving, kind and good listeners.
As you develop your attention and positive regard for others, you will find that positive energy and love and friendship will flow back to you. You will build deep, warm and loving relationships with people and they will be your greatest source of energy as you face difficult times.
The most important thing for you to remember is that the only thing that is in your control is how you react to the life events that flow around you. We all need to develop self-love and we do that through the practice of developing love for others.
Your body and mind are your greatest tools. As you develop a warm, loving, abundant, mindset it will attract so many positive people into your life. And they will be your warriors in the challenges ahead. They will be there to cuddle, hold your hand and listen to your story.
I’ll probably get into a lot of trouble for writing this article. In the last 12 months I’ve worked for a major sugar company and live half the year in North Queensland, an area heavily dependent on the sugar industry. So what I am about to say probably won’t do my business interests much good in Townsville but here goes.
It’s well known that excess dietary fructose can harm your body by setting up the conditions for diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver, but what’s less appreciated is the damage that it does to your brain
How sugar makes your brain work less efficiently
The brain is a wonderful thing. I love my brain. I like it that it can make me cheeky, make me feel loved, make me love others, recall happy times and experience the beauty of the world around me. Maybe if my body didn’t work so well I would still have a brain that could love and experience the world. And therefore I want to honour my brain and make sure that it works well until its time for me to die.
It turns out that consuming excess sugar has a significant detrimental effect on the way our brains work.
How we become addicted to sugar
Neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis explains ; When a person consumes sugar, just like any food, it activates the tongue’s taste receptors. Then, signals are sent to the brain, lighting up reward pathways and causing a surge of feel-good hormones, like dopamine, to be released. Sugar “hijacks the brain’s reward pathway,”
Stimulating the brain’s reward system with a piece of chocolate now and then is pleasurable and probably harmless, however when the reward system is activated excessively and too frequently, we develop craving and sugar addiction. Check out TED video on sugar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEXBxijQREo
A high sugar diet may impair memory and learning
A new UCLA study published in the Journal of Physiology is the first to show how a steady diet high in fructose can damage your memory and learning. Researchers investigated the effects of high-fructose syrup, similar to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheap sweetener six times sweeter than cane sugar, which is used in most soft drinks and processed foods. The team sought to study the effects of a steady intake of a concentrated form of fructose. They fed rats a fructose solution as drinking water for six weeks, then tested their ability to remember their way out of a maze. The results were dramatic.
The rats fed fructose syrup showed significant impairment in their cognitive abilities—they struggled to remember their way out of the maze. They were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier. Additionally, the fructose-fed rats showed signs of resistance to insulin, a hormone that controls your blood sugar and synaptic function in your brain.
Because insulin is able to pass through your blood-brain barrier, it can trigger neurological processes that are important for learning and memory. Consuming large amounts of fructose may block insulin’s ability to regulate how your brain cells store and use sugar for the energy needed to fuel thoughts and emotions.
Researchers concluded that a high fructose diet harms your brain, as well as the rest of your body. Clearly more research is required but the early indication is that we should cut our sugar intake dramatically.
There is some good news emerging from the study however. A second group of rats was given omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), in addition to the high fructose diet. After six weeks, this group of rats was able to navigate the maze better and faster than the rats in the non-DHA group. The researchers concluded that DHA is protective against fructose’s harmful effects on the brain. DHA is essential for synaptic function—it helps your brain cells transmit signals to one another, which is the mechanism that makes learning and memory possible. The researchers concluded that DHA supplements would help repair/protect synaptic connectivity
It may cause or contribute to depression and anxiety
If you’ve ever experienced a sugar crash, then you know that sudden peaks and drops in blood sugar levels can cause you to experience symptoms like irritability, mood swings, brain fog and fatigue. That’s because eating a sugar-laden donut or drinking a soda causes blood sugar levels to spike upon consumption and then plummet. When your blood sugar inevitably dips back down (hence the “crash”), you may find yourself feeling anxious, moody or depressed.
Sugar-rich foods can also mess with the neurotransmitters that help keep our moods stable. Consuming sugar stimulates the release of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. Constantly over-activating these serotonin pathways can deplete our limited supplies of the neurotransmitter, which can contribute to symptoms of depression, according to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, functional medicine expert and author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?.
Teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood. A recent study on adolescent mice, conducted by researchers at Emory University School of Medicine, found a diet high in sugar to contribute to depression and anxiety-like behavior.
Research has also found that people who eat a standard American diet that’s high in processed foods — which typically contain high amounts of saturated fat, sugar and salt — are at an increased risk for developing depression, compared to those who eat a whole foods diet that’s lower in sugar.
How much is enough
In order to best control your sugar intake, it would probably be wise to know what exactly sugar is. Sugar is actually a carbohydrate. Foods in the supermarket don’t always clearly label their sugar content so when reviewing nutrition labels it’s important to be aware that words such as glucose, sucrose, lactose, maltose, dextrose, starch, corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar, and honey are quite inter changeable. Sugar is also added to ketchup, yoghurt, and flavored water just to name a few.
The American Heart association recommends a maximum of nine teaspoons of sugar a day for men and six for women. In order to regulate sugar consumption here are some pointers:
- a full fat can of coke NINE teaspoons
- a snickers bar is about EIGHT
- a pint of beer is about FOUR
- a glass of white wine is between TWO and THREE
We have to remember that as we consume carbohydrates they are broken down into sugars. This process is slower and less damaging to the body than consuming just sugar. However it will elevate your blood sugar levels and have a harmful effect, particularly if we consume low quality, starchy white carbohydrates.
If you want to know how much sugar is any food, find out the number of grams of starchy white carbohydrate is in the food and then divide by four (4). So the hidden sugar equivalent is even more scary :
- a bowl of white pasta (without any sugary pasta sauce) (say 100 grams) may be equivalent to the consumption of twenty five tea spoons of sugar (however it will be released more slowly and hence is less damaging than guzzling twenty five teaspoons of sugar)
- 2 slices of whole wheat bread are TEN tea spoons of sugar
A sugar free world
Your next steps to a sugar free world and a fit and healthy body and mind:
- Remind yourself that sugar and sugar alternatives are addictive. The more you consume the more you want to consume
- Remember that white processed carbohydrates equates to sugar consumption – go for slower release low glycemic index carbs
- Stop buying processed carbs like bread, biscuits, cakes and pasta and replace with vegetables
- Stop eating chocolate
- Stop drinking sports drinks
- Replace fizzy drinks with water and a squeeze of lemon
Within a few days your energy levels will increase and you will feel more mentally alert. Your weight will drop off and your skin will be clearer. Also remember that sugar alternatives are at least as bad as sugar so simply reduce the sweet things and allow your taste buds to come back to life
Other ways to enhance your brain functioning
Please check with your doctor to check whether any of the following are contra indicated with any medication you may be taking. The best policy is to eat a wide and varied diet avoiding sugars. Supplements may play a role but its better to get your nutrients from fresh food
- Take tyrosine supplements first thing in the morning to boost dopamine levels
- Take tryptophan or HTP3 supplements in the evening to boost serotonin levels
- Take high quality fish oil supplements
- Add vitamin B supplements
Remember everything in moderation. Enjoy the occasional treat but if you want long term excellent physical and mental wellbeing cut sugar out of your diet and by doing so protect the environment and enable crop diversity around the world.
After 15 very happy months living in Townsville, North Queensland I’m returning to London for three months. Being surrounded by great natural beauty has had a transformational affect on my mind and body. At 46 I feel the healthiest and happiest that I have ever felt and I feel that much of that is down to the simple, slow paced life in the tropics and the sheer beauty of the place. Being in awe of nature seems to stop me dwelling on the small stuff.
Just before I returned to Australia, in March 2014, my mum died very unexpectedly. One minute she was baking cakes, playing tennis and looking forward to the arrival of more grand children. The next day she was just gone and I was reading a poem at her funeral.
For many months I was confused. I couldn’t quite believe that gone meant gone. It seemed an impossibility. There have been so many times in the last 15 months where I have just sat and watched the sunrise or a rainbow or a bird and thought “I wish mum could see this”. Moving to a beautiful place, combined with mums passing, has woken me up. I feel really blessed to be healthy and fit. My priorities have changed. My commitment is to make the most of this beautiful life and enjoy my friends and family
Thank you Townsville for a very special 15 months
Last year I reflected on why being in nature might have a transformational impact on our minds
I’ve just spent three magical weeks in Australia and for four days of the holiday we hiked and camped on a tropical island called Hinchinbrook. The island is a few kilometres off the coast of northern Queensland. It’s about 40km long by 3km wide and unlike most of Australia has a sharp backbone of granite mountain peaks rising to over a thousand metres. The island is a national park set within the Great Barrier Reef marine park. Most of the island is covered in thick rainforest and there are dozens of remote, beautiful palm-fringed beaches, waterfalls and freshwater lagoons. The rainforest is some of the oldest in the world and home to many species unique to the island. As you approach the island you get the feeling you’re coming to Jurassic Park
Hinchinbrook is uninhabited and a maximum of 43 people are allowed to visit and camp on the island at any one time. You have to bring your own food and camping equipment and are required to take all your rubbish away with you when you leave. The suggested track to walk along is on the eastern side of the island facing out to the blue Pacific. The Western side faces the mainland of Australia, is full of mangrove swamps, and swarming with crocodiles. You are therefore cut off from the mainland by the steep mountain peaks behind you. At night the only lights are the stars and the only sounds, the animals.
Each day consisted of a seven hour hike through dense tropical rainforest and over beaches carrying heavy backpacks. We woke before the sun came up at 5am and slept at 6.30pm as the sun set.
As we left the island for the hour long trip back to the mainland I thought about why I felt so amazingly healthy. I felt as though every molecule in my body had been replaced with something better. Physically there are lots of reasons for this transformation:
Clean fresh air
Lots of exercise
No light and noise pollution
But I was also interested in the transformation of my mind. By about day three of our adventure I realised that if I walked in front, along the track, there was nothing in my field of vision which was man made. All I could see was rainforest, beach, sky or sea. There was nothing on the island made by man. Throughout our journey all we had to consider was where to get water from and to be alert to dangers such as snakes and crocodiles – we met several snakes on the path and saw crocodile tracks near our tent!
I’m interested in what happens to your mind when all you see is nature. I think we reflect what we see and fall into harmony with it. Man-made things are usually other people’s attempts to satisfy our existing needs and desires, or to entice us to manufacture new needs and desires. Occasionally man-made things are simply produced to be beautiful. Man-made things force us to make decisions. They play to our senses, they make us compare what we have to what others have, and what we could have. Even things made by man for beauty force a decision from us about whether we think it is a beautiful thing or ugly.
Nature is different. The plants and animals around us have come into existence through evolutionary efficiency. They evolved to become the form they are because nature has no choice. Things flow into a new form in order to thrive. Nature is not on display for our satisfaction. It is arranged to be the best it can be. The plants and animals fight and co-operate with each other in perfect harmony to create perfection. Man’s creations are based on opinions and thoughts. Man-made objects attempt to freeze time and create a false idea of the permanence of beauty, or usefulness. When we surround ourselves with nature we reflect its non-thinking state and become engrained in the moment. We become part of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. As you walk along the path and observe rainforest you start to feel that the boundary between you and the forest is illusory. You detach from your thoughts and realise you are part of a whole and not separate.
As we become more connected and use technology to do great things with our lives we also need to spend time immersed in nature. If we fail to do this we move away from our true essence. The more time we spend away from nature, the more we turn inwards and inflate our egos. Our thoughts are fanned and we become isolated people. Nature reflects our true essence of belonging to the earth and the elements.
In the photograph below you can see the rubbish that two of us created in four days – about the size of two or three Pret a Manger sandwich wrappings. Optimising our wellbeing and having great experiences does not equate to ever-increasing levels of production, consumption and material acquisition. Our weak politicians fail to understand this. Growth is still the mantra.
While we were on the island a report came out that half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has been destroyed in 27 years. Experts argue over the causes of the destruction, however, most of the blame for the massive reduction in biodiversity that follows the death of coral reefs can be placed squarely on the growth of the use of man-made chemicals in farming and mining along the Queensland coast leaching into the Pacific.
I hope you found this useful and thought provoking.
As I started to write this article I wanted to call it the Mindful Leader but this brought to mind images of North Korean leaders. So its an article about leadership and what leaders should focus upon.
Ask yourself two questions. Who is the leader in my organisation and who is the most influential person? It’s quite common that the answers to these two questions may be very different. The person that stimulates, encourages, connects, motivates, listens too, energises may not be the leader. The leader may have become aloof and removed
Since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and in the decade before that there has been a growth in command and control style of leadership. The call went out for leaders who could cut costs and extract value. And this has come at a heavy price.
Daniel Goleman, the Emotional Intelligence guru has said, “the common cold of leadership is poor listening”. With ever shortening deadlines, increased customer expectations, a heightened competitive environment and increased a huge increase in data, a leader can be left not knowing where to turn. In such an environment the safest place for a command and control leader is back to the security of goal focus and ridged top down management.
Successful leaders need to be able to focus on four critical areas:
- Exploitation – extracting the maximum value from current products and services
- Exploration – awareness of the competitive environment, so that they can prepare for challenges and take advantage of opportunities
- Focusing on the culture and vibe of the organisation to ensure that they are listening to their team – picking up concerns and being able to harness great ideas
- Self awareness – understanding their impact upon others
Each of these skills is essential to good leadership but require very different neural pathways. A great leader can move seamlessly between one style of working and another. The leader who spends too much time on any one area, at the expense of the others, will have difficulty engaging and harnessing the collective energy and focus of the organisation. This balancing act requires great mindfulness.
A leader needs to be able to see what others cannot see. When a leader focuses upon a something she gives it meaning. But is it the right thing to attend to? Will it bring value to the organisation and pull the team together. And once the collective attention of the organisation has been placed in the subject, the challenge of a leader is to retain that attention through powerful, uplifting and engaging stories.
The great balancing act requires a leader to have a wide range of emotional intelligence skills including being empathetic, sensing their affect on others, good team work, heightened listening skills and cooperation.
A recent Accenture study of CEOs came up with one over arching factor that was an essential part of the successful leaders tool kit – self awareness.
Just think back to the performance of ex CEO of BP, Tony Hayward . After a long delay in responding in person to the Gulf of Mexico tragedy he turned up on a local beach and said to the gathered press group, “Nobody wants this over more than I do. I want my life back” . No mention of the deaths of BP staff and the suffering of their families, no mention of the environmental catastrophe, no mention of the economic hardship for local fishermen…”I want my life back”….
A leader must be authentic. A leader must listen. A leader must be humble and know that he serves his employees, shareholders and the wider community.
However by about the time of the new milenium I was a man feeling ill at ease with himself. I felt something was missing in my life.
At the time I was working in corporate finance at KPMG in Sydney. I lived in a beautiful apartment overlooking Bondi beach. I was one step away from partnership at the firm. I felt strong and healthy and had a wide circle of friends. My prospects were good.
But I felt ill at ease.
Part of the unease arose from the consulting assignments that I was being asked to work on. These included online gambling companies, coalmines, an arms manufacturer and so on. They made me feel uncomfortable and were out of line with my values.
In addition to this I was reading more and more about climate change and also seeing with my own eyes how the coral was becoming bleached and dead on the barrier reef.
It became clear to me that if things continued, as they were, the natural progression was towards environmental devastation, possibly within my lifetime.
I therefore concluded, as a rationale economist would, that in order to maximise the utility from my life I would explore new things, stop accumulating wealth and extract all the juice that I could from this precious, finite life. The desire for experience led me on an outward journey to see as much of the world that I could see.
I also experienced an inward journey. I studied Yoga in ashrams and learnt psychology. In the last fifteen years I’ve been blessed to have experienced so many new things and met so many beautiful people in my new coaching and wellbeing career.
The businesses that we have created encourage people to be more mindful of their bodies and their minds. The amazing therapists at our London centre (www.breathe-london.com) provide people with tools to help them see the world and themselves in a balanced and calm way. If people view themselves and others with kindness and compassion then we have a chance to reduce the destructive forces, which are destroying our bodies, minds and this beautiful planet
The year 2015
In all major industrialised countries depression, obesity and the use of anti depressants is on the rise. Why? Is it the disease of over consumption and inequality?
Business and political leaders spout the mantra that we have to keep consuming more and more in order to elevate the poorest in our societies through trickle down economics. But this model appears to be failing. Whilst half the world lives in abject poverty, 1% of the rich control 50% of the wealth and each year this yawning gap becomes larger.
(The graph shows how in each period of economic expansion in the US, the top 10% of people (in terms of wealth) have faired compared to the bottom 90%. Amazingly in the last economic growth cycle most Americans saw a shrinkage in their wealth)
Researchers from the field of Positive Psychology, including Ed Diener and many others, have concluded that financial wealth does not have a relationship with emotional or spiritual wealth. Once we earn above a basic salary and have other basic freedoms such as access to healthcare, privacy, freedom of movement , democratic rights, housing and education we do not become happier as we become wealthier.
Throughout the wealthy economies capital is becoming increasingly clustered at the top whilst the rest of society is told that free healthcare or education can no longer be afforded.
When the fairness quotient becomes out of whack political and social instability usually follows.
But the political and business mantra continues. We have to grow more, build more, and consume more
And the madness is that this lunacy has been exported to India and China. The huge middle classes in these super powers aspire to our levels of consumption. Young people move to their big cities, breaking up families and breaking up ancient traditions. The desire for Gucci and Sony and McDonalds is driving a wedge between them and the things in life that truly bring happiness – a connection to traditions, being in nature, having a sense of duty and community, kinship and family
At some stage in the near future as 7 becomes 8 billion and 9 and 10 and 11, a financial, political, psychological and spiritual tipping point will be reached.
In the west we have experienced the devastating effects of over consumption and inequality. We have a moral duty to change our behaviours. Our consumption will consume us if we let it. We also need to show urgent leadership . We need to understand the madness of other consumption and inequality . We need to provide sustainable housing, healthcare and education to the needy in our own societies and overseas
I vowed back in 2003 that I would not be part of the machinery that led to the destruction of body, mind, soul and planet. When I take new coaching work on I weigh up carefully whether my work will encourage people to move in a positive direction.
The first beautiful picture is a map of the country I love. Australia had a wealth of indigenous knowledge, hundreds of languages and customs. Many of them are lost for ever. When Captain Cook first arrived it was noted that as the ships sat in the harbour the aboriginal people on the foreshore appeared to ignore them. This may seem strange to us but recent evidence suggests that the way we interpret the world around depends, to a great extent, on what we expect or are told to see. Perhaps these alien images simply were not in the range of comprehension of these original Australians. We have no real idea of how they lived in harmony with the natural world and how they experienced life.
We never asked them
The imposition of the mantra of growth, expansion and learning on these cultures has been devastating.
The last map is the Australian governments own estimates of the likely increase in temperatures over the next 60 to 80 years. The lucky country appears headed to become the dead, burnt country
Business leaders, politicians, community leaders, teachers…This is all that counts now ……. Right now…….. Leaders who ignore the science and encourage over consumption and inequality are not leaders.
Building a bright, positive future
If you are working as hard as you can, spending little time with the kids so that you can bequeath them your wealth then seize this moment. Work less and spend more time with them. The environmental experts say that this makes sense
If you are working hard to build up your wealth so that you become happier, then change your behaviours. Strive less for financial security and work hard on the depth and quality of your friendships. Sit quietly and observe your own drives and impulses. Exercise more and spend time in nature. The psychologists say that this will help you feel healthier and happier.
If you are a business leader, take a good, hard look at all of your products. Which ones are sustainable? The market is sometimes slow in placing a fair value on irrational behaviours. We know that we can’t burn all the carbon in the ground but banks still fund carbon exploration. We know that if we keep destroying the forests for mono crop culture we have no future. We need to ascertain which products add to human and global wellbeing and which destroy value. Economic history suggests that this day of price reckoning will come. Are you ready for it?
All of us can take a look at what we consume, how we consume and how we dispose of our waste. For each item of consumption consider whether it brings health and happiness and at what cost? And then consider the environmental and ethical implications of the product.
If just one person reads this and then strives to be a more responsible global citizen then I will have had a good afternoon at work.
If you agree with what I have written please share www.breathe-australia.com
There is a great scene near the end of the Australian film, Animal Kingdom. The murderous, ever positive matriarch of the family gang is confronted by the death of her last son. Up until that point every set back, including the gangland slaughter of most of her family, had been met with a rosy one liner about how all would turn out well. In one of the last scenes of the film we see her hunched and sobbing at the breakfast table. She turns to one of the few remaining gang members, red eyed and sobbing and blurts out, “I’ll be fine darl, I’m just looking for my positive spin”. Of course it all ends painfully for the drug gang, who had a date with destiny from the start of the film.
About nine years ago I started to get really interested in the emerging field of Positive Psychology. I’d come from a corporate finance background and I was particularly interested in how the work place could become a more satisfying place for all concerned. My particular bias was that I had spent eleven years in the accounting profession. Which can be a tad dry…My first role as a fresh faced KPMG recruit was as an auditor in the West Midland. I spent many wet Wednesday afternoons in steel works in places like Smethwick checking widget inventories. My wonderful doleful brummie friend Graham Frost gave me some charming advice at the start of my auditing days.
“Andy, first they will crush your soul with mind numbing tasks and they will rob your creativity and drive through a regime of fear and intimidation…And then they will re build you into a perfectly functioning KPMG finance attack dog. From that point on you are theirs. You will see through their eyes. And you too will enjoy the power and majesty of becoming an assistant audit manager in the KPMG Birmingham practice. You will have the power to bend young recruits to your will. And as you climb the pole to the dizzy heights of audit manager your power and influence will grow. Your esteem and bank balance will rise. You will become what you now loathe… A perfect chiseled auditing machine. You have no choice. It is written”
So that’s my heuristic bias out on the table. I was superbly well paid and highly bored. Towards the end of my KPMG career I started to explore the relationship between money and happiness and how to find meaning in life. After lots of false dawns I’ve become a quirky, economist trained, yoga teaching, geek accountant, psychologist hybrid. Able to match “The Office” with “Deepak Chopra” and the “hard headed”, “serious” , “evidenced based” world of corporate psychology. I am one of the army of Positive Psychology consultancies ready to swoop down and measure your employee wellbeing and find authentic ways to enthuse, energise, motivate and generally fluff your staff…..
But …..from day one of studying Positive Psychology in the workplace I’ve had a strange, queasy, uneasy feeling about everything that the “research” was suggesting makes people more engaged and work harder. I am blessed that KPMG trained me so well. I can sniff out bullshit and I know how office politics works for real.
So if you are the owner of a company looking to engage your staff here are my five potential bullshit beware items:
1) Employee engagement questionnaires –
Nobody at work wants to do them. They get filled in by harassed folk and fail to address underlying blockages between colleagues. Poor managers use them as a tool to address staff wellbeing and motivation. If you feel you have to use one, the Gallup Q12 is short and sweet. Make sure you back it up with actual communication. Ask people what’s up. All the others are just money making fatter, longer, more boring versions of the Q12
Conclusion – the jury is out. Management by algorithm should never replace actually listening to what people want to say
2) If we can make people more positive in their interactions with colleagues then the organisation will thrive
Back in 2006 psychologist called Losada was very popular. He came up with the idea of measuring the positive to negative ratio of expressions between work colleagues and then mapping these to future financial performance of an organisation. He found that a positive to negative expression ratio greater than 3 to 1, in an organisation, led to “thriving”. With a ratio of below that or above 8 to 1 organisations languished. The argument was that greater than 8 to 1 was a recipe for a floppy organisation full of yes men. He had based his calculations on complex fractal mathematics. Lots of people like me, studying for a masters degree in positive psychology, quoted this magic ratio and used it as leverage to win work. Until some bright spark at UEL discovered that the maths was bull. Here’s a little secret – most positive psychologists don’t understand statistics. I’m lucky that I studied statistics at degree level and am a Chartered Accountant. But I never understood all the math.
Now I’m not saying that we all need to spend long dreary hours at work or that happy thriving fun offices are not something to aspire to but we have to get real. In every job and every organisation there should be a time for fun and a time for serious, focused, hard edged drive. One size does not fit all organisations.
Conclusion – more research needs to be done. Surely its better to match the task at hand with a useful emotion. For example a blue sky, team building, exploratory meeting needs to be light and fun. Reviewing a colleagues report needs to feel stern, serious even argumentative (especially if the colleagues are friends). The devil is always, always in the detail. Introducing forced positivity is a recipe for passive aggressive stifling of meaningful communication
3) People who are optimistic about the future and visualise successful outcomes are likely to succeed at what they do
More than two decades ago, Gabriele Oettingen, conducted a study in which women enrolled in a weight-reduction program with several short, open-ended scenarios about future events. They were asked to imagine how they would fare in each one. Some of these scenarios asked the women to imagine that they had successfully completed the program; others asked them to imagine situations in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. They were then asked the women to rate how positive or negative their resulting thoughts and images were.
A year later the results were striking. The more positively women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, the fewer pounds they had lost.
In the last 20 years Gabriele and his team have replicated this finding using many different scenarios (for example people looking for jobs). In their research they discovered that dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.
In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they asked two groups of college students to write about what lay in store for the coming week. One group was asked to imagine that the week would be great. The other group was just asked to write down any thoughts about the week that came to mind. The students who had positively fantasized reported feeling less energized than those in the control group. They also went on to accomplish less during that week.
Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it. It should be noted however that focusing just on the negatives will also have an adverse effect on performance.
It seems that a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how the research describe it :
“Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.”
They described this process “mental contrasting,”. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.
When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. It seems that Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.
Conclusion – The studies by Gabriele Oettingen are a breath of fresh air. I’ve written a good deal for the need to observe your thoughts and feelings in a mindful manner. If we can look at the future in a rosy positive light then we are more likely to see wonderful opportunities and have more “aha” moments. But its far more powerful and engaging to also choose to focus on what can go wrong. If you do this in a calm, dispassionate manner you become forearmed and better placed to face the challenges ahead.
4) Happier people work better
A 2010 study, by Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School, concluded that there was a positive link between an employee’s happiness and their productivity. The team conducted a range of exercises in their research. The subjects were asked to add a series of two digit numbers in ten minutes. They were paid an attendance fee, and also a performance fee based on how they performed.
Half of the group was then shown a ten-minute comedy film. The film apparently led to an increase in the self reported happiness levels of participants, compared to those who did not see it or who watched placebo film clips. The participants then repeated the task. The researchers concluded that those participants with an elevated self reported happiness level were 12% more productive than the participants with non-elevated happiness levels.
They also noted that those participants who watched the film but did not feel any happier did not demonstrate improved productivity.
This was reported in the media as groundbreaking research, however it merely adds to the body of findings from the field of Positive Psychology, which has a far more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions in the workplace. Emotions, both “negative” and “positive” have a vital role at work. They are a call to action to help change behaviours. There is a danger in that this type of research might suggest that positive emotions are appropriate in all workplace settings.
The Andrew Oswald study involved students at the business school and not employees on a production line or sitting in an office. When the media reports on these studies they often miss the vital aspect of context.
Happy people can be lazy thinkers.
Happy people are more likely to use cognitive shortcuts and approximations when thinking about the world. In one study researchers presented people with a list of 15 words related to a theme (e.g. tired, bed, rest, etc) and then asked participants to recall the list as best they could by looking at a separate list and identifying the original words.
The researchers include some false items related to the theme such as “sleep” that never appeared on the first list. Happy people were 50% more likely than their counterparts to mistakenly identify such words.
Happy people may be less persuasive.
Researcher Bob Cialdini identified concepts associated with persuasion: scarcity, expertise, and so forth. One element of persuasive communication is clear, concrete, detailed arguments. Exactly the stuff happy people are inclined to gloss over.
In three studies, judges rated the arguments about everyday issues such as allocating tax money. Happy people were rated as about 25% less impressive and 20% less detailed than were their more negative counterparts.
Its all about context again. Trying to increase happiness across the board within an organization is a foolish task. We need to look at the drivers of engagement – the relationships that people have, the likelihood of advancement, being rewarded fairly, having training available to succeed etc. Happiness at work is a by product of these things
5) If we can get our staff to realise that their meaning and engagement is not linked to how much we reward them we can work them harder and pay them less
Positive Psychology is a genius corporate tool. Here is the argument:
- There is no relationship between your subjective wellbeing (how happy you think you are) and your financial wealth.
- People find meaning and engagement at work by things like loving and appreciating colleagues, loving their roles, receiving sufficient training, having nice environments etc
- Happier people are less likely to leave, will be nicer to their colleagues, share information and work harder
- If we can get them to find meaning and get them to be happier we can work them harder and pay them less!
Take a look at this graph. It shows how the top 10% of earners in the US have performed financially during every period of gross domestic product growth. Its startling. In the 50s as the economy grew, the engine of the economy (the bottom 90%) enjoyed the greatest increase in their wealth. By 2014 the roles have switched. The top 10% have enjoyed the benefits of growth whilst the incomes of the bottom 90% has actually declined during growth periods!!!
The thing that drives our thoughts, feelings and actions is fairness. The majority of working people have seen real cuts to their living standards whilst the management group have enjoyed the growth. Empires topple when the unfairness factor becomes all encompassing. Positive psychology programs at work can only mask unfairness for so long.
Organisations mirror society. This is the environment within which Australian business operates:
- Anti depressant use in Australia is the second highest in the OECD
- The Safety at work Australia survey noted in 2013 that 20% of people at work had been humiliated by a colleague and 42% had been bullied at work
- 1 in 5 Australians say their stress levels affect their health
- Depression affects 1 million Australians
Given the society background care and sensitivity is needed when introducing Positive Psychology programs at work. Employers need to appreciate that the prospect of improved financial reward is vital. Without it unfairness grows and the wheels start to come off. Without the prospect of a better future hope withers and dies at work. People become disengaged, more fearful and feel pitted against their colleagues. Employers also need to be realistic . The workplace mirrors society. Forced positivity can be stifling for people feeling real hardship.
Is there a role for Positive Psychology programs at work?
I’m not sure anymore. I think there are gold nuggets within some of the research and tools that have been developed. And within the positive psychology coaching profession there are some super talented, loving, passionate coaches
Any tool which helps people develop kindness and compassion and positive regard for their colleagues has got to be a good thing. We want to work in happy, rewarding, challenging and fun places. I think many of the Positive Psychology interventions fit well underneath the banner of mindfulness at work, rather than the other way around.
We need to be more mindful that sometimes things are good and sometimes bad and that all things pass eventually. We need to be mindful of our emotions and those of our colleagues and also cut ourselves (and them) some slack. Work mirrors society. If we are having hard times outside of work then it will impact us at work. We need to improve our focus and learn when to switch on and when to tune out. We need to really appreciate that our worst enemy and our most negative of emotions may be our greatest teacher and our greatest blessing. We need to get comfortable with sitting and exploring our negative thoughts and emotions and harness their power to facilitate growth. By contemplating grief, tragedy and failure we can learn and grow and allow the fun times to flow.