Wellbeing and the environment
The environment and wellbeing
This newsletter is longer than usual, which is going to put off a lot of people! Even though the newsletter goes to 3,000 people, if only a handful of people read it I will be very happy. It sets out my thoughts on how to lead a happy and healthy life.
We recently spent a very happy ten days hiking in the Pyrenees. A typical day started at 6am in a shared dorm. We prepared for the day by drinking a bowl of coffee and a eating a dry piece of bread and then set off with our 10kilo backpacks to walk for up to 10 hours, often ascending and descending over two kilometres, either to summits or high mountain passes. We would arrive at the next Refuge in the middle of the afternoon physically exhausted and very happy.Each time I take this trip to the Pyrenees I try and work out why I love this sadomasochistic activity so much. I feel alive, whole, energised and connected to the environment. I was also interested in whether there are things we can learn from the mountains and carry on in our day to day life.
Comparing ourselves to others
The Pyrenees are wild mountains. You can go a whole day without seeing anyone else. You don’t need to trouble yourself with positioning yourself in a social context. It’s just you, the person you love and the mountains. Study after study says that creating a close network of good friends is a vital component of wellbeing, but equally important is the ability to stand alone and be away from the agendas of other people and institutions. I had ten days without texts, phone calls and emails and it makes you appreciate how much of your time is spent considering, judging, responding and comparing yourself to the people and information around you. When it’s just you and the mountain it’s a much simpler life. Complexity and intricate social bonds make life captivating but listening too much to the world around us can sometimes mean that we fail to listen to our own basic needs.
Each day take some time to turn your attention inwards and listen to your intuition
Taking one day at a time
Climbing mountains oozes analogies with Life Coaching. As you leave the valley floor you are faced with the enormity of the task ahead. The mountain rises sharply with jagged peaks covered in snow and ice. The valley floor remains covered by a veil of darkness, but high above the illuminated peaks are bathed in light and provide glorious encouragement to the task at hand. As you leave the warmth and security of the Refuge, this light provides the motivation to ascend. As you begin the ascent the light permeates the valley bottom and the animals begin their daily chores.
Climbing steeply, for up to five or six hours, you sometimes crane your neck to look up and can get discouraged by the challenge. By taking one step at a time and enjoying the journey you move slowly toward your goals. By focussing on the present you appreciate the subtle changes in the environment. The buzzing of the insects in the deciduous woods give way to cooler coniferous slopes, delicate flowers on subalpine meadows, the high pitched squeaks of fat little marmots and finally scree, boulders, snow and glaciers. Occasionally looking back at your achievements renews your energy. And finally the summit or high mountain pass is reached, providing serenity and peace. You observe your achievements and are able to see the broad outline of where your future travels and opportunities lie. After all that hard work we pause briefly to marvel at our surroundings, but we remember that the mountains can be a wild and hostile place at 3,000 metres and return to the welcoming comforts of the valley floor. The smells, warmth and friendships in the Refuge beckon us.
We live our lives in the warmth and security of valley floors. There is great beauty here too as well as the support and encouragement of our friends. Sometimes however we need to test ourselves and observe the world from a higher perspective, reflect on the path we have taken in life and where it is leading us.
Each day spend some time observing your own energy and state of awareness. Reflect on your achievements and give thanks for what you have
Knowing your mind and body
After ten days and over one hundred and fifty kilometres with a ten kilo backpack, I have never been physically fitter. I am interested in the relationship between how the brain works after and during physical exercise. In a recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, those who learned French, while pedalling on exercise bikes, could learn thirty percent more than those who studied while sitting. We often forget that the brain is also the body and is fuelled by the nutrients and activities that we choose to experience.
Take time away from your desk and enjoy some brief exercise throughout the day. Without this refuelling you are likely to become less efficient throughout the day
Creating a beautiful mind by observing beauty
For a long time now I have been interested on the effect of beauty on brain chemistry. Recent research has identified Mirror neurons, which have the feature of behaving in a manner similar to those in a third party. For example, if I observe you practicing a golf swing, a small percentage of my neurons mirror the same experience that you are having. This has amazing implications. Some researchers have speculated that autistic people may have an inability to feel and empathise with others because of a deficit in mirror neurons. There has now been a lot of research into how we mimic, subconsciously, each other’s behaviour and become retuned in each other’s presence. There has been little research however on the effect that a beautiful environment has on our brains.
In a recent study Trinity College philosophy professor Dan Lloyd created a program that orchestrates our brainwaves. Scanning brains on an MRI, Lloyd watched as certain areas of the brain light up and then assign different frequencies to the areas of the brain used, correlating the intensity of usage with volume. Subjects were asked to do some activities ranging from playing a driving video game, to just watching the scenery, to being completely at rest. The portions of the brain that were active during those times were then translated into frequencies, pitches, and volume to create something resembling music.
They also contrasted normal brain patterns with subjects with schizophrenia and dementia undergoing the same tests. These subjects produced “unsteady rhythms and cadences” in their brain music. The most amazing part of listening to this music is how easy it is to differentiate between a healthy resting mind, a healthy active mind, and a schizophrenic mind. Being surrounded by beautiful images seems to encourage our brains to reflect this beauty. We create beautiful new melodies within our mind. I’m confident that in years to come we will demonstrate how beautiful minds can be developed from emersion in beauty. Similarly it will be interesting to see the research that looks at the effect of jarring noises, clutter and over abundance of manmade structures on how the brain works.
Take regular short breaks, rebalance by observing the pockets of nature in our urban jungle
Being distracted can become a habit
We enjoyed ten days without phone calls, twittering, text messaging, channel surfing or updating Facebook. It’s amazing how, in just ten years, the landscape of communication has been transformed. Whilst the opportunities presented by these forms of communication are immense, the great unknown is the effect that it has on our brains. We know that being constantly at the beck and call of others and being constantly available has a dramatic effect on our ability to understand complex arguments. We know that images on screens are visually stimulating and operate the same dopamine reward structures that, for example, that taking cocaine has. We can become addicted to speedy, new visual information.
In the US, knowledge workers switch tasks, on average, every three minutes on the job, almost one third of American teenagers juggle five to eight forms of media as they do their homework, and more than half of instant message users say that they always surf the Web, watch TV, talk on the phone, or play computer games at the same time. Yet brain research shows that multitasking comes at the expense of cognitive efficiency, memory, and learning.
In her book (Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age) Maggie Jackson argues that our twitch-speed, rapid-fire lifestyles, we are squandering our most valuable cultural resource: “the capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention– the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress”. She notes that although there are 50 million websites at our fingertips, for example, half of American 18- to 24-year olds can’t find New York State on a map, almost 60% of 15-year-olds score at or below the most basic level of problem solving skills, and only 30% of college graduates are able to understand simple documents like food labels. Meanwhile, even as the Internet makes communication easier than ever before, a quarter of Americans– more than double the number 20 years ago– say that they have no close confidante, while just 17% of families in a UCLA study reported eating dinner together regularly.
It’s my view that this form of connection can become addictive and it’s worthwhile, every so often, practicing connection in old fashioned way. Going for a hike in the mountains with your soul mate is my favourite way of rebalancing.
Spend some time each week and for a lengthy period every year turning off electronic forms of connection
There is something other worldly about being next to billions of tonnes of rocks like the Posets Massif. They rise sharply and are of such immense proportions that sometimes appear as though they are a mirage or a dream, as though they can flicker and melt away. They help you realise that your problems and thoughts are miniscule in the face of such grandeur. They make you look outside of yourself and by focussing your attention externally seem to reduce your own sense of importance. They demand attention and serve as a reminder that the order of the world is proceeding as it should. This detachment from your own thoughts seems to embed you within your environment. You become more than one isolated human being and merge into something much greater; something that is beautiful epic and ever changing.
Although we talked about climbing to the highest peaks, on most occasions we chose to go through the mountains via high mountain passes, rather than conquering mountains. In most mountainous, indigenous cultures it would be irreverent to think of conquering a mountain but rather they try flow over the landscape and act in accordance with the terrain, rather than fighting it.
It’s so common in testosterone charged work environments for people to keep choosing ever greater goals. As I said before, it’s useful to occasionally test your courage by scaling peeks but as most people know, conquering can quickly lead to dissatisfaction until the next peak is identified. Maybe it’s a useful time to consider whether it’s the journey, and the friends and experiences that you have along the way, or the goal itself that is important. If it’s the journey then maybe it would be useful to see how you can use the existing contours to flow through life, rather than scale all the high peaks.
Consider the things that really nurture you and reappraise some of your goals. Do you really need to do all the things you are doing?
Consuming or experiencing?
Each day we asked the Refuge to provide us with a small packed lunch. Any rubbish had to be carried with us throughout the trip. There is no point leaving a sack full of rubbish for a Refuge to deal with at 2,500 metres. You also become acutely aware of the importance of life saving equipment, like a goretex three layer storm proof jacket, a compass and a map. For ten days we carry around the essentials of our existence. We consume very little and produce hardly any waste materials, such as packaging. Living on great company, hospitality, fresh air, hard exercise and surrounded by beauty made us feel like we were being the best we could be. We experienced life in depth.
It’s interesting to contrast this experience with modern consumerism. One of the most popular areas of research in economics and psychology is the relationship between money, consumption and wellbeing. Study after study conclude that when your basic needs are satisfied (for example a roof over your head, adequate diet and minimum wage), your level of subjective wellbeing is not significantly improved by additional income. At the end of the Soviet era, their support of the Castro regime in Cuba led to a dramatic reduction in the people’s consumption of consumer products and their calorific intake. The result; improved life expectancy, little effect on their levels of wellbeing and a reduction in diseases such as cancer.
What we consume, if taken to excess, can consume us. Cutting down does not necessarily lead to a reduction in the amount of experiences that you have. Having climbed the Gourgs Blancs Glacier we looked at amazing pictures of the glaciers in our Refuge. The contrast between the glacier in 1900 and now was enormous. As we consume to excess we are destroying the beautiful environments that truly foster our wellbeing.
We can be defined by our consumption.
Take a look at your habits and routines. Do they provide you with pleasure or are you being a bystander in life as it passes you by?
These are my thoughts on this beautiful experience and the connection between our environment and our wellbeing.
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