Blog Archives

Happiness arises in the space between

balloonsA coach is asked to present a wellbeing workshop for an organisation’s staff. The group arrive and are presented with a room full of fifty golden balloons, each with the name of one of the participants on it.

The coach asks the group to look for their own balloon as quickly as possible and in complete silence. Those who find their balloon are told they will be eligible for a small reward.

There follows a chaotic scramble; lots of pushing and balloon popping. After a few minutes the exercise is stopped and from the fifty there are a handful of participants clutching their balloons. They are rewarded with a small box of chocolates. The rest have the glum outlook of people forced to go on a training course by their employers whilst their workload piles up at their desk.

The coach runs the exercise again but this time lets the group know that once they find a balloon with a colleagues name on it they should take it over to their workmate. Within a few minutes everyone is holding their own golden balloon. The coach then asks everyone to peel off their name tags. Behind each tag the word happiness is written.

I’m not going to hammer the point home but it’s clear and apparent that this simple little exercise reveals some great truths. We find our happiness and get to understand our strengths and weaknesses through helping others find theirs. We hold a mirror up and reflect each other’s joy. The joy is more than doubled. There is the joy of helping another and celebrating with them, the joy of receiving a gift and the collective joy of the group. Someone way smarter than me said,

“Illness begins with I and Wellness begins with we”

We find out what makes us tick by helping others uncover their truth. To do this all you need is a bit of time, a bit of space and people with positive intention for each other . Usually we do this with best mates and family and I feel really blessed to have lovely friends and such an amazing family .

There maybe times in our lives when we feel at a crossroad or feel the need to step outside of the circle of our friends and reflect on our experience in a different way ; for example when looking for a new job or to gain insight into a whole new way of living. So there may be times when our friends and family don’t have the resources to provide this insight and in order to grow we need the dispassionate reflection of a stranger.

At our centre in Waterloo we have coaches who have the time, space and positive intent to help – David, Dorinda, Madeleine , me and Anita. Find out more by reading our profiles at www.breathe-london.com/coaching

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The time we are given

The time we are given

A few days ago a good friend, Emily Collins, shared a message on Facebook which suggested that on average once you are into your 30s you have something like 1,800 weekends left to live (I did the math and thought it should be a bit more).  Some people posted that they felt that it was grim news but I felt that it was an uplifting a message about making the most of the time we have.  If you don’t believe me listen to Gandalf:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrlTeoFcf-Q

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that we are given”
JRR Tolkein

Research suggests that we find the concept of finite life so difficult to comprehend that we use every power that our ego possesses to suppress this truth and base many of our life decisions (both economic and psychological) on the false premise of continuity.

For me the 1,800 weekends left idea is a validation of my decision 9 years ago to leave the world of corporate finance to do a job I love.  I wanted my Monday to Friday and holidays to be at least as joyful as the weekends.

Meaning and joy
Thinking of life as a finite thing makes you approach each day as a special gift.  Of course we may already have just a few weekends left or maybe none.

If we look at our daily activities we can ask a simple question, “Does this activity bring me either joy or bring me a deeper meaning and understanding of who I am and what my place is in the world?”  Of course there inevitably follows a far more complex question.  “If the activity that I am doing brings me little or no joy now but I know that it enables me to have joy in the future, to what extent do I defer joy if life is uncertain and finite?”

The benefit of deferring joy is that it builds tenacity and willpower.   In studies, little kids who are able to sit in a room on their own and deny themselves the pleasure of eating a sweet now, compared to waiting for two in 10 minutes, are on average happier in later life, achieve more academically and are more successful in their careers.

The only problem with deferring joy is that it can become a habit.  Some people do it until they retire, counting the days away.  And in all those long years of denial they forget how to be playful and childlike.  They lose their creativity, their spark and their energy.

So perhaps we can look at what we do each day with more awareness and remind ourselves:
–         Life is precious and short
–         Am I clear that if I am deferring joy today it is because I am working towards something which has a deep meaning and I value (what I truly value – not what my peers, family or society values)

Experiencing joy
Obviously with 1,800 weekends or so people are tempted to pursue hedonism – to fulfil themselves through consumption (food, sex, cars, houses etc).  The problem with these joys is that they tend to be fleeting and habit forming.  Because they entice the senses so much they invite repetition and can squeeze out other forms of joy that the world has to offer.  Again the key is to raise awareness and ask:

“Am I repeating this joy out of habit?”
“What future joys can be experienced by choosing a more difficult path or trying something new?”
“Does this joy bring me closer to my loved ones, help me understand myself better and connect with new people?”

Connecting
And finally I’d like to explore the greatest joy – connecting to friends and understanding yourself.  Research in Positive Psychology suggests that the greatest building block of wellbeing is the closeness and depth of your relationships.  Friendships are not measured by the number of Facebook friends that you have, but through having a handful of friends that know your highest highs and lowest lows, who love you even when you act and look like a car crash, and fill you with warmth and love when you succeed in life.

When you meet such people cherish and love them dearly.  Thanks for the inspiration Emily.

Hope you found this useful

Lots of love Andy

Being in nature – how it changes your mind

Wellbeing and nature

This weeks Breathe newsletter explores the benefits to health of being in nature.

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
  • Minimum food
  • 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.

Love,
Andy

How our biases get in the way of making good decisions

This week’s newsletter briefly explores our biases and tendencies and how they can get in the way of good decision making and collaborating with people.  In an earlier newsletter I looked at the limited spectrum of information that we are able to comprehend.  This is what I wrote a few months back:

It seems that what we think we are observing around us is such a small percentage of reality. Not only do we miss the “big picture” as well as the fine details, we actually fail to observe and recall hardly anything at all.  In an amazing experiment students were asked to observe four differently coloured shapes for a fraction of a second.  The shapes were flashed momentarily again and one of the shapes was rotated either to the left or to the right.  The subjects were then asked to state whether there had been a rotation to the left or right.  Most people failed at this task, and in fact average people were only able to tell if there had been a movement to the left or to the right if there were less than three objects to observe… Imagine that! We think we can know all that is going on around us but in fact at a conscious level we can hardly observe or recall anything.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:

“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.  Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening.”

There is simply too much information out there for us to process.

When we observe with limited perception we tend to believe in what we see, smell, touch and hear and we form rigid views based on that perception.  For a simple example of how optical illusions play tricks on us check this out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo

Take a look at the clip before reading the next bit.

If you followed the task how many of you saw the gorilla?  If not take another look.  This is a great example of the importance of attention.  When our attention is diverted by a task we can miss the obvious.  As Daniel Kahneman says “we can be blind to the obvious and blind to our blindness”.

Just think how often your attention is taken by a task at work or stolen by advertising images, and then imagine how the world is misrepresented by your senses and your captured attention.  That’s one of the reasons why its useful to train your attention to make it less easily manipulated.  We’re surrounded by optical and other sensorial illusions and these become cognitive illusions as we process the information.  Our thoughts and feelings are therefore based on an illusion.

That does not mean that all is illusion and to lack confidence in your thoughts and actions.  However it is useful to cultivate more humility and understanding that your view of the world is just one impression and that others have an important perspective that can provide you with amazing insights.

This brings me onto the second point about how we develop cognitive illusions based on the illusions of our senses.  Heuristic biases are the environmental factors that have influenced the way we interpret the information flowing from the sense organs to the mind.  Up until the 1970s scientists broadly accepted two ideas about human nature:  First, people are generally rational  and second emotions such as fear and love explain departures from rationality.  In the 1970s Daniel Kahneman documented more than twenty types of systematic errors in the thinking of normal people which were not based on deviations from the norm caused by strong emotions.

I’ll provide you with one example of an heuristic bias – the amount of media coverage on a particular topic impacts the importance that people place on that topic, its potential economic impact and the likelihood that it will impact them personally. That’s one of the reasons why Silvio Berlosconi benefits from control of the Italian press.  There are many other biases, such as how our parents encouraged us to perceive the world. So what we see, or think we see, is influenced by the way we have see that thing before.  We experience the world in an increasingly rigid way and thats why its so good to travel and experience different cultures or learn a new language so that you begin to think and express based on a different set of cultural norms.

These heuristic biases, combined with illusions of the senses (influenced by our ability to pay attention), creates an imperfect impression of the world and leads us to imperfect thinking and decision making.

None of this is a problem!  By definition it’s impossible for us to observe everything in a perfect way.  All it means is that all of us, especially the experts and leaders in our society, need to develop the strength of humility.  The more we learn, the more we realise there is more to learn and that others have an interesting perspective. Deepening our knowledge about misperception and heuristic biases enables us to explore each others thought processes and idiosyncrasies with humour and playfulness . It enables collaboration and fosters dialogue.  It reminds us that we all have a story to tell, each as precious and as valid as the next

PS. when I  studied the Bhagavad-Gita in India there was a conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna about the impossibility of humans being able to take in the reality of their surroundings.  When Lord Krishna enables this briefly Arjuna is flooded with knowledge, colour and beauty.

“O Arjuna, I have innumerable forms of diverse colors and shapes. There are many miraculous things that you have not seen before. The whole universe, both animate and inanimate, exists in one part of My divine body. You are not able to see the whole of My form with your sense perception. Therefore I will give you a divya chakshu (divine eye) through which you can see the form of the Lord as a whole.”

Reading ideas :
The invisible Gorrilla Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Building a Positive Psychology business

In this week’s newsletter I’m going to explore some ideas on building a business based on the values of Positive Psychology. When we set up Breathe London in 2003, we didn’t have a clear strategy or a clear idea about what we wanted to achieve. For my part I knew what I didn’t want to do, ie. to continue working in corporate finance, but it wasn’t clear what I wanted to create or what I truly wanted to do. The picture has emerged slowly after lots of trials and many errors.

From the start the guiding light for developing a new career was based on a few basic ideas:

  • I wanted to create a job that I loved
  • I wanted to make Mondays at least as interesting as the weekends
  • To create a pattern of work that allowed me to explore my interest in health and fitness
  • To help other people as I supported myself financially
  • Strive to add more to human and environmental wellbeing than I took through my consumption

Over the last nine years Tom and I have travelled to India, become Yoga teachers and studied for Masters degrees in Positive Psychology and Cognitive Science. During that time we’ve both explored many areas of wellbeing, including varied spiritual, physical and psychological practices. This wandering has been an important of what has made our business thrive. There’s a lovely JRR Tolkien quote:

“Not all those who wander are lost”

Sometimes you need to go on a wander to appreciate what’s important.

The findings from Positive Psychology and teachings from Yoga and Buddhism seem to support the decision we made to radically change our career paths. Some of the core findings from Positive Psychology include:

  • Beyond a certain financial level, and given adequate healthcare, education and a stable political environment, additional material resources do not make us happier
  • People who feel that they are happy and engaged in their worklife are more likely to be like this in their home life

In an earlier newsletter I touched on the idea of the three pillars of wellbeing:

  • Autonomy – To feel free to do what you want to do in life
  • Competence – To feel skilled in your role, or know resources are available to attain new skills
  • Relatedness – Your life roles bring you into contact with people who you value (love) and value (love) you

Its taken a long time but I now think we have a network of amazing therapists at Breathe London, and are supported by great landlords in Jubilee Hall Trust/Coin Street and have a wonderful group of clients from whom I learn so much. As we expand to four treatment rooms and increase our corporate wellbeing events it’s important to reflect on why success has come. We broke all the rules of business development.
We didn’t (and still don’t have a strategy).
We take the minimum amount we can from the therapists that work under the Breathe banner’s earnings, to support our overheads
We want to work with clients to provide them life enhancing tools so eventually, they no longer require our services
We send clients to other organizations without expecting reciprocal arrangements

We have learnt many things over many years of wandering, but the most important thing is that while its important to work hard, you should not take yourself or your business too seriously. Try and stay playful when you build a business and look for opportunities to have fun.

Hope you found this interesting

Andy

Meditation and swimming

This weeks newsletter is a continuation of the meditation theme.   Although I have learnt and practiced many different meditation techniques I often find it difficult  to sit down, close my eyes and stop busy thoughts.  The excuse that I use is that I live in a big, busy city and feel bombarded with interesting, exciting images and ideas.  In this newsletter I introduce a really simple mindfulness technique and then talk about the evidence base which supports the exercise.

The practice
One technique that Tom Te Whaiti taught me years ago in Australia was to take an every day activity I love (swimming) and match this to a body scanning technique.  This is how it works – On the first lap you focus your attention to the crown of the head and feel for how it feels for the water to rush against it, on the second lap you move your focus down the body to the forehead , on the third your focus should be on the throat, continuing all the way down through the body’s energy centres until you reach your toes.  As you practice this you become totally wrapped in the moment – you hear that noise you make as you breathe out, you see the light making magical patterns on the floor of the pool and how it feels for the water to massage your skin.  If you do this for 20 minutes  its like being fully connected and in tune with reality as it unfolds.  Its euphoric and energising.  You can also do this technique running or on an exercise bike.

The evidence base for body scanning and swimming

  • Your environment effects your state of mind – mirror neurons in your brain reflect your circumstances.  When you take the time to observe beauty (say patterns of light at the bottom of the pool), you create beautiful patterns in your mind – you create a beautiful mind.  I’ll give you one example study illustrating how potentially vulnerable we are to our environment.   In a study participants were asked to sit in wobbly chairs and then rate how secure famous couples’ relationships were (for example Barack and Michelle Obama).  Another group were asked to do the same exercise on secure chairs.  Amazingly the wobbly group on average rated relationships as being insecure and craved security in their own relationships. (Kille, Forrest, Wood – University Waterloo Canada).  Thats just one illustration of how vulnerable our minds are to our environment – so its useful to train our minds to reflect on beautiful things.
  • Training our minds to be mindful and observe what arises in the moment reduces stress (Jon Kabat Zinn studies) and increase wellbeing levels ( Barbara Fredricksons research on loving kindness meditations)
  • Mindfulness and meditation exercises make permanent changes to the way we think – we observe more, are more creative and less vulnerable to negative shocks (Read the Dali Lama at MIT and the Buddha’s Brain for the latest neuroscience and decision making research in this area)
  • When you observe a body part working ( for example during the swimming body scan technique I observe my biceps moving in the water) you build more muscle than when you do an exercise and think about other things.  (Shackell, Standing at Bishop’s University).  Just by thinking about doing an exercise you build more muscle mass than a control group just asked to sit and do mental exercises.  One of the Ka Huna principals is energy flows where attention goes and this seems to be true.

Hope you found this useful
Love Andy

PS:  When I write these newsletters I try to emphasise a few points:

  • I try to provide practical examples of how I use Positive Psychology, meditation and other holistic practices in my life ( I take other peoples ideas and try and make them useful for me living in a big city)
  • Introduce the science supporting holistic practices
  • Explore the similarities and differences between Western Psychology and Buddhist/ Vedic practices  

Emotional contagion; how emotions spread at work

Contagious emotions
I am fascinated by the research about how emotions are transferred between us. For example in their 2003 study Ebling & Levenson  suggest that people have a simplistic subconscious  system of attract versus repulse and these prime directives are expressed in signals on our faces.

As far back as 1986 Mullen’s  study of the influential effects of Newscaster expressions on presidential elections, concluded that, micro facial expressions have a significant impact on peoples attract/repulse mechanism. A newscaster’s clear positive favouritism towards one candidate was shown to influence voting patterns. The study noted that this was in spite of the tendency of the news channel in question to run negative stories about the candidate. The positive micro expressions seemed to be more influential than the negative words expressed. In 1980 Wells & Petty illustrated how facial impression and movement of the head (nodding agreement) can be influenced by “senders” of energy and this in turn influences decision making and mood. Positive and negative emotions are as much an outside in as an inside out mechanism.

When one group of individuals are asked to remember a stressful event they produce identifiable, common facial patterns. When a second group is asked to mimic some of these expressions, without being asked to consider a stressful event, both groups suffer similar physiological effects. This implies that the face not only mimics inner thoughts and feelings but also drives these processes. The face may be both a display cabinet for emotions and also act as a creator of authentic emotions.

Emotions in the workplace

In 2005 Losada studied a number of management teams formulating business plans. He observed the relationship between the volume of positive expressions to negative expressions between team members (both verbal and non verbal). He then looked at the performance of the teams in the following period and found that the transmission of positive and negative emotions, through words and non verbal expression, was shown to lead to a state of flourishing, if the ratio was greater than 2.9.

In that study flourishing was defined as the profitability of the team as well as customer and staff satisfaction. In a 2004 study Shelly found that when there is a supportive network of people, to share positive events with, it is the sharing and rejoicing of an event that leads to greater wellbeing than the event itself. The degree to which positive, affirming words and body language are used in relation to sharing an event predicts the level to which wellbeing is raised.

Barbara Fredrickson has spent many years investigating the effects of positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment and love and has concluded the following:
– They allow us to think in a broad expansive manner
– They undo the effects of negative emotions on physiology, the way you think and the way you act
– They build intellectual, physical, social and psychological resources; and
– They create a virtuous spiral of emotions leading to increasing levels of wellbeing.

The Losada research also looked at teams where there was a ratio of positive to negative expressions in excess of 8 to 1 and found that these teams were also languishing rather than flourishing. This points to the obvious conclusion that we need some bite in the workplace as well as nurturing.  I think that the key points that HR departments need to draw from this research are as follows:

– Ensure that staff have a clear understanding of how to use emotions at work, in particular how to match the appropriate emotion to the task in hand
– Be aware that because emotions are easily transferable and escalate its easy for the mood of an organization to tilt into a downward spiral (below the magic number of 2.9)
– Get into the habit of celebrating the strengths and achievements of individuals and teams
– Find authentic, fun ways to raise the overall mood of the organization

We need to learn skills to help us switch between emotions in a calm manner and have the ability to return to the default position within an organization which is happy and upbeat.  In our next newsletter we will explore a simple system for recognising, using, understanding and managing emotions in the workplace.

 

 

Positive Psychology – dialogue & debate

Difference between dialogue and debate

This is the ninth in a series of blogs/newsletters about the courses, teachers and books that have inspired me in the past ten years.

Our view of the world is imperfect
This week I’m continuing to explore the idea the idea that our perception of reality is narrow and imperfect.  As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, explains how limited our perception is:

 “We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us. Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening. There are so many examples of this such as optical illusions and false recall by eye witnesses . Illusions demonstrate that these really simple things that you think are going on in front of you are not actually representing physical reality but instead your brain is constructing something.”

Recognizing this limited view is an important step in recognising that the truth of reality can only emerge through dialogue. David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt : the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there. In yoga this imperfect view is described as Avidya (basically ignorance).This umwelt creates a belief that our view is the correct one and also an arrogance about our abilities compared to others.  Part of yoga training is to start to understand this veil of ignorance.  Our brains can never be equipped to understand the universe and that it is only through dialogue between people, between communities and between humans and the rest of the natural world that something approximating to a higher truth can emerge. Yoga training also teaches us to be confident about our place in the world and to play to our strengths whilst also developing humility ie. we need to be humble because our singular view of the universe will by definition be imperfect

How to explore a more perfect truth through dialogue
Take a look around the people at work and spend some time listening to what they say and what you are saying.  Begin to start analysing conversations and decide whether conversational exchanges are debating (ie. arguing a case to support a particular view of the world) or dialogue (ie. developing and exploring someone else’s ideas).

We find that many conversations are defensive in nature where we seek to find evidence to bolster our world view and we also align our world view with our sense of confidence and position in the world.  Authentic leaders have the ability to separate their feelings of confidence with the dialogue that unfolds around them.  They listen to emerging truths and don’t hold rigidly to a set world view.  Allowing ourselves to accept that others have difference insights (and sometimes greater knowledge) can be unsettling.  It requires great courage and real internal confidence to listen to others even when they might be in more socially junior positions to us.

Over the next few weeks at work listen to others and what you are saying and ask yourself whether ideas are being created or positions bolstered. To help with this process these may be some of the differences between dialogue and debate:

The conditions for good dialogue at work:

Hospitality
The group is welcoming, everyone matters and is included, being ‘in dialogue’ is celebrated, participants are attentive to the physical environment.

Participation
There are many ways to contribute, no one is compelled to talk and each kind of contribution impacts on the group. Each person’s contribution is acknowledged.

Mindfulness
Paying attention at many levels, of what is said, how it is said, how it relates to what has already been said. Attention must also be paid to what is not said.  Mindfulness is also about an awareness of the discussion as a whole and how well it is addressing the issues being explored.

Humility
No one person’s knowledge and understanding are total.  Participants accept that there is always more to learn and the group’s collective wisdom benefits each individual.
Humility demands deep listening; humble participants listen at three levels, to self, to others and to the group for shared learning.

Mutuality
The more each person is free to contribute the more everyone else profits.  Mutuality also suggests a commitment to inquiry, raising questions to foster individual and collective understanding.

Deliberation
This refers to the willingness of participants to explore issues as fully as possible, offering arguments and counter arguments.  Deliberations obliges us to take strong, well substantiated stands unless there are good reasons not to.

Appreciation
Taking the time to acknowledge a useful insight or contribution.  The opportunity to discuss difficult issues is life-enhancing and so we should seize opportunities to express gratitude to others as part of that.

Hope
Hope is a mainstay of good dialogue.  It assumes that good can come of people taking the time to discuss important issues.  It affirms our collective capacity to use dialogue to envision new possibilities and act towards the common good.

Autonomy
We have a responsibility to stand up for what we believe.  It doesn’t negate the value of learning from and with the group, but there are times when we feel we must defy the group and go our own way.  The importance of autonomy reinforces the idea that groups are strongest when individuals are affirmed and allowed to voice their views.

Dialogue vs Debate
with

common meaning

listen for meaning

enlarge and change

complicates issues

flexible

stresses skills of synthesis

multiple perspectives

temporary suspension of belief

everyone part of the problem

mutual learning

open minded

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

at

oppositional

listen for flaws

affirms own views

simplifies issues

rigid

stresses skills of analysis

singularity

invest wholeheartedly in own belief

one solution wins

competition

final answer

Positive psychology – building blocks of happiness

This is the fifth blog/newsletter about the wellbeing courses that have ment something to me. Following on from last week I’m going to explore Positive Psychology in more detail.

Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology, which seeks to explore topics such as happiness, meaning and engagement. It does not suggest that the rest of psychology is “Negative Psychology” but merely seeks to explore aspects of human flourishing rather than exploring from what may be wrong with an individual.

Before thinking about how you go about raising your happiness level its worth considering the concept of happiness. One man’s happiness is clearly another’s hell and what do we mean by happiness anyway? Do we mean fun or positive emotions or meaning in life or flourishing?

Everyone has a different interpretation of what these things mean and also a different view on which of these things is the most important. For example “individual A” may view life as a sensorial ride to be enjoyed to the full by packing in the most positive, peak experiences that they can. “Individual B” might be on a mission. They have God given talents which they feel destined to use to create something new for society. “A” could view “B” as being dowdy and missing out on the wonder of life. “B” could view “A” as a selfish pleasure seeker, maximising their own wellbeing with scant regard for their impact on others or the environment.

It may be that A and B have much to learn from each other. “B” may realise that their mission can best be achieved by using the positive emotions generated by enjoying life. “A” might gain insight into the joy to be had from devoting energy and time to a project to help others.

Somewhere between “A” and “B” there are the 6.5 billion of the rest of us trying to make some sense out of life. There are lots of different ways to “measure” happiness but some of the most common ways is to ask a series of questions around satisfaction with life. The questions go something like this – “taking everything into account how satisfied are you with your life?” Rate yourself from 1 to 10, 1 being “I can’t go on” to 10 being “a perfect life”. (*the actual scales and descriptions are slightly different to this)

And, on average, the result is about 7. On average we are 7 out of 10 happy now and on average think we will be slightly more than 7 out of 10 in the future. Many interesting observations have arisen over the last few years. For example, despite the huge increase in material wealth in the last 30 years, this 7 out of 10 statistic has remained fairly constant. Secondly, once your basic needs for food, shelter and basic political stability are satisfied, people are no happier in the West than people in some of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Armed with basic questionnaires about happiness and wellbeing psychologists then begin to explore before and after scenarios. For example, I ask you how happy you are and then get you to take part in an activity. This may be a one off event, or be over several months or even a number of years. After the intervention you are asked the “happiness” question again and in this manner they seek to ascertain which activities in life have a positive impact on happiness and wellbeing. They also seek to distinguish between activities which heighten “happiness” in the short term and those which have a long term effect.

One of the most interesting aspects of this research is that there is a relationship between longevity and peoples self reported “happiness” – the happier people say they are the longer they live and the healthier they tend to be. So if you can do research on what are the building blocks of happiness then maybe you can introduce positive psychology techniques to government policies, education reforms, workplace practices and in personal relationships. As noted above there appears little relationship between increases in material wealth and “happiness” once the basic needs in life are satisfied.

The research seems to confirm that “happiness” and wellbeing is promoted when we do the following:

– take regular exercise
– nurture and develop personal relationships
– find meaning and engagement at work
– cherish what we have rather than coveting what we dont
– find little bits of magic every day
– play to our strengths
– help others
– spend more time living in the present
– feel a sense of autonomy – that we have chosen what we want to do in life

Interestingly the research suggests that there is no relationship between how happy a person is and how beautiful looking other people think they are. There is also little evidence to suggest that peoples happiness levels are affected by age (apart from a slight dip during the teen years!)

The main findings of this research are quite supportive of my decision to leave the world of corporate finance 9 years ago. I get to do what I love every day, I get to develop relationships with the Breathe therapists, I get to exercise when I want, I get to choose when I work and when I dont. The main down side is that I never made the jump from senior manager to partner at KPMG so maybe I earn 10% of what I would have if I had stayed on the same career path. The difference is that whereas my worklife was something to be endured I now have wonderful experiences throughout my day and get to meet amazing new people through the Breathe business.

Next week I’ll be looking at the barriers to happiness and how you can overcome these using practical exercises from Positive Psychology research

Learning to meditate

Learning to meditate

This is the third in a series of blogs and newsletters about the different wellbeing courses I’ve attended over the last thirteen years.  I’ve picked the courses, teachers and books that have had the most profound impact on the way that I perceive the world.  One of the most transformational courses was a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat in the Rocky mountains four years ago.

As I left Vancouver on a rainy Summers day I was filled with uncertainty about the challenge ahead.  As the bus snaked through the foothills I was reluctant to leave the misty Pacific and I reflected on the rules that I had agreed to abide by for the next 10 days:

–        No communication with anyone on the course.  This included verbal and non verbal communication.  For example eye contact with fellow participants was to be avoided.

–        No communication with the outside world

–        No ipods, no music, no books or magazines.  Nothing to hear or read or watch for 10 days

–        A simple vegetarian diet with no alcohol, no tobacco or drugs of any kind and just two small meals per day

–        Complete emersion in the practice.  They were to teach us a form of meditation and we were to practice this style only

–        Each day started at 5am and lasted until 10pm.  90% of this time was to be spent in a shaded room sitting cross legged on the floor practicing the Vipassana meditation technique.  The rest of the time was to be spent taking silent walks alone in the forest or receiving meditation instructions.

So you can understand my concern! This was serious spiritual bootcamp. Why endure this when there was so much to see outside – the beautiful snow capped Rocky Mountains.   Why spend time looking inside alone with my hopes and fears for 10 days.  Where would the love be, the touch of another, the smile and the loving support that we all need?

The taxi drive from Merritt greyhound station up to the retreat in the mountains only took about 20 minutes.  What surprised me most was the electric fence surrounding the centre to keep Grizzlies at bay.  Throughout the early part of the course my thoughts kept returning to whether, in the event of a power cut, they had a good backup generator.  I didn’t want to be eaten by a bear just as I was on the threshold of enlightenment.

Before dinner on day -1 we met the people on the course and as usual on such things there were people from all walks of life.  On this course there were four senior members of Obamas election campaign team.  After dinner we received the first of our instructions and from then on we agreed to engage in the practice and not communicate.

We spent the first three days practicing a breathing technique to help make the mind sharp.  Over three days we focussed our attention on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nose – how warm it felt as it left the body, how cold it felt as it entered the body, which nostril it came in through more strongly etc.  3 days focussing on the sensations felt at the tip of the nose!

After that we were taught to focus our attention at the top of the head and enquire, without thought, what the sensation of observing felt like.  As we observed the body did we feel heat, cold, joy, pain, light etc ?

From here we learnt to scan the body from top to toe and back up constantly remaining present to the observation of sensation.  Perhaps each scan took an hour to complete.  Sometimes it felt excruciatingly painful in my back and knees.  Part of the process was to learn to become dispassionate about this discomfort.  Sometimes harrowing thoughts and sadness kept intruding. Sometimes the boredom felt crushing and sometimes when you were able to be truly in the moment you felt utter bliss and pleasure.

At the end of each day we received video instruction on how to improve our practice.  Many of the key messages that came through during the 10 days have stayed with me:

–        The mind is lively and excitable.  It’s obvious that we have a brain to think and create with but it’s also clear that having periods in each day where we train ourselves not to think can be extremely relaxing.  It also gives you a sense of calm and understanding that you don’t have to clutter your mind with thoughts and clutter your life with so much stuff

–        Practicing not thinking helps us become more dispassionate.  This does not mean that we loose passion.  During the 10 days observing the body mind relationship you realise that pain and pleasure are often self created mind constructs.  They ebb and flow.  You learn to accept that sometimes there is pleasure, sometimes pain.  That’s not to say that there is no real pain in the world.  The pain of loss and suffering is real but the scanning practice that I’ve talked about here illustrates to us that pain and pleasure are certain throughout life but that these states are not constant.

–        The  practice teaches us to be empathetic and sympathetic to the pain of others but not to allow that pain and suffering to affect the balance and equanimity of our own mind.  This might sound cold hearted but a loss of hope and negative emotions can be contagious if you let them.  You can only be a source for positive change in yourself, loved ones and the world if you engage with the pain of others but not allow it to affect your underlying state.  A daily meditation practice helps you do this by reminding you that pain and pleasure states flow.

–        Similarly you appreciate that the bliss, joy and ecstasy of deep relaxation is also illusory, ie enjoy it whilst it lasts but don’t crave positive feelings.  Craving and desire inexorably leads to pain and suffering because inevitably at some stage in life you wont be able to get what you once had nor do what you once did.  The practice teaches you to stay open to new possibilities and not overly attach to one type of pleasure sensation again and again.  Pleasure can lead to habits, minor addictions, major addictions and suffering for you and others.  Not overly attaching to one pleasure allows the full world of possible sensations to be experienced.  As you focus your attention on one thing with your eyes  closed it enables you to be present to a stream of endless beautiful possibilities when your eyes are open.

–        Lastly towards the end of the 10 days we were instructed in the practice of a loving kindness meditation.  This practice teaches us to harness the good will and positive energy that has been accumulated during the previous 10 days and communicate it to all beings.  We are reminded that the practice of mindfulness and meditation is meaningless without positive intention.  Many people use spiritual practices as a means of withdrawing from the outer world and suppressing emotions.  Practicing meditation without developing kindness and compassion has been described as bare attention ( as opposed to bear attention).  You do these practices not to become isolated from but to become an active, engaged, positive member of society.

On day 10 we opened our eyes and I felt as though I knew my fellow participants in a very deep way.  I felt re wired, buzzing, energised and fully alive.  The next 3 weeks were spent with my family camping in the Rocky Mountains with my eyes wide open.  The world is so beautiful.  Enjoy all it has to offer.

Find out more about Vipassana mediation centres all over the world .  This is the one in British Columbia that I went to http://www.dhamma.org/en/schedules/schsurabhi.shtml