The Essential Happiness Ingredient: Altruism and Here’s How

Thanks to pioneers like Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough, we now know that gratitude can have an enormously positive effect on our mental health. Not only that, thanks to the advent of neuroplasticity, practicing gratitude can even help shape our brains in ways that promote resilience and well-being.

If you need a refresher on ways to practice gratitude, check out my post: 5 Steps to Gratitude and Lovingkindness: Mondays Mindful Quote with Hafiz.

But this post isn’t just about gratitude, it’s about taking it a step further to another stage called altruism. Altruistic behavior is all about acting selflessly to help serve or benefit others. Altruistic behavior has been found to be a predictor of happiness and life satisfaction (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Altruism is also tied to another hot topic in our culture today and that is compassion and kindness. In this blog I have written a number of posts about compassion and kindness because they are such good nutrition for our health and well-being. Compassion has been called an antidote to anger, and kindness has been called and antidote to fear.

Now, it could be argued that because of all the personal benefits you may experience from engaging with kindness, compassion and altruism that these endeavors are not pure because you know they will serve your mental health. In other words, they’re ego-driven. Try and set this argument aside for now as we move into the social implication of kindness, compassion and altruism.

While the brain takes longer to register compassion for social pain than individual pain, the effect is longer lasting when awareness around social pain settles in. There are certain tragedies in this
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It’s Time to Build an Army of Compassion and Here’s How We Do It

After the recent attacks in Paris, the Dalai Lama said: “Unless we make serious attempts to achieve peace, we will continue to see a replay of the mayhem humanity experienced in the 20th century.” It's easy to feel helpless when watching the news or thinking about how deeply rooted the suffering is in this situation and in many other situations of conflict around the world today. When a person watches a relative die in a conflict, their contempt for the other side can last a lifetime. There are so many powerful people and strong forces at play, what can we really do?

One answer I came up with is be a force that helps build an army of compassion.

The fact is I can do this and you can too.

Life is full of actions and reactions. This is what makes up the world around us from the trees we see, to the relationships that are kindled and to the babies that come from them. Every single thing we do matters. When Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” underlying that was the simple assumption that everything we do matters. Now we know the science behind the wisdom of his words, and why all the compassionate acts we do can have a significant impact on our mental health and a potential healing in the world.

Part of understanding the science isn’t a whole lot different than the understanding of neuroplasticity. How we pay attention and what we pay attention to influences the way our brain grows throughout the lifespan. So if we have a continuous series of moments where we are paying attention to helpless thoughts and worrying, so goes the brain. If we have a continuous series of moments where we are cultivating compassion, joy and curiosity in life, so goes the brain.

In the same way, we can have this impact not only on our mental health, but on the relationships that surround us and the world as a whole. You may not be a single force in solving the Middle East conflict or in reversing global warming, but everything you do matters. In order to better understand why everything you do matters, it’s important to understand how emotional contagion works:

The social scientists Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, and James Fowler, PhD, conducted a study to look at the effect of social networks. To determine if there was a causal relationship for obesity,
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How to Mindfully Deal with Difficult People (and Save the World)

There's a practice I've been doing for a while that is so simple and yet so impactful in working with difficult people and also bringing a sense of balance and perspective in the moment, it's almost shocking to me. I live in Los Angeles, which is well known as a city with one of the highest degrees of traffic. If we were to be able to peek into the average LA driver's brain I think you'd see a hyperactive amygdala and most of the blood flow moving out of the prefrontal cortex. In other words, LA drivers can be a large group of difficult people with emotions and stress running high.

One day while I was driving here I was cut off by some sports car that seemed to be speeding weaving in and out of the car lanes. My teeth locked together and my shoulders tensed and what went through my mind is only appropriate on HBO.

In that moment I realized how tense I was and likely how out of control that driver was. It made me think of all the cars on the road and how many people were very likely tense in their cars.

That simple recognition sparked the beginning of something important.

My shoulders dropped a bit and the question arose, "What is it that I'm actually needing right now?" The word "ease" came to mind.

So I said...

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Mindful Parenting for ADHD: An Interview with Dr. Mark Bertin

One things we know about parenting is that while it can be incredibly rewarding at times, at other times it can be extremely challenging. Then you throw in a little attention deficit and hyperactivity with the kids or parents and life gets interesting. Mark Bertin, MD is a board certified developmental pediatrician and respected mindfulness teacher whose latest book is Mindful Parenting for ADHD: A Guide to Cultivating Calm, Reducing Stress, and Helping Children Thrive. Today he is with us to talk about the unique challenges of parenting a child with ADHD, why we're seeing more ADHD in our culture and a few specific techniques a parent can take home with them today to help themselves and their kids.

Elisha: What are the unique challenges of parenting a child who has ADHD?

Mark: Being a parent is, of course, frequently stressful and full of uncertainty. As a developmental disorder that affects not just attention but life management skills in general, ADHD amps up that experience. When you have a child several years behind in organizing, planning and self-management in general, that can affect everything from morning and bedtime routines to social and academic success. That’s hard for a child, and their parents too.

The challenge around ADHD becomes this: ADHD creates stress by making daily life harder. Too much stress makes us tired, burned out and less resilient. It makes flexible problem solving and communication harder. Which means, living with ADHD makes it harder to manage ADHD.

For any family, a significant step around ADHD is getting a handle on stress. It’s hard to start new routines, manage homework, make tough choices, and support a child who really does need more support than peers. When more grounded, you’ll see things clearer, and stick easier to all the things you want to do.

That’s where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, but directly supports almost all of ADHD. It starts with stress management, getting out of that flooded, fight-or-flight driven cycle. It also mixes with behavioral management for ADHD – the ability to pause, refocus, and catch a child being successful is harder than it seems without practice. So is sticking to limits and routines, if we’re too stressed and distracted ourselves.

Elisha: How do we change ingrained parenting styles that aren't working?

Mark: One of the under-discussed parts of parenting in general, and certainly around ADHD, is how hard it is to change habits. We have ways of thinking and of doing things that begin in childhood. That even includes the fact that, for parents, children influence parenting style. In fact, ADHD tends to push parents away from the exact parenting approaches that best address ADHD.
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STOP: The Surprising Power of Waiting

Most people believe that waiting is a waste of time and it's best to fill that time with something... anything. Whether we're in line at a the grocery story, waiting at a doctor's office, or sitting at a stoplight, the brain seems to be cued to fill that space. Nowadays, many of us pull out our phones and begin sifting through various messages, reading over documents, or surfing the web.

However, the belief that waiting has no value is mistaken. In fact, the secret to a sense of personal control, general satisfaction with life and even success, lies in learning how to find peace with waiting.

We've all heard the famous adage, "Patience is a virtue" or "Good things come to those who wait."

Easier said than done, why?

We're not in control of our brains

Because underneath the subtle yet intolerable experience of waiting is a little anxious gremlin that fears being alone. This gremlin is operating on old software that says if you're alone that means you're not being protected by your clan and it's a threat to your safety. In those small moments of waiting, the gremlin takes the controls of your brain and reaches for something to "be with" so you're not alone anymore.

In other words, the anxious gremlin is in control and you're not. Studies are clear that lacking a sense of control is associated with negative stress, anxiety and depression. Also, the more we let the gremlin run our brain, the stronger it gets - or as the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb says, "neurons that fire together, wire together."

Using waiting for good

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Happiness: It’s Like This…and This Too

Ajahn Chah was the spiritual teacher to many leading mindfulness teachers. He had a wonderful saying when it comes to being present in life, "It's like this." This saying always stuck with me as a great truth and a way to bring me back to the moment when my mind was spinning due to something stressful or difficult. In 2011, I realized that not only is "it like this," but my mind would quickly begin swimming again and I would then say, "ah, and this too." When I said, "and this too," it brought me back once again to being here.

However, recently I found a new, practical and powerful use for the phrase, "It's like this...and this too" that has everything to do with cultivating perspective and happiness.

It's like this...

There's nothing like the uncomfortable emotion of negative stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, shame, guilt or disgust to get the head spinning. It's natural, the brain is trying to figure out how to balance us. So it jumps to the future thinking of worst case scenarios so we can be prepared, or it ruminates on all the negative facts of the past so we can use our history to mine for optimal decisions. At best, this auto-pilot mental looping keeps us stuck and at worst exacerbates the difficulty.

In that moment, when we say, "It's like this," this moment is exactly like this, we're pausing to see the mental looping, the emotion, the physical sensation, the urge to engage in this destructive behavior. Neuroscience shows that when we note things it down-regulates the amygala or alarm center of the brain and brings activity back to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the emotional regulator.

So at that point the body starts calming down a bit, we're no longer in the throws of the mental and emotional looping and have widened the
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Four Questions to Happiness (And Video Interview with Byron Katie)

A while back I decided to try an experiment.

I interviewed over 20 top leading experts in the field of happiness to ask them what that word actually meant and in their professional experience, what are some practical ways to begin making it a reality.

This was called the Uncovering Happiness Symposium and some of the people interviewed included Sharon Salzberg, Dan Siegel, Rick Hanson, Jack Kornfield, Dan Harris, Kelly McGonigal, Tara Brach, Byron Katie and more. Byron Katie struggled throughout her life with deep deep depression and ultimately found a path that led her to a simple way to break free from the internal negativity and into greater states of freedom.

She defined this as happiness.

Here are the four questions to ask ourselves to help challenge compelling negative thoughts:

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How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: An Interview with Toni Bernhard

One of the essential commonalities we have as human beings is that at some point or another we all experience some form of suffering. This isn't meant to be a downer, it's simply a fact of being human. Today, you're going to hear from an incredible woman, Toni Bernhard. She is the author of the award-winning book How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She also writes a great blog called, “Turning Straw Into Gold."

Today Toni talks to us about why the path to peace begins with facing difficult realities, how mindfulness can help with chronic pain and illness, and some of the key lessons she's learned.

Elisha: How is this book different from your other book on chronic pain and illness, How to Be Sick?

Toni: The new book is broader in scope than How to Be Sick, and it’s organized differently. How to Be Sick is organized around concepts and practices to help people learn to live with grace and purpose despite the limitations imposed by their health.

By contrast, the new book is organized around specific difficulties and challenges that people face, such as dealing with others who don’t (or refuse to) understand; making the best use of your short time with the doctor; coping with isolation and loneliness; handling mood swings and painful emotions; the difficult challenge of being young and chronically ill. The new book goes beyond my personal experience because I draw on the thousands of people who’ve written to me about their health struggles.

What the books have in common is a liberal use of personal anecdotes, easy-to-learn practices (such as mindfulness and self-compassion), and my conversational style of writing. People tell me they feel as if we’re sitting in the kitchen together chatting over coffee or tea.

Elisha: In the introduction, you say the path to peace begins with facing life’s stark realities. What do you mean by that?

Toni: I’m referring to some of the inescapable realities of the human condition. First of all, we’re in bodies and they get sick and injured and old. Coming to terms with this opens the door to
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What is Optimal Media Exposure for Children (and Adults)?

As a Dad of 3 young boys I'm always interested in what the latest research says on how we should be introducing screens to our kids. Screens are a part of daily life now for almost everyone, they're not going away, nor should they. Most adults don't have a good handle on their screen use, so it's easy to wonder how can we even be a model to our kids? Even so, knowledge is power and so I want to share some interesting research with you that gives some answers to the question:

Is it possible to overstimulate the developing brain?

Dmitri Christakis is a pediatrician, parent and researcher who had looked into this quite a bit. He reminds us that watching screens not too long ago wasn't something we introduced to kids until later in life. At the moment, the average 5 year old is engaged with screens about 4 hours per day.

Additionally, the content they are exposed to is far more fast paced then ever which keeps them engaged, but can have major negative impacts on their ability to pay attention. Compare past programs like Mr. Rogers with current cartoon programs like Pokemon or Powder Puff Girls.

In a Tedx talk Christakis says, "Prolonged exposure to rapid change can pre-condition the mind to expect high levels of input which leads to inattention later on in life. "

Here's the Tedx talk to watch (Warning: Images will not be rapidly changing, so if your brain has had prolonged exposure to screens you may not have the attention span to watch this - just kidding - sort of).

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Depression: New Mindfulness-Based Online Treatments

Let's start with the bottom line: 

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been shown to be equally as effective in preventing relapse as anti-depressant medication. 

This came from a study conducted at the University of Exeter where researchers randomly assigned 424 people into a group simply taking anti-depressant medication and another group going through an 8-week MBCT course. In this course participants learned mindfulness skills, how to relate to negative thoughts differently, and how to recognize signs of relapse and take action.

The MBCT group were offered four follow-up sessions within the year and after two years many had tapered off the medication.

The results found that the relapse was similar (44% for MBCT group and 47% for anti-depressant medication group).

This doesn't mean that if you're on anti-depressant medication you should get off of it, but it does provide hope that we have the power within us to train our brain with natural anti-depressants.

These are incredibly hopeful and encouraging results and it's been accepted as a primary intervention for depression in England and Wales.

The Bad News

MBCT is still hard to find for a lot of people. While an increasing amount of people are being trained in it, it's still largely unavailable to many of us.

The Good News

The Center for Mindful Living is now offering an 8-week live online MBCT course. The next course begins September 27th and the class is only open to 15 participants.

More Good News: Building Natural Anti-Depressants. 

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