One of the primary pathways to an enduring happiness is facilitating a sense of connection. When we feel connected we feel balanced, when we feel balanced, we often feel happy. The problem is
as we grow up in this world, we have to learn how to shield ourselves from vulnerability and so we build up walls or put on armor that make connection more difficult.
One of the most powerful (and challenging) practices to do is look into another person’s eyes for a prolonged period of time as it immediately makes us feel vulnerable. It may not matter whether it’s a stranger or someone you’ve been in a partnership with for over 50 years (sometimes this makes it more difficult). But when we do it, it’s fascinating what arises.
Check out this short video from Soul Pancake to see some of the surprising results of people making connection:
Did you know that compassion, the act of recognizing someone else’s suffering with the inclination to want to support them, creates important activity shifts in the brain that are associated with resiliency and well-being?
I recently attended a talk at a fundraiser where the presenter, Amy McLaren, had conveyed her story of going to Kenya with her husband and making a deal with a child there that if he shares his report card with them at the end of the month, they would pay for a month of his schooling.
They didn’t expect him to follow through, but after they returned back to Canada, a month later they received a letter with a picture of this boy holding up his report card.
He followed through and so did they.
Every month he would send his report card and every month they would pay for another month of school. Years later this boy is now in business school and has developed
You may or may not have heard by now that our brain is wired to pay attention more frequently, and with great veracity, to what’s negative. This doesn’t mean that the good moments in life aren’t happening, we’re just not wired to pay attention to them.
Because as a human race, we’re wired to survive, not be happy.
I have a theory that in this moment in time we’re going through an evolution as a species where because of the overabundance of things pulling our attention, we’re being thrusted into growing our awareness – the kind of awareness that breeds balance, well-being and a greater sense of what matters.
So people are being turned onto mindfulness more. More spaces are offering it, more institutions are studying it and there’s greater media to
Whether we like it or not, this time of year cues our minds to reflect and think about habits we want to change. If you’re reading this blog, odds are one of those habits are bringing mindfulness into your life more and allowing this to be the year where it sticks. Or maybe you’re also looking to change other habits that run alongside your values like being more self-compassion, living alongside your values, playing more or creating more mastery in life. All of these are basic elements that help uncover happiness.
Whatever the habit is that you want to make, here are a few practical tips to help make your changes stick.
There’s really nothing like the power of a big supportive hug. The body reads a sense of caring in the human touch. When we’re hugged we sense that on a deep level, we are not alone. In some ways it’s a shame that in our relationships with healing professionals hugging is often advised against.
There are so many wonderful stories where hugging has been a healing modality.
The Science and Practice of a Hug
In one study published in Nature Communications, researchers injected
When it comes to our self-critical thinking, Byron Katie has created a brilliant set of four questions to free us from our negative depressive minds. For example, if you say, “I’m such an idiot,” we ask 1) Is it true? 2) Is it absolutely true? 3) What happens when you believe that thought? and 4) Who would you be without that thought? The effect of this is that it objectifies the self-judgment, gives us freedom from it and opens us up to a sense of freedom that’s there. They can be really effective.
When it comes to overcoming longstanding emotional struggles we have to not only get space from the self-critical mind, but also encourage the positive beliefs about ourselves that the critical mind has buried. In one part of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion I share the following four questions to work with in order to open us up to possibility, install these positive beliefs a bit more and even encourage positive neuroplasticity. In doing this we can become more confident in ourselves and ultimately more resilient (and a bit happier).
For years now I’ve been studying about what helps create more resilience and happiness within us. I’ve looked to my own life, the life of my clients and students and toward the psychological and neuroscience research. What I’ve found is that within each and every one of us are a core set of natural anti-depressants that when we intentionally tap into shifts our brain activity in ways that can lend itself to an anti-depressant brain. One of the natural anti-depressants that I’ve come to find that helps break a bad mood and create positive neural activity is Play!
In Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion I describe play as “a flexible state of mind in which you are presently engaged in some freely chosen and potentially purposeless activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying.”
Here’s a great video that shows adults playing and the results. Take a look and see what you notice.
We all experience resistance everyday when we’re trying to do something that matters. Whether you want to sit and meditate, work on a new project, get out and exercise, whatever it is that is in the direction of growth, resistance comes
alive. In my next book Uncovering Happiness (can’t wait to share it with you – January, 2015), I explore some of the neuroscience behind what keeps us stuck in a depressive loop and how to get unstuck and even find our natural anti-depressants and thrive. While resistance lies within a depressive spiral, you don’t have to have had experienced depression in the past to know resistance, it’s a universal daily experience for all of us.
But the deeper question is, where does it reside in the brain and how do we overcome it?
I don’t believe anyone has conducted and brain scan specifically on resistance, but one thing we do know is that the right side of the prefrontal region that lies behind your forehead lights up when we’re trying to avoid something. This same region also lights up with negative emotions.
One thing we’re wanting to do is intentionally practice and repeat shifting the activity to the left prefrontal region that is more associated with approaching things in life and with resiliency.
The fact is resistance is relentless, it’s a deeply ingrained wiring that we all have to move away from what the brain anticipates to be uncomfortable and stay with what’s comfortable. Not only is this hardwired into most of us, but we’ve practiced is so often that it’s strengthened the default. The brain has such a lock on us, that we’re not even aware of it.
This is why procrastination is so common.
So what do we do about it?
The best way to get the brain to change it seems is through engaging novelty. Kids are doing it like crazy, everything is new. I remember when my oldest was born and we’d walk around the neighborhood. I’d grab a leaf on a tree and say, “See this, this is a leaf. Look closely at the shape and see how it has veins.” In the process I was interacting with life as if for the first time and it inspired wonder and joy within me. I tapped into something important and I knew it.
In the now famous book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie points us in the direction of happiness:
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
Almost 19 million Americans have periods where they feel a lack of pleasure or interest in what was once pleasurable and interesting. They feel tired and heavy, potentially overly emotional or numb, and experience an onslaught of negative and self defeating thoughts that can keep invading the mind over and over again. The more periods of this depressed mood we have in life, the more likely we are to fall back into them again. Why does this relapse occur and how can mindfulness offer hope?
Falling into a depression feels traumatic and just like getting bit by a dog causes us to be fearful of and oversensitive to dogs, our minds and bodies become oversensitive to associations with the depression causing our brains to flinch at any sign of a relapse.
Feeling low mood is normal for everyone, but if we’ve experienced depression in the past, this may be a trigger for a relapse. If we feel tired or if we notice sadness, the mind pops up with the worry “uh oh, that is how I felt when I was depressed, maybe I’m getting depressed”. Our minds begin to go in overdrive with negative self judgments, “I am a failure” or “I am weak” or “I am worthless”. It then tries to solve the mystery as to why we are becoming depressed again and the more it tries to solve this puzzle, the deeper it sinks into depression. Think of a worried, judging person coming at you trying to solve your problems when you’re already not feeling well. Probably not what you’re looking for. You see, it’s not the low mood that’s the problem here, it’s the way we get stuck in habitually relating to it that pours kerosene on the fire, with our minds continuing to fan the flame rolling us into a full blown depression.
The practice of mindfulness teaches us a different way to relate to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise. It is about learning to approach and acknowledge whatever is happening in the present moment, setting aside our lenses of judgment and just being with whatever is there, rather than avoiding it or needing to fix it. It’s the mind’s attempt to avoid and fix things in this moment that fuels the negative mood.
With Uncomfortable Emotions
If sadness is there, instead of trying to fix it or figure it out, we might just acknowledge the sadness, let it be and get a better understanding of what we need in the moment.
If self-judgments arise (e.g., I am weak, I am a loser) out of past sensitivities to having been depressed before, we can acknowledge that they are associations from the past, let them be, and then gently bring ourselves back to whatever we were doing. In doing this, we’re stopping the ruminative cycle that might occur between our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviors that can play off one another leading into another relapse (I call this “The Depression Loop” in the upcoming book Uncovering Happiness).
Now, this is easier said than done and it takes practice.