Archives for Neuroscience
Most people I've met, if not all, would try like to be happy. There are all kinds of books on happiness, courses on happiness, and documentaries on happiness. So why aren't we all just happier? If we're approaching happiness as some goal to achieve, we're almost always going to reinforce that something is wrong with us and fall short. If we see it as an unfolding process of learning, we will most likely be able to be more grateful for the good times and more graceful during the more difficult times. I can't reinforce enough the critical importance of seeing happiness practices as something to continue to play with and learn from, rather than using them to achieve some desired end state. You might be able to taste happiness if you see it as a performance, but only with a learning mindset will you find more mastery with it. Here are 5 Practices for Daily Happiness
Be PlayfulWe NEED playtime and we need it daily! One of the first scientists to embark in the field of neuroplasticity, Marion Diamond, showed how rats that have toys and playmates inevitably ran mazes more efficiently and also showed growth in an area of their brain (the cerebral cortex) involved with cognitive processing. Play enhances social bonds and social learning, key areas for generating happiness. How do we figure out what play means to us? This is going to mean different things to different people. What's playful to you, may not be playful to me. You may enjoy competitive sports, board games, or going out and doing something — anything. Making it prosocial with friends adds another level of engagement.
When people think of mindfulness, they often think that it means "being present," but everyone has a different idea of what you "should" be being present to. For example, I was at a friend's house the other day and some wonderful music was playing and I was "being present" to it. However, apparently he was talking to me and I wasn't paying attention to him. So he said, because he thinks of me as the mindfulness guy, "you're not being very present are you." The fact is, I was being present, just present to what I felt was most important in that moment, the music. As it turns out, certain music is being found to be good not only for our mental health, but also for our physical health. Take a moment to listen to this and see what you notice:
Most people I meet would like to be calmer and more focused on what matters in the moments of their lives. But the more stressed we are, the less open we are to creative ideas and the more prone we are to procrastination. Here is a 10-second practice that I challenge you to practice a few times a day and realize its power to help you focus on what matters moment-to-moment. Inevitably, as you practice and repeat this, you'll become more of a PRO at life.
The Be a PRO PracticeP - Pause - This is the initial step that helps break the auto-pilot stress cycle. R - Relax your body - When we're stressed, our muscles get tight which sends signals back to the brain to fight, flee or freeze, making thoughts more distracted and chaotic. Relaxing the body, does the opposite, it begins to open the mind again, making it easier to focus. O - Open to what matters in the moment - As the body is relaxed we have a greater chance to be more aware of creative ideas or simply the ability to focus on the task at hand.
Here are 10 really good places where practicing being a PRO at life can come in handy:
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
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.
Do you know the myths about mindfulness and what is true or false about this swelling revolution? Take a look at what I think are the top five myths about mindfulness. Note: There are plenty more, but I thought these top the charts. Myth #1: Mindfulness if for taking a time-out from life, quieting the mind and reducing stress. Truth: I think this is the #1 myth out there because it’s my experience that this is how people initially experience the practice. One of the greatest entry points to mindfulness in the West is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This is a fantastic program with wonderful science behind it, but the name is just for marketing. The ultimate goal isn’t meant to be stress reduction. The goal of mindfulness and MBSR is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional and physical processes, recognize the connectedness between people and operate in the world with greater self-compassion and compassion. However, the initial practices can often give people sense of relief from a busy mind and can then be equated with a mental break. While there’s nothing wrong with using it this way, it also minimizes the power of mindfulness. The paradox here is when we’re able to do just be present to our minds, emotions and bodies, the stressful relationship tends to quiet down, but when we try and quiet the mind down, we often add fuel to the fire. Myth #2: You need to carve out plenty of time in a serene “mindful” space.
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?
K.N.O.W Your Resistance
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."
One of the wonderful surprises of being a therapist all these years is how big the gift of being of service can be. I have the privilege of knowing people intimately and supporting them in opening their hearts and uncovering happiness. When I sit with that, it gives me an immense sense of purpose. Herein lies life's beautiful paradox: The more love you give away, the more love you have. The ripple effects give me immense joy. Through this experience I've realized at times it's important to relay back what I've learned. 1. Essential Books to Have at Your Bedside Aside from Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion (debut: January, 2015) - wink! - I’m a big fan of books that keep it simple. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk who writes simply and elegantly and I am a fan of many of his works. Taming the Tiger Within and The Miracle of Mindfulness are some of my favorites. 2. What’s the biggest myth about therapy? That there’s an end goal. I don’t mean that people need to be in therapy for an indefinite time, but there’s a faulty notion of achieving some end state. This focus makes therapy more difficult as the mind is cluttered with an expectation instead of focusing on learning. Even if insurance only covers 10 sessions and wants a definitive end goal, we have to always keep in mind that therapy is a vehicle for learning and while we can begin to master certain ways of being, growing and learning about ourselves in life never ends. 3. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Take two minutes to read this blog post; it may truly be the thing today that can save your life. First before we begin, watch this surprising video below (runtime 1:47). The National Safety Council says there are currently 1.6 million accidents per year for texting while driving. How could it not be true that the way many of us engage with Smartphones while in the car is not responsible for a rising amount of death tolls and injuries? To some extent, it’s important to understand how the brain science may be working in the case of driving with the phone.