IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
For some reason I have never actually watched the Pride of Britain Awards before, but it made compelling viewing last night. It is so uplifting to hear some good news stories for a change with a TV programme which celebrates the achievements of ordinary people doing remarkable things and overcoming incredible challenges. If you missed the programme you can watch in on ITV Player here.
This article by Alison Phillips in today’s Daily Mirror gives a brief review of the event:
Selfless: Flo and Jim Essex receive their award
Ordinary heroes doing extraordinary things giving hope to us all
It is that extraordinary mix of triumph over adversity and true selflessness which strikes such a deep chord in us all.
For the rest of the year we become used to stories of success built on greed, fame founded on selfishness and crimes fuelled by hate.
And so sometimes we can end up thinking that’s the norm and that we are living in a world where everyone is out for themselves and the values that made this nation great – fairness, politeness, a belief in justice – have gone the way of Woolworths and red telephone boxes.
But by slipping into that mindset we let the bad and the greedy and the feckless win. Because by doing that we forget that the vast bulk of the people of Britain are defined by their selflessness, by generosity and by love.
They are the often forgotten majority.
People like Pride of Britain winners Flo and Jim Essex, who have raised more than £160,000 for good causes by taking up any bonkers challenge they can find.
People like the RNLI and coastguard crews from Hartlepool, who risked their lives to save a young man who was drowning in quicksand.
People like Doreen Lawrence, who fought tirelessly for 19 years for justice for her son Stephen.
And what’s extraordinary about these people is, in many ways, their ordinariness.
They are people as normal as you and me who have found themselves through choice or necessity doing something just extraordinary.
On stage Doreen Lawrence said she would exchange all the plaudits and achievements just to have her son back.
What a totally ordinary emotion from a truly extraordinary woman.
And so, while Pride of Britain rewards the winners’ bravery, courage and brilliance, it is also rewarding the human spirit – for actually we might all be capable of doing something amazing one day.
Bradley Wiggins – a man who exudes coolness through his every pore – said at Pride of Britain that 2012 was a great year to be British.
Certainly we’ve had a string of extraordinary successes – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics and victories in the Tour de France and a tennis grand slam.
But more importantly, away from the headlines, we have had millions of ordinary Brits doing their ordinary – yet extraordinary – things that keep our country ticking along.
Some of these have again rightly become winners at Pride of Britain. They were there on Monday night because they are brave and because they care. But they are also there as a reminder to the rest of us that we don’t need to be an Olympian or a royal or a celebrity to be great.
We can all, by following the example of these Pride of Britain winners, be great if we want to be, in our own very ordinary ways.
Last night I went to see The Chekhov play Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre in London with the leading roles being played by Ken Stott, Anna Friel, Samuel West and Laura Carmichael.
Samuel West Laura Carmichael.
Vanya (Ken Stott), Yelena (Anna Friel), Astrov (Samuel West) and Sonya (Laura Carmichael) are all in love, with the past, with ideals and with each other. As their world changes around them they struggle to come to terms with their emotions and with the trials and tribulations of the human condition. I expected to enjoy the play given the calibre of the actors who played this subtle comedy to perfection, but I didn’t expect the play to remind me of an important positive psychology lesson and the next happiness experiment for you to try out.
As I was searching for reviews before I decided to book the play, I came across an article about Ken Stott’s insistence on living in the moment. Apparently a few year’s ago when Ken Stott had been acting in Arthur Miller’s play A View From The Bridge he halted the play during one performance, switching from the American accent of his character to his own Scottish accent, to reprimand a bunch of rowdy teenagers who were creating a disturbance. The play was stopped for 15 minutes while a stand off ensued between Ken Stott and the offending youths. The remainder of the audience sided with Stott chanting ’out, out, out’ until their embarrassed teacher removed them and the play continued. A similar scene apparently ensued on another occasion when a telephone went off in a seat in the stalls right in front of him. He initially ignored the interruption but when it happened again in the second act during a vital scene, Stott - who was playing a tragic Italian American longshoreman – gave a fierce glare and snapped. He told the offending member in the audience: ”Is that it now?’.
Ken Stott in A view from the bridge
I have to admit that I checked several times that my mobile phone was properly switched off before the play began as I had seats very near the front and did not want to incur Ken Stott’s wrath! Despite my pre-show nerves I have to completely agree with the point he had made to his previous audience. The actors in Uncle Vanya put every fibre of their being in to playing the characters they portray as passionately and genuinely as they can and are living 100% in the moment. Is it too much to ask that a theatre audience do the same? If you come to the theatre, be at the theatre and enjoy every moment of the play you are watching. Whatever activity you are pursuing, immerse yourself 100% in enjoying that activity instead of focusing on something you did in the past or will be doing in the future. I walked past the British Library the day before I attended this play and there is a huge sign at the front of it with the quote “Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.” Any actor on stage is sharing with us the gift of their talent and is passionately dedicating their complete attention to giving us an enjoyable experience during a performance. We do not all have acting talents but we can all learn to live in the present and to give our all to the activity we are currently pursuing.
Living in the present is one of the simplest positive psychology ideas to try but can seem like one of the hardest to master. We are so used to having our minds preoccupied with so many thoughts at once that it can be hard to focus on what is giving us joy right now. So give Happiness Experiment No 12 a try and learn to: Live in the moment. Ken Stott will thank you for it and you will be grateful you have learned to master this technique. This Scottish video about mindfulness will give you some pointers on what is involved:
I would also recommend Uncle Vanya which runs at the Vaudeville theatre until 16th February 2013.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Keira Knightley and Jude Law in Anna Karenina
Positive Psychology and the Anna Karenina Principle
Does the Anna Karenina Principle apply to people’s well-being?
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Tolstoy’s well-known opening to Anna Karenina is thought by some to apply not only to families but also more broadly. It has even given rise to a rule dubbed the Anna Karenina Principle*, which holds that it is possible to fail in many ways but to succeed in only one way, by avoiding each of the routes to failure.
An example was provided by Jared Diamond (1997) in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. He discussed why so few animal species have been domesticated. Unless an animal is easy to feed, unless it grows rapidly, unless it breeds readily in captivity, unless it has a benign temperament, unless it does not run away when frightened, and unless it has a stable social hierarchy, domestication is not going to happen. Think horses versus zebras.
Centuries ago, Aristotle proposed a similar idea in The Nichomachean Ethics: ”For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.”
And much more recently, psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (2001) concluded that “bad is stronger than good,” meaning that bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than their good counterparts.
The Anna Karenina Principle implies that what is good is more elusive than what is bad. What is good reflects a perfect storm of contributors, and the absence of only one of these contributors precludes what is positive, desirable, or worthy.
If we apply this principle to the well-being of people, the conclusion is discouraging. Threats abound to happiness and life satisfaction, and only one of these needs to be present to bring us down. In contrast, doing well can only occur in special circumstances.
So, do we have another criticism of positive psychology? Is the scientific study of what makes life worth living the study of the fragile and the fleeting among the fortunate and the few?
I think not. Calling a notion a principle need not make it so. I prefer to regard the Anna Karenina Principle as a hypothesis to be tested. While it may hold in some cases, it likely does not hold in all or indeed most cases. If it did, then the factors that enable happiness (well-being) would – necessarily – be necessary ones, and that flies in the face of what the evidence actually shows. Conversely, the factors that make happiness difficult to attain would – again necessarily – be damaging and insurmountable in all cases. That too flies in the face of what the evidence actually shows.
If positive psychology, not to mention common sense, teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all, and no one lacks it all, except of course the boys who want to date our teenage daughters. And our daughters would beg to differ.
We know that Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Steven Jobs, among many other well-known folks, all had weaknesses and flaws, yet each lived a life worth living and indeed a life that is widely acclaimed.
We know that most people are resilient. Despite experience with potentially-traumatic events, most do well in their wake (Bonanno, 2004).
And by the way, although this is a topic for another essay, I doubt that the Anna Karenina Principle even applies to families. Happy families exist, as even Tolstoy would acknowledge, but they are wonderfully diverse.
*Thanks to Wikipedia for background on the Anna Karenina Principle.
Happiness is difficult to define and even harder to measure. We experience it as a combination of elements, in the same way that one wheel or spring inside a watch doesn’t keep time — it is a result of the synchronicity of the whole. As a relative state, happiness is what psychologists call our “subjective well-being” and, fortunately for us, it is a state that we can actively change for the better. Here are 20 ways to start:
Count your blessings — but not everyday. Sonja Lyubomirsky, an experimental psychologist at UC Riverside, found that people who once a week wrote down five things they were grateful for were happier than those who did it three times a week. “It’s an issue of timing or frequency,” says Lyubomirsky, “When people do anything too often it loses the freshness and meaning. You need to have optimal timing.” Lyubomirsky added that it has to feel right. She tried to count her blessings and hated it. “I found it hokey. It didn’t work for me. Just like a diet program, what you do has to fit your lifestyle, personality and goals.” In essence, gratitude might not be for everyone. But if it is, another exercise is to think of a person who has been kind to you that you’ve wanted to thank — a teacher, mentor or parent — and write a letter, once a week to different individuals over two months. You don’t even have to send it to feel happier.
Whether regarded as an evolutionary accident that piggybacked on language or as the gateway to our emotions, music activates parts of the brain that can trigger happiness, releasing endorphins similar to the ways that sex and food do. Music can also relax the body, sometimes into sleep as it stimulates the brain’s release of melatonin. A study of older adults who listened to their choice of music during outpatient eye surgery showed that they had significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure, and their hearts did not work as hard as those who underwent surgery without music. A second study, of patients undergoing colonoscopy, showed that listening to their selection of music reduced their anxiety levels and lessened the dosage required for sedation.
It’s no secret that a roll in the hay, and all that leads up to it, feels good. Endorphins are the neurotransmitters in your brain that reduce pain and, in the absence of pain, can induce euphoria. A rush of such chemicals might seem like a temporary solution to a dreary day, but there are added benefits, not the least of which is expressing affection and strengthening the bonds of a relationship. Oxytocin is released by the pituitary gland upon orgasm; often referred to as the “hormone of love” or the “cuddle chemical,” it is associated with feelings of bonding and trust, and can even reduce stress.
Survey after survey shows that people with strong religious faith — of any religion or denomination — are happier than those who are irreligious. David Myers, a social psychologist at Michigan’s Hope College, says that faith provides social support, a sense of purpose and a reason to focus beyond the self, all of which help root people in their communities. That seems reason enough to get more involved at the local church, temple or mosque. For the more inwardly focused, deep breathing during meditation and prayer can slow down the body and reduce stress, anxiety and physical tension to allow better emotions and energy to come forward.
We’ve all heard about a “runner’s high,” but there are plenty of other ways to achieve that feeling. Dance. Play a sport. Work out as hard as you can. Take a walk so your stress will take a hike. Moving your body releases endorphins, the quintessential feel-good chemicals found in your brain. How endorphin release is triggered by exercise is somewhat of a controversial science because researchers don’t know if it is caused by the positive emotion felt upon meeting a physical challenge or from the exertion itself. Either way, physical motion can provide a rush of good energy that can lift a mood, be it anxiety or mild depression, and it’s a good way to keep healthy.
Be it a slew of good jokes, a slapstick comedy or laughing yoga, find something to give you a good hearty laugh that brings tears to the eyes or a giggle fit that makes the sides of your body ache. People are 30 times more likely to laugh in groups than alone and, not surprisingly, laughter is associated with helping to develop person-to-person connections through a feedback loop characterized by laughter, social bonding and more laughter. Laughter, like so many other endorphin-triggers, helps to reduce certain stress hormones and, while it might be contagious, it strengthens your immune system rather than weakening it.
Hold a door open for someone at the bank, give someone directions if they look lost or make a point to compliment three people on your way to work. Small or big, directed at friends or strangers, random acts of kindness make the person performing the kind act happier when they’re grouped together, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, an experimental psychologist at UC Riverside. Doing a considerate thing for another person five times in one day made the doer happier than if they had spread out those five acts over one week. Lyubomirsky explains that because we all perform acts of kindness naturally, it seems to please us more when we’re more conscious of it. There are social rewards, too, when people respond positively.
Midas might have been an unhappy guy, but that’s probably because he didn’t know any other kings who could also turn things into gold. Money as an absolute may not make you a happier person but making more money than others in your age group does, according to a sociological study done in 2005 by researchers at Pennsylvania State University. But keeping up with the Joneses isn’t the only way that money brings happiness. Saving it for retirement or a rainy day brings together a variety of positive emotions that can lead to happiness, such as anticipation and expectation, a sense of delayed gratification and reward.
Happiness can lead to success, rather than just the other way around. Happy individuals are predisposed to seek out new opportunities and set new goals. After reviewing data of 225 studies gathered from more than 275,000 individuals, a team of psychologists concluded that while previous research assumed that happiness stemmed from success and accomplishment, happiness is often a result of positive emotions. Success is the result of many factors, including physical health, intelligence, family and expertise.
Whether it’s getting comfy with a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, dancing at a Japanese Obon festival or scarfing down a hot dog at Coney Island, embrace your culture. Appreciating one’s culture creates and strengthens bonds with others who share that culture and also allows one to identify and appreciate cultural difference. A recent study showed that adolescents of Mexican and Chinese ethnicity maintained feelings of happiness despite daily stress when they had a strong sense of cultural identity. In other research, psychologists found an association between stable cultural identity and overall positive emotion in African American and Native American communities.
Learn to scan your memory bank for your strengths, talents, passions, interests, practical coping skills, and earlier potential — whether it’s actualized or not. Scanning this memory bank and gleaning material that can be used to reinvent yourself to be happier is key, says Barbara Becker-Holstein, psychologist and author of Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy. For example, someone who would like to be more altruistic can scan their past and know that they didn’t like Girl Scouts in elementary school. That crosses off being a PTA mother. But they might remember that as a child they enjoyed collecting soda bottles and giving the money to the local fire station where they knew the firefighters. That person might consider giving money and time to a local group where they can socialize with people rather than mailing in a check to a distant organization. “Looking at one’s personal style, tastes and interests as we look for ways to be happy today is very important,” says Becker-Holstein.
Optimism is a learned skill and there are a variety of ways to acquire it, says psychologist Mary Ann Troiani, co-author of Spontaneous Optimism. Through her research, Troiani has come up with three things that you can do to enhance your sense of optimism. First, straighten out your body before your emotions by keeping a straight body posture, taking big steps and walking quickly with your shoulders back and your head up. “People who are pessimistic walk slowly with small steps and their head down,” she says. Second, change your tone of voice so that it is cheerful and full of energy. Third, use upbeat or happier words, such as “challenge” rather than “problem,” or think of “opportunities” rather than “losses.” “Positive thoughts and behavior have a positive impact on the brain’s biochemistry,” she says. “[They] boost your serotonin levels and signal that you’re happy. Your brain will catch up to you.” Troiani reminds us: it takes about 4 to 6 weeks to really change a habit.
Stop putting off seeing the aurora lights, warming up in the hot springs of Greenland or learning a new instrument — just do it. If you often do one thing that makes you happy, then try another. Psychologist Rich Walker of Winston-Salem State University looked at 30,000 event memories and over 500 diaries, ranging from durations of 3 months to 4 years, and says that people who engage in a variety of experiences are more likely to retain positive emotions and minimize negative ones than people who have fewer experiences. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, studies her broaden-and-build hypothesis of positive emotion. Her research suggests that the optimal ratio of positive to negative emotion in humans is above 3 to 1 and below 11 to 1. Walker has observed that once the ratio of positive to negative events hit 1 to 1, it opens the door to potential disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
Talking about the good and bad things that happen can lead to happiness — even if it is from opposite ends of the phone line. In a controlled lab experiment, psychologist Rich Walker of Winston-Salem State University found that the reasons are two-fold: people tend to emphasize positive emotions and mitigate negative ones when telling a story, since memory’s natural bias is to keep tabs on the good stuff and gradually lose the emotional intensity of a bad event; and the process of storytelling can affect how one feels about what happened even up to a week later. In other words, talking about a negative experience made the emotional intensity of that memory fade faster than if the event had not been recounted. Walker says that storytelling works best when there is a lot of audience diversity — it helps to tell the story many times to a variety of people.
The grin of our society is blue-toothed. With BlackBerrys and corporate email at home, we are tethered to technology unlike any previous generation. This newfound flexibility between our work and private lives works for some people but is problematic for others. In 2003, Michigan State University researchers found that those who establish boundaries between work and home are more connected to their families and have less conflict than those who integrate the two. The researchers divided people into what they call integrators and separators and suggested that knowing the appropriate boundaries between work and home can have an impact and improve happiness.
Last year, the first world map of happiness was produced, and Denmark came out on top. For more than 30 years, the nation has ranked first in European satisfaction surveys. Researchers in the British Medical Journal tried to understand why the Danes felt more satisfied than the Swedes or Finns, who share similar aspects of culture, and came up with two plausible explanations: the lasting impact of the Danes’ victory in the 1992 European Football Championship has kept them in a state of euphoria since; and the nation, while satisfied, has shown low expectations for the coming year, unlike the Greeks and the Italians who rank low on satisfaction. While there were other reasons that contributed to the satisfaction of the Danes, one thing is clear: the higher one’s expectations, the further they fall.SIMON JARRATT / CORBIS
Society is plagued by time bankruptcy. But what if people asserted more control over their time to optimize their use of it? “Maybe you need to burn bridges, discard habits or situations that waste time and avoid emotional vampires,” says Mary Ann Troiani, co-author of Spontaneous Optimism. “It’s like house-cleaning at that point.” Psychologists will say prioritize, set realistic daily goals that fit into the bigger picture and some time might be recovered. Troiani usually asks one pointed question to shock her clients out of their rut: How would you feel in two or three years if you still feel this way? “People sit there like a deer in headlights,” she says. Her response: picture and imagine what you want to feel like. Maybe set aside two nights in your calendar to focus on those things that you’d like to spend more time on. Or as she puts it: cut the chase.
We are unique creatures in that we can mentally simulate situations by remembering the past and visualizing the future. We can also play a hand at perhaps creating the future — at least in terms of preparing our emotional state for what may come. It’s a valuable tool and one that can lead to happiness when applied to specific goals. There is much research behind visualization and emotional changes, as it has been shown that positive thoughts have an impact on the brain’s biochemistry. Many psychologists ask people to imagine or picture what they would like in their life, creating a mental state that makes the person think that it is achievable. “If you experience that visualization with your eyes closed, your mind doesn’t know if it’s real or unreal,” says Mary Ann Troiani, co-author of Spontaneous Optimism.“Neuropsychological ways makes them feel as though they have it and tricks the mind into thinking they have [what they are visualizing] now. It makes them more confident about it.”
Go ahead. It won’t hurt you. It might actually make you happier, too. Based on the psychology that a person feels whatever emotion they are acting at the moment, you will probably feel better if you smile. To avoid what is called cognitive dissonance, in which our thoughts and actions don’t match up, our minds react to the change in our facial expression to bring our beliefs in line with our behavior. And, like laughter, it’s contagious. If you smile, chances are that those around you will too.
Since there may be no point in marrying rich (see previous), then marry happy. Research shows that depressed singles receive greater psychological benefit — from things such as intimacy and emotional closeness — from getting married than those who are not depressed. And for the married population, first of all, congratulations: people in committed relationships have been shown to be happier than those who aren’t, despite how satisfying their marriages actually are. Research done by an economist at the University of Warwick suggests that if you’re married to someone who is happy, then you are happy as well. The research concludes that happiness, like material things in a marriage, is shared. Awww…
The Happiness Experiment blog posts have been focusing on resilience this week and I spotted this Resilience Workshop which will be run at The School of Life on 1st December 2012.
The course is run by Chris Johnstone whose book Find Your Power has been part of my resilience research this week. I’m sure the course will be interesting.
Resilience is the ability to withstand or recover from difficult situations. It includes our capacity to make the best of things, cope with stress and rise to the occasion. This one-day workshop offers a practical training in skills, strategies and insights that help our resilience grow.
Drawing on research from Positive Psychology and the plot structure of adventure stories, we will look at four key skills that raise our resilience:
• visioning skills that strengthen our sense of purpose by helping us see, and then head for, the outcomes that attract us
• creativeproblem-solving skills that help us find a path through the obstacles in the way
• positive relationship skills that enhance our ability to find allies and draw in the support we need
• emotional intelligence skills that raise our capacity to work with our emotions, so that we can benefit from the guiding signals and energy they offer.
The day will involve a mix of tutor presentation, personal reflection, guided exercises and group discussion. The goal is to increase each participant’s ability to draw upon the resilience they need in their lives.
Our intensive workshops provide an opportunity to work with leading members of our faculty over the course of a highly structured day session.
Sessions are limited to 18 participants and will be based at The School of Life. All food and drink is included in the ticket price.
Chris Johnstone is an author, trainer and coach for resilience, happiness and positive change. He is author of Find Your Power – a toolkit for resilience and positive change (Permanent Publications, 2010).
09.40 Tea, coffee and pastries served
10.00 Intro & morning session
13.00 Lunch provided
14.00 Afternoon session
The School of Life
70 Marchmont Street
If you are interested in attending this workshop click here for details.
Continuing with the topic of resilience, today’s blog post looks at the subject of strokes. Every year over 150,000 people in the UK have a stroke and it is the third largest cause of death, after heart disease and cancer. The brain damage caused by strokes means that they are the largest cause of adult disability in the UK. These are sobering and depressing statistics, so why feature the subject of strokes in a blog about positive psychology and happiness?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor was a 37 year old Harvard-trained brain scientist when she suffered a stroke. 75% of strokes occur in people who are over 65 so Dr Taylor was extremely unlucky to suffer from a stoke at such a young age. Dr Taylor’s amazing resilience combined with her knowledge of the brain gradually helped her to recover completely. With the help of her amazing mother it took her 8 years to recover from her stroke and she has described her experience and the lessons she has learned from this in her bestselling book My stroke of Insight. Jill’s book shares her recommendations for recovery and the insight which she gained from her experience and it looks into the unique functions of the right and left halves of her brain. Jill recounts how “having lost the categorizing, organizing, describing, judging and critically analyzing skills of her left brain, along with its language centres and thus ego centre, her consciousness shifted away from normal reality. In the absence of her left brain’s neural circuitry, her consciousness shifted into present moment thinking whereby she experienced herself “at one with the universe.”
Jill’s knowledge as a neuroscientist and her personal experience of having a strokes, has not only helped others rebuild their brains from trauma, but has also helped people with normal brains to better understand how we can ‘tend the garden of our minds’ to maximize our quality of life. I had never really understood the difference between left brain and right brain functions until I watched Jill’s TED talk.
Jill’s example teaches us how we could exercise our own right brain more with the intention of helping all human beings become more humane. Jill states: “I believe the more time we spend running our deep inner peace circuitry, then the more peace we will project into the world, and ultimately the more peace we will have on the planet.”
You can choose to watch her video or to read the transcript of her talk below. I would thoroughly recommend watching the video and also learning more about how to help someone who is having a stroke. It is highly probable that we will all know someone else in our own personal circle who will suffer a stroke even if we don’t have the misfortune to share Jill’s experience ourselves. Dr Jill Bolte Taylor is for me another great example of how resilience can enable us to overcome a potentially devastating medical condition.
Transcript of video:
I grew up to study the brain because I have a brother who has been diagnosed with a brain disorder, schizophrenia. And as a sister and as a scientist, I wanted to understand, why is it that I can take my dreams, I can connect them to my reality, and I can make my dreams come true — what is it about my brother’s brain and his schizophrenia that he cannot connect his dreams to a common, shared reality, so they instead become delusions?
So I dedicated my career to research into the severe mental illnesses. And I moved from my home state of Indiana to Boston where I was working in the lab of Dr. Francine Benes, in the Harvard Department of Psychiatry. And in the lab, we were asking the question, What are the biological differences between the brains of individuals who would be diagnosed as normal control, as compared to the brains of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective, or bipolar disorder?
So we were essentially mapping the microcircuitry of the brain, which cells are communicating with which cells, with which chemicals, and then with what quantities of those chemicals. So there was a lot of meaning in my life because I was performing this kind of research during the day. But then in the evenings and on the weekends I traveled as an advocate for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
But on the morning of December 10 1996 I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.
If you’ve ever seen a human brain, it’s obvious that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another. And I have brought for you a real human brain. [Thanks.] So, this is a real human brain. This is the front of the brain, the back of the brain with a spinal cord hanging down, and this is how it would be positioned inside of my head. And when you look at the brain, it’s obvious that the two cerebral cortices are completely separate from one another. For those of you who understand computers, our right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor. While our left hemisphere functions like a serial processor. The two hemispheres do communicate with one another through the corpus collosum, which is made up of some 300 million axonal fibers. But other than that, the two hemispheres are completely separate. Because they process information differently, each hemisphere thinks about different things, they care about different things, and dare I say, they have very different personalities. [Excuse me. Thank you. It's been a joy.]
Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.
My left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it’s all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information. Associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned and projects into the future all of our possibilities. And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It’s that little voice that says to me, “Hey, you gotta remember to pick up bananas on your way home, and eat ‘em in the morning.” It’s that calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. But perhaps most important, it’s that little voice that says to me, “I am. I am.” And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me “I am,” I become separate. I become a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you.
And this was the portion of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke.
On the morning of the stroke, I woke up to a pounding pain behind my left eye. And it was the kind of pain, caustic pain, that you get when you bite into ice cream. And it just gripped me and then it released me. Then it just gripped me and then released me. And it was very unusual for me to experience any kind of pain, so I thought OK, I’ll just start my normal routine. So I got up and I jumped onto my cardio glider, which is a full-body exercise machine. And I’m jamming away on this thing, and I’m realizing that my hands looked like primitive claws grasping onto the bar. I thought “that’s very peculiar” and I looked down at my body and I thought, “whoa, I’m a weird-looking thing.” And it was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my normal perception of reality, where I’m the person on the machine having the experience, to some esoteric space where I’m witnessing myself having this experience.
And it was all every peculiar and my headache was just getting worse, so I get off the machine, and I’m walking across my living room floor, and I realize that everything inside of my body has slowed way down. And every step is very rigid and very deliberate. There’s no fluidity to my pace, and there’s this constriction in my area of perceptions so I’m just focused on internal systems. And I’m standing in my bathroom getting ready to step into the shower and I could actually hear the dialog inside of my body. I heard a little voice saying, “OK, you muscles, you gotta contract, you muscles you relax.”
And I lost my balance and I’m propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy. And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me, what is going on?” And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and — total silence.
And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.
Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online and it says to me, “Hey! we got a problem, we got a problem, we gotta get some help.” So it’s like, OK, OK, I got a problem, but then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness, and I affectionately referred to this space as La La Land. But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world. So here I am in this space and any stress related to my, to my job, it was gone. And I felt lighter in my body. And imagine all of the relationships in the external world and the many stressors related to any of those, they were gone. I felt a sense of peacefulness. And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! I felt euphoria. Euphoria was beautiful — and then my left hemisphere comes online and it says “Hey! you’ve got to pay attention, we’ve got to get help,” and I’m thinking, “I got to get help, I gotta focus.” So I get out of the shower and I mechanically dress and I’m walking around my apartment, and I’m thinking, “I gotta get to work, I gotta get to work, can I drive? can I drive?”
And in that moment my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side. And I realized, “Oh my gosh! I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke!” And the next thing my brain says to me is, “Wow! This is so cool. This is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?”
And then it crosses my mind: “But I’m a very busy woman. I don’t have time for a stroke!” So I’m like, “OK, I can’t stop the stroke from happening so I’ll do this for a week or two, and then I’ll get back to my routine, OK.”
So I gotta call help, I gotta call work. I couldn’t remember the number at work, so I remembered, in my office I had a business card with my number on it. So I go in my business room, I pull out a 3-inch stack of business cards. And I’m looking at the card on top, and even though I could see clearly in my mind’s eye what my business card looked like, I couldn’t tell if this was my card or not, because all I could see were pixels. And the pixels of the words blended with the pixels of the background and the pixels of the symbols, and I just couldn’t tell. And I would wait for what I call a wave of clarity. And in that moment, I would be able to reattach to normal reality and I could tell, that’s not the card, that’s not the card, that’s not the card. It took me 45 minutes to get one inch down inside of that stack of cards.
In the meantime, for 45 minutes the hemorrhage is getting bigger in my left hemisphere. I do not understand numbers, I do not understand the telephone, but it’s the only plan I have. So I take the phone pad and I put it right here, I’d take the business card, I’d put it right here, and I’m matching the shape of the squiggles on the card to the shape of the squiggles on the phone pad. But then I would drift back out into La La Land, and not remember when I come back if I’d already dialed those numbers.
So I had to wield my paralyzed arm like a stump, and cover the numbers as I went along and pushed them, so that as I would come back to normal reality I’d be able to tell, yes, I’ve already dialed that number. Eventually the whole number gets dialed, and I’m listening to the phone, and my colleague picks up the phone and he says to me, “Whoo woo wooo woo woo.” [laughter] And I think to myself, “Oh my gosh, he sounds like a golden retriever!” And so I say to him, clear in my mind I say to him. “This is Jill! I need help!” And what comes out of my voice is, “Whoo woo wooo woo woo.” I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, I sound like a golden retriever.” So I couldn’t know, I didn’t know that I couldn’t speak or understand language until I tried.
So he recognizes that I need help, and he gets me help. And a little while later, I am riding in an ambulance from one hospital across Boston to Mass General Hospital. And I curl up into a little fetal ball. And just like a balloon with the last bit of air just, just right out of the balloon I felt my energy lift and I felt my spirit surrender. And in that moment I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life. And either the doctors rescue my body and give me a second chance at life or this was perhaps my moment of transition.
When I awoke later that afternoon I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life, and my mind is now suspended between two very opposite planes of reality. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire and sounds were so loud and chaotic that I could not pick a voice out from the background noise and I just wanted to escape. Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expensive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Harmonic. I remember thinking there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.
But I realized “But I’m still alive! I’m still alive and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” I picture a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated my to recover.
Two and a half weeks after the hemorrhage, the surgeons went in and they removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball that was pushing on my language centers. Here I am with my mama, who’s a true angel in my life. It took me eight years to completely recover.
So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are — I am — the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you? I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me.
Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world and the more peaceful our planet will be. And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.
We are all familiar with terms such as to be “caught between a rock and a hard place”, having to choose between “the devil and the deep blue sea”, being “between Scylla and Charybdis” or having to face something similar to Sophie’s Choice , the harrowing Meryl Streep film based on the novel by William Stryon in which a Polish woman has to choose which of her children will live or die in a concentration camp.
The film “Touching the void” is a very graphic example of someone who is literally “caught between a rock and a hard place” It is a docu-drama film based on the true story of two mountaineering enthusiasts attempting to climb the 21,000 foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. It follows the story of two young climbers who attempted to reach the summit of Siula Grande in Peru; a feat that had previously been attempted but never achieved. One man is left looking after base camp while the two climbers, Simon and Joe set off to scale the mount in one long push over several days. They reach the peak but on the descent Joe falls and breaks his leg. Despite the challenges this involves, the two continue with Simon letting Joe out on a rope for 300 meters, then descending to join him and so on. However when Joe goes out over an overhang with no way of climbing back up, Simon makes the decision to cut the rope. Joe falls into a crevasse and Simon, assuming him dead, continues back down. Joe however survives the fall and was lucky to hit a ledge in the crevasse. This film tells the story of how Joe got back down. The film is worth watching for the ethical dilemma that one of the climbers faces. What would you do in such a situation? It is also worth watching for the amazing resilience and survival instinct of the other.
Another climbing story which demonstrates the “rock and a hard place” dilemna is the Danny Boyle film 127 hours featuring the actor James Franco. It is a fascinating, but at times harrowing, film about the climber Aron Ralston. Aron’s zest for life and will to live is brilliantly portrayed by James Franco. It is a remarkable story of a man who is trapped in a crevice in a Utah mountain for 127 hours and whose resilience enables him to make a difficult decision which leads to his ultimate survival. Aron’s autobiography 127 hours: Between a rock and a hard place is the subject of this film. You can choose to either read the book or watch the film (see great film review here) if you are intrigued to learn more. Meanwhile Aron Ralston continues to climb and has become a motivational speaker since his ordeal.
I have to admit that there is nothing in these films which make me want to take up climbing as a pastime any time soon, but both films are overwhelmingly positive examples of the resilience of the human spirit. They demonstrate that in life and death situations it is our resilience which pulls us through. Most of us are not climbers and are unlikely to face such physically and mentally challenging situations on a daily basis, but learning the skills of resilience could serve us well in other situations too. I would encourage you to watch these films and be inspired.
“I never needed eyes to see — never. I simply needed vision and belief.”
Continuing with the subject of resilience, today’s blog post features the story of Caroline Casey, the founder of Kanchi, who I had the good fortune to meet in person last year at the Aspire conference in London. Caroline, who is legally blind, did not become aware of her sight limitations until she was an adult. Caroline had always assumed that what she was able to see was the same as everyone else. The fact that Caroline was unaware of her own sight limitations meant that she was unaware of her own limitations as a human being. As far as Caroline was concerned there was nothing she couldn’t do if she put her mind to it. She behaved as if she had no disability and focused on her abilities. She held down a job as a management consultant with Accenture until someone in the HR department made her confront the reality of her limited vision.
“Stop with the labels … because we are not jam jars; we are extraordinary, different, wonderful people.” Caroline Casey
After coming to terms with her new “reality”, Caroline decided to embark on a 1000 km trek across India on an elephant named Kanchi and raised enough money for 6000 cataract operations. On her return she set up the organisation Kanchi, named after her travelling companion, because in Caroline’s own words “disability is always the elephant in the room”.
Caroline has gone from strength to strength, setting up the O2 Ability Awards which were launched in 2004. Her social enterprise, Kanchi, works to change attitudes and behaviours around disability and Caroline campaigns constantly so that we focus on people’s abilities and see beyond their disabilities. If you feel that you have either an emotional or physical obstacle which prevents you from realising your dreams you would do well to listen to Caroline speak. You will quickly realise that the biggest obstacle we have is the limitation of our own mindset. Caroline is living proof that if we look beyond our current limitations anything is possible.
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” Confucius
Recent blog posts have looked at the British stiff upper lip in response to the excellent recent BBC 2 series on the subject by Ian Hislop. Forthcoming blog posts will continue on a similar theme looking at some amazing people from different corners of the world who demonstrate that coping with adversity doesn’t necessarily require just a stiff upper lip, but can also require resilience and “bouncebackability”. Resilience is a crucial factor in our own happiness experiment. It would be unrealistic to expect to go through life without having to cope with adverse events or experiences. Why do some people seem able to survive traumatic events and even experience post traumatic growth whilst others flounder and become completely overwhelmed by their circumstances? It is often assumed that resilience is a character strength we are born with, but scientific evidence shows that resilience is a skill which can be learned by all of us. By developing our resilience we are better able to cope with life’s adversities and to increase our well-being. There are many resilience building techniques to learn and to chose from and there will be some which work for you and some which don’t. As with any skill worth learning, practice makes perfect – so give it a try.
If this is a skill you would like to practice you could take a look at The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté. The book, written by two resilience coaches, encourages you to take a resilience questionnaire and teaches you 7 different ways to overcome life’s hurdles. As “self-help” books go, it is considered to be one of the best of its kind.
For additional inspiration I would encourage you to listen to this amazing TED talk by Janine Shepherd: You are not your body.
This week the final episode of Ian Hislop’s excellent Stiff Upper Lip series aired on BBC2. The third episode looks at the history of the stiff upper lip since the First World War and looks at whether this is a national characteristic which is still prevalent in present day Britain. Ian Hislop argues that the British became increasingly self-aware of their national stereotypes in the 1930s and some even began gently to poke fun at this increasingly anachronistic character trait. He visits the British Cartoon Archive in Canterbury to look at a series of cartoons entitled “The British Character” which ran for several years in ‘Punch’ magazine. Graham Laidler a 25 year old cartoonist, who worked under the pen-name Pont, was responsible for creating these cartoons which were hugely successful. You can see some examples of these cartoons in the clip below. The cartoons poked fun at the very British characteristic of people carrying on regardless of what was happening around them, the empire may have been in decline, the ship may be sinking but the important thing was to carry on being British and in control no matter what circumstances presented themselves.
‘The British Character’
Ian Hislop’s programme goes on to look at how, over the last 100 years since its Victorian heyday, Britain has become more and more self-conscious and more and more self-critcial about the value of its famous Stiff Upper Lip. After soldiers returned from the WW1 trenches with over a million people dead it seemed as though the British Imperial swagger had gone for good but since then, argues Hislop, we have been nonchalant, steadfast and in recent times we have let it all out. The stiff upper lip has taken a huge battering in recent times but does its history suggest that we still find some use for it, Ian Hislop asks?
The Great Depression spread across the world in the 1930′s; there was the rise of Nazism in Germany with Britain unsure how to respond and across the empire discontent was growing at British rule. In response to these many challenges and instead of stiffening, the British appeared to loosen up and tried to have a good time. Gershwin wrote his song The Stiff Upper Lip at this time and it became an international symbol of the British who couldn’t express their feelings but who wanted to rule an empire.
At the beginning of the Second World War the government tried to prepare Britain for the worst by putting up a series of posters to avoid civil chaos.
Hislop points out that it is rather unusual to suggest that cheerfulness could be a useful weapon during the Blitz. The most famous poster of them all is the keep calm and carry on poster which was in fact never seen by the public as it was planned only for use in the event of an invasion. The whole government propaganda machine at the time played to the notion of the British stiff upper lip. In the post war times of rebuilding, rationing and austerity the government still expected the British to maintain a stoic front. In this climate grumbles, anxieties and fears were all to be kept firmly inside. However in the 1950s, as a new consumer driven culture began to develop, tensions started to emerge and the buttoned down approach to emotions was increasingly questioned and considered out of step with the emotions of the age.
Old boundaries were being rejected, argues Ian Hislop, as as new generation grew up in the sixties awash with the luxuries of peace and prosperity, greater social mobility and sexual freedom. It is no wonder that the relevance of the stiff upper lip approach to life began to be questioned. Ian Hislop meets writer Alan Bennett, a cast member of the groundbreaking 1960s satirical show Beyond the Fringe which made fun of clergymen, judges and the Prime Minister alike and even poked fun at the most stoic period of the British during the war. The assault on old establishment values had begun in earnest.
The line between the personal and the public was being eroded. Ian also travelled to the Welsh community of Aberfan, where in 1966 local people met terrible tragedy when a local school was covered by a landslide killing 144 people,116 of whom were children. The townspeople coped with the tragedy with old-fashioned resilience and dignity in the face of an increasingly intrusive media whose camera crews captured every moment of the unfolding tragedy. The media was now insisting that we all had a right to share in other people’s grief. Ian Hislop argues that this event was the beginning of an on-going debate which continues today about media intrusion and how appropriate it is for the British public not to stand back but to join in someone else’s grief. In 1968 grieving fathers, encouraged by their wives who had found solace in doing the same thing, formed the Ynysowen male voice choir. The choir is clearly both an extraordinary vehicle for emotional control and emotional release and a testament to the fact that genuine self-help and traditional strength of character have helped this community survive the tragedy argues Hislop. In the word’s of one of the victims of the disaster whose sister died ” It keeps the spirit alive”.
By the end of the 1970′s repression was on the way out and self-expression was on the way in. Was it possible to hug your way to happiness? Ian looks at the influence of American ‘therapy culture’ on British attitudes to emotional expression in the 1970s and looks inside Cosmopolitan magazine to see how this seduced a wider public. In the 1970s even some men started talking from the heart about themselves!
It became the standard medical view that having a stiff upper lip was bad for you and was a sign of emotional repression. Ian Hislop interviews feminist Susie Orbach, author of “Towards Emotional Literacy” who explains that “we turned ourselves from a society which was about civic contribution to a society in which individuality is where it is at. How do you express your individuality? It is not just through clothes and occupation but it is also through genuine forms of emotional expression” The stiff upper lip had originally been based on the premise that suffering in silence was a service to society, this notion gradually became outmoded from the 1970s onwards.
In the eighties Princess Diana became the reincarnation of the new emotional literacy in Britain and the move towards more display of shared communal feeling. Princess Diana’s touchy-feely approach was a refreshing change to the traditional stuffy establishment way of behaving with its formal code of conduct. The general national unbuttoning was epitomised by the nation’s outpouring of grief at Diana’s death. Events around Princess Diana’s death have been credited with producing the final demise of the stiff upper lip argues Hislop.
Today we have become so accustomed to showing our emotions in public that we tend to forget that until recently things were very different. Such is the power of TV and so accepted is the contemporary wisdom about the unhealthiness of any emotional repression, it seems that today’s unfettered displays of feeling have entirely replaced the old expectation to try and control them.
In moments of real crisis or adversity, argues Hislop, some residual impulse of the stiff upper lip does still quietly kick in. Examples he gives are the stoic response of Londoners to the 7/7 bombings and the response to the summer riots of 2011. It is not entirely coincidental that the catch phrase of today is the slogan resurrected from over 70 years ago “Keep calm and carry on”. Despite its faults and its failings, British reserve, stoical sang froid, grinning and bearing it might still have something to recommend it argues Hislop. ” If I am wrong” he concludes by commenting wryly “and the stiff upper lip is finished and is rightly consigned to the history books. If that is the case, there is no point in making a fuss about it, no point in crying, we will have to deal with it, sort ourselves out and get on with it.”
View the last episode of the series here. I will leave you to come to your own conclusions about the current emotional strengths and weaknesses of the British character. Here is the final speech by London Mayor, Boris Johnson at the end of this year’s Olympics – another occasion when British emotion was on national and international display: ’The Final Tear Sodden Juddering Climax Of London 2012′
Boris Johnson ‘The Final Tear Sodden Juddering Climax Of London 2012′