Posted by Shona Lockhart on 30th April 2013
Building our resilience is a tried and tested method within positive psychology for improving our general well-being and happiness. Our ability to bounce back from life’s curve balls rather than sinking in to overwhelm is a crucial part of your happiness toolkit.
According to a recent study, resilience in the face of adversity could be a characteristic of someone who is truly satisfied with his or her life. Researchers from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona found that people who are more resilient are also more likely to report high life satisfaction and control over emotions. Their work was published in the journal Behavioral Psychology. The study was conducted on 254 students at the university, who were asked to fill out questionnaires.
“Some of the characteristics of being resilient can be worked on and improved, such as self-esteem and being able to regulate one’s emotions,” study researcher Dr. Joaquin T. Limonero, a professor at the university, said in a statement. “Learning these techniques can offer people the resources needed to help them adapt and improve their quality of life.”
According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is important for dealing with hardships, and can be learned and developed. Factors that go into resilience include being able to manage impulses and feelings, looking at yourself positively, making realistic plans and goals and communicating and solving problems.
For more information on the road to resilience, take a look at the recommendations of the APA who have some great tips on building resilience.
Make connections. Good relationships with close family members, friends, or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.
Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.
Accept that change is a part of living. Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”
Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.
Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and heightened appreciation for life.
Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.
Additional ways of strengthening resilience may be helpful. For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.
The key is to identify ways that are likely to work well for you as part of your own personal strategy for fostering resilience.
Posted by Shona Lockhart on 31st April 2013.
Based on an original article in the Huffington post
This article by Elizabeth Weil about reluctant “happiness expert” Sonja Lyubomirsky was published in the NY Times on April 19th 2013.
If you would like to learn more about Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research you can check out her website by clicking here. If you are interested in trying out her theories she has devlopped an iPhone App called Live Happy™ in conjunction with the company Signal Patterns. You can find details of this App here. Sonja has written 2 interesting books on the subject of happiness: The How of Happiness and the more recent The Myths of Happiness.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, you have a happiness set point. It’s partly encoded in your genes. If something good happens, your sense of happiness rises; if something bad happens, it falls.
But either way, before too long, your mood will creep back to its set point because of a really powerful and perverse phenomenon referred to in science as “hedonic adaptation.” You know, people get used to things.
With her 2007 book, “The How of Happiness,” and this year’s follow-up, “The Myths of Happiness,” Dr. Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, caused ripples in her field but also drew a wider audience, cementing her place in a long chain of happiness-industry stalwarts, from M. Scott Peck with “The Road Less Traveled” to Martin E. P. Seligman and “Learned Optimism” to Daniel Gilbert and his best-selling “Stumbling on Happiness.”
Dr. Lyubomirsky’s findings can be provocative and, at times, counterintuitive. Renters are happier than homeowners, she says. Interrupting positive experiences makes them more enjoyable. Acts of kindness make people feel happier, but not if you are compelled to perform the same act too frequently. (Bring your lover breakfast in bed one day, and it feels great. Bring it every day, and it feels like a chore.)
Dr. Lyubomirsky — 46, Russian and expecting to give birth to her fourth child this weekend — is an unlikely mood guru. “I really hate all the smiley faces and rainbows and kittens,” she said in her office. She doesn’t often count her blessings or write gratitude letters, both of which she thinks sound hokey even though her research suggests they make people happier.
For years, she even worried that the study of how to increase happiness would make her work sound too applied, too lightweight, too much like that of a life coach. For a decade, she focused instead on categorizing characteristics of happy and unhappy people with clinical, almost anthropological detachment. But friends, family members, students, reporters — everyone — kept asking: How does it work? How can you make yourself happier?
So Dr. Lyubomirsky finally turned her research toward those questions.
Now, according to Barbara Fredrickson, principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, “Sonja is the queen of happiness.”
“She’s one of the few people that actually does research on happiness per se,” she said of Ms. Lyubomirsky’s ascent. “It’s a supply-and-demand issue.”
One day this winter, a young graduate student knocked on Dr. Lyubomirsky’s office door, seeking her opinion. The student was thinking of designing a study to see if expectant fathers were happier after their wives gave birth. Or maybe she should study what’s the most happiness-inducing way for a woman to tell her partner she’s pregnant? (Dr. Lyubomirsky, who is fairly practiced in this department, liked the second option.)
Later, another student fired up her laptop to discuss data that appeared off. “Look at this state of gratitude, that’s really weird,” Dr. Lyubomirsky said, puzzling over the graph. “What happened here? Was this March?” The school calendar influences student-research subjects: everybody is happier right after spring break.
Among the big dials people can tune to affect personal happiness is how much we compare ourselves to others. As Dr. Lyubomirsky has found in her lab (and many of us find around the office or at a bar), unhappy people compare a lot and care about the results. They tend to feel better when they get poor evaluations but learn others did worse than when they get excellent evaluations but learn others did better.
In one experiment, documented in “The Myths of Happiness,” Dr. Lyubomirsky asked two volunteers at a time to use hand puppets to teach a lesson about friendship to an imaginary audience of children. Afterward the puppeteers were evaluated against each other: you did great but your partner did better, or you did badly but your partner was even worse.
The volunteers who were happy before the puppeteering review cared a bit about hearing that they had performed worse than their colleagues but largely shrugged it off. The unhappy volunteers were devastated. Dr. Lyubomirsky writes: “It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: ‘For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself. … One’s friends must fail.’ ” This, she says, is probably why a great number of people know the German word schadenfreude (describing happiness at another’s misfortune) and almost nobody knows the Yiddish shep naches (happiness at another’s success).
“Someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, do you really do this for real?’ ” she recalled — meaning, write gratitude letters. “I said, ‘Um, no,’ and then he said, ‘Do other people who study this do them?’ ”
Dr. Lyubomirsky said: “Weird. Scientists should be unbiased. Just because I do a study on the effects of meditation doesn’t mean I should be meditating. I’m probably less biased if I don’t meditate.”
Science and happiness are not a perfect fit. The American philosopher William James is also considered the father of American psychology, and, as Dr. Lyubomirsky herself is well aware, once you leave philosophy aside, conclusions that psychological research lets us draw about how to be happy tend to sound a bit flat.
Dr. Lyubomirsky is a surprising apostle of mirth. Born in Moscow, she emigrated with her parents and brother to the United States at age 9 with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Settling in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the Lyubomirsky elders didn’t adapt very quickly: both switched to jobs for which they were hugely overqualified. For years, Dr. Lyubomirsky’s mother cried every time she heard Tchaikovsky. Sonja taught herself English by watching “The Love Boat.” (She speaks without an accent.) Her brother, Ilya Lyubomirsky, an engineer, said she was “quiet and very studious as a young girl.” By high school, he said, she “blossomed socially” into “having a way with people.”
During her first semester at Harvard, she took a course from Brendan Maher, the psychology professor credited with changing psychology from a soft science based on descriptions to a hard one based on data, and decided she wanted to major in the field. After college, she moved west to study at Stanford, where her graduate school adviser, Lee Ross, took her for a walk in the school’s Rodin sculpture garden and suggested she study happiness.
“At the time,” Dr. Lyubomirsky recalled, “only one person was studying happiness: Ed Diener. Back then it was called ‘subjective well being’ and the topic was considered very fuzzy.”
To clear the haze, Dr. Lyubomirsky spent that decade trying to define what happy and unhappy people were like. According to her friend Andrew Ward, now in the psychology department at Swarthmore College, “the working assumption in those years was that happy people were rationalizing all the time.” So Dr. Lyubomirsky designed an experiment in which people ranked 10 desserts, knowing they’d get one. Each participant was then given his second or third choice and told to rank all 10 desserts again. Guess who rationalized the desserts they received? The unhappy people. As Dr. Ward remembered, “The happy people said, ‘Well, this dessert is good, and I’m sure the others are good, too!’ The unhappy people liked their desserts just fine but indicated they were extremely relieved not to have received the ‘awful’ nonchosen dessert. In other words, unhappy people derogated the dessert they did not receive, whereas happy people felt no need to do so. The implication is that unhappy people are doing more mental work.”
Dr. Lyubomirsky’s academic career took a strange turn in January 1999 when Mr. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” cherry-picked her and a dozen or so other psychology academics under 40 and invited them to Akumal, Mexico. There, Mr. Seligman, who part of the time wore a tie-dyed T-shirt with the word “YES” on the front, willed the field of positive psychology into being. On the beach near Tulum, the group members wrote a Positive Psychology manifesto. They defined the field as “the scientific study of optimal human functioning” and asserted “a new commitment on the part of research psychologists to focus attention upon the sources of psychological health, thereby going beyond prior emphases upon disease and disorder.” Under palm trees, they listened to talks — for instance, Laura King broke down the myth that “happy people are stupid.” One night they sang and recited poetry. Dr. Lyubomirsky performed Caliban’s monologue from “The Tempest.” Be not afeard.
These days, Dr. Lyubomirsky is not so thrilled with how the field of positive psychology has been pigeonholed. She doesn’t consider herself a positive psychologist. The term bothers her. She thinks the word “positive” is unnecessary, in the same way some are bothered by the word “gay” in gay marriage. The idea is it’s all marriage, right? “I’m really not interested in happy people,” she insisted. “I’m interested in how happiness changes over time and what strategies can increase happiness.”
At home, Ms. Lyubomirsky’s two older children — a daughter, 14, and a son, 11 — seem most consumed not with happiness but with annoyingness, ranking everybody in the family on that scale, including their 2-year-old sister. (Dr. Lyubomirsky came in first.) Three months ago the family moved out of its condominium into a spacious house. Dr. Lyubomirsky’s husband, Peter Del Greco, a lawyer who investigates securities fraud, wanted to buy a big high-definition TV. “I said to him, ‘You’re going to adapt to it.’ Of course, he still wanted it. And he adapted to it.”
Dr. Lyubomirsky doesn’t think that people will really learn not to adapt. “We’re so focused on the now,” she said. “The present is so compelling. It’s hard-wired.”
Since the move, she has decorated her new living room with Russian nesting dolls of Boris Yeltsin and Dennis Rodman. She has adapted to just about everything in the house except for the shower (it has six heads) and the ocean view. Yet she’s unconcerned. As she knows well, focusing too much on happiness, making it too much of a goal, tends to backfire. So she doesn’t dwell on it. “I remember when I was writing the chapter about relationships in ‘The Myths of Happiness,’ ” she said. “One day when I was driving home I finally thought: ‘Oh! I should do something nice for my husband this week.’ ”
Posted by Shona Lockhart on 27th April 2013
Happiness Experiment No 1: Smile more teaches you that smiling more leads to more happiness rather than happiness leading to more smiling. This fascinating article by Leo Widrich looks at how important body language is in general when it comes to altering your mood. He mentions the great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language which is also one of my favourites. Enjoy Amy Cuddy’s TED talk and Leo Widrich’s article and get ready to start the day in a power pose! You know you want to.
I’ve always been incredibly fascinated with body language and how it helps us achieve our goals in life better. The power of body language is probably best described by Amy Cuddy’s famous quote:
“Our nonverbals govern how other people think and feel about us.”
If you are anything like me, then you’ve had a healthy obsession with body language for some time. In recent years, a few fascinating studies at Harvard, Princeton and other top universities shed new light on body language and how to use it at work. So whilst the power of language is extremely important to convey the right message. The power of body language however, might be the determining factor of how someone makes us feel.
Here is an insight of the latest studies and how we can use body language to our advantage in every day life.
We all grow up learning about how to deal with each other based on facial expressions. And yet, that might not at all be the best way to judge other people’s emotions.
Researchers from Princeton performed a very simple experiment. They asked study participants to judge from photography whether that person is feeling joy, loss, victory or pain. Now some photographs showed facial expressions only, some showed body language and some both.
Have a go yourself at the following picture and try to say whether the tennis player’s faces on the right enjoy victory or loss:
And the results couldn’t be any more startling:
“In four separate experiments, participants more accurately guessed the pictured emotion based on body language — alone or combined with facial expressions — than on facial context alone.”
Especially extremely positive and extremely negative emotions are very hard to distinguish from each other, explains head researcher Todorov.
Now, it gets even more interesting. Body language isn’t just something we have to learn. Most emotional expressions come built into our system. For example, scientists from British Columbiaobserved congenitally blind people at the Paralympics.
In this example, the left athlete can see, whereas the right athlete is congenitally blind. Yet, after winning, both express the same body language for victory:
So, if body language is both so ancient and ingrained and also so powerful to express our true emotions, how can we use it better in our every day lives to achieve what we want?
Amy Cuddy from Harvard has answers for us:
In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Amy Cuddy explains some of the most peculiar happenings of body language. Cuddy focuses a lot on the business world and how body language is helpful for us here and the possibilities seem to have no boundaries.
Cuddy distinguishes between 2 different types of body postures. One are powerful poses, and their counter part are powerless ones. Here is an example of a powerful pose:
And here is an example of a powerless one:
Now Cuddy’s research reveals a bunch of extremely interesting things. The first is that expressing more powerful poses helps us get better jobs, makes us feel better and makes us overall more successful.
And yet, it goes a lot further than to just change the positing of your legs or arms. Cuddy explains that inside our bodies, actual changes are happening as our body language changes. These changes largely have to do with hormones.
The two hormones in question are:
They brought people into a room. For two minutes, they would either perform a powerful pose or a powerless pose. Then they would go on into performing a job interview. The results were absolutely stunning:
Neutral recruiters, who didn’t know who performed which pose, consistently picked only those that previously performed the powerful poses as people they would want to hire.
On top of that, the actual hormone levels of people changed dramatically. Here is the increase in testosterone and drop in cortisol after performing the power-pose (for just 2 minutes!):
And here are the hormone levels after performing the powerless-pose, with a significant drop in testosterone and increase in cortisol:
According to Cuddy, here findings show that changing our body language doesn’t just change our outcomes. It changes who we are as people. So instead of “faking until you make it”, her advice is:
Fake it until you become it.
Can you fake it until you make it? Yes, here are 5 postures to work on today to answer the question “How can I improve my body language”:
Carol Kinsey Goman has researched the importance of body language in the workplace for many years. One of her best tips is to watch your feet. A lot of the time, we focus on our upper body or faces, yet our feet reveal more about our emotions than we might think:
“When you approach 2 people talking, you will be acknowledged in one of two ways. If the feet of your two colleagues stay in place and they twist only their upper torsos in your direction, they don’t really want you to join the conversation. But if their feet open to include you then you know that you are truly invited to participate.”
In another example from her book Goman explains when to know that “conversations are over”:
Whenever you are speaking with a co-worker who seems to be paying attention, and whose upper body is angled toward you, but whose legs and feet have turned toward the door – realize that the conversation is over. Her feet are telling you she wants to leave. Foot positions are revealing even if someone’s legs are crossed.
I’ve started to experiment this at the Buffer office too. Whenever I speak with someone I make sure to give them my full attention – head til toe. So far, it’s been a great experience.
We smile because we are happy. But does it work the other way around too? Researchers at Cardiff University think so. People who smile, without actually feeling happy, can make themselves feel a lot happier, says Michael Lewis, a co-author of the study:
“It would appear that the way we feel emotions isn’t just restricted to our brain—there are parts of our bodies that help and reinforce the feelings we’re having,”
Of course, being able to smile well is a whole other story. For now, give it a try to smile in the restroom or in another quiet place before a difficult conversation, job interview or meeting. It might just make you more successful.
Amy Cuddy suggests 3 distinct power poses to practice for 2-3 minutes before you have an important conversation.
Try them next time in a quiet place and see if they have the same results for you:
Another great tip from Goman mentions that if you try to align yourself more congenially with a conversation partner you will be able to solve tension in conversations and come to solutions more quickly:
“If you physically align yourself with that person (sitting or standing shoulder to shoulder facing the same direction), you will defuse the situation. “
I’ve found this especially true with meeting people you’ve never met before. It’s hard to build rapport at the start, focusing on aligning can make a big difference. Give it a try.
Although not a specific tip for body posture, this is one of my favorite tips. Men and women with deeper voices are more likely to land in leadership positions and are generally perceived as a greater authority.
To lower your voice, especially before an interview, try to take some deep belly breaths. It will relax your throat area, which generally contracts and raises the pitch of your voice.
What other body language insights have you come across? I’d love your insights on this fascinating topic!
Original article published by Leo Widrich, founder of Buffer, on 18th April 2013
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 26th April 2012
As children and young adults dance is something that comes naturally to us and it is difficult to imagine a life in which we do not dance and move our bodies to music. As we grow up we increasingly disconnect our heads from our bodies and dance becomes a less significant activity in our life, apart from the occasional boogie on the dance floor at a cousin’s wedding. Positive psychology research tells us that getting your groove on can seriously improve your mental and physical health. Dr Peter Lovatt who runs the dance psychology lab at the University of Hertfordshire has pioneered research in to dance and its mood altering possibilities. This School of Life video from the Sunday Sermons series gives you an insight in to his fascinating research. Watch the video and maybe you will be persuaded to put on your shoes and dance again.
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 25th April 2013
Last night I listened to the RSA debate with Professor Richard Wiseman and Andrew Parks from Cognitive Media who had worked together on a short animated video to promote Richard’s new book Rip it Up. They discussed the power of animated videos to help get a message across and Richard’s research with the video proved that information recall is improved by 15% thanks to the power of the visual information in animated format. Roman Krznaric was in the audience and he spoke about the experience of working with Cognitive Media to distill his ideas in to a 10 minute video. As the subject of this new RSA video, which was shown for the first time yesterday, is empathy I thought it was an important video to share on The Happiness Experiment blog.
RSA Animate – The Power of Outrospection
Six Habits of Highly Empathic People
We can cultivate empathy throughout our lives, says Roman Krznaric—and use it as a radical force for social transformation.
If you think you’re hearing the word “empathy” everywhere, you’re right. It’s now on the lips of scientists and business leaders, education experts and political activists. But there is a vital question that few people ask: How can I expand my own empathic potential? Empathy is not just a way to extend the boundaries of your moral universe. According to new research, it’s a habit we can cultivate to improve the quality of our own lives.
But what is empathy? It’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity. And don’t confuse it with the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” Empathy is about discovering those tastes.
The big buzz about empathy stems from a revolutionary shift in the science of how we understand human nature. The old view that we are essentially self-interested creatures is being nudged firmly to one side by evidence that we are also homo empathicus, wired for empathy, social cooperation, and mutual aid.
Over the last decade, neuroscientists have identified a 10-section “empathy circuit” in our brains which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other, just like our primate cousins. And psychologists have revealed that we are primed for empathy by strong attachment relationships in the first two years of life.
But empathy doesn’t stop developing in childhood. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives—and we can use it as a radical force for social transformation. Research in sociology, psychology, history—and my own studies of empathic personalities over the past 10 years—reveals how we can make empathy an attitude and a part of our daily lives, and thus improve the lives of everyone around us. Here are the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People!
Highly empathic people (HEPs) have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us. They find other people more interesting than themselves but are not out to interrogate them, respecting the advice of the oral historian Studs Terkel: “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”
Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own. Curiosity is good for us too: Happiness guru Martin Seligman identifies it as a key character strength that can enhance life satisfaction. And it is a useful cure for the chronic loneliness afflicting around one in three Americans.
Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the heavily tattooed woman who delivers your mail or the new employee who always eats his lunch alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.
We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “welfare mom”—that prevent us from appeciating their individuality. HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them. An episode from the history of US race relations illustrates how this can happen.
Claiborne Paul Ellis was born into a poor white family in Durham, North Carolina, in 1927. Finding it hard to make ends meet working in a garage and believing African Americans were the cause of all his troubles, he followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Ku Klux Klan, eventually rising to the top position of Exalted Cyclops of his local KKK branch.
In 1971 he was invited—as a prominent local citizen—to a 10-day community meeting to tackle racial tensions in schools, and was chosen to head a steering committee with Ann Atwater, a black activist he despised. But working with her exploded his prejudices about African Americans. He saw that she shared the same problems of poverty as his own. “I was beginning to look at a black person, shake hands with him, and see him as a human being,” he recalled of his experience on the committee. “It was almost like bein’ born again.” On the final night of the meeting, he stood in front of a thousand people and tore up his Klan membership card.
Ellis later became a labor organiser for a union whose membership was 70 percent African American. He and Ann remained friends for the rest of their lives. There may be no better example of the power of empathy to overcome hatred and change our minds.
So you think ice climbing and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
George Orwell is an inspiring model. After several years as a colonial police officer in British Burma in the 1920s, Orwell returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed,” he wrote. So he dressed up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and lived on the streets of East London with beggars and vagabonds. The result, recorded in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels”—Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and gathered some superb literary material. It was the greatest travel experience of his life. He realised that empathy doesn’t just make you good—it’s good for you, too.
We can each conduct our own experiments. If you are religiously observant, try a “God Swap,” attending the services of faiths different from your own, including a meeting of Humanists. Or if you’re an atheist, try attending different churches! Spend your next vacation living and volunteering in a village in a developing country. Take the path favored by philosopher John Dewey, who said, “All genuine education comes about through experience.”
There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist.
One is to master the art of radical listening. “What is essential,” says Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), “is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.” HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again.
But listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.
Organizations such as the Israeli-Palestinian Parents Circle put it all into practice by bringing together bereaved families from both sides of the conflict to meet, listen, and talk. Sharing stories about how their loved ones died enables families to realize that they share the same pain and the same blood, despite being on opposite sides of a political fence, and has helped to create one of the world’s most powerful grassroots peace-building movements.
We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change.
Just think of the movements against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. As journalist Adam Hochschild reminds us, “The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts but human empathy,” doing all they could to get people to understand the very real suffering on the plantations and slave ships. Equally, the international trade union movement grew out of empathy between industrial workers united by their shared exploitation. The overwhelming public response to the Asian tsunami of 2004 emerged from a sense of empathic concern for the victims, whose plight was dramatically beamed into our homes on shaky video footage.
Empathy will most likely flower on a collective scale if its seeds are planted in our children. That’s why HEPs support efforts such as Canada’s pioneering Roots of Empathy, the world’s most effective empathy teaching program, which has benefited over half a million school kids. Its unique curriculum centers on an infant, whose development children observe over time in order to learn emotional intelligence—and its results include significant declines in playground bullying and higher levels of academic achievement.
Beyond education, the big challenge is figuring out how social networking technology can harness the power of empathy to create mass political action. Twitter may have gotten people onto the streets for Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, but can it convince us to care deeply about the suffering of distant strangers, whether they are drought-stricken farmers in Africa or future generations who will bear the brunt of our carbon-junkie lifestyles? This will only happen if social networks learn to spread not just information, but empathic connection.
A final trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. We tend to believe empathy should be reserved for those living on the social margins or who are suffering. This is necessary, but it is hardly enough.
We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. If you are a campaigner on global warming, for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives—understanding their thinking and motivations—if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy. A little of this “instrumental empathy” (sometimes known as “impact anthropology”) can go a long way.
Empathizing with adversaries is also a route to social tolerance. That was Gandhi’s thinking during the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus leading up to Indian independence in 1947, when he declared, “I am a Muslim! And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew.”
Organizations, too, should be ambitious with their empathic thinking. Bill Drayton, the renowned “father of social entrepreneurship,” believes that in an era of rapid technological change, mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership. His influential Ashoka Foundation has launched the Start Empathy initiative, which is taking its ideas to business leaders, politicians and educators worldwide.
The 20th century was the Age of Introspection, when self-help and therapy culture encouraged us to believe that the best way to understand who we are and how to live was to look inside ourselves. But it left us gazing at our own navels. The 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution. Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationships.
Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and empathy advisor to organizations including Oxfam and the United Nations, and he formerly taught sociology and politics at Cambridge University. He is the author of The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live and How to Find Fulfilling Work. You can follow him on Twitter.
Posted by Shona Lockhart on 4th December
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.
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 26th October 2012
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.
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 25th October 2012
“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.
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 24th October 2012
“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.
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 23rd October 2012