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Archive for the ‘Happiness’ Category

Holding hands

“To touch can be to give life,” said Michelangelo.

The latest research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.” We also know thanks to neuroscientist Edmund Rolls that touch activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion.

In a study by Jim Coan and Richard Davidson, participants laying in an fMRI brain scanner, anticipating a painful blast of white noise, showed heightened brain activity in regions associated with threat and stress. But participants whose romantic partner stroked their arm while they waited didn’t show this reaction at all. Touch had turned off the threat switch. (more…)

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What makes for a successful and fulfilling life? How do we maintain a sense of balance in the face of life’s challenges and difficulties? How do we maintain a sense of who we are and what we consider to be valuable and true when life gets tough? Phillip Moffitt’s wonderful new book Emotional Chaos to Clarity addresses these questions with clarity and wisdom. It goes to the heart of what we all face as human beings regardless of our background, economic status, religion or belief system.

This book helps you get in touch with your authentic self, the genuine part of you that acts from your deepest values and intentions.
Our society conditions us to believe that our material possessions, recognition from our peers and our health are the markers for a successful life. The author argues that it is fine to have skillful goals as long as we don’t determine our self-worth by the success we have in reaching those goals. The hallmark of a successful life is how well our actions reflect the intentions that are formed by our core values.

Skillful living requires that we first have to discover for ourselves our core values and intentions. It is in life’s difficult moments, whether it be at work or in our closest relationships that we come to rely on our values and intentions to guide how we respond when we are in the midst of a difficult situation. Otherwise we get lost in a storm of reactivity which compounds our suffering. Moffitt acknowledges that living from our values and intentions is not an easy thing to do. It requires patience and persistence and the willingness to start over.

The author states that a necessary condition to bringing about more clarity in our lives is the practice of mindfulness which trains you to be present and aware in daily life. Without mindfulness we would fall back on unskillful habit patterns which cloud the mind and form the basis for reactivity.

What sets this book apart from the multitude of other books that deal with this subject matter is the author’s skillful use of pedagogy. Each chapter addresses an aspect of our lives: practicing gratitude and generosity, starting our day with clarity and making major life changes are some of the topics that are addressed. At the end of each chapter, Moffitt lists practical exercises that one can incorporate into one’s daily routine. I personally found the self-reflection exercises to be very helpful. They allowed me to pause and ask the really important questions that we all long to ask – how do I want to spend the rest of my precious life for the short time that I am living on this earth?

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A human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind wrote psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University in the Journal Science. According to these researchers, mind-wandering is a human brain’s default mode of operation.

Using modern technology, the authors created an iphone app that contacted volunteers at regular intervals throughout the day to find out what they were currently doing and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Intrigued by the researchers skillful use of modern technology to determine the causes for human happiness, I decided to sign up as a participant. Five times per day over a period of ten days, my trusty iphone would beep prompting me to answer the designated questions. The questions ranged from my current level of happiness, how well I slept the night before, what I was busy doing in the moment that I was beeped and how focussed I was with that particular activity. I was also asked if I was judging myself, the people around me or my current environment. After 10 days of answering questions , I was rewarded with a handsome set of charts measuring my level of happiness across a wide spectrum.

The results did not surprise me. I am happiest when I am doing my yoga practice or when I am helping others in need. For both of these activities, I am fully participating in life as it is happening in the present moment. Also not surprisingly the results confirmed that I am least happy when I am commuting over long distances. My mind wanders a lot when I am sitting in the car with nothing to do.

“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now,’” Killingsworth and Gilbert note in Science. “These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

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In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman defines a hedonist as someone who defines the quality of his or her life on the quantity of good moments minus the quantity of bad moments. According to this theory, if we could only structure our lives so that we could have more happy moments than unhappy moments, then we would be happier. Many of us run our lives based on this goal. We are on a hedonic treadmill seeking one sensual gratification after another – one more piece of chocolate cake, our next vacation, and in my case getting the next electronic gadget. There is nothing inherently wrong with having pleasant sensual experiences as long as they are understood to be just that: they are pleasant but they don’t bring lasting happiness. This is because pleasurable experiences are by their very nature momentary and not lasting. Every pleasant experience must inevitably change and end. Experiences are therefore incapable of being completely satisfying. They are an unreliable basis for true happiness.

According to Seligman, “authentic happiness is rooted in the exercise of personal strengths and virtues rather than from shortcuts. Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, to depression and as we age to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die.”

Seligman goes on to list 6 clusters of strengths that we can all develop with enough patience, practice, persistence and dedication. It is the development of these strengths that are the foundation for a meaningful life. The 6 categories are Wisdom & Knowledge, Courage, Humanity & Love, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence.

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Rick Foster & Greg Hicks in their wonderful book Happiness & Health, write about the power of intention in shaping our lives – “it’s a powerful message we give ourselves, creating the positive emotions that propel us upward on the spiral staircase to good health. By repeatedly setting positive intentions like looking for joy or appreciating family members rather than being frustrated by them, you set up and strengthen new neural pathways to allow these healthy choices to become automatic or default settings”.

The implication of this exciting and reassuring news is that anyone can train their brains to become healthier and happier through the power of their own thoughts. These new findings tell us that we each have the innate ability and power to be happier by changing our mental habits.

According to Foster & Hicks, first thing in the morning is a good time to create healthy intentions because this is the time when the body is most primed to receive instructions from our mind. The mind is ready to accept new instructions and hold on to them throughout the day.

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In the last 20 years, neuro-scientists have made a remarkable discovery – the adult brain has neuro-plasticity, which means that it has the ability to change its structure and function to our experiences and thoughts. We are literally what we think. This discovery shatters the previously held deterministic view of a fixed program unfolding in the brain set at birth by our genetic inheritance.

The implication of this important discovery is that my own well being and happiness is within my control and that it is based on the choices I make and how I respond to the events unfolding in my life. It puts the responsibility of the kind of human being I choose to be squarely in my lap.

I highly recommend reading Wall Street Journal science writer, Sharon Begley’s book entitled Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, a fascinating account on how cutting edge science and the ancient wisdom of Buddhism have come together to show how we all have the power to literally change our brains by changing our minds.

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In the article, Seven Fact about the Brain that Incline the Mind to Joy, author Rick Hanson points out that the brain naturally emphasizes negative experiences. The term survival of the fittest means that those who successfully passed on their genes over millennia paid a lot of attention to negative experiences. Constantly on the alert, our ancestors were quick to freeze or bolt or attack depending on the situation thereby ensuring their survival.

Rick states that “the brain’s circuitry for the positive is like Teflon whereas negative experiences are like Velcro even though most of our experiences are either neutral or positive”. When you look back at your day, does your mind tend to focus on all of the good things that happened during the day or the one bad thing that happened? I know that my mind tends to revert to the latter.

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