The Benefits of Curiosity

It’s easy to stop being curious as we get older. We know things, we’ve seen things, we’ve lived life so there’s no longer the need of a child to ask questions and explore the unknown. 

While research suggests that as we age our inquisitiveness tends to fade, it also shows that curiosity is just as relevant in adulthood. Curiosity not only helps us discover more about who we are but provides a basis on which to build better relationships, unlock creativity and innovation, grow our intellect, boost our general health and well-being and even slow down the aging process. A study carried out by scientists Swan andCarmelli following over 1,000 older men and women found that those who were more curious were actually more likely to survive the five-year study than those who were not. Curiosity literally kept them alive longer 

In his book Curious, Ian Leslie describes the process of curiosity in childhood which is useful to apply to any of us at any age. Leslie describes the three steps of curiosity as below, providing a useful framework from which to boost your own inquisitiveness. 

1 KNOWING WHAT WE DON’T KNOW 

Approaching a situation accepting our own inexperience. Not presuming we know the answer, but rather asking questions with an open mind and really considering the answers. This is known as empathic curiosity: an interest in the thoughts and feelings of other people, remaining ready to encounter the unexpected. 

We can all use this approach every day of our lives. Rather than answering questions with our habitual response, thinking about what we really think, feel, and want. Not assuming we know the answers until we’ve looked at things from every angle, digging beneath the surface, and asking ourselves why we feel the way we do about certain things, how the beliefs we have formed came about, what led us to take certain decisions. 

2 IMAGINING DIFFERENT, COMPETING POSSIBILITIES 

This about holding more than one possibility in mind at any given time and exploring which one is right. For example, when meeting someone shy, consider “Is this person shy when they meet new people?” or “Are they quiet in this situation because they’re nervous?” Approach situations with the premise that any thought or idea needs to be explored and tested. Trying to suspend judgment until all of the options have been explored.  

3 UNDERSTANDING THAT WE CAN LEARN FROM OTHER PEOPLE 

This may seem obvious but it’s something we can come to with a closed mind as we get older. Keeping an open mind to others’ thoughts, attitudes, and experiences is incredibly powerful. In social situations, we have a natural tendency to show other people what we know about a familiar subject, rather than listening to what they can tell us. Yet pausing to learn about them and asking questions inevitably provides information that we can reapply to ourselves. For example, you may find a different way of seeing things, a means of overcoming an issue that you hadn’t thought of, an opportunity that you didn’t know about. 

How curious are you? Could you be more curious? Do you do these three things? It’s worth trying, even just for a day because being curious really does lead to a healthier, happier and longer life. 

  1. G.E. Swan & D. Carmelli (1996) Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study, Psychology and Aging 11(3): 449–53. 
  2. Fiona Murden (2018) Defining You, how to profile yourself and unlock your full potential, Hodder & Stoughton 

First published on The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide

Photo: Pexels.com

Happiness – Mental Health 5 A Day

Having just spoken to a journalist about mental health 5 a day and also raising it on a podcast last week I wanted to re-share this post – it’s a great reminder for us all. It’s not my idea – it was the NHS who came up with it but it’s such a simple and helpful concept. Yet it’s not ‘getting out there’ so here’s my contribution…..

As a society we’re well aware of how important our physical health is but tend to brush our mental health aside. Yet at any given time one in six adults have a mental health problem, amounting to an economic cost of £77 billion a year.

We all strive to be happy and want the same for others; yet we tend to cower at the mention of anything to do with mental health. Why is that? In my experience it’s because:

– we’re scared to look too closely – we don’t know what we’ll uncover so we keep things shut away

– we misunderstand mental health – society encourages us to ‘be strong’, not to admit to feeling fear, sorrow or anything negative (which when you know how the brain works, is actually extremely unhelpful)

– we de-prioritize mental health – thinking “I’ll get to it tomorrow, it doesn’t impact my job, life, health as much as other immediate concerns”

we think it’s common sense so doesn’t need our attention – but on the other hand we don’t know how to behave in a way that’s helpful.

So what’s the answer?

If you follow my blog (and general ranting) you’ll know that my main aim in life is to find answers, unfortunately there’s no quick solution. However, last week a friend and fellow psychologist Louise Jones introduced me to the Mental Health 5 a Day. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it does effectively pull together fundamental aspects of keeping our head healthy.

What is our Mental Health 5 a Day?

  1. Connect

Our brain hasn’t evolved for 50,000 years and a fundamental need of our ancient brains is to belong. When we are isolated from other people it has a hugely negative impact on our brains dramatically undermining our well-being. However extensive research shows that social support can dramatically improve our mental health.

What you can do:

  • Make a continued effort with your closest friends and family
  • Listen and be in the moment with people rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next
  • Pick up the phone rather than sending an e-mail
  • Speak to someone you may normally rush away from

 

  1. Be Active

In 2006 I did a study (Bunce & Murden, 2006) which showed the impact of continued physical activity on protecting the frontal lobe of the brain, the bit that helps us to plan and organize and more importantly to regulate our emotions. Exercise has also been shown to ward off depression, decrease anxiety and rebalance the hormones in our bodies.

What you can do:

  • Use the stairs, park your car further away from your destination, get up and move every 45 minutes
  • Find an activity which you genuinely enjoy instead of forcing yourself to do something you hate – if you like gardening do that rather than going for a run, and remember that a little everyday is more effective than one big burst
  • Set yourself a goal to train for – I recently met an inspiring mum who is doing a ‘white collar boxing match’ to raise money for the mental health charity Mind. Creating a goal that benefits others or even just sets a deadline for ourselves makes it much easier to get active
  • Get a fitbit (or similar devise) to raise awareness of how much you’re moving
  1. Be Mindful

Mindfulness is about connecting with what’s going on around us, taking notice of sounds, scents, sensations and our breathing. Doing this quietens the constant chatter created by the interaction of our ancient brain and the modern world.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness, from emotional regulation to body awareness, emotional resilience, pain tolerance, reduction in anxiety, improved focus and heightened cognitive performance (Fox et al., 2014) and enhanced creativity (Colzato et al., 2012). See – more about mindfulness.

What you can do:

  • Practice yoga
  • Use the headspace app
  • Breathe
  • Make an effort to notice the sight, sound, smell and tastes you encounter in everyday activities. For example as you’re taking a shower feel the sensation of water on your skin, listen to the sound of the water washing away, feel your feet on the shower floor. You can do this when you’re eating, walking, sitting on the train, cleaning your teeth etc.
  • Notice what time frame your mind is in – if you’re thinking about the past or future gently bring your mind back to the present (it’s critical that you are gentle – our mind doesn’t respond well to force).
  1. Keep Learning

We evolved to be curious beings; it’s one of the things that kept our ancient ancestors alive. Today continued adult learning has been shown to positively impact confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, life-satisfaction, capacity to cope and general well-being (Field, 2012). Learning also helps us to develop social skills, ultimately extending social networks, and promoting tolerance of other people (Schuller et al 2004).

What you can do:

  • Watch a Ted Talk
  • Ask people about their lives and really listen to what they tell you
  • Try a new sport
  • Take up a musical instrument
  • Learn a new language
  • Read, read and read some more or if you don’t like reading try watching and reflecting on everyday life – play the detective to keep your mind mentally agile
  1. Give to others

While we may seem like a selfish species researchers have found that altruism is ‘hard wired’ into our brain, just not supported by our modern world. Selflessness is closely linked to our well-being triggering the reward mechanisms in the brain. That’s why people such as Bill Gates are so philanthropic – because all the money in the world can’t buy happiness – happiness comes from giving to others.

What you can do:

  • Compliment someone
  • Say thank you
  • Smile at someone you don’t know
  • Offer to help
  • Do something for charity or get involved in community service
  • Let someone in front when you’re driving in busy traffic
  • Stand up for someone if others are being unkind or negative
  • Include the person who’s always left out

You may find it useful to write down your mental health 5 a day. And remember, although the general principles are globally applicable we’re all different, the individual aspects need to be tailored to what works best for you.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References and links:

Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com

www.headspace.com

https://fionamurden.com/2016/07/31/mindfulness-mindful-what/

http://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

Bunce, D & Murden, F. (2006). Age, aerobic fitness, executive function, and episodic memory. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(2), 221–233

Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychology. 3, 116 18 April

Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. (2014) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Jun;43:48-73

Field, J. (2012) Is lifelong learning making a difference? Research-based evidence on the impact of adult learning John Field. Pages 887-897 in David Aspin, Judith Chapman, Karen Evans and Richard Bagnall (eds.) Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012

Schuller, T., Preston, J., Hammond, C., Bassett-Grundy, A., and Bynner, J. (2004). The Benefits of Learning: the impacts of formal and informal education on social capital, health and family life, London, Routledge

Why Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat…

The late Stephen Hawking advised “It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious, I know I will forever be.” Throughout his life he not only exercised an insatiable curiosity about physics and some of the biggest questions facing mankind, but he also urged people to open their own eyes to every possibility.

Hawking’s encouraged curiosity, inspiring people to take leaps forward in their own understanding. He championed and role-modelled this behaviour, making extraordinary use of his brain to remain intrigued by every corner of the universe. Despite being trapped in an immobile body his brain was constantly exploring. It may even have been what kept him alive for the five decades beyond the doctors gave him. Although that may sound implausible, one study which looked at more than 2000 people over a 5-year period showed that older adults who were more curious actually lived longer (even after taking other risk factors into account).

“Look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” S. Hawking

Curiosity is a fascinating, even magical behavior that’s relevant to each and every one of us. It defines our natural inquisitiveness as humans, without curiosity we wouldn’t have moved beyond being cave dwellers. Exploiting our curiosity has enabled us to reach the advanced scientific and technological world of the twenty-first century. And with that understanding of the brain and behaviour we’ve found other benefits that curiosity itself brings. These include factors essential to happiness and success:

HAPPINESS & WELL-BEING

A paper by Matthew Gallagher in the Journal of Positive Psychology showed that the “exploration” component of curiosity is positively associated with well-being. Further to this, a German study found that curiosity has a more positive impact on well-being and happiness than gratitude, hope, or even humor.

CONNECTION

When we show genuine interest in others, a curiosity and openness about who they are, wanting to know them and not to judge them, it builds trust and allows a deeper connection to form, ultimately fuelling positive and fulfilling relationships.

INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY

Todd Kashdan, Professor of Psychology at George Mason University has carried out extensive research on curiosity and says: “When curiosity is supported in the workplace, employees feel energized, engaged and committed, and this helps drive innovation.”

INTELLECT

Sophie von Stumm from the University of Edinburgh worked with colleagues to look at curiosity within an academic setting. She found that intellectual curiosity influenced academic performance to the same extent as IQ. Research published in the neuroscientific journal Neuron showed how our brain learns better and retains more information when we are curious about a subject. And Einstein, another giant of intellect said “I am neither clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious”

We all started life curious about the world. Some people manage to hone and develop that curiosity, Stephen Hawking being case in point, but most of us become too busy ‘doing things’ to fully engage our curiosity, meaning that this valuable skill dwindles gradually as we age. But the good news is that it’s never too late to improve.

Kashdan has found that there are two key elements to curiosity:

  • Being motivated to discover new knowledge and experiences.
  • Having an inclination to embrace novel and unpredictable situations.

How do you use this? Well as a starting point it’s here are 10 things worth trying: 

  1. Following Your Fascination – a stepping stone to developing curiosity is looking about and investigating the things that peak your interest.
  2. Reading – anything and everything you can get your hands on.
  3. Learning from Others – listen to people with experience, people you know and even those you don’t know by watching YouTube, Tedtalks, documentaries and reading autobiographies. The more you listen and learn, the more you will want to learn.
  4. Learning New Things – it sounds obvious but do you do it? Look into what courses you could take whether it’s an hour at your local college or a PhD it doesn’t matter. Try out what works and what doesn’t for you and once you see what does, throw yourself into it to learn and explore in more depth.
  5. Asking Questions – and listening to the answers (before shutting down, thinking about something else or deciding you’re not interested). Other people’s views are always noteworthy, especially when they are different from you own. Try to be open minded, explore and be prepared to shift your perspective (that doesn’t mean you have to, just be open to it)
  6. Observing and Watching– see what’s going on around you, what’s new, what’s changed, look at things as a young child does, even the same landscape is constantly in flux, notice those changes. Be a detective, look under every stone, work out the connections, relentlessly explore.
  7. Trying New Things and going to new places – jump in feet first even if it feels a little scary, it’s only by experiencing difference that we can really stretch our minds.
  8. Pursuing Personal Development – learn more about you, raise your self-awareness, understand where and how you fit in the world, what are your strengths, what you find meaning in.
  9. Speaking to Strangers– not ‘strange’ people but people you don’t know. We learn a lot more from people who are not like us and that tends to be people we don’t know.
  10. Pushing Yourself Beyond Your Comfort Zone – go on, jump in and try something new. As renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow said “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or back into safety” Which will you choose?

Extracts taken and adapted from Defining You.

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden will be out in April 2018 (UK) and July 2018 (USA, Canada, Australia and rest of the world). To pre-order a copy go to amazon.co.uk, Waterstonesamazon.com, amazon.au . It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from mid April 2018.

Defining You gives unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

 

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References:

M.W. Gallagher & S.J. Lopez (2009) Positive expectancies and mental health: Identifying the unique contributions of hope and optimism, Journal of Positive Psychology 4(6): 548–56.

Gander, R.T. Proyer, W. Ruch, & T. Wyss (2012) The good character at work: An initial study on the contribution of character strengths in identifying healthy and unhealthy work-related behavior and experience patterns, International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 85(8): 895–904.

J. Gruber, M. J. B. D. Gelman, & C. Ranganath C (2014) States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit, Neuron, Oct 02, 2014

T, Kashdan (2009) Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Harper Perennial

von Stumm, B. Hell, & T. Chamorro-Premuzic (2011) The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity Is the third pillar of academic performance, Perspectives on Psychological Science 6(6): 574–88.

E. Swan, & D. Carmelli (1996). Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging, 11(3), 449-453.

 

Image Source: http://maybusch.com/make-better-first-impression/detective-magnifying-glass/

 

No One Has Ever Become Poor From Giving

Quote: Anne Frank, Picture: Elizabeth Waight Photography

Giving may seem like an obvious topic for this time of year but ‘it’s not just for Christmas’ – giving is relevant every single day of the year. Gifts yes, but also time, help, friendship, charity, donations, blood, a hug, a kiss or simply a smile.

The Evolution of Giving

If you conjure up an image of our ancient ancestors out on the planes struggling to survive, it’s not a helpful friendly giving sort of a chap that comes to mind. Being helpful doesn’t feel like a natural behaviour to display in life and death scenarios where surely the priority becomes looking out for number one?

Research suggests not, that altruism is actually favoured over selfishness (although science doesn’t always agree on why) meaning that humans evolved to give over taking, because it actually aided survival. To work with and cooperate with other people proved to be a much more effective way of staying alive than not caring about anyone else. Ultimately this means that we have evolved to be givers, even when in the harshest of environments.

Our Brain Rewards Us For Giving

As a result, deep within the more primitive area of our brain lies a mechanism that releases the ‘Happiness Trifecta’ of neurochemicals: dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, when we display altruistic behaviour.

Initially, the act of giving leads to the release of oxytocin which boosts mood and counters the negative effects of the stress hormone cortisol. This creates a positive cycle, encouraging us to want to help others or ‘give’ more and also triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, which lead us to pleasant and rewarding feelings.

Other benefits also result from this, oxytocin for example allows us to more readily form social attachments[i], to more effectively read and infer other people’s mental states and to show greater emotional empathy[ii]. From a physiological perspective Oxytocin is also known to reduce pain and enhance wound healing[iii]. Dopamine has its own set of benefits including regulating mood, behaviour, sleep[iv] and cognition (i.e. thinking and decision making)[v]. Serotonin then tops the benefits up further by aiding effective sleep, relaxation, appetite control, improving memory formation and enhancing learning capability.

The release of these chemicals when we give to others, may help explain some of the broader health related benefits associated with altruistic behaviour. Studies have for example found that altruistic behaviour reduces our risk of death by buffering the impact of stress[vi].  So, in short – giving is as good for us both psychologically and physiologically as it is to the person we are giving to.

Giving is Good for Business

Not convinced yet? U.S. Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant who has written a book called Give and Take explains that takers are people who are self-serving in their interactions and who always wants to know ‘what’s in it for me’. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people that he calls givers, who approach the majority of interactions with the question “What can I do for you?”

Grant surveyed over 30,000 people across industries worldwide and found that even when accounting for cultural differences that most people actually lie in the middle. These matchers, try to keep an even balance of give and take – “I’ll do something for you if you do something for me.”

Initially his results look negative, he found that the lowest performing people were givers. But he also found that the very highest performing people were also givers. In my work I see both, those who give and are taken advantage of at one end of the spectrum and those who give without being walked over, who ultimately get far ahead of matchers and takers.

Grant explains using how Adam Rifkin a very successful serial entrepreneur who spends a great deal of his time helping others is a positive example of how to do this right. Rifkin’s personal key to giving without being taken advantage of is what he calls the five minute favour. He says “You don’t have to be Mother Teresa or Gandhi to be a giver. You just have to find small ways to add large value to other people’s lives.” Other tips that Grant offers include: scheduling time for giving, ‘chunking’ your helping behaviours into blocks of time rather than ‘sprinkling’ them throughout your week, giving in ways that align with your own and the organisations goals rather than doing things that force you to make tradeoffs and doing things that allow you to see the impact of your giving – where things make a significant difference.

So, while it may be nice to receive presents, if you’re feeling a little scrooge like, remember that it’s also good to give – good for the soul, your health and if you do it right even your career.

 

To book Fiona for public speaking please contact lorna.walls@aroka.co.uk

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References

Grant, A. (2014). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[i] http://dept.wofford.edu/neuroscience/neuroseminar/pdffall2008/oxy-human.pdf

[ii] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c689/b853b86642d78e7d2bfba59cdd5c7bf301f0.pdf

[iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3052954/

[iv] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120619225725.htm

[v] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12126656

[vi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23327269

 

 

What Makes Us Happy?

SMAug2017

Firstly, apologies for the long overdue blog, I spent late April until coming away in July writing a book. Until now I had no words left for blogging (or speaking – I stopped making any sense by June).

We’re in California, and last night had dinner in downtown Santa Monica where we were served by the loveliest guy. He’d grown up in Florida and I asked him what brought him to L.A. Perhaps unsurprisingly he said, ‘fame and fortune originally’ but added ‘now it’s just to grow as a person’.

Ultimately growing as a person is a fundamental part of what makes us happy. When I say happy I don’t mean walking around with an inane grin, but feeling fulfilled and able to manage the highs and lows of life. But it often takes a huge knock in our expectations to get us to point where we truly realise that’s what life’s about. Most of the time, we trundle along in a world where being happier feels inextricably linked to ‘more’:

having more – a bigger house, a better car, a more talented child, nicer clothes

striving for more – a better job, a bigger position, more influence

being more –  thinner, prettier, younger, cooler, brighter

But it doesn’t make us happy. This is evident in LA more than most places, not only because it’s one of the richest cities in the world, but also created around an industry (i.e. film) which places huge value in ‘more’. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s fun and fun is an important part of life, but in and of itself it doesn’t bring lasting happiness. To the contrary it tends to breed dissatisfaction – there will always be someone who has more, has achieved more or is more. It’s like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

So why do we live with this funny old cycle of self-destruction? Seeking happiness by getting more but erstwhile moving further and further from where we want to be?  It comes back down to my favourite topic – our brain.

Why we’re unhappy…

The part of our brain which ensures our survival, doesn’t know we live in a world that has moved on 50,000 years from the one it evolved to fit. At a sub conscious level we are continually striving for ‘more’ in order to survive (or so that part of our brain believes). At a simple level for example, wanting a piece of chocolate cake or another drink – those things come about because our brain is programmed to want more food and drink whenever we can get it – in order to survive. The other ‘more’ factors above are also based on our survival in a world which existed 50,000 years ago namely reproduction (passing on our genes – e.g. younger, prettier) or belonging to a group (for shelter, safety e.g. – proving we’re good enough to belong through better job, more influence etc). These impulses aimed at keeping us alive have no understanding that the world around us has changed unrecognisably. Is it any wonder we get confused about what to pursue in order to be happy?

When our ancient ancestors were at rest and safe, their brain would switch to using what eminent psychologist Kahneman calls slow thinking, or as I call it the meaning driven brain. This part of the brain looks for significance and purpose, wants to give back and to belong at a more meaningful level (rather than just being in the coolest gang).

The problem is our fast-paced world doesn’t leave much room for slow thinking – while we may not think we face the threats of our forefathers, our brain thinks it still has those things to deal with. Yet they come in the form of seemingly unthreatening ‘things’ such as messages to respond to, news to catch up on, deadlines to meet, appointments to make etc. and they don’t go away. We have very little safe time to engage our slow thinking brain.

What’s the answer?

We don’t want to shut down our survival driven impulses – they keep us safe (e.g. stop us from getting run over) and enable us to have ‘fun’. What we want – ideally – is to know how and when to engage our meaning driven brain. To stop digging a never-ending hole of trying to prove ourselves, instead to recognise that there really is more to life than having the biggest house or the fastest car. We need to take deliberate action to slow down (this is something we’ve all heard before but I feel it’s important to understand why in the context of the brain).

How can we do it?

We can’t switch off the environment we live in: e-mails, traffic, crowds of people, artificial light stretching our days into nights, but we can understand how to limit the impact of the mismatch between our brain and our environment.

First create space for your slow thinking brain, in a way that works for you e.g:

  • Being outside in nature (read work by Prof Joules Pretty)
  • Walking, running, cycling, being active (preferably outside)
  • Meditating
  • Reading
  • Yoga
  • Chatting to friends (steer clear of the competitive)
  • Spending time alone.

Then engage your more advanced slow thinking brain to pursue what it’s evolved for:

Find meaning & purpose – slow down enough to look at what you do and why you’re doing it – is it what you really want from life? Your purpose may well be to become a movie star or CEO of a company – there’s no right or wrong, it’s whatever means something to you and provides you with a sense of personal growth. But you need to know that what you are doing is true to what you really want deep down, what you really want, not driven by a primarily survival driven need to prove yourself or impress others.

This is well worth exploring, having purpose has been shown to protect against heart disease, reducing the impacts of Alzheimer’s, improving our ability to handle pain, staving off depression, diminishing anxiety and lengthening our lives.

Connect with others – at a deeper (as opposed to superficial) level. Research has shown that this has helpful psychological and health related benefits: strengthening the immune system, lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of getting sick, decreasing levels of anxiety and depression and even lengthening our lives.

Give Back – to society, the community, other people. This doesn’t mean you have to go and volunteer in a soup kitchen (unless you want to). It can be as simple as listening to a friend or helping a stranger. Among other things giving back has shown to reduce depression, improve life expectancy and reduce heart disease.

Keep Learning – always keep growing, remain open and curious. The benefits include improving memory, staving off dementia, improving confidence, enhancing our relationships, improving communication skills and advancing career opportunities.

Ticking these boxes, rather than just seeking to continually ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ will boost your fundamental levels of happiness (as well as having the many other benefits listed). And ironically, if you can do it, it will not only make you happier but also more successful because it will allow you to optimise your capabilities.

But please don’t forget to keep having fun!

P.S. If you’re interested – my book will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in early 2018.

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References:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/books/review/thinking-fast-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html

www.julespretty.com

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614531799

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0f75/e95c75ae6dd97146d049c889ee9603c492d3.pdf

https://www.forbes.com/2009/12/22/volunteering-community-service-corporate-responsibility-forbes-woman-leadership-nethope.html

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811030023

 

 

 

Happiness – Mental Health 5 A Day

As a society we’re well aware of how important our physical health is but tend to brush our mental health aside. Yet at any given time one in six adults have a mental health problem, amounting to an economic cost of £77 billion a year.

We all strive to be happy and want the same for others; yet we tend to cower at the mention of anything to do with mental health. Why is that? In my experience it’s because:

– we’re scared to look too closely – we don’t know what we’ll uncover so we keep things shut away

– we misunderstand mental health – society encourages us to ‘be strong’, not to admit to feeling fear, sorrow or anything negative (which when you know how the brain works, is actually extremely unhelpful)

– we de-prioritize mental health – thinking “I’ll get to it tomorrow, it doesn’t impact my job, life, health as much as other immediate concerns”

we think it’s common sense so doesn’t need our attention – but on the other hand we don’t know how to behave in a way that’s helpful.

So what’s the answer?

If you follow my blog (and general ranting) you’ll know that my main aim in life is to find answers, unfortunately there’s no quick solution. However, last week a friend and fellow psychologist Louise Jones introduced me to the Mental Health 5 a Day. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it does effectively pull together fundamental aspects of keeping our head healthy.

What is our Mental Health 5 a Day?

  1. Connect

Our brain hasn’t evolved for 50,000 years and a fundamental need of our ancient brains is to belong. When we are isolated from other people it has a hugely negative impact on our brains dramatically undermining our well-being. However extensive research shows that social support can dramatically improve our mental health.

What you can do:

  • Make a continued effort with your closest friends and family
  • Listen and be in the moment with people rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next
  • Pick up the phone rather than sending an e-mail
  • Speak to someone you may normally rush away from

 

  1. Be Active

In 2006 I did a study (Bunce & Murden, 2006) which showed the impact of continued physical activity on protecting the frontal lobe of the brain, the bit that helps us to plan and organize and more importantly to regulate our emotions. Exercise has also been shown to ward off depression, decrease anxiety and rebalance the hormones in our bodies.

What you can do:

  • Use the stairs, park your car further away from your destination, get up and move every 45 minutes
  • Find an activity which you genuinely enjoy instead of forcing yourself to do something you hate – if you like gardening do that rather than going for a run, and remember that a little everyday is more effective than one big burst
  • Set yourself a goal to train for – I recently met an inspiring mum who is doing a ‘white collar boxing match’ to raise money for the mental health charity Mind. Creating a goal that benefits others or even just sets a deadline for ourselves makes it much easier to get active
  • Get a fitbit (or similar devise) to raise awareness of how much you’re moving
  1. Be Mindful

Mindfulness is about connecting with what’s going on around us, taking notice of sounds, scents, sensations and our breathing. Doing this quietens the constant chatter created by the interaction of our ancient brain and the modern world.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness, from emotional regulation to body awareness, emotional resilience, pain tolerance, reduction in anxiety, improved focus and heightened cognitive performance (Fox et al., 2014) and enhanced creativity (Colzato et al., 2012). See – more about mindfulness.

What you can do:

  • Practice yoga
  • Use the headspace app
  • Breathe
  • Make an effort to notice the sight, sound, smell and tastes you encounter in everyday activities. For example as you’re taking a shower feel the sensation of water on your skin, listen to the sound of the water washing away, feel your feet on the shower floor. You can do this when you’re eating, walking, sitting on the train, cleaning your teeth etc.
  • Notice what time frame your mind is in – if you’re thinking about the past or future gently bring your mind back to the present (it’s critical that you are gentle – our mind doesn’t respond well to force).
  1. Keep Learning

We evolved to be curious beings; it’s one of the things that kept our ancient ancestors alive. Today continued adult learning has been shown to positively impact confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, life-satisfaction, capacity to cope and general well-being (Field, 2012). Learning also helps us to develop social skills, ultimately extending social networks, and promoting tolerance of other people (Schuller et al 2004).

What you can do:

  • Watch a Ted Talk
  • Ask people about their lives and really listen to what they tell you
  • Try a new sport
  • Take up a musical instrument
  • Learn a new language
  • Read, read and read some more or if you don’t like reading try watching and reflecting on everyday life – play the detective to keep your mind mentally agile
  1. Give to others

While we may seem like a selfish species researchers have found that altruism is ‘hard wired’ into our brain, just not supported by our modern world. Selflessness is closely linked to our well-being triggering the reward mechanisms in the brain. That’s why people such as Bill Gates are so philanthropic – because all the money in the world can’t buy happiness – happiness comes from giving to others.

What you can do:

  • Compliment someone
  • Say thank you
  • Smile at someone you don’t know
  • Offer to help
  • Do something for charity or get involved in community service
  • Let someone in front when you’re driving in busy traffic
  • Stand up for someone if others are being unkind or negative
  • Include the person who’s always left out

You may find it useful to write down your mental health 5 a day. And remember, although the general principles are globally applicable we’re all different, the individual aspects need to be tailored to what works best for you.

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References and links:

Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com

www.headspace.com

https://fionamurden.com/2016/07/31/mindfulness-mindful-what/

http://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

Bunce, D & Murden, F. (2006). Age, aerobic fitness, executive function, and episodic memory. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(2), 221–233

Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychology. 3, 116 18 April

Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. (2014) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Jun;43:48-73

Field, J. (2012) Is lifelong learning making a difference? Research-based evidence on the impact of adult learning John Field. Pages 887-897 in David Aspin, Judith Chapman, Karen Evans and Richard Bagnall (eds.) Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012

Schuller, T., Preston, J., Hammond, C., Bassett-Grundy, A., and Bynner, J. (2004). The Benefits of Learning: the impacts of formal and informal education on social capital, health and family life, London, Routledge