Groundhog Day

When flicking through Linkedin and twitter do you ever get the feeling that you are being bombarded with the same message over and over again? I do. It struck me first when I was doing my business masters many years ago. I felt like the theories were repeating themselves while being vaguely morphed and renamed to suit the current context. The fact that philosophers such as Lao Tzu uttered words regarding leadership thousands of years ago (e.g. 600BC) that have stood the test of time is case in point:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

A few years later when I did my MSc in psychology I got the same feeling. While the theories we were learning were adapted and updated the words that resonated centuries before still make sense. Take for example:

 “Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.” Plato

 “Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Pericles

 And the one perhaps most relevant to today:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

It makes sense that these still make sense. After all people are people and the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries, so the fundamentals of good leadership, behaviour, citizenship remain largely unchanged. What threatened people centuries ago will threaten today, what motivated then will motivate today. The difference in 2019 is the environment we live in. The rate of change itself  and the volume of data we have to deal with is increasing exponentially. As a result those fundamentals of behaviour once central to people’s way of life are getting lost in an onslaught of fads and surface level demands

What the 21st century also brings is the ability to research what works and what doesn’t, an improving capability to look at the brain (which often helpfully confirms what we have thought to be true and dismisses the theories sitting on the peripheries) and centuries of experience on which to draw. And yet we don’t.

Surely we should return to those fundamentals that have been uttered over thousands of years, resisting the need to continually rename and reframe which simply leads to  concepts becoming diluted into a myriad of un-actionable ideas. Shouldn’t we instead refine and build on what has been ‘evidenced’ to be true, adapting only in order to meet the demands of the world we live in. It’s a bit like remodelling a house to keep it up to date, rather than knocking it down and building it from scratch every few years. When it comes to behaviour taking this approach would allow us to advance our understanding both as individuals in order to really leverage our potential, and as a society.

What could you do to help this and to help yourself?

  • Check your sources. Is the information you’re taking on board from a well-meaning idea junky or something that’s properly tried and tested through either the passage of time or scientific research. What do I mean? Well take meditation – a technique that has been passed down through generations with benefits now backed by scientific research. Today we have hundreds of mindfulness apps to choose from. Some are based on proper research and knowledge (e.g. Headspace) which help people to actually learn how to meditate and progress their mental robustness.  Others are just nice to listen to but really don’t do much. It’s really important to find out whether what you are using works otherwise it’s just like throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.

 

  • Understand what’s core to who you are as a human (i.e. here the same philosophical texts and the functioning of the brain is true for all of us). Everyone is trying to come up with something new, a different angle to try and get themselves heard – but if you capture the key principles, you can filter the information coming at you. This will allow you to pull out what is truly useful (using the techniques above), what is actually new and what will really help underpin a positive life.

 

  • Capture what’s core to you as a unique individual. While your preferences, goals, and areas for growth will morph and evolve through your life – your values, personality, natural strengths, narrative and purpose will remain more stable and consistent. So, it’s worth capturing these. You may think that they’re obvious but we forget them and without having them front of mind it’s easy to lose our way and impossible to perform at our best.

 

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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Image source: petponder.com

Mindfulness – Mindful What?

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Mindfulness has become a ‘buzz word’ advocated by the likes of Davina McCall, Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey, through to companies such as Google, eBay, Twitter and even The Bank of England. Whilst some argue that it’s a fad, it’s actually been around since the 1970’s and is based on Buddhist meditations practiced for 2550 years.

But What Is It?

Mindfulness is a practice of turning our attention away from our thoughts and the ‘chatter in our head’, toward sensations. Concentrating on what we can hear, smell, see, taste and feel in the present moment. This puts us in the ‘here and now’ rather than fretting over the past (e.g. why did I eat that) or worrying about the future (e.g. will I ever lose weight).

Our neo-cortex, which is the most advanced part of our brain, has given us incredible opportunities as a species e.g. the ability to speak, read, write, pass on knowledge, project into the future and have an awareness of ourselves. In the context of our modern world and coupled with the primitive survival driven parts of our brain, it can also cause us the odd problem.

Take for example, walking into a room full of people we don’t know. Our more primitive brain sees this as a threat (a throng of people we don’t know could kill us). It releases chemicals that put us on edge. Our more advanced brain responds with chatter such as:

“What’s wrong with me? Why am I so nervous, all I’m doing is walking into a room?”

“Maybe they won’t like me. What happens if no one talks to me? I’m going to look like a right idiot just standing there on my own.”

This is how many of us naturally respond, but in order to get the most out of our brain we need to be gentle with it not talk to ourselves like we’re idiots. Mindfulness helps us to treat our mind with care and teaches us to move our attention away from this unhelpful chatter. Consequently it’s incredibly helpful when it comes to our mental well-being and resilience to stress.

Is There Any Proof That It Actually Works?

Psychologists have been studying the impacts of mindfulness since the late 1970s with research showing the positive impacts on both physical and mental health.

When it comes to physical health studies have shown it’s positive effect on HIV pathogenesis, inflammatory disorders, drug abuse, chronic pain and immune system disorders.

And in terms of mental health, among other things it can reduce depression relapse, neuroticism, absent-mindedness, rumination and social anxiety. It also improves certain factors such as life satisfaction, conscientiousness, self-esteem, empathy, optimism, emotion regulation, attention and working memory.

More recently neuroscientific research has shown that individuals who are mindful are better able to regulate emotional responses ‘via prefrontal cortical inhibition of the amygdala’ or in other words through the advanced and rational brain managing impulses kicked out by the primitive brain.

But does it REALLY work?

I know from personal experience that it brings a greater sense of calm, reduces anxiety and stops a racing mind, and it’s not hard to see how it helps people to regulate their thoughts and emotional responses more effectively. But, it’s not a silver bullet. Why? Because:

  1. It takes a concerted effort: even with Headspace’s 10 minute a day approach it’s all too easy to deprioritize it in our daily to do list (I manage once a week if I’m lucky).
  1. It needs to be understood in the context of the brain. Knowledge of what’s normal and what’s not makes it immediately more impactful. This can’t be learnt from mindfulness alone.
  1. People need to know how to apply it to daily life experiences. Without this understanding, it will only counter stress during meditation.
  1. It’s been taken out of context. When practiced as spiritual meditation, mindfulness is put into the perspective of other life factors. For example showing compassion toward others, being a good member of a community, living an ethical life and searching for meaning. These are factors that produce a deeper level of satisfaction, playing to our advanced rather than primitive brain and are something that mindfulness in isolation lacks.

In spite of these potential limitations I still strongly advocate its use as a positive psychological tool. Mindfulness has taken something that was largely inaccessible to Western life and turned it into something that can be understood and applied by anyone. If nothing else it helps us to protect our brains from the fast-paced over stimulating modern world that we live in.

What about you – what are your thoughts on mindfulness? What have your experiences been? I’d love to hear.

 Links:

 https://www.headspace.com

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/15/mindfulness-study-meditation-7000-teenagers-impact

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-matters-most/201306/top-10-things-most-people-don-t-know-about-mindfulness

References:

Bishop, SR, Lau, M, Shapiro, SL, Carlson, L, Anderson, ND, Carmody, J, Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241

Creswell JD (2016) Mindfulness Interventions. Annual Review of Psychology, 68

Creswell JD, Lindsay EK. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23(6):401–7

Schonert-Reichl KA, Oberle E, Lawlor MS, Abbott D, Thomson K, et al. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology 51(1):52–66

Shian-Ling Keng, Moria J. Smoski, Clive J. Robins (2011) Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. Clinical Psychological Review August; 31(6): 1041–1056

Zenner C, Herrnleben-Kurz S, Walach H. 2013. Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 5:603–603