Alanis Morissette Savors the Moment

This post by Robert Piper originally appeared in Live Happy Magazine on Jun 29, 2015

Alanis Morissette Enjoys the Moment

The singer, songwriter and mother has learned to live in the present.

Alanis Morisette has had several “phoenix rising from the ashes” moments in her life.
Perhaps the most significant was right after giving birth, when she suffered from postpartum depression. “I think postpartum depression often affects—not always obviously—but often affects women who were in one mode of operation. In my case, [I was] very career-orientated, very work-addicted. And so when I gave birth to my son, and frankly when I got married, it was a huge sea change.”

She continues, “I was attempting to live the equivalent of 14 people’s lives all in one human body, combined with the hormonal underpinnings. My temperament is highly sensitive, combined with this high novelty or high sensation-seeking element to it. So often I would feel like I had my foot on the brake and the gas pedal at the same time,” Alanis says.

“Pretty blissed out”

She credits the happiest moment of her life to giving birth to her son, Ever Imre, in 2010. She describes it as a “pretty blissed out, oxytocin-riddled moment.” To her, raising a child is about being as attentive as possible: “I just think mindfulness and parenting are the same thing. If we’re distracted or we’re barely there, we’re technically not parenting.”

Alanis built a studio in her Los Angeles home so she could raise her child mindfully while also working on her passion and career. “For me, offering presence is commensurate to offering love,” she says. “Offering that to a child is the greatest gift of all.”

For her, being a parent is akin to activism, in the sense that you’re making the world a better place by bringing new life into it. “It creates the foundation of what this planet will evolve into,” she says.

Her husband, Mario “Souleye” Treadway, fellow musician and father of her child, joins her in choosing a mindful path—for parenting and all aspects of life. They met at a meditation gathering. “He came with a mutual friend of ours, and when he walked in I just thought ‘Wow!’” Alanis says. It stood out to her that “he was oriented toward really doing the brave inner work, the kind of inner work that isn’t always comfortable.”

Musical beginnings

Alanis started playing the piano at the age of 6, and, a few years later, her talent for music began to shine through. She wrote her first song at the age of 9, and, by age 10 she started acting on the Nickelodeon show You Can’t Do That On Television. By 14, she had signed her first major record deal, spending her early teenage years as a pop singer in Canada.

Everything changes

Even with early accomplishments, Alanis remained a go-getter; she packed her things and moved to Los Angeles to pursue her music career. That’s when her massive success came at the age of 19—Jagged Little Pill was introduced to the world. Alanis was almost immediately catapulted into fame: millions of passionate, loyal fans; sold-out concerts; traveling and performing week after week. People would come at her with multiple opinions about the direction of her music, fans were breaking into her hotel room, and she was recognized everywhere she went.

“After the tour for Jagged Little Pill and that whole experience, I just felt like I grabbed the brass ring that I’ve been encouraged to chase my whole life, through culture and otherwise. And so there I was, everything was amplified, so if there was any underlying loneliness or unresolved wounds or traumas, from childhood, etc., they were all exacerbated.”

To read more of the feature about Alanis Morisette, including amazing insights and original photos, pick up the August 2015 issue of Live Happy magazine.


6 myths about buying ethical clothing

This post by Leah Wise originally appeared on Style Wise on May 4, 2015.

6 myths about ethical clothing

 Far and away the most common negative comment I get on ethical fashion articles I’ve written for other sites is some variation of:

“Good for you for having enough money to buy expensive clothes. Some of us can’t afford to buy a closet full of ethical clothing and it’s classist for you to even mention it. Have you no pity on poor people in your own country? And have you considered the fact that people in foreign countries will lose their jobs if we stop buying from sweatshops? Better to have a lousy job than no job at all.”

Some of them are considerably less harsh and some are too horrific to repeat here, but it’s clear to me that the biggest deterrence to acquiring an ethical wardrobe is money. So let me clarify a few things.

Firstly, I absolutely do care about the plight of the poor in my own country. It’s despicable that, despite our national wealth, more than 45 million people live below the poverty line. And we’ve got a few social safety nets, but we haven’t really figured out how to help people get a leg up long term, and it’s only getting worse. And it’s just a matter of fact that low cost, sweatshop-sourced clothing may be the best financial option for a lot of people. If you live paycheck to paycheck and have trouble putting clothes on your back and the backs of your children, please know that I not only feel for you, but I think you need to make the best choice for your family, even if that means making the ethics of your clothing choices less of a priority, or not a priority at all. You are welcome to this conversation, of course, but you may have other things to worry about.

But I also know for a fact that a lot of you can afford to consider your purchases. You’re the ones I’m talking to (and I get the sense that, by and large, you’re also the ones making the most excuses). Reality check: I manage a local thrift shop and my husband is a grad student. We aren’t exactly making it rain over here. But we do benefit a lot from the knowledge that, if something were to happen to us, our parents would be able to step in to support us. We have a social network that makes us feel secure and that helps us make long term financial decisions we couldn’t make if we were going it completely alone. We also don’t have children to support, so our income stretches a bit further.

I am aware of my relative privilege, but I suspect there are a lot of you in my position who don’t realize that it is possible to change your spending habits without breaking the bank. If you can overcome a few prevalent myths, you’ll be on your way to making better choices in no time.

Myth 1: It’s a given that I will buy at least a dozen new items every season.

For many of us, it would be a financial disaster to buy more than a handful of fair trade clothing items every 6 months. But, if you’ve already built a basic wardrobe, you don’t need to buy more than a couple new things a year. Magazines and 5 week trend cycles make us feel obligated to keep up with every new fad on the market, but it isn’t necessary or even fulfilling. You may have to buy less if you’re purchasing from more ethical brands, but that probably won’t hurt you in the long run. Plus, in my own experience, fair trade and domestically produced items from small brands hold up better than fast fashion items anyway, so you won’t need to replace your staples as often.

Myth 2: I can’t dress well with secondhand items.

My go-to advice for people considering their purchases for the first time is to start with thrift shopping. The sticker shock of fair trade and sustainable items will wear off eventually, but in the meantime, try secondhand on for size. A lot of people insist that they can’t get high quality items at thrift shops, but I suspect they don’t regularly visit them. The thrift market is booming and it’s surprisingly easy to find something you like that’s in great condition.

And yes, thrift shopping is a more ethical option, even if you’re buying conventional brands there. Why? Because you’re not contributing to demand for new items and you’re ensuring that things don’t end up in the landfill so quickly. Additionally, money spent at thrift shops supports local charities.

Myth 3: My specific circumstances (size, profession, location) prevent me from buying from ethical retailers.

I feel you on this one. The ethical market is still growing and it’s not always easy – or possible – to find things that fit well or suit your lifestyle. To you, I’d suggest a few options:

  1. Buy from online consignment stores like thredUP and Twice. You may be able to find a greater variety of sizes and styles from secondhand sites online.
  2.  Search ebay’s pre-owned section for brands you like.
  3. Buy well. If you can’t find ethical or secondhand options, try to buy things that will last. You’ll save money over time and you won’t contribute as heavily to demand for sweatshop goods. I do this with shoes, because it’s difficult to find well-made, comfortable shoes on the ethical market (though there are a growing number of companies filling the void).

Myth 4: It’s actually in the best interest of sweatshop laborers that we keep buying their goods. Otherwise, they’ll lose their jobs and it’ll be our fault!

This one is complicated, for sure. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s a great idea to just pull out of countries like Bangladesh or Cambodia, because it’s true that thousands of people are employed by garment factories there thanks to consumer demand for new goods in countries like the US. But I also think it’s too easy to immediately dismiss the whole ethical consumerism discussion by pretending that supporting sweatshop labor is actually moral.

We should continue to support global manufacturing, but try to find the companies that are better regulating their factories. Everlane, for instance, produces a lot of their tops in China, but they can tell you exactly what it looks like to work at one of their factories. In Cambodia, Tonle employees earn fair wages. If we support Tonle, they will grow and be able to employ more people, which means a garment worker can leave the sweatshop for a safer, better environment.

On a related note,

Myth 5: If wages go up, a lot of garment workers will lose their jobs.

Consider this. In manufacturing centers like Dhaka, Bangladesh, entire families work in the factory, even children. With a wage increase, families may be able to afford to let some members pursue other things, like childhood or education. Entire families wouldn’t necessarily have to work, so a few people losing their jobs may not be an issue at all.

This myth also presupposes that profit margins are already set as low as they can go when, in reality, higher-ups make a ton of money. Corporations have the wiggle room to provide better wages to workers and make improvements to facilities even without layoffs or significantly raising prices to consumers. They’d have to set up rigorous systems to ensure that wages are being passed down from contracted garment factory to the workers or set up their own factories, but there’s more money to work with than they like to let on.

Myth 6: The market can regulate itself.

No, it can’t. The market is constantly being manipulated by individuals only looking out for their best interests. Regulation is essential; that’s why we have a 40 hour work week and child labor laws in place in this country. The market is not some magical, mythical being that sorts things out for us. People call the shots and it’s on us to make the market work better for everyone. That being said, we can certainly help the market regulate itself toward better ethics by making smarter, healthier, more loving purchasing decisions.

This list isn’t meant to intimidate you or make you feel miserable. It’s meant to empower you! You have more options than you might think.

What Color Is Your Consciousness?

This post by Christine Horner originally appeared in OM Times on June 28, 2015.

True equality is not material, but is the indelible truth of who you are as part of the totality of Creation.

Compassion for another human being regardless of race, socioeconomic status or mental/physical state requires an emotional intelligence and maturity that most people will not achieve within their lifetime.

We could blame our educational system, culture and conditioning, and even the ongoing oppression by a few, but we would be wrong to do so. The world is merely a reflection of the fundamental misunderstanding that continues to perpetuate human servitude and suffering – the belief that we are separate from one another.

Another name for what ails humanity is Separation Consciousness. Since the physical third dimension consists of up and down as well as high and low, mankind’s primitive mindset has it that due to the appearance of space and time, you and I are not connected. Yet, how can this be? Where does the thread that binds us together begin and where does it end?

The belief in separation is so entrenched in culture and sub-cultures, social systems and even religion, that it has been the excuse to treat each other as undervalued and disposable depending on the ideals of the day. There is no act of violence where inequality (the thought of separation) is not at the root.

What is Equality?

Where does true equality arise? It arises from within. If you do not recognize the interconnectedness between you and me and the world we live in within you, you will not see it outside of yourself. True equality is not material, but is the indelible truth of who you are as part of the totality of Creation.

You can begin to nurture an expanded self-awareness by cultivating mindfulness. Being mindful means to intentionally pay attention to or put your focus on something. Mindful living is living your life consciously, awake and present on a daily basis. Rather than reacting habitually, on automatic pilot without thought and choice, you begin to live your life on purpose and from the heart.

There are those individuals that have transcended education and man-made conditions by looking within to find the unity of all life that is the true nature of the Universe. This is the reward of mindfulness. Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama and even John Lennon have asked each one of us to imagine and examine the world from the inside out and to see life for what it truly is – not us and them, but we.

Of the same source, there is no part of Creation that is more or less valuable than any other. Once this is understood internally, it can then be experienced externally as your conduct in the world begins to build a new reality for yourself and others. Even if others around you do not see that what you do for another you also do for yourself, it is imperative that you remain steadfast within the larger picture or universal prime directive of our oneness.

King himself said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Trumping race is the strength of character you display as your behavior when you interact with the rest of the world.

Responsibility + Integrity = Sustainability

Synonymous with responsibility and sustainability is integrity. Becoming mindful as to whether your choices unite or divide, ask yourself if you are choosing proactive sustainability or destructive reactiveness. The right choice makes you an enabled and empowered human being, transcending skin color and the outdated beliefs of others.

The invitation is to remain steadfast within the seat of personal courage even when others around you lose their way. By this, you lead in no greater way. Being the first to change, you change the world. With new awareness of what is no longer working, the arising leader in you realizes to fight darkness with darkness bears the same fruit. Instead, be the light. Others cannot help but see your example. The time is upon us to live fearlessly and choose courageously as we were born to do.

Nothing can exist without your support. Humanity will advance much more quickly toward ending the wars both private and public. Creating the world we know is possible when we let go of separation consciousness for the rewards of unity consciousness. You are the one the world is waiting for. Will you answer the call?

The Science of Breathing

This post by JESSICA LEVINE originally appeared in Yoga Journal on June 17, 2015.

Western research is now proving what 
yogis have known all along: Breathwork can deliver powerful mind and body benefits.

Your body breathes on autopilot—so why worry about how to inhale and exhale when you could be mastering an arm balance? For one thing, breath control, or pranayama, is the fourth of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. For another, scientific research is showing that mindful breathing—paying attention to your breath and learning how to manipulate it—is one of the most effective ways to lower everyday stress levels and improve a variety of health factors ranging from mood to metabolism. “Pranayama is at once a physical-health practice, mental-health practice, and meditation. It is not just breath training; it’s mind training that uses the breath as a vehicle,” says Roger Cole, PhD, an Iyengar Yoga teacher and physiology researcher in Del Mar, California. “Pranayama makes your entire life better.”

Despite the inherently automatic nature of breathing, most people have a lot to learn and improve upon when it comes to the most basic of our physiological functions. We tend to huff at a fairly quick clip most of the time—anywhere from 14 to 20 breaths per minute is the standard, which is about three times faster than the 5 or 6 breaths per minute proven to help you feel your best, says Patricia Gerbarg, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath.

“There is a very direct relationship between breath rate, mood state, and autonomic nervous system state,” says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies yoga and meditation. The autonomic nervous system governs the body’s sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-restore) responses, dialing functions like heart rate, respiration, and digestion up or down as necessary in response to potential threats. Evolutionarily, this worked as a survival mechanism, but today’s nonstop barrage of smartphone pings, emails, and news updates also trips the body’s alarms—and often.

“We’ve long known that breath changes in response to emotion: When people get panicky and anxious, their breath becomes shallow and rapid,” says Khalsa. “But we now know from a number of really good studies that actively changing the breath rate can actually change autonomic function and mood state.”

Here’s how researchers think it works: With each breath, millions of sensory receptors in the respiratory system send signals via the vagus nerve to the brainstem. Fast breathing pings the brain at a higher rate, triggering it to activate the sympathetic nervous system, turning up stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweat production, and anxiety. On the other hand, slowing your breathing induces the parasympathetic response, dialing down all of the above as it turns up relaxation, calm, and mental clarity.

Ready to tap into the power of pranayama? We’ll teach you the ins and outs of O2 and CO2, so you can improve daily breathing both on and off the mat.

The Air Cycle

Follow along to see what happens during one long, deep inhalation and exhalation.

On an Inhale

As you breathe in, the diaphragm (the dome-shaped muscle that primarily powers the breath) contracts, lowering and flattening. This increases the volume of the thorax (chest cavity enclosed by the rib cage), which not only makes room for the air coming into the lungs but also changes the atmospheric pressure inside the lungs, pulling air in. That air travels through your nostrils and into your nasal cavities, down through your pharynx (throat) and larynx (voice box), and into your trachea (windpipe). Next, it gets routed through the bronchi (passageways leading to the lungs) and bronchioles (passageways less than 1 millimeter in diameter) and into the lungs. Once in the lungs, the air reaches the alveoli (small air sacs), which serve as the marketplace for gas exchange: Oxygen (O2, the food your cells need to produce energy) is traded for carbon dioxide (CO2, the waste produced by energy production in cells) into and out of the bloodstream.

Simultaneously, as you inhale, your 
heart rate speeds up, thanks to a message sent by stretch receptors within the alveoli 
to the brainstem (controls heart rate) and the vagus nerve (commands autonomic function), increasing blood flow through arteries (tubes that carry blood away from the heart) to the lungs so more blood can be oxygenated.

From the alveoli, O2 molecules move 
into capillaries (thin-walled blood vessels) 
and attach to red blood cells, which start making their way through the pulmonary veins 
(vessels that carry oxygenated blood to the heart) to the left atrium, or chamber, of the heart. Next, blood moves into the heart’s left ventricle, which then contracts (beats). The contraction pumps oxygen-rich blood through every single cell in the body via the network of arteries and capillaries.

On an Exhale

Inside cells, mitochondria (the energy-production centers) use oxygen to burn sugars, fats, and proteins for energy, and CO2 is a byproduct of this process. CO2 is biochemical waste—you don’t need it—so your body starts the process of shuttling it out. CO2 travels through cell walls into the capillaries and then veins that carry CO2-rich blood to the right atrium and right ventricle of the heart. Next, the right ventricle contracts, pushing the CO2-rich blood out of the heart through the pulmonic valve into the pulmonary artery and back toward the lungs. As the blood enters the alveoli, the CO2 leaves the bloodstream and passes into the lungs. The diaphragm relaxes, decreasing the volume of and pressure in the thorax, and initiating an exhalation. Meanwhile, the heart rate slows, decreasing blood flow to the lungs and discouraging gas exchange while the lungs are still full of CO2-heavy air. The pressure change in the lungs forces the air and CO2 waste back up and out of the lungs into the trachea, through the larynx, pharynx, and nasal cavities, to be exhaled through the nostrils. Ahhh …

A Driving Force

“Getting rid of carbon dioxide, not bringing in oxygen, is the main stimulus that drives us to breathe under most 
circumstances,” Cole says. In other words, your body’s drive to boot what 
it doesn’t need is greater than its drive to acquire what it does. This is because too much CO2 makes the blood more acidic, which can impair the function of all of your body’s cells. Your brainstem 
is finely tuned to maintain the pH of the blood, so when the pH skews more acidic, it triggers the stress response 
and sends an urgent message to the 
diaphragm to initiate a breath to bring 
in more O2 and rebalance the blood.

Museum visits can promote mindfulness

This post by KAREN WEINTRAUB originally appeared in the Boston Globe on June 26, 2015.

In this season of vacations, not all of us can get away when we need to. For Dr. Elizabeth Gaufberg the price of escape is a walk of just a few blocks from her Cambridge Health Alliance office to the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums. There, she says, the peace of looking at paintings and sculptures helps restore her.

In a museum, she said, she naturally breathes deeper, tunes in to her surroundings, and forgets about work, or what she needs to do next.

This is precisely what happens with mindfulness, and “being in front of a work of art helps us get there,” added Susan Pollak, a member of the psychology faculty at the Cambridge Health Alliance, who joined Gaufberg last week in guiding newly minted medical residents to the museum. “It’s a refuge from the craziness of our lives.”

The two lead regular museum visits for the residents, to provide temporary stress relief, help them retain their empathy through a difficult and intense year of treating patients, and remember to take care of themselves.

Taking time to “nourish oneself” is crucial when stress is high, said Pollak, who founded the hospital chain’s Center for Mindfulness and Compassion.

There are no grades given for liking or not liking a particular piece of art. “This is a chance to catch your own breath,” Pollak said.

Plus, there’s something about museums that restores us to our humanity, she said.

Gaufberg said she’s often struck by the age of the artworks. One of the museum’s oldest treasures is a 2,000-year-old decorated gravestone for a young girl. Her parents’ sorrow millennia ago was no different than what grieving parents go through today, she said.

Considering that ancient loss can help the residents tune into their own empathy and put today’s problems into perspective, she said.

Looking at art also prompts careful viewing, which can help doctors notice more details about their patients, she said, and help others tune into their own work.

Of course, not everyone is as fond of art museums as Gaufberg and Pollak are. For them, a sports game, movie or other passion can be equally diverting.

Can Reading Make You Happier?

But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me. Nobody had ever asked me these questions before, even though reading fiction is and always has been essential to my life. I love to gorge on books over long breaks—I’ll pack more books than clothes, I told Berthoud. I confided my dirty little secret, which is that I don’t like buying or owning books, and always prefer to get them from the library (which, as I am a writer, does not bring me very good book-sales karma). In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a “higher being” as an emotional survival tactic. Simply answering the questions made me feel better, lighter.

We had some satisfying back-and-forths over e-mail, with Berthoud digging deeper, asking about my family’s history and my fear of grief, and when she sent the final reading prescription it was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read. Among the recommendations was “The Guide,” by R. K. Narayan. Berthoud wrote that it was “a lovely story about a man who starts his working life as a tourist guide at a train station in Malgudi, India, but then goes through many other occupations before finding his unexpected destiny as a spiritual guide.” She had picked it because she hoped it might leave me feeling “strangely enlightened.” Another was “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” by José Saramago: “Saramago doesn’t reveal his own spiritual stance here but portrays a vivid and compelling version of the story we know so well.” “Henderson the Rain King,” by Saul Bellow, and “Siddhartha,” by Hermann Hesse, were among other prescribed works of fiction, and she included some nonfiction, too, such as “The Case for God,” by Karen Armstrong, and “Sum,” by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, a “short and wonderful book about possible afterlives.”

I worked my way through the books on the list over the next couple of years, at my own pace—interspersed with my own “discoveries”—and while I am fortunate enough to have my ability to withstand terrible grief untested, thus far, some of the insights I gleaned from these books helped me through something entirely different, when, over several months, I endured acute physical pain. The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. The first use of the term is usually dated to a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A Literary Clinic.” In it, the author describes stumbling upon a “bibliopathic institute” run by an acquaintance, Bagster, in the basement of his church, from where he dispenses reading recommendations with healing value. “Bibliotherapy is…a new science,” Bagster explains. “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.” To a middle-aged client with “opinions partially ossified,” Bagster gives the following prescription: “You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.” (George Bernard Shaw is at the top of the list.) Bagster is finally called away to deal with a patient who has “taken an overdose of war literature,” leaving the author to think about the books that “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.”

Today, bibliotherapy takes many different forms, from literature courses run for prison inmates to reading circles for elderly people suffering from dementia. Sometimes it can simply mean one-on-one or group sessions for “lapsed” readers who want to find their way back to an enjoyment of books. Berthoud and her longtime friend and fellow bibliotherapist Susan Elderkin mostly practice “affective” bibliotherapy, advocating the restorative power of reading fiction. The two met at Cambridge University as undergraduates, more than twenty years ago, and bonded immediately over the shared contents of their bookshelves, in particular Italo Calvino’s novel “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller,” which is itself about the nature of reading. As their friendship developed, they began prescribing novels to cure each other’s ailments, such as a broken heart or career uncertainty. “When Suse was having a crisis about her profession—she wanted to be a writer, but was wondering if she could cope with the inevitable rejection—I gave her Don Marquis’s ‘Archy and Mehitabel’ poems,” Berthoud told me. “If Archy the cockroach could be so dedicated to his art as to jump on the typewriter keys in order to write his free-verse poems every night in the New York offices of the Evening Sun, then surely she should be prepared to suffer for her art, too.” Years later, Elderkin gave Berthoud,who wanted to figure out how to balance being a painter and a mother, Patrick Gale’s novel “Notes from an Exhibition,” about a successful but troubled female artist.

They kept recommending novels to each other, and to friends and family, for many years, and, in 2007, when the philosopher Alain de Botton, a fellow Cambridge classmate, was thinking about starting the School of Life, they pitched to him the idea of running a bibliotherapy clinic. “As far as we knew, nobody was doing it in that form at the time,” Berthoud said. “Bibliotherapy, if it existed at all, tended to be based within a more medical context, with an emphasis on self-help books. But we were dedicated to fiction as the ultimate cure because it gives readers a transformational experience.”

Berthoud and Elderkin trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. “Librarians in the States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the same time in the U.K.,” Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.

There is now a network of bibliotherapists selected and trained by Berthoud and Elderkin, and affiliated with the School of Life, working around the world, from New York to Melbourne. The most common ailments people tend to bring to them are the life-juncture transitions, Berthoud says: being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement. The bibliotherapists see a lot of retirees, too, who know that they have twenty years of reading ahead of them but perhaps have only previously read crime thrillers, and want to find something new to sustain them. Many seek help adjusting to becoming a parent. “I had a client in New York, a man who was having his first child, and was worried about being responsible for another tiny being,” Berthoud says. “I recommended ‘Room Temperature,’ by Nicholson Baker, which is about a man feeding his baby a bottle and having these meditative thoughts about being a father. And of course ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ because Atticus Finch is the ideal father in literature.”

Berthoud and Elderkin are also the authors of “The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies,” which is written in the style of a medical dictionary and matches ailments (“failure, feeling like a”) with suggested reading cures (“The History of Mr. Polly,” by H. G. Wells). First released in the U.K. in 2013, it is now being published in eighteen countries, and, in an interesting twist, the contract allows for a local editor and reading specialist to adapt up to twenty-five per cent of the ailments and reading recommendations to fit each particular country’s readership and include more native writers. The new, adapted ailments are culturally revealing. In the Dutch edition, one of the adapted ailments is “having too high an opinion of your own child”; in the Indian edition, “public urination” and “cricket, obsession with” are included; the Italians introduced “impotence,” “fear of motorways,” and “desire to embalm”; and the Germans added “hating the world” and “hating parties.” Berthoud and Elderkin are now working on a children’s-literature version, “A Spoonful of Stories,” due out in 2016.

For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.

Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar—that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans only start to develop around the age of four.

Keith Oatley, a novelist and emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, has for many years run a research group interested in the psychology of fiction. “We have started to show how identification with fictional characters occurs, how literary art can improve social abilities, how it can move us emotionally, and can prompt changes of selfhood,” he wrote in his 2011 book, “Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction.” “Fiction is a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world…based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures.” This idea echoes a long-held belief among both writers and readers that books are the best kinds of friends; they give us a chance to rehearse for interactions with others in the world, without doing any lasting damage. In his 1905 essay “On Reading,” Marcel Proust puts it nicely: “With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends—books—it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: ‘What did they think of us?’—‘Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?’—‘Did they like us?’—nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because of displacement by someone else.”

George Eliot, who is rumored to have overcome her grief at losing her life partner through a program of guided reading with a young man who went on to become her husband, believed that “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” But not everybody agrees with this characterization of fiction reading as having the ability to make us behave better in real life. In her 2007 book, “Empathy and the Novel,” Suzanne Keen takes issue with this “empathy-altruism hypothesis,” and is skeptical about whether empathetic connections made while reading fiction really translate into altruistic, prosocial behavior in the world. She also points out how hard it is to really prove such a hypothesis. “Books can’t make change by themselves—and not everyone feels certain that they ought to,” Keen writes. “As any bookworm knows, readers can also seem antisocial and indolent. Novel reading is not a team sport.” Instead, she urges, we should enjoy what fiction does give us, which is a release from the moral obligation to feel something for invented characters—as you would for a real, live human being in pain or suffering—which paradoxically means readers sometimes “respond with greater empathy to an unreal situation and characters because of the protective fictionality.” And she wholeheartedly supports the personal health benefits of an immersive experience like reading, which “allows a refreshing escape from ordinary, everyday pressures.”

So even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,” the author Jeanette Winterson has written. “What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”

One of Berthoud’s clients described to me how the group and individual sessions she has had with Berthoud have helped her cope with the fallout from a series of calamities, including losing her husband, the end of a five-year engagement, and a heart attack. “I felt my life was without purpose,” she says. “I felt a failure as a woman.” Among the books Berthoud initially prescribed was John Irving’s novel “The Hotel New Hampshire.” “He was a favorite writer of my husband, [whom] I had felt unable to attempt for sentimental reasons.” She was “astounded and very moved” to see it on the list, and though she had avoided reading her husband’s books up until then, she found reading it to be “a very rewarding emotional experience, both in the literature itself and ridding myself of demons.” She also greatly appreciated Berthoud guiding her to Tom Robbins’s novel “Jitterbug Perfume,” which was “a real learning curve for me about prejudice and experimentation.”

One of the ailments listed in “The Novel Cure” is “overwhelmed by the number of books in the world,” and it’s one I suffer from frequently. Elderkin says this is one of the most common woes of modern readers, and that it remains a major motivation for her and Berthoud’s work as bibliotherapists. “We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.” And the best way to do that? See a bibliotherapist, as soon as you can, and take them up on their invitation, to borrow some lines from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”: “Come, and take choice of all my library/And so beguile thy sorrow…”

A Force for Good

This post by Daniel Goleman originally appeared on his website Daniel Goleman.


“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

Say one of your direct reports “blows it” in some way – maybe does something dumb that loses a sale, or alienates a client or colleague – and you get upset.

How you handle that moment makes a huge difference for you, your employee – and your very ability to manage.

You can either come down hard, reprimanding or punishing the person. Or you can use the mistake as a learning opportunity. This doesn’t mean you accept or condone the screw-up. You can say what was wrong and why it matters for the business, and add how that might have been handled differently.

If you do this without losing it yourself, it boosts an employee’s loyalty to you enormously — and he or she just might learn something about doing better next time around. It’s even better if you can deliver your reaction with a supportive tone, not a judgmental one.

Bonus: any other employees who see you react with understanding rather than out of anger or frustration also become more loyal to you. A feeling of positivity toward your boss turns out to be a bigger factor in loyalty than the size of a paycheck.

Call it managing with compassion. And despite its soft ring, research finds that compassion has better results than a tough-guy stance. For starters, people like and trust bosses who show kindness – and that in turn boosts their performance.

This may not come easily. After all, there’s a certain self-satisfaction that comes from venting your anger, plus the hope that a reprimand will teach that employee not to repeat the mistake. And maybe it will keep everyone on their toes.

But that is not what the data tells us. Research on how employees feel about bosses who are often angry reveals that they see that manager as less effective.

Besides, being able to suspend your negative judgments and show how to better handle the situation creates a more positive atmosphere, one where employees feel safe to take smart risks. If employees are fearful it kills creative thinking and the innovations that can keep a company competitive.

But frustration naturally moves us to react with anger. How can we change that knee-jerk response?

  • Pause before you react. Taking a mindful moment – or a longer pause to cool down – when you notice you’re getting angry can give you the window you need to calm down before you respond. And a calmer state makes you more clear, so you can be more reasonable. Better self-awareness gives you more emotional self-control.
  • Take the bigger view, beyond this particular moment. Remember everyone has the potential to improve. If you simply dismiss a person as faulty because they screwed up, you destroy a chance for them to learn and grow more effective.
  • Empathize. Try to see the situation from your employee’s perspective. You might see reasons he or she acted as they did – things you would not notice if you just had your knee-jerk reaction. This allows you to nod to their viewpoint, even as you offer your own alternative.

This Tiny Country Is Showing the Rest of the World What ‘Thriving’ Looks Like

This post by Jenna Birch originally appeared on Yahoo Health on June 24, 2015

This Tiny Country Is Showing the Rest of the World What ‘Thriving’ Looks Like

For the second year running, a tiny Central American country is the prime example of what it means to be “thriving”: According to the new Gallup-Healthways State of Well-Being report, Panama leads the world in overall wellness.

Experts surveyed 146,000 adults in 145 countries to assess how people feel about their everyday lives. The Global Well-Being Index measures five aspects that comprise well-being: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. Survey respondents could answer questions in each category with “thriving,”  “struggling” or “suffering.” The poll determines global well-being by ranking countries according to whether they are thriving in three or more aspects.

Panama notched the overall victory, with 53 percent of residents thriving in three or more well-being measures in 2014. They also grabbed two smaller wins, leading the world in both purpose (60 percent of residents) and physical well-being (52 percent). Other countries finishing on top were Puerto Rico, where 63 percent thrive in social well-being; Norway, where 69 percent thrive financially; and Sri Lanka, where 50 percent thrive in their communities.

Afghanistan comes in last in the ranking, with 0 percent of its population thriving in three or more aspects of well-being. The country ranks last in purpose, social, and financial well-being. As for the other two elements, physical and community well-being, Bhutan scored lowest, at just 5 and 6 percent of residents thriving respectively in those elements.

Related: The State of American Well-Being in 2015: Where Does Your Community Rank?

Just 17 percent of adults surveyed globally were thriving in three or more aspects of well-being in 2014, the same as in 2013. (In case you’re curious, the United States toppled to 23rd overall in wellness, falling from the previous year’s 12th-place finish.)

The report helps note the areas of the world most in need of a wellness boost. “Globally, higher well-being has been associated with outcomes indicative of stability and resilience —for example, healthcare utilization, intent to migrate, trust in elections and local institutions, daily stress, food/shelter security, volunteerism, and willingness to help others,” the report notes.

Take a look at the countries with the highest and lowest well-being, according to the ranking:

Top 10 countries with the highest well-being

1. Panama – 53 percent thriving
2. Costa Rica – 47.6 percent thriving
3. Puerto Rico – 45.8 percent thriving
4. Switzerland – 39.4 percent thriving
5. Belize – 38.9 percent thriving
6. Chile – 38.7 percent thriving
7. Denmark – 37 percent thriving
8. Guatemala – 36.3 percent thriving
9. Austria – 35.6 percent thriving
10. Mexico – 35.6 percent thriving

The 10 countries with the lowest well-being

136. Ghana – 5.6 percent thriving
137. Haiti – 5.3 percent thriving
138. Benin – 4.8 percent thriving
139. Ivory Coast – 4.5 percent thriving
140. Congo Kinshasa – 4.1 percent thriving
141. Tunisia – 4 percent thriving
142. Togo – 3.9 percent thriving
143. Cameroon – 3.1 percent thriving
144. Bhutan – 3 percent thriving
145. Afghanistan – 0 percent thriving

How to Cultivate Qi Energy

This post by Dr. Paul Haider originally appeared in OMTimes

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is a form of energy that runs through and around all that exists… including human beings. This energy is called Qi. Qi energy is the life force that gives us the vitality and energy to go about our daily lives and boosts our immune system. Here are a few ways to cultivate Qi energy and feel great again.

One of the spiritual texts from the Orient states: “There is nothing between Heaven and Earth but Qi and Tao (The laws that govern Qi). Tao itself is based on Qi. Everything in the Universe relies upon it. When the Qi is outside Heaven and Earth, it embraces them. When Qi is inside Heaven and Earth, it circulates through and sustains them. Planets depend on Qi for their brightness; weather is formed by it, and the seasons are caused by it. Man cannot stand outside of Qi. Qi supports him and permeates him as water is contained within the ocean.”

Ways to Cultivate Qi Energy

Qigong – Qigong is a form of martial arts that cultivates Qi energy. It’s a process of visualization, movement, and breath work that brings vitality and life giving energy into the body. Those who are Qigong Masters are also able to use their Qi energy to bring about miraculous healings that go beyond our understanding. This martial art is very simple yet takes practice, but over time and with persistence large amounts of Qi energy can be brought into the body with amazing results.

Live, Whole Foods – There are some foods that bring Qi energy into the body. Especially the green leafy vegetables, which are full of life force energy. When we cook food we lose the Qi and thus it’s important to include many raw leafy veggies in our diet. This can bring about healing… not only of our Qi but also of our liver, kidneys, heart, and blood by detoxing the body.

Herbs – Herbs also bring about an increase of Qi energy. Ginseng is great for increasing Qi energy and thus helps the average person to have more stamina and vitality and it is a good tonic for the nervous and endocrine systems. Codonopsis is another herb that also helps build Qi energy and increase life vitality especially of the lungs along with, Astragalus, and Gynostemma, which are energy building herbs for stress. Also, licorice root supports and protects the adrenal glands and helps with stress created by emotional challenges.

Other Foods – Longan berries are also great for slowing the aging process and revitalizing the skin and especially bringing Qi energy to the heart area. Schizandra fruit also helps to vitalize the sex organs and enhances libido and sexual function. Here are some other foods that may increase Qi energy when consumed in moderation… chlorella, brown rice, lentils, grapes, figs, oats, squash, dates, and tofu.

Meditation – Meditation also helps to build vital Qi energy by taking care of stress and cultivating peace within. All the stress hormones decline while meditating thus allowing for the correct function of the body and the peacefulness of the mind, which in turn results in a long life.

Acupressure – We have meridian points throughout the body and those points allow the vital flow of Qi energy. When there is congestion at certain points or the flow of Qi energy is stopped altogether there can be pain, lack of energy, and the start of disease. This is why acupressure and acupuncture are great for increasing Qi energy. One can learn to do acupressure on their own body… it’s very simple. Just massage every area of the body including the hands, feet, legs, arms, and ears… any area that has pain when pressure is applied usually means there is a blockage of Qi energy. By using mild pressure on the tender area, the blockage can be released.

Tuina Massage – This is a powerful form of massage that works with the meridians of the body to move energy around and unblock meridian channels. A person is fully dressed and the Tuina massage therapist moves his/her hands while doing a visualization of moving energy throughout the body. Moving energy from one place to another. This is a rather simplistic explanation, but this type of massage is amazingly powerful. In fact, I’ve had Tuina massage myself and had powerful results.

Self-Esteem – When we have self-esteem we turn off the negative voice and start moving in the direction of doing what we know is right deep down inside. All the negative distracting voices of those around us don’t matter anymore. So building self-esteem is vitally important to also building Qi energy because lack of self-esteem leads to the loss of life force and eventually to depression. Think only good thoughts about yourself, take a martial arts class, and increase Qi energy within.

Try as many of these Qi-building processes as possible to feel great and have improved energy.

Genentech, Facebook vet launches behavioral health startup Lyra Health

This post by Jonah Comstock originally appeared in MobiHealthNews on Jun 8, 2015


Lyra Health, a startup that launched last week, will focus on addressing the gaps in the healthcare system surrounding behavioral health conditions like anxiety and depression. David Ebersman, former CFO of Facebook and Genentech, will helm the new company, which already has seed funding from Ebersman and venture capital firm Venrock. Ebersman’s co-founder, Chief Medical Officer Dena Bravata, formerly served in the same role at Castlight Health.

“Behavioral health is a really big and important problem,” Ebersman told MobiHealthNews. “The system really doesn’t work very well and because of that we have many millions of people walking around undiagnosed, millions more who are diagnosed but not getting treated, and millions more still who are being treated but with therapies that aren’t working. This is kind of the center of the problem that we’re trying to work on.”

Currently, Ebersman said, the average time between diagnosis and seeking treatment for a person with anxiety is 11 years. For depression it’s three years. Basically a primary care physician gives a referral and then the person with the behavioral health condition — who is often unmotivated as a result of the condition — is on their own to navigate a confusing path to finding a therapist or treatment that works for them.

“What we want to develop is technology that enables us to identify people who are at risk of behavioral health problems and in need of behavioral health treatments. We want to develop technology that enables us to most effectively match people with care that’s available, meets their needs, and is likely to help them,” Ebersman said, noting that the platform would likely include options like video visits and computerized therapy. “The [other] thing we want to do is to build tech that enables us to track outcomes, so that if people are being treated, we can see whether or not the treatment is working, take corrective action if not, and learn from it if it is. And apply that learning to future patients.”

Lyra Health will work with employers and health plans to address the population of people with underdiagnosed behavioral health conditions. Although Ebersman expects patients will interact with the platform through a combination of phone calls and mobile apps, the specific details of the platform are still being developed. Lyra is aggressively hiring engineers and developers.

“We view this as a really interesting and complicated technology problem and we are planning to build the company as one that taps into the best minds in terms of software engineering and data science that we can find in the fertile environment in Silicon Valley,” Ebersman said. “We’re very pleased with the initial team we’ve assembled and we want to build out the quality of the organization.”

Ebersman says health plans and employers will buy in because behavioral health problems have a large cost footprint on healthcare overall, largely because behavioral health conditions are often comorbid with chronic physical health conditions.

“If you have diabetes, you are twice as likely to suffer from depression as the general population, and if you have diabetes and depression, you on average will be three to five times more expensive than a diabetic who is not suffering from depression,” he explained. “And when you think about it, that makes pretty good sense because if you’re depressed, you’re probably less well-equipped to manage the behavioral things you have to do to manage your diabetes: diet, exercise, medication compliance, etc. And if you don’t manage those things then your diabetes will progress to the expensive complications that come later.”

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