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How Airbnb is Broadcasting Kindness

This post appeared on Mindful on July 27, 2015

As a part of their “Is Man Kind?” campaign, Airbnb has debuted an online news series that reports on positive, uplifting stories. The series, called The Daily Kindness Bulletin, aims to highlight the acts of kindness and compassion that happen everyday.

The video series came to be after their survey of Airbnb users showed that people often felt that the news reported on too many negative stories compared to the amount of positive stories. The Airbnb team joined up with Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the Science Director of the University of Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, to create this short and upbeat newscast.

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How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain

This article By Gretchen Reynolds appeared in the NY Times on July 22, 2015.

A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health, according to an interesting new study of the physical effects on the brain of visiting nature.

Most of us today live in cities and spend far less time outside in green, natural spaces than people did several generations ago.

City dwellers also have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers, studies show.

These developments seem to be linked to some extent, according to a growing body of research. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.

But just how a visit to a park or other green space might alter mood has been unclear. Does experiencing nature actually change our brains in some way that affects our emotional health?

That possibility intrigued Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, who has been studying the psychological effects of urban living. In an earlier study published last month, he and his colleagues found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.

But that study did not examine the neurological mechanisms that might underlie the effects of being outside in nature.

So for the new study, which was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bratman and his collaborators decided to closely scrutinize what effect a walk might have on a person’s tendency to brood.

Brooding, which is known among cognitive scientists as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can’t seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives. This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers compared with people living outside urban areas, studies show.

Perhaps most interesting for the purposes of Mr. Bratman and his colleagues, however, such rumination also is strongly associated with increased activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex.

If the researchers could track activity in that part of the brain before and after people visited nature, Mr. Bratman realized, they would have a better idea about whether and to what extent nature changes people’s minds.

Mr. Bratman and his colleagues first gathered 38 healthy, adult city dwellers and asked them to complete a questionnaire to determine their normal level of morbid rumination.

The researchers also checked for brain activity in each volunteer’s subgenual prefrontal cortex, using scans that track blood flow through the brain. Greater blood flow to parts of the brain usually signals more activity in those areas.

Then the scientists randomly assigned half of the volunteers to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, parklike portion of the Stanford campus or next to a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. The volunteers were not allowed to have companions or listen to music. They were allowed to walk at their own pace.

Immediately after completing their walks, the volunteers returned to the lab and repeated both the questionnaire and the brain scan.

As might have been expected, walking along the highway had not soothed people’s minds. Blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged.

But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.

They also had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains were quieter.

These results “strongly suggest that getting out into natural environments” could be an easy and almost immediate way to improve moods for city dwellers, Mr. Bratman said.

But of course many questions remain, he said, including how much time in nature is sufficient or ideal for our mental health, as well as what aspects of the natural world are most soothing. Is it the greenery, quiet, sunniness, loamy smells, all of those, or something else that lifts our moods? Do we need to be walking or otherwise physically active outside to gain the fullest psychological benefits? Should we be alone or could companionship amplify mood enhancements?

“There’s a tremendous amount of study that still needs to be done,” Mr. Bratman said.

But in the meantime, he pointed out, there is little downside to strolling through the nearest park, and some chance that you might beneficially muffle, at least for awhile, your subgenual prefrontal cortex.

10 Productive Lifestyle Hacks from the World’s Most Successful People

successful-people

This post by Eric Ebert  was originally published in tech.co on July 7, 2015.

When we think of how high income earners became so successful, we often think about their work philosophies inside of the office, but what they do outside of the office is equally important. Their philosophies regarding their free time enable them to actuate their full potential when they return to the office. The simplicity of these philosophies is astonishing and adopting them into our lives will translate to better professional development.

1. Stimulate your creativity

Successful people are able to innovate creative solutions to problems. 75% of high income earners believe that creativity is critical to financial success and say that being intellectually gifted is not as important as being creative. The 1% train their minds to be creative. Creativity, contrary to popular belief, is not something that only comes naturally; it can be honed and trained like anything else. A young Steve Jobs said “If you’re gonna make connections which are innovative … you have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does or else you’re going to make the same connections [as everybody else], and then you won’t be innovative, and then nobody will give you an award.”

What you can do

Mind-expanding enjoyable free time activities are all around you, they add color to your life and make you a better problem solver. Learning an instrument or a new language are the most commonly cited examples of what to do if you want to get creative in your free time.

There are many less-thought-of ways to be creative and people of all different backgrounds and interests can find something they enjoy. You could start a small, aesthetically pleasing garden, take a cooking class and come up with your own recipes, learn origami, or just do your hair differently for the day.

2. Keep centered

Successful people are usually described as cool, calm, and collected. They are very difficult to disconcert and are generally not fazed by the fresh problem of the day. We can attribute some of this to a center that most of them find within themselves through some sort of mindfulness practice. Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices are in style among wealthy people in part because they are so beneficial to our wellbeing. Warren Buffet subscribes to this centered approach to leisure activities, “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions, than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.” Finding time to just sit and collect ourselves gives our brain a rest, something it never gets, even while we sleep.

What you can do

Adopting some of these practices can make you a calmer more collected person and can mitigate some of the emotional ups and downs of the day, making you steadier and more reliable. These practices are generally free and only require around ten minutes a day for you to see results. You do not need to belong to a gym that offers yoga classes or go to a meditation circle, most mindfulness can be done inside of your house. You could try sitting in a room, steadily breathing, and focusing only on the present, not thinking about the past or future. You will leave more focused and relaxed and your performance at work should improve.

3. Learn how to think critically

Critical thinking, something taught in most university programs, is another great tool the 1% utilizes. Critical thinking is about challenging popular thinking and finding ways to rethink problems. It is a unique way of thinking about any subject, problem or challenge and improves the quality of our thinking by aptly analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is a personal activity because most times when we critically think it challenges our way of approaching problems. We need to figure out what assumptions we bring to a problem before we start solving it.

What you can do

A great way to start thinking critically is to find activities in your free time that train your mind to approach problems in a critical manner. The easiest thing to do is read something that you know challenges popular beliefs or your current knowledge. Sometimes we are surprised to find information we have always assumed to be true is actually false when we take the time to research it.

This is about education, finding resources that teach us to see there are other possibilities. Malcom S. Forbes once said that “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with and open one.” Questioning your assumptions through targeted learning will encourage you to look at issues from different angles and see solutions where others cannot.

4. Use your off time to actually relax

You might think that top income earners work day and night, poring over the business of tomorrow to get a head start. Surprisingly, top income earners usually prepare for important meetings and presentations at the office and not at home. Successful people are at their best when it counts and that time is usually during regular business hours. While extra hours are sometimes necessary for success, most top income earners use their leisure time for leisure.

What you can do

It is no surprise that Bill Gates rents out a $300 million yacht at $5 million a week to unwind. Now, you do not need $5 million a week to relax; sometimes the best relaxing is free. You could take a nap on the couch, go for a walk in nature, or watch your favorite TV program. Just make sure you are free of the office when you are away, turn off the work phone, do not pull up your work emails, and let your brain clock out. This enables you to be refreshed and ready to tackle the difficulties of the workday. This also prevents you from burning out, you cannot be successful at the office if you are too stressed to function at your full potential.

5. Be present for your family

Staying focused at work is often difficult and concerns about your family can intrude on your valuable work time. Sometimes these concerns are unavoidable but usually we are able to mitigate familial issues with a little bit of effort. Successful people focus on their families when they have free time, and this helps them concentrate at work and continually perform at their best. Statistics speak to this: the divorce rate for Chief Executive Officers is 9.81%, well under the nearly 50% average rate. That is because successful people often put their families first in their free time. Walt Disney once said “A man should never neglect his family for business,” something we should keep in mind as we approach our careers.

What you can do

Your family can be your stability and strength in a business environment that is too often unpredictable and trying. If you need to be at your best when things are at their worst then you need someone who is there for you when you are at your lowest point.

Instead of answering emails in your home office, use your valuable off time to work on the relationships that last a lifetime. Take time out of every day to spend quality time with members of your family.

6. Keep a healthy social network

Successful people have very large social circles and they utilize them when their career necessitates it. Most of us have heard the saying “it’s not what you know but who you know” and this is accurate. More than often a position is found because of a direct or indirect contact. Statistically, the best way to find a job is through your social network, an astounding 80% of new jobs are found through social networks. Moving up through today’s corporate ladder requires moving from company to company in different, career enhancing positions. Your social network is a great resource for this.

What you can do

Building a large social network can have significant benefits for your career. In addition to securing new jobs, friends insulate you from hardships and criticisms, and people with more friends tend to be more confident. Also, friends can give you an outlet to vent your work frustrations and this a healthy way for you to deal with difficult issues. Be careful though, your social circle is important for your happiness and confidence, so continually bringing up new business proposals or asking about opportunities within friends’ companies will create distance between you and your social network.

Just be natural and do not try to push anything about your career to your friends, just show your genuine interest towards their careers and try to be there for them. As Dale Carnegie once said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Sites like Linkedin help you walk that fine line between friend and business connection by allowing you access to your friends’ business contacts with minimal facilitation by your friends.

7. Enjoy business shopping

The top 1% of income earners look the part, their clothes and accessories reflect not only their current station but also their career ambitions. Most make it in the corporate world where appearances make a difference. Zig Ziglar claimed “You cannot climb the ladder of success dressed in the costume of failure.” When we dress a certain way, we make a strong statement about our motivations. Appropriate attire expresses respect for the companies for which we work and sends signals to our superiors and clients that we are serious in our ambitions. We have all heard the saying that you must “spend money to make money,” and successful people learn how to use their free time and money to invest in themselves.

What you can do

Enjoy shopping, but enjoy buying the things you need to succeed in your career. Buy the equipment that makes you look like you belong in the next position in the company, not the job you already occupy. This is really about choices, if you have the choice of upgrading your old TV to the sharp new 4k or buying 4 suits you need to look sharp, make the business choice. Shopping in this manner is no different from investing in stocks or bonds, you can see a return on your investment if you do it right. You may wonder how business shopping can be an enjoyable activity, and the truth is it will never be as enjoyable as shopping for things you really want. Once you have committed to the goal of progressing in your career, some of the things you enjoyed about personal shopping can be just as enjoyable in business shopping.

For instance, if you enjoy shopping for casual clothes then some of the same aspects that made it an enjoyable activity can be transferred to shopping for business clothes. The approach is relatively the same, you search for stores, try on clothes, look around for great deals, and eventually test out the items in public. Buying on a budget is no problem either, just make sure you dress in darker colors (it hides the quality) and find a great tailor to spruce up your mid-range suit. This process will be enjoyable if your priorities are in order and will help you progress in your career.

8. Methodically tackle chores and personal tasks

Yes, even successful people have to renew their driver’s licenses, organize their paperwork, go grocery shopping, change lightbulbs, etc. Some one-percenters even do normal household tasks like take out the garbage, clean their kitchens, and walk their dogs. Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen even packs his own lunch every morning. What distinguishes successful people in their menial tasks is their methodology for taking care of them. By using their free time wisely when it comes to chores and personal tasks, successful people are able to focus on work and not feel anxious to leave the office early and go to the post office to mail their taxes before closing time!

What you can do

When you have chores to do in your free time, make sure you are not procrastinating. If you find out that you need to collect some paperwork for your taxes, do it that day and do not wait a day longer. This will free your mind of this task, and when the next task comes along you will be more likely to take care of it immediately instead of letting it pile onto the other huge amount of work you have to do. When you have a list of chores to do, tackle the easiest one first, this can get the ball rolling when all you want to do is watch TV and dread the biggest task you have.
Instead of multitasking, try doing your chores one at a time. This is a new method called “singletasking” and it forces you to sustain your focus and work through complex problems. You will be surprised to find that you do tasks more efficiently and thoroughly when you focus on one of them at a time. You will not save any time if you have to redo one task because you were too distracted by a different task. This trains you for the office as well, you will be more productive if you are more methodical in all of your tasks. You can also use chore time to recharge, slow down, and simply focus on what you are doing.

9. Reflect

Reflecting gives us an opportunity to learn from our failures and successes. Reflecting on our successes is enjoyable but is only helpful if we critique what we have done right and try to improve on it the next time. Reflecting on our failures is much more productive and will help us improve immensely. Bill Gates once said that “it’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” Looking back and figuring out what we have done wrong and how we can improve for the next time is something for which successful people excel. Many successful people take time to reflect one day out of the week and others do it whenever an important meeting, presentation, or project ends. Whenever they reflect on their work, they ensure that they will improve the next time something important comes along.

What you can do

One way to track what you have done in your career is keep a journal. This does not have to be a daily journal or even a long journal, it can simply track one event a week if necessary. It should be just enough to tell you what the situation was and what you did wrong or right.  A great way get this started is to take a few minutes every Sunday and dissect the most important event of the week. Even if this was something that just stood out in your mind and was not incredibly important, it is good to get used to figuring out better ways to do it. The United States Army developed what is called the After Action Review or AAR in the 1970’s and it is an efficient tool that many business leaders use today. Microsoft uses this strategy at the end of every project and it has been very successful. The AAR can serve as a template for those wanting to reflect on what they have done. The process is an active reflection centered on these key questions:

  1. What did I intend to accomplish (what was my strategy)?
  2. What did I do (how did I execute relative to my strategy)?
  3. Why did it happen that way (was there a difference between strategy and execution)?
  4. What will I do to adapt my strategy or refine my execution for a better outcome or how do I repeat my successes (if there were any)?

As you can see, this not only gives you a good template to reflect and learn but is also a great way to get you to start thinking more strategically. The next time you do something important, you might first take some time to think about what you want out of it, instead of jumping right in.

10. Be generous

As you progress in your career, earning higher and higher incomes as you go along, you will have more disposable income, and how you choose to spend it will have real consequences in how you continue to earn it. Many top income earners donate a large portion of their incomes to charities or find time to volunteer for various causes. The methods in which they do this are very important and they will keep you along the right path for continued success. Richard Branson saidthat “No one has ever become poor from giving.” Being generous can give you the motivation to continue progressing in your career because you are able see a positive impact from your hard work. It can also make you happier and enrich your social life.

What you can do

Make sure you are being generous in a way that makes you feel generous. Simply filling out an online form and sending money to a charitable organization is not enough for most people. The key is to donate to something where you can see your money in action. If you are someone who cares about animal rights, it is better to visit a shelter and see the animals you are helping rather than just sending money. By watching your money in action, you create positive memories of what you have done and you get a great sense of accomplishment. This can be especially important for those stuck in jobs that seem like just paychecks. It can be a big motivator if the paychecks go to something that feels like an accomplishment.

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.

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.

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“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

7 LESSONS YOU LEARN THROUGH LIFE’S CHALLENGES

This post originally appeared on BrandMentalist.com

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1. YOU NEED TO CHANGE.

There are times when things go wrong in life. Most of us try to escape it, denying the truth life presents to us. When a problem occurs, most of the time it occurs because something is not right – you got sick because you haven’t been eating right; you are in hefty debt because you didn’t live within your means; you got backstabbed because you’re too trusting; your partner wanted to break up with you because you’re too controlling – the list goes on and on.

Instead of looking at external circumstances and blame them for unfortunate life events, look at yourself first and see if there’s anything you can improve. Can you change the way you live so that your life situation can improve? Whether it be changing your habits, attitude, or outlook, you need to change in order to improve your life’s situation. Failing to accept the truth life presents to you, you will forever fall into the traps you can never seem to escape.

If you’re gonna make a change…operate from a new belief that says life happens not to me but for me.

– Tony Robbins

Everything happens for a reason and that reason leads you to another destiny. Accept the fact that shit happened to teach you something, to push you to grow, and to encourage you to change. Use this as a drive to make successfully change yourself for the better. 


2. YOU CAN’T CONTROL LIFE BUT YOU CAN CONTROL YOURSELF.

There are circumstances in life that you can’t control i.e. being born into a dysfunctional family, losing your family member at a young age, becoming a victim of an unforeseeable accident, or having a cancer.

When you go through life’s challenges, you have the choice to either fall apart and become a victim of the circumstances, or you can rise up high and above others. Surrendering to life, you become weak and vulnerable. You become easily influenced especially by bad influences such as drugs and alcohol which you’re told could help you heal pain. You become friends with bad strangers. You become sad and emotionally unstable which leads to depression and beyond.

However, if you realize that you are in control of yourself no matter what happens, you will not ignore the unfortunate circumstances and use them as springboards for the better you. You bring yourself to a healthy environment. You build yourself a support system. You surround yourself with good influences. You build yourself skills and never stop improving yourself.


3. YOU CAN’T CHANGE THE WAY THINGS ARE BUT YOU CAN CHANGE THE WAY YOU LOOK AT THINGS.

You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you. 

– Brian Tracy

Going through life’s challenges require strength – a lot of strength – both mental and physical because they go hand in hand. You need to stay strong. You need support from family and friends. Most importantly, you need to change your outlook on life. You need to understand that you can’t change the way things are but you can change the way you look at things.

The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.

– Tony Robbins

Use pain to motivate yourself – to become more determined, work harder, and succeed.


4. YOU ARE ACTUALLY A VERY STRONG PERSON.

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions. 

– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

As a result of 2 and 3, you become a stronger person who is not afraid of anything in life. You know that no matter what happens you will be just fine. The strength you have built up over the years has become one of the most valuable assets you have. You know you have the willpower to combat anything in life.

Knowing that you are a strong person is a blessing. Because the power of the mind is very powerful.


5. YOU ARE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY AND YOUR OWN BEST FRIEND.

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts

– Buddha

Sometimes when life hits you with a brick, you just really hate yourself. You hate yourself for letting people who’ve done you wrong into your life. You hate yourself for not being more disciplined and doing the right thing. You hate yourself for what you did in the past which caused your life to go sideways. You just can’t forgive yourself. You feel sad, upset, and angry. You just keep thinking about this over and over.

However, having gone through a struggle, you realize that sometimes you can be your own worst enemy. You can choose to blame yourself for what’s gone wrong, or you can forgive yourself and move on. Dwelling on such thoughts can only create self-harm and delay healing. To be able to heal, you need to accept the circumstances, forgive yourself and your mistakes, and move on.

Time does not heal everything but acceptance will heal everything.

– Buddha

Ask yourself “What would you say to your best friend if your best friend was in the situation?” Will you put her/him down? Will you blame him or her even more for what went wrong? No, you would cheer your best friend up and try every way you can to make him/her feel better. So why aren’t you doing this to yourself? You can choose to be your own worst enemy or your own best friend. Choose wisely. 


6. YOU REALIZE WHO YOUR TRUE FRIENDS ARE

When you are up in life your friends get to know who you are. When you are down in life you get to know who your friends are. There will be many people who will be great to be around when times are easy. Instead take note of the people who remain in your life when times are hard. The friends that are willing to sacrifice their time and the resources they have in their life to help improve yours. Those are your real friends. A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.

These moments are crucial in life because it’s when you realize who matters and who doesn’t. Only true friends will stick by you through tough times, help you in every way they can, and are always there to listen to you.

Once you realize who your true friends are, cherish them. They are very hard to find.


7. YOU REALIZE WHAT MATTERS AND WHAT DOESN’T … AND THAT YOU CAN BE HAPPY REGARDLESS OF CIRCUMSTANCES IN LIFE.

When you are in a good financial situation, you probably find joy through activities such as dining out, going to the pub, going to events, shopping, and traveling. However, when life gets tough, you cannot afford to do those things. If you spend time feeling sad about the situation and missing the things you used to get to do, then you’d be unhappy. On the other hand, you can learn to be happy by enjoying the simple things in life and appreciating what you have. Instead of dining out, you start cooking. Instead of going to the pub, you start staying in, watching tv and enjoying the company. Instead of going shopping, you learn to be happy with what you already have. Over and over this becomes a habit – you start to adopt a minimal way of life and find joy and happiness from the simplest things.

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