Changing the colour of your day

Depending on who you believe, either yesterday, the 17th, or next Monday, the 24th is “Blue Monday” – the most depressing day of the year. This fact was based on rather dubious “scientific” evidence and was originally part of an advertisement campaign by a Travel company hoping to encourage the early booking of summer holidays. However, the notion has found its way onto  reputable news services and even gotten some support in mental health circles. Indeed, one of them has gone so far as to say that, given the economic climate, 2011 is gloomy enough to merit  having two Blue Mondays, this week and next week.

It is an idea that fits into one understanding of happiness, namely, that most of our happiness depends on our circumstances. Because January is normally cloudy, and people spent too much money at New Year, and being back at work reveals that nothing has changed in their lives, therefore this must mean unhappiness. We have a deep-rooted instinct to seek happiness out there, either in a perfect job or career, a perfect relationship or friendship, a perfect place to live. If we accept this and because most of us have some level of imperfection in at least one of these areas, which was not magically resolved this over the holiday period,  we are bound to hit a wall of depression.

However, research has shown that only a small part of our happiness comes from these types of external conditions.  The models of happiness we get in the media tend to be happiness-in-the-perfect life, the perfect relationship, all white with no shades of grey.  However, normal human life and happiness is always relative, and never unchangingly absolute.  Furthermore, modern society tends to favour the disposal of situations or people whom we no longer have time for or have gotten complicated or difficult. Seeing this we frequently fall in to the trap of comparing our life to outside models, finding it lacking and thinking a quick fix is the answer. When this is not forthcoming we get disappointed and down, not realizing that  happiness is possible even when things are not perfect, if we know where to seek it.

What meditation practice reveals is that most emotional agitation and suffering is, in fact,  caused by the mind, not by external circumstances and certainly not by something as arbitrary as a date in January.  It is part of the human condition to frequently feel – and not just on January 17th – that life is not offering us enough, or that we are not doing enough in it, or that we are under pressure with what we have to do. Some level of difficulty occurs to everyone from time to time, and it does not mean that something has gone wrong. Mental impression cross the mind frequently, and our happiness depends on how we work with them.  Rather than chasing after happiness, meditation practice trains the mind to turn to whatever is happening at any particular moment, and to rest in that. Over time we gradually we get the strength to sit with the thoughts without getting hooked in them.  As the old saying goes, difficulties may be inevitable – such as the weather or the blues on an January morning – but it is how our mind deals with this that determines what colour the day turn out.

Everything is material for the seed of happiness, if you look into it with inquisitiveness and curiosity. The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment. There always is the potential to create an environment of blame — or one that is conducive to loving-kindness.

Pema Chodron

Breakfast and emails: Doing more may not mean doing better

Last weekend, I  attended a very interesting seminar run by Dr Rich Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, The Practical Science of happiness, love and wisdom. So I will post one or two reflections on the brain, its relationship to happiness, and ongoing research on it.

Over millions of years the brain evolved to be sensitive to threats and opportunities. Threats provoke a  more immediate response but opportunities and new information also produce an excited reaction in the brain. One thing which happens is that the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, which is connected to the pleasure system in the brain. Dopamine gives rise to feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement which motivates us to do or to continue to do certain activities. As such dopamine can be addictive, and when people get used to its activity, its absence can be felt as boredom or restlessness.

Recent developments in technology have hugely changed the environment in which the brain has to work, and it was not necessarily designed to cope rapidly with all the challenges it is facing. In particular, media use seems to be triggering this dopamine reaction, creating a type of addictive effect. It is not unusual now for a person to have open at the same time a document they are writing, a computer page they are reading, an instant messaging or social networking site, while texting or listening to music at the same time. A recent Stanford study* seems to suggest that the more we use these different sources of content at the same time –  such as e-mail, SMS, Instant Messaging and Social networking sites –  the more we are stimulating this neural activity and this is changing how we think and behave.

The researchers looked at the effects of heavy media multitasking on an individual’s ability to perform cognitive tasks. Maybe not surprisingly,  they found that people who used less media performed better on these tasks than self-confessed technology junkies. Worryingly, the study seems to suggest that our ability to focus is being undermined by the constant bursts of information favoured by the push technology seen in most recent forms of communication. Push technology allows information and emails to be updated immediately on a system, giving an almost constant stream of information to the user. Based on their research,  the scientists surmised that multitaskers are more responsive to new incoming information; but their ability to focus attention is diminished.   Increased distractions may be weakening the brains ability to focus on what is in front of it, and provoke a withdrawal-like longing for more information, even when the computer is turned off. Thus some users have difficulty switching off, even when on vacation or at an important family event, and their capacity to pay attention to real people is fragmented.

As a New York Times article based on the study observed, this can have huge consequences on relationships and family life, as a person finds “ordinary” life less exciting than the buzz created by media multitasking. The article goes on to note that heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information,  and they experience more stress.

The article goes on to quote Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, who goes as far as to say that the technology is rewiring our brains. She and other researchers look at the lure of digital stimulation as less like that of drugs and alcohol and more like the need for food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

*Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner “Cognitive control in media multitaskers” :
The New York Times,”Attached to Technology and Paying a Price”:

Where we should invest

The 2008 Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists at Imperial College, London was told that the evidence-base for the therapeutic value of meditation for a wide range of health problems was significantly stronger than most pharmaceutical products. A new meta-analysis of 823 randomly controlled trials of meditation, conducted by the US National Institute of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, showed the clinical benefits of meditation across a wide range of physical and emotional disorders.

Meditation is a way of life rather than quick fix achieved by using gimmicks such as incense, music and light, Dr Avdesh Sharma, past president of the Indian Psychiatric Association, said. It doesn’t work immediately. You need to practice it for several weeks before the effects begin to be felt. Dr Sharma added: If meditation was a drug, we’d all want shares in it. It has a beneficial effect on most physical health problems and is very effective for mental health problems significantly reducing levels of depression, anxiety and insomnia by improving relaxation, oxygenation of the brain, and energy levels.

Things to do this weekend

Modern culture keeps sending all these messages that the people who know how to live properly are always doing something.

The great question “What are you doing this weekend?” keeps coming up, as if that defines us. We hear talk about lives where everything is “so busy that I do not have time to think”, or “I am so busy I never have time for myself”, or “I am so busy I am exhausted”, and this word, busy, busy, busy comes up time and again, and it starts to sound like an epidemic –  an epidemic of busyness.

Abbot Christopher Jameson, The Big Silence, BBC2

We can develop how content we are

Until recently, psychologists believed that the degree to which a person can naturally experience happiness, referred to as a “set point”, was innate and unchangeable. We now know that, like weight, it’s more of a predetermined range of potential rather than a single fixed number. Genetics influence about half of a person’s total happiness level and circumstances another 10 percent.

But the other 40 percent is affected by “intentional activity”, meaning anything we do consistently and on purpose, whether a positive habit, such as regularly meditating, or a negative one, such as drinking excessively every night

Terri Trespicio, “Thank-You Therapy”, Body & Soul Magazine, Spetember 2008

How to improve our wellbeing

We expend a lot of effort to improve the external conditions of our lives, but in the end it is always the mind that creates our experience of the world and translates this experience into either well-being or suffering

Matthieu Ricard