Today, March 20 is UN International Happiness Day

How are you going to celebrate it?

Here’s some suggestions based on research into what happy people actually DO.

– Do the things you love to do, that really absorb and engage you

– Spend time with family and friends, nurture your relationships

– Express appreciation to all the great people you have in your life – go on, tell those close to you what you really appreciate about them.

– Focus on, and express gratitude  for all the good things you already have in your life

– Spend some time reviewing your happy times and successes to date.

-Reach out to others – find opportunities to perform random acts of kindness to all who cross your path today.

– List your top strengths ( ask others to name them if you feel stuck!) and find ways to use them today.

– Talk up your own and others successes.optimistic-thinking2

– Spend some time out in the open air, preferably exercising.

– Watch some funny or feelgood movies  or make a playlist of songs that remind you of the “good times” (even your immune system will thank you for it)

 

my advice to you is not to enquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it is on your plate, Mindfulness Course, Well Being Course

– Work out whats most important to you and commit even more deeply to ways of advancing it.

– Only give “headspace ” to stuff you enjoy thinking about e.g.  imagine your best possible year ahead

– Savour the good things that come your way today – use your senses to really BE there and not in your head, not as a photo op , or planning what you will post about it.

 

Lest, I am accused of being “unrealistic”,  let me assure you, that

1 the above list is evidence based

2 happier and more optimistic people are healthier, on average live 10 years longer than unhappy people, have better relationships, end up in higher paid and higher status occupations or work that has deep meaning for them.

3  like everybody else, happy people have their shares of ups and downs -its where you decide to live, to park your mental energy, that matters – you have heard it before: GROW THE FLOWERS NOT THE WEEDS .

Make sure you pour fertiliser on the right stuff today.

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Anger management

The recent video from Judge Lynn in the US Divorce Courts on the advice she gave to Shaneesha on “managing her crazy” that I uploaded on the Positive Psychology Ireland Facebook page, has prompted a lot of interest and questions on whether I think Mindfulness can help manage anger. The answer is a resounding YES! Anything that helps you calm down , take things one breath at a time , and encourages you to look at the thoughts in your head as temporary, as  just floating by like clouds in the sky, is going to raise your threshold to the triggers that usually set you off.

In my experience also, it is a good idea to re-learn your ABC. It is not the situation itself,  which we  call the Activating event (A)  but your interpretation of it, your B (belief) about it, which sets off the heightened emotional reaction, the consequence (C). So step back from your habitual pattern of thinking , your beliefs and interpretations about e.g what lay behind someone rejecting your suggestion. Could there be  reasons other than that they are trying to get back at you or put you down? Could they perhaps not have the resources to carry out the suggestion at this time? Is it perhaps not something that is top of their agenda at the moment? Did you perhaps not spell out the advantages clearly enough? etc

Mindfulness really helps us to see that our thoughts are not solid, fixed entities, but only one possible way of viewing something,out of many different interpretations we could have. It helps us to to realize that whats happening in our head is fantasy, a construction , and not the reality of the situation, and encourages us to come out of our head and back to whats immediately in front of us in the sensory world.

I am reprinting here an interview I gave to Stellar magazine in August 2012 in relation to anger management for young people.

 

 

 

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Make your 2015 New Year resolutions stick

Make Your New Year Resolutions Stick

by Margaret Forde  registered psychologist Take the Steps” Mindfulness and Positivity Courses.

The many thousands of column centimetres that are written on the subject of resolutions every new year are a tribute to the fact that human beings are hope-making biological entities.
To help you on your way, I have compiled the Take the Steps research-based guide to help make your new year resolutions stick way beyond January.
1. Stick to what?
Our unconscious mind of course. Undoubtedly, it has the most influence on what actually happens in our lives. This of course was what Freud meant when he compared our mind to an iceberg,  but the latest research in neuropsychology points in that direction too. Daniel Kahneman’s  bestseller, “Thinking Fast and Slow “ summarizes the evidence to show why our unconscious deserves to be called our “System 1”.
Another metaphor that psychologists use to describe the influence of our unconscious on our behaviour is that of “the rider on the elephant”. Although the rider – our conscious mind, what Kahneman calls our System 2 to signify its subsidary role, – likes to think its in charge, it is no match for the strength and pulling power of the elephant. Everything can be great as long as the elephant is happy going along with the rider, but in many situations, the elephant has a mind of its own and other goals. So to achieve any goal, change any behaviour, we definitely need to get the elephant on board with the programme and not just depend on the exertion of system 2’s generally wimpy willpower!

2. Get the elephant on board with the program
This is the key to success. The elephant operates on imagination, often the wilder the better. Create a composite mental picture or colorful movie of your desired outcome. Make your movie exciting, because this will make the elephant take notice.  Spend some time daily running your mental movie in a relaxed state, when your system 1 is more to the surface, to program it deeply into the elephant. Re-run the movie in your mind when required!  The critical factors  here are to be able to relax to a deep enough level and to make your goal exciting enough so the more creative side of your mind is activated.

3. What is it you really, really, want?
Look at some of the resolutions you are contemplating and ask yourself are they exciting ? Are they aligned with your deeper values? What is it you truly want? If you think you might like to get fitter and in better shape, for instance, is it so that you can run up and down stairs without getting breathless? Is it so that you can walk into any store and find whole rails of clothes that fit you and look great? Is it to perform better in your sport, hobby or career? Is it to have a clearer mind and to be more resilient? Is it to be among the 20% of over 60s who are in rude good health? Is it to have a knockout effect on potential partners? Incorporate this “end result” picture into your mental movie.

4. Make resolutions that are fun, that have in-built rewards.
Our elephant is basically a reward-seeking missile, responding best to whatever gives us pleasure, whatever releases dopamine in the brain. What about making some resolutions like taking more holidays, spending more time with family and friends, spending more time in “flow” activities, or doing things that play to your greatest strengths?
Basically, if its fun for you, you will do it!

5. What if its not intrinsically rewarding?
You just build in rewards, as you go along, rewarding milestones along the way. Keep the gap between the milestones short at the start, and pick things that you really like as rewards, as long as they are not running counter to your goal. Even playing a “mental victory dance” ( wow, I did it , I did it ) when you complete a particular step or resist a specific temptation has been shown to release dopamine in the brain and keep us motivated.

6. Translate your goal into behavioural units.
A behavioural unit is something you actually do. A behavioural unit that you repeatedly do becomes a habit. A small step you habitually do is more effective than grandiose plans. This is what makes the “three good things” exercise performed daily more effective in lifting mood than either Prozac or counselling.
So, don’t just say to yourself “I’m going to meditate” or “practise the oboe more”, but identify the slots in your day or week when you are going to insert this new behaviour e.g ten minutes before lunchtime, when I drop the kids to school, when I come home from work, set the alarm earlier etc.
Remember, habits of mind are simply mental behaviours that you have constantly practiced. You can choose to practise other mental behavioural units!

7. Identify and turn around your triggers.
Our current habits are often activated by triggers e.g. the smoker who reaches for the packet when he or she relaxes with a coffee or tempting smells and sights to the person who has resolved to keep to a better diet. So really what we are talking about here is an outright battle between the reward seeking behaviour of system 1, the elephant, and the attempts of system 2, the rider to bear in mind the long term reward.
This of course was the subject matter of the “marshmallow man”, Walter Mischel. His initial research studied the characteristics of children who resisted eating marshmallows when they were left alone in a room with them. He then went on to study strategies for delaying gratification with both adults and children.
He recommended a two step plan which he found to be surprisingly effective :
– identify the triggers you are likely to encounter.
– develope a substitute if … then response “ if  I see X on the menu , then I will immediately order Y which I know to be better. “ This will become your new habit.
This strategy also works well with mental habits e.g “ If I  start worrying about something, then I will immediately replace it by imagining what I want to happen”.
I also recommend getting the elephant on board by using step 7, and by rewarding yourself with a mental victory dance or whatever you think is appropriate when you effectively turn around the trigger.

For more information and training in using your mind more productively, see  the “Take the Steps” program.


Changing your Thinking

Optimistic Thinking

 

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Buddha “We are what we think. all that we are arises from our thoughts. With our  thoughts, we make the world.”

John Milton “The mind itself is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, or a    hell of heaven.

The way that we think creates our experience of the world. Wisdom from poets,  philosophers and sages hold this to be true, and contemporary psychology agrees: think depressing thoughts and you become depressed, think happy thoughts and you become happier. This is the basic message of CBT : we can learn to control our thinking.

To put it another way : what we pay attention to, how we interpret what happens to us, the stories we tell ourselves about our past, all create what we will experience in the future.

Why is one person a cheerful optimist while others see more of the downside in situations? As we have all found from experience, forcing ourselves to “think positively” doesn’t last. 

In the course, I combine Mindfulness which teaches a detached way of allowing our thoughts to drift on, like clouds drifting accross the sky,  with explicit training on how to challenge unhelpful thought patterns, that seem almost “automatic ” to us. Narrowing the scope of negative thoughts is one of the major steps in developing more optimistic thinking skills.

But CBT isn’t the full story either. Psychologists and neuroscientists are pretty much agreed that only a small proportion of our actions are influenced by our conscious mind ( what Daniel Kahnemann calls System 1 )while the bulk of our way of thinking and action is more a product of our unconscious ( System 2.)

What we need is to change around the balance in our mind, at both a conscious and unconscious level. Some of our more anxious and depressing thoughts, come from mind sets that can be quite deep seated, that were formed during the conditioning process in our early years.

Through relaxation and meditation, we can have more access to our “deeper mind” and literally “stream in” more productive ways of thinking. We can even re-vist our past, and highlight the good stuff, which can serve as a solid foundation for a brighter future.


Positive Emotions

 

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The Nun’s Story

In a longitudinal study of nuns, researchers studied their auto-biographical sketches written in the 1930s. They discovered that 90% of those who expressed the most positive emotions , who wrote about feelings of happiness and “eager joy” were alive and well at age 85, compared to only 34% of the least cheerful quarter.

“A ratio of 3:1 in favour of positive emotion versus negative is essential for long term happiness” Barbara Fredrickson, Mindfulness Course, Well Being Course

Barbara Frederickson, winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize in 2000 conducted a series of experiments, in which she caused participants to experience positive emotions , and then discovered that they were better, speedier, and more creative in solving problems than those who did not experience the positive emotions. She concluded  that positive emotions have a purpose in evolution in that they broaden our intellectual, physical and social resources, building up reserves which we draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself.

Other researchers discovered that doctors who experienced positive emotions made more accurate diagnoses. So make sure your doctor is not a grouch!

Jonathan Haidt studied the positive emotion of what he terms elevation : our emotional reaction to experiencing the better side of humanity, to seeing someone else doing something extraordinarily positive, or carrying out such acts ourselves.  Indeed , the effects of carrying out acts of kindness have been shown to last longer and be more powerful than merely pleasureable activities.

In her recent book “Positivity”  Barbara Fredrickson corroborates this finding: her successful project in creating a more positive environment in a corporate setting  included the practice of loving kindness meditation. She recommends to set up our day so we have a ratio of 3 positive to 1 negative experience!

The same type of strong positive effect has been observed with the practice of gratitude and appreciation, both of which are themes in the best selling book and dvd “The Secret.”
The Secret, Mindfulness Course, Well Being CourseAccording to Sonya Lyubomisrsky, happiness researcher, “ the ability to savour the  positive experiences in our lives is one of the most important ingredients in happiness”.  Or, as Thornton Wilder once put it, “my advice to you is not to enquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it is on your plate.” But which we seem to lose as we “mature”. Being in the moment is of course the aim of meditation and life practice at the heart of the yoga and zen traditions.( see page on meditation)
Overall, the conclusion from the research is that inducing positive emotions causes negative emotons to dissipate rapidly. Which us good news for the average person, and gives us total permission not to endlessly ruminate on our problems and setbacks.

Happiness

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Researchers have focused on questions such as “ what behaviours and attitudes positively affect happiness and self-fulfillment? Can we learn to be happy?Surprising, happiness researcher Sonia Lyubomirsky discovered that only 10% of our happiness is due to our circumstances e.g. whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced etc. The low contribution of circumstances to our happiness level is explained by the principle of hedonic adaptation i.e. in plain English, we get used to even the most marvellous and life changing circumstances , and within about 3 months we hardly notice the difference!

50% of our happiness is in our genetic pre -disposition. So this leaves us with the fact that a very large slice of our happiness levels (40%)is due to the way we think and behave, what Lyubomirsky calls intentional behaviour. And the good news is that we can change these!

Researchers have identified three types of “happy lives”

1) The Pleasant Life– the life of pleasure (the hedonic life).Experience as many positive emotions as possible. Savour and amplify those moments.

2) The Good life – flow, the life of engagement ( the eudaimonic life ). Using your signature strengths*, what is deeply characteristic of you, every day ie. much of your time is spent in flow, in being fully engaged in what you are doing.

3) The Meaningful Life- much of your day is spent in pursuit of your strongest values, your “noble mission” , your overall “big goal” which gives meaning to everything you do and may involve an attachment to something larger than yourself.

And finally, the advice of Ed Diener, happiness researcher: if you have no goal, other than than your personal happiness,you’ll never achieve it! If you want to be happy pursue something else vigorously, and happiness will catch up with you.

  • to discover more of your own signature strengths, and participate in on-line research in positive psychology, you can log on to Martin Seligman’s site www.authentichappiness.com

Mindfulness and Flow

Untitled-2In all systems of meditation, the goal is to have a CLEAR mind, to be more present in our lives, rather than wrapped up in our head. The “normal” state of the mind always flitting from thought to thought , is compared to a “cage full of wild monkeys” in yoga books. The object of mindfulness is to steady the attention on one thing for a period of time.

Both the yoga tradition of meditation, and the zen tradition of mindfulness, have at their core the training of the mind to produce an effortless absorption in everything that you do. They both emphasize being present in your life, being in the now, as opposed to living in your head and running a commentary on everything you do. For the normal person, this usually requires training, as our mind is constantly in a state of overdrive.The whole world as it is at the moment – internet, TV, games on our computers and mobile phones – almost seems set up to produce the opposite and to bring us into more distraction and proliferation of random thoughts.

However, we may all have in our lives, activities in which we are naturally absorbed. The researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ( pronounced cheeks sent me high) found that people reported being at their happiest, when their total attention was taken up with what they were doing, a state that he named flow. Usually flow occurs when people engage in a task that activates and challenges their skills and strengths. Athletes often call it “being in the zone”.

The experience need not be pleasurable in itself : it could be climbing a mountain, working out a new schedule, solving a difficult problem in our work or hobby, listening to someone’s problem, fixing a motor bike, playing sport or chess, making love, painting a house or a canvas: what matters is that we have deep, effortless involvement in what we are doing, we don’t notice the time passing, we lose consciousness of ourselves. It often produces a feeling of exhilaration .

Mindfulness is a wider concept than flow: it emphasizes that even the most mundane activities can be performed in a mindful way, and the idea is to extend mindfulness to all aspects of our lives. Spending time in meditation connects us back to ourselves, increases more of our capacity for happiness and allows more of our latent creative energy to flow. Benefits of mindfulness established by research include: increased self-awareness and self-acceptance;enhanced appreciation, increased resilience, more fluid adaptation to change,more effective coping, serenity in the face of difficulties,decrease in anxiety,depression and chronic pain.

Mindfulness and Positivity are linked: Research shows that mindfulness increases positivity and it is easier “to be in the now” when you are feeling more positive.

It is interesting to note that being mindful involves losing consciousness of yourself and is the opposite of what happens in depression. One of the major symptoms of depression is self-absorption : the depressed person thinks about how he/ she feels constantly, ruminates about problems and projects their low feelings into the future, which produces feelings of hopelessness and more sadness. The answer may not be to more closely examine their feelings, or talk about them to others, but instead to move out of “living in your head “ and into more flow