This week’s post brings our focus and attention into the spotlight, and includes stories about the importance of how we use our minds and what we put our main thinking energies into, as well as what we should perhaps be giving greater attention and energy to in order to make a happier and more flourishing nation, world and planet.
Kristine A. Wong writes:
Happiness is gaining popularity as a measurement of success for governments – and for some businesses, including Zappos, Southwest and BT
Whether it’s words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama, guidance from an empathetic career counselor or advice from a friend, we’re often told that it’s more important to be happy than anything else.
But for the more than 1 billion people around the world fighting hunger and poverty, happiness seems fairly irrelevant – a luxury for the middle and upper classes. Does happiness matter if daily needs are not met? Certainly the primary focus should be on taking care of the basics. Happiness is a bonus.
Most, it seems, would agree. But increasingly, the answer depends upon whom you ask. In certain academic and human development circles, the stock in happiness has been rising. So much, in fact, that in the last two years, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network(run by UN Millennium Development goals guru and Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs) has published the “World Happiness Report,” researchers’ attempts to measure happiness in 150 countries around the world.
That raises the question: As more thought leaders pay attention to happiness, should companies also consider happiness as one measure of their social impact?
“All businesses should care about happiness,” said Mark Williamson, founder and director of the London-based Action for Happiness Project, who joined Sachs in New York last week to release the latest report. “The happiness of a company’s people is vital to their business success.”
Companies with happier staff outperform their competitors, Williamson said, and a happier staff is sick less often, more engaged, more creative, more productive and better at working collaboratively.
Government will likely play a role in driving the happiness agenda, if it progresses. “There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their wellbeing,” said Sachs, one of the report’s co-editors…
But is a goal to improve the life satisfaction of people around the world really a means to an end? How would this accelerate or enhance ongoing work to secure access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, a sustainable food supply and a stable source of education?
“Wellbeing is really the driver that underpins all the development goals,” Williamson said. “Whether we’re aiming to alleviate poverty, ensure maternal health, support gender equality, or promote sustainability, the reason that all these things matter ultimately comes down to their impact on human wellbeing.
“If we get them right, wellbeing goes up,” he said. “If we fail to deliver on them, wellbeing goes down.”…
Sub-Saharan Africa – along with Latin America – is counted in this year’s report as one of two areas where happiness levels are increasing the most. The reasons? Higher levels of social support, generosity and the freedom to make key life decisions, the report said.
“Social relationships matter much more for happiness than possessions,” Williamson said. “Every organization should recognize that human wellbeing is at the heart of success and progress – and that they can play a role in contributing to this by the way they treat their people, the products and services they offer and the impact they have in the community.”
Some organizations, like John Lewis, have always put employee wellbeing at the heart of their business models, Williamson said. Buthappiness is gaining ground: companies such as Southwest Airlines, BT,Semco, Marks & Spencer, Zappos, Innocent Drinks and NixonMcInnesare increasingly taking it seriously, he added.
Happiness hasn’t yet become a top priority for sustainability-minded companies, but Williamson expects the trend to persist. And if its popularity continues to rise among nonprofits, policymakers and thought leaders, we could soon see it become a common corporate social responsibility metric as well.
A lecture by Neil Gaiman explaining why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens
…Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them…
…the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different…
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different…
In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need…
According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country’ where … our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce…
We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.
Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things…
Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
These ideas by Neil Gaimon make a strong chime with what Daniel Goleman talked about in his Action for Happiness hosted talk in London this week. Here are my notes of what he said…
Daniel Goleman, the internationally acclaimed psychologist and expert in Emotional Intelligence, explains the importance of Emotional Intelligence in modern life and also share some of the ideas from his exciting new book Focus, a groundbreaking look at today’s scarcest resource and the secret to fulfilment and performance: attention.
Most of the news we get is for the amygdala – firing up our sense of threat. If you feel pressured you just don’t notice a lot – and we are living now as if in a constant stage of being under siegeA Harvard experiment found that our minds our most unfocused commuting, at a computer, at workSocial emotional learning has now been going on in schools for over a decade. Studies have found that this learning brings anti-social behaviour down by 10% and pro-social behaviour up by 10%. And academic success up by more than 10%.Another study found that Leaders in the top ten per cent of effectiveness compared to least effective ten% had 80-90% of competences that are Emotional Intelligence (EQ)-centred.EQ is a model for Wellbeing including four essentialsa) Self-AwarenessGood work combines from doing what we’re excellent at, passionate about and matches our ethicsWhen we are in ‘flow’ our attention gets super-focused. This is optimal performance and it feels goodb) Self-Management – being in command of our emotions – cognitive controlStudies like the ‘marshmallow test’ find that kids who can’t manage their impulses are constantly distracted.A NZ study with that looked at kids, and then revisited them again in heir thirties found that cognitive control better predictor of success than IQ or wealth. And kids who learned who didn’t have it ‘naturally’ at the start but learned it ended up doing just as well. Self-management can be taught and learnedc) EmpathyOur more recent fore brain is designed to be linked to our other older brainsOur brain is peppered with mirror neurons – a brain-to-brain link – that operates in our entire biology, and that keeps us on the same page as another person. When someone is in pain we have an instant sense of this ourselvesThere are three ingredients to rapport:– full mutual Attention– non-verbal Synchronicity– Flow – it feels goodThis is operating in every human interactiond) Social Skill – good strong relationships and interactionsOur happiness increases in relation to the amount we care about others’ happinessA new and troubling Berkley study is finding hat people pay less attention to people of lower status. And Freud talked about ‘the narcissism of minor differences’ that can start a spiral of inter-group hostility.But The Flynn Effect showed its not the family you’re born into that has to predict who you become. We are always adapting and learning and evolving in response to the opportunities and circumstances we find ourselves in.And every time they come up with new IQ test they have to make the questions harder, because each successive generation gets smarter.We should teach children these skills. Doing this systematically would increase our GNP.
Mindfulness is one of the best ways to increase focus, attention and emotional intelligence. Mindfulness increases cognitive control by working on the muscle of attention. Every time you notice your mind wandering off and bring it back you are working this muscle.A Mindfulness exercise for children (that can easily be adapted for us older people):‘Breathing Buddies’ involves putting a toy animal in a child’s tummy. They breathe in 1-2-3 and out 1-2-3. When their minds wander away from concentrating on the breath in 1-2-3 and the breath out 1-2-3, just bring it back to focus on the breathing and the rise and fall of the toy again.Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zin found that if people did their mindfulness exercises for 28 days they achieved lasting and substantial improvements in their physical, mental and emotional fitness and wellbeing.Neuroscience has revealed that when we are upset, anxious or angry our Right prefrontal cortex is active. When we are calm and happy, this region is quiet, and the Left area is active. High activity in far to Left is indicative of resilience; far to the Right is indicative of depression.Mindfulness also mobilises the flu shot antibodies – as well as switching up our immune system.The Dalai Lama’s recently offered 3 questions for decision making. Will it benefit……just me or others?…just my group or everyone?…just for the present or for the future?The man that scientists call ‘the happiest man alive’, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard was involved in a study on his impact on the (2nd) most abrasive professor in a university.They came together to debate. The professor begins in a highly agitated state. Ricard stays calm. The professor becomes calm, and eventually doesn’t even want the encounter to end.People a transformed by positive encounters. And we can all cause ripples of happier encounters.But there is a bias toward unhappiness. If we understand more about how people can get along we might be able to promote that betterOur attention looks both in and out. Internal (self) awareness is focus on self. Empathy is focus on the other person. We need to able to be equally and simultaneously good at both.Passing on emotions is affected by three things:~ Expressiveness~ Power – for example if the leader is in a negative or positive mood the rest of the team catch it and their performance goes down or up~ Stableness – like Ricard showed the professor.Can you be happy for no reason?Can you cultivate a feeling of happiness independent of external circumstancesThere is a danger of mistaking espoused happiness for enacted happiness.We need to be authentically happyTechnology and FocusThe new social norm is to ignore the person you’re with and look at a screen. We have to get better at focusing. Why we have to learn cognitive control. Technology is insidiously stealing more and more of our attention. Mind wandering tends to concentrate on problems. The extent to which we can turn it off and focus on better things, the better off we will be.But the research on technology is showing good and bad things: for example, games increase vigilance but also a negative intention bias. New games are now being designed to improve attention.Social comparison is quite automatic in the brain. When you’re feeling compassion – loving kindness – your positivity fires up. To overcome negative comparison:– Compare down– Concentrate on the Positive– And be CompassionateHow do you study unhappiness without becoming miserable?Mindfulness should go and in hand with compassion and noticing and caring about what is happening in the world and if we can do something about it.Our biggest source of unhappiness is most usually our own mind
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has’. – Margaret Mead, Social Anthropologist
The version of history we are taught in school would have us believe that all important changemakers were men and that women had very little to do with the advancement of civilisation. However, we know this is completely false…
Can a girl change the world? Yes! But not alone, she must have the support of others as only through collective action is change truly possible.
BY: DAN O’NEILL & ROB DIETZ
It has been over five years since the global financial crisis shook the economic world. Since then we’ve seen spiralling debt, savage austerity, a crisis in the Eurozone, quantitative easing, and a variety of attempts to get the economy growing again. But despite all of this, little has changed. GDP in the UK remains 2 percent lower than when the financial crisis began, and austerity continues on unabated.
Everyone seems to agree that getting the economy growing again is the number one priority. But if growth is really the cure to all of our ills, then why are we in such a malaise after sixty years of it? Although the UK economy has more than tripled in size since 1950, surveys indicate that people have not become any happier. Inequality has risen sharply in recent years, and jobs are far from secure. At the same time, increased economic activity has led to greater resource use, dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, and declining biodiversity. There is now strong evidence that economic growth has become uneconomic, in the sense that it is costing us more than it’s worth.
In our new book, Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, Rob Dietz and I argue that it is time to abandon the pursuit of growth and consider a new strategy—an economy of enough. Suppose that instead of chasing after more stuff, more jobs, more consumption, and more income, we aimed for enough stuff, enough jobs, enough consumption and enough income.
The economic blueprint that we describe in our book is based on the contributions of over 250 economists, scientists, NGO members, business leaders, politicians, and members of the general public. Some call this blueprint the “new economics”, some call it “degrowth”, and some call it a “steady-state economy”. While there are differences among all of these approaches, the key ideas have much in common. They include policies to reduce resource use, limit inequality, fix the financial system, create meaningful jobs, reorganise business, and change the way we measure progress…
Instead of GDP, we need indicators that measure the things that really matter to people, such as health, happiness, equality, and meaningful employment. We also need indicators that measure what matters to the planet, such as material use and CO2 emissions. In fact, we already have these indicators—the problem is that we largely ignore them, because we are so fixated on GDP. If the goal of society were to change from increasing GDP to improving human well-being and preventing long-term environmental damage, then many proposals currently seen as “impossible” would suddenly become possible.
The real impossibility is achieving never-ending economic growth. No amount of austerity or stimulus spending is going to change the reality that we live on a single blue-green planet with limited resources that we all must share. If we’re serious about achieving a better life for the vast majority of people in Britain then we need a new approach—an economic model that prioritises people and planet over short-term profits. It’s time to embrace the new economics and say “Enough Is Enough!”
Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness, a movement of people committed to building a happier society by making positive changes in their personal lives, homes, workplaces and communities, writes:
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that our mobile devices are in danger of taking over our entire lives. Time magazine found that 68% of users take their devices to bed with them, 20% check their phones every ten minutes and one third report feeling anxious when briefly separated from their beloved gadget. According to Osterman research, 79% of respondents take their work-related device on vacation and 33% admit to hiding from family and friends in order to check Facebook and Twitter. It’s hard to deny that these are worrying trends.
So it’s no surprise we’re starting to see a backlash against the all-pervasive nature of digital devices. Companies like Digital Detox are now offering technology-free breaks where people have no choice but to disconnect. Their Camp Grounded summer camp is a place where “grown-ups go to unplug, getaway and be kids again”. One of the signs at the camp reads “The use of WMDs is not permitted” – an acronym that refers to Wireless Mobile Devices, although many clearly see these devices as Weapons of Mass Destruction too!
There’s no doubt that we need to restore some balance to our technology-dominated lives. But in my view the salvation from our digital gluttony lies more in our daily habits than in special events like Camp Grounded, wonderful as they may be. Before looking at some possible solutions, let’s not forget that the main reason we become so addicted to these gadgets is that they provide incredible benefits. We can communicate with distant friends and loved ones at the touch of a button. We can stay connected with what’s going on in the world. We can share what matters to us with the people we care about. And we can put travel time or waiting time to more productive use – potentially freeing up extra family and leisure time later. When used well, these devices can greatly enhance our overall wellbeing.
The problem of course is that many of us – myself included – spend so much time using these devices that we end up doing things that are detrimental to wellbeing – not just for ourselves but for others around us too. We strive to use our time efficiently, but end up leaving ourselves unable to unwind and get to sleep. We want to stay up to speed, but end up so overwhelmed with digital noise that we miss the information that really matters. We want to be connected to others, but end up ignoring the people we’re actually with – perhaps best exemplified in this powerful and poignant video. So here are my three suggested ground rules – or habits – for living well in an age of digital overconsumption.
1. Pay full attention to what you’re doing
… evidence shows that when our minds are constantly distracted, we’re not only less effective at what we’re doing, this also makes us much less happy. So instead of just reacting to these digital attention-grabbers the moment they appear, make a conscious decision to ignore them if you’re doing certain things – such as writing, having a conversation or eating a meal. … Equally, it can help to set aside specific times when you’ll focus entirely on responding to all the digital stuff too.
2. Ask yourself “what matters most?”
We’re so programmed to respond to our gadgets that we unconsciously give them priority over things that, on reflection, we would surely agree matter much more. So when technology grabs your attention, make a habit of consciously asking yourself “what matters most?”. Is it more important to read and respond to this immediately – or to get a good night’s sleep and be ready for tomorrow? Is it more important to check the latest headlines or get outside for 10 minutes of fresh air and head space? Is it more important to share my hilarious status update or make sure I’m home in time to see the kids? These questions have easy answers – and big implications for our use of technology – if we bother to ask them.
3. Give face-to-face priority over virtual
Our relationships are the most important contributors to our overall wellbeing, especially those with our nearest and dearest. Yet although technology helps us stay in touch with a wider range of people and connects us with loved ones in far off places, nothing beats our face-to-face relationships with the people that matter – our partners, parents, children and closest friends. So make it a habit to give the people you’re with priority over the gadget you’re holding. …One fun way of making sure this happens is for a group of friends or family members to agree to put their mobile devices in a pile and not use them while together. Some groups apparently even spice this idea up by agreeing that whoever can’t resist and picks up their phone first has to pick up the bill too!
Rebalancing our use of technology doesn’t require an appeal to our guilt or an assault on our productivity. It requires us to be more mindful and honest with ourselves about when these devices bring real benefits and when they start to ruin our quality of life. The many benefits are only worth it if they contribute to our overall happiness rather than undermining it.
At Action for Happiness we encourage actions to help people live happier and more fulfilling lives like these Ten Keys to Happier Living. And while there are many digital innovations that can help to boost our happiness – for example apps like Headspace or Happify – many of the most important sources of happiness in life are blissfully technology-free. So finally, here are three simple, non-digital actions that are proven to make us happier:
- Get active outdoors – walk through the park, get off the bus a stop early or go for a “walking meeting” with a colleague
- Take a breathing space – regularly stop and take 5 minutes to just breathe and be in the moment – notice how you’re feeling and what’s going on around you
- Make someone else happy – do random acts of kindness, offer to help, give away your change, pay a compliment or tell someone how much they mean to you
When we focus on the things that really bring happiness, our priorities shift and our relationships with our digital devices naturally start to be become more conscious, balanced and fulfilling.
Tess C. Taylor writes…
The key to more happiness at work is changing the way you think and feel about your career. It doesn’t matter if you are the janitor or the president of the company; any job can produce inner happiness. Finding joy in each work day and producing quality work can become the goals of your career. By making the effort to see the positives, you’ll begin to stop dwelling on the negatives. The best part is that with happiness comes higher levels of success.
If you are struggling to find happiness at work, here are five simple ways to start on the right path now.
- Be inspired. Any job can become dull or dreary when you lack creative outlets. As part of your effort to find new inspiration, take the time to experience culture beyond the walls of your cubicle. Visit a local museum, attend a concert or play, spend time participating in new activities to stretch your awareness of the world. These things alone with invigorate you and give you something to share with your co-workers.
- Create the best. If you are less than thrilled about your job, perhaps it’s your performance that needs to change? Complacency at work leads to boredom and mistakes. This results in negative feedback from your boss and thus, a negative attitude forms. Instead, strive to always do your utmost best in every task you complete, reaching new levels of performance.
- Do for others. There are many others in the world who are less than fortunate. A big part of feeling appreciative of the job you hold is by experiencing the lives and circumstances of others. Take the time to volunteer at least once a month at a local soup kitchen, women’s shelter, or another worthy cause. Give something to others in the form of service and see how good it makes you feel. Your perspective and life can change simply through a new altruistic way of life.
- Develop your talent. Chances are you have a number of gifts and abilities that you have not been able to utilize fully at work. It’s no wonder you feel frustrated at times! Honor your talents and find ways to share them, either through personal networks or volunteer opportunities. Get some higher education to develop your talents, either through your own resources or a tuition reimbursement program offered by your employer. You’ll find that this gives you a new positive attitude about your career.
- Seek new challenges. Any job, no matter how simple or complex, can become more satisfying when you challenge yourself. If you find yourself filled with dread over a task, talk to your immediate supervisor and see if you can take on something new to replace it. Seek out new challenges at work that bring you happiness, such as joining the entertainment committee or taking on an assignment with more responsibility.
Nearly every working person has experienced times of frustration and unhappiness at work. However, by being proactive and seeking out happiness, you’ll have the power to choose career satisfaction and achievement – with a new perception.
GAVIN ATKINS writes in the nef blog:
This week Mind launches our campaign to promote ecotherapy, with the publication of our report ‘Feel better outside, feel better inside: Ecotherapy for mental wellbeing, resilience and recovery’ . The report draws upon learning from the Big Lottery supported Ecominds programme, which funded 130 projects across England with activities including gardening, food growing, green exercise and environmental conservation work.
The programme was evaluated by the University of Essex and their report shows a demonstrably positive affect on people’s mental health and well-being, with seven in ten people (69%) experiencing a significant increase in well-being by the time they left an Ecominds project and three in five people (62%) with mental health problems reported an increase in self-esteem.
However, Mind also knew that these projects are saving money. In the public health realm they are providing a preventative service that reduces demand on more acute services, as well as offering pathways to employment, volunteering and training. They are mental health treatments that are often peer led and in groups, using spaces that are free or cheap. And projects are adding value to local green spaces, enhancing and protecting them…
Researchers have been studying the application of Positive Psychology in the workplace, and a growing body of evidence demonstrates that a positive mindset affects our attitudes toward work, as well as the subsequent outcomes. As Dr. Fred Luthans explains in the video at the end of this post, our “psychological capital” can, indeed, have a significant impact upon work and career.
Previously, I’ve discussed how the tenets of positive psychology hold great potential as a guide to help individuals and organizations elevate workplace happiness. Overall, the movement focuses on identifying and building on what is “right” with our work lives — emphasizing our strengths, celebrating smaller successes, expressing gratitude. Central to this theory is the mechanism that helps us build our “psychological resources,” and use this collected energy to digest and cope with our work lives.
Finding Your Workplace “HERO”
To provide a practical framework for this concept, researchers have developed what they aptly call the Psychological Capital (PsyCap) construct. It features various psychological resources (a.k.a. “HERO” resources) that are central to our work life experiences. We combine these resources in various ways to meet the challenges of our daily work lives.
What are HERO resources?
Hope: Belief in the ability to persevere toward goals and find methods to reach them
Efficacy: Confidence that one can put forth the effort to affect outcomes
Resilience: Ability to bounce back in the face of adversity or failure
Optimism: A generally positive view of work and the potential of success
New research reveals what happens in a wandering mind—and sheds light on the cognitive and emotional benefits of increased focus.
We’ve all been there. You’re slouched in a meeting or a classroom, supposedly paying attention, but your mind has long since wandered off, churning out lists of all the things you need to do—or that you could be doing if only you weren’t stuck here…
Suddenly you realize everyone is looking your way expectantly, waiting for an answer. But you’re staring blankly, grasping at straws to make a semi-coherent response. The curse of the wandering mind!
But don’t worry—you’re not alone. In fact, a recent study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert sampled over 2,000 adults during their day-to-day activities and found that 47 percent of the time, their minds were not focused on what they were currently doing. Even more striking, when people’s minds were wandering, they reported being less happy.
This suggests it might be good to find ways to reduce these mental distractions and improve our ability to focus. Ironically, mind-wandering itself can help strengthen our ability to focus, if leveraged properly. This can be achieved using an age-old skill: meditation. Indeed, a new wave of research reveals what happens in our brains when our minds wander—and sheds light on the host of cognitive and emotional benefits that come with increased focus…
For thousands of years, contemplative practices such as meditation have provided a means to look inward and investigate our mental processes. It may seem surprising, but mind-wandering is actually a central element of focused attention (FA) meditation. In this foundational style of meditation, the practitioner is instructed to keep her attention on a single object, often the physical sensations of breathing.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s much easier said than done. Try it for a few minutes and see what happens.
If you’re like most people, before long your attention will wander away into rumination, fantasy, analyzing, planning. At some point, you might realize that your mind is no longer focused on the breath. With this awareness, you proceed to disengage from the thought that had drawn your mind away, and steer your attention back to your breath. A few moments later, the cycle will likely repeat.
At first it might seem like the tendency toward mind-wandering would be a problem for the practice of FA meditation, continually derailing your attention from the “goal” of keeping your mind on the breath.
However, the practice is really meant to highlight this natural trajectory of the mind, and in doing so, it trains your attention systems to become more aware of the mental landscape at any given moment, and more adept at navigating it. With repeated practice, it doesn’t take so long to notice that you’ve slipped into some kind of rumination or daydream. It also becomes easier to drop your current train of thought and return your focus to the breath. Those who practice say that thoughts start to seem less “sticky”—they don’t have such a hold on you…
Recent behavioral research shows that practicing meditation trains various aspects of attention. Studies show that meditation training not only improves working memory and fluid intelligence, but even standardized test scores.
It’s not surprising—this kind of repeated mental exercise is like going to the gym, only you’re building your brain instead of your muscles. And mind-wandering is like the weight you add to the barbell—you need some “resistance” to the capacity you’re trying to build. Without mind-wandering to derail your attempts to remain focused, how could you train the skills of watching your mind and controlling your attention? …
The key, I believe, is learning to become aware of these mental tendencies and to use them purposefully, rather than letting them take over. Meditation can help with that.
So don’t beat yourself up the next time you find yourself far away from where your mind was supposed to be. It’s the nature of the mind to wander. Use it as an opportunity to become more aware of your own mental experience. But you may still want to return to the present moment—so you can come up with an answer to that question everyone is waiting for.
People in today’s society are not any happier than their poorer grandparents, because the psychological benefits of rising incomes are overshadowed by any loss, says new study
The reason people in today’s society are not happier than their much-less-affluent grandparents, is that the psychological benefits of rising incomes are wiped out by any small loss, according to a study.
Researchers found that people “experienced the pain of losing money more intensely” than the joys of earning more. They argued that the discovery had “significant implications” for policymakers under pressure to maintain a higher sense of well-being.
The findings by Stirling University’s Management School suggested that policy focused on economic stability, rather than high growth at the risk of instability, was more likely to enhance national happiness and well-being.
A strategy that ran the risk of small, temporary cuts to spending, on the other hand, would probably lead to more widespread dissatisfaction than previously believed.
The study may help explain why bonus structures and remuneration schemes that are based on commissions can easily backfire, with staff morale taking a larger dip than expected in leaner times when there are lower – or no – bonuses.
SAAMAH ABDALLAH, writing in the new economics foundation blog, reports:
Today, the ONS has provided more detailed breakdowns, allowing us to look at well-being right down to the Local Authority level across the UK. Data is available for both 2011/12 and 2012/13, creating an evidence goldmine for local authorities and health and well-being boards.
Which areas have the highest well-being? Which areas have the lowest well-being? And which areas have seen the biggest drops or rises in well-being over the last year? We’ve only just started exploring the data, but our initial findings show that:
- The highest well-being in the UK in 2012/13 was in Fermanagh in the south west corner of Northern Ireland. The average life satisfaction score there was 8.2 on a scale of 0 to 10 (compared to the UK average of 7.45), and anxiety levels there were the lowest across the UK.
- The lowest levels of well-being in 2012/13 were found to be in Harlow in Essex – with an average life satisfaction score of 6.8. The data shows a significant drop in well-being from their 2011/12 score.
- Which places are doing much better than might be expected based on traditional economic analysis? Well, Copeland on the Cumbrian coastline is ranked amongst the 25% most deprived local authorities in England, and yet average life satisfaction there has been above the UK average for both years of the survey. Ipswich, Weymouth and North Devon also have higher well-being than might be expected according to traditional economic analysis.
- At the other end of the spectrum, we wonder what is happening in Brentwood, Colchester and North Warwickshire – all areas with relatively low deprivation, but much lower well-being than one would expect. Colchester, for example, is amongst the least deprived areas in the UK – and yet life satisfaction was only 7.1 out of 10 in 2012/13, significantly lower than the national average.
- In some cases similar local authorities show very different results. What explains the differences in well-being between Merton and Bromley, two south Outer London boroughs? Average levels of deprivation are similarly low in these two boroughs, and yet average life satisfaction in Merton is 7.2 whilst in Bromley it’s 7.6.
- The ONS has reported overall rises in well-being in the year to 2012/13, but are there places which have seen well-being falling during this period? We found significant drops in life satisfaction in various places including Dundee and Chichester. We also found rising anxiety in many more areas including Somerset, Reading, the London Boroughs of Brent and Harrow, Sevenoaks, and Belfast.
- Lastly, we wonder what is happening in Hart in northern Hampshire. True, it is one of the wealthiest corners of the country, and it has the lowest levels of deprivation in England. But what can explain the huge increase in well-being there between 2011/12 and 2012/13, with life satisfaction jumping from 7.3 out of 10 in 2011/12 (which was slightly below average), to 8.1 out of 10 in 2012/13?
These are all preliminary analyses, and proper analysis will require the micro-data which the ONS will release in six weeks’ time. These initial findings raise some questions though (and hopefully some answers as well) for local authorities looking to navigate the challenging times ahead, and striving to improve the well-being of their residents despite severe budget cuts.
Every organisation, regardless of size or sector, needs to prioritise mental health and wellbeing among staff. Right now, one in six workers is dealing with a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or stress – so this is something affecting a big chunk of your workforce.
Implementing changes that boost wellbeing don’t just benefit the staff who are experiencing these problems, as everyone’s wellbeing is on a spectrum, whether they have a diagnosed mental health problem or not. Sometimes just knowing that support is available is enough to make employers feel valued. Three in five people surveyed by Mind said that if their employer took action to support the mental wellbeing of all staff, they would feel more loyal, motivated, committed and be likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work*.
During these tough economic times, employees are reporting more sources of stress, such as unrealistic targets, job insecurity, and financial pressures. Furthermore, staff concerned about redundancies are less likely to open up about issues such as stress; or to disclose a mental health problem to their line manager, because they fear being dismissed. But bottling up these problems will only make things worse; and likely lead to decreased productivity, increased sickness absence and presenteeism.
In our latest poll, Mind found that of all respondents who had taken time off from work because of stress, 90% gave their boss another reason for their absence – usually a health problem such as a headache or stomach upset. Only 10% were able to be honest and tell their organisation they were off because of stress. This highlights the sheer number of staff who don’t feel comfortable discussing their wellbeing at work. But now, in this time of austerity, it’s more important than ever that employers to make the first move by prioritising mental health and building resilience – it’s far better to weather the storm together.
Smart employers appreciate that their organisation is dependent on its staff; and that a healthy and productive workforce is a recipe for performing at their peak. Good mental health underpins this – with employees who work for organisations which prioritise mental wellbeing reporting greater confidence, motivation and focus. There are simple, inexpensive measures that can help your organisation become a mentally health workplace.
…Approaches such as flexible working, building resilience and staff development contribute to good engagement, while involving staff in decision-making and giving employees autonomy are key to engaging staff. The way in which we work together is changing – with team work, collaboration and joint problem solving becoming increasingly expected of staff, but these types of working processes are dependent on mutual trust and employees feeling valued. Both engagement and creating a mentally healthy workplace are dependent on the foundations of good mental health.
We recommend a three-pronged approach to managing mental health at work. Such a strategy should promote wellbeing for all staff; tackle the causes of work-related mental health problems; and support employees who are experiencing an existing mental health problem…
The latest photos from Steve McCurry remind us what and who we are when are young and at play. Notice the focus on these stunning photos…
Child’s play is the exultation of the possible. – Martin Buber
Play is the highest form of research. – Albert Einstein
The true object of all human life is play. – G. K. Chesterton
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. – George Bernard Shaw
Katrina Fried writes
In a recent article about happiness at work, Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggests that the happiest among us are those who are solving the toughest problems and “making a difference” in people’s lives. If contributing to the betterment of the world is indeed among the keys to happiness, then it’s no wonder that the extraordinary teachers featured in “American Teacher: Heroes of the Classroom” [Welcome Books/Random House] express a deep sense of fulfillment and pleasure in the work that they do day in and day out. Against all odds, each of the fifty educators profiled is making a lasting positive impact on his or her students; the kind of impact that recasts futures, changes lives, and might just inspire the rest of us to consider a second career in education…
Here are some of these reasons:
- To encourage children to DREAM BIG…
- To positively IMPACT THE FUTURE of our world…
- To live with a deep SENSE OF PURPOSE…
- To discover your TRUE CALLING…
- To experience personal GROWTH…
- To GIVE AND RECEIVE unconditional love…
- To be a STUDENT for life…
- To INSPIRE generations of CHANGE…
- To ignite the SPARK of LEARNING…
- To explore your CREATIVITY…
- To prove that ONE PERSON CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE…
Brute computing force alone can’t solve the world’s problems. Data mining innovator Shyam Sankar explains why solving big problems (like catching terrorists or identifying huge hidden trends) is not a question of finding the right algorithm, but rather the right symbiotic relationship between computation and human creativity.
This is the text version of a talk which you can hear at BBC Radio 4′s Four Thought programme, first broadcast on October 23rd, 2013. It was recorded at Somerset House in front of a live audience with David Baddiel hosting.
Thank you for inviting me to come and talk today, and in particular, I want to thank you all for your attention. Your attention is a very valuable thing, and to decide to spend it listening to this talk here today, or at home on the radio, or later online, is not an insignificant act…
Because how we understand audience attention – how we ask for it, measure it, and build business empires by selling access to it – is fundamental to our culture. For the last few hundred years, the business of culture has essentially been the business of measuring audiences’ attention. We can trace a line of entrepreneurs of attention from today’s culture backwards through the last two centuries – from Jonah Peretti, who has used his intimate knowledge of the patterns of digital attention to build The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, two of the biggest news and culture sites on the web; through Arthur Nielsen, who invented the ratings technology that the US TV giants ABC, NBC and CBS were built on; to Charles Morton, who took the raucous entertainment of supper-clubs and taverns and developed the more mainstream and wildly popular Music Halls of Victorian England, from which came the talent that would dominate the early years of cinema and radio.
These entrepreneurs were not leaders, but listeners – their particularly skill was in realising that audiences were consuming culture in new ways, finding new ways to measure these new patterns, and new ways to make money out of them. The story of these ‘empires of attention’ is the story of how we – the audience – have engaged with culture, and how the interaction between artists and audiences has moved from visceral participation to abstract measurement and back again. This story starts amidst the raucous popular culture of Victorian England….’
Then traces the story from ‘Song and Supper Rooms’ in pubs to Music Hall and a more captive audience expected to abide by theatre house rules of no eating, drinking or vbvvbvbvb, to radio and television and film and an increasingly distanced audience’s attention being measured in the ratings numbers, to contemporary changes that social media is making.
‘The new entrepreneurs of attention in the 21st century understand this new connection- they understand that culture spreads not by distribution – as with cinema and broadcast – but by circulation – sharing between friends over digital networks…
…the empires of attention are shifting as we move from an era of distribution to an era of circulation…
…the sheer visceral impact of thousands or millions of people sharing and discussing your stories is a new experience for anyone used to traditional broadcast media, and we’re having to learn how to tell stories in an age of digital attention. We’re already hearing TV commissioners complaining that knee-jerk responses from audiences on Twitter are killing new TV shows before they have a chance to build an following. We are no longer a passive audience, but the judge and jury of what will survive and be recommissioned, deciding the fate of culture by how we spend our attention.
This new feedback loop can be incredibly empowering, but it is also destructive – the anonymity of social media can encourage trolling and other kinds of abuse. Crowds amplify the good and the bad in human behaviour, and the internet amplifies this even further. But I don’t think it’s possible to have one without the other – the noise is also the signal, and we will have to develop new ways to tell stories that take this into account.
The culture of the 21st century will be defined by how we synthesise these contradictions – scale and intimacy, spectacle and conversation, signal and noise. We have seen the relationship between audiences and artists move from intimacy to distance, and now back to a strange kind of intimate distance. What will culture look like in an age of digital attention, and what new empires will emerge around it? How we will we measure attention, and how will this change the relationship between artist and audience?
In a study published in the March 8 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Harvard provide the first laboratory evidence that cooperative behavior is contagious and that it spreads from person to person to person. When people benefit from kindness they “pay it forward” by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network…
The contagious effect in the study was symmetric; uncooperative behavior also spread, but there was nothing to suggest that it spread any more or any less robustly than cooperative behavior, Fowler said.
From a scientific perspective, Fowler added, these findings suggest the fascinating possibility that the process of contagion may have contributed to the evolution of cooperation: Groups with altruists in them will be more altruistic as a whole and more likely to survive than selfish groups.
“Our work over the past few years, examining the function of human social networks and their genetic origins, has led us to conclude that there is a deep and fundamental connection between social networks and goodness,” said Christakis. “The flow of good and desirable properties like ideas, love and kindness is required for human social networks to endure, and, in turn, networks are required for such properties to spread. Humans form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs.”
By Sam Judah
Picking up litter. Buying someone in need a coffee. Or just doling out free hugs. There’s a growing movement of people doing nice things for strangers, but do they make for a kinder society?
“It’s not just about single acts, though,” says Kelsey Gryniewicz, a director at Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. “It’s about changing your mentality from day to day.”
The World Kindness Movement represents the work of organisations from 23 different countries. “It has gone way past the level of community endeavour,” says its secretary general Michael Lloyd-White…
Globally, however, the position is very different. “The trend that has been revealed is a disturbing one,” says Dr John Law, the chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation. The number of acts of kindness and charity dropped by hundreds of millions last year due to the global recession, he says…
Richard J Davidson from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison thinks that the level of kindness in society can be improved if children are taught to be more empathetic from an early age.
“Compassion should be regarded as a skill that can be cultivated through training,” he says.
The kindness curriculum is currently being taught in 10 schools across Wisconsin. The project is still at the research stage, but “the early signs are promising”, he says…
Not everybody is convinced that focussing on compassion in this way is helpful, however.
In a new book called Pathological Altruism, Barbara Oakley argues against what she sees as a cultural obsession with the notion of kindness.
“There’s a misguided view that empathy is a universal solvent. Helping others is often about your own narcissism. What you think people need is often not actually what they need.”
Kelsey Gryniewicz doesn’t think that the American kindness movement is guilty of that charge, arguing that there are tangible, practical benefits to the activities they recommend.
“It doesn’t have to be about cradling people in a bubble of kindness,” she says.
In Singapore, William Wan takes a more reflective view. “We must be realistic. We mustn’t be naive. Kindness movements can’t solve all our problems, but if they can solve some of our problems, why not use them?”
BBC Radio 4 Analysis, Monday 14th October 2013
Charities have been drawn into the world of outsourced service provision, with the state as their biggest customer and payment made on a results basis. It is a trend which is set to accelerate with government plans to hand over to charities much of the work currently done by the public sector.
But has the target driven world of providing such services as welfare to work support and rehabilitating offenders destroyed something of the traditional philanthropic nature of charities? Fran Abrams investigates.
In this BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme the way the UK government is now outsourcing more and more of its services to charities is likened to a Faustian pact…
“The devil promised Faust everlasting life in return for a contract that said Faust had to satisfy certain requirements of the devil and that’s exactly the situation that voluntary organisations and charities now find themselves in.” Should they adapt to government contracting or remain pure? …
“…the voluntary sector may have the experience to help define the problem and how to meet it rather than simply responding to what the state thinks it knows is the problem the state and knows hoe to respond … is a fundamental change that has occurred over the last ten years.” Bernard Davis, trustee of Manchester-based 42nd Street
“…one of the substantial changes that I’ve seen over the last twenty years is being a professional is more important than pushing for social change and social justice.” Penny Waterhouse, Coalition for Independent Action group.
“…We are in danger of losing the richness and the unique character of the charitable effort that goes on in this country.” Brendan Tarring, Chief Executive of now wound down charity, Red Kite Learning.
“… When you’re down on the ground and the receiver of a contract, or perceived as having a vested interest, it is very hard for you to put your hand up and say ‘You’re getting this wrong, government, there’s a different way of doing things.’ You may not have the courage to do it. You may fear the loss of funding. But also there is a very high likelihood that the government may not even want to listen.” Caroline Slocock, Director of the panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector
By Emily Nauman
A new study suggests that just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation changes our experience of time
Bogged down with responsibilities at work and at home? Many of us wish we had more time to get it all done—and still steal time to relax.
While adding more hours to our day may not be possible, a recent study suggests a little mindfulness meditation can help us at leastfeel like we have more time in our lives…
The researchers conclude that mindfulness meditation made participants experience time as passing more slowly. Remarkably, they saw this effect after just a single 10-minute meditation, among participants who had no prior meditation experience.
Though more study is needed to explain this finding, the researchers suspect that the mindfulness meditation altered time perception because it induced people to shift their attention inward. In the paper, the authors write that when people are distracted by a task in the world around them, they have less capacity to pay attention to time passing, and so experience time as moving more quickly. Because the mindfulness meditation exercise cued participants to focus on internal processes such as their breath, that attentional shift may have sharpened their capacity to notice time passing.
Kramer thinks that this finding could be used in everyday situations, to help people gain control over their experience when they feel short on time. “If things feel like they’re running away,” he says, “slowing things down might help you deal with them more easily.”
Kramer also speculates that while a mindfulness exercise that shifts attention to internal events extends one’s experience of time, a mindfulness exercise that shifts attention to an external event could potentially make time feel like it’s passing more quickly. If this were true, mindfulness could have clinical applications for people who feel like time is moving too slowly, such as those experiencing depression, who tend to overestimate the duration of negative events.
Though Greater Good has previously reported on many positive effects of mindfulness, as well as on how experiencing awe can alter how we perceive time, this study is one of the first to investigate the relationship between mindfulness and time perception.
All of these articles – and many more – are in this week’s latest Happiness At Work Edition #69, out from lunchtime on Friday 25th October.