Category Archives: Living well

Positivity opens up possibilities–after we overcome the limits of our own negative thinking

Shawn Anchor is a positive psychology expert who focuses primarily on how to use the insights from positive psychology to transform corporate culture, with the goal of helping people be happier, but also more creative, more socially engaged, and more successful.

HIs first book was The Happiness Advantage, and, as you might expect, it focused on finding happiness in work, and the resulting benefits in terms of energy, creativity, and success. (Also an easy and fun read.)

The current book, Before Happiness, is about making that happiness shift possible even when it looks and feels impossible. The book provides practical help for creating the mindset that allows our sense of what’s possible to expand beyond our perceived boundaries.

Although his focus is on the corporate world (he has a long list of big-name corporate clients), the practical stuff applies to any of us who want to make that shift into a more positive, creative, engaged way of living.

Does this sound familiar? I’m excited about his book partly because it validates a lot of what I’ve learned from working with individuals who want to change longterm habits, but even more because I can draw on his work to help clients redraw their own map of reality so it includes positive growth and change.

However, his frame of reference is grounded in business, as I mentioned. I found myself wondering if one of his statements about work-world challenges really applies in the personal realm I’m interested in—people who are changing habits or whose goal is maintaining healthy habits. He was talking about competition, and the research he quoted was a study of test takers.  It seems the test takers in smaller groups of people did better than those who were part of a larger group, because the people in the small groups felt they had less competition, therefore more possibility of success.

I think of habit change and weight loss goals as personal things that we choose to do not to  compete for a higher score or some other prize, but because we’ve decided that we matter enough to be as healthy in body/mind/spirit as we can be at the moment (internal motivation).

But that’s not always true, is it? Lots of times we have goals that revolve around comparing ourselves to others, like family reunions or weddings. And that’s not always a bad thing, especially in the short term. Perhaps what we need is to figure out how to make that sense of competition work for us, or maybe it’s to counter its effects in some other way. I’ll give it some thought, and if you have any comments, I’d be glad to hear them. 

In the mean time, if you’re interested in the book, it’s available at the Bellingham Library as well as Fairhaven Books and Amazon, of course. 

Using mindfulness with difficult emotions

When I first began to get a handle on my own issues with weight, one of the great tools I found was Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating. I’ve used it ever since in my classes and with individuals—if you haven’t looked at it, do. (It’s available at the Bellingham Public Library, in case you’re in my area.) That led me to my own meditation practice, and to discovering other writers in the field, like Tara Brach, a meditation teacher and writer I admire, and Rick Hansen, a research psychologist and also a meditator and writer.

(At this point I doubt I’ll ever be a good meditator, but I am a meditator, and I think for me perhaps the whole point is being a bad meditator. Paradoxically, it means I’m doing something right, when I’m aware of my thoughts and feelings straying from whatever I’m focusing on.)

Rick Hansen wrote Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, both worth reading. But it’s Hardwiring Happiness, with its focus on our ability to develop or strengthen positivity as a personality trait that led me to a powerful insight that’s helped me with lots of other issues or situations.

I think we all have a resistance to feeling difficult emotions—it seems natural to me that we don’t want to feel fear or grief or rejection, among others. But the cost of being unwilling to face and feel those emotions can be pretty high in terms of our own growth and wellbeing. Think of the lost opportunities when we make a decision or act from our desire to avoid being uncomfortable, for example. Some of life’s most powerful moments can arise from difficult situations, after all.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Hansen offers techniques for facing those difficult emotions; one of the techniques he suggests is practicing strengthening our connection with the most positive emotions we’ve experienced, and then, when we’re ready to, allowing ourselves to feel both a positive and a difficult emotion at the same time. (It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we can and do feel more than one thing at a time?) The positive sensations become a kind of buffer against the  negative impact of the difficult ones.

I’ve used the technique this way: dwelling on the sensations associated with feeling loved and supported when I am also feeling stress and fear over an upcoming event. When I do this, I am able to bring the stress reaction under control, in a sense, as I remind myself that I am as prepared as I need to be for whatever’s coming. It allows me to see the stress reaction as a natural and possibly (on my good days!) even a beneficial force in a new situation.

Which reminds me—I’ll be doing two new workshops this coming fall at Whatcom Community College: one for dealing with chronic pain, and the other for transforming our experience with stress—and yes, we’ll be talking more about mindfulness (as well as self-hypnosis) in those contexts. I’ll post details as they become available. 

Practicing small kindnesses

I haven’t been very good at formally tracking my experience with the 8 positivity traits I wrote about last week–I intended to do that daily. Nonetheless, I’ve found I notice things I don’t think I would have noticed before. For example, on Mother’s Day, I was making a pass through the grocery store and overheard a fragment of a conversation between a young mom and her grade-school-age son.  She was telling him that she would take her mom out for a pedicure, and he asked what his grandma was doing for her on Mother’s Day. There was a pause, during which I could see some wheels turning, and she said, “It’s not up to her to do something for me–she’s not my mother.” His response was classic. Slightly aggrieved, slightly surly, he said, “Maybe if I had an allowance I could buy you something for Mother’s Day.”

At that point our paths through the store diverged, but I could see that this was not a new topic for them–I’m sure most parents can relate. But I started thinking about the kinds of things we think about when we think about giving. Very often we do default to thinking about money, or using money to represent the desire to give a gift, to celebrate some person, event, relationship. It’s not a surprise. That can be fun, and significant, and heartfelt, there’s no doubt.  But there are other ways that we give every day.

When we take a few minutes to listen to someone who needs to talk, knowing that we may be late  as a result. The way we use food to show someone we care–making a favorite dinner, or maybe chicken soup for someone who’s sick. Even sometimes the things we do automatically should count, like every day making sure the kids’ lunch bags have something they’ll eat instead of trade away. When we respond genuinely to a rote statement like “Have a good day,” that’s an act of connection, and those small acknowledgments of our shared humanity really do matter.

Money and things can be great gifts, for sure, but so are the gifts of our time, and full attention, and genuine caring.

Positivity skills worth learning

Science Daily is a great resource if you’re interested in what’s happening in the world of science. I just read about a study at Northwestern University, part of a larger study by Judith Moskowitz on teaching positivity skills to enhance the experience of people dealing with illness or other high stressors. This study compared the benefits of teaching these kinds of skills versus prescribing (or increasing) anti-depressants for 159 patients recently diagnosed with HIV. About 17% of these patients were already on antidepressants.

Half the participants took 5 weekly classes focusing on eight positivity skills. After 15 months, the rate of antidepressant use had not changed in the group learning to cultivate feeling calm, happy, and satisfied, and 91% of them showed a reduction of the virus in their blood, compared with 76% in the control group, more of whom were then using antidepressants (35%).

Here’s the report’s description of the 8 skills they learned to practice:

  • Recognizing a positive event each day
  • Savoring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it
  • Starting a daily gratitude journal
  • Noting a recent use of a personal strength
  • Setting an attainable goal each day and noting progress
  • Reporting a relatively minor stressor each day, then listing possible ways to reframe the event positively
  • Practicing a small act of kindness each day
  • Practicing mindfulness with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise, concentrating on the breath

Reading this, I’m reminded, once again, that there is a direct connection between active positivity and immune system function, and that we can support our own wellbeing—even when dealing with illness or other difficult stressors—with small daily actions.

Update: I have been doing a brief (10 minutes at most) self-hypnosis session in the mornings to remind myself of what I need to focus on–it helps with motivation, I find. Since I read about this study last week, I’ve been including using this list with a daily journal. It’s been great, although full of unexpected challenges, like focusing on when I’ve used personal strengths. One that I particularly appreciated is the reminder to be thoughtful about stressors; it feels really good when something difficult comes up to be able to view it in a positive way, instead of just trying to forget it as soon as possible.

Judith Moskowitz, the study’s author, is also doing the same work with diabetes patients, women with breast cancer, and caregivers of dementia patients. I imagine aspects of this could be helpful for people living with dementia as well.

An additional resource is a book I often recommend in my classes: Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. He’s a well-known psychologist and long-time meditator, and the author of Buddha’s Brain, about the neuroscience behind the effects of meditation on the brain. Hardwiring Happiness helped me make a breakthrough in realizing that I can move beyond my innate “negativity bias,” and giving me practical tools for developing and strengthening a more positive frame of mind.

Dementia rates falling

Aging is not for wimps. I can say that with confidence, from the vantage point of my sixth decade. That said, I’m fortunate to know people who exemplify aging well, and I’m doing my best to follow their example.

I just read an article in the New Scientist about dementia: “Defying dementia; it’s not inevitable” giving an overview about the types of dementia and what the current research has to tell us about the diseases and treatments. First the bad news: there isn’t a cure, although a number of promising drugs have been tested and found wanting. The good news is that we can fight back.

Aging is inevitable, and normal aging does involve slower but otherwise normal cognitive processing, but that is not the same as dementia, which affects memory, language ability, sensory perception, and executive function (focus, planning, etc.).

I’d read that there are fewer people with dementia in each age group than there were, and this article confirms that. Between the 1980’s and 2011 in England and Wales, the rate of people aged 65 and over with dementia dropped by 20%, and in the US, between 2000 and 2012, the rate dropped by 24%. The decrease is attributed to the populations’ increase in education level and in control of cardiovascular health.

It’s a great article; I recommend it, and I appreciated the clarity it brought to my lurking fears of impairment with aging. I really appreciated reading that there are so many ways to keep symptoms at bay: keeping to a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity, staying connected with others, sleeping well, keeping an active mental life. One of the experts put it this way: “walk, talk, and read.”

Another article, this one from Psyblog, looked at 3 groups of women who’d been sleep-deprived—one group drank coffee or cola, one group took a placebo, and the third walked the stairs for 10 minutes (this was a low-intensity effort—they weren’t running or even hurrying). Neither the caffeine group nor the placebo group reported any benefit in terms of energy and motivation for work, but the group on the stairs did.

It’s a bonus, isn’t it, to think that one small thing we can do to claim a little more motivation and energy in the moment is also something that serves us so well in the long run.

A Morning Gratitude Practice

Well, January is almost over, and I remember promising to give an update on my resolve to start each day with an expression of gratitude.

It’s been a seriously mixed experience. It’s been a crazy mixed up month, with our new president electing to disregard rights and protections that we have taken for granted for many many years.

I don’t need to go into details here, since anyone who cares is already following these events, except to say that it’s time for all of us to educate ourselves. History is full of examples of the folly of appeasing demagogues.

I’m not going to claim that there’s anything to be grateful for in this current political situation, since so many people are already suffering, and unfortunately so many more people will suffer. But I am grateful that I personally know people who have concrete suggestions for positive steps to deal with and hopefully change the situation for the better.

I lost the impetus to keep my morning record as the month went on, but this is what I did write down:

  • After starting the day with a focus on gratitude, it’s easier to notice what I’m grateful for during the day
  • Grateful for a wonderful night’s sleep, waking relaxed and restored, and I noticed how that feeling in my body changed as my thoughts came back online.
  • Grateful for the B vitamins that I’ve started taking again—because I had another night of great sleep and I think they contribute to that.
  • Grateful for the help I have from health providers—doctors, dentists, and therapists.

And that’s as far as the written record went. But I’m aware that other things that came to mind more than once included the support of my husband and a couple of good friends.

As I write this, I’m grateful that I have health insurance, and I can still afford it, although it is the single biggest expense—more than twice my mortgage payment. But that didn’t occur to me during my morning gratitude experiment.

This has been a difficult couple of months for many people—I’ve seen more people struggling with anxieties, and I’m sure it’s a common reaction. So anything we can do to stay grounded, and positive, and focused on the need to take good care of ourselves and each other is good. Gratitude as a practice can help us with that, I’m sure.

Weight loss goals that matter

Last night was our monthly drop-in-for-a-refresher meeting, open to anyone who’s taken the hypnosis for weight control classes that I lead at Whatcom Community College. Some of the regulars have their own names for it. I’ve heard “brainwashing,” and “tune up,” for example.

It’s always fun for me to see who comes—it could be someone who took the classes years ago and wants a refresher before an event like a holiday or a trip. Or it could be a few of the regulars, and that’s always cozy. Every once in a while it’s a bigger group, and it gets a little cramped, and that’s fine too. I look forward to this every month.

We talk about how things are going—it’s usually a mixed bag, of course, just like everything else in life. And then I lead a hypnosis session focused on whatever concerns are highlighted.

Last night was nice—just two good friends sharing updates and challenges. The highlight for me, though, came after, as we were all walking to the door. One friend said, “I have a goal.” Her goal is an adventure, not a set of numbers. It’s a fun adventure, to be shared at a date in the future, as a celebration. (I’d give the details, but it’s not my story to share, and if I’d thought of this last night, I would have asked her permission to give those details, but since I didn’t, I won’t.)

But I loved it! So many of us focus on the numbers, and that can be a real source of stress, especially when it’s a set of numbers that’s tormented us in the past. How much better to focus on something that has its own meaning. Meaning that is much more personal—an activity that’s been out of reach in the past, that can be shared with the people we love, who love us. It’s exciting to think about this kind of goal—it’s really about growing into the person we have the potential to be—and bringing our friends and family along for the ride.

Happy Holidays all!

Now that the longest night of the year is over, I’m ready to count my blessings–we’re turning the corner, heading slowly but surely toward the longer days of Spring. (And I’m ready to think about something other than dangerous processed foods–it gets depressing!)

Other than more daylight, most of the blessings I’m counting are people, and I’m feeling lucky to be able to celebrate the holiday with so many of the people I love and care for, who love and care for me.  There are other blessings, too, like the opportunity to do work that matters, work that makes me happy.

And today I remind myself that, although I have the ordinary human desire for more, more of everything, the basic stuff, the food and shelter and clothing and safety and enough money–all of that–I know how lucky I am just to have enough, and how lucky to be able to take that for granted.

We’re human, and impermanent, and inevitably all things will change, but it sure feels good right now to stop and cherish these gifts, the blessings of the day.

Happy Holidays, all.

Forget about the sweeteners—for your own good

Happy Holidays! I’m later than usual putting up the tree and blasting carols as we pull out the ornaments and turn on the lights, but now that we’re here, I’m ready to love it!  Have a great holiday season–

I just wrote an article about developing a positive mindset to help us maintain a healthy weight (look for it in the January 2017 issue of Bellingham Alive!). In it, I said that although I have strong opinions about nutrition and the value of physical activity, it’s far more important that we each find our own best healthy foods and activities, because that’s how we discover the most satisfying and sustainable way to stay active and healthy.

I said it, and I believe it. But, as I said, I have strong opinions, especially about processed foods. I know it’s hard for busy people, and particularly hard for busy people who don’t like to cook. But here’s one more plea for avoiding processed foods, especially processed foods with artificial sweeteners. And this goes double for diet sodas, especially for children.

It’s harsh that we turned to artificial sweeteners because we thought they help us consume fewer calories, but the truth is out: that’s not how they work, and calories don’t mean what we thought they mean anyway. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital started with the question of why artificial sweeteners—specifically aspartame in this study—don’t work to support weight loss. The possibility this study looked at is the action of a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), previously shown to prevent obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

This enzyme is the one that speaks to us about 20 minutes after we eat, producing the sensation that makes us wonder why we thought we needed another helping. It turns out that aspartame knocks out IAP activity.

The study used four groups of mice, 2 fed a normal diet, 2 fed a high fat diet. Half the normal diet mice had aspartame in their water, to equal the amount of 3 and a half cans of diet soda for a human adult. Half the high-fat diet mice had aspartame to equal 2 cans of diet soda. The others in both normal and high fat groups had just water.

After 18 weeks, there was no difference in weight between the two normal diet groups. Mice on the high fat diet with aspartame gained more weight than the ones who had plain water. Here’s the kicker: the aspartame mice in both groups had higher blood sugar levels and higher levels of the systemic inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome.

So much for aspartame. But another set of studies (described in the website STAT) looked at sucralose, aka Splenda, with equally horrifying results. The first study was done with flies, one group eating their fill of a normal diet, and the other eating their fill of a diet containing sucralose. In a few days, the sucralose group were eating 30% more calories. When both groups consumed normal sugar, the sucralose flies showed more neuron activity, suggesting a stronger taste for sweet as a result of their exposure to sucralose.

One of the study’s authors explained that the same neurons also make food taste better when we are starving. In other words, the neuron activity makes us think we need to eat when we don’t. The study was repeated with mice, whose response is more likely to be similar to humans’, with the same results.

I wonder if this is what’s behind the phenomenon that people are eating so much more sugar than we used to. I know so many people who’ve been drinking diet drinks to cut down on calories, only to find they’re craving much sweeter foods—much too sweet for my taste.

It’s kind of like our history with tobacco, which was marketed as good for us—“so relaxing!”—before it was seen as the health hazard it is. I think that’s where we are with artificial sweeteners and the ridiculous amount of sugar in processed foods. Just say no, folks.

When is visualization helpful, and when does it get in the way of reaching a goal?

Fantasy, a kind of visualization, is a chance to embrace a magical reality. It can be a wonderful experience—it can feel good—to lose ourselves in an alternate reality, when we can pretend that life is as we want it to be, maybe with a better job, fabulous success in your chosen field, better health, etc.

There’s only one problem with any fantasy: it doesn’t exist.

In 2002, a study evaluated four groups of people with goals, who either visualized what success looks and feels like, or anticipated a negative outcome. These groups’ four different goals were finding a job, looking for a romantic partner, acing an exam, or recovering well from surgery.

The study authors concluded that fantasy visualization leads people to feel as though they have already succeeded, while anticipating a negative outcome helps people to identify and deal with the obstacles or challenges they foresee. In other words, the pleasant feelings a fantasy evokes end up negatively affecting our motivation to pursue success—getting out there and applying for jobs, studying harder for exams, etc.

Another group of people expected good results based on their own past experience, and they also had a better outcome than the people who fantasized about success—presumably at least partly because they already knew the steps they would need to take to ensure success.

Fast forward to this year, and another study builds on the earlier research, this time focusing on the effect of positive thinking on depression. In this case, the study looked at the effect of positive visualization both in the moment and over time. What they found is that people did in fact feel better in the moment, as they experienced the positive feelings evoked by the fantasy, but the long-term effect (up to 7 months later) was an increase in depressive symptoms. The long-term reality did not live up to the fantasy, which remained just a fantasy. In this study, visualization of positive results not only didn’t provide a benefit, but over time it led to more depression.

So, positive thinking or visualizing success may not be an effective force for change in our lives.

In hypnosis, we typically use visualization. But a good hypnosis session involves more than visualizing the goal achieved—it’s not just fantasy. A good hypnosis session also explores any barriers to success—not just practical, tangible, obstacles, but also internal barriers like negative assumptions about our abilities and limits. With that basis, we use hypnosis to prepare for the work needed to achieve success. For example, a student who is struggling because of a negative assumption that he or she isn’t smart enough needs to reverse that assumption, needs to know that he or she has what it takes to do the work required to meet the goal. Hypnosis works well for that.

There are a couple of studies that I’ve written about before, showing that visualization under hypnosis involves the same areas of the brain that are active when people actually perform the activity. This doesn’t happen when people are simply thinking about it (fantasizing). Perhaps that’s part of the reason for a different outcome with hypnosis. When we’ve gone through the process under hypnosis, we are expecting a good outcome because we’ve experienced it before, rather than day-dreaming about how good it will feel.