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Wednesday 15 April 2020

Epilogue



'Do not reach out your hands. 
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly, 
where we cannot touch.'

From: Pandemic by Lynne Ungar


Dear friends, 

Due to the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID19 crisis, I felt it was time for a short epilogue on this blog. These are clearly challenging times for all of us: Many things we have taken for granted are no longer available or possible, we have been physically separated from family and friends, and many people have been affected by the economical implications of this crisis.  

Therefore, it has perhaps never been as important to support our mental resilience as it is now, and I would just like to remind you that all previous posts on this blog are still accessible and remain as relevant (if not even more so!) as they were a few years ago. The free eBook with a collection of all posts is also still available for download. 

As previously discussed on this blog, scientific research has shown that our wellbeing depends less on external circumstances than on our internal attitudes, thinking patterns and intentional activities. Of course I do not want to underestimate the devastation, fear and grief this virus is causing. However, there are also stories of hope, resilience and connection, and it is up to all of us to make the best out of the difficult circumstances. And this may be a good time to engage in mindfulness practice, which has been shown to increase our ability to deal with adversity and difficult life circumstances.  

I am not planning to reopen the blog, but all of you who enjoyed it may be interested in an excellent website (https://www.tenpercent.com/) that I have come across, which offers many high-quality resources for free: 




TPH Coronavirus Sanity GuideHere you can find a collection of podcasts, talks and short meditations. I have found the podcasts particularly helpful and inspirational; a full list of the talks can be found here: https://podcasts.google.com/. The podcasts always feature expert guests and deal with topics like 'How to Handle Coronavirus Anxiety', 'Parenting in a Pandemic', 'How to Actually Get Work Done at Home', 'Meditating in a Pandemic', 'Love in the Time of COVID', 'You Don't Have to be Alone to be Lonely' and 'How to Go Easy on Yourself in a Pandemic' giving not only valuable hands-on advice but also literally providing a voice of sanity and wisdom in these mad times. 

TPH Live Meditations: As great and very practical offer, there are daily live meditations which can be joined through the website. These 20 minute sessions are suitable for beginners as well as more experienced meditators. The sessions include a 5 minute meditation lead by some of the most renowned meditation teachers followed by a question and answer section around the topic of how to deal with the current COVID19 crisis. You can tune into the live sessions every work-day at 8pm UK time, but all previous episodes can also be accessed as recordings. 

***Free access to meditation App for healthcare workers***: Ten Percent Happier is a high-quality meditation App and the company offers a 6 months free subscription to the App for all doctors, nurses, carers and auxiliary health care staff. If you know anybody working in the health sector, please forward them this link: https://www.tenpercent.com/care where they can subscribe to the App to support them in these difficult times. 

Stay safe and well, 
Petra

Thursday 18 January 2018

Dear Reader

The Good Life Campaign blog is no longer updated, as it was a charity challenge running from January 2017 to January 2018. However, the blog posts will remain available (Google allowing) and there is also the option of downloading all blog posts together with a Table of Contents and Index in a PDF eBook format. To get to the download page, click this link Free eBook or go to the Pages Tab at the top of the screen (this does not work on mobile devices). 

A big final thank you to all the generous donors who supported the fundraising campaign and made this blog a success! 

Saturday 13 January 2018

Putting It All Together: (Almost) All You Need To Know About Happiness, Well-being And A Fulfilled Life




‘There is darkness and there is light. Remember, living is an art.’
                                               Henrik Ibsen (playwright and poet)


So, my friends, this is it: With a little delay due to technical problems, this is the last post of my charity challenge and it is time to say good-bye. My year as a blogger has been a great experience, and I hope that most of you have found the information on the blog interesting and helpful.

If there is one thing to take away from this year then it is that for most of us, long-term happiness is not something, which just happens to us when we are lucky (when there is light). Neither is it helpful to directly strive for happiness. Instead, a high level of well-being and high life satisfaction appear to result from engaging with the world outside us in certain ways. The posts that I have written over the last year include (almost) everything which is currently known about how this may be achieved; they included many evidence-based simple steps, tips, suggestions and techniques on how to become better at the art of living and live a Good Life, even when outside conditions become more difficult (when there is darkness). And although the blog is coming to an end, the information will continue to be available:

The website of this blog will remain freely accessible (Google allowing!), so if you have missed any posts, you can catch up on them directly on the blog website (https://followthegoodlifecampaign.blogspot.co.uk), or through the posts on the campaign’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/TheGoodLifeCampaign).

Alternatively, for all of you who would like to have an all-in-one version, which you can keep safe for future reference, I have prepared a downloadable PDF file. This contains all posts in a chronological order, together with a table of contents and index. The link for the download can be found below.

Please feel free to download, save, print and share this ‘eBook’ with friends, family and colleagues. The download is free, but if it is at all possible for you, I would greatly welcome if you could leave a small donation for one of the wonderful charities that I am supporting with this blog as there is still a little way to go to reach the target. Any amount (even if it is just one Pound or one Euro) will be gratefully received. However, please do not donate again for the download if you have already been so generous to make a donation over the last 12 months!


The supported charities are:
World Veterinary Service  (improving animal welfare and veterinary training worldwide) 
International Rescue Committee (helping people in crisis areas to survive & rebuild their lives)
Donations can be made by clicking on the links above, which will take you to my JustGiving pages (donations can be made anonymously if you prefer). If you know me personally, you can also give me the donation directly and I will pass it on.

To view and download the PDF eBook click this link: PDFeBook

Before I say good-bye, I would like to thank you once again for following the blog, sending me great feedback, quotes and tips for material for the posts, as well as supporting the charities. It has been a truly remarkable year for me. I will remain available for any questions or comments so please feel free to contact me even after the blog ends, either by leaving a comment on the website, or by emailing thegoodlifecampaign@gmail.com.
So, it is now time to put it all together and take theory into practice: I hope that the posts from the blog will continue to resonate and inspire you to find a good way through the easier and more difficult times in your life. Maybe the blog has motivated you to read up more about one of the many topics which have been discussed, to re-prioritise your life, to live more mindfully and find different ways of looking at things, or to try out new habits and hobbies. You could start by looking at the book tips and favourite websites below.
Good-bye for now and live well,
Petra

And finally:
My personal book tips and favourite websites on the topic of well-being and more…

With a little delay, I would like to share my most favourite books and websites with you, which I had originally planned to include in last week’s post. It is difficult to pick from the large number of excellent books that I have read for this blog. The following books are a shortlist of the ones that I have found most enjoyable and/or informative.

Book tips:



General books about happiness and well-being:

  1. The Myths of Happiness: What should make you happy but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy but does by Sonja Lyubomirsky is a great book, giving very practical evidence-based advice on which attitudes and behaviours may be helpful in different life situations. 
  2. Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener provides a comprehensive overview of all factors which are associated with happiness. 
  3. Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive by Barbara Fredrickson is another excellent book. It explains how to harness positive emotions not only help to make our life more enjoyable, but also to make us more resilient to adversity.


An important book about meaning in life:
  1. Man’s Search For Meaning by psychiatrist Victor E Frankl a classic book on the topic, which deserves a special category. The book includes an autobiographical account of Victor Frankl’s own experiences and observations during his imprisonment in concentration camps, as well as a more objective overview of the central role that a sense of meaning and purpose have for psychological well-being.


Books about the brain, well-being and resilience:
  1. Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Kindness by Daniel Siegel provides a detailed but easy-to-read explanation of the processes in our brain, which are important for our well-being and optimal functioning.
  2. Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-being by Linda Graham also gives lots of in-depth but accessible information on the neuroscience of well-being, together with many practical tips and exercises in order to increase resilience.
  3. Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic & worry by Catherine M Pittman and Elizabeth M Karle is another well-written book about anxiety and related issues, and how to deal with them.


Books helping you to learn more about yourself and others:
  1. Personality: What makes you the way you are by Daniel Nettle is a great book for anybody who would like to find out more about our inner characteristics, and the more positive and more negative aspects of individual traits. It is well written and helps you to understand yourself and others better.
  2. How To Deal With Difficult People: Smart Tactics For Overcoming The Problem People In Your Life by Gill Hasson is a book everybody should read if they have one or more difficult people in their lives! Although it is not strictly ‘evidence-based’, it provides very wise, practical and helpful advice.
  3. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene is a great book for people interested in the question of what lies behind our moral decision making. It goes into great detail looking at moral principles and decisions from the psychological and neuroscientific, societal, political and philosophical level.
  4. Ten Types Of Human: A new understanding of who we are and who we can be by human rights lawyer Dexter Dias is a very accessible and well-written book on the topic of human nature. The book is a fascinating collage of personal stories interwoven with neuroscience and Human Rights Law.
  5. Schmerzgrenze: Vom Ursprung allt├Ąglicher und globaler Gewalt by psychiatrist is a highly interesting book about the causes of aggression, on an interpersonal as well as societal level. Unfortunately, it appears to have only been published in German, which is a shame because the topic is as important as ever. A hugely informative book for anybody interested into the precise causes of aggression and violence- you may actually be surprised about some of the scientific findings!


A great book about increasing your sense of control in life:
  1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity by David Allen could be described as life-transforming. It shows up very simple but effective ways of self-organisation, to allow you to be more in control of your time and direction in life.


Books about mindfulness and meditation:
  1. Full Catastrophe Living: How To Cope With Stress, Pain and Illness Using Mindfulness Meditation by the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program Jon Kabat-Zinn is a book I really enjoyed reading. It explains the principles of mindfulness really well and in much detail. (Tip: Read the chapter on stress first).
  2. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman is another great choice if you are looking for an introduction to mindfulness. The book is written as a standalone 8-week mindfulness-based intervention program to practice at home (including free audio meditation instructions).
  3. The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard J Davidson is for people who are specifically interested in the evidence behind meditation. It uncovers many myths but also many truths about the benefits and effects of meditation.



Links to great websites:



Donations are in aid of the International Rescue Committee and the World Veterinary Service






Friday 5 January 2018

My 10 Top Tips For A Happy New Year (And Beyond)




‘The secret to happiness is flowing not forcing.’
                                                             Unknown


The beginning of a new year is traditionally the time for resolutions and resolves to change our life. Although I have always been a bit skeptical about New Year’s resolutions (as it seems that most of them are broken within the first couple of months), the beginning of this year simultaneously marks the end of this blog, and therefore, this seems to be a good time for a little recap.
So below is a list of my Top Tips for increasing the level of subjective well-being and fulfillment in our future life. As regular blog readers will know, there is little point in waiting for our life to become perfect- because there is just no perfection in the real word, at least not in the long run. Therefore, it is a question of an ongoing process of adjusting certain habits, behaviours and mindsets. 
The tips represent the points that I find personally most important, but the list is of course by no means exhaustive (otherwise it would not have taken me almost a whole year to go through all topics associated with well-being individually). All points are based on previous posts, which you can access by clicking on the enclosed links.

My Top Ten Tips for well-being
  1. Do not try to seek eternal happiness- happiness cannot be directly pursued. It arises indirectly when you live well. The points below are a good guide for this.
  2. Get the basics right: Get enough sleep. Exercise and eat well. Spend time in nature. This is not optional. All these things have been proven to support healthy brain function, which is absolutely essential in order to feel well. See also the post Don't Forget The Basics, Self-Control, Food For ThoughtThe Great Outdoors.
  3. Build and deepen positive connections to other people. Right after the basic physical needs, this is the most important factor for our well-being. Spend time together and talk. Be kind to others and let others help you. Look for people who are supportive and allow you to grow. See also the posts about Improving Relationships With Others , Me, We, Them- What Drives Our Decision Making and Empathy and Compassion. Regarding the difficult people: See them as a challenge (not a threat), but don’t spend more time with them than necessary. For more information go to: Understanding Interpersonal Difficulties, No Need To Shout 1 & No Need To Shout 2.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Self-Compassion is a strength and has nothing to do with self-pity!
  5. Be clear about your values, priorities and goals- they give your life meaning. If you are unsure about your values, completing the signature strengths test may help you to get a clearer idea. See also the post About Finding Meaning.
  6. Change what you can change, but when you cannot change something then let it go and forgive. I have found this point really helpful. It is easy to waste a lot of time and energy lamenting things on which we have no influence, and it is a lot wiser to focus this energy on something positive and productive. Working Out What To Do, Forgiveness & Acceptance can give some further ideas.
  7. Be grateful for what you have, even the little things. Practicing gratitude (rather than regretting what we don't have) is one of the fastest ways to increase our subjective well-being. See also the post on Gratitude.
  8. Stay optimistic and hopeful (but not too much!). To learn more about finding the right balance, see Hope and Optimism.
  9. Learn to deal with difficult situations, your weaknesses, mistakes, failures and errors. Long-term happiness and well-being are only possible if learn to cope with adversity and are able to look at ourselves, others and the world openly and honestly ‘warts and all’: Courage, Dealing With The Darker Days, Perfectionism, Self-Compassion and About Resilience 2.
  10. Live mindfully and meditate- there is plenty of scientific evidence showing that mindfulness and meditation practices have a large variety of beneficial effects, and if you would like to focus on just one activity to improve your life, then this is a good starting point. See the previous post on Mindfulness. Some further updates on meditation and mindfulness can be found below.

If you like, you can use above tips as a guideline for any changes you may want to make to your life in the coming year. However, remember that most (New Year’s) resolutions fail, because we want to achieve too much too quickly. Instead, the secret of success often lies in making little and incremental, but consistent changes towards a goal. With some patience and persistence, we can then achieve a slow but lasting transformation.
This is particularly true as we cannot achieve happiness by directly striving for it, as suggested by the quote above in the introduction: When we try too hard, we will not get there.  
Mindfulness revisited
From all topics discussed on the blog, I have personally found the topic of mindfulness and meditation most fascinating and revealing. Although I had thought that I was aware of the benefits of mindfulness practices for quite some time, it turns out that I had in fact only just scratched the surface. However, the excellent books Full Catastrophe Living: How To Cope With Stress, Pain and Illness Using Mindfulness Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn and The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard J Davidson have given me a deeper understanding of the potential of these techniques, and I thought that you may be interested in an update on this topic.

One of the difficulties with mindfulness and meditation is that they are difficult to describe to other people, who have not come across them before. So here is another try:

At the most basic level, mindfulness may be described as a way of living, where we pay attention to present moment experiences (including mental/emotional experiences and body sensations) with a compassionate, open and accepting attitude.1 Mindfulness can be learnt through different mindfulness exercises and meditations (see below). However, mindfulness does not necessarily require these practices, as it is also possible to be mindful in our daily lives by staying in the moment and actively observing our moment-to-moment experiences. There are different variations of mindfulness. Probably the best researched mindfulness-based intervention is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which has been developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn a few decades ago. MBSR consists of a combination of different meditations and exercises which are taught over a period of 8 weeks, after which time participants are encouraged to continue with regular meditation.2  

Meditation can be most broadly thought of as a form of mental training, just as sport can be described as physical training.3 However, as you all know, there are many different types of sport. And similarly, although the most commonly practiced meditations have their roots in Yoga and Buddhist spiritual traditions, there are many different types of meditations (e.g. breathing meditations, observation of thoughts and emotions, transcendental meditation). Furthermore, as with physical exercise, these meditations can be practiced to different levels from the ad hoc, intermittent exerciser over the more serious ‘leisure’ sportsman to Olympic level so to speak.

In terms of the duration of effects of meditation, it is possible to differentiate between transient effects which only occur temporarily during the meditation practice itself (state effect), whereas it is also possible to induce lasting changes, which change how we behave and think in our daily life even outside the times of meditation (trait effect).3 The trait effect is made possible by neuroplasticity, a phenomenon that we have previously discussed on the blog. Neuroplasticity means that our experiences physically change the connections of nerve cells in our brains. This may not have measurable effects with a single, non-traumatic experience but with focused and repeated mental practice (such as meditation), we can re-shape our brain in a way, which causes noticeable and lasting changes.

Now, the interesting thing is that the specific type of effect that we can expect from meditation practice and the strength and duration of the effect (state vs trait effect) very much depend on the type of meditation that we practice and on the time that we put into the practice.3

For example, meditations with an emphasis on focusing attention on breathing and/or body sensations decrease mind-wandering, whereas observation of thought meditations increase our meta-awareness (meaning that we consciously think about thoughts and emotions, which makes us feel less entangled in them), while loving kindness meditations (where we evoke warm feelings of compassion for ourselves and others) increase positive emotions.3 Furthermore, during the meditation itself, breathing meditation tends to have a relaxing effect (decreasing the heart rate) whereas observing thoughts and loving-kindness meditations are not necessarily relaxing and may even increase the heart rate. 

As a general rule, trait effects are generally only observed in regular meditators.2,3 Although brief exercises (e.g. on mobile phone Apps) may have a temporary relaxing effect, they are unlikely to lead to longer lasting changes.

However, is we are prepared to put in more practice, there are many further potential benefits, which may include (depending on the chosen practices): An overall increased subjective well-being; improved emotion regulation and increased mental and physical resilience; better interpersonal relationships; improved concentration, memory and reaction times; a reduction in anxiety, depression, hypertension and stress; reduction in chronic pain.2,3 Regular (daily) meditation practice can therefore help us to find inner balance and wisdom, which can help us in daily life.

Despite these potentially immense benefits, it has to be stressed that meditation is not for everybody. Some people simply do not get on with it. More seriously, occasional adverse effects have been reported (also called ‘Dark Night Phenomenon’) although meditation (including mindfulness programs) is generally considered to be a safe form of mental training. These are rare, but can be serious ranging from severe panic attacks to the feeling of depersonalization and psychotic states. Harmful effects are more likely to occur in meditators with pre-existing mental health issues and in participants of intensive training retreats lasting several days. It is therefore advised that people with a history of mental illness should practice meditation only after assessment by an experienced instructor and not during an acute episode of illness.4

To return to the analogy of sport, it takes some training to become fit, and if we have not exercised for a very long time or have some sort of ailment then it may be better to do the training under qualified instruction in order to avoid injury. However, whereas we often have a very goal-orientated approach with physical exercise, mindfulness and meditation practices call for a non-striving attitude in order to become better at them. Again, this is very similar to the paradoxical effect that direct striving for happiness will actually slow us down in achieving just this. With mindfulness this makes a lot of sense, as the essence of a mindful life is to be present in the moment, with an open and accepting attitude towards new experiences (being mode) rather than trying to strive and control (doing mode).

When taking up mindfulness and/or meditation training, it is therefore advisable to do this with an open mind and not in order to achieve any specific benefit that I have listed above. This is also captured in a Buddhist joke:

A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple. 
"Ten years," said the Zen master. 
"Well, how about if I really work hard and double my effort?"
"Twenty years."


If you are interested in a mindful start in the New Year and setting long-term intentions, you may also be interested in this article, which was sent in by a good friend and blog follower: https://jackkornfield.com/dedication-and-long-term-intention/. Jack Kornfield's website also contains many other interesting articles on the topic of meditation.


You could also sign up to a mindfulness course. If you live in the UK then you find an appropriately qualified and accredited teacher near you via this website: https://www.mindfulnessteachersuk.org.uk/uk-listing/


Preview: Next week we have reached the end of the Good Life Campaign blog, but you can look forward to a downloadable PDF ‘eBook’.  

References and further evidence-based reading:
1. Williams M, Penman D. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World. Hachette Digital Little, Brown Book Group; London, UK. 2011.
2. Kabat-Zinn J: Full Catastrophe Living: How To Cope With Stress, Pain and Illness Using Mindfulness Meditation. Piatkus. 2013.
3. Goleman D, Davidson RJ. The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body. Penguin Random House UK, 2017.
4. Baer R, Kuyken W. Is mindfulness safe? 2016. Retrieved from http://oxfordmindfulness.org/insight/is-mindfulness-safe/
If you found this information helpful, please consider supporting the campaign under Just Giving. Of course it is also great if you choose to support another charity or do a practical good deed, but it would be nice if you could let me know that you have done this because you felt inspired by this campaign. Please also feel free to share this post and let me know if you have any constructive feedback- good or bad!




Donations are in aid of the International Rescue Committee and the World Veterinary Service