Noticing and taking the time to acknowledge the things you’re grateful for boosts happiness so I’ve spent time in lock down recording what I’m grateful for each day.
It’s been an interesting and valuable exercise and one I think I particularly needed to do. For reasons that go a long way back, I’ve always spent a lot of time comparing myself to others. I never came out on top. Even if, by some miracle, I was ahead by whatever measure I was using at that moment, I managed to make sure I’d lose. I’d never achieved enough, worked hard enough, gone fast enough or I was mean for making the comparison in the first place.
I’ve worked hard over recent years to stop this incredibly unrewarding process. Mostly I notice it now and can stop it or give myself a few words of reassurance.
Lock down has also helped. Not going out and about, there’s not really anyone to compare myself with. Cocooned in my home with people I love, the competitive pressure has eased. I’ve had space to really turn my attention to what I’m grateful for.
According to Yale professor, Laurie Santos, gratitude is the quality of being thankful and a tendency to show appreciation for what one has. There’s strong evidence that focusing attention on things we’re grateful for boosts happiness compared to thinking of either neutral events or hassles. We also feel physically better and will do more exercise.
I started my gratitude journal by saying out loud “I’m bound to forget some days and that’s okay.” A little forgiveness at the outset stopped the stress rising when my consistency lapsed. My entries have been everything from appreciating the good behaviour of my dogs on a walk (by no means a given) to being able to continue working as normal throughout the lockdown.
But has it worked? Broadly, yes. I’ve done it pretty regularly, even if at different times of the day. I’ve noticed I’ve often thought of doing my journal when my stress levels have increased so instead of getting more wound up, I’ve relaxed and felt more positive. I’ve also done a lot more exercise. You could argue that’s down to having more time in lock down but I mostly work from home anyway so there’s been little change on that front for me.
Looking beyond myself, I’ve said thank you to those around me more. This week, I needed my teenage daughter to be ready at a specific time to fit in with my plans. She was. I know there’s an argument she should have been, but it was earlier than she wanted and she did it with no fuss. Her face showed she appreciated her effort being acknowledged.
Saying thank you to people around you makes good sense in the office too. People who are thanked tend to work harder. But with everything, you need to mean it. It’s easy to spot if the act of gratitude is no more than lip service.
Put some time aside to reflect on everything your grateful for and see the impact it has on you. Then make an effort to thank those around you and the people you work with. From my personal experience I’d say it’s definitely worth it.
It’s podcast time when I do the cleaning and this weekend it was Political Thinking with Nick Robinson. He was interviewing Jeremy Hunt. It was a fascinating conversation – they always are.
One of the topics they covered was the independence of the scientists in SAGE. (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). The question was can they give independent advice if they owe their position, salary and career future to politicians or officials. Jeremy Hunt admitted the risk, argued for the scientific advice to be transparent and so open to scrutiny by others but did say he believed they are independent and objective.
I’d like to challenge his answer.
I don’t believe the scientists are doing anything other than their best. They are experts in their fields and bringing their knowledge and experience to bear in the best way they can. But it’s wrong to suggest they are immune to unconscious bias, however you chose to define it. Anyone who says they are neutral and unbiased, don’t judge or never stereotype, is kidding themselves. Like it or not, we ALL bring bias, prejudice into everything we do.
And there are good reasons why. By their very definition, there is always, at the least, a grain of truth in a stereotype. Without them our brains would quickly get overloaded and we’d cease to function.
Naturally enough we also view the world from our own perspective. Rooted in our personal experience of relationship going right back to early childhood, our perspective governs everything, including the way we interact with people. I was raised in an environment that highly valued academic achievement and, unchecked, it has an impact on my perception of people. Independence was also important. I know, as an adult, I can be intolerant of people who ask for help a lot.
But admitting to being biased can feel taboo. Just writing the last few sentences has been uncomfortable. I kept wanting to qualify it so I don’t come across like a nasty bigot. When I’ve admitted it in the past I’ve been confronted by people proudly saying they’re never biased or prejudiced. They meet people as they are, not as they perceive them to be. They would never be swayed by anything other than the facts. They are objective. In one interchange they have heaped all their shame onto me and I leave the conversation feeling rubbish.
The real problems, though, grow from their denial. If we don’t recognise and accept our prejudices, we will never be open to reality. Worse, we may become rigid, fixed in our views, ‘pretending’ that because our perspective is based on objective facts, it is absolutely correct.
The challenge is in identifying and coming to terms with our biases and then understanding the way in which they impact every decision we make, every relationship we have. At the very least it can be uncomfortable and unnerving.
Going back to the SAGE scientists, I believe it’s impossible to be completely independent and unbiased. What matters is to know that. Then you can acknowledge it and work with it. If the scientists accept it’s possible, if not probable, the power the politicians and officials hold over their positions has an influence then that influences weakens.
Contact me, Cathy Connan, on 07976 669089 if you would like support in identifying and working with your unconscious bias.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week and the theme is kindness.
It’s well chosen. There is growing evidence that acts of kindness to others boost our own mental wellbeing. And if you do lots of acts on one day the effect is amplified. Kind people are happier people.
It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture to have an impact. Something as simple as telling someone you appreciate them can be just as valuable as making a big donation.
Kindness is like a glue that secures our connection to people. It binds us to others and the more we offer, the more we tend to receive, a virtuous circle of kindness. It matters because ahead of everything, humans are social creatures. Even those of us who feel comfortable in our own company need close relationships to thrive.
Taking the opportunity presented, I’ve reflected on kindness this week. I remember a moment last year when a friend noticed I was feeling overwhelmed. We were outside and it was the early evening and I was barely keeping it together. She went away and quietly came back with a chilled glass of Cremant. She’d noticed me and found a gentle way to let me know, without drawing attention to me, something I would have found intolerable. 12 months later, the care embodied by her simple action is still with me. My act of kindness today is to let her know I remember.
A kind environment is also more likely to be a safe environment. I don’t mean sugary and sweet kindness. That sort of kindness is likely to be much more about the person performing the act of kindness rather than the person receiving. They might think their act is in the interests of the other, but the truth is it’s probably more about them. Buying someone a cake on their birthday and gathering everyone in the office around to sing happy birthday may sound great, but if that sort of attention feels like torture then there’s nothing kind about it.
True kindness is attuned. The actions are rooted in empathy and motivated by the real needs and wishes of the other. The act of my friend was all about me, not her. She gave me what she saw I needed. Performed quietly, there was not even any recognition for her beyond my appreciation.
And a safe workplace is important. When we feel safe, we can be productive and creative problem solvers but when we don’t the opposite is true. If we feel unsafe, our focus narrows. We might be defensively prickly. We can literally not hear what people are saying.
Kindness flourishes where it has the space to do so, where people are respected, supported and given the space and time to reflect.
It will also flourish if we make it a habit. Be active in being kind, every day asking yourself what genuine act of kindness have I done today. Our neural pathways will slowly but surely re-wire until frequent, consistent and genuine acts of kindness become just our natural way of being. Setting the goal of performing at least one act of kindness each day, thinking about what might stop you and working a way around it, and sticking a reminder to do so on the fridge will help turn the ambition into a habit.
What a lovely way to boost wellbeing.
We all feel worn down sometimes, stressed by life’s demands and responsibilities.
Telling like-minded people how you feel and being heard, understood and accepted can make a big difference.
Space for You is a safe place where you can connect with others and offload some of life’s pressures.
At the same time, there’s an opportunity to explore the obstacles to your wellbeing and to discover some strategies to help you boost your happiness.
Each Space for You has a different theme. The first will focus on Undoing Stress. We’ll reflect on what you may find stressful, the impact of stress and discover realistic ways to reduce it.
Future Space for You sessions will cover all sorts of topics, each with an eye to supporting your resilience and boosting your wellbeing. They will include the power of daily acts of kindness, the importance of playing to our strengths, the need to embrace challenging emotions and the impact of a good goodbye.
Click here to book your ticket. Places are limited.
Space for You offers a safe and supportive environment, not psychotherapy or counselling.
As I sat down at my desk this morning it struck me, I was feeling pretty positive. Why? In this locked down coronavirus world, I’m missing being able to go and sit with my Dad who lives 90 miles away. I’m missing being face-to-face with friends. Work is uncertain and I’ve got lots of questions about the future. But it’s undeniable, I’m feeling good.
There are benefits for me in lock down. I’m always tussling with a conflict between a desire to engage with people and a wish to pull away, something that has evaporated for the time being. But today, it’s more than that. There’s even some excitement. I’m excited about exploring new things, learning new things. It’s not been a carefully considered plan, but I seem to have immersed myself in personal development in recent weeks. I’ve just completed a brilliant online yoga course for beginners (Vula Yoga) led by the lovely Dom Catto. I’ve read a good book on self harm, completed the Science of Wellbeing on coursera.org and watched lectures on surviving trauma and sexual violence. I’ve just signed up for an online workshop this weekend on increasing the therapist’s embodied presence online. My choices definitely won’t be everyone’s, but the point is I’ve immersed myself in things that interest me.
Interest is a positive emotion. It’s expansive, broadening our behaviour. The more we engage, the more we become interested in the next thing and then the next and before we know it, we’re on an adventure of exploration.
Surrounded by coronavirus and the limitations it’s imposing, it’s natural to feel any number of emotions often thought of as negative – fear, anger, sadness. These are evolutionary, adaptive emotions, hardwired into our brains. We can’t consciously control them. They are instinctive and immediate. They tell us about the world around us, about what we do or don’t like. They narrow the focus of attention onto the threat and propel us into the action needed to ensure survival. Fear makes us dodge the difficult conversation. It’s anger that enables us to make it clear when something is not okay and it’s sadness that slows us down and reach out for connection. Without disgust, we would probably eat the rotten fruit.
They are big, and visceral not cognitive. When I’m angry, I don’t think it, I know it in every part of my body. Much of my work as a psychotherapist is helping people accept and engage with these core emotions.
But other emotions are expansive and, now I look back, it’s clear I’ve been excited to take the opportunity to learn new things. One of the core emotions, excitement propels us towards the object of our excitement. For me, in this instance, that object is engaging and relevant new knowledge. The result – I feel positive, good and excited about the day ahead.
There is plenty of evidence that indicates being immersed in this positive experience means I am likely to be more creative, flexible, open-minded and efficient. The research also suggests I’m likely to be more interested in variety and accepting of different behaviours. That says a lot for what I might be able to get done today and what I’m going to be like to be around.
Perhaps most exciting of all, the benefits of engaging in positive emotions are not just for today. There is good evidence that engagement with positive emotions fuels personal resilience, creating resources I can call on later.
Go on, get excited about something today and immerse yourself in an expanding world of positive experience.