Premeditatio Malorum

The Stoic philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world had a meditative practice called Premeditatio Malorum, or “premeditation of evils”, which consists of imagining and thus preparing ourselves for the misfortunes, obstacles, and suffering we can encounter every day or while pursuing a goal.

This technique of “negative visualization” forces us to confront undesirable things we would rather not think about, even though they are entirely possible, if not inevitable. Losing your job, being the victim of a crime, falling gravely ill, getting injured or killed in an accident, or getting that dreaded phone call about these things happening to someone you love. We all know these things happen—thousands of people fall victim to at least one of them every day.

It seems depressing and counterproductive for one’s mental health to dwell on these things. But for the Stoics—and for that matter, other practitioners of this idea worldwide, from Muslim Sufis to Buddhists—this mentality guarantees a healthier and happier life. It keeps you vigilant and as ready as possible for the bad things that come your way. It makes you appreciate every second you and your loved ones are alive. It challenges you to not sweat the small stuff, and to try to build healthier relations or interactions while they last.

Making it home safe from work is something to be grateful for, as thousands of Americans are not so lucky. Being able to call a loved one and hear their voice is something to cherish. Even waking up to see another day is something too easy to take for granted, even though millions worldwide wish they could have done the same. In short, it really is the little things that are, well, the big things, if you think about it.

Of course, like most efforts to improve one’s attitude and behavior, all this is easier said than done. But that is why it is called a practice.

The Countries With the Highest Well-Being

It is safe to say that most people want greater well-being in their lives, but as with concepts like happiness or success, it is often loaded and subjective — albeit up to a point. Wealth is certainly a big factor, if not the biggest, but so are — generally speaking — civil rights, a healthy environment, personal safety, and social support.

Predicating well-being on these and other inputs, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) conducted the “Sustainable Economic Development Assessment” (SEDA), which measures which countries in the world provide the most well-being to their inhabitants. The results were based on over 50,000 data points spanning three broad metrics and ten “dimensions of well-being”: economics (which includes income, economic stability, and employment); investment (health, education, and infrastructure) and sustainability (socioeconomic inequality, civil society, governance, and environment). Continue reading

How Awe Can Heal

Among the feelings and experiences that transcend all cultures, languages, and civilizations is the sense of awe and wonder one has upon reflecting on the beauty of nature, a masterful work of art, or some other emotionally captivating sensory experience. While we all enjoy such feelings, most of us would probably never imagine that they could be good for our health.

But according to recent study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, embracing the beauty of the world — be it artwork, music, wilderness, etc. — has a measurable positive impact on both mental and physical wellness. As The Telegraph reports:

In two separate experiments on more than 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride.

Samples of gum and cheek tissue – known as oral mucosal transudate – taken that same day showed those who experienced more of these – in particular wonder and amazement – had the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6 which is a marker of inflammation.

Psychologist Dr Dacher Keltner, of California University in Berkeley, said: “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”

Cytokines are chemicals necessary for herding cells to the body’s battlegrounds to fight infection, disease and trauma but too many are linked with disorders like type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s.

Dr Jennifer Stellar, of Toronto University who was at California University in Berkeley when she carried out the study, said: “Our findings demonstrate positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health.”

This is also one of the first studies to explore the role of cytokine in depression as well as autoimmune diseases; people with clinical depression also tended to have higher levels of inflammation, showing yet another correlation between physical and mental health. By feeling awed, curious, and captivated by something, individuals who would otherwise be withdrawn from the world’s beauty and left to wallow in self-perpetuating sadness and poor health can enjoy a palpable respite.

To be sure, these are the results of one relatively small study, involving a little over 200 young adults, and the researchers are by no means advocating nature or art as a substitute for medication, therapy, and the like. But this does confirm a long-standing observation of how a sense of awe of the world around us — be it natural or human-made — is good for mind, body, and soul (whether you define the latter in secular or spiritual terms).

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to feeling at my calmest and least depressed when I am listening to a brilliant composition or immersing myself in nature (even at a park or my own backyard). It has not always worked, nor should be expected to, but even the mere thought of all the beauty there is to embrace and experience is enough to comfort me during some of my darkest moments. Our species needs more than just the basic needs of survival to truly live and flourish. Together with diet, exercise, social support, and a sense of purpose, the fulfilment and stimulation that comes from all the natural and humanmade beauty of the world cannot be understated in importance. It all comes together.

Next time you are feeling sad or otherwise off in some way, consider giving this a try. Again, it is by no means a cure-all nor viable for everyone, but it is a shot. We all need to escape from our heads once in a while, especially if there is a lot despair and sadness stewing around. Never underestimate the sense of inspiration and comfort that well placed wonder can have.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

The Health Benefits of Watching Fish

IFLS reports on the first known study to research the psychological effect of observing marine life. It might seem like an oddly specific thing to look into, but given the long history of aquarium-keeping across civilizations, it makes sense to consider what value humans derive from the practice

Sure enough, British researchers from Plymouth University and the University of Exeter, in collboration with the National Marine Aquarium, found measurable benefits in physical and mental well being among test subjects following a bit of aquarium-gazing.  Continue reading

Five Short Exercises for Boosting Happiness

Happiness is one of the most elusive yet universally sought-after goals in humanity. Clearly, much of what makes us happy, or facilitates our capacity to pursue happiness on our own terms, is dependent upon a range of circumstances beyond our individual control — brain chemistry; access to healthcare, food, and other basic needs; socioeconomic stability; strong social and familial bonds; and so on. Hence why so many of the happiest countries are those that meet all or most of this criteria.

But many of us fortunate to live in conditions that are relatively conducive to happiness, nonetheless still struggle to experience it in any substantive or sustainable way. Part of this is a matter of framing — happiness means different things and takes different forms for different people — but setting aside that semantical and philosophical discussion, there exist habits, activities, and values that we can commit to that may help us to feel a general sense of mental and physical well-being.

Here are five daily activities that can go a long way towards mitigating anxiety, stress, and despair. They were formulated by “happiness researcher” Shawn Achor in an interview with The Washington Post. Founder and head of Goodthink, an organization devoted to researching and propagating happiness, and author of “The Happiness Advantage“, he is a leading figure in the positive psychology movement, a branch within psychology that focuses on cognitive and behavioral solutions to promoting mental wellness.

Now, I admit to having a fair amount of skepticism for at least some of the claims advanced by positive psychologists; my encounters with lay proponents suggests a shocking lack of empathy and basic common sense, encapsulated by the common refrain that just thinking positively would, in some vague and often spiritual way, lead to positive results — small comfort to those living in impoverished, war-torn countries or who are ravaged by advanced terminal cancer.

Granted, cursory research of the field suggests that my quarrel is more with these lay individuals who are misapplying or misconstruing the science, rather than with the academic and scientific field itself. By all accounts, positive psychology is simply a way to complement medicinal and therapeutic solutions to psychosocial problems with cognitive ones. And insofar as it seems grounded in sincere research and scientific framing, it does not seem so out of depth. Perhaps someone can enlighten my ignorance on the subject.

Anywhere, leaving my baggage at the door, I can see how the following tips can be pretty effective, both intuitively and by experience.

1. Three Acts of Gratitude. Spend two minutes a day scanning the world for three new things you’re grateful for. And do that for 21 days, The reason why that’s powerful is you’re training your brain to scan the world in a new pattern, you’re scanning for positives, instead of scanning for threats. It’s the fastest way of teaching optimism.

I was working with a large financial company, and we got them to think of three things they were grateful for for 21 days, and it didn’t work. The reason why is they were always grateful for the same three things: their health, their work and their family. So they weren’t specific. And they weren’t scanning the world for new things.

So this only works if you’re scanning for new things and you’re very specific. So if you say, “I’m grateful for my son,” it doesn’t work. But if you say, “I’m grateful for my son because he hugged me today, which means I’m loved regardless,” that specificity actually gets the brain stuck in a new pattern of optimism. It works with 4-year-old children and 84-year-old grumpy old men.

You can take them in a 21-day period from a low-level of pessimism to a low-level of optimism. There’s nothing magical about 21 days. We stole it from Alcoholics Anonymous. But after 21 days, the hope is, the path of least resistance in the brain tilts toward the habit, rather than away from it. So the hope is, it becomes not just a daily habit but a life habit.

It’s really getting people to feel like the change is possible. The habit seems to matter less than the fact that they’ve dedicated time to choose happiness.

2. The Doubler. For two minutes a day, think of one positive experience that’s occurred during the past 24 hours. Bullet point each detail you can remember. It works, because the brain can’t tell the difference between visualization and actual experience. So you’ve just doubled the most meaningful experience in your brain. Do it for 21 days, your brain starts connecting the dots for you, then you have this trajectory of meaning running throughout life.

I did this with the National MS Society. Previous research from the University of Texas found that if you have a chronic neuromuscular disease, chronic fatigue and pain, and you do this for six weeks in a row, six months later, they can drop your pain medication by 50 percent.

3. The Fun Fifteen: 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day. It’s the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant for the first six months, but with a 30 percent lower relapse rate over the next two years.

This is not a repudiation of anti-depressants. It’s an indication that exercise works, because your brain records a victory, and that cascades to the next activity.

4. Breathe. We did this at Google. We had them take their hands off their keyboards two minutes a day. And go from multitasking, to simply watching their breath go in and out. This raises accuracy rates. Improves levels of happiness. Drops their stress levels. And it takes two minutes.

5. Conscious Acts of Kindness. The final habit is the most powerful that we’ve seen so far. For two minutes each day, start work by writing a two-minute positive e-mail or text praising or thanking one person you know. And do it for a different person each day.

People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale.

Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.

Achor also adds the importance of getting restful sleep, which squares with mounting research showing that good sleep helps with everything from boosting happiness and concentration, to reducing the likelihood of obesity and heart disease.

I also like his concept of “social investment”, described thusly:

I’m constantly investing in people around me, especially when I feel stressed, sad or lonely, instead of doing the opposite, which is what most people do. So I’ll write a positive e-mail. I’ll meet up with a friend. If I’m going to a new city, I’ll e-mail somebody I know who’s there to have drinks.

What we’re finding is that it’s not the macro things that matter, but it’s the micro choices for happiness that actually sustain happiness the best.

Indeed, the social component of happiness and well-being seems especially weighty. Just as various international indices have found community-oriented societies to generally be the happiest (even if they were not the wealthiest or most stable), so too do individuals with active and health social lives react better to adversity (again, generally speaking).

We’re finding that happiness is a social creature. If you try to pursue it in a vacuum, it’s very difficult to sustain it. But as soon as you get people focused on creating meaningful connections in the midst of their work, or increasing the meaning and depth of their relationships outside of work, we find happiness rising in step with that social connection.

The big threat to happiness is social fragmentation, which industrialization and globalization of course can contribute to. We don’t find much difference in happiness levels based on economic structures of society. We do find them based on the depth of social connection.

I’ve worked with farmers in Zimbabwe who’ve lost their lands. I’ve worked with people in Venezuela, under threat of kidnappings, whose external world is unstable. But they have very strong social connections with their family and friends. And as a result, they’re able to maintain a greater level of happiness and optimism than I’ve seen from bankers, consultants, or salespeople who are on the road all the time, who follow jobs separated from their families, and, as a result, find themselves missing out on the happiness that comes from those very connections that they severed.

Personally, I can attest to the effectiveness of most of these methods. I am always at my happiest when I am helping people, being mindful of my fortunes in life, or engaging in physical activity. It can be difficult to keep such things in mind, let alone find the initiative to execute them (especially exercise and good sleep), but that is why it is important to consciously cultivate these activities until they become habitual — a part of everyday life that creates a virtuous cycle of happiness and active engagement with the world and one’s self.

To be sure, these exercises are emphatically not a substitute for therapy or medication, nor do they make up for the daunting external conditions — such as lack of employment opportunities, oppressive labor or political environments, etc. — that make cognitive adaptation just half the battle. But given how simple they are to try, and how intrinsically valuable things like physical activity and gratitude are regardless, these exercises seem worth a shot at least.

What are your thoughts?

Books and Meaningful Activities Lead to Happy Lives

As a lifelong bibliophile and culture aficionado, I didn’t need any scientific verification that reading, listening to music, visiting art galleries, and engaging in other forms of cultural immersion were good for my heart and soul. Of course, it never hurts to have some sort of research back these things up, so I was pleased, if not unsurprising, with the following report from NPR:

Going to the library gives people the same kick as getting a raise does — a £1,359 ($ 2,282) raise, to be exact — according to a study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport. The study, which looks at the ways “cultural engagement” affects overall well-being, concluded that a significant association was found between frequent library use and reported well-being. The same was true of dancing, swimming and going to plays. The study notes that “causal direction needs to be considered further” — that is, it’s hard to tell whether happy people go to the library, or going to the library makes people happy. But either way, the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark ring true: “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

Well, this certainly explains why I legitimately get happy when I go to a library or bookstore, or even when I’m in my room surrounded by my books. I could never explain how or why I’d be happy exactly; I would just feel an ineffable and natural sense of calm and contentment, as if I were engaging in something therapeutic — which indeed, seems to be what these activities are. I feel a similar sensation when I’m gardening, tidying up my living space, or going to a local culture festival. 

This finding sort of coincides with another study I came across recently that came to a similar conclusion: people who regularly engage in meaningful activities — ranging from exercise and sports to gardening and art — tend to feel better in the long run, especially if they’re helping people along the way.

For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudaimonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

First, the subjects underwent an fMRI while making a decision about whether to keep money for themselves (a hedonic reward) or to donate it to their families (eudaimonic). They also played a game to determine if they were willing to take risks for the possibility of a greater financial reward (hedonic).

The subjects then filled out a self-report questionnaire of depressive symptoms during the initial scan, and again a year later.

It turned out the teens who had the greatest brain response to the generous, family-donation financial decision had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of rewards the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behavior in ways that altered their overall well-being.

“For example,” the authors write, “adolescents who show heightened activation in the ventral striatum during eudaimonic decisions likely experience a sense of reward from supporting their family and may therefore show increases in the time they spend helping their family.”

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean parents can inoculate their teens against depression by forcing them to seek happiness through volunteering. But it could be that teens who already do that kind of thing because it really does lift their spirits are likely to have that lift stick with them.

“Taken together, our findings suggest that well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure,” the authors write.

Taken together, these findings — which coincide with plenty of anecdotal and philosophical observations as well — make clear that doing something meaningful and stimulating is beneficial to mental health. That may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate how seemingly mundane activities and tasks could help enrich our lives to some degree or another. While results may vary, and such things are far from substitutes for psychiatric care, it never hurts to explore the world around us and find interests and activities that could make us feel better. 




Food For Mind, Body, and Soul

In light of my preceding post concerning the virtues of being healthy, I thought it’d be appropriate to share some information regarding healthy food options. I also figure that it won’t hurt to be a little practical and down-to-Earth with some of my posts once in a while: they needn’t all be philosophical musings or political ramblings.

In a quest for knowledge, developing a healthy body is crucial, since it makes for a healthy mind. That in turn means that memory, cognition, and sensory perception all improve, strengthening one’s capacity to think, retain information, and grow. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that eating well and exercising regularly can make you a smarter person (not that those are the only factors to that end).

I can attest to this based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. Since I’ve began my health regimen, I have been far more effective at learning more things and doing so quickly. I can recall more of what I’ve learned, and seem to think more clearly as well. It’s arguable that all this is merely a placebo, a coincidence, or the result of something else entirely.

But even if that was the case, it wouldn’t hurt to try it out. None of these options are particularly exotic, expensive, or strange. Even if they don’t boost mood or mind, they’re still good for you in general. So I hope some of you will give them consideration, and maybe even share your experiences or advice with me as well.

Here are just a handful of the links I’m sharing:

A few caveats to keep in mind, both for these lists and any others: first, none of these suggestions are full-proof. The field of human nutrition is notorious for appearing inconsistent, contradictory, or just plain wrong with it’s advice.

There are many reasons for this, including the fact that it is a new and developing science, that the human body is very complex, and – perhaps most importantly – that every individual’s physiology is difference. These are just general remedies based on some studies: they’re not the be all, end all solutions for everyone, nor should they be seen as replacing conventional medicine.

Which leads to my next point: nutrition is vital to human health, in addition to exercise. That should be obvious enough, despite the ubiquity of bad eating and lifestyle habits. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be immune to any and all illness. A common trend has emerged suggesting that people could avoid ailments just by living healthily.

While it’ll certainly reduce the risk of some of the bigger killers, like heart disease, the risk of contracting or developing some sort of disorder will always be there. Cancer can still emerge despite good health (indeed, we all have a 40% chance of it at the very least), and many diseases arise from genetic and environmental factors, regardless of one’s fitness. So don’t get too confident or pass up any medicinal cures that may be more beneficial. Natural approaches are great, but sometimes you need to fall back on medicine from time to time.

Finally, don’t take my word on any of this – I’m not a professional after all. As with anything nowadays, you’ve got to do your research. Look for a consensus, make sure there is adequate evidence for the claims made, and check your sources. Better yet, experiment a bit: obviously, don’t try anything too out there, but examine the foods and exercises that work best for you and determine what will suit your specific needs. You’ll not only be helping to improve your health, but you’ll be broadening your palette as well.