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Happiness is interesting.

Also interesting: Human suffering.

Ask one hundred random people what would have to happen for them to be consistently happy, and I suspect you would get one hundred different answers.

Some might define happiness in terms of diminished suffering; others might offer a positively framed description, perhaps in terms of relationship or success.

So what is happiness? Can it be measured objectively? And if so, can happiness be learned?

Those questions sound crazy, but are they, really?

Perhaps not….

Over six years ago, Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. used functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis to index the brain’s set point for moods.

His findings: Happiness is a skill. Happiness can be learned.

Functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are emotionally distressed — anxious, angry, depressed — the most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on the amygdala, part of the brain’s emotional centers, and the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.

By contrast, when people are in positive moods — upbeat, enthusiastic and energized — those sites are quiet, with the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex.

By taking readings on hundreds of people, Dr. Davidson has established a bell curve distribution, with most people in the middle, having a mix of good and bad moods. Those relatively few people who are farthest to the right are most likely to have a clinical depression or anxiety disorder over the course of their lives. For those lucky few farthest to the left, troubling moods are rare and recovery from them is rapid.

Dr. Davidson found that we have a biologically determined set point that determines our emotional range, our relative happiness; however, his research also shows we can influence and change our happiness set point, changing where we fall on the happiness scale!

As we’ve said before, the brain is an incredibly plastic organ.

Training the mind using the kinds of skills we teach our coaching clients, skills such as centering and mindful awareness, literally remodels our brains!

In short, the results suggest that the emotion set point can shift, given the proper training. In mindfulness, people learn to monitor their moods and thoughts and drop those that might spin them toward distress. Dr. Davidson hypothesizes that it may strengthen an array of neurons in the left prefrontal cortex that inhibits the messages from the amygdala that drive disturbing emotions.

So, happiness can be learned, and if that’s not great news, I don’t know what is!

One of the interesting skills we propagate through our coaching practice is mindfulness, keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present moment, a deceptively simple skill of relating to our experience.

What makes it so interesting is observing others and myself and noting just how infrequently we pay attention.  It seems not paying attention has become the new mantra of our culture.

I started a category in our blog called “Information Overload” which outlines some of the statistics of today’s environment; and whether you agree or not with some of the numbers, we can all agree our world is getting busier and we are changing as a result.

It is almost as if the world has taken on a life of its own, molting into something new almost every day…and the demands on us to keep growing exponentially.  So why the interest in a mindfulness practice developed over 2500 years ago, what could be relevant?

Here I am, feet to the fire, managing a business, a family, a whole horde of accounts; equipment, passwords …and I have a lot more I want to do in every domain of my life.  I mean I am busy, very busy and the wonderful day I imagined would come when I finally get it all organized and controlled has not arrived yet…and I know now it never will and that is good news.   How…more on that later.

So just, what is mindfulness?  The term mindfulness is an English translation of the Pali word sati…sati connotes awareness, attention and remembering.  Pali was the language of Buddhist psychology 2,500 years ago and had at its core the teaching of mindfulness.

(I am far from an expert of neither Buddhist psychology nor a Buddhist practitioner so for those who are bear with me.)

Mindfulness is about awareness and attention to the present moment.  Jon Kabat-Zinn shares a good working definition of mindfulness with us.  He says the mindfulness is “awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmental to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (We will discuss Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work more in a later post)

My working definition is “To be mindful is to wake up, recognizing what is happening right now”… or even shorter, “waking up”.

So how is this relevant to today’s world?  It might appear that as you stand around “waking up”; the world might pass you by.

In the next few weeks, I plan to explore the usefulness of this practice in our lives today as well as outline a list of daily practices that can greatly improve your performance.

Several years ago, I started looking more closely to what was going on around me. The more I looked the more I realized the depth and complexity of what most of call “our experience”. However, what was fascinating was just how different “our experience” was from one another. We more or less have the same senses but ask any two people to observe a person, place or thing and you get two different views.

Sure there are similarities, we have the many such common experiences, but the differences are legend. Think for a moment about reading this text: the filtering that is taking place both consciously and unconsciously of the information (data), our brains are receiving. You might find yourself shifting your weight in your seat, moving your arms, moving your eyes across the page, shooing an annoying fly, holding a cup of coffee all the while you are thinking about the words and concepts, relating them to your own experience and memories.

In The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders,T (1998) there is a interesting table titled “Information Flow in Sensory Systems and Conscious Perception”.

(Bits/s) (Bits/s)

Eyes 10,000,000 40
Ears 100,000 30
Skin 1,000,000 5
Taste 1,000 1
Smell 100,000 1

The flow of information into our system is enormous but as the table indicates, we are conscious of just a fraction of the data. It is no wonder we see, hear, feel, taste and smell differences…and it also gives you a good idea of just how astonishingly complex our brains are. Filtering that volume of information every second and making sense of it is let us say, amazing.

Let us just look at Nonverbal communication (NVC), usually understood as the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless messages.

According to Wikipedia, “NVC can be communicated through gesture and touch (Haptic communication), by body language or posture, by facial expression and eye contact. NVC can be communicated through object communication such as clothing, hairstyles or even architecture, symbols and infographics. Speech contains nonverbal elements known as paralanguage, including voice quality, emotion and speaking style, as well as prosodic features such as rhythm, intonation and stress. Dance is also regarded as a nonverbal communication. Likewise, written texts have nonverbal elements such as handwriting style, spatial arrangement of words, or the use of emoticons.”

NVC is only one small portion of our communication structure. Add to that language, context, conceptual mapping, emotions, drives and the primary operations of identification, evaluation and engagement and you have lots to think about as well.

I am fascinated by interpersonal communication, perception, and much of what I do while coaching is work within this domain. We perceive the world very differently although for the most part have the same senses. We also have unique and similar ways of evaluating and engaging the world, some of which could be called elegant and other not so much.

So how do we understand more about what we know is the truth, reality? How can the same problem be perceived so many different ways? Can we learn to expand our perceptual abilities in a meaningful enough way to improve our choices? Are you sure we see, feel, and hear the same things?

In Mel Brooks file, “History of the World – Part 1″ there a scene during the Roman period where a number of people are waiting in line to collect unemployment. Mel Brooks steps up to the window and is asked by Bea Arthur.

“What is your profession.”

Mel arrogantly replies, throwing his head back “I am a standup philosopher.”

Bea looks at him boorishly and asks, “A what?”

With great arrogance “I am a standup philosopher, I comprehend the vapor of human experience into a viable and logical comprehension”

Bea, with all the mockery she can muster (which is considerable) says, “So you are a bullshit artist.”

It is a funny bit in a very funny movie but it seems to relate to my point here…it is about perspective. To one a philosopher to the other a bullshit artist… all in the space of a few gestures and words.

Mindfulness – Keeping the Brain Limber

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In our postings on mindfulness and meditation, we are exploring the application and usefulness of both practices. Here’s an article with some practical advice in attending to your “attending”.

Quoting Gabrielle Leblanc in the article “4 ways to keep your brain limber”

Focus: The way we pay attention to the world can make a huge difference in the way we experience it.

“Many adults in our culture are addicted to a very narrowly focused attentional style in which we beam-in sequentially on the tasks of work, shopping, paying our bills, and so on,” says Les Fehmi, Ph.D., co-author of “The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body.”
This gripping form of attention, which can be identified by a characteristic brain wave pattern on an electroencephalogram (EEG), is the mode we typically use when poring over a written report or staring into a computer monitor at the office. It’s tiring to sustain (doing so often requires periodic infusions of caffeine and sugar), and is correlated with physiological reactions such as muscle tension, stress hormone secretion, and increased blood pressure, all of which take a toll on our health.

This kind of attention can also wreak havoc on our relationships — what romantic partner wants to be scrutinized with the same intensity that we direct toward an important work assignment? Yet because we’re called on to use the narrow focus so much, it’s hard to let go of.

Only on vacation do many of us broaden our awareness to include the smell of pine trees, the crunch of pebbles underfoot, the way a color mutes in the rain — a mode of taking in the world that Fehmi calls open-focus attention.

Vacations are a wonderful respite but unless we are very lucky that might be only two or three times a year. So what can we do today and the day after to stay both active and aware?

Awareness is a funny thing.  When I first started this project, I knew one of the most important and fruitful thing I could do was start paying attention, close attention to every single detail of my experience.  I have made a habit of that for most of my adult life and it has made a huge difference…there is nothing like really being where you are.

However, with this project I have taken that skill to a whole level.  And for good reason.  To explore doing 3415 pushups in one hour, every single intervention that contributes one more pushup is important… just as every diversion that in some way derogates the count.

And that exploration starts with me by paying attention.

Therefore, what is paying attention and how do I do it?  This is one of the first questions added to my journal for this project and for a good reason. If I was going to do this, I was not going to get there on will power or just by grinding out a bunch of pushups.  I just do not have that sort of energy…maybe 45 years ago but not today.  (45 years ago, I would have thought that anyone who did this sort of thing was crazy anyway).

If I had a chance at succeeding, I needed to pay attention to every single detail and chunk those details down to smaller and smaller pieces until I could understand something.

Therefore, asking, “How do I pay attention” was important and before I could answer that, I needed to explore what paying attention was.

The answer to that question has been the jabber of just about every single philosopher, religious leader, and thinker of the ancient and modern world so you will be glad to know I figured it out.  (For all you critical souls out there that was a joke).

Attention is one of the most intensely studied topics within psychology and cognitive neuroscience. William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) wrote, “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state.”

So paying attention is an active process wherein we selective narrow or focus our consciousness and receptivity, wherein we concentrate and focus on something at the exclusion of everything else.

OK, how do you pay attention…for instance learning the two-step, riding a bike, driving a car, or learning a foreign language?

I suspect there are thousands of ways to pay attention.  My next post I will outline in detail how I go about paying attention within the domain of this project.