Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Australian Government Wants You to be Happy!

Here's most of the email from my MD friend in Australia.
And some roses from my garden :)

"Hello everyone--
I thought that I would tell you of my recent attendance at the "Happiness and its Causes" conference I attended on 14 and 15 May.

Sonya Lyubomirsky has conducted research in how to become happier. Her definition of happiness is "experience of frequent positive emotions" AND "a sense that life is good". She concluded that 50% of happiness is genetic, a different "set point" (some people are just naturally happier), and 10% of happiness is situational (most people feel worse after a diagnosis of cancer); but that leaves 40% that can be altered by deliberate acts. These include scheduling a variety of acts that feel right to you, including: deliberate acts of kindness, writing letters of gratitude, savouring past happiness, counting your blessings, trying to find the optimistic interpretation of what is happening to you (naturally happy people do this anyway), and deliberately acting happy (smiling, laughing; apparently one small study found Botox applied to the frown muscles helped relieve depression because they couldn't frown!)

Her analogy is, like becoming fitter and slimmer, one has to exercise regularly and eat healthily, and so happiness can be achieved but it takes regular work.

A Buddhist nun, Robina Courtin, talked about how meditation can help you develop concentration, so that for example if you start feeling angry while driving in peak hour, you can realise this emotion starting and back off from anger, by changing the emotion to recognition. A Buddhist psychologist defined the good life as living a life we understand, cultivating public and private virtues according to the values we truly desire, and that this can't occur in isolation from society.

Educator Marva Collins was fantastic, telling her story of teaching deprived children the classics and producing a very high standard of literacy and academic achievement. She bases education on values as the "thread that hold societies together, including integrity, honest, industriousness, friendship, and loyalty." After studying Goldilocks and The Three Bears, the students hold a trial and accuse Goldilocks' family of letting her roam the woods! She teaches the children that they are all born to be winners. If they misbehave, they have to write one hundred reasons why they are too bright to perform the task asked; and if they scream at her "I hate you" she will react with a hug "I love you too, child". She uses Tolstoy's three questions: Who am I? What am I here to do? What is the most important thing on earth to do?

Ingrid Poulsen spoke on how she survived tragedy (her estranged husband killed their two small children and her father) by choosing to ask the question "How well will I survive?" and realising that "life goes on" whether you want it to or not. And most of the time there is no good reason "why" something happened, and it is practical to focus on "what now" and "how do I do it?". Her book 'Rise' is on resilience. She also commented that it is acceptable to recognise that some days you won't cope with watching the tragedies on the news, and may even need a "doona day"! (duvet day for those in the northern hemisphere)

Norman Doidge wrote a book 'The Brain that Changes Itself" about how deliberate acts can change the brain's function, such as exercises to prevent age related cognitive decline. I loved his story of Dr Paul Bach-y-Rita's father Pedro who had a severe stroke at age 60, was sent home to his son George after hospital rehab did little, learnt to walk and talk and so on, then while mountain climbing (!!) at the age of 75 had a fatal heart attack: his brain was dissected and the motor tracts were almost completely destroyed by the earlier stroke yet he had formed new connections in his brain in order to be able to function at such a high level. "Novices who use their imagination to mentally rehearse practising a melody on the piano systematically develop the same brain circuits as novices who physically practise the melody" which certainly implies that if you practise behaving happily, you may become happier. He commented that trained neurons fire faster and stronger, so it is hard to break a bad habit, but if you practise the good behaviour over and over you can develop a good habit that is hard to break!

Daniel Goleman spoke on how happiness is contagious, with his bus driver cheering up a whole busload of people every trip. His presentation included the New Haven school intervention system of traffic lights to use when upset: stop and calm down to think before acting, yellow is to pick the best action from a range of options, and then green trying best option to see how it turns out.Angry people have more activity in their right prefrontal cortex, and calm/happy people have more brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex (of their brain). And talking to a very calm person makes you have more activity on the left!

Daniel Seigel used his "hand" model of the brain to show how the prefrontal cortex is close to the hindbrain, hippocampus etc., etc. and how if you get angry or frightened you may "flip your lid" and the connections come apart and you function from the lowest part of your brain. His talk on choosing the higher functions of the middle prefrontal cortex showed that these can be created by a loving interpersonal relationship between parent and child; and also by mindfulness such as meditation. His biggest tip on how to become a better person is to develop capacity to sense your internal world (thoughts and emotions) and become more receptive.

Irving Kirsch gave a controversial talk on the unpublished research on antidepressants: very little evidence for their efficacy for many people (not all, and he strongly suggests that those on antidepressants speak to their GP rather than stopping their medications). Effective techniques for depression include exercise, altering diet and sunlight exposure, and psychotherapy (short term cognitive behavioural therapy is as effective as antidepressants in the short term, but much more likely to result in long term mood improvement after being ceased than the medications were), as well as social change (unemployed, poor and uneducated people are more likely to become depressed).

Ian Hickie from the beyondblue foundation agreed with the social and non-medication approach, but commented that medication may be appropriate in the initial stabilisation, a little like insulin may be appropriate for initial management of type 2 diabetes mellitus, while diet and exercise and weight are improved in an attempt to later be able to cease medication, though some will require medication long term.

Ruth Gawler added that the holistic history would also include hobbies, friends, social skills, family, supports, sleep, drugs/alcohol and that the client feels listened to; and that treatment could include support and clarifying the diagnosis and symptoms; and meditation and yoga.

Brian Rosner commented on the life of Dietrich Bonhoffer who wrote from prison how he managed to stay cheerful, despite knowing his death sentence was due for plotting against Hitler: Bonhoffer focussed on people rather than money/possessions, believed in God, was grateful for what he had (being able to write and walk around his cell), yet accepting that he would not achieve all his desires; and encouraging his friends to "spread hilaritas" (cheerfulness).
Tom Denson and Cynthia Morton spoke with Norman Swan about how to control anger so that you express calm assertion rather than aggression or submission. She recommended finding an "employed elder" to teach you on how to become more emotionally literate (she teaches maximum security prisoners). His research found that ruminating about anger increased aggression, and distraction decreases aggression (so if angry in the car, turn on a pleasingly distracting radio station rather than fuming about it all the way home and exploding at your family).

Suzy Green of the Positive Psychology Institute spoke of coaching to become happier, like any other task. Are you ready for change? Define the Goal, then prepare specific measurable realistic actions in a time frame that can be measured; then reward success! She commented that there are four main emotions which have a range from normal to abnormal, such as happiness (extreme is mania), fear/anxiety (caution is normal), sadness (extreme is depression, but can also be healthy reflectiveness), anger (ranging from assertion to rage).

Tony Buzan's talk on mind maps was an excellent show on creativity, but less obviously relevant to happiness; though perhaps since creativity is easier when you are happy (on average), perhaps I missed his point?

John Gottman gave an excellent discussion on divorce prediction and "the seven principles for making marriage work". Happy couples provide lots of positive feedback and agreement relative to disagreement and negatives (at least 5:1 if not 20:1). His tips were: build friendship by asking each other open ended questions (and remembering the answers!), building fondness and admiration, and noticing what partner needs and acting on it; as well as developing shared meaning together "the story of us"; and calmly accepting that some differences are unresolvable.
David Rock talked about how neuroscience affects leadership: status is so important that low ranked monkeys die younger than top ranked ones. It is "easier to cause aggravation (activate an avoid response) than it is to help others think rationally and creatively (the approach response)"... but leaders need to learn how to use the approach response as the outcome is better for the business as a whole. This involves reappraisal, recognition "oh that's just my mind reacting like that." Camp Quality uses the signature strengths questionnaire (of Seligman) to screen applicants for positions in order to hire optimists and suit the position to the person, recruiting for the skills they need.

Rob Donovan presented some excellent marketing used for the Mentally Healthy Western Australia campaign:
- Act (keeping self physically, socially and cognitively active)
- Belong (being a member of a group or organisation)
- Commit (involvement with some activity or organisation that provides a sense of meaning, eg volunteering to plant trees in a group)

It seems an excellent method to help a population become happier on average (even though the aim was to decrease mental ill health).

Sherry Strong spoke on organic slow cooking on a budget; Ruth Ostrow on simplification. and the quest for happiness including the quest for meaning; Cath Armstrong of on living on a budget as spiralling debt may make you less happy (though money per se is not linearly associated with happiness: ask Kevin to expound on this, and consumerism also); and the importance of company and connection to community was also mentioned.

Laugh yoga at lunch time was excellent.

When I read Martin Seligman's "Learned Optimism" earlier this year I found a few points helpful:
- optimists think of good things as permanent and bad things as temporary; pessimists the reverse;
- optimists think of good things as affecting everything and bad things affecting only that specific experience; pessimists the reverse;
- optimists think of good things as being due to them, bad things as being due to external events; pessimists the reverse!

He recommended working on hope and self esteem to improve one's own happiness (and those of others like children). He also advised trying to find some meaning in life, such as religion, that gives you attachment to something larger than yourself; and avoiding self-preoccupation, e.g. by giving time and self as well as (or instead of) money to charity, such as working in a soup kitchen. He also gives more detail about what to do when in a bad mood, such as distraction, and disputing a negative belief (getting more evidence about yourself and being able to change your opinion of your own unworthiness). His website "Authentic Happiness" is excellent (.org I think).
I forgot to mention that Sonya Lyubomirsky also concluded that happier people are more productive at work, better leaders, earn more money, are more creative, and are less likely to die of cancer or strokes (summarising lots of other people's research) so happiness is not just selfish, it is also useful for society.

So Your Country Needs You To Be Happy.

So what does this mean for me now? I'll be working on meditation, and actively working on saying positives rather than negatives, knowing that I'll need to practise every day. And being grateful for what I have and the people who have helped and loved me."

Thanks, Andrea. Me, too.