# 61 Observe the Mysterious in Nature with Awe and Wonder

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Years ago I was gardening in the back yard when I heard a distant and unfamiliar sound that caused me to pause and look skyward.  There, in perfect V formation, was a gathering of large birds of some kind winging their way south.  I was struck dumb by the sight of them so high above.  It may be a familiar sight for those who happen to live in the flight path of migratory birds, but it is rare to see such birds coursing over a major city sharing airspace with jumbo jets.

Recently I learned that they were most likely sandhill cranes.  One flock of about 450 birds winter in the Okeefenokee Swamp in south Georgia and return to the Great Lakes area of Michigan in the Spring.  Their coiled tracheas allow them to add harmonies to their calls and to project the notes louder and farther, resulting in a loud cry that can be heard from as far as two miles away.  Their unusual calls have been described as trumpeting, bugling, rattling or croaking.

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Observing animals in nature often gives us an experience of transcendence, of deep joy.  It lifts us out of our everyday concerns and outside of ourselves.  It  gives us a window into some of the majesty of the diversity of life forms, of the deep mysteries of life.   Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.”

Can you recall an experience you had of witnessing  an event in nature with deep awe and wonder?

If you can, watch a nature show on television.   Check out a documentary video on an animal you find fascinating, e.g., the life cycle of salmon or the Monarch butterfly, the communication patterns of dolphins and whales, the mating rituals of birds, the social behavior of the great apes, the migratory paths of loggerhead turtles, the playfulness of otters, the way dogs interact with humans, the intelligence of the octopus, the parenting behavior of penguins (i.e., March of the Penguins).

 

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# 60 Forgive Someone and Heal Your Heart

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     We all know that our feelings interact with our bodies, particularly our immune systems, in ways that have a direct impact on our health.  In fact, extreme stress can result in a spasm of the coronary arteries.  Andrew Weil has written,

“… I advise you, as a spiritual exercise, to try to heal damaged relationships–for instance, by extending forgiveness to someone who has hurt you.  My experience is that the act of forgive-ness heals the forgiver, and along with many other components of the body, the coronary arteries might be beneficiaries of the healing energies released.”

Andrew Weil is a physician practicing holistic medicine and a widely known writer on health issues. He proposes that to heal the body, one must heal the spirit as well. Estrangement’ and bitterness cause fractures in the soul. Who have you been estranged from, unable to forgive? How could you begin the process of reconciliation? Perhaps you can write down your statement of forgiveness as a prelude to saying it in person. You do not have to lay blame or to accept responsibility for the estrangement. You can begin with a simple acknowledgment, such as, “I’m sorry that this feud has gone on so long.” or “I’m sorry we quarreled.” or “I feel badly that things took such a bad turn between us.”

 

Weil, A.  1997.  8 Weeks to Optimum Health.  (New York:  Knopf).

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# 59 Reflect on the Goodness of Others

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       What moves a person to risk his or her life to save another person, a stranger?  While the story of the Jewish holocaust in Germany during World War II is a story of genocide and of whole communities standing aside as the Jews were sent to their deaths, it is also a story of altruism.  According to researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner, of Humboldt State University in California, those individuals who hid Jews in their houses and apartments, and on their farms, saved upwards of 500,000 people.  To better understand what motivates people to save others, photographer Gay Block and author Malka Drucker, went on a three year journey to photograph and interview 105 rescuers from countries.  The answers, which often challenge our assumptions, are chronicled in their book, Rescuers:  Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.                                   Visitors at Yad Vashem

            Sociologist Nechama Tec, of the University of Connecticut, conducted a systematic study of rescuers for her book, When Light Pierced the Darkness:  Christian rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied PolandWhat is most striking about the group is their ordinariness.  They included the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the believers and the atheists.  They viewed themselves as quite ordinary as well.  “We didn’t think about it,” said one woman who, with her husband, saved dozens of Jews in Laren, Holland.  “We did what any human being would have done.”  Yet what they did was not ordinary.  One trait that set them apart was that they were individualists.  They did not follow the group, but followed their conscience.  Secondly, they had a history of doing good before the war broke out–visiting people in the hospital, collecting books for poor students.  Doing good had become a habit, and this simply continued through the war years.  Third, the rescuers shared a sense of universalism.  They saw the Jews, not as Jews, but simply as persecuted human beings.

Perhaps most astounding, the rescuers felt the gift of goodness could be passed on.  “It is like flowers growing in a certain soil,” said one woman who sheltered Jews in her home in the Ukraine.  “It is natural in every human being, but it must be nourished and cultivated.”

If you can, go to your public library and do some reading in these marvelous books.  The pictures in Rescuers are fascinating.  If you don’t have the time, go to the website http://www.holocaustforgotten.com/yadvashem.htm.  This is the website for Yad Vashem, a museum established in 1953 that honors both “Holocaust martyrs and the Righteous Among the Nations, Gentile (non-Jewish) rescuers who have been recognized for their ‘compassion, courage, and morality’ because they ‘risked their lives to save the lives of Jews.’ ”  The names of Righteous are added as they become known.  As of Jan.1, 2011, there were 23,788 names from 40 nations.  Poland tops the list with 6,266 names.  This is ironic in that anti-Semitism was strongest and most institutionalized in Poland.   Only in Poland were rescuers immediately  put to death.

Spent a moment of quiet reflection.  Consider the goodness of the 23,788

 

Block, G. & Drucker, M.  1992.  Rescuers:  Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.  New York:  Holmes & Meier.

Gorman, C. 1992, Mar. 16.   “A Conspiracy of Goodness.”  Time, p. 65.

Tec, N.  1986.  When Light  Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland. New York:  Oxford U. Press.

 

# 58 Look Forward to Growing Old, Live Longer

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Old Romanian Couple Smiling

 

There are good ways to grow old and bad ways to age.  What makes the difference?  In the August 2002  issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Yale university researchers Becca Levy and Martin Slade and others reported on the results of their study of people’s attitudes toward aging and how important this is to aging gracefully.  These researchers re-examined the data that was gathered on 660 people in the town of Oxford, Ohio, who were interviewed in 1975 when they were 50 years old.  They looked at five questions which constituted the individual’s attitude toward aging.  These were as follows:

‘Things keep getting worse as I get older.”   (no)

‘I have as much pep as I did last year.”  (yes)

“As you get older, you are less useful.”   (no)

‘I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.”  (yes)

“As I get older, things are better than I thought they would be.”  (yes)

Participants received a score from 0 to 5, based on agreement with the responses above.  Then they looked at the death rates of those with positive and negative attitudes toward aging.  The results were significant.  Those with higher scores (a more positive attitude toward aging) lived on average 7.6 years longer than those with negative attitudes.  The authors considered the possibility that perhaps it was the individual’s good health or poor health, or other factors, that predicted survival rates.  However, even when these were examined  separately, people’s attitudes toward aging were stronger predictive factors than male-female gender, loneliness, physical health, or household income.

The researchers then considered whether still another factor, called will to live, is what actually shaped people’s attitudes toward aging.  They measured this by looking at people’s answers, when they were 50, to the questions of whether they felt their lives were empty or full, whether they were hopeless or hopeful, and whether they saw themselves as worthless or worthy.  As expected, those who endorsed the items full, hopeful, and worthwhile, to describe their lives, were the same ones who were happier and living longer.

Consider this for comparison.  Weighing less, not smoking, and exercising is likely to add only 1 to 3 years to your life, while having a positive outlook is likely to add 7.6 years.  If you’re having trouble losing weight and don’t go the gym as often as you should, do a kindness for someone today instead.  It may do you as much good or more insofar as extending your life.

Watch another movie about people aging.  What is their attitude about aging?  Are the characters’ lives empty or full?  worthless or worthy?  hopeless or hopeful?

Reference

Levy, B., Slade, M., Kunkel, S., & Kasl, S.  2002.  Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (2), 261-270.

Szegedy-Maszak, M.  Aug. 5, 2002.  “Good Old Thoughts.”  U.S. News & World Report, p. 47.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo:  <a href=”http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-old-couple-portrait-image16398004#res6062508″>Photo Old couple portrait</a> – © Blanaru | Dreamstime.com

 

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# 57 Look Forward to Growing Old & Being Yourself

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      Let’s think about aging for a bit.  When I was younger I dreaded aging.  What is there possibly to look forward to about getting older?  Then I saw the movie, On Golden Pond.  This is the family classic with Henry Fonda, daughter Jane Fonda, and Kathryn Hepburn which came out in 1981.  In the movie Kathryn Hepburn makes the casual statement that now that she is older, she doesn’t worry about what other people think of her any more.

Wow, I thought.  Imagine not having to worry about what other people thought of you any more.  Now that was something to look forward to.  I began to notice that older people went about their lives with little thought to the judgments of others.  My youthful preoccupation in my high school and college years with my mother’s embarrassing behavior suddenly took on a whole new meaning.  Perhaps it wasn’t she who had the problem, but me.  Instead of being embarrassed by her, I should be trying to emulate her.  I began to pay close attention to the older women in my church, how comfortable they were with themselves.  They were long past caring and moved through their lives with grace and ease–whether they were bird watching, folk dancing, or demonstrating for world peace and clean rivers.  I began to look forward to old age as a time of complete security with myself and the emotional freedom to do as I like without anxiety.  I decided to move toward that goal as early as I could.  After all, why wait till I’m 70 if I can get there at 40 or 50?  Now that  I am in my 60’s I have arrived at that level of emotional freedom,  and my lack of concern with the judgments of others is the source of embarrassment to my own 20 something daughter.

Watch a movie today about older people.  Here are some suggestions.  Besides On Golden Pond, try these:

The Old Man and the Sea (1958) with Spencer Tracy

Wild Strawberries (1967) by Ingmar Bergman

The Sunshine Boys (1975) with George Burns and Walter Matthau

Love Among the Ruins (1975) with Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier

Cocoon (1985) with Don Ameche

Trip to Bountiful (1985) with Geraldine Page

Whales of August (1987) with Bette Davis and Lillian Gish

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) with Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy

Grumpy Old Men  (1993) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau

About Schmidt (2002) with Jack Nicholson

 Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood (2002) with Ellen Burstyn

Just for today, pretend that you are old and that you are long past caring what people think of you.

Say what you care to say and do what you feel free to do.  Be yourself.

 

 

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# 56 Savor the View

View 1lime-green-dot        In his book, The Social Animal, the author David Brooks uses the fictional lives of two characters, Harold and Erica, to explore many topics in the social sciences.  At the end of the book his characters are in their declining years and have moved to a cabin in Colorado.

“On summer afternoons they’d sit out on the porch in Adirondack chairs and look out over the Fork River and wave at the occasional raft trip going by.  He’d sit out on his porch and look at the elementals of nature—sky, water, trees, and sun.  … Harold found he could play a little game with himself.  He’s sit on the porch and look at a little flower in the grass down below.  He’d concentrate on the petals and their fragile beauty.  Then, by lifting his head, he’d gaze out at the icy mountain peaks miles and miles away.  Suddenly he was swept up in an entirely different set of sensations—feelings of awe, then of veneration, submission and greatness.  Just sitting there he could move from the beautiful to the sublime and back again.  He loved these grand views.  They gave him a feeling of elevation, of being connected to a sacred and all encompassing order, a part of some stupendous whole.”

What is it about landscape views that we find so uplifting?  Evolutionary psychologists suggest that people all over the world prefer paintings that are similar to what early humans would have seen as they gazed out over the African savannas where humans first emerged–open spaces, lots of light, thickets of trees and bushes, a water source, and an unimpeded view of the horizon.

The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that people are moved by landscapes because of their ability to evoke emotion.  He writes,  “We return to nature because it brings out strong and noble feelings in us  feelings of awe before the greatness of creation, of peace before a pastoral scene, of sublimity before storms, and deserted fastnesses, of melancholy in some lowly woodland spot.  Nature draws us because it is in some way attuned to our feelings, so that it can reflect and intensify those we already feel or else awaken those which are dormant.  Nature is like a great keyboard on which our highest sentiments are played out.  We turn to it as we might turn to music, to evoke and strengthen the best in us.”

Few of us are able to sit on a  porch that looks out on the mountains in the distance with a winding river below.  Can you recall a trip you took that gave you a view of the landscape that filled you with awe at the vastness of the earth and sky?  If you have a photograph of that place, look at it again and try to re-experience it–the sensation of wind on your skin, the perception of the light being brighter and clearer, an almost dizzying feeling of exhilaration.  Close your eyes and go back to that place.  Savor it.

 

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References

Brooke, D.  2011.  The Social Animal.  Random House.  pp. 350,  364-366.

Taylor, C.  1992.  Sources of the Self:  The making of the modern identity.  Harvard U. Press.  p. 297.

 

 

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#55 Volunteer and Improve Your Health

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There is some link between our happiness and the health of our heart.  Scientists have known this since the 1970’s when it was discovered that those people who are chronically tense, angry, and demanding (Type A personalities) also tend to have higher cholesterol levels and are more prone to heart attacks.  Researchers theorize that chronic irritability releases chemicals which convert lipids in the blood into LDL.

But does engaging in the opposite behavior—altruism, gratitude, savoring, for example—alter our heart health?  Psychologist Hannah Schreier at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues, sought to find out by asking 106 high school students to participate in a study on volunteering.  Half of the students spent about one hour per week helping younger children with an activity—either homework, sports, or a club activity.  They did so for eight consecutive weeks. The other half of the students, the control group, did not do any volunteering.

The student volunteers were tested at the end of the study and found to have lower cholesterol levels than when they began the study.  They also had lower levels of inflammation and lower levels of body fat than the students who were wait-listed.  It did not seem to matter what type of volunteering the student did.

How could such a simple activity, over a short period of time, alter one’s health? The researchers did a further analyses of which students in the intervention group had the biggest gains in health.  They found that those who reported the highest levels (on several personality scales) of empathy for others, altruistic behavior, and the lowest levels of negative mood had the most improvement to their health.  Researchers have established previously that volunteering seems to make the elderly healthier and longer lived.  This was the first study to establish the same effect for teen-agers.  Thus, the effects are likely beneficial for all ages.

If previous entries to this publication haven’t convinced you to start volunteering, you now have another reason—do it for your health.  What’s holding you back?

References

Schreier, H., Schonert-Reichie, K., & Chen, E.  Feb. 25, 2013.  Effect of volunteering  on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescents.  JAMA Pediatrics, 167 (4), 327-332.  Link to the article:  http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1655500

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# 54 Make Small Talk With Someone You Barely Know

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People in a coffee shop     We’ve known for years that social isolation, or loneliness, is bad for our health.  Isolated people have more health problems, and they don’t live as long as people who stay connected to others.  Psychologists have questioned whether it is the subjective feeling of loneliness, i.e., the lack of a close companion to talk to, or whether it is the lack of all types of social interaction with others, that is the important factor asso-ciated with poor health and decline as we  age.

Asked another way, how much connectedness does one need to maintain a sense of well being?  Do we need to be married?  To have a wide circle of close friends?  Someone to talk to about our problems?  Or is it enough to have a brief chat with the mailman and ask the woman at the drycleaners how her son is doing in college?

Researcher Andrew Steptoe of the University College of London led a team which explored this question by tracking lives of 6,500 people age 52 or older over a span of seven years.  As expected, those who were socially isolated were more likely to have died (22% passed away) than those who were more connected (12%).  The feeling of loneliness was associated with early death but not as strongly as was social isolation.  What surprised them, however, is that the amount of social contact with others, even  brief social contact, was associated with longer life spans.  The takeaway is this—even small talk with an acquaintance like the bus driver—could extend your  life.

*  For several days this week, make small talk with strangers, or people you barely know:  the cashier and the bagger at the grocery store, that person at church who doesn’t attend very often, the waitress, the neighbor you see raking leaves in his yard, the man walking his dog in the park, the barista at your favorite coffee shop, the letter carrier. .

*  Imagine for a moment that when you do this, you are adding a day to the length of your life.

*  Imagine this too, that you are adding a day to the length of that person’s life as well.

 

Reference

Steptoe, A.  March 19, 2013. Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences.

(excerpted in:  Scientific American Mind, Sept./Oct. 2013).

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/03/19/1219686110.full.pdf+html

 

 

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About This Blog

The 101 Lessons are brief, simple tasks which can be completed in less than an hour or two. The purpose is to enable individuals to move away from anger, discouragement, and emptiness toward hope, optimism, and positive well being. They have been taken from the field of positive psychology and draw on nine themes:

Altruism and Compassion – rose

Gratitude, – lime green

Happiness and Optimism – blue

Forgiveness – gold

Savoring the Natural World – green

Letting Go of Anger – orange

Self Acceptance – yellow

Managing Fear and Anxiety – periwinkle blue

Developing Positive Meaning in Life – purple

They are ideal for psychotherapy patients but are uplifting for all people.

# 53 Act as If You’re Not Anxious

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Here’s another one:

“I haven’t accomplished the things in life that I could have because I have social anxiety.  I can’t talk to people.  When the therapist gives me courage, I will do the things I’m afraid to do.”

Real life goes like this:  I saw a man who said he had been crippled by social anxiety all his life.  He had no friends in high school, didn’t date in college.  He never spoke in meetings.  I asked him, “If a miracle occurred in the middle of the night, and you woke up free of this terrible burden of social anxiety, what is the first thing you would do?”  (I learned this technique from David Wexler).  He replied, “Oh, I would be so happy.”  I countered, “No, I asked what is the first thing you would do that very next day?”  He answered, “Well, I guess instead of eating lunch at my desk, I would go into the breakroom where everyone eats, and I would walk up to someone and say, ‘Hi, mind if I sit here?’ and I would introduce myself and sit down and eat lunch with that person. ”  “Great,” I said.  “You know where to begin.  Now go and do it,” and he did.

Real psychotherapy goes like this:  “You are anxious.  What would you do if the fear was suddenly removed?  Confront your fears, do it anyway.  Courage will follow.”

What are you afraid of? How long have you been afraid of it? Write down how afraid you are on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the upper limit. Start with something on the list that is around a 3 or 4.  Now act as if you’re not anxious and do it anyway. What is the number afterward? Do it a second time, a third time, and a fourth time. What is the number now? Has your level of courage risen as your fear has gone down?

 

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Reference

Wexler, D.  1991.  The Adolescent Self:  Strategies for self-management, self-soothing, and self-esteem for adolescents.  New York:  Norton.

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