Happiness! Who doesn’t want it? A recent google search on ‘how to be happy’ turned up 626 million results. Compare that to typing in ‘Donald Trump’ and you get 237 million items or ‘Brexit news’ where there is just 90 million! We all want to be happy. But what do we mean by happiness? I can be happy eating an ice cream and I can be happy meeting a long lost friend. But those two experiences are clearly very different. How can I find a happiness that leads to deeper meaning and fulfilment?
On this podcast we interview Andy Parnham, author of the book, “Lasting Happiness: In Search of Deeper Meaning and Fulfilment.“ Do come and join us in this opening 30 minute conversation as we explore:
Andy’s fascination with exploring this important subject.
Western’s society obsession with defining the good life only in terms of health, wealth and the pursuit of pleasure while at the same time avoiding pain.
How the research and our own personal experience shows lasting happiness is ultimately found in relationships, meaning and fulfilment.
How the research shows the most significant factor in overall wellness is the presence of strong relationships.
The two problems of material pleasure being they fade with time and need ever increasing consumerism to produce the same ‘buzz’.
How this is not just a Western issue, as the examples of Qatar (the richest country in the world), Japan and Bhutan illustrate.
A psychological understanding of happiness as ‘subjective wellbeing’ with the three components of pleasure, engagement and meaning.
Understanding the what, how, who and why of lasting happiness.
We will be talking with Andy more in future podcasts, but for now if you would like to explore this further also see:
How do I handle all the overwhelm and the many distractions I find myself having to deal with not just on a daily but even moment-by-moment basis? We have been looking at this 18 minute video by David Allen that gives much wisdom into this increasingly common life challenge:
David Allen’s fundamental point is that the best way to deal with feelings of overwhelm is to get everything that is on your mind out of your head into some trustworthy external system. The simple act of writing it down is the first step in the process – but only the first step……..
I know that can seem hard to believe – but trust me on this! One of the marks of modern life is the nagging sense of all the things that need to be done. The list never seems to finish and it is so easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted thinking about all you have to do. But does that have to be the case at all? This 18 minute TED talk by David Allen gives a helpful perspective on how to deal with the feelings of overwhelm and never-ending distractions we all experience at one time or another in our lives.
One of the key points David Allen seeks to get across is that we don’t actually need more time, but what we need is more room. Or in other words, enough space in your mind to be fully present in the here and now with what is most important to you at this moment to get your most important work done……
That might well seem like a strange question for me to ask, especially as I work as a psychiatrist! It is actually from this 18 minute video by David Allen, who has spent many decades researching how the most productive people use their time in the least stressful way possible. I have been following David Allen’s work for approaching a decade and found his insights enormously helpful. I think you will too.
Here are three ways our brains can help or hinder us:
David Allen’s first main insight is that the incredibly complex and marvellous brains we have been blessed with are in fact very poor at organising the different priorities in our lives. If you need to consciously remember something, remind yourself about it, decide how important it is compared to everything else going on or manage your relationships, your brain is in fact very clumsy. Allen’s figure of our brains only holding 4 items in those categories at any one time is infinitesimally tiny compared to the billion bits of information our brain is processing internally and externally in the environment around us right now. At medical school over 30 years ago we were taught the conscious mind holds between 5 to 9 bits of information. With our increasingly complex world and all the distractions we have to deal with, as well as the overwhelm of information, it means our conscious attention is severely curtailed. If you don’t believe me just try getting through your day with a shopping list of 7 items in your head and not writing them down somewhere! Without an external up to date system in place to routinely store, retrieve and review what is most important to us at any one time, we are continually at risk of just reacting to whatever is the newest thing or most pressing demand (the latest and loudest).
Allen summarises this with a major principle of stress-free productivity:
“Your mind is for having ideas and not for holding them.”
Your mind has incredible potential and resources, but it is a very poor organising system or office! That is why you have to get out of your mind!
The second major insight is that we are the most productive and engaged when we are fully present in the moment with no other distractions pulling at our attention. The phrase ‘mind like water’ captures this with the metaphor of water being highly flexible, fluid, in balance and always completely appropriately engaged with the environment. If you imagine a calm pool of water perfectly still then the water will respond to whatever you throw into it in just the right way. Throw a small pebble and you get a small ripple. Throw a large rock and you make bigger waves. When I am fully present and a challenge or opportunity comes into my life I can respond cleanly without too much or too little emotion. I just respond with the right amount of engagement and activity that the challenge requires. I don’t react or under react. I just do what needs to be done and move on.
The third major insight is understanding our basic problem is not a lack of time. Allen challenges us with our tendency to say we don’t have enough time by provocatively asking, ‘How much time does it take to have a good idea? How much time does it take to be strategic? How much time to be present and loving with someone?’
The issue is not about having more time, but instead having enough space in your mind to be fully present in the here and now with what is most important to you. To be fully engaged in the present moment is a powerful place to be. It is relaxed focus and situational awareness of what is going on around you. Being in such a state also means you are in the best possible state to do deal with the unexpected.
These three insights are radical concepts that can take a lifetime to fully apply.
There is a lot more that can be said about this, but for now what questions or comments do you have about David Allen’s insights?
The British National Health Service (NHS) reaches 70 years of age on 5 July 2018. There is much to be thankful for and celebrations to mark this anniversary are taking place all over the United Kingdom. In that time there have been previously unimaginable changes in medical treatment. In the UK it is remarkable how the NHS has evolved to continue to provide universal health care for the whole population, while still being free at the point of delivery. However, in the overall history of medicine the NHS is relatively recent.
This 30 minute video by John Geater seeks to summarise the history of medicine and explain how our understanding has changed and evolved over the last 2,500 years or so.
Of course such a brief overview will have major gaps, make significant assumptions and miss out many details, but I think it provides a helpful summary. There are 10 significant observations:
How the two sides of the brain function so differently
Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who experienced a severe bleed in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996. By the afternoon she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. It took eight years for her to completely recover all of her physical function and thinking ability. This 18 minute talk from 2008 was given twelve years after her experience. Such was the impression she made it was the first TED talk to go viral on the Internet:
This is a deeply personal account of what it is like to experience a sudden stroke. As the left side of her brain became increasingly affected she suddenly lost the familiar ‘brain chatter’ we all experience and she was plunged into inner silence. She writes:…..
How the left brain has come to dominate Western culture
You can make a pretty strong case for saying that the human brain is the most complex object in the entire universe. It contains 100 billion nerve cells (called neurones). Each of these neurones contains a vast electrochemical complex and powerful micro-data-processing system. As complex as each cell is it would fit on the head of a pin! And in spite of all the research in the last century there is much we still do not understand.
Someone who has thought about this a lot is Iain McGilchrist. He is a psychiatrist, doctor, writer and former Oxford literary scholar. (We were also contemporaries at medical school in Southampton in the 1980s, but our paths did not often cross). In this fascinating animated 11 minute lecture from the Royal Society of Arts McGilchrist explains the main themes from his book, “The Master and His Emissary”. It is about the functioning of the human brain. His in depth training in both the arts and sciences makes him uniquely qualified to write on this subject.
McGilchrist has produced a huge masterpiece, and this article and video can only give a simple broad overview. However, one of his key points is that the implications of brain science are highly significant in understanding the development of Western culture.
The main focus of discussion is around the two cerebral hemispheres. By carefully reviewing over 50 years of brain research McGilchrist explains how a simplistic understanding of the left side being just concerned with, for example, reason and language and the right side just with emotion and visual imagery is too simplistic. Both sides of the brain have elements of these abilities, but it is also true that there is a significantly greater emphais of function on one side compared to the other. The purpose of the corpus callosum that connects the two sides of the brain is to inhibit the over emphais of one side of the brain. However, the corpus callosum has been shown to have got less influential over time and the left hemisphere has become in our day and age much more dominant.
I now suspect it was bound to happen sooner or later. I was recently on a skiing holiday and managed to break a bone in my left arm.
As I write this I am plastered up with a sling and can just about type with a single finger! At this point it would be so easy to get frustrated and disappointed with life, myself and the universe.
I could ask myself questions like, “Why am I such a bad skier? Why did I allow myself to go on that slope? Why did I not stay back that afternoon and rest rather than going out to ski again? How am I going to deal with all the inconvenience and hassle this will cause? I haven’t got time to be unwell. Haven’t I got more important things to do than just stop to recover? What have I done to deserve this?”
The problem with questions like that is they are focused on the past or outside of anything I can control. They put me at risk of getting into a negative defeatist spiral. By putting me in a victim mindset they can so easily lead to depressive thinking.
The human brain is so powerful that asking questions like that to myself will only cause me to find reasons to reinforce my situation. In other words what you focus on will only get bigger. Argue for your limitations and you will invariably be right. Argue for your possibilities and options, then you will be right as well. The choice is yours. There is a much better way. This does not just apply to skiing accidents, but to so much else in life.
Fortunately I was able to not go down that negative road and instead ask myself a better, more future focused question: What does this now make possible?
In addition to that I was able to join that question with two true statements:…
I have a friend who over 10 years ago made a serious suicide attempt. His wife had called me at around 8.30am saying he had left home very early without speaking to her. She knew he had a lot on his mind and was worried about him. He had not responded to her repeated calls or texts. He was not at his office. We agreed the police needed to be called. Thankfully his attempt was unsuccessful and all these years later he is in a much more positive place.
Sadly that is not the case for the people mentioned in this short 1 minute video below:
The tragic fact is that 84 men commit suicide in the UK every week. Suicide is the leading cause of death in the UK for those under 50.