Saturday, August 5, 2017

Inspirational Quote – August 05, 2017

“If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.”

Now, you know what this means don’t you? Basically, if the “wind”, i.e. your thoughts and ideas aren’t getting you where you want to be, then you need to implement your “oars”, i.e. physical action. You may have come to the realization that the plans you have in your head won’t materialize as you want them to unless you take the necessary steps to implement them. So, be grateful you actually have your own “oars” when the “wind” fails so that you won’t be left to drift aimlessly but are able to reach the destination YOU have chosen.

Wu De: Tea Is the Great Connector

Zen monk and tea master Wu De shares his insights on the timeless ritual of drinking tea. Believing that tea is a 'powerful carrier' of the message of presence and loving kindness, Wu De explains tea drinking as a non-verbal transmission of sharing, listening and communicating without words, to connect all peoples -- no matter their beliefs, cultures, ages, or world-views. His tea centers, all run by donation, aim to cultivate sustainability and facilitate inner growth. Learn more about the profound meaning behind tea rituals, and how you might use them in your own life.

Friday, August 4, 2017

What Can the Brain Reveal about Gratitude?

New research is exploring the brain regions linked to gratitude—and it helps explain gratitude's many benefits.

Imagine you are on the run from a Nazi manhunt and are taken under the protection of a stranger. This stranger spends the winter providing you with food and shelter—even traveling to other towns to relay messages to your family members—yet has no hope or expectation of repayment from you. While your loved ones are systematically ensnared by the Nazi machine, this stranger keeps you alive and nourishes your faith in humanity, offering proof that in the midst of widespread horror, many individuals still act with unfettered compassion and dignity.
When you think about this stranger, what they risked, what you received—how would you feel?
You may feel a rush of positive emotion, joy from the relief of worrying about survival, and a sense of close connection to the stranger who has given you this gift. In concert, these feelings could be described as gratitude.
Gratitude is celebrated throughout philosophy and religion; recent scientific studies suggest it carries significant benefits for our mental and physical health. But very little is known about what actually happens in our brain and body when we experience it.
Why does that matter? Because better understanding the physiology of gratitude can help pinpoint strategies for harnessing its health benefits and help people understand the importance of fostering this powerful emotion. The goal of my research has been to lay the groundwork for understanding what happens in the brain when we feel grateful—and a picture of the grateful brain is now starting to emerge.

What can the brain tell us about gratitude?

When I first embarked on the journey to study gratitude, I came across philosophical treatises and religious exhortations emphasizing the importance of gratitude, along with scientific studies suggesting that gratitude can improve your sleepenhance your romantic relationshipsprotect you from illnessmotivate you to exercise, and boost your happiness, among many other benefits.
At the time, however, very little was known about what happens in our brains and bodies when we experience gratitude, which made it difficult to understand how gratitude actually works. Since I’m a neuroscientist, I zeroed in on the neurobiology of gratitude with a more specific question in mind: Can our brain activity reveal anything about how gratitude achieves its significant benefits? 
Given the clear relationship between mental and physical health, I thought that understanding what happens in the brain when we feel gratitude could tell us more about the mind-body connection—namely, how feeling positive emotion can improve bodily functions. I also thought these results could help scientists design programs aimed at generating gratitude by helping them zero in on the precise activities and experiences most essential to reaping gratitude’s benefits.
It must be said that actually capturing people in the moment of feeling gratitude poses some challenges. After all, some people may not feel gratitude when we expect them to, and others may even feel grateful in unexpected situations. I thought my best bet would be to try to induce gratitude through powerful stories of aid and sacrifice.

How to make a brain grateful

To achieve this, I turned to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History, which houses the world’s largest repository of videotaped Holocaust survivor testimonies—many of which, perhaps surprisingly, are filled with breathtaking acts of selflessness and generosity.
Along with a team of amazing undergraduates, I began by watching hundreds of hours of survivor testimony to find stories in which the survivor received help of some kind from another person.
We assembled a collection of these stories and transformed them into short scenarios that we shared with our participants. Each scenario was re-phrased into the second-person (e.g., “You are on a wintertime death march and a fellow prisoner gives you a warm coat”) and presented to our study’s participants. We asked them to imagine themselves in the scenario and feel, as much as possible, how they would feel if they were in the same situation. While participants reflected on these gifts, we measured their brain activity using modern brain imaging techniques (in the form of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI).
For each of these scenarios, we asked participants how much gratitude they felt, and we correlated this rating with their brain activity in that moment. While such an approach will not elicit exactly the same feelings as actually living through such situations, participants overwhelmingly reported strong feelings of gratitude, deep engagement in the task, and, perhaps even more importantly, an increased empathy for and understanding of the Holocaust as a result of participating in the study.
What’s more, our results revealed that when participants reported those grateful feelings, their brains showed activity in a set of regions located in the medial pre-frontal cortex, an area in the frontal lobes of the brain where the two hemispheres meet. This area of the brain is associated with understanding other people’s perspectives, empathy, and feelings of relief. This is also an area of the brain that is massively connected to the systems in the body and brain that regulate emotion and support the process of stress relief.

More reasons to be grateful

These data told us a reasonable story about gratitude. The regions associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These regions are also heavily connected to the parts of the brain that control basic emotion regulation, such as heart rate and arousal levels, and are associated with stress relief and thus pain reduction. They are also closely linked to the brain’s “mu opioid” networks, which are activated during close interpersonal touch and relief from pain—and may have evolved out of the need for grooming one another for parasites.
In other words, our data suggest that because gratitude relies on the brain networks associated with social bonding and stress relief, this may explain in part how grateful feelings lead to health benefits over time. Feeling grateful and recognizing help from others creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us. (We recently published a scientific paper elaborating on these ideas.)
Perhaps even more encouraging, researcher Prathik Kini and colleagues at Indiana University performed a subsequent study examining how practicing gratitude can alter brain function in depressed individuals. They found evidence that gratitude may induce structural changes in the very same parts of the brain that we found active in our experiment. Such a result, in complement to our own, tells a story of how the mental practice of gratitude may even be able to change and re-wire the brain. (For more on Kini’s research, read this Greater Good article by his co-authors Joel Wong and Joshua Brown.)
Of course, these findings are still only the first steps in a much longer process. My colleagues and I are heartened by the growth of gratitude research and encourage other research groups to join us in studying this powerful emotion. What is clear so far is the deep and serious need to continue studying gratitude and exploring the limits of its capacities.
I am doubly inspired to practice it in my everyday life. Indeed, all of us will experience deep loss and struggle in our lives.
Based on my research so far, I believe gratitude’s capacity to ameliorate suffering in these circumstances does not stem from our ability to “think happy thoughts” or deny reality. Instead, its benefits likely stem from the same functions that it serves in other aspects of our lives: It brings us together, raises awareness of what we have, and impels us to consider how we can recognize and spread human goodness.

Inspirational Quote – August 04, 2017

“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”

I guess this very much depends on how we cope in the middle of every difficulty. Do we feel overwhelmed and unable to see a way of overcoming whatever it is or, alternatively, do we knuckle down and think of our next move? In every difficult situation we always have these two alternative options to choose from. Personally, I like to think I have also been presented with an opportunity to, if not actually overcome my difficulty, at least to be able to learn from it in order to cope better the next time, which makes sense…..doesn’t it?

Reaping Wonder from Everyday Reality

"The mind is not, I know, a highway, but a temple, and its doors should not be carelessly left open", wrote Margaret Fuller, an American journalist and women's rights activist. In her first book, "Summer on the Lakes, in 1843" Fuller examines the idea of 4 perspectives, Old Church, Good Sense, Self-Poise, and Free Hope. Free Hope, she writes, results from an attentiveness toward everyday life and our surroundings, from which a sense of wonder can be derived. Good Sense on the other hand, merely examines the surface level of things, without consideration given to the supernatural. Poetic observation, says Fuller, comes about when one practices critical thinking with a receptivity to wonder. Read on to learn more about how "We need only look on the miracle of every day, to sate ourselves with thought and admiration every day."

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Why Sex Is So Good for Your Relationship

New research on sex in relationships shows the real reason it can benefit yours.

We associate good relationships with sexuality, assuming quite naturally that happy couples have sex more often than their miserable counterparts. But have you ever considered just what it is about sex that makes it so beneficial to a couple’s relationship?
new and extremely well-conducted investigation by Anik Debrot and her colleagues points to the surprising role not of the sex itself, but of the affection that accompanies sexuality between partners. Over a series of four separate studies, Debrot and her fellow researchers were able to pinpoint the way that everyday kissing, hugging, and touch between partners contribute uniquely to relationship satisfaction and overall well-being.
Let’s break this sex-happiness equation down for a moment before looking at the details of the study: The researchers began with the well-established finding that individuals experience higher levels of well-being when they have an active and satisfying sex life. As they noted, the results of previous research demonstrated that “the size of the difference in well-being for people having sex once a week, compared with those having sex less than once a month, was greater than the size of the difference in well-being for those making US$75,000 compared with US$25,000 a year.”
Is it the sex itself or something about sexual activity that is so good for our happiness? You might argue that people who are happier are more likely to have sex more often, because they’re in a good relationship and are satisfied with it. The good sex, then, would simply follow the good relationship dynamics. It’s also possible that people who are more positive in general are more likely to get involved in a close relationship which, in turn, benefits their well-being. Such a cyclical process would imply that the happy just get happier.
The authors believed that the key ingredient in the sex-happiness relationship is positive emotion. As they note, however, it’s extremely difficult to examine this possibility through the typical questionnaire method, which is subject to memory bias, or in the lab, where the situation is artificial. Instead, the fourth, and most telling, of their studies used a daily diary method. The researchers gave the participants smartphones to use for recording their responses, all of which were collected over the course of two weeks when the participants periodically received signals from the phone to complete the assessment. The participants were 58 heterosexual couples averaging 25 years of age and in a relationship, on average, for four years.
A previous study in the series, analyzing daily diary reports from a larger and somewhat more diverse sample (working parents), showed that people rated their positive emotions higher when they indicated they had had sex in the previous 24 hours. The impact of sex on happiness was accounted for, in large part, by increases in affection linked to prior sexual activity. For this smartphone-based study, which asked only about sexual activity and affectionate moments, participants simply answered whether they’d had sex since the last report, and whether they’d engaged in a “moment of love and affection” with their partner.
In that fourth study, researchers tracked the daily course of sex and affection. This allowed them to study the effects of sex on Day 1 with affection on Day 2, and vice versa, over the entire course of the study period. The results confirmed the study’s hypothesis that, across days of the study, sex predicts affection and affection, in turn, predicts sexual activity. The study can’t prove causation because participants weren’t assigned to experimental groups of sex/no sex or affection/no affection. But given that such a study would be practically impossible to conduct and likely produce artificial results, the analytic strategy used by the researchers provides as strong evidence as is possible of the sex-affection link.
As the authors concluded, “Sex seems not only beneficial because of its physiological or hedonic effects…but because it promotes a stronger and more positive connection with the partner.”
Over time, such experiences build to strengthen the bonds between partners, meaning that their long-term relationship satisfaction is bolstered as well. These effects extend to the experience of one’s partner because, as shown when partners’ responses were analyzed in terms of their effects on each other, “when one person draws emotional benefits from sex, their partner’s relationship satisfaction is also promoted over time.”
If affection is so important to personal and relationship satisfaction, one intriguing question raised by this study is whether it can replace sexual activity when couples lessen the frequency of having sex due to external factors. People may decrease their sexual activity as they get older due to physical changes, and couples who have recently had children may similarly have sex less often. But as long as such couples maintain their affection toward each other, they can offset the potentially negative effects of lowered sexual activity. Conversely, for couples who feel they’re drifting apart and are therefore having sex less often, if they work on their physical affection toward each other, their sexual relationship may become reestablished as well.
To sum up, fulfillment in relationships depends on many factors, of which the physical nature of the interaction is just one. This study shows that the physical basis for a couple’s interactions with each other does play a surprisingly strong and powerful role.

Inspirational Quote – August 03, 2017

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

This is one of the wonderful things about us human beings, our ability to achieve. We all know, more or less, who we are and what we are capable of, and perhaps our own limitations. Wait a minute though! Have we ever stopped to think about the limitations we consciously, or perhaps subconsciously, place upon ourselves? Maybe it’s about time we did. In order to be whom we want to be let’s shake off those limitations and see what happens. Who’s with me?

Three Stories of Healing and Transformation

A physician's assistant and former doctor learns about the essence of serving patients not from medical school, but from a job at an arts-and-crafts store deeply listening to people and connecting with the humanity in others. A pediatric doctor in a large HMO was burned out and dejected because she was not living up to her vision of saving lives -- until motherhood and fresh eyes of seeing the value her patients add to her life, rather than the other way around, transformed her practice and life. A nurse who initially "thought healing meant that we're going to fix everybody" learns about what healing really means from a dying patient. These reflections and others were shared in a Healing + Transformation circle in April 2017. Three profound stories from the circle follow.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What Makes a Political Apology Seem Sincere?

When is a political apology likely to be well-received? A new study explores the contributing factors.

When a government commits a wrongdoing, how can it atone and mend relationships with the people harmed?
Far too often, the process of forgiveness and reconciliation becomes stalled from the outset when political groups do not apologize for their offenses, sometimes waiting until months or years later. For example, in 1988 the United States government offered a formal apology and reparations to Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps in World War II. An even more delayed apology occurred in 2008, when the United States passed legislation apologizing for slavery.
In other words, political apologies often happen long after the fact. In these cases, can apologies still work to heal relationships?
Prior research has found that group apologies don’t always work to promote forgiveness, perhaps because such apologies are not always seen as trustworthy. Since forgiveness can help to repair relationships between groups and may even improve psychological well-being, it is important to understand when group apologies actually lead to forgiveness.
In a study published earlier this year in Political Psychology, researchers theorized that whenan apology occurs could affect whether it results in forgiveness. If a group does not apologize until long after the initial wrongdoing, victims may see the apology as less sincere. They may suspect that the offender is only offering an apology for the sake of public image, rather than out of genuine concern for them.
To test this idea, researchers asked 164 Australian participants to read about a scenario (adapted from real events) in which Australian graves in a war cemetery were desecrated by citizens of another country. They then read one of three versions of what happened next: the perpetrators’ government apologized for the event almost immediately, the apology occurred one year later, or the rest of the story didn’t include an apology.
The researchers found that people were most likely to want to forgive the perpetrators when the apology was offered immediately. Additionally, an immediate apology was seen as more sincere than one offered a year later—and this partially accounted for why participants felt more forgiving in the first case.
However, what happens if a group is finally ready to apologize for an incident that happened years or decades earlier? The researchers hypothesized that forgiveness could still occur, but the offenders would need to show that they genuinely felt guilty about what happened, were committed to remembering the event, and had made an effort to understand the victims’ perspective. In other words, the group responsible would need to “[invest] time and energy in coming to terms with their guilt and developing an appropriate response.”
With these hypotheses in mind, the researchers asked almost 150 American participants to read about the same scenario as in the first study (but involving American graves). This time, however, they added a new version wherein the government not only apologized but also announced that it would establish a “national day of remembrance” in order to make sure that the event would not be forgotten.
The researchers found that establishing a day of remembrance was seen as more sincere, and more likely to encourage forgiveness, than simply offering an apology. In fact, participants were just as forgiving (if not more so) of an apology and a day of remembrance offered one year later compared to both offered immediately, perhaps because they value the time taken to reflect on the wrongdoing.
In other words, it may never be too late to apologize. When countries, corporations, or other groups fail to offer an initial apology, steps can still be taken to repair relationships. Specifically, perpetrators can make a delayed apology more sincere and meaningful if they provide more than just words—such as a day of remembrance, a memorial of the event, or some other type of commemoration.
As the authors explain, understanding what makes an effective apology can help promote the best outcomes when victims are open to forgiving and offenders are genuinely remorseful. They write, “In the end, it is about better ways to overcome injustice and unnecessary conflict, restoring social relations for a more peaceful world.”

Inspirational Quote – August 02, 2017

“Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.”

Now why would you think otherwise? Of course you wouldn’t! Like me, you realize that we are very fortunate just to be alive and able to enjoy this wonderful world we inhabit. Because we are very blessed in being aware of this we can indeed take steps to make this a reality, not only for us, but for everyone around us. However, unfortunately, not all of us are so fortunate or as aware. Therefore it’s up to us to give thanks for our own awareness and our ability to create the life we are living.

5 Invitations: What Death Can Teach About Living

Over the course of thirty years, those who were at the end of their lives shared their insights with Frank Ostaseski, the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project, a holistic residential care facility. In his article, 'Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach about Living' Frank shares the five 'invitations' to connect with death in order to live a more full life. The five invitations he has gleaned from these end-of-life conversations are Don't Wait; Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing; Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience; Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things; and Cultivate a "Don't Know" Mind. Being open-minded and accepting of the world and those around you, finding the ability to rest and recuperate in the midst of daily activities, recognizing that time is precious, and accepting every part of yourself will allow anyone to live more fully and without regret.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I Am the Reason My Husband Infuriates Me

Christine Carter has a problem: She projects her own feelings onto her husband. This is what she’s doing about it.

The other night, I did something that I am not proud of.
We have four teenagers, so dinnertime is never dull, but this particular evening it was full chaos. One of our kids had not eaten much. My husband, Mark, really wanted this particular kid to eat more, and so he offered a bribe/threat: You can’t go hang out with your friends until you finish everything on your plate.
A power struggle unfolded, complete with sibling cheering sections. I tried to shut it all down using dramatic non-verbal cues. This was not what we agreed to do when a kid doesn’t eat well, I screamed silently with my supercharged glares.
I was not successful. The picky eater ate what was required in order to go hang out in the neighborhood.
Although I was obviously right (ha ha)—because bribing kids can work in the short run, but research clearly demonstrates that it backfires in the long run—this article is actually about what I did next, and why I did it.
The next night, I intended to calmly raise the issue so that we could prevent similar dinnertime spectacles in the future. I knew that I couldn’t make accusations or do anything that might make Mark defensive, because people don’t learn well when they are being criticized.
Let the record show that I fell well short of my own goals.
I opened with something like “How could you have been so stupid?”
And then I started to rant.
“Haven’t we talked about that situation a million times? We have a freaking PLAN for this!! We’ve AGREED what we will do about picky eating!! Why can’t you follow throughwith the plan? Why can’t you understand how important it is to be consistent?” He responded calmly. I rolled my eyes with contempt and superiority.
I was such an ass.
I do not know of any parent, myself included, who has not at some point threatened, bribed, or otherwise manipulated a child into doing what they wanted the kid to do. I actually dopossess a huge capacity to empathize with my dear husband’s intentions and behavior, but it was a capacity I failed entirely to draw on.
Why? Why was this so emotional for me? Why was I so critical and punishing?
Because I was projecting.
We project, psychologically speaking, when we unconsciously and unknowingly attribute our judgments about ourselves to other people.
See, the thing that drives me most crazy about myself is that I often make big elaborate behavioral plans and then I don’t follow through on them. For example, I’ve recently stopped meditating (again) after making a plan to meditate more over the summer. The perfectionist in me has been a mess of guilt and anxiety over this, something I didn’t consciously realize until I found myself dressing Mark down for not following through on our picky eater protocol.
We humans have blind spots. It is often hard for us to see our own failings, but it can be very easy for us to see what’s wrong with other people. The people around us, particularly our spouses, are like mirrors. We see clearly what we don’t like, but we get it backwards.
It’s not them, it’s us.
Martha Beck cleverly calls this charming human propensity “You spot it, you got it.”
Psychological projection (in its many forms) is a defense mechanism first conceptualized by Sigmund Freud. His daughter, Anna Freud, later developed the theory. The Freuds posited that we often deal with the thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that are hard for us to accept in ourselves by attributing them to someone else.
Although many Freudian theories have not stood the test of time, projection is still considered a textbook human behavior. Indeed, I see projection at work all around me, in myself, in my friends and children, and in my clients.
That doesn’t mean that we are always projecting when we see other people’s flaws, or when we see the ways that others can learn and improve. But when we feel particularly emotional about a situation? When we feel hooked and irrational or harshly judgmental about someone else’s shortcomings, rather than empathetic or compassionate? We are probably projecting.
Projection is an undeniable human tendency, and I think it is pretty wonderful, actually, because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly, to better understand what is causing us anxiety and stress.
The greatest thing about projection, to me, is that it comes with a set of instructions for our own growth and happiness. We’ll usually do well to do whatever it is we wish other people would do (or stop doing).
I was infuriated by Mark’s inability to follow our parenting plans, but even in my fury, my instructions for him were clear: Stop asking me to make parenting plans that he can’t follow through on. Instead, let’s make easier, good-enough, plans.
And the instructions for myself that emerged from the projection are also clear.
My next step is to stop trying to force myself to follow-through on all my best-made plans. The solution is not to try to be more perfect. The solution that emerged from my projection is to stop making plans that aren’t realistic, given the lovely, messy world—of teenagers and a career that has me traversing time zones—that I live in.
For us and our picky eater, this means being less controlling about food. For me and my meditation, it means letting it go until school starts again.