Being Disconnected from Meaningful Values Leads to Depression

In previous posts I highlighted the relationship between depression and being disconnected from what is meaningful in terms of work and in terms of relationships with other people.  In this post, I want to draw further on the work of Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, by focusing on the loss of connection to meaningful values.

Being disconnected from meaningful values

In Chapter 8 of his book (pp. 91-105), Johann identifies a third social factor contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety – disconnection from meaningful values.  In this section, he draws heavily on the ground-breaking research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser who explored in depth how our cultural values contribute to the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s Western society. 

Tim was motivated in his search for meaningful values through the music of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and his own independent inquiry into the nature of authenticity while studying at Vanderbilt University, a learning institution committed to curiosity.  Tim was curious about the reason why there was such an increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety in today’s world.  He spent more than 25 years researching and working with colleagues to find the answers.

Tim drew on the work of philosophers and research by others that established that the stronger a person focuses on materialistic values (such as wanting more money and possessions and wanting to be viewed highly by others), the more likely they are to experience depression.  He conducted his own experiments as well and learned that those who gave priority to materialistic values experienced less joy and lived a poorer quality of life than those who primarily pursued meaningful values.  Johann describes Tim’s research projects in detail in his book, Lost Connections.

Materialistic values pursue extrinsic rewards

Philosophers have identified two different types of human motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation seeks an external reward in the form of money, status, recognition or being liked and admired. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is associated with internal personal rewards that flow from undertaking something for its own sake such as working to make a difference in the world, developing meaningful and supportive relationships, showing compassion towards someone in need or playing an instrument for the sheer joy it brings.  Materialistic values focus on extrinsic rewards and do not add meaning to a person’s life.

Tim engaged 200 people in completing a “mood diary” over a period so that he could establish the outcomes for people who primarily pursued extrinsic goals versus those who pursued intrinsic goals.  He was startled by the results – people who focused on, and achieved, extrinsic goals did not experience any appreciable increase in happiness in their daily life, despite the extraordinary amount of time and energy that they put into pursuing those extrinsic goals (e.g. gaining a promotion, purchasing a new car, buying the latest smart phone).   In contrast, people who pursued, and achieved, their intrinsic goals were “significantly happier” and experienced a decline in depression and anxiety.  These people set goals such as improving the way they related to others and supported those in need.

Johann points out that we all pursue both extrinsic and intrinsic goals and the associated rewards.  However, the challenge is to achieve the right balance – ensuring that materialistic values do not dominate our lives and lead to depression and anxiety.  We are constantly confronted with the choice of whether we pursue an extrinsic goal or an intrinsic one – such as whether we stay longer at work and earn more overtime money or go home to our young family and enhance our relationships with our partner and/or children.

I was recently confronted with such a choice – the choice between an extrinsic goal and an intrinsic one.  I was asked to write a book on action learning and the extrinsic rewards offered were to earn money for the work, receive royalties on an ongoing basis and, in the process, make a name for myself by way of my “legacy”.  The cost for me was to give up writing this blog on mindfulness, as the book would be all-consuming – I would have to give up what I consider to be making a real difference in some people’s lives (including my own) in favour of realising some extrinsic rewards.  I chose to turn down the offer to write the book and to continue to research and write about ways to grow in mindfulness via this blog.  The challenge for me was to put an important intrinsic goal ahead of offered extrinsic rewards.

We can become consumed by materialistic values and the associated extrinsic rewards by spending more and more time and energy in their pursuit, despite their achievement providing less and less satisfaction.  People, for example, chase the next promotion and movement up the ranks and are often prepared to sacrifice their personal values and joy to “get there”.

Western society encourages and reinforces materialistic values

Our consumer society cultivates extrinsic values and advertisers persistently encourage us to have the better car, to look better, to buy eye-catching jewellery, to upgrade our home (in terms of size and/or location) and to attract admiration.  Porsche, for example, in promoting its latest SUV, the E-PACE, describes the new “luxury” vehicle as having “head-turning good looks” – reinforcing the “look-at-me” values of Western society. 

The selfie revolution is another example of our pursuit of “looking good” on social media.  Technologists have pandered to this trend by developing the “selfie drone” which has now morphed into the “dronie” that enables you to focus on your group and yourself and also to back away to highlight your location, thus providing that extra “WOW factor”.  Some selfie drones even let you upload your shots directly to social media – meeting our need for immediacy and convenience. Taking selfies, by itself, does not mean you are pursuing materialistic values – some people use selfies solely for their family album or to share with family connections. The problem comes when taking selfies consumes us and their sole purpose is to establish our (superior) “value” in the eyes of other people.

Each year at Christmas time, there is a rush to have the latest and best toys/games/technologies that are available – what was the benchmark last year is now superseded by something more costly and peer pressure reinforces the “need” for this purchase.  Our children thus become indoctrinated very early into the “must have’ social norms and lose sight of what really makes them happy such as the sheer joy of playing a game with friends in the yard or park.

Our culture drives the desire for extrinsic rewards to the point where our elected officials feel it necessary to misuse their positions of trust to increase their own wealth through corruption.  More than fifty wealthy American parents were recently charged with admissions fraud through a scam designed to get their children admitted to “elite” universities.

Johann points out that multiple studies show that depression and anxiety will be experienced by people who pursue materialistic goals relentlessly – irrespective of their age, social standing or economic means.  He argues that just as junk food creates toxins in our bodies, “junk values” produce “psychological toxins” that invariably lead to depression and anxiety (p.97).

Becoming mindful about our lives and our values

Tim Kasser, in an interview in 2016, encouraged us to reflect on how we spend our time and energy.  He suggested that we look at what we really value and how that is reflected in our life.  He asks us to seriously look at how we act out what we claim to be important in our lives and how well we make time for the things that are important to us.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindfulness practices, we can identify the ways in which our words and actions do not align with the values that provide meaning and happiness in our lives.  We can explore ways to make better use of our time, not to pursue materialistic values, but to pursue intrinsic values that provide lasting satisfaction such as making a difference in the world, being fully in the present moment and connecting meaningfully with others. 

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Image by KarinKarin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Re-energise through Meditation

In this day and age of hectic living, people are constantly tired or exhausted – basically drained of energy. In the absence of a conscious effort to re-energise ourselves, we can become prone to all kinds of physical and mental illness. Meditation provides multiple ways to re-energise and restore physical and mental balance.

The daily pressures at home and work can leave us drained. Added to this are increasing financial demands, adverse environmental conditions (e.g. extreme weather reflected in floods, cyclones and bushfires), increasing violence in communities and the growth of terrorism.

The human impact of these multiple pressures is reflected in constant tiredness and fatigue experienced by people of all ages, even children who are experiencing the demands of exams, parental expectations and university entry requirements. This constant energy drain can be reflected in many illnesses, not the least of these being chronic fatigue syndrome. Alan Jansson, Japanese acupuncturist with more than 30 years experience, has noted that chronic fatigue syndrome, which used to be the province of elite athletes, is now being experienced by managers in large organisations and people of all ages, including teenagers.

Re-energising through meditation

It seems contradictory that meditation, noted for its focus on stillness and silence, should be a source of energy. In fact, there are specific guided meditations that focus on re-energising the body and mind. One such 10-minute guided meditation offers an approach designed to boost energy and build positivity.

Other forms of meditation help us to release tension and trauma, e.g. somatic meditation, remove the energy draining effects of negative thoughts, build positive energy through appreciation and expression of gratitude, and access the energy in the natural world around us through open awareness. Even mindful listening, being fully present and attuned to another person, can energise us through openness to their ideas and passionate pursuits and through the power of connection.

Reasons why meditation re-energises

The Exploration of Consciousness Research Institute (EOC), drawing on the latest resesearch, advances five reasons why meditation increases energy. These reasons are summarised below:

  1. Meditation changes the way we respond to stress: replacing energy-sapping fear and anxiety with resilience through a reduction in the “energy-zapping” chemical, cortisol.
  2. Boosts endorphins thus increasing calm and focus and reducing the need for energy-depleting, temporary stimulants such as “energy drinks” and coffee.
  3. Induces deeper sleep and energy restoration through increased awareness of the present moment (not locked into the past or the future) and through an increase in the sleep-enhancing hormone, melatonin.
  4. Boosts two key chemicals DHEA (develops overall sense of well-being) and Growth Hormone (GH) which increases our strength and energy storage. The overall effect of these two chemicals is a reduction in fatigue and an increase in the energy of motivation.
  5. Upgrades our personal battery and recharges it – by enhancing our emotional control centre (the pre-frontal cortex) and reducing our fear centre (the amygdala).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can re-energise our personal batteries when they run low, build resilience, reduce energy-sapping emotions and chemicals, and increase chemicals that have a positive effect on our overall strength, the restorative quality of our sleep and our sense of well-being.

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Image source: courtesy of ColiN00B on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Recognising Our Emotions and Our Feelings

In the previous post, I explored the benefits of mindful breathing in terms of increased self-awareness and self-management and the capacity to become more in touch with our breathing.  As we develop our mindfulness practice, we are able to move beyond breathing mindfully to recognise our emotions and feeling states.

The emotional roller-coaster of life

Feelings are “part and parcel” of being human.   If we ignore them or suppress how we feel, emotions will take over our lives – we will be controlled and overwhelmed by them.  Previously, we saw the physical and psychological damage caused by suppressed feelings in a toxic work environment and when midwives suffered trauma in silence following a critical incident.

We can allow emotions to work for us or against us – we can learn to recognise them and treat them with loving awareness and kindness.  Too often we attempt to deny or ignore our painful feelings because they cause discomfort and upset our expectation of a pleasant life.  Jack Kornfield, in the Power of Awareness Course, reminds us that we seek to make our life comfortable in so many ways – we seek the comfort of air conditioning or a soft pillow or mattress.  He points our that we try to deny the conflicting reality of being human – lives that engender joy and pain; praise and blame; elation and depression; happiness and sadness; gain and loss.

We assume that things will go along as expected – until we are confronted with a serious illness or a substantial loss or defeat.  Jon Kabat-Zin suggests that it is “certifiably absurd” to assume that things will always go on the way they are now.  He argues that “stress really has to do with wanting things to stay the same when they are inevitably going to change” – the fundamental “law of impermanence”.

Mindfulness and recognising our emotions

Mindfulness meditation can give us the capacity to handle the wide range of emotions that we will have to deal with in life.  This is not to say that we will not experience upsets or “come to grief”, but that we will reduce our reactivity to these emotions and regain balance more easily – we will have the ability to “bounce back” more quickly.  In other words, we will develop our resilience.  Jack Kornfield reminds us that recent neuroscience research confirms the view that mindfulness builds resilience and creates a “window of tolerance” – a greater openness to life events that we experience as adverse or painful.

Matt Glaetzer epitomised this expanded tolerance of adverse events in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, in 2018.  Matt was world champion and Commonwealth Games record holder for a sprint cycling event he contested and was also the fastest qualifier for the 2018 sprint event.  Yet he was beaten by the slowest qualifier, Malaysian Muhammad Sahrom, and was eliminated from the race and did not make the quarter finals.  Matt was “gutted” and devastated by this defeat and the loss of a real gold medal chance.

However, Matt had to race the 1,000 metre individual cycling sprint the following day.  He went on to win this time trial race and the Gold Medal.  When asked how he recovered his balance, Matt stated that “I had to regroup, sometimes things don’t go the way you plan them”.   He sought out the support of family, team mates and friends; said a prayer; and reset his mind to get his “head space in the right area“.  This changed mindset involved not wallowing in his utter disappointment but focusing on winning a gold medal for Australia.   Matt faced the depth of his emotions and feelings after the embarrassing loss and focused his mind on his next goal, rather than “beat up” on himself for making a bad tactical error in the first race.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can liberate ourselves from the potential tyranny of our emotions by recognising them for what they are, by understanding their influence on our thinking and behaviour and by taking constructive steps to manage our emotions to  gain self-acceptance and balance and avoid reactivity.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of alfcermed on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Engaging With and Accepting Death

Annie Robinson, in her article, How Mindfulness Can Ease the Fear of Death and Dying, asserts that there is a strong movement in the West to reengage with death, encourage open conversations about death, and to pursue choices in dying that respect the values and vision of the dying person.  This is also the theme of Lucy Kalanithi’s TED talk and Paul Kalanithi’s book,  When Breath Becomes Air, which he wrote while suffering from terminal cancer.

There are a number of characteristics of this movement and approach which involve dying mindfully:

Acceptance of death

Acceptance involves not only acknowledging the onset of death but all the feelings and thoughts that go with it.  This includes denial, sadness, suffering, anger, fear, grief and sense of loss associated with declining mental and physical capacity as well as the ultimate separation from loved ones.  It also includes accepting the loss of our old identity and an envisioned future and progressively forging a new identity and vision of dying.  Mindful acceptance does not remove the suffering but can reduce the pain and fear of death.

Being attuned to sensory experience

This involves paying attention to our senses – touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell- and experiencing the sensations such as a beautiful scene or sweet-smelling flower to a heightened degree.  It involves resting in these sensations while we can still experience them.  Some of these sensations will be intensified as we focus on them with our waning energy.  Annie suggests that being attuned to our sensory experience can develop joy and mindfulness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses, has demonstrated that focused attention on our senses can alleviate pain and help us to rewrite the narrative in our heads (including the narrative of fear and depression).

Finding balance through openness to love

Remaining open to love and caring of a partner, parents, children and relatives enables the dying person to find some level of balance as they alternate between pain and joy.  This requires vulnerability as their faculties decline and dependence increases; it also means that bitterness over loss on every dimension is not permitted to gain a stranglehold on emotions.  In his book, Paul Kalanithi was able to talk about marriage difficulties arising from his extreme workload as a neurosurgeon resident, working from 6am to late at night, 7 days a week.   His wife, Lucy, in the Epilogue to Paul’s book acknowledged that the cancer diagnosis enabled them to reinvigorate and deepen their love for each other and, in the face of  Paul’s dying, “to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful”.

Lucy wrote about the balance that emerged through their complete acceptance and trust in each other:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love (p.219)

Lucy acknowledged that as you grow in mindfulness, you can find joy amidst the pain and grief, meaning when all seems lost and a profound gratitude that engenders fortitude and courage.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of realworkhard on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

 

Tai Chi and the Mind-Body Connection

In a previous post when discussing mindfulness and neuroplasticity, I mentioned that Tai Chi actually develops the mind physically by increasing the size of the insula in the brain.

Tai Chi is one of the mind-body techniques that form part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and is based on Chinese philosophy incorporating Taoism and Confucianism.  Tai Chi involves a combination of slow movements, body postures and mindful breathing.  In Chinese philosophy terms, it facilitates the flow of Qi, “life energy”.

Tai Chi has been shown to improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility and, when used in conjunction with Western Medicine, helps patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Arthritis and low bone density as well as helping people to recover from the effects of a stroke.

The real benefits of Tai Chi flow from its capacity to simultaneously develop the mind and body of the practitioner and thus enhance their mind-body connection.  Alzheimer’s disease is a clear example of the mind-body connection because as the mind deteriorates so does the body.  Tai Chi has been shown to combat Alzheimer’s.

The power of Tai Chi to develop the mind derives from the state of “relaxed concentration” achieved by focusing on the coordination of mind and body in a series of slow, balanced and rhythmic movements, while focusing on a single thought.  The focused attention develops mindfulness, improves memory and strengthens concentration.  Dr. Shin Lin, in a talk at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, provided research results to show that Tai Chi produces new neurons during regular practice which suppress stress and build memory.

Dr. Lin indicated that Tai Chi, besides producing stress release, also improves immunity and eases chronic pain and fatigue.  Professor Michael R. Irwin, Medical Doctor and Director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, has demonstrated in his research that Tai Chi “promotes improvements in health functioning, viral specific immunity, and inflammation”.  His area of research and practice is focused on the mind-body connection – “Psychoneuroimmunology” involves the “study of the interaction between the psychological processes and the nervous and immunity systems of the human body”.

I have found from personal experience that Taoist Tai Chi helps both my mind (concentration, focus and creativity) and my body (energy, balance and fitness). I use the evidence of the mind-body benefits of Tai Chi to motivate my daily practice.

Karl Romain, in discussing how Tai Chi trains the brain, suggests that if you cannot find time for meditation and Tai Chi, practise your Tai Chi because it has a meditation element, as well as provides benefits for your mind-body connection.  I think the two practices, meditation and Tai Chi, are highly complementary and my personal goal is to achieve daily mindfulness practices that include both traditions.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and/or Tai Chi, we develop improved health and wellness, develop our minds and deepen our mind-body connection.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Leading with Body Awareness

The early trait theories of leadership argued that to be an effective leader you needed to be male, charismatic and tall.  Clearly, this delineation can lead to discriminatory behaviour towards those who are female and short.

The earlier trait theories of leadership have been disproved and there is now a consensus that there is no universal list of traits that researchers can agree on as predictors of leadership ability.

Amanda Sinclair, author of Leading Mindfully,  points out that despite these emergent findings, myths still pervade about desirable traits that reinforce leadership viewed according to the male stereotype.  She suggests that women have been harshly judged against these unreal measures and have had to conform to standards of dress and behaviour that are more rigorous than those imposed on men.

Then again, as a female colleague of mine pointed out, some women dress provocatively in a work situation to draw attention to themselves.  As my colleague commented, this draws attention to their sexuality but detracts from perceptions of their competence.   So women are often confronted with a dilemma – conform to unfair standards or dress inappropriately.

Rather than accepting this dilemma, women and men can learn ways to present themselves bodily so that potential followers are not left experiencing discomfort or uncertainty about how to communicate with, or relate to, their leaders.

Increasingly, followers have been shown to prefer characteristics that are described as the soft skills – that is skills associated with emotional intelligence such as empathy, compassion, listening skills, communicating to inspire followers, congruence and creativity.

Through mindfulness, leaders can develop a presence (irrespective of physical height) that conveys a sense of balance and calm.  They can face problems with greater clarity and creativity.  Their very presence can communicate support and generate confidence in others who are faced with difficult situations.

Leaders need to be physically present to their staff so that their positive bodily influence can be experienced first-hand.  They also need to care for themselves bodily by looking after themselves so that they can withstand the stresses of their role but, at the same time, have real concern for the physical welfare of staff.

By building resilience through mindfulness practice, you can communicate non-verbally that they you are in control of yourself and the situation.  Even when you are not conscious of the impact of your demeanour, others take note and are influenced by how you present yourself – your bearing can communicate respect for others, personal confidence and self-awareness.

Somatic meditation is one way for a leader to get in touch with their bodies and their reality.  It enables them to be more conscious of how stress is stored in the body and emitted through physical actions and non-verbal activity.

Amanda also alludes to the research work of Norman Doidge and highlights the mind-body connection and the role of exercise such as yoga and walking in enhancing this connection and improving brain functioning.   In the light of this research and the foregoing discussion, Amanda exhorts leaders to be aware of the role of their bodies in the process of leadership:

Our bodies and physicality in leadership are gateways to important forms of intelligence, to wisdom and mindfulness.  They provide us with ways of noticing and revaluing the present, experiencing the full richness of the people and situations around us.  Physicality is not something to be ignored, suppressed or overcome in leadership, but a means of helping us live and lead more fully.  (p. 129)

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasing aware of how we experience the world through our bodies and how others experience us as leaders through their perceptions of our bodily presence.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of rawpixel on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Maintaining Motivation for Practicing Mindfulness

Maintaining motivation to practice mindfulness is a Catch-22 situation: to experience the benefits of mindfulness, you have to practice it; to maintain motivation for your mindfulness practice, you need to experience the benefits.  As you practise, you become more aware of the benefits and the benefits themselves increase.

However, the starting point is to believe that practising mindfulness will give you benefits that you value.  Having started your practice then, you are able to experience the benefits and to use these to motivate yourself to continue.

I found it hard to maintain my attendance at Taoist Tai Chi classes because of work commitments but I had experienced enough of the benefits of Tai Chi to find a way to maintain the practice.

As I persisted with the practice of Tai Chi, I started to experience an increasing number of benefits that now form the motivation for me to continue the practice.  These benefits that I value are:

Focus and concentration – these are essential skills for my work as a consultant and for my writing; they also help with playing tennis (my sporting passion)

Balance and coordination – this is a strong motivator for me because I have found over the years that there is a very clear link between my Tai Chi practice and how well I play during my weekly social tennis; I have written about this link elsewhere

Creativity – I noticed this benefit through my experience of greater creativity when designing workshop processes as part of my consulting practice; Google clearly values this benefit as it developed the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) mindfulness program which has been experienced by more than 4,500 members of their staff- the SIY program is now available to the public on a global basis.

Lower blood pressure – I inherited high blood pressure so anything that helps me maintain a lower blood pressure has many positive side effects

Flexibility – as I grow older, I find that my flexibility suffers. However, Tai Chi clearly improves my flexibility and I experience this on the tennis court and elsewhere; many older people throughout the world (e.g. in China) practise Tai Chi to gain this benefit, among others.

Calmness and clarity – mindfulness and Tai Chi, specifically, develop calmness and clarity and help me to manage stress

Reducing the symptoms of arthritis – this is a claimed benefit of Tai Chi which I had some skepticism about until I experienced reduced pain from arthritis in one of the fingers on my right hand when playing tennis; now I can play two hours of solid tennis without the pain recurring or impeding my capacity to play well

Reflective listening – Tai Chi and mindfulness practice generally are improving my capacity to listen reflectively, an important means of improving my valued relationships.

I think the moral of this story is that if you persist in the practise of mindfulness you will experience benefits that you personally value.  Both the choice of mindfulness practice and the valued benefits will be influenced by your own lifestyle and personal preferences.

Image source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com