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February 2017
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Mindfulness and memory

How often have you had trouble remembering something you think you should know?

Although repeated, increasingly frequent bouts of memory loss can be the sign of something serious, thankfully this outcome is rare. Far more often, memory ‘loss’ is not a loss at all! Instead, it is because we fail to pay attention to what we expect to remember, so the information is never ‘planted’ properly in our memory in the first place. We’re so busy planning, or worrying about the past, or trying (and failing) to multitask, that we often fail to pay proper attention to the very thing that we want to know.

Mindfulness is a wonderful treatment for many of the problems we attribute to poor memory. When we are mindful, we pay full attention to what is going on at that moment. We don’t miss details, nor do we colour our observations with criticism or comparison. We simply perceive–and as a result, encode what we perceive. The observation is registered as part of experience. It is something we can recall later, whenever we wish to do so.

This, then, is yet another reason to be mindful as often as possible.

Giving Shape to Your Creative Powers: The Value of Writing

I realised recently that I’d not written a post for some time, and that I was missing it.

It’s really important for us to write down our thoughts. Ideas that stay in the mind just fade away. When you write something down, you give it life, and you give it a shape and a form. This means something interesting and helpful is more likely to come of your musings. You’ll also remember whatever you took the time and effort to write down much more clearly.

So please, do keep some sort of journal–even if only from time to time–and write down your ideas and inspirations whenever you can. Your memory will improve, you’ll spark your imagination, and wonderful, tangible possibilities may even be the happy result.

Mindfulness: Why happiness is not the best outcome

Researchers at University College London have come up with a formula that appears to predict happiness. At first glance, you would think that to achieve this, mindfulness would play a large part.

You’re wrong.

Here’s the gist of the happiness equation:

Happiness can be determined by the size of the gap between some achievement or the result of some event, and the expectations you had about what you’d achieve plus your past history. So for example, say you bought a raffle ticket and you knew that lots of people were buying tickets, and that based on your own previous experience of raffles, you thought that your chances of winning anything were extremely small. If then you won £10, you’d be very happy. If on the other hand, you bought a raffle ticket knowing that not many people had bought tickets, that you won £100 last time you entered, and that therefore you expected another large win, then that same £10 win is unlikely to make you happy. So happiness is not about how much you have or what you get, but rather it’s about the difference between what you have and what you expect to have,

Happiness, therefore, is all about making judgments and comparisons, about what you have relative to what you know others have and what you expect to have.

When you are mindful, on the other hand, comparisons and judgments are absent. Mindfulness is about noticing what’s going on in the present moment, but without comparing it to what’s happened before, to what anyone else has, or to what you think is yet to come. This release from making judgments and comparisons is the absolute essence of mindfulness.

So if mindfulness doesn’t make you happy, then what does it offer?

Mindfulness confers a sense of inner balance, of calm, and of peace. It’s a lasting feeling–given the right circumstances, you could continue indefinitely to reap the benefits of mindfulness. Carefully observing and accepting what you notice is potentially a constant way of being. It never needs to change. Happiness, on the other hand, is always temporary. We’re always receiving new information, and that means we’re continually adjusting our judgments and constantly making new comparisons. Something that makes us happy at one point in time may not seem so lucky or wonderful at another point.

Happiness is lovely, but it’s brief, effortful, and not always in your control. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is lasting, restful, and always possible.

Psychology of winning: attitude plays a far greater role than many of us realise

Yesterday was a great day for British swimming, when 13 year old Erraid Davies won a bronze medal in the 100 m SB9 breaststroke in Glasgow. Listening to some of her interviews reminds us all of the power of a determined and positive attitude. I don’t know if Erraid fixed her mind on winning per se, but I’m quite sure she never considered doing less than her level best, starting from the moment she made up her mind to swim competitively.

She didn’t have access to a fancy and expensive venue where she could practice. In fact, the (small) pool where she trained was so far away from where she lives that she could only work out after school and in the evenings. But this clearly didn’t faze her, nor did the modest surroundings dent her determination to try ever harder.

The determination and clarity of this young girl makes me think of a quote from Goethe:

…’the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

All sort of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred.

A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it!

Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.

Begin it now!’

What’s your dream? How about taking that first step towards achieving it–right now?!

Stress. Is our ability to cope inherited or learned?

As you’ve probably guessed, our ability to handle stress depends on both genes and learning–not on just the one or the other. Fortunately, the genetic contribution is easy to understand, and the learned bit can be changed, so in truth, you have lots of control over how well you can handle stress.

Let’s start with genetics. Most personality traits–the qualities that guide our behaviour–are primarily learned. However, there are two dimensions of personality that are so heavily determined by our genetic makeup, and have so little to do with what we learn, that it’s better simply to accept them and work with them rather than to try to change them. These two dimensions are introversion-extroversion and impulsivity-reflectivity.

If you’re an introvert, you’ll be extremely sensitive to environmental ‘noise’. For you, big crowds, loud parties, lots of commotion, and impositions such as tight deadlines will feel incredibly stressful. Therefore, if you’re an introvert, it’s perfectly OK–in fact, a good idea–to turn down invitations to loud, crowded events, spend time more calmly on your own or with just one or two good friends. It’s also a good idea whenever you’re set a deadline, to create your own deadline in advance of that one so you feel more in control again.

If you’re an extrovert, on the other hand, you will be happier seeking out the crowds, the big parties, and the open plan offices that your introvert friends are working to avoid. You can also welcome imposed deadlines, knowing that you need them to kick start you into action.

The other genetically loaded dimension is impulsivity-reflectivity. If you’re the impulsive sort, you’ll often find yourself regretting that you reacted too quickly, that all too frequently, you started doing before you took the time to think things through. You may make more mistakes than your reflective counterpart, but you’ll also enjoy more opportunities because you jump in fast and find yourself first in the queue. Jobs and hobbies that require lots of energy and quick thinking are the best choices for you.

If on the other hand you’re reflective, then whenever you’re given an opportunity, you’ll want time to consider all options before you make a decision. You–unlike the impulsive individual–will miss some opportunities because you spend too long deciding whether to go for it. However, whenever you do make a decision it’s likely to be the right one. For you, jobs and hobbies that require careful thought and consideration, ones where speed is less important than accuracy, will suit you best.

Once you understand your personality a bit better, and you start making sure that whenever possible, you put yourself in situations where you can use your introversion or extroversion and your impulsiveness or ability to reflect to best advantage, you will begin to feel less stressed.

However, if after making all those changes to your lifestyle, you still feel frequently stressed, then you can be pretty sure that you have some bad habits that need changing. Habits are learned behaviours, and anything you’ve learned you can relearn. You simply need to replace them with better habits.

The first step is to find some good role models. Who do you know who seems to handle the situations you find stressful coolly and calmly? How exactly do they do that? Observe them, and also ask them how they manage so well. Then in small steps–that is, changing something you feel you can really change within one week–start adapting the way you behave so that it becomes more like the behaviour of your chosen role models.

Keep taking these small but positive steps, until you feel your stress levels have become easily manageable, almost all the time.