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Archive for December, 2013

Here’s me having breakfast and taking in “a view of a lifetime”. And there is some happiness re-wiring going on in my brain as well (More about that below).

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I am perched on a ridge between the Arun and Tamor rivers in eastern Nepal. The high peak is Makalu and left of picture are Nuptse and Lhotse in the Everest Himal.  Also in view, just to the right, is the towering mass of Kanchenjunga.

bt 2013-11-25 14.28.22There, in one breathtaking panorama, were four of the six highest mountains on the planet. As my trekking mate, Peter Anderson, said, “A view of a lifetime”. (Peter took the photo.)

I did more than “see” the view; I “experienced” it in the sense that neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes. I spent time with it; I dwelt on it, savouring the sensations and feelings it evoked; and I lost myself in the experience as it became part of me. The staggering beauty of the scene coupled with its novelty and awesomeness made experiencing it in this way very easy.

I was “taking in goodness” to borrow one of Hanson’s apt phrases. In fact, almost every waking moment on the trek contained an opportunity to take in goodness. Apart from the grandeur of the mountains there was the magnificence of the forests,

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the farms,  bx 2013-11-25 18.45.46

gardens, cx 2013-11-28 13.59.29

and wildflowers.

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As my attention was being captured again and again by the goodness of natural beauty, my brain was being incrementally rewired. It was becoming a happier brain. And it was not only my encounters with natural beauty that was doing this for me. The immensely enjoyable meals Peter and I were served along with the comfort of our camps, our companionship and the warm relationships we developed with our support team added different dimensions of goodness. (If you would like to have a Nepalese trek like ours, contact Himalayan Sunrise for support of the highest quality and reliability.)

Why and how these “good” or positive experiences were re-wiring my brain is explained by Rick Hanson in his best-selling book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence.

His starting point is the fact that our brains are constantly being rewired by experience and particularly by what most captures our attention. Our brains, however, are not even-handed when it comes to paying attention. They are biased towards registering and remembering negative experiences. Recall your experience of school exams, for example – how you easily remembered and stewed over the few questions you thought you did badly while almost completely losing sight of your handling of the others.

Evolution shaped our brains to be biased in this way because avoiding harm (and staying alive) has to take precedence over everything else in the business of survival. As  a result we have a brain that works like Velcro as far as bad experiences are concerned – grabbing and holding onto such experiences tenaciously – but like Teflon when it comes to positives ones – letting these come and go without anything sticking.

What can happen if negative experiences are not balanced by positive ones is that our brain becomes wired to expect bad things as a matter of course. The threat-detecting centres in our brain, especially the amygdala, become over active making us depressed anxious, suspicious, defensive, angry and inward-looking. The risk of this threat to well-being is increasing in an age when news of murder, mayhem, war and disasters is on-tap 24/7.

To prevent this happening, says Hanson, we have to make “taking in goodness” a constant ingredient of life.  To do this, we have to transform a “fact” of goodness into and “experience”. The “fact” can be anything from a personal compliment, the taste of an espresso coffee, a lick of greeting from your pet dog, the scent of a flower, to something on a grander scale like a story of human compassion or a desert sunset. The steps (H.E.A.L.) Hanson recommends are

  • Have the experience (that is, activate a positive mental state) by noticing something positive that is already in or on the cusp of your awareness, or by creating one;
  • Enrich the experience first by staying with it for 20-30 seconds or longer, and then by enjoying it, by sensing its effect on your body, by finding something fresh or novel about it or by considering how the experience might help you in some way;
  • Absorb it by seeking to lodge the experience securely in your mind and memory – make it part of you;
  • Link the experience to related negatives ones with a view to ameliorating the latter (but only if your focus on the positive is not compromised).

We need to be deliberate and mindful in giving ourselves to positive experiences because, compared with negative ones, more repetitions (five times as many, Hanson suggests) are needed to achieve the re-wiring effects we desire.

Among the examples of “good” or positive experience Hanson mentions in his book are many from nature. I don’t think that readers of my blog or my book, Claim Your Wildness, will be surprised by this. Nature offers us countless opportunities for all manner of positive experiences. Our brain, in fact, disposes us to seek and benefit from these opportunities.

But it is not simply a process that flows one way. The same brain that prompts us to seek positive experiences in nature is itself changed by those experiences. Claiming your wildness is as much about rewiring your brain for “contentment, calm and confidence” as it is about anything else.

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Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney have been studying resilience for many years and have written a book about it, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. To begin with, they thought that resilience was rare and resilient people were somehow special, perhaps genetically gifted. But they found they were wrong – resilience is common and can be witnessed all around us. Even better, they learned that everyone can learn and train to be more resilient.

Dennis Charney has come up with a “resilience prescription” comprising 10 strategies we can use to cultivate resilience. These strategies change pathways in our brain that enable us to approach life with

  • the conviction that we have the resources within ourselves and our social networks to deal with life’s problems, stressors and setbacks ( “can do” attitude), and
  • a sense that our life has purpose and significance.

Many nature activities like bushwalking, backpacking and canoeing can help us on both counts. As far as developing a “can do” attitude is concerned, they do this by allowing us to be “heroes” to ourselves – to meet challenges that we thought were beyond us and to discover strengths and capabilities that we otherwise would not know we had.

A resilience building situation

A resilience building situation

Outdoor education programs like Outward Bound are designed to give people just this kind of opportunity. Evidence from many studies shows that nature activities, especially ones of longer duration (two to three weeks), produce noticeable improvements in independence, self-esteem, personal sense of control and other personal attributes that strengthen self-belief and confidence. These improvements are displayed by adolescents as well as adults and are maintained, and may even grow, over time. As one Outward Bound graduate said of her experience,

It gave me the opportunity to take a risk. It strengthened my sense of self. It gave me a feeling of purposefulness, self-respect, and strength that I never had before. When you are confident in yourself, it affects every aspect of your life.

Activities in nature deliver another very important opportunity – to develop a tolerance of uncertainty.  We yearn for certainty in our lives but this is a reasonable but ultimately an unrealistic aspiration because events that are beyond our control are bound to happen. Nature activities always contain elements of uncertainty and unpredictability simply because these attributes are part-and-parcel of the natural world. For this reason, participating in such activities helps us to discover that we can survive vulnerability and not fear it. Helping children make this discovery is very important for their development and general well-being.

Nature’s potential to provide people with a sense of purpose resides primarily in its capacity to inspire journeys of the mind and heart – journeys of intellectual discovery, creativity, spiritual exploration and the conservation of nature, for example. All such journeys are inherently purposeful and guided by values and ideals that emerge on the way. My book, Claim Your Wildness, features the story of Miles Dunphy.

Myles Dunphy

Myles Dunphy

He was so moved by the beauty of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales that he made exploring, mapping and preserving the region his life’s work. There are countless such stories of people finding in nature the inspiration and purpose that guided and energised their lives.

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As those of us who live here know only too well, Australia is a country that burns – catastrophically at times. Every summer great swathes of our bushland are transformed into scenes of desolation with all ground cover wiped out and trees reduced to scorched and blackened trunks and limbs.

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This arresting photo by Tony Rodd tells the grim story – but another story as well. Despite being reduced to a charred stump just a few months earlier, the grass tree has reasserted its vitality. Standing beacon-like in the midst of destruction, it is surely an icon of resilience.

Resilience, the capacity to rebound after adversity, is an enormously valuable asset for us just as for plants. But in human experience, resilience is much more than bouncing back in response to set-backs and crises. According to Dr Gail Wagnild, who has studied resilience for 25 years, resilience is also about living life in a resilient way.

An excellent way of getting a feel for what resilience is and what lies at its core is to complete Dr Wagnild’s highly respected Resilience Scale. The scale can be completed on-line and an interpretation of your score is available immediately. Little time is involved and I urge you to attempt the scale before you read further.

The scale measures the five core characteristics of resilience:

  • Having a sense of purpose in life
  • Perseverance – the ability to persist despite difficulties, discouragement and disappointment
  • Equanimity – avoiding extreme responses especially seeing everything bad as catastrophic
  • Self-reliance – a belief in yourself coupled with a realistic understanding of your capabilities and limitations
  • Self-acceptance – being comfortable in your own skin and able to “go it alone” if necessary

People with these attributes have really got it together haven’t they? They are likely to have what medical sociologist, Aaron Antonovsky, calls a “sense of coherence”. In a landmark study of the long-term health of female holocaust survivors, he found that the horrendously stressful experience did not have the same consequences for all of the women. The health of some was significantly damaged but that of others was little affected. Why the difference?

The healthier women, Antonovsky discovered, were much more likely to be approaching life with a sense of purpose (or having something worthwhile to do in life) and a sense of competence (or of feeling in control). Their sense of purpose gave them a powerful incentive to get on with life and the motivation to wrestle with whatever “getting on with life” involved. It could have been a purpose to do with family, for example, an artistic endeavour, a religious or spiritual commitment or a humanitarian cause.

Their sense of competence was displayed in a pervasive “can do” attitude that rested on the conviction that the world works in ways that are predictable, understandable and manageable. Such an attitude enabled them to respond to stressors, big and small, by dealing with them rather than being overwhelmed. This attitude was also buttressed by strong feelings of self-esteem and self-reliance and by having the security of close and supportive social relationships to call upon.

These healthier survivors would have scored strongly on the Resilience Scale, don’t you agree?

The resilience or “hardiness” of these survivors enabled them to take upsets and difficulties “in their stride” and not be excessively stressed by them. Consequently, their bodies suffered less of the wear-and-tear that increases the risk of disease.

Some of us are born to be more resilient than others but there is clear evidence that resilience can be nurtured, especially in childhood and adolescence. Next post, I’ll have something to say about the role that nature can play in the process.

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