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Posts Tagged ‘Happiness’

I am discovering that one of the necessary pains of downsizing a home is parting with old friends in the forms of books and magazines. I collected most of the editions of Geo: Australasia’s Geographical Magazine until publication ceased 20 or so years ago. I kept them because of the quality and interest of their stories and pictures and because they featured content about nature.geo-a-cropped

Just when I was resigning myself to sending my collection for re-cycling, I showed some copies to a pastoral care worker caring for patients suffering from advanced dementia. To my delight, she offered to take some copies in order to trial their use with her clients.

As she explained, a big part of dementia care is helping sufferers find pleasure and meaning in reconnecting with lifetime memories. Music is very valuable in this connection, for example. Her thought was that articles and photos in Geo might trigger memories of holidays, places visited and experiences with wildlife.

A day or two after she took the copies, she reported back to me rather excitedly. She told me how browsing Geo articles together had built a conversational bridge between a son and his dementia burdened father.  Typically the son found communicating with his father about immediate day-to-day topics very difficult. But sharing the articles brought a very welcome transformation.  The articles triggered memories in the father of his trips to some of Australia’s iconic natural wonders such at Kakadu National Park. He was able to talk about these trips not only lucidly but informatively. The son was surprised to learn things he didn’t know about his dad’s earlier life. Both the memories and the conversation brought precious moments of pleasure and significance to the two men.

Happy memories – those that combine joy, satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment – are indeed precious. Like cherished books and magazines, they can be returned to again and again, evoking the same welcome feelings and thoughts over and over again. This is true for happy memories of all kinds, including, and perhaps especially, memories of nature experiences.

My brother-in-law, Robert Macarthur, reminded me of this when he shared this recollection with me:

Sixty years ago we went to Mosquito Creek and saw the most striking explosion of colour I have ever seen among eucalypts. There was this circular carpet of white bush-heather, guarded by magnificent tumble-down gums with their trunks splashed with all manner of browns and yellows, whites and greys; wattles in yellow also stood around the circle their yellow blossom threaded by a purple vine; beauty that was unforgettable.

Bob was nearing his 90th birthday when he shared these thoughts and, as he says, the experience he was recalling occurred 60 years earlier. Nevertheless, the detail and vividness of his recollections are amazing. Such is the power of images of natural beauty pleasure to endure in memory and to have a life-long impact.

And it is not only images drawn from nature that are stored in memory for a lifetime. When psychological researcher, Rachael Sebba, asked people to nominate their favourite places from childhood, almost all recalled a natural setting – very often because of the fun things they did there. The adults’ happy memories were mainly of the things that nature permitted them to do – to have “adventures”, for example, to meet challenges, and to socialise with friends. Recreational activities in nature are particularly memorable because they are enjoyable in a way that provides a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.

I have to admit, that I did not let all my copies of Geo go. Those that had content relating to my owngeo-b-cropped experiences I kept – expressly to evoke memories. An article about Claustral Canyon in the Blue Mountains, for example, takes me back to one of the most exciting nature experiences – abseiling, water-jumping, swimming and wading – I have ever had.

This is one of countless memories I am able to draw from my virtually lifelong connection with nature. Not all of these memories have to do with activities and “adventures”. Many, like the one Bob recalled, are of the beauty and wonder of nature. Bringing these memories to mind is not simply a case of conjuring up dates, times and places. It is much more than that. I reconstruct the experiences in some of their sensory and emotional detail; I relive them to some degree – from the inside so to speak. I become a time traveller escaping the “now”. This sort of memory is known as “autobiographical memory” because it is about the narrative we make from the happenings in our lives.

It is important to emphasise that autobiographical memories are rarely, if ever, exact representations of these happenings. They are always mental reconstructions that are influenced not only by the “facts” of the happenings but also by a host of other factors related to our continuing efforts to make the best (for us) sense of the facts. A memory is less an accurate and permanent record and more a story that is constantly being subtly condensed and re-shaped in the telling. Nevertheless, it is entirely appropriate to cherish our happy, autobiographical memories. They help us to know, appreciate and value ourselves as persons.

My own autobiographical memories are, of course, sourced from more area of my life than my connection with nature alone. But my sense of who I am is vastly enriched by the memories I draw from that connection.

An amazing thing about these memories is the relative convenience and reliability with which I was able to collect them. I have found that nature can be relied upon to provide a never-ending flow, and remarkable variety, of enduringly memorable experiences. Believe me, nature is a truly wonderful maker of memories.

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Birds dPhotographed barely two metres from the porch of my daughter and her husband’s house in Canberra, this kookaburra, along with his mate, is a regular visitor. As the photo shows, the house borders a large tract of native bushland that is ideal kookaburra territory.

Nevertheless, this fellow and his mate are happy to spend time (and possibly take up residence) quite close to the home of a pair of admiring humans.

This is by no means unusual as kookaburras are smart birds and quickly learn that where there are humans, there are often meaty tit-bits and other treats. They are even bold enough to pilfer sausages and the like from under the noses (sometimes quite literally) of picnickers and barbecue cooks.

I still have a very early childhood memory of the kookaburra that would snatch worms from under my father’s feet as he dug the garden. Knowing when he was on a good thing, the kookaburra appeared on the garden fence every morning, quickly managing to train my parents to feed him strips of meat for breakfast.

Feeding wild birds is a very common feature of human behaviour. It is a simple but compelling Birds cexpression of biophilia, the deep-seated human desire to affiliate with other living things. Surveys of wild bird feeders in North America and Europe show that between 45 and 75 per cent of households are actively engaged in feeding birds at home. Figures from New Zealand are similar and Australian studies indicate that between 38 and 80 per cent of households spend hard earned cash attracting birds to their backyards.

The Australian figures are intriguing because in this country artificially feeding birds is a very controversial issue and is actively discouraged by many authorities. The main reasons given by opponents of the practice are:

  • Diseases can be spread at feeding areas where large numbers of birds congregate
  • Artificial feeding may not meet all nutritional requirements and cause malnutrition and digestive problems in adult birds and developmental deficiencies in their young
  • Birds can become dependent on artificial food sources
  • Artificial feeding favours the spread of more aggressive bird species to the detriment of other species, leading to imbalanced populations

But the scientific validation of these concerns is far from complete according to ornithologist, Professor Daryl Jones.

Sure, certain diseases can be spread as birds crowd at feeders, but given the colossal numbers involved, these outbreaks are very rare indeed. Certainly, some types of foods, like bread, are inadequate and potentially harmful. But for most birds, the proportion of their overall diet made up of human-provided food is so small that little harm is likely.

Furthermore, Professor Jones says, there is no good evidence that backyard bird-feeding leads to dependency. “Almost all species investigated still find and consume a diet dominated by natural foods, and only visit to our bird tables for snacks”.

One thing numerous experiments have found, however, is that even a little extra food leads to earlier breeding, more chicks, and a greater chance of their surviving to the next year. In other words, feeding typically results in more birds.

The Australian reserve about the backyard feeding of birds is not shared by bird-lovers in the Northern Hemisphere. In the UK, for example, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Audubon Society actively and passionately advocate the feeding of birds, and claim it as the act of any genuine conservationist: ‘‘If you care about birds, feed them!”. In the USA, the bird seed industry is currently worth over a US$10 billion. American households now distribute over 500,000 tonnes of seed to suburban birds annually.

Harsher winters and much less natural food and habitat, in the UK particularly, probably mean that birds in the Northern Hemisphere benefit more from human assistance than those in our neck of the woods.

But the motivation for attracting birds by feeding them is broader than safeguarding the welfare of the creatures. There are also practical, social and psychological reasons, including:

  • Birds are attractive and interesting friends
  • Watching and listening to them can reduce stress and provide pleasure
  • They help with flower pollination and the control of plant pests
  • Having birds around fosters environmental awareness and guardianship

A survey conducted by Daryl Jones and Peter Howard found, as well, that a powerful explanation offered by backyard bird feeders was what the researchers labelled “environmental atonement”. Humans had caused so much damage to the natural world, their respondents explained, that feeding the wildlife was one way of giving something back, a personal attempt to redress the balance. This powerful component of the feeding story has since been identified among feeders throughout the world.

Where does all this leave Australians who could miss out on these benefits if they adhere to the recommendation not to feed wild birds?

Well, the choice may not be quite as black-and-white as it might appear. For one thing, many of us may be able to have bird-attracting gardens that have these basic features:

  • A variety of pollen, seed, fruit and nectar-producing Australian native plants
  • Plants of different textures and heights that provide shelter for a range of species sites

Your bird-friendly garden could also include one or two nesting boxes, water pond or birdbath – all safe from predators like the neighbour’s cat!IMG_0975

There may also be some place for bird feeding that is responsibly managed according to these guidelines:

  • Feeding stations are placed out of the reach of cats and other predators
  • Stations are cleaned daily and food removed after an hour
  • The time of day when food is provided is varied
  • Good quality food is used such as commercial nectar mixes or seed mixes (The cheaper supermarket seed does not contain sufficient nutrition for birds)
  • Only sliced meat is fed to meat-eating birds and only after careful consideration has been given to the impact that these birds will have on smaller birds
  • Feeding is ceased when more than 20 birds have gathered at the same station
  • Pets are fed indoors or remaining food is removed so common Mynas and other birds can’t share it
  • Providing food for the birds is made an occasional treat and not a daily event

I confess that I once tried unsuccessfully to set up feeding stations around my lawn to attract more regular visits from Rainbow Lorikeets but I am now content to let the flowering native trees and shrubs in my garden bring them. IMG_1426 cropped

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When the Sydney Morning Herald recently published a photo of a cute puppy with the caption, “Thiscute puppy puppy can change your thinking”, I was immediately intrigued. The accompanying news item reported that researchers at the University of New South Wales had used a photo of a puppy in a study to test whether or not the human brain makes use of unconscious information when making decisions.

It has long been believed that decisions, solutions to problems, insights and other smart mental activity can take place without the input of conscious analytical thought. Such behaviour is called intuition and all manner of people, including Albert Einstein, have claimed to have relied on it. But is intuition real? That’s the question which Galang Lufityanto and his colleagues at UNSW set out to answer.

They had their subjects observe a cloud of dots that looked a bit like “snow” on a TV screen and decide which way the dots were moving, to the left or right. They used some fancy gadgetry to send an emotionally toned image to one eye of their subjects – but in such a way that there was no consciousness of the image. The images that were used would reliably evoke either positive or negative emotion.

Now comes the clever bit. When a positive image was sent, the dots in the display moved in one direction but in the opposite direction when the image was negative. What this set up enabled the researchers to test was whether or not receiving the unconscious emotional guidance improved the decisions subjects made about the movement of the dots.

And it did. Subjects became more accurate, faster and confident on the task. For this to have happened, unconscious emotions must have been guiding decision making.

But where does the puppy figure in all of this? Well, a puppy image was one in the set used to trigger positive emotions. No surprise there. And you also won’t be surprised that among the negative images was one of a snake poised to strike and another of an attacking shark.

Although this study was concerned primarily with intuition, it has something very interesting to say about the human brain’s processing of information from nature. The study confirms that the brain can absorb such information subliminally and convert it into emotional signals that are capable of influencing learning and thinking.

As I read about this study, the “dog in the room” phenomenon came to mind. Put people together with a dog and they are likely to nicer to one another or put a dog in any everyday scene for that matter and the scene will be viewed more positively by an observer.

And it is not only animals that fire the “niceness” networks in our brains. Other features and objects from the natural world do so – beautiful and awe inspiring scenery, for example.

All of this fits nicely with the neurological studies showing that viewing typical urban and natural scenes activates remarkably different areas of our brains. A particularly notable finding is that, in contrast to natural scenes, urban scenes are much more likely to mobilise the brain’s alarm centre, the amygdala. The amygdala helps us to deal with dangers and threats to our well-being but it tends to do so by committing the brain to the flight or fight ( or stress) response at the expense of “non-urgent” brain activities, like solving problems, thinking creatively, and being empathic and socially open and agreeable.

What’s more, the amygdala is biased towards remembering negative experience and maintaining the brain in a state of vigilance and apprehension. An excessively busy amygdala can wire our brains to be anxious, impulsive, self-centred and unhappy. For that reason, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen says it is very important to expose our brain to positive information as frequently possible. Doing this builds neural pathways associated with positive states of mind, sociability, reflection and efficient problem solving.

Evidence supporting Hansen’s view is growing steadily. A recent study found, for example, that after four days of immersion in nature, newcomers to such an experience improved their performance on a creative, problem solving task by a full 50%. And there is even more compelling support for Hansen in the evidence that children progress faster academically in school settings where there is access to nature, and workers in “green” offices are likely to be more productive as well as less stressed and satisfied.

Perhaps you can explore the effect of nature on your own thinking by comparing your success with crosswords or Sudoku puzzles in two settings: indoors and outdoors in a garden or park. Or in a more serious vein, find if it helps to think about a troubling personal or work problem in a natural setting of some kind.1172774-young-blond-girl-sitting-thinking-in-a-forest

Man sitting in wheelchair in a garden

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Have you ever returned to a very scenic place that you hadn’t visited for some time and found it to be more beautiful than you remembered?bluegum e

I frequently have that experience. With my days of full-pack bushwalking behind me, I am re-discovering many of the shorter day-walks I did in the early days of my bushwalking career. A few months back, I did one such walk, The Blue Gum Walk that is located in bushland on the northern margin of Sydney. Actually, it is a walk that is well-known to me as I have done it several times over the years. Nevertheless I was exhilarated – yes exhilarated – by the diverse beauty I encountered. I came away marvelling that such magnificent scenery could be found right on Sydney’s doorstep. I responded to the walk almost as if this was the first time I had done it. You might even say that I had discovered the walk again for the first time.

Why is it that my earlier very positive memories of the walk had dimmed to such an extent? Could I be suffering an unusual long-term memory problem along with whatever might be happening to my short-term memory?

I don’t think so. It is much more likely that my memory is working very much as it always has. In allowing the positive emotional content of good memories to erode over time, my brain is functioning in a typically human fashion. Generally speaking, the things that make us happy are not threatening to our survival – quite the contrary. This means that there is not the same imperative for our brains to remember such things. Things that make us happy are not likely to kill or injure us. Nasty things, on the other hand, could – so it pays our brains to be very efficient at remembering threatening experiences – especially the negative emotions like fear and disgust that such experiences evoke.

Our brains, in other words, are better at remembering the bad rather than the good things that happen to us. That is why Rick Hansen, author of Hardwiring Happiness, says that it is very important both to repeat and to dwell on happy experiences if we want them to leave a lingering beneficial legacy in our brains.

A consequence of my muted recall of the delights of The Blue Gum Walk was that I underestimated how enjoyable it was going to be. This is not surprising as expectations depend on memories.

An interesting possibility this raises is that we all tend to underestimate the positive return we will get from an anticipated nature activity. We may expect to get some pleasure from, say, a bushwalk, stroll in a park or garden visit, but less than we actually experience.

To test this possibility, Elizabeth Nisbet and John Zelenski conducted a couple of intriguing experiments at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. They took advantage of the fact that, on the Carleton University campus, it is possible to get from one place to another either along outdoor paths or through underground tunnels (popular in an Ottawa winter). In both studies, they randomly assigned participants (male and female adults, aged 16 – 48 years) to take walks either in the tunnels or outdoors along the paths through natural features. The researchers tested two predictions:

  • participants would enjoy walking outdoors more than indoors and that the outdoor walkers would feel more connected with nature;
  • participants would make forecasting errors, such that they would underestimate their enjoyment of the outdoor walk.

The results of the experiments supported both predictions. Walking outdoors produced better moods but the extent of the emotional buzz was not fully anticipated even though the predictions were about walks in familiar areas.

Nesbit and Zelenski draw this conclusion from their studies:

To the extent that affective forecasts determine choices, our findings suggest that people fail to maximise their time in nearby nature and thus miss opportunities to increase their happiness and relatedness to nature.

 In other words, lower expectations about the pay-off from nature activities means fewer such activities are chosen.

For those of us in the business of promoting greater society-wide engagement with nature, any guideline for helping people make pro-nature lifestyle choices is welcome. Nesbit and Zelenski’s findings may be suggesting just such a guideline, namely increase expectations about nature’s pay-offs.

If you asked Rick Hansen how this could be achieved, I am confident that he would emphasise two broad strategies:

  • Help yourself to pleasurable nature experiences often and regularly – these can be as simple as spending a few minutes in a nearby park or garden;
  • Savour the experience deeply so that it stirs your brain’s memory networks into sustained activity.

Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff have written a book about savouring, a process of being deliberately mindful of pleasure and attentive to its source. They describe a range of techniques for savouring, including:

  • Be absorbed: Go with the “flow”. Stay with your feelings and try not to think about what is happening and why. Dwell in the moment and be aware of your oneness with the object of your contemplation. Ignore the presence of others and shut out distracting thoughts. Don’t rush for the camera – give priority to making a “psychological” record rather than a photographic or electronic one.
  • Sharpen perceptions: Accept nature’s implicit invitation to discover more. Let your attention take you deeper into the experience. Observe mindfully – listen, taste, feel, smell as well as look. Follow Rachel Carson’s suggestion to focus as if this is the last time you will have the experience.
  • Support memory storage: After allowing time for absorption, take a photo, make a sketch, or write a diary or journal entry. Reminisce about your experience with a friend. If appropriate keep a physical souvenir (a pebble, feather or leaf, for example).

 

As I have decided that I could do a good deal more savouring on my bushwalks, I am on the lookout for practical savouring activities to try. As an example, a friend has suggested spending half an hour of each bushwalk simply observing the insect and other life on a small patch of the forest floor or on the trunk of a tree. Other suggestions gratefully received (use the comments box if you like).

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These very fortunate kids are on a family cubby building expedition. This is the kind of nature experience that their brains will file away in their store of happy memories. DSC00581

When Israeli researcher, Rachel Sebba, asked  adults to recall the most happily memorable place from their childhood, almost all nominated an outdoor location. What made the outdoor place memorable Rachel Sebba found was not so much the beauty of the scenery but more the activities that had been enjoyed there.

Sebba puts this down to the intensity with which the natural environment is experienced in childhood. Children experience the natural environment in a deep and direct manner, not as a background for events, but rather as the enabler and stimulator of experiences. Children themselves have indicated that they are attracted to natural environments because these are full of novelty, variety and interest and because they contain so much that can be played in, on and with. Elements such as rocks, trees and water can be particularly significant in children’s play. Children also value the opportunities nature gives to claim territories, to have time-out from adults and to get on with “secret children’s business”.

I was prompted to think again about the power and pleasure of childhood experiences when I read an article on the relationship between money and happiness by three consumer psychologists, Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson.

They confirm the common view that money is no guarantee of happiness. There is a relationship between the two but it is a weak one. A reason for this, they say, is that people are bad at anticipating what will them happy and make poor purchasing decisions as a consequence. A very common mistake we all make, for example, is to overestimate the happiness we will get from buying “things”. Often the anticipation of ownership is more enjoyable than ownership itself. The novelty of the new car, work of art or piece of jewellery, for example, can wear off quite rapidly.

But when it comes to experiences, it is a different story. Based on research findings, Elizabeth Dunn and her associates say that we are far more likely to derive happiness by buying experiences instead of things. For one thing, experiences vary – unlike objects – so they retain their novelty value for far longer. For another, experiences offer more scope for happy recollections. It is not only childhood nature experiences that stay in our memory. Happy adult experiences can do the same, especially if we have them frequently. Better to have small (and less expensive) doses of happy experiences frequently than to have single, large (and possibly more expensive) doses infrequently, Dunn and co suggest.

Frequent happy experiences are easy to come by in nature – and most cost little or nothing at all. But if you have a mind to convert some of your money into happiness, then nature provides opportunities for doing this as well – establishing and maintaining a garden, taking a scenic bus trip through the “Red Centre”, having a farm-stay holiday, rafting a wild river and trekking in Nepal, for example. Even though these look like one-off investments, they work well as happiness generators because they are made up of many experiences. Exif_JPEG_PICTUREakcFarmstay holiday

I have been fortunate to have a lifetime of nature experiences. Many came my way easily and at little cost, but others required money that could have been used otherwise, including acquiring more things. But I don’t regret for one minute choosing in favour of “doing” rather than “having”.

As Jon Krakauer writes in Into the Wild:

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

 

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What is going on in these photos?

Chasings a

The world is ful of problems to solve

Object play

Kids in a cubby

Who needs playground eqiupment

Pretty obviously they are photos of kids playing and having fun. But there is much, much more happening beyond the obvious.

Who is in charge of the play in each case? Again it is fairly obvious – the kids themselves are. This makes what they are doing free or unstructured play. The absence of adults or older children is a strong pointer to this. But this does not mean that adults cannot be involved in free play, Not at all. Who’s in charge is what matters; if it’s the kids, then its free play.

It’s unstructured play of this kind, especially if it is in nature, that I place at the core of an authentic childhood.

Stay with me as I probe deeper into the play activities in the photos to see why.

Perhaps the simplest activity is the game of chasings in the top photo. This is an example of what is called rough-and-tumble or locomotor play. Simple it may look, the game is actually quite complex. Think about the skills involved. There are motor skills such as running, turning, ducking under and climbing over obstacles and the social skills needed to organise the game in the first place. Dr Madeline Levine suggests that “Kids can learn more from a game of chase than from a week of leadership camp”. They certainly learn valuable lessons about their physical capabilities, about themselves more generally and about the fun to be had from exercising those capabilities.

The girl fishing for tadpoles (or whatever) in the second photo is engaged in what is technically called object play. The object in this case, the fishing net, is enabling her to engage the environment in a way that is enormously beneficial. The attending and exploring she is doing are stimulating chemicals in her brain that activate curiosity and improve learning efficiency. Beyond simply having “fun”, the youngster is actually making herself smarter.

The toddler in the third photo is doing much the same as he investigates the leaves, sticks and rocks encountered on his walk. Both children may well be on the way to discovering areas of interest that may someday blossom into passions. In the ranks of great scientists, there are many who trace their achievements to interests born in childhood nature play. Joseph Banks, one of world’s foremost botanists, is a case in point. He attributed his passion for plants to his wildflower rambles as a child.

I hope the fourth photo takes you back to your childhood and memories of building and playing in cubbies. The children in the photo are taking part in a mixture of social and pretend play – both absolutely essential for healthy development. They are learning how to work together, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to advocate for themselves. They are creating and exploring a world they can master and very likely practising adult roles.

The powerful contribution of pretend play to children’s development is well documented. It fosters creative thinking and imaginative reasoning and is associated with the enrichment of both receptive and expressive language.

The fifth picture reminds us that risk-taking is part of play. Apart from exercising his balance and co-ordinatioin skills, the boy is learning about challenges and his ability to meet them. He is exploring physical and mental boundaries, conquering fears perhaps, building confidence and developing resilience in the process.

Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and leading investigator of play, has found that deprivation of free play in childhood is associated later in life with lack of empathy, mental rigidity, diminished curiosity, workaholism, addictions, joylessness, anxiety and “smouldering” depression. Even more alarming is his observation that a common feature of the early lives of the hundreds of serial killers and murderers he has studied was few opportunities for free play and combined sometimes with perverted and cruel forms of play.

Another important point that Brown constantly emphasises is that human beings are one of the few species that are playful throughout the lifecycle. This means that adults and children can participate in play together. What a happy thought – families can engage in nature play together! If you want ideas about how to engage in nature play with children in your life, you might like to see what I have to say about this in my books, Claim Your Wildness and A Day in the Bush

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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).

br DSC00185

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,

bg 2013-11-24 14.53.40

the farms,  bx 2013-11-25 18.45.46

gardens, cx 2013-11-28 13.59.29

and wildflowers.

ecc 2013-12-02 14.26.40

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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