Positive Psychology

How and why to cultivate gratitude

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that beings us happiness.”

Why Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is good for us. Our minds have a built-in “negativity bias,” so that we tend to pay more attention to things that aren’t going right. In fact, if we can’t find something that’s going wrong we’ll make something up by imagining future calamities. And this focus on what’s wrong creates anxiety and stress, diminishing our sense of well-being. And at the same time, we tend to take for granted and ignore things that are going right in our lives, depriving us of a sense of joy.

Practicing gratitude reverses this trend. By recognizing that there are in fact many things going right in life, and by taking our conscious attention to those things and naming them, we feel happier, and we experience less anxiety and stress.

In fact, research shows that one of the easiest things we can do to bring more happiness into our lives is to regularly practice gratitude.

In Wildmind’s online community website (which is for sponsors of our Meditation Initiative) there’s a bunch of us who regularly share things we’re grateful for. Some people do this sporadically. I try to do it daily, although occasionally there’s a day I miss.

Some Suggestions for Gratitude Practice

One of our community members recently wrote, asking for advice about how to cultivate gratitude. He wrote, “I feel almost, well actually, embarrassed to admit that I don’t feel a lot of gratitude for the everyday things in my life. What do I do if I can’t find anything that I feel genuinely grateful for? Is the practice like metta where we might just start with an intention?”

A bunch of people in the community jumped in with suggestions, and I thought I’d share some of this communal wisdom here.

  • Write it down. That makes it more real.
  • Do it every day, and come up with at least five things. If your list is shorter than this, then make sure you’re choosing things that aren’t obvious, and that you haven’t thought of before.
  • Don’t just create a checklist.Dwell on the things you’re cultivating gratitude for. Hold them in your heart and mind until gratitude arises.
  • Challenge yourself. For many people, finding three things to be grateful for becomes easy. Too easy. So easy it becomes rote. So maybe a list of five is good. If it feels hard to come up with the last one or two, that’s good! It means you’re eventually calling to mind things that weren’t obvious.
  • Look for specifics. It’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for my spouse.” Instead, think of specific things you’re grateful for in your spouse. It might be qualities or traits they have that you appreciate. Or it may be things they’ve done.
  • If you find it’s difficult to get started, introduce an element of play, for example by creating a list of things you are grateful for that are green or that start with the letter “j”.
  • Another way to  introduce playfulness and overcome a mental block is to list “favorite things.” For example, your favorite drink, color, tree, 20th-century invention, philosopher, bird, dessert, band, item of clothing …
  • Just jump in. Once you get going, inspiration arises. “Once we begin writing This morning we feel grateful for… a few times, the genuine appreciation begins to bubble to the surface. We’re determined to practice this discipline daily whether we feel like it or not.
  • Look for small things: “It took me some time to align myself with the fact that life is made up of lots of small things that bring pleasure or gratitude into our lives that largely go unnoticed, perhaps because they’re so routine, e.g. that quiet cup of coffee first thing in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up. Also, consider that there are far fewer ‘large’ events to draw upon anyway, so anyone is likely to run out of material quite quickly if they rely on them!”
  • Think of what life would be like without something “ordinary” that you’re experiencing or depend on right at that moment. It would be a major and difficult change not to be able to see or hear, for example. Or not to have electricity or flowing water. Or not having shops where you can buy food. If you spend a little time thinking about how it would be without those things, then you can appreciate having them.
  • Think about the things people don’t have that you do have. Some people are homeless, and many people in the world have very few possessions. A basic item that you or I would take for granted would be unimaginable wealth to someone who has very little. So imagine what it would be like being them, having something that you take for granted.
  • Think about how things were in the past. It’s not that long since an eight-mile journey meant walking for hours through mud. Until recently dentistry was done without anesthetic, people died young from tuberculosis, and so on. Our lives are so easy in comparison. So imagine being in those situations, and you might find it’s easier to appreciate what you have.
  • It’s okay when you are not feeling particularly grateful. This happens to everyone. Actual feelings of gratitude will return in time. In the meantime, keep noticing things you could be grateful for. Make mental notes of them, and even write them down.  Start with small things, like feeling grateful for coffee or falling back to sleep even if you were up for hours during the night, etc. You get into the habit of noticing things you might feel grateful for, and feelings of gratitude increase.

Keep Going: It’s a Practice!

Often when I sit down to write at least five things I’m grateful for — I do this in the morning — I find it hard to get past the first three. But I always manage to get to five, and often by the time I get to the end of the list I find myself sitting there, just grateful for breathing, for existing, and for every precious moment that arises. And when I read other people’s expressions of gratitude on our community website, I feel grateful for having been given an insight into other people’s lives, so that I can share in their appreciation and joy.

Practicing gratitude brings us a sense of abundance. Without it, we easily feel we’re living in a hostile world where nothing is going right. With it, we can come to feel that we are surrounded by blessings.

I strongly recommend this practice of gratitude, and hope you found the suggestions above helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of becoming one of Wildmind’s sponsors (those benefits go well beyond having a place to share our gratitude with each other) you can do so by clicking here.

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Be lived by love

Feeling both the world and myself these days, one phrase keeps calling: lived by love.
Explicitly, this means coming from love in a broad sense, from compassion, good intentions, self-control, warmth, finding what’s to like, caring, connecting, and kindness.

Implicitly, and more fundamentally, this practice means a relaxed opening into the love—in a very very broad sense—that is the actual nature of everything. Moment by moment, the world and the mind reliably carry you along.

This isn’t airy-fairy, it’s real. Our physical selves are woven in the tapestry of materiality, whose particles and energies never fail. The supplies—the light and air, the furniture and flowers—that are present this instant are here, available, whatever the future may hold. So too is the caring and goodwill that others have for you, and the momentum of your own accomplishments, and the healthy workings of your body. Meanwhile, your mind goes on being, while dependably weaving this thought, this sound, this moment of consciousness.

It’s hard to sustain a felt knowing of this nature of everything. The brain evolved to keep our ancestors afraid to keep them alive. But if you look, and look again, you can see directly that right now, and in every now you’re alive, you’re cradled by the world and the mind like a child carried to bed by her mother. This cradling is a kind of love, and when you trust it enough to soften and fall back into it, there’s an untangling of the knots of fear and separation. Then comes both an undoing of the craving that drives suffering and harm, and a freeing and fueling love living through you and as you out into the world.

Imagine a single day in which you were often—not continuously, not perfectly—lived by love. When I try this myself, the events of the day don’t change much—but my experience of them, and their effects, improve dramatically. Consider this as a practice for a day, a week—or the year altogether.

More widely, imagine a world in which many people, enough people—known and unknown, the low and the mighty—were lived by love. As our world teeters on the edge of a sword—and could tip either into realistic prosperity, justice, and peace, or into growing resource wars, despotism, or fundamentalism—it seems to me that it’s not just possible for a critical mass of human hearts to be lived by love. It’s necessary.

How? The essence of this practice is a yielding into all that lives you. This is a paradigm shift from the typical top-down, subtly contracted, moving-out-from-a-unified-center-of-view-and-action way of operating … to a relaxed receptive abiding, feeling supported by the ocean of causes creating each momentary wave of awareness. Then on this basis, there is an encouraging of love in all its forms to flow through you. The suggestions that follow are different ways to do this, and you can also find your own.

Soften and open in the heart. Notice that you are alright right now: listen to your body telling your brain that you are basically OK. Feel the fullness that is already here, all the perceptions and thoughts and feelings pop-pop-popping in this moment of consciousness. Feel the buoying currents of nature and life, waves of gifts from over 3 billion years of evolution on our blue and green pebble. Look around and see objects, including your own hands and body, and consider the unfailing generosity of the material realm, blossoming for over 12 billion years from a seed of light.

Be aware of the warmth and good will from others toward you. Sense your connecting to others, how you are supported by a net of relationships. They don’t have to be perfect. Some people do care about you. You are almost certainly loved.

Feel carried by consciousness, the effortless knowing of perception and thought. When stress, worry, pressure, or pain appear in the mind, see that the fabric of this suffering—the underlying operating of the mind—is itself fine, is always already fine.

Again and again making this little but profound shift, this giving over to the carrying cradling of mind and matter, you can afford to let your own love flow freely. Bring this down to earth: if you lived from love in your first encounter with another person today, how would you be, what would you do, how would you speak? What would a week, a year, be like in which you lived by love? How about trying this? Who knows, if enough people share in this practice, the world could become a much better place.

Let love’s currents glide you home.

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Finding meditation’s intrinsic rewards

The mind is pulled in two different directions in meditation.

Peace, calm, and joy are the intrinsic rewards that meditation offers, and in theory that reward system should help keep you anchored in your direct, moment-by-moment experience. That can happen, and in fact that’s a good description of the experience of jhana (dhyana in Sanskrit). Jhana is a state of “flow” in which meditation becomes effortless because the rewards of joy, pleasure, and calmness keep you immersed in your present-moment experience. The rewards of meditation can pull you into your practice. That’s the first pull.

But it’s not always easy to experience those rewards. There’s another pull, which we’re all too familiar with: the pull of our distractions. This pull is much stronger. We’ve evolved to have minds that are constantly searching around looking for things that are wrong. Our ancestors’ survival (and thus our present-day existence) depended on a heightened awareness of anything that might threaten our chances of continuing to exist. And although our lives are pretty safe compared to the days when you had perhaps a one in three chance of dying violently, those circuits are still active.

So your ability to become absorbed in calmness and joy is hampered by the mind obsessing about some future event you’re anxious about, or a careless word from a friend that hurt your feelings, or some pleasant experience you hope will happen.

The parts of your brain that are responsible for those patterns of thought have been around for a long time and have had a lot of practice in getting your attention. They’re deeply wired into the rest of the brain and have the ability to hijack the brain’s “higher” centers, which are more recently evolved.

And so the powers of distraction are strong. You can let go of a distracted train of thought and return to your sensory awareness of your moment-by-moment experience, only to find you’ve become distracted again, long before you had a chance to get to the “rewards” of peace, calmness, of joy.

Two approaches I’ve found are useful for helping break out of this dynamic are these:

1. Really appreciate the experience of the breathing.

There is a shift in the quality of your experience when you disengage from a distraction. The shift may be slight, but it happens. It’s there. There’s just a little more calm, a little less tension.

Practice noticing those shifts. Really appreciate them. Allow yourself to feel that you’re coming home as you return to the breathing. You can even say words like “Yes,” or “Thank you,” or “Coming home again.”

Doing this will help to enhance your experience of the intrinsic rewards of meditation, so that they become stronger, easier to notice, and more compelling.

2. Disengage from distractions respectfully and empathetically

Treating your distractions as the enemy is a mistake. They’ve evolved to keep us safe and alive. Those are important tasks, and we should appreciate that they are what our distractions are trying to do. They’re not trying to mess up our meditation practice. They’re not trying to make us tense, stressed, upset, or depressed — even if that’s what they end up doing. From their point of view, they are crucial to our survival, and our happiness doesn’t even register to them.

So first, stop reacting to your distractions. This is common advice, of course, but accept that distraction simply happens. It’s no big deal. You can just let go and return to the breathing.

But before you do, say “Thank you.” Say “Thanks. I’ll deal with that at a more appropriate time,” or “Thanks. It can wait, though,” or “Thank you. Later.” Maybe you can come up with phrases that are better than mine.

If you’re signaling to those parts of the brain that their input is valued and will be attended to at the right time, they’re more likely to stop bugging you. Otherwise, they’ll think that their crucial role in keeping you safe is being ignored, which means they think you’re endangering yourself, which means they have to try even harder to get your attention.

This two-fold approach, of valuing but politely disengaging from distraction, while also savoring any increase in calmness, can help make our distractions less insistent and our moment-by-moment sensory experience more compelling. It can help us get more quickly to the rewards that meditation offers.

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Meditation as a “positivity cascade”

It used to be that if you wanted to learn to meditate you had to take the risk of entering an exotic, incense-scented meditation center, wondering if you were stepping into the domain of some weird cult. Nowadays, though, you can download meditation apps, learn meditation online, or even attend a class at your local hospital.

Yet although meditation is approaching mainstream acceptance, many people still have the image of meditation as something unusual, and perhaps even difficult. They expect something religious or mysterious.

The principles of meditation, however, are very down to earth.

But first, let’s understand what tends to happen when we’re not very mindful.

The mind does a lot of thinking that makes us unhappy. The average person spends about half of their time being distracted, which means they’re thinking about things unrelated to what they’re actually doing.

Much of this distraction involves things like worrying, being irritable, or having doubts about yourself — things that make us unhappy.

This distracted and unhelpful thinking has physiological effects, causing the release of stress hormones, leading to long-term inflammation and predisposing us to illness.

Being stressed causes us to act in ways that cause more stress — such as losing our temper, withdrawing from sources of emotional support, eating badly, and so on. This causes yet more stress.

Stress is a vicious cycle.

Next, let’s look at how meditation helps.

Meditation starts simply by encouraging us to stay rooted in sensory reality by paying attention to the sensations of the body and of our breathing. This helps us to notice when we’re caught up in unhelpful patterns of thinking.

We then let go of these distracted trains of thought and come back to the sensations of our breathing, over and over.

We learn to accept that distraction happens, without beating ourselves up about it.

As we spend more time observing the breathing, and less time caught up in distracted thinking, we find that our mind and emotions start to settle down.

We’re no longer giving rise to stress hormones, and so our levels of tension and of inflammation drop. We become healthier.

We also find, as we become less stressed, that we act in ways that are supportive of our long-term well-being. For example, when we do feel stressed we’re more likely to deal with it through relaxation, or exercise. We’re more likely to take care of ourselves by eating healthily and and so on.

When we’re in conflict with someone we’re more apt to respond in an empathetic way, and in ways that are reasonable rather than reactive. And so we are more likely to settle our difficulties and find that there is less conflict going on around us. We build more positive connections with those around us.

And so when we meditate we become happier, more focused (which itself brings a host of benefits), we’re healthier, and our lives generally go more smoothly. This all helps to contribute to a sense of wellbeing.

This is why I talk about meditation involving a “positivity cascade.” The seemingly ordinary act of observing our breathing leads to a whole series of positive changes that help to enrich our lives.

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Get your sit together in 2017

Meditating regularly has immense benefits. Meditating makes you happier, is good for your health, protects your brain from aging, boosts your intelligence, and helps reduce pain, stress, and depression. It improves your relationships with others, helps you be more effective, and gives you more of a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

So you might have read that and thought, “Great, but I don’t have the time to meditate.” Or you may have already learned to meditate, perhaps years ago, but have never been able to keep up a regular practice.

For many years I struggled with sustaining the habit of meditating daily. I knew the benefits of meditation, not just from studies that had been done, but from personal experience. When I meditated, I’d feel calmer and happier. When I came back from meditation retreats I’d feel tranquil and blissful. But even knowing all that both intellectually and experientially, I found it really hard to sit every day. I’d do well for a while, but then miss a day. Then I’d miss a few days. Sometimes a week would go by and I’d hardly have meditated. I knew other people who just meditated every day, and I felt a real sense of failure about my inability to do likewise. I just didn’t understand what was going on.

Now I meditate pretty much every day without fail. Every few months I might miss a day, but I no longer have a sense of failure and shame when that happens. The next day I just get back to my habit of meditating regularly.

I’m going to be sharing the lessons I’ve learned about setting up a daily meditation practice in a new online course called Get Your Sit Together, starting January 1 (when better to start a new habit!).

The aim of the course is to get you to the point of being a rock-solid daily meditator. Plan A is that you’ll sit for every day of the 28-day course. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but if you miss a day or two that isn’t a problem. That’s not “failure” — it’s just you learning what can get in the way of developing a good habit. So Plan B is that by the end of the 28 days you’ll be sitting daily. And that’s fine, because it doesn’t matter if it takes a little time to develop a good habit, as long as we do it.

So what will Get Your Sit Together help you with? There are a number of things you’ll learn to do:

1. Recalibrate your sense of what a “real” meditation is

When I first went to meditation classes, the meditations were usually 20 to 30 minutes in length, although often they’d be longer — 40 or 50 minutes. We never did any sits of five or ten minutes. So, not unnaturally, I picked up the idea that a “real” meditation was a long meditation, and that a short meditation isn’t worth doing. And the problem was that it was difficult, if not impossible, to fit those “real” (i.e. long) meditations into my day. And so I ended up not doing short meditations because I didn’t have time to do long meditations! Crazy! So you’ll learn that even short meditations count, and on the course there will be guided meditations of five minutes, three minutes, and even one minute in length. Short sits like these make meditation doable. It’s suddenly possible to fit meditation into the inevitable spaces in your day. You may not have 40 minutes lying around, waiting to be filled by a new activity, but you almost certainly have several gaps of just a few minutes long. And if you don’t, they’re not that difficult to create.

2. Change your sense of self

For me this was the most important thing. I wanted to meditate regularly, but didn’t, and so I saw myself as someone who couldn’t meditate regularly. I saw this as a lack of willpower, but willpower had little to do with it. What I had was a false view of myself that I was trapped in: I thought I just wasn’t the kind of person who could meditate daily. So I’ll help you change your self-view so that you see yourself as someone who meditates every day, as someone who doesn’t miss days. Meditating daily will very quickly become just what you do. (You may not believe that right now, but you can quite quickly and easily learn to have confidence in your ability to sit daily.)

3. Develop accountability and tap into support

In developing a new habit, it helps to be accountable to ourselves and others. This can be as simple as putting a big red X every day on a calendar, and making sure we don’t “break the chain” of X’s. Or we can share with others how we’re doing, and the problems we’re facing. We have an online community set up for the class to help provide that accountability. “Accountability” can be a big and scary word, but we’re all working with the same difficulties, and so our community is a judgement-free zone. In fact it’s a zone of support, encouragement, and celebration. If you feel shame about missing a day, we can help you see that it’s not a big deal, it’s not failure, it’s just a small stumble on the way to developing a good habit.

4. Anticipate obstacles

It’s so easy to say, “Yeah, I’m going to meditate every day! Nailed it!” But then you forget the practicalities, and suddenly it’s 11:30 PM and you’re brain-dead and need to crawl into bed, and maybe you don’t even remember until then that you haven’t meditated yet. So we need to sit down and develop a plan: Here’s my opportunity to meditate for ten minutes tomorrow. Here’s another. It’s not just the busy days you have to anticipate; sometimes the open and spacious days are a challenge too, because we think it’ll be easy.

5. Recognize the voice of resistance

A lot of us believe whatever arises in our minds. So when we have thoughts like “I’m too busy/tired to meditate. I don’t have time,” we’ll learn to recognize this not as a voice we should listen to and be guided by, but the voice of resistance. We can say, “Hi, resistance. I hear that you don’t wanna meditate, but that’s what we’re gonna do, OK? But since you’re kind of tired, why don’t we start with just five minutes rather than our usual 10, and see how you feel then?” By establishing a dialog with our resistance, we stop ourselves from being hijacked by it.

6. Reward progress

One HUGE mistake people make is to forget to congratulate themselves on meditating. In fact they may punish themselves: “OK, I did it, but it was only 10 minutes and I should have done 20. I’m such a wimp. Loser!” If we punish ourselves for doing something, we’ll probably not repeat that action too much! So we’ll learn to celebrate, and to give ourselves a pat on the back. We’ll learn to feel good about meditating, so that our subconscious latches onto sitting as something it wants to do. Providing a reward is one of the most important things about successfully establishing a good habit.

While Get Your Sit Together is about learning to meditate daily, you’ll find that the principles involved — drawn from modern psychology and the Buddhist meditation tradition — are applicable to developing just about any good habit. But at the very least, as you follow the daily emails, listen to the guided meditations, and participate in the online community, you’ll find that you are able to sit daily. And that will give you the physical, psychological, and social benefits I outlined above. In short, you’ll become a happier person. You’ll experience a sense of thriving.

So why not join me! But don’t wait until January 1! Click here to head over to our Eventbrite page, enroll in Get Your Sit Together, and take the first step of a journey that will change your life.

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Letting happiness happen

50572155 - white flower growing on crack stone wall soft focus, blank text

The one emotion that we most commonly repress is joy.

We don’t intend to do this. Instead, it happens through inattention. Few if any of us would sense joy arising and make a conscious decision to destroy it or push it out of awareness. Few of us would refuse happiness if it were to appear. And still we repress joy all the time.

One of the principles of meditation is that it allows joy to flourish. The process of meditating is that you start paying attention to some immediate sensory experience, such as the breathing. Then, after a while, you realize you’ve stopped doing that, and have instead been caught up in some train of thought. And so you bring your attention back to the breathing again. You do this over and over again.

What happens is that you get happier, and the reason for this is that you’ve stopped repressing your joy. Most of the distracted thoughts we have create suffering for us, because in those distracted trains of thought we create dissatisfaction, worry, or self-doubt. All of these kinds of thinking hinder our happiness and make us suffer. Let go of them, and calmness, peace, and joy naturally arise.

All we have to do is stop repressing our joy, and happiness happens.

Both the repression of joy and letting happiness happen take place in our daily activities as well. These aren’t just things that take place on the meditation cushion. All day long we’re slipping into distraction and diminishing our happiness. Daily life is not just an ideal opportunity to let happiness happen — it’s where most of our practice must inevitably take place.

We often think that it’s the things we do day-to-day, or that happen to us, that make us happy or unhappy. However it’s not so much the things we do that condition our mental states, but how we respond to them. We might be mildly anxious about leaving the house a little bit late. Every day. Or there’s the person at work we find annoying. Every day. There’s the gossip that we tend to join in with. Every day. There’s the routine task that we resent. Every day. It’s those kinds of habitual responses to the world around us that condition our mind and emotions. Moment by moment, they mount up.

It may seem like these mental acts are small things, but when it comes to happiness there are no small things. Every response we make to the events in our lives either represses us or unleashes happiness. The sum total of our wellbeing depends on how these repeated and seemingly insignificant acts mount up.

Happiness is not created. It’s allowed. Its there, in potential, all the time. It’s just that in our unawareness we are constantly doing things that make it impossible for us to be happy. Inattention destroys our happiness. Attentiveness allows happiness to happen.

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How to improve your attention span through meditation

girl dressed as superheroYour ability to stick with something varies from activity to activity. For example, when playing Scrabble or a computer game, or watching a movie, you no doubt have thoughts about unrelated things, but you keep coming back to the activity. But in other things, like meditation, you find it more difficult to stay focused, and may even give up.

This all suggests that “attention span” is a question of how you relate to distraction, rather than some intrinsic quality of the mind.

The difference is often to do with rewards: in Scrabble, you naturally get a reward when you’ve completed a word and score points. That gives you a little dopamine hit—not just when you score points, but even when you see the possibility of doing so. You see the promise of getting to a new level in a computer game, and once again there’s a dopamine hit. The movie has quiet parts, where you’re less engaged and the mind wanders, but then the story evolves and you get to see some action, or a shift in the plot and want to know what happens next. Another dopamine hit.

Dopamine is the brain’s “promise of a reward” chemical. It keeps you motivated. Dopamine is in effect saying to your brain, “Keep going! Something good is just around the corner!”

Movies and games have built-in mechanisms for delivering dopamine-based rewards. That’s why we like them. Meditation, less so.

Sometimes meditation is naturally rewarding. We might notice that the mind is becoming a little calmer, and feel good about that. And those kinds of experiences keep you motivated. But when people meditate, especially early on, they mostly notice how distracted they are! This is less encouraging, which is probably why most people give up meditating after the first few days or weeks.

We all have trouble paying attention, and have distracted thoughts popping into our heads that take us away from the task we’re trying to focus on, such as noticing the breathing. There’s a tendency at first to assume that there’s something wrong when this happens, and to think that we can’t meditate. And that sense of “failure” produces very unpleasant feelings that we want to escape from by ceasing to continue the exercise. But in fact it’s normal to get distracted, and if we accept that we can just keep returning to the meditation practice over and over again.

It can be a little shocking, and disappointing. This saps our motivation, making us want to give up.

In meditation, the reward often has to be consciously induced. We can do this by deliberately celebrating small signs of progress. For example, the mind is always going to go wandering, and become distracted. But it always returns to mindful awareness! In meditation, we can either curse ourselves for getting distracted again or celebrate regaining our mindfulness again. Which we choose makes a big difference to our perseverance.

If that seems artificial (which is to say that you’re choosing to believe the demotivating thought rather than the one that motivates you) then you might want to give yourself a little reassurance instead, by saying something like, “It’s OK. This happens to everyone. I’ve returned to mindful attention now, and that’s the important thing.”

Once you’re learned to be a bit less disappointed in distraction and begun to accept it as a normal part of the meditation process, then you start to more consciously celebrate your many, many returns to mindful awareness.

Doing this will help you to stick with the practice. However, you’ll find that your attention span improves not just in meditation, but in other areas of your life too, since you’ve learned an important principle of motivation: criticism deflates, rewards inspire!

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Remembering to be happy

I’ve made and immediately forgotten too many New Year’s resolutions to be a believer in them, but the start of a new trip around the sun still makes me reflect on changes that I want to bring about in my life.

One thing that started popping into my mind toward the end of last year was the realization that I often forget to be happy.

It seems that just about any time I want, I can access happiness—or at least I can access a greater degree of peace, calm, well-being, and emotional positivity than was present just a moment before.

It works like this: I’ll be doing something, like working, reading, or browsing the web, and I’ll become aware that my experience is a bit flat or tense. I’ve become focused on what I’ve been doing in too driven a way, and this is diminishing my sense of well-being. As soon as I realize that’s been going on, I start to pay greater attention to my present-moment experience, relax my body, and allow my heart to soften. And instantly I feel happier. Often I feel much happier. I mean, really happy.

There may be unpleasant feelings present, but over the years I’ve learned how to accept those. I can have unpleasant feelings going on—sadness, or anxiety, for example—and still be happy. It’s a process, though. I have to spend a few moments with the unpleasant feeling once I notice it, and let it be, and then it becomes less solid and weighty, and it’s surrounded by a mind that’s content, or even joyful.

How easy it is to access this happiness is surprising. It’s like it’s always there, waiting for me to experience it. But I forget.

So this year I have the intention (I wouldn’t quite call it a resolution) to remember to be happy. I’m training myself to check in with my experience at least several times an hour in order to see how I’m feeling, and to note whether it’s possible for me to let go of the flatness or negative affect, in order for happiness to arise. I’ll be working, reading, or browsing the web, and silently ask, “How are you? Can you relax a little? Soften? Open your heart? Let go of that drivenness? Can you let yourself be happier, even if just a little?”

I’m suppressing joy all the time. I just have to remember not to! I wonder if that’s true for you as well?

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Which positive emotion has the most “awesome” health benefits?

The New York Times magazine this weekend will have an interesting article in its health column, The Well, about research into the health benefits of positive emotions.

The researchers were interested in looking at levels of a compound called interleukin-6, which is associated with general inflammation in the body. Low levels of interleukin-6 correspond to good health.

In the study, students were asked “about their normal dispositions and the extent to which they had recently felt seven specific emotions: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The students also provided a saliva sample. While happy moods were collectively still associated with low IL-6 levels, the strongest correlation was with awe. The more frequently someone reported having felt awe-struck, the lower the IL-6.”

The lead author of the study, Dachel Keltner says that “a primary attribute of an awe-inspiring event is that it ‘will pass the goose-bumps test.’”

Rather to my surprise, the students in the study reported feeling awe three or more times a week. Unfortunately there wasn’t any indication of the circumstances under which they experienced this emotion, but Keltner points out that music and nature are common triggers of awe.

Keltner also suggests that we seek out awe, which I think is a great idea. It’s a feeling that doesn’t just confer health benefits, but which leads to life being more meaningful and enjoyable. I welcome the reminder to seek out awe. For me, there’s no need to listen to music or watch a sunset in order to experience awe; all I have to do is to become aware of how miraculous it is that I experience. Simply becoming aware that I am aware, and recognizing that I don’t even know what awareness is, is enough to trigger goosebumps. But music and sunsets are lovely too!

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Creating a natural anti-depressant brain?

uncovering-happinessI haven’t read the book I’m about to introduce, but I’m familiar with the author and the advance information about it makes it sound interesting.

Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion is written by psychologist and bestselling author Elisha Goldstein, PhD. It shows us the science of natural anti-depressants and gives us the practices to unlock them, building new neural structures to uncover genuine happiness.

Hardcover: Barnes & Noble, Book Passage, Indie Bound, Powell’s, Simon & Schuster.

eBook: iBooks, Nook, Simon & Schuster, Google Play Store.

We now know that we can use our minds to change our brains, but Dr. Goldstein’s Uncovering Happiness reveals techniques that help us break our negative habit loops and release these five natural anti-depressants in the brain: mindfulness, self-compassion, purpose, play and developing confidence—ultimately creating a natural anti-depressant brain.

The book integrates the findings of hundreds of academic studies and dozens of interviews with mindfulness teachers, psychologists, neuroscientists and researchers. There are also stories of many people who have used these teachings to find their personal pathway to healing.

This book contains a message of hope: Having experienced bouts of anxiety, depression or being just down in the dumps doesn’t mean you have to suffer from it in the future. As Goldstein says, “Science and thousands of people’s experience are showing that these seven simple elements can help us take back control of our minds, our moods and our lives.”

The book comes out on January 27th. You can pre-order a copy and receive the free bonus of Dr. Goldstein’s “Uncovering Happiness Training” – A 90 Minute presentation that take you step-by-step through the elements of Uncovering Happiness, by visiting the author’s site.

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