Depression is a nasty and debilitating disorder. When it is severe, there are four sets of symptoms: a chronic sad fatigue, a sense that the future is dreary, a sense of helplessness, and a loss of positive appetites. The field of psychology and psychiatry have tried to treat depression for many years with antidepressant drugs and or counselling. The success of treatments tends to be confined to moderate relief in about 65-70% of cases. Embarrassingly for our profession, placebos (that is when someone thinks they are getting a drug but are in fact getting an aspirin) have a 45-50% success rate!
For those of you suffering from depressiveness, what can you do? Well Martin Seligman has just reported a fascinating piece of research, the pioneer of positive psychology, regarding what one can do to make a difference to depression. They did research on the effectiveness of completing the simplest and most uncomplicated of tasks. It was simply this: Depressed people were required to write down three things that went well that day and why they went well. That’s all. Nothing more. No counselling. No drugs. No talking. Just write down three blessings. It was called the THREE BLESSINGS exercise. They had to do it for one week. Here are the results.
50 severely depressed people participated in the study. At the end of that week 47 of them reported being far less depressed. In terms of overall happiness, 46 of the fifty people increased their happiness significantly. These results were actually better than a comparable group who took drugs or received counselling!
Now before we run away with ourselves with this, there is a lot more research that needs to be done to examine the validity of these findings, but they point to something critical to everyone struggling with depressiveness. What we can learn from this is simple – there are positive and simple things you can do on a daily basis to change your mood.
The THREE BLESSINGS exercise may seem hoaky, or trivial. You might, like a lot of people, justify your depressiveness by saying such things as “I am such a complicated person that a simple change wont do much for me.” “My depressiveness is very deep and a result of a lot of bad experiences, so changing is going to be very difficult for me.” Or “Things like that might wok for other people, but I am different.” Such thinking is not helpful.
What we find is that major changes are a consequences of small one’s. Small changes can change big systems quite dramatically. Take the metaphor of the log-jam. You will have experienced this in traffic when one car can cause a back-up of up to a hundred cars because it has manoeuvred its way badly up Barrack Street, Blarney Street, or Sunday’s Well. However, to let the traffic flow correctly again may mean only a small change. If one car reverses a few feet and allows another one through the entire traffic jam can be released. In other words what can look like a huge traffic problem can be freed up by a small change. It’s the same with changing one’s life. One small change can have a huge effect on the flow of your emotional life.
I sat with a young woman this morning that has been suffering from depression. We sat down for an hours and wrote out a list of all her goals and objectives for the next two years. At the end of our session she had a list of about 50 things she would have to do to achieve her dreams over that time. She was thrilled because when she came in she felt that there was no focus to her life, and nothing to get out of bed for. However, though it was a relatively simple task to do what I had done, this girl had never in her life taken an hour to think in a disciplined to convert her dreams into goals and to convert her goals into easy-to-do objectives. Discipline is Depression’s most feared opponent.
Why not try the Three Blessings exercise and see what happens. Blue-tack a sheet of paper to your bedroom wardrobe with the following grid:
Don’t be so proud or cynical to think that you are above such simplicity of living. Count your blessings. You, and they, deserve it.
There is an old saying that suggests that:
“If you want to be happy for a few hours, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a few years, get married. If you want to be happy forever, get a garden!”
The wisdom of this is in emphasising that the simplest of activities can often produce the most enduring happiness.
Much of the research on the topic of happiness produces results that are not surprising but listed are a few of the more interesting findings. For example, most of us want to win the Lotto and believe that we would be much happier and content if we did. Research shows that this does not actually happen. As some of the points below illustrate, most of us have a relatively set range or happiness level that does not change too much throughout life. Our mood fluctuates form situation to situation, and may be elevated or diminished for longer periods as a result of life circumstances, but most of us return to our own base level.
You will notice this with people you know - how their personalities are relatively stable and, despite life circumstances and events, they pretty much stay in character. Research shows that even the most dramatic changes often have little effects on these base levels. So, forget about pining for the Lotto, its effects would last about three months after which you would be back to your same-old self. What we can do however is to find out what we are like when we are at our best, what makes us feel good and content, and to do more of those things.
Learning to be happy means learning to understand your personality, your character strengths, and those activities that bring out the best in you. Then, the formula is very simple: Use your strengths and do more of what makes you feel good. It may be as simple as gardening, taking a walk, reading a book, having a regular holiday, or concentrating on a simple hobby. So, think of activities you do that represent you at your best, at your most content and happy, and at your most vibrant. Then decide to build these activities into your life with regularity!
Here are some other interesting research findings on happiness:
The moral of the research: Happiness can be taught! It should be a compulsory class in all schools – i.e. learning the science of well-being.
The case of the helpful motorist:
Hers is an interesting piece of research I came across recently, which shows that kindness and observing others engaged in helping learns helpfulness. Those of you with children will be aware that small children who might help carry groceries from the car might also want to help in putting them away. This piece of research shows that setting an example has a strong effect on people’s helpfulness. This is called the modelling effect – that is the effect of watching someone else modelling what should be done. The surprising thing is that is as applicable to adults as it is to children.
A researcher called Bryan, from Ontario, investigated whether motorists were more likely to help a woman change a car tyre if they had earlier seen someone else doing a similar act. He set up two situations where he would test motorists without them being aware that they were being tested:
In one situation motorists first passed a woman whose car had a flat tyre; another car was pulled to the side of the road and the male driver was pretending to help her change the tyre. This situation provided a helping example for those motorists who, two miles later, came upon another car with a flat tyre. This time the woman was alone and needed assistance.
In the second situation, only the second car and driver were present; there was no illustration or pretend model.
The results were clear. The motorists who were exposed to the situation of the man helping the woman were twice as likely to help when compared with the other motorists.
What this illustrates is simple, no matter what age you are you are still stimulated to help others by seeing other people being helpful. Or to put it another way, by you being helpful to others you automatically make it easier for others to be helpful. This is a simple but quite profound fact.
In studies of the effects of viewing what is termed pro-social behaviour (rather than antisocial behaviour) on television, the conclusion from research is that children’s attitudes toward positive behaviour are improved. Learning pro-social behaviours has a positive effect all-round on a child: Research shows that when children are exposed to pro-social behaviour they are more likely to delay their own gratification – e.g. in sharing their sweets, in waiting for a slow child, in re-starting a game for someone who misunderstood the rules, etc. Furthermore research also shows that that children who exhibit such behaviour are more popular with their peers.
Other research on happiness has shown that one’s happiness in life increases as a consequence of engaging in pro-social behaviour. For example, if each week, you made a point of meeting with someone who is important to you in your life and used that meeting to convey your genuine gratitude to them for what they have meant to you, your general contentment and happiness would improve.
The meaning of this for us as parents to be sure that, no-matter what they are like, we should engage children positively in helping behaviours toward family, friends, neighbours. This is more than just telling them to be nice or mannerly. It would be more beneficial to get your child to help you in a positive way with a particular helpful behaviour: to help an elderly neighbour mow her lawn, to write and deliver a letter to a person in need, to conduct one random act of kindness a week for anyone. Again, the research is simple in its conclusions: either witnessing or participating in helpful and kindly behaviour generates more of the same in the heart of the helper, and in those affected. So if you are feeling down today, for whatever reason, consider that you might find relief by helping someone else rather than yourself.
You grow up thinking there is something wrong with you. As years go by you develop the endless habit of reminding yourself of your inadequacy. At school and at home you begin to believe that there is something defective in you. The big secret however is that you are not inadequate and there is nothing wrong with you.
The process of socialization teaches us:
Socialization and growing up does not tend to teach us:
So by the time socialization is complete, most of us hold an UNSHAKABLE BELIEF that out only hope of being good and effective in life is to punish ourselves when we are bad. This is what Freud called our superego - our inner mental Judge that punishes us continually for our misdemeanors. We come to believe that without punishment our badness would win out over our goodness. Without constantly criticizing ourselves for our failures we would become slothful, lazy, and deteriorate into the mud of mediocrity.
The thing is: None of this is true! If we were to move from self-punishment and self-rejection to self-encouragement and self-acceptance we would thrive.
To be encouraging and accepting of ourselves we must learn to befriend our glorious imperfection. To realise and accept that in our ordinariness we are most truly human. To be utterly compassionate toward our self, to be tolerant of our inadequacies, and to allow ourselves to be the same as everyone else we take a first giant step towards selflessness. We get a glimpse of what it is like to be free of self-judgement and we begin to flow.
The battering cycle of Domestic Self-Violence, for want of a term, starts with the pressure we place on ourselves to be perfect. This leads to stress which results in coping behaviours such as competing with others, giving ourselves a hard time, trying to motivate ourselves, drinking or overeating, etc. All of this allows us to feel better for a very short time followed by feeling a whole lot worse. This results in our punishing ourselves again for being inadequate, imperfect, or for failing. So what do we do? We decide to be perfect again, to set new standards and start with a clean slate and new goals. And the pressure and stress to be perfect kicks in again. This is a cycle of battering in which we abuse our selves.
Personal development does not begin until these beatings stop. In counseling what people tend to find most helpful is having a time during which you stop battering your self.
To stop battering and punishing yourself takes is as much a spiritual task as it is a psychological one. To become a person who is compassionate toward oneself takes a meditative almost prayerful disposition. In psychology we call it mindfulness. In Buddhism they might call it meditation. In Christianity it is encountering the sacred within.
The only way out of a life of daily irritation with oneself is through the doorway of compassion. The skills and discipline needed to counteract the automatic irritation you feel about your imperfection must be practiced with an open-heart and a determined will. Forget about your Carbon Footprint - What is your Compassion Footprint?
Cognitive psychologists have been studying self-esteem for decades. They have identified thirteen kinds of mental distortions that people use that result in negative feelings. There are 10 ways to feel bad about yourself. Spot your most commonly used distortion and consider how it affects how you feel about yourself:
2. Shoulds, musts, oughts.
These are the demands we make of ourselves. For example, “I should have known better”, “I should be more efficient with my life”. We think that we motivate ourselves with such statements when in fact they make us feel worse.
3. The fairy-tale fantasy
This means demanding the ideal from life. This kind of expectation results in feeling things are not fair or feeling a victim of circumstance. The fairy-tale fantasy is one where life should be ideal, without pain, suffering, or failure. The reality is that everyone has to carry the unavoidable burden of such experiences. When you measure your life against the ideal life you inevitably feel disappointed or stressed-out.
4. All or nothing thinking
This kind of thinking is when things are either a complete success or a total failure. You hold yourself to the impossible standard of perfection and when things fall short of it you conclude that it was a total disaster. You might assume that just because one person does not like you at work, that work is therefore intolerable. If you cannot give yourself between 95 and 100% in your how-I-did-today score, you feel you have failed. Try to see that a score of 75% is very good, and with such a score you are entitled to feel very good about yourself!
This is when you decide that a particular negative experience should be generalised to your entire life. For example, “I always ruin everything”; “I always make a mess of things”; “I never do well in maths”. Such global statements make generalizations from specific incidents to everything else which is unkind and always inaccurate. Instead of saying “I can never cope with being a parent”, say, “Sometimes I cannot cope, but overall, I am doing okay”.
Here you give yourself a label, which is a form of name-calling. You will say to yourself that you are ugly, stupid, awkward, boring, uninteresting, etc. The truth is that you care so much more than what your name-calling of yourself. You are usually only about 5% right in what you say. 95% of you is very different. Putting yourself down in such derogatory ways should not be acceptable. You would not treat another person that way, why do it to yourself?
When you obsess about the negative you go over and over the same unpleasant incident that either has happened or might happen. This distortion makes you re-run action replays of unpleasant incidents over and over again. Or else it runs action pre-views of the mistakes you expect to make. Instead of obsessing about unpleasant incidents that you imagine will occur, try running previews in your head of the positive experiences that can happen.
8. Rejecting the Positive90% of your daily events could be described as positive, 1% might have been negative, with the other 9% as neutral. However, what the person with poor self-esteem will do is react to themselves as if it was 95% negative and 1% positive. Most people have a tendency to do this. For one day, see if you can give yourself credit for all the small successes you achieve. Went to the shop, tidied out the cupboard, phoned Mom, made a lovely dinner, showed sympathy to a neighbour, posted those bills, had 20 minutes with my sister, read a nice piece in the paper, spoke to husband about the holidays, made out a Christmas list, etc. Instead of giving yourself a zero on all of these – give yourself one unit of credit in your self-esteem bank where ten units equal a GREAT DAY!
In this instance you see yourself as much more involved in negative events than you really are. You make be taking all the responsibility for your teenagers bad moods, or may feel responsible in some way because your husband is under stress, or may feel unable to get everything done at work. Think again. You may have some influence on things but you are not the cause! Ask yourself, am I the cause of this or do I just have some influence, along with a lot of other influences?
In this instance you turn an unpleasant event into a catastrophe. You convince yourself that something is so overwhelming that you cannot cope with it. “I cannot cope with my children!” “I cannot handle the fact that I am so shy”; “If that happens, I will literally fall apart”. Some people create enormous dramas in their head where difficult situations are dramatised into soap-opera’s over which they feel they have little control.
Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.
Burnout is often hard to detect for the simple reason that to admit to burnout is to admit to some element of helplessness. Most people who suffer burnout are the last people to notice it because they may cling so tightly to a hope of a goal. Burnout happens when people who have previously been highly committed to something lose all interest and motivation. Typically it refers to one’s job but it can equally apply to an intimate relationship or to the tasks of parenting. I will talk here about job burnout but as you read, “think” relationship or parenting if you wish.
Sadly, burnout can mark the end of a successful stage in one’s career. It mainly strikes highly-committed, passionate, hard working and successful people – and it therefore holds a special fear for those who care passionately about the work they do.
Burnout is a state of undetected exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations. It includes the frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward. Burnout therefore involves both exhaustion and disillusionment.
Anyone can become exhausted. What is so poignant about burnout is that it mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work: You can only "burn out" if you have been burning with light in the first place. While exhaustion can be overcome with rest, a core part of burnout is a deep sense of disillusionment, and is not experienced by people who can take a more detached view of their work.
Psychological research has looked at the way in which animals handle long-term stress. What it shows is that after an initial period of adaptation, they survived very well for quite a long period of time until, then all of a sudden, their resistance collapsed without any obvious direct cause. A similar process was seen with bomber pilots in the Second World War, who would fly effectively for many missions, but who would then fall apart as pilot fatigue set in.
We have probably all seen similar patterns in the past, where people become exhausted and their performance suffers. We may all have worked so hard at something, for so long, that the easy things become difficult and life loses its flavour. These are times when rest (often in the form of a good holiday) helps us to approach the situation with a new vigour.
Exhaustion and long-term stress contribute to burnout, but they are not the most destructive parts of it. The real damage of burnout comes from the sense of deep disillusionment that lies at its heart. Many of us get our sense of identity and meaning from our work. We may have started our careers with high ideals or high ambitions and may have followed these with passion.
This is easy to see in doctors and teachers, who may have a strong desire to help other people to be the best that they can be. But it can happen to everyone – from the person devoted to a family business to a floor worker who sets off trying to do a good job. Others may be ambitious for promotion or may want to “make a difference” to people or organizations in some other way. In all of these cases, these ideals can drive a highly motivated, passionate approach to work.
It is incredible what we can achieve when we truly believe in what we are doing: We are hard working, effective, full of initiative, energetic and selfless. We can find ourselves doing much more than we are contracted to do, working much longer hours. Even more, we enjoy doing this. We find it easy to enter the hugely satisfying state of flow. Particularly when we are appreciated for what we do, and when we are able to see good results from our work, this satisfaction can help us to overcome enormous difficulties. It is not surprising that people showing this level of resilience and commitment to their work are often spectacularly successful.
The problem comes when things become too much. Perhaps exhaustion sets in because people have been working too hard for too long. Perhaps performance begins to slip because of this. Perhaps the problem being solved is too great, and the resources available are too meager. Perhaps supportive mentors move on and are replaced by people who do not appreciate the heroic job that is being done, or do not subscribe to the ideals that drive performance. Perhaps co-workers or team members make just too many emotional demands, or people being served prove to be ungrateful and difficult.
Being proactive, energetic, committed people, it is likely that we respond to obstacles like these by increasing our commitment and hard work. However, in these circumstances it is possible that these efforts may have little or no impact on the situation.
This can be where burnout begins to set in. As we get less satisfaction from our jobs, the downsides of these jobs become more troublesome. As we get more tired, we have less energy to give. If our organizations fail to support us, we can get increasingly disenchanted with them. We become increasingly disillusioned. In extreme cases, we can lose faith completely in what we are doing, and what our organizations are doing, becoming cynical and embittered, and feeling that our ideals and meanings in life count for nothing.
This is full-scale burnout.
It is most revealing to observe how so-called rational people behave in long-term intimate close relationships. In some embarrassing ways, most grown ups literally act like babies when they are in the throes of relationship conflicts. Let me explain: There are three basic beliefs that influence our behaviour as adults that have their origin in very early childhood.
The first of these beliefs is that “If I cause you enough distress you will give me what I want!” This belief influences most people in adult relationships. There is hardly a reader who does not try to get what they want or need by creating some form of distress for the potential giver. In marriages this includes such behaviours as nagging, whinging, complaining, persistent requests, sulking, etc.
The idea is that if I make my partner upset enough he or she will give in to me and provide what I need. This belief is of course the essential survival strategy of the newborn infant. The cry of a small baby is uniquely designed to get the attention of the mother and to distress her so much that he or she is impelled to take action. When you think of this from the perspective of evolution and survival you will appreciate that a baby that does not do this will get ignored. So if a baby has a wet nappy, is hungry, or is in pain he/she creates minor distress by crying that results in the mother coming and rectifying the problem. Adults, in trying to get their needs met, very often do the same thing. People operate on the belief that “If I annoy and pester my partner enough then he/she will eventually give me what I want!” It’s crazy when you think of it this way, but it is nonetheless a strategy of choice for many.
Because people have this internal program that impels them to ‘act like babies’, most people find it hard not to. So grown men whinge, complain, and sulk. Grown women nag, wear-down, and flood their partners.
There is a second common belief that has its origins in infancy which you probably also do. This belief is that “You should know exactly what I need without my having to explain it to you.” In infancy every child has to operate on this assumption. Small babies cannot explain to their mothers exactly what is wrong with them; the mother or caretaker has to figure out what the need is and then to rectify it. Whether its hunger, soiling, tiredness, or discomfort – it is up to the mother to figure it out.
We also do this in adulthood. Most people still carry that belief that they should not have to explain things to their partner and grow resentful if they have to. Most people carry this childlike expectation that, in an intimate relationship, they should be able to relax back and have their needs understood and catered for. In fact the rage and resentment that erupts when a spouse discovers that their partner does not have a clue what they need, is indeed most intense. How often have we heard the refrain that “if I have to explain to you what it is that I want then there is no point in even asking in the first place!”? Unfortunately love cannot always be like that, but our infantile beliefs have us almost convinced that it should.
The third belief that we hold is that “If I am not getting my needs met then the reason for this is that my partner is withholding it!” This belief operates on the assumption that the reason that your husband or partner does not love you properly is because he is stubbornly withholding what you want and need. This belief automatically results in angry attempts to coerce the person into handing over that which they withhold. I have seen couples caught in this pursuit for 20 years. The alternative conclusion, that he/she does not have it in the first place, is a scarier one and often not considered by the frantic mate. Again, it has parallels in infancy because the little baby has no option but to operate on the belief that the mother or carer has what they need. Hence the little innocent will cry for hours waiting for the mother to come and rescue them. However, it does not work in adulthood. In fact, in adult relationships the carer tends to withdraw further in the face of such demands.
The message for today is to remember how childlike we all are and though we like to portray ourselves as being imminently reasonable, in the confines of our close relationships we reveal an innocence that is all too humbling.
A fascinating discovery in child psychology is that though children know that imaginary beings are not real, they are still a powerful and meaningful presence in their lives. In other words, though a child knows that an imaginary friend is not real, they are still able to maintain a meaningful relationship with that character. Though a child may not believe literally that their teddy-bear is real, that St Nicholas lives in the North Pole, that their deceased grandmother is still with them, or that their Guardian Angel is watching over them - they still are able to believe these things in a quite remarkable and wonderful way. A child is able to have one foot in their imagined world while having another foot in reality without feeling any tension between them both.
We would be foolish parents if we admonished children for not living in reality because the child has this wonderful ability to walk an illuminated path between imagination and the real world. For example, if you were to kick your child’s teddy bear across the kitchen floor because it is just an inanimate toy your child would rightfully become distressed because his love for that toy is grounded in an intelligent imagination. If you insisted that Santa did not exist or that there was no god, a child may become upset for reasons that your literal view of the world does not comprehend. This is because children and adults are imaginative and not literal creatures. If you only took life literally you would be reduced to an animal concerned only with survival.
Unlike children, adults keep their imaginative life hidden from the world behind a paper-thin veneer of reason and logic. Scratch the surface of anyone’s adult life and you find it is built on the stones gathered in the imaginative world of childhood. Your inner self is the same as it was when you were six years old. You are still the same person seeing the world in similar ways.
Imagination is so vital to everyday life that if you lost it you would become trapped in a meaningless world of repetitive ritualistic behaviour. This is because imagination is the lubricant that allows your mental life to flow. It is necessary to conduct all sorts of everyday mental tasks such as planning your day, thinking about what you are going to do next, calculating a sum, recalling an event from yesterday, visualising a scene, or telling a story. You need to be able to imagine things from the past to problem-solve in the present. Simply put, imagination is being able to imagine things that do not exist in your present reality and to use that to problem-solve and enhance your life. You do this almost every moment of every day. You are a far more imaginative and creative person than you have ever given yourself credit for.
One interesting imaginary activity is having an inner relationship with people who are not physically present to us. You, as both a child and adult, have imaginary relationships with real but inaccessible people like a deceased parent or absent sibling. It is not at all fanciful to acknowledge that we carry the deceased within us and continue to relate to them throughout life. We talk to them, we listen to their voice, and are often consoled by their presence within us. We can also have relationships with an inner god or presence that we pray to, talk to, or listen to. We can feel comforted and supported by these inner relationships. All of this is not strange but rather a wonderful aspect of how the human imagination enriches life.
We can also have relationships with inanimate entities like nature or personal objects like wedding rings or photographs. This ability is also seen readily in children who have relationships with soft toys and pets. We hear our children talking to their ‘teddy-bears’ as if they were real - and they are real in a vital sense. As an adult you actually do the same thing - but you keep it secret. For example, as you go through your day you will often talk to yourself, your car, God, or ‘life’ as you complain, delight, or call for help. You will casually urge inanimate objects to co-operate with you when they are stuck or resisting your efforts like a car that won’t start, a lock that won’t open, or a handbag that can’t be found. “Come on, come on” you exclaim, just like a three-year old talking to her teddy bear. This is all good and normal.
Just as a child engages in pretend-play, as they imagine themselves being doctors, nurses, heroes, etc., you also engage in ‘pretend’ all the time. You mentally rehearse your way through imagined scenes in your future. You will mentally imagine what you will do when you meet someone, arrive somewhere, or attempt something new. All-day every-day you engage in foresight - that is mentally imagining what lies in the future and preparing for it. In this way your imagination is fully alive and active and not at all passive.
Our mental life is a mix of problem-solving, logical thinking, and magical day dreaming where we go on imaginative little trips through scenarios such as winning the lotto, moving home, meeting someone new, or changing job. We take hundreds of little magical excursions throughout our day that embellish and animate the dull routine of life. It is magical because it is closer to the shore of imagination than reality. In fact Seamus Heaney said his life’s work was devoted to building a bridge between both.
We usually draw a line between reality and imagination, which we tend to see as a wasteful dreamlike diversion. “He just lives in his imagination” a parent will say disapprovingly of her son. “Start dealing with reality” a teacher will tell a student. Imagination gets a hard time! However, psychologists take imagination much more seriously and challenge that assumption. Surprising advances in neuroscience, particularly in the field of brain scanning, have added support to the notion that our imagination and sense of reality are actually closely intertwined.
For example, if we imagination things to real, they are real in their consequences. If we imagine that we avoid heavy traffic by taking a certain route, whether we are correct or not does not matter because what we imagined had an effect. Imagination plays a very real role in our decision making. For example, in the upcoming elections our views of candidates will be largely influenced by what we imagine they stand for and we will vote based on those imagined assumptions whether they are true or not.
Too often humanity is ruled by superstitions, stereotypes, and tribal prejudices—resulting in all-too-real suffering, violence, and war. Our mind can run away with us, leading us to act through suspicion or fear, but we can also use our imagination as a tool to change our life—a process we’re beginning to understand through advances in neuroscience.
For centuries, we have envisioned two separate areas of the brain: one that processes the evidence gathered by our senses, and one that spins off into daydreams. MRI (brain imaging) research has helped us understand that these two functions are not as distinct as they seem. Using MRI scans, researcher have found that the same cells in the brain light up whether we perform an action ourselves or when we simply imagine ourselves performing the action. MRI studies show that reading about stimulating things or physical actions activates the same brain areas that process real-life experiences.
There is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters. Studies by two Canadian psychologists that show that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective.
Imagination can provide us with rich lifelike experiences and give us a powerful opportunity to develop empathy and compassion. But it can do even more: it can literally reshape and retrain parts of our brains.
For ages, scientists have believed that our brain become rigidly set and defined in early childhood, but MRI scanning now reveals plasticity: the adult brain is surprisingly malleable. If, for example, we go blind in midlife, some of our neurons for processing vision can shift to dealing with sound.
What’s particularly exciting is the discovery that focused mental exercise can alter the brain. For example, scans of some of Tibet’s experienced monks found that through years of meditation they had strengthened the centres in the brain that deal with such vital life skills as attention, emotional balance, and compassion. A number of contemplative practices directly recruit the power of imagination to retrain the mind. For example visualization is helpful in pain management or in preparing for difficult events. Ronan O’Gara’s accuracy with kicking was enhanced by his ability to visualise what he was going to do. Mental rehearsal using imagination has been shown to improve actual performance in a host of areas.. If you use your imagination to help you perceive situations in a different light, you can turn all sorts of “problems” into constructive challenges—and radically alter your experience of life.
If you want to work on your anger a therapist might suggest to you “Let’s say you’re sitting on a park bench and someone sits down next to you and they’re doing something you find annoying, like popping their gum or singing along with the music in their headphones. Our first reaction is usually to see the person as an external problem and to blame them for making us angry. Instead, you could change your thinking: Imagine that you want to become more tolerant. Then you could say, "this is an opportunity: Here’s somebody who has come along to help me work on that!”
The transformative power of focused imagination is central to Buddhist practice. The Buddha was said to have held up a flower and asked, “How many of you think that this exists independently of your mind?” To those who said “Yes” he asked “How do you know it exists?” Student’s replied: “I can see it”; “I can feel it”; “I can taste or hear it.” He went on to show that the only way one could know the flower was there was by interpreting what came in through our senses. The Buddha pointed out that this is true of everything in our lives: objects, our friends and families, what we learned in school, everything. Ultimately, there is no such thing as objective reality out there.
The point is not a weird one, suggesting that nothing exists, but rather that nothing has a detached, fixed identity. Phenomena do not exist in their own right but have an existence dependent upon many factors, including how we imagines them. Our whole experience of life is filtered through our minds, and we continually project our own sense of meaning onto people and things. With our imagination we make the world. In short, our imagination is not an alternative to reality. Our imagination is our reality.
As a psychologist, in any given day I will meet with individuals, couples, children, and families whose lives have been scarred by the tragic hand of fate - people who have been abused, neglected, grief-stricken, lonely, or traumatized by misfortune. Yet despite the fact that the lives of many people are, by any objective standards, overwhelming I never fail to be astonished by their resilience, perseverance, and optimism. “The audacity of hope”, as articulated by former President Obama, strikes the right chord in the lives of so many people during such difficult times.
“The audacity of hope” is a wonderful phrase. It highlights that hope in life requires courage. Audacity, in this phrase, illustrates that hope must be daring and bold. It implies that hope is not a weak optimism but a gutsy determination. It is as much an act of defiance as it is an act of faith.
“The audacity of hope” recasts American optimism in a different light. Formerly, most Europeans have been put off by superficial American optimism through the symbols of “Have a nice day”, tinseltown, Disneyland, “mission accomplished”, and Hollywood mythology. We Irish prefer a more honest mythology. Our songs are filled with grief as much as hope. Our literary heritage is filled with stories about life that weave darkness and despair into narratives of hope and possibility from Beckett to Joyce and from Yeats to Kavanagh. We love Shane McGowan’s “Fairytale of New York” because it describes the bloodied character of life in all its tragic beauty. Luke Kelly sang as if he knew the texture of life’s hardship as much as its tender beauty.
It is the responsibility of all leaders to be able to strike this chord, to find the balance between hope and despair, and courage and fear. The audacity of hope is then the willingness to salute and acknowledge the hidden tragedies of life while still remaining hopeful. As Emerson put it: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”.
We all know what physical courage is (as seen on the field of Thomand Park every January). Mental courage in life is the willingness to look facts in the face, the ability to grasp the tragic and often meaninglessness of things in life. Without this courage the soundings of the poet, politician, or pope is restricted to cant and religious humbug! Spiritual courage is the willingness to suffer and change. The striving for the divine in life is courage.
In life all of us are “made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
As people, we each seek in life the will, the audacity, and the boldness to believe in ourselves when all objective signs suggest that we may as well give in. We can so easily batter ourselves with our mistakes, failings, and imperfections and find countless reasons to fold up our tents and go home to a depressive conclusion about ourselves. But NO! We must not yield. The very essence if life is to remain audacious, is it not? To give ‘the finger’ to life’s indifference.
Audacity is that which also endows us with the power to accept gratefully all that happens. To be able to bear all the brutal truths about life and yet, despite ones circumstance to remain calm and in touch with the pulse of life.
This is the achievement of the heroine. Courage, the audacity of hope, is the greatest of human virtues. It is the virtue of the homemaker, housewife, working mother, single-parent, partner, lover, and single woman who, despite adversity, “picks herself up, brushes herself down, and starts all over again!” Without it the true psychological and spiritual life is not possible.
When we hear of some calamity that affects our parents, our families, or ourselves our mind instantly endeavours to find some cheap compensation, something to console us for our inevitable grief, some profit in the loss. Cheap hope is without courage. Audacious hope, however, starts from an acceptance of our condition, an empathy and compassion for how hard life can be and a gratitude for the opportunity to live and to believe in…
“The world which ere I was born,
The world which lasts when I am dead,
Which never was the friend of one,
Nor promised love it could not give,
But lit for all its generous sun,
And lived itself and made us live”.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.