Good reading: positivity and health, intimacy, longevity and more

This post highlights some suggested readings that you may find helpful, informative or inspiring. I hope that you enjoy one or more of these.

On positive attitude and healing

Jane Brody, A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health (New York Times). This article highlights research studies documenting that a positive attitude and accompanying practices contribute to better health outcomes for cancer patients and others. One researcher, Judith T. Moskowitz, developed a group of eight skills that help to foster positive emotions. The skills include keeping a gratitude journal, savoring a positive event each day and setting an attainable goal and recording progress toward reaching it.

Brody writes:

There is no longer any doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body. When facing a health crisis, actively cultivating positive emotions can boost the immune system and counter depression. Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control and healthier blood sugar levels.

Relationships

Photo father son attention intimacyKen Page, Developing Deep Attention: The Key to True Intimacy (Psychology Today). This interview with Edward Hallowell, M.D., the author of 20 books, including The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. Page and Hallowell discuss the keys to intimacy, including attention and connection. These qualities are often forgotten when people are too busy and distracted. Hallowell suggests putting the smart phone down, setting boundaries and honoring the person requesting your time by saying “No” when you can’t meet their expectations.

Life After the Election

Lesley Alderman, Therapists Offer Strategies for Postelection Stress (New York Times). This article acknowledges the stress that many feel since the 2016 election about the state of the world and the direction of the nation, and it offers several suggestions for coping. These include reaching across the aisle to better understand those on the other side of the political divide, volunteering and supporting a civil society organization that promotes your values.

Food culture

Nell Casey, Angelica Kitchen’s Leslie McEachern On The Fading Vitality Of The East Village & The Spirit Of Clean Food (Gothamist). Angelica Kitchen, a landmark vegan restaurant in New York City’s East Village, closes on April 7 after more than 40 years. In this illuminating interview, Leslie McEachern discusses her decision to close the restaurant, and its place in the clean food and farm-to-table movements. She also addresses the forces of urban gentrification that made it impossible for AK to survive in Manhattan today.

To me, it’s an educational process of people understanding the choices they’re making. A lot of people are a little bit mindless about this and feel like if they can just get something in their stomach for the moment it’s okay. ‘I’m hungry, I need to eat.’ That’s valid enough from time to time, but on a day in and day out basis, I think the awareness of what we’re eating and the effect it has on our bodies is where the change is coming from—and I think there is a change coming. The medical profession is finally starting to talk to people about their diets. It’s just so alarming that for physician degrees, people didn’t even have to take nutrition courses. And some of that’s changing now, too.

Longevity and living well

What Makes a Good Life: Revelatory Learnings from Harvard’s 75-Year Study of Human Happiness

This report from the Maria Popova’s marvelous Brain Pickings site highlights findings from Harvard’s Grant Study. Beginning in the 1930s, researchers explored questions previously left to philosophers and poets, what factors contribute the most to happiness photo aging couple relationship togetherand a good life. Specifically, by studying a group of men, the study explored “who lives to ninety and why, what predicts self-actualization and career success, how the interplay of nature and nurture shapes who we become.”

The study’s findings are reported more fully in the book by George E. Valliant, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.

If you don’t know Brain Pickings, it’s a great site to explore. You can sign up for the weekly email that arrives each Sunday. BP’s search archives feature opens the door to hours of fine reading. Pick a keyword (for example: wellness, positive, healing) and scan the results. Each article contains summaries and excerpts from fine writers exploring important topics, with beautiful illustrations. All of it is expertly curated by Popova.

To your well-being and happiness! Thanks for reading.

Thanks to pixabay.com for making available the images in this post.

Book review: On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder

How should one respond to political events in Washington in such an unsettling time? Activists advise us whom to call about what issues and where to show up to protest. These are powerful tools for taking action. What’s often lacking is historical context. Even the best commentators fail to note the parallels between what other societies experienced and what we are seeing in 2017.

Historical lessons on tyranny and preserving freedom

book cover: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”

So writes Timothy Snyder in this slim paperback volume On Tyranny, which offers “twenty lessons from the 20th Century.” (The full list is summarized here in Yes! magazine.)

Written for the post-2016 era, Snyder’s short chapters focus on choices we can make–such as maintaining a commitment to truth and facts, supporting print media and other institutions that preserve liberty and contributing to civil society organizations. Several of his lessons emphasize the importance of language. He notes the alarms raised about extremism and terrorism by authoritarian leaders to justify emergency powers. Evoking George Orwell, he warns against the cheapening of language; e.g., we can avoid cliches, read books and print media and stay skeptical about dubious sources of information.

Has it really come to this?

In On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder notes historical parallels between 20th Century tyrannies and the present.

Timothy Snyder

This book is an early contribution to a growing body of resistance literature. It’s grounded in an understanding that others have experienced what we see in America today. We now have a leader who claims that he alone can solve big problems, denounces the free press, attacks the independence of the judiciary and blurs the distinction between facts and lies. He dominates our news, our public discourse, even our entertainment venues.

It would be easy to retreat into weary conformity and accept the degradation of our public life. But that is exactly what Snyder warns us not to do. Stand out and break the spell of the status quo, urges one of his chapters. Another asserts the importance of entering the public square and connecting with others who protest.  A third highlights professional ethics and other safeguards that can help to stop the drift toward authoritarianism.

You might ask if the situation in the United States today really merits comparison to that of Italy and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, or of the Soviet Union and then Eastern Europe after the Second World War?

Snyder writes:

We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. In fact, the precedent set by the Founders demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it. Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience

The political and the personal

This blog has emphasized holistic well-being and positive psychology. Its foundation is an approach that acknowledges body, mind and spirit as integrated parts of the whole person and that promotes thriving rather than merely existing. I believe these principles are relevant to this moment in our public life. They can’t be divorced from the social and political environment in which we live.

Just as we cannot thrive in isolation, we cannot disregard the welfare of our friends and neighbors. That includes those who may be different, less privileged or more easily targeted. Consider the impact of recent developments on immigrants, women and minimum wage workers, for example. Ponder the impact of policy reversals on environmental protection, access to health care and voting rights. There is a relationship between the quality of one’s own life and that of others. This is a good time to reflect on how interdependent we all are.

Snyder writes about what historical knowledge can do for us in our daily struggles.

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. … To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz thought that such a notion of responsibility worked against loneliness and indifference. History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.

I do not have to do everything, but as a free individual, I can do something.

This book is the beginning of a conversation, not the last word. By identifying the warning signs and noting the linkage between what happened before and what is happening now, it points us to smarter responses and greater awareness.

Getting centered in the time of Trump

word array: stress strain distressIf life seems different to you than it did a few months ago, you’re not alone. Many people are struggling to get centered in the swirl of current events.

Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as President on January 20, 2017. For many of us, it feels like more than a few short weeks have passed. There has been a constant stream of conflicts, crises and policy reversals. The President has attacked fundamental pillars of American democracy, including an independent judiciary and the free press. And there has been a great deal of lying, misinformation and statements that are divorced from reality–all coming from the President and his staff.

The American Psychological Association has documented the increase in stress for many Americans grounded in concerns about the 2016 political campaign, the new presidency and the future of the country.

Reflecting on the impact of the current dynamic in a recent essay, the writer Andrew Sullivan discussed a situation that may resonate for you:

I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? … He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.

I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.

… With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind.

 In times like these, what is a citizen to do? How do you stay centered when events beyond your control are so unsettling?

Get centered by taking care of yourself

In a recent post, I suggested ten action steps for engaged citizens in the post-2016 election world. The last item on the list was to take care of oneself–body, mind and soul. That was a mistake: self-care should have come first.

In conversations with friends about post-election anxiety, several themes have emerged: spending lots of time reading news; getting and staying angry about the latest provocation; forgetting to take actions that support our well-being, like eating well and exercising; and excessive consumption of caffeinated drinks, late night television, sugar and alcohol.

image of centered living: candles and still waterTwice in those conversations, my companion has had the same flash of insight. As airline attendants remind us in the pre-flight safety instructions, if the oxygen masks drop down during the flight, put on your own mask before trying to help others nearby. For those of us who tend to forget to take care of ourselves in times of stress, the message is clear. We will be less able help if we disregard our own well-being.

The array of images across the top of this screen might serve as a useful reminder of the things that we already know we need. How long has it been since you took a few deep breaths, filled and consumed a water bottle, had a satisfying and nutritious meal, took a walk or sat quietly and contemplated your life? If it has been too long or you can’t remember, that’s reason enough to stop and do it now.

It’s always a good time to consider self-care fundamentals, and consider what is needed to restore balance.

Get centered by staying informed without overwhelm

It’s hard to feel grounded without a basic level of information about daily events. There is a lot of news, and those who have strong political convictions will want to stay current. It’s necessary to be engaged effectively in activism, protest and advocacy.

image: newspaper and laptopBut as anyone who has watched several consecutive hours of cable news coverage can confirm, the information is highly repetitive. The host may change from hour to hour. One show may feature reportage, while another is mostly one commentator’s opinions, and a third features panel discussions. However differently it may be packaged, much of the news is the same.

The time spent watching repetitious coverage often could be better devoted to other things. Consider these strategies for consuming news without going numb:

  • identify one or two reliable sources and consult them regularly;
  • vary the source and format–for example, The New York Times on Sunday, NPR on weekday mornings, a valued podcast one evening and a useful television program the next;
  • limit social media news consumption to certain days or to a limited number of times each day, with breaks and days off;
  • take a news fast at least once each week; and
  • shift to weekly or monthly magazines, or other sources that provide greater depth without the frenetic BREAKING NEWS dynamic

Another way to explore topics in a deeper way is to read quality books that address subjects that you care about. Daily news coverage will never be sufficient for issues as complex as climate change, voting rights and income inequality. Books can deepen our understanding of current events and take us out of the 24/7 news culture of ratings-driven infotainment.

There are many sources of good book suggestions–for example, see here, here and here. I’ll be adding here my own ideas about titles for hope, inspiration and positive action in this blog.

Connecting and taking action

How to engage in political advocacy and protest is a too large topic for a detailed discussion in this post. In my previously posted list of action steps, I suggested connecting with others and starting to take action, to do something.

One thing to do is to get clear about where to put your focus. Much reporting and commentary emphasizes the President’s Tweets, false statements and the most recent in an endless series of provocations. To take the bait is to be defeated before we have begun. Instead of reacting to the personal style and taunts of Mr. Trump, it is important to identify principles and policies–what is worth fighting for and against.

Seasoned activists may simply keep going. For those new to activism, it can help to join with others who share your concerns, to learn how to participate and seek inspiration. You might seek a local chapter a group that focuses on an area of interest–environmental, civil rights or government ethics, for example–or by connecting with a local branch of the Indivisible movement. When contacting legislators, avoid wasting your time and do what best suits your personality. For one person, that will be making regular phone calls to legislative offices; for another, it may be writing post cards or thoughtful letters in support of or opposition to some initiative. Some are eager to participate in demonstrations or attend town halls to meet their representatives and voice their concerns. There is value in all these approaches.

But it isn’t necessary to try to do everything. As the late historian Howard Zinn wrote, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Get centered by taking time off

No matter what else you do–especially if you’re very engaged in political action–the day will come when you need to step away. Whether it’s for an evening, a day, a weekend or more, turn off the television, stop image of bench with a view: taking time offchecking Facebook, take a news fast. Go to the beach, take a day trip, go on a retreat or take a vacation. There will be plenty to do when you return.

Honor that need. We all have our ways to recharge our batteries. It may be alone time, joining a gathering of friends or dinner with a confidante or mentor.

We can also take time off periodically throughout the day. This lovely post from the Brain Pickings site reminds us of Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Keeping Quiet,” and a practice that can bring calm in the chaos. It’s possible to carve out time throughout the day for silence and contemplation. From time to time, take a sacred pause.

However it feels, we never lose the capacity to get centered.

Thanks to pixabay.com for making available the images in this post.

On being an engaged citizen: action steps and community building

The 2016 election left millions of us feeling discouraged and bewildered. Many Americans are anxious, frightened and concerned about the state of the nation and the world. There have been many suggestions image of man feeling alone and discouragedabout what action to take next and resources to explore (see, e.g., here, here and here). I’ll add my suggestions below.

As I hope will be clear from what follows, I believe that our physical, spiritual and emotional well-being is related to the external forces that shape our lives. That includes environmental, economic, social and political factors that have an impact on us individually and in our communities.

It is an especially important time to be an engaged citizen. Below are my thoughts on ten forms of engagement that can foster a sense of connection and empowerment. These action steps can also help each of us to have a greater impact in our part of the world. I offer them here for your consideration, and I hope that some of them are useful.

Ten suggested action items:

  1. Financially support a civil society organization that fights for values you care about. Pick one that advocates causes that are under attack. Ideally, set up an automatic monthly donation. This helps to fund your group continually, so that it can keep fighting the good fight. (There are obvious examples—such as Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Sierra Club—and many others, depending on your values and priorities. If you can afford to help fund more than one organization, please do.
  2. Service. Working in the service of others is a key factor in finding image: volunteering hands together happiness and connection. There is no substitute for face-to-face engagement, joining together with others who share some of our values and interests. From them, we can draw strength and inspiration. With them, we build community and accomplish much more than we could separately.
  3. Sustain information sources that we can depend on. When mainstream political journalism has failed us, it is even more important to support independent media voices–especially those that refuse to normalize the unacceptable. Now is the time to reject the logic that, “If I can get it for free, why pay for it?” Pay for a print and/or online subscription to at least one publication that maintains a strong voice. Pick a source that investigates and reports, one that speaks truth to power. (Again, there are some obvious examples–The Nation, Mother Jones—and many others.) It has never been more important to subscribe to your local newspaper than it is today. Local papers are essential, if we are to be informed about the use of power in our own communities. Some of us have decided to subscribe to publications that have been singled out for attack by the President-Elect, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. All of these are good ideas.
  4. Use social media intelligently. Over 16 years, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show taught millions of Americans how to spot propaganda and be more discerning consumers of information on television. With Facebook and other social media platforms, be your own Jon Stewart. Keep an eye out for fake news and attempts to mislead, confuse and distract you. Check the source of any article you read from a link or shared source. If the source is unfamiliar, be especially skeptical. Don’t share or link to anything based on the headline. Be disciplined enough that people who follow you can trust that you will share things that are worth their time.
  5. Reach out to friends and family who may share your concerns. Ask how they are doing. Be resource persons for one another. Share with them what inspires you and gives you hope. Listen to them when they talk about what they are thinking and doing. At least some of them will have something to teach you.
  6. Read quality books. The most important topics are rarely addressed adequately in popular media. image: books are powerfulConsider: climate change, income and wealth inequality, voting rights, the Supreme Court, immigration, police and community relations, terrorism and American history. Books are an antidote to the disorienting blizzard of information and infotainment in our 24/7 media culture. Good books take us out of that environment. They can help us to gain perspective and a deeper understanding, and to focus on what matters most. Visit local bookstores and browse. If you don’t have a public library card, get one, and use it.
  7. Write a credo or statement of beliefs to guide your actions. It might be helpful to take a class or workshop at a local church or adult education program. For inspiration, read or listen to selections from the This I Believe project. Or consider this sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., The Transformed Nonconformist, or writings from prophetic voices, such as Wendell Berry, Joanna Macy, Bill Moyers, Jane Goodall and Desmond Tutu. Writing and sharing statements with others can be a powerful experience.
  8. Prioritize peace and quiet. Contemplative image: quiet time to contemplatepractices such meditation, prayer or taking walks in places of natural beauty bring many rewards. These can include regular moments of clarity and awareness, and generating good ideas. Consider regular news fasts, and times to go offline for a few hours or a day, to create space for new habits.
  9. Join the conversation with like-minded others (and with those who hold different views). Beyond nos. 2 and 5 above, find outlets for community and discussion.  Show up and be a vital part of the conversation in your corner of the world. Practice expressing your core principles concisely. Find your voice and use it. Listen, persuade, argue; and reconsider your views. Seek common ground with those on the other side of an issue, where that’s possible.
  10. Take a personal wellness inventory. Whatever else you’re doing, set an intention to take care of yourself—body, mind and spirit. Is there is a habit that you know you should drop, a health issue that you’re finally ready to address? Is there a new practice that would make your life better? The most obvious suggestions are worth revisiting—better sleep habits, eating more vegetables, exercising vigorously enough several times a week to get your heart pumping. The healthier and happier we are, the more energized and effective we can be.

Time to move forward

If you’ve read this, you’re probably doing some of these things, and possibly most of them. If you’re doing them all, you’re ahead of me. That’s terrific: you’re already engaged and working actively to create change in your world.

For those who are feeling numb, cynical or powerless, it’s time to feel your anger and channel it into constructive action.

I have heard wise ones say that it’s easier to act our way into right thinking than to think our way to right action. The keys are to take action and to connect with others. If the list above doesn’t resonate for you, find another one or write your own.

The election happened, and change is coming. We all have choices about how we respond. Now is the time to get active. If you’re pondering what to do next, what are you waiting for?

image: next step action

Thanks to Pixabay for making available the images in this post.

With a broader vision, this blog resumes

First, if you’re reading this blog, thank you.image: keep calm because this blog is back

I’ve been away from this space for a few months. New challenges, including family responsibilities and a new job, intervened. I took a necessary hiatus. Sometimes, the most basic aspect of self-care is doing what needs to be done.

If you’re still here and reading this, I appreciate your patience.

This isn’t a regular post. I have no new insights to share about preventive medicine, nutrition and health, or positive psychology–the usual subjects of this blog. More substantive posts will be forthcoming. But I want to announce my intention to post here regularly once again.

Same blog, greater range of concerns

Like many others, I have been thinking, reflecting and soul-searching in the weeks since the election of November 8, 2016. The initial feelings of numbness and discouragement have passed. Like many others, I am moving forward with next steps. A top priority is exploring how to be a more engaged citizen in what will be a challenging era. For me, this blog will part of that process.

There are connections between our physical, mental and emotional well-being and the vision of the kind of society we want to live in. It is hard to assess our lives fully without considering the state of the world around us, and the things we value and are willing to work for. An effort to address human well-being is lacking something if it ignores  issues that impact substantially our quality of life, such as economic justice, affordable health care and environmental sustainability.

image: venn diagram social environmental economic sustainabilityThose larger concerns, and a commitment to social justice and activism, were always part of my vision for this blog. These concerns are connected to my motivation–why I make the choices I do. That is clearly true of many of those from whom I draw inspiration. So, going forward, this blog will address other issues–including environmental, social justice and economic concerns.

This blog is back. I hope you’ll be with me as I explore its original and expanded purposes. Thank you for reading.

Image of Sustainable development from 2006 by  Johann Dréo, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

What the food movement has accomplished, and hasn’t

I’ve written here before about the food movement–the range of initiatives and concerns, many distinct and even inconsistent–that relate in some way to the American way of growing, raising, manufacturing, marketing and consuming food, and the larger economic and political developments in the food economy.

This piece from The New Food Economy collects reflections from 20 perspectives, marking the 10th anniversary of Michael Pollan’s groundBook cover: The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollanbreaking book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Those responding to the request for input include writers and academics, as well as farmers, activists and organizers. They were asked about the most important or surprising changes in the last 10 years, and the things that need to change but haven’t.

The editors note at the outset that “food movement” is “a broad term for a political, social, and economic revolution,” with “no one leader, no single belief system, no agreed-upon primary goal.” Those of us who have been paying attention have noticed the lack of anything like a national food policy that moves us toward a better, more sustainable, environmentally responsible way of feeding ourselves collectively

And yet, the signs of the food movement, or movements, are apparent everywhere around us–from local farmer’s markets, changes in what is marketed at grocery chains (such as organic produce, gluten-free and non-GMO food products), the politics of food labels and agriculture subsidies, the arrival of vegan cafes and the expansion of healthier fast food and meatless options, and many, many other changes and developments.

What is the impact of all of these on the larger food culture and economy? Where are we going?

A few of my favorite observations from the post are below:

Marion Nestle:

Today, I can hardly visit a college or university that does not have courses, programs, or departments devoted to food culture or food systems and an organic garden to boot. Did Omnivore’s Dilemma have anything to do with the hordes of students eager to study about food? Absolutely. These students are the future of food system transformation and reason for optimism that it will change, and much for the better.”

Eric Holt-Giménez:

[O]ur food isn’t allocated by choice, desire, values, or even by need, but through market demand. Capitalism is the silent ingredient in our food. It means that the 50 million people living in poverty in the richest country on earth—many of whom grow, harvest, process and serve our food—can’t afford to be foodies; they’re too busy worrying about where their next meal is coming from. If we care about people as much as we do about food, and if we really want to change the food system, we’d better become fluent in capitalism.

Mike Callicrate:

A critical mass of concerned eaters are now demanding food produced in a healthier, safer, more dependable and humane manner. The challenge going forward will be to continue to help consumers sort fact from fiction, even as Big Food keeps spinning out advertising copy to promote its industrially produced products.

Samuel Fromartz:

But one thing that has not happened? The meaningful coalescence of a broad-based political movement based on  reforming the food system, one that is powerful enough to prompt changes in the very policies that Pollan did so much to expose. Journalism can go only so far. Entrepreneurs and their customers can do only so much. More substantive change has to come through a political movement akin to the Farm Bureau, or the NRA with its millions of members on email lists and speed dial. And frankly, that has yet to happen. Without it, change will be piecemeal, hard fought, and slow to arrive.

Sleep, health and calling it a day

I had a sleep problem most of my life. As a boy, I hated being told it was time to sleep. Going to bed was mostly something imposed from above. Just as there were “times” to eat, there was a “time” to go to bed. I recall lying in my bedroom, staring at the blue light at the bottom of the door, thinking of the television shows that the grownups were watching a few feet away.

By being relegated to the bedroom, I felt I was missing out on life. That was a belief I carried into adulthood. Staying up later felt grown-up somehow, the way I later thought about smoking and drinking alcohol.

At least that was the story I came to believe. I resisted going to sleep then, and often feel the impulse to resist when drowsiness or a yawn signals to me that it’s time to call it a day. There is often a sense of something else that could be done, something not to be missed, something to stay up for that’s better than going to bed.

Sleep matters

There is a huge amount of research now on the benefits of sleep. These include studies that show sleep helping with everything from reducing stress and inflammation to better sex to stronger immunity and slowing the aging process. Further, sleep deficiency is associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes and even a greater chance of being involved in accidents.

But the point of this post is not to convince you that getting enough sleep pays big dividends. You probably already know you should be getting at least seven hours of sleep, just as you know to eat your vegetables, drink enough water and get regular exercise.

The growing chorus of voices making the point about the importance of sleep includes Mark Hyman, Christiane Northrup and Arianna Huffington, whose 2015 TED Talk is a fine, short introduction to the subject of sleep and the high cost of sleep deprivation.

Now that you know

The hard thing about self-care isn’t knowing what to do. It’s getting from where we are to where we know we need to be, despite cultural norms, conflicting priorities and time constraints. We develop habits over time, and sometimes our habits about things as basic as how we eat and when we go to bed are among the hardest to change. Something as basic as determining what would be an appropriate bedtime, in order to get the sleep you need, can be daunting.

Other things may have to be adjusted. You might, for example, need to tape Stephen Colbert’s show, to watch it the next day, rather than see it live. You might need to stop drinking fluids a couple of hours before that bedtime, to avoid having to get up several times overnight. It may be necessary to curtail Internet use and do something more conducive to sleep in the hour or two before your bedtime. It may help to define when to do everything from walking the dog to flossing your teeth.Cover: Arianna Huffington, The Sleep Revolution

As my experience suggests, getting to bed at a reasonable hour is one of those basic things in adult life that can stir up very child-like resistance for those of us who stopped being children decades ago.

If you’re inspired by Huffington’s video, you may be interested in her recently published book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.

 

Calling it a day

One of the best ideas about sleep was suggested to me by a mentor years ago. Pick a bedtime or a time just before you go to bed, and treat that as the beginning of the next day. So if this time is 10:30 p.m., your Tuesday begins at 10:30 on Monday, rather than at midnight or sunrise the next morning. If you stay up past that time on Monday, you’re stealing from Tuesday. When you think about it, this makes sense, since it’s on Tuesday that you’ll experience the diminished energy, alertness and productivity.

It may help to stop thinking of it as something that carries over from the previous day, something that happened in the past. The sleep you choose to get on Tuesday plays a large role in how you experience Tuesday.

This notion of when the next day begins can help to anchor a new ritual around sleep. If 11 p.m. was the designated end of your day, you might decide, for example, not to eat or drink anything after 9 p.m., to turn off televisions and computers by 10 p.m., and use the last hour only for things that help you prepare for your bedtime (like walking the dog, turning out lights or brushing and flossing your teeth) or that help to bring you to a drowsy state, like reading or meditating or writing in a journal.

The latter can be especially useful. A simple exercise such as writing down three things that went well that day and one that could be improved upon might help us to reach a point when we feel ready to release the day. We can stop resisting sleep and let go with acceptance, knowing we can begin again tomorrow.

Sleep can be approached as mindfully as eating, driving or any other activity. If you’ve already developed good sleep habits, good for you. If you haven’t: there are few more important habits of health, and if  you haven’t started yet, there’s no better time than tonight to begin to cultivate this one.

Book review: Dan Harris, 10% Happier

Ten years ago, it might have been news to report that meditation had arrived in the American mainstream. The signs have been everywhere for some time now: meditation retreats, classes and workshops in Yoga studios, hospitals, universities and office buildings; articles celebrating meditation in popular magazines, from AARP and TIME to Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health, and the rising popularity of new publications like Mindful; news stories report research findings that highlight the benefits of meditation: reducing stress, fostering emotional stability and helping to heal or prevent a wide range of medical conditions.

Today, these ideas are in the air. Go to any mainstream bookstore and you will find at least one shelf, and maybe many, displaying books on Buddhism and meditation. They may be shelved under Eastern religion or spirituality or self-help. Increasingly, they may be showing up in other areas too, including the best sellers section.

Meditation books break through

harris_10percentOne such book is Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2014. That may be partly due to name recognition: the author is an ABC News personality familiar to viewers of Good Morning America and Nightline. Beyond that, it was time for such a book to reach readers who had not picked up works by Buddhist thinkers and meditation teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Sharon Salzberg. And there is the refreshing candor of the title, which doesn’t over-promise with guarantees of unending bliss or total transformation.

Who doesn’t want to be 10% happier?

Harris tells some of his personal story as an ambitious, skeptical and troubled television reporter. He describes the on-air panic attack (see below) and candidly reveals the recreational drug use that may have caused it. After Harris was recruited to cover the religion beat for ABC by his mentor Peter Jennings, he writes, he covered not only evangelical Christian leaders, such as Ted Haggard (before his downfall), but also self-help figures such as Eckart Tolle and Deepak Chopra–both of whom are profiled in this book.

He discusses a nagging problem: the constant stream of negative mental chatter, the “asshole” in his head, that made him unhappy and obsessive much of the time. Tolle’s ideas on “ego” mind and the power of the present moment had resonated deeply with Harris, who read Tolle’s The New Earth and tried without much success to spread the word to colleagues and friends. The chapter on Chopra (Happiness, Inc.), whom Harris met after Tolle, expands on a familiar theme: he is drawn to something these teachers have to offer, but cannot buy the whole package.

He was introduced to Buddhism through the books of Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and Buddhist practitioner, and was quickly impressed. But his reportorial skepticism clashed with aspects of Buddhism also. Throughout the book, Harris repeats his opinion that meditation has a huge public relations problem. In the minds of many, it is associated with hippies, Beat poets and “robed gurus.” Suffice it to say that these images did not appeal to Harris, who wanted to remain who he was while–in the words of the book’s subtitle–taming the voice in his head, reducing stress without losing his edge and finding self-help that actually worked.

He can be scathingly funny when writing of how the sharper edges of his personality clashed with the self-consciously spiritual presentation style of some leaders in the Buddhist self-help world. At a meditation gathering featuring the Tara Brach, the popular Buddhist teacher and psychologist, he writes:

She was holding forth in a creamy, cloying tone. The style was astonishingly affected–artificially soft and slow, as if she were trying to give you a Reiki massage with her voice. She exhorted us to love ourselves, “invited” us to close our eyes and “trust in the ocean-ness, in the vastness, in the mystery, in the awareness, in the love–so that you could really sense, ‘Nothing is wrong with me.’ “

Harris came to appreciate Brach and others to whom he took an initial dislike. It’s one manifestation of his growing ability, through meditation practice and studying Buddhist concepts, to respond more and react less, to become a nicer, more tolerant and compassionate person. In time, his mindfulness practice–30 minutes a day–helped him professionally as well. But that didn’t come overnight. There was a dry period, when he seemed to lose his competitive edge and observed passively and with growing frustration as news stories he wanted to cover were assigned to other correspondents. After some period on the sidelines, he learned (on a friend’s advice) to “hide the Zen” and advocate for himself more effectively. Having cultivated qualities like kindness and compassion, he learned to pursue his goals without being a jerk.

One of the most interesting aspects in the book is watching Harris, as he sees it, separating the wheat from the chaff. Eventually, he came to see the qualitative difference between what he sensed was the untethered mysticism of Tolle and Chopra and the solidly grounded value of meditation practice. Harris came to embrace Buddhist concepts and practices, including meta (or loving kindness) meditation, while remaining unconvinced about reincarnation, karma, and other cultural and religious baggage in Buddhism that he has chosen not to carry. Instead, he is drawn to the practical benefits of meditation, including improvement of health conditions ranging from asthma to stress among cancer patients. Notably, one of the few books that Harris recommends in an appendix is Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Becoming convinced

The most memorable chapter may be the long one that features a detailed account of his first meditation retreat, 10 days of noble silence at Spirit Rock in California. During those days, of course, he came face-to-face with himself. The experience brought many highs and lows: the dread of enforced silence; the boredom, tedium and fatigue of long hours alone with his thoughts; a period of euphoria, and tears of joy, brought on by a session of metta meditation; his private consultations with Joseph Goldstein, the lead teacher, whom Harris came to admire; and maybe most important, the teachings he could apply in his daily life.

Harris shares nuggets of wisdom that were especially significant for him. One came during a Q-and-A session near the end of the retreat, when Goldstein told the group not to spend too much time thinking about what they would need to do, post-retreat, when they reentered the world. Harris raised his hand to question this: If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts.” Goldstein conceded the point, but added, “when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this useful?’ ”

Harris comes to understand the Buddhist concepts his teachers have emphasized: impermanence, mindfulness, choiceless awareness, sympathetic joy. He also learned what Buddhism doesn’t teach: being unfeeling, detachment from our practical concerns or nihilistic indifference to the world around us. He comes to realize that happiness and compassion are not rare qualities possessed by a few highly evolved beings, but skills that can be cultivated and learned by anyone. Many newcomers to meditation are struck by hyperactivity in their minds and frustrated by the unending need to return to the breath. Harris quotes Salzberg: “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”

If you wonder what meditation might be able to do for you, consider this passage from Harris’ review of brain research:

The old conventional wisdom was that once we reached adulthood, our brain stopped changing. This orthodoxy was now replaced with a new paradigm, called neuroplasticity. The brain, it turns out, is constantly changing in response to experience. It’s possible to sculpt your brain through meditation just as you build and tone your body through exercise–to grow your gray matter the way doing curls grows your bicep.

This idea contradicted widespread cultural assumptions about happiness that are reflected in the etymology of the word itself. The root hap means “luck,” as in hapless or haphazard. What the science was showing was that our levels of well-being, resilience, and impulse control were not simply God-given traits, our portion of which we had to accept as a fait accompli. The brain, the organ or experience, through which our entire lives are led, can be trained. Happiness is a skill.

I’ll leave you with a video of Harris summarizing his journey and telling the story behind the book.

Good readings: health, nutrition and self-care

In a career as a librarian, one of my greatest satisfactions has been to connect people with information they needed or could use. This is also a benefit having a blog: to share some of the best readings I have encountered with your audience. I hope that one or more of these will bring you useful information, insight or inspiration, as they did for me. To your well-being and happiness!

Readings on health and healing

Gabor Maté, How to Build a Culture of Good Health (Yes! magazine).  This is a remarkable article that brings together many threads: the limitations of the current model for doctoring; the relationships of emotions and trauma to physical health; connections between specific diseases, self-imposed stress and coping patterns dating from childhood.

It also suggests some ways we can create a healthier environment for optimal health: “Find alternative sources for what most physicians cannot provide: a holistic approach that considers not organs and systems but the entire human organism. Take responsibility for how you live, the food you ingest, your emotional balance, your spiritual development, the integrity of your relationships. … Give yourself, as best you can, what your parents would have loved to grant you but probably could not: full-hearted attention, full-minded awareness, and compassion. Make gifting yourself with these qualities your daily practice.”

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Gabor Maté, this is a fine introduction to his thought and work.

Linda Jackson, What is healing? From a friend and fellow blogger, this beautiful reflection on healing expresses an understanding of healing as much more than the absence of a disease or illness. Rather, healing involves “finding a sense of well-being and peace within our lives as a whole — spiritual, emotional, mental, relational, and physical — and learning to live fully with or without a condition or disease.” Whether a trip to the doctor brings wanted or unwanted news, whatever the diagnosis or prognosis, these are words to revisit and explore.

On nutrition and eating

image: reading on hand-held deviceU Chicago News, Sleep Loss Boosts Hunger and Unhealthy Food Choices. Reporting on a research article from the journal Sleep (abstract only available; article is blocked by paywall), this report summarizes the findings: “Skimping on sleep has long been associated with overeating, poor food choices and weight gain. Now a new study shows how sleep loss initiates this process, amplifying and extending blood levels of a chemical signal that enhances the joy of eating, particularly the guilty pleasures gained from sweet or salty, high-fat snacks.” Among the findings of the study: the cravings for satisfying snacks among sleep-deprived people mimic the cravings that follow marijuana use.

Mental Floss, The Top 20 Most Addictive Foods, According to Study. This report summarizes findings from a research article (in the journal PLOS One) about what foods have the most addictive qualities, among a group of young study participants.  “[O]f the 35 food options, those that have been processed and contain more fat and a higher glycemic load are most frequently associated with addictive-like eating behaviors. ” The top 5 among 20 listed foods in one study were (in order): pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies, ice cream. This report quotes from the research article: “It is plausible that like drugs of abuse, these highly processed foods may be more likely to trigger addictive-like biological and behavioral responses due to their unnaturally high levels of reward.”

On self-care

Karen Koenig, The Necessity of Self-Care Routines (Eating Disorders Blogs). This reflection is always timely for those of us who can relate to the phenomenon of abandoning our self-care practices when we need them most.

“One of the worst things you can do when you’re experiencing distress is to drop your self-care routine—eating regularly, getting enough sleep, exercising, and doing the small activities that give your life structure and publicly proclaim ‘Look how much I love me.’ Emotional health includes keeping up with attention to self no matter what’s going on in life. This is exactly what many dysregulated eaters don’t do when life tosses them a curve ball or there is a change in their normal routine.”

Nobody’s perfect: the wisdom of an 80-20 split

When I studied positive psychology through the Whole Being Institute, Tal ben-Shahar, the lead instructor, emphasized the importance of giving ourselves “permission to be human.” In his book Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life, he notes a fundamental distinction between the perfectionist and the “optimalist”:

The Perfectionist expects her path toward any goal–and, indeed, her entire journey through life–to be direct, smooth, and free of obstacles. When, inevitably, it isn’t–when, for instance, she fails at a task, or when things don’t quite turn out the way she expected–she is extremely frustrated and has difficulty coping. While the Perfectionist rejects failure, the Optimalist accepts it as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success…. I was unhappy in college, in large part because I could not accept failure as a necessary part of learning–and of living.

There are countless diets, plans for healthier eating, and nutritional programs. Millions of people are pursuing these programs, often with dedication and motivation. And yet everywhere we look, we can see that, far from being easy, most diets are unsuccessful.

Most people find there are cravings, emotional triggers, bad days, lonely nights. Resistance arises. We slip. No matter how convinced we may be that our program is sound, most of us will deviate, make mistakes, spin off the rails now and again. The circumstances of these episodes will very among people. It may be a big holiday meal with the family, the platters of food at a Super Bowl party, negative comments in a performance evaluation at work, a noisy neighbor playing loud music in the apartment building, or something else–boredom, loneliness, unfinished grieving, falling into an old coping pattern.

Critical self-talk

One of the most common responses when these setbacks occur is severe self-criticism (I’m stupid, I’m  weak, I can’t believe I screwed up again). Another is to concede failure, to give up, to decide the eating regimen is just too hard. We may lament, I just can’t do this.

There are alternatives that can help to guide us away from the tyranny of the inner critic. We could acknowledge the deviations and learn from them. We can learn to become comfortable with imperfection, to embrace ourselves as we are. And then to resume, to continue with our program.

Image: perfection is stagnationWhat if the slip was not viewed as a devastating defeat, but as an unsurprising part of the program? Doesn’t it make more sense to acknowledge it may happen–to accept our imperfect application as part of who we are–rather than to make perfection a test of our worthiness?

Similar choices could be made about other self-care commitments–about eliminating caffeine, getting 7 hours of sleep per night, increasing our level of exercise. Following the intended pattern most of the time is a lot better than giving up the effort altogether.

The perfect, the good and the S.A.D.

I have written here about the health consequences of refined carbohydrates and added sugars–the central place they hold in the Standard American Diet (SAD), the impact on blood sugar, weight gain and diabetes. There is broad agreement about the undesirability of eating foods made with highly processed grains and added sugars.

And yet: If I tried to eliminate these factors entirely from what I eat–if I tried to implement a 100% non-SAD approach to eating–my dietary experience would be much more difficult. It would be harder to eat out with friends or accept an invitation to dinner at a friend’s home without bringing my own food for myself. It would be harder to negotiate the food culture in which I live. I would be thinking that never again could I have a donut or a bag of chips. And the inner rebel in my mind would be waiting to seize on a moment of weakness, to tell me What could it hurt? and then to feel defeated when I took that advice and had the forbidden thing.

I have written here about the benefits of reducing and limiting consumption of meat, even if you’re not prepared to become vegetarian or vegan. Eating 50% or 75% less meat is a lot healthier than making no behavior change while  lamenting the downside of animal agriculture and the effects on human health of a heavily carnivorous diet. Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6pm approach is consistent with this approach.

wisdom perfectionismThe same principle applies to those foods that can be viewed as treats or occasional indulgences. If the tortilla chips or coffeehouse muffin or ice cream cone is an occasional indulgence rather than the forbidden fruit, my experience teaches me that I’m more likely to succeed with my program if I make the mindful choice to make room for it–or to plan on it–rather than to take a permanent pledge never to touch it again, to label it “bad” and take a lifetime oath against it.

The headline for this post speaks of an 80-20 split. The idea is to build a healthy way to eat and stick to it most of the time. There is nothing magical about 80% or any other precise number. Joshua Rosenthal, who founded the Institute for Integrative Nutrition–where I studied nutrition and health coaching–speaks of a 90-10 diet, which allows people to indulge their cravings 10 percent of the time, while eating more healthily most of the time.

The addiction exception

There is an important caveat to this principle: Many of us may have identified certain things that we have come to realize we cannot consume, because the price is too high to justify the indulgence. The classic example is the object of an addiction: for an alcoholic, the first drink; for others, it could be a trip to a casino, bringing a binge food home from the grocery store or making some other choice that may lead to a downward slide that one has experienced before, and possibly many times.

Many people view certain specific foods in similar ways. Some have come to see their relationship to sugar, to white flour, or to other foods as similarly disordered.  Scientific studies suggest similarities between the way humans and animals respond to certain foods, particularly sugar, and the responses to substances of abuse.

It is not my point here to argue against the concept of food addiction or to challenge the central premise of groups like Overeaters Anonymous or Food Addicts Anonymous. If our inner wisdom tells us that we have such an issue with sugar or white flour, other specific foods or food in general, it makes sense to heed that wisdom, listen to that voice. For those who have found a social support system and a program of recovery–a place to go and share and learn–then it is sensible to make use that source of support.

Beyond dieting

There is much more to say about deprivation dieting–and also approaches to eating that do not set us up to fail in the same way that most diets do. Among the keys are flexibility, eating enough of the right things to be satisfied, finding a workable outlet for dealing with uncomfortable emotions, and learning from both personal experience and scientific evidence. I look forward to addressing these themes and hope you will return to this space.