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Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to Podium - A Person Wants to Be Helpful

This week finds me more focused than last. Right at this moment I have something in my contact lens making my eye uncomfortable and I am irritated by it and am imaging removing it and replacing it with a new one. A new lens, not a new eye, I hasten to say. This will make me feel better, and see better, which is good because I have to pick up the 9th grader from her rehearsal in an hour. Being able to see when driving is good.

See how much of what I'm thinking about at this moment involves the future? Apparently, this is status normalus for humans. This is what I've learned from a recent article in the failing New York Times Sunday Review.*  I have a beef with the title of this article by Martin Seligman, big name in Positive Psychology, and science journalist John Tierney, "We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment". While the article is fascinating, and is, I suppose, a way of bringing a new field of psychology to the attention of the general public, the title is, frankly, misleading. I wouldn't go so far as to call it click bait, but it is annoying. However, I will get to that. I suppose it was meant to catch the attention, since living in the moment via mindfulness is all the rage these days.

But the meat of this piece is that Seligman believes, “What best distinguishes our species” is our ability to “contemplate the future.” Rather than obsess over the past, people more often think about what might happen, a.k.a., the future. According to Seligman, anxiety and depression spring from having “a bleak view of the future.” Not from past traumas nor how they feel about what is happening at present.

A study of about five hundred adult Chicagoans yielded a lot of information cited in this piece. Using some kind of device, mayhap a phone, the study “pinged” these people multiple times a day and asked them to “record their thoughts and moods.” Turned out that thoughts of the future were three times more common than thoughts of the past. Also, participants reported being happier and less stressed when they were making plans. While they did report concerns about what could go wrong, they were twice as likely to be thinking about what they hoped would happen.

So prospection is our thang. We should rename our species homo prospectus, says Seligman. Although we don't want to think too far in the future, apparently, because only one measly percent of thoughts of those Windy City residents were about death, and most of those were not about their own deaths, they were about other people dying....

Anyway, prospective psychology has ramifications for studying treatments for depression, memory, and emotions. Since anxiety and depression are linked to the tendency to “over-predict failure and rejection,” and become “paralyzed by exaggerated self-doubt,” new therapies are trying to train patients to envision positive outcomes and to look at future risks realistically.

Two other intriguing developments Seligman and Tierney mention are that in brain imaging, the areas of the brain that light up while subjects are remembering are the same areas that light up when they are imagining something. The takeaway is that memory is fluid, and one of the explanations is that memory helps us consider future scenarios. The second interesting conclusion is that emotions exist to help us do this more rapidly and successfully.

So, Readers, the question is, what does this have to do with me? And of course with you - of course. After all, the cornerstone of my blog is the assumption that if it has to do with me, it may well be something to which you can also relate, and therefore this blog is actually helpful in some way. Because a person wants to be helpful in some way, usually. A person likes that.

Although I hope you don’t relate as readily as I to the bits about over-predicting failure and rejection and exaggerated self-doubt.

To be helpful, let me point out that one major takeaway— a  word I’ve now used twice in this piece of writing, when one use of takeaway is perhaps too many — is positive thinking helps in planning and achieving goals. We already knew that, didn't we? But, and here Seligman and Tierney underscore good old Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, if you’re pessimistic, just envisioning getting something you want is not enough. I've touched on this topic before. What you need to do is be realistic about the negatives. Pessimists find this reassuring, since they’re not just being blindly Pollyanna-ish about the future. That, according to a pessimist, is akin to daring the Universe to just shit on you.

Pardon the crassness. My children dislike my crassness. And I apologize for it.

But my point is that a pessimist is just not going to be able to convince herself that she’s going to succeed at the thing she wants to succeed at by simply envisioning it. You know, just imagining herself “podiuming” at the next Olympics, as the snow boarders like to say, is not going to be sufficient for a pessimist. A pessimist is going to have to imagine the practical impediments, also known as obstacles, to her achievement. This will accomplish two things, one magical, and one not. First, it will convince her that she’s not taking the Universe for granted by imagining an easy triumph, thus inviting the Universe’s wrath. This is magical thinking and thus seems irrational, but makes perfect sense to some people, such as me. Second, and more important, this strategy leads to an understanding of the steps she needs to take towards this ultimate goal. The term for this is mental contrasting. It’s the opposite of magical thinking, but it does produce results.

Now, back to the title of this piece. I’m sure Seligman and Tierney didn’t pick it, so I’m not going to blame them. However, it is misleading. It seems to indicate that mindfulness is unhelpful, because focusing on the present is not what we are wired to do. Let me point out that the study that helped determine the conclusions described in this article involved something called “pinging”. I hope it wasn't painful, but I can't say. Okay, I can. I know exactly what pinging is, but I'm being quirky and humorous. Anyway, persons were pinged throughout their days, and then, when pinged, these persons noted what they were thinking and feeling at those moments when they were pinged. Those persons, therefore, were practicing mindfulness. They were taking a moment to notice what was happening in the present. Simple as that. That’s mindfulness. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, mindfulness is awareness, and awareness is a form of intelligence different than thought. It was their mindfulness that allowed these subjects to inform the researchers what was going on in their brains. And it would be mindfulness that would allow those anxious and depressed personages to break their bad thought patterns about the future. They have to recognize the negative thought and replace it with a positive one. That’s called, in Buddhism, setting an intention. Intentions are future-looking. They are seeds of possibility. And setting intentions is one of the elements of meditation.  We want to create a better future for ourselves, even the pessimists among us who are scared they can’t. So, living in the moment is actually one of the better things we can do for ourselves.

So, let’s set an intention. I’m gonna, Readers. My intention is to be generous and truthful. I’d love to know yours.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

News and Tidbits

Hello, Readers. It’s taking a monumental amount of willpower to avoid the big, combed-over elephant in the room. The news has been riveting. But I am not writing about that. And I’m trying to marinate in it less overall. What this means is a short and scattered blog post. 

Tidbits and News:

Following my own advice from last week’s post on dealing with distraction, I have tried, somewhat successfully, to limit my exposure to the media, both formal and social, and to focus on my writing. That advice really came from the example of my friend C, mentioned last week, who has found the months since November 9th to be some of the most productive of her career. I tried to follow her example and to forge ahead. The result is that I do have a rough draft of approximately 90,000 words. All written last week. 

No, not really. That’s about 240 pages. Not possible for me to amass in one week. But the draft did start to coalesce over the last week. I read a little of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird every night to inspire me. In case anyone in the world hasn’t read that book, the title refers to advice her father gave her brother when he had a report on birds to write from scratch and it was due the next day. Take it bird by bird, was the advice, extrapolated to any writing and by larger and further effort to any daunting endeavor. Bird by bird. A way to get one’s writer self into the chair. 

Turning off the web browser is another crucial element I employed last week. 

In other news, the dog is afraid of the kitchen. I think he’s actually afraid of bees, but more specifically of things that buzz, including but not limited to bees, and by extension he is afraid of the places where things that buzz have recently been buzzing. That would be the kitchen. 
Now I’m not going to have any of that. He needs more grit, does that dog. And also he needs to be reprogrammed to like the kitchen again. I am hopeful that a little play therapy with him in the kitchen every day will work magic. I started out with one of the puzzles I bought him during a phase when I felt extremely guilty for his under stimulating life. And he does love the puzzles, which he solves with nose and paws, and which reward him with treats. 
Anxious dog

The college student is home for the summer! I picked her up on Saturday at noon, and I am happy to report that she was all packed up and ready to load the car. This kid is no snowflake. This kid has grit. What she doesn’t have is a job. She thought she had one, but it fell through. So she has been looking, along with every other recently arrived home college student who didn’t get a job over spring break. Which she did. But I guess not really. 

I read Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saundersand I liked it. I didn't love or lurv it, but I did like it. I liked its Buddhist elements, such as how life is full of suffering people and how we all need to be compassionate towards one another - and towards ourselves.

That’s about all. I think all that writing while trying to avoid getting sucked all the way into the news used up my available willpower and I’m depleted. That happens with willpower. It’s something that can be strengthened, according to Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, but it also has limits. Like a muscle, it can grow stronger by use, but it can also fail from overuse. However, overuse, like a vigorous workout, will lead to strength. Unless of course you tear something. I haven’t torn anything, but I have worn out my willpower muscle. So keep me away from the cookies and the chocolate. And please consider this post a gentle limbering exercise.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Using the Scaffolding to Deal with Distraction

Current events are inconveniencing me, Readers. They are preventing me from splashing happily in my bath. They are keeping me from focusing with laser-like concentration on the frivolous, like the new makeup I bought Monday, after attending my high school reunion. 
Why after and not before, you might ask? Well, you might, except I’m not writing about it, due to my obsession with current events. 

Yeah, current events are jamming me up. I have to keep refreshing my Twitter feed because the conspiracy types are really getting me wound up. And the ones who are convinced we’ve become an autocracy on the way to full dictatorship are amping me up, too. Then I have to check in with Fox News to see what they’re saying, and then over to the failing New York Times and the Washington Post. It’s exhausting. All this energy expended in the mistaken, neurotic obsession, in the magical thinking that somehow, if I stay on top of new developments I will prevent something even more terrible from happening, or perhaps even solve our problems. 

All of which leads me to this grand point. Handling distraction - or not - is key to success. The latest news is today’s distraction. Tomorrow it might be something else. Please let it be something else, like buying makeup after my high school reunion, which was Monday’s distraction. That’s a much more relaxing distraction than worrying about the firing of the head of the FBI. 

Luckily, my scaffolding of success helped me out here. That is the point of the scaffolding. It helps you build success by providing you a structure to support yourself while doing so. 

Specifically, my like-minded others helped me out. We had our monthly conference call today. At the outset, my friend C (as in, we met in college) said to E and me that we could not discuss the elephant in the room, otherwise it would take up our whole time. But E and I both admitted that the elephant in the room had been gobbling up our attention. While we agreed not to talk about specifics, I suggested that discussing how to handle distraction seemed like a good topic. 

C responded that she had, in fact, not been distracted by this latest development. And indeed, when we three summarized our activities viz-a-vis our goals set at the end of our last conversation, of the three of us, only C had fully accomplished hers. Her secret to success? Simple. She had decided to stay focused with pockets of productivity. And the secret to those pockets of productivity was that she committed to using her better energy - during the day - for her work, and saving her checking in on the news for the evening. 

Talking to my like-minded others got me focused on my work today, and helped me resolve to use my better energy for my work, too. Talking to my like-minded others, a.k.a. my loving mirrors, helped me activate another plank in my scaffolding of success: getting centered. Talking about using energy wisely reminded me that focusing on what I can actually do, as opposed to things about which I can do nothing, is the best approach to life. Worrying about what I cannot control is unhelpful. As Stephen Covey states in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, your circle of influence is smaller than your circle of concern, but is contained within it. I have provided a handy graphic for you in the photo below. Yes, I realize the text is flipped. That's a technical by-product of using my laptop camera. The point is the concentric circles. By focusing on what I can do, I can, over time, expand my circle of influence within my circle of concern. This does not mean withdrawing from current events, however. It just means allocating time appropriately. Making calls to my government representatives can happen in my low-energy periods. Meanwhile, I can focus my better energy on my work. Starting tomorrow, of course. Now, I have to check the news. 

I'm your loving mirror, Readers. That's why the writing is wackbirds.

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