1

Why taking care of our feelings matters

“Positive emotions are worth cultivating, not just as end states in themselves but also as a means to achieving psychological growth and improved well-being over time”

- Barbara L. Fredrickson
Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, 2001

According to recent psychological research, the experience of positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment and love, not only makes us feel good but also helps us develop new skills, build new relationships and become more resilient in the long run.

“Positive affect” – the conscious experience of a positive emotion – allows us to be more creative and open to new opportunities. It makes us more likely to have more flexible thought patterns, be more responsive to new information, and process it in novel ways, compared to when we are experiencing “negative affect” (Isen, 2000). Positive affect allows us to broaden our attention and our cognitive thinking, whereas negative affect – anxiety, depression, or feelings of threat – narrows our attention and prevents us from thinking and acting in a flexible productive way.  We are more open to new experiences and different actions when we are in a positive state than when we are in a negative state.

The Broaden-and-Build Theory (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001) explains why this might be the case.  A negative emotion such as fear is triggered by a threat signalling for us to escape, or anger which signals us to attack. Negative emotions limit our behavioural options for quick, decisive actions so that we act appropriately to maximise our chances of survival (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). Positive emotions, on the other hand, signal opportunities for exploration and creativity, allowing us to think and behave in a more flexible way where no threat is present, and broadening our repertoire of thoughts and actions.

Whilst negative emotions help us focus us on a narrow range of immediate options, positive emotions give us the mental space in which to build our personal resources, whether physical, intellectual, social or psychological. Positive affect makes it easier for us to approach new experiences (what is known as “approach behaviour” rather than “avoidance behaviour”), enabling us to engage with the environment and be involved in activities that promote development and growth. Examples of this include increasing our attention and curiosity to learn new things, allowing flexible thinking to finding new creative solutions to problems, or simply being more open to develop our social relationships that can lead to support in the future.

The broaden-and-build theory highlights the benefits of experiencing positive affect, not just for feeling good, but for living and working more effectively. When we feel good, we are more able to learn new skills and build our support networks, helping us cope better and enjoy our lives in the future.

What all this means is that promoting and maintaining positive affect matters much more than just how we feel in the moment. Keep great people in your life and you won’t have to look for cross country moving quotes or free online resume builder. Taking care of how we feel can help us boost our development, improving our wellbeing and our health, and enabling us to do more in our lives, and our work.

By Ruta Marcinkus

References:

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Isen, A. M. (2000). Positive affect and decision making. In M. Lewis & J. Haviland- Jones (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions (2nd ed., pp. 417-435).

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1990). The past explains the present: Emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424.

6

Why having fun is good for you

We all know that leisure time makes us feel good, but now scientific evidence shows that taking time out and engaging in activities you enjoy really does lead to both psychological and physical wellbeing.

It’s a well-established fact that physically healthy actions such as eating well and getting enough sleep make us feel better, it is much harder to prove that taking the time to do our ‘mindapples’ is good for us too. Recent research carried out by Pressman and colleagues (2009) has examined how leisure activities affect our wellbeing. They defined these as “pleasurable activities that individuals engage in voluntarily when they are free from demands of work and responsibilities”, but we might call them mindapples.

They proposed that these everyday activities are more than just something we enjoy doing, but also have a beneficial effect for coping and restoration, particularly at times of stress. Taking time out to relax with a cup of tea or spending time in nature can serve as a “breather”, a chance to take a break and distract oneself from demands and concerns that occupy the mind. Leisure activities can also act as “restorers”, helping us cope with stress by replenishing our resources, for example through spending time with loved ones who make us feel cared for and more able to cope. They based this on previous research showing that common categories of social, physical, nature-related, reflective and creative activities were found to be restorative (Jansen & Sadovsky, 2004), categories that we often find in the mindapples suggestions.

Pressman and colleagues investigated the effects by measuring how much time participants were able to spend time doing the activities they enjoyed and compared it to their self-reported psychological wellbeing, as well as blood pressure, stress hormone levels (cortisol) and other physiological factors.

What they found was that individuals that spent more time engaging in enjoyable activities did in fact have greater psychological and physical wellbeing. This included greater experience of positive emotion (positive affect), life satisfaction and engagement, lower depression scores, greater social support, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, and better perceived physical function.

Another particularly interesting aspect showed that engaging in leisure activities can act as a “stress buffer”. Individuals with greater stress levels (i.e. had recently experienced stressful life events) who took the time to engage in these activities showed lower levels of negative moods and depression and higher positive affect, than individuals who experienced stress but did not spend time on enjoyable activities. This shows that “breathers” or “restorers” promote positive wellbeing and restoration by providing the individual with necessary resources to cope with stress.

So, while it might not be as easy to measure as getting enough sleep or eating vitamin C, it seems you really can take care of yourself by simply remembering to spend time doing the things you enjoy.

Getting 5-a-day for your mind can be good for your mental wellbeing, your physical health, and act as a buffer for coping with stress. And who knows you might even have fun. So, have you had your mindapples?

By Ruta Marcinkus

References:

Pressman, S. D., Matthews, K. A., Cohen, S., Martire, L. M., Scheier, M., Baum, A. & Schulz, R. (2009) Association of Enjoyable Leisure Activities With Psychological and Physical Well-Being. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71, 725-732.

Jansen, D.A., von Sadovszky, V. (2004) Restorative activities of community-dwelling elders. Promotional Usb Drives West J Nurs Res, 26, 381-399.

2

Happy World Mental “Health” Day

Hello folks, and a very happy World Mental Health Day to you all!

To celebrate, Mindapples have been on tour around London, beginning in Brixton on Thursday and Saturday, and culminating in installing the Mindapples Tree at CityCamp London in the Hub King Cross today. It’s been an amazing few days, stepping far out of our comfort zone to get as broad a rane of people as we could in considering the health of their minds. Huge thanks to Lucy Smith at NHS Lambeth for hiring us, to Spacemakers and Transition Town Brixton for hosting us yesterday, and to Futuregov and the gang at CityCamp for welcoming us today.

For two years now, Mindapples hasn’t done anything for World Mental Health Day. Yes, it’s partly because we’re disorganised, but it’s also because, frankly, we don’t feel a great affinity with it. Let’s face it, today is actually World Mental Illness Day. It’s really important for us to honour and support people who suffer from mental distress and those who care for them – but is it really Mental Health Day? If it was, surely we should be promoting the positive things that we all want to have – a healthy mind, a positive experience of life – and giving people a really strong image of a mentally healthy lifestyle they can be a part of? 40% of our mental wellbeing is down to our “outlook and activities” (according to Lykken, D, 1999), so why are we never told that? Why aren’t we talking about that today? Where do we fit, as individuals and as a society, in this world of “mental health”?

So on 10/10/10, Mindapples is asking everyone to join us in making this World Mental Health Day about health, not illness. Please comment here and share your stories about what you’ve done and how you’ve felt when your mind is really feeling good, and share your mindapples to get as many people as possible talking about mental health as a good thing, that we can all be a part of.

We all have minds, and we all have mental health; so let’s celebrate how well we’re all doing, and remind ourselves how similar we all are for once.

Happy Mindapples Day everyone!

Posted by Andy

1

Hand Made Health

I settled down this morning to have a proper read-through Mindapples Co-founder Tessy Britton’s extraordinary new book, Hand Made, and feel inspired to write a post about it. In fact, two posts – you can see my thoughts on its social and policy implications over here.

The book collects a beautiful set of stories about creative new projects that build connection and community, and features projects as diverse as social media surgeries and artistic collaborations, to the regeneration of Brixton Market and even Mindapples itself. I’d particularly recommend Tessy’s essay at the start, which collects the common elements of the projects and makes some great observations about the most effective ways to build connection and community.

What I find most striking about the stories though is that they are all based on our abilities as individuals to take control of the world around us. In his contribution, Tessy’s collaborator David Gauntlett cites radical reformer (and inspiration for our School of Everything project) Ivan Illich: “A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others.”

In developing Mindapples, Tessy and I have talked a lot about boosting individuals’ sense of agency, autonomy and control. We spend so much time being passive, as consumers, as patients, as citizens, that it can be difficult sometimes to imagine how we might shape the world around us at all. Recent statistics (although I can’t find a reference for this yet) apparently suggest that American teenagers, whilst boasting enhanced confidence and self-esteem, are 30% less likely now than in the 1970s to say that they have any control over their lives. We are treating the wrong thing.

We are becoming a society of victims, prisoners of a system that we feel has not been made by us. But we are the system: there is nothing beyond “us”. And as David himself says in his essay: “making the world your own, and making your mark on the world, rather than merely receiving a manufatured environment assembled by external others – is absolutely central to our health and our wellbeing”. Mindapples is based on the simple premise that we all have something useful to contribute to our own health, and all we need to do is tell stories about that and support everyone to get what they know they need to be well, and we can make our society healthier together.

If anyone’s ever wondered why I call myself Head Gardener at Mindapples (apart from the obvious pun), it’s this: I see the task of growing Mindapples as gardening. All we do is create the conditions for people to thrive and grow, and they do the rest. We don’t take credit for all the wonderful things that bloom in the Mindapples garden, but we do get to enjoy them. We may not be perfect, scientific, accurate or even right all the time. But to steal one of Tessy’s best quotes from the book, as Thomas More writes in Utopia in 1516: “things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect – which I don’t expect them to be for a number of years.”

So, here’s to being human, imperfect, and hand made. And thank you Tessy for placing Mindapples in such illustrious company, we’re very proud indeed.

10

A brief history of mindfulness

Hang out around mental health circles either side of the Atlantic at the moment and soon enough you’ll hear someone talking about mindfulness. And here in the UK, the status of mindfulness as official flavour of the psychotherapist’s month was secured this year when the Mental Health Foundation launched its Be Mindful project.

With its well-presented website, it is mainly a campagn to encourage the NHS to make mindfulness-based courses more widely available, especially given the effectiveness of their clinical application to endemic conditions such as depression, anxiety and chronic pain. But what I find surprising about Be Mindful – apart from its refreshing aesthetic – is that nowhere in the materials does it say what mindfulness actually is. We’ll get to that in a moment.

The M word. But before we enter the murky world of definitions, let me tell you a quick story. Quite some time ago, a young(ish) man, thanks to an extraodinary amount of curiosity and dedication, came to deeply understood something really quite radical about what it is to be human and the role the mind has to play in the way we experience life. His name was Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. In the centuries and millenia that followed his life, that strangest of things – a institutionalised religion (in this case Buddhism) – emerged and evolved into various forms across Asia.

Fast forward to the 1970s and a bunch of young (am I allowed to say hippies?) travelled to India, Burma and Thailand and trained with some rather skillful Buddhist meditation masters and in turn got rather good at this meditation thing themselves. Eventually their visas ran out so returning to the USA and Europe they somehow found the means to start to teach and share the more Westerner-friendly subset of the Buddhist tools and techniques – badged as vipassana or insight meditation. And what they themselves had learnt were in turn also just a subset of the tools and techniques avialable in the enormously richness of the Buddhist traditions.

Then, in the final part of this brief trilogy, one day in the early 80’s a chap asked the simple question: given that the human mind is independent of denominations, do we have to limit the teaching of these powerful and transformative mental practices to Buddhists only? His name was Jon Kabat-Zinn who as well as being an insight meditation student was a clinical researcher in mental health and he went on to become the pioneering figure in the translation of insight meditation into a clinical setting for the treatment of mental health and chronic illness. And the courses and provisions that are growing in prevalance originate from his design.

Ok that’s all very nice, but what is it? Mindfulness is the core element of Buddhist meditation. Indeed the major meditation instructions from the original canon of the Buddha’s teaching is called “the talk on the ways in which to apply mindfulness”. And as someone who has practised mindfulness meditation for some years now, it is both exciting and amusing to see it with such a high profile. I know first hand how transformative it can be in dissolving negative mental patterns, increasing happiness and encouraging profound wellbeing. So to see it grow in application and utility is a cause of great joy. But with that comes the concern that mindfulness meditation becomes yoga-fied… popularised to such a degree that not only is the richness of the tradition lost (e.g. yoga as just fancy stretching) but also those that pertain to be teachers have only a very limited understanding of the full potential of practice.

Come on now, just tell me what it is! Kabat-Zinn’s definition is that mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This is really quite good in that it defines mindfulness as not being a thing in itself but a way of relating to experience, and also an intentional process. If I may be so bold as to offer my own definition, it would be that mindfulness is a natural quality of mind which arises when we relax our struggle with experience, neither pushing or pulling life as it presents itself but instead allowing and even embracing it. And as we intentionally develop this quality, it can lead us to deeper and deeper levels of peace and wellbeing. And without doubt, it is most effectively developed through a regular meditation practice.

Meditation is a word which means all things to all men and it too was curiously (almost) absent from the Be Mindful website. This might indicate that the word still carries with it a lack of seriousness in clinical circles, still associated with the 60s/70s counter-culture that first brought it to the Western attention. It however is an error to confuse the wrapping paper for the gift. Until now the majority of people doing the trying and testing wore love beads and dreadlocks. But today they instead have stethoscopes around their necks, own MRI machines and brandish feedback forms. The sooner we recognise meditation for what it is the better. It is a suite of tried and tested systems for the development of mental qualities that lead to happiness (and even beyond). Hallelujah.

This is a guest post by Rohan Gunatillake. Rohan writes about contemporary Buddhism at 21awake and is currenly developing the Hear&Now Project, a design-led set of tools for urban meditation.

New Year’s Temptations

Hello, it’s Andy here. A very happy New Year to you, from me, and as Tessy has said already, from the Mindapples team. I’ve been taking a break from computers, ideas and work since 19th December and now feel much better thankyouverymuch. Hope you had a good restful break too.

It’s that time of year when everyone is talking about ‘resolutions’, but following Tessy’s earlier post, I have an alternative proposal for you: New Year’s Temptations. One of my intermittent Mindapples is ‘give into temptation once a day’. I guess it’s a variant on ‘treat yourself’. But in the astringant, pleasure-fearing Protestant Western tradition at least, ‘temptation’ is usually seen as a Bad Thing.

And that’s why I like it. Allow me to explain…

For me, Mindapples has never been about forcing myself to do things I don’t like because they’re Good For Me. It’s about finding the things I like doing anyway, and then identifying which are good for me and doing more of them, and less of the bad stuff. Eating fewer burgers, and hugging my friends more. I like chips, but they’re bad for me. But I also like cabbage, and that’s good for me. So I eat more cabbage. I don’t eat celery, because I hate it – even though it’s healthy. I think I can look after my body by eating what I like: all I need to do is like enough stuff.

My friend James once told me that when the Japanese say something is delicious, they mean it is nutritious and nourishing to the body. The idea of separating nutrition and taste is stupid. (I have no idea if this is true, but as the Sufis would say, in the spiritual world it happened.) Imagine how easy it would be to take care of ourselves if all we had to do was give in to temptation?

So that’s my suggestion for 2009. Do what you like, but select from a rich pool of options. Explore the world, think about things you’ve enjoyed before, maybe try a few new things. Find more and more things you enjoy, and you’ll find more and more things that are also good for you. And then, give in to temptation.

I’m going to try a variant on this for a while and see how it goes: do something pleasurable for each of my five senses each day. White chocolate-covered raspberries, jasmine flowers, hot baths, winter sunsets, early Billie Holiday. A focus for my temptations, a guilt-free way to indulge myself. I’m not being weak: I’m being nice to myself. Well done me. ;-)

Best of luck to all of you in 2009, and let us know what you want to do more of this year. Come on, you know you’re tempted…

Posted by Andy Gibson

4

Mind Training

I went to see some very helpful people at Mind this morning for their campaign skills training – a marvellous free service they offer to people like me who care about mental health but don’t know what to do about it. It was great to meet people at the sharp end of the spectrum, campaigning at local level for specific support for service users. Very humbling to see how much passion and commitment goes into making even the smallest changes to the ‘system’.

Interestingly, the first ‘icebreaker’ question of the day was “What’s good for your mental health?” – a very Mindapples question if ever there was one. Everyone had at least one thing to say, so, in no particular order, here’s what they said:

  • walks in the open air
  • supporting your football team (when they win)
  • being listened to and respected
  • being taken seriously
  • talking to friends
  • doing something you’re good at
  • chocolate

The idea of being listened to and taken seriously is a big one for me. I’m not sure if it’s something we can always control ourselves though, more like something we need from our environment. That’s why we’re focussing on the simple, practical things we can all DO to care for our minds. But it’s important to acknowledge that what’s good for our mental health is as much about our context as our activities.

Here are some more ideas from Mind on how to improve your mental wellbeing.

Posted by Andy Gibson