Yoga is a great disposition enhancer and it does it naturally. Any kind of exercise releases hormones that help ease the stress that often leads to the blues or outright depression. Activity keeps your mind far from negative thoughts and allows you to gain insight into dilemmas in your life. People who are depressed or down often lack the stimulus to exercise. It doesn’t take nearly as much effort to do a Yoga routine as it does to work out to a video or drive to the gym. A word of warning; if you experience more than just the occasional bout depression and feel down for more than two weeks at a time, you should seek professional help. They may feel that you need treatment or therapy, and proper exercise.
Very often people who are depressed frequently lack the concentration to stop and try to disconnect themselves from their thoughts. Yoga is meditation in movement so it is easier to move your mind away from depressing thoughts. Yoga’s focus on balance can also help you bring back your mental strength.
Yoga has a clear-cut connection between mind, body, and spirit that no other form of exercise or meditation can attain on its own. Negative thoughts can keep us from experiencing our vital inner nature. Doubt, hopelessness, despair, apathy and either sleeping too much or not enough are all signs of depression. Yoga is designed to bring you closer to your inner self; it then is only natural that it can help with some of the symptoms of depression.
Certain postures can influence your mood and allow depression to end but one special Asana can’t cure depression. The Asanas assist in increasing your lung capacity allowing more oxygen to reach all the affected parts of your body including your mood. Asana postures can help depleted energy levels and sluggishness. You should ask your Yoga instructor to help you and suggest postures that would best assist you to balance your moods.
The practice of yoga calms the nervous system and allows you to comprehend the link between your mind and emotions. They can both be used to help each other. As breathing is an important part of Yoga, it can also help you to limit anxiety, calm your thoughts, and help you concentrate on positive energy rather than negative.
Any style of Yoga can help you exile feelings of depression. It may not be physically demanding but you will feel so much better at the end of your session. Remember, if you have a severe depressive episode; seek advice from with a professional. Consult with your Doctor before starting to practice yoga to be sure there is no conflict with any treatment you may be undergoing. If you want to try a Yoga routine specifically for depression, find a teacher who can create a personal routine for you. Yoga teachers have been extensively trained for this purpose and know which positions that are the most suitable for remedial purposes.
The advantage of using your phone as part of your kit is that it’s the one item you’re likely to have with you wherever you are. Create a folder of meditation apps, such as Calm, Insight, Buddhify and Headspace, so if you need to take a few minutes to calm your mind or nerves you can listen to a guided meditation. There are also apps that prompt you to think about what you’re thankful for, such as What’s Good.
Why not put together a comfort playlist of favourite tunes that lift your spirits, improve your mood and energise you? It doesn’t matter how uncool your selection is, no one else need listen to it. Or compile a selection that feels soothing and restful, in case that’s what helps at a particular moment.
Most phones have a voice memo app where you can record yourself talking. Perhaps record a message to play to yourself when you’re feeling particularly anxious, upset or low.
Most people’s phones are filled with photos (which they rarely get round to printing) so put together a digital album that makes you smile. It could include photos of your family, friends and beloved pets, occasions that remind you of happy memories or scenes that uplift you.
Essential oils can be a speedy solution because when you inhale the scent it goes straight to your limbic system, which affects your emotion and memory. That’s why sometimes all it takes is a whiff of a smell instantly to change your mood and bring back memories. It’s well known that chamomile and lavender are calming and soothing (although it’s worth remembering that more lavender than you need can have the opposite effect), grapefruit is uplifting and peppermint refreshing. Keep a little bottle handy to inhale when required or choose a roll-on such as Tisserand’s Head Clear or De-Stress, or Neal’s Yard Remedies’ Energy or Relaxation. These blends can be rubbed on to your pulse points and they’re small enough to fit in a pocket.
When you’re struggling mentally, a list of actions that you can choose from to help yourself can be useful. Write them down and keep them somewhere handy, like your desk drawer or bag. Or save them as a note on your phone so you can access them anywhere, any time.
What you write on the list is personal to you – what would make you feel better when you’re having a tough day? Maybe going for a walk, listening to your comfort playlist or phoning a friend, or more restful suggestions like taking a nap, reading a chapter of your book or meditating.
It’s worth noting down some basic ideas too – drinking a glass of water, making a cup of tea, eating something nourishing or taking a few deep breaths in and out may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget the importance of such simple actions to wellbeing.
There could be any number of reasons why you feel the need to dive into your mental health first aid kit, but whatever’s going on inside your head, taking it out of your brain and putting it down on a piece of paper can help. Whether that’s as a stream of consciousness, a to-do list of everything you’re trying to remember or reasons for and against an argument, writing it in a notebook can ease the burden.
Focusing on the good things around you can also be useful. Take a few minutes to jot down what you appreciate in your life, what you feel grateful for and what makes you smile. This enables your brain to think of the positives rather than the negatives (it can’t do both at once), giving you a break from stress. And having them written down means that on another occasion you can flick back and recall positive moments.
Whatever else you choose to add to your kit – a quotation you find inspiring, a nourishing snack, something to read or even a puzzle – remember you can add to it or swap things in and out depending on how you feel and what you need at the time. What matters is now you have something to make those stressful situations that little bit easier.
Death is everywhere. The lifeless bugs on the windowsill. The dead mouse in the crawl space.
My preschooler, Opal, started plying me with questions when she was four. “Were you the one who died that mouse?” Or, “Do you think that moth knows he’s dead?” Cute out-of-the-mouths-of-babes comments tossed off as she buzzed on to her next activity. I’d gotten used to her frank, unemotional curiosity about death, but when her questions shifted from light banter to a source of terror, I was caught completely off-guard.
It happened just before her fifth birthday. She and her dad, Jesse, were settled on the couch with a copy of The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, a book we’d read to her a dozen times. She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. / I don’t know why she swallowed the fly. / Perhaps she’ll die. Opal suddenly started to cry and said, “When I die, will I still be with you and Mommy?”
Jesse scooped our daughter into his arms and held her as she sobbed into his shoulder. “We love you. We’ll take care of you. We love you,” he assured her.
The next day was filled with more questions, increasing in urgency. Over breakfast, Opal asked, “Mommy, do you still eat when you die?”
I tried to keep my tone matter-of-fact, the way I always had. “No, honey, your body doesn’t need food anymore when you die.”
“It doesn’t? Can you see?”
“No, honey, you can’t see anymore, either.”
At this point in the past, she would have lost interest and moved on to hugging the dog or arranging her stuffed animals on her bed. But not now. “Then how will I know where to find you guys when I die?” The look in her eyes swung to terror and confusion. Then came a rushing stream of tears.
Oh dear, I thought to myself, what have I done? Not only that, I wondered how I, a seasoned mindfulness practitioner, could be so flummoxed by questions about death—the exploration of which is an important part of my practice?
It didn’t matter. I realised I was no more prepared to answer Opal’s questions than many parents of young children, meditators or not. Several other mothers I spoke to with kids around Opal’s age were as confused as I was. One mom told me that her son hasn’t asked about death yet, but she has no idea what she’ll say when he does. Another woman said her daughter is under the impression that “death is something that happens when you are very old, and we’ve just kind of let that assumption ride for now.”
When Opal started asking me about death, I didn’t want to lie to her or overlook the fresh wound of her concern. But I didn’t want to cause her nightmares either.
As it turns out, these moms and I are not alone in our confusion about how to talk to our children about death. Former hospice chaplain Joseph Primo, president of the National Alliance for Grieving Children and author of What Do We Tell the Children?, told me that the discomfort and befuddlement so many of us feel is common in our Western culture. “The fact that parents have to ask that question is really a symptom of a much bigger problem,” he explained. “It’s been multiple generations since we’ve been able to talk about death and dying in an open, healthy, constructive way.” This, he adds, despite the fact that death happens to every single living creature.
What’s more, Primo said, this state of affairs is really unfortunate for kids. “As a result, they wind up making sense of death and loss on their own, when the subject could be a way for adults to give them the tools and resources they need to explore their world, to imagine their life, and to begin wrestling with this part of the human condition.”
When Opal started asking me about death, I didn’t want to lie to her or overlook the fresh wound of her concern. But I didn’t want to cause her nightmares either. I navigated her questions with simple, generic responses and lengthy hugs until I was able to get a better grasp on how to respond.
I began by researching kids’ books on the subject, including Lifetimes by David Rice, and The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. Both stories focus on the cyclical nature of life. “We all fear what we don’t know,” The Fall of Freddie the Leaf tells us. “Yet, you were not afraid when spring became summer. They were natural changes. Why should you be afraid of the season of death?”
Not a bad start, still I needed more. I needed to know what information was appropriate for Opal’s age group so that I could answer her questions with confidence instead of panic.
“School-aged kids don’t do well with symbolism and metaphors,” advised Joe Soma, a psychologist in Boulder, Colorado. “They need concrete details. It’s best to explain death in simple, scientific terms. Everything lives and dies. The trees and animals have to die to make room for new things to be born.”
“But what if saying that makes Opal even more afraid?” I asked.
“You can acknowledge her fear and tell her that adults feel scared, too,” he said. “But always bring it back around to something concrete like, ‘What did you do to take care of your body today?’”
Opal’s first reprieve from death-angst came during a trip to the farm with friends, days into her questioning. Animals and nature were just the ticket; she didn’t mention death for hours. Her daddy and I had talked to her about the cycles-of-life earlier that morning when we found her crying in the bathroom, toothbrush dangling from her lips. She seemed to take in our words, to understand death and rebirth in her five-year-old way. At the farm, I pointed out the baby pig and the fresh leaves on the trees. New life. But, on our way home, in the vulnerable place of post-play emptiness, she whispered, “Mommy, I’m thinking about it again.”
When we returned, Opal took stock of the life spans of everything in the house. “The fish will live the shortest. No, the plants will. Then the dog will die next, then the cat.” She paused to brush a clump of bangs from her eye. “You and daddy are next, right? But not for a long, long time, right, mama?”
Perhaps Opal was trying to escape thoughts of her own death by assembling lists of things she felt she understood. Mommy and Daddy are at the end of the list. The fish, the cat and the dog have to die before we even think of Mommy and Daddy dying. It’s almost as if those names and that list had the power to stave off death for Mommy, Daddy and Opal. Especially if repeated aloud.
Like Joe Soma, New York City psychologist— and my uncle—Richard Zuckerberg also stressed the importance of using concrete details when talking to kids about death. Moreover, he said, sometimes questions that seem to be about death are really about separation, about losing Mommy and Daddy. He thought this might be the case when I mentioned that Opal had been unusually volatile in the weeks leading up to her pressing questions.
He suggested I use concrete details to reassure her by saying, “I understand that you are worried, but remember how we came back after school today? We’ll always come back. We are taking good care of ourselves and plan to live a very long time, but if something ever happens to us, you will be totally cared for.”
I expected those words to breed more fear in Opal, but I was pleasantly surprised. Instead, she wanted to know who would take care of her. I recited a long list of friends and relatives who would be there for her, no matter what. I could see her taking in the names, one by one, as if she were using them to weave a huge safety net around herself.
In my quest for answers, I met with Michele Bourgeois, an educator, social worker, and school counsellor in Lyons, Colorado, who teaches yoga, mindful breathing, singing, and art to elementary school children. She believes that, “If you give kids many avenues of expression on an average day, you are laying the groundwork for them to have ways in which to process grief when the need arises.”
Joseph Primo pointed out that, “If our end game is to prepare children for life and to give them the tools they need to be resourceful, empathic beings, then we are required to model warmth, encouragement, and a willingness to not know, yet to be present. We want our kids to know that they can tackle all things when they are surrounded by people who love them,” he said.
“Often, it’s not about us providing them with the answers, as much as creating the space for them to explore their own feelings.”
– Joseph Primo, president of the National Alliance for Grieving Children and author of What Do We Tell the Children?
So far my talks with Opal were about death in the abstract. But I couldn’t help wondering what to say when she experiences the death of someone close to her. Her 92-year-old Papa Jack and our grumpy but sweet old cat, Gilda, are beloved members of our family nearing the end of their lives.
Joseph Primo offered some guidelines: “The D-word is critical, not ‘passing away.’ To help children understand ‘deadness,’ they need language and facts to imagine it and to wrestle with it.” He added that metaphors and commonplaces can be incorporated into the conversation if they’re important to you, but that’s not the best place to start.
He also recommended saying essentially the same things to a five-year-old as you’d say to a 10-year-old or a teenager. “Name the specific disease or reason for dying, otherwise the child will imagine something worse,” he advised. “Give enough information to help the child understand the situation and what’s happening. That’s the ultimate goal. Then pause, create the space for her to process, to explore, to ask questions. Prioritise how many facts you give. See how the child responds, then say more, depending on what they’re looking for.” Chances are, you won’t go into the same kind of detail with a five-year-old as you will with older children, since younger kids are less able to absorb a lot of information.
When I asked Primo if he could provide me with a specific list of things to say to different age groups, he told me he couldn’t, emphasising that every situation is different, as is every child.
“There’s a lot of room for judgment calls, and parents making choices with what they’re most comfortable with at the time,” he said. “Ultimately the parent knows the child best, so they have to trust their instincts.” However, letting the child know that their feelings are normal is key. “There’s plenty of room for anger, sadness and confusion,” he added. “Create a space where they can safely discharge their emotions without judgment.”
“So I didn’t traumatise my child that morning over breakfast when I told her that dead people don’t see?” I asked him.
“Hardly,” he replied. “Parents need to be OK with their child being scared and uncertain. Often, it’s not about us providing them with the answers, as much as creating the space for them to explore their own feelings.”
My friend Misty Lebowitz is one of the moms I spoke to during the course of my research. She learned the importance of telling children the truth about death the hard way. When her own father died when she was just 14, no one in her family talked to her about it, leaving her heartbroken and confused. So when her sons’ grandfather was diagnosed with cancer when the boys were eight and 12, Misty delivered the news straight. “Your grandfather has cancer,” she told them. “The doctor said he would live only for a few more months. He loves you, but he doesn’t want any visitors. So let’s make him some videos to tell him we love him.” Misty set up the video camera and gave the boys privacy to express themselves. “There were a lot of tears after Grandpa died,” she told me, “but at least we knew the boys were aware of what was going on.”
Two years later, she recounted, the family’s beloved dog, Maddox, died unexpectedly late one night. She was rushed to the vet, but nothing could be done to save her. Misty insisted on waking up the boys so they could see their dog before she died. “My mom told me I was crazy,” she said, “but I knew it would be worse if Maddox just vanished.” The boys got to hold her and kiss her before she took her last breath. “They were grateful to get to say goodbye to her and to see that she wasn’t in pain,” Misty said. Months later, her 14-year-old son wrote a heart-wrenching poem about Maddox, and the grief and loneliness he felt without her. He read it to his entire school.
Still, I wondered, what about kids and funerals? Should we take them or not?
In What Do We Tell the Children?, Primo writes, “Funerals can help kids do their grief work if the children themselves have a voice and a choice.” He explains that some kids will not want to attend, which is fine as long as they have the information they need to make that decision. But if children think they’d like to go, it’s important for parents to let them know exactly what to expect.
He elaborates: “The majority of children, however, will want to be there every step of the way. And they will want to talk about it, explore the meaning of it, question the process, and revisit the ritual in the future.” On the other hand, he says, kids who are not involved in the process may harbour resentments and feelings of exclusion well into adulthood.
Primo recalls a story of a little girl who, at three, requested to hold the body of her newborn brother, who had died of complications during birth. Her mother honoured her request. “She held him tight, kissing his forehead over and over. Then she returned him to the table and asked, ‘Mom, can we go get ice cream now?’”
Luckily, the subject of death continues to be hypothetical for Opal. Not long ago she brought it up again while I was slipping a sundress over her head, but her tone was far less anguished than before. Her focus had shifted, too, from the act of dying to what happens afterward. “So,” she said, as if re-visiting a topic to review for an exam, “tell me what happens after you die.”
“People believe different things happen when you die, sweetie. We believe that even though your body stops working, your spirit…” I paused, knowing she was not familiar with the word spirit. “Love, your love continues to live on in another body. We believe you are born again. And all the goodness you create in this life will follow you to your next life.”
Opal smiled. “So,” she said, “we come back as babies? I love babies. They are so cute! It’s like all of our hearts are connected by a rainbow. One long thread of a rainbow. I get it now.”
Later that day, she strolled into the kitchen after watching one of her favourite cartoons and announced, “It’s time for me to have a sister! How do we get one, Mommy, pleeaase!?”
I looked up from my computer, took a long sip of tea and thought to myself, wait—can’t we talk about death?
Let’s try a little experiment. Using your right index finger, point to your brain. Now using the same finger, point to your mind. Not so easy. We don’t necessarily think of our brain and mind as being exactly the same thing. One is not as easy to pinpoint, and this has led to two distinct ways we have of talking about mental activity: mind talk and brain talk.
To those of us without a degree in neurobiology, it seems completely natural to refer to the mind. We talk about feeling this way and thinking of that, of remembering one thing and dreaming of another. Those verbs are examples of mind talk. Using mind talk, we would say, “I recognised my first-grade teacher in the crowd because she was wearing the necklace with the beetle scarab, which was so unusual I still remembered it after all these years.”
We would not say, “A barrage of photons landed on my retina, exciting the optic nerve so that it carried an electrical signal to my lateral geniculate body and thence to my primary visual cortex, from which signals raced to my striate cortex to determine the image’s colour and orientation, and to my prefrontal cortex and inferotemporal cortex for object recognition and memory retrieval—causing me to recognise Mrs. McKelvey.”
That’s brain talk. That there is an interplay between mind and brain may seem unremarkable. The mind, after all, is generally regarded as synonymous with our thoughts, feelings, memories, and beliefs, and as the source of our behaviours. It’s not made of material, but we think of it as quite powerful, or even as who we are.
The mind, after all, is generally regarded as synonymous with our thoughts, feelings, memories, and beliefs, and as the source of our behaviors. It’s not made of material, but we think of it as quite powerful, or even as who we are.
The brain, the three-pound slab of tofu-textured tissue inside our skull, is recognised (by scientists, at least) as the physical source of all that we call mind. If you are having a thought or experiencing an emotion, it’s because your brain has done something—specifically, electrical signals crackled along a whole bunch of neurons and those neurons handed off droplets of neurochemicals, like runners handing off a baton in a relay race.
Neuroscientists don’t object to mind talk for casual conversation. But most insist that we not invoke the mind as if it is real, or distinct from the brain. They reject the notion that the mind has an existence independent of the brain (often called Cartesian dualism, after René Descartes of “I think, therefore I am” fame). Obviously, avoiding mind talk would be a problem for a column about the science of the mind in a magazine called Mindful.
I fell afoul of the no-mind rule last year during a talk I gave in Salt Lake City on neuroplasticity—the ability of the adult brain to change its structure and function in response to outside stimuli as well as internal activity. I was talking about mind changing brain, a possibility that intrigues scientists who have investigated the power and effects of mental training, including mindfulness. I used examples such as people with obsessive-compulsive disorder practicing mindfulness to approach their thoughts differently, with the result that the brain region whose overactivity caused their disorder quieted down. Ta da: mind changing brain.
Not so fast, said one audience member. Why talk about something so imprecise, even spooky, as mind? Why can’t the explanation for the OCD patients be that one form of brain activity (that taking place during mindfulness) affected another (the OCD-causing activity)? Why do we need mind talk?
Well, we need mind talk because although most neuroscientists reject the idea of a mind different from brain, most civilians embrace the distinction. This competing view of things gets expressed in the real world in stark and startling ways. Take, for example, how the mind-brain dichotomy can play out in the criminal justice system. Neuroscience holds that the brain is the organ of the mind. If something goes wrong with behaviour, then it’s because something has gone wrong with the brain (in the same way that if something has gone wrong with, say, insulin secretion, it’s because something has gone wrong with the pancreas). We can probably all agree that criminal assault and downloading child pornography both count as something “going wrong” with behaviour. Yet in these and other cases, judges presented with evidence that the behaviour had a biological basis have meted out more lenient sentences than in cases where no such evidence was presented.
To which neuroscientists reply, are you out of your mind? Why are you relying on such a distinction? What else is behaviour but the result of brain biology? Yet the fact that criminals are treated more harshly if their mind (motives, anger, antisocial feelings…) made them do it than if their brain (aberrant activity patterns, pathological circuitry…) did shows just how deeply average folks believe that mind and brain are distinct.
This dualism gets at a profound philosophical issue that has divided scholars for decades: what is the most productive and helpful level of explanation for mental activity? When do we go too far in reducing mental matters to physically observable activity? Is it more illuminating, for instance, to explain why Teresa loves Dave by invoking their personalities and histories and tastes, or their brain neurons? Consider trying to explain confirmation bias, in which people remember examples that support their point of view—“You never take out the garbage!”—and forget counterexamples. Is it more illuminating to explain it as the result of the human need to shore up our beliefs or by invoking synapses and neurochemicals?
One case for mind talk is that we have access to our mind. We can recognise and describe what we know, remember, and think. We do not have access to our brain: we cannot tell which regions (my hippocampus? my anterior cingulate?) are active during particular activities.
One case for mind talk is that we have access to our mind. We can recognise and describe what we know, remember, and think.
But many neuroscientists say mind talk is just hand waving. As a result, you can hardly call yourself a psychologist or neuroscientist (cognitive, affective, social, or otherwise) unless your research uses brain imaging. In a 2012 study, researchers performed fMRI scans on volunteers playing a made-up game in which they had to decide how much money (given to them by the scientists) they wanted to share with others—a test of their altruism. (fMRI pinpoints areas of the brain that are more active, or less, than the baseline during a particular mental function.) The researchers found that a region involved in perspective taking—allowing us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes—is more active in the most altruistic individuals.
I don’t know about you, but learning that people who are good at understanding things from someone else’s perspective tend to be more altruistic doesn’t tell me much about altruism that I didn’t already suspect. I mean, did anyone think altruistic people would turn out to be bad at perspective taking?
The mind–brain debate is not about to go away anytime soon, so in this column I will be keeping an eye on the dialogue between brain talkers and mind talkers and to keep exploring what the latest science has to teach us about our minds and our brains. For example, can brain biology alone “define, predict, or explain the emergence of mental phenomena,” as Alan Wallace, a pioneer in the scientific study of the effects of meditation on cognition, behaviour, and physiology, has asked? What kind of scientists are willing to talk about mind, and to what extent? What qualifies as “proof” that a practice like mindfulness is improving our lives? Are scientists finding ways to make mind talk like “thought” and “emotion” more rigorous, so we don’t have to be embarrassed around them when we talk that way? And above all, how can what scientists are learning about both mind and brain help us make our way a little better in a challenging world with the tools we have available, whatever names we choose to call them?
Mindfulness meditation proponents often tout it as a way to create a more compassionate society. But that claim seems a bit dubious upon first glance.
After all, meditation is an internal affair—focusing on our own experiences, emotions, and thoughts—and people generally meditate alone. What does that have to do with how we treat anyone else? While some meditation practices directly aim for increasing compassion—such as loving-kindness meditation—others focus more on creating mindful attention, a focus on one’s present experience. This seem less likely to automatically impact how we relate to others.
Yet evidence is mounting that mindfulness meditation proponents might be right. Though the science is far from conclusive, it points to the likelihood that mindfulness meditation does lead to “prosocial” (kind and caring) feelings and thoughts, and more compassionate behavior towards others. And it may do so by training people in mindful awareness.
“Almost any approach for cultivating care for others needs to start with paying attention,” says Stanford researcher Erika Rosenberg. “The beginning of cultivating compassion and concern, or doing something for the benefit of others, is first noticing what something or someone means to you.”
One recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology took a stab at figuring out the relationship between mindfulness meditation and prosocial behaviour.
Daniel Berry and his colleagues randomly assigned some participants to either a brief mindfulness training or a training in controlling their attention. The mindfulness training involved focusing on momentary inner experiences: the breath, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations; the attention training involved focusing on important goals in your life.
Then, participants played an online game called Cyberball. “Players” (represented by coloured dots) tossed the ball to each other; but after a few tosses, two of the players excluded the third. Though participants were told the dots represented real people located in other rooms, the interactions were actually pre-programmed.
Initially, participants simply observed the game in action. Afterwards, they were asked to write emails to each player in the game, saying “whatever they wanted.” Their responses to the excluded victim were coded by independent raters for warmth, which served as one measure of prosocial behaviour. In addition, researchers surveyed how concerned participants were for the victim and how distressed they themselves felt after the game.
Participants then played a second Cyberball game with the players they’d just observed. How often the participant threw the ball to the previously excluded victim was considered a second measure of prosocial behaviour.
The findings showed that participants who had trained in mindfulness reported feeling more empathic concern for excluded players—meaning, they felt more tender, sympathetic, and compassionate toward them—but not more distress themselves, compared to simple attention training. They also expressed more warmth in their emails to victims and threw the ball more frequently to them, demonstrating that these feelings were tied to compassionate action. The results also held among a different group of people who didn’t receive any training, but reported on surveys that they were more mindful to begin with.
Berry was not surprised by these findings.
“From the philosophical and religious traditions from which mindfulness comes, it’s been long understood that practicing meditation, and cultivating mindfulness, in particular, can conduce to virtuous action,” he says.
So how did mindfulness impact prosocial action? When the mindfulness training induced higher levels of empathic concern in people, they helped the victims more—providing one potential explanation. Increased attention alone, on the other hand, didn’t seem to play a role. This means that mindfulness must be doing more than just increasing how much people notice that someone is suffering, Berry explains; it must be actually increasing their concern.
This means that mindfulness must be doing more than just increasing how much people notice that someone is suffering, Berry explains; it must be actually increasing their concern.
These findings fit well with Rosenberg’s views. While paying attention is the “gateway” to more caring behaviour—allowing you to notice that someone is suffering or that your actions are hurting someone—it’s not enough to elicit action. “You still have to have the motivation to care,” she says.
In additional experiments, Berry and his colleagues ruled out other potential explanations for the positive effects of mindfulness. For example, they compared mindfulness training to a progressive muscle relaxation training, and found the same results favouring mindfulness. They even tried measuring whether mindfulness meditation increased outrage toward the perpetrators in the game, rather than concern for victims. But these factors didn’t change the outcome: People who received mindfulness instruction still felt more empathic concern, and in turn acted more compassionately.
“I think there’s evidence to suggest that the default state of humans is to be focused on the self,” says Berry. “Perhaps what mindfulness does is temporarily break us from that self-focus so that we can be other-oriented.” Indeed, one recent study found that more mindful people are also less concerned with goals that protect their self-image, such as getting recognition from others or avoiding showing any weakness. They care more about compassion-oriented goals—like giving only constructive comments to others or avoiding doing any harm to others.
Of course, Berry’s study was done in a lab with college students, and we don’t know if these findings translate into the real world—or how long the caring feelings and behaviour will last after such a short mindfulness practice. But other research seems to point in the same direction.
In her own research, Rosenberg has found that when people practice meditation over a longer period and are then exposed to videos of people suffering, they not only have increased prosocial emotions like compassion, but they have lower “rejection emotions,” like disgust and contempt. This held true even when meditators witnessed someone suffering who was more difficult to find compassion for—like American soldiers bragging about killing Iraqis.
“It’s one thing to show compassion for the victims, it’s another level—really getting it—to show compassion for the perpetrators,” she says.
In a 2015 study, students who used a meditation app for three weeks were more likely to offer a chair to a distressed student entering a waiting room on crutches—even when other students didn’t offer help—than a group who had used a brain training app. Berry points to a study that found mindfulness can decrease aggressive behaviour, and to another finding that even short trainings in mindfulness can reduce implicit racial and age bias.
In recent review of research in the area, Christina Luberto and her colleagues found that mindfulness training indeed appears to make us kinder toward others. Analysing only studies that used randomised controlled experiments, they found that meditation training had significant effects on people’s self-reported feelings of compassion and empathy, and also on objective prosocial behaviours—such as increased giving in an economics game or helping another person in distress.
They found that meditation training had significant effects on people’s self-reported feelings of compassion and empathy, and also on objective prosocial behaviours—such as increased giving in an economics game or helping another person in distress.
One thing everyone seems to agree on: There is still much to be learned about the benefits of meditation, including what is most effective and for whom, especially when it comes to prosocial behaviour. And while studies like Rosenberg’s and Berry’s may have been carefully constructed, some researchers criticise meditation research in general—often with good reason—for being biased or poorly designed.
Many mindfulness studies are correlational rather than experimental, which means they are less helpful in nailing down mindfulness as the cause of any observed benefits. Also, many researchers insert their own bias into the design, sometimes employing a coauthor as the mindfulness instructor. Rosenberg worries about this as well: When you work with a charismatic teacher, she says, it’s less clear if the effects of the program are due to the tools being taught or something about the teacher that makes students more committed. Issues like these and others, delineated in another recent research review by Ute Kreplin and her colleagues, can lead to overly generous interpretations.
Another problem is that much of the early research on mindfulness—and even current research, including Kreplin’s and Luberto’s reviews—uses multi-component interventions, which can make it hard to tease out the effects of mindful attention alone. For example, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction often involves a mixture of focused breathing, loving-kindness meditation, yoga, and walking meditation within an eight-week program. The program’s excellent results are promising for people who want to take it, but how can we know that mindfulness itself accounts for its effectiveness?
Still, Rosenberg says, it’s important not to go too far down this path of trying to whittle down meditation into its smallest units. After all, mindfulness meditation came to us via a long tradition of contemplative practice, and all of the practices are ultimately used to increase our attention and our ability to control our reactions to experiences. The practices were probably meant to build on one another, not be performed in isolation.
“There are many scientists, and I’m beginning to be one of them, who think that it doesn’t make any sense ecologically to separate out the components of meditation, because they’re intimately linked.”
Berry’s study avoids many of the problems outlined in Kreplin’s review. His mindfulness intervention was solely focused on mindful attention and devoid of instructions in kindness or compassion; the prosocial outcomes were objectively measurable; the intervention was done by someone other than the researchers; and the study was experimental rather than correlational, including many controls. That bodes well for its significance, though Berry is still cautious, taking Kreplin’s meta-analysis seriously.
“At this stage, this area of study is just taking off,” he says. “Some of the findings from the meta-analysis may be based on only two or three studies. If anything, it points to the need for more research and more rigorous research.”
What to make of all of this? While more research does indeed need to be done, there appears to be increasing evidence that mindfulness meditation helps people be more prosocial.
And that’s good news. As mindfulness continues being promoted as a way to boost our personal well-being, it’s refreshing to know that it may just be helping us create a more compassionate society, too.
Human beings are experts at showing up for the demands of the world. We keep driving forward—for our boss, our parents, our partners, or even ourselves—trying to live up to what’s expected of us, as defined by those around us.
Until suddenly, one day, we break.
Experiencing a breakdown can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and even frightening, but it comes with an important message. In this video from School of Life, philosopher Alain de Botton explains how breakdowns provide you with an opportunity to learn what you really need from life.
Breakdowns can take many forms, ranging from the inability to get out of bed, to becoming depressed, developing social anxiety, or feeling compelled to do something completely scandalous, or even dangerous.
Whatever it may look like, breakdowns cause you to deviate from your regular routine. Often, people rush to fix the problems they face so that they can return to their daily responsibilities—but doing so can lead you right back into the routines that caused you to break down in the first place.
Often, people rush to fix the problems they face so that they can return to their daily responsibilities—but doing so can lead you right back into the routines that caused you to break down in the first place.
“A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it is a very real, albeit very inarticulate, bid for health,” de Botton says. “It is an attempt by one part of our minds to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding, and self-development, which it has hitherto refused to undertake.”
While medication is sometimes necessary to overcome mental health concerns that arise from a breakdown, such as anxiety and depression, it is also important for you to take a moment to reflect on what your body and mind are trying to say.
“What the breakdown is telling us, above everything else, is that it must no longer be business as usual; that things have to change,” de Botton explains.
Change is good for us—so why does it take a breakdown for you to realise you need to make adjustments to your lifestyle? Likely for the same reason you avoid going to the dentist: the conscious mind is reluctant to experience discomfort, De Botton explains.
“The reason we break down is that we have not, over years, flexed very much. There were things we needed to hear inside our minds that we deftly put to one side, there were messages we needed to heed, bits of emotional learning and communicating we didn’t do – and now, after being patient for so long, far too long, the emotional self is attempting to make itself heard in the only way it now knows how.”
De Botton compares a breakdown to a civil revolution: small things build until one day, it is simply too much to handle anymore. Often, your body’s legitimate needs cannot be addressed or discovered until it is too late, and you are already in crisis mode.
A breakdown can be inspired by many things: perhaps a need to slow down at work, to end a relationship, to make more time for your family, or to truly accept an aspect of yourself you’ve kept hidden, such as your sexuality.
“A crisis represents an appetite for growth that hasn’t found another way of expressing itself,” says de Bottom. Whatever the reason, the best way to become well and prevent it from happening again is to learn from it, and start to listen to what your body and mind is telling you.
“Our crisis, if we can get through it, is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo. And it represents an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis,” de Botton concludes.
An ice cream cone covered in small, round sprinkles, brightly-coloured hot air balloons floating through the air, a pristine blue swimming pool sparkling under the sunlight — if these images sparked a sense of delight in you, you’re not alone.
In this TED talk, Ingrid Fetell Lee, designer and author of Joyful: the Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, describes her 10-year journey to understand how an intangible concept like joy could manifest in the tangible, physical world.
The short answer? Joy can be found in the simple things you’ve most likely written off as being too old for.
Here are four takeaways from her talk:
Even scientists don’t always agree on what joy is, and often use the words joy, happiness, and positivity interchangeably.
“Broadly speaking, when psychologists use the word joy, what they mean is an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion — one that makes us smile and laugh and feel like we want to jump up and down,” Lee explains.
Joy differs from happiness. Where happiness is a measure of how good we feel over time, joy is about what makes us feel good in the present moment.
Joy differs from happiness. Where happiness is a measure of how good we feel over time, joy is about what makes us feel good in the present moment.
“As a culture, we are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, and yet in the process, we kind of overlook joy,” Lee says.
Once Lee began studying what brought people joy, she realised that the sources of this feeling cut across the lines of age, gender and ethnicity.
“I mean, if you think about it, we all stop and turn our heads to the sky when the multicoloured arc of a rainbow streaks across it. And fireworks — we don’t even need to know what they’re for, and we feel like we’re celebrating, too.”
She explains how having things that are joyful for nearly everyone speaks to the universal experience of human nature.
“Though we’re often told that these are just passing pleasures, in fact, they’re really important, because they remind us of the shared humanity we find in our common experience of the physical world,” she says.
Joy may be elusive, but it can be accessed through physical attributes like bright colours or fun patterns.
“I began spotting little moments of joy everywhere I went — a vintage yellow car or a clever piece of street art. It was like I had a pair of rose-colored glasses, and now that I knew what to look for, I was seeing it everywhere,” Lee says.
But if these fun patterns bring us joy, why does so much of our world — offices, schools, nursing homes, grocery stores — look so bland?
Lee argues that while we all appreciate whimsical designs when we’re young, we stop seeking them out in adulthood.
“Adults who exhibit genuine joy are often dismissed as childish or too feminine or unserious or self-indulgent, and so we hold ourselves back from joy,” Lee says.
While images that elicit joy may seem inconsequential, Lee explains that they add up to something greater.
She points to schools painted by Publicolor, whose administrators report that when their schools get a dose of bright colour they see attendance improve, graffiti disappear, and kids report feeling safer.
What’s more, research has found that people who work in more colourful offices are more alert, more confident, and friendlier than those working in drab spaces.
“Joy isn’t some superfluous extra,” Lee says. “It’s directly connected to our fundamental instinct for survival. On the most basic level, the drive toward joy is the drive toward life.”