DLW is an occasional blog about how people spend the time of their lives (every moment) to enable health, balance, meaning and fulfillment. As a blogspot about doing, it draws from personal stories and from studies of everyday living. It's main idea is that to be well, people must be involved fully in what they do. The activities that occupy our days help to connect us to the world, define who we are, and keep us healthy.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Zigs, Zags and Doing

Today's post is a bittersweet testimonial to the power of doing. Cartoonist Tom Wilson, who continues his father's work in evolving the character Ziggy, has written a poignant book called Zig Zagging, in which he describes the bittersweet experiences of his life so far and how his work has helped him transcend life's difficulties. Mr. Wilson has experienced more than the usual burden of challenges, and his book gives us a glimpse into how he coped. One of the take away messages I could not escape was how important his work was to this process.

In the 1981 movie called "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?", Richard Dreyfuss, who plays a paralyzed sculptor (Ken Harrison) who is deprived of his work after a tragic car crash. In a dramatic scene that portrays a dialogue between Harrison and another character trying to offer hope by telling him he can learn to do other things, Harrison's response is that it is the work that matters. His reply reflects the meaning he attached to doing his art and his realization that this could not be simply replaced simply by substituting other work in its place.

There is immense power in what we do, and that power results not from the outcome, but from the process. Perhaps this is a more focussed corollary to the admonition that life is a journey and not a destination.

What do you get from your work?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

More Thoughts on Attention, Gratitude, and Happiness

Recent posts have concerned the importance of truly attending to what we are doing, appreciating its beauty and benefit, and recognizing how fortunate we are to be experiencing each moment. We acknowledged that doing this is not easy for many people, because our minds are constantly bombarded with stimuli, we have too much to do, and the preoccupation of what has or will happen creates a detour for what is happening right now.

How many of us have done a routine, such as dressing, or even driving to work, and finding that we are unable to recall any of the actual details of going through that routine? It's as though our minds were on automatic pilot. We were concerned about the budget, the important upcoming meeting, or the argument we had with our boss. How many people, during those lulls of inattention, forget to notice the dog crossing the street, or the stop sign? Sadly, this occurs on occasion with life altering and tragic consequences.

Yet, those outcomes, as rare,dramatic, and often tragic as they are; are arguably no more problematic than a life gone by and missed through inattention. It is sometimes said that we never fully appreciate what we have, until we lose it. Part of the reason for this, it seems, is that we are not fully experiencing and appreciating what we have. We too soon accommodate to comfort, and in doing so we focus on what we imagine might be missing to make the moment more complete.

A friend shared a humorous clip recorded from the Conan late night show. Although the humorist shown in the clip pokes fun at how blasé we have become in the face of 21st Century hyperchange, he makes an important point about appreciation and gratitude. You can see the clip here.

If we define each moment as the perfect experience that it is, concerns seem to evaporate. This is a principle of Taoism; namely, if we accept what comes to us and experience it without comparing it to another condition or state, we are not evaluative, we simply are, in our all too short, wonderful state of being. By doing so, we create the conditions for happiness at all times.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Importance of Being Where You Are

In several previous posts I have discussed how settings or places influence what we do and how we feel. In one post, I invited readers to share some of their own habits and routines that help them enhance their comfort, well-being or happiness. People create living environments that please them, they decorate with art, with colors and fabrics and even views that are interesting, satisfying or pleasant. So it was not surprising to me that many of the comments related to creating quiet places or adding pleasant scents or music. Some people describe how they surround themselves with sounds and objects, while others preferred quiet, simplicity and solitude. Some people described how they change their locations or conditions to suit their moods and what they are trying to do at the moment.

Thinking about this brought to mind several thoughts. James Taylor, one of my favorite musicians, once wrote a song called "Secret O' Life." The lyrics began with the lines: "The Secret of Life is Enjoying the Passage of Time...any fool can do it, there ain't nothing to it", with the implication being that each person has the power to create their own happiness through what they choose to do, where they are, and who they are with. Of course, how we think about our experiences is also important.

The wonderful book written in 1993 by Jon Kabat-Zinn titled "Wherever You Go, There You Are" emphasizes the important message of mindfulness meditation, or being attentive in the moment as a way of reducing stress, improving enjoyment and contributing to everyday well-being. When we pay attention to creating the world we want by making our surroundings comfortable, it makes sense that we can more fully enjoy them if we are "in the moment" and enjoying every second. We can define each moment as a present and experience it as the term is also defined, as a gift. Life is amazingly short, so dwelling on what is not is squandering opportunity that is lost forever. Another writer, Eckhart Tolle, writes on the same theme in his "The Power of Now." Tolle discusses the habits of mindless thought that get in the way of attention and mindfulness. His message was that being in the moment takes practice to rid ourselves of habits of thought developed over years. Tolle, too, talked about how environment can support such practice. So, we come full circle to James Taylor. When it comes to being where we are fully, any fool can do it, but it takes practice and will to make it happen.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Looking Out for Our Neighbors- Ayn Rand Revisited

The blogosphere has been buzzing lately with commentary about Atlas Shrugged, the novel written by author Ayn Rand in 1957. Considered one of the most popular US novels during the second half of the twentieth century, Atlas Shrugged tells the tale of a revolt by innovators and others in society whose ideas and work efforts create wealth and opportunity. The books lays out a philosophy that has come to be known as Objectivism, and advocates free market capitalism, objective reality, and enlightened self-interest.

Opponents of the economic stimulus plan, particularly far right conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, and others, frequently cite Atlas Shrugged as a type of manifesto that justifies their position that people who have lost jobs or are losing their homes should not be helped by the government because this is contrary to free market individualism. Typically, their argument holds that people (which is usually code for themselves) should not be asked to contribute tax dollars toward efforts that are seen as contrary to free market philosophy. Objectivism's emphasis on an individual's right to pursue happiness and self interest without feeling an obligation toward others is central to the current misguided argument used by anti-stimulus adversaries who cite Rand.

So what does this have to do with doing life well? An oft-cited viewpoint expressed in previous posts on this blogsite is that because we are group-living animals, we are interdependent creatures. We each depend on others, and our species requires altruism and cooperation for its survival. Objectivism rejects unbridled altruism, and its principles have been misrepresented by Limbaugh and others as justifying the kind of selfish "look out for yourself only" type of attitude that led to the unprecedented transfer of wealth over the past decade to the wealthiest one percent of the population. Social Darwinism, which is the kind of winner-take-all mentality that characterizes some viewpoints, misses two points. First, it presumes that by accumulating enough wealth, people don't really have to worry about the greater environment because they can enjoy their riches in protected isolation.

They are so wrong about this. Everything that we know about happiness and the enjoyment of life involves sharing experiences with others. Studies consistently show that we need others for our happiness. But more importantly, advocates who use Rand's book as a justification for their selfish philosophy didn't read the book closely enough. Rand does not advocate the kind of selfishness that some use to as justification to deny unemployment checks to people who are out of work for reasons unrelated to their performance. Rather, she advocates reasoned, rational and enlightened self-interest, which is different than the hedonistic, pleasure seeking, "I refuse to share my rice bowl with others" self-interest that typifies so much of the superficial Rand-citing that is moving across the conservative blogosphere these days. In the interest of creating the kind of world we can all share, whether rich or not rich, it is important to set the record straight. Ayn Rand never justified selfishness in the hedonistic sense that anti-stimulus adversaries are now contending. The Irish proverb is worth citing again: "the people live in the shelter of each other."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The incredible subway violinist story

On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell, one of the world's top violinists, strolled into the L' Enfant plaza metro station in Washington, DC, pulled out his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and began playing. Joshua had, evenings before, played before a sold out crowd in Boston where people gladly paid $100 per ticket to hear him perform. But, on this morning, during rush hour, Bell was playing in this metro station for free.

During his 45 minute concert, nearly 1100 people passed by, and 27 paused to put money into his violin case ($32 and change was collected in all). Only seven actually stopped to listen, despite his world class performance of six extremely well performed classical violin solos.

This event was an experiment sponsored by the Washington Post. The Post was confirming what psychologists (particularly those interested in ecological or environmental influences on behavior) already knew. People's perceptions are greatly influenced by situational or contextual variables. We are apt to expect to hear a great concert in a concert hall, but not in a subway station.

You can see (and hear) a filmclip of Joshua playing his free performance here.

What lessons should we take away from this event, now over two years passed? Well, for one thing, there is the lesson that if we are attentive and in the moment, we are more likely to recognize what is taking place in our lives and to thus benefit from the beauty when it is there. Beyond this, it seems likely that another lesson is that good wine can be sipped and enjoyed from a paper cup, just as poor wine can be found masquerading in elegant crystal wineglasses.

Deception preys on assumption, but truth exists independent of its surroundings. Life is all around us to enjoy. Next time you pass by a performing musician working to supply the air with beauty, take a moment to enjoy them, feed their empty case, and thank them for making the world a more beautiful experience. Everyone will feel better as a result.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Longevity and Quality of Life

Most of us are interested in living a long life. I recently came across a book called Blue Zones, which described studies, partially sponsored by the National Geographic Society,  involving various locations on earth where the inhabitants seem to have unusually high longevity. In examining the lifestyle factors in these regions, Dan Buettner and his associates came up with some factors that they believe contribute to longevity. These include strong social networks, diets with fruits and vegetables, active lifestyles, and a positive view of aging. The implication is that the people in these regions have a high quality of life. Little is said directly, however, about their levels of happiness.  Can we assume that the scientists posit that happiness and longevity are related? That is, do happy people live longer?

The answer, it seems, is yes, but only if you are healthy. This finding is based on a review in the Journal of Happiness Studies by Ruut Veenhoven. Veenhoven, a scientist at Erasmus University in the Netherlands,  found in his review that happiness in healthy populations added to longevity in a manner similar to being a non-smoker. In populations that have chronic diseases, being happy does not seem to add measurably to life expectancy.

Studies of healthy aging in the United States have focused less on longevity and more on factors that seem to ward off chronic illness. Carol Ryff, PhD, a leading researcher in this area, has shown that various personal factors, including autonomy (our degree of choice and control over our lives), environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life and self acceptance are important for successful aging and resilience. Dr. Ryff  is among a growing number of researchers who are making the case for neuropsychoimmunology,  the science that demonstrates that how we feel influences our immune system (as previous blog posts have outlined). Clearly, it is not difficult to imagine that what we do, and how we feel about what we do, relates to the factors that Dr. Ryff has identified in her research.

So, what is the take away from this post? Do we know what factors that lead to longer lives also lead to happiness? The answer is an equivocal yes, but is based on comparing findings of different studies rather than looking at the question from a single study. Perhaps the MIDUS II (Midlife in the United States) studies now going on under Dr. Ryff's direction will address this issue.

In this blogger's opinion, the question of longevity must always be asked in the context of life quality. The issue for us all, it seems, is not just how long we live, but how well we live. 

About Me

I am a writer, lifelong student, former academic and new blogger. My passion continues to be everyday living. I am interested in what people do, how, when and why they do it, and what it means for their their understanding of the world and hence, their well being.