Born to be kind

family treeMy religion is KindnessHH The Dalai Lama

You’ve probably heard of ‘The Selfish Gene’. Many have mistakenly taken this to mean than humans are naturally selfish.

That’s not what the term ‘selfish gene’ refers to. Selfish gene really refers to the process of evolution where genes are copied and passed onto the next generation.

Rather than being selfish, humans are actually born kind.

We have kindness genes. The most prominent of these is the gene for oxytocin, a little hormone associated with reproduction, breast feeding and social behaviour. It is also affectionately known as the love hormone, cuddle chemical, and even a molecule of kindness. The reasons for these more affectionate names is because oxytocin makes us love more, cuddle more, and it makes us kind. It is one of our oldest genes, at around 500 million years young.

What does this tell us? It tells us that the gene is highly important otherwise it will have phased out a long time ago. It causes mothers to love and care for their children, thus ensuring that they grow up and are able to reproduce themselves, thus carrying on the human species. It also causes us to help each other, to work together for a common good. The oxytocin gene truly is a kindness gene.

So rather than being selfish, kindness is genetically ‘wired’ in us. Our kind nature is deeply entrenched in us. It is ancient.

So what about selfishness and all of the unkind things we hear about and experience? These things don’t mean we’re not kind, only that life happens. How a person behaves is often a product of learning, or their circumstances or even their early background in life.

A person whose life is comfortable might find it easy to be kind to others partly because life is uncomplicated by stress. Someone else who is having a really difficult time might out of necessity be more focused on survival or just getting through the current phase of their life. At times they might make decisions based on their own immediate needs rather than those of someone else. Person 1 might be regarded as kind and person 2 more selfish. Yet given the same set of stress-less circumstances they will both most likely be kind.

The point is that deviations away from kind behaviour are not necessarily because of a selfish nature but because of circumstances. Although some people undoubtedly do have a more selfish nature.

It’s difficult to argue with that. But how much of this is their true nature and how much is a product of learning and experience? I don’t have the answer to that as each of us is unique. But undoubtedly there is a full spectrum of natural kindness.

Each gene comes in slightly different versions. If you imagine the oxytocin gene to be coloured pink then we’d find that it comes in many different shades of pink, from light pink all the way to a dark pink that is almost red. Some have the lighter shade, some the darker. If we think of the gene’s lightness of colour as generally associated with tendency to be kind, then we would find that some people are more naturally kind than others and therefore some people are more naturally selfish than others.

But the point is that we ALL have the oxytocin gene. There is no one alive who doesn’t have it. If a person didn’t have an oxytocin gene they wouldn’t be alive, which I suppose is quite an odd thing to say but I think you get my point. Oxytocin plays a crucial role not just in reproduction but throughout the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the digestive system, the process of making stem cells into muscle cells, heart cells, even skin cells. Without oxytocin, we quite simply would not be here. Now read this another way – without kindness, we quite simply would not be here.

The 1976 book, ‘The Selfish Gene’, written by Richard Dawkins wasn’t about humans being selfish. I think many have generally misunderstood its title. In some ways, the selfish gene has actually produced a kind species. Evolution has wired in us the tendency to be kind.

It is kindness, not conflict or exclusion, that is the answer to society’s problems. Where there is misunderstanding, we need empathy. Where there is hurt and suffering, we need compassion. Where the opportunities present themselves, we need to be kind. We are wired to solve our problems through empathy, understanding, dialogue, sharing, and finding common ground.

Kindness elevates the human spirit. Kindness opens the heart and mind and helps us see the same things in new ways. That’s it’s power.

If you’re ever in doubt about which way to turn, about what to do, about what choice to make, choose kindness. It is your nature, after all.

 

Further reading

You might like to read about the Born This Way Foundation, which is all about helping to create a kinder, more compassionate world. They have declared 2017 to be A Year of Kindness.

The Most Attractive Quality

David_Hamilton_Kindness_Meme_2aWe usually think of ‘attractive’ in the same sentence as physical appearance. But deep down, what we really find most attractive is kindness. Think about it.

A study of over 10,000 people found this. Quizzed about what they most wanted in a potential long-term mate, kindness was the No.1 choice. It came above good looks and good financial prospects in both males and females.

This might come as initially surprising to some people. That’s partly because we typically imagine what other people would pick – we assume that others would be considering our appearance. But when you really think about it yourself, most of us pick ‘a kind person’, ‘a kind heart’, or some other version of kindness.

Psychologist, John Gottman, is famous for being able to predict with over 90% success which couples will still be together years later, simply by studying how they interact with each other for a short time.

In some of his research, he identified what he called ‘bids’, like when one person invites their partner to “Come and see this!” Bids are basically bids for connection.

He then identified whether the partner would ‘turn towards’, where they would respond attentively to their partner’s ‘bid’ – an act of kindness – or ‘turn away’, where they basically showed little interest, perhaps by murmuring, ‘yes … nice’ then returning to the TV or looking at their phone, or even responding with contempt.

Examining 130 newlywed couples going about their day, he followed up on them 6 years later. He discovered that of those who ‘turned towards’ their partner, 87% of them were still together, but of those who typically ‘turned away’, only 33% of them were still together after this time.

Using these kinds of observations, you can appreciate why some psychologists can predict the likelihood of a relationship standing the test of time by simply watching couples interacting with one another for a short time. Kindness is a reliable indicator of relationship longevity.

Many other pieces of research show the same kind of overall phenomenon. Kindness is key in any kind of relationship, from our closest relationships, through friendships, with neighbours, and even with work colleagues.

It’s a no brainer, really. Do you prefer to hang out with people who show you kindness or contempt? It’s obvious … but I feel it’s important to remember this because it’s so easy to get caught up with the trials and tribulations of life, and even as the political landscape in the world shifts from time to time. Sometimes … we forget that kindness is so damn important.

It’s the fabric that holds society together. It holds relationships together.

Of course, love is the magic ingredient in an intimate relationship. But kindness is that love expressed in words and deed. Kindness is the thread of the fabric because there are so many little moments in any day where kindness can be shown, so many little stitches that can be made, some so small and seemingly insignificant, but so vitally important.

So I invite you to look out for bids and sew some stitches of kindness into the fabric of life where you can.

 

References

5 side effects jacket imageAll References can be found in ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness‘, David R Hamilton PhD.

Molecules of Kindness

5 side effects jacket imageNo act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Aesop

A molecule is a useful collection of atoms. I used to be an organic chemist so I made molecules every day. Even if you don’t know exactly what a molecule is, I’ll bet you’re familiar with many popular ones.

Serotonin is a molecule that’s associated with positive mood. Ascorbic acid is a molecule otherwise known as Vitamin C. There’s caffeine that you find in coffee, morphine that people receive for pain, threobromine in chocolate.  You may even have heard of lycopene that we get in tomatoes or allicin from garlic, which is responsible for its antibiotic effects. Sildenafil is a molecule more commonly known as Viagra.

We produce many molecules in the body through our behaviour. Stress, for example, produces cortisol. Cortisol can therefore be said to be a ‘molecule of stress’. Hunger produces grehlin, a molecule that readies the body for eating. Grehlin is known as the ‘hunger hormone’ (a hormone is another name for a particular type of molecule).

There are two ‘molecules of kindness’; that is, molecules that are produced in the body when we’re kind.

The first is oxytocin and the second is nitric oxide.

You may have heard of oxytocin. People call it the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’ because it’s readily produced in the body when we feel love or when we hug a person or an animal. We produce oxytocin basically any time we’re being genuinely kind.

And I say genuinely for a reason. This is because genuine kindness creates a warm feeling inside and it’s the warm feeling that produces the oxytocin. If it’s not genuine, there’s no oxytocin. It’s like nature’s catch-22. So, what do oxytocin and nitric oxide do?

Studies of cells from our arteries show that oxytocin basically protects the cells from oxidation (or oxidative stress, as scientists prefer to call it) and inflammation. Oxidative stress and inflammation play a big role in heart disease. When there’s not a lot of oxytocin around, there’s typically more oxidative stress and inflammation, but once oxytocin arrives in our arteries the levels come way down. Basically, oxytocin protects the heart. It’s known as a ‘cardio-protective’ molecule. Since we produce it when we’re kind, kindness can also be said to be cardio-protective.

I remember, as a child, a saying among some of the older people in our street was that ‘if you live from the heart, it’s good for the heart’. They were pretty much on the money with that!

Once oxytocin is in our arteries, which happens when we’re being kind, it causes nitric oxide to be produced. Nitric oxide is a bit of a miracle molecule – that’s according to Dr Louis Ignarro, who received the Nobel Prize for his work on it. Nitric oxide helps regulate blood pressure by altering the texture of our arterial walls. If blood pressure is high, nitric oxide makes the arteries softer and this causes them to widen (dilate) and blood pressure comes down. If blood pressure is low, on the other hand, then nitric oxide toughens up the arteries to increase the pressure.

Nitric oxide also helps circulation and plays a very important role in maintaining blood flow all around the body, including the brain. It also helps maintain an optimum balance of HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol. It may be a miracle molecule but an even greater miracle is that we produce it by being kind.

Thus, kindness is very good for the heart because it produces oxytocin and nitric oxide, two molecules of kindness, and they both act on the heart and arteries to keep them healthy.

References

5 side effects jacket imageReferences and more information can be found in my new book, (The 5 Side Effects of Kindness), which comes out on 7th Feb 2017. You can pre-order it here. Enter your Amazon, Waterstones or Barnes & Noble order number on the page to get free gifts from my publisher (including a 45-minute video of my talk at last year’s ‘I Can Do It’ conference).

The Science of High Performance in Sport

tennis player abstract

Whether you’re playing tennis, golf or even running the 100 metres, there are certain things you can do that can help you to achieve high performance.

Here’s 7 of the most important ones:

Practice

How good do you want to be? One of the most important things to know is that practice lays down neural pathways in the brain. Whether it’s a cross-court winner in tennis, an approach shot at golf or even the start in a 100 metres sprint, practice is key to laying down these pathways that make you improve at these movements.

Practice creates habits in the brain and therefore the muscles, which not only helps you improve but also means that your body will know what to do in those all-important moments when you only have a split second to think.

Mental practice

Almost every elite athlete does mental practice. Neuroscience research shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. In one piece of research, the brains of volunteers carrying out repetitive movements over 5 days were compared with volunteers imagining the same movements. Amazingly, the new brain pathways were identical in both groups.

So, to harness this fact, visualise yourself doing your sport, but see yourself doing everything just right. Due to the feedback between the brain and the muscles, this ensures that your muscles also learn to work in the way you’re imagining.

You can also use mental practice to play shots you find especially difficult, thus speeding up the learning on the court, green, or track. One important thing to keep in mind with mental practice is that you’re not just necessarily imagining the winning result, but the physical movements you’re doing in creating that result.

Repetition is key

The 3 rules of physical and mental practice are: Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!

High performance requires well defined neural pathways in the brain that connect with the muscles. The only way to build such neural pathways is repetition of the movements. And remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. Use mental practice as well as physical practice.

In one-to-one competitive sports, if someone repeatedly beats you with the same shot or manoeuvre, practice countering it repetitively – both on the field and in your mental practice. Repetition wires neural pathways and thus habits into the brain.

Doing it once or twice is unlikely to get your breakthrough, but doing it a few hundred times might make a real difference. Many people don’t get the breakthroughs they seek because they don’t realise how much repetition is required. It’s all about your mind and body learning what to do, and this occurs through repetitively laying down neural pathways in the brain.

Focus

Stay focused, especially at the higher levels of your sport. Loss of focus for even a moment can turn a game of tennis, leave you 2 or 3 shots to catch up in golf or mean the difference between a gold medal and fourth in a race. Focus is as much a key to building a habit of winning as is training your body.

A simple focus exercise when practicing is to give every shot your 100% attention. Keep your eye on the ball at all times. This is not just something you do in competition, but essential in practice so that mental focus becomes a habit.

Mindfulness practice also helps because it develops the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the front part of the brain, above your eyes, that controls concentration.

Relax

If a tennis ball is flying at you at over 200kph, tension will only slow your reaction time. Similarly, tension before an important golf shot will chop away some smoothness from the shot, introducing an error of a few to several metres. Tension in a race tightens muscles and slows speed of movement.

Practice being highly alert and focused, yet relaxed at the same time. Many people think these are things you do at different times – alert one moment and relaxed in another – but it is important that you learn to do them at the same time. Focused doesn’t mean grimacing and holding your eyes and muscles rigid.

Relaxing helps your trained neural pathways take over. If you’ve practiced enough then your wired habit should do the rest – i.e., your body knows what to do. A good tip is to practice conscious breaths several times a day in a variety of different conditions and contexts. It will help you stay relaxed, yet focused, regardless of what is happening around you.

Body language

How you hold and move your body affects your focus and how you feel. There’s what’s called a ‘bi-directional relationship’ between your brain and muscles. It’s why you smile when you’re happy and tense your muscles when you worry. People mostly think it just goes that one way – from the brain to the muscles – but it goes the other way too, from the muscles to the brain.

To harness this, practice holding and moving your body in a way that conveys self-belief and quiet confidence. Do it on the court, green or track, but also practice it all throughout the day as you go about your life. You’re looking to create a body language habit and wire it into the brain, and this requires repetition while you practice, compete, and throughout your daily life.

Will to win

A will to win can be that edge that makes the difference in the latter stages of any game, when one or two points or one or two centimetres make all the difference. A will to win helps maintain high focus but it also activates trained neural pathways that ensure that your body does what it needs to do to win.

Winning becomes a habit when you have a well-developed will to win.

 

About the author

david-headshotDr David Hamilton is author of 9 books, including ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, and ‘I Heart Me’. He is a former athletics coach and also a former scientist within the pharmaceutical industry. He left the latter to study the placebo effect and teach people how to harness the mind-body connection for health, wellness, and high performance in sport.

 

 

 

Placebo School logoCheck out my online course – Placebo School. It’s all about understanding and harnessing the mind-body connection.

Does a placebo work if you know it’s a placebo?

placebo boxThe answer to that question is Yes!

That’s according to new research led by Ted Kaptchuk, from the Program for Placebo Studies at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston.

It involved 97 patients who had chronic back pain. First, they were given a 15-minute explanation of the placebo effect and how it worked. Then they were randomised into two groups.

One group were asked to continue with their ‘treatment as usual’ while the other group were given a bottle labelled “Placebo Pills” and were instructed to take 2-a-day as well as their usual treatment.

Conventional logic would tell you that the placebos shouldn’t work. “Surely a placebo only works if you don’t know you’re getting it. That’s the whole point. It’s blind faith,” said someone at one of my talks on the mind-body connection. Here they were being told they would be taking placebos so there’s no blind faith. Yet the placebos worked, and not just a little bit.

Those who knowingly took their placebos reported significant reductions in maximum pain, minimum pain, and even their usual pain – 3 different assessments of pain severity that doctors use. They even reported a substantial drop in pain-related disability.

This is not to say that pain is a figment of the imagination. That is not true at all. Try saying that to someone who suffers from chronic pain. What actually happens is that the mind can produce its own natural pain killers and it is these natural ones that are responsible for the drop in pain.

This result is similar to a study of 80 IBS sufferers conducted by the same researchers. They were also given placebos but the key, again, was what they were told. They were told that the pills were:

“… made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”

Result? The placebos worked. After taking their placebos, they rated their symptoms as moderately improved compared with people who didn’t receive any placebos, who reported only a slight change.

How? In both these studies, the key was knowing that there is such a thing as a mind-body connection, that the mind exerts real, physical, measureable, effects on the brain and throughout the body.

The mind-body connection is obvious when you think about it. What happens to males when they imagine a sexual fantasy? It can be quite obvious, if you know what I mean. The mind actually produces a substance called nitric oxide in certain blood vessels, which causes an increase in blood flow there. In fact, Viagra works by stimulating an enzyme to make nitric oxide.

To offer a different example, when you think of something that worries or stresses you, you increase adrenalin in your body. Again, your mind alters your biology.

Ultimately, it was through the mind-body connection that the above studies worked. Once the patients had an explanation of how the placebo effect works – that the mind does affect the body – it planted the knowledge in their minds that their thinking and what they believe would impact their biology. Then the act of taking the placebo triggered the expectation that it could or would help.

Add to that the habitual action of taking a pill and popping it in your mouth, which activates the subconscious, conditioned, expectation of a result, and there you have it. A placebo can work even if you know it’s a placebo!

 

Check out my upcoming ‘Mind & Emotions Boost Event

How a child with Chickenpox stopped itching

teddy bearAs you know, I’m a big fan of visualisation.

As I’ve explained before, in many ways the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. As we imagine something, to the brain, what we imagine is actually happening.

In previous blogs I’ve shared scientific evidence of how people have altered physical strength through visualisation, how visualisation can help weight loss, lots on the power of placebos, as well as how visualisation is used to help people heal from illness.

During a workshop I taught last weekend on this subject, a woman shared an amazing technique that her little 3-year-old daughter used to avoid scratching her face when she had chickenpox. It is such an amazing strategy that I just had to share it with you.

Her child’s face was so itchy, the woman told me. Having learned about visualisation from my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, she explained, she was suddenly struck with an idea.

She asked her daughter to go find a teddy bear whose face tickled as much as hers. When the little girl returned with a teddy, her mother told her that she should scratch teddy every time her face became itchy and that it would help stop her own itch.

And that’s exactly what she did.

Amazingly, the itch faded on her own face and she didn’t scratch her face once.

It reminds me of how mirror boxes can be used to help people who have lost a limb to deal with phantom limb pain and itches. Say the person had lost their right arm. A mirror box can be placed on the table and the person would lay their left hand down. The mirror then shows a reflection that looks like the person has both a left and right arm.

And that’s what the brain processes. The mirror box tricks the brain into acting as if the person does have a right arm, enabling them to then scratch it. In other words, scratching the left hand, now reflected in the mirror as a right hand, can relieve a phantom itch in the right.

These kinds of techniques work because when you focus on any area of the body, the corresponding region of the brain is activated. Focus on a finger, for example, and the finger region of the brain is activated.

It’s likely, given the teddy-chickenpox example, that even a representation of a body part can have the same effect. In other words, something that we decide represents a part of the body might activate the brain in the same way.

This is how what I call ‘symbolic visualisations’ work. A gentleman who had suffered terrible depression once shared his symbolic visualisation with me. He said he felt broken, so he symbolised his broken feeling as broken shards of a mirror.

In his mind’s eye, he then gathered up the shards, heated them in a cauldron to melt them, and then poured them into a new mould. In effect, he took his brokenness and made himself whole again.

A month or so of daily visualisation like this was a huge tonic for him and brought him out of depression.

He represented the mirror as his feelings, just as the little girl represented the teddy’s face as her own face.

How to use visualisation to boost your self-love

happy-and-confident_smallLots of people use visualisation. The most popular way is to visualise what you want. Some people picture their ideal house, their ideal car, or a perfect partner who ticks all the boxes, for instance.

The idea with this kind of visualisation is to picture what you want, the end result. It’s also useful to picture yourself in the visualisation; living in the house, driving the car, or with the perfect partner.

There’s a different kind of visualisation you can do for self-love, though. It’s centred on the fact that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

Why is that important?

Before I get into that, I’d first like to say what I mean by self-love. You can think ‘self-esteem’ instead of self-love if you prefer that term. The main reason I use the term self-love rather than self-esteem is that many people get their self-esteem from external sources, from their seeming successes in life and from other people’s positive opinions of them. But it’s not a stable self-esteem because failure, or a change in people’s opinions, give it a serious shake.

I think of self-love, on the other hand, as an inner sense of worthiness and value. It’s more of an inner self-esteem. It’s mostly independent of successes, achievements and external perceptions of you. It is stable, because if seeming failure occurs or opinions seem to change, the inner perception of yourself is untouched.

OK, so let’s get back to why it’s important that your muscles are in constant communication with your brain.

When you’re lacking in self-love, it comes across in your body language and in your facial expressions. Not all the time, of course, but especially when you’re challenged. This happens because your muscles are connected to your brain. It’s the same reason that your muscles and face tense when you feel stressed, or that your body feels light and floppy when you’re in love, and that you smile when you’re happy. In real ways, you wear your feelings on your body.

But it goes the other way too. Just as your body responds to how you feel, you can use your body to create how you want to feel. Making adjustment to how you sit, stand, how you move, and to your facial muscles, quickly impacts your feelings. A consistent practice of adjusting how you hold and move your body, so that it says, “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something else along those lines, can impact your self-love by literally creating the wiring of self-love in the brain.

More than this, though, is that your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. When you imagine moving your muscles, your brain processes it as if you actually are moving your muscles. Elite athletes and rehabilitation specialists use this fact all the time.

When you imagine holding and moving your body in way that says you have self-love, your brain processes it as if you do have self-love. The key difference between this and ‘classical’ visualisation (of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of this blog), is that you don’t put all your focus on an end result. Instead, you visualise the posture and movement of your body.

As you do this consistently, your brain wires in the habit of holding and moving your body in that way. As this happens, you start to feel the feelings that go with this new body posture and these new ways of moving. With enough consistent practice, the feelings of “I love myself,” or “I am enough,” or something along these lines, becomes habit too.

So to get started, simply notice right now how you’re holding your body. Is your body tense or relaxed? Is your spine straight or slumped? How about your facial muscles? Are you smiling or frowning? Is your brow relaxed or furrowed? Then make some shifts.

Do this as often as you can remember to.

Watch what happens!

 

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How to deflect negative emotion

faces of different women's emotionsHave you ever felt totally drained after spending time with certain people, whether at work or even in your personal life?

I think we’ve all had those times… when we feel we’re literally soaking up the negative emotions of certain people around us.

It’s called Emotional Contagion. Just as you can catch a cold by hanging out with someone who has one, so you can actually catch emotion too.

In the brain, we have an interconnected network of cells known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS for short). It causes us to mirror the facial expressions, body movements, and gestures of others as they express their emotions. In the presence of someone expressing negative emotion, then, your MNS mirrors the movements of their facial muscles that are conveying those emotions.

The trouble is, your MNS stimulates your facial muscles in the same way as theirs (thus, ‘Mirror’), hence you frown when they frown, tense when they tense, even without realising it. This also causes you to mirror much of their emotional brain chemistry too (see graphic at end of blog). As a result, even though you tend not to notice, your facial muscles move like theirs and you swiftly begin to feel how they feel.

But herein lies the secret to deflecting unwanted emotion. The primary gateway for catching emotion is the face. That’s because we’ve evolved over hundreds of millions of years to look at a person’s face to understand them. So the key to deflecting negative emotion is to prevent the mirroring from taking place.

The trick is to interrupt the natural process of unconscious mirroring. It’s a simple 3-step process. Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Awareness.

The key is to simply notice that you’re catching negative emotion through emotional contagion. Only with awareness of what’s happening can you stop it.

Step 2: Move your facial muscles differently.

The MNS causes you to mirror their facial muscle movements, so simply do something else with your face. It helps to actually stretch your facial muscles, but of course that’s not always an option, especially if you’re at a meeting at work. But simply massaging the corrugator supercilli muscle (the one between your eyes) helps, as well as the orbicularis oculi (the one at the side of your eyes). Stretching your mouth wide open helps too. It’s all about interrupting the flow of negative emotional data from the facial muscles to the brain and sending different data to the brain instead.

Step 3: Adjust your posture.

Sit or stand up straight, straighten your back, and breathe comfortably from your diaphragm. This lets your brain know that you’re confident and in control. Your brain will adjust your biology to reflect this.

Step 4: Patience.

So long as you’re doing this, negative emotion will gradually be replaced with positive emotion. It can take a few minutes sometimes so just keep your attention on your face, your posture, and your breathing in the meantime.

Of course, we don’t just catch ‘t negative emotion. Emotional contagion works with positive emotion in the exact same way. It’s why you tend to feel good around people who are happy.

The graphic below, in fact, shows how emotional contagion works for catching happiness.

Oh, and just before I finish this blog, you don’t just catch emotion from others, you transmit emotion too. Other people catch what you’re feeling. So if you want to help some others to be happier, one of the best ways is therefore to work on your own happiness.

Then they will catch it from you. 🙂

How to slow ageing

happy elderly ladies playing with a ball

My friend Skip told me recently that he met a 98-year-old man in Bali who challenged him to a race to climb a tree. Skip is a very physically healthy and fit person – an ex-British champion gymnast – yet the 98-year-old nearly matched him.

I spent 6 months of last year nearly full-time renovating our new home. I clearly remember my first building job. My Dad and I had to remove the floorboards in one room, then get rid of all the large rocks underneath (typical in a very old cottage), so that a new floor could be laid.

Lifting the floorboards and removing the joists wasn’t so hard. We did that in less than an hour. It was lifting the heavy rocks for disposal that was the hard bit. When I woke up the following morning, I could barely get out of bed. Muscles I didn’t even know existed were hurting. Walking to the shower, and then downstairs for breakfast, was painful.

I phoned my Dad to see how he was, worried. He is 73-years-old, after all.

“Fine, Son!” was his reply when I phoned him, in an astonishingly (to me) upbeat voice.

He didn’t hurt at all. How could that be? I’m in my mid-forties and no stranger to exercise. I regularly work out. Dad was completely fine. I felt … wrecked … I think that was the word I used that morning.

These kinds of examples of older people demonstrating physical fitness that we only expect in people much younger remind me of how much attitude plays a role in ageing.

For a start, there is no standard rate of ageing. Yes, we have biology. Yes, we have genetics that predispose the human body to an approximate lifespan. But how that biology and those genetics work has a lot to do with attitude.

Back in the 80s, Harvard professor, Ellen Langer, ran a study of a group of senior citizens, some of whom were struggling with arthritis, who were asked to pretend they were 20 years younger. They arrived at the residential centre, where they would live for the next week, and immediately felt transported back in time. Langer ensured that the house was decorated like the 1950s, that daily newspapers each day were from 1959, that the radio played ‘live’ from 1959. Even the TV ran 1959 shows.

They were also asked to converse with each other like it was 20 years ago, discussing their family as if they were all younger. In other words, they were to completely immerse themselves in the mindset that they were 20 years younger. Importantly, they were also encouraged to do things for themselves – carry their own bags, walk up the stairs, etc, without Langer’s team treating them like they weren’t capable.

Astonishingly, when their physiological readings before and after beginning the study were taken – physical strength, eyesight, hearing, gait, manual dexterity, taste sensitivity, memory, mental cognition – they had grown younger. Interestingly, four independent volunteers were asked to look at ‘Before’ and ‘After’ photographs and stated that they believed the ‘After’ photos were two years younger.

In her book, ‘Counterclockwise’, Langer wrote that on the last day at the centre, men, “who had seemed so frail… ended up playing an impromptu touch football game on the front lawn.” 1 week!! This was after just 1 week of holding a younger attitude.

We have two ages. There’s our chronological age, which is the number of years we’ve lived, which of course only goes in one direction. Then we have our physiological age, which is the age of the body, and that depends to a large extent on diet, exercise … and attitude. It can go backwards.

The food we eat, the exercise we take, our attitude to life, ageing, other people, all make a difference to our physiological age. A poor diet, lifestyle and attitude generally takes its toll on the body, prematurely ageing it. A healthy set, on the other hand, keeps the body younger.

One study of 999 Dutch people aged between 65 and 85 quizzed them on their attitudes to ageing. They were asked whether they agreed or disagreed to statements of the sort, “I often feel that life is full of promises,” “I still have positive expectations about my future,” “There are many moments of happiness in my life.” Those whose responses showed them to have higher levels of optimism had a 77% lower risk of death from heart disease and 45% lower risk of death from any cause.

A similar study, conducted at Yale University, asked 660 people for their responses to questions like, “As you get older, you are less useful. Agree or Disagree?’ Those whose responses showed the most positive attitude to ageing lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with the least positive attitude.

The study also concluded that attitude was more influential than blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, body weight and even exercise levels in how long a person lived.

Attitudes to other people and social contact make a big difference too. People with a poor attitude to others typically don’t make friends as well and neither do they have a broad social network. People who tend to be aggressive, hostile, or even bullies towards others are more prone to cardiovascular disease. People who are more understanding of others, are kind and compassionate, on the other hands, tend to make friends more easily and tend to have better quality relationships. They also tend to have more social contact.

And social contact is highly important. It turns out that social contact is one of the most important factors, in fact, in living to 100. Social contact, as well as helping keep stress down by providing friendships where we can discuss our worries and challenges, also helps produce oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps maintain the health of the cardiovascular system.

The bottom line in research of all of the above types is that attitude affects ageing and it does it by affecting, not just our minds, but our biology and physiology.

One of the key attitudes to adopt is to actually act younger. It’s easy to surrender to what we think we should be doing, or be able to do, given our age. But outside of a bit of common sense regarding our physical state, most people are capable of more than they believe they should be.

A person who is 80 and who believes that the body is mostly worn out at 80, that no improvement is possible in their physical condition regardless of what they do, that their memory, eyesight, physical strength, etc, are set for decline, will live according to this belief, and it will influence what they actually do, how much they move, how they speak, and how their body responds to life.

Let’s say another person has grown up with the belief that humans live until they are 150 years old and that 80 is ‘middle age’. Such a person would likely find that their attitude and the lifestyle, exercise and movement they adopt, would lead to improvements in their physical condition.

Attitude counts! The same holds true when we’re 30, 40, 50, 60, 70… I think you get my drift. If we have a negative preconceived idea of limitations of age, then we tend to live according to these limitations, whatever age we currently are, and don’t stretch our minds and bodies in the way that they are able to be stretched. As such, we age according to our mindset.

Enough said! I’m off to play on the swings. 🙂

The power of a hug

hug illustrationA hug is wonderful when you feel sad, stressed, tired and even when you feel good.

I love what the Free Hugs people do when they stand in a city centre holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign. Their hugs produce human connection, vulnerability, smiles, laughter, positive emotion, and even sometimes tears, especially if it’s the first hug a person who has been suffering has experienced in a long while.

Hugs are also good for the heart. They increase our levels of the hormone ‘oxytocin’, which as well as being known for its role in trust, childbirth, and breastfeeding, is also a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This basically means it helps protect the cardiovascular system.

From what? You might ask. From the negative side-effects of poor dietary and lifestyle choices and also from mental and emotional stress.

Oxytocin works by producing nitric oxide in our arteries, which then widens (dilates) our arteries. Nitric oxide helps our arteries stay flexible and also helps reduce blood pressure.

So, ultimately, hugs are cardioprotective too. And I’d say so for more than simply their oxytocin-and-therefore-nitric-oxide-inducing power, but because they make us feel relaxed, cared for, even loved. Hugs are medicine for the soul.

I remember crying in front of my mum and dad when I found out our beloved dog, Oscar, had osteosarcoma and was unlikely to live beyond a few months. Mum hugged me and I melted, collapsed in her arms. I felt like a child again, being loved by and tended to by my mum.

I think we have that memory of being tended to by our parents as children, where we were upset or in pain and we knew that ‘everything is going to be OK’, ‘the pain will go soon’, or ‘it’s OK, Mum (or Dad) will fix it’. It’s a memory held deep in the unconscious but whose emotions are released in our adult lives when we receive a hug.

So hugs are medicine for the heart and they are medicine for the soul. If we could bottle hugs, we would take our daily dose without question.

Here’s the thing, you can have a daily dose. You don’t need to wait to be hugged. You can hug others.

As a typical Scottish male (OK, I’m not really able to speak for my entire nation but I’ll make a generalisation based on my 45-year-old observations), hugging didn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I felt like a sissy if someone hugged me. I’d do the whole, awkward, chest-held-back-not sure-about-touching thing, followed by a little pat on the back, secretly hoping that the hug would end soon.

But I learned to enjoy hugs. I think it happened when I was in my late 20’s and Mum (again to the rescue) looked after me for a week while I suffered a bout of depression. It was the first time in my adult life I opened up to someone. I think something shifted in me then, a willingness to open up to others that I’d not showed before. I then became an initiator of hugs.

Even in the bar on a Thursday night after work (that was our standard weekly visit), I’d say goodbye to my friends at the end of the night with a hug. At first, some of them were a little awkward but soon got the hang of it too. It came natural to some others. But within a month or two, a hug was the standard goodbye for us after a few drinks in the bar.

So I’d add that hugs are also contagious. As we hug others, we share a connection. It opens us a little. It feels good. And that makes it contagious.

So given the medicine that hugs carry, that they are free, and contagious (in a good way), it might be a good idea to see if you can add a few more hugs to your day.

You’d be doing yourself a favour, but each time you hug you also deliver a gentle dose of medicine to the heart and soul of another person too.

And that is the power of a hug.