A luxury problem

“That which annoys us does not necessarily injure us; but we are driven into wild rage by our luxurious lives, so that whatever does not answer our whims arouses our anger” – Seneca

A luxurious life with a little rage

I wanted to start with this quote to bring up a feeling many of us have experienced: overreacting. Whether our travel is delayed, our food order is wrong, or we feel wronged, it’s not uncommon to overreact. My favorite way to overreact is to swear out loud at any number of minor indiscretions; stubbing my toe, not being able to merge easily, not being finished on time, all these produce a predictable chain of swear words that flow out of me as naturally as water down a mountain stream. When I reflect on my own reaction, I’ve tried to justify that it has utility; it helps me feel a little better by releasing some pent up steam. Unfortunately, that’s only a cover story, reacting too much just makes me more likely to overreact to the next event, and my extra vigilance only hinders me from focusing on my task at hand.

The problem, we live in a time where our immediate surroundings provide everything that is necessary for our survival. Seneca is right; our luxurious lives put us in a position of feeling vexed for being made even slightly discomforted.  It used to be worse for me, it has gotten better, and I’d like to share with you how I’ve trained to be less reactive.

Time to implement change

There are two ways you can go about becoming less reactive, the first is learning to prolong your reaction. Basically, you give yourself time to find what the proper reaction should be before you let any emotion take hold in an automatic sense. My favorite technique to do this comes from a concept called “principle negotiation” developed by Roger Fischer and William Ury. In William Ury’s book “Getting Past No”, Ury describes a method to not react to what your partner is saying by “going to the balcony”. This means to imagine the situation as though you are viewing it from above; a balcony overlooking the situation. I like this visualization, it provides the distancing from a given situation, but keeps the vantage point local to the whole of the situation.

umit-bulut-143016--286x300 A luxury problemThe second technique is something we have discussed already: gratitude. It has been shown that people who have high levels of gratitude, have a higher capacity for patience. In experiments looking at how gratitude effects temporal discounting, i.e. prolonging a satisfying experience into the future, individuals with higher levels of gratitude showed more patience when being able to delay an incentive. Gratitude can help you up to the balcony.

How can we implement this in our everyday lives? First, wait until the next time you overreact (or you may be able to draw on a very recent event). After the fact, consider the value of your overreaction. I’ve literally written “overreaction”, but was your reaction nevertheless well-measured? Did it make you feel better or did it put you in a state that made you feel on edge,  annoyed, and ready to continue reacting in a short fused manner? Replay the event as though you first went to the balcony, view the situation from above, and see if you would have reacted differently given time and perspective. Ideally, next time try to first take this distanced perspective, but don’t be discouraged if you find this difficult. We are beings preset to react automatically, it’s useful, but not easy to gain a distanced perspective from our own actions and reactions.

Moving on to gratitude, how can we use this? A study of college students seeking mental health services at a university offers us some guidance. In this study participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. All three groups received counseling services, but the first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks, whereas the second group was asked to write a letter depicting their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group was the control group, and didn’t have to do any writing activity. I should note that the students were almost all coming for complaints of depression or anxiety. The results of this study showed that those who did in fact write a letter of gratitude reported significantly better mental health at 4-weeks and 12-weeks, compared with the other two groups. Before you cast this result aside – perhaps you are not a college student seeking mental services at a university health care, consider a few more points of the analysis of this study.

First, this increased mental health recovery happened whether this letter was sent to someone or not. Even if you do not successfully communicate your gratitude to someone, you experience a mental health benefit. Next, the most important aspect of these gratitude letters was a lack of negative emotional words expressed (it doesn’t always benefit us to expel negativity, in fact it could simply propagate more negativity). The most lasting effects came from those who expressed positive emotion words and “we” language, as opposed to “I” language. Still, the most important aspect for effective gratitude seemed to be removing negativity words altogether (focus on the positive). Lastly, this gratitude effect was not immediate; it started around 3 weeks into the exercise. Even though we want an effect now, planting the seeds to a better mental state can take time, don’t get discouraged if you don’t feel better the next day, give gratitude time and give it space to make a difference.

To go back to Seneca’s quote about raging even though we have a luxurious life. At times, it can seem like we have just about everything, but what’s missing or not delivered to us, arouses that inner rage. It happens, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take action against it ourselves. Take a moment to reflect on something that has already happened, if you can, go to the balcony and prolong the time you take to react. Practice gratitude, literally focus on positive and avoid the negative. Why not write a letter? You don’t even have to send it, you still benefit from the exercise of putting your positive words to paper. How about trying a one month gratitude letter writing challenge? I gotta tell you, I feel better for sharing this with you, so spread the message and get a piece of this gratitude for yourself!
umit-bulut-143016--286x300 A luxury problem

Literature:

Ury, W. (1992). Getting past no: Negotiating with difficult people. Random House.

Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202.

Dickens, L., & DeSteno, D. (2016). The grateful are patient: Heightened daily gratitude is associated with attenuated temporal discounting. Emotion, 16(4), 421.

 

Cover photo by Diego Geraldi on Unsplash

In-text photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

 

© Andrew Wold & Rebecca Böhme, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Connectedness to nature

 

The feeling of being emotionally close to others, close to nature and our direct environment is becoming less natural in the digital age. While it is easy to stay in contact with people, even when they are far away, we do not feel close and connected. It becomes rarer and harder to develop connectedness to our direct environment. While twenty years ago it was natural to talk to your neighbors regularly, exchange missing food items and help, nowadays we often do not even know them anymore.

With the increasing presence of our digital devices, we distance ourselves more and more from the present moment, from the direct experience of what is around us. While we undeniably gain a lot through these new technologies, we might be at risk for losing those little moments of doing nothing. Those are the moments, when we can actually feel connected to our environment – be it nature, another human being, an animal or simply the street we live in.

While we are doing nothing, while we are experiencing boredom, we actually open our attention up to what is happing in our direct surroundings: we watch people passing by on the street, we listen to the birds sing, we smell the fresh coffee on our neighbors table in the café. And we might start a conversation with him or her on how delicious coffee is.

In “The evolution of happiness” David M. Buss writes

“Appreciating the beauty of a blossom, the loveliness of a lilac, or the grace of a gazelle are all ways in which people can, in some small measure, fill their daily lives with evolutionarily inspired epiphanies of pleasure”.

 

Through these small pleasures we can develop a feeling of connectedness – but we do have to give ourselves the time and the openness of attention to even be able to perceive these things.

There is a whole field in research, that focusses on studying our relationship to nature: environmental psychology. Studies from this field of research show: exposure to nature decreases negative emotional states, like depression and anxiety, and increases positive feelings. But why?

Possible explanations include (according to Health Council of the Netherlands, 2004):

  • recovery from stress and attention fatiguepaola-aguilar-619961-unsplash-200x300 Connectedness to nature
  • encouragement to exercise
  • facilitating social contact
  • encouraging optimal development in children
  • providing opportunities for personal development and a sense of purpose.

 

There might be even more to this. One study showed that nature positively affected well-being through the experience of higher connectedness to nature, higher private self-awareness and higher awareness of the immediate environment. Importantly, the participants were compared to a control group who experiences “virtual nature”, i.e. they were watching a movie of the same walk that the nature-group took. It therefore becomes clear, that the virtual world cannot replace the real nature experience.

It is also important, as the authors of this study note, that the increased well-being of participants in the nature-group was not simply related to a reduction in stress. There is more to the experience of nature than just that we calm down and get a break from our hectic lifestyles. The researcher write:

Humans have lived the vast majority of their lives embedded in nature, belonging to the natural world in very real ways. In geological time, it is only a tick of the clock that we have spent in highlyurban settings, working in concrete buildings, driving in climate controlled cars, and living in relatively densely populated areas, shut off from nature. As Pretty (2002) estimated, for 350,000 generations humans have lived close to the land as hunter-gatherers; a sense of belonging, place, and feeling embedded within the broader natural world characterized these cultures. In some ways, then, it would be surprising if the modern life of being divorced from nature did not have some negative consequences associated with it and that being in nature had positive benefits” (Mayer et al., 2009).

Another way of connectedness if feeling close to our fellow humans. We will talk about that in our next article.

 
paola-aguilar-619961-unsplash-200x300 Connectedness to nature
 

Scientific literature

Mayer, F. S., Frantz, C. M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Dolliver, K. (2009). Why is nature beneficial? The role of connectedness to nature. Environment and behavior, 41(5), 607-643.

 

© Rebecca Böhme & Andrew Wold, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photos by Paz Arando and  Paola Aguilar on Unsplash