Articles & Self-Help

Creating a Sense of Self: Optimism

Fact: children are naturally optimistic.

We naturally become more “realistic” as we get older till we get to a natural balance.

We live in a pessimistic society—bad news sells and advertisers have found that they can use people’s fear—particularly of ostracism—to sell products

Steps to become more optimistic:

  1. Surround yourself with optimistic people
  2. Insist on praise both for what you do well and for who you are. praise for what you  do well gives you a sense of competence and self-esteem which are necessary for happiness
  3. Call all criticism. Criticism is always about power and powerlessness leads to depression and pessimism
  4. Take time to explore your own spirituality. Studies show that people with a firm sense of spirituality are far more optimistic.
  5. Take time to make regular contact with nature – a twenty minute walk in the park, or even petting a dog or stroking a cat can make you less pessimistic
  6. Don’t watch depressing TV shows, or reality shows where people get ostracized.
  7. Take part in regular exercise, especially walking
  8. Keep a record of all the good things that have happened to you each day

Creating a Sense of Self: Hope

“Write about something uplifting. People don’t want to hear about too much negative stuff!” Sophie, our site editor, called out as I closed my office door and sat down to write this piece. Of course such a demand immediately makes the mind sprint to hurricanes, terrorist acts (Muslim, Christian, atheist and Hindu), Iraq, earthquakes and the immanent arrival of a flu pandemic.

Such a lot to be negative about–I could write the piece about the mind of a terrorist, about the increasing prevalence of panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, things which nonetheless intrigue and alarm me. I could explain how politicians and marketers use fear to manipulate us and deprive us of our liberties. I could point out that the law enforcement bodies of most western democracies (and many Asian nations) now have wider powers than Hitler’s SS ever enjoyed (though they probably would never use them in the same way) and Dr. Goebbels, his propaganda minister, would have envied the coercive power of modern advertisers .

Instead I’ll write about HOPE. Emily Dickenson said of hope that it “…is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” It is the tune without the words: hope is not about specifics–if it were it could be dashed when the words turn out to be false prophesies. It lodges in the soul because the mind is often so traumatized by present and past events that there is no other place for it.

In fact, as Kalman Kaplan and Matthew Schwarz in their 1993 book The Psychology of Hope point out hopelessness is a relatively recent concept. It is almost unknown in hunter-gatherer societies and the ancient Hebraic writings speak little of suicide and approach reality in vastly different terms: God is an involved parent, caring for his children. In God there is always hope.

Modern psychologists and geneticists assert that hopelessness is learned and that hope is our birthright. Our society teaches hopelessness, consumerism depends on it, misguided parents instill it in their offspring through neglect, abuse or criticism. Much of our media propagates the idea that hope is a waste of time (with the marvelous exception of works such as the first three Star Wars movies).

And yet even in the most depressed or traumatized modern patient, even, perhaps, in a person contemplating suicide, hope never leaves. Even if it’s only the hope of being free of pain. Hope is not the same as the will to live–it’s not another word for our survival instinct, though it may contribute to it. It’s even separate from optimism (of which we have written a great deal in our two most recent books), even though it can obviously be a contributory factor in making someone feel optimistic.

Since the early 1990s we’ve know a lot about the neurobiology of hope, but very little about the psychology of it. I think, in the end hope is a spiritual experience. We feel hope in spiritual situations and in spiritual states: in nature, in prayer, in music, in art, in deep meditation and in just being with people that we love.

I get a surge of hope when I watch a breeze embrace a tree and turn its leaves to reveal quite different colors, or when a puppy approaches me with a bit of petting in mind. I get something of the same feeling when I look at Alicia–my partner, co-author and wife of 22 years–and realize how much I love her. That unison is the Higher Power that keeps hope alive and strong in my soul no matter what setbacks we face.

Physicians know that hope heals. Diseases that would otherwise be fatal can be cured through the stimulation of hope in their patients. Researchers have shown that there is a kind of hope system, rather like the immune system but biologically quite different from it. The two seem to work in tandem in the healing process and not all the drugs in the pharmacological armory will do much good if the hope/immune system is not functioning properly.

What my severely depressed clients want of me is hope. Hope that the disease will vanish, that there is a point to living or that their lives will simply get a little better. In the end that is my job, to become an ally of the hope system, to introduce them to techniques that will stimulate their own soul’s response to pain and thus to heal them. And they do heal, and the pain and the hopelessness do go.

Hope never leaves, it’s in our genes. What we have to do is unlearn hopelessness by putting ourselves in situations–spiritual in the broadest sense of the word–that allow our genetics to overcome out socialization.


Tribal Fitness

For most women and men the push for ‘fitness’ has caused at least as much confusion, injury and guilt as it has physical health and enjoyment.

The word itself has come to mean to many people more about the flatness of a stomach (think of Princess Di and her bulemia, Ali McBeal and her skeletal appearance) or the bulges of the pectorals than about function, health and vitality. With all the marketing hype about what you must buy/eat/drink/not eat/not drink/wear/not wear, ‘fitness’ has probably done more for certain peoples’ pockets than for anybody’s wellbeing.

So how do we arrive at a true definition of fitness, one that takes into account the optimal goals for our bodies and our selves, and how do we achieve these?

To find the answers we need to look at how we evolved to live. What conditions did early humans live under and how was our genetic nature shaped to make the most of them?

In essence we are still hunter-gatherers. Our bodies and our social organization were geared over millions of years to carrying out the tasks necessary to hunting and gathering. Over the last five millennia a ‘mismatch’ has developed and widened between the way we live and the way we were meant to live. This has led to a whole range of assumptions about our bodies, our relationships, our work and our society that modern research is showing to be wrong and harmful.

Let’s first examine the realities and myths about what a fit body is. Both men and women evolved to walk , the men in search of game and the women looking for berries, herbs, roots and so forth. Walking is, in fact, the best exercise a human can take, a fact supported by all recent studies. It has even been shown that this act of gentle weight-bearing prevents osteoporosis and stimulates the brain to think better.

Most experts also agree that jogging and extended running are not good for most of us, often harming knees, pelvis and spine. Jogging can be particularly bad for women, whose pelvises are broad to accommodate the passage of an infant through the birth canal. Since the hip joints are further apart, the legs do not go straight down, in fact they tend to form an inverted V. This slanted alignment puts an even greater strain on the knees.

Lifting very heavy weights is also counter our genetics. If a heavy stone needed to be moved, or a slain wooly mammoth to be carried back to camp, there were always a number of hunters around to help. The same was true for women. There were many hands to carry what was gathered, and loving arms to take turns holding children.

When are most men happiest? Usually, when they are doing “guy” things like playing or supporting team sport or participating on a focused team activity at work (hunting) mapping out holidays (visuospatial skills), and throwing something on the barbeque (as they used to cook their catch of the day). Men tend to be more silent, unemotional and single-minded-all essential qualities in hunting.

When are men least happy? When expelled from the hunter band (unemployed or retired), they are far more likely to commit suicide, according to a recent English study. Most men have difficulty with or even resent being expected to help bring up toddlers, although grandfathers often enjoy being around youngsters. In hunter-gatherer societies, men, particularly under the age of 35, have hardly any contact with children under the age of six. (This lack of contact between very young children and men serves also to protect the children until they know how to interact with elders without inciting their anger, and of course makes early abuse from men less likely).

As the gatherers and early child-rearers, women tend to be more voluble, (children’s brains need to hear constant speech by significant adults and television does not do it), more emotionally aware and mindful of their surroundings (from needing to keep a constant eye on the children and look out for the best herbs and roots). What are many women happiest doing? For many, it is shopping (gathering), expressing emotions and gossiping (i.e. bonding with other women) and being with their children without being isolated with them. Favored professions tend to be teaching and nurturing. Women who live in isolation are far more prone to physical and mental problems.

Women are under enormous pressure to look perfect and to avoid any signs of age. Many women see their physical safety as based on being thin, perhaps then they won’t be passed over by a suitable mate or abandoned for a younger woman. Hence the enormous rise in cosmetic surgery, despite its risks. Hence also the percentage of income spent on exotic face creams (none of which do any good at all, according to a study by Harvard University).

In a hunter-gatherer society a woman is prized for her knowledge and experience, not so much her youth and beauty. Her wisdom concerning herbs, her ability to find the best roots, her way with children and her ability to teach younger wives to do these things set her apart. She becomes more valuable as she gets older.

The fear of isolation, not to mention isolation itself, is prevalent and rapidly growing amongst both men and women. Email and chat rooms are no substitution for face-to-face contact. A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who spend a lot of time online felt isolated and lonely. “People ae substituting weaker social ties for stronger ones,” according to psychology professor Robert Kraut.

Social isolation creates a very real physical danger in any society, since our income and healthcare depend on interacting with other people. The power of that fear also goes back to our hunter-gatherer days and is encoded in our genes. All work, including the getting of food and protecting the group, was done as a social activity. Therefore, separation from the tribe meant almost certain death. No wonder the lack of social connectedness, or the fear of its loss, creates more stress, injury and illness than any other factor in our lives.

The lack of communal support plays a large role in the difficulties suffered by couples and the skyrocketing divorce rate. Problems between partners are a significant source of ill health. A University of Ohio study found that unhappy couples had poorer immune control over latent herpes viruses and a lower ratio of helper to suppressor T-lymphocytes. Couples who displayed hostility towards each other had significantly lower scores on several measures of immune function including the ability to ward off various viruses and bacteria.

Couples’ problems obviously affect the health and wellbeing of their children. A child from a dysfunctional household will suffer low self-esteem, leading to a lowering of the immune system. According to the British Medical Research Council’s Common Cold Unit, adults who had been abused as children were six times more likely to develop more frequent and more severe colds than those who had not been abused.

A household in which there is fear, conflict or lack of physical affection will also lead to a child’s loss of connection with his or her body. This loss of connection is at the core of physical, not to mention emotional and spiritual, fitness.

The child’s loss of connection to his or her body also comes from the growing lack of safe and supervised places to play outside, especially in urban areas. A child who can play safely outside is statistically less likely to suffer from serious accidents in later life and to search out functional ways to stay fit. This may be because the brain has had the opportunity to learn how to balance, how to move functionally and in a pleasurable way and to avoid danger through play, as most young mammals do.

What is the solution to our lack of connection to our bodies and to our selves, to our increasing lack of fitness as true human beings? Can it be found in our present dysfunctional society?

The answer involves creating a mini-society around yourself that is functional and supportive.

The first thing to bear in mind is that your physical wellness as well as your emotional wellbeing depend on the health of your relationships. This means all your relationships, including those with your “significant other”, your best mates, your colleagues, your customers your boss and your children.

Good, functional relationships are those which allow for clear boundaries. We call them basic needs that must be met. Indeed, a human relationship can be defined as the mutual satisfaction of needs.

Secondly, understand what your body was meant to do in terms of your genetic heritage. You still have the body and brain of a hunter-gatherer, even if you spend your day dysfunctionally sitting in front of a sophisticated computer. Don’t go against your body by running, lifting heavy weights, eating in a hurry or in a stressful environment. Maintain a regular exercise regime which involves walking or hiking, and perhaps swimming. If you are a woman, do these activities with other women and have a good gossip as you go. If you are a man, include hunting-like team sports such as soccer.

RPM exercises that stimulate the brain to regain function, grace and vitality are excellent for both your body and your mental acuity and ability to learn.

According to Dr. Joseph Loizzo of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, such movements can help people with even severe mental illnesses . This kind of exercise, he says, “helps people with schizophrenia realize that they have control over what their bodies are doing. It allows them to experience a more motor, less verbal mode.”

Thirdly, choose activities that are congruent with your hunter-gatherer nature and avoid all those which are not. For example, do not try to force your husband to accompany you on long shopping expeditions. His blood pressure can actually rise dangerously when faced with crowded stores, check-out lines and loud music. Go instead with your women friends. All of your immune systems will appreciate the boost!

If you are a man, find time to be with other men in focused team activities. Remember, this does not include computer chat.

In short, remember who you are as a human being. Do not allow a society gone wrong to dictate how you should be with your body or your relationships, or what fitness should mean to you!


Who’s in your Tribe?

April 18, 2004. Chicago Tribune

By Devin Rose, Tribune staff reporter

The world of “Friends,” which leaves NBC in May, is enviable. Sure, the show has a surreal ratio of beautiful-to-average people, and the New York digs are incredible (and unaffordable). But what probably draws many viewers is, well, the friends. How many people have such true blues, such a great support system, in real life?

According to a husband-and-wife team of authors, Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry, that’s precisely what we all need.

In their new book, Creating Optimism: A Proven, Seven-Step Program for Overcoming Depression (McGraw-Hill, $22.95), the two say a strong social network–a tribe, as they call it–can save us from depression. They have been teaching their healing method worldwide for 20 years.

Other battles on the depression front often emphasize healing from within–with talk therapy and medication, typically. Do that, the thought goes, and the world will feel like a better place. Murray and Fortinberry say such methods have their use. But, they insist, if we improve our external world, our tribe of friends and family, our depressed brains will begin to heal.

“You can’t think your way out of depression, can’t even pop a pill out of it, at least not for the long term,” Murray told Q. “Depression is about a failure in relationships somewhere down the line.”

They write in their book that we’re meant “to live in small, mutually supportive communities in close contact with nature and animals. The further you get from this ideal, the more stressed, depressed, pessimistic and unhappy you become.”

“We live in a culture that isn’t really fit for humans,” Murray said. “That’s one of the main reasons that depression is increasing.”

The two don’t knock the thought that some people have a genetic propensity toward depression. “But propensity is just that,” Murray said, and any genetic tendency “needs to be triggered by experience.”

He also talked about serotonin, the body chemical often found in inadequate levels in depressed people–but he added a twist: “That’s a symptom of depression, not a cause. Because your brain has malformed at a certain stage because of trauma that happened, it fails to uptake serotonin.”

The brain’s neural connections, our very “wiring,” begin to change as we improve our external experiences, the authors say. For those who find it a bit daunting to think we have to form new and better relationships to feel better, Fortinberry said (quite soothingly) that a little change goes a long way.

“We tend to think in black and white: ‘I have to get a whole new tribe tomorrow, when I don’t even feel like talking to my best friend,’” she said. “But the brain starts to change with every little step you take.”

And both are convinced that with small change after small change, a better, more supportive society is inevitable.

“We don’t have to destroy our society,” Murray said. “We have to say that what’s really important is the friendships, not the job, not the car that I drive, the house that I live in, but the friends that I have. Our purpose is to create relationships. We are relationship-forming animals.”

This article was published in Chicago Tribune April 18, 2004.


What is Family?

Alicia and I were watching a DVD of Disney’s The Incredible Journey last night. It’s a real mood enhancer. On the face of it it’s about the adventures of two dogs and a cat who find their way home over hundreds of miles of unfamiliar terrain. On another level it’s about family.

Overwhelmingly we tend to describe family in biological and legal terms: you are part of my family because I am your mother or father, brother, cousin, sibling etc or because you are related to me by marriage. However this definition is too narrow to fully describe the wonderfully broad range of close emotional ties which bind individuals.

At the end of the movie Chance–a mongrel who had been a stray and who had spent time in the pound–finds “family” in his connection to the humans who adopt him and also with the dog and cat with whom he makes the incredible journey.

I think my own situation. I have no siblings, my parents have long since died and Alicia and I have no children. Even when my mother was alive we were estranged from the time I left home at 16. What’s more I have lost touch with my cousins, uncles and aunts. Under the biological definition, my family would be limited to Alicia.

The surprising reality is that for many the biological and legal family may well be the least important, and least satisfactory, element in our relationship nexus. I would rather define family as those individuals close to us upon whom we can depend for emotional and/or physical support and to whom we can meaningfully reciprocate. In other words family encompasses those with whom we have a real and meaningful mutual satisfaction of social needs.

Under this definition a pet can most definitely be part of the family, as Chance found, and one’s father, due to an early relationship failure, may not be. Our dogs Biscuit and Tuppence and our cats Sops and Pumpkin were part of Alicia and my family even though we had no biological or legal ties to them (unfortunately all of them have passed on). Our family also includes people to whom we have no bio-legal ties. In fact there are circles of family–ties of love and support stretching out inclusively though not necessarily equally.

The core unit includes, of course, Alicia and me. But it also includes Sophie who works with us, often travels with us, debates passionately with us, meets our needs and shows us love. Alicia and my love for each other is not lessened by the inclusion of a close colleague. Love is not exclusive, nor is sexual or romantic love more or less important than any other kind of attachment. Any attachment that is deep and supportive can be family.

In the first circle around this core unit there are those whose family ties to us are solid but not quite so deep. They are still very much part of my emotional support system even though many of them may be separated from me physically. In this circle are people in New York, in Raleigh, in Sydney, Tampa and Belfast. Some don’t even know each other.

Then there is another family circle which includes more transitory connections yet with whom I can still share love and need. They are still family and they can come into the inner circle.

I am not biologically or legally related to any of these people. Some colleagues of mine who are biological determinists would, perhaps, argue that without close genetic connection there can be no altruism. This is a position that I profoundly disagree with. I see humans as a co-operative and altruistic, not competitive, species. We are naturally inclusive not exclusive, even on a biological level. Women, for example, are programmed not just to protect their own baby but also other people’s babies and even the babies–puppies, kittens, foals–of other species.

It is in fact in our survival interest to reach out and add to our family: to use our innate altruism to add to our own protection. What stops us is a society that has raised exclusivity, individuality and competition to the rank of highest values.

We believe that since humans are fundamentally social animals–like dogs and wildebeest–we are defined and formed by our social connections. There is no Bob Murray except for the personality formed by the interaction of his genes and his relationship environment modified by his adult connections. As I change, I change in relationship to those I am in contact with, especially my family. My ability to change, to develop, depends on my ability to connect with people who will make me question and change intrenched dysfunctional beliefs about myself and the world.

Too many of my clients, especially around the so-called “festive season,” feel guilty because they don’t have a satisfactory relationship with their biological or legal kin. I ask them “If you weren’t related to them, would you welcome them into your tribe?” If they answer no then this is probably because there is no sense of mutual support–no satisfaction of functional needs–upon which any deep relationship has to be based. There is no real “family” connection.

I am blessed that my extended family, all of those in all of the circles, gives me the support that it does. That support is the real meaning of family.