Friday, June 4, 2010

Expand Happiness Attention Span

Over the last couple of weeks I have been playing brain games on a website called Lumosity. This is a wonderful site that gives you the opportunity to train your brain. First you play some games, then Lumosity gives you an overview of where you are in your brain health and suggests games you can play to improve your brain health.

It is quite addictive and relaxing to me. If I come home all frazzled from a day of work, half an hour on Lumosity makes me feel like I just took a nap. Afterward I feel more centered, focused and energized.

One of the fun parts of this website is your Brain Profile; it shows you how you are doing in the areas of speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving. For me right now, my biggest strength is memory, and my biggest weakness is flexibility. When you play the games you can see how the played games influence your brain capacity and over time you can see the improvements you have made. I recommend you to check it out.

Attention Span Related to Running
I have had the wonderful opportunity to hang out with family this week along the beach. I have been getting up every morning to run while the sun slowly rises into the sky. I am no longer a beginning beginner, more like a persistent beginner. My focus slowly moves from "OK, let’s see if I can run to that house" or "let’s keep good posture" or "let’s relax my shoulders" to thinking about other things during the run. For example, I might be thinking about a discussion I had earlier, or I might be fantasizing about the food I will be eating when I get back home, or I might just enjoy the wonderful sights that I encounter. It is quite amazing what comes into your mind when you have plenty of time to fill and you allow the thoughts to come through.

This week I am running four miles on the beach every day. The halfway point is a pier that I hug with my hands in celebration of my persistence; I then turn around to go back home to replenish myself. On my way back, I have noticed some interesting mental habits. All my thoughts slowly lean into negativity and then I would stop running and start walking. When I catch myself in these thoughts, I put them to the side and focus on something more positive and I start running again. Then after a while, I find myself walking again while my head is busy with the negative thoughts.

An Example
An older man on the way back said a friendly Hello and he asked me if I was on my way out or on my way back. I smiled and said "on my way back" passing him and running on.

My first thought was, that was so friendly of him. The next thought was, "but hmm... he also said hello to the lady in the stroller that came by around the same time and that lady didn’t look so happy."

Then one of the CSI episodes I saw the other day came to mind, one that involved torturing people. Maybe the man was not as nice as I imagined. There are some creepy people in the world! Could he be one of them? Would the beach be a good place to find possible victims? What did I say to him? What would I do if I were kidnapped? What would I say when I was tortured?

By the time I realized that I was walking instead of running, my mind was saying, "I hate pain, I hate pain", to the invisible imaginary torturer torturing me.

It sounds ridiculous but it's true. When I realized what I was doing, I checked in with my body. Am I in pain? No not really, only tired. OK. Crazy mental world, let’s go back to thinking something positive. I am a butterfly enjoying the weather! I started to run again until my next drift into negativity started.

One of the challenges of running is that your body can signal that it wants to stop running long before your mind wants to stop running. You have to learn to ignore these signals long enough to push past the boundaries so you can expand your running distance and teach your body that it can do this. Expanding these boundaries increases your capacity to stay positive and focused, and to dismiss negative thoughts. For me, it improves my positive stamina during challenges.

My Theory
This sheds a whole new light on exercising. I want to suggest that running and other intense activities that challenge the body and the mind are crucial to becoming and staying happy, and to helping us more positively address challenges. I think this is particularly important for people who stay stuck in depression, even after they have learned different tools that are helpful to becoming happy. By engaging in intense exercise, they can break through their depression and build their happiness. As we begin to exercise intensely and persistently, I believe most of us will find our thoughts drifting into the negative zone, when we get out of breath, when our muscles get tired. However, as we persist, we work past the negative thoughts.

I don’t believe we have to exercise very hard to begin with. In the beginning, most bodies get uncomfortable and start complaining within the first couple minutes of exercise. So I would suggest exercising until you reach that point and then going a couple of minutes longer. The next day, do the same thing and add a couple of minutes.

When you think negative thoughts, tell yourself that it is all imaginary, because your body is trying to convince your mind to stop you from getting healthier. Your body lives in the present moment only; it only knows how it feels right now. It doesn’t have the concept of tomorrow. It cannot imagine that challenging the system today will lead to greater strength tomorrow. It just knows, this is uncomfortable or this is difficult or this is painful, right now!

However, your mind can think past the moment. You want to stretch your capacity for your mind to see past the immediate negative thoughts that your body throws its way. Training your mind to see past the immediate discomfort will help you to challenge the negativity that comes up when you feel uncomfortable in any situation, training yourself to be positive in the face of any challenge.

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