Posts tagged ‘mindfulness’

November 25, 2014

Cultivating Attitudes of Gratitude: Teaching Thankfulness Through Nature

by Melissa Harding

DSC_0076

How often do you stop and count your blessings? Gratitude may seem to be all the rage right now, with bloggers and magazines talking about the importance of  having an attitude of gratitude, but there is some real research supporting this trend. Studies have shown that people who cultivate gratefulness are happier, more optimistic, more energetic and nicer than those who don’t. Not only that, but they are physically healthier as well. In fact, gratitude is even becoming commonly used as a tool in therapeutic interventions; it can function as a kind of “social support”, which is what psychologists call the perception that people have of being care about and for by others. Many believe that cultivating attitudes of gratitude can help people to build the psychological capital which is beneficial in difficult situations, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss. In short, being grateful is pretty great!

So what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, perhaps one of the foremost experts on gratitude research, has this definition of gratitude: “[Gratitude is] an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” There is also a social dimension to gratitude, which is that it is a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires acknowledging the social support in our lives.

100_3896ghghgh
Research has found this to be a positive attitude in children as well as adults. It seems that materialist youth tend to do poorly, while youth that demonstrate pro-social behavior, such as gratitude, flourish. In fact, this same study found that higher levels of gratitude can uniquely predict outcomes like higher grade-point average, life satisfaction, and social integration, as well as lower levels of depression and envy. In contrast, higher levels of materialism predict the opposite outcomes. Research shows that as children internalize materialistic values, their well-being and self-worth actually decreases. Mental health also decreases, since many of their perceived needs are not met. Gratitude, however, seems to have an opposite effect, in part because it helps people fulfill their basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

DSC_1465Children who cultivate grateful attitudes are more successful, exhibit more pro-social behaviors, and generally have higher overall well-being. Additionally, grateful children develop intrinsic goals, such as helping the community and connecting with others, rather than materialist goals, like fame and wealth. This may seem like common sense, and to an extent it really is. We all like to be around people who are kind and positive and we like to help those people to achieve success. On the other hand, materialism erodes friendships and creates attitudes of envy; those people experience less success for the same reasons that their grateful peers succeed. Having grateful attitudes set children up for success as adults in the same way that being kind and empathetic does.

However, this is much easier said than done. We live in a culture that values materialism as a measure of success and this can be difficult to avoid for adults, let alone children. As they develop, children naturally internalize attitudes and values from society and those societal concerns have a real effect on their worldview. One sure way to increase gratitude in both your child and yourself is to go outside. Being outside has a host of benefits outside of increasing gratitude and interacting in a sensory way with nature is shown to increase appreciation for both the natural world and for life itself. Explore your backyard or local green space and observe the trees, flowers, dirt, and critters that live there. Use magnifying glasses to observe bugs and snowflakes, dig your hands in the dirt, and smell the roses (literally). If you’re feeling brave, maybe taste a dandelion or some clean snow. The more time you spend outside with your child, the more they will love and appreciate the natural world. For some ideas to help you make the most of your time outside, check out this post.

Nature is not the only way to cultivate gratitude; here are some other ways to help your child develop a grateful heart:

1. Keep a gratitude journal: Recording 3-5 things per day that you are grateful for is shown to increase gratitude. This can be done as a family on a communal board, during dinner as part of conversation, or in an actual journal (virtual or otherwise). A great start is to ask your child to share “three good things” that happened to him or her that day. Remember to share your own list as well, making it a family activity rather than a daily quiz for your child. You are a great role model for gratitude and your own attitude will go a long way in influencing your child.
2. Write a gratitude letter: This is not just a thank-you note for a birthday gift, but a real, heart-felt expression of gratitude for someone else. Help your child write a short note of gratitude to a family member, friend, or teacher; adding pictures or a small, homemade present is even better. It can be anything, a homemade card or just a note, but the goal is to get your child to articulate how others help him and to give him the experience of thanking those people with sincerity.
3. Practice mindfully receiving gifts: Help your child to consider that someone mindfully intended to give him a gift or help him, even at a small cost to themselves. Research shows that this in particular is a helpful practice.
4. Say grace: Whether or not your family subscribes to a particular religion, recognizing the work that went into a meal is a good thing. This can take a more traditional or religious tone if desired. If not, say a small blessing on the farmers who grew the food and those hands that prepared it.
5. Help others: Volunteer as a family to help those less fortunate. Whether it is a shift at the soup kitchen or donating toys to charity, helping other helps us appreciate our own blessings even more.

To learn more about the ever-growing science of gratitude, check out this article by The Greater Good or this one on the benefits of appreciation. Or read the full article cited above.

To learn about the benefits of nature on pro-social behavior, check out this blog post.

The above photos are taken by Science Education staff.

January 14, 2014

Cultivating Attitudes of Gratitude: Teaching Thankfulness Through Nature

by Melissa Harding

DSC_0076

How often do you stop and count your blessings? Gratitude may seem to be all the rage right now, with bloggers and magazines talking about the importance of  having an attitude of gratitude, but there is some real research supporting this trend. Studies have shown that people who cultivate gratefulness are happier, more optimistic, more energetic and nicer than those who don’t. Not only that, but they are physically healthier as well. In fact, gratitude is even becoming commonly used as a tool in therapeutic interventions; it can function as a kind of “social support”, which is what psychologists call the perception that people have of being care about and for by others. Many believe that cultivating attitudes of gratitude can help people to build the psychological capital which is beneficial in difficult situations, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss. In short, being grateful is pretty great!

So what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, perhaps one of the foremost experts on gratitude research, has this definition of gratitude: “[Gratitude is] an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” There is also a social dimension to gratitude, which is that it is a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires acknowledging the social support in our lives.

100_3896ghghgh
Research has found this to be a positive attitude in children as well as adults. It seems that materialist youth tend to do poorly, while youth that demonstrate pro-social behavior, such as gratitude, flourish. In fact, this same study found that higher levels of gratitude can uniquely predict outcomes like higher grade-point average, life satisfaction, and social integration, as well as lower levels of depression and envy. In contrast, higher levels of materialism predict the opposite outcomes. Research shows that as children internalize materialistic values, their well-being and self-worth actually decreases. Mental health also decreases, since many of their perceived needs are not met. Gratitude, however, seems to have an opposite effect, in part because it helps people fulfill their basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

DSC_1465Children who cultivate grateful attitudes are more successful, exhibit more pro-social behaviors, and generally have higher overall well-being. Additionally, grateful children develop intrinsic goals, such as helping the community and connecting with others, rather materialist goals, like fame and wealth. This may seem like common sense, and to an extent it really is. We all like to be around people who are kind and positive and we like to help those people to achieve success. On the other hand, materialism erodes friendships and creates attitudes of envy; those people experience less success for the same reasons that their grateful peers succeed. Having grateful attitudes set children up for success as adults in the same way that being kind and empathetic does.

However, this is much easier said than done. We live in a culture that values materialism as a measure of success and this can be difficult to avoid for adults, let alone children. As they develop, children naturally internalize attitudes and values from society and those societal concerns have a real effect on their worldview. One sure way to increase gratitude in both your child and yourself is to go outside. Being outside has a host of benefits outside of increasing gratitude and interacting in a sensory way with nature is shown to increase appreciation for both the natural world and for life itself. Explore your backyard or local green space and observe the trees, flowers, dirt, and critters that live there. Use magnifying glasses to observe bugs and snowflakes, dig your hands in the dirt, and smell the roses (literally). If you’re feeling brave, maybe taste a dandelion or some clean snow. The more time you spend outside with your child, the more they will love and appreciate the natural world. For some ideas to help you make the most of your time outside, check out this post.

Nature is not the only way to cultivate gratitude; here are some other ways to help your child develop a grateful heart:

1. Keep a gratitude journal: Recording 3-5 things per day that you are grateful for is shown to increase gratitude. This can be done as a family on a communal board, during dinner as part of conversation, or in an actual journal (virtual or otherwise). A great start is to ask your child to share “three good things” that happened to him or her that day. Remember to share your own list as well, making it a family activity rather than a daily quiz for your child. You are a great role model for gratitude and your own attitude will go a long way in influencing your child.
2. Write a gratitude letter: This is not just a thank-you note for a birthday gift, but a real, heart-felt expression of gratitude for someone else. Help your child write a short note of gratitude to a family member, friend, or teacher; adding pictures or a small, homemade present is even better. It can be anything, a homemade card or just a note, but the goal is to get your child to articulate how others help him and to give him the experience of thanking those people with sincerity.
3. Practice mindfully receiving gifts: Help your child to consider that someone mindfully intended to give him a gift or help him, even at a small cost to themselves. Research shows that this in particular is a helpful practice.
4. Say grace: Whether or not your family subscribes to a particular religion, recognizing the work that went into a meal is a good thing. This can take a more traditional or religious tone if desired. If not, say a small blessing on the farmers who grew the food and those hands that prepared it.
5. Help others: Volunteer as a family to help those less fortunate. Whether it is a shift at the soup kitchen or donating toys to charity, helping other helps us appreciate our own blessings even more.

To learn more about the ever-growing science of gratitude, check out this article by The Greater Good or this one on the benefits of appreciation. Or read the full article cited above.

To learn about the benefits of nature on pro-social behavior, check out this blog post.

The above photos are taken by Christie Lawry and Kate Borger.

July 9, 2013

Can Nature Make Us Happier? (Hint: Yes)

by Melissa Harding

Summer Reruns: Just like your favorite television shows go on hiatus for the summer, so does the blog. We will be running eighteen summer camps in eight weeks, so we will be a little busy! In place of original posts, Tuesdays will now feature some of the blog’s most popular posts from the last year. Fridays will feature that week’s camps, with pictures, crafts and lesson ideas for parents and educators.

bw falls-001

Walking in the city can be stressful; honking horns, loud cars whizzing past, sharing paths with speeding bikers, and suddenly ending sidewalks can turn a relaxing walk into a nightmare. Urban commuting can be difficult, but there is one country where the government is taking steps to help its citizens. The Japanese government, recognizing the natural stress relief and health benefits found in nature, has created a national system of Forest Therapy trails. Covering 67 percent of the country’s landmass, these 48 trails have been designed by Japan’s Forest Agency to promote the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Shinrin-yoku, a term inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist conventions, is the practice of letting nature enter the body through all five senses.

The government is not just creating these trails, but conducting research on the effects forest bathing has on participants. While there have been studies in recent years that support the health benefits of nature, the government’s work is critical. Scientists in Japan are measuring what is actually happening in human cells and neurons as the body responds to nature. Led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, they’re using field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how this works on a molecular level (Source). This research may help move this kind of nature therapy from the fringes into the realm of mainstream medicine.

Japan may be the first country to engage in this kind of research, but they are not the only ones. South Korean and Finish governments are also starting their own research into the benefits of nature. So why is the United States so far behind? It may come from how we view nature in our lives. Much like David Thoreau, many of us view nature as a romantic notion that is outside of human civilized society. Nature is something that we escape to, rather than something we depend on to sustain us. In contast, the Japanese view nature as an integral part of their lives; nature is part of their minds and bodies and philosophy. When Japanese citizens visit the forest, it is to come back to themselves and replenish their minds and spirits.

Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a prime researcher in this field, has studied over 600 subjects since 2004. He and his colleague Juyoung Lee, also of Chiba University, have found that leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety. These numbers are so convincing that over a quarter of Japan’s 127 million citizens partake in forest therapy in some way (Source).

bw falls 3

So how can we get the same benefits without going to Japan? The key appears to be paying attention. You can’t get nature points from jogging in the woods with your headphones in. In fact, studies show that when you are distracted outside, you are more likely to be irritable and grumpy later. Deliberate, mindful attention to natural surroundings allows the mind to relax. Modern life demands long hours of sustained attention to tasks, like working at a computer all day and sitting in traffic; this is what causes our brains to grab ahold of anxiety. In contrast, the attention that we show a beautiful bird in a tree is an example of soft fascination, which allows our brains to let go of that anxiety and marvel at the world around us. Our minds do it naturally, if we let them. Short walks in greenery, or even looking at nature images, improve the brain’s ability to engage in directed attention; this type of activity not only helps improve cognitive function, but makes brains happier.

So what advice do researchers have for people looking to boost their happiness with nature? Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has this advice, “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.”

Even cold weather walks count. Whether or not participants enjoy themselves outside is immaterial to the benefits of the experience; people who walked in the cold and felt uncomfortable still report boosted brain function. January may not feel like a great time to start being outside more often, but it truly is. This new year, resolve to go to a quiet, outdoor place at least once a week and restore your brain. Not only will you feel better, but you will be smarter – for free. What a great deal!

To read more about the research surrounding the practice of shinrin-yoku, as well as to learn how the Japanese experience nature, read Outside Magazine‘s December story, The Nature Cure: The Surprising Benefits of the Great Outdoors, by Florence Williams.

The above photos were taken by Melissa Harding

January 9, 2013

Can Nature Make Us Happier? (Hint: Yes)

by Melissa Harding

bw falls-001

Walking in the city can be stressful; honking horns, loud cars whizzing past, sharing paths with speeding bikers, and suddenly ending sidewalks can turn a relaxing walk into a nightmare. Urban commuting can be difficult, but there is one country where the government is taking steps to help its citizens. The Japanese government, recognizing the natural stress relief and health benefits found in nature, has created a national system of Forest Therapy trails. Covering 67 percent of the country’s landmass, these 48 trails have been designed by Japan’s Forest Agency to promote the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Shinrin-yoku, a term inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist conventions, is the practice of letting nature enter the body through all five senses.

The government is not just creating these trails, but conducting research on the effects forest bathing has on participants. While there have been studies in recent years that support the health benefits of nature, the government’s work is critical. Scientists in Japan are measuring what is actually happening in human cells and neurons as the body responds to nature. Led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, they’re using field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how this works on a molecular level (Source). This research may help move this kind of nature therapy from the fringes into the realm of mainstream medicine.

Japan may be the first country to engage in this kind of research, but they are not the only ones. South Korean and Finish governments are also starting their own research into the benefits of nature. So why is the United States so far behind? It may come from how we view nature in our lives. Much like David Thoreau, many of us view nature as a romantic notion that is outside of human civilized society. Nature is something that we escape to, rather than something we depend on to sustain us. In contast, the Japanese view nature as an integral part of their lives; nature is part of their minds and bodies and philosophy. When Japanese citizens visit the forest, it is to come back to themselves and replenish their minds and spirits.

Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a prime researcher in this field, has studied over 600 subjects since 2004. He and his colleague Juyoung Lee, also of Chiba University, have found that leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety. These numbers are so convincing that over a quarter of Japan’s 127 million citizens partake in forest therapy in some way (Source).

bw falls 3

So how can we get the same benefits without going to Japan? The key appears to be paying attention. You can’t get nature points from jogging in the woods with your headphones in. In fact, studies show that when you are distracted outside, you are more likely to be irritable and grumpy later. Deliberate, mindful attention to natural surroundings allows the mind to relax. Modern life demands long hours of sustained attention to tasks, like working at a computer all day and sitting in traffic; this is what causes our brains to grab ahold of anxiety. In contrast, the attention that we show a beautiful bird in a tree is an example of soft fascination, which allows our brains to let go of that anxiety and marvel at the world around us. Our minds do it naturally, if we let them. Short walks in greenery, or even looking at nature images, improve the brain’s ability to engage in directed attention; this type of activity not only helps improve cognitive function, but makes brains happier.

So what advice do researchers have for people looking to boost their happiness with nature? Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has this advice, “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.”

Even cold weather walks count. Whether or not participants enjoy themselves outside is immaterial to the benefits of the experience; people who walked in the cold and felt uncomfortable still report boosted brain function. January may not feel like a great time to start being outside more often, but it truly is. This new year, resolve to go to a quiet, outdoor place at least once a week and restore your brain. Not only will you feel better, but you will be smarter – for free. What a great deal!

To read more about the research surrounding the practice of shinrin-yoku, as well as to learn how the Japanese experience nature, read Outside Magazine‘s December story, The Nature Cure: The Surprising Benefits of the Great Outdoors, by Florence Williams.

The above photos were taken by Melissa Harding

November 16, 2012

Celebrating Stress-Free Kids!

by Melissa Harding

Last weekend we celebrated physical and mental health during our Fitness at Phipps program. Campers learned how to take care of their bodies and their minds through techniques like deep breathing, yoga, calisthenics and healthy eating. This is important, as more and more children are experiencing very high levels stress at school and at home; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends routinely screening children for symptoms of anxiety and depression. One way to help children deal with stress in their lives is to teach them healthy lifestyle techniques like those mentioned above. Our Fitness at Phipps program is intended to do just that through the multidisciplinary lens of camp using games, crafts and healthy cooking. We had a lot of fun and even got a little silly!

First, campers used recycled plastic bags to make braided jump ropes. While the average life span of a plastic bag is 10 seconds, we hoped to give ours a second life! We put our bags to work creating a useful tool for physical activity by braiding three bags together at a time, tying new bags onto the ends of others as needed. Campers added bags to their ropes until their lengths was twice their individual heights.

Eventually, every camper had a braided rope and the beautiful weather gave us a perfect day to play outside using them! We practiced jump rope drills in the Sustainable Beds by the Welcome Center. One leg at a time, forwards, backwards, and in between; the campers could hardly keep up! We also did warm up and cool down stretches, focusing on those areas that we worked hardest while jump roping, and talked about the importance of stretching muscles before and after exercise.

In addition to jump rope games, we also did some simple yoga exercises. Campers learned the poses of Sun Salutation, including Mountain Pose, Forward Fold, Half Lift, Downward Dog, Cobra and Warriors 1 and 2. They also tried some simple balancing poses and practiced focusing on a single spot to prevent falling down. Finally, we did some leg stretches and finished with deep breathing. These poses and breathing techniques are not only fun to do, but are great resources for calming anxiety or stress.

Lastly, campers made healthy smoothies and granola bars. We all tried something new and made apple pie-flavored smoothies; campers lightly cooked diced apples with agave nectar and cinnamon and then blended them with yogurt, bananas and ice. For those feeling brave, we added spinach to a second batch of smoothies. We also made no-cook granola bars out of whole-grain cereal, dried fruit, dark chocolate, sun butter and bananas. Campers put all of their chosen ingredients into a bag and mixed them together to make a gooey ball. They could then either put them in the refrigerator to harden or eat them right away. Most campers chose the latter!

Even if you were not able to be a part of our Celebrate!, you can still practice these stress relief techniques with your child:

1. Prevent stress by keeping your body fit and active; healthy eating and taking time to unwind with vigorous exercise are important for both adults and children. A healthy body is better able to withstand stress-induced illness.
2. Use visualization: Take a break and sit quietly for a few minutes while  imagining a peaceful scene. Five to ten minutes of picturing a soothing image like playing at the beach, walking through the woods or floating in the air can relax and distract a stressful mind.
3. Muscle relaxation: Tense and relax each muscle group while lying in bed; start at the top of the head and work down to the toes. Tense each muscle group and move onto the next until the whole body feels light and relaxed.
4. Breathing exercises: Concentrate on slowing down breathing by counting slowly to four as you breath in; do the same thing as you breathe out. Continue for several minutes until the stress starts to melt away.
5. Go outside: Being in nature for as little as five to ten minutes can reduce stress levels and create a peaceful feeling.

These techniques are useful for children and adults alike. Be a good example to your child and show them stress management in your own life; they will model your behavior and learn that stress does not have to control them. They can control their stress themselves!

How do you help your child deal with stress? Share your tips in the comments below!

The above photos were taken by Christie Lawry and Melissa Harding.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 199 other followers

%d bloggers like this: