Over the last year, the pandemic has taught us a lot about how we were spending our time, about what we really missed when it was taken away, and what we didn’t.
I’m no exception. Though actually my experience of lockdown felt like it started around 2 years before, when I had my first baby (the first of 2 within 2 years).
Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore my children and am massively grateful to have them after a tricky journey to parenthood. But I found the reduction in time to myself in these early years, as well as the lack of sleep, and lack of time just with my husband Phil – and our friends – to be really hard. Juggling the needs of my two toddlers, and my first baby (my online school) has been exhausting. Then the pandemic arrived.
Over the last few months of winter lockdown, with two toddlers at home to entertain and care for, and nowhere to go, Phil and I have had to prioritise certain non-negotiable self-care activities in order to stay sane.
For him it’s cycling or running a few times a week and the occasional writing session (that’s his passion). For me it’s been going for a walk, ideally daily, and creating art at least a few times a week.
But we’ve had to adapt.
Phil’s learned how to run whilst pushing a buggy and, as I’ve not had the energy or time available for my usual detailed watercolour work (unless I’ve been in the video studio), I’ve been doing some iPad painting in the evenings, usually in bed or laying on the sofa!
One thing I noticed during this challenging time is that I have been savouring time on my own, and time doing my favourite activities a lot more.
For example, a local bakery has managed to stay open throughout the lockdown and they make the most exquisite cakes. Several times a week I’ve managed a walk there and an open-air coffee and cake. Those few minutes have been a very enjoyable moment in the day.
With so many activities not permitted, lockdown has had the potential to lead to more mindful appreciation of the simple pleasures.
I’ve been curious about how to take forward the positive aspects of lockdown life into normal life when the restrictions ease, so I skipped a few evening iPad painting sessions and did some reading (which I also love).
What I discovered feels like proof of what I’ve always known (though not always practiced): that, far from being simply nice-to-do, engaging in feel-good activities actually contributes significantly to well-being and a fulfilled life.
Let me explain…
Your experiences shape your brain
Over the last 20 years or so there has been an explosion in neuroscience research which has proven that the brain’s evolved for learning, and is therefore constantly changing and growing in response to the experiences we have.
As leading neuroscientist Rick Hanson writes in his book ‘Hardwiring Happiness’:
“All mental activity- sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes – is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity – especially if it is conscious – will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.”
~ Rick Hanson, ‘Hardwiring Happiness’ 2013
It’s known as ‘experience-dependent neuroplasticity’ and it’s proven that our experiences really matter. Far from being fleeting and inconsequential, our emotions can leave lasting imprints on our brains and change the way we experience our lives.
Experiencing, and taking-in, positive emotions repeatedly has been shown to change the brain, and therefore our lives, in brilliant ways.
Mindset shift required
The old view, within the culture of the West, is that we tend to think of positive emotions such as joy, love, serenity, inspiration, amusement, interest, wonder, gratitude and hope as mere fleeting experiences and, as such that they are trivial, inconsequential and therefore expendable. There’s an emphasis instead on doing our duty, or working hard, which we think will bring happiness one-day in the form of appreciation or material successes. And there’s often guilt when we do things that we enjoy, just for ourselves.
This attitude is thought to be a hangover from the Protestant work ethic – an attitude linked to Calvinist Christians of the Reformation in the middle ages who saw hard work and worldly success as a sign of your salvation, and that enjoyment and leisure were sinful. Calvinists were known for their dour outlook on merriment, celebrations, and pleasure.
I have a direct link to these party animals! In Scotland the Calvinists went on to become the Scottish Presbyterians, and my dear Gran was brought up in that tradition. She was so steeped in it that she refused to allow herself to play board games with us when she came to stay at Christmas, even though she secretly loved them and sometimes blurted out answers to Trivial Pursuit from the next room! She lived ‘til she was 92, was always kind to me, and I loved her. But she didn’t seem especially happy, and her outlook was often quite narrow and constrained.
Maybe my Gran was an extreme example, but up until now I’ve definitely bought into a diluted version of this, working fiercely hard through school and uni (and beyond), and finding it very hard to prioritise leisure activities that were purely ‘for fun’. In fact, if I hadn’t made painting my ‘job’, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have got much of a look-in.
Experiencing positive emotions builds your inner strengths
In the past few decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have turned their attentions to studying the positive emotions. Among the first, Barbara Fredrickson’s work has shown that positive emotions are actually the building blocks of creating love, wellbeing and health: that they are the means, not the end.
‘Whereas the old story leaves people feeling guilty when they ‘take time’ for something that makes them feel good, the new story can give people the courage to cultivate, protect and cherish moments that touch and open their hearts.’
~Barbara Fredrickson, ‘Positivity’, 2009
Fredrickson developed the ‘broaden and build’ theory of positive emotions. Her research showed that experiencing them broadens our ideas about possible actions, opening our awareness to a broader range of thoughts and options, making us more receptive and more creative. In turn being more open allows us to discover and build new skills, new relationships, new knowledge and new ways of being: building our resources which then buffer us from our vulnerabilities and the challenges in life.
Experiencing positive emotions has been found to be instrumental in the building of inner strengths. Rick Hanson describes inner strengths as ‘the supplies you have in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life.’
They include positive feelings such as calmness, confidence, contentment or compassion, as well as useful skills and perspectives that you can draw upon such as being kind to yourself, and even embodied qualities such as relaxation and vitality. Unlike fleeting mental states, inner strengths are stable traits, an enduring source of wellbeing, wise and effective action, and contribution to others.
If this seems a bit abstract, Hanson gives us an example:
‘The alarm goes off and you’d rather snooze – so you find the will to get up. Let’s say you have the kids and they’re squabbling and it’s frustrating – so instead of yelling, you get in touch with that place inside that’s firm but not angry. You’re embarrassed about making a mistake at work – so you call up a sense of worth from past accomplishments. You get stressed racing around – so you find some welcome calm in several long exhalations. You feel sad about not having a partner – so you find some comfort in thinking about the friends you do have. Throughout your day, other inner strengths are operating automatically in the back of your mind, such as a sense of perspective, faith, or self awareness.’
~ Rick Hanson ‘Hardwiring Happiness’
Inner strengths are what makes you able to meet the inevitable challenges of life.
The HEAL method: taking it in
Hanson has developed a method of self-directed neuroplasticity to develop inner strengths he calls the ‘HEAL’ method. It’s basically a form of mindfulness. It’s not merely positive thinking, it’s about really feeling the experience to your core. The following is a pared down version of it:
Step 1. Have a positive experience
Notice a positive experience that’s already present in the foreground or the background of your awareness, such as a physical pleasure, a sense of determination, or feeling close to someone. Or create a positive experience for yourself. For example, you could think about things for which your grateful, bring to mind a friend or recognise a task you’ve completed.
In the context of creating art, this could be being mindful whilst you create, observing the feeling of the flow-state if you get into it, or simply observing the pleasure you get from the way the paint feels on your brush, the colours in your palette.
Or it could be taking-in the result of your creative session if you’re pleased with it. For me I love to put a picture I’m pleased with as the homescreen on my phone for a few days, so I can repeatedly experience the deep satisfaction of seeing it.
Step 2. Enrich it
Stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds or longer. Open to the feelings in it and try to sense it in your body; let it fill your mind. Enjoy it. Gently encourage the experience to be more intense. Notice what it is about it that feels so good to you personally.
Step 3. Absorb it
Intend and sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it. Let it really land in your mind. Perhaps visualize it sifting down into you like golden dust, or feel it easing you like a soothing balm. Or place it like a jewel in the treasure chest of your heart. Know that the experience is becoming part of you, a resource inside that you can take with you wherever you go.
Step 4. Link positive and negative material (optional)
While having a vivid and stable sense of a positive experience in the foreground of awareness, also be aware of something negative in the background.
For example if you are feeling pleased with a painting you have completed, you could allow the experience to make contact with times from the past when you have felt frustrated with your artwork, or frustrated by your lack of creating art all.
If the negative material hijacks your attention, drop it and focus only on the positive; when you feel recentered in the positive, you can let the negative also be present in awareness if you like.
The idea is that by bringing to mind a related negative experience whilst you’re feeling deeply positive, then your brain begins to rewire to link the two experiences together. Then when you find yourself thinking about how long you didn’t paint for again, you’re more likely to recall with it the experience of the painting you were happy with, instead of lamenting wasted time (for example).
This process is what Hanson calls weaving inner strengths into the fabric of your brain, or ‘hardwiring happiness’.
Not about suppressing the negative
Crucially this focus on positive experiences is not about denying, repressing or suppressing ‘negative’ emotions. They are a part of being human and are as valuable and necessary as they are often uncomfortable . But by savouring positive experiences we can be better placed to meet the challenges in our lives.
So let’s prioritise creating art!
It’s all too easy to let creating art plummet right down your daily to-do list. Constantly dropped for ‘more important’ tasks you feel you ‘should’ do such as cleaning the house, a few hours more work, meeting a friend who actually drains you…
Since you’re reading this blog post, I’ll assume that making art is something that brings you enjoyment (or could if you were more confident in your artistic skills).
If that’s the case, then the neuroscience is clear: prioritising it, along with other feel-good activities such as a form of exercise you enjoy, is actually going to grow your inner strengths over time.
Far from being a frivolous or self indulgent hobby, it’s part of what’s key to experiencing a fulfilling life.
Why not experiment with this? Schedule an art session twice a week or more, use the HEAL method with it, and see how you feel 3 months from now.
Or do you have an experience of making this discovery for yourself?
What has a regular art practice done for you? I’d love to hear, so please leave a comment below.