There are 2 things that always inspire me. One is Free Will Astrology written be Rob Brezsny and the other is the paper tags on Yogi tea bags. It is not unusual for me to save them, tape them to the pages of my working journals so that I can linger in the space between their sentences and take as much time as I care to take pondering the kooky and insightful messages. Free Will Astrology, if you have never encountered it is a wonderful combination of humor and thoughtfulness connected by the intimacy of feeling like someone deeply cares about your birthday enough to write about it weekly… and I have to say there is an unusual pleasure it that. The tags on Yogi tea bags too, are precious little moments when the universe poignantly reminds me to remember the important things.
I take deep pleasure in my interactions with these two experiences, they are wonderful little happiness boosters. And yesterday I found that someone else appreciates at least one of them as well. During a FB check in I found the Libra post from this week at the top of my news feed, a friend with a big decision on her mind had posted it… Its message was very much about remembering to let yourself break out of living what Annie Dillard called an itsy bitsy life. My friend’s horoscope was so relevant to her current situation and it was also a reminder to me about showing up in the world and in ones life. It was just another confirmation of the fact that life is to be appreciated and lived as fully as possible.
I’m thinking about this a lot lately, and it again occurred to me the other day while I was working on a book talk I’m doing at the local library on Brainstorm written by Dr. Daniel Siegel a psychiatrist who studies interpersonal neurobiology (how neurologically and biochemically we respond during human interactions or a medical way of saying attachment theory). One of the points made in the book is that the adolescent brain is wired for novelty. Adoloesence is a time for risk taking and innovation and creativity and exploring ones place in the world. It is also a time when relationships are challenging between adults and kids. Siegel makes a very interesting point about adults needing to mindful of and reconnect with their own spirit of playfulness and novelty seeking. In many ways growing up makes us less receptive to creativity and less open to our own needs and desires for spontaneity and to try new and goofy things. He points out that by reconnecting to our own kid like selves we are able to maintain better relationships and practice empathy with our kids and develop appreciation and tolerance for the period of life that is unfairly and stereotypically considered awful and challenging. Contemplating these points reminded me of an amazing study I discovered in my year long study of Positive Psychology. One which and I find myself coming back to it again and again.
In 1979 Ellen Langer a mindfulness researcher did an unusual and brilliant study called the Counterclockwise study. In it she had aged men live in an environment that replicated their young and vibrant lives and she asked that they spend their time behaving as though they were currently living at the age appropriate to the environment, that is as if they were 20 years younger. They were interviewed before and after their study experience, as were their friends and family. They were given physicals and had other various measurements taken which were recorded and compared. Remarkably at the end of this study amazing things emerged. The participants looked, acted, felt and were “medically” younger than before they had entered the study. These study participants had reconnected with themselves as younger more vibrant individuals… and it showed.
After my morning bus run and returning to the car with a mocha from the Starbucks near the kids bus stop I heard Ira Glass from This American Life interviewing David Saderis. It was a rerun from several years ago just after Mr Saderis had written Me Talk Pretty One Day. Listening in while they chatted at a street side cafe in Paris I felt right at home while I sipped my own extravagantly luxurious coffee. The conversation was very compelling. Mr Sederis was commenting on seeing Paris in a uniquely novel and inquisitive way. As usual he was hilarious and poignant. As I drove home it occurred to me that as we age many of us become more and more closed up in our itsy bitsy lives, less spontaneous and less open to seeing the novelty and potential in our own everyday experiences. And many many of us think it is due to the environments we feel confined to.. the job, the town, the spouse, the kids, the social expectations, the school… but its not. In fact research by positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky indicates that only 10% of our well being is determined by our environment and circumstances (as long as all of our basic needs have been met) 50% is genetic predisposition and the other 40% of our experience of wellbeing is determined by our conscious and intentional behavior….. or the behavior that isn’t particularly conscious or intentional. 40% of our well being is determined by where we mindfully focus our attention. So reconnecting to the playful self, engaging in seeking novelty, getting out in the world and experiencing it in new and fun ways makes a difference in our lives in both our mental and physical health. As I continued driving I considered the more lively periods of my life, I thought about when I felt I had been at my best… and what was happening then that hasn’t been happening lately. What was I engaging in then that had since slipped away?
A confluence of thoughts, ideas and memories flooded my mind. “Behavior in one environment does not necessarily predict behavior in another environment” Ken Danford said as I sat in a replication workshop presented in 2011 at North Star self directed learning for teens. What an idea, of course why had I never thought of that before. And there in the car thinking about the counterclockwise study, and living in Paris and the adolescent brain, Sonja L and North Star, it occurred to me that the new age cliche “you create your own reality” is pretty spot on. The internal environment we create for ourselves by what we think and what be believe about who we are and how we allow ourselves or feel allowed to behave in the world determines the itsy bitsy-ness of our lives. And how that internal environment is supported and reinforced by cultural expectations or other people’s ideas of the itsy bitsy-ness effects how we show up in the world. The external environment with its 10% has some impact on informing our experience but the combination of those 2 environments the internal and external has a compounding effect.
That day in 2011 Ken Danford was specifically speaking about adolescence when he made the statement ….”Behavior in one environment does not necessarily predict behavior in another environment”. He was speaking about exactly what Sonja L. talks about in the How of Happiness and what Dan Siegel refers to in Brainstorm. When we pigeon hole our ourselves and our kids we get stuck in the smallness of living. When we allow for an environment that encourages the bigness of self discovery in our adult lives and during adolescence, we acknowledge that the brain always has significant growth opportunity. When we encourage instead of limit this, when we listen to the opportunity instead of shutting down … considerably different behaviors emerge. Our relationships thrive, our awareness expands our receptivity to new information increases, our knowledge acquisition and retention improves and the receptivity to living our best lives exists in all of us no matter our developmental stage. When the internal and external environments allow for and encourages mindfulness and free, playful exploration of what is truly interesting in our lives, the world opens up. We open up and we allow others to open up as well. We create our own reality and our world no longer feels like it has to be itsy bitsy.
After reflecting on my cascading thoughts , my most lively self and the immense possibilities in life, I contacted several friends that afternoon and in a half serious way I told them that my day had “made me think about wanderlust and friends and investing in curiosity! Let’s go…. a week in Paris with friends in a big house… having fun and exploring life” I can tell you in that moment life didn’t seem itsy bitsy to any of us…. we sounded like a bunch of giddy middle schoolers dreaming about possibilities.
So here’s to horoscopes and tea bags, big decisions, tumbled together thoughts, Paris and acting like a kid again!