Wellbeing continued: Outlook
According to Richard Davidson, there are 4 pillars of Wellbeing. Resilience being 1 of them. So what are the others, how do they relate to brain science and how does this new knowledge help us as parents and caregivers of our children?
The second factor of wellbeing is Outlook: The way we look at and view the world. This includes our ability to see the positive in others, and situations, and our ability to savour positive experiences. Neuroscientists have found the underlying circuitry in the brain associated with this aspect of wellbeing. And, unlike in the case of resilience, research indicates that the circuits associated with Outlook can be re-wired quite quickly. A well-cited study showed that the neuro-circuitry associated with positive outlook can be strengthened within 2 weeks. In the study, participants practiced 30mins of loving kindness and compassion training per day.
I teach this training to children as part of the mindfulness curriculum, and am always blown away at how earnestly they play along and how quickly they experience a shift in feelings. This practice in particular is one of those that constantly reminds me that our children are naturally kind and compassionate. We humans are innately built this way.
The practice involves bringing someone to mind and then setting intentions for them. Phrases such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” are repeated to help maintain focus.
Initially we focus on sending compassionate thoughts to a loved one and ourselves. Then, we direct compassion and forgiveness towards a stranger or group of people who are suffering. With older kids, we may also practice compassion for someone they may have a conflict with.
Teaching compassion and kindness to our children can help them increase their emotional intelligence and better understand their own emotions as well as those of others. This of course is a prime tool against bullying, and also helps those of our kids with any social anxieties.
Aside from this mindfulness practice, there are lots of ways in which we can be building our childrens neural networks of compassion. Here are some practical ideas:
- Walk the Talk
Of course, number 1 has to be to show them what compassion looks like. Our children are watching, oftentimes more than they are listening, to us!
Be on the look out for when you can demonstrate compassion. If you can’t do it for yourself –do it for them!!
How can you help someone out or show you care, in your everyday activities?
Even when we’re frustrated or angry with someone we can show and teach compassion. We can choose to be respectful with our words and tone, even when showing our displeasure!
- Show them how compassion feels
Even more important than demonstrating compassion to others, is allowing our kids to experience compassion first-hand.
Of course it goes without saying that we provide abundant TLC to our children when they are hurt or sick, but now we are armed with the neuroscience of compassion, let’s make sure we keep an extra C for this in there too!
3. Talk the Talk
As well as seeing and feeling compassion, our children can learn more if we talk about it. Communicate its importance as a family value by explicitly talking about acts of compassion. Point out where you witnessed acts of compassion throughout your day and encourage them to start noticing it (or its lack and where it could have been used) in theirs.
4. Read About It
Children’s books are another great tool for initiating conversation and understanding compassion.
There are heaps of good books out there. Here’s 2 examples:
Biographies of famous figureheads of compassion, such as the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa are also great, particularly for older kids.
As well as talking about it, you can also get out and about involved in compassion! When children become actively involved in acts of showing compassion to others, they learn about this value in a very deep and enduring way.
Here are some ideas:
There are endless opportunities to help out others in need. So find age-appropriate ones for your children to get involved. E.g. visiting a nursing home and sharing a craft activity with a resident, serving meals at a homeless shelter, organising a canned food or toys collection, or participating in a charity activity.
6. Care for a Pet
Pets are a great way for teaching many values, including compassion. If you don’t have one, you could offer to look after someone else’s whilst they’re on holiday, or volunteer at a local animal rescue shelter.
7. Wear it!
A few years ago silicone wristbands were all the rage. One of these that caught my eye was the Compassion It band. a two-tone band that you turn over to the other side when you’ve done a compassionate deed. I love the visual daily reminder to be on the lookout for ways to be compassionate. Of course you don’t need to use this particular band. Our imagination is our only limit when it comes to how we could instill daily reminders to be on the lookout for compassion and keep it at the forefront of our mind and family discussions.
8. Teach children curiosity instead of judgement.
Play Multiple Meanings
Sabina Nawaz, wrote about this game in the Harvard Business Review, and I particularly like it as I used to do this as a teen at train stations!
As she explains:
“We take turns creating stories from observations of people and events on trips to and from school. For example, if we see a man walking rapidly on the footpath with tattooed arms and a sleeveless vest, we might make up a story that he’s late for work because his car broke down, so he’s walking fast to get help. Maybe he owns a tattoo parlor across the bridge and is a walking advertisement for his business. Or maybe he’s meeting someone in the park and is running late.
Our children then use the skill when they’re upset about something at home or at school. This is especially helpful when my sons argue and come to me for mediation. To reduce the heat in the conflict, I ask: “What other meanings can you make about why your brother borrowed your Lego aeroplane?” The goal is to be able to calm themselves down and be more empathetic, so they approach someone else with curiosity instead of judgement.”
In a world where we are more connected by technology than ever before, but less connected on the human-human and emotional level, what would happen if we shifted the paradigm from head down, mind our own business, to eyes up, wondering about everybody else?
If we teach our children to wonder about people, even those who may seem threatening, we might just become more connected and start to rebuild the ‘villages’. If we teach our children that people really only become angry with others when they are angry themselves, or only lash out at others because they feel threatened themselves, how could the world look?
I can’t tell you the amount of times a person has begun their desired change right in front of my eyes by me simply asking them about their lives and struggles instead of rushing to solve the immediate issue at hand. As a psychologist I would always hold in the forefront of my mind that we are all doing the best we can with the resources we currently have. This reminded me to not enter judgment but simply to meet the person where they were at and try and help them find some resources to help them get around or across the hump.
In Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong, she asks her husband if he believes people are doing the best they can. His response was this: “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”
As parents we have the opportunity to equip our children with an inner toolbox which will set them up for the rest of their lives. Helping them to navigate the inevitable bumps along the way.
Teaching them to be curious about people and consider the reasons underlying behaviours is not only teaching them compassion but also gifting them a tool to be able to observe their own behaviours and underlying mechanisms. This is an essential skill to have when it comes to maintaining good mental health and thriving.
In the next part we will look at the 3rd element of Wellbeing according to Dr Richard Davidson: Attention