Monthly Archives: October 2013

Happiness is where you live

What makes people or nations happier than others? The World Happiness Index released last month  lists Denmark as the world happiest country followed by Norway and Switzerland.

All these European countries are very affluent by world standards. But why are other wealthy countries like the United States  not right up there among the leading “happy nations.”

What stands out in Denmark, Norway and Switzerland is their excellent health care and education system which are regarded as a basic human right. This is sustainable development. The people, especially mothers, families and children, are seen as the most important asset, literally the golden gateway to the future.

The Happiness Report lists six other key variables that explains three-quarters of the variation in annual national average scores over time and among countries. These six factors include:

  • real GDP per capita
  • healthy life expectancy
  • someone to count on
  • perceived freedom to make life choices
  • freedom from corruption and generosity.

Another key aspect mentioned in the report is mental health:

“Some studies show mental health to be the single most important determinant of whether a person is happy or not. Yet, even in rich countries, less than a third of mentally ill people are in treatment. Good, cost-effective treatments exist for depression, anxiety disorders and psychosis, and the happiness of the world would be greatly increased if they were more widely available.”

The report goes on to say that “happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens. Well-being should be developed both for its own sake and for its side-effects.”

One other aspect needs to be noted in these “happy nations” . Corruption and crime is extremely low by international standards. All the countries renowned for their corruption and crime, sadly including my own home country South Africa, are pretty much down at the bottom of the list.

If a government cannot protect its own people from being mugged, raped or robbed, it is on a fast downward spiral. The best talents in a country are bound to emigrate to those countries where they feel safe, can live their full potential and be happy.


Some would argue that happiness is all a state of mind, wherever you live. That, I think, is too simplistic and approach. What I read from the Happiness Report is that you need some decisive preconditions that only good governance can provide:

  • You need enough material resources to provide for basic needs
  • The opportunity to live a long and healthy life with your loved ones.
  • A good education and the freedom of choice to do what you find to be your life’s purpose
  • Freedom from crime and corruption

Quoting the Dalai Lama: “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”

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Improve your mental health with mindfulness training

A growing number of companies are realizing that the mental health of their employees is a real issue on a competitive market, demanding maximum output and performance.


I have just come back from a creative brainstorming session with a group of people involved in corporate health management. There are really interesting developments out there.


Burnout and other psychological and social stress factors at the work place are a complex issue. But companies and individuals can do much to boost their stress resilience. So how do we deal with stress?


What is generally described as burnout often comes at the end of a long period of having to deal with the same stress situation, like having to work in a dysfunctional team. Some of us in high-powered jobs have become so accustomed to a stress situation that we have lost touch to the needs of our innermost being, the basic physical need for a rest or time-out.


Prior to a burnout, patients often withdraw behind a protective wall as they stomp the work treadmill, cutting themselves off from family and friends.


Neurological research has found, that those grey brain cells in the prefrontal cortex of our brain, that is also responsible for feelings such as empathy, are greatly affected during stress. Certain regions of the brain and body are literally switched off to mobilize all resources to combat a perceived fear or threat.


Several researchers such as molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn and neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson have looked at ancient Buddhist mindfulness training techniques. What Buddhist monks have practised for centuries can be a most effective way to boost your stress resilience and train your mental state of mind to be more content and happy.




Zinn has developed from Buddhist practises his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique. The good news is that even though stress causes a reduction of brain cells in such regions as the prefrontal cortex, techniques that make you relax enable the brain to regenerate completely. Relaxation techniques such as meditation can even help you develop new mental capacities .


It starts with self-compassion and loving yourself and your body. By treating yourself with respect and loving care, you will be more mindful of others and your surroundings. Developing more self-compassion is a powerful tool at staying mentally healthy. But in order to overcome mental patterns that have formed barriers over many years it is necessary to keep up a regular training routine. Try out the 40 day method which I wrote about in one of my recent blogs. An effective mental training routine can be followed over three steps:


  • Relaxing: Yoga, Taiji, or Qi Gong exercises help the body to relax. Especially if these exercises are accompanied by a mental image. “I feel all the weight of my mind flowing out of my head through my body and into the ground…”


  • Focusing: Sit down in a meditation position, focusing all your attention on your breath, observing what feelings and emotions come to the surface without being judgmental to yourself about them and wanting to change them, for example: “Ah, there is anger, or fear or sadness or joy.”


  • Loving meditation: With the third step you focus all your attention on yourself as an outside observer wishing you all the best of health and happiness in your life. Then you move on thinking of a special person in your life who makes your heart glow with loving warmth. Send this person all your love and good energy. Then send all that loving energy to a stranger you don’t know or might have just spotted on the subway. After that comes the hardest part, sending all that loving energy to a person you don’t like or has done you harm. End the meditation by focusing again only on your breath inhaling and exhaling. Then open your eyes and start your day.

 More information on the Five Elements in my book “Yield and Overcome”

Rick Hanson: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom 







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Is “stress” a myth?

ImageIf we feel and look around us we so often find ourselves “driven” by forces out of our control that we perceive as stressful. We find ourselves under pressure, in a constant state of hectic activity with no time to relax. More and more people are succumbing to these pressures with a burnout, depression or other psychological disorders.


Not a day goes by without some publication, giving us some tip on how to deal with the stresses of modern life.


In psychological terms stress is defined as a psychological and physical response of the body in reaction to changing conditions. These conditions may be real or perceived and has a powerful effect on mental functioning.


The last point is particularly poignant. Is having stress all in the mind? A lot of recent medical research is focusing on just this question. Some people obviously manage to deal much better with change than others.


Why do some people really take off when they are under pressure, finding in themselves enormous stamina and creative flow while others doing the same work under the same conditions suffer from chronic exhaustion and end up having a burnout.


I think its time to put some things into perspective. Compared to previous generations and compared to much of humanity in the so-called Third World, we in the industrialised West live a pretty comfortable life – at least in material terms. In order to get something to eat, we merely take a drive down to the next supermarket where we have a choice of foods that no other generation ever experienced. We have warm homes in winter with central heating and in the warmer areas air conditioning in summer. We have a life expectancy that is much higher on average than that of our great-grandparents.


Would you really want to go back in time to the Middle Ages when people lived in constant fear of dying in warfare, from famine or disease. The wealthiest king or queen did not have the choice and comforts of life that the average person enjoys today. So what has gone wrong? Why are we so under stress?


Today’s stress is primarily not about physical but about emotional and social survival.


When we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system initiates a “fight or flight” reaction, restricting blood flow, raising blood pressure, releasing adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol, slowing body functions so that all energy can be used to fight the stressor. After the perceived danger has passed, the parasympathetic system takes over, decreasing heartbeat and relaxing blood vessels.


In our modern world our stress response is activated so frequently that the nervous system doesn’t have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress. There is a chronic imbalance between activity and relaxation. It is very often the same type of stress over a long period of time that takes its toll.


In my consultancy for many different types of business on corporate health issues, there appear to be several common denominators that cause negative stress among employees, leading to growing absenteeism from burnout or depression:

Here are the most common:


  • Management that fails to communicate to its employees that they are really valued as fellow human beings. Simple acts of courtesy fall by the wayside with employees merely seen as “a human resource” costing xxxx number of dollars or euros a month.

  • Performance is measured merely in individual output with social skills such as team play not being taken into consideration.

  • Total control with little or no freedom in utilising personal skills or creativity

  • Round the clock availability via email or cell phone, even during vacation time

  • Finding no meaning, vision or real perspective in the job one is doing

  • No time allowed or taken for real breaks where colleagues can communicate with each other

  • No time for relaxation or physical exercise during work time


People don’t just go to work to earn money. It is the place where they spend the largest portion of their lives, where they interact with fellow human beings, seek meaning in their lives and find the challenges that make them grow and become fully human. Companies that really understand this and train their managers to lead people rather than machines will inevitably lead the field, even in highly competitive market segments.









More information on the Five Elements in my book “Yield and Overcome”




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