‘Dear Mum and Dad’. On being fully present.

Dear Mum and Dad

Please don’t worry too much about what you might have heard about the fire at school. We’re all fine. And it was quite exciting with all the fire engines and confusion.

I did break my leg jumping out of the second floor window but the school nurse was very nice and the hospital is so close by, it wasn’t too painful walking there. They put a cast on after a few hours waiting and I’m fine now. The doctor said I should be back on games in a year or so.

My new boyfriend Jerry has been a great help. He’s one of the hospital porters and is previously married with two tiny children who are just lovely. So cute. He’s very keen to bring them down to meet the rest of our family before we make any further plans. I know you’ll like him.

I’d better go now – my room-mate Sally has made some friends from outside of school and we’re meeting them in the supermarket car park down the road. They sound really interesting.

I’ll call soon – hope you’re all well and the dog isn’t missing me too much.

Lots of love.

Becky.

PS.

None of the above is true.

What is true is that I think I’ve failed my English exam.

I just wanted you to keep a sense of proportion.

This letter, and versions of it, have been doing the rounds for a few years now. It’s a neat way of raising the question of how we keep things in perspective in our daily lives; how we maintain a healthy sense of proportion.

Parents want certain things for their children; we all have our goals, ambitions, and hopes. Each one of us lives with personal fears and none of us is free from problems. The very fact of being alive – that stuff happens to us as well as because of us – means that with the smooth comes the rough. You cannot have one without the other.

The fact is: everything matters. Details matter. The daily events and challenges, the problems and their solutions, these are the stuff of our daily existence. Under-performing in an exam is not what any of us want; failure matters. And, particularly in the happy absence of greater threats and worries, this is a big deal. The worries of tomorrow do have to be met. We should not respond by drifting off into a comforting netherworld of reassuring psychobabble or bury ourselves in distractions, worthy or otherwise. Nor is it productive to beat ourselves up mercilessly over our failures.

Each of us experiences different doses of rough and smooth through our lifetimes. There are common experiences – exam or interview nerves, pain, bereavement – but there is no sense that these are evenly distributed (far from it), nor that we each feel these human experiences in the same way. We hear news every day of fellow human beings far worse off than ourselves; people who would rightly be staggered at the smallness of our worries compared to relentless and fundamental sufferings that others endure day by day. And yet, for me at least, I’ve never found the point that there are plenty people worse off than me to be of that much comfort; nor that it could have been much worse if things had happened a little differently.

So, how might we get relief (if you’ll pardon the pun) from life’s ups and downs? How can we retain a healthy sense of perspective? Lots of wise things have been said by thinkers and writers over the ages on the question of staying happiness and wellbeing. In these rather gloomy January days, such questions may be even more pressing than in the lighter days of summer.

Some suggest that it is about taking time to step back from, perhaps to hover above, our problems. This elevation then gives the chance to consider the issue in the broader sweep of our lives. What looks like a big bump when viewed up close, diminishes when we widen the lens of perception. It’s still there, and needs to be clambered over, but when we then descend back to the present issue, we may feel it is less imposing.

A second suggestion is to lose ourselves for some time, and regularly, in the concerns of others. We tend to get mired in our own problems, turning inward and growing depressed and frustrated. Finding ways to serve and help others makes us feel better. Extending ourselves to others helps recalibrate our settings and refreshes our perspective.

Alan Watts, a British philosopher whose birthday it was yesterday, argued that the heart of the issue of perspective is to do with our desire for security and certainty. In his 1951 book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, he suggests that we misguidedly pursue certainty; but this is not an achievable aim. It also keeps us oscillating between an unsatisfying view of past and an insecure view of the future – neither of which provide a sense of wellbeing. As such, he says, we need to accept the fluid and unpredictable nature of things. Watts goes on to say that we are at our happiest when we are fully immersed in the present – rather than dwelling on the past or agonising about what lies ahead. We can take control of certain things (the revision for the English exam); other things happen to us (fires, floods, illness). But the thing which we can always reliably control is our attention to the present moment.

Watts wants us to put our full effort into the here and now. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the future and respect and treasure the past. We each exist on a timeline and we do need to prepare for what lies further up the line. Rather, he suggests that the current moment is where our default setting should be. Being fully present – being concentrated on the task at hand – these are the times when we are most productive. When we are painting, or playing hockey, or solving a maths equation, or playing the oboe – we are not thinking, ‘I am playing the oboe’ or ‘i am solving this quadratic equation.’ We are what we are doing.

So, the third suggestion is that we should endeavour to be fully present in what we are doing. We should maximise the amount of our time we spend in this mode of full absorption. This is the state in which we are happiest; when the issue of proportion does not trouble us. And at the other times, the good and the not so good, when we stand back and take stock of the landscape of our lives, we need to keep a healthy sense of perspective. And, having taken a good look, we need to get back to the task at hand with our fullest and best attention.

Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing – Prof Tanya Byron inspires and encourages St Peter’s York staff

“Kids should understand their brains; they should understand their whole bodies”.

So said Professor Tanya Byron, consultant clinical psychologist, as she gave an interactive presentation to the teaching and support staff at St Peter’s School, 3-18, the week before the pupils returned for the new academic year.

Professor Byron is a well-known broadcaster and columnist specialising in children’s mental health.   It turns out that she has a soft spot for York, having studied as an undergraduate at York University. So, despite her crammed diary, we were lucky in tempting her up to St Peter’s for an afternoon to talk to our teaching and support staff.

Tanya combines expert knowledge with unstuffy directness and a winning ability to take the stigma out of some very complex mental health issues. Despite the serious nature of her subject, her explanations are gloriously free from clinical pomposity; she connects brilliantly with people and she is not afraid to make jokes – particularly at her own expense. A published author, whose expert opinion is sought on myriad facets of parenting, Professor Byron told her audience that her children have promised her they will write a book on her. The working title? “Great with other people’s kids; sh*t with her own”.

Yes, she’s a straight-talking Professor. Disarmingly honest, likely to call a spade a spade (this goes down well in Yorkshire), Professor Byron encouraged colleagues working across the age range, from Nursery to Sixth Form, to talk openly about mental health concerns. Her talk addressed the psychology behind a wide range of issues and she went on to share various ideas on how to begin to address anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders.

In her talk, Professor Byron described the children of 21st century Britain as “the most emotionally articulate generation of all” who are “better at asking for help” than any before. This is the good news – because the mental health issues they are facing are greater than ever before. “We need to understand the psychology of anxiety”, said Professor Byron, explaining that 75% of individual mental health issues will manifest when a person is between the ages of 14 and 23. She described the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as being “in absolute crisis” and urged schools – particularly those with strong pastoral care such as independent boarding schools – to lead the way in preventing and managing mental health issues in the young.

In a balanced message, Professor Byron also warned against the “ridiculous over-protectiveness of our children” of which some parents are guilty, citing the effect that a risk-averse society has on children who “don’t know how to fail” and “lack emotional resilience”. She urged schools to encourage risk-taking (within sensible limits). “What child in their right mind is going to want to climb a tree that has been deemed safe?”, she quipped, and went on to celebrate the value of boredom – “It grows your imagination” – and the perils of over-praising children.

In just short of 90 minutes, Professor Byron gave us a “decatastrophised” but urgent message that the mental wellbeing of our children should be high up every school and every parent’s list of things to talk about – and that we need to get busy doing something about it.

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter's 3-18 on children's mental health

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter’s 3-18 on children’s mental health

Connecting for Happiness. Thoughts on International Happiness Day, the Eclipse and Comic Relief

Connecting for Happiness

Yesterday the sun was obscured by the moon, the temperature dropped noticeably and the daylight turned to twilight at 9.34 in the morning of what was International Day of Happiness.  As a school, we were all out, with the help of York Astronomical Society, safely viewing and enjoying the passage of the moon in front of the sun.  It was a great communal event, and a wonderful thing to happen on a day of happiness that focused this year on connecting with others.

International Happiness Day came exactly a week on from Red Nose Day 2015, which we celebrated heartily at my school, St Peter’s 3-18, with our biennial fancy dress day.  Comic Relief is a wonderful cause: it fuels – as well as exemplifies – the sense of community that exists in a thriving school.  It is also a moment when the sense of internal community is completely in step with the community at large, indeed the national community.

Comic Relief is a great fund raiser and a great connector.  Whilst it is a day of laughter and legitimised silliness, its mission addresses squarely the fact that we live in a world where not everyone enjoys the same life chances; not everyone has the same opportunities to live happy lives.  Red Nose Day is also, founded on the simple and profound truth that laughter is part of our common humanity.  Laughter is a great connector.  And happiness is something that can be grown.  Sure, it doesn’t and can’t solve all the world’s problems.  But growing happiness actively and concertedly can help.

I spoke to the pupils about international Day of Happiness, suggesting that an awareness day doesn’t imply that everyone has to be happy that day; neither does it imply that happiness can be manufactured.  It doesn’t imply that every other day of the year is for unhappiness.  Rather, it’s a day to raise awareness that as individuals, with our good will and proper attention, can make a difference to the happiness of those around us, and therefore to our own.

The more cynically-minded may suspect such positivist occasions as being naïve and feeble – mere candles held out in the stormy night.  I would say simply that happiness is about action.  And action is what brings change.

As the Action For Happiness movement argues: “After years of happiness research, one thing has proved fundamental – the importance of our connections with other people.  Yet modern societies are built as if the opposite was true. We are surrounded by people, yet we feel genuinely connected to almost none of them. The effects are devastating.  Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking; and the epidemic of loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity. We could change this in a day if we all reached out and made at least one positive connection. The best place to start is with our own daily actions. Here are five simple but proven things that, according to Action For Happiness, we can all do to help create a happier and more connected world:

  1. Do something kind for others

What goes around comes around – and with kindness it really does. Research shows that being kind to others increases our  own levels of happiness as well as theirs. What’s more it has a knock-on effect – kindness is contagious, so it makes our communities nicer places to be.

  1. Volunteer your time, energy and skills

Whether it’s a one-off or something you do on a regular basis, volunteering is good all round. As well as making a positive contribution to the happiness of others, it’s a great way to meet people, get the most out of your local area and to increase your own happiness and wellbeing.

  1. Get to know your neighbours better

Getting to know the people who live nearby helps create a sense of belonging and shared identity in our local area. It also helps to strengthen connections and trust in our wider communities and contributes to a happier neighbourhood for everyone.

  1. Understand each other’s needs

Good communication is at the heart of happy relationships of all kinds. It’s about understanding others’ needs and having our needs heard. And it’s a skill that can be learned that will help deepen our connections with the people around us.

  1. Look for the good in those around you

It’s easy to take our nearest and dearest for granted. Constant criticism can be highly destructive, but we often fall into this trap, especially in established relationships. But if we take time to bring to mind what we value and appreciate about others, we can both get more enjoyment from our time together

Schools are in the lucky position of being close, day-to-day communities where you can see the immediate effect of actions, and where the words we use can change the way we behave.  Every day gives us a chance to grow happiness around us and inside ourselves.

@actionforhappiness @yorkastro

Play Attention: playfulness and absorption in learning and living.

We must remember how to play.  So our Chaplain reminded us recently.  Total absorption in something fun – in play – is not only a good thing in itself, but play is also necessary for our well-being; play is refreshing and regenerative.

You sometimes hear people talking about ‘work-life balance’.  I have always felt this to be a rather negative & unhelpful polarisation: an unnecessary one.  The reason why I refer to school as “serious fun” is because, at best, our learning lives cater for the whole of our being.  We are not always serious, we are not always at play.  Each activity has the potentiality for the full richness of human emotions.

‘Work-life balance’ implies that the two are mutually exclusive.  Similarly, the saying that you should ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’, makes the same category mistake.  Life, fun, work – surely, they should all be the same thing.  In other words, if you view life and work as part of the same whole thing, and you value play as part of work and life, there is now balance.  You are not creating a tension of opposites, but rather a forward-moving dynamic.  You are absorbed in the enjoyment of living and learning.  Forget work-life balance: live life to the full and aim to enjoy something about everything.

As children, we grow up playing and yet, gradually, the time given over to play slips away; bit by bit, the imaginative play gives way to increasingly formalised and regularised modes of play, for example, through individual and team sport.  Interesting that in many independent schools we talk about our sporting programme as ‘Games’.

I certainly don’t see a contradiction in the phrase ‘serious fun’.  At heart, all learning, all activity, should have a sense of play about it.  Certainly, some occasions and situations demand a sombre formality: Remembrance Sunday is not a moment for play.  But, most settings, even the serious, can benefit from the perspective and relief that comes from moments of playfulness.

Is there a difference between good play and bad play?  If so, what is it about good play that makes it good.  I’d like to suggest that good play is refreshing in some way.  Although it takes energy, it should also be generative.  If you play properly, it is enriching for all involved.  Play properly, I remember saying to a cousin who had stopped trying in a tennis match.  In order to give play true meaning and value, we have to take it seriously.

The Chaplain ruled activities such as computer-gaming as lower or lesser forms of play.  My instant response was to nod inwardly.  Hours of mindless semi-comatose button-pressing does not seem energising or enriching.  But when I see my son on Minecraft creative, I can see that it is a valuable mode of play.  Like most things, there is a law of diminishing returns – the longer you play on the same activity, without variation, the less playful it gets.  At the heart of play, then, is invention, imagination, creativity. And that is why play can, and indeed should, be part of learning.  Play isn’t something that can only happen in our free time; it can happen in more structured time, through our co-curricular activities, of course – this is want we might call formalised play; and it needs to happen in our learning.

Now, let’s be clear.  I’m not saying that the classroom or the lab are the same as the playground or our back gardens.  We all need to adopt a formal persona in the classroom.  We are working in a group, and group behaviour, led by an expert – ie a teacher – needs to follow formal patterns.  But, good teaching and learning allows space for the spirit of creativity and intellectual play.  All academic subjects have room for invention, for the absorption of play.

Over the holidays I read a book by Paul Dolan, a professor at LSE and government wellbeing advisor, called “Happiness By Design”.  Dolan’s central idea is that we are happy if and when we have a good mix of two key ingredients in life: pleasure and purpose.  Pleasure linked to purpose is the optimal source of happiness.  And much of our happiness and joy, or misery and anxiety, depends on what we choose to pay attention to.

“The “science of happiness” […]  is full of bizarre and contradictory findings. Parents report that parenting makes life much more meaningful, yet seem to experience no more pleasure than non-parents; more money doesn’t lead [automatically] to more happiness […]. One problem, he [Dolan] argues, is that psychologists simply try to find out which “inputs” – income, work, marital status, age, religiosity and so on – are correlated with the “output” of happiness. But in fact happiness also depends on how we allocate attention to those things. Imagine two biscuit factories, one run well, the other incompetently: they might have identical inputs (sugar, flour, labour, electricity) yet produce very different quantities of biscuits, depending on their production processes. The same goes for manufacturing happiness. Attention, Dolan writes, “acts as a production process that converts stimuli into happiness”. Attention is a scarce resource: give it to one thing, and by definition you can’t give it to something else. If you’re not as happy as you could be, “you must be misallocating your attention“.

“Even if it isn’t easy, Dolan makes a persuasive case that happiness might really be simple. His book is a powerful reminder not to get caught up in overthinking things, but to focus instead on maximising what actually delivers joy. [Dolan’s conclusion is that we should] “Listen more to your real feelings of happiness than to your reflections on how happy you think you are or ought to be.” Oliver Burkemann, Guardian.

This, to me at least, suggests that part of the key to deep happiness is in applying our attention actively and positive.  The Buddhists would call this ‘right mindfulness’, which is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.  Whatever our activity, whether ‘work’ or ‘play’, it is full commitment and absorption that gives the activity real value.  It is the things to which we choose to give our full attention, are the things that will give us the truest rewards of happiness and purpose.  By this reckoning, we should pay attention to the things that give us purpose and pleasure; we should focus our attention on the pleasurable aspects inherent in all the tasks we are obliged to do.  And we must learn playfully and play seriously.  And, whatever we are doing, we should pay attention.