Season on Flourishing – Physical Health

This is week three of the Season on Flourishing.

Everyone wants to be healthy and fit, but that is easier said than done. It takes hard work, dedication, and (most frustrating of all) time. Let this week be an opportunity to start that journey to better physical health, a reminder of something you’ve been wanting to do but never quite got around to. As has been often said, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have much. If you have your health, you can get everything else. Medical technology is so good these days that a lot of problems can be fixed, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Make it a priority this week to work on your physical health in the most basic and important ways – watch what you eat and get some exercise.

LEARN
● Tuesday is World Health Day. The theme this year is food safety. Take a look at the official website for information about food safety issues around the world.

● The Fooducate app is a quick way to get helpful nutritional information about your food by simply scanning the bar code on the packaging. It even suggests more healthful alternatives. Is it a perfect tool? Of course not. This app has a particular definition of healthful food that may not fit your individual diet. No nutritional tool can remove your responsibility to experiment and see what works for your body. But it can help you be more informed. It can help you quickly get more information to consider when making choices in the grocery store.

● The American College of Sports Medicine, the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world, has a lot of cool fact sheets on a variety of exercise related topics.

REFLECT
● Cook Better! There is an overwhelming wealth of cookbooks to choose from. Two classics which will teach you to cook basically anything and everything you might want to cook are Rombauer and Becker’s The Joy of Cooking and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.

For a cookbook of a more manageable size, try Leanne Brown’s Good and Cheap. This is a PDF which Brown put together as a project for her Masters Degree in Food Studies. It grew out of her desire to help people on food stamps eat more healthfully and is full of incredibly cheap, easy, quick, and delicious recipes. Moreover, the book emphasizes flexibility and gives you a good sense of how to use ingredients in different ways. And you can’t beat the sticker price of free.

If you want to learn about the science behind cooking, check out What Einstein Told his Cook by Robert Wolke.

Finally, for those with a little more time to devote to learning about cooking, here is a great list of free online cooking classes.

● Following up on our mediation from last week, try mindful eating this week. When you eat, pay attention to your food. Pay attention to how it tastes and feels, and think about the long journey it took to your plate.

● Work Out! The most effective exercise plan is the one you actually do, so be more active this week (and into the future) in whatever way works for you. Make an exercise plan, join a gym, or just get outside (it’s spring – enjoy the fresh air!) and play a game (an excellent way to get exercise without it feeling like work). You can also think about small changes to your daily routine which increase your physical activity (walk or bike instead of driving to work, take the stairs instead of the elevator). Yet while you’re doing these small, manageable things, remember that it can be a good thing to push yourself. You can’t know your limits until you run up against them.

If you’re still not sure how to start working out, here is a great introduction from the folks at Reddit. If you need a little motivation, try a commitment device like Gym-Pact. It pays you to exercise (of course, if you don’t follow through, then you end up paying someone else…).

ACT
● Cook for someone, especially someone who might not be able to do it for themselves.

● Exercise (at whatever level) with someone. Having a companion is one of the best ways to stick to an exercise plan.

● As you cultivate and celebrate your own physical health and that of others, remember that not everyone is as able bodied as you might be. Donate to an organization which supports the rights of people with physical handicaps like the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund or the National Organization on Disability.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate Physical Health Week? Let us know!

Season on Flourishing – Mental Health

This is week two of the Season on Flourishing.

We tend to only hear about people with serious mental illnesses whenever some such person is violent or when a famous person commits suicide. In reality, the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not scary (they are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence). They are mostly like everyone else. The appearance of a mental illness does not fundamentally change a person. Understanding how mental illnesses work will help dispel the fear and misunderstanding which surrounds these conditions.

More generally, it may be helpful to think of mental health by analogy to physical health. Everyone has a body and must take care of it. While some people have diseases which affect their physical health dramatically, we recognize that everyone is somewhere on the quite large spectrum from very fit to very unhealthy. Mental health works the same way. Though we often only think of mental health in relation to mental illnesses, we all lie somewhere along the mental health spectrum.

And it is important for everyone to care for that part of their lives. Why is that people who go to a therapist seem crazy but going to a doctor regularly is seen as good sense? It is widely acknowledged that a healthful diet and moderate exercise is the most important part of caring for your physical health. So too, taking your mental health seriously and caring for it as part of your daily routine goes a long way towards being happy and mentally strong.

This week we think both about those people who suffer from specific mental illnesses and about promoting and cultivating mental health generally.

LEARN
● The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a great website with a wealth of high-quality, easily accessable information about mental illness. Take a look to get the facts and statistics about mental illnesses, to get descriptions of different conditions (including warning signs and treatment options), and to get advice on dealing with one’s own illness or helping others deal with theirs.

● The problem with mental health advice for those without a clinical diagnosis isn’t that there is not enough of it, it’s that there is far too much of it, and most of it is terrible. The self-help culture in this country does a lot of damage by taking useful tidbits and making them seem like panaceas, drastically oversimplifying mental health and giving false hope to many. The road to happiness is not short, nor is it easy, but it is there to be walked and there is reliable research on the topic. Here are some of the greatest hits of that research.

REFLECT
● Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a company which manufactures anti-psychotic medications, created a virtual reality simulation of what it is like to live with Schizophrenia. Watch this brief ABC News 20/20 description of it and then this slightly longer video simulation.

● One way to care for your own mental health is meditation. Read this article promoting meditation by no less a secular thinker than Sam Harris. When you’re done with that, check out these guided meditations from the researchers at UCLA.

ACT
● Donate, volunteer, or take political action to help people suffering from mental illnesses.The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a great action-oriented page on their website. The information you need is all right there.

● You can also attend a community discussion of mental health issues.

Can you think of other ways to celebrate Mental Health Week? Let us know!

Season on Flourishing – Art

This is week one of the Season on Flourishing.

There are endless debates about what constitutes art – as if being art were some mysterious property that some objects had and others did not. As soon as someone defines artistic boundaries, though, someone else comes along and produces art which defies that definition. I think there is a reason for this. I think art is best understood, not as a noun, but as a verb. Rather than delineating the set of artistic objects, we should be thinking about relating to the world in an artistic way and cultivating artistic experiences. Specifically, I think relating to the world artistically is to see things in a non-practical way. Seeing things in a practical way is to appreciate their usefulness. Relating to things in an artistic way is to appreciate them for the immediate pleasure they afford. To look at a desk and think about how many things you can put on it is to appreciate that desk practically. To look at a desk and appreciate its color or shape is to appreciate that desk artistically. To eat and conceive of your food as nourishment is to relate to that food practically. To eat and revel in the taste of your food is to experience it artistically (it should be clear from these examples that we can relate to things in both ways at once). Standard art objects – pictures, pieces of music, etc. – are easy to relate to in an artistic way, but we should not think that they are the only things which are amenable to such artistic experience. How do you live life more artistically? Cultivate a practice of being more aware of what is around you. As you are walking down the street, turn your attention to the green of the grass and the blue of the sky. Think even of the chill in the air as a particular experience to be savored. That is living artistically.

So is making your own art.

The key here is to enjoy the process of creation. Don’t worry too much about the quality of the product. Make what you like making and don’t feel constrained to traditional art forms – Try a new recipe? That’s art. Put on a new outfit? Art. Be flexible and see where the experience takes you. Then, set whatever you have made aside. You will appreciate different aspects of it after you get some distance from it. If you want ideas about where to start or help making things, try these great resources:

● Instructables.com is a smorgasbord of interesting DIY projects with helpful step-by-step explanations. If you can think of it, it is probably on there. Craftster.org has great plans for “crafty” projects like clothing and papercrafts.

● Want to try your hand at singing? Here is a guide from the BBC with lots of practical advice for beginners.

● Want to make your own music on your computer? Check out this FAQ to figure out where to begin and then download this free software to make it happen.

● Dance. Turn on some music, close the blinds, and just do it. Or go to a club, if that’s more your scene. If you’re not sure how to start, check out this fun, helpful video explaining the two-step.

● Start thinking about National Novel Writing Month (in November). It’s a long ways off, but it is a wonderfully supportive community and is well worth waiting for if your interest has been piqued by Art Week.

You can also engage with art other people made.

The first step is to just watch and enjoy. You don’t necessarily need specialized knowledge to appreciate art and you shouldn’t let complicated art forms intimidate you or stop you from starting. If you want some ideas for where to start or want to come to a greater appreciation of some particular art form, here are some resources.

World Poetry Day was this past Sunday the 21st. Check out the Poetry Daily website. They post one poem a day. These poems are of various styles, from both well-known and lesser-known poets, and they are all of high quality. Also, National Poetry Month is coming up in April. Poets.org has a fantastic list of ways to engage with the month, from a poster to political action and, of course, poetry.

● If music is more your speed, you can learn more about it by training your ear or by exploring the world of music theory. You can also listen to the delightful symphonic piece “Peter and the Wolf.” It is a half-hour piece written to introduce children to the different instruments. Excellent for children of all ages. Or why not hit two media with one stone and watch a movie about music. Amadeus (about the life of Mozart) and Across the Universe (a compilation of music by the Beatles) are two great places to start.

● Also, don’t forget about the art that no people made.

● Finally, try new things which you wouldn’t normally like. You are capable of appreciating almost anything; you just have to figure out how to approach it and what is good about it. Ask someone else what they find compelling about a particular artistic experience and try to see it that way.

Finally, engage with Art Week by helping other people make and/or appreciate art.

● Help someone appreciate something you like in the way that you do. Describe to them what you like about it and why you like those things. Share your knowledge of the thing and your perspective on it.

● Beautify not just your own life, but also the lives of others, especially those who might not have the resources to do it themselves. Donate something you’ve made or volunteer your time beautifying someone else’s space.

● Much of the art world is very decentralized. Support your local artists whenever you can.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate Art Week? Let us know!

Spring Festival

A Humanist Year’s major festivals occur four times throughout the year, at the solstices and the equinoxes. These are times for celebration. They are times when we laugh and sing and come together with others to revel in the turning of the year. They are also often transitional times between the liturgical seasons, times when we separate from the previous season’s concerns and refocus our attention on new topics and new ways of thinking and interacting with the world.

The Vernal Equinox, on March 20th, marks a beginning. It is not an entirely new beginning, but rather a culmination of what we began at the New Year and the time when those efforts begin to bear fruit. It is a time when we look back on the preparatory work of the past season, celebrate the life we have built for ourselves and for others, and renew our commitment to the project of living well. At the Winter Solstice, as light began to come back to the world and the days began to lengthen, we celebrated our hope for the future. Now, at this time when the day and night are of equal length, when daylight finally overtakes the darkness, we celebrate the fulfillment of that hope and look forward to the long, halcyon days ahead. There is still much to do in those coming days. We will maintain and build upon our previous work, we will face new challenges and rise to new heights. And here, at poised on the edge of spring, we look forward to that good work.

● Indulge in the symbols of the season – those images and objects which remind us that the promise of spring is the promise of renewal. Decorate your home with spring flowers and other symbols like the green man. Eat eggs (regular, chocolate, whatever), which are an age old symbol of new life, or have an egg hunt with your children. Take your kids to a pet store or zoo to see all the baby animals (especially the bunnies). Visit a farm where they make maple sugar. Maple sap, which has been locked up in the trees throughout the frozen winter months, has just begun to flow. In surrounding yourself with these symbols, you celebrate the vitality that is metaphorically and a little literally in the (warm, fresh) air at this time of year. Also, check out Seanan’s sermon on the Chinese New Year, symbolic actions, and the effectiveness of living as if good things are coming to you.

● Along those same lines, get out and enjoy the springtime. Walk in the warm(ish) weather, observe the green shoots and buds, smell the fresh rain (or melting snow). Grill outside, even if it’s a little cold, to anticipate and celebrate the coming summer months.

● Use this time to reflect on your New Year’s resolutions. Have you been keeping up with them? Did you entirely forget what they were? Take this opportunity to recommit to those goals (or modify them, if necessary). How might what we learned and experienced in the Season on Cultivation help you achieve them?

● Clean your house. Throughout history and across cultures, people have used spring cleaning as a way to reinvigorate their lives after being shut up for the winter months. Throw open your windows, wash your sheets, beat your rugs, and feel renewed and ready to engage with the months ahead.

● If you like ballet, watch these two great spring-themed pieces (or just listen to the music). The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky is a ballet which depicts an imagined ancient Russian sacrifice. It is a powerful piece, and an important one in the history of music. It also caused a riot in the theater when it was first performed.

In contrast, Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring is a much easier-access piece, though no less moving. It is a beautiful depiction of pioneer life.

● For those who knit, there is a vernal equinox shawl! How cool is that?!

● In the larger narrative of A Humanist Year, which follows the archetypal arc of human life, the Spring Festival is a time to celebrate youth, and especially the transition from youth to mature adulthood. In the Season on Origins, that narrative focused on the gestational period of our life, the Winter Festival marked our birth, and the Season on Cultivation was devoted to our early growth. The Spring Festival thus comes in between that growth and the mature concerns of the adult Season on Flourishing. Take some time during this week to honor the young adults in your community or in your personal life. Set aside special time to spend with them. Enjoy their company and be a mentor to them as they make this momentous transition.

● As much as this Festival is about young people, it is also about people of any age who are new to the narrative of A Humanist Year. If you have enjoyed these blog posts or find the arc of the year interesting or helpful, please tell someone else about it. Invite new members into this community.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate the Spring Festival? Comment below!

Season on Cultivation – Emergency Medical Care

This is week ten of the Season on Cultivation.

Knowing how to respond in a medical emergency is obviously important. Of course, the first thing you should always do is call 9-1-1 and, when in doubt, leave everything to the professionals. That said, knowing how to help before the professionals arrive on the scene could save a life.

Try this short test of the first-aid knowledge you already have. You might be surprised by what you do not know.

Next, here are some great resources to help you learn first-aid skills (it is difficult to pick only one when there is so much good information out there). This webpage from the University of Washington is a simple, straightforward resource devoted solely to CPR (including performing CPR on children and infants) and choking with text-based explanations, videos, and a handy pocket-guide. This excellent guide from Lifehacker addresses a variety of emergency medical situations, from how to help someone who is choking, drowning, or bleeding to how to deliver a baby. It includes excellent video explanations and links to learn more. Third, here is the Mayo Clinic’s (slightly drier, yet extensive) first-aid resource, with information on a large number of medical emergencies, if you are interested in learning more or the other resources don’t cover the issue you need to know about. Finally, you can get a free first-aid app from the American Red Cross for your iPhone or android phone.

Even having all of this information, though, is not as good as attending a real first-aid class taught by experts who can explain things in person and answer questions. These classes are often taught at local YMCAs, fire stations, or community centers and can be quite inexpensive. The Red Cross website is one place where you can find a class near you.

You should also consider putting together a first-aid kit full of all of the things you might need in a medical emergency like bandages, gloves, and scissors. It is useful to have and is also a great way to engage your children and teach them about first-aid. Show them all of the things as you put them into the kit and explain them. While you’re doing that, just for fun, you can listen to the band “First Aid Kit”.

Finally, if these sorts of things are important to you, consider donating money to the American Red Cross, which provides much of the training, education, and materials which help the rest of us be better prepared for medical emergencies. Or better yet, donate blood to help those who have suffered such emergencies.

Have other tips for dealing with medical emergencies? Let us know by commenting!

Season on Cultivation – Computer Literacy

This is week nine of the Season on Cultivation.

In a time of rapidly evolving technology, computer literacy is becoming almost as important as English literacy. We seek this week to learn a little more about how to successfully interact with the computers which surround us.

First, learn a little about the history of computers and of the internet. Ironically, neither source has the polished, modern look we expect from the tech sector these days, but both have interesting information for those looking to understand how far we have come.

Next, take a look at these lists of keyboard shortcuts. Shortcuts can be an incredibly useful tool for everyday use. They quickly become second nature and using them allows you to focus more on what you are doing and to be less distracted by the process of doing it.

Third, learn some basic programming. A little programming knowledge can go a long way towards helping you at work and in everyday life. Being able to write a quick and dirty program to automate a task that otherwise might have taken you hours is well worth the investment of learning. Plus, it can be fun. Take a look at this excellent guide to beginning programming. It has a wealth of resources to help you approach the field. After that, try an online tutorial like Code Academy.

Finally, don’t forget that the best way to learn is through trial-and-error.

Have suggestions for other ways to learn programming? Know of other useful computer literacy tips? Comment below!

Season on Cultivation – Learning

This is week seven of the Season on Cultivation.

We have spent the past six weeks discussing the virtues. In order to successfully navigate life, we also spend time this season acquiring more direct skills. Getting around in the world is no simple matter, and there are many domains of everyday life which require specialized knowledge. These skills, which many of us pick up incompletely in an ad hoc way, are worth addressing intentionally. Because there are many such skills, and because they are less categorical than the virtues, we shall not return to the same ones each year.

Learning is a fundamental skill. It impacts the success of everything else we do in life. In our quest to live life more intentionally, and during the time when we think about gaining practical skills, there is no better place to start.

It is highly unusual for us to post only one resource, but the aspect of life we wanted to engage with this week has already been fairly thoroughly treated. We highly recommend you check out this course on learning from Coursera. In addition to great videos, it has many links to further resources to help you fully explore this important topic.

Non-Narrative Holiday – Darwin Day

Non-Narrative Holidays

Non-Narrative Holidays are culturally or Humanisticly important days which don’t fit into the narrative arc of A Humanist Year. Because we often get these days off from work or school, they are sometimes treated as chances to catch up on errands or at best to gather together with friends and family to have a good time. While observing AHY, we remember that these days are also opportunities to reflect and engage with important aspects of life.


Darwin Day

One of the most widely-celebrated Humanist holidays, Darwin Day is a celebration of the great scientist who brought us the Theory of Evolution. On this day we honor Charles Darwin – his inquisitiveness, his reason, his courage – and his work, which challenged the prevailing orthodoxy and put us on one of the most effective paths we have ever taken on our journey towards self-understanding.

Check out this Darwin Day page from the American Humanist Association, and of course the official Darwin Day website, which has some really excellent resources to help you learn about Darwin and evolution, participate in a local event, and take political action.

Season on Cultivation – Humanity

This is week six of the Season on Cultivation.

The virtue of humanity is excellence in interpersonal relationships. It is the virtue which allows us to forge caring, reciprocal relationships of all kinds (romantic relationships, friendships, parent-child relationships, etc.) with other individuals. Having humanity entails being loving, kind, and having social intelligence. We will explore each of these aspects as we return to this week year after year.

This year we focus our observance on love and cultivate our closest relationships. We open ourselves up to these important people, relying on them and supporting them in turn. We also pay attention to the excesses of love. We chart a middle course between being isolated and being totally dependent on those we care about.

[Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004. Print.]

LEARN
● As we have seen before, the ancients are an excellent place to start when thinking about virtue. Read Plato’s classic treatment of love – his “Symposium.

● Listen to this interesting talk on the neurobiology of love by anthropologist Helen Fisher, one of the leading scholars in the field.

REFLECT
● Read Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love. This is an engaging and thought-provoking reflection on romantic relationships from a leader in Humanist thinking.

● Celebrate Valentine’s Day. Some of you may be hesitant to engage with this holiday, but it can be an important reminder to think about one of the most fundamental aspects of the human experience. Take this opportunity to think seriously about your most intimate relationships (romantic or not), to address whatever issues you have, and to celebrate what is great about them. Maybe learn more about the history of the holiday. Maybe eat an aphrodisiac or two. There is no evidence that these foods actually increase arousal or do much of anything else related to love, but they can be fun symbols which help set a romantic mood.

● Try one of these fantastic activities from the VIA Institute, including movies to watch, songs to sing, and ideas for ways to cultivate your love.

ACT
● Do something nice for someone you love – whether that be cooking them dinner, running an errand for them, taking the time to visit them, or simply telling them that you love them. Somehow, make it clear that you care to the people you care about.

● Encourage others to cultivate their own love. Use the same list of activities from the VIA Institute, but think about how you could facilitate those experiences for others.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate Humanity Week? Comment below!

Season on Cultivation – Transcendence

The Season on Cultivation
In order to make ourselves and our world better, we need to develop our skill at the art of living. During these ten weeks, we think about the concepts and competencies which help us live well – primarily in terms of virtue. We seek to build up our characters and cultivate habits which over time produce human flourishing.

In thinking about virtue, we follow the research of (among others) two modern psychologists, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. We take our structure from their classification of the virtues and many of our resources from the VIA Institute on Character which continues that work. Peterson and Seligman enumerate six main virtues – wisdom, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence – with multiple sub-virtues belonging to each one (they call these character strengths).

You can test your own character strengths on the VIA website.

Week 5 – Transcendence
In Peterson and Seligman’s classification, transcendence is excellence in connecting with ultimate human ends. This is often couched in religious language, but cultivating this virtue is fundamentally not about a spiritual realm but rather about where we find meaning in our lives. Transcendence entails appreciating beauty and excellence, being grateful, having hope for the future, having a sense of humor, and having a sense that the life one leads is meaningful. We will explore each of these aspects as we return to this week year after year.

This year we focus our observance on the appreciation of beauty and excellence and cultivate an aesthetic outlook on life. We make a habit of noticing the aesthetic potential all around us and emotionally connecting with it. We see excellence itself, in all of its forms, as a thing of beauty. We also pay attention to the excesses of this appreciation. We chart a middle course between being oblivious to what is around us and being incapacitated by it, between not caring about quality and being snobbish about excellence.

[Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004. Print.]

LEARN
● Learn more about some aesthetic thing you’re interested in. See how that knowledge increases your appreciation of the thing.

● Listen to the TED Radio Hour episode “What is Beauty” from NPR. It brings together a number of really interesting TED Talks on the nature of beauty.

REFLECT
● Throughout the week (and into the year), be mindful of what is around you. Go outside and smell the roses, metaphorically and literally. Appreciate the beauty of the natural world.

● Try to broaden your aesthetic experience. Go to museums you wouldn’t naturally go to. Notice when others are appreciating things you normally take for granted.

● Create beauty around you. Paint, decorate, arrange, cook, do something to make your environment aesthetically richer and more fulfilling.

● Try one of these fantastic activities from the VIA Institute, including movies to watch, songs to listen to and/or sing, and ideas for ways to cultivate your appreciation of beauty and excellence.

ACT
● Help someone appreciate something you like in the way that you do. Describe to them what you like about it and why you like those things. Share your knowledge of the thing and your perspective on it.

● Beautify not just your own life, but also the lives of others, especially those who might not have the resources to do it themselves. Donate something you’ve made or volunteer your time beautifying someone else’s space.

● Encourage others to cultivate their own appreciation of beauty and excellence. Use the same list of activities from the VIA Institute, but think about how you could facilitate those experiences for others.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate Transcendence Week? Comment below!