The Most Popular Exercise I Taught at University
As part of a health psychology module in the undergraduate degree at the university where I taught, we covered positive psychology, mindfulness and acceptance. One of the most powerful workshops we used to do with the students was the experiential practice of meditating on others.
I‘m routinely met with cynicism from students about meditation and in particular this type of loving kindness meditation. They were mainly sports students, predominantly interested in what they could gain for their own performances from the more traditional types of sport psychology like mental toughness, confidence and a cultivating a winning mindset (don’t worry we taught them about that too!). However, I used to get more response from students about the following practice than I did from any other exercise that we taught, many of them surprised by the difference it has made to their lives.
To give them some background to the exercise I would start off by explaining that pursuing happiness alone and for oneself can often be detrimental to a person’s mental health and well-being. Happiness is an individual state, so when we look for it, it’s only natural to focus on ourselves. Yet a wealth of evidence consistently shows that self-focused attention undermines happiness and can cause depression. In one study by Mauss and colleagues in 2012, it was demonstrated that the greater the value people placed on happiness, the more lonely they felt every day for the next two weeks. In another experiment, they randomly assigned people to value happiness, and found that it backfired: those people reported feeling lonelier and also had a progesterone drop in their saliva, a hormonal response linked to loneliness.
Then we begin this very simple exercise. I tell them to identify two human beings in the room. Don’t say anything, don’t do anything, just wish for those two human beings to be happy. That’s all. Just thinking, it’s entirely a thinking exercise. We do this for just ten seconds and say no more about it until the end of the class, after they have completed some other tasks. Nearly everybody emerges from this exercise smiling. I set some homework at the end of the class and ask them to perform the task again the following day, spending 10 seconds each hour randomly choosing two people and silently wishing for them to be happy.
I used to get more personal emails about how this task has impacted on them than any other task we did throughout the whole year, and it’s nearly always the one task that students remembered when saying their farewells at the end of their time at university. They tended to report that it particularly helped them in tough times when they were suffering and almost couldn’t bear to focus on anyone but themselves. However, they still managed to do it because 10 seconds was easy to manage. This exercise is not going to immediately solve all of your problems but it does start to shift your perspective in a slow and noticeable way.