Monday, 27 October 2014

What is "Flow"? The beauty of being lost in the moment...

Have you ever been so caught up in the moment that you lost all track of time?

It might have happened while you were doing something unpleasant or boring, but the chances are that you were in the middle of something that you found engrossing and enjoyable - perhaps painting, listening to music, walking, writing or making something.

The idea of Flow was proposed by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which I'm told is pronounced "chick-sent-me-high", when he observed artists getting lost in their work.

The phenomenon has existed for much longer, for certain - people often talk about being "in the zone", and it's bound to have happened to everybody at least once - even if you haven't experienced this state since you were a child.

According to researchers, a true "flow" state has six components:

1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment

2. Merging of action and awareness

3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness

4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity

5. A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered

6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience. (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2002)

So, not only do you lose track of time, but you lose your sense of self, in a way. Everything becomes the thing you're doing, and you're no longer taken over by other thoughts or compulsive time-checking.

Further to this, the researchers are clear that 'flow' is most likely to be experienced when you have a clear set of goals in your task and that you're able to see your progress. It also needs to be something that isn't too easy (or you'll get bored) but also isn't too hard (as you'll get frustrated). It's the kind of mental state you might be in when learning something, step by step.

Have you experienced "flow"? When do you experience it? For me, it's when I'm writing, singing, or drawing.

The beautiful thing about flow is that you become really engaged in the moment, and you want to keep working towards the goal you have in mind - or you do the activity for the sake of doing it, because it's where you feel at one with yourself (and that paintbrush). Flow is generally a very positive experience, and the fact that it's enjoyable means that people are drawn back to the same activities - leading to, perhaps, a passion for learning and self-improvement.

There are also studies that show that people who engage in "flow" experiences are generally happier and more satisfied with life (e.g. Clarke & Haworth, 1994; Collns, Sarkisian & Winner, 2009). On the other hand, I can think of plenty of times when I've been engaged in "flow" in activities that might not have been so good for me (or my social life), such as playing addictive computer games!

Can you think of any ways that you could perhaps bring a little more positive "flow" into your life?

References: 

Clarke, S. G., & Haworth, J. T. (1994). “Flow” experience in the daily lives of sixth-form college students.British Journal of Psychology, 85, 511-523.

Collins, A. L., Sarkisian, N., & Winner, E. (2009). Flow and happiness in later life: An investigation into the role of daily and weekly flow experiences. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10(6), 703-719. 

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The concept of flow. Handbook of positive psychology, 89-105.















Saturday, 25 October 2014

Tangy Rhubarb Sauce - perfect with salmon!

Rhubarb is one of those things that normally goes with dessert - rhubarb and custard, rhubarb crumble, rhubarb cheesecake (yum), but when I bought a bunch from my local market I wanted to find out whether I could use it as a savoury dish. 

Rhubarb is thought to have many health benefits - its high levels of Vitamin K, for example, being an important contributor to brain health and can help prevent Alzheimer's, as well as being rich in calcium (good for the bones) and being very low in calories! (Read more here

I did a quick search of the Internet, browsed through a few savoury rhubarb recipes, and decided to try making a simple sauce and spooning it over salmon*, courtesy of Coffee and Quinoa (although she makes it look much prettier that I did!). 


This sauce is very, very easy to make. You'll need:

2 sticks of rhubarb
a lemon
2 tsp of sugar

1. Cut the rhubarb into chunks and add to a frying pan with the sugar and lemon. Stir until the rhubarb starts to change from green to yellow...


2. Then keep stirring. Eventually the rhubarb becomes soft and mushy, and you'll end up with something like this:


3. Throw the sauce into a blender!

4. Serve over salmon, or anything else you fancy. I served it with steamed cabbage and rice.


You can add rhubarb into any dish for a bit of a tart/tangy surprise. I added some into a stir-fry the next day:


*There's some debate as to whether salmon is healthy or not. In an attempt to follow something vaguely resembling a Mediterranean diet (at least in terms of lots of vegetables, healthy oils and grain, and no processed foods) I sometimes eat fish, and I particularly love salmon.

Omega-3 oils occur in oily fish and is believed to be good for your brain, heart, mood and overall health, but on the other hand salmon can contain high levels of mercury and other chemicals. If you can afford it, wild salmon is supposedly better for you - but it can be very expensive. A bit of a search online seems to show that the experts recommend eating fish as the benefits outweigh the risks... Read Chris Kresser's article about whether salmon is safe or not here.

Anyway, this isn't about salmon - it's about rhubarb!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Coconut & Sweet Potato Noodle Soup

Vegetables, noodles, and a sweet, coconut and sweet potato soup come together to make a great, filling meal with few ingredients. It's a little bit Thai, especially if you choose to add certain ingredients!


You'll need (serves 3-4):
1 large sweet potato
1 can of coconut milk
Noodles of your choice - I used tagliatelle noodles
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp paprika
1 clove of garlic
Vegetables of your choice - I recommend courgette, leek, peppers and tomatoes

1. Put the sweet potato in an oven (150C). If you leave the whole potato in there, you'll need 45 minutes to an hour, so the most effective method is to cut it up into cubes first, place it on a baking tray and drizzle with a little olive oil. This way, it should only take about 15 minutes - you'll know it's ready when you can slice a knife right through the potato.

2. Let the sweet potato cool a little, until you're able to remove the skin (which should be easy once it's cooked).

3. Start boiling water in a pan. When it comes to the boil, add the noodles.

4. Add spices, oil and chopped garlic (and onion if you want) to a frying pan and stir for 2-3 minutes.

5. Add the chunks of sweet potato to the mix and stir. Now add the coconut milk and continue to stir.



6. Throw everything into a blender with 200ml of water and blend until smooth!

7. Clean the frying pan and add your vegetables, with a tiny bit more oil.

8. Add the mix back into the frying pan, onto the vegetables.


9. Add a little water until it's the desired consistency (soup-like!). Drain the noodles and add them to the mix.


The most challenging part is probably getting this into bowls... Enjoy!


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Just 10 Days of a Mediterranean Diet Can Improve Your Mood!

Although Coca-Cola might try convincing you that buying their product will bring happiness, people generally
seem aware that too much processed food is bad for you. But it isn't just your body that can suffer from a bad diet - it's your brain. While plenty of research suggests that certain chemicals and eating patterns can negatively affect your mood there are very few actual control trials that look at the effect of diet on mood and brain power.

McMillan et al. (2011) decided to test whether a 10-day Mediterranean diet intervention would influence people's mood and cognitive performance. Often cited as one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet contains a lot of fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil, whole grains and legumes, with a reduction of processed food and refined carbohydrates.

They recruited 26 women (1 dropped out) and randomly assigned them into "diet change" (DC) or "no change" (NC) groups. The DC group were given guidelines on how to eat in a way that was consistent with the Mediterranean diet, while the others were told to follow their diets as usual. These ladies kept a daily food diary during the study, and their mood and performance on a range of cognitive tasks (e.g. working memory, attention) were measured before and after the 10-day diet.

Although three of the women's diaries were incomplete, recorded meals from the food diaries of those in the DC condition were 93% compliant with a Mediterranean diet. It turned out that those following the Mediterranean diet reported higher feelings of vigour, alertness and contentedness at the end of the 10 days, while those who did not change their diets reported lower alertness and contentedness that at the start.
As well as improved mood, those who had followed the Mediterranean diet also performed faster on a spatial working memory test at the end of their diet intervention. Strangely, though, those in the NC group performed faster at the end of day 10 on numeric working memory reaction time and word recognition than they had on day 1, while the effect was not seen in the DC group. The researchers were unable to explain that one.

So, does that mean we should all switch over to a Mediterranean diet straight away? Maybe not. As the women in the DC group were only given loose guidelines for what to eat, it is hard to know exactly what they did eat - and if they recorded it accurately. Actively changing diet, rather than doing nothing, could have been responsible for the effect. "Although the Mediterranean diet was not mentioned explicitly," say the researchers, "it is likely that those in the DC group will have been aware that they were changing to a healthier diet, and this may have led to expectations of more wellbeing with a direct or indirect effect on mood."

With such a small sample size and short-term intervention, it is clear that more research is needed before proclaiming the Mediterranean diet the route to happiness. However, there's a bunch of research showing its benefits for overall health, and less processed food and more fruit and veg sounds like a good idea to me!
References:


McMillan, L., Owen, L., Kras, M., & Scholey, A. (2011). Behavioural effects of a 10-day Mediterranean diet. Results from a pilot study evaluating mood and cognitive performance. Appetite, 56(1), 143-147.


http://www.mind.org.uk/media/7498/mind-guide-to-food-and-mood-2010.pdf

Picture from http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Mediterranean-diet-s-benefits-confirmed-4308008.php

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Great Books - The New Good Life by John Robbins

How do you define the good life? This is the question that John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America and son of a very successful ice-cream salesman (yes, Mr Robbins, as in Baskin-Robbins), asks in The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less. Growing up surrounded by wealth (and ice-cream), John was more inspired by Henry David Thoreau's ideas of being nearer to the earth than his father's ambitions for him to take over the family business. At 21 years old, John walked away from what could have been his dairy destiny and cut himself off from his father's money.

Paying for his studies with part-time jobs and poker games, John found a pretty sizable plot of land on Salt Spring Island, off the coast of British Colombia, for only $2000 (this was in 1969, mind you). Here, he and his wife lived in a tiny one-room log cabin for ten years, growing most of their own food, owning only a single set of clothes, spending no more than $500 a year (doubling when their son, Ocean, was born) and feeling, as he puts it, "alive in a way I never had before". They made enough money from teaching yoga and hosting retreats to save around $1000 a year. While many people may shudder to think of this kind of life, they never felt poor - in fact, John looks back on those years as the richest of his life.

The New Good Life re-examines the old American Dream - the idea of getting rich, gaining power, and defining yourself through your possessions and status. While it may hardly seem original to attack the acquisition of money and power, this book is a great starting point for those who have just started to question their lifestyles. Let's face it - every day we are preseted with evidence that our economies are struggling, the world is full of injustice and our environment is changing in ways that may completely destroy the way of life that we're used to. Put bluntly, it just isn't possible - or sustainable - for everyone to be rich, (or perhaps even for those who are rich now to keep their wealth forever).

If you're not swayed by the argument that a lifestyle of high earning and high spending contributes to the earth and other people's suffering, you might  be interested to know that those who focus more on financial success, looking good to others and gaining social recognition are generally less happy than people who strive for self-acceptance, community feeling and physical health. One of the reasons for this is that many "rich" people work very, very long hours to accumulate that wealth - hours that rob them of social relationships, meaning and pleasant experiences. What's the point of having loads of money if you can't enjoy it? Another is that obsessing over how you appear to others stops you from enjoying the present and forming authentic relationships with others. Here at GreenJoy we're all about achieving happiness in a way that's good for you, other people, the planet and your bank balance - and this is one of those great books that lays it down pretty well.

The book starts by helping you to identify your "money type" - that is, your relationship with money. Are you a careful saver, budgeting every penny and always living within your means, or does the thought of doing your taxes make you break out in a cold sweat? Whether you struggle because you blame others for your financial problems, sacrifice joy to save a few pounds or obsessively seek the approval of others through your possessions, Robbins shows you how you can make the most of your money type - helping you to shine as who you are rather than trying to force yourself to be something you're not.

The rest of the book is full of useful tips, ranging from how to lower the cost of all your bills and save money on getting from place to place to great eating tips (with a few healthy recipes thrown in). What I really like  is that he isn't just full of empty ideas - he gives concrete, practical tips for more natural and affordable living, for example spraying white vinegar on mouldy areas of walls, leaving for a few minutes then wiping (not rinsing) rather than using toxic cleaning products. For good measure, there's also a chapter on making the huge financial (and emotional) decision whether to have children or not (and tips for raising them), and a chapter about the relationship between money and happiness across the world.

If you have been thinking about making changes in your life and you realise that, just maybe, it isn't all about money and status, then this book is a great starting point. Robbins's book acts as a sort of Bible for living in a way that will bring more health, happiness and financial freedom into your life. Let's get this straight - this is not a book on how to get rich and enjoy your free time yachting around the world. This is a book that shows that you don't need a ton of money to have a great life, and that anybody - even those on a very low income - can have a spiritually fulfilling, healthy life with the right resources and knowledge.


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Home-made Healthy Butterfinger Bars!

A few weeks ago, my parents-in-law brought us a stash of Butterfinger bars from the States. If you haven't tried them, they're basically peanut butter brittle coated in chocolate and they're delicious. What isn't so good is the list of ingredients on the back....

Corn Syrup, Sugar, Ground Roasted Peanuts, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Cocoa, Molasses, and Less than 1% of Whey, Confectioner's Corn Flakes, Nonfat Milk, Salt, Lactic Acid Esters, Soy Lecithin, Soybean Oil, Cornstarch, Artificial Flavours, Citric Acid (Added to Preserve Freshness) E110, E129/ Yellow 5, Red 40.


Mmmm! Here's a link to one of many articles on the dangers of corn syrup, for one thing. I try to operate by the rule that, if the list of ingredients sound like the inside of a chemical lab rather than your grandmother's pantry, it's best to avoid. 


So, I decided to find out whether I could make my own, healthy versions at home, and found this recipe at Detoxinista. Just to test it out for you, and to make the recipe a little easier to follow, I've attempted this a couple of times and I think I've got it down to an art. OK, so they're covered in chocolate rather than coated, but they're so good... and they only require 4 ingredients!


Ingredients:
1 jar of honey
1 jar of peanut butter (or you can make your own)
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 bar of dark chocolate to top it with

You'll also need - a saucepan, a tray and a candy thermometer. I got mine from Amazon.

1. Pour the jar of honey into a saucepan and stir in the cream of tartar. Add your thermometer. The original recipe recommended rubbing butter or coconut oil around the rim of the saucepan to spot the boiling honey from overflowing. I've done this, and nothing has overflown, so try it!


2. Turn on the heat and watch that honey boil! As you probably only have about 1cm of honey in there, you'll want to wait until the thermometer reaches around 290 farenheit. This is going to happen first:

3. Once it's reached that temperature, take the pan off the heat and quickly spoon in the entire jar of peanut butter, stirring as you go. Once it's mixed, pour into a baking tray.


4. Leave it for 10-15 minutes to cool down. I recommend you use boiling water to clean your saucepan and anything else that's touched the mixture, or wait until everything's cooled and chip the mixture away.

5. Cut the bars up before they set completely, then pop in the fridge for an hour.


6. Melt the chocolate - I usually put it in a small bowl, then place that bowl in a larger bowl full of boiled water. Coat the butterfingers with chocolate and put back in the fridge.


Mmm-hmm! So, yes, honey and peanut butter are still a little bit naughty in large doses, but these are much better for you than the shop-bought chocolate bars. They're best 5 minutes after being taken out of the fridge.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Czech Potato Soup - Bramboračka

You may not know this, but I lived in Prague for just shy of two years, working as an English teacher. I only left last year, and have visited again once since then. The Czech Republic is a beautiful country, and Prague is an amazing city where you'll have to work hard to find a bad (or expensive) meal! Plus, their beer is wonderful... mmm...here's a quick link to my travel blog, with some Czech-based posts.

The Czech wouldn't dream of having lunch without a soup starter, and throughout the week restaurants offer lunchtime specials - usually soup and a main dish for the equivalent of £3-4. As ridiculously filling as these meals are, they're a great introduction to Czech cuisine, and if you look in the right places you can find some great meals. Yes, a great many of them only offer "hovězí vývar" - a watery beef broth that doesn't do much for the taste-buds - but if you can get your hands on bramboračka, or potato soup, give it a try.



After satisfying my craving for it on my last visit to Prague, I started to wonder how to actually make it myself. I was delighted to find that it's easy to make, and due to its simple ingredients it's a good way to get some vegetables into your system!

To make enough to serve 4, you will need:
250g potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 mushrooms (of your choice)
1 carrot, peeled and cut
100g of celeriac root, peeled and cut
100g cabbage, sliced
1/2 a leek (mostly the white part)
1/2 an onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves
1 tsp marjoram
1 tsp parsley
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp flour
Ground black pepper, to taste

1. After washing the mushrooms, place them in a small bowl of hot water. Leave to the side and start to sauté the onion in a pan with a splash of olive oil. Stir for 2-3 minutes, then add garlic and stir for another 2-3 minutes.

2. Add all of the vegetable (except the mushrooms) and stir for around 5-6 minutes.

3. Add the mushrooms, including the water. Add more water until the water line is around 1cm higher than the vegetables. Add your salt and pepper.

4. Simmer on a medium-low heat until the vegetables are soft (usually 10-15 miutes)

5. Mix the flour with a little cold water, stirring quickly so it doesn't become lumpy. Pour into the pan and stir. Add in the thyme, parsley, marjoram and any other seasoning you might like.




6. Let the soup simmer for another 10-15 miutes. You may want to add a little more salt and pepper - the original recipe calls for broth or bouillon, but I'd only use this if you can find a non-MSG variety (all I had were OXO cubes, which are full of weird things).

Sometimes the Czechs eat this out of a bread bowl - if you fancy doing that, then hollow out a round loaf and go for it! However, the temptation to then eat all of the bread will possibly be too strong, and you'll find yourself very full!