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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 18/12/2008 | 1 Comment

I would have written a blog sooner but I’ve been laid low by one of the worst  winter viruses I’ve ever been smitten by. This is why the following report on our great thriving event is later than intended.

Last  Tuesday the Centre held an evening event called Thriving in Turbulent Times in the Glasgow University Union. We had four speakers all talk on different themes – many of the 180 who attended went away saying it was the best event they’d been at in Glasgow for a long time. That was praise indeed given that the venue was pretty cold.

Basically what people got from the event is what the Centre had intended – to be presented with information which counters the whole idea, now dominating in the media, that life is primarily about money and material goods. Of course money and material security matters. What’s more, unemployment is not good for how people feel about themselves and their lives. So if the impending recession ushers in lots of redundancies – as many commentators are predicting -  then there will be lots of pain. Nonetheless we must struggle to get economics in perspective. Pleasurable feelings, happiness, satisfaction can all be generated in different ways.

Nic Marks, from the New Economics Foundation based much of his talk on the recent Foresight report on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. Foresight is a think thank connected to the Westminster Government.  The Foresight report was based on findings gleaned from  more than 400 scientists in the well-being field. The  came up with a ‘five a day’ idea for well-being -  connecting with others by enriching relationships with family, friends and colleagues; being active; living in the moment more and savouring what’s good in the present; learning new things; and giving to othes.

Professor Nanette Mutrie followed up the point about the importance of exercise by presenting useful data on how walking as little as 30 minutes a day for five days can improve our mood. This half hour slot doesn’t have to be in one session. So this isn’t about gyms or complicated exercise programmes this is as basic as getting off the bus a few stops early and walking to the shops.

It was my turn next. The theme of my talk was about control of negativity. I am a fan of the celebrated American psychologist, Albert Ellis who died recently.  Ellis compiled what he considered to be the irrational beliefs of western society. One is that it makes sense to worry about what might happen. (It doesn’t since it often only makes you feel down about things that often don’t happen or which will happen whether you worry or not.) Another of Ellis’s irrational beliefs is that it is a terrible thing if anything happens to anyone which they wouldn’t have chosen. However, life isn’t like that. Often we would not choose things even though they often work out  for the best. Redundancy is often like that. Once the pain recedes we often find ourselves in a better postion to move on and do something different with her lives. Research suggests that 80 per cent of people say, within three years, that being made redundant, was for the best even though they would have resisted it happening. Psychologists now call the development which can happen to people as a result of adversity as Post-traumatic growth.

However, I  ended my talk warning of the dangers of being too optimistic and positive too quickly when adversity strikes. This happened to me years ago when I was made redundant from a post at the BBC. I quickly moved into optimistic mode and concentrated on planning my new future. After the redundancy period when I got my P45 in the post and they took away my TV set (a perk in those days) I felt really ill. Basically, rather late in the day, I had to confront that I really felt very hurt, rejected and angry. No amount of optimism for the future could deny that and it would have been more appropriate for me to have felt negative and fed up for a few weeks and more in touch with my real feelings. We must always remember that bad feelings are appropriate in many situations and it doesn’t pay to run away from them.

The final speaker was Phil Hanlon, Professor of Public Health. I have heard Phil many times and I’m always impressed by his fluency and the subtlety of his thoughts. This talk was Phil at his very, very, best. I can’t do justice to Phil’s message which  was on the theme of ‘a film, a horse, and a man’. The film was ‘It’s a wonderful life’ and the thread running through the three parts of his speech was the importance of the heart. No wonder many took heart from what they had  heard and left feeling more able to cope with another onslaught of negative news coverage.
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Joined: 14/10/2007

Comment Posted: 02/01/2009 03:24
I missed this event because I also succumbed to a very nasty virus. However in the December edition of Adults Learning (NIACE) I came across an article on the Foresight report - Mental Capacity and Wellbeing. I have downloaded the report at http://www.foresight.gov.uk. It is massive so I homed in on the subject that particularly interests me - older people and the benefits of learning.
It states unequivocally The evidence shows that learning can help to protect against normal cognitive decline with age. It went on to point out that when people retire there is a marked drop in participation in educational activities, not helped by virtually no targeted funding. And yet excluding older adults from public-funded provision is a terrible waste both in terms of preserving independence and wellbeing, and utilising the mental capital of older adults. But exclusion will, in fact, add to long-term social work costs as the numbers of dependent older people increase.
Through my own investigations into cutting-edge neuroscience I have learned that the brains of older people who engage in mentally challenging pursuits build cognitive reserve. This gives their neural networks the resilience to operate normally despite having similar plaques and tangles to someone with dementia. Read The Mature Mind by Gene Cohen, Director of the Centre on Ageing, Washington, for a real eye-opener into building cognitive reserve, emotional growth and wisdom in later life.
This mental stimulation, combined with aerobic exercise that switches on the genes that create new brain cells (neurogenesis), challenges the belief that learning for older adults is a waste of time. It is, in fact, crucial to maintaining brain function along with exercise, a healthy diet, social contact and a purposeful life. These reflect the five a day ideas for wellbeing of your first speaker Nic Marks.
Just as the tremendous benefits of pre-school education are universally acknowledged, so hopefully the time will come when older adults themselves begin to appreciate the difference it can make to the quality of later life to continue to challenge their brains and that they themselves start to campaign for affordable learning activities. To be able to achieve this change in society much work needs to be done to reverse the endemic negative stereotyping of older people which has such a damaging effect on their own self-image and the ability to envisage a thriving old age.

Val Bissland, Learning in Later Life Tutor, Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Strrathclyde
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