No Hot Showers

Ah, ah – ooh, ooh – eee!

No, these are not the lyrics to the latest chart-topping teenybopper execration. They are instead the chimp-like sounds of me showering, at least since I started my most recent experiment in positive constraints: No Hot Showers.

A positive constraint is a restriction on your behaviour that you’ve freely chosen. They’re really common in art and music (a picture frame or time signature is a positive constraint), any sports and games (the ban on using your hands in football is a positive constraint) and religion (the Sabbath, Lent or Ramadan are all dedicated to exercising positive constraint).

What I’m trying to do is bring the art of positive constraints into our everyday lifestyles, through experiments in everything from No Aeroplanes and No English, to No Supermarkets and No Walking.

Too often we flounder around in the rut of our unexamined habits, without asking why we travel by plane or shop at supermarkets. Positive constraints is the method through which we can find, almost always, a better way of doing things.

For the next three months, I’ll be publishing regular experiments in positive constraints right here. Among many others, I’ll be exploring life without swearing, handshakes, meat – and pants.

I’m also writing a book that goes into much more detail on a wide range of positive constraints, examining the psychology of experiential and behavioural change. If you want to be first to hear news of the book, then please sign up to my mailing list.

Designing the No Hot Showers Experiment

Designing a new experiment in positive constraints is easy. You just think of something that you do, and then don’t.

Every morning, for example, I have a nice hot shower. Incidentally, I’ve never understood why humans wake up in the morning feeling unclean – my hair looks like I’ve been sleeping under a hedge and somehow my skin feels simultaneously dry and oily – but there it is. The morning is unthinkable until I’ve had my ablutions: a five minute hot shower.

So that’s what I do. Applying the methodology of positive constraints, then, I should now explore what I don’t. I could have gone the whole hog and experimented with No Showers At All, but I think my housemates would have reported me to Environmental Health.

Instead, last week, I started taking No Hot Showers.

Why No Hot Showers?

When you’re experimenting, it’s important not to assume too much about your results. Before I started No Hot Showers, though, I knew two things. No Hot Showers would:

  1. Wake me up. Like a punch to the face.
  2. Save on heating bills.

I’m definitely right about #1, but #2 will probably be too small to measure, particularly as I live with 7 other people, all of whom take hot showers, some luxuriantly so.

Once I’d started the experiment, though, I learnt a whole lot more about the benefits of No Hot Showers, from the mildly useful to the genuinely life-enhancing.

  1. Because it’s so freaking cold, you’ll tend not to spend so long in the shower, saving water and, in some small way, the entire planetary biosphere. Maybe.
  2. It’ll stimulate and improve blood circulation and your cardiovascular system. Your heart will explode, in other words, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  3. Washing your hair in cold water will make it all glossy and shiny. Hot water dries and frazzles.
  4. Cold water is kinder to your skin, too. I have occasional eczema and I’ve noticed an improvement since switching to cold water.
  5. Cold water doesn’t create steam, so you’ll still be able to see yourself shivering in the bathroom mirror afterwards.
  6. This is more anecdotal, but cold water seems to make my eyes a more intense blue. I speculate that this is down to pupil constriction after the adrenalin rush of the cold.
  7. Cold showers will increase testosterone production in men, leading to increased energy and strength, as well as sex-drive.
  8. Hot water is deadly to men’s sperm; for men, a hot bath is a contraceptive. Cold water will help keep your sperm plentiful and healthy.
  9. James Bond takes cold showers. You can be like him, but less of a misogynistic sadist.
  10. You don’t have to worry about fiddling with the taps to get the water temperature just right.
  11. It doesn’t matter if your early-rising housemates have used up all the hot water. Similarly, you can feel good about not using it up for them.
  12. Cold water immersion becomes a habit, something that you get used to. By practising for ten minutes every day, my body has no problem jumping into the chilly British sea water. I can play in the waves without shivering or wishing I was anywhere else. And that’s FUN.
  13. Cold water stimulates your immune system, particularly if you take a cold shower after exercise. That transition from hot to cold does wonders.
  14. Cold showers are an effective treatment for depression.
  15. Really cold showers that make you shiver can help you lose fat and build lean muscle.
  16. Cold showers are miserable! Of course they are. Who would be foolish enough to choose a cold shower when hot is on offer? Well, the answer to that question is the same people who choose the difficult path in life, the people who embrace challenges and, through those difficulties and challenges, accomplish great things. There is no scientific evidence for this, but cold showers do make me feel more resilient and determined to overcome life’s vicissitudes.
  17. Cold showers are great! Yes they are. I enjoy the adrenalin rush of icy water on my face. Hot showers are comforting, good for when you want to fall asleep on the sofa, but cold showers are like a charge of lightning down your spine. I feel electrified.

Are there any down sides to No Hot Showers? As far as I can tell, the only down side is the absence of long hot showers.

Quite apart from the fact that hot showers are enjoyable, the steam opens up your pores and relaxes your muscles. Dilly-dallying in the shower can also be a moment of meditation and the unfocussed attention that leads to good ideas.

However, a shower is not the only way of accessing these states – and I never said hot baths were off the agenda!

How to Take a Cold Shower

  1. Turn on the cold tap. Full.
  2. Don’t turn on any other taps.

You’ll also need to take off all your clothes (wet suits not allowed) and position yourself under the shower head. If you’ve got the water temperature right (see #1 and #2 above), then there’s no comfortable way of doing this.

You could start by dousing your long-suffering feet and legs, before gingerly moving the shower head the rest of your body. At some point, though, you’re going to have to duck your head under and your head is not going to like this. Personally, I love the gasping shock of walking straight into the cold stream, but do it your way.

How long you stay in depends on what you want to get out of your morning shower. If you just want to wash and wake up, then a couple of minutes is ample. If you want all the possible health benefits listed above, then you’ll need a minimum of 5 minutes, 10 to be on the safe side.

I would add: do not attempt to judge this time yourself. In a cold shower, 5 seconds feels like 5 years. I take a countdown timer into the bathroom with me and don’t leave until the beeps go off.

If you want extreme cold exposure, then you’ll need more like half an hour, but do more research before diving into Andy Murray’s ice bath.

Medical Time Out: Cold water can be a shock to the system. A cold shower probably won’t kill you, but the shock of jumping into a glacial lake might do. Don’t be an idiot. Consult your physician if you have any concerns. If you’re worried about hypothermia, then pinch your thumb and little finger tips together. If you can’t do this, then your extremities have gone numb. Get out now before you die.

But, wait – there’s more!

One of the great things about positive constraints is that there’s always more. The “positive” in positive constraints refers to your agency in your decision to restrict your behaviour.

I’m not being forced to take a cold shower and I’m not merely submitting to the necessary evil of cold showers for such and such a health reason; I’m actively choosing cold showers for their own sake.

And this feeling of having control over your life is well-correlated with happiness. By choosing and living a positive constraint, I am training for happiness.

Why are polyglots so damn nice?

The cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language are well studied and publicised. Learning a foreign language makes you smarter, better at multitasking, helps to delay Alzheimer’s and dementia, improves your memory and your decision-making and makes you more perceptive of your surroundings.

But what about the social benefits of learning a foreign language? Or, as a friend asked me the other day: “Why are polyglots so damn nice?”

We batted about a number of reasons that sprang to mind and I resolved to do further research on the subject. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little academic research into the niceness or otherwise of polyglots, speakers of multiple foreign languages.

The best I found was a study examining the relationship between empathy and achievement in foreign language learning. Excitedly, I clicked open the report, fully expecting to find hard scientific evidence for my friend’s complaint. Alas, the researchers found no such correlation.

This was rather disappointing, but I still strongly believe there is much more to this question than mere circumstantial evidence of all the nice polyglots we know.

So here are my introductory explorations of the matter. Why are polyglots so damn nice?

Empathy

Despite the one study I mentioned earlier, I’m sure there must be something in this. The researchers only tested students already studying a foreign language a university level: I’m talking about the difference between polyglots and ordinary mortals like me.

In order to become fluent in a foreign language, you must have spent a long time living and studying that language. Human beings learn by copying others and language learning in particular involves a high degree of mimicry. In order to copy others effectively (to the extent that you master a foreign language), you must be or become empathetic.

Far from being a trait fixed at birth, empathy can be practised and strengthened. Learning a foreign language to fluency is surely an excellent way of doing this. And, of course, empathy makes us nice.

Tolerance

Stepping into a foreign language is stepping into a foreign culture. The words we use affect the world the see and change the person we are. That’s why, when I studied Spanish in Sevilla, I became more expressive with my hands, more garrulous with my neighbours on the bus and more assertive in queues. That’s why, when I studied Arabic in Cairo, I became more adept at negotiation, more polite, more religious and even more assertive in queues.

When you have taken a foreign language to fluency, you cannot fail to realise that the way you do things at home is not the One True Way of doing things. Everything, from the words you use to the ethics of pig-eating is culturally relative. Even the etiquette of queueing.

This appreciation of cultural relativity makes you more flexible in your approach to others and more tolerant of strange and new things. This tolerance makes you nice.

Sociability

In order to learn any language to fluency, you must be sociable. When you’re a baby, that sociability is forced on you by family, school and roller skating club.

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, however, you often have to make a huge effort to use your new language, by seeking out conversational partners. In short, you must become highly sociable, otherwise your new language won’t get enough practise to reach fluency.

I found learning Spanish in Spain far easier than learning French in school precisely because the Spanish did not tolerate my quiet English reserve. They wouldn’t let me be unsociable, and I learnt more in two weeks of gallivanting than I had done in years of school-taught French.

Furthermore, if you’re a total dickwad, then your hard-won conversation partners won’t stick around and your language skills won’t improve. Learning a foreign language to fluency takes a special kind of sociability: the nice kind.

Humility

By the time you’re fluent in a foreign language, you’ve made more than six hundred thousand mistakes, from mere slips of the tongue to full on inadvertant insults. You’ve embarrassed yourself in front of greengrocers, taxi drivers, attractive would-be mates, teachers, work colleagues, politicians and even the neighbourhood dog.

You cannot learn a foreign language to fluency, therefore, without being humble. The only way to learn is by embracing every mistake, learning from it and jumping straight into the next one. There is surely no such thing as the arrogant learner, at least not one that has actually learnt anything.

The corallory of this is that you cannot learn a foreign language without relying on and accepting the niceness of other people, who patiently listen to your manglings of their beloved mother tongue, exert themselves to comprehend your garblings and then correct you, before listening to you regurgitate the now slightly less awful mess all over again.

Your learner’s humility makes you nice and your appreciation for the efforts of others to help you makes you even nicer.

Patience

You don’t become fluent in a foreign language without being a determined little bugger. According to the European Common Languages Framework, it takes about 890 classroom hours to go from zero to fluent (level C2) in French. That’s a year of concentrated study. Note, too, that this is only teaching hours; students must typically practise their language skills for two or three times this long outside class.

Looking at it this way, achieving fluency in a foreign language is an overwhelming feat of determination and patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Italian wasn’t learnt in an hour.

Not only is attaining fluency a monumental task, but, as soon as it is attained, your fluency degrades. You must practise your new language every day or, before long, you will find yourself back clutching a dictionary. Language learning is not for the impatient, who want fluency now, forever, without the effort.

But your practice of patient perseverence has another side benefit, I believe. Patience means you’re less likely to get frustrated with other people. Patience makes you nice.

Listening

Finally, for now, you can’t learn a foreign language without being a good listener. How else could you pick up the difference between “sheep” and “ship”, or “sheet and “shi…”?

But being a good listener isn’t just useful for avoiding strange bedroom mishaps; it’s also useful for making other people think you’re interested in what they’re saying. And other people LOVE that.

Yes, that’s right: being a good listener is directly correlated with being a complete bastard. Oh no, my mistake: it’s directly correlated with being damn nice.

You can be nice too!

That’s the end of my little examination of the (totally unscientifically proven) reasons why polyglots might be so damn nice. I shall leave you with one important note.

I am not saying that only nice people can become polyglots.

My argument is that the correlation works in the opposite direction: learning a foreign language makes you a nice person by making you more empathic, more tolerant, more sociable, more humble, more patient and a better listener.

There is hope for me still. Now sod off and let me get on with my conjugations.

End Notes

Anne Merritt (The Daily Telegraph, 2013) Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism

Filiz Yalcin-Tilfarlioglu, Arda Arikan (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012) Empathy Levels and Academic Achievement of Foreign Language Learners

Adventures in Approach and Avoidant Motivation

Have you ever read about approach and avoidant personalities?

This is the idea from psychology that people are born with a tendency to motivate themselves either positively (approaching a goal for its benefits) or negatively (avoiding the harms associated with failure).

Approach: “Cycling around Britain will be the greatest thing that I ever do, I’m going to enjoy every moment!”

Avoidant: “I’d better not screw up this round Britain cycle ride because then I’d look really stupid!”

Stumbling across this concept made me realise that, although I set myself and sometime achieve ambitious goals, I tend to tackle those goals in an avoidant manner.

Cycling around Britain… Really fast.

In 2011, I cycled around Britain. This was, as you can imagine, a stunning experience; rarely a day goes past without a glorious memory or three dropping in to say hi. However: I cycled the 4,110 miles in less than two months, at a frankly absurd speed of over 70 miles a day. I took four rest days and resented each one.

Why? Because I was terrified, all the way around, that I would fail. I wanted to get it done ASAP, so that I could enjoy not having failed!

Cycling to the Sahara… Really slowly

Slightly disturbed by this realisation, the following year I cycled around Tunisia, forcing myself to cycle much more slowly and to really relish the adventure.

As a result, I cycled at about half the speed and took a whopping nine days off in the month. Giving myself that time meant that I fell into all sorts of adventures:

By switching off the avoidant voice in my head, I allowed myself the time to have more adventures, which meant I had a lot more FUN too.

I was successful on this trip, but a lifelong tendency for avoidant motivation is not so easily overturned! It’s something that I have to work at every day.

Do you have an Approach or Avoidant personality?

If you’re approach motivated, then you probably rush into things and get excited by all the great things that will doubtless happen.

If you’re avoidant motivated, then you probably dwell on the things that might go wrong. Like me, you might rush things because you’re scared that you’ll fail.

Other signs that you’re avoidant motivated might include:

  • You dwell on criticism, failure or rejection.
  • You feel shy or anxious, even though you have a strong desire to achieve your goal.
  • You feel inadequate or inferior to others.
  • You’re self-conscious and tend to be self-critical.
  • You use fantasy to evade doing what you meant to do.

If you are avoidant – don’t panic! Me too.

Avoidants of the world unite!

Approachers might be the go-getters of this world, but they’re also the ones whose ancesters ended up between the jaws of a sabre-toothed tiger. They’re the stupid, fools-rush-in kinds of people. Avoidants, on the other hand are thoughtful, cautious and good-looking.

It’s also worth pointing out that approach-avoidance is a spectrum; it’s not black and white, either/or. Although I do a really good job at avoiding girls, blazing rows and sabre-toothed tigers, I will approach that Vienetta with all the recklessness of a Neolithic tiger dentist.

So, if you think you’re a tad more avoidant than approach, don’t beat yourself up about how nervous, worried or fearful you get about your goals. It is possible, as I proved with Tunisia, to reframe your adventures away from a focus on avoidance alone. I really had to force myself to slow down, relax and enjoy the weird situations I’d cycled myself into.

Yes, it will always be more difficult for us than for people who were born with approach personalities, but that just means that success will be all the more satisfying for us, glorious avoidants!

Smilodon head
This sabre-toothed cat was not an avoidant personality. And see what happened to him. From Wikipedia so it must be true.

 

No Mobile Phone

I have had a mobile phone since 2001, over thirteen years, but for thirty days, from Tuesday the 10th of February until the 12th of March, I shall live without.

The big question is:

Why?

This project is part of a long term experiment with positive constraints, which are ways of opening up the imaginative space behind ingrained habits and unquestioned social customs. Having had a mobile phone for over thirteen years, I’ve fallen into lazy habits and lost both the benefits of a life without and my appreciation of the phone itself.

One of the best things about using positive constraints is that you don’t know what you’ll discover during your experiment. One of my friends recently gave up her smartphone for what she called “a shit phone” (it still made calls and thus would be considered a miracle in any other age but ours). She was expecting to experience a vast reduction in her communication; what she wasn’t expecting was that she would write more music, improve her relationship with her mother and become a graffiti artist.

Having said that, here are a couple of reasons why anyone might want to give up their phone (at least for a while):

  • Using mobile phones make us more anxious, which has unexpected knock-on effects.
  • According to a Science Museum survey, the mobile phone is the tenth most important thing people “couldn’t live without”, beating out central heating, fresh vegetables and shoes.
  • In New York, a third of people can’t even walk down the street without their mobile phones. Check out this video, part of a campaign by New Tech City called “Bored and Brilliant”:

So that’s it. If you need me, you can catch me online or at home. Otherwise, I guess I’m out!

Dr Vandana Shiva: We Need to Elevate

This is the fourth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Dr Vandana Shiva fills the screen, a fifteen foot pixilated message from India. Vandana was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, the “alternative Nobel prize”, in 1993 for her work on the social and environmental costs of development, particularly the violence of India’s Green Revolution.

“We are facing multiple crises,” Vandana Shiva says with a slight smile, “crises of planetary dimensions.” We face a climate crisis. Over five hundred people were killed and over eighty thousand evacuated from their homes in Kashmir during September’s disastrous floods, making it impossible to argue when Vandana says that “climate change is not about the future; it is happening today”.

We also face an economic crisis, which has brought about a widening divide between rich and poor. Perhaps more significantly, however, this crisis is the crisis of a system. This modern capitalist economy has left half the population of the world redundant. Echoing John Holloway’s earlier remarks, Vandana says that, in this economy, “there is no place for small farmers, no place for future generations”. She describes it as “a world of corporations and oligarchs, extracting the last bit of profits from the earth”.

Finally, we face a political crisis and the erosion of democracy. “What we now have,” Vandana Shiva says, “is not a public state, working for democracy in terms of of the people, by the people, for the people. It is a corporate state, working for the interest of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.”

For Vandana, these crises arise from a particular way of thinking about the world: the scientific capitalist paradigm that describes the universe as solely mechanistic. This viewpoint encourages division and separation between ourselves and the resources of the planet. “The reality of our lives,” she says, “is that there is an earth that gives us everything and we are co-creators and co-producers with the earth, to produce our food, to harness the water, to make sure all our human needs are met.” Gandhi’s words are never more appropriate than today: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for some people’s greed.”

Vandana Shiva states her anti-capitalist thesis explicitly: “The economic model that turns nature into land and a commodity, people into labour and a commodity, and capital as the creator of value, is at the root of both the exploitation of nature as well as injustice.” She goes further. “Capitalism is a system that was wrong to start with,” she says. “It has been held in place for a few centuries by shifting every policy to make the false assumptions of capitalism work for a while.”

There is much evidence to support this view. Were it not for agricultural subsidies, the industrial-scale farming of capitalism wouldn’t be able to survive. “That is why half of Europe’s budget is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy,” Vandana explains. By 2011, the US alone had lent, spent or guaranteed twenty-nine trillion dollars to keep capitalism alive after the economic crisis of 2008. Vandana describes the current negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) as “another artificial measure to keep a dead system afloat”.

In its most terrifying garb, TTIP will hand corporations the power to sue governments for “loss of profits”. This could ensure that our common goods, such as the National Health Service, our genetically modified organism-free fields and the data we’d like to keep private on the internet, are open to commercial exploitation.

If you think that this sounds like a lot of balony, then consider the fact that these kind of bizarre legal agreements are already in place. One Swedish energy firm is currently suing the German government for billions of dollars of “lost profits”. Why? Because, having seen what happened in Japan when the Fukushima nuclear power station exploded, the German government took what would appear to be a perfectly reasonable public health decision to stop using nuclear power. The final cost to the German tax-payer of this ghoulish pursuit of profit will not be settled democratically either: the matter will be decided through an arbitration tribunal, as if the needs and desires of profiteers and of the people bore equal weight. TTIP threatens to give unelected corporations the power to force policy on elected governments, and you can be sure, as Vandana Shiva says, that corporations “will make decisions for themselves, to keep raping the earth and to keep ripping off from society”.

All of these examples of policy manipulation are described by Vandana as “life support systems for a dying order”.

The insecurities caused by the failures of capitalism create social polarisation. “Insecurity deepens divides,” Vandana says, “so we have the rise of politics of exclusion.” This politics of exclusion leads to a rise in fundamentalism, pitting people against each other on the grounds of religion, sect and ethnicity. “Diversity has been turned into a major problem,” Vandana says, before turning the whole argument on its head. “But diversity is the solution for the future.”

Vandana Shiva believes that the crises of capitalism also represent an opportunity to create a new paradigm, one that puts humanity to work, not in the service of exploiting the earth, but in healing her, by saving seeds, planting trees and rejuvenating water resources. “It’s limitless how much work needs to be done,” she says. “Regenerating the earth needs our hands and our hearts and our minds.”

Who will lead this regeneration? “Every worker fighting for justice. Every unemployed youth demanding a place in the scheme of things. Every small farmer telling the world that it is small farms who feed the world.” The UN estimates that 70% of the world’s food production comes from the work of small farms, rather than from industrial production. Vandana Shiva singles out women for special responsibility. “Women,” she explains, “through having looked after the economy of care and the economy of sharing and an economy of responsibility, can shift to make the entire economy based on these principles of caring and sharing, not exploitation and destruction.” These shall be the leaders of our regeneration, but, as Vandana says, “there is no person who is irrelevant to the transition we must make if we have to survive”.

“The message I have for you at Elevate,” Vandana Shiva says, “is what your festival is about: We need to elevate. We need to elevate our knowledge. We need to elevate our consciousness. Let us elevate our energies, let us elevate our solidarity, let us elevate our imagination.” She raises an eloquent hand and a smile burbles about her lips. “There is nothing beyond our dreams and there is nothing to prevent our dreams from being turned into reality if we are committed.” Her voice takes on a playful warning tone. “In any case, there is nothing to lose but our extinction.”

She leaves us with a beatific smile.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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