The lost art of joy – Rest

So Christmas 2017 has come and gone for those of us just to the right of the International Date Line. How did you fare? Was your Christmas a day of joy?

Now we’re in the post-Christmas hangover, the come down from the sugar and ethanol excesses of the day before. In Australia, New Zealand and the UK, we call December 26th “Boxing Day”, although it doesn’t have anything to do with pugilism. The name most likely derives from the giving of Christmas “boxes”, a tradition which may date back to the Middle Ages when church members would collect money for the poor in alms boxes which were opened on the day after Christmas in honour of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast day falls on 26 December. The tradition may even be older than that, possibly dating back to the Christianised late Roman empire. Either way, at some point St Stephen’s Day became associated with public acts of charity.

In modern Australia, the boxes that are usually associated with Boxing Day are the boxes you put all the loot you’ve acquired in the post-Christmas sales into. So it’s a bit of an irony that what was once a day of giving to those less fortunate have become about acquiring more things for yourself.

But I digress.

The post-Christmas sales are traditionally a day of high-stress chaos as throngs of enthusiastic shoppers crowd the malls again, to fight for car parking spaces, tables at cafes, space to walk around, and toilet cubicles. Hours of this at a time can suck the positivity out of even the hardiest of shoppers.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. The cure for post-Christmas languor doesn’t have to be more stress, but if anything, Boxing Day could easily be a day of rest.

Making time to rest is an important part of maintaining good health. Forms of deep relaxation, such as meditation, not only relieve stress and anxiety, but also improve mood. Deep relaxation can also decrease blood pressure, relieve pain, and improve your immune and cardiovascular systems. Relaxation doesn’t always mean sleeping (although good sleep also helps to maintain a good mood and good health overall) or just things like meditation. Rest and relaxation can involve having a laugh, which decreases pain, promotes muscle relaxation and can reduce anxiety. Rest and relaxation can involve taking the time to simply connect with friends without having to work hard to try and impress them. Even something as simple as a hug from a good friend, or patting your dog or cat, can be relaxing and mood lifting. Remember, R+R involves anything that makes you feel better at the end than it did at the beginning.

So, there’s still joy to be found, even in the post-Christmas hangover. This can be done as they did traditionally, by giving to those less fortunate, or in taking the time to relax and unwind from the celebration of Christmas, or even in the simple connection of a hug from a friend.

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The lost art of joy – Joy to the world

* MERRY CHRISTMAS *

Did St Nicholas visit you last night? I think I must have been on the naughty list!

Yesterday, we looked at the origins of Santa Claus, and how the cultural icon that we have for our modern Christmas was actually built upon over time – from the Coke commercials of the 1930’s, which in turn were based on illustrations in a magazine in the 1880’s, which in turn was based on a poem written in the 1820’s, which in turn was inspired by the various tales and legends of 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

All of those were based on the life of Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who was later recognised as St Nicholas.

But the life of St Nicholas was in turn inspired by one man whose birth we celebrate today on December 25th*.

Whether you believe he is the Son of God or not, Jesus, the son of a carpenter from a back block of the Roman empire, undeniably changed the world. The influence of Christianity permeates our culture, from our calendar to our holidays to our systems of government and our democracy.

Jesus still has followers numbering in the billions all over the world, and his teachings on love, generosity and peace have inspired countless people spanning hundreds of generations to seek the best in others, to live for a purpose bigger than themselves. To give and to forgive, to go and to grow.

But even more so for those who believe that he is the Son of God, Jesus promises eternal life connected to God in heaven, which is the ultimate joy.

Jesus isn’t just for the rich and powerful, the famous, those who are ‘worthy’ of him. His promises of love, connection, and joy everlasting are available to everyone no matter how ordinary or poor or oppressed. That’s why, when Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds in the fields, not to the religious or political upper class.

In the gospel of Luke, it reads,

And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’

~ Luke 2:8-14

Yes indeed, the birth of Jesus was good news of great joy.

We celebrate Christmas because, 2000 years ago in a stable in the back blocks of the middle east, a baby was born, a baby who would grow into a man, a man whose influence inspired selfless giving and love through countless generations.

Whether it be through a life of devotion to God, or giving to a child overseas through a charity, or making a meal for those without a home, or even if it’s simply seen in the gifts left in a stocking by a jolly old man in a red suit, the love and generosity of Jesus still inspires joy now, and forevermore if you choose to believe.

Truly, joy to the world.

~~~

* I know … technically Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th of December. He was probably born in the middle of the year, sometime in the northern hemisphere summer, and the date of the 25th of December was chosen by the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 336, in place of the celebration of the Pagan Sun god Mithra. The most important thing is that we remember and celebrate it 🙂

The lost art of joy – St Nicholas

Santa Claus – c1881 and c1931

When you’re Santa Claus, kids will tell you anything.

When I was at University, I had a holiday job running children’s activities and games for parties, work functions and the like. One of the roles I got to do a few times was to don the Santa suit and ho-ho-ho for 20 minutes while asking all the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Though I found that some of the chattier kids weren’t just telling me that they wanted for Christmas, but what they did yesterday, and what they’re going to be when they grow up, and what mummy and daddy do at work, and where they live. Lucky my intentions weren’t nefarious! Quick tip – never tell children important information like credit card numbers if you don’t want the guy playing Santa to know as well.

Santa Claus is an enduring symbol of western Christmas celebrations, part of our modern cultural folklore. Santa is almost exclusively associated with joy – he’s kind, he brings gifts and he’s jolly with a deep belly laugh. He seeks goodness in people. As TV producer and Santa performer, Jonathan Meath said, “Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, does not carry a gun, and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. That’s part of the magic for me, especially in a culture where we’ve become so commercialized and hooked into manufactured icons. Santa is much more organic, integral, connected to the past, and therefore connected to the future.”

So where did the notion of the modern Santa come from?

Modern cultural Santa, like most things in our modern world, was influenced by commercialisation. The modern image of Santa, a jolly fat man with a big white beard, in a red snow suit, comes from Coca Cola. In 1931, illustrator Haddon Sundblom created the image of Santa as we currently know him, and from 1931-1964, Sundblom created a new ad for Coke each year featuring the jolly old fat man.

Sundblom, in turn, took his inspiration for Santa Claus from the drawings of political cartoonist Thomas Nast. At the turn of the 20th century, several illustrators were drawing Santa Claus as a fat man with a beard, smoking a pipe. The inspiration for these pictures of Santa came from the work of Nast who between 1863 and 1883, published a drawing of Santa Claus every year in the magazine Harpers Weekly. Nast’s most popular, and most recognised rendition of Santa was published in early 1881.

Nast himself drew inspiration for his depictions of Santa Claus from the stories and traditions that preceded him in the early 1800’s, specifically the very famous poem, “A visit from St Nicholas”, or what is also known as “T’was the night before Christmas”. This poem was published in 1823. Around this time in history, writers and illustrators had begun to rediscover some of the old stories and were using them to tell stories about the gift-givers of Christmas.

Prior to the 1800’s, traditions of gift-giving were still very strong but in early 16th century Europe after the protestant reformation, the old stories and traditions became unpopular. So in the UK, particularly in England, he became ‘Father Christmas’ from stories plays during the middle ages in the UK and parts of northern Europe. In parts of Austria and Germany, the present giver became the ‘Christkind’ a golden-haired baby, with wings, who symbolizes the new born baby Jesus. In the early USA his name was ‘Kris Kringle’ (from the Christkind).

Dutch settlers to the USA took their tradition of ’Sinterklaas’ with them, and over time, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas became intertwined with Sinterklaas, which morphed to ‘Santa Claus’.

In turn, the origins of Sinterklaas, Father Christmas and Kris Kringle was St Nicholas.

So who was St Nicholas exactly? What’s known about St Nicholas was that he was born during the third century in the village of Patara, in Asia Minor (currently, modern Turkey). His parents raised him as a devout Christian but died when he was a child. His parents left him a significant inheritance, but instead of spending it on himself, Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. He died on the 6th of December AD 343.

There were many stories that make up the legend of St Nicholas, and certain miracles that were ascribed to him, which help explain the origins of the modern character of St Nicholas.

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. The man was so poor, he could not pay a dowry so that his daughters, meaning that rather than get married, they would be sold into slavery. But on three different occasions, a bag of gold mysteriously appeared in their home – providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold were said to have been tossed through an open window to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry, hence the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes in readiness for gifts from Saint Nicholas.

Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. It is said that when he was young, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus’ life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a storm arose which threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed, and the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all.

There’s a lot that we can learn from the original St Nicholas. He lived a life and taught others of the value of giving, of connection, of selfless kindness. In turn, all of these acts brought joy to those around him.

Christmas can also be a time for joy, not just for us, but for those around us, if we too can follow the lead of St Nicholas – being selfless, being kind, being generous, connecting with others.

The lost art of joy – Music

With only five days to go before Christmas, most people are rushing into the shops to purchase those last minute items.

The average shopping centre in the pre-Christmas week is an auditory and visual cacophony. Not only are there people EVERYWHERE, there are fairy lights, baubles, and tinsel everywhere! Then there are those Christmas carols, the auditory froth of tinny Christmas melody bubbling incessantly in the background. It’s all enough to make you want to shop on-line.

It’s such a shame the way Christmas carols have been subjugated and exploited for commercial gain. So many of the old Christmas carols are euphonious in their own right, with a lyrical profundity that encapsulates the deeper meaning of Christmas in just a few words.

In fact, music in general is fundamental to us as a language of emotion. The linguist Steven Pinker once said that music was “auditory cheesecake,” a purposeless byproduct of language development. But music is deeper than language. Neuroscience suggests that we’re hardwired to interpret and react emotionally to music from before we’re able to crawl, and well and truly before we develop language. Music activates most of our brain, from our frontal lobe and temporal lobe to process the sounds across both sides of the brain. Music also activates our visual cortex, our motor cortex, our memory centres and, not surprisingly, our deep emotional brain centres. It’s only if the song has lyrics that our language processing areas are activated.

Music has been shown to affect our physical bodies and our minds. Music helped to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety in heart disease patients, while upbeat music can have a very positive effect on our emotional wellbeing, so long as the music was happy and upbeat. Music that we expect to be happy also results in an increase of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure.

So the emotional connection that music carries is very important for our overall joy.

Listening to music can increase our joy. While the research supports the improvement in mood that comes from listening to happy, upbeat music, there’s a place for ‘sad’ or ‘angry’ songs too, which can connect directly to our souls and provide a type of catharsis that goes beyond trying to express our emotions through the clunky limitation of speech.

Music can help to scaffold memories, especially emotional memories. Remember the music playing when you had your first kiss? Or the song that they played at a friends funeral? Playing those songs related to happy times in your life can help you to recall and re-experience those uplifting emotions if you’re feeling down.

Music creates opportunities for healing. Hospitalised children were happier during music therapy (in which all the children were involved and could play with simple musical instruments like maracas and bells while a leader played the guitar) than they were in standard play therapy when their options puzzles and toys.

But more than anything, music increases joy through the power of human connection. Music is emotionally deeper than language and the social bond that music can create between people is much stronger than any intellectual or verbal connection. There have been numerous studies that demonstrate this – people who go to concerts and who go dancing report higher levels of subjective wellbeing than those people who listen to music on their own. People who create music together have higher levels of happiness and find other activities more pleasurable overall, an effect which has been demonstrated in groups of both adults and school children.

So if you want to increase your joy, engage with music, and use music to engage with other people … even if it is singing Christmas carols.

The lost art of joy – Simplicity

Over the last couple of days, we talked about joy through balance, balance of our stress levels and balance of our time commitments.

There is another aspect of balance and joy – the balance in our physical life, the joy inherent to a life of simplicity.

In our modern western society, we grow up with a couple of implicit assumptions – rich people are happy, and poor people are not happy. Sort of capitalism’s golden rule. But are those assumptions true?

In the late 1970’s, Philip Brickman and his colleagues published a study in which they suggested that people who had won the lottery were no happier than a similarly matched control group who had not won any money.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the idea that joy can be attained from a simple life is as old as the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who history records, sought a tranquil life – “a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of ‘perfect mental peace’.” He spent his time in a garden and taught his school of philosophy there. He was content to eat simple meals, and aspired to a neutral mood.

So if joy can be found in the simple life, and is not necessarily guaranteed through material wealth, why do we have have expensive houses filled with expensive cars, whole wardrobes of designer clothes we hardly wear, subscribing to 200 channels on massive wide-screen TV’s that we don’t have time to watch because we’re on social media on our expensive smart phones, complaining about the unrepayable personal debt that we have.

This post is certainly not a diatribe against all material things or debt necessarily. I love my iPhone X, my Apple Watch, my iPad pro etc etc. I don’t need them all, but I like them. It would be hypocritical to push an anti-consumerism line while being stocked up with nearly every Apple product I can fit on my person.

The key is balance. Embracing a level of minimalism doesn’t guarantee happiness, but trimming some of the unnecessary trappings of materialism can make room for those things that count more in terms of joy.

Embracing a level of minimalism is a means to an end. It frees up some of our most finite resources like time, money, energy, and helps to remove stress. It frees up all of these resources that you can now start investing in what brings you purpose.

Finding joy through minimalism is an expression of living through your values, which we discussed in an earlier post. It’s much easier to say no to things that have no significant value when we understand what is that is of significant value.

One we know what is truly important to us, we can start clearing our lives of all the things that clutter our lives, the material possessions that suck up our time and unbalance our quest for joy.

Writing about minimalism at a time like Christmas, one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, is always a little ironic. That said, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be buying presents for others, and that we should abandon Christmas shopping altogether. Though we can use the opportunity to declutter a little by giving in other ways.

Perhaps all of those clothes you aren’t wearing can be given to your local church or charity to pass on to those whose wardrobe is sparse. Perhaps you can have a garage sale to thin out the junkyard of unused appliances in your house, and donate the proceeds to feed those who are hungry.

That is the generosity of Christmas at its best and has the added bonus of decluttering your life – a double whammy of joy at Christmas.

The lost art of joy – Friendship

Last night, my family and I had dinner with an old friend.

I should clarify … by ‘old’, I don’t mean ‘geriatric’. I mean that I have known this friend for a long time. She is the person I have been friends with the longest, having first met her in early medical school nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s a friendship that survives despite geographical, logistical and theological differences, because it’s built on the deepest mutual respect and care. I don’t have many friends, but this friend is definitely a keeper.

Friendships mean different things to different people. Some friends are gregarious, a source of instant joy, that person that always makes you laugh even when life makes you want to cry. Then there are those friends who enkindle that deeper sense of joy, because they are steadfast through the tough times.

In the 21st century, our concept of friendship has undergone some pretty radical changes. Before 2004, ‘social networks’ were the people you physically hung out with. Now when you talk about ‘social networks’, people assume you’re referring to Facebook.

Is physical social networking better than virtual? Everyone has their own opinion. We know that humans are wired for social interaction, with specific areas of the brain devoted to social behaviour, such as the orbitofrontal cortex. There are also neurotransmitters and hormones that are strongly associated with bonding and maintenance of social relationships, like oxytocin and β-endorphins. Research has shown that both humans and other primates find social stimuli intrinsically rewarding—babies look longer at faces than at non-face stimuli.

We also know that people who engage in social relationships are more likely to live longer, and that loneliness predicts depressive symptoms, impaired sleep and daytime dysfunction, reductions in physical activity, and impaired mental health and cognition. At the biological level, loneliness is associated with altered blood pressure, increased stress hormone secretion, a shift in the balance of cytokines towards inflammation and altered immunity. Loneliness may predict a shortened life-span.

It’s important to understand what loneliness is, and conversely, what defines good social relationships? Fundamentally, good or bad social relationships are related to the quality of the social interaction. This rule applies equally to real social networks and their on-line equivalents. So quality is fundamentally more important than quantity in terms of friendships, with that quality strongly determined by the connection within those social relationships. For example, loneliness “can be thought of as perceived isolation and is more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships”.

The corollary is that friendship can be thought of as perceived connection within social relationships, or the comforting feeling that accompanies the match between one’s desired and actual social relationships.

So healthy social relationships aren’t defined by the size of your network, but by the strength of the connections that your network contains, relative to what’s important to you. Just because you’re not a vivacious extrovert who is friends with everyone doesn’t mean that your social network is lacking. It also means that you can have meaningful connections to friends through social media, just as much as you can have meaningful connections through face-to-face interactions. It’s not the way you interact, but the quality of the connection that counts.

One way to increase the quality of your social connections is to enjoy your friendships mindfully. Mindfulness is being fully engaged in the present moment. So mindful friendships is to be fully engaged with the other people around you, to use all your senses to connect with those around you. To ignore the other social networks around you on your phone or tablet, keeping them out of sight and out of mind until afterwards.

Try it. At the next Christmas party, or when you’re with your loved ones on Christmas Day, turn off the phone and engage with the people around you as mindfully as you can, and see if you experience a new and improved form of Christmas joy.

The lost art of joy – Forgiveness

Even suits like this can be forgiven …

Fun movie fact – The phrase “Revenge is a dish best served cold” was first said, in those exact words, in the Star Trek movie, Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn in 1982.

Revenge is one of the most classic of all movie plot lines. According to the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Criminology, there are over 1000 catalogued films that are specifically “revenge” films. It sort of makes sense … imagine if the protagonist was decisively wronged, and instead of embarking on a convoluted scheme of vengeance, they just got on with their lives. Cue theme music, roll credits, yawn … not a particularly exciting movie.

And lets face it, we like movies with a theme of vengeance because no one likes being maligned or abused. It’s human nature to repay wrong with another wrong. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. If you hurt me, natural justice is fulfilled if I make you feel the same pain in return.

Revenge might make for a good movie plot, but does it make for a good life? As the old proverb goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If you hurt me, hurting you back doesn’t make my pain go away. It just adds more pain to the world, because I’m still in pain and now you’re in pain. Then you’ll want to hurt me back, and the cycle escalates.

Francis Bacon said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” In other words, you may be able to bring about retribution, but during the process, you’ll end up keeping your own wounds open and festering, instead of letting them close and heal. It’s like someone cut you with a knife, and in order to show them what damage they did to you, you keep reopening the wound every few days. The wound may look open and fresh should they ever care to notice, but you’re the one who had to put up with an open wound for an extended time, and re-live the pain every time you reopened it.

Douglass Horton wrote, “While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself.” Vengeance rarely ends well.

Interestingly, research has shown how the desire for revenge can affect you mentally and physically. One study showed that when subjects were asked to think of reacting aggressively to a given scenario, parts of the limbic system in their brains increased in activity. This isn’t unsurprising, given that our brain subconsciously prepares us all the time for fight or flight responses when it starts to sense danger, in preparation for possible action.

What was more interesting is that angry rumination also reduced the activity of the subject’s frontal lobes as well, which is really important for reasoning. So it might be that reasoning is disrupted by anger, and that rehearsing angry and aggressive mental scenarios shuts down the brains problem solving approach and calm emotions.
The other alternative to nursing the grudge is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a particular form of acceptance. It’s the act of moving on from insult or injustice. It isn’t saying that what was done to you was ok, but rather, that you aren’t going to be held captive by it.
There have been lots of studies looking at different aspects of forgiveness, but without getting bogged down in details, forgiveness helps to rebalance things. People who forgive habitually tend to also have lower blood pressure, while individual acts of forgiveness and lower hostility predict lower stress levels, which in turn predicts lower self-reported illness. The reduction of negative affect (a “bad mood”) was the strongest mediator between forgiveness and physical health symptoms, although the study authors noted other variables such as spirituality, social skills, and lower stress also had a role in the forgiveness-health relationship.

Forgiveness is a complex psychological process, but it is primarily built on acceptance, another practical example of the serenity prayer. Forgiveness involves letting go of those things that can not be changed. You can’t change the past. Old wrongs will still be old wrongs, no matter what happens to the perpetrator in the future.

Like so many examples of acceptance, by letting go of the old hurts, you free up room for new joy. You’re no longer bound by the painful past, which means you can move forward into a joyous future. In this sense, think of revenge and forgiveness in terms of gifts. Specifically, those awful gifts that you accept under obligation from distant relatives. You know, stuff you might get from your great aunt, like a pair of festive Christmas crocs three sizes too small, or a Meowy Christmas suit and tie. Imagine your great aunt accidentally got the decimal place on the order form wrong and she sent you 1000 of them, making your house look like Santa’s workshop on acid.

Revenge would be keeping all 1000 pairs of Christmas crocs and Meowy Christmas suits in your house, waiting for the chance to show your great aunt what a terrible thing she did and how she’s filled your house with ugly Christmas-themed draff. Forgiveness is to send it all back to the manufacturer, every single last croc and tie, so that once again you have room for what’s important to you.

I don’t know if there is any one particular method to forgive. Apologies help, but they aren’t necessary to be able to forgive someone. Sometimes people find actually saying the words “I forgive you” to be a powerful release. That can be to a person directly, although that may not always go down so well. Saying it internally is valid. Sometimes writing it in a letter, and then tearing it up as an act of finality, can be useful.

This Christmas, if you’re hanging on to the festive crocs and Meowy suits of past hurts, let them go and fill your life with joy instead.

Post-script:

I understand that talking about forgiveness can bring up some deep and difficult feelings in some people. Just like physical wounds, some traumas are shallow and heal quickly, but others are inflicted so deep that they are hard to heal, like rape, childhood abuse, domestic violence and other deep psychological insults. It’s important to clarify here that memories of such traumatic events often intrude into your conscious awareness, where it takes over and replays in your memory. That’s different to unforgiveness and rumination, which are memories that we foster and encourage by actively rehearsing them. Forgiveness is still a part of the healing process of severe psychological trauma, but the healing process may take longer, and the process of finding that forgiveness may require a professional to help walk through the process. If you’ve been the victim of a severe trauma, you don’t need to go it alone. Find a psychologist or talk to your doctor if you’re not sure.