The lost art of joy – Loving yourself again

How many doctors does it take to change a lightbulb?

That depends on whether it has health insurance.

None of the lightbulbs in my house have health insurance, but that’s not why I don’t like changing them. I’m just not the handy-man type, that likes to climb around on ladders, pulling off light covers, changing the bulbs and putting everything back together. It’s not that it’s particularly difficult, but unless all of the lightbulbs in a room are broken, I’m not going to go through all of the bother. I would much rather have lightbulbs that never die.

Of course, lightbulbs inevitably burn out. Some will work for an hour and then stop, others will last for years before finally giving out. An engineer who designed the light bulb would have an idea about how long the light bulb should work, and according to their tests, the light bulb would be expected to work for a certain time. For instance, say that I put a light bulb into my office lamp that is rated to last for 2500 hours, and it lasts for 2600 hours before it finally gives out. It’s lasted 100 hours longer than it’s rated for, and so to the engineer who designed it, the bulb is a success. But it’s still stopped working, and I’m in the dark. To me, it has still failed.

It’s interesting that failure is as much about the standards that people set, either individually or collectively, than anything else. My standards for light bulbs are probably unrealistic – I want them to work forever because I hate replacing them.

Sometimes we judge ourselves by an unrealistic standard, or we allow others to judge us by an unrealistic standard.

It’s easy to look at the people on magazine covers or on TV who look so perfect, and use that as our yardstick for self-comparison. We yearn for their perfect figure, or their talent, or their business acumen.

We compare ourselves to our ‘friends’ on social media and wonder why our lives aren’t as good.

We remember the criticism from our parents or our teachers – who wanted us to be skinnier, or smarter, or stronger – and strive to please them.

There’s nothing wrong with striving with the right motivation, but when our goal is unattainable or unrealistic, the energy we expend for no perceived gain just sucks the life from our soul, resulting in cognitive overload, resentment, anger and despair. None of these things helps us build joy in our lives.

The antidote is to love yourself again. We need to forgive ourselves and set goals that are realistic and attainable.

Setting realistic and attainable goals first comes from understanding our values and living by them, sailing in the direction that our particular breeze is taking us, not fighting against it.

We also need to understand our own capacity based on our own particular skills and talents. If you’re a Ferrari, you’re not going to be driving up rough mountain tracks, through rivers and around sand dunes. If you’re a Land Rover, you’re not going to be carving up a race track. Use the talents that you have to set your own course, not try to drive someone else’s.

It’s also ok to fail. We succeed because we fail. It’s ok to set some seemingly attainable goals and still not attain them. Beating yourself doesn’t help anyone, all it does is leave you bruised and bloodied. Love yourself even when you fail, and forgive yourself. Remember, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis B. Smedes)

This Christmas, love yourself.  Don’t try to live up to the unrealistic standards of others, but set your own goals based on your values, even if you don’t always attain them.  And, forgive yourself. That will allow joy to flourish.

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The lost art of joy – Values

“Wait … what are you doing?”

There’s a deep part of our consciousness that acts as our inner emergency brake. You know, when you’re about to call your boss a jerk, or drunk text someone, or post something narky on social media, there’s that little voice inside your head that says, “Uh, do you really think that’s a good idea?”

Thankful most of us don’t end up drunk-texting our boss and would never let ourselves get in a position to do so. Still, it’s a good idea every now and then to reevaluate our general day-to-day decisions, our routines and patterns, to say to ourselves, “Wait … what are you doing?”

Yesterday we talked about the Serenity Prayer – “grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other”. We talked about acceptance – accepting the things we can not change because fighting with things we can’t change wastes our energy and gets us nowhere. We can also waste a lot of energy and not get to where we want to go by using all our energy going to the wrong place – either we drift on autopilot, doing what we’ve always done because, you know, it’s what we’ve always done, or we can deliberately set sail in the wrong direction, thinking that we’re doing the right thing.

One way that we can build our joy is to live rich and meaningful lives in service of our values. In knowing our values, we can know ourselves, and engage in life in its fullness. ’Values’ can mean different things to different people, but in the Acceptance and Commitment framework, values refer to “Leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life”, “Our heart’s deepest desires: how we want to be, what we want to stand for and how we want to relate to the world around us.”

Values help define us, and living by our values is an ongoing process that never really reaches an end. Living according to your values is like sailing due west. No matter how far you travel, there is always further west you can go. While travelling west, there will be stops along the way, stopovers along our direction of travel like islands or reefs. These are like our goals in life.

The difference between goals and values is important. You could set yourself a whole list of different goals, and achieve every one of them, but not necessarily find meaning or fulfilment if they all go against the underlying values that you have. So goals are empty and unfulfilling if they aren’t undergirded by your deeper values.

How can you understand your values? There are a couple of ways. Ask yourself: “What do I find myself really passionate about? What things irk me? If I could do anything I wanted, and money was no object, what would I do?” Is there a recurrent theme running through your answers?

There are other ways to discover what your values are. Some people have suggested writing your own eulogy (the speech someone gives about you at your funeral). It sounds a bit morbid, and it’s only a figurative exercise, but it tends to sharply clarify what you want your life to be like. What do you want your legacy to be? Think about the things that you want to be known for at the end of your life, and see if there’s a word that best describes those desires.

Understanding our values can help us to navigate the seasonal madness without becoming overwhelmed. When you understand what’s truly important to you, it’s much easier to focus on what’s really important and say no to the things that aren’t. For example, Your boss invites you to exclusive Christmas drinks are her house, with some of the regional executives. It’s on at the same time as the Christmas Carols concert your sister is performing in. If your core values are career success, then the choice is easy. If you know your values are family first, then the choice is easy. You can make the choice that will bring you the most joy, and enrich your life.

So before the malaise of merriment takes hold, say to yourself, “Wait … what are you doing?” Ensure that what you’re doing is aligned with your deepest values to maximise your joy this Christmas season, and beyond.

2016: A New Hope

“Hope, it is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.” The Architect, Matrix Reloaded

I confess, sometimes I can be a little bit rigid.  And grumpy.

Every New Years Eve, I get a tinsy bit frustrated by the vague aspirations that adorn social media statuses everywhere.  From the self-realisation types …

“Lets make 2016 the best year ever / I’m gonna take 2016 to the next level / Be the love, feel the power, live the life, bask in the light”

through to the typical vague self-improvement ones …

“This year I’m gonna lose weight / stop smoking / be nicer to people / save more / give more / love more / exercise more / eat less …”

It’s all a bit too much for my inner cynic.

My pragmatic cynic dismissed them as pointless. “These aspirations that people post are just pathetic, they won’t benefit anyone.  Goals need to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic and Time-Framed.  Why bother with anything else.”

The activist cynic chimed in, “Honestly, there are so many other more important things … who cares about ‘going to the next level’ when you’re being conned everyday by charlatans and snake-oil salesmen.”

My core cynic was like, “What’s the fuss anyway? The transition into 2016 ‘holds no more meaning that the silent segue from March 14th into March 15th, or the almost imperceptible movement of the minute hand as 2:38pm becomes 2:39pm. If we’re going to celebrate one meaningless moment passing, then shouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to all other moments too? Why does the passage of time matter so much more at the stroke of midnight? I bet 11:58pm feels a bit miffed.’”

I thought about letting my sceptical trinity loose on this post today, but somehow I felt like it wasn’t quite right.  And then I had a small epiphany – each aspiration represents more than vague self-affirmation and cyclical mediocrity.  Together, they represent hope, and who am I to stifle the incredible power of hope.

The power of hope is being realised in secular psychology in recent times.  Hope involves having goals, along with the desire and plan to achieve them.  Dr Shane Lopez, a leading expert on the psychology of hope, describes hope as “the golden mean between euphoria and fear. It is a feeling where transcendence meets reason and caution meets passion.”

Hope leads to everything from better performance in school to more success in the workplace to greater happiness overall.  There may also be a role for teaching hopefulness in the treatment of depression.

So how can we harness the power of hope?  How can we use hope to make 2016 a better year than 2015?  Hopeful people share four core beliefs:
1. The future will be better than the present.
2. I have the power to make it so.
3. There are many paths to my goals.
4. None of them is free of obstacles.

So if we’re going to engage the power of hope, we need to believe that the future is brighter and it’s within our grasp, so long as we keep moving toward it, in spite of the expected obstacles.

Of course, like the Architect noted in the Matrix Reloaded, hope can sometimes be a weakness.  Like Lopez noted, hope needs the right mix of caution and reason, not just passion and transcendence.  If you want to move forward into a better future, you have to keep your feet on the ground.  You need to be aware of those that would take advantage of blind trust.

The conclusion: I’m glad to have my sceptical inner trinity on board, so long as I temper them with a bit more optimism, and maybe an occasional self-affirmation or two.

I hope that 2016 would bring you new hope, along with prosperity and peace.

Happy new year everyone!

Bibliography

http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/03/21/the-psychology-of-hope/

http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/08/19/hope-therapy-for-depression/2778.html

http://wonkyperfectionism.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/new-years-vague-sort-of-aspirations.html

Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 1. Temet Nosce – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

1. Temet nosce – “Know thyself”

Generally speaking, there are two ways that a person can live their lives, as a boat or as a buoy – those who set out to find life or to let life find them.

Some people are quite content to be buoys – to stay in the same place and let the social currents and tides bring different elements to them. They’re more passive in their approach, content to just accept that life will just come and go as it will.

Then there are those who don’t want to stay in the one place, but want to chart their own course, discover what life is for themselves. Whose to say what’s best for each individual person? We all have our own choices to make.

For those people who are boats, who want to set their course and discover life, it helps a lot in the journey to know where you’re going.

This may seem obvious enough. In fact, it seems too obvious – we often think we know where we’re going when in reality, we haven’t a clue where we really want to go or how to get there.

For starters, it helps to know where you want to go. Some of us are gifted with an amazing confidence, self-assurance and motivation, and have the ten year plan all mapped out, but those people are the minority. It’s fine if we don’t know where exactly we want to go, but what would help every since person is to at least know the direction you wish to sail in, which are our values.

The word ‘values’ can mean different things to different people, but in the Acceptance and Commitment framework, values refer to “Leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life”, “Our heart’s deepest desires: how we want to be, what we want to stand for and how we want to relate to the world around us.” [1] Values help define us, and living by our values is an ongoing process that never really reaches an end. Living according to your values is like sailing due west. No matter how far you travel, there is always further west you can go. While travelling west, there will be stops a long the way, stop-overs along our direction of travel like islands or reefs. These are like our goals in life.

The difference between goals and values is important. You could set yourself a whole list of different goals, and achieve every one of them, but not necessarily find meaning or fulfilment in their accomplishment if they’re all against the underlying values that you have. So goals are empty and unfulfilling if they aren’t undergirded by your deeper values.

How can you understand your values? There are a couple of ways. Ask yourself: “What do I find myself really passionate about? What things irk me? If I could do anything I wanted, and money was no object, what would I do?” Is there a recurrent theme running through your answers? I have always found myself irritated by mass-marketing, and more recently by disingenuous social media memes and unscientific health messages. The theme – ‘truth’. I know, it sounds a bit trite, like some second-rate comic book hero, but I’ve mulled over this a lot, and for me, ‘truth’ is one of my deepest values.

There are other ways to discover what your values are. Some people have suggested writing your own eulogy (the speech someone gives about you at your funeral). It sounds a bit morbid, and it’s only a figurative exercise, but it tends to sharply clarify what you want your life to be like. What do you want your legacy to be? Think about the things that you want to be known for at the end of your life, and see if there is a word that best describes those desires.

If that’s a bit too confronting, there are some on-line tools that can also give you an idea. There is only so much a long list of questions can discover about you, but results of the survey can provide a starting point for further thought. There is a couple of free resources that may be helpful (though you will have to register):
* https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu – and click on the drop-down menu in the “Questionnaires” section, and select “Brief strengths test”
* http://www.viacharacter.org/Survey/Account/Register

One final note on the buoys and the boats – whether you’re a buoy or a boat, you’re still going to encounter large waves, strong currents, and wild storms, as well as peaceful weather. As a buoy, those adverse conditions will simply find you where you are. You can’t escape from them. You’re also going to experience those same large waves, strong currents and wild storms as a boat. The difference is that buoys have no choice but to ride out the adverse conditions. Boats, on the other hand, can use the power of the difficult circumstances to power them to their destinations if they can harness them correctly. Boats can’t outrun bad weather all the time. Adversity is inevitable. Happiness, contentment, enlightenment, or whatever you’re seeking, isn’t found in avoiding or controlling our adverse circumstances, but about learning how to follow our values in the midst of the calm weather or the wild.

As Christians, one of our primary values is our love for God and our desire to follow Jesus. Scripture teaches that each of us has our own unique path to follow. Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” ‘Workmanship’ in the Greek is ‘poiema’ from which we get our English word ‘poem’. We are not a meaningless jumble of letters that makes no sense. We are a beautifully crafted blend of rhythm, harmony and meaning. You are a sonnet from the mouth of God. I believe that our individual purpose stems from our common purpose and values, like leaves are dependant on the branches, trunk and roots of the tree. I heard a brilliant summary of the purpose of the Christian life, which was simply “To know Christ, and to make Christ known.” I believe that it’s from this common value, shared by all Christians, that our direction in life stems from.

In knowing our values, we can know ourselves, and engage in life in it’s fullness.

References

[1]        Harris R. The happiness trap : how to stop struggling and start living. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008.

Looking backward, moving forwards

I used to think that with each new year, I was getting wiser.

In reality, I’m probably just getting older … like sun-baked plastic, slowly growing more rigid, cracked and brittle with each passing day. Which is why I no longer blog about subjects like the eleven steps to self-attainment or the seven habits of highly effective nose pickers, or new years resolutions in three easy payments. Call me a grumpy old man, but I’ve been down that road. Hey, if it lights your candle, then I wish you all the best. But to everyone else, if you’re happy to humour a cantankerous old sceptic, I’d like to share my musings on a year that was more morbid than magical.

2014 was quite a year. After suffering from depression for most of the three previous years, I was hoping that 2014 was going to be a year of consolidation. It turned out quite the opposite. I celebrated a birthday milestone with a party that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and is still remembered fondly by those who could. That, and I published my second book. In terms of highlights, that was it.

Otherwise, it was a year of adversity. Nearly every one of my family members was in hospital this year at some point. And death came for my wife’s mum, Robin Williams, the cricketer Phillip Hughes, and everyday heroes like Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson in Sydney’s Lindt Cafe siege. In late October, I nearly lost my wife. Many of my friends suffered untold tragedies too.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it, 2014 was a tough year. In the shower this morning, where I get all of my best thinking done, I was contemplating the year that was, and how I was going to move forward. 2014 had left me emotionally bruised and bleeding, and I will carry some of the scars forever. Though while I may be broken, in many ways, that’s not such a bad thing. Brokenness changes your perspective. I’m more grateful for my family. I can empathise on a deeper level with my patients in their distress. I’ve come to understand the wilderness experience of the soul.

I’ve come to realise that goals without deeper values undergirding them are vacuous and futile.

I have a deeper understanding of the grace of God, who despite my brokenness, misery and existential despair, was holding me up and bringing me through. He was my lifeguard, keeping my head above water, swimming me to shore.

Hmmm, perhaps I’m not as rigid or as brittle as I thought.

In 2015, I won’t be making any silly resolutions trying to better myself, because in being broken, I can finally see what’s truly valuable in my life. I may be limping, but at least I’m finally limping in the right direction.

If you’re broken and limping too, let’s limp together into a new year that is richer and more fulfilling than the last.

My patient, Kev

I meet a lot of people in my job. Some are not particularly memorable, and some I truly wish to forget. But every now and then, I meet a person who’s memorable for all the right reasons. Kev was one of those people.

Once upon a time, Kev was a business man, a corporate manager who started in the postal service in his late teens, but got more experience and moved into the Commonwealth Bank, where he quickly moved through their ranks and became a regional manager. Towards the end of his career, he moved industries to become the CEO of one of the smaller private hospitals in Brisbane in the 1980’s.

After he retired, his wife developed dementia, and he cared for her at home for many years, before he became too weak. They both moved into a nursing home, but his wife succumbed a couple of years later.

When I met Kev in early 2013, he was dying. His heart and his lungs were failing, and he couldn’t walk ten metres without gasping or needing oxygen. He was gaunt and frail, and extremely thin. I was worried that if he fell, he might snap.

But his intellect remained untouched by the disease ravaging the rest of his body. He was quick-witted, jovial, and always polite. He was the consummate professional – always showing respect, and earning it. I could see why he was so good as a businessman. He was a pleasure to be around – so much so that I spent extra time with him every week just chatting, when I should have been finishing off my work.

In the week before he died, the last time I saw him, as I sat in his room listening to some more of his stories, he looked me in the eye and said,

“Don’t sweat the small stuff. You don’t have to do everything. Let people flow in the things they can do. There are more important things in life.”

He smiled as he looked at the photos on his wall of his wife and kids.

I smiled and shook his hand. “I’ll see you later, Kev”, I said. I never did see him again.

I still remember him now, skinny and breathless, but with a big smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes every time I entered his room. And I remember his advice on living a life driven by values.

New Years Day is a time to start afresh, a celebration of new beginnings, a focal point to take stock and refocus. But if we’ve learnt anything at all from our previous attempts at New Years resolutions, it is that they don’t work. Don’t be mislead by the occasional partial successes. I sometimes hit a golf ball straight, but that still doesn’t mean my golf swing is any good. New Years resolutions are the same – they are fundamentally flawed, in spite of the accidental successes that we sometimes have.

The truth is that etherial statements, or short term goals for self-improvement don’t help us. We don’t need New Years resolutions, we need New Years re-evaluations.

Values are different to goals. A goal is like a destination, where as a value is like a direction. Our individual values are like the direction of the breeze. It’s easier to sail with the breeze of our values than against it.

We often get goals and values confused. Goal orientation means that we move from place to place, sometimes travelling in the same direction as our values, but sometimes against them. When we live according to our values, the goals seem to set themselves as we live according to what we truly believe in, what truly motivates us.

A few things can acts as guides to help us learn what our values are. What are your passions or what makes you mad? Is it justice, or injustice? Is it relationships? Is it children, or family? The environment? What is it that gets your juices flowing?

Another way of understanding your values is to do the eulogy exercise. It’s a little morbid, perhaps. But simply, the eulogy exercise involves writing your own eulogy. What is it that you want others to remember you for? What do you want your epitaph to say?

The eulogy exercise helps us to plan our lives with the end in mind. When you’re on your death bed, will you regret not finishing that report, or will you regret whether you lived according to your values, your deepest desires. Putting your values into perspective makes it much easier to let things go that aren’t truly important. It’s a lesson I’m continually working at too.

May 2014, and the rest of your life, be about the important things. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

I hope you have a happy new year.

Cheers, Kev.