The lost art of joy – Kindness

Kindness is like a campfire – it gives light, it gives warmth, and it brings people closer together.

I recently heard a story of a new mum in Canberra who returned to her car after a physically and emotionally taxing day, staying with her sick baby in hospital, only to find that an overly zealous parking inspector had added to her distress by issuing her with a parking ticket. She was initially distraught by the discovery, but when she opened the envelope, she found more than just the ticket. She also found a note from complete stranger who just happened to be passing by. The note read: “I saw your car had a parking ticket on it, I’m sure whatever you were going through at hospital is tough enough so I have paid for you … Hope things get better!”

It was such a small act, but the effects of this stranger’s kindness was so profound. The financial exchange was minimal, but the joy and hope it generated were enormous.

And that’s the thing about kindness. One of the best things you can do for your health and happiness is to be kind to other people. Altruism activates rewarding neural networks, essentially the same brain regions as those activated when receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure. Studies also show that both the hormones and the neurotransmitters in the brain involved in helping behaviour and social bonding can lessen stress levels and anxiety. The immune system and autonomic nervous systems are positively affected by the quality and extent of social networks, and increased sociability and concern for others’ wellbeing can improve immune system and stress responses.

But kindness isn’t just about what it does for us, but it’s also about what it does for those to whom it’s directed. The joy and hope of kindness is bidirectional. Like the story of the mum with the sick baby, the kindness of a stranger was a ray of light in an otherwise very dark time. Sometimes those simple acts can make the difference between someone getting through or giving up.

There are infinite ways to show kindness, but the thing that links them together is unselfishness, the “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”, or in less formal language, simply giving with no strings attached.

If you’re looking for some ideas on some new ways to show kindness, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has plenty of them. Check out https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas.

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The lost art of joy – Just what is joy?

Robin Williams is my favourite all time comedian. At his best, his jokes would come flying out faster than what my brain could process them, but I still found myself laughing pre—cognitively and only understanding why I was laughing once my brain had a chance to catch up. He was famous for his talent for improvisational comedy, something he demonstrated one night for a group of budding actors, using nothing but a pink scarf.

And yet, despite being one of the funniest people in history, he was plagued by depression and drug abuse and died by suicide in 2014.

In an interview after his death, James Lipton poignantly described Robin Williams,

“In the end, Robin is Pagliacci. He is Pagliacci, the cliche of the clown who cries – that was there every single minute, every single minute of his life, and what he did was he spared us the hard part, and he gave us the joy. What an extraordinary gift that was.”

It’s hard to understand how someone can be so seemingly full of joy, or at the very least, give so much joy to others, and still be so plagued with melancholy and psychological pain. The life and death of Robin Williams certainly challenges our understanding of the true meaning of joy.

So it’s pertinent to ask: What is joy?

Is joy laughter? Is it pleasure? Is joy the same as happiness? Is joy the absence of sadness? Is it the absence of suffering? Is joy within us, or outside our control? The answer is probably a combination of all of these things.

My dictionary explains that joy is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”. The ancient Greeks considered that joy had two different parts – physical pleasures associated with biological needs, and feelings of higher pleasure. Physical pleasures, such as eating and sex, are known as ‘hedonia’ while the higher feelings of pleasure, associated with the appreciation of art, music, et cetera, as ‘eudaimonia’ (‘a life well lived’) after the distinction that Aristotle made in his writings on the subject.

Is joy the same as happiness or pleasure? C. S. Lewis didn’t think so, “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again … I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

George Bernard Shaw considered joy to be something greater than oneself, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

It’s certainly true that depressed people can still laugh, and like Robin Williams, can make others laugh, so joy can certainly be both superficial and deep, and neither are mutually exclusive.

To add something else into the mix, the Christmas message of joy comes from the birth of the Saviour (Luke 2:10-12), so one of the Biblical meanings of joy stems from hope.

So the single definitive concept of true joy is elusive. Perhaps trying to define joy is like trying to define the ocean. We have all experienced the ocean and its beauty, and many of us have felt the coolness on our bodies as we have swam in it, or felt the awesome power of its currents and waves. Yet the ocean is so deep, so powerful and so mysterious that no one can ever truely comprehend it for itself.

We have all experienced the wonder and beauty of joy, although it is so deep, so powerful and so mysterious that no one can ever truely comprehend joy.

Not that it will every stop us from trying.

~~~
If you are struggling with mental illness and you need urgent assistance, please talk to someone straight away:

In Australia:
Lifeline ~ 13 11 14
BeyondBlue ~ 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us
Suicide Callback Service ~ 1300 659 467 or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

USA:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand:
Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354

UK:
Samaritans ~ 116 123

For other countries: Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

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.

Dr Caroline Leaf, Testimonials, and Levels of Evidence

ScreenshotDrLeafTestimonial

It’s nice to be appreciated.

Gratitude is a wonderful thing. The Bible encourages it (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and psychology has detailed why. Gratitude increases happiness and life satisfaction, while tending to decrease depressive symptoms [1]. And it’s not just good for the giver, but also the receiver. I always appreciate it when my patients thank me for helping them. Genuine gratitude makes you feel good inside.

Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist, must be positively glowing right now. She has been getting a lot of positive feedback from her fan base of late, and she has decided to share it with the world via her social media feeds.

I’m sincerely happy for those people who feel they have been helped by Dr Leaf’s work. I remember my darkest days, feeling far from God and unable to find my way out of the emotional black hole of depression. It’s always so good to hear that others are finding their way out too.

While I’m happy for those who are sharing their stories to Dr Leaf, I can’t say I feel the same for Dr Leaf herself. It’s excellent that people are sharing their stories with her privately but publishing them is another matter. At best, it’s ethically delicate.

The testimonies are likely to be from people recovering from a psychological or emotional challenge, which carries an ongoing level of vulnerability. Even if Dr Leaf has their consent to publish their stories, sharing their problems with the world can still cause or contribute to psychological damage. Without knowing their whole story, Dr Leaf has no way of judging whom she may or may not harm.

It’s also a bit disingenuous. By publishing a series of testimonials, Dr Leaf is essentially self-promoting. It’s one thing for a supporter to spontaneously offer her praise in a Facebook or blog comment. But Dr Leaf specifically asked for her followers to send in their testimonies so she could publish them.

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 12.12.25 amScreen Shot 2014-08-03 at 3.05.21 am

Soliciting testimonials to republish is an old advertising trick. According to the Market Science Institute, “Testimonial solicitations – in which firms solicit consumers’ personal endorsements of a product or service – represent a popular marketing practice. Testimonials are thought to offer several benefits to firms, among them that participating consumers may strengthen their positive attitudes toward a brand, through the act of writing testimonials.” [2]

Testimonials are very good as a marketing tool. Who can argue with a person who says that Dr Leaf helped turn their life around? Saying anything negative just makes you sound like a cynical old boot.

And that’s the real problem, because while publishing a whole bunch of positive stories is good for marketing, it makes it very hard for those who had a genuinely bad experience to say anything. No one wants to listen to those people whom Dr Leaf has confused or mislead – it makes for terrible PR. Those people feel devalued, and sometimes worse, because it seems like everyone else had a good result from Dr Leaf’s teaching, except them.

Testimonials also make for very poor scientific evidence. Indeed, testimonials are considered the lowest form of scientific evidence [3]. It’s all very well and good for a bunch of people to share their positive experiences, but as life changing as the experience may have been, they are not evidence of the effectiveness of Dr Leaf’s teaching. Without specific, well-designed research, no one can say if the testimonials Dr Leaf is publishing are the norm. Recent research demonstrates that self-help literature for depression may not have any benefit over a placebo treatment [4]. So it may be that any improvement attributed to Dr Leaf’s teaching was actually the placebo effect. Dr Leaf can list testimonials until she’s blue in the face, but that doesn’t prove that her work is scientific or therapeutic.

I’m sure would say that she’s asking for testimonies so that she can share the joy of others with her followers, or seek to give glory to God, or something like that. And perhaps she is. I’m not sure how she reconciles that with Jesus words, “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) But that’s for her own personal consideration.

Whatever her intentions, the soliciting and publishing of personal testimonials from potentially vulnerable people is ethically delicate. I think she’d be better to step away from publishing these testimonials.

And for her readers and followers, the testimonials need to be seen for what they are: just individual stories. Sure, we should rejoice with those who are rejoicing (Romans 12:15), and so good for those who feel Dr Leaf has helped them. But they do not constitute evidence for the therapeutic efficacy or scientific integrity of the work of Dr Leaf.

References

  1. Toepfer, S., et al., Letters of Gratitude: Further Evidence for Author Benefits. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2012. 13(1): 187-201 doi: 10.1007/s10902-011-9257-7
  2. Marketing Science Institute. Consumer Testimonials as Self-Generated Advertisements: Evaluative Reconstruction Following Product Usage. [cited 2014, Aug 3]; Available from: http://www.msi.org/reports/consumer-testimonials-as-self-generated-advertisements-evaluative-reconstru/.
  3. Fowler, G., Evidence-based practice: Tools and techniques. Systems, settings, people: Workforce development challenges for the alcohol and other drugs field, 2001: 93-107
  4. Moldovan, R., et al., Cognitive bibliotherapy for mild depressive symptomatology: randomized clinical trial of efficacy and mechanisms of change. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 2013. 20(6): 482-93