Dr Caroline Leaf – Inside Out and Back-to-Front

Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, put this up on her social media pages this morning:

“Never feel bad for being sad. Emotions should not be kept inside because that will only make things worse. Talk to someone, cry, scream… whatever helps you feel better. One of my favorite movies is Inside Out because it really highlights the importance of letting yourself feel sad as part of the healing process. I really encourage all of you to not keep emotions bottled up. Let it out!”

Inside Out is one of my favourite movies too.  It is a rich layering of some complex psychology, told through a wonderfully relatable narrative that is beautifully told.

Inside Out is about the emotions that live inside us. Riley, an 11-year-old girl, moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the movie tells the story of her emotions as they deal with all of the conflicts and chaos that comes with adapting to such a big change.

The main characters are Joy and Sadness, which share “headquarters” with Anger, Fear and Disgust.  Each character has its own role to play, which Joy, as the main narrator of the movie, explains:

“That’s Fear.  He’s really good at keeping Riley safe.”
“This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially.”
“That’s Anger. He … cares very deeply about things being fair.”

And Sadness?  “And you’ve met Sadness.  She … well, she … I’m not actually sure what she does …”

Dr Leaf explained that Inside Out, “… really highlights the importance of letting yourself feel sad as part of the healing process.”

Well, that’s one way of putting it, but Inside Out is actually much much deeper.  The story of Inside Out demonstrates that all of our emotions are needed in order to be a healthy human being.

Joy thinks of herself as the primary emotion, and does her best to keep Sadness away from the control panel.  Over the arc of the story, Joy learns that Riley needs Sadness too – that some problems can’t be solved with distraction or a pop-psychology pep-talk and positive attitude.

By the end of the movie, Joy allows Sadness to take over, helping Riley to process all of the things she had been struggling with after the major life change of her move to San Francisco.

This is what Dr Leaf was referring to, I think.  Yes, sadness is part of healing from any major life change including grief.

What Dr Leaf didn’t discuss was the role of the other emotions in Riley’s life.  Yes, Joy and Sadness are important, but the movie demonstrated all the way through that Fear, Anger and Disgust were all just as important, and the end of the movie showed that Riley’s core memories, which each formed a different aspect of her personality, were various combinations of all of the emotions.

But that’s not what Dr Leaf teaches.  For decades, her teaching has been back-to-front, claiming that emotions like anger and fear are toxic, and that toxic emotions cause damage to your brain and damage to your health.  She tells her followers not to think toxic thoughts or to have toxic emotions, but to take control of your thought life.

“Toxic thoughts are thoughts that trigger negative and anxious emotions, which produce biochemicals that cause the body stress.” [1] (p19)

“Hostility and rage are at the top of the list of toxic emotions; they can produce real physiological reactions in the body and cause serious mental and physical illness.” [1] (p30)

“There are two groups of emotions that are polar opposites: positive, faith-based emotions and negative, fear-based emotions. Each has its own set of molecules and performs as spiritual forces with chemical and electrical representation in the body. Faith-based emotions are love, joy, peace, happiness, kindness, gentleness, self-control, forgiveness and patience.  These produce good attitudes and thoughts.  Fear-based emotions include hate, anxiety, anger, hostility, resentment, frustration, impatience and irritation. These produce toxic attitudes and create a chemical reaction in the body that can alter behavior.” http://tkr-onfire4him.blogspot.com.au/2009/01/controlling-toxic-thoughts-and-emotions.html

“When you think a toxic thought, or make a bad choice, or you hang on to anything that is negative—anger, bitterness, hurt, irritation, or frustration—it impacts the production of those chemicals.”
“Through an uncontrolled thought life, we create the conditions for illness; we make ourselves sick! Research shows that fear, all on its own, triggers more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses and activates more than 30 different hormones. There are INTELLECTUAL and MEDICAL reasons to FORGIVE! Toxic waste generated by toxic thoughts causes the following illnesses: diabetes, cancer, asthma, skin problems and allergies to name just a few. Consciously control your thought life and start to detox your brain!” https://drleaf.com/about/toxic-thoughts/

So it’s really interesting to see Dr Leaf discuss a movie that promotes the exact opposite of her teaching.  Perhaps she’s finally coming around to what real neuroscientists and researchers have been saying for ages, that “adaptive coping does not rely exclusively on positive emotions nor on constant dampening of an emotional reaction … Adaptive coping profits from flexible access to a range of genuine emotions as well as the ongoing cooperation of emotions with other components of the action system.” [2]

If Dr Leaf is finally coming around to real science, then that’s great, but she can’t have it both ways … she can’t promote expressing your emotions on one hand and then suppressing them on the other.  If she wants to come back to the fold of real science, then she’s going to have to renounce her previous teaching, and take it down from her website.  Otherwise it ends up being conflicting and hypocritical as well as being downright confusing.

So, Dr Leaf, you’re welcome to use movies like Inside Out to illustrate good psychological principles, but if you want credibility, you should work on some consistency.

References
[1]       Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]       Skinner EA, Zimmer-Gembeck MJ. The development of coping. Annual review of psychology 2007;58:119-44.

The lost art of joy – Something to look forward to

Bacon.

With only about eight hours left in 2017, I should be contemplating bigger things … the lessons learnt from the year gone by, what did I achieve, where did I fall down, what can I learn from those experiences.

Instead, I feel like bacon, so I’m cooking bacon.

Bacon is delectable. It’s one of those foods that proves God’s love. On it’s own, it’s special, but you can also add bacon to almost any other food and it will add to the gustatory experience of pleasure. The auditory and olfactory stimulation of bacon frying is distinctly pavlovian – I’m drooling just thinking about the culinary delights that await me.

As I was standing over the frypan, listening to the crackling and popping, smelling the juicy aroma and mopping up my hypersalivation, it also stimulated the rusty gears of my cognition.

Why do I drool when bacon is cooking? For all I know, the bacon could be rancid, or I could have cooked it wrong, or it could be too salty, or it could be pigeon meat in disguise.

But I have hope.

I can’t say, rationally and with certainty, that “the bacon will be good” because there are lots of reasons why it might be bad, but I have hope that the bacon will be delicious.

Hope. It is “the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.
Hope is “being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness”. (Desmond Tutu)
Hope “smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.’” (Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Like we discussed yesterday, happiness is someone to love and something to do. Happiness is also something to look forward to.

Hope is like joy’s air. In order for joy to breathe, it has to be surrounded by hope. Without hope, joy can not survive.

Research bears this out. Numerous studies over the years have shown that those with higher levels of hope had higher academic and sports achievements. Lower levels of hope correlate to general maladjustment and thoughts of suicide. Hope is a crucial factor in dealing with major life stressors and traumas, such as cancer and old age. The impact of hope on depression and adjustment was studied in people with traumatic spinal cord injuries, and it was found that those with higher levels of hope had less depression and greater overall mental and social adjustment irrespective of how long it had been after the injury. In another study, lower levels of hope was related to higher levels of depressive symptoms in general.

Hope is applied optimism. Optimism is the general expectancy that good rather than bad will happen. Hope is “the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so.”  Hope is the ultimate fusion of acceptance, values and committed action – knowing which direction you want to go in, having a path leading in that direction and then going, not knowing what will happen but accepting that not everything will be perfect but believing that it will be better.

So what about 2018? I can’t say, rationally and with certainty, that “2018 will be a great year” because there are lots of reasons why it might be bad.

Still, I have hope that 2018 will be a great year.

Do you have hope? Do you believe 2018 will be a better year? Do you believe that you have the power to make it so? Over the last month, we’ve explored the lost art of joy; the ingredients of joy and how these can shape our lives; the things that can suffocate joy and the things that can help joy flourish. Do you believe that you can apply these principles to experience a life of greater joy, a richer life of deeper meaning and fulfilment? In all sincerity, I hope you can.

Thank you for coming on my journey with me. On the 1st of December when I had the bright idea of writing a blog post a day for a whole month, I thought it would be easy. When I got to the 5th of December, I thought I was going to run out of ideas and I should have thought twice before committing to such a huge project. Now, on the 31st of December, I’m glad I made that ill-considered commitment. It has challenged me for sure. It’s helped me to clarify concepts, to grow in knowledge and make me that little bit more proficient as a writer.

My hope is that my 31-day challenge will not just help me, but help others who are struggling to see the light and to experience the warmth of joy in their souls. “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

Happy New Year! May you all have a safe, prosperous, and joyous 2018.

Oh, and by the way, the bacon was delicious.

The lost art of joy – Something to do

“So, what do you do?”

I don’t like that question. We all ask it as a relatively benign conversation starter, but it still makes me cringe a little. It’s not that I’m not proud of what I do, but so often the moment I tell people that I’m a doctor, they assume that I’m rich or pretentious, or that they suddenly have a segue to some free medical advice.
“Oh, you’re a doctor hey? Pleased to meet you … so, uh, can you have a quick look at this mole on my neck?”

It’s interesting that we treat someone’s occupation as the second most important thing to know about them after their name, and it shows how subliminally important our occupations are to us.

And I think that’s largely to do with the personal and social value of purpose.

It’s starts from childhood doesn’t it? “When I grow up, I want to be …”

“I want to do nothing with my life” said no kindergarten child ever. Our subject choices in through high school, and out decisions after high school, to go to University or join the military, or taking a job in a trade, come down to what we want to do, to what we want to be. We all want to be someone, to do something. We all aspire to a life of meaning through purpose, because deep down, having a life which makes a difference is much more rewarding to us than having a life than means nothing.

Happiness is someone to love like we discussed yesterday, but happiness is also something to do.

It’s well known that long-term unemployment is associated with poorer physical and mental health outcomes including increased stress and isolation, depression and anxiety, heart disease and a myriad of other illnesses.

By contrast, according to research done at Deakin University, engaging in activities that provided a sense of purpose was strongly associated with wellbeing. It could be paid employment although in order to increase wellbeing, the employment had to provide more than just financial security. However, any activity that provided purpose tended to increase wellbeing, such as volunteering or being a part of a club like Rotary.

Knowing what we know about joy, it’s easy to see why engaging in activities which give purpose to life also increases our joy. Like having someone to love, having something to do that provides purpose usually involves committed action to our values, incorporating psychological flexibility, kindness, giving, moving, learning laughing … the list goes on.

There are several keys to ensuring that what we do is truly purposeful, and thus provides the greatest opportunity for joy to flourish

First, “It’s not about you.” This was the first sentence in Rick Warren’s phenomenally successful book, “Forty Days of Purpose”. True purpose in life goes beyond our needs and aims to fulfil the needs of others. This is a reflection of the true interdependency of the human race. We’re social creatures by design. We can survive independently, but we thrive collectively. We’re at our most successful when we’re dependent on each other and we work together. If we focus only on ourselves and our own needs, we fail to connect with others, and we miss out on the benefits of living in community.

Second, your purpose is inseparable from your values. As we’ve talked about several times in the last month, our values are integral to living a life rich in meaning and joy. Values reflect what is most important in the deepest part of ourselves that we can access. Our values provide us with direction. If our true purpose is going to enrich our lives and enhance our joy, then it will always be built on and synchronised with our deepest values. If your purpose and your values don’t align, then you need to reconsider either or both.

There are lots of other interesting and insightful explorations of purpose in the blogosphere but I don’t want to be over-prescriptive about it. Our own individual purpose in life is as unique to use as our fingerprints. So long as we commit the best of ourselves to being part of something bigger than ourselves.

Or as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “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.”

The lost art of joy – Resolve

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, we’re pretty abysmal.

Not that making New Year’s resolutions is abysmal, but our ability to actually keep them is particularly poxy. It’s said that about half of us make New Year’s resolutions, but only about eight percent of us actually keep them. Eight percent … that’s a solid F minus.

New Year’s Eve inevitably brings out the mantras, affirmations and aspirations, millions upon millions of people taking to social media to express how they’re making new goals or stepping into their destiny, moving to the next level or claiming their inheritance from the universe … something like that. It’s like someone coded a random phrase generator using the twitter feeds of Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra and pumped out a random string of meaningless drivel.

Hey, we’ve all been there. This post certainly isn’t about judging the spirit of all these mantras, affirmations and aspirations. People genuinely want to change, to improve, to have a better life … to live a life of joy and meaning.

Wishing to have a life of joy and meaning isn’t enough though. We don’t get a life of joy by just wanting one. How do we go from etherial to tangible?

One day, I would like to visit England. I want to trace my family’s roots. I want to see the world famous landmarks like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral. I want to watch the first day of an Ashes test match at Lords. I would like to attend a lecture at Cambridge. I want to see sites of wonder like Stone Henge. I want to experience the local delicacies like black pudding. I would even love to go to Ireland and drink a pint of Guinness, or to the highlands of Scotland, put on a kilt, and have a haggis.

That’s all well and good, but I’m not going to get there unless I get a passport, buy plane tickets, book hotels, book transport, get some maps, and ensure that I’m in the right place at the right time to be at Lords for the opening session of the Ashes test.

Then I actually have to get on the plane and go, and do all those things I want to do.

We all want joy – no one ever seriously says that they want a life of misery. We all have values that we aspire to fulfil. We need those values. As I’ve written about before, they provide direction to our lives. Values reflect what is most important in the deepest part of ourselves that we can access.

In order to live by those values, and to experience the richness and meaning that our values add to our lives, we have to act on them.

We have to get on the plane. We have to take effective action.

In the framework of ACT, this sort of effective action is called “Committed Action”. Committed action means connecting with individual styles of effective action, driven and guided by core values. As we talked about yesterday, things in life inevitably change, so committed action also needs to be flexible – being able to adapt to the invariable changes of life but still being driven by your underlying values.

Committed action doesn’t mean perfect execution. We are human beings and we are bound to fail, to drift off course or to run into obstacles. No matter how many times we drift away from our values, when we are committed to our values, we can always reassess where we’re at and get back to them.

The word “resolution” comes from the word “resolve”. If we want a life of joy and meaning, we need to do more than make up some New Year’s aspirations. If we’re going to have New Year’s “resolutions”, we need “resolve”, “settle or find a solution to a problem or contentious matter, decide firmly on a course of action”.

Take the next step. What’s one specific, concrete thing you can do in the next day that’s in line with your values? It doesn’t have to be complex. It can be as simple as hugging your kids every day, or calling a friend to arrange a time to catch up over lunch, or getting up ten minutes earlier to go for a short walk in the morning sunlight. Whatever it is, take that step.

If we resolve ourselves to committed action in line with our values, we will be able to translate our desire for a life of joy and meaning into actually experiencing it.

The lost art of joy – Change

“The only thing that is constant is change” ~ Heraclitus

2017 is drawing to a close and 2018 is rapidly approaching. It always seems like such a big transition, moving from one year to the next, but when you think about it, December 31st, 2017 and January 1st, 2018 aren’t going to be that much different. Let’s face it, 11:59pm on the 31st of December is really not much different to 12:01am on January the 1st. Rationally, the transition into 2018 holds no more meaning than the transition from November 30 to December 1, or as 3:36am quietly clicks over to 3:37am. Why does the passage of time matter so much more at the stroke of midnight? 11:57pm is probably feeling a bit irked.

Change in all other parts if our lives is a bit like the movement of the clock. Every now and then, we look to see that change has happened but it’s been happening imperceptibly all around us, the state of perpetual flux.

There are always constants – the immutable sunrise and sunset, the lunar rhythm of the full moon, the soft cycle of the seasons. It’s easy to be distracted by their comforting predictability. And yet, ironically, it is these power of these cycles that creates the constant change all around us that we fail to perceive – the winds, the rain, the tides which ever change our natural world, sculpting our land and changing our oceans over eons.

Change is constant, whether it be in our natural world, in our community, or in our body. How we approach this change is a key to living a life of joy and meaning.

It’s natural to dislike change. Our brains are essentially predictive pattern recognition engines. Our brain understands our environment by using the pattern of the world it’s already learnt to make a prediction of what it thinks will happen, and then it compares that prediction to the current inflow of information. If the brain’s prediction and the inflow of information match, the brain doesn’t need to do any more work. When the brain encounters something it didn’t predict, it has to work a lot harder to process the new information and use that information to update its internal model of the world.

I don’t like to shave, because shaving takes time, energy and resources. By not shaving, I’m being much more efficient (though some would say ‘lazy’).

Our brains are like my shaving habits. The brain would much rather not have to process any extra information because that takes time, energy and resources. By not having to process any more new information, our brains are efficient. Unlike my shaving habits, which probably are born of laziness, the brain likes to conserve energy since there’s only so much fuel the body can spare for it, and the more efficient the brains processing is, the less fuel it needs.

So by keeping things fairly constant and avoiding change, the brain can just plod along rather efficiently without all the extra resources needed if it had to process constant change.

But this puts us in a bit of a bind, since change is happening anyway whether our brains want it to or not.

It becomes the immovable force versus the irresistible object. We can dig in and resist the inevitable, or we can adapt to the change.

If we dig in, if we stay static, if we fail to adapt, then it eventually costs us more in terms of energy. It creates a greater cognitive load – maybe not in the short term, but resisting change is like padding against the current … it takes a lot of work, and it’s cognitively taxing. All that energy for no actual gain, well, we’ve talked about that before in other posts.

We can’t change ‘change’, and by trying to change ‘change’, we expend huge amounts of energy to get nowhere. And it changes nothing, except for diminished motivation, volition and resistance. The futile fighting with ‘change’ makes it hard for joy to flourish, not that it stops us trying sometimes.

John C. Maxwell wrote, “Change is inevitable, growth is optional”. You can certainly keep swimming upstream if you want to, or you can accept that change can not be changed and adapt in productive ways You can channel the energy that would have otherwise gone into resisting change and put it into something that aligns with your values and helps to enhance your life of meaning, in turn helping you to grow your joy, not unwittingly sabotage it.

If you don’t want to get stuck at 11:57pm and you want to move forward into the new year, accept the inevitability of change, and take that first step of committed action in the direction of your values.

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.

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 – Full

Christmas time is a time of indulgence! And by the end of Christmas day, we’re usually full of something … stuffed full of food, or perhaps a skin full of Christmas ‘spirits’. There are some opinionated family members who are full of … ah … lets just say they’re metaphorically constipated.

While it’s nice to be full of good food and good wine, and not so nice to be full of oneself, the goal of this blog series is for everyone to be full of good cheer.

Which reminds me of a story … this story has been around a while so there are a few variations out there, but this is the one I remember.

A professor once cleared off his desk and placed on top of it a few items. One of the items was a large glass jar.

He proceeded to fill up the jar with golf balls until he could fit no more. He looked at the classroom and asked his students if they agree that the jar is full. Every student agreed that the jar was full.

The professor then picked up a box of small pebbles and poured them into the jar with the golf balls. The pebbles filled all of the openings in between the golf balls. He asked the students if the jar was full? Yes, they said, of course the jar is full.

Then the professor picked up a bag of sand and poured it into the jar. The sand filled in all of the empty space left between the golf balls and pebbles. He asked the class again if the jar was full. The students couldn’t argue, the jar was very full.

Finally, the professor pulled out two beers from under his desk and poured both of them into the jar filling the empty space between the sand. The students began to laugh. This demonstration had gone a lot further than any of them were expecting.

The professor waited until the laughter stopped. “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life,” he started. “The golf balls represent the important things. Your family, children, health, friends and passions.”

“The pebbles represent the other things in life that matter, such as your job, house and car. The sand, that’s everything else, the small stuff.”

“If you put the sand in first, there is no room for the pebbles or golf balls.”

“The same goes for life. If you spend all of your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are most important. Pay attention to the important things in your life. Take care of the golf balls first, the things that really matter. The rest is just sand. You are dismissed.”

“But, what about the beer?” asked one student.

The professor smiled.

“There’s always room for a couple of beers.”

It’s an important lesson, and a very good illustration. You can have a full life, but it’s easy to become full of the stuff that doesn’t matter. When we focus on what’s important and get the balance right, when we put our values in first, we can still have a full life, but full of the things that matter to us the most.

There will always be time to clean the house or watch Netflix or take yourself shopping, but if you want to experience a Christmas, and indeed, a life of full of joy, put your values first. Enjoy time with your family. Play games with your kids. Look after those who are struggling, donate to a charity, plant trees … committed action in accordance with your values is the way to a rich and meaningful life of true joy.

And of course, there’s always time for a couple of beers 🙂

The lost art of joy – Laughter

(and part 2 – https://youtu.be/cZ4R4e_f3-c)
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I was lectured by Patch Adams once. He took his pants off.

When I was in medical school in the early 1990’s at the University of Queensland, Patch Adams gave a guest lecture. He was originally booked on a speaking tour and sadly, his other engagements cancelled, but he was extremely generous with his time, and visited our humble university anyway, to share his life story and his less-than-conventional views on practicing medicine. This was before the movie based his life was released (it came out in 1998), where he was portrayed by none other than the great Robin Williams.

It took a little while for the audience of young, idealistic, somewhat naive medical students to warm up, and in order to engage us, Patch took off his pants.

Everybody laughed!

It had the desired effect. He had everyone’s attention and it broke down the pretence and barriers. He later put on a pair of clown pants and continued to use humour to communicate his message of laughter, advocacy and social justice.

For the record, I have never taken my pants off to enable better communication with my patients, just so you (and anyone from the medical board who’s reading this) knows. It was the first and only time in my whole seven years of medical school that anyone ever delivered a lecture in their boxer shorts, and it’s not a customary way of engaging with one’s audience. Still, he made us laugh, and it was once of the most memorable lectures I have ever been to.

Laughter connects us. It certainly helped Patch Adams engage with people from all walks of life. Laughter equalises, because it is one of the most ubiquitous and natural of all human emotions.

And laughter is the best medicine, as the saying goes. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can lighten your load mentally and induce physical changes in your body. Laughing increases your intake of oxygen-rich air and stimulates your heart, lungs and other muscles. Laughter increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.

A good belly-laugh can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation which can help reduce physical symptoms of stress. Over the longer term, laughter can improve your immune system. Humour can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.

Laughter may even help to relieve pain by stimulating the body’s production of endorphins. Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations – like the saying goes, you either laugh or you cry. Laughter is also thought to lessen depression and anxiety.

Laughter is even thought to improve your cognitive function. As cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Scott Weems says, “Comedy is like mental exercise, and just as physical exercise strengthens the body, comedy pumps up the mind.”

It sort of goes without saying that laughter increases our joy levels. But it’s worth mentioning, because sometimes in the serious business of adulting, we can start taking things too seriously, and sometimes we just need a good laugh.

As always, it comes down to balance. There are times when we need to be serious, but we can’t be serious all the time. There are times when we just need to (metaphorically) take our pants off.