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 – Adversity

If we were to believe the average Pinterest quote, it’s easy to be happy.

“Positive mind, Positive Vibes, Positive Life”.
“I choose to be happy”.
“Why be moody when you can shake yo booty”.

Yep, easy right. Positively choose to turn on the light and shake yo booty, and you will have joy.

But we know from life experience that it isn’t always easy to have joy. It’s easy when times are good, when things are going in your favour.

It’s not so easy when things are difficult or times are tough – when you’re sick, when you’re broke, when you’re alone, when you’re stressed and stretched to your limit.

We all encounter adversity at some in our lives, and it’s through those times of personal difficulty that we usually grow the most, although it never feels like that at the time.

When times are difficult, we can still experience joy. Occasionally Pinterest has some pertinent quotes – “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light”. It might be hard to see the joy in times of darkness and difficulty, and sometimes we just need to shine a little bit of light into the situation to see some of the joy around us.

One of the most profound examples of this was that of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived three years in Nazi concentration camps. He lived through some of the most inhumane depravity that a human being could be forced to endure, and that experience helped him understand that circumstances did not necessarily determine someone’s experience of joy, but that even in the midst of suffering, a person could still find beauty and meaning.

In “Man’s search for meaning”, he wrote:

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Even in the midst of hostility, hate and hardship, Frankl and those around him engaged in unity, comradery, understanding of beauty and the memory of love. The human spirit can not be suppressed by external conditions. As Frankl also wrote,

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Modern psychology has helped to explain what it is that contributes to happiness and joy. Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues once published that intentional actions can contribute as much as 40% to a person’s feeling of happiness, where as circumstances could only contribute 10%.

This work wasn’t without it’s criticism, but it does make two pertinent points.

The first thing and most important for today is that our happiness is less about what’s going on around us and more about what we do.

Yes, adversity does make joy more difficult to experience, but not impossible.

Don’t allow life to beat you down. See the joy that is beyond your circumstances.

The second point? Even accounting for their generous assumptions, if up to 40% of our happiness is related to our actions, then more of our happiness is dependent on things beyond our control, like our genes and our circumstances.

What happens when you’ve done everything you can to maximise your joy and you’re still struggling? We will discuss this in more detail tomorrow.

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.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the myth of optimism bias

“What are little girls are made of?  Sugar and spice, and all things nice.”

It sounds sweet doesn’t it?  We like to connect with these rosy little memes that warm our cockles and make us feel good about the world and ourselves.  We think of all of the examples in our own experience, which seems to confirm the saying.  We may think of a few examples that don’t quite fit, but they’re just the exception that proves the rule.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the saying or proverb is, we usually just assume it’s true.  Think of some other examples:
“Blondes have more fun.”
“Women can’t read maps.”
“White guys can’t dance.”

In all of these things, we tend to experience what psychologists call confirmation bias (Princeton University, 2014), our own mini-delusion in which we fool ourselves into believing a half-truth.  It looks right on first glance, and we can easily think of a few confirming examples, so without deeper inspection, we assume it must be true.

When Dr Leaf proclaims that,

“Science shows we are wired for love with a natural optimism bias”

the same process kicks in.  But in truth, science doesn’t show anything of the sort.  What science shows is that we learn love and fear, and our genetics influences the way we see the world, our personality.

We are prewired to LEARN to love and fear.  It doesn’t come naturally.  We require exposure to both love and to fear for these emotions to develop.  The Bucharest Early Intervention Project is a study looking at the long-term psychological and physical health of children in Bucharest, one group who remained in an orphanage, and the other, a group of children that were eventually adopted.  Analysis of the cohort of the two groups of children showed that negative affect was the same for both groups.  However positive affect and emotional reactivity was significantly reduced in the institutionalised children (Bos et al., 2011).  This shows that children who lived in an institution all of their lives and given limited emotional stimulation had lower levels of positive affect (ie: love, happiness) compared to a child that was adopted.

The children in the institution did not have high positive affect because they were not shown love.  Those children who were adopted were higher on positive affect because they were shown love by their adopted parents.  Both groups were exposed to distress and fear during their time in the orphanage, so their negative affect was the same across both groups.  Thus, love and fear don’t come naturally.  They need to be learned.

Personality is “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individuals distinctive character.” (“Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition,” 2010) As Professor Greg Henriques wrote in psychology today, “Personality traits are longstanding patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions which tend to stabilize in adulthood and remain relatively fixed. There are five broad trait domains, one of which is labeled Neuroticism, and it generally corresponds to the sensitivity of the negative affect system, where a person high in Neuroticism is someone who is a worrier, easily upset, often down or irritable, and demonstrates high emotional reactivity to stress.” (Henriques, 2012) Personality is heavily influenced by genetics, with up to 60% of our personality pre-determined by our genes (Vinkhuyzen et al., 2012), expressed through the function of the serotonin and dopamine transporter systems in our brain (Caspi, Hariri, Holmes, Uher, & Moffitt, 2010; Chen et al., 2011; Felten, Montag, Markett, Walter, & Reuter, 2011).

So some people *ARE* natural optimists – their genetic heritage blessed them with a rosy outlook and their early life experiences cemented it in.  These naturally optimistic people, and the people who know them, are the ones who take Dr Leaf’s word as truth because they see it in themselves or their friends.  But the fact that some people are naturally wired for pessimism or a neurotic personality disproves Dr Leaf’s assertion.

Its important that Dr Leaf’s misleading meme is seen for what it is.  If we assume that we’re all pre-wired for love and optimism, then those who are pessimistic must be deficient or deviant, and the fact they can’t change must mean they are incompetent or lazy.  If we know the truth, those who are less optimistic won’t be unnecessarily judged or marginalised.

I should point out that what I’ve said isn’t a free licence to be cranky or sullen all the time.  The natural pessimist still needs to be able to negotiate their way through life, and being a misery-guts makes it hard to get what you need from other people in any business, social or interpersonal relationship.  We have the ability to learn, and the person with a neurotic personality can still learn ways of dealing with people in a positive way.

But if you naturally see the glass half-empty, don’t tell yourself that you’re abnormal, or that you aren’t good enough.  You are who you are.  Accept who you are, because while there are weaknesses inherent to having neurotic personality traits, there are also strengths, such as the enhanced awareness of deception, or protection from gullibility (Forgas & East, 2008).

A good thing to have when searching for the truth.

 References

Bos, K., Zeanah, C. H., Fox, N. A., Drury, S. S., McLaughlin, K. A., & Nelson, C. A. (2011). Psychiatric outcomes in young children with a history of institutionalization. Harv Rev Psychiatry, 19(1), 15-24. doi: 10.3109/10673229.2011.549773

Caspi, A., Hariri, A. R., Holmes, A., Uher, R., & Moffitt, T. E. (2010). Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. Am J Psychiatry, 167(5), 509-527. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101452

Chen, C., Chen, C., Moyzis, R., Stern, H., He, Q., Li, H., . . . Dong, Q. (2011). Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to highly sensitive personality: a multi-step neuronal system-level approach. PLoS One, 6(7), e21636. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021636

Felten, A., Montag, C., Markett, S., Walter, N. T., & Reuter, M. (2011). Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 1(2), 109-118. doi: 10.1002/brb3.20

Forgas, J. P., & East, R. (2008). On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1362-1367.

Henriques, G. (2012). (When) Are You Neurotic?  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201211/when-are-you-neurotic

Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition. (2010)   (3rd edition ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Princeton University. (2014). Confirmation bias.   Retrieved January 10, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Confirmation_bias.html

Vinkhuyzen, A. A., Pedersen, N. L., Yang, J., Lee, S. H., Magnusson, P. K., Iacono, W. G., . . . Wray, N. R. (2012). Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Transl Psychiatry, 2, e102. doi: 10.1038/tp.2012.27

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.

Prayer Proof?

In Wisconsin, USA, Leilani Neumann is found guilty of second degree reckless homocide of her 11-year-old daughter Kara.  During her recent trial, the prosecution alleged that she ignored the worsening symptoms of Kara’s undiagnosed diabetes for two weeks, and chose prayer instead of seeking medical advice.  Even during the last hours before Kara’s death, Leilani stood with her husband and Bible study members praying for her.  Witnesses said that it was only when the comatosed girl stopped breathing that someone called paramedics.  Neumann family supporters state that the trial was misconducted, without a single witness called for the defense, and an appeal is planned.

Across the other side of the US, Billy is a graduating student of the Bethel School of Ministry, in Redding, California.   He reported on a recent trip to Ecuador where he prayed for a seven year old boy with leg deformities from birth. It was hard for the boy to walk and impossible for him to run, which made him the target of taunts when he tried to play soccer.  Despite their best efforts, doctors had failed to correct the deformities.  Billy prayed for him three times, and after the third prayer, the boy said he saw “the hand of God come down” and touch him.  He took a few tentative steps, and his legs became straighter and straighter.  His mother tearfully confirmed that her previously lame son could now walk and run.  The last thing Billy saw as he was driving away from the crusade was the boy running up and down the car park, staring in wonder at his perfectly straight legs.

Same act of prayer, same God, but two contradictory results.  It is a conundrum that has confused the church for centuries.  Why does God answer some prayer with miracles, and why are some prayers for healing seemingly unanswered?  What is the effectiveness of prayer?

There have been some attempts to measure the effects of prayer scientifically.  One of the first published clinical trials of intercessory prayer was a 1988 study by Randolph Byrd.  Almost 400 patients over a period of time were randomized to receive prayer from born-again Christians, while the other half received no prayer.  The results showed a positive outcome for prayer in six of the twenty-nine variables observed.  Unfortunately, the study was plagued by problems in the construction of the trial, and many feel that the positive results were because of study bias, not the prayer itself.

There have been better studies since then.  The “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” (“STEP”) was a well conducted trial that took 10 years and $US2.4 million.  1800 patients, all admitted to hospital for the same condition, were divided into three groups: one received prayer and knew they were prayed for, another group received prayer without knowing about it, and the last received no prayer.  The prayer was performed by committed Christians experienced in praying for the sick.  The results were not encouraging for intercessory prayer, with the two groups receiving prayer actually having poorer outcomes than those not prayed for.

On the surface this does little to help the dilemma of prayer for healing.  On deeper analysis, there may have been confounding factors.  Those in the control group (without prayer in the study) may have been praying themselves.  Or perhaps the answer to prayer in those studied came outside of the study’s parameters.  Perhaps God wants us to trust in him and his word, the raw power of faith, rather than in the science of a clean-cut clinical study that “proved” the benefits of prayer.  When it comes to the studying of prayer, Christians and clinicians have noted that prayer is not an easily quantifiable substance.  And neither is God for that matter.  When God works supernaturally, he works super-naturally, literally above the laws of nature.  Prayer, then, cannot be studied scientifically since the scientific method relies on observing and controlling variables within the natural order.

In fact, I personally think that God delights in performing miracles that are beyond our reasoning.  The miracles of Jesus provide many good examples – he placed mud, made out of the mixture of dirt and his saliva, onto a blind mans eyes.  He touched lepers.  He told Peter to find tax money in the mouth of a fish.  These sort of miracles perplex yet inspire us.  Scientifically quantifiable or not, they still move us to worship the greatness of God.

How do we find the wisdom to know when to choose medicine or miracle?  Two of Jesus’ miracles come to mind that might shed light on this delicate balance.  The woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48) had “spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any.”  She touched Jesus and was healed, and Jesus told her “thy faith hath made thee whole.”  The lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9) waited patiently near the waters edge and tried as best he could to make it into the waters to be healed but was unable to get there by himself.  When Jesus told him to walk, he got up instantly and was healed.

Both stories are of people in need who didn’t wait passively for healing.  Each did whatever was in their power to find healing, and were at the point where their effort was not enough.  The woman pursued Jesus, whereas Jesus came to the man, but in both cases their faith engaged God and they received healing.  I think the same is true in modern day life.  Healing is by the grace of God.  We do nothing to earn it.  But like many things in the kingdom of God, we also need to ask, to seek and to knock.

I understand that my profession as a GP makes me a little biased, but the healing or prevention of many diseases is available simply by following modern medical advice, or by using simple therapies like vaccinations or antibiotics.  For Kara Neumann, the answer to prayer was in the insulin and fluids that doctors would have given her had they been called in time.  Perhaps it’s because we are so used to the benefits of medicine that we do not see immunizations or pharmaceuticals as miracles, or answers to prayer.  But imagine if you could go back in time one hundred years with some of todays basic medicines like penicillin.  You would be able to cure diseases like syphilis or pneumonia, in that time untreatable and fatal, and you would be labelled as a miracle worker.  Modern medicine is miraculous.

But when modern medicine cannot touch a sickness, either because of limited access to medicine or the limits of medical science itself, the “miraculous” can take place.  Like the boy in Ecuador, or the woman with the the issue of blood, physicians could not heal them, but God did, when personal faith touched his power and grace.

It would be absurd to stand outside in a thunderstorm and pray for God to shelter us when we could just walk inside our house.  In the same way, common sense dictates that we thank God for modern medicine and use it appropriately, because it is just as much a gift of God as our houses are.  Medicines sit along side the astounding phenomena of supernatural power that we define as “miraculous.”  And while the power of prayer may not be quantifiable or reproducible like modern pharmaceuticals, it is nevertheless tangible, just like the love of God that has provided them both.

(Originally published in Alive Magazine, June/July 2009)