The lost art of joy – Acceptance

“’Tis the season to be jolly”

The auditory froth of tinny Christmas melody bubbled away in the background as I was trying to enjoy my sushi. I usually filter the incessant stream of Christmas carols from my consciousness as these days, they have become ever-increasingly cliche.

But once upon a time, Christmas carols were more than just shopping centre noise pollution. Once upon a time, Christmas carols had meaning. Even if you’re not inclined to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, there are still some Christmas themes we can all agree on, like peace on Earth, goodwill to all (women and) men, and joy to the world.

Joy. Christmas’s modern irony. In amongst the glitter and tinsel lies a season of despair for many people as the over-commercialised happiness hype and expectations of cheer amplify the sense of loneliness and pain that slowly abrades them. Then there’s the Yuletide exhaustion, the inevitable outcome of the frenetic push to shop, wrap, clean, decorate, travel to or host party after party after party – celebraters gonna celebrate! Joy is supposed to fit in your schedule or to-do list somewhere.

’Tis the season to be jolly? Yes, it is, but sometimes we work so hard to be joyful that joy itself has been lost along the way.

This year, with one thing or another, my writing has taken a bit of a backseat. I’m going to try and change that. I’m going to set myself a challenge to write one post a day for December celebrating the lost art of joy. What it’s going to look like is still anyone’s guess, with form and inspiration to be free and flowing. I’m not promising an exhaustive exposition … more a free-form exploration. Neither am I suggesting that I am an expert in such matters. I’m preaching to myself as much as anything. As someone who still battles depression, joy is often elusive to me.

Still, please come along for the ride. Together, let’s explore the many facets of one of the deepest of all emotions and how it’s an integral part of the Christmas season, and also our collective soul.

Many moons ago, I was a cub scout (which for those who don’t know, is Scouts for 8-10 year old boys). Once a week, we would get together and do outdoorsy type activities and games as part of learning about the seemingly antithetical values of teamwork and self-reliance, earning merit badges, dibbing and dobbing and all things scout.

One time I remember they divided the group into two and had us battle it out in a tug-o-war dual. Our parade area-come-battle zone was not particularly well lit, with the area just behind the scout hall in complete shadow, save for the occasional moonlight.

It was a gripping contest and during the battle, the other team managed to swing themselves around and pull their end of the rope into the inky darkness beside the scout hall. Our side doubled our effort, but despite what felt like an eternity of vigorous straining, we weren’t moving anywhere. We understood why when the other team started peeling away one by one and laughing at us – in the cover of darkness, they had managed to tie the tug-o-war rope to one of the poles supporting the balcony of the scout hall. We were struggling when we were fighting against human opposition, but we were clearly no chance at ever beating the scout hall in tug-o-war.

What do my #cubscoutfails have to do with joy? The scout hall tug-o-war episode is a good analogy for acceptance.

The self-help industry has, at one point or another, made us all want to better ourselves … which is fine, but only if what we wanted to change was actually changeable. By trying to change some part of us that is difficult to the point of being insurmountable, we expend huge amounts of energy to get nowhere. And it changes nothing, except for diminished motivation, volition and resistance to the thing we wanted to change in the first place. How many diets have ended in a flurry of ice-cream or Mars bars? We figuratively try to beat the scout hall in tug-o-war. The futile fighting with things that can not be changed makes it hard for joy to flourish.

The Serenity Prayer, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, is simple but profound. It starts by saying, “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Accepting those things that can not be changed is life-changing! The frustration of constant failure destroys the soul and steals away any joy. It we want to protect our joy, we can start by accepting that there are things in life we can’t change. In the immortal words of that other modern ear worm – “let it go”. Don’t sweat and strain, heaving and pulling on something that can’t be moved.

Of course, acceptance isn’t the whole story, but the other aspects of the serenity prayer (wisdom and courage) might be topics for another day.

Suffice to say, picking our battles can make a profound difference to our life, and acceptance is the key to that.

Thanks for reading, and I hope we can talk more tomorrow.

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Dr Caroline Leaf, Testimonials, and Levels of Evidence

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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.

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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