Thoughts / support

Let me give gifts

I am really passionate about giving people gifts. I’m not ashamed to admit that it is one of my most loved things about this time of year. Along with the reruns of Love Actually. And the fairy lights. And the prawns. And the pavlova. And ham. Okay, there’s a few other things.

There’s been some restrictions invoked around this gift giving this year. But it hasn’t really stopped me. I’ve just gone overboard in other areas. More presents for other people. I’ve been baking gifts. And sewing gifts. It’s all happening.

I get that there’s things about Christmas gift-giving that annoy people. There’s the crowds at the shopping centres. The horrendous traffic and car parking rage nightmares. I can see how holiday commercialism is really ruining Santa’s image. And then there’s the irresponsible consumption of plastic toys that may only be used once and then lost under the bed for all eternity.

Whilst some components of gift giving may be the materialistic product of commercialism and a capitalist society. It is way more fascinating than that. Gift giving is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction. It helps us to define relationships and strengthen bonds with our friends and family.

And that’s what I love about the gift giving. It’s like doing a service to a relationship. If you were to say to me that I wasn’t able to give you a gift because you’re going minimalist this month, or your children won’t remember Christmas at this age, then I don’t get to experience the process and connection to you that gift giving provided. I’m not encouraged to think about you and think about things you like and enjoy. You prevent me from experiencing the joy of engaging in these activities. Activities that help me to reflect on you and on our relationship with gratitude and appreciation.

The social value of giving has been recognised throughout human history. For thousands of years, some indigenous cultures have engaged in the ‘potlatch’, a complex ceremony that celebrates extreme giving. Although cultural interpretations vary, often the status of a given family in a clan or village was dictated not by who had the most possessions, but instead by who gave away the most. The more lavish and bankrupting the potlatch, the more prestige gained by the host family.

Some researchers believe evolutionary forces may have even favoured gift giving. Men who were the most generous may have had the most reproductive success with women. (Notably, the use of food in exchange for sexual access and grooming has been documented in our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee.) Women who were skilled at giving — be it extra food or a well-fitted pelt — helped sustain the family provider as well as her children.

People who stop giving gifts lose out on important social cues, researchers say. The people who are on our gift list tell is who the important people are in our life. It gives us an opportunity to take stock and evaluate just where our social relationships are at. But the biggest effect of gift giving may be on ourselves. Being able to give to others has been shown to reinforce our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring.

Gift giving is a practical exercise, but also a psychological one. A 2006 study by neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health found that the giver experiences both an increase in their dopamine levels and an activation of parts of the brain that are attuned to the joys of social interaction. It really does make us happy.

Better to give than to receive, gift-giving is also an act of altruism — unselfish concern for the well-being of others. When we give without expecting anything in return, we are improving our psychological health.

And there is an enormous sense of satisfaction when we see a positive expression on the face of a loved one we’ve just given a gift to. A way to express feelings, giving reinforces appreciation and acknowledgement of each other. The feelings expressed mainly depend on the relationship between giver and recipient.

So, I probably went a bit overboard on the presents again this year. But I’m not concerned about it and I hope no one else is. The gift thinking, gift shopping and gift creating process has only reinforced for me is the amount and quality of important relationships in my life. And as a result I feel very connected to these special relationships and people.

That is the best gift.

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Too much nice?

Generally, the world appears to enjoy nice people. We seem to like niceness very much and depend on it even more. Why then, do so many say “Oh, you’re just too nice.” Like it’s a very negative thing.

I’ve heard this a bit. And I’ve said it a lot. What exactly though is the assumption behind the negativity here?

Is it because we assume that by being nice a person isn’t committed to success? And obviously this is so incredibly important in our capitalist society. However much we are committed to success, for long periods of our lives we are intensely vulnerable creatures wholly at the mercy of the gentleness of others. We are only ever able to be successful because other people – usually our mothers – have given up a good share of their lives to being nice to us.

Is it because we assume that by being nice, a person isn’t going to be living an exciting life? This could be true. But all feelings – like excitement – are just phases. Things that fleet and pass. Personally, I wouldn’t find anything more sterile and dull than a demand that life be constantly exciting. I’m more inclined to mix it up with some napping.

Or is it just because a person who is being nice is a ‘pushover’? The assumption that a person unable to assert their power is a nice person?

Or maybe the person who is nice just doesn’t have any opinions at all? Maybe they just go with the flow all the time.

Here’s another possible idea. Perhaps the person who is being nice, has gone through particular experiences that has led them to the point where they believe that behaving in a nice manner is the best thing they can do for themselves, for others and for their community?

Perhaps that experience might be some form of tremendous upheaval? They have experience in how to offer genuine words of encouragement and kindness because they have had to become their own biggest cheerleaders. They are the ones who have had to talk themselves out of bed in the morning and off the floor at night. They are the ones who have fiercely fought their own demons. They are the ones who are brave and introspective. Who have successfully and excitedly made things change. The opposite of dull, boring and complacent. They want to do better and be better. They want things to change.

There could be all sorts of things hiding behind being nice.

It is entirely possible though, that too much of a good thing might not work. Like most good things. If we get caught up in too much niceness it could backfire.

If we compulsively say “yes” to everyone else’s wants and needs we’re going to experience greater levels of stress and emotional burnout. We’ll spend all our energy trying to make others happy and we’ll forget to take care of our own wants and needs.

With niceness, it’s about knowing why we’re behaving in this way. Do we behave in this way because we genuinely want to? Or is it because we are expected to or because we are desperate for positive attention? If it’s the latter, we’re going to run into problems with anger and resentment.

But I’m a bit advocate for niceness. If we know the motive for it and it is coming from a place of strength, balance and understanding, there’s no such thing as being too nice.

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Loving at Christmas

We’re here again.

The Christmas social events are booked in. Pretty sparkling lights are being switched on. The shops are filled with gifts and are pulling at our purse strings. Mariah Carey is crooning in the malls and ‘Love Actually’ is on the tele. There’s magic in the air.

There’s also work deadlines to meet before the holiday can begin. Attempts to fulfil unaccomplished goals before the end of the year. And if 2017, hasn’t been a particularly easy or content year for us or a loved one, the approaching holiday may not in fact be the ‘most wonderful time of the year’.

The countdown to the holidays can be stressful for anyone. But for any of our friends who might be dealing with challenges like grief, divorce, or physical or psychological illness, that stress can feel even more intense. It’s possible they might be concerned that they’ll ruin the holiday for others by failing to muster enough holiday cheer. They may feel pressure to take on obligations that they’re not quite up for.

But as always, there are ways that we can help.

1. Acknowledge that this holiday may be hard

If life has changed for a loved one this year, it makes sense that the holidays will probably change as well. It can help to acknowledge that out loud. Using words. Encourage your friend to let go of the pressure to live up to past holidays.

2. Let them decide who they want to be with...

Our friend might feel pressure to spend time with certain people during the holidays, even though they don’t feel up to it. We can encourage them to see only who they want to see. Just asking them who they want to spend the holidays with can be empowering, because it gives them permission to make the best choice for themselves.

If our loved one is is separated from their support network because of distance or other factors, talk with them about strategies for staying connected. This could include scheduling calls or video chats, writing letters, or making special gifts to give in person in the future.

3. And give them space if they need it

People deal with difficult situations in different ways. Some of us need our friends and family close by, while others need some space. Trust that that our loved one knows what they need better than anyone else. Because they probably do. That said, there are ways we can remind them they aren’t truly alone while still respecting their boundaries. Let them know that we’ll be checking in with them. We can text, email, call, quietly leave cookies at their door, or stop by for a brief visit. We could even ask which option they prefer beforehand.

4. Take some holiday planning off their plate

Let’s face it, the planning part of holidays sucks. If our loved one is indeed up for some company, we could take some pressure off by gathering the right people and start hashing out the details. The goal is to help our loved one enjoy the day by taking some of the work off their plate. Make a holiday plan together. If there’s a holiday dinner, prepare a menu, make a shopping list, and figure out who’s in charge of what.

5. Talk about traditions

For people who have experienced a big change, traditions can be a source of comfort—or a painful reminder of what has been lost. Talk to your friend about what feels right. Are there traditions they want to keep? Do they want to start something new? If they’ve lost or are separated from someone they love, we might suggest honoring that person in some way—say, by lighting a candle or making a donation in their memory. If that’s too painful, skip it. This is all about what feels right.

6. Tell them it’s okay to take a break

A favorite song, the smell of a layered salad, a special ornament—they can all bring back memories of happier holidays. It’s okay to cry, take breaks, or change plans. Think about how to quietly help our loved one take a moment alone if they need it, especially if we’re spending time in a group.

7. Encourage self-compassion

Remind our loved one that there's no need to feel guilty for any perceived missteps they might make—and if they can, to forgive others for the same. Everyone screws up from time to time. We all say or do hurtful or thoughtless things without meaning to. This is hard, and we’re not perfect. But every interaction gives us a chance to try again.

8. Commit to being there beyond the holidays

The holidays can be especially tough, but there's going to be other hard times —like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and weddings. As others get back to their post-holiday routines, those who are struggling may feel support dwindle. We can do simple things to ensure we're there for the long haul. Set a reminder to send a text message regularly to let your friend or loved one know you’re thinking about them. Mark key dates in our calendars and commit to calling when they come around.

 9. Send them a 'real' card.

I’ve just remembered why I was meant to write this blog. To let you know that we've got authentic and genuine Christmas and New Year cards available.

As always, our aim was to put some humanness into these cards. To acknowledge that things are not always wonderful and shiny and peaceful and joyful for everyone during the festive period. But if we continue to show kindness and respect and compassion for each other when things might be really shit, then there still might be a little bit of hope.

The cards can be found here. 

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When life goes doesn't go to plan

My dearest friend,

Doesn’t life throw us some curve balls? Sometimes these unexpected things are perfectly delightful – like finding an unused $20 note in a winter jacket – and some are just a mild inconvenience – like missing a flight or getting a flat tyre. Some have a bit more too them.

We may not think of it in quite such naive terms, but we usually start out – somewhere in the semi-conscious mind – with a script of how our lives might go. We’ll get some schooling and education, there will be some friendships and some moments of self-discovery, first loves and riotous fun.  We’ll then have some sort of career – maybe one that pays, but not merely done for money. Hopefully (this is dream land, remember) we’ll be competent, respectable and fairly honoured for the intensity of our efforts. At the same time we will develop a central relationship, maybe a marriage. A union that will last forever, be mutually satisfying and come with sincere friendship. There’ll be kids too, offering us a chance to nurture a grateful, adorable small person, the best of its two parents, whom we will watch grow into an admirable, motivated adult. With the current advances in science, we will go on to lead an active and pain-free life, mentally and physically healthy, into our early eighties. Our parents will themselves have died at an advanced age and when the time comes for us, the end will be swift and painless. Easy.

But life hasn’t got the script in your case. Or most cases. You’ve found yourself with an unexpected event with lifelong consequences. That doesn’t quite fit into the script that we’ve been handed by the advanced, secular, consumer society we live in.

I’m so super proud of how you have handled such an off-script and surprise event.

Research shows us that negative emotions, like fear and anger and frustration can actually cause our brain’s executive network (responsible for problem solving and higher order thinking) to constrict and work less effectively. But on the other hand, positive emotions help your brain generate more creative solutions to problems.

Sure, some negative emotions arose in relation to this unexpected event. But you didn’t react based just on these. And that’s way important. There’s a world of difference between a reaction and a response.

A reaction comes from an automatic part of the brain. Almost life a reflex. Reactions are very quick, especially if we feel threatened in some way. On the other hand, a response is something we consciously choose to do based on a more thoughtful assessment of a situation. For example, when someone cuts us off in traffic our automatic reaction can be to get angry and assume the driver is deliberately rude, thoughtless and incompetent. But by pausing and taking time to think, we give ourselves a window of opportunity to pick a better option. We might decide that retaliating is not in your best interest or we may realise that the driver wasn’t deliberately trying to be disrespectful, but was simply not paying attention.

You did a great job of pausing. You restrained a reaction long enough to ensure that you chose the best response for you given the situation. This takes wisdom. And self-knowledge. And grace.

And you didn’t judge this unexpected event.

For most of the things that happen to us, there's generally no way of knowing whether they will be a ‘bad’ thing or a ‘good’ thing—and which one an event turns out to be often has a lot to do with how we respond. If an intimate relationship ends and our response is to blame our self, become despondent, and never leave the house, we will increase the likelihood of not finding another relationship. However, if we accept that, for whatever reason, it was not the right relationship for us, maintain a positive attitude, believe that a better relationship is coming our way, and then get involved in fun activities, we significantly increase the likelihood of finding another great partner, possibly one who is an even better match.

You were able to see that this unexpected situation could have the potential to open other doors. We never know what will come of a situation, so rather than assuming a situation is bad, which only generates lots of unhelpful, negative emotions, you kept saying, "We shall see." You were looking ahead with hope.

And you’ve been planning since for everything to turn out well.

A lot of people don’t do this. Myself included. Many people hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The problem with this strategy is that we act on our expectations, yet our actions create our experiences. If we want a good outcome, we have to be plan for one because that is what leads to the actions that create good experiences.

An unexpected event is one you didn’t plan for, but you’ve shown that that doesn’t mean you can’t plan to create the best possible outcome from the situation. We all have the ability to shift our attention from an unexpected event that seems like a big problem and focus instead on finding the solution. The minute we ask what we can do to make something better, we have taken the first step in planning for events to go well.

It’s time now to trust in your ability that it will all be okay.

You’ve been through difficult things in life already. There’s been loads of challenges. And to date, you have survived them all. You’re strong. You’ve got the power to handle this. Trust yourself.

Because the truth is that the script we’ve been sold is not the truth. I haven’t come across anyone yet who gets through their allotted span without at least one (or five) major off-script event. Something, somewhere, will go catastrophically wrong. Not potentially, or incidentally, but necessarily. Because of our humanness.

We cannot know what it will be exactly; what is certain is that it will be something; an event committedly disastrous in nature that will stop us in our tracks, make us question every resilient assumption and break our hearts. The only thing we can do, is be aware that that the script was a bit of a false hold. The unexpected stuff is what makes us know we are human.  

Love me. xoxo

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The toughest gig going

I’m not a parent. But I spend quite a lot of time with people who are. My own, mostly. And being a parent has got to be – hands down – the hardest job in the world.  

Firstly, there is the way in which parenthood is sold to us all.

In general, society promotes deep enthusiasm about parenthood. The act of bringing a new person into the world as a cause of unalloyed joy and celebration. There is a lot of concentration on the high points, with the troubles acutely edited. In general, the script is that parents should accept with no guilt and good grace that, of course, being a parent is wonderful and difficult; rewarding and depleting; exciting and, at times, a bit tiring.

The problem is, that the evidence doesn't really back up this preconceived picture. Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.

Regardless of whether we love being a parent or not, for some of us, society’s well-intentioned enthusiasm for parenthood can have unintended habit of triggering a very difficult consequence: it might become extremely hard to admit publicly to having problems around our new families. It might feel like a grave and serious failing of our own, a mark of a particularly deficient nature. We might feel unbearably guilty at certain thoughts we may have in the privacy of our hearts: that we’d rather not see our family for a few days; that we look very wistfully at the time before we had children; that we suspect we’re not naturally cut out to be a parent; that at certain points we resent our own child. Despite these feelings probably being particularly common.

Donald Winnicott, a mid-20th century psychologist who worked with parents and children, was particularly concerned by how many parents he observed in his consulting rooms who reported they were deeply disappointed with themselves. They reported feeling they were failing as parents and hated themselves deeply as a result. They stated they were ashamed of their occasional fights with their partners, their irritability, their times of boredom around their own child; their many mistakes; they were haunted by a range of anxious questions: are we too strict, too lenient, too protective, not protective enough? What struck Winnicott, however, was that these people were almost always not at all bad parents. They were not, by some fantasy ideal standard, perfect: but they were – as he came to put it, rather wonderfully – ‘good enough.’

And here’s the thing – good enough here is even better than perfect! Because EVERY SINGLE CHILD  will live the rest of their life in a very imperfect world. We cannot get on if we are dependent on those around us living up to the highest imaginable ideals. The good enough parent is at times irate, stupid, a bit unfair, a bit tired or a touch depressed. There will be delays, confusions, mistakes, outbursts of irritation – and always (or almost always, which is enough) a background of deep love and good intentions. The good enough parent is the perfect parent for the times half a century ago. And now.

And to add further complexity to the job of parenthood, there’s the component of just running the household with other people. The success of which pretty much determines more of our satisfaction from day-to-day than any other part of our lives.

Domestic life, properly understood, is the neglected locus of some of the most profound and noble challenges open to any of us.

The Romantic view of love forgets about this part of the love story. It is fascinated by, and deeply sympathetic to, the troubles and confusions surrounding the search for a life partner. It is deeply disturbing then, from the Romantic point of view, to find that a loving couple (people who are truly ‘right’ for one another, who overcame conflict and prejudice to be together) are liable to wind up spending a great deal of their lives – after they have finally found one another – bickering: over the TV remote control, the state of the kitchen work surfaces, whose turn it is for the nappy change  and who is meant to sweep the floor and when. Standard love stories rarely take us into these challenges. But these are the real challenges of love. And of life.

Because we don’t ever see these things as ‘challenges’ or haven’t formulated household labour as ‘real work’, we don’t ever really accept that household management and division are going to be hard and important. So, when it comes to looking at the buttload of domestic activities that exponentially pile up once children are involved– doing the laundry, keeping the fridge stocked, cleaning up after meals, making the beds, arranging a roster for picking up the kids, deciding what friends to see and when – these are things that we think should just happen in the background of real life. They never demand much thought. They are mere chores. No one could be meant to do them. It is simply a matter of everyone taking a fair turn at a boring, banal but sadly unavoidable drudgery.

And when we expect something to be easy and it turns out not to be, there’s a particular kind of struggle and bad mood that follows. Arguing about who should take out the rubbish, or whether to keep the bedroom window slightly open at night take on a distinctively painful form. Not only are we seriously angry, we can’t take our anger seriously. We fall into that pattern of behaviour typical when a problem hasn’t faced up to its own complexity. There might be nagging. There might be some passive avoidance. Or sulking. There might even be some door slamming. All of these are just symptoms of deeply serious issues that have fatally insisted on their own simplicity.

The true reality is that, this stuff is the hard stuff. The challenges of who gets up out of bed to turn the light off (and all other financial and practical responsibilities of sharing domestic life) is a sign that this is tough gig. Probably the toughest there is. Conflict in these areas is the logical consequence of the difficult tasks we have been accorded. If we admit that sharing a space and a life with other people is very difficult, we come to conflicts with a very different attitude. And it means that we’re doing it right.

Lastly, there’s reading all the ranting about parenthood available for parents on the Internet. By people who aren’t even parents. Exhibit A.  It has got to be the toughest job around.


This week is Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week. We will be helping to spread some awareness to help you become PNDA Aware. You can also check out the PANDA website for more info.

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How charitable are we really?

It seems that we are all a bit impressed by the idea of charity. But often from a distance. Without looking at the idea too deeply.

We might watch something on the tele that moves us and makes us think a little bit more about someone else’s circumstances. Or we might put our loose change in one of the many buckets that litter the streets and supermarkets. But how many of us actually practice charity systematically?

Take me for example. The organisation I work for is a charity. I volunteer on Saturdays for a charity. My side project/business makes donations out of its profits to a charity. Do I practice charity regularly? I wish I did. I’d be a way nicer person.

At its most basic, charity means – giving someone something they need but can’t get for themselves. Normally that something is understood to be something material. We overwhelmingly associate charity with giving money.

At its core, charity goes well beyond the financial. But let’s begin there.

It’s quite lucky really that charity is more than just emptying our pockets, because unfortunately our higher income earners are much less financially charitable than the lower income earners. It's not news anymore, but it's still a surprise to more: the poor are more generous than the rich. For decades, surveys have shown that upper-income Americans ... are particularly undistinguished as givers when compared with the poor.... lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans. (See, "The Charitable-Giving Divide" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.)

Turns out its quite difficult for us to be financially charitable. Firstly, we are more willing to help a single individual than many.

Take this experiment -  one group was given general information about the need for donations, including statements like "Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children." A second group was shown the photo of a 7-year-old Malian girl named Rokia, and told that she is desperately poor, and that "her life will be changed for the better by your gift." People in the second group gave more. A lot more.

‘Futility thinking’ also plays a role. Giving money to help the ‘poor ‘is, we say, just drops in the ocean. We focus on those we cannot save rather than on those we can. People will give more to save 80 percent of 100 lives at risk than they will to save 20 percent of 1,000 lives at risk—in other words, more to save 80 lives rather than to save 200 lives.

We could easily make some subtle to overcome some of our psychological barriers to giving. Just as the psychological ‘bystander effect’ makes us less likely to help when others are around, knowing that others are giving makes us more likely to give. The more people talk about what they give, the more we can expect others to give or even pledge it online (for example, check the work at

Financial charity it tends to flow in one direction. The philanthropist may be very generous but they are habitually the giver rather than the recipient.

But in life as a whole, and especially in relationships, charity is unlikely ever to end up being one-sided: who is weak and who is powerful changes rapidly and frequently. You are likely to be, as it were, a patron in one area and a beggar in another.

Charity is much more than just about money. It’s more about recognising that a person needs help with something that they can’t do for themselves – and that their helplessness is not a sign of anything other than a part of the human condition.  We freely give because we appreciate how often we wouldn’t have made it if other people had not – at key points, in different contexts – cut us some slack.

It is in our relationships with others that charity can have the biggest impact. Here we don’t generally require the charity of money, clothing and free meals. What we can be short of is charity of interpretation: that is, a charitable perspective on our weaknesses, eccentricities, anxieties and follies – failings that we are unable to explain or win sympathy for, that we merely act out, with vulnerability and hurt.

It might be that our partner has made a big boo boo in their professional life. They made a significant decision at work that played out pretty badly. They may have been severely criticised; there was even talk of legal action. For months, they have been extremely agitated, and hard to live with. They couldn’t articulate their fears. They were sulky and annoying. They might have had to have stern meetings and altercations with senior management, clients and maybe even people on Twitter.

As their partner, we could make the conclusion that our partner is a bit inept, greedy and maybe even unprincipled. But, the charitable soul would do the work that their partner has not been able to do. They do the explaining for them. They understand enough about their past to have a picture of where their impatience and over-ambition came from. They hold in mind what happened with their parents and with the move to another country and with the brother who died too young. They lend a picture of who the ‘human’ is that is sufficiently generous and complex as to make them more than just the ‘fool’ or ‘weirdo’  they could so easily have been dismissed as.

The genuinely charitable person gives generously from a sense that they too stand in need of charity. Not right now, not over this, but in some other area. They know that self-righteousness is merely the result of a faulty memory, an inability to hold in mind – at moments when one is totally right – how often one has been deeply and definitively in the wrong.

This is the hardest form of charity, I reckon. So much more challenging than emptying our pockets. A much more gruelling and systematic task. To continually be generous and kind to each other in the spirit of humanness.

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The Big Three

When we talk about developing strong social connections, three words often come up – sympathy, empathy and compassion. Many of us use them interchangeably, and whilst they might be sort of related – second cousins maybe – they’re not synonymous with one another.

What they do have in common though, is that they are all a reaction to how someone else is feeling.

Let’s start with sympathy. If it was on a rating scale of degree of personal engagement with the reaction, sympathy would be at the lowest point of the three. Sympathy means you can understand what the other person is feeling and you experience care and concern for that person. What separates this emotion from the others though, is that while our facial expressions might convey caring and concern, we’re not sharing the other person’s distress. For example, we can probably sympathise with ladybugs or snails, but actually sharing their perspectives or emotions could be quite difficult.

If we take it up a notch on the scale of personal engagement, we get to empathy. Empathy can be defined as our ability to recognise and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective, and, second, sharing their emotions.

In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. If we are to share in the perspective someone else, we need to do a lot more than merely put ourselves into their position. Instead, we need to imagine ourselves as them – with their personality, experiences, background - , and more than that, imagine ourselves as them in the particular situation in which they find themselves. To empathise we need to know this person AND we need to get creative with our imagination.

We may think of it as the business of escaping our normal egoism, of leaving the self – and putting ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s experience. But the trick for empathy might be slightly different. It isn’t so much about transcending ourselves as it is about practicing an unusual kind of introspection, which takes us into less familiar parts of our own minds.

Imagine if we were, for example, asked to empathise with someone who seems so far from our own personality, realm and experiences. Maybe an aristocratic, contemptuous, well-to-do gentleman from the late 1800s. Instead of giving up, we can try and draw on certain less obvious parts of our own experience. Insofar as each of us contains, in latent form, all of human life, there will inevitably be a small, currently recessive part of us that is in synch with the mindset we associate with a eighteenth century aristocrat.

We might remember one day being on a busy bus, totally annoyed by a group of obnoxious, perhaps drunk fellow passengers. The mood might not have lasted, but we might recognise for an instant in ourselves a potential to look rather sternly at others and suspect that in some ways, we might be rather better than other people. In trying to empathise with a lord, we’re seeking out and detecting an overlap of experience. We’re learning to recognise in a very different person an echo of our own intimate history.

It’s possible that the person who lacks empathy isn’t so much selfish as generally not fully alive to the darker, less familiar, more weird recesses of themselves: the parts that are a range of things that they aren’t quite most of the time. They might not be narrowly refusing the challenge of entering into the mind of another person, they may just be less aware of their own experiences or wary of treading with sufficient imagination into their own consciousness. Behind the reserve of the unempathetic is a fear of running into troubling emotions. The opposite of empathy isn’t just thinking of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself in limited ways.

Compassion kicks empathy and sympathy up a notch. When we are compassionate, we can feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or we can recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then we take some action. We do something to try and alleviate the person’s suffering.

At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.

Dr Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and a trainer in compassion cultivation. Jinpa posits that compassion is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness of suffering.
  2. Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  3. Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
  4. Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

A compassionate response is something we do, not just something we think about. But at its core, compassion is also the acceptance of suffering. That doesn’t mean full detatchment, in which we stop giving a damn about anything (“hey, shit happens, move on”). Neither is it an intellectual acceptance of suffering that has us looking at someone’s personal tragedy through the haze of statistics (“well, you know, one in five these days). Rather, compassion is the acceptance that awful stuff can happen to any of us. But there are lots of things we can do to make that suffering way less shit.

For example, how good is it when someone really listens to us when we share a problem? The person listened without trying to fix our problem, and this person wasn’t relating it back to their own life. They listened without judgment. Simply listening with full presence can be one of the most compassionate acts we can offer.

An important distinction between empathy and compassion is how they can affect your overall well-being. If you are frequently feeling the pain of another, you may experience overwhelm or burnout.

Compassion, however, is a renewable resource. When you are able to feel empathy but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out. Research indicates that compassion and empathy use different regions of the brain and that compassion can combat empathetic distress.

Don’t take it from me, though. The Dalai Lama famously said in the book The Art of Happiness, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

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Feeling skin and feeling safe

Let’s all just come out and admit it. There is nothing better than a good hug.

Our skin is our body's largest organ. It is also the fastest growing; it regenerates at an amazing rate—we sport a new coat of it every month. Skin acts as our body’s defense against the external world, as well as our brain’s collector of external data. The tips of our fingers, the soles of our feet, and our lips are designed to pick up the most precise pieces of sensory data, and have intense concentrations of nerve endings just for that purpose.

Even seemingly pure physiological reactions don’t happen in a vacuum—our affective antennae also gather information that informs our responses to circumstances charged with affective and cognitive complexity. The messages that nerve endings send take on another level of sophistication as the body responds at multiple points of activity.

A hug can offer an opportunity to provide a whole range of complex sensory responses that warm our heart and make us feel amazeballs.

The simple act of a hug isn't just felt on our arms. When we embrace someone, oxytocin is released in our brains, making us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Oxytocin is also the neurochemical that has been linked to social bonding. It helps us build trust, it ‘dissolves’ short-term memory and it promotes feelings of bonding. It lays the biological structure for connecting to other people. And we can get it from a hug.

Researchers have also found that the presence of oxytocin can speed up the physical healing of wounds. Studies show that even a brief touch of the hand from someone who cares can start your oxytocin pumping. So when you offer a bear hug to someone in pain, or receive a big old bear hug when you are in pain, you not only begin the healing process, but you also allow your body to shut down memories of the painful stimulus. This is perhaps why the mother’s memories of labour are less disturbing when her newborn is placed in her arms and she is high on oxytocin. (Would there be any other reason women would go through that more than once?) Oxytocin encourages us to warm up to others and creates a sense of safety.

The hormones that are released in the body after a hug aren't just good for our happy-la-la feelings either. They can also help with our physical health. When someone touches us, the sensation on your skin activates pressure receptors called Pacinian corpuscles, which then send signals to the vagus nerve, an area of the brain that is responsible for (among many things) lowering blood pressure.

But the thing that I like most about the hug, is the message we can be sending each other when we engage in the act.

In our lives, the central time for hugging is early childhood. Up to about the age of four, a child may be frequently held, cradled, patted and carried. We accept that a little person can’t manage the trials of existence on their own and they will need a bigger person to take some of the strain. The young child can’t be helped by explanations and reasons; they respond to touch alone. 

But as we grow towards adulthood, independence and self-reliance become key and the sort of hugs we once knew recede. Yet to suggest that we continue to need the proper, older kind of hug is to insist that we go on being, at points, rather like the children we once were, that is, people who can’t cope alone.

To be in need of a hug is to admit – in shorthand – ‘I feel, at the moment, terrifyingly small – and need someone else to be, for a while, like a parent’.

It’s tricky to admit how normal and reasonable such tendencies are. BUT THEY ARE. Some of us might see them like an affront to our individualism and dignity, but there can be no genuine maturity without an accommodation with the childhood self. I am not ashamed to admit that I still go to sleep hugging a soft toy. Or two.

The capacity to regress and show we need some help, should belong within every good loving relationship: it’s a sign that someone feels safe enough with you (and you with them) to allow themselves to be seen in a vulnerable state.

A hug is a symbol of everything we tend to sorely miss in our hyper-individualistic achievement-centred culture: a chance safely to admit that right now we are feeling vulnerable, and the other person is helping to keep us safe.

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What does our narcissism mean for connection?

It has been argued that the modern world we are living in, makes social connection difficult, just by the nature of the way it is. And it doesn't help that we might all be turning into narcissists. Cue, horror and shock!

Over the past few decades we may have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or the self. We witnessed the self-esteem movement – which had much value – but determined that self-esteem was the key to success in life. Educators and parents started telling their children how special and unique they are to make them feel more confident. Parents and educators tried to “confer” self-esteem upon their children, rather than letting them achieve it through hard work.

The rise of individualism (with its focus on the self and inner feelings) and decline in social norms that accompanied the modernisation of society also meant that the community and the family were no longer able to provide the same support for individuals as they once did. And as I’ve repeatedly pointed out (like here and here and here), research has shown that being embedded in social networks – for example, being actively engaged in your community and connected with friends and family – has major health benefits.

As we have watched our social fabric reduce, it's possible that it's just harder now for each of us to meet the basic need for meaningful connection. The question has shifted from what is best for other people and the family to what is best for me. The modernisation of society can be seen to prize fame, wealth, celebrity above all else. All this, combined with the breakdown in social ties has created an individual self, empty of social meaning. 

And then to complicate things further, we have had the rise of technology and the development of social networking, changing the way in which we spend our free time and communicate. Today, there are nearly 936 million active Facebook users each day worldwide. More than 80 million photographs uploaded to Instagram every day, more than 3.5 billion ‘likes’ every day, and some 1.4 billion people - 20% of the world’s population - publishing details of their lives on Facebook. Is social media turning a relatively modest species into a pack of publicity-hungry narcissists? Or were we already inherently self-absorbed? Internet addiction is a new area of study in mental health and recent cross-sectional research shows that addiction to Facebook is strongly linked to narcissistic behaviour and low self-esteem.

So, what exactly is narcissism?

For those of us, who are not totes up with our Greek mythology, let’s go back to where the word descends. Narcissus was a hunter from central Greece, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He had long flowing locks, deep blue eyes, unblemished skin and full enchanting lips. One day, as he walked past a quiet pool of water, he caught sight of his own reflection, failed to recognise himself and was entranced with the image. He had never seen anyone quite so enchanting – and could not stop falling profoundly in love with himself, the most admirable and bewitching being he had ever spotted.

Apparently this behaviour was so incredibly bizarre that it’s become both one f the great and tempting insults of our age and a diagnosable personality disorder in the DSM (the psychiatric bible).

Narcissism lies on a continuum from healthy to pathological. Healthy narcissism is part of normal human functioning. It can represent healthy self-love, self-compassion and confidence that is based on real achievement, the ability to overcome setbacks and derive the support needed from social ties.

But narcissism becomes a problem when the individual becomes preoccupied with the self, needing excessive admiration and approval from others, while showing disregard for other people’s sensitivities. If the a person with unhealthy narcissism does not receive the attention desired, then really big problems can develop.

People with unhealthy levels of narcissism often portray an image of grandiosity or overconfidence to the world, but this is only to cover up deep feelings of insecurity and a fragile self-esteem that is easily bruised by the slightest criticism. Because of these traits, they might find themselves in shallow relationships that only serve to satisfy their constant need for attention. When narcissism is unhealthy it means that we can struggle to relate because it inhabits our ability to empathise with others. Uh oh. 

When narcissistic traits become so pronounced that they lead to impairment this can indicate the presence of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

According to the DSM-5, individuals with NPD have most or all of the following symptoms, typically without commensurate qualities or accomplishments:

  • Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  • Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  • Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  • Needing constant admiration from others
  • Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  • Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  • Unwilling to empathize with others' feelings, wishes, or needs
  • Intensely envious of others and the belief that others are equally envious of them
  • Pompous and arrogant demeanor

Like all the personality disorders, it would not be that difficult for most of us to meet some of these criteria at some points in our lives. That’s part of being human. It is however, difficult, to meet criteria for this personality disorder over a long period of time. True Narcissistic Personality Disorder symptoms are pervasive, apparent in various situations, and rigid, remaining consistent over time. The symptoms must be severe enough that they significantly impair the individual's ability to develop meaningful relationships with others. Symptoms also generally impair an individual's ability to function at work, school, or in other important settings.

In the clinical setting, about 2% to 16% of people suffer from this disorder, while in the general population, less than 1% of people are affected. And whilst the disorder is much more common in men than women, we don’t know much else about it. Jose Romero-Urcelay, a forensic psychiatrist and the director of therapies at the Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorders unit at Broadmoor, West London Mental Health Trust, says:

“No one knows where it comes from, but it tends to present in the patient’s early twenties. There is no genetic predisposition to the disorder, nor are specific types of people more susceptible than others. It isn’t triggered by illness, injury or substance abuse. Some suspect it may be caused by an excess of love in infancy; others by childhood abuse or emotional trauma. Some point to a breakdown in the infant’s relationship with his or her mother.” 

It is certainly possible that NPD - or traits of narcissism - has the potential to thrive in our modern western societies. Increased materialism, the decline of community life and a fascination with image afford perfect conditions for its growth.

So what can we do about all this and how can we lead a happy and purposeful life? One of the largest studies on happiness was conducted by a group of Harvard researchers who followed a large cohort of people over a period of 75 years. What they discovered – unsurprisingly – was that fame and money were not the secrets to happiness. Rather, the most important thing in life and the greatest predictor of satisfaction was having strong and supportive relationships – that “the journey from immaturity to maturity is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection”.

So maybe it’s time to take a break from that smartphone, shut off your computer and meet up with a friend or two. Maybe, just maybe, you might feel a bit of collective joy, love and excitement. Sometimes it can be nice to experience these things with others. 

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Connecting to our phone

I’m pretty certain this will not be the first time you have heard or thought this, but quite possibly our biggest barrier to good social connection right now is our reliance on our phone.

The majority of us really, myself included, really love our phones.

It’s not a difficult stretch to say that most of us are dependent or ‘addicted’ to our smart device. We might not be injecting illegal substances or drowning ourselves in alcohol, but we are almost all dependent on this object in one way or another. ‘Addiction’ is (in essence) dependence on something that keeps our emotions at bay: it is (more broadly) any and every routine we deploy to avoid a fair and frank encounter with our own minds.

We use our phone a lot, yes. And we use them for a lot of things. Often we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement. The phone offers us reprieve. Games, online shopping, social media. Distraction that fits neatly in the palm of our hand.

We are dependent on our phones not because we rely on them, but to the extent that we might use them as a coping mechanism for self-avoidance. They do not intent to hurt us. And they may not. But they probably will. They are so incredibly good at taking us away from ourselves. If there’s anywhere a lot of us don’t want to be, it’s with ourselves. And unless we can connect with ourselves and our own emotions for what they are, we’re really going to struggle truly connecting with others.

Secondly, the mere presence of a device can affect how we are relating to others. We don’t even need to be paying it any attention.

Przybylski and Weinstein asked pairs of strangers to discuss a moderately intimate topic (an interesting event that had occurred to them within the last month) for 10 minutes.  The strangers left their own belongings in a waiting area and proceeded to a private booth.  Within the booth, they found two chairs facing each other and, a few feet away, out of their direct line of vision, there was a desk that held a book and one other item.  Unbeknownst to the pair, the key difference in their interactions would be the second item on the desk.  Some pairs engaged in their discussion with a nondescript cell phone nearby, whereas other pairs conversed while a pocket notebook lay nearby.  After they finished the discussion, each of the strangers completed questionnaires about the relationship quality (connectedness) and feelings of closeness they had experienced.  The pairs who chatted in the presence of the cell phone reported lower relationship quality and less closeness.

Przybylski and Weinstein followed up with a new experiment to see, in which contexts, the presence of a cell phone matters the most.  This time, each pair of strangers was assigned a casual topic (their thoughts and feelings about plastic trees) or a meaningful topic (the most important events of the past year) to discuss — again, either with a cell phone or a notebook nearby.  After their 10-minute discussion, the strangers answered questions about relationship quality, their feelings of trust, and the empathy they had felt from their discussion partners.

The presence of the cell phone had no effect on relationship quality, trust, and empathy, but only if the pair discussed the casual topic.  In contrast, there were significant differences if the topic was meaningful. The pairs who conversed with a cell phone in the vicinity reported that their relationship quality was worse.  The pairs also reported feeling less trust and thought that their partners showed less empathy if there was a cell phone present.

Thus, interacting in a neutral environment, without a cell phone nearby, seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy — the building-blocks of relationships. Past studies have suggested that because of the many social, instrumental, and entertainment options phones afford us, they often divert our attention from our current environment, whether we are speeding down a highway or sitting through a meeting.  The new research suggests that cell phones may serve as a reminder of the wider network to which we could connect, inhibiting our ability to connect with the people right next to us.  Cell phone usage may even reduce our social consciousness.

In principle, we want to have good relationships and social connections. We love family life and are very keen on and devoted to relationships. But, obviously, the reality is tricky. The wonderful things are mixed up with a lot that is awkward and frustrating. Our partner isn’t quite as sympathetic as we’d ideally like; our family is more conflicted and challenging than feels fair or reasonable.

Our phone, on the other hand, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes. It’s so tempting to press the screen when one’s partner launches into an account of their day or their play-by-play of today’s golf results. The details of their existence and their hopes for our shared domestic life cannot compete with how much the signed John Lennon print is going to go for on ebay or how many likes our last Instagram post received. Only the former will, in the long-run, be a lot more important – as we know.

Perhaps, the ongoing questions need to be – who am I in a relationship with right now? Who should I be connecting with? Is it myself? The person seated opposite me? Or is it my phone?

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