The purpose of friendship

In the previous post, we looked at the joys and benefits of friendships. It can be one of the high points of our existence.

Yet, in reality it can sometimes be routinely disappointing. We might be at dinner at someone’s house. The host has evidently gone to a lot of trouble, with an impressive spread of food and drink. But the conversation might be meandering. Devoid of any real interest. Maybe the discussion flits from an over-long description of the failings of a local restaurant to a strangely heated discussion about crypto currency (again). We might go home, incredibly touched by the intentions and efforts of the host, but we may still wonder what the whole performance was about.

Let’s consider if we didn’t engage in such performances. What might happen if we avoided human contact?

Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling all that well.

No, or limited, human contact can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.

Unpleasant things can also happen when small groups of people experience isolation together. Much of what we know about this phenomenon has been gathered from observing the experiences of volunteers at research stations in Antarctica, especially during the “wintering-over” period. Antarctica's extreme temperatures, long periods of darkness, alien landscapes, and severely reduced sensory input create a perfect natural laboratory for studying the effects of isolation and confinement. Volunteers in these studies experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Some stop being able to accurately track the passage of time and lose the ability to concentrate. The boredom that results from being around the same people, with limited sources of entertainment, causes a lot of stress—and everyone else’s mannerisms become a grating, annoying, and inescapable source of torment.

What does this say about the way we’re wired? It’s clear that meaningful connection to other people is as essential to our health as the air we breathe. Given that prolonged periods of social isolation can crack even the hardiest of individuals, it’s probably best we continue to engage in our performances with our friends.

It's been proposed that one of the issues with friendship is that these relationships lack a sense of purpose. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift, because we collectively resist the task of developing a clear picture of what friendship is really for. The problem is that we are unfairly uncomfortable with the idea of friendship having any declared purpose, because we associate purpose with the least attractive and most cynical motives. Yet purpose doesn’t have to ruin friendship and in fact, the more we define what a friendship might be for, the more we can focus in on what we should be doing with every person in our lives – or indeed the more we can helpfully conclude that we shouldn’t be with them at all.

It's been suggested that there are at least five things we might be trying to do with the people we meet:

  1. Networking. Before you sigh a collective sigh, consider this, we are all pretty small, fragile creatures in a vast world. Our individual capacities are entirely insufficient to realise the demands of our imaginations. So, of course, we need collaborators: accomplices who can align their abilities and energies with ours.
  2. Reassurance. The human condition can be full of terror. At times we can be on the verge of disgrace, danger and disappointment. And yet such are the rules of polite conduct that we are permanently in danger of imagining that we are the only ones to be as crazy as we know we are. We badly need friends because, with the people we know only superficially, there are few confessions of regret, rage and confusion. The reassuring friend gives us access to a very necessary and accurate sense of their own humiliations and follies; an insight with which we can begin to judge ourselves and our sad and compulsive sides more compassionately.
  3. Fun. Despite talk of hedonism and immediate gratification, life gives us constant lessons in the need to be serious. We have to guard our dignity, avoid looking like a fool and pass as a mature adult. The pressure becomes onerous, and in the end even dangerous. That is why we constantly need access to people we can trust enough to be silly with them. They might most of the time be training to be a neurosurgeon or advising middle sized companies about their tax liabilities but when we are together, we can be therapeutically daft. We can put on accents, dance our hearts out or share our weird fantasies. The fun friend solves the problem of shame around important but unprestigious sides of ourselves.
  4. Clarifying our Minds. To a surprising degree, it can be pretty hard to think on our own. The mind is a bit skittish and squeamish. As a result, many issues lie confused within us. We feel angry but are not sure why. Something is wrong with our job but we can’t pin it down. The thinking friend holds us to the task. They ask gentle but probing questions which act as a mirror that assists us with the task of knowing ourselves.
  5. Holding on to the past. A number of friends have little to do with who we are now, but we keep seeing them. Perhaps we knew them from school or university, or we once spent a very significant holiday with them twenty years ago or we became friendly when our children were at kindergarten together. They embody a past version of ourselves from which we’re now distant and yet remain loyal. They help us to understand where we have come from and what once mattered. They may not be totally relevant to whom we are today, but not all of our identity is ever contemporary, as our continued commitment to them attests.

Even Aristotle attempted to figure out the purpose of these social relationships we keep. He postulated that there were three types of friendship:

1. A friendship of utility: Similar to networking, where we derive a relationship based on the benefit we receive from each other. We may share certain interests, hobbies or work.
2. A friendship of pleasure: Normally built between young people and based on our pleasures and passions. We might be seeking something that is pleasant to us presently, and as a result these friendships can be fleeting and easily change.
3. A friendship of goodness: The pinnacle of the friendship chain. When we only wish the best for each other. We love each other for who we are. And I'd agree with Aristotle, that as humans, it may be near impossible for us to maintain a really large number of these friendships. 

If we’re a bit more precise about what we’re trying to do with our social lives, we can bring a greater awareness and understanding to the process of friendship. Bringing more meaning and celebration to the experiences that both enrich our lives and keep us emotionally healthy.

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Friendship in February

It’s February! That month where greeting card companies sell you love.

We're no different here at Hope Street Cards. We’re going to be selling, spreading and sharing the love this month. One of the most glorious forms of love – friendship.

How good are friends?

Aristotle said:

“In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.”

When I was younger I came across the saying - “your friends are a reflection of you”. I didn’t quite get this for a while. Mostly because my friends have always seemed to be consistently and significantly attractive. The reflection did not seem all that obvious, But as I’ve gone on and seen how other people make friends, and how truly honoured I am to have my friends it starts to make a bit more sense. I’m not so worried about the superficial attributes such as looks, money, success or status but rather I fall in love with those who bring laughter, joy, honesty and who can be there for me and also give me a firm kick in the butt when I need it. I always find it intriguing to meet friends of people I know because I can really get a sense of that person by the company they choose to keep in their life.

As human beings, we become so busy with our jobs and career, family, household chores, daily activities that we often neglect one of the most important aspects of life; friendships, the relationships that develop over time that hold a very special place in our heart. Friends are family members that we choose to allow and keep in our lives. From our first childhood friend to those lifelong friends we have known for decades; friends are treasures that can bring so much positivity into our lives. Yet we often become too busy and can neglect to reflect on the wonder of these important people.

Here's some of the reasons why we think friends are great (and why we’ll be spending all of February banging on about friendship)

  1. Friends are there to lift you up in joy and comfort you in sorrow
Good friends can be and will be our backbone. In celebrations they will show up and share in it with us. In rougher patches, they can be there to listen, give us advice and try to get us out of that slump. True friends show up, no matter what.
  1. Friends help you develop social skills

I am a bit of an introvert. I love people, but usually in small considered doses. When someone invites me to a party or to a wedding, I cringe on the inside because I know I will have to be around a lot of people that I don’t really, which gives me anxiety. However, if I know my friends will be there, I know it will be okay. They can help push me out of my comfort zone and always get me into social gatherings. From childhood, friends are there to invite us to birthday parties, have play dates and as we get older we dinner with our cherished friends to catch up on the week or the past month. These events make life so much more special.

  1. Good friends will give us a reality check
We have all been there and we all have that friend; that instance where he or she is being completely inappropriate whether they are throwing a fit, copping an attitude or just being downright rude and nasty. Friends are there to give each other a reality check. It could be the ridiculous outfit we are wearing or the boyfriend treating us poorly. True friends bring the truth in front of us. The beauty of true friends is they will tell you like it is, but from a good place in their heart.
  1. Friendships at a young age can help you develop healthy romantic relationships
Having friends early in childhood and throughout your teenage years can help us learn how to compromise in relationships, which fights to go to battle and how to communicate assertively. Friendships are very similar to romantic relationships (without the sex) and healthy friendships can help us to develop boundaries and skills that also assist in navigating successful and healthy romantic relationships in the future.
  1. The Happiest People are the Most Social
Convincing evidence of this phenomenon comes from Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, two leading experts in the field of happiness research. When they compared the happiest to the least happy people, they found that the first group was highly social and had the strongest relationship ties. In fact, good social relations were a necessity for people to feel happy. Similarly, other psychologists have written that the need to belong is “fundamental.”
  1. Happiness Is Contagious
If a friend of ours is happy, we’re more likely to be, too. A Harvard Medical School study of 5,000 people over 20 years found that one person’s happiness spreads through their social group even up to three degrees of separation, and that the effect lasts as long as a year. On the flip side, sadness isn’t as contagious: While having a friend who’s happy improves your likelihood of being happy by 15 percent, having one who’s unhappy lowers your chances by just 7 percent. Fascinating? I know!
  1. Friends Cut the Small Talk—and That Makes Us Happy
I hate small talk. Sure, we all chit chat with our buddies, but when there’s something serious to discuss, hopefully we have a confidant who we can turn to. That’s important because people with the highest levels of wellbeing have more “substantive” conversations than small talk, according to a 2010 study in Psychological Science.
  1. Our Friends Help Us Feel Optimistic
Researchers say that daily social support is a key factor in feeling optimistic. Optimism, in turn, increases our satisfaction with life and lowers our risk of depression. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that when we feel that we have social support, our visual perception of challenges actually changes: Mountains look more like molehills.
  1. Friendships Improve Our Health
Let us count the ways! 1. Those of us who have social support are more likely to keep up an exercise plan more than a year after starting it. 2. The least “socially integrated” people experience memory declines twice as fast as those who are more connected. 3. Social support wards off depression and suicide. 4. People who are lonely tend to have higher blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease, and they’re more likely to “give up” or “quit trying” to deal with a stressor such as illness. Not to mention…
  1. Our Friends Help Us Live Longer

A Swedish study found that when men do get enough social support during stressful times, they tend to live longer than those who didn’t have someone to lean on. There’s ample evidence that friendships don’t just make our lives better, they make them longer. Women who have at least one confidant survive longer after surgery for breast cancer, for example. And a review of 148 studies found that people with stronger social relationships have a 50 percent lower risk of mortality. In addition, older people without close friends are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression than their counterparts.

Obviously it’s not all roses though. Sometimes we bicker with our friends, feel envious of them, or even gossip about them. But they’re worth the bother. Our friendships enrich our lives in profoundly meaningful ways. And throughout February we’re going to find out exactly how …. Stay tuned.  



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Full or Empty?

On our recent family holiday away, I was somewhat concerned we might run out of things to talk about with each other. I’m not sure where this worry came from. We haven’t had too much difficulty over the past 35 years. Anyway, along our travels I found us a set of personality assessments, to help fill in the quiet times. And really help us to get to know each other.

Trudy relished in adopting the role - undertaking an incredibly empathic and curious psychologist persona - and the test she randomly selected for me was ‘How optimistic are you?’ This also excited her. I remember her saying something along the lines of “Yes! Here we will find out that Sam is actually not the happy, love and rainbows type person after all. And instead just a cold-hearted cynic.” Well, that’s what I heard anyway.

 ‘Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit’. Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)

Helen Keller’s words reflect the popular upbeat concept of the word which has been gaining ground since the 1960s as an increasing body of research has demonstrated a consistent tendency of healthy successful people to think in generally positive ways.

When I was younger I was definitely a glass half full kind of girl. I nearly embodied all the different types of optimism around today. I genuinely expected that more good things than bad things would happen in the future (dispositional optimism). I was likely to attribute good events with permanence (likely to recur), pervasiveness (the ‘goodness’ will extend to other future events. Whereas bad events were impermanent and non-pervasive (attributional optimism). And a lot of my optimism was incongruent. It didn’t make sense that I presumed good things would happen over adversity, despite the probability of how life experiences happen (unrealistic optimism).

Our perspective on things influences pretty much happens. What happens to us in life is only part of the story; perspective accounts for what we see and the meaning we make of it.

And the more of life and the psychological atmosphere of our culture that I soak up, through news, journalism, social media and conversations with colleagues, clients, friends and family, the more my perception changes. It’s very difficult not to notice the images and stories of violence, abuse, dishonesty, manipulation and greed. Along the way, we are taught to protect ourselves we need to be on the lookout for what is wrong and to prepare ourselves for the worst.

We are taught to keep our doors, as well as our hearts and minds, closed up and locked tight.

It’s not all that surprising that my glass has appeared a little emptier over time. When the world feels under threat, we feel nervous. In general, we can remain optimistic when we feel like we can exert some influence on a situation, but it’s hard for me to feel that way all the time. It can sometimes feel easier to perceive that I have no influence at all on ‘the world’, leading to a feeling of powerlessness.

One of the key ideas though, is that the world is a fair and just place. Is it? When we look at the natural world, there’s not a lot of fairness there. Usually the biggest or the strongest wins, and fights are often to the death. Such crucial realism, doesn’t have to mean that we should give up all hopes for an optimistic outlook though. Because optimism has some real benefits.

Martin Seligman (psychologist of the positive psychology movement) investigated attributional style optimism and success in sales insurance. He identified the top quartile of attributional style optimists amongst applicants for jobs as life insurance salesmen (extreme optimists) and found those selected on this basis performed much better and stayed in the job for longer than salesmen selected using standard industry tests.

The same mechanism has been found to drive athletic performance both in individuals and team sports. Team performance can be predicted based on assessment of the attributional style optimism of team members and coaches.  The key to performance was perseverance in the face of failure, a product of attributing bad events to one-off, non-pervasive external causes as optimists do.

Research has also shown that optimism is correlated with many positive life outcomes including increased life expectancy, general health, better mental health, increased success in work, greater recovery rates from heart operations and better coping strategies when faced with adversity.

But there’s a downside to optimism too. Too much of this perspective can cause inattention to detail, failure to seek new information and selective inattention to unpromising data can lead us to poorly informed decisions. Apparently extreme optimists have much shorter term financial horizons, save less, work shorter hours, exhibit less financial self control and are less likely to pay off credit card balances than moderate optimists or pessimists.

Harmful risk taking has long been assumed to be a danger of optimism and there is some evidence to support this. Optimism is associated with rationalising beliefs, like for example that lung cancer risk is mainly genetic, most cases of it are generally cured and smoking for a long time without disease developing means they are less likely to be affected. The high general optimism of children, especially boys, seems to be a contributory factor to accidental injury which is the leading cause of death in childhood.

How do we manage all of this? How can we not fall into the hole of become crucial realists/cynical robots, whilst still accepting that not everything in the universe is rainbows and lollipops?

It might just come back to our perspective and our choices. We have the power to accept the things that we can’t change, find the things that we can, and pay attention to the positive or the negative things in life. And some of that is about choosing hope. Bring our awareness to the positive in difficult times is one of the definitions of hope. And according to Emily Dickinson, hope can inspire the good to reveal itself. We won’t find any of the good if we don’t go looking for it.

So, how did I go on the personality test? Pretty much in the middle. Let’s say it was almost half full.

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Blackouts and Boredom

In our age, one would think boredom would be wiped from the face of the Earth once and for all. We’ve got heaps and heaps of television channels available for free. We can stream more over the Internet. We can find music at our fingertips, movies, documentaries, podcasts, and when the average person can instantaneously communicate with almost any other person on the planet – who has the time to be bored any longer?

Enter the storm season! Where I reside, the storms appear to be highly correlated with blackouts. The other day, whilst my housemates where still away holiday making, I had the pleasure of experiencing three blackouts in 24 hours. The electricity was nearly off for longer than it was on.

My electric dreams and plans for this day were over.

I have really come to enjoy my alone time. It seems to restore me (not just by the napping involved) and offer opportunities for reflection, understanding and creativity. But this silence and solitude wasn’t planned for. It was too much all at once.

At first I was a startled by how bloody quiet it got.

It can be pretty difficult to get this type of silence without an unsolicited electricity interruption these days. There’s usually some form of traffic hum or television buzz going on in in the background. There’s the beeping alarm that wrenches us awake to start another day. Throughout the day we can be assaulted by our ringtone, by text messages and email alerts. Our devices ensure we’re always connected to the rest of the world. Social networks, instant messaging, emails, and the like are constant. Technology has made interaction a click away and the world has gotten a lot smaller.

Silence can be pretty powerful. Somehow, our culture has transformed the idea of being quiet and by one’s self into some sort of eccentricity that the well-adjusted individual shouldn’t have to experience. In this case, we are talking about being alone and not being lonely, although it seems the distinction has been blurred. Yet silence has much to offer in all facets of our lives. Without all the noise and chatter and distraction of the world around us, it’s so much easier to connect back to our self.

Still, with the quiet and the aloneness of the third power outage the only thing I seemed to be connecting with was a sense of boredom.

Boredom is a universal experience and is best described in terms of attention. When we’re bored we don’t just have nothing to do, we have a desire to be stimulated, but for whatever reason, are unable to engage with our environment. It’s about our level of connection or relationship with the activity.  In a nutshell, boredom is the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity.

Interestingly, it has been found that boredom can be associated with both low-arousal and high-arousal states. At times, boredom breeds lethargy — we might even have trouble keeping your eyes open. In other situations, being bored can lead to an agitated restlessness: think pacing, or constantly tapping our feet. Often boredom can oscillate between the two states. We might pump ourself up to concentrate on a dreary task, then slip back into listlessness as our focus wavers again.

I started to think that perhaps technology was behind my usual lack of boredom. My love of television and music and documentaries and podcasts and talking means that in today’s world, I’m living the attentional dream.

But that’s not true.

Apparently, boredom is on the rise. And not just during blackouts. In one survey, participants were asked ‘What bores you at work?’ Fourteen per cent of respondents said another person. Apparently even other humans are boring these days.

What’s possible is that by relying on technology to save us from boredom – as novel and as stimulating as that appears on the screen – the more we have to stimulate us, the more stimulation we crave. Our brains are hardwired to seek novelty. When we see a new image, or something pleasurable on our flickering screen, there’s a surge in the pleasure chemical dopamine. And we want more of it.

The problem is though that we’re stuck in the rut of trying to satisfy our need for neural stimulation via the exact same method over and over – tap, swipe, gaze, tap, tap, swipe, gaze, hmmm, gaze, gaze…

So, what’s the antidote to that nagging feeling of boredom? Engage in utterly varied and diverse activities. Things that get us out from the boring, monotonous routine that seems to be the wider pathology of our technological world. Turn the power off and see what happens.

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Measuring up

At the start of a new year, I often struggle not to fall into asking myself the success-based questions. How am I doing? Am I having a successful life so far or have I had more failure than success? How do I measure my personal success and failure? What is success for me? Was my success really successful or was it considered successful because other people said it was? Did I really fail or was I just looking at myself behind another set of bars created by other people? 

Similarly, when I discover someone that I admire – be it for the research they might have just published, or the idea they came up with, or their project they have completed – I can become a bit obsessed with finding out more about the person’s entire career. What did they do before? Where did they train? Who have they been working with? How old were they when they obtained each of these career or life achievements? And it comes down to - is my level of success comparable to theirs?

And particularly at the beginning of the year, it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling a bit behind in life. It might be the excessively happy and glowy insta pictures of excessively happy and glowy families starkly reminding us that we’re single and alone and living with our parents (albeit contentedly). It might be putting on the bikini and remembering that – again – we didn’t become that thinner, fitter version of our self in 2017 (despite not really intending to). Or maybe we’ve returned to work and two days in it feels more like 52 days in.

Sometimes it might not be other people’s accomplishments that spur on the feeling that we are lacking in some way, but our own expectations. Have I made the right decision about work? Should I still be plodding away with a side business? Maybe things will be just a bit better once I have achieved x, y and z?

When we keep moving our own goalposts, we keep changing our definition of success, to the point of it becoming meaningless. If our expectations, wishes and dreams keep changing we will forever feel like we’re falling short. Wherever these expectations are coming from.

I’m not suggesting that we should abandon all of our goals entirely. We know that goals are incredibly useful for our motivation, for purpose, for creating order in our lives. But when these goals are continually linked to our unlived experiences or potential, or we have borrowed them from our friends or internalised expectations from what society thinks we should be doing, we’re not aiming for success of our making.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a psychologist hero of mine, whose last name I cannot pronounce) suggests that there’s no inherent problem with our desire to pursue goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. If we become so fixated on finding a partner or buying a house or getting a 6-figure salary, we’re going to struggle to derive any pleasure from the present. And we say goodbye to contentment. And wellbeing.

A lot of our daily activities and goals are ‘exotelic’, meaning we reap the benefits sometime in the future, rather than enjoying them for their own sake in the present. But according to Csikszenbdjbgfdjksbgjdsk (surely that’s about right) if we learn to find meaning and enjoyment in the process or experience of living itself, the burden of internal and external expectations can fall from one’s shoulders.

If we were to look at it from a Positive Psychology perspective (the branch of psychology focusing on human strengths and well-being), we wouldn’t be looking at success in terms of goal achievements and avoiding failures. Success would be all about our sense of well-being. That’s a different kind of success really. Success with a capital “S”.

One of the key takeaways from Positive Psychology is that relationships with other people matter most. In fact, a Harvard study that followed 268 sophomores from the late 1930s and early 1940s over the course of their adult lives showed that the single most important predictor of successful aging, defined by physical and mental health and satisfaction with life at age 75, wasn’t cholesterol level, salary, treadmill endurance or intelligence. It was having close relationships. Based on the extensive data collected over seven decades, the author concluded: “The only things that matter in life are your relations to other people.”

However, contrary to what many believe, this doesn’t mean sacrificing our own well-being. In fact, personal well-being is essential to cultivating quality relationships with others. In the same way that we tend to over-emphasize the importance of power and money when thinking about success, we also over-inflate the value of self-sacrifice. It’s so tempting to buy into the myth that there is something noble about putting our own needs last, and women are especially vulnerable to this.

According to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman, we experience approximately 20,000 moments each day. But actually taking our focus away from our goals, ensuring our attention is not caught up in our yet unlived experiences is tough. Making the most of each of these moments is a choice.

Let’s remind ourselves of this choice. It’s not easy, this constant wrestle between our lived and unlived lives; our expectations and reality; our future goals and current experiences. But it is entirely possible that by choosing to prioritise moments and experiences that enhance the now and our well-being, we may already be leading Successful lives with a capital “S.”

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The year of living curiously

Happy New Year Hope Street friends. We hope that the holiday season was kind and peaceful to you all.

January somehow brings with it time for reflection on the year that was. And for me, 2017 was to be the year of living curiously. It wasn’t particularly easy, but I did learn a few things.

Firstly, a curious approach possibly helped with what could have been an unsettling year. In 2017 I changed workplaces and jobs twice, I went from project-based work back to intensive clinical practice and I haven’t had a permanent work desk in over 6 months. In the past, these sorts of conditions could have sent my anxiety spiralling. But instead I went all wonder inquisitive-like. Less “how will I possibly cope?” and more “I wonder where I will get to sit today and if I will have a computer?”. It was sort of like making each day at work a football game and not knowing whether your team is going to win or not. The tension was good tension – uncertain, interesting and even a bit fun.

Secondly, I found out heaps of really wonderful things about all these wonderful people. Curiosity helped me make new friends. Hallelujah! And it helped me to discover new things about old friends.

I’ve never really had a problem finding people interesting, but being more curious helped relationships grow and blossom. It is far easier to form and maintain satisfying, significant relationships when we demonstrate an attitude of openness, curiosity and genuine interest. I really stopped worrying about what questions I asked people, if I was interested, I just asked. I gave up the notion of the ‘silly’ question. I tried not to care if my questions seemed obvious. I learnt so much from the people around me and maybe, just maybe, our relationships improved as a result.

I think I became more focused. This is a bit difficult to really say for certain, but after a year of curious living I feel that I’m more committed to what I choose to devote my attention to. Earlier in the piece, I was a complacent information receiver. I’d stick to the shallow end and learn new things superficially. Like skim reading the career highlights of Izzy from Neighbours off Wikipedia and then promptly forgetting. Whereas now, if I am interested in something I’ll invest my energy in reading a long article, watching a documentary and deepening my understanding of the taxidermy practices of the early 20th century (fascinating).

I read a bucketload of books. 55 in total. I kept a tally, because I was curious as to how many books (fiction and non-fiction) I could read in a year.

As a result of the content and consumption of books I read, I realised that despite believing I was a feminist, I was actually probably not a proper feminist. I have since started becoming a proper feminist.  

I did things I probably wouldn’t have done before. But more importantly, things that I did regularly didn’t feel so dull. I am a big believer in a solid routine, like really solid. But yes, it can get dull. Over time and with practice, curiosity managed to transform some (definitely not the majority) into interesting and enjoyable experiences.

But most importantly, curiosity helped me to find out more about myself. And it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it helped me be kinder to myself.

When we think about curiosity we might think about it as being anything but kind. We might imagine it to be intrusive or mean-spirited, as a demand to know. We might think of curiosity as seeking information with which we can judge – a means to measure ourselves. Maybe we imagine we will use what we discover as a means to feel superior or celebrate someone else’s misfortune. But I found it all to be quite the opposite.

We are born with this open-hearted curiosity. When a baby explores her life, the first thing she does is explore herself. What are these things attached to my hand? What is this shape that I will later call a finger? Can I put it my mouth? Can I waive it around?

A baby explores with open delight, with softness, with gentleness towards herself, with kindness. She does not push away what she discovers. She receives it - all of it, the comfortable and the painful, the joyful and the distressing. She explores and she discovers worlds within worlds. Nothing in her discoveries will be shut out. Nothing she does as she explores herself will be unkind.

As we grow to be adults we begin to curtail our curiosity of our self. We learn to stop looking, or look only on a very selective basis. We learn to judge. To compete and to be in a hurry. We jump ahead in our minds to later, to tomorrow, to next week, to next year. We don’t remember how to be open to what we can discover beyond the surface. We begin to use self-talk like should and have to and can’t. We learn to push ourselves away. We learn to be unkind.

So this year, when I would automatically ignore myself or began to judge my words or actions or imagine catastrophic events in the future, I’d instead try to practice curiosity. ‘I wonder why I said that to David in accounts? What a funny thing to say? It must have come from that interaction I had had with Jenny in HR the day before. Interesting. Perhaps I’m not such an idiot.’ With time it comes more naturally. I find out interesting things about how I work. And I begin to be less automatically harsh on myself.

Happy 2018 my friends. May you begin the year with some curiosity and discover some gifts in your own life today and always.

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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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What the doctor might not mention ...

I fought against taking medications for mental illness for a long time and now I have been contentedly taking them every morning for a long time.

I had resisted them because I was a big believer in psychology. And the ability of cognitive techniques to get me through. I also felt there was something genuine and authentic about my strong emotions, even if they were tortured and despairing. I had always identified as someone who “thought too much” and approached the world very critically, so something about this sustained sadness felt very much like me.

I did wonder – and I still do – if by going on medication, I’d be denying a part of my true self. I thought that perhaps bouts of paralysing depression and anxiety were just part of the human condition, and something didn’t feel right about ‘curing’ it with medication.

But part of the human condition is also about having some sort of desire to keep living. And that’s what I got back when I went down the antidepressant path. My sleeping patterns changed and my motivation wakened. I got a bit of my spark back.

There’s a lot of misconceptions about antidepressants out there. And I held some of them.  Here’s some of the things that a doctor might not let you know.

The beginning part is really pretty shit.

Chances are, you’ll probably feel a lot worse initially.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in a hospital each time I have started on a new medication. Otherwise, I just don’t know if I would have had the patience to stick with it.

The initial period felt like I wasn’t even a part of the world – electric currents surging through the body, pounding headaches, nausea, crippling anxiety, dizziness and light headedness, total exhaustion. Not the most pleasant experience.

Depending on the type of antidepressant, it can take anywhere between two and eight weeks to feel the effects. Immediate results are not key here. Some medications, like Venlafaxine, can induce some bizarre sensations, like brain zaps or muscle spasms. You might experience nausea or headaches, so most medical professionals advise that you don't go on them during a period where you really can't afford to take time off.

The other key thing to note is that often with these medications they will start to relieve the physical symptoms of the psychological disorder before the mental or emotional symptoms. As such, we might start to begin to feel more motivated and energetic, but still be experiencing very negative self-talk, feelings of hopelessness and a depressed mood. This combination of factors can increase our suicide risk during the initial phase.

Trial and error is common.

And once you start one medication, you might find out that antidepressant is not the right one for you. And the process needs to start again.

I’ve been really lucky with the medications I’ve tried, but I think I’m an outlier.

There is still so much that we don’t know about mood disorders. Sure, we’re learning more about it every day, but as of right now, we don't have it down so well that we can hear a list of symptoms, prescribe the appropriate medication, and then let the drugs do CPR on our broken rainbow generators.

Certain types of depression require specific types of medication. Couple that with the fact that each person reacts to those chemicals differently, and you basically have to set up a dartboard, prescribe whatever you hit, and see what happens.

I’ve known people who have had to go through months and years of trial and error of medication games trying to find something that might “work”. It’s horrendous. The real trouble starts when the person gets frustrated, not understanding exactly how long it takes for these things to show any sign of working. Couple that with it taking up to six weeks to even know whether or not a medication will work or not. For some, this can be an enormous process that takes massive amounts of time and dedication, and often the person will feel much worse before they feel better.

The side-effects can range from harmless to hellish.

Antidepressants are pretty serious brain drugs. They can also have some pretty serious side effects.

Side effects generally depend on the type of antidepressant and the individual, but common side effects include weight gain or appetite changes and reduced sexual desire.

Most people are aware that antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication can cause impotence in men, but it can also have a severe effect on women's sex drive. Many people on this kind of medication have difficulty achieving orgasm, some only for a few months, and others for as long as they’re on it. I can’t personally comment on this, as I am gloriously single.

The most notable side effects I experience are drowsiness, increased night sweating and blunted emotions.

I’ve always loved to sleep, but now I seem to be somewhat affected by what Dr Matt calls the “Zoloft doze”. The afternoon nap, which is not really a nap, but a solid and very deep sleep and which doesn’t impact my ability to catch the zzz’s at night time.

Because of the drug's effect on REM sleep, there are numerous studies to suggest that they worsen the quality of sleep in depressed patients. Some are activating, while others are sedating, so it's important to know the right match for you. Currently, I could sleep for 12 hours and wake up and hit the snooze button. This is pretty common for individuals using SSRIs and SNRIs.

I sweat more during my sleep. Bit gross, but apparently normal. Up to 22 per cent of patients report excessive sweating after taking antidepressants. Many also encounter intense night sweating.

And my emotions are blunted. My highs aren’t as high as they were. And I don’t cry in Love Actually anymore. Or at funerals.

Withdrawing from them may be atrocious.

Antidepressants are not addictive medications – you don't get cravings for them or need to keep increasing the dose to get the same effect.

However, all psychiatric drugs change your brain and body chemistry, and if you have been taking them for a while, your body will have adjusted to them. This means that you may experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them – especially if you've been taking them for a long time. Withdrawal or discontinuation syndromes from these medications, is something that has only been acknowledged as thing by the pharmaceutical companies in the past ten years or so.

For this reason, it's always advisable to reduce the dose slowly instead of just stopping taking them.

I always knew this, but one time I skipped a couple of doses. I think it was a public holiday and I couldn’t really be bothered finding the after-hours chemist and I thought a couple of days wouldn’t be noticeable. I was wrong.

Pretty quickly I had a runny nose and headache. I was dizzy and had trouble standing up straight and walking. And the ‘brain zaps’ – sort of like electric currents going through my brain – were unpredictable and just weird. Sleep was impossible. Disorientating, weird and awful.

Never again.

Some medications are renowned for causing particularly bad withdrawals, and others have barely any. It also depends on the person.

Your days of taking party drugs may be over. Or you will be.

I am sometimes gobsmacked that psychiatrists and doctors don’t make this clearer. Working in the drug and alcohol services, it never ceases to surprise me the number of people who I see who prescribed SSRIs and are also known to take party regularly, yet have no idea that this combination is potentially fatal.

Because SSRIs block or inhibit the reabsorption of serotonin back into the neurotransmitter it means that there is quite a bit of serotonin swimming around in the brain. This helps lift the cloud of depression. However, some licit and illicit drugs (e.g., MDMA, ecstasy, speed, methamphetamine) also act on the serotonin pathways in the brain causing even bigger amounts of serotonin to be swimming around in the brain. And it’s got nowhere to go – because the SSRI is blocking it’s path.

And here’s the thing, too much serotonin – serotonin toxicity – can be fatal.

They’re not a cure.

Unlike other things we might see doctors for – rashes, broken arms, infections – the prescriptions they give us for our brain, are not on their own enough. Relying solely on pills to treat or manage a mood disorder is usually a massive disappointment; although they do help relieve some of the anxiety and stress caused by depression, they don't address the underlying mental issues. They just help with some of the symptoms.

All the research shows, that psychological treatment (therapy of some sort) is needed in conjunction with the medication for some sort of effect to occur. There are often things outside the realm of a physical chemical imbalance that need to be addressed. Work is too stressful. You're intimidated by large crowds. You have nightmares about geese with guns. Those things need to be talked out and confronted. Pills can't do that for you.

There is stigma around taking them.

And despite these medications being not all that easy to take, they still come with a bit of stigma within the community – Aren’t you just treating the symptoms and not the cause? Have you tried natural remedies? How do you know what you’re like now without them?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to these questions. And psychiatry hasn’t really figured out how anxiety and depression works. Or how antidepressant medications work. But like most things, my use of medication, is a personal choice that suits me really well right now, despite the allowances I make.

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