My watch is telling me I’m unproductive. I’m triggered.

I got a new watch. I love it. It’s a fancy-pants fitness-watch, because that seems to be who I am at the moment. It’s got so much technology inside its over-sized face it could probably power NASA missions to the moon. It measures my heart rate and oxygen levels, how much I move, sleep or breath, and does all manner of behind-the-scenes calculations to establish my fitness and training effectiveness. Trying to work it all out and keep things in the right zones is exhausting.

Lately it has taken to telling me my exercise activities are unproductive. Apparently my load is balanced, but my fitness is declining. It encourages me to rest and consider my nutrition, the latter of which I assume it knows nothing about. As of yet, my food preparation devices are not connected to the interweb. I’m a hypochondriac, so reading a phrase like your VO2 Max levels are declining, or changes in your heart rate variability contributes to this measure, sets my health anxiety cat amongst the pigeons of good intentions.

All the advice on the internet is to ignore these AI proclamations and listen to your body. And the truth is, I am tired. I feel tired a lot at the moment, and no, it’s not my iron levels, say the doctors. Their conclusion too is a need for more rest and better sleep. Maybe it’s the “peri-menopause”, which seems to come with all manner of symptoms that fit the bill. And let’s face it, I turn 50 this year, so there has to be a little wear-and-tear in the system undermining performance outcomes.

But what did I get the watch for if not to track my exercise and help me improve? If I listened to my body I’d never, ever go for a run again. Jump-squats? Forget it. If I listened to my body right now, I’d be lying on the sofa eating junk food and watching my current favourite TV show on Netflix (Call my Agent…love it).

I think the real problem is that I’m trying to appease my watch. I’m trying to satisfy the whims of an artificial entity, as though it were a very small, very smart authority figure attached to my right wrist. A long time spent psychoanalysing myself over the past decade identified a stubbornly hard-to-shift predilection for external validation. The Garmin is failing to satisfy this emotional need.

Being labelled unproductive has my perfectionism in a tiz-woz. I spend a lot of my life trying to be productive, as if productivity is a measure of a life well lived. Ticking things off the list, making strides, achieving things. And I’m busy. Busy busy trying to prove my value. I’m trying to be a financially productive member of this household whilst also managing the mental, emotional, and physical needs of our family unit (two members of which are teenagers, so if you’ve been there and done that, you know it’s not exactly a walk in the park). I’m trying to wrap up my degree in neuroscience, whilst also writing two different blogs, and a book I never seem to have much time for. And I’m still trying to work out what to do with my life. No wonder I’m exhausted – my attention network is overloaded, I have a lot of tabs open in my mind and I’m trying to run down multiple roads at the same time.

There is a lesson here. A lesson the watch is offering, like a wise old yogi in a virtual ashram. Calm down. Relax. Stop focusing on achievement, as though awards and accolades mark progress towards some mythical destination where you have properly exercised “your potential”. Stop measuring everything against some ideal version of yourself, as though that person could ever actually exist.

 It’s a good lesson. One I wish I knew how to ingrain into my neural connectome for lasting change. Perhaps the watch could do with a tweak of copy to assist me in this mission. The addition of three little words behind the proclamation of unproductive. “Unproductive. And that’s okay.” Maybe it’s up to me to add them myself.

The problem with resolutions…

I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions. Did you?

I’m pretty good at making resolutions. I make them all the time – monthly, weekly, daily. Sometimes even hourly. When I’m making dinner, I resolve not to eat any chocolate afterwards, but the moment Netflix comes on I find I’ve gobbled down half a bar of Top Deck without even registering it. I wake up in the morning and resolve to go for a run in the evening, but when the time comes I opt for a glass of wine instead. I resolve to meditate every day in the upcoming week, but entirely forget until the following Sunday comes around and I find myself lying in bed feeling stressed about the meaning of life. Yes, I’m excellent at making resolutions, but entirely rubbish at keeping them. So, it’s strange I forgot to make some 2022 ones to throw on the ever-growing heap of failed resolutions festering in my mental inbox.

Sometimes it feels like there are two “me”s living inside my mind. The me that is excellent at goal setting, planning, and dreaming about the future. A me that feels disciplined and directed and in control. The real me. And another me, a more subconscious “me” that is excellent at doing whatever the hell she feels like. A me with little impulse control, at the mercy of mood and emotion. This latter me drives a lot, it would seem. Yelling at the stupid antics of speeding motorists from the safe confines of her air-conditioned Hyundai on her way to buy chocolate instead of fruit during the grocery shopping.

Of course, there is only one me and it is neither of these identities individually. My sense of self, at any one point in time, is the output of the many processes my brain in my body generate, based on incoming stimuli and all sorts of pre-programmed algorithms running in the squishy stuff inside my skull. As is yours. Even though I feel like I have a stable sense of self, I change moment to moment, day to day depending on what’s going on around me and what has my attention in any one moment. Emotions, hormones, dinner, what I just read on Facebook, how much wine I drank, and the task at hand.

So much of our behaviour is habitual – automatic. We might as well think of ourselves as the sum of our habits. The brain is an associative network. Things that occur together are wired together at a neural level, and when these events occur together frequently any one of them will activate the others. The reason I eat chocolate every night is because it is a well established routine. As a result I’ve built up an association between delicious, creamy yumminess and the television. When the TV goes on, the part of my brain that says “ooh, chocolate” is also activated. And then it becomes very hard to resist, because the resulting behaviour is automated. I don’t decide to walk to the chocolate cupboard, I just find myself there. In the parlance of Jonathan Haidt, the rider isn’t making the choices, the elephant is. Maybe that’s all a habit is. Activities or thoughts that are wired together in the brain so that they create behaviours that don’t need our voluntary input anymore.

Making resolutions is an act of consciousness. But a lot of what we do happens without the mind’s input. Resolutions then are bound to be a waste of time on their own. Statements of intent, without any power to make actual changes. To make changes, we need to be mindful of the fact that there are automated processes at hand that will sabotage our good intentions. Our habits are ingrained – but they are open to change. It just takes a lot of cognitive effort, attention and time – all of which are pretty limited resources.

A psychology professor of mine likened creating new habits to trying to create a new path through thick bushland. The usual path is well beaten in. It is clear and easy to follow because it’s been walked on hundreds of times before. It requires no conscious effort on the part of the walker. But if you want to walk in a new direction, you have to form a new path, a path you have to create from scratch by hacking through the undergrowth. And then you have to keep walking along that new pathway, over and over again, until it becomes established – the undergrowth flattened, the way clear and easy. It takes time, and effort. But, and this is the hard bit, you also have to stop walking down the well-known path, because every time you do, you reinforce that pathway again, undoing all your hard work.

There are things I want to change about the way I do life. New habits I want to replace the mentally and physically unhealthy one that have a hold on me. Mindless eating being one of them. A more disciplined, less doubt-ridden commitment to following my dreams being another. I want to meditate more and fret less. Spend less time on social media and more on in-the-moment concentration. Less photo sharing, more being-present experiencing. I want to get back to running and explore more on my bike, be more organised and have a cleaner house. I want to decide whether to do a masters in brain science or philosophy of the mind, and be happy with the decision I make, to be kinder to myself and others, and not let the unthought through opinions of the not-very-smart invade my peace of mind.

Trying to change more than one thing at a time is an exercise in futility. To change a habit requires attention, and there is a cap on the amount of attention our brains have available at any one point in time, as I keep saying. But what to focus on? I think half my problem is I have too many tabs open in my mind already. Maybe right now, on holiday, I’ll just resolve to be more aware. To remember that habits are associations running their own game below the surface of my mind. Perhaps if I can form the habit of mindfulness – if I can cultivate awareness of my actions and impulses – everything else will no doubt resolve itself.

Onwards,
Sharlene


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A snapshot in time

Cleaning up, I found an old picture. A snapshot in time, unposed and unfiltered, framed in white edging now a little tattered and torn. In it, I’m about 3 or 4 years old, I think, which means the photo was taken about 45 years ago. Almost half a century. That’s a conception of time that makes my heart leap into my throat.

We are on a South African beach with blue sky above and waves frothing white in the distance. My mother, who is decades younger than I now currently am, holds my sister in her lap. And my grandfather on my father’s side, who is probably only a handful of years older than current-me, squats down beside the sandcastle I’m engrossed in building. The colours are fading a little, as photos, and memories, are wont to do.

They are a funny thing, photos, which plonk us right in the middle of events we might not recall. Evidence of an experience we have no recollection of having. I’m too young to remember this particular day, which took place before I had the language structure or sense of self that episodic memory relies on.

But I have fragments of beach memories for which we don’t have photos.

I remember getting dumped by waves off Addington beach with this same grandfather – my Pops. A tumultuous tumbling, a moment of panic and a mouthful of sand. I remember walking along the beach with my other grandfather – Grandad, as tall as the sky, face bright with a smile – the wet sand sucking away our footprints. In my memory breakfast barbeques with extended family amongst the rocks at Umdloti still live. Rockpiles that we turned into imaginary multi-story mansions: this layer a bedroom, that configuration the lounge room. Chandeliers in my imagination. When I went back to that beach as an adult I was surprised at just how small those rock formations actually were. My dad taught 6-year-old me how to swim at this beach.

Later, maybe aged 12 or so, I recall one-day getting swept out to sea on my red blow-up boogie board, being rescued by strangers, and walking back drenched in adrenaline to my parents who were cooking eggs and bacon on the skottle-braai under the Mulberry trees at Scottburgh beach. I recall blue bottle stings and the smell of the sea, watching surf competitions and walking along the piers with my friends, our feet bright red with sunburn.

No wonder I love the sea. It is associated in my mind with memories of family and love, freedom and space. My favourite beach in all the world is off the coast of Perth, where it feels like the sea of my Durban-based childhood washes up the soft white sand to run over my freckled feet.

We photograph everything now. Multiple times for later review. My hard-drive creaks with about 200gb of photos I don’t even know how to begin sorting. We pose and show off our experiences to our friends. #bestlife.

But photos only catch the external view. A frozen moment in time. They seldom convey what you thought or felt at the time. And the frightening thing is, given how much we photograph everything, science shows that when we photograph things we are less likely to remember those moments. And because memories themselves are pliable recreations, not faithful reproductions, those photos shape what memories we do have – solidifying them in a lifeless snapshot, the emotions and experiences of the moment lost to the changing synapsis of our brains, if encoded at all.

I love this particular photo anyway. It is a reminder about the endless cycle of life. Pops grew old and grisly around the face. But my dad’s smile always seemed to shine out of it. The last time I saw him he was chain-smoking cigarettes in a Joburg flat, sitting in a supportive armchair, telling me some long tale or other that probably involved Arsenal. I was older then. As old as my mum is on the beach here. Independent, educated, driving my car, and partying quite hard as people who live in one of the most lawless cities in the world feel compelled to do.  

And there is my mum, eyes closed against the glare, sharing the same journey I’ve been on – juggling kids and life and in-laws; and probably a whole heap of barely concealed frustration that comes with negotiating an identity for yourself within the roles of wife and mother.

Time might stand still in the photograph. We can capture it and put it in a frame, like a butterfly under a pin. But in life we ever move. Whatever we feel now will pass, whatever destination we think we’ve arrived at too. There is only the journey – the ever-changing here and now. We add our footsteps to those that went before, but we choose whether to trudge or to dance along the way, to walk lightly or to get mired in whatever moment we find ourselves in.

I’m mired right now. Mentally in the brambles watching on in horror as anti-vaxxers, anti-abortionists, anti-democracy activists seek to disrupt the benefits of civilisation and progress with their self-indulgent ideologies. That’s another brain bias, I know. Our attraction to the negative. Fighting my way out of the brambles is hard going at the moment. It’s an effort that leaves me breathless some days.

But this photo is a reminder to me to disconnect from technology and breathe in life’s momentous possibilities. To walk on the beach and feel the sun on my skin, to watch the sun rise and set, and hug my kids who grow larger and more independent with every passing day. To laugh with my friends, and ride my bike, and lean into the warm embrace of my beloved husband who walks beside me into old age.

And so, onwards we go.
Sharlene


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Lessons from the dog: Alpha males, love and the importance of making conscious choices.

In our house, my husband is numero uno, the king, the be all and end all… the alpha. At least if you ask the dog. If you suggested such a thing to the rest of us, theatrical bouts of gagging would no doubt ensue.

It’s a strange situation, I think, given that I am the one that makes sure Rocky is fed and groomed, walked and cuddled. I check his water bowls, buy him treats and take him to the vet. But I can be holding a treat in my hand, and if Mike whistles, Rocky responds to him instantly. Dad over food in the hand.

Not that I’m jealous or anything… well, maybe just a little.

Apparently this is a real thing. A study in 2018 showed that male dogs will approach their male owners far more than they will their female ones. Women do better with cats, apparently. That explains old cat ladies, I guess.

I suspect Mike has just firmly established himself as the alpha male in their relationship. He is strict with Rocky, taking no nonsense and ejecting him from the house if he tries to assert himself. Rocky will growl and snap at you if you try to remove a tissue he is consuming. Who knows why he needs to eat tissues, but it’s better than his previous habit of eating underwear. Mike, who has buckets of patience and engages with reason-based parenting with our kids, brooks no nonsense from the dog. Dogs have no capacity for reasoning, so this is probably a good thing. I just let him eat the tissues.

But it gets me thinking about alpha males and the power they seem to have over others. From religious cults to political ones, alphas hold an almost magnetic sway over the lives of their flock, relegating reason, critical thinking and important familial relationships to second place. And they can leave a trail of immense suffering in their wake, all because they are empowered by the rest of us. We’d be better off rid of them, but that would require their supporters to address their dog-like obedience to their call.

Maybe it has something to do with pheromones. Maybe dominance gives off some evolutionary programmed olfactory signal certain social or pack animals can subconsciously pick up. Apes like us, dogs like Rocky. Dogs can smell testosterone levels. Unsurprising, I suppose, given they can smell cancer, covid and the remnants of an old banana you threw out before you left the plane at Sydney Airport. Humans, it turns out, can subconsciously smell personality types– specifically extroversion, neuroticism and dominance. Which is pretty funky. We are rubbish though at smelling out the good guys.

And that’s the rub of it. There are so many invisible influences on our behaviour and choices. Neuroscientists have known for a long time that a lot of our rationalising is our conscious minds trying to explain what our subconscious neural patterns already decided, and that we are riddled with cognitive biases which influence this subconscious decision making.

Because we’re primates, apes just like chimps and gorillas, we too are programmed by evolution to lean into tribal belief systems that work on status, dominance, and hierarchy. But we have other cognitive mechanisms lurking in our oversized frontal lobes – reason, inhibition, long term planning, perspective taking – that chimps don’t. It means we can reflect on who we want to be and the implications of our actions, and in doing so, we can hack our inherent biases that lead to either a desire to dominate or the empowering of dominant characters, and actively choose a path of kindness, connection and equality. We can, if we make the effort, build better societies for everyone to live in.

Mind you, you don’t have to go all the way to Trump or Hitler to find alpha issues. There are plenty in the everyday relationships around us. And it is in these green fields that active choices can and should be made.

Ironically, given he didn’t want the dog in the first place, Mike, dare I say it, loves our pet, and Rocky knows he is loved in return. He lets Rocky curl up right beside him, on the “Rocky designated” sofas, despite being quite allergic to the hound. He plays with him, chasing him in the park and rough housing with him as though the dog were a three-year-old child. Rocky delights in it. His eyes light up like a kid at Christmas as he chases my husband around the kitchen island.

Getting a dog was one of the best things we ever did. Even though he is getting old and slow, and his vet bills are racking up. Even though he will liberate the contents of a bathroom dustbin in search of tissues, or sneak onto our bed and cause a week of hay fever and itchy eyes if we happen to go out and not shut the door.

Rocky brings great happiness to all of us. He is a bundle of unconditional love, an exemplar of the simplicity of being and the joy that comes from it. He is not shy to communicate how much he loves us in return – rushing up to us with literal leaps of joy if we’ve been parted for any more than 5 minutes. Of a morning, he will emerge yawning from one of the kid’s rooms and seek me out to me to say hello. And if, perchance, I happen to be in the middle of something, and he feels I haven’t noticed him, he bats my leg with his paw until he is acknowledged and had his back scratched. I’m here, he says, did you miss me?

I think our relationship with our dog, and with each other, is defined by some philosophical choices we made long ago. The decision to respect each other as the unique individuals we are, rather than acting out the prescribed roles we find ourselves in – parent-child, husband-wife, humans-dog.

We recognise that each of us, even Rocky, are unique creations of life, with one chance to walk this path of life, but that who we are and how we feel are shaped by the interactions we have with the people who claim to love us. We try to act from the other person’s best interest. We try to make ourselves available and attentive to each other, which is why Rocky knows he can paw my leg and will get a response from me that makes him feel good. We don’t always succeed, but we at least aim in this direction.

Mike might roll his eyes at my tendency to wax lyrical here, but he agrees, he’s the one who started us down this track in the first place. But we’ve learned over time too that love is precious, and needs to be nurtured to survive and grow. And that you can float through life and love, and wash up on the shores of disappointment, or you can make conscious choices about the shape of your life and the relationships you want to have with each other, and live a life you like the feel of.

Despite Rocky’s programmed pack-instilled beliefs, we don’t have an alpha in our house. Because an alpha always mean someone is deemed to matter more than the rest. And that’s not just untrue, it’s also damaging to important things – like love, happiness and possibilities.

Onwards,
Sharlene

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Turns out, I’m a MAMIL.

I’ve taken up cycling. Along with running and swimming I am now a triathlon in parts. My husband is completely bewildered. We have known each other for most of our lives, and he has never known me to put my hand up for cardio-vascular exercise without a litany of complaints. Granted, I’m not doing the Iron Man here, but for someone who is known for saying things like “the only time you’ll see me running is if someone is legging it out the door with my wine” you can forgive him his surprise.

I’ll confess I don’t love running. It’s hard on the joints and even harder on the mind. But I quite like the feeling you get when you are done, the coffee catch up afterwards, and having “running friends”. And I like that I’ve managed to conquer my hatred of it and run 5km on a regular basis. It is rather perverse, I think, that while I am currently stuck with some sort of recurring hip injury that renders me unable to run without pain for days afterwards, I miss it.

Cycling on the other hand is unexpectedly glorious. I started down this road because I wanted an additional arrow in my quiver of exercise options. But I found something else. Joy. And I mean real, bubble-up, smile-on-your-dial joy. It’s a surprising feeling. A visceral, childlike feeling of pure pleasure that fizzes in my chest and shines out of my face.

Maybe it is because I, like many kids, grew up cycling, charging about the neighbourhood with a gang of friends. A Christmas morning ritual in our house was to go for a bike ride along Durban beach front while the turkey and ham did their thing in the oven. Cycling is connected to the freedom of childhood, and with it the wind in your hair (Helmets? Not in our day!). Perhaps the sense of unadulterated joy is an embodied memory of a previous self in a simpler version of life. But perhaps it is even more elementary than that. Maybe cycling is physically pleasurable because you are moving through the world almost weightlessly. You’re flying free and unencumbered by gravity and the weight of your limbs. And you still get coffee and friends at the end.

But there is something else here too. Something quite new and refreshing to me. A sense of doing something entirely for the pleasure of it. For myself, disconnected from any sense of purpose or reward or obligation. A feeling I had quite forgotten existed. I do a lot of things “for me”, but so many of them are framed within the context of a need to prove myself good enough. They are achievement orientated. Even running is achievement orientated. Not in a competitive way though, because I am so unutterably rubbish at it that even my distorted perfectionism leaves me in its dust. But there is still a sense of obligation to keep fit around it, and a determination to win against my dislike of it.

But I like cycling. I feel like it’s a hobby with a nice side effect of fitness. I like the funky outfits and the fact you can see sides of a city you can’t get to in a car, and that as you move through the environment, you are a part of it. Yesterday I made my way down to Parramatta via walkways and tree-covered cycle paths that run along the river. It was gorgeous. Who knew we had such beautiful corridors of nature right on our doorstep? Cyclists, that’s who. Even the “what if” anxiety generating machine that runs full tilt in my head seems easier to silence on my bike. And given how many people fall off bikes and break things, that’s quite a thing.

I’m obviously not alone in embracing my inner MAMIL (I’m a mama though, not a man). Doing laps around Sydney Olympic Park I am passed by gaggles of others, bunched together, legs pumping, chatter flowing. It’s a friendly and warm environment. Everyone is smiling. I may have started out with a fitness agenda. But along the way I discovered something else. Joy.

Onwards!

Happy birthday to the dearly departed.

Today would have been my Dad’s 76th birthday.

Anniversaries are strange human inventions, aren’t they? Birth and death and the life stage changes in between. A way to try to pin down that illusive and fluid construct called time into something concrete and graspable. Celebrations or commemorations of events stand like buoys in an endless ocean, mental signposts around which we organise our memories, thoughts and feelings, and with them, our very conception of who we are.

We experience time in terms of beginnings and endings, of starts and finishes and the linear flow between them. Watching the cycle of life in my garden makes me think time is probably more circular than that, and we ride the rim of it for a mere moment. A moment so brief that, at least from our perspective, it seems nothing but a straight line.

It’s easy to think of ourselves as individual objects too; whole and complete and independent from the world around us. Autonomous entities inserted into the maelstrom of life for a moment, and then whisked away again.

But my father was the literal continuation of his parents, half his mother and half his father written into every cell of his body. He himself a quarter of his grandparents, and an 8th of their parents in turn, and onwards. A long stretch of life that reaches back all the way through time to life’s beginnings. An algorithm of nature that means we all contain a fragment, a shadow or whisper, of every other living thing, somewhere down the chain. We are a mosaic of life’s successful attempts. Not in our modern DNA perhaps, but in our existence at all.

And my father stretches forward too. I am but an extension of him. The code running inside my cells, the code which determines the type of brain I have and sets the boundaries in which every measurable aspect of who I am expresses itself – my height, weight, intellect, approach to risk, gregariousness and so on – is 50% him and 50% my mom.

I am half of him. Literally. Biologically, I am but an extension of him, and his parents and theirs too. And of course, his influence remains etched in my brain. Literally knitted into my neural connectome by my experience of him in the world. His hopes and dreams, his fears, and his capacity to love and laugh and lose the plot are reflected in my world view, and always will be.

I am not a replica of my father. I am not even the identical expression of those things, but they have shaped who I am, and as a result go on to shape who my children are, and to some extent then, who their children might be. The fingerprints of my father, and his parents before him, and his grandparents before them too, remain in the world long after their passing.

As I say every year, I miss my Dad. I wish I could experience one of his all encompassing hugs and have him call me his firsty-born again. I’ve only really come to understand my Dad in his passing. Or perhaps it is the wisdom that has come from my own ageing. My father’s love was so weighted with expectation it suffocated me while he was alive. But I wish I had the opportunity for him to get to know me as I now am, to have a cup of tea over a game of Trivial Pursuit, and for me to tell him how missed and loved he is. But I don’t. So, I tell the world instead, as I remember him on his birthday. I love you Dad. I always have and I always will. Happy birthday old man.

Lockdown learnings…happiness and what really matters

The sun came out this weekend, just in time to remind us of good times ahead for those who’ve done the socially responsible thing and gotten vaxxed. I’m double jabbed and am looking forward to masked picnics in the park with four other people from today.

They don’t even need to be my favourite people. Any people in my local surrounds with a sense of humour, a bottle of champagne and a vaccination certificate will do. Seeing people’s faces, even just the top half I suppose, is good for the soul.

We’re all a bit over it, I think. This extended lockdown has sapped us of our positivity. I find myself more emotional than usual, and as someone whose inner seas aren’t often serenely calm, this makes for interesting times in our house. I’m not alone. My girlfriends are teary and frazzled too. We’re all breathing in and trying to find our centre, practicing mindfulness by looking at the colours in the sky, and eating too much chocolate.

We are desperate for a bit of space. A house that is ready for people to come home to, rather than one that everyone rattles around in all day leaving dirty cups and chip packets on random surfaces.  

And some freedom. Freedom to throw our minds into the future, to look ahead and make some plans. Oh, the places we’ll go when we are able to leave the confines of our 5km radius. Just to the beach to smell the sea breeze and stare over the endless ocean towards far off continents would do me right now.

Still, lockdown has given us the opportunity to learn a few home truths. And some scientific ones too.

Entropy, that law of nature that basically says everything tends towards chaos, is on display in our house. And here you can see, I tell my kids, an example of entropy. Piled-up dishes on school-from-home desks, dust that gathers like furtive shadows in corners the moment you turn the vacuum cleaner off, a dirty laundry pile on the bathroom floor that gets bigger with each passing shower, and duvet covers that get soupy if not routinely changed. Energy in (in the form of a Sunday morning “all hands” house clean) returns things, momentarily, to order. Everyone has a newfound respect for our cleaner, and longs for her return.

Exponential growth is another maths concept kids of today will never forget. An upside of a staggering rise of cases in Sydney. It’s about the only upside, although perhaps it has driven people to the vaccine hubs to play their part and protect themselves and the ones they love little more. A wake-up call that the sanctity of our island home is an illusion, that we were underprepared for the reality of a novel virus breaching the barriers, and a realisation that if we ever want to visit Santorini or have some sort of normality, we’d better get our act together and embrace the fight, armed with the best science has to offer. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Personally, I’ve learned that social media and the news are both rife with “desperate for clicks” negativity that can leach the joy from one’s existence, and that large doses of either are best avoided. That teachers (and cleaners) need a pay rise. And that you can still host a #lockdown party that gets everyone drunk and in (literal and otherwise) good spirits if you try hard enough.

But mostly I’ve learned that the things we think matter most, the things we still have even in lockdown – our careers and our families, is not actually what gives us joy. They’re very important building blocks to who we are and our place in the world, but it is the little things, it turns out, that are the happiness cement that holds it all together – the ability to have coffee with friends, listen to live music, go window shopping or to the movies. And most of all, the opportunity to dream about possibilities.

The stories we tell ourselves… and why they might be making us unhappy

I have a saying which irritates the teens in my life. It goes like this. “That’s an interesting story you are telling yourself.” I use it when they say silly things like “I’m not good at maths” or “My teacher doesn’t like me”. My wise words are frequently met with eye rolls and huffs of derision.

By stories I mean the narrative slant we place on objective facts. The meaning we extract, consciously or subconsciously from our experiences, and then consciously reinforce with our words.

We tell ourselves stories about the world all the time. And mostly, we aren’t even aware of it. Much like breathing, the process is largely automatic and uncontemplated. But the stories we tell ourselves matter because they are the fabric of our minds, and they fuel our beliefs about the world and ourselves within it. As a result, they powerfully influence our perspectives, actions, and our wellbeing.

Even more pernicious, our stories literally blind us to reality itself, and the other possibilities that lie within it. They influence what we take note of, directing our attention in very specific and limited directions. This sits at the heart of confirmation bias.

This is not to say there aren’t objective facts at play. Of course there are. Struggling with maths may well be the reality. But writing off a hard subject like maths as “I’m not good at this” leads to a particular set of behaviours – like giving up. On the other hand, telling yourself a different story, like “Maths is a hard subject, but I can do hard things”, opens up quite different options– like perseverance and tenacity. The facts remain the same. But by changing the story we spin about those facts, by changing the story we tell ourselves, we change both what we do and how we feel about the situation.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine my homespun advice registers with my all-knowing teens. Much like the practice of naming emotions to recognize and deal with them (and thereby grow emotional intelligence), I hope the comments I occasionally drop into conversation will percolate in their developing brains and one-day become a useful tool in their mental armoury.  

However… in a spectacular example of “here, take my advice I’m not using it”, I realised quite recently that I too was being beguiled by stories that do not serve me well.

Stories about age, and what success looks like. Stories about who you are supposed to be, and how life is supposed to play out. As I sat in a cognitive science class full of bright, young things all embarking on their first careers, I was besieged by a sense of gloom. Why was I here?  What was I doing this for?

Here are the stories I was telling myself: “I’m too old to be doing this.” And “a successful life is a successful (well paid) career”.  Those are stories society tells us too, with their love affair for youth and money. So I should be forgiven for absorbing them like a fast-acting sunscreen. But they are not healthy stories. Not for me, and not for anyone really.

There are better stories to tell about being older and trying new things. A story about the value of experience, curiosity, and the acquisition of knowledge. A story about, as Tim Minchin advises so well, foregoing purpose or the accumulation of money in preference for filling your life with meaningful things.

So, I’m trying to tell myself some new stories. Like…

I might not have a sparkling, single-minded career (old story: career means achieving in your chosen field), but I have a host of useful skills and a plethora of knowledge people pay me for, which keeps the wolf from the door and our house in its share of international holidays and nice shoes (new story: I have a career, which works for me). I might not know what I want to do with my new degree (old story: life is about having a career), but that’s okay, because I’m not finished it yet and it’s interesting enough just on its own (new story: life is about being curious, exploring the world and expanding the mind). I might not be a wildly successful author (constant refrain: life is about having a successful career) but I have in fact written two books so far, a host of plays, short stories, poetry and articles, one of which you are now reading (new story: I am a writer).

But, in all honesty, it is not as easy as it sounds because our old stories are encoded into the wiring of our brains. They are stitched into our neural networks. We have flexible brains, brains that change, but we have to create and reinforce new connections for them to become as well established and automated as the old ones.

Nonetheless, it is, I think, a path towards more contentment and greater happiness. Noticing what stories lie behind how you feel in any moment in time means you can change them. You can, with effort, rewrite the stories that drive your emotions and perspectives. It’s powerful and liberating. But it requires noticing them in the first place.

So ask yourself, what story are you telling yourself, and how well does it serve you? And then maybe try out some new ones.


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Living with the “boofheads”.

I live on a street with wide pavements and a leafy demeanour. It’s a good street, if you live in the neighbourhood, for taking in some exercise. Countless people walk their dogs up and down it, and Rocky and I meet several of them on a regular basis. Sometimes his tail wags with glee. Other times he shies away with trepidation. Occasionally, in a fit of uncharacteristic confidence, he leaps forward on his lead with an angry bark of outrage. As owners we might say hello and pass a comment about the weather, or merely share a raised eyebrow and a sardonic smile at the strange behaviour of our beloved pets. There is a sense of warm comradery and connection amongst us dog owners.

Given the number of dogs taking in our street as part of their daily constitutional, you’d expect it to be piled high with dog poo. But on the whole, the owners of the dogs who live nearby are well bred themselves, picking up after their hounds and taking the resulting dangling plastic bags of excrement back home for disposal. It is society in motion. Unrelated people doing the right thing to maintain civilisation and keep things nice for everyone.

Still, not everyone is so community minded. In our midst there are some who have little concern for the rest of us who share the environment. They do not pick up after their dogs, for some reason imagining this is not their responsibility. They are oblivious, either through ignorance or wilful disregard, to the resulting state of affairs left in their wake. The rest of us, with scrunched up noses and sighs of despair, have to navigate around these unclaimed piles of poo which blight our landscape and give our upmarket neighbourhood a tinge of decay.

It drives me nuts.

It is not actually the poo itself that raises my blood pressure. It is what it symbolises. Selfishness. Those freshly abandoned  mini-mountains of brown excrement are a reminder that there are self-centred individuals amongst us who don’t pull their weight. Takers, rather than givers. Freeloaders, as economists might label them. People who get away with being lazy or ignorant or irresponsible because most people do they right thing. Cheats.

On Saturday we saw a spectacular display of this in Sydney. Three and half thousand individualistic, self-absorbed “boofheads” (to quote an official government source) took to the streets to demand an end to lock down. I prefer the term fuckwits.

Freedom they cried, whilst engaging in acts of stupidity that are sure to keep this lock down going longer than necessary. Huddling close together, without masks, they shared their germs and no doubt have taken them home to spread to their communities, with little care for those who might suffer as a result.

I’m as frustrated as anyone else; stuck in my house, in my state, in my country by a virus that has upended all the things we love about human society. But whilst these boofheads, with their limited capacity to think beyond their own selfish desires, parade through the streets of Sydney or visit their extended families or have illegal parties, the rest of us are getting on with it, trusting in the advice of experts and our democratically elected leaders to get the virus under control and get us back to freedom. We are bunkering down and enduring as best we can. We are watching strange Olympic sports on TV and zoom calling our friends and family. Yesterday I planted carrots, for goodness sake!

To have our lives disrupted for longer than necessary by acts of self-indulgent idiocy is deeply discouraging. It is natural, I think, to wish on them some sort of suffering. You can’t help but dream that karma will get these people in all manner of ironic ways. But of course, that’s not how life works.

The sad reality is we have to live with the selfish and the stupid in our midst. The dog owners who leave their dog poo for others to step on, the protesters who throw projectiles at horses and caution to the wind, along with the chance of getting on top of the virus sooner rather than later.

From a mental health perspective, though, it probably pays to focus on the positive rather than negative. It’s not an easy task. Our brains are naturally wired to notice the negative. We have to work harder to see the positive, and we have to work extra hard to notice what is not visible. The countless people who do pick up after their dogs. The thousands and thousands of people in their homes, doing the right thing. I remind myself that Sydney is a city of nearly 5 million people. These protesters represent less than 0.07% of our society. We can’t change the fact that we live amongst fuckwits. But we can change what we dwell on in the land of our minds.

Future-me called… and current-me better make some changes…

Current-me is having a ball. Well, sort of. With Sydney thrust back into lock down, Current-me has thrown all care to the wind. It least as it relates to wine and chocolate every night. Last week we had Gin and Tonics every single day of the week. Scandalous! Future-me is not going to be pleased when all she can fit into are pants with elasticated waists. Current-me blames Past-me, who bought all this junk food into the house in the first place.

I love this way of thinking about myself. It’s helped me to be more mindful about my goals and ambitions, and more specifically about the person I want to be and the life I want to live. If you want to know more about it, I heard it here on this Hidden Brain podcast.

Current-me and future-me are of course the same person. But they have different levels of power to make change. Current-me has all the power. Future-me has all the consequences. The power to change the past, from the perspective of the future, only resides in the present.

I think a lot of the time life lives us. We have plans, we have goals. But mostly we drift along, perhaps expecting we will just wash up on the shores of our dreams. We forget, I think, in the pressure and rush of life, that it doesn’t work that way. Dreams need plans, and plans require actions. And dreams don’t have to be as big as owning a Caribbean island or running for office. They can be as simple as keeping fit and healthy for as long as possible, or having good relationships or a meaningful career. But whatever they are, they require intention and they need action to make them a reality.

Current-me is the only version of me who can take action. Current-me has to step up to the plate (and not the one containing cookies) and start taking responsibility for moving in the direction Future-me will be pleased with.

As such, Current-me has decided to recommit to wine on the weekends only. Of course, weekends start on Thursday in our house, at least this week as it’s my birthday. It is hardly an arduous task to be alcohol free for three to four days, but the very fact that it seems to be significantly difficult to achieve means it has to be done, and with some sense of urgency.

To help in this endeavour, I’m jazzing up mineral water at “wine-time”. And by mineral water I mean environmentally friendly soda-stream water, because future-me would like to live in a world that isn’t drowning in plastic bottles (and Past-me spent the shopping budget on chips and chocolates). Last night it was elderflower and lime, with three ice-blocks. I’ve recruited some friends to the cause, because doing hard things is much easier when you’re part of a team, and when you are having fun. The game was upped when one came served in a jar, with a straw and a strawberry on the side. Tonight, I’m taking out the cocktail umbrellas and mocktailing a daiquiri.

Maybe this is a strategy that can help my kids be more motivated and self-directed. I’m not sure, but I’ve been using the terminology around the house – planting the idea of it with phrases like “what will future-you think/feel/do if you…” [insert relevant slightly parentally alarming behaviour here]. You know like…  spend all your time on your device, don’t eat lunch, don’t brush your teeth, don’t call your grandfather. Future-me plans on being slightly more positive too. Like “Wow, dude, future-you is going to love those study-notes”.

I’m not a child psychologist and they are teenagers, so who knows whether this filters through the underdeveloped decision making neural hardware our poor teens have to navigate life with. But I believe in planting seeds. So away we plant, and perhaps there is fruit. Today I heard one of them use the words “future-me” whilst talking about a project with school friends. As in, “future-me will not be happy if I choose that to be responsible for!”

Current-me did a little dance of joy at the actions of Past-me. And that’s all I really want… a future-me who is thankful for current-me.

Stay safe, live gloriously.
xx Sharlene