Thoughts and opinions on counselling, mental health and related issues....
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Lockdown reflections – Can You Buy Yourself Happy?
During the coronavirus lockdown I was reading a few of my past articles and I stopped to consider whether my experience of lockdown has changed or confirmed my views. One in particular which struck me was an article I wrote a little while ago entitled “Kauf Dich Gucklich – Can You Buy Yourself Happy?” I wrote it after a trip to Germany in which I was struck by the simplistic association made between money, having more things and being happier.
As I read this article again I was drawn to the phrase:
I feel that my thoughts were borne out through the backdrop of the coronavirus lockdown Those who face severe financial difficulties had a very difficult and distressing time, as financial difficulties can shake us to the core if we don’t know where the money for rent or food it coming from.
However those of us who had enough financial stability felt the effects too, and having more products was not the solution. I can’t recall a single person I spoke to complaining about not being able to go and buy a new jacket, or pair of shoes, or a better mobile phone. Indeed those basic things we once looked past gained a new prominence - I remember the excitement of finding a bag of flour after weeks of empty shelves in the bakery aisle.
When such events happen people’s concerns are not about the things they want to buy, instead it’s about not being able to see their family, or visit their friends in real life. We realise that once the foundations of life are relatively stable, what hit us most hard in lockdown was the isolation and the lack of freedom to see others. We were forced to re-discover that our long term happiness is founded on relationships, not on things. I hope it’s a lesson we all can hold onto in the future.
Recently I was visiting a friend in Germany, and we went to a café called “Kauf Dich Glucklich”, which means “Buy Yourself Happy”. While I was making my way through an admittedly very tasty waffle, I kept thinking of the name of the café, and how the phrase “Buy Yourself Happy” says much about our society, where we are often valued in our role as consumers, not individuals.
The old adage is that money can’t buy you happiness, and this is a view I tend to agree with. But many of us feel we would be happier if we had an extra holiday, or a bigger home, or perhaps just fewer money worries. However the things that our long-term happiness is founded upon tend to be the relationships around us, who we are and what we do, not what we have just bought or are just about to buy. We get used to the things we buy. They are exciting for a time, then they simply become another piece of clothing, another gadget, another object to be stored away in bulging cupboards with the rest of our once-loved, now neglected items.
There have been criticisms of the view above, and many researchers say that money does make a difference, however a study from Princeton University1 breaks down ‘happiness’ and makes the situation clearer.
The study suggests that there are two ways of looking at how happy and contented we are; Life evaluation - how we feel about the life we are leading in general, and emotional well-being - how we are actually feeling right now.
The study suggests that, unsurprisingly, income does make a big difference to life evaluation, and there seems to be no cut off point. This makes sense, as the more money we have the more we may feel successful in our lives compared to others, with more freedom to do what we want. However when it comes to emotional well-being, money did have an impact, but once household incomes reached about £35,0002, increases in emotional well-being levelled off.
I feel the levelling off is because life events that affect emotional well-being can be made worse by a lack of money, but having more money will not simply resolve them and remove the emotional impact. Events such as divorce, disagreements, death and illness can be harder to bear for someone with money worries as the life event adds to an already difficult situation. However having money cannot prevent bad things from happening.
Money does influence our happiness, but it is not the deciding factor in whether we are happy or not. More money can help smooth out the bumps in the road of life, but it can’t insulate us completely from the trials and tribulations that living brings. Having no money at all can make us unhappy, but money alone is not the key to a happy and contented life.
1 Kahneman, D. and A. Deaton. (2010) High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 107:38 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1011492107
2 The study showed that a household income of around $75,000 as the cut off point. Around 60% of US households earn below this figure. Approximately 60% of UK households earn below £35,000 per year.
The Dating Game
Looking for love is big business, particularly when it comes to online dating. People in the UK spent over 20 million pounds on the top 10 dating apps in 2018, up 60% from the year before. Over in the USA, a Study by Stanford University reports that finding someone online has become the most popular way to meet a partner.
Apps are increasingly being used as the method to meet the next Mr / Mrs / Mx right. You can also be sure that if there’s money to be made from it, someone will be attempting to ensure you spend more time on dating apps. If apps can present you with a fun, exciting, experience you’ll be more likely to log back in regularly. Aside from the obvious, like notifications when someone sends you a message, the makers of dating apps have many more subtle ways to keep you interested.
One of the simplest and most effective is the gamification of dating. Games keep you hooked by giving you a little boost when you achieve goals and make progress, and they keep you invested with the next new upgrade or exciting new piece of storyline. And so dating apps give you a likes score which slowly rises, and offer you tantalising glimpses of your potential future with an array of eligible singles.
Another way that we turn dating into a game is with the simple ‘swipe right’. It’s a method so ubiquitous that almost anyone under the age of 40 knows instantly what ‘swipe right’ means. [For those that don’t know, ‘swiping right’ on a photo of a potential date means you flick your finger across their photo to the right-hand side of the screen to indicate you like them. Swiping left indicates you don’t like them]. If you both swipe right on each other’s photos you’ll be told that you match. Swiping left and right gives us some control, and there’s the excitement of a potential match. As you don’t know if they’ve liked you back it’s a bit of a gamble, meaning the dopamine hit is higher when a match does occur.
Although you don’t know who has liked you, the dating app does, and this is where trick is. Apps such as Tinder use a method called a variable ratio schedule – a method that began in the 1960s in experiments with pigeons. In the variable ratio experiments, pigeons pecked at a button far more when they weren’t sure if they were going to get a reward each time. Oh, how we’ve progressed eh? If Tinder presented you with the people who liked you as the first few options, there would be far less excitement as you’d soon learn that the first handful who appear each day have liked you, and you might not bother to stay online and keep searching. By presenting matches at random you never know if the person who pops up has liked you, keeping your excitement levels high, and giving you a bigger hit when a match is actually made.
Making dating apps more game-like may get people to click more buttons, but the purpose is funding someone that you click with, who presses all your buttons, and that can be forgotten as you're idly swiping left and right. There’s a danger that the focus becomes getting matches rather than finding someone that you want to spend the rest of your life with. These are real people, real lives in front of you, but it can feel like they’re just characters in the game of ‘finding a date’. I guess this explains the prevalence of ghosting - the process of starting a conversation with someone then suddenly stopping and never responding again. It's easier to imagine the other person as not quite real, than to admit we’re engaging with a real flesh and blood human being with feelings, as this might slow us down in our quest to get the highest score.
For some there is a strange safety in dating apps too, an ability to ‘see what’s out and get a self-esteem boost through likes, to stay in the safe waters of liking and chatting, without risking meeting in person. This clearly happens, as statistics show that a third of people with online dating profiles have never been on a date with someone they met through a dating app. In this way the gaming part can be a boost to self-esteem, without risking the rejection of a real life meeting. I’d suggest that there is a potential to lower self-esteem, as dating apps present an idealised picture of potential partners, leaving you as the only person you know with flaws. Spending all your time just looking at the polished profiles of those who are out there can make you feel you don’t match up, whereas in reality they’re just normal people like you, trying to present their best sides to a judgemental world.
You can use online dating as a game, to give you a lift when your self esteem is low, but the likelihood is that the ghosting, the lack of responses and the need for more ego-boosting likes may end up making you feel worse. So, use it with awareness, decide which game you’re playing – are you trying to get a high score, or meet the person of your dreams? If you’re just trying to get a high score why not download an actual game instead?
Is Gratitude Your Secret Superpower?
Is gratitude your secret superpower?
Gratitude is the ability to be thankful for the good things in our lives. To fully embrace gratitude is to realise that everything we have is a gift, not a right, and therefore to accept what fills our lives as something positive, rather than simply the status quo.
I have this feeling that gratitude is our secret superpower. With its ability to re-frame how we view the events of our lives, gratitude changes phrases like “I should have” into “I'm glad to have” and “I'm sad I've lost” into “I'm glad I once had”. It transforms the perspective from one where things are lost and grasped and chased, to one where things are accepted and appreciated and released when the time comes.
Over two and a half thousand years ago Lao Tzu wrote:
Evidently gratitude is not a modern invention. Most religions suggest some form of giving thanks, and philosophies such as stoicism advocate a technique of negative visualisation, imagining how much worse things could be in order to increase gratitude for what we already have. What has changed however is that science is attempting to verify what philosophers and religious leaders have been suggesting all this time. Perhaps as a result of this scientific interest the practice of gratitude is currently riding high in self-help circles as a way to increase happiness and contentment.
There is some scientific evidence that gratitude is related to higher levels of wellbeing. Studies have shown that consciously being grateful for the things in our lives leads to higher levels of optimism, and there are even initial suggestions that it can have a positive impact on the makeup of your brain, that expressing gratitude now may make you more able to experience gratitude in the future. Whilst correlation is not necessarily causation, even the cold hard world of science is suggesting that there's something in this ancient idea of gratitude.
Perhaps we can use gratitude to appreciate and fully experience the good things in our life. Our brains are wired to keep us safe, but this often comes at the cost of making us wary and ignorant of positive experiences. In humans’ earliest days if one hunter appreciated the beautiful view, but another was vigilant of the approaching lion, the one wary of the predator got to pass his genes on. Our survival instincts lead us to be alert to the negatives in our life, but gratitude can help us balance out this tendency, to hold onto the good things as well. We live in a world immeasurably safer and more comfortable than our ancestors lived in just a few hundred years ago, so couldn’t we be grateful and enjoy this a little?
When it comes to embracing gratitude there are many ways to do this. You may enjoy writing, in which case a gratitude journal may suit you. Some may wish to thank others in person, some will pray, some will meditate on the good things in their life. A method I've used in the past is to have a gratitude jar. Each time something happened that I was grateful for, I would write it on a piece of paper and add it to the jar. As the weeks and months wore on and the scraps of paper slowly but surely filled that little glass jar, I was presented with the irrefutable evidence that I had more and more things to be grateful for.
However you do it, gratitude brings us closer to the good in our lives, helping us feel and absorb it, a counterbalance to the negatives we so often dwell upon. I think gratitude is our secret superpower, why not reach for your cape and join in?
The Power of Living In The Here And Now
Do you ever notice yourself drifting back into the present from a daydream? You might be sat in front of the TV, the images playing across the screen, but your thoughts are elsewhere, thinking about that meeting you need to prepare for, the argument you had with your husband yesterday, or a million other concerns and worries. The end result is you're cast adrift in another moment’s problems, which robs you of the full experience of the present.
Life is lived in the here and now. You can think about tomorrow, but you can’t go there. However it’s easy to drift off into anxieties you can’t influence now. Perhaps you feel you could solve them if you worry hard enough, that an answer will come to you like a bolt of lightning. But we don’t come up with miraculous solutions that fix all of our problems in advance. Answers emerge from the morass of events that happen in our daily lives. There is a limit to how much planning you can do. The route of our lives is far more like a maze puzzle than an ordnance survey map.
It’s easy to dismiss the here and now as some sort of hedonistic ideal, but I’m not suggesting that we live only for the moment – this would be complete hedonism, doing whatever feels good right now regardless of the consequences. I’m suggesting we improve our ability to live in the moment. This means we think about the future, but we care about and engage with the present too. To be in the moment is to pay attention to our thoughts, feelings and behaviours right now as we’re experiencing them. It enables us to feel and respond to what’s happening now in this moment, to be authentically who we are now, not how we were yesterday or how we think we'll be tomorrow.
To illustrate this I suggest an exercise – find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, turn your phone to silent, and sit in your chair. Now make yourself comfortable, feel the seat beneath you, and breathe slowly and deeply. Look around you, study the room for threats, and realise that at this exact moment there is nothing threatening. No-one is going to come and tell you you’ve forgotten something, or that you need to be somewhere else. For just two minutes sit and experience the present, which contains nothing but you and this moment. There is nothing threatening about these moments, nothing that will affect you right now. After two minutes let the rest of the world back in, but consider how it felt to have an island of calm where nothing need to be sorted, fixed or arranged.
If we look closely, we see that many moments of life contain calm and are not in themselves threatening. Take doing the washing up. Many people dislike it, and some people feel stressed when washing dishes. I imagine part of their stress is over things they aren’t getting on with while cleaning up, so their mind is not in the moment. Their present moment is spoiled by the future, something they can do nothing about right now. So why not enjoy doing the washing up? Thich Naht Hanh writes that if we are incapable of being in the moment to wash the dishes, we will not be present to enjoy drinking the tea either.
The wisdom of living in the present is advice that’s been around for thousands of years, from philosophers to religious figures the message has been the same, for example:
"If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present"
— Lao Tzu
"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
— The Bible - New International Version (Matt. 6:34)
Self help Guru Dale Carnegie, in his 1948 book "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" suggested we live in ‘day tight compartments’. This is wise advice. How many times has a day been stressful, not because of the events that occurred, rather how they affect your projection of the future. The imagined problems of the future that can't be resolved now are held onto and add to today's burdens.
In our society these lessons are oft-forgotten. In our world of conformity and forward planning, we’re told to continually prepare for the future, prepare for future happiness, prepare for a safe, stable and prosperous retirement. I don’t deny that there is an importance in thinking of tomorrow. Nobody wants what they have to come to a crashing halt suddenly, but it needs to be borne in mind that if we’re always preparing we’re never actually living our lives, and no matter how much we prepare, we cannot out-prepare death. It comes to us all and what can be salvaged from this situation is to live our lives while we have the opportunity.
If you're thinking that you'd like to spend more time in the present moment, here are some ideas you may want to try.
Stop multitasking. Write tasks down if you’re worried about forgetting them, but invest your energy in being present with one problem at a time. It's more efficient and you won't be carrying round the burden of a task you've not even started yet.
Live in day tight compartments. Put in boundaries - if it can't be managed today, then don't try to manage it today! If it needs to be resolved in the future, put it in your diary, and try to work it out then. Accept that today there is a limit to what you can do, and another fresh day will be along tomorrow.
Be mindful. Take the time to return to the present moment. Realise that the threats aren't here right now. Be more aware of yourself and what you're actually feeling, and not what you think you should be feeling.
We all have it within us to spend more time in the here and now. It takes work, but it can be done. Bring yourself back to the present moment - it's safer than you think. Be mindful. Understand what can be changed and planned for, and what has to be accepted. Take action when it needs to be taken, but return back to the present. And most importantly, enjoy what can be enjoyed now.
Rise Of The Woebots
Having a computer examine your fears, problems and vulnerabilities may conjure up thoughts of dystopian artificial intelligence from TV, film and books, but it’s already a reality. In the last few years there have been many reports in the press about so-called “therapy robots”, extolling the virtues or otherwise of having a computer as a therapist, suggesting this may be a solution for a perceived lack of counsellors available to help.
As a therapist this subject piqued my interest, so I thought I’d find out what all the fuss was about. Woebot had come up in many of the articles I’d read. It’s an app built by former Stanford Psychologists with the goal of increasing access to mental health care. I personally find it important to have my own therapy alongside my clinical supervision, so I was interested as to what else Woebot could offer. Whilst I was not planning to replace my own therapist, I could at least try it out and see how it compared.
I signed up and found myself chatting to a slightly comical online robot. It began with lots of learning about me, to build up a “model of my emotional life”. There were regular check-ins and little CBT lessons. I was ready to be very sceptical about Woebot. As a therapist I believe that the relationship between client and counsellor is a key element of therapy, something I believe can’t be replicated with an online app. However what Woebot offered was a useful refresher in a range of cognitive distortions. Whilst I was already aware of these concepts, many people aren't, and there's real benefit in knowing how our patterns of thinking can negatively impact our mental health. I can’t deny that Woebot has a lot of useful information that can help people manage their mental health.
However I struggled when Woebot asked me how I was feeling. A number of times I told Woebot, but the response I got felt like a vague platitude, like sympathy not empathy. And I guess this is the point. Woebot can’t empathise, it’s not a real human being. So in the end I stopped telling it what I was feeling because I didn’t feel truly heard. To be heard is a crucial part of the therapeutic process. So many of my clients come to therapy to be listened to, to share their experiences with someone who wants to understand them and will listen non-judgementally. That’s why I stopped using it shortly afterwards. I didn’t believe that Woebot really cared.
Woebot is not the same as seeing a real therapist. But then, to be honest, it doesn’t say it is. The Woebot Website makes reference to DIY CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which it effectively is - a kind of interactive self-help CBT. To give credit where it’s due, it’s free, relatively accessible, and I imagine for some the opportunity to express oneself online is helpful. Although it didn’t suit me, I think it can be a support, and is a good start on the self-development journey.
Is A Sense Of Humour Good For Your Mental Health?
This article was published on The Counsellors Cafe website, to access it, please click here.
Do You Believe In Abundance?
This article was published on The Counsellors Cafe website, to access it, please click here.
Happiness and the Tyranny of Choice
This article was published on The Counsellors Cafe website, to access it, please click here.