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They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes.
I disagree. Not because I’m planning to live forever or move to the Cayman Islands. But because I reckon there’s one more certainty that has been missed from the list.
Falling off the wagon.
Unless you are one of those sorry souls who never actually makes it onto a wagon in the first place, falling off – often repeatedly – is one of life’s inevitabilities. And like it’s inevitable relations (death and taxes) it has the potential to rob us of everything we’ve worked for. At least temporarily.
But before we get stuck into the ‘falling off’ bit, let’s delve a little deeper into the whole notion of a wagon, and what exactly it is that constitutes success.
Back in my youth, I used to conceive of success as being some sort of end state. A goal that could be gotten to and neatly ticked off.
Things like attaining a ‘respectable’ score on high school exams. Getting a ‘good’ job. Securing the attentions and affections of the ‘right’ partner.
Then I experienced a bit of life. And I realised that achieving success and maintaining success are two entirely different beasts.
In efforts to banish love handles from my life, there have been tonnes of times when I have successfully ditched the donuts, smashed out some work outs, and and shed a little of my jiggle. Goal achieved – hooray!
But then, over time, I would start negotiating with myself. “You’ve been gymming so hard – you’ve earned a piece of cake today. Heck, make it two pieces. You deserve it”.
Little by little, the hungry hedonist in my head would increasingly dominate this internal dialogue… until eventually someone would leave me unsupervised in Kmart during an Easter egg clearance sale, and it would be all over red rover.
Short-term clean eating is easy. Signing up for gym memberships requires remarkably little effort. But staying on those wagons long-term? Not so easy to do.
As a 30-year-old on a health kick, the notion of maintaining rigid self-restraint and dogged discipline for the remaining 60 odd years of my projected life is downright depressing.
(Perhaps depressing enough to induce an episode of emotional eating… now where did I put that tub of Ben and Jerry’s?)
It’s just not realistic to believe that achieving an aim means that it will never regress, or need to be re-visited.
After all, winds are most fierce at the tops of mountains. The tallest perches tend to be the most precarious. And life has a curious habit of hiding around corners, waiting for opportunities to ambush/knock us off the perilous pedestals we’ve placed ourselves upon.
Sometimes we’re strong enough to withstand such attacks… but sometimes our defenses are down.
Perfect postures deteriorate into slumpy humps during moments of fatigue. Clean kitchens become dirty dish dumping grounds when our schedules are hectic. Creative bursts of prolific production are interspersed with long periods spent languishing in creative doldrums.
And when our wondrous wins are replaced by devastating losses, our first instinct is to falter and self-flagellate. We reprimand ourselves for lacking the commitment and conviction required to remain steadfast upon our chosen success path.
But such falls are a natural (and indeed necessary) feature in the landscape of success.
They’re the speed bumps that force us to brake so that our engines don’t overheat and explode. They’re the forced respite opportunities that allow us to recharge so we can come back stronger the next time.
And perhaps most importantly, they’re the crucial challenges that add meaning to our lives. They force us to keep striving. They give us the opportunity us to earn self-respect.
Anyone who has never fallen has never climbed high enough. And in the long-term, that’s going to hurt far more than a fall ever could.
So next time you take a tumble from whatever wagon you’d been riding, don’t flog yourself for failing.
Instead, give yourself an internal high five for making it onto that wagon in the first place. Take some time to re-group. Re-energise.
And remind yourself that you climbed aboard once.
You’ll do it again.
I’m an extremist eater.
And it’s tough.
Society doggedly extolls the virtues of moderation and disparages its less popular cousin – deprivation. My whole life I’ve been encouraged to “just have a bit” because “a small amount won’t hurt” and “you don’t want to miss out”.
But here’s the problem; not all of us are wired for such a sensible approach.
Sure – you may be entirely capable of casually nibbling a potato chip or three and acknowledging an appropriate ‘enough’ point. But for me, as soon as that first delicious chip passes my lips… the whole bag is going bye-bye.
This is not to say that I’m entirely devoid of discipline. On the contrary, I’m actually capable of avoiding chip-chomping altogether. If I don’t crack a pack or accept an offered taste I can happily go without. Heck, a bag can sit unopened in my pantry for months (if my partner doesn’t spot it, that is).
But like a recovering alcoholic, the key for me is absolute abstention.
I don’t consider this extremist version of discipline to be any different to the discipline of a more moderate person. The discrepancy lies purely in the timing and stage at which it’s easy for each of us to stop.
For me, it just so happens to be before I start.
Unfortunately for me and others of my extremist ilk, society seems to have a hard time understanding and accepting our approach to eating.
We’re advised against absolute avoidance of particular foods for fear that we’ll become cranky with cravings, crack under the pressure, and go rampaging down the street, tearing Freddo Frogs out of small children’s hands.
But even as we and our dietary approaches are looked down upon, it’s really not all bad. Being an extremist eater comes with some distinctive advantages.
Advantage #1: Drug detox
There are certain ‘foods’ that are not only horrid for health but also remarkably drug-like in their effects on our bodily systems.
Sugar is one such drug.
Much like it’s relatives – heroine and crack cocaine – it elicits an instantaneous dopamine hit, keeps us running back for more, and requires progressively larger hits each time to stimulate the same satisfying spike.
Given my extremist predisposition, I knew that the only way to detox myself from the dastardly stuff would be to get off the sugar train altogether. So instead of cutting down as a moderate might, I went cold turkey.
Two weeks after cutting it from my diet, I became aware of the delightful sweetness of carrots, cashew nuts and even milk. The taste of cakes, cookies and chocolates became sickly, and almost unpleasantly overwhelming.
Better still, my previously insatiable sweetness cravings faded away into nothingness. Like a recovered sex addict, I could sit dispassionately beside the object of prior temptation without any urge to put it inside me.
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. But apparently, when it comes to problematic food and drink-based relationships, it does a good job of making the heart a little less fond too.
Advantage #2: Eliminating the challenge of choice
Some time ago, I wrote a post about the problems associated with choice, including the mental and emotional turmoil associated with constant decision-making.
My health-conscious moderate mates must constantly choose whether or not to indulge in naughty snacks. And in a world of endless office chocolates, constant cake-studded birthdays and cheap treats lining the shelves at supermarket checkouts, such food-based decision points are dime-a-dozen.
To eat or not to eat? To have a big bit or a small bit? To go back for seconds? Thirds? Fifths?
As an eating extremist who used to masquerade as a moderate, I know that it can be exhausting having to constantly weigh up such options, particularly given the guilt so many of us experience in the wake of a poorly-selected decision.
However, since coming to terms with my extremist ways, I have found myself able to happily avoid such struggles, knowing that the choice has already been made. That it’s simply always going to be a no. (Unless there’s cheesecake on the line. In which case it’s simply always a yes. See? I’m not a total martyr!)
Now please don’t misunderstand; I do not, by any means, advocate extreme eating. What suits me and my munching style does not necessarily suit you and yours. Indeed, I have moderate friends who profess that abstinence induces such severe cravings that an epic, illness-inducing binge session is the only natural sequelae to such deprivation.
But if you are a natural extremist like me, don’t fall for the fallacy of moderation. Know yourself, your inclinations, your limits, and the time point at which you’re most able to say no.
And if you’re a self-identified moderate? Please don’t try to sway me into sampling a slice of your lovely-looking birthday cake.
It will last a lot longer if I don’t.
I encountered an interesting question the other day.
“Is everything easy in heaven?”
We tend to presume that in a ‘perfect’ place, mortal struggles are struck from the equation. That we basically just float around on clouds, sipping pina coladas and being waited on by some chiseled Adonis for all eternity.
But on closer inspection, such a notion seems fundamentally flawed. Because while we long for lives devoid of difficulty, most of the meaning we draw from existence is derived directly from overcoming obstacles.
Think about it.
In the satisfaction straits, we feel a buttload better after heaving hefty loads at the gym than we do after hanging a limp load of socks on the line.
Conquering complex problems feels fantastic, while identifying the answer to 2 + 3 elicits no such elation.
Self-esteem skyrockets when we finally manage to woo that smart, sexy someone we’ve been pursuing for years. But being propositioned by a sleazy slime ball who already tried cracking onto six of our friends? Not so much.
Achieving the easy stuff is… well… easy. And when we know we haven’t worked that hard for something, we don’t really bother to pat ourselves on the back when we achieve it.
Tough stuff, on the other hand, is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for self-respect.
Yes – struggle begets frustration and failure. And yes – that can suck. Sometimes it can really really suck. But without exposing ourselves to vulnerability and risk, we never get the opportunity to realise what we’re truly capable of.
In an age of helicopter parenting and instant gratification, we’ve become remarkably adept at evading difficulty.
We hover over our children, fighting at the front line of their battles so they never need to personally face problems or pain. We seek to silence every niggle of discomfort we encounter; preferably in the easiest possible way (hello Uber Eats).
But part-way along this path of comfort, as we duck and weave to avoid adversity, we start to wonder why our self-esteem is so low, and why our children lack confidence and resilience.
It’s akin to tackling an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet Augustus Gloop-style. The taste bud titillation is painfully transient, while the love-handle repercussions are cruelly persistent.
In much the same way, actively dodging difficulty in the short-term screws with our self-esteem in the long-term. When we don’t have the chance to prove to ourselves that we can keep going when the going gets tough, we have no reason to believe that we can.
We become fragile and frightened. Breakable. Weak.
The only antidote is to bust ourselves out of our cozy comfort zones. To expose ourselves to experiences that are hard, where failing at least a few times is not only possible but probable. To metamorphose from breakable to anti-fragile.
What this actually looks like is different for everyone.
For one person, it might mean running 5km without stopping. For another, it may be mustering up the courage to approach that pretty brunette at the gym. For a kid, perhaps it’s attempting to stand up to their bully before an adult intervenes on their behalf.
I’m not saying such challenges will go smoothly. Lungs will burn. Rejections may be harsh. Little Jimmy might get himself punched in the nose.
But maybe long-term, a tad of transient pain is preferable to the cotton wool-wrapped alternative.
In time, we may find ourselves becoming better. Actually earning our own respect. Holding ourselves in higher esteem.
So that when life inevitably presents us with those ‘f*ck you’ situations, we’ll be less likely to curl up on the couch and cover ourselves in blankets of Cheetoh dust and self-pity.
Because we’ll know – from personal experience – that we’ll be ok.
Happiness has become somewhat of an obsession these days.
We pursue it with reckless abandon, chasing after it with the misplaced optimism of a dog after its tail.
Yet strangely, the more desperately we dash towards it, the more distant and elusive happiness seems to become.
Despite much of the world enjoying a superb standard of living and possessing very few ‘real’ problems these days, self-help books continue to sprint off shelves like a leopard jacked up on methamphetamines. In the U.S., suicide rates rose by 30% between 2000 and 2016. One in six Australians are thought to be currently depressed and/or anxious.
Theory #1: Serotonin sabotage
It seems to me that the most pervasive problem with accessing happiness is our total confusion around what actually makes us happy.
Most of us presume that feeling good = happy. But we couldn’t be more wrong.
It might feel fr*cken fantastic to stuff a litre of chocolate ice cream into our face, fornicate with a fresh female each night, or play computer games for eight hours straight. But such pleasures are painfully transient.
As they inevitably conclude, so too concludes their gratification. Nothing lingers. Aside from indigestion, genital warts and a vitamin D deficiency, perhaps.
Largely, this boils down to the brain’s neurochemical set up.
We know that we get a squirt of the neurotransmitter dopamine when we shovel down tastebud-tittilating junk food, make meaningless love, gamble, buy pretty things we don’t need, or do essentially anything else that’s addictive. Facebook, I’m looking at you.
It’s the dopamine hit that activates our reward system, and keeps us running back for more.
Which is all well and good… except that dopamine actually down-regulates serotonin – the neurotransmitter responsible for longer-lasting contentment*. So paradoxically, the more pleasure we feel, the less happy we become.
In a modern world, the entire economy is built around hedonic pleasures. Our dopamine dosage is through the roof. And serotonin is subsequently stuffed.
Little wonder we’re all depressed.
Theory #2: The positivity paradox
Let’s try a little experiment.
Close your eyes, and try as hard as you can not to think of a white elephant.
How did you go?
I’m guessing that unless you have no concept of the colour ‘white’, or don’t know what an elephant is, the very first thing you thought of was a white elephant.
Tsk tsk. Very disobedient indeed.
What’s interesting is why we all think of white elephants when we have been explicitly instructed not to do so.
When given a task to complete, the human tendency is to mentally ‘check in’ to see how we’re going with said task. And if the task is to not think of something, then when we start thinking about whether we’re successfully not thinking about it… we think about it.
In the same way, the current cult of ‘think positive!’ may be inadvertently counter-productive.
At regular intervals, we are bound to mentally monitor our progress. We’ll ask ourselves whether we are successfully ‘thinking positive’. Whether we are ‘happy’.
And by virtue of checking in, we constantly remind ourselves of the fact that we’re not.
So perhaps happiness is not something we should be directly targeting. Maybe we should ditch the affirmations in the mirror, and instead pour our precious energies into happiness proxies. Stuff that science supports as being linked to long-term satisfaction.
Regular face-to-face connection with our fellow humans. Contributing to something or someone outside of ourselves. Looking after our health via smart sleep, diet and exercise choices.
Sure – the prospect of hitting the gym, visiting your mum, and volunteering at a soup kitchen may sound like an unpalatable sacrifice of free time that could be otherwise spent binge-watching Game of Thrones and purchasing new outfits for your cat online.
But bizarrely, such seemingly disagreeable tasks have the greatest potential to keep us feeling perky in the long-term.
There’s nothing wrong with hankering after happiness. But before we begin the chase, it’s worth checking we’re running in the right direction.
Otherwise, we might just find ourselves lost in a lonely land of meaningless pleasure, bouncing from one hedonic high to the next.
And we’ll never really find that feeling we’re truly looking for.
*Lustig, R.H. (2017). The Hacking of the American Mind. Avery.
For more information, check out his full talk: https://youtu.be/bhh19cQukfg
Romance is dead.
The glory days of the “I choo-choo-choose you” train card are long gone.
Date nights are now spent side-by-side on the couch scrolling through Facebook feeds.
Poor Cupid is probably sitting in the corner of a darkened room, rocking back and forth with one eye twitching.
Most of us don’t even realise Valentine’s Day has rolled around until the cheesy love song dedications hit the radio waves.
Not that it particularly matters if we notice or not. Convivial Valentine’s Day greetings are now most commonly met with excuses about long-term coupled-up-ness and/or disparaging remarks referencing commercialism.
And I get it. Hallmark, Lindt, Tiffany’s and Hollywood have built entire empires around the economy of love, tainting and perverting the very notion of romance.
But I don’t believe the ubiquitous commercialism of Valentine’s Day should prevent us from being just a little bit amorous at least once each year.
It’s not a popular position.
“Why pick just one arbitrary day?” I am so often challenged when voicing my views. “Surely we should overtly express our love every day!”
And sure. Maybe we should. But let’s be real. How many of us actually do?
In my experience, the average human struggles to find enough waking hours in which to work, socialise, feed and maintain acceptable levels of personal hygiene.
Romance – which is generally viewed as a pleasant but non-essential luxury – therefore tends to get unceremoniously shunted as soon as we become confident that our better half isn’t planning to imminently up and leave us.
Enter the need for an institutionalised love day.
Just like I need to throw an occasional party as an institutionalised reason to clean my house, having an institutionalised love day to show our person/people how much we adore him/her/them helps to make it happen where it otherwise may not.
For the ethically unconvinced – never fear. Participation in love day need not feed the commercial love machine.
Because if we break it down, romance simply comes down to this:
Most of us just want to feel acknowledged and appreciated. That’s it.
Such acknowledgement can be achieved without forking out a month’s pay for a dozen red roses and a bottle of Moet & Chandon. In fact, I would go as far as to actively avoid such conventional gestures.
After all, any random dude off the street could hand you a bunch of roses. It wouldn’t necessarily make you feel loved.
What does give us that special sense of acknowledgment is knowing that someone has taken precious time out of their hectic life to genuinely think about and consider us.
It’s why a signed CD of our favourite band feels like a special present but a bath soap gift pack does not. Why a personalised, handwritten letter makes us feel more loved than a box of chocolates ever could. Why diamonds and roses are nice to have, but don’t really touch us emotionally.
Personally, the most precious gifts I ever received involved little to no monetary expenditure. A song written just for me. A personalised treasure hunt. A home-made video my partner made recapping our first year together.
Such gestures did nothing to keep the cogs of the commercial love machine crunching. Yet I treasured them more than I would a diamond-encrusted solid gold ferrari.
So romance might be dead. But perhaps that’s only because we’ve been doing it wrong.
I reckon it’s time to re-board the love boat. Re-ignite the flames of romance. Revive those abandoned attempts to let our loved ones know they’re loved.
We just need to do it our way.
And not let Hallmark do the talking for us.
Today, the western world faces a pandemic of unprecedented proportions. Spreading like a sick wildfire across the planet’s developed nations, it now plagues more people than malaria, influenza and HIV combined.
I speak, of course, of the first world problem.
The barrister burnt my cappuccino #devastated
Bought a dress on Ebay 6 days ago and it still hasn’t arrived #woeisme
Bird pooped on my car 10 minutes after I finished washing it #worstdayever
I haven’t been so lucky as to escape the infernal infection. Like so many of my peers before me, I too have fallen victim to the dreaded first world problem.
Almost on a daily basis, I catch myself lamenting entirely unremarkable occurrences. Like dog-eared book pages, excessively ripe fruit and inconsiderately parked cars.
It’s not ok. We need a cure. And we need it now.
But as with any dastardly disease, before we can find an antidote, we must first identify the source. Where did the first world problem come from? And how has it become so remarkably rampant in such a seemingly short space of time?
Alas, it’s no big secret.
Life has simply become too good.
At first glance, this may seem like a rather delightful dilemma to have. I mean, if we had to pick a predicament, life being too perfect would be a fairly excellent choice.
The problem is that everything in this world is relative. So if our lives are a little too comfortable – if things are going a little too well – little obstacles start to feel a little less little.
Trivial tribulations become noticeably niggly. Insignificant inconveniences become infuriating irritations.
Why? Because we humans need problems. We’re designed to scout them out. At our core, we need stuff to solve. It’s how we inject our lives with meaning.
And if life is so good that genuine problems don’t exist, we find kooky and creative ways to conjure them up.
We chuck tantrums when the pool-side wifi at our 5-star hotel starts glitching. When our loving and otherwise thoughtful partner forgets to pick up Meowly Cyrus’ cat food on the way home from work. When our 2-for-1 chicken drumstick voucher is rejected at KFC because it expired yesterday.
Yep. When we’re yelling at pubescent fast food chain employees because we have to fork out an extra 70c for lunch, life has clearly become a bit too comfortable.
We evidently lack genuine problems. And ironically… that’s a genuine problem.
It’s a problem because when we don’t get the opportunity to experience proverbial poos hitting fans from time to time, we don’t get to practice being ok when they inevitably do.
We become fragile. Breakable. Reliant on substances to get us through those times when our perfect worlds finally do get tipped on their perfect heads.
So what’s the cure?
Like so many medicines, the antidote to the first world problem is hard to swallow. But like so many of the unpalatable things in life, it’s also very good for us.
We need to actively bust ourselves out of the comfort bubbles we know and love. Seek out hardship. Stress our minds and our bodies. Just a bit. Ideally in short, semi-regular bursts.
I’m talking hiking up mountains with a 15kg pack, a whole bunch of bugs and no shower for 3 days. Passing a whole day without food. Listening to podcasts discussing opposing views to the ones we hold.
When we inject genuine discomfort into our lives, we coat ourselves with anti-fragile armour. We reinstate perspective.
And perhaps most importantly, we remember how not to be whiny, entitled brats.