Hurtler’s disease

Over the school holidays we had a wonderful holiday in Perth, marred only by the way I hurtled past the couch in our rented apartment on the Friday and completely failed to miss, breaking my toe. Limping back to work somewhat sheepishly, I tried to pass it off as “Spontaneous Acute Proprioceptive Dysfunction”, but most people have immediately spotted that this just means I’m clumsy.

I thought that was all there was to it, until a friend was telling me via email the other day how he spent Sunday hiking with his son and a friend, instead of working. He said he’d had a fun day, but it “wasn’t very productive”. I dashed off a response commenting that peace and wellbeing were products in themselves and moved on, but the idea started to bubble in the back of my mind.

Companies are all about productivity these days. Union claims for pay rises are always met with demands for associated productivity increases – which is usually code for increased workloads.

In our personal lives, we feel productive when we achieve lots of tangible stuff. Ticking things off todo lists, tackling the paperwork, shrinking the looming inbox wall of guilt (or is that just me?). Things that we can easily count.

There’s panic on the switchboard tongues are ties in knots
Some come out in sympathy some come out in spots
Some blame the management some the employees
And everybody knows it’s the Industrial Disease

Mark Knopfler, Industrial Disease

But I’m starting to realise two things. The first is that the most productive things in our lives are probably not countable, tickable, or easily measured in any way. Love, rest, calm, emotional connectedness, wellbeing. ‘Little’ things that are the foundation of our lives.

The second is that I am vastly more productive at work when I make sure I have plenty of those unmeasurable things. Even if you measure productivity solely by measurable KPIs, it’s still crucial to focus on those unmeasurable, intangible things in order to increase (and improve!) those measurable, tangible outcomes.

On the weekend we went down to Sorrento. Usually when we do that we drive straight there, following our habitual technique of focusing solely on the outcome. But we had no deadline, no time we absolutely had to be there, so on a whim we stopped at a cafe on the way down. When we got to Sorrento we were vastly less tired, rushed, and grumpy than usual, even though we got stuck in heavy long-weekend traffic after our cafe stop. We made some space both in our drive and in our heads, and as a result we had a much better day.

My broken toe is a direct result of hurtler’s disease. Dashing about leads (for me, at least) to bumping into things. I was on holiday, yet I was automatically rushing because that’s just what I do these days. I rush. I work to deadlines. I check the clock. I stress.  I find it really hard to kick that habit, even when it’s wholly unnecessary. My default response to requests for “extras” like cafe stops, park visits, trips to the pool, or even games at home is “We don’t have time” or “I’m too busy”. And the sad part is that I have written about this very problem before, last time I broke a toe!

But the truth is we do have time. I’m not too busy. I just need to recognise that being productive sometimes means I need to stop. To slow down. To make space. That may be the most productive I will ever be.

How do you let yourself be sad?

Sometimes it feels as though we measure success in life by happiness. When someone asks “how are you?” we feel obliged to say “fine!” for so many reasons. We don’t want to bring other people down with our own low moods. We don’t want to admit to complicated emotions out in public. Sometimes we don’t feel as though we have the right to feel the way we feel, so we’re afraid of being judged. And sometimes it’s just that saying anything other than “fine!” might lead to the horrendous embarrassment of tears in public.

Yesterday a casual “how are you going?” in the staffroom left me in tears. And rather than stay and talk with the very sympathetic colleague who had cruelly precipitated the tears by being nice to me (how could she??), I fled for the toilets and hid. This is a sure sign that I have been trying to hold too many pieces in too few hands.

Ironically on the weekend I knew that I would need to give myself permission to be sad for a while, due a death in my extended family and a lot of complicated emotions. I try to hold it together for my kids, for my students, for my colleagues, maybe even to save face. Sometimes it’s purely practical – you can’t teach a class effectively when you’re in tears, so there are times when I have to hold it together.  Somehow holding it together becomes a habit that’s hard to break, and I find myself unable to be openly sad.

I don’t mean continuously sad. Sometimes there are smiles, and even laughs on the darkest of days. But although intellectually I believe it should be possible to be authentically sad with your friends and colleagues without great drama, in a practical sense I find it hard to do. So I go around trying to be upbeat all the time, for my own sake and for the sake of those around me.

When our kids are sad, we say things like “it’s ok” and “don’t be sad” and “cheer up” when maybe what we should be doing is empathizing more. Agreeing that yes, they are sad, and yes,  being sad is ok. Giving them permission to feel the way they feel, rather than trying to change it. We’re not very good at giving ourselves permission to feel. We like to pretend the negative emotions don’t exist. But those emotions can be powerful drivers of change, and we can’t use them to learn if we pretend they don’t exist.

Interestingly my sad blog posts get far more traffic than my happy ones. This might be because I am more eloquent when I’m sad than when I’m happy, but I think it has a lot to do with people feeling less alone when they read of someone else’s trauma. One thing the human brain seems to do with alarming efficiency is persuade you that you are the only person ever to have suffered this. The only one to have felt sad, or scared, or lonely, or grieving. The only person to have fought, struggled, or lost. Intellectually you know that others suffer, but emotionally you feel like the only one who has ever felt this way.

I think this is one reason why sad books and films are so popular, and why we respond so strongly to poignant images. Because they remind us that we are not alone.

If only we could be authentically, publicly sad, and remind all the other sad people around us that it’s normal to be sad sometimes. That you can laugh and the world laughs with you, but you never really cry alone.

What would you do if you won the lottery?

This morning on the radio I heard an ad saying something like “everyone wants to win the jackpot”, and it got me thinking. Do they? Do they really? What would change if I suddenly had a million or more dollars tossed in my lap?

Would I retire?

Would I buy stuff until it poured out my ears?

Could I change the world with that sort of money?

Would it change me?

They are probably the kind of questions that you can’t answer for sure, unless it actually happens to you (raise your hand if you’d like to be part of a statistically relevant sample). The temptation that goes with large amounts of money must surely have impacts that are hard to foresee.

But the idea does make me wonder what my ideal life looks like. I was very lucky when my second child was born. I was able to take four years or so off work, look after my kids, and explore different career options through volunteer work, among other things. We managed to avoid financial pressures, which meant that, when I finally worked out what I wanted to do, I was able to take a giant leap of faith – despite the huge drop in salary when compared with my previous job.

In those four years it became very clear to me that I need to work, and, moreover, I need a workplace. Working from home left me too isolated, too much at the mercy of my own hyperactive brain, which tends to create mountains out of every possible (and many an impossible) molehill without the constant presence of friends willing to wield the frying pan of enlightenment. (“Wham! Stop it, you big doofus! Wham!”)

I also need the opportunity to do the things I am good at, the things that make me feel as though I have really achieved something. Teaching is one of those things. So if I never had to work again, would I stop teaching?

No, I can’t see it happening.

Beguiling though the idea is of having nothing to do other than lounge in a hammock drinking cocktails all day every day, I don’t think many people would be truly happy without a sense of purpose. Of achievement. There is a fundamental need, deep in the human psyche, to feel needed. To feel purposeful. And at least in my psyche, there is a strong need for people. Holidays make me happy, but the first thing I want to do when confronted with a gorgeous view is to share it.

Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania

So what difference would a sudden windfall make? I could inject some luxury into my life, but the overall shape of it wouldn’t change. Stuff doesn’t make me happy. People do. I am happiest when I’m surrounded by people I love and respect, and kicking goals at work – money can’t buy me that feeling.

I have awesome friends, and wonderful colleagues. Money can’t get me more of those. I’d buy a healthier body if I could, but technology isn’t there (yet?).  Overall the things I want and need are not for sale. Once you’ve met your basic needs, what else can money do for you?

So this is my question for you: What would you change in your life if you had a million dollars? And what’s stopping you from doing it now?

Run for it

Today I forked out $99 for a pair of running shoes. There were scientific looking machines that measured my gait, my stance and my balance (turns out I am very balanced – I almost asked to have that in writing. My husband will never believe it.). The sales person went to a lot of trouble. We tried 3 different shoes and she offered me a pair for $170, managing not to wince or wrinkle her nose when I asked rather sheepishly if there were any on special. Having only just taken up running I am not nearly fanatical enough yet to spend close to $200 on a pair of glorified sneakers.

If you had told me a year ago that I would take up running and get hooked within a week I’d have offered to refer you to a good psychologist I know who specialises in treating the delusional. SO not going to happen. Running is why we invented bicycles. Waaaay too much like hard work. And yet… and yet… it began as a whim, rather like the time I shaved my hair. My husband has been telling me for years that running builds stamina and would improve my cycling, and I have time and time again said “Never.”

I’m a cosmopolitan sophisticate
Of culture and intelligence
The culmination of technology
And civilized experience

But I’m carrying the weight of all the useless junk
A modern man accumulates
I’m a statistic in a system
That a civil servant dominates

And all that means is that I’m running on ice
Caught in the vise so strong
I’m slipping and sliding, cause I’m running on ice
Where did my life go wrong

You’ve got to run, run, run, whoa-oh-oh-oh
You’ve got to run, run, run, whoa-oh-oh-oh

As fast as I can climb
A new disaster every time I turn around
As soon as I get one fire put out
There’s another building burning down

They say this highway’s going my way
But I don’t know where it’s taking me
It’s a bad waste, a sad case, a rat race
It’s breaking me

Running on Ice, Billy Joel

Regular readers and those who know me well may remember that I have a bad record with the N word. I have been frustrated over the last year of trauma and health challenges, watching my weight rise and my stamina sink. I ride my bike several times a week for commuting or shopping purposes, and I walk a lot, but I haven’t pushed my physical limits in years. I was stagnating.

Half way through December last year I was idly speculating about how little time there is to socialise with a particular friend, when my husband joked that I’d have to take up running to spend more time with her. And there it was. A pregnant pause. An indefinable moment during which I failed to brandish the N word. I actually thought about it.

The next day I pulled on my ancient sneakers and headed off around the block twice. Now, it’s a largeish block. Twice around it amounted to around 2.5km. The day after I did it again. And for the next week I could barely walk, and I disturbed my workmates for days with small yelps every time I stood up or sat down. I stubbornly continued to use the stairs at work, but I couldn’t help moaning all the way up and all the way down. I suspect the rest of the staff thought there was a particularly heavy footed ghost haunting our new building.

Yet once my quads could flex without screams of agony, I did it again. This time I went slower and was careful to stretch. I also ran on grass in an attempt to lower the impact on my poor feeble body. And I did it again. And again. And again. I used an app on my phone, RunKeeper, that told me exactly how far and how fast I had gone. Like a super-enthusiastic best friend it told me about personal bests almost every run. Indeed, the first time I ran it beeped enthusiastically about how many personal bests I had just achieved – never mind that they were, in fact, personal firsts.  Nonetheless for a geek like me the numbers were cheering – even the time the gps glitched and had me running out in the middle of Port Phillip Bay with a speed of around 52kph.

I was completely hooked on the blissed out endorphin rush I got when I stopped (yes, just like beating your head against the wall. Stopping is FABULOUS.). I was amazed at how fast I was improving. The first time I ran I did more walking than running. Within a week I was running for 25 minutes non-stop. For those of you who are regular runners that may not seem impressive, but to a committed non-runner like me it was a revelation.

I am fitter, stronger and have vastly improved stamina already. Much of that improvement may be psychological, but that’s not to be sniffed at. The mind is often harder to change than the body. Anything that makes me feel better and stronger is priceless. But here’s the thing: even though my kids don’t run with me, they seem to be getting fitter too. Perhaps because we are walking more and driving less. Perhaps it’s because they are running around more with me, and I am less likely to collapse into a chair and tell them to leave me alone. Perhaps it’s simply that being active is contagious. But this was a benefit I did not expect – that my own fitness level would directly impact on my kids.

With all the noise about the obesity crisis, I have heard all kinds of strange theories about combating it.

Ban junk food advertising.

Change the food in school canteens.

Add more exercise into the school curriculum.

Print their weight on their school report.

But nowhere have I ever seen the advice: Encourage their parents to be more active. Yet we are their role models, their inspirations, and the foundation of their lifestyles. We set the pace, the duration and the format of their lives to a huge degree. How can we expect them to be healthy and active if we drive them everywhere and spend our home lives slumped in front of facebook or the tv?

It can be hard to motivate ourselves to get fit. It’s probably one of the most broken New Year’s Resolutions of all. What if we knew it was crucial to our kids?

Running is my own private bliss. I zone out, becoming meditative and calm, and incredibly mindful, as I focus on just making it to the next milestone. It has had an incredibly positive impact on my life. And it helps my kids, both directly through their own fitness, and indirectly through their happier, less stressed out Mum.

I think I won the race.

Touching the sky

We are an oddly reserved society, here in Australia. For all our easy-going reputation, we tend to keep to ourselves for the most part. I know I harp on about the lack of “just dropping in” these days, but I think maybe that’s a symptom of something deeper. I’ve come to the conclusion that we just don’t touch each other enough.

The day my Dad died I was at work, and I was overwhelmed by hugs in the brief time between finding out and leaving the building. Those hugs kept me warm throughout that very, very rough day, and many days afterwards. Even now, nearly two months later, the memory of them lifts my mood and makes me smile.

Many of those hugs came from people who would not normally touch me. Friends, colleagues, and lovely people, they generally keep a respectful distance. I really needed hugs that day, and they arose quite spontaneously from gorgeous people who wanted to show their love and sympathy. Other days, though, most of us wouldn’t dream of hugging each other at work – or indeed anywhere else. Certainly there is an awareness of workplace norms, so that friends who might hug & kiss when they come over for dinner don’t greet each other that way at work, but I think it’s more than that.

I feel shy about asking for hugs, yet they are an amazing boost to my mood. It seems as though asking for a hug is an imposition, yet they are as beneficial and therapeutic for the hugger as for the huggee. There’s an awkwardness about asking for touch, but there’s also a fear of emotional complications. Too much touch has disturbing connotations. Because we are not a very tactile society, there is an expectation that being unusually tactile has sexual implications.

Oxytocin researcher Paul Zak says we need at least 8 hugs a day. Touch gives us a measurable oxytocin boost, which increases our empathy, trust, happiness, generosity and even our wound-healing ability! In short, touch makes us nicer people.

A dear friend recently sent me this fascinating TED talk, in which Jane McGonigal talks about simple ways we can make ourselves healthier and happier. One of her suggestions is touch – even a simple handshake can cause a measurable change in our oxytocin levels, and hence our behaviour. Another is to do something that makes us happy, to boost our positive emotions to balance the negative ones. “If you can manage to experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion,” she says, “you dramatically improve your health and your ability to successfully tackle any problem you’re facing.”

Touch is a 3 for 1 deal, in that it boosts those positive emotions as well as boosting oxytocin, so it reinforces a positive cycle – feel good because you touched someone, which boosts your ocytocin, which makes you feel good, which makes you more likely to touch someone… and on and on, ad infinitum.

Of course, you can’t go from zero to hug monster in 0.3 seconds. I’m not about to waltz into work on Monday and hug everything that moves. I don’t have any easy answers here. I am trying to edge up my hug quota by seeking and offering more hugs, but that’s a cautious, long term project. There is no doubt that some people are uncomfortable with touch, so it’s important to choose your huggees with care and discretion. But at the very least least all those times when I feel like hugging someone and am not sure if it would be welcome, I can push past my shyness to ask: “would you like a hug?”

With those who I know hug freely, I can hug more often, and the world will be a slightly happier, more generous and trusting place – which sounds like something to celebrate. How about a hug?