Welcome to the middle path

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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wherever you go, there you are

No matter where you go, there you are, said Confucius. 
happy in the garden

Just finished a poignant article about a woman who lost nearly half her body weight but not all her troubles.  She had bariatric surgery, and believed, as her surgeon insisted, that life would be so much easier after she got want she thought she really wanted-- a skinny body.  But she found that the insecurities did not fall off with the weight.

A lot of us are like this.  We think when we get that one problem dealt with, we will finally be happy. 
Once we have finally attain the right "X".  Substitute for X:  partner, job, weight, place to live.

Wherever you go, there you are.  You, with the same imperfections, strengths, and history you had before.  You can run, and you can't hide, and when you get "there", the common denominator between you and comfort arrives with you. 

Last week, author and Harvard professor Dan Gilbert lectured at Oregon State University about his research on happiness.  You can hear some of his tenets at his Ted talk.  Think you know what will make you happy?  Dr. Gilbert's findings suggest you are wrong.  He found that many people overestimate what circumstances will lead them to golden joy-- and what will make them miserable.  The good news:  Most of us are far more resilient than we believe.  75% of us will recover, or at least be OK, two years after something we assume will ruin us.  "We are not the fragile field of flowers we believe ourselves to be,"  Gilbert says.  And conversely, we are also not going to be saved by that X factor we think is between us and our ultimate happiness.  People routinely overpredict what will make them happy in the future.  Whether it is that new car, tenure, new job or new lover, we predictably end up not a whole lot happier after the initial high of achievement than we were to begin with.
the constant, changing moon brings me ridiculous joy

So what does make us happy?
Gilbert noted a few things.  Experiences, not stuff bring more lasting pleasure.  We will remember and cherish that trip overseas more often than that new piece of bling.  And bling connected to relationship will always be more meaningful than just bling bought, because of the memories brought with it.  People are happiest when they are engaged, not passive recipients of objects or experiences.  In one replicated study, people given $20 were divided into two groups.  One was told to spend it on something enjoyable for themselves, and one told to spend it making someone else happy.  Guess which one reported more and longer lasting satisfaction with the experience?
seeing old friends and hearing good music=happy
And it's frequency, not intensity, that's the best predictor of overall life satisfaction.  Small and common joys trump far-apart epiphanies.    A sense of meaning and community also make a huge difference.  For a great overview of happiness research presented in an intriguing and digestible format, watch the wonderful documentary "Happy".   

I'm 24 hours late in marking International Happiness Day.   But it's never too late to figure out how to bring more satisfaction to those hours you have left on Earth.  Don't put it off.

Related blogs:

Quote of the day:  "It's never too late to have a happy childhood."  Tom Robbins, American author
Song of the day:

Monday, March 11, 2013

Persistant Popsongs of Perverse Imps: EARWORM ALERT

Earlier tonight, I looked at the Facebook page of a woman who recently changed coasts.  She added a video she said she used to explain to Easterners how life was here in the West.  I made the mistake of clicking on it, and now for the last hour or so the oddly hooky "Man on a Buffalo" refrain has been sawing away on my frontal lobe. Soon I'll resort to the handful of anti-helmintic (that's fancy-ass for worm) home cures, but in the meantime let's look at the malady more closely.

annoyed by ancient Britney Spears tune
Earworms are common-- nearly everybody gets them.  Studies put the range of reporters in the high ninety percentile.   Women tend to have them longer, and find them more annoying, but both genders suffer as frequently.  They're those little short snippets of songs that loop endlessly in your head for up to hours at a time.  Lyrics are three or four times more common than just melodies.  We don't usually hear the entire song, just 15-30 seconds of a catchy phrase.  Commercials know our auditory memory capacity and play to that, with short, snappy jingles the advertisers hope will take resident in our brain and preferably in communication with our wallet. 

The phrase in the header, "Imp of the Perverse", is the title of an Edgar Allen Poe short story about a man driven mad (hey, it's Poe) by torturous "ringing...in the memory" of "an ordinary song, or unimpressive snatches from an opera".  He rightfully notes it's not much better if it's a good high-brow song-- but let's face it, it rarely is.  My last two earworms were bad hits of Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton John. Hated them then, hate them still.  But it's not much better when it's Jimmy Cliff or Madame Butterfly.

ready to dive in with some old janet jackson
Our brains love music.  We can more easily remember sequences of numbers or words when we add a melody to help attach them.  People with naturally more sticky brains (think OCD) are going to be predisposed to earworms, but average Joes also go there when there is too much competing information and the mind wanders to find a predictable path to pace.  Music IS predictable, and that's the problem. Visuals change according to angle and light, smells and tastes according to proximity and competition (think the taste of a particular wine with chocolate compared to same wine with shrimp).  But Baby Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me is recognizable soft or loud from the first couple of notes, and the brain grabs it like a falling man might grapple for a ledge, then hangs on for dear life.  On the other hand, Brit researchers found earworms are more likely to crawl into a bored, distracted mind.  Yet another reason to follow paths of moderation in thinking.

Stressful as the worms are, their role isn't completely parasitic.  They are giving the auditory cortex the equivalent of hand-wringing or pacing when the rest of the brain is overloaded.

 They're benign in their usual short-lived state, although clinical anecdotes present cases where sufferers had the same tune for years at a time.  For most of us, it's a few minutes, maybe off and on over a few hours.  It rarely lasts past the natural break of sleep.

Remedies abound, but no sure cures.  Here's some to try from the HowStuffWorks site:
1)  Sing a different song (Girl From Impawhatever is famous for this) or play a tune on an instrument.
2)  Do something entirely different and physical-- work out.
3) Sing the earworm song ALL THE WAY through (past the snippet that's looping).
4) Visualize the earworm, embodying the song, crawling out of your ear. Then visualize going all Darth Vadar on it. 
5) Insert it in another ear.  Do not expect them to love you for it.  This trope appears in several science fiction stories as a gift that keeps on giving.

For more on this little life annoyance, read this article by Bill White or listen to this episode of the always fascinating Radio Lab podcast: http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2008/jun/17/earworms/

I'm off to de-friend Leigh from my Facebook page (just teasing, you vixen)  and then maybe hum a little Johnny Cash--


What ever you do, don't click here.  It's only half as potent as "Man on a Buffalo" but you still may beg for mercy.  You were warned.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Strangers in Strange Lands

natural variation = added benefit, even if uncomfortable
Tonight I have been thinking about mental illness and diagnosis, and the benefits and problems of trying to sort people into boxes.
I'm blessed or cursed with not being a black and white thinker.  When a friend forwarded me this article that showed many diagnostic labels of mental illness share common genetic links, I had a strong internal reaction.  The article said that related people sharing "genetic aberrations" had risks for several mental illnesses.  What they found most interesting is that the effects of the same gene change could be expressed in different illnesses, for example with one twin showing schizophrenia and another bipolar disorder.

I have seen the devastating effects of mental illness in this and previous generations.  I don't doubt that our endocrine system, not to mention our brain, is no less immune to the insults of living, environment, random gene accident that our other organs.  As such I think it deserves absolutely no additional moral interpretation-- it's an organ not functioning as we expect it, or an organ that is ill.  I don't see true mental dis-ease as any more morally damning than a kidney problem or a under/over active pancreas. It's not a matter of poor willpower or moral turpitude when it fails to work properly all the time.  The stigma we hold to mental illness is fear based on an ego level:  "there but for the grace of God/my will/clean living/etc" go I, and let's just blame the victim.  It's our defense mechanisms acting out and claming control over one particular, very complicated organ-- the brain.  I don't blame anyone for feeling that.  We manage anxiety by figuring out all the ways this scary outcome cannot, will not apply to us.

 grateful for artists to reinterpret the world
But what it you are indeed well-represented in the genetic dice roll as an outlier?  What if you are one of those kernels that does well in dry seasons and all it does is rain?  You are incredibly logical, efficient and detail oriented in group that values people-reading and glad-handing and seeing all forests, all trees?  Or exceptionally sensitive, just dripping with mirror neurons such that you can barely hear what people are saying because their pain or agitation or anger is sharply evident to you in your interactions? 

When as a nation or a world we start to judge, to evaluate and grade and degrade varations as being good or bad, it's important to step back and see the forests in all those funny looking trees.  We need most everybody, even those on the edges of the bell curve.  We need engineers that can ignore well-meaning but emotional calls for esthetics that detract dangerously from functionality.  We need artists who can articulate the depths of joy and suffering that are rellly, truly there in most of us even if we don't have the language to express them.  We need the people who are moved to tears by the unspoiled natural environment to save it from slaughter for those of us who may not see its utility and healing potential.  We need the number crunchers and the emoting advocates to create a world that works not just logically, but on a heart level.
We need the schizophrenics who can call out bullshit and make us uncomfortable, and the persons with Autism who can do the same and remind us to question our habits of not saying what we really mean.  We need the melancholic poet and artist  who pull us pearls out of their pain, and the hypmanic who creates entire symphonies in six day no-sleep spurts.

We also need to be safe, and most of us need to be in relationship, to have meaning and purpose, to serve.  On the edges of those bell curves, that doesn't happen.  It's hard to be useful when you are violent and hallucinating.  What if we saw that as just out of balance, not wrong?  If we save "crazy" as a description of out of balance behavior or thinking, instead of applying it to people?

When our kidneys get out of balance, we may have trouble peeing, or pee too much.  Too far our of balance and they aren't filtering our blood, and that can be life threatening.  We can mess them up with poor hydration, certain food issues (for those stone formers, drinking lots of tea and eating spinach can start some painful episodes).  When we get symptomatic, it's important to pay attention get back in balance, through treatment or lifestyle changes.  Sometimes that means medicine.  Few people resist taking an antibiotic when they have a raging infection, or a cough syrup if they are staying up all night hacking.  It's not seen as weak, it's sensible.  When through stress or illness our mental symptoms increase, we need to take care, and that can encompass many forms.

But when we are merely in our tendencies and not particularly imbalanced into illness, perhaps a more sustainable approach is to learn to live with our differences, and do what we can to maximize their strengths: creativity and productivity in hypomania and some forms of melancholia, , exploration and adventure sports for the low-reactors, emotional wisdom, compassion and social sensitivity for those with the extra mirror neurons, exactitude and thoughtful planning and execution for those on the high-functioning Asperger's spectrum. 

more same than different
We all have our soft spots.  Sometimes they present little obvious hardship, espcially if we're aware of them and make reasonable accommodations.
Nearsighted?  Get glasses. Fairskinned?  Disability if you live in a sunny climate(sunscreen and clothing!), good for Vit D production if you don't.  Sickle-cell anemia?  Good mutation if you live in malaria laden countries and hope to reproduce before you die, but not so hot if you want to live past 40.

Every gift has its burden, and every burden has its gift.  Labels are good only as far as they help people predict and avoid or accomodate predictible burdens.  If you know you have "Engineer Mind" you are going to want to develop rules around social intelligence to enjoy positive relationships.  If you're on the other end of that spectrum you'll need to learn that not every problem can be solved via emotion and relationship; sometimes you need MATH.

We all have our stuff.  Some of us seem to have a lot more than a fair share of the hard stuff.  Where ever you are in the spectrum, take some time to apprecaite gifts from those outliers.  We need them over time.  And if like Kingsolver's kernels they didn't land in a time where their difference works so well in the enviroment, don't blame them. Help them to find the place where their difference works.

On that note, here's a couple keen articles about job agencies trying to do just that.
and in Corvallis:  http://www.gazettetimes.com/news/local/finding-jobs-for-those-harder-to-place/article_e5118904-7f18-11e2-8e16-0019bb2963f4.html