Wednesday 30 August 2017
Like all of my birthdays that had come prior, I found myself being showered with varying sums of money from my relatives. Now, I’m not certain where said tradition originated: perhaps I was denoted long ago as one of those “hard to buy for” individuals or maybe my family members simply have the extra disposable cash. Either way, for as long as I can remember, the August season has consistently been ushered in by the receipt of cheque-filled envelope upon envelope in my mailbox.
I jokingly remarked to my mom this year, “When do you think I’ll reach the cut-off age? I’ve come to rely on receiving that extra annual income.” While I assure you the aforementioned statement was entirely made in jest, it brought to light an interesting modern day dilemma: at what age is one now considered an quote unquote adult? In other words, it’d be hard to imagine me (or anyone for that matter!) reaching 40 or 50 years of age and still receiving birthday spending money from their extended family members.
If we trace back through human history, “adulthood” was seemingly easier to define. In the Medieval era, a woman was signed up for marriage and childbirth the moment she demonstrated her first signs of fertility. During the early 1900s, mandatory military training began for boys as early as age 10. The moment you hit 18, you’d be enlisted to the draft lottery, whether you were a lover or a fighter. In stark contrast, in today’s world, we, as a country, can’t even seem to agree upon what the legal drinking age should be!
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for men and women within their late 20s and 30s to still be floundering when it comes to a set career path and/or reliant on their parents for financial support. Despite having access to superior education and opportunities, many of us (and it’s not for lack of trying) just can’t seem to “grow up”. Of course, this calls into question yet another existential dilemma: what exactly does it mean to be “grown up”?
But before we open that can of worms, there’s another query that requires addressing: “why does any of this matter?” Well, psychological research has uncovered time and time again that humans’ number one fear is death (public speaking, interestingly, ranks second). Given that humans, as a species, are able to cognitively contemplate existence and come to grips with the notion that ALL living things are tied to a fairly predictable life cycle, it must be understood that this fear is not simply about losing the function of one’s physical form. In order to understand death and our fear of it then, one must look beyond its literal meaning and instead into the world of symbolism.
Intertwined with the fear of death is also a “fear of the unknown” (ie: What happens when I lose my physical form? Is there an afterlife? Should I have believed in something? Will I return in another form in the future?). More pertinent to our discussion however, a fear of death is as well largely tied to a “fear of failure” (ie: I’m running out of time. There are so many things I want/ed to accomplish. How will I be remembered? Did I do enough?) Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, each year we age, these types of contemplations become increasingly important to us.
What I’m trying to get at is that throughout our history and even still today, “adulthood” has been defined by the accomplishment of specific milestones at set ages: a standardized checklist, if you will, of obtaining education (teens to 20s), establishing/maintaining a career (mid 20s to 50s), getting married (late 20s to early 30s), having 2.5 kids (late 20s to early 30s), buying a home with a snazzy white picket fence (mid to late 30s), retirement (mid 60s) and so forth. This “idealization” however fails to take into account changing social, political and cultural circumstances. Accordingly, many of us live “stressed out” and become increasingly depressed as we age because we’re unable to “measure up.”
As humans are a social species that highly value group membership, failing to accomplish these established “life goals” (as determined by our larger social group) presents yet another potential fear coming to light: that of ostracism. In other words, there’s no worst “death” than “dying alone.”
Taking all of the above into consideration, I’d like to suggest that this traditional model of “adulthood” is short-sighted and out-dated (to say the least). Having life goals IS absolutely essential, BUT in my 28 years on earth, if in fact I’ve learned anything, it’s this simple truth: true age and “maturity” (and therefore what constitutes adulthood/growing up) cannot and should NOT be merely defined by a number OR series of tangible accomplishments. After all, we’ve all known “adults” whose behaviour is juvenile, at best, and “children” who take us by surprise by the wisdom they effortlessly espouse.
Instead, I’d like to propose that we should assess age (and “adulthood”) by one’s level of “psychological maturity”: the ability to encounter all of life’s circumstances with a non-defensive introspective empathetic responsible point of view. Yes, I know that’s a rather loaded statement! It goes without saying that maintaining consistency when it comes to adopting/applying a “psychologically mature” perspective is by far the most trying aspect of this entire exercise.
Never fear my friends! With that said, this month’s lesson comes directly off of a page from my recent birthday book: ASK QUESTIONS. Rarely is there a time something should be accepted at its “face value” or “assumed” about. True understanding and therefore appropriate “mature” reaction is ONLY possible when one has inquired to learn all sides of the equation.
Sunday 30 July 2017
Remember when your mom used to tell you not to hold your face in grotesque positions for too long, otherwise it might stick that way? While mom may have ever-so-slightly exaggerated her words of caution (though frown lines can permanently leave their mark if said facial expression is held consistently for a lengthy period of time!), one could take the essence of this warning and reasonably apply it to psychological thought patterns.
In other words, “addictions” do not merely need to consist of physiological accommodations resulting from the regular ingestion of foreign substances. No, certain thought patterns – particularly of the negative variety – can equally become so ingrained, so habitual, that one doesn’t even realize they’ve become “stuck” in a singular mindset – that they’ve developed “pathological” thinking. This of course brings me to this month's topic of discussion: that of, “psychological framing.”
Now anyone who’s studied cinema or even is an avid Oscars viewer knows that 9 times out of 10, accolades are given to dramas and tragedies over movies that itch your funny bone. This bias is equally perpetuated in our educational system in that, at least in my highschool experience, the only taste of the world’s greatest writer we received revolved around his tales of misery, betrayal, murder and star-crossed lovers.
From an evolutionary psychology perspective, this makes sense: humans, given the treacherous terrain in which we found ourselves (in our primitive days), needed to have a stronger sensibility of negative stimuli in order to properly assess risks and therefore, aid in our self-preservation as a species. Believe it or not, having a pessimistic and/or paranoid perspective, at one point, was actually considered a valuable asset!
I suppose in order to continue to justify (at least on a subconscious level) why we rank tragedies supreme, we’ve developed complicated symbologies relating to media that assess ‘dark tales’ are somehow more illustrative of “universal” truths, wisdoms and experiences. We’ve convinced ourselves that despondent emotions and melodrama go hand-in-hand with the “human condition,” and that true “growth”, at least according to the world of pop culture, can only occur after deep suffering or loss.
Well, I hate to offend any aspiring filmmakers or actors, but the truth of the matter is that you can equally learn valuable lessons about others and yourself from laughing just as much as you can from crying. Humans are a complicated mess of logical and illogical thoughts, actions and motives and only considering one side of the equation will NEVER give you the full picture. But I’m not here to justify my preference when it comes to cinematic experiences ;) Just saying…
The reason I bring up Evan Almighty is because this Steve Carell comedy is actually chalked full of stunning examples of “psychological framing”; the most quintessential of which is evident during God’s discussion with Evan’s wife about the true meaning behind the Noah’s Ark tale. Allow me to explain:
At this point in the film, Evan’s wife (portrayed by Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls fame) is feeling confused, hurt, abandoned and perhaps most importantly, unacknowledged by Evan because, despite all of the negative repercussions that are coming about as a result of his inexplicable self-proclaimed mission to build an ark, he continues to stride forward. Accordingly, Graham comes to the conclusion that the Noah story is nothing more than the tale of an individual man taking on an individual quest – perhaps because he feels he needs to “prove something”, even if it’s at the detriment of everyone else in his life. God (depicted by Morgan Freeman) however presents a very different analysis.
Given that the crux of the Noah tale revolves around the importance of saving “two” of each species to ensure future propagation, Freeman suggests it’s actually the ultimate love story, rather than one celebrating man’s “independence” or “self-serving” motivations. His character goes on to surmise that the underlying theme above all others is actually the importance of family and companionship.
Okay okay, so how on earth does any of this relate to my work situation? Quite simply, the above depiction demonstrates one of the most basic tenants of “psychological framing”, moreover “psychological maturity”: there’s ALWAYS more than one way of looking at a given situation. I could be totally bummed and feel like a failure that I essentially got a “needs improvement” stamp on my dear-to-my-heart submission that I worked my ass off on OR I could acknowledge that I must have “something” if my employer was willing to take the time to provide constructive feedback so that I can improve upon the idea for future consideration.
What I’m hoping you’ll recognize from this movie critique/academic discourse/Rose’s real life example is just how POWERFUL one’s thought processes truly are. How one is able to react to a given situation is entirely determined by how they’re willing or unwilling to “frame” it.
In Graham’s explanation of the Noah tale, she “thinks” (or frames) herself as helpless (ie: it’s an independent quest in which she has no role) and therefore “becomes” just that (ie: she’s relegated to sitting back and letting her life and family fall apart). In contrast, in Freeman’s version of the story, because companionship and the importance of being supportive toward one’s partner, even if you don’t always get where they’re coming from is emphasized, Graham is able to regain a sense of agency and feel “important” and “essential” to her husband’s mission, even if his reasoning is beyond her.
So here’s the thing: life – it never goes exactly as planned. Even when you’re sure this time, things are failsafe, it’s always a smart move to have a contingency. So while you cannot – as much as you may like to try – control the external elements or individuals around you, you most certainly can take an active role in your own life. That role begins with how you think.
Friday 30 June 2017
Perhaps the second most written about topic, next to love, is time. Our culture abounds with clichés, idiomatic expressions (and song titles!) about the passing of the hour: time after time, third time’s the charm, let’s make up for lost time…the list goes on. The irony of this of course is the fact that few of us are masters at “keeping to the clock” (unless of course the activity in which we’re engaged is a necessary evil such as work!).
Now it goes without saying, we all sometimes need (and more importantly, deserve) a “time out”. Me personally? I relish in “not-showering-staying-in-my-pjs-all-day” kind of days. Undoubtedly, the value of such lies in their infrequency (ie: it’s not exactly like we can afford to relegate ourselves to our flannels whenever we see fit). All of this brings me naturally to the question of “how do YOU spend YOUR time?”
A few months ago, you may remember The Interrobang (this here fantastic student-run publication to which your attention is currently glued) elected to run a readership survey in order to derive valuable feedback in terms of its strong points and suggested areas of improvement. While you, the audience, by and large, ranked our content satisfactorily, it would seem you were displeased with our allowable word counts. In other words, you feel us writers are simply too verbose (myself included)!
Now admittedly when I was pursuing academic studies myself (and believe me I got my fair share after six years straight!), there was only so much written textbook doctrine I could stomach on a daily basis. In order to get through the copious amount of assigned readings each month, I’d pace myself by powering through one to three (at max) chapters a night, taking 30 minute breaks in between to ensure I properly digested the material before moving forward. Given the time I was expected to devote to the written word, there was a LOW likelihood you would find me cracking open a novel just for kicks during my time off. To make a long story short, I do empathize with your situation.
However (and yes you knew this was coming), it’s becoming increasingly difficult to relate to a so-called “lack of time” to engage in thoughtful contemplation and information acquisition -something that could easily be accomplished by reading one of the fine articles in our paper - purported by not just students, but the populous in general, when it would seem that countless hours are devoted to the “art of time suckage” whether it be via following the drama-rama on Facebook, listing your ever-so-exciting grocery shopping experiences on Twitter or being one of the million people addicted to NicePeter’s “Epic Rap Battles of History”.
Again, let me be clear: I don’t have a beef with any of the above nor do I find fault in the concept of “vegging out”. My issue is when the aforementioned activities are PRIORITIZED above meaningful personal or social engagements and then somehow dismissed as “un-time-consuming” when one is struggling to come up with a valid list of excuses as to why their essay was not submitted by the deadline yet again or their work is falling short of expectations. Put more plainly, people – please - get your shit in gear! This of course, is easier for some than others.
As psych research has demonstrated, one of the “Big Five” individual tendencies you’re either born with or without is “conscientiousness”, defined as: “a fundamental personality trait that influences whether people set and keep long-range goals, deliberate over choices or behave impulsively, and take seriously obligations to others,” (Psychology Today: Psych Basics).
Of important note, “conscientiousness” has been positively correlated with a whole range of pro-social behaviours and desirable life outcomes including: academic and/or occupational excellence, longevity of life and overall strong health, marital stability, diminished or lack of substance use, stable mental condition and lower incidence of criminal activity (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; Journal of Personality; Psychological Bulletin). Suffice it to say, time management pays off!
Just because you inherited your parents’ “walk on the impulsive” side of life attributes however doesn’t mean you’re justified in being ripe with constant excuses. Conscientiousness can be learned and instilled in your routine, but first it’s a matter of identifying the wormholes in your world.
With this in mind, this month’s advice transverses beyond simple “written instruction” to “active participation”: I urge all of you caught up in the “there’s never enough time” mentality to track your time allotment of each of your daily activities in a journal for a period of one month (ie: Mon: 8 hours sleep, 2 hours studying, 1 hour for dinner and tv, Tues: 6 hours sleep, 5 hours doing homework etc).
Following the month’s end, review the areas to which you’ve devoted the most hours and see where adjustments can be made. I assure you you’ll be surprised with just how much more “productive” time you’ll be able to find by cutting out (or least cutting down) the hours you “waste” on activities that, in essence, don’t propel you further in any capacity.
Ah but therein lies the rub: if you have no goals toward which you’re working, time proves irrelevant and… unlimited. I’m gonna hazard a guess though that as fellow academics (that are likely studying to pursue career dreams) the previous statement fails to apply.
Tuesday 30 May 2017
A couple of years ago, my significant other and I were making our initial “introductory rounds” (ie: meeting each other’s family for the first time) and decided, while we were in the neighbourhood, to drop in on one of his couples friends. While the pair was/is lovely and we got along just swimmingly, there’s no lighter way to phrase it: I was appalled by the state in which they kept their living quarters.
In their defense, I will say they were not expecting our company. However, I could not then and still cannot now understand how anyone could possibly tolerate living with clearly visible dirt and debris. The icing on the cake was the fact that their house had seen such neglect from upkeep that one of their children’s pets – a goldfish – was floating bellyside up in a fish bowl, apparently unbeknownst to them.
After this incident, it began to come to my attention just how UNcommon this situation among our demographic is. The more I got invited over to my own friends’ houses, the more I realized that tidiness does not seem to be a universally embraced ideal.
At the risk of sounding like a germaphobe, admittedly I was and continue to be shocked by this notion given that I’m frankly embarrassed to invite over company if my home has not been cleaned the week of. Furthermore if my mom, for instance, is coming to town, I will clean every inch of my apartment so thoroughly that it’d be fit for the arrival of the Queen herself and should she so choose, she could eat off the floors without any fear of adverse physical reaction!
Aside from the obvious health benefits to living in a “dust bunny”-free environment, how one maintains or fails to maintain one’s personal habitat will affect how others view your character and even your sense of morality! Did you know, for example, that the original Oxford English Dictionary definition of the term “slut” was “a slovenly, untidy woman or girl”?
According to environmental psychologist Sally Augustin, “cleanliness”, throughout our evolutionary history, was considered a valued trait given that a home free of clutter would make it easier to spot potential predator attacks. While this benefit may no longer be applicable in modern society, it does have an unconscious psychological holdover: when one enters a messy living space – whether it’s their own or you’re a visitor – it results in enhanced stress levels.
A lack of upkeep in regard to one’s physicality and/or the physical spaces he/she occupies too has been linked to the mood disorder depression. Among other symptoms, depression has been known to have a debilitating effect on many of one’s motivations. With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that counsellors often recommend “cleaning house” as a means of elevating one’s mood. After all, the messier one’s house gets, the more it adds to one’s guilt and merely continues the cycle of “not-good-enough-ness”.
As Jennifer B. Baxt explains, “taking the time to clean the home from top to bottom is like cleaning [out] one's life. The dirt, dust and clutter are done away with and the house has a fresher, more comfortable atmosphere that the person can feel happier and more relaxed in.”
To this, Ayanna Guyhto adds that it’s the whole concept of “Idle Hands, Idle Mind”: “by remaining sedentary, it gives your brain too much time to focus on the things that are bothering you. By getting up and focusing your attention on household tasks, you give yourself a mental diversion.”
Let’s just stop there for a second however to make one point very clear: it’s highly unreasonable to suggest (and by no means am I suggesting!) that EVERY individual who seemingly is not too concerned with the condition of their home is suffering from the “Big D”. Clearly there must be something else here at play. Wouldn’t you know it? Psychology again proves illustrative.
Believe it or not laziness is a modern “invention”, largely due to the comforts (and excesses!) of Western industrialized living. Despite our incessant complaints and excuses which would suggest otherwise, apparently we do have TOO much time on our hands and this, in effect results in the rearing of laziness’ ugly twin brother’s head: procrastination.
As evolutionary psychologist Nando Pelusi points out, it wasn’t until we no longer had to worry about constantly fending off predators, protecting our kin or surviving off of scarce resources that we had the “luxury” of dreaming of future actions. In the past, we held our energy in reserve because we never knew when an immediate threat may be looming. Nowadays, all that energy has the ability to build up, tricking us into believing (at least on an unconscious level) that there will always be more time to “get around to things.”
Given the multitude of distractions available to occupy our time – the Facebooks, Twitters, and Youtubes of the world, for starters – it isn’t hard to see why so many of us have lost sight of how to properly “prioritize”…but more on that in another issue.
The point I’m trying to get at is quite simply: while “cleanliness” may not necessarily be next to “godliness”, it certainly is linked to “goodliness”…on many levels. In other words, my “neat-freakness” is indicative of the fact I take great pride in appearances, value the idea of hospitality, see my home as a reflection of my own work ethic, and perhaps most importantly that I am within a balanced mental state. So I ask you all to ask yourselves, “what does YOUR home say about YOU?” Is it time for yet more introspection? Methinks so.
Sunday 30 April 2017
I’m 28 years old and yes, I still sleep with my favourite childhood stuffed animal. By no means do I consider myself a materialist – I still wear some of my old highschool threads from many moons ago (yay for me, they still fit!) and use a hairdryer I inherited from the 1970s (hey if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it right?!) – but, for all of us, there are certain worldly possessions that take on deeper meanings than their tangible properties. So is the case with my nighttime companion; we have after all been through a lot together.
He’s comforted me when I was down in the dumps and I’ve stitched him back together more than once due to my older brother’s plots to wreak havoc! In fact, I still bring the little guy with me every time I travel. To be perfectly honest, I just don’t sleep the same way without him.
I often joke he’s been the most “consistent” man in my life. While partners have come and gone, this toy has been with me through both my triumphs and struggles, never judging and only offering support throughout this journey we call life. In sum, believe it or not, this feisty rocker turned writer’s most prized possession is a worn (I prefer to think “well-loved”) discoloured misshapen green frog who simply goes by the name of Captain.
First toys, cars, kisses – well first “anythings” in life really – seem to stick with us. Perhaps this is in part due to the “primacy effect” (ie: a trend in learning noted by psychologists in which individuals have a tendency to, when presented with material in a list/series, recall or place significance on the first item), but I also think it has a lot to do with personal identity development/expression as exercised by “choice”. Beyond the people with whom we choose to surround ourselves (ie: you are who you hang with), the possessions we ultimately choose to acquire, too, represent, in part, how we wish to be seen and identified.
Think about it. Unlike a good majority of kids out there, it wasn’t a Barbie doll, a toy truck or perhaps most commonly a stuffed bear that defined me as a child. Instead, it was a frog.
Frogs in their animal form are colourful, slippery and fast and they travel by impressively propelling themselves through the air (ie: jumping). If we came up with human personality equivalents for those traits, we’d get an individual who was “loud” (as in both volume and presence), hard to pin down/fit into a box, witty and highly self-motivated. In other words, even if I couldn’t describe myself in said fashion as a little girl, my childhood stuffed animal choice very much demonstrates that I knew early on I would never be content with blending in with the crowd. How I came to have Captain in my life is equally an illustrative tale, but we’ll leave that one for another time ;)
So where am I going with this disclosure from my personal life anyhow? Well, I merely wanted to set up a dichotomy when it comes to the concept of “materialism”. In other words, when does the accumulation and retention of goods leave the realm of “healthy nostalgia”/”personal expression” and border on the pathological? Allow me to provide you with another example for comparative purposes.
I recently took up a part-time role as the administrator for a business wherein I was replacing an elderly lady who had committed herself to said organization for 30+ years. Now this is no insult to her or her abilities, but what I inherited in terms of office files, supplies and documents can only be described as frighteningly overwhelming. Truly it’s as though she NEVER and I mean NEVER threw out anything in the whole time period she worked there.
I understand it’s one thing to hold onto important membership, financial or construction-related files as you never know when you may need to reference them again in the future. THAT PART I GET. What I CANNOT come to terms with however is why she felt it necessary to hold onto the scrap pieces of waste paper from which you peel off mailing labels, knitting patterns from the 1960s, instruction manuals for DOS discs and typewriters, out-of-date volunteer schedules and mail-order catalogs, burnt out lightbulbs, used plastic food trays, and at least two decade-year-old sugar and other condiment packets that would no doubt cause serious poisoning upon ingestion…that is unless she had an issue when it comes to letting things go.
With shows such as Buried Alive, the above described compulsive behaviour known as “hoarding” has seen a great deal of exposure in recent years. With any “TV land” depiction however, the complexity of this psychological condition is typically only characterized in superficial terms leading the general public to believe that, in Jason Elias’, Behaviour Therapist, point of view, “these people are just slobs or lazy.” In reality, this perception couldn’t be further from the truth.
From an evolutionary stance, the impulse to amass goods can be traced to both our survivalist instincts and believe it or not… our mating practises. As Biologist Tom Waite explains, in the animal kingdom, many species will “hoard” excessive amounts of food in preparation for “survival” over the winter months or long journeys. In reference to the second point, male animals, in particular, also commonly “collect” and display their “various accomplishments” (ie: the carcasses of prey they’ve successfully conquered, among other things) in order to attract desirable female mates for the purposes of prolonging their kin (again a survivalist instinct). In summary, the amassment of food, carcasses and the like – in other words, “hoarding” - is effective in attracting mates (which is directly linked to survival) because it demonstrates that the given animal is strong and smart, but more importantly, a good candidate for “providing” and/or “leading”. Wouldn’t you know it? Humans desire the same traits in their romantic partners!
Let’s return to my administrative predecessor for a moment. One thing I’d specifically like to draw your attention to is her age. Now, obsessive-compulsive behaviours can affect any and all demographics (they commonly run in families), but something to keep in mind when it comes to older folks seemingly affected by this disorder is that many of them likely lived through extremely trying economic times, such as The Great Depression. Why is this important? Well, quite simply, if you experienced having NOTHING, EVERYTHING becomes essential and worth holding onto, especially if you develop a paranoia that circumstances could revert back to how they were.
The next point worth mentioning is that throughout my training with this woman, there was not a single moment where she made small-talk references to a husband, family or children. When someone occupies a space for that long a period of time, they typically have personal mementos visibly on display to complement the room; interestingly, there were NONE. While she may have just been a very private person, another convincing theory is that this career – her work – was literally all she had and the only way she was able to “define”/”express” her identity. Consequently, she took great pride in what she did and again EVERYTHING, including the everyday minutia, became significant and was worth keeping.
Psychologists have noted that hoarding tends to coexist with a “profound inability to make decisions” (Discover Magazine) and may even be linked to other afflictions such as depression, which is recognized as having debilitating effects on an individual’s motivation. Why my predecessor couldn’t throw anything out I’ll never know for certain, but scientists agree that this behaviour in humans is “a natural and adaptive instinct gone amok,” (Discover Magazine) to put it lightly.
As Christmas has just passed and no doubt, in line with the season’s modern day practice, all of you were showered with more and more “stuff” as per the requests on your wish lists, I think it’s important that you ask yourselves the following questions:
1) Why did I want these items?
2) What do these items mean to me?
3) How do these items define me?
4) Could I live without these items?
While I’m not making the insinuation that any of you suffer from the above discussed psychological dilemma, I believe it’s important to understand and assess your desire for material things. While we’re all allow to splurge once and awhile, the psychologically mature/psychologically-balanced can effectively distinguish between their needs and wants as well as the significant and insignificant. In other words, just as the saying goes when it comes to true friends, you should be able count the most important items in your life on one hand.