Self-acceptance in nine words

This week has been a big one for me and my Life Well Lived project. On Tuesday I pressed “Publish” on my first podcast interview, with Jessica Robson of Run Talk Run.

A couple of days later I was sitting down to talk with another inspirational female runner.

Sinead Kane may be blind, but she hasn’t allowed that to prevent her from making a phenomenal impact on the world.

In the interview, Sinead was full of wisdom and drive and determination and an intense desire to make a difference, to change things for the better.

But perhaps one of the most powerful things she said was simply:

Self-acceptance is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

There will be a new podcast interview every Tuesday, and my interview with Sinead will go live soon.

If you’d like to have every episode download straight to your player, please subscribe to the Life Well Lived Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d just like to check out the first interview, you can find that over on my Life Well Lived Podcast page.

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Jour sans

Last weekend I made the short trip from my home to Kells for some of the events of Tailteann, a festival of sports and sport-writing put on by the organisers of the summer’s Hinterland literary festival in the town.

The weekend’s final event and the best attended was an interview with Paul Kimmage, one of my favourite sportswriters and, as the interviewer Myles Dungan remarked, not just one of Ireland’s best sportswriters, but one of the best at work anywhere in the world.

I have read so much of Kimmage’s work over the past 25 years, but one gap on my reading was Full Time, his ghostwritten autobiography of former Ireland international soccer player Tony Cascarino, published shortly after his retirement in 2000.

“Cas” was well-loved during 15 years as an Ireland player but not well-known, and the book addressed that. It is widely regarded to be one of the best sporting autobiographies ever published, no mean feat for a player whose moves to big clubs (Celtic, Aston Villa and Chelsea) all ended in some ignominy.

He experienced a late career revival in France, where he played for Marseille and Nancy, and one passage, during a spell when he hated the game, hated everything it meant, hated even being Tony Cascarino, contains a reference to a jour sans.

A jour sans — literally translated as a “day without” — has no direct English translation. It could be translated as “a day to forget” or an “off day”.

Jour sans is also an occasional descriptor in the field of pro cycling (Kimmage’s ground in his own sporting career), where it’s understood that no matter how powerful you are, a day when the strength and energy are not there is always a possibility just around the corner.

The French have a way with philosophy, even in their everyday idioms.

When things are not stacking up, when the cogs are grinding, when the wheels are spinning and we can’t seem to generate any momentum, perhaps at some point we might be better off just easing off a little, to prepare ourselves better for better days ahead, and put this one down to a jour sans.

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Oasis B-sides, memory and the synapses of the brain

As I was got into the car to set off for the day at shortly after 6.30am the other morning, I idly flicked on the radio.

I’m not a regular radio listener, not any more. These days I’m more a hummingbird type, hovering and flitting until I find a bit of nectar to sustain for another while, before flitting away to somewhere else, somewhere new.

(When I write this now, I realise I probably have this hummingbird habit in a lot of ways, not just my radio listening.)

The car radio was set to Today FM and the Vampire Weekend song, “White Sky”, was playing. It was pleasant and upbeat and had the effect of increasing a little bloodflow and generating a little optimism, but while the melody was enjoyable, it didn’t run deep. That song might mean the world to someone else, but overall, it triggered no emotional responses in me and meant nothing more than an enjoyable 3-minute diversion.

When it ended and the presenter started with the between songs high-energy-nonsense-chatter (the thing that most makes me flick from station to station is high-energy-nonsense-chatter), I changed the dial.

RTE Radio 1 was next up. Rising Time, the early morning music, short news updates and gentle chat — it’s gratifyingly low on the high-energy-nonsense-chatter scale — has been an occasional companion to me for 20 years or so.

I first listened to Rising Time in, I think, the early 2000s when I was bus commuting to Dublin every day for college and work, and when Maxi presented.

(Short aside on Maxi: For much of my late teens and 20s, it felt like my sleep habits were moulded around wherever Maxi was on the radio schedule. For a number of years Maxi presented Rising Time from 5.30am. For several other years, she was on duty on Late Date, the show that started after 11pm at night and went through until 2 in the morning.

I remember several mornings and several late nights when I was ready by the radio from the start of Maxi’s show, won over by the gentleness of her voice and the music choices that often surprised and usually delighted and by the sense of unseen community around the show — these were days before the community-everywhere Facebook age — as Maxi read text messages from Joe on the night-shift in Ennis, or Patricia who’s driving across the midlands with the radio as company.

It’s seven or eight years since Maxi was forced to retire due to battles with severe exhaustion, no doubt brought on at least in part by the burn-at-both-ends time-slots of her shows. I realise now that Maxi created a space of calm for me during early adult years when internal calm and a sense of who I was were both elusive to me. I greatly miss her voice and her music choices and the space she created.)

Anyway, back to the other morning.

The song playing when I flicked on to Rising Time I recognised instantly as Oasis.

Whereas many of Oasis’ big hits were of the rockstar mode, heavy guitars and confrontational lyrics variety, they have a number of songs that are gentler, mellower and much deeper.

The beauty of Oasis’ B-sides

“The Masterplan” is one of those. It was a B-side on the single of “Wonderwall”, probably still their most famous song. In the shadow of “Wonderwall”, it was easy to miss “The Masterplan”, but its appeal grew and grew over time. Indeed, Noel Gallagher has said it is one of the best songs he has ever written and later regretted its B-side release.

The song playing on Rising Time was “Half the World Away”, another of Oasis’ initially overlooked B-sides (it was released on the “Whatever” single in 1994).

Music has the ability to transport us to a different time and place and set of emotions. Music has the ability to send us half the world away, and half a life back in time.

“Half the World Away” had that effect on me.

It inveigled its way through my senses and into the synapses of my brain, bringing several happy memories and nostalgia-laden emotions streaming back to the forefront of my mind.

The first was that it was Oasis itself. During the mid-1990s I loved the so-called Britpop revival, led by the likes of Oasis and Blur. (Indeed, for a while the pressure was on to choose which camp you were in. I loved Oasis but I also loved Blur. They were both unique and appealing and wonderful in different ways, a new joy to me after several years of early 90s trance and dance and rave. I was three months short of my 18th birthday when I went to see REM at Slane, and left having enjoyed Michael Stipe and Co but having been completely won over by the support act, Oasis. Hearing Oasis again the other morning, at 41 and a bit years of age, I was transported back to my late teens and early 20s when everything was confusing but everything was possible.

The second memory/emotion that “Half the World Away” brought to me was The Royle Family. The song was the theme song for the BBC sitcom, which first arrived on our screens 20 years ago this year (1998).

Like Oasis at Slane in 1995, I was immediately won over by Jim and Barb and Denise and Dave and Antony and everyone else. The Royle Family made you laugh but it made you laugh by what was true as much as what was funny. While they were in Manchester, UK and I was in Navan, Ireland, I recognised everything about their existence, and I guess that was the root of its appeal — because their existence was almost universal across vast swatches of suburban and provincial and small-town and housing estate UK and Ireland, the setting where so many of us lived and breathed.

All those memories and emotions — happy, sad, bittersweet, nostalgic — cascaded over me in the first five seconds of hearing “Half the World Away”.

Music and the senses

Music can do that to us. Music gets into our senses and rushes through the synapses in our brain, bringing to the surface stuff from deep in our past that we might be unable to surface on our own.

The music that does that to me will be different to the music that does it to you, but that’s the beauty of life and living, that the differences are in our own minute, individual, unique experiences, and how where we are and what we’re doing at a certain point of time can be recalled in all its glorious, emotional detail 20 years later when we’re driving our car and we hear the first bars of a song we once loved.

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Technology and Distraction – The Third Paradox of Life and Living in 2018

The 21st century is characterised by unprecedented technology and distraction and opportunity. Our challenge right now is to take advantage of the omnipresent opportunities while lifting ourselves above the omnipresent noise.

This is the third in a short series of articles about the paradoxes of life and living in a first-world, developed country in 2018. You can find all articles in this Paradoxes of Life and Living series here.

Paradox 3: Technology presents us with unprecedented opportunities, but also with unprecedented distraction

Between 2004 and 2007, all of these things happened.

Technology has changed the way we do everything. The app economy has tipped entire industries on their head – from travel to entertainment, media to health, shopping groceries to shopping luxuries, the way we do so many things now is completely different to the way we did it 10 or 20 years ago.

Institutions were built on the old way, which existed largely unchanged for years, in some cases decades, in the case of newspapers almost two centuries.

Unable to adapt quickly to the relentless pace of change, many institutions and ways of working have crumbled.

Children now are still studying for qualifications that will allow them to do jobs that will not exist in 10 or 15 years time.

If nature abhors a vacuum, so does economics, and new players, new business models, new ways of working have stepped in to fill the gap.

Technology is the common denominator in all this change.

The opportunities presented by technology are endless. In effect, with just a laptop, and maybe even just with a mobile phone in our pocket, we can work from almost anywhere we want and find clients almost anywhere in the world. It creates a global competitiveness that drives standards and efficiencies ever higher and higher and higher.

I remember, when my wife and I were opening our bookshop three years ago (an ill-fated project, but nothing ventured, nothing gained and absolutely no regrets) remarking that no longer could we compare ourselves against the bookshop in the next town or even up the road in Dublin; we had to compare ourselves against the best bookshops in the world, and strive to create an experience that could be compared favourably against the best anywhere.

Technology, the ready availability of comparison by way of the Internet, drove that mentality, and it drives that mentality in countless ways in every industry.

In many ways that is a great thing. Inefficiencies are good for neither human morale or bottom-line profitability.

Technology and distraction: Finding focus in the noise

But to maximise those efficiencies, to get the best out of ourselves and everything around us, we need to find focus. We need to find a place where we can concentrate fully on a difficult task for long enough to crack the nut.

And technology, the very thing that creates the opportunities, also makes it fiendishly hard to find the focus required.

The distractions created by technology are endless.

There is more noise than ever before.

Where once we had 9 to 5 jobs and our evenings and weekends were our own, now our companies are spread across multiple timezones, expanding the workday to closer to 24 hours than seven or eight. Facebook allows almost everyone to broadcast to almost everyone else in real time. We are buzzed incessantly with notification after notification after notification, our email inboxes are virtually bursting at the seams, and any idle time spent on social media will alert us to a dozen possibilities that tantalise our senses.

Is it any wonder that our attention spans are so fraught?

Is it any wonder that we find it a struggle to find the focus to create the work that will add the most value?

Our challenge is to find a way to take advantage of the opportunities this new world presents, while at the same time lifting ourselves up and away from the noise and distraction that are everywhere in this new world.

It’s not an easy challenge to overcome, but it’s an essential that we try and try and try and never give up trying.

Agreeableness and amiability

I started my TEDx talk about depression and happiness last year by saying, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved words.”

Words fascinate me endlessly. Not just in their shape and meaning, but also in their different uses and interpretations.

In reading about the so-called “Big Five” personality traits over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “agreeable”, about what it is, what it means and what effect agreeableness can have on us.

Agreeableness is one of the Big Five (the others are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion and neutoricism).

Psychologists established a consensus a number of years ago that measures across these five attributes offer an acceptable understanding of individual personality.

(Agreeableness, it turns out, is present in higher amounts in women rather than men. There is also a correlation between agreeableness and lower pay; people who are more agreeable generally have lower incomes than people who are not. There are a multitude of factors at play in the gender pay gap, and agreeableness is just one of those. It is also proven that men with a high degree of agreeableness earn less than men who are less agreeable.)

So while something being agreeable to us is usually a very good thing indeed — a hearty winter soup might be perfectly agreeable, in the sense that it’s enjoyable and pleasing — when we ourselves are more agreeable, it is often not a very good thing for us.

Being more agreeable tends, in many cases, to a lesser drive for excellence, to more acceptance of mediocrity and to less interpersonal conflict.

Few people enjoy interpersonal conflict, but interpersonal conflict is often required for things to progress satisfactorily for the greater good.

So being agreeable can be detrimental, not just for ourselves as individuals, but for our community as a whole.

Amiability is different to agreeableness.

Amiability is defined as friendly, affable, cordial and gracious. So we can be amiable without being fully agreeable when the need for disagreement arises.

Amiability, or being cordial and polite, being a decent human in our human exchanges, is always, always, always a good thing.

But agreeableness is often not a good thing. We can identify when we’re being agreeable for the sake of being agreeable, when we’re being agreeable in order to please. And when we do, we can check ourselves and take a different tack.

Committing to being amiable but guarding ourselves against our own agreeableness could be a productive approach. For the betterment not just of ourselves and everyone around us.

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Happiness – the second paradox of life and living in 2018

Yesterday I published the first in this short series of paradoxes of life and living in 2018. Today is the second instalment in this series.

Paradox 2: People’s lives have never been better, and yet there has never been so much happiness

The focus in this statement is, of course, mostly on the so-called western world: Europe, North America, Australasia.

But even elsewhere, and even with all the heartache and horror that’s going on right now in Syria and Yemen and Afghanistan and Somalia, and even with the threats to the environment, there is no doubt life  has never been better for the vast majority of humanity.

This is true in the context of our most basic needs of warmth and food and shelter.

It is true also loftier measures such as freedom and income and standards of living. Life expectancy continues to rise, and extreme poverty has been halved, and most people in most countries have more freedom now, and more money with which to enjoy that freedom, than ever before.

And yet for whatever reason, there seems to be a crisis of happiness in the world.

Antidepressant prescriptions in the UK more than doubled in the ten years to 2016, to a staggering 64.7 prescriptions — effectively more than one for every person in the country.

With the average antidepressant prescription per person per year hovering around the seven mark, that means an estimate of 9 million people in the UK taking antidepressant drugs. Bear in mind that the population of 15-year-olds and upwards in the UK is 54 million, so that’s about one in six people aged 15 and up taking antidepressants.

There is debate about whether this increase is a good or a bad thing (good: more people seeking and receiving help rather than holding their problems within; bad: skyrocketing numbers of people receiving medical treatment, and all the costs and potential side-effects that it brings).

But what can’t be denied is this.

In general, our lives have never been better, and in general, we have never been unhappier.

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Five paradoxes of life and living: Black, white and grey

The more I think about how to live a life well lived, how to be our best selves both out in the world and inside our own head, the more I realise that life is full of paradoxes and conflicts.

Over the next week or so I will present five short paradoxes of life and living in 2018.

Paradox 1: The more certain and unambiguous our opinions, the further we get from the truth

In 2018 the world is drifting towards extremes.

Polarisation of opinion seems everywhere.

There is the Trump election despite a 46-48 loss in the popular vote. There is Brexit’s 52-48. There is marriage equality and abortion in Ireland (62-37 and 66-33 respectively), which saw Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times recently describe Ireland as having become a “two-thirds/one-third society: two-thirds broadly happy with liberal values and inclusiveness but one-third deeply unhappy with the way Ireland has changed”.

It seems that wherever we turn we hear someone who has certainty in their opinions.

Certainty of opinion, though, creates a fixed mindset, a closed worldview.

When we become resolute and unchangeable in our worldview, that’s the time to start asking questions.

This is not the same as doubt. Doubt can be pernicious and demotivating, but doubt comes from fear about the future, fear about the way things will turn out. Instead, thinking about the future as one of possibility rather than danger compels us to question the way things are and the way they can be.

Questioning invariably returns complexity. Things are complex. Real life is messy. Real life is never black or white.

The drift towards seeing everything as black or white ignores the fact that everything is actually a million shades of grey.

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The words we use, and how we use them

Talk is cheap, as they say.

What I've come to realise is not just how cheap talk is, and it can be very cheap, but how inadequate it is, too.

The trivial consequence: How often have you thought of the perfect retort ... hours after the opportunity came to actually say it?

The serious consequence: Incoherence and confusion are everywhere in life, and imprecise speech is usually the common denominator.

The words we use

The words we use are important and powerful, but words spoken typically bring about more confusion than clarity, or more hurt than inspiration.

Inspiration, when it comes, arrives by way of a lot more than mere words. Inspiration comes from charisma, it comes from body language, it comes from the electrical charge of the sentiments and honesty and humility and confidence behind the words much more than the mere words themselves.

It's often said that about the best public speakers, that their audience will forget all about what the speaker said, but remember forever how s/he made them feel.

Public speaking, then, is much more than the words spoken.

And the best words spoken are often first the best words written.

Leaving them that way (written, not spoken) might be the surest bet to getting your message across.

That brings a different challenge, of course. The challenge brought about by the collapse in human attention spans, by the proliferation of promotional marketing, by email fatigue and by the way we now surface-scan rather than deep-read.

But still, if clarity is a requirement, it's hard to beat a few words carefully chosen and written down.

(P.S. Because speech is so inadequate, so many work meetings are less than worthless, wasting precious time where instead of random talk, and all the incoherence and confusion it brings, people could be creating and contributing.)

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Work-related stress and the future

The news loves reports. A ready-made headline, of a 27% rise in this or a 42% fall in that, or one in three teenagers doing one thing or four in five pensioners doing the other.

I tend to take such stuff with a pinch of salt, knowing that there are often two beneficiaries of surveys and reports, and they are the media organisation with the space to fill and the marketing organisation with the thing to sell.

Still, I did pay attention when the report about skyrocketing work-related stress in Ireland crossed my gaze in the radio news bulletins first thing this morning.

The Economic and Social Research Institute reported that the figures more than doubled from 8% of the workforce in 2010 to 17% in 2015.

Among the stark figures were:

  • The Irish figure of 17% was still lower than the 19% average across Europe (based on data from the European Working Conditions Survey carried out in 2010 and 2015)
  • Workers faced with emotional demands (dealing with angry customers, or being forced to hide their feelings) were 21 times more likely to suffer stress than those who were not
  • Only 40% of Irish companies have policies in place to address workplace stress

The health implications of stress include cardio-vascular disease and depression. (I can’t say I developed any cardio-vascular disease, but I had several doses of heavy depression during my time in 9-to-well-after-5 roles.)

Other consequences of work stress, the report say, include absenteeism, increased job turnover and reduced morale. (I definitely saw all of those at close quarters too.)

The problem of work-related stress is not just created by the employer

The problem is not all on the side of employers or management, although they should definitely shoulder their share of the responsibility for fixing it.

I was an employee during that timeframe, and I was stressed to my eyeballs on plenty of days, but I don’t think I ever even considered suggesting it with any of my employers.

Why that might have been, I can’t say for sure. It could be that the avenues to facilitate such a discussion either did not exist or were not well advertised.

It could also be that I was just very fearful of being judged as weak or incompetent. Sucking it up and getting on with the tasks in hand seemed like the only option, even if the task list only ever expanded.

What I do know now is that I was not weak or incompetent, and I also know now that so many people were experiencing similar feelings and, like me, chose to keep those feelings to themselves.

Technology and stress

Technology also plays a significant role. The smartphone arrived with the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad followed in 2010, bringing with them the almost-always-on email inbox, which was liable to buzz with new work messages at all hours of the day and night.

In addition, increasingly distributed or remote workforces means many more companies now operate on a 16- or 18-hour workdays spread across multiple timezones.

The one certainty about all this is that it will take a combination of imaginative leadership, robust processes, engaged employees and, ideally, businesses with a mission above and beyond bare profit to reduce work-related stress for everyone. (It will definitely take more than a few fruit baskets and an office beer-keg…)

Reworking the definition of happiness

I sometimes think that the biggest obstacle to achieving happiness is that so many of us really, really, really don’t know what it actually is.

On Sunday, I read an article in Ireland’s Sunday Independent.

(Note to self: Stop reading newspapers, Shane. You know you’re happier when you give them a wide berth. From letter pages to columnists to editorials, they’re cover-to-cover complaints, and add so little value to your life, and bring your mood level down several notches quicker than almost anything else. If something is important enough, you will hear about it. Otherwise, just stop buying papers. It will help you save time, save money and be happier.)

Anyway, the Sunday Independent included a full-page broadsheet spread telling us how to survive spending time with toxic family members this Christmas. (For reference only, here’s the link. I’m not suggesting you read it.)

One of the pieces of advice was:

Aim for connection, not happiness

Don’t look for constant happiness — it can be superficial and you’re not going to get it. Instead look for shared connections and an understanding of one another. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, loves, losses?

That’s what would be really fulfilling. Not forced joviality — but real connection and belonging.

This one almost made me throw the newspaper across the room.

What it seems to be saying is that looking for joviality is required for a state of happiness, or even that happiness and “forced joviality” are one and the same thing.

In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the definition of happiness; about the way we think of happiness.

I hear people say things like this all the time:

I don’t want to be happy. I don’t want to be satisfied.

As if happiness is lying in a hammock in Bali, sipping cocktails and contributing nothing to the world.

It’s not.

The absence of peace of mind is unhappiness. So for me, happiness could be defined as peace of mind in the moment.

Happiness is not joy, although joy is part of happiness.

Happiness is also love, starting with love of self, which for so many of us is the hardest bit about love.

Happiness is also grief, because for true grief there must be true love, and true love is essential to happiness.

Happiness is also contribution and giving.

Happiness is also living well, living intentionally, living purposefully.

Happiness is being present and accepting ourselves right now, and also trying to do something that will make us a little better tomorrow.

Happiness is a lot of things.

But forced joviality and having no room for negative emotions? That couldn’t be further from the truth.

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