Gone but not forgotten…


…just for a while anyway. Oh, hey there. Can’t believe you are still stopping by, especially since I’ve been rather neglectful of my little blog.

It’s not laziness, you understand. Quite the opposite. You may know that I am in the middle of studying for a Masters degree in Occupational Psychology. What with that and my job and the kids, life has been pretty busy. So, I just wanted to put a sort of placeholder in to say I’m still here, well, not here, but around, and I haven’t forgotten. I just have a new outlet for my writing, one that includes a bit more talk of “procedures”, “dual encoding”, and “heads up visual display unit” than I care for. But, it’s a means to an end. And if anyone wants to employee a trainee Occupational Psychologist, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be a thumpin’ good’n…

So my lovelies, until a less manic time, hasta la vista, baby. I’ll be back. And so should you.

Hypothesis testing and how to remember the difference between a Type I and Type II error

If you are doing research in the social sciences, or even if you’re not but like a bit of geek-based Indie music then this post is for you. If neither of those apply then I will forgive you for not reading the rest of this post (though it is worth checking out the very bad but catchy song at the end!), but in an effort to maintain my love of blogging along with my Masters Degree I am going to try and post a bit more psychology related stuff. Unfortunately for all my current module is statistics and research methods, so that is today’s topic.

A quick summary for those who don’t know, when we perform research in psychology we use a method called hypothesis testing, where we set a null and alternate hypotheses. The alternative hypothesis is always our prediction that there will be an effect of what we are measuring. The null hypothesis is always that there is no effect, and basically we are testing the assumption that there is no effect or difference in what we are measuring. Let’s give an example; I think doing crochet is more relaxing than watching football. I could design an experiment where I had a group of people watch football for an hour and a group of people do crochet for an hour, and then I could give them a test that measures relaxation and see if there is a difference. Now, this is an experiment at it’s simplest level, and there are many potential problems with it, feel free to comment on what they are, think of it as a crash course in Research Methods! Anyway, for that experiment our null hypothesis is “there is no difference in the level of relaxation attained by watching football or by doing crochet”, and the alternative would be “doing crochet makes you more relaxed than watching football”.

The reason we have the null is that we can never prove anything with statistics, we can only reject the null which supports our alternative hypothesis. We calculate the probability of our observation occurring if the null hypothesis is true, that is, what are the chances of getting this effect if there is really no difference in the things we are measure. This method is actually often criticised, as in real life if we take two measures of anything there is almost never no difference between them. We still do it this way though, but it highlights the importance in understanding the mechanisms underlying statistics and not just blindly accepting numbers that a computer spits out.

So, in psychology we determine the probability of obtaining a result at least as big as the one we obtained if the null hypothesis is true and use that to decide if we have a significant effect of not. We use the figure p=.05 as our cut off. Basically, if the statistics say there is a less than 5% chance of getting our observation if there is no effect we are comfortable enough to say “yep, guys, we have a significant effect here”. So if in our experiment above our p value for the differences between our groups (as calculated by a delightful programme called SPSS) is .02 it is basically saying “Look, if there really was no difference between the two groups you’ve got 2% chance of getting this result; that’s pretty low so probably there is a significant difference – reject the null hypothesis, reject I say!”. Anything up to 5% and we are comfortable that the difference is significant (yes, that figure is pretty arbitrary, and yes, there are many things wrong with it. What is the p value was 0.056? Well, it would be classed as non-significant for most academic journals).

However, even with our 5% p value there is still obviously 5% chance we could get our observation that makes it look like crochet is more relaxing than football, when really it isn’t. Maybe we just managed to find for our study the few people in the world who find crochet really relaxing, but the majority don’t. This idea that we might falsely reject the null hypothesis is called a Type I error. Or course, we may have got results that exceed our hallowed %5 probability thus causing us to accept the null hypothesis as true, there is no difference between the relaxing properties of crochet and football, when in fact there is a difference, we just didn’t pick it up in our study (maybe we didn’t look at enough people, or we didn’t make them do enough crochet…). This failure to reject the null hypothesis is known as a Type II error.

Now, why are these things important? Well mainly because I have an exam on such notions in a couple of weeks…but really because this is the basis of all social science research. Why am I writing a blog post on this? Well, those of you who have read and understood this probably already know it anyway from a basic research methods course. If you didn’t already know it then you can’t possibly have any reason to need to know it so I am impressed you persevered this far!m(Or maybe you are a student who does need to know but hasn’t understood it from your course, nor discovered a decent stats book like Discovering Statistics Using SPSS -seriously, this is a cracking stats book). Anyway, typing this all up has been great revision for me, which is mainly why I did it, and, well it’s my blog and I can write what I like! But what I really wanted to share was an “oh so bad it’s really good” song which someone, in the crusade to remember which way round Type I and Type II errors are, has written. Trying to remember which is why is a real pain, even after all these years (I first learned this stuff at A level) and is clearly an issue that plagues students the world over. For those who can’t make out the lyrics they are as follows:

If the null is zero
And it’s really zero
But you think it’s bull
And reject the null
Type I

If the null is zero
And it’s really not
And you accept the null
That’s off the spot
Type II

Isn’t it ace? I’m going to be singing this in my exam next month!

If you can cope with bringing up kids, anything else is easy in comparison

I’ve been working at my MSc Occupational Psychology for nearly 6 months now, and it is hard, but actually easier than I thought it was going to be. On my course I am the only student to have children, and I have received nice comments like “when I am struggling to fit it all in I think if Dilly can do it with 2 kids then I can do it” but in actual fact I really believe that being a mother of young children has helped me manage this course, for the following reasons:

I already have no life
Some of my student friends are struggling to fit studying in with all they things they usually do in their free time, and the endless weddings and hen nights that take up the weekends of those of a certain age. Maybe it’s not even age, I don’t think I’m the oldest, but I happen to be in a situation where most of my friends are already married. I think some of the students are finding it a shock that they have to sacrifice nights out and weekends away for sitting down and studying. Well, I have kids so I’ve already sacrificed those things. I have already been through the pain of feeling my freedom restricted. Iris isn’t really reliable enough for a babysitter, and even if she was we couldn’t afford it anyway. So for me, most of my evenings are a toss up between studying or watching the West Wing and crocheting on the sofa. Some things have had to go. You can see that my blog is a bit neglected, and I’m having crochet withdrawal, but I have experienced the feelings of sacrifice already and I know it isn’t forever.

Every second counts
What the hell did I do with my time before I had kids? Obviously I worked full time (but I’m not far off that now), but it’s not like I was writing War and Peace. I wasn’t even reading it. We had dinner parties with friends, did a bit of jogging, but again I still manage that now. All those child-free hours, I could have spent doing something useful but with the naivety of youth I just frittered them away. Now every hour is accounted for, and if I am lucky enough to have “free time” every minute is squeezed dry. Because of this when I sit down to do my work I’m very conscious of time. I know how many hours I need to spend on my studying, and how many hours I have available in the week, and there is little slack. If one of the kids is sick for a couple of days that writes off a few evenings of work that I can’t afford to lose so I know I have to keep on top of things.

Less pressure to be top
I did really well in my first two degrees, a First and a Distinction. Anything less in this one is going to feel like a step back. Academia is my thing. I nearly cried when I got 55 in my first assignment. But what with combining a nearly full time job, two kids and other activities with this degree, everyone is just going to be impressed if I pass. I’m nearly coming around to that view myself. Nearly.

It’s not the hardest thing I have ever done
I survived 10 months and more without a full night’s sleep. I have breastfed while suffering from an excruciating migraine, delatching the baby to go and vomit, then returning to resume a prone position while a tiny baby sucked the life force out of me. I have driven through the night to get a baby suffering from chicken pox to stay asleep. I have cared for a sick husband and toddler a week after giving birth. I have given birth. Twice. With no drugs. I have gone to work leaving my children in the care of virtual strangers for the first time. I have raised two charming and clever children. In terms of the hardest things I have done, a part time degree is not even up there.

Everyone thinks I am doing an amazing job
There is nothing quite as motivating as praise from other people, and lots of people have expressed their admiration at what I am doing. My mum and dad have both said how proud they are, as has my husband. And my step-mum went so far as to give me a significant chunk of money towards my course, because she felt I really deserved it. When really, as I have just explained, in some ways it is easier for me than everyone else, you know, what with having no life and all. Blown that myth now haven’t I?

And on top of all that it helps that I love psychology, really want a new job, and am fortunate enough to be fairly bright. My reason for writing this post is really to inspire other people out there to push their boundaries, especially other parents. I worried for ages about whether I could cope with doing this course. Yes I’m a bit grumpy sometimes, I feel like I have no time to decompress, but it will all be worth it in the end. And as with most things in life, it hasn’t been as hard as I feared. So if you are thinking of taking something on, and are wondering how you would cope when you have children, my answer is this – having kids: probably the hardest thing you will ever do. Whether you are thinking of doing a degree, starting a business, writing a book, it’ll be easy in comparison. And by virtue of the the skills you will have picked up just from having kids, you will be even better equipped for whatever you take on.

My Future Listography: careers I’d like

Christmas before last I got a book called My Future Listography, basically a place to make lists about things you want to do in life. I thought it might help me figure out what I want to do. But if nothing else, it makes for good blog prompts.

I thought I’d start with careers I’d like, as that is one close to my heart. I am on a constant quest for the ideal career, but I think the reality is that, as the magazines oh so wisely are telling us, we shouldn’t expect one career (thank God, because if this is it I am doomed), but consider serial careers (one after the other) or portfolio careers (doing lots of things at once). As someone who is extremely indecisive this concept appeals to me. I’ve spent many years wanting to be this and that; a teacher, a criminologist, a Spanish interpreter, a journalist. However, these days I am more realistic about what I actually want to do. Sure I’d love to travel the world, but it can’t be much fun leaving young kids behind. And yes, I love the idea of being a journalist, but working freelance, having to tout yourself about writing about vacuous celebrities just to make ends meet, no guaranteed income <shudder> it’s not really for me. And while the idea of being Prime Minister seems attractive on the surface, but do I really want to go around knocking on doors in local elections, begging people for votes or money, preferably both. And then even if I did become PM I’d have to spend my time going to meeting on European Economic Policy, or the budget deficit. And I probably wouldn’t be able to do crochet on my lunch breaks. I’d have to spend my lunch breaks trying to keep the editor of the Sun on side to stop him printing articles about my political incompetence, or the fact that Iris drew on the walls of the cabinet meeting room.

Nope, I’m definitely clearer about what I’d actually like to do, so here is my plan:

Occupational Psychologist
This is what I hope my next career will be. For those who don’t know, I am studying for a Masters Degree in Occupational Psychology. It’s part time, distance learning, so I won’t finish for 2 years (only just started in January). I’ve no idea what it will lead on to career wise. Occupational Psychology is psychology in the workplace, covering topics such as recruitment, well being, ergonomics and leadership. What I don’t want to do is be a psychologist who goes into a business to help the business make more money. This might be rather naive, but I want to make the workplace, where many of us spend the majority of our time, a better place for people to be, with increased productivity being an added bonus. I thought long and hard before doing the degree, but actually I quite circumspect about how it pans out. Maybe I won’t end up as an Occupational Psychologist, but doing the course has reaffirmed for me that psychology is where it’s at!

Professional Yarn Bomber

Oh yes, if I could get paid to yarn bomb every day I would be very happy. There are people who do make a living out of it, but they are generally bona fide artists, and probably do loads of other stuff to supplement their income. But hey, that’s what a portfolio career is all about. Plus, I very nearly am a professional yarn bomber I ran a yarn bombing workshop for which I got paid proper cash money. And I’m going to be in a book, and I was on the radio. With a burgeoning media career, a professional contract is sure to follow, right?

Radio Presenter

I don’t mean a vacuous DJ type of presenter. I have in mind more a Radio 4 presenter, being asked to present a programme on which I am an acclaimed expert, perhaps my yarn bombing career, Occupational Psychology, or as a self help guru (have I not mentioned that one yet?). I would interview various contemporaries in my field, in a softly spoken and engaging manner, much like Kirsty Young, except less Scottish and more Home Counties, and less soft and more nasal (I’m sure it’s an adenoid problem). I love the BBC, and wish that I had joined it as a fledgling meeja type in the 70s or something (but obviously without the Jimmy Savile sex scandals and endemic sexism) to become one of the doyennes of the institution like Kirsty, or Sandi Tosvik or Jennie Murray.


Well, I am writing now, so technically I am a Writer. But I’m not getting paid for this. I’m not even getting free stuff to review. If I could get paid just to write my thoughts and opinions like the insufferable Jeremy Clarkson that would be great. Though rather than The Sun my publication of choice would be something like Psychologies Magazine, or the Observer Magazine. I’d be able to research and write about whatever takes my fancy, and then someone would probably offer me a book deal. It would start out as a collection of selected columns, but then soon I’ll be branching out into motivational, self-help books (based on empirical research obviously). I’d also like to try my hand at fiction, in fact I have the bare bones of a draft from when I did NaNoWriMo a few years ago. However, it is true what they say, it is harder than it looks to write fiction, even fluffy chick lit. But one day I’ll get round to it, I’m sure.

Member of Mumsnet HQ

I’d get paid to Mumsnet. Nuff said.

So, I’ve still got a good 35 years of working life ahead of me, enough to get all that done. And in the meantime I am thankful that tomorrow is my day off my current paid work, so I get to do my other part time job, Stay At Home Mum. The pay is pretty poor, and the non-salary benefits are non-existent. There is no training policy, and no promotion prospects. But there’s no commute, and the customers give good cuddles.

I’m bored!

Bored cat

Currently I have a window of time, about an hour, in which I can do whatever I want. An hour’s free time! Iris is napping, and her light sleeping and the size of our hour precludes us from doing much in the way of housework during this time. Betty is amusing herself with the iPad. I potentially could do anything. There are so many things I want to do, so many books I want to ready, things I want to make. My degree starts in a little over a week and I will have little in the way of free time, and I am back to work tomorrow, so I really need to make the most of free time when I have it.

So I thumbed through a couple of books; there’s a Henry James book on my shelf which looks interesting. I’ve a few things saved on Sky Plus to watch, but I don’t really fancy them right now. I got several notebooks for Christmas just waiting to be filled with scribblings and drawing. But I can’t settle down to anything. I have this feeling a lot. Occasionally, DH takes the kids to his much’s for the day leaving me with the complete freedom to do whatever I want. But instead of the relaxing day this is supposed to be I inevitably end up even more stressed. I’m not going to get all the things done that I want to do. I will feel guilty if I don’t do a bit of housework. I want to make sure I get the maximum amount out of the day as possible, and by the time I have my hour’s warning that the rest of the family are due home I feel unsatisfied and the opposite of relaxed. I just can’t settle to any one one thing.

It sounds a lot like boredom. But how can someone who always wants to do so much and has such little free time, be bored when given the opportunity to do whatever they want? Well, boredom is more than having nothing to do. Some people look down on boredom as an inability to entertain oneself. Kids complain of being bored but how can you be bored when you have hundreds of toys and hours of pure leisure time ahead of you?

A recently published paper reviewed hundreds of studies of boredom, and the authors, John Eastwood, Alexandra Frischen, Mark Fenske, and Daniel Smilek in the September, 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, came to the conclusion that boredom is primarily a function of attention, and is also greatly influenced by our perception of the environment and our feelings about it. They cite a study by Robin Damrad-Frye and James Laird in the August, 1989 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In this study, participants had to listen to a tape recordomg of a person reading anarticle.  In the next room, there was a television soundtrack playing.  For some groups listening to the article, the TV was very loud and distracting, for others it was barely noticeable, and for some it was not playing at all.  After listening to the article, people rated their boredom during the study. Those who heard the barely noticeable TV soundtrack reported higher levels of boredom than the other two groups. The group who heard the loud TV show reported feeling frustrated but not bored. Those who heard the low level soundtrack had difficulty concentrating, but weren’t sure why. They attributed this feeling to boredom. In fact other studies have shown that the more you try and distract yourself to alleviate boredom, the more bored you feel as you recognise that you are trying to distract yourself and realise the situation must be boring.

This is a good explanation as to why the book of magazine you bought just to make a journey go quicker doesn’t hit the spot and you end up putting it down in frustration; a combination of trying to amuse yourself in an inevitably boring situation, and low level noise and distraction.

It seems a trivial matter, but boredom can be dangerous. Boredom and lack of attention can be fatal for military personnel, airline pilots or other people operating dangerous machinery.

Despite the survey of the literature so far, there is very little advice on how to tackle boredom. However one study found that when participants were placed in a boring situation doing a mundane task, those who had been made aware of the boredom inducing effects of mind-wandering felt less bored than those who were asked to think about things they’d rather be doing in the task. Even an awareness of the feeling of boredom helped alleviate the effects. By that measure researching and writing this post should mean I never feel bored again!

Two more things help alleviate boredom; ambient movement can help people stay engaged. When airports moved baggage claims further from arrival gates flyers’ satisfaction increased. The positive, goal-directed act of walking was better than waiting around fruitlessly. Even low level movement can help keep attention maintained, which is why the Tangle Toy was invented, and why I no longer feel guilty for doodling in boring meetings.

Arousal is an important aspect of boredom. Boredom can be a disparity between our arousal and our need for stimulation and the ability of the environment to meet that need. To this end, lowering arousal is a way of alleviating boredom, creating a relaxed rather than bored state. One of the best ways of doing this is mindfulness, being in the moment, concentrating on your surroundings and your feelings.

For me personally, I know my ‘boredom’ stems from wanting to do too much, and worrying that committing to any one thing will not be enough. I feel like everything I do should have a purpose and be working towards making myself a better person, and nothing is good enough. Consequently I feel bored and cannot focus on any one thing, aware all the time that the moments are slipping away. I am very grateful then, that my mum bought me some felt tipped pens and a colouring book for Christmas. Yes, I am a 31 year old with my own colouring book. But as a child psychotherapist my mum instinctively knows the benefits that colouring books, or other such activities, can have. Apart from the creative experience, the repetitive action and and low level of concentration required can induce a mindful state, where thoughts and feelings are not suppressed, but just flow through you. Similar effects can be achieved from the simple act of stroking pets. In fact a team of ‘Comfort Dogs’ were sent to Sandy Hook to help the victims of the massacre there. One girl spoke for the first time in a week while a dog lay in her lap.

So, now my hour has passed, Iris is calling for me, and there is no longer time to feel bored. Tired, frustrated, entertained and all the other feelings that go with having children. But not bored.

Stepping into the unknown

I’ve been a quiet on the blogging front recently, as well as doing very little crafting. I’ve been preoccupied, and there is only so much room in my head. But after posting my latest post I felt a bit of an uplift and I remembered how good blogging makes me feel. So I thought I would use my blog as a way of thinking out my preoccupation. One aspect common to people who are extroverts is that they tend to think out loud. Whereas introverts think inside their heads and carefully weigh up what they want to say, extroverts just blurt out what comes into their heads and think it through as it comes out. This is why some extroverts (myself included) can sound a bit chaotic in their speech, going off on tangents and forgetting their initial points. This is also why extroverts often dominate discussions and conversations, not because they like the sounds of their own voices as some might think, but because they just can’t help themselves, it’s their way of thinking things through.

Anyway, I think this blog post might be a way for me to think out loud. It may not be of interest to you; I have tried to protect my readers from the boring minutiae of my life until now. But as well as helping me thinks things through, it may be that some of you have just the advice I need. So here goes:

I have not really enjoyed my job for a while now. I don’t want to go into details, suffice to say its a respectable job, requiring degree level education, medium well paid, but it just hasn’t been the job I thought I was signing up for. When on the odd occasion I did some sort of personal effectiveness course, like the MBTI type thing, I really enjoyed it. I would read the course material and think “I get this. I feel at home with this” and it wasn’t that I knew the stuff already, but I had the foundations with which to assimilate this information. It was so refreshing to be in a course and actually understand what was being said.

What this made me realise was how much I missed psychology. Now, I left University with a Masters degree swearing that I was never going to be a psychologist or work in a University again. I was fed up with the low priority that teaching and education had compared to the research side, which was, as far as I could see, a bunch of emotionally deficient academics fannying around in labs spending a lot of money doing research that appeared to have very little practical application. Whether or not that was the reality, I stopped all links with academia and psychology when I started my new job.

Now I have conceded that perhaps I might actually like to be psychologist. But what sort? Well, definitely not a Clinical Psychologist, I don’t want to work with clinical groups, it’s not my bag. In the same vein I don’t really want to be an Educational or Child Psychologist, given that I’m not a massive fan of OPC (other people’s children). I’m not sure I’d make a very good counsellor or psychotherapist, I’m not great at listening and not talking (see above).I’ve tried to think about what I like to do and what I like about psychology. I like problem solving; I like trying to come up with ideas; I like trying to help people, but not people with really serious problems; I like the psychology of what motivates people and what makes them happy. So, I have been toying with the idea of Occupational Psychology. There are two main roadblocks in this idea however. The first is I’m not really sure about the reality of Occ Psych as a career. I’ve tried to explore this by sending my CV to a couple of Occ Psych companies offering some admin services in return for some shadowing but had no reply. The second problem, and this is the big one, the training. I’d have to do an MSc in Occupational Psychology, which I’m not adverse to in theory.

I can do the course part-time and distance learning. But there are risks, and I’m not good at risk taking. The risks are:
– money, it will cost between 5 and 10k to do the course. I’d have to get a Career Development Loan, assuming I’d be able to get one and not laughed out of the bank
– time, it is going to take up all my spare time. They estimate around 10-12 hours a week which doesn’t sound much, except I have a job, a house, two young children, a blog and various other hobbies. The hobbies would take a hit. Very little blogging and crochet. There will be an impact on my family life too, DH would have to do more, I would have to sleep less!
– what if I don’t like it? I’ve been dipping into a few books on the subject and they are a little bit dry. Is that a sign that I won’t like it, or is it simply that text books read out of the academic context and without a clear goal just are a little dry?
– what if there is no job at the end of it? The main idea is to move on in my career. Sure a degree is a nice thing to do for fun, but it is costly fun.

So there is my dilemma. I’ve tried thinking of alternatives. One alternative is do nothing, stay in my job and crawl the slippery slope of middle management. Except the thought of doing that for the next 35 years makes me want to shoot myself a little bit. Doing this course would feel like an exit plan, and it might help me enjoy my job more without the crashing feeling that This Is It. I’ve tried thinking of other viable careers. I thought maybe FE teaching in Psychology, but again, it’s more training and I think the jobs and hard to come by. I thought about coaching. Now that really does interest me, but the course and training levy would be similar and then I’d have to try and set up my own business. That’s too scary for me right now, as the main breadwinner with 2 little ones. I’m not sure I could actually do it at this stage in life. The one thing I need is security, which is the main thing that keeps me in my current role.

I’m this close *holds up a finger and thumb* to making a decision. But I want answers, answers that I am realistically never going to get, will I like it, will it overwhelm me, will I be able to afford it, will I get a job at the end, will it be worth the money? You might remember a post I wrote on decision making. The book I was reading said that change is hard and is is normal to feel ambivalent about it. It said you only need to be 51% sure about your decision, i.e. it is just a little bit more right than wrong. I’d say I’m at about 49%. But I’m working on the last 2%.

Stay tuned for part two of the dilemma which is “which course should I take?” I bet you’re eagerly awaiting that one!

Never Too Late To Be Great

Crochet clock time
Crochet clock by Crochet Time

Yesterday, Richard Whitehead stormed to an amazing victory in the paralympic T42 200m, coming from last place at the halfway mark. This amazing athlete got off to a rocky start, slipping on one of his prothetic legs leaving him at the back. Something drove him on to overtake all the other competitors, somehow he found that little bit extra which took him to the finish line. Even in the Olympic games last month it always amazed me, not only how people could come from behind the crowd to take the lead in the final stretch, but how the commentators could accurately predict this, certain athletes being known for their ability to sprint to the end. These people are Completer Finishers, people who see things through to the end. OK, experts will realise that my using this team role description from Belbin is a bit of a misnomer in this context, but essentially I am talking about people who see the end is in sight and then find something more within them to give, no matter how much they have given already.

I am categorically not one of these people, I am in no way shape or form a completer finisher, nor a sprinter to the end. I start things off with gusto, but when the end is in sight I tend to lose momentum as if I am there already. I noticed this as I was running last night. I was nearing home and told myself I just had to get to the bench then I could stop and walk the last 50 metres. Trying to get the most out of my run as the bench came in sight I willed myself to sprint to it, but I just couldn’t, it was all I could to run at my usual pace to my designated end point, despite being able to run further on other runs. I am similar with my crafting projects. I get just near the end and I struggle with the finishing touches. And if a project needs altering once complete, forget it, that door has closed.

One of the reasons I think I am like this is that there are so many things I want to do, that as I near the end of one thing, my mind is already on the next. There are so many things that I want to do that I’m in a hurry to fit them all in. I have written before about my ‘scanner’ tendencies. I can’t bear to be doing nothing, not because I am afraid of boredom, but because I am afraid of wasting time. If I am watching TV I have to be doing something else, crochet or planning a blog post. Recently I went on a 5 hour (each way) car trip with colleagues. I can’t read or crochet in the car because it makes me sick, so all in all I had 10 hours dead time, making small talk with people I barely know. Think what I could have achieved in 10 hours. If I had been on my own I could have listened to Radio 4 or a talking book and you know, learned something. However, this desire to pack so much in sometimes has the complete opposite effect. I want to do so much, and so it well, and fear that I can’t possibly do so that I get struck with a sort of paralysis and instead end up on the sofa watching endless episodes of Gilmore Girls. At the end of those days, instead of relishing doing nothing, I beat myself up for not having achieved anything with my day.

This whole gamut of behaviours stems from fear, fear of insignificance, and ultimately fear of death. Not a fear of dying itself, but a fear of dying before I’ve done all the things I want to do in the world, before I’ve made my mark. I recently read a very salient article in Psychologies magazine by an author named Tom Butler-Bowden. He has written a book called Never Too Late: The Power of Thinking Long. The book is a reminder that success actually rarely happens over night, and we shouldn’t feel demoralised by our lack of (perceived) achievement. He even comes up with a formula for figuring out how much productive life you have left. I can’t find the magazine right now, so I will try and remember it. It assumes that you are most economically active between the ages of 20 and 80. So you take your age and take away 20, then divide that by 60 (no. of productive years in total) then times by 100. So for me that is 31-20/60×100=18.3. That means I am only 18% of the way through my productive life, I have a massive 82% left in which to make my mark on the world. The formula is meant to be a positive reality check, and it really was for me. I’m not even a fifth of the way through my productive life, there is plenty of time to fit in all the things I want to do.

Winston Churchill
It’s not too late for me to make my Priministerial bid

Plus, loads of really successful people didn’t get started till late in life. Winston Churchill, despite being born into very privileged circumstances, had a poor academic record and a speech impediment, and lost a few elections before becoming Prime Minister at 66. Alan Rickman, inexplicably attractive as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, spent the majority of his career dressing other actors, and didn’t get a part in a film until he was 46. And last, but not least, Swedish Athlete Oscar Swahn won his first gold medal for deer shooting in 1908 at the age of 60 and was still winning medals at 72 in the 1920 Olympics. So, still time yet folks!

However, we do need to assess the way we measure success. I mean, at 31 I have a Master’s degree, a decent job, a happy marriage, two lovely children, I teach crochet classes, have a blog, am known for yarn bombing, and I am building up to running 10k (5 miles at the last count). Those are all achievements, and for some they would be enough. Not for me, but it’s ok, I’ve got 82% of my productive life to do the rest.

It’s easy to compare yourself to others and feel like you don’t measure up. I feel this is especially amplified in use of social media. On Twitter I follow people I admire, writers, journalists, artists, bloggers. Immersed in their world I feel like everyone around me is more successful and doing more with their lives. But really, that is a select few, and classic case of confirmation bias. Not only am I following people because they are doing things I admire, and doing them well, but also they are likely to only be promoting the successful sides of their lives. It’s not real life and it is important to remember that. I need to ground myself in reality, in my friends and family.

So, these are my resolutions:

Stop worrying about time slipping away, and remember I have 82% of productive time left

Appreciate what I have already achieved in life

When I do have days doing nothing, just appreciate them

Spend less time on Twitter and other social media (yeah, blogs too) and ground myself in my reality

And maybe I need to learn to hold a little bit back, to have a little bit of energy in reserve that will see me through to the end of whatever I am doing, whether that is at work, a craft project or a run. After all, I’m in for the long haul.

The race that isn’t worth winning

This post was inspired by a letter that I read in the Observer a couple of weeks ago (just so you I managed to track down the author of the letter and obtained his permission to publish it. I’m sure you don’t care but I wanted to impress you with my cyber stalking abilities!).

Well, how convenient for neoclassical economics: upward mobility and socioeconomic status are not “good for you” (“Why being stuck in the same job is bad for you”, News , last week)? Promotion, higher income and status are already feted as the essential motivators to economic growth, hence justifying vast and increasing income and wealth differentials in the UK. Now those who fail this race also stand accused of being the hapless architects of their own ill health…

…If we perceive ourselves in a race, or feel compelled to join one, then, while winning might save us, we might also die in the process. A society that aspires to promote emotional wellbeing and less ill health needs to off subtle solutions, such as flatter income and status hierarchies, and cultures that genuinely value the contributions of all.

Adrian Barritt

Lancing, West Sussex


Mr Barritt also mentions his father, who died at 46 after moving his family for idyllic Cornwall chasing promotion. This post is a difficult one for me to write actually. I am the type of person who constantly wants more, who regularly feels like there is a better life to be had, and who measures my value in terms of success, not necessarily material success, but certainly career and status. It is a constant source of stress to me that I am the only one of my friends who does not own their own house. And therein lies the rub: would homeownership, or my lack of it, be such a source of stress to me if none of my peers owned their own homes. Highly unlikely. It’s an often quoted fact that despite the trappings of 21st Century life, iPods, laptops, mobile phones etc. we are no happier now than we were 60 years old. I think that the impact of these gadgets, designed to improve our lives, is lessened further by their ubiquity.


It is hard to escape the reality that we measure ourselves and our success against those around us. Things like massive HD TVs, fancy clothes, flashy jewellery make us feel happy and special until everyone around us has the same thing. Even those who think they aren’t affected by what others think, or how they compare against others still do to some extent. Did you have a shower this morning? Put on some make up or shave? Do you think you would still do that if you were on a deserted island with no one else around? We do these things because that’s what society dictates, and not following those norms leaves us feeling like outsiders. I’ve been party to discussions on Mumsnet about things like whether one should shower every day. There are some people who are content to bath or shower every few days, and some who think it is nothing less than disgusting if you don’t shower each day. And others for whom a twice daily shower is regulation. But 100 years ago no-one would have been arguing about this. Even 50 years ago, weekly baths and a quick wipe with a flannel every day satisfied most people’s hygiene desires. Yet as we and technology evolve so do our collective standards. What was acceptable 50 years ago will make you a social pariah today.


Trying to keep up with society’s norms is hard work. Trying to keep up with society’s extremes is even harder. Yet people still want to have the looks and lives of celebrities and other successful people. When we focus on what we haven’t got that someone else has we are always going to be unhappy, there will always be something we don’t have, unless of course Bill Gates is reading my blog. I heard he does you know.


It’s not just about material possessions, that is just a symptom of the wider malaise. Another such symptom, which the letter above references, is the constant aspiration for better jobs, more successful positions. Books like Screw Work Let’s Play, and other motivational tomes are all about shaking off the shackles of banality and living the life we deserve. But for some people run of the mill jobs are all they can or want to aspire to. We should applaud that, revere it. Why is it that rock stars, Hollywood actors, or footballers get to make millions by doing something they love, surely the fact that they get to spend life doing what they enjoy is reward enough. It’s not like they work harder than nurses, or factory workers. It’s not like they are necessarily more intelligent than a supermarket cashier; you only have to listen to what comes out of the mouths of certain footballers or pop stars to realise that. And they are not necessarily morally superior either. Yet they have money, status, and power. They are glorified and celebrated.


What about the checkout person who is still smiling and polite after 8 hours of bleeping groceries through the checkout? What about the family who live in an overcrowded council house on minimum wage yet manage to bring up happy well rounded kids? What about the person going into their minimum wage job each day, their whole lives, working so as not to be a burden on anyone else? These people, who are satisfied and happy with their lives, should be celebrated, and their jobs should be valued and not demonised. I’d like to see a book released called “Stop wasting your time trying to be another entrepreneur and get a real job helping someone”.


Chiumento, a “talent management agency”, recently conducted some research into what motivated staff. Using their results they grouped workers into 5 categories  based on what motivated them in their work, with factors ranging from organisational culture to company reputation. The full paper can be found here but there are some pertinent facts relating to this post. 41.3% of staff surveyed were categorised as Socialisers. For them the important factors in their jobs are a warm friendly environment, stability and a good work-life balance. Pay was is one of the least motivating factors for this group, as long as they feel they are being treated fairly. 19% are classed as Protectionists; they crave security and certainty, and while they want to be rewarded, they are willing to make sacrifices to get the security they need. Their career path and development are relatively low in importance. For the last three groups, Achievers, Materialists and True Believers, motivation is more likely to be drawn from the status of the company, the rewards and the need for personal development and advancement. It is both telling and gratifying to see that for about 60% of people just having a job that treats them well is enough. All these books trying to encourage people to chase riches are unnecessary for this 60%, they are happy already, thank you very much.


But despite these interesting figures, I feel we still need to change our society to value more than wealth and the trappings that come with it. Why should we feel a constant need to strive for more, a better job, more money, more stuff. We should be striving for more happiness, more creativity, more compassion. But not more than our neighbour, I’m not talking about swapping one race for another. I’m talking about getting out of the race and using all the free time we have when we aren’t stressing over our position in society.


I blame the Olympics. And Euro 2012, the Oscars and all these other competitions that glamorise winning, with no consolation prize for the runners up and the also rans. It may be that winning the race is a positive experience, and the sense of achievement good for your health, but what are the prospects for the majority of ‘losers’? I don’t doubt that being in a rubbish job is soul destroying and bad for your health, but maybe some of that is just a response to the way society views such jobs. We need to measure success in different ways, both in ourselves and in others.


I mentioned that this post is hard for me to write. I am a naturally ambitious and aspirational person, and put a great store in my own personal success. Unfortunately my dilettante ways and difficulty in seeing projects through to the end means that I rarely meet my own goals. In one of the books that I read on personality it said that people of my personality type often go through life never feeling completely satisfied. Before I would have thought that was a good thing, that it showed ambition and drive. Increasingly I’m finding the feeling rather sad and exhausting. With the finish line nowhere in sight I think it is time for me to think about getting out of the race.

Learn to live in the moment

Last week DH bought home a book from the library that I forgot I had ordered, Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in frantic world. It comes with a CD with guided meditations. I should point out I haven’t actually read it yet.

This morning, instead of reading the book, on a whim I decided to browse through the brochure for the last day of the Cheltenham Science Festival to see if there was anything to go to. I had completely forgotten it was on. I often moan that all the good things happen in London (I keep moaning to the people at Psychologies magazine that all their cool events are in London, which puts them out of reach for me – too far and too expensive to get to). But in my whining I forget about the multitude of festivals that are on in the nearby town, and we rarely go to see anything due to finances and childcare. But today I flicked through the brochure on the off chance and found that Professor Mark Williams, author of the above book, was speaking about the very same subject, along with the BBC Arts Correspondent David Silitoe. So I bit the bullet and booked it, and thought that we would take the kids along to the free events that are always on.

I left DH queuing with the kids for the Lego Tent with the kids, and went to the EDF Energy Arena. I was seated in the Gods due to my very last minute booking. Professor Williams and David Sillito were introduced by one of the festival directors. She mispronounced the name Sillito which wasn’t a great start! Fortunately the questions that she asked at the end suggested she had done a bit of research at least. David Sillito began by showing a video that he had made for the BBC, which is a bit of a cheek if you ask me, we want new content for our £10! Anyway, you can see excerpts of the film here and here (hey, if they can cheat, so can I!) The film showed David and his friend Fiona, who suffers from chronic pain as a result of lupus, undertaking an 8 week mindfulness course.

MRI scans taken before and after the course showed a marked attenuation in brain activation in certain areas. For Fiona the part of the brain associated with pain reception was much less active than it had been before the course, and Fiona reported a corresponding difference in her perception of the pain. It wasn’t that the pain had lessened per se, but she had learned to disassociate from it somewhat. For David, the part of the brain that reduced in activation was the bit that is associated with the ego and self-centredness. He didn’t say what part that was, and that is beyond my neuroscience training, but it will be somewhere in the frontal lobe. Incidentally, it is an area that is vulnerable to head injury, and self-centredness and lack of empathy quite common after a brain injury.

After the video David went on to describe the after effects of his mindfulness course. He described it at being able to remove yourself from your own feelings and look at them, to determine an appropriate objective response, rather than the initial emotional reposes we often feel that we can’t control during times of stress.

Mark Williams then took the metaphorical stand. I have to include my completely uninteresting fact here that I have actually stayed at Mark William’s house. He was good friends with my aunt when he lived in Cambridge. He then went on to become a very important academic at Bangor University, my alma mater. When my aunt heard I was applying to Bangor to study she insisted I go and stay with Mark. There, that’s my incredibly boring claim to fame.

Professor Williams spoke a little about the history of mindfulness. It has come full circle to its secular origins, though most of us will associate it with the Buddhist practice of meditation. It literally means “non-forgetfulness” but was originally a way of trying to relieve suffering by concentrating on understand what was causing the suffering. Prof. Williams used an excellent analogy to describe our need for it. Imagine a gazelle in the Savannah, they have to be on ready alert for any lions preying on them (or film crews, he pointed out, as where there is a film crew there is probably a lion not far behind!). When a lion attacks the gazelle flee, and the fortunate ones escape. But within about 5 minutes of the danger passing the gazelle are busy grazing again, they need to graze to live. If they sat there analysing what happened after each attack, assessing all the other gazelle for PTSD, consoling each other for their loss and fretting about the next attack, well, they’d die of starvation.

Humans on the other hand have not only present lions to run from, we have future lions that we worry about, we have imaginary lions running through our heads. The amygdala, controlling the fight or flight mechanism doesn’t recognise that the actual threat has disappeared, and that what we are mostly worried about are hypothetical lions. It doesn’t switch off. Mindfulness can help it switch off, and can stop us worrying about hypothetical lions, and when the lions do come, it can help us manage our emotions, and as Fiona showed, manage real pain.

As more and more studies on mindfulness emerge with positive findings even the medical establishment is beginning to see its benefits. NICE include mindfulness as recommended way of preventing depression in their clinical guidelines.

The festival session moved on to questions quite swiftly, fortunately as there were a great many. Among them was a query about the use of mindfulness in children. Mark (you see, I’m calling him Mark now!) mentioned a programme called Mindfulness In Schools which offers courses in mindfulness to teachers for the benefit of the pupils (and no doubt the teachers).

One brave woman spoke up and said that she suffered from depression and tried the “Body Scan” CDs that came with a mindfulness book (I think that is a technique that guides you through different parts of your body and gets you to focus on each in turn, a common relaxation technique). This lady said that being in the throes of depression she didn’t really want to focus on her big toe, she just wanted to feel better. I imagined the answer that Mark was going to give was to give it a chance to work etc. But being a far more insightful person than I am, with years and years of experience study clinical depression, his answer was to leave it for a while. It’s not compulsory, he said, and doesn’t replace many other well regarded techniques for treating depression. Be kind to yourself, he told her, come back to it when you are ready.

I had a question too. Of course I did. I’m well known for this at work. I can’t pass up an opportunity for my own input. But despite doing my best Hermione Granger impression, I wasn’t picked out from among the many other people with their hands up.

This was my question. The video and the talks all made it seem like mindfulness was such an amazing thing, a panacea in a difficult world. But if it is so good, why aren’t we all doing it? Why are there so many books telling us how to do? And as I have noted in previous posts, everything comes at a cost, even good things, so what are the costs to mindfulness, what are the obstacles to overcome? I suspect I can come up with the main one, time. But with books like Headspace promising effects from just 10 minutes a day, time isn’t really an issue. In fact I have a very good half read book (you know me, of course it’s only half read!) called Buddhism for Mothers which is all about carving time out of non-stop days, for example, by practising mindfulness even as you are washing up or feeding your baby.

Another answer may come from a point that was made by a member of the audience. He said why should we try and be mindful and calm when there is so much to be enraged about. The mess the bankers made, politician’s mistakes, without anger, surely there can be no action. There wasn’t really a direct response to this by the speakers, but from what I understand about mindfulness it is not about suppressing any emotion. In fact the traditional “smile through it” approach to a problem whereby you ignore the bad and focus on the good, is thought to be more damaging. By trying to suppress a thought you are more likely to focus on it. After all, ever tried not to think about orange penguins? Go on, try not to think about orange penguins. Stop thinking about them. Difficult isn’t it?

We did a short mindfulness practice in the talk, and Mark said clearly several times that if your mind wandered from what it was supposed to be focused on, your breathing or body or whatever, that was ok, don’t beat yourself up and just draw your mind back. Doesn’t matter if it happens again and again either. The aim is not to clear the mind, but to let the thoughts flow through you, acknowledging them, but not focusing on them.

You’re still thinking about them aren’t you?

All in all it was an interesting hour. I’m not sure I learned much that I didn’t know before, or couldn’t find in a book, but I did feel inspired to give it a go. I don’t think there is a magic key to mindfulness or meditation, just practice and perseverance. And with practice you could be almost as happy as the “Happiest Man in the World”.

A little more love to have, a little more love to give

Be kind to yourself – a print from mylittlebuffalo’s etsy shop

“Self-love seems so often unrequited.”
– Anthony Powell

You have to love yourself before someone can love you, so the saying goes. Or maybe it’s you can’t love someone else until you love yourself. Something like that. Anyway, it seems the saying might not be far off. A recent study demonstrates that self compassion is associated with a healthier relationship. Neff and Beretvas (in press) questioned 104 participants and their partners on their self compassion, their partner’s perception of their self compassion, and various aspects of their relationship, such as control, relational well-being and verbal aggression.

The study found that people who had higher levels of self compassion were in healthier relationships and less controlling of their partners.

The authors noted that self compassion is different from self esteem. Self esteem can be unstable and conditional; often relying on others; involving feelings of superiority; selfish and egotistical. The authors define self compassion as having three components:

Self-kindness versus self-self judgement being kind to oneself when suffering, comforting oneself instead of judging and blaming oneself

Common humanity versus isolation the recognition of the shared human experience and that everyone makes mistakes. Rather than feeling isolated one feels connected with others

Mindfulness versus over-identification a mindful response to suffering means neither suppressing nor ruminating on feelings of suffering. Rather than dramatically running away with ones feelings, mindfulness involves maintaining a balanced awareness and acceptance of the feelings as the fabric of life

The more self compassion that you have, as defined above, the more accepting you can be of other people’s flaws and feelings. The results of the study also showed that people with higher self compassion were less controlling over their partners. It’s possible that people who are kinder to themselves and happier are more content to give their partners to freedom to make themselves happy.

Of course the study is correlational so we can’t say that being self compassionate causes a healthier relationship, but it seems logical that if you can’t forgive yourself for your mistakes or flaws, you will struggle to forgive others. If you believe that you are the cause of your suffering, then you are likely to blame others for their own problems, and be reluctant to expend your own resources helping, them.

But how how do you know if you are self compassionate and how can you have more self compassion? There is a test here, which is very similar to the one the authors of the study used. And in order to increase your self compassion, clinical psychologist, Dr Christopher Germer, has developed a form of therapy called Mindful Self Compassion (MSC), which aims to help people be in the moment with their negative feelings, to accept them and to hold these emotions in”loving awareness”. Sound like a load of old cobblers? Well, it may be, but Dr Germer has kindly provided free downloads of his meditations for anyone to try.

I really recommend you give it a go. Hopefully when life gets tough you can follow the tenets of self compassion: self kindness, humanity and mindfulness. Being kinder to yourself when things are tough is not simply a selfish act. As this study has shown, self compassion is associated with healthier relationships. Being kinder to yourself also gives you the tools and the emotional freedom to be more compassionate to others around you. It’s not just a case of “do unto to others as you would have done to you” but do unto yourself what you would do to others.