Past and future reflections

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It’s been some time since my last blog. There’s good reason for that. But it didn’t feel right to end 2012 without writing at least once more, and there a few things I must acknowledge before the year is out.

 

There’s an analogy I like to use to explain how our energy levels work – indulge me. It involves a cup of water. When we are truly refreshed, we wake up and the water is right at the top of the glass. Our days are busy, and by the end of it the water level has dropped somewhat. How demanding it is, and how well we look after ourselves during the day determines how much that level drops. By taking time to relax in the evenings and getting a good sleep, by the next morning that water level has risen near the top again. We start off with a good baseline energy level.

 

What can happen over time, is that if the demands we put on ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally outweigh the activities that allow us to recover, is that each day we start with less and less water in our glass. Our baseline energy is lower. When we get near the bottom, then we must be careful, as if use the same energy as when the water is near the top, then we could hit the bottom of the glass. And then bad things happen – we get ill, over-stressed, feel exhausted and overwhelmed. We don’t have enough in the tank to deal with the challenges that come our way.

 

The last couple of months I’ve felt like I’ve been getting worrying close to the bottom of the glass. But I can’t just walk away from my commitments – the commitments which demand energy. So I’ve been trying to gradually wind things down; to make life less demanding. It’s taken a while to get there. There are times when I have hit the bottom of the glass and that’s been hard. I’ve gotten unwell, felt emotionally fragile and wanted some space from big responsibilities for a while.

 

This week many of those commitments have been finally tied up, and packed away ready for a later date when I have the energy they deserve. And this week marks the first time in months, that I’ve felt the water in my glass getting a little higher every day. Each day I have bit more spark, perspective, energy. It’s tempting to use it all up in excitement, but I’m staying patient and letting it fill all the way up to the top. The lesson here, of course, is to learn a better balance that enables the water to stay near the top longer, and not get so easily depleted. That’s one of my reflections heading in to 2013.

 

And 2013 is very much open us now. The Christmas break has always seemed an ideal time to reflect on the past year and how far we’ve come, as well as look ahead to where we want to go next in the forthcoming year. It’s always a time of year I find especially insightful, because it lends itself to that quiet time needed to pause and consider.

 

2012 has been a special year for me. I left home to live outside of the UK for the first time; left behind all I knew. I spent four months fulfilling a long-held dream to travel. Saw Angkor. Learned to dive. Started up a new project out here in Australia. Became a Rotarian. Started a life on the other side of the world.

 

But these individual snapshots do not paint a picture, they do not demonstrate the feelings and experiences of a year. I feel more certain now in the path I’m taking, and in my capabilities to pursue it. Feel more excited by the projects I am involved in, and more able to have a positive impact through them. The learning has been huge. And I’ve met, and worked with, some astonishing people. I’d like to acknowledge them. All those who have welcomed me to a new country; you have my thanks. All those who I know are trying to make the world a little bit better; you have my respect and admiration. I hope you realise what a wonderful thing you’ve done over the past 12 months.

 

And what’s next? It’s not a question I can answer. But maybe you already know for yourself. If not, then this is a good to think on it, and to discuss with others. I know that’s what I will be doing. This time over the break I will use to recover, to make up my days as I go along, and chart out the course for the next year. It’s not often we have that opportunity.

 

Have a great Christmas, and make next year the best one yet.

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Why does sunshine make us so happy?

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Well it does, doesn’t? We all know that beautiful feeling of waking up, looking out of the window and seeing blue skies with sunshine streaming in. It puts us in a great mood straight away. Conversely, when up above you is a blanket of grey clouds, we feel pretty fed up. A funny little observation I’ve made since being in Sydney is that people here, broadly speaking, are a little more friendly and cheery than in the UK. And it really is a noticeable enough trend to be obvious. And yet much of the population shares the same ancestry, so how did that happen? The UK’s not that bad is it?

But I’m not going to spend this blog convincing you that sunshine makes us feel happy. Most of us have already had this insight and if you haven’t…well you should probably stop reading here as the rest of the blog is based on this assumption. And you’re probably living somewhere without much sunlight – like Antarctica maybe. Go and take a holiday in the Caribbean and then read it again.

Neuroscientists have identified the physiological basis of this improvement in mood that occurs when we receive more sunlight. Depending on what you read, you will hear about increases in certain chemicals called endorphins and serotonin. Both have been frequently linked to mood, and indeed the main form of drug treatment for depression is a series of drugs called SSRIs, which artificially raise our levels of serotonin. I touched on the subject in an earlier blog (linked to brain changes blog).

For most Neuroscientists, they think that this increase in chemicals is a splendid answer to the question of the title. But not for me. You see, mood is an adaptive mechanism that has evolved over time to give us a biological advantage. We have reward pathways in the brain, which exist to give us a positive feeling when we do something that is good for us i.e. anything that helps us to survive or create more mini people. Likewise they give us a negative feeling when we do the opposite. Of course there are plenty of examples where this can go horribly wrong – such as with some recreational drugs, which act very powerfully on these reward mechanisms and confuse the hell out of our bodies.

So emotion isn’t just there because it’s nice to feel happy. It has a more adaptive purpose. With that in mind, why does the sun lift our mood? Or rather, why does our reward mechanism in the brain tell us that being in the sun is AWESOME? When I connect up the dots I’m left with the conclusion that sunlight obviously has an impact on our bodies that is important for us physiologically – important for our survival and health.

The best answer I can come up with is Vitamin D. Sunlight is well known to increase Vitamin D in our bodies, a vitamin that is quite tricky to get from any other source in the same quantity as from the sun. It’s good for our teeth, bones AND does truly marvellous things for our immune system. Well that’s pretty awesome. I guess with that in mind, it would make some sense that our brain is telling us to go and soak up more of it.

The bizarre lead on then from this then, is that those of us living in countries without much sunlight and feeling miserable (typically associated with higher levels of mental illness, especially seasonal affective disorder and even higher suicide rates) are actually receiving feedback from our brains telling us to LEAVE. It’s basically saying to you, “Look, you can stay in this country with its rubbish weather where I’m not going to get any of that delicious Vitamin D I like, but I’m going to make you feel bloody miserable if you do.” If this was the most powerful driving force for humans, we would probably see a very different population density across the globe, with hoards of people moving to Latin America and the Caribbean, and no one left in Scandinavia or the UK. I don’t know what would happen to Eskimos.

So those are my two cents on the matter. Hopefully I’ll uncover more reasons why our brains have adapted to encourage us to get outside in the lovely sunshine.

And in the mean time go and listen to ‘Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone’ by Bill Withers. It’s been in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this blog…

An expastry-what!?

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Two weeks before I was due to touch down in Sydney, a friend of mine referred to me as an ‘expatriate’. I did a sudden double-take and my eyes hovered on the word for a moment, trying to understand the implications. She was right, of course, and despite this having been truth for a few months by this point (I left the UK back in February), it still shocked me. Perhaps it was the in-limbo feel of travelling that had prevented this simple fact from dawning on me, but nonetheless here I am expatriating (in its simplest definition) my way around Australia – or a very tiny, miniscule part of it at least. I can’t quite get over how vast – and largely barren – this piece of land is.

To all those who question the value of TV and cinema as a means of educating the youth, I’m on your side in that it definitely doesn’t provide an accurate image of Australia. Not every Australian greets you with g’day, I’ve not seen a kangaroo, it does rain and the seagulls don’t all shout “MATE!” Although I wouldn’t hold that against Finding Nemo, it’s still a magnificent film.

I find myself reflecting back to my work in Cardiff on student mental health. A lot of our conversations would come round to trying to answer the question, ‘why is mental health so shockingly poor amongst students?’ A popular answer – and with good reason – was that students aren’t prepared for the shock of going to university. The living away from home, looking after your own money, not knowing anybody, not knowing the city, academic pressures…  Well, nothing quite prepares you for expatriatism either.

Like the beginning of university, it’s a period in your life packed with excitement, apprehension and unknowns. Unlike university, you’re not thrown in to an environment that is full of other people experiencing exactly the same. And of course no university is as damned expensive as Australia (except, I would have thought, those in Australia). $12 for a pack of peppers? Really? In Cardiff I could go to the cinema for that price. Twice.

For me, there’s another crucial difference to the transition in to university life. University was always the next stage of my life, and to be honest I’m not sure I even gave any thought to the possibility that there were other options at the time, never mind what they might be. But moving to Sydney was very much my decision, and the decision to move to another country to live, particularly for the reasons I had, is hardly a natural or expected next stage of life. I really, really, wanted to move here, and I am absolutely thrilled to b here.

A few other questions that have surfaced a few times during the last month. What makes a place home? How does one go about building up a life from scratch? Not straightforward questions to answer. And becoming an expat is tough. Google ‘expat mental health’, look at the first few results. It’s hardly surprising either.

It wasn’t my motive, but many people take this route so that they can begin a new life from scratch, and leave certain things behind. Your identity and way of life gets largely reset. Within that is the most awesome opportunity – who do you want to be and what do you want your life to look like? I was pretty happy with the sense of identity I had in Cardiff, but it doesn’t entirely carry over to here. I wasn’t an expat in Cardiff (moving from England to Wales really doesn’t count).

An area of my life I have realized I had taken for granted somewhat, was being so close to an amazing family and a group of friends that I find to be incredible people. Building these relationships takes a lot of time – many months, years… I’m learning that I have to be very patient to allow those kinds of friendships to grow here. It helps that I’ve been warmly received by those I have met, and that I’ve come across many fascinating individuals here in Sydney already.

Much of what I’ve written has given focus to the challenges of expat life – but there’s another side, of course. The weekend I wrote this I spent one day ‘bushwalking’ in the Blue Mountains, and another at the beach. In winter. I marvel at a city that has great energy and buzz to its centre, but whose culture is also shaped by its beautiful coastline and sandy beaches, and that on every other side of the city is stunning parkland.

In amongst all of that, there’s another half to this great challenge I’ve taken on, and that is the co-creation of a not for profit. Again, not something I’ve done before. The vision is highly exciting because of the scope of its ambition. However, it has led more than a couple of people to remark that I must be a little crazy – and they’re probably right. It’s hardly a stable, settled route through life, although the current picture of graduate employment shows no sign of offering that anytime soon. So what have I got to lose?

An increasing proportion of young people are taking a similar path, for good reason. This is in part due to the reason I’ve stated above, and in part because there’s a growing recognition that simply ‘having a job’ is perhaps not the most thrilling, or fulfilling way to live your life – and there are other options. The thought of working for a big company, helping it to make money, sitting in an office, working 9-5 and always having to answer to someone turns me off more than a great huge bowl of couscous (I don’t like couscous, by the way).

I had an awesome opportunity to work with a developing student-led mental health organisation when I graduated (Mental Wealth UK), and learned a lot through that. It was exactly the sort of opportunity I was looking for, and so is this. The approach itself is nothing revolutionary – it’s been done before and in fact, when you step back and look at it, it’s very obvious. But it works, and we know this from four years of positive results from Mental Wealth UK, and over a decade of impact from Active Minds in the USA.

Mental illness and psychological distress is a huge problem amongst university students. Huge. If you took 5 average students in a university in Australia, you would be able to diagnose one as having a mental illness, and another 3 that are experiencing serious raised psychological distress of some kind. So you have just one lucky person who you might describe as being ‘mentally healthy’. A lot of research has come out over the past few years, and it’s forcing people to sit up and take note. The issue is there. We’re confident (and we’ll find out over the next six months) that our strategy to tackle this works. The information and knowledge of how to stay mentally healthy, how to recognize the signs if you’re struggling, where to go if you need help…it’s all already out there. We’re just flipping the form of communication from staff-to-student to student-to-student. Peer to peer. Who do students talk to most of the time if something’s bothering them? Their mates. As with any good idea, you know it’s good because it seems so obvious that someone would have done it before. As yet though, this hasn’t happened in Australia, but there are signs to suggest that the student enthusiasm is there and it just needs a spark to set it off.

But this blog isn’t specifically about that, and that’s all the attention I’m willing to give to it for now. I’ve developed a real (healthy, I hope) fascination with entrepreneurship, and social entrepreneurship particularly. The people are always lively, engaging and a little bit (sometimes very) eccentric, and they create these seemingly impossible initiatives. After a while, you find yourself questioning what really is impossible, and challenging yourself to prove that it’s not. It’s thrilling, it’s challenging, it’s full of uncertainty, full of disappointment, of extreme highs and lows, opportunity and ultimately the chance to create something that is bigger than yourself. You live and breathe the work you do, and your whole life becomes an adventure – not just when the clock hits 5pm and on weekends. I had absolutely no idea that it would be the path for me, yet here we are.

I’m also curious to find out if there are any other individuals around here doing similarly. Packing up their roots back home because of an opportunity to build a company elsewhere in the world. Given the title of this blog, I’m wondering though if there’s a likelihood of attracting pastry chefs in exile. If there’s a niche out there for that, I might just wing the blog that way for a bit…

The whole blog won’t be just about expat life and entrepreneurship. As you’ll see from the blog description, my interests diverge greatly and this could go anywhere. Although I probably won’t give much attention to arthouse cinema, the cockroaches I share my kitchen with, or classical music in the 18th century. Pretty much anything else is fair game though. But told from the point of view of someone living the expat life and trying very, very hard (perspiration will, inevitably and unfortunately, occur) to set up a potentially wonderful organisation.

Splendid!