Month: November 2016

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon” – Woody Allen

December 2016


Sometimes it seems that everything is chugging along quite nicely and everyone is reasonably happy, there is even food in the fridge and the promise of a weekend away coming up, and you are managing the everyday pressures of life really quite admirably, and even getting the laundry done as well, and then out of the blue everything changes. I don’t mean a life-changing disaster, but lots of smaller, irritating, unnecessary, upsetting glitches hitting you all at once, and then – bam – there you are, a confounded, hurt, troubled insomniac, wondering if there’s an all night gin bar close to hand.


My dad has always joked that he’d like to live on a hill with just a goat for company, and sometimes I know exactly what he means. When I’m feeling emotionally overwhelmed I naturally retreat into hermitness for a while ­– a well-practiced self-preservation technique. The hope is that I emerge having reevaluated my priorities and identified exactly what is important and on who and what to focus my energy.


I was slightly perturbed but not surprised to read that we experience a peak in loneliness in our fifties. There is no research to explain exactly why, but my best guess would be that we are crazy busy with children and/or careers and the associated social stuff in our thirties and forties. Perhaps as we slide surreptitiously into the second half of our lives, with our children (hopefully) conveniently well on their way to independence, we become more discerning – realizing that we are jaded by our thirty-year-long careers and that, actually, we no longer relate to the people we’ve been hanging out with all this time.


But however attractive hermitness sometimes seems, we are essentially social beings, and a pang of loneliness is proof that our innate search for connection is intact. In caveman days, we needed something to make us reach out and be with other people, so that we were less likely to be eaten by wolves. And loneliness literally hurts – brain studies show that the same areas in the brain light up when you experience social pain as when you experience actual physical pain, just as it does when someone says or does something hurtful. According to psychologist Maike Luhmann, that pang of loneliness is a “biological warning system” that has evolved over millennia, alerting us to potentially dangerous levels of isolation.


Loneliness is often mentioned around Christmastime, and naturally we will all be taking care of each other. But loneliness can hit the unlikeliest of people at different times, whether or not they have families or live alone, or seem happy or not. Introverts genuinely enjoy being alone, as Mark Twain said, “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” Others may look as if they’re having an amazing life but they may be fundamentally lonely among a sea of people. As Bob Dylan sang, Loneliness/Got a mind of its own/The more people around/The more you feel alone. We can’t invite everyone round for Christmas dinner, but it doesn’t hurt to bear this in mind, smile at a stranger, and just be kind.


MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “All I can do is be me, whoever that is” – Bob Dylan

November 2016

I may have mentioned a few times that one of my more infuriating qualities – if only to myself – is procrastination, and the reason I thought I’d mention this at the top is because I have just noticed that I have less than an hour to write my column before I head off to work in my new job.

But that’s ok, procrastination sits snugly within the basket of traits that make up my Jen-ness, alongside comfort eating, enjoying (a little too much, it could be argued) the Californication box sets I recently found on the telly, and quoting Bob Dylan (see below) not because it’s particularly relevant but because he’s just won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I think he’s very cool. I also have a tendency to take on new projects in an “oh look, there’s a squirrel!” kind of way (no, that wasn’t a Dylan quote), conveniently overlooking the fact that I have plenty of unfinished projects on the go already. I also hate saying no, for fear of letting people down, and am indecisive because I’m in a long-running mental dilemma over what I want vis-à-vis what’s best for everyone else.

These endearing/irritating, traits were brought to my attention recently by way of a personality profiling workshop. Having taken a tentative step in a different direction career-wise, I thought it would be fun to see if I am in fact suited to it. The workshop, run by Hazel Wright of Clarity4D, was organised through Pop Connect. The method used is along the same lines as other profilers in that it’s broadly based on the introvert–extrovert and thinking–feeling spectrums, but rather than identifying as one specific type you are given a range of ‘colours’ in varying degrees. “Whatever colors you have in your mind, I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine”, as Dylan sang.

Green (introverted–feeling), is easy-going and nurturing. Greens like to ‘check in’, to ask how you are, possibly with their heads tilted slightly to one side. They do sympathetic nods, and most likely will have just made you a cake. Yellows (extroverted–feeling) are really enthusiastic! because everything’s brilliant!, except when it’s amazing! and there’s always Prosecco in their fridge. Blues (introverted–thinking) are to be found writing lists and inventing time machines, and may forget to talk to you, and they will notice when IKEA don’t provide the correct number of knöbskrews. They are your go-to people for when the computer goes funny. Reds (extroverted–thinking) are busy running several countries at once and being magnetic and hilarious, and more than a little sexy and terrifying in equal measure.

What’s interesting about the Clarity4D method is that it’s fluid (which is like, so right-on these days). Not only can you be a combination of varying degrees of colours, but this itself can vary according to which way the wind is blowin’. You can be red hot at work but then make a delicious Sunday roast and cuddle up with the family wearing a green woolly hat and yoga pants. Or you can rein in your shiny and chaotic yellowness when you’re, say, a surgeon because you need to be serious, conscientious and methodical (blue), and ideally not drinking Prosecco. I’m mainly green and yellow but will quite comfortably pop on my blue hat for work, and very occasionally dare to be just the tiniest bit red. “I’m inconsistent, even to myself”, says Dylan. Although it’s tempting to identify as one particular personality type, we each have a peculiar combination of characteristics which are always a-changin’. Furthermore, we can, once we’ve worked out which version of us we want to be today, embellish the desirable ones and disown the disagreeable ones; hire or fire accordingly. As Dylan put it, “Be groovy or leave, man”.

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “My own brain is the most unaccountable of machinery – always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?” – Virginia Woolf

October 2016


So, I’ve been for a couple of jogs. They were sort of mainly walks with running shoes on. I’m not following a strict regime or a motivational app. I don’t even listen to music. This is my version of mindfulness – listening to my breathing (for which read, rasping), waving to cows, and pausing in a field for yogic stretches. Once I actually hugged a tree, in pure relief, having told myself that I had to keep running ‘til I’d reached it. I do have a Fitbit, but it makes siren noises when my heart rate reaches two squillion or so, which apparently is a bit high.

After one jog I felt so amazing that I was driven to re-read the technical bits of Ruby Wax’s book Sane New World on brain chemicals. It’s fascinating! Exercise releases endorphins which are famous for reducing pain and stress. But they also, with the aid of dopamine, induce a euphoric feeling – similar to that produced by morphine – known as ‘runner’s high’. Pretty cool that I got runner’s high just by wobbling along the lane for half an hour. That’s why exercise is said to be the most effective treatment for depression.

There’s more! For example, when we kiss, our brain releases a heady cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. Wow! Serotonin, the happy shiny one, is a natural feel-good chemical. Dopamine, the bad boy, stimulates the same area of the brain as heroin and cocaine, and produces euphoria and addictive behaviour. And oxytocin, the love drug, fosters feelings of affection and nurturing. Wax says you can tell who has plenty of oxytocin because “in the queue of life they’re always at the back taking care of others”.

The thing is, feelings are not separate from the brain, they are determined by it. Feel free to roll your eyes and go ‘duh – obvs’, but I honestly think that we don’t always get that, and it is key to kicking the stigma of mental illness into touch. As Wax says, “I’ll say it again. Mental illness is a physical illness. Let us shout it from the rooftops until everyone gets the message; depression has nothing to do with having a bad day or being sad.”

I may sound like a born again neuroscientist (well, I’ve read a book!), but I think they should teach this in schools. To understand how the brain works is to understand how physical and chemical processes in the brain determine how we think and feel, and therefore how we can adjust that if it’s not quite firing properly. In basic terms, when neurotransmitters pass across the synapses repeatedly, the synapses change shape to make the process more efficient. This is the reason I can remember that six sixes are thirty six, all my friends’ home phone numbers from when we were 14, and how to ask for a kilo of strawberries in French. Explain to children what happens to their brains when they learn times tables and they might just think it’s ‘awesome’ enough to actually do it.

What’s more awesome is, we can determine which synapses to strengthen and which ones to let shrivel away – accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the song goes. “I consider that a brain is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose” – Arthur Conan Doyle.


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