Psychology & Psychiatry


December 4th 2023

This week in
 Friday 1 December 2023 
Want to tell someone how deeply you love them? Don’t just say it or text it. Slow down, reflect and use this week’s Guide to help you express your affection through poetry. I hope you enjoy this week’s inspirational, visually stunning Film featuring Denise Joi – the first woman employed as a pilot by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. For Denise, learning to fly was easy compared with overcoming the trauma of her childhood. Yet she has learned to heal, and it’s her proudest achievement. In Ideas, a thoughtful exploration of what it takes to be an adult; a fascinating account from India of the healing effects of Sufi shrines for people dealing with psychological distress; and you might assume meditation makes people more moral – actually, the research on this tells a more nuanced and intriguing story.
  – Christian Jarrett, Editor  
HAPPINESSWhy a Sufi approach to healing mental illness is so powerful by Bhrigupati Singh   LIFE STAGES Legal definitions aside – what makes you think you’re an adult? by Megan Wright  
How to write a love poem Flirtatious texts are soon forgotten. Learn to express your feelings in a beautiful way that will make a lasting impression by Dan Simpson
MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATIONHere’s what to know about using meditation to be a better person by Jakob Hohwy and Kevin Berryman   MENTAL HEALTHDenise finds a hard-earned freedom in Colorado’s alpine skies8 minutes  

December 2nd 2023

An ancient technique can improve your attention span

The modern attention economy hijacks our ability to focus, but an ancient technique offers a means to get it back.

A young girl giving her undivided attention to a TV screen displaying an engaging cartoon.
Bettmann / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Attention is a scarce economic resource; you only have so much to give in your lifetime.
  • Life’s modern distractions, such as news and social media, have overwhelmed our evolutionarily designed attention spans.
  • According to neuroscientist Amishi Jha, 12 minutes of mindfulness training a day strengthens your attentional systems.

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This article was first published on Big Think in July 2022. It was updated in December 2023.

Does this sound familiar? You can’t focus. You’re bored one minute, overwhelmed the next, and stressed either way. You make mistakes you shouldn’t and then dwell on them for hours. When you try to be productive, you can’t go five minutes without checking your texts, dreading some future engagement, or walking into another room to check on … something. (What was it again?)

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Neuroscientist Amishi Jha opens her book, Peak Mind, with this vignette to illustrate an important truth: You’re not alone. Most people can’t go three minutes at work without being interrupted by a chatty colleague, and students cite the allure of social media and other digital distractions as a major disruptor to their studies.

“I’ve seen certain universal patterns in the way all of our brains function — both how powerfully they can focus, and how extraordinarily vulnerable they are to distraction — no matter who you are or what you do,” Jha writes.

At the heart of this predicament, Jha argues, is attention — specifically, the many ways we can disconnect from it. Depleted attention creates a mental fog. Hijacked attention manifests as anxiety and worry. Fragmented attention shatters our ability to focus. Disconnected attention keeps us detached from others. Each attentional affliction causes you to grow out of sync with what’s happening around you, affecting what you think, how you feel, what you learn, how you react, and your relationships with others.

In short, attention isn’t just a matter of where your focus happens to be. It’s the internal force that shapes how you encounter and experience your life in its entirety.

Attention: A cognitive currency

In her book, Jha compares attention to a currency. You can pay it to others, and they can give theirs to you. You can request it in the spirit of charity — “Will you give me your attention, please?” And as any parent whose child is within earshot of an ice cream truck can attest, attention can be stolen outright.

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This connection is more than metaphorical. Attention is a scarce economic resource; you only have so much to give in your lifetime. When you focus on a person, tweet, daydream, or TV show, you are spending a moment of attention. You can never get it back, and you can’t provide it elsewhere. The same is true for any $10 bill that’s left your wallet.

But like that ten-spot, attention is also a means of exchange. In exchange for yours, you may receive love, knowledge, entertainment, self-understanding, and much more.

“Given how powerful attention is, we need to really respect where we place this precious brain resource,” Jha said in an interview.

Evolutionary life insurance

This cognitive currency is traded through your brain’s attention system. This system filters out unnecessary noises, sights, and sounds from the environment alongside distracting thoughts and mental chatter. Without it, you couldn’t focus at all. Your conscious mind would stall from the vast amounts of information bombarding it — like a computer with overloaded RAM.

This attention system isn’t foolproof, though. It becomes easily distracted when it encounters novel, exciting, threatening, or self-related information in the environment. And this backdoor hack isn’t a flaw; it’s a feature of evolutionary design.

For example, imagine you’re an ancient human who is spearfishing in an African river. You’re focused intently on the glittering water, trying to aim your thrust to account for the bending light. Suddenly, your eye catches something in its periphery. It’s long, brown, and moving half-submerged through the water.

Your attention system will break its focus and snap toward that potential threat. If it’s a log, you’ve paid a pittance of attention and can return to fishing. But if it’s a Nile crocodile, then your attentional insurance paid out big. Distraction just saved your life.

News headlines drip with tragedy and threatening news because such information pulls at our attention. (Credit: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash)

Living in the attentional red

While distraction has its uses, today it’s an ever-present quality of our lives, wrenching us from our attention when we need it most. That’s because, Jha writes, while attention is powerful, it’s also fragile. It can be easily broken by stress, threats, and negative moods. And the prevalence of these forces is causing our crisis of attention.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Much like distraction, these three forces can be advantageous. Stress has a positive side called eustress. It’s the low-to-medium levels of stress that motivate you to accomplish something. Without it, you’d have no drive, and every day would be a listless lull in the doldrums.

Similarly, a negative mood can signal that something is wrong. That unease can propel you to solve the problem and lift the emotional pall.

But the modern world has hyper-charged these forces beyond the tipping point of usefulness. Stress has become distress, negative moods have become chronic melancholy, and threats are overrepresented. There are many reasons for this hyper-charging, but a prominent one is the attention economy.

Technology companies, news media, and political players now recognize attention as the resource it is and, in some ways, regard it as more valuable than money. “[M]oney follows attention, whereas the reverse is not necessarily true. As our economy becomes more dependent on attention, the medium of exchange flows from the holders of the old to the holders of the new,” writes the Berkeley Economic Review.

Given attention’s value, it’s little wonder enterprises have built products and services to target the attentional back doors left open by evolution.

News organizations, for example, favor headlines that drip with threat and tragedy — the so-called “if it bleeds, it leads” standard. That’s because we’re hardwired to assess threats and determine what can be done. Essentially, we need to find out if the story represents a log or a crocodile. The more people compelled to perform that assessment, the more newspapers sold.

These threats don’t have to be physical. As Jha writes, “Our reputation, financial well-being, or sense of justice can all be under threat.”

People used to pay some of their daily attention to the news, either a morning read of the paper or an hour watching the evening broadcast. But in the era of 24/7 news coverage — the era of the attention economy — we’re paying that attentional cost throughout the day. Over time, it becomes a sizable withdraw of our mental energy, yet we continue to check our news feeds for threats even when we should be focused on something else.

Without devoting attention, we don’t experience care, and we can’t extend care. In fact, you might say that paying attention to another person is our highest form of love.

~ Amishi Jha

Train your attention

Is the answer then to wall yourself off from stressors, disconnect from social media, and choose not to engage with news coverage?

“My answer is a resounding no,” Jha writes. “Many stressors are unavoidable, while others are part of our journey to fulfillment and success — if we remove them, we would be limiting ourselves.”

While attention is both powerful and fragile, it has a third feature: It’s trainable through mindfulness. Just as exercise trains the body, mindfulness trains the mind by strengthening your meta-awareness — that is, your ability to be aware of where you’re placing your awareness.

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The stronger your meta-awareness becomes, the more control you have over your attention system. That control then helps you keep your attention on the present moment, enriching how you encounter and experience your life.

Through her research, Jha discovered what she calls the “minimum effective dose” of mindfulness. Her team found that lab participants who practiced mindfulness for 12 minutes or more a day saw benefits in objective measures of attention and mood. Those who practiced for less did not.

In Peak Mind, Jha lays out a four-week regimen to help readers build their mindfulness habits. But in her interview, Jha shared an exercise you can do right now to exercise your attentional system. Simply follow these steps:

  1. Start by settling into your body.
  2. Notice yourself sitting and breathing.
  3. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes.
  4. Ask: What’s most vividly tied to my breath? Is it the coolness of air moving in and out of my nostrils? Or are my shoulders moving up and down?
  5. Direct your focus on this sensation.
  6. If you notice your attention has wandered, redirect it back to your breath.

On the page, the exercise seems painfully easy. Maybe even a little boring. But you’ll likely find your mind often drifts away from the sensation of your breathing. You’ll become lost in reliving a childhood memory, worrying over an unfinished project, or delighting in a favorite fantasy. Whatever the case, it’s not a failure on your part. Redirecting your focus back to the breath is the whole point. That’s the key to strengthening your attention span.

“Minds wander. It’s a natural thing that the brain does. When our mind moves away, gently return it back. Simply begin again,” Jha reminds you.

Learn more on Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Amishi Jha’s full class for your organization, request a demo.


Life Hacksmental healthmindfulnessneuroscience

November 30th 2023

parenting Nov. 25, 2023

What Does It Mean to ‘Raise Good Humans’?

By Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a columnist for the Cut covering modern family life. 


Deep thoughts on modern family life from Kathryn Jezer-Morton.

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

It has become clear in the last few years that the internet isn’t fun anymore. People are still creating interesting and original work, but the ever-shrinking number of places where that work appears are looking and sounding more and more the same. But despite all this, we persevere in consuming the internet every moment of our lives. Our efforts are rewarded with, at the very least, an internet that is constantly changing. Usually for the worse, but hey! If we keep plugging away at it, maybe the tides will turn. We will keep plugging away regardless.

It’s no different on the internet of parenting. Sometimes I hear from friends without kids that they’re hesitant to have children because today’s parents make parenting seem horrible, particularly in the way they talk about it online. I realize that there are real-life parents who are very hard to be around, but most real-life parents, as I’ve made pains to acknowledge in previous columns, are actually cool. (Well, cool enough for a park hang, anyway.) But internet parenting is not cool at all. On the internet, being a parent seems outrageously lame.

The primary reason for this is that performing “family” on social media is like putting a square peg into a round hole. Almost every other pastime and lifestyle are natural fits for socials: showing off your outfit, showing off your sports, showing off your cooking, playing your music, being into gaming, foraging in the woods, crafting, being really into your pet, being really into your house, partying, astrology, having a sexual orientation — all of these translate beautifully and not at all awkwardly into visual storytelling.

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Raising children, with all its rewards and contradictions, does not. Children are not hobbies, and love and satisfaction are far from the only feelings we have while caring for them. One of the reasons I decided to spend six years doing a Ph.D. on momfluencers is that I wanted to try to get my mind around the challenging contortions that so many momfluencers endure to make content about their families that conforms to a brand’s consistency and logic. It’s a quixotic choice. Family life at its very foundation defies this kind of capture. Fleeting snapshots have a way of showing what it really means, for a moment, to be in a family, and so do some novels and poems and films. But the flatness of digital content, combined with the limited affordances of a cute caption, is just about the worst medium representing what family really feels like.

It’s weird how the logic of branding has begun to inform the stylistic choices we make when trying to represent our families to our social networks. One example of a spirit of branding infiltrating the way families tell their stories is the widespread use of the phrase “raise good humans.”

“Raise good humans” is one of those internet phrases that kind of lives everywhere at this point. People use it as a hashtag and they incorporate it into their captions. There are many similar phrases — “raising them right” is another popular one, but “raising good humans” has really caught on. You can buy all kinds of merch printed with versions of this phrase. Brands invoke it as a way of identifying themselves to their followers as “one of the good guys,” although it’s become politically ambidextrous, appealing for different reasons to people all over the political spectrum. There is also something inadvertently grandiose about “raising good humans.” Oh, nothing, it seems to be saying. Just raising good humans!

My attempts at tracing the phrase’s origins on Instagram brought me to a creator named Sarah Komers who began selling Raise Good Humans T-shirts in early 2016. Her shirts were a hit and reached a level of visual ubiquity approaching “The Future Is Female” — a once-popular T-shirt graphic which was also a product of that early Trump era. “Raise good humans” is now all over the parenting internet, having expanded far beyond the realm of the shirts.

I don’t mean to pick on this individual creator and her shirts. There’s nothing wrong with making something that lots of people like. May she carry on and prosper. What I find fascinating is the precision with which the phrase “raise good humans” demonstrates why I think family life is such an awkward fit for social-media storytelling.

I don’t object to the sentiment behind the phrase. I think it’s fair to say no parent on earth would — it’s the absolute baseline, the x-axis on which we all anxiously rest. The parents of abusers and murderers are almost always trying to raise good humans. The parents of our political and personal enemies are trying to raise good humans.

The phrase is so general it becomes meaningless. In the absence of the poignancy achieved with art, social-media storytelling about family life usually leans heavily on platitudes, in the same way “I did a thing” became the way people once announced that something they had been working on was now complete. Talking about what pride, or relief, or love feels like is challenging, so we reduce our attempts to their bare bones and throw in a little wink of faux humility for flair.

In certain contexts, there’s a sinister undertone to “raise good humans” that rings almost fascist — in the way that a lot of fascism doesn’t realize it’s fascism until it’s too late and despots are in the midst of running nations into the ground. “Raise good humans” does unfortunately suggest the existence of bad humans, which is grim, especially since the humans in question are children. There are lots of Israelis who think Palestinians are not raising good humans, and vice versa. There are Americans who suspect their neighbors are not raising good humans, and this suspicion keeps them from supporting the funding of civic infrastructure like schools and libraries.

But let’s bring this back to the internet where it belongs. When I asked for help understanding why this phrase is so annoying to me, my friend Evie suggested that the use of the word “humans” instead of “children” implies an “interspecies conversation” that is cringe and dorky in the manner of “doggo.” She also said as a “self-hating millennial,” it would make sense for me not to like it, which is harsh but fair.

There is also something inadvertently grandiose about “raising good humans.” Oh, nothing, it seems to be saying. Just raising good humans! Again, this speaks to the awkwardness of creating digital content about family life. Raising a family is one of the most mundane things you can do, while also being (deep, sanctimonious breath) one of the most important. Calling attention to oneself in this way can seem like false modesty, or worse, like boasting about something that literally billions of other parents are doing without giving it a second thought.

But it can also seem defensive, depending on the context. One corner of the mamasphere where you see a lot of “raising good humans” is in the homeschooling space, in particular the large sphere of that world that is skeptical of government institutions and scientific methods. In this case, raising good humans is evoked as a humble (again — not really) act of resistance against an invisible world order hell-bent on turning children into brain-dead zombies addicted to screens, sugar, and social justice.

A final reason I object to the ethos of “raising good humans” is that it overdetermines a parent’s role in how their children turn out. Children aren’t raised like livestock on the hoof. They do not grow to reflect precisely the land they grew on. There is no assembly line of kindness or set of best practices for ensuring a child’s goodness. We can only do so much to influence how our children turn out. There is no way to express this sometimes stressful reality in the context of a social post, though. It’s much easier, and more befitting a successful personal brand, to presume that your best intentions will lead to the best possible outcome. But we all know that’s not how it works.

Social media has made it hard for us to express our feelings with nuance and honesty. The word “humbled” has long since been ruined by the way people misuse it as a brag. One is not humbled by an award or opportunity, one is honored. One is humbled by mistakes. Likewise, we aren’t raising good humans. We are attempting to raise people who are loving and loved in their communities. That’s really the best we can do. Everything else is privilege and luck.

Why self-awareness is the secret to a successful job interview

Emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutschendorf details how self-awareness can help even the most nervous interviewer.

By Harvey Deutschendorf

Self-awareness is not only the basis of both professional and personal growth, but a crucial ingredient in any job interview. 

Traditionally, as job seekers, we spend much of our time and effort perfecting our resumes to showcase and highlight our skills, as well as thinking how we will respond to questions such as “tell me about yourself.” While the focus is on technical skills and past experience, the fact that we are being interviewed tells us that employers have already decided that we have the necessary skills for the position. What hiring managers want to learn during the interview process is how we will fit into their organization and whether we have the personal attributes to excel in the job.

This is where self-awareness can help us stand out from the other applicants. Being self-aware can allow us to show self-confidence, authenticity, and adaptability. It helps us show our strengths in the optimal light and talk about our weaknesses in a manner that will not turn the interviewers off. 

In my new book, Emotional Intelligence Game Changers: 101 Simple Ways to Win at Work + Life, the first tip speaks to the importance of self-awareness and how to develop it. And according to Anna Papalia author of the upcoming book Interviewology: The New Science of Interviewing “an interview in the most basic sense is a set of questions about you, the more you know yourself the better you’ll do.”

Self-awareness helps us answer questions about where we see ourselves in the future, which is commonly asked in interviews. It allows us to come across as thoughtful, sincere, and make better connections between our future aspirations and the position we are applying for at this time. Having a good understanding of where we excel, and where we are headed lets us come across as natural and sincere, building trust with the people interviewing us.

Interviews are naturally stressful and the interviewers recognize this. They may themselves be somewhat nervous, depending upon their level of experience and personal confidence. Papalia collected research and studied how people behave in interviews and discovered we all interview in one of four styles. Her research suggests you interview as a “charmer,” “challenger,” “examiner,” or “harmonizer.” Knowing your interview styles helps both job seekers and hiring managers interview better through self-awareness. Being self-aware allows us to think of ways to deal with our nervousness, while allowing us to come across as authentic at the same time. When feeling nervous, we can slow down and give ourselves more time to think about our response. It allows us to recognize when a little humor might be appropriate and when to ask further questions to gain clarity for a better response to a question.

Being self-aware will help us to be more conscious of what the emotional state that the persons interviewing are in. This vital skill will help us to delve deeper and get a feeling for where they feel the interview is going. The ability to read the interviewer’s tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions will go a long way to knowing how to not only respond to questions, but adjust and adapt our responses according to how we interpret them landing on the people interviewing us.

Knowing the situations and environments that bring out our best attributes and allow us to give our best selves helps us to determine whether the company is going to be a good fit for us. It allows us to ask insightful questions that show that you have a genuine interest in making sure that if they hire you, it will be a decision that will work best for both parties.

“Showing up authentically in job interviews is the hardest part. It requires that you ignore all the messages in society that tell you that should pretend to be whatever they want because that’s a lousy strategy because how long are you going to pretend?” says Papalia. “It may work temporarily to get your foot in the door, you may get the offer but then what, if you get the job are you going to pretend to be something you’re not for the next 3 years?”

Experienced interviewers are on the lookout for fabricated answers that have been overly thought out and practiced before the interview. Our self-awareness can go a long ways to not falling into the trap of coming across as if we have rehearsed for the interview, and will allow the people on the other side a better glimpse into who we really are. It will also help interviewers drop their guard a bit, allowing for the interview to naturally flow to a deeper level. This provides us with the opportunity to show more genuine emotion and enthusiasm about aspects of the work that we have strong feelings about. In this way, showing self-awareness will help us connect, and develop more rapport and trust, with our interviewers.Work Smarter Newsletter logo

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About the author

Harvey Deutschendorf is an emotional intelligence expert, author and speaker. To take the EI Quiz go to


November 29th 2023

Dazed Beauty

Inside the rising ‘muscle dysmorphia crisis’ among young men

BeautyBeauty Feature

Defined as a preoccupation with one’s perceived lack of muscularity, muscle dysmorphia is becoming increasingly prevalent, causing what experts are calling a ‘silent crisis’ in men’s mental health

20November 2023

TextNiamh Rowe

Like many boys in the 90s, Jonathon Freelove played with action figures. He-Man, Ninja Turtles and ThunderCats were his favourites. While the characters were imaginary, he knew one part of them resembled the human world: their torsos. Swollen biceps and defined abdominal muscles on the plastic figurines were his first introduction to what masculinity and the male physique could look like. 

By adolescence, the seemingly flawless, God-like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rocky Balboa were his idols. He would pick up his father’s copies of Men’s Health around the house and flick through. It was 2001, and headlines included: “Fat to Flat”, “Sex. Money. Muscle.”, and “Look Great Naked”. 

Determined to resemble the jacked-up bodies he’d aspired to since childhood, Freelove started lifting weights, and replaced “bad” food with “clean” alternatives. Although his new hobby was praised by those around him, “it was just a form of self-harm, because I hated the way I looked,” he says. As his body goals became increasingly unattainable, the habit became an obsession; the more he burned, the further his confidence fell. Within a year of lifting weights, Freelove was admitted to The Priory Hospital in Birmingham for a nine-month-stay, for an eating disorder.

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“My ankle was swollen up because I had severe fluid retention, and I was having irregular heartbeats,” he says, a consequence of abusing caffeinated pre-workout powders. But in treatment, one thing baffled him – he was trying to get bigger, not smaller. “I was obsessed with muscularity,” he says. He then received an additional diagnosis: muscle dysmorphia (MD).

“The day you start lifting is the day you become forever small,” is a common phrase in the bodybuilding community. While for many bodybuilders this mantra speaks to their drive for ever-bigger muscles that characterises the sport, for a smaller section of the population, it encapsulates the losing battle that is MD.


MD is a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) which affects two percent of the population. Seen mostly in men, it’s defined as a preoccupation with one’s perceived lack of muscularity, despite having an average build, or in many cases, an extremely muscular body. This results in repeated behaviours to try to fix the perceived flaw: abusing pre-workout supplements, steroids, excessive exercise, restrictive eating and body checking.

The condition is not classified as an eating disorder, however, symptoms often occur concurrently. It entered the psychiatric lexicon in 1997, and in 2002, The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys was published, which introduced the novel idea that a gym obsession could become pathological, decades before the fitness industry would find its most profitable frontier on social media.

But it’s important to distinguish between avid gym-goers with insecurities and clinical dysmorphia. A key sign is when the fixation begins to interfere with one’s daily activities, says Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. For instance, when George Mycock, 27, from Stoke-on-Trent, spent a day or two off his diet, or out of the gym, he’d be consumed by paranoia that everyone would know. So, he’d avoid leaving the house, he says, and at rock bottom, he locked himself away for three weeks. He’d planned to take his own life, but was narrowly saved by a friend.


While the first recorded cases were over two decades ago, body image concerns are becoming increasingly prevalent among young males. “It has seemed to explode over recent years,” says Dr Gabriela Vargas, director of the Young Men’s Health website at Boston Children’s Hospital. Love Island torsos, algorithm-fueled protein shakes and YouTube videos with titles such as “The Secret of How Andrew Tate Got HUGE While in Prison,” are pressuring boys and men to bulk up. “I’ve struggled with it because of how normalised [the gym] has been,” Freelove says. “When really, for me, it’s the place I shouldn’t be going.”

Over half of British men show signs of body dysmorphia, a recent report found. Within the community of avid male gym-goers, a study published last year in the US found that all participants who immersed themselves in bodybuilding practices described themselves as having some degree of muscle dysmorphia. 

Men, however, are less likely to seek treatment than women – despite one in three eating disorders occurring in men, according to the National Eating Disorder Association, only one in 20 people in treatment are male, Vargas says. Meanwhile, in 2016, it was reported that less than one percent of all the body image and eating disorder research was conducted exclusively on males, leading some researchers to state that this is a “silent crisis” in men’s mental health.

“We’re still learning a lot about it, because in part, it just hasn’t been prioritised in research,” Vargas says, of MD. “There is this huge shift that needs to happen in terms of acknowledging that this is a significant concern for men,” she says.

Arnold Schwarzenegger admires another bodybuilder at Muscle Beach in Venice in August 1977Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


Freelove overcame his eating disorder in hospital, but he continues to struggle with dysmorphia. At his lowest, he would visit the gym multiple times daily and abuse SARMs, illegal muscle-enhancing drugs that mimic the effects of testosterone and anabolic steroids, that have been found to be sold in UK shops. He learnt about them via YouTube influencers, who trivialised the strawberry and watermelon drinks as gym bag must-haves. But upon a visit to the doctor for depression – that he would later learn was at least partially SARMs-inflicted – he was told he had the testosterone levels of a 90-year-old man. He still takes hormone replacement medication to reverse the damage.

There are still more than one million, predominantly male, steroid users in the UK, according to the UK Anti-Doping agency. Research from marketing firm Mintel found almost a quarter of men aged 16-24 in the UK take supplements for exercise. “We know that teens that are using protein supplements are moving on to the anabolic steroids,” says Vargas, because immersing into the gym community can increase the risk.

On the more extreme end, bodybuilders have even died in recent years from suspected steroid-related causes, including celebrity bodybuilder Rich Piana at the age of 46. Piana freely admitted having taken steroids since he was a teenager, however, the cause of his death so far remains unclear.

“If you want to win your class and try to be a professional bodybuilder, you have to take steroids,” says bodybuilder Grant Lloyd, 25, from North Carolina, who uses the drugs. He began taking part in competitions at age 14, and suffers from MD, but thinks that the sport’s endemic steroid culture makes it unavoidable.

@delt.daddy Reply to @batshit84 #greenscreen sarms without a pct? #fyp#fypシ#bodybuilding#aesthetic♬ original sound – Makaia Childress


Due to the competitive and aesthetic nature of bodybuilding, social media is a natural home for the culture. Oscar*, 27, an online trainer and non-competitive bodybuilder from Liverpool who asked to remain anonymous, started sharing content on Instagram. “I would get one negative comment like, ‘oh, why are you giving advice on muscle growth? You’re so small,’” he says, leading him to experience dysmorphic thoughts. Now, to acknowledge his growth, he must compare side-by-side past and present pictures of himself. Otherwise, in his reflection, he simply feels too small, he says.

And following bodybuilders only worsened this. “Social media shows you the one per cent of people who look the best of the best, whose content performs the best –  it creates this echo chamber,” he says, especially due to the prevalence of steroid usage.

Greater social media usage among adolescent and young adults has been associated with symptoms of muscle dysmorphia, according to a study published this year. It described social media algorithms as “rabbit holes,” that “ultimately perpetuate the unrealistic body ideals, which are commonly posted on social media and precipitate attempts to change one’s body.”


But the rise in MD runs deeper than algorithms. Mycock believes that for some, the appeal of building muscle is being “able, capable to fight, intimidating, dominant – these patriarchal ideas of what a man should be.” And Freelove admits he partially got into weightlifting to appear attractive to women: “If I look like this, I’ll be able to get in a relationship”.

Swami sees this intertwining of muscularity and masculinity as a relatively recent cultural change, beginning in the early 90s, when fashion and beauty industries realised the market power of targeting men, he says. Men began to be sold the idea that their bodies are non-biological commodities to be invested in, he says. And with the backdrop of evolving gender roles, Swami thinks muscle-building offers immediate agency over one’s virility: “It’s the one form of masculinity that feels like it’s malleable.” 

 But for Oscar*, as a transgender man, this malleability was a lifeline: while on a two-year wait list for hormone therapy, he started weightlifting to connect with his masculinity.“I thought, well, if I build more muscle, I know I can look closer to how I feel in my head,” he says. 

But living within a culture that valorises the muscular physique can delay recovery, MD sufferers say. “A lot of your physical symptoms to the outward world are great,” says Mycock. As a result, self-destructive behaviours can be hidden in plain sight. “It’s hard to stomach the nuance of it because for so long, we’ve been told it’s good – and no matter what, it’s good,” he says. He adds: “Exercise should be treated more like medicine, in the sense, there’s always a list of side effects.”

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Beliefs about Emotions Influence How People Feel, Act and Relate to Others

Thinking about a range of emotions as friends rather than foes improves the quality of our life

By Francine Russo

A person mental health brain activity concept illustration human head and brain.
Credit: filo/Getty Images

When I was a teenager, I declared that I did not like my grandma. My mother excoriated me not just for saying such a thing but for feeling it. That, in her eyes, made me a terrible person. She believed that. I tried not to.

Our beliefs about emotions—whether we feel that they’re good or bad, controllable or uncontrollable, or useful or harmful—profoundly affect our life and relationships. Science has only recently committed itself to examining this issue, but it is now doing so with a vengeance. In 2020 the journal Frontiers in Psychology devoted an entire issue to everyday beliefs about emotion.

Why is all of this happening now? It all goes along with a growing interest in our response to moods and stress responses, says Stanford University psychologist James J. Gross. “I think this interest that’s been cooking for the past couple of decades has been magnified by the pandemic,” he says. “I think there’s a growing awareness of how anxious and depressed and stressed so many of us are.” He notes that there’s a robust link between beliefs about the controllability of emotions and the use of emotion-regulation strategies to reduce anxiety and depression.

In just the past few years cutting-edge theorizing has focused more on the link between belief and emotion. And new empirical research has drilled down on the effects of specific beliefs. To begin with, a number of psychologists have created self-report scales. The Emotion Beliefs Questionnaire, for example, asks people how much they agree with statements such as “There is very little use for negative emotions” and “It doesn’t matter how hard people try, they cannot change their positive emotions.”Another scale, Individual Beliefs about Emotion (IBAE), focuses on more subjective variations such as “I don’t want to admit to having certain feelings—but I know that I have them” and “If I let myself have some of these feelings, I fear I will lose control.”

IBAE co-creator and University of Arkansas clinical psychologist Jennifer Veilleux finds this questionnaire helpful in therapy. If people think they should keep their feelings private, for example, they may not reveal these emotions, even in therapy. If so, they can’t work on changing the feelings, she says.

Such beliefs matter. Research is showing that those who assume they can modify their emotions experience greater well-being both in the short and long term. If they feel sad or angry, for example, they can use an emotion-regulation strategy such as cognitive reappraisal to reduce their painful feelings.

Variously called reframing, reappraisal or rethinking, this popular technique has proved effective. A student who feels sad about their low grade, for example, can remind themselves that they didn’t study much for that exam but that if they studied more next time, they’d be likely to do better. An employee who isn’t promoted may consider how the advancement of a colleague with greater seniority was fair. The result is that there are fewer painful feelings such as sadness, anger or shame.

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Another effective approach is learning to accept one’s emotions without judging them. In a series of studies tracking acceptance and overall emotional health, University of Toronto psychologist Brett Q. Ford showed that accepting negative emotions led to better mental health. People were asked to keep a daily diary for two weeks. Each evening they reflected on the most stressful event that day and on their responses at the time and afterward. Six months later “acceptors” felt less depression and anxiety and more well-being overall. In a related lab experiment, how much subjects accepted versus judged their emotions was measured. Then each was asked to prepare and give a speech—“a time-worn way of inducing stress in the lab,” Ford says. The higher their level of acceptance, she says, the less they felt anxiety, stress and worry.

While accepting your feelings is healthy, it may be even better to think of them as friends rather than foes. One experiment showed that people who viewed their emotions as more helpful than harmful in times of distress used effective strategies for moderating their emotions, showed less physiological reactivity during a stressful event (watching a disturbing film) and had greater overall well-being.

Which emotions do we see as our greatest friends? Perhaps unsurprisingly, people tend to value positive emotions over negative ones. Take happiness: there is a pervasive assumption in the U.S. that childhood is a naturally happy time and that children’s happiness should be their parents’ priority. In a recent survey, 73 percent of American parents rated happiness as the main goal in raising children, with Canada and France rating it even higher. In India only 49 percent of parents rated happiness so highly, while 51 percent prioritized achievement. Mexicans also valued success most, while Chinese parents ranked health first.

Yet this conviction about happiness, which seems self-evident to many of us, did not exist in the U.S. until the late 19th century, says George Mason University historian Peter Stearns. Before that time, 30 to 50 percent of children died before age five, and very young children were invariably put to work, sometimes at hard labor.

Our contemporary commitment to happiness has downsides, “for example, in measurably complicating reactions to childish unhappiness,” Stearns says. As psychologists point out, negative feelings have important functions. Fear, for example, may feel bad, but it helps us avoid danger. A parent who’s blissfully optimistic may be less vigilant about her toddler running into the street. Anger motivates us to confront those who threaten our goals or safety.

In fact, those convinced that negative feelings have their uses can exploit them. A classic study by psychologist Maya Tamir and her colleague, entitled “When Feeling Bad Is Expected to Be Good,” illustrated this. In a laboratory experiment, the researchers showed that people who saw anger as helpful in a hostile negotiation—one that involved a landlord intent on getting overdue rent from a tenant—won more concessions in the bargaining if they revved up their anger beforehand.

Perhaps most crucially, our convictions about emotions—our own and others’— powerfully influence our closest relationships. In new research, University of Toronto psychology doctoral studentAngela M. Smith and their colleagues had subjects read a first-person narrative describing personal experiences with depression. The participants were then asked to imagine that this person was someone they knew and to pick from a list of potential likely responses to this classmate or neighbor. The study found that people who thought feelings were changeable felt more negatively about and less supportive of the depressed person.

Although the science of emotion beliefs in relationships is just starting, experts say we see these dynamics playing out every day. Many people are convinced that anger is toxic for relationships, Stanford’s Gross says. A married person with this conviction might suppress their anger and not reveal important issues that, expressed in constructive ways, could improve their marriage. A parent who’s angry with their child would likely also be upset with themselves and scared, Gross suggests. “So I then have just translated what would have been just anger into anger plus fear or sadness and upset. So that really complicates things,” he adds.

We tend to think of our views of emotions as primarily psychological, but they also have significant social, cultural and historical dimensions, Stearns says, pointing to the recent field of “emotions history.” Scientists are devoting new attention to how these ideas vary with country and shift over time. Consider gender: in our public discourse we often have heated debates about widespread views that anger is unbecoming in women and that vulnerability or sadness is so in men.

A study from 2019 sheds light on just where we are with these notions.A diverse group of young men and womenread vignettes about a man or a woman crying in either stereotypically “masculine” settings such as firefighting and weightlifting or “feminine” settings such as nursing or figure skating. The participants approved much more of male firefighters weeping than male nurses. In the “masculine” settings, readers rated men shedding tears as more emotionally appropriate and strong.

The country we live in contributes to how we regard emotions and how we deal with them. In a study of nearly 4,000 people across 19 countries that is soon to be published in the journal American Psychologist, Tamir and her colleagues tested the relationship between using emotion regulation strategies with life satisfaction, depression and general psychological health.

In individualist countries such as Germany, the U.K. or the U.S., she explains, we think that emotions are inside us and tell us how we’re doing. Yet research shows, Tamir says, that “in collectivist cultures, emotions are considered something that happens between people, and whether we feel inside good or bad doesn’t really say anything about us. What is more important is how we behave and what we express.” For example, presenting a poker face rather than showing feelings, she says, is harmful for people in individualist societies, but in more collectivist societies, people who do this actually feel better. This may be because in individualist societies, people value expressing authentic emotions, even unpleasant ones, she says. People in collectivist cultures value social harmony more, and expressing negative feelings can disrupt that.

As this research surges on many fronts, new insights such as these are constantly emerging. As Montclair State University psychologist Manuel Gonzalez says, the ways we think about emotion permeates our life; it is shaped by the way we are raised and later by work and even the national culture in the country where we live. “These beliefs permeate so heavily into how we deal with emotions,” Gonzalez says, “how we handle our own emotions, what we allow ourselves to express [and] the ways that emotions pan out in our relationships—be it with family, with friends, at work, how we’re perceived by other people and how they behave toward us.”

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Francine Russo is a veteran journalist specializing in social sciences and relationships. She is author of Love after 50: How to Find It, Enjoy It, and Keep It (Simon and Schuster, 2021).

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November 27th 2023

Brianna Ghey: Murder-accused teens ‘had preoccupation with torture’

Brianna Ghey
Image caption, Brianna Ghey died after she was found with stab wounds in a park

By Lauren Hirst & PA Media

BBC News

Two teenagers accused of murdering Brianna Ghey showed a “preoccupation” with “violence, torture and death”, a court has heard.

The body of Brianna, 16, who was transgender, was discovered by dog walkers in a park in Culcheth, Cheshire, on 11 February.

Manchester Crown Court heard the schoolgirl was stabbed 28 times in a “sustained and violent assault”.

The accused pair, who were 15 at the time but now 16, both deny murder.

Neither can be named by court order because of their age and are identified only as girl X, from Warrington, and boy Y, from Leigh, Greater Manchester.

Warning: Some readers might find the following report distressing

Opening the trial, Deanna Heer KC, prosecuting, said messages recovered from the phones of girl X and boy Y showed a “preoccupation” with “violence, torture and death”.

She said: “If that was not an unusual way for two teenagers to speak to one another, the messages demonstrate also how, over time, they encouraged one another to think about how they would actually carry out a killing.

“The messages show how they planned together to kill Brianna in just the way that she was in fact killed.”

In November 2022, they discussed killing a child referred to as boy M, the court heard.

In one message, girl X said: “If I do end up killing boy M, I have a really sharp blade, the same one that Sweeney Todd uses.

“If we kill boy M can I keep some things, a couple of teeth and an eye.”

Police at the scene in Culcheth Linear Park
Image caption, Brianna Ghey’s body was discovered in Culcheth Linear Park by dog walkers

Ms Heer said in December, girl X sent boy Y a video which was apparently an advert for an underground site for people who like rape, snuff, torture and murder.

Girl X told boy Y: “I love watching torture vids. Real ones on the dark web,” the jury heard.

The court heard on 1 January, boy Y sent girl X a photo of a hunting knife and told her: “Spent my money. I bought a knife.”

Ms Heer said it was that knife which was used to kill Brianna six weeks later.

The court was told in December last year, girl X messaged boy Y telling him she was “obsessed over someone” called Brianna but did not have feelings for the teenager.

After she sent pictures of Brianna to him, boy Y questioned her gender and made slurs.

Ms Heer said on 23 January girl X messaged boy Y telling him she had given Brianna ibuprofen gel tablets that “should have been enough to kill her”.

The court heard how girl X also claimed to have killed two people in messages to boy Y, but there was no evidence she had.

Ms Heer said they spoke in messages about other people they wanted to kill and by 26 January had compiled a list of at least four people, as well as Brianna.

Brianna Ghey's mother Esther Ghey (third right) and sister Alisha Ghey (second right) arriving at Manchester Crown Court,
Image caption, Brianna Ghey’s family arrived at court earlier for the start of the trial

The court heard girl X created a fake Instagram account to contact one of their targets, referred to as boy E, but it was blocked.

In a message read to the court, girl X told boy Y: “If we can’t get boy E tomorrow we can kill Brianna.”

Boy Y said in a reply he wanted to see if Brianna would “scream like a man or a girl”.

In one message, girl X said: “I want to stab her at least once even if she’s dead jus coz its fun lol.”

Earlier, the court heard how two dog walkers were in Culcheth Linear Park when they saw a male and female on the path ahead of them at about 13:30 GMT.

Ms Heer said: “[The woman] saw the male bend down, bending over, as if to tend to a dog, before both he and the female left the path and made their way into an adjacent field, breaking into a run as they did so.”

Brianna Ghey
Image caption, Brianna was stabbed in the head and neck and to the back and chest

The dog walkers continued along the path where they found the “bloodied body of a young woman lying face down in the mud”.

Ms Heer said Brianna had been stabbed 28 times to the head and neck and to the back and chest.

She said: “It is accepted that Brianna Ghey was killed with a knife that belonged to boy Y, a knife which he told girl X he would be bringing with him that day and which he said was sharp enough to kill her.”

The jury was told each defendant denied murder and denied participating in killing Brianna.

Ms Heer said: “Each blames the other.

“The prosecution case is that, whoever it was who delivered the fatal blow or blows, both defendants are equally guilty.

“Acting together, they planned and executed their plan to kill Brianna Ghey.”

The trial continues.

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November 26th 2023

Your Personality Depends on Which U.S. State You Live In

A map of confidence and kindness from California to New York.

by Frank Jacobs, Big Think November 10, 2023

Midwestern nice? Southern charm? Grumpy New England?

Midwestern nice? Southern charm? Grumpy New England? Tobias Ebert et al., Perspectives on Psychological Science

In This Story

Destination Guide United States 89 Articles10658 Places

Does where you live have any bearing on the kind of personality you have? Science says yes, and these maps show how.

But which science is that, exactly? It sounds like something cooked up after hours in the back alley between the geography and psychology departments. When this rogue discipline becomes respectable enough to get its own lab, it will need its own name.

The Nascent Field of Geopsychology

“Psychogeography” is already taken—basically, it’s a fancy term for “walking while moody.” “Geopsychology,” however, is still available. And it sounds just about right to describe the systematic study of regional differences in the distribution of personality traits, especially since those differences do indeed seem to be “robust.”


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Geopsychology is a relatively young science using psychology, statistics, and geography.
Geopsychology is a relatively young science using psychology, statistics, and geography. MissLunaRose12, CC BY-SA 4.0

The traits examined on the maps are the so-called Big Five, a grouping of five broad personality dimensions that started gaining currency in academic psychology in the 1980s and are often referred to by their acronym, CANOE:

  • Conscientiousness
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism (aka, Emotional Stability)
  • Openness
  • Extraversion

Each trait is a spectrum. More conscientious means more efficient and organized; less conscientious means more extravagant and careless. Agreeableness ranges from friendly and compassionate on one end of the scale to critical and rational on the other. Neuroticism ranges from sensitivity and nervousness to resilience and confidence. Openness, from curiosity to caution. And extraversion, from outgoing to solitary.

The usual caveat applies: None of these traits should be taken in isolation, neither for cause nor effect. Studies—of twins, for instance—show that these characteristics are about equally influenced by nature and nurture. In other words, half of your behavioral makeup is due to genetics, and the other half to the environment. Also interesting is the finding that while four out of five traits remain stable into old age, “agreeableness” does show variation as subjects get older, showing that people tend to become more compassionate, cooperative, and trusting as they age.

Among all those variables, geographic location seems to have a significant effect on the prevalence of these traits—hence, geopsychology. On these maps, red means higher than average, green means lower. Darker means greater distance from the average.

More social or more solitary?
More social or more solitary? Tobias Ebert et al., Perspectives on Psychological Science

Extraverts: Where’s the Party?

Extraverts are “the life of the party,” while introverts, on the other side of the scale, require less stimulation from people or events.

Extraversion appears to be highest across central Northern states (including Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska), in the Rust Belt (Ohio, Pennsylvania), and in the South (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida). There are pockets of extraversion across Texas and elsewhere, but large parts of the Northwestern, Western, and Pacific states score well below average.

More friendliness or more self-interest?
More friendliness or more self-interest? Tobias Ebert et al., Perspectives on Psychological Science

Agreeableness: Social Harmony vs. Self-Interest

People who are “agreeable” aim for social harmony, by being kind and considerate, and are prepared to compromise on their goals. “Disagreeable” people have a less optimistic and less cooperative view of others, giving precedence to self-interest. They are more competitive and argumentative.

The presence of agreeableness is most pronounced in the South (Louisiana to North Carolina, with hotter and colder zones in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida). A second important cluster was found in and around Minnesota and the Dakotas. The dark green of disagreeableness hangs heaviest over Western states, from Montana to New Mexico, and from Nevada to the western halves of Kansas and Oklahoma. There is an additional grumpiness epicenter in New England.

More reliable or more spontaneous?
More reliable or more spontaneous? Tobias Ebert et al., Perspectives on Psychological Science

Duty and Discipline Down South

High levels of conscientiousness display as a strong sense of duty, a high degree of discipline, and an intense desire to outperform expectations. Low conscientiousness can manifest as being spontaneous and flexible, but perhaps also less orderly and reliable.

The highest levels of conscientiousness were measured again in the South, but with plenty of clusters elsewhere in the country—with a particularly dark red spot in the Dakota-Montana-Wyoming borderlands. On the other end of the scale, the largest patch of unbroken green is in the Northeast, but with darker veins running through the center and west of the country.

More neurotic or more confident?
More neurotic or more confident? Tobias Ebert et al., Perspectives on Psychological Science

A Dark Band of Emotional Instability

To be emotionally unstable (aka, neurotic) means one is prone to experience anger, depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions. This may be linked to having a low tolerance for stress. On the other end of the scale, emotionally stable individuals are free from persistent negative emotions.

The score for emotional stability was highest throughout the western half and southern part of the country. Apart from an island of stability in central Pennsylvania, a dark band of emotional instability stretches from Maine to northern Alabama, spilling over into the Midwest and West, all the way to Kansas and Oklahoma.

More open-minded or more cautious?
More open-minded or more cautious? Tobias Ebert et al., Perspectives on Psychological Science

The Open-Closed Divide

A high degree of openness signals a willingness to try new things, as well as a higher awareness of one’s own feelings and creative talents. Low openness signals seeking fulfillment through perseverance rather than euphoria and being pragmatic—or perhaps even dogmatic.

There is an almost linear divide in levels of openness. The area west of the eastern state borders of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico is dominated by high levels of openness, with some exceptions. The area to the east of that line is mostly green—again, with notable exceptions, including Chicago, southern Texas, Florida, northern Georgia, and the area around New York.

Very light green and very light red mean you're a little of both.
Very light green and very light red mean you’re a little of both. Tobias Ebert et al., Perspectives on Psychological Science

Some of these results support long-standing stereotypes. However, the results also offer a level of detail that confounds many others. For example, California’s relatively high degree of “openness” chimes with the state’s progressive image. But the significant degree of variation for most of the characteristics illustrates that the state is far from culturally monolithic. The same applies to supposedly conservative Texas, where the results for large metropolitan areas like Dallas, Houston, and Austin deviate significantly from those in other parts of the state.

These traits help explain many aspects of human behavior. For example, studies suggest that people who are more conscientious and agreeable are more likely to achieve academic success than those who score higher on the neurotic scale. Also, by clearly exposing these statistically relevant variations in personality type by region, geopsychology may prove an important tool for marketers, whether in business, politics, or other fields.

Perhaps the still relatively young science of geopsychology will get its own shiny new building sooner rather than later.

This article originally appeared on Big Think, home of the brightest minds and biggest ideas of all time. Sign up for Big Think’s newsletter.

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Get a peek into what we’re obsessed with right now.

November 24th 2023

A smiling family hold hands and play on a sunny beach with their retriever dog

As a psychiatrist, I’ve seen how chasing happiness leads to misery

Photo by Westend61/Getty

Rafa Eubais a retired consultant psychiatrist who pioneered new treatments for depression. He is the author of You Are Not Meant to Be Happy. So Stop Trying! (2021). He also writes a blog at Psychology Today. He lives in London.

Edited by Matt Huston

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New research findings suggest that guilt behaves like an on-off switch whereas anger is more elastic and dial-controlled

You likely have a sense of the sorts of things that make you angry, or afraid, or excited, and what it’s like when these or other emotions arise in you. But have you given much consideration to how these emotional experiences change over time when they’re prompted again and again? After you’re, say, repeatedly interrupted in a conversation, or bumped into several times by a stranger on the train, would your anger keep building like a snowball, or eventually level off?

In a set of studies published recently in the journal Emotion, Evan Polman at the Wisconsin School of Business and his colleagues zoomed in on some of these emotional dynamics. Specifically, they looked at anger and guilt, since these are, Polman notes, ‘complementary when it comes to an interpersonal transgression – one party feels angry, the other party feels guilty’. The researchers wanted to know what would happen to that anger and that guilt if an offence was repeated – whether both emotions would continue to increase, and to the same or different degrees.

In studies conducted online, the researchers first asked people how they would feel in hypothetical situations where someone made a mistake that impacted them, or vice versa. Then study participants were asked how they would feel if they committed the same sort of mistake, or were on the receiving end of it, again. For instance, in one scenario, the participant (or their coworker) was said to have screwed up the data for an important presentation – and then done the same thing again. In another study, participants read about five successive, clumsy errors: spilling coffee on the rug (twice), breaking the coffee mug, and so on. After each mistake was described, ratings of anger or guilt were assessed, depending on which position someone was imagining themselves in.

The participants’ ratings suggest that anger and guilt tend to unfold differently in response to repeated mishaps. In the study involving a long series of mistakes, guilt increased more than anger after the first mess-up but soon flattened, while anger built steadily in response to successive instances. Summing up their findings, the researchers wrote that ‘guilt appears to be a state that is either on or off, changing comparatively little once activated (like a switch), whereas anger is more elastic and subject to bigger increasing and decreasing shifts (like a dial).’

Another study involved a real-life disappointment: individuals were told either that a remote partner had let down their team in a computer-based task and cost them a cash bonus, or that they themselves had let down the team. Then, the same thing happened again. (Unbeknownst to them, there was no partner, and the results were fake.) The anger ratings of those who’d been let down increased with repeated errors, while guilt among those who were told they’d messed up remained flat after the first instance.

Ratings of anger decreased more than guilt did in response to a scenario where someone made up for their mistake

Across the different studies, as anger kept inching up, guilt – an emotion that’s been theorised to prompt relationship-mending after a transgression – seemed to plateau. It was ‘as though there is just a limit to whether guilt will be functional’ after repeated offences, says Polman.

The researchers adopted the term elasticity to describe the extent to which an emotion’s intensity changes in response to successive events. In these studies, anger seemed to be the more elastic emotion. Ratings of anger also decreased more than guilt did in response to a scenario where someone made up for their mistake – suggesting its elasticity goes both ways.

There are, of course, limitations to the studies that raise the question of whether anger and guilt would unfold differently in other situations. Perhaps anger’s ascent would be more frontloaded – more like what was observed with guilt – in response to a more harmful or more intentional offence. Similarly, emotional elasticity might vary across different sorts of real-life situations; most of these studies involved hypothetical ones.

Another of the studies hinted at ways there could be more to the elasticity story. In this case, when the hypothetical victim or transgressor was a best friend (rather than a coworker), anger did not seem to change much more than guilt did in response to a repeat offence.

The new paper opens the door to further investigations of how emotional responses change over time, including whether other emotions – such as joy, sadness or fear – are more or less elastic following repeated joyful, saddening or frightening events. ‘What I think is missing from a lot of psychology work,’ Polman says, ‘is that we don’t know how effects change – how do they decay as time goes on; do they strengthen as time goes on?’

Sometimes our daily experiences or social interactions provoke the same emotion over and over. As for how that plays out over time, these intriguing results suggest it depends on whether you’re feeling angry, guilty, or something else.

My clinical work has shown me that happiness is a ghost that’s not worth pursuing – there are far wiser goals in life

One of the things that moved me many years ago to become a psychiatrist was a desire to acquire a deeper understanding of human nature. People all share basic desires and fears, whether they have a mental disorder or not, but these desires and fears are often more intense, and therefore better illustrated, in the presence of a mental illness. Perhaps no desire is more universal than the desire for happiness, made more concrete and felt more urgently when a person is struggling psychologically. Such cases help to show why happiness is such an elusive aim for any person – and what a wiser objective would be.

‘I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me doctor,’ Mark says. ‘I’ve been depressed for ages and can’t go on like this any longer.’ Mark is an amalgam of patients with bipolar disorder whom I’ve seen over the years. He is indeed depressed, and this episode has been longer and more severe than the previous ones. He last felt well about a year ago. He explains that things were going very well and then, quite suddenly, he crashed. On further questioning, it becomes apparent that he had not been merely doing well before the onset of his depression; in fact, he was a bit high before he went down, although he doesn’t view it that way. He insists that the bubbly, confident and expansive 40-year-old who is happy to embark on risky sexual and financial adventures is his normal self, the real Mark.

Bipolarity shifts points of reference to the extent that one may end up forgetting what a normal mood feels like. Some sufferers swing from depression to mania and back without stopping in the middle. I sympathise with Mark: if I had bipolar disorder, I, too, would see my disinhibited and exuberant self as the real me, and the sad and anxious self as the sick me. The problem is that the ‘happiness’ of mania is unsustainable. Mark’s ambition to return to that state of mind, and to stay there indefinitely, is never going to be realised. (In fact, even the assumption that people in a state of mania feel consistently happy is wrong; mania is often irritable, impatient and dysphoric.) With some luck, treatment will stabilise and modulate his mood fluctuations, but it will not be able to make him permanently happy.

The happiness that someone like Mark misses is unreal and unhealthy. He needs to learn to want a different type of relative happiness – that is, a state of reasonable contentment, with intermittent joy and pain, which, unlike the myth of a permanent bliss, can potentially be achieved. Switching from one goal to the other will involve a process of acceptance and recognition that pain is natural and normal, and not always a symptom to be treated.

Happiness is, after all, an abstract idea; there is no objective measure for it available. Many people don’t even know what they really mean by happiness: is it a state of general satisfaction? Or is it the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain, as the utilitarian philosophers thought? Or should it be based on leading a good life, as postulated by Greek philosophers? Looking at what people post on social media, one might conclude that most of us see happiness nowadays as nothing more than fun and excitement, which need to be constantly extracted from life.

The higher Mark’s mood climbed, the harder the subsequent crash would be

The difficulty with conceptualising happiness is made worse by the simple fact that each of us knows very little about the miseries of others – oftentimes even if they are close others – because it is unpleasant and impolite to talk about horrible stuff in most social situations, and because disclosing failures and humiliations can seem to threaten one’s social image. This distorts the perception of what constitutes an average level of happiness. The advent of social media, with all its shallow fun and joyful narcissism, seems to have exaggerated this distortion.

The confusion around the concept of happiness encourages, I think, a simplistic, black-and-white view in which an average life – inevitably peppered with pain – appears to be suboptimal and less than happy. Mark certainly saw life this way. This is why he chased the bright lights of mania as if they were the beacons of his elusive personal happiness.

Mark’s mood eventually improved, but unfortunately he went directly into a hypomanic (not quite manic) state once again. Much of the time, he felt delighted, even if those around him knew the elation wouldn’t last and worried about the consequences of his overconfidence and disinhibition. However, on this occasion, Mark himself was receptive to the idea of having his over-elation treated. Experience had taught him that the higher his mood climbed, the harder the subsequent crash would be. The aim of the treatment would be to normalise his mood, so he could start working towards a position of reasonable contentment.

Like Mark, Alice has also chased an elusive happiness, but she doesn’t have bipolar disorder. Instead, she has a very chronic and virtually constant depression. She is in her 50s, divorced, and works as a manager in the lingerie section of a department store. Like Mark, she is a fictional amalgam: she represents a certain type of chronically depressed patient whom I have seen in my clinics over the years. She has many regrets and low self-esteem, as well as a pervasive anhedonia (reduced ability to feel pleasure), and yet she regularly goes on holiday with a close female friend and one assumes she must enjoy these holidays, at least to some extent. She has tried a number of treatments unsuccessfully over the years, from pills to therapy, hoping to alleviate her suffering.

Alice’s sadness feeds itself in a vicious circle. She sees and hears about the apparently perfect lives of others and envies their putative happiness, but any attempts to emulate them would be beyond her reach, she thinks. She couldn’t possibly start a new relationship at her age, she explains, so the opportunity to have the life she always dreamed of is a ship that sailed years ago. In her mind, happiness looks very much like a TV ad: handsome partner, two kids, a Labrador, a comfortable home, pillow fights, and chasing each other along the beach, laughing. Happiness is vague and clichéd.

Even the lives of the good-looking couple in Alice’s imagination would include a substantial amount of suffering

She has tried a number of different antidepressants, none of which helped. These are sometimes called ‘happy pills’, but they have little to do with happiness. At best, they help correct a depression, but they cannot conjure happiness, which is an idea and not a biological state.

Therapy is not meant to induce happiness either. The acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) school, for instance, warns about attempts to pursue happiness directly, when in fact the purpose of the therapeutic process is learning to accept suffering from a more self-compassionate stance. Suffering is part of life. In reality, even the lives of the good-looking couple in Alice’s imagination would include a substantial amount of suffering. Coming to accept this fact – aided, perhaps, by hearing about others’ experiences in a therapy group, and by practising greater self-compassion – would help Alice with her feelings of inadequacy.

It seems paradoxical that the pursuit of happiness should generate sadness, but happiness is a ghost, and chasing a ghost can never be a satisfying experience. Mark thought that he knew happiness during his sparkling manic episodes, while Alice thought she had seen happiness in the distortions of advertising and social media. They were mistaken, and the contrast between those mirages and the realities of life – along with the frustration of the expected happiness that never came – increased their pain. These mirages were in one case unsustainable and in the other case fictional, adjectives that can often be applied to the depiction of happiness in popular culture and in the inspirational self-help industry.

‘Folly is the direct pursuit of happiness and beauty,’ wrote George Bernard Shaw. This aphorism is relevant to all, but it is particularly pertinent to those who are depressed or struggling psychologically. They, more than anybody else, need to know where to aim in order to improve their lives and reduce their suffering. Happiness is the wrong goal.

An alternative aim is to navigate life in ways that generate the maximum possible level of contentment, while allowing for a certain, and inevitable, measure of pain. This is obviously easier said than done, but my experience with patients indicates that changing one’s attitude towards common life stressors and challenges undoubtedly helps. This can involve exercising self-compassion rather than blaming yourself for perceived failures; accepting that some sadness is normal, rather than trying to exclude it from your life at all costs; and finally, instead of believing that you can somehow reach the mythical, sunny uplands of happiness by following a set of instructions, having constant fun, or building a culturally sanctioned, perfect life, accepting (that word again) that none of these strategies will ever work. Acceptance can bring some peace, a better proxy to happiness than its spurious alternatives.

Everyone knows pain, and patients in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic know pain better than most. Coming to terms with the reality of its existence – while trying to minimise it as much as reasonably possible – is a much better option than chasing the elusive spectre of happiness.

November 23rd 2023

The British Library’s new fantasy exhibition opened my eyes to how important fantasy is

Lord of the things.

Black and white line-work artwork commissioned for the British Library's Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibition. It shows a mountain of, well, things, really, all inspired by popular fantasy. There's No-face from Spirited Away, there's a castle, there's a knight. It's a dense picture of many inspirations.
Image credit: Sveta Dorosheva / The British Library
Robert Purchese avatar

Feature byRobert Purchese Associate Editor

Published on 18 Nov 2023


This might sound strange but I always worry about seeing things I love in the spotlight, because I worry they won’t be taken seriously and all the feelings I have for them will be undermined. I don’t like exposing a vulnerable side of myself to potential ridicule, basically. I’ve had enough of that from the “oh that’s unusual” remarks people have made about my job over the years. So I worried, visiting the new fantasy exhibition at the British Library – Fantasy: Realms of the Imagination it’s called – about how fantasy would come across.

I love fantasy, you see. I’ve loved it ever since I was little and I read a story about a boy who discovered a city at the bottom of a lake. He’d been hearing it call to him in his sleep or something, and one day he dived and found it. And people were living there! Everything about this took me by surprise. I didn’t know books could do that, veer off from reality like that. I can almost feel my mind stretching to take it all in still. And that book, it fired something within me that remained ever since.

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But fantasy has always been a relatively private thing for me, because growing up, I didn’t really know anyone else who was into it. My family wasn’t. OK, granted, I had my dad’s Hobbit book and his The Lord of the Rings, but I’d never seen him go anywhere near them, nor near any other kind of fantasy. He read biographies. And my friends weren’t into fantasy, despite my best efforts. Even when I joined Eurogamer many years ago, there was no one interested in it, though that’s changed now. So I learnt to keep it to myself. I kept it secret, kept it safe.

Given that, I didn’t expect to see many people at this fantasy exhibition, because I didn’t think that many people were into it. And I know how ridiculous that sounds – I know there are some humongous fantasy licences you don’t even have to have read a book to enjoy today. I also didn’t think fantasy was something serious enough to have in the British Library, because it’s got elves and goblins and magic and dragons in it. It’s the silly stories Bertie likes. Who’s going to see a silly thing like that?’

Imagine my face when I walk into the exhibition, then, and there are many other people there. It’s really popular. And it’s not just people like me: there are younger people, older people, Black people, white people, and they’re all peering into perspex cases very seriously like they would at a proper exhibition about proper things. And that’s when the first wave of realisation hits me: this is a proper exhibition about a proper thing. I wobble.

The second wave of realisation comes when I start combing through the exhibits. The exhibition is broken up into a few sections ordered by fantasy types. You’ll experience them in this order: Fairy and Folk Tales, Epics and Quests, Weird and Uncanny, and Portals and Worlds. And what strikes me first about Fairy and Folk Tales are the dates I see. There’s a wonderful table-length Ancient Mappe of Fairyland that greets you as you go in, that Bernard Sleigh drew in 1918, which is a pretty long time ago now. But we jump back another hundred years with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab nearby, and then a few hundred years more with Reverend Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth. Kirk wrote that in the 17th century. It’s a book where he recorded his parishioners’ beliefs about fairies, which is a great idea – I’d never heard of it. Around the corner, there’s even a crumbling 14th century edition of Homer’s Iliad.

A photograph showing a notebook and two pencil sketched pictures in an exhibition. These are made by Ursula le Guin, the legendary sci-fi and fantasy author, and helped her shape her Earthsea stories.
Excuse my rubbish pictures, but this made the breath catch in my throat. It’s Ursula le Guin’s notebook and two sketches, all of which helped her envisage her Earthsea books. | Image credit: Eurogamer / The British Library / Ursula le Guin

But it’s not the ancientness I find as impressive as the realisation fantasy has been desired by societies for hundreds of years. Because where there are books – particularly books that have gained the fame these have, warranting their preservation – there was clearly a demand to read them. So It’s not just me and it’s not just now – people have been into fantasy forever.

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Actually it probably has been around forever if you consider The Iliad, or, if you really want to go back, The Epic of Gilgamesh (I’ve always thought it was a bit pompous calling your own story an “epic”, though). These things are thousands of years old. If you think about storytelling as an oral tradition before that, and the kind of stories associated with belief systems and folk tales – which people have been handing down from generation to generation – it might even stretch back to the beginning of humanity. And that’s really exciting. It means not only is fantasy entwined with humanity, and the shape of it, but also that we’re not likely to get bored of it or run out of stories to tell. Perfect!

But why – what is it about fantasy we keep turning to? Well, I have a few theories of my own. One, it’s quite exciting and it’s nice to escape to a fantasy world. But also, and herein maybe lies the real reason, it provides us with a safer place to explore more challenging themes from our real lives. It’s as American author Victor LaVelle – and others – say to camera in talking-head clips throughout the exhibition: you are much more likely to get people to consider difficult topics in a fantasy world than you are if you present them in reality.

A photograph of a piece of paper with some annotated circles scribbled on it. This was drawn by author Susannah Clarke as she tried to figure out the movement of the tides in her wonderful book Piranesi. But there are crossings out, and figurings-out. It's an informal glimpse into her mind.
Be still my beating heart number two! This is a sketch by Susannah Clarke in which she tries to work out the movement of the tides in her wonderful story Piranesi. Note the crossings-out, and the figurings-out. It’s an informal and very human glimpse into her mind. | Image credit: Eurogamer / The British Library / Susannah Clarke

This is true of games too, I think. I often wonder what effect morality has had on our minds because of the games we’ve played. Am I kinder and more aware because I’ve had to solve so many ethical dilemmas in role-playing games over the years? Naturally! Although, didn’t I solve a lot of them with violence? Oops! Bad example Bertie, move on. But speaking of games, something else I worried about, going into the exhibition, was gate-keeping. I worried the British Library might suggest the only acceptable fantasies were the ones it displayed, and that those would be old and stuffy. But fair play to the curators because it didn’t.

A look inside a giant sketchbook by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These are his Carceri sketchings showing, in charcoal on paper, a huge, multi-layered, multi-arched, and impossible - architecturally speaking - interior scene.
The Carceri etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi that Susannah Clarke must have been inspired by. Seeing them explains so much about the story she wrote. | Image credit: Eurogamer / The British Library / Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Granted, there is an emphasis on books because the British Library has an incredible collection to pull from, and it would be silly not to. Clearly books are the stars. But they’re not all that’s here. There are games; and I don’t just mean one token game, I mean many games. There are the more obvious inclusions like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, but there are also others like Planescape: Torment, which I didn’t expect, and Fallen London. There’s a huge projection of Dark Souls 3 on one wall, which I’m sure will earn the library serious brownie points. There’s even a corner devoted to LARP and fan-fiction, and a wall of Magic: The Gathering cards.

Comics are given space – I spotted a Wicked + The Divine book I own at one point, and felt very pleased with my taste in things – and Neil Gaiman features heavily, as well he should. There’s a display for the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, in addition to the obvious nods to TV and film. And the feeling this all gives me is encapsulated perfectly when I hear a couple – looking at costumes from the original Dark Crystal film – talking about how they think the recent Netflix Dark Crystal series was underrated, because I do too! I almost blunder into their conversation in loud agreement, but decide against it because this is a library after all. But I feel very seen. I feel like I belong. And seeing the things I like here, next to things like Homer’s Iliad and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – legendary things – feels very validating.

A photograph of an original Monty Python and the Holy Grail script, on display in the British Library. It's pretty unspectacular. It's in a kind of ring-bound and lined A4 notepad, and it's filled with notes and scribbles going off in all different directions. I bet there are some good jokes in there somewhere.
A Monty Python and the Holy Grail script slash notebook. Look how messy it is! There are scribbed notes going off in all different directions, like many different hands added to it. They probably did. I bet there are some good jokes in there. | Image credit: Eurogamer / The British Library / Monty Python

The other thing I find really fascinating about the exhibition is the notebooks of authors that are on display, and all the crossings-out and scribbles and sketches in them. There’s one sheet of paper on which Susannah Clarke, the author of Piranesi – a book I really love – tried to sketch the movement of the tides and how they would flow. And it’s just a scribble of a circle, really, gone around a few times, with some spindly arrows pointing here and there and a few words accompanying them. It’s totally unremarkable, if you don’t know what you’re looking at. But if you do know what you’re looking at, and you know the final story, it’s a captivating insight into someone’s creative process.

It’s similar to seeing the notebook of Ursula le Guin where she laid down the story for A Wizard of Earthsea, which is an all-time great and which shaped me and my fantasy taste. I’ve got a shadowy monster tattooed on my arm in partial reference to it. But this notebook is again, totally unremarkable – it could be one of mine. And that makes it so much more approachable. In it I see le Guin forming an idea, quizzing herself and honing, honing. It’s tremendously humanising. And look over there: it’s a very scruffy script for Monty Python and the Holy Grail (right next to Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, as it happens – imagine what he’d have thought of that). And I do mean scruffy – I don’t know they deciphered it. But this is imagination slapped down on paper as it erupts. I’m glimpsing the rough formation of stars.

A small book with many lines of tiny, neat handwriting in it. It belonged to Charlotte Brontë and it contains her Glass Town: The Search after Happiness story.
I don’t know much about the Brontë sisters, but this little book has to be seen to be believed. I know the picture is slightly blurry but even up close, in person, I couldn’t read it, the writing is so small. It’s the writing of a 13 year-old Charlotte Brontë, and containes the Glass Town story The Search after Happiness. | Image credit: Eurogamer / The British Library / Charlotte Brontë

Everywhere I turn in Fantasy: Realms of the Imagination, I see more parts of something that has become a part of me. It’s also fascinating to have it laid out before me so I can connect the dots of inspiration from one thing to another. Take Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi, for example: it’s right next to the actual Piranesi’s huge sketchbook of fantastical architecture. So that’s where her idea came from. Or take Reverend Rob Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth I mentioned earlier on: that title is the same one Phillip Pullman used for one of his Books of Dust. It must be what he was inspired by. These little revelations fizz and pop as I turn every corner of the exhibition.

It’s not massive, the exhibition – I think there’s probably an hour or two’s worth here, depending on how much you dawdle, plus whatever extra time you spend restraining yourself in the really rather tempting shop afterwards. But then I don’t think it was ever designed to include everything, because how could it? And how could you decide – if you were being exhaustive – what would make the cut and what wouldn’t? This exhibition is a broad look at the role fantasy has played – and plays – in the world we live in, and the kinds of stories we tell. And what I like about it – what I love about it – is how it suggests fantasy is everywhere and for everyone. Perhaps I will no longer keep my love of it to myself.

Fantasy: Realms of the Imagination runs until 25th February 2024. Tickets are £16. The British Library website is still down – it suffered a cyber attack a few weeks ago and hasn’t returned – but you can book tickets here. Note that card machines aren’t working in the British Library, so if you want to buy things from the shop, you may need to grab some cash from St Pancras station over the road.

November 20th 2023

These are the mental processes required to tell a convincing lie

Disney’s Pinocchio (1940). Courtesy Wikipedia

Molly MacMillanis a PhD student in psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

Edited by Matt Huston

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If politicians had a lying competition for lying it would pssobly be a draw, but I suspect the police would win.

The cognitive work involved in lying is relevant to lie detection and could help explain why some people are better liars

Dishonesty can have serious consequences: a lie on the witness stand might result in a wrongful conviction; deception during a business deal can lead to major financial losses; deceitful behaviour can damage close relationships. So it is not surprising that dishonesty has received significant attention from social and cognitive psychologists. Interestingly, despite the prevalence of dishonest behaviour and the ease with which some people seem to engage in it, psychological research suggests that it is often more complex – and more effortful – than it might appear to be.

Lying often requires a significant proportion of one’s mental bandwidth, and it becomes more difficult when fewer cognitive resources are available. For instance, it might be relatively easy to invent an excuse for missing a work meeting while you’re sitting at home, but telling a convincing lie over the phone while navigating through traffic is more challenging. Sometimes honesty prevails simply because lying would require too much effort. In fact, research suggests that, in addition to more obvious factors – such as moral beliefs about honesty and corresponding emotions such as guilt – the tendency to lie is constrained by the cognitive effort it requires. As with any mental process, there are significant individual differences in the extent to which lying taxes cognitive systems. Identifying the sources of these individual differences should be helpful for understanding someone’s tendency to lie and their proficiency in doing so.

The cognitive cost of lying has been explored using experimental tasks, such as the ‘die-under-the-cup’ task – in which participants predict the outcome of a die roll or a coin flip, and then are rewarded based on the self-reported accuracy of their predictions. The overall dishonesty of a group of participants can be estimated based on how much their self-reported accuracy deviates from chance levels. Although findings have been mixed, studies have found that participants were more honest when under time pressure or when concurrently performing a secondary task, which suggests that reducing the availability of cognitive resources makes it harder to lie. These results concur with neuroimaging research that found that levels of brain activity in frontal and parietal regions were greater when participants lied than when they told the truth.

Taking a more individual-focused approach to the subject, Sebastian Speer and his colleagues developed a paradigm called the ‘spot-the-differences task’. In this setup, participants are shown a pair of similar images that have either one, two or three minor differences. Yet the participants are told that each image pair contains three differences. On each trial, the participants are asked to study an image pair and indicate whether they can detect three differences; yeses are rewarded. Using this task, researchers can identify individual participants’ honest and dishonest responses, and also examine the patterns of brain activity associated with them.

Lying on your resumé and then maintaining the plausibility of that lie throughout an interview would likely become very taxing

The researchers found that activity in the nucleus accumbens – a brain structure associated with reward processing – predicted the frequency of dishonesty in this task. They concluded that a propensity towards dishonesty results in part from a strong automatic response to anticipated reward. Interestingly, generally honest participants showed more brain activity in a neural network associated with self-referential thinking. The researchers interpreted these findings as evidence that such individuals are strongly motivated to maintain a moral self-concept. The findings suggest, then, that being dishonest (when one stands to gain from it) may be less difficult for more reward-sensitive individuals, as well as for those who are less strongly motivated to maintain a positive self-image. There is plenty of evidence that reward-sensitive people are generally more motivated to seek wealth, social status and hedonic pleasure. However, the rewards associated with these behaviours, at least when dishonesty is involved, are likely to be tempered in individuals driven by a desire to see themselves as ethical, good and honest.

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Of course, while experimental tasks such as spot-the-difference can help to illuminate why some people might find it easier to tell relatively simple lies, they do not capture the cognitive demands of more elaborate lies. Generating and maintaining a false account, as is often required when deceiving others, is undoubtedly more cognitively expensive than telling the truth. For example, lying on your resumé and then maintaining the plausibility of that lie throughout an interview would likely become very taxing. In such a situation, you might be required to elaborate on your initial lie by providing unexpected details. To do so convincingly, you would also need to monitor your responses for inconsistencies and continuously evaluate the response of the interviewer.

The ability to lie well in real-world contexts may depend on individual differences in cognitive processing, including working memory. Working memory has been conceptualised as a memory system that is responsible for temporarily maintaining and manipulating task-relevant information to support ongoing cognitive operations. It is the memory system that allows you to temporarily remember a sequence of digits while dialling the phone, to perform mental mathematics, or to hold a question in mind while formulating an answer. Telling a convincing lie undoubtedly involves abilities that rely on a person’s working memory. For instance, a liar must generate a plausible story while avoiding intrusions from the true version of events. Research suggests that individuals with greater working memory capacity are better able to multitask and can more successfully inhibit default responses in favour of more deliberate and effortful ones.

Similarly, a liar must ensure that their version of events is consistent with an event’s peripheral details and with what their interlocutor knows. For example, to lie convincingly during an interrogation, one must give an account that tallies with the evidence available to the investigators. To do so, the liar would need to make accurate judgments about what the interrogator is likely to know and what lies they are likely to believe (or not). There is evidence that individuals with high working memory capacity can better take the perspective of other individuals, and that they can more effectively monitor for conflicting information – skills that could enable a liar to detect and avoid inconsistencies in their fabricated stories.

Individuals with strong cognitive abilities are better equipped to lie

Lastly, a liar may feel they need to manage their own verbal and nonverbal behaviour to hide signs of deception, while also assessing the response of their interlocutor and maintaining the plausibility of their story. Nervous behaviour, such as fidgeting and avoiding eye contact, and verbal errors, such as stuttering and hesitating, are often considered to be signs of dishonesty. A high working memory capacity may help an individual to minimise these potential signs without sacrificing the plausibility or usefulness of their lie.

Consistent with the view that lying taxes working memory, research suggests that individuals in populations with lower working memory capacities, such as children and older adults, tend to be relatively poor liars. Even in the general population, maintaining a convincing lie becomes difficult when working memory capacity is reduced. Indeed, when study participants’ working memory resources are specifically targeted with a secondary task (eg, memorising short lists of letters or completing simple arithmetic equations), the lies that they tell contain more inconsistencies. Moreover, under conditions of high working memory load, participants make more speech errors and respond more slowly to questions while lying than while telling the truth.

Collectively, the evidence suggests that individuals with strong cognitive abilities are better equipped to lie and are less constrained by the cognitive costs associated with maintaining a lie. Thus, although having a large working memory capacity is associated with positive traits such as intelligence, academic performance and career success, it could also play a role in the proficiency and frequency with which many people lie. Similarly, although strong perspective-taking abilities are associated with empathy, the same abilities may be used to deceive others more effectively. In contrast, individuals with lower cognitive capacities are likely to find deception more mentally taxing and may, therefore, be motivated to avoid it.

Despite the potential cognitive challenges and pitfalls involved in lying, there is evidence that neither laypeople nor trained police officers are very good at intuitively detecting dishonesty. However, certain approaches to behavioural analysis may help observers to identify lies more easily and accurately. Forensic psychologists have explored the possibility of capitalising on the high working memory demand associated with lying to detect false testimony in criminal investigations.

The polygraph test, likely the most well-known lie detection technique, is intended to detect lies by monitoring an individual’s physiological arousal (heart rate, skin conductivity) as they respond to various questions. While there is evidence that lying increases arousal, the polygraph test cannot discern between physiological responses caused by excitement, fear, stress or deception – so it is widely considered to be pseudoscience.

The cognitive load approach offers an alternative method of evidence-based lie detection. The technique is based on the premise that, under conditions in which working memory is taxed, suspects will have more difficulty concealing signs of deception. To achieve this, the interrogator may require a suspect to describe an event in reverse order, or to respond to questions under time pressure. An interrogator may also present new evidence late in an interrogation, forcing the suspect to adjust their account to be consistent with it.

A 2015 meta-analysis of studies using this approach concluded that it seems to be an effective lie-detection technique. Increasing the cognitive load imposed on a liar appears to result in more behavioural signs of deception, such as verbal inconsistencies, slower response times, and reduced body movements. Another meta-analysis, conducted in 2020, found that trained observers were 21-27 per cent more accurate at detecting lies told under conditions of high, rather than low, cognitive load. The apparent effectiveness of this lie-detection technique supports the notion that working memory processes are essential to successful deception.

Overall, the research on dishonesty shows how the ability and inclination to lie can rest on more than someone’s moral disposition alone. For most of us, lying is mentally taxing and the cognitive costs of daily life often make honesty the easier option. Even when someone has reason to lie, the human mind is typically miserly and avoids expending energy without strong motivation. High cognitive ability and efficient memories are celebrated for many reasons – but it seems that the limitations of our cognitive systems are often an important part of what keeps people honest.





Communication and languageEthicsMind and brain

2 October 2023

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Sports and games


Sport shows how to use performance benchmarks in a positive way

IQ scores and other contextless benchmarks are suffocating and misleading. We should look to sport for a healthier approach

by Leif Weatherby

November 19th 2023

The Bottom Line

Big Publishing Killed the Author

How corporations wrested creative control from writers and editors—to produce less interesting books.

Illustration by Dalbert Vilarino

The suggestion that Beloved, Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel about slavery and its afterlives, is also a parable about the publishing industry would be bizarre, even offensive—if, that is, Morrison herself hadn’t explicitly suggested it. For years, Morrison had felt not merely penned in by her career as an editor at the publishing giant Random House; she had felt indentured, “held in contempt—to be played with when our masters are pleased, to be dismissed when they are not,” as she declared in a speech six years before publishing Beloved. Upon leaving her job at Random House to focus on writing full-time, she felt “free in a way I had never been, ever.… Enter Beloved.” It was, she continued in the novel’s preface, “the shock of liberation”—liberation from the world of corporate publishing—“that drew my thoughts to what ‘free’ could mean.” In the novel itself, Morrison has Baby Suggs, the protagonist’s mother, describe freedom from slavery in strikingly similar terms.

In despairing of the modern publishing industry, even comparing it to bondage, Morrison was far from alone. Indeed, as Dan Sinykin, an assistant professor of English at Emory University, argues in his revelatory new book, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, the increasing consolidation and corporatization of the publishing industry—a process Sinykin calls “conglomeration”—profoundly changed not merely the way novels were published but also the content of those novels. As publishers grew far larger—and ever more concerned with the bottom line—the lives of editors and authors transformed. More than ever before, they became cogs in a corporate machine, responsible for growth and returns on investment, necessarily responsive to the whims and demands of capital—and these pressures increasingly showed up in their output.

Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literatureby Dan SinykinColumbia University Press, 328 pp., $30.00

It’s a compelling thesis, albeit one that fits easily into a fast-growing literature on the forces shaping the art and media we consume. A decade ago, the critic Mark McGurl argued that the postwar relocation of American fiction writing to the campus—and especially to university creative writing programs—resulted in novels that follow now-familiar rules (show, don’t tell; write from your experience, etc.). Another influential critic, James English, pointed to the rise of an “economy of prestige”—and especially to the Booker and Pulitzer prizes—to explain the reputational ascendancy of certain genres (e.g., historical fiction) and those genres’ consequent scarcity on bestseller lists. More recently, McGurl reentered the fray to assert that the behemoth of all behemoths—Amazon—has single-handedly reshaped contemporary fiction, and still another scholar, Laura McGrath, has shone a light on the significant role played by literary agents in determining the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is marketable for the modern novelist.

Nonetheless, Big Fiction is a fresh intervention, principally due to the richness of the context Sinykin provides and the impressively broad array of evidence he marshals. In his first book, American Literature and the Long Downturn, Sinykin drew on archival material and close reading to argue that the distinct economic miseries of the last half-century—deindustrialization, deregulation, the decimation of organized labor, and widening inequality—led a great many late-twentieth-century American novelists to turn to apocalyptic fiction, imagining escape or salvation in the form of “total annihilation.” Now, wielding many of the same analytical tools, Sinykin retells that same story—but with a larger cast of characters. The same economic forces that led authors to write about the end of the world led to the corporatization of publishing, which in turn compelled authors to turn inward, to obsess over self-reflexive concerns, to create stories of individuals struggling against the end of their world.

Before the 1960s, U.S. publishing was a family affair. Small, privately held “houses” (as they’re still anachronistically called) decided what to acquire based mainly on their relationships and references. If a favored author didn’t sell, oh well, an editor might sigh, hopefully, he (and it was usually a “he,” almost always a white “he”) would do better next time. While mass-market paperback publishers brought “genre” fiction (Westerns, mysteries, romance) to the masses, the houses strove to put out literary fiction (more challenging, more aesthetically interesting, or so the prevailing wisdom dictated).More than ever before, editors and authors became cogs in a corporate machine, and these pressures increasingly showed up in their output.

Then everything changed. In 1960, the newspaper Times Mirror Company purchased the mass-market publisher New American Library, inaugurating what Sinykin calls “the conglomerate era.” That same year, Random House went public and, flush with newfound capital, acquired Knopf and, a year later, Pantheon. Conglomeration spread rapidly, with well-capitalized behemoths gobbling up mass-market houses and old family-run firms with equal fervor. Over the next decade and a half, the electronics company Radio Corporation of America acquired Random House, a Canadian communications firm nabbed Macmillan, the Italian conglomerate that owned Fiat swallowed Bantam, and Gulf + Western bought Simon & Schuster. Ultimately, conglomeration consolidated more and more imprints under single roofs, with the German conglomerate Bertelsmann seizing Doubleday in 1986, Random House in 1998, and Penguin (via a merger) in 2013.

The economic downturns of the late twentieth century, starting in the 1970s, did nothing to halt the rise of conglomerate publishing; in fact, they accelerated the process. Management consultants arrived, and they contributed to a fundamental shift in the way U.S. publishers did business. Editors, who had previously enjoyed considerable freedom and made decisions based on their personal preferences and gut instincts, now had to do so by reference to a balance sheet; they had to prove that each title they wished to procure would be a moneymaker. “Editors,” Toni Morrison claimed in her 1981 speech, “are now judged by the profitability of what they acquire rather than by what they acquire.” This led editors to take fewer risks and go out on fewer limbs; it led literary novelists to adopt the techniques of their lower-brow counterparts, turning to what sold.

Sinykin points to the illustrative example of Cormac McCarthy, who was lucky enough to start publishing under the old regime. For 28 years, starting in the mid-1960s, he put out dense, difficult novels with Random House without ever selling well enough to get a single royalty check. When his old-school editor retired in 1987, McCarthy—aware he was navigating a new world—hired a literary agent for the first time. Fortunately for him, he piqued the interest of rising super-agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who moved him over to Knopf, where his next novel would be overseen by editor Sonny Mehta and others, the new generation. Relocated to a new imprint, with a new editor and an agent, McCarthy changed his style; he abandoned his abstract plots and instead wrote a Western, the story of a young cowboy mourning the death of his world, embracing many of the techniques of genre novelists as he did so. That novel, All the Pretty Horses, soared to the bestseller lists upon its publication in 1992; it sold 100,000 copies and was adapted into a blockbuster movie. Cormac McCarthy became and remained a star.

Departing from previous chroniclers, Sinykin argues that his career should properly be seen as divided “by refuge from, and then participation in, the conglomerate era,” culminating with his “Oprah Book Club-endorsed, postapocalyptic mega-bestseller,” The Road in 2007. “Conglomeration made McCarthy middlebrow.” This was a success story, and many literary authors did as McCarthy had and embraced genre conventions, from A.S. Byatt in Possession (romance) to Denis Johnson in The Stars at Noon (spy thriller) to Colson Whitehead in Zone One (zombie apocalypse). “The literati began to rethink its snobbery,” in Sinykin’s telling. Yet many writers were far from sanguine as their landscape transformed. As Sinykin narrates, novelists began responding to the new economics of publishing in ways that betrayed their fundamental status anxiety.

In the 1970s, mass-distribution wholesalers replaced book publishers as the main suppliers of books to bookstores; in the 1980s, chain bookstores—first suburban outposts like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, later superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble—exploded across the land. Both developments incentivized publishers focusing on brand-name authors and reliable, formulaic works—books they knew would appeal to profit-driven entities that were less amenable to obscure or experimental works and, importantly, bought in bulk. Conglomerate publishers (like Random House) bought up the mass-market houses (Bantam and Dell, in the case of Random House) and, more broadly, began putting out more of the very genres—bodice-rippers, detective stories, horror—that the former had popularized. Conglomerate publishers also built up robust publicity and marketing departments. The production of new novels ceased to be “the work of a relatively autonomous author-editor duo,” Sinykin writes.

In his telling, authors began exorcising their anxieties in their novels. Sinykin’s first sustained case study is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, the bestselling novel of 1975, a parable about trying (and failing) to retain artistic integrity in an increasingly mechanized age. His next is Danielle Steel, a writer of unremunerative literary novels eventually transformed by her corporate publisher into a ubiquitous bestseller of anodyne romances—and whose first megahit was The Promise (1978), which has its artist-heroine literally transformed by a powerful man (her plastic surgeon) but nonetheless reclaim her agency by continuing to express herself authentically in art.

Building on the work of other scholars, Sinykin argues that autofiction—a neurotic, genre-blending autobiography and fiction—allowed male authors like Norman Mailer, John Barth, and Kurt Vonnegut to “exhibit and counter their fear of losing power” and female authors like Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Alison Lurie to “advertise constraints imposed on them by patriarchy in publishing.” Both turns reflected the particular precarity of fiction writing in the conglomerate age. In fact, many recent works of autofiction—including novels by Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and others—are explicitly about the challenges of navigating the publishing industry. “Autofiction projects the fantasy of victory over the systems that threaten to interfere in the cultivation of the expressive self,” Sinykin writes, “which is why it is so useful in the conglomerate era.”

Anxiety shaped even novels that reached the very peak of the bestseller lists. As publishing corporatized, it was simply financial common sense for houses to throw extraordinary resources, and a disproportionate share of attention, at ultra-bestsellers. Between 1986 and 1996, Sinykin notes, 63 of the 100 bestselling books in the country were written by just six people: Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Danielle Steel. Astonishingly, five of those six continue to dominate bestseller lists to this day. (No doubt Clancy would too, had he not died in 2013.) Yet several of these brand-name authors stressed over their status as marquees, as popular—not prestigious—moneymakers. This anxiety, Sinykin argues, can be seen in Stephen King’s Misery, in which an author is literally held hostage and forced to write by a deranged superfan.Between 1986 and 1996, Sinykin notes, 63 of the 100 bestselling books in the country were written by just six people. Astonishingly, five of those six continue to dominate bestseller lists to this day.

Of course, it would be easy to object to Sinykin’s close readings on the grounds that works of fiction yield many interpretations, and a scholar looking to confirm his hypothesis will undoubtedly be able to find a great number of amenable titles. In his first book, Sinykin noted how David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest “reveals addiction as a general condition within the debt economy,” where “the consumer becomes the addict.” Now, in his second, he glosses the novel as “an allegory for the conglomerate publishing industry,” a story about a “heroic artist hoping to cut through a culture overwhelmed by media conglomerates.” Yet Sinykin’s interpretations are persuasive in large part because many are supported with archival evidence and interviews. He makes particularly convincing use of Random House Records, which chart the quintessential conglomerate’s metamorphosis and its editors’ roles as stewards of the brave new world of commercial publishing. The shockingly sexist correspondence of editor Bennett Cerf in the 1960s helps to explain the press’s marginalization of female authors—and those authors’ subsequent turns to “self-reflexive novels”—while the letters of editor Joe Fox reveal a sovereign struggling mightily to maintain editorial control over publicity and marketing even as conglomeration gradually diffused his authority in the name of the almighty dollar.

Some publishing houses, however, have always been less commercial: the avant-garde houses like New Directions, the small presses like Coffee House, and the university presses. Yet, according to Sinykin, even the output of these nonprofit publishers has been shaped by conglomeration—that is, by their opposition to its demands.

Nonprofit publishers can trace their origins to the proliferation of cheap mimeograph technology in the 1950s, a predecessor to today’s photocopiers. Suddenly, a few guys in a house somewhere could produce their own books. Several now-eminent nonprofit publishers (Graywolf, Copper Canyon) emerged from the seaside town of Port Townsend, Washington, which had a small but influential writing scene. Others sprang up in Chicago, Iowa City, and Houston. Eventually, Minnesota’s Twin Cities emerged as a hub of nonprofit publishing, the burgeoning houses attracted by the availability of local philanthropic and government funding. Coffee House and Milkweed grew from Minnesota soil; Graywolf moved there in the 1980s.

For four decades, in Sinykin’s telling, nonprofit publishers have defined themselves against conglomerate publishers, putting out consciously literary fiction to counter the oversaturated commercialism of the big houses, putting out transgressive works by numerous authors of color to counter the overwhelming whiteness of trade imprints. Unlike the few “multicultural” works put out by conglomerate publishers (see the oeuvres of Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, and Louise Erdrich), Sinykin argues that nonprofit authors like Percival Everett and Karen Tei Yamashita “deployed irony to satirize multiculturalism itself,” implicitly criticizing “mainstream representations of race.” At the conglomerates, by contrast, “writers of color tended to perform the authentication of identity while sometimes searching for strategies to evade the quietist reading practices of white liberals.”

In short, many of the most celebrated, most studied authors of the late twentieth century were “industrial writers,” Sinykin argues, either writing within or against conglomeration. “Until we recognize that, we have misread six decades and more of U.S. fiction.”

Sinykin’s final chapter looks at the exception that proves the rule. If conglomerates and nonprofits “form an organic whole: lash and backlash,” he writes, with the business models and literary styles of each resisting yet feeding off the other, W.W. Norton operates outside of this symbiotic system. It is, Sinykin writes, “that rarest of birds: a large independent house that publishes literary fiction and poetry. It is, in fact, the only one left.” According to Sinykin, Norton has accomplished this unexpected feat for two reasons. First, it is employee-owned, giving its editors more autonomy than their counterparts at other big presses. Second, its profitable college division effectively subsidizes its fierce editorial independence.

The fiction put out by Norton is different from that produced by either conglomerate houses or nonprofit houses. It is one of the few publishers to still release so-called “mid-list” titles, those that aim to sell but aren’t expected to break the bank; it publishes translations, out-of-print classics, and graphic novels (a trend where Norton was “on the bleeding edge”); it has put out experimental, singular novels, like the very gay, oddly utopian Fight Club. Norton also produces works of literary genre fiction, but different from the works of Cormac McCarthy or Colson Whitehead. While those authors, avatars of conglomerate publishing, imported genre techniques into literary fiction, Norton’s authors—including Walter Mosley and Patrick O’Brian—imported literary techniques into genre fiction.

Yet even the holdouts from the conglomeration are not immune to broader economic trends, and Sinykin ends this chapter on an ominous note: In 2008, the financial crisis and the rise of Amazon (and the release of its Kindle) accelerated the neoliberalization of publishing. After years of resistance, Norton finally built a significant marketing department.For authors, social media and the online literary ecosystem simply meant they had to do even more work, now taking on marketing and publicity efforts for their own books.

Still, Sinykin concludes Big Fiction by noting that it took only “a few hiccupping years” for the conglomerate publishers to learn to accommodate Amazon, ebooks, and audiobooks. “Rather than remaking the industry, 2008 intensified the conglomerate era.” The biggest publishers “doubled down” on autofiction, literary genre fiction, and more recently multicultural fiction—and flourished. The sales of ebooks, which were supposed to kill off paper once and for all, plateaued more than a decade ago; digital audiobooks, rather than supplanting other media, instead became a deviously effective antidote to the 2008 financial crisis: a way to participate in “contemporary grind culture” and still read, squeezing snippets of novels into a commute, workout, or household chore. For authors, social media and the online literary ecosystem simply meant they had to do even more work, now taking on marketing and publicity efforts for their own books, as a form of “promotional entrepreneurialism” became de rigueur. Perhaps the only substantive change to the output of conglomerate publishers in the last decade and a half has been the profusion of young adult fiction, a development driven by ardent online fandoms.

At the same time, however, Amazon, TikTok, Wattpad, Archive of Our Own, and other digital fora have led many, many authors far outside literary metropoles like New York or Minneapolis to experiment with fiction in strange and thrilling ways, from the copyright-less collective authorship of fan fiction to the explosion of hyper-niche genre works distributed by Amazon’s Kindle Directing Publishing and similar platforms. A very few authors have made the leap from the electronic hinterlands to the Big Five—including E.L. James, Colleen Hoover, and Andy Weir—but the great majority never will.

Big Fiction is sharply written and sharply argued, part of a wave of cutting-edge works of literary history put out by Columbia University Press. Wisely, Sinykin “defers judgment about whether conglomeration was good or bad,” instead charting its consequences.

At this point, the question of whether conglomeration was good or bad seems largely beside the point. Artists adapt. Artists have always been subject to the whims of the wealthy. Yet the same economic forces that led to conglomeration are undeniably immiserating artists today. More authors than ever before have access to an audience and the means of literary production; fewer authors than in decades past are able to support themselves through writing alone. Publishing houses continue to consolidate—and one of the biggest, Simon & Schuster, was just sold to a private equity firm, part of an industry infamous for gutting local newspapers. Meanwhile, entry-level employees at those publishing houses are paid so abominably that many have recently quit en masse.

Where do writers, editors, and for that matter critics go from here? How do we make art under these conditions? One’s answer to such questions is inextricable from one’s politics more broadly, from one’s view of what we owe each other, whether the rich deserve their spoils, and the extent to which workers should determine the course of their lives. W.W. Norton’s collective ownership provides one glimmer of a possible artistic future. So too does the recent strike of HarperCollins workers for fair wages, the rise of artists’ and freelancers’ unions, the flowering of writers’ collectives during the pandemic. If, as Sinykin argues, the ascent of conglomerate publishing relocated power “out of the hands of the author and the editor and into a great many hands,” as the ranks of publicists, marketers, and agents swelled, perhaps the possibility of solidarity remains, of strength in the growing numbers of collaborative workers.

Scott W. Stern @scottwstern

Scott W. Stern is an attorney and the author of The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women

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Critical Mass, Books, Culture, Publishing, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy

November 18th 2023

The End of Retirement

Want to keep your house? Support your kids? Stay alive? Never stop working

by Cathrin Bradbury
Illustration by Chloe Cushman Updated 9:20, Nov. 13, 2023 | Published 6:30, Nov. 13, 2023

I’m standing on my back stoop looking out at the eighty or so people jammed into the backyard for my retirement party. They’re here to celebrate my forty years in journalism. There’s the gang from Domino fashion magazine, where I got my start in the can’t-spend-enough, cocaine-stoked ’80s. The Globe and Mail crew, from the ambitious middle of my career, hang out with colleagues from Maclean’s, the Toronto Star, and Metro. (I moved around a lot.) The CBC News crowd are huddled to my left, protecting themselves and their fat budgets from the circling sharks of underfunded journalism. My final job was with them: we were together for the COVID-19 shutdown, the murder of George Floyd, the storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC, the invasion of Ukraine, nuclear threats from Russia, and blazing forests and atmospheric rivers at home. It was the most punishing news cycle of my career. I wasn’t sad to be leaving.

Just beyond the guests and beyond the hornbeam trees where I’ve strung fairy lights for the party, I think I can see my future. The grind of work is finally over, my retirement dream cued up. April in Paris! Reading by the sea! Spanish lessons in Antigua so I can better speak to my grandson. I’ll be playing with him, too, in the open-ended days my children rarely knew with me. I’m not saying I deserve a life of ease. But I worked hard to earn my retirement, dropping giant chunks of my salary into company and government pension plans throughout those forty years. It’s time for the famous social contract to hold up its end of the bargain and take care of me, the way it did my father before me, to deliver on the idea that retirement is my right after a life of work and the promise that I will have the time and means to enjoy it.

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Except none of that happened. The year since my retirement party has not been a dreamy passage to a welcoming future but a nerve-shattering trip into the unknown. My debt is swelling like a broken ankle; my hard-won savings may or may not be sucked into the vortex of an international market collapse. Can I keep my house? Who knows? The macroeconomy is messing with my microeconomy. The future keeps shape-shifting. And none of the careful planning I put into my retirement is going to change that.

When I left my last job, I felt sad for friends determined to keep working to seventy and beyond. How eccentric they seemed. Now I repeat the same two words whenever I see them: “Don’t retire.”

Roughly a thousand people are retiring each day in Canada, Fraser Stark, president of the Longevity Pension Fund at Purpose Investments in Toronto, told me. That’s about a million currently retired. Ours is the largest generation in Canadian history to move into retirement, and we tend to get distracted by the sheer number of us snailing through the system like a row of snowplows on a four-lane highway. But the bigger issue with retiring at sixty-four, which is the average age Canadians leave the workforce, can be summed up in one increasingly terrifying word: longevity.

Anyone retiring in Canada right now can expect to live at least until eighty (women until eighty-four). But those numbers are averaged out. When I began to discuss retirement with my financial planner in early 2022, he put my life expectancy at ninety-four. “Why, thank you,” I said, “I do try to keep fit.” “No,” said Benjamin Klein, senior portfolio manager at Baskin Wealth Management, “life expectancy is not randomized. When we factor in your gender, genetics, access to good health care, education, and lifestyle, that’s how long you’ll live.”

Stark doubled down on that number. The oldest Canadian is believed to have died at age 117. “If you want to accurately plan, that’s the number that you need to write down,” he said. Retire at sixty-four and you could have fifty more years to save for.

Every generation lives longer than the one that came before—nothing new there. But a fifty-year span between the end of work and the end of life is a long way from the original purpose of paid retirement, which was a very short bridge of financial support. Or no bridge at all. Otto von Bismarck has been trotted out and smacked down many times for his invention of paid retirement: in 1881, he proposed that all Germans had the right to government support after a life of work, with payments kicking in at age seventy. Except that life expectancy in the 1880s was about forty years. When Canada created its own pension plan, in 1965, to address the growing poverty of retired Canadians sixty-five and older—thank you, Lester B. Pearson, for my monthly CPP cheque—the life expectancy of men, who made up the bulk of the workforce, was sixty-eight.

By 2019, 37 percent of Canadians fifty-five and older were concerned they wouldn’t have enough savings when they retired, according to the Canadian Financial Capability Survey. And that was before the rush of retirements during COVID, a third of them earlier than planned. Lockdown’s low interest rates and curtailed spending gave false hope to retirees such as me—those unspending days when the money in my bank account seemed to self-spawn like guppies. And, also like guppies, its lifespan was short lived.

“There’s not enough gold in my golden years,” I told Klein a few months into my retirement. I could feel him smiling sympathetically across the phone line. “You’re not alone,” he assured me. Rents, mortgages, groceries—Canadians are suffering. I described the little house graphic on my gas bill: the house keeps getting smaller, thanks to my ferocious vigilance. But the bill keeps getting bigger, thanks to the cost of gas. And that’s just standard housekeeping. Throw in the unexpected, like a family wedding or grown kids moving back home, and many retired people land “somewhere on the spectrum of panic,” Klein said.

The oldest Canadian is believed to have died at age 117. Retire at sixty-four and you could have fifty more years to save for.

According to BMO’s thirteenth Annual Retirement Study released this past February, Canadians believe they need $1.7 million to retire, up 20 percent from 2020, when they put it at $1.4 million. The number is not statistically supported, but it’s a good gauge of people’s emotional preparedness for retirement and how anxious they feel. That third of Canadians who were worried, in 2019, that they wouldn’t have enough money has jumped to more than half of us in 2023, and 74 percent are concerned about inflation and rising prices.

Fewer than a quarter of retiring Canadians have a defined benefit pension plan, Stark said. Instead, “many of us retire with a lump sum of money.” The amounts vary, but the massive uncertainty of how long the money will last doesn’t. “We don’t know how long we’re going to live; we don’t know what the interest rates will be; we don’t know what the stock markets will do; we don’t know what inflation rates are,” said Stark. “Every one of us when we retire is on a unique journey of insecurity.”

It’s not only the retired who need to worry about supporting themselves in the long stretch of their future. Working generations coming up behind them will also shoulder this burden. A metric called the dependency ratio calculates the proportion of the people not in the workforce who are “dependent” on those of working age. According to Statistics Canada, dependents are aged zero to nineteen and sixty-five and over. Productives are twenty to sixty-four. The international tool is often cited by government and business and has been a driver of pension-reform debates around the world.

A low dependency ratio—in Mexico, for example—means that there are enough people working to support the dependent population. A high ratio—Japan and South Korea are at the top—indicates more financial stress on workers. Across all OECD countries right now, there are about thirty people sixty-five and over for every 100 people of working age. In 1950, that ratio was fourteen to 100; by 2075, it is predicted to increase to fifty-five non-working adults for every 100 working.

In Canada, we’re at the lower end, with dependency expected to hit about thirty-five by 2025, according to 2015 data from the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But by 2075, our dependency ratio is projected to be 49.9—one dependent for every two working-age Canadians. That’s a big burden for Xs, Ms, and Zs. “The shrinking percentage of young people means that in the future, the number of workers may be insufficient to finance the pensions of retirees,” according to StatCan.

The original meaning of the word “retire,” from the French “retirer,” is the act of retreating, falling back, withdrawing into seclusion. Except the retirees I spoke to for this story had go-go schedules that I was worn out just hearing about. Many had taken on dramatically different types of paid employment after leaving their careers; others had unleashed their inner rebels to become tireless advocates for social justice and climate change; still others were full-time caregivers.

“The government pays very little” for retired Canadians, said Thomas Klassen, professor at York University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. Of the experts I spoke to about retirement, he was the only one of traditional retirement age, so you could say he had a stake in the debate, but I found him reliably dispassionate. He pointed out that retirees in new jobs pay income tax, taxes on their retirement income and government subsidies, HST and GST, and they contribute to the economy by spending money. “And yet we keep hearing that boomers are hoarding all the money and that we will bankrupt younger people,” he said.

Samir Sinha called the dependency ratio outdated and misguided. The director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto and a passionate defender of the rights of older Canadians argued that such concepts hold us back. “They don’t recognize the new reality that at sixty-five you’re likely to have twenty years” of good and productive life ahead.

The retired are among the country’s biggest contributors to child care and volunteer work, Sinha said. “Think about the amount governments save for the unpaid care that mostly older people are providing. When we’ve priced out the unpaid caregiver, we’re valuing that in the billions and billions of dollars every year.”

Mieko Ise might be called a “silent retiree”: someone who quietly leaves the workforce to look after family members in need. For years, she juggled looking after her own and her husband’s parents while working full time for a Toronto nonprofit. “I started to have issues with being a caregiver and a full-time employee,” said Ise, now in her sixties. “I would take vacation days. I would book time off. My boss was not particularly sympathetic. I get it. I don’t believe employers should carry the load of your life burden.” When it became too overwhelming to have two jobs, Ise quit the one we count as work.

An illustration of an elderly man walking along a path towards a coin that looks like a sunset while inside a glass savings jar.

Sinha pointed me to a Japanese movie called Plan 75, directed by Chie Hayakawa and released in 2022. In a dystopian future, Japan—which in real life is the demographically oldest OECD country, with a projected dependency ratio of seventy-seven to 100 by 2075—offers $1,000 to the elderly to terminate their own lives and relieve society of the burden of supporting them. The movie, which I watched with my seventy-six-year-old sister (a lawyer who retired at seventy-two), opened with a violent murder off camera. We heard the blast of gunshot and saw a wheelchair toppled on its side. “Cheery beginning,” said Laura. (It turned out—spoiler—the real Plan 75 was to sell the older generations’ ashes for profit to a recycling company. The message of the sweetly weird movie was it’s better not to kill our elders.)

The year before Plan 75 came out, Yusuke Narita, an assistant professor of economics at Yale University, suggested mass suicide and disembowelment for Japan’s aged. “I feel like the only solution is pretty clear,” he said in a 2021 video. Narita later softened his comments in response to questions from the New York Times, saying they were an “abstract metaphor” (disembowelment seems pretty visceral to me). But he did win a big audience: he now has more than 600,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter).

It’s true that the number of people over sixty-five is growing faster in countries across Asia than anywhere else in the world at the same time that the size of their younger generations shrinks. That means as many as half of Japan’s employers report shortages of full-time workers, according to New York Times reporting from earlier this year on ageing in Asia. Workers in their seventies and even eighties are stepping up to fill the gap, taking lower-paying jobs as delivery drivers, office cleaners, and store clerks—jobs that the younger generations don’t want. A quarter of people sixty-five and over in Japan are currently working.

The number is the same in Canada and increasing: 24 percent of Canadians aged sixty-five to seventy still work in jobs that can be measured, up from 11 percent in 2000. But the dependency ratio reinforces the belief that those sixty-five and over are not working. Workers are not counted as workers because they’ve aged out of the way that we count them.

“The Greys” is what the older generation working for Succession’s Waystar RoyCo were called. They were often shot bunched together like an endangered species. They put on compression socks before flying. They plotted for their golden parachutes. Or maybe “one last rodeo,” as Karl, Waystar’s CFO, suggested to Frank, former vice chairman, in the final minutes of the hit series. Cut to Tom, the brand new CEO: “Frank, dead. Karl, dead. I really don’t need those two old cunts on my shoulder.”

I thought it was funny as hell. Or I did before my conversation with Lisa Taylor, president of Challenge Factory and co-author of The Talent Revolution: Longevity and the Future of Work. Taylor described ageism as “the last socially acceptable form of prejudice.” She and her company have set 2030—the year the last of the boomers reach sixty-five—as the target for solving what she described as the far-reaching and urgent issue of this country’s age-biased workforce.

I was skeptical. Surely, there are more important workplace issues to solve, like equity and fairness for people of every race and gender. But after a couple of hours on the phone with Taylor, I came to believe that treating retirement as a default outcome of ageing is a workplace bias that will affect the life expectancy, financial dependency, and long-term care costs for a generation retiring earlier than it needs or wants to. Not to mention the impact on the economy. Taylor said if we want to take advantage of our full workforce—in 2022, Canada had nearly a million job vacancies—we need to get to a point where we “recognize and call out ageism with the same level of comfort as we do other prejudices in our workplaces.”

Fewer than a quarter of retiring Canadians have a defined benefit pension plan. Instead, many of us retire with a lump sum of money.

Systemic ageism was meant to have been legislated out of the workplace in 2006, when the Ontario Human Rights Commission won the argument that Canadian workers don’t come with a best-before date stamped on their foreheads. (I was a manager at the Globe and Mail at the time, I was fifty-one, and there was a lot of backroom worry about carrying the Greys on our backs—and a lot of wisecracks about a superannuated newsroom.) But even though sixty-five hasn’t been the legal age for retirement for seventeen years, “we’re constantly looking for ways to push them out the door,” said Sinha—with retirement packages, buyouts, and pension contributions capped at sixty-five.

Taylor’s company did a workplace survey of the financial services industry in 2015, and it showed that as early as age forty-nine, workers were no longer sent for training or high-performance programs and future-focused career conversations had slowed down. By the time someone hit fifty-five, “the conversation about leaving had been going on for years, except no one was actually saying it.”

My own conversations with retired Canadians, particularly men in finance, bore this out. Raymond Betts worked most of his life in the frenetic world of institutional equity in New York, Boston, and Toronto. (Betts asked that his name be changed for this article.) When he turned fifty-three, the company hired a younger employee to do the same job as his, without discussing it with him. “My desk was originally thirty-six inches long; they kept moving me to a smaller desk until I ended up sitting at one that was twenty-four inches long.” Betts left that world at sixty, taking his skills and work ethic to his second career as a real estate agent.

Many people buy into the company storyline that their best years are behind them—the proverbial coasting into retirement. “People start to say, ‘Susan’s checked out. Susan retired a few years ago, she just hasn’t told us,’” said Taylor. “It’s attributed to age instead of the company’s mismanagement of talent.”

It’s not a big step from there to the accepted myths about older workers: they’re slower and less productive. They’re over the hill, so training them is a cost instead of an investment. Ditto spending any time performance-managing them. The stickiest myth is that the long-time employee is too expensive. “Get this senior person off the books and hire two younger people to replace them,” is how Sinha put it. I’ve been part of those conversations myself about retirement-age people; likely my bosses also had them about me. But seeing the older worker as a financial burden is a failure of math.

“Calculations of how much employees cost a company generally include salary and benefits packages,” said Taylor. However, their not having to learn on the job, be trained, or engage the resources of a mentor, let alone the asset of being used as a mentor for younger staff—all of this also saves costs. “I have the experience, the relationships, the contacts. I work incredibly hard,” said Betts. He still does: he’s sold 132 houses in the seven years since he turned sixty.

I mentioned to Taylor that some of the Greys at CBC News seemed to struggle with technology during COVID. She stopped me. “We give a pass to the twenty-three-year-old with cats walking back and forth on camera,” she said. But we snicker when someone over sixty leaves their mike off. I blamed imminent senility, especially when the person on mute was myself.

Another problem with retirement: it could kill you. People who stop working too soon may not have much time to live before they die.

Taylor was unsurprised. “Ageism is also self-imposed,” she said. Her example was the joke birthday cards we send each other. “If you replaced age with any other characteristic, you would never send it,” she said. I don’t mention the card I just received for my sixty-eighth birthday, a New Yorker cartoon called “Senior Charades.” The old man’s word bubble says: “Two words—I forgot what they are.” It got a big laugh and led to various tips about how to behave at work to appear less old: Don’t groan when you stand up. Smile in meetings so your face doesn’t sag into resting-old-face. And never rummage for anything, especially glasses. (Actually, never say the word “rummage.”)

Taylor, who turned forty-nine this spring (and says she’s been losing her glasses since she was twenty-two), is a long way from retirement; so are most of the experts I spoke with. I found their dedication moving; they saw it as realistic. “Unlike other prejudices, 100 percent of people will feel age prejudice if we don’t solve it,” said Taylor. Klassen thinks it will take twenty years for the workplace to reflect the law. Sinha said we’re still in the “baby steps” of realizing that longevity has implications for how long we work. “The workplace has not caught up with the reality of life expectancy, and therefore of career expectancy,” he said.

Working longer because you’re likely to live longer is not everyone’s idea of how best to reform retirement. It’s an anathema in France, to give the most widely reported example. President Emmanuel Macron finally pushed through his pension reforms this past spring, increasing the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four over a seven-year period. In the often-violent street battles that fed headlines everywhere, protesters lost a thumb, an eye, and even, to one officer’s club in Paris, a testicle. One of the many slogans from the protests stood out for me: “Leave us time to live before we die.”

But here’s a more existential problem with retirement: it could kill you. People who stop working too soon may not have much time to live before they die. “You hear about the doctors whose entire life and identity was at the hospital,” said Sinha. Then they retire and “they’re dead a few months later.” Similar sudden-death stories circulate about a certain type of driven, lifelong journalist, and I always assumed they were apocryphal. Or that the victim had been ignoring long-standing health issues.

Shortened life expectancy can be predicted by a lack of purpose, Sinha said. He referred to a “meta-analysis” project from 2010 that combined research from 148 studies involving 308,849 people to show that social connection and purpose increased survival by 50 percent. A lack of social relationships created the same risk of death as well-established factors such as smoking, drinking, and obesity. It was a gobsmacking discovery thirteen years ago; a lot of subsequent research has since supported the finding that early retirement can mean less time to enjoy it.
The Blue Zones research into the world’s longest-lived people, much publicized by National Geographic and now a Netflix docuseries called Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zone, also links longevity with purpose. “In the island community of Okinawa”—in Japan, where very long-lived women thrive on a diet of sweet potatoes, mugwort, and goya—“everybody can tell you what their sense of purpose is,” said Sinha. “They have a word for it: ikigai, which means ‘reason for being.’”

Every society uses markers as shorthand for people to understand each other. “In some societies, it’s your last name or who your parents were,” said Taylor. “Americans use job titles, but they’re equally likely to identify each other by the city they grew up in, or what university they went to, or what sports team they’re a fan of.” In Canada, she said, “we almost exclusively use our job titles to define who we are.” Sometimes we go so far as to use our previous job to describe ourselves after we retire, in what Taylor calls a “backwards-looking identity.” Even when we’re not working, “we reinforce work as a critical piece of our own identity.”

John Davey worked at Dow Chemical in his hometown of Sarnia, Ontario, for thirty-two years. He left at age fifty-eight. “I didn’t retire. I was retired,” Davey, who’s now seventy-two, told me. It was part of a company-wide downscaling (he bears no grudges). It took less than a month for him to understand he was not the stay-at-home type. “One day, I sat in my living room and hoped it would snow so I could go out and shovel.” He’s worked ever since, most recently as a flower-delivery-person. “I know men who say they are going to regrout the bathroom or whatever, but that’s done and then what?” he said.

Don O’Connor put the perils of not having purpose more starkly. He was in wealth management and real estate at TD Bank, in Toronto, for thirty-six years, so his financial literacy was better than the average Canadian’s. COVID made him realize how much he hated the three-hour commute, and so he retired last year, at sixty-two. Now he works part time at a funeral home in Burlington and loves everything about it—two-minute drive, flexible hours, every day is different—and puts up with the mild astonishment of his friends about his new job, because, as he told me on our call, “if you don’t do anything, you’re on an express route to death.”

Here’s a bleak prospect for many retiring Canadians: they will leave or be pushed out of the workforce too soon and without enough money. They’re financially prepared for the short and medium haul of life after work, but not the long one. They will go on to live too long, in too poor health (increased life expectancy has also increased the number of years people spend being sick), with a dwindling ability to support themselves or live independently. Ultimately, they’ll become wards of the state, housed in long-term care at great cost to the government and society. Sinha said: “This is where our destitute end up, in these government-run facilities.” According to a 2019 report by the National Institute on Ageing at Toronto Metropolitan University, long-term care costs are expected to triple from $22 billion to $71 billion by 2050. “It will be the equivalent of the modern-day Victorian poor house for our old,” Sinha said.

“We know this for a fact: the human brain is not equipped to make long-term decisions,” said Bonnie-Jeanne MacDonald, director of financial security research at the National Institute on Ageing. “The human brain is very optimistic, which is great, but it can’t process the bad things that will happen in the future.” Decisions made now are not just for yourself in five years but for you in thirty years. “And that’s going to be a much more vulnerable person than you are right now, health wise.”

The National Institute on Ageing report says that, by 2050, care in one’s own home will cost up to $25,000 a month; care in a retirement home or residence could be as much as $10,000 a month. Those options will be unaffordable for most Canadians. Meanwhile, the number of people caring for family members at home will decrease sharply. Between now and 2050, Canada is expected to have 30 percent fewer voluntary caregivers, according to Sinha. Paid health care workers will not fill the gap: Canada’s universal health care system “was never designed to cover the provision of long-term care services,” including home and community care nursing, Sinha said. Long-term care insurance (LTCI) is now mandatory in Germany, South Korea, and Japan. Here in Canada, home-based care doesn’t even cover prescription medications. According to that 2019 Canadian Financial Capability Survey, a third of Canadians also worry they won’t be able to afford health care costs as they age, and rightly so.

“We spend the majority of our life savings paying for care in the last ten years of our life,” said Klein, the financial manager who put my life expectancy at ninety-four, which is sounding less and less like good news.

If we could create a different kind of retirement in Canada, a more inclusive, more creative, and flexible concept of work—and one that erased the grim picture of poor houses for the old—where would we start? After talking to dozens of experts and retired Canadians, three ideas, or ideals, formed my personal retirement manifesto.

The first would be to make measures against ageism part of every company’s fair-employment practice. Imagine a legacy career path that sees Canadians move from a forty- to a sixty-year work life, without censure or ridicule for being too old to work. I think of what Taylor said: “People change jobs all the time, but as we get older, we think we must continue doing exactly what we’re doing now or fall off a cliff. These are extreme alternatives.” The more high powered the job, and the higher in pay scale, the more we believe there is nowhere for workers to go but out. But many older workers prefer to forgo the intensity of management responsibilities, higher salaries, and relentless climbing and return to the craft work they excelled at in the beginning of their careers—even for a lot less money. Go ahead and ask them. As my own career wound down, I often thought—but did not say—that I wanted to go back to writing and editing, to revive my love of words that had taken me all the way to senior news director at the CBC, where I wasn’t allowed anywhere near copy.

The second tenet of my manifesto is phased retirement. This one took me a while to get to, even though every expert and most of the retirees I spoke to were for it. I asked fellow CBC leader Greg Reaume, sixty-eight, who retired from running world news at CBC News a few months before I left myself, what he’d have said if I’d asked him to stay on a couple of days a week for the next two years, or if we’d opened that option to everybody. “A minefield,” Reaume said. “And complicated to manage.” “Right?” I agreed. Which is exactly the problem. Even if bosses like us believe in and desire phased retirement, taking on the labour-intensive job of juggling the options (do you make it mandatory to offer, but voluntary to accept?) and coordinating the schedules of part-time staff would keep managers from getting on side. We need to get them on side, though, because think of the benefits: to the worker who wants to keep contributing, to the employer who keeps getting returns on their experience and work ethic, and to the Canadian economy in need of workers. Figure that out and we move toward retirement becoming an adaptive and gradual transition rather than an on/off switch. Indeed, Klassen’s research showed a strong preference among older workers to gradually ease out of full-time employment, working fewer days over a period of several years. His definition of retirement is “a transition from working mostly full time to not working mostly full time.”

Finally, I propose we find new words to describe both retirement and retirees. A line from a 2014 Atlantic story on American retirement puts the lie to the core idea of traditional retirement. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to be realistic that everyone saves enough to spend the last third of their life on vacation,” New York economist and author Allison Schrager was quoted as saying. (When I called her recently to ask if she still stood by this idea, her answer was a firm yes.) That vision of retirement, the one my father enjoyed and the one I had teed up for myself? None of it makes any sense anymore. Media, banks, and self-help books have lately been bandying around the term “The New Retirement,” but we should really be talking about the end of retirement. Instead of talking about “The Retired,” we should be talking about “The Unretired.” Not the undead—not yet—but maybe as indomitable.

Except that’s not right either. If our goal is to have Canadians work for as long as they’re excited and willing and able and empowered to do so, how about if we just call them workers? Because the essential zeitgeist of the retiree in 2023 is to keep working, however that looks.

Raymond Betts, even as he moves from being “goal oriented to soul oriented,” told me he will “never retire. My father worked until he was ninety-seven and died four months later, at ninety-eight.” Betts wasn’t sure he’d see the point in going on without work. “Work gives me a reason to call someone,” he said. “I have a mission. I have a reason to talk to people.”

Mieko Ise believes retirement is a time to take risks in a way that younger people who need to keep their jobs can’t. “Speak out!” she said. “I want to be reinvigorated, not retired.” Vicki Obedkoff, who retired in Saskatoon at seventy-one, after forty years as a minister with the United Church of Canada, fights for the same causes she’s always supported: climate change, human rights, and social justice. She quoted Alice Walker: activism is my rent for living on the planet. “I think about her often,” said Obedkoff. “I can’t see a time in the future when I will let this work go.”

Marjorie Beaucage, a seventy-six-year-old artist and Elder who lives in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, was baffled by the whole idea of retirement. “I don’t know any of those retired people,” she said. “Elders don’t retire. Neither do artists. For Elders, this time of life is the busiest. You have to be there for your community.”

The way I think about my own retirement has changed significantly since I started working on this article. I’m part of a generation that will live the longest in history and also work the longest, if the big thinkers—and the workers themselves—succeed in moving Canadians from a forty-year career path to a sixty-year one. It’s new terrain, and the best way through is to be alert, adaptable, open to failure, and ready to act fast on success.

I don’t see retiring when I did as a failure—I had my second career as a writer I wanted to focus on and that grandson I’m gaga to spend time with. But I wonder why I didn’t have the conversation about a staged departure into a different kind of role, or why no one else had it with me.

I’m newly alert to dinner-table banter that turns ageist. It is without exception driven by people my age. “It’s time for the old farts to make way for the next generation,” said one retired financial industry executive at a recent dinner party when the conversation turned to the Globe and Mail’s leadership. (Phillip Crawley, publisher, announced his retirement a month later, at seventy-eight.) “Hold on,” I said and then held forth on what I’ve learned about age prejudice. It may have been obnoxious. I will probably keep doing it. (Speak out, inner rebel!)

For now, I’m following Benjamin Klein’s simple financial advice: more input, less output. “Those are the only two things we can control,” he said. Which could mean getting a job—and not in management or journalism but something completely different. I’ve been an admirer of people who dedicate their retirement to volunteer work but felt pity when I saw someone my own age shelving groceries or working as a greeter. Now I think, “Long life headed your way, my friend!” I’ve stopped “backwards identifying” myself by the work I used to do, after Lisa Taylor asked me to “please be bold and to introduce yourself as you are now.” In my case, that’s as a writer. Now and then I even try to picture my future self, thirty years from now, but Bonnie-Jeanne MacDonald is right. It’s unfathomable. I accept that older Cathrin will be more fragile. Hopefully not in the poor house but perhaps a modest room or two, with a few things to remind me of the people I love—and also with the people I love. Likely I won’t be working. We can but hope.

Cathrin Bradbury

Cathrin Bradbury is is a Toronto-based journalist and a regular contributor to major Canadian media. She is the author of The Bright Side, published by Penguin Random House in 2021, and writes a column called “The 3/4 Life Crisis” for the Toronto Star.

Chloe Cushman

Chloe Cushman is an illustrator based in Toronto. She is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and the New York Times, and her work has appeared in many other international publications.

November 16th 2023

To improve your life, consider changing your personality

Cologne Carnival, 2016. Photo by Jerome Sessini/Magnum

Christian Jarrettis the editor of Psyche. A cognitive neuroscientist by training, his books include The Rough Guide to Psychology (2011), Great Myths of the Brain (2014) and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change (2021).

Edited by Matt Huston

Syndicate this idea

New research supports the idea that intentionally developing certain traits is not only possible, but comes with benefits

So much of life is out of your hands. From the start, you didn’t choose where you were born and raised. Later on, from the people you’ve met to whether or not you’ve had good health, a lot will have come down to chance. To the list of random cards you’ve been dealt, you might also be tempted to add your personality, the set of stable traits – such as whether you’re ambitious or idle, outgoing or meek, fretful or calm – that make you ‘you’ and that exert a strong influence over your life.

These traits are strongly affected by factors outside your control, such as your genes and chance life experiences. Yet emerging research suggests they aren’t entirely set in stone – and you can even work to change them. What’s more, a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has now provided preliminary evidence that, by purposefully changing your personality in the ways you want, you can improve your life, or at least your satisfaction with your life.

Personality traits were long considered immutable. Inherent to the concept of personality is that it’s the stable part of you, in contrast to things such as your mood or emotional state. However, over the past decade or so, mounting evidence based on longitudinal surveys has shown that meaningful changes in personality traits can occur over the course of a lifetime. Moreover, this process of deep-seated change can be accelerated to the timeframe of months – for instance, following psychotherapy or via deliberate attempts to change one’s personality.

One international research group that has been investigating deliberate personality change includes Gabriel Olaru (the new paper’s lead author) at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, Mirjam Stieger at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland, and others. They developed a smartphone app called PEACH (PErsonality coACH) that guides users through changes in behaviour and other steps to help them shift their traits in the ways they want, such as to become less neurotic or more extraverted.

‘In our previous research, we showed that the PEACH app is effective in changing the Big Five personality traits [the main traits recognised by personality psychologists],’ says Stieger. ‘But it was unclear whether the desired changes … can also lead to improvements in life satisfaction. For example, it was unclear if a person who was able to successfully increase in extraversion would also show improved life satisfaction over time.’ This is what the group’s new research set out to investigate.

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People who succeeded in becoming less neurotic subsequently felt more satisfied with life overall

To do this, Olaru, Stieger and their colleagues recruited hundreds of participants who were motivated to change and asked them to indicate one personality trait they’d like to work on. From that point, the team focused on participants who expressed one of the three most popular change goals: wanting to become more extraverted, less neurotic or more conscientious. Then they assigned some of these participants to use the smartphone app for three months and others to join a waiting-list control group (these volunteers got to use the app a little later on).

The app gives users prompts for activities to help change their chosen trait in the way they desire, showing how to plan these behaviours using so-called ‘if/then implementation intentions’. An example is: ‘If I have no meetings before 1pm, then I will go to the gym’. This would be a way to increase productivity and therefore the trait of conscientiousness. The app also guides users through reflections on their change efforts and provides psychoeducational tips and tricks on ways to achieve lasting change.

The participants assigned to the app completed the same personality test at the start of the study, after the intervention, and three months later; they also named a friend or family member to complete the personality test on their behalf at these times. Crucially, on each of these occasions, the participants also rated their overall satisfaction with life, as well as their satisfaction with specific life domains, such as work, friendships or emotions.

As in the previous research, the phone app appeared to be effective: on average, based on their own answers to the personality test, the participants succeeded in changing the trait they wanted to change, in the direction they wanted to change it (eg, becoming more conscientious or less neurotic), and these changes were greater than in the waiting-list control group. What’s more, the changes were sustained three months after the intervention had finished. One important caveat is that the friends’ and family members’ ratings didn’t indicate successful change, but Stieger says this could be because ‘they [had] preconceived notions about the individual and may thus be slower in updating their judgments of personality traits.’

Promisingly, the successful self-reported trait changes were also accompanied by increases in overall life satisfaction and in specific domains of life. For instance, people who succeeded in becoming less neurotic subsequently felt more satisfied with life overall, and specifically more satisfied in relation to their emotional health. People who succeeded in increasing their conscientiousness showed similar increases in their overall life satisfaction, but also specifically in terms of satisfaction with school or work, and with their health.

These apparent positive benefits make sense – for instance, lower neuroticism is known to be associated with better emotional health, and higher conscientiousness with more success at work and healthier living. The study can’t prove a causal chain going from trait change to positive life outcomes to increased life satisfaction (it’s possible, for instance, that using the app has a direct effect on life satisfaction), but that would seem a fair interpretation of what’s going on.

Where past work showed that deliberate personality change is possible, these new findings go further: ‘For those people who are actually motivated and willing to change aspects of their personality,’ Stieger says, ‘the effort of taking part in such a personality-change intervention might be worthwhile [as a way] to become happier in life.’

This Idea was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon+Psyche from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. Funders to Aeon+Psyche are not involved in editorial decision-making.

PersonalityChange and self-developmentHappiness

16 October 2023

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Sports and games


Sport shows how to use performance benchmarks in a positive way

IQ scores and other contextless benchmarks are suffocating and misleading. We should look to sport for a healthier approach

by Leif Weatherby

Stigma and taboo


The families of people who commit sex crimes need care and support

While they deal with a kind of grief, the relatives of those who harm others sexually are subject to blame and judgment

by Azadeh Nematy

November 7th 2023

A brain injury removed my ability to perceive time. Here’s what it’s like in a world without it

The brain’s perception of time is abstract. Here’s what happens when it gets seriously distorted

By Meghan Beaudry

Published November 5, 2023 9:00AM (EST)

Man stands with umbrella outside looking at large collection of big alarm clocks drowning in the sea. (Getty Images/mikkelwilliam) Man stands with umbrella outside looking at large collection of big alarm clocks drowning in the sea. (Getty Images/mikkelwilliam)






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I slumped in a wheelchair in my doctor’s office. The clock above the door ticked erratically, as if someone outside the room was winding the gears forward and then turning them back every few seconds. The words Dr. W spoke seemed to fall from her mouth, then slowly float across the room one by one. To my ears, her speech was devoid of any cadence. Unable to hear the pauses that indicated the ends of her sentences, I kept interrupting her.

A month before this doctor’s appointment, lupus, the chronic autoimmune disease I had lived with for the past four years, had spiraled out of control. In rare cases like mine, lupus can cause severe brain inflammation called lupus cerebritis. I’d first realized I was seriously ill when I stood up after teaching a violin lesson and forgot how to walk. My legs didn’t hurt — they simply refused to lift from the floor. 


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Over the next few weeks, my brain quickly unraveled, despite the high doses of immunosuppressants and IV steroids my doctor prescribed. I lost sensation in my left arm. I forgot that my favorite color was red and even whether or not I liked yogurt. I no longer remembered telling ghost stories around a campfire with my family as a child or the day I left for college. My emotions vacillated from fury to giddiness to crushing depression on an hourly basis. I hallucinated fireworks onto my bedroom ceiling and stared as the air around me appeared to ripple like water. Due to problems with my short-term memory, I repeated myself over and over — that is, when I remembered enough of my vocabulary to actually speak.

Unable to walk, communicate or think coherently, I lay in bed for months, wondering if my mind would ever be the same. But as a classically-trained string musician, one of the cognitive abilities I grieved the most was my ability to comprehend time.

Due to problems with my short-term memory, I repeated myself over and over — that is, when I remembered enough of my vocabulary to actually speak.

At the core of any orchestra or string quartet is synchrony: a diverse, often eclectic mix of individuals with the finely-tuned ability to play in time with each other, to move together, and even to breathe together. An orchestra of well-trained musicians can accelerate the tempo or slow it down, pause to let a beautiful chord ring throughout a concert hall, then restart exactly together. When each instrument in an orchestra plays precisely in time with each other, the result is a seemingly effortless command of time that can only be achieved through many years of rigorous study.

I had fallen in love with the viola as an elementary school student. Over many hours of private lessons, orchestra rehearsals and practice, I’d built my career as a professional musician. That the many years I’d spent honing my skill as a musician could vanish in a month terrified me.

Whether we’re managing a demanding career, caring for children, or both, most of us have dreamt of not being bound to the metaphorical hourglass through which our day seems to slip. But what we actually want is more time, not the absence of time altogether. Being unaware of the passage of time felt like being trapped in a single chaotic moment that never ends. I had no way of knowing how long I’d been sick for, when my caretakers would bring me dinner, or how long my recovery might take. Without a sense of time, seconds stretched indefinitely into the future. When I asked my caretakers for food or coffee, they seemed to disappear for hours before they returned.

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In addition to my difficulty perceiving short spans of time, my comprehension of longer periods of time was also affected. I referred to every past event in my life, whether it was my doctor’s appointment the day before or an audition I’d taken years ago, as having happened “yesterday.” I couldn’t remember what date, month or even year it was. I forgot what times of day were appropriate to call friends and family on the phone, and I didn’t understand what people meant when they said they were “busy.” Bedridden and unable to comprehend time, my illness seemed to drag on for eternity with no end in sight.

Even while bedridden, I tried to piece together the meaning behind my brain’s dysfunction. Learning about neuroscience helped me come to terms with my disease. I learned that no one area of the brain is solely responsible for measuring time. Rather, “the entire brain is critically dependent on the timing of neural transmissions throughout,” explains Dr. Alan Brown, former chair of psychology and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Southern Methodist University. “The information that we receive from the outer world is sent through our neurons in waves or pulses, and this is how the brain processes everything (the smell of a rose, the color red, a rough touch). So, literally, we have several trillion small temporal processing units in our brain.”

“The entire brain is critically dependent on the timing of neural transmissions throughout.”

Unlike more concrete and specific brain functions with designated areas within the brain, like our sense of smell, sight or touch, the brain’s perception of time is abstract. A combination of external input (like seeing the streetlights outside our house flick on), internal sensory input (like feeling tired), and memory (like groaning when we remember we have an early work meeting ) might lead our brains to determine that it’s time to go to bed.

“Most recent brain research has found that the brain is a lot less localized than we previously thought. That is, a specific piece of information (i.e., your grandmother’s face) does not reside in a precise location in the brain, but may involve tens of thousands of different small processing sites throughout the brainstem and cortex,” says Dr. Brown.

A 2020 report in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry cites meta-analysis of MRIs and PET scans in determining the collaboration between different areas of the brain in processing time. “These studies support the presence of a widespread network of cortical and subcortical areas that are variably recruited based on specific task parameters and demands,” the authors write.

Neuroscientists have long known that the human brain is capable of measuring units of time under ten seconds more or less accurately due to a group of time-keeping cells in the hippocampus. But in a 2018 study published in the journal Nature, researchers at Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience believe they made a breakthrough discovery in determining exactly how the brain measures longer periods of time.


Unlocking the brain’s spiral symphony: a new path to understanding brain activity

“Our study reveals how the brain makes sense of time as an event (that) is experienced. The network does not explicitly encode time. What we measure is rather a subjective time derived from the ongoing flow of experience,” says the Kavli Institute’s Dr. Albert Tsao, the study’s lead author. “The primary function of episodic time is to record the order of events within experience, which does not require a precise representation of metric time,” Dr. Tsao’s and his colleagues explain. A 2021 study in PubMed confirmed that the creation of episodic memories shapes our sense of time, and that the hippocampus “binds features of an event to its context.”

As we move through our day, our brains react to our environment in the form of thousands of tiny observations. The rumble of the coffee machine, the drop of milk that splashes from our cereal bowl onto the tablecloth and the crunch of cornflakes between our teeth are all observations that our brain makes about our environment without us consciously thinking about it. The observations our brains record occur in a continuous flow. This input from our environment then is encoded, or stored, in our memory. Certain events, particularly those that indicate changes in our environment, serve as boundaries between experiences. These boundaries help our brain organize encoded memories into segments, or episodes. For example, the sensory input above might be grouped into an episode labeled “breakfast.” Groupings of memories that were formed in the same environment are referred to as episodic memories.

“The primary function of episodic time is to record the order of events within experience, which does not require a precise representation of metric time.”

The accumulation of episodic memories form the neural clock at the crux of Dr. Tsao and his team’s discovery, and are responsible for helping humans gauge how much time has passed. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry study reached a similar conclusion: “There is evidence that events that occurred in different episodes are perceived as happening farther apart in time, and events occurring within an episode are perceived as happening closer in time.”

While no single area of the brain controls humans’ abstract concept of time, particular networks of neurons play a role in our brain’s perception of time by aiding in the formation of episodic memories.

Two years after my brain first became inflamed, I stood next to three of my colleagues on a stage holding my viola. After bowing to the audience, we sat facing each other, our musical instruments ready. After a quick cue from the first violinist, we launched into motion, the synchronized voices of our instruments blending precisely together.

Recovery from brain trauma is complicated and varies from patient to patient, Dr. Brown explained, adding, “Many variables could be involved, with the most important being how the damage occurred.” My own recovery had felt like scaling a mountain: exhausting and grueling, but worth it when I finally reached the summit and saw how far I’d come.

For much of the first year I spent recovering, I was too mentally and physically exhausted to practice more than a few minutes. I returned to playing the violin before the viola. Because the violin is much lighter than the viola, my atrophied arm muscles were able to hold it. When I was well enough to begin seriously practicing the viola, I worked extensively with a metronome, a device that musicians use to keep a steady beat.

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Interestingly, the Journal of Neuropsychiatry study confirms that using a metronome can help brain trauma patients recover their sense of timing. “The therapeutic value of temporally based interventions (e.g., rhythmic cueing, slow rhythmic drumming) has been demonstrated for multiple neuropsychiatric conditions.”

Six years after my recovery, my memory overall is not as sharp as it was before my illness. I use to-do lists to keep myself on track. I triple-check the rehearsal dates on emails I send my students to make sure I haven’t listed the wrong day or month, although sometimes mistakes still slip through. I also sometimes struggle to remember how far back events in my past happened. I’ll catch myself wondering if I had the oil in my car changed three months ago or a year ago. But every time I take my viola out of its case, I feel grateful to be able to think like a musician again.

While performing in the viola section of an orchestra recently, my mind drifted briefly to the complex method through which the brain comprehends time. Sensory input becomes tiny memories, which then become encoded into episodes that the brain uses to estimate how much time has passed. Then my mind returned to the musicians on stage moving in time: many voices blending together to create a moment, a phrase, then an entire symphony.

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By Meghan Beaudry

Meghan Beaudry began writing as part of her rehabilitation from brain trauma in 2014 and simply never stopped. Her work has been published in Hippocampus, Insider, NBC Today, Al Jazeera, and the Huffington Post. She blogs for FROM Meghan Beaudry

November 3rd 2023

How apocalyptic cults use psychological tricks to brainwash their followers

If someone can make you feel insecure, incomplete, and inadequate, they then can present themselves as the solution you need.

A group of people, part of a doomsday cult, in white robes standing in front of a white chair.
T.C.Malhotra / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Doomsday cults use isolation, love bombing, and fear to control their members.
  • They cut off members from the outside world and even from each other, creating a dependency relationship while using physical violence and emotional abuse to keep people in line.
  • These techniques can be used by anyone to manipulate others, not just in cults but also in toxic relationships.

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Roch Thériault was an intelligent and charismatic religious extremist who, in the 1970s, founded a commune known as the Ant Hill Kids in the woods around Quebec. Thériault had persuaded a dozen or so followers to live with him “free of sin.” Thériault told them to wait in the commune and obey his every command to survive the “end times,” which he claimed would occur on February 17, 1978.

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When that date came and went, Thériault doubled down. The problem was that the commune was not free enough from sin. Thériault became increasingly violent, abusive, and unhinged. He would make people eat dead mice and feces. He punished people by breaking their legs or cutting off their toes. He tortured and murdered children.

The strange thing about the Ant Hill Kids is that few ever wanted, let alone dared, to leave the cult. Gabrielle Lavallée fled once after being tortured, only to return because she couldn’t cope with life outside the cult. As a punishment, Thériault pinned Lavallée’s hand to a table with a hunting knife and used a cleaver to forcibly amputate her arm. Lavallée fled again and reported Thériault to the police. He was finally arrested and imprisoned in 1989, ten years after he began his horrific doomsday cult.

Why do these doomsday cults attract such unwavering loyalty among their followers? How is it that a person can persuade people to do terrible things — to themselves and to others — in the name of some bizarre prophesy? Here we look at three common techniques these cults use.


Doomsday groups often will cut off members of the cult, both from the outside world and even from each other. When you surround yourself every moment and every day with the same message and like-minded fanatical individuals, there is little room for doubt or introspection.

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We often hear about how dangerous the “echo chamber” of the online world is. Our fears, biases, and paranoias are reinforced and given fuel by the constant reinforcement of others. Now, multiply and amplify that effect, and you can imagine a cult. In normal, everyday interactions, you run up against competing ideas. Your friend might ask, “Are you sure about that?” In a cult, there is no dissent and no checks on the fanatical dogma you are given.

When Thériault first started his Quebec cult, he demanded all his followers cut off ties with their families. As the years went on, the Ant Hill Kids were forbidden from talking to each other unless Thériault was there as well. There were no opportunities to question. Other cults, like Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians, would live in gated communities where access to the outside world was filtered through their leaders.

Love bombs

The reason that people often join doomsday cults in the first place is due to a manipulative trick known as a “love bomb.” This is when a cult — from the leaders down to the newest recruits — showers someone with affection, care, and support. Not only is this intended to make people feel welcome and “at home,” but it subtly and insidiously establishes a dependency relationship. Everything you need or want has to come through the cult. At first, this is generously given. After a while, it’s given with a few conditions attached. In the end, affection and love are given only to those who behave exactly as they are supposed to.

A notorious example of this was known as “flirty fishing,” a technique used by the apocalyptic cult “The Children of God” (or “The Family International”), in which members would deliberately enter sexual relationships with potential converts. This fishing was a deliberate nod to Matthew 4:19, where Jesus tells his disciples they will become “fishers of men.” It is thought that the cult’s women used flirty fishing with over 200,000 potential converts.


Between them, fear and love account for the vast majority of all human behavior. And, if you believe Machiavelli, fear is the stronger of the two. Almost all doomsday cults inspire a degree of fear. At the smallest level, this is the fear of being ostracized. As we have seen, cults take very deliberate care to make sure that their members believe that there is nowhere else they can live. People are dependent on and defined by their cult. Being cut off from that is a great source of fear.

More than that, though, is the very real physical abuse that doomsday cults use to keep people in check. Thériault would make his followers sit on lit stoves, or he would make them sit naked in the cold and whip them. Jim Jones would publicly beat members of his Peoples Temple cult and limit their food supply.

Of course, one of the defining characteristics of doomsday cults is the ever-present fear of death. Often, this is simply the reinforced idea that the world will end soon. For instance, Heaven’s Gate, led by Marshall Applewhite, isolated its members and used the fear of an imminent spaceship arrival to control their behavior. The Peoples Temple, though, did something all the more traumatic: They would hold “suicide drills.” Alan Warren, author of Doomsday Cults: The Devil’s Hostages, describes them like this:

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“Jones had paper cups filled with wine passed out to them after telling them they were celebrating. After a few toasts and everyone had imbibed on their cup of wine, Jones told them they had just drunk poison, and within 30 minutes, they would all be dead. Some of the group panicked and started to cry, but most of them just sat in the venue, silent and contemplating their lives. After 45 minutes passed, Jones told them that this had only been a drill, and none of them were going to die. He just wanted to test their loyalties.”

Joining the cult

Using these techniques, doomsday cults break down your sense of self and any notion of true or false, right or wrong. They then fill these gaps with cult dependency and the offer of salvation. You’re broken; we can fix you. You have nowhere to go; we can offer you a home. No one wants you; we are your family.

In fact, most kinds of emotional manipulation rely on these techniques. If someone can make you feel insecure, incomplete, and inadequate, then they can present themselves as the solution. That happens not just in cults but also in abusive relationships.


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November 2th 2023

5 Common Thought Traps That Keep You Stuck in Anxiety—And How To Escape Each One

Helen Carefoot

Though anxious thoughts begin in the brain, the ripple effects of harboring anxiety can plague both your body and mind, hindering your ability to move smoothly through day-to-day activities and fall asleep at night. Getting stuck in the negative thinking patterns that set off that process can just sink you deeper into your worries—hence their designation as thought traps. Simply recognizing these traps that send your thoughts spiraling toward anxiety can help you learn how to climb out of them.

What is an anxiety-related thought trap?

A thought trap that triggers or worsens anxiety is one kind of cognitive distortion, “an exaggerated or irrational thought that has the power to negatively distort how we see reality,” clinical neuropsychology PhD resident Nawal Mustafa previously told Well+Good. In particular, an anxiety-related thought trap, or anxiety trap, will distort your reality in a way that makes you feel more anxious about the future, even to the point of keeping you from taking action or moving forward with your life.

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Indeed, according to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy from Fear, these negative thinking patterns have “incredible power to affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally.” For starters, the activation of your fight-or-flight nervous system triggered by anxiety can leave you sweating, nauseated, feeling jittery, or short of breath with a racing heart. And on the mental-emotional side of things, maintaining even a baseline level of anxiety can lead to self-doubt and low self-esteem.

How anxiety traps can become especially ingrained in our thinking

Because feelings of anxiety can often get intertwined with healthy striving and wanting to be the best version of yourself, it can be easy to gloss over them—particularly in the workplace where you’re being counted on to succeed, says Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower and host of The Anxious Achiever podcast. This is especially poignant for the people with high-functioning anxiety who may feel like if they don’t feel anxious, nervous, or agitated at work, they’re somehow letting themselves off the hook or at risk of becoming a slacker.

“[Anxiety thought traps] can become so habitual that we don’t consider their harm.” —Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever

“When you’re an anxious achiever, you can sort of forget how to operate without anxiety, especially because in our very productivity-driven world, you often get rewarded for operating with anxiety if you’re getting your work done,” says Aarons-Mele. In turn, the thought traps that fuel anxiety can become a part of your regular thinking—something you just learn to push through, rather than investigate and dismantle. “These thoughts become so habitual that we don’t consider their harm,” she says.

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But, as noted above, harboring anxious thoughts is detrimental to both body and mind. Not to mention, operating with constant anxiety at work can fuel fatigue and burnout; trigger crippling perfectionism and imposter syndrome; and reinforce the damaging idea that your worth is based on what you can achieve.

In turn, it’s important to both identify and disrupt anxiety thought traps whenever they creep up. Below, find five of the most common anxiety traps to watch out for, plus advice for how to escape them.

5 thought traps that fuel anxiety, and how to combat them

1. Catastrophizing

This anxiety trap is characterized by always assuming that any situation will result in the worst-case scenario, even if you have little or no evidence to think so. To make matters, well, worse, it’s also possible that believing the worst will happen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to self-sabotage and other behaviors that fuel a negative outcome, says Dr. Manly.

The fix: A powerful tool to stop catastrophizing in its tracks is to simply call it out and redirect your brain to a more productive path by considering the other possible outcomes. That is, if you find yourself thinking the worst, instead push yourself to envision what would be the best or even a neutral outcome of the situation. You don’t necessarily have to believe that these positive or neutral things will happen; simply considering them can help pull you out of the anxiety spiral, says Dr. Manly.

Factual information can be a powerful tool, too. It’s harder to believe in a theoretical worst-case outcome if you’re looking at facts that prove something different may be true. For example, if you’re catastrophizing about your financial situation, Aarons-Mele says getting some concrete numbers together and seeking advice from a financial expert can help put your worries into more realistic perspective.

2. All-or-nothing thinking

When you’re caught in this anxiety trap, there isn’t any nuance. Everything is the worst or the best; you’re either blessed or doomed. But in reality, life isn’t so cut and dried—and falling into the all-or-nothing trap can prevent you from seeing all of the interesting variations and subtleties of things, says Aarons-Mele. Plus, believing that things are either great or terrible can lead you to think that if you don’t do something perfectly, it’s not worth trying at all. Cue: damaging perfectionistic behaviors.

The fix: This thought trap springs, in part, from a tendency toward judgement—both of yourself and of others. So, Dr. Manly advises trying to consider at least one or two alternative perspectives from your own whenever the all-or-nothing tendency rears its head. Keeping an open mind to other perspectives can help you realize that there’s a lot of distance and opportunity between the worst and best outcomes, which can be a useful tool for neutralizing such extreme thinking.

3. Labeling

This anxiety trap is marked by calling yourself extreme negative names like lazy, undeserving, or incompetent—especially in scenarios where self-criticism is entirely unwarranted. (Consider receiving a constructive comment on a work project, and instantly assuming that this makes you a terrible employee.)

In addition to fueling anxiety, such negative self-talk can spark a spiral of negativity, potentially triggering depressive thoughts and lowering your self-esteem. “When we listen to the inner critic—the voice that wants to tell us we are unworthy or unlovable—we punish ourselves in the unkindest of ways,” says Dr. Manly.

The fix: When you catch yourself calling yourself an unkind name, pause for a few deep breaths to acknowledge the label, and then redirect to a more positive one. This is a technique called thought-stopping that can help you remember that you’re not your worst moments and that it’s important to give yourself grace. In other moments, it’s also helpful to actively practice positive self-talk as a means to bolster your self-esteem against more critical scenarios.

4. Ruminating and overthinking

Aarons-Mele calls this anxiety trap “an anxious person’s best friend” for how commonly it surfaces. Also known as “stewing,” ruminating or overthinking is all about revisiting the same situations over and over again in your mind and marinating on them. Because carefully thinking things through before acting is often something that high-achievers do, it can be difficult for these folks, in particular, to identify when this helpful thinking takes a turn into rumination territory, says Aarons-Mele.

Often, overthinking also involves thinking about something negative that happened in the past and that you can’t change, which just makes the process even more futile and steers you away from resolution. “When we use our energy to engage in unhelpful repetitive thoughts, we are robbing ourselves of the ability to put our thoughts toward positive directions,” says Dr. Manly.

The fix: To stop yourself from overthinking, start by grounding yourself using your five senses (try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to home in on things you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell) or embrace a distraction that’ll pull you out of the thinking spiral, like listening to a favorite song or zoning out to a comforting TV show, says Dr. Manly.

From there, practice psychological distancing by considering the situation you were (over)thinking about from a third-party perspective, like that of a friend, or by scheduling time to consider it tomorrow or on another day. You can also try purposefully shifting your thoughts to something else “in a direction that feels right to you,” says Dr. Manly.

5. Discounting the positive

You’ve fallen into this thought trap when you find ways to make the positive experiences in your life not really “count,” either by rejecting them outright or convincing yourself that any success or achievement happened purely by chance.

The fix: The best way to fight this negative thinking loop is to actively savor any positive moment—however small it may be—whenever it arrives, says Dr. Manly. Instead of writing off your own role in this good thing happening, also take the time to consider how your actions and skills made this positive event or feeling possible, she adds.

It’s also helpful to keep a physical file of positive moments or wins, including compliments or praise from others and personal moments of strength that you record. Being able to reference your capabilities at any point can help you build confidence and reduce the tendency to write off successes.

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9 Hairstylist-Approved Essentials That Double As Foolproof Gifts

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November 1, 2023

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It’s true what they say: Everyone is different—especially when it comes to our hair. From thickness to color to texture, there’s an endless array of hair types, and therefore a wide range of hair-care essentials that could fit into each person’s routine.

And according to Gabrielle D’Ulisse, licensed cosmetologist and hairstylist, that variety and uniqueness is what makes hair-care products and tools such a great gifting option. “Even when someone has a routine down, there is always room to spice it up and incorporate new products,” she says.

Not sure which hair-care presents will work for the people on your list? These are some of D’Ulisse’s recommendations—which are all available on QVC, where you can also find amazing holiday deals on beauty products—based on people’s hair types and concerns.

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Looking for a Dyson Airwrap dupe that’ll provide the same great blowout? D’Ulisse recommends gifting this styler from Sharper Image. “It is a great option for those who want that salon-quality style without too much time spent during their morning routine,” she says. “Whether you’re looking for curls, bounce, or a sleek finish, the Multi-Styler’s airflow technology won’t compromise your hair, unlike most traditional hot tool’s hot surfaces would.” This high-tech tool is sure to be a hit with anyone who heat styles frequently.

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Healthy hair starts at the scalp, D’Ulisse says. “The treatment will give your scalp a thorough cleanse of any build-up clogging your follicles,” she says. Make sure to tell the recipient that D’Ulisse does not recommend using it for every wash though, as that will excessively strip the scalp of its natural oils.

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Briogeo Farewell Frizz Heat Protectant Creme, 4oz — $26.00

Shopping for someone who heat styles often and wants to achieve that sleek look? D’Ulisse says this blow dry creme is ideal for them, because it acts as a heat protectant, smooths, and is formulated with rosehip, argan, and coconut oils that’ll ensure deeply moisturized strands.

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No matter the hair type, this hairspray will offer extra hydration, D’Ulisse says, which is a major win since most hairsprays can be very drying. “It contains a blend of coconut, argan, grape seed, macadamia, sweet almond, and safflower seed oil—a blend that will nourish your hair,” she says. “These products are meant for any hair diameter, so even if you have finer strands, you can trust it won’t weigh your hair down.” Basically, it’ll provide the volume and the hold, no matter the hair.

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If you want to gift a salon-quality tool, check out this curling iron that D’Ulisse has personally used at her salon. “Its wide barrel allows you to create volume at the root or achieve a big, bouncy blowout look,” she says. “The digital single pass technology ensures… one pass and you’re ready to go.” Everyone loves a time-saving gift.

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There’s a reason the Olaplex lineup is so popular—it works so well that stylists like D’Ulisse find themselves reaching for products like this lightweight oil while doing their own hair. D’Ulisse, who says any hair type could benefit from this essential, uses it after styling her hair to tame flyaways and add shine, but notes you can use it as a heat protectant, too.

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Does a person on your list wish their fine hair had some more volume? Then grab them this hydrating mask duo. “As someone with finer hair, I’m always worried a hair mask might weigh my hair down, but this product perfectly avoids that,” D’Ulisse says. “It’s specifically meant to nourish your scalp with its key ingredients of goat milk, various oils, and proteins.” What more could your fine-haired friend need?

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No, this three-in-one product isn’t like those generic shampoo, conditioner, and body wash combos you’ll find at the grocery store. It’s meant to give your hair volume and texture, while also absorbing any excess oil, making it a great gift for people who aspire to have that voluminous, perfectly tousled look.

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You can let the recipient of this ultra-hydrating mask know that it’s a D’Ulisse’s holy grail product. “Its ingredient mango butter is a game changer,” she says. “Its bonding technology is tailored for color-treated or heat-damaged hair—those most prone to damage.” Cheers to giving the gift of good hair this holiday season!

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Note: Prices taken at the time of publication.

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October 20th 2023

The Sociopaths Among Us—And How to Avoid Them

You’re bound to come across the “Dark Triad” type of malignant narcissists in life—and they can be superficially appealing. Better to look for their exact opposite.By Arthur C. Brooks

A face with three snakelike tongues, each of which holds a sad face
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We all have stories of meeting people who appeared wonderful at first but turned out to be just awful. Perhaps it was a charming suitor, or a charismatic colleague, or a fascinating new friend. They attracted you on initial impression, but before long, you started to notice behaviors that gave you pause. Maybe it was a little shading of the truth here and there, or a bit too much vanity and selfishness. Perhaps they constantly played the victim, or took credit for other people’s work.

Or maybe your disillusionment with the person was not gradual, but through a dramatic—and dramatically unpleasant—episode. All it may take is a minor disagreement, and suddenly, you get screamed at, threatened with retaliation, or reported to HR. This kind of encounter leaves you, understandably, baffled, hurt, and confused.

Very likely, this person was a “Dark Triad” personality. The term was coined by the psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams in 2002 for people with three salient personality characteristics: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and a measurable level of psychopathy. These people confuse and hurt you, because they act in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense.

About the Author

Robert Cook
facebook I went to school in Buckinghamshire, where my interests were music ( I was a violinist ), art ( winning county art competitions ) athletics and cross country ( I was a county team athlete ). My father died as a result of an accident- he was an ex soldier and truck driver- when I was 11. It could be said that I grew up in poverty, but I did not see it like that. As a schoolboy, I had my interests, hobbies and bicycle, worked on a farm, delivered news papers, did a lot of training for my sport, painting, and music. I also made model aeroplanes and was in the Air Training Corps, where we had the opportunity to fly an aeroplane. I had wanted to be a pilot, but university made me anti war. At the University of East Anglia-which I also represented in cross country and athletics- I studied economics, economic history, philosophy and sociology. Over the years, I have worked in a variety of manual, office and driving jobs. My first job after univerity was with the Inland Revenue in Havant, near Portsmouth. I left Hampshire to work for the Nitrate Corporation of Chile, then lecturing, teaching and journalism - then back to driving. I play and teach various styles of guitar and used to be a regular folk club performer. I quit that after being violently assaulted in Milton Keynes pub, after singing a song I wrote about how cop got away with killing Ian Tomlinson at G7, in broad daylight and caught on camera. The police took no action, saying taht my assailant had a good job. The pub in question was, and probably still is, popular with off duty police officers.

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