The Project: So… Can we hug yet?

Kyle MacDonald being interviewed on The Project

Hugging and hand shakes have you missed them? I had a word with The Project NZ last night about the importance of touch post lockdown…

Older and Happier

Older and Happier

It’s often an unfair stereotype that the elderly are “grumpy”.  Not only is it unfair, it’s also not true, in fact the reality is that on average we get happier as we get older.  Mark and I talked about this research on his Radio Live Sunday show this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

Quite a large body of data now shows that as we age we all get better at regulating our emotions.  But how is it that as we age we get happier? Is it something that happens to us all as we age?

“The researchers found that for all generations, negative affect decreased with age. In other words, as people got older, they got less negative. Positive affect stayed fairly stable across time, with a small decrease for the oldest people in the study. However, older participants who were more outgoing were less likely to show a drop in positive affect.” (Click here for the rest of the article)

What the studies seem to show is that we all tend to focus less on the negative, and get better at switching our attention away from the negative, as we age.  Experiments test how well people can recall positive, neutral and negative images.

“Older adults (ages 65-80) recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and neutral images. In that older group, recognition memory also decreased for negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults (ages 18-29 and 41-53) remembered the negative pictures better. What’s more, although both younger and older adults spent more time viewing negative images, only the younger group recalled and recognized them better.”  (Click here for the rest of the article)

The universality of the response is so strong that some have wondered if it might be biological in nature.  And interestingly, it seems that higher apes show a similar pattern.  Overall humans tend to be happier when they’re younger, less happy through their adolescence and earlier adulthood, and happier again in their older age.  This “U” shaped curve also holds true for primates, leading some to suggest that perhaps we need the relative “negativity” in our younger ages to learn from experience, and our mistakes that we are likely to make at this age.

Either way, nature or nurture, the good news is regardless of your own disposition you should expect your outlook to get more positive as you age.  Despite the hair loss, back pain, teenage children and creaky knees, it does get easier.





Rugby, Racing and Emotions

Rugby, Racing and Emotions

This post was originally published on the website on Monday the 28th of September, 2015

Click here to see the original post and comments

It’s emotion that carves memories into the mind, connecting neurons and creating pathways like tyre tracks on wet sand.  I have few memories of the ’87 World Cup, I was too young, and for reasons I can’t explain ’91 passed me by too.  But the growing realisation, in 1995, that our supermen were losing is burned in my mind, as I sat on the floor of my flat choking back tears and hoping my mates wouldn’t see me cry.

Fast forward to 2007 and I still remember sitting with my head in my hands, genuinely scared I was going to throw up on my carpet, the shot of Dan Carter looking similarly ill, sitting in the grandstand as white as a sheet, burned into my brain by emotion.

And then there’s the worst 20 minutes of my life.  Suspended in the air on temporary seats at Eden Park, watching as we fumbled and muscled our way through the longest quarter of rugby in the history of the game, while 60,000 people wrung their hands, and screamed unintelligible expletives in shear gut wrenching frustration, followed of course by the elation best captured by Israel Dagg and Corey Jayne’s snow angels, as they lay ecstatic in the piles of tinsel on the hallowed turf.

Given what I do for a job, and my obvious passion for the game, many people have asked me how do we “cope” with the Rugby World Cup?  How do we as a nation bear the tension, the possibility of losing, the cliched national mourning that follows the possibility of losing the World Cup.  (I still love that despite only winning it twice, if we don’t with the cup we have “lost” it, like it’s always ours by right to lose.)

What I love about sport is its meaningless.  If the All Blacks win or lose, life carries on.  And it must be painful for those who actually don’t care about the sport to watch the rest of us live and die with the flight of an oval ball, the plight of the nation in the hands of 23 (increasingly) young men.  But for those that it does matter, it’s OK that it does.

Coping, in this country at least, means hiding your tears of pain from your mates.  It means not feeling, not experiencing, being tough and hard.  So much of the dark sides of our obsession with rugby, indeed the dark side of being a man in this country, is reflected in our excessive drinking, our thuggishness, our unfettered aggression that flows from this cultural repression, flows from the masculine effort to suppress emotion and not feel vulnerable.

So don’t “cope.”  Relish the emotion, allow it to matter, and enjoy the ride.  It might only be sport and the cynical among us may condemn rugby, and our love of it to being an “opiate for the masses.”  But it’s a hell of a drug.  So yell at the TV, stand for the national anthem, well up with pride at the Haka, and feel free to cry tears of (hopefully) joy on the 31st of October.

And remember, no matter what happens, we’ll always have the memories.

Kyle MacDonald is a psychotherapist and blogger at  He is a regular co-host on the mental health talk show “The Nutter’s Club” and contributor to the Sunday morning show on Radio Live.  He is also the Public Issues spokesperson for the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists



Oh the memories…


Consumerism has its fair share of critics, and without question most people who have given thought to these things know that you can’t buy happiness.  But how should we spend your disposable income to maximize your happiness?  And why doesn’t that new iPhone make us happy for longer than it’s first battery cycle?  Mark and I talked about this, and how experiences make us happier than things, on his Radio Live Sunday show this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

Research by Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich has clearly shown that when we purchase experiences like holidays, meals out or tickets to events, they make us happier, and happier for longer, than the purchase of material possessions.

At first glance this can seem counter-intuitive; experiences are fleeting and leave us with only memories, but a new couch or iPhone is with us every day.  So why it this the case?

“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” says Dr. Thomas Gilovich… …”We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”  (Click here to read the whole article)

Essentially once the novelty wears off, our possessions fade into the background.  A new car becomes, just a way to get places.  This is opposed to experiences which become part of who we are: our identity is formed by our experiences.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” says Gilovich. “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.” (Click here to read the whole article)

But by far the most unexpected result from this research is that not only do experiences make us happier, but over time the happiness associated with that memory increases.  Over time we tend to more fondly remember the holidays away, smudge the tricky bits, romantacise getting lost as character building.

We also don’t tend to compare experiences in the same way as we compare things: it’s OK that experiences are subjective.  I might hate the band you went to see last night, but I totally get why it’s so exciting for you.  In that way we tend to feel less envy, and are better able to allow ourselves to experience our own, and allow others, happiness.

It’s also clear from the research that the experience of looking forward to an experience also tends to increase happiness while we’re waiting for it, as opposed that that agitated, impatient feeling when we’re waiting to buy a new possession.

So if you want to maximize your dollar for happiness spend, then plan events, concerts, holidays, shows, or just a walk with friends.  Give yourself enough time to look forward to it, and allow yourself to savor it.

The novelty never wears off time well spent.

Not such a bright idea

Not such a bright idea

Do you read you phone or iPad in bed?  Are you reading this blog in bed right now?  Well research has focused on how the bright light of such devices can disrupt our natural sleep patters, and possibly have some ongoing health effects.  Mark and I talked about this, and some tips to get a good nights sleep on Radio Live this Sunday morning.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

There are many reasons why people have sleep problems, and without question some are more susceptible to sleep problems than others.  However after a few years of study it is now clear that the bright light from smartphones and tablets causes problems if we engage with them in bed, right before sleep.

Biologically our sleep is mediated by our circadian rhythm, and the hormone melatonin.  Our circadian rhythm is the 24 hour cycle of wakefulness and sleep that we all conform to, with some subtle variations.  Some studies have even locked people underground, where in the absence of natural light and any external cues as to the time on average people still organize their time in roughly 24 hour chunks.

Melatonin is the hormone of sleep, and it is suppressed by light, which makes sense for much of our evolutionary history the presence of bright light means only one thing: that it’s daytime.  It’s why some people take melatonin as a natural sleep aid.

And it’s the levels of this hormone, along with the length and frequency of REM sleep, that researchers have measured as a way to quantify the impact of, for example, playing candy crush in bed.  And as if feeling tired isn’t enough chronic sleep deprivation and reduced REM sleep has other negative health consequences…

“Peering at brightly lit screens at night disrupts the body’s natural rhythms and raises the risk of medical conditions linked to poor sleep, including obesity, heart disease, strokes and depression”  (Click here for the whole article)

Of course avoiding screens in bed is only one of many things you can do if you struggle with sleep, but is an important step…

“If you don’t want to feel like a zombie during the day, the findings are clear: Read an actual, printed book if you must stimulate your mind before bed, and avoid screens like your life depends on it, because it actually might. ”   (Click here for the whole article)

Other helpful strategies are loosely grouped together by what is often called “sleep hygeine”…

  • Maintain a regular sleep routine: Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time and avoid naps if possible
  • Don’t stay in bed awake for more than 5-10 minutes: If you find your mind racing, or worrying about not being able to sleep during the middle of the night, get out of bed, and sit in a chair in the dark.  No TV or internet during these periods!  When you watch TV or read in bed, you associate the bed with wakefulness.
  • Do not drink caffeine inappropriately: The effects of caffeine may last for several hours after ingestion. Caffeine can fragment sleep, and cause difficulty initiating sleep. If you drink caffeine, use it only before noon.
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise before 2 pm every day. Exercise promotes continuous sleep, however avoid rigorous exercise before bedtime. Rigorous exercise circulates endorphins into the body which may cause difficulty initiating sleep.
  • Have a quiet, comfortable bedroom: Set your bedroom thermostat at a comfortable temperature. Generally, a little cooler is better than a little warmer.
  • Have a comfortable pre-bedtime routine: A warm bath, shower, Meditation, or quiet time

(Click here to see the article this list has been adapted from…)

If you you also want to hear more about how mindfulness in particular can help you get to sleep, then you might also want to listen to this weeks episode of my weekly Podcast “The Confident Mind” which this week is all about sleep.

To listen to the Podcast click here…



Terminal loneliness


Increasingly in the western world it is becoming normal to live and spend increasing amounts of time on ones own.  However a recent paper, reviewing the health effects of loneliness, suggests that feeling lonely and being alone, may in fact be as bad for our health as obesity.  Mark and I talked about this, and and the reasons why on Radio Live this Sunday morning.

(Click here to listen to the interview)

The study was carried out by researchers at Brigham Young University in the USA, and the paper was published just last month.  It is a meta-analysis of 70 studies, with a total of over 3.4 million participants, followed on average for seven years, and what the researchers found was that there was…

“…a significant effect of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone on odds of mortality. After accounting for multiple covariates, the increased likelihood of death was 26{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} for reported loneliness, 29{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} for social isolation, and 32{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} for living alone.”  (Click here for the whole article)

The surprising thing about this study was that it showed little difference between objective and subjective reports of loneliness.  To say this another way, these negative health effects impact those who feel alone and may or may not be isolated as much as those who are alone and may or may not be subjectively bothered by it.

Furthermore those percentages quoted above are not small effects, in fact…

“The risk associated with social isolation and loneliness is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality, including those identified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (physical activity, obesity, substance abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to health care” (Click here for the whole article)

The surprising thing for me is that these results suggest that underlying mechanism is not in fact loneliness, because those who are alone but may subjectively not feel lonely are still impacted negatively in terms of their mortality.

What we are talking about here is connection, as it is possible to be surrounded by others and be disconnected and feel alone: it is also possible to live on ones own and not feel loneliness but not have meaningful human connections with others.

We all need others to help us regulate and manage our emotions, to help us think, and to regulate physical responses and stress.  The template for this lies in all of us in terms of our earliest attachment experiences, where humans as babies literally need the connection with caregivers to survive.

We know this from the earliest studies of attachment when medical science, in the early 20th century, isolated orphaned children from human touch to avoid infections, and despite all their basic physical needs being fulfilled, these children ultimately died.  It came to be called failure to thrive but could equally be called death from lack of love and connection.

What also seems sad is that our culture needs to keep learning this lesson, as currently our communities, our work, our technologies even our architecture, becomes more and more centered around individualism and an acceptance of being and living alone.

It seems this too is killing people, but I would suggest it is also causing our cultures and community to “fail to thrive.”



We’re all biased


Would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? You might be surprised to hear that we’re all hardwired to be pessimistic, or at least to remember negative and painful events more strongly than positive.  Mark and I talked about the implications of this on Radio Live this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

So what is this “negativity bias?”…

“The negativity bias (also known as the negativity effect) refers to the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.  In other words, something very positive will generally have less of an impact on a person’s behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative. The negativity bias has been investigated within many different domains, including the formation of impressions and general evaluations; attention, learning, and memory; and decision-making and risk considerations.”  (Click here for the whole article)

There have been a lot of ideas and theories about why our brains are hardwired this way, but the basic idea is that it serves a survival function.  People who tend to remember threatening or painful events more strongly are going to be better at avoiding threats.  This adaptation comes at the cost of remembering pleasant events as strongly, because, bottom line, pleasant events don’t kill you.

The problem is, like many survival adaptations, in our modern day world it can cause as many problems as it solves.  Given that most of our lives are not constantly under threat like they were when we as a species were roaming the savannah, this bias can skew our thinking and our emotions towards anxiety and misery.  It can also make some things harder than they need to be.

A striking example of this is some really interesting research carried out in the nineties by one of the leaders in the filed of couples therapy, John Gottman.  He figured out a formula that enabled him to tell with a 90{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} accuracy level whether couples would go on to divorce, by just spending 15 minutes observing them.  This prediction was based on the ratio of positive to negative expressions observed between the two partners.  If this ratio was less than five positive expressions for every one negative (5:1) then 90{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} of the time the relationship would end in divorce.  He also found that highly successful relationships the ratio was closer to 20:1!

This can all sound fairly negative, even hopeless.  However there are things that can enable us to begin to understand, and even counter this tendency to pay too much attention to the negative, and to brush over the positive.  Mindfulness for example actually enables us to literally re-programme our brain, and to develop the discipline to slow ourselves down and really pay attention to the positive experiences in our life.  This is important, because if we don’t notice it it may as well not have happened and our brain literally needs more time to fully absorb positive expereinces.

Rick Hanson a world leading neurospycholgist and expert in mindfulness says it much better than I ever can when he describes the mind as being “like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for the positive.”  This video of a presentation by Rick is well worth a watch to really learn how to hold onto and learn from positive experiences.  Take some time to let it sink in…


Waterslide awesomeness

Live More Awesome

I had a great day today, talking at a very worthwhile event about Burnout and Anxiety, courtesy of Wellness Retreats NZ.  It was set in the lovely surrounds of the Matakana Lodge and I met a great bunch of people.  But one of the highlights was meeting Jimi Hunt, one half of Live More Awesome and the World’s Biggest Waterslide.

They have a new project, and so this is a shameless plug to support them, because it’s all about promoting Mental Health Awareness and conversations about depression.  They’re crowd sourcing the funding for their next waterslide, tickets are strictly limited to 800, and only available until next Monday the 27th October at 8pm.

So if riding a 600m waterslide, and supporting a worthwhile cause at the same time, sounds like your thing then check it out at: