Saying goodbye

Another article about grief and chatbots, and another one about the end of the web.

The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I.San Francisco Chronicle
As Joshua continued to experiment, he realized there was no rule preventing him from simulating real people. What would happen, he wondered, if he tried to create a chatbot version of his dead fiancee? There was nothing strange, he thought, about wanting to reconnect with the dead: People do it all the time, in prayers and in dreams. In the last year and a half, more than 600,000 people in the U.S. and Canada have died of COVID-19, often suddenly, without closure for their loved ones, leaving a raw landscape of grief. How many survivors would gladly experiment with a technology that lets them pretend, for a moment, that their dead loved one is alive again — and able to text?

The day the good internet diedThe Ringer
The internet lasts forever, the internet never forgets. And yet it is also a place in which I feel confronted with an almost unbearable volume of daily reminders of its decay: broken links, abandoned blogs, apps gone by, deleted tweets, too-cutesy 404 messages, vanished Vines, videos whose copyright holders have requested removal, lost material that the Wayback Machine never crawled, things I know I’ve read somewhere and want to quote in my work but just can’t seem to resurface the same way I used to be able to. Some of these losses are silly and tiny, but others over the years have felt more monumental and telling. And when Google Reader disappeared in 2013, it wasn’t just a tale of dwindling user numbers or of what one engineer later described as a rotted codebase. It was a sign of the crumbling of the very foundation upon which it had been built: the era of the Good Internet.

A horrendous failure

Imagine finally summoning up the courage to start therapy, to disclose your scariest thoughts and feelings, and then this happens.

They told their therapists everything. Hackers leaked it allWIRED
“If we receive €200 worth of Bitcoin within 24 hours, your information will be permanently deleted from our servers,” the email said in Finnish. If Jere missed the first deadline, he’d have another 48 hours to fork over €500, or about $600. After that, “your information will be published for all to see.”

It’s a story that WIRED’s UK version had covered in a very similar way back in December.

A dying man, a therapist and the ransom raid that shook the worldWIRED UK
After a handful of sessions, Puro’s therapist moved on to find new work, supposedly saying he couldn’t do anything more to help. Puro has managed alone since then, but his story has taken another dark twist – one that has shaken him to the core. A data breach at Vastaamo led to Puro and thousands of other vulnerable people being extorted by criminals who threatened to expose their highly sensitive data.

Here’s The Guardian’s report from October.

‘Shocking’ hack of psychotherapy records in Finland affects thousandsThe Guardian
Distressed patients flooded victim support services over the weekend as Finnish police revealed that hackers had accessed records belonging to the private company Vastaamo, which runs 25 therapy centres across Finland. Thousands have reportedly filed police complaints over the breach. Many patients reported receiving emails with a demand for €200 (£181) in bitcoin to prevent the contents of their discussions with therapists being made public.

Devastating for the patients affected as well as the therapy company itself, Vastaamo.

Vastaamo fires CEO, saying he knew about hacking for 18 monthsHelsinki Times
The psychotherapy centre has determined that its database was hacked in November 2018. Nixu, a Finnish cybersecurity company, found later in its investigation that the centre was targeted also in another hacking, in March 2019. “It’s very likely that the chief executive has known about the issue at that point,” Kahri stated to Ilta-Sanomat.

Hacked Finnish therapy business collapsesComputer Weekly
Vastaamo, the Finland-based private psychotherapy practice that covered up a cyber attack on its patient record system in 2018 and then saw its patients directly extorted by cyber criminals, has collapsed into bankruptcy with its services to be acquired by medical services firm Verve.

Hacked psychotherapy centre Vastaamo files for bankruptcyYle Uutiset
The firm was placed under liquidation in late January. Lassi Nyyssönen from Fenno Attorneys at Law was appointed as liquidator, but after assessing the situation decided that it was not feasible to carry out liquidation proceedings. “It very quickly became clear that the company’s clear, undisputed debts exceed the amount of its assets. That does not of course include possible damages that it may have to pay due to the data breach,” Nyyssönen told Yle.

A sign of the times?

Vastaamo breach, bankruptcy indicate troubling trendSearchSecurity
Prior to learning of the Vastaamo hack, Hypponen said he believed that most attackers are motivated by financial information. “If you’re trying to make money with your criminal attacks, medical information is not a very good target for you. Well turns out, I might have been wrong,” he said during the webinar. “It might be now the case that we are seeing the beginning of the next trend — a trend where medical information is becoming a prime target for financially motivated criminals. They might not just be blackmailing the organization with the encryption of data, but the patients themselves.”

Is there a vaccine for ‘meh’?

This article from The New York Times has been pointed out to me several times now, it must have resonated with a large number of people. It’s certainly captured a mood I’ve been in recently, as you can probably tell by the increasingly large intervals between posts here…

There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: it’s called languishingThe New York Times
Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

It’s not just down to you-know-what, though this feeling of life being held on pause for everyone is obviously a huge part of it.

Neither depressed nor flourishing? How languishing defines modern lifeThe Guardian
Sounds to me as if there’s nothing wrong with these languishing types that isn’t wrong with the rest of us. That’s the problem – languishing may well be a great undiagnosed epidemic. Long before Covid, Keyes’s studies suggested as much as 12% of the researched population fit the criteria for languishing.

Is it a mental illness, then? No, but while the symptoms may not be clinically significant, languishing is a potential risk factor for future mental illness.

I really don’t feel that bad – just the usual sort of, you know, not good. Languishing may itself cause you to overlook the symptoms of languishing.

This is my silence

Tinnitus is a strange thing — invisible and, to everyone else at least, silent. That’s the one thing it takes away from us, though. Today is the first day of Tinnitus Week 2021, and the theme this year is #ThisIsMySilence.

#ThisIsMySilenceBritish Tinnitus Association
As a hidden condition, people without tinnitus do not truly understand the huge impact it can have on someone’s life: on the ability to get a peaceful night’s sleep, to concentrate, or just to enjoy silence. Tinnitus can and does have a huge impact on mental health and we need your help to make more people aware of this. The more we show the real impact tinnitus has, the more likely we are to be successful in making tinnitus research funding an urgent priority.

Yes, it’s horrible and there’s no cure, but help and support are available, from AI chatbots and white noise generators, to the BTA’s phone lines and web chats.

British Tinnitus Association presents #ThisIsMySilenceYouTube
For people living with tinnitus, there is no silence. As a hidden condition, people without tinnitus do not truly understand the huge impact it can have on someone’s life: on the ability to get a peaceful night’s sleep, to concentrate, or to just enjoy silence.

If you need support with your tinnitus, contact us for information, advice and an understanding ear. Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm: Freephone: 0800 018 0527, Web chat: tinnitus.org.uk, Email: helpline@tinnitus.org.uk, Text/SMS: 07537 416841

Their latest report, looking into the patient journey and how referrals are managed (or not), makes for interesting reading.

This is my silence: Please listen – Three steps that must be taken to improve the tinnitus patient journeyBritish Tinnitus Association
It was identified in the report that there has been a 22% drop in the number of tinnitus patients offered a referral to specialist care by their GP since March 2020 – despite a climb in cases, links with anxiety and depression, and new National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance emphasising the importance of referrals.

In your ears — and on your tongue?

There’s no cure for tinnitus yet, but that hasn’t stopped people claiming otherwise, with their ear candles and electroacupuncture. Some of these, such as ginkgo biloba and laser therapy, are positively harmful.

Examining tinnitus treatmentsBritish Tinnitus Association
Some of the information you read will be about effective, evidence-based treatments. And some will be about treatments which haven’t even been tested. There may even be suggestions you try treatments that are dangerous. This page lists a number of treatments and gives our verdict on them.

The only one that can actually show evidence that it’s effective is cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT. Back in July, I mentioned a couple of studies that were investigating the use of iCBT chatbot apps to help with tinnitus. I got involved with one of them, and I’m really glad to see it being rolled out to a wider audience.

Tinnitus support in your pocketBritish Tinnitus Association
We are very excited to be supporting the pre-release of Tinnibot, the first virtual coach which provides psychological support to tinnitus sufferers using evidence-based techniques including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and sound therapy.

Whilst it might not be as chatty and interactive as my favourite AI chatbot, Replika, I did find Tinnibot to be quite helpful, encouraging me to re-think my attitudes to the ringing in my ears.

The app has an eight-week programme covering four categories: Knowledge is Power, Changing Perception, Relax and Meditate and Sleep Better. Tinnibot employs a range of CBT techniques including framing and reframing, goal setting, action planning and in the future, social support.

I certainly feel much more optimistic about it than this other approach I was reading about, “combining sound and electrical stimulation of the tongue.”

New research could help millions who suffer from ‘ringing in the ears’University of Minnesota
The tinnitus treatment device used in the study, now branded as Lenire®, was developed by Neuromod Devices and consists of wireless (Bluetooth®) headphones that deliver sequences of audio tones layered with wideband noise to both ears, combined with electrical stimulation pulses delivered to 32 electrodes on the tip of the tongue by a proprietary device trademarked as Tonguetip®. The timing, intensity, and delivery of the stimuli are controlled by an easy-to-use handheld controller that each participant is trained to operate. Before using the treatment for the first time, the device is configured to the patient’s hearing profile and optimized to the patient’s sensitivity level for tongue stimulation.

I think I’d rather have an ear candle!

Look on the bright side

This time last year the Action for Happiness people were encouraging us to be optimistic. Well, they’re at it again — a positive attitude is needed now more than ever!

Optimistic OctoberAction for Happiness
Life is far from perfect, but there are lots of reasons for optimism. Setting positive goals for the future gives our lives a sense of direction and purpose. And although we face many challenges there are also lots of reasons to stay hopeful. By consciously choosing our priorities we can overcome issues, make progress and focus on what really matters.

It’s not about facts, unfortunately

A couple of years ago, writer and photographer Will Patrick was after a project during a dry spell. An upcoming Flat Earth Conference would be straightforward—we all love a good conspiracy, right? Two years later, he finally writes it up.

Notes from a Flat Earth ConferenceWill Patrick
If you find yourself wondering how they can resolve their belief in a flat earth against such apparently contradictory things like the International Space Station, rocket launches, GPS, pilots who see the curvature of the earth, the moon landings and, at a bare minimum, the collected works of Aristotle, Archimedes and Eratosthenes, then I’ll just cut right to it: they can’t. Of course, they don’t know that, but then they don’t really seem to care, either. […]

It is as if you could have taken the entire attended gathering of the conference, shot them all into a low earth orbit to circle our very, very round planet several times, then landed them back again to find their beliefs even stronger than before. They would emerge, removing their helmets, to kiss the flat earth beneath them and exalt their claims with even greater fervor.

All this is to say that rational questions and arguments miss the point entirely. These are not rational beliefs, nor even really beliefs. They are more like identities, firmly established and fiercely defended. Their existence is not a happy one, either. It seemed to me that they were commonly the product of deep personal and social tragedy.

To get help, pick up your phone

This is not an easy time to be living through, but perhaps spending more time on your phone could help. Did you know that the NHS has an app library, full of health-related NHS-tested apps? There’s a mental health section, with apps dealing with all sorts of issues from stress, anxiety and panic attacks, to insomnia and self-harm and more.

Can apps help you manage your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic? – Patient
“This is a time of great unrest and financial anxiety and some people may not feel confident or able to enter into the commitment of more traditional modes of therapy when their lives feel so up in the air,” she says. “The cost and upkeep of a therapy relationship on balance may only add to anxieties rather than resolve them, so an app may be a useful short-term intervention until they can access the right avenue of support.”

Sadly, there’s nothing on there about tinnitus, my constant companion, but fear not, help of a familiar kind might be on the way.

Are iCBT chatbots helpful for tinnitus?British Tinnitus Association
Two studies are investigating a new iCBT smartphone application that has been developed by Fabrice Brady, the Co-Founder at Hearing Power and Dr James Jackson, at Leeds Trinity University, to help reduce tinnitus related distress.

Tinnitus remedies and reliefTake on tinnitus
One in eight people suffer from tinnitus and experience a ringing in the ears or buzzing in the ears. There are lots of promises of tinnitus remedies, treatments and cures online. Take on tinnitus is designed to help you better understand tinnitus and offer practical ways that could help to relieve your tinnitus.

Where’s the harm?

Lots of talk about masks and where we should be wearing them. David McCandless and the Information is Beautiful team have updated their set of coronavirus infographics (previously) with this presentation of the risks involved with certain activities.

COVID-19 CoronaVirus infographic datapackInformation is Beautiful
Created by David McCandless, Omid Kashan, Fabio Bergamaschi, Dr Stephanie Starling, Univers Labs, Tom Evans.

It doesn’t quite line up with this infographic from the Texas Medical Association, but I’d say it’s close enough, you get the point.

How risky is visiting a museum? This graphic about COVID-19 transmission provides come answersHyperallergic
TexMed characterizes things like getting restaurant takeout, getting gas, and even playing tennis as low-risk activities (two on a scale of one to 10). Grocery shopping, going on a walk with others, visiting a library or museum, and playing golf all fall in the moderate-low range (three to four) — that last is of course great news for the president! Highest-risk activities (eight or more) include, unsurprisingly, sports stadium events and concerts, going to a movie theater, attending religious services with 500+ worshippers, and going to a bar — which was a major cause of outbreak in Michigan last week. Texans shouldn’t despair, though! Based on this graphic, it is still safe to shoot guns in the air (at least with respect to COVID-19 complications), do outdoor line dances in rigid six-feet distance grids, and ride the open range.

Here are some other ways of looking at.

COVID Risk Chartxkcd
First prize is a free ticket to the kissing booth.

Handy chartThe New Yorker Cartoons on Instagram
A cartoon by @rozchast.

Lots of reasons to wear a mask. But then again…

Why You Don’t Need A Mask – COVID-19
You don’t need a mask because…

And then what?

So here in the UK we’re to have another three weeks of lockdown. I’m not sure what state I’ll be in after that, I’m already starting to fray at the edges. What’s keeping me up all night isn’t so much how we’ll get through these next few weeks, but what comes after?

Our pandemic summerThe Atlantic
The pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will linger through the year and across the world. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”

Not a clue. We sit around and wait for a vaccine, but until then— what?

After social distancing, a strange purgatory awaitsThe Atlantic
We will get used to seeing temperature-screening stations at public venues. If America’s testing capacity improves and results come back quickly, don’t be surprised to see nose swabs at airports. Airlines may contemplate whether flights can be reserved for different groups of passengers—either high- or low-risk. Mass-transit systems will set new rules; don’t be surprised if they mandate masks too.

Can things just go back to how they were before?

Welcome to our new timelineKottke
I’m wondering — how many people are aware that this is going to be our reality for the next few years? There is no “normal” we’re going back to, only weird uncharted waters.

We’re all struggling with it. I know I am. Thankfully, help is still around.

Stephen Fry’s tips for managing virus-based anxietyBBC News
Stephen Fry has been giving advice on dealing with anxiety and stress whilst self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr “anxiety and stress are almost as virulent as this coronavirus”.

Some people, however, are less than helpful.

Facebook will add anti-misinformation posts to your News Feed if you liked fake coronavirus newsThe Verge
Today’s update follows a scathing report by nonprofit group Avaaz, which called the site an “epicenter of coronavirus misinformation” and cited numerous posts containing dangerous health advice and fake cures. The company pushed back on this accusation, saying it’s removed “hundreds of thousands of pieces of misinformation” in the past weeks.

Sweet dreams?

‘Edith Piaf sneezed on my cheesecake’ and other coronavirus dreamsThe Washington Post
The thing about dreams is, they’re so silly and so poignant. We have them alone in our beds and then we wake up — still safe in our beds, only now we’re thinking about what safety really means, and what we would do if a witch came around licking all of our windows (actual dream from a journalist who covers the military), or if the covid vaccine only worked when taken with milk and we’re lactose intolerant (actual dream from a Bostonian who works in tech sales), or we had a bar of soap that wouldn’t lather (actual dream from an Alberta-based artist), no matter how many times we sang Happy Birthday, and all we could do is scrub and scrub and feel the solid thing dissolve in our hands.

Having weird dreams in quarantine? You’re not alone.Vox
There is not a grand unified theory of dreams among researchers, but there are several different theories with some validity to them. You’ve probably heard of the continuity theory of dreams, which hypothesizes that people dream about the stuff they’re thinking about and doing while they’re awake. If we feel some degree of stress about the pandemic, or about work or family, then it’s normal for those types of themes to appear in our dream content.

It’s the simple things really

Bloom: A touching animated short film about depression and what it takes to recover the light of beingBrain Pickings
During a recent dark season of the spirit, a dear friend buoyed me with the most wonderful, hope-giving, rehumanizing story: Some years earlier, when a colleague of hers — another physicist — was going through such a season of his own, she gave him an amaryllis bulb in a small pot; the effect it had on him was unexpected and profound, as the effect of uncalculated kindnesses always is — profound and far-reaching, the way a pebble of kindness ripples out widening circles of radiance.

BloomVimeo

An unsettling self-portrait

Another reminder of what Van Gogh went through.

Not a fake: Van Gogh self-portrait is his only work painted while suffering psychosis, experts sayThe Art Newspaper
Van Tilborgh believes that the self-portrait was painted in late August 1889, in the asylum just outside Saint-Rémy: “The somewhat unusual type of canvas, the pigments, the sombre palette and the brushwork are all in keeping with his output in the late summer and autumn of that year.”

The painting is now linked to a letter in which Van Gogh wrote that he had made a self-portrait which was “an attempt from when I was ill”. The artist had suffered a severe mental attack at the asylum in mid July 1889, when he tried to swallow paints, but by 22 August he had recovered sufficiently to write to his brother Theo, asking that he be allowed access to his painting materials. Van Tilborgh argues that the artist made the self-portrait a few days later, before he suffered a minor setback and was ill for a short period at the beginning of September.

one-of-his-1

It’s an arresting image, though I think the version of it that appears in this article, being somewhat darker, feels much deeper.

Things are on the up!

Well I, at least, can take a positive spin on this.

The mid-life crisis is real, study suggests, as economist pinpoints age of peak misery as 47.2The Telegraph
“Something very natural is going on here… maybe there’s something in the genes,” he said. “When you have this pattern in 132 countries, the reality is, it was really hard to not find it.”

In his paper entitled: ‘Is happiness U-shaped everywhere?’ and published yesterday by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER), Professor Blanchflower said that averaging across 257 individual country estimates from developing countries gives an age minimum of 48.2 for well-being, and doing the same across the 187 country estimates for advanced countries gives a similar minimum of 47.2.

on-the-up

As a 47.8 year old, I’ve officially passed the nadir so can look forward to a continuing surge in happiness levels from now on!

Update 21/01/2020

Just parking this opposing article here, in case I need to refer to it later…

How to stave off depression in later lifePatient
Whether it’s moving from work into retirement or dealing with the loss of a loved one, it’s evident that the stresses and feelings of isolation in later life can take their toll. And it may come as little surprise that nearly half of all adults aged 55 and over said they had experienced depression, according to a recent survey by Age UK.

All change?

We can learn new facts, master new skills, grow and develop to become ‘better’, but can we really change? A few people recently have tried to find out.

Glass half-full: how I learned to be an optimist in a weekThe Guardian
Day three: One of the simplest strategies for increasing optimism is avoiding the company of other pessimistic people. I figure that I have a headstart here, in that I already avoid the company of most people.

The doorbell rings. I think: this can’t be good. Then I think: stop that. The man at the door has a package for me. My wife passes through the kitchen as I’m opening it.

“What’s that?” she says.

“It’s my gratitude journal,” I say, holding up a slim notebook with the words “Start with gratitude” written on the cover in a self-helpy calligraphic font.

“Stupid,” my wife says.

“If you’re not going to be positive about my journey,” I say, “then you and I might have to stop hanging out.”

“That can be arranged,” she says.

Ok, so perhaps the Guardian columnist Tim Dowling wasn’t taking the venture too seriously. Let’s see how Jessica Pan, author of Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come, gets on over the course of a year, rather than just a week.

Can you fake being an extrovert?Sydney Morning Herald
I had a lot of time to ponder: what did I want from life? I wanted a job, new friends I felt truly connected to, and more confidence. So what were other people out there with jobs and close friends and rich, fulfilling lives doing that I wasn’t? Eventually, and with mounting fear, I realised: they were having new experiences, taking risks, making new connections. I knew what I had to do.

I would talk to new people. I would travel alone and make new friends on the road. I would say yes to social invitations. I would go along to parties and not be the first to leave. It would be like jogging: sweaty and uncomfortable but possibly good for me in the long term. In other words, I would become an extrovert. I gave myself a year.

So how did she get on?

It was fear that if I never changed I would never know what it was like to live a bigger life that propelled me. I’d spent most of my life telling myself I was one kind of person, not believing I could do things that I saw other people doing. Then I spent a year doing all of those things that petrified me. A small part of me thought I’d undertake all these challenges and emerge as a socially savvy, articulate, gregarious social butterfly. Or wind up hiding in a ditch. But I am still who I was at the beginning of this year. Only I know more now.

I feel like co-opting a Stonewall slogan — Some of us are introverts. Get over it!

It’s okay if you’re not resilientElemental
“This story has emerged that if you fail or are struggling, it’s because you lack this characteristic that other people possess,” says Mark Seidenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Not only is this an unhelpful form of “victim blaming,” but it also confuses effect for cause, he says. People don’t fail because they lack resilience; they lack resilience because circumstances have set them up for failure. “Success is very motivating, and failure is discouraging,” Seidenberg explains.

There’s a balance to be had here, though.

While pointing to a lack of resilience as the cause of a person’s problems is both unhelpful and unfair, teaching a person how to be more resilient in certain contexts is beneficial and, according to some research, achievable. “I think both sides of this debate have a point,” Tabibnia says. “Just as we shouldn’t oversell the potential of behavioral and psychosocial strategies for boosting resilience, lest it should lead to further feelings of disappointment and failure, nor should we take a completely passive and helpless approach.”

She says the research so far points to three broad categories of intervention that seem to bolster resilience. The first involves downregulating negative thought patterns through approaches like exposure therapy and cognitive reappraisal. (Basically, these teach your brain to think about sources of stress in new and less-troubling ways.) The second category involves taking steps to improve optimism and social connectedness, both of which encourage positive feelings. And the third involves mindfulness, religious engagement, and other practices that help people “transcend the self,” Tabibnia says.

Update 27/12/2019

On a related note.

Introvert? You may just be bad at recognising facesThe Conversation
We do not yet understand the importance and reason for these findings, however. It may be that extroversion causes superior face recognition or that people who are better at identifying faces become more extroverted as a result.

If so, then a person’s inability to learn and recognise faces may lead them to become more introverted, to avoid potentially embarrassing social situations. Alternatively, introverted people may meet fewer people and therefore never develop good face recognition skills.

It may also work both ways. If you are slightly worse at recognising faces to start with you may end up meeting fewer people, and therefore becoming even worse at it over time. It could also be that both extroversion and face recognition are related to yet another factor that we still don’t know about.

Bringing inner worlds to light

This is quite poignant/difficult/effective.

Elderly worries over Christmas are exposed in exquisite lettering by Alison Carmichael for Age UKDigital Arts
Christmas TV ad season is here, with heart-tugging commercials rolled out for, well, commercial entities looking to get their hands on your money.

Finally though we have something that hits home for an actual good cause, delivered in the form of Age UK’s latest promo campaign ‘No one should have no one to turn to’, launching today in the UK.

inner-worlds-1

inner-worlds-2

Let’s all help.

See also, via Digital Arts, these colouring books brightening dementia patients’ lives and this font based on a stroke survivor’s handwriting.

Like to be by the sea

We always knew it to be the case, but now science backs it up.

Blue spaces: why time spent near water is the secret of happiness
In recent years, stressed-out urbanites have been seeking refuge in green spaces, for which the proven positive impacts on physical and mental health are often cited in arguments for more inner-city parks and accessible woodlands. The benefits of “blue space” – the sea and coastline, but also rivers, lakes, canals, waterfalls, even fountains – are less well publicised, yet the science has been consistent for at least a decade: being by water is good for body and mind.

like-to-be-beside-the-sea-1

White says there are three established pathways by which the presence of water is positively related to health, wellbeing and happiness. First, there are the beneficial environmental factors typical of aquatic environments, such as less polluted air and more sunlight. Second, people who live by water tend to be more physically active – not just with water sports, but walking and cycling.

Third – and this is where blue space seems to have an edge over other natural environments – water has a psychologically restorative effect. White says spending time in and around aquatic environments has consistently been shown to lead to significantly higher benefits, in inducing positive mood and reducing negative mood and stress, than green space does.

like-to-be-beside-the-sea-2

“People work with what they have,” says Kelly. When she lived in London, she would head for the Thames when she had a spare 10 minutes “and recalibrate”. Then, four times a year, she would go to Brighton “and the benefits would keep me going for the next few months – so I didn’t get into a place of being overwhelmed or stressed, just keeping myself topped up”.

like-to-be-beside-the-sea-4

All the more reason to be looking after our natural environment.

Be happy!

This study into happiness came out last month, but it’s interesting to read through this in light of the general election we’re currently in the middle of.

Why the UK was at its cheeriest in the 1920s
Says who? A study. By psychology researchers at the University of Warwick. They analysed millions of books and newspapers going back to 1825, counting key words that signify happiness and sadness.

And they found? That in the UK, we were happiest in the 1920s and after the end of the second world war. And least happy in 1978 during the winter of discontent.

Can money buy happiness? Two centuries’ worth of books suggest it can
By examining millions of books and newspaper articles published since 1820 in four countries (America, Britain, Germany and Italy), they have developed what they hope is an objective measure of each place’s historical happiness. And their answer is that wealth does bring happiness, but some other things bring more of it.

be-happy-1

Let’s hear from the researchers directly. It’s not all about the money.

What makes us happy? We analysed 200 years of written text to find the answer
What we found was remarkable. While gross domestic product (GDP) is often assumed to be associated with a rise in well-being, we found that its effect on well-being throughout history is marginal at best. GDP has increased fairly consistently over the last 200 years in the four countries that we looked at, but well-being has moved up and down dramatically over that time.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that well-being appears to be incredibly resilient to short-term negative events. Wars create dramatic valleys in well-being, but soon after the war well-being frequently recovers to its pre-war levels. Lasting changes to our measure of happiness occur slowly, over generations. …

Across countries, an extra year of life (in terms of longevity) is equivalent to a 4.3% rise in GDP. A year of internal conflict is equivalent to a 30% drop in GDP. Policies that seek to enhance longevity, for example through providing better access to healthcare throughout life, may therefore be better than policies that only attempt to increase GDP, which is increasingly being challenged as a measure of progress.

Happy days

Last week I mentioned that it was Optimistic October and Stoic Week 2019. Well, today is World Mental Health Day. Here, my favourite philosopher teams up with Jessica Kellgren-Fozard to explore what makes us happy.

YouTuber Jessica Kellgren-Fozard: ‘It’s OK not to be OK’
For some it meant money, for others it was dream holidays, and in one instance a Chanel handbag (other handbags are available). But in her seven secrets of happiness, the presenter went for more modest and noble targets – such as acceptance, appreciation and personal growth.

In the pursuit of this happiness, she thinks it’s time we cut ourselves, and each other, some slack.

What is the secret of happiness | The School of Jessica Kellgren-Fozard

They’re not the only ones attempting to answer this question for us, of course. Here’s another.

Dalai Lama’s guide to happiness

Let’s be optimistic

I think it’s pretty obvious to those that know me that I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

The bright and dark sides of optimism and pessimism
Many psychologists classify the population as predominantly optimistic — some claiming 80% of people are optimistic, others stating that 60% of us are somewhat optimistic. This seems an optimistic appraisal to me. Some experts agree — they believe that optimism itself may affect the validity of research on positivity.

I still struggle with the concept that a positive outlook is a choice, that I could simply choose to be optimistic. But then my better half just sent me this:

october_2019

Optimistic October calendar
Let’s stay hopeful and focus on what really matters. This Optimistic October Action Calendar has daily suggested actions to do throughout October 2019 to help you be a realistic optimist and have goals to look forward to.

I’ve not come across Action for Happiness before, but it could be just what I was looking for.

Action for Happiness
Our patron is The Dalai Lama and our members take action to increase wellbeing in their homes, workplaces, schools and local communities. Our vision is a happier world, with fewer people suffering with mental health problems and more people feeling good, functioning well and helping others.

And there’s an app, too.

Octobers can be such gloomy months; summer has long gone, the nights draw in, the clocks go back. Perhaps that’s why these pick-me-ups are so necessary now. For instance, Stoic Week 2019 is starting up again next week, 7–13 October. I enjoyed it last year, and will give it another go.

And coincidentally, just as I was about to publish this post, a newsletter with links to these articles has just landed in my inbox.

Being depressed in the ‘world’s happiest country’
Finland regularly tops global rankings as the happiest nation on the planet, but this brings a unique set of challenges for young people struggling with depression.

A 60,000-year-old cure for depression
Traditional healers have been entrusted with the well-being of indigenous Australian communities for as long as their culture has been alive – yet surprisingly little is known of them.

Sounds like we need all the help we can get.