How to Get 100% Clear on What You Want in Life (Manifestation, Part 1)

In order to attract the life that you want the first step is to get one-hundred percent clear on exactly what that life entails.  That can sometimes be difficult though, because our intuition and rational mind often battle with each other, leaving us confused and full of self-doubt. We may, for example, think that we want a very lucrative career when what we really want is to have the freedom that comes with the paycheque it gets us.  We might go on to pursue that career only to find that we have no time and thus no freedom.  As a result, we are unhappy in a situation that we thought we wanted.

So, what happened?  Our rational mind had us so focused on achieving that career because it learned over time that others with high salaries appeared to have freedom (perhaps platforms like Instagram are to blame for this kind of deception). But deep down, maybe our true self is an artist and the freedom that we seek can only be found through self-expression. Sadly, we never would have realized this if we spent our entire life in that lucrative but unfulfilling career.  This is just one example of the many ways that what we think we want might not be accurate to what we actually want – and how that can end up making us miserable.

This train of thought can be the result of what is referred to as a mental mould or “schema” in psychology.  A schema is essentially a group of phenomena that the brain considers similar enough to fit into the same category.  We regard engineers, lawyers, doctors, and individuals in similar professions as people who generally have a decent income.  Conversely, we regard artists as people who generally do not have a decent income.  Grouping things in this way serves two main functions: it decreases cognitive load (therefore decreasing stress and increasing the efficiency of the brain), and it provides a level of predictability and control over otherwise chaotic situations in life.

The problem with schemas however, is that they can sometimes prevent us from recognizing alternative, more fulfilling, and more authentic ways to live the life that we want (and some artists make a real killing at what they do!).

Naturally, society also gets in the way. We are made to feel like we must achieve more and more thanks to capitalism and the radical leftist praise for individuality.  Right now our egos are bigger than ever.  Life has become so much about what we identify with and what makes us unique – and our career is no exception.  We want prestige because it functions as a survival mechanism in this society, where approval rests mainly on our accomplishments (and few seem to care or even notice whether or not we’re actually good people).  And so far we’ve only used our career as an example here—society and ego also get in the way of discovering what we truly want in love, our environment, and life in general.  For simplicity, I’ll continue using our career as an example here.

Now, in order to figure out what we want in life, we need to escape the traps that schemas can put us in. We can do this by becoming aware of the ego and harnessing our intuition.

Before I finally discovered that I wanted to be a writer, I tried almost everything.  As someone who is fascinated by so many things, the struggle to choose “my thing” was real.  So many times I applied the traditional advice and asked myself: “What truly makes me happy? What would I do if nothing was holding me back?”  I took different courses, worked at very different jobs, and yet, nothing I tried seemed one-hundred percent suited to me. I thought that the things I tried were incredibly interesting, but shortly after pursuing them, I realized that I didn’t enjoy the actual work I was doing.  I eventually came to find out that I had been idealizing those ways of contributing to society based on beliefs about what I thought I wanted to do and not considering what I, as person actually want and need. The difference between the two is the ego.

Interestingly enough, this is sometimes the result of being a very “open-minded” person. Who would have thought that our good qualities could sometimes hinder us so much?  More on that later.

So, the ultimate question is: How can we make decisions that will always lead to our happiness?  Well, first we are tasked with identifying what makes us happy!  In this article, I will outline a plan for you to follow which will help you become aware of exactly what you want in life.  After you figure that out, the process of manifesting it can truly begin.

Here is the basic overview:

  1. Become aware of your ego
  2. Learn how to harness the power of your intuition
  3. Make a list of things that make you feel bad/are bad for you
  4. Make a list of things that make you genuinely happy
  5. Design your wheel of life
  6. Decide to NEVER settle for anything other than what is on your “happy” list

Now, let’s go into detail!

Step 1: Become aware of your ego

☐ Our first step is perhaps best explained by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. In an article on Oprah.com called “Free Yourself from Your Ego Armor,” Tolle gives us practical instructions on how to both recognize and free ourselves from our ego. He encourages us to first observe our minds (in other words, notice your thoughts). In observing our minds, we can learn what exactly our thoughts contain and in turn become aware of what’s really going on within us.

☐ Tolle then asks us to try and distinguish between our ego and the actual situation at hand. He notes that when we think that we are irritated by a situation, we are actually irritated by our own inner dialogue about the situation.  As he puts it, it is our interpretation of “the now” rather than the acceptance of it, that causes us pain and confusion.

☐ He then asks us to let go of “limiting stories.” These are essentially our interpretations, or in other words, the idealized stories that we made up about the situation. He explains that, when we create “willful optimism” about a situation by looking at how we think it could or should be, we are often trying to resist negativity.  But looking on the bright (or more convenient) side like this prevents us from seeing reality as it is and it encourages us to make decisions based on how we think things are, rather than as they actually are. Tolle clarifies that creating a falsely positive story is entirely unnecessary and counterproductive; we should instead try to look at the situation at hand without judgment.

“When you see the difference between your voice and the reality of the situation, that’s the beginning of awakening.” —Eckhart Tolle

He adds that this process of awakening/gaining awareness takes time. Indeed, recognizing and distinguishing your thoughts from reality does require ongoing practice. If you are diligent in doing this though, eventually it will become second nature.

☐ Lastly, Tolle asks us to lay down our “weapons.” He emphasizes that we need not battle with our ego. Rather, he says that by simply bringing awareness to our minds, we can create space for new thoughts. So, instead of thinking of our ego as a collection of “bad” things that we need to get rid of, we can simply use the process of noticing to help us transform egoistic thoughts to more accurate and productive ones.

Notice your thoughts, question their truth, and then gently replace them with more accurate reality-based thoughts.

This process is what will mentally get you from “I want to be a lawyer (or insert other fancy thing that you think you want here)” to “I want to have financial freedom. Becoming a lawyer seems appealing and it might get me there,” for example.  By distinguishing an idealization-based assertion from reality like this, you have removed the first (and biggest) block to discovering what it is that you truly want.

These instructions from Tolle are invaluable when it comes to gaining awareness of the ego. As he mentions though, this process is not a quick one—in order to achieve a state of being where self awareness is second-nature, we must make a habit of noticing our thoughts. This is also known as practicing mindfulness. And by continually being mindful of our thoughts we can become more in touch with reality, including the reality of what we want. This simple act alone can radically change your life.

Step 2: Learn how to harness the power of your intuition

Have you ever heard a saying similar to “the heart knows what we truly want and need”? For practical purposes, I interpret this as saying that we are truly happy and fulfilled when we simply feel good. It follows from this that the things which we truly want and need are the things that make us feel good.

And one may argue that doing something which feels bad now could eventually lead to something that feels good later. There are several problems with this however: First of all, emotions change. You cannot predict the future so you do not know what will make you feel good later. Even if you are aware of your patterns, they can always change. Second, dopamine and thus happiness doesn’t work like that (see note below).  And finally, if you are truly passionate about something (if it is truly what you want), it won’t feel like hard work! So if there are several possible routes to your success and fulfilment (and these days there certainly are), why not discover and take the most authentic one? The one that “feels right” the entire time?

Teal Swan does an unparalleled job of explaining what the intuition is and how to use it in her video “How To Use Your Intuition (The Inner Voice).” In this video, she shares helpful advice on connecting with our intuition.

☐ The first step is to take our attention off of the external world and to place it entirely on the internal word. Swan shares a meditative exercise to help us do this: She invites us to imagine our own skin as being symbolic of the separation between two worlds. Then, she asks us to focus in on and observe the sensations happening in the internal world. This requires us to let go of all judgement and expectation and to be extremely open minded to whatever may come.

☐ Once we’re focused on our internal world, we can then extract meaning from it by translating our observations into something more tangible. In order to do this, we can visualize the experiences that the sensations represent. We can ask ourselves: What colour would this experience be? What texture would it be? Is it moving, or is it still? If we were to see the experience as an image, what would that image look like?

☐ Then, once we’ve visualized this image, we must mentally engage with it as if it were a separate being/entity. Swan tells us to then ask the image questions, like: What are you? What do you want me to know?  The answers may not always be what we expect, but Swan encourages us to listen to them wholeheartedly. Our resistance to these answers is the very reason we are disconnected from our true desires in the first place!

☐ The last part of this process is to respond to the image with a conversation; however, this is not a typical conversation—Swan tells us to have a conversation with ourselves.  In this part of the process, we are asking ourselves what the image means about us, and in this case, our desires.  She encourages us to let this inner dialogue unfold naturally by remaining open-minded about where it takes us.  By naturally having this conversation with ourselves, we are acting intuitively.

Do you see anything in common between Eckhart Tolle’s advice and Teal Swan’s?  Both teachers emphasize the importance of connecting with our internal processes.  Both teachers ask us to listen intently to our inner experiences and to reflect on them.  These important processes lay the foundation for the rest of the work outlined in this article.

A note on dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure.  It gets released in your brain when you are rewarded.  Many of us spend a great deal of time doing things that are not rewarding.  Low dopamine is linked to depression.  Think about that.  The concept of achieving fulfilment by using your intuition and living a life full of the things that make you feel good is not spiritual “mumbo jumbo.”  It’s actually supported by science.

Step 3: Make a list of things that make you feel bad/are bad for you

Now that we’ve brought awareness to our ego and learned how to harness the power of our intuition, we can move on to things that are more concrete. We will now be reflecting on our lives and asking some tough questions.

Unfortunately it is often easier for us to become aware of what we don’t want, than it is to become aware of what we do want.  Many of us are already acutely aware of what we don’t want.  For this reason, it is better to single out those things first so that we can then mentally “detox” ourselves from them, giving ourselves more space for the good stuff.  For this step, we will ask ourselves: What makes me feel bad? Which of my behaviours are unhealthy/bad for me? Then, we will write a list of these things.

Here is an excerpt from my own list, as an example:

  • Drinking more than 1 caffeinated drink per day
  • Spending big blocks of time around people who talk a lot
  • Long, repetitive exercises
  • Dieting
  • Clubbing
  • People who invalidate me
  • Vacations longer than two weeks
  • Sleeping in because I stayed up too late
  • Dairy
  • Junk food
  • When I have more than 2 alcoholic drinks in a day
  • When I have to rush because I am committed to too many things

Just by noticing what makes us feel bad and by reflecting on it, we’re getting clearer on what we want in life because we’re ruling out what we don’t want in life.  It’s crucial for us to check in with ourselves and evaluate our own patterns like this.  Once you have identified these things and written them down, it becomes easier to make the decision to stay away from them and it gives you more mental space to focus on what makes you feel good.

When you’re writing your own list, make sure that you’re writing what feels real to you. If your list seems very different from mine, that’s okay!  There is no right or wrong way to do this; you just need to check in with yourself and write what intuitively comes to you.  Try not to write what you think other people want to hear.  This list needs to be meaningful to nobody but you.

Step 4: Make a list of things that make you genuinely happy

Now that we’ve gotten extra clear on what we don’t want in life, it will be a bit easier for us to figure out what we do want.  We can now ask ourselves: What makes me feel good? Which things, people, and environments bring me true joy?  Which behaviours are healthy for me?  Which behaviours make my life better?

For example, here is an excerpt from my list:

  • Drinking tea
  • Fresh healthy foods
  • Hosting dinner parties
  • Moving slowly, planning space in between my commitments
  • Making my bed in the morning
  • Writing out my thoughts and ideas, solving problems
  • Short, spontaneous exercises
  • Being outside daily in a yard and garden that is my own
  • People who are supportive and who accept me as I am
  • Being with pets
  • Swimming
  • Hiking, forests

Notice how none of these things are extravagant; they are what we often consider to be the ‘simple’ things in life.  Most of them don’t take much time or much money to experience.  Something as simple as hanging out with our pets or having a cup of tea can bring us genuine happiness.

Again, make sure that you’re writing a list that feels meaningful to you alone.  The examples given above are just that – examples.  Everyone has different life experience so everyone’s list will look different. What’s important is that you’re really connecting with your inner world and answering the questions honestly.

Step 5: Design your wheel of life

Your wheel of life represents what you want in each distinct area of your life.  Use your list from Step 4 of this exercise to create a goal within each area of this circle.  Before you begin, think about how satisfied you are in each distinct area of your life and rate your level of satisfaction on a scale from 1-10.  If any areas have a rating of 8-10, it may be a good idea to keep those as is and focus on the areas of your life that need more improvement.  In order for us to feel truly fulfilled, this wheel should be balanced.  That means that you should ideally have about the same (high) level of satisfaction in each area.

life-balance-wheel

Step 6: Decide to NEVER settle for anything other than what is on your “happy” list

This is, perhaps, the most important step of all. Now that we’ve done all of this work, we need to reflect on it.  Read over your lists from Steps 3 and 4.  Ask yourself: What is the difference between these two lists?

Let’s look at the first items from each one of my lists, for example.  On my list of things that make me feel bad and/or are bad for me, I’ve put “Drinking more than 1 caffeinated drink per day.”  On my list of things that make me genuinely happy, I’ve put “Drinking tea.”  Now, what is the difference between these two behaviours?  What is the difference between coffee and tea?  On a basic level, caffeine is used as a stimulant, while tea is often sipped as a way to relax (though some teas do have a decent amount of caffeine).  It becomes clear then that the meaning which lies behind these two behaviours is very different for me, personally.  Drinking multiple cups of coffee throughout the day can often be a great way to maintain my energy.  It makes me feel great in the short term—I can focus more on projects and have more efficient conversations.  Essentially, it helps me “get more shit done.”  The aim here is to be awake and to be productive.  On the other hand, drinking tea (especially herbal) can often be a way to unwind.  The aim here is to calm down.

Similarly, hanging out with a bunch of superficial people who invalidate us may be a way to move forward in our career or “improve” our social status, but at what cost are we spending our time with these people?  Are we losing more than gaining from our time shared with them?  Does our social circle make us miserable more often than not?  Wouldn’t it be easier if we just spent our time with people who really care about us and who would have our back if we needed it?  Why are we not spending our energy on people like that instead?

As I mentioned earlier, our society overemphasizes achievement.  We are subliminally taught that our self-worth is determined by our productivity.  But our output does not always bring us genuine happiness.  Drinking coffee all day is not truly good for me.  It is good for the system and society in which I live.  Recognize what your own behaviours mean to you.  If you are on the path of self-improvement it’s fair to assume that the things on your “feel bad” list are mostly things that serve a superficial, egoistic, and self-destructive purpose.  They are not self loving and they will not bring you what you truly want.

In terms of personal fulfillment, productivity is not always the best measure.  What is often more important is learning to be gentle with ourselves.  And how can we be gentler with ourselves?  The term that gets thrown around a lot today is “self-care.”  Mindfully drinking a hot cup of tea to unwind is a great example of self-care.  Other common examples are: taking a bubble bath, listening to soothing music, meditating, doing yoga, watching a sitcom, etc.  The important thing is that these actions come from a place of compassion for ourselves and that they are things which feel good, to us, in the moment—not in some idealized, hypothetical future.

Keep your lists from Steps 3 and 4 in mind to really take stock of your behaviours.  Note the differences between the two lists so that you can move forward in an effort to bring yourself more genuine happiness.  Make the decision to love yourself now.

And when it comes to choosing the career that is right for you, make sure the things you will actually be doing in that career are things that make you feel good at the time you are doing them.  They should be things that you most naturally and intuitively do.  Since I was a child I have been making scrapbooks and lists full of my insights on the “best” ways to live.  I’m obsessed with solving problems and uncovering the truth, especially when it involves personal development, society, and relationships.  It’s something that I couldn’t stop doing even if I tried.  In this career, I will never “work” a day in my life.

A note on open-mindedness

Remaining open minded is generally seen as a good thing.  However, it can sometimes be rooted in an unhealthy fear of missing out (FoMO).  According to recent research, the majority of adult Millennials suffer from very high levels of FoMO.  This is problematic, as FoMO is associated with depression, physical symptoms, and negative health outcomes (Baker et al., 2016).

It has been shown time and time again that the more options we have, the less happy we are.  And now with the advent of the internet we have more options, information, and opportunities than ever.  As a result, we have forgotten the importance of conscious decision-making.  This is one of the lesser known reasons as to why we struggle so much with practicing gratitude.

What is conscious decision making?  It is when we make a firm decision to keep something in our life, focus on that, and forget about alternatives.  When we do this, we will be happier because we are no longer experiencing the mental torment that comes from wondering “what if?” and we will naturally recognize and appreciate the beauty in what we already have.

This article provides another excellent definition of conscious decision making: “[it is when] you are no longer making choices to avoid something, but instead are making choices to create something.”  Making conscious decisions about what we want in our life and sticking to them, not only keeps us happy, but it also keeps us focused on creating our ideal life.  It frees us from the overwhelm that other alternatives impose on us and shifts our focus to improving the quality of what we already have.  And with most things in life, quality is much better than quantity.

The acronym “FoMO” says it all: This way of living is fear-based – and living in fear is not a healthy way to live.  When you do not fully accept the good things that you have in your life, it is because you fear missing out on something more or something else.  And constantly ruminating on how things could be better is a trap that will keep you always wanting more and more.  Because no matter what you have, there can always be some way to improve it.

After everything we’ve gone through in this article, I want you to ask yourself why you chose to read it in the first place.  Do you want to manifest something new in your life because you fear that the things you already have are not good enough?  Or do you have a genuine desire to create something that you legitimately don’t already have?

One of the most empowering abilities you can develop as an individual is the ability to recognize what is “good enough” and decide to nurture that to be the best it can be.  Deciding to keep what is “good enough” in your life is not “settling” (as some say, with a negative connotation).  It is shifting from a place of fear, to a place of gratitude; from a place of resistance, to a place of acceptance; from an unhealthy need for control, to a healthy appreciation of what is.

Don’t try to abandon your beautiful, curious, open mind altogether – just learn to recognize when it is doing more harm than good.  And, no, I am not saying that you should keep something in your life that you feel is causing you pain.  What I am saying is that before removing it, you should first try to identify the source of that pain.  Many times the source of that pain is your mind (your interpretation of the situation).  If the situation itself can be fixed, fix it.  If not, THEN move on.  Don’t get caught in the trap of always wanting bigger and better – unless of course you enjoy being unhappy.

Being open minded will bring you new experiences and therefore personal growth.  But engaging in a new experience is usually a very easy (and appealing) decision to make.  Don’t you agree?  Sometimes though, this is because an “open-minded” decision is really a mask for a decision to “take the easy way out” of a difficult situation.  If you instead resist that temptation, decide to stick with something you already have, and nurture it to its full capacity, it will force you to grow as a person in ways you never thought possible.  It may be less comfortable, but I promise it is so much more rewarding (this is why difficult experiences build character :))

Thinking of breaking up with your partner?  Taking that job?  Going on a new diet?  Running away from society to live off the land?  Just make sure your decisions are coming from a healthy, love-based mindset.  Recognize the difference between unhealthy “settling” and a healthy, conscious decision.

One final note

If you want to get clear on what exactly it is that you want in a partner (so that you can attract the right one into your life), I recommend repeating the exercise outlined in this article for that purpose alone.  I talk more in depth on how to do this in Part 3 of this series.

I sincerely hope that you’ve found this guide helpful.  Stay tuned for future posts in the Manifestation series!

Click here to continue to Part 2

References

Baker, Zachary & Krieger, Heather & LeRoy, Angie. (2016). Fear of missing out: Relationships with depression, mindfulness, and physical symptoms. Translational Issues in Psychological Science. 2. 275-282. 10.1037/tps0000075.

Is It True That The Stress Response “Overreacts” Sometimes?

We are taught that the stress response is unwarranted when our brain perceives things in our environment which are not a real threat to safety. It happens when we’re in a traffic jam, struggling with tight finances, and when we have a major test coming up. These things won’t kill us and therefore the stress response that we experience from them is something unnecessary and maladaptive. This is stress theory 101. It’s what you learn within the first minute of any stress-related psychology class: sometimes the stress response is silly.

Lately I’ve found myself questioning this premise.

We know that the stress response was designed to occur in the face of some perceived danger. When we need to “fight or flight,” a body full of stress hormones prepares us. The second our brain detects a threat it is triggered. ACTH and cortisol do their thing. Epinephrine sharpens our senses, makes our heart pump faster sending blood to our organs and muscles, the lungs expand so that we can inhale more oxygen for alertness, and triggers the release of glucose so that we have more energy. This temporary systemic imbalance equips us for serious action. But sometimes it gets triggered when we don’t need to act. That’s what we’re taught.

But let’s say we’re at work and we’re stressed out about work. Let’s say we’re stressed out because we’re not passionate about what we do or we’re surrounded by assholes. No, we’re not at the immediate risk of death, but is it really true to say that this poses no real threat to us?

Obviously our needs for food, air, water, and not-being-eaten-by-a-huge-scary-animal are essential for life on Earth. The stress response undoubtedly protects us when we’re at risk in that department. But we also have an inherent need as human beings to self-actualize and to thrive. If we don’t feel that this need is being met, isn’t it rational to assume that being stressed is a legitimate response? Maybe the stress response is our body simply telling us that we are in some general situation which is not good for us and that we need to get out. Maybe it’s not a threat to our life but it is certainly a threat to our identity, our authenticity, and our wellbeing.

Who was it that decided only a select few of our needs as human beings merit our bodies responding in an attempt to help us get those needs met?

I call your attention to the multitude of research studies that have a very straightforward conclusion: psychological stress is literally a threat to our life.

  • Chronic stress is associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) and the evidence is strong (Dong et al., 2004; Gruska et al., 2005, Kawachi et al., 1995; Niaura & Goldstein, 1992; Steptoe, 2000). One study even showed that higher amounts of work stress were associated with a whopping 50% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) (Kivimaki et al., 2006). Researchers Landsbergis and his colleagues (2001) concluded that the most consistent predictor of CVD is a particular source of this stress known as low decision latitude – in other words, having a low degree of control over your work. Considering CHD is the leading cause of death in the world, this is kind of a big deal.
  • Chronic stress is associated with inflammation and other immune-related conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus erythematous (Affleck et al., 1994; Brody, 1956; Danese et al., 2007; Dube et al., 2009; Straub & Kalden, 2009).
  • Chronic stress is associated with skeletal muscle conditions including headaches and bruxism (De Benedittis and Lorenzetti, 1992; Biondi & Picardi, 1993; Giraki et al., 2010; Ficek & Wittrock, 1995; Sauro & Becker, 2009; Venable et al., 2001; Waldie, 2001). Luckily, treatments for these conditions are more often aimed at addressing stress levels.
  • Chronic stress is associated with gastrointestinal (GI) disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chrons disease, ulcerative colitis, and peptic ulcers (Hertig et al., 2007; Searle & Bennett, 2001; Talley & Spiller, 2002). For this reason serotonin treatments are currently being investigated but if you are experiencing symptoms of a GI disorder your doctor will most likely just tell you to exercise more and eat enough fibre/probiotics…
  • Chronic stress is associated with atopic disorders like rhinitis, asthma, and dermatitis (Chida, Hamer, & Steptoe, 2008).
  • Chronic Stress is associated with type 2 diabetes (Charmandari, Tsigos, & Chrousos, 2005).
  • There is even some supporting evidence that chronic stress is associated with cancer (Scherg & Blohmke, 1988; Levenson and Bemis, 1991; McKenna et al., 1999).
  • This list does not even include the annoying problems like weight gain, obesity, hormonal imbalance, and mental illnesses which can also be triggered by stress.

The pathways involved between these illnesses and stress are irrelevant and even deterring to the point. Here’s the thing…

The conclusions in the literature tend to reflect this pattern: chronic stress is associated with illness because of the stress hormones themselves wreaking havoc on our bodies over a prolonged period of time. Shortened telomeres, depleted vitamins, androgens, backed up livers, etc. are to blame. In other words, the problem is a malfunction of our BIOLOGY and if only we could just handle uncomfortable situations without experiencing a stress response then we would be just fine. We “can’t avoid” stressful events so we just need to meditate more often or develop better coping strategies.

Literature like the article “Too Toxic to Ignore” by Blackburn & Epel (2012) suggests that we focus on medical treatments or help people change certain maladaptive behaviours in order to address the the issue of stress.

But, what if instead of blaming ourselves and our biology we blame our shitty system which forces us to do things that don’t feel good in order to survive? Are we being inadvertently brainwashed to ignore something serious that our bodies are trying to tell us?

Low socioeconomic status (SES) is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of disease and mortality and stress is a key mediator (Cohen, 2007; Kristenson et al., 2004); the lower you are on the social ladder, the poorer the health you can expect. Very few diseases are an exception to this fact. It makes sense – low SES individuals tend to face unhealthier living conditions and more stress.

In response to this, a lot of people will say “But look at all of the opportunities we have! We can go to university, or get a better job! We are free to choose whatever path we want! If someone is stuck in a shitty situation, it’s their fault for being lazy and not working harder to get out of it.” If you fall into this category, I’m afraid you’re a victim of the postmodern brainwashing. Getting out of a low SES bracket is incredibly difficult – so difficult in fact, that staying in the situation is sometimes healthier than going through the amount of stress required to get out of it. Ergo, low SES individuals DO NOT have true autonomy. Try getting good grades when you also have to work 25 hours a week and come home to cooking, cleaning, and possibly even caretaking everyday. Add a dance class, a modest beauty regimen, a workout, a meditation, and an occasional evening out on top of that. Good luck. Try getting a better job when you show up to the interview looking like shit because you had to take a 2-hour public transit trip in extreme heat, after running 10 other errands, going to class, doing a shift at your other job, and by the time you finally get there you’re so tired you can’t even respond properly to the interview questions so you’re perceived as “unmotivated.” This is the shit that the middle class will never understand. To them it sounds like bitching. That’s what they’ll think as they read this, probably sitting in an uber on their way to an avo toast brunch.

And the government, who so devotedly caters to the middle class, designs initiatives to address the issue of psychological stress by targeting individuals who are already suffering. They develop campaigns to reduce stigma, crisis support lines, support centres, and training programs for employers to help them support mentally ill employees. There are also wellness workshops and educational programs to teach people how to reduce stress and live healthier. But what the hell does enhancing education do when poor people still can’t afford to buy fresh produce or relax in a car ride home after a stressful day? What if you don’t have the time to meditate because you need to work for 12 hours a day to make ends meet? And if you think about it, this approach is kind of ironic because the very act of participating in such programs means more things added on to an already-stressed-out person’s to-do list.

In Canada, leaders are attempting to implement such “organizational changes.” The Mental Health Strategy for Canada outlines the initiatives. Nowhere does it talk about addressing the mental health crisis by increasing autonomy. Essentially, it talks about how we can improve the lives of those already living with mental illness. In a way we are being force-fed the idea that low autonomy is a fact of life and if you’re faced with it then you basically just gotta learn to deal with it and get support.

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As Jordan Peterson put it, “Everything improves when the poor get richer. We need to make them richer as fast as possible.” I agree. Money is a resource which can buy you time therefore increasing autonomy and giving you the freedom to pursue your passions. And it has been well theorized just how amazing and prosperous this world would be if we could all pursue our passions.

So what if the source of much illness is not within the people but in system that enslaves them? Despite the wealth of opportunity that capitalism has brought us, things are still imperfect. But is the lack of autonomy solely to blame?

Earlier this month, fashion designer Kate Spade made the decision to end her life. She was a highly successful, wealthy entrepreneur with a significant level of autonomy. Those who were close to her knew that she suffered from depression and a great source of it was relational. She and her husband had been living quite separate and unaffectionate lives and he eventually wanted a divorce. Being a family oriented woman, she didn’t. That was the very reason why she left the company in 2006 – to raise her daughter and focus more on the family. According to her sister, Spade didn’t even care that much for her massive fame and success. It stressed her out more than anything.

Spade is far from alone. I draw your attention back to the fact that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis, particularly with respect to depression. It makes sense given that depression is a mental illness which is often attributed to a perceived lack of control over one’s life – and in our current society, many of us are forced to put aside our passions in order to make a living at jobs where we are told what to do. What the death of Spade shows us however is that lacking control over your own life isn’t just about being held back from expressing yourself or achieving personal goals.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34 (Millennials) in Canada, with depression being the most common illness among those who die (Statistics Canada, 2017). Coincidentally this is also a pivotal phase of life for developing long lasting intimate relationships. It’s when people tend to think the most about dating, love, and marriage. Erik Erikson’s famous theory of psychosocial development calls this the stage of Intimacy vs. Isolation, where the biggest psychological conflict that individuals are faced with is the task of forming loving relationships. Successfully making it through this stage results in fulfilment, whereas failure results in isolation and depression.

Among the suicide statistics, we do see that married people in this age range have a much lower death rate than those who are single, widowed, or divorced. It is theorized that the companionship and social support offered by marriage are the factors which decrease the risk of suicide (Kposowa, 2000). Keep in mind that these are fatalities, not attempts (women attempt suicide two to four times more often than men. Men are more successful because they tend to use more aggressive means [Krug, 2002]). Also worthy of noting is that cohabitation without marriage does not tend to show similar benefits.  I will discuss this further in a separate article.

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Back in 1983, Dr. Aaron Beck and colleagues presented a theory which suggested that there are two personality styles which make a person vulnerable to developing depression. More specifically, individuals with a high need for belonging, or those high in sociotropy, would likely become depressed when their social needs are not met, and individuals with a high need for autonomy would likely become depressed when their needs for personal achievement are not met. With this theory, they created the sociotropy-autonomy scale which was designed to predict a person’s likelihood of developing depression. Sato & McCann’s (2000) study used this scale and found that sociotrophy was in fact a risk factor for depression.

I would also like to emphasize however, that sociotropy is not a psychological disorder or symptom but a personality trait and it simply indicates a natural desire to connect with others which is higher than average. In other words, it is not, in itself, something maladaptive, or “wrong.”

Fast forward to today. Not only are we in the midst of a mental health crisis, we are also in the midst of a social crisis. Under the influence of postmodernism, we are being taught that autonomy is the be-all end-all of our existence. Traditional values of family and belonging go ignored, even shamed. To feel the need to belong is considered “needy” in our current culture. We see it everywhere – just go on any dating app and read a few profiles. The most sought after qualities in a woman are “a mind of her own,” “ambitious,” and “strong and independent.” Dependency is the most feared quality with very few people caring whether you’re mean or apathetic. Marriage is seen as outdated and relationships as transient.

Of course those who feel the need for connection are depressed! They are stuck in a situation that they have little to no control over due to the fact that they live in a society which makes them feel like their need for belonging IS NOT OKAY. Furthermore, it is a need that cannot be achieved through personal development – it can only come through positive relationships with other people. We can do our best to make relationships work, but ultimately we are not in control over the decisions that other people make. We cannot control whether our dates call us back, whether our family abandons us, or whether our partner asks for a divorce.

And as a result of this lack of control we seek love in manipulative ways – evident by the hoards of mainstream dating advice which are essentially different spins on how to play hard to get. They’re not wrong – people are wired to want more of what they can’t have. But what is the social cost of normalizing this behaviour? We are all suffering. We play these games to achieve power and control and in the process we leave others in a position of lacking control over aspects of their own life. Great relationships suffer, fail, or perhaps never even start because people are too afraid to be vulnerable.

The praise for autonomy is also reinforced by almost every higher education advertisement. Every other poster on the subway tells us to “Be a Leader!” and go to such-and-such university because we’re “Born to Make a Difference.” This advertising plants subconscious beliefs in people’s minds that it’s not good enough to be who they already are and want what they want. If anything it perpetuates the mental health crisis. It’s annoying at best and harmful at worst. What if I don’t really care about making a difference in the world? What if I am happy as a barista, or a mom, or a hairdresser? If I feel like being a “leader” I will fucking google nearby MBA programs. I don’t need someone else to tell me how I “should” be living my life…

Disney movies, TV shows, media – it used to be about saving the world or finding love. Now it’s all about finding yourself. As a rude awakening, get over “yourself.” Newsflash: We are SO much more similar than we are different!

Autonomy is incredibly valuable but it isn’t the whole story. As humans, we also need to feel connected to others. Abraham Maslow acknowledged this back in the 1940s when traditional family-oriented values were not only socially acceptable but something to be proud of. In his model the need for belonging was represented as being even more important than our autonomous needs:

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And we all know this model is legit.

Honestly though, how many stories have you heard about someone achieving great success only to become depressed because they realized they had no one special to share it with? Or someone who was so ambitious that they lost the love of those around them and ended up regretting it? They were looking at their needs backwards.

We are suffering because our society is suffering. We want to love and to be loved, and we also want to pursue our passions, but we are held back from those things because of the false widespread beliefs that a) it’s not okay to need others, and b) you need to work for a living and sometimes that means getting a job you don’t like.

So essentially, we have a mental health crisis as the result of imbalanced social values and we are addressing the problem with band-aid mental health programs targeted to individuals and their behaviour. We are praising autonomy while simultaneously refusing to address the fact that so many of us simply don’t have it. We are also devaluing belongingness while simultaneously ignoring that it is a massive buffer against stress and mental illness.

Back to the topic of disease – this problem goes beyond the social and psychological. We aren’t just depressed and naive. People are literally physically ill and dying as a result of illnesses which can be attributed to the stress caused by unfilfilment and a perceived lack of control over one’s life.

So what can we do about this?

Part 1 of the solution is balancing our values. We need to see the merit in both autonomy and belongingness. I believe that having personal autonomy and the freedom to pursue what you are passionate about is absolutely integral to health and wellness. However, I also believe that we need to start acknowledging the fact that we are social creatures with a deep need for connection, who need each other, and who can’t always do everything on our own. Not only that, but there is no real reason why we should have to. We evolved as homo sapiens because we learned how to work together. We are wired for it. Deep down, we all want (and need!) love and connection. It’s time we start acting and talking like it. Just as autonomy acts as a buffer in the stress-illness relationship, so does social support (in fact to an even higher degree). And if there is anything I’ve learned from psychology, it’s that we need to know when to ask for help. I’d add on that we also need to learn when and how to ask for love.

Part 2 of the solution is changing how we encourage people to contribute to society. Notice I didn’t say “work.” That’s because I don’t believe it should be work. We should be pursuing something that we are so passionate about it’s akin to breathing. I’ve met CEO’s, engineers, hairdressers, and mom’s who all loved what they do for a living and they were perfectly content – all except those who couldn’t afford to live decently. Why aren’t people working at jobs that give them purpose and fulfillment? Why don’t they have access to them? Why are only some jobs considered socially desirable? Why do more difficult and laborious jobs often pay less? Why do artists have to struggle? And more importantly, how can we change this?

In sum, the stress response is telling us something very important. We feel out of control, not only because we lack autonomy in a society that glorifies it, but we also lack the freedom to reach out and ask for love in healthy ways. Our needs as human beings are going unmet to the extent that premature death is sometimes the result. In the meantime there is a wealth of research on society and its impact on health. Maybe we should start talking more about that.

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