Addiction is Not a Disease but It’s Not a Choice Either

Addiction is Not a Disease but It’s Not a Choice Either

There is nothing I love more than an evidence-based critique of the “brain disease” model of mental illness.

It’s a not-so-secret passion of mine. The books on my shelves have titles like The Emperor’s New Drugs, and Blaming the Brain. I sit around thinking about it on Sunday mornings. I google it excessively. I rant and rave to anyone who will listen (mostly my mother). I’m not anti-psychiatry, but the guy who overheard me questioning the purpose of psychiatry would be forgiven for thinking me so.

When a Guardian article titled Marc Lewis: the neuroscientist who believes addiction is not a disease popped up in my Facebook feed, I immediately clicked, and I immediately got that warm, tingly feeling I get inside my stomach when I read something intelligent and scientifically thrilling.

The article was everything I hoped it would be. Marc Lewis was using neurobiology to explain why addiction is not a disease. Yes, I thought. This is exactly the kind of controversy I need in my life.

Before Marc Lewis made the American Medical Association look stupid, he was an addict. He took drugs, robbed pharmacies, ruined relationships, and got arrested. In an interview, Marc Lewis says he tried quitting something like one hundred times, and he failed…until the one time that he didn’t.

When he was no longer an addict, he went back to school and completed a PhD in developmental psychology (which, as I had to point out to someone in the comments of the Guardian article, is an actual science and does involve extensive learning about the brain). He went on to write a memoir about his addiction, and now he’s released a book explaining why addiction is not a disease.

If you’re a human being living in the Western world, then you probably already know that this is an inflammatory statement. Addiction, not a disease? But the American Medical Association said it was so in 1956, and that’s basically the same as God sending us a memo.

In case you’re not as obsessed with these kinds of things as I am, here’s the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s definition of addiction:

“Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs”.

Ten years later, in walks Marc Lewis who says that brain changes in response to booze are not indicative of disease, and in fact, are quite normal. According to Dr Lewis, what the brain is doing in response to drugs, alcohol, sex, or your tenth cupcake of the day, is responding in the way it is supposed to. The only way the brain can learn is to change. Addiction, he says, is an “exaggerated form of normal learning”, and this occurs due to neuroplasticity.

In case you’re new to the topic, here’s a short video that explains how neuroplasticity works.

The brain has amazing capacity to change. The more you practice something, the stronger the connections are in the relevant brain areas. Perhaps the only thing I remember from undergrad is this –‘neurons that fire together wire together.’ Meaning, each time you think or behave in a particular way, the stronger the connections between certain neurons become.

Perhaps the most striking example of neuroplasticity is when people who’ve had strokes learn to reuse a part of their body that became immobile due to brain damage. Neuroplasticity works in less dramatic ways too. Take London taxi drivers for example. Compared to non-taxi drivers, the back of their hippocampus is larger. Through repeated learning their navigational skills become phenomenal, and you see a change in the structure of the hippocampus. You also see changes in the brains of monks who’ve done a shit-load of mindfulness meditation, and in the brains of professional musicians.

According to Dr Lewis, a similar learning process happens in addiction. You don’t smell a whiff of tequila and lo and behold you have a drinking problem. Marc Lewis says, “You grow into addiction. It takes place in a sequence or a progression through repeated trials, through repeated exposure, repeated actions, and through practice.” This reflects neuroplasticity – the more you do something, the stronger that behaviour is wired into your brain.

When these changes are deemed positive, we label them awesome and we get hounded about improving our navigational skills and starting up a regular mindfulness practice. But when the changes are deemed negative, we (or should I say, the American Medical Association) label it “abnormal”, and indicative of a “brain disease”. Even though a) there is no conclusive evidence that those brain changes cause the behaviour in question, and b) it wouldn’t be considered a disease if the associated behaviours were socially acceptable.

Advocates of the disease model typically react to criticisms by pointing at pictures of brain scans and saying, ‘but the brain has changed, and that makes it a disease.’ Dr Lewis’s core criticism is that people are misinterpreting (or maybe ignoring) the role of neuroplasticity in addiction, “physical changes in the brain are its only way to learn, to remember, and to develop. But we wouldn’t want to call learning a disease.

The Problem with Brain Scans

Something people seem to forget is that brain imaging studies are correlational. Typically, researchers scan the brains of people who already have an established disorder. Meaning, the only thing we can infer is that the brain is activated more/less so in certain areas in the “abnormal” person, or that there is more/less of some structure in the “abnormal” person. Brain imaging studies don’t tell us why that difference is there, and they certainly don’t tell us whether that difference was there before the abnormality began. It’s just as likely that the difference developed as a result of repeated thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. 

Why Does It Matter Whether Addiction is a Disease or Not?

Figuring outt what addiction is, and what drives it are essential to figuring out how best to help those who are suffering. We’re talking about scientific progress here. Scientific progress should not be held back by the dogmatic beliefs of the American Medical Association. I don’t want to stay in 1956 where homosexuality is considered a mental disorder, the mentally ill are lobotomized, and scientific articles are waffly.

The implicit meaning of ‘brain disease’ is that the problem is permanent and unchangeable. It transforms a problematic behaviour into a disease to be managed but never fully recovered from. It transforms people into patients who are dysfunctional right down to their DNA.

Conceptualizing addiction as a disease may not be the most useful way to help people recover. Instead, telling an addict they have a disease can disempower them. In a radio interview with ABC, Dr Lewis said “the notion of being a patient, having a chronic illness doesn’t make people feel much better and often makes them feel worse. Believing addiction is a disease is itself a predictor of relapse. It engenders a feeling of helplessness and powerless that in itself works against the process of recovery”.

But What About Stigma?

When I get into debates (okay, arguments) with people on the internet about the validity of the disease model of mental illness, this always comes up. Apparently, questioning the scientific evidence suggesting any mental illness (including addiction) is a brain disease is considered to take us back to the dark ages, where people are ridiculed and discriminated against. It’s a ridiculous argument. First of all, people are still ridiculed and discriminated against. Second of all, the scientific merits of the disease model are completely separate to the issue of stigma. Are you willing to lie about the nature of a condition just because it might prevent some people from being bigoted assholes? I’m not. And besides, the disease model of addiction doesn’t reduce stigma, and might actually promote it.

Think about it. Are you more inclined to avoid, denigrate, feel weird around, or otherwise treat differently someone who has something fundamentally wrong with their brain that makes them do behave in crazy and irresponsible ways , or someone who is experiencing problems that any one of us could experience? 

Are you Saying Addiction is a Choice?

No. I am not saying that. 

I’ve always been dubious about the disease model of addiction because that perspective tends to ignore the role of social, psychological, and environmental factors. What I don’t understand is why people assume it’s either a disease or it’s all your fault. Be logical. No one chooses where they are born, what family they are born into, or the multitude of life events that happen to them in the time between conception and the onset of their addiction.

Sure we make a lot of choices in our lives, but generally we make those choices because they make sense in the context of our lives. Sometimes we repeatedly make choices that look stupid to other people, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make sense to us. People usually do what they’ve always done because it’s worked for them before. And then they get trapped there.

No one actively chooses addiction or any other mental illness. Just because something is psychological or behavioural (or has some psychological or behavioural component) does not make it any less problematic, disastrous, devastating, or painful, or any more chosen than, say, a cancer diagnosis.

The cancer patient and the addict are similar in that neither of them chooses their predicament. They might make some choices that make it more likely they’ll get cancer or become addicted to crack. But making a few poor choices here and there because you’re human and you think you’re immune to the horrible shit that happens to other people, is not the same as choosing a health problem.

The difference is, when you’ve reached the point of full blown addiction, you still have some wriggle room. You can assume responsibility. You can make a different choice. That’s not to say it’s an easy choice, but it’s still an option that is available to you. With addiction, your hands are not in the fate of your doctor, the skill of your surgeon, or the effectiveness of the drug. Your fate is up to you.

At least, that’s what I think Marc Lewis is saying.

Note: I did not interview Marc Lewis for this article. Instead, I listened/read to a bunch of interviews he did with other people, read his blog posts here, and here, and then I got mildly obsessed with him and bought his new book The Biology of Desire.

If you want to become mildly obsessed with Marc Lewis, you can visit his website. 

BREAKING NEWS: At least one person likes the yellow brick blog

BREAKING NEWS: At least one person likes the yellow brick blog

Okay, so I haven’t written anything for six weeks.

Here’s the thing. Recently I had a flare up of my chronic illness, got the flu, had a neck problem, and moved house. And when I got better I panicked because I hadn’t done any work on my PhD for four weeks. The irony of not being able to work on my chronic pain research because of chronic pain is not lost on me.

To ease back into things I’ve got a personal post lined up for you. There’s no psychology in this one, but I do talk about some blogs I read and answer a bunch of questions about myself. So stick around if that sounds appealing.

Liebster Blog Award

Jackie Phelan, a fellow Dunedin blogger, kindly nominated me for the Liebster Blog Award. She did this quite some time ago, and I’ve taken my sweet time in passing it onwards. It basically just means that she likes my blog, and it requires me to do two things – answer a bunch of questions, and nominate others. It’s a way for bloggers to band together and share each other’s work, which is a cool way to connect. Honestly, I don’t read a lot of baby blogs, mostly because I haven’t been reading much lately. So I’m going to list just three, and none of them are all that new…

But before I do that, I suggest you check out Jackie Phelan’s blog, Style Me Petite. It’s all about fashion for the petite woman. I enjoy Jackie’s blog because I need all the fashion tips I can get, and partly because her hair is amazing. In one post, Jackie gives some advice on what to wear at home instead of sweat pants. I’m a big fan of sweat pants, but Eva Mendes thinks you’re husband won’t love you anymore if you wear them all the time. My personal opinion on that is – keep the pants and get a new husband. Still, I probably do need to step outside the square and take off my sweatpants/dressing gown combo every once in a while.


Starter Culture – I enjoy reading about people trying to achieve goals, and that’s what starter culture is all about. Eric Ludy is approaching 30 and a little anxious about his lack of progress toward his major life goals (Me too Eric, me too). So, he started this blog to track his progress learning Spanish, making cheese, making money, and building a blog. He’s a freelance copywriter, so his blog is a pleasure to read. Plus the font he uses is aesthetically pleasing.

Death to Cardio – Rhiana Clarke writes about health and fitness. She has an authentic air about her. She’s not one of those fitness bloggers you see on Instagram who is always eating quinoa, doing handstands, and talking about how positive and fabulous they feel. She’s more down to earth. She likes to swear, and she doesn’t really care what you think of that selfie she took while wearing a g.

Miss White’s Makeup Desk – Miss White is a teacher, and she likes to remind you that if you can read her blog, then thank a teacher. Miss White talks about beauty products – something I am periodically obsessed with. In fact, I try not to read her blog too much because she makes me want to buy everything she talks about. That’s a compliment, by the way.

The Questions

1. Where did the name and idea for your blog come from?

My blog is inspired by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which takes a functional contextualist approach to human suffering. ACT uses personal values as a way to inspire, and guide behavioural change. I was having a quarter life crisis at the time I was doing a lot of learning about ACT. I had this desire to rewatch The Wizard of Oz during that time, and I thought, the yellow brick road is a great metaphor for following your values despite the challenges that arise. There are flying monkeys, and evil witches…and yet Dorothy manages to do what matters most to her by following the yellow brick road. So the name of the blog was born, and ever since I’ve wondered if it’s too cheesy.

2. What’s your favourite breakfast?

For the past couple of years I’ve had a blueberry and banana smoothie for breakfast. I usually add oats, maybe some yoghurt or soaked almonds, and sometimes some spinach. Lately I’ve been trying out different berries (blackberries are a great alternative), Bircher museli, and porridge. But I’m extremely lazy in the mornings, and not having to chew my food is ideal for me. Unless it’s bacon. I will always make the effort for bacon.

3. What book are you currently reading?

Ugh. Don’t ask me this. I love reading but at the moment I lack the commitment to read a book.

Recently I read I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb. It’s about identical twins, and one of them has paranoid schizophrenia. Within the first 30 pages one of them chops of his hand at the public library. As soon as that happened I was thinking, yep, this is my kind of book.

But mostly I’m just watching hours and hours of Nashville.

4. Your must have make-up item?

BB cream. I flush a lot. So I like to avoid the eternally embarrassed look.

5. If you could be anywhere tomorrow where would you be?

I would be at a spa on a tropical island, drinking virgin Pina coladas and having my feet massaged.

6. Who is your icon and why?

Usually I say, Britney Spears. People always express distaste when I say this, but I think if you can sell 31.6 million albums, go through a massive, public, mental health crisis and then put your life back together then you are worthy of icon status.

For the past year, I’m fan girling all over Mark Manson. I obsess over his work and I wonder why anyone ever bothers to write anything when Mark Manson can do it better. I also get unreasonably jealous of his girlfriend, which makes no sense to me, but happens anyway.

7. Who is your favourite band/singer?

I’m into Taylor Swift at the moment. I find her hilarious, and she loves cats.

8. What’s your favourite season and why?

Autumn. Solely because the other three seasons are death traps for me (allergies, UV sensitivity, intolerance to heat, intolerance to cold). Autumn is great because there are clouds to block the sun, and it’s not quite as cold as winter. Plus the leaves are pretty.

9. What are you grateful for?

My cat and my mother.

10. If you were a cup of coffee, what would you be called?

The bitter bitch is the first thing that came to mind. I think it’s because I’m in a bad mood right now. Also because coffee makes my stomach hurt.

11. If you were an emojicon what would you be and why?

The clapping hands. I don’t know how to justify this, except to say that I am intrigued by the Zen Koan that says “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” My dad knows the answer but refuses to tell me because apparently that’s against the rules.

What’s your favourite blog to read?

Forgiveness vs Acceptance — A Conversation with Dr Dad

Forgiveness vs Acceptance — A Conversation with Dr Dad

Me: I don’t know what write on my blog. Should I work on the one about forgiveness?

Dr Dad: What will you say about it?

Me: How forgiveness is essentially acceptance.

Dr Dad: No it’s not.

Me: Yes it is.

Dr Dad: No it’s not.

Me: Yes. It is.

Dr Dad: No it isn’t.

Me: It is. God you’re such a dick.

Dr Dad: No I’m not!

Me: I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said that.

Dr Dad: It’s okay I forgive you.

Me: I accept you as you are.


Me: See. They are the same.

Dr Dad: No! They’re not! They’re totally different.

Me: No. The scientific definition of forgiveness is different from how forgiveness is typically used. In practice, forgiveness means that you are forgiving someone for something they did. Science says, forgiveness is actually about you and how you react to something another person did. So you let your resentment go and don’t let it dictate your behaviour.

Dr Dad: So how does that make them the same?

Me: Well acceptance is also about you and how you react to things that happen, including how you react to something another person did. You let things go and don’t let it dictate your behaviour. You accept it’s happened.

Dr Dad: Acceptance is about fully experiencing things as they are, and that means you don’t need to let things go. What you then do about it is then a different process. But I can see how they’re similar.

Me: Yeah but it seems like acceptance is a massive part of the scientific definition of forgiveness. How can you stop negative emotions dictating your behaviour if you can’t accept those emotions? And if acceptance is part of the “forgiveness process” then how are forgiveness and acceptance different?

Dr Dad: I don’t know.

Me: Let’s google it.

Dr Dad: Okay.

Me: {Googling}

Okay, so I thought they were the same. But it looks like forgiveness is actually about trying to get rid of your negative emotions, and acceptance is about accepting those negative emotions.

Dr Dad: So I’m right.

Me: Maybe.

Me: It looks like the researchers think ruminating is the same as being unforgiving. But sometimes people ruminate because they’re upset and they might not necessarily be unforgiving but they are still hurt by it. You can accept something has happened and experience ruminative thoughts at the same time.

Dr Dad: Yeah. It’s a normal habit of the mind.

Me: So it seems like the researchers think that getting rid of negative emotions means you have forgiven people. And in acceptance, you accept the negative emotions and thoughts that arise as they are, without trying to get rid of them.

Dr Mum: {interjects} Forgiveness isn’t the same as acceptance. You can forgive but still harbour resentments. Say somebody killed your child in a car accident and you say I forgive you – it’s about compassion. It’s a whole different thing. It’s a step further on to acceptance. Forgiveness is having compassion for the other person because you can see they’re hurting and you want to make them understand that you don’t hold it against them. You can also dish out forgiveness when you sit on a high perch of arrogance.

Dr Dad: It can also be a form of behavioural and emotional avoidance because you find it too hard to deal with it, and it’s easier to just say “I forgive you”.

Me: So you can accept and not forgive, and forgive and not accept…I find this so confusing because when you look at the grammar, ‘I forgive you’ you can interpret it as ‘I am doing forgiving to or for you’ (i.e., forgiving you). But researchers say it’s not about the other person, but about yourself. Why would researchers define forgiveness differently from how it is often used? To me, forgiveness just sounds like an interpersonal form of acceptance…

Dr Dad: Their definition seems confused. There are aspects of acceptance and certain sets of behaviours. It doesn’t seem like a very well thought out concept. Often forgiveness is used as a way to say, you’ve done something wrong and I will graciously not punish you even though we both know that what you did is really bad. It implies some guilt or transgression on the other person’s part.

Me: Yeah so what happens when you are hurt because of your ideas about what happened, as opposed to what actually happened? In that case to forgive someone means you blame someone else for your emotions and reactions to what you thought happened, as opposed to what that person intended.

Dr Dad: Mmmhmm

Me: Even if you use forgiveness in the colloquial “I’m pardoning you” or the scientific “I’m making myself feel better and this has nothing to do with you” way, you’re placing blame on someone else. Maybe it’s deserved. But maybe it isn’t….

Dr Dad: Yes.

Me: …Which makes forgiveness acceptance with a superiority complex.

Dr Dad: So they’re not the same.

Me: Fuck.


Are you confused? I am. Forgiveness is confusing. Maybe it’s confusing to me because a grudge can keep me going for years.

Maybe it’s because the scientific definition seems a little…well…crap?

Maybe I just don’t understand the science well enough. 

Well. There’s only one thing for it. I’ll research it and get back to you.

How do you define forgiveness?

5 Unforgettable Memoirs That Can Make Grown Men Cry

5 Unforgettable Memoirs That Can Make Grown Men Cry

* None of the following books have been tested for their ability to make grown men cry.

There are books. And then there are books. You know, books that make you weep longer after the final page has turned. Books you read in a fervor, unable to do anything until you reach the final page. Books you think about repeatedly for years on end. Books you tell everyone to read because life just isn’t quite right otherwise.

I love reading memoirs. I think, probably, it’s my desire to understand human nature. I don’t think I’ve ever read a decent memoir that didn’t involve some kind of struggle. I’ve read about life with mental illnesses like anorexia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve read about life with physical illnesses like Parkinson’s, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I’ve read about being in jail, and working in jail. I’ve read about being a sexual predator, and about being sexually preyed upon. I’ve read about losing a mother, a husband, a child, oneself. I’ve read about marriage, and divorce. Love, and hate. Being held captive, and being set free.

There are only a handful of these books that have stayed with me for years. My favourite memoirs share two things: honesty and vulnerability. When you sit down with these books, you get to know the person who wrote them. Truly. They open up their foibles, their mistakes, the darkest places of themselves, and they lay it all on the table. For you to absorb, judge, reject, or love.

I’ve listed up five of the best memoirs I have ever read (and I have read a few). Don’t assume they have great writing. I remember they do, and some definitely do, but they’re included because of their emotional punch. The impression they left on me, often many years later.



by Ellen Flint

FlintImagine your brother. If you don’t have one, imagine a sister, or your best friend. Imagine one day you are with them, laughing, eating crackers, and watching your favourite TV show. Imagine the next day they get up and go off to work, and you never, ever see them again.

This is the topic of Ellen Flint’s memoir, Every Eighteen Minutes, so named because someone in Australia goes missing every eighteen minutes. In her memoir, Flint details the aftermath of her brother’s disappearance. The emotional impact. The constant believing he will turn up, harrassing random people on the street who look like him, and waiting, wondering, what happened.

After I read the final page, I googled Missing People in Australia. With a knot in my stomach, I scrolled through hundreds of photos of people who had gone missing. Some had gone recently. Some had been missing for as long as 30, even over 40 years. Women. Men. Children. It was a bizarre feeling, looking at the faces of people who vanished without a trace. Where did they go? Did they want a new life? Were they taken? Murdered? By whom? And how were they selected?

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: This book provides a rare insight into the pain that goes along with a tragedy you probably think will never happen to you.  It’s a heart wrenching story. As I read, I kept imagining there would be happy ending. That he’d just left for a while, needed some time to clear his head, get himself together, and would return. He doesn’t.



by Kathryn Soper

SonandIKathryn Soper is mormon. This is important because it forms the crux of her problem. She has a baby with Down Syndrome, and according to Mormon beliefs, having an intellectually disabled child is considered a gift from God. That’s right, only the awesome parents get the special kids. And that’s the problem, Soper doesn’t quite see it that way. Sure he’s special, but right then, when she’s just found out he has Down’s Syndrome, it feels more like a punishment than a gift.

Soper writes with amazing vulnerability. Asking herself why she feels so miserable and ungrateful when all her church friends are remarking on her marvelous gift from God. It’s kind of like when something terrible happens to you, and immediately, instead of allowing you to process, everyone jumps in and says POSITIVE THINKING, as if that will somehow change reality.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Beneath the heartbreak, Soper is writing a book about acceptance. And it’s kind of reassuring. Something bad happens, and yes, you are allowed to feel terrible about it, and you will work through it, in time. It’s also a gentle reminder that says, when something bad happens to someone, let them feel that, work through it, and find their own way through. Don’t shove positivity down their throat until they’re ready.



by Amanda Webster

applesWhen you think of someone with anorexia, what image comes to mind?

Here’s what my mind throws up: a neurotic, white female. What comes to Amanda Webster’s mind is: controlling, manipulative female. The problem with stereotypes is that they’re often wrong. A lesson Webster learned when her 11 year old son developed anorexia.

This book is not for the faint of heart. I read most of it in one afternoon, curled up in bed, sobbing hysterically. I didn’t think endless paragraphs about trying to get someone to drink a protein shake could be so enthralling, or so painful. Every time Richie had to drink a shake, every appointment he had with yet another doctor who wanted him in hospital, I was there in the room, a silent observer. Witnessing his terror of the rogue calorie. Witnessing his mother’s desperation. Almost every page was painful, and with startling clarity, it made me appreciate my mother so much, despite the fact I’ve never had anorexia.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: This is the best memoir about anorexia I’ve read (I’ve only read two, and the other one was written by a neurotic white girl). Read it to break down stereotypes. Read it to see anorexia in action. I dare you not to be frightened.



by Claire Dederer

PoserAt this point, you might be getting the impression that I enjoy reading about other people’s misery. You’re right. I do. But only because miserable books like this usually have some sort of uplifting message. It usually goes along the lines of, “hey, all this bad stuff happened, but I got through it in the end”. I like that kind of story. Which is why it was a little surprising that I enjoyed Poser so much. It’s not the most heart breaking story I’ve ever read, although if I’m honest, I cried while reading this one too (I’m so emotional these days). I suppose, that’s the sign of a good writer. Someone who can take a situation that you would say ‘oh that is sad’ and forget about, and make it provoke so much empathy in you that you cry even though no one is dying or being raped or whatever.

Claire Dederer is my new author crush (my previous obsession was Pierce Brown, simply because he is both extremely attractive and geeky all at the same time). She is the most hilarious writer I have ever read. She’s the kind of person whose life is a series of humorous events. Or, more likely, a series of mundane events that she has the gift of making seem outrageously funny. All that, plus yoga. What’s not to love?

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: This is the kind of book you’d take on a summer holiday. I read it when I was going through a reading slump. The kind of slump that had left me bereft with books for six months. Nothing was enjoyable. Reading was a chore. And then BOOM. Poser comes along a steal my heart. There’s no real lesson here, except: Sometimes it’s fun to just let loose and have a laugh.



The irony of forgetting the name of one of the most unforgettable memoirs I’ve ever read is not lost on me. I’ve included it here for two reasons: It was unforgettable, and I am hoping someone will recognize it let me know what it was called.

It was a memoir written by a man who was imprisoned for 17 years. He was some sort of political prisoner, and he, along with many others, were put into sunless cells, with only enough room to lie down. They lived in a desert. They were fed gruel once per day. They left their cells only a handful of times during their captivity. Many died.

My starkest memories of this book include a passage the author wrote about a fellow prisoner. The prisoner was constipated. The constipation was so bad he spent many an hour sharpening a stick he had found, or maybe it was a stone. He desperately inserted this up his anus to try and break up the blockage inside. Instead, he perforated a hole in his bowel, and was left there to die. They knew when he’d died, because of the smell.

This book, that I cannot remember the name of, has stuck with me for years. I remember it because I was horrified that people were treated this way, and that while I’m sitting in a cozy bed under a goose down duvet, there are people stuck in desserts being eaten alive by scorpions. That’s what I call a reality check.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: A man was eaten by scorpions. Isn’t that enough?

What’s the best memoir you’ve ever read?

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The Benefits of Gratitude — Scientific Fact or Marketing Myth?

The Benefits of Gratitude — Scientific Fact or Marketing Myth?

Gratitude is the self-help blogospheres favourite word. It’s a cure all. Depressed? Practice gratitude! Want to have more meaning in your life? Practice gratitude! Want to stop feeling numb and lifeless? Practice gratitude!

I once read an extremely crappy article about the habits of happy people. According to that article, happy people think of three things they are grateful for before they get out of the bed in the morning. Are you kidding me?

My gut tells me that the promotion of gratitude as a proven technique to increase happiness is off. I asked myself, how can such a minor thing make such a massive impact? What does science have to say about this?

Benefits of Gratitude

The science says this: Grateful people tend to be happier, have better relationships, less mental health issues, and are generally just more competent at living life than ungrateful assholes like me 1.

Keep in mind that the above description is based on correlational research. That means that we don’t know whether being grateful makes us happier, or whether being happy makes us more grateful 2.

Can practicing gratitude make you happier?

After a preliminary look at the research, I found the answer was yes, you can improve your level of happiness (and by that I mean positive emotions, and life satisfaction) by practicing gratitude.

I may not believe in it. I may think it’s a waste of time. I may be irritated every time I read an article about the awesomeness of gratitude. I may have privately ridiculed Rick Hanson when he said “I haven’t had a paralysing stroke yet today. Woohoo!” 3

The science said I was wrong. And even though trying to make myself happier goes against my philosophical, scientific, and spiritual beliefs, I was willing to give it a go. I decided to get on the gratitude bandwagon.

Roisin Does Gratitude

Here’s what I did.

First things first: I needed to know how to practice gratitude. In an effort to educate myself on such matters, I picked up The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. It’s all about positive psychology practices than can take you from being just normal-level happy to happy-happy. Great.

I took baseline questionnaires measuring happiness, and depression. At this point in my life (I did this a few months ago) I was running around the place telling people I was the happiest I’d ever been. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that I was actually slightly less happy than the average person. But, at least I wasn’t depressed.

Me before practicing gratitude

Me before practicing gratitude

For five weeks I practiced gratitude. Sonja said: don’t do it more than once a week because I found that if you do, it isn’t effective. And, she was all about mixing things up. So I did. Sometimes I wrote a list. Sometimes I thought about it in my head. Once or twice I wrote a card expressing my gratitude to someone.

After five weeks, my happiness decreased by 19%. I was irritable, had a lot of negative thoughts, and felt unappreciated and uncared for. And to top it all off, I was now less happy than the average person. I don’t know whether my depression score increased because I forgot to take retake the questionnaire. I guess I was just too preoccupied with everything I was ungrateful for.

Eeeeek. Well, that could have happened for any number of reasons.

So I stopped practicing gratitude for one month. I went about my business. I ate cake, spooned cats, and complained about my father.

My happiness score rose by 25%. I was now happier than I was when I began the experiment.

What happened?

First, let’s acknowledge that this isn’t definitive proof that gratitude poisoned my soul, and that not practicing gratitude made me happier.

But, there were a couple of things I noticed that suggest to me gratitude was responsible.

When I practiced gratitude, negative thoughts always intruded. Here’s an example from my first ever gratitude list, including the thoughts that popped up when I wrote it in brackets.

I am grateful for being able to walk for 45 minutes. It’s a real fucking pain having to walk for 45 minutes when you’re tired. 

I’m grateful I have a warm coat. That cost $300 – angry face. 

I’m grateful that I have someone to walk with. I’ve ruined my Mother’s life.

Jeez. You can see where this is going can’t you?

I even got into a verbal altercation with myself over one of the items on my list. I was like I’m so lucky to be able to take time out to recuperate when I’m unwell and then I had the thought I’m so dependent on other people. I fought back and wrote I’m so grateful I have people to depend on. There are people out there who don’t. I am so so lucky. But then I noticed that I didn’t actually feel lucky or grateful, I just felt anxious.

Every week, I thought or wrote down the same things. I couldn’t come up with anything new. And when I practiced gratitude in the real world, no one seemed to notice or care. This made me feel bad and I had all sorts of negative thoughts about my deficiencies as a human being.

I ended up feeling bad about myself, pissed off with my friends, and stressed about my situation.


Me after practicing gratitude

Me after practicing gratitude

Why Didn’t Gratitude Work?

Before I started the experiment. I was the happiest I’d ever been. During the experiment, I started to feel miserable, unappreciated, and stressed.


1. The Brain Works in Opposites

Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a behavioural theory of human language and cognition, says there are links in the brain between related concepts. These are called relational frames. You can’t have good without bad. You can’t have happy without sad. You can’t have life without death. And you can’t have grateful without ungrateful.

Relational Frame Theory suggests that when I bring to mind what I’m grateful for, all of the relevant relational frames will be activated. And one of those related frames is all those things which I am not grateful for.

2. Gratitude and the Three Selves

According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we can exist in three states of self: self as content, self as process, and self as context.


When we are in self as content, our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, memories and other internal experiences reflect who we are. Thoughts are not just thoughts, they are reality. Think “I’m useless” and you are useless. Feel sad, and you are a sad person. Here, thoughts and emotions drive behaviour. This is called a state of fusion, and often it’s not a psychologically healthy place to be.

When we are in self as process we’re able to recognise that we are having a thought, emotion, or memory, and we’re able to notice our evaluations of those experiences. This is a healthier place to be, because it unsticks what you think and feel from who you are, and allows space for behaviour to be driven by what’s important to you.

When we are in self as context, our thoughts, emotions etc, are just experiences. They do not define who we are. In self as context, we are simply  experiencing what is. This is distinct from self as process where you are noticing what you’re experiencing – here you are just experiencing. This is a more advanced form of defusion and mindfulness.

People who can move between the three selves in a way that allows them to live a life by doing what’s important to them have what’s called psychological flexibility. Higher psychological flexibility is associated with greater well-being and fewer mental health issues.


I’d been working hard at living my life in a state of defusion as much as possible. And it was definitely helpful. Knowing that I didn’t have to take on thoughts and emotions or my physical pain as part of my identity was empowering.

Practicing gratitude destroyed my ability to be psychologically flexible. When I practiced gratitude, painful relational frames were activated, and continually pushed me back into self as content where I became fused with my thoughts, emotions, memories. Once I got into self as content I found it hard to shift back out again. Who I was became no different from what I was experiencing.

When I was saying how grateful I was that I could walk for 45 minutes, I was also ungrateful that I could only walk for 45 minutes. Instead of that being an experience I have in a particular context, it became a limitation of who I am. And that limitation defined me.

Gratitude Is Not the Holy Grail of Happiness

My issues with gratitude raised some questions for me. Does everyone benefit from gratitude? Are there certain kinds of people who gratitude is harmful for? Surely I was not the only person in the world who struggled with it – I’m my own kind of special, but I’m not that special.

I did some digging, and I discovered that despite the rosy picture the media has painted of gratitude, the research isn’t as well developed as we’ve been led to believe.

1. Inadequate Comparison Groups

The media is quick to say that gratitude shows all improvements in happiness, physical health, and relationships. Yet the majority the research has used inappropriate control groups. For example, Emmons & McCulloch (2003) randomised participants into groups. Some wrote a list of three things they were grateful for, and some wrote a list of three hassles they’d had that day. Gratitude improved well-being.

From a study like this, we can’t be sure what is causing increased well-being in the gratitude group. Gratitude could be making people feel happier. Or gratitude could look like it’s making people happier because the people in the comparison group feel worse. Or it could be some combination of the two 4. What we do know is that writing about hassles has decreased well-being in at least one study.

Bottom line – to know whether gratitude is working, we need a control group that doesn’t reduce participants well-being.

2. Lack of research evidence

Gratitude research is still in it’s infancy.

We know that it probably works, but we don’t know why, or how, or when it’s most and least effective. That’s why no one is talking about when not to use gratitude. We simply don’t know much about it yet.

It turns out that there is some evidence to suggest gratitude practice is ineffective, or can be harmful for some people. For example, people with a depressive personality style characterised by fear of rejection, abandonment, and interpersonal concerns feel worse when they practice gratitude.

In another study, mildly depressed university students report reduced well-being after immediately after practicing gratitude. And unless they believed gratitude would make them feel better, they continued to get worse. 5

It’s Not All Bad

In saying all this, it’s important I point out that the most recent study I could find on gratitude had thought about all these issues. The authors acknowledged the limitations of previous research and they found out that yes, gratitude does improve well-being when using a decent control group. And yes, there is something special about gratitude over and above just writing about about positive events. So it does work, and apparently the benefits keep on improving up to five weeks later.

Should You Practice Gratitude?

I don’t believe in trying to make yourself feel happier. I believe in experiencing everything that you are experiencing, and doing your best to live a meaningful life.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t practice gratitude. If it works for you, and your happy with it. Then keep on doing it.

But when my Dad said to me, “you laugh a lot more when you’re not practicing gratitude” I took that as a sign it wasn’t right for me.

Have you tried practicing gratitude?

Did it work for you? 

Image credits go to Dollar Photo Club.


  1. For a full list of references used in the making of this article, go here.
  2. A correlation between gratitude and happiness tells us these two variables are related but we don’t know which one is causing the other.
  3. Rick Hanson is quoted as saying this in The New Science of Happiness – an article in North & South Magazine February 2015.
  4. Watkins et al., (2015) talk about this issue in their study. They go so far as to say there is possibly only one study that actually uses a decent control group (Seligman et al., 2005). One decent study does not mean we should roll out gratitude interventions on an international scale.
  5. If participants thought gratitude would make them feel better, they eventually improved. P-p-placebo anyone?
How to Change Your Life

How to Change Your Life

This is final article from the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Seriesa five-part series about living a meaningful life.

Everybody wants to be happy, but nobody wants to change.

This is a phrase my Dad has said to me many times. I agree. Mostly because I often want things to be different and I’d really like it to happen while I lie in bed and watch the latest episode of Outlander.

There are hoards of unhappy people on the internet, reading inspirational quotes and fluffy blog posts about being grateful, and looking at pictures of sunsets, and leaves, and water droplets. Reading about ways to feel better makes us feel as though we are doing something to improve our lives.

But nothing will change your life until you change your behaviour.

There are all sorts of ideas about how to go about changing behaviour. Some people believe we need to change our thoughts or our emotions before we can change our lives, but I say, why waste time fighting with the middle man? Why not just jump straight into actually doing something meaningful?

Today’s activity is simple because it’s generally pretty easy to come up with ideas about how to instigate change. The hard part is executing change.

If you haven’t already, you might quite like to go back and do some of the previous exercises in this series. If you’re all about the bare minimum you can safely get away with only completing parts III and IV.



Looking at your list from Part IV where you measured your success, in which areas of your life are you least successful?

Which areas show the biggest discrepancy between importance and consistency? Choose one area.


What are your most important values in that area? If you’ve been following along, you will have written this down during Part III.


Make a list of things you could do that would be consistent with your values in that area. Go crazy with this. List anything that comes to mind, no matter how reasonable or unreasonable it may seem.


Spend 5 minutes writing down the details of how you will go about living this value today, tomorrow, this week, and especially for situations where you think it will be particularly challenging to live the value.

Writing this plan is a goal-setting exercise. When you do this, don’t make a dead person’s goal. A dead-person’s goal is one that a dead person can do better than you. So for me, I don’t want to eat as many cakes as I have been. But if I make a goal to not eat cakes, a dead person can always do that better than me because they are dead and there are no cakes six feet under ground. A better goal for me is to make a goal of having one cake as a treat this week.

Oh, and make sure it’s achievable.


Nike chose their slogan for a reason. You can waste time with all manner of things to prepare yourself to make a change. When it comes down to it, change won’t happen unless you take action. If you’ve done the exercise above, I think you’re suitably prepared. Now it’s up to you to do something about it.

Lately (and by lately I mean for the past seven months), I’ve not been taking very good care of my health nutrition-wise. I keep eating cake.

And gingernut biscuits.

And fries.

And Whittaker’s Peanut Butter Chocolate.

It’s become an issue, and not just because I’ve gained 6kg. It’s just not healthy, and I’m in a danger zone in terms of my age. Everyone I’ve talked to says: when you hit age 27, things change, and you start piling on the fat in places that you never knew fat could go. One minute you’re a size 8, and 365 days of cake later you’re a walking health risk. That’s not a place I want to go.

I’ve spent some time working through this exercise. You can view my answers here. I’ll let you know how I get on over the next two weeks.

What’s your plan?

Image credits go to Dollar Photo Club.


  1. This exercise was inspired by The Art and Science of Valuing in Psychotherapy by Joanne Dahl, Jennifer Plumb, Ian Steward and Tobias Lundgren.
The Secret to Success: Follow your yellow brick road part IV

The Secret to Success: Follow your yellow brick road part IV

This article is part the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series a five-part series about living a meaningful life.

There are certain things society expects us to do.

Get a respectable job.

Fall in love.

Get married (and never, ever get divorced).

Make money.

Buy a house.

Have kids.

Work hard. 

We might not be told we have to do these things, but it’s implied – by magazines filled with rich, thin, successful people with really good hair. By the disdain expressed for people on welfare. The awkwardness when someone is fat, or depressed, or poor. Even the standard design of the modern house is set up for married people with kids.1

We’ll I’m sorry society. I don’t fit your criteria. When everyone else is at work on Tuesday, I’ll be growing out my beard and taking a nap on my parents couch.

Couch Potato Snoring

I take issue with the conventional definition of success, and not just because I don’t meet the criteria. My problem lies in the fact all conventional indicators of success are goals. I love goals like I love lemon meringue pie, but if you measure how well you are doing in life by the things you have as opposed to who you are, then you’ve got yourself some weird priorities.

Achieving a goal requires two things: action, and luck. You can set out the best of intentions, plan it all out and work your butt off. But achieving some goals, particularly those related to money, love, and career, always come down to a certain level of chance.

My goals for my life, as written down by me five years ago, included being a qualified clinical psychologist by age 28. Circumstance came along and said, fuck your plans Roisin, this is how it’s going to be, and there is nothing you can do about it.

But who cares?

I don’t want to live by a definition of success that requires a giant portion of luck. I want to live by a definition of success that is dependent solely on things within my control.

And the one thing we can control is our behaviour.

You can’t control whether you get that job, or whether you fall in love, get sick, lose a limb, lose all your savings, or have a mental breakdown. But you can choose how to respond to whatever happens to you. And the ability to be yourself and do what is important to you, especially when faced with adversity, is what I call success.

Who you are is of fundamental importance. Are you being your authentic self? Are you spending your time doing what’s important to you?

The Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series is all about finding out who you are, what you want out of your life and how you want to conduct yourself. Today is about asking yourself, well what actually is most important to me? And am I living my life in a way consistent with that?

The best news is you don’t need to have completed the previous activities to do this one, and it only takes about 10 minutes.2


Below are some broad life domains that people usually find important.

For each of the life domains below, write down how important each area is to you using a scale of 0 (not at all important) to 10 (extremely important).

  • Work

  • Community (this could be your wider community, or a group you below to)

  • Family

  • Intimate relationships

  • Parenting

  • Spirituality/religion/Personal growth

  • Education

  • Fun & Leisure

  • Health

  • Friendships

If there’s another area of your life not covered by this list, feel free to add it.

Don’t rank or order them. You might have more than one thing that you rate as a 10. You might have some 0s. And remember, this is about how important each area of your life actually is to you, not how important you think it should be.


How well have you done what matters to you in the past two weeks?

Taking it one life domain at a time, rate how consistently you have lived in line with your values in that area. Are you living your life in a way that reflects how important that area of your life is to you?

Rate it on a scale of 0 (not at all consistent) to 10 (extremely consistent).

Remember this isn’t about how successful you actually have been, not how successful you want to be.

And don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes when I do this, I’m like “oh, I didn’t do everything perfectly, so I’m a total failure” and I write down a 3 for consistency. When in reality, I did lots of little things that are important. Count the small things, especially the small things you do regularly.

Is there a discrepancy between your ratings of importance and consistency?

If so, congratulations! You are a normal human being.

If you don’t have a discrepancy, you are either an extremely effective human, or you’re kidding yourself (and it’s probably the latter).

We get discrepancies because sometimes we lose sight of how important something is to us, or other people’s ideas of what should be important influence our behavior, or we’re too scared to do what we really want, or we focus all our efforts on one area but neglect others.

The reality is, you’re never going to get a perfect rating in every area of your life, all the time. Perfection is not even the point. The point is to be yourself and focus your efforts on doing what is important to you, as consistently as you can. There’s no time to frantically run around trying to be perfect. Life is too complex, too demanding, and filled with way too many surprises.

 If you’ve got a discrepancy in some areas, I hope you feel inspired to make some changes. But you might feel like shit about it, and that’s okay. Just work on it. That’s all you can do.

Which areas are you most successful in?

Which area needs the most attention?

Image credits go to Dollar Photo Club.


  1. I read this interesting article in the New York Times about single people who are joining forces by living in the same area, and eating meals and stuff together. The author made the point that houses have been designed for families since the 19th century. But alternative designs might be better for groups of people who are single but who also want companionship.
  2. The following activities are based on values exercises as used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a therapeutic developed by Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl, and Kelly Wilson.
The Slightly Awkward Third Part of the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series

The Slightly Awkward Third Part of the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series

This article is part the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series a five-part series about living a meaningful life.

Well, here we are in Part III of the Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series.

I don’t have that much to say today, so let’s just get on with it huh?


Today we’re talking about ‘life domains’. It’s a weird term, one that I’m not that fond of, but I couldn’t come up with anything hilarious, or Wizard of Oz related that actually made any sense.

Life domains are different aspects of our lives. Here’s a list of life domains people tend to find important:

  • Work

  • Community (this could be your wider community, or a group you below to)

  • Family

  • Intimate relationships

  • Parenting

  • Spirituality/religion/Personal growth

  • Education

  • Fun & Leisure

  • Health

  • Friendships

If there’s another area of your life not covered by this list, feel free to add it.

Using the list of values you came up with in Part II, go through each life domain above, and list 2-3 values most relevant to you in each area. Feel free to add any other values that come up for you.

Some of the values you came up with in Part II will apply to all areas of your life, and some will only be important to you in certain areas. Exploring your sexuality might be important to you in intimate relationships. But this probably not going to be the top of you list at work. Unless you’re Miley Cyrus.


And we’re done.

Now you know which areas of your life are most important, and which specific actions you can take to do what matters in each area.

This is important because so often we live our lives doing things that are not important to us. Like this morning, when I sat around twiddling my thumbs and complaining about how tired I was…instead of practicing yoga.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to measure your success in life, and not in the how-much-money-do-I-earn and how-big-is-are-my-biceps kind of way.

Which of your values seems to show up as important in different areas of your life?

Image Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg CC License 2.0

How to Fuel Yourself with Low GI Happiness: Following your yellow brick road part II

How to Fuel Yourself with Low GI Happiness: Following your yellow brick road part II

This article is part the How To Follow Your Yellow Brick Road Series a five-part series about living a meaningful life. Read Part I.


Conventional self-help is mostly a bunch of generic bullshit with questionable scientific credibility.

At least half of the time, the tasks on internet happiness-lists give you what a friend of mine calls low glycemic index (GI) happiness. I read a list recently that advised making small talk with strangers.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy startling unsuspecting strangers with my delightful jokes. But you’ve got to be careful. Say a friendly hello at the local rehab pool, and all of a sudden you’re privy to the entire medical history of someone you only just met (no, I do not want to know about your hemorrhoids).

Basically, you are unique, and the internet cannot decide for you what will make your life worth living.

The only person who knows that is you.


If you did the exercise in Part I, you’ll have a general idea of what’s important to you.

General is good, but specific is better.

Today, you’ll be generating a list of specific values. You can use these to make up your own personalised “happiness” list. I’ve put bunny ears around happiness because the list you’re going to write today isn’t about making a goal to be happy, it’s about figuring out what is important to you.


Well-being comes in different forms 1. You can do things that give you high GI happiness or low GI happiness. Eating a piece of cake, taking drugs, and buying a new pair of pants give you high GI happiness. You get a big boost but it runs out pretty quick. To get those levels up again, you’ve got to eat more cake, take more drugs, and buy more pants.

Doing things that you value gives you low GI happiness. You might not feel happy, but living your values slowly fills up your well-being basket, keeping you satisfied for longer.

Basically, values are just like Kale.

Kale cabbage. Healthy diet and nutrition background.

WHAT DO YOU VALUE? (20 minutes)

In Part I you wrote down what you wanted people to remember you for.

There’s bound to be a bunch of stuff you’ve written that falls into one of two categories. It’s either a goal (something you can achieve), or a value (something you can do).

We want to focus on values.

Values are qualities or behaviours that you use to direct your behaviour 2.

You know when people say “when you’re going through hell, keep going”?

Well when I’m going through hell I  get disorientated and start wandering around aimlessly. I also tend to gravitate toward quick fix, high GI happiness things. Like potato chips, and playing The Sims.

Luckily, I’ve got a list of values to keep me moving in my desired direction. At the same time, doing what matters generates low GI happiness, giving me the energy to keep on moving.


Values are things you do. And they are chosen, by you, because they are important to you.

Values aren’t rules. You can’t achieve them. You can’t possess them. They aren’t about what you think you should do, or what your parents think you should do, or what God thinks you should do.

Values are what you want to do, and how you want to behave.

If you would do it even if no one knew about it, then that’s a value.

For example, I value creativity. I worked on this blog for about 18 months before I published anything. Every time I did something related to the blog, I was fuelling myself with low GI happiness. No one read it, no one knew about it, I just did it because I enjoyed it.

Go through your writing and highlight anything that represents a value.

That might be things like being supportive, adventurous, open-minded, learning, perseverance, self-development, loving, honest, being a hard worker. Or it could be something else.

If you’ve written down things like being rich, being thin, owning a big house, having a successful businessthose are goals.

Goals are great, but we want to figure out what values drive those goals. What would accomplishing those goals mean you could do?

For example, if you want to be thin, why do you want to be thin? Is it because your health would be better?

Here’s a handy-dandy list of values. Check it out if you get stuck (starts on page 3)3.

Write out all your values in a big list.

That list you just wrote? That’s your menu. It represents things you can do that will give you low GI happiness.

I get low GI happiness from being creative, kind, connecting with others, learning, helping other people, and from challenging myself.

What gives you low GI happiness?

As always, if you like this post, please share it using the buttons below.


There are three more articles in this series. Sign up to get them delivered to you as soon as they’re published.

Send me those articles!  

Image Credit: So don’t steal them or you might get sued!


  1. My amazing friend Hilary is responsible for this analogy.
  2. You can read more about values in The Happiness Trap, or ACT Made Simple.Both are easy to read, and written by the ultra hilarious Russ Harris.
  3. This handout was developed by Russ Harris to accompany his book The Confidence Gap. If you get stuck, open it up, and scroll down to page 3.
How to Find Your Purpose in Life in Less than 20 Minutes: Following your yellow brick road part I

How to Find Your Purpose in Life in Less than 20 Minutes: Following your yellow brick road part I

In my last article, I banged on about how pursuing happiness is a terrible idea.

I implied that pursuing happiness was making you a moron. And then I failed to let you know what you could do instead.

So what do you do?

Nothing. You’ve just gotta suck it up and feel bad.

Just kidding.

Well… I’m not entirely kidding. Life does suck sometimes, and there’s not much you can do about that.

But there is something you can do that can help guide you through the rough times.

I call it following your yellow brick road (Yes! Finally! We’ve reached that moment where you find out the meaning behind the name of the blog).

Originally, this was a massive article. But then I thought ‘this is ridiculous, even I wouldn’t do this’. So, I’ll be releasing this as a series. I’ll publish five articles over the course of two glorious weeks. Starting right now.


This series is about connecting with who you are, and what’s important to you so you can use this information to live a more meaningful life. Sounds airy-fairy, but it’s not, I promise1.

Do you want to be yourself and do what matters? Sign up to my email newsletter to get all articles in this series delivered to your inbox as soon as they are published (and then my regular articles weekly after that).

Send me those articles!  

You can also join me on Facebook and Twitter.


This is what happens: Dorothy runs away from home because the shit has hit the fan and her dog is going to be murdered.

When she realises her family is the most important thing to her, she heads back home, only to be caught in some sort of windy event that I don’t know the name of (The book says it’s a cyclone but I’m not convinced).

Somehow, her house gets lifted off the ground, flies through the air and ends up in The Land of Oz.

Midgets live there, they sing songs, and are scared of green witches. Dorothy isn’t exactly happy about it and wants to find her way back to what matters most to her – Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and the three random men that work on the farm.

So Glinda, the good witch, gives her some sparkly red shoes and tells her to find her way to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard of Oz for help.

Like me when I’m trying to figure out how to get dressed in the morning, Dorothy has no idea how to begin and asks Glinda for advice.

Glinda replies with the best advice you will ever get on doing anything important—


Dorothy did everything she could to find her way back to what was most important to her, in spite of all the obstacles, simply by following the yellow brick road one step at a time.

Your yellow brick road represents your values. When you follow your yellow brick road, you are living a life guided by what is most important and meaningful for you. And when you do that, you can’t go wrong.


You’ll need to record your answers. Get a pen and paper, open a word document, or record yourself talking – whatever works for you.

WARNING: In the following exercise you’re going to do imagine you’re dead. So if that’s a problem for you, you might want to skip it. If not, hunker down, read the instructions below, and let’s get started


Imagine you’re dead. Imagine you were really, really old when you died. You’ve lived an amazing life. Done all the things you’d ever dreamed of. You had that huge family you always wanted, an amazing career, fabulous friends. Whatever it is that you wanted out of life, imagine that it happened.

And here you are, hanging out at your funeral, watching what happens. No one knows you’re there, but you are and you’re pretty keen to hear what everyone had to say about you.

Now get some people up to talk. This is imaginary. So don’t worry about what people would say about you. Have them say what you want them to say.

What kinds of qualities did you have?

How did you make other people feel?

What kinds of things did you do with your time?

What was important to you in your life?

(You don’t have to answer these exact questions, just use them as a guide)

Run through these questions with a few different people who are important to you – maybe your partner, a friend, a boss, a colleague, a child. If someone important to you has died, has not been born yet, or isn’t in your life (e.g., a future husband), you can still write down what you want those people to say about you when you die.

Write for as long as you need. Don’t stop and critique yourself, just let it flow.


Your purpose in life is to be yourself, and do what matters most to you. Whatever you’ve written reflects who you want to be and what matters most to you.

When I first did this exercise, I was doing things that weren’t important to me.  At that time, I wasn’t the kind of person I wanted to be, at least, not in practice. I spent a lot of time partying, and almost no time studying. Deep down, my health was really important to me, and having a lot of fun every single day was definitely not as important to me as getting good grades at university. I wanted people to remember me for my good work ethic, and my ability to persevere in difficult situations. I didn’t want people to remember me as that drunk girl who got naked and threw up in a shower.

Throughout the series, you’ll do brief activities exercises that will get specific about what brings meaning and purpose to your life, and how to to put what you’ve learnt into practice.

Keep whatever you’ve written. You’ll need it for Part II.

What did people say about you?

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  1. This exercise and others to come in this series are taken from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. A therapeutic approach developed by Steven Hayes, Kirk Strosahl, Kelly Wilson, and Rob Zettle who are seriously amazing psychologists. I highly recommend setting up a shrine to them in your bedroom. Or you could just buy this book