Your love keeps lifting me higher

“When I sing, I am taken out of the mundane world into another place – and it is always a pleasure to return to that place.”

– Michael Bourke (from a case-study in ‘Flourishing’ by Maureen Gaffney)

One of my absolute favourite things to do is sing: I sing when I cook; I sing in the shower; I sing in front of my computer screen at work. I love it.

I was an active singer at school, being part of the school choir and occasionally singing my own songs for music class. If I felt inadequate in other areas of my life or even in music (I always felt a bit rubbish at playing the piano, for example), I knew that I could sing.

During most of my twenties, I did far less singing. I never properly found an outside opportunity to sing. I thought that choral choirs were too stuffy, serious and much better suited to an older generation. What I wanted was a choir that did traditional and modern pieces. I wanted a full range (or near enough to it).

But it wasn’t solely that I found it hard to find a suitable, easy-to-get-to choir in London, I also felt like I could not spend the time being part of one. My working hours were split between work and studying, my free time was spent commuting or preparing for classes. As I have written previously on this blog, London living was hard, and I did not have enough energy to expend it on something I really loved doing.

What a mistake that was! What I have learnt about passion is that I should never forgo, suppress or give up on what gives me great joy in life. I believe that part of the reason why I felt so unhappy at times living in London was because I wasn’t in a choir. And science has shown that singing in a choir is one possible secret to happiness. The author Stacy Horn does a brilliant job of describing the wonderful effects and release singing in a choir has on your brain, body and well-being. She says that it doesn’t matter if you can’t sing well as long as you can carry a tune, which according to the BAFTA and Emmy award winning choirmaster Gareth Malone, anyone can.

Since moving to Brussels, my return to choir-dom has been gradual, first in a choral group at work to now in a choir at one of the music schools in the heart of Brussels. My choir is a mix of students and non-students, young and old(er), Belgian and other nationalities. We sing a range of music, from Bach to the Beatles. Our choir director is charismatic, vivacious, motivational and not to mention funny. The rehearsals are filled with laughter and energy. It is my dream choir.

When I sing in the choir, I experience flow. ‘Flow’ is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of deep engagement in an activity, in other words, losing yourself in what you are doing. The psychologist Maureen Gaffney describes in her book ‘Flourishing’ that when someone is in flow, their mind is “completely and effortlessly focused on the next move. The experience is poised at the sweet spot between conscious (but not effortful) concentration and being on automatic”.

“Singing reflects the innermost of your soul,” my Dad said to me most recently. In fact, his words provided me with inspiration for this week’s post. Gareth Malone says that the choir is an expression of something that is deeply personal and that is deeply human. When I sing, I often reach a state of ecstasy: my mind is empty; I am wholly and completely lost in the moment; my sense of time has altered. I feel like my true self has come out to shine. In the choir, I sense that I am part of something bigger than myself. We breathe together, we work together, we play together, our hearts may even beat in synchrony. It is said that singing in a choir is likened to a spiritual experience. Amen to that.

I may have convinced you to join a choir. But even if singing is not for you, here is my hope for you: that whatever interest, hobby or work that reflects the innermost of your soul; that lifts you higher and higher (as the song goes) – you keep doing it.*

*Lawfully and the “highs” are natural, of course.

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January

A year from now, you’re gonna weigh more or less than what you do right now.”

– Dr Phil

For the last seven years or so, I have written in my journal on New Year’s day, or as close to it as possible. I start this ritual by reading what I wrote on the previous New Year’s day. I then take stock of what has happened over the past year and compare it to the previous year. In my journal I reflect on this process and I then make resolutions for the New Year. Except for last year; that journal entry ended up being some irrational rant about the trials and tribulations of romantic love – the subject for a future blog post.

So I actually did no stock-taking, no comparing and no resolution-listing. I began 2013 with no expectations of the coming year.

Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Because I made no resolutions, I had no demands or targets to meet. I put no pressure on myself to be a better person, to be more loving and charitable, to strive in my career or even to be in a relationship. I did not reminisce about happier times or ruminate about regrets, which is something I would often do in my stock-taking – comparing – listing ritual. The first of January 2013 was very much another ordinary day.

The F**k It philosophy talks about how plans and goals can be troublesome. One reason for this is that they can keep you too rigid and inflexible, and – to an extreme – chained to something which instead of bringing you satisfaction, may end up bringing you the opposite. In her book ‘Flourishing’, clinical and academic psychologist Maureen Gaffney states that a key element to living a flourishing life – that is a life that has meaning, that brings out our best selves, that makes us happy and positive – is to have three life projects, preferably one that relates to work, the other to family or friends and the remainder to a personal interest. A life project is bigger than a mere goal, it has to be something that fits with our values and emotions, and is something that we freely choose to do, rather than it being an obligation. Gaffney advises that life projects do not need to be big, noble nor public.

In order to choose a life project, Gaffney sets out the following criteria:
– It must be freely chosen;
– It must have meaning to us;
– We must believe that it is achievable;
– We must set goals in relation to it;
– We must dedicate enough time and effort to achieve these goals;
– We must have adequate resources to pursue it (like commitment and drive);
– There must be a reasonable chance that we can achieve the goals in the specified time.

Last New Year’s day, I made no goals, not to mention life projects. And what resulted was a year where I achieved many things, some of which I have spoken about on this blog. I began reading Gaffney’s book a year ago and was extremely put off by the idea of having life projects. I much preferred the F**k It philosophy, it seemed to work for me.

I returned to ‘Flourishing’ again during this Christmas. I was less daunted by the thought of having life projects, probably because I had already started some unwittingly: writing this blog is a life project for instance. Another life project was my decision to eat more healthily and lose weight, thus prompting me into learning how to cook well.

To me, the F**k It philosophy and ‘Flourishing’ are not mutually exclusive. I think it’s important to leave space to be flexible and open to new ideas, as ideas of life projects may not come to mind straight away and neither should they be forced. I guess however the two can be contrary to one another – having a life project is about having a sense of control whereas the F**k it philosophy is about giving up control and going with the flow.

In the end, we must work out the best way to provide meaning in our lives. And I think that if we do set ourselves goals or projects or resolutions we must do so from a healthy starting point. Giving up chocolate or signing up to the gym because of guilt or feeling bad about ourselves should never be the driving force for achieving any of the above. This is because the motivation is focussed on the negative, rather than the positive. We are doing things out of punishment, not love. And because of this, the likelihood of us accomplishing our goals, resolutions, targets or projects are small, hence making us feel worse about ourselves.

Resolutions don’t have to start this week just because it’s the New Year. They can start whenever it feels like a good idea. Or like me last year, you don’t have to have any and you can just see where each day takes you. If there are things that you would like to do or achieve towards the good life, I encourage you to go for it! But go easy on yourself, take your time, leave lots of space and listen to yourself.

I wish you a wonderful start to 2014.

Living room letters: office gossip

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I have my first Living room letter! Depending on how often I get letters, I will try to respond to them on my blog. Before I begin giving my thoughts on this week’s letter, I just want to put out a few disclaimers. I’m not a counsellor nor a psychologist so I can only give suggestions or my take on things. If you need expert advice, go seek it! I accept no responsibility for your decisions or actions on the back of my advice. It is your life and my wish is that you live it in the most informed and best way you can. Now, onwards to my first letter!

Dear Gemma,

Lately I have been reading up a lot about the subject of office gossip. I have discovered that gossiping is in the end a part of social behaviour which we all engage in more or less. But, what do you do when such gossip is damaging your reputation and even your future because you are the subject of mean and untrue observations? What do you do when you cannot approach the person who is spreading these untruths nor talk to those people that are hearing this gossip and tell them that it is untrue?

– NIMB

Dear NIMB,

First of all, thank you for writing in and congratulations on being the first Living room letter! I am honoured that you chose to write to me.

Your letter encouraged me to research what gossip is. We tend to think of gossip as harmful and negative talk spread between small groups of people about someone in particular, whether in the office or outside of it. However, as you say, it is part of social behaviour. Thanks to evolution, gossiping forms an essential part of who we are.

The word gossip originates from the Old English word godsibb. Godsibb referred to the godparents of a child or peers similar to godparents to whom one was particularly close. The term then evolved from a person who enjoys idle chat (normally a woman) to the actual topic of conversations, which is what we mostly use the term for today.

Gossip evolved as a result of language. According to research, before we could communicate through language, we tended to do so via one-to-one grooming (tending to, caring for or touching one another). We would form groups to protect ourselves against predators. As the risk from predators rose, the groups would start to expand. Since communication through grooming was becoming inadequate as this took a lot more time and could only be done one-by-one, language started to develop. As groups got bigger, people would have to figure out who to trust and who not to; who was a better mate or hunter-gatherer. Consequently, those who had an interest in the lives of others had an advantage. They were the ones who survived and thus “gossip” survived with them.

Gossip is seen to have positive functions. It can be a useful and powerful way to transmit information about rules and social norms. It can curb the free-rider problem: it makes people more aware of others who are exploiting our good nature for their selfish gains. It allows us to avoid mistakes or uncalculated risks, knowing the unpleasant consequences that have fallen on those who have made them. Thus gossip can help us navigate better our own lives.

So far, gossip doesn’t sound too bad and it has been argued by the psychologist Robin Dunbar that it is an intrinsic part of human nature (as a result of natural selection), and that our societies would not be as sophisticated as they are, nor would they be able to function as well, without it.

But what actually is gossip? In the broad sense of the word, it is conversation about social and personal topics. But our contemporary understanding of gossip tends to have negative undertones. It is harmful for the person who is at the centre of the gossip and it is done with self-interest of the gossiper. One such definition of gossip states: “Gossip tends to be talk that gains attention for the speaker. The speaker will often adopt a confidential tone and is using the information about somebody else to be the center of attention and will impart the details in a way that tries to undermine the credibility or likability of another person. The details may be given with moralizing undertones and character assassination may be the top of the gossiper’s agenda. Often you are told more personal details than you care to know about. The motivations behind gossip include attention-seeking, self-inflation, exaggeration and a me-versus-them mentality;”.

Before I give my thoughts on your letter, I want to lay down a few findings about gossip, which you may find useful or helpful. First, that the emotional response of the person who hears the gossip relates little to how the person views the target of the gossip. How strongly the person reacts to the gossip is more to do with how much it resonates with them as a useful life-lesson. Secondly, people tend to be interested in gossip concerning those that are of the same (or higher) social status, age and gender as them. Women in particular are more obsessed with gossip about other females than men are about other males. Thirdly, people tend to prefer hearing about the misfortunes of their peers rather than of their fortunes (although this differed if it concerned family and friends). Finally, people that engage in gossip regularly are seen as having less social power and are less liked.

Having considered all of the above, if I was in your shoes, the first question I would ask myself is, “Is it worth confronting the person that is telling these rumours and the people who believe them?” To unpack this question a bit more, I would also ask myself, “Will anyone remember this gossip in a year’s time?”

I do not know what the gossip about you is but it sounds serious if you say that it is damaging your reputation and possibly your future. Saying that, I think it is important to take a step back and really think about the consequences of confronting the gossiper and the believers of the gossip. What are you hoping will be achieved by confronting them? And will such confrontation realistically achieve it?

Since evidence shows that a regular gossiper is not really liked, I would also consider what type of person the gossiper is. If they regularly engage in gossip, then chances are that people don’t take them seriously and merely pay them lip service. On the other hand, if the gossiper is actually someone who is well-regarded then I think it would be possible to speak with them in a non-aggressive and clear manner about how these rumours are making your professional life uncomfortable. If the gossiper is of good standing then I assume that they would welcome the rectification. I wonder however whether such a person would engage in malicious gossip in the first place.

If I was going to confront the gossiper or the believers, I would have to be certain that they are the right people to confront in addition to being certain as to what actually was being said. If I got these wrong, it may make matters much worse.

For workplace advice, I regularly turn to the Guardian’s Dear Jeremy. In one such scenario, a cruel joke at work was made about the letter-writer. The writer wondered whether it was best to make a formal complaint. Jeremy advised, “The thing to hang on to, I suspect, is that stories of this kind – like most things in life – do, over time, naturally decay. As children probably still say dismissively, “That’s stale buns”. If left alone, unrefreshed, rumour and malicious gossip gradually lose their ability to capture anybody’s interest and attention. So your guiding principle should be: do everything you can to avoid giving new legs to an ageing lie.

By confronting such gossip, one may run the risk of adding fuel to the fire, causing others to believe that there is some truth to it. Whilst it is hard to say nothing at all and hurtful to endure, it is even harder for the gossip to sustain its momentum, or for anyone to discern to any extent what is fact from what is fiction.

If you do feel that this is something worth confronting others about then here are some possible tips on how best to do it. Whatever you decide to do, please make sure that you are fully informed of your decision and of the ensuing consequences.

I hope that my take on things has assisted you in some way. I wish you the very best of luck whatever you choose to do. On a lighter note, imagine working in an environment which banned office gossip altogether, as one workplace did.

Best wishes,

Gemma