How mindfulness helped a bunch of chronically anxious worriers – including me

Time magazine recently ran an article with the headline ‘how mindfulness helps you handle stress better’. So what you ask? Sounds like every second story spruiking mindfulness as a wonder cure these days, right?

Except that the article is about research done by someone who wanted to cut the crap and find out if mindfulness really does work. Or not.

At a personal level this article is it spoke to me – the writer of the story you are reading – deeply because it looked at the effects of mindfulness on a mental health problem I have suffered all my life, which at times overwhelmed me.
First, to Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “There’s been some real skepticism in the medical community about meditation and mindfulness meditation,” she said.
According to Time, Hoges he and her team wanted to deduce if people just felt better after meditating, or if doing meditating caused measurable changes in the body’s markers of stress. So they ran people through a stress test that would give anyone rubber legs: “eight minutes of public speaking, followed by a round of videotaped mental math in front of an audience of people in white lab coats with clipboards.”

Then they made them do the stress test again, just to be sure.
But first they split the group into two. Half underwent mindfulness training (including breath awareness, body scan meditations and gentle yoga) and the other half did a stress management education course (including lectures on diet, exercise, sleep and time management). Both groups did eight weeks training with the same amount of class time and homework.

The group that did the mindfulness training reported feeling less stressed, but blood tests showed they had lower levels of stress hormone ACTH. The meditation group also may have been strengthening their immune systems via lower “pro-inflammatory cytokines”, alien-sounding molecules linked to depression and other neurological conditions.

On the second run of the stress test the meditation group outperformed the stress-management group by even greater margins.

“We have objective measures in the blood that they did better in a provoked situation,” says Hoge. “It really is strong evidence that mindfulness meditation not only makes them feel better, but helps them be more resilient to stress.”
Now back to me – the writer of this article – if you don’t mind.

After the death of my mother and redundancy from a 20 year career as a journalist I spent time receiving treatment for depression. To my confusion I left with a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder.
I felt dismayed and worried. How I felt was: ‘what on earth am I supposed to do with this?’

Generalised anxiety disorder, according to Way Ahead – Mental Health Association NSW, is “intense anxiety and worry about a variety of events and issues (for example, work, health, family), and the worry is out of proportion to the situation… [sufferers get] restless, easily tired, difficulty concentrating, easily annoyed, muscle tension, and/or difficulty sleeping. While many people worry about things from time to time, people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder experience worry a large proportion of the time and it interrupts their lives. ”

Tick, tick, tick. It’s hard to admit, but this is me.

My beautiful late mother, Rosemary, may she rest in peace, worried incessantly. She worried so much it annoyed everyone around her – and mortified her teenage sons.

She worried every day until she knew she was going to die (from brain cancer) and then, quietly, she stopped worrying.

She also had trouble with anger, supressing it until she would rage. It’s even harder to admit, but this is also me. Taxi drivers who take me ‘the long way home’ have copped some fearful sprays from me over the years.

So I guess I ended up a bit like my mother, but I’d rather avoid the sad cure she found.

In the treatment centre I attended, South Pacific Private, I did a simple mindfulness meditation exercise most days – 10 minutes sitting still and concentrating on my breathing. I have done it around 70 times since leaving the centre in January, increasing the duration to 15 minutes a day. I also try to do micro sessions several times a day.

I haven’t had a blood test to show, so I don’t know how my stress hormones are or what my cytokines are up to, but I feel better. How? I worry less.
I still worry, but you have no idea how good the feeling behind that simple statement feels: I worry less.

There’s a lot more too. I am growing the ability to see my thoughts and feelings as separate from me – almost as passing storms across a blue sky – instead of experiencing them as a sort of nasty conjoined twin hissing at me.

I don’t see my thoughts as instructions, but just as thoughts.

I don’t have to let them define what I do next. If my thoughts tell me: ‘I feel down, I wonder if there’s any cheesecake left’, I can phone someone, listen to music or go for a bike ride instead. If my head sees someone smoking and wants one too, I can stop and say ‘no, that thought is not helpful’, and I do. I quit smoking in December and haven’t had a cigarette since.

I sleep better and have little muscle tension. Though am still restless, I have a level of awareness of this – and, interestingly, of how my behaviour affects others – way beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

I still get easily annoyed – although much less so. I am more patient. If I need to stay on hold for 45 minutes to the phone company I am more inclined to express healthy anger when I get through, then detach without flogging the poor person who answers the phone. If I do get too angry, I can cool off much quicker and apologise expecting nothing in return.

I now get on with cab drivers, even if doing so costs me $5 more.
I’m sure if I was assessed again for generalised anxiety disorder I would still fit the bill. So I am not cured. But life for me, and those very close to me, is a lot easier.

Mindfulness meditation is not a cure and there have been questions about its real effectiveness. But I know it works, and I don’t need to ask my cytokines to prove it.

Good mental health a much bigger factor in happiness than money?

Earlier this week Norway was named the happiest nation on earth, by the United Nations researchers, just ahead of Denmark.

Northern European countries dominated, with Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden also in the top 10; perhaps there really is something to the saying ‘cold hands, warm heart’.

Australia rated 9th happiest, the United States was 14th and the United Kingdom 19th.

The bottom five places were filled by Rwanda, Syria, Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic.

Why should we care about something that might be considered frivolous compared to harder-headed indicators like economic growth, interest rates and GDP? Because the world is changing and economics no longer rules unchallenged.

As the report points out: “In June 2016 the OECD committed itself ‘to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts’. Norway came first, it is pointed out, despite weak oil prices. The nation depends heavily on oil and gas resources, but in recent years has sunk profits from those industries into a transparent, ethical, future fund.

The UN team behind ‘The World Happiness Report’ used data from telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted by Gallup with around 1000 people from 155 countries over three years (2014-2016). Respondents were asked to rate their life on a scale of 0-10.

A key chapter of a report, ‘The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery’, included some fascinating insights for companies, policy-makers and individuals interested in what makes us happy and unhappy, and how we can go from one state to the other.

The chapter focused on deeper research done in four countries: the US, UK, Australia and Indonesia.

“In all three Western societies, diagnosed mental illness emerges as more important than income, employment or physical illness.” The reverse was true in Indonesia, although in all four countries mental illnesses were more significant to our happiness and misery than physical illnesses.

The research found our levels of income and education per se weren’t major factors in happiness. Our tendency to compare ourselves with others in these areas was a bigger problem.

“Household income per head explains under 2% of the variance of happiness in any country,” the authors wrote. “Moreover it is largely relative income that matters, so as countries have become richer, many have failed to experience any increase in their average happiness. A similar problem relates to education—people care largely about their education relative to that of others.
“In all countries the most powerful [improvements to misery] would come from the elimination of depression and anxiety disorders, which are the main form of mental illness. This would also be the least costly way of reducing misery.”

The report made no mention of financial stress as a factor in misery experienced by adults, but it is worth pointing out that research shows clear links between money worries and those major mental health issues, anxiety and depression. In 2013, researchers from the University of Southampton found people with unsecured debt (such as credit card debt, student and personal loans) were 3.24 times more likely to suffer “mental disorders” than those without unsecured debt and 2.77 times as likely to have depression. Tragically they were 7.9 times more likely to take their own lives.

It is no surprise then that the World Happiness Report’s researchers found addressing the emotional health of children was more important to set someone up for a happy life than academic qualifications. A child’s experiences at school were found to be more important than their test scores.

“What in turn affects the emotional health and behaviour of the child? Parental income is a good predictor of a child’s academic qualifications (as is well known), but it is a much weaker predictor of the child’s emotional health and behaviour. The best predictor of these is the mental health of the child’s mother.” Disappointingly for dads, researchers found a father’s mental health wasn’t as important in determining happiness and misery as a mother’s.

Again, the report made no mention of mindfulness – this wasn’t the work to go into the array of potential solutions.

But with mental health such a huge factor in determining the happiness or misery of people in the US, UK and Australia, and other research showing money worries are linked with anxiety and depression, mindfulness around money is without doubt one important and useful tool in the search for happiness.

The full World Happiness Report can be read here.

The Power of apps for improving mental health

The idea that an app could replace face-to-face doctor’s appointments or be recommended over prescribed treatments for mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety is abhorrent to most of us.

But there is evidence that digital solutions are having such positive effects they could soon be a key part of treatment plans for anyone needing ongoing help for mental health issues.

“A third of doctors in the US prescribe digital services, ranging from behavioural to medication management,” wrote Ian Pocock, director of digital consultancy and design agency Transform, in an opinion piece for digitalhealth.net.

Pocock cited research by American healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente which found patients with chronic illnesses spent 0.1 per cent of their time with a medical professional. Pocock believes that there is huge potential to introduce healthy self-managed habits into the remaining 99.9 per cent of patients’ lives via technology, especially smart phones.

“For those using an app”, Pocock claimed, “there is a 10% improvement in people sticking to their drug regime and a 30% improvement in adherence to wellbeing tasks.”

He also pointed out that missed doctor’s appointments had declined by 40 per cent in the United Kingdom as a result of SMS reminders.
Of course how people use digital technology – and the apps they consistently use – is both the problem and the solution. It’s all very well downloading an app that looks nice and is highly-rated only to find it boring or not helpful for the major problems and stresses in your life.

Download a bunch of apps without enough thought and chances are you won’t use any of them properly. There are an overwhelming number of apps built to help people manage their physical and especially mental health today, far too many to attempt to trial, or for us to recommend for that matter.

One of the most crowded marketplaces is apps to help with mental health solutions. There are literally thousands, from yoga apps to those providing relaxing music or ocean sounds, memory and brain training, sleep hygiene, purpose-built stress and anxiety relievers, meditation and mindfulness which is one of the boom categories. Search ‘mindfulness’ in the Google Play store and you will find over 250 apps.

There is little doubt that a daily mindfulness meditation practice can have benefits to our mental health, by definition lessening the burden of problems like anxiety and depression on individuals and companies. On its website, world-renowned Mayo Clinic says: “meditation may help people manage symptoms of conditions such as: Anxiety disorders, Asthma, Cancer, Depression, Heart disease, High blood pressure, Pain, Sleep problems.” We should point out made no mention of apps for meditation, though this has become a delivery method accepted by mental health experts.

“Apps hold amazing potential as mental health and wellbeing tools,” wrote David Bakker and Nikki Rickard, both senior psychology specialists at Australia’s Monash University in an article at theconversation.com.

“You can carry them everywhere, engage with them in real time as you’re experiencing distress, and interact with them in a completely different way to other self-help tools.”

The online article included a checklist for what to look for in a mental health app. It included looking for “evidence-based techniques”; the capacity to record your thoughts, feelings and behaviours; suggestions for non-technology based activities, especially those that encourage connection with others; the ability to be used when you are triggered; and evidence to prove it works.

Money doesn’t make you happy… but bad debt makes you sick

Instinctively we know having lots of money doesn’t make us happy; you only have to look at the permanent scowls on the faces of any number of banking moguls or major CEOs.

Research backs up the motherhood statements too. Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, of Princeton University found, essentially, that after an income of US$75,000, earning more money does not increase happiness.

In 2010, the pair studied the survey responses of 450,000 Americans and found that “high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness”, aka emotional wellbeing.

It seems equally obvious that people with lots of debt are not happy, but the extent to which this is true is shocking.

In 2016, Australian investment advice company Acorns Grow Australia surveyed 1000 people and found 70 per cent suffered depression and anxiety because of their money worries, while 76 per cent had trouble sleeping for the same reason. More than half assigned physical health problems to financial stress.

In 2013, University of Southampton researchers Thomas Richardson, Ronald Roberts and Peter Elliott found unmistakable links between severe unsecured debts (such as credit card debt, student and personal loans) and poor health, especially mental health, by reviewing 65 previous studies.

Those with unsecured debts were 3.24 times more likely to suffer “mental disorders” than those without unsecured debt and 2.77 times as likely to have depression. They were 2.68 times more likely to be problem drinkers but a scary 8.57 times as likely to be dependent on drugs. Sadly, people with debt are 7.9 times more likely to take their own lives.

Back to the Acorns survey results, a third of Australians aged between 25 and 44 had “abused” alcohol because of financial stress, while 20 per cent coped with money worries by using illegal drugs. It did not say how many turned to prescription drugs to manage.

“The majority of studies found that more severe debt is related to worse health,” the Southhampton university team found. Their research was published in the Clinical Psychology Review.

Australia has a world-leading level of personal debt, although most of it (92.8 per cent, according to finder.com.au) is related to wealth creation or an asset, such as a home loan. The average household owes A$250,000 (including around A$20,500 of bad debt). While in the US bad debt accounts for an alarming 26.3 per cent of household debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Citizens of both nations – and people throughout the so-called ‘first-world’ – cite money worries as at or near the very top stressors in their lives.
The Southampton university study didn’t go into which came first – poor mental health or money problems. But the links are clear and so is the message: heavy financial stress will either make you sick, or keep you that way.

The study also didn’t go into what to do about severe financial stress – but there’s plenty of advice out there. The traditional options include consolidating debt, budgeting and financial planning, or studying or working longer hours to try and land a more lucrative role. The latter approaches can come with their own problems: the stress that results from overwork and social disconnection.
One widely praised and usually inexpensive option is to develop a regular mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness, defined by some as moment-by-moment awareness, helps to still the mind and improve messy and negative thinking. A huge amount of research worldwide has shown mindfulness positively affects a range of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, memory loss and sleeplessness.

If you need to speak to someone urgently about your mental health and live in the United States, try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) or if you live in Australia, phone Lifeline (131144) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636).

When mindfulness might not work

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will know the word ‘mindfulness’ has quite a buzz about it.

CEOs are into it, so are talk show hosts, pop stars, famous actors, sports stars and lately it’s being rolled out in corporate wellness programs for thousands of stressed-out employees.

There are some compelling reasons why this is happening: a mountain of scientific research over the past two decades shows mindfulness practice has positive effects on a range of mental health issues and may even improve self-esteem and help people cope more effectively with stress.

But as a recent Australian Financial Review article pointed out, mindfulness is no magic pill. The newspaper ran a story based on a study of 189 men, aged on average 70-71 years with advanced prostate cancer, some of whom were exposed to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy over the phone for eight weeks. The Griffith University study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Oncology.

One of the study’s co-authors, Suzanne K. Chambers, found: “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy did not improve the men’s well-being in comparison to their usual medical management… [furthermore the men it did not affect any] reduction in psychological distress [or] lessening of anxiety about testing for prostate specific antigen – a measure of tumour progression and response to treatment – and [or] lowering of distress related to their cancer.

“Men receiving [mindfulness] therapy also reported no improvement in quality of life nor post-traumatic growth, a term that encompasses positive psychological change as a result of their cancer.”

Chambers and Queensland Cancer Council CEO Jeff Dunn, in a co-authored article for theconversation.com did however acknowledge the study participants found mindfulness “helpful in terms of not feeling alone, learning meditation and breathing exercises, understanding the meaning of well-being and perceived control of thoughts and health.”

Dunn and Chambers did also acknowledge other research had shown mindfulness had positive affects in relation to cancer – a study of 325 women found “some evidence for the effectiveness of [mindfulness-based stress reduction programs” in improving psychological health in breast cancer patients”. The results were published in the October 2012 issue of the journal Current Oncology. They also acknowledged “influential health organisations” in the United States and the United Kingdom saw fit to recommend mindfulness as a tool to manage chronic illness.

It could be argued a mindfulness study based on terminally ill men in their 70s says little about how a younger physically healthy audience could benefit from mindfulness. But regardless, the principle it highlights is worthwhile: if facing reality won’t help your life in the long run, then mindfulness might not be for you.

Marc Richardson, a Sydney-based psychologist with Financial Mindfulness, who also works in private practice, said the results of the Griffith University study were “not surprising”.

“Any kind of denial these men, in the advanced stages of prostate cancer, were holding on to might be stripped away by mindfulness. It seems almost unkind to try and get them out of denial.”

Richardson added that people with serious mental illnesses, such as dissociative or psychotic disorders or those facing gravely stressful life events, should seek advice from a trained psychologist before embarking on a course of mindfulness.

Mindfulness could help a great many other people though, Richardson said, especially people facing financial stress – which is a leading cause of stress in the western world.

“Mindfulness gives people stressed about money a chance to slow down their thinking, ground themselves and an opportunity for a new perspective,” he said.

“When we are in an anxious state trying to perceive things clearly or to manage situations effectively is very difficult – we can get stuck ruminating on negative thoughts.

“Something about mindfulness acts as a circuit breaker and allow us time to slow down and rethink our position, potentially allowing us to then take more effective actions.”

A terminal illness is probably not the only limitation on mindfulness either. If you expect mindfulness to remove problems in your life you may be disappointed.

So let’s make a few things clear: sadly mindfulness will not make cancer go away. It also won’t get you a speedboat and it won’t make people like you if they didn’t before. It won’t make you a mind-reader and it won’t give you the patience of a saint. But if you do 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day, your thinking will probably become measurably clearer.

What you do with better cognitive processing is up to you.

It’s entirely possible that with cleaner, healthier thinking you could write a piece of music or even a book, start a business, learn to really listen to others, or even just finish or resolve something that has been a ‘block’ in your life for years.

It could also contribute to you stopping behaviours that would otherwise lead to serious illnesses – and let’s be clear, this is not a comment on the causes of prostate cancer, which are thought to be partly genetic, partly lifestyle.

So mindfulness is not be for everyone. But neither is swimming, playing a musical instrument, yoga or gardening – and few would argue those activities are not beneficial, let alone that they should be avoided.

Proven: the power of mindfulness over bad financial decisions.

If you’ve ever persisted with a disastrous job or relationship or PhD in the hope it will somehow get better, or ‘chased your losses’ by placing risky bets in a game of cards, you might want to pay attention.

Maybe you’ve endured reading a novel you hated from the first 50 pages, or stayed through a concert just because you bought tickets – despite the fact you would rather be anywhere else.

Have you ever done something similar with money? Plunged money into a failing business or investment property? Hung onto a car for too long when it’s cost you a fortune already?

All these actions, and anything else where we ‘throw good money after bad’, are examples of a famous economic principle called the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ which can be applied to life in general. It’s the tendency to continue with an irrational and often risky course of action not based on the likely outcome, but because we don’t want to ‘waste’ what are unrecoverable costs and time – aka the ‘sunk-costs’.

It’s a very human response to loss to try even harder to win, sometimes to avoid feelings of guilt or inadequacy, or even just fear of ‘looking bad’.

But at worst ego, politics and emotional decision-making can cause people to double or triple their financial losses, causing huge financial and emotional stress for individuals, families and bosses.

In the cold light of day it’s not rational, but who hasn’t done something like this? More importantly, how do we stop this apparent madness?

By becoming mindful. But that doesn’t mean by thinking through our decisions more carefully; our choices are often poor when affected by strong emotions.
Research has shown mindfulness meditation can improve poor financial decision-making, at least in terms of the sunk-cost fallacy. Researchers Andrew Hafenbrack, Zoe Kinias, and Sigal Barsade published the results of experiments into the effects of mindfulness on the ‘cognitive trap of sunk-cost bias’ in the Journal of Psychological Science in 2013.

The study participants were split in two groups, one of which went through a 15 minute “breathing meditation” while the other did “mind-wandering” exercises. The first group performed much better on a series of questions about how to react to sunk-costs.

“Meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion,” Kinias wrote in the journal. “The reduced negative emotion [then] facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.”

In another study, from Elsevier’s journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2007, found “mindfulness is associated with less severe gambling outcomes”.

Chad Lakey, Keith Campbell, Adam Goodie (University of Georgia) and Kirk Warren Brown (Virginia Commonwealth University) concluded their findings “are hopeful in suggesting that the greater attention to and awareness of ongoing internal and external stimuli that characterizes mindfulness may represent an effective means of mitigating the impulsive and addictive responses and intemperate risk-attitudes of individuals with problem gambling.”

They concluded: “In this light, mindfulness may help to lessen the grip of automatic thoughts, affective reactions, and behavior patterns.”

Research into the specific benefits of mindfulness is ongoing but it seems clear that a regular mindfulness practice can have powerful positive effects on risky and emotional decision-making around money.

The real cost of gift-giving (part 3 of 3)

Giving gifts in ancient history began as a show of worship and over centuries has morphed into a show of appreciation. In the age of consumerism it’s become an expensive habit too, especially in Holiday season.

That said gifts are costs we bear without much complaint; giving feels good and it’s accepted as a cultural obligation. Besides, we have special labels for people who don’t play along: ever fear being labelled a Scrooge or Grinch?

Never mind that in the affluent West that many of us take months to repay debts incurred around Christmas time. So who’s not at least relieved that the annual festival of overspending is out of the way, right?

Wrong. The retail calendar is about to double face‐smack time‐poor, overworked consumers with Easter then Mother’s Day – not to mention birthdays and anniversaries for the rest of the year. So how can we possibly avoid the financial stress that comes from piling debt on top of debt?

Most of us are savvy enough to try and budget (even if they can’t always stick to it) and humble enough to get financial advice to try and do better. We are not clueless.

But without a complete overhaul in our thinking, choosing gifts will always be stressful – at the overwhelming array of options and the nagging temptation to over‐spend.

If you have tried every trick to rein in spending on gifts perhaps it’s time to try something new – mindfulness, which is loosely described as moment‐by‐moment awareness.

Take the example of a teenager who apparently aches for a sleek iPhone 7 for their birthday, if not the newest flagship Apple phone, an iPhone 8. These will set you back between $1000 and $1500. “Cravings tell some people they will be happy if they have the latest iPhone,” says Tomas Jajesnica, Chief Mindfulness Officer with Financial Mindfulness.

“And they might feel happy when they get one, but as an approach to life that is false. Having an iPhone has nothing to do with happiness.”

The reason that statement feels uncomfortable is because it’s true. Researchers from Washington University and Seoul National University, Joseph Goodman and Sarah Lim, found that giving ‘experiences’ increases the happiness of recipients more than material gifts – even if people are not socially close.

Hence the boom for online companies selling “experiential” gifts: in Australia, RedBalloon; in the UK, Red Letter Days and in the United States, retailers like Cloud 9 Living and Great American Days.

But focusing on experiential as opposed to material gifts is unarguably only half of the answer. While the research shows a hot‐air balloon ride or chocolate‐making course should satisfy the recipient more than boxed gift wrapped in a bow, if you try to please someone with the dollar value of your gift your debt problems could get worse and that is undeniably a problem for your whole life. Ever looked at the cost of sky‐diving, rodeo‐riding or maybe cage diving with sharks? You will spend hundreds of dollars on these.

Financial stress is irrefutably linked to health problems like depression, anxiety and sleep disorders so it’s not a big leap to see that the expensive gifts you buy – whether material or experiential ‐ could paradoxically lead you to feel less likely to connect with other people.

Most of us know overspending will put pressure on us, but since when did knowing right from wrong stop human beings from making mistakes? A parent, relative or partner with poor self‐control around money will often buckle to badgering from a child, or give into a yearning to people‐please, and buy that new smart phone, tablet, a holiday or even a car.

A daily mindfulness practice will lead to a more mindful approach to gift‐giving, so we do not drift into autopilot when buying. It’s inevitable this will lead us to confront some fundamental uncomfortable truths about money. “Mindfulness will help you accept reality as it is,” Jajesnica says. “That if you purchase this [phone] it may put pressure on all other elements of your life.”
It’s important to note mindfulness won’t automatically change your financial circumstances – although it could help you begin to change in that area. From there we can make some deep, meaningful changes: when we are forced to face old assumptions about money. “The idea that the amount of money we spend on someone is a measure of your love for someone is completely false,” says Jajesnica. “It’s a product of consumerism that we need to spend in order to be loving.”

“In first world countries we have third‐world happiness, but countries in Africa have first world happiness.”

Which brings us back to gifts. You can create lasting memories with creativity and knowledge of a person.

How about home‐made cookies baked with personal messages – each describing why you love the recipient ‐ hidden in the dough? Or a hand‐made recipe book containing meal suggestions from the recipient’s family members? Maybe get a t‐shirt printed with the recipient’s favourite funny saying or if you have time, plan a surprise outing and put thought into favourite stops and a destination, or even fill a tall jar with inspirational quotes written and printed in different colours.

If you have lots of time, learn the guitar then write someone a song and play it for them. If you don’t have much time, spend a couple of hours hand‐writing a letter telling the recipient what they mean to you. Could any gift feel better and teach about the real meaning of value?

Time is key idea here, you need to know someone or learn about them to know what might make them happy. And time is valuable. Benjamin Franklin was widely credited with the unforgettable line “time is money” in 1748 (although it’s been shown to have much earlier origins, perhaps even ancient Greece). We can spend money and time, but where spending too much money will cause you a lot of trouble, spending a lot of time only enhances relationships – especially on children – by creating last memories.

Tomas Jajesnica: “Time is so much more precious than anything you can buy someone.”

The real cost of gift-giving (part 2 of 3)

Our expensive habit of gift-giving is, roughly speaking, a material indicator of the value of one person to another.  Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, argued “there is a higher logic to the gift economy … that mandates we keep giving and receiving objects of dubious value”.

Gift-giving, she said, was connected to “an innate human value called “reciprocal altruism” which makes the costs of gifts “a maintenance fee for your relationship”. All of this is warm (and as McArdle noted) fuzzy too. There are however real problems beyond conceptual warm fuzzy feelings.

As well-intentioned as gift-giving is, the reality is seldom that altruistic exercise in thoughtfully considered generosity. Most of us are time-poor and simply don’t know our recipents’ real wants and needs.

Research by Joseph Goodman (from Washington State University) and Sarah Lim (from Seoul’s Center for Happiness Studies) found people often buy material over experiential gifts, despite the fact that recipients often feel happier receiving experiences. Material gifts are those we can touch while experiential gifts are those that create a memory.

So gift-giving becomes a box-ticking exercise which we throw money at, then wrap up with a bow, just to be safe.

If it sounds mean-spirited to question gift-giving, that’s not the intention here. Only sociopaths, teenagers and debt collectors believe it’s better to receive than give. The problem is not gift-giving per se, it’s the mindless, bloated headless chook race that it becomes.

Last Christmas Australians splurged a mammoth A$28 billion on gifts alone on our credit cards – A$1272 for every many woman and child in Australia. Add the costs of Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, weddings and anniversaries and you can see how gift-buying has become a major driver of the retail engine in Western economies. But at a personal level, buying gifts for everyone, and without tight budgetary limits, starts to look like a recipe for accumulating unnecessary debt.

Debt consistently shows up in surveys as a leading cause of financial stress. So what you might think, who isn’t under stress these days? But it’s now widely known personal money pressures are consistently showing up in research as a major cause – if not the major cause – of stress in general.
Now new American research shows what the end result of financial stress could be: high levels of serious illness. In the United States, the company Four Seasons Financial Education surveyed 511 employees in a national study and found disturbing correlations between financial stress and health problems.
The respondents rated their level of financial stress,  then the prevalence of health issues between two groups was compared.

People with high financial stress had higher reported incidence of health issues across all nine illnesses identified – heart attack, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, infertility, gastrointestinal issues and sleeplessness, migraines/headaches and memory loss.

“The greatest disparities were found with anxiety and depression between these two groups,” the study findings said. In the groups with lower financial stress, 19 per cent reported depression and anxiety, but amongst the more financially stressed respondents, 55 per cent were depressed and 68 per cent had anxiety.

When the survey responses were further broken down, into the very highest and lowest levels of financial stress, people under extreme financial stress were five times more likely to have memory loss issues, more three times as likely to report depression and nearly twice as likely to have anxiety. They were also twice as likely to have gastrointestinal problems.

Debt is a major cause for financial stress, so we are surely obliged to use whatever means we can use to reduce it. If you’ve tried all the usual advice and methods, it might be time to investigate a new approach.

In the final part of our series on the real cost of gift-giving, we look at how mindfulness can help reign in the costs of gift-giving and the intense pressure we can feel around it.