Gifts Part 1: Life Let's go into the weekend with the oh-crap-now-I've-got-to-get-them-something mindset of someone who's just been given a wonderful gift.

I’ll kick off with that last resort of hapless students everywhere: looking up words in the Oxford English Dictionary. (OED.com, accessible by subscription: your library almost certainly has a subscription that you can use from anywhere. It’s incredible.)

I choose to ignore the etymology – from the Old English gift meaning payment for a wife – and instead zero in on the common definition:

A gift is something, the possession of which is transferred to another without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent.

Point A: I don’t know about you, but my first reaction when I read the bit about without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent was ‘Yeah, nice, but…’ Continue reading Gifts Part 1: Life Let’s go into the weekend with the oh-crap-now-I’ve-got-to-get-them-something mindset of someone who’s just been given a wonderful gift.

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 27 'Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change ... may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.'

Today’s pages (p145-149) address the question of the meaning of life itself. Finally – the promised land!

But rather than The Meaning Of Life As A Whole, Viktor Frankl has a smaller target in mind, at least at first:

[T]he logotherapist is concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life.

Frankl doesn’t deny that The Meaning Of Life As A Whole does exist, but that we can only fully understand it after having understood the meaning of each of the smaller moments leading up to the final moment of our death. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 27 ‘Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change … may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 26 'Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to "be happy". Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.'

Today’s pages (p139-144) open the final part of Man’s Search for Meaning, written as a postscript to the book in 1984: ‘The Case for Tragic Optimism’.

An attitude of ‘tragic optimism’ means to remain optimistic in spite of life’s ‘tragic triad’ of pain, guilt and death. Or, alternatively:

How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?

Frankl’s answer is hidden in the etymology of the word ‘optimism’, which is derived from the Latin ‘optimum’ meaning ‘the best’.

To be optimistic, therefore, is not to be deliriously blind to one’s circumstances, but rather to make ‘the best’ one can of any given situation. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 26 ‘Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy”. Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 25 'Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.'

Today’s pages (p131-136) conclude the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning, ‘Logotherapy in a Nutshell’.

Viktor Frankl writes that ‘[e]very age has its own collective neurosis’ and believes that the mass neurosis of the present time is ‘a private and personal form of nihilism’.

Frankl warns against the danger of teaching that man is ‘nothing but’ the result of his biological and social conditions.

As a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions.

But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps … and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 25 ‘Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.’

To Do List Bankruptcy Last night something snapped. I woke up at 3 a.m. silently screaming into my duvet.

The problem with a successful summer is that it can cause an overenthusiasm of doings.

A month living and working in Greece was exactly what I needed to get a fresh perspective on my life and work in the UK. Ideas for new ventures spilled easily from my split skull and they all, fatefully, found a spot on my Doings list.

None of this summer shower of ideas were bad, what is bad is that I can only work on three things at a time. Only three tasks on a given day, only three jobs in a given week, only three projects in a given month. And I already had three things that I was working on.

So what happened to this summer’s Trojan horse of ideas and ventures? It swelled and, bloated, filled my brain with to do list rot: a constant reminder that I wasn’t able to back up my ideas with action.

Last night something snapped. I woke up at 3 a.m. silently screaming into my duvet.
Continue reading To Do List Bankruptcy Last night something snapped. I woke up at 3 a.m. silently screaming into my duvet.

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 24 'The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.'

Today’s pages (p125-131) address the logotherapeutic treatment of anticipatory anxiety, the excessive anxiety we all sometimes feel in anticipation of a particular event or circumstance.

Viktor Frankl observes that ‘anticipatory anxiety … produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid’.

When one is particularly anxious about blushing when faced with a large crowd, one is more prone to blushing in that situation. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 24 ‘The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.’

Lessons from 10 Years of Hashimoto’s Hypothroidism I couldn't find happiness by following a FODMAP diet, testing myself for diabetes, or taking Magnesium and Vitamin E for adrenal support. It was both harder and easier than that.

It’s been 10 years since I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Hypothyroidism. 10 years of taking two little white pills every single day in an effort to regulate what my body can no longer.

Those 10 years have been filled with a full 10 years of life: finishing a masters degree, cycling around a country or two (or half a dozen), self-publishing a smattering of books, teaching English to refugees, writing and producing an hour-long play, turning that into a radio series or two.

But every day, throughout it all, I’ve been taking those two little white pills. There is nothing I’ve done more consistently, so I think it’s fair to say I have some experience in this field.

So wherever you find yourself on your hypothyroid adventure, I hope these words give you some encouragement, and perhaps you’ll share your experiences with me, either by email or in the comments below! Continue reading Lessons from 10 Years of Hashimoto’s Hypothroidism I couldn’t find happiness by following a FODMAP diet, testing myself for diabetes, or taking Magnesium and Vitamin E for adrenal support. It was both harder and easier than that.

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 23 'Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.'

Today’s pages (p119-125) begin, strangely enough, with something of a lament for the loss of clergymen as a professional resource for treating a loss of meaning in life.

Today, instead, people turn to psychiatrists (and are frequently mistreated for neurosis, is Viktor Frankl’s implication).

After making the point that life’s duration has no bearing on its relative meaning, Viktor Frankl turns to the troublesome (for a scientific mind) metaphysics of what he calls ‘super-meaning’. He begins by posing a reasonable question:

Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos?

Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 23 ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 22 'The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.'

Today’s pages (113-119) begin boldly, with the sub-heading The Meaning of Life. But of course, Frankl has no catechistic answer.

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.

He likens it to a chess move: ‘There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game’.

Indeed, the very search for an abstract meaning of life is futile: ‘everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it’.

Instead, Frankl flips the question on its head:

[M]an should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 22 ‘The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.’

Gandhi was wrong: you already ARE the change

We’ve all heard the famous injuction to be the change you want to see in the world. But these words (often and mistakenly attributed to Gandhi) skip over one far more salient point: each of us already ARE the change in the world.

Every little action (or inaction) we take in every moment of every day has consequences for the world we live in. That is an unassailable fact. We may not feel like we have a vast influence on the future, but we are all an intrinsic part of its creation.

This is something that perhaps we don’t think of an awful lot. We look up to inspirational leaders to make giant leaps forward, forgetting that we are part of the marching crowd.

Continue reading Gandhi was wrong: you already ARE the change

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 21 'What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.'

Today’s pages are some of my favourite in the whole of Man’s Search for Meaning. I say that not lightly.

First, a (re-)definition of Frankl’s logotherapy:

[Logotherapy] considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts.

This search for meaning, however, creates an inner tension on which good mental health is based.

This goes against what Frankl calls the ‘dangerous misconception’ of many psychologists that a state of mental equilibrium is desirable. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 21 ‘What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.’

Overwhelming Kindness

Everyone knows that it’s nice to be kind, but the Prof taught me something interesting: it’s even nicer to be overwhelmingly kind, to be so intensively kind on one single day that it blows your little mind.

That makes sense: if you spread your kindness thinly over the course of a week, you might forget the flavour – like the scraping of butter that’s senselessly lost in the riot of a bacon and egg bap.

In the same way, your moments of kindness will be diluted during the week by all the other occasions when you were a douche, or just being ‘normal’.

But if you save your week’s worth of buttery kindness for one huge dollop on, say, a Friday, then all of a sudden you become – albeit briefly – hot butter spread thickly on a crumpet. An unforgettably kind kind of god.

Of course, different people have different baseline kindness. We’re talking about kindnesses that you wouldn’t ordinarily perform.

For example, on Wednesday I let a woman go in front of me in the queue because she had… fewer items in her basket than I did. That’s a kindness I never would have normally performed, so that counts.

But that same evening, I volunteered with a gaggle of other GoodGym runners at a community garden in Bournemouth. That’s no doubt a kind deed, but it doesn’t count because I would’ve done that anyway – it didn’t require any effortful kindness on my part. Baseline.

I can easily tell these two varieties of kindness apart: the first gives me a buzz of almost electrifying, almost illicit pleasure. As I turned to the woman behind me, I thought to myself: Oh my god, I’m such a queue rebel! Is this even legal? This is going to blow her MIND!

As it happened, she just said thanks and walked in ahead of me with her Dairylea Lunchables. But I can’t control that. You are what you repeatedly do: I became in that moment a little more of a kindly person. And, like the bleeding heart liberal that I am, I think that is a goal worth pursuing.

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 20 'A man's concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress, but by no means a mental disease.'

Today’s pages (p103-108) mark the beginning of the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning: Logotherapy in a nutshell.

After some apologies for the inevitable failures for compressing into a few pages that which ‘required twenty volumes in German’, Viktor Frankl sets about explaining his therapy.

Logotherapy (as its etymology indicates) attempts to confront the patient with and reorient him towards the meaning of his life.

Frankl is very insistent that this ‘will to meaning’ is the overriding motivation for human beings: we live and die for our meanings and values, he points out.

Furthermore:

This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 20 ‘A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress, but by no means a mental disease.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 19

Today’s excerpt is a little shorter (p96-100), as we reach the end of Part 1 of Man’s Search for Meaning.

These are the final pages of Frankl’s description of the psychology of the concentration camp inmate.

Even after liberation, the former-prisoner is not out of psychological danger. For Frankl, progress from inmate to human being seems to have been slow and steady.

But for others, liberation was not so easy. Frankl describes the sudden release of mental pressure that occurred at the end of their imprisonment as similar to the bends.

Just as the physical health of the caisson worker would be endangered if he left his diver’s chamber suddenly […], so the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 19

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 18 'Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.'

Today’s pages (p91-96) address the psychology of the camp guard, and the psychology of the prisoner after his liberation from a concentration camp.

With regards to the guards, Frankl makes four observations:

  1. Some of the guards were pure sadists.
  2. These sadists were always chosen when severe treatment was ordered.
  3. The majority of guards were ‘morally and mentally hardened men’ who refused to take active part in sadistic torture, but did not prevent others from such behaviour.
  4. There were some guards who took pity on the prisoners and took active steps to ameliorate conditions for them. ‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.’

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 18 ‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 17 'Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.'

Today’s pages (p88-91, a wee bit shorter) are recollections of a speech that Viktor Frankl gave to his fellow prisoners at the end of a particularly hard day.

The prisoners had chosen to go without food rather than give up one of their number to the guards, and so were particularly hungry, tired, cold and irritable.

Frankl was called upon to give some words of encouragement, and he began with a very Stoic observation, that ‘our situation was not the most terrible we could think of’.

Losses of health, family, happiness and fortune were all replaceable in the future.

He quotes again from Nietzsche: ‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 17 ‘Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 16 'Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs.'

In today’s pages (p84-88), Frankl addresses head on the question of the meaning of life.

The search for this meaning is in itself a matter of life and death – for the deterioration of a man’s courage and hope bears a direct correlation to the deterioration of his physical strength.

Quite simply, those prisoners who hoped the war would end by Christmas were very likely to die by New Year.

The only cure for this malaise was to follow Nietzsche’s advice: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 16 ‘Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 15 'With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end.'

In today’s pages (p78-83), Viktor Frankl addresses the dangers of the past, the sufferings of the present and the promise of the future.

For concentration camp prisoners, the ‘most depressing influence’ on their psychology was the fact that no one knew how long they would remain imprisoned for.

This created, in the words of one unnamed research psychologist, a ‘provisional existence’, to which Frankl adds ‘of unknown limit’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 15 ‘With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 14 'If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.'

In today’s pages (p74-78), Viktor Frankl sets out the first principles of his theory of logotherapy: addressing directly the question of man’s search for meaning.

Following his description of the psychological trials of the camp inmate, Frankl asks whether or not the ‘human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings’.

Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? …

[D]o the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 14 ‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 13 'There they were locked in the huts and burned to death.'

Today’s pages (p70-74) bring us to the end of the Nazi rule of the concentration camp where Viktor Frankl was kept prisoner.

But not without one last twist of fate.

Frankl’s celebrations at the coming of the Red Cross delegate was short-lived. The SS arrived that night and ordered the camp to be cleared, and the prisoners taken to another camp where they would be transferred to Switzerland.

But after a mistake by the Chief Doctor, Frankl was not put on any of the trucks which understandably left him ‘[s]urprised, very annoyed and disappointed’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 13 ‘There they were locked in the huts and burned to death.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 12 'They tried to save themselves, but they only sealed their own fates.'

Today’s pages (p64-70) concern Viktor Frankl’s attitude to fate.

Frankl believed that destiny will run its own course, and his only responsibility was to his own conscience.

One day, Viktor Frankl’s name (or number!) appeared on the list for transportation to a ‘rest camp’.

The other prisoners were all convinced that this was nothing more than a euphemism for ‘gas chamber’, but Frankl did nothing to get his name crossed off the list – even when the camp’s chief doctor told him he only had to ask.

I told him that this was not my way; that I had learned to let fate take its course. … He shook my hand silently, as though it were a farewell, not for life, but from life.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 12 ‘They tried to save themselves, but they only sealed their own fates.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 11 'One literally became a number: dead or alive - that was unimportant; the life of a "number" was completely irrelevant.'

Today’s pages (p60-64) start with the observation that, in the desperate fight for survival, the inmates could easily lose the feeling of being an individual with ‘inner freedom and personal value’.

He thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life.

Viktor Frankl notices that the inmates started to behave like sheep, when herded from one place to another by the guards.

[W]e, the sheep, thought of two things only – how to evade the bad dogs and how to get a little food. Just like sheep that crowd timidly into the centre of a herd, each of us tried to get into the middle of our formations.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 11 ‘One literally became a number: dead or alive – that was unimportant; the life of a “number” was completely irrelevant.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 10 'Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little.'

Today’s pages (p55-60) start with what must be one of the most shockingly apposite analogies in literature.

[A] man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.

Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.

The choice to use ‘gas’ for the metaphor is both macabre and entirely fitting. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 10 ‘Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little.’

Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 9 'I bit my lips till they hurt in order to keep from laughing at one of his love poems, and very likely that saved my life.'

The prisoners’ inner life was so important to their survival, whether it was the mundane nostalgic memory of catching the bus or answering telephone, or the sublime sight of the setting sun through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods.

After admiring such a sunset, one prisoner said to another: ‘How beautiful the world could be.’ Continue reading Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 9 ‘I bit my lips till they hurt in order to keep from laughing at one of his love poems, and very likely that saved my life.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 8 'The salvation of man is through love and in love.'

Today’s pages (p45-51) are some of the most touching in the whole book.

Viktor Frankl begins by describing, almost light-heartedly, the ‘cultural hibernation’ that took place in the concentration camps.

Two exceptions to the absence of interest in art and intellect were ‘almost continuous’ discussions of politics and religion:

The depth and vigour of religious belief often surprised and moved a new arrival.

This deepening of spiritual life is Frankl’s explanation of why ‘some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 8 ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 7 'In those ghastly minutes, I found a little bit of comfort; a small piece of bread.'

Today’s pages (p41-45) are largely concerned with food, notable for its paucity in concentration camps such as Auschwitz.

Viktor Frankl recounts the daily menu:

[T]he daily ration consisted of very watery soup given out once daily, and the usual small bread ration.

In addition to that, there was the so-called “extra allowance,” consisting of three-fourths of an ounce of margarine, or of a slice of poor quality sausage, or of a little piece of cheese, or a bit of synthetic honey, or a spoonful of watery jam, varying daily.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 7 ‘In those ghastly minutes, I found a little bit of comfort; a small piece of bread.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 6 'No dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us.'

In today’s pages (p37-41), Viktor Frankl describes how even the most hardened concentration camp prisoner can be roused through insult to rash – and potentially suicidal – indignation.

The beating Frankl received after defending his honour as a doctor against the insults of a particularly repugnant foreman was only relieved by the favour of the Capo in his work party.

How had Frankl won the good favour of this Capo? By lending a sympathetic ear to the Capo’s tales of matrimonial strife! Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 6 ‘No dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 5 'Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more.'

In this section (p31-37), Viktor Frankl moves onto the second phase of the psychological response to incarceration: apathy, a ‘kind of emotional death’.

As he says, such an ‘abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour’.

This ‘mortification of normal reactions was hastened’ by the punishments meted out by the camp officials:

It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage.

If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 5 ‘Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 4 'A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.'

Today’s pages mark Viktor Frankl’s transition from naive optimism to the moment he ‘struck out’ the whole of his former life and started his bare fight for survival from Auschwitz.

Those who had survived the initial cull were stripped of all their belongings and shaved bare with not a hair left on their bodies.

While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies: all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence’.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 4 ‘A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 3 'The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.'

These five pages (p22-26 in my 2004 Rider edition) begin with the first phase of the inmates mental reactions to life in a concentration camp. Unsurprisingly, the dominant symptom on admission to Auschwitz was shock.

There are three passages in today’s reading that stand out for me. The first is Viktor Frankl’s observation of the ‘delusion of reprieve’:

The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 3 ‘The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 2 'We know: the best of us did not return.'

These first pages (p17-21 in my 2004 Rider edition) of Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration Camp contain the most chilling passage I think I have ever read in a work of non-fiction.

After describing how desperate was the fight for survival in the concentration camps of World War Two, Viktor Frankl matter-of-factly states:

On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.

We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 2 ‘We know: the best of us did not return.’

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 1 'A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to.'

Gordon W Allport opens his preface to Man’s Search for Meaning with an anecdote about Viennese psychiatrist-author Victor Frankl. Apparently he used to ask all his patients one question: ‘Why do you not commit suicide?’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 1 ‘A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to.’

It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

It’s not every day that the premise for a Hollywood film gets turned into a psychology experiment designed to make you feel more satisfied with your life.

But that’s what has happened to Frank Capra’s perennial schmaltz-fest It’s A Wonderful Life. Continue reading It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

The Only Serious Question of Philosophy The lesson from history is that humans are infinitely adaptable, and the most adaptable are those who are able to see the potential for growth among abject suffering.

In the preface to my edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, Gordon W Allport tells us that Viktor Frankl used to ask his psychotherapy clients what it was that stopped them from committing suicide.

It’s a question that existential philosopher and bon vivant Albert Camus considered the only serious question in philosophy. Continue reading The Only Serious Question of Philosophy The lesson from history is that humans are infinitely adaptable, and the most adaptable are those who are able to see the potential for growth among abject suffering.

Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

I read a lot of books. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my sister, but a lot. I also make a lot of spreadsheets. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my dad, but a lot. Putting those two aspects of my nature together, I can tell you things like:

  • I read an average of 32.7 books a year.
  • About a quarter of those will be fiction.
  • I also give up on an average of 6.9 books every year.
  • In the last 5 years, I have given 45 books a rating of 5 out of 5. That’s 27% of all the books I’ve read.
  • Only 1 book in 202 has scored 1 out of 5. Most of the books in this category I don’t finish, and therefore don’t score. This one I finished, and it was irritatingly bad. It was by Jeffrey Archer.

Every now and again I read a book that defies my rating scheme. If I was a different sort of person, a more devil-may-care sort of person, then I’d break my 5-point rating for books like this.

This week I read such a book, after finding out that Alastair Humphreys reads it every year: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Continue reading Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

Why I sauna

On Wednesday, for the umpteenth time in the last year, I found myself in swimming shorts, dripping in sweat, and making small talk with strangers. Even in the UK, saunas are a great place to meet people.

“What even is the benefit of doing a sauna, anyway?”

I’ve heard that question while sweating my guts out so many times that I really wonder what brought them there in the first place. You just walked through the door, son, you tell me! Continue reading Why I sauna

Work is the Opposite of Worry

One of my favourite aphorisms is “Happiness is the very opposite of selfishness”, attributed to Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University and obsessive historian of Tony Blair. [Read an elucidation of his aphorism on the BBC]

This aphorism is a great tonic for when I find myself footling around in my brain for that elusive drug, happiness. It gently nudges me back onto the path, calibrates my compass, gets me out of my head and connects me with others.

But there are times when it doesn’t work. Continue reading Work is the Opposite of Worry

Carpe Diem: Dancing with Death

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Even as we speak, envious time flies past: harvest the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.

Horace, Ode XI (65-8BC)

I’m currently reading Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric (incidentally, a book funded by Unbound – it is possible!) and this blog post is inspired by the tools and techniques he explores in the second chapter: Dancing with Death.

The ancient philosophy espoused by Horace in the first century before Christ is one of the most ubiquitous in modern culture, but its ubiquity disguises how little any of us actually think about what it would really mean to live by. Continue reading Carpe Diem: Dancing with Death

After the Christmas, the Crisis

After the Christmas, the crisis. Or Crisis. I’ve been helping out at the Harris Academy Bermondsey, where volunteers have transformed a school into a week-long refuge for homeless people.

Crisis at Christmas is a brilliant idea that started 50 years as a publicity stunt. It’s been going every year since and thousands of homeless guests come through the doors for the good food, companionship and advice offered by more than 11,000 volunteers across 13 sites in London and beyond. Continue reading After the Christmas, the Crisis

“No one ever died while breathing.” Psychedelic Breathwork with Alchemy of Breath

“No one ever died while breathing.” Anthony Abbagnano’s words are only somewhat comforting, as I settle down on my girlfriend’s yoga mat for an hour of hyperventilation.

Last night I spent the evening with about a hundred other yoga-matted breathers in the vast domed sanctuary of the Round Chapel in Clapton. The event was called Psychedelic Breathwork, and jointly organised by the excellent Psychedelic Society and Anthony’s organisation Alchemy of Breath. I had no idea what to expect – but at least now I could be optimistic that death would play no part in it.
Continue reading “No one ever died while breathing.” Psychedelic Breathwork with Alchemy of Breath

Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, summer is sliding inexorably away. With heavy hearts, we pack away our shorts and sandals and dig out our autumnal garb. This is it, guys: we’ll be layered up until next spring.

So why haven’t I worn a jumper or a coat since Tuesday? Continue reading Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

Stoicism and The Word of God

I’ve always been somewhat in awe of Christianity: two millennia of earnest study on the nature of being and how to live the good life – all based on one book. And there is plenty of good in the Good Book. Like Mark Twain said:

[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.

Continue reading Stoicism and The Word of God

Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics

Some of you probably know that, over the past 10 weeks, I’ve been studying person-centred counselling at the CityLit in London.

Some of you are perhaps also aware that I’ve recently (re)turned to mindfulness meditation to manage stress levels, as part of a concerted campaign against elevated Thyroid Peroxidase antibodies in my bloodstream.

And probably all of you know that over the last couple of years I’ve been investigating the transpersonal potential of psychedelics.

What I am slowly realising, however, is how tightly these three areas are woven together. Continue reading Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics

The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

“I don’t take reality for granted.”

Weird stuff happens. People really do experience telepathy, alien abduction and pre-cognition.

In the UK, we usually push such stories to one side and either forget about them, or (worse) medicate them. David Luke, Senior Lecturer for Psychology at the University of Greenwich tries to understand them. Continue reading The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

A Really Good Day Psychedelic Microdosing with Ayelet Waldman

This article is ambidextrous. On the one hand, it is nothing more than a non-fiction book review. On the other, it is a fully-featured 3,000 word guide to psychedelic microdosing.

The book in question is A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life by Ayelet Waldman. The title is a little coy – presumably so she can slip under society’s anti-drugs radar. Waldman is talking specifically about psychedelic microdosing, the habit of taking a very small dose of a psychedelic drug in the same way you’d take a microdose of caffeine with your morning coffee.

Waldman’s experiment lasted a month and follows the advice of Dr Jim Fadiman, who has been collecting informal reports from psychedelic microdosers for the last ten years or so. Once in every three days, Waldman would start her morning with a drop or two of diluted LSD, then continue her day as normal, recording observations on her mood, relationships and productivity at work. This book is her lab report.

Are you ready for this? So we begin, in conventional book review fashion. Continue reading A Really Good Day Psychedelic Microdosing with Ayelet Waldman

What Makes a Person Do a Thing?

This question has fascinated me for a long time. Why does anyone do a Thing, when doing no-thing is so much easier, more secure, and more comfortable?

  • What makes a middle-aged computer programmer with a young family do a complete career swerve and retrain as a chiropractor?
  • What makes a retired marketing manager, who had until his sixties showed little to no aptitude or interest for music, suddenly join a community choir?
  • What makes a woman in her thirties quit a lucrative career as a management consultant in the city to row single-handed across the Pacific Ocean, and become a United Nations Climate Hero for her environmental work?

(These are all people I know, by the way, all great role-models.)

Inertia, doing nothing, is the favoured course of (in)action for a human being. Inertia is defined as:

The tendency of a body to maintain its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.

Do you recognise this tendency to inertia in yourself? I certainly do.

  • Staying in a dreadful job or a miserable relationship.
  • Not breaking the silence and telling someone exactly how you feel about them.
  • Pushing to the back of your mind that day-dream of cycling around the world / writing a novel / falling in love.

(All things I have done…)

If the natural disposition of a person is to keep going as they are, then what makes someone divert course, and do a Thing?

The answer to this question is crucial for anybody interested in pushing their own boundaries of existence – and encouraging others to do the same.

I should say right up front that I don’t have the answer. But I do have a few answers, which I’ve noticed over the past few years of trying to do Things.

Using myself as Subject Zero, in this blog post I’ll examine three different Things I did, and try to dig down to that critical Why?

Why did I break university rules and go abroad to study Arabic in Egypt and Tunisia?

In the summer of 2007, I was miserable. I was studying for a part-time Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS in London.

I scraped through my first year, passing gruelling courses in history and music despite my complete prior ignorance of those subjects.

For my second year I just had to learn Arabic and write a dissertation. But I dreaded going back to London, where the rain fell in spadefuls and the teaching was dry as desert sand.

I have never felt so uninspired, so lifeless. Emerging into adulthood had been a shock and I could scarcely believe what I found there. Surely there was more to it than this?

Continuing along this path might not have killed me, but I’d have certainly failed my Arabic exams, and even today I’m scared of imagining the hollow person I might have become.

Inertia was not an option. In this case, doing a Thing came from hitting a road block. I felt that I could not go forward any longer, so I changed direction.

Realising that I could learn much better Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country, I spoke to my course convenor and proposed the idea that I go abroad to study.

I was shocked when, from behind his paper-strewn desk, he told me that university rules stipulated I must attend a certain percentage of classes (I think it was something like 70%).

This rule, he explained, was protection against legal action. Apparently SOAS receives a lot of wealthy young Arab men, who are sent to study in London, but spend all their time and money on sex and drugs. Then the families sue when the university fails their sons.

So I wrote SOAS a letter promising that I wouldn’t sue them, and left for Cairo.

Why did I leave everything behind and spend 2 months cycling 4,110 miles around Britain?

Hitting a brick wall in your path is one motivator, certainly, but it seems to be more of a stimulus to the essential process of imagination.

You need to have the idea of doing a Thing before you can do the Thing. This seems obvious, but I think is often overlooked. Without engaging the imagination, when you hit a roadblock you risk descending into frustration.

I have written before about how important are people who launch themselves on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures. Without these people, how will we hear the stories that fire our own imagination?

For me, this act of imagination manifests itself as an idea that I can’t shake off. I dream up a million and one ideas every year, but only a few lodge themselves in my head like spines I can’t pluck out without action.

Cycling around Britain was one such spine.

The idea bubbled up from a soup of dissatisfaction with what I’d seen of the world. I knew Cairo better than I knew anywhere in Britain beyond my bubbles of London and South Oxfordshire. I wanted to fix that.

An inciting dissatisfaction is not quite enough to stir me into action, however. I need to know that my idea is possible, that I can turn imagination into reality.

Somewhere on the BBC, I ran across an article about a kid who’d walked around the coast of Britain with his dog. So I stole his idea, thinking that if he could do it, then I could too.

The only problem was that he’d taken 9 months over the journey and I didn’t want to commit to something so vast.

So I decided to cycle (despite not having a touring bike or having cycled further than 10 miles in the past 2 years).

This was the idea that I couldn’t get out of my head.

But still the question remains: Why did I end up acting on that idea, rather than suppressing it like so many others?

There are a few influences that I could draw on here, including some pretty life-shattering experiences, like the death of my nan and the messy break-up of a relationship.

But these are distractions from the true first cause, only coming after I had committed to the journey.

No: the moment when this imagination started to become reality was forgettably insignificant.

I told someone.

That was it. I just mentioned my idea of cycling around the country in passing, in casual conversation with my sister and my (then) girlfriend.

While an idea stays locked inside your head, it is neutralised, safe. It’s only when you let it out into the world, first as a vocalised intention, that it takes on a power of its own and action becomes inevitable.

That first step is always the smallest, but takes the greatest courage.

It’s only after you’ve vocalised your idea that other factors conspire to push you out of the door.

For me, those other factors were not just losing my nan and my relationship, but also a question: Do I really want to be the person who walked away from such adventure?

Telling my sister and girlfriend was the tiny first step on a journey of more than four thousand miles.

That epic bike ride changed my life in many ways, but it was missing something. To this day, I don’t feel like I got the most out of that particular Thing.

Why did 80 cyclists ride 70 miles to give their bikes away to migrants and refugees?

Last Spring, a friend I didn’t quite have yet had an idea: to cycle from London to Calais and donate her bicycle to the destitute migrants living there.

I thought this was a great idea. We put a call out on Facebook and very soon people from all over the UK were messaging us, joining the ride.

At Barnehurst train station, the set off point for the ride, shivers ran up my spine as more and more people arrived, saddle bags full, chattering excitedly, bikes oiled and ready to ride.

Why did all these people come together on the ride? There are two answers to this questions, a Big Reason and a little reason.

  • The Big Reason we were all doing this was to ride in solidarity with those migrants who had travelled thousands of miles to escape certain death in Syria and Sudan, in the hope of a better life in the UK.
  • The little reason, though, was friendship. Everywhere you looked on the ride were little clusters of pals, three or four here, five or six there. Anybody who came alone was soon embraced. By the time we arrived in France, we were brothers and sisters.

The Big Reason could be called our higher purpose, the lofty ambition that bonded us all, but it was the little reason that actually held the ride together.

It was the little reason that gave us belief in our higher purpose, and it was the little reason that gave us the belief in ourselves to persevere through the hard ride.

Over the next 24 hours, we went through the full 70 miles of hills and woods, rain and thunder.

Strangers worked together to navigate the back roads of Kent, leg muscle massages were passed around, food shared, bikes repaired.

We became a community and that community sustained our belief that we could succeed in our endeavour. This was exactly the same for the Thighs of Steel ride from London to Athens in 2018.

A higher purpose is needed to make your Thing about more than just you, but it’s surely impossible to sustain belief in any higher purpose without support from your friends and your community.

  • I would not have returned to Calais again and again if I wasn’t certain that I would find friends there (even if it’s just ones I haven’t yet met).
  • I would not still be living in London if it weren’t for my friends.
  • I have forgotten almost as much as I learnt from my secondary school education, but I will always remember the friends I made there, and the lessons they taught me.

If you doubt the centrality of friendships to doing Things, then perhaps the following true story will help.

In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, volunteers from across the Untied States travelled down to the deep south to help register black voters.

This was dangerous work, even for privileged whites. On the 21 of June, three young volunteers were killed, one black and two white.

Understandably, this discouraged some from making the journey from their safe homes to take up this deadly cause.

Fascinatingly, however, social scientists have been able to discover what kinds of people followed through on their initial enthusiasm: friends.

Those volunteers who had equally committed friends or who were part of a committed community (a political organisation or church group for example) were much less likely to drop out of the mission.

Friends hold us to account and inspire us to be the people we would like to be. Friends help us believe in ourselves and in the value of our Thing.

If you’re unsure that you can commit and follow through on doing your Thing, invite a friend and do it together.

Side note on relationships versus friendship

Relationships can be inspirational in the same way that friendships are, particularly in the early stages, when the fires burn strongly. But friendships are more powerful.

Perhaps surprisingly, friends are more likely to influence our behaviour than our partners or families.

Over time, we tend to take even the most passionate partners for granted. We start to believe that they will never leave us, and we can comfortably let our tendency to inertia show.

But because our friends can drop us any time, we tend to make a bigger effort to live up to our best selves.

What makes a person do a Thing? Four stages.

  1. You feel some dissatisfaction in your life, some hole that stimulates the imagination.
  2. You let your imagination play over the possibilities, gradually solidifying the idea that you can succeed. Here is where other people’s stories help: “If he can do it, so can I.”
  3. Tell a friend. Don’t boast, but feel the courage to take the first tiny step towards pulling the idea out of your head and into reality.
  4. Connect your idea and action with a higher purpose, supported by the belief you find in friendship and community. This will help you persevere through difficulties, and get the most out of your Thing.

EXTRA: One bizarre reason why people do NOT do their Thing

It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the biggest reasons why people don’t do a Thing is, not because they lack the dissatisfaction or the imagination, and not because they fear failure, but because they fear success.

It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act.

There are a couple of explanations for this strange modesty that I can think of:

  • Success means putting your heard above the parapet, putting yourself up to be shot at, perhaps more than failure might draw mockery.
  • If we believe that we are powerful, then what excuse do we have for not acting? Remember that inertia is the default setting for human beings. But if we are powerful, then we must act; we have a moral duty to use our power for good, and that takes us well out of our comfort zone.

So, in addition to the four stages outlined above, there must also be a courage to act up to your potential greatness.

This can actually manifest itself, less as courage, but more as an entitlement to greatness and power.

Some people are raised with this sense of entitlement: the schools of Eton and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge seem to raise students who have no trouble believing themselves powerful enough to act on a global stage.

Other young people draw such belief from their religion, or from powerful role models and mentors who lead them through their early successes, expanding their scope of the possible.

For the rest of us, we must ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Slowly, that feeling of being an imposter will dissolve, as our comfort zones expand into new territory, and we realise the extent of our power and feel the humility of our greatness.

Good luck!

I hate crisps

I hate crisps.

There. I’ve said it.

I really do hate crisps. And I don’t say that lightly or with a cheeky twinkle in my eye. I loathe crisps. I abhor crisps. I detest crisps, crisp-eaters and every aspect and association of this most deplorable variety of snack.

Do you love crisps? Then, I guarantee, I hate you. (At least I do whenever you stuff your slobbering maw with fried potato.)

It never used to be like this. I used to eat crisps when I were a lad. They would be served up as a treat once a week, or poured into bowls at parties, and I would devour them with quick-fingered crunch. Because the addict doesn’t notice the madness of their addiction.

And that explains my hatred: there is no more acerbic anti-smoker than the former-smoker. There is no more hate-filled anti-crisper than the former-crisper. (Indeed, you will occasionally witness me, in a fit of self-loathing, suffer a relapse.)

But my hatred of crisps is founded on rational principles, just as the anti-smoker is medically justified in their high-minded disgust of smoking and smokers.

Forget for a moment your addiction and your long and fond history of crisp consumption and think about the characteristics of the snack. Then decide if you still want to be what you are eating.

Just 5 Disgusting Things About Crisps

Examine the crisp with a dispassionate eye and what do we find?

1. They are noisy to consume, from the constant rustling of the foil sealed for freshness packaging, the rummaging fingers for the right crisp, through to the crunching of the snack chew, the sucking of fingers and constant mastication as the unfortunate victim digs half chewed gobbets of potato from between their teeth. Not to mention the scrunching of the packet when finally, mercifully, the crisps are finished.

2. They have absolutely zero nutritional value, being largely a conveyance for salt. This is unforgivable. If you really need a snack, even a noisy snack, why not just eat a bag of almonds or an apple? Or put a fistful of sand into your fat gob?

3. They stink. There is no smell quite as toxic as the breath fumes of E-numbered crisp “flavours”. Amazed that you can find crisps in flavours like Vanilla Ice Cream and Pecan Pie? How do they manage that?! By poisoning you, that’s how.

Not only will you not get the stench off your breath for hours, but the whole room into which you have just opened your mouth will suffer the olfactory fog of your idiocy.

4. They are addictive. They were invented for the sole reason of making you drink more, you fool. Somehow Pringles tried to make a virtue of this: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” You could say the same for crack cocaine. Why allow a snack food to be your masochistic master?

5. They are ubiquitous. You can’t go anywhere these days without having crisps foisted upon you. Sit down on any train journey and within minutes you will hear a diabolical orchestra tuning up with rustlings, crunchings and suckings, closely followed by a noxious waft of stinging fumes that will persist like a cloud of pestilence until you get to your destination.

Even restaurants insist on spoiling their food with the addition of crisps – usually before you’ve even caught sight of the menu. Poppadoms: crisps. Prawn crackers: crisps. Tacos: crisps. Meal ruined.

Why oh why oh why?

Given this cursory examination of just five hideous features of the crisp (I could go on), it is clear that they are nothing more than a successful marketing campaign.

So why do people eat crisps? Because they actually enjoy the taste? That I can’t believe. You’ll hear smokers too, talking about the glory of that first cigarette of the morning, shortly after hacking up their guts.

No. We eat crisps because we’re childishly drawn by the garish packaging, by their ubiquity in every shop around the country, because we’re told to like them by our parents and the rest of our moronic nation.

We are cursed; a crisp-obsessed society that has deluded itself into believing fried potato is the optimal snack for every occasion: at meal times, in school packed lunches, on trains, with a drink in a pub.

The only reason we eat crisps is because we are a dogmatic crisp-eating society. You could no more imagine English society without crisps than you could without tea or cricket. It’s pathetic.

But perhaps a society gets the snacks they deserve. We deserve nothing better than a throwaway, antisocial, vacuous snack food that litters the highways and byways of Britain. The crisp is garish, loud and ultimately empty. Our garish, loud and ultimately empty society deserves nothing more.

Why are polyglots so damn nice?

The cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language are well studied and publicised. Learning a foreign language makes you smarter, better at multitasking, helps to delay Alzheimer’s and dementia, improves your memory and your decision-making and makes you more perceptive of your surroundings.

But what about the social benefits of learning a foreign language? Or, as a friend asked me the other day: “Why are polyglots so damn nice?”

We batted about a number of reasons that sprang to mind and I resolved to do further research on the subject. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little academic research into the niceness or otherwise of polyglots, speakers of multiple foreign languages.

The best I found was a study examining the relationship between empathy and achievement in foreign language learning. Excitedly, I clicked open the report, fully expecting to find hard scientific evidence for my friend’s complaint. Alas, the researchers found no such correlation.

This was rather disappointing, but I still strongly believe there is much more to this question than mere circumstantial evidence of all the nice polyglots we know.

So here are my introductory explorations of the matter. Why are polyglots so damn nice?

Empathy

Despite the one study I mentioned earlier, I’m sure there must be something in this. The researchers only tested students already studying a foreign language a university level: I’m talking about the difference between polyglots and ordinary mortals like me.

In order to become fluent in a foreign language, you must have spent a long time living and studying that language. Human beings learn by copying others and language learning in particular involves a high degree of mimicry. In order to copy others effectively (to the extent that you master a foreign language), you must be or become empathetic.

Far from being a trait fixed at birth, empathy can be practised and strengthened. Learning a foreign language to fluency is surely an excellent way of doing this. And, of course, empathy makes us nice.

Tolerance

Stepping into a foreign language is stepping into a foreign culture. The words we use affect the world the see and change the person we are. That’s why, when I studied Spanish in Sevilla, I became more expressive with my hands, more garrulous with my neighbours on the bus and more assertive in queues. That’s why, when I studied Arabic in Cairo, I became more adept at negotiation, more polite, more religious and even more assertive in queues.

When you have taken a foreign language to fluency, you cannot fail to realise that the way you do things at home is not the One True Way of doing things. Everything, from the words you use to the ethics of pig-eating is culturally relative. Even the etiquette of queueing.

This appreciation of cultural relativity makes you more flexible in your approach to others and more tolerant of strange and new things. This tolerance makes you nice.

Sociability

In order to learn any language to fluency, you must be sociable. When you’re a baby, that sociability is forced on you by family, school and roller skating club.

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, however, you often have to make a huge effort to use your new language, by seeking out conversational partners. In short, you must become highly sociable, otherwise your new language won’t get enough practise to reach fluency.

I found learning Spanish in Spain far easier than learning French in school precisely because the Spanish did not tolerate my quiet English reserve. They wouldn’t let me be unsociable, and I learnt more in two weeks of gallivanting than I had done in years of school-taught French.

Furthermore, if you’re a total dickwad, then your hard-won conversation partners won’t stick around and your language skills won’t improve. Learning a foreign language to fluency takes a special kind of sociability: the nice kind.

Humility

By the time you’re fluent in a foreign language, you’ve made more than six hundred thousand mistakes, from mere slips of the tongue to full on inadvertant insults. You’ve embarrassed yourself in front of greengrocers, taxi drivers, attractive would-be mates, teachers, work colleagues, politicians and even the neighbourhood dog.

You cannot learn a foreign language to fluency, therefore, without being humble. The only way to learn is by embracing every mistake, learning from it and jumping straight into the next one. There is surely no such thing as the arrogant learner, at least not one that has actually learnt anything.

The corallory of this is that you cannot learn a foreign language without relying on and accepting the niceness of other people, who patiently listen to your manglings of their beloved mother tongue, exert themselves to comprehend your garblings and then correct you, before listening to you regurgitate the now slightly less awful mess all over again.

Your learner’s humility makes you nice and your appreciation for the efforts of others to help you makes you even nicer.

Patience

You don’t become fluent in a foreign language without being a determined little bugger. According to the European Common Languages Framework, it takes about 890 classroom hours to go from zero to fluent (level C2) in French. That’s a year of concentrated study. Note, too, that this is only teaching hours; students must typically practise their language skills for two or three times this long outside class.

Looking at it this way, achieving fluency in a foreign language is an overwhelming feat of determination and patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Italian wasn’t learnt in an hour.

Not only is attaining fluency a monumental task, but, as soon as it is attained, your fluency degrades. You must practise your new language every day or, before long, you will find yourself back clutching a dictionary. Language learning is not for the impatient, who want fluency now, forever, without the effort.

But your practice of patient perseverance has another side benefit, I believe. Patience means you’re less likely to get frustrated with other people. Patience makes you nice.

Listening

Finally, for now, you can’t learn a foreign language without being a good listener. How else could you pick up the difference between “sheep” and “ship”, or “sheet and “shi…”?

But being a good listener isn’t just useful for avoiding strange bedroom mishaps; it’s also useful for making other people think you’re interested in what they’re saying. And other people LOVE that.

Yes, that’s right: being a good listener is directly correlated with being a complete bastard. Oh no, my mistake: it’s directly correlated with being damn nice.

You can be nice too!

That’s the end of my little examination of the (totally unscientifically proven) reasons why polyglots might be so damn nice. I shall leave you with one important note.

I am not saying that only nice people can become polyglots.

My argument is that the correlation works in the opposite direction: learning a foreign language makes you a nice person by making you more empathic, more tolerant, more sociable, more humble, more patient and a better listener.

There is hope for me still. Now sod off and let me get on with my conjugations.

End Notes

Anne Merritt (The Daily Telegraph, 2013) Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism

Filiz Yalcin-Tilfarlioglu, Arda Arikan (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012) Empathy Levels and Academic Achievement of Foreign Language Learners