How do we change our stress levels if they are not helping us to function well during the day or sleep well at night?

Stress levels that are both too low and too high can cause problems at different times of the day and in different situations.

It is important to first figure out if your stress level is too low, too high or just right for the situation that you are in.

The best way to figure out your stress level is to think of a scale from 0-10, where 0 is as relaxed and calm as you could possibly be, and 10 is as overwhelmed as you can be:

  • If your stress level is between 0 and 2, you will probably not want to do much except for sit or lie there because you are so relaxed. It is great to have low arousal levels if you are in bed at night, as you are likely to feel sleepy and fall asleep quickly. You may also feel really calm and peaceful if you are lying around by the pool on holiday and don’t have anything that you have to do. However, it is less ideal if you are at work or home and need to get things done. You might feel apathetic, unmotivated, bored, flat or even a little sad or depressed if you want to achieve a goal during the day but your arousal level is too low.
  • If your stress level is between 4 and 6, you are at the optimal level for feeling alert and focused and functioning well during the day. However, if they remain at a 6 once you go to bed, your brain may want to keep ticking over and thinking about things, and your body may not be as relaxed as it needs to be to feel comfortable, fall asleep quickly and remain asleep throughout the night.
  • If your stress level is between 8 and a 10, you are in the danger zone, and it can be difficult to calm yourself down quickly or to think about anything except for the perceived threat or threats to your safety in your environment. At 10 you are probably having a panic attack and thinking that you are going crazy or that you are going to die. It is very hard to fall asleep if your brain thinks that you are in imminent danger, as we are at our most vulnerable to attack when we are asleep.

You then need to rate your stress level at the moment, between 0 and 10, based on the above scale.

If you are unable to put a number on your stress level immediately, ask yourself further questions, such as:

  • How active is my brain right now?
    • Are my thoughts calm (low stress), appearing at a comfortable pace (moderate), or racing (high stress)?
    • Am I on the lookout for danger and focused on potential threats in my environment (high stress), able to concentrate on what I am doing (moderate) or daydreaming about nothing specific (low)?
  • How tense is my body right now?
    • Do I feel relaxed physically (low stress), comfortable (moderate) or tense (high stress)?
  • Do I notice any other strong physical sensations right now?
    • Is my chest pounding, heart racing, am I feeling hot or sweaty, feeling restless or irritable or needing to move around a lot, experiencing shortness of breath or rapid breathing (all signs of high stress)?
    • Do I feel physically tired, flat, and have no energy or no motivation (all signs of low stress)?
  • What do I feel emotionally?
    • Do I feel calm, peaceful, bored, apathethic, sad or depressed (all signs of low stress)?
    • Do I feel content, satisfied, or happy (moderate)?
    • Do I feel excited, anxious, stressed, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed or panicky (all signs of high stress)?

Once you know your current stress level, you then need to determine what the optimal level of stress is for the current situation that you are in:

  • If you are in a war zone, 7 or 8 is probably optimal,
  • if you are at work, 5 or 6 is probably optimal,
  • if you are wanting to chill and relax, either by yourself or with friends, 3 or 4 is probably optimal, and
  • if you are in bed and wanting to sleep, 1 or 2 is probably optimal.

Now that you have your current stress level and your optimal level for the situation that you are in, you will know if you need to do something to increase or decrease it.

As you will see in the following section, there are many different lifestyles, personality factors and strategies that can increase or decrease our stress levels during the day and at night and when we are in bed.

What to do if your stress levels are too high and you want to reduce them

1. Do less during the day

Always being on the go and trying to be productive all the time increases our stress levels over time, which increases our cortisol levels, which increases our stress further.

Try to see if you can do less, by delegating more tasks to others, hiring others to do things you don’t like, asking for more help from your partner or children, or putting less important tasks off until later.

2. Lower your standards

The Pareto principle states that we can obtain 80% of the results we want with only 20% of the effort. This means that the last 20% takes 80% of the effort.

What would happen if you became okay with things being ‘good enough’ (80%) rather than ‘perfect’ (100%)? You could take the 80% effort that you normally put into trying to be perfect, and apply 20% to four other areas of your life. The result would be you achieve 80% of the results you want in five areas of your life in comparison to 100% of the results in one area of your life and 0% in the other four.

By choosing to drop your standards a little bit, you can get more done with less effort, which could also mean less stress, lower cortisol, and better sleep at night.

3. Take more breaks during the day

The Pomodoro technique has been found to be one of the most productive ways to study. It involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, then taking a five-minute break, and then repeating the process.

Humans are not designed to concentrate on the one thing for hour after hour, yet work schedules are often set up where people work for 3.5 hours straight, eat lunch at their desk while they continue to work for an hour, then work for another 3.5 hours straight. People do this because they think they are too busy and cannot afford the time to stop, take a break, rest or relax. But what happens if these rest periods actually made us more productive?

When I worked night shift at the supermarket, we got two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute break in an 8-hour shift, and we got paid to take all of these breaks. Maybe they were just being nice, but I think Woolworths realised that staff morale and productivity remained much higher with breaks happening at least every 2 hours.

Try it and see for yourself if you feel better after a week of taking more regular breaks and actually getting away from the desk or out of your office during this time.

4. Problem solve if something is worrying you or causing you stress

If you are feeling stressed about something, it helps to write down what is bothering you and a plan to address it if there is something that you can do.

People often fall into the trap of procrastinating or putting off doing something that would help them to feel a lot less stressed once it was done. If you are worried about your late tax return, playing video games might help distract you from thinking about the issue, but actually getting it done is going to feel much better. Fortunately, writing down a plan can provide us nearly the same amount of relief as actually doing the task, as long as we write down what we need to do, what the first action is that we need to take, and exactly when we are going to take it.

People also fall into the trap of worrying about or trying to change things that are out of their control. You cannot change other people or what has been done in the past, but you can accept these things, learn from what has happened, and choose what you want to do about it going forward. By writing this plan down, you will feel less stressed and have a much quieter mind than if you kept trying to change something that you have no control over.

5. Learn how to meditate

Mindfulness meditation is probably the most popular form of meditation at the moment. It involves paying attention to whatever is going on in the moment in an open, non-judgmental, non-striving, patient and accepting manner.

Apps like Smiling Mind, Calm and Headspace are great for teaching mindfulness mediation and giving you some techniques to observe what is happening in your body, in your mind, and in the environment around you without trying to change anything. There are other meditation apps that I have been told are good but I haven’t tried yet, including 10% Happier, Waking Up, Buddhify and Insight Timer.

There are others forms of meditation out there too, including transcendental meditation, Vippassana meditation and Metta meditation. Try a few different ones, see which one is the best fit for you and your lifestyle, and then try to incorporate it on a daily basis if you want to see what the long-term benefits may be for you.

Even 10 minutes of meditation a day, done either in the morning or at night, can make a big difference to people’s stress, anxiety, sleep, mood, concentration and pain, and help people to better regulate their emotional lives in general and not get caught up in as many unhelpful thoughts.

6. Learn relaxation strategies

This might be grounding, deep abdominal breathing, square breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or imagery.

Find a relaxation strategy that helps you to regularly lower your stress levels, and then practice it regularly throughout the day whenever you realise your stress is higher than you would like it to be for the situation that you are in and the task that you want to do.

7. Learn cognitive restructuring skills

If you notice yourself worrying about something or feeling too stressed, try to identify what you are thinking, then ask yourself if these thoughts are realistic or helpful for you to be thinking about in that moment. If they are not realistic or helpful, ask yourself what is a more realistic or helpful way to think about the situation, and try to remind yourself of this if your initial thoughts occur again.

If the more helpful way of thinking doesn’t change how stressed you feel, ask yourself what is most important to you in the moment, and try to change your focus to this.

8. Engage in other tasks that you find relaxing and enjoyable during the day

This might be a massage, doing something creative, being out in nature, playing a game, engaging in sport, exercise or a hobby, doing some yoga or pilates, listening to music, having a spa, sauna, steam or hot bath, reading, listening to music, watching a movie or favourite TV show.

Doing things that give us a sense of meaning, pleasure, engagement, connection or achievement can improve our overall sense of well-being, which can increase our happiness and reduce our stress levels.

9. Spend time with friends, family or people that you feel calm around and accepted for who you are

Help someone out, volunteer, do a random act of kindness, or express gratitude to someone that is important to you.

Try not to take the important people in your life for granted, and really try to remain present and connect with whoever it is that you are talking to or spending time with.

Relationship warmth is the number one predictor of long-term health and happiness, and people do tend to feel less stressed when they have shared a concern with someone who actively listens and tries to understand what they are going through.

If you have no one in your life currently who can provide this for you, seeing a qualified therapist or psychologist can also help. It definitely did for me personally, as well as for many others.

10. Dedicate time for winding down before sleep each night

The last few hours before bed should not be for excessively demanding physical or cognitive tasks. If you have to finish off work, try to stop it at least an hour before bed, and focus on winding down and preparing your mind and body for sleep instead.

This winding down time is ideal for practicing the relaxation or meditation exercises that you have already learnt. You might also want to journal during this time, and reflect on 3 things that went well for you during the day or that you appreciated.

You can also listen to relaxing music, dim the lights, light some nice smelling and non-toxic candles, talk with friends or loved ones that you feel calm around, read a book or listen to a podcast or audiobook.

Anything that helps to lower your stress levels and doesn’t result in you using bright screens or being too physically active. Sex is one exception to this rule, and often helps people to feel more relaxed and sleepy afterwards, so don’t try to cut this out of your pre-sleep routine if it typically helps you.

11. Minimize your use of caffeine, alcohol or sleeping pills

Although these substances can sometimes help in the short-term, in the long-run they increase our stress levels and make it harder to function well during the day (caffeine) or sleep well at night (alcohol). They can also make us dependent on them (sleeping pills), where we feel that we can no longer sleep without them or need to keep taking bigger and bigger doses to get the same effect.

It is much better to learn other strategies to wind down apart from sleeping pills or alcohol, and other strategies to energize us apart from caffeine.

What to do if your stress levels are too low and you want to be more productive and function better:

1. Clarify your top five signature strengths and put these into action more

You can find out your strengths by going to and taking the free survey.

Once you have your top five signature strengths, set some goals to apply them more on a daily or a weekly basis, and see if it improves your energy and mood.

2. Make a to-do-list for the day and prioritise which tasks you need to do first

Making plans and ticking things off our to-do-list can reduce our stress levels if they are too high, but making to-do lists and focusing on our priorities can also increase our energy and focus if we are feeling unmotivated, bored or apathetic.

By achieving the first priority on our to-do-list, we then get a rush of dopamine, which encourages us to move onto the next task and achieve something else too.

3. Set some sub-goals or targets with whatever task you are trying to do

If you want to do something that seems like too much hard effort, make it a smaller goal, or just focus on the first step.

The five minute walk that you do is better than the 5km run that you don’t do, so break whatever goal you have down into a small and realistic task, especially if you are feeling flat or depressed.

Often getting started is the hardest part, and once we get started it is then easier to keep the momentum going towards achieving your overall goal.

You can also give yourself a target, such as I will write 200 words over the next hour. This will give you something to aim for or challenge yourself with, and can make it a bit more fun.  

4. Try activity bundling, pairing a less enjoyable task with a more enjoyable task

If there is something that you don’t like to do, pair it with something that you really enjoy to make it more bearable. This might be listening to energetic music while you are exercising or doing housework, or catching up with your extended family at your favourite restaurant.

I don’t like ironing, but I do enjoy binge-watching a good series on Netflix sometimes. If I spend a Sunday afternoon once a month ironing all my clothes that need ironing while binge watching a show that I want to catch up on, I can look forward to it instead of detest doing it. My ironing also gets done whenever I need to do it now, instead of being something that I continually put off.

5. Determine a reward for yourself if you complete what you need to do by a certain time, or create a negative consequence if you do not complete your task

You’ve already set yourself some goals or targets in the earlier steps. Now make yourself more likely to implement them or stick to them by increasing the stakes.

Let’s say you really want to see the new Marvel movie, and you know it is playing at 6pm. Tell yourself that as soon as you complete your to-do-list you can relax for the rest of the day and go to the movie that night (reward). If the to-do-list isn’t finished by 5:30pm, then you have to stay at work until it is done, and you can’t go to the movie that night (deterrent, or negative consequence).

Upping the stakes will increase your motivation and focus, especially as you get closer to the deadline. You just have to make sure that you follow through on the rewards and consequences for them to remain effective for you in similar situations going forward.

6. Drink coffee or eat simple carbohydrates with a high glycaemic index for a short-term energy boost

Need an instant hit of energy? Our brain runs on glucose, so anything that increases our blood sugar quickly will give you a quick boost if that is what you need to get started on something.

An energy drink or chocolate usually does the trick for me, but beware of the subsequent crash that will inevitably happen. It’s also not good for our long-term stress levels or overall health to rely too much on sugary products or caffeine for energy.

7. Eat protein, healthy fats or complex carbs with lots of fibre and a low glycaemic index for more sustained energy throughout the day

Tea is considered by a lot of people to be a healthier alternative to coffee, as it gives you less of a high and more sustained energy. Green tea is especially good, as long as you don’t have it with sugar.

Eggs, avocados, nuts, other fruits, and especially vegetables are great for sustained energy throughout the day, so eating these for your main meals or snacks will help.

If you are concerned that what you are eating is contributing to your low mood, low energy and reduced motivation during the day, make an appointment to see a nutritionist, and ask them to give you a meal plan to improve and sustain your energy throughout the day.

8. Drink enough water

Telling people to drink 8 cups of water a day is potentially more useless than telling people to get 8 hours of sleep every night. Your ideal water intake will differ massively depending on how hot it is where you live, how humid it is, how active you are, and how much you sweat. If it is hot and humid and you have been sweating a lot, you will need to drink a lot more water than if it is cold and you have been sedentary all day.

If your pee is clear, you are hydrated enough. If it is yellow or dark yellow, you are likely to be dehydrated. If your mouth is also dry or you are getting headaches or feeling tired or finding it difficult to concentrate, you are probably too dehydrated and should drink more water than you usually do over the next 24 hours. If these symptoms go away by tomorrow after you do this, your know that dehydration was the cause.

9. Take regular breaks

Taking a break can lower our stress levels further, so don’t do this if you have just begun a task or started doing something. It is only likely to increase your energy and motivation if you have already been working on the one task for too long.

Don’t keep working on the same task for anymore than two hours unless you are completely immersed in it and fully engaged still. As long as it has been at least 25 minutes, stop once you start to feel bored or tired or you are losing focus, and change your task or take a 10-15 minute break.  

You will know if time on task is the reason for your low energy as soon as you begin the new task or get back to what you were doing after the break.

10. Get out into nature (or at least look at it)

Too much time indoors or in unnatural environments such as a town or a city is not good for us. It can lead to you feeling both too stressed and uninspired.

If you have a park, nature reserve, lake or beach close by, go there if you’re feeling flat, and see if how you feel changes after 20-30 minutes. For most people they can feel a lot calmer, happier, more present and more creative after a short nature break.  

Patients in hospital with a nice scenic view have even been found to recover quicker than patients without a natural environment to look at, so even looking out a window if you have a nice view of greenery during your lunchtime or break from work is better than staring at your computer screen the whole time.

11. Remain physically active or do some exercise

In ‘Brain Rules’, the author John Medina said hunter-gatherers regularly walked 10-12 miles (16-20km) a day, and this is what is optimal for our brains and bodies.

If you are feeling apathetic or depressed, get out there and go for a walk or a swim, go dancing, go to the gym, take an aerobics class or play a sport.

Exercising for only 30 minutes five times a week has been found to be just as effective or more effective than antidepressants at improving mood, so start moving more, and see if this makes a difference for you.

I hope you find some of these strategies helpful. They are from an upcoming book that I am writing on sleep. I look forward to sharing it with you all once it is finished!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Do This Directives: Straightforward Advice for Life From a Successful CEO, and Where This Advice Goes Wrong!

Derek Sivers seems like a pretty cool guy. On his website, he calls himself a musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and book publisher. He started a company called CDBaby and made millions from this. He then gave the company to charity, resulting in millions of dollars subsequently being used to help up-and-coming musical artists who need some monetary support to try and realise their dreams.

Sivers also reads a lot of non-fiction books that are focused on psychology, self-help and self-improvement. He has little reviews of these books on his website and gives them a score out of 10, which is great if you are in need of a recommendation of what to read.

In 2016, Sivers tried to summarise all of the key points that he obtained from reading so many non-fiction books. These key points were put into “do this” directives for him as a personal guide to various aspects of life. The directives were first brought to the public’s attention in his episode of the hugely popular ‘Tim Ferriss Show’ podcast. Because of the demand for the remainder of these lists, they were shared on Derek’s website He also plans on doing more with these directives in the future, including potentially writing his own book.

Below are his directives, as well as my opinion of them. Directives that I completely agree with will be in green. Directives that I disagree with or that go against scientific research will be in red.

group hand fist bump

How to be useful to others:

Get famous

  • Do everything in public and for the public.
  • The more people you reach, the more useful you are.
  • The opposite is hiding, which is of no use to everyone.

Get rich

  • Money is neutral proof you’re adding value to people’s lives.
  • So, by getting rich, you’re being useful as a side effect.
  • Once rich, spend the money in ways that are even more useful to others.
  • Then, getting rich is double useful.

Share strong opinions

  • Strong opinions are very useful to others.
  • Those who were undecided or ambivalent can just adopt your stance.
  • But those who disagree can solidify their stance by arguing against yours.

Be expensive

  • People given a placebo pill were twice as likely to have their pain disappear when told the pill was expensive.
  • People who paid more for tickets were more likely to attend the performance.
  • People who spend more for a product or service value it more, and get more use out of it.

people taking group photo

WHAT I THINK: While there are a lot of famous and rich people who are useful to other people, there are many others who are not. What is true is that if you are famous and rich, you have the potential to have more influence on others and do more positive things, such as Bill and Melinda Gates. You also have the potential to negatively influence more people too, such as Donald Trump. What you do with that power and exposure is up to you.

You can also make a difference to others without being rich or famous. Don’t underestimate the difference you can make as a teacher or coach or parent or volunteer or community member or any other role where you interact with others on a regular basis. If you charge more, people will value your services more, you will earn more money and then have a greater chance to be useful to others.

Do try to be informed before sharing your opinions publicly. Look at all the damage Jenny McCarthy did by sharing her opinions on vaccines and autism.


How to get rich:

Live where luck strikes

  • Live where everything is happening.
  • Live where the money is flowing.
  • Live where careers are being made.
  • Live where your role models live.
  • Once there, be as in the game as anyone can be.
  • Be right in the middle of everything.

Say yes to everything

  • Meet everyone.
  • Pursue every opportunity.
  • Nothing is too small. Do it all.
  • Like lottery tickets, you never know which one will win. So the more, the better.
  • Follow-up and keep in touch with everyone.

Learn the multiplying skills

  • Speaking, writing, psychology, design, conversation, 2nd language, persuasion, programming, meditation/focus.
  • Not pursued on their own, they’re skills that multiply the success of your main pursuit (e.g., A pilot who’s also a great writer and public speaker; A chef with a mastery of psychology, persuasion and design).
  • These skills multiply the results of your efforts, and give you an edge over others in your field.

Pursue market value, not personal value

  • Do what pays well.
  • Do not be the starving artist, working on things that have great personal value to you, but little market value.
  • Follow the money. It tells you where you’re most valuable.
  • Don’t try to make a career out of everything you love. For example, sex.

Shamelessly imitate success

  • Imitate the best strategies of your competitors.
  • The market doesn’t care about your personal need to be unique.
  • It’s selfless and humble to use the best ideas regardless of source, to create the best service or product for your clients.
  • Get great at executing other people’s ideas as well as your own.

Be the owner, not just the inventor

  • It’s tempting to try to be the ideas person, having someone else do the dirty work of making those ideas happen.
  • Ideas don’t make you rich. Great execution of ideas does.
  • A rule of capitalism: whoever takes the most financial risk gets the rewards.
  • The biggest rewards will always go to those that fund it and own it.
  • To get rich, be the owner. Own as close to 100% as possible.

Benefit from human nature

  • Instead of complaining about the downside of human nature, find ways to benefit from it.
  • Instead of complaining about the rules, just learn the game, then play it.


bitcoins and u s dollar bills

WHAT I THINK: To get rich, it is important to know how humans think and act, and to find ways to benefit from this instead of wishing for things to be different. It is useful to see what has worked for others, to learn how to do things in this way first, and then to adapt the best things so that what you are doing is authentically yours. It is important to try to own the product or service you are trying to sell. If you don’t do this, your earning potential will always be capped and will generally always be less than your bosses.

While it is true that people need to be willing to spend money in order to make money, it’s not just about taking financial risks. There are many broke people out there who have spent too much on bad ideas. Figure out how to test your ideas or products first to see how the market responds before investing too much in it, and don’t be afraid to make changes or start over again if a better opportunity presents itself. Ideally we aren’t just doing something for the money. If we love it, are good at it and it makes a lot, you will be much happier than doing something just because you know that it pays well.

While it is true that we don’t know which opportunities will necessarily work out, we also can’t make much progress if we are saying yes to everyone and everything. Meet and connect with the right people who are not just out for themselves until you find a great idea. Then pursue this project for a set period until you know if it is likely to make you rich or not. If not, jump ship as soon as you realise it and keep brainstorming and connecting and saying yes until you find your next great idea. Once you have this, learning how to prioritise and say no may be even more important than always saying yes. Same with being in the middle of everything. It’s good until you know which path you want to go down. Once you know, distance from others can be just as good until an idea has been executed.

The last bit of advice that isn’t here is don’t gamble or invest in get rich quick schemes. Use debit cards instead of credit cards. Don’t buy the most expensive insurance options. Do invest in index funds and other trustworthy stocks regularly and as early as you can and don’t change them around too much. Compounding interest will help you to gain a lot of money over time. But having heaps of money beyond what you need to meet your basic needs isn’t likely to make you a lot happier in the long run.

flight technology tools astronaut

How to thrive in an unknowable future:

Prepare for the worst

  • Since you have no idea what the future may bring, be open to the best and the worst.
  • But the best case scenario doesn’t need your preparation or your attention.
  • So mentally and financially prepare for the worst case, instead.
  • Like insurance, don’t obsess on it. Just prepare, then carry on appreciating the good times.

Expect disaster

  • Every biography of a successful person has that line, “And then, things took a turn for the worse.”
  • Fully expect that disaster to come to you at any time.
  • Completely assume it’s going to happen, and make your plans accordingly.
  • Not just money, but health, family, freedom. Expect it all to disappear.
  • Besides, you appreciate things more when you know this may be your last time seeing them.

Own as little as possible

  • Depend on even less.
  • The less you own, the less you’re affected by disaster.

Choose opportunity, not loyalty

  • Have no loyalty to location, corporation, or your past public statements.
  • Be an absolute opportunist, doing whatever is best for the future in the current situation, unbound by the past.
  • Have loyalty for only your most important human relationships.

Choose the plan with the most options

  • The best plan is the one that lets you change your plans.
  • Example: renting a house is buying the option to move at any time without losing money in a changing market.

Avoid planning

  • For maximum options, don’t plan at all.
  • Since you have no idea how the situation or your mood may change in the future, wait until the last moment to make each decision.

aerial view of city with lights during night

WHAT I THINK: It’s good to be creative, flexible, adaptable and open to change. These characteristics will become even more important in the future, because change is likely to continue to happen at an even faster and faster pace. People back in the 14th century kind of knew what to expect by the 15th century, but most people living now have no idea what life is likely to look like in the 22nd century. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan, and it definitely doesn’t mean that we should only plan for the worst. Life has continued to get better and better in so many ways, and it is likely to continue to get better in many ways too. It doesn’t mean it can’t get worse, but we shouldn’t all become doomsday preppers or not buy anything in case disaster strikes. Try to only buy the things you need that will help add value to your life.

Especially if you have kids, stability is good, so don’t be afraid to set up roots. Buy a house, start a business where you live, and develop friendships with other people in your neighbourhood. Some people may leave, businesses may collapse, marriages may crumble, but research still indicates that people have more satisfied relationships if they get married than if they live together but don’t get married. Married men are also both happier and healthier than single men. Divorce negatively impacts kids, especially if there is a lot of conflict, and learning how to overcome difficulties is better than always avoiding things or running away as soon as things get tough or another seemingly desirable option presents itself. We always think the grass is greener on the other side, but when we get there it’s often not as shiny or as different as we first thought (or better than we’ve previously had).

Essentially, having plans and making commitments is better than having none, as long as you are also open to making tweaks and even big changes if things really aren’t working out. Research indicates that having too many options makes it too hard to choose and not making a decision can be really stressful and both physically and emotionally draining. Research also indicates that we tend to become happier with our choices over time once we have made them, as long as we commit to our choices and don’t keep trying to doubt ourselves or leave all the other doors open too.

four women standing on mountain

How to like people:

Assume it’s their last day

  • Everyone talks about living like it’s your last day on earth.
  • Instead, to appreciate someone, live like it’s their last day on earth.
  • Treat them accordingly. Try to fulfill their dreams for the day.
  • Really listen to them. Learn from them.

Be who’d you’d be when alone

  • You could live in a crowd, pleasing only others.
  • You could live in solitude, pleasing only yourself.
  • But ideally, when in a crowd, be the same person you’d be when alone.

Assume men and women are the same

  • Men think women are so different from them.
  • Women think men are so different from them.
  • But the differences among men and differences among women are far greater than the differences between men and women.
  • So, counteract your tendency to exaggerate the differences.

Always make new friends

  • As you grow old and change, old friends and family will be unintentionally invested in maintaining you as you were before.
  • Let go of people that don’t welcome and encourage your change.

Avoid harming the relationship

  • For long-term relationship success, it’s more effective than seeking the positive.
  • A friendship that may take years to develop can be ruined by a single action.

Act calm and kind

  • Regardless of how you feel

Don’t try to change them

  • unless they asked you to.
  • Don’t teach a lesson.
  • Stop trying to change people who don’t think they have a problem.

Find wisdom in your opponents

  • Really engage with those who think opposite of you.
  • You already know the ideas common on your own side.

Purge the vampires

  • Get rid of people that drain you, that don’t make you feel good about yourself.
  • They make you hate all people.

men s white button up dress shirt

WHAT I THINK: It is great to really try to appreciate others, and understanding that some people may die soon is a helpful way to ensure that we don’t take others for granted. The Tail End by Tim Urban is an awesome blog post that nicely highlights how little time we actually have left with the important people in our lives. We should try to make the most of our time with them while we still have it so we don’t regret it later.

We can learn a lot from others if we ask them about their life and experiences and beliefs and really listen, even if they have different ways of looking at things to us. But we shouldn’t try to give advice or teach lessons to others unless someone has asked or agreed to it first (or they’re reading your blog post!).

While it is good to minimise how much time we spend with people that drain us or make us feel bad or don’t accept us for who we are, it is also important to try and maintain our old friendships too. Having both old friends and family to keep us grounded and new friends to help us learn and grow is having the best of both worlds.

Men and women are different in some ways, and it is important to understand how and why. Of course we should still see each other as individuals and not just a gender, but this is the same with people who come from a different culture, ethnicity, nationality, religion and any other group that is different to yours. If we can understand group norms, it can help us to understand others a little bit better, but we should also be willing to change our perceptions of others based on what they say and do, rather than hold onto rigid, unhelpful or even discriminatory stereotypes.

While it’s not possible to always be 100% ourselves around others, the more authentic we can be the more we will feel energised around others and connected with them. Similarly, we shouldn’t always act calm if we really are upset or angry or worried and need to express our feelings or what we need. What we can do is express this in a way that is still kind and considerate so that you don’t unnecessarily burn any bridges.

Thanks for reading! For more advice on a good life, feel free to check out some of my other articles, especially: Can We Develop Our Own Guide to Better Living?; 10 Bits of Advice I’d Give My 10-Year-Old Self; Ten Traits of Highly Successful People; 25 Ideas That Could Change Your Life.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist


Is it Better to be Completely Honest, a Strategic Truth-Teller or an Occasional Liar?

I used to lie a lot growing up. Not quite as bad as Holden Caulfield in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’:
I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
But still pretty bad.
atmosphere branch cold dark
I remember lying to my mum about cleaning my room so that I could go outside to play (instead pushing all the mess under the bed or throwing it in the wardrobe).
I remember lying about doing my homework so that I didn’t have to do it and could play video games, then lying about being sick the next day so that I could finish the assignment that I was meant to do the night before.
I remember lying about how many points I scored in basketball to friends, or about how many alcoholic drinks I had to my parents whenever they picked me up from a high school party.
I even remember lying to my brother’s friend about my surfing skills (I didn’t have any), and to a classmate about how many languages I spoke (I can say maybe 30 words in Indonesian, Spanish, and Italian, but not much more).
I think back to these moments, and I’m not proud of saying these things, but I can also understand why I did it.
I wish that I could have been a less lazy, more confident and self-assured kid who was always honest with his friends and strangers and did the right thing by his parents and teachers. But how realistic is that scenario, and is it even ideal?
The truth is always an insult or a joke. Lies are generally tastier. We love them. The nature of lies is to please. Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.
Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

person holding black dslr camera

Why Do People Lie?

We lie to:

  • fit in and pretend we are like others
  • stand out and pretend we are different to or better than others
  • seek approval from others
  • be seen as more loveable/desirable/acceptable
  • feel better about ourselves
  • avoid getting into trouble
  • protect other people’s feelings or avoid hurting them
  • be polite
  • avoid feeling hurt, sad, disappointed, guilty or ashamed
  • keep a secret
  • maintain confidentiality
  • be consistent with societal norms

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.
― Friedrich Nietzsche

What Happens if We Are 100% Honest?


In the 1997 comedy ‘Liar Liar’, the main character is played by Jim Carrey. He’s a high flying lawyer who keeps disappointing his son Max by making promises to him that he can’t keep by always putting work as his first priority. After his dad doesn’t turn up to his birthday celebration, Max wishes for his dad to not be able to tell a lie, and the magic of movies makes this wish comes true.
What results is some hilarious situations in which Jim Carrey’s character gets himself into trouble for saying the whole truth when it would definitely be more polite to lie. This includes telling his secretary why he didn’t give her a pay rise, telling his boss that he has had better than her, and confessing to everyone in a crowded elevator that he was the one who did the smelly fart.
The moral of the story was two-fold:
  1. Sometimes it is necessary to lie, or at least not always be brutally honest and say everything that comes to your mind, and
  2. By trying to be as honest as possible whilst also being tactful, you may actually become a better person that upsets people less and has better quality and more authentic relationships.
One lie has the power to tarnish a thousand truths.
Al David

Radical Honesty

In 2007, A.J. Jacobs wrote an article for Esquire magazine about a month long experiment that he did on a small movement called Radical Honesty. It was titled ‘I Think You’re Fat‘ and is definitely worth a read. Much more than the 1995 book called ‘Radical Honesty’ by Brad Blanton that initially inspired the article:


Blanton had worked as a psychotherapist for 35 years in Washington D.C. and ran 8-day workshops on Radical Honesty that retailed for $2,800 back in 2007. Blanton says his method works, although he may distort some of the positive benefits for personal and financial gain. He’s been married five times, and claims to have slept with more than 500 women and six men, including a “whole bunch of threesomes.” He also admits to lying sometimes.

She looks honestly upset, but then, I’ve learned that I can’t read her. The problem with a really excellent liar is that you have to just assume they’re always lying.
Holly Black, Black Heart

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I Think You’re Fat

In Jacobs article, he wasn’t overly positive about Blanton’s version of Radical Honesty either. If we didn’t have a filter between what we say and what we notice in the world, in our body and in our thoughts like Blanton advocates, the results would probably be less funny and more consequential than what happened to Jim Carrey in ‘Liar Liar’. Jacobs declares:

Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.” – A.J. Jacobs

Jacobs found it impossible to not tell a lie during his month long experiment, but did cut down his lying by at least 40%. He also scared a five year-old girl, offended numerous people, and spoke about sex and attraction to the point where he felt creepy.

On the positive, being radically honest did save Jacobs time, resulting in him having to talk less to the people he didn’t want to talk to and do less of the things he didn’t want to do. It saved him mental energy by not having to choose how much he would lie or massage the truth. It also meant that people were usually more honest with him in return, and he found out that his relationships could withstand more truth telling than he expected. So, similar to the ‘Liar Liar’ take-away message, Jacobs concluded:

  1. Being radically honest all the time and never having a filter is likely to be inappropriate in many settings and lead to more confrontations with others, and
  2. We could probably benefit by being more authentic, honest and truthful with others, especially in intimate relationships, as secrets tend to weigh us down.

There is beauty in truth, even if it’s painful. Those who lie, twist life so that it looks tasty to the lazy, brilliant to the ignorant, and powerful to the weak. But lies only strengthen our defects. They don’t teach anything, help anything, fix anything or cure anything. Nor do they develop one’s character, one’s mind, one’s heart or one’s soul.
José N. Harris

woman holding burning newspaper

What is a Lie?

In his interesting small book ‘Lying’, Sam Harris defines a lie as:

anything that is done to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” – Sam Harris


Omission vs Commission

In ‘Lying’, Sam Harris distinguishes between lies of commission, where the person is active in their intent to deceive, and the more passive act of omission, where the person fails to do something or say something that they probably should. Both commission and omission are deceptive, in that they are both misleading to the audience or person who is the target of the action or lack of action.

Harris believes that lies of commission are a more serious violation of ethics and likely to be more harmful, just like pushing someone in front of a train is a more serious ethical violation than not saving someone who was hit by a train when you had a chance to do so.

Harris argues for people to stop all forms of commission, and says that we can enhance our world, build trust and improve relationships by always being honest in our communication. While he believes that omission is also lying, he does not believe that we can or should eliminate all forms of omission. He says that “skillful truth-telling” is sometimes required, so that we can be both honest and tactful in our words and avoid causing unnecessary harm.

Lets have a look at the following three examples to see the difference between radical honesty, lying and skillful truth-telling.

smiling man holding woman s left shoulder
SCENARIO ONE: Your husband asks if he looks fat in an outfit that you honestly believe it isn’t flattering for him. You could say:

A) “Yeah. You do look fat. I’d say about 10 pounds overweight. Maybe you should skip dessert for a while.”

B) “Not at all sweety. You look amazing!”

C) “You look nice, but I think I prefer the black jumper and blue jeans I bought you a few weeks ago. Want to try that on and see which one you feel better in?”

woman and man cheering glass cup beside table during night time
SCENARIO TWO: Your sister and her family are in town for the week and decide to stay at your place for the whole time because they want to save money. You don’t dislike them, but also don’t feel like you have heaps in common, and you’d really prefer to be catching up on your work that you are behind on. On night four she notices that you are a little tense and asks if you mind them staying there. You could say:

A) “I kind of do. I wish you weren’t so tight and could have paid for a hotel if you were going to stay more than 3 nights. A week is really pushing it and I’d prefer you left.”

B) “Mind? Are you kidding? I love it. The more the merrier I always say! Stay for as long as you’d like.”

C) “It’s a busy week for me in terms of work, so it wasn’t ideal timing for me. If I seem a bit tense, I’m sorry. I do want to be able to help you guys out because family means a lot to me.”

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SCENARIO THREE: You’ve been unemployed for six months and get a job interview to wait tables at a restaurant in town. You’d ideally prefer an acting job. The boss of the restaurant asks what your career plans are, as they really want to hire someone who is going to stick around. You could say:

A) “Well, acting has always been my passion, so this is really just a stop-gap job to pay the bills and put food on the table. I couldn’t care less about the job or your restaurant. I just want a regular paycheck so that I can pay my rent and bills until I get a real job.”

B) “I’d love to become a professional waiter. I’ve always thought that to provide great service to people is my calling in life, and I plan on sticking around for at least five years and show everyone just how amazing your restaurant is. I’m in it for the long-haul.”

C) “I’m not too sure about what will happen with my career, but at this stage I’d really like to be able to work here. I am available seven days a week and will put in 100% effort whenever when I am on shift. I am also willing to learn whatever skills are required, and I can promise that I will give you as much notice as possible if my plans ever do change in the future.”

In each of these scenarios, A is the radically honest response, B is the active lying or commission response and C is the skillful truth-telling response. While no actual lies are being said in the C answers, not everything is being said, which is technically omission.

Many people still believe that omissions are a big no no:

When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.
Alfred Tennyson

At times to be silent is to lie. You will win because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: Reason and Right.
Miguel de Unamuno

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

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Is it Ever Helpful to Lie to Ourselves?

The short answer is yes. It has been found that it is psychologically healthier to be slightly optimistic than to be completely realistic. Research indicates that people with depression are often more realistic in their appraisals of situations and other people’s judgments of them than people without depression. Most “healthy people” believe that, in comparison to the average person, they are better drivers, more intelligent, better workers, better parents and better lovers.

The main reasons people lie to themselves is they like to feel that they are important and maybe a little bit more unique or special than they really are. To prove this point, how would you feel if someone told you that you were just “average”? People also like to see themselves as a good person who behaves in particular ways for good reasons. Even people that consistently cause harm to themselves or others.

Anyone with an unhealthy addiction becomes an expert at lying to both themselves and others. This secrecy and dishonesty only further fuels the sense of depression, shame and guilt that people with an addiction would feel, as long as they are actually in touch with the whole truth of the situation and the consequences of their actions. Most addicts are not however, thanks to in-built defense mechanisms.

Defense mechanisms are mostly subconscious or unconscious methods that we engage in to protect our ego or positive sense of self. Some of the more famous ones are denial, humour, repression, suppression, rationalisation, intellectualisation, projection, displacement, regression, and my personal favourite, reaction formation (click here for a full description of these defense mechanisms and how to identify yours). Most people will deny engaging in defense mechanisms if you ask them directly about it, but they’ll also be able to easily tell you that other people do. The reality is we all lie to ourselves at times, and maybe we need to in order to maintain a “healthy” outlook on ourselves, others, the world and our future.

The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.
Friedrich Nietzsche

I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.
S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders

The best lies about me are the ones I told.
Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Anybody who says they are a good liar obviously is not, because any legitimately savvy liar would always insist they’re honest about everything.
Chuck Klosterman

photo of woman looking at the mirror

So What Can We Do?

The most accurate recommendations that I could find on lying were also some of the simplest:

If you don’t want to slip up tomorrow, speak the truth today.
Bruce Lee
If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
Mark Twain

I tend to agree with Sam Harris that it is a worthwhile aim to try to never be actively dishonest. This approach is also consistent with one of Jordan Peterson’s better rules from his ’12 Rules for Life’ book – Rule #8: “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie“.

The philosopher Robin Devenport wouldn’t agree with either Harris or Peterson. He states:

“it is impossible for anyone to be truly honest about many things, as long as he (or she) carries biased perspectives, hidden resentments, unresolved longings, unacknowledged insecurities, or a skewed view of self, to name just some inner human conditions… if absolute honesty is impossible, then we are all liars by nature, at least to a degree.”

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Dan Ariely also concludes in his excellent book ‘The Honest Truth about Dishonesty’ that we all tend to lie to everyone, especially ourselves. We lie only as much as we know we can get away with, but not so much that it becomes hard to keep seeing ourselves as a good person.

Devenport continues:

“Perhaps the best we can do, then, is only to lie in ways that are intended to promote another’s well-being or spare her unnecessary pain, and so further our integrity. The ‘noble liar’ is someone who tries to live by good intentions, even if that means intentionally lying to another person, if doing so is the lesser of two evils…Before we cast too harsh a judgment on the liar, let’s first understand what his motives are.” – Robin Devenport

We all need to try to be as honest as we can, especially with those that we love, and make sure that when we do lie, it is for a good reason. We also need to realise that it will never be possible to be 100% honest about everything to anyone, including ourselves, and that is okay. Other people won’t be 100% honest with you or themselves either, and that doesn’t make them bad people. It’s what we lie about and why that really matters. 
Dr Damon Ashworth
Clinical Psychologist

Our Environment Makes More of a Difference to Our Health and Mental State Than We Realise

It’s been over 9 months now since I moved to Vanuatu to volunteer as a Clinical Psychologist with the Port Vila Central Hospital and the Vanuatu Government’s Ministry of Health. That means that I am over a third of the way through my volunteer experience.

The first 1-2 months were challenging and a little overwhelming with so many new things to learn and new people to meet. I was also feeling a bit guilty about the people that I had left behind to have this experience. Especially my old jobs in private practice and the patients that I had there.

Once I settled in however, the following 7 months have been some of the best times of my life. I’m not pushing myself too hard anymore, am experiencing a great variety of opportunities with my volunteering work, helping people where I can, and developing some excellent friendships too.

About two months ago, I returned from a two-week trip to Australia to attend my sister’s wedding. It was my first time going back to Melbourne since moving to Port Vila, and I was really excited to go back, but also curious to see if things felt any different after not being there for the prior 8 months.

aerial shot of city

Before I left Melbourne in August 2018, I was burning out. I had been highly productive and efficient with my work and was cramming a lot in to every day and every week, but I was also stressed out and exhausted, and my elevated blood pressure and constant fatigue were pretty solid indicators that the lifestyle that I had was not going to be sustainable forever. I was also beginning to feel more isolated and disconnected from others, and wondered if this was just a sign of the times, my age, or my environment.

Moving to Vanuatu for 2 years was the perfect way to find out. Port Vila is a really social place if you want it to be, as people are always willing to stop for a chat or a drink at one of the 400+ nakamals in town. Vanuatu is also said to run on “island time”, which means that Port Vila operates at a much more leisurely pace then Melbourne. This isn’t so great if you want your 3-on-3 basketball tournament to start on time, but pretty great for reducing stress as long as you don’t worry too much about things that are out of your control.

The first thing that highlighted to me how much more relaxed I am in Vila is that when it came time to wrap up work to fly to Australia for my sister’s wedding, I felt so refreshed already that I didn’t even feel like I needed to have the holiday. That had never happened to me before.

buildings city city lights cityscape

The moment I arrived back in Melbourne however, I felt stressed again, and shortly after that, tired. I don’t know if it was staying in the city, but a lot of people were rushing and agitated both on the road and walking around. Everyone seemed to be on a personal mission to get from point A to point B as fast as they could because they had important things to do and important people to see. Even I began to get caught up in this way of thinking within a day or two, and it was hard to unwind and relax.

People in Melbourne also seemed to be off in their own world of headphones and smartphones, with very little interaction with anyone on the street. The few strangers that I did smile at or say hello to looked at me like I was weird, and I was like “oh, yeah…we don’t acknowledge other people here!”

Reverse cultural shock is a real thing. Sometimes it does take a while to adjust back, even longer than it takes to adjust to a new culture in a new place. People from Melbourne often expect Asia or South America or Africa to feel different when they first travel there. It is a much weirder experience for things to feel unusual in the place where you grew up.

My sister’s wedding was beautiful and heartwarming, and I couldn’t be happier for her and her new husband. It was amazing to see a lot of my friends and family again, and I do hope to stay in touch with all of the important people in my life from Melbourne.

I just don’t know if I still call Australia home.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Could You Develop Your Own Guide to Better Living?

The Making of a Genius?

In 1726, at the young age of 20, Benjamin Franklin came up with a list of thirteen virtues that he wanted to live his life by. He then carried around a small booklet so that he could track his daily and weekly progress against these virtues.

An example of this tracking system as well as a description of these virtues was included in ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’:


T = Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

S = Silence: Speak not but what benefits others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.

O = Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have it’s time.

R = Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

F = Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

I = Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

S = Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.

J = Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

M = Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

C = Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.

T = Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

C = Chastity: Never use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation

H = Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

That’s a pretty intense list to try and follow, and Franklin never seemed to achieve them all on any day if you look at his chart above. Maybe he still improved more from striving towards living by these virtues than if he hadn’t, even if he didn’t achieve them? It’s hard to know.

What we do know is that Benjamin Franklin managed to do a lot in his lifetime, and he excelled at nearly everything that he put his mind to. Most people still know who Franklin is nearly 300 years later and his face remains on the US $100 bill, so he must have done a few things right.

12 Rules for Life?

By now, a lot of you have probably heard of Jordan B Peterson and his immensely popular self-help book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’.


Here are his 12 rules, which make up the chapters of the book:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

I notice some overlap between Peterson’s rules and Franklin’s virtues. # 8 and 10 from Peterson is very similar to Sincerity and Silence from Franklin. # 2 and 7 from Peterson is similar to Industry and Resolution from Franklin. # 6 is similar to Order and Tranquility from Franklin. Franklin’s list is more personal and focused on self-discipline and resisting excess, whereas Peterson’s list mentions children and animals.

Looking at the two lists, I’d take Franklin’s virtues over Peterson’s rules any day if I had to choose between the two as my guiding principles for life.

People seem to love Peterson at the moment not because his rules are what we should all live by, but because he is well read, intelligent, articulate and confident. He is very sure of himself and not afraid to say things exactly how he sees it, which makes him a strong thought leader in a time of confusion and minimal external input into what a positive and meaningful life actually consists of.

But what if rather than trying to adopt Franklin’s or Peterson’s rules to our own lives, we could actually learn how to come up with our own principles and virtues for better living?

photo of a couple hugging each other

How Do We Develop Our Own Guiding Principles in Life?

It is possible to develop your own guide to a better life in only three steps…

STEP ONE: Who am I?

In order to know what we want, we first need to figure out who we are (or more accurately, what we see ourselves to be).

STEP TWO: What do I care about?

Once we know who we are, we must then figure out what is important or meaningful to us (and what isn’t).

STEP THREE: How do I show that I care about these things?

We then need to figure out what actions we need to take and what systems or habits we can develop that will help us to live consistently by these values.

battle board game challenge chess


Our identity, or who we see ourselves to be, often consists of many factual things. It may include our name, our family, our nationality, our ethnicity or racial background, our culture, our class, our friends, our relationship status, our sexuality, our gender, our religious beliefs, where we live, where we work, what we do for work, what our interests and hobbies are, and what we like to do for fun or to relax. Most people can answer these questions fairly easily.

Different factors can shape the overall identity of one person much more than they do for others. A cisgender straight white male may not consider that his gender, race, sexuality or culture play a big role in his identity, but these factors could be huge for someone who is non-gender conforming or sexually fluid or from a minority cultural or religious group in the country that they live in and have suffered stigma or discrimination as a result.

1a. Take a personality test to help answer the question “Who am I?”

No matter what is important to you, it is important for everyone to construct a cohesive narrative or story about who they are. If you are getting stuck in describing what your personality is, there are a number of tests out there that can help you. Peterson and I both agree that the five-factor personality model is probably the best personality test for the average person who is trying to understand themselves better. It can be completed for free at this website.

An individual’s scores on Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience are fairly consistent across their lives, so knowing where you sit on the spectrum of each one of these facets is a helpful way to get to know yourself better. It can also help you to work with who you are rather than against yourself when designing your own principles for better living.

Looking at my last IPIP-NEO results, here are my percentile scores on each of the five factors, ranked from highest to lowest:

  • Openness to Experience: 95th percentile
  • Agreeableness: 90th percentile
  • Extroversion: 74th percentile
  • Conscientiousness: 74th percentile
  • Neuroticism: 13th percentile

Here are all facets that I am in the top 11% in comparison to other males of my age from Australia:

  • Cooperation…… 99th percentile
  • Liberalism………… 97th percentile
  • Adventurousness…… 95th percentile
  • Emotionality……… 90th percentile
  • Altruism………… 90th percentile
  • Trust……………… 90th percentile
  • Activity Level………… 90th percentile
  • Intellect…………… 89th percentile


DESCRIPTIVE INFORMATION: I’m Damon Ashworth. I’m the middle child in my family, with an older brother and a younger sister. My parents are still happily married and we all get along fairly well. I am a dual citizen of Australia and the United States of America, but have spent the majority of my life in Melbourne, Australia. I am of Caucasian descent. My parents were both teachers, so that makes me from the middle class I guess. My friends are predominantly from Melbourne, but I’ve made some friends when I lived in the US for two years and some good friends since moving to Vanuatu too. I am currently volunteering in Vanuatu for two years as a Clinical Psychologist with the Ministry of Health and at the Vila Central Hospital. I identify as straight male and I am currently in a happy monogamous relationship with my girlfriend. I have been baptized as a Christian, but do not attend any religious services. I love reading non-fiction books, listening to podcasts, playing basketball, volleyball and tennis, being creative through my writing and making music and movies. I love hip hop and some mainstream music, horror and comedy movies, and stand up comedy. I also love to be active, get outside and visit new places on holidays, and travel and snow ski when I can afford it.

PERSONALITY PROFILE: I am extremely high in openness to a variety of experience, including cultural, intellectual, emotional, and physical. I am very high in agreeableness and tend to do whatever it takes to have positive relationships with other people. I will always try to co-operate with others if I can. I like to challenge convention and try to help bring about progressive change. I prefer a lot of variety in my life and like to go on adventures. I am highly attuned to my emotions and the emotions of others around me, and try to remain open to whatever it is that I am feeling. I enjoy helping others when they need it. I trust others easily, and strongly believe that most people are generally good and not out to harm others. I have lived a pretty fast paced life, and care about being both efficient and effective. I love to have in-depth discussions with others, and enjoy playing with ideas and reflecting on important aspects of life through meditative practices and my writing.

man standing on wooden dock


Finding out what you care about is through the process of clarifying your values. Values are guiding principles in life that we cannot achieve like a goal, but make a choice to live by each day. Someone who values honesty is not living in a way that is consistent with what matters to them the moment they tell a lie, but is being consistent as soon as they go back to telling the truth. By clarifying which values are most important to us, we can then know when we have gone off track, and what we need to do to get back on.

2a. Engage in thought experiments to elucidate what is most important to you

An interesting experiential method to help patient’s identify their top values if they aren’t sure what they are is to write their obituary. For this, they would write what they hope would be said about them if they were to die after a long and good life. Every time I think of writing my epitaph, all I come up with is “Here lies Damon. He tried his best.” This tells me that one of my core values is applying myself to be the best that I can be.

If writing your obituary seems too dark or morbid, try to imagine your birthday party at least 20 years from now (I choose my 70th birthday). All of your closest friends and family are there. The most important person in your life gets up and makes a speech about the type of person that you have been from today until then (over the past 20+ years). What do you want to hear them say? It can be a powerful exercise that often brings tears to people’s eyes, and helps them to realize the type of person that they most want to be going forward, both to themselves and to others.

2b. Take a strengths survey to identify your key strengths or top virtues

If neither of the above exercises interest you or help to highlight your core values, the Values In Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey can. It ranks your strengths from 24th to 1st, and is quite useful in elucidating what you may want your guiding principles in life to be. It can be found at this website.

My Top Strengths

Based on my 2018 findings, my top nine strengths are as follows:

  • 9: Honesty, Authenticity and Genuineness 
  • 8: Forgiveness and Mercy
  • 7: Fairness, Equity and Justice
  • 6: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality
  • 5: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness
  • 4: Humour and Playfulness
  • 3: Kindness and Generosity 
  • 2: Curiosity and Interest in the World
  • 1: Love of Learning

My Top Virtues

Based on my 2018 findings, my top virtues are as follows:

  • Wisdom – Average score = 6.2
  • Humanity – Average score = 8.33
  • Justice – Average score = 13.33
  • Transcendence – Average score = 13.4


I care about being an honest person. I care about living my life in an authentic and genuine way and being a “real” person with everyone that I interact with. I care about forgiveness and being compassionate to those who have wronged me. I care about trying to be fair to others, and not let my decisions or actions be biased by my feelings. I try to give everyone at least one chance, and sometimes more unless it is obvious that the other person does not want things to be equal or fair too. I care about challenging convention and thinking of new and more efficient or effective ways to do things. I care about not jumping to conclusions and looking at the evidence and things from multiple perspectives before deciding what the best thing is to do. I care about being able to say that I am sorry and that I was wrong or being open to changing my mind if evidence to the contrary is presented. I care about not always being serious, and being playful and having fun and laughing or smiling with others. I care about being generous and kind with others, and giving them my time and help and undivided attention if it is possible to do so. I care about learning new things and continuing to develop my knowledge and skills in a variety of subjects and topics. I care about maintaining my curiosity and awe, growing as a person and gaining wisdom, and using what I have learned to help out humanity where possible. This may be individually, or on a larger scale.

silhouette of man touching woman against sunset sky


Finally, we need to assess how much we have been living consistently with our core values or key strengths. In other words, how much are you currently being the person you want to be, and what changes can you make to move more in the right direction going forward?

3a. Do the Bullseye Exercise to assess where you are currently at

The Bullseye exercise, first created by Swedish ACT Therapist Tobias Lundgren, is the best way to determine if you are living consistently with your values in four key areas of your life: 1. school or work, 2. leisure or recreation, 3. personal growth or health, and 4. relationships (including with friends and family).

Keep your core values or key strengths in mind and say whether you have been fully consistent with these values in this area of your life (a bullseye) or if you have lost touch with your values (all the way at the outer circle), or anywhere in between. A full worksheet can be downloaded here, or you can imagine placing an X somewhere in each quadrant in the picture below:


3b. Set up some sustainable systems and/or goals that would make it so you are living more consistent with your core values and strengths in each key area of your life.

Once you have identified where you stand on each quadrant of the bullseye, ask yourself what you can do over the next 1-2 weeks (short-term), next 1-3 months (medium-term) or next 6-18 months (long-term) that would help you to feel like you are living more consistently with your core values or key strengths. This could be designing a new system of working, eating, sleeping, or it could be goals and targets.

If you do set goals, make sure that are SMART:



Work is going really well for me, although it would help to set weekly goals for myself, and assess my progress against these goals to determine my efficiency and productivity. I will do this each Monday morning at 8am. For leisure, we have been visiting beaches more frequently recently, and I want to get to the beach at least once each weekend if possible with other people so that we can enjoy our time together. I want to see new beaches at least once a month if possible too so that I explore different parts of Vanuatu. For relationships, I want to schedule in time in my calendar each month that is just dedicated to keeping in touch with all my family and friends back in Australia. Lastly, for personal growth and health, I have not been as active as I would like to be, and my lower back has been sore as a result. I want to get back into swimming at least once a week, and stretch every time I go to the gym or play basketball too.

sea landscape beach landmark

As you take action towards achieving your goals or putting your systems into place, you are showing yourself and others that you know who you are and what is important to you. You will begin to feel that you are heading in the right direction towards a more personally meaningful and satisfying life. You will have created your own guide to better living!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Importance of Sleep for Good Mental Health

Ministry of Health Vanuatu

MOH logo

May 2019 Mental Health Newsletter

The Importance of Sleep for Good Mental Health

Sleep difficulties are a feature of nearly every mental health difficulty, including depression, anxiety, trauma, substance use issues, bipolar disorder and psychosis or schizophrenia. Take Depression for example. Up to 90% of individuals with Depression have sleep difficulties, and two out of every three have significant enough sleep problems to also have a diagnosis of Insomnia.

alarm clock analogue bed bedroom

Worse still, Insomnia does not tend to go away on its own without appropriate treatment. This is because once people start to sleep poorly, they tend to develop ways of thinking and behaving around sleep that make their problems worse over the long run.

Fortunately, there is a treatment out there that can improve your sleep. It’s called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), which directly targets these unhelpful thoughts and behaviours around sleep.

CBT-I is an effective treatment for insomnia, with many studies showing it to be similar to sleeping pills at improving sleep in the short-term, and much more effective than sleeping pills at improving sleep in the long-term.

Research shows that CBT-I consistently reduces the time taken to get to sleep, decreases the amount of time spent awake during the night, and improves sleep quality and efficiency, with improvements persisting after treatment finishes. This is unlike sleeping pills, which typically lead to sleep difficulties coming back once people with insomnia stop taking them.

Sleeping pills are also not recommended for use beyond 2-4 weeks at a time, because they stop working after a while and people need to take bigger doses over time to get the same effects. Sometimes doctors prescribe them more because they think they will work faster for patients, but even one session of CBT-I has been shown to make a significant difference to one’s sleep at night!

beach during sunset

CBT for Insomnia consists of four main components:

  1. Psychoeducation: This provides people with helpful information around sleep, including homeostatic pressure, circadian rhythms, hyper-arousal and sleep hygiene recommendations. Sleep hygiene means having a comfortable bedroom environment, minimising light exposure before bed, exercising during the day, minimising caffeine and alcohol and doing things to wind down or manage worries before bed.
  1. Sleep scheduling: This provides people with helpful information on when they should be going to bed at night, the time they should be arising from bed in the morning, and the ideal amount of time that they should be in bed for each night. Stimulus control and sleep restriction are the two main interventions included in sleep scheduling, and both are scientifically supported for improving sleep quality and sleep efficiency if done properly.
  1. Relaxation techniques: Because hyper-arousal plays a huge role in Insomnia, it is important to help people develop strategies to quieten the mind and calm the body, during the day, before bed and in bed. Relaxation techniques can include imagery training, meditation, biofeedback training, deep and slow breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
  1. Cognitive Therapy: This provides people with the skills to challenge their unhelpful or unrealistic beliefs about sleep. A lot of individuals with Insomnia attribute all of their tiredness, mood difficulties or poor performance at work to their sleep difficulties, and this puts too much pressure on them to get a good night’s sleep. It is therefore important to get them to see the other factors that may contribute to how they feel during the day, present them with data that challenges their fears, and help them to develop realistic expectations about their sleep.

In Vanuatu, there is currently only one psychologist located at the Mind Care Unit in Port Vila who is trained in CBT-I. Please come down to receive this effective treatment if you or a family member is struggling with poor sleep. Until then, there are other sleep strategies that you can try:

orange cat sleeping on white bed


In 2017, Dr Damon Ashworth, Clinical Psychologist and Sleep Researcher, ran 26 two-week experiments on his sleep to determine which interventions were most helpful for him.

He gave each intervention a score out of 100, based on how effective he found the strategy (25 points), how easy it was to apply and use the strategy (25 points), and how much scientific evidence there was that showed that this strategy could improve sleep (50 points).

Here are all of the sleep interventions he tested, ranked from best to worst based on their overall score out of 100:

palm trees at night

High Distinction

  1. Stimulus control = 85/100
  2. Winding down before sleep = 85/100
  3. Sleep restriction = 81/100
  4. Relaxation strategies pre-sleep = 81/100

photo of a man sitting under the tree


  1. Meditation = 77/100
  2. No alcohol = 75/100
  3. Wearing blue-light blocking glasses before sleep = 75/100
  4. Listening to music in the evening = 73/100
  5. Yoga/Pilates = 72/100
  6. Constructive worry or writing down plans = 71/100

white teddy bear with opened book photo


  1. Avoiding TV before bed = 69/100
  2. Melatonin = 68/100
  3. Aromatherapy = 68/100
  4. Sauna or hot bath in the evening = 68/100
  5. Morning sunlight = 65/100
  6. Reading or listening to audiobooks pre-sleep = 63/100
  7. Exercise during the day = 61/100

black ceramic tea cup on brown surface


  1. No caffeine = 58/100
  2. Food that helps sleep = 57/100
  3. Controlling temperature = 57/100
  4. Massage in the afternoon = 57/100
  5. Comfort of sleep surface = 56/100
  6. Sleeping alone = 53/100
  7. Creativity in the evening = 52/100

Sleep Recommendations

(Stepanski & Wyatt, 2003)
  1. Decrease time in bed – Sleep efficiency is a better predictor of satisfaction with sleep and daytime mood than total sleep time. So if you only get 7 hours of sleep per night, spend 7.5 hours of time in bed. This will allow for better sleep over time.
  2. Regular bedtime and arising time – Reducing variability in your sleep can make a huge difference in how long it takes you to get to sleep, how restful a sleep you have, and how refreshed you feel in the morning. Have a set bedtime, and whenever you feel sleepy around this time, go to bed. Then set an alarm so that you can wake up at the same time each day. If you want to sleep in on weekends, allow yourself no more than one hour later than you usually wake up. Following this regardless of how much sleep you get helps to strengthen your circadian rhythms and build up your homeostatic pressure to ensure better sleep over time.
  3. Exercise – Vigorous exercise prior to bedtime is actually unhelpful for sleep, but expending more energy during the day is likely to lead to better quality sleep at night. The earlier in the day it is done, the greater the effect it will have.
  4. Less caffeine and alcohol – Minimise these substances where possible, especially within 4 hours of bedtime as they both have significant effects on sleep quality. Alcohol can reduce worries and result in getting to sleep quicker, but results in poorer sleep quality in the second half of the night. Alcohol can also can lead to more snoring due to the loosening of the throat muscles. Caffeine boosts cortisol levels, a.k.a. stress, and results in less deep sleep and more awakenings.
  5. Do not try to sleep – It is something that has to come on naturally. The harder you try to get to sleep, the less likely you will be able to, as trying activates the autonomic nervous system, which also increase how stressed you feel. The more you allow yourself to relax, the more likely sleep is.
  6. Do not keep looking at your phone or alarm clock during the night – If your alarm is set, then there is no need to know the time in bed. This will only increase performance anxiety if you look and see that you have not slept for very long. Put it in a draw, cover it with a shirt, or face it the other way.
  7. Keep naps short – Napping during the day reduces your pressure for sleep by the time you get into bed at night. If you have to nap, keep it less than 30 minutes so that you don’t go into a deep sleep, and do it before 4pm so that sleep pressure can build up again by the time you go to bed that night.
  8. Engage in relaxing activities before bed – Just like waking up, going to sleep is a transitional process. Don’t expect that your mind will shut off immediately as soon as you get into bed. Whatever it is, do something relaxing as a pre-bed routine. Watch some T.V., read a book, listen to some music, have a hot bath, practice yoga, mindfulness or relaxation techniques. Then maintain that relaxed state in bed and allow sleep to come.
  9. Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex – This means no reading, eating, internet surfing, game playing, phones, T.V., planning, worrying etc. in bed. Want bed = sleep.
  10. Make worry list before bed – To prevent your mind from racing in bed, reflect on the day about 2 hours before you want to sleep, write down any worries, concerns or problems you may have, create a to-do-list, or plan for the day ahead. Then if thoughts come up in bed, remind yourself that you have already sorted them out or that they can wait until tomorrow.
  11. Leave the bed if awake – Sometimes no matter what we try, you may find yourself awake in bed. If you do not fall to sleep within what feels like 20 minutes, get up, go to another room, and do something relaxing until you are sleepy before returning to bed. Over time, this will recondition the bed with sleepiness rather than frustration and allow you to fall asleep quickly. If you are worried that you may never sleep if this was the case, give it a try for a week. It may be the most difficult recommendation to follow initially, but it produces long-lasting results quickly.

For more details on these interventions and strategies, go to

If you are in Vanuatu and would like more information or advice, please contact:

Mind Care Clinic

Psychiatry Department



VOIP: 1972


Namalinuan Clinic




Mental Health Clinic




Mental Health Clinic




Mental Health Clinic




Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

10 Bits of Advice I’d Give My 10-Year-Old Self

When I was ten, I was in grade four at primary school. I was one of the tallest kids in the class, and fairly skinny and uncoordinated.

I loved sport and computer games. I enjoyed living where I did in the north-east suburbs of Melbourne and had some good friends that I spent a lot of time with.

I hated school, talking on the phone, doing chores around the house, and my little sister. I also tried to take sick days from school fairly regularly with a sore tummy that I only realised years later was actually anxiety. I’d had a horrible teacher the year before who really didn’t seem to like me, and had no idea how to cope.

Here are the first ten thoughts that come to mind that I would say to myself if I could go back in time and have a chat with my ten-year-old self:

calm daylight evening grass

1. Before you do anything else, breathe

I know you worry a lot and stress yourself out by overthinking, but you don’t have to have all the answers yet, or maybe ever. Before you do something you may regret, stop, take ten slow, deep breaths into and out of your belly, and try to breathe out all the air with each breath. Then see how you feel and what you can do.

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall

2. Focus on one thing at a time

I know that you feel that you have too many things to do and not enough time. But multi-tasking is a myth and will just stress you out more. Determine whatever it is that is most important to you in any given moment, and then try to put all of your intention and effort into that until it is complete, or you need to take a break or have a rest or something more important comes along.

analysis blackboard board bubble

3. Don’t always believe what your thoughts tell you

I know that you personalise things a lot and catastrophise or imagine the worst. Some things are your fault, but many things are not. You are not “bad” or “evil”, but you can do some pretty mean things if you want to. You’re also probably not going to die about the homework assignment that you forgot to save on your computer. Start meditating 10 minutes a day before you go to bed, and you will be successfully understanding your thoughts and managing your emotions in no time.


4. Write things down

I know you feel that your mum and dad don’t always understand you, but you can learn to understand yourself through reflection. Write down 3 things that you are grateful for every day. Make a plan to address any concerns or worries that you have before they all build up and becoming overwhelming for you. If you spend 5-10 minutes every day writing in a journal, you won’t regret it.  Also, learn how to use a calendar or diary as soon as you can. Good organisational habits now will make life much easier for you later on.

action activity balls day

5. Don’t forget to have fun

I know that you are super competitive and hate to lose, but basketball, swimming, tennis, baseball or any other sport that you do is meant to be fun. Practice isn’t always fun as that’s focused on helping you to get better, but if you don’t enjoy competing or playing the games, find another sport that you think you will enjoy, and put more time into that. You are not going to be a professional athlete who gets paid, and that is okay. Sport is a very healthy hobby to have, and if you can enjoy it, it’s even better.


6. It’s okay to make mistakes, get rejected or fail

I know that you struggle not being very good at something. Even though it doesn’t feel that good to be a novice or a beginner, the only way to become good at something is to first be okay at sucking at it. If you can persist through the sucking part, you will become a lot better over time, and not suck so much eventually, and probably even enjoy it. Keep playing and practicing guitar and trombone, keep drawing and being creative, and pay attention in Italian class. It’s pretty cool to be able to make art and speak multiple languages, and easier to learn when you are still young. Also, take French at high school, not Indonesian.

adult blur books close up

7. Keep reading and learning outside of school

I know you don’t like school much at the moment, but don’t just let your teachers dictate to you what you should learn. If something interests you, explore it further. If you have questions that you want to answer, see if you can find the answers in books. There are a lot of wise people that have clarified their thoughts and written it down for you. Their words will help you a lot as you get older, and fostering curiousity and love of learning at your age is awesome. If mum wants to teach you how to cook, bake, clean, iron, sew, listen to her, watch what she does, try it and get feedback until you know what you are doing. Same goes with dad trying to teach you about sport, cars, gardening and making things with tools. You won’t regret having these skills once you move out on your own.

men s white button up dress shirt

8. Make time for friends and family

I know that playing video games is fun, but technology shouldn’t replace face-to-face contact with other people. Be interested in people more than you are in things. You will learn a lot from them, and it will make you happier if you are yourself and they appreciate you for it. Your family won’t always be around as much as they are now, so try to enjoy the time you have with them even though they can all be annoying at times. And be nice to your sister. It’s not her fault that she is cuter and more extraverted than you. She’ll actually turn out to be a pretty cool person and a good friend to you one day.

finance sketch near laptop computer

9. Invest in index funds

I know that it is fun to spend money if you have it, but saving and investing doesn’t have to take much time and effort and is worth it. No matter how much money you earn or are given, put 10% aside and stick it into an index fund. The power of compounding interest means that you will be setting yourself up for your financial future, which will give you more freedom to do the things you want to do when you are older without having to worry about money. You probably won’t feel like you are sacrificing much, but the long-term benefit will be great.

biker holding mountain bike on top of mountain with green grass

10. Try to be the best you that you can be; everyone else is taken

I know that you often compare yourself to others and don’t feel like you are as good or as lovable as them. The truth is you will never be as good as your brother at being your brother, so don’t even try. Rather than comparing yourself to who others are today, try to compare yourself to who you were yesterday. As long as you are striving to be a better person each day, that is all you can do, so be proud of yourself for who you are and for the effort that you put in. Although it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, know that mum and dad are proud of you and love you too, even if they don’t always show it in the way that you want them to. Your life is going to be pretty cool in the future, and it doesn’t just get harder and harder, so try not to worry about the future too much. Focus on what is in your control each day, and the future will take care of itself!


Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist


Why 18 is the New 15: The Negative Consequences of Always Wanting Our Children to Feel Special and Safe

Back in 1970, children were thought to be ready to enter Grade One at Primary or Elementary School when they could travel independently around their neighbourhood for 4-8 blocks from their house.

This included 6-year-olds being able to go to the shops and buy things by themselves, or walk or ride to school if it was close enough, and knowing how to explain to a police officer where they lived if they were asked.

These days, the police officer would probably arrest the parents for neglect if a 6-year-old child was found 4 blocks from home by themselves.


Times have changed, but is this always a good thing for our children?

I remember having a lot of freedom growing up. My mother would let me and my siblings play down at the park by ourselves that was two blocks away from our house. I think my brother was 7 or 8, I was 5, and my sister was 2 or 3. We weren’t entirely alone. We had a pet Rottweiler watch over us too, and “she never would have let anyone hurt you kids!” according to my mother.

We rode or walked ourselves to and from school when my brother was in grade 5, I was in grade 3, and my sister was in grade 1. It wasn’t just a bike path either. We had to ride on roads, cross over a river and railway tracks, and not even at a designated crossing. Both my parents had to work though, so it was just what was done.

After school, we’d come home, open the door by ourselves, make a snack, and play some games or watch TV until our parents came back from work. We were “latch key kids”, and I don’t think we minded too much at all.

Growing up, we played outside unsupervised by adults all the time. Running around with the other kids on the street, playing a sport or making up games, having waterbomb fights during the day or playing spotlight at night. We’d ride to the milkbar whenever we felt like icecream or snack, and even did a paper round in the neighbourhood with my brother a few times well before we were old enough to legally work.

Granted, there were a few scraped knees, and maybe some storm drains that we shouldn’t have gone down. But I knew how to make my way all over town to all my friend’s places on a bike by my 10th birthday. To me, exploring places either by foot or on my bike with my friends and without any parents around were some of the best memories of my childhood.

boy riding of bicycle

Fast forward to 2019, and most children will have to wait until they leave their family home to get the same amount of unsupervised time outside that I had before I was a teenager. They spend less time hanging out with their friends in person, and any time that they do spend is likely to be supervised by their parents or done alongside them, even when they go to the local shopping mall.

In her excellent book, ‘iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood’, the author Jean Twenge says that as a result of the reduced freedom for our youth, the typical 18-year-old in 2019 is similar in maturity levels to what a 15-year-old was back in 1970.


Children and Adolescents these days are less capable of living, socialising or working independently than the previous generations, and are suffering more psychologically as a result.

Depression, anxiety, narcissism and deliberate self-harm have all been increasing, and dramatically so since 2012. This also happens to coincide with the widespread proliferation of smartphones into our society.

If parents should be concerned about anything when it comes to the safety of their children, it is about what they are getting up to online. Adolescent girls appear to be particularly impacted by the introduction of the smartphone and the increased usage of social media that comes with this. Suicide rates among teenage girls have risen to the point where they are now similar to suicide rates in boys of the same age.

What would you prefer to instil in a child?

A. A conviction that they are amazing, just the way they are?


B. A belief that they can face and overcome most of the challenges that they face in life if they learn from setbacks and feedback and apply themselves?

Yoy may answer both, but if you had to choose one, what would it be?

Self-esteem (A), which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:

“a confidence and satisfaction in oneself”


Self-efficacy (B), which Psychologist Albert Bandura defined as:

“the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the sources of action required to manage prospective situations.”

After decades of research, we now know that primarily focusing on building a child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem (A) at the expense of improving their capacity and self-efficacy (B) in learning and doing things by themselves can have some adverse side effects.

woman standing on train rail

Research on Self-Esteem:


  • Low self-esteem is linked with increased violence, teenage pregnancy, suicide, low academic achievement and increased rates of school dropout (Misetich & Delis-Abrams, 2003)
  • Living alone, being unemployed, having low socioeconomic status or having a disability is linked to lower self-esteem (von Soest, Wagner, Hansen & Gerstorf, 2018)
  • 70% of girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way (Dove Self-Esteem Fund, 2008)
  • Teenagers with low self-esteem have less resilience and a greater sense of hopelessness (Karatas, 2011)


  • People with healthy self-esteem are more resilient and able to respond helpfully and adaptively to disappointment, failure and obstacles (Allegiance Health, 2015)
  • In China, self-esteem significantly predicted life satisfaction (Chen, Cheung, Bond & Leung, 2006)
  • School programs that build self-esteem in primary school children also reduce problem behaviours and strengthen connections between the students (Park & Park, 2014)


  • Abraham Maslow put self-esteem as a need in his hierarchy of needs pyramid. However, later in his career, he noted that individuals with high self-esteem are more apt to come late to appointments, be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, more likely to accept an offered cigarette, and much more willing to make themselves comfortable without bidding or invitation
  • Carl Rogers, another Humanistic Psychologist, got so sick of new staff coming into his Western Behavioural Sciences Institute with no desire or ability to work, that he once sent out a letter that said “less self-esteem please; more self-discipline!”
  • People with fragile or shallow high self-esteem are no better off than individuals with low self-esteem. They engage in exaggerated tendencies to protect, defend and enhance their feelings of self-worth (Kernis, 2008)
  • Academic performance is weakly related to self-esteem, with some students doing worse academically after their self-esteem increased (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2005)

Baumeister has looked extensively into the issues with some types of high self-esteem. He found that:

  • Students with high self-esteem tend to overestimate their abilities. They also like to boast to others about what they can do
  • High self-esteem doesn’t make people more attractive to others, it just makes the individual think they are more attractive
  • Bullies at school and work tend to have higher reported levels of self-esteem
  • People with high self-esteem are more likely to take risks and engage in unprotected sex. They have a tendency to be impulsive, and not think through the consequences of a decision before acting
  • People with high self-esteem are more likely to be prejudiced against others. They tend to be smug and superior when interacting with others
  • People with high self-esteem are less likely to work through and overcome relationship conflicts. They can be abusive in relationships, and assume their needs come first no matter what situation they are in
  • People with high self-esteem seem blind to their own faults and are less likely to learn from experience, change or improve themselves

Research on Self-Efficacy:


  • A meta-analysis of over 100 studies found a moderately strong correlation (.38) between self-efficacy and job performance (Stakjovic & Luthans, 1998)
  • Another meta-analysis found that high self-efficacy is related to better emotional stability and greater job satisfaction (Judge & Bono, 2001)
  • Greater self-efficacy leads to less burnout for teachers (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2007)
  • Increased self-efficacy in nurses can improve their work performance, reduce turnover rates and protect them from exhaustion (Fida, Laschinger & Leiter, 2018)


  • High optimism and self-efficacy in students lead to better academic performance, greater coping with stress, better health, and more satisfaction with school (Chemers, Ju & Garcia, 2001)
  • Increased self-efficacy leads to more enthusiasm and commitment to learning in students who had previously been struggling to read (Margolis & McCabe, 2006)


  • Patients with cancer with high self-efficacy adjust to their diagnosis better and are more likely to adhere to their recommended treatment (Lev, 1997)
  • Patients with high self-efficacy who have joint replacement surgery exercise more frequently and improve their performance more after the surgery (Moon & Backer, 2000)
  • Improving self-efficacy can increase how much previously sedentary adults exercise, which then enhances their overall health (McAuley, 1992)
  • Parental self-efficacy can reduce the risk of postpartum depression in new mothers (Cutrona & Troutman, 1986)
  • Low self-efficacy is related to anxiety (including social anxiety and panic attacks) and depressive symptoms (Muris, 2002)

The Coddling of the American Mind


This fascinating 2018 book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explains that we have fallen prey to three cognitive distortions that have made the children of the iGeneration less prepared for the real world, more narcissistic, and more likely to suffer from emotional and mental disorders.

The three cognitive biases are:

  1. What doesn’t kill us makes us weaker” – therefore we need to protect our children from everything and make sure that they are safe and free from emotional pain at all times,
  2. Always trust your feelings” – so if you feel something, it must be right, and if something offends or upsets you, it must be the other person’s fault, and
  3. The world is made up of good people and bad people” – therefore you must try to call out and take down anyone who has a different point of view because you are precisely right and they are clearly wrong.

We now try to protect children from all danger, monitor and structure all play so that children never get hurt or bullied, and avoid any type of criticism or activities that may dent their ego.

We tell them that whatever they think and feel must be right, and to believe in themselves. We say this even though Psychologists and Behavioural Economists know that there are nearly 100 different biases that the majority of humans fall into, including emotional reasoning, loss aversion, catastrophising and all-or-nothing thinking.

At schools, all children are made to feel like winners regardless of how they do, and they all receive participation awards or student of the week prizes at some point during the year so that no one feels left out or inferior. 40% more students now receive As for their subjects than they did in the 1970s, even though SAT scores have declined in this same timespan.

What Can We Do?

I’d rather have my children go to a school where teachers are more like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Here’s an excerpt from his excellent commencement address to his son’s year 9 graduating class in 2017:

From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

I want our kids to learn life lessons that help them to gain the skills and knowledge required to function as an independent adult in the world.

I want children to be both physically and mentally healthy and suffer less from emotional and psychological disorders.

I want them to develop high self-efficacy and a belief that they can do something by trial-and-error and effort rather than assuming that they are great no matter what they are able to do.

accomplishment ceremony education graduation

How Do We Build Self-Efficacy?

According to Bandura and Akhtar (2008), there are four main ways to build self-efficacy in our children’s lives. We can do this through:

  1. Mastery experiences: Ensure that your child has regular opportunities to take on and tackle new and challenging tasks that are just outside their current level of comfort and competence. By pushing themselves with these tasks, they will grow and gain in self-efficacy more than if they just keep repeating something that they already know how to do.
  2. Vicarious experiences: Ensure that your children have positive role models or mentors that they can observe doing the things you want to them to know how to do. This could be you, another family member, a friend of yours or a coach. Because you are likely to spend more time with them than other people, it is essential to model the behaviours, mindset and skills you want them to learn. If you do this, they can learn from you, emulate what you do, and then get feedback from you on how they are going and how they can keep improving these skills.
  3. Verbal persuasion: The type of words that are used in self-talk and with others can play a significant role in how much self-efficacy one feels that they have. Like Dr Carol Dweck says in promoting a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, we need to praise effort and what children do (their actions and intentions) rather than who they are as a person or what the outcome was. This builds up a greater desire to want to take on more challenging tasks in the future instead of the fear of being wrong, not succeeding, or not being “smart enough”.
  4. Emotional and physiological states: We need to focus on the overall mental and physical health and well-being of children too. If they are sick, tired, sleepy, hungry, stressed, depressed or anxious, it will be more challenging for them to maintain a high level of self-efficacy, and belief in their ability to successfully tackle a challenge will decrease. By helping children to look after the other areas of their health, they are more likely to have the energy and confidence to take on whatever is in front of them, overcome setbacks, and persist until they have achieved their goals.

For more information and ideas on how to help kids to build resilience and self-efficacy, please visit the Let Grow website or learn more about the Free Range Kids’ Movement.

Crime rates are now at their lowest point since 1963. Thanks to a multitude of societal changes, your children are definitely safer than you were growing up, and yet they have way less freedom. Would you be willing to supervise your children a bit less and let them do more by themselves or with their friends if it helped them to grow into independent, resilient and capable adults?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Why Bother Overcoming Fears?

Last weekend I managed to successfully complete my PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver Course:

PADI Temporary Card

Open Water Diver

Name: Damon K. Ashworth

Diver No.: 1902AA8575
Cert Date: 16-Feb-2019
Instructor Number: 305944
Store/Resort Name:Big Blue
Store Number:36279
This person has satisfactorily met the standards for this certification level as set forth by PADI.
It was a pretty big challenge for me since I don’t really like being on boats and find it scary just swimming out in the middle of the ocean. I did it though because a close friend asked me if I would be her dive buddy for the course, and I thought that there would be no better opportunity than when I am already living in Vanuatu, home to some of the best dive sites in the world.
To get your Open Water Card, you need to pass a bunch of theory about diving, and you need to complete 24 skills in a pool and then replicate these skills out in the open water across four dives. During the open water dives, we saw a shipwreck, some amazing coral and sea life, and even a few small reef sharks.
The scariest part to me was when I was up to 18 metres underwater, and knowing that I’d need to stop for 3 minutes at 5 metres on the way up and also ascend slowly to avoid decompression sickness. It meant that if for whatever reason I felt a bit anxious or panicky, I couldn’t just get out to the surface straight away and start gasping for air. I had to try to remain calm, breathe slowly and steadily using my regulator, put some confidence in my dive master who was guiding us through the training and focus on whatever was in my control instead of worrying about things that were out of it.
It’s done now, and I completed the dives and all the skills successfully. Some times were pretty cool, especially seeing the wreck and all the sea life on the coral reef. In general, though, I didn’t love it and was utterly exhausted and a little bit relieved once it was done.
So how do I know if it was worth it? Should I have bothered challenging myself to do something where I actually worried that I could have died if something went badly wrong?
backlit black candle candlelight

When Is It Worth Facing Your Fears?

The answer is it depends. It depends on:

  1. What you are afraid of?
  2. How afraid you are (on a scale from 0 = no anxiety at all to 10 = completely overwhelmed and having a panic attack)?
  3. How safe or dangerous the thing you are afraid of actually (or realistically) is? and
  4. How much of an impact it will have on your quality of life if you do not face up to your fear or try to overcome it?

If what you fear has a low risk of actually occurring AND the activity is quite safe even though it feels scary AND not doing it has a significant negative impact on your life, IT IS WORTH TRYING TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF AND FACE YOUR FEARS.

For me:

  1. I think the fear of SCUBA diving was dying.
  2. The thought of actually going SCUBA diving increased my anxiety to a 7/10, which is quite high but not quite at the panic stage.
  3. In terms of actual safety, the 2010 Diver’s Alert Network Workshop Report found that only one-in-211,864 dives end in a fatality. This makes diving more risky than flying in an aeroplane or riding a bike, but much less dangerous than driving a car, skydiving, or running a marathon. We’re even more likely to die from walking or falling down stairs than we are from SCUBA diving.

risk of death

4. If I never went SCUBA diving, I doubt that it would have reduced my quality of life in any way. I did it mostly because I wanted to spend time with my friend and I wanted to challenge myself to face my fears, as not being able to withstand my concerns would have a substantial negative impact on my quality of life.
Based on the above information, I am glad that I went and got my PADI Open Water Certificate. I’m not too sure if I will ever go again though. I could enjoy it more and become less anxious about diving over time, and that did happen even across my four open water dives. If I went again, my anxiety might be a 5 or a 6. In reality, though, I think I can enjoy snorkelling just as much without it lowering my quality of life in any way, and I’ll probably do that more than SCUBA diving in the future.

What Are the Most Common Fears?


The top ten most common specific phobias are:

  1. Arachnophobia – fear of spiders
  2. Ophidiophobia – fear of snakes
  3. Acrophobia – fear of heights
  4. Agoraphobia – fear of crowds or open spaces
  5. Cynophobia – fear of dogs
  6. Astraphobia – fear of thunder and lightning
  7. Claustrophobia – fear of small spaces
  8. Mysophobia – fear of germs
  9. Aerophobia – fear of flying
  10. Trypanophobia – fear of injections

By looking at the above common phobias, they do all have some basis for why we may become afraid of them. Some spiders and snakes can kill, as can dogs (especially if they have rabies). Planes can crash, and falling from high up can be fatal. People can become trapped and suffocate in a small space or in crowds, and lightning strikes have killed people. Germs and bacteria spread disease too, and medical mishaps are the third most significant cause of death in the US according to the latest figures from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The issue is that our brain is not very good at distinguishing things that are really dangerous versus things that feel dangerous but are actually pretty safe.

accomplishment action adventure challenge

How Do We Overcome Fears?

We overcome any fear through the dual process of gradual exposure and cognitive reappraisal after the exposure:

1. We determine what fear it is we would like to master. Preferably, this is something that you are currently avoiding that is negatively impacting your life, such as not going to the doctor or dentist because you are afraid of needles.

2. We develop an exposure hierarchy on this fear. This should have at least five different tasks that are ranked from least scary to most scary (scale from 0-10) tasks that you would like to challenge yourself with. For Arachnophobia this may be a 2/10 for looking at pictures of spiders, to 4/10 for watching videos of spiders, to 6/10 for looking at spiders in a an enclosure, to 8/10 for a spider being out in the open in front of you, to 10/10 for letting a spider crawl over your hand or up your arm.

3. We start with the least scary task first and stay in the situation for at least 10 minutes if possible. This should be long enough for the anxiety to peak and then reduce substantially during the exposure exercise. Specific behavioural and thinking skills can be taught by a psychologist to help lower stress levels during the exposure if it is not reducing at all.

4. We reflect on the exposure experience afterwards and try to change our previously held beliefs about what we fear. This is called cognitive reappraisal, and is done by asking ourselves “how did it go?“, “was it as bad as I thought it would be?“, and “how would I approach a similar situation in the future?

5. Once we are comfortable with that level of the exposure hierarchy, we repeat steps 3 and 4 with the next task on the exposure hierarchy. Once we become comfortable with the next step, we repeat this process again with the next task until we are successful with all tasks on the hierarchy. This would mean the fear has been overcome or mastered.

man standing on cliff

What if What I Fear Really is Dangerous?

If you have Ophidiophobia and live in Australia, you’re probably not going to want to befriend a snake that you run into out in the bush. Australia is home to 21 out of the 25 most deadly snakes in the world. If you wanted to overcome this fear, you might want to instead learn how to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes and get more comfortable only with deadly ones from behind solid glass panels at your local zoo. Or you could visit someone who owned a harmless pet snake so that you could get used to being around it and touching it and realising that you are safe.

If you’re afraid of heights, I wouldn’t suggest being like Alex Honnold and trying to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite, but trying out the edge experience at the Eureka tower in Melbourne or even riding on the amusement park ride The Giant Drop on the Gold Coast might be a pretty safe way to challenge your fears.

Facts can really help some people to challenge their beliefs about their fears, but nothing beats putting ourselves in a feared situation first, and then trying to challenge our beliefs afterwards.

For me, knowing that only 12 out of the 35,000 different varieties of spiders are harmful to humans makes me not worry every time I see a little one unless it is a whitetail or a redback spider.

It helps to know that flying is one of the safest forms of travel, with a one-in-12 million chance of crashing. Although I don’t try to stand in an open field with a metal pole during a storm, it does help to know that being killed by lightning is nearly as rare, with a one-in-10.5 million chance.

Even though I don’t like to watch it pierce my skin, needles don’t hurt nearly as much as I used to imagine, and the pain goes away almost immediately after the injection. Bacteria is absolutely everywhere so I couldn’t avoid germs entirely even if I tried, and getting exposed to a bit of dirt when we are young might also be good for the development of our immune system.

If I ever feel a bit trapped or panicky the next time I dive, it will help to remind myself that I have done it before. I have my open water certificate and the skills from this, and what I’m doing is actually pretty safe as long as I don’t panic and follow what I have been taught in my training.

Just because we are afraid of something, it doesn’t mean we have to avoid it for the rest of our lives. But we don’t have to face our fears every time either, especially if it is not harming our quality of life. If you determine it would be good to challenge yourself and try to overcome a fear, I hope the steps outlined above help, and I’d love to hear about any success stories in the comments below.


Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

To Trust or Not to Trust?

Recently, some things have come to light that I have found personally disappointing. A few people have behaved in a self-centred way and it puts me in an awkward situation.

If given a choice, I always try to be kind, open, honest, respectful and co-operative with others. However, sometimes some people don’t play by these same rules, and the more open and honest you are, the more this information can be used against you.

These experiences have led to me doubting myself. I wonder if I am too trusting like some of my friends say. Other friends tell me that the only way to respond is by playing the game also, putting my own needs first too.

What should we do if someone is being unkind, and only considering their needs irrespective of the consequences that these actions have on us?

person s playing chess

Game Theory

Game theory looks at what is the best rational approach to take in a strategic interaction between two people or groups of people. There are many different games, including co-operative games, where the rules and consequences can be enforced, and zero-sum games, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

One of the most famous examples of a game is the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’:

Imagine that you are a member of a criminal gang and that you have been arrested alongside one of your gang associates. You are in separate rooms at the police station, and you have no way of communicating with your associate. The Police tell you that they have insufficient evidence to get either of you on a big charge, but enough to get both of you on a smaller offence. The Police give you and the other prisoner one of two options:

  1. You can betray your associate by testifying that they were the one who committed the crime, or
  2. You can co-operate with your associate by remaining silent and refusing to testify.

The possible outcomes are:

A. If you both remain silent and co-operate with each other against the Police, you both only get one year in prison.

B. If you both try to betray each other by agreeing to testify, you both get two years in prison.

C. If they betray you, but you’ve tried to co-operate, they get to walk free, and you get three years in prison.

D. If they try to co-operate by remaining silent but you betray them and agree to testify, you get to walk free while they have to go to prison for three years.

The rational approach is not to co-operate with your associate, because at worst, you will get two years in prison (B), and at best you will serve no prison time (D). This is in comparison to the worst outcome of three years in prison (C) if you remain silent, and the best result is one year in jail (A). Not betraying your associate and co-operating will only lead to a worse outcome, even if you know that your associate will co-operate with 100% certainty.

It is therefore not always rational to try to co-operate with someone who could potentially take advantage of you, and positively not sound if you know that they are deliberately trying to take advantage of you.

person with tattoo playing paper scissor and stone

What About Long-term Strategies?

If two people play multiple games of Prisoner’s Dilemma and they can remember what the other player did previously, does it make it more desirable to co-operate rather than betray the other person? This is more reflective of how most relationships are in real life, whether with family, friends, co-workers, bosses or in intimate relationships. We may win more in one situation, but at what cost? This iterated version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is sometimes known as the ‘Peace-War game’.

In 1984, Robert Axelrod organised a tournament where participants chose their strategies in an extended version of the Peace-War game, let’s say with 2000 trials. He found that greedy approaches to the game actually didn’t fare too well, and resulted in more years spent in prison by the end of the game.

One of the most straightforward strategies was also the most effective, and this was ‘tit-for-tat’. In the tit-for-tat strategy, the aim is to always co-operate in the first trial, and then do exactly what your opponent did on the previous trial for your next move. This way, you punish a betrayal with a quick betrayal back and reward co-operation with ongoing co-operation. Sometimes (in 1-5% of the trials), it is good to co-operate once even after your opponent betrays you, but generally, the most effective method is still tit-for-tat, which is interesting to know.

After the tournament ended, Axelrod studied the data and identified four main conditions for a successful strategy when negotiating with other people:

  1. We must be nice. What this means is that we should never defect or cheat before the other person does, even if we only want the best for ourselves.
  2. We must retaliate quickly and at least 95% of the time if people try to defect against or cheat us. It’s not good to be a blind optimist or always co-operate no matter what the other person does. This only leads to us being taken advantage of by greedy people.
  3. We must be forgiving, and get back to trying to co-operate once we can see that the other person is trying to co-operate reasonably again.
  4. We must not be envious and just try to beat our opponent or score more than them. Creating a win-win scenario is ideal if possible, even if it means giving up some points by co-operating when you could defect.

black and white sport fight boxer

What Relevance Does This Have For Real Life?

It may be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that screwing others over is the best way to get ahead in life. Or to not put ourselves out there so that we don’t get taken advantage of. In reality, this would only be the best approach in a world where every single other person tries to take advantage of everyone else every chance they can. This is not the case in any society on our planet as far as I know, so never trusting people and always assuming the worst from others is not the way to go.

Trust Don’t Trust
Untrustworthy Get hurt Don’t get hurt
Trustworthy More connection Less connection

By looking at the table above, the best outcome is to try and trust individuals who are reliable (and co-operate with them) and not trust or co-operate with individuals who are not. The worst results are being hurt by putting our trust in those we shouldn’t or not letting in or co-operating with others that we really could have.

Maybe I am a little too trusting. I do assume that other people are kind and good people who have good intentions unless I am proven otherwise. This is the position that I will continue to take, even if it means that sometimes I get hurt once I realise that someone is a bit more self-centred or dishonest than I had hoped.

Looking at the four elements of a successful negotiating strategy, I know that I am nice, forgiving and non-envious. The lesson that I do need to learn is that of swift and appropriate retaliation, or enforcing a certain consequence shortly after someone is nasty towards me. This would help to deter the other person from trying any more selfish tactics going forward and could put them back on the path towards co-operating and trying to achieve a win-win situation for the both of us.

I have thought previously that if I always co-operate, then at least I can be happy with the person that I am. However, sometimes being firm and assertive and standing up for ourselves in the face of unkind and selfish behaviour is the far better, and more self-respecting approach to take.

I hope this article has encouraged you to not give up on trying to trust or co-operate with others. I also hope it will encourage you to stand up for yourself if someone is trying to take advantage of you.


Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist