Is Your Screen Time Eating Up Your Free Time?

How Did We Get Here?

In the classic Sociology book ‘Bowling Alone’, Robert Putnam argues that social capital (reciprocal connections among people) has been in a steady decline ever since its peak in 1964.

By 2000, the average American was 58% less likely to attend a club meeting than an individual only 25 years earlier. It may not seem like a big deal until you realise that regularly participating in a social group halves your risk of dying in the next 12 months.

It’s not just the joining of groups that have changed either. For example, we are 45% less likely to invite friends to our place and 33% less likely to have dinner around the table with the whole family. We are also 40% less likely to join a bowling league, surprisingly the number one participation sport in the U.S. (Putnam, 2000).

This overall decline in social capital has also resulted in a loss of mutual trust. For example, from 1966 to 1998, the proportion of Americans who endorsed trusting the federal government “only some of the time” or “almost never” rose from 30% to 75%. Without this trust in others, we no longer know who to turn to for help and support when needed.

Why Has Social Capital Declined?

Putnam believed that some of the main culprits for the loss of social capital were:

  1. The changes in family structure. More people live alone, in a single-parent home, or decide not to have children.
  2. Suburban sprawl and longer commutes. With less time, energy and interest for leisure and social activities outside of work and commuting.
  3. A generational effect. Older generations (pre-boomers) have been consistently more civic and socially engaged than the Baby Boomers, who have been more civic and socially engaged than generation X’ers, who have been more civic and socially engaged than Millennials. The only thing that Millenials do more than older generations is hours spent volunteering individually.
  4. Technology has led to the privatisation of leisure time. The more people watch TV or spend time on social media or their smartphones, the less time they spend involved in social capital-type activities. Putnam believed that TV might have contributed up to 40% of the overall decline in social capital since 1965. The internet and smartphones have increased this privatisation of leisure since 2000.

How Much Time do People Spend on Technology?

The 2013 documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’ has some pretty scary statistics about how much technology is consumed by male children and teenagers. For example, in the U.S., the average boy:

* spends 40 hours a week watching television, including sports and movies.

* spends 15 hours per week playing video games.

* spends 2 hours per week watching porn, with 21% of young men using porn daily.

The Potential Consequences of Excessive Technology Use

Although some people write off the TV, video games, and the internet as harmless forms of entertainment that help keep kids safe, out of trouble and off the streets, they come with their risks and potential consequences. For example, the following data in ‘The Mask You Live In’ documentary:

* 31% of young males report feeling addicted to the video games they play.

* 50% of parents don’t monitor the content or ratings of video games, even though 90% of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence.

By 18, the average male has seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen, including 40,000 murders.

Exposure to violent media may:

* lead to children becoming less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others,

* lead to children becoming more fearful of the world around them, and

* lead to children behaving in more aggressive and harmful ways towards others.

Exposure to pornography:

* increases sexual aggression by 22%.

* increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%

— The Mask You Live In

The typical response by the content producers to statistics like these is that the content we watch doesn’t impact our behaviour.

BUT if this was the case, WHY do we have a multi-billion dollar advertising industry?

IF media images don’t affect people’s subsequent behaviour, WHY would commercials, or product placements exist?

WHY would companies be happy to pay millions for 30-second Super Bowl commercials?

BECAUSE the COMPANIES paying for the commercials and the marketers producing the commercials THINK that WHAT WE SEE IMPACTS OUR BELIEFS AND BEHAVIOURS.

If a 30-second commercial can change our attitude or behaviours towards something, why won’t seeing 200,000 acts of violence before 18?

Who is fooling who? The general public, or the multi-billion dollar corporations and industries?

The Problem of Smart Phones and Digital Streaming

Since 2013, the problem of technology has only gotten worse, and it is now eating into even more of our leisure time, as shown in this clear depiction by Adam Alter in his 2017 TED talk:

The New York University psychologist presented data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show that sleep, working, commuting and activities of daily living (cleaning, showering, eating etc.) have all taken up a similar amount of time over the past ten years.

As shown in the red (data from the mobile app ‘Moment’), what has changed is how much time we spend looking at screens. It used to be only minutes in 2007. Now our phones, laptops and tablet usage is taking up most of our free time and dramatically cutting into our social and leisure time, much like TV had previously done in the second half of the 20th century.

Unlike TV, this has not been by accident, with today’s most brilliant minds often focusing on how to attract and sustain our attention on their games, sites, and apps. Alter explored this brilliantly in his recent book ‘Irresistible’, which I put in my top 40 favourite psychology books countdown.

A 2017 review by Brendan Meagher on the Australian Psychological Society Website introduced me to the term ‘problematic mobile phone use’. It is “an inability to regulate one’s mobile phone use, which has negative consequences in daily life” (Billieux, 2012).

Australia is now fourth in the world in terms of smartphone usage. 84% of us have a mobile phone, with 85% of teenagers and young adults exceeding 2 hours of screen use on their phones every day. The average for all Australian mobile phone users is 2.5 hours a day, which adds up to 38 days per year. We check something on our phones 30 separate times each day, and 45% of Australians now say that they couldn’t live without their phones (Meagher, 2017). The scariest statistic is that 42% of Australians over 18 still use their phones while driving, despite this creating a much higher risk of car accidents (Rumschlag, 2015).

Consequences of Excessive Mobile Phone Use

Mobile phone overuse has similarities to addictions or substance use problems, including tolerance, withdrawal, and daily-life disturbance (Kwon et al., 2013).

Adverse consequences include increased risk of aggression, sleep disturbance (Yang et al., 2010) and physical health problems (Lee & Seo, 2014).

It can also negatively impact relationships, lead to fewer social interactions across a week, and impair academic performance (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011).

Is Your Mobile Phone Use Problematic?

If you are unsure, Meagre recommends considering the following questions:

* Do you think you spend too much time using your mobile phone?

* Has your mobile phone use caused problems in a relationship?

* Do people say that you spend too much time on your mobile phone?

* Does the time you spend on your mobile phone stop you from doing other tasks?

* Have you tried to cut down your mobile phone use?

* Have you used your mobile phone while driving or crossing a road?

Could You Cut Down Your Screen Time?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions like I did, you might benefit from tracking your usage and seeing how much time you spend on your phone actively doing something.

I bought the full version of the app ‘Moment’, as recommended by Adam Alter. I didn’t try to change how much I used my phone to get an accurate baseline for the first week. My average was 1 hour, 48 minutes of screen time a day. Less than the national average, but still not how I wanted to spend my spare time.

I then took on the ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ on the ‘Moment’ app for the following week and set the goal of less than 1 hour of screen time each day.

The ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ was first developed by Manoush Zomorodi after she realised just how long it had been since she had last felt bored, thanks to always being able to look at her phone whenever she had a spare second. She also realised that she had very little time to let her mind wander without this time of boredom, which was when she had her best creative ideas. She then decided to set a challenge on her podcast for her listeners, which became the focus of her subsequent book of the same title.

  • On day 1, the aim was to observe my phone usage.
  • On day 2, I aimed to keep my phone out of reach and in my bag instead of my pocket.
  • On day 3, the aim was not to take any photos.
  • On day 4, the aim was to delete an app that I used more than I wanted to. So I deleted Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn from my phone.
  • On day 5, I took a fake cation and put my phone in aeroplane mode to have fewer distractions during the day.
  • On day 6, I aimed to observe things that I would have missed if glued to my phone, especially while on public transport.
  • On day 7, I tried to make something creative. It consisted of me cooking a nice meal for dinner, and it didn’t taste too bad either.

As the above data shows, I managed to pick up my phone three times less per day. My baseline was nine less than the average Australian already, but I’m glad to reduce it to 18 times per day.

The second picture is interesting to me. My phone use took up 7% of my waking life across the challenge. It still seems too much, but it was a decent drop from 12% of my waking life the week before.

As shown in the data above, the average person who takes on the ‘Bored and Brilliant Challenge’ creates 58 minutes more free time each day by cutting down their phone usage. That’s nearly an extra hour each day to do whatever you want. If people feel time-poor already, that might be a lovely feeling.

Other Suggestions for Cutting Down Screen Time

  • Book social outings or join a club or sports team. Exercise is also great for mental and physical health, so combining socialising with exercise is recommended.
  • Develop a list of other non-screen activities that you may enjoy and can do regularly.
  • Stop channel surfing on your TV — figure out which shows you want to watch ahead of time and record them. It increases the enjoyability of the programs you watch and cuts down how much time you spend watching TV as you can fast forward through commercials.
  • If you use a TV streaming site such as Stan or Netflix, decide if there is a program you really want to watch and how long you want to watch it before you switch it on. Then, you can set the alarm or reminder to help manage binge-watching.
  • Stop leaving your TV on in the background or switching it on as soon as you get home. Listening to most music is likely to be more relaxing than watching TV.
  • Install the app or plugin ‘Freedom’ on your computer. Freedom helps you block specific sites you can waste time on and makes it easier to set limits for yourself.


Hopefully, with everything discussed here, you can now see the potential pitfalls of excessive technological devices, especially those involving bright screens.

If you feel rushed, always complain about being busy, spend too much time on your phone, or want to find more time for social and leisure activities, I encourage you to consider the role that technology plays in your life. Suppose there is an area where it is becoming problematic or causing you distress. In that case, I recommend implementing any of the above suggestions or challenges to see what difference it can make in your life.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The World Became Much Less Abundant in 2021

From 2020 to 2021, the global resource abundance plummeted. The drop of 22.6% was double the previous most significant one year drop of 11.3% in 2010. While this highlights the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic globally, look at how our current value is still 448.5% higher than it was in 1980:

Yes, it is now much lower than the peak of 708.4 that we had in 2020. As a result, 88% of the commodities measured (44 out of 50) became more expensive in 2021. In particular, energy prices increased by a whopping 131.4%.

Only six commodities decreased their relative cost from 2020 to 2021, including bananas, tea, plywood, tobacco, rice, and groundnuts.

 However, according to the Simon Abundance Index (SAI), global resource abundance has still doubled every 16.7 years since 1980. It means that we are much more likely to be able to afford 50 of the most common commodities with much fewer working hours than we did in 1980. We can buy more food after less time at work than our parents and grandparents used to be able to. Same with energy, materials, metals and minerals.

Having more people worldwide doesn’t make everything more expensive and scarce either. For every 1% increase in the world’s population, the average time price of these commodities decreases by 0.88%. Our personal resource abundance (2.69%) and population resource abundance (5.8%) increase for every 1% increase in the global population.

As Julian Simon noted in his 1996 book The Ultimate Resource 2:

“The ultimate resource is people — skilled, spirited and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all…(in the future) there will be more people to solve problems and the bonus of lower costs and less scarcity.”

Resource abundance is still growing at a faster rate than the global population. The threat to our economic well-being is not an increasing population. The fiscal decisions by countries prioritised people’s lives during the pandemic, reduced work output, and increased inflation rates through the printing of money. Now that more people are returning to work, countries should print less additional money for people not working, entrepreneurship will increase, and our global abundance is likely to rise again. If you don’t believe me, look at how the world responded to the 2008 global financial crisis from the years 2011 to 2020.

Many thanks to Marian L. Tupy and Gale Pooley for the excellent data in their Human Progress article on The Simon Abundance Index 2022.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Why Do We Not Celebrate the Positives?

Recently, an article released in The Age newspaper was titled “Dip in thefts, drugs and family violence but police say drop in crime may not last”.

In 2021, the number of recorded offences in Victoria, Australia, dropped by 12.6% over the previous year. As a result, the police recorded 70,000 fewer offences. It was the lowest rate of offending (per person) that has been seen in the state since 2012.

The crime rates in Victoria may be lower than ever, but I am not too sure because the data at only goes back to 2012 when I look. Less property and deception offences. Fewer drug offences and family violence incidents.

Indeed, this is a cause for celebration?

Not so fast, the experts in the article say, given that “Victoria was in periods of restriction for significant periods of last year”.

Victoria Police’s Deputy Commissioner also seems to think that “it is likely that overall crime will increase as the community returns to normal”, but it’s not like the 154 days of lockdown in 2020 resulted in less crime than the 113 days locked down in 2021.

2020 nearly beat out 2016 for the most criminal offences recorded in a year, even though the lockdowns lasted 41 more days than in 2021.

If the lockdowns were responsible for the reduced crime in 2021, wouldn’t more crime be committed in 2017, 2018 or 2019 than in 2020?

I guess only time will tell. But maybe it is a good sign that a person in Victoria in 2021 was less likely to be the victim of a criminal offence than in any other year since 2012?

Why don’t we celebrate the positives when they occur?

I see it in my friends on social media and the patients I see in my consulting rooms. So many people think that everything is getting worse, and some even believe that the world might be ending.

Yes, the situation in Ukraine is scary. There also remains inequalities against people based on class, gender, nationality, sexual identity, ethnicity, age and disability. However, progress has occurred in many of these areas.

Despite this, in 2016, 65% of the US thought the world was getting worse, and only 6% believed it was getting better. In 17 other surveyed countries, 58% thought the world was either getting worse or staying the same.

People used to worry that overpopulation would lead to poverty and famine everywhere. However, even though our worldwide population is 8 billion now, the poverty rates have declined from 42% in 1981 to 8.6%. In addition, since 1900, our life expectancy has more than doubled, and obesity now impacts more people worldwide than hunger.

Yes, COVID-19 has been a challenge for many people and continues to be a challenge for many more. However, despite the pandemic, the economies in certain countries, including Bangladesh, Ghana, and China, became more prosperous in 2021 than in 2019.

Just because progress occurs, it “does not mean that everything gets better for everyone, everywhere, all the time”, Steven Pinker says. “That would be a miracle.” But unfortunately, while we are progressing in general and heading in the right direction, it is not a miracle. Things continue to be imperfect and always will be.

For more amazing facts about how things have improved and continue to improve, please check out books like ‘The Rational Optimist’ by Matt Ridley, ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling, ‘Enlightenment Now’ by Steven Pinker, or any others like them.

For a more positive outlook on humans, please check out the excellent book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Rutger Bregman. I also really like websites such as They highlight the positive stories worldwide that don’t get as much celebration in the news as they deserve.

Would You Prefer to Enjoy Your Life Now, or Wait Until You Are Retired?

Recently, my girlfriend has been sharing some videos of people who follow the FIRE principle with me.

FIRE is an acronym that stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early.

Some people describe FIRE as a financial movement involving frugality and extreme savings and investments. To do this, you work hard, save up to 70% of your annual income, and reinvest your savings into investments that will help you make even more. Eventually, you can retire early and use small amounts of money from your ongoing investments to live off.

It’s not a bad idea in theory. Who wouldn’t like to not have to work and do the things they would like to do instead of what they have to do?

I wonder how happy a life it would lead to in reality? The few videos I have seen show extremely driven couples working excessively for over ten years, spending very little money while they are doing this, and then retiring in their 40s.

While they are sacrificing so much in the present, what are they missing? Fun activities, school events or holidays with their children while they are young? Socialising with their friends and extended family? Even having enough time or being willing to pay for things that help them look after their health? Including healthy eating, gym memberships, massage or spa treatments, or a fun day out to a concert or movie? If reaching FIRE as early as possible is the primary goal, then most of this stuff will be seen as unnecessary or against the plan you are trying to achieve.

But who gets to the end of their life and looks back and thinks, “I should have worked longer and harder, especially when my children were young?”

And then once you reach FIRE, is the life that you are going to live suitable to who you are and your essential values?

In 2021, I had to take the first seven months off work while recovering from a severe health condition. Having no paid work to do each week or day was not as enjoyable or glamorous as other people may imagine.

Especially if you are in your 30s or 40s, most of your friends will be busy with work and family. So it’s not like you will have heaps of buddies that you can hit the golf course with throughout the workweek unless most of your friends are in their late 60s or early 70s. 70 something was the typical age of people I went on long bike rides while I kept rehabilitating my health last year.

Suppose a driven person is willing to sacrifice everything in the short-term for at least ten years to reach their FIRE goal. Will they be happy sitting around on a beach, doing nothing except relaxing and sipping Pina Colada’s every day?

I doubt it. Maybe for the first week. But then what?

So why do people do it?

I think it’s because we get the dream sold to us. We get told that work is a nightmare that we couldn’t possibly enjoy. But we are also told that we should study hard at school to get into a good University or College. Then we can get a good degree. Then we can get a good job. Then we can work hard in this job until we have enough money to retire. And then we can FINALLY enjoy life.

It reminds me of the story of the fisherman who is told by a Westerner on holiday in his coastal town that the fisherman needs to work harder to make more money. “But why?” asks the fisherman. “So that you can buy bigger boats and more of them!” says the Westerner. “But why?” says the fisherman. So that you can make more money and then retire after 20 or 30 years!” says the Westerner. “And then what?” asks the fisherman. “Well, then you can buy a boat and live by the beach and enjoy your life!” says the Westerner. “But that is what I already do,” replies the fisherman, as he shakes his head at the Westerner for having such silly thoughts.

Maybe we can stop trying to wait for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and see if we can try to enjoy our lives now? We may not need to have an excessive amount of money to do this. And we don’t need to retire early and do nothing every day.

Not all work is glamorous. And going to university and obtaining a good degree does lead to more considerable earning potential later in your career. Regardless of how much someone makes though, work does help provide a sense of purpose and structure for a lot of people.

My Personal Experience

Completing a Doctorate for me did enable me to work as a Clinical Psychologist. It is a job that I love but also one that I can find emotionally exhausting. Seeing seven or eight people a day, five days a week for individual therapy is not ideal even though it would be lucrative.

After working as a Psychologist since September 2013, I’ve learned to do whatever is sustainable and enjoyable for me.

Yes, I am volunteering in Port Vila, Vanuatu, as a Clinical Psychologist on the Australian Volunteer Program, funded by the Australian Government. I receive a stipend for this, or just enough money to get by here and pay for my accommodation and food and living expenses.

I am receiving way less money than I could get working back in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. However, I am also working in a way that feels sustainable to me. I am six months into volunteering here on a full-time basis again, and I haven’t felt the need to take any holidays yet. Weekend trips to beautiful beaches now and then is sufficient for me.

Even though I am working full-time hours each week, I am not wrecked when it gets to Friday at 5 pm. I am happy that it is the weekend and that I can do some fun things with my girlfriend, daughter, and friends. But I do not feel like I need to spend half the weekend by myself just recovering.

I am also happy. Happy to be working. Delighted to be experiencing all of these things. Glad to be meeting all of the people that I do. And happy that I am doing something meaningful and hopefully making a difference in the lives of the people I see.

No matter how hard I work, I do not get paid any extra, and I kind of like it that way. By choosing to volunteer, I highly doubt that I will be reaching FIRE anytime soon, or at all. 

One of my favourite writers is the Psychiatrist Irving Yalom, and he was still seeing patients and writing a few hours on weekdays well into his 80s. Now that seems much more enjoyable and meaningful than retiring in my 40s.

What does everyone else think?

How Do We Not Build Up More Regrets?

Over the past five years, I have been trying to live my life in a way that will not accumulate more regrets.

Most people tend to find change both problematic and scary. Sometimes, we remain stuck in a bad or unideal situation for too long because we fear what we could lose if we leave or change where we are.

However, we also tend to regret things we don’t do much more than the changes we make. So even if something doesn’t work out exactly how you have planned, more times than not, you will be glad that you have taken a risk and given something new a chance.

So, if you are in a difficult situation, including a bad relationship or a bad job, and are thinking about leaving but are also scared to do so, make sure that you make the comparison fair for yourself. First, compare what you might gain if you leave to what you might achieve if you stay. Then think about what you might lose if you go, but compare it to what you might lose if you stay.

If you think about what you might lose versus what you might gain if you leave, prospect theory indicates that the potential losses will likely loom larger for you. The potential gains of you going won’t help you overcome your fears of leaving enough. You will be more likely to stay, even if the current situation is not ideal for you.

Every decision we make has positives and negatives, so don’t forget about the negatives of maintaining the status quo or doing nothing if you are in a harmful or toxic situation.

If you really want to leave but feel afraid, think about the positives of leaving plus the negatives of not making the change. In this way, both your approach system and your fear system will work together and push you in the same direction of making a change and running away from the current situation you are in.

If you are still feeling indecisive, toss a coin. Then let the coin be responsible for the action you take. It might just help you to make the change that deep down you know you want to take.

The Positives of Making a Change

Steven Levitt from Freakonomics fame asked people over a year to flip a virtual coin if they were on the fence about something. If the coin landed on heads, the website told them to go ahead and make a change. However, if the coin landed on tails, they were instructed to keep the status quo.

From more than 20,000 coin tosses, the most common life dilemma that people flipped a coin about was whether or not to quit their jobs. A large percentage of people were also indecisive about whether or not to break up their intimate partners. The website asked a series of questions first to help people arrive at a decision. If these questions didn’t help, the website instructed visitors to flip a coin.

Levitt contacted each person who flipped a coin via email two months and six months after the coin toss. Those who did make a significant change in their lives reported being happier two months later than those who maintained the status quo. Their happiness was even higher six months after their decision. The results were similar regardless of whether or not they followed the coin toss instructions if it landed on heads and made the change or went against it if it landed on tails and made the change anyway.

Levitt concluded that “people are too cautious when it comes to making a change” and probably should take action if they are uncertain about whether or not to.

How Do I Not Regret Things?

For me, preventing the accumulation of regrets is about trying to live my life in a way that is consistent with the life that I want—or trying to be the person I would like to be in every situation.

Getting to this point requires a decent amount of self-awareness and self-knowledge of who I am, what I care about, and what I want.

I’ve completed many personality tests, identified my main defence mechanisms and lifetraps, seen how my character strengths and values have changed over time and become aware of my virtues and faults.

Now that I am aware of these things, it is easier to determine what I would like. In addition, completing the future authoring program has also helped help me to clarify what I really would like in the future.

Some of the questions that they asked me were as follows:

What is One Thing You Could Do Better?

Tune in instead of tuning out. Listen to my body and mind and become more aware of what I feel and what I need.

What Things Do You Want to Learn About?

I want to learn more about running a successful business and private psychology practice.

Which Habits Would You Like to Improve?

I want to stay on top of all my responsibilities at work. I want to connect more with friends and family and ask them for help rather than doing everything myself. I want to remain a non-drinker of alcohol and continue learning new things, going on adventures, exercising, trying to eat healthily, taking my medication, and looking after my health.

What Type of Social Life do You Want in the Future?

I want to maintain connections with the essential people in my life, including my parents, siblings, host family, partner, daughter, family, and friends.

What Leisure Activity Do You Want to Do in the Future?

I want my leisure to be about being active, lifting weights, cooking well, learning new skills, being creative and socialising with those I love.

How Do You Want Your Family Life in the Future?

I want to be connected with them all, even if we are in different countries, share the good things and get support if needed. I also want to try to be there for as many big moments as possible and visit them when I can. Prioritise my partner and family here in Vanuatu and be consistent, reliable, supportive, loving, and caring.

What Type of Career Do do You Want in the Future?

I want to have a thriving private practice as a clinical psychologist. Run both groups and individual sessions and positively impact the community. I would also like to live a sustainable lifestyle where I enjoy my work and remain healthy, with enough time for leisure, relationships and personal growth.

What Qualities Do You Admire?

I want to deliberately and continually learn and improve. I want to be grateful, efficient, effective and courageous. I want to reflect on my mistakes, learn from my experiences, and gain wisdom over time. I want to be fully present, kind and compassionate to myself and others.

What Does an Ideal Future Look Like to You?

I want to be the best me that I can be. I want to help as many people as I can. I want to end up in a place where I feel satisfied and valuable and where I belong. I want to feel like my life is worthwhile and a net positive on the world. 

I hope to save up enough money, live in Vanuatu, build a comfortable home and have a good life with my partner and her daughter. I want to make a real difference to the country’s mental health and share with people worldwide all of the knowledge and skills they need to improve their sleep and mental health.

What is a Future that You Want to Avoid?

I don’t want to be a drunk, obese, unemployed loner. I don’t want to fail to meet my obligations or stop striving to achieve my goals. I don’t want to be a bad influence on my partner or children or any clients that I see. I don’t want to end up in jail, commit any crimes or deliberately hurt others. I don’t like to be prideful and not apologise or make amends when I err. I also don’t want to disappoint my friends and family or be considered selfish, unkind, or shit.

Ending the post by talking about the life that I do not want may seem negative, but remember that losses loom larger than gains. By writing down the life I want to avoid, I become motivated to run away from this, make the changes I need to achieve the life I want and not keep building up regrets as I go. 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Can You Improve Your Gratitude?

Out of the 24 possible character strengths in the VIA Character Strengths Survey, only five are strongly associated with satisfaction with life. People with hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity and the ability to love and be loved as their top strengths seem to have higher life satisfaction.

Gratitude has never been a strength of mine. Every time I have taken the survey since 2012, hope, zest, and gratitude have never even been in my top 10 strengths. In fact, only curiosity has been a top-five strength, coming in at #3 in 2017 and #2 in 2018.

But then something happened.

I’ve already written about the details, but I suffered a stroke on January 2nd, 2021, was misdiagnosed three times, nearly died, had emergency brain surgery, and spent over a week in a coma. I was then in a hospital for over a month and spent the next six months doing regular outpatient rehab.

It is now over a year later. Apart from some minor balance and coordination difficulties, everything else is how it was. I’m back to working as a Clinical Psychologist and, in general, enjoying my life.

Last week, I went through different personality assessments with a colleague and re-took four tests to show them what the results would look like.

On the VIA Character Strengths Survey, my #1 strength was gratitude. I was shocked initially, but upon further reflection, I really do feel lucky to be alive and be able to think clearly and interact with those that I care about.

The flap in my artery that contributed to my stroke is still there. So I could have another blood clot and stroke again in the future. Looking after myself and taking regular medication lowers my risk of recurrence, but nothing is guaranteed, and I don’t want to take anything for granted. So I want to appreciate everything I can. My friends and family. Where I live. The work I get to do. As many moments that I am alive as I can.

Life may not always be easy, but at this stage, I’d much rather experience the ups and downs and joys and sorrows than no longer be here.

I haven’t always felt this way. For a long time growing up, I would have been glad if a stroke took away my life prematurely. But it is interesting how nearly losing your life can make you appreciate what you have more.

The Psychiatrist and Author Irving Yalom found something similar when he worked with a group of patients with terminal breast cancer. Many even said that it was a pity that it took until they were nearly dead to start living fully. Yalom concluded that even though death is the end of us, reminding ourselves that we will one day die can enervate and energise us.

Apart from having a near-death experience or reflecting on our inevitable death one day (practising memento mori), there are several things that you can do to improve your level of gratitude.

The two that I have most commonly heard of and tried myself are the What Went Well exercise and the Gratitude Visit.

What Went Well?

For the What Went Well exercise, the aim is to get into a daily habit of noticing the positive things that happen in your life. You could start a specific gratitude journal or include What Went Well in your usual journal. I have been using the Stoic app on my phone and having this question as one of the prompts in my daily writing exercise.

Whatever you choose to write in, take a few minutes each day to think about three things that went well during the day. It might be something that you appreciated, felt good about, or were grateful for. Ideally, this could be different things on different days, but it is okay to also say similar things to another day if you want to. For example, I kept writing down gratitude for my health, being alive, my partner, and her daughter. I’m also thankful for my family, friends, cognitive faculties, reading, walking, and enjoying nature or a nice meal. It can be whatever you want it to be.

The Gratitude Visit

The Gratitude Visit takes more time than the What Went Well exercise and cannot be done as often. However, even one of these visits can have a lasting impact on how you feel. Firstly, try to think of someone who has had a positive impact on your life, but you maybe have never told them just how grateful you are for the things they have done or the influence they have had in your life.

Then, write them a letter, fully explaining the positive influence on you, and how much you appreciate them and are grateful for the things they have done.

If the international borders were open, I would want to fly back to Australia and thank my family for their assistance following my stroke. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I want to do it the next time I get back to Melbourne.

If you can meet up with the person you have written the letter to, please contact them and catch up together on a particular date and time. Then, when you are in person, find an appropriate place where you can read the letter to them aloud, take your time reading it to them, and allow them to respond back to you afterwards. Give each other a hug if this feels appropriate. Then be thankful that you have taken this step, try to be as fully present as possible, and enjoy the rest of your time together.

Other Gratitude Exercises

By browsing the Internet, there are several different gratitude exercises that you can find that I haven’t tried yet.

You could try the Give It Up practise and deprive yourself of something you usually enjoy for one week every month. It might be chocolate one month, red wine the next month, Facebook the third month, and Playstation the month after that. By seeing how you feel with and without these activities, you might realise more about what does and doesn’t make you feel good and not take the little things in your life for granted as much.

You could take a Savouring Walk for 20 minutes a day outside by yourself and see if you can notice different positive things that you usually do not. It might just be the intricate architecture of the building at the corner, or the smell of flowers or fresh cut grass, or the feeling of warm sun on your skin. Then see how this compares to the walks you do when you are rushing from place to place or caught up in your negative thoughts or worries.

You could Create Savouring Rituals, where you identify activities that bring you pleasure. Then, try to savour two of these activities every day, and allow yourself to enjoy it, not multitask, and feel whatever you do during these times.

You can also create an Awe Diary, Foster Admiration with your partner or another willing person, or try the Mental Subtraction of Positive Events or Mental Subtraction of Relationships. The Positive Psychology website is an excellent resource for more details about these exercises or the myriad benefits of gratitude.

If you find any of them helpful in increasing how much gratitude you experience, please let me know.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Is Vanuatu the Happiest Country in the World?

The latest Happy Planet Index puts Vanuatu second in the world in terms of sustainable well-being. To determine a country’s score on the Happy Planet Index, they look at a country’s well-being, multiplied by their life expectancy and then divided by their ecological footprint.

The only country with a better Happy Planet Index score is Costa Rica, with 62.1. Vanuatu is second with a score of 60.4, followed by Colombia (60.2), Switzerland (60.1) and Ecuador (58.8).

Although the Happy Planet Index helps to highlight the importance of living sustainably and trying to slow down climate change, is the sustainable happiness score the same as people’s overall satisfaction with their lives?

Not really. The well-being indicator is probably more indicative. To assess well-being, people in each country are asked to rate the quality of their lives overall on a scale from 0 (horrible) to 10 (the best life you could ever imagine).

The majority of the well-being data is taken from the Gallup World Poll, but Vanuatu is not usually included in this Poll. Therefore, the Happy Planet Index gives us an excellent chance to compare Vanuatu to the rest of the world regarding how satisfied their residents are with their lives compared to residents of other countries.

Here are the top 20 countries:

  1. Finland = 7.84 (out of 10)
  2. Denmark = 7.62
  3. Switzerland = 7.57
  4. Iceland = 7.55
  5. Netherlands = 7.46
  6. Norway = 7.39
  7. Sweden = 7.36
  8. Luxembourg = 7.32
  9. New Zealand = 7.28
  10. Austria = 7.27
  11. Australia = 7.18
  12. Israel = 7.16
  13. Germany = 7.16
  14. Canada = 7.10
  15. Ireland = 7.09
  16. Costa Rica = 7.07
  17. United Kingdom = 7.06
  18. Czech Republic = 6.97
  19. Vanuatu = 6.96
  20. United States = 6.95

Vanuatu isn’t the happiest country on the planet, but the residents of Vanuatu are, on average, quite satisfied with their lives. However, the loss of tourism with the COVID-19 pandemic and the international border closures have made it financially challenging for many people. The capital city of Port Vila can also be quite expensive to live in.

Many young people are also travelling to Australia and New Zealand to work on farms and make as much money as possible. This leads to better financial opportunities for them, their families and communities. However, it also puts pressure on their partners, families and communities left behind while the young people work overseas for months and sometimes years.

The big positives in Vanuatu seem to be the connection that people have to their country, island, land and community. There are close-knit kinship and family ties and minimal large-scale conflict and political unrest.

Vanuatu is also a beautiful country with an exceptional natural environment and many people that want to preserve these resources as much as possible. For example, Vanuatu was one of the first countries to ban plastic drinking straws and plastic bags.

Work is also not an overly important aspect of many people’s lives. Following a death, people grieve with their family and friends and don’t rush back into their daily activities. Vanuatu also allows for up to 21 sick days per year, more public holidays than pretty much any country in the world, and 21 annual leave days a year too.

Based on the 2021 World Happiness Report, Finland once again wins the happiest country on the planet. Vanuatu is not the happiest country globally, but it is in the top 20 in the world. It is also a more joyful place than the USA, France, and many other countries around the globe.

By looking at surveys such as the Happy Planet Index or the World Values Survey, it is possible to see which places may be the best fit for you. If you really care about the environment and climate change, Costa Rica and Vanuatu will be right up there for you.

An excellent work-life balance, close connections with the important people in my life, not too much stress, lots of relaxation, beautiful natural resources and a population that feels like they are living a pretty good life are essential to me.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Mental Health Impact of COVID-19

Initially, the pandemic had a significant and negative impact on our mental health. Here is some data that looked at self-reported levels of distress, anxiety, and depression across the USA in 2020:

As you can see, anxiety, depression and distress all spiked in March and April but remained relatively consistent from June 2020 to January 2021. 

By September 2020, the average mental health of all people in the UK was still 2.2% worse than was predicted if there had been no pandemic. However, it wasn’t anything like the initial rate of people’s mental health being 7.9% worse at the start of the pandemic. 

The pandemic has not impacted everyone’s mental health in the same way. If we look at the data of people surveyed in the UK in both April and September 2020, more than one in five people had their mental health significantly impacted at both time points. However, both women and younger people were affected more by COVID-19 than older men:

There is also some evidence that suggests that ethnic minorities and those with pre-existing mental health conditions were impacted more severely by the pandemic. Unfortunately, these impacts only further exaggerate many of the already existing mental health inequalities. 

Lockdowns didn’t seem to worsen people’s mental health as severely as people imagined. Similar to what Daniel Gilbert said in his surprising book, ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, we can adjust more to whatever happens to us the longer it goes on. If something positive happens to us, we imagine that we will feel way better for way longer. But eventually, we get used to it, and our happiness levels return close to what they initially were. On the other hand, if something terrible happens to us, we imagine it will impact our mental health way worse and for way longer than it typically does. By June 2020, many people had already found their new equilibrium. 

By comparing internet searches before and during lockdowns, Google searches increased the most substantially for boredom. Statistically significant increases also occurred for loneliness, worry and sadness. Other studies had also found increased searches for psychological stress, fear and death before lockdowns started. These searches then stabilised at the start of the lockdowns before reducing as the lockdowns continued. 

Another finding that may surprise many people is that searches fell for divorce and suicide once countries imposed lockdowns.

I’m not sure if this is true, but I have heard that suicide rates also decrease during wars. So even though many people feared that lockdowns would increase suicidal ideation, I think that sometimes wars and pandemics give us a reason to feel sad. stressed or worried. Understanding why people feel the way they do and why they have to do what they are doing gives them insight and meaning and hope that things will get better in the future. Which can reduce the risk that someone will want to die by suicide instead of increasing it. 

Possible future mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic

Although most countries are now out of their most severe lockdowns and many people are returning to a new sense of normalcy, we are not entirely in the clear yet. 

The following graph by Banks, Fancourt and Xu in Chapter Five of the 2021 World Happiness Report indicates that we are now in phases three and four:

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on more awareness of the need for mental health treatment worldwide.

However, there is still insufficient mental health support in many places. One of the latest figures I saw from the World Health Organisation suggested that somewhere between 75 and 95% of people in need of mental health services in low- and middle-income countries cannot access adequate mental health support. 

Even where I was working in Melbourne, Australia, in 2020, there was a shortage of psychologists who could take on new clients because the demand for mental health services was so high. 

Therefore, countries need to find new ways to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments and support. It is especially true for disadvantaged or discriminated against groups, as they are likely most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many of the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are still not fully known. People have died, jobs have gone, businesses have closed, products have become harder to find or more expensive. Inflation and interest rates may have to increase to keep up with the printing of money and the countries’ spending during the pandemic so far. 

There are lots of uncertain things about the future. Each of these things may come with potentially negative mental health impacts too. I am probably less cynical and more hopeful than the graph above shows about how people respond over time, but no one can fully predict what lies ahead. 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Qualities Do You Try to Teach Your Children?

Deep in the World Values Survey results, there are some really interesting findings to me based on how people from each country answered questions.

Some of the most fascinating ones were around values that parents consider important in trying to pass on to their children.

There were 11 values that parents were asked about, and each person was not allowed to say that more than five values were important to them. This meant that each person had to prioritize some values over others. It also can give us an indication of which country values what the most.

Let’s look at the results for Australia and the USA on each value and see how many respondents said that this aspect was important for them to try to pass on to their children. Then we can compare these results on each value to the country with the largest percentage of people who think it is important, and the country with the lowest proportion of people who rate this value as important for their children to learn:


Good manners

Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Bangladesh = 98.3%

Australia = 84.2%

United States = 51.7%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Tajikstan = 0.4%

brown concrete wall surrounded by trees


Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: China = 78.2%

United States = 55.5%

Australia = 51.9%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Iraq = 13.8%

person holding grinder

Hard work

Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Tunisia = 80.3%

United States = 67.9%

Australia = 47.4%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Columbia = 24.6%

person holding white and blue paper

Feeling of responsibility

Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: South Korea = 87.6%

United States = 59.3%

Australia = 55.8%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Ethiopia = 35.3%

close up photo of glowing blue butterflies


Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: South Korea = 52.4%

Australia: 35.8%

United States: 29.8%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Zimbabwe = 5%

germany flag in front of building

Tolerance and respect for other people

Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Germany = 84%

Australia: 79.7%

United States: 70.8%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Tajikstan = 40%

piggy bank with coins

Thrift saving money and things

Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Tunisia = 64.2%

United States = 27.2%

Australia = 23%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Nigeria = 13.9%

photo of walkway between shinto shrine

Determination, perseverance

Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Japan = 63.3%

Australia: 42.7%

United States: 38.6%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Egypt = 10.8%

photo of woman holding her toddler

Religious faith

Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Bangladesh = 84.5%

United States = 32.1%

Australia = 13.2%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: China = 1.1%

blue jeans

Not being selfish (unselfishness)

Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Tunisia = 61.5%

Australia = 41.7%

United States = 28.3%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: South Korea = 4%

boy in gray shirt playing on sand


Country with the highest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Ecuador = 62.6%

United States = 20.5%

Australia = 19%

Country with the lowest proportion of respondents rating it as important: Japan = 2.7%

I wonder if any of the findings surprised you?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

How to Predict Whether or Not a Couple Will Break Up

John Gottman is a legendary relationship researcher. He began using “The Love Lab” as his research centre at the University of Washington in 1986.

Here, he would have couples stay in the apartment at The Love Lab, and watch as they bring up an old topic that they would typically fight about. During this conflict, he would also film the couple and measure their vitals or physiological responses.

By 1992, Gottman became so accurate at predicting which couples would eventually divorce that he published a study on it. His findings successfully indicated with 91% accuracy which of the 57 couples would later break up after recording them deal with conflict for only five minutes.

How Do You and Your Partner Fight?

The main thing that Gottman realised was what we now know as conflict style. The average therapist will say that the most healthy conflict style is a validating or compromising conflict style. With this style, the partner will want to discuss the issue calmly and rationally, talk about how the couple can resolve the problem, and collaboratively develop an amicable solution that will work well for both parties.

bench man couple love

Now Gottman found that if both parties or people in a disagreement had this validating or compromising conflict style, it worked well and didn’t predict a later break up. It wasn’t the case if only one person was validating or compromising in their conflict style. If their partner was avoidant, volatile or passive-aggressive in their conflict style, this mismatch was more predictive of a later divorce. 

What might be surprising to therapists is that if both people were avoidant in their conflict style, their outcome tended to be no worse than if they were both validating. So if you prefer to only focus on the good and not discuss any of the issues in your relationship, you may not need to start bringing stuff up. Instead, it would be best if you found a partner who also prefers to sweep the bad things under the rug rather than discuss any problematic issues. However, if your partner needs to bring things up, you may need to, too, if you want your relationship to be happy and work out in the long run. 

Similarly, if your ideal conflict style is to be volatile and get everything off your chest regardless of how you say it, this can work if your partner wants to be volatile too. Again, you are likely to fare just as well as the validating or avoidant couples, and much better than if you prefer to be volatile and your partner does not. 

Which Conflict Style Is Ideal for Your Relationship?

It turns out that deciding upon which conflict style is likely to work best for you and your partner, and then both doing this is more important than figuring out which conflict style is best in general. For example, some relationships may work out precisely because the bad stuff is avoided and never discussed. Others may be passionate and work because each partner gets everything they think and feel off their chest. And another couple may work out because they chat about the important things without losing their temper and work together to come up with a solution while both choosing to let some of the more minor things go.

Whether you prefer to be avoidant, compromising or validating in how you manage conflict, try to see if you can get on the same page about how to best deal with disagreements with your partner. Being on the same team about how you want to try and manage fights will give you the best chance to maintain a happy and healthy relationship. On the other hand, if you can’t get on the same team about how you want to fight, Gottman’s research findings indicate that your different conflict styles are more than likely to be the end of your relationship one day.

wood love people woman

If you want to learn more, Gottman has some great books that I would highly recommend reading, including:

  • The Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert
  • Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love
  • The Man’s Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets from the “Love Lab” About What Women Really Want
  • The Relationship Cure: A 5-Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family and Friendships
  • The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples
  • Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Your Last

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist