Why the celebration of A’s is bad

The yearly examination results announcement season is here again and as usual the nation celebrates the achievements of top scorers not realizing that Malaysians' preoccupation with "scoring" in school examinations does no one any favours.

 For the high-achieving students themselves, it instills the perception that straight A’s are the be-all and end-all of school life. Co-curricular activities and simply socialising with friends — so important in developing a child's social skills — may thereby be neglected. Moreover, the pressure to keep on getting top marks could prove overbearing, and if the student should fare less well in a subsequent exam, there might be adverse effects on his or her emotional health sometimes resulting in depression or even suicides.

On their part, the non-top-scorers may feel as if they are left by the wayside amid the glorification of good grades, and end up having a sense of low self-worth and an inferiority complex.

Nor is society as a whole best served by the race for A’s. The prevailing exam culture has fostered a dependence on uncritical rote learning which will not help the cause of promoting creativity and innovation in the long run. And as has been well documented, many leading lights in business, the arts and science, such as Albert Einstein, James Cameron and Steve Jobs, were in fact dropouts. The examination-based education system can in fact stifle creativity, original and critical thinking as such different modes of thought usually give us varied answers.

All this is not, of course, to celebrate mediocrity; on the contrary, we should always strive to improve ourselves and pursue high achievement. At the same time, we must also recognise that achievement comes in myriad forms, not just a string of A’s on the exam results slip. While some people may be academically inclined, others may be good with their hands, have innate artistic abilities, be natural people persons … and the list goes on. Although these life skills do not feature in our examinations, they are often more important than academic skills because working life demands these communication, interpersonal, leadership and other qualities, often more than the technical skills.

Rethink of our priorities may thus be in order. Instead of emphasising A’s at all costs, let us work towards an education system that nurtures well-rounded individuals and offers each student the opportunity to be the best they can be — now that would be something we can really be proud off.

The celebration of academic achievements through news reports should be stopped as it only serves to strengthen our preoccupation with academic achievements. We are producing skewed students who know a lot about examination-taking but lack other real life skills.

Letter of Editor, 27 November 2012

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Depression and its many causes

depression-drawing-colourWe all feel “down” or “blue” at times. All of us have days when we feel “depressed”. Usually, these feelings are temporary, and we can have a great day tomorrow. Even when we have a bad day, we can still find enjoyment in things. These occasional bad days are part of life and not depression.

Sometimes though, these feelings may persist for several days or even weeks. This is common following the break-up of a relationship or other unpleasant event.  In many cases, the sadness or depressed mood may accompany problems such as loss of appetite, overeating, sleeplessness, excessive sleeping, lack of energy and drive, loss of interest and joy, etc. This is when depression becomes a medical illness.

Still, while you may have some of the symptoms of depression, it is unlikely that you have major depression unless a number of the symptoms are present and impair daily functioning.

What is depression?

Depression is an illness that causes a disturbance in an individual’s emotions and feelings, what is referred to as mood.    

But depression is not just feeling unhappy. It encompasses feelings of discouragement and loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities and pastimes that persist for over 2 weeks.

Among the warning signs of depression are: feeling sad, hopeless or guilty most of the time; loss of interest and pleasure in daily activities; sleep problems (either too much or too little); fatigue, low energy, or feeling “slowed down”; problems making decisions or thinking clearly; crying a lot; changes in appetite or weight (up or down); and thoughts of suicide or death.

What causes depression?  

Depression is often associated with times of stress and difficulty in life — eg: a divorce or break-up; the death of a loved one; losing a job; stress at school or work; illness; certain medical diseases (like diabetes, cancer, thyroid diseases and anaemia); and other stresses and losses.

Depression can also come on out of the blue when it is associated with a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters (mainly serotonin) in the brain. This can be induced by the use of substances (like drugs or alcohol). There are indications that depression can be caused by genetic predisposition.  

Also, women may become depressed after the birth of a child (ie post-partum depression).

Depression can manifest in symptoms such as weight loss, anxiety, irritability, agitation, chronic indecisiveness and sleep disturbances.  In other words, you may have a depressive disorder and not feel particularly “depressed”.

Depression can impair your academic performance, relationships and other daily activities. People who are continually depressed also become increasingly irritable, dependent, hostile, sexually unresponsive, and experience stress in their relationships — all of which reinforce feelings of depression.  

Silent problem

Many people however, will not tell anyone about their depression because they are embarrassed. Talk is however, good therapy and can prevent you from being continually trapped in the vicious grip of depression.

Who’s at risk?

Depression can occur at any age, but the average age of onset is about 40. Although many people experience their first episode of depression in their late teens or early adulthood, the incidence of depression increases with age.  

The elderly are at a high risk of developing depression as they face multiple health problems or the loss of loved ones.

Women more prone

Women generally suffer more from depression than men. Why is this so? The answer may lie in features that are unique to women’s lives, such as hormones and puberty, reproductive cycle, psychological and personality characteristics, and social pressures both at the workplace and home.  

Puberty, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause may all cause “mood swings” in women. They switch from a normal mood to a depressed mood, angry mood, or a “frenzy” for no apparent reason. Hormones are suspected to be the main culprit here.

Men and women react differently when they are upset, angry or hurt. Women tend to “internalise” — that is, they absorb the pain and suffer quietly; while men tend to “externalise” — that is, they deflect the pain and someone else suffers with them.

Abuse, oppression and other forms of victimization that usually happen to women also have a lot to do with why women tend to be more depressed than men.

Find out more about mental health and well being in the CAP Guide, Emotional Fitness


Find out whether you are depressed

Are you depressed? To find out, complete the following questionnaire. Check off the symptoms which have occurred to you nearly every day for at least the past 2 weeks.
  •  I FEEL sad, depressed or down most of the time.   True   False
  •  I AM less interested and less able to enjoy the things that once gave me pleasure.   True   False
  •  I USUALLY feel tired and without energy.    True   False
  •  I HAVE trouble sleeping/been sleeping too much.   True   False
  •  I FIND it difficult to concentrate or make decisions.   True   False
  •  I HAVE an increase or decrease in appetite or weight.   True   False
  •  I HAVE feelings of worthlessness or guilt.   True   False
  •  I FEEL frightened or panicky for no known reason.   True   False
  •  I FEEL restless and it is difficult to sit still.   True   False
  •  I FEEL anxious and worried.   True   False
  •  I HAVE had feelings that I just cannot go on, or had thoughts of death or dying.   True   False   
(If you checked off 5 or more of the symptoms on the above list, you may have depression. Do something about it, and if necessary, consult a physician immediately.)

Find out more about mental health and well being in the CAP Guide, Emotional Fitness


Some self-help tips to fight depression

If you suffer from long-term or severe depression, with constant thoughts of death or dying, including ideas about suicide, seek professional help immediately. For occasional sadness and depression, here are some ways to lift the fog:
  • EXERCISE. Depression is in many cases a result of a lifestyle of physical immobility. Studies have found that running or jogging for example, lifts depression. It has been theorised that depressed people who run notice new and real bodily sensations that distract them from preoccupations with minor but annoying physical symptoms of depression. In running, one has to think about breathing, have to notice the sky and the sun and the wind.  One also has to let go of one’s thoughts. If you don’t like running or jogging, try skipping rope, bouncing a ball, house-cleaning, gardening or any other physical activity in which you can gradually build up your ability to move your body for 20-30 minutes.  
  •  ADOPT GOOD POSTURE. Some experts believe that a bad posture can also cause depression. When people are depressed they assume a depressed posture — a slouching, tense, contracted pose. A person with chronically poor posture gets tired, starts having negative thoughts, and then gets depressed.
  •  ASSIGN A “DEPRESSION TIME” for yourself, for example: 7-8pm, when you allow yourself to feel as depressed as you really are.  Whenever you feel the depressed mood coming on, remind yourself as to when you will let the depression have its time.
  •  AVOID SETTING DIFFICULT GOALS or taking on new responsibilities. Break large tasks into small ones, set some priorities, and do what can be done, as it can be done. Do not expect too much from yourself too soon, as this will only accentuate feelings of failure. Similarly, try not to make major life decisions (such as changing jobs or getting married or divorced) when you’re depressed.
  •  RECOGNISE PATTERNS IN YOUR MOODS. Like many people with depression, the worst part of the day for you may be the morning.  Try to arrange your schedule accordingly so that the demands are the least in the morning. For example, you may want to shift your meetings to midday or the afternoon.
  •  PARTICIPATE IN ACTIVITIES that may make you feel better. Try exercising, going to a movie or ball game, or participating in religious or social activities. At a minimum, such activities may distract you from the way you feel and allow the day to pass more quickly.
  •  DON'T SPEND ALL DAY IN BED, no matter how tempted you are. While a change in the duration, quality and timing of sleep is a core feature of depression, a reversal in sleep cycle (such as sleeping during daytime hours and staying awake at night) can prolong recovery.
  •  DO NOT GET UPSET if your mood is not greatly improved right away. Feeling better takes time. Do not feel crushed if after you start getting better, you find yourself backsliding. With depression, sometimes the road to recovery is like a roller coaster ride.

Find out more about mental health and well being in the CAP Guide, Emotional Fitness


Gratitude is good for the body, mind and soul

gratitude-drawing-colourGratitude, or thankfulness, seems to be a lost art today.  

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others,” wrote Roman philosopher Cicero. “Nothing is more honourable than a grateful heart,” Roman senator Seneca was quoted as saying.

Most religions encourage gratitude. In Buddhism for example, gratitude is said to be a hallmark of humanity. 

“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude”, wrote Elie Wiesel.

In fact, the spiritual practice of gratitude has been called “a state of mind” and “a way of life”. Showing gratitude, however, is more than just a spiritual practice. Gratitude is a feeling that nurtures the soul.  

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom”, wrote Marcel Proust, the greatest French novelist of the 20th century.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” — Melody Beattie, American author of self-help and recovery books  

Why it’s important

Gratitude is important for one’s well-being, said Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, who has studied and documented the thoughts of philosophers, theologians, and writers on the age-old process of giving thanks.

If you are grateful for all positive things that you see around yourself, you will undoubtedly have a fulfiling and happy day. In fact, it is written that gratitude is the best medicine for depression, self-pity and fear.  

Gratitude is actually a form of love. When we feel gratitude for another, we begin to harmonise with that person and the bond within that relationship becomes stronger.

In To Give Is to Receive, Roger Walsh, M.D. Ph.D. wrote, “Gratitude bestows many benefits. It dissolves negative feelings: anger and jealousy melt in its embrace, fear and defensiveness shrink.

“Gratitude deflates the barriers to love. While forgiveness heals the heart of old hurts, gratitude opens it to present love.”    

“Gratitude helps you grow and expand; gratitude brings joy and laughter into your life and into the lives of those around you”, wrote Eileen Caddy.

The Hausa of Nigeria believe that if you give thanks for a little, you will find a lot. Feeling grateful or appreciative of someone or something in your life actually attracts more of the things that you appreciate and value into your life.

“A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.” — Plato, famous Greek philosopher

What is gratitude?

To be grateful, in the true sense of the word, is to be modest. In Hebrew, the word for gratitude, hoda’ah, is the same as the word for confession. To be grateful, or to offer thanks, is to confess dependence, to acknowledge that others have the power to benefit you, to admit that your life is better because of their efforts.

“Gratitude is a virtue that helps us remember the obligations and responsibilities we owe others in return for the gifts we have received,” says William J. Bennett, former US Secretary of Education.

“Gratitude is the memory of the heart”, goes a saying.

Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast shares, “Gratitude is more than a feeling, a virtue, or an experience; gratitude emerges as an attitude we can freely choose in order to create a better life for ourselves and for others.”

“Gratitude is something of which none of us can give too much. For on the smiles, the thanks we give, our little gestures of appreciation, our neighbours build their philosophy of life.” — A.J. Cronin, Scottish novelist  

Live, not just show, gratitude

Expressing our gratitude to someone directly is a wonderful way to give back. People love to hear that what they did was appreciated.

But as you express your gratitude, don’t forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.  

Well-known professor of art history and respected theologian Johannes A. Gaertner said, “To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch heaven.”

Many people today complain that they are not tall, slim, handsome or pretty enough, their job stinks, the weather is foul, their family demands are a chore … they wish they were richer, fairer, handsomer, luckier …   

Often instead of rejoicing in what we have, we yearn for something more, better, or different. We can’t be grateful because we are making comparisons with others. As a result, we become unhappy.  

99% of the time we have an opportunity to be grateful for something. We just don’t notice it. We go through our days in a daze.  

Cultivating gratitude begins with cultivating thankfulness for your lot in life — ie living it in your daily life. Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude.  Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness.  While gratitude is shown in acts, thankfulness consists of words.   

“Gratitude expresses itself in a sincere thank you … not for the gifts of this day only, but for the day itself; not for what we believe will be ours in the future, but for the bounty of the past,” says novelist Faith Baldwin.

“There is calmness to a life lived in gratitude, a quiet joy” — Ralph H. Blum, American author  

See the rainbow in adversities  

While it is easy to be thankful for the good things, a life of rich fulfilment comes to those who are also thankful for the setbacks.  

Life’s difficulties are something we can actually be thankful for because gratitude can turn a negative into a positive. “Find a way to be thankful for your troubles and they can become your blessings”, goes a saying.

We should thus be thankful even if we have problems. If you are going through a tough time, you can be grateful for the lessons you are learning, the strength you are gaining and the compassion you find for others going through a rough spell.

Difficult times and difficult people can be our best teachers. When we are open, they teach us to find peace and harmony within, they build our strength and compassion.

When things get really tough, if we want to keep our mental health intact, they can even force us to live in the present moment.

“Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” — Charles Dickens, famous author of classical English literature

Count your blessings

Being grateful means taking nothing for granted. Our life, health, friends, society, our job, the food we eat, and our very body with its fingers, muscles, senses and internal organs are gifts which we often take for granted.

In How To Want What You Have, Timothy Miller wrote, “Gratitude is the intention to count your blessings every day, every minute, while avoiding, whenever possible, the belief that you need or deserve different circumstances.”

Stoic philosopher of the 1st century Epictetus said, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

“They are not poor that have little, but they that desire much. The richest man, whatever his lot, is the one who’s content with his lot”, goes a Dutch proverb.

If you want to feel rich, just count all the things you have that money can’t buy — like your life, or your family.

The wise man who penned, “I once cried when I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet” knew the wisdom of this.

“To know you have enough is to be rich”, taught Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, in Tao Te Ching.  

Shakespeare agrees.  “Poor and content is rich and rich enough.”

“Thank God — every morning when you get up — that you have something to do which must be done, whether you like it or not. Being forced to work, and forced to do your best, will breed in you a hundred virtues which the idle never know.” — Charles Kingsley, Church of England parson

Find out more about mental health and well being in the CAP Guide, Emotional Fitness