Professor Rob Whitley, Optimism and the Serenity Prayer

Professor Rob Whitley is the Principal Investigator of the Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group at the Douglas Hospital Research Center. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University.  His three main research interests are recovery, stigma and men’s mental health. 

Rob joined Victor Perton in the Optimism Cafe at The Centre for Optimism to discuss Rob's thinking on "The Serenity Prayer" and optimism.  The conversation travelled broadly from optimism to hope to the wisdom of the ages.



Victor Perton: Rob, may I ask you what makes you optimistic? 

Rob Whitley: I think we need to start by defining some terminology. And I always say that many people conflate the words optimism with the word hope. And there's a slight difference. And I think it's important to consider that difference. 

When we talk about optimism, it's generally in relation to expectations, in relation to the future, in relation to setting goals and meeting those goals. 

And in relation to that aspect of optimism, what makes me optimistic is knowing that humans have a lot of gifts. Every human has the gift of thought, the gift of agency, the gift of action. And that if you set goals, if these are meaningful goals and they're goals which are related to your passions in life or your interest and related to your skills and talents, you can go on to meet those goals. And that makes me optimistic. 

Another thing that makes me optimistic is surrounding myself by what I call hope-inspiring people. There are millions of people in the world and some of those people in our social networks, in our families inspire optimism and inspired hope and believe in you and give you that nudge, which many of us need to set goals and meet goals.

But just going back to my original point, there's a slight difference between optimism and hope that I'd like to talk about, which is that optimism is particularly related to the future, but many philosophers and theologians have talked about hope. And they've said that hope is independent of circumstances. But hope can also relate to the past and the present that we can have hope for the past. Now, that sounds paradoxical, maybe, to some people. 

What that means is that you might be living in a particularly difficult situation now. I'm old enough to remember, when I was young, in my 20s, being lonely, living in a bedsit, thinking that the future was bleak and I wasn't achieving all my goals in life, and I was moving slowly through university ... But now, when I look back on that time of life, I find it was a real character-building experience. And I have the hope for the past. 

When we talk about hope for the past, I think that's an important element to consider in this wider conversation about optimism.

Optimism and hope, these two related concepts can relate to the future, can also relate to the present and the here and now, and also can relate to the past things which have happened in your life. And that's the kind of long answer and a tangential answer to your question, I think. 

Victor Perton: I wrote an article last week on hope and optimism in the context of Advent and Christmas.  A Christian can be both hopeful and optimistic. You don't need to make a choice. 

Rob Whitley:  Yes. And I think the discussion goes deeper and even further back into history than that. For example, the national anthem of Israel is Hatikvah, and that word in Hebrew means hope. And that is now the national anthem of Israel, but before the modern state of Israel existed, that was like a folk song within the Jewish community, which was exceedingly popular throughout the ages despite the fact that Jews across the world have faced terrible antisemitism, have faced the Holocaust, have faced exile in Babylon and lots of other terrible circumstances.

I think the idea is that hope is something that's divine, something that's very deep, something that's meaningful.  Something that transcends the time span of an individual problem, an individual issue, even the time span of an individual life, we can have hope that goes way beyond our three score years and ten in this world. 

And as we all get older, some of us are thinking of the next generation and the generation after that, this overlaps with the wisdom of aboriginal people who are often talking about, "Let's think about the seventh generation and let's have hope for that generation and take our actions today to ensure that they're living a good life."

And there is a bit of a parallel belief, which I do believe is a false dichotomy that, as you said, optimism is a more earthly characteristic. And it's often used in a couplet when people talk about blind optimism or false optimism or saccharine optimism. 

That's an easy way to invalidate a concept; people talk about blind faith, but what about just faith, what about just optimism?

Optimism is important to keep you going on this life. We know that there are slings and arrows of outrageous fortune happening to everybody in the world regardless of your socioeconomic status or race or ethnicity or gender. It is difficult to be a human. We face challenges, and we have barriers to our progress. And it's good to think about the arrow of time and the arrow of your life, and that there are things happening for you as an individual, there are things happening for your family, for your community and for wider humanity today, this year, this decade, in the three score years and ten and more that hopefully we are allotted in life and also longer than that. 

I think they're both useful concepts, hope and optimism. And like I said initially, it is useful to disentangle them and think about them and individuals can do that and think about how it applies to their lives. 

Victor Perton:  Rob, you are a prolific writer. There are so many articles. You're looking at men's health; you're looking at spirituality, you're looking at recovery. Tell us about your work and research and what drives you, Rob. 

Rob Whitley: "I work in the discipline of psychiatry. And when we look at the discipline of psychiatry now, it's driven a lot by biological research that is looking at factors like generics, is looking at factors like pharmaceutical interventions, looking at factors like neuroscience, but if we go back a few decades, the discipline of psychiatry had one foot in the humanities and one foot in the biological sciences and now it has two feet or one and three-quarter foot in the sciences and a tiny bit in the humanities. And I feel we've really lost something. 

"And what drives me, it's trying to bring that back to the conversation of mental health because there's a huge amount of research, social science research, research from religion, research from sociology, anthropology, other disciplines ... showing that meaning and purpose are two of the key factors that are completely relevant to all aspects of mental health, they've been shown to be ... a lack of meaning and purpose can be a risk factor for suicide, it can be a risk factor for depression. That having meaning and purpose can have a factor that allows people to flourish and thrive in life, and I feel there is an existential void for many people in society today. 

"The societies most people live in have become consumerist societies, have become individualistic societies. If we look at just some basic statistics here in Canada, one in three households in Canada are single-person households. The divorce rate is 40%, the rate of membership of organizations that bring people together, such as churches, synagogues, trade unions, fraternal organizations, sports clubs ... the rate of membership of these organization has declined precipitously over the last 20 years. This is not even to mention COVID-19. 

"We find a lot of people living an atomized life, living an individualistic life. And we do know that these are risk factors for mental illness and risk factors for suicide. On the contrary, we do know that being a part of a community, being part of a family, having that social support can be really helpful for your mental health if you're embedded in a network of people who love you and care about you. And where these communities like churches and synagogues places of worship where it's more than just the sum of the parts, where the people are coming together, and there's meaning outside of yourself. 

"There's a phrase that Jonathan Sacks, a famous English Rabbi, sadly passed away recently, said that you're more than a letter in a scroll.  He wrote  a book entitled "A letter in a scroll."  He said that your life, as a letter, a letter is meaningless unless it's in a word unless that word is in a sentence and that sentence is in a paragraph. 

"It's important to bring this debate about meaning and purpose and teach this to our young people and older people as well. It's important that people find that, because that is linked to good mental health, and it's really important to put that message out there. "

Victor Perton: Absolutely brilliant. Last week you wrote an excellent article on the Serenity Prayer, and you concluded: "The Serenity Prayer" is optimistic about the human condition, encouraging individuals to think deeply and act with resolution in the here and now, rather than wallowing in a fatalistic world view." 

What's special about the Serenity Prayer?

Rob Whitley: Well, I feel I should just read the Serenity Prayer first because perhaps not all the listeners are familiar with this prayer, and give a bit of an introduction. The serenity prayer was written in the 1930s by Reinhold Niebuhr, who was an American theologian. And he wrote it right in the middle of the great depression, in the 1930s when Naziism was increasing in Germany and Fascism in Italy, Communism in Russia, and the world was in a bit of crisis. It was a prayer trying to bring some hope to the world and get people to focus their attention. And almost to grow up and become, to realize that the world is a gift from God and we have agency to act upon that gift. 

And I'll just briefly read the prayer. The prayer goes like this:

"Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

"This prayer is in three parts.

"The first sentence, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change."

"What I say in more slang terms is that this is a reality check. That every human has their own limitations, personal limitations. We also live in a society which has laws. And we have limitations in our family household or within our jurisdiction about what we can do and what we can't do. In this COVID-19 situation, here in Canada, all the pubs are closed. At least in my province, in Quebec, all the restaurants are closed, we can't go and visit people in their households unless they live with you. We cannot change that, and we need to approach that with serenity, and in peace, a calmness. And this is important to deal with this current situation. 

"The second sentence is "Courage to change the things that I can." 

"This is a very liberating sentence, as far as I'm concerned, because it says that we are humans. We have agency. We can change many things, even in this COVID-19 situation, we can start engaging in new hobbies, we can rekindle old interests. We have this great gift of the internet where I can talk to somebody in Australia and reach a new audience, which is wonderful. I can talk to my other colleagues in Australia and my colleagues in the U.K. and Europe. 

"I can engage in introspection and reflection in this COVID-19 situation. Maybe it's a time to rethink my life priorities, what I've been doing, how I've been contributing to the world, how I've been working as a colleague, or a friend, or a family member. There are many things that we can change, even in this COVID-19 situation. 

And the Serenity Prayer directs us to think about those things. And like I said in my article, we shouldn't really be wallowing in self-pity. I can't speak for everybody; I'm lucky to be a healthy person, have a job and have some income. There are things that I can change. And I'm grateful for that, and I'm out there thinking about how I can do this. 

The final sentence of the Serenity Prayer, "the wisdom to know the difference."

Again, that encourages us to be reflective, to be deep thinkers, to think about our lives, what we can change, what we can't change, to strive for wisdom. And again, let's say a word we don't really use a lot in society, especially in my own psychiatry discipline here. Many of these words have gone out of fashion, I feel we need to start thinking about and reincorporating back into our lives, words like wisdom, words like hope, words like meaning, words like purpose, words like existence. We've replaced them with all these trendy, psychological words like self-esteem and self-efficacy and this and that. But I think we can learn from these kinds of philosophers and theologians who've really thought deeply about these issues. 

And then the Serenity Prayer, I feel it's an excellent way to focus our thoughts on the situation that we're in, how we can change a situation and how we can be a positive catalyst for others and for our society. 

Victor Perton:  Prayer and singing are good underpinnings for an optimistic mindset. I think there's evidence out of the United States that the optimism or what they call the Black Community, they're actually more optimistic than the general community, even though all of the problems of Black Lives Matter and the like because they have a greater sense of spirituality, larger families, and this culture of singing, whether it's spiritual or modern rap, it must have something to do with their optimism. 

Rob Whitley: "It's interesting; you say that actually because another concept I often look at is resilience. When you look at the African-American community in the U.S., they have lower rates of suicide; they have lower rates of depression. Their generic mental health is typically better than a non-African-American person. And some people think this is an enigma, or this is a paradox, because like you said, there's been a lot of racism in the U.S. and kind of has been many issues in the past year as we know, and way before that. 

"I've spent five years conducting a research study with a group of African-Americans in Washington DC, and one thing that strikes me in that research study, some of the key findings we found were that first of all, very high rates of religiosity, that kind of hope that I talked about back at the beginning of this school, which is hope for things greater than yourself and this kind of long-term view of hope. 

"Friendship networks. So we find the African-American community much more common to have larger families, more brothers and sisters. Your mother or your father often raises your children if you have to go off to work or your older sister or an aunt, rather than being dumped at a daycare for 10 hours a day for five days a week to be raised by a group of strangers. We see less individualism in a way, less striving for the rat race and to have a bigger car and to have a bigger house and a more kind of acceptance of living a life beyond all that material wealth. There are many variables, and it's exactly as you say that it's a very interesting community to look at because it's a bit of a paradox or an enigma in a way given the suffering they've experienced. And it just shows hope and optimism can be independent of circumstances. And it is being aware of this human gift of agency. 

Victor Perton: In my family, the older generation is passing. My mother died eight weeks ago, her brother died a year ago, and they were in their nineties.  They lived through World War II. They were refugees two or three times, they were at risk of death many times, and yet they lived through to their nineties, infectiously optimistic, almost always smiling, always cheering other people up. 

How do you keep yourself optimistic Rob? What are your secrets for you're optimistic and purposeful life? 

Rob Whitley:  "I think there are three main factors. First off, as I said, surround yourself by hope-inspiring people. There are people in the world who bring that optimism, who bring that level of hope into your life and into their surroundings. And that can be infectious. I'm not a great believer in the law of attraction, but there is something to be said for it in terms of, if you have people around you who are positive, who are getting things done, who are moving forward, that can really help you. And that is actually a kind of theory in social sciences now; there's a theory called Spoking. I've heard about it recently, that it's like the wheel of a bicycle has spokes, and if you've got a spoke which is in danger of breaking if you've got other good spokes around you, then that can help take the weights and that spoke can get back to normal. And I'm sure any physicist watching this will be questioning my explanation here, but I'm sure the viewers can get what I mean. 

"So that's one factor. I think a second factor is exactly as I said earlier, conduct meaningful, purposeful activities that are kind of beyond yourself and outside of your own self-aggrandizement. So this could be volunteering. It could be kind of writing, producing, whatever your gifts are, making cakes and giving them to a home for senior people down the road. Or it could be helping out in a place of worship where they're helping out in a youth club, for example. I think having that sense of meaning and purpose beyond yourself is very important. And I think a third thing, you talked about singing earlier, hobbies and activities. Exercise for many people is a massive one that can bring good mental health. We do know that that's related to serotonin, and it's also related to psychosocial aspects of feeling good about yourself. But there are as many hobbies in the world as there are people. We can think about playing a musical instrument, arts and crafts, cooking, baking, in Australia, surfing and swimming and all these wonderful things you can do down there. Having that kind of sense of an internal self and an external self where you're looking after yourself, and that allows you to go out and look after others and contribute towards the community. When those are combined, that makes you feel good and optimistic about the future and hopeful about life and the community you live in. 

Victor Perton:  That's fantastic. And so tips and tricks for Christmas and New Year?   

Rob Whitley: "I think everybody can do one thing that has been proven beneficial in setting goals and then meeting those goals. And these can be a series of really short steps, or they can be medium-sized steps, or they can be giant leaps.

The Christmas period, we have what? Four or five, four weeks left more, three weeks. It can be challenging for many people. Some people live alone; they won't be able to see their family. Many people are immigrants; they won't be able to travel outside of their jurisdiction. For many people, it's a religious celebration that should be celebrated in congregation with their fellow congregants, and that will not be able to happen in many places.

So I think it's good to set some kind of goals, meeting those goals.

I talked to somebody recently, and they said they've been having a tough time, they're unemployed, they've been laying in bed a lot of the day sleeping. For them, a goal is simply getting out of bed earlier, go into the grocery store, buying some fresh vegetables and food, and then cooking that instead of eating kind of pre-cooked meals.

For other people, the year 2020, might've brought about a lot of reflection and introspection. They might be thinking, "Well, a goal over this Christmas period is to maybe I'm thinking of a career change, and I'm going to read some books and some websites and talk to some people about is this feasible, or is this something that I want to do?" For other people, younger people or older people, maybe they feel that it is a time to reengage with education. I just spoke on the phone earlier today with someone who contacted me and said they're thinking to go back to university, someone who dropped out and would I write them a reference? And I said, "Yeah, of course, I'd be delighted to help you in that process." And I said, "Well, you should also engage in some hard thinking over the Christmas period. Are you ready? Are you prepared to do the hard work? The reading? The exams? There's a lot of hard work involved in being a student or making a career change or some of these things that you're talking about. "

So over this period, the big step doesn't have to be, "I'm going to resign from my job and apply and get a new job." A big step can just be thinking about things, taking some action, intermediate action in terms of thinking about where you're going and what you're going to do—and then meeting those things.

So I would encourage everybody if they're struggling in particular to kind of set some goals for this Christmas period, something that they'd like to do which are meaningful to them, and then go out and try and meet them. And when January comes, and a new year, it's a fresh start for everybody, it's a time of renewal; hopefully, people can go forward and do something useful. 

Victor Perton: So you're saying that there's little stuff, just cooking with vegetables more, at the other end, there's that change of career. And so it doesn't mean ... Norman Vincent Peale used to say, "When you pray, do big prayers." But what you're saying is, "Little big, it doesn't matter, do something."

Rob Whitley:  "I would say it's important to lay out a plan of action even if it's a plan of action, which are very minor actions, which can be going at a glacial pace, it's cliche, but it's actually a saying that has a lot of value 'the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'. Remember that this can involve hard work, and are you prepared for the hard work? So if you think about even something as simple as the first example I gave, it's going to be hard for this person to go to the grocery store because the person I'm talking about has acrophobia, he doesn't really like being in-crowd, he's worried about COVID-19. And that's going to require resilience, getting yourself into the right mindset, thinking about gearing up for that actual interaction, but how good will that feel when you get back and you've achieved that goal. So set some goals, big ones, small ones, medium-sized ones, try and meet them. If you can't meet them, don't beat yourself up, but use it as a learning experience. And then when the new start comes in 2021, you can try something similar."

Victor Perton:  I could talk to you for hours and hours and hours, and I hope we can invite you back. There's one other thing I wanted to ask you, we have members of The Centre for Optimism like  Martin Gillespie and Gareth Andrews doing a lot of work for men.

And in Australia, and I suspect Canada the same, the increase in depression, anxiety, most suicides are men.  You're doing quite a body of research on that.

What are your research findings and what can we do to use your learnings and support what you're doing Rob? 

Rob Whitley: "Well, I conducted a research study, which recently ended on a community known as the Seduction Community. I'm not sure if everybody's aware of what that community is. They're also known as Pickup Artists. So there's basically an underground community of men that exists in all Western countries. And I know they exist in Australia. They're young men who watch YouTube channels with a million subscribers; they go on Reddit forums, which have half a million subscribers, they meet together in person in someone's house or a bar. And on paper, the aim of this community, which is called the Seduction Community is to learn techniques and mindsets that help men have sex with women. 

"I did a two-year study of men in this community where I got to know them; I did interviews and attended some meetings. And what I actually found was that the vast majority of men in that community, not all of them, the sex and meeting women was not the prime motivator. What was the motivator was that many of these men felt an existential value vacuum in their life. They lacked role models; many had been raised by single mothers and hadn't had much contact with their father. So they hadn't had any positive masculinity influence in their lives. Many of them were immigrants, and they felt very lonely and didn't understand the social mores and the host culture. Many of them were looking for friends. Many of them were looking for guidance. Many of them were looking for ideas about mental health; some of them had mental health issues. It's the long way of saying that nature abhors a vacuum. 

"So what I'm finding in men's mental health is that the official services that are provided by hospitals, by mental health clinics, by government-funded services are not meeting the needs of men with mental health issues. And instead, men are flocking to these alternative, somewhat unsavoury communities like the Seduction Community, because they see that as a more hospitable, more welcoming and a more male tailored community to help them with their mental health. And we can think about many of these communities, we can think about, I don't know, Hell's Angels or extreme right organizations or extreme left organizations, which men are kind of flocking to. That they're kind of looking for hope. They're looking to fill their time with something meaningful. And I fear that we as a society, I don't think we failed, but I think we can certainly try and help men. We can help men by creating similar communities, which are based on the kind of positive, pro-social community-oriented values. 

"So my recent significant finding is kind of that, that I feel that there is a vacuum in men's mental health.

"I think Australia is one of the places where it's pioneering, a lot of work on men's mental health. So if you think about Men's Sheds, if you think about Movember funded initiatives, the Australian Mental Men's Health Foundation is well known worldwide.

But here in Canada at least, there's a huge vacuum, men are instead flocking to these kinds of unsavoury communities. And instead of blaming men for doing this, we should look at the why's and the why because many of them, as I said back in the middle of this conversation, fewer people are going to church or go into places of worship. There are more broken families. Fewer people have cousins and aunts and uncles because we have smaller families who can help shape them. And I feel the men and young men, in particular, can feel that lack of guidance. And we need to do something to fill that. 

"There's a broader issue, which is kind of transgenerational interaction that we are not having in this society, and this COVID-19 situation has amplified that. We're not having enough positive interaction between the generations. I feel like you said, your family you said were refugees from Europe, from the communists and the Nazis. My father lived in Nazi-occupied Europe, he spent five years of his life fearful of the German soldiers around him and not knowing if this occupation would ever end. And we have many people who have survived the Holocaust, who have survived very tough times. In Australia, there are Vietnamese boat people; it's a big community in Australia who have survived these terrible ideologies, in Cambodia and Vietnam and places. Many of these people are now older, like sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, but I feel we're not learning enough from people like that. The younger people are not learning enough, and I'm not blaming the younger people. I'm just blaming may be the way the education system is set up or the way society is evolving over time. Because we could learn so much from people who have, like you say, they've gone through very tough times. They've survived, and they've come, and they've thrived. Many have come to a third country like Australia or Israel or Canada. And they've built societies, they've contributed to their communities. And they've lived through crises way worse than COVID-19. It's really important to harness the wisdom of people who have lived through these periods as community educators and go into schools, go into universities, go to youth clubs, go to other places, and talk about this. 

"And this relates to my original point about having hope for the past. At the time of their lives, when they were experiencing this, this was a hell which people wanted to escape from. And now that's given them wisdom and character that they can now use to help the new generations. 

"One thing that any organization like yours or in any, we as a society needs to harness better is the wisdom of our elders and which has long been known to the Aboriginal people of Australia and Canada. Still, we've kind of in our own Anglo Celtic kind of cultures, and we tend to think, "Well, people are old. Let's just ship them off to an old people's home a couple of hundred miles away and visit them once a week." We're not tapping into their wisdom as much as we should. 

"That the exchange of wisdom goes both ways, that we know kind of 16, 17, 18-year-olds, many of them have not been polluted by life experience or by excessive exposure to negative media coverage of all the events in the world or had been in the workforce where they've become burnt out or cynical like some older people that happens to. So it is wonderful to mix together that kind of energy and that kind of optimism and people who have time on their side, put them together with people who have had most of their time, reflect upon it and want to pass on their wisdom. It's a great cocktail. And I think that mixing the generations is good for the mental health and well-being of the young people, the older people, and the people in between. And that's what families used to do. It's people's choice, so we have to respect people's choice. But I don't know about your family Victor, but I probably have ten aunts and uncles, and when I was younger, Christmas was a time where lots of people were coming here. Grandparents were alive and cousins and this and that. And now people have much smaller families. 

"So many people don't have any siblings. So they're the only child. So when Christmas comes, there's no nieces, there's no nephews, there's no brothers, there's no sisters. When the mother and father sadly died, there's nobody in their biological family, maybe they have their own children or their own husband or wife. So we're really moving to a situation where that organic exposure to other generations from your own family is not always happening for many people."

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