Friday 13 April 2012

"A Life Worth Living"

"I've always thought anyone can make money. Making a life worth living, that's the real test." ~ Robert Fulghum, American essayist

I am a bit obsessed these days - I feel a little like I have found religion. My obsession isn't with the latest celebrity couple or designer handbag. My obsession is with my community.

After the better part of 20 plus years of living in downtown Vancouver, I have discovered a new love for my city and my community. No, not trendy, happening Yaletown or the bustling shopping district of Robson Street with it's multiple shoe stores (be still my heart!). My new love is Vancouver's Downtown East Side. For those of you who know the Downtown East Side as Canada's poorest neighbourhood, you might think I have lost my mind. Actually, I think almost losing my mind and my grip on it helped me appreciate this neighbourhood and it's sense of community. Let me explain...

Life in the depths of depression is a pretty self-centred experience. It's difficult to shift the emphasis away from yourself and your misery and redirect it to something positive, something outside of your head. It's kind of like trying to push a boulder up a hill. When you are suffering, it's hard not to think about the mental & physical pain. You know, logically, that you will feel better if you laugh with friends or go for a walk but it's a slow, tedious process pushing that boulder.

As you start to feel a bit better, you start to come out of your own head, so to speak - the focus begins to shift a bit. You are still thinking about yourself and your illness but the thoughts shift from the negative and hopeless - you begin to concentrate on how you can help your recovery and, once well, maintain it. The boulder starts to feel lighter and you gain some momentum.

For me, my momentum was "encouraged" by my desire to learn as much as I could about my illness and to try to avoid relapse at all cost. So I began reading - reading anything about mental health and wellness that I could. One of my favourite books on the topics of wellness is "Well Being: The Five Essential Elements" by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. In the book, Rath and Harter identify the following five areas as key, and closely interconnected, to overall wellness:
1. Career Wellbeing
2. Social Wellbeing
3. Financial Wellbeing
4. Physical Wellbeing
5. Community Wellbeing
Did I mention that the authors are Gallup researchers? They, and their Gallup colleagues, have prepared literally thousands of research papers and conducted numerous surveys on this topic. In short, they kinda know their stuff.

One of the ways that a person with depression can shift focus is by doing things for others. I feel strongly that we are all here for a reason - to make a positive impact (big or small) and to leave the world a better place. Some of us are pretty awesome at this - Kofi Anan, Terry Fox, Ashley Judd, my 11 year old niece with the developing social-consciousness. And some us just need a bit of encouragement. Ironically, when I was at my lowest point in my depression I almost believed that there was no point. Almost. To say that that feeling was scary is an understatement. I never want to feel that way again.

In their book, Rath and Harter define thriving community wellbeing as being about what we do to give back to our community, "Throughout the course of our lives, well-doing promotes deeper social interaction, enhanced meaning and purpose, and a more active lifestyle - while keeping us from being too preoccupied with ourselves or getting into harmful emotional states." Uh, what now? That's right - less preoccupation with ourselves and harmful emotional states. They go on to say, "Several studies have shown a link between altruistic behaviour and increases in overall longevity, and researchers have speculated that this might be due in part to how well-doing inoculates us against stress and negative emotions." I'll take a prescription for that, please!

So how am I helping to cultivate a thriving sense of community wellbeing for myself and the community around me? Well, starting this blog was step one. I hope that I help someone who reads this to understand a bit better what mental illness is like or to feel less alone - even just one person.

I also work for a company that truly feeds my soul - Vancity Savings Credit Union. This is a company that is truly committed to taking the definition of wealth and turning it upside down. Vancity is very focused on community and giving back and it has helped me focus on what is important to me, too. I will never work for another company that doesn't reflect my own values. And no, this is not a sales pitch for Vancity (although, we do kinda rock...).

But back to my newly adopted neighbourhood - Vancouver's Downtown East Side. There were years when I viewed it as a scary, dirty place with one dimensional characters. But now I see a bit deeper. I see people who have lived hard lives -  people who have escaped abuse, who battle addictions, who suffer from mental illness. Everyone of us has a story. What's that saying? "There but for the grace of God go I." So here's another thing that depression has given me: compassion. I am committing myself to supporting businesses in this community such as Save On Meats - a butcher shop and diner that truly understands what a thriving community is and can be. And what about Union Gospel Mission? A fabulous organization that is a pillar in the community, providing support, comfort and warm meals to society's forgotten. Then there's Potluck Cafe, a fabulous catering company which employs residents of the Downtown East Side. And on and on and on...

But this is me and my thing. What about you? How can you cultivate a thriving sense of community for yourself? Maybe it's as simple as buying your next gift from a local artist rather than a big chain store. Or maybe you want to volunteer? Find something that works for you and reap the benefits of longevity and wellness!

KB xo

P.S. Check out Gastown Gamble on the Oprah Winfrey Network if you want to see what Mark Brand and Save On Meats are doing to cultivate a thriving community.

P.P.S To my "community" of blog supporters - thank you! Your comments and encouragement have been inspirational to me.


  1. What's that other saying about "...until you've travelled in their shoes"? I have also heard of the correlation between helping others and aiding depression. There is actually a release of seratonin, I believe. Guess we go back to the "do unto others as you have them do unto you". That's one I try to live by.

    I get very bothered when driving through the Downtown Eastside and someone comments so negatively about the people there. You just don't know what brought them to that point. Just one more step and who knows where any one of us could be.

    I too would like to volunteer doing something but haven't found my niche. I have a few that are once a year events, but still looking for something on a more regular basis to fit into the schedule. Darn work, it always gets in the way.

  2. LOVE Gastown Gamble! I love your courage KB. I KNOW this blog has already been instrumental in keeping someone who really needs the support in their depression connected. Plus, your insights really keep ME connected to the bigger picture of what's important in life. Genius my friend. xoxo



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