By John Bonning
I have been asked to come up with a piece on men’s health and wellbeing and what I do to stay well. Of course, “wellness” and “wellbeing” are not positive terms to some people – yoga and cupcakes do not suddenly right the ills in the world and these are in fact toxic concepts for some, kind of like blaming you for not being happy when you should be. None-the-less I will push on and try to put down some of my thoughts on wellbeing, connection, compassion (which should work for all genders), and some thoughts on men’s health.
To keep to my word limit I will talk mainly about personal rather than professional wellbeing. On a personal level, what do I do to stay well? I would probably put that in four words: Whanau, connection, engagement and exercise:
Whanau: the Māori term for family. My immediate family, my life partner of over 30 years and two children in their 20s, all provide each other love, support, encouragement, companionship and they are very good at keeping me grounded when I stray off track. We have spent a lot more time together in the lockdowns, we have a speaking stone that gets passed around at the dinner table as we all want to talk at once, discussions are vigorous. And the wider concept of whanau, my extended family spread around Aotearoa and also in Sweden, keeping in touch and sharing family experiences, photos and jokes, staying connected even though we can’t visit each other. My mother is still well and vital at 86.
Connection – In the pandemic I disagree with the term social distancing as it is more important than ever to be socially connected if physically distanced. It is incredibly important to talk to others, surround yourself with support (inside & outside work), in your whanau, and your community.
I have many male friends including a couple of explicit groups: One is based loosely around gathering weekly to drink kava (a relaxing root-based tonic used extensively in the Pacific Islands) and share a home-cooked meal, conversation and companionship. It is not about the kava; it is about the conversations. The other is based around cycling. We ride together, we talk together, we support each other and share a passion. Both groups have a smattering of medics but mainly are not. Men and women are different, have different needs and ways of communicating, so I do enjoy some “boy-time” as well as having many non-male friends. And of course, there is the professional connection we get through work, but that is for another blog.
Engagement: In our lives and work, engagement in the system that might be stressing you out, awareness of a bigger picture, your environment, having a sense of control. It has been described as an antidote to burnout. Our work is very stressful, there are never enough resources.
So, I engage with the system to make safer coalmines, not just building stronger canaries.
Overall, in terms of our careers I believe in the Japanese concept of Ikigai – doing something that gives your life meaning: doing what you love, something you are good at, something that you get paid for, and that benefits society. It is a privilege to be able to line all of these up in our chosen vocation of Emergency Medicine.
Exercise: It is important to have positive coping strategies: a good diet, alcohol in moderation, enough sleep, and exercise. Exercise is one of my main mind/body tonics. My mind won’t work if I do not exercise, and cycling is my passion. Exercising with friends and whanau is best: we snow and water-ski together, and we cycle together as well as sometimes solo. Cycling is truly like meditation or mindfulness for me, being in the moment (lest I lose focus and crash into a tree). My wife and I spent six months cycling in North America and Europe in 2018 – how good was that timing?! – and also enjoyed all four of whanau, connection, engagement and exercise on that sabbatical. The post exercise endorphin surge is such a positive hit.
We need to accept imperfection. The enemy of good is better. Excellence is possible, perfection is not. Learn from your mistakes and move on. “There is a crack, a crack in everything, it is where the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen). And you can’t be happy 100% of the time. A psychologist (yes I have seen them a time or two) once told me you are allowed to feel blue, to be sad, to be down, but we call it emotional bungy jumping. Dive down into it but then you have to spring right back out.
In summary wellness has physical, emotional and spiritual components, all of which are different in everyone, life balance, interests outside medicine, exercise, sleep, a good diet, family time, friends and connection, alone time, showing kindness, and learning to look up.
And finally, make sure you look after yourself, and you will be in a better place to look after others. Never forget the compassion: for your patients, your colleagues, and of course for yourself.