Monthly Archives: March 2018

Was that really me?

I was startled when I caught sight of myself in a shop window reflection last weekend. More of that in a moment.

But first, after a rainy few weeks, California has suddenly gone all Spring-like.

For now, at least, the sun’s shining, the blossom’s blooming, and the sky is a happy shade of blue.

Sorry if the weather’s not doing exactly the same where you are, but I’ll try and attach some sunshine to today’s post.

There’s a fair bit to share with you, including the outcome of some morale-building self-experimentation I’ve been doing, as well as feedback from last week’s survey in which we looked for alternatives to the word “morale.”

First, that survey form.

You’ll probably recall that I was keen to explore which of a list of 18 possible replacements for “morale” would come through strongest in a vote.

My thinking was that morale might be a term that people connect to teams (and perhaps the military) more than they do to individuals.

Actually, morale itself did pretty well in the vote, coming in at No. 2, so perhaps it’s not as community-focused as I’d worried.

Top of the list, however, was “spirit,” which 40% of our 153 voters included in their top three.

The five leading choices, with their percentages, were:

1. Spirit (40.1%)
2. Morale (28.6%)
3. Resilience (24.5%)
4. Well-being (21.8%)
5. Outlook (19.7%)

A big thank you to everyone who voted. It therefore seems we can safely use either the word “spirit” or morale itself to describe this slightly elusive quality we’re hoping to measure and ideally boost.

So, back to that experimental work I’ve been doing, and an explanation of why my reflection took me aback.

Those who’ve known me for a while will be aware that I’ve had a long fascination for designing tools of various kinds based on playing cards.

Moodscope, of course, still uses the cards we originally devised ten years ago that enable people to give themselves a score for their overall mood.

Then, a few years back, I experimented with packs of hexagonal playing cards, that I called WellBee, designed to self-rate overall well-being.

But rather than enabling the calculations of scores, this latest work explores the use of a playing-card-like mechanism to provide actual advice and actionable prompts.

I’ve created a prototype deck of 60 cards which I’m using to experiment on myself.

On each card is printed a simple action: something I can easily do that day to help keep myself on track.

And since the cards are wallet-sized, I can choose one at random, then carry it with me as a reminder.

The cards’ actions are based on twelve dimensions I’ve extracted from past studies into demoralisation that have been carried out by psychiatrists and psychologists.

For example, since someone who’s demoralised is likely to feel isolated, one of my dimensions is “connectedness” – the actions suggesting easy ways to reach out to other people. Other dimensions are “resilience” (which of course appeared in our voting results), and “self-respect.”

Back to that shop window, though.

Last Sunday, my random card came from the “self-confidence” dimension, and it suggested: “At every opportunity today, remind myself to walk taller and straighter.”

This old but effective trick can have a great impact on self-confidence.

I’d been for a coffee and was walking back to the car when, as I said, I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in the window of the dry-cleaners.

Or, rather, I happened to catch a glimpse of someone who looked a bit like me, except he was a hunchback.


This was me?

This is how I walk when nobody’s looking?


As I said, it was a shock, and I can tell you, it suddenly made me stand up a whole lot straighter for the rest of the day.

Every time I opened my wallet, there was that reminder again.

What’s more, simply standing straighter really did make me feel better.

This action is one of sixty, so there’s a lot more for me to work through.

Where does the experiment go next?

Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I will of course keep you in touch with what happens. I’m definitely doing this with the firm intention of creating something we can all use in due course.

Perhaps it will help us all if we stand up, or sit up, a little straighter.

How to get a DIY morale-boost

If you’d like to boost your own morale, one indispensable tip is to think about a relatively small past action someone took that made you feel disproportionately good. Then apply it to yourself.

Parents can be a great source for these kinds of memories.

For example, I distinctly recall my own mum boosting my spirits when I was about six years old, and feeling poorly for one reason or another.

Although I didn’t have much of an appetite, she was keen to encourage me to eat, and I must have told her I might be able to manage to eat a few chips (French fries in the part of the world where I now live).

A short time later she appeared from the kitchen with a rectangular plate, bearing half a dozen perfectly-cut, perfectly-fried home-made chips, laid neatly side-by-side.

So vivid is this memory, that I can still see the blue plate with its white spots.

And those chips! They were the home-made type, chunky and golden brown.

They didn’t last long, but many years later, I know I can give myself a lift by fixing something tasty to eat, and serving it up in a visually appealing way.

Perhaps you have your own memories of a time when someone raised your spirits by doing something you specially appreciated?

Next time you need it, therefore, why not dust off this procedure and apply it to yourself?

Finally, a big thank you to the scores of readers who answered my call last week for possible alternatives to the word “morale.”

As promised, I’ve compiled all those mentioned by more than one person, and would love to know which of them you think work best, overall.

The voting form is here, and has been set up so you’ll be able to see the current results after you vote:

Please let me know what you think.

Keep Calm and Cousins On

Yesterday will definitely go down as an Odd Day for me.

You see, through a remarkable series of coincidences, I discovered that I share a last name with the man who almost certainly designed one of the most famous morale-boosting publicity campaigns of all time.

Yup, the designer of the “Keep Calm And Carry On” poster was born Charles Cousins.


Right now, I have no idea if we could be distantly related, but it’s clearly a possibility given the relatively small number of people named Cousins in the world.

A website called reveals that my name is the 15,696th most common in the world.

By the time Charles Cousins (the same name as my grandfather, by the way) was asked by the Ministry of Information to put together designs for morale-boosting posters in 1939, he’d changed his name to Edgar Wall-Cousins, which became Wallcousins.

The Edgar was his middle name. The Wall came from his first wife Marjorie’s maiden name.

By doing the double-barrelled thing, they were clearly way ahead of the game when they married, in 1902.

Given my fascination with the idea of developing a way to measure and track morale, it does seem pretty exciting that I might even share some genes with the designer of the Keep Calm poster.

How do you research this kind of thing?

I’m not sure, but it’s certainly got me fascinated.

The elementary genealogical exploration I began yesterday (and quickly abandoned upon realising how complicated it would get) was a time-consuming but enjoyable diversion from the main task in hand for me, right now, which is to explore the potential of morale as a measure of our psychological well-being.

However, one slight reservation I have is whether the word “morale” is sufficiently meaningful in a context outside the world of work or the military?

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve mentioned to you that we easily use the word “demoralised” in a personal setting, understanding what it means with no problems.

But “morale”?

Maybe it’s okay, but perhaps there’s a better term for it?

One dictionary definition of morale is that it’s “an emotional or mental condition with respect to cheerfulness, confidence, zeal, etc, especially in the face of opposition hardship.”

I can think of a number of possible synonyms for morale, but I don’t want to influence you because I do want your help, please.

Which words or terms might you use in place of the word morale?

I’d love to know, so I’ve put a simple form online to gather ideas:

Once we’ve collected a goodly number, I’ll assemble them into a voting form so we can take a second pass at ranking them in popular order.

For now, though, please put on your very best thinking cap.

Meanwhile I’m still trying trying to digest the “Keep Calm” connection, which ironically is exciting enough to actually make it feel quite hard to, well, carry on.

Attila the Hun and a wet kipper: good for morale

Who’d have imagined that writing a blog post about the origins of the world “morale” could end up becoming in itself a morale-boosting exercise?

Hopefully you caught last week’s post. Besides being fun to research and write, it inspired a number of thoughtful reflections from readers, as a result of which I’m pleased to report that I felt quite uplifted. Thank you.

But I think this little demonstration aptly shows that having our morale boosted isn’t always exactly the same as being made happy.

Sure, I was indeed both uplifted and made happier, but although morale and happiness seem to overlap to some extent, morale somehow seems a far richer descriptor.

Continuing the research I started last week, therefore, I figured it might be rewarding to explore what others in psychology have done in terms of measuring morale.

It wasn’t easy. If you search for “morale test” in Google, for example, most of the top results are about war games, generally played by spotty teenagers on tabletop battlefields with miniature figures. Apparently part of the process of playing a war game involves taking account of your army’s morale.

Believe it or not, I was both a wargamer and a spotty teenager for a few brief months.

Adolescence didn’t last long in my day, and hobbies, too, were often short-lived.

But war game morale wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

Nor was I really interested in employee morale, which popped up a lot in Google, although I can understand why employers would be keen to survey and boost this. Good morale in a company probably leads to higher productivity and better employee retention, among many other desirable outcomes.

However, it wasn’t until I recalled that psychologists have often historically chosen to view the world through morose-tinted glasses, that I discovered (much) more work on measuring demoralisation than in exploring whatever its opposite is.

Actually, before we head down this demoralisation corridor – and don’t worry, I’ll do my best not to let this bring us down – it’s worth pointing out that Dutch researchers from Radboud University came up with what they called a “remoralisation scale” in 2010.


It’s a neat play on words of course, I suppose meaning the opposite of demoralisation.

The Dutch researchers, though, really planned their test to be used by people in self-rating the effectiveness of their psychotherapy, which I guess means they wished it to show how “un-demoralised” someone had become.

Sadly, for me at least, the word remoralisation falls foul of the “morale/moral” trap we mentioned last week, so I find it hard not to incorrectly think of remoralisation as somehow meaning the process of restoring a sense of right and wrong to someone who has gone off the moral rails.

It brings to mind Monty Python’s unforgettable Remoralisation Sketch, when Attila the Hun, played by Terry Jones, is strapped to a chair as John Cleese slaps him round the face with a wet kipper, yelling “Who’s been a naughty, naughty boy, then?”

Pause for a moment to summon that image to your mind, then tell me it didn’t bring a slight smile to your face.

Jokes aside, however, the thinking behind the remoralisation scale seems to me somewhat along the right lines, but it produced an instrument that’s not perhaps as sensitive as I’d like it to be for our purposes.

One of its twelve items, for example, asks how much you agree with the statement “Right now, I see myself as being pretty successful,” which feels a bit awkward and uncomfortable somehow.

OK for Simon Cowell, perhaps, but not necessarily for the likes of the average psychotherapy client.

The response scale seems also rather coarse-grained to my eye. For each statement you only get four possible answers: Totally disagree, Disagree a lot, Agree a lot, or Totally agree.

From the work that readers have helped me with in the past, we know many are disinclined to choose extreme answers, in general favouring more shades of grey between a scale’s black and white ends.

Moving on, though, where do we go when we venture into that aforementioned Demoralisation Corridor?

In 2004, Professor David Kissane and colleagues in Melbourne, Australia, conducted important research with cancer patients, with a view to enabling them to rate their degree of demoralisation.

This entirely worthy work resulted in a Demoralisation Scale which, not surprisingly, focuses on a spectrum spanning disheartenment, despondency, and profound despair.

Indeed, many of its questions revolve around the end of life.

I know, I know. I said I’d do my best not to bring us down, so perhaps we should agree to move thoughtfully on, while gratefully acknowledging the value that this kind of work has brought to the world of palliative care.

Frankly, though, if our end game is to find a way to rate and track our own morale, we might need to start afresh, rather than trying to adapt a measure designed for use by patients with terminal cancer.

Last week I mentioned Professor Jerome Frank, an eminent psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical School, who in 1974 wrote that the main aim for all types of psychotherapy should be to restore a patient’s morale.

He helpfully went on to itemise a dozen markers of demoralisation, such as impotence, isolation, disconnection, and despair.

Taking Frank’s negatives one-by-one, I trawled the antonym sections of a range, selection, and assortment of thesauri to identify 12 characteristics of higher morale on which we therefore might focus:

  • Self-confidence
  • Connectedness
  • Hopefulness/optimism
  • Self-respect
  • Acceptance by others
  • Purpose and meaning
  • Resilience
  • Sense of achievement
  • Deservingness
  • Self forgiveness
  • Self-reliance
  • Freedom from anxiety

I may have overlooked others, but the list above seems a reasonable place for us to begin.

Next week, I plan to walk us through these items in slightly greater detail, and also to ask for your assistance in completing a very early prototype of a “morale measurer” based on them.

In the meantime, though, I leave you once again with that image of Attila the Hun, John Cleese and the wet kipper.

You know, they don’t write them like that anymore.

In fact, sadly, they never did.

More reading:

Development of the Remoralization Scale – An Extension of Contemporary Psychotherapy Outcome Measurement

The Demoralization Scale – a Report of Its Development and Preliminary Validation

The Mutiny on the Bounty, and the origins of the word “morale.”

Things came to an unpleasant end on the HMS Bounty on April 28th, 1789.

Increasingly infuriated by their leader, Captain Bligh’s, harsh treatment of them, the ship’s crew mutinied, casting off the captain in a small rowing boat.

An example of Captain Bligh’s robust man-management style is his reputed warning:

“The floggings will continue until morale improves.”


While that exact quotation is probably apocryphal, Bligh’s severe style certainly isn’t in question.

I’ve started with this story today to get us thinking about the term “morale,” which I’ve been looking into over the past couple of weeks.

As part of my long-term interest in the potential of self-tracking systems to enable us to better understand and manage our emotional health, it occurred to me that morale might be a helpful quality to explore.

What if we found a way to determine our level of morale at any given time, then tracked it day-to-day, combining this with practical actions (the kinds of “nudges” we’re familiar with) designed to raise morale?

In my ten years of fascination with mental health, I haven’t really heard much talk about morale.

Intuitively, though, it feels as if it’s a state of mind that would be closely connected to emotional health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

In fact, a little digging in the Stanford archives brought to light a fantastic 1974 paper written by Jerome (Jerry) Frank, who was then Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland.

In his paper, Psychotherapy: The Restoration of Morale, Professor Frank recommended that the main aim for all types of psychotherapy should be to restore a patient’s morale.

In his view, “no good evidence exists that one therapy produces better results than another,” but he said that any successful course of psychotherapy should effectively address an individual’s sense of demoralisation.

Frank’s paper goes on to list feelings of impotence, isolation, despair, and damaged self-esteem as being among those that contribute to someone becoming demoralised.

Just about all the experts I’ve spoken to agree that the biggest predictor of a successful psychotherapeutic outcome is not the actual methodology used (CBT or psychoanalysis, for two poles-apart examples) but the connection that gets forged between the therapist and client/patient.

When these two people “click,” the outcome is likely to be a whole lot better than if they don’t. Frank suggested that four key attributes for an effective therapist are warmth, empathy, genuineness, and enthusiasm.

A more recent paper, published in 2015, reported a remarkable study of older adults, all at least 85 years of age, in Sweden and Finland.

People who felt optimistic about life and who had something to look forward to, lived five years longer on average than their more pessimistic counterparts.

The researchers surveyed 646 people, using a 17-item questionnaire, once in 2000-2002, then again in 2005-2007.

At the five-year follow-up, 56% of those in the high morale group were still alive, compared to 32% in the low morale group, even after controlling for age, gender, and various health conditions.

Apparently, keeping a positive outlook in later life will help you stay alive longer.

The study’s lead author, John Niklasson, consulting geriatrician at Umeå University in Sweden, wrote that when making his medical rounds one day he’d met an older woman who told him, “I don’t have any reason to live.”

Dr Niklasson explained that she hadn’t said this in any dramatic or suicidal way, but just as a cold “fact.”

Later the same morning, he spoke to another woman of similar age and equivalent disease level, who said to him “I don’t have time to stay in the hospital. I have to go home today. I have so much to do.”

So, morale seems a vital quality for us to have and to maintain. But where did the word originate?

Where would I be without that annual library card? I turned once again to the trusty Stanford University archives.

It felt to me as though it’s a term that may have originated in the military – Captain Bligh was reputed to have used it, after all – and it turns out I was correct.

Morale, with an “e,” originally came from the word moral, which is of course used to mean the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil.

We have the Roman orator Cicero to thank for “moral.”

Around 63 BC (or BCE, to be more modern) he coined the word “moralis” from the Greek term “ethikos.”

How the heck do you get from ethikos to moralis?

Although this sounds like a question you’d ask a travel agent, who’d maybe answer by flipping through the pages of a Greek ferry timetable, we simply have to accept that Cicero did indeed get from one word to the other.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that the French word moral (pronounced morale, with the accent on the second syllable, printed in italics to represent its non-English origin, and also with an added “e”) began to be used to mean the capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution or goal – or in oneself, or others.

Explanations of how the word moral acquired its “e” and a different meaning, are fuzzy.

However, the most plausible I’ve found suggests that armies maintained confidence in their actions by telling themselves that they were fighting for a moral cause.

So your morale was high when you believed you were on the side of the good and the right.

I like this idea.

It seems to hold water, in the same way that Captain Bligh’s rowing boat did. Fortunately for him.

Successive early editions of the Oxford English Dictionary reported that use of the word “morale” was rare before 1914, and when it was used, it was almost always in a military context.

However, as the 20th century progressed, it became a much more widely adopted term, perhaps as a result of two world wars. It led to people thinking about both military and civilian morale.

Earlier we saw how Jerome Frank weighed the consequences of demoralisation in his 1974 paper.

Actually, demoralisation, too, began life in the military, where it was adopted to describe its use as a weapon in psychological warfare.

By undermining your enemy’s confidence, you’d weaken them, making them easier to beat.

In the same way, of course, demoralisation can compromise us, meaning that maintaining good morale is pretty crucial.

As you might conclude from this longer than usual nudge, I’m taken by the idea of morale, particularly if there’s a way for us to measure it and then, perhaps, boost it.

I’m also wondering if the methodology we’ve developed for Signpost might be applied to managing morale, instead of mood.

You know what?

I think we may just be on to something here, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

More reading:

High morale linked to longer survival among elderly

High morale is associated with increased survival in the very old

Psychotherapy: The Restoration of Morale