Monthly Archives: May 2018

Who’s in your driving seat?

As I listened to live coverage of a Palo Alto City Council meeting on the radio a while ago, I found myself riveted (no, really) by a debate about self-driving cars.

Driverless transport experiments are already a big thing around these parts, mainly thanks to Google’s interest in the matter, and it’s really not unusual to have one of their white “Waymo” vehicles pull up alongside you at a stop sign.

To be honest, people hardly give them a second glance.

Anyway, that council meeting was really the first time I’d heard self-driving cars referred to by their more precise term: autonomous vehicles.

And I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve worked on the foundations for our new SPIRIT framework for psychological well-being.

The sharp-eyed among us won’t have failed to notice that there is no “A” in SPIRIT, but you may also recall that I’m basing my research on the work of psychologist Carol Ryff, who established her own well-adopted six-factor model, albeit one that doesn’t spell out SPIRIT.

One of Carol Ryff’s dimensions was Autonomy, which I’ve tweaked into “Independence,” making up the first of two I’s in SPIRIT.

The second I stands for Interconnection, which we’ll get to in a couple of weeks’ time, but the reason I bring it up now is to address the possible concern that independence and interconnection could sound as if they’d be in conflict with one another.

So I think it’s important to make the point that my use of independence denotes independence of thought rather than some kind of aim to cut ourselves off from other people.

Over the years, psychologists have shown that a desire for autonomy may be hard-wired into us.

We love it when we have control, and we generally loathe it when we don’t.

Imagine a work situation in which a boss “micro-manages” his staff, watching their every move, allowing them to make no decisions themselves. Even tiny ones.

Contrast this with another boss who makes it her mission to support her people and, once goals have been agreed, gives them considerable autonomy.

She’s comfortable with people making mistakes, and doesn’t blame her staff if they slip up.

I don’t know about you, but I’m clear who I’d rather work for.

To a large degree, I think we can experience different degrees of independence of thought and action in various aspects of our lives.

Perhaps there are some relationships and friendships in which you feel more able to be yourself than you can in others?

Meanwhile there could be other situations in which it seems as though you have less control and influence than you might prefer.

Of course, we may also modify our behaviours because of what we believe are others’ expectations.

So, given the knowledge that having a high degree of independence/autonomy is a good thing, what can you do to increase the amount of it that you feel?

One approach I’ve found helpful is to create a mental image of a seesaw (or, as they’re often known in the US, a teeter-totter).

You know how they work.

As one and goes up, the other goes down.

On the ends of your seesaw, place the answers to two questions you ask yourself immediately before taking an action.

Question 1: How much am I doing this because it’s expected of me?

Question 2: How much am I doing this because I choose to?

As you balance the answers on opposite ends of the beam, you’ll probably visualise it settling at one end or the other.

To start with, I’d encourage you to do little more than this, actually.

Probably don’t modify what you’re about to do, and certainly not immediately.

But do, by all means, simply become more aware of who’s driving this action.

Is it you, or is it someone else?

And if it’s the latter, are other people really controlling it, or is it more a case that you think they’re controlling it?

For example, many of us – me included – still sometimes try to behave in ways we think our parents might approve of, long after we’ve grown up and left home.

But while discouraging you from making knee-jerk, immediate changes to your behaviour, I’m more than happy to encourage longer-term adjustments, when the time is right for you.

Is not always easy to act independently, but there are serious benefits in doing so.

Who’s in your driving seat?

Couldn’t it be you?

Image: Dllu – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Try a new purpose on for size

You may recall that last week I introduced the idea of a “S.P.I.R.I.T.” acronym as a framework for a system that measures and lifts psychological well-being.

I was emboldened by the many enthusiastic reactions to that post, so this week we’ll explore the acronym’s second letter.

It means it’s time for a “P,” as it were.

The P in S.P.I.R.I.T. stands for Purpose, and incorporating a greater sense of this into your life can be transformative.

It really means you have goals, and a general feeling that your life has meaning.

It entails holding beliefs that give you purpose, and having aims and objectives for living.

Now, if these lofty definitions leave you needing a drink, I have good news.

For we do indeed start today’s conversation standing at the bar in one of the student cafés on the Stanford campus here in California.

Last weekend I took Glenn and Maria, friends from London, for a bite to eat after we’d chatted on the University radio station for a couple of hours.

Wanting a beer (perhaps unsurprisingly after that, needing one) there were three different varieties on tap, but none were familiar to us.

So we asked for samples, tasted all three, as you do, and easily decided who’d have what.

Sampling food or drink seems to me a bit like trying on clothes before you buy them: it’s amazing how quickly you just “know” if something suits you, the minute you see it in the mirror, or taste it.

It’s occurred to me that it might be handy to take this same “try before you buy” approach to many of life’s aspects, actually, including a sense of purpose.

Of course there are those in life whose path is deeply-defined and ever-evident, and more power to their purposeful elbows, I say.

For the rest of us, though, it’s not uncommon to go through times when we have less-clear goals, and a reduced sense of mission.

If this is happening to you right now, fear not.

I have a suggestion, associated with trying things on for size – which will also be fun.

I’ve drawn up a list of 10 mini-missions, each of which has at least the potential to feel meaningful.

Some may not be new to you. They could already be a regular part of your life, in which case I’d suggest skipping them.

But if they’re unfamiliar, or are simply not part of your regular current routine, please try not to scoff, but agree instead to experiment with a maximum of two in the next day.

When you do this, try to ask yourself three simple questions:

1. How did it make me feel to do this?
2. How meaningful did it feel?
3. How much would I like to do this again?

My goal certainly isn’t to equip you with a sudden sense of purpose on a par with someone who decides to up sticks to Tibet to become a Buddhist monk.

It’s more about a gentle method of experimenting with new ways to add just a little more purpose to everyday life.

Do feel free to create your own missions, but here’s a list of 10 to get you started (remember, pick a maximum of just two today):

a. Learn/remind yourself how to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation

b. Walk in nature, perhaps barefoot

c. Donate one good item you own to a local charity

d. Talk to/help someone in need

e. Pick up three pieces of litter

f. Call in to a neighbour’s to say hello, just for 10 minutes

g. Speak to a random stranger

h. Ask someone with a dog if they’ll let you pet it

i. Say a prayer

j. Spend five minutes alone in total silence

Try to suppress possible biases, using a genuine sense of openness and curiosity to select an item or two. Remember, this is just an experiment.

But do, please, share your insights – both positive and negative.

Having a greater sense of purpose is good for your spirit.

And for your S.P.I.R.I.T.

The strength of weakness.

We’re frequently encouraged to recognise and celebrate our strengths. But might there also be merit in taking the same approach to our weaknesses?

You know, I think there could be. I’ll explain more in a moment.

First, though, a swift update on my current progress building a tool to help lift and maintain morale.

You might remember that in March, when I asked for your help with an alternative to the word “morale” itself, the most popular suggestion was “spirit.”

It’s a terrific synonym, and I’m so grateful for your collective wisdom.

Seeking a proven structure on which to build my morale-building material, I’ve been greatly inspired by the work of Carol Ryff, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

In 1989 Professor Ryff proposed a model for psychological well-being consisting of six dimensions: Self-Acceptance; Positive Relations With Others; Autonomy; Environmental Mastery; Purpose In Life; and Personal Growth.

It should be said, by the way, that psychological well-being is quite distinct from happiness. In broad terms, someone with a high level of psychological well-being is an individual who “flourishes,” making the most of their life.

Anyway, although there’s been some recent discussion about the degree to which Professor Ryff’s dimensions are independent of one another, it seems to me (and thousands of researchers and scientists who have built on her work in the past 30 years) that they make good sense.

My one hesitation was a sense that some of the labels could seem a little scientific and complicated to a mere mortal like me.

In my own work, therefore, I’m suggesting alternatives.

Professor Ryff’s term “environmental mastery,” for example, describes the ability of someone to manage and make the most of their everyday life.

Here’s where the academic world and our amazing Moodnudges readers come together, though.

As I said, there are six dimensions in Professor Ryff’s psychological well-being model, and it just so happens that there are also six letters in the word you selected as a morale replacement: spirit.

And, what do you know, it really didn’t take much persuasion to formulate labels for the dimensions that form the acronym S.P.I.R.I.T.Self-Acceptance; Purpose; Independence; Resourcefulness; Interconnection; and Transformation.

Resourcefulness, by the way, and for example, is my new label for Environmental Mastery.

Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

In the coming weeks, I’ll walk us through these six facets of psychological well-being, starting today with the “S” of S.P.I.R.I.T. – Self-Acceptance. Which is where that celebration of weakness comes in.

Self-acceptance is all about adopting a positive attitude to yourself, warts and all.

It’s acknowledging that, just like everyone, you have both strengths and weaknesses.

It’s about viewing your past life in a grateful way.

And it’s about being happy with the person you’ve become.

How can you embrace weakness in a way that feels positive, though?

I believe it’s all down to the way you choose to view it.

Let me give you an example from my own life (which comes from that environmental mastery/resourcefulness category, actually).

A particular weakness of mine is being less than good about keeping up with personal admin.

Although I’m probably not alone, I’m terrible at staying on top of responsibilities like paying bills, managing my bank account, and filing paperwork.

I won’t make excuses today, just simply recognise that it’s a weakness of mine.

But how can I possibly celebrate this?

Well, in a few ways, I think.

First, it gives me an opportunity to consider asking for help. Asking for help is nearly always a healthy tactic.

What’s more, there are certainly those in life who love this kind of work, and some make money from doing so, of course.

So maybe I can find someone to support me in this area? It could help both of us.

I’ll look into it.

Second, I currently spend the time I perhaps should be devoting to my admin to creating things – like writing today’s Moodnudge, for example, which will occupy my Wednesday morning, as it usually does.

So not doing my admin allows me more time to create.

Third, simply sharing my weakness with you feels like a positive step.

Revealing my guilty secret could strengthen the connection between you and me, bringing us closer together.

I describe these steps in detail because I hope they’ll suggest a process you can try yourself.

What’s one of your weaknesses?

And how could this be turned into a cause for celebration, albeit gentle celebration?

Next week, we’ll move on to the “P” of S.P.I.R.I.T. – Purpose.

Between now and then, however, I really do encourage you to work on your sense of self-acceptance, in particular identifying the positive aspects of a weakness you may have.

Right, I’m off to ignore that pile of bank statements again.

Mood nudging? Piece of cake. Well, pie, actually.

What exactly is a mood nudge?

Well, in my book (no pun intended) it’s some small action you can take – often right now – that’s designed to give your overall sense of psychological well-being a modest boost.

(That 24 word definition perhaps explains why it’s easier for us all to simply refer to it as a mood nudge.)

So today, let’s agree to not be long-winded and instead just cut to the chase.

This week, my own mood was appropriately nudged by watching an entertaining little video, less than three minutes long.

Joseph Herscher is a New Yorker who constructs ingenious set-ups/machines in his apartment to, in his own words, “solve everyday problems using familiar objects in unfamiliar ways”.

Here’s what he built to serve himself a slice of pie after he’d finished his dinner, which reminded me of my old Professor Branestawm books, illustrated by W. Heath Robinson.

I hope it does for your mood what it did for mine.

Personally, I loved the baby’s second appearance right at the end.

Where’s your happy place?

Have you ever noticed your mood changing depending on where you are? It’s a fairly common phenomenon, actually.

For the past few weeks I’ve been contributing to the Stanford University radio station KZSU’s Friday evening news hour, as the show’s emotional well-being correspondent.

Each week, the host, Darlene Franklin, and I explore a topical news item involving emotional well-being. I suggest tips that could help listeners, then Darlene plays short interviews she’s recorded with people on the university campus, commenting on the theme.

We also encourage listeners to contribute to the show with texts and tweets.

It’s such a fun project to work on, and if you’d like to hear last Friday’s segment, there’s a link to a recording below.

But if you don’t have time to listen, here’s the gist of the news story.

Researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology studied 14 million tweets sent by people who were out and about in New York City.

These tweets were geo-tagged, making it possible to identify the precise locations from which they were sent.

The tweets were then run through some special “sentiment analysis” software, that automatically determined emotions expressed by those who sent them.

In this way, researchers could build an emotion map of NYC, showing which emotions were felt where.

They focused on six in particular: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

So what did they find? Well, a few results stood out for me.

One was that people expressed a wide variety of intense emotions (all those examined, actually) when they tweeted from theatres and cinemas – presumably feeling strongly moved one way or another by the play or movie they’d just seen.

It was also intriguing to learn that the predominant emotion associated with transport hubs, such as railway stations and bus stops, was anger. Let the train cause the pain, eh?

Meanwhile, in terms of happy places, these were often open-air spots such as Central Park and Washington Square.

KZSU listeners had plenty to say about their own happy places – so I wonder where yours is (or are)? Maybe you’ll share them in the comments below.

My three Moodnudge suggestions around this topic are:

1. Once you’ve identified your own happy place, do your best to seek it out whenever you can. It makes sense to spend time in a place that makes you feel good.

2. On the other hand, if there are places with less happy associations for you, try limiting your exposure to them if possible, or change the way you think about them. You could turn a long, boring slog in a waiting room into a chance to enjoy listening to a podcast or reading a book, for example, and actually look forward to it.

3. Ask others about their happy places. Based on our listeners’ responses, it’s a good way to learn more about people, and also pick up tips on great spots you could visit yourself.

Finally, here’s the emotional well-being spot last Friday on KZSU.

It’s unedited, and a little long at 37 minutes, but if you have the time, I think you’ll enjoy it.

And please let us all know about your happy place, in the comments.