Monthly Archives: September 2018

Six themes for a very important letter to a very important person

There have certainly been times in my life when I’ve felt stuck. Trapped, even.

Now and then it has felt that no matter what I did, I couldn’t change things, which was both frustrating and demoralising.

However, it invariably helps to remind myself that even when I believe I can’t change situations, I do always have a real choice about how I think about them.

The American author and radio host Earl Nightingale summed up this concept nicely: “Control your thoughts. Decide about that which you will think and concentrate upon. You are you are in charge of your life to the degree to which you take charge of your thoughts.”

Having a sense of control and autonomy over your own life is one of six fundamental factors driving your psychological well-being, represented by Independence, the first “I” in our SPIRIT model.

So allow me, if you will, to propose a brief exercise that may help when you’re next feeling a lack of this.

Set aside 15 minutes, and not a second more, to write yourself a letter about a situation you’re unhappy about.

The twist is that you’ll get to choose one of six ways to “frame” this note. And you have complete freedom to select which you use.

When you write, do so in the second person, talking to yourself as *you*, imagining you’re writing a letter to a very dear friend.

For example, “I totally understand the way *you’re* feeling…”

Remember, it’s your choice which angle you’ll take. Here they are, then:

1. FORGIVENESS e.g. “You feel guilty about this thing, but I want you to know that I completely forgive you.”

2. CURIOSITY e.g. “I’m genuinely interested in better understanding why you’re thinking this way.”

3. COMPASSION e.g. “I just want you to know how very sorry I am that you’re feeling the way you do.”

4. SOLIDARITY e.g. “I totally stand with you on this. The way you acted/thought was and is entirely justified.”

5. ACCEPTANCE e.g. “Let’s agree to accept what’s happened (or is happening) and aim to move on.”

6. AMUSEMENT e.g. “Just for a minute, why don’t we look at the funny side of what’s happened, even if it is bittersweet?”

When you write, aim to do so in a continuous flow, paying no attention to grammar or spelling. Simply pour your heart into a 15 minute letter to yourself, but with unceasing reference to the theme you chose.

Although a quarter of an hour really isn’t a long time, you should find this to be a powerful mood nudger.

Once you’ve experimented with deliberately choosing the theme of your letter, a twist on the technique (for another occasion, perhaps) is to throw a dice to randomly select one of the six. This, too, can work.

Through it all, however, the real value is in remembering that you truly do have a choice about how you think.

In the words of Pink Floyd, we don’t need no thought control.

And nobody can take this away from us, thank goodness.

Could your life have a Michelangelo-grade sense of purpose?

Early on this very morning (September 13th) 517 years ago, Michelangelo began chipping away at a block of marble, more than 17 feet tall.

Just under three years later, it had been turned into the work of art most regard as Michelangelo’s masterpiece: his statue of David immediately before his battle with Goliath.

To have turned over six tons of marble into one of the world’s most iconic sculptures in only 33 months, Michelangelo was clearly a man with a mission, living a life of true purpose.

However, rather than Michelangelo finding this sense of purpose himself in 1501, it’s more the case that the purpose found him.

You see, for the whole of the artist’s 26-year life, that marble block had been more or less abandoned in the yard of the cathedral workshop in Florence.

In fact, the sculptor Agostino had actually started rudimentary work, later abandoned, on the stone eleven years before Michelangelo was even born.

I wonder. Do you feel your own life has a sense of purpose?

Of course, it doesn’t need to be one with the monumental scale of Michelangelo’s.

But having something to live for—that gives your life meaning—is an incredibly potent force.

In fact, a recent report in the New Scientist suggests that a sense of purpose “helps prevent heart attack and stroke, staves off dementia, enables people to sleep better, have better sex, and live longer.”

Seriously, what’s not to like about that?

Of course, there are likely to be times in your life, as there have been in mine, when life’s purposefulness may seem wanting.

However, while there might not be a six ton block of marble waiting with your name on it, I firmly believe that looking around you can reveal opportunities for you to make a difference – to carve out your own meaning.

Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open for worthwhile causes or projects.

Perhaps they will involve connection to another person, or to a group.

They might even entail caring for a garden, riverbank bank, or urban environment.

The thing is, you don’t need to start big.

Putting a toe in the water can make a lot of sense.

So, on Michelangelo’s timescale, what could you start today that might bear fruit in, say, 33 months?

That would be June 2021, not that far away actually.

Why not celebrate Michelangelo today, then, and look around you for your own version of his marble block?

Address your weaknesses by thinking like a mirror

If you take a selfie, have you noticed that your phone plays a trick on you?

When you use its front-facing camera, the image on the phone’s screen is flipped, as it would be if you see your reflection in a mirror.

Click the button to take a photo, though, and the image stored by the camera is generally unmirrored.

Sometimes people feel dissatisfied with photos of themselves, especially if selfie-taking is a somewhat infrequent activity. It turns out that this is partly because we often unconsciously favour self-images that have been flipped, mirror-like.

In 1977, long before the invention of smartphones, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, demonstrated this in a fascinating experiment.

They asked participants to choose their favourite photo when presented with both their true image and their mirror image.

The majority chose the mirror image, even though they claimed they did so because the lighting was better or it was a more flattering angle.

Most simply didn’t realise that one image had been flipped.

Another intriguing aspect of the research was that participants’ romantic partners tended to favour the unflipped images.

Of course, at the heart of this is that people prefer pictures that match up to what they see most frequently.

We see ourselves in the mirror all the time when we brush teeth, put on make-up, or shave. So that’s the picture we carry.

However, we tend to see people we’re close to face-to-face, not in the mirror, therefore favouring unflipped images.

By the way, when Snapchat launched in 2011 (from a Stanford dorm room a few hundred yards from where I’m sitting) its founders capitalised on people’s love for their mirror image by not unflipping selfies when they were recorded. Interesting.

Incidentally, experts on selfie-taking suggest that a way to free yourself from preferring mirror images is simply to take plenty of selfies, so your brain gets used to true images.

So now you have an excuse.

Actually, though, my real mission in writing about mirror-image preference today is to get us thinking about the mental pictures we form of ourselves.

I’m well aware, perhaps you are too, that the self-image I carry in my head can bear little resemblance to the picture others have of me.

And I think this can be challenging, because self-acceptance is a key plank in our psychological well-being, and all too often we can be overly hard on ourselves when it comes to what we might view as our weaknesses.

Maybe, though, it’s possible to use the analogy of a mirror in order to reframe weaknesses?

Let’s see if I can demonstrate what I mean by revealing three of what I perceive to be my own shortcomings.

Off the top of my head, then, here are three (of rather too many):

1. Work-wise, I worry that I spread myself across too many different projects.

2. I don’t think I’m sufficiently motivated by making money.

3. I sometimes believe I fail to socialise enough with new people.

Let’s now, though, apply a mirror to those three issues:

1. By working on a wide range of ideas and projects, I’m able to apply learning from one area into another.

2. If I was ruthlessly and solely driven by earning money, I’d lose the undoubted joy of working on Moodnudges, which of course leads to my relationship with you.

3. Avoiding parties doesn’t mean I dislike the company of other people, far from it. But by focusing my attention on a smaller number of people, I believe I to get to know them, and care for them, in a deeper way.

Suddenly those weaknesses sound a little better, don’t they?

Of course this approach to self-acceptance shouldn’t prevent me, rightly, thinking about ways in which I could work on these weaknesses.

There would be nothing wrong, for example, in ensuring that I don’t take on so many projects that I lose focus. Perhaps one or two could go on the backburner.

A little (but just a little) more concentration on money matters might be no bad thing.

And, occasionally, it might do me good to step out of my comfort zone to meet new people.

What’s most important, however, is to gracefully accept that – like all people – I have my weaknesses.

It’s just that they may not be quite as destructive as they could appear to me at first glance.

Why not consider applying this mirror technique to what you believe may be your own weaknesses (whether or not others would agree)?

Remember, you’re looking for the positive, flipside of qualities you might wish you didn’t have.

If you try it and reach helpful conclusions, I know I’d love to hear about them, as I’m sure would our other readers.