All posts by Jon Cousins

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.

A mini-mindfulness technique you can count on

When I attended a Workplace Wellness seminar down in Santa Clara this past Friday, mindfulness was definitely front and centre.

Although I sheepishly admit that mindfulness has never truly been my thing, I know it’s a practice that works really well for many, so it perhaps wasn’t surprising to hear several speakers advocating its use in the workplace.

Despite my lack of personal application of mindfulness, I’m happy to pass on one small but great tip that’s easy to adopt. I’ve been using it this week.

One speaker asked the audience to close their eyes, concentrating solely on their breathing. In, and out. In, and out. He explained that he would time us for thirty seconds.

So far, so usual. It’s a common way to introduce people to mindfulness.

But then we were asked to repeat the exercise, this time counting the cycles of our breathing, with one inhalation and its accompanying exhalation making up one breath. He’d time us again.

Finally, the idea was to make a note of this number. Some in the audience reached five. I was apparently more chilled out, making just two-and-a-half breaths in thirty seconds.

The number itself doesn’t matter. What’s important is establishing your own number.

You can easily do this yourself, setting a gold standard for your breathing rate by timing yourself with your phone, computer, or watch. Do it once, then you’ll be able to repeat the exercise whenever you wish, without requiring a timer.

Simple.

What seems most valuable about the technique is that it enables you to fit in thirty seconds of this kind of “mini-mindfulness” whenever you wish, without needing to time yourself, simply counting breaths instead.

It could be while you’re on a bus, waiting at traffic lights, watching TV, or immediately after a phone call.

Counting your breaths, of course, also helps you to f-o-c-u-s on them, rather than on anything else.

It’s simple, and simply applied. And I can thoroughly recommend it.

How about giving it a try?

What can you do today, for Future You?

I love learning about other people’s happiness-nudging ideas, so I’m delighted to pass along this one from my good friend Josh, who’s hit on a smart self-care strategy. Over to you, Josh…

* * * * * * *

I wanted to share a thought experiment I’ve been trying that I think you’ll enjoy.

It started with my morning coffee.

Sometimes I clean and prepare all my coffee making paraphernalia the night before, rinsing out old grinds, filling the kettle, washing my mug, and placing the scoop in the bin of beans.

Other times I do not.

One day I realized that when I had prepared everything in advance, I was subconsciously saying things to myself like “Damn, you really set Future Josh up today,” or “Past Josh must have been a pretty good guy to think of me!”

But when I had not, I would gently chastise myself for not doing it.

Then the thought occurred to me —I wonder if I can use this to motivate myself to do things I won’t enjoy doing now, but will later appreciate having already been done?

For the past week I’ve been testing out this idea.

For example, I’ll sometimes stop what I’m doing, scan the house for a task that will make Future Josh happy, then do it, taking pleasure in the fact that I’ve set myself up for tomorrow.

The interesting thing is, I’ll often refer to “Future Josh” out loud, then get excited because I know he’ll be happy not having to do the thing I’m doing now.

And since Future Josh will be a little happier for not having to think about or do this, both current and Future Josh are happier.

It truly is a win-win.

Do you ever do anything like this?

* * * * * * *

My thanks to Josh.

PS—When I wrote about emotional contagion last week, I began by boasting that I hadn’t had a cold all winter, then suggested I was probably tempting fate by doing so. This week? Yup, first cold for months now coming on fast and furious. Honestly, you can’t win, can you?

Emotions: can they be contagious?

I wonder if you managed to avoid catching a cold (or colds) this winter?

With the chilly times behind many of us in the northern hemisphere, I count myself among the fortunate few who made it through winter without getting a dose of the sniffles.

(I do realise, of course, that saying this is seriously tempting fate. I’ll probably be cold-ridden by this time next week.)

Be that as it may, we readily accept that physical illnesses can be contagious.

Sickness is often transmitted from one person to another.

But what about our emotions and moods? Can we affect others through the way we think, behave and feel?

And are we in turn affected by the thoughts, behaviour, and feelings of others?

The answer, of course, is yes.

In fact, psychologists refer to this process as “emotional contagion,” and over the years a number of fascinating studies have focused on it.

Looking back at my own advertising career, it was certainly the case that one of my goals was to change the way people felt about my client’s products or services – just as a sales representative does, too.

If you’ve ever been moved by a film, TV show, or piece of music, you’ve experienced emotional contagion yourself.

As you have when you feel a strong response to either good or sad news related to you by a friend.

There’s nothing odd or (mostly) manipulative about this. These types of reactions are a big part of what makes us human, after all.

A number of more structured experiments have built on these mainly anecdotal experiences to demonstrate the phenomenon of emotional contagion.

In a 1985 study, college students were randomly assigned roommates who were either depressed or non-depressed.

Over a three-month period, students who shared a room with someone who was depressed became increasingly depressed themselves.

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that an experiment like this would ever get the green light these days but its results were certainly eye-opening.

Further work was carried out on college roommates (they get all the luck) in 2003 by researchers at Northwestern University and UC Berkeley, showing that those sharing rooms over time became more emotionally similar. This research study also revealed that the same was true of young couples who were dating. The more time they spent together, the more they, too, became emotionally similar.

In 2009, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler published their important book “Connected: The Surprising Power Of Our Social Networks And How They Shape Our Lives,” part of which examined the records of thousands of people in Framingham, Massachusetts, whose physical and mental health had been extensively tracked over a period of 20 years.

These records also contained information about how those in the study were connected to others in the same research project.

Christakis and Fowler were able to produce maps of these connections, also showing each individual’s state of happiness.

The maps clearly demonstrated that unhappy people clustered with other unhappy people in the network, while happy people clustered with other happy people.

So, given the knowledge that we can be susceptible to the moods and emotions of those around us, what can you and I do to avoid “catching” unwanted feelings?

One helpful action is to remind yourself that someone else’s mood is not your mood.

By all means listen properly if others unload themselves on you, but try hard to observe this, rather than getting drowned in someone else’s gloom.

Another handy tactic is to remember that by lifting the spirits of others, you automatically create a happier space for yourself.

Simple steps like these can help keep you inoculated against others’ low spirits.

An emotional shot in the arm, so to speak.

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.

Really?

This was me?

This is how I walk when nobody’s looking?

Wow.

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:

https://goo.gl/forms/QeAZhuVVa0WkOsHx2

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.

Incredible.

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 forebears.io 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:

https://uptalk.typeform.com/to/CTtwER

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.