All posts by Jon Cousins

Whose life is it anyway?

Before we go anywhere today, I’d like you to pause for a minute or two.

Think back to a time in your life when you remember others having expectations of you.

Perhaps you felt they expected you to settle down and have a family?

Or maybe you can recall certain people expecting you to pursue some particular line of work?

Please just take a moment to recall whether you experienced any of these kinds of expectations.

If you did – what were they? Who held them?

+ + + + + + +

Okay, we’re back.

Maybe you recalled a specific incidence of doing something (or not doing it) largely because of perceived pressure from other people.

I know I do, and I have a theory that talking through my own situation might help cast some light on your own circumstances.

Almost exactly 39 years ago (it was August 7th, 1979) I returned home to the UK after a fabulously exciting and enriching year, living and studying in California.

I’d won a scholarship from Rotary International. It covered the costs of spending a year at art school, after I’d graduated with a science degree in the UK.

And what a brilliant year that was.

I took every class I could – graphic design, printmaking, video production, jewellery design, woodworking – you name it, I signed up for it.

Then, to cap it all, I spent the last few months of my visa’s duration working for a travelling funfair (a carnival, they call it in the US) experiencing the many delights of rural Northern California, while also picking up the down and dirty basics of selling as I ran my own sideshow.

In my video class, we programmed an early personal computer (a TRS-80) and I’ve since realised I lived less than 25 miles from where the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were just starting Apple Computer, a business that 39 years later is worth a trillion dollars.

I was living in a part of the world with huge potential, in so many ways.

Leaving California was a wrench but – well – my visa had expired, plus the Rotary people had asked that I visit some of their clubs back in Britain to talk about my experiences.

I was of course excited to see family and friends when I got back, and for a while I carried my California experience with me, although, along with my suntan it soon began to fade.

Please don’t get me wrong. I know I lived a full, and rich life back in the UK, with jobs in advertising, and the challenging fun of starting and running a London ad agency myself. I’m grateful.

But, as I’ve documented elsewhere, for 30 years I also struggled with depression, severe at times, not even asking for help until I was 50.

When I’ve talked with my Mum about my battles, she’s fairly sure that I began having these emotional health problems when I got back to the UK from California, at the age of 22.

Now, who knows if I might have been less affected if I’d stayed in the USA? Impossible to know, now.

It’s interesting, however, to reflect a little on why I didn’t.

In the thoughts I gathered before writing for you today, I noted that settling down back in the UK was probably what was expected of me, but I then added an “I felt” – “I think *I felt* that it was expected of me.”

Next, I asked myself three questions, and I’d encourage you to do the same about a perhaps parallel time in your own life:

1. Who do you believe expected a particular behaviour/decision from you?

2. Can you be absolutely certain that they really did expect it, or might you have jumped to a somewhat false conclusion? Did you maybe just think they expected it?

3. Lastly, if it actually was true that others genuinely did expect things of you, how much did that really matter?

In my own case, the people at Rotary did indeed expect me to return to the UK, but the truth is that my responsibilities to them were pretty much wrapped-up after just six months of talks at lunches, dinners, and conferences.

What about other people? Did they expect me to return to the UK?

Well, it’s not easy to know.

It would be nice to think that some had hoped I’d be back, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure any necessarily expected it.

To be honest, most would simply have wanted the best for me, hoping I’d do whatever was going to work for me.

For many years, though, I believe I laboured under the illusion that I was somehow doing what was expected of me.

But here’s the thing.

Not only was I probably wrong, it might well have played some part in over 30 years of on-and-off depression.

My study of psychological well-being now makes clear to me how important it is to – as far as possible – independently determine your own direction in life.

I don’t think this means taking a completely selfish selfish approach to living, nor of course that you should cast others aside.

But I’m totally certain it does mean avoiding situations in which you become “locked in,” solely because of what you perceive as others’ expectations – expectations which may in any case be entirely imaginary.

I’m sorry this hasn’t been one of my more light-hearted posts, and please let me reassure you that this isn’t in any way because I’m not feeling light of heart.

I am.

And, of course, five years ago I did eventually return to live in California, which is working out pretty well actually.

(It only took me 34 years.)

This subject, however, does seem sufficiently important and serious not to make jokes about.

I encourage you, therefore, to think a little on this matter in the next few days, please, maybe asking yourself those three questions above.

I know I, and other readers, would love to hear about any reflections they may lead you to have.

Thank you.

Put a little purpose in your step today.

Come on now, I wasn’t exactly dawdling this morning, in fact it felt as though I was walking rather briskly.

But the truth is, I was a mere tortoise in comparison to the hare who zoomed past me.

A tall gentleman, he was accompanied by no fewer than three dogs.

Although all were of different breeds, it was clear that none had exactly been blessed in the leg-length department, so somewhat comically they all raced along at the heel of their human, doing their level best to keep up with him.

Having just completed a month of dog-sitting for a Stanford friend myself, I empathised with this guy.

My guess was that he was exercising the animals before heading off to work – probably to do something important on the Stanford campus – so recognised that it was better for all concerned if he put some pep in his step.

Fail to do so, and you risk your dog(s) getting distracted by just about everything and anything.

Did someone say Squirrel?

It got me thinking about the way in which having a sense of life purpose makes a profound impact on our psychological well-being.

And as the researchers Ryff and Keyes showed in 1995, what they termed “eudaimonic living” (living a life that’s intentionally underpinned by six key aspects of psychological well-being) can actually boost physiological, as well as psychological, health.

Among other benefits it can strengthen your immune system, for example.

The thing is, though, I don’t think this sense of life purpose must necessarily be one huge, overarching mission.

It doesn’t mean you have to become a Buddhist monk or devote your whole life to mastering the ukelele.

I believe, instead, that we all benefit when we live our lives purposefully.

The man who raced past me this morning was almost certainly not a professional dog walker, nor, unless he’d left his robes at home, was he a Buddhist monk.

Frankly I saw no sign of a ukelele, either.

It was, however, clear that he was approaching his morning purposefully – maybe before getting down to his other, hopefully purpose-driven, work.

We all have days, sometimes months, when it may feel we’ve temporarily lost our sense of purpose, and when this happens it’s probably not sensible to hope that we’ll somehow find some giant sense of direction and meaning, when it’s taking every ounce of our energy to just get out of bed in the morning.

Better by far, perhaps, to aim to act more purposefully in daily activities, even little ones.

Taking a shower, for example, could be a humdrum routine.

Or you could approach it with a renewed sense of purpose.

Pop a towel in the tumble dryer so it’s warm and fluffy when you need it.

Take a radio into the bathroom to enjoy Handel’s Water Music, while you lather up with the scented shower gel that’s at the back of the cupboard.

Relish the sensation of drying your skin afterwards, taking a few seconds longer than might be strictly necessary.

Of course it’s fantastic if you do have some kind of mega-mission driving your life.

But I’m certain that adding a sense of purpose to normal, everyday tasks can be almost as good for us.

And of course it can be contagious, spreading ripple-like to those around us, and motivating us still further.

Just ask those low-slung doggies.

Don’t mention the war

“Don’t mention the war.”

In the sixth episode of the brilliant BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers, John Cleese (as Basil Fawlty) famously warned Polly to steer clear of war-talk when serving two German couples in the hotel’s dining room.

“I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it,” a concussed and head-bandaged Fawlty assured her.

Of course, in the years since the episode first aired in 1975, “Don’t mention the war” has become a popular phrase to use in the UK when we want to avoid discussing some awkward issue or other.

And, to some extent, that was the underlying thought behind the research I asked for help with last weekend.

I wanted to know how comfortable – or not – people would be telling others that they suffered from some kind of emotional well-being setback.

I was also interested in learning whether there’s a measurable difference between talking about such matters to friends, and to other people in general.

Maybe you’ll agree with me that it seems likely we’d tell people we trust about sensitive issues more readily, than individuals we don’t know so well.

But it’s always important to explore whether such “common-sense” suppositions actually hold water.

As ever, our readers blew me away with their generosity in completing the questionnaire.

Over 270 people kindly took part, so a huge thanks if you were one of these (the survey was anonymous, of course.)

The questions asked if people would be comfortable talking to (a) friends, and (b) people in general, about experiencing these possible conditions: anxiety, demoralisation, depression, losing one’s fighting spirit, morale being low, having a mental health problem, and experiencing low resilience.

I also included having sleeping problems as a kind of yardstick, suspecting there would probably be less perceived stigma around insomnia than there would be around depression.

The full results are shown here:

Allow me to walk us through some of the main highlights.

At the extreme “Don’t mention the war” end of the spectrum, people are clearly wary about talking about being depressed or having a mental health problem.

In fact, only around half of the respondents said they’d even tell their friends about this, and over two-thirds wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to *anyone* about such conditions.

To place these statistics in context, almost 90% of people would be happy to let friends know if they were experiencing sleep problems, and nearly as many would also be comfortable sharing such information with just about anyone.

When you think about it, this is fascinating, since sleep disorders often accompany mental health problems. Indeed, one of the items in an often-used clinical depression test (the PHQ-9) asks how often you’ve been bothered either by trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much over the previous two weeks.

It’s clearly easier for most to talk about sleep problems than it is to open up about feeling depressed.

While I don’t think it was too surprising to learn that talking about sleeplessness is fairly easy, it was more unexpected to witness the relative comfort that people seem to have in talking about anxiety.

62% would tell friends if they were anxious, compared to 55% who would admit to feeling depressed.

It seems there’s less perceived stigma about anxiety than there is about depression, and I guess this does make a degree of sense.

Perhaps it’s because we may believe our anxiety is caused by something outside ourselves (over which we have no control) whereas it could be more common to think that depression seems to come more from within ourselves?

(By the way, although I always felt my own depression generally started within me, as time has gone by, I now believe it was more often than not “situational.” I generally felt low during times in which I was living in relatively difficult and challenging circumstances.)

Be that as it may, one of my motives for running this research was to better understand some of the stigma around psychological well-being.

As some Moodnudgers know, I’m working on a tool (an app, specifically) that could be used by individuals in the workplace who’d like to maintain their well-being.

When you do something like this, I think it helps if you can explain what your “product” is designed to beat.

If you’re selling an aspirin, you say it beats headaches.

If you’re selling a mower, you say it beats having long grass.

Right?

Because of the stigma around mental health, however, I really do think people might be wary of engaging with something that appears to be designed to prevent depression.

Maybe it makes more sense to talk about using it to avoid tiredness, fatigue, and burnout in the workplace, therefore?

Something designed, instead, to boost energy?

Thank you. You’ve really given me a lot of food for thought. In return, the very least I can do is leave you with a link to two minutes of pure comedy gold from Fawlty Towers:

Incidentally, just in case this feels a bit culturally insensitive of me, when Fawlty Towers was shown in Germany, not only was the whole series widely enjoyed, this episode – “The Germans” – was one of the most popular.

In other words… self-acceptance

S, the first letter of S.P.I.R.I.T. stands for self-acceptance, which is all about… well, here’s how a constellation of bright people have explained it.

If one of them chimes with you, why not make a note of it and keep it somewhere close to hand?

+ + + + + + +

“You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.”

Diane von Fürstenberg, the Belgian-American fashion designer best known for her wrap dress

+ + + + + + +

“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.”

Amy Bloom, the American writer and psychotherapist

+ + + + + + +

“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.”

Marilyn Monroe, famous for being, well, Marilyn Monroe

+ + + + + + +

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

Sharon Salzberg, best-selling author and Buddhist meditation teacher

+ + + + + + +

“You have peace,” the old woman said, “when you make it with yourself.”

Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven

+ + + + + + +

“Accept yourself, love yourself, and keep moving forward.”

Roy T. Bennett, American politician

+ + + + + + +

“Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.”

Lucille Ball, American actress and comedian

+ + + + + + +

“How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.”

Rupi Kaur, Indian born Canadian poet, writer, illustrator, and performer

+ + + + + + +

“Friendship with oneself is all important, because without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, longest serving First Lady of the United States, from 1933 to 1945

+ + + + + + +

“It’s your race, and yours alone. Others may run it with you, but no one can run it for you.”

Snoopy, Beagle, Peanuts

Menagerie management

You know that feeling of having your routines disrupted?

Of finding out that some of the structures that were around you are no longer (temporarily) in place?

That’s a bit what it’s been like for me since the beginning of this month.

For the whole of July, I’m looking after a friend’s pets while she’s away, and this means house-sitting.

While it certainly has its merits, and there are certainly attractions (and distractions) in having a dog and cat around, it’s playing havoc with some of my day-to-day work and responsibilities.

That’s partly why there was no emailed post from me last week, and in fact I’m only producing this one a couple of hours before it’ll be making its way to you.

To make up for it a little, I’ve used some of my old advertising skills to produce half a dozen shareable “graphics” – fun illustrations of the six psychological wellbeing dimensions that make up the S.P.I.R.I.T. framework.

I hope you’ll enjoy them, and if so, please feel very free to share them with friends/colleagues etc on social media, or by emailing them.

You’ll find them below.

I know many Moodnudges readers have been experiencing pretty hot weather recently, so if that’s been your experience, please try to stay as cool as you can.

Normal blog service ought to be resumed next week.

Pets willing.

Psychological well-being? It’s all about SPIRIT.

What is psychological well-being, and what’s involved in being “psychologically well”?

First, what it’s not is – necessarily – happiness, because leading a happy life is about emotional, rather than psychological, well-being.

Psychological well-being, on the other hand, has more to do with having the mental attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that will help you make the most of your life.

Years before the establishment of the positive psychology movement, American psychologist Carol Ryff proposed a six-factor model of psychological well-being in a 1989 paper that has since been cited over 10,000 times.

That’s an indication of its enormous impact on the world of psychology.

I really love Professor Ryff’s work, while also believing that almost thirty years on it could be useful to translate her model into a form that you and I can ourselves easily use, without needing specialist psychological expertise.

My goal, therefore, was to simplify and distil, by constructing a new system around the six-letter acronym S.P.I.R.I.T.

Each letter corresponds to one of the original (mainly renamed) psychological well-being factors, and it feels not inappropriate that they should spell out a word that can mean courage, energy, and determination.

In a series of six posts (see below) I’ve explored simple, practical ways that all of us can nurture these qualities.

I’ve also created a simple summarising chart that can be printed out and stuck on your fridge or bathroom wall as a reminder of what psychological well-being is all about.

The truth is, these strengths will come from within you, and I sincerely believe that you already have the inner resource to unlock and develop them. It will just take a little practice.

One simple idea? Experiment with working on one strength a day.

And since there are six of them, once a week you could even take a day off.

Which is, in itself, a happy thought.

Download a PDF you can print out for your wall.

If you prefer, here’s a JPG file.

Finally, the six strengths in text form (the subtitles link to posts looking at each strength in turn).

Self-acceptance

+ I aim to keep a positive attitude towards myself, being happy with who I am

+ I recognise and accept that there are multiple sides to me, and that these inevitably include both good and bad qualities

+ It’s my choice to feel mainly positive about my past life

Purpose

+ There’s a sense of direction to my life, and I have clear goals

+ My life, both present and past, has meaning

+ I hold personal beliefs that help to give my life purpose

+ My daily life is structured around aims and objectives

Independence

+ Whenever appropriate, I determine my own direction in life, independently

+ Social pressures don’t sway my thoughts and actions

+ Self-control enables me to regulate my behaviours

+ I don’t make judgements by comparing myself to others

Resourcefulness

+ I try to enjoy managing everyday life, feeling a sense of achievement

+ If things go wrong, I’m generally able to adapt and adjust

+ I like spotting opportunities and making the most of them

+ I feel a certain sense of control over the world immediately around me

Interconnection

+ I work hard at maintaining warm, satisfying relationships with others, and am concerned about their welfare

+ I enjoy feeling close to people, and empathetic

+ I appeciate that all human relationships involve a degree of give and take, and compromises

Transformation

+ My life is always developing, and I’m continually growing and expanding

+ I’m always open to new experiences

+ I believe I’m realising my potential, and understanding more about myself every day

The original research:
Happiness Is Everything, or Is It? Explorations on the Meaning of Psychological Well-Being
Carol D. Ryff – University of Wisconsin-Madison (1989)

That’s the SPIRIT

Over the past six weeks, you and I have been fellow travellers on a journey through the key dimensions that underpin psychological well-being.

Thank you for your company, and for sharing your sandwiches.

Very tasty.

Psychological well-being, you may recall, is all about making the most of your life.

Our route took in six landmarks whose names spell out the word SPIRIT, prompted by you and our splendid fellow Moodnudges readers.

Just as all good travellers deserve a souvenir from their trip, I thought you might welcome a summary of what we’ve learned.

So I’ve assembled a little printable chart that you may feel deserves a place on the door of your fridge, or your bathroom wall.

I didn’t attach it to the emailed version of this post, as my previous attempts at emailing attachments over the past few weeks resulted in an awful lot of email services automatically unsubscribing the intended recipients.

Believe you me, I was sad to see them go, but I’ve learned my lesson.

Here’s a link to a PDF version.

In a less attractively designed form, I’ll also include the text-only content below.

You’ll see that it’s written in the form of “affirmations”: little phrases you can say to yourself whenever you feel as though you might need some positive direction.

I really hope you’ve enjoyed our journey together.

Now, I think we should both kick off our boots, and take a much deserved rest.

That download link again:

http://moodnudges.com/SPIRIT_six_strengths_for_psychological_wellbeing.pdf

Please feel very free to share the chart with other special people.

And here’s a text-only version (each subhead links back to the post about that particular dimension).

Self-acceptance

+ I aim to keep a positive attitude towards myself, being happy with who I am.

+ I recognise and accept that there are multiple sides to me, and that these inevitably include both good and bad qualities.

+ It’s my choice to feel mainly positive about my past life.

Purpose

+ There’s a sense of direction to my life, and I have clear goals.

+ My life, both present and past, has meaning.

+ I hold personal beliefs that help to give my life purpose.

+ My daily life is structured around aims and objectives.

Independence

+ Whenever appropriate, I determine my own direction in life, independently.

+ Social pressures don’t sway my thoughts and actions.

+ Self-control enables me to regulate my behaviours.

+ I don’t make judgements by comparing myself to others.

Resourcefulness

+ I try to enjoy managing everyday life, feeling a sense of achievement.

+ If things go wrong, I’m generally able to adapt and adjust.

+ I like spotting opportunities and making the most of them.

+ I feel a certain sense of control over the world immediately around me.

Interconnection

+ I work hard at maintaining warm, satisfying relationships with others, and am concerned about their welfare.

+ I enjoy feeling close to people, and empathetic.

+ I appeciate that all human relationships involve a degree of give and take, and compromises.

Transformation

+ My life is always developing, and I’m continually growing and expanding.

+ I’m always open to new experiences.

+ I believe I’m realising my potential, and understanding more about myself every day.

If you’re a frog, get out of the pan

It’s always a sad day when your illusions get shattered.

First it was Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Now, of all things, I learn that the fable about frogs and slowly-heated water is just that: a fable.

The story went that if you place a frog in a pan of water whose temperature is very steadily and gently raised, the unfortunate amphibian will stay where it is until it, well, croaks, not noticing the gradual change.

Happily, though, this just isn’t true. In 1995 a Harvard biology professor said “If you put a frog in boiling water, it won’t jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot – they don’t sit still for you.”

That’s good news for frogs, then.

But even though the whole thing doesn’t stack up, it’s still a useful metaphor when it comes to describing the way in which you and I may sometimes not notice change if it’s gradual.

And this is particularly helpful when it comes to reflecting on the sixth and final letter of the SPIRIT acronym that we’re using as a model for psychological well-being.

T stands for Transformation, which in Professor Carol Ryff’s original work was labelled Personal Growth.

Professor Ryff explained that someone who’s strong in this respect has a feeling of continued development, seeing themselves as growing and expanding, with a sense that they are changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness.

My trigger for introducing the frog metaphor is that I’m pretty sure personal growth doesn’t happen overnight. I think it’s more likely a slow-and-steady kind of thing, a bit like the gradual warming of the frog’s water.

So we might well be growing without realising it.

Or rather more ominously, our growth could be in retrograde, making us steadily weaker, again without being aware of it.

Imagine what it would be like if bathroom scales hadn’t been invented. Donuts every day!

More seriously, how would you know whether you were gradually putting on unwanted weight?

Alternatively, how would you learn if your weight was reducing in a perhaps unexplained and undesirable way?

Stepping on the scales helps us monitor the situation.

Likewise, as a kid you progressed from 5th Grade to 6th, or Year 5 to Year 6, giving you and your parents a measure of your development.

Unfortunately, as an adult, helpful milestones like these rarely exist when it comes to personal growth.

So your own transformation, like all personal strengths, might well benefit from some kind of monitoring and recording system.

Ideally this should enable you to demonstrate to yourself that your psychological strength is indeed building up, because visible progress can be highly motivating.

Recently I’ve played with a simple way to do this, which I’m happy to share with you in the form of a worksheet that you can download, print, and use.

Based on the proven principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), it’s definitely a tool you can apply under your own steam. The best way to think about it is as a thought record.

Quite simply it’s a place to keep a log of how you’ve thought and felt about things that happen.

And also a place to work on changing unhelpful thoughts into more beneficial alternatives.

First, you’ll need to identify something you’d like to work on.

For me, for example, this could be that I sometimes think I’m too easily upset when people speak to me in a way I feel is hostile or unfair. I can get over-sensitive.

Having decided to focus on this, I can now start keeping a record of when this happens, along with my associated thoughts and feelings.

Here’s an example:

What happened?

At place I volunteer in, “Dave” insisted that I should take on and resolve an issue that’s been a problem for years, long before I joined, and entirely outside my current area of focus.

My thoughts?

I already contribute a ton to the organisation, and there are dozens of other people who could tackle the problem. Why me?

My feelings/emotions?

I felt personally attacked, with my current contributions ignored.

My behaviour/actions?

I walked away from the conversation, close to wanting to pack it all in and stop volunteering.

So, now, here’s the crucial step:

New thought

Rather than getting mad with Dave, maybe I can find a time to sit down with him so we can jointly explore other ways, or other people, that could help solve this long-standing problem.

Perhaps this could help?

The worksheet is something of a Swiss Army knife, in that it can be used in all kinds of situations.

I think you could apply it to almost any aspect of your current life that’s troubling you (with the important proviso, of course, that if it’s something enormous and urgent, it’s definitely better to seek outside help).

But nothing would make me happier than to hear you too have experimented with it in your own life.

Using it, of course, should not be a one-time thing. It’s designed to enable multiple entries. And when you run out of space, simply print out another copy.

Here’s that link again:

http://moodnudges.com/Transformation_Thought_Record.pdf

Please be sure to date your entries, so you start to build up that all-important record of your progress.

Because neither of us wants to be a frog without a bathroom scale, as it were.

Better relationships in five easy steps

This chance for you and I to connect once a week makes me happy. I hope you feel a little of that yourself.

This feeling of rapport is actually a fundamental part of the fifth dimension of our S.P.I.R.I.T. model of psychological well-being.

The second “I” stands for “Interconnection,” or, in the words of Professor Carol Ryff, whose work inspired our new model, “Positive relations with others.”

(Although that, of course, starts with a P, and our P is Purpose.)

To rate high on the dimension, Professor Ryff said you would have warm, satisfying, trusting relationships with others, and would be concerned about their welfare.

You’d also be capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy.

Now, it’s clearly true that some people find it easier than others to have close relationships.

But it’s probably no bad thing for society as a whole that we have both gregarious individuals, and others who appear to thrive either on their own, or with relatively few close friends.

If everyone was the same, life would either be one, long, exhausting party, or we’d all never leave our bedrooms.

The truth is, it might simply be a matter of perspective.

Someone with hundreds of Facebook “friends” may really only have the same six-or-so really close relationships as another individual who’s more inclined to keep themselves to themselves.

Anyway, on the basis that good relationships are important for good emotional health, let’s look at five important steps that can lead to us feeling closer to other people.

1. Listen well

Researchers studying long-term relationships noticed that when people have known one another for more than a few months, they tend to ask each other fewer meaningful questions.

And even if they do ask them, they don’t really listen to the answers.

Listening takes hard work. It requires paying attention, asking questions to encourage the other person to open up, and it means regularly checking-in to make sure you’ve understood things properly.

But in a study with chronically-ill patients, the research team improved their bond with participants simply by asking them “Tell me more.”

When you lean forward and make eye contact while you do so, you’ll increase the connection between you and another person.

2. Pay attention

When I’ve had a haircut, I’m always a bit surprised if people who see me regularly don’t comment on it.

Maybe they don’t notice, or perhaps they think it’s too personal to mention? (Hopefully it isn’t because it’s made them want to laugh.)

The thing is, though, I’d like it if they did say something.

Researchers here in the USA asked football season-ticket holders to notice things that were different about their team – different shirts, plays, or formations, for example – for a period of six weeks.

When their bond with the team was assessed before and after this experiment, it had grown stronger.

So to improve relationships, try noticing what’s different about someone, and tell them. Nicely, of course.

3. Switch off

Another study asked individuals to sit at a table for a simple conversation with a researcher who either placed a phone or a notebook on the tabletop.

When the phone was there, participants rated their satisfaction with the conversation as being poorer than it was when the notebook was on the table.

This was true even if the phone was switched off.

It’s estimated that on average we spend more than 50 hours a week connected to electronic devices.

So if you want richer conversations, try placing your phone out of sight. You can do it.

4. Pay compliments

On my radio show recently, I said “Can I just say, you’re looking great today?”.

Of course, every listener heard exactly the same thing, but it actually prompted one of them to text me, saying that even though she knew lots of others were hearing it at the same time, it made her smile.

Paying compliments to other people almost always warms the bond between you and them, especially when those compliments are genuine and honest.

They seem to work particularly well when you single out someone’s effort, effectiveness, or judgement for praise.

5. Celebrate successes

I know that for some, the success of others can make them feel jealous.

Social comparisons can be bad for us.

One way to avoid this is to actively involve yourself in celebrating others’ successes.

Try to experience their pleasure yourself, rather than feeling envious.

If a friend gets an award, promotion, or raise, it could be as simple as sending them a congratulatory email or text.

Our connections with others are really important.

How will you warm up some of yours in the next day or so?

Pane management

Thank you.

You know, I truly appreciate you finding time to read this, particularly given that you’re very likely fighting to stay afloat in a sea of emails, posts, tweets, and texts, all competing for your attention.

So, as I say, thank you for being here.

Actually, this does seem an appropriate way to begin, as our focus today is on the fourth letter of the six-letter acronym S.P.I.R.I.T., which forms the bedrock of our “recipe for psychological well-being.”

The letter “R” stands for Resourcefulness, originally labelled “Environmental mastery” in the work I’m basing my thinking on.

Environmental mastery is not, as you might have incorrectly imagined, about being able to prevent acid rain, or reverse global warming.

It is, instead, broadly about staying on top of your life, its responsibilities, and its opportunities.

In even simpler terms, you might summarise it as your ability to manage everyday life.

However, although it may be simple to describe, it’s a process that seems to be ever-harder to manage.

The way most of us are bombarded with a constant barrage of electronic communications, each shouting “read me, read me,” is but one example of life’s demands outpacing our capacity to deal with them.

So, given that your resourcefulness is probably finite, given that there are only so many hours in the day, and given that all this noise is only going to become louder, how do you and I make sure we juggle the right balls?

Are we becoming so distracted that we’re sometimes failing to do those things in life that might make the biggest impact on our journey through it?

I’ve been feeling the need to reflect on this myself, and after being pleasantly reminded of a tool known as the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, I thought I’d share it with you, including a downloadable worksheet we can both print out and use.

Dwight D Eisenhower was born in 1890, and died almost 50 years ago, in 1969.

He was definitely one of life’s high achievers, serving as 34th President of the United States, and as a five-star General in the U.S. Army.

One of many useful approaches that enabled him to make such a difference in life was to ask two simple questions of every demand placed upon his time.

Is it important?

And is it urgent?

It led him to suggest, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

The author Stephen Covey turned Eisenhower’s principles into a 2 x 2 matrix, or grid, in his book “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People.”

I’ve now turned the matrix into a window.

You’ll get the idea more immediately by looking at the worksheet, but just in case you’re relying solely on my written description, imagine a square window, divided into four equal panes.

Over the top of the window, we’ll place the labels “Urgent” above Pane 1 (top left) and “Not urgent” above Pane 2 (top right).

Down the left-hand side of the window, we’ll add the labels “Important” and “Not important,” alongside Pane 1 (top left) and Pane 3 (bottom left).

This gives us four different conditions: Pane 1, Important and Urgent; Pane 2, Important but Not urgent; Pane 3, Not important but Urgent; and Pane 4, Not important and Not urgent.

The idea behind using the matrix is to check in with it before allocating your time, and – interestingly – to aim at increasing the amount of focus you place on Pane 2 – the Not urgent but Important, tasks.

Simple examples of what activities would go where are:

Pane 1 – Urgent and Important – your car breaks down, or you fall over and break your leg.

Pane 2 – Not urgent but Important – spending time with your family, or taking some exercise.

Pane 3 – Urgent but Not important – many emails and text messages.

Pane 4 – Not urgent and Not important – mindlessly watching TV, or scrolling through social media.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix here, so if you’d like considerably more detail, do check out a great post on a website called The Art of Manliness (seriously, whatever your gender):

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix: How to Distinguish Between Urgent and Important Tasks and Make Real Progress in Your Life

I was first introduced to this idea by a management consultant when I was in my 30s, struggling at times to juggle rather too many balls.

And that was before Facebook, and Twitter, and WhatsApp, and Instagram etc. etc.

Perhaps, more than ever, it’s time to dust off the idea and put it back to work again.

Here’s that worksheet again. Please feel free to share it with others:

http://www.moodnudges.com/Eisenhower_Decision_Matrix.pdf