All posts by Jon Cousins

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

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.