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.


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 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:

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.

Attila the Hun and a wet kipper: good for morale

Who’d have imagined that writing a blog post about the origins of the world “morale” could end up becoming in itself a morale-boosting exercise?

Hopefully you caught last week’s post. Besides being fun to research and write, it inspired a number of thoughtful reflections from readers, as a result of which I’m pleased to report that I felt quite uplifted. Thank you.

But I think this little demonstration aptly shows that having our morale boosted isn’t always exactly the same as being made happy.

Sure, I was indeed both uplifted and made happier, but although morale and happiness seem to overlap to some extent, morale somehow seems a far richer descriptor.

Continuing the research I started last week, therefore, I figured it might be rewarding to explore what others in psychology have done in terms of measuring morale.

It wasn’t easy. If you search for “morale test” in Google, for example, most of the top results are about war games, generally played by spotty teenagers on tabletop battlefields with miniature figures. Apparently part of the process of playing a war game involves taking account of your army’s morale.

Believe it or not, I was both a wargamer and a spotty teenager for a few brief months.

Adolescence didn’t last long in my day, and hobbies, too, were often short-lived.

But war game morale wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

Nor was I really interested in employee morale, which popped up a lot in Google, although I can understand why employers would be keen to survey and boost this. Good morale in a company probably leads to higher productivity and better employee retention, among many other desirable outcomes.

However, it wasn’t until I recalled that psychologists have often historically chosen to view the world through morose-tinted glasses, that I discovered (much) more work on measuring demoralisation than in exploring whatever its opposite is.

Actually, before we head down this demoralisation corridor – and don’t worry, I’ll do my best not to let this bring us down – it’s worth pointing out that Dutch researchers from Radboud University came up with what they called a “remoralisation scale” in 2010.


It’s a neat play on words of course, I suppose meaning the opposite of demoralisation.

The Dutch researchers, though, really planned their test to be used by people in self-rating the effectiveness of their psychotherapy, which I guess means they wished it to show how “un-demoralised” someone had become.

Sadly, for me at least, the word remoralisation falls foul of the “morale/moral” trap we mentioned last week, so I find it hard not to incorrectly think of remoralisation as somehow meaning the process of restoring a sense of right and wrong to someone who has gone off the moral rails.

It brings to mind Monty Python’s unforgettable Remoralisation Sketch, when Attila the Hun, played by Terry Jones, is strapped to a chair as John Cleese slaps him round the face with a wet kipper, yelling “Who’s been a naughty, naughty boy, then?”

Pause for a moment to summon that image to your mind, then tell me it didn’t bring a slight smile to your face.

Jokes aside, however, the thinking behind the remoralisation scale seems to me somewhat along the right lines, but it produced an instrument that’s not perhaps as sensitive as I’d like it to be for our purposes.

One of its twelve items, for example, asks how much you agree with the statement “Right now, I see myself as being pretty successful,” which feels a bit awkward and uncomfortable somehow.

OK for Simon Cowell, perhaps, but not necessarily for the likes of the average psychotherapy client.

The response scale seems also rather coarse-grained to my eye. For each statement you only get four possible answers: Totally disagree, Disagree a lot, Agree a lot, or Totally agree.

From the work that readers have helped me with in the past, we know many are disinclined to choose extreme answers, in general favouring more shades of grey between a scale’s black and white ends.

Moving on, though, where do we go when we venture into that aforementioned Demoralisation Corridor?

In 2004, Professor David Kissane and colleagues in Melbourne, Australia, conducted important research with cancer patients, with a view to enabling them to rate their degree of demoralisation.

This entirely worthy work resulted in a Demoralisation Scale which, not surprisingly, focuses on a spectrum spanning disheartenment, despondency, and profound despair.

Indeed, many of its questions revolve around the end of life.

I know, I know. I said I’d do my best not to bring us down, so perhaps we should agree to move thoughtfully on, while gratefully acknowledging the value that this kind of work has brought to the world of palliative care.

Frankly, though, if our end game is to find a way to rate and track our own morale, we might need to start afresh, rather than trying to adapt a measure designed for use by patients with terminal cancer.

Last week I mentioned Professor Jerome Frank, an eminent psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical School, who in 1974 wrote that the main aim for all types of psychotherapy should be to restore a patient’s morale.

He helpfully went on to itemise a dozen markers of demoralisation, such as impotence, isolation, disconnection, and despair.

Taking Frank’s negatives one-by-one, I trawled the antonym sections of a range, selection, and assortment of thesauri to identify 12 characteristics of higher morale on which we therefore might focus:

  • Self-confidence
  • Connectedness
  • Hopefulness/optimism
  • Self-respect
  • Acceptance by others
  • Purpose and meaning
  • Resilience
  • Sense of achievement
  • Deservingness
  • Self forgiveness
  • Self-reliance
  • Freedom from anxiety

I may have overlooked others, but the list above seems a reasonable place for us to begin.

Next week, I plan to walk us through these items in slightly greater detail, and also to ask for your assistance in completing a very early prototype of a “morale measurer” based on them.

In the meantime, though, I leave you once again with that image of Attila the Hun, John Cleese and the wet kipper.

You know, they don’t write them like that anymore.

In fact, sadly, they never did.

More reading:

Development of the Remoralization Scale – An Extension of Contemporary Psychotherapy Outcome Measurement

The Demoralization Scale – a Report of Its Development and Preliminary Validation

The Mutiny on the Bounty, and the origins of the word “morale.”

Things came to an unpleasant end on the HMS Bounty on April 28th, 1789.

Increasingly infuriated by their leader, Captain Bligh’s, harsh treatment of them, the ship’s crew mutinied, casting off the captain in a small rowing boat.

An example of Captain Bligh’s robust man-management style is his reputed warning:

“The floggings will continue until morale improves.”


While that exact quotation is probably apocryphal, Bligh’s severe style certainly isn’t in question.

I’ve started with this story today to get us thinking about the term “morale,” which I’ve been looking into over the past couple of weeks.

As part of my long-term interest in the potential of self-tracking systems to enable us to better understand and manage our emotional health, it occurred to me that morale might be a helpful quality to explore.

What if we found a way to determine our level of morale at any given time, then tracked it day-to-day, combining this with practical actions (the kinds of “nudges” we’re familiar with) designed to raise morale?

In my ten years of fascination with mental health, I haven’t really heard much talk about morale.

Intuitively, though, it feels as if it’s a state of mind that would be closely connected to emotional health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

In fact, a little digging in the Stanford archives brought to light a fantastic 1974 paper written by Jerome (Jerry) Frank, who was then Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland.

In his paper, Psychotherapy: The Restoration of Morale, Professor Frank recommended that the main aim for all types of psychotherapy should be to restore a patient’s morale.

In his view, “no good evidence exists that one therapy produces better results than another,” but he said that any successful course of psychotherapy should effectively address an individual’s sense of demoralisation.

Frank’s paper goes on to list feelings of impotence, isolation, despair, and damaged self-esteem as being among those that contribute to someone becoming demoralised.

Just about all the experts I’ve spoken to agree that the biggest predictor of a successful psychotherapeutic outcome is not the actual methodology used (CBT or psychoanalysis, for two poles-apart examples) but the connection that gets forged between the therapist and client/patient.

When these two people “click,” the outcome is likely to be a whole lot better than if they don’t. Frank suggested that four key attributes for an effective therapist are warmth, empathy, genuineness, and enthusiasm.

A more recent paper, published in 2015, reported a remarkable study of older adults, all at least 85 years of age, in Sweden and Finland.

People who felt optimistic about life and who had something to look forward to, lived five years longer on average than their more pessimistic counterparts.

The researchers surveyed 646 people, using a 17-item questionnaire, once in 2000-2002, then again in 2005-2007.

At the five-year follow-up, 56% of those in the high morale group were still alive, compared to 32% in the low morale group, even after controlling for age, gender, and various health conditions.

Apparently, keeping a positive outlook in later life will help you stay alive longer.

The study’s lead author, John Niklasson, consulting geriatrician at Umeå University in Sweden, wrote that when making his medical rounds one day he’d met an older woman who told him, “I don’t have any reason to live.”

Dr Niklasson explained that she hadn’t said this in any dramatic or suicidal way, but just as a cold “fact.”

Later the same morning, he spoke to another woman of similar age and equivalent disease level, who said to him “I don’t have time to stay in the hospital. I have to go home today. I have so much to do.”

So, morale seems a vital quality for us to have and to maintain. But where did the word originate?

Where would I be without that annual library card? I turned once again to the trusty Stanford University archives.

It felt to me as though it’s a term that may have originated in the military – Captain Bligh was reputed to have used it, after all – and it turns out I was correct.

Morale, with an “e,” originally came from the word moral, which is of course used to mean the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil.

We have the Roman orator Cicero to thank for “moral.”

Around 63 BC (or BCE, to be more modern) he coined the word “moralis” from the Greek term “ethikos.”

How the heck do you get from ethikos to moralis?

Although this sounds like a question you’d ask a travel agent, who’d maybe answer by flipping through the pages of a Greek ferry timetable, we simply have to accept that Cicero did indeed get from one word to the other.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that the French word moral (pronounced morale, with the accent on the second syllable, printed in italics to represent its non-English origin, and also with an added “e”) began to be used to mean the capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution or goal – or in oneself, or others.

Explanations of how the word moral acquired its “e” and a different meaning, are fuzzy.

However, the most plausible I’ve found suggests that armies maintained confidence in their actions by telling themselves that they were fighting for a moral cause.

So your morale was high when you believed you were on the side of the good and the right.

I like this idea.

It seems to hold water, in the same way that Captain Bligh’s rowing boat did. Fortunately for him.

Successive early editions of the Oxford English Dictionary reported that use of the word “morale” was rare before 1914, and when it was used, it was almost always in a military context.

However, as the 20th century progressed, it became a much more widely adopted term, perhaps as a result of two world wars. It led to people thinking about both military and civilian morale.

Earlier we saw how Jerome Frank weighed the consequences of demoralisation in his 1974 paper.

Actually, demoralisation, too, began life in the military, where it was adopted to describe its use as a weapon in psychological warfare.

By undermining your enemy’s confidence, you’d weaken them, making them easier to beat.

In the same way, of course, demoralisation can compromise us, meaning that maintaining good morale is pretty crucial.

As you might conclude from this longer than usual nudge, I’m taken by the idea of morale, particularly if there’s a way for us to measure it and then, perhaps, boost it.

I’m also wondering if the methodology we’ve developed for Signpost might be applied to managing morale, instead of mood.

You know what?

I think we may just be on to something here, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

More reading:

High morale linked to longer survival among elderly

High morale is associated with increased survival in the very old

Psychotherapy: The Restoration of Morale

How writing to a friend can really help you

I’d like to start today with a belated apology to readers who weren’t part of the Signpost trial that began at the end of January.

I became so immersed in it, that last week’s usual Moodnudge fell through a crack in the floorboards.

So I’m sorry if it seemed I might have disappeared from the face of the earth.

If you didn’t participate in the Signpost experiment and missed knowing what it entailed, let me explain, very briefly.

Signpost is an app I’m developing.

After prompting you with a daily text message, it asks you to check in via a 10-item questionnaire.

The questions evaluate your overall mood, and also check for possible underlying issues that might be affecting you – are you, for example, feeling anxious or angry?

Depending on these issues, you then hear my recorded feedback: a kind of audio moodnudge, hopefully tailored to your current state of mind.

I say “hopefully,” because for what you might call an interesting couple of days during the trial, the app unhelpfully told just about everyone that they were angry, when they weren’t.

As I said at the time in an email to participants, even if they weren’t feeling it to begin with, being wrongly labelled as angry could well be enough to rile anyone.

Signpost enables you to see your progress on a graph, to which you can add notes and explanations that may help you make sense of your ups and downs.

As a few people pointed out, Signpost seems to combine most of the different mood-management techniques I’ve explored over the years, into one overall idea.

Over 200 people took part in what turned out to be a two-week experiment, and more than half filled in a questionnaire leaving detailed feedback about their experiences.

The majority seemed to greatly enjoy the app, with only a few saying that it wasn’t for them (which I completely understood).

What’s more, and I honestly hadn’t anticipated this, there was an overall average mood lift of 7.5 points (on a 0-100 scale) across 14 days, which allows me to cautiously conclude that it was doing people some good.

I went into testing the prototype largely to experiment with the mechanics – sending text messages, providing audio (rather than written) feedback, for example, so for me to learn that it was actually helping people was really promising.

The more challenging part of the feedback process, however, was my realisation that many see the app developing in one of two ways.

Some regard it as a tool for anyone, really, who’s going through what what you might say are the normal emotional ups and downs of everyday life.

Others, though, view Signpost as being squarely aimed at people going through a particularly difficult time – those who are experiencing significant depression or anxiety, for example.

Currently, I therefore find myself at something of a crossroads (‘twas ever thus, for me!) as I’m pretty sure it’s not really viable to make one tool serve two purposes.

You might say that I need to decide whether I’m building a hammer or a screwdriver.

Having said this (and I’m literally just seeing this as I write), whichever we decide to develop now, won’t stop us using the same underlying methods (check-in via a questionnaire, get audio support, track progress on graph, add annotations) to create the “other.”

With steel and wood, you can build both a hammer and a screwdriver.

One at a time though, perhaps.

Hmm. It feels good to have gained some clarity, which I certainly didn’t have when I started writing this an hour ago.

Perhaps it’s a lesson to us both of the power of putting thoughts down on paper?

If you’re currently at some kind of crossroads yourself, right now, maybe consider explaining your situation in a message to a friend (which is actually how I regard this piece of writing to you).

Maybe, when we describe dilemmas to others, it actually helps us line up our own thinking.

In conclusion, I’m still not clear whether the hammer or screwdriver should come first, but at least I now know they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

So, who are you going to write to you about your situation?

Random Acts of Kindness Day

I’d love to claim credit for having planned it this way, but the fact that the final day of our Signpost trial happens to have fallen on Random Acts of Kindness Day is – appropriately – entirely random.

Two weeks after we started this journey, we end it by being encouraged to do something unexpectedly kind for someone, perhaps anonymously.

I’ll be in touch with everyone who has taken part in the trial, with a link to a short survey that will enable me to gather overall feedback, but right now, perhaps you have thoughts about today’s message specifically? Do, please, share away.

I’m in the forest

Something a little different for our daily Signpost catch-up today, as you’ll find me amidst the redwood trees in Huddart Park, near Woodside, California.

It seemed a good opportunity to remind us both of the emotional well-being benefits of getting out in nature, so – microphone in hand – off to the forest I went.

Maybe you’ve experienced moments of feeling great, out in nature? Why not share your story?

Valentine’s Day: it’s not always easy

Valentine’s Day isn’t always the easiest of days, particularly if you happen to be going through a tricky time. For a celebration that’s supposed to be all about love and connection, some can actually find it difficult and lonely.

Today on Signpost we’ve talked through some strategies that could help, but it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all issue. What do you think about Valentine’s Day? Do you embrace it, or try to escape it?

Let’s share thoughts.


Shrove Tuesday – pancakes with a dash of self-examination

March 13th is Shrove Tuesday, and Mardi Gras. In the UK this means pancakes, while in the USA Mardi Gras is a time to make merry. Any excuse.

Actually, though, some religions view the day as a special time for self-examination, so perhaps this is a good time to look a little deeper inside yourself, being careful of course to avoid rumination.

Neuroscientist and mindfulness expert Dr. Daniel Siegel recommends a strategy he calls COAL (Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving) to keep things on track.

So where will self-exploration take you today? What are you thinking about Signpost?

And, anyone for pancakes? [Yes please. Ed.]

Please feel free to add to the conversation.