Category Archives: Morale

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.

The strength of weakness.

We’re frequently encouraged to recognise and celebrate our strengths. But might there also be merit in taking the same approach to our weaknesses?

You know, I think there could be. I’ll explain more in a moment.

First, though, a swift update on my current progress building a tool to help lift and maintain morale.

You might remember that in March, when I asked for your help with an alternative to the word “morale” itself, the most popular suggestion was “spirit.”

It’s a terrific synonym, and I’m so grateful for your collective wisdom.

Seeking a proven structure on which to build my morale-building material, I’ve been greatly inspired by the work of Carol Ryff, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

In 1989 Professor Ryff proposed a model for psychological well-being consisting of six dimensions: Self-Acceptance; Positive Relations With Others; Autonomy; Environmental Mastery; Purpose In Life; and Personal Growth.

It should be said, by the way, that psychological well-being is quite distinct from happiness. In broad terms, someone with a high level of psychological well-being is an individual who “flourishes,” making the most of their life.

Anyway, although there’s been some recent discussion about the degree to which Professor Ryff’s dimensions are independent of one another, it seems to me (and thousands of researchers and scientists who have built on her work in the past 30 years) that they make good sense.

My one hesitation was a sense that some of the labels could seem a little scientific and complicated to a mere mortal like me.

In my own work, therefore, I’m suggesting alternatives.

Professor Ryff’s term “environmental mastery,” for example, describes the ability of someone to manage and make the most of their everyday life.

Here’s where the academic world and our amazing Moodnudges readers come together, though.

As I said, there are six dimensions in Professor Ryff’s psychological well-being model, and it just so happens that there are also six letters in the word you selected as a morale replacement: spirit.

And, what do you know, it really didn’t take much persuasion to formulate labels for the dimensions that form the acronym S.P.I.R.I.T.Self-Acceptance; Purpose; Independence; Resourcefulness; Interconnection; and Transformation.

Resourcefulness, by the way, and for example, is my new label for Environmental Mastery.

Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

In the coming weeks, I’ll walk us through these six facets of psychological well-being, starting today with the “S” of S.P.I.R.I.T. – Self-Acceptance. Which is where that celebration of weakness comes in.

Self-acceptance is all about adopting a positive attitude to yourself, warts and all.

It’s acknowledging that, just like everyone, you have both strengths and weaknesses.

It’s about viewing your past life in a grateful way.

And it’s about being happy with the person you’ve become.

How can you embrace weakness in a way that feels positive, though?

I believe it’s all down to the way you choose to view it.

Let me give you an example from my own life (which comes from that environmental mastery/resourcefulness category, actually).

A particular weakness of mine is being less than good about keeping up with personal admin.

Although I’m probably not alone, I’m terrible at staying on top of responsibilities like paying bills, managing my bank account, and filing paperwork.

I won’t make excuses today, just simply recognise that it’s a weakness of mine.

But how can I possibly celebrate this?

Well, in a few ways, I think.

First, it gives me an opportunity to consider asking for help. Asking for help is nearly always a healthy tactic.

What’s more, there are certainly those in life who love this kind of work, and some make money from doing so, of course.

So maybe I can find someone to support me in this area? It could help both of us.

I’ll look into it.

Second, I currently spend the time I perhaps should be devoting to my admin to creating things – like writing today’s Moodnudge, for example, which will occupy my Wednesday morning, as it usually does.

So not doing my admin allows me more time to create.

Third, simply sharing my weakness with you feels like a positive step.

Revealing my guilty secret could strengthen the connection between you and me, bringing us closer together.

I describe these steps in detail because I hope they’ll suggest a process you can try yourself.

What’s one of your weaknesses?

And how could this be turned into a cause for celebration, albeit gentle celebration?

Next week, we’ll move on to the “P” of S.P.I.R.I.T. – Purpose.

Between now and then, however, I really do encourage you to work on your sense of self-acceptance, in particular identifying the positive aspects of a weakness you may have.

Right, I’m off to ignore that pile of bank statements again.

Emotions: can they be contagious?

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

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

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

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

Sickness is often transmitted from one person to another.

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

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

The answer, of course, is yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An emotional shot in the arm, so to speak.

Was that really me?

I was startled when I caught sight of myself in a shop window reflection last weekend. More of that in a moment.

But first, after a rainy few weeks, California has suddenly gone all Spring-like.

For now, at least, the sun’s shining, the blossom’s blooming, and the sky is a happy shade of blue.

Sorry if the weather’s not doing exactly the same where you are, but I’ll try and attach some sunshine to today’s post.

There’s a fair bit to share with you, including the outcome of some morale-building self-experimentation I’ve been doing, as well as feedback from last week’s survey in which we looked for alternatives to the word “morale.”

First, that survey form.

You’ll probably recall that I was keen to explore which of a list of 18 possible replacements for “morale” would come through strongest in a vote.

My thinking was that morale might be a term that people connect to teams (and perhaps the military) more than they do to individuals.

Actually, morale itself did pretty well in the vote, coming in at No. 2, so perhaps it’s not as community-focused as I’d worried.

Top of the list, however, was “spirit,” which 40% of our 153 voters included in their top three.

The five leading choices, with their percentages, were:

1. Spirit (40.1%)
2. Morale (28.6%)
3. Resilience (24.5%)
4. Well-being (21.8%)
5. Outlook (19.7%)

A big thank you to everyone who voted. It therefore seems we can safely use either the word “spirit” or morale itself to describe this slightly elusive quality we’re hoping to measure and ideally boost.

So, back to that experimental work I’ve been doing, and an explanation of why my reflection took me aback.

Those who’ve known me for a while will be aware that I’ve had a long fascination for designing tools of various kinds based on playing cards.

Moodscope, of course, still uses the cards we originally devised ten years ago that enable people to give themselves a score for their overall mood.

Then, a few years back, I experimented with packs of hexagonal playing cards, that I called WellBee, designed to self-rate overall well-being.

But rather than enabling the calculations of scores, this latest work explores the use of a playing-card-like mechanism to provide actual advice and actionable prompts.

I’ve created a prototype deck of 60 cards which I’m using to experiment on myself.

On each card is printed a simple action: something I can easily do that day to help keep myself on track.

And since the cards are wallet-sized, I can choose one at random, then carry it with me as a reminder.

The cards’ actions are based on twelve dimensions I’ve extracted from past studies into demoralisation that have been carried out by psychiatrists and psychologists.

For example, since someone who’s demoralised is likely to feel isolated, one of my dimensions is “connectedness” – the actions suggesting easy ways to reach out to other people. Other dimensions are “resilience” (which of course appeared in our voting results), and “self-respect.”

Back to that shop window, though.

Last Sunday, my random card came from the “self-confidence” dimension, and it suggested: “At every opportunity today, remind myself to walk taller and straighter.”

This old but effective trick can have a great impact on self-confidence.

I’d been for a coffee and was walking back to the car when, as I said, I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in the window of the dry-cleaners.

Or, rather, I happened to catch a glimpse of someone who looked a bit like me, except he was a hunchback.

Really?

This was me?

This is how I walk when nobody’s looking?

Wow.

As I said, it was a shock, and I can tell you, it suddenly made me stand up a whole lot straighter for the rest of the day.

Every time I opened my wallet, there was that reminder again.

What’s more, simply standing straighter really did make me feel better.

This action is one of sixty, so there’s a lot more for me to work through.

Where does the experiment go next?

Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I will of course keep you in touch with what happens. I’m definitely doing this with the firm intention of creating something we can all use in due course.

Perhaps it will help us all if we stand up, or sit up, a little straighter.

How to get a DIY morale-boost

If you’d like to boost your own morale, one indispensable tip is to think about a relatively small past action someone took that made you feel disproportionately good. Then apply it to yourself.

Parents can be a great source for these kinds of memories.

For example, I distinctly recall my own mum boosting my spirits when I was about six years old, and feeling poorly for one reason or another.

Although I didn’t have much of an appetite, she was keen to encourage me to eat, and I must have told her I might be able to manage to eat a few chips (French fries in the part of the world where I now live).

A short time later she appeared from the kitchen with a rectangular plate, bearing half a dozen perfectly-cut, perfectly-fried home-made chips, laid neatly side-by-side.

So vivid is this memory, that I can still see the blue plate with its white spots.

And those chips! They were the home-made type, chunky and golden brown.

They didn’t last long, but many years later, I know I can give myself a lift by fixing something tasty to eat, and serving it up in a visually appealing way.

Perhaps you have your own memories of a time when someone raised your spirits by doing something you specially appreciated?

Next time you need it, therefore, why not dust off this procedure and apply it to yourself?

Finally, a big thank you to the scores of readers who answered my call last week for possible alternatives to the word “morale.”

As promised, I’ve compiled all those mentioned by more than one person, and would love to know which of them you think work best, overall.

The voting form is here, and has been set up so you’ll be able to see the current results after you vote:

https://goo.gl/forms/QeAZhuVVa0WkOsHx2

Please let me know what you think.