Category Archives: Morale

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