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.