Why Mental Health is About Going Back to Basics

When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck. Paul Virilio

Ever since humans started rising up the food chain, our progress as a species has made our lives both easier and harder.

Sure, we have electric tin openers. But how many giraffes forget to buy batteries for their child’s toy cherry picker on Christmas Day?

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Take the invention of farming roughly 12,000 years ago, suddenly we were able to support much larger families, and a huge explosion in population followed. 

But farming was also a trap.

Compared to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle it was harder work with longer hours. But with more mouths to feed there was no going back…

Language is another example. Perhaps the great human invention, it allows cooperation at scale and turned us from frankly quite puny apes into the planet’s most deadly predators. 

Yet at the same time language is a double-edged sword. 

Unlike say, wombats, language allows us to ruminate on the past, to worry about the future and to compare ourselves unfavourably to others. 

Language allows me to write this post in the conscious certainty that one day I will have to leave everything and everyone I love in this world. 

Wombats don’t think like that, or if they do they’re being very stoic about it.

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Finally, let’s take modern inventions like smartphones, videoconferencing and social media

These are all astonishing achievements that bring many benefits. But on balance, would you say these inventions have made us happier necessarily?

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When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck.

The point is that our progress as a species has not always been good for us. 

And this is why improving mental health is so often about going back to basics… 

Five mental health basics

Most of us know this stuff, but the problem with knowing something is that this is not where the battle is won.

Like it or not, humans evolved with a basic set of needs which we need to make happen. And unless we do them, we will not be happy, healthy, or perform at our best.

Here’s the 5 most important:

1.      Social relationships. The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness month is loneliness. And quite right – our ancestors simply did not survive without the support of a group.We’re wired for connection, and that’s the real, face-to-face, full-fat kind, not the online, semi-skimmed kind. 

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2.      Daylight. Our internal body clocks require daylight in order to recalibrate each day. Without this daily recalibration from light, we start to slip out of sync with our own biological rhythms and we become less happy and healthy (this is a great 3 min video on the subject).

3.      Movement – our ancestors only rarely got stuck at their desks for 10 hours a day. In fact, it is estimated they walked around 15,000 steps a day (according to Fitbit’s early data). We evolved to solve problems on the move, not sitting at a desk. (I like this clip about the perfect anti-learning environment).

4.      Work in pulses – our hunter-gatherer ancestors rarely engaged in frenzied, all-out continuous berry hunting. Humans work best in pulses; activity followed by rest. A bit like, err, everything else in nature. 

5.      Set boundaries. Our ancestors weren’t being messaged at 11pm about this amazing berry tree their old school friend just found in Italy.  Unless we can find a way to place some boundaries around our working hours or commitments, none of us is going to be happy or healthy. 

I know you know this stuff. 

But knowing is not where the battle is won. 

So now I’m off to take that walk, and I hope to see you there.

Do you need a high-performance routine? (Plus: FREE quiz…and hedgehogs!)

So, for today’s serious analysis of the modern workplace, I want you to imagine you’re a hedgehog.

There you are, snuffling about in the forest, doing all of your normal hedgehoggy things. 

Yes, you’re covered in fleas, but you look adorable!

Then one day you reach a strange bit of the forest which feels a lot harder underfoot, and then there are these two strange bright lights coming at you…

Now, we all know what you should do, which is probably run for it.

But we also know what you (as a hedgehog) are likely to do, which is roll up into a ball. 

Now, this doesn’t make you a bad hedgehog.

You’re an excellent hedgehog, you just weren’t evolved for the particular environment you’re now in.

This is what is known as an ‘evolutionary mismatch’. 

Now of course we humans aren’t like hedgehogs. We are way more advanced! We’ve even developed flea powder!

But in some ways we are a lot like hedgehogs, in that we didn’t evolve for the environment we are in either….

Why it is so hard to be human

For 99.9% of our evolutionary existence, humans would gather in small groups, forage and hunt for food, we were active in the day and slept when dark, our lives shaped by our environment. 

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Our ancestors moved a lot (over 15,000 steps per day according to Fitbit’s early records), and ate a wide variety of food. 

In his book Origins; How the Earth Made Us, Lewis Dartnell shows how evolution and our environment are not separate events – our biology was shaped by nature. 

Every cell in our bodies evolved in sequence with a daily rhythm, (primarily driven by exposure to light).

Yet fast forward to today and everything has changed.

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Far from being tethered to nature, we now work in a way which is independent from these daily rhythms.

Where once we were connected to the earth and to each other, today we feel more connected but also more isolated.

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For many of us, we hardly see daylight, we are largely sedentary (most of us now walking closer to 5,000 steps per day), and we work more or less constantly. 

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No surprise that work feels a daily grind… 

Biologically and psychologically we evolved to work in a daily rhythm, and disrupting this rhythm leads to a kind of dysregulation, affecting everything from sleep to mental health.

This is another evolutionary mismatch. 

Covid as the great accelerator

And Covid has accelerated these trends.

I first met Annette, a senior manager at one of the major airlines, in Spring of 2020.

She told me how when the Covid crisis took hold she and her team had moved into ‘emergency mode’, working round the clock to try and save the business, but

 ‘now it’s 16 months later and it feels like we’re still in the same pattern’.

From speaking to 1000s of people in many different industries last year, I know many can relate.

Many of us have been drawn into routines which we didn’t consciously design, and which have become unsustainable.

The issue is not whether we can carry on – most of us are good at soldiering on – but whether this is the best we can aim for.  If you look at the statistics on mental health since Covid, I would argue not. 

But what can we do about this, and where should we start? 

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Understanding high-performance routines

The first step is to build awareness that we are working in routines for which our brains and bodies were not evolved. 

We are working out of sync with the rhythms that shaped our entire biology.

Arguably we don’t even notice the cost we’re paying, because it has become the water we swim in. 

Yet by operating in a way which is divorced from our biology we create huge challenges to health and mental health. 

There is hope, though.

Unlike hedgehogs, we can do more than just roll up into a ball.

In the next article I will explain what a high-performance routine looks like.

But in the meantime you can build awareness of your existing routine by trying this quiz, which will give you feedback as to whether you might benefit from strengthening your routine. 

It is freely available to anyone, including hedgehogs (though admittedly you might need a mouse).

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The Great 2022 Reset: You don’t need new habits, you need a (high-performance) routine

It’s January so psychologists like me are legally obliged to write about habits, resolutions and the like. 

If that’s what you’re after I heartily recommend the work of Katy Milkman, BJ Fogg and James Clear.

These people have undermined the idea that habits are about repetition (“21 days to build a new habit!”) and introduced the more accurate idea that it is how we feel during any given behaviour that creates a habit.

Yet this conversation also misses some key variables. 

The first is that how we feel is often not within our control. We are usually better off trying to control the context around a behaviour instead. 

The second is that it is sometimes not the habit itself that is key, but the timing and sequencing of a behaviour that matters most.

And this is why I believe what people most need in 2022 is a reset coordinated not by habits, but by high-performance routines.

What is a high-performance routine?

Well, let’s start with the opposite. 

At some point in the last 20 months many of us have fallen into routines that we didn’t really choose or design. 

For whatever reason, what started off as a sprint became a marathon and we became locked in routines where we worked harder and longer, became more sedentary, and days all blurred into one. To assess your own routine, how many of these bullets resonate?

  1. Everything feels like a priority
  2. You hunker down for hours in front of your screen, taking few breaks
  3. Some days you hardly move from your desk (a good indicator is less than 5,000 steps per day)
  4. You feel constantly distracted, pulled between different priorities
  5. You reach midday and realise you’ve not been outside
  6. Work often bleeds through into the evenings, weekends and holidays
  7. You find it hard to switch off and / or sleep
  8. You often feel tired in the morning
  9. You feel guilty that some areas of your life are being neglected
  10. You worry about the impact of all of the above, but are anxious that if you work less you will feel even more overwhelmed

This is what I call the ‘flat line’ way of working where we work in a continuous, often dysregulated way, without any real structure or boundaries.  In this way we ignore our own body’s need for recovery and instead ‘push on through’.

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The ‘flat line’ can work for a while, but over the longer term it becomes an insult to high-performance and dangerous to mental health (primarily because it’s a very unnatural way to work).

Worse still, in this context potentially helpful new habits can seem like an extra burden. 

For example, imagine telling someone who is overburdened that they need to start doing meditation. Even though meditation might help, in the short term it is likely to feel like another burden; one more thing to do (and possibly fail at).

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Meditation – just one more thing to fail at

High-performance routines are different for 3 reasons.

1.      Routines create their own rhythm, with one part of the routine enabling the next. Habits are easier to stick to when part of a routine.

2.      Individual behaviours become much more powerful when part of a routine.  What was an isolated behaviour becomes a meaningful pattern, linked to our biological rhythms as well as our long term values and goals.

3.      Routines create a sense of control; of everything having a time and a place. And this creates the positive feelings for change to be sustained.

In the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series of posts on high-performance routines as well as giving away my new e-book on the subject.

In the meantime, I would encourage you to consider what an ideal daily routine would look like for you. 

You could start by downloading the template below and seeing if you can identify what your ideal daily routine would look like if you had complete control over each day. 

I did this for myself and with many clients last year, and the results were always revealing.

The future of work: Why Psychological Flexibility is a Key Leadership Skill of the Future

A few years ago in the UK, a Panorama investigation uncovered systematic abuse of elderly care home residents who were ­being routinely pushed about, belittled and ­humiliated by their so-called carers.

Worse, when whistleblowers drew attention to the abuse it was they themselves who were disciplined by senior management. Empathy for the victims seemed in short supply as it took a TV investigation for action to be taken. 

This is just one example in a long line of depressing stories about toxic leadership.  From MPs to journalists, and leaders in organisations from Big Tech to oil, the modern era seems one where empathy, care and values in leadership can be in short supply.

Values and leadership

Theorists like Bruce Avolio have argued that we need a more authentic form of leadership, which connects leaders to what really matters to them.  This acts as a kind of compass for leaders, which is especially useful in times of uncertainty (read; now).

Connecting leaders more powerfully with their values is also important because it has been shown to generate positive psychological outcomes in followers.

And yet…

There is one slight problem with these ‘authentic’ forms of leadership: they are bloody difficult to do.

Leadership values easily get derailed by circumstance and expedience as well as by existing organisational cultures.  It takes a special kind of courage to execute values in practice.

Yet most modern leadership theories (and training) deal with values as though all that remains after identifying them is to go off and do them.

Good luck with that.

Understanding our values is only half the battle.  Values have a flipside – an admission price.

Put simply, pursuing our values makes life psychologically harder, not easier.  We tend to hurt where we care.

It is much easier to avoid this psychological discomfort – something that psychologists call experiential avoidance.  However in the turning away from our discomfort, we often turn away from our values. 

This is why experiential avoidance is perhaps the biggest driver of substandard leadership behaviour (as well as in clinical contexts, poorer mental health). 

After all it’s far easier to avoid that awkward but important conversation than to have it.

how can we help our leaders live their values in practice?

Psychological flexibility is a concept which started in the clinical context (over 850 randomised control trials show its effectiveness in improving mental health) but is now gaining traction in organisations. 

Many of my organisational clients are introducing this training, not least because psychological flexibility is so practical, and especially effective with difficult situations involving ambiguity or uncertainty – what Todd Kashdan ‘calls the messiness of human life’. 

Psychological flexibility is important in leadership for three reasons:

  1. It helps people clarify and understand their values in practice, not just in theory.
  2. It helps people stay more aware of the present moment, which means that they are more likely to notice opportunities to be empathetic and engaged with other people.
  3. It gives leaders the skills to move towards their values and deal with the psychological cost of doing so.  By building willingness to have difficult thoughts and emotions, it reduces the natural human tendency to avoid them. 

Too many leadership training programmes focus on values and forget to train people in the skills that help them live their values. 

Yet unless we do this, leaders will continue to run from the pain that empathy brings them.

Humanising the workplace; Two practical tools to help teams working remotely

Since March last year I’ve run well over 300 webinars with tens of thousands of people from all around the world, and everywhere the themes were similar.

After the initial burst of excitement of working from home, people talk about how relentless work is, and how much they miss some of the more informal, human sides of working in teams. 

For many the past year has brought a kind of empathy gap, where work has become more transactional and less human, with many of the informal 2-minute conversations replaced by more formal hour-long Zoom calls.

There is therefore a need for teams to adapt and to think of new ways of protecting the ‘human’ side of office life. 

Building on this idea, here are two tools that you can download and use with your teams; The Life Compass and The Key to Me.

Below you can find a brief explanation of each, as well as free templates to use. I hope you find them useful!

Tool 1: The Life Compass

This tool is to help people to understand what really matters to them (even in adversity); what kind of actions move them towards their values, and how stress can sometimes ‘hook’ them away from that direction. It is designed to help guide people through tough times, just like a compass.

How to use the Life Compass

Step 1: Have each person in your team complete their own Life Compass for themselves.  You can download the template here.

Instructions for completion are here.

You can see a compass that I completed – and which I sometimes use in workshops – below.

Step 2: Then, the group can complete a shared compass, to help them navigate through the project together.

You can download the Team Compass template here. We’ve also created a template in Mural here.

As with the individual compass, work round each quadrant to identify what matters, how the team gets hooked away from what matters and what course correcting might look like.

Tool 2: The key to me

This tool is useful for helping to build understanding and empathy across distributed teams. It’s also quite a fun exercise to do which can bring people together really well and remind everyone that we’re all just human beings doing our best.

The idea of The Key to Me is to create greater understanding of what gets the best out of each individual, as well as what kind of constraints and limitations homeworking brings. 

It is an especially great tool for any team which is newly created or has new members (so long as they feel sufficiently psychologically safe to do so).

Here is a template in Mural for using The Key to Me.

And here is my own example created in Mural:

I really hope you enjoy using these tools – both of them have helped me. Let me know in the comments anything you would add or any questions you have.

New E-book: Thriving in Uncertainty

I am happy to release version 2 of our e-book, Thriving in Uncertainty.

In this short guide, we cover the two key issues related to uncertainty:

  1. How to make effective decisions even when outcomes are hard to predict
  2. How to deal with the negative emotions (like stress and anxiety) that come with uncertainty

As with all our e-books we have packed it with links to free tools and resources, ideas for further reading and TED talks that illustrate key points.

We have also included a range of templates and interactive PDFs that can be used either by individuals or groups.

This is version 1 – we would love your feedback about how we can improve it.

Enjoy!

The Marginal Gains Handbook – Practical ideas to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus

We are delighted to release VERSION 2 of this free, practical guide of evidence-based ways to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus.

DOWNLOAD HERE

This version includes improved ideas for thriving in the age of Coronavirus as well as a new section on parenting in lockdown.

This is from a CEO who’s been using it with his organisation:

Your Covid Marginal Gains booklet has been a great source to help me during this once in a life time roller coaster. It deals with so many layers that we are all going through and gave me confidence in what I was telling my team, give me solace in what I was feeling, and hope for what despair we all go through.

Continue reading “The Marginal Gains Handbook – Practical ideas to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus”

A Guide to Lockdown for Other Parents, from a True Parenting Expert

Anyone who knows me or my children will know that I am definitely both a relationship and parenting expert.

For example, before I proposed to my wife I felt I need to list all of my imperfections (which took a while), and only this morning I dealt with my two-year old’s tantrum by swearing at the top of my voice and then storming out of the room.

I’m available for paid consultancy.

However I am a reasonably enthusiastic consumer of parenting strategies and have lots of clients who are asking for ideas to help deal with the pressure of lockdown.

So here are some ideas which I like, even if the implementation for me is still a ‘work in progress’.

If you have any of your own (especially ACT-consistent ideas and resources) please let me know in the comments below.

The Executive Summary

For all you lazy layabouts who have no time to read another long winded concise and excellent post written by me, let me save you the trouble by drawing your attention to The Blessing of a Skinned Knee in which Wendy Mogel rejects the idea of making things easy for our children, of praising them constantly, of them to be somehow unique and ‘special’ – all of which loads pressure on to both them and us:

In order to flourish, children don’t need the best of everything. Instead they simply need what is good enough. This may include good enough (but dull) homework assignments, good enough (but uninspired) teachers, good enough and good enough (although bossy and shallow) friends.

Consider that “good enough” can often be best for your child, because when life is mostly ordinary…your child won’t end up with expectations that can’t be met on this worldly plane.

Or how about this little beauty:

My advice to parents is to tolerate some low-quality time. Have a little less ambition for yourself and your children. Plan nothing—disappoint your kids with your essential mediocrity and the dullness of your home. Just hang around your children and wait to see what develops.

Disappoint my kids with my essential mediocrity?

Now THAT is a parenting approach I can get behind!

Nothing I’ve read comes close to relieving the pressure on myself and my children during lockdown than this, so I urge you to read the full summary here.

Here are some more ideas:

1. You need respite

It doesn’t matter what you are doing, you need a break from it.  In a study mentioned on the excellent Psychologists off the Clock podcast, soliders in the military had the lowest rates of burnout even when the break was going to war.  In other words, what we need is a break from what we are doing.  Do anything for too long with too little respite and we start to mentally fray.  And here’s a powerful image to illustrate this point:

Ideas for implementing breaks will obviously vary but here are a few:

  • Enlist others. If there is another adult in your house, work in shifts to cover short breaks. If not try to enlist a Granny to read a story or an Uncle to make your kids laugh, even 20 minutes’ respite can work wonders.
  • Manage your energy. When you have brief periods when the kids are occupied, do your low-attention tasks (like admin, most emails). When you get a break from the kids,  tackle high-attention tasks (like problem solving).  Or just take a break and do nothing.  You decide, but do one or the other.
  • Deadlines work. For parents and children alike.
  • Turn housework into a game. The tidy up song is good for this, but giving kids proper, grown up tasks to do on a regular basis (and rewarding this) can be an effective way of lightening the load.
  • Routines are powerful because they reduce fatigue.  So try to at least create a ‘shape’ to the day that everyone understands. Things like bedtime stories, a specific time for homework, meals; all of this will reduce your levels of shatteredness (technical term).

2. Beware perfectionism

We all need to lower our expectations a bit, particularly in terms of how we should be feeling and what we should be achieving.  As Brene Brown says:

When we hit that wall, sometimes courage looks like scaling it or breaking through it. AND, sometimes courage is building a fort against the wall and taking a nap.

  • Set small targets. You are living in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC.  Survival is good!  Anything extra is a distinct bonus.  For example, today I changed my pants.
  • Find a way of noting all your achievements (however big or small) and create meaningful ways to celebrate them. 
  • You cannot do it all. Think back a few months and consider what you would have advised other working parents to do during A GLOBAL PANDEMIC?  What springs to mind?  Let me guess, is it ‘you should definitely seize the chance to teach little Ernesto Mandarin?’
  • Remember the sound of learning.  From the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast, a story about a music teacher who put sign outside the music room that said: ‘This is the sound of learning’.  In other words, learning is often not very smooth or beautiful, so don’t expect things to feel or sound great along the way.

3. Reframe this as a chance for your kids to learn

Before the pandemic I feel like the biggest challenge my 2 year old had faced was that time when I cut his toast in squares, when in fact he wanted soldiers.

In other words, the biggest risk for many (middle class) children is that life was too easy.  Well now we can put that right!

After all, we don’t build a child’s resilience by making life perfect for them.

Let’s also remember that when we step back it gives our kids the opportunity to step up.

If we expect them to do nothing they will do precisely that.  But if we expect them to step up they will do that too, and this has the bonus of building resilience and confidence.

4. Stay present

One of the reasons that burnout occurs is because we are not mentally in the present very often.

By constantly worrying about the future and ruminating over the past, we drain ourselves of energy and deprive outselves of the little fragments of joy which still appear with children in lockdown, especially if we look for them (the joy not the children).

And of course our kids notice when we’re not paying attention, when we’re scrolling on phones, when our laugh is hollow or a few milliseconds too late.  Under what heading will they file that experience away?

So what percentage of the time are you present?

When I applied this question to myself I noticed that I’m often not very present and that’s usually because I was trying to avoid some kind of emotion (something called experiential avoidance).

Here is an example:

Before bed time we have the habit of watching a few short videos with both kids sitting on my knee.  The videos are really tedious, so I often found myself scrolling on my phone.  This has the function of relieving the boredom, but it was not exactly building joy or connection.

So now I put my phone down and try to get present to my children’s reaction.  I smell their hair, fresh from bath time, and then suddenly this evening I noticed this:

I know this is a tiny example, but how much will I crave just one more of these moments once they are gone?

5. Create buffer zones

For me one of the toughest aspects of parenting in lockdown is that the small buffers between work and family interaction are squezed.

For example – and you must understand this is purely hypothetical – if I have a difficult work call and then walk out of my office straight into my 2 year old, who is asking me to be a horse, but

“NOT THAT TYPE OF HORSE DADDY NO – NOT THAT HORSE!”

Then it is fair to say that – hypothetically – I often don’t handle it well.

There is an emotional hangover with all things, and if we remove natural buffers it is inevitable that things start to go less well.  At least, that’s what I’m telling my wife.

The things that work for me are:

  • Trying to build a minute or two buffer before leaving the office, and tap into the type of Dad I want to be when I re-engage (i.e. loving, active, joyful); and
  • Giving myself a time out if I get hijacked by my own emotions.

6. Connecting to values

Notice those values above: loving, active, joyful.

When I first had children I was terrified – convinced – that I would not know how to do parenting.  I felt like I had no ‘Dad’ template and would really mess it up.

But actually the thing that has helped me the most is to orientate myself, again and again, to a set of values that I try to model.

It is the most enormously helpful idea for lots of reasons.  Firstly, I find it impossible to eradicate the bad bits of my parenting.  I’m impatient and swear too much, for example.  But I am able to put positive stuff in there too.  I am able to go downstairs, right this moment, and chase my children round the garden pretending to be the Coronavirus.  I can tickle them until the 2 year old says

“Dop Daddy, dop!”

This moment can be all about crisis parenting, or it could be about connecting enough of these tiny moment so it becomes about something more meaningful or even joyful.

By connecting to our values, again and again, we can transform the pressure cooker of lockdown into an opportunity to connect with what matters to us most.

Further resources from actual experts

I’ve been listening to podcasts on the topic and can recommend a few here now – please see below and please let me know any that you’d add.

Books and resources for children:

The ACT Approach to Handling Anxiety Like a Human Being

Everyone is anxious right now and frankly, why wouldn’t we be?

But it’s worth remembering that humans are constantly anxious.  Here are five reasons why, followed by five ACT-based techniques to handle anxiety like a human being.

Five Reasons Why We’re Constantly Anxious

1. We’re programmed to see the bear

Imagine your ancestor saw a strange blob on the horizon and turned to a friend and said…

‘Is that a bear or a blueberry bush’?

The optimistic friend said ‘it’s a blueberry bush’ and skipped merrily over, but your anxious ancestor hung back, fearing a bear.

Even if the optimistic friend was right and got a nice lunch, it would have only taken one error for them to be a nice lunch.  Meanwhile your pessimist ancestor missed lunch, but lived to pass on their anxious genes (to you)…

2. The double-edged sword

Humanity’s special weapon doesn’t look like much, but since developing language we have been able to communicate risks verbally and then plan ahead to solve them.

This is an incredible tool for solving problems but it is a double-edge sword, which means we can create anxiety at any given moment.

As a result we are the only species that can sit on a beach in Tahiti with a fruity cocktail and STILL be anxious that maybe we drink too much, or that our choice of hatwear is a little last season.

3. Media and social media

I just did an experiment – by looking at the news for 1 minute I found stories not only about Corona, but also animal cruelty, climate change and the certainty of global recession.

We have created a world with unparalleled riches, but also unlimited access to worrying news.  So remember the golden law…

4. Uncertainty

Many of us can handle bad news if we know how to respond to it.  But uncertainty – will I catch this virus, will my family – is especially anxiety producing because the fact is WE DON’T KNOW.  And your mind would prefer anything to not knowing.

However, this is where the story gets really anxiety inducing interesting.

5. We try to control it

Despite anxiety being an inevitable part of being human, many people see it as something to be avoided or controlled.

The problem is, we can’t avoid or control anxiety.

Imagine I put a gun to your head and tell you not to feel anxious.  Could you do it?

By seeing anxiety as something we can control or need to avoid, we set ourselves up to become anxious about our anxiety.

This leads us to try and avoid anxiety by avoiding the things that make us feel anxious.

If this becomes a behavioural pattern it means we start organising our lives around avoiding anxiety rather than the things that make life meaningful.  This is called experiential avoidance, – a significant factor in many forms of mental distress because it both diminishes our lives in the short term and makes anxiety worse in the long term.

Five ACT-Based Ideas to Deal with Anxiety

1. Make a plan

Worrying about the future is not the same as deciding what to do.  And while your plan isn’t going to be perfect, you are never helpless.

So work out what’s in your control and then make a plan to manage the risks as you see them.  Inform yourself of the facts, but no more.  Try to limit exposure to armchair experts on social media.

That said, however good your plan is don’t expect it to free you from anxiety (because that’s impossible).  So you will need to learn how to…

2. Drop the rope

The problem with anxiety is that the harder we try to avoid it, the stronger it becomes.

It’s like being in a tug of war with some huge monster.  You are pulling with all your might because in between you and the monster is a huge, bottomless pit.  You are spending all your energy pulling because you are sure if you lose you’ll be pulled into the pit.

But the harder you pull the harder the monster pulls.

What’s the best thing to do?

Well your mind will tell you to keep pulling harder.  But the monster never seems to tire.

What’s the alternative?  DROP THE ROPE!

3. Pivot Towards What Matters

Anxiety is the price we pay for caring about something.  This means we can pivot our attention to focus on whatever that thing is for you.

Mark Freeman talks here about pivoting away from the fear that we are going to lose a family member.

My anxiety mostly relates to my young family, because I want to protect and care for them.  I realise I can’t protect them completely which makes me anxious, but I can do some things.  My pivots include challenging cars which speed past our house (we live opposite a playground and yes, I literally run after them), lobbying the council to install speed bumps (they did), and buying this handsome sign.

If you feel anxious about Corona Virus, identify what matters to you in this situation.  How could you pivot towards that, and do something meaningful in the service of what really matters to you, even when you’re feeling anxious?

4. Practice Self-Compassion

In this video Steve Hayes explains a great exercise to view anxiety from a stance of self-compassion.  Self-compassion is a key technique for depowering anxiety and changing our relationship to it:

5. Further resources

My favourite resources on this topic are:

For families

  • A new book for children on Coronavirus written by Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson & Nia Roberts (and illustrated by Alex Schleffer of Gruffalo fame)
  • Heroes in your home – this is a great article written by some top psychologists about evidence-based ways to promote cooperation in the home, ensure safety, and most importantly, have fun as a family.  Heroes in Your Home BRIEF (002)

I will update this list regularly – feel free to suggest ideas in the comments.

What Kind of Purpose Leads to Meaning in Life?

Steve Jobs once said that Apple’s mission was to ‘dent the universe’.  That is, he was driven to affect or make a difference in the world above and beyond profit.

Yet many people seem to have far more of a ‘self-related’ purpose, in that their primary objective seems to be to make as much money and to be as personally successful as possible.

In my research I decided to test the idea that there are two types of purpose – ‘self-related‘ and ‘transcendent‘.  I also wanted to test if either type of purpose would predict meaning in work more strongly.

Using a measure of purpose originally developed at Stanford, my factor analysis found that there are indeed two broad types of purpose.  Most people have self-related purpose (after all we need to eat), but some people also seem to have a transcendent purpose as well, which is broader and more outward looking.

Now, self-related purposes are not ‘bad’ nor are transcendent purposes ‘good’.  For example, it is perfectly possible to have a self-related purpose of making money to provide for one’s family.  Conversely you could argue Hitler had a transcendent purpose.

The difference is simply in terms of how people interact with the world.

Those with a stronger self-related purpose will focus more on their immediate surroundings and have less need to understand the world more broadly. 

They may also try to ignore extraneous information from beyond their immediate context, especially if it is uncomfortable or unhelpful to their purpose.

However those with a transcendent purpose need to affect the world around them through their work. 

Therefore over time they must learn more about the world and their place within it.  As they learn more they comprehend more, and this is what eventually generates meaning in work.

I hypothesised that those with a self-related purpose would experience less meaning in work than those with a transcendent purpose.

Findings

In a sample of over 500 working participants, I found that those with a self-related purpose do indeed experience less meaning in work than those who also have a strong transcendent purpose.  In fact, high levels of self-related purpose negatively predicted meaning in work – something I had not even dared to hypothesise.

Interestingly, not only did the item ‘My purpose at work is to make money’ negatively predict meaning in work, it was also associated with lower engagement at work. Money can’t buy you love, nor it seems employee engagement.

There was also no association of making money with psychological wellbeing.  However, the transcendent purpose scale did significantly predict psychological wellbeing.

Practical Implications

If you want to find greater meaning in your work:

  1. Work on understanding yourself first; explore your strengths, values and personality preferences.  This is the kind of thing coaching can help with.
  2. Then think about the kinds of contexts or organisations that you thrive in – something psychologists call this ‘organisational fit’.  What kind of culture, colleagues or organisation do you work best in?  Do you value autonomy or structure?  A formal or informal culture?  Be as specific as possible.
  3. Finally, think about causes you believe in.  What is it that you want from a job, or want to achieve through work?  If it is money and not much else – fine – but what is the money for?  Again, be specific.

In my study my additional conclusion was:

“Those seeking meaning in work should try to identify and nurture a transcendent purpose.  By identifying a life goal that extends beyond one’s own immediate experience, people could be encouraged to think in terms of how their skills uniquely meet the most pressing and important needs of the world.”

If you want meaning in work, then you need to work out how you can ‘dent the universe’ in some way that seems important and relevant to you.

Then go out there and learn how to do it.  Meaning will follow.