How ACT might change the story about addiction to fossil fuels

How can ACT help reduce excessive consumption of fossil fuels?  In this blog, the third and probably last in my series on ACT and environmental change, I want to critique an economist’s view of behavioural change and argue that ACT helps us understand how to tackle our addiction to consumption.

An Economists Perspective on Addiction to Fossil Fuel Use

So first to the economists’ view. In a fascinating article, Suranovic (2013) argues that addiction to fossil fuels use is a lot like addiction to cigarettes: In both cases, there are short-term reinforcers for continuing current behaviour and punishers for changing. And in both cases, people undervalue the long-term outcomes. Suranovic argues that:

“… an individual can break an addiction to fossil fuel only if two conditions are met. First the present value of the future costs of climate change, accounting for its likelihood of occurrence, must outweigh the current benefits of using fossil fuels. Second, this perceived net future benefit of preventing climate change must also exceed the adjustment costs borne by an individual switching to alternative energy sources.”

The problem is that human beings heavily discount the value of future outcomes. Just as smokers are likely to discount the negative effects of long-term illness from smoking, most of us in the developed world are excessively discounting the negative long-term effects of our consumption patterns.

In the end, Suranovic seems pessimistic. If it has taken us 50 years to deal with the relatively simple case of cigarette addiction, what hope do we have of bringing about behaviour change in the much more complex and interdependent case of addiction to fossil fuels?

While I do occasionally despair, I also find hope in watching how ACT can help people create real and sometimes rapid changes in problematic, repetitive behaviours.  In the next section, I explore how ACT could change some of the basic assumptions arising from economics.

An ACT Perspective: Changing our relationship to the stories we tell changes what and how we value

The view of people as utility optimisers is limited in at least two important ways: it doesn’t account for how we can change our relationship to what we value, and it ignores identity.

The stories we tell affect the value of events

For Suranovic, the extent to which we value different outcomes is relatively unchanging.  He treats utility as “exogenous” – it affects the system but cannot be affected by the system. But as we practice with ACT we know that we can change not only how much we value different aspects of our lives, we can also change the process of valuing itself.

One reason why mindfulness seems to help with smoking addiction is because it helps addicts reinterpret and accept the pain of withdrawal (e.g. Witkiewitz et al., 2012). Positive psychology has repeatedly demonstrated the power of reinterpreting aversive experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.  Psychological flexibility is about changing our responses to negative experience.  If reducing fossil fuel use is not happening in part because of the short-term ‘pain’ of change, then psychological flexibility can help us reinterpret and re-value the pain.

What is interesting here is that changes in meaning and valuing can occur instantaneously.  I remember standing in a line at a café growing increasingly annoyed at a sandwich maker who seemed to be taking forever to make each sandwich.  But then I heard him speak …. and I realised he was intellectually disabled.  As my perceptions shifted in an instant, so did my valuing of standing in line patiently.

Think of the 180 degree shift in perception we experience when we stop seeing a person as selfish, stubborn or lazy and instead choose to see them as an individual with needs and wants just like ours.  This type of change in meaning and valuing of a situation is not the linear, incremental change that Suranovic bases his argument upon. It is nonlinear – there is a tipping point as changes in one small meaning cascades to change the meaning of everything about the situation.

The stories we tell about who we are change the value of events

Often this sort of radical reappraisal of a situation involves a change in identity. We suddenly see that we are defending some belief about who we are or what we stand for. And this might also be true for dealing with addiction to fossil fuel. For many of us, our self-worth is entwined with our purchasing power.  My value as a parent sometimes feels proportional to the things I can give my children.  ACT helps us become more flexible about our identity, less defensive of any particular view of ourselves – and this makes change easier as we become more flexible and responsive to what is actually going on and not rules about how we should be.

I have tried to emphasise how change can occur not just in what we value or how much we value it, but in the way that we do valuing – in the way we make sense of our lives.  While this might be obvious to readers of this blog, it actually calls into question some of the most fundamental assumptions economists make about human behaviour. Relational frame theory provides an account of how changing the stories we tell ourselves changes the way we value our experiences.

I am excited about the possibilities of combining the tools of ACT with powerful tools from other disciplines such as scenario planning.  Vivid stories about possible futures, like those outlined in this wonderful paper by Bob Costanza, help us avoid the perils of excessive discounting of future outcomes. But these stories also help us reinterpret our experience now, and the tools of ACT help change our relationship to the pain of change so that we can act more in the direction of what really matters. This is making use of language at its best.

The Dangers of Language

“So, how do you feel?”

“I feel like I’m grinding through life, sort of like I’m pushing a heavy boulder uphill.  Every day I’m grinding forward, but it feels relentless.”

“So how does this feeling of ‘grinding’ actually show up in your body?”

Pause.  Interesting question.

I was receiving supervision from one of the most respected therapists within the ACBS and the question threw me for a moment.  I scanned my body as mindfully as I could.

“I notice I feel a bit tired.”  Pause.  “And I notice that I have some tension in my shoulders”.

“OK.  Anything else?”

“Hmmm.  Not really.  The tension is certainly there but it’s not that severe.  It’s actually pretty bearable.”

“OK.  So what would the person you want to be do next?”

Another long pause.

“I guess I would take a few more breaks, but other than that nothing, actually”.

And there we had it. For several weeks my mind had been telling me about the grind; how tough my life was and how relentless.  But on closer examination that story turned out to be based on feeling slightly tired and having slightly sore shoulders.  From where I was now – skillfully led to a different perspective – my life was actually going really well.  I was doing the work I wanted, with people I liked, whilst making my own small dent in the universe.  If this is a grind, then it is the kind of grind I would definitely have chosen.

This is a clue to one of the most powerful lessons within contextual behavioural science; that part of our lives (or ‘context’) is shaped by the words that we use to describe it.

If we get it wrong, language has the capacity to sell us a version of life that is not particularly accurate or helpful and which may leave us feeling shortchanged.  In my case this was certainly true as it was detracting from the joy and privilege I felt when doing my job.

This was a timely reminder that whilst language is incredibly useful and powerful, it should come with a warning.  Checking in on the accuracy of the metaphors we us  in everyday life is really useful (as the brilliant Yvonne Barnes Holmes makes clear in this talk about constructing effective metaphors).

But every now and again it also pays to connect to our actual ‘felt’ experience of life, and separate this from the language we use to describe it.

boulder-up-hill-300x211

Noticing How Desire Can Pull You Away From Your Values

When does desire pull you away from your values?

It might be the impulse to buy more stuff that you don’t really need; watch TV instead of doing some exercise; let work dominate your  life; make poor choices that change your life forever…

In this TEDx talk, Kelly McGonigal explains that the urges provoked by desire (the promise of happiness) have a tendency to overpower current happiness and satisfaction.

Desire for something you don’t have, but would like (in my case, millions of dollars and to write a best selling book!) can create stronger impulses than the feelings of contentment associated with what you do have (for me now: love, health, safety, meaningful work that uses my strengths). Even though what you have now may be much more important to you than what you desire.

When we feel that experience of wanting something, we feel an urge to do something to get that desire met. If we are to handle this tricky emotion wisely then we need to be clear about who we want to be and what we want our life to stand for. We need to have chosen the values we want to live by. But knowing your values isn’t enough.

Last week, Paul suggested that mindfulness helps us to turn our values into action. When desire is moving you away from what really matters, mindfulness can help you to ride out the urges rather than mindlessly chase what you desire .

You can mindfully notice how feelings of wishing and wanting are pulling you in a particular direction and check if that would be a move towards your values. You can become aware when desire is in control of your behaviour, catch yourself and come back to what really matters to you in the long term – love? kindness? connection? your health? security?

I want to be clear here that I am not suggesting that you abandon your ‘big, hairy, audacious goals‘, what I am suggesting is that you also:

1. Compassionately notice when pursuit of those goals feels driven and addictive. Pause and breathe and see if you can ride those impulses like waves rather than act on them.

2. Keep checking in as to how the goals you are currently pursuing fit with your values and life purpose

3. Have the ‘willpower’ to spend some time paying attention to other important areas of your life even though you may feel the addictive pull of the desire for something ‘bigger and better’ calling to you. Your thoughts might whisper, ‘I’ll just send one more email; read/write one more blog post; sign up for that course that promises to make me rich.’ Can you have those thoughts and the feelings associated with them and still spend the afternoon in the garden with your loved ones? Can you have those thoughts and feelings and bring your attention back to this moment now with all its small pleasures and pains?

Kelly McGonigal suggests that the recurring difficulties we experience in handling our desire well is not a sign that there is:

Something uniquely wrong with us – but it is actually part of being human. it is not just you, it is all of us.

Oddly, for me, accepting this makes it easier to deal with. How about you?

[I am running a low cost, one day workshop on ACT at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on  Sun 3rd March.  All proceeds go to the centre. I would love to see you there.]

Closing the intention-behaviour gap

Over Christmas I put on an additional 3kg. I have been getting rid of it ever since and I have realised that losing weight is a fantastic practice in psychological flexibility.  Just about every minute of the day there are opportunities to be mindful of bodily sensations associated with hunger or satiety, and each day there are dozens of opportunities to reconnect with why losing weight is important to me.

This experience also got me thinking about why weight is such an enormous problem. Obesity rates doubled globally between 1980 and 2008.  In 2008, the total annual cost of obesity in Australia, including health system costs, productivity declines and carers’ costs, was estimated at around $58 billion.  In Australia 68% of men and 55% of women were overweight or obese in 2008. Part of the problem here is diminishing physical activity. The World Health Organisation reports “Globally, around 31% of adults aged 15 and over were insufficiently active in 2008 (men 28% and women 34%). Approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity.”  Nobody wants to be obese but people are getting fatter, and everybody knows that they should exercise more than they do.   Clearly there is a disconnect between intentions and actual behaviour. 

We don’t do what we say we will do

Many studies have examined the relationship between intentions and behaviour and, somewhat surprisingly, the correlation between the two is not all that high.  Have you ever had the experience of setting strong goals to exercise or eat well and then not followed through?  Timothy Wilson wrote a fascinating book called “Strangers to Ourselves” outlining all the evidence for unconscious, automatic influences upon our behaviour.  Meta-analyses have revealed:

“… intentions account for a weighted average of only 30% of the variance in social behavior (Armitage & Conner, 2001; Hagger et al., 2002), mainly because people with strong intentions fail to act on them (Orbell & Sheeran, 1998).”  (Chatzisarantis & Hagger, 2007).

Why might this be the case?  One reason people fail to act on strong intentions is because they simply forget to start the behaviour.  Have you ever said something like “This week I will exercise three times” and then before you know it, the week is over and you haven’t exercised at all?  This is why setting specific goals and thinking about contextual reminders is so important.  In the literature, this sort of planning is called “implementation intentions”.

But another reason why people fail to act on their intentions is because their responding has become habitual and automatic.  When we don’t reflect on our moment to moment behaviour we are very likely to do what we have always done in the past.

Mindfulness helps us act on our intentions

From one point of view, this might be a bit of a problem for the ACT model.  If our behaviour is relatively independent of our intentions, then what is the point on getting clear on our values when we might just act out of our habits and unreflected impulses anyway?  This is where mindfulness becomes really important.  Values clarification on its own is of little use unless we bring awareness to what we are doing and we have the self-regulatory skills to enact new behaviours.

But is there any evidence that mindfulness can help us do what we want to do?  Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) explored how mindfulness affects the relationship between people’s intentions to engage in vigorous physical exercise and their actual behaviour.

First they confirmed that people’s intentions to exercise didn’t actually predict whether people exercised or not. But the really interesting finding was that more mindful people were more likely to act on their intentions than those who are less mindful, even controlling for the physical exercise was already a habit for the participant.  So mindful people, but not non-mindful people, were more likely to do what they said they would do!  Isn’t that just the coolest reason for learning to be mindful?  “Learn mindfulness and you will do what you say you will do!”

Why does mindfulness help us act on our intentions?

The authors then went on to explore reasons why mindfulness might strengthen the relationship between behaviours and intentions. Before we go any further, what do you think? Why might mindfulness increase the tendency to act on intentions?

Got something?

Perhaps mindfulness increases awareness of goals in each moment and therefore reduces the tendency to forget what we said we would do. Or perhaps mindfulness improves our self-regulatory skills so that we are more likely to be able to manage the difficult emotions that arise when we do something new or challenging. Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) tested a third possibility, that mindfulness helps us control counter-intentional behaviours, in this case binge drinking.   They reasoned that binge-drinking probably interferes with doing vigorous physical activity (is it just me or do you too have an image of lying on a couch with a pillow over your head?), and that mindfulness might reduce the extent to which habitual binge-drinking interferes with intentions to exercise.

And this is what they found:

C and H 07 Fig 2b 3

Let me step you through this diagram.  Start with the dotted line first. What this says is that people who are NOT mindful and who habitually engage in binge-drinking are LESS likely to engage in physical exercise. That is, habitual binge-drinking decreases the likelihood of engaging in physical activity. So far so good, this confirms the idea that binge-drinking ain’t great for getting up in the morning and going for a run!  But look at the solid line. For this group, even if they did engage in habitual binge-drinking they were still just as likely to engage in exercise as those who did not habitually binge drink. So some mindful folk still go out on the town, but they don’t let this interfere with their intentions to exercise.  In the words of Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007: 672):

“These results, therefore, corroborate the view that greater awareness of and attention to internal states and behavioral routines helps mindful individuals shield good intentions from unhealthy habits and thus can play a key role in fostering effective self-regulation. In contrast, diminished attention and awareness of counterintentional routines and habits is likely to prevent individuals acting less mindfully from engaging in effective self-regulation, as the negative relationship between habitual binge-drinking and physical exercise suggests (see Figures 2a and 2b).”

So maybe next Christmas I will be better at mindfully saying no to that Christmas pudding!

Growing Compassion in Organisations

Hello!

I am so excited to be joining “Working with ACT” exactly two years to the day since Rob and Rachel started this wonderful blog. Working with mindfulness and values is a big part of my professional and personal life. My aim is to bring you interesting perspectives on ACT research.

By way of introduction, I thought I might briefly review one of my own papers written with Sharon Parker.  I promise I will focus on papers by other people in the future 🙂  Here is the citation from which you can link to the paper if you would like to read more.

Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(3).

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“I don’t do emotions!”  This was a comment made by one of my students in reaction to an exercise exploring values and stressors at work. But in reality, we all “do emotions”. A growing body of evidence clearly shows that emotions are a major determinant of performance in all workplaces, including public sector organisations.  Emotions alert us to what matters, they allow us to communicate and make decisions that are effective.  Emotions are at the heart of thinking about how we wish to live and what we wish to create in society?

Becoming skilful at recognising and influencing emotions at work is a key facet of effective leadership and management. Such skill rests upon the quality of our awareness and perspective taking ability. We need to be able to take the perspective of others to act effectively. We need to be compassionate if we are to respond skilfully to our own and others emotions.

Compassion towards oneself and others is a critical part of building effective relationships and making good decisions at work. Think for example of how you handle situations where you or someone in your team fails to achieve important goals. What would it be like if people were more compassionate towards themselves and others at these times?

Compassion is not just a feeling.  It involves four stages:

  1. Noticing another is suffering,
  2. Making judgments about what is going on,
  3. Feeling empathy, and
  4. Taking action.

There are three judgments that can get in the way of compassion towards self or others.

First, we can fail to be compassionate because we judge that the person who is suffering is not deserving of our compassion. For example, we might judge that the person brought their suffering on themselves.

Second, we might judge that the person’s suffering is not relevant to us. Research shows we are much less likely to extend suffering to others who have different goals, or belong to groups with which we do not identify. If we make this judgment, we are more likely to feel disconnection rather than compassion.  One can easily see how this judgment is involved in the debate over immigration in this country.

Third, we make a judgment about our personal resources. If we don’t feel as though we can cope with being in the presence of another who is suffering in some way, we are more likely to feel distress rather than compassion.  The manager who cannot bear to be in the presence of a person crying is making this sort of judgment.  This judgment appears to be involved in the experience of burnout many people feel when they work in jobs that involve caring for others.

Of course, these judgments are sometimes justified.  Modern evolutionary theory suggests that such judgments are an important aspect of self-protection and effective group function.  Sometimes it is best not to feel compassion, or at least not to act upon it. Our argument is not that we should always feel more compassion. Our argument is that it is helpful to become more aware of the automatic reactions that drive our behaviour. To the extent that we can catch our reactions in motion, we can choose our responses more deliberately and improve our effectiveness.

So how might we learn to catch our automatic reactions, and act more in line with what really matters?

If you have been following this blog you will know that there are two aspects of effective training in emotional skills. First, we need to increase mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of what is happening in each moment both within ourselves and in the world and bringing an attitude of openness to that experience. Second, we need to be clear about our values and the values of the organisation in which we work. There is no point developing awareness if we don’t know how we want to act in the world. Values act as a compass to guide our behaviour.

What has been your experience of compassion at work? Is it encouraged? Does it have a positive impact?

What To Do With Feelings of Shame

SHAME
SHAME (Photo credit: BlueRobot)

Do you think it is bad to feel ashamed?

In this interview, Maarten Aalberse suggests that we have a tendency to feel ashamed about feeling shame and that this causes us problems. He suggests responding to those feelings with empathy and compassion instead of trying to reject these painful emotions. What does that look like?

Shame comes up quite often for me. The other day, a participant in a session I was facilitating said, ‘Well I think this sort of thing is a waste of time. Nothing ever changes as a result.‘ and pop there it was… shame. Gnawing away at my gut. Making me want to crawl into a corner and hide.

My mind went into overdrive: I am a waste of space. All those years of training were a waste of time. I have been deluding myself. It was all pointless. ( I actually feel a bit ashamed letting you know the crazy thoughts my mind can come up with!)

And then, I remembered Maarten’s suggestions and I breathed and asked myself , ‘Can I turn towards this pain with kindness? Can I hold these feelings with compassion? Can I use all of those years of training to choose my next words? Even though the urge to react is so strong?’

This sounded like a good plan, so instead of getting defensive I responded with curiosity, ‘What would have to happen for today to be worthwhile? What would we each need to do?

The conversation moved forward and we made a plan.

I think that Maarten may be right. That allowing those feelings to be there and treating them with kindness may lead to more effective responses.

What about you…are you ashamed of shame? What happens when you treat those feelings with compassion instead? Does that work better for you?

Using ACT in Career Change

Why do bright, motivated people get stuck in their careers? I’ve spent the last 10 years or so thinking about the issue and working with people who are stuck in this way. I write about this in my other blog, Headstuck. I find ACT is useful for people who are stuck because it helps them not only get unstuck but to move forward with purpose in a direction they choose. ACT liberates people.

I put together a presentation on this and it struck me that it might be of interest to readers of this blog.  Hope you enjoy!

A Start

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to start things.  Especially big, important things.  It feels like that first step has to be right or the plan has to be bottomed out, or the whole thing will fall apart.

But one of the enduring lessons mindfulness has taught me is the simple value of returning to my intention. Start again.

So here’s a start. It isn’t perfect.  But it is returning to my intention.

On Holding Our Feelings Gently

This post is based on some writing by Dr Hank Robb. Hank is a deeply wise psychologist based in Oregon. You can see a video of him here.

Sometimes, when we act to make something important in our lives, we experience painful emotions. And, we can choose to feel them willingly.

There are, really, two important aspects to that willingness. There is “willingness with your feet” and also “willingness with your heart.” If you think about “flight phobics” you see
 both kinds. Some won’t get on the airplane – they lack “willingness with their feet.” However, many who do get on the plane are then “white knuckleflyers” – they lack “willingness with their heart.” Both kinds of willingness are choices.

To give you a sense of “willingness with your heart”. Cup your hands. Imagine holding a feather in your cupped hands, it will be gentle. And, you can hold it gently. Now imagine putting the fruit of a prickly pear cactus in your cupped hands. It will not be gentle. And, you can still hold it gently. Willingness with your heart is holding gently whatever is there to be held.

Prickly Pear Cactus a kind of common vegetatio...
Prickly Pear Cactus a kind of common vegetation found in the hills of Balaghat Range (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever feelings turn up, you can choose to treat them with compassion and gentleness.

What would that be like? Which are the emotions that are hardest for you to hold with gentleness? For me anger is really tricky.

Can you catch yourself when you harden your heart against your pain…and soften?

If You Had a Couple of Extra Hours In The Week, What Would You Spend Them On?

Just imagine, something magical happens and you suddenly find yourself with two extra hours in the week. Empty…waiting to be used. What a delicious thought!

How would you choose to spend those hours?

Romanian Family
Romanian Family (Photo credit: JoshLawton)

Would you:

  • Work on a pet project that matters to you?
  • Spend more time with loved ones? Doing what?
  • Look after yourself a little better – perhaps exercising more often; cooking healthier food; getting more sleep?
  • What would it be…..?
And…what wouldn’t you choose to do with that time?

I invite you to sit with those questions. To let them be with you over the next few days and see what turns up.

If you want to find time for an important but neglected activity, then I encourage you to start small. Just pick one action and commit to focussing on that area for 10 minutes more each week.

If that change seems to give your life more vitality, you might then choose to gradually increase it over time.

This question comes from an interesting book: Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobal and Jerold Panas