flowing motion

Posts Tagged ‘psychology

Leaving adolescence

It’s interesting when we start to take control of our lives.  We make a plan.  Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.  And we resign ourselves to being powerless.

Encountering adulthood

Then we get a bit older and we resolve to make things work.  And we do. When a plan threatens to come apart, we jump around and keep it altogether.  And feel very good for it.

Muddling through middle age

It’s only much later that we realize that we weren’t really keeping things together. We were feeling better. We were exploring other stories about ourselves in the world.

Not confronting the experiences of middle age

I see the converse too.  I know people who are brilliant at retelling a story as if the world does it’s bidding.  They can’t countenance a notion that sometimes the world really is not on your side.

They’ve never made the transition from that early stage of needing to be in control.  They’ve just learned to divert their strong need to be in control to a story that convinces .  .   . well, them.  It doesn’t convince anyone else. They are still aiming to feel better and they are willing to pervert reality to regain that feeling.

Living honestly with our lack of control

I can’t believe that this self-deception is a good thing.  Misreading the world is dangerous.  The world simply doesn’t do our bidding.

Our best bet is to position ourselves in the river and go with the current, steering lightly but not fighting.   It’s tough though. I still don’t like being washed along.  I have to reverse attitudes I worked so hard to learn.

But maybe I can achieve more through inaction?

There!  I still want to achieve.  Maybe by promising myself that prize, I can experiment with inaction and simply enjoy the river in all its tumultus chaos?

Speaking properly

I once worked with people who hated other people ~ or so they said.  I hated broccoli (I like it now) and I hated doing my tax return.

Sometimes I loathed someone.  Or I disliked someone.

Speaking accurately

The nuances of emotional words are interesting.  We have poor emotional vocabularies as a general rule.

Understanding nuances

The other day, I dipped into  Kate Fox’ Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.

The nuances of Englishness

Kate Fox suggests the English accept serious but not solemn and sincere but not earnest. I looked up the differences in my COBUILD dictionary that was built from a corpus of actual English usage (Collins Birmingham University International Language Database).  It wasn’t very enlightening.

Serious not solemn; sincere not earnest

So I am on the trail to distinguish solemn from serious and earnest from sincere.

Any suggestions?

Galba Bright

Many of you will remember Galba Bright. The British Sierra Leonian migrant to Jamaica who built a successful emotional intelligence website in less than a year.  He died very suddenly and many of us miss him.

Shortly before he died, Galba set me a challenging questions. Do “in tune” people reflect?

When Galba died, I had two unfinished posts on my computer.  They’ve stayed here for quite a while and a Twitter poll urged me to publish them in tribute to a man who many of us found inspiring.

This is the draft that I find the more inspiring.

Walking with Elephants

zimbabwe_hwange_national_park-compressed.jpg

Galba Bright of TuneUpYourEQ asked me to expand my comment that people who are tuned into the world don’t reflect much.  I thought this picture of Paul Van R bicycling in Zimbabwe illustrates the point I wanted to make.

Of course, we laugh at first.  Then we may wonder whether Paul was being slightly reckless.  We question his good sense and  wonder if he knows what he is doing.

If he does know what he is doing, if he understands elephants, if he knows when they are likely to walk on the road, if he knows how they will react when they see him, then he is not necessarily reckless at all.

Moreover, if he meets an elephant and the meeting is cordial, if the the elephant was allowed to be an elephant and do elephantly things in an elephantly way, then that evening Paul is likely to relax with some fond and pleasant memories.

Of course, if he doesn’t know much about elephants and he reacts to any elephants he meets in a ways that elephants don’t much like, he might spend the evening in a whole different form of reflection.

We could flesh out this question quite a lot more.  I thought it would be fun though to think about elephants.

I think my point is that when we are “in tune” with the world, we don’t reflect very much. We are connected. We are in touch.  We are enjoying the world and ‘dancing’ with its rhythms.

When we are not “in tune” with the world, then it is time to reflect. Then it is time to focus on where we are in touch, where we feel vital and alive, and what to follow and do more of.

And as most days are not blissful rides through Africa on a hot, sultry day, some time spent each evening in reflection and when we awake in the morning, helps keep us in touch with what keeps us in touch.  Some reflection calms down our fretful helter-skelter rush into stressful activity that is poor replacement for what we love.

We miss you, Galba.

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Mysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous

to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the

mouths of the lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever

in allegiance with gravity

while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds

will never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the

scars of damage,

to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those

who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say

“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.

Mary Oliver, Evidence

Dedicated to psychologists everywhere.

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Get specific help fast on the internet

Ask specific questions on Linkedin

A long time ago, I asked a very specific question on Linkedin.  “How do we find a ship at sea?”

Through the weekend, insurance professionals and ship’s captains coached me on how to deal with Lloyds, how to track the vessel’s responders, and even how to detect illegal changes in a ship’s registration number.  It was great.  Real experts stepped up and coached me on important details.

Present the pertinent facts to fellow experts on Stackoverflow

Other examples of great information exchange also take place on the internet.  Stackoverflow is a forum where computer professionals also pose specific questions usually as a short paragraph stating what happened and what they have already tried.   Members give each other advice and rate both the answers and the questions.

Stackoverflow platform and other communties

Stackoverflow is rather a famous forum because it works.  Late last year, they released their code as a white label so that other communities can use it as platform for their specialist forums.

Stackoverflow rarely works as well though for other communities though.  This seems to be the reasons why forums “fail”.

3 reasons for “forum fail”

#1  People come to “chat” rather than to ask questions.   Their goal is to punt for clients or to gain some kind of nebulous networking status.

#2  The situations are not “important”.  The only person who benefits from the answer to the question is the asker (if they even asked a genuine question).

#3  The situations are not “hard”.  The situations are ambiguous and uncertain, to be sure.  But they ae not “hard”.  “Hard” situations involved double or treble loop.  The basic question in a “hard” situation is “Is it me or should it be this hard to do?”  Forums do not do so well on triple loop learning where we are asking how, how hard AND whether it is important.

3 guides for “winning forums”

To turn these problems around, forums might succeed when

#1 There are genuinely “important” problems.  That is, there is something I must do to to help a customer.

When I am in IT and I am trying to get IT running to support an entire organization, that is important.  Figuring out how to please my professor, on the other hand  is not “important”.  It has not importance outside of itself.

#2  The situations are “hard”.   That is, it is hard to tell if we are making a mistake or if the solution is not possible.  In these conditions, a expert coach helps our learning curve enormously.

Stackoveflow asks its members to ask questions that can be answered rather than “discussed”.  Most forums are dominated by questions that are broad and vague, or, they are not specific about what the asked is trying to achieve and what they have tried so far.

#3  A community of expertise already in exists.  A community of people have very similar problems to solve and shared ways of attempting solutions.

Far too often, questions on forums require a thorough audit of context, resources and skills.  That is, they require intervention of a professional to ask what is required here, what resources do we have and what skills do we have.  On Stackoverflow, professionals are speaking to each other, and the learning task is to cope with double loop learning (and render it single loop by providing help, coaching and support).

Thought experiments about forums that work and forums that don’t work

To test this trio of criteria, I’ve thought up a two forums and used the criteria to think about when and how the forums would work

A cooking forum

# 1 Importance

I am cooking for someone else.  I want to them to enjoy their meal.

#2  Hard

I can search endlessly for the “right” recipe with locally available ingredients.  Or, I can take directions from someone who has already located available ingredients and isolated what can be done with them.

#3  Community

There are other people who cook for similar social situations with similar ingredients.  I have lived in communities who don’t put a high premium on cooking well.  Cooking has a limited range of ingredients and skill, and quantity is more important than quality.   In these communities, there is no call for a cooking forum.  Equally, in a large city with many single people, there may be call for a community interested in the best places to get good food.   It is simply not cost effective (or pleasurable) to cook pizza, English breakfast, dim sum, and so on for one person in a tiny apartment.

A forum for professional psychologists

#1 Importance

Do we have a common understanding of our customers?  Clincial and educational psychologists might have a common understanding, but do we in work & organizational psychology?  Do HR managers have a common understanding of their customers?  Hmm . .

#2 Hard

In my experience of small groups of work & organizational psychologists who trust each other, “hard” questions usually hinge on engaging the customer.   In groups who do not trust each other, technical questions are usually a proxy for the question – how do I frame the issues for these customers (who I shall not name either because I don’t trust you or because I am embarrassed by my lack of know how.)

#3 Community

Is there a community of work & organizational psychologists who are commited to this project of understanding their customers.  Or are we, like my cooking community, who only worried about eating more?    Are we competing with each other rather than collaborating on the common project of solving problems that are important and hard?

How to develop a community before we launch a forum

So what do we do when it seems that our forum sucks because we don’t have a community?

# [Hard] Answer our own questions.  Write a blog?  Writing clarifies thinking – it does for me, anyway.  That is what I am doing now.

# [Important] Clarify the social situation of our question, at least for ourselves.  For example, single well-off people in a big city don’t want to cook.  But they do want to eat well.  We can write about what they want to know, which is where reasonably priced food is exquisite. Work & organizational psychologists don’t know much about their customers.  So write about customers and concerns from the customers’ point of view being quite clear which elements of psychology were useful to them (and which were not)?

# [Community] In a previous incarnation, I was able to use institutional means to develop a professional community.  We developed programmes.  We developed alliances.  We arrange mutual continuing education by doing a ‘stretch’ project together each year.  We collaborated to create face-to-face sessions that linked noobes to experts, noobes to noobes, and experts to experts.

When we don’t have institutional resources at our disposal, we can use the internet to put ourselves out there.  Web2.0 facilties like blogs, Slideshare Linkedin, Twitter, Yahoo Upcoming and Dopplr help people find us.  So do contact forms on our websites and blog technologies that allow people to comment directly onto our website pages.  The apex of “2.0”, I think, is aranging meetups and hackdays to bring people together to develop mutual projects.  Well that was our mutual annual CPD project – those were fun days.

I haven’t seen many stories of people who have developed communities from scratch.  It is improbable anyway.  Because we must share an “important” concern and believe it is so “important” that we will help each other to navigate “hard”.  So we are looking at latent communities.

  • Step 1.  Begin with the customer who we don’t serve well, perhaps.  Not the customer who is a cash cow.  But the customer who needs something done and whose lives would be so much better if it were done.
  • Step 2. Then use Web2.0 technologies to allow people who are searching for answers to find you.

And document it!  We need more stories.

Comments?

Build the roads to bring people to you.  Host the conversation, in other words, but don’t expect the success of Stackoverflow at the outset.

Psychologists need poetry

I have one piece of advice for anyone who aspires to be a psychologist.  Read poetry.  Read good novels.

Your College or Department will jump your through a  lot of pseud-scientific hoops.  Jump through them but for a different reason to the one they give.  Jump through them because they will teach you how to ‘fail informatively’.  Yes. Fail informatively.

In the future, you will be able to handle unfamiliar situations by proposing one or more reasonable ways forward.  And then you can set up some experiments.  You can choose the best way forward.  And if you have set up your experiment well, the less favorable ways will also teach you a little more than ‘wrong way’.  This is the reason why you should study science.

To understand people, well, meet a lot of people and do things with them.  And read.

A good read is Paolo Coelho who also blogs and tweets.  Today he posted a 1 minute parable on the meaning of happiness.  It is an easy read.  The ending sums up the meaning of happiness.

For psychologists out there, this parable talks about two important psychological phenonena.

#1  Management of attention.

To manage one’s own direction and to pay attention to what is going on around us.

We need lots of practice at doing this. Computer games help us do this.  TV and reading books does not.  Sport helps us learn this.  Writing does not.  But speaking does.  Make sure you get lots of practice at learning to manage your attention so that you tackle frontiers with greater ease!

#2  We live at our frontier.

To define who we are by what we do.

Not what we feel, or believe.  But what we do in various contexts defined by who else is there.  We are our frontier.  We are our edge.

Perhaps we are a young man who cannot carry two drops of oil and look around a new place.  Or frontier is the new place, the new idea, and our own confusion.  It is here that we are ‘alive’ with our dreams and our hopes, our confusions and our sorrows.

This is a tough challenge for psychologists.  We have nothing to measure.  The definition may even be circular.  That is because psychology is not a thing. It is a goal or a purpose that is supremely personal.  Our goal is to live a our frontier.  The story of our frontier and our confusion is the story we all want to hear.

When we want to do the maths, then we look at whether we were in a situation that covers the whole gamut of emotions and whether we were able to respond appropriately as events unfolded.  Or were we like the young boy, first forgetting the context and then forgetting his task.  Can we recover from confusion and distress or do we get stuck?  Are we so scared of life that we insist that it be plain sailing all day and every day?

Do we approach our frontier or do we hang back?  And under what conditions are we able to approach our frontier and learn to carry the oil and look around despite our initial confusion?

Yes, positive psychologists do know something about this.  But so do poets.  Begin with them.

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Is happiness = pleasure?

Gaye Prior kindly commented on my post about poetry and positive psychology.

“Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love. These are more important to me than passing enjoyment and survive even in the face of tragedy, horror, awfulness and loss.”

Do positive psychologists equate happiness with pleasure?

I’ve promised to reply in four parts describing the 4 puzzles of positive psychology.  This is the first part.

Principles of positive psychology

Let’s make the 1st principle of positive psychology the study of the positive (rather than the study of the negative or gaps or deficits.)

The 2nd principle is that well-being or happiness has three parts. As Gaye says “Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love.”

Martin Seligman points out that well-being is made up of

The pleasurable life

The engaged life

The meaningful life

There is a questionnaire on the Penn Uni site that anyone can do. The items on the questionnaire flesh out the concepts.  Scroll down to the bottom of the page and pick “measures 3 routes to happiness” under “life satisfaction questionnaires” (2nd last on the page as I write).

Using the ideas of pleasure, engagement and meaning to enrich your life

Here is the description of the three levels of life provided by the psychologists at Penn Uni.

Higher scores on the Engaging Life (knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life) and the Meaningful Life (using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are) have been shown to lead to greater satisfaction with life. Higher scores on the Pleasant Life (having as many pleasures as possible and having the savoring and mindfulness skills to amplify the pleasures) don’t add to satisfaction. To measure your satisfaction, use the Satisfaction with Life Scale.

Keeping pleasure, engagement and meaning in balance

Few of us have our lives in balance. That is the message for people who live in abundant circumstances.  Seek balance (and stop complaining!).

Seeking pleasure, engagement and meaning in difficult circumstances

For those of who do not live in abundant circumstances, we have serious shortfalls in one area or another and these shortfalls are not under our control.

I am always uneasy about casual interpretations of positive psychology that dismiss reality. Life can be awful.

The point though is what can be done about it?  If something is not under our control, there is little point in railing about it. It it is not under our control then it is not under our control.  Focusing on what is out-of-control just makes us feel helpless.  That was Seligman’s original speciality btw ~ learned helplessness.  Continually focusing on what cannot be done destroys our ability to do anything.

What we can do is work with what we’ve got, and work with whomever will work with us, to leverage whatever we can. We may not be able to change reality but we can do what we can.

Taking control of what little is under our control increases our chances of surviving difficult circumstances

Doing what we can with people who are important to us also seems to increase our chances of survival. Those chances might be minimal, as they were for later psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived an extermination camp. But they improve.

The overriding rule

We must remember that we have to work with what is under our control. That is you, me, the people around us and what works. Those are our tools.

The importance of pleasure

We should also not neglect the pleasurable life. We should respect fine food, the sunset and the rose growing in the garden. Oddly, savoring and mindfulness, though nowhere near the whole story of positive psychology, start a positive spiral.

Gratitude diaries provoke a spiral of well being.  On a really bad day, feel the earth under your feet. Look at that unexciting doorway of brick and mortar as the most magnificent invitation.

The unfairness of engagement

The engaged life is easy for professional people. We work and like to. Engagement is much more problematic for young people who generally only find ‘flow’ in sports and hobbies. One of the reasons that computer games are popular is that they provide the autonomy, social interaction, opportunity to learn, and opportunity to belong to something meaningful that is often not possible in our educational system.

People in low level jobs also have trouble finding flow in jobs which are poorly designed, micro-managed, and in which they are treated with rudeness and contempt. It is common for people in low level jobs to “recraft”. Why is it that security guards in Zimbabwe are more knowledgeable than shop assistants? Why are domestic help loyal? There is an element of Stockholm syndrome, but there is also a natural tendency to create a job that is satisfying to do.

The fragility of meaning

The meaningful level is provided by being part of something larger than ourselves.

I imagine more wars are created by violating this level than by anything more complicated. We are sensitive to exclusion and exclusion ‘crashes’ our psychological structures very quickly indeed (5 to 10 minutes does it.)

When we are victims of exclusion, we can create a temporary protective buffer with savoring, mindfulness and gratitude diaries. Some people use the pleasure principle badly, of course, and take to overeating and drink, both of which have their place in celebration but are ill-advised compensation for lack of  belonging. A walk or smelling a rose allow us to avoid adding a punished body to a battered soul.

Exclusion is devastating.

I hasten to add, that we shouldn’t be too judgemental about people who ‘get it wrong’ because exclusion is devastating.

There is a saying

“when someone in authority like a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, it is like looking in a mirror and not being able to see your face.”

I imagine this is why migrant who “walk both sides of the street” settle better than those who try to assimilate.

Buffering oneself from the impact of exclusion

The antidotes to institutional exclusion (that go beyond a painful social slight) are to develop empathy with others, to show solidarity, and to work on healthy political structures.

We all know the do-gooder who ‘helps’ others. I mean travel the same road as others. Suffer the same risks and share the same glory.

Solidarity is a long road but it is the best road. Mindfulness matters again but not the mindfulness of concrete pleasures. This time we want mindfulness towards the dynamism of the universe.

Simple techniques like closing one’s eyes and listening for the furthest sound can break the cycle of intense stress. Paolo Coelho’s post of today tells us to look expectantly for the magic moments that arrive unannounced and are gone in a twinkle. When we think there is only one microsecond of possibility a day, we pay attention.  Even David Whyte’s line of “everybody is waiting for you” suggests to us that we need to reach out.

In teaching, we often use Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese to show that we are part of any situation in which we find ourselves and by showing compassion to ourselves (as opposed to self-pity and indulgence), we help to feel in touch with the movement of the universe. I’ll add the poem at the bottom.

Three levels of a good life

In summary, Gaye identified the three levels of a good life:

  • pleasure ~ respect for beauty and comfort
  • engagement ~ enjoyment of work
  • meaning ~ belonging to something bigger than ourselves

With this layout, pleasure seems as if it is the lower level. It is a level that is easily abused but so to is over-identification with achievement or subordinating ourselves to readily to others.

All three are part of the good life. When life is in a mess, try doing an audit of what is going well in each area. Sometimes the map that follows is surprising.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

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