Isolation & Loneliness: Which One Is More Damaging to Our Long-term Health?

Just the other day I was having a debate with a client about isolation versus loneliness.

He believed that the amount of social contact we have with others was a more significant predictor of well-being, whereas I thought that how close we felt was more important for long-term health and happiness.

In other words, he thought that the number of interactions with others was more important than the quality of the relationships. I was solidly on team quality over quantity when it came to the type of relations that we want in our lives.

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Because I wasn’t sure whose position was more supported by research, I decided to subsequently explore the issue further.

My aim in writing this post is to first clearly define the difference between isolation and loneliness, and then highlight what the scientific evidence suggests.

 

Isolation

The Merriam-Webster dictionary for English language learners defines isolation as:

“The state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others: the condition of being isolated”

Notice with this definition that there is no emotion connected to it. It merely indicates being isolated or separate from others.

Someone could choose to live a solitary life in isolation, and they may be happy with their choice. For Alexandra de Steiguer, a shy individual who spent a lot of time alone when she was a child, she chooses to isolate herself each winter as the sole ‘caretaker’ of the Oceanic Hotel on an Island in New Hampshire. For the past 19 winters, she has spent months on the island without any guests.

de Steiguer states:

“it’s the thing I look forward to every year… When I come out here it’s like a homecoming. All those details of mainland life just fall away.”

She later says:

“Being alone (has) it’s advantages. It’s peaceful, and I can use my imagination…It makes me feel connected to life (and the natural world) in a way that I don’t normally feel.”

If you’d like to check out the 14-minute documentary ‘Winter’s Watch’ in full to get a true sense of the solitude that she encounters, please see below:

https://player.vimeo.com/api/player.js%5D

I don’t think I could do what she does, especially after watching ‘The Shining’, but each to their own.

Henry David Thoreau also glorified isolation and solitude in his famous book ‘Walden; or Life in the Woods’, stating:

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

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To write the book, Thoreau built a cabin on the shore of a pond in 1845 and decided to live there for the next two years.

He also highly valued simplifying life and reconnecting with nature:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Before you think about selling up everything Emile Hirsch ‘Into the Wild’ style and moving to the wilderness by yourself, it is important to highlight two things first:

  1. Thoreau walked into the nearby town of Concord, Massachusetts almost daily and received visitors regularly.
  2. Hirsch’s character in ‘Into the Wild’ Christopher McCandless (**spoiler alert**) dies after eating a poisonous plant and concludes “Happiness only real when shared.”

When solitude doesn’t involve nature and is forced upon someone, it is often considered a devastating form of punishment. For this reason, solitary confinement is used by various prisons all over the world. The way it is used is typically in violation of human rights, or the UN’s Mandela Rules, which states that humans must not be “without meaningful human contact for more than 15 consecutive days” (Martin, 2016).

The fact that people would rather be out in the prison yard where they could be stabbed or beaten up instead of in isolation makes me realise that humans really are social creatures. Too much time in isolation can lead to active psychosis or acute suicidality in approximately one-third of the prisoners exposed to solitary confinement (Rodriguez, 2016). It can also lead to crippling social anxiety for prisoners once they are released back into society (Breslow, 2014).

Consequently, I can’t help but feel that except for a few individual cases or for people who are very introverted, too much isolation does more harm than good.

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Loneliness

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines loneliness as:

“Sad feelings that come from being apart from other people”

Notice with this definition, the focus is on the feelings of sadness. Unlike isolation, loneliness suggests a deficit and a longing for companionship and genuine connection that is not there.

As JD in ‘Scrubs’ suggests, it is also possible to feel lonely in a crowded space, even though you could not be considered isolated:Image result for JD scrubs lonely quote

So what is more damaging – being separate from others, or feeling apart from others?

 

The Village Effect

Our brains light up when they are exposed to human interactions, especially direct face-to-face contact. Online communications and passively watching videos don’t have the same effect.

In her 2017 TED talk, Susan Pinker looks at different reasons why people live longer, including the role that relationships play:

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As you can see in the graph above, minimising both isolation and loneliness were more critical for staying alive than someone’s BMI, their level of activity, their smoking and drinking behaviours, or even their heart health and blood pressure. While these factors are still relevant, having constant and close relationships is almost essential for our long-term health and longevity. Quantity, or level of integration, is seen as slightly more important than the closeness of relationships, or quality. One point for my client.

Either way, in her book ‘The Village Effect’, Pinker suggests that we would all benefit from the type of interconnectedness that a small village lifestyle provides. village effect

Pinker also believes that we would benefit more by increasing our in-person face-to-face contact and cutting back our use of technology as a way to try to better connect with others.

 

Alone Together

Another fascinating book that I read in 2017 was ‘Alone Together’ by Sherry Turkle.

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Turkle’s 2011 book also highlights the difference between how often we interact with other people and how sad, disconnected or alone we feel.

Her 2012 TED talk nicely summarises the negative aspects of technology and how it is leading to a greater sense of loneliness, even though it is easier than ever to remain in contact in some way or another:

As Turkle says:

“we use conversation with each other to learn how to have conversation with ourselves. A flight from conversation can really matter, because it can compromise our capacity for self reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is a bedrock for development.”

 

Turkle concludes:

“we’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. (We want) the illusion of companionship, without the demands of friendship.” (As a result, we) expect more from technology, and less from each other. (We imagine, that with technology), we’ll never have to be alone.”

It’s pretty scary stuff when you think about it. However, Turkle’s findings are a clear indicator that loneliness is more damaging than isolation, so one point for me.

 

Other Research

Social isolation is associated with:

  • an increased risk of depression (Hari, 2018),
  • more heart disease (Barth, Schneider, & von Känel, 2010),
  • a more significant risk of infectious illness (Cohen et al., 1997),
  • quicker cognitive decline (Bassuk, Glass & Berman, 1999),
  • elevated blood pressure (Shankar, McMunn, Banks & Steptoe, 2011),
  • greater inflammation and metabolic responses to stress (Uchino, 2006), and
  • increased mortality (Eng, Rimm, Fitzmaurice & Kawachi, 2002)

Loneliness is associated with:

  • a higher risk of major depressive disorder (Hari, 2018),
  • increased blood pressure (Hawkley et al., 2010)
  • heightened cortisol (Cacioppo et al., 2000)
  • elevated inflammation (Steptoe et al., 2004), and
  • increased risk of heart disease, functional decline and early death (Patterson & Veenstra, 2010; Perissinotto, Stijacic Cenzer & Covinsky, 2012).

A 2013 study titled “Social Isolation, Loneliness and All-Cause Mortality in Older Men and Women” looked at 6,500 men and women over the age of 51 from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing between 2004 and March 2012. After taking demographics and health at baseline into account, social isolation significantly predicted later mortality, but loneliness did not (Steptoe, Shankar, Demakakos & Wardle, 2013).

Both loneliness and social isolation were associated with an increased risk of mortality, but reducing isolation was considered to be more critical in reducing the risk of premature death than loneliness was. Loneliness did not add to the risk of early death for people who were already socially isolated (Steptoe et al., 2013).

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Final Outcome and Recommendations

THE VERDICT: SOCIAL ISOLATION IS MORE DANGEROUS THAN LONELINESS!

This is one time where I really am surprised to be wrong, but I am glad to have a bias pointed out to me whenever it occurs. I personally have never felt socially isolated, but I have definitely felt lonely, so my own experience must have influenced my opinion to some degree.

Social isolation is more hazardous to our long-term health than the subjective feeling of loneliness. However, both of these states are potentially damaging, and steps should be taken if you are experiencing them on a regular basis.

Lifeline recommends the following strategies for overcoming social isolation and loneliness:

  • Connect or reconnect with friends and family – staying in contact with loved ones can prevent loneliness and isolation. If your family don’t live nearby, technology can help you stay in touch
  • Get out and about – regular outings for social functions, exercise, visiting friends, doing shopping, or simply going to public places can help
  • Get involved in your community – Try a new (or old) hobby, join a club, enrol in study, or learn a new skill. Try looking online, at your local TAFE/Community College, library or community centre for things in your area that might be interesting to you
  • Volunteer – helping others is a great way to help yourself feel more connected
  • Consider getting a pet –pets are wonderful companions and can provide comfort and support during times of stress, ill-health or isolation
  • Get support – If loneliness and social isolation are causing you distress, you should discuss your concerns with a GP, counsellor or a trusted person

Engaging in treatment with a clinical psychologist could help if social anxiety or other mental health difficulties are contributing to your isolation or loneliness. If not, the meetup website is an excellent resource for getting out there, trying some new things, and meeting some new people.

As George Valliant says:

“Joy is connection… the more areas in your life you can make connection, the better.”

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

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Can Our Key Character Strengths Change Over Time?

In an article that I have written on Positive Psychology, I wrote about how happiness can be sought out and fostered by discovering our natural character strengths and virtues.

The current article intends to see if these strengths remain consistent over time, or if they can be actively changed.

Is our character set in stone, or are we malleable enough to shape our strengths into something different if we want to?

Let’s find out…

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My Top Character Strengths

I have taken the VIA Character Strengths survey four times now. The two earliest times were using the authentic happiness website in January 2011, and March 2012 and the last two were using the VIA character website in December 2013 and just last week in 2017.

I will present my 2017 results from 24th through to 1st, with the description from the authentic happiness website and the core virtue from the VIA character website. I will then display my previous survey rankings under each description:

24: Self-Regulation and Self-Control

You self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 23rd, 2012: 10th, 2013: 21st.
Average score = 19.5. Overall rank = 21st

I do think that it is pointless to try to control my emotions, as accepting them and trying to understand them has been much more fruitful for me than trying to control them. Trying to control my appetites is a different story, however, and I do still struggle to eat as healthily as I would ideally like to.

23: Spirituality, Sense of Purpose and Faith

You have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme. Your beliefs shape your actions and are a source of comfort to you.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 22nd, 2012: 24th, 2013: 13th.
Average score = 20.5. Overall rank = 23rd

I find meaning and purpose in connecting with and helping others and challenging myself to learn and grow, and these things are much more tangible and important to me than an overall sense of spirituality and faith. I still believe that having a sense of meaning and purpose is a crucial element of well-being and health, and should be explored in detail and sought out when it is not present.

22: Bravery and Valour

You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 24th, 2012: 22nd, 2013: 14th.
Average score = 20.5. Overall rank = 23rd

I wish that this was more of a strength for me, but it is something that I struggle with. I admire others who are consistently brave and courageous, and I continue to aspire towards it myself.

21: Teamwork, Citizenship and Loyalty

You excel as a member of a group. You are a loyal and dedicated teammate, you always do your share, and you work hard for the success of your group.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 10th, 2012: 4th, 2013: 10th.
Average score = 11.25. Overall rank = 10th

I have played competitive sports since the age of five, and I am always happy to do what is needed to be done to help the team win. This has become less important over the past four years as I have focused more on being driven by intrinsic rather than extrinsic factors in my life.

20: Zest, Enthusiasm and Energy

Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 17th, 2012: 21st, 2013: 22nd.
Average score = 20. Overall rank = 22nd

This was never a strong point for me, but it did drop in the context of a difficult relationship and has only improved slightly since it ended. I would love it if this were a greater strength for me, but low energy has unfortunately been a long-term issue.

19: Humility and Modesty

You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 20th, 2012: 16th, 2013: 6th.
Average score = 15.25. Overall rank = 19th

When I was younger, I struggled to be modest due to insecurities. This improved as I sought therapy and felt much more comfortable with myself. I do not wish to seek the spotlight at present, but do believe that I have psychological skills and knowledge that can be useful to others.

18: Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness

You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 11th, 2012: 19th, 2013: 19th.
Average score = 16.75. Overall rank = 20th

I wish that this was higher, as optimists tend to take more risks in life and experience better health in general. My pessimism in regards to things running smoothly does mean that I am unlikely to ever miss a flight, which is a good thing I guess. It also means that I am unlikely to overexpose myself to excessive financial risk.

17: Prudence, Caution and Discretion

You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 21st, 2012: 6th, 2013: 16th.
Average score = 15. Overall rank = 18th

My IPIP-NEO personality assessment results actually show cautiousness levels in the top 10% of the population, but I don’t see it as a personal strength. I wish that I could take more risks in life, and not be held back by my fears and doubts as much as I am. I’ve put my foot in my mouth at times, but still want to be able to share whatever is on my mind.

16: Leadership

You excel at the tasks of leadership: encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included. You do a good job organizing activities and seeing that they happen.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 6th, 2012: 1st, 2013: 12th.
Average score = 8.75. Overall rank = 5th

This used to be much more important to me than it is now, especially in 2012 when it was ranked first. I feel much more comfortable with helping others to lead these days, and do what I can to help other people to live the life that they want rather than trying to tell them what they need to do.

15: Humour and Playfulness

You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 8th, 2012: 23rd, 2013: 5th.
Average score = 12.75. Overall rank = 15th

I love stand up comedy and have always wished that I was a bit more playful than I have typically been. I believe that humour is a healthy and mature defence mechanism, and hope to foster more of this going forward.

14: Forgiveness and Mercy

You forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 2nd, 2012: 15th, 2013: 8th.
Average score = 9.75. Overall rank = 7th

This seems to yo-yo. I do want to be able to forgive those who have erred and have done wrong towards me, as I understand the benefits of this type of forgiveness. What I do struggle with is trying to forgive or show mercy to people who consistently cause harm to others and seem to feel no remorse for their actions.

13: Social intelligence

You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 4th, 2012: 14th, 2013: 7th.
Average score = 9.5. Overall rank = 6th

This was a key strength initially, and something that I still aim to do as a clinical psychologist. However, outside of work, I have tried to live a more genuine and authentic life with equitable relationships rather than just trying to fit in with others and go along with what they want to do.

12: Perspective Wisdom

Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 12th, 2012: 11th, 2013: 9th.
Average score = 11. Overall rank = 9th

This has remained fairly consistent. I do not consider it a key strength but hope that the more I learn and the more experience I have, the more others will consider me to be wise when it comes to the big issues of life and how to successfully manage them.

11: Gratitude

You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted. Your friends and family members know that you are a grateful person because you always take the time to express your thanks.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 7th, 2012: 17th, 2013: 18th.
Average score = 13.25. Overall rank = 17th

Gratitude is actually a handy skill to build and can help to offset our natural inclination to just look at what is going wrong in our lives. I wish that this could be a little bit higher, and am glad that it has improved from my 2012 and 2013 scores.

10: Perseverance, Industry and Diligence

You work hard to finish what you start. No matter the project, you “get it out the door” in timely fashion. You do not get distracted when you work, and you take satisfaction in completing tasks.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 19th, 2012: 12th, 2013: 2nd.
Average score = 10.75. Overall rank = 8th

After reading the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen I now see the benefits of being orderly and organised and the difference that this can make in our lives. By working smarter and not harder, I have found a better balance recently and have begun putting less pressure on myself to be industrious.

9: Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence

You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 18th, 2012: 9th, 2013: 15th.
Average score = 12.75. Overall rank = 15th

I do try to appreciate the natural beauty of life, and love visiting national parks and going hiking. Some of my favourite places to go include Wilsons Promontory, The Grampians and Yosemite National Park in the US. I would also love to visit Macchu Picchu and Everest Base Camp at some point in the future. I also enjoy watching the NBA and the Olympics and admire the effort that athletes put towards reaching excellence.

8: Honesty, Authentic and Genuineness

You are an honest person, not only by speaking the truth but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way. You are down to earth and without pretense; you are a “real” person.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 15th, 2012: 7th, 2013: 3rd.
Average score = 8.25. Overall rank = 4th

This is something that I value a lot. I strongly believe that more genuine and authentic people tend to live happier and more fulfilling lives. I’m surprised to see that it has dropped since 2013, but it does feel like a key character strength to me.

7: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality

Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 5th, 2012: 13, 2013: 23rd.
Average score = 12. Overall rank = 12th

This was quite important to me while growing up, but took a back seat when I tried to get married and buy a house in the suburbs. Following this break-up, I have moved into the city and love the lifestyle that I get to have, living in an apartment. I strongly advocate for doing what is right for you rather than just going along with familial or societal pressures.

6: Capacity to Love and Be Loved

You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 14th, 2012: 18th, 2013: 11th.
Average score = 12.25. Overall rank = 13th

This has become more important over time. I had an avoidant attachment in the past and would keep my emotional needs to myself and try to be what other people needed me to be instead. I would then leave once I realised that my needs were not being met. Over the past two years, I have become better at tuning into what I need and expressing these needs and feelings to others rather than keeping them to myself, which has increased my capacity for love.

5: Kindness and Generosity

You are kind and generous to others, and you are never too busy to do a favor. You enjoy doing good deeds for others, even if you do not know them well.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 13th, 2012: 3rd, 2013: 1st.
Average score = 5.5. Overall rank = 2nd

It’s nice to see that this has increased from the first survey in 2011. I enjoy helping and being kind to others, and it is one of the reasons why I love my job as a clinical psychologist. It has been a key character strength for me since 2012.

4: Fairness, Equity and Justice

Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 3rd, 2012: 2nd, 2013: 4th.
Average score = 3.25. Overall rank = 1st

This is the only character strength that has been ranked in the top 5 in all of my surveys! Being a middle child influenced my focus on fairness and equality growing up, as I always felt my older brother could do more than me, and my younger sister never had to do anything. I remember creating rules to make sure that things were as fair as possible and have continued to stand up for people that are not given equal treatment or legal rights since then.

3: Curiosity and Interest in the World

You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 9th, 2012: 20th, 2013: 17th.
Average score = 12.25. Overall rank = 13th

This has never been a key character strength for me until 2017. Over the past few years, I have become less concerned with my personal issues and much more interested in how I can make a lasting difference on a larger scale.

2: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness

Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 1st, 2012: 5th, 2013: 24th.
Average score = 8. Overall rank = 3rd

I find the results of this strength fascinating. It’s been a key strength of mine, showing up in the top 5 in 2011, 2012 and 2017. However, in December 2013 it somehow sunk to 24th out of 24. I had been married for 9 months at the time, and it was going much worse than I could have ever imagined. I think at the time I did not want to weigh the evidence fairly or change my mind. Once I did, I knew that getting a divorce was the hard but the right thing to do, and since then my judgment has bounced back from 24th to 2nd.

1: Love of Learning

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 16th, 2012: 8th, 2013: 20th.
Average score = 11.25. Overall rank = 10th

This has never been a key character strength until the latest results. The first three surveys were completed during my Doctorate studies, where I was being told what I needed to study. Since then, I have been able to read and learn whatever I would like, and the autonomy and freedom of choice about what I learn now makes it so much more enjoyable. My thirst for new knowledge feels insatiable!

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Can Our Key Strengths Change

Looking at all of the above results, it does indicate that our strengths can change over time. My overall findings put fairness 1st, kindness 2nd, judgment 3rd, honesty 4th and leadership 5th. Leadership is no longer a critical strength for me, even though it was 1st back in 2012. Curiosity and love of learning are much more recent developments, and they are both new strengths that I really enjoy putting into action on a regular basis.

My Top Virtues

Based on my 2017 findings, my top virtues are as follows:

  1. Wisdom – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 12th. Average score = 5
  2. Humanity – 5th, 6th, 13th. Average score = 8
  3. Justice – 4th, 16th, 21st. Average score = 13.67
  4. Courage – 8th, 10th, 20th, 22nd. Average score = 15
  5. Transcendence – 9th, 11th, 15th, 18th, 23rd. Average score = 15.2
  6. Temperance = 14th, 17th, 19th, 24th. Average score = 18.5

The changes in my strengths over time indicates that I have become more wise, which is nice to see. I’d like the courage scores to be higher, but otherwise, it seems pretty consistent with my core values.

Does It Matter Which Strengths We Have?

On one level no. What is most important is that we are aware of what our individual key strengths are and that we can put these character strengths into action as often as possible.

Seeing that our strengths can change over time, however, it is worth looking at if some character strengths predict a higher level of well-being than others. In the excellent book ‘Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life’, Dr Todd Kashdan (2009) found that curiosity was one of the five strengths most highly associated with:

  • meaning
  • engagement
  • pleasure
  • satisfaction in one’s work, and
  • happiness in life.

In research conducted by Seligman and Peterson (2004), the only strengths that were rated higher than curiosity for being substantially related to satisfaction in life were hope, zest and gratitude. The other strength in the top 5 was capacity to love and be loved.

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If You Would Like to Find Out Your Strengths and Virtues

The best way to identify your strengths is to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths at the VIA character website.

Your 24 strengths will be ranked from first to last. These rankings are an indicator of your key character strengths, but it is also essential to determine if your top 5 strengths “feel right” to you. If they do, keep them as is. If a lower ranked strength feels more right than any of the ones listed in your top 5, replace with the one that shouldn’t be there, and write down your new top 5.

Once you know what your strengths and virtues are, The book ‘Authentic Happiness’ by Martin Seligman goes into more detail about how to best utilise your key character strengths to find authentic happiness.

The basic premise is to assess how often you are putting your strengths into action on a daily or a weekly basis. If you are not doing it enough, set some goals towards implementing these strengths more.

I wish you the best of luck on your path of discovery!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

What Life Traps Do You Consistently Fall Into?

Do you want to reinvent your life?

In my top 20 psychology books countdown that I wrote, I put the book Reinventing your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko (1994) at #10 on my countdown.

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It is a self-help version of Schema Therapy, which was also developed by Jeffrey Young. The best part of Schema Therapy is the in-depth questionnaires that they have which help people to identify and overcome their common life-traps, both in therapy and outside of it. Life-traps are self-defeating ways of perceiving, feeling about and interacting with oneself, others and the world.

If you are wanting to get a sense of what your life-traps may be, Reinventing your life is an excellent place to start, as it goes into 11 different ones. If you want a more in-depth analysis, however, then do go and see a Psychologist who specialises in Schema Therapy. They will have much more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can give you results on 18 schemas or life-traps. You might be able to access some of these questionnaires online, but only psychologists have the scoring and interpretation skills required to give you both the answers and direction that you need going forward.

My Life-traps

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I have taken the Young Schema Questionnaire (YSQ-L3) twice now. The first time was at the beginning of 2014 when I was stuck in the middle of a complicated relationship while also trying to complete the last part of my Doctoral thesis and play basketball at a semi-professional level. The second time was in April 2017, where I am now in a Clinical Psychology job that I love and a warm and supportive relationship. I have also stopped playing basketball at such an intense level, and now just play with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which is way more fun. I’d like to share these results with you to show you that:

  1. context influences personality and how people view themselves, the world and others, and
  2. personality and ways of perceiving yourself, relationships and the world can change.

When looking at the results, a 100% score would mean that I have answered every item for that life-trap a 6, which means that they describe me perfectly. The higher the % score, the more likely it is that I will frequently fall into this life-trap.

YSQ-L3
2014 Results 2017 Results
Schemas or life-trap Schema or life-traps
1. Subjugation – 75% 1. Self-sacrifice – 60.78%
2. Dependence – 64.44% 2. Punitiveness (self) – 57.14%
3. Self-sacrifice – 61.76% 3. Emotional Deprivation – 51.85%
4. Approval seeking – 54.76% 4. Unrelenting Standards – 48.96%
5. Punitiveness (self) – 51.19% 5. Approval Seeking – 48.81%
6. Unrelenting standards – 48.96% 6. Subjugation – 48.33%
7. Insufficient self-control – 46.67% 7. Negativity – 43.94%
8. Emotional inhibition – 46.30% 8. Mistrust – 41.18%
9. Emotional deprivation – 42.59% 9. Dependence – 41.11%
10. Abandonment – 41.18% 10. Emotional Inhibition – 40.74%

What’s Improved?

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Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life-trap in 2017 than I was in 2014. The average of my top ten in 2014 was 53.29%, whereas in 2017 it was 48.28%.

I also rated 21 items a 6 (= describes me perfectly) in 2014, but only five in 2017, which means I am much less enmeshed with these unhelpful ways of looking at myself, others and the world than what I used to be. I still:

  • ‘have a lot of trouble demanding that my rights be respected and that my feelings be taken into account,’
  • ‘feel guilty when I let other people down or disappoint them,’
  • ‘find it very difficult to ask others to take care of my needs,’
  • ‘try hard to fit in,’ and
  • think ‘If I don’t do the job, I should suffer the consequences,’

but in general, I tend to think more constructively regardless of the situation that I am in.

At the schema or life-trap level, the areas where I have improved are in green in the table above. Here is Young’s description of these schemas:

SUBJUGATION: Excessive surrendering of control to others because one feels coerced – usually to avoid anger, retaliation, or abandonment. The two major forms of subjugation are:

1. Subjugation of Needs: Suppression of one’s preferences, decisions, and desires.

2. Subjugation of Emotions: Suppression of emotional expression, especially anger. 

Subjugation usually involves the perception that one’s own desires, opinions, and feelings are not valid or important to others. Frequently presents as excessive compliance, combined with hypersensitivity to feeling trapped. Generally leads to a build up of anger, manifested in maladaptive symptoms (e.g., passive-aggressive behavior, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out”, substance abuse).

DEPENDENCE / INCOMPETENCE: Belief that one is unable to handle one’s everyday responsibilities in a competent manner, without considerable help from others (e.g., take care of oneself, solve daily problems, exercise good judgment, tackle new tasks, make good decisions). Often presents as helplessness.

INSUFFICIENT SELF-CONTROL / SELF-DISCIPLINE: Pervasive difficulty or refusal to exercise sufficient self-control and frustration tolerance to achieve one’s personal goals, or to restrain the excessive expression of one’s emotions and impulses.  In its milder form,  patient presents with an exaggerated emphasis on discomfort-avoidance:  avoiding pain, conflict, confrontation, responsibility, or overexertion—at the expense of personal fulfillment, commitment,  or integrity.

ABANDONMENT /  INSTABILITY: The perceived instability or unreliability of those available for support and connection. Involves the sense that significant others will not be able to continue providing emotional support, connection, strength, or practical protection because they are emotionally unstable and unpredictable (e.g., angry outbursts), unreliable, or erratically present; because they will die imminently; or because they will abandon the patient in favor of someone better. 

APPROVAL-SEEKING  /  RECOGNITION-SEEKING: Excessive emphasis on gaining approval, recognition, or attention from other people, or fitting in, at the expense of developing a secure and true sense of self.  One’s sense of esteem is dependent primarily on the reactions of others rather than on one’s own natural inclinations.  Sometimes includes an overemphasis on status, appearance, social acceptance, money, or achievement —  as means of gaining approval, admiration, or attention (not primarily for power or control). Frequently results in major life decisions that are inauthentic or unsatisfying; or in hypersensitivity to rejection. 

EMOTIONAL INHIBITION: The excessive inhibition of spontaneous action, feeling, or communication — usually to avoid disapproval by others, feelings of shame, or losing control of one’s impulses. The most common areas of inhibition involve:  (a) inhibition of anger & aggression;  (b) inhibition of positive impulses (e.g., joy, affection, sexual excitement, play);  (c) difficulty expressing vulnerability or communicating freely about one’s feelings, needs, etc.;  or (d) excessive emphasis on rationality while disregarding emotions.

SELF-SACRIFICE: Excessive focus on voluntarily meeting the needs of others in daily situations, at the expense of one’s own gratification.  The most common reasons are:  to prevent causing pain to others;  to avoid guilt from feeling selfish;  or to maintain the connection with others perceived as needy .  Often results from an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. Sometimes leads to a sense that one’s own needs are not being adequately met and to resentment of those who are taken care of. (Overlaps with concept of codependency.)

I developed the most concerning subjugation and dependence/incompetence, which were my top 2 ranked life-traps in 2014. This means that I am now much less likely to put my emotions and needs entirely aside for others. I am also much less likely to feel overwhelmed by everyday life, which means that I am now less dependent on others for practical advice or support with day-to-day responsibilities.

I also improved regarding my self-control, my fears of abandonment, my need for approval from others, my desire to inhibit what I am feeling emotionally and (to a lesser degree) my inclination to self-sacrifice and put others first.

What’s Gotten Worse?

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The life-traps that have worsened for me from 2014 to 2017 are in red in the table above. Here is Young’s description of these schemas:

PUNITIVENESS: The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. Involves the tendency to be angry, intolerant, punitive, and impatient with those people (including oneself) who do not meet one’s expectations or standards.  Usually includes difficulty forgiving mistakes in oneself or others, because of a reluctance to consider extenuating circumstances, allow for human imperfection, or empathize with feelings.

EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION: Expectation that one’s desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others.  The three major forms of deprivation are:

  1. Deprivation of Nurturance: Absence of attention, affection, warmth, or companionship.
  2. Deprivation of Empathy: Absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings from   others.
  3. Deprivation of Protection: Absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others.

MISTRUST / ABUSE: The expectation that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, manipulate, or take advantage.  Usually involves the perception that the harm is intentional or the result of unjustified and extreme negligence. May include the sense that one always ends up being cheated relative to others or “getting the short end of the stick.”

NEGATIVITY  /  PESSIMISM: A pervasive, lifelong focus on the negative aspects of life (pain, death, loss, disappointment, conflict, guilt, resentment, unsolved problems, potential mistakes, betrayal, things that could go wrong, etc.) while minimizing or neglecting the positive or optimistic aspects. Usually includes an exaggerated expectation– in a wide range of work, financial, or interpersonal situations — that things will eventually go seriously wrong, or that aspects of one’s life that seem to be going well will ultimately fall apart. Usually involves an inordinate fear of making mistakes that might lead to: financial collapse, loss, humiliation, or being trapped in a bad situation. Because potential negative outcomes are exaggerated, these patients are frequently characterized by chronic worry, vigilance, complaining, or indecision.

Looking at these areas that have worsened, I realise that the complicated relationship that I mentioned earlier in the article has had a more significant impact on me than I would like to admit, even two years after it has finished. The punitiveness that was directed at me has become internalised to a degree and directed at myself, and part of me also criticises myself for not seeing the warning signs or getting out of it earlier.

When I was younger, I always trusted others and never trusted myself. I now realise that I am not as bad or incapable as I once thought and that there are some pretty mean people out there who are willing to take whatever they can from others without feeling bad for the pain that it causes. There were a lot of adverse effects of this relationship, but it has also helped me to learn and grow, as evidenced by all of the positive changes that I have experienced too.

 What Hasn’t Changed?

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The one life-trap that remained precisely where it was in 2014 was unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness. Young defined this schema as:

UNRELENTING STANDARDS /  HYPERCRITICALNESS: The underlying belief that one must strive to meet very high internalized standards of behavior and performance, usually to avoid criticism. Typically results in feelings of pressure or difficulty slowing down; and in hypercriticalness toward oneself and others.  Must involve significant impairment in:  pleasure, relaxation, health, self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, or satisfying relationships. Unrelenting standards typically present as:  

  • perfectionism, inordinate attention to detail, or an underestimate of how good one’s own performance is relative to the norm;  
  • rigid rules and “shoulds” in many areas of life, including unrealistically high moral, ethical, cultural, or religious precepts; or
  • preoccupation with time and efficiency, so that more can be accomplished.

Because my scores, in general, have decreased, unrelenting standards has jumped from my 6th highest life trap in 2014 to my 4th in 2017. This means I am still too critical of myself and often force myself to be productive and useful even when I am tired and don’t feel like doing much.

How Can Life-traps Be Overcome?

lukas-neasi-65747.jpgThe first step to changing anything is awareness. If you are not aware that you are falling into any traps, it means that you either don’t have any, or you are so enmeshed in your experience that you cannot see them.

Once you have an awareness of your traps, the next step is to try to understand them and why they occur for you. Most life-traps originate in childhood typically, which is why most psychologists and psychiatrists will ask about your upbringing and your relationship with your parents in particular.

Life-traps are actually considered to be adaptive ways of coping with a maladaptive environment. What this means is that they were probably quite useful in the particular family dynamic that you had, or you wouldn’t have developed them in the first place. For example, my family often called me a martyr when I was younger, because I said that it didn’t matter what I wanted. In reality, it was just much more comfortable to let everyone else decide and take charge.

Once you move out of the family home, however, these ways of coping are generally not as effective, and tend to become maladaptive ways of interacting with yourself, others or the world. The three ways that we can keep life-traps going is by surrendering and acting as if they were right, trying to escape from them by staying away from all situations that could test whether they are true or not, and counterattacking, or going to the other extreme.

An awareness of these life-traps, when they are being triggered, and how you respond to them can, therefore, help you to determine a more adaptive way to react in these situations so that your emotional needs can be met healthily.

If you have been trying with therapy for a long time but don’t think that you are getting anywhere, please do seek out a Psychologist with experience in Schema Therapy. It has taught me much more about my own personal traps than anything else that I have done before and really does give me a sense of what my most significant challenges are going forward. I’ve made a lot of progress so far, but there is still a long way to go, and that is okay. With acceptance, self-compassion, patience, reflection and perseverance I know that I will continue to improve, and I am confident that you can too!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Please note: There are another 6 schemas or life-traps that I haven’t given you Young’s definitions for. This is because they weren’t in either of my 2014 and 2017 top 10 and were scored at under 30% each time. If you think you might have any of the following life-traps do contact me, and I’ll be happy to share their definitions with you:

  • Defectiveness / Shame
  • Social Isolation / Alienation
  • Vulnerability to harm or illness
  • Enmeshment / undeveloped self
  • Failure to Achieve
  • Entitlement / Grandiosity

Money and Happiness: How to spend for optimal benefits

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Not all the best things in life are free

I was on holidays in Queenstown, New Zealand earlier this year, and was amazed at how beautiful the scenery was. I was also amazed by how many experiences were on offer for people visiting or living there…

On my first day in Queenstown, I walked into the town and immediately saw brochures for the speedboats, canyon swings, skydiving, mountain biking, snowboarding and heli-skiing in several shop windows.

I began hiking up a mountain, and suddenly someone whirred by me through the trees on a zip line travelling at 70km/h. It looked scary, but also exhilarating.

Further up the hill, I came across a luge track where families and friends were roaring down the mountain in their carts, smiling and laughing and generally having a great time while taking in the breathtaking views. I saw people bungee jumping from a platform off the side of the mountain, and just above that were people paragliding down to the valley floor.

I don’t recall seeing many unhappy faces that day, and most people were fully engaged in the moment and what they were doing, something that is crucial for optimal well-being.

All of these activities, apart from hiking and taking in the scenery, did come at a considerable cost, however. Including the several days of skiing that I did afterwards at the surrounding Alpine Resorts.

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If I had taken more money with me on that trip to New Zealand, I would have been able to experience a more extensive array of potentially fun activities. As long as I did enjoy these activities, I do believe that they would have contributed to a higher level of happiness. But…

Can money ever buy us happiness?

Anyone who says that money can’t buy us happiness is looking at it too simplistically. I’ve seen too many clients that are financially stressed to know that a significant gift of money at their time of need would be a massive assistance to them. It would reduce their stress and hopefully increase their level of financial security, happiness and overall well-being. Right?

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By looking at past lottery winners, we are able to see that winning a large sum of money does immediately increase happiness. However, 12 months later the lottery winner has already typically returned back to their pre-win levels of joy, and are sometimes feeling even worse.

Furthermore, even people who have up to 10 million dollars of net worth often don’t feel financially secure, and still believe that if they had more money, then they would feel more secure, happier and more able to buy all of the things that they wanted.

It seems that it almost doesn’t matter how much money we have. Most people will continue to feel financially insecure and typically strive to make more money than they have currently. But is this the best way?

Another interesting study found that beyond a certain amount of money (approximately $70,000 annually), an increase in salary does not typically lead to any greater overall emotional or physical well-being. It seems that we do need to have enough money to look after our basic needs (food, shelter, water, safety etc.) and have a little bit of leisure or fun. However, making more money than this doesn’t seem to hold the answer to happiness, especially if we spend it in the ways that the majority of people do…

Why does more money not equal more happiness?

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I believe that the traps of Materialism and Capitalism are to blame, especially in Western culture. We are taught that working hard, making lots of money, and buying lots of stuff is the secret to happiness and success. This equation is just a myth however, and it is required for consumerism to flourish. Consumerism prioritises the short-term functioning and growth of a society above individual functioning or what is best over a long-term basis. It drives us to believe that we need stuff in order to be happy, and this is often at the expense of things that we really do need in our lives to flourish.

So what can we do about it?

In the excellent book “Stuffocation” by James Wallman, he makes the case that, as a direct result of our consumer lifestyle, we are now inundated with too much stuff, which is complicating our lives and stressing us out. This stress is now offsetting any of the benefits that come from the stuff that we buy. So should we throw everything out?

Wallman does explore Minimalism as a possible solution to our Stuffocation but doesn’t believe that it is the antidote, because it is purely defined by what materialism isn’t – real freedom can only come from doing what is right for us, not doing the opposite of what is wrong – it is too confining.

We could all just quit our jobs too, and stop making money, but the financial debt would catch up to us pretty quickly unless we somehow learned to become entirely self-sufficient and live off the land. Some people and communities are able to do this, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

Working less may definitely help, and Sweden has recently led the way with this by shortening their work days down to 6 hours. Many people complain about being time poor, and reducing how much time we spend at work would increase the amount of time available for people to use in whichever way they find most meaningful. This could be time with family, friends, engaging in exercise or hobbies, or taking some more time out to reflect and relax. We could cut down through improving productivity or efficiency (books like the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey or ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen could help) or cut down our commitments. Our productivity does decline dramatically if we are doing more than 9 hours of work per day or more than 48 hours per week, so this should be a useful guide for what is the maximum amount of hours that we should work for optimal happiness.

Once you have the extra time, it’s still about making sure that you spend your money in ways that will give you the biggest bang for your buck…

How to spend money in ways that can increase happiness

(1) buy more experiences and less material objects – Wallman believes that Experientialism is the true antidote to Materialism and Consumerism. We need to invest money on experiences, and not on stuff. We need to be able to engage in these experiences. They also need to be things that are accessible or that we can afford to do on a regular basis if it is going to have a large impact on our overall well-being. If you have to invest in stuff, buy stuff that will make life easier for you, so that you can have more of the experiences that you would like, and less of the experiences that you don’t.

(2) make sure that you are buying things for the right reason – A car or even a ride on lawnmower can be a way to make things easier or to have an enjoyable experience, or it can just be more stuff. We need to determine why we are wanting to buy something, and if it is about impressing others (showing our status) rather than for our own enjoyment, it probably won’t lead to long-lasting happiness.

(3) buy more frequent and smaller pleasures, rather than less frequent and larger ones – People are relatively insensitive to the price of an object, and if we buy less expensive things, we get a similar pay-off or reward (in happiness terms) for a much smaller cost. The less expensive things we buy, the less that we need to work and save, and the less credit card debt that we’ll have. With the Australian Securities and Investment Commission stating that Australians owe nearly $32 billion in credit card debt, or over $4,300 each, this is advice that a lot of us could take on.

(4) avoid credit card debt and overpriced insurance – Have you ever noticed that all of the big buildings in cities tend to belong to either banks or insurance companies. There is a reason for this. They prey on our cognitive biases and utilise effective marketing strategies to get us to buy things now and pay them for it later. The average Australian is paying over $725 of interest annually on the $4,300 that they owe on their credit card at an interest rate between 15 and 20%.  If we pay only the minimum repayments, whether it is a credit card or a home loan, it will take a long time to actually pay it off and cost you a lot more money in interest. So spending more to reduce our interest, or getting a debit card rather than a credit card will help us to not waste money for nothing in return except for immediate gratification. With extended warranties and no excess insurance, we will have to pay a premium for “peace of mind”, so it’s important to work out if that peace is worth the extra cost for you. Insurance works like the lottery – we always think “what if it happened to me?” and forget about the actual probability of these events occurring.

(5) delay gratification by booking ahead – With more expensive experiences, the further we can plan these in advance the better it is for us, because not only do we get the experience, but also the anticipation and excitement leading up to it to. So the next time you want to be spontaneous and book a concert ticket or holiday, book it for 6 months in advance, and thank me for the increased happiness later.

(6) use your money to give to or help out others – There was a study where they gave individuals $20 and half of them were asked to spend it on themselves and the other half were asked to give it away. They then tracked the happiness of these groups over a period of time. Whilst the happiness levels were similar between the two groups immediately after the event, the happiness levels of the group who gave the money away were significantly higher only two weeks later. Giving to others really does make a difference, both to them as well as to you. This is a nice message to keep in mind with Christmas around the corner.

If you are interested in other ways to increase happiness through spending, please check out the fascinating article titled ‘If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right’ by Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson.

Dr Damon Ashworth
Clinical Psychologist

7 Life Lessons That We Can Learn From Hollywood Movies

I was recently reading a book titled ‘Writing Screenplays that Sell’ by Michael Hauge and was fascinated to see how psychologically informed screenwriters need to be to create engaging stories with meaningful plots and entertaining characters.

Although Hollywood sometimes gets bad press for promoting materialistic and unrealistic goals for the audience, I do believe that some valuable life lessons can be learnt from dissecting the common elements of screenplays that result in successful movies.

Here are eight insights that I believe are important:

#1 – Be the hero of your story

Every movie has a hero that we identify with and develop empathy for. Screenwriters do this deliberately because we are likely to care more about the story and become involved in the movie if it focuses on one character and their perspective and challenges more than the other characters.

In real life, the person whose perspective we are able to most tune into is ourselves, and we feel the emotional impact of our experiences whether we like it or not (even though a lot of people try to tune these out). It, therefore, makes a lot of sense to ensure that we are the hero of our own life.

Unless you believe in reincarnation, it is generally accepted that we only have one life. Once we become adults, no one else is entirely responsible for the direction that our life goes in except for us. We are the screenwriters, directors and the main character in our story – unless we give that power up to somebody else. This is a scary thought, but also a potentially liberating one.

Although there are limitations to our abilities and dreams and it is essential to have realistic expectations, there are too many people that I see that put up roadblocks and barriers where they don’t need to be.

So if we are free to do what we want with our lives, and responsible for how they turn out, what do we want to do? Live the life that someone else wants or expects of us, or follow our dreams and hopefully achieve our goals.

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#2 – Challenge yourself if you would like to grow

Screenwriters are taught that a movie should start slowly, and build pace as the film progresses through increasing the magnitude and difficulty of challenges that the hero faces until the climax of the film. A resolution is then typically achieved, and all of the loose ends are tied up before the movie concludes with the hero being a much better person than they were at the beginning of the film. It is from overcoming bigger and bigger adversity throughout the film that the hero develops and grows. Without challenges or difficulties to master, this growth and character development would not be possible, and people would find the movie dull or boring.

In real life, I see a lot of clients who want a life free of challenge. They strive for a life of inner peace without stress or anxiety and believe that this can be achieved by consistently remaining in their comfort zone. In their comfort zone, they do the same thing each day, don’t take any risks and generally feel okay. A lot of them will tell you that something is missing, however.

We need to push beyond what feels comfortable to grow, and with this comes a certain amount of stress and anxiety. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can be a good indication that you are sufficiently challenging yourself so long as you are not feeling completely overwhelmed. Just remember to start small with tasks that feel a little scary but are also achievable, and as you build up confidence move onto more significant challenges. As long as the challenges are consistent with changes that you would like to bring about in your life, you will feel more energetic and alive than you ever could by remaining in your comfort zone. Even if you don’t succeed.

The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

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#3 – Conflict leads to more intense emotional experiences

Screenwriters are taught to create conflict in every scene where possible, usually by having two characters in the scene who have different views and objectives. This is because conflict creates emotional involvement far more than general exposition ever could, leading to a more engaged audience.

In real life, especially in relationships, this isn’t always a good thing. We might feel a more significant attraction or more intense emotional experience with someone who is actually opposed to us in what they want. I see it all the time when individuals who are anxiously attached (like being close to their partner and worry when they are apart) end up in relationships with individuals who are avoidantly attached (like their independence and autonomy and then feel trapped and smothered if they are too close). Each time it leads to an emotional rollercoaster ride, with lots of conflicts, big ups and downs, and greater emotional involvement. It keeps both parties occupied and interested, but will do more harm than good in the end.

Finding someone who wants the same things that we do may be less exciting initially, but can also lead to greater satisfaction and well-being in the long run. Be aware of the emotional trap, and use your head as well as your heart when determining if a relationship is suitable for you.

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#4 – Have clearly defined goals

All heroes will have the primary goal or external motivation that they will pursue throughout the film. Screenwriters are encouraged to make this evident to the audience so that they will cheer on the hero as they make their journey through their challenges in pursuit of their goal. In a horror movie, it may be to escape from or kill the bad guy. In a heist movie, it may be to steal the money and get away with it. In a romantic comedy, it is to win the affection of the love interest. In a coming of age story it is to learn something, and in a sports movie, it is to win.

In real life, it is essential to think of the big picture at times, and ask yourself where you would like to be in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 20 years from now? How would you want to be spending your days? Whether it is owning a business, buying a house, getting married, having children or running a marathon, these external, observable goals help keep us motivated and focused on our destination, or where we would like to see ourselves in the future. Once these goals have been achieved, they can be ticked off the list. It then becomes vital to elicit and develop further goals to pursue.

Believe big. The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success. Remember this too! Big ideas and big plans and often easier – certainly no more difficult – than small ideas and small plans.” — David Schwartz

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#5 – Understand why you want to achieve these goals – clarify your values

It may not always be explicitly stated, but a hero in a movie will still have an internal motivation or reason why they are pursuing a goal, otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth them overcoming all of the obstacles that they face to achieve the goal at the end of the movie.

Two people may want to buy a house or run a marathon, but their reasons for doing so could be completely different. One home-buyer may want security and a place to call home, whereas the other person is wanting to make their parents and family proud of them (to gain love, approval or acceptance). One marathon runner may decide to enter the race to become healthier and lose weight, whereas another may do it to spend more time with their friend or partner that loves running (for greater connection or intimacy).

Values, unlike goals, can never be ticked off the list, but are guiding principles that can either be followed or not from moment to moment or day to day. If honesty is an essential value to you, you can be honest whenever you tell the truth, and dishonest whenever you lie. By living honestly, you will be feeling more fulfilled, and by being dishonest, you will likely feel dissatisfied or guilty. Firstly clarify which values are most important to you, and then set short, medium and long-term goals that are consistent with the guiding principles that you choose. 

To be truly rich, regardless of his fortune or lack of it, a man must live by his own values. If those values are not personally meaningful, then no amount of money gained can hide the emptiness of life without them.” — John Paul Getty

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#6 – Have mentors that can help you to achieve your goals

Screenwriters call these characters reflections, and they are there to help the hero to learn and grow along with their journey towards their ultimate goal. This is Robin Williams to Matt Damon in ‘Good Will Hunting’, Mr Miyagi to Daniel-son in ‘The Karate Kid’, and Morgan Freeman in most movies (‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Bruce Almighty’, ‘The Dark Knight’). They usually don’t have a big character arc themselves, because they are already evolved in the areas that the hero is trying to improve. This is how they can know what the right thing to do is and help guide the hero on their path.

In real life, it is important to have mentors or people that have done what you would like to do, that you can turn to for help when you get stuck, have questions, or need advice. By seeking support through individuals who are more knowledgeable and experienced in the areas that you are hoping to build skills, it is possible to learn from their insights and mistakes without having to repeat them yourself, leading to a more effective learning and growth process. If they are able to be honest and direct in their feedback of your strengths and weaknesses, they can also help you to see the real you and guide you towards what is right, authentic and true, even if you don’t exactly want to hear it. Mentors can be friends or relatives, or can even be paid for or hired too. It is why people have psychologists, personal trainers and life coaches. It is also why I obtain regular external supervision so that I can keep improving towards becoming the best psychologist that I can be.

The way for you to be happy and successful, to get more of the things you really want in life, is to study and emulate those who have already done what you want to do and achieved the results you want to achieve.” — Brian Tracy. 

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#7 – It is our actions that define who we become

In his book ‘Story’, Robert McKee, a famous screenwriter, says that the hero’s character is truly revealed not in the scenes when everything is relaxed and calm, but in the choices that they make when the going gets tough and they are under pressure. The greater the pressure, the more revealing the scene is of the hero’s essential nature. Notice it is not their intentions, or things that they may speak about doing earlier in the film, but what they actually do when it really counts.

How will you react in the most significant moments in your life? With courage and persistence in spite of fear or challenge, or with avoidance, excuses or procrastination? With compassion, generosity and respect, or criticalness, selfishness and contempt? Will you talk about all of the great things you want to do or the things that you could have been, or focus on what you can still do and get out there and do it? It doesn’t just have to be big moments either.

Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great” –Orison Swett Marden

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist