How to Become Deliberately Better at Anything

At the start of 2018, I launched an idea called Deliberately Better.

IMG_7015

Deliberately Better was created with two main aims in mind:

  1. It was intended to inspire people to believe in positive change, and
  2. It was meant to motivate others to want to put some tangible and small steps into place towards achieving their overall goals and improving their life.

While these are admirable aims, I’m not quite sure if this vision has been fully realised. The Facebook group has over 300 members presently, but engagement has been variable, and it hasn’t been as much of a community of people sharing their positive improvements as I initially hoped…yet!

One of the reasons for this could be put down to how busy everyone is. But that is the case for every group on Facebook, so I’m not going to rationalise it away like that. Another possible explanation is that I haven’t been clear enough with the basics of skill acquisition, to begin with. Before we can improve anything, we must first know what steps to take if we want to develop something.

person sitting on hill
Photo by Manoj Bisht on Pexels.com

My Journey Towards Becoming Deliberately Better

My love of learning has now been my #1 key strength the last two times I have taken the VIA Character Strengths Survey. My curiosity and interest in the world have also climbed from 3rd to 2nd, which means I am always taking in new information and trying to see how I can apply these findings into my own life. I haven’t always been like this, and I definitely don’t expect everyone else to be either.

Growing up, I had a fixed mindset for sure. It meant that I thought that things like personality and intelligence and even sporting or academic capabilities were what they were and could not be changed, even with practice. It is for this reason that I hated training for sports such as basketball, and hated homework even more. It’s also why I managed to go from being second in my class and getting A+ in Mathematics in year 9 to nearly flunking out in year 11 and getting an E+ on my end of Semester exam. I had always been told how “good I was at Maths”, and equated this with being able to do it quickly without putting in much effort. That is the definition of talent, and maybe I was naturally talented with Maths to some degree, but talent can only take us so far…

Some books really helped me to change my view on this:

  1. ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell
  2. ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ by Carol Dweck
  3. ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by Angela Duckworth
  4. ‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’ by Anders Ericsson

‘Outliers’ was the first book that I read. The main takeaway message I got from this is that to really become an expert at something, it requires a lot of effort and a lot of time, and there is no such thing as an overnight success, even though the media likes to portray things in that way. The Beatles, Bill Gates, and especially any fantastic violin player all had to put in many hours of deliberate practice – as many as 10,000 hours before they are truly exceptional.

‘Outliers’ helped me to focus less on what I was talented at, and more on thinking about what I would be willing to spend 10,000 hours doing. Psychology came back as the logical answer for me, and I’ve been applying myself towards learning as much as I can about the field and the latest research ever since.

‘Mindset’ was the second book I read and taught me that a fixed mindset can be turned into a growth mindset. The way to do this is to focus on the process rather than the outcome, and to focus on effort applied rather than results achieved. By being happy with how much I apply myself towards something and how quickly I try something again after a setback, I just feel more and more encouraged to keep pushing myself and growing rather than being afraid of making a mistake or staying in my comfort zone.

‘Grit’ was the third book and highlighted to me the simple equation that success = talent x (effort x effort). Essentially, how much effort we put into getting better at something is much more important than how talented we are initially at something. Talent is still valuable, and factors such as height do play a role in likely someone is to be a successful jockey, gymnast or basketball player. However, it will never carry you all the way to the top or help you stay there.

Both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have remained atop the tennis world for so long based on how meticulous and reflective and hard-working they are. Bernard Tomic never realised his potential for the opposite reason. He didn’t like to work hard, and even found the “I’m a celebrity…get me out of here!” jungle to be too harsh an environment to stick around in. If we want to be grittier, we need to identify our passion first, and then persevere through whatever obstacles and challenges may come along in pursuit of our goals.

The last book that I read was ‘Peak’, and this really highlighted the difference to me between play and deliberate practice. Play is generally fun, not too specific and not too challenging. Deliberate practice is very focused on learning a particular skill, that is challenging and just outside of one’s comfort zone, and can be very draining and often not that enjoyable. I’d previously wanted to get better at things while having fun, but knowing that this may not be possible was actually a relief. Now if I want to get better at something, I expect it to be painful and frustrating at times. The fun comes when I see my improvements, and the next time I apply these newly acquired skills through play.

silhouette people on beach at sunset
Photo by Dana Tentis on Pexels.com

How Do You Get Better At Something Though?

With most things, people do get better quite quickly when initially learning something new, even without too much effort. If you are willing to spend 20 hours on actually trying to learn a skill, and schedule these hours into your daily and weekly schedules, you will always get better than someone who doesn’t prioritise the task or put in the time.

If you follow the following 10 principles of rapid skill acquisition, as set out by Josh Kaufman in his book ‘The First 20 hours: How to Learn Anything Fast’, you will improve:

  1. Choose a loveable project
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time
  3. Define your target performance level.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into sub-skills.
  5. Obtain critical tools.
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice.
  8. Create fast feedback loops.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts.
  10. Emphasise quantity and speed.

After 20 hours, learning and further skill acquisition then begin to plateau off, and you will then have a further choice:

  1. If you are happy with where you are at concerning this skill, then enjoy it. Go out, have fun, and put any of the time that you spend on this skill into play. You will have fun, but may not get much better, and that’s okay too. I’ve been that way with juggling since high school, and still enjoy it when I do it. OR
  2. Keep striving to improve, highlight areas for continued improvement and what skills to focus on, get feedback on your progress and/or coaching from an expert in that field, and alternate periods of deliberate practice with periods of play too. It won’t always be fun, but you will get better.

Tim Ferriss is also a bit of a role model for me when it comes to his dedication towards lifestyle design or self-improvement. His third book ‘The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life’ is mostly a cookbook but also goes into skill acquisition in the first 100 pages, which makes it the most random cookbook I’ve ever seen. He uses the acronym DiSSS to help you to remember the steps of getting better at any skill:

D = Deconstruction: What are the minimal learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?

i = Nothing, DiSSS is easier to remember than DSSS.

S = Selection: Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?

S = Sequencing: In what order should I learn these blocks?

S = Stakes: How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?

Now that you know what the experts say about improving any ability quickly and efficiently, I want to share with you my 8-step process towards becoming deliberately better.IMG_7016

The Deliberately Better 8-Step Process

Step 1: Determine if there is a skill that you would like to learn that you would be willing to spend 20 hours learning. If there is, write it down.

Step 2: Find an expert in this skill who has done what you would like to do or has helped at least five people to do what you want to do. This could be either in person, in a book or over youtube.

Step 3: If their learning process is not easily described, ask them if you can book an appointment in with them in person or over the internet or if you can send them a few questions via email.

Step 4: Ask them to deconstruct the skill for you, help you to select the 20% of this learning process that is likely to give you at least 80% of the outcome you are going for, and what you should be tracking to assess progress and get feedback along the way when you are stuck or need help.

Step 5: Obtain a baseline assessment of where you are at with the overall skill or the areas that you would like to improve so that you can monitor your progress and see how much you have grown by the end.

Step 6: Learn the skill for 20 hours and track what you did and your progress by writing it down or recording it in some way (audio or video), getting feedback along the way as needed.

Step 7: Conduct a final assessment to measure how much you have improved since you first began at the skill and all crucial areas that you wanted to upgrade.

Step 8: Share how you found the whole process with the Deliberately Better Facebook group, show us (and the expert if you want to) how much you improved, what the science suggests for people who wish to develop this skill themselves and where people can go to learn more, including:

  • experts to see
  • books to read
  • videos to watch
  • courses to take

This is where I see the real benefits of having a community of like-minded people, all coming together to support and encourage each other with whatever it is that we are trying to improve, and providing guidance wherever it is needed along the way.

beach ocean sand sea
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I hope that you found some of this information interesting, but more importantly, I hope that it does inspire you to believe that change is possible and motivate you to try something new and grow. If you do, we’d love to hear about your challenges and successes over at Deliberately Better. I wish you all the best on your journey!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Advertisements

25 Ideas That Could Change Your Life

1. KAIZEN

jesus-in-taiwan-372790-unsplash.jpgA Japanese term meaning “improvement”.

I think of Kaizen as ‘continuous improvement’ or ‘continual change for the better, one small step at a time’, as this is how I first heard of the term.

A lot of the successful Japanese manufacturing companies in automobiles and technology have used this exact approach to obtain massive success over time.

What could you achieve if you just focused on taking one small step in the right direction today, and then another one every day after that?

2. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE…

luca-iaconelli-242679-unsplash.jpgGandhi did not say “Be the change you want to see in the world” even though it is often attributed to him. What he actually said was this: 

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

3. BE HERE NOW

john-baker-349282-unsplash

If we are fully present in the moment and aware of what is going on both internally and externally, we have a choice in what we decide to do.

If you do not feel present, meditate, ground yourself, get outside, move and connect with your five senses in the moment and the world around you.

“Awareness is all about restoring your freedom to choose what you want instead of what your past imposes on you.” – Deepak Chopra

4. CHOICES DEFINE YOUR LEGACY

andre-benz-230277-unsplash

This happens through a lengthy process of choices becoming actions, actions becoming habits, and all of your habits informing your character and ultimate legacy. A quote along these lines has been attributed to a Mr Wiseman in 1856, and it tells us that whatever we sow, we must later reap.

It is therefore essential to engage in as many helpful actions as possible when we still have a choice and before they become habitual. The more engrained something is, the easier it is to do automatically, and the harder it can be to stop.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” – Donald Hebb

5. LIFE WASN’T MEANT TO BE EASY

david-kovalenko-414249-unsplash

We often don’t appreciate things that just fall into our lap, and we tend to value things much more when we put in some hard work to get it. Even people that build their own IKEA furniture rate the furniture as being more valuable than people who see that same furniture complete but haven’t made it themselves.

I know I’d be more proud of the $3million I built up through hard work than the equivalent amount of money won through a lottery. How about you?

Anything in life worth having is worth working for.” – Andrew Carnegie

6. THE MAGIC HAPPENS OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

john-towner-117317-unsplash

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” – Brian Tracy

So many people want a comfortable life and therefore stick to what feels safe. Unfortunately, if you are not willing to feel uncomfortable, your life will only get smaller over time.

When you first step out of your comfort zone, it will be scary, you will feel awkward, and it may even feel unsafe. But is it really, or does it just feel threatening because it is new? If at this moment, you run back to what you are used to, you won’t grow. However, if you can persist through the initial pain, it will only get more comfortable in time, and your comfort zone will continue to expand and grow.

7. RETHINK WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE

andreas-fidler-400356-unsplash

What is real freedom to you?

Doing whatever your parents, school, bosses or government wants you to do? UMM NO. This is called compliance.

Being a rebel and doing the exact opposite of what your parents, school, bosses and government told you to do? STILL NO. This is called counterpliance and is always defined by what you have been shown to do, which means that you are still part of the system. Plus you may end up grounded, expelled, fired or in prison, which doesn’t sound too free to me.

Just living for the moment and indulging in all of your passions and pleasures whenever you want, because YOLO, right? NOPE. This is called hedonism, and may feel great for a night, but not for a lifetime. It can have some pretty nasty side-effects too if you aren’t careful, including weight gain, disease, debt, dissatisfaction and even death.

True freedom must come from making the choice that is likely to be the best for you in the long-term, even if it denies you that last alcoholic drink or dessert, or the fun that happens after 2am, or that extra TV episode, or the added snooze time in the mornings. If we can’t get ourselves to do things that are difficult or painful in the short-term but beneficial in the long run, we can never honestly be free in the long-term. As a former NAVY SEAL famously said:

Discipline equals freedom.” – Jocko Willink

8. GETTING STARTED IS ALWAYS THE HARDEST PART

angelina-litvin-32188-unsplash

The secret of getting ahead is getting started” – Mark Twain.

In a book that I once read (the Willpower Instinct I think), I came across a 10-minute rule that I found surprisingly useful. Basically, if you are not sure if you are up for doing something, give it a go for 10 minutes, and if after 10 minutes you still don’t feel up to it, stop. I tried it a few times with going to the gym, and usually, once I get there and get into it, I’m fine, but my brain often tries to tell me that I am too tired before I go.

The reason the 10-minute strategy seems to work is that it is much easier to get our brain to do something for 10 minutes than it is for a considerable chunk of time. This is because it requires much less energy when we are forecasting our capacity to do the task. Human brains are cognitive misers, which means they are always trying to “help” by conserving energy. If you want to get started or you feel tired, think small. Also…

9. THE FIRST DRAFT OF ANYTHING IS RUBBISH

rawpixel-567018-unsplash

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.” – Ernest Hemingway

This quote is fantastic because too often people think that the need to produce a masterpiece the first time they try or do something. If one of the most famous authors of all time produced crap on their first draft, why should we expect more on ours? The solution is to focus on the process, not the outcome, and just produce work before trying to edit, review or criticise what you have done.

10. DON’T PUT THINGS OFF TIL LATER

george-pagan-iii-624417-unsplash

If something takes less than 2 minutes to do, don’t write it down or add it to your to do list – do it now.” – David Allen, Getting Things Done

Most people have so much stuff to do at any one time that it is very difficult to ever get their to-do-list down to zero. This can cause anxiety and stress for some people, but the key is to have an excellent system to manage everything that comes in so that you don’t have to keep worrying and thinking about all of the things you need to do. Getting things done, or GTD is one such system. And the two-minute-rule from GTD says that small tasks should never go on your to-do-list if you can just get them done now. This rule alone means that my email inbox rarely has any unopened or unreplied emails.

11. BE YOURSELF; EVERYONE ELSE IS TAKEN

christopher-sardegna-1735-unsplash

Some believe that Oscar Wilde first said this, but the fascinating quote investigator website said that they could not find it in any of his writings. Keith craft said something similar that I like better, in announcing that we all have a unique fingerprint and that we can, therefore “leave a unique imprint that no one else can leave.”

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

12. WE REGRET THE THINGS WE DON’T DO MORE THAN THE THINGS WE DO

ryan-christodoulou-366476-unsplash

When making a decision about the future, we tend to think about what we may lose if we take a risk. However, when reflecting on the past, we feel more regret about what we missed by not taking a chance. The question then becomes, do we:

  1. Play it safe, and not put ourselves out there because people may judge us or criticise us for giving something a go and not succeeding? Or
  2. Criticise others for being brave enough to try something that they believe in? Or
  3. Throw caution to the wind and give it our best shot, knowing that we will learn and grow more from mistakes and setbacks than we ever would have by sitting back and criticising others?

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

13. FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY!

essential-prints-705744-unsplash

Susan Jeffers was my hero back when I read her top-selling self-help book. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to get rid of the fear before I acted fearlessly.

The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris then further highlighted to me that the action of confidence tends to come before the feeling of confidence, not the other way around.

Fear was designed to keep us safe as a hunter-gatherer but holds us back more in modern day life than it helps us sometimes. We need to instead assess the real level of risk whenever we feel fear, and go for it if the situation feels scary but is actually pretty safe. This could be horror movies, roller coaster rides, plane flights, or public speaking.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – FDR inaugural address, 1932

14. WYSIATI

tom-barrett-329280-unsplash

What you see is all there is.” – Daniel Kahneman

How you are thinking and feeling in the moment is very much influenced by how you are thinking and feeling at the moment. If you feel on top of the world, you are likely to be feeling happy, thinking positively about yourself, others, the world and the future. Anything may feel possible. Then the next week you have a setback or get sick, and you start to feel depressed and hopeless and think negatively about yourself, others, the world and the future. Both can’t be true, if they are only a week apart, so it’s important to understand the power of WYSIATI.

Don’t think too big picture if you are feeling flat and down, and try not to shop if you’re too hungry. The choices you’ll make once you’ve picked up a bit and have eaten something are likely to be very different.

15. MEMENTO MORI

aron-322314-unsplash

Latin: “Remember that you have to die.

In many cultures around the world and through history, the acknowledging of our own mortality through prayer, meditation, reflection, ceremony, or celebration is much more common than it is in atheistic modern-day Western life.

The phrase memento mori helped people to consider the transient nature of earthly life, our goods and our pursuits and enabled them to become humble and clarify what was really important to them.

16. THINGS FADE; ALTERNATIVES EXCLUDE

Two things that are inevitable in life are:

1. no matter what we do, time passes and things erode over time (also known as the second law of thermodynamics), and

2. if we go down one path, we cannot go down another track at the same time.

– “Decisions are difficult for many reasons, some reaching down into the very socket of our being. John Gardner, in his novel Grendel, tells of a wise man who sums up his meditations on life’s mysteries in two simple but terrible postulates: “Things fade: alternatives exclude.” […] Decision invariably involves renunciation: for every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options (the root of the word decide means “slay,” as in homicide or suicide).” – Irvin Yalom (1991). Love’s executioner. p. 10. Penguin Books.

17. PARKINSON’S LAW

kevin-392517-unsplash

Ever wondered how on some days, when you are super busy, you manage to get way more work done. Then on quiet days, you don’t have much work to do, but struggle to get it all done. The reason for this is Parkinson’s law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

The Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s rule is better in my opinion, and it is something I used a lot when studying at uni:

If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

If productivity is what you are going for, give yourself a closer deadline and someone to hold you accountable if you don’t meet it, and voila, productivity and efficiency improve!

18. THE IMPORTANCE OF MEANING AND PURPOSE

david-iskander-599063-unsplash

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche was a nihilist, which meant that he didn’t think the world had any meaning in it. Irvin Yalom said that even if the world is meaningless overall, it is still essential for each of us to find things that are personally meaningful to us, either as an individual or as a group. Viktor Frankl showed that in the concentration camps in WWII, those with some higher purpose beyond the camps were the ones who could manage to survive the horrible atrocities they faced every day.

What’s personally meaningful to you? Where could you find purpose?

19. DON’T LISTEN TO THE DOUBTERS

samuel-zeller-358865-unsplash

Impossibility is not a fact – it’s an opinion.” – Muhammed Ali

Think of anyone who has done something groundbreaking or is still trying to do something pioneering today – Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Bill Gates. I wonder how many of them were told to give up, grow up, stop being deluded or to think realistically? I’d say most of them.

Just because something hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had the massive amount of progression that we have had over the past 200 years.

20. CLARIFY YOUR VALUES AND MAKE DECISIONS BASED ON THESE

austin-mabe-209276-unsplash

(Some people spend) their lives doing work they detest to make money they don’t want to buy things they don’t need in order to impress people they dislike.” – Emile Gauvreau

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your life has to be a certain way just because everyone else is doing something a certain way and telling you that you should too.

By clarifying your own values first and building your own hierarchy, you can then see if what you are currently doing is consistent with what is really important for you. If not, what changes could you make, that you’d be willing to make, that would help you to start heading in the right direction? The earlier that you make these changes, or at least concrete plans to make them, the higher chance there is that you will be happy with the path that you are on.

21. RELATIONSHIP WARMTH IS THE NUMBER ONE PREDICTOR OF LONG-TERM HEALTH AND HAPPINESS

kevin-delvecchio-273275-unsplash.jpg

“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.” – Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus – The Minimalists

The minimalist movement has really picked up in the last 20 years in response to most of us in the Western world having way too much stuff and realising that it doesn’t make us any happier. If anything, it causes us more stress. Clothing used to be a scarce and valuable thing. Now wardrobes and houses are overflowing, and storage facilities are popping up everywhere to help clear some space.

What if we just bought fewer things, and focused more on what really matters: our connections with the important people in our lives. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard study of Adult Development, found that in the end, close relationships are more critical to our health and happiness than anything else.

22. OCCAM’S RAZOR

2photo-pots-207533-unsplash

Given several possible explanations about something, the simplest one is probably right.

Is the dog above trying to read, or is it merely sniffing the book?

Occam’s razor is why conspiracy theories are never likely to be true. Think about the moon landing, or 9/11, or the Illuminati, flat earth theories, or any other conspiracy out there. For the plot to be real, there are so many added levels that would have all had to run flawlessly for them to work out, and so many people would have had to keep this a secret for such an extended period of time without turning themselves in or trying to make money out of it in a tell-all. It’s much more likely that there is no conspiracy.

Occam’s razor can also be applied to losing weight, sleeping well, getting stronger, or improving any skill. Some people have complicated theories, but usually, the answer lies in relatively simple explanations. Doing too much, or complicating things beyond what is necessary often backfires.

Reduce things back to the bare essentials, and see what happens.

23. LAW OF DIMINISHING RETURNS

maria-mekht-159066-unsplash.jpg

The law of diminishing returns says that each time we do something to receive a benefit, the benefit will be less and less.

Let’s say you order this massive stack of pancakes in the picture above. The first pancake may taste amazing, and the pleasure received is a 9 out of 10. Each bite is likely to be slightly less enjoyable than the one before, especially after you become full. If you somehow managed to get through the whole stack, the last bite could be a 1 out of 10 on the pleasure scale. Come back for pancakes again next month, however, and pleasure bounces back up to a 9 out of 10 again.

The solution is to wait for long enough between doing the same thing twice so that you enjoy it just as much the next time.

Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.” – William Cowper

24. BE KINDphotography of a man and woman laughing

 

If you’re kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.” – Mother Teresa

If you know why you are doing something, try not to worry about what others think. People who do not understand why you are doing what you are doing will choose to see it from their point of view. If they could not do what you are without getting something in return, they will assume the same intention is within you. But being kind is a reward within itself. If you can give just for the sake of it, do it. You can thank me later.

25. DESIGN YOUR OWN LIFE

valentina-conde-691014-unsplash

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and (you should) just live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again“. – Steve Jobs

As far as I see the world, we only have one life to live. We can spend it doing what others expect of us, or we can spend it doing what is right for us. We can blame everyone else for how things turn out, or we can go our own way.

Regardless of what you decide, time passes, and eventually, you will either feel that you made the most of what you had, or you will accumulate regrets. I try to live my life with no regrets, and I wish the same for you too.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

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.

love

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.”

77667

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.

photo-1524467187625-53159d8702bb

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:

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAz4AAAAJDVhYWQwZDM3LTFjMTUtNGNjNy1iZTgzLWNmN2MyYjE5ZGQwMA.png

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.

Image result for alone together sherry turkle

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).

photo-1524482131769-b23c0f633d7c

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

Money and Happiness: How to spend for optimal benefits

tomas-sobek-124155.jpg

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.

Treblecone

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?

fabian-blank-78637.jpg

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?

marion-michele-66097

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