How to Become Deliberately Better at Anything

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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It’s Okay to Still Fall into Life Traps… We All Do!

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, the book ‘Reinventing your life’ by Jeffrey Young 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.

A Psychologist has much more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can give you results on 18 schemas (life-traps), help you to identify your most common traps, and show you what you can do both in therapy and outside of it whenever you realise that you have fallen into a trap.

My Life-traps

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I have taken the Young Schema Questionnaire (YSQ-L3) three times now to help identify my main life-traps. 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, when I was in a Clinical Psychology job that I loved and a warm and supportive relationship. I had also stopped playing basketball at such an intense level, and was just playing with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which was way more fun.

The most recent time was August 2018, where I had just finished up my work in private practice in Melbourne, Australia and was about to leave my friends and family to volunteer for two years in Port Vila, Vanuatu as past of the Australian Volunteers Program (funded by the Australian Government).

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,
  2. personality and ways of perceiving yourself, relationships and the world can change, and
  3. even though it is possible to grow and improve over time, we all still fall into traps at times, and this is okay. It’s about trying to identify when you have fallen into a trap, and then knowing what you need to do to get out of it. 

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 2018 Results
Schema or life-trap Schema or life-trap Schema or life-trap
1. Subjugation – 75% 1. Self-sacrifice – 60.78% 1.Self-sacrifice – 60.78%
2. Dependence – 64.44% 2. Punitiveness (self) – 57.14% 2. Emotional Deprivation – 59.26%
3. Self-sacrifice – 61.76% 3. Emotional Deprivation – 51.85% 3. Punitiveness (self) – 50%
4. Approval seeking – 54.76% 4. Unrelenting Standards/ Hyper-criticalness – 48.96% 4. Subjugation – 50%
5. Punitiveness (self) – 51.19% 5. Approval Seeking – 48.81% 5. Unrelenting standards – 43.75%
6. Unrelenting standards – 48.96% 6. Subjugation – 48.33% 6. Approval seeking – 41.67%
7. Insufficient self-control – 46.67% 7. Negativity/ Pessimism – 43.94% 7. Vulnerability to harm/illness – 40.28%
8. Emotional inhibition – 46.30% 8. Mistrust/ Abuse – 41.18% 8. Negativity/Pessimism – 39.39%
9. Emotional deprivation – 42.59% 9. Dependence/ Incompetence – 41.11% 9. Dependence/ Incompetence – 38.89%
10. Abandonment – 41.18% 10. Emotional Inhibition – 40.74% 10. Mistrust/Abuse – 37.25%

What’s Changed?

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By looking at the table above, the green items indicate an improvement in comparison to the prior assessment, meaning that these life-traps are a little bit less powerful for me. The yellow indicates no change since the last assessment, and the red indicates a worse score, meaning that these life-traps may have a more powerful sway over me.

From 2014 to 2017, 7 out of the initial top-10 life-traps had improved, one stayed the same, and two had worsened. Two additional traps not included in the initial top 10 had worsened and made the list (Negativity/Pessimism & Mistrust/Abuse).

From 2017 to 2018, 7 out of the 2017 top-10 life-traps had improved yet again, with one staying the same and two worsening. One additional trap (Vulnerability to harm/illness) had increased, but I believe this was due to the medical and safety briefings that I had been going through in the preparation of moving to Vanuatu for 2 years.

 

Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life-trap in 2018 than I was in 2014 and 2017. The average of my top ten in 2014 was 53.29%, whereas in 2017 it was 48.28% and in 2018 it was 46.13%.

I also rated 21 items a 6 (= describes me perfectly) in 2014, only five in 2017, and none in 2018. This means that I am much less likely to get completely pushed around by my life-traps, but they still do have some sway on me, especially the self-sacrifice and the emotional deprivation schemas, and to a lesser degree punitiveness and subjugation.

Here is Young’s description of these schemas:

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.

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.

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 behaviour, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out”, substance abuse).

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

Three out of my top four life-traps have improved since 2014, but emotional deprivation unfortunately continues to climb with each assessment. I’m not entirely sure why, but I do think that self-sacrifice, subjugation and emotional deprivation schemas may be common life-traps for people who decide to become psychologists. The therapeutic relationship is meant to be one sided, and focused on the patient or client’s needs, not the psychologist’s needs. It is for this reason that it is crucial for psychologists to get their relational needs met outside of their job, and to get their own therapy if needed to ensure that they can have a space that is about them too. I wonder how these life-traps will continue to evolve over the next two years while I am in Vanuatu…

How Can Life-traps Be Overcome?

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The 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 maladaptive environments. What this means is that your life-traps 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. Then if things didn’t work out, I couldn’t be blamed. I saw it as a win-win, but often didn’t get what I wanted, because I didn’t speak up, and then complained that my parents loved my siblings more, who were more than happy to speak up and ask for what they wanted.

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. If I keep playing martyr and refuse speak up as an adult, my needs still don’t get met. As a result, I may become excessively demanding of others as a counterattack measure (not likely for me), or I may try to escape from all relationships where I need to speak up about my needs. Either way, it keeps the life-trap going, and it isn’t helpful.

I need to realise that there are relationships out there where it is beneficial for me to speak up, as people then know what I want, and can then respond effectively to the situation at hand. It still doesn’t “feel right” when I think about telling others my wants or needs (and I’m not sure if it ever will), but I logically know that it is the best approach for me to take going forward. If I want to break free from my main life-traps, I have to learn to speak up, in a reasonable way, when it is important to me (and others). By doing this, eventually, the life-traps will become much less prevalent and less powerful too.

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. If you are stuck in a relationship where your needs aren’t being met, it could help too.

Learning about Schema Therapy and undergoing training in it has taught me more about my own personal life-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

 

P.S. For a full description of the other 14 maladaptive schemas, please click here.

Change is Possible (and Inevitable)!

I haven’t announced it on my blog until now, but there have been a lot of changes for me lately…

After an amazing five years of Clinical work at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre and Victorian Counselling and Psychological Services, I have decided to finish up and take on a brand new and exciting challenge.

On August 16th, I left Melbourne, Australia, and flew to Port Vila Vanuatu, where I will be living for the next two years. I will be taking on a volunteer role as part of the Australian volunteers program, which is funded by the Australian government.

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The title of the role is Mental Health Specialist (Clinical Psychologist), and I will be assisting the Ministry of Health in Vanuatu with the implementation of their National Mental Health Policy and Strategic Plan. While my exact role description still remains vague, already I’ve met some great people, given a talk to Police Academy cadets about mental health, substance abuse and self-care, and assisted in the facilitation of a five-day training with 60 health care professionals, service providers and community leaders from all over the Shefa province in Vanuatu.

I came over to Vanuatu hoping to put into place effective ways to increase mental health awareness, reduce stigma and increase access to effective psychological interventions for anyone who could benefit from them, and it looks like that process has already begun!

Finishing up with my clients and leaving behind my life in Australia has been hard, but it’s also helped me to really appreciate what I have in my life in a way that I maybe wouldn’t have been able to without making this move. It’s really led to me reflecting on my life, in particular my last five year and the challenges I’ve been through, the amazing experiences I’ve had, and the people I’ve met along the way. I’ve changed and grown in many ways I couldn’t have imagined, and for that reason I’ve decided to do a pre-departure assessment of where I am at on all of my favourite psychological assessments.

This article will focus on the changes to my character strengths over the last year. I’ve already compared them from 2013 to 2017. This looks at how they have changed since then. Positive psychologists believe that happiness can be sought out and fostered by discovering our natural character strengths and virtues, and then putting them into action on a more regular basis.

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My Top Character Strengths

I will present my 2018 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: Spirituality, Sense of Purpose and Faith

Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme: having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2017: 23rd
Average score = 23.5.

I do think that having a belief system about how things work in life is crucial to well-being, as is having a higher purpose and meaning in life. I just don’t tend to see my spiritual beliefs to be much of a strength.

23: 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

2017: 24th
Average score = 23.5.

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 appetite is a different story, however. I’d love to be able to do it.

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

2017: 22nd
Average score = 22.

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, but find myself to be more cautious than I would like to be.

21: 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

2017: 19th
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 try to be humble, but do believe that I have psychological skills and knowledge that can be useful to others.

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

2017: 20th
Average score = 20.

I would love it if this were a greater strength for me, but low energy has unfortunately been a long-term issue. Maybe this will change in Vanuatu!

19: 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

2017: 21st
Average score = 20.

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. Even though my agreeableness and co-operation are extremely high, I probably don’t always see this as a key strength.

18: 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

2017: 17th
Average score = 17.5.

My cautiousness levels are usually really high. Taking the risk of moving to Vanuatu is a big one, but I spoke to a lot of previous volunteers before I left, and they all seemed to love it here. So far, I do too.

17: 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

2017: 12th
Average score = 14.5

This has gotten worse, but this could be related to me doubting how much I can pick up on how people are really feeling. I like to try and see things from others perspectives, but prefer to clarify what someone is thinking rather than assume that I already know.

16: 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

2017: 10th
Average score = 13.

This has dropped a little. I do try to persevere with projects that are important to me, but my low energy and fatigue can get the better of me sometimes.

15: 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

2017: 11th
Average score = 13.25. Overall rank = 17th

My gratitude has dropped, but not because I don’t value it. Gratitude practice can do wonders for some people. For me, I try to do it whenever I am getting too caught up in all the little details of life or catastrophizing about something.

14: 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

2017: 16th
Average score = 8.75. Overall rank = 5th

Leadership used to be a key strength back in the day, but now I try to work in a much more collaborative way and seek first to understand where others are coming from and what they want rather than just telling them what to do.

13: 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

2017: 18th
Average score = 15.5.

I’m glad that this has improved as much as it has over the past 14 months. Optimists tend to take more risks in life and experience better health in general. Sometimes caution is good, but not if it stops you from doing the things you really want in life.

12: 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

2017: 6th
Average score = 9.

It’s interesting to see this drop so much over the last year. I wonder if it has to do with the guilt I felt at leaving clients and family and friends in Australia when moving to Vanuatu. I would like it to go back up next time.

11: 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

2017: 9th
Average score = 10.

I do try to appreciate the natural beauty of life, and love visiting national parks and going hiking. All the beaches and sunsets in Vanuatu are beautiful too, and it’s nice to sit on the balcony of where I live, and have a great view of the water.

10: 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

2017: 13th
Average score = 11.5.

This has improved too, but it is particularly tough stepping into a new culture with Ni-Vanuatu, French, Chinese, and many other people in Port Vila too. Engaging with them all on a regular basis without fully knowing what their cultural norms and mores are is challenging, and I’m sure I’ll offend people without meaning to, but hope to become more familiar with all of this over the next two years.

9: 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

2017: 8th
Average score = 8.5.

Authenticity is something that I value a lot. I strongly believe that more genuine and authentic people tend to live happier and more fulfilling lives, and being honest is so much easier than having to keep remembering what you said and who you said it to.

 

8: 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

2017: 14th
Average score = 11.

It’s nice that this has improved. 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.

 

7: 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

2017: 4th
Average score = 5.5.

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.

 

6: 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

2017: 7th
Average score = 6.5.

Being original and non-conventional was quite important to me while growing up, but took a back seat when I got married and bought a house in the suburbs. I realised the traditional life was not right for me, and I strongly advocate for you to do what is right for you rather than just going along with familial or societal pressures.

 

5: 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

2017: 2nd
Average score = 3.5.

This has decreased a little bit since 2017, but is ahead of where it was in 2013. I am glad that it is still in my top 5, as I do value being able to change my mind over time, especially when there is evidence contrary to what I previously believed.

4: 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

2017: 15th
Average score = 9.5

I love stand up comedy and have always wished that I was a bit more playful than I have typically been. It’s so refreshing to see how much this has jumped over the past year, and how it is now one of my key character strengths.

3: 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

2017: 5th
Average score = 4.

Doing the random acts of kindness challenge in January 2018 was a nice way to increase this. Volunteering is also a way to be kind and generous with my time and clinical skills.

 

2: 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

2017: 3
Average score = 2.5

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.

 

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

2017: 1st
Average score = 1.

This was definitely NOT a strength of mine back in school. Up until 3rd grade, I loved learning new things. Then I stopped reading for fun and put my energy into sport and video games. Once I began studying my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, I re-found my love of learning new things, and haven’t stopped since then!. I’ve read over 70 books already this year, and my thirst for new knowledge on how people can improve their mental health and overall well-being seems insatiable.

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Can Our Key Strengths Change?

A key strength is what you would put in your top 5 strengths. Fairness, equity and justice has dropped out of my top 5, and humour and playfulness has climbed in. I became more hopeful, forgiving and socially intelligent over the past year too, although these are still not considered key strengths of mine. If all of this means I am getting back to being a little less serious and having some more fun over the past year, then I’m pretty happy with the changes I’ve made and the overall direction that I’m heading!

My Top Virtues

Based on my 2018 findings, my top virtues are as follows:

Wisdom – 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 17th. Average score = 6.2

Humanity – 3rd, 10th, 12th. Average score = 8.33

Justice – 7th, 14th, 19th. Average score = 13.33

Transcendence – 4th, 11th, 13th, 15th, 24th. Average score = 13.4

Courage – 9th, 16th, 20th, 22nd. Average score = 16.75

Temperance  8th, 18th, 21st, 23rd. Average score = 17.5

My transcendence scores improved the most, with my wisdom dropping slightly over the past year but still holding onto the top spot. I’d love for courage to improve more by the next time I do the test.

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Does It Matter Which Strengths We Have?

Maybe. What is most important I think 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.

Only curiosity is in my top 5 (at #2), so either I try to build more hope, zest, gratitude or love in my life, or I accept that this is currently what my strengths are and aim to put them into practice on a more regular basis.

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What do you think? Should we all try to have the same strengths that have been linked with increased life satisfaction on average, or should we put our own unique strengths into action more?

Even better, why don’t you find out what your key strengths are by taking the VIA Survey of Character Strengths at the VIA character website, and then let me know what your key character strengths are and if you would prefer for other items to be in your top 5!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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(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

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“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

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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

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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

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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

How Much Could You Change Your Personality in a Year?

In April 2017, I looked at how my personality changed from 2011 to 2017 on the IPIP-NEO, my favourite free online personality test (see the website personality assessor and choose the IPIP-120 if you are interested in taking it). I wrote this up for the Deliberately Better article: Is it possible to change your personality?

Prior to April 2017, I had never really looked at how my personality changed over time – I was just looking at how I rated myself in comparison to other males of my age from Australia. I then recently read Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 rules for life, and my favourite rule was #4:

“Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today.”

After reading this book, I thought it would be a good time to go back and see how my personality has changed over the past 15 months since I last took the IPIP-120. I already know that my psychological, emotional, spiritual and workplace self-care have improved this year, but do these changes contribute to positive personality changes too? Let’s find out…

My Personality Assessment Results From April 2017 – August 2018

The IPIP-120 results shown underneath are from April 12th 2017 to August 1st 2018, with the description of each factor and facet written underneath it copied or paraphrased from the reports found at personality assessor.

The Factor or Facet will be presented first, followed by a series of …, then the 2017 percentile score results, which are surrounded by ( ), then the 2018 results, which are not in any brackets or parentheses.

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Extraversion…………… (48) – 74

I am high in Extraversion. Extraverts are sociable and like to take risks and feel lots of positive emotions. 

This change is interesting to me. I do agree that I have been focusing on connecting with others more and have been feeling more energetic recently, but I am still surprised to see this factor increase so much. I do find socialising with others quite tiring after a while, and often need to have time for myself to unwind and recharge.

The six facets of extraversion are:

Friendliness…………… (58) – 88

I’m very high in my desire to be around other people and show an interest in their lives.

This has increased a lot over the past 15 months. I value quality time more than quantity time when it comes to spending time with friends but have realised just how important connection and belonging is for overall health and well-being.

Gregariousness……… (42) – 77

I’m very high in flocking toward other people and being talkative and sociable around them.

I am much more comfortable in having downtime by myself or with one or two people these days, rather than going out to clubs or big parties or festivals. Even so, this increase over the past 15 months supports my resurgence towards being more sociable again like I was when I was younger.

Assertiveness………… (13) – 34

I’m more assertive than I used to be with others, but there is still a low chance that I’ll take charge and lead others.

I have begun to speak up more for myself and express my needs better over the past 15 months. I still prefer to help people be the person they want to be, rather than try to lead them or tell them who I think they should be.

Activity Level………… (79) – 90

I prefer very high levels of activity, such as being on the go and staying busy.

This has increased over the last 15 months and may indicate that I am feeling more energetic, or that I am currently rushing around too much and trying to do too many things all at once. I hope that if it is the latter that I do manage to slow down, relax more and be more mindful of this going forward.

Excitement-Seeking… (87) – 81

I like to seek very high levels of thrills.

This has decreased a little over the past 15 months, which indicates to me that I have increased the amount of excitement I have in my life and enjoy it when I experience it.

Cheerfulness………… (54) – 70

I experience high levels of happiness, joy, and other positive emotions.

This is a great improvement and indicates that the regular mindfulness, gratitude, savouring and reflective practices that I have been engaging in are making a positive difference for me. I am also finding it easier to express positive emotions with others, including love, hope and excitement.

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Agreeableness…………… (89) – 90

I am very high in agreeableness. Highly agreeable people tend to do whatever it takes to have positive relationships with other people. 

This hasn’t changed much over the past 15 months. I don’t think it needs to be any higher either, as there could be some negatives with being too agreeable all the time.

The six facets of agreeableness are:

Trust……………… (89) – 90

I’m very high in believing that other people are generally good and not out to harm others.

Given the choice, I’d always rather give people the benefit of doubt, to begin with, until I see evidence to the contrary. This is better than distrusting everyone except for those who prove themselves to me. I think if you believe others to be good and portray this in your dealings with them, it gives most people a reputation that they’ll want to uphold.

Morality………… (65) – 79

Sticking to the rules and treating everyone fairly is of a very high value to me these days.

Reading the essay “Lying” by Sam Harris really helped highlight the importance of being honest, or at least not lying to people. It’s also Jordan Peterson’s 8th rule for life. The more straightforward and congruent we can be with others, generally the better outcomes and connections we will have. Secrecy often creates a chasm that can be difficult to bridge, and having to remember which lies you told to which people is just too tiring.

Altruism………… (85) – 90

I am very high in wanting to be good to other people, including helping them when they need it.

This has continued to increase over time, which is great to see. The more people I can help with the time that I have, the better, as far as I can see. It could lead to burnout if I don’t look after myself too, but generally, kindness has more positive health benefits than negative in the long run.

Cooperation…… (99) – 99

There are extremely high chances that I’ll try to get along with other people.

This has remained as high as it can possibly be. That means that if you have an issue with me or something that I have written and want to try to sort it out, please do contact me. I will do my best to try to resolve it in whatever way I can.

Modesty………… (71) – 44

I have about average levels of modesty, which means that I don’t like to brag or show off too much, because these types of behaviours can be harmful to relationships. 

Too high a modesty can sometimes mean low self-esteem, and the drop in this score indicates to me a greater level of self-confidence. I hope that it doesn’t swing too far, but it’s nice to not see myself as any better or worse than anyone else.

Sympathy………… (84) – 76

I have very high levels of sympathy for other people, which includes caring about them and wanting what’s best for them.

This has dropped a little bit over the last 15 months. I think it’s better to be empathetic (“I will try to feel and understand what you feel”) rather than sympathetic (“I feel bad or sorry for you”). I definitely care about others and want the best for others, but never want to come from a position of superiority.

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Conscientiousness…………… (70) – 74

I am high in conscientiousness. Highly conscientious people are diligent, hard-working, and responsible.

This is the highest that my conscientiousness has been in the 6 times I have taken the test since 2011. In the book “The Longevity Project” which tracked individuals across 80 years to look at factors influencing healthy ageing, conscientiousness was the only personality variable associated with a longer and healthier life.

The six facets of conscientiousness are:

Self-Efficacy………… (62) – 77

When I need to do something, I have a very high level of belief that I can get it done and do it well.

This has increased quite a bit over the past 15 months, and has been boosted by the various challenges that I have taken on.

Orderliness……… (80) – 88

I prefer very high levels of cleanliness and order in my environment.

It wasn’t that I didn’t prefer this in 2011 and before that, but that I really struggled to stay organised with everything. Doing a Doctoral degree definitely helped with this, as did having a very organised partner in 2014 and reading the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen.

Dutifulness……… (27) – 28

I’m low in sticking to my word, keeping my promises, and upholding my obligations.

As bad as this description makes it sound, I am actually happy that I do fewer things out of a sense of duty or obligations these days. I am more likely to tune in and figure out if something is consistent with my values and my best long-term interests before committing to something or just saying yes and then later regretting it. It means that resentment is less likely to build up for me because I am doing what I want, not what others want me to do.

Achievement-Striving… (88) – 79

I have very high desires to work hard and get ahead.

This has dropped a little over the last 15 months, and this is because I now see just how important social connection and relationship warmth is for long term health and happiness.

Self-Discipline………. (49) – 69

I have above average self-discipline—which is the ability to get to work quickly, stay focused, and avoid distractions or procrastination.

I’m super happy that this has improved over the past 15 months. After putting off making videos for most of 2017, I have now created 31 videos for my youtube channel in 2018. I’ve also been able to stick with some of the challenges I have set for myself this year.

Cautiousness……… (89) – 88

The odds are extremely low that I’ll just jump into things without really thinking them through.

This hasn’t changed much over the years, and I continue to spend high amounts of time planning what to do. I probably would benefit by being a bit more spontaneous at times with less important things, as well as get into more productive action as soon as I know what the right path is for me to take.

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Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Neuroticism…………… (29) – 13

I am very low in Neuroticism. This means that I experience low levels of negative emotions, like anger, fear, and stress.

The six facets of neuroticism are:

Anxiety…………… (25) – 6

Compared with other people, I have extremely low stress, fears, and worries about the future.

This is the lowest that my anxiety score has ever been. I now feel much more resilient, which means that no matter what comes my way in the future, I have a strong feeling that I’ll be okay and that I will be able to figure out how to get through it.

Anger………………… (7) – 8

My levels of anger and irritability are extremely low.

This has increased slightly over the years since 2011, which means that I am now more aware of when I feel resentful, irritable, frustrated, mad or angry. I basically never lose my cool, but am able to identify what does tick me off much more than I used to, which helps me to stand up for myself.

Depression……… (10) – 9

Compared with other people, I now feel extremely low amounts of sadness and like myself to a high degree.

This has continued to improve over the years’ thanks to much psychological therapy, better relationships and ongoing self-improvement.

Self-Consciousness… (71) – 50

I like to draw very low levels of attention to myself and feel high amounts of unease when interacting with others socially (especially strangers).

I have been drawing more attention to myself over the last few years through blogs, podcasts and videos, which does make me feel a bit self-conscious at times. If it helps even one person however, it is worth putting myself and my ideas out there, even if it is scary.

Immoderation…… (46) – 32

I have about average self-control when it comes to resisting temptations; there are about average chances that I’ll give into my desires and binge (on shopping, eating, drinking, or whatever my vices are).

This has decreased a bit over the past 15 months, which is consistent with my increase in self-discipline. I’ve been saving a lot more money lately and making less impulsive choices in what I buy. Having a mortgage to pay off now does help too, especially with an offset account that I put all my money into every month. It leads to a sensation of less disposable income that I have to waste on whatever I feel like in the moment.

Vulnerability…… (45) – 14

The chances that I’ll be overwhelmed by difficult circumstances are about average.

This has decreased heaps over the last year. Similar to the anxiety drop, I feel less under threat and more resilient no matter what occurs.

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Photo by Oliver Sju00f6stru00f6m on Pexels.com

Openness to experience…… (93) – 95

I am extremely high in openness to experience, and increasingly so over the past seven years. Openness is a broad, diffuse personality dimension with many seemingly different facets. In general, highly open people like a variety of new experiences, whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or cultural.

The six facets of openness are: 

Imagination………… (15) – 14

I have very low imagination and therefore tend not to use it too much to escape reality or daydream.

This has continued to decrease over time. I tend to stick more to the facts of a situation and how I can improve it than wistfully imagine that it will fix itself or that I will win the lottery.

Artistic Interests…… (69) – 71

I have high openness for art, music, culture and other aesthetic experiences.

This has been consistent over the years, especially my love of music, movies, good TV shows and reading.

Emotionality……… (89) – 90

My attunement to my own and others’ emotions are very high. Whereas cheerfulness and excitement seeking (facets of extraversion) capture my propensity to feel positive emotions and neuroticism capture my propensity to feel negative emotions, emotionality refers to my overall openness to/desire to truly feel emotions.

This has improved a lot since 2011, and regular mindfulness meditation has helped a lot.

Adventurousness…… (90) – 95

I prefer very high amounts of variety, and new experiences in my life and have a very high openness to new experiences.

This has increased even more over the last 15 months and comes out in my love of travel, learning new things, and taking on new challenges.

Intellect…………… (90) – 89

My desire to play with ideas, reflect on philosophical concepts, and have deep discussions is very high.

I love to read widely and am very willing to have interesting conversations with anyone about anything, even if they don’t agree with my viewpoint on things. Learning about different cultures and their different expectations and belief systems is especially interesting to me, and something I look forward to doing more of in the future.

Liberalism………… (97) – 97

My political liberalism is extremely high, and my political conservatism is extremely low. I desire progressive change. 

I fully believe that everyone should be free to live the life that is right for them as long as it doesn’t do any harm to others. I believe that governments should help guide people to make healthier choices, but still give them the option to do what they want.

 

Which Areas Changed the Most?

The two factors that changed the most were extraversion (26 percentile point increase) and neuroticism (16 percentile point decrease) over the past 15 months. The biggest facet changes for extraversion were an improvement in gregariousness (35 point increase), friendliness (30 points) and assertiveness (21 points). The biggest facet changes for neuroticism were a reduction in vulnerability (31 point decrease), self-consciousness (21 points) and anxiousness (19 points).

I also became less modest (27 point decrease), more self-disciplined (20 point increase), more self-efficacious (15 points), and more moral (14 points).

Which Areas Stayed the Same?

The other three factors barely changed, including Conscientiousness (a 4 point increase) Openness to Experience (a 2 point increase) and Agreeableness (a 1 point increase).

Only two facets didn’t change at all – co-operation and liberalism (both very high). Trust, dutifulness, anger, depression, imagination, emotionality, and intellect only changed one percentile point, and four other facets changed less than five percentile points.

In all, 18 facets changed less than 10 percentile points from 15 months ago, and 12 changed more than 10 percentile points.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What I Recommend?

If you have been trying to change something for a long time and haven’t been able to, maybe it is worth seeing if you can accept and embrace this quality about yourself, or if you can at least see some of the positives that come with it.

If there are things about yourself that you would like to improve, seek out people who seem to do these things well, and learn from them what you can. If you don’t have anyone in your life who represents these qualities, a book, Youtube and many other online resources are now available to help give you the skills, knowledge, motivation, perseverance and ongoing support that is required for successful long-term change.

I’ve been able to either accept or change a lot of things about myself over the past seven years, and am now much happier with the person I am. I wish you all the same 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.

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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:

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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

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