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

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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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

Can Your Personality Type Change Across Time?

I tried out a new personality test website the other day called 16 personalities. I came up as an Advocate, or an INFJ-A. This is a Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) type personality test for those who aren’t familiar with the letters:

  • The I means I am an introvert (63%) more than an extrovert (37%), and can “get exhausted by social interactions”. It also means that I recharge my energy through solitary activities.
  • The N means I am intuitive (58%) rather than sensing or observant (42%), and that I am “very imaginative, open-minded and curious”. intuitive individuals “prefer novelty over stability and focus on hidden meanings and future possibilities”.
  • The F means that I am feeling (72%) rather than thinking (28%), and am “sensitive and emotionally expressive”. Feeling individuals are “more empathic and less competitive than thinking types, and focus on social harmony and co-operation”.
  • The J means that I am judging (60%) rather than perceiving or prospecting (40%). This means that I “approach work, planning and decision making” in a “decisive, thorough, and highly organised” way. Judging individuals “value clarity, predictability and closure, preferring structure and planning to spontaneity”.
  • The A means that I am assertive (65%) rather than turbulent (35%). Assertive individuals are “self-assured, even-tempered and resistant to stress. They refuse to worry too much and do not push themselves too hard when it comes to achieving goals”.

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HOW HAS MY PERSONALITY CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

What’s interesting is that I have taken the MBTI on several occasions and have achieved very different results. Way back before I sought any personal therapy, about 10 years ago, I was an ENTJ, which is a Commander. This does not seem to fit me at all any more, but did back then, when I was much more competitive and egotistical. I was young, and thought I had it all figured out. My father called me “un-coach-able”, and he was my basketball coach for at least 2 seasons, which isn’t great news. It might explain why I have one of the ugliest jump shots going around, and no range from outside the key.

I then became an ENFJ when I took the test about 5 years ago, which is sometimes referred to as a Protagonist. It meant that I was still an extrovert, but I had switched from a thinking to a feeling subtype. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to fit me too much either anymore, as I really don’t try to lead others. I instead try to help them to understand themselves and become the person they want to be, not who I think they should be.

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IS IT WORTH COMPLETING A PERSONALITY TEST?

Normally, I’ve been fairly dismissive of the MBTI, as it doesn’t have a lot of scientific evidence supporting it. However, the description of the Advocate personality type on the 16personalities website was creepily spot on in some regards for me, including:

“INFJs are not idle dreamers, but people capable of taking concrete steps to realize their goals and make a lasting positive impact.”

“INFJs tend to see helping others as their purpose in life, but while people with this personality type can be found engaging rescue efforts and doing charity work, their real passion is to get to the heart of the issue so that people need not be rescued at all.”

“It makes sense that their friends and colleagues will come to think of them as quiet Extraverted types, but they would all do well to remember that INFJs need time alone to decompress and recharge, and to not become too alarmed when they suddenly withdraw.”

“The passion of their convictions is perfectly capable of carrying them past their breaking point and if their zeal gets out of hand, they can find themselves exhausted, unhealthy and stressed.”

“One of the things INFJs find most important is establishing genuine, deep connections with the people they care about.”

“There is a running theme with INFJs, and that is a yearning for authenticity and sincerity – in their activities, their romantic relationships, and their friendships.”

“INFJs seek out people who share their passions, interests and ideologies, people with whom they can explore philosophies and subjects that they believe are truly meaningful.”

“people with the INFJ personality type make loyal and supportive companions, encouraging growth and life-enriching experiences with warmth, excitement and care.”

“INFJs don’t require a great deal of day-to-day attention – for them, quality trumps quantity every time.”

“First and foremost, INFJs need to find meaning in their work, to know that they are helping and connecting with people. This desire to help and connect makes careers in healthcare, especially the more holistic varieties, very rewarding for INFJs – roles as counselors, psychologists, doctors, life coaches and spiritual guides are all attractive options.”

“INFJs crave creativity too, the ability to use their insight to connect events and situations, effecting real change in others’ lives personally.”

“INFJs often pursue expressive careers such as writing, elegant communicators that they are, and author many popular blogs, stories and screenplays. Music, photography, design and art are viable options too, and they all can focus on deeper themes of personal growth, morality and spirituality.”

Other people may disagree with me, but these quotes were consistent with how I’d like to see myself, and the things that I truly value in life.

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RECOMMENDATION

If you’ve never taken an MBTI personality test before, check it out at 16personalities.com and let me know if it was as accurate for you as it was for me. If you’ve already taken it, I’d love to hear about if it has changed over time, and if your description now feels more accurate than what you were defined as in the past?

 

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

What Are the Secrets to Long-term Happiness, Health and Wellbeing?

Recently I’ve begun taking an interest in a field called public health. The World Health Organisation has defined public health as:

“The art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society” — Acheson, 1988

As time has gone on, there have been some studies that have helped public health to become less of an art and more of a science.

My favourite two public health studies are:

  1. The Longevity Project (also known as ‘The Terman Study’)
  2. The Harvard Study of Adult Development (also known as ‘The Grant Study’)

What makes these studies exceptional is their duration (80+ years) and the willingness of their participants to continue to be regularly assessed throughout their entire lives. Called prospective longitudinal studies, they both give us a rare chance to actually see which factors contribute to later illness or long-term health and well-being.

I aim to share these groundbreaking findings with you.

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The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” — Isaac Asimov

 

1. The Longevity Project

Over 1,500 of the most promising and brightest boys and girls were initially recruited in 1921 by the Psychologist Lewis Terman. He died in 1956, but the study continued for decades afterwards. All participants were born around the year 1910 and were studied for over 80 years to figure out who would live the longest and why.

Although each of the children was considered to be potentially gifted at the time, not all of them lived long and happy lives. Fortunately, the extensive data of these subjects has been intensely assessed and analysed for over twenty years at The University of California, Riverside.

The significant findings of the study have been summarised in the 2011 book “The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long-Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study” by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. I listened to this audiobook recently, and was quite surprised with some of their key results:

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The 10 TRUTHS of Longevity:
  1. It is important to live honestly
    • “A key part of one of the healthy paths is called ‘The High Road.’ Such an individual has good friends, meaningful work and a happy, responsible marriage. The thoughtful planning and perseverance that such people invest in their careers and relationships promote long life naturally and automatically, even when challenges arise.”
  2. Do NOT send your children to school at an earlier age than their peers
    • “Starting formal schooling at a very early age turned out not to be a great idea for most. Children need unstructured play time, and they need to get along with their peers; starting out young seemed to alienate them.”
  3. Illness is NOT random
    • “Those that live longer are often healthier throughout their years and (managed to) avoid serious ailments altogether.”
    • “Those who are healthier tend to be happier, and those who are happier tend to be healthier.”
    • “It’s never too late to choose a healthier path. The first step is to throw away the lists and stop worrying about worrying.”
    • “Thinking of making changes as taking ‘steps’ is a grand strategy, You can’t change major things about yourself overnight. But making small changes, and repeating those steps, can eventually create that path to longer life.”
  4. Good marriages lead to better health, especially for men
    • “Marriage is only health-promoting for men who are well-suited to marriage and have a good marriage. For others, it is more complicated.”
    • “Women who stayed single, were widowed or got divorced often thrived more than women who were married to troublesome husbands.”
    • “Men who stayed divorced were at really high risk for premature mortality.”
  5. Divorce during childhood predicts early death in adulthood
    • “The single strongest social predictor is parental divorce, as it often pushes the child into many unhealthy directions, including heavier drinking and smoking, less education, lower career achievements and a greater risk of later divorce themselves.”pexels-photo-541518
  6. Follow the long-term recommendations that are right for you
    • “The long-lived did not find the secret to health in broccoli, medical tests, vitamins or jogging. Rather they were individuals with certain constellations of habits and patterns of living. Their personalities, career trajectories and social lives proved highly relevant to their long-term health, often in ways we did not expect.”
    • “You need to make changes that will be sustainable in the long term. We say, if you don’t like jogging, don’t jog! Instead, begin doing things that you really enjoy and can keep up, like a walk at lunchtime with a friend or vigorous gardening.”
    • “The usual piecemeal suggestions of relax, eat vegetables, lose weight and get married are lifesaving for some, but neither effective or economical for many.”
    • “Some of the minutiae of what people think will help us lead long, healthy lives, such as worrying about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the foods we eat, actually are red herrings, distracting us from the major pathways. When we recognise the long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns in ourselves, we can begin to maximise the healthy patterns.”
  7. Conscientiousness is the most critical personality factor for longevity
    • “Conscientiousness is very important. Unconscientious boys, even bright ones, are more likely to grow up to have poor marriages, to smoke more, to drink more, achieve less education, be relatively unsuccessful at work, and die younger.”
    • “Conscientious people stay healthier and live longer for three reasons:
      1. They do more things to protect their health.
      2. They are biologically predisposed to be healthier, and
      3. They tend to end up in healthier situations and relationships.”
  8. Working hard can be useful for you
    • “Those who worked the hardest often lived the longest…especially if they were involved in meaningful careers and were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.”
    • “It was clear that working hard to overcome adversity or biting off more than you can chew—and then chewing it—does not generally pose a health risk. Striving to accomplish your goals, setting new aims when milestones are reached, and staying engaged and productive is exactly what those heading to a long life tend to do. The long-lived didn’t shy away from hard work; the exact opposite seemed true.”
  9. Resilience is protective for health
    •  “Depending on the circumstances, a traumatic event such as parental divorce could actually contribute to a longer life, if the child learned to be resilient.”
    • “Resilience is important, and can be achieved via a sense of personal accomplishment, strength of character and maturity.”
    • “Combat veterans are less likely to live long lives, but surprisingly the psychological stress of war itself is not necessarily a major health threat. Rather, it is a cascade of unhealthy patterns that sometimes follows. Those who find meaning in a traumatic experience and are able to reestablish a sense of security about the world are usually the ones who return to a healthy pathway.”
  10. Human connection is important
    • “Having pets can improve well-being, but they do not help people live longer, and are not a substitute for friends.”
    • “People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well-being.”
    • “The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others.”
    • “It is important to be well-integrated into your community.”
    • “Connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.”
    • “The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become — healthy or unhealthy.”

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2. The Harvard Study of Adult Development

The study began in 1938, and the goal of this longitudinal prospective study was to identify predictors of healthy ageing in real time. For 79 years, it has examined the lives of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-1944 until their death, including eventual US President John F. Kennedy. It has also incorporated many of their offspring as well as 456 disadvantaged inner-city youths who grew up in Boston between the years of 1940 to 1945.

Earlier this year, I listened to the 2012 audiobook by George Vaillant, titled “Triumphs of Experience.” He was the previous director of the study.

The primary research findings include:
  1. “Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.”
    • Alcoholism precedes marital difficulties and is the leading cause of divorce, with 57% of the divorces being traced to alcoholism.
    • Alcoholism can also lead to the later development of depression and neurosis.
    • Alcoholism is the most significant predictor of early death alongside cigarette smoking.
  2. “Above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t matter”
    • There is no significant difference in income earned by men with an IQ of 110-115 when compared with men who have an IQ higher than 150.
  3. “Ageing liberals have more sex.”
    • While political ideology has no significant impact on life satisfaction overall, the most liberal men continue to have an active sex life into their 80s, whereas conservative men are more likely to cease having sex by the age of 68.
  4. “For good or ill, the effects of childhood last a long time.”
    • A warm childhood relationship with the mother predicts greater financial earning later in life ($87,000 more in comparison to males who had uncaring mothers), greater effectiveness at work later in life, and a three times lower risk of dementia in old age.
    • A warm childhood relationship with the father predicts lower rates of anxiety and pessimism during adulthood, increased life satisfaction later in life, reduced difficulties in letting others get close and greater enjoyment of vacations throughout life.
  5. “It is not any one thing for good or ill—social advantage, abusive parents, physical weakness—that determines the way children adapt to life, but the quality of their total experience.”
    • This essentially means that what goes right during childhood tends to matter much more than what goes wrong.
    • If bad things happen, as long as they are outweighed by the good, you are more than likely to still turn out okay.
    • “Bleak childhoods were not always associated with bleak marriages.”
    • “Restorative marriages and maturing [psychological] defences” are “the soil out of which resilience and post-traumatic growth emerge.”
  6. “People really can change, and people really can grow. Childhood need be neither destiny nor doom.”
  7. Even the death of a parent was relatively unimportant predictively by the time the men were fifty; by the time they were eighty, men who had lost parents when young were as mentally and physically healthy as men whose parents had lovingly watched them graduate from high school.
  8. Prudence, forethought, willpower, and perseverance in junior high school were the best predictors of vocational success at age fifty.”
  9. “All of the fifty-five Best Outcomes had gotten married relatively early and stayed married for most of their adult lives. Proportionately three times as many of the Best Adjusted men enjoyed lifelong happy marriages as the Worst.” 
    • The effect of marriage was even starker for the inner-city men of the Glueck Study: “two-thirds of the never-married were in the bottom fifth in overall social relations, 57 percent were in the bottom fifth in income, and 71 percent were classified by the Study raters as mentally ill.”
    • “It turned out that happy marriages after eighty were not associated either with warm childhoods or with mature defences in early adulthood—that is, you don’t have to start out ‘all grown up’ to end up solidly married.”
  10. “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” or in other words – “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
    • Spouses mutual dependence on each other was associated with happy and healthy marriages. At age eighty-five, 76% of the men still alive said that their marriages were happy.
    • “The majority of the men who flourished found love before thirty, and that was why they flourished.”

For more information, see the latest director of the study Robert Waldinger talk about the key findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development. His TED talk has over 16 million views at this time of publication:

I hope that you find these highly significant findings as fascinating as I do. They really do highlight the benefits of investing in ambitious public health studies such as these two.

They also give us the best scientifically supported indicators yet of the paths that you want to go down or the changes that you need to make if you’re going to live a happy, healthy and long-life.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist