Why do we stop using a gratitude diary when we are happy?

Oahu's North Shore by ttrygve via FlickerHow often do you use a gratitude diary?

Do you use a gratitude diary? Some people recommend using one weekly.  I have used one daily but I’ve found that when I’ve had a particularly bad day or when things are going particularly well, I don’t use it.

Why leads us to skip our gratitude diary routine?

I pondered the latter, particularly.  At first, I thought that when I already feel positive,  I spontaneously avoid becoming more positive.  After all, after positive comes irrational optimism and I like to keep my feet on the ground.

My one-off test

Then I disciplined myself to jot down some notes on a lazy Saturday morning and I decided that the opposite is true.  It strikes me that we veer away using a gratitude diary when life is going well because it reminds us of our underlying anxieties.

It’s reasonable to avoid spoiling the party but anxieties are anxieties because there are serious matters in our lives that might not work out well.  Acknowledging anxieties does not have to be mood-dampening.  Cleaning dust out of a corner doesn’t make us think our house is permanently dirty (though we might marvel at how much collects).

Acknowledging anxieties keeps us in touch with rich tapestry of life and makes life fuller and more enjoyable.  At least, that’s my current thesis.  Time to get back to using a diary, I think.

What do you predict? ‘Events’ notwithstanding, will I be better off for cleaning out the subconscious anxieties that I  would be quite content to ignore if I thought I could?

Happiness is managed like clean hands – regular washing?

Happiness, big media and blocked comment

Today, Hamish McRae wrote an article in the Independent on happiness and what national survey of happiness tell us about the role of government in our live.

I wrote a comment only to find comments partly blocked off.  So here it is.

Economist should find the maths of happiness easy

Basically, I suggested that Mr McRae might like to to look up the more sophisticated models of happiness.  Economist should find them easier to follow than most and might take the lead in an informed debate on happiness.

Then I followed through trying to explain the implications of using Lorenz equations to understand happiness by likening happiness to clean hands.

Lorenz equations and Losada’s model of happiness

You might like to Google Losada’s work on happiness and review the mathematical model underlying his thinking.  Happiness surveys presume that happiness is a linear phenomenon where happiness is more-or-less and can be measured as a fixed point with an error score.

More sophisticated views of happiness see it as a phase state (fractal type) defined by a handful of variables linked recursively to each other.  In this model, a fixed point (the measure of happiness above) would indicate severe mental illness.  In other words, someone who is resolutely cheerful despite the circumstances is ill.

Managing happinesss (and unhappiness)

As one commentator said, you are possibly writing about unhappiness.   We know how to create that.  Simply have people reeling from petty difficulties all day long with little respite and they will sink into misery.

Hence the buffering techniques such as gratitude diaries and appropriate ways to deal with distress (funerals, grieving etc.)

Just as hands get dirty and must be washed, our lives have misfortune which must be dealt with.   But misfortune isn’t dealt with by ignoring it just as dirty hands aren’t dealt with ignoring it.

A gratitude diary works like the washing of hands putting dirt where it belongs and reminding us of the pleasure of clean hands.  We know our hands will get dirty again but that is the cyclical process of much of life.

Getting involved in the national debate on happiness

Anyway, economists should grasp the Lorenz equations  easily and might add to a more informed public discussion of happiness.

The rest of us can experience the management of happiness in simple ways: mourning and grieving for what has past, keeping a gratitude diary, focusing on what goes well and not what goes badly.   These alone stop us sinking into misery and spreading it around.

Happiness & sorrow are two sides of a coin; it’s in the maths

4 puzzles of positive psychology

I forgot to finish my series on the 4 puzzles of positive psychology, but I was reminded by lines I read in Khalil Gibran.

The maths of happiness

Old school

It is easy to forget that everything written about psychology is based on an underlying mathematical model.  Psychologists like measuring things and as soon as they do, they’ve made an assumption, whether they realize it or not, about the shape of the thing measured.

Much of our work uses as straight line – like the ruler we used as school.  We fill in questionnaires. We get points and we get a score. We think of intelligence, for example, as being a straight line.  We have more. We have less.   And we can describe our intelligence as a point on that line.  A point.

New school of positive psychology

Positive psychology tosses that assumption of as straight line out of the window.  Mostly.

We stop seeing something like intelligence or happiness as being more or less.  We discard the line.  And we definitely discard the point.  Points will now signify illness. And what’s more, serious illness requiring hospitalization and round the clock care.

The new school of positive psychology psychological phenomena in terms of “flourishing” or “languishing”.  Are we moving around the world freely, or are we stuck in the mud unable to move in any direction?

The mathematical model that we now use describes what is means to be flourishing.  It is a model of movement, not a model of stillness.  It is a model of action & reaction and how we change from one moment to the next.  It is not a model of how we stay the same.  If we are a fixed point, then the new model regards us as ill.

Kahlil Gibran came to my rescue to explain the combination of happiness and sorrow  in poetry

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

Sorrow and joy are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.  When our life is all one or all the other, we are ill.  We are living in a make-believe world.”

Personal, persistent & pervasive

But being what we are, we humans tend to think that “what is” will continue forever.  When times are bad, we tend to feel that bad times will continue forever.  We often feel that a situaton is “personal, persistent & pervasive” when in reality is nothing more than  a natural oscillation that in this moment is giving us particular pleasure or sadness.

The danger is that in our anxiety we might bring our worst fears to pass.  The trick of a flourishing life is to mourn that which should be mourned but not to over-generalize and claim that everything else is also a source of sorrow.  Nonetheless, over-generalizing is a trap that we all fall into sometimes.

Happiness is not a point – it is constant movement between many points

Enough for now.  The important idea to grasp is that happiness is not a question of a mark on a ruler.  Happiness exists only in contrast to sorrow; so it coexists with sorrow.  Oscillation between the two, and all the points in between, is normal and healthy, because without sorrow, it would not be possible to be happy. It would not be possible to appreciate happiness.  If nothing changed, if nothing ever changed, we would not even notice it were there.  It is impossible to be happy all the time because if we were, we wouldn’t notice.

Not a contraction; just maths

It is not a contradiction to say that happiness includes sorrow.  It just depends up on the maths that you assumed at the beginning  : a line of fixed points or constant movement in space.

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Oh! What poiesis taught me about auto-poiesis

Poiesis

I learned something very interesting just now.  The Greek word for poetry is poiesis – ‘making’.

That wouldn’t have been too dramatic a discovery but management theorists are fond of the word auto-poesis.

Auto-poiesis

Autopoiesis literally means “auto (self)-creation” (from the Greek: auto – αυτό for self- and poiesis – ποίησις for creation or production), and expresses a fundamental dialectic between structure and function.

We like this word in management because it expresses the constant interplay between our relationships with the world and ourselves.

Autopoiesis vs allopiesis

An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory).

Management theory in the 21st century

Much of the management theory I grew up with was about allopoietic systems.  How do we turn inputs into something that we will send out or away?  X and Y.

Indeed, even allowing for the transformation of X into Y is somewhat of a novelty for a psychologist.  To have a feedback loop from Y to X is so challenging that the loop mysteriously disappears from some text books!

When we think of ourselves as autopoietic, we allow that “if organization of a thing changes, the thing changes.”  Here we are saying that every time a bolt and a washer, or indeed anything enters a factory, or a car leaves a factory, the factory itself has changed.

We are less concerned with what goes in and what goes out and more concerned with way the factory reinvents itself minute-by-minute.

An example of an autopoietic system

It’s a bit giddy-making when we switch from one idea to the other.

For the research minded

It is easier for research, stats-minded people to see the idea when they think of Losada’s work on the maths of happiness.  Happiness is made up of three things yet any one these is not happiness, or even the beginning of happiness.  The three things are a positivity/negativity ratio of around 5 to 1, slightly more curiosity than advocacy, and slightly more interest in the outside world than ourselves.  We don’t add up these three variables.  Rather, they “feed” off each other. At any one time their coordinates (x,y,z) can be anywhere in a 3D space shaped like a 3D butterfly.

Happiness means we have a big plump space and the coordinates swoop around.  Unhappiness means they have a repetitive circle or limited space.  Here we see the dialectic between structure and function.

We are healthy when we are constantly regenerating ourselves in response to the world around us and what we were a minute ago.

We become ill when we don’t look after who we were one minute ago (right now in other words) and we don’t attend to what is going on around us.  We are ill when our head is anywhere except here and now.

There is room for day dreaming, planning and reminiscing.  But as the icing on the cake.  Devoting space to what we are not is not healthy. A healthy mind is asking what is going on now and celebrating what is rather than what is not.

For the non-research minded

For the non-research minded, lets think of a cake made of flour, eggs and sugar.  We can vary the proportions, or at least good a baker can, and by varying proportions we get a good range of delicious cakes.   To have one type of cake all the time is boring.  Happiness, in this analogy, is a wide variety of cakes from plain biscuits to luscious forest cakes.   We have a plain biscuit today and we feel like a rich cake tomorrow, and vice versa.

Life becomes grim when the recipe never changes or we try to swap eggs for something else (like potatoes).  We need constant variety within broad rules.

We need to enjoy each cake for what it is.  A dry biscuit is that.  It is not chocolate cake. It never will be.

We also need to bake the cake. Happiness is the cake. Not a line of eggs, sugar and flour on the kitchen table.  It is a baked cake.  It is the product of interacting parts mixed sensibly.

Poiesis

I didn’t know that poetry means makingAuto-poiesis is the poetry of ourselves. The constant interplay between structure (me) and function (the world).

The Noughties, Positive Psychology and New Year Resolutions

The psychological breakthrough of the noughties

One of the most surprising yet little understood results of psychological research this decade has been the Losada ratio.  Simply, you will get depressed if you experience more than 1 minor negative event to every 3 moderate positive events.

How do we remain sane on trains and tubes and cramped uncomfortable workplaces, I wonder.  Well we don’t.  We languish.  We become inflexible.  Our creativity drops.  And all our energy goes into managing the negativitiy.

Of course, we should become resilient.  Some even say we should become ‘hard’.  But we aren’t saying we should extinguish all negative results.  When negative stuff falls below 8%, we get manic.  The flip side of the 3:1 ratio is 11:1.  We need to be somewhere in between.

We will take 17% of nonsense

The optimal rate is 5 moderate positive to 1 mild negative events.  Let’s spell that out.  People will take a mildly negative comment in the company of 5 moderately positive comments.  You can be mildly unpleasant 17% of the time without demolishing the creativity productivity and creativity of your team. Surely that is sufficient quota for you!!

A simple model of 3 factors

The amazing thing about this research result is the positivity/negativity ratio is believed to interact with two other ratios.  In addition to being positive, it is also healthy to ask slightly more questions about facts, figures and other people’s views than to put on the table what we already know.  Moreover, it is healthy to be slightly more concerned with life outside the group than with internal processes.

Groups that interact in these ratios have moments when they are positive, questioning and externally-oriented and moments when they are negative, internally-oriented and pushing their own point of view. They also have all manner of combination in between the two extremes. If we assume they are one-or-the other, they have 2x2x2, that is 8 states they can be in.

Understanding whether a group is healthy

How can we tell whether a group that is presently negative, internally-oriented and pushy is permanently in that state,  or in a natural swoop of mood?

Simply we cannot tell, until they change. Life isn’t a spectator sport.  If we want to know what  kind of group we are in, we have to hang about long enough to find out.

Funnily enough, if we are curious enough to stay, if we are willing to put our eggs in their basket, then they are more likely to swing into a more positive state.  We should remember though that emotion is contagious.  If they are in a very bad mood, take care to give yourself space to stay positive.  And don’t preach.  Ask! Or as Ben Zander says, apologize and invite. Preaching to preachers doesn’t get them to listen!

Understanding whether a group will stay positive

Also remember, that joining a positive team that seems on top of the world is no guarantee that they will stay there.  Indeed, if they are healthy, they will not stay there.  They will swoop downwards and they are probably about to begin a downward sweep.  So be sure you are happy to join them on the ride.  Be happy that you will join them  . . .

That’s the way to judge a project.  Are you welcome and do you trust this group enough to put up with the bad times?  In sickness and in health?

The question for New Year’s Eve

Remember life isn’t a spectator sport.  Who exactly are you loyal too?  That is the question for New Year’s Eve.  That’s the reason for New Year’s Eve.  To remember those to whom are we deeply committed in the year ahead.

Is it fair to puncture someone’s anger with active listening?

Writing to understand

I’ve been writing myself into this this morning.

Does active listening work? And who for?

When someone is angry, and we are genuinely curious about what led to their anger, won’t they calm down?

Is active listening fair?

Do they have any other choice?  If they have no choice, are we bullying them?  Do they lose out, in real terms or in psychological terms, when we really listen to them?

Will passive-aggressives let you listen to them?  Won’t that spoil their fun?

Of course, someone who is in the habit of passive-aggression, or who habitually plays a “double-bind”, might be very disconcerted.  They might feel deprived.  But how long will that last?  I think we need some clinical psychologists to comment on that!

Aren’t misunderstandings the key to getting along?

Earlier today, I wrote on the value of misunderstandings. If we go around the world looking for misunderstandings, relishing them, enjoying them, then aren’t we able to listen to people who seem to blunder from one misunderstanding to another?

So what can we do about people who enjoy being angry?

To give my thoughts a more real-world test, I ran my mind over several people I know who really enjoy being angry. It is their modus operandi.  I think they would prefer not to be.  But they daren’t not be.

When we listen to persistently angry people, they won’t let us listen.

They quickly side-step any inquiry about who they are or what they want from life.

Yes, we do have to hear their anger first.

  • We have first to deal with the immediate situation that has got them going.
  • And then the general situation about what made them feel disrespected by the world.
  • And then with what is deeply valuable about their contribution to our well-being.

Modern day maths helps explain being in love with anger

The maths of phase-states might help. This is a relatively new form of maths for me and I hope I don’t mis-explain or misunderstand it.

When we are healthy, we loop about through all moods  adjusting to reality and because of reality.  It makes no more sense to be permanently cheerful than it does to be permanently angry.

Systems flip out of control though.

We can get in a rut where we use a very limited range of emotions.  We go in circles, rather literally when our moods are drawn on a graph.

And when we are in a very bad way, we get stuck on a single point.  Let’s assume that people who are in a very bad way will get the help of a professional and put them aside for a moment. We don’t help them on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s just think about ourselves when we flip out of the swooping 3D butterfly that is normal and healthy and limit ourselves to an endless repetition of happy-sad, happy-sad, never growing and doomed to repeat ourselves rather precisely, often in the sad belief that this is normal.

Still thinking in numbers and graphs ~ it is quite normal to have fluctuations – a zig zag – Zig zags will remain and it is unhealthy when they are not there. Remember that!  The first sign of ill heath is the lack of a zig-zag – you know like the line on the heart monitor – when there is no zig zag you are dead!

Let’s keep using that as an analogy. Imagine your pulse is racing. We want it to slow down to a more normal level – for the graph to point downwards. For the line to move downwards, it must zig zag down. It is the zig-zagging that brings it down. If it was dead straight down you would wonder where it will stop – your instinct, and accurate instinct – is that you must slow-down the freefall – you’ll introduce some zig-zagging in other words!

We don’t wnat the zig zag to be so wild that we can’t zig afte a zag, or vice versa. But it should zig zag.

That’s why misunderstandings are so important.

Misunderstandings, however uncomfortable, reveal what is “true and good and better and possible”.  They are zig which we can turn into a zag.  And after a while we realize the line is going up (more mental health) as we muddle along.

Endless circles

People get on an endless repetitive circle when they shut down negative feeling rather than explore it.

And they shut it down, when no one believes in them enough to listen to them. Learning ends and they repeat themselves in an effort to be heard.

If only someone somewhere would just listen!

If only someone somewhere would afford them the respect of assuming their temper tantrum is about something important!

If only someone somewhere would give them the respect of assuming that their temper tantrum is valid because they are valid.

Then they have a chance of learning from the zag.

And we would too.  Misunderstandings tell us a lot when we start by assuming the other person’s point of view is valid.

I hope that active listening is not unfair

I hope I don’t spoil the day of the passive-aggressives.

No that is not quite true! When they are annoying me, I probably do hope I spoil their day because they are making mine worse.

But from the luxury of a sunny English autumn morning, I hope I don’t spoil their day. I just want them to be happy. I don’t mind that they are angry. Anger is a legitimate emotion. I just want to say that to them. It is OK. Be angry. We understand.  You are still important to us . You are still one of us.

Endless curiosity

And being endlessly curious, I’ll learn what they are about and why they are so important to our story on this earth.

Irrepressible enthusiasm. Damn, you can’t keep an exuberant person down!

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Grittiness is happiness . . and prosperity

smaller Lorenz_Ro28.
Image via Wikipedia

“It’s about survival, not ego”.

So said Techcrunch about Pandora’s founder.

Hmm. Losada used Lorenz equations to find 3 factors to distinguish successful business teams from unsuccessful teams.

  • Sincere requests for information slightly outnumber proposals for action
  • Positive comments outnumber negative statements by 5 to 1 (83% in other words)
  • Talk about the outside world slightly exceeds talk about the team.

So sometimes the team is complaining that the team is shite.   Inactive, negative and internal.  That’s fine.  As long as later in the day they are talking about what their customers like and the positive points they will push off from.

Unsuccessful teams get stuck in a place of gloom, or, in a place of self-congratulation.

Successful teams swoop gloriously around the whole emotional space like a happy butterfly tracing its own shadow and colouring in the outline in 3D technicolor.

Being in touch with reality in all its forms, good and bad, is what it is all about.

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Happiness and research: looking for a research buddy

Breakthrough work on happiness

Happy networks

The blogosphere this week has been awash with comments on the article on happiness published by the British Medical Journal on happiness in social networks.  What does it mean that happiness is collective?   Are we also affected by our friends’ happiness online in networks like Facebook?

Expansive, successful business teams

Getting a lot less press, over at Pos-Psych, Marcial Losada has published two reports about increasing the emotional space in business teams and improving business performance.   Losada aims to develop teams whose positive to negative talk falls between 3:1 to 11:1.

New stats and new ways to think about psychological phenomena

The BMJ article relies on network theory and analysis.  Losada’s work relies on recursive differential equations.  Lost you? Exactly.  Few psychologists, and that includes me,  studied this type of statistical modelling  in their undergraduate years.

Moreover, these aren’t just new statistical techniques that we can plug into SPSS and go.  Both techniques offer epistemological and ontological revolutions in the way we think.

A zeitgeist

The ontological revolution is also happening in the qualitative areas of our field.  Take this phrase used by The Economist yesterday to describe India’s democracy: a political system that can cope with disgruntlement without suffering existential doubts.

That is a brilliant definition of happiness, though we might want a little more for flourishing!

Invitation

I started a wiki laying out the methodologies used by Losada in some detail and I would love a collaborator.  If you are interested, please drop me a comment and I will send you its name and password.

We are entering an interesting time in psychology and I can see all the textbooks being rewritten!

Doldrums to OK to fantastic classrooms

Positive communities are important in learning

I’ve taught in colleges and universities for 25 years.  One thing I am reasonably certain about teaching is that a good class has a strong sense of community.  It is common sense that a good social atmosphere will be more attractive than a cold, totally clinical atmosphere.  There is also a clutch of professional ideas explaining the impact of group norms, collective efficacy, belonging, system boundaries, and so on.

Why, though, do we so much prefer a 500 person auditorium to a pod cast?

What I’ve not been able to put my finger on, until today, is a tight model explaining why communities are so important – why for example we prefer to listen to a lecture in an anonymous 500 person auditorium than on a podcast.

Today my Google Alert flashed up this article on Twittering in Education.  A US College Professor set up a class channel on Twitter.  Twittering lead to more discussion between students and ultimately to writing a book “online” with completely voluntary help from students as far afield as China.

The post also describes the mechanism.

Meta-cognition & meaning

Conversations lead to community (And v.v.  We know it is important to seed a social media channel with conversations.)  The conversations lead to ‘meta-cognition’ – talking about the course.  And talking about the course helps us understand why and how the course and the material fits into our lives.  Greater clarity and shared understandings leads to more community, and more community to better conversations.

Do we get phase states?

Though the article does not say, I suspect that at some stage, the energy moving between conversations, community and meta-cognition (talking about) reaches a tipping point and we see greater levels of learning and action.  So we move from the struggling, to the satisfactory, to the spectacular.

I rather suspect that this is a fractal model, such as we see with Happiness.  The three characteristics of the class – conversations, community and ‘talking about’ – interplay.  When this interplay is healthy, it moves through the broad swathe of emotional space.  When we have done well, we celebrate, for example, ultimately ending with someone suggesting we get back to work.  When things do not go well, we grieve, ultimately ending with someone suggesting it is time to start living again.

My thoughts on this glittering sunny day in autumn in rural England are to ask:

  • are these the three critical variables: conversations, community, and meta-cognition?
  • do they interplay with each other in a self-correcting manner going from positive to negative and back again as the need dictates?
  • is it right to use a phase state model where we look for the tipping points which take this energy system from the doldrums to OK and then to fantastic?
  • do the three variables co-affect each other through a set of Lorenz equations, and if not, how do they inter-relate?
  • how can we explore these variables in a field study?

Enough for now.  The sun calls.  I would love to hear from anyone interested in building communities with or without social media like Twitter.

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