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Tag: hard times

Is belonging the cornerstone of thriving & flourishing?

Trials more difficult than ours

I don’t know this soldier. I don’t know the details of his story.  I also don’t want to ‘use’ his story in ways that he doesn’t approve.  He used a phrase, though, that struck a cord with me. He said that even though he was injured, he was still part of a team.

Belonging is so important to our well being

For a long while, I’ve believed that belonging is one of the most important factors in well being, in productivity, in thriving and indeed any form of flourishing.

When we belong, we at least are saved from worrying about not belonging.

This soldier shows that belonging is more. When we belong, we are concerned for the wellbeing of others and we trust them to take care of ours.

Am I over-interpreting his story? Is he a fool to want to belong? Is it too hard to create belonging?

Or is the promotion of belonging our first task. To help us belong ~ so that we can thrive and flourish?

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Test your positive thinking: make yourself the main character and feel pain

How deep is your positive thinking?

So you’ve resolved to live happily ever after?  And your friends and colleagues are mocking your for your new found happy ways?

The big test

Here is the big test for your commitment to happiness.

Imagine yourself in the most horrible circumstances

Write a short novel with you as the main character.  And write the worst things that can happen to you. Not the most horrible things in other people’s minds but the most horrible in yours.

Think of things that are so bad that your heart races and you feel as if you could pass out.

Now write yourself out of those situations.

When you can describe the worst and write a story that takes you out of those places, then you understand your hopes and values. Then you are truly thinking positively.

My first try

I am going to try this over a cup of coffee.  And you know what?  I know the first hurdle.  I know I don’t want to write myself out of a bad situation because then it is obvious I could get out of it!  And when I define the situation as bad, I don’t want it to suddenly be quite manageable (if disgusting and terrifying).  I wonder if I will ever manage this!

Tell me about your first try?


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3 ways to help your group live happily during hard times

A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace. (John 3:16-21)

As a youngster, I was baffled by the Biblical advice that there is a time for all everything under the sun. A time to be born. A time to die. It seemed perfectly obvious to me. But then I was a literal child.

Positive psychology and the seasons

A big message coming out of the positive psychology school and the poets like David Whyte, who write about work, is that we must take each season of our life in turn.  It seems though that even positive psychologists struggle to understand the ups-and-downs of life.

Let me try by using the seasons.

It is autumn now in the UK

Summer officially ends in the UK this week. The trees have already turned. The paths are strewn with leaves of all colors and it is cold inside – because it is not cold enough yet to turn on the heating. If we were still farmers, our crops would be harvested and stored, and we would have fodder in the barn for the livestock to survive the winter.

Live life on its own terms

It is here that we find the message. We have to live in summer on summer’s terms. We plant and we reap and we store to provide for the winter.

And we must do the same in winter. We must live winter by the merits of winter.

I am still a ‘noobe’ in the northern hemisphere so let me talk about winter where I came from. Our winter was all of three weeks and days were a short 11 hours! So we lit a log fire in the evenings and gathered with friends and went to bed early to get warm. On weekends, we gathered again to have barbecues in the gentle mid-day sun. We might take advantage of the rainless days to do some maintenance. But mainly we didn’t. Winter was a time of rest and recovery before the growing season came around again.

Up here in the northern hemisphere, I think we are expected to be a lot more productive here. People use summer to play and the long winter nights to work.

Ups-and-downs of contemporary life

The old agricultural seasons help us understand the ups and downs of life and what it means to explore each for what it is.

Of course, we hate the downs. We don’t want them to happen. We are terrified they won’t end.

And the ‘ downs’ are real. I hate it when people tell us they are in our mind. People die. Economies collapse. We aren’t stupid or insane. These are real events. Very real. Very distressing. I hate the Nietzsche expression that what does not kill you makes your stronger. I don’t hate a lot of things but I really hate that.  Downs are real. Please, don’t insult me by telling me they are in my mind.

Winter is not the absence of summer

But they downs need to be understood in their own terms for what they are.  Just as we understand winter as winter not the absence summer. Winter comes before summer, and after summer, and must be respected for itself.

Happiness is respecting the winter of our lives

That is happiness. Happiness is respecting the quieter times, and the harder times, and seeing them as part of the pattern of life.

Then, and only then, do we have the heart and the courage to explore them, not to love them, but to do what is required of us, respectfully and gently, and patiently.

Then we can be in them without rushing them to end.  It is pointless to try to make them end. They will end in their own time, just like winter.

We’d do better to accommodate ourselves to their nature and live within them. And live well within them.  Just as we don’t have frolics in the sun during winter, we may not be bubbling with joy in the hard times. But demanding they end does not end them sooner. It just makes them harder.

The trick is to live winter on winter’s terms.  I am pretty clear that it is easier to do if you understand winter as something that precedes summer and follows summer.

Does the analogy of the seasons apply to our non-agricultural, frenetic, confused modern lives?

When it is less clear that our suffering “is not our fault,” or when it is not clear when our suffering will end, I’ve found it helps to find a mentor who might explain the objective situation.   It also helps to live through hard times in a group. Because much of our fretting is really a cry of “why me?”, when we are all in it together, at least we do not have to protest that the hard times are part of our personality.

When we are leading a group in times of suffering and distress, I’ve found 3 things help.

  • Bring together people who suffer in the same way.

    When they hear each other’s stories, they’ll sort out in their minds what is a feature of the situation and what is in their minds. But don’t tell them to cheer up or that it will all be alright!  Dismissing their hardship is insulting and confuses them more.

    • Assure them that you will be there for them and live your promise.

    Listen. Engage eye contact. Be interested in their story. When they hear themselves telling their story and they see you still listening, they’ll calm down, a lot. Life will still be hard but you won’t have made it harder. They know they have you at least.

    • And celebrate what goes well.

    Don’t pick on one small thing and say that the life cannot be hard if that one thing went well! That is also very debilitating.  They do not need their reality dismissed or tell feel an impossible distance from you.  Just give them the space to talk about what is going well.  That reinforces your relationship and you will hear more about what goes well. See! Easier for you too. 🙂

      Be a warm, companionable log fire in the winter of our lives?

      Understanding why bad times is part of happiness is tough, and living through hard times happily is tougher

      I hope using seasons helps you understand the issue.  And that the 3 forms of aid for your group are helpful. They are classical prescriptions from positive psychology.

      And of course we can ponder why we made happiness so hard to understand in Western thought when we began with the right advice in the Bible!  The philosophers can help us with that!

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      The Secrets of Leaders Who Step Up in Bad Times

      Leading in shocking times

      Because I have lived in shocking times, I’ve spent some time thinking about leadership when the situation is hopeless – by any objective standards – hopeless.

      It is a horrible time to lead. People want us to make the problem go away.  And we cannot make the problem go away.  When the ‘people’ are angry, they can become quite abusive.  They can make a horrible situation worse.

      Though not horrific, in today’s world, we get a lot of low level practice of this sort in airports.  It is quite interesting which passengers take the lead and which do nothing.  I might be wrong, but some people seem scared to take the lead.

      We also get practice in economic downturns, when we have the unpleasant task of announcing and administering budget cuts.

      What can we do as leaders when the situation is hopeless?

      Here is what we must NOT do

      Get angry ourselves.

      Our dignity is not the point here.

      Tell people not to be angry, scared or dejected.

      They are not fools. The situation is bad.  We can show respect and listen to their emotion courteously.

      Tell people to be rational.

      They might sound irrational but rationality is not the issue.  They understand – as we do.  We all feel foolish already.

      Ask people to share the blame.

      Rehearsing our mistakes is not going to take us anywhere.

      Lament their disorganization or lack of initiative.

      Well, if you believe something should be done, do it!

      Here is what we can do

      Be calm and pay attention.

      Repeat the goals aloud.

      Be positive and realistic. “Our first preference is X. If we cannot achieve X, then we want to achieve Y.”

      State our shared values out loud.

      People want to know they still belong to the group and the group still belongs to them.

      Gather resources and note the strengths we have among us.

      Reassure people that we will use our resources and strengths well.

      Identify actions and ask people to take charge of what they are uniquely able to do well.

      When we are informal leaders, as we might be at an airport, we might hesitate because we are not “in charge”.  We might also hesitate at the “edges” of our job when we aren’t paid to do more than what we are doing.

      But isn’t it easier to do something than to sit and fret?

      Do you take charge when a situation is hopeless?  Are there some steps I am missing or that I have got wrong?

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      5 Little Understood Ways to be Resilient in Hard Times

      I am 99% persuaded by positive psychology, largely because I thought like a positive psychologist long before it was invented.  I never took to clinical psychology so I had nothing to discard, so to speak.

      But it is the darker side of life where I think positive psychology has its limits.  Maybe the typical positive psychologist does not feel that because they have the skills to deal with people who are deeply unhappy.

      My reservations come at many levels.   As a practitioner, though, I want to know what to do when we are in a dark place.

      What does it mean to be resilient when times are terrible?  What are the critical processes that we are trying to leverage?

      If I succeed at exercising leadership when times are miserable, if I show resilience and help others to be resilient, what might these processes be?

      Here are 5 processes underlying resilience

      I would be interested in your thoughts.

      Active listening

      The key to listening to angry people, among which I include people who are deeply insulted, humiliated, frightened, defeated and generally gibbering wrecks, is to acknowledge their emotion.  We don’t have to agree with their emotion.  We don’t have to copy their emotion.  We don’t have to make any comment about the circumstances.

      We simply have to acknowledge the emotion, and show, through our acknowledgement, that we still respect the person, in spite their emotional display, and in spite the circumstances that led to these humiliating circumstances.

      Generally, that leads to slight embarrassment on their part but that is a much more comfortable emotion than the anger and hurt.

      Developing a group

      We are often angry and humiliated when we have lost status and losing status usually means losing status in a group or being ejected from a group. Referring to a group to which we are both a part helps restore status.

      Additionally, when people have been humiliated in front of their nearest and dearest, particularly the partners, children and parents, we should restore their status in their eyes too.

      Identify small actions

      Anger comes from loss of status and be implication, loss of control. When we look for small things we can do now, and we do them, we feel better.

      Be grateful ourselves for having the opportunity to help

      While we are doing all three above, we are active. We take the initiative. We are in control. We belong.

      Be grateful, and allow our gratitude to show to the other person.  They will be grateful in turn.

      Gratitude is a great mood-lifter.

      Enjoy the results

      As the other person lifts from utter dejection to a willingness to try, enjoy.  And be grateful again.  That way we share the ‘positive feedback’ with the other.   Let them share the way our mood has improved.

      And watch the entire group become more buoyant

      If we have done our job well, collective efficacy and trust should have risen.  And we all know that collective efficacy – our belief that our colleagues are competent – is the most powerful factor in raising school quality.  It is bound to have the same impact in other circumstances.

      Trust also creates upward positive feedback spirals.  Though, we may need a lot when we start from a dark place.

      What do you think?

      • Are these the effective mechanisms for regaining resilience in desperate places?
      • Are these effective mechanisms for encouraging people who really have few ways forward and little to push off from?
      • Would these questions even help you in the day-to-day dispiriting trials of the western world – like getting stranded in an overcrowded airport?
      • Are you able to try them out in the less-than-terrible conditions so that one day you can use them when life is truly terrible?

      To recap:

      L – Listen

      G – Group

      A – Act

      G – Gratitude

      E – Enjoy


      The deep challenge for an ethical positive psychologist

      .  .  .  this is all, this is perfect, this is it .  .  .

      Words from my friend Anand Raj .  .  .

      I had a great sense of relief when I read those words.  But in other times and other places these words would have driven me to suicide.  They would have heightened my panic.  I found the place unacceptable and any conversation I had with anyone needed to begin from that sentiment.

      Positive psychology and despair

      Because I’ve had these soul-destroying moments in past lives, I have deep doubts about some aspects of positive psychology.

      I suspect the best that a positive psychologist can do when someone is deeply miserable is to AVOID theorizing.

      I suspect our theory is little more than our distaste for someone else’s misery.  So our garrulous ways add to the alienation and horror felt by our companion.  And thus, is unethical if not immoral.

      We need to walk-the-talk and keep the conversation on every aspect of the situation that is positive.   Gradually, we might be able to help a person out of their dark place.

      Leading when life is dark

      And when life is dark for us too, maybe the best we can do is to exercise leadership.

      It is not helpful, IMHO, to deny that we are in a dark place.  We need to walk-the-talk, pay active attention to real threats, and take active steps to protect ourselves.  We need to focus on positive aspects – not to cheer people up but because of the genuine merits of those things – and highlight whatever is under our control.

      From that appreciation, we may be able to move forward.

      But leadership must be active and sincere – even from a psychologist working for money.  It’s not enough to talk about the people we lead.  We must share the journey.

      The post I had planned for this morning is more cheerful.  I’ll post that this evening!

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      Hope: how can this touchy-feely stuff help me during the recession?

      “I hope so.”

      How many times have you said that, and in the true spirit of England meant “I very much doubt it”, or ,”It had better, or someone must watch out.”

      Hope was out of bounds

      When I studied psychology, we didn’t study phenomena such as hope.  ‘Behaviour’ was ‘in’.  If we couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist.  If it didn’t respond to the experimenters’ manipulation, it was unimportant.

      Character, intent, and morality were out.  Be like a rat, or psychologists wouldn’t pay any attention to you.  (Hmm, good idea perhaps?)


      Positive psychology, under the leadership of Martin Seligman, has changed all that.  Now we study virtue.  Are you zestful?  Are you prudent?

      And we aren’t going to impose a menu on you either.  We’ll help you label the virtues that are dear to you, and have been dear to you for a long time.

      Then we’ll help you build your life around them.


      Hope is one of these virtues, but it is a tricky one.  It has a double meaning for positive psychologists as it does in lay language.  Some of us ‘specialize’ in hope as others ‘specialize’ courage, humility or love of beauty. If you want to label your ‘specialities’, you can take the virtues test here.

      This is how positive psychologists define hope.

      Hope [optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation]
      Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about
      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.

      Hope is linked to control

      Sadly, this defintion does not distinguish what we can control  from what we cannot.  People who want to control everything are likely to get very frustrated.  Too much hope of this kind is likely to be anything but a strength.

      Equally, we know that hope is essential to all of us.  It is not just a ‘speciality’ chosen by some.  When we have hope, we are less stressed, even when conditions, objectively, are bad.  Those of us who design organizations and institutions as part of our professional work know that leaving control in the hands of individuals is the foundation stone of a viable, vital and vibrant collective.

      Torturers understand the importance of hope and deliberately take control out of people’s hands. That is the nature of terrorism, whether it is a bomb on the tube, bullying in a school or factory, or threatening to drown someone when we question them for information.  The intent is to break our will by inducing “learned helplessness”, or the collapse of hope.

      Hope is not just a virtue; it is as necessary as air

      And there we turn the full circle.  If we are living in the shadow of a bully who is intent on removing hope, it is so, so, important not to let them get to you.  They are likely to succeed, at least in part, because we aren’t miracle workers.  But for every glimmer of hope we retain for yourself and others around us, we are winning.  They only win if they remove hope completely.

      Positive psychologists often quote a concentration camp survivor who went on to train as a psychiatrist: Vaclev Havel.

      “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

      Sometimes life sucks

      We have to remember that sometimes life sucks, and sometimes ‘shit happens’.  And sometimes it is big stuff that we didn’t invite and cannot control.  When focus on the randomness of life, we rehearse our sense that life is nonsense.  We deny hope.  And we break our own spirt as surely as a torturer.

      But what can we do instead?

      How do we nurture hope?

      When we start to ‘take inventory’, to ‘start close in’, we express faith that our strengths were given to us to use in the situation we find ourselves in, and that we should use them even if the situation is awful and indeed, because the situation is awful.

      Hope is not belief in an end point.  Hope is belief in a beginning point.  Hope is a belief in you and in me.

      Come with me

      What is your beginning point?  What is the best part of being you? I need to know too.  It strengthens my hope that it will all ‘make sense regardless of the way it turns out’.

      UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

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      No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

      Map of Botswana
      Image via Wikipedia

      Have you read The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?  Or did you see its premiere on BBC1 last Easter Sunday?

      The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency is that – the first detective agency run by a woman – and its novelty is that this series of detective stories is set in contemporary Botswana.

      The star of the series, Patience Ramotswe is a heroine, with a large heart, but she is no superwoman.   She is famously ‘traditionally built’ and has few pretensions.  She runs her detective agency on the basis of one “how to” book, and has no particularly skills.   She dislikes telephones, and drives with her handbrake on.

      Jill Scott’s  plays Patience Ramotswe in the BBC series.  Ian Wylie quotes Scott’s description of her character:

      “She believes in justice and she loves her country.   . . She’s a real woman who has experienced the loss of a child, being heartbroken with her first marriage, but decided that life is so much better, that there’s so much more than those particular heartaches.”

      The series of books are written by Alexander McCall Snith and are available from a library or book shop near you!  Fabulous reading but do read them in order as the lives of the characters unfold.  No 1 Ladies . .  is the first in the series.

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