Category Archives: Psychology

This I used to believe

Mike arrived safely in Australia on Saturday morning. Hooray! We’ve had a wonderful time so far, except for the sleeping together.

As in the sleeping together in the same bed, just to clarify.

Mike and I have never been all that sleep compatible. He can climb into bed before 10pm and be happily asleep within 3 minutes. This inspires in me a great envy-fed annoyance, for I’m the type that climbs into bed at 10pm, reads for two hours, and then struggles for at least 30 minutes to tiptoe towards slumber. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we wake up differently, too. Mike usually springs awake in the 6’s (or earlier) as if some dawn fairy has plugged him straight into the sun and flicked the switch. And he’s not just wide awake, he’s also ridiculously cheerful about the fact that “it’s a brand new day”!!

That is so not how I wake up. Especially at the moment.

These differences have all sorts of implications for morning interactions, and during the last ten weeks I’ve become quite accustomed to getting up sometime between 7:30 and 8, joining my parents on the deck for a leisurely cup of tea before breakfast, and having discussions that are not too mentally taxing. Not to say my parents aren’t capable of mentally taxing in the morning, but more often than not these early conversations have consisted of discussing whether that white speck out to sea is a small boat or a breaching whale, the flight patterns of flocks of birds around the house, and everyone’s plans for the day.

Now, however, Mike is back. Which is probably why this morning saw us segue over coffee from carbon emissions and global warming to the issue of changing strongly held beliefs. What, Mike wanted to know, causes people to change strongly held beliefs? What did we used to firmly believe that we’ve changed our minds on? What triggered that shift?

“I used to believe that avocadoes were nasty,” Mum said. “I quite like them now.”

“That saying the sinner’s prayer is some sort of automatic ticket to salvation and heaven,” I said.

“Wow, honey,” Mike said. “You just leapt from avocadoes to the sinners prayer without pausing. Remarkable. Especially for this time of day.”

“Here’s another one,” I said. “That you can control who you fall in love with if you just try hard enough.”

“I still believe that,” Mike said.

“So do I,” Dad said.

“Nope,” Mum said. “I’m with Lisa on this one. There are some attractions that are impossible to squelch even if you know they’re unwise.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m not saying it’s impossible to control your behaviour related to the attraction, I’m just saying that sometimes it’s impossible to change your feelings through sheer force of will.”

Mike and Dad did not look convinced.

“What about you?” I asked them.

“I was a pacifist before you were born,” Dad said. “You changed that.”

“Yeah,” Mum said, poking me. “You, not me. No, not me.”

“Well,” Dad said. “You were big enough to defend yourself, Lisa wasn’t.”

“This I used to believe, that what doesn’t kill you always makes you stronger,” Mike said. “That was before Tajikistan nearly wrecked me. Now I believe that what doesn’t kill you sometimes leave you vulnerable and weakened.”

“I believe anyone who gets a tattoo comes from an unhappy family,” Mum said.

“No you don’t,” I said.

“Yes I do,” Mum said, with the satisfied grin of someone who has set out to ruffle feathers and succeeded.

“You’ve always said you believed that anyway,” Dad said. “So I hardly see how that’s relevant to this discussion.”

“Want to get a tattoo in Lismore this afternoon after your doctor’s appointment?” Mike asked, nuzzling my neck.

“Yes,” I said, seriously tempted. “But I can’t while I’m pregnant.”

“You can’t,” Dad needled, “because you came from a happy family.”

In the end we decided that most or all of the changes that have come about to our firmly held beliefs occurred as the result of personal experience – not because we read a book or someone argued us into changing our mind. What do you think? What is your “this I used to believe” and why did you change your mind?

What will you be grateful for today?

I chatted to Mike over breakfast for a good 45 minutes this morning. In one respect, at least, this three-hour time difference serves us well. Mike can get up at 6am (or, often, before) and make coffee and get breakfast. I am up at 9am having just finished mine, and we both at the same level of “awakedness” and being ready to embrace the day. Consequently, we have much more substantial conversations over a virtual breakfast table when we’re separated by the equator than we do when we’re living in the same house.

At home our morning routine for the past six months has involved Mike bringing a plate of fruit and a cup of tea up with him when he re-enters our bedroom to shower and get ready for work at 7am. I work on waking up while he’s in the shower, and our conversation usually consists of little more than me telling him about anything wacky I dreamed about the night before and asking him what he has planned for the day while he’s getting dressed.

No, wait, sometimes Mike also looks at me sharing my fresh mango with Zulu (who has been sitting patiently by the side of the bed waiting for just this moment) and shakes his head. Then Mike tells Zulu that he’s the luckiest dog in Laos and better nourished than many of the country’s children. Sadly – even though that little mutt’s diet consists mostly of dog food, fruit, empty yogurt containers, and the odd piece of cheese – this last statement is probably true.

Today, however, Mike and I covered all sorts of substantial topics in the early morning hours – recent allegations of deceptive marketing practices by Nestle of infant formula to mothers in Laos, boundaries in committed relationships around spending time alone with people of the opposite gender, and the more prosaic how we are both faring on this fine Tuesday morning.

“I don’t know,” I said, when Mike asked that last question. “I haven’t figured out yet what sort of day this is going to be.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“Well, every day is different at the moment,” I said. “Yesterday was a great day. We saw whales out to sea during breakfast. I had coffee with a friend in Lennox and spent too much money buying gourmet ice cream to bring home (purely as a present for my hard working mama, of course). There was a lovely sunset. I was happy. But two days ago many of these things also happened and I was definitely not happy. So every day is a bit of a puzzle at the moment mood-wise and I haven’t yet figured out which way today is going to swing.”

“Well, I command you to make today a good day by banishing negative thinking,” Mike said.

“You command me?” I said.

“Yes,” Mike said, flashing the particularly guileless and genuine grin I often see when he knows full well that he’s tap dancing on thin ice. “Because I am your husband and when I decree things then it’s your job to make them happen.”

Mike usually only says things like this when he’s safely out of striking distance – whatever else he might be, he’s not dumb.

“So, what are three things you are going to be grateful for today?” he asked while I was still glaring at him via skype video and flirting with the notion of playing right into his hands by rising to the bait.

“That’s changing the game,” I said. “The positive psychology exercise is to identify three good things that have already happened that day and their causes.”

“I’m a game-changer,” he said. “So, three things…?”

“OK,” I said, thinking about the upcoming day. “Tash is coming tonight to stay for five nights!”

“Good one,” Mike said, sighing only a little at the thought of missing out on that fun. “What else?”

“I can see trees tossing in the breeze out of every window,” I said. “Whether it’s cloudy or sunny, rainy or clear, it’s so beautiful up here.”

“And number three?” Mike asked.

I had a third one, I know I did, but now (a whole two hours later) I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. Never mind, now that I’ve started thinking about it there are plenty of things I could tack onto that list – not least of which is the fact that there are two cartons of gourmet ice cream in the freezer.

All the positive thinking and gratitude exercises in the world wont ensure a decent mood, of course, but they are one good place to start. What about you? What helps get your day off to a good start? What three things will you be grateful for today?

The curse of too much choice

Almost everyone who has spent time in the developing world knows the paralysis that can hit you in the cereal aisle of any well-stocked grocery store after returning to a land of plenty. There’s something about trying to pick from 435 types of cereal after you have been confronted with the fact that many people in this world have no choice in what they eat for breakfast – and, indeed, count themselves lucky to have breakfast at all – that is both horrifying and overwhelming.

The particular type of guilty, angry immobility that can ensue when you are smacked in the face by this sort of shocking abundance of choice does not, unfortunately, only strike in the cereal aisle. In the past I’ve found myself overwhelmed in the milk aisle, the cheese section, and when trying to select toilet paper. I also learned long ago not to go near Starbucks during the first three days after returning from Africa.

Yesterday, when I picked up a magazine devoted to comparing various baby-essential products, I was unexpectedly ambushed by a similar dynamic.

I am now almost seven months pregnant, and pretty much the sum total of my material preparation for this baby has consisted of organizing to buy a crib and a set of drawers from friends in Laos and handing out my address to lovely friends across oceans who have posted me a bunch of maternity and baby clothes they no longer need. So in browsing this magazine that someone gave me last Friday, I was trying to do the responsible thing and start to plan ahead.

Maybe I should have left well enough alone.

“What did you do today?” Mike asked me when we talked on skype last night.

“Well, one of the things I did was look through a baby magazine and get totally overwhelmed by adds for 500 different products, each of which had 500 different choices,” I said.

“And each of which cost 500 different dollars?” Mike asked.

“Sometimes more. Strollers and cots and baby carriers and car seats and nappy rash creams and diapers and baby monitors and… There was this one cot – some European design – very cute, round, wooden slats, on wheels. Guess how much?”

“$1200.00,” Mike said.

“$1499.00!!”

“Well, if you really have your heart set on a round, European wooden cot on wheels,” Mike said, “then cut out the picture and we can bring it back here and take it to the nice Vietnamese man who made our bookshelves and he can make it for a whole lot cheaper than that.”

“No,” I said, “the cot we’re getting second hand there for fifty bucks will do just fine. But, the point is, I got totally flooded and I’ve decided that I don’t want the baby anymore.”

“Well, to me that statement implies that you have wanted the baby at some point. So, therefore, I think we’re making good progress,” Mike said cheerfully.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “since I left Laos it’s just been me and the baby, no you or Zulu to distract me, and I started to feel quite kindly towards him at times – you know, when he wasn’t kicking me hard from the inside. Overall I’d say I’ve been neutral-positive towards the baby most of the last week. But not today. Now I’ve changed my mind.”

“Neutral-positive is great!” Mike said. “You are making progress.”

“But now I’ve changed my mind,” I said.

“Because of a magazine? You know, plenty of people the world over have babies in places like Laos and manage to somehow do without fancy strollers and round European cots and organic diaper rash cream,” Mike said.

“And $95.00 thermometers that can take your babies temperature without you having to touch them?” I asked.

“Yeah, those too.”

“I think this is the part of the conversation where I’m supposed to admit that you have a point and change my mind back, but I’m not there yet,” I said.

Now, of course, part of my reaction to being assaulted by this magazine was wrapped up in my ongoing ambivalence related to impending motherhood. And maybe part of it was due to just being one week away from the visible poverty of Laos. But most of it, I believe, was simply the burden we feel when we’re “overloaded by options.”

It seems funny, doesn’t it? Most Western societies are founded on the premise that the way to maximize personal freedom and happiness is to maximize choice. Increasingly, however, psychologists are suggesting that past a certain point this equation does not hold true, and that this point is reached long before you have 285 types of cookies and 175 types of salad dressings to choose from.

Barry Schwartz, who delivered a fascinating TED Talk in 2005 called The Paradox of Choice, even argues that what is true of salad dressing is also true of too many available choices related to health care, where and when we work, and perhaps even decisions related to marriage and parenthood. Too much choice, he says, produces paralysis rather than liberation. And even when we manage to overcome this paralysis and make a choice we often end up less satisfied with the result of our choice than we would have been if we’d had fewer options to choose from.

So what’s the answer to this when it comes to baby gear? I don’t know. Clearly I will need to figure out what to do about a stroller and diapers at some point in the near future, but I’m certainly going to limit my exposure to baby magazine issues devoted to comparative advertising. Maybe I’ll just go the old fashioned route and ask those who have trodden this path before me to share their wisdom.

So, (virtual) neighbors. Any recommendations regarding stroller models, cloth diaper brands, baby carrier types, and other essential must-haves, leave a comment!

And, on a broader note, have you ever been overloaded by too many options? What has triggered this for you in the past?

Three ways to increase your happiness (The pursuit of happiness, Part 2)

Last Thursday I started a short series on the pursuit of happiness.

That night, Mike and I walked down to the Khan River to try a new restaurant. It’s been storming nearly every day here for the past two weeks (something I’m very grateful for on a personal level as it cools everything down, but worried about on a broader level – these rains have started about two months too early). Everything is bursting green and both rivers – brown and increasingly turbulent – are rising every day.

Over purple sticky rice, stir-fried chicken with basil, and river fish sautéed with ginger, we talked about happiness.

“Three good things?” Mike asked me.

I would like to be able to report that I had a deep, meaningful, and lyrical reply to this shorthand query, but I can’t actually remember what I said now. I can, however, almost guarantee one (or more) of my comments centered on food – food hits my “good things” radar quite a lot at the moment. I bet I talked with anticipatory fondness of the ice cream I was determined to obtain during our walk home.

“Three good things” is something we started doing after I wrote the first chapter on positive psychology for this distance-learning course I’m drafting. It comes out of a research article on positive psychology interventions (PPI’s). In non-academic speak, PPIs are “things you can do to make yourself happier” – not just the cheery mood, buoyant, smiling, fun brand of happiness, but the deeper and calmer sort of long lasting happiness that’s more akin to wellbeing or flourishing.

There are, it turns out, a number of exercises you can do that will increase your “wellbeingness”.

In an article published in 2005 (Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions), Seligman and his co-authors tested five happiness related exercises. They found that three of them lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. As outlined during the experiment, those three exercises were:

  1. Three good things: Write down three things that went well each day, and their causes, every night for a week. These things do not have to be akin to winning the lottery or saving someone’s life. Ice cream counts.
  2. Using signature strengths in a new way: Take an inventory of character strengths and identify your top five “signature” strengths. Then use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for a week.
  3. The gratitude visit: Write, and then deliver in person, a letter of gratitude to someone who’s been especially kind to you but has never been properly thanked.

Seligman et al reported that doing one of these first two exercises every day for a week increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months (measured during one month, three month, and six month follow ups). The gratitude visit caused a large positive change that lasted one month. Those participants who (of their own accord) had continued the exercises past the initial one-week period were happier than those who hadn’t.

Want to try one of these exercises? The three good things exercise is pretty self-explanatory. Mike and I have adapted three good things so that it frequently pops up in dinnertime or before-bed conversation. The gratitude visit is pretty self-explanatory as well, although somewhat harder to do if most people that have been meaningful in your life live in a different country. The third, using signature strengths may take a little more work to get going on, but it’s worth the effort.

To get started on the Using Signature Strengths exercise go to an interesting website that Seligman and his crew have created called Authentic Happiness. Register (it’s free) so that you can access the Authentic Happiness Testing Center. Then take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. It’s not a short questionnaire, so set aside at least half an hour.

The authentic happiness site will store your results on the survey so that you can review them anytime you return. I’ve taken the VIA Survey twice, five years apart. Interestingly, three of my top five strengths were the same both times but two had changed.

My top five strengths in September last year were:

  • Curiosity and interest in the world
  • Capacity to love and be loved
  • Humour and playfulness
  • Gratitude
  • Judgment, critical thinking, and open mindedness.

Sound like a lovely constellation, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, let’s leave it there and not address the fact that smack at the bottom of the list, in last place at number 24, came “Modesty and humility”.

Want to read more about happiness? Here are some references to get you started (the Wallis article and the Dan Gilbert’s TED talk are good places to start):

  1. Wallis, C. (2005). The New Science of Happiness. Time Magazine.
  2. Seligman, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
  3. Seligman, M. et al. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 50(5), 410-421.
  4. Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk: Why are we Happy?
  5. Nic Marks TED Talk: The Happy Planet Index
  6. Chip Conley TED Talk: Measuring what makes life worthwhile 

Still curious about this topic? Let me know your thoughts and questions and I may do a follow up post down the track…

The pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

Yesterday I was dragged away from my work by a positive storm of barking. Zulu might only be two dogs long and one dog high, but when he puts his mind to it he has the bark of a German Shepherd on steroids. Yesterday he was clearly very unhappy about something.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I reached the front of our house and found my neighbor, Barbara, already there.

“Oh,” she said, laughing. “It’s a big, scary, toad. He’s not the world’s bravest dog, is he?”

She was right about the big part – the toad was enormous; it could barely heave its bulk along the pavement. She was also right about the brave part. Zulu was prancing around it, frantic, trying to decide whether he could take it. The closest he got to it was nudging it with his nose once or twice.

“Leave it!” I told Zulu sternly, herding the toad into the drain with a shovel before he could decide he really did want to kill it (not that I was all that concerned for the toad, I must admit, but I’ve heard that they’re poisonous for dogs).

Once in the culvert the toad made for the covered part of the drain and disappeared underneath cement. Zulu shot me a reproachful look and set to work, apparently determined to dig it out again.

“It’s gone,” I tried to tell my puppy after fifteen minutes of chatting to Barbara and watching him try to extricate the toad. He left few avenues unexplored. He climbed into the culvert, right into the dirty running water, and shoved his nose as far as it would go down that mucky drain. He tried to dig up the sheltering concrete and, failing that, to chew it to pieces. He backed away and set up a quiet ambush at the mouth of the drain, tip of his tail wagging gently, apparently hopeful that if he stayed there quietly for long enough the toad would venture out again of its own accord. Then he tried all of these things again. And again.

“Oh well,” Barbara said, “he’s happy.”

He was, too. Watching him I felt a little wistful. If only I could get so absorbed in the adventure of hunting toads or get so unabashedly excited every time I saw someone who had ever been the least bit nice to me (Sidenote: this last trait is mildly problematic as Mike and I are pretty much convinced that any would-be robbers just need to stick their hands through the gate and pet his head nicely before letting themselves in and he’ll escort them, tail wagging all the way, right to the front door). No, Zulu might not be especially brave or particularly discriminating in his choice of friends, but he sure is a happy little dog. If only the puzzle of happiness was as easy to put together for people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness since I started a consulting project requiring me to write a distance-learning course for masters students on wellbeing and resilience. What is it that makes us happy or sad? What influences how satisfied we feel with our lives?

Some of this seems to come down to genes. A number of researchers have come to the conclusion that happiness is about 50% genetic, 40% intentional, and 10% circumstantial.

If this is accurate, it means that about half of our predisposition toward happiness is coded into our genes and pretty much outside our control. Circumstances (health, marriage, work) can also be tough for us to change (although often not impossible). But what is really surprising here is that circumstances don’t seem to account for as much happiness as we might think, either for good or for bad. On the one hand that means that buying an expensive new car doesn’t seem to boost happiness for long.  On the other hand, it means that when things go awry we often re-orient fairly quickly.

No, the really surprising finding that has so far emerged from the happiness and wellbeing research is that we do have a lot of control over how happy are. We may have been gifted a genetic “set-point” but we can move that set point up or down significantly.

In a previous post, happiness and the mango tree rains, I discussed one psychologist’s take on what makes us happy. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  • Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  • Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  • Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.

Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important. Somewhat to his chagrin (given that he was a life-long academic and a born intellectual) Seligman also admitted that research suggests that, “cerebral virtues – curiosity, love of learning – are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.”

With more research being conducted on this topic all the time, it is increasingly clear that there are things we can do (ways of thinking and behaving) that can significantly boost our happiness. We can probably guess some of the things that Seligman would prescribe as “happiness boosters” but what about you? What do you think boosts people’s happiness? What increases yours?

Come back in a couple of days to read more about things we can do to boost our happiness. I’ll also post some links to follow if you’re interesting in learning more about this topic.

In the meantime, have a happy weekend!

Resilience Research Report – The Executive Summary

Here is the Executive Summary of the Report I introduced yesterday: Building resilient managers in humanitarian organizations (plus some photos from Cambodia, just because). The research report is available for purchase from the People In Aid website.


Background, and purpose of the research

In the last decade there has been increasing interest in the level of stress, trauma, or violence experienced by humanitarian workers, but relatively little focus on the other side of the coin – qualities that promote resilience and thriving in these challenging environments. People In Aid, through this report, undertakes an initial exploration of the personal skills and strengths, and organizational structures and practices, which can promote resilience in managers working for international humanitarian organizations.


What we did

During October and November 2010, interviews were carried out with fifteen individuals humanitarian workers, staff support specialists, and psychologists who well placed to comment on these issues in relation to middle managers with humanitarian organizations. These discussions, author experience, and published research, informed the content of this thought/research paper and allowed us to:

  • Suggest a useful working definition of resilience;
  • Identify some key indicators of resilience for managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Identify some key points of influence – organizational structures and practices that can strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Offer some practical suggestions for ways that humanitarian organizations can help increase the resilience of their middle managers.

Summary of the discussion topics

There is no universally accepted definition of resilience. The definition we propose here is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change, and to bounce back after stressful or traumatic events.

Key personal skills and strengths of resilient humanitarian workers include:

1. Adaptability. Adaptability is the result of a number of skills and abilities working in tandem to help us deal well with challenge, change, and setbacks. Two related themes particularly pertinent to humanitarian workers are pragmatic idealism and the ability to cope with ambiguity.

2. Problem solving ability. Humanitarian workers who are naturally challenge-oriented, employ problem-focused coping, are able to accept imperfect solutions and partial victories, and independently learn as they go, fare better. 

3. Sense of meaning and purpose. A sense that what they are doing is meaningful and purposeful is very important to most international humanitarian workers – and those with strong values and a clear belief system rooted outside themselves fare better. However, the ability to be flexible in adapting these beliefs over time is also very important. 

4. Good relationships/social support. There is no single factor that will make you resilient, but good relationships may be about as close as we can come to a silver bullet. Supportive relationships that extend well beyond mere acquaintance are vital, yet can be challenging for international humanitarian workers to maintain over time. 

5. Optimism and the regular experience of positive emotions. Having a generally positive outlook (realistic optimism) and a sense of humour/fun are common attributes of resilient humanitarian workers.

6. Emotional regulation. The ability to regulate and manage intense and negative emotions when appropriate is an important part of resilience. Humanitarian workers who are able to strategically use strategies related to attention control, cognitive reappraisal, and emotional expression, are more resilient. 

7. Self-awareness. Resilient humanitarian workers know themselves well – their strengths and relative weaknesses, their limits, and their needs. This self-awareness underlies their awareness of their limits.

8. Balance, and the ability to pace oneself and disconnect. Many resilient humanitarian workers appear to live by the matra, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” They find ways to pace themselves and disconnect from their work both in the short-term and the long term.

9. Physical health. The basic building blocks of physical health – eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising – are often neglected by humanitarian workers, but without some basic level of physical health to draw upon, resilient actions and reactions become less likely.

Some of the most challenging demands that managers in humanitarian organizations face were identified as:

  • Managing others: Frequently mentioned issues included a lack of management experience to do the job required and having a lot of responsibility without the commensurate authority.
  • Being managed by others: The stress caused by constant organizational change topped this list, followed by mismatches between headquarter-office expectations and field capabilities and having a poor direct manager.
  • Workload: Too much work to do and not enough people to do it.
  • The structure of their role: Many humanitarian workers seem to relish the variety inherent in their jobs but also find it stressful to have to be wear many different hats and be adept in so many different ways.
  • Personal coping and self-care: Environmental hardships are not unexpected although still stressful, and the “place” and “pace” of the work makes it challenging to achieve a balanced lifestyle.

Some key points of influence in organizational structures and practices that can help strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations can be found in the following areas:

  1. Management practices: Frequently mentioned during interviews was the need for this topic to be a strategic priority for upper management, part of the organizational conversation in the context of a culture of affirmation, and basic good-management practices such as regular professional supervision meetings. 
  2. Role structure: More commonly than not, in this field, the scope of the role and the position expectations are such that the job is literally impossible for one person to accomplish. Realistic and clearly defined expectations, and more assistance identifying strategic priorities when needed, could go a long way to increasing the resilience of humanitarian managers. 
  3. Training and skill building: Most humanitarian workers are hungry for training and skill building opportunities, including coaching, mentoring, and career planning. Of particular importance is the need to assist people who are promoted to management positions with little or no background in management learn how to better manage others.
  4. Support services: Making psychological support services available – particularly by providers outside the organization or completely removed from a person’s line manager – was repeatedly identified as helpful.   
  5. Policies and benefits: Adequate vacation and R&R leave, and the provision of amenities in situations of shared accommodation, were identified as particularly crucial to helping humanitarian workers maintain resilience.
  6. The recruitment and handover periods: It is hard to over-estimate the importance of good recruitment and information transfer to an organization. An organization that manages to consistently identify and hire people who are already naturally resilient are going to be way ahead of the curve. In addition, good information transfer during an adequate handover period provides new staff with a critical running start in their position.

Critical questions for further discussion

A PhD (or several) could be written about each of the major topics addressed in this report. As such, the paper raises many questions that could benefit from further research and thought. The following a few of the key questions that we hope will catalyze further discussion and exploration:

  1. Is there a difference between the qualities that help make humanitarian workers resilient in the short term versus the long term?
  2. Do humanitarian workers who are highly resilient actually perform better in their role or are they mostly, rather, less stressed and/or damaged by the demands of their work?
  3. To what extent can organizational structures and practices really help build individual resilience? To what extent is it the organization’s responsibility to attempt to do so?

Resilience Research Report – The Introduction

Resilience is a defining theme of my life at present – last week’s chapter for the distance learning course I’m writing was on personal resilience and this week’s is on organizational resilience.

In April, I’ll travel to Bangkok to spend a week working with the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma as they bring together journalists from around Asia for a week. Guess what I’ll be speaking on… Yup, resilience.

And back in November I completed a research report for a very cool organization in London, People In Aid, on Building Resilient Managers in Humanitarian Organizations. That project has recently been published and is available for purchase on People In Aid’s website. Over the next two days, however, I’m going to share the introduction and the executive summary of that report on my blog.

I’ll be back later in the week with more stories to share. Perhaps they will be stories of how my mother demonstrated resilience this morning when she realized – apparently for the first time – that I was going to be home for five whole months later this year around the time the baby is due (there was only a slight gulp and a couple of seconds delay before she smiled brightly and said that it would be absolutely lovely to have me). Perhaps they will be stories of whether or not our poor pup, Zulu, demonstrates resilience when he wakes up from the anesthetic this afternoon and realizes that his testicles have vanished. Perhaps they will be speculations as to whether my bladder will ever demonstrate resilience once there’s no longer a baby in there to squish it down to the size of a lima bean (please, anyone who has been pregnant, tell me this is so).

But that is all still to come. For now, here’s the introduction I penned to the report Building resilient managers in humanitarian organizations: Strengthening key organizational structures and personal skills that promote resilience in challenging environments.

Mike doing a handstand atop Jebel Rock in South Sudan

Introduction

International humanitarian and development work has been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. As the child of a development worker I grew up in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, the US, and Australia – flipping regularly between worlds of poverty and plenty. As a young forensic psychologist with a background in stress and trauma I left Australia to seek humanitarian jobs of my own in The Philippines and Croatia, and then worked for seven years as the Director of Training for a non-profit that provides psychological support services to humanitarian workers around the world. Recently I married someone who was working with a humanitarian organization in Papua New Guinea when we met. Even more recently we moved to Laos to undertake development work.

During the last twenty-five years I have met many humanitarian workers in many countries. They are, for the most part, an amazing bunch doing fascinating work.

They are people who help provide water, food, shelter, and sanitation after disasters to help reduce the shocking number of people who die during these periods from exposure, starvation, diarrhea, or disease.

They are people who advocate for change in chronic emergency situations, or who document the stories of refugees in camps who are desperate for a chance at another life. Persecution histories, these stories are called, and they are largely tales of horror and fear.

On the development end of the spectrum – they are people who work in remote communities to help develop sanitation infrastructure, or build and equip schools, or establish rice and animal banks or small businesses. All of these initiatives can raise the standard of living in poor communities and help buffer the families within those communities from the impact of unexpected challenges such as illness or drought.

Humanitarian workers do not have easy jobs, nor are they particularly safe. During the last 15 years intentional violence has become the leading cause of death for humanitarian relief and development workers in complex humanitarian emergency situations, and kidnapping is on the rise. Humanitarian workers already confronted with the realities of poverty, conflict, starvation, and disease must also face the reality that their work is dangerous. Being shot at or bombed; being assaulted, kidnapped or carjacked; being threatened at a checkpoint by a child totting a gun – in many parts of the world these are not infrequent occurrences.

Most of the humanitarian workers I know, however, don’t pinpoint this sort of danger as the most stressful aspect of their work. Most humanitarian workers who leave the developed world and head for the developing world expect (on some level, anyway) to run certain risks. Fewer expect to find environmental hassle factors such as unreliable communications and shared accommodations, or organizational challenges related to bureaucracy, management, and communication quite so frustrating and wearisome. Perhaps even fewer expect to have their fundamental ideals and beliefs about meaning and purpose challenged, reshaped, and sometimes shattered during the course of their work.

Some of those who decide to pursue humanitarian work don’t make it past two years before burning out – spent, disillusioned, or traumatized. Some people survive for much longer than that, but do it at cost to their closest relationships and while flirting (or worse) with alcoholism or other addictions. But some people genuinely seem to thrive in this line of work. They seem able to bounce relatively quickly from traumatic events that come their way, and remain passionate and committed to the work. Some even seem able to do this without sacrificing their relationships, their health, or their sanity in the process.

After years of focusing on the impact of stress and trauma, of seeing people who were not coping, I started to wonder about those who were. What, I wondered, were the qualities that helped humanitarian workers thrive? What sets apart the resilient?

Tomorrow: What were some of the key findings of this report? I’ll post the Executive Summary.

Happiness and the Mango Tree Rains

It rained last night and today – a brief, wet, respite right in the middle of the dry season. Locals have told us that these rains generally come every year, sometimes just for a day, sometimes for two.

“They water the mango trees,” they say, nodding, as if these clouds have arrived specifically to provide the mango trees with the boost to get them through until the monsoon. So Mike and I are calling them the mango tree rains.

The mango tree rains are making more than just the mango trees happy – they have dropped the temperature at least fifteen degrees and that’s always cause for celebration on my end.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness this week – not just because of the mango tree rains but also because I recently agreed to write a distance learning course on wellbeing and resilience as it’s related to the humanitarian field for a university in the UK. This course has ten chapters in it on topics as diverse as childhood attachment and community resilience. I said yes to this project partly because I thought it would force me to learn a fair bit. On that front I haven’t been wrong.

I’m finding the chapter on positive psychology that I’m working on this week particularly interesting.

Positive psychology studies topics as diverse as happiness, optimal human functioning, subjective well-being, and the meaning of life. If you’d like a brief introduction you can go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and download the first article on the list – a Time Magazine Cover Story on The Science of Happiness.

Over lunch yesterday Mike and I were discussing this thing called happiness and one psychologist’s take on it. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  1. Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  2. Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  3. Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.

Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important.

“So how would you rate yourself on each of those domains right now?” Mike asked me yesterday.

These sorts of questions always make me look at the ceiling, fidget, and try not to get too hung up on the scores of “well, it depends on…” caveats that are suddenly flooding my brain.

“OK,” I finally said. “High on engagement – I tend to be very involved in whatever I’m doing. A bit lower on meaning at the moment. And fairly high on pleasure.”

“Really?” Mike said, giving every indication of being surprised. “High on pleasure?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I mean, we get to hang out together a lot at the moment. We live in this nice house and all the air conditioners work. And we have a little dog to play with that makes us laugh. And you work five minutes up the road and often get to come home for lunch. And we can walk to dozens of restaurants here and eat out anytime we feel like it. And we live in this cool country that’s pretty interesting. I mean, the pleasure index is going to go down the hotter it gets – that’s unavoidable. But it’s been pretty high this last four months.”

“Huh,” Mike said. “That’s so different than the way I would have looked at it. I was thinking of pleasure being more associated with things like adventure bike rides and hiking, and I’m not doing a lot of that at the moment. And I would have thought your pleasures index would have been lower anyway.”

Oh yeah, I suddenly remembered. I’d spent a good proportion of the last three months battling pregnancy nausea. And I’ve been alternating between happy, neutral, ambivalent, and terrified about said pregnancy. And I’ve been craving bbq sauce on hamburgers and other things hard to procure here. And the hot water heater in our bathroom hates me and tends to turn off about four times during every shower, sometimes refusing to come back on at all.

Perhaps it’s good that these are not the first things to rush to mind when I’m trying to think about how happy I am. Perhaps I am more of a pessimistic optimist than an optimistic pessimist after all.

Or perhaps (thanks again to pregnancy) I have the memory of a goldfish at the moment and I am not a good judge of my own happiness.

Seligman would endorse the first of these possibilities. He argues that “we are our memories more than we are the sum total of our experiences.” For him, studying how we feel moment-to-moment puts too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. It is the remembered self that provides us the truest reflection.

What do you think? Are we our memories more than the sum total of our moment-to-moment experiences? And how would you rate yourself at present with regards to pleasure, engagement, and meaning?

Battling acedia through energetic engagement

I’m happy to report that the weekend was acedia free and full instead of life admin like grocery shopping (hooray for cheese imported from New Zealand and ground beef from the German butcher, let me say), and seeing friends here, and dining out at a new restaurant, and eggs on toast and ginger tea for breakfast.

Oh, and chocolate and coconut ice cream from the German guy down the street. I plan to con/beg/plead/command/cajole until we walk down there this evening and have some more. It’s getting warmer here again and those two little scoops of ice cream served in a frosty glass goblet… luscious.

Sorry, I seem to spend 50% of my time at the moment thinking about food. There is plenty of perfectly lovely food here in Laos, so no one need feel the slightest bit sorry for me, but there are certain things that are just not the same. Do not even get me started on how much I miss really good hamburgers and bbq sauce and sweet potato fries. Or ribs. Or (and I blush to admit this) Panda Express orange chicken and chow mein…

I must stop. Therein lies the road to madness. And 15 extra pounds.

So I’m not at all sure I did a decent job of explaining the concept of acedia last week. Here are a few more summary points that might help clarify things before I get to what Norris says about fighting it.

Who? “Acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married ‘for better, for worse,’ anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life.”

When? In the middle of the journey. The monks used to talk about it striking when the day was already halfway through but evening seemed a long way away (I wonder what the monks here in Laos would have to say about the whole concept?). Norris takes that and stretches it out like this:

“Acedia, it seems, is not only the demon that lobs an assault at midday but also the bad thought that afflicts us in the middle of life, when it seems impossible to care about so many things that used to matter. Do I have to care, if it means having to acknowledge the contradictions and dissonances by which I survive?”

Acedia verus depression: Norris tries hard to differentiate the concept of acedia from depression, and I’m not sure she always succeeds. As she herself says, “the boundaries between the two are notoriously fluid… acedia operates on the border between the physical and spiritual life.” At risk of oversimplifying, Norris suggests that depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication and that it’s causes are often easier to discern, while acedia is a temptation or a vice that is best countered by effortful engagement in life, spiritual practices, and the discipline of prayer.

The power of routine to help us fight acedia: “What is it about repetitive acts,” Norris asks, “that make us feel we are wasting our time?… Everyday life [which can numb and weary us] also holds the seeds of salvation.”

I don’t think Norris is saying that we should find cooking dinner every night or scrubbing the toilet regularly so meaningful that we are inherently fulfilled by the activity and set other dreams and aspirations aside. But she does believe that these sort of routine activities – when done mindfully, inhabiting the moment with acceptance rather than resenting it as a chore – can help provide the scaffolding of a more peaceful and centered life. These and other spiritual disciplines – practices that connect us to something larger than ourselves and help grant us perspective – can return us to “essential understandings that we can discover in no other way.”

Food for thought: “Disdaining ordinary mundane chores that come to nothing can lead to my discounting personal relationships as well.”

What to do about it? Norris describes the opposite of acedia as energetic devotion, and the monk Evagrius had this to say about fighting it; “What heals acedia is staunch persistence. Decide upon a set amount for yourself in every work and do not turn aside from it before you complete it.”

Norris’ remedies for acedia are simple: Start something. Go for a walk. Memorize Scripture. Read the Psalms and monastic writings. Seek community. Worship. Shovel manure. Dust a bookshelf. Wash dishes. Write. Be kind to one another.

Do this all deliberately, with thankfulness for the moment, with self-awareness, and without haste.

Food for thought: “Do you devour each moment distractedly, hurling yourself into the future?”

For writers: Even as she discovered her vocation as a writer, Norris says, she had to struggle to maintain the boring work habits and routines necessary for nourishing it. In discussing what she’s learned about weathering dry spells as a writer she says:

“It helps considerably if one has developed writerly habits. People often remark that they would write, or paint, or sculpt, if only they had the time. But this is pure fantasy: the artist does whatever is necessary to arrange her life so that she will have time to make her art. Even as I fret over juggling responsibilities to my ageing mother, my disabled sister, my friends, and my art, I have to admit that it is not obligation I fear, but my distressing eagerness to squander the precious time I do have in running from the emotional demands that writing will make of me.”

Anything jump out at you from this post? Anything that rubs you the wrong way or that you still wonder about? For me, many of her words on the writing process resonate. It is usually when I am spending a lot of time alone and I’m in between projects (or avoiding starting a new writing project that I know will be difficult) that acedia is likely to take hold.

I hope you’ve had a great weekend, wherever you are placed around the world – a weekend free of acedia and full of ice cream.

Acedia and Me

It’s Thursday morning and I’m at the kitchen table in my pajamas, eating cereal and trying to ignore Zulu, who is sitting silently by my side and staring up at me with big brown eyes. Occasionally he’ll lie down without being asked and wag his tail, just to show me what a good boy he is and how much he deserves a treat.

I told Mike last night that I sometimes feel guilty when I eat in front of Zulu without sharing because he so obviously longs for what’s in my bowl and I know I could make him so happy (for at least the half second it took him to gulp it down) by giving him some. Mike told me I had boundary issues.

So this morning I’ve read the letters in all four email accounts, perused my google reader, checked facebook, skimmed the news, glanced at Twitter, and now I’m stuck.

What I should be doing is going upstairs, taking a shower, and then getting down to work on the trauma chapter I’m slated to be writing this week for a university in London. Or writing a thought-provoking blog, or even a fun and frothy blog along the lines of, “ten ways owning a puppy has helped prepare me for motherhood”. Or doing one of any number of other productive things, like pregnancy yoga, with my pajama-clad self.

But I’m in one of those moods. The only thing I really want to do right now is bake giant ginger molasses cookies. Except there are a couple of large red stop signs standing between me and executing this want – most notably the fact that there is probably no molasses within a 500 mile radius of me, closely followed by the fact that we do not have an oven.

Given that, I just want to go back to bed and keep reading the book I started last night. But even that plan is not sounding all that enticing.

“Maybe you have acedia,” Mike said last night after I’d kept him up past his bedtime, tossing and turning and sighing and admitting that I was in a woeful mood and had no idea why.

“Maybe I have pregnancy,” I huffed. “Maybe I’ve been waking up half a dozen times a night because my bladder is now the size of a lima bean, and there are mosquitoes in here, and someone snores.”

“That too,” Mike said, clearly hopeful that if he appeased me I would let him go to sleep before midnight.

But I’ve been thinking about this issue of acedia again this morning, and of a book I read a couple of years ago – Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris.

I heard Kathleen speak several years ago at a writer’s conference and immediately put this book on my “to be bought” list. When it arrived I read it with highlighter in hand, and today when I flipped through it again the book was full of colour. Acedia is definitely something I’ve struggled with at times, and even if the root cause of my problems at the moment are primarily pregnancy hormones and disrupted sleep, the mood it’s engendering certainly looks something like acedia.

So what is acedia?

Acedia was originally a monastic term, one of the “eight bad thoughts” that plagued monks. The monks often referred to acedia as the noonday demon – a great lethargy, restlessness, and animosity that beset the monks during their afternoon prayers. Over the centuries, however, some of the subtlety of the monk’s conception of these eight bad thoughts as temptations that an individual may identify and resist before they turned into harmful actions was lost. The eight bad thoughts became the seven deadly sins, and acedia was subsumed within sloth.

At its Greek root the word means “absence of care.” Someone afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. Norris puts it this way. “I suspect that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plague us today are the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress. When we look at acedia’s root meaning, as not caring, we can see it as a social problem, and perceive that the sloth it engenders is anything but an insignificant physical laziness. It may even manifest as hyper-activity, but it is more like the activity of a hamster on a treadmill than action that will enhance the common good.”

Norris writes that, for her, acedia manifests first as a series of thoughts that tempt her from her work. These thoughts tell her it’s not worth it, or too much effort, or to take a break and do something more fun. If she indulges that voice for too long, she says, she can then start to grow weary with the repetition involved in daily routines of life such as showering, shopping, and cooking. She slips into states she calls “both anxious and lethargic” in which she can trudge through several paperback novels a day for days on end – not so much reading the books as consuming them. She complains of having so many leisure choices that she grows indifferent to them, even as she hungers for still more novelty.

Does this ring a bell for anyone but me?

Next time we’ll look at Norris’ thoughts on battling acedia.

Have you ever heard the word acedia before? Do you ever struggle with it? What do you tend to do when it strikes? And what do you think of the quote below?

“If the church has made too much of the sin of pride, which seduces us into thinking too highly of ourselves, it has not made enough of the sin of sloth, which allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as society.”