Category Archives: Psychology

Harness the power of new year anti-resolutions

This post might seem a bit late because the new year has just passed and you already have your resolutions. However, there’s a very good reason for the timing of this injection of truth into your mental diet:

People have already given up on their resolutions or they’re about to.

I don’t want to presume that includes you but you will have no doubt made great promises to change in previous years, only to undo all the good intentions in very short order.

Why is failure to follow through with new year’s resolutions the standard rather than the exception? In short, we’ve been lied to by clever marketers with positive messages that completely ignore science and human experience.

Positive self-help crap is dangerous because it villifies the dark side of human psychology. I spent years avoiding subjects internally and in relationships because they were “negative”. That is, they were emotionally uncomfortable so surely focusing any attention on such things would be harmful right?

Wrong. The avoidance of painful emotions backfires for a number of reasons:

  1. Burying emotions increases shame, which is the greatest threat to your confidence.
  2. Acknowledging the negative is the path to resolving internal issues.
  3. There will be actions you will need to take in order to improve your psychology, relationships and your circumstances. Avoidance virtually guarantees inaction and worsening of problems.
  4. The “darkness” is more powerful motivator than the positive.

That last point is particularly relevant to the new year because countless people will have set resolutions and goals, usually according to the same old positive self-help mantras: “Focus on the positive”, “dream big”, “experience what it would be like to have your dreams now…”

Follow your anger

The brilliance of anti-resolutions is that you do virtually none of the traditional things when attempting behavioural change. Instead, here is a new blueprint for resolution making:

  1. Decide what you want to change
  2. Look backwards at your failed attempts to change in this area. Feel crappy about it.

Researchers have found that the most powerful motivator for change is disgust closely followed by anger. In fact, the anger is a precursor to passion. Passion is equal parts anger and love.

So “do what you love”, “follow your passion” and “follow your bliss” are great and sound good in your typical positive thinking articles, but they’re incomplete because they neglect the other, more powerful side of human psychology — dark emotions.

Set anti-resolutions instead

Anti-resolutions, as I call them, are the opposite of the usual resolutions people halfheartedly set and then give up on in short order. With anti-resolutions you instead set a negative goal – to not change, but instead to become aware that you suck in that area and really feel the suck.

Aim to increase that feeling until you’re so worked up about it that you MUST change.

Anthony Robbins says that if you create enough leverage, you can change anything. Unfortunately, because we’ve been taught the erroneous belief that uncomfortable emotional states are bad, we avoid the very things that will help us change in the most profound way. All emotional states have utility if we listen to them instead of trying to push them away.

Traditional self-help actually hinders your success

The research of Gabriel Oettingen et al, as detailed in Rethinking Positive Thinking supplies further evidence that imagining the successful completion of your goals by itself is a recipe for failure.

The more you envision successful goal achievement the less likely you are to achieve it. Imagining positive outcomes serves to demotivate us because at some level we feel it has been achieved.

Oettingen recommends a technique called mental contrasting that research has shown to be far more effective in helping people achieve their goals. Instead of looking ahead and only feeling great about the future success, mental contrasting also tasks us with acknowledging the internal obstacles we face and then coming up with a simple plan for moving in a different direction when the obstacle arises. The entire process has been coined WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan).

In summary, instead of setting resolutions that you probably already sense you’re going to quit on, anti-resolutions and feel sucky about the areas you’d like to change in. When you feel so much anger and disgust that you MUST change give, then you can give the mental contrasting technique a go.

For more on metal contrasting, check out the WOOP website.

 

 

 

 

 

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Glossika language learning — totally worth the investment

glossikaIn November I stumbled across the Glossika language learning method and decided to invest in the Czech course to finally get me to fluency in the language. Needless to say that 6 weeks on I am pleasantly surprised and enthused by the results.

For years I had struggled with learning Czech. It was my first language so this was not totally a surprise. It also can be a devilishly difficult language — not because it is inherently difficult but more because the grammar complexity is something native English speakers aren’t used to.

So I learned Czech in fits and starts — a lot while I was in the country and only superficially elsewhere.

Without speaking Czech I felt as though I was losing the language and besides, I had other languages I wanted to move on to.

Glossika to the rescue…

Utilising a Mass Sentence method in a predetermined schedule, Glossika’s audio programme reinforces the conversational grammar and vocabulary native speakers use everyday.

This makes a lot of sense to me now that I have discovered the “grammar first” approach to learning languages is not only backwards it can lead to frustration and ultimately quitting the language.

Glossika works because it crams in simple and then more complex structures in a workable order and in a way that mirrors natural language learning.

While my main language learning project at the moment is conversational fluency in French using more textual analysis and audio listening techniques, Glossika is providing me with a structured and manageable way of building my Czech, seemingly effortlessly (I’m not forcing it).

I just plug in an listen to the spaced repetition audios (organised by day number) and then listen and read the new block of mass sentences when the schedule calls for it. This is great!

In short, if I was starting to learn a new language tomorrow, I would grab a Teach Yourself book or Assimil programme and become acquainted with the audio, vocabulary and simple grammar while using Glossika to consistently introduce and reinforce new structures.

Get speaking right away

In my last post I spoke about the need for input and lots of it. Listening to audio and understanding it thoroughly before moving on to my complicated language is how we naturally learn languages.

For me, it’s like the sun rising and gradually illuminating the land below — the darkness of ignorance in a language gradually subsides and you’re able to see and understand more and more of the language.

Glossika compared to other popular methods

Glossika contains far more audio and sentences than most language learning programmes you’ll find. I’m a fan of Assimil, however Glossika has far more language audio for you to absorb and a method for practicing it.

In my opinion, Glossika is far less tedious than Pimsleur and again, contains much more language for your brain to absorb.

I like Assimil and the Michel Thomas method, but I’ve found Glossika better in that it focuses on language you would use most of the time when speaking with native speakers. In the Czech programme, the focus is on the informal form of the language. I think a grounding in the formal structures is good, most of the usual language programmes focus specifically on that style.

It took me a lot of experimentation to arrive at what really works in language learning. Glossika really does give that missing piece I had been searching for and I heartily recommend it!

The plague that is social media

It might take a moment of clarity or an absolute meltdown, but the realization is the same — we are being bombarded with so much distraction and insignificant ranting that social media becomes a troublesome burden rather than some harmless pass time.

Social media is designed to be addictive. Like almost any domain you want to look at, there is no escaping the corporate imperative of having your brain diverted from it’s course and firmly entranced by some new piece of novelty. Cat videos are usually cited here, but the plethora of friends meals, kid photos and their precious opinion about the election infiltrate your retinas and ultimately take up space in your frontal lobes.

So social media is nothing but candy — junk food that ought only be consumed occasionally but often becomes an addiction.

It turns out addiction isn’t an extreme choice of words in this case either. Author and computer scientist Cal Newport says social media is like having a slot machine in your pocket. It’s inherently addictive to seek out novel stimuli and to doubly get the social proof that comes from getting positive feedback in the form of likes and comments on your own posts.

In this way, social media provides a steady stream of dopamine ‘hits’ throughout the day — little pleasurable snacks that keep boredom at bay.

Seen this way, social media hits can be likened to avoidance strategies. With all the responsibilities and problems on one’s plate, what harm could a little mental detour have?

Therein lies the problem. One needs to see one’s addictive behaviour as a problem in order for it to register as something they need to change. One or two short viewings or interactions isn’t the problem — it’s the compulsion to repeatedly disengage from reality and dive into the online world that is the real cost.

To that end, may I suggest going without all forms of social media for 7 days. Go ahead, try it. You will learn a great deal about your habit, your compulsion to use it and you might find, as I have, that there is a tremendously peaceful mental space that opens up.

That mental space is precious to me now and I have to fight hard for it. So many things are banging on the window of my consciousness wanting in. If I’m not proactively setting boundaries for those distractions, my day will be swayed this way and that with little of my conscious input.

Cal Newport, in his Tedx talk Quit Social Media makes the point that social media companies are in the entertainment business and not a savoury one at that. He says that they hire “attention engineers” who borrow principles from casino gambling to make them as addictive as possible.

Yes, your attention is valued that much by media and social media so why aren’t we waking up and valuing our attention enough to limit our consumption of these apps?

The bigger picture

In Deep Work, Cal Newport outlines what is truly valuable in today’s economy (indeed in any economy ever): “The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Cal calls this “Deep Work” as contrasted by the most common type mode of approaching life — scattered, distracted and fragmented attention. Cal argues, successfully in my opinion, that Deep Work is a rare commodity and that anything truly valuable that is being created today is coming from a deep work approach.

On the other hand, what the market does not value is tasks that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. He says social media is the epitome of low value work (after all, a 16 year old with smartphone can do it!)

This gels nicely with the idea of craftsmanship, a seemingly antiquated idea that dedication by a craftsperson with exceptional skill and expertise leads to inherently valuable and meaningful products. However, that’s a rant for another day.

For the time being, I encourage you to examine the impact social media is having on your life and take the 7 day challenge. I’m betting you’ll learn a lot about the impact of social media and some things about yourself in the process.

I can’t tell you how much freer my life seems without constant detours off into some meaningless piece of fluff content or rage filled hate post.

Beyond the buzzword — Practical mindfulness with ACT

Mindfulness seems to be the self help buzzword of the moment, yet it is still misunderstood by many people to be “just another form of meditation”. However, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a toolbox of mindfulness techniques that not only make sense to the modern mind but are also immensely practical.

The Happiness Trap

Most science-based approaches to psychotherapy typically involve changing thought patterns and beliefs in an attempt to uproot negative thoughts and build a positive outlook. All well and good.

This is certainly true of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) — arguably the most dominant system of psychotherapy in the world.

It seems obvious — thinking creates our problems so what we need is better thinking right? More positive, better quality, less negative.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’ (pronounced as the word ‘act’), being based on mindfulness, says enough of that. Thoughts don’t necessarily cause problems — thoughts are just internal streams of images and words. Fusing with thoughts causes problems. That is, latching onto thoughts as they go by and identifying with them.

Our capacity for mental self-flagellation can be astounding and the temptation is to entangle and get caught up in a wave of unhelpful critical thoughts. Trying to challenge them doesn’t work (it just gives the unhelpful thoughts more power) while trying to change the station to “Radio Positive and Feel Good” just invites a stream of the opposite thoughts.

As Australian psychotherapist Russ Harris explains, ACT focuses on the acceptance that thoughts and feelings will arise and that they’re not necessarily “negative”. The radio station of the mind will broadcast all kinds of messages and that’s okay. To challenge them and dispute them, as is our common tendency, is to fuse with them.

Where mindfulness comes into ACT, and where it offers enormous value, is in the practice of what is termed defusion. If fusion is buying into thoughts and wrestling with them, defusion is the separation from those thoughts and just watching them from an observer position.

Hence, Russ Harris explains that fusing with thoughts is the problem in the first place. Thoughts are just transmissions of the mind — a natural phenomena we all have — including successful people who look cool and confident all the time.

The counter-intuitive

Being a skeptic and familiar with the self-help industry, I’ve become quite adept at discovering the flaws and chicanery of the various half baked ideas passed off as “wisdom”.

The principles of ACT are fundamentally opposed to the central assumptions of the happiness and positive thinking industry. For instance, the idea we’re bombarded with from a thousand angles is that some emotions are bad and to be avoided, while others are pleasant and to be embraced.

Happiness is therefore a warm fuzzy feeling, so we get locked in this cycle of chasing some desirable emotions and avoiding others. But this is a futile search that has no end.

Emotions are just emotions, there is no inherent reality to them. By accepting them and allowing them space to just ‘be’ we cease to struggle and magnify them beyond their natural parameters.

The positive thinking mantra also creates fusion with thinking. The latching onto positive mantras, affirmations, and the practice of blocking of critical thoughts from your inner voices is fusion. It’s identifying and wrestling with thinking that is the problem, so positive thinking often won’t work because the fusion creates the inner struggle.

Anyone who has tried doing affirmations knows first hand the problem with them — they awaken the opposite thoughts and feelings.

You say: “I’m happy, fun and filled with confidence”.
Your mind retorts: “No you’re not, you’re fat, boring and your breath stinks”.

At some level, positive thinking is the denial of reality and creates discontent from the avoidance of your current state of being.

Where positivity fails

As Russ Harris notes, the human mind evolved to think negative. It’s perfectly natural and serves a valuable purpose — to keep us safe and help us navigate uncertain territory effectively.

For years I was under the impression I was somehow ‘broken’ because I had negative thoughts. I had read numerous self help books and was fully under the illusion that I had to eradicate negative thoughts. Needless to say, that approach leads to a superficial connection with reality and is ultimately doomed. The negative thoughts are still there.

I’ve unintentionally destroyed relationships because of positive thinking. There was action that I should have taken that I didn’t because I thought I needed to stay positive. It’s delusional thinking like this that is more about denial of reality than genuine optimism.

Conclusion and Resources

I have to thank fellow Kiwi and renowned confidence coach Dan Munro for the introduction to ACT and the work of Russ Harris. Dan’s video and blog post about “The I’m Not Good Enough Story” based on Russ Harris’ work inspired me to look more into ACT and therefore this enthusiastic post.

I have to admit, the exercise that Dan runs through in the video really lifted a weight off my shoulders and I’ve felt lighter ever since.

Russ Harris has a wealth of information on ACT, mindfulness and how to live a values driven life rather than a goal oriented one on his websites:

Cold showers can change your life (not just make you cold!)

Why would anyone in their right mind even contemplate going through the discomfort of taking a cold shower?

A valid question indeed. which contains the seed of a profound answer: Choosing to be uncomfortable hardens your mind and resolve.

Think about it, almost everyone goes through life making decisions that are easy and comfortable. I mean, why would you even want to be uncomfortable right? Shouldn’t everything be exactly as you want it and even better?

This is the society we live in and we’re paying a price for it. We have more than any society has ever had before. More options, variety, more food, more freedom to travel and do as we please, yet somehow this isn’t enough.

The easy choice is the wrong choice if we want to be happy and fulfilled. Does that mean we should make life intentionally difficult. Yes and no.

It is here we need to make a distinction between masochism and extending our comfort zones. Taking a cold shower isn’t masochism, it is merely an inconvenience we can choose to experience. If we do, we can gain more of an appreciation for having hot water available, which is something most people in the world do not have access to.

We can also develop thicker skin. If the power went off for three weeks we know we could handle bathing in cold water.

Prescription for contentment

But there’s something profound that happens when you start making choices to endure doses of voluntary discomfort: Your mental outlook changes. You shift from needing to have things as perfect as possible in order to enjoy life. You stop being so darn precious about feeling uncomfortable… These cease to be excuses for inaction, whining and not enjoying life as it is.

I know it’s a tough sell, and I’ve gotten a multitude of strange looks for mentioning this idea, but really, it is a small thing you can do to set in motion positive changes. Both in mood (you feel funky for hours afterwards) and in long term emotional states because you develop a level of resilience.

If you’re the sort of person who has to have everything exactly as they want it, taking cold showers will seem utterly foreign to you. No doubt this expectation that your experience must fit a narrow set of standards in order for you to feel fulfilled/happy produces a great deal of discontent. Doing something against the grain is probably the best thing you could do.

Don’t believe me?

Try it. Take a cold shower for 7 days. That is cold from start to finish. Revel in it, look forward to it, abandon hesitation and you’ll notice your days go much smoother.

If you’re really keen to improve your mental outlook, stop having your morning coffee. Maybe that one is for another time 🙂

Here’s a few cool resources for more info:

 

 

 

Stoic Week 2015 — Hitting the ‘reset’ button

Stoic Week 2015
Stoic Week 2015 commences on 2 November. What is Stoic Week? In a nutshell, it is a chance for anyone who wants to understand what the Stoic perspective and daily practice entails, and to experience some of the benefits that comes with developing a Stoic approach to life and all its complexities.

This will be my second Stoic week, so to make sure I get the most out of the experience I’m starting to get momentum the week prior by really taking seriously the central tenets of Stoicism, including:

  • Virtue is the only true good worth pursuing
  • Living a frugal lifestyle with a reduced focus on the acquisition of external ‘goods’ and the cultivation of a contentment for the internal life and qualities
  • Developing a mindful moment-to-moment approach to “impressions” and learning to use my power of judgement to nip unhealthy desires and fears in the bud
  • Recognising what is in my power and focusing my efforts in those areas
  • Accepting what is not within my power
  • Practising Stoic exercises such as the morning and evening meditations and reading Stoic texts.

If you are new to Stoicism, then I suggest you check out the Stoicism Today site for a complete run down on what Stoicism is and how to take part in Stoic Week.

One of the things I struggled with after Stoic Week 2014 was keeping the momentum going following that 7 days of intense focus on Stoic principles. It is too easy to fall back into patterns of indulgence in excessive irrational pleasure, including food and drink, wanton consumerism and wasting time on the internet.

I’ve found myself focusing too much on things I can’t control and feeling anxious because of this. Modern Western cultures prize insecurity and excessive hedonism, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us or that we should continue to participate.

Pushing the reset bUTTON

Stoic Week 2015, for me, will therefore be a reset of sorts. By taking a flying start and beginning my Stoic intensive the week before Stoic Week, I believe I’ll be able to better adopt Stoicism as an “operating system” for making better decisions in life.

Stoic Week is a great opportunity to reflect on your life, examine it through a Stoic lens and gain valuable insights on how your life could be better by taking on a more Stoic attitude to life.

A practical philosophy

The success of Stoicism in recent years is in part due to its practicality — it is philosophy you can use to lead a better life.

With that in mind, here are some of the things I’ll personally be doing to put Stoic principles into practice. This is in addition to the Stoic techniques that will be outlined in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook:

  • Eat only a simple meat-free and dairy-free diet
  • Manage cravings, hedonism with proper use of impressions
  • Cultivate simplicity in all things
  • Perform simple bodyweight only workouts with full presence
  • Be a producer: Make good use of my time in service of producing work rather than consuming (i.e. Being a creator of web content that helps others rather than consuming content on the web).
  • Act from my highest values and virtues, not emotions
  • Cultivate a disciplined mind: Minimise distractions by applying the Pomodoro Technique to ensure sustained attention on the task I am doing
  • Sleep well
  • (New addition) Cold showers

*For an idea of what Stoic Week entails, check out the 2014 Stoic Week Handbook (pdf).

Just do it!

Stoicism has already had a profound effect in my life and the lives of thousands of others. If you’re religious, it will make you a better believer. If you’re not religious, Stoicism will give you an operating system and code of virtue ethics that will make you a better person, family member, friend and citizen of Earth.

Stoic Week also serves as a research project, based at the University of Exeter in the UK so by participating, you can help add vital data in to the mix.

Rethinking the role of pleasures in life

Many people don’t even consider the role of pleasure in creating a ‘good’ and ‘flourishing’ life.

In fact the word flourishing probably doesn’t factor in to any one person’s philosophy of life.

This is primarily a cultural thing — very few of us are ever presented with the idea of questioning the cultural norms and attitudes we are inculcated in. You’re a consumer, you consume and thereby participate in the great cultural experiment of no-limits capitalism.

It is my contention that life truly worth living requires some critical reflection on the relationship we have with pleasure and the external objects and events that we rely on for fulfillment.

To some, the idea that pleasure isn’t somehow connected to a valuable and worthwhile life is dumbfounding. This was certainly my realisation when I first discovered Stoicism and virtue ethics as a way of developing a personal code for living.

In fact, the pursuit of pleasure, despite being a tremendously self-centred preoccupation, often leads to discontentment or worse, addictions.

“It is self-discipline, above all, that causes pleasure.”
— Socrates

As it turns out, philosophers have been debating ideas around what constitutes a good life for at least 2500 years. Only in the last few centuries has philosophy been preoccupied with areas that are academically interesting, but bare little relevance to practical living.

Epicurus and the “pleasure garden”

Of the Hellenistic schools, the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans held that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In fact, the Cyrenaic school only lasted a century — their project essentially carried on by the Epicureans.

Like most words pertaining to Greek philosophy that survive in modern English, ‘Epicurean’ distorts the original meaning of the word.

Epicurus did expound a hedonistic philosophy, but his take on pleasure was vastly different to that of the modern standard. His hedonistic ethics were aimed at the attainment of ataraxia — freedom from unnecessary pain while being content with simple pleasures.

Epicureans were not rampant pleasure seekers at all costs. Food, drink and sex were not objects of unusual desire for them. Instead, Epicurus and his ardent followers did all they could do maintain this blissful state including:

  • Withdrawing from politics and, to a large extent, public life
  • Retiring to a plush garden to practice philosophy and live the good life among friends
  • Enjoy pleasures in moderation while abstaining from unhealthy pleasurable pursuits
  • Avoiding superstitious beliefs that cause undue existential harm (e.g. Gods that punish us in an afterlife).

The latter point to me is the most interesting as a modern skeptic. Epicurus’ theory of atomism stemmed from his insistence that beliefs should be proportioned to the empirical evidence. Epicurus thought it unnecessary to worry about the gods and to fear the consequences of judgement from the gods. This was a bold departure from the beliefs of the populous at the time.

So Epicureans pursued a state of tranquility through the taming of desire, because they knew that wantonly fulfilling desires is an unending pursuit that leads to discontentment.

Staunch Stoics

The Stoics went one further than the Epicureans — pleasure is not a good at all, in fact virtue (those actions that perfect one’s character) is the only good. The Stoics were unimpressed with pleasure and craving after desires. They thought these to be the cause of much human unhappiness.

The way to combat perturbations or “unnatural movements of the soul” is to live apatheia (without passions). To achieve this state, one must pursue only those things that are within one’s control. Any ‘passion’ in Stoicism is inappropriate because the presence of such intense emotions can only arise in a person if they mistakenly place value in an external object, sensation or event (which are only indifferents with respect to a flourishing life).

That is Stoicism in a nutshell — quell passions like desire by judging only internal things within our control to be good. Value those things and be indifferent to everything else (in fact we should love whatever befalls us because that is what nature has willed).

Stoic practice is therefore training to hone one’s wisdom about what is truly good and what is truly bad and to act in accordance with nature.

As with much of the Stoic canon, Epictetus is bang on when he says: “It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

The mental disposition of yearning, craving or lusting after something external is the very definition of discontentment. However, this way of thinking, puts us squarely at odds with the frantic, never satisfied life we’ve landed ourselves in.

What that means for us today

Many people from all walks of life are waking up to the fact that there is more to life than just fulfilling every desire that enters their consciousness.

In rich countries, we’re sold on the idea from multiple sources — the media, big business, governments… That the goal in life is to have the house, the car the toys, the holidays and everything in between. We’re supposed to work ourselves into the ground to pay for these things and when we can’t we can just sign on the dotted line and go in to debt.

The above narrative is not only faulty it is the also the cause of a great amount of human unhappiness, environmental degradation and social problems. The lie persists, however, because so much is at stake for those who profit from us buying into it.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Perhaps the most insightful and life changing aspect of my study in Hellenistic philosophy stems from challenging the role desire plays in my life. For me, preoccupation with pleasure has reduced dramatically and the positive results as well as increased sense of well-being has flowed into all aspects of my life.

Your path might be different to mine — I have principally studied Stoicism, but it really doesn’t matter. Eastern philosophies and religions have also much to say about how desires and aversions rule our lives. The point is: examine your life, don’t just sleepwalk through it. And evaluating the effect of pleasure and desire in your life is about as fundamental an examination as you can get.

Even if you come out of your study of practical philosophy as a full blown consumerist hedonist, at least you’ll know why and be able to recognise the limitations of that philosophy of life and be prepared for any challenges that you may face.