Blog

British Psychologist, bestselling author, entrepreneur and speaker. This is my blog sharing ideas, thoughts and research about behaviour.

I just don’t have time to…..

In the summer of 2017 I was writing my book to a very tight deadline amidst being a parent, keeping my business running and life in general (which tends to be busier today for all of us than ever before). As an outlet to help me think and stop me going completely bonkers I decided that I needed to run every day. This was great until one day I made the very bonkers decision to take the dog with me. She pulled me over, it hurt but I didn’t think much more of it. I didn’t after all have time. Although it kept hurting, I kept running every day – strapping my ankle tighter and tighter.

After a few weeks I had no choice but to see my physio on the fourth session announced that I needed to see a specialist. This required an appointment with the GP, the specialist himself, further appointments to have x-rays and MRI and yet another appointment to find out the results. By this time, it was October of 2017.

The consultant said that I’d snapped a ligament and needed surgery which would be followed by a ‘long slow recovery’. But – you guessed it, I didn’t have time for that. So instead I continued with life, went on two snowboarding trips and continued to try to exercise on and off. Still in pain by April 2018 I realised that maybe I should get something done. I found the best specialist in London thinking he may give me a different opinion – but a snapped ligament is a snapped ligament. Alas – I still needed surgery and “should expect a long slow recovery”.

This however I really didn’t have time for. I was told that the first 6 weeks I’d been in a cast and not able to drive.  So, once again I put it off.  By October 2018 I conceded that something needed to be done.  By then the damage was worse – the surgeon had to reconstruct muscles and tendons around my ankle, the long slow recovery was, because of my ‘busyness’ going to be even longer and slower.

The lesson learnt may seem obvious but it’s so important to make time. Make time for getting things checked and sorted otherwise you a) waste even more time b) make things much harder for yourself and those around you and c) worst of all risk your health.

The same is true for so many things. We just don’t have time to….

  • go for a run
  • read a book
  • go to the gym
  • cook healthy meals
  • meet a friend for lunch
  • see relatives
  • have a nap when we’re exhausted
  • start a new hobby
  • reflect on personal development
  • go for a walk and, and, and………

But we should. This is self-care and self-care is critical.

I was recently asked to comment on an article for Vitality headed ‘Self-Care beyond the bath bomb’. The article points out that self-care typically conjures up images of self-indulgence, spa days, candles around the bath, time locked away from reality etc., but that’s not what self-care is about. The NHS take self-care seriously but the angle differs quite significantly from the stereotype:

Self-care is about keeping fit and healthy, understanding when you can look after yourself, when a pharmacist can help, and when to get advice from your GP or another health professional. If you have a long-term condition, self-care is about understanding that condition and how to live with it.’  NHS England

This is much more about our overall health (which includes mental health) and points to exactly what I didn’t do. I didn’t make time. It’s a difficult shift because for our parents’ generation (assuming you’re my age) were led to believe that you just got on with things like ‘pulling yourself together’ if you’re depressed or struggling on without seeing the doctor if you’re ill. Today we know that it’s not a healthy approach but the ‘way of doing things’ has seeped into the way we see the world.

How often do you put off seeing the doctor, having your eyes tested or other personally important matter because you just don’t have time? But what would happen if for example you missed the indicators for cancer because you put off an appointment? It’s not just you who is impacted, it’s your family, friends, employer, colleagues. Especially if something that could be dealt with earlier on then becomes more serious and takes longer to recover from (my ankle is point in case) or worse still. We need to try and shake the JFDI attitude that we’ve been brought up and start to take care of ourselves.

What are you too busy to do?

  • It could be helpful to write a list and then prioritise the things that really need to be dealt with.
  • Commit to doing something on the list every day (starting with the most important to your physical and mental health) that you would normally say ‘I don’t have time to’ and do it for a week or two.

I’d love to hear what happens….

N.B. Whilst dispelling the myths of self-care your most important thing may well be having a bath with a bath bomb thrown in – if that’s what helps you to feel good.

I’d recommend adidas global ambassador Adreinne’s new podcast The Power Hour (and not just because I’m an upcoming guest but because she’s awesome) where various busy people (e.g. Ella of Deliciously Ella) tell Adrienne how they make more time for the things that matter.

 

Links:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/power-hour/id1443615779?mt=2

http://magazine.vitality.co.uk/the-importance-of-self-care/

https://www.england.nhs.uk/blog/what-does-self-care-mean-and-how-can-it-help/

 

Image: pixabay.com

 

Do You Judge A Book By Its Cover?

Rightly or wrongly, a young slim female is seen as more pleasing than an older bigger woman. As women we chase this while arguably men and society perpetuate our need to. Beauty promises the fulfilment of many of our deep-seated psychological drivers: a need to be judged as attractive, to have sex, to remain in a relationship and to feel validated by our social groups. This desire to be attractive is startling when measured in economic terms.

– Globally, our investment in appearance totals over £122 billion a year with spending on everything from make-up, clothes, shampoo to facials, manicures, hair styling and dental work.

– Research published by the AS Watson group in 2013 showed that women, over a lifetime, spend an average of £18,000 on products for their face. In the same year, the average income for women in the UK was £23,100.

– In 2012, when the UK was in recession, cosmetic surgery procedures totalled 43,162 with women accounting for 90.5% of the figure (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons).

This all stems from a primitive driver which our rational brain may view as superficial or insignificant. So why can’t we just rise above these more primitive instincts? In large part because it’s biological, but also because it’s become ingrained in our culture.

Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, is someone we’d expect to be celebrated for her intellectual capability. In 2012, Beard wrote and presented the BBC 2 documentary Meet the Romans which helped make Roman history more accessible and received accolades for Beard became who became one of the few intellectuals able to entertain and educate at the same time.

However, critics focused not on her subject matter, which she so skilfully brought to life, but her appearance.

“For someone who looks this closely at the past, it is strange she hasn’t had a closer look at herself before stepping in front of the camera. Beard coos over corpses’ teeth without apparently noticing she is wearing them. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment.”

This scathing review shows our tangled attitudes towards beauty and appearance.  Tweets included: ‘she looks like a human scarecrow’, ‘Can’t she brush her hair?’, ‘Did she try to look so haggard?’ and ‘Shouldn’t she be sexing herself up a bit?’ And it wasn’t just men, TV producer Samantha Brick said: ‘Ms Beard is too ugly for TV … The greatest tragedy isn’t Ms Beard’s wild hair, ungainly posture or make-up free face: it’s the fact that the BBC didn’t offer her guidance on her appearance in the first place.’

Unfortunately, attractiveness often supersedes what a woman can offer to the world beyond her sexual worth. Despite this advanced civilisation we live in, with our apparent respect for sophisticated meaning-driven values, the male brain still harbours primitive impulses that override the best intentions and society gets caught up in this way of thinking.

Australian psychologists Ronay and von Hippel did an experiment to look at what’s happening at a biological level. They set up in a skateboard park in Brisbane to observe 96 male skateboarders, with an average age of 22. They asked the boarders to choose one easy trick (one they could do well on most attempts) and one difficult trick (one they were still learning and they could do well approximately 50% of the time). They did each trick 10 times whilst being filmed by a male researcher. Following a break, they were then asked to make ten more attempts of both tricks again. Some of the skateboarders did them for the male researcher, while the others did them in front of an attractive 18-year-old female (who had been rated as attractive using widely recognized scientific criteria).

The skateboarders took far greater risks on the difficult trick when the girl was watching and testosterone levels were significantly higher among the guys who skateboarded in front of the attractive girl than the ones who skateboarded in front of the male researcher. This experiment shows that young men will risk physical injury to impress an attractive young female.

The critique of Beard – scorning her for not matching up to idealised standards of female beauty – is the flipside of the same impulse. It’s where the idea of the beautiful young princess and ugly old ‘witch’ which permeates fairy tales has come from; arguably a primitive and unhealthy attitude to attraction.

The reality is that Mary Beard may look pleasant to some people and unattractive to others. The serious concern is that her appearance apparently disqualified her from doing her job even though she was fronting a serious documentary about Roman culture, not presenting a game show. It shows how our survival-driven approval of youth and beauty has a nasty flipside: disrespect towards those who are seen to embody unattractiveness, disfigurement or age. However, as the backlash against the critiques faced by Beard, the public support that ensued also demonstrates that some people are able to override these impulses. After all, a lot of us pride ourselves on ‘not judging a book by its cover’.

 

What did you think when you saw the photo on this blog? Little girl or little boy? It’s a girl called Sky Brown who’s one of the youngest professional skateboarders in the world.  You may not have, but we do tend to quickly judge and often incorrectly based on societal expectations and primitive responses.

 

16Jan_Defining You_demy_hb copy

 

I like my book cover  (I didn’t design it) – but what about the contents? Find out for yourself –

Defining You is on offer in the USA and Canada for $3.99 from 19th November to 3rd December with all major eBook retailers.

In the UK it’s available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Also available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Photo: http://www.thesupermaniak.com/blog/2018/4/22/sky-brown

Climate Change – What’s Psychology Got to Do With It?

Last summer we drove from Yosemite to Santa Monica through acres and acres of smouldering forest, the smell of charcoal and smoke filling the air, the landscape black and barren. This week fires have raged through Northern and Southern California, killing 44 as I write, with an expectation of the death toll rising. But sadly, California is not alone – Somalia, Kenya, and other East African countries have experienced below average rainfall since the late 1990s, contributing to a 30% reduction in crop yields and famines. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of hurricanes and destructive weather events across the world. Even the UK is having longer hotter summers. The UN recently issued a report warning that we only have 12 years to stop the ‘irreversible damage to the Earth.’ We should surely be harnessing any means possible to prevent this furious catastrophe from happening, yet psychology is often overlooked.

What’s psychology got to do with it?

Dr Gifford at the University of Victoria B.C. is among psychologists beginning to shout louder about the potential of the field when it comes to mitigating these issues saying:

“Climate change is a human problem. It’s the result of 7.6 billion people making decisions every single day.” But we don’t fully realise that “makes it a psychological problem.”

It really is that straight forward. This month’s Monitor on Psychology published by the APA (American Psychological Association) talks about the part psychology should be playing and how it has to date been applied in a patchy and ad hoc manner. The cynic in me would say that our use of ‘applied psychology’ is focussed more heavily on how to get consumers to buy things and engage with tech. Ironically the job of psychologists is made harder from the intensity of the technology in our environment and the human disconnect with the natural world. Put most simply – when we have our head stuck in answering e-mails, we’re unlikely to remember to turn the light off.

Here are just a few of the ways in which psychology can be used:

  • Help organisations to help employees. Organisations are a direct route to making hugely impactful changes, in part because of the number of people in employment. Making strategic use of knowledge when it comes to human drivers e.g. competition and peer pressure, can help us to foster sustainable behaviour even beyond the office. For example, one U.S. non-profit (Cool Choices) created a contest where teams of employees competed for points by engaging in sustainable behaviours at home. Simple activities such as installing low-flow showers and swapping bulbs for low energy LEDs. The results were analysed to find that employees reduced their household electricity use even 6 months after the ‘game’ had ended. This one small example shows the impacts of understanding psychology on sustainability both during and after the study took place (due to habituation).

 

  • Work with cities. Cities are another hub through which large and effective interventions can be introduced. Work with local policy makers and city councils can help leaders to understand how to reduce carbon footprint through using psychology. This may for example take on the form of educating people and then making it clear who else in communities understand the issues. What does this do? Engages peoples’ need to adhere to social norms – they then use what they’ve learnt and it becomes part of their everyday behaviour and a societal norm.

 

  • Carry out more research into when and why people engage in sustainable behaviour. Psychologist Dr. Suzanne Holt Ballard is co-founder of Future Cities Lab which collaborates with cities worldwide on issues relating to sustainability, citizen health and well-being. They are analysing data relating to air pollution, climate and human activity patterns in cities such as New York and Paris. They will then map the connections between urban design, human mobility and health research to allow future ‘smart cities’ to not only reduce the output of fossil fules but also encourage citizens to make healthy personal choices.

 

  • When and why they don’t –take for example the role of ‘fast fashion’. The BBC recently aired a documentary featuring presenter Stacey Dooley which highlighted the impact on the environment of, most surprisingly to me, cotton production. The huge volumes of water used to process cotton dry up local water sources and the pesticides damage ecosystems. Yet, when my daughter wants to get that t-shirt from H&M I will be as guilty as the next person of saying ‘OK’ rather than suggesting a more expensive and sustainable product. Why? Well that’s complicated and for another blog….

 

  • Use tech and AI –while on the one hand tech is part of the problem, leveraging psychological knowledge in the development of tech and AI could enable hugely impactful solutions. At the individual end of the scale simple there’s home tech like the ‘smart’ thermometers which can reduce energy usage. At the other end of the scale using ‘big data’ should allow psychologists to analyse far richer sets of information, collecting data at a scale and volume that without technology would just not be feasible. The outputs of this will help to generate more insightful and accurate answers on what works, for whom, where and why in order to focus on behaviour change interventions that really work.

The UN are beginning to understand the role of psychologists play enlisting their help writing the next report for 2021 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). But we tend to forget how central the role of psychology and in this area which is in such dramatic need of attention it can only be a good thing.  Psychology seems to simple, so common sense but the subtleties involved really require people who are trained to understand in order to optimise their use. Psychology really can and should have a lot to do with addressing climate change. 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References and links:

BBC 3 – Stacey Dooley’s ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bn6034

Henderson, R. M., Reinert, S. A., Dekhtyar, P., & Migdal, A. (2015). Climate Change in 2018: Implications for Business. risk1.

Ro, M., Brauer, M., Kuntz, K., Shukla, R., & Bensch, I. (2017). Making Cool Choices for sustainability: Testing the effectiveness of a game-based approach to promoting pro-environmental behaviors. Journal of Environmental Psychology53, 20-30.

Weir, K. (2018) Building a Sustainable Future, 49 (5) 48. 

Weir, K (2018) Climate Change is Our Call to Acton, 49 (10) 43.

Photo taken in Mariposa, California

 

 

Happiness – Mental Health 5 A Day

Having just spoken to a journalist about mental health 5 a day and also raising it on a podcast last week I wanted to re-share this post – it’s a great reminder for us all. It’s not my idea – it was the NHS who came up with it but it’s such a simple and helpful concept. Yet it’s not ‘getting out there’ so here’s my contribution…..

As a society we’re well aware of how important our physical health is but tend to brush our mental health aside. Yet at any given time one in six adults have a mental health problem, amounting to an economic cost of £77 billion a year.

We all strive to be happy and want the same for others; yet we tend to cower at the mention of anything to do with mental health. Why is that? In my experience it’s because:

– we’re scared to look too closely – we don’t know what we’ll uncover so we keep things shut away

– we misunderstand mental health – society encourages us to ‘be strong’, not to admit to feeling fear, sorrow or anything negative (which when you know how the brain works, is actually extremely unhelpful)

– we de-prioritize mental health – thinking “I’ll get to it tomorrow, it doesn’t impact my job, life, health as much as other immediate concerns”

we think it’s common sense so doesn’t need our attention – but on the other hand we don’t know how to behave in a way that’s helpful.

So what’s the answer?

If you follow my blog (and general ranting) you’ll know that my main aim in life is to find answers, unfortunately there’s no quick solution. However, last week a friend and fellow psychologist Louise Jones introduced me to the Mental Health 5 a Day. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it does effectively pull together fundamental aspects of keeping our head healthy.

What is our Mental Health 5 a Day?

  1. Connect

Our brain hasn’t evolved for 50,000 years and a fundamental need of our ancient brains is to belong. When we are isolated from other people it has a hugely negative impact on our brains dramatically undermining our well-being. However extensive research shows that social support can dramatically improve our mental health.

What you can do:

  • Make a continued effort with your closest friends and family
  • Listen and be in the moment with people rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next
  • Pick up the phone rather than sending an e-mail
  • Speak to someone you may normally rush away from

 

  1. Be Active

In 2006 I did a study (Bunce & Murden, 2006) which showed the impact of continued physical activity on protecting the frontal lobe of the brain, the bit that helps us to plan and organize and more importantly to regulate our emotions. Exercise has also been shown to ward off depression, decrease anxiety and rebalance the hormones in our bodies.

What you can do:

  • Use the stairs, park your car further away from your destination, get up and move every 45 minutes
  • Find an activity which you genuinely enjoy instead of forcing yourself to do something you hate – if you like gardening do that rather than going for a run, and remember that a little everyday is more effective than one big burst
  • Set yourself a goal to train for – I recently met an inspiring mum who is doing a ‘white collar boxing match’ to raise money for the mental health charity Mind. Creating a goal that benefits others or even just sets a deadline for ourselves makes it much easier to get active
  • Get a fitbit (or similar devise) to raise awareness of how much you’re moving
  1. Be Mindful

Mindfulness is about connecting with what’s going on around us, taking notice of sounds, scents, sensations and our breathing. Doing this quietens the constant chatter created by the interaction of our ancient brain and the modern world.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness, from emotional regulation to body awareness, emotional resilience, pain tolerance, reduction in anxiety, improved focus and heightened cognitive performance (Fox et al., 2014) and enhanced creativity (Colzato et al., 2012). See – more about mindfulness.

What you can do:

  • Practice yoga
  • Use the headspace app
  • Breathe
  • Make an effort to notice the sight, sound, smell and tastes you encounter in everyday activities. For example as you’re taking a shower feel the sensation of water on your skin, listen to the sound of the water washing away, feel your feet on the shower floor. You can do this when you’re eating, walking, sitting on the train, cleaning your teeth etc.
  • Notice what time frame your mind is in – if you’re thinking about the past or future gently bring your mind back to the present (it’s critical that you are gentle – our mind doesn’t respond well to force).
  1. Keep Learning

We evolved to be curious beings; it’s one of the things that kept our ancient ancestors alive. Today continued adult learning has been shown to positively impact confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, life-satisfaction, capacity to cope and general well-being (Field, 2012). Learning also helps us to develop social skills, ultimately extending social networks, and promoting tolerance of other people (Schuller et al 2004).

What you can do:

  • Watch a Ted Talk
  • Ask people about their lives and really listen to what they tell you
  • Try a new sport
  • Take up a musical instrument
  • Learn a new language
  • Read, read and read some more or if you don’t like reading try watching and reflecting on everyday life – play the detective to keep your mind mentally agile
  1. Give to others

While we may seem like a selfish species researchers have found that altruism is ‘hard wired’ into our brain, just not supported by our modern world. Selflessness is closely linked to our well-being triggering the reward mechanisms in the brain. That’s why people such as Bill Gates are so philanthropic – because all the money in the world can’t buy happiness – happiness comes from giving to others.

What you can do:

  • Compliment someone
  • Say thank you
  • Smile at someone you don’t know
  • Offer to help
  • Do something for charity or get involved in community service
  • Let someone in front when you’re driving in busy traffic
  • Stand up for someone if others are being unkind or negative
  • Include the person who’s always left out

You may find it useful to write down your mental health 5 a day. And remember, although the general principles are globally applicable we’re all different, the individual aspects need to be tailored to what works best for you.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

Subscribe to our mailing list to get more news, tips and tools from Fiona

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References and links:

Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com

www.headspace.com

https://fionamurden.com/2016/07/31/mindfulness-mindful-what/

http://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

Bunce, D & Murden, F. (2006). Age, aerobic fitness, executive function, and episodic memory. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(2), 221–233

Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychology. 3, 116 18 April

Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. (2014) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Jun;43:48-73

Field, J. (2012) Is lifelong learning making a difference? Research-based evidence on the impact of adult learning John Field. Pages 887-897 in David Aspin, Judith Chapman, Karen Evans and Richard Bagnall (eds.) Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012

Schuller, T., Preston, J., Hammond, C., Bassett-Grundy, A., and Bynner, J. (2004). The Benefits of Learning: the impacts of formal and informal education on social capital, health and family life, London, Routledge

I feel little, oh so little……

Sometimes I feel so tiny that I could disappear into a crack in the floor. It’s a funny feeling, but not in the ha-ha kind of way –  insecurity, anxiety, disquiet (a colleague once said that I had ‘an unquiet mind’) all muddled up together. A feeling that I’m not quite good enough and that things would be so much better if I could just hide where no one could see me and I could have no responsibilities.

I may be an extreme example, but I think we all feel like this sometimes. My version comes in part from being mixed up (as a psychologist I may know many of the answers but that doesn’t mean I can apply them to myself) and so from within. Other ‘from within’ factors include things like comparing ourself to others, the way we talk to ourself and even chemical imbalances in our brain. But when it comes from outside, when it’s someone else who is ‘making’ us feel bad, it can knock even the most self-assured of us. For example:

The dinner party guest who drops quotes from Descartes then gives a detailed breakdown of why Marxism is more relevant to politics today than ever before. Things you know nothing about.

The colleague who points out that you can’t spell, and your grammar is appalling.

The friend who always has a better story to tell when you have exciting news to share.

While there are definitely some people who are just inherently ‘self-aggrandizing’ – these comments are generally not made to hurt. In fact, they are more likely to come from an unconscious need to show off. Why? So that that person feels accepted and secure. This reflects the irony of human behaviour. In an attempt to try and be liked and accepted we make other people feel insecure. They then strive harder to be accepted themselves making it likely that they will unintentionally create the same bad feeling in someone else.

My insecurity really is my problem (i.e. it’s mainly from within), but sometimes it’s heightened by other people. Many years ago I told a colleague about one remark (it’s helpful working with psychologists) who said ‘It really says more about them than it does you’. While this may seem obvious it’s one of those points that it’s really useful to have up your ‘mental sleeve’ when the moment strikes.

Other little things you can do to help:

  1. Avoid people you feel insecure around and spend time with those who make you feel good. This may sound obvious – but that doesn’t mean we do it. We’re sometimes compelled to spend time with the people who make us feel bad about ourselves because we desperately want to change the way they see us. So we waste our time with them rather than spending time with people who make us feel good. It’s worth being more conscious of how people make you feel and making a concerted effort to move toward the good and away from the bad.
  2. Change your posture. As Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown through her research, holding yourself in a different way affects the chemicals released in your body and therefore impacts how you feel. Pull your shoulders back, chin up and (depending on where you are) take up more space by holding our your arms and legs. “When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.”
  3. Pay someone a compliment. The joy of making someone else feel good, will in turn make you feel better whatever is getting you down.
  4. Remember it’s invisible. Most people think I’m confident. No one knows (until now) that I often feel utterly crap about myself. The same is probably true for you and it’s worth remembering. It gives a layer of protection at the very least.

 

Todays’ world is bad enough at eroding self-esteem with an environment littered by unrealistic comparison points. Where we can we should be kind to ourselves and to those around us. That takes a determined effort: to be self-aware, to see what we’re feeling and not project it onto other people, and to see what others are making us feel and try to step away from it if it’s not helpful.

Ultimately we all want the same thing – to feel good – so even if you can’t feel good yourself, try and make the effort to make someone else’s day a bit better.

As the brilliant Maya Angelou said:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

 

Links (more from Amy Cuddy):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve got a dream that’s worth more than my sleep….

…..or is it?

We’re hearing more and more about how getting enough sleep is critical to our physical and mental health. In common with most living creatures, we need to spend about a third of our lives asleep. Yet most of us live busy and stressful lives often ignoring or minimizing this fundamental need. Even when we’re tired at night, we push ourselves to stay awake, checking emails or having another drink at a party or watching one more episode on Netflix. We have, in our advanced society, an increasingly dysfunctional relationship with sleep.

The repercussions on our wellbeing range from the mildly inconvenient to the worryingly severe. When we haven’t had enough sleep, we tend to get moody, our memory becomes impaired, we make poor decisions at work, we snap at members of our family and so the list continues. More significantly, lack of sleep is frequently a contributory factor in an accident or injury. Over a prolonged period, sleep deprivation can have serious health implications, including an increased risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. It reduces our ability to fight infection leading to higher rates of illness. It can also be a negative influence on a range of mental health issues including clinical depression, anxiety and paranoia, and at the extreme end of the spectrum inducing psychosis and even death.

Sleep deprivation affects a surprisingly large proportion of the population.

  • In the UK, one in three people have chronic insomnia and four out of five people have disturbed or inadequate sleep.

 

  • A study of 10,000 people carried out over two decades by the University of Warwick and University College London found that people who reduced their sleep from seven to five hours a night nearly doubled their risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

 

  • Research carried out in the Netherlands demonstrated that sleep-deprived workers across a range of industries were 70% more likely to be involved in accidents than their well-rested co-workers.

 

  • Doctors working frequent 24-hour shifts make 36% more serious medical errors and five times as many serious diagnostic errors than those whose work is limited to 16 consecutive hours.

 

  • People who get less than 7 hours sleep a night are 30% more likely to be categorized as obese than those who get nine hours of sleep or more.

 

Sleep deprivation is not just an issue for the person who is tired; it generally impacts the people around them too.  A child who has had less sleep is badly behaved, an adult who has less sleep is grumpy, crotchety and possibly unkind and a worker who is tired and operating machinery, driving a car, flying a plane, sailing a ship or carrying out a medical operation, can be lethal. So why don’t we just ensure we get more sleep? For a start, we’re only just starting to understand just how important sleep is and what the severe repercussions of prolonged sleep deprivation are. Then there is the problem of us, as humans who have in large part not evolved over the past 50,000 years, have a profound mismatch between our physiological drivers and the frenetic and complex contemporary world we live in.

So what can we do?

In 2009, Littlehale coached the Sky cycling team in their sleep habits, seeking to maximize their recovery during the Tour de France race. They were advised to do the following:

  • To ensure their room is at the best temperature (typically between 16 and 18 degrees Centigrade).

 

  • To eliminate sugary and fatty foods and to be careful about consuming caffeine later in the day. Alcohol is something to be avoided completely. Athletes are given a milk-based protein drink at bedtime to encourage drowsiness.

 

  • To remove any electrical devices from their bedroom, but if that is not possible, they certainly shouldn’t look at their mobile, TV, or computer in the 90 minutes before bed. The light emitted from them can affect the natural circadian rhythm and prevent sleep.

 

  • To use 90 minute sleep cycles, which is the period of time required for us to go through all of the phases of REM and non-REM, to work out when to wake up. Working on this principle, sleep should be 6 hours, 7.5 hours or 9 hours which he explains can be shifted according to what’s going on in someone’s life to ensure they maximize their sleep.

 

  • Then as always I also advocate mindfulness and meditation—medical research is increasingly showing that meditation can be more effective than other interventions for the treatment of insomnia, while also improving sleep quality across healthy populations.As little as 10 minutes a day can have a positive impact on sleep quality.

 

Extract adapted from my first (unpublished book) and my book Defining You which is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References to research in Defining You by Fiona Murden

Photo by Úrsula Madariaga from Pexels.com

References:

Gary Morley (2014) Sport sleep coach’s top tips to improve your slumber, CNN.com, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/12/sport/golf/sport-sleep-coach- nick-littlehales/index.html

D.S. Black, G.A. O’Reilly, R. Olmstead, et al. (2015) Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: A randomized clinical trial, JAMA Internal Medicine 175(4): 494–501.

Travis Usinger (2014) Effect of internet administered mindfulness training on anxiety and sleep quality, Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Colorado, Boulder, https://scholar.colorado.edu/honr_theses/727

M.M. Mitler, M.A. Carskadon, C.A. Czeisier, et al. (1988) Catastrophes, sleep, and public policy: Consensus report, Sleep 11(1): 100–9.

Alhola & P. Polo-Kantola (2007) Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 3(5): 553–67. A.J. Krause, E.B. Simon, B.A. Mander, et al. (2017) The sleep-deprived human brain, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 18(7): 404–18. J.J. Pilcher & A.I. Huffcutt (1996) Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: A meta-analysis, Sleep 19(4): 318–26.

W.R. Gove (1970) Sleep deprivation: A cause of psychotic disorganization, American Journal of Sociology 75(5): 782–99. A. Kales, T.L. Tan, E.J. Kollar, et al. (1970) Sleep patterns following 205 hours of sleep deprivation,

 

You Can’t Fake Passion

Although being passionate about something isn’t in itself enough to guarantee success, without a real interest in what you do it’s very difficult to get to where you need to.

Your childhood offers insight into what really drives and engages you and what you are deeply passionate about. It’s worth exploring your early years which may remind you of interests you’ve long forgotten about and could reignite. It may also help you to understand where you’ve taken the wrong path and how you could correct that.

One of the ways of looking at your passions and interests is through the lens of motivation. There are two basic types of motivation, one that is external to us and one that is internal.

Extrinsic motivation means being driven by something from the outside, for instance working toward a goal, or avoiding failure through fear of disappointing others. What led to your choices about the classes you took at school, whether you pursued higher education, or your first job? How much were you influenced by not wanting to let your parents down or living up to family expectations rather than following your own interests? There’s nothing wrong or right about how this came about, it’s just helpful to understand what might be driving you now.

Intrinsic motivation, or being internally motivated, is about loving an activity for its own sake, finding it exciting and engaging. It relates to the things that you have the energy for and want to pursue without any external rewards (e.g., money or recognition) and also to punishments or things you feel a need to move away from because they are less pleasant.

The people I meet as a psychologist working with leaders, often have a good deal of intrinsic motivation. They have a passion for what they do and see the meaning in it. Without this it becomes very hard to keep going over a sustained period of time in a demanding role. For example, I’ve also worked with people who are more motivated by external rewards: the potential to earn a lot of money, social recognition, status. They don’t love what they do or have a burning interest in the industry itself. This makes their work really draining and can lead to burnout. Constantly being driven by extrinsic goals alone is not healthy. Ideally, you need both internal and external motivation to keep following your true passions while remaining connected to the world around you.

Who influenced your career choices?

Research shows that our parents’ expectations have a huge influence on the career path we take and what we achieve, regardless of their own upbringing or income. Studies also reveal that teenagers often set out to follow in their parents’ footsteps, whether as an entrepreneur, shop assistant, council worker, small business owner, or doctor  and those whose parents are in “top jobs” are more likely find themselves in such a job. What parents think their child is interested in and capable of also strongly influences a young person’s choices and the actions they take toward pursuing a specific career. What is critical here is that parents’ best intentions can lead children astray. For example, if they think their child is passionate about numbers so encourage them toward a career in accounting, but the child actually always adored drama, then the child may miss out on pursuing their real dream. If you look over your early life and conclude that you were led mainly by your parents’ wishes rather than your own, that realization may be enough for you to take ownership and control of how you move forward.

School can also have a strong influence. For example, a highly academic, high-achieving school can put strong pressure on its pupils to continue to the best universities and pursue what society deems to be the top jobs. Conversely, a large school struggling for resources may not support children’s individual passions, meaning they never have the opportunity to explore and fulfill their potential.

Think about the following questions but don’t worry if you can’t answer them right away, come back if anything springs to mind:

  • What were you really enthusiastic about as a child? Are they the same things that you get joy from now?
  • How many of your own career or life choices were influenced by your parents and/or your environment? Do you think what your family wanted took you off on a certain path?
  • How much of your time at work or in life is spent doing things because you have to and how much because you want to? Do you think you need to address this?

 

Extract adapted from my book Defining You which is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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“You can’t fake passion.” -Barbara Corcoran

References to research in Defining You by Fiona Murden

Photo by Bruce Mars from Pexels.com

 

The Delight of Curiosity

“Curiosity is the essence of human existence. “Who are we? Where are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?” I don’t know. I don’t have any answers to those questions. I don’t know what’s over there and around that corner. But I want to find out.”

—Eugene Cernan – American astronaut

Curiosity is a fascinating, even magical behavior that’s relevant to each and every one of us. It defines our natural inquisitiveness as humans, without curiosity we wouldn’t have moved beyond being cave dwellers. Exploiting our curiosity has enabled us to reach the advanced scientific and technological world of the twenty-first century.

We most commonly associate curiosity with children and their raw, hungry desire to understand the world around them and their place in it. While research suggests that as we age our inquisitiveness tends to fade, curiosity is just as relevant in adulthood, not only helping you discover more about who you are, but providing a basis on which to build better relationships, unlock creativity and innovation, grow your intellect, and boost your general health and well-being.

In his book Curious, Ian Leslie describes the process of curiosity in childhood. This is a useful framework from which to see the how to approach your own self-awareness and exploration. In a sense, it’s very like that of a detective. Whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, or Maigret, there are connections and parallels between their work and effectively exploring your own story: their resolute approach and insistent need never to take anything at face value. These masters of curiosity see things from every angle until they find the clues that unlock the mystery.

Leslie describes the three steps of curiosity as follows.

1 KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

You approach a situation accepting your own inexperience. You’re not presuming you know the answer, but rather asking questions with an open mind and really considering the answers. This is known as empathic curiosity: an interest in the thoughts and feelings of other people, and remaining ready to encounter the unexpected.

When I’m profiling clients as a psychologist I meet everyone from a position of naivety: no expectations and no presumptions. This way I can really connect with them, putting my own presuppositions aside in order to understand their personal experiences and how those have affected who they are.

It’s good you to use this approach when working on your self-awareness. Rather than answering questions with your habitual response, think about what you really think, feel, and want. Don’t assume you know the answers until you’ve looked at things from every angle, dig beneath the surface, and ask yourself why you feel the way you do about certain things, how the beliefs you have formed came about, what led you to take certain decisions. Doing this will provide far richer insights to work with in working out who you are and what you want from life.

2 IMAGINING DIFFERENT, COMPETING POSSIBILITIES

You hold more than one possibility in mind at any given time and explore which one is right. For example, when meeting someone shy, consider “Is this person shy when they meet new people?” or “Are they quiet in this situation because they’re nervous?” This element of curiosity is essential when it comes to the line of questioning we psychologists take in profiles, drawing inferences about a client’s mental state, judgments, and actions while recognizing that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Any thought or idea needs to be explored and tested.

When you’re reflecting on your own journey, try to remember that the first decision you come to about yourself may not be the right one. It’s essential always to consider more than one inference and thoroughly explore it before jumping to a conclusion. Try to suspend judgment until you have explored all the options. It may help you find out something about yourself you’d never considered before.

3 UNDERSTAND THAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM OTHER PEOPLE

Keep an open mind to others’ thoughts, attitudes, and experiences. In social situations, we have a natural tendency to show other people what we know about a familiar subject, rather than listening to what they can tell us. Yet pausing to learn about them and asking questions inevitably provide information that we can reapply to ourselves. For example, you may find a different way of seeing things, a means of overcoming an issue that you hadn’t thought of, an opportunity that you didn’t know about.

 

 

Extract adapted from my book Defining You which is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Photograph courtesy of Liz Waight – http://www.elizabethwaight.com

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

On Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at Red Smart Women’s Week. Having done my talk I took the opportunity to go along to a session on ‘feeling good about your use of social media’, hosted by Brigid Moss. Her guests were Katherine Ormerod and Lucy Sheridan who both have first-hand experience as social media influencers.

Lucy’s focus is comparison, an area that fascinates me from a professional standpoint. We all compare ourselves to others, but social media allows this to get out of hand. Lucy candidly spoke about her trials with “Jealousy and envy of other people” which stemmed from social media. From the outside what you see is a funny, humble, engaging and authentic lady, but we all know what goes on inside and what we see from outside are two entirely different things. She went through a period where she really struggled and says she has to keep herself in check with social media even today.

So, what is the psychological root of this envy we all feel – envy which is exacerbated by social media? Evolutionary psychologists explain that feelings such as envy enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety) and therefore better chances of survival. The negative emotions felt when comparing someone similar but who had ‘more’ was a motivation to readdress the balance. For example, if person ‘a’ had more food than person ‘b’, the envy felt by person ‘b’ would motivate them to find more food, meaning an equal chance of survival.

Then and now, this comparison is most significant amongst peers. Research carried out by neuroscientists Ramachandran and Jalal show that if we compare ourselves to someone such as our neighbour who happens to have more money than us and someone like Mark Zuckerberg whose net worth is $62 billion, most of us feel more envious of our neighbour. Why? Because our brain has evolved to think that there’s ‘no point in being envious of’ Zuckerberg. He’s off the scale either in ability or luck so no amount effort will result in us becoming the richest person in the world.But if our neighbour is more wealthy than us, someone who has a similar background, social status, opportunities etc., we feel envy to motivate us to have the same. The problem is that today the envy is not fuelling a life and death situation so becomes a far less helpful emotion.

This unhelpful emotion becomes even worse when we add in social media. Online everyone ‘seems’ closer to us than in reality they are so suddenly everyone becomes a peer. As a result we compare ourselves to and become envious of far more people which starts the negative downward spiral faced by comparison on social media. This is made worse because we’re often trying to close the gap on something unattainable a) because the person we are comparing ourselves to is not from a similar background to us (e.g. Hollywood star who grew up with film star parents in LA) b) because most images on social media do not display reality (i.e. a snapshot of perfection rather than the struggle, pain, failure and every day ugliness that goes on behind the scene). The more primitive areas of our brain don’t know that we’re striving for something that we cannot achieve or something that’s unrealistic, which greatly amplifies the negative emotions felt and in turn produces powerful feelings of inadequacy.

So what can you do when you feel envy:

  • Try to notice the envy – what or who you are envious of, observing the emotion rather than engaging with it (more on this technique in my book and books by Russ Harris). Being self-aware can help you to stop and put it down when it becomes too much rather than getting sucked in.
  • Try to limit your social media usage. Sounds obvious but it’s really important. To quote Arianne Huffington “Technology is amazing, but it needs to be put in its place, and we need to set boundaries so that we have time to connect with ourselves and to build deep connections with others.” Lucy and Katherine have more tips on this (websites below).
  • On that point – connect with others in real life. Make the effort to call a friend or to speak to someone in person and really concentrate on what they say. It will move you away from feelings of envy as well as bringing you back into the real world and evoking far more powerful and helpful emotions relating to the more advanced areas of the brain.

 

Read Lucy and Katherine’s websites for more on having a healthy relationship with social media.

Lucy’s website:

http://www.proofcoaching.com

Katherine’s website:

http://www.workworkwork.co

Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References:

Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Jalal, B. (2017). The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1619. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01619

Ekman P., Friesen W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 17 124–129

Ramachandran V. S. (1998). Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? Med. Hypotheses 48 19–20

Quote: Teddy Roosevelt

Picture: pexels.com

 

 

 

What’s the Point of You?

That may be a little harsh, really what I mean is what’s your purpose? It’s a hard question for anyone to answer and it can feel a bit like a slap in the face if you don’t know. But purpose, if you can find it, is so powerful that it has positive benefits both physically and mentally. Multiple research studies have shown the outcomes of having purpose to be quite astounding including: protecting against heart disease, diminishing the impacts of Alzheimer’s, improving our ability to handle pain, mitigating depression, curbing anxiety, and also lengthening our lives. One study which looked at over 6000 people across a 14 year period found that the people who had a sense of purpose had a 15% lower chance of dying – no matter what their age. Alongside this, meaning is a major component of well-being and life satisfaction.

Viktor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, gives a powerful example of how critical purpose is in his book The Search for Meaning. He recounts his experiences in a concentration camp and how finding meaning, in even the most brutal of experiences, kept him going and gave him a reason to live. He also interviewed hundreds of fellow prisoners, and found that those who survived the mistreatment and were able to fight back from illness all had a deeper meaning or purpose keeping them going. Frankl famously argued that within the context of normal life, people who lack meaning fill what he called the “resultant void” with hedonistic pleasures: power, materialism, obsessions, and compulsions—in other words, those things that we chase after that give us a short lived boost but which we gain no lasting satisfaction from.

So, it’s clear that purpose is critically important but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to work out. In the past, people relied on religion and culture to define their meaning. These provided a framework from which to operate, the bigger picture from which to see life. However, as the world changes some people are moving away from identifying so closely with religion and traditional cultures, and consequently purpose is no longer given to us on a plate—we have to define it for ourselves. This isn’t easy to do, and anyone who claims otherwise is misleading you.

I spoke to Jeff Weigh for his podcast ‘Perfect Imbalance’ last week and describing my own journey to discover my purpose. It’s messy a ride, it hasn’t been easy, it didn’t fall in my lap and I majorly diverted off course a few times before coming back to what I really love. I still wouldn’t say I have absolute clarity but I’m definitely along the right track. Psychological research shows that people can actually get very down looking for purpose because they have been set up to believe it should be easier to find than in reality it is. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it does takes time, effort and reflection.

My favourite illustration (aside from Frankl) of someone who has lived his life with purpose is Sir David Attenborough. His whole career has been deeply anchored on his values, making use of his strengths and preferences, all of which are critical to our personal purpose. Attenborough’s life has been centered around his devotion to the natural world and a passionate desire to communicate and share that with the general population. Now in his 90s, Attenborough is still working and enthusiastically contributing to society’s understanding of the natural world and human impacts on it. But if you look at the course his life has taken you can see it’s not been a straight line, rather it has evolved and changed as he has, adapting to both his own experiences and the changes in the world around him. When he was 20 he wouldn’t have been able to have told you what he’d be doing when he was 50, 70 or 90 but he would have been able to articulate what ‘made his heart sing’.

Finding your purpose doesn’t mean that it won’t change and evolve as you go through life. Nor does it mean you won’t sometimes get knocked off course. But like a lot of things it starts with self-awareness, taking the time to reflect (not over analyse – that’s a bad route to go down) on who you are, what you love and are passionate about, what your values are – it’s up to you to put in the effort.* And it’s not a one off, you need to keep revisiting these facets that make up who you are and taking time to think. It made sound like a bit too much work, but it’s well worth the effort. Purpose provides the guiding light that helps you see why you do what you do. Having purpose reminds you of the more meaningful side of life when you (or I or any of us) get sucked into hedonism, worrying about superficial things or getting caught up in the daily grind. It provides you with the far reaching goal on the days where you just want to give up. Having a sense of meaning in your life literally gives you a reason to get up in the morning.

* I’ve been lucky to receive a lot of positive comments on my book but one 3 star review said it’s a bit “surface level”  The book isn’t supposed to give you the answers, it’s there to guide you to finding your own answers. However you search out your meaning, if you don’t dig deep and look you won’t find. 

(Dear reviewer – most of the tools in Defining You are backed by years of research by esteemed academics e.g. the tool you refer to after saying they are “surface level” is used by the US health protection agency and in hospitals across the States and UK).

 

Extracts taken from Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

I’m talking about finding your purpose at Red Smart Women’s Week in London this Saturday 22nd September. Last day of ticket sales – 18th Sept 2018

https://hearstlive.co.uk/smartwomenweek/#1531407421503-a6e00f6d-754f

 

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References

Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science25(7), 1482-1486.

Fiona Murden (2018). Defining You. How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential. Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Viktor E. Frankl (1984) Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Image: pexels.com