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Posts Tagged ‘positive psychology’

Cranich Begin Within

We are the compulsives. The chameleons. The deluded. The wounded.
Addicts. Bigots. Enablers. Aggressors.
Gossips. Accommodaters. Over-sharers. Fixers.

We are the guarded. And the stuck.

We are passive. People-pleasers. Avoiders. Myopic.
We envy. We compete. We keep secrets. We give up.
Liars. Caretakers. Impulsives. Fanatics.
Re-enactors of traumatic events.
Prisoners of mindsets we refuse to reject.

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ascent-of-the-spirit

We frame resilience. . . as the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.

– Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back

Having hit all the deadlines for Phase 1, I steered eagerly into Phase 2.  Blocks of writing time for the season ahead peppered my calendar.  Accountability buddies jumped on board.  To celebrate the milestone as well as the momentum, My Mister dipped into the Treat Jar and agreed to host a game night.

Then on the second-to-last day of the first month, my project ran aground.

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Comedy

The professor wears plaid clogs.  She strides into the conference room, bold black and gray swimming around feet sheathed in silver-threaded socks.  I tell her I like her style.  She tells me that every time she hits a professional milestone, she buys herself shoes.  She can stand in her closet and scan the trajectory of her career: her first publication shoes, her first edited volume shoes.  The plaid clogs?  Tenure-track shoes.

“What’s next?” I ask.

“Full professor, going up next year.”

“Have you scoped out the shoes?”

She shakes her head.  “Oh no, that would jinx it.”  Then she grins.  “Which is a total lie.  There are these boots,” she sort of moans.  “Boots and a whole new outfit to go with them.”

This concept mystifies me.  One friend picks out a fancy purse for every promotion or raise.  Coach, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton.  Another takes herself on a cruise.  I clap along but something rankles.  We’re dogs now?  We get cookies for every well-timed wiggle?

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unwavering

Contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, participants in the depletion condition did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task, even after considering moderator variables. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon. . .


– John Lurquin et al, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,PLOS One, February 2016

Over the past several months, a number of studies have surfaced suggesting the popular idea of ego depletion may not be a real thing after all.  Possibilities of bias are showing up in the analyses of of studies from the 1990s and 2000s.  At the very least, no one has been able to replicate widely cited studies that led to the notion that willpower, like a muscle, grows fatigued with overuse.

This may be background noise for most of the thinking public.  After all, pop psychology is as ubiquitous as wellness and mindfulness.  The various trends are often jumbled up together, adding to the incessant self-improvement chatter that populates our news feeds.  The nuances are for the researchers, clinicians, and educators.

Maybe, too, for college personnel.

To a person who works with graduate students, this is a sonic boom.

Much of the advice I give students has to do with setting themselves up for academic and professional success.  Students who move steadily through a doctoral program tend to do little things well.  This involves putting in place many small systems across a life’s numerous and unique dimensions.  Implementing basic organizational tools, for example, and actually using those tools are tricky for most of us.  Effective students set up spaces that are conducive to studying.  They outline projects and manage time in a structured way, mapping out hours, days, even years.  In this way, they break a doctoral journey down into manageable chunks.

Students also perform better when their finances are in order, their families on board, their workplaces supportive, and their mental and physical health care structures sturdy.  Taking full advantage of the resources available to them at the university, successful students master research tools and set up study and writing groups with their peers.

These folks aren’t more intelligent or “better students” than their floundering counterparts.  They are simply more organized.  They persist with the systems they implement.

Organization and persistence are not qualities in an of themselves.  More like mosaics,   they are a collection of many small habits coalescing into a general way of being.  These are  habits of mind as much as behavior.  Many students come into a PhD program with skills suited to passing courses on the fly or excelling in their jobs.  Developing a scholarly MO is a different game with different rules.  Setting the pieces in place takes dogged attention to detail.

In order to advise my students effectively, I’ve immersed myself in literature on habit formation.  That branch of psychology has been awash in ego-depletion for the past 10-15 years.  It’s a compelling idea.  I bought into the paradigm that self-discipline, as a limited resource, must be conserved for the important things.  Barack Obama only wears his blue and gray suits and he has someone else select his outfits each day.  He has a country to lead, right?  He shouldn’t be tapping his store of willpower for fashion picks.

Because of this thinking, I’ve developed guidance for students that has to do with putting the hardest work in the early part of the day and reducing the number of “intersections,” or places where a choice is required.  To reduce decision-fatigue and keep that discipline muscle focused where it needs to be, students should cut out the complexity and stick with certain rules.  Pack the same lunch every day.  Take the same route.  Study in the same place.  Carry the same backpack, wear the same shoes.

All of these are great bits advice as long as two conditions are met: 1) ego depletion is a real phenomenon; and 2) a life is predictable enough to support invariability and routine.

I’ll get to point #1 in a moment.  Regarding point #2, let’s ask the next question, with the understanding that a PhD program is a commitment of anywhere from 5-10 years.  Has any of us ever lived through a  5-year period free of change?  Jobs change, rents go up, recreation morphs into addiction.  Partners come or go or get sick.  Families grow, shrink, move. Children need IEPs or swim lessons.  Bus lines get terminated, cars break down, knees blow out.  Libraries close.  Stock markets crash.  Babies are born.

Far more effective than simplicity and routine are adaptability and resilience.

Perhaps I need to look differently at my effective students.  They may have structures in place, and organization is still a critical skill.  That said, a focus on habits may miss a key contributor to the ability develop and stick with habits.  Underneath the external behaviors may be an effective mindset.  Self-concept unites with a particular framing of the world, creating the way we respond to change.  Yes, successful students implement sound structures.  They also adjust those structures as the ground shifts.  They dismantle the parts that were fixed in one place, then redesign and rebuild them to function on new terrain.

How can a person cultivate a growth and adaptation mindset?  It may be time for a new approach in my advising.  While habits are critical, the perceptions from which those habits grow may be equally, if not more, important.  Clearly, I have some work ahead of me.

Regarding point #1. . .

. . .it may not even really matter that much whether ego depletion is “real” or not. What matters is how you think about your own amount of willpower. A very intriguing direction of research is finding the power of a person’s own beliefs about willpower may be what makes the difference here. When people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re more likely to go after personal goals, they’re less likely to burn out, and they’re happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true.


– Melissa Dahl, “If You Believe your Willpower is Endless, It Is” in New York Magazine

Students who persist and finish a PhD are most likely those who see themselves as capable of maintaining momentum under any circumstance.  It’s true for the rest of us, too, right?  What happens when we think of ourselves as fundamentally resourceful?  When we picture ourselves having a consistent and bottomless capacity for working through the tough stuff?

What happens is this:  As if by magic, the source delivers.  We find a way.


Image: Martin Klein, “Unwavering”

 

 

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fairy pot

When we stop trying to find the solution, the solution finds us.  The idea of “adding in the good stuff” is all the rage healthy living.  Don’t worry about giving up cheese fries and soda.  The pull of the food industry is powerful, and fighting it grinds our sense of efficacy down to sawdust.  Instead, do a few leg lifts while brushing teeth.  Put leafy greens beside whatever else is on the plate.  Keep the focus on adding the wholesome.

This same bubbly counsel showed up in a recent parenting class.  When an attendee began slipping down the shame spiral about their ineffective parenting, the instructor reminded us not to worry about what we’re doing wrong.  “Do more of the good stuff,” she said.  Put special time on the schedule.  Focus on connection over correction.

Eventually (the theory goes) these little bits of goodness will crowd out the destructive patterns.

If this works with diet and family, why not mental health?

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Volunteers in the study were asked to hold a grip sensor as they heard a variety of verbs related to manual actions, like ‘throw’ or ‘scratch’, in different sentence structures. The researchers observed a significant increase in the strength of participants’ grip when words were presented in an affirmative sentence, but no such reaction when the same action words were presented in a negative context, such as ‘don’t throw’.

Writing advice from an unknown source: Replace any negative statement with an affirmative one.

“He does not go” becomes “he stays.”
“The delivery hasn’t shown up” becomes “the package has yet to arrive.”
“I haven’t showered” becomes “I need to shower” or “Let me clean up” or “I’m a fragrant mess.”

It seems simple enough. A game, really. It starts as play then becomes imperative. Then mission.

Within a week, the backspace pinkie is stiff from exertion. Everywhere, evidence of The Not’s tenacity. It has staged a silent coup. It infests newspaper articles, blog posts, journal articles, notes from friends. It has laid waste to coherence.

The war in Syria didn’t start yesterday. Neither did the mass exodus of refugees fleeing violence, bombs, gunfire and the Islamic State. It shouldn’t have been very difficult to guess that the more than two million displaced persons in Lebanon and Turkey weren’t going to stay there permanently.

A topic as urgent as the Syrian refugee crisis deserves bolder language than this. Indeed, if a strong collective grip is required — which it most certainly is — then we must claim the affirmative.

It is difficult to unseat the hegemony of The Not. It fertilizes the lexicon of the mundane. It renders every work exchange an enervating yoke of words.

Please note that you will not receive reimbursement for any expenses that were not pre-approved.

In reviewing student registration, I notice that you have not yet enrolled in classes.

The Not is insidious. Official statements, procedure documents, email. It’s an epidemic of Not-ness, a blight of tort-skittish (at best) and enfeebling (at worst) dissimulation.

Lately, I have joined the fledgling resistance. I engage in tiny acts of rebellion, planting The Is inside enemy lines.

You will only be reimbursed for pre-approved expenses.

Your registration for fall needs attention. Please enroll in classes.

For months now, I’ve crept in and swept from the corners every No, Not, Won’t, Can’t, Never, No one, and Nothing. Even here. I start to write, I’m not sure why I do this. Then backspace-backspace, I type instead, I have a vague sense that this is a small yet mighty act.

In the face of a force debilitating yet opaque, this is guerilla warfare. Take the stairs. Pack the lunch. Floss.

These tedious, tiny, endless repetitions build a habit’s muscle.

I cannot imagine. . . Pause, backspace, begin again: I am beginning to grasp. . .

Speech tests loyalty. It is tricky without a delete key, trickier still when wading through a cornucopia of words for No. I try to speak my affirmative resistance, even in the toughest exchanges, like the ones where I have to tell my colleagues I absolutely cannot do the task they are about to add to my load. I begin slowly and move in at an oblique angle. Here is what we’ve got to get done. I can manage parts 3 and 4. How will we tackle 1, 2, and 5?

It feels like faking it. Like spin, like a shell game.

Maybe it is.

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash.

When language preordains surrender, the mind itself dismisses the integrity of the brush, the constitution of the paint. Legerdemain is more than acceptable. It is necessary.

It is the choice tactic for freeing a psychology of Not.

Take depression. Pattern of thought? Chemistry of brain? Depression is both hostage and guard in the army of Not. Play a recording of helpless, overwhelmed chatter often enough and it carves a deep groove in the mind. Most adults hear “Happy Birthday” and the Pledge of Allegiance only a few times a year but we know them — know them — with flawless, unconscious certainty. Just imagine how deep the cut when the muzak of doubt and abuse runs on a background loop for years (decades) beyond childhood.

The Not is a devoted mascot, plodding in its relentless mimicry of cheer, pulling for the victory of defeat. Square Not, whipping Not, ankle to stone, dragging a body and mind further down into — then under — its perceived limits.

Even to the committed, it may appear that a negative, the essential Not-ness of a situation, is the only option. What then? How do you fill a hole when an inverted opposite falls limp?

“Mom, can you come pick me up early after school early?”

The Not clings. Presses its advantage. No, I can’t. No, I have work, a commute, 15 deadlines licking and nipping at my cuffs. No.

This is how a thought into a feeling into language becomes a lifelong habit, as sticky as a curse. The Not struts but its snarl is all mask. Underneath, The Not is a feeble response. The Not is a failing grip.

Something more than a linguistic coin-flip is required.

The answer is a spin and lift. Strength imagined (even in its supposed absence), strength spoken, strength affirmed. Is whirls skyward into gold floss.

Name the Is.

“I’ll pick you up right at 6 and we can go to the park, rollerblading, biking, or home for some quiet time together.”

The linguist plays the word game because it’s a fun diversion.

The warrior, because she trusts the small, steady shift of perception.

Absence to presence.

Passive to power.

 

References:

Science Newsline coverage of PLOS ONE research by Pia Aravena and colleagues from the L2C2, Institute of Cognitive Sciences (CNRS/UCBL), France, December 2012.

From Miguel Urban’s piece in The World Post, September 8, 2015.

From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), 1884.

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We must appreciate the power of redescribing, the power of language to make new and different things possible and important — an appreciation which becomes possible only when one’s aim becomes an expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions rather than The One Right Description.

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

You ask the color of my day.
I ask where will we go.
You say when we are old.
I say you show me this.
You ask what is exciting.
I ask which words
you want to hear instead.

The shadow question could steal
in. Does sometimes
voice
into form, flesh
into golem. Why are you so
Wrong with
Don’t you see
See why you don’t?

Yes is a synaptic response
to stiumli and also
a stimulus itself, an anatomy
not unlike that of
Can’t
and Will.

It is a fallacy
of misplaced concreteness
to claim we are
this way
or even that we are.

You and I are not us.
We make us.

I say this
(touch you here)
is why I do.

You ask what we choose.
I ask what will it take.
 

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