Thursday, 14 August 2014

There's always something you can do about stress (3): Change the meaning

Overall, I'm not a great believer in relaxation techniques as a 'real-life' approach to stress management. Life gets difficult, pressurized, especially at work, and bad stuff happens. It's not as if you can say: "Stop there a moment while I do some diaphragmatic breathing".

That's why I'm a great believer in prevention and if-then planning, two stress management strategies I discussed in previous posts that can really work well.

A third approach I like and one I frequently use myself is more 'cognitive' in nature and involves re-interpreting or changing the meaning you attach to what happens. This approach is particularly effective if you tend to be pessimistic in outlook.

Let's look at what could on the face of it appear to a trivial example of bad stuff happening.

You send someone an email and they don't respond. In fact after three weeks, they still haven't responded.

Yes, this might seem 'trivial' but your interpretation of this event, the meaning you attach it, has the potential of ruining your day, week or even year...

"He never responds...It's always the same with him...He's totally incompetent...Why do I bother sending emails, the whole thing is pointless...Email is just a waste of time anyway...It's me, he can't stand me, he never could...He's doing this deliberately to wind me up... Maybe I came across as rude, I wish I'd never sent the thing... He'll never talk to me now, let alone do business with me...This organization stinks...This job is hopeless, it always was...I was stupid to think I could make it here...I'm just useless...Who'd want to hire me..."

There are some characteristically negative explanatory styles here such as: permanence (always, never), pervasiveness (generalizing, all, everything), personalizng (blaming, it's me, my fault), and 'catastrophizing' (it's a complete disaster).

You think these things and you end up feeling bad, maybe very bad. You feel stressed, upset, worried, disappointed. Negative emotions like anger, frustration, bitterness well up. You might start blaming yourself and feel depressed.

But why do you end up feeling so awful? You can't simply blame the bad stuff. (As they say, 'shit happens'.) Rather, it might be how you interpreted the bad stuff that led to you feeling so bad.

So what can you do? CBT argues that what you have to do is challenge the negative interpretations and meanings you come up with when bad stuff happens. There are four basic strategies.

Firstly, you can challenge yourself on the evidence. It is really true they never respond? A quick look back through emails should suffice. 'Evidence' is a good word to have at the back of your mind for quick challenges. It forces you to be more objective, to see things as they really are rather than jump to negative conclusions or make assumptions.

Secondly, you can see if there are alternative explanations. Maybe our non-responder's been ill or on holiday, or maybe he's moved department. Or perhaps the email's got delayed by some tech glitch. Maybe one of those alternative explanations might also be more likely?

Thirdly, you can look fully at the implications of your negative interpretation. So, he hasn't responded and maybe he never will. Maybe there is some truth in your negative assumptions. Assuming there is, what then? What should you do now..? This strategy is really about dragging what's lurking in the shadows out into the open and looking it square in the face. If you do that, things can become clearer, less scary. Also, if  you do this you tend to automatically go into a more constructive, if-then planning mode... OK so the culture here really does stink and the job is hopeless with no prospects - what should you do now...? "I'll create a new CV and update my LinkedIn profile...I'll make some decisions and start giving myself some options!" When you do face up to your fears in this way and start planning, you feel less stuck, more empowered. You start to feel more in control again. A lot better.

The fourth and final strategy is to ask yourself whether the way you're currently interpreting things is ultimately useful to you or not. If not it might literally be time for a re-think.

These four cognitive strategies (evidence, alternatives implications, usefulness) work and work well. I grew up surrounded by pessimism and it has definitely rubbed off on me to an extent. I therefore have to challenge my own negative thinking regularly. The kind of situations where I find this approach particularly helpful are ones where things can go wrong and where you have little control, such as business travel and on the golf course!

There are a couple of qualifications I definitely need to cover though.

Firstly, some bad stuff is not in any way trivial, like losing a child or your partner becoming seriously ill. Such life events can be highly stressful, traumatic even. They're very difficult for anyone to cope with and can take a lot of time to adjust to. I don't want to give the impression that 'challenging negative interpretations' is the best approach to dealing with really bad stuff. There isn't one way. Time helps. So does support, including professional support if needed.

From experience with really bad stuff, I'd say the biggest risk is becoming isolated. So talk to people (don't worry alone). See friends. Do stuff, especially outside in natural environments. Being active mentally and physically definitely helps. Being alone with your thoughts for too long often doesn't.

Secondly, I don't want to give the impression that pessimism is always bad. In some circumstances, seeing the negative scenario and then worrying about it is highly appropriate and adaptive. It might lead to you taking prompt remedial action that saves a lot of stress later on. A good example is money worries, where a negative interpretation could motivate you to act decisively 'now' so that the worst case scenario can never occur. It doesn't mean you shouldn't challenge negative thinking, but sometimes a negative interpretation is entirely valid in the circumstances.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Is happiness about managing your expectations?

Me and my friend, Karl - DEFINITELY happy - could it be the ale?

I've seen various formulae for happiness over the years, some more evidence-based than others. Today another one was presented and I'll get to that in a wee while.

One I regularly speak about featured in Martin Seligman's book, Authentic Happiness. Published a dozen years ago now, it reflected happiness research at that time. The formula was:

H = S + C + V

.. where H is Happiness, S is Set range, C is Circumstances and; V represents factors under our Voluntary Control.

Seligman discribed V as the most important issue in Positive Psychology because these were things influencing our happiness that we could genuinely do something about. Of course, perceived control is a huge issue in stress management and resilience.

Focus your attention and effort on what you can control and you'll be less stressed and more resilient. It's good stress management advice.

A bit of background on the other two factors though because they're important. The S (Set range) aspect comes from evidence suggesting we all have a 'set range' for happiness. We're all on what's been described as an 'hedonic treadmill'.

When something good or bad happens (and it can be very good or very bad), over time our happiness reverts back to where it generally is. So, we're thinking about buying a new car. The anticipation brings us pleasure. And when we buy it, we're really happy and showing it off to our friends and learning about all its gizmos that we'll never use and driving for the sake of it. And we may even go through a spell of actually washing it! But sadly and quite quickly our new car happiness fades. Soon enough it's just a car like any other car and meantime our insurance has gone up...

No surprise too that our circumstances (C) should influence happiness and this is where the lines between psychology, philosophy and economics can become blurred. There are some big factors or 'circumstances' linked to happiness like money, marriage, age, health and religion. There's some fascinating research related to each of these circumstances. Recently governments too have become more engaged in this area of research, realizing that it isn't simply about people's wealth (which arguably is in decline now anyway) but more about promoting 'wellbeing'. What we can probably say is that your circumstances will influence happiness and wellbeing in some important ways (especially if they are, or have been, very bad).

Back though to today's happiness formula, from a recently published paper. This formula is mainly about momentary happiness, how you feel 'now' and what influences that. For what it's worth, here's the formula...

No, I couldn't work it out either, but that doesn't matter.

This research, using a gambling game methodology to test their model, predicted that happiness at a specific time is related to / predicted by certain rewards (CR), expected values / expectations (EV), and the difference between experienced and predicted rewards (RPE).

Here's the gist - our expectations are more important to our current happiness than many of us realize. How happy we are at a moment in time has less to do with how things are going at that time than whether they are going better (or worse) than expected.

So the implications (my interpretation) on the face of it could be: "If you want to be happier you have to manage your expectations."

I can hear the pessimists (me included) shouting that they were right all along. Expect the worst, then anything else is a bonus! (Certainly, that works for me on the golf course.) But it's clear from this research that things aren't as straightforward as that. For example, before the outcome (of the gamble), people with more positive expectations are happier.

And in real life, with it's much longer-term outcomes, marriage for example, you just don't know what the outcome is going to be do you? Therefore, the model predicts that it's probably better for your happiness 'now' to have higher expectations about the 'outcome' of your marriage.

This is very interesting and suggests two very different ways of thinking about 'how to be happy' depending on whether you're thinking about shorter-term, day-to-day, living or longer-term, important, life outcomes.

Marriage is a bit heavy. So back to golf...


 I'm standing on the 6th tee with a 30 mile-an-hour. left-to-right cross wind. Trouble (large shrubbery) on the left. Thick, impenetrable rough (known locally as 'bundi') on the right. No point whatsoever in thinking I'm going to hit this to the middle of the green because when it leaks to the right into said bundi, I'm going to be very disappointed and may indeed say bad words. Better to have no expectations and accept this is a difficult shot on a terrible day. If by some miracle it subsequently lands on the green (positive outcome!), expectations are surpassed by a large margin - happiness ensues.


Thinking about my overall golf game (a.k.a marriage)... In this situation, better to have optimism (hope, faith?) that my game can indeed improve and it's worth therefore putting in the effort to improve swing, eliminate catastrophic slice etc. This positive expectation makes me happier.

And indeed I am thinking.. why on earth I am sitting here blogging when I could be out there on this sunny, Scottish Summer's day, hitting the perfect shot to the 6th and holing the putt for a birdie (oops, getting ahead of myself again; unhappiness and disappointment is round the corner - better get back to work!)

Short-term realism, long-term hope - a possible recipe for a happier life?