How to have a better year than your Facebook year

So what kind of year have you had? According to my year on Facebook, it’s ‘end of year review’ app makes it look as if all I ever do is eat! Of course it’s based on pictures posted and I’m careful what I share on Facebook just in case it alters its terms and conditions and my photographs end up in some dodgy advertising campaign. Nevertheless, it still feels a bit imbalanced.

Seeing my Facebook year in pictures has forced me to consider the questions ‘Did I have the year I wanted?’ ‘What do I want from the coming year and how do I go about getting it? How I answer these question comes down to my values. So how about you?  Does your Facebook summary might do justice to the year you’ve had, assuming you’ve succumbed to the lure of Facebook. What are your highlights and how did these coincide with your values?

When interviewing students for a place on a psychology course I used to ask ‘What are you going to have to give up to complete this course?’ It’s a great question to ask when pursuing any personal goals. Most people have time in their lives where they just fill that time (or kill time). Usually potential students answered that they would spend less time watching TV. Of course, less time spent on Facebook is another possibility. How do you spend time on there and does it further your goals. If you are running a business then social media can be very useful. However many people use social media to relieve boredom.

In order to focus the coming year, consider your top values in life. These will form the headlines for the year ahead. Top of my values list is ‘curiosity or love of learning’. For this to appear in my end of year review, I’m going to have to take actions to learn stuff. Another of my values is ‘making a contribution’. So I have to think about translating that value into action. Matching goals to values is an important part of personal development. Another value is making connections with people as opposed to going through the motions electronically. So I know I have read books, attended courses, run my own courses, coached people and met some new people this year. None of this is reflected in my facebook year, but i have honestly. Check out my Facebook page!

The truth is that you don’t have to take photographs of every little event in your life. We can lose out of living in the present moment whilst fiddling about getting the right lighting and camera settings. It’s enough to keep your main values as themes at front of your mind as reminders. These values become the guide for actions. So if you find yourself spending hours in front of the TV or computer screen, you can ask yourself: How is this supporting my values? Is this going to be one of the year’s highlights? Is this going to make up a large proportion of my year?

Your values become your checklist throughout the year so that you don’t get to the end of the year wondering where it went and what you did with it. So what if you’re so busy getting on with life that you don’t end up with a great album in Facebook.

Now here’s a picture of my meatball Gary Wood's Meatball Lasagnelasagne!

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 About Gary Wood

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodDr Gary Wood is a chartered psychologist, life coach and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology, personal development and life coaching. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.

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Being Happy: Memories and Goals

In a recent radio interview I was asked about the process by which we recall happy moments in our lives whilst less happy times tend to fade. Of course, it’s not the same for all everyone. Some people are adept at recalling past events as reasons for not engaging with the present or the future. I’m not referring here to recalling serious trauma but more the refusal to move on in the coaching context.

Working with mature students there have been numerous examples of people who have held on to the callous remarks of (poor) teachers. It took some of them 30 years to go back into the classroom. It wasn’t that they had suddenly found the confidence to do so, it’s just that the ‘pain’ and regret of not doing so became greater. As well as teach the syllabus it was also my job to convince them that it was the right decision. These students are the main reason I got into (life) coaching.

Social Media and Memories

A recent research study at Portsmouth University by Alice Good and Claire Wilson suggests that we use social media like Facebook, not just to interact with others but also to interact with our former selves. Some people spend a great deal of time looking through the old photographs the post on networking sights. The process of looking back can create have an emotional buffering effect especially during tough times. It can create a sense of well-being and optimism to help us to deal with present challenges and to face the future.

Constructed Memories

The human memory is not an infallible storage device. Cognitive psychologist  Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s that memories are highly constructed. When things don’t make sense or when there is missing information, we fill in the gaps based on memory default values based on our experiences of likelihood, Often our memories bear little relation to what actually happened, which is why the accuracy and reliability of eye-witness testimony (in the justice system) has been challenged by psychology, most notably by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In cognitive-behavioural therapy questioning techniques centre on cognitive distortions, most often on black-and-while, absolutist thinking. Similarly by exploring exceptions to negative evaluations, in the solution-focused approach, we can reveal small nuggets of possibility to build upon. In classic psychoanalysis we have he concept of defence mechanisms, where sometimes memories of painful experiences are blocked at an unconscious level in order to protect us emotionally and psychologically. Often memories seem to have a life of their own.

Being Happy

Happiness is no longer just in the realm of pop psychology, it has become a legitimate topic in academic psychology led by pioneering Positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Seligman, happiness is about living our lives according to our values and strengths. For Csikszentmihalyi happiness is about setting goals that stretch us and put us into a state of flow. ‘Flow’ is that state of total engagement in what we are doing, when we are totally ‘in the present moment’ and lose a sense of time and of ourselves. We can actively do something about our own happiness. Along with confidence-building it is one of the main motivations for seeking (life) coaching.

The Past-Present-Future Balance

As with all aspects of life, balance is key. It’s good to reminisce and look back and be reminded of the good times. The best times in our lives are often when we most in tune with our strengths and values. For some people the past has a powerful lure, so much so that it taints the present and the future. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that ‘History is an angel blown backward through time’.  It means that, essentially, we walk backwards into the future. We cannot help but look back but still need to move forward. It’s important to value the past for its lessons, for uncovering our strengths and for providing us happy memories to see us through challenging times. Perhaps it’s greatest value is to help propel us into the future. There lie new opportunities to live according to our values, to use our skills and strengths and more opportunities to experience a sense of flow, those moments where time appears to stand still. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness – the ability to live in the present moment for what it is without letting it get crowded out by the past or the future. It’s all a delicate balance that becomes a whole lot easier when we take a few moments out of our day to settle our minds and take a few, long, slow deep breaths. Taking control of our stress/relaxation is the first step to confidence and happiness.

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 21/3/13 )

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A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part One: Just Being Sociable

Psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. After rejecting countless invitations from strangers (a.k.a. Facebook friends) to accept imaginary gifts or send culinary items, I relented and decided to see what all the fuss was about. It was the beginning on a year playing Café World (CW).  My primary motivation was just to have fun. Some of my real world friends accepted my invitations and it became another way of keeping in touch. However,  I also quickly learned that CW is a very socially oriented game. As a social psychologist this really appealed to me.

CW is a café-themed computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. This includes requesting items, returning favours and joining forces to complete team tasks. In my “neighbourhood” I noticed that the one player points ahead of the rest, was also the most reliable in responding to requests.  In CW, even though it’s a competition, you succeed by co-operation. However, some people are slow to grasp this. There are also various challenges where players form teams to tackle time-bound catering goals.  Where there is a limited time to cook an insurmountable numbers of dishes, it isn’t possible to go it alone. It is these challenges that bring out the worst in people. There are some hilarious posts on Facebook profiles of bitter disputes that breakout over non-cooperation. Warnings and ultimatums are issued stating “If you don’t respond to my requests, I will no longer respond to yours”. People are accused of being “amateurs” and “not taking things seriously”. This minority, who take things far too seriously, complain, hassle and become quite aggressive with statements such as “How can we expect to succeed if you are not pulling your weight?”. They can become abusive. People gently point out that “it’s a game and none of us are getting paid for this”. For some, this does not seem to matter. They become so engrossed that they become the bullying celebrity chefs we so often see on television. This begs the question, if people behave like this playing a game, do they behave the same in the real world? What are they like as colleagues, team players and team leaders? Do we all play computer games by the same rules as we live our lives by? Did CW turn make these players a little too “enthusiastic” or just shine a spotlight on their behaviour?

Early on, I took the lead from the top player in our neighbourhood and I simply responded to all requests. I’m sure that some people hoped to prosper by taking without reciprocating, however I didn’t let their behaviour alter my strategy. I like the idea of succeeding by cooperation, so I just played my part and didn’t worry about the motivations of anyone else.

CW also appealed to my sense of fun and irony. Other non-players would scoff and tell me that I had too much time on my hands. I was told that I need to get a real life or run a real café. The implication was that my time should be put to better use. Part of me liked the fact that I was playing a “dumb game” and should know better. The gross assumption was that playing a computer game can tell us nothing about ourselves and other people. As I wrote at that start of this, psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. CW did not make me a more socially-oriented person, I was that before I started playing. I like the lesson that we can succeed in life by co-operation. Whether pixellated virtual reality of Café World or the “real world”, co-operation for me is not just a means to an end, it is an end point, a terminal value, in and of itself.

In the following parts I will consider how playing Café World can help us to reflect on goal-setting strategies, time-management, cognitive flexibility and transferable skills.

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Dicing with Boredom. . . & Coping Styles

If you’re constantly channel surfing and find yourself watching the same old stuff, over and over again, stuck on facebook or twitter for hours on end, and the fridge door is opening and closing at night so much that the neighbours think you’ve having a disco in the kitchen, chances are YOU ARE BORED!

None of these activities are intrinsically ‘bad’, it’s just that sticking to the same habitual patterns of of ”boredom relief‘ is hardly likely to relieve boredom. It’s important to take a reality check from time to time and ask ‘Am I hungry or bored?’ or ‘Do I really want to watch the 1930s movie in ‘brown & white’ or am I bored? Am I networking or ‘net-jerking’? To relieve boredom we usually go through the same rituals, such as eating, drinking or watching TV simply because they are our tried, tested and trusted ways of relieving boredom. There’s also an element of emotion-focused coping. This means that we use food or TV to replace the negative emotions associated with boredom. However, emotion-focused coping should only really be a short-term solution. It’s a quick fix but it doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem, that is, boredom. Instead, it just deals with the symptoms.

There’s an old saying that variety is the spice and this sounds like I’m ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’, but you’re only bored because you aren’t doing anything that you’re really interested in at that moment! So rather than stick to the quick-fixes, here’s a little technique that helps make up your mind to do something different. I’ve borrowed the idea from the book The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. It’s the story of a therapist who decides to live his life according to the roll of dice, with alarming consequences. However, we are only going to subject our boredom to chance!

Here’s how:

Make a list from 1 to 21 of the things you could be doing to relieve the boredom, that doesn’t include food, drink or TV (or any other of your rituals). The reason it’s 21 things is because that’s the combinations of a numbers on a pair of dice (1 & 1, 1 & 2, 1 & 3. . .and so on up to 5 & 6 and 6 & 6). A third of the things should include things you have been putting off such as  ‘decluttering your wardrobe’. A third should be personal challenges that you never seem to make time for such as ‘learn a new language’. The remainder are things you like doing to relax such as ‘go for a walk’ or ‘read a book’, and so on.

So, the next time you feel board and find your fingers zapping the remote control or opening and closing the fridge door, reach for a pair of dice and your list. Roll the dice and add up the dots and do whatever number is on your list. No excuses, no second roll. Just do it. The afterwards review your thoughts and feelings? Did it do the trick and relieve your boredom? If not, then roll again and try something else.

Negative emotions can effectively put us on a sort of remote control. We are controlled by the negative emotions and act in habitual, quick-fix ways to relieve the symptoms. The dice technique is a fun techniques for pattern-breaking, to get us to consider other options. However, it is no substitute for making informed choices and adopting a control-focused coping style, that is, we seek to tackle the problem at its cause, not just mop up the symptoms.

So next time, you’re faced with an unpleasant emotion, instead of reaching for the cake slice or the remote control ask yourself what’s behind it, and what you can do to tackle it at source.

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The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains? Is it 21st Century Onanism?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Internet social networking has now become the target for age old debate on harmful media influences. Leading neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has speculated that as we spend too much time on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we run the risk of infantalizing the mid-21st mind. However haven’t we heard similar arguments before most notably with TV and video games, right back to the chivalry books of Don Quixote?  Indeed eerily similar warnings of the dangers of on-line social networking were also made for masturbation (onanism) in the 19th century. According to Lord Baden-Powell, such ‘beastliness’ was said to destroy both health and spirits so that the practitioner becomes ‘feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum’. Is social networking becoming the onanism of the 21st century?

Too much on-line onanism?

Too much on-line onanism?

At best, Prof. Susan Greenfield’s comments are conjecture. She admits that there is no evidence to support her assertions (see Newsnight link below). So why bother then? Well, she’d just like the government to provide some funding to satisfy her hunch.  But by contrast, oh the bells, the alarm bells from Dr Aric Sigman who claims that there is ample evidence although, according to Dr Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) Sigman only bothers to look at half of it (see link below). In short, the half that would provide us with a balanced scientific perspective is missing.  It is worth pointing out that Dr Sigman’s piece does not cite any research that he carried out (although it’s difficult to tell as he did not cite the full list of authors in his reference list, so he may be in there somewhere). The paper looks to be a  literature review with his own conclusions and he concedes (in the Newsnight interview) that it is meant to be a one-sided piece intended to provoke discussion, something he appears to specialize in (see: In Bed With Mary Whitehouse). The paper is based on the assumption that Internet social networking increases isolation and loneliness which in turn leads to health problems.

As with many of these media-scare stories, the more dramatic conclusions require a leap of faith that correlational studies indicate causation. They do not.  So for instance, does Internet social networking increase isolation and loneliness or do lonely and isolated people seek out a means to make themselves less so? This could mean that on-line social networking is a positive thing. And perhaps we should for a moment consider e-learning’, providing wider educational opportunities? No, the ‘e’ doesn’t stand for evil!

Dr Sigman speaks of displacement arguing that children are sitting in front of a computer when they could be out socializing with friends. However, couldn’t the same argument be made for watching television (er, yes it has), reading and even doing homework. I know I would have rather been out playing ‘kick the can’ as a child, when I was stuck in doors reading about the printing press and how it gave ‘the great unwashed’ ideas above their station (pretty much in the same way as the Internet does today). Worries that children can be too ‘bookish’ are now largely overlooked in favour of newer ‘dangers’. And presumably, on-line social networking has displaced ‘staring aimlessly out of the window on a rainy day’ too.

Sigman has also made the claim that we can only be friends with someone if we can shake hands with them. That’s assuming that everyone has hands and  that they can shake them! He also makes questions whether we should be chatting on-line to people across the globe instead of playing with ‘real friends’. Has he forgotten ‘penpals’ at school, the practice of writing to complete strangers in different countries? It was heartily encouraged! As a social psychologist, I would have thought connecting with people from other lands was a good thing (in contrast with good old-fashioned, small-minded, back-porch xenophobia). However, some evidence suggests young people are using online social networking primarily to enhance existing friendships and interaction with ‘e-friends’ is secondary. Unfortunately Facebook only uses th category ‘friends’ for all online contacts. It doesn’t mean that each and every is viewed the same; users may make their own distinctions. Thinking about my own experience. I have over 600 contacts in my email contact list although only 20 that I use frequently. It is not a coincidence that these are the people with whom I have the greatest face-to-face contact.  In short, much of the headline-seeking, scare mongering stems from a failure to understand how the average user uses online social networking, instead indulging in worst case scenarios. I could go on but instead invite you to read Sigman’s article and with the aid of Goldacre’s response ask you to think of alternative explanations that make up the whole of the picture. And while you’re at it consider how Greenfield throws together a heap of ideas and assumptions that do not necessarily have to be connected in the same way as she does.

So are we all twittering ourselves into oblivion?

Much has been made of the ‘rewiring our brains’ hypothesis and Prof Greenfield has speculated that in middle of the 21st Century – that is in about 40 years time –  our brains will be different. This seems a little premature to say the least. Sigman would warn us about exposing young brains to novel experienes but this also includes just about everything at school. Children have an enormous capacity for integrating new experiences. Chances are the world will be a different place and yes humans will adapt. Isn’t that learning? In the long-term isn’t it evolution?

We simply do not have the evidence to assess the extent of brain changes  and it certainly won’t just be all down to how much time we spend chatting to our real or ‘virtual friends’. Life is so much more quixotic! It’s also important to recognise that new technologies impact on different people in different ways. The diffusion of any innovation is such that we have innovators, early adopters, the late majority with laggards, er . . lagging behind.   So will we have a sliding scale of brain-mush? Will the ‘slow on the uptake’ be spared?  Again, more conjecture. It’s simply not possible, nor scientific, to conclude that any changes will be for the worst  and to pretend that ‘brain infantilization’ or ‘hairy-palmed isolation’ are  foregone conclusions (or even likely) is at best bad science. It’s just another example of not letting the evidence get in the way of  a good story.

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