Saturday, March 28, 2020

How Stoicism can help at a time of crisis Part II) Epictetus's Epiphany

Epictetus's epiphany is invaluable at all times.
I want to suggest it's even more helpful in these challenging times.

The basic idea may be familiar,  A friend ignores you when you pass them by in the street.  Mary thinks "How rude!" and feels annoyed.  
Rose thinks "She must be a bit distracted, I hope she is OK" and feels concerned.  
Same event, different judgement,.
Same event, Mary is upset, Rose is not upset.

Makes sense? So we should be more mindful of our judgements, right?

But what, I hear you ask, what if the judgement is true? 
What if Mary really is being rude? 
Isn't Epictetus's epiphany just a recipe for being unrealistically positive? 

Epictetus and other Stoics have a really good answer for this, involving the virtues, which we will talk about another day soon.

Today though I want to share one really helpful insight, namely

Even when a situation really is difficult, that doesn't mean that all are judgements  we make about it are a either ccurate or helpful.

Take the current situation with Covid-19.

Suppose  John is  thinking "All my plans are ruined!" 
How will he feel? 
Pretty upset.
 Now, you might say, isn't it true, all his plans are ruined! Aren't everybody's?
Well, no actually,
Some of John's plans are ruined. 
The Stoics taught us to be very mindful of the language we use, even to ourselves, and to avoid being over-emotional  or exaggerating.
John would feel a lot better if he kept to the facts! 
What if  instead he told himself 
"My plans to on holiday to France need to be put on hold"
Do you notice how John's more helpful response helps? 
Not only is he being more specific he is also avoiding emotional language like "ruined".

So that's lesson one. 
Even when there is  a negative situation, you will upset yourself a lot less if you avoid emotional language and stick to the facts.

What though I hear you ask, if the situation really is very bad?
Suppose Simone is self-isolating with her husband, who she doesn't really get on with and her teenage children,
 She thinks they have only got by in the last year because they have done their own thing and not spent much time together.

"We are going to kill each other by the end of this self-isolation!" Simone says to her best friend, Louise.

What if it was Epictetus Simone was talking to, rather than Louise?

Well, like John,  clearly Simone could put this predicting in a less emotional and more specific way.
Epictetus might recommend Simone responds like this:-

"Covid-19 and self-isolation is going to put a lot of strain on our household. It is true it could well cause cause everyone getting frustrated with each other. If we don't think about how to deal with the situation constructively, there could be a lot of arguments"

Do you notice something interesting about this new way of putting things? The original way of thinking leads not just to feeling despondent. It  also doesn't lead anywhere in terms of coming up with a constructive solution. Whereas Simone's second way of thinking about it could lead to useful problem-solving and discussion.

What do you think Simone could do?
Maybe she could raise the issue with her family and start a discussion about how they live together for the next month
Maybe she could suggest they negotiate how much time they spend in the same room. 
Maybe they might even start to enjoy spending some of the time together!

To sum up,  Epictetus's epiphany has 3 important take-homes

1) Notice what judgements you are making. 
2) Avoid emotional and exaggerated language - even when talking to yourself!
3) When you do put things in a more calm and specific way, you will find that  you are much more likely to identify issues you can start to problem-solve in a constructive way

How could you benefit from Epictetus's epiphany today?

Sunday, March 15, 2020

How Stoicism can help at a time of crisis - part 1, the Stoic Worry Tree

Stoicism is much more just than a philosophy of times of adversity. But it sure is a good philosophy for a time of crisis. Earlier today I presented a great CBT technique, The Worry Tree.

Now I want to share with you how Stoicism, the wise old grand-daddy of CBT, would handle the same worries. Meet the Stoic Worry Tree.

Let's see how it would deal with common worries about Covid-19.

Worry 1: "What if my elderly mother gets Coronavirus from me?"
Stoic Worry Tree Answer:
What aspects can I control? Only my actions and my attitude

What virtues are relevant?
Justice - it would not be fair or compassionate to risk her getting it
Courage - to give her advise about how best to avoid it!
Wisdom - to find other means of supporting her
What aspects are not under my control - whether she actually gets it
Self--control -  notice when I start worrying and moderate it
Wisdom - understand that worrying isn't helping, when I notice it think of what virtue I need to tackle something that is under my control

Worry 2:  Will I get COVID-19 myself?
Stoic Worry Tree Answer:
What aspects can I control? Only my actions and my attitude

What virtues are relevant?
Wisdom: Follow best advice about how to reduce the risk
Self-control: Don't do things I want to do (like meeting people) if it is too risky
Justice: If I feel any symptoms, self-isolate immediately
Courage - to tell work or whoever that I will not go in

What aspects are not under my control - whether I actually get it
Self--control -  notice when I start worrying and moderate it
Wisdom - understand that worrying isn't helping , when I notice it think of what virtue I need to tackle something that is under my control

Worry 3:Are the government doing enough?
Stoic Worry Tree Answer:
What aspects can I control? Only my actions and my attitude

What virtues are relevant?
Wisdom: I cant control the government, I am also probably not as well-informed as their experts. However I might notice something I can do (for example, helping an elderly neighbour)
Justice:Do what I can to help those who need it
Courage : If there is anything I can influence, do it even if it is uncomfortable

What aspects are not under my control - what the government does
Self--control -  notice when I start worrying and moderate it
Wisdom - understand that worrying isn't helping , when I notice it think of what virtue I need to tackle something that is under my control

Worry 4: What if I can't do what I planned to do in March, April, the summer ...
Stoic Worry Tree Answer:
What aspects can I control? Only my actions and my attitude

What virtues are relevant?
Wisdom: I probably need to cross those bridges when I can to it
Justice:Talk to those involved about any decisions.

What aspects are not under my control - what the government does
Self--control -  notice when I start worrying and moderate it
Wisdom - understand that worrying isn't helping , when I notice it think of what virtue I need to tackle something that is under my control

It's instructive to compare this with the conventional CBT Worry Tree that addressed the same que

There's a lot of overlap.

There's one important difference. Stoicism (contrary to its popular image) is actually an active philosophy, asking you to do the right thing. CBT doesnt tell you to do the wrong thing, but it wouldn't for example, be so concerned with justice and related values like compassion and kindness, unless you were worried about not being compassionate or kind enough.

So the Stoic Worry Tree suggests you try to apply all the virtues to aspects you can control.
Stoicism is more likely than CBT to suggest that you help your neighbour in times of crisis./

I think that both the Stoic and CBT Worry Trees can be very helpful - what do you think?

How to manage worries in a time of crisis (and other times too!)

A few weeks ago I was invited to give a talk about CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to a group of  doctors.   A good opportunity to spread the word about  therapy and how it can be beneficial, I thought - but at the same time quite a challenging. task  The doctors I would be talking to, GPs,  are in the front line, they have less than 10 minutes to help people.   They would definitely  see straight through any bullshit or waffle.

Then came the Coronavirus crisis.  Surely I had to do something that connected with this, which would be on all their minds. But how?

I decided to ditch my theoretical CBT talk and make it more about how CBT could help my audience. Sure, I described some  techniques  they could share with their patients about depression, stress and worry. But I also  made sure to enquire f they could apply any of the tools to themselves, there and then.

Today I  want to share with you  the tool that had the biggest impact.  I hope it is helpful for you to,  in this time when everyone is, naturally enough, worrying about Coronavirus. 

Is it worth 5 minutes of your time right now to read about the Worry Tree and see if it can help you?

So here's how I presented it to the doctors

"Is worry a good thing or a bad thing, what do you think?"

"Bad, obviously", one of the younger female doctors replied.

"Not always",  argued another - "sometimes you need to worry to sort out a problem."

This was great, I thought, we are  starting to get the audience engaged ... "Right",  so when is worry useful and when is it less useful?" I asked.

"It's useful when it leads us to solve a problem", chimed in a third lady GP - "and when it leads us to do something or plan to do something?" - I added.

"But worry is sometimes not so useful" I pointed out.  " Last week I read that an asteroid, about which we can do nothing, has a .001% chance of crashing into the earth . Is it helpful to worry about that?"

"No", replied the first  GP, helpfully, "because we cant do anything about it".

"Exactly. So if we pull these ideas together, we get a really useful tool called the Worry Tree. 
This is a CBT tool that I often share with clients, an it usually proves to be very helpful."

I then showed them the Worry Tree, which looks like this ...

So, I asked, "Any worries on anyone's minds right now?"

"What if my elderly mother gets Coronavirus from me?" asked a lady who hadn't previously said anything.

"Ok, let's apply the Worry Tree.  First you have to notice when you get caught up in worrying. Then you ask one key question  namely."

"Is there anything helpful I can do? Is there?"

"I can give her up to date advice - like to wash hands regularly, perhaps limit going out"

"Yes, that will be a bit of role reversal with what your mum used to tell you ", I joked. "What else can you do?"

"Maybe I need to limit my contact with her. After all I am in the higher risk group of catching the virus as a GP, and she is in the higher risk group of being seriously affected if she catches it."

"Yes, you are right. Can you do that?"



"By checking in on her by Skype and text rather then face to face. By asking my brother who lives quite close to do more of the physical checking"

"Great, how does that sound?

"Good"  she replied.

 I was really happy with this and so was this doctor who took a photo of the Worry Tree with her phone and texted it to a friend.

Then I noticed  a bunch of  sceptical looking male doctors at a table at the back.

"What are you thinking?", I asked one of them

"Well, the worry is still there isn't it.  You haven't really solved it all. Her mum still might get the virus"

"Actually, we have done something. We have made a plan to advise mum and limit contact.  So the Worry Tree has solved something.  But it can't solve problems we can't do anything about. We can't make certain that mum will be OK.  Once we have used the Worry Tree to do all we can, the advise is to then park the worry."

"But how do you do that?"

"Partly by reminding yourself that you have done all you can do at the moment."

"And if that doesn't work?"

"This is where in a CBT session we would discuss and experiment with various ways to help neglect the  worry. One idea that helps some people is worry time, which means cordoning off 15 or 20 minutes  a day to do all your worrying. You can jot down worries at other times, but you ban doing the actual worrying."

I am not sure if  my sceptical questioner was totally satisfied with this answer. The truth is that the worry tree helps a lot of people with a lot of their worries. However it is not a universal panacea, and the full treatment for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) - which is what you may have if worrying has become a big problem for you  - can take a lot more than a 10 minute explanation of the Worry Tree.

So most of the GPs were happy, and so was I. They now had some  tools that can help them and their patients. I can share the other ideas that they found helpful about stress and depression another time, if  you would like that.

Can using the worry tree help you in this time of crisis?

Here is my attempt to apply it to some other common worries people have about Covid-19
Worry: Will I get the virus myself?
Worry Tree Answer: Can I do something helpful? Yes. Follow government advise - wash hands thoroughly, limit social contacts, be especially careful with contact with elderly ....
Worry: But what if I do get it?
Worry Tree Answer : Having done all you can or planned to do all you can, you need to neglect the worry. Remind yourself that you have done all you can, and focus on something else.

Worry: Are the government doing enough?
Worry Tree Answer; Can I do something helpful about this? Not really. Let's focus my energy on things I can do something about instead?

Worry: What if I can't do what I planned to do in March, April, the summer ...
Worry Tree Answer : What can I do about any of this that is helpful? Maybe make contingency plans - go on holiday in the UK rather than abroad, perhaps? But most of this worrying will be about something you can't do anything about at the moment, so it;'s  best to park the worry until closer to the time.

With practice, you can internalise the Worry Tree so you get to do this helpful thinking automatically. Come to think of it, this is what I did with regards to my worry about presenting to the doctors.
I had beebn worried whether they would find it helpful,  and problem-solved this by making it as relevant as I could to them.  The worry tree worked for me! Do you want to give it a try yourself? If so, do it right now on something on your mind, then teach it to someone else.

The key take-home is this

 Having  a worry isn't a problem, it's when you worry about it rather than problem-solve or take action that it becomes one. 
The Worry Tree can help you stop worrying and start leading a more productive and effective life.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Why clarify your values?

Yesterday, summing up some key learning  points from Philosophical Life Coaching, I suggested it was a good idea to clarify your values.

One reader then asked me a very good question

"Is there any evidence that clarifying your values is a good thing to do. Couldn't it be neutral or even negative?"

I think Values Clarification is a bit of a misnomer. It should be called values clarification and actualisation -  but that's a bit of a mouthful.

So we need not just to become more aware of our values, we also need to work towards actualising our values.

In the workshop on Saturday, straight after participants had selected a few cherished values, we then looked at how they could bring these values into their lives more. That's where the "value time" idea came up - when you devote 5 minutes a day to one value.

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.” — Lucius  Seneca

That's one justification for values clarification - values provide a compass to steer your life.

The evidence comes from packages which includes values clarification as an element - ACT and certain forms of Behavioural Activation, which have both been found to help with depression.

Of course clarifying your values can sometimes be uncomfortable if you realise that you aren't satisfying them very much. The existentialists had a phrase for this - existential guilt.  Although it may be uncomfortable, it can motivate you to change.

So, remember, when you clarify your values, don't forget to take action as well. 


Sunday, February 02, 2020

Philosophical Life Coaching - 4 key take-home messages

Thanks to a fantastic group who helped yesterday’s Philosophical Life Coaching Session City Lit London yesterday be so special. Here are 4 key take-home messages.
  1. Clarify your values.
    This fun exercise only takes 2 minutes.
    Reflect on one of your best days.
    Then pick out 3 reasons why it was so special.
    These 3 reasons are likely to be amongst your most cherished values.

One of my best days was a few years back on Holy Island off Arran in Scotland. My daughter and I walked around this peaceful oasis enjoying the serenity, unusual wildlife and the spiritual setting.
It’s enjoyable just to reflect on the day. When I come to think about the values of that day, I realise that connection (with my daughter and with nature), calmness and a sense of meaning away from the madding crowd are all cherished values for me.

    For more ways to clarify your values, 

2. You have coffee time, why not Value Time?
VALUE TIME is 5 minutes in your day to thinking about and working towards a cherished value. Set an alarm on your phone so it happens today.

3.Do you ever envy a comic book hero like Superman or Wonder Woman? 
The good news is you already have a superpower.

It’s your mind, your potential to be rational and wise.
Use your superpower today.
4.Understand the difference between what you can’t change and what you can.
You can’t change the past or other people. Accept them.
You can change your attitude and what you do. Focus on what you can change.
The next day of philosophy with me is at City Lit in central London is Saturday March 28th 2020
Hope to see you there.

Superhero picture: Thanks to Thibault fr [CC BY-SA (]

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Favourite Personal Development, Philosophy & Psychology Books and Podcasts 2019

It's always good to hear what other people are reading that's relevant to become a satisfied Socrates, living happily and wisely. 
Here's what I read and listened to and found particularly enlightening in 2019.  

Please feel free to share your highlights from this list or your own favourite personal development reads of last year in the comments.

1. Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

2. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

3. Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder 

4. The Spinoza Problem by Irvin Yalom

5 In the Habit: Introduction to Changing our Behaviour. Ash Ranpura and Alice Fraser (favourite podcast of the year)

6.Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us about How to Live  by  John Sellars

7. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by  Donald Robertson

8. Live Like a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez

10. .Buddhism for Busy People by David Michie


    12. Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Thursday, January 02, 2020

How to set SMART+ Goals for a successful 2020

Yesterday I argued that setting New Year's Resolutions was not such a good idea. In fact, I said that you'd have to be NUTS to rely on them.  Today I will describe a much smarter approach to personal growth.  It's based on the SMART+ framework I first introduced in Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology.
Q: I've heard of SMART goals. Are you saying this approach is an improvement on that?
A: That's right. The goal-setting literature endorses the SMART framework, but  proposes 4. more key tips for effective goal-setting.
Q: I do remember hearing about SMART goals on a training I did a while ago, but can you just remind me what SMART stands for please?
A: Sure - SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound (and, sometimes, timely)
SMART Goal Setting

For example, suppose you start with a vague goal  of wanting to get fitter The problem is this goal doesn't say anything about how you will do it. By making is SMART, you know you will go jogging each day, you have adapted the goal to make sure you have time for it to be achievable, and you will know whether you achieved it.
Q: Great - hard to see how it could be improved!
A: Well, Edwin Locke and other researchers would argue that you can do better. Many people frame goals negatively - saying things like "I don't want to be lazy" or "I don't want to sit on the couch all day"
Q: What's wrong with that?
A: A couple of things. First of all it doesn't tell you what you should be doing
Q:  I see. So I could achieve not sitting on a couch  by lying in bed!  You said there was another  problem with negatively framed goals?
A: Try not to  think of  pink elephant" for 30 seconds
Q:  OK - no , a pink elephant keeps popping into my brain!  Are you suggesting that telling our brains not to do may be similarly counterproductive?
A: Yes  If I tell myself to not sit on a couch, I am actually more likely to think about sitting on a couch and  may be more rather than less likely to do it
Q: OK, but actually I already have  myself a positive goal -remember - it is to job every day this month, jogging more at the weekends. What's wrong with that?
A: It's perfectly fine, and can be better still if you label your progress as you go along. L stands for labelling progress. A smart goal is measurable, but research suggests its usually helpful to label progress as you go along.
Q: So that I know how I am doing and  I feel a sense of achievement?
A: Exactly. Its also been shown that people who write down their progress are significantly more likely to achieve their goals. 
Q: OK, so I will write down how much jogging I do each day. Easy. What's next?
A:The  U  of PLUS stands for having an unwavering commitment towards the goal. That's the problem with many New Year's Resolutions. They are things we would like to achieve, but are often more of an aspiration, something we hope will just happen,  than a commitment.
Q: So I need to be really committed to the goal. How can I make that happen?
A: Well, there are several ways. One is to tell other people, another is to remind yourself of why it is important. The same study that found that writing down goals helped people achieved discovered a similar positive effect of telling other people about your goals and sending them progress reports. These are types of  "commitment devices".
Q: What is a commitment device?
A: It's an artificial yet often effective may of making sure you stick to your goal. It could be giving money to charity every time you don't go for a run, for example. People have come up with some quite creative commitment devices such as posting something embarrassing on social media if they don't carry out the step towards their goal.
Q: Hmm. Not sure about that. But perhaps I will go running with a pal, would that count?
A: Yes, as long as you don't want to let them down.
Q: I don't want to let them down, so I will go running with a friend on days when they can make it, and we can both keep each other accountable for our progress.
A: Great, sounds like your going to have an accountability partner, which is a great way to increase commitment to your goal.
Q:What does the final S in PLUS stand for?
A: S is for stretching. Research has found that people feel more motivated and obtain  more sense of accomplishment if the goal hits the sweet spot between it being too easy and too difficult.
Q: I guess it wouldn't be a very useful goal if I said I was going to talk to the station each day, if I do it anyway!
A: Exactly,  so might set yourself a target time to walk to the station. Or, with our jogging example, you could increase the amount of time you run each week. Or work towards running a 5K. Let's summarise your SMART+ goal.

Smart+ Goal Setting

A: Yes,  you know are working towards something quite challenging yet meaningful - the 5K run - and are also now going to record things and get a pal to run with you and to share progress with. Do you think SMART+ makes a difference?
Q: Yes, I feel more motivated and also more confident I will reach my goal. This will be me  in March on my 5K with my pal!

A: Glad you found it helpful. You can do it.  Let me know how you get on ... And for everyone else, use the comments section to tell us how moving from SMART to SMART+ can help you. Hope it helps all readers have a successful 2020.