Newsletter 640 – A thoughtful Football Story

Concussion 2If you follow American football you may be aware of a new book and motion picture each titled Concussion. They tell the true story of a Nigerian physician named Bennet Omalu who came to the United States, earned several additional degrees and became a renowned specialist in forensic neuropathology. One day Dr. Omalu “picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he never intended…. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old…[football player], one of the greatest ever to play the game.” Prior to his death the football player had developed serious mental deterioration. Omalu discovered that this was caused by a brain disease resulting from “relentless blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game.” The Concussion book and movie give a fascinating account about how others responded to this discovery and how the National Football League (NFL), “a multibillion-dollar colossus” tried to silence the doctor and discredit his work.

Why should you or I care? Here are two observations:

  • Be cautious about discrediting research that we dislike. The NFL is a huge corporation that tried to silence Omalu and produce research to disprove his results. This research was suspect from the start because it was NFL funded. But this is not limited to a football league. American politicians do something similar when they discredit research that appears to undermine their political agendas. Don’t theologians do something similar? What about academicians, advertisers, or public speakers who select or create research to support their positions and condemn or ignore the rest? If you do research, do it well. If you site research, be fair and try to site competent sources.
  • Be alert to the ways in which ideas, intellectual property and discoveries can be hijacked by others intent of gaining acclaim and money. Omalu’s discovery was claimed by others who took his ideas and built profitable organizations without acknowledging his contributions. When your dreams and accomplishments have been taken form you and used by others, it is difficult to trust again. Omalu struggled with this and withdrew, never expecting that the true story would be told. The book describes him as a man of courage. He also appears to be a man of integrity. That involves doing what is right regardless of whether anybody is watching.

Are these comments biased? Have I been unfair? Hopefully not! Even so, there’s value in pondering the stories of others and insuring that we’re not guilty of similar unethical actions. Please comment.

Newsletter 639 – New Year’s Attitudes

Quotation 7We all know this. The week around New Year’s Day is about reflecting on events of the year that is passing and thinking about the year that’s ahead. New years’ resolutions, goal setting, plans and expectations all come to our attention. They concern individuals, families and careers. Often they are a focus of companies, ministries, and organizations. These reflections and resolutions are not bad. They motivate us to action but there is research evidence that they rarely work very well to bring permanent change. Many involve trying to eliminate long-engrained habits that have lodged in the synapses and neural pathways of of our brains.

In case you are wondering, I rarely make resolutions. But I do spend time reflecting, setting goals for the year ahead, and initiating behavior changes that hopefully will stick. All of this is taken seriously but I plan the future lightly, aware that unforeseen circumstances can disrupt our best developed plans and recognizing that God alone knows what’s ahead.

During this past year, I’ve thought increasingly about the attitudes that influence so much of what we do. Most of us know people who seem super bitter, cynical, critical or engulfed in similar sour mindsets. These ways of thinking rarely accomplish anything. They can pull us into discouragement, perpetual anger, and sometimes hopelessness or despair. And they alienate everyone who hears the complaining.

Quotation 3When I was in graduate school a few of us spent a day with Victor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist to survived a Nazi prison camp. He watched fellow prisoners die because they had no hope. In contrast, those who survived had found meaning, despite their circumstances. (The quotation on the left comes from Frankl). Whatever comes in the new year will be met with some kind of attitude. Perhaps a positive perspective should be part of our new year’s plans and resolutions. That’s especially true for those of us who live with awareness of God’s ultimate control, care, and reason for hope

What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 632 – The Practical Side of Face-to-Face Contact

 

sisan pinker 2Should you take time to read Susan Pinker’s book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter? For me, Pinker’s book isn’t a “must read” but fits the “recommended reading” category if you work with people. Last week’s newsletter (#631) introduced the book but here are several subjectively-selected, potentially-practical conclusions. Like most of the book, each is documented by easily-understood research summaries and the author’s face-to-face interviews.

  • Internet training programs can be useful but contact with a skilled teacher is better. Consider this: “Policy-makers get a lot more from parent and teacher training programs than from investing in expensive—highly perishable—classroom technology.” Does this apply to on-line training or college courses? Surely the best distance learning includes conversations with instructors and peers as opposed to watching video lectures passively. [Personal perspective: I have taught both approaches. The interactive courses involve more engagement, more active participation, and undoubtedly more effective learning for both teacher and student.]
  • “Even though we all need face-to-face contact, one approach does not fit all.” What does this say about church programs that expect everyone to grow equally in identical pre-programed small groups?
  • Live human contact has major business implications. There are benefits to letting employees work from home on individual schedules but this needs to be limited. Without face-to-face interaction at work, productivity and creativity go down. Even Google has designed a headquarters where workers have opportunity to ‘bump into colleagues and have real conversations [because without this] innovation and social cohesion take a hit.”
  • When companies cut costs by reducing the number of employees, eliminating training, paying “basement-level wages,” or blocking benefits and opportunities for advancement, profits can drop and customers often move elsewhere. Same with companies where cost-cutting involves “deploying robots or foreign call centers whose agents know nothing about the business and are paid per call so they try to make it fast by passing you off to someone else.” There’s a price to be paid for replacing human contact.

The book has implications for counseling, leadership, education at all levels, marketing, family therapy, ministry, health, stress management and the ability to recover from disasters. You get the point. “Despite the clear advantages of the Internet, if we want to be happy, healthy, long-lived, [productive] and clever, then we need to find ways to spend more time with each other face-to-face.” How does this apply to you? Please comment.

 

Newsletter 631 – Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters

Susan PinkerIn 2004 following my only experience as a surgery patient, the doctor made a prediction that proved to be accurate. He said that I’d make a complete and relatively speedy recovery. In addition to good medical care he commented on several positive signs, including my overall good physical shape based on consistent exercise, the “spirituality” that he saw, a determination to get better, my sense of humor (it beats complaining), and the social support that came from family and friends. At times I thought of this while reading psychologist Susan Pinker’s fascinating book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter.

This is not a self-help book built on inspiration and subjective opinions. Pinker does include captivating illustrative stories but, in addition, she reports on her interviews with a variety of experts and ordinary people, plus references to an impressive body of scholarly research. For example, the book documents ways in which face-to-face contact contribute to athletic success, language learning, brain development, overall health, longer life, stronger marriage, spiritual growth and better recovery from surgery like mine over ten years ago. Pinker’s work demonstrates her wide knowledge of brain functioning and neurophysiology as these relate to everyday behavior, stress-management and life fulfillment. The Village Effect is written by one of those rare scholars who is able to engage readers, write clearly, and make empirical evidence interesting and relevant.

Here are summary conclusions adapted from comments on the book’s cover:

  • People with tight circles of friends who gather regularly are likely to live an average of fifteen years longer than loners.
  • Social contact at the beginning of life helps us cope with stress later on.
  • The lowest rate of dementia appears in people with extensive face-to-face social networks.
  • A hug or a pat on the back lowers one’s physiological stress response, which in turn helps the body fight infections.
  • Women with breast cancer who have large networks of friends are four times as likely to survive as those with sparser social connections.

This is an impressive summary of what most of us suspect or know. But in what practical ways does this book’s message relate to your work, career, relationships and lifestyle? We’ll have more on this next week. Meantime, please feel free to leave a comment.

Newsletter 617 – Transition Fatigue: Handling Waves of Change

waves 3It crept up on me, not even noticed at the beginning. Unusual fatigue. A surprising lack of motivation and enthusiasm. Low drive in a guy who normally exudes boundless energy. Blood tests revealed nothing but a close friend was on to something when he mentioned the waves of change that have engulfed me in recent months. We’ve had three major moves, a change in residence, lifestyle, career direction, and transition into a new stage in life. Transition fatigue like this hits almost everybody at times, especially if it comes unexpectedly and calls for difficult changes. Coaches and counselors deal with it frequently in their clients but also in themselves.

But it’s even more widespread. A local church clearly is dysfunctional and dying even as the congregation refuses to make any changes. There are colleges like this (including lots of professors), organizations, businesses, and even whole professions. And consider politicians and government bureaucracies. Thriving and growing in a fast-changing world demands that individuals and groups both change. Do nothing and down goes energy, enthusiasm, effectiveness and even life. But there are ways to move forward.

  • Acknowledge what might be going on, including the start of a new season of life. This often involves loss and grief despite what’s ahead.
  • Admit the negatives in your situation but don’t dwell on these, rehearse them in your mind, or share them with everyone you meet. This can lead to self-pity, depression, cynicism or bitterness.
  • Look for what’s positive without denying what’s realistic. Expect positive outcomes instead of dwelling on worst-case scenarios.
  • Use verbal reframes. Example: “This is a retirement community, not an old peoples’ home.” The language you use can change your whole attitude and perspective.
  • Spend time with people and activities that lift your spirits, encourage and move you in directions where you want to go. Remember that negative people often pull us down.
  • Get extra rest, time away, and opportunities for uplifting diversions.
  • Cut out what you can cut. Set lower expectations for yourself at least temporarily. No one person can or is called to do everything.
  • Write down your observations and thoughts. Journaling lets you set new narratives for your life. Take steps to make these a reality.
  • Never forget the power of prayer and of divine guidance.

This is an off-the-top-of-my-head list that I’ve been applying to myself. Perhaps like me, you or your clients have had these transition times before and come out stronger in the end. What would you add to the list? Please comment.

Newsletter 613 – New Perspectives on Burnout

burnout 2Can anything fresh be said about burnout? That was my reaction when I saw the May/June, 2015 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine. The PT editor calls burnout “that mélange of weariness, depression and apathy, seasoned with a tincture of cynicism [that] has become as persuasive as the common cold.” Originally the term described physical and psychological breakdown that came to counselors and other care-givers who had become overly burdened with the crises and stresses of their clients. Now the term can apply to anyone, including pastors, business people, homemakers, students, performers,  and overworked, overwhelmed people in any field or profession. Sometimes these individuals cling to the “exalted, if never quite admitted” belief in themselves as admirable individuals who never give up, consistently perform superbly, or believe that they have a duty to help everyone who appears with a need.

The proposed remedies tend to be similar, focused on self-care and work-life balance. This means more times for rest, reduced workloads, better time management, and various relaxation and meditation practices. An entire industry of books, videos, and seminars has arisen to help burned-out people do more of some things (like sleep, exercise or time management) and less of others. According to the lead PT article, however, “workplace initiatives on individual self-care and work-life balance are not only doomed to fail, but may make us worse.” Even among believers in such activities “the empirical evidence shows they make no difference” largely because burn out is a reaction to uncontrollable circumstances. Treating the symptoms fails to address burnout’s causes.

What matters most is not how demanding a job is, or the level of responsibility. What matters more is how much personal control and competence one has in performing the work. Research supports the conclusion that when we are fulfilled in our work, committed and able to do it better, we are less likely to burn out.

These observations are not intended to squelch traditional self-care measures. One PT writer argues that self-care does help, especially “targeted micro self-care” that involves mini-practices like short prayers, frequent deep-breathing, and brief exercises.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus never burned out despite the demands of his work and calling? Of course he rested and hung out with friends. But he also had clear purpose, direction, and boundaries that let him stay focused and in control. Do you agree? How have you prevented or handled burnout? Please comment.

Newsletter 607 – When Life and Goal-setting are Disrupted

Last December I took an on-line seminar that promised to make this my best year ever. The main message was about setting goals for the year along with deadlines and plans for achieving success. There was not much new in the presentations but the information was solid and similar to what coaches, teachers, and counselors urge for others and Detours1try to implement in themselves. Perhaps not surprising, the seminar seemed to assume that each of us is in control of our own lives and careers. Overlooked was the fact that goal-setting can fly out the window when we encounter the crises, unexpected health issues, career disruptions, or other unpredictable detours and roadblocks that are the reality of our lives.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (April 7, 2015) reported research studies showing how physical health and mental well-being are both impacted by the ways we frame life crises and shattered dreams. In one study adults were asked to tell their life stories. Each was evaluated in terms of several themes that emerged and were described with somewhat confusing academic titles. The first of these we might prefer to call sense of control in which subjects felt able to influence and respond to life events. The next, connection means how much people are in contact and association with others. Third, positive perspectives refer to the degree to which we can take negative experiences and find positive sides to our new realities. People with these characteristics had lower levels of depression, higher levels of life satisfaction, and greater psychological and social well-being when compared with those who focused on self-pity, bitterness, and whatever was negative.

This reframing is central to what have been called personal narratives: the stories we tell ourselves and try to live out, especially when our life-plans and goal-setting are barricaded. In addition to the sense of control, connection, and positive perspectives, other research found that personal narratives help most when we:

  • Openly acknowledge what has happened.
  • Accept the new realities,
  • Reframe the ways in which we view life circumstances and events (sometime bad things can have positive outcomes,)
  • Resist dwelling on the negative,
  • Determine to change whatever is changeable, and
  • Believe and live out our new life stories.

Have you or your associates had experiences where this applies? Where does God fit into this analysis? Please comment.