The Magnificent Seven (or what you need to build a solid platform for wellbeing)


Happiness isn’t the same as wellbeing. Happiness is just a part of what we need to feel satisfied with how life is going for us. Besides happiness, we also pay attention to how much meaning and purpose our lives (and how we live them) afford us. Love and our feelings of connectedness play a big part. We also need a healthy sense of autonomy, and a good sense that we are competent in the world. Finally, we need optimal cognitive and physical functioning to complete our sense of wellbeing.

Ciarrochi, Kashdan and Harris have developed 7 foundations of wellbeing that they describe as being guided by the best available science and have direct practical use for helping make cognitive and behavioural changes to support welling. Here’s what they came up with, and some useful questions to see how well you measure up on that foundation building block for wellbeing.

  1. Functional beliefs about the self, others and the world.
  • Do you believe you can overcome barriers and achieve goals?
  • Do you view problems as a challenge of threat?
  • Do you believe you have social worth?

2. Mindfulness and awareness.

  • Are you aware of your emotions, actions, external stimuli and mental processes?
  • Can you label and clarify the exact mixture of emotions that you are feeling at a given point in time?

3. Perspective taking

  • Can you take the perspective of others?
  • Can you take perspective on yourself?

4. Values

  • What do you care about?
  • Do other people’s desires for you dominate your own?

5. Experiential acceptance

  • In order to live according to what you care about, are you willing to have private experiences such as distress and self-doubt?

6. Behavioural control

  • Are you able to control what you say and do in a way that promotes your goals and values?

7. Cognitive skill

  • How well do you solve problems and reason?

Once you see how you’re doing on each of these building blocks, you can start to get some idea as to where you might want to start doing things differently. Coaching conversations can help with that.


Research paper published – Finding positives after disaster: Insights from nurses following the 2010—2011 Canterbury, NZ earthquake sequence


My colleague and I have written a paper that has been published in the Australasian Emergency Nursing Journal. You can read it here.

Here’s the abstract.

Background: This paper identifies positive aspects of nurse experiences during the Canterbury 2010—2011 earthquake sequence and subsequent recovery process.
Methods: Qualitative semi-structured interviews were undertaken with 11 nurses from the Christchurch area to explore the challenges faced by the nurses during and following the earth- quakes. The interviews took place three years after the start of the earthquake experience to enable exploration of the longer term recovery process. The interview transcripts were analysed and coded using a grounded theory approach.

Results: The data analysis identified that despite the many challenges faced by the nurses during and following the earthquakes they were able to identify positives from their experi- ence. A number of themes were identified that are related to posttraumatic growth, including; improvement in relationships with others, change in perspective/values, changed views of self and acknowledgement of the value of the experience.

Conclusions: The research indicates that nurses were able to identify positive aspects of their experiences of the earthquakes and recovery process, suggesting that both positive and negative impacts on wellbeing can co-exist. These insights have value for employers designing support processes following disasters as focusing on positive elements could enhance nurse wellbeing during stressful times.

On the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and implications for NZ

The UN recently agreed a framework for the next 30 years for disaster risk reduction, known as the Sendai Framework for DRR – the agreement was reached at a conference in Sendai, Japan earlier this year. At the time, I was in the middle of a self-commitment to only travel overseas once for work for a 12 month period, so I was not able to make the meeting. However, after the agreement was reached, the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management in New Zealand invited me to be part of a programme over a day to give out views on what needed to happen in NZ to start to bring this framework to bear on our of disaster-related activities. You can see the programme here – all the videos for all the speakers have been archived and available for the public. If you’re into this kind of thing, it really is worth a look.

Below, you can see a direct link to the Panel session I was speaking in – Societal Risks and Resilience.


Radio New Zealand Parenting on Nine to Noon: Failure to Launch

failuite to launch

Clinical and health psychologist and Associate Professor at Massey University Sarb Johal discusses the challenges of adult children who can’t or won’t leave the nest, also known as ‘failure to launch’.

Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan – Parenting slot on holidays with kids

holiday kids

Clinical and health psychologist Sarb Johal, and Associate Professor at Massey University on school holidays – are they fun or just a lot of hard work? Tips to make the most of school breaks.

Media contribution: More uncertainty for MH370 families

Family and friends with loved ones on board the ill-fated flight MH370 will be facing more uncertainty following news that debris discovered a week ago was from the airliner, an expert says.

Overnight, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the wreckage found on the French-administered island of Reunion was that of MH370.

However, a few hours later French prosecutor, Serge Mackowiak, suggested, but would not confirm, the wreckage was from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

The discrepancies between the French and Malaysian statements would be causing uncertainty for families who had loved ones on board the flight, said disaster and mental health expert Associate Professor Sarb Johal, of Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research.

“Any wedge between what different authorities are saying kind of repeats what happened at the very beginning, where there was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of one person was saying this, and one person was saying that.

“All of this doesn’t help with the confidence that the families have around what the authorities are saying. It’s awakening a lot of uncertainty for them.

Click here to read more.

Media contribution: MH370 wreckage dredges up psychological pain for victims’ families

Far from providing closure, discovery of MH370 debris on Reunion is likely to “reset” the grieving process for victims’ families and friends, psychologists say.

Some families want answers, while others just want to move on.

But uncertainties in the case meant all would suffer “unresolved grief”, said Sarb Johal, associate professor in disaster mental health at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research, Massey University/GNS Science.

Click here to read more.

Media contribution: Funeral Webcasting Addresses a Major Void for the Grieving

“The life of the dead consists in being present in the minds of the living” – Cicero

Rituals of mourning are changing. Communities live farther away and further apart from each other than ever. The way we communicate with each other has changed, and continues to evolve at a rapid rate. Often, it can feel hard to keep up.

Some things, however, change more slowly. Until very recently, the obituary section was one of the most widely read parts of the newspaper. Not only is this a way to inform people with details about the person’s death, it becomes a medium through which to discuss their accomplishments as well as note the survivors of the deceased.

The form and function of the obituary have also changed in recent years. Online social forums have extended the potential reach of traditional obituary information as well as increasing exponentially the amount of information (and indeed potential misinformation) on the dead. Facebook and other social networks are now important forums for the representation of and space for mourning. Online rituals enabled through social networks may have a powerful role to play in enabling and empowering individuals who can be marginalised by traditional forms of memorialisation. These can include those relatives who are far away, in geography and/or time zones, or who do not have the economic resources and/or time to travel to traditional forms of grieving rituals such as a funeral.

Research seems to indicate that funerals have changed from what could be described as celebrations to displays of stoicism, where it seems more important to hide emotions rather than to join with others in displaying them. Therefore, online memorialising can be viewed as an important new form of expression, especially with its more public dimensions (as well as more private feats of social networks).

Click here for more of this article.

Dominion Post Editorial: Psychological damage can linger long after flood waters recede

Flooding differs from some other types of disaster as it is often possible to prevent the impacts, and also the lengthy recovery period afterwards.  The long recovery time can increase the risk of secondary stressors – those stressors that are indirectly related to the flooding,  such as economic strain.

Mental health impacts include: bereavement; economic problems for families; behavioural problems in children; increased substance use and/or misuse; increased domestic violence; as well as exacerbating, precipitating or provoking people’s existing problems with their mental wellbeing.

Often, people’s experiences, which reflect the personal and social meanings of the event for them, have more influence on the psychosocial impact of the event than the event itself.

Click here for more of this article

Media contribution: Waitotara residents are standing firm on sodden ground

Massey University Associate Professor of Disaster Mental Health Sarb Johal says residents would need to come up with some of their own answers  about what they were willing to do to make staying in their chosen patch a long term reality.

Those affected by the flooding will definitely be under emotional strain, he says, despite attempts to put on a brave face. So any decisions made in the immediate aftermath and/or without their input would likely be met with resistance.

Radio NZ National Nine to Noon show – Parenting slot on resisting pester power: saying no to children

saying no

In this parenting slot of the show, I talk with Kathryn Ryan about saying no to persistent children and teenagers, and have some tips on how to manage those situations.


A bit of rain doesn’t fix a potential drought problem for New Zealand

dry nz

We are entering an era – if we haven’t already – where patterns of rainfall we have planned for are likely to be disrupted, meaning that we have to think carefully about how we live as new patterns emerge.

Drought for farmers means more than just a bit of dry grass. In the cities, we certainly need to be mindful of our water usage and conservation, but the serious economic, social and emotional effects of drought are often underestimated by city-dwellers. Droughts can be classified as a natural hazard – a fact that is often overlooked.

For those whose livelihoods are disrupted by water shortages, the primary impact tends to be experienced economically. The agricultural industry plays a fundamentally important role in New Zealand’s economy, directly accounting for 4.5 per cent of GDP, with the water-intensive dairy industry making up 48 per cent of gross agricultural production in 2013.

Uncertainty regarding water supply looms large over farmers, not only from a climate change perspective, but also through possible mooted changes to the Resource Management Act. Winter animal feed supplies are being used early, meaning that it is likely to be scarcer and more costly later on. The irrigation season could also shut down weeks earlier than usual, and groundwater levels in some areas are at the lowest level in 30 years.

Couple these with falling global commodity prices, including milk products, and the scenario begins to look very challenging, especially on the back of the last big dry period in 2013. All this strain on the rural agricultural economy may flow through to the urban centres in many ways, perhaps most widely felt through food prices. Power prices may also be affected if hydroelectric production capacity is affected.

Economic loss may also be associated with a higher risk of emotional distress. People may experience heightened or overwhelming anxiety, constant worrying, and trouble with sleeping. Reactions can vary from person to person but these are common responses to disasters like droughts. However, the social and psychological effects of living through drought can be subtler when compared to other hazards, and may be experienced over a different, and potentially longer time cycle. They can affect families and whole communities and towns, with flow on effects throughout the country.

It used to be that droughts were not commonplace, occurring approximately every five years. As these events become more regular, it is likely that we no longer experience them as one-off events. The impact of this is cumulative. Financial implications are likely to be carried forward into the next economic planning cycle and there may be a lag in putting into place the processes to mitigate for future risk. We can then no longer recover from using existing systems and resources available to us.

Voluntary and then mandatory conservation measures were enough to see cities through the droughts of the past. We cannot rely on the model any more. Shifting climatic conditions require a shift from one-off crisis management planning to more sustainable planning for periods of low water availability. and/or higher costs associated with water scarcity such as winter feed or increased power prices. This affects both rural and urban communities, and many communities are uniting to face this challenge. Much more still needs to be done.

More frequent periods of drought with shorter periods of adequate rainfall and competition for water resource such as through population growth, mean that there needs to be renewed efforts to develop ways to effectively manage existing water sources. Urban populations can still be tied up in the notion that water is available in unlimited quantities, and has a low cost. The emphasis on conservation of wasted water may have got cities through the droughts of the past. The demand of the agricultural sector on this precious limited resource may mean increased scrutiny on issues of water management, perhaps setting up a much needed debate on the use of water throughout New Zealand.

Five practices for building personal resilience


All of us have encountered challenging times in our lives, when we feel vulnerable to the strains of daily living. Some of these strains show themselves as a result of big events that happen to us or people we care about, or are merely geographically close to.  Some of the strain is the cumulative impact of lots of little events that add up and threaten to push you over your tipping point of coping capacity. Both types of negative events – big and small – can have an effect on our wellbeing.

If you cross this with various cycles in our lives which mean that we are more vulnerable to the impacts of these big and small negative events, it becomes clear that it is really important that we keep an eye out for how well we can withstand these challenges when they arrive.  At the time of writing this blog post for example,  we are entering week 4 of January – about the time where those new activities designed to sort our lives out made in those New Year’s resolutions are perhaps beginning to be very difficult to maintain. As a result, we can feel guilty, throw the towel in, and revert to old behaviours that we recognised we needed to change.

What do we do when we feel under pressure like this?

There are many strategies that have been put forward to help build our personal resilience and wellbeing. One of the most well-known and widely evidenced is the 5 ways to wellbeing protocol. You can read much more about that, starting here.

Here is another set of 5 practices that differ slightly from those 5 ways, designed to help you to focus on basic self-maintenance, and some reflection on what you want your life to be about.

1.  Pay attention to the basics of diet, exercise and sleep. If you sleep badly, don’t eat well, and allow yourself to get into poor physical shape, you become far more vulnerable to low mood. Daily activities can drain away what resources you have to cope and can more quickly get down if you haven’t been looking after yourself well. The sleep you get before midnight seems to be better value that the sleep your get after midnight, so try to get to bed earlier. Watch your alcohol intake: not only are there extra calories in that and cardiovascular and other risks too, it can also affect your sleep quality and duration. Excessive dietary control, as well as excessive consumption, also carries a risk – potentially making you more irritable, tired and weak, and more likely to rebound into original eating habits. Exercise is good, but make sure you build up gently so as to avoid risk of injury.

2.  Clarify your values and goals. How do you spend your time? One of the major reasons for low mood is a mismatch between what you really value and what you do. How this shows itself in your life can be hard to pin down, but often it is low mood and  general dissatisfaction, perhaps even depression. Thinking about your values can sometimes feel self-indulgent. But it is key to our wellbeing.  Write out a personal statement of values and goals – there’s plenty out there to help you, like this. It will help you to figure out whether what you are doing in your work and your personal life is in tune with your values. If you find it is not, then it may help you to work out what sort of changes you may need to make to help you out of the hole you may have found yourself in.

3.  Put pleasures into life. One of the perils of modern life is that we see extremes presented to us – by the media for example. We see people who are egotistical and narcissistic in everyday life too – and we steer clear of being identified as being tagged with that label. Sometimes, we oversteer. People can often not value themselves highly enough. We even effectively downgrade ourselves by denying ourselves pleasures. We can tend to put other people’s needs first, and see ourselves at the back of the queue, ‘when we get around to it’. The danger is that we never get around to it. Some parents can be like this. They put their children’s needs so much above their own that they give themselves no personal time and space at all. Even if you don’t think you deserve to enjoy yourself right now, try to make sure you do things you like doing. Putting pleasures into life – not just doing the chores and work because you feel like you don’t have the energy for anything else – is a fundamental plank in building a platform of personal resilience.

4.  Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Nothing goes well all the time. Everyone goes trough periods when work, or some part of work, is going badly. Or there are difficulties in close relationships. Or life in general seems to be full of problems. If you place all your sense of self-worth into just one aspect of your life – often this is work, or being a ‘good’ parent – there will be times when we can feel very vulnerable. When you do feel low, think about how much of your sense of self-worth os bound to just one aspect of your life.If your pattern of despondency or low mood suggests too close a connection with just one part of your life, its likely that you have too many eggs in that one basket. To protect yourself from this kind of dependency, its wise to have several parts to your life, work, friends, kids, pets, family, hobbies, inside and outside the home, social and solitary. At any point that one part of your life doesn’t seem to be going well, you can draw comfort and support from other parts.

5.  Build up supportive relationships. Having someone to confide in, be it a relative, partner or a friend is one of the most important forms of protection from becoming depressed with something bad happens. If you don’t have a close supportive relationship, if your friends do not provide you with the support you need, then looking at how you can build up this support is one of the more important things you can do. Building up supportive relationships takes time and effort. As an immigrant to New Zealand, from the other side of the planet, I know this only too well. It doesn’t happen overnight, and when it seems difficult it is helpful to remember that it can be done at any stage of life and that there are many steps along the way. Some tips for getting started include:

  • Meet new people – put yourself in people’s way by making contact with groups of people with similar interests, neighbours, clubs, voluntary groups.
  • Build a friendship – focus on shared experiences, activities and pleasures. Do things together
  • Consolidate friendships – keep in touch. Make regular contact. Become a good listener as well as a good talker
  • Keep your friendships in good working order – look for ways to show you care, in good times as well as bad. Tolerate people’s moments of bad temper, grumpiness or silence
  • Use your friendships for support – do not run away from people when you are feeling low. Try to keep in contact even when you are not feeling social, or embarrassed about imposing on someone. Many kinds of relationships can be supportive, not just intimate ones.

Note though that a supportive relationship must not be a smothering one – we need our own independence and autonomy as well as support.

When good things happen to us, and when we can focus on practices that improve of self-care, it looks likely that not only do they make us feel better, but they actually result in a boost to our immune system functioning .  Keep practicing these 5 strategies, and you will be well on your way to increasing your wellbeing, and that can include better functioning at a basic physiological level too.

For more, check out Manage your Mind by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope.

BBC World News Interview – Flight #QZ8501

Another BBC TV World News interview done last Friday (16 January 2015). This interview focused on AirAsia flight #QZ8501 body retrieval challenges for divers and disaster victim identification workers, and the impact on families. As always, BBC are very easy and professional to work with. The interviewer was in London, and the production team called me from Singapore to set up and do the interview while I was in New Zealand on Skype.

When divergence is good


There are times in teams and organisations where people disagree. People are sometimes wary of disagreement – even downright fearful. But what if we could harness disagreement in a way that opens up conversations, in ways that enable people to talk about what they see differently.  How that might help to do things in different and better ways?

Scaling can help with that. It can help to open up a conversation about what is already helpful and what might be small and do-able next steps. It can even be a really good way of checking in to see if everyone is on the same page, and helps in a process of putting that right if they are not.

Here’s how to do it:

Ask people to rate their current situation on a particular issue. If someone says their current situation is a 7 and another says theirs is a 4, that’s just fine. The person scaling 7 may believe we are closer to perfection than the 4 scorer. Or they might just be more easily impressed. Or an optimist.

It doesn’t matter.

Ask the 7 scorer –

  • How come you’ve scaled it as a 7? What’s making it that high?
  • What would it take to make it an 8?

Ask the 4 scorer –

  • What have you noticed that your colleague may have missed?
  • What would it take for you to raise your rating to a 5?

Ask them to compare notes on what each has seen that the other has missed or valued differently.

From the answers you receive, you can enjoy the benefits of multiple perspectives while discovering aspects of each personality that might help in the next steps. Perhaps one team member is more skeptical and enjoys checking claims, and the other’s more optimistic disposition would suit exploratory discussions with a new partner. This is a really good way of testing out and finding appropriate roles for this particular task in the early stages, without the expense or time of a formal team assessment or other intervention

You don’t have to be in a team to get the benefits of scaling either. It’s a good developmental check in solo projects.

Positively deviant


Deviance is often framed as a bad, bad thing. It is often defined as intentional behaviour that departs from society’s norms, thereby threatening the well-being of others. So, examples of deviant behaviour can be stealing or antisocial behaviour. But can you be positively deviant? These are intentional behaviours that are deviant from the norm in honourable ways. Yes, yes you can – and the power of positive deviance can unlock a whole host of opportunities.

Positive deviants are people who appear to be finding better solutions to complex and pervasive problems compared to their peers and neighbours despite having access only to the same resources. Their ‘uncommon behaviours’ can then be spread and adopted more widely by the community. And they are uncommon behaviours. Positive deviance is about behaviours that break the constraints of the accepted norm and has profound effects of those people and organisations that foster and encourage those behaviours.

The key aspects of positive deviance seems to be:

  • Although most problems have interlinked and complex underlying causes, positive deviants demonstrate that it is possible to find successful solutions in the here and now, before all the underlying causes are addressed. That is, you don’t need to to address all those underlying causes to come up with solutions today.
  • The assumption is that there is useful know-how out there, just waiting to be discovered.
  • Because this know-how is rooted in context, it is automatically a good fit, acceptable, and relatively easy to adopt and spread.
  • The focus is on changing practice, not knowledge. It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking that think your way into a new way of acting.

Can you nurture your inherent positive deviant? What proportion of your behaviour is honourable and counter to the social norm? You don’t want to be out there on your own all the time, but there is something to be learned when going with the rip, when everyone else is struggling to swim against it.

Error 404 memory not found


Our long-term memory system is thought to have an unlimited capacity. Once information goes in, it stays there forever. So, the failure to remember something is not because the information has dropped out of our system. Rather, memory problems often stem from problems with people’s ability to retrieve some of the knowledge that they possess. Long-term memory can be retrieved by giving information good ‘tags’ (e.g. strong verbal and imagery codes), when it is initially encoded, or by searching the tags properly to find it.

Another feature of our long-term memory system is that our emotional state ay the time of learning and at the time of recall affects retention. When the mood a person is in during learning matches the mood he is in when asked to recall, retention is improved. When a sad mood is evoked, people remember more unpleasant past experiences than when a happy mood is engendered. Similarly, people remember more happy childhood experiences when asked to get themselves into a happy mood. This kind of research gives us a clue that part of the memory tag or metadata for the things we learn contains information about our emotional state at the time of learning.

So, we can see that emotional cues may help to facilitate retrieval of memories up to a point. Happy mood – more likely to have happy memories – and if we are grumpy, we are more likely to retrieve negative memories. But extremely strong emotions can interfere with trying to recall information rather than facilitating retrieval. For example, sitting an exam for a test-anxious student isn’t going to help with performance.

The retrieval of memories is a dynamic process – it is more than just flicking through a register of memories and calling it up into consciousness. Recall forces us to reconstruct, reproduce or recreate the original information we encoded from a variety of memory metadata, including our memory at the time we learned the information, and the emotion at the time we are trying to call it. To this extent, what we remember changes.

Next week, I’ll talk about some simple techniques for improving your memory.

Learn from your mistakes. Then ignore them.


“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” – Samuel Beckett

If you’re feeling a little fragile and low in self-confidence, one of the traps you can fall into is getting overly into the idea that mistakes matter. Let’s say you tried every day for the next year to try to make a mistake that nobody had ever made before. How’s that going (you’d probably fail – you see the irony I hope)?

It doesn’t matter so much about doing something ‘wrong’ or  ‘badly’ – what matters is whether you can recognise the mistake and use it to try to set yourself on a better path next time.

Mistakes are for learning – only those that have ceased to develop never take a mis-step. Mistakes tell us something – they are a source of information. Learn from the error, but don’t dwell on it and the emotions of embarrassment that may come along with it. Try to acknowledge and detach from the feeling, learn from what went wrong, set it aside, and move along. Although it may not feel like it, everyone else will move along too.

To be or to have? That is the question


The society we live in values acquisition – property, money, skills, knowledge – we should have more and more of everything. We rarely see modes of existence that value ‘being’. So, is it any surprise that  we see the acquisitive or ‘having’ mode of living as the norm? This so slanted towards the side of having, that is often really hard to understand just what is meant by ‘being’.

Erich Fromm is very good at explaining this in ‘To have or to be‘ , but I hope this simple example can bring these concepts to life, and perhaps provide a nudge towards some reflection.

Imagine being involved in a conversation – perhaps you meet someone famous, or well-respected in their field – or someone who can fix you up with a great job opportunity, someone you want to impress – someone you’d like to date maybe. Let’s say that the prospect of meeting this person makes you mildly anxious. Let’s say that you start to prepare for this potential meeting and conversation. You start to think of topics that might interest the other person. Sometimes you might think of a conversation starter – others might even map out the whole conversation in their minds – or at least, their own part in it – plotting out different ways the conversation might go and develop contingencies for all these eventualities.

Another way to bolster yourself is to think about what you have; your past successes, you charming / influential personality, your social position, your connections, your appearance, your snappy dress sense. You mentally go through a process of  balancing your worth, and based on this evaluation, you show-off your fancy feathers in the conversation. If you’re good at this, you will indeed impress a lot of people – though a lot will be due to your performance and the ability of other people to judge your authenticity. If you’re not good at it, you might even come across as wooden and a little uninteresting.

What would it be like if you chose not to prepare anything in advance? Instead of bolstering yourself up by thinking about your previous accomplishments that show how cool you are, what if you responded spontaneously? What about if you forgot about yourself, about your knowledge and schooling, and the social position you occupy?

When your own ego – you thinking about all that you have – isn’t standing between you and the other person involved in the conversation, suddenly you are more free to fully respond to the other person and their ideas. You are able to give voice to new ideas because you aren’t busy holding on to old ones. While people in the ‘having’ mode of existence rely on what they have, people in ‘being’ mode rely on the fact that they are – that they are alive to the moment and that something new will come if only they have the courage to let go of having and to respond. Indeed, “They come fully alive in the conversation, because they don’t stifle themselves by anxious concern with what they have” (Fromm, 1978, To Have and To Be, p.42).

Even better, imagine if your own aliveness was infectious and can help the other person transcend their own mode of existence from having into being? Conversation then stops being an exchange of commodities – information, status, knowledge – and becomes a dialogue where something new is created. The conversation becomes more of an enlivening a dance, rather than the drudgery of a military exercise.

I often approach public speaking this way now – less concerned with having and my own anxious concern to demonstrate my worth, but more focused on being and the co-creation of something new rather than broadcasting my supposedly superior knowledge. It really is a very freeing experience.

You don’t need to know the cause of the problem to solve it


You have probably had the delightful experience of being stuck in a jam of slow-moving cars that suddenly disappears without revealing any obvious cause for the jam. No crashed cars, no roadworks – what was that about?

These ‘phantom jams’ have been shown to arise by accident. One car suddenly changes lane, causing those behind it to brake sharply. When you have fast-moving lanes of traffic with only short distances between vehicles, that kind of braking sends ripples down the road. Drivers brake harder and harder to prevent themselves from hitting the vehicle in front. Eventually, the traffic towards the back is at a standstill – even though that isn’t what any of the divers wanted to do.

We could trace the jam back to that original driver who changed lane sharply. That would be pointless though, because they are not affected by the braking going on behind them. We might publicly berate people who change lanes sharply. We might lecture drivers so they promise never to change lanes sharply ever again. Would that prevent it from happening again? With millions of drivers on the road, any of whom could do this, this is not possible. And anyway, they might actually need to in some cases, because of approaching junctions, hazards, or some other road user.

What would happen if, instead, we looked at what happens when jams don’t occur. This is when drivers have enough time and space to react to other road users – by braking or maneuvering without forcing the vehicle behind to take  evasive action, thus rippling the effect down the road and causing a jam.

This happens when roads are quiet, or when traffic is moving slower and drivers have more time to react. Hence the variable speed limits that are deployed around the world now. The solution is to bring in lower speed limits at busy times – which bizarrely allows more traffic along highways than do higher speed limits and the jams that come along with them.

Greater traffic flow, fewer jams and lower risk of accidents to boot. This solution doesn’t address the cause of the problem – abrupt actions – at all. It simply allows them to happen without undesirable consequences.

Where can you learn from what is working well for you in times of quiet and low speed which you can build in when you are feeling stressed and things are moving too fast? Perhaps slowing things down can actually increase both your productivity and your wellbeing.

Radio New Zealand slot on Mindful Parenting – June 2014

mindful parenting

This week’s podcast on the Nine to Noon slot with Kathryn Ryan on mindful parenting and how not to fly off the handle with children in stressful situations.

Published in PLoS Currents Disasters – Coping with Disaster: General Practitioners’ Perspectives on the Impact of the Canterbury Earthquakes

Tired doctor

In our recently published research, we found that all GPs reported significant increases in workload raising questions about the need for coordination of locum support. GPs often found themselves working outside their area of accustomed expertise especially in relation to patients needing financial aid. GPs identified a number of coping behaviours though some only in hindsight. Greater awareness of self-care strategies would benefit GPs responding to disasters.

You can read much more about it here.

My BBC World News Interview: Uncertainty for families of those on Flight MH370

MH370 hope

As I got off the plane in Christchurch yesterday morning and switched my phone on, it buzzed. The email was a request from a BBC TV World News producer requesting a live interview on uncertainty for families on flight MH370. I was simultaneously excited and anxious. How did this email arrive with me of all people? Was I going to do it? If so – how? I was busy all day and then had a hotel room with limited internet bandwidth.

I thought about it as I drove to my first appointment, and pulled over to send my cellphone number to the producer in London to indicate my acceptance of the invitation to be interviewed, but to talk through what might come up. The producer was very professional and called me back at the suggested time. After talking through the possible lines of questions, I was happy to carry on. The interview would be via skype, and we would test the link 30 mins before going on air. The interview would be live, and would probably run for 3 minutes or so.

As they patched me into the link, I could see my bandwidth being chewed up at a pretty fast rate. I lost the feed at one point, as i had to enter a code to release another chunk of 200MB of data. I got the producer a message that I probably had another 5 minutes of data left at this rate, and they made the decision to move me up the interview chain in seconds – very professional.

The room was dark, and you can’t see my face very well, but here is the result. The background work included some calling back to the office to get a couple of key papers sent to me so I could recap a particular point I needed to make (thank, Tom Huggins), a call to a friend who has worked in comms in disasters who had a particularly good point to make about notifying the possibly bereaved by text message (thanks, Sara McBride), and a call to the Consular Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in NZ to get the absolute and up-to-date official line on what assistance was available to the NZ Citizens affected and their families and loved ones (thanks Team MFAT). I’m posting that in case you find yourself in a similar position – the support you get from your team and wider contacts is invaluable.

Here is the result:

Radio NZ Parenting slot – Children making Friends – March 2014


Here’s a link to my parenting commentator slot from March 13 2014 – kids and making friends.

Kids: How to praise them

praise kids

With a slight delay, here is a podcast of my slot on Radio New Zealand in November 2013, talking about praising kids. It is about 20 mins in duration – and please ignore the description on the Radio NZ National website – it is from a previous slot I did for them.


To break a bad habit, replace it with a good one

good habit

I’ll be holding seminar next week in Wellington (24/7/13) about making change., One of the things I will be talking about is habits. Here’s a brief taster of some of the content I will cover.

  • You keep bad habits for a reason
  • Most of our bad habits have two culprits at their root: stress and boredom
  • You don’t eliminate a bad habit. You replace it
  • If you don’t meet the need that your bad habit fulfilled, you won’t last very long with what you try to replace it with
  • Breaking bad habits takes time and effort, but mostly it’s about perseverance
  • You might fail multiple times. That doesn’t mean you won’t succeed

I’ll talk more about how to break bad habits and create good ones during the workshop, as well as the stages of change that you can expect to go through. You can pretty much apply this to all levels of your life and athletic performance – whether you are a novice or high achiever,

If you are interested in coming along and learning more, do sign up here. I think it will be a fun evening with interesting people to network with too.

What about a volunteer rewards card?

I’ve been pondering over the challenge of incentivising a greater proportion and diversity of people volunteering in New Zealand and was reading a story about how the design agency IDEO came up with a tagging system to help Oxfam manage the donations they get into their stores in the UK. They asked regular donors to register and they gave them a bunch of tags which they then attached to their donated items when they dropped them off. Results: less hassle for donors, no waiting to drop things off, and Oxfam have a register of their donors and know what they donated.

What about a volunteer rewards card in New Zealand, more specifically, what about Canterbury? There are lots of people who are willing to help out, and there are lots of projects that could do with a hand. one of the challenges is matching these projects and people. another is encouraging those people who might want to help, by making it easier for them, and giving them the chance to earn a little reward back too.

How about this: people pre-register, and are issued with a rewards card with number and barcode. They register their skills and what they can help with. Project leaders register their needs and the database can be designed to match the two. As an incentive, rewards can be offered per unit of time volunteered successfully on a project. This could be funded either through philanthropic organizations / private sector contribution / or NGO / govt – the right mix can be sorted out.

As a side benefit, students can give permission for their project volunteer record to be released to their school or university as a positive additions to their transcript, documenting their civic activities. Same for people of working age or above. Training they receive (or give) can be documented too. It may end up being a pretty good differentiator in a crowded jobs market (in certain sectors). Even better, this could be a demonstration project for the rest of NZ to roll out over the next 5 years.

Just a germ of an idea, but might be worth kicking around. What do you think?

Why do we make the same mistakes over and over again?


“Again?!” we say to ourselves in despair, sometimes even out loud. We have all done it. We have caught ourselves making the same mistake yet again. Why, oh why do we find ourselves in the same position again? “Maybe I’m just attracted to the wrong sort”, we say to ourselves. “Maybe I’m just incapable or learning”, we chastise. “Maybe I’m just dumb”, we admonish. Of course, sometimes it isn’t mistakes that we repeat. For example, sometimes we find ourself listening to the same song over and over again, or maybe going through a phase where we like to watch the same movie a few times over a short period of time.

When we find ourselves doing the same thing over and over again in our lives, it can be hard to figure out why. Freud called our constant echoing the repetition compulsion, which he  defined as “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.” Frued was very much more interested in the negative things we repeat, which he thought may be linked to something deeply instinctual, which he called “the death drive”, or a drive to no longer exist.

But perhaps there is a different reason. Perhaps we are so used to do things in a certain way, so familiar with certain events, objects and experiences in our lives that we have a developed a pattern over a number of years. Straying from these pattern – no matter whether it is positive or negative – is actually deeply uncomfortable for us because they are so ingrained. These patterns are a little world that we have created for ourselves where events, or encounters with people or objects trigger expectations which we like to see met – even if they are negative because we are so used to them. We discover what works for us and tend to stick with it. In times of stress, anger worry, or other emotional peaks, we repeat what is familiar and what seems safe, in that it meets our expectations. However, this little set-up can trigger a whole host of negative patterns of behaviour, as well as ruminating on thoughts.

Here’s an example. Say you have a problem with insecurity in your relationships. When you don’t get a text or tweet back from your loved one, your mind can wander to negative thoughts like, “I wonder who they are with meaning that they can’t text me back?”, or “If they’re so busy, they don’t prioritise me enough in their life”. These thoughts can well-up and threaten to overwhelm the person and can lead to actions that harm the relationship. Even though the person doesn’t want to react in this way to the non-receipt of a text message or tweet, this pattern of reacting is so ingrained and familiar, that to react in a different, more positive way actually feels alien to them. It feels like it isn’t authentically them at all. When you have been doing something for years, you will continue to carry on doing so, even if you bring on negative consequences by your actions. To do anything else feels even more uncomfortable.

By working on different techniques, people can learn how to recognise when thoughts or actions are more harmful than beneficial, and how to stop them from occurring. Although it can take time, our cognitive processes can be  retrained to develop new patterns that are productive and more positive, which ultimately leads to more adaptive behaviors and choices.

It is worth remember that it takes years for people to develop unhelpful patterns, habits, and repetitive choices, and it may also take years to reshape them into something else that might be more positive.

What can you do?

  • Don’t give up. Start today.
  • Start small, stay mindful.
  • Note what you do, and how you feel about it.
  • The first step is starting to pay attention to the patterns you live your life by.




My thoughts on the Canterbury Well-being Index release, June 2013


The latest release of the Canterbury Wellbeing Index provides a snapshot picture across the many dimensions affecting social recovery.

It has been said that there is no health without mental health. Indeed, we need to aim even higher than this. For us to flourish throughout our lives and to positively influence and support others we need to be able to thrive and flourish ourselves. Intervening early and in low-key ways can help to prevent more extensive and expensive interventions later in recovery trajectories. So far in the Canterbury Recovery, this seems to be working well at a population level, but the data suggests that a clear and significant minority continues to struggle with everyday life.

For a significant minority of residents, the higher levels of reported stress have permeated throughout everyday life. For many, this has meant an additional stressor in dealing with their frightened, upset of unsettled children. In an unhappy coincidence of conditions, children may also see their parents struggling to cope with their changed lives. This may change how they see their parent’s capacity to cope. Often, these subtle changes may add up over an extended time to produce changed life trajectories.

The range of supports for people experiencing social and psychological difficulties in adjusting to their changed circumstances appears to be going a long way towards meeting current identified needs. This includes, the 0800 helpline, counselling services, the Earthquake Support Coordination Service, extended GP consultations and Canterbury DHB services, as well as a range of supports available through non-government sources such as New Zealand Red Cross. However, there remains the possibility that there are a significant number of people who are struggling who we do not know about, or those who find it challenging to ask for help. As we move through the recovery we will need to keep a careful watch over people’s needs and the resources they may need to meet them. The CWI is a useful tool in helping us to do that.

From this CWI social recovery data release, it seems likely that we are in the midst of a critical period. While some people in the region are able to cope, and indeed are doing well, other require more support. It is important to stress that feeling like you need help is not a sign of weakness; coming forward for help often takes strength and courage.

This support could to help them to cope with the impacts of secondary stressors such as housing quality and availability, insurance transactions, and rebuilding administration and practical arrangements. More broadly, systemic interventions to tackle some of the root causes of these secondary stressors would go a long way towards reducing the extent of their community impacts. There may also be room to extend or refine how support services are able to help those who have delayed coming forward for assistance until recently, or who are continuing to struggle on their own.

Choices exerted by individuals and the communities they are part of, and the degree to which they are expressed, heard and acted upon become even more crucial as the recovery progresses. This empowerment is a multidimensional social process by which individuals and groups gain better understanding and influence over their own lives. As a result, they are able to regain a sense of control over their own social environment to improve their wellbeing and life circumstances. A lack of agency and power could hinder this key component of recovery.

In situations like the Canterbury recovery, the temptation is to think of resilience as the degree to which communities and individuals can adapt and change. The reality is far more complex than this. As well as adaptive capacity, absorptive coping capacity seems important too. This is the degree to which individuals and households can employ strategies to help them keep going in the face of shocks on their livelihoods and basic needs. It is this persistence, and holding on to traditions and valued ways of life that perhaps underpins people’s marked pride in their ability to cope under difficult circumstances. It also perhaps suggests that challenges to changing from well-tried ways of doing things may well be fiercely resisted.

Mindfulness practice can alter your perception of time

slow time


Recent research seems to suggest that mindfulness practice can alter your perception of time. The investigators were investigating the hypothesis that the moment-to-moment awareness that is encouraged by mindfulness meditation practice would have the subjective effect of slowing down time , such that short periods of time seemed longer. And that was exactly what they found.

The researchers used a temporal bisection task, which allows researchers to gauge where each individual subjectively splits a period of time in half. Participants’ responses to this task were collected twice, once before and then again after a listening task. By separating participants into two groups, respondents listened for ten minutes to either an audiobook or a meditation exercise designed to focus their attention on the movement of breath in the body. The results showed that the control group (audiobook) didn’t change in their responses after the listening task compared with before. However, mindfulness meditation led to a relative overestimation of durations i.e. time periods felt longer than they had before.

One interesting feature of this study was that the participants received very little training or experience of mindfulness meditation – just 10 minutes, as opposed to months or years of training. This suggests that the internal clock modulation found in this study is relatively sensitive to short meditative states, and does not require a large degree of training to access it. That seems pretty remarkable to me, and the effects could be leveraged into treatments for difficulties that may distort the effects of time, such as addictions, memory, and emotional regulation.


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