Sunday, 2 August 2015

Preparing ESM data using SPSS syntax

I'm currently figuring out how to use SPSS syntax (rather than Excel) to pre-process my experience sampling data, and thought I'd share some useful (and basic!) pieces of syntax I've learned along the way. 

For those unfamiliar with experience sampling, it involves multiple participants reporting on their experiences on several occasions. In my study, it involves ~60 participants answering questionnaires on their phones 6 times each day for 7 days, which means 42 observations per participant and 2,520 observations in total (assuming 100% compliance), or more realistically, assuming 75% compliance, around 1,900 reports. That's a lot of data - a good sign that syntax will help streamline things.

I will be using MPlus to run multilevel modelling analyses, but before I can do that, I need to get the data into shape using SPSS.

1. How to Clean Data

You can compute any number of variables to flag various problems that may crop up in your data. Then, you can compute a dichotomous "valid" variable to filter out all problematic responses. I adapted this basic procedure from McCabe, Mack and Fleeson's (2012) chapter, and cobbled together other bits of syntax I hunted down via Google. For example, here are a few of the problems I'm flagging:

  • responses with no baseline data (i.e., they're not actually part of my study)
  • participants who dropped out due to technical difficulties
  • too many identical responses (e.g., if someone answered all 5s)
  • too few valid responses

Here's what the basic procedure looks like:

Compute nobaseline = 0.
If id = 'ID1' or id = 'ID2' nobaseline = 1.

*note that you don't need the quotation marks if your id variable is in numerical form; mine happen to be in string form

Compute dropped = 0.
If id = 'ID1' or id = 'ID2' dropped = 1.

Count NumZeros=Var1 to Var10 (0).

Count NumOnes=Var1 to Var10 (1).
Count NumNines=Var1 to Var10 (9).
Count NumTens=Var1 to Var10 (10).

Compute tooidentical=0.
If NumZeros > 20 tooidentical=1.
Compute tooidentical=0.
If NumOnes > 20 tooidentical=1.
Compute tooidentical=0.
If NumNines > 20 tooidentical=1.
Compute tooidentical=0.
If NumTens > 20 tooidentical=1.

*this means, for example, if a participant responds with 20 "zeros" out of a possible 23 questions, the data is suspicious

Now creating a variable that will be used to filter out invalid responses, and adding the above conditions:

Compute valid = 1.
If (nobaseline = 1) valid = 0.
If (dropped = 1) valid = 0.
If (tooidentical = 1) valid = 0.

Ok, so now that you've marked various problems, how do you find out how many valid responses are remaining? First, you want to apply the filter you've created, to filter out invalid responses (i.e., valid = 0):

FILTER BY valid.

To find out how many total valid responses and participants there are remaining (for reporting, rather than data-cleaning purposes), this syntax identifies duplicate cases:

  /BY id
VARIABLE LABELS  PrimaryLast 'Indicator of each last matching case as Primary'.
VALUE LABELS  PrimaryLast 0 'Duplicate Case' 1 'Primary Case'.

The total frequency corresponds to the total valid response count, whereas the number of primary cases tells you how many valid participants there are.

What about the number of valid responses per person? We need to use the aggregate function and break it by id; this creates a new variable with each participant's final valid response count:


And we can then use it to compute another "problem data" variable:

Compute toofewtotal=0.
If responsecount < 20 toofewtotal=1.

And now add it to our dichotomous valid data variable, and filter them all out!

If (toofewtotal = 1) valid = 0.

FILTER BY valid.

At this stage, before actually deleting any data, you'll probably want to save a version of this file with all exclusions marked, but with all data still retained.

2. How to Centre Variables Within-Person

For experience sampling data, generally you'll want to centre each variable around a person's mean. This lets you separate out the trait and state effects. The state component will then have a mean of 0, where positive deviations (e.g., 1.2) are greater than the participant's average levels, and negative deviations (e.g., -0.8) are less than their usual levels.

At this stage, I'm assuming you've computed scales already from the raw item scores. Now, to centre the variables and thereby create aggregate "trait" summaries:


Now, to compute state component, just subtract the trait component from the raw scale mean:

compute Var1State=Var1-Var1Centred.
compute Var2State=Var2-Var2Centred.

3. How to Add a Time Lag

You can't really infer causality from most experience sampling data, since it's usually correlational (unless you're measuring the effects of an intervention delivered in real-time). However, it is possible to add a time lag to at least meet one of the requirements for causality - precedence (i.e., a change in the theorised cause preceded a change in the outcome of interest).

The important thing is to set the condition that the lag only applies if the id at the current time point is the same as the id at the previous time point. Otherwise, the lag will cross participants. You'll also want to mark these missing values (in this case, I've chosen -99).

IF (id=lag(id))var1lag=lag(var).
if $casenum = 1 or id ne lag(id) var1lag = -99.
IF (id=lag(id))var2lag=lag(var).
if $casenum = 1 or id ne lag(id) var2lag = -99.

For example, if the participant responded "7", "8" and "9" at T1, T2 and T3, then the lagged variable will be -99, 8, 9.

In the lagged analyses, you'll need to remove the lines of data with missing values. So, create a filter:

Compute lagged = 1.

If varlag1 = -99 lagged = 0.
If varlag2 = -99 lagged = 0.

4. Creating an Easy Filter for Level 2 Analyses

There might be some analyses where you only want to look at level 2 (between-person) variables. As an easy way to "virtually" collapse the data set (i.e., being able to select one row per participant), you can compute and apply another filter:

Compute level2 = 0.
if $casenum = 1 or id ne lag(id) level2 = 1.

*flags the first case for each participant

FILTER BY level2.

5. Saving a Pared-Down Data File

Once I get to MPlus, I don't really want my raw variables getting in the way. So, here's a way to save only the variables that you need for your analyses:

SAVE OUTFILE= '/Users/Jessie/Desktop/esmmplus.sav'/KEEP= id Var1 Var2 Var3 etc... level2 lagged /COMPRESSED.

*the format of the file directory will be different on a PC

Concluding Thoughts: The Joys of Syntax

When I first started learning how to pre-process this data, I was introduced to some cool tricks and functions on Excel, including Pivot Tables and VLOOKUP. And there are still a couple of steps I'll probably use Excel for, including extracting elements from a string date to convert it into a general date format (unless there is a way to do this in SPSS?).

Overall, however, it's now clear that SPSS syntax is a far more efficient and less clunky way to prepare data. For one thing, by writing the syntax ahead of time I can simply run the syntax as soon as I have my data on hand. For another, it means that things are better-documented: I, my supervisor and anyone who wants to see the syntax and data will be able to see exactly how the data was prepared, and what decisions were made. If any errors are made during data preparation, we can trace it back to the syntax. Finally, this documentation means that the next time I need to pre-process experience sampling data or teach someone else how to do it, I can just modify, disseminate and reuse the syntax I've already written, again saving time (and the need to remember various manual Excel steps).

Sunday, 5 April 2015

A New Explanation for Why Extraverts Are Happier

Extraversion and Happiness

One of the most robust findings in personality psychology is that people who are more extraverted also tend to feel happier. And by "happier", which I'm using as shorthand, what I really mean is "high activation positive affect", e.g., feeling excitedenthusiastic, energetic and lively. Psychologists, however, have had more difficulty explaining exactly why it is that people who are more talkative, bold and assertive experience more happiness than their more quiet, reserved and passive counterparts.

One class of structural explanations suggests that it's something that extraverts have that explains their greater happiness. Perhaps extraverts just have a higher biologically determined "set-point" or fixed level of happiness. Or maybe extraverts "get more bang for their buck" and experience a stronger positive reaction when good things happen to them.

A second class of explanations proposes a role for social processes. The social activity hypothesis suggests that since extraverts are more sociable, and social activities tend to be enjoyable, their increased quantity of social activity explains why extraverts tend to feel happier. However, a particularly strong study showed that the amount of time spent in various social situations only explained about a sixth of the relationship between extraversion and positive affect.

Studies employing a "counter-dispositional behaviour" paradigm present a further difficulty for all of these explanations. In these studies, participants are instructed to act extraverted, act introverted or given no acting instructions during a group discussion task. A consistent finding that has emerged is that participants report feeling happier after acting extraverted than after acting introverted, and that surprisingly, this applies for dispositional introverts and extraverts alike! 

These studies show that the quantity of social experience can't explain this relationship because all participants spent the same amount of time interacting. And structural explanations also can't explain why simply acting like an extravert is enough to increase one's momentary levels of happiness. This suggests that it's the extraverted behaviours - in other words, what extraverts do - that cause increased happiness.

This still doesn't tell us much about how one gets from being talkative to feeling excited, but a recently published study finally sheds some light on the processes that may be at work here.

A Social Quality Explanation

Smillie and colleagues (2015) first surveyed 225 undergraduates and showed that social wellbeing, a measure of the quality of one's social life, explained a third of the relationship between extraversion and positive affect. This effect was driven almost entirely by one dimension of social wellbeing, social contribution, a person's sense of having an influence on their social world, or having something valuable to give to society.

Since the correlational design of Study 1 could not establish causality, Smillie et al. ran a counterdispositional behaviour experiment for Study 2. In groups of 3, 81 undergraduate students completed two fun problem-solving tasks. One participant was instructed to act extraverted (i.e., bold, talkative, energetic, active, assertive, adventurous), another was asked to act introverted (i.e., reserved, quiet, lethargic, passive, compliant, unadventurous), and a third participant was given no acting instructions.

Consistent with previous research, participants who acted extraverted experienced more positive affect than participants who acted introverted, whether they were naturally more extraverted or introverted. But the key contribution of this study was in revealing that perceived contribution to discussion tasks explained 70% of the effect of acting extraverted on positive affect. In other words, participants who were acting extraverted felt happier because they felt that they contributed more to the group activities.

So, it looks like social processes do matter - but instead of the mere amount of time spent with others, it's the qualitative aspects of social experience that help to explain the relationship between extraverted behaviours and positive affect. Specifically, this study suggested that one reason why extraverts (and pseudo-extraverts) feel happier is that extraverts feel that they are contributing more strongly to their social world. A follow-up Honours thesis (not yet published) also replicated this effect and found that it extended to another mediator, social power - an individual's perception of their ability to influence others in a social context.

This is interesting - but before extrapolating further, we'll need to consider a couple of limitations. First, like all other studies using the counterdispositional behaviour paradigm, participants were university students. This means that further research is needed before it's safe to generalise that all people feel happier after acting extraverted. And it's especially important considering that the explanation for the extraversion-happiness link may vary depending on age. For example, as Smillie et al. suggest, it's plausible that social coherence, one's ability to make meaning out of social affairs, could have a stronger effect on positive affect for older adults.

A second limitation is that it's unclear whether the difference in positive affect was due to the happiness-boosting effects of acting extraverted, or the happiness-lowering effects of acting introverted. After all, it can't be much fun to be asked to be quiet, reserved and lethargic while being dominated by an extraverted participant and another participant who tends to act quite extraverted in this context anyway. Yet, there seems to be a lack of research on how acting extraverted makes other people feel ("affective presence"), compared to how it makes the extravert (or pseudo-extravert) themselves feel.

Similarly, at the Positive Psychology Interest Group Journal Club a few weeks ago, some suggested that the instructions for acting introverted were overly-negative. Maybe - but according to the dominant Big Five descriptive framework of personality, these are more-or-less the terms that describe introverted behaviours. Being introverted does not actually mean being "introspective" or "imaginative", although popular misconceptions abound regarding what introversion is.

Should Introverts Act More Extraverted?

A final few caveats on whether it's a good idea to act more extraverted. First, extraverted behaviours are most reliably linked to activated positive affect states and are unrelated to "deactivated" positive affect states (e.g., calm, relaxed, at-ease); states that some people may see as more long-lasting, valuable end-goals. 

Second, how a person feels is of course only one component of wellbeing, and this research does not say much about the effect of extraverted behaviours on, say, one's perceptions of meaning and purpose in life (although it's also worth noting that positive affect does predict an increased sense of meaning). Smillie et al. do show that extraversion predicts positive affect via one's sense of social contribution - an important aspect of wellbeing - but there is clearly plenty of scope for further research to clarify the nature of the relationship between extraversion and wellbeing more broadly construed.

Third, whereas there's been no evidence to suggest that acting extraverted incurs costs for introverts (interestingly, extraverts do seem to suffer cognitive costs after acting introverted), no research has investigated the long-term effects of counterdispositional behaviour, as it's possible that extended periods of acting extraverted could be more challenging for introverts. Brian Little has a lot more to say about the need for "restorative niches" after acting out of character.

Taken together, however, Smillie et al. contribute a valuable new perspective on why it feels good to be or act like an extravert. And despite the need for further investigation with broader samples, in everyday life, and across longer periods of time, I'm excited by the optimistic view that these studies present. It looks like happiness isn't dependent on a fixed property specific to dispositional extraverts, but is something that anyone can experience more of - and that it might be as simple as strategically choosing to act more extraverted when the situation calls for it.

-- Smillie, L., Wilt, J., Kabbani, R., Garratt, C., & Revelle, W. (2015). Quality of Social Experience Explains the Relation Between Extraversion and Positive Affect. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000047

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Redefining Success

What springs to mind when you think of success? What about when you think of a successful person? The images that come forth probably involve the themes of money, status and power; or more generally, individual achievement. In the same way, the exemplars of success that you think of may be people at the top of their sporting or performance endeavours and those who are rich and famous. At an everyday level, perhaps as a university student, success means getting straight H1s and securing a dream job at graduation. Or, if you're a high school student, perhaps success means getting into an Ivy League university. 

But is that really all there is to it?

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with one of my teachers when I was back in high school, deliberating whether or not I should "aim for the top" and apply for top US universities. He reflected that he'd had the opportunity to take more "successful" pathways, but he'd seen the sacrifices that had been made by people who had gone to the top and achieved amazing things, and wanted a more balanced life.

At the time, I was one stressed out student, and that conversation left me with a firm belief in a tradeoff between success and balance - having time and energy to invest into other things you value, like family, wellbeing, helping others, and activities that enrich your life.

Being a hopeful optimist, however, a part of me still wondered, isn't there a way to be successful and have balance? After all, doesn't positive psychology tell us that happiness leads to success, not (only) the other way around (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005)? As long as we're enjoying the process while striving for goals, and not stuck in a rat race, living only for the future (Ben-Shahar, 2007), shouldn't it work out? And if you follow the advice of all the productivity and lifestyle bloggers (e.g., Cal Newport, Ramit Sethi, Tim Ferriss) and are smart about how you go about it, surely it's possible to have your cake and eat it too?

As with many of these difficult questions, I think the answer is yes - and no. It depends on how you define success. If you take a "traditional" accomplishment-based or "narrow" definition of success, then the answer may be no; at least for a substantial part of the journey. It's probably a reality that performance at the highest level requires disproportionate and sometimes "superhuman" levels of sacrifice and self-discipline that in no way resemble a "normal" life.

I am not at all condemning "traditional success", or saying that it's necessarily bad to pursue it. Given various combinations of values and personal circumstances, some people thrive under these conditions, and indeed, accomplishment is a component of the PERMA model of flourishing (Seligman, 2011). However, for the most part, I would suggest that it's misleading to believe that success will necessarily make you happy. Why not? I think this quote from a recent blog post criticising "the myth of the Ivy League" is illustrative:

"Even talking to my peers who were the most “successful” by all external standards — snagging scholarships, winning awards, landing coveted jobs — I heard undertones of emptiness and sadness that suggested they weren’t truly fulfilled."

It's this sense of enduring fulfilment that seems to be missing from the pursuit of "traditional success". The pesky thing about being human is that we adapt to our successes. As we reach new levels of success, get a raise, buy a new car, win an award, publish in a top journal, and reach our various milestones, our expectations rise so that we're starting at baseline once again and always hungry for more, more, more. It's called the hedonic treadmill because we have to constantly work to maintain a certain level of happiness.

So where does fulfilment come from, and what's the alternative? As I said, it's about how you define success. I would argue that it is legitimate and adaptive to broaden our definitions of what success means, so that we're measuring success with the right metrics. 

Here's the really cool part: being a thinking, self-aware human being, you get to decide on what success means to you and what metrics to use. And if you choose to incorporate the idea of balance into these metrics, then yes, you can have success and balance because balance is, after all, an integral part of what you consider to be success.

Try it now. What's your personal definition of success? 

Write as much or as little as you'd like; whether it's a few keywords, a sentence or two, a few guiding principles, or a full-blown personal manifesto. I would love to read these in the comments! If you need some guidance, here are a few questions that might help you decide what to include:
  • From the perspective of your ideal future self at age 90, what would you like to say about your life - for example, what you've contributed to the world, and what you would like to be remembered for?
  • What qualities do you admire in others?
  • What makes life meaningful for you?
  • What are your top values?

It's not a problem at all if your personal definition of success changes over time, and it's expected that it will evolve as you grow and encounter new experiences. It's just useful to have a roadmap at this stage to help reconnect you with what matters to you in life. Also, it's totally ok to have elements of "traditional success" in there too - this is not intended to replace existing aspirations, but to broaden them. It can be helpful to keep this in a handy, easily accessible place (e.g. your phone, desk, or wall) where you can be regularly reminded of what matters.

To conclude on a personal note, what does success mean to me (in 2014)? I do have career aspirations - I'd like to be an academic, but I want to go about it in a certain way and for certain reasons, in a picture that is grounded in a commitment to collective wellbeing. So here are a few of my personal metrics, in no particular order:
  1. Conduct research that actually makes a difference in promoting human and societal flourishing.
  2. Be an academic who genuinely cares about students - in particular, be approachable and generous with my time in mentoring students and opening up opportunities for them.
  3. Be a mindful, loving and authoritative parent who prioritises family.
  4. Be kind to all beings.
  5. Live with less and give more every year to effective causes.
  6. Walk the talk: maintain my personal wellbeing and health, because this forms the basis for all of the above. Mindfulness helps a lot, so practice is important to me.

Of course, it won't be easy; realistically, with the vicissitudes of life and ambition, I fully accept that there will be days and even weeks when I lose sight of what matters. But if I can live in line with these principles as best I can, most of the time, then I would feel that I had truly succeeded in my career and in life.


Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York: McGraw Hill Professional.

Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York: Penguin Group.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Meditation gives us the tools to persist on the path of full human development

In his chapter, “Meditation develops full human beings”, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) introduces the concept of what it means to be a full human being, what is required to develop into a full human being, and how meditation helps with this process. In this reflection, I will explain and elaborate on these ideas.

Kabat-Zinn suggests that there is a time in our lives when we will be compelled to contemplate our lives and reflect on existential questions. This is a natural extension in the process of human development, a logical and even inevitable next step. If we do not take this step, then we let our development arrest, because there is a fuller potential that we can develop towards. This potential, of a full human being, involves rediscovering the good, the true, and the possible within ourselves, what Kabat-Zinn calls our “radiant selves”, what is “healthy and strong and golden within you”, and a source of wisdom and sense of inner mastery that will help us to live happy, peaceful lives, defined by really living in the here and now. While the term “full” implies a destination, I would suggest that this may be better conceptualised as a continual path and process, rather than a stage or a destination, given our endless potential for growth. Perhaps, then, to be a full human being simply means to be travelling the path of continual development.

This isn’t a pretty process, however. We must face, and indeed, embrace, and work with, the aspects of our psyches and our different mind states that we may not always like and usually try to turn away from or suppress through experiential avoidance. We can only develop by facing challenges and exercising courage to confront fears, even when we don’t know all the answers and we’re plagued by uncertainty. In this sense, it involves being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Moreover, it helps if we recognise that uncomfortable or “dark” mind states are not “bad”, “negative”, or “enemies”; rather, we can embrace them if we realise that they are helping us to develop our understanding of ourselves and of the human condition, and to develop compassion for ourselves and for others, who we realise also house inner demons and dragons, just as we do. In other words, all of the characters in our stories, especially the challenging ones, are teachers and good friends, the ones who actually dare us to grow.

Besides facing emotional discomfort, it turns out that we also have to put in a lot of effort and do the grunt work for our own development. This inner work takes discipline, to come back to the practice, over and over again, even if we’re bored, tired, in pain, have other stuff to do, or are otherwise uncomfortable. Nobody said it would be easy, but I cannot think of a more important task than to work towards becoming the best person I can be, so that I can live a life that is both good for myself and good for others.

The good news, at least, is that the practice itself helps keep us on the path, by equipping us with some very helpful tools. If we try as best we can to embody the attitudes of mindfulness, then we are empowered with the equanimity to face and embrace whatever is already here, and the perspective to step back and make choices from a position of greater awareness. Therefore, in a perfect synergy, the practice will do its work, as a roadmap to development, if we are willing to do our work of actually travelling along the path, which may well be bumpy and uphill, but ultimately is what it is, and this realisation can liberate us as we persist on the unbounded journey of full human development.


Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Meditation develops full human beings. In Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life (pp. 81-86). New York: Hyperion.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Mindful Communication

Can you recall a time when you felt like you were truly listened to? What was that experience like? How did it feel? How about a time when you just listened? What qualities of attention and presence did you bring to the task? How would your relationships, both personal and professional, be different if people just listened more to each other?

More and more, we seem to live in a society where we don't have much time for each other. Efficiency and agendas seem to be two watchwords that characterise at least professional relationships, and even in personal relationships where we genuinely care about the other person, we aren't always the best listeners.

What does it mean to listen mindfully, or to just listen, then? It means to avoid the temptations to:
  1. Interject
  2. Comment/reflect
  3. Advise
  4. Console/fix
  5. Criticise
  6. Redirect
  7. Question/probe
  8. "Uh-huh"
  9. Plan your next response in your head
…before the speaker has first had the opportunity to fully say what is on their mind and to talk about what is important to them at that moment, or to just finish a train of thought. Later, some of these conversational tools may be useful and helpful and can then be used more accurately and skilfully, but if unleashed too early, can create barriers to the deep understanding that is enabled by the pure attention to what is being said, and the space that is created in which the speaker feels the respect and security to take the conversation where it needs to go.

This is difficult. These temptations are strong and it takes mindful effort to let them go, and to bring our attention back to the person at hand, looking them in the eyes with an attitude of patience and invitation that conveys a profound respect for what they have to say and for them as human beings.

But it is extremely powerful to feel like you are the centre of the listener's world at that moment in time, to feel like someone cares enough to give you their complete time and attention, and to feel like you're being heard and that your experiences and feelings are valid.

So then, the other side is mindful speech, which follows naturally from mindful listening. Listening intently, and being comfortable with moments of silent reflection after the end of a phrase, allows you to provide more thoughtful, intentional, considered responses.

I am currently on exchange in the US, and experienced a meeting that was a cultural experience in itself. I had heard about the stereotypes of the tendency to talk just for the sake of talking, but recently actually experienced this firsthand. In this particular meeting, it was particularly hard to get a word in edgeways, because people would constantly interrupt, jump in, and interject as soon as it looked like the person had finished a sentence, or even before they had finished a sentence. Moreover, while many of the contributions were useful, some of them did not seem to add much value, and seemed almost to be a display of dominance, of who gets to talk more, or simply an enjoyment of the act of talking. Power talking, as it were, and this wasn't even a corporate or business school setting. In short, it was mildly stressful, and though it was still a productive meeting, I wonder what could have been if people were given the space to contribute in a more thoughtful way.

So I think back to this meeting and imagine what could be. What would a mindful meeting, with mindful listening and mindful speech look like? What if we listened with complete attention and respect to what each speaker is saying? Could we let each speaker finish their sentences, and pause for just three breaths, or three seconds, before mindfully responding? What if we only spoke when we had something genuinely useful and thoughtful to contribute? I believe that creating space for mindful communication would reduce the pressure for people to react immediately, and ultimately higher-quality collaboration with carefully considered, thoughtful, nuanced, creative contributions. And you may think that this sounds awfully slow and inefficient. To this, I would suggest that efficiency isn't about cramming as many words as possible into a period of time, but about saying more with less. We can embrace the possibilities of deliberately choosing to think slow.

When you get an opportunity, I would invite you to try this out with someone. Just listen. It's simple (but not easy). Then, experiment with responding more mindfully, more deliberately. Notice how your quality of attention, your engagement and your sense of connection changes. And remember that every moment, every interaction is an opportunity to practice and to engage with what and who is here, right here, right now.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Meditations on Kindness

Kindness is a virtue that I admire, value, respect, and very much aspire to. But I've come to realise that it's not always something that comes "naturally" to me all the time. Brian Little (1996) suggests though, that we have some basic tendencies, our "first nature", but we can also choose to take on characteristic adaptations, which involve personal projects and identities that can become our "second nature". This post therefore contributes to a personal project of kindness, examining the nature of kindness, why it matters to me, and how it can be cultivated.

What is kindness?

I think that kindness involves two components: kind actions, and kind feelings.

Kind actions are behaviours that are performed for the good of others, with no strings attached. In this way, kindness is inseparable from generosity, as kindness involves a giving attitude. This may involve looking after a sick friend, really listening to someone in an open, non-judgemental way, volunteering, expressing gratitude to others, and mentoring someone. Because there are no real neutral interactions, but rather, every interaction will leave the other person either a little better or a little worse, kindness is the former choice. This will mean cutting people some slack; forgiving them and letting go in any cases of potential conflict, allowing them to feel valued, respected, accurate, and giving them a chance to enhance their self-concept. This means not always having to be right, or having to make a point, but really letting go of the ego. So in a sense, kind actions are not only what is done, but what is not done and not said. In this way, kindness is closely intertwined with modesty, humility, self-regulation, acceptance, and patience. The patience to accept and respect others for who they are and what they believe, and to understand why they are who they are today. So in general, kind acts will involve giving others some part of yourself - perhaps your time and attention, your emotional capacity, or your money.

To enhance the sustainability of kind actions, Adam Grant (2013) suggests that we should be "otherish" (rather than selfish or selfless) - having high self-concern as well as high concern for others. This is reminiscent of the Buddha's idea of the "middle way" between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Taking the middle way ensures that our energy and emotional capacity to give is at its optimum so that we can give even more in the long-run. Therefore, to continue be kind to others, you also need to be kind to yourself, so that you live a life that is good for you and good for others.

Kind feelings are usually part of the kind act. However, it is possible to perform kind acts without kind feelings, and kind feelings can also be independent of action, in principle. I think kind feelings involve a warm, unconditional positive regard for others. A desire for them to be happy, to be well, to be free from suffering. It involves love, compassion and empathy. An engagement from the heart. In this way, performing kind acts for others is not seen as a chore or obligation begrudgingly done, a source of anxiety, or a mechanical act. Kind acts are supported by kind feelings, making them if not a pleasure, at least performed with purpose and meaning and with the right intention. In this way, kind feelings make the kind actions more authentic, congruent and meaningful, enhancing their effects on both the giver and the recipient of kindness. 

At the same time, kind actions are a great place to start, even if the feelings aren’t there yet, because as theories of attitude change suggest, actions are important in changing attitudes and feelings. As self-perception theory suggests, humans have a need for coherence between their actions, thoughts and beliefs. Therefore, the reasoning might go something like this: “I am doing a kind act. Therefore I must enjoy being a kind person.” → increased motivation to be kind. Furthermore, by doing the kind acts, the giver would see the impact of their actions on others, the difference they have made, and this would help cultivate the feelings of empathy and warmth, as well as increasing one’s motivation to be kind in the future. Kind actions themselves then create an positive upwards spiral.

Similarly, kind feelings can also be a good place to start, perhaps through the loving-kindness meditationAlthough these appear to be cultivated outside of "real-world" actions, by cultivating compassion for all beings, kind feelings and intentions inevitably influence the real-world actions that are then taken.

Why is kindness important?

The Dalai Lama said, “The true essence of humankind is kindness.” In this same way, I see kindness as the highest virtue and what it means to be the best human possible, and I truly believe that the world would be a more peaceful and harmonious place if everyone valued kindness.

I personally value kindness because I have been touched by acts of kindness towards me, and towards others, and genuinely want to be like these givers I admire, and pay it forward. When I have been the recipient of a kind gesture, I have felt my faith in humanity increase and it has given me hope. It has helped me feel like people care and that people are good, that I’m not alone in this world and that I am worthy of another person's time and attention. I mean, surely that is what we’re here for. To cultivate kind, caring, supportive and giving relationships. To reduce suffering in the world AND promote wellbeing in each other. To happily help each other out and enable everyone to be at their best, raising one another up. To be inspired by one another and for this to create a ripple or contagion effect for a kinder world, in which kindness enables us to reach our full human potential together as a society.

So in short, I value kindness because of the way it makes a profound positive difference in people’s lives and its ability to inspire transformation in people and in society. But talking about it is not enough. I have serious work to do on my humility, patience and connecting to the emotional side of kindness in particular. It won't be easy, and I can't promise to be kind 100% of the time. But I will keep trying, meditating, looking for opportunities to give, reflecting, and biting my tongue a bit. I'll also attempt to measure my progress using something like this. And if you have any suggestions for ways to develop kindness, I would love to hear about it in the comments.


Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York: Penguin Group.

Little, B. R. (1996). Free traits, personal projects and idio-tapes: Thee tiers for personality psychology. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 340–343.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Gratitude through Gmail

As I wrote earlier, gratitude is a vital ingredient for wellbeing, and one way to increase our gratitude is to remember and reflect on the good things that happen to us, or what went well (WWW).

Recently, I realised that I've received a lot of emails this year that have brought a smile to my face. For example, emails where people have kindly agreed to help me out, have given me positive feedback, have replied to a thank you note I've sent or have thanked me, and where I've been accepted into programs. What if we could create an easy-to-access digital repository of such good events, harnessing technology to support our gratitude practice?

I'd like to share with you a really simple system that I use, harnessing Gmail's built-in Labels and Filters.

Basic Method: Create a Label

1. Scroll down to the bottom of the left column of your Gmail. Click "Create a label". You can name this whatever you want - e.g. Gratitude, Hope, WWW, Good Things in Life, Positivity. I named mine Smiles, because after all, these are emails that made me smile!

2. Select all the positive messages in your inbox and move them to that folder.

At this point, you're pretty much done! Click through to the label in your left column, and there are all your positive messages, ready for easy access and appreciation.

Ok, so what if you have more than one email inbox, but you want all your positive messages in one location? This is the case for me, with a university email address and a personal email address. Or if you want to email yourself your daily WWWs and have them automatically stored in this folder? Here's how to extend this basic method.

Extension: Create a Filter

3. Create a filter: Settings → Filters → Create a Filter.

In the "To" box, type in: Then click through to "Create filter with this search".

Select the checkboxes for "Skip the Inbox", "Mark as read", and "Apply the label: Your label". Click "Create filter".

4. Forward your positive emails from your other account to your "WWW email address" ( These emails will automatically appear in your designated folder.

5. It is even possible to use this system to email ourselves our daily WWWs, instead of writing them down in a physical journal, if that's what you'd prefer. Just email them through to your WWW email address.

6. Did something good happen elsewhere on the internet (e.g. a nice Facebook message)? Take a screenshot, and email that to your WWW email address. The possibilities are endless.

Try it out!

So there you have it. An easy way to set up a system for creating a digital bank of gold, ready to access and savour on the go, especially in those times when you find it difficult to think of anything that's going well in your life, or when you just want to increase your feelings of gratitude.

Let me know if you end up trying it out! I'd love to hear if you find it useful.