How free will is linked to a positive sense of self

Authenticity can come from having a sense of agency over our lives. (pic copyright: delcreations)

The extent to which we believe in free will can determine our sense of self – how we feel about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Diminishing our free will can trigger depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem. That’s according to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Researchers at Texas A&M University worked with two groups of 300 participants, giving them tests to examine the relationship between free will and sense of self, and between free will and authenticity. They discovered that people with low free will showed “greater feelings of self-alienation and lower self-awareness” as well as lower authenticity compared with the group who had higher free will.

“Our findings suggest that part of being who you are is experiencing a sense of agency and feeling like you are in control over the actions and outcomes in your life,” says lead author Elizabeth Seto from the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University. “If people are able to experience these feelings, they can become closer to their true or core self.”

My experience of working with clients in therapy bears out these findings. People can feel depressed, depleted and hopeless when they feel they have no choice over aspects of their lives. This can put them in a victim position from which they feel unable to escape. Things get ‘done’ to them, and they have little sense of any agency over their own lives. The process of being in therapy can help identify options, and instil a belief that they are in charge of their own lives. Sometimes that can start with a very small step, and gradually they can make more decisions in alignment with who they truly are – instead of looking to external factors for encouragement or validation.

I will leave the final word on this to Carl Jung: “Freedom of will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.”

How adversity can make you more compassionate

Living through adversity can lead to more empathy and compassion, says research (pic courtesy of smarnad/freedigitalphotos.net)

Living through adversity can lead to more empathy and compassion, says research (pic courtesy of smarnad/freedigitalphotos.net)

“Is past suffering associated with hardened hearts or warmed ones?” This was the central question posed by recent research into whether experiencing adversity ultimately makes you more willing and able to help others – or whether the experience of pain closes you off and makes you less able to empathise with others.

The research – carried out at Northeastern University and published in the journal Emotion – found a link between the severity of past adversity (such as loss, illness, violence, relationship breakdown) and increased empathy and a “tendency to feel compassion for others in need”. In other words, the more suffering someone has been through, the more likely they are to reach out and want to help others.

The researchers at Northeastern University carried out two studies among Americans who had suffered previous adversity. The first study measured the compassion and empathy of 224 people, with the option to donate to charity at the end of the survey. The second study was a laboratory experiment with 51 people, who were asked to complete a survey on emotion recognition and another task. The participants were unaware that an actor in the lab pretended to be ill and therefore unable to complete a boring task – giving the participants the option to help the man (as a way of measuring their compassion). People’s compassion levels were measured separately the next day. The results showed that the higher the adversity someone had suffered, the more likely they were to help the ill man.

While the researchers acknowledge that some people suffer “chronic dysfunction” following earlier trauma, this piece of research is the first to find a link between adversity and empathy/compassion. They said: “Individuals who have experienced adversity attest to increased tendencies both to perspective-take and to place value on the welfare of others in need.”

My take on this is that bad things happen to everyone. It’s the process of coming to terms with what has happened, and perhaps developing new qualities as a result of the negative experiences, that can make us more open to empathising with others. This is what is termed as “post-traumatic growth” (Staub and Vollhardt, 2008). It’s when a bad experience festers and is not worked through – sometimes leading to negative patterns of thinking and behaviour – that can harden rather than warm our hearts.

Stress makes men more self-centred and women more empathic

Men's stress makes them   unable to relate to what's going on around them (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/MasterIsolatedImages)

Men’s stress makes them unable to relate to what’s going on around them (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/MasterIsolatedImages)

Stress makes men shut down, think only of themselves, and makes them unable to empathise with those around them. Women, on the other hand, become worried about other people. More evidence, perhaps, that could explain the difference in gender responses – and how the breakdown in communication and empathy explains why some relationships just don’t work. Or, at least, that’s according to new research from SISSA.

Men become unable to distinguish their own emotions and feelings from those of other people when subjected to stress, says the study. Women become more ‘prosocial’ while men think that everyone else must be feeling the same way they do.

“There is a subtle boundary between the ability to identify with others and take on their perspective and therefore be empathic, and the inability to distinguish between self and other, thus acting egocentrically,” say the researchers. “To be truly empathic and behave pro-socially, it’s important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other, and stress appears to play an important role in this.”

Women apply more ‘social strategies’ when stressed – meaning they reach out and ask for help – while men expect everyone else to feel the same way they do.

To work out how to communicate more effectively with your partner, under stress – whether a man looking to become more empathic, or a woman looking at ways to cope with stress – call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com

Counselling could give ‘loveless’ households a chance

One in four children grow up in loveless households. (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/smarnad)

One in four children grow up in loveless households. (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/smarnad)

With a quarter of children growing up in ‘loveless’ households – where parental relationships have broken down – the government is calling for more people to seek counselling to work through their emotional issues.

Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that 24% of households where both biological parents live together are unhappy in their relationship. Growing up in unstable homes can put kids at a social disadvantage in later life, says the DWP, and at higher risk of issues with mental health, substance abuse and lower educational attainment.

“We know that family breakdown – or a damaged parental relationship – can have a devastating impact on children’s prospects as they grow up,” says Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. “Whereas when families are strong and stable, the children tend to have better life chances.”

Conservative MP Andrew Selous, who chairs a parliamentary group for sustainable relationships, adds that people should not feel ashamed to seek counselling support. “We need to remove the stigma around counselling. We have a natural British reserve which assumes there must be some kind of problem if you need counselling. We need people to understand it is essential to their emotional health.”

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Is Facebook becoming the ‘confessional’ of the digital age?

Seeking ‘likes’ from friends can encourage acceptance and forgiveness for our deeds. (pic courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee/freedigitalphotos.net)

Facebook: a platform for perfectly groomed self-promotion, or an explorative ‘confessional’ place to discover your feelings and identify ways to improve yourself? Most of us might think the former, but a researcher into the creative industries thinks otherwise.

The act of posting your achievements for all your Facebook friends to admire, from your latest DIY success to the number of miles you’ve run this week – as well as sometimes admitting to some mistakes you’ve made along the way – can apparently make you more self-reflective. And this can lead to more self-awareness and personal growth, according to Dr Theresa Sauter from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation in Australia.

Showing off what’s been good about your day proves that you’re doing OK in life. And sharing what hasn’t gone so well shows awareness that your behaviour may not be top notch – especially when friends can ‘like’ or comment on what you’ve posted, says the research.

“It can become a therapeutic tool that helps people discover how they feel and how they can improve themselves,” says Dr Sauter.

I think there are two interesting ideas to emerge from this piece of research. (more…)

Talking and saying ‘thank you’ are key to relationship happiness

Being best friends and making your partner a cuppa contribute to relationship happiness. (pic :istockphoto.com/Dimedrol68)

Being best friends and making your partner a cup of tea contribute to relationship happiness. (pic: istockphoto.com/Dimedrol68)

Open, honest communication and the ability to unburden at the end of the day are key to relationship harmony – as are small gestures such as cuddles and making your partner a cup of tea. That’s one of the key findings from a new survey Enduring Love? Couple Relationships in the 21st Century from the Open University.

The two-year survey of more than 5,000 people found that shared values, ambitions and interests are important for relationship health, and people feel disappointed when they could not share the everyday experiences of life with their partner. Saying or showing love is highly valued and symbolised a closeness in the relationship, as is saying thank you and feeling appreciated. While big romantic gestures, such as bouquets of flowers, are enjoyed, it is the sentiment behind them that really counts. Being ‘best friends’ with one’s partner ranked highly for both men and women respondents. Arguments and poor communication are the least pleasant aspects of a relationship, the survey found.

When it comes to being parents, that survey has some interesting findings:

  • Childless couples are happier with their relationship than couples with children.
  • Parents put less effort into maintaining their relationship than childless couples do.
  • Fathers are less positive than childless men about the quality of their relationship.
  • Fathers are twice more likely than mothers “to include different needs or expectations around sexual intimacy in the things they like least about their relationship”.
  • Mothers want less sex than their partners do, but this apparently does not affect overall relationship satisfaction for either mothers or fathers.
  • Mothers are twice more likely than fathers to say children are the most important people in their lives, while for fathers the partner is the most important person.
  • Mothers are more negative about the quality of their relationship compared with childless women – but overall mothers are reported to be the happiest group of all.

When communication does break down, both women and men say they would use couple counselling as a source for support, help or advice. Men are more reluctant to ask for help, but women say they would consider both couple and individual counselling.

Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of Relate, says: “What this study shows us is that couples need to keep investing in their relationships. It’s reassuring to know, especially in these tough economic times, that it’s the small gestures of appreciation and affection, rather than the big romantic displays that really make the difference.”

Can spirituality make you more resilient to depression?

Researchers says spiritual beliefs can protect the brain from mood disorders such as depression. (pic: istockphoto.com/Skaya)

Researchers says spiritual beliefs can protect the brain from mood disorders such as depression. (pic: istockphoto.com/Skaya)

Apparently it can. A scientific study has suggested that spirituality gives people who are prone to depression a thicker outer part of the brain – which may offer some protection from depression.

The report studied 103 adults aged 18-54 from a family background of depression, and took MRI scans of their brains. They found a thicker cortex – the part of the brain that processes senses, language and emotion – in the survey participants who said religion or spirituality was important to them, compared with those who didn’t. A thinner cortex is linked with higher risk of depression.

However, being spiritual does not give you a thicker cortex, the researchers reported. Nor does more frequent attendance at church.

Myrna Weissman, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University and chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric Institute, who worked on the study, said: “Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain, and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this. A thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression.”

What to make of these results? The researchers had previously found a 90% decreased risk of depression among the adult children of parents who were suffering from it. The therapeutic value of these findings is not clear, not even to the scientists, who believe that it’s the start of further research.

Weissman says the body and mind are connected – but how? Does having faith or belief in something beyond the physical here-and-now body help sustain people through difficult times? In an area that must be incredibly difficult to measure, I’ll be interested in what scientists can prove in the future.