My brother and I sat together, heads huddled over photographs of my mother’s life. Photos from when she was born, as a toddler (replete with the dead straight hair that used to drive her mother to distraction trying to curl it), through her primary school photos, her debutante, to her sitting daintily on the beach in her early twenties - no doubt watching dad surf his way to oblivion (she once got so pissed off with him staying out on the waves all day that she threatened to drive home without him). We laughed at mum’s recognisable face, you couldn’t mistake her eternal frown, brows dipped over dark eyes, a fearsome sight that spoke to her strength and resilience in life. Out of the blue my brother exclaimed “oh my God, that’s Mel!” (Mel being my sister). This pulled me up as quickly as screeching to a halt at a stop sign (with the accompanying whip lash). My whole life I had told myself, and others, the same narrative, that my brother and I had won the maternal lottery, taking after mum with our brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, whilst my sister had won the paternal lottery, taking more after my dad’s side of the family, with thick, black, curled hair, hazel eyes, and a naturally slim figure, petite, delicate; the epitome of the English rose. And yet, I could not deny that my brother was right, in that particular photo, there was my sister in my mum, the expression on her face, the tilt of the head, the jut of the hip.
I contrast this with a comment from a friend about 6 months ago. A group of us were sitting around the lounge room, I believe they all had a glass of wine each (me a beer sat snuggly next to my hip) and we were casually playing Cards Against Humanity, as you do, chatting about family. I decided to show them a picture of my Nan and Grandad Wright’s wedding. Nan and Grandad were standing in front of the church doors, Grandad resplendent in his Air Force uniform, and Nan, slim, slight, and elegant in her white gown, victory rolls in her hair, and the biggest bouquet of roses (I dread to think how they got this get up for Nan, it being during WWII with rations and all). I am dead proud of this photo and so I passed it around on my phone. One of my friends zoomed into the photo and did a double take - “Liz!! This is you! You look exactly like your Nan!” That stop sign approached again, with whip lash, and I sat there shocked as my life narrative took a nose dive. No no no, I didn’t look like my Nan on my dad’s side, I looked like my mum, I had the Cross (mum’s maiden name) nose and chin, the colouring of our convict ancestor who I had been named for, the curvier figure of the Elliott (Nan's maiden name) women, with boobs and hips - how could I possibly look like my Nan Wright!
Do you ever feel that we tell ourselves stories about who we are, develop narrative about who we are, that stick like superglue to the delicate structures of our sense of self? What these two events in the space of a year have told me is not to believe in our narratives quite so strictly, to not covet these narratives as though without them we would crumble and fall into an existential delirium. I have started to think bigger about who I am and where I come from, I have started to appreciate my Dad’s side of the family more, to see the resemblances between myself and my Dad. In terms of temperament I am perhaps more like my Dad than my Mum, and the amount of moles and freckles I have, dotted like constellations across my back and shoulders, down my arms and legs, and across my face are all Dad. Perhaps, just perhaps, I am the perfect mixture of both parents, just as my brother and sister are, and in that I can take comfort that I come from a rich history, from two strong families, and from a great love that’s source is as wide as the universe.
When I was 13 years old I set myself the biggest goal I honestly think I could've set for myself - to swim at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. It was a goal that seemed big to me, but possible, even with my parents saying "we believe you darling, but don't get your hopes up." What helped to keep me going in achieving this goal was the dreaming along the way, the dreaming actually contributed to the motivation to get out of bed at 4.30am every morning, and to push myself to overcome shyness to compete at national and international level. Dreaming was a crucial element of my goal journey, but I still get asked by parents and teachers, should we make dreamers out of our kids? Should we allow them to set goals and dream big? I always respond by saying Adele, Nicole Kidman, and Andy Murray had to start somewhere, and they started with a dream, so why not your kids? Also teaching children to dream can help them develop certain character strengths that will help them reach their potential in all areas of their lives.
There is now research that backs up the positives of allowing kids to dream. In researching the impact, activities were developed, and I share with you some activities you can do, in schools, and in homes, to encourage dreaming so that your children can get the positive benefits too. First, some background research…
Encouragement to have a dream goes back thousands of years, Lao Tzu said: “Be careful what you water your dreams with. Water them with worry and fear, and you will produce weeds that choke the life of your dream. Water them with optimism and solutions, and you will cultivate success.” Dreaming is an important aspect of being human and developing our character traits, in fact some researchers argue that dreams are built from the dreamer, or their collection of character traits, i.e., someone who is creative will probably have dreams that are based on creative pursuits, someone who is caring and loving may have dreams based on service and care-based pursuits, someone who is zesty may be extremely sporty and aim for the Olympics. Having dreams means developing our character strengths, and research shows that developing and exploring new dreams and ideas increases optimism in pupils, teaches them how to judge a feasible goals, and keeps their goals consistently in their mind. Some pretty compelling reasons to make sure that dreaming is a part of your character education curriculum or family lifestyle. These activities are based on research done into using character strengths to create optimism and dreams in children and teens - though could be used by adults as well, cause you know, we all need to keep dreaming.
Activity 1 - Fill Your Dream Bucket.
(This may require an actual bucket, but I leave that up to you)
The bucket becomes a metaphor for our minds, think of all of the emotions, knowledge, memories, ideas, AND dreams that we have that inspire us, and their correlating character strengths. Encourage children to use creativity to fill their bucket with new dreams based on their emotions, knowledge, memories, ideas, and previous dreams. Perhaps you have a child who always wanted to be a ballerina, but their parents couldn’t afford ballet lessons, encourage them to brainstorm other ways that they can bring dance, like ballet, into their life - perhaps they can attend free community hip hop dance classes instead, or even gather a group of likeminded friends to practice ballet tutorials off youtube. Encourage their imaginations to go wild and to inspire new and unique dreams and ideas that are outside the box. Tell them nothing is off limits in their dreaming - even being the first person to step foot on Mars could be a valid dream! This is a solutions based focus.
Activity 2 - Find the Glitter in the Sand.
All of the ideas and dreams in the Dream Bucket are like a mix of sand and glitter. You are now going to ask your pupils to sort through their dream bucket to find the glitter amongst the sand. This may be difficult as you are asking them to place a value on their different dreams and to decide which ones to keep and which ones to let go of. Ask them to think about the kind of person they want to be and the kind of life they would like to live and have them consider how each dream will fit in with this. Ask them to put each dream into a pile - yes, no, maybe - make a game of it, asking the children to sort the piles as quickly as possible (perhaps make it a race or have a time limit) means they trust their instincts about whether a dream is possible or not, or ask them to consider each dreams pro’s and con’s, what good and/or bad would come from this dream, etc.
Activity 3 - A New Dreaming legend/story.
Now have the pupils pick up their yes pile and using these dreams create a new dreaming legend or story. If they could achieve all of these dreams what would it look like? How would it feel? How would it impact on their family and friends? Providing resources, ask them to tap into their creativity again and create either a dream legend/story poster or write a short story/novella/comic book that illustrates this new, awe-inspiring dream. They can then take these home or hang them in the classroom to remind themselves of their dream every day.
This week my business partner/close friend and I attended a very special awards evening. Challenger Multi-Academy Trust, based in Bedfordshire and Essex, are a unique Trust in that they have a very specific focus in building a culture of character across all of their schools. As part of building this culture they decided to have an annual awards evening where children are recognised for character strengths, relationship and life skills. So on Wednesday evening Fred and I arrived at the Grove Theatre in Dunstable for the Character Awards. We felt so honoured to be there and to also be keynote speakers; we announced our research partnership with the Trust.What stood out for me though was one of the “entertainment” segments of the evening, it was a segment that inspired, not just my own outlook at what children are capable of, but what we as human beings are capable of.
This segment involved two groups of young pupils (from Lancot Primary School) who came on stage to show us their “Dragon’s Den” style presentations on projects to change the world. The first group, the youngest group, gave us a presentation on poo. Yes, you read that correctly, poo. Why poo? Well they were raising money to enable people in third world countries to have access to toilets. The second group had focused their project on earthquake affected areas (and they respectfully mentioned the recent disaster in Indonesia), and they were raising money to invest in a “tent pack” (a pack that includes a tent, water, and solar powered flashlight). These children stood proud and worked together to present their ideas and motivations. They were buzzing, motivated, excited to be learning and growing and I firmly believe that this is the power of service.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues have done a significant amount of research into the impact of Service, particularly through the concept of character and youth social action. Some of their most recent research has shown the impact that being of service, from a young age, can have on young people, these benefits include: the development of a habit of service (if children have been involved in service since under the age of ten), more likely to frequently participate in a wider range of civic/service activities, and the ability to recognise themselves as being moral and civic exemplars (role models for people in their life). The recommendations that came out of this body of research was that schools and institutions should look at how they can support young people into a habit of service (just as Lancot Primary is supporting their young people), and that through encouraging young people into service we can also have an impact on adults stepping into service, thus creating a service culture.
What is the potential furthering impact of developing a habit of service in young people? Well, you develop grown ups who are dedicated to service to others and social action. I am lucky that I get to see service focused adults on a daily basis through my housemate, Anj Handa, and the incredible movement that she is creating based around service and social action. Inspiring Women Changemakers is a movement that inspires, encourages, and supports adults in achieving their service and social action goals. This is an important movement that recognises anyone of any age, race, religion, ability, etc can contribute positively to the community, and therefore illustrates that service and social action isn’t just for young people, but for anyone.
Research on the impact of undertaking service and social action for adults is a small but growing body. So what are some of the benefits of undertaking service and social action for adults? Benefits include: enhancement of social connections, more cohesive and stronger communities, increase in civic-minded behaviours, and multiple impacts on individuals such as, increased self esteem, enhancement of strengths/skills, doors opened to further career paths/opportunities, and a general increase in physical and mental health and wellbeing. These benefits should encourage anyone to undertake actions of service and social action, benefits that I see in many of my friends, including my housemate and other members of Inspiring Women Changemakers.
Do you want to benefit from developing a habit of service? Do you want your children to? Here are some examples of how - donate old clothes/books/toys to charity, volunteer at a homeless shelter, donate old eyeglasses to an organisation/charity that supports those in need, donate food to a food bank, organise a community blood drive, participate in a charity race, collect unused makeup and perfume to donate to centres for women who have been abused, deliver gifts to patients in hospital, collect used sports equipment for families and after-school programmes, organise a summer reading programme for kids, teach computer skills to the elderly, perform a concert or play at a nursing home, clear snow and ice covered paths for elderly (and/or disabled) neighbours, clean up a local park, train your pet to become a therapy animal for hospitals and nursing homes, organise a carpool to reduce car emissions and collectively save money, make care kits for homeless shelters, donate art supplies to homeless shelters/care homes/hospices, plant flowers in bare/ugly public places, produce a neighbourhood newsletter. Can you suggest any other ways to be of service? Can be big or small - comment below.
Also, Inspiring Women Changemakers has its annual awards evening coming up in November and they are looking for more nominees, particularly in the young change maker award section. So do you know a change maker that isn’t getting the recognition they deserve? You can nominate someone HERE (do keep in mind this is currently for people in the North of England).
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What makes you stop in your tracks, heart palpitate, goosebumps arise on your skin, your emotions to soar, and to feel like you are part of something bigger? Have you ever actually stopped to think about this and what this actual feeling is? And also think about what this feeling might inspire you to do?
For me there are three particular things that evoke a sense of awe and inspiration in my life: music, nature, and seeing miracles happen (what do I mean by miracles? keep on reading!)
Music - I know this won’t necessarily be a popular choice (though a number of you must like these two bands as they are two of the most popular bands in the world), but whenever I listen to or see in concert or watch their music videos, U2 and Coldplay (though think Coldplay Viva la Vida and before), I descend into a shivering mess of insignificance. Whatever it is in, not only their lyrics, but the actual music as well, touches my heart somehow and makes me believe that love is all there is and that together we can make the world a better place. Some of their songs I have times where I can’t even listen to as they are too painfully beautiful for me to deal with i.e., I cry, feel sad, and yet elated at the same time.
Nature - When I was looking into awe I came across this short video that uses nature and music to evoke a sense of awe in the viewer. Created by the Greater Good Centre it is a scientifically (and dare I say it beautifully artistic) interpretation of awe and for me it completely elicited a sense of timelessness, boundlessness, God-ness, Universe-ness, whatever you want to call it. I have felt this in nature as well, even without the accompanying music, especially when going into the Blue Mountains in NSW, Australia, and the Scottish Highlands. These places are so wild, sensually overwhelming, and in particular, the size of the mountains elicit a sense of insignificance and humbleness. What are we to the majesty of nature.
Miracles - When I speak of miracles I don’t mean the mystical kind, necessarily, I don’t want to discount mystical occurrences (if I claim to be an open-minded person than I have to be open-minded), but I mean the everyday miracles that we humans are capable of. When I see news stories of people being kind, loving, and/or giving it makes my heart burst and again, that feeling of insignificance and humility takes over. It reaffirms for me that most of the time we humans are capable of being compassionate, open, and accepting and it affirms my belief in others, in community, and in the bigger picture.
Studies have been done looking at what elicits awe in people, with nature being one of the most prominent; spiritual experiences also rate high, but it doesn’t always have to be big event or thing that creates awe, something small and personal could elicit that response. Comment below and let me know what elicits awe in you. But are you asking what exactly is awe?
According to Keltner and Haidt (2003) and other studies since, awe has been described as “feelings of self-diminishment and increased connectedness with other people. Experiencing awe often puts people in a self-transcendent state where they focus less on themselves and feel more like a part of a larger whole.” The researchers relate this to the concept of flow, that we become so lost in the action, the event, the focus, the feeling, that we cease to feel a sense of individualism and instead feel interconnected.
What are the benefits of experiencing awe and why should we bring it into our lives and the lives of the people around us (i.e., pupils, staff, family)? Studies show that experiencing awe can have some pretty amazing affects on our minds, bodies, and souls. Firstly, because of the physiological response that awe can have, including heart rate changes and ‘goosebumps’, feeling awe can actually lower inflammation in the body. Psychologically awe diminishes our sense of self, increases prosocial connectedness, increases our positive moods, and even can give us a sense of more time. Perhaps, most importantly for all of us, experiencing awe can make us kinder and more generous.
So what could you do today (or tonight) to bring a sense of awe into your life or into the lives of those around you? If you are at home, in the morning or evening, watch this video from Greater Good to lift your mood and get a positive boost for the day. If you work in a school choose to play a song in assembly or class to start the day that kids are loving at the moment, that is positive, and that helps them come together and connect on an emotional level. If you work in a business consider emailing everyone an inspiring TEDx talk, or even consider getting a speaker in who can uplift and inspire with a powerful story.
Let me know how you are bringing more awe into your life, catch me on twitter here - @esioul or on instagram here - Elizabeth Wright.
Ego can be a contentious topic - is my ego to big, or is my ego to small (am I too humble). I am sure that we have all asked ourselves this and waded through the murky world of achievement, jealousy, right and wrong…
Scott Barry Kaufman is one of my academic crushes - as in I find his ideas and the way he expresses them fascinating, intriguing, and informing my own ideas about self, wellbeing, psychology, and character. An article he wrote this year is all about the ego and why we have to quieten that pesky voice in our heads and feeling in our hearts that surge like a tidal wave when we feel threatened in any way. You know, that bristly feeling we get when we make a statement and someone responds with a “weeeeeellllllll….”, or when your friend gets a promotion before you, or when you make a very public mistake that feels like the end of the world, and… well, I could go on and on and on. What Kaufman has to say about the ego is fascinating. He defines ego as this - “that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light.” And we all want to see ourselves in a positive light right? We like to ignore our shadow selves and only focus on having the world see us as successful and…. right!
Kaufman talks about how we live in a world of tribalism, meaning a world where it seems you have to belong to a group with a strong opinion and you as a group are right and everyone else is wrong. Think of the rise of populist opinions, the different Brexit camps, the Trump supporters and anti-supporters, you are attacked, despised, threatened, and you’re damned if you do and damed if you don’t. This is called ego, and Kaufman says that our egos are just too damn big at the moment. There is this drive to win an argument at all costs, and it is this need to win, to always be right, that is causing so many fractured relationships and communities. Are we really willing to destroy what actually brings us happiness (and research has shown that positive relationships are one important element that makes us happy - check out Sue Roffey’s book Changing Behaviours in Schools) just for the sake of being right, under the pretence that being right at all costs places us in a positive light?
Heidi Wayment and her colleagues are doing some fascinating research into what they term the “quiet ego.” Inspired by Buddhist philosophy and positive psychology, this research programme shows that quietening our ego is actually a more powerful path to wellbeing, growth, and a healthy self-esteem than working hard at self development and improvement. But what is a quiet ego exactly? Is it possible to have a quiet ego?
Over the past few years my housemate and founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers, Anj Handa, and I have had multiple conversations about egos, being humble, and achievements that we have both achieved. I remember a couple of years ago Anj was stumbling over whether she should speak about a particular achievement, I told her of course she should - if it is fact and appropriate to the situation it is not bragging, it is simply stating something wonderful you have done that fits the needs of the moment. I have had to take my own advice on this countless times as I have struggled with that twist of ego inside my chest, am I only telling someone about this achievement to show off or is it a justified moment to state a fact that I am proud of?
Wayment’s “quiet ego” isn’t about squashing the ego out of existence all together but about lowering the tone of it so that become less defensive and more open to others. For Wayment and her colleagues there are four connected aspects to cultivate a “quiet ego”:
Kaufman notes that when you look at these four aspects they should be taken as a “whole system of ego functioning.” To measure whether you have a “quiet ego” cast your eye over the Quiet Ego Scale:
If you agree with a lot of these you would likely score high for a “quiet ego”. Developing a quiet ego, according to Wayment and colleagues research, shows an increase in wellbeing, resilience and coping efficacy. Kaufman also states that people who have or develop a “quiet ego” seek growth through authentic living and positive relationships, develop a healthy self esteem, are humble, spiritual, open-minded, grateful for experiences, take appropriate risk-taking, and recognise meaning in their life. It appears that developing a “quiet ego” is a key part of flourishing in life, no matter your age, place, or demographic.