What an Apple Scandal Can Teach Us About Identity Politics

And why you’ll never convince your aunt that climate change is real

In 1991, Timothy Eagan published a story in The New York Times that sought to determine why apples had suddenly terrified the United States. For two decades, the popular fruit enjoyed a perch atop the list of healthy snacks, but in the late 1980s, demand for apples fell so fast and people feared eating them so much that apple prices dropped below the break-even price for producers. Schools in Los Angeles and New York banned shipments of apple juice, and farmers began dumping produce into ditches or giving it away to homeless shelters rather than attempt to sell through stores. It took nearly five years before the apple industry recovered to pre-crisis levels.

The root cause of the public outcry was the chemical daminozide, commonly known as Alar. Farmers used this pesticide to help keep fruit firm and brightly-colored, and in 1988, the year before the scare, only about five percent of store-bought apples had been sprayed with the chemical. At the time, the scientific community agreed that studies showed no significant link between Alar and human harm.

Yet science’s opinion would soon be rendered irrelevant. More than 15 years prior, a private study found that when mice were fed extremely high doses of Alar (equal to 35,000 times the highest estimate of the daily intake at the time), these mice developed tumors. Seeing these results, the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC) made an inferential leap to conclude that because children ate proportionally more apples than adults, Alar necessarily posed a cancer risk to thousands of schoolkids. Panicked, the NGO hired a public relations firm to spread the news that America’s favorite fruit contained the kiss of death. An ensuing 60 Minutes segment launched one of the most effective scare campaigns in history.

The citizenry responded in pandemonium, and the EPA quickly banned Alar, even though farmers had already begun giving up the pesticide voluntarily. To no avail: It was easier for shoppers to avoid apples entirely, resulting in plummeting prices and wasted produce. Even an official statement by the federal government proclaiming that apples were safe didn’t change buying habits. By the end, the crisis cost apple growers $125 million in Washington state alone, and hundreds of small, family-owned farms collapsed into bankruptcy. Two years later, apple prices stabilized somewhat, but as Tom Hale, president of the Washington Apple Commission, stated, the industry “never really got over the bitterness of that image that was created, that we were somehow trying to poison children.”

In the ensuing legal battle, which alleged irresponsibility on the part of the media and the NRDC, defendants blamed the panic on oversimplification.

“We didn’t set out to hurt apple farmers,” said Frances Beinecke, deputy director of the NRDC. “The original report was about pesticides in more than 20 kinds of food. What happened was, the media simplified it and focused on apples.”

Beinecke blamed the media, but the true culprit was Fenton Communications, the PR firm hired to spread NRDC’s concerns. Wisely realizing that the public did not have the attention span for 20 foods, the firm stripped the focus to just one. The message was terrifying in its simplicity: Americans loved apples. Americans trusted apples. If apples were poisonous — if the bedrock of healthy food lists actually wrecked the body with cancerous tumors — then nothing was safe. In a leaked memo, David Fenton outlined his publicity strategy:

“Our goal was to create so many repetitions of NRDC’s message that average American consumers (not just the policy elite in Washington) could not avoid hearing it, from many different media outlets within a short period of time. The idea was for the story to achieve a life of its own, and continue for weeks and months to affect policy and consumer habits.”

“A life of its own.” Fenton correctly realized that for a story like this, the media narrative could never be controlled. In a panic, the public has no time for nuance, no desire for detail. It wasn’t the media that produced the fear that burned the apple industry to the ground; it was the public itself. Fenton simply gave them an excuse.

The crowd

The crowd hates the crowd.
Outwardly. It admits you or me
as an enormous lidless eye admits glittering
beams. Endless watching, washing us in.
The crowd’s object, its point,
is always vanishing into its own mass. It is a sea
with no concern for us, even as it scores.

Tom Thompson

Crowd psychology dates back to the 19th century, when bourgeoisie scholars began to fear uprisings from an ever-growing proletariat. Industrialization launched a population boom that coalesced around cities, and upper classes began to feel tension from those in poverty who realized they might not be getting the best deal. After the bloody French Revolution, society’s intellectual elite became more convinced than ever of the need for crowd control.

Initially, leading scholars such as Gustave le Bon naively assumed that joining a crowd eliminated a person’s ability to reason. Le Bon, who referred to crowd members as “barbarians” subject to animalistic behaviors, laid the foundation of crowd psychology research, and nearly one hundred years later, public relations guru Edward Bernays published similar thoughts in his memoir “Propaganda”:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.”

The problem with this attitude, as the UK’s Stephen Reicher outlines in “The Psychology of Crowd Dynamics,” is that throughout much of history, scholars did not look for an objective understanding of reality, instead pursuing a set of practices that could keep status quos in check. While effective for the vast propaganda schemes of the 20th century, the approach was overly-simplistic and missed obvious inputs.

For instance, Le Bon’s research completely ignores external forces. To understand this oversight, consider peaceful protesters with no intentions of violence. However, aggressive policing prompts crowd members to act in kind, and an escalating cycle ends in the once-level-headed protesters rioting out of control. Now, consider the opposite: Fifteen years ago, relying on Reicher’s recommendations, the Portuguese Public Society Police changed how they dealt with drunk football fans in attempt to reduce frequent crowd violence. After encouraging officers to use a firm, but kind, approach, the PPSP saw “an almost complete absence of disorder at England games during Euro 2004,” according to an Aeon report.

To many people, it is obvious that police behavior affects a crowd’s response, and Le Bon’s research has no way of acknowledging this. But broadening the lens to include external forces still falls short of capturing the entire picture. In fact, group psychology is a complex mix of role-playing, ingroup vs. outgroup dynamics, and signaling behavior that can have nothing at all to do with someone’s personality or background.

Repeat: repetition, repetition, repetition

Men like Le Bon and Bernays demonstrate that elite society has always distrusted the public. Perhaps the most famous modern tropism, often attributed to Winston Churchill, is that democracy, or literally “government of the people,” is only the least-bad form of government explored so far. But ancient society feared crowds too: Plato’s Republic ranks democracy lower than monarchy, aristocracy, meritocracy and oligarchy — sitting only above tyranny.

To the ruling classes, crowd behavior, at least on the surface, seems nebulous and unpredictable. Throughout history, demagogues have used ever-changing public whims to decry establishments and rocket to power. Yet even they fear the crowd. In his memoirs, one of the most successful propagandists of the 20th century argued that true democracy is impossible, and the democratic “principles” of the West cleverly disguised an authoritarian regime that could only be managed through public manipulation. “Man is and remains an animal,” he wrote. “Here a beast of prey, there a housepet, but always an animal … man only honors what he conquers or defends.”

As the man behind one of history’s most memorable crowd control campaigns, this propagandist operated through a single strategy, from which he never deviated: The repetition of a few key messages to the public, without end, until the public adopted those messages as truth. In his memoirs, he summarizes:

“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise….The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly — it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

This was Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany. There are many versions of his quote, but the bottom line is that Goebbels believed that the public, after hearing a message enough times, would believe anything. With that understanding, he stripped Germany of its humanity.

It is easy to view Goebbels as an anomaly, pointing to the unique economic concerns, crushing war debt, and lost national pride in Germany as reasons for his success. But that view of history is myopic. Almost 80 years later, the message has changed; the methods have not. Remember Fenton Communications’ publicity plan from the Alar scare? Here it is again:  

“Our goal was to create so many repetitions of NRDC’s message that average American consumers (not just the policy elite in Washington) could not avoid hearing it, from many different media outlets within a short period of time.”

In the face of a single, repeated message, facts no longer matter.

Naziism and the Alar scare seem extreme, but subtle examples of these strategies exist everywhere. Since 1977, when it was first documented, scientists have observed what is called “The Illusion of Truth” in more than a dozen research studies. It is now widely understood that you can increase the likelihood a person will rate information as “true” simply by repeating it to them. This effect holds true regardless of supporting facts and even if the information is repeated only once.

On the surface, this seems a bit mind-boggling, leading one researcher to liken the process to “buying a second newspaper to see if the first one was right.” Yet Goebbels’ propaganda schemes continue to play out in clinical laboratory settings, and “the illusion of truth” appears again and again, frustrating psychologists and behavioral economists alike.

If this is discouraging, consider that the effect is compounded when we hear repeated information from diverse sources, especially if those sources are in our social network. In 1999, local governments, frustrated with the lack of recycling, stumbled upon a method to increase curb-side participation significantly: they told people that their neighbors recycled. In a few weeks, with no one wanting to be left out of this perceived social norm, recycling rates climbed substantially, giving credence to Bernay’s 1930s remark that “propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.”  

Goebbels, Bernays and Le Bon reveal that the mechanisms for crowd control are quite simple, but demagogues have understood the “how” for centuries. Less understood is the “why.” Why does repetition work so well? Why are we so willing to believe our neighbors?

Why are we so seemingly incapable of thinking for ourselves?

Nothing more than political manners

There are two popular theories that describe the way people consume information. The first is called decision heuristics, or the process of relying on cognitive shortcuts to avoid having to think too deeply about an issue. By adopting analyses handed to them as their own, people can save limited brainpower for tasks of greater importance, such as personal relationships or work. After all, what is the point in trying to identify the true source of climate change on your own, when entire governmental organizations are already tackling the issue? Better to nod and agree with what you hear in the media.

The same process holds true for opinions. If a scholar announces that after 30 years of research, he holds view that gun control is harmful, why bother arguing? He has spent more time on the problem than you ever could. Religion employs a similar strain of logic, albeit on a much greater scale. For millennia, the questions of “where did we come from,” “where are we going,” and “what is morality,” have driven countless philosophers and humanistic thinkers to suicide. These questions have no real answers, and it is far more comforting to accept a prefabricated system of rules and beliefs that have been around for thousands of years. At least you have the assurance they’ve worked before.

The problem with decision heuristics as a theory is that if people relied solely on the media to formulate their opinions, higher media consumption should lead to a more balanced view of the world. It is expected for someone who watches the nightly news once a day to have minimally original opinions about current events. It is also expected that as a person increases his media consumption, his ability to formulate nuanced conclusions will correspondingly improve. In reality, the exact opposite occurs: greater media consumption almost always translates to greater partisan attitudes.

A second hypothesis argues the behavior path is actually inverted. People are not looking for someone to hand them an opinion to make sense of the facts they already know; instead, people are looking for someone to hand them facts to support an opinion they already have. Media consumption, then, is still a fact-finding mission; it’s just biased in favor of facts that do not contradict a pre-held belief.

If true, this hypothesis begs the question: If people’s opinions do not originate from the media, and equally do not arrive through a critical study of the facts at hand, where do they come from?

The crowd, according to Yale’s Dan Kahan. People desperately want to feel like they belong to their society, and this need for belonging is so strong, it blinds people to information they instinctively know to be false. In perhaps the best summary I’ve ever read, Dr. Kahan explains the two choices a person faces when considering whether to accept or reject an opinion:  

Any mistake an individual makes about the science on, say, the reality or causes of climate change … will not affect the level of risk for her or for any other person or thing she cares about: Whatever she, as a single individual, does and can do will be too inconsequential to have an impact. But, insofar as competing positions on these issues have come to express membership in and loyalty to opposing social groups, a person’s’ formation of a belief out of keeping with the one that predominates in hers could mark her as untrustworthy or stupid, and thus compromise her relationships with others. These consequences could substantially diminish her welfare — materially and psychically.

Again, we find that facts are irrelevant. In effort to display loyalty to a political party, a person will adopt a position as his own, regardless of any argument he hears to the contrary — merely as a self-defense mechanism. It’s similar to the notion that manners, while on the surface seem utterly useless, are built out of the need to position oneself as part of the in-group. Political opinions are nothing more than ideological manners.

Yet as I’ve mentioned before, blaming the crowd’s behavior (or in this case, attitudes) entirely on in-group dynamics is too limited because it ignores external influences. As the final theory examined in this article shows, we are just as motivated to hold a belief by the groups with whom we don’t associate, as the groups with whom we do.  

I’m a Republican; therefore, I’m not a Democrat

Traditional identity models stipulate that when considering a choice of behavior we choose not what we truly want to do, but what we believe someone like us would do. We choose from among hundreds of categories into which we slot ourselves, and behavior results from how we interpret normal behavior as defined by these identities. The crowd model of this theory is no different: As Reicher writes, “Crowd members do not simply ask ‘what is appropriate for us in this context?’ but ‘what is appropriate for us as members of this category in this context?’”  If the crowd members identify as peaceful protesters, they’re unlikely to resort to violence unless strongly provoked.

Reicher then takes this idea one step further in his Elaborated Social Identity Model, which argues that when we self-categorize, we do so in reference to other groups. In other words, if I say I’m “American,” I’m also saying that I’m not “Chinese,” or “European” or any other ethnicity. By calling myself a “Democrat,” I’m equally stating that I’m “not a Republican.” Therefore, when choosing a behavior, we are equally considering what is appropriate for someone in our category, but also what is inappropriate for someone in another category. A Democrat thus believes in universal health care both because his party tells him to believe it and the opposing party specifically tells him not to believe it.

This is why you’ll never convince your aunt that climate change is caused by human beings. It’s crucial to her social identity to tell people that she agrees with the conservative elite who tell her that climate change is nothing to worry about. And the fact that you, as a liberal, are telling her she should believe otherwise clearly displays outgroup behavior that defines for her the path that she should not take. It would be better to fake ambivalence about your position; any argument you make is a motivation for her to run in the opposite direction. Facts are completely irrelevant as this is a battle of identity.

Selling identities

In his book The Art of Seduction, author Robert Greene describes two methods of selling an idea to the public. The hard sell utilizes statistics, success stories, expert opinions and even a little fear in attempt to win through rationality. This attempt often fails because it is too grounded in reality. Specific facts can be disputed, and experts can be discredited, calling doubt into the minds of potential supporters.

A far more successful approach, argues Greene, is the soft sell, which ignores reality and relies on entertainment to lower people’s innate defensiveness to manipulation. To sell their quackery, 17th century European charlatans staged circus shows before dramatically revealing fake medicines and elixirs which promised eternal youth and beauty. Today, advertisers pay for billboards of beautiful women holding beer bottles and cigarettes. It’s all for the same reason: the hard sell is based on the merits of a product; the soft sell is based on the merits of a lifestyle.

“Never seem to be selling something,” writes Greene. “That will look manipulative and suspicious. Instead, let entertainment value and good feelings take center stage, sneaking the sale through the side door. And in that sale, you do not seem to be selling yourself or a particular idea or candidate; you are selling a lifestyle, a good mood, a sense of adventure, a feeling of hipness, or a neatly packaged rebellion.”

So too, I would add, you are selling an identity.

My Reaction to Last Night’s Election Results

At first reaction I’m left amazed at the gusto with which people penned their responses to the election results. Understandably, in today’s publish-or-perish environment, influencers are forced to put pen to paper and quickly fill the void, while the rest of the Internet waits anxiously for someone, anyone to tell them things will be okay. More surprisingly, it’s not just the speed at which these reflection articles appeared, it’s also the quality with which they are written. The articles I read this morning show a strong grasp of political reality and are framed in a way that’s quite different from the previous six months of reporting. Not a single poll result appears. No data. Instead, intuition bleeds through the copy, describing a future in which — like in the Trump campaign — analysis will be irrelevant.

But the deeper difference is that the opinions are genuine, and the authors are no longer hiding behind statistics when offering up their true feelings. In other words, they’re being human again.

Behind the flood of words, a few things ring true. First, there are two Americas. “As #NeverTrump opinion pieces in the best publications became more and more apocalyptic in recent weeks, I kept thinking: Well, I agree with everything they are saying, but is there a single Trump voter even reading these columns and editorials, let alone being swayed by any of them?” asks Frank Rich in New York Magazine. “Many of those voters subscribe to a whole separate culture, online and on the airwaves.” This idea isn’t new to anyone; I’ve been thinking it for weeks. However, it’s no longer an idea. The election changed this abstraction into a reality.

Second, no one is guiltless in creating these two Americas. It’s easy to look at conservatives and bemoan that they hide their heads in the sand. That they’ve convinced themselves they live in a world devoid of the realities of poverty, climate change and inequality. But this elitist approach — this approach in which we roll our eyes and exude snark toward “everyday Americans” — is what united this group around Trump. Rich writes in New York Magazine:

“Not every Trump voter is a racist. More than a few of them just despise elites, and elitists, regardless of race or creed. Against all odds, a guy who is famous mainly for being a wealthy autocrat persuaded those voters he could be their champion. How? Part of it, I think, is that he dissed his own party’s elites, not just liberals, and pounded the press and Wall Street. He has a knack for crude populist language even if he may not even know what populism is. (What does he know?) He was also fortunate to have Hillary Clinton as an opponent. The national-security threat represented by her emails may be close to nil, and her use of a private server was, as the FBI man said, careless rather than criminal. But she was too slow to speak about the issue with honest circumspection as opposed to circumlocution. The email brouhaha came to stand for a regal sense of entitlement that was reinforced by the Clintons’ obscene buckraking, however worthy their foundation’s charitable causes. To this day I do not understand why Hillary Clinton gave speeches at Goldman Sachs for eye-popping sums when she knew she was going to run for president. The speeches themselves, once revealed, were as innocuous as most of the emails. But that’s not the point. She had given Trump — a con artist who breaks rules and possibly laws routinely — an opening to deaccession some of his own, far vaster sins on to her candidacy. Her air of entitlement gave some key voters in the Democratic base a reason not to vote.”

Finally, we’ve begun to recognize the problem and sober up. Quickly. No one seems to be looking positively toward the future, but everyone is humming with anticipation at the changes to come. People everywhere online seem to know that things will change, and they seem to know that  — despite whatever apocalypse occurs in the next four years — ultimately, we will be better for it. This is, undeniably, American.

Perhaps my favorite piece so far is titled “Forget Canada. Stay and Fight for American Democracy.” In it, New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait asks readers to stand and face reality, no matter how adverse it will be.

“Trump will shake the Republic to its foundations,” Chait writes. “And the Republicans will shake it with him. If there is a central point I tried to drive home, it is that Trumpism grows out of a decades-long trend toward authoritarianism as the dominant tendency of Republican politics. … The depths of a Trump presidency defy our imagination. It is safe to assume it will not be popular. Trump and his party will probably respond with vicious anti-democratic measures. But fighting for democracy is part of America’s heritage, from abolitionists to suffragettes to the progressive reformers. Maybe you thought that fight was confined to history. It will go on.”

Despite his grim forecast, Chait appeals to our greater sense of virtue, to a response that is admirable and free of cowardice. To stay. Like Rosa Parks, like Susan B. Anthony, like Martin Luther King, like Frederick Douglas, and like so many other Americans who threw caution to the wind and faced injustice head on.

“As the shock of a Trump presidency set in, I told my children Tuesday night that I did not want to hear anything about fleeing,” Chait writes. “We are not going anywhere. And the America I have raised them to believe in will one day prevail.”

As I think more about Chait’s article, and other similar articles, I’m left encouraged. The combination of idealism and pragmatism results in what I believe is the real version of American Optimism that so much of the world craves. We’re anxious, but we’re assured. Even the comments I read on Facebook — not usually a haven for understanding — seem to reflect a similar sentiment: We’re saddened, but we’re bonded by a sense that things will turn out okay.

Personally, I can’t ignore the hollowness I feel when I think about last night’s election, but equally, I can’t quash the hope I feel when reading American reaction. I’m surrounded by ambitions, virtuous people who are dedicated to improving the world, even if the world hates them for it. I count myself lucky to be among them.

“Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years, but all the time,” Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech this afternoon. “So let’s do all we can to keep advancing the causes and values we all hold dear…breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams. We spent a year and a half bringing together millions of people from every corner of our country to say with one voice that we believe that the American dream is big enough for everyone.”

Clinton is right. Going forward, that’s all I can do, and that’s all I intend to do.

How a Soap Sculpture Contest Can Teach Us to Avoid Cynicism

In the 1920s, Procter & Gamble had a soap problem. Consumer research indicated the public wanted plain, white, non-perfumed soap, which exactly described P&G’s Ivory brand at the time. The problem was that most children detested using it to wash themselves. The company realized that as these children aged into purchasers, the market for Ivory would soon slip away, and, seeing the writing on the wall, P&G hired P.R. man Edward Bernays.

Like Da Vinci, Bernays entered history before the world was ready. One of his most famous insights, documented in his memoir Propaganda, perfectly describes modern marketing sentiment: “Under the old salesmanship the manufacturer said to the prospective purchaser, ‘Please buy a piano.’ The new salesmanship has reversed the process and caused the prospective purchaser to say to the manufacturer, ‘Please sell me a piano.’” Throughout the 20th century, Bernays found phenomenal success by crafting advertising campaigns that appealed to America’s ideal version of itself, similar to the way in which Google doesn’t so much advertise its products as it does the interconnected, family-oriented lifestyle that these products supposedly produce.

Prior to the 1930s, women rarely smoked in public due to social taboo, and this posed a problem for the American Tobacco Company, another Bernays client. In the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929, Bernays paid a group of women to march down a New York City street and promote women’s liberation by proudly displaying cigarettes — indulgently termed “Torches of Freedom” — flaunting their defiance of society’s sexist norms. Liberals and the media rushed to extol the women’s seemingly valiant efforts. Within a decade, the taboo faded away, and the American Tobacco Company enjoyed a massive boost in sales.

Bernays employed a similar tactic with Procter & Gamble. Spotting a trend in which sculptors replaced wax with less-expensive soap, Bernays launched a national high school art contest. The medium? Ivory. For the next fifteen years, the best soapy sculptures and the students who created them were flown to New York, to be judged by famous art critics and awarded cash prizes. (These prizes were no small commitment; in the 1950 competition, the payouts equaled as much as $3,775, or more than $30,000 today.). P&G’s National Soap Sculpting Competition received 500 entries the first year, 2,500 the next, and more than 4,000 in the years following.

“School superintendents and teachers throughout the country were glad to encourage the movement as an educational aid for schools,” Bernays writes in Propaganda. “Practice among school children as part of their art courses was stimulated. Contests were held between schools, between school districts and cities.” The artistic community was invigorated, and parents were thrilled to find that a cost-effective household item stimulated their children’s creativity.

All the while, Procter & Gamble sold lots and lots of soap.

Reacting to Procter & Gamble’s soap campaign: The idealist vs. the cynic

There are two ways to view the soap saga. To the idealist, it’s a model partnership. Bernays didn’t force an unusable product onto an unsuspecting population, as mothers already wanted to purchase plain, white, non-perfumed Ivory soap — it was their children who put up the fight. Likewise, there was no lax complicity in the artistic community: “In the case of the soap sculpture competition, the distinguished artists and educators who sponsored the idea were glad to lend their services and their names because the competitions really promoted an interest which they had at heart — the cultivation of the aesthetic impulse among the younger generation,” Bernays writes in Propaganda.

In short, the mothers could now buy what they wanted without opposition; Procter & Gamble sold what it wanted without having to adapt its formula; and the artistic community saw what it wanted in the next generation: sparked creativity. A triple win.

To the cynic, however, the situation appears crooked. Teachers, parents, and art critics act as accessories to Big Business’ crimes of corporate greed. Procter & Gamble exhibits not altruism, but Freudian self-interest, happily committing the next generation to the throes of consumerism to satisfy a bottom line. It’s a sentiment found at the beginning of a New York Times article:

“The American people do not think much of the honesty, sense of social responsibility or products of big business in this country. When asked whether ethical standards are higher in the Federal Government or in big corporations, 35 percent sided with the often-maligned Federal Government, compared to 24 percent who chose big corporations. Only 33 percent said big business does an excellent or a pretty good job at seeing to it that its executives behave legally and ethically.’”

The article was written in 1986. Cynicism is not a modern predicament and, in fact, has much older roots than even the 20th century.

The danger of cynicism: From the physical to the emotional

“In the depths of my heart I can’t help being convinced that my dear fellow-men, with a few exceptions, are worthless,” writes a well-known psychologist in the late nineteenth century. The author, a European intellectual, will lay the foundations for some of the most well-known psychoanalytical theories in history. But he is deeply cynical, and most of his work involves the study of obsession, “death drives,” hatred and neurotic guilt. Despite being told tobacco is unhealthy, he is a routine smoker, claiming that addiction is merely a substitute for masturbation, “the one great habit.” After a life of uncooperative behavior and routine clashes with academia, he will learn his smoking has led to jaw cancer. To relieve his pain, he will commit suicide by asking his doctor to inject him with a lethal dose of morphine. This man is Sigmund Freud.

Freud lived unhappily, but he has nothing on the poet Oscar Wilde, who provided such tropisms as “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it” and “True friends stab you in the front.” Wilde spent two years in prison for committing adultery, but before his arrest, he penned some of history’s most biting criticisms of human nature. When he left prison, Wilde, despondent, did not return to a life of literary success and instead died a few years later, impoverished at age 46.

Cynicism has been linked to a plethora of physical detriments, including obesity and insulin resistance, coronary heart disease, dementia, and increased mortality. Cynics are less likely to report being in a positive mood and more likely to suffer from depression than optimists. They offer and receive less social support and report higher family conflict and lower marital satisfaction. Throughout their life, they’ll experience less economic success, lower organizational commitment, and lower levels of income. The phrase “It pays to be a cynic” is egregiously incorrect.

Why, then, is cynicism so prevalent? A few years ago the Pew Research Foundation released a poll that heralded Millennials as “The Most Cynical Generation Ever.” A year later, researchers at Stanford said “not so fast,” and released their own research that showed all generations, not just Generation Y, are becoming more cynical. Today, confidence in the media sits at a mere six percent. Congress is less popular than pond scum, and in the last 20 years, American views of religious institutions have soured by more than 10 percentage points.

For much of history, society assumed that youthful innocence guarded against fading optimism, but sadly, cynicism is not just an old man’s ailment. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

The true source of youthful unrest: Comfort without power

Despite the societal ills of today, a much tougher life existed one hundred years ago in Eastern Europe. In the 1930s, the United States, England and France suffered from Wall Street’s crash; however, their fates paled in comparison to those of their Eastward neighbors, areas ransacked by the Great War and the ensuing disastrous attempts at centralized economies. In 1932, nearly half of the German population was unemployed. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1918-23 left more than nine million Russians dead. Widespread civil unrest resulted from attempts to adjust to the dramatic breakup of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Yet strangely, as philosopher Bertrand Russell noted in 1930, Eastern Europe’s lack of prosperity appeared to reduce its levels of cynicism: “[Youthful cynicism] is not true of Russia… I believe it is not the case in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Poland, nor by any means universally in Germany, but it certainly is a notable characteristic of intelligent youth in England, France and the United States.”

Russell argued that in the lesser economies, no one had time to be cynical. The Russian youth were too busy laying pipelines, building railways, and “teaching peasants to use Ford tractors simultaneously on a four-mile front.” In India, the population united around a universal hate for all things British, and Imperial oppression instilled nationalistic dreams for a free society. “You do not have to consider the ends of life when in the course of creating Utopia,” Russell wrote.

Conversely, the Western world, while safe from physical struggle, suffered from an epidemic of cynical beliefs, a result of intellectual frustration. Extraordinarily bright youth had extraordinary little ability to act. They merely existed, stuck in a situation of what Russell describes as “comfort without power.”

“Until the advent of education, democracy, and mass production, intellectuals had everywhere a considerable influence upon the march of affairs, which was by no means diminished if their heads were cut off. The modern intellectual finds himself in a quite different situation. It is by no means difficult for him to obtain a fat job and a good income provided he is willing to sell his services to the stupid rich either as propagandist or as Court jester. … The work of intellectuals is ordered and paid for by Governments or rich men, whose aims probably seem absurd, if not pernicious, to the intellectuals concerned. But a dash of cynicism enables them to adjust their consciences to the situation.”

This is stunningly descriptive of Millennials today, and it correctly identifies why a youthful attitude, still prone to boredom, frustration and aimlessness, is not the answer to fading idealism. In fact, “youth” is not only irrelevant, it may be antithetical: By studying the progression of medical students, Loma Linda University’s Kelly Morton and her colleagues theorize answer to budding cynicism is not naivete. Just the opposite: It’s experience.

Linking optimism to experience: The progression of medical students

In no occupation would one expect cynicism to be more prevalent than healthcare. Mired underneath crushing regulatory requirements, deep debts, and an ever-growing public skepticism thanks to websites such as WebMD, doctors’ jobs are high demand and low reward. It’s little surprise to find that medical students rapidly develop cynicism about the profession, a process, as defined in 1990s medical literature as “traumatic deidealization.” As detailed in their Academic Medicine article, Morton and her team found nearly 30 percent of medical students displayed the tell-tale signs of cynicism, agreeing with statements such as “Most of my classmates would cheat if they could get a better grade” or “The average faculty member is mostly concerned with his/her own problems.”

It’s easy to view these responses and become downtrodden at the fading optimism of tomorrow’s best and brightest; however, the second half of Morton’s survey data revealed an encouraging result. Medical residents, who exist midway on the career ladder between medical students and attendees, were significantly less likely to exhibit similar marks of cynicism. Moreover, medical faculty showed even fewer signs. In other words, as the medical professionals delved deeper into their careers, they didn’t grow jaded. They became optimists.

To explain their findings, the researchers argued that students initially develop cynicism to cope with the ambiguous, tough environment of healthcare. However, “as physicians-in-training develop greater confidence and skills and achieve greater status in the healthcare team, they become more adept at tolerating ambiguity, synthesising information, and analyzing ethical situations.” After a few small wins, things appear brighter, more hopeful. A few more small wins, and the students begin to think that just maybe, they can pull this off. A medium win occurs, and soon, the path to optimism begins to take shape.

This narrative is the exact opposite of how most young adults experience the world. In college, we can do or be whatever we want. If we are unhappy, we change majors. We reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Change requires the buy-in of a single person: Ourselves.

Then we enter the adult world, in which everything is inverted. Ensuing phases of life have ambiguous start and end dates. Change requires the buy-in from a long list of gatekeepers — H.R., middle management, budget officers, lawyers. Things move at a glacial pace. We’re shocked to find a world utterly devoid of meritocracy, replaced by a system of Machiavellian hierarchies, and bit by bit, we take the easy way out. We begin to lament our situation at the water cooler, which as research has found, makes it even worse. Psychologists Chien-Chih Kuo, Kirk Chang, Sarah Quinton, Chiu-Yi Lu, and Iling Lee report in the International Journal of Human Resource Management that workplace gossip only heightens employee cynicism.

Five years into the adult world, Procter & Gamble’s successful soap campaign becomes one more item on the long list of sins committed by corporations. It becomes utterly impossible to read Bernays’ account with any sense of positivity. His point of view is biased, we argue. Of course he’s going to defend the campaign — it was his idea. The very memoir which chronicles this story is actually called Propaganda. It’s so easy to see that he, and others like him, are the source of all evil in the world. So easy to see it’s someone else’s fault.

That’s the most nefarious part of cynicism: Beyond the physical ailments and unhappiness, the cynic’s greatest punishment is that he is left in a world without challenge, that his life is relegated to the small boundaries containing that which is easy.

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it,” comic Stephen Colbert said in his 2006 Knox College commencement address. “Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” Faced with the overwhelming prospect of failure, we cop out. The cynic’s escape is unsatisfying, but at least it’s safe, we tell ourselves. Idealism is too grand. It’s too unrealistic. Too impractical.

Except that it is none of these things.

Why focusing on the big wins is the wrong strategy

In their book Switch, authors Chip and Dan Heath describe two groups of car wash customers, each of which are given loyalty cards that promise a free service after eight uses. Group 1 gets a card with eight punch-out slots. Group 2’s card has ten punch-out slots with two already removed. Both groups have to purchase eight car washes. Both groups have to spend the same amount of money, and both groups will earn the same reward: A single, free car wash. What happened? Nearly twice as many people from Group 2 earned their car wash than Group 1.

“People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one. That’s why the conventional wisdom in development circles is that you don’t publicly announce a fundraising campaign for a charity until you’ve already got 50 percent of the money in the bag.”

Can this process be engineered for ourselves? Researchers Stephen Kramer and Teresa Amabile argue in the Harvard Business Review that it can. Pointing to psychological research of office workers, Kramer and Amabile show that small wins are a dependable way to ensure meaningful work and high levels of motivation. “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,” the authors write.

“When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously. Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions.”

Surprisingly, small wins make more than an intrinsic difference. When an employee achieves progress on a project, he is more likely to report positive interactions between himself and his supervisors, and he will view his team as more supportive. In other words, he becomes way less cynical.

Idealism done right: The AIDS activist movement in the 1990s

One of the most effective grassroots campaigns in recent history was that of AIDS activism. In the course of less than a decade, groups like ACT UP were able to mobilize public support and completely reverse society’s viewpoint of the HIV community, from a population deserving of the death it faced to a population in dire need of attainable medical treatment. In 1987, nearly half the U.S. population (43 percent) saw AIDS as a punishment or believed (51 percent) it was the patient’s fault for contracting the disease. Today, those numbers are 16 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

Moreover, ACT UP’s success did more than change public opinion. The funding that resulted from their campaigns spawned drugs that today extend the lifespans of HIV patients nearly to that of the general population. In 2011, in the depths of the economic recession, more than half of Americans said they supported increased funding for HIV research, and fewer than one in ten said the government was spending too much. These are numbers most patient advocacy groups can only dream of.

Most people know Rachel Maddow as an MSNBC talk-show host, but before her days in the media, she worked as an AIDS activist through the 1990s. In a recent interview with journalist Ezra Klein, she describes her work as a dizzying array of solving one small problem after another:

“What I tried to do as an activist was to approach each thing I wanted to get as a math problem.

“So, here’s a thing that I think should be different in the world: I want people who are dying of AIDS in prisons to be allowed to die in secure hospices rather than dying in jail infirmaries. That’s what I want. Me just saying that and expressing the moral righteousness of that is not enough.

“Who is the person who can decide to make that happen? The hospices need to be good with it, so, okay, let’s go to the hospices. Who is the person who makes the decision about who goes to the hospices? Well, there’s a category of decision-making here that is for people who do not have life sentences; they’re susceptible to these kinds of decision-makers. And then there’s a whole another category of decision-makers who say as a matter of policy … so let’s change the local decision-makers; now let’s change the law.

“And just doing it piece by piece by piece, why won’t this law change? Because the committee chairman who is responsible for this as an issue doesn’t care about this. What does he care about? He cares about golf. Okay, let’s find whoever he golfs with’s wife, and find who his pastor is and talk to her about this.”

On the surface, it appears daunting, but during her activism days, Maddow was able to break down the complexity into one small win, after a small win, after a small win. The puzzle was unending, but then so was the progress. Politicizing a disease, while radical at the time, is now the standard playbook used by patient advocacy groups of all categories because it is one of the surest ways to achieve progress. Maddow and the other AIDS activists changed history.

Today Maddow’s talk show embodies a distinctly anti-cynical view of the world. “I loved being on the radio,” she is fond of saying, exuding enthusiasm for her job. “Being paid to talk? It’s like being paid to eat. My life is better with every year of living it.”

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What British Drivers Can Teach Us About Sticking to Our Ideals

A few years ago, the media noticed something off about people who claimed to support environmental causes versus people who did anything about it. In polls, millennials ranked highest among the generational groups for support of climate change legislation, yet oddly ranked last for daily participation in “green” habits, such as shopping with reusable bags or unplugging devices when they left for the day. While half of the overall population recycles regularly, only a third of millennials are equally as conscientious. As one could probably guess of a generation fond of “hashtagivism,” millennials, it seems, are all talk and little follow through.

This trait is not unique to those aged 18 to 35. By studying the driving habits of United Kingdom citizens, researchers Gregory Owen Thomas, Wouter Poortinga, and Elena Sautkina showed that fading idealism is extraordinarily prevalent. Age, socioeconomic status, race and environment (urban vs. rural) all appear unrelated to our ability to stick to our stated ideals. Using data from a UK driving study, which asked about driving habits, stance on environmental causes, and the length of time spent at current residencies, the scientists found a disturbing pattern: Strongly pro-environmental attitudes only predicted changes in driving habits immediately after a respondent moved to a new home. A month after moving, someone with strongly pro-environmental views was significantly more likely to use alternative transportation as opposed to driving. “However, this effect is relatively short-lived,” the authors write in their report, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE. “A sharp rise in probability of car use is observed as the time spent living at the same location increases, before gradually increasing over time.”

In all cases — regardless of age, status or setting — as time progressed (the researchers examined periods one month, one year, and 10 years after the move), people with strong pro-environmental attitudes and people with weak pro-environmental attitudes looked no different at all. Reading the study is fascinating: What was happening to the British drivers? What about the move allowed them to suddenly stick to their ideals, and what about the ensuing years prevented them from doing so? Most importantly, what could we learn from them?

Dopamine

“If you know something’s bad for you, why can’t you just stop?” asks a blog post on the National Institutes of Health website. “About 70% of smokers say they would like to quit. Drug and alcohol abusers struggle to give up addictions that hurt their bodies and tear apart families and friendships. … So why don’t we [quit]?”

The answer, the NIH postulates, lies in a chemical called dopamine. If you’ve ever done any late-night browsing about chocolate, drug addicts or runner’s’ highs, you’ve read that dopamine is one of our brain’s “feel-good” hormones. Dopamine is released any time there is a positive payoff, including when we successfully complete a goal or repeat a familiar action. This serves as a compelling way to establish routines, good or bad: Once your brain gets used to the release of dopamine, it’s difficult to stop a behavior. If you’ve ever tried to kick the habit of drinking a glass of wine each night (like I have), you probably noticed it seemed much more emotionally exhausting than physically exhausting. Life doesn’t seem as rich as before. You’re left with a feeling that can only be described as “hollow.”

This is why new dieters are told to focus on including good foods — and not, as most people’s intuition instructs them, on avoiding bad ones. The brain tries to maintain familiar behavior to guarantee its daily doses of dopamine. But, if we can give the brain the dopamine it wants without engaging in bad habits (by, say, enjoying a mountain of steamed asparagus instead of a pile of white potatoes), we can trick ourselves into forming a new routine. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, explains in the blog post: “Certain groups of patients who have a history of serious addictions can engage in certain behaviors that are ritualistic and in a way compulsive—such as marathon running—and it helps them stay away from drugs. These alternative behaviors can counteract the urges to repeat a behavior to take a drug.”

The trick, the NIH and others have argued, is to make dopamine work for you. For this, you’ll need the element of surprise.

Shock value

In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, authors Chip and Dan Heath examine common attributes of stories, campaigns or ideas that are “sticky,” based on the term developed by Malcolm Gladwell in his iconic book The Tipping Point. To prompt a big, sweeping change, not only does an idea need to be phrased in a way that is interesting, it must also be unexpected, the Heath’s argue. It must stand out.

The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Consistent sensory stimulation makes us tune out: Think of the hum of an air conditioner, or traffic noise, or the smell of a candle, or the sight of a bookshelf. We may become consciously aware of these things only when something changes: The air conditioner shuts off. Your spouse rearranges the books.

I can’t begin to count the number of times I have been part of a marketing brainstorming session in which we bemoaned the need for something “new” or “original.” But legal will never approve it! Marketers constantly fight with legal teams who tightly control messaging, forcing the use of old, safe-but-stale messages. This results in campaigns that are dismally ineffective. The Heaths would likely argue it’s because these campaigns are dismally expected. After all, what is an election ad, other than a spot about how a candidate is different from all other candidates, in ways identical to all other candidates? In a recent NPR piece, political scientist Diana Mutz commented that these ads return a miserably low value for the investment. “There’s very little evidence that ads make much of a difference in a presidential campaign.”

Contrast that with an ad the Heath’s detail in their book, produced by the Ad Council for the Department of Transportation.

[A] minivan cruises slowly through suburban streets. ‘With features like remote-controlled sliding rear doors, 150 cable channels, a full sky-view roof, temperature-controlled cup holders, and the six-point navigation system … It’s the minivan for families on the go.’

The Enclave pulls to a stop at the intersection. The camera zooms in on the boy, gazing out a side window that reflects giant, leafy trees. Dad pulls into the intersection.

That’s when it happens.

A speeding car barrels into the intersection and broadsides the minivan. There is a terrifying collision, with metal buckling and an explosion of broken glass.

The screen fades to black, and a message appears: ‘Didn’t see that coming?’

The question fades and is replaced by a statement: ‘No one ever does.’

With the sound of a stuck horn blaring in the background, a final few words flash across the screen: ‘Buckle up … Always.’

Simple. Shocking. Memorable.

Breaking the routine

Why is unexpectedness so successful? It again goes back to dopamine. While we typically associate a dopamine release with gratification, stress plays an equally important role in getting ourselves to feel good. A runner’s high only comes about after physical stress. Scientists who studied the brains of veterans suffering from PTSD found that the sound of gunfire triggers a release of dopamine. These experience can hardly be described as purely “pleasurable.” Today, psychologists argue dopamine is less a feel-good hormone and more a motivational hormone. When we encounter uncomfortable experiences, we are motivated to act, to find a solution to the problem. As anyone who has pushed through mile 20 of a marathon can attest, this act of surmounting a challenge results in an intense feeling of masochistic happiness.

At first glance, this appears contradictory. How can both a low-stress habitual process and a high-stress challenge each result in the same outcome? Due to the way our brain processes timing, these processes are not mutually-exclusive. When we complete a daily ritual, our brain views it as a success. We get rewarded. When we’re met with a difficult task, our brain anticipates future success. We get rewarded. This is undoubtedly a response humans have developed over time: The feeling of excitement you get when you think about a daunting challenge (like day one of marathon training) is supremely motivating. If you felt differently there’s little likelihood you would take the first step.

These two types of dopamine triggers can be seen in the UK study, beginning with the habitual drivers. In their paper the authors describe something called the habit discontinuity hypothesis. “A complication with habits is the difficulty in changing them. Habitual behaviours are characterised by automatic processes, which may prevent people considering information to change their behaviour.” Previous research has found that people’s expressed intentions (I want to go to the gym more… I want to use alternative means of transportation… etc.) rarely correlate with actual behavior. Conversely, habit strength is highly correlated with behavior, and habits, as the authors point out, are “contextually-cued, and thus dependent on a stable context.” Familiarity breeds a sense of control. In deciding to drive to work, the UK drivers felt certain they would successfully navigate the drive home each day, which their brains projected as a future achievement. Thus, each morning, they were rewarded with a small hit of dopamine.

Is this hormone-induced behavior the reason the pro-environment respondents appear incapable of committing to their stated beliefs? Are the drivers, in effect, addicted to the habit of driving? The answer, as the authors argue, is yes:

With a breaking of previous habits and increased consideration of travel mode choice after moving home, the self-activation hypothesis would suggest that pro-environmental views become a stronger influence on decisions of travel mode choice. Additionally the inverse is also supported; people who resided at the same location for longer periods of time (a more stable context) had negligible links between their pro-environmental views and their travel mode choice behaviour. The lack of association between attitudes and behaviour is likely to be reflective of the weaker link between intentions and behaviour when habits are stronger, and stronger travel habits minimise the impact of conscious intentions on travel mode choice.

New Year’s

With each data point, it’s as if you can see the tragedy of New Year’s played over and over again. After moving to a new home, the owners look around, considering their travel options, and suddenly, the world is open to them: Released from their previous commutes, they are suddenly free to consider public transportation. And if protecting the environment is important, they’ll begin to take alternative means of transportation to work. However, a few weeks into their new life, they are running late. In a rush, they resort back to what they know best: driving by car. Because they feel more certain of the car than the bus — and thus more certain they’ll get the dopamine reward for the achievement of being on time — they choose the car. They’ll be back on the bus tomorrow, they rationalize. Then tomorrow comes around, and they remember how difficult it is to take public transportation. They are surrounded by people they don’t know, who are often in a terrible mood. They can’t control anything, the schedule, the traffic, the music, the air temperature.

As the data show, it takes less than a year for the impact of environmental views on driving habits to disappear. People get tired. People return to their familiar ways of life. Dopamine wins out, and the chance to form new habits is gone.

Does that mean hope is lost? Are we to sit back, relegated to the complete inability to make a positive change? Not at all, the authors would argue. And this is where the second type of dopamine trigger takes effect. Each year, a small percentage of UK drivers switch to alternative transportation. UK Census data shows a decrease in driving and an increase in public railway usage since 2001, especially in urban areas such as London. Annually, a few people are able to adapt to the new living situation and use dopamine to their advantage. They are able to project the feeling of achievement not on the completion of their daily car-based commute, but on their contribution to protecting the environment. They’ve taken advantage of their new situation, in which nothing seems familiar, and they’ve outsmarted their dopamine reward system.

However, it’s only after the respondents move homes that they are able to make the switch. Only after they are met with the challenge of finding a new way to commute are they able to consider other options. Habits can no longer restrict their choices because their living situation has changed. This supports other research that has indicated that it’s easier for people to make positive changes after moving to a new city, or after getting back from vacation. To borrow the terminology from the Heath’s book, a fresh slate, while not a guarantee, is the unexpected tipping point the UK drivers need to make public transportation stick.

 

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Crista Scott of Dirtbag Runners: Happiness Through Flow and Spirituality

This week on the blog, we have another interview from a movement expert: Crista Scott, one of the co-founders of Dirtbag Runners, which is pretty much a one-stop-shop for trail and ultrarunners from around the world. Complete with swag, camps and a fantastic Instagram page, Dirtbag Runners serves the ultra community in a great way.

Crista is also a co-author of “In Search of the Meaning of Happiness through Flow and Spirituality,” which was published in The International Journal of Health, Wellness and Society  in 2014. Crista was a fantastic interviewee, and we talked about her journey into movement and ultrarunning, as well as the results of the study and how the everyday athlete can incorporate movement into his or her life.

Huge shoutout to Crista for her time and advice! Be sure to check out Dirtbag Runners online, including their Twitter and Instagram pages for more great ultrarunning info.

If you were at a cocktail party and someone asked “What do you do?” How would you answer them?

I would probably laugh and say, “A lot of different things that individually may not make a lot of sense but do when they are all put together.”

The straight answer to that question would be– I’m a creative. I love making things — everything from writing articles, to designing graphics and websites, to planning events, helping companies “re-brand”, and cultivating online (and in-person!) communities. My general area of expertise is marketing, design, and social media.

Two years ago I graduated with my Master’s Degree in Psychology thinking I would be moving forward to get my Ph.D and become a full-time researcher at a university. Turns out, life had much more interesting plans for me than simply being a researcher.

After a summer of traveling out of my car and exploring the western United States, I realized I had a greater purpose: to start an outdoor company that inspires people to get outside and create meaningful experiences. I wanted to create events (camp & run retreats / races), publish a magazine, and create our own line of trail running clothes (based on our own wants / visions rather than one from a big money making corporation).

What got you interested in this area of research (flow, athletic activity, spirituality)? What were your motivations for initially pursuing this topic?

In college, one of my professors mentioned she was starting an independent research group focused on the topics of positive psychology, flow, and sports. I was fascinated by the different ways that people sought joy and happiness, so I signed up. I ended up spending about eight years through college and graduate school researching and publishing articles on everything from flow, to the benefits on spirituality on well-being, to the impact that long distance running outdoors on one’s well-being.

In graduate school, I became my own research subject — the further I ventured out into nature, the happier I was. I found that the further I could run, the more amazing things I could see and create deep meaningful memories.

You note that “having balance between challenge and skills” contributed to greater happiness in your participants. How do you think this fits into today’s popular notions of grit or mental toughness?

I think for runners, the balance between challenge and skill is what pushes us to go that extra mile. It’s how ultrarunners are born. We become captivated by the feeling of an incredible and challenging run.

It happened in my own life. I was that 5K runner who pushed towards a 10K, then a half. The first time I heard about ultrarunning, I thought, “There is no way I could ever do that.” And then I did.

It’s no secret that the easy runs or races never leave us with the same amount of fire inside as accomplishing a goal that was at one point unattainable. When you tap into that grit, and mental toughness, you grow as a person and an athlete.

You also note that”engaging in a meaningful activity may be more important to finding happiness than the type of activity or level of engagement.” How do you think the average person can find meaning in his or her activities? Is this a conscious decision? Is it unconscious?

It can be both conscious and unconscious. Not everyone realizes that something they do is a passion, and that by doing that activity, they are improving their mental health. Sometimes it’s as small as preparing your meals for the day, or as big as being blessed with a full-time career in your area of passion.

I think the average person can find more meaning in his or her activities by being mindful. Instead of multi-tasking, focus on just one thing. Maybe it’s painting, or writing, or going for a long run in the mountains. The important thing is that you’re present in the moment and not busy scrolling through social media networks on your phone, or ruminating in your mind about something your co-worker said that annoyed you. The simple act of being in the moment, losing your sense of time and awareness of everything except what you’re doing – THAT is what it’s all about. This process is actually shown to reduce stress. It’s catharsis. It’s uplifting.

Was there anything that surprised you about the results of the study?

I was surprised that distance was not a factor in the mental health benefits of running outdoors. It could be an hour or ten hours – simply being outdoors for over an hour proved to be immensely beneficial for all runners, regardless of distance. I thought this was pretty cool, actually. It demonstrates how important even a short run (or hike!) in nature can be.

If one of your close friends admitted to you that he/she was unhappy with his/her life, what would you tell them? Do the findings in this study impact how you would try to help?

I would probably ask them what things in their life have made them excited or happy. I would encourage them to pursue a dream, or a hobby they loved but have put to the side, or to explore new activities. And I would probably also suggest a good hike outdoors, or camping trip in the mountains. The findings from previous research on activities and happiness have demonstrated time and time again that doing things we love help us live happier and more rich lives. In my own research, I tried to demonstrate that being outdoors and physical activity are basic human necessities, and that everyone could benefit from a good trail run.

Have the results of this study impacted the ways in which you conduct your own life?

Absolutely. When I was going through injury, in a lot of ways I felt like I’d never feel that “runners high” again and I wouldn’t enjoy myself until I was back up to the height of my training days. What my research taught me, though, was that even thirty minutes outdoors has it’s benefits. Double that time, and hike, and you’ve got yourself a pretty solid method of “feel good” time. I learned to enjoy moving slow – it certainly has its benefits! I would take more photos, bask in the details of nature that I’d often miss if I was running by.

How do you incorporate movement into your lifestyle? What advice do you have for people looking to incorporate movement into their lifestyles?

I take advantage of movement whenever I can. Sometimes that mean getting up from my desk at work once an hour and walking around, or running during my lunch break, or a nice long walk with my dog after work. I get in most of my mountain time in the early mornings and on weekends. The more often you move – the easier it gets to keep going.

What are you up to these days?

I recently started working at an office interior design firm in Southern California as a marketing director. It’s a ridiculous amount of fun, and such incredible experience to be a part of a successful business while also building my own on my free time. I am still running Dirtbag Runners with my partner and co-founder, Tyler Clemens. We are planning an epic new product to launch in early 2017, and also planning our next Dirtbag Runners Camp & Run. We hope to eventually have an entire line of outdoor gear, a Dirtbag Runners Magazine, and a Camp & Run series across the world. You can find out more about our upcoming events and products at DirtbagRunners.com, our social media channels (Instagram & Twitter: @DirtbagRunners) or on our online community group.

Featured image from: Pixabay.com

Ultrarunner Travis Fitzgerald: Using Movement to Surprise Yourself; Mind, Body and Soul

This week on the blog, I had the pleasure of interviewing Travis Fitzgerald, an ultrarunner and yoga enthusiast with a fantastic Instagram page and blog that will appeal to anyone interested in moving outdoors. Travis and I talked about his motivations and philosophy of movement as it relates to running and life.

Sending a BIG thank you to Travis for his time and advice!

If you were at a cocktail party and someone asked “What do you do?” How would you answer them?

I have no idea, I make it up as I go along! All jokes aside, its not far from the truth. The guy I became was not the guy I thought I would be 10 years ago. Both my professional career and my athletic career have been filled with surprises and twists.

I suppose that is why I am so drawn to ultra running. When I’m out on the trail, the world make sense in a strange way. It doesn’t matter how much planning or preparation I put into the event – things change in a blink of an eye. My body has highs and lows, I get too tired to lift my feet and I trip, I make mistakes and am forced to overcome them and adapt.

With all that comes the sweetest highs, from the exhilaration of conquering mountain tops, to watching the last light of day trickle through the trees as I chase the moon across the sky.

What got you started toward a lifestyle of ultras and yoga? What is your background with the two sports?

I started running 4 years ago to be a healthier person; to quit smoking, eat, live, and think better. I was drawn to it naturally. Once I started running I found [ultrarunner] Dean Karnazes, and the book Born to Run. Those were the seeds that took hold in the soil of my childhood; a lifetime of outdoor appreciation with my family, my enjoyment of time to myself, and the search for something BIGGER.

I didn’t know what I was looking for, but those books open the door for me to exactly what I needed. I started running barefoot/minimalist, while reinventing myself. I started running in trail events and this distances got longer and longer.

I started yoga after taking up ultra running to build strength and flexibility; when you’re running on the trails you have to constantly adapt to the terrain. I saw yoga as a way to build strength and resilience for that. When I started it, I was going through some things in my life and found that I was forced to confront myself and issues in smaller bite sized pieces than I took on while running. It was like my practice gave me a daily booster shot of the solace I found on the trails, while giving me strength and confidence as I took on new physical challenges.

Do you have a personal philosophy of movement? If so, what is it?

Move with the Earth, with mindfulness and good intentions. Adapt, and smile.

How do you incorporate movement into your lifestyle? What advice do you have for people looking to incorporate movement into their lifestyles?

Surprise yourself; mind, body, and soul. Be smart and don’t risk personal injury – but go out and push yourself. Scramble up a slope, climb up to a new peak and look out over the world. Reach and pull with your arms, climb with your legs. Run, and duck under branches. Go on an adventure and move like a human.

Why ultras? What is the draw to an ultra beyond that of another distance?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a nice half or marathon, but there is something transcendental about setting off on the trail for a full day or longer, without any idea of what lays between your next step and the finish line.

You’re also involved in yoga. How has this practice influenced your approach to daily life?

Standing on your head for the first time even is pretty intense, and doing it every morning after that is a pretty good way to bring your world into a calm, but intense, focus. There is more to it than just neat poses though.

Even some of the more ‘simpler’ poses are almost impossible if you do not have a calm and collected mind, and to that effect, yoga is not just about posing and flexibility. It is about a way of life; living good, with good intentions.

Whether it is at the start of the day, the end, or anytime in between; a little meditation, breathing and fluid movement can do wonders for the mind and body.

Do you think it’s necessary to suffer during movement/exercise? Or should it be a pursuit of finding comfort through motion? Or a little of both?

One should never suffer in movement, that’s a one-way ticket to injury. Start small, start easy, and stay loose. If you’re running, don’t push yourself in time or distance – work up to it. If it’s yoga, don’t force yourself into painful poses. Breath through the motion, and ease back. It will come with time. Natural motion should be comfortable, it’s what you were born to do.

What are you up to these days? How can people find out more information about you if they are curious?

The last month gave me both ends of the spectrum – I won a 50K race in June, and then just finished the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile endurance event 5th from last after a strange and eventful weekend. With that said, I finished strong and was feeling fluid and fit enough after 34 hours of movement and 100 miles too RUN to the table to collect my finishers buckle.

A few days later and I feel great, I’m still making sense of everything that happened, and will post the rest of the story to my blog http://wingedling.com, or if Instagram is your thing find me at the_winged_ling where I post daily exploits running, practicing yoga, hiking, camping, running, or enjoying an active life with my family.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Live with passion! You have one life, spend it doing good things with good people.

Featured image from: Pixabay.com 

Lynda Flower: Movement as a Pathway to Peak Performance, Flow & Spirituality

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Lynda Flower, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. Ms. Flower’s research interest is in the psychology of religion, specifically regarding spiritual lived experiences during peak performance.

Ms. Flower is the author of the 2016 study ‘My day-to-day person wasn’t there; it was like another me’: A qualitative study of spiritual experiences during peak performance in ballet dance, which was published in Performance Enhancement & Health. 

The video below, produced by the University of Queensland, provides a great overview of the results of the study:

Video produced by University of Queensland, hosted by Vimeo.com. 

I interviewed her about her motivations for the study, her interpretation of the results, and the ways in which she applies movement to her own life. I owe a huge “Thank You” to Ms. Flower for her time, and I encourage you all to read through the interview — it contains some great nuggets of advice!

(Want to know more? Check out the Ms. Flower’s profile on the University of Queensland website and the media release about Ms. Flower’s research.)

What got you interested in this area of research (flow, athletic activity, spirituality)? What were your motivations for initially pursuing this topic?

I was initially inspired by a [University of Queensland] (UQ) lecturer Associate Professor Richard Hutch who taught the Master of Arts subject Psychology of Religion. He introduced us to the work of William James, a leading U.S. psychologist in the early 1900s who pioneered research in understanding the subjective nature of mystical and spiritual lived experiences.

I became fascinated how this research area expanded and developed over the decades and is now a global research area, particularly in sport. I was very keen to do some original research of my own for my Master of Arts thesis and chose ballet because ballet dancers with their strict training regimes are regarded as elite athletes as well as performing artists. I’ve just continued on from there.

You note that this research is located in “academic discussions of mystical and spiritual experiences in the Western cultural tradition.” To me, those two topics (“mythical experiences” and “Western culture”) seem slightly antithetical. Do you think Western culture should place more of an emphasis on spiritual experiences? If so, how?

Western culture has been dominated to a large extent by Christian narratives. A rich source of very detailed information about mystical experiences appears in literature about European medieval monks who reported these experiences during states of contemplation. Mystical experiences were not confined to monks and hermits however, and were also cultivated by the wider population. In medieval religious practices it was quite common for members of the general public to aspire not only to understand God but to directly experience him too.

In this increasingly consumer driven age, it would be nice to see more emphasis placed on the spiritual side of life. But this area is highly and uniquely individual and a matter of personal preference whether people wish to pursue this area of their lives or not.

Do you think activity and movement could act as a pathway for Westerners to take greater part in “mythical and spiritual experiences”? If so, how?

Activity and movement could certainly act as a pathway for Westerners to understand mystical and spiritual experiences. There has been a vast amount of research over the past three decades in the area of spirituality in sport. It could very reasonably be argued that common current terms used by athletes such as ‘going into the zone’ or into ‘states of flow’ during peak performance have their origins in the mystical and spiritual experiences.

The descriptions of the transcendent states of consciousness experienced while in the zone or flow are remarkably similar to descriptions of mystical and spiritual experiences from centuries past. Also going back to very ancient times there were two common ways to reach mystical and spiritual states. One was by contemplation and meditation, the other was by intense activity, such as ceremonial tribal dancing to induce trance like states.

The study clearly highlights that peak performance has myriad benefits to the performer. However, most people will never reach the level of elite performer. Do you think these results could apply to the average person?

William James found more than 100 years ago that there were varying levels of intensity for mystical and spiritual experiences. My recent study into peak performance in ballet also confirmed this. Some dancers reported having temporary melting moods in passing when dancing while at the other end of the scale other dancers reported going into such an altered transcendent state that their “day-to-day person wasn’t there, it was like another me.”

But those at the lower end of the scale reported that the ‘mild’ experience was still of benefit. It should be noted of course that dancers and athletes don’t reach dramatic levels of peak performance every time they perform. These tend to be occasional (i.e. a major dance performance or taking part in the Olympics) though less intense spiritual experiences of going into the zone or flow are regularly reported at other performance times, during training and so on.

Was there anything that surprised you about the results of the study?

What surprised me most was the lasting effects of the spiritual experience. I interviewed former professional ballet dancers who are now teachers and coaches. They could choose the most memorable spiritual experience they had had during peak performance to talk about.

Although they all spoke about experiences which took place 10-20 years ago, they all became very excited and emotional while reliving the event, it seemed to have had a profound effect upon them.

Many mentioned that although they are no longer dancing, the experiences/altered states of consciousness frequently still occur in other activities related to ballet such as teaching, lecturing or writing.

Have the results of this study impacted the ways in which you conduct your own life?

Most certainly! I’ve always tended to be more scholarly than athletic. Spiritual experiences for me usually occur through meditation and frequently while writing I drift off into a zone. But the research I undertook for the study highlighted the various intensities of spiritual experiences.

I’ve begun to recognize that even the less intense experiences which can occur while for example reading a beautiful poem, listening to music or watching a sunset also lift the spirits. For me, I find anything that takes me to a higher level of consciousness from the ordinary and every day, even for just a few moments, is beneficial.

How do you incorporate movement into your lifestyle? What advice do you have for people looking to incorporate movement into their lifestyles?

The three activities I regularly undertake are walking, swimming and Tai Chi. I walk as much as I can during my leisure time, at work I get up from the desk every couple of hours and take a walk along the long university corridors and up and down the stairs.

I try to swim every other day in summer and go to Tai Chi classes once or twice a week. Personally I find movement increases my energy levels which in turn helps my scholarly activities.

If people want to incorporate movement into their lifestyles then the key is probably to find something they really enjoy and like doing, otherwise it is likely to be short lived!

What are you up to these days? How can people find out more information about you if they are curious?

This year has been a busy one and I have more journal articles and a book chapter in the pipeline about my research into spiritual experiences during peak performance in ballet. I presented a paper at a Religion in Society conference in Washington, D.C., in March and am heading off to present another paper at a Global Spirituality in Sport conference at the University of York in the UK in August.

Thank you to Ms. Flower, and best of luck in your future endeavors!

Image from: Pixabay.com