Bringing Well-being Research to Life

When asked why we should bother learning about wellbeing, I often use the analogy of people as swimmers, wearing either buoyancy vests or diver’s weight belts. The buoyant, high wellbeing people, tend to stay on the surface and bounce back when something pulls them under for a while. Those with the weight belts have to make an effort to stay at the surface. They can sink under the weight of additional challenges. People with the weight belts benefit from a pair of big flippers or fins(wellbeing skills and techniques) that can help them kick back up and then stay the surface.

The challenge is that we can’t tell from the outside who is wearing the weight belt or the buoyancy vest. So it makes sense to equip everyone with the flippers – i.e. knowledge of wellbeing strategies they can use in their own lives. In addition, life doesn’t discriminate and sends challenges our way regardless of who we are. A very buoyant person can be handed a heavy weight and find themselves struggling with this new challenge. At some point in our lives we are all likely to face challenges, needing wellbeing and resilience strategies.

Hope is defined as agency (will power) and pathways thinking (way power). We believe we can do something and we can see ways by which we might get there. That is the essence of hope. However, what about the moments when we feel hope-less? How do we re-ignite the spark and rekindle hope when we lack it. Sometimes it feels like the pilot light has been turned off so it’s hard to get the whole fire going again.

Emily Dickinson said ‘hope is a thing with feathers’. But on a bad day when I’m under the surface, it might take a penguin to reach me. Strategies for those days need to be brief and easy. For some people, it’s helps to start with acknowledgement and compassion, then maybe challenging our own thoughts, and then to move on to finding gratitude and even a little hope. Try these and see what works best for you.


  1. Acknowledge it.
    We all have bad moments. Notice it and name it. A journalist friend of mine once told me “on a good day I can phone the Pope for a quote. On a bad day I can’t even phone my mother”. Dial back on your expectations for this moment and know it will pass.
  2. Practice some self-compassion.
    Kristin Neff’s self-compassion break ( begins with a comforting touch – hug yourself, hold your heart area or cup your face in your hands (remember we’re mammals and respond to soothing touch). At the heart of self-compassion is remembering that we all have moments of suffering; it’s a part of life and you are not alone. Sometimes just this acknowledgement can ease the pain. The next step asks us to give ourselves the compassion we need in this moment. That’s important – compassion is more helpful than self-flagellation or a recital of our deficiencies.
  3. Notice and label your thoughts.
    On days when negative thoughts and feeling abound, notice and label them. The act of labelling gives you some distance from your thoughts. Labels that downplay how big something feels or make you smile are helpful too. For example, when feel ‘raging bull furious’, I label it ‘a bit peeved’. Or when I’m a 9 on the catastrophe scale, I label it ‘a twinge of upset’. The ridiculous gap between my feeling and the label can make me grin. And then I’ve moved a little bit further from the thought.
  4. Give and receive a hug.
    We are mammals. Human touch is comforting to us at a very basic level. Find someone you can hug – preferably someone who will respond genuinely and for a few seconds – not a ‘catch and release’ or an air kiss.The good news is, if a hug donor isn’t immediately available, you can hug yourself. A mindfulness practitioner I know says ‘the body doesn’t know who’s giving the hug, it just knows it’s getting one’.  He suggests you lie with your back on the floor, wrap your arms around so that your hands are on your upper back and move gently left and right. Bonus – it releases tension in the upper back.
  1. Ask yourself ‘What are you grateful for?’
    On a tough day it might be two legs, two arms… and moving out from there. It might be that I’m not in a war zone or fleeing danger right now. It can be as simple as a hot cup of tea, sun in the sky, a dog to pat, or a smile.
  2. Ask yourself ‘What are you hoping for today?’,
    even when you’re not feeling hopeful. The hope might be very, very, small – delivered by a penguin with fishy, oily feathers. But listen and pay attention. The act of asking and waiting is important. We’re creating the space for hope to arise, however small. It might be ‘I hope I get dressed’ rather than ‘I hope I run a half marathon’.

We all have bad moments. It’s important to be kind to ourselves when we’re feeling underwater.  And the goal is just to move to a slightly better, kinder next moment. Try these techniques for size and see if they can help you or people you know re-kindle hope and resurface to air and sunshine.

How many of us have looked at our strengths or listened to positive feedback about the things we do well and thought… ‘Yeah, but’…?

I’ve noticed three ways people show they don’t really value their strengths.

  1. Like Groucho Marx not wanting to be a member of any club that would have him, many of us discount our strengths. We are effectively saying “If I do this thing easily and enjoyably, it can’t be that important/good/ useful/valuable”. Really??!!
  2. We pay lip service to our strengths and focus on managing our weaknesses. Something like… “Yes, I know I’m good with people, but by (invoke relevant prophets and deities) I will become an orderly person with a planful, organised life – even if it kills me!” It might be a long, slow, unhappy demise.
  3. We continue to shoehorn ourselves into roles where we don’t use our strengths or berate ourselves for not excelling at or enjoying the tasks that use our weaknesses [yes, I’ve just been filing].

So, my request is simply to appreciate your strengths and take them seriously. They are your gifts to share with the world. They are the short cut you’ve been handed to work out how you might live a fulfilling life. Our strengths go deep – they are often values we hold as well as ways we like to interact with the world, behave or think. Channel Groucho – you don’t have to take yourself seriously, just your strengths.

If this sounds like something that might benefit you, you are welcome to read on…

Sit and think about your strengths – however that looks for you.

baby Thinker

Allow yourself to think that these are your gifts to share – both in your work and personal life – and consider how you might do that. Notice how you feel when you imagine using your strengths more everyday.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Strengths at Work

  1. How and where am I currently using my strengths? How does it feel when you use your strengths? Are these the moments that feel most enjoyable or worthwhile at work? Or have you noticed that you are only using your strengths to interact with people outside work? If so, how could you from bring your strengths to work?
  2. How can I use my strengths more in my current role? A growing number of organisations are allocating team tasks based on strengths of team members. Managers using this approach say that in addition to improving productivity it has also increased staff morale, job satisfaction and willingness to share out the ‘unwanted or unpleasant’ tasks.
  3. If I can’t use my strengths in this role, is it the right one for me? If your role doesn’t use any of your strengths, is there flexibility for you to develop or change the role? If not, then it might be time to find out if you can move to a different role within the organisation or to consider leaving. Before you do that, spend time clarifying what strengths you want to use and where and how you might do that. I have seen people’s well-being transformed by finding a new job that uses and values their strengths.

Strengths at Home

  1. How can I use my strengths more in my personal life? Some of us use our strengths at work and forget they are still available at home. How can you use your strengths in your interactions with family and friends? My strength of Adventure has been getting rusty in the last few years and I am planning on reviving it in family adventures over the Summer.
  2. How can I use my strengths in hobbies and recreation? If you are not currently able to use your strengths in the workplace, how can you make sure you get to use them at home? It could be planning and organising, creating social occasions, creating or making stuff, learning a language, travel, gardening or cooking. The sky’s the limit here. Our hobbies really should be a place where we get to put our strengths to use to enhance our well-being.
  3. How can I use my strengths to help other people? It’s helpful to ask both, Who would you like to help? And How would you like to help? What’s the point in doing something you hate – suffering for a cause – when you could be sharing your strengths and enjoying the work you are doing. I pack vegetables for a coop providing low cost fruit and vegetables – and anyone there can tell you that counting bags is not my strength. However, getting to know and enjoy the people I work with is. I have come to know and appreciate a great bunch of people over the past year to the point where this volunteering feels like a social occasion each week.

It’s important to allow ourselves to imagine and dream. So one last question, What might my life look like if I was really using and living out my strengths? Let this question sit for a while and imagine…What might I be doing? Where might I be? How might I be contributing to the world?

Here’s to a strengths-fuelled December!





Hi Everyone,

A birthday card I received last week reminded me I’m in a long-term relationship.

Praying mantis
[The praying mantis said to her mate, “after we have sex but before I kill you, I’m going to need your help with some shelves”] As well as passion, there’s the humdrum – putting up shelves. Luckily, we’re not praying mantis. On the upside for my beloved, there is usually a cup of tea instead of death after he fixes the shelves.

In all our lives there are the fabulous joyful moments, and there’s also the humdrum and even the downright irritating, painful or sad. Well-being is not just about hunting the high points. In fact, that can backfire sometimes. Long-term well-being is about being able to take the rough and the smooth.

Do you want sandpaper or silk in life? Silk may be more comfortable, but it won’t make us smooth. It’s dealing with the rough sandpaper experiences that smooth our rough edges.

Learning how to appreciate the challenges we face, how to find something of value in them, or to see the silver lining – all of these can help us transform our sandpaper moments. We might not enjoy them at the time, but we cope better if we can see a purpose in it, and afterwards we are more likely to regard it as a positive experience.

This weekend I’ve been in Sydney for work. Noticing that I really miss my family is a useful sandpaper moment. It reminds me of how much I value them. And I got to watch a pod of whales putting on a spectacular show off the coast. That was silk – pure delight.


May the rough and the smooth add up to a great week for you,

The media is full of talk about happiness, well-being, and mindfulness. By now I think, surely we should all be enlightened well-being experts. But we’re not. In fact, very few of us know what well-being is and how to build it.

Most people have some idea of what to do to look after their physical health. They typically mention ‘five a day’ [eating vegetables and fruit], getting exercise and not smoking. When asked how they can look after their mental well-being many people draw a blank.

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So let’s talk well-being literacy – for schools, homes and workplaces. If we want to look after our well-being, we need to have a clear idea of what it is and how to build it. So let’s start a conversation with people in these places about “What do you do to support your well-being?”, “What works for you?”, “What builds well-being for people?” or “What do you do to cheer yourself up or change a bad mood?” We might get some great new ideas or just learn to stop giving ours to people who don’t want them.

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We have great models in NZ with Mason Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Whā (the 4 walls of the house of well-being are physical, mental/emotional, social and spiritual well-being) [te whare tapa whā] and the Mental Health Foundation’s promotion of the UK’s New Economic Foundation’s 5 Ways to Well-being. As well as our physical well-being we all need social and emotional well-being and spirituality – a connection to something that gives our lives meaning and purpose. So what does that look like in practice?

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Connect: relationships are vital for well-being. From the day we are born ‘til the day we die we need a hand to hold. We all need to feel understood, seen and cared for. So do that for someone today.

Give: as well as building connection, helping others seems to be the simplest route to developing meaning in life and supporting our own well-being. Whether your meaning comes from religious or philosophical beliefs, your family, work, or recreation… what matters is to find meaning along the way. It doesn’t have to arrive with a lighting bolt. You might find it by following the breadcrumb trail of things that you love doing.

Take Notice: appreciate what’s good in your life – savour and be grateful. These are simple but robust strategies for enhancing emotional well-being. And, when you do this, it often makes you nicer to be around so as well as supporting emotional well-being you may get a bonus boost for social well-being [Remember, company hates misery, even though the opposite is famously untrue]. Take notice also refers to being present and noticing our lives as they are unfolding. Also known as mindfulness.

Keep learning: we are works in progress not finished products. When we continue to learn we continue to grow, we are more open to new experiences and joys. Life continues to surprise us. And that’s good for emotional well-being and probably makes us more interesting companions too.

Be active: yes, move your body and be physically active. And enjoy it. New Zealand former boxer and motivational speaker Billy Graham [not the US one] says “it’s better to go for a walk than not go for a run”. So don’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can. Being active also means taking charge of your well-being – do what you can to move your mood when it’s low. Personally, I always allow myself at least a short wallow before I start trying to move it.

While it’s good to feel positive and happy in our days, it’s not the only thing. Dealing with the downs as well as the ups matters because sometimes ‘we just have to grind it out’. More about managing the tyranny of the positive next time.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. My commitment to you is to provide sporadic but hopefully interesting posts. [Don’t plan on setting your watch by the regular arrival of my blog or you’ll have a strange relationship with time].