Amelia Dennis, Jane Ogden and Victor Perton in Conversation at The Centre for Optimism
Amelia Dennis is a PhD researcher in Social Psychology at the University of Surrey. Jane Ogden is Professor of Health Psychology and has been researching and writing about eating behaviour and weight management for nearly 30 years. Amelia and Jane joined Victor Perton in The Centre for Optimism's Optimism Cafe just before Christmas 2020.
Jane Ogden and Amelia Dennis joined Victor Perton in the Optimism Cafe at the Centre for Optimism just before Christmas 2020 as they were about to enter COVID19- lockdown again.
Victor Perton: In the Centre for Optimism, our first question to all of our guests is what makes you optimistic? Jane Ogden, what makes you optimistic?
Jane Ogden: At the moment, that's a bit of a tricky question because things aren't particularly looking great for Britain. For me, it's the idea that time brings change and things always get better in the future, and that time will pass. And mostly in the future, things do get better.
Victor Perton: I love the English wisdom of Mother Julian of Norwich 700 years ago during the Black Death plague, who said, "all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well." That's lasted the test of time for 700 years.
Victor Perton: Amelia, I saw an article in which you said that Professor Jane Ogden keeps you optimistic! What keeps you optimistic?
Amelia Dennis: "Jane definitely does keep me optimistic, but what keeps me optimistic at the moment is the idea that things will get better. They have to."
Victor Perton: You've published a fascinating study on coping in a lockdown.
You say living in the future rather than the past is the key to coping with the lockdown. So rather than engaging in nostalgia or as Steven Pinker would say, "If you can remember a good past, you've got a bad memory." You've got an excellent idea that thinking about the future is the best way of surviving the lockdown.
Can you tell us more about that study?
Amelia Dennis: "Yes, so we ran the study during the first lockdown in the UK between March and May.
"We compared the effectiveness or four positive psychology interventions on well-being.
"So we had nostalgia, which induces the emotional of nostalgia, and you obviously think of a nostalgic past or a nostalgic event in your life. And that was obviously past-oriented.
"And then we have gratitude, which induces the emotion or gratitude through thinking about three good things that have happened today. And that's obviously present-oriented.
"And then we have the best possible self, which induces the emotion of optimism through thinking about your best future, after lockdown, after all these good things have happened. And that was obviously future-orientated.
"And we had a control group where you just thought of a TV plot.
"We recruited 261 participants. And what we found was that participants in the best possible self-condition and participants in the gratitude condition felt more social connectedness than participants in the nostalgia condition.
"But also participants in the best possible self-condition had more positive affect than participants in the nostalgia condition.
"So I think what we're seeing here is that gratitude is important because you need to be grateful for your present. But also because in the first lockdown we were consistently told the worst is yet to come. And I think then when you're facing tough times, you need a light at the end of the tunnel."
Victor Perton: I love that use of language.
And on the "my best self" exercise, I recently read some research from the Vienna Medical School on sleep and optimism, where unsurprisingly optimists sleep better, better sleep makes you more optimistic.
The other interesting finding that the Viennese made was that the "my best self exercise" is the best intervention for making you more optimistic and positive.
I understand the American Military has also introduced that practice.
So how do you describe it, Amelia? How can our listeners and watchers use it to help themselves be more optimistic?
Amelia Dennis: It's a very simple induction.
"It is simply just thinking about your best possible self after everything has worked out the way you hoped.
"Obviously, we just put after lockdown in our study, but I'm sure participants would have thought the future anyway.
"I think the best way for people to do it is to exactly just think of their best possible self. But I think if this is something you want to do daily, it's best to focus on one aspect of yourself each day.
"So personal, professional or a hobby or something like that, rather than just thinking about the same best possible self every day. So you have something different, a different aspect of your life to think about.
Victor Perton: We suggest people do the "my best self" exercise every six months or every year. And the methodology we recommend is to sit in a room on your own. You don't need to show the piece of paper to anyone else, it's for you. And to write for 15 minutes without interruption. Is that a suitable methodology?
Amelia Dennis: Yes, definitely to write it down and write your best possible self down. I'm not really sure about how long you need to do it. Our participants only did it for two minutes, actually. However, it still showed such an increase in well-being after only two minutes. So 15 minutes, I'm sure would have an even more significant impact.
Victor Perton: On that two-minute point, Dadi Janki, who was the head of the largest women-led religious movement, the Brahma Kumaris, said to me, "Victor, just meditate one minute an hour. And if you remember it, five or six times a day, you have done five or six minutes of meditation." So those little bits are so important.
Onto the news: I was rereading Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, written in 1952. Peale suggested putting yourself on a news diet.
One of the things you referenced in your study, Amelia is the bleak news and its impact on people.
Yesterday I interviewed Paula Allen from Moreau Schapelle in Canada on their three-year research project. It has also shown that one of the reasons people feel so bad during lockdown is the change in news serves to ever more negative news.
So should people also put themselves on a bit of a media diet, Jane and Amelia, reduce their reading of the news and think about stories of hope and optimism and sharing them?
Jane Ogden: I mean, absolutely. I think you have to control the information that comes in, don't you?
"So you can make choices about how much social media you engage with and how much news you engage with.
"But also you can just watch happy films. I have my go-to's. My go-to comedy is Father Ted, and it always has been. I will go to Father Ted when I just need a Father Ted moment, and that's what I do, or I'll put on Notting Hill, or I'll put some music and lyrics. I'll put on my favourite romantic comedies, and you manage your mood, don't you?
Well-being has to be actively managed, and it's a bit like playing keep you up in tennis and keeping the balls in the air. You actively have to look after yourself. So you choose what information you want to come into your mind.
"It's good to be up to date with the news, but it's overwhelming at times.
"And in Britain, obviously, things haven't gone well for us. And then we've also got Brexit happening as well. So it's all going wrong. So there is only so much that you can process all the time."
Victor Perton: And it's literally making people sick. I mean, in a country like Australia, where there's no war, there's very little violence, the weather is good, we've actually got 25% of the population medicated for anxiety or depression. It's odd.
One of the things I've picked up from both of you, in your study Amelia, and in both of your writings, the emphases on gratitude.
And Jane on your Twitter feed, you've got this beautiful picture of you and the children looking out into the future, into nature.
So how do you two maintain your gratitude and what gratitude exercises would you recommend to people?
Jane Ogden: Well, I can start, but I'm a huge believer in just living in the moment really, and just finding pleasure in little things.
"And Amelia is too young for this, but one of the joys of getting older is you get much better at just finding pleasure in very small things, whether it's a new pair of boots or a new pair of jeans, or whether it's just laughing with your friends.
"My friends all came around the other night, and we sat out because we were only allowed to sit outside at the moment. And we sat outside in the freezing cold with blankets and hot water bottles. And we just had the best night, and we were stargazing and chatting, and it's great.
"I think maybe when you're younger, you've got bigger hopes or bigger expectations or you see life in a bigger way. But as you get older, it's wonderful just to be able to be pleased and happy with little things. And so I think that's the trick really to happiness.
Victor Perton: There's some research out of the United States and elsewhere, which actually says people hit peak optimism around their 60s or 70s. They have put the anxieties of growing up into a context that the sun always rises tomorrow.
Jane Ogden: Yes. It's time, isn't it? I think that's right. Once you've been through time, then you know that time works because you've been through other things where things have got better, and you can remember that and then you bank it.
"I tell that to my students is you've been through a difficult time and now it's getting better. So absolutely bank that, hold on to that and that'll help you cope the next time around.
Victor Perton: I had one of my successes in prison. I had a young murder convict come to one of my sessions, and he was still a bit sour at the end. And I said to him, "Why did you come?" And he said, "Well, the guy in the cell next to me, since he went to your session has started meditating once a day, he keeps a gratitude journal, and he reads me one page of your book every day, which is a quote." And the huge young man about a foot taller than me. And he looked at him, he said, "If I came to your session, you'd give me a copy of the book." As you can imagine, I gave him a copy of the book.
Gratitude practices? We recommend to people that they keep a little journal or write their gratitude on a paper slip. And rather than waking up to an alarm clock with the news, that the first thing they read the next morning is that gratitude from yesterday, whether you're sitting on the toilet or having a coffee or tea.
Some people put slips of paper into a jar, and when something rotten happens, they pull out a whole handful and reread it. So for you two, what do you do for your gratitude practices?
Amelia Dennis: I keep a gratitude journal actually. Every day I do it in the evening, but I haven't actually ever looked through it again. So I need to do that actually. I've never looked through what I've written. I do meditate. I really like to get in nature because it also fills you very much with the present.
Victor Perton: The real trick, the research out of the University of Pennsylvania is the trick with the gratitude journal is actually to reread it the next morning. The other trick, of course, is to send an SMS or ring someone and say, "Thanks." And it doesn't matter whether it's a week later or a year later.
One of the interesting things about your study, Amelia, is that the men didn't sign up for some reason and all of your subjects were women. What do you think has stopped men participating in what I think was a brilliant study?
Amelia Dennis: I think it was several factors, mainly how we recruited participants. We did it somewhat through university sample, primarily psychology. So, again, it's mostly female.
My social media, Jane's social media. My social media is mainly women.
And then similar things like that, psychology groups, which again is mainly female. And then given the short time frame we had to recruit people under lockdown, we had just too few men participants, so we had to just continue recruiting the women, I think. And I think it was just the way we recruited participants.
Jane Ogden: To add to that, men don't do studies as much anyway, I don't think. It is genuinely hard to get men involved and men involved in things to do with well-being. Looking after themselves is not something that they're going to necessarily be attracted to. So I think men are definitely more cautious or just maybe less interested in that kind of actively looking after themselves really. So they probably wouldn't have been drawn to it.
Victor Perton: What are your tips and tricks for other people to be more optimistic in 2021?
Amelia Dennis: "I would say, just engage in, just do the practice of best possible self or gratitude for however long you can, whether that be half a minute, a minute, two minutes, or even 15 minutes, the longer, the better, but however long you can and for as many days as you can. But I think even a little bit of doing it is better than nothing.
Jane Ogden: It's a combination of living in the moment and finding pleasure in whatever it is, whether it's, I'm going out for coffee in a minute because we're about to go into complete lockdown again. So we've got one more day of coffee in a coffee shop. So I'm going out for coffee, which has become an absolute pleasure during this time. So very small things, taking the absolute pleasure in small things, and then just putting lights in your calendar. Now you just need lights in the future, lights in the calendar to know that I will be doing this at some point. And to have that to build towards.
Victor Perton: "In your article, you both use that wonderful phrase, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. And I think that is so visual.
And the last thing, Jane, I think 80% of the population makes a New Year's resolution to lose some weight and get fitter. You are one of England's experts often, losing weight and getting fitter. What's the diet tip for people?
Jane Ogden: I think this year has been such a challenging year. I believe that the New Year's resolution is just looking after yourself in whatever form that takes. If you want to get fit, absolutely brilliant. If you're going to do exercise and get into nature and go for walks, that's absolutely brilliant. But I don't think now is the time to wonder about whether you're a bit fat or not. I think now is absolutely not that time. Now it is just to be well in the biggest possible way of being well.