Wellbeing, context and the problem with soundbites

This week I came across a quote from Organizational Psychologist, Adam Grant, which really resonated with me and some of the thoughts that I’ve been having recently about wellbeing…

‘We pay too much attention to people who talk in soundbites and too little attention to those who think in paragraphs.’

Many of the wellbeing articles I read have a tendency to reduce wellbeing to a series of tips; eat healthier, sleep more, spend more time with friends, do a new hobby, spend more time outside, spend more time being creative, meditate, etc, etc… 

Do more and be more than what you are… or at least that’s how it can read sometimes.

I know these tips come from a helpful place and there is a lot of good advice which is helpful to many people, but for me personally I can struggle with the simplicity of the articles. If things were that simple to change, then wouldn’t we all be much healthier, happier and balanced than we are?

What many articles I read lack is context. 

Context really is everything.

The soundbite gives you the snapshot. Similar to a photo on instagram, that shows us what happened in a particular moment, but doesn’t give us the context leading up to it. In terms of tips and advice on wellbeing, here is an example to illustrate what I mean about context, and the importance of thinking in paragraphs and not soundbites…

Soundbite: Make time for self-care.

Paragraph: People are fundamentally (and wonderfully) complex with our own lived histories and experiences which shape who we are. Our family and early life experiences are so impactful on our understanding of the world and how we cope with our life experiences, and our histories inform our ‘triggers’ and ‘roadblocks’ to better wellbeing. I understand that better self-care could be an important part to wellbeing, but perhaps this is a term that people struggle with because their upbringing emphasised the collective wellbeing over the individual, or viewed the idea of ‘self-care’ as unnecessary or even selfish. Equally, we live in a culture that over-celebrates ‘the grind’ (i.e. working to burnout), ambition, and professional success, and so to truly incorporate self-care is more complex than simply knowing that we need to make more time for ourselves. For many people output equals worth. There is often a gap between knowing and doing and this requires more thinking in paragraphs…

Soundbite: Maintain healthy boundaries.

Paragraph: Humans are relational beings and there are often some very strong forces that act on maintaining the status quo (and in not changing our behaviours). We often create and contain the narrative of ourselves within ourselves (particularly in westernised cultures)… ‘I’m this kind of person’ and ‘I act in this kind of way’. However, as Dr Krista Scott-Dixon explains, this is a very decontextualised conversation and negates the fact that in different situations, the type of person we present ourselves or the way we interact with others may change. Context shapes behaviour and relationships. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence for the need for change, we can still decide against it. The status quo and forces acting towards keeping our behaviour the same can be extremely powerful and at times this is people-dependent, perhaps we need to fulfill a certain role for the people in our lives, or we need to play a certain role for the people in our lives. Fundamentally we’re all trying to belong…

I think it’s really important to always examine the context and be curious about why we don’t change even in the event of overwhelming evidence for change. We know that working crazy hours and not spending enough time with our family and friends isn’t good for us, but we’ll still carry on doing it. We know that exercise and eating healthier will make us feel better but we turn to comfort foods or don’t eat enough when things are tough. We fall back to our default despite all the advice in the world which tells us what will make us feel better.

Life isn’t a soundbite and we need to be careful that in trying to be helpful, we don’t inadvertently cause shame in highlighting the things that we know we should do but don’t (the fitness industry thrives off of this shame). We often make small micro-gestures towards the changes we want to make in our lives (because deep down we do know what will be best for us) but ultimately only we can make that decision to change, regardless of how many tips we read.

In wanting to draw this article to a close, I think this quote from Dr Jenn Hardy sums up my feelings towards articles centered around advice giving:

‘You may find that the advice you most need to hear doesn’t come from others. It comes from you. You find it inside your own heart, your gut, and from the wisdom of your own experience.’

The best advice we can get is from a place which understands our context, our history, our behaviour and relationship patterns. The best advice we will ever receive is that which comes from ourselves.

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