12 Questions to Help Us Realize Our Potential

The Ordinary World

The first part of the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual can achieve his or her potential.

I refused the call of exploring potential  because the idea that we’re not living up to our potential, or constantly questioning whether we are, is the opposite of  self-acceptance, which is essential to well-being…and, ironically,  realizing our potential.

But about six months ago, I crossed the threshold of exploring potential by changing the context of realize from achieve or fulfill to recognize or understand.

One of my allies was I Hate Happiness community member Sam. While helping her edit a book about her transformational journey, I revisited the outline of my mentor Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” And instead of re-tracing the tests of my own “Hero’s Journey” by re-reading tons of world mythology I found an ally in RAW Spirituality, which posted this explainer video.

The Hero’s Journey – 12 Stages

I still struggled with three words relating to potential: individual, his, and her. It bothered me that the gendered pronouns left some people out, but my greatest ordeal was with the word individual. This seemed to contradict the essence of the hero’s journey.

“Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay  ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the  center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall  be with all the world.”– Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I allowed the idea of individual potential to die and be reborn as our potential.

Return with the Elixir

The reward was the idea that realizing our potential may not lie in pondering what remains to be achieved but in reflecting on what it took to come as far as we have.

Explore the “12 Questions” Well-Being Habit

Option 1: Conversation

Since potential is not an individual journey, I first tried these 12 questions in conversation: taking turns asking questions and allowing both parties to answer.

Option 2: Writing Prompts

The reward from this conversation was the insight  that the questions could also be used as journal prompts. I tested this  by using that first conversation as my transformational insight and quickly answered the 12 questions in about 12 minutes.

Begin by calling to mind any transformative skill or insight from your life.

(An example from early life might be learning to tie your shoes.)

The Ordinary World

1. What was your life like before your transformation?

(I often tripped over my shoelaces and it was hard for me to walk or run.)

Call to Adventure

2. Name an experience or opportunity that made you aware of a new skill or insight.

(I observed my older brother tie his shoes and walk without tripping as much.)

Refusal of the Call

3. What fears, insecurities, resistance, or circumstances prevented you from pursuing this at the time?

(I couldn’t remember the steps, so I gave up.)

Meeting with the Mentor

4. Name an inspirational figure (perhaps a teacher, colleague, friend, author, or public figure) who helped you see the possibilities?

(My mom figured out how to show me how to tie shoes from “my” perspective.)

Crossing the First Threshold

5. How did you first test the waters?

(I tried to tie my shoes after nap time without asking for my teacher’s help.)

Tests, Allies and Enemies

6. Name some tests you faced. Who were your (internal or external) allies? Who were your (internal or external) enemies?

(I accidentally pulled the shoelace wrong and created a knot. An ally with patience helped me undo it and try again. An enemy was a fellow student who taunted me by telling me I’d never be a shoe-tyer…if that’s even a word.)

Approach to the Inner-Most Cave

7. Name a fear or doubt that arose as you got closer to attaining your skill or insight?

(Each time the bow came untied I feared I’d spend my whole life tripping over shoelaces.)

The Ordeal, Death & Rebirth

8. What did you ultimately have to let go of to become the person you are today?

(I finally let go of tying a single bow and relearned a double knot technique to decrease the chance of the shoelace untying.)

The Reward, Seizing the Sword

9. What was the reward for letting go?

(I could look out and notice new things in  the world around me instead of constantly watching my feet to make sure I wouldn’t trip.)

The Road Back

10. How did you integrate the reward into your new life?

(I started walking and running more.)

Resurrection

11. How did integrating that reward transform you?

(I internalized the confidence of being an expert shoe-tyer as proof that I could learn other daunting skills.)

Return with the Elixir

12. How has your personal transformation changed the lives of others?

(I showed others how to tie their shoes by incorporating what had made sense to me.)

The Journey is a Circle

The Hero’s Journey is cyclical, not linear. What is your ordinary life now? Have you experienced a call to adventure that you’ve  been refusing lately? What are your fears? Who are your allies? What are the potential rewards?

Keeping Score on Depression, Anxiety, and Stress

I’ve taken two courses, The Science of Happiness and The Science of Well-Being where I was asked to answer a “happiness” survey each week and keep track of my scores to determine how the weekly material impacted my happiness.

When it comes to depression, anxiety, and stress, we’re usually aware when we’re suffering. But how do we bring awareness to times when we’re not? How do we gain insights into what helps us feel okay so we can do more of it? How do we recognize when we’re starting to slide so that we can apply some antidotes?

I was elated when Alex Korb’s Upward Spiral newsletter introduced me to the DASS 21 Depression Anxiety Stress Scale.

It’s a great way to improve awareness of areas you’d like to target, try an exercise to work on it for a week, and test again to notice progress or regress.

“The DASS 21 is a self report evaluation scale aimed at revealing the severity of symptoms that the patient suffers from and which can be associated with depression or anxiety or are consistent with stress manifestations.

“The scale can be used for screening, however, for diagnosis, the patient should be referred for specialist consultation.”

Give it a try.

Making Good Habits Stick

I used to kick myself for lack of willpower when I fell back on bad habits or failed to keep good ones. But, according to behavioral scientist BJ Fogg, “I change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.”

Celebrate Good Habits
An Old Dog Learns New Tricks

On Monday I read about a new way to convert dog years into human years. According to the old calculation I’m an 8-year-old dog. According to the new formula, I am 6 years and 7 months.

Either way, I am an old dog.

Yet, aside from learning the new dog age conversion trick, which I can’t remember how to do without referring to the instructions. I’ve successfully learned two new tricks, and turned them into habits.

Trick #1: After I get out of bed, I say the phrase, “It’s gonna be a great day.” (Don’t stop reading yet. I haven’t turned into a motivational speaker!)

Trick #2: After I comb my hair, I drink a 16 oz. glass of water.

Not Rocket Science

The ideas behind BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything aren’t rocket science. If you’re reading these words, you know that the journey from depression to well-being begins with a single small change.

What’s so damned frustrating is that we can’t seem to convince ourselves to make even the smallest change consistently!

There’s a simple reason for this.

Fear of Failure

It’s really not our fault that it feels much better to succeed than to fail. For thousands of years, the difference between success and failure was a matter of life or death, and since we’re descended from an unbroken lineage of people who survived long enough to have children, our brains naturally reward success.

Almost none of our failures are a matter of life or death. But, when we fail, we believe that others will think less of us. Or, if we fail in private, we’ll think less of ourselves. 

My friend Samantha Hess had a sentiment on one of the walls of her old studio: “What would you do if it was impossible to fail?”

BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits doesn’t make it impossible to fail. But, it makes it extremely easy to succeed, and it takes all the the sting out of failure.    

Take Your Aspirations and Break them Down into Tiny Behaviors

I’ve known since I was in grammar or high school that I was supposed to drink 8 glasses of water a day. And I did it for a while when a health-conscious co-worker got me to join her in draining 32 oz. bottles that we filled once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

But that was decades ago, and I stopped paying attention to water altogether until I heard a neuroscientist/nutritionist explain that the 8 glasses a day prevented brain dehydration, which can lead to fatigue or migraine headaches. I don’t get migraines, but it would be nice to experience less fatigue.

I already have a habit of keeping a 16 oz. glass by my desk while I work. Filling it with water and drinking it seems a tiny enough behavior to accomplish on the way to my 64 oz. aspiration. And it’s also a tiny enough that I won’t beat myself up if I forget.   

Find Where a Behavior Fits Naturally into Your Life

Everyone I’ve told about the habit of putting my feet on the floor, saying “It’s gonna be a great day,” and celebrating, thinks it’s silly. But, silly or not, each time I execute it, it reminds me both that I am capable of forming a new habit (even one that I don’t fully believe in) and carrying out the steps required to remember it.

After I put my feet on the floor is a natural time to say “It’s gonna be a great day.”

A natural opportunity for drinking 16 oz. of water occurs after I’ve dressed, peed, and combed my hair. There’s a sink beneath the mirror and the glass is in my office next door. 

So, after I…comb my hair.

I will…fill my 16 oz. glass with water and drink it. 

Nurture its Growth Through Celebration

I celebrate drinking the water by raising my hands in the air like a victorious Olympic athlete and saying “Woo-hoo!”

How we choose to celebrate is up to individual preference. I chose the same form of celebration that Olympic athletes use (plus the “Woo-hoo!”) because I remember hearing that it’s a form of celebration that exists in all cultures.

The reason for celebrating even tiny successes is that the good feeling cues the hippocampus to store the preceding event as a keeper.

To keep the water metaphor going, if we were wandering a desert dying of thirst, it would feel mighty good to find a water hole. And remembering where that water hole was located might be crucial to the survival of our tribe!  

Embrace Mistakes as Discoveries and Use Them to Move Forward

I have some pills that I’m supposed to take with a full glass of water later in the morning. So, that’s a second natural prompt in my day. But, I’ve had to experiment with prompts for the remaining 32 ounces.

Some complicating factors include schedule variability, the availability of bathroom facilities after the consumption of water, etc.

I don’t take any of my failed attempts personally. 

The aspiration to replenish needed water to ease mental fatigue seems worthwhile to me. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be an aspiration, and I could choose another habit. 

If I had trouble with drinking 16 oz. of water, I could make the task tinier by trying an 8 oz. or even a 4 oz. glass.

If I couldn’t even manage to stick the “It’s gonna be a great day!” habit, I could experiment with different forms of celebration. 

The idea is to look at the process as a scientist would. Every failure suggests a new experiment.   

Ten Minute Exercise

Another concept BJ Fogg introduces is called a Swarm of Bs. Here’s a ten minute version based on the aspiration for this website. 

1. Set a timer for 10 minutes. 

2. Take out a sheet of paper and something to write with. 

3. In the center of the piece of paper, draw a cloud and write down an aspiration. 

Example: Move from depression to well-being. 

4. Outside of the circle, make a list of behaviors that will work toward that aspiration. 

Examples: 

Soak up some sun

Move your body

Improve sleep habits

Breathe

Spend time with others 

Practice gratitude

5. Put a star by behaviors that you think you might actually do.

6. Of the star behaviors, which ones can you make tiny enough to do in thirty seconds or less?

Example: 

I will stand in the sunshine for ten seconds…

7. Match that habit to an existing habit in your day. For the sunshine habit, you’ll want to choose a time when you’re already outside. 

Examples: 

After I leave for work…

After I have lunch…

8. Test the habit.

Example:

After I leave for work.

I will stand in the sunshine for ten seconds.

Then I will celebrate by (doing a fist pump, saying YES!!!, raising my arms in a V like an Olympic athlete.)

Extra Credit

The book Tiny Habits goes into greater depth about why we behave the way we do, how to grow good habits, how to untangle bad habits, and how to use the process within organizations.

Here’s a brief explanation by BJ Fogg of why Baby Steps work. (2 minutes, 11 seconds.)

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Movies That Get Depression Right

“In thinking about depressing movies, many people don’t realize that all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.”–Roger Ebert

Movies in a Minor Key

In the year 2000 I experienced the blahs when it came to the movies. I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing. Were the comedies not funny enough? The action films not active enough? Then I saw The House of Mirth, a period piece about Lily Bart, an attractive New York socialite who starts drawing the wrong kind of attention. Her social standing takes a downward spiral as a result.

I came away from that movie feeling refreshed. It wasn’t that I disliked the character and felt that she got what she deserved. It was that I’d seen a film acknowledge that sometimes despite our best efforts things just don’t go our way. Instead of envying the protagonist’s triumph against all odds or wishing my life could be like hers, I felt compassion for Lily’s misfortune and gratitude that my day-to-day problems seemed more manageable by comparison.     

Movies That Get Depression Right

While escapist action and comedies can lift our mood when we’re having a bad day, when those days start to string together and there’s no end in sight, it’s surprisingly reassuring to spend time with others who have been there. At the very least, we feel less alone.

My favorite episodes of John Moe’s The Hilarious World of Depression feature listener recommendations of songs, books, and now movies that get depression right. The 45-minute episode brought back a flood of fond movie memories for me, and you can listen to it here. But, if you only have ten minutes to choose your evening’s entertainment. Here goes. 

Holy Wedlock! 

The pitch-black comedy-drama Melancholia starts with Earth getting obliterated by a slow-motion collision with the title planet, then flashes back to the fairy tale wedding reception and sibling squabbles that preceded our collective demise. “Even though the planet is about to be completely destroyed, Justine’s sister Claire is still telling her that she has to eat, and she has to take a bath, and things like that, and that’s ridiculous.”

In the ensemble comedy Bridesmaids, Annie’s life is falling apart. But when she finds out her lifetime best friend Lillian has gotten engaged, she’s determined to do whatever it takes to be the perfect maid of honor. “Annie has lost her bakery, her income, and her self esteem. Seeing the success of her best friend’s wedding and her new friend, the replacement friend, shows her another way she’s losing at life.”

The Writing Life

World’s Greatest Dad, Lance Clayton, dreamed of being a rich and famous writer but has only managed to make it as a high school poetry teacher. His only son Kyle is an insufferable jackass whose death in a freak accident offers him the greatest opportunity of his life. “He is not valued by anyone in his life around him, from his students to the girlfriend who seems to be drifting away, to his son. And then he finally gets recognition, and it’s even lonelier, even more isolating than it was before.” A dark comedy with a truly twisted premise.

The very funny odd couple road picture Sideways tags along with two old friends on a pre-wedding tour of wine country. Jack is a has-been actor and groom to be. His best man Miles is a never-was writer. “Miles suffers from nagging doubts and circular thoughts that keep him from really being present in the moment, anger with himself, and disgust mixed with envy toward Jack. He feels that maybe things would be so much easier if he could live a life like Jack where he just doesn’t care.”

The Hours tells the story of three women from different times and places linked by their yearnings, fears, and  search for more potent, meaningful lives. “It’s an extraordinarily accurate portrayal of being in such acute all-encompassing pain that the only thing you think can end that pain is death.”

Girls, Interrupted

Horse Girl is Sarah, a socially isolated arts and crafts store employee whose strangely surreal dreams challenge her ability to distinguish her visions from reality. “Alison Brie nails the secretive disorientation of psychotic depression perfectly.”

Girl, Interrupted is Susanna Kaysen’s account of her 18-month stay at a mental hospital in the 1960s. “The girls often feel like no one gets them, and even though they’re fighting with each other, they know that the only real people who understand what they’re going through are their fellow patients.”

The title character in Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a loving mom compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. “It’s really hard to find movies that show people with depression who still have to get through each day like everything is fine. It isn’t all crying in a corner and fifteen minutes later everything is fixed.”

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Sam Bell is living on the far side of the Moon completing a three-year contract with Lunar Industries to mine Earth’s primary source of energy, Helium-3. It is a lonely job, and though his time on the moon is almost over, his physical and mental health are deteriorating. “At one point he drives away from the moon base and you see and hear him from a distance just break down and weep at his total alienation from the world and the apparent impossibility of escape from that prison of his deceptive mind.”

Aniara, one of the many spaceships transporting Earth’s fleeing population to their new home–planet Mars–collides with space junk and is thrown off her course. “One of the most fascinating and insightful explorations of hopelessness and despair that I’ve ever seen.”

Lost in Translation in Tokyo, and suffering from insomnia, Bob, a middle-aged American actor cashing in on his fame by making TV commercials for the Japanese market, and Charlotte, a neglected young American wife, cross paths one night in a luxury hotel bar and form an unusual friendship. “The main characters are functional depressives who arrive at similar emotional states from different directions and find common ground.”

Animated Alienation

Anomalisa is the stop-motion animation tale of Michael Stone, an author of customer service books, to whom everyone looks and sounds the same. One night, while on a routine business trip, he meets Lisa, a stranger with a unique voice. “It’s such a good representation of someone feeling numb to the world while also being a jerk.”

Inside Out is how adolescent Riley feels her life has been turned when her father takes a job in San Francisco and she’s uprooted from her Midwestern world. Pixar animation brings to life the emotions Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness, who live in the control center of Riley’s mind. It’s “The movie that depicts depression the best because the character sadness fits it.”

Do-Overs

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s Joel is stunned to discover that his girlfriend Clementine has had her memories of their tumultuous relationship erased and seeks to do the same. “It spoke to the part of me that just doesn’t want to feel anymore, the desire to erase what’s in my brain and replace it with something that allows me to just be a normal happy person.”

Groundhog Day never ends for TV weatherman Phil Connors who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities, gets caught in a giant blizzard that he failed to predict, and finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. “It is another day like many before and many after that you wake up into and feel the same daunting inadequacies.”

Fantasy Figures

Lord of the Rings – Return of the King reveals the ultimate fate of Middle Earth in the final film of Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy. “The ring has such a powerful hold on Frodo, as did my depression, that he struggles with parting from it. But its release, of course, is the only way to save Frodo’s world.”

The Babadook is the sinister titular figure of a disturbing pop-up storybook that shows up on Amelia’s doorstep six years after the violent death of her husband. Her efforts to get rid of the nasty book prove every bit as challenging as the out of control behavior of her six-year-old son. “It’s a very creepy movie, but it is equally creepy about the possible supernatural explanations and maybe the psychological ones.”

Finding Strength in Numbers

Stand by Me, based on the Stephen King novella “The Body,” is the semi-autobiographical story of an overnight hike by four adolescent Oregon boys who seek the body of a boy who had been struck by a train. “The kids in that movie were all processing some kind of trauma in ways that any middle school kid would immediately recognize.”

The Station Agent is a film about three people with nothing in common, except their shared solitude, until chance brings their lives together. “I just love how it speaks to the reality, without exaggerating it or making it larger than life, that we can be in pain with other people but still not be on the same page of pain.”