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Michael Ignatieff (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Michael Ignatieff (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Want to get happy? Get writing Add to ...

From: Michael Ignatieff

To: Michael Ignatieff

Re: Love Note to Self

Dearest Crumpet,

Try not to pay attention to those upsetting polls that outline your failure to thrive as Liberal leader. Only 21 per cent think you have what it takes to get things done, compared to 43 per cent for Ol' Husky Eyes and 26 per cent for Jack-of-all-Opportunities? Polls, schmolls. You're a good guy. Really. Listen to Zsuzsanna, your best Iggy-whisperer, who is always by your side, steering you through the melee in your head, not to mention through a room. She doesn't even think your eyebrows make you look like Bert on Sesame Street.

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Listen, maybe that pedigree of yours - those Russian aristocratic ancestors on one side and the smarty-pants Grants on the other with all their philosophical understanding of the Canadian psyche - makes you a little hard on yourself. Relax. Just because you've been bred to be a leader doesn't mean you'll be a successful one right at this moment. And who knows? Ol' Husky Eyes could make a major blunder any time now. Or the economy might tank big time once again, which would fuel discontent. That's all you really need.

Sure, it would have even helped if Ol' Husky Eyes had slipped off that ice floe on his Great Northern Photo Op a while back. Don't worry: Your time will come. You just need a little luck. You're trying your best, which is all that matters.

Anyone can write a love note to himself to help create lasting happiness. The only caveat is that it doesn't work as well if you're too self-critical, needy and oversensitive to potential abandonment. That's the finding of a research paper out of York University in Toronto, published recently in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

As part of a large study called Project Hope, conducted via the Internet and involving 4,500 people across Canada, nearly 200 individuals participated in three exercises designed to test whether daily doses of self-compassion and optimism had the power to lift mood. (Reports on other exercises conducted in the project will be published in the coming months.)

"It was an effort to create a tool for when things don't go as well as you wanted," says Myriam Mongrain, associate professor of psychology at York's faculty of medicine, who worked as project leader on the study along with lead author and graduate student Leah Shapira.

Some participants were instructed to write feel-good notes to themselves every day for a week. Asked to address an upsetting event, they had to attempt to comfort themselves as they might a friend.

Others were told to envision themselves five years in the future, when all the issues that were bothering them had been positively resolved. From that happy, imagined place, they had to write to themselves every day for a week with advice on how to get to that rosy future.

For control purposes, a third group was instructed to simply recall any early memory and write about it daily for the same time period.

Researchers checked in with participants one, three and six months after they did the exercises. The results were clear: Love notes filled with compassion or suggestions for a better future, even when written to oneself for only a week, resulted in "significant improvement in levels of happiness and a decrease in depressed feelings," Prof. Mongrain reports.

The control group didn't fare as well. "People who can develop the ability to nurture themselves in the face of setbacks really are able to bounce back and don't become overly distressed," she explains.

Even though participants were deemed to have a vulnerability to depression, the heightened positive effect of the touchy-feely exercise showed that the tool would work for anyone, Prof. Mongrain says. "The good news is that you don't have to do much to make a big improvement in your life satisfaction."

The reason it doesn't work as well for people who are dependent or needy is because "they don't know how to give compassion to themselves," she says, explaining that the goal of her research is to figure out which therapy interventions work best with certain personality types. The optimism exercise, for example, worked best for people who are goal-oriented.

To: Stephen Harper

From: Stephen Harper

Re: Love Note to Self

Dearest Grand Poobah,

Stay the course. Say as little as possible. Plaster on that close-lipped smile. You're not a needy guy who cares about what people think. You do what you want, and you're doing good, buddy. You're like Laureen on her motorbike. Canadians don't seem to have cared much about our international humiliation at being rejected from the United Nations Security Council. The questionable renovation contracts on Parliament Hill barely caused a ripple. Stick with the bread-and-butter issues and tap into the anti-elite thing. Look what it did for Rob Ford.

Bert of the Highbrows will never make himself sufficiently common, despite the dropping of the occasional 'g' and his twitty tweets. Let him try while you press on with the political theatre. You're not a narcissist who thinks only you are right; you're just a good leader. The best. The launch of national public consultations to ask Canadians what should be cut or saved in the next budget - brilliant! It's all in the optics. You're getting the hang of this incumbency thing: You're easing your way to a majority, one shrewd political stunt at a time.

A silly idea?

Prof. Mongrain acknowledges that in Western society such Buddhist-style loving kindness directed toward the self is not encouraged or even acceptable.

"Many believe that you won't get anywhere by being kind to yourself; letting yourself off the hook is a recipe for failure or disaster," she says. "They've begun to believe that they need to be tough on themselves to reach their high standards. ... For them, they might think it meant they were lazy or self-indulgent. But it offers another world view, another prescription in how to relate to oneself. ... The public needs to know that this will not interfere with their work ethic."

The approach might also lead to greater harmony among people, she adds.

"If you interpret events as signs that you're incompetent, that you're a failure, that you're inadequate, all of those judgments toward yourself will lead to an unhealthy approach - overcompensating for example ... and you become angry as a way to defend yourself, to retaliate."

Right. Question Period, anyone?

 

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