Positive Ecology

I initially titled this blog ‘A whole heap of seemingly unrelated observations that hopefully will come together as a coherent blog post’ but that seemed a little long. You see there have been a couple of things swirling around in my head for a while now and I think I may have resolved them through some fairly unplanned linkages.

One of the biggies has been how to stay positive about what’s potentially going to happen in the future. If you really accept that the two challenges of climate change and peak oil are going to have a big impact on our lives then you’re forced to rationalise what you’re going to do about it. In the face of inaction from ‘seemingly’ large sections of the populace and political power brokers, this can get quite depressing.

So I returned to probably the book that inspired all this in the first place, Robert Hopkins’ Transition Handbook. This is a great book that really gives a good guide to how to build towards a more sustainable future. It also talks about the dilemma that I guess I’ve been going through and the importance of not getting all ‘urban isolationist’ and heading for the hills or shrinking into denial and inaction. It points out that we humans have a fantastic capacity to plan and find amazingly creative solutions for challenging problems. It also points out that these faculties don’t function if you are stressed, anxious or fearful.

Hang on a second ! That’s almost the exact same line I use when talking to schools about promoting mental health and wellbeing. I can see myself standing in front of the group; “If your students are sitting in class worried about what’s going on at home, anxious about recess or lunchtime or just runimating on how they are going to get some food for lunch, then they’re not learning! No matter how good your teaching and learning process are it’s just not getting in”.

Our solution is to not start off focusing on the problem but building ‘protective factors’ throughout the community. Carrying this message I recently presented at the ‘Positive Schools Conference’. This is a conference discussing how to utilise positive psychology in education. Positive psychology basically started off by saying that we are sort of missing half the story if all psychology does is look at illness. It tries to balance this by studying the psychology of positive human functioning. It suggests that we can study and build interventions and approaches that will utilise individual and group strengths to build thriving and flourishing individuals, families and communities that lead lives that are not just free from illness but more fulfilling.

The application of this sort of thinking can take many forms including altruistic acts, mindfullness, self-awareness,use of personal strengths, acts of kindness and appreciation and a load more. One story that resonated for me though was of a school application of appreciation. On noticing a blank board in the staffroom, a member of staff decided to pin a post it note, thanking another staff member for helping him with a challenging situation, pointing out that he really appreciated it. Before long more notes appeared, ‘thanks for covering my class’, ‘thanks for asking how I was the other day’, ‘thanks for the Tim-Tam at 3:30, I was in chocolate dire straits! As time passed the notes took over the board and the idea spread. Messages of appreciation to students were written on a chalk board in a common room which was then followed by notes from students to students. “Sure” said the presenter “some people took the piss, but their notes were either removed or just ignored”. In time this sort of thing becomes true engagement. It becomes not only a way to practice appreciation and the giving of compliments which then promotes this sort of thinking through functional and structural changes to the brain, but empowers other people to be brave and creative.To take risks knowing that there are others out there that will help if needed.

So what the hell does all this have to do with our year of treading lightly. Well  it occurs to me that we need to get better at engaging, empowering and coming together to build a culture of action. We (that’s the all of us ‘we’) need to somehow focus thought and action away from all the problems, which are significant and scary but also limit our creativity which we desperately need to solve what’s coming. We need to practice positive ecology. Where are the strengths of our individuals, our families and our communities? How can we provide situations where whatever form your participation takes is not only rewarding to all of us but also to you as it taps into an interest, a passion or a strength?

Finally how do we get away from being lead and get organised to being supported and empowered. You see the post-it note example was powerful for that school because it’s organic, it grew from the passions of the participants. But it was also obvious, it was open and inclusive and it was a process owned by the participants, not by ‘them’. If the leadership group had planned to do this and every fortnight at staff meeting had encouraged the staff to write something positive, would the results have been the same?

I don’t really know what positive ecology would look like and I’d love to hear your ideas, but here’s what I’m going to try. Every second sunday (what braniac decides to do this in winter!) whilst the kids are in bed I’m going to go out the front of our house, break up pallets and build boxes. I’ll take some extra tools, some music and hopefully a willing wife; making paper (or building cards) and just spend an afternoon doing something very public. We will welcome people to chat, join in, or do whatever they love doing (yes I’m looking at you our increasingly famous next door neighbour musicians). There will be no right or wrong and the aim will be to provide a community to use your skills, or interests to build community.

The hope, and yeh I’m okay to think that this is overly optimistic, is that if we build a street culture where we regularly set aside time to do things together then we build a culture of ‘I’ll help’! Along with this goes ‘I’ll share’ and ‘I’ll learn’ and this provides fertile ground for real action, real solutions and real community that really will make a difference in the future. It also isn’t organised by anybody. I’m not telling people to do it, I’m simply showing that I believe our community grows by begin out, being public and being welcoming. If you agree then cool, join in. If you’ve got a better plan even better, there’s always room for more ideas.

And if no-one joins in, that’s fine. I really enjoy making these boxes and talking to people in the street, so it’s a success already!