Leveraging the Human Experience, part one (#792)

In systems thinking, there’s a concept known as “leverage points”.  A leverage point is the place in the system where the smallest force will create the largest shift, or to put it more simply, the smallest change will make the biggest difference.

As Peter Senge describes it in The Fifth Discipline:

“The bottom line of systems thinking is leverage – seeing where actions and changes in structures can lead to significant, enduring improvements.”

When it comes to human beings (i.e. you and me), the obvious question those of us in the “change business” need to ask ourselves is what the key leverage points are in the human system. In other words, what are the most highly leveraged places for us to intervene to create the richest experience of being alive?

What follows is an exploration of some of the most common intervention points in current use, along with a bit of my personal story as I’ve worked my way through the world’s of self-help, therapy, and coaching…

1. Change the world, change your life: Intervening at the level of results

Typical interventions at this level: Goal setting

One of the least leveraged intervention points in the quest for a more wonderful experience of being alive is also the most common – to attempt to create more happiness by attempting to create different results. This is the myth of happiness in action – a seemingly common sense response to the idea that “I’ll be happy when I get what I want”, and conversely “I can’t be truly happy until the world/economy/politicians/etc. get it together or I get the right amount of money/right relationship/right weight/etc.”

But if we want to enhance our quality of life, setting goals and trying to achieve them as a strategy for fulfillment is as likely to take us two steps back as three steps forward. (This is as opposed to setting goals and trying to achieve them for the fun of it, like George Mallory’s famous response as to why he intended to climb Mt. Everest – “Because it’s there.”)

In some ways, I was fortunate to go through my years of depression at a time when my life circumstances were at their easiest. I was loved by my parents, safe in my home (and then later at school), with good friends and enough resources to comfortably get by. During my first few “post-depression” years, I was living in bedsits in London, on occasion choosing between having money to deposit into the in-room heater or getting my nightly dinner from the local pizza place for £1.95. I had never been happier.

While I certainly enjoy the things of the world, I’ve come to see that it is as possible to be miserable in paradise as it is to find peace in the midst of hellacious circumstances.  As I wrote in You Can Have What You Want, “Happiness leads to success a heck of a lot more often than success leads to happiness.”

The limitations of the “success leads to happiness” approach to life are beautifully illustrated in the story of the novelist Joseph Heller who was attending a party with his friend Kurt Vonnegut on the exclusive Shelter Island in New York.

As they looked around at all the opulence on display, Vonnegut said to Heller “Joe, how does it feel to know that our billionaire host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned it’s entire history?”

Heller replied “I’ve got something that he can never have.”

“What could that possibly be, Joe?” asked Vonnegut.

“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

2. Change your actions, change your life: Intervening at the level of behavior

Typical interventions at this level: Behavioral modification designed to eliminate negative habits and addictions and create positive habits, addictions, and practices

At some point, most people quite rightly realize that to focus on what you can’t directly control, including results, will ultimately lead to more frustration than peace. So one of the logical places to go next when looking for leverage is to what we seemingly can control – our own behavior.

After all, if we can see that some of our habitual behaviors have negative consequences and we can stop those behaviors, surely that will have a major positive impact on our lives. Similarly, if we know that certain behaviors have a positive effect, engaging them on a consistent basis should give us some leverage over the quality of our lives.

And up to a point, this is true. When I finally found it in myself to “take on” my apparent depressive tendencies, I did my best to limit the amount of time I spent on my own.  I altered my diet and created a set of positive practices ranging from exercise to journalling to deep breathing and meditation. In the short term, that level of simple discipline made all the difference in the world.

But while my self-care routine enabled me to stave off “the black dog” of depression for many years, I always suspected I was less than two weeks away from a return to the darkness.  In other words, if I stopped taking my “behavioral prozac”, I would be right back where I started.

Similarly, no one would question that giving up alcohol can change the life of an alcoholic and coming off drugs can save the life of an addict. But if the source of the addiction isn’t addressed, chances are it will manifest in other ways, like ex-smokers who wind up eating to excess or reformed sex addicts who find a new and different way to blow up their relationships.

So while behavior modification can create short and even long-term improvements in specific areas, in most cases it won’t change anything at a fundamental level, making it a fairly low leverage point in the pursuit of a higher quality of life.

3. Change your thinking, change your life: Intervening at the level of thought

Typical interventions at this level: Positive thinking, Affirmations, NLP, Cognitive therapy

For many years, it seemed to me that the ultimate leverage point when it came to creating a richer experience of being alive had to be thought. After all, our thoughts have an immediate impact on our experience that is both easy to observe and scientifically measurable.

For example, if you were to take just fifteen minutes now to deliberately think “happy thoughts”, not only would you immediately begin to feel better, but if we were to take blood samples before and after the second sample would show lower levels of cortisol (a chemical associated with stress and suppressed immune response) and elevated levels of immunoglobin A (IgA) and DHEA, both of which are associated with higher levels of immune functioning and well-being.

And indeed, my experience and experiments with numerous “thought control” systems did reap rewards. Not only could I improve my own quality of life in the moment by choosing higher quality thoughts, but my colleagues and I were able to assist our clients in making dramatic changes in symptomology, ranging from the elimination of phobias and the blush response to installing feelings of determination in the face of adversity and higher levels of creativity “on demand”.

But the problem for me was that no matter how well I was able to cope with life, I still felt myself to be fundamentally broken. No matter how many symptoms I was able to eradicate, reframe, or utilize, my basic dis-ease never really shifted. I had become a “high-functioning depressive”, who was able to fairly consistently play my best hand from what seemed to be a fundamentally damaged deck of cards.

The limitations of the “change your thinking, change your life” approach are beautifully articulated by Peter Senge :

“Our nonsystematic ways of thinking are so damaging specifically because they consistently lead us to focus on low leverage changes: we focus on symptoms where the stress is greatest. We repair or ameliorate the symptoms. But such efforts only make matters better in the short run, at best, and worse in the long run.”

In my work, my clients were happy with their results. But for myself, I knew I needed to find something more fundamental…

(While I was explaining the content of today’s tip to my daughter, she said I couldn’t possibly leave the story at this point. But I beg your indulgence, and promise to pick up on the theme next week with some far more encouraging and hopeful insights for the future!)

With love,

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