Exclusive interview: Chris Johnstone on inspiration, finding your power and Transition
Chris Johnstone’s ‘Find Your Power’ has just been revised and republished, this time by Permanent Publications. ‘Find Your Power’ is a book that many peobple involved in Transition initiatives have found very useful. Chris is a medical doctor, an addictions specialist and an empowerment coach. He has pioneered the application of positive psychology within the NHS, and is renowned for his workshops and his talks to Transition groups. An interview with Chris was a key feature of the ‘Heart’ section of the Transition Handbook, and so, to celebrate the new edition of ‘Find Your Power’, I interviewed Chris about the book and some wider themes that it covers. You have just republished ‘Find Your Power’. How would you describe the book to someone, and what is different about this second edition?
Find Your Power offers a collection of tools that strengthen our ability to bring about positive change – both in our own lives and in the world. I look at change as a journey similar to an adventure story, where it is often the awareness of a threat, or the discovery of an opportunity, that kicks off the plot. But there are so many obstacles we can bump into, and these can easily stop us in our tracks. The tools I introduce help us spark up the inspiration to begin, find ways through common blocks and keep going through periods of difficulty.
The main obstacle I address is powerlessness, where someone experiences a challenge as beyond their power to do much about. This is common when facing issues like climate change and peak oil, and also frequently encountered by people struggling with addictions or depression. I look at how we can take part in a turnaround sequence that transforms a crisis into a turning point. The tools I describe are drawn from a range of sources, including my experience as an addictions specialist, my close working over more than two decades with Joanna Macy, my work in the field of positive psychology and my background in campaigning and activism.
The new edition has been updated to more clearly address our current context of economic uncertainty and climate challenge. I’ve increased the emphasis on resilience building and expanded the section looking at how we find our power to address global issues like peak oil and climate change. If someone has already read the first edition, there’s enough new material to make it worth coming back to, particularly in the introduction and Chapters 2, 7, 8 and 11.
What lessons do you think ‘Find Your Power’ has for the Transition movement?
I see this book as having useful material for the Transition Movement in three main areas. The first is in offering insights from the addictions field about what helps people change, the second is in describing how we can bring out higher levels of personal functioning, so that our actions become more enjoyable and more effective, and the third is in mapping out a new story of how we can find and express our power. I’ll take these one at a time.
While many people have commented on how our society is hooked on oil, what I’m much more interested in is how insights from addictions recovery can be applied to weaning ourselves off oil dependent lifestyles. I have a chapter about identifying stuck patterns, both at a personal and collective level, and then looking at how we become part of the story of shifting the patterns we want to move on from. I spent years working as an addictions specialist in the UK health service, and I’ve adapted some of the approaches I used, like motivational interviewing, cognitive therapy and positive psychology, so that these can be applied not only to personal issues but also to carbon reduction and addressing oil dependence.
When tackling a pattern that is deeply entrenched, it is easy to feel defeated. What can help here are practices to cultivate higher levels of functioning. I invite the reader to consider how their challenge might seem if they found a more enjoyable way of approaching it, if they were braver, more determined, more skillful at problem solving and better at finding allies. I have chapters on building our courage, on the creative problem-solving skills that make breakthroughs more likely, on improving our ability to bounce-back and on drawing in support around us. These are strengthening skills that help us in our journey of transitioning.
At the heart of all of this is a new story about what power is and how we express it. Moving away from the ‘old story’ of positional power based on having a position of advantage over others, I focus instead on ‘personal power’ based on steps we personally take that help move us and our situation in a desired direction. I write about three dimensions of personal power – ‘power from within’, based on developing inner strengths like determination, ‘power with’, based on interpersonal intelligence that helps us work well with others, and ‘power through’, a deep and wonderful concept that refers to the way larger changes happen through smaller steps. For example, when you look at a newspaper photograph through a magnifying glass, all you see are tiny dots. When you step back and see the bigger picture, the image emerges through the dots. In a similar way, our actions and choices can be like those tiny dots. They might not seem much when looked up close – it is only when we step back and take in a larger picture that we can see how larger cultural shifts happen through what we do.
What tips might you have for Transition initiatives who have been going for a couple of years, and are starting to find it difficult to sustain momentum?
The third part of the book looks at how we find the power to keep going and sustain changes. I draw on a metaphor used in holistic medicine, where a state of wellbeing is seen as similar to coasting along in a boat on water. Crashing into a rock represents hitting a problem; that can be a personal health problem, or if the metaphor is applied to a group, it can be the group going through a rocky patch. What I like about this image is that it opens up different approaches to dealing with, and preventing, problems. You can focus on the problem by looking at the rock. You can also pay attention to the water level, which represents the background level of resilience and well-being.
I offer an exercise of mapping influences, where you identify any factors that raise or lower the water level. If we apply this to a Transition group, things that raise ‘the water level’ of the group include a sense of shared purpose, trust levels within the group, the ability to work through conflicts, and, importantly, the degree to which time spent with the group is experienced as enjoyable and attractive. I see the ability to make what we do enjoyable as such an essential skill that I devote a whole chapter to it.
My other tip is look for inspiring examples. There are some types of group that have continued for decades – what helps them keep going? In Bristol, for example, over eighty Alcoholics Anonymous groups meet every week and the organization has been going for over seventy years. What’s their secret? A sense of fellowship is certainly part of it. I’m not saying that Transition groups need be like AA groups, but we can certainly learn from them. A saying they have is ‘the most important person in the room is the newcomer’. If people’s first experience of the group is a good one, they’re more likely to keep coming back, and new energy coming into the group helps keep it going. This can set off a self-reinforcing cycle.
What key things do you think Transition initiatives might design into their practices and culture at an early stage that would lessen incidences of conflict and argument?
In July, I’m running a workshop for Transition City Lancaster on Strengthening Skills for Positive Change. One of the areas we’ll look at is the skill of building positive relationships. You can apply the same rock and water level metaphor here, where a relationship having difficulty is represented by the boat crashing into rocks. An argument is a common rock our relationships can crash into. The skill of positive relating raises the water level of a relationship by increasing its resilience. For example, when we are able to address the issues behind a conflict, aim for win/win outcomes and take steps to restore trust and goodwill, important partnerships don’t need to be sunk by bumpy patches. The ability to deal with conflicts in ways other than arguments is a learnable skill that involves mapping out the issues, identifying the needs of different parties involved and creative problem solving with areas of difficulty.
When a number of people in a group have these skills, it can raise the resilience (or water level) of the whole group. Conflicts aren’t always bad and can sometimes be helpful, particularly when they bring issues to the surface that need addressing. So I’d see group skills, relationship skills and the ability to work constructively with conflicts as key areas for the Great Reskilling.
The insights, tools and exercises set out in the book seem to work very well for individuals and also for Transition groups. Have you any experience of how they, or something like them, might help with, say, local authorities, as they grapple to design ways to respond to peak oil and climate change?
Over the last three years, I’ve worked with a local authority on designing, and participating in, an intervention to tackle workplace bullying. Although this is a different issue, it has similarities in that the goals are behaviour change and culture change within a big public sector organization. The intervention, which involved empowerment and positive relationship training with hundreds of staff from all levels of the organization, was based very much on the principles described in Find Your Power.
If a local authority is really serious about responding to peak oil and climate change, it will need to actively engage people at all levels of the organisation in a cultural shift, in a journey of change. Attention needs to be given to the ‘call to adventure’ that sparks off people’s enthusiasm. Small group discussion and mutual support groups can play a valuable role here, and I’d recommend David Gershon’s book Social Change 2.0 for the examples, and tools, it offers on engaging popular participation.
What do you see as the key qualities of resilient individuals, what blocks that resilience, and how might Transition groups most effectively enable that resilience on a community scale?
A key area that can either build or block resilience is this: our story of what resilience is based on. For example, a common view is that resilience is something some people have and others don’t. If you don’t see yourself as a resilient person, this story will increase your risk of depression during difficult times. When I run resilience training courses, I draw out a different story by asking people to remember a time of difficulty they faced in the past that they found a way through. Then I invite them to think back at what helped them do this by looking at four key areas:
- Strategies they used, e.g. asking for help, using problem-solving approaches, meditation techniques, attention to diet and exercise etc.
- Strengths they drew upon within themselves e.g. courage, determination, sense of humour, flexibility, ability to communicate etc.
- Resources they turned to for nourishment, inspiration, guidance or support e.g. friends, mentors, self-help books, places they felt safe and calm, support groups etc.
- Insights in terms of any ideas, perspectives or sayings they found useful.
The letters SSRI are commonly used to refer to a group of antidepressants that includes Prozac, but here I’m using them to map out four key areas that support resilience. I think of these as our ‘self-help SSRI’s’, and they have powerful anti-depressant properties by strengthening our ability to address the issues we find depressing. When we can take part in the sequence of turning difficult situations around, this helps build our sense of resilience and also improves our mood. Much of my work and writing is about how we develop these self-help SSRI’s, and the good news is that they are all linked to learnable skills.
The Transition movement has started the process of enabling community resilience by getting people thinking about the topic, and also drawing attention to how extremely vulnerable our dependence on oil makes us. What’s happening also is that our story of resilience is changing, with the focus shifting from resilience in individuals, which although valuable, is also limited, to resilience in communities, which is something we work together to create, and which also benefits us all.
You organise the annual ‘Happiness Lectures’ in Bristol. Do you think, overall, that we are becoming happier as a society?
Surveys show that the proportion of people describing themselves as ‘very happy’ has fallen in the last fifty years, while levels of depression have risen significantly. I set up the Bristol Happiness Lectures to provide an opportunity to reassess the way we think about happiness and depression. I see our society as having taken an awful wrong turning in falling for the myth that happiness depends on having things. Research shows that walking in nature makes us happier, while walking through shopping malls lowers mood; studies also link voluntary simplicity with improved mood and materialism with increased misery. Yet at the same time we’re bombarded with messages telling us things like ‘bigger, better, happier’, and I see this as increasing our risk of depression.
But what I’ll most be talking about at the Happiness Lectures this Tuesday is the self-help SSRI, and how finding our power to address the issues that depress us is the most reliable long-term strategy for improving our mood. That’s the message of Find Your Power too.