When faced with a difficult situation, such as the one we are in at this time, think and act—don’t react. Action backed up by intention, as opposed to a knee-jerk reflex, is what social scientists call “agency.” Action with intention is your way out of helplessness.
Keep in mind that you have the ability to act as an agent for yourself and take many courses of action.
There are three kinds of agency:
Personal agency, where you take intentional action to help yourself.
Proxy agency,where another person acts on your behalf. An example of this would be an attorney who represents your interests in a workplace issue.
Collective agency, where you work with others toward a common goal. For instance, you and your neighbors gather signatures to get a city ordinance passed.
The more you respond with thoughtful actions, rather than just reacting to events around you, the better you will feel about yourself and the world.
Please scroll below for translation of this prescription and for more information about self-efficacy and the children’s story.
Even if you’re not familiar with the classic American children’s story The Little Engine That Could, which illustrates the concept of self-efficacy, the message of the book is universally relevant. Research from around the world proves the importance of self-efficacy in helping people effectively manage their lives and overcome obstacles. If you’re interested in seeing the book and hearing the original story, here is a link on YouTube.
Translation of Prescription Rx When you feel hopeless, say to yourself what the little engine in the children’s story said to itself over and over again, as it worked hard to reach its goal: “I think I can…I think I can…”
This illustrates a concept called self-efficacy. It is the belief that you have in your ability to do something, even when it is difficult. Repeat this to yourself and defeat hopelessness. Research shows this is the most important predictor of success. It is your antidote to hopelessness. If you think you can, it is very like that you will!
Please share this so we can get everyone engaging in mental hygiene regularly, in the same way many millions of people practice oral hygiene. Thank you! Please scroll below for translation of text in the image.
Rx Do for your mind as you do for your teeth everyday: Brush Your Mind Everyday
Breathe with your belly and exhale slowly
Move your body – dance, walk or anything positive
Sing or chant – even if you think you can’t
Connect with a friend or loved one – via phone call, text, email or video, even if you cannot meet in person
Remind yourself of what is going well, even if your life is not as you would like it to be.
This short video explains how you can brush your mind to help you more effectively manage negative emotions. Make this a part of your daily mental hygiene routine and brush your mind more often when you find yourself in difficult circumstances. (Please note, I have close captioned this in English and just added subtitles in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Hindi, Korean, Chinese and Portuguese. You can access them via clicking the setting on the video. The Chinese and Portuguese did not come out perfectly…and I am working to have those re-done, but there should still be enough to get you started. Thanks for your patience.)
Please share so we can get everyone brushing their minds.
What do you get when you mix a pediatric dentist with a clinical psychologist, and toss in a master’s degree in public health?
Someone who wants to get the whole world brushing – brushing their teeth, and their minds!
Let’s face it. Preventing depression and violence is a hard sell, even harder than preventing dental caries.
Sure, we have lots of data from experts informing us about the extent of these problems, and we even have research-based information on how to prevent them. We know we can often prevent depression and violence, but why haven’t our efforts taken hold?
What I discovered in the course of my public health journey is that most people are not interested in these issues – even though they affect millions of people around the world. Among those who are interested, many are discouraged or unclear about what to do.
I believe, however, that the “Brush Your Mind” concept just might be a useful way forward.
Where we are Today
I admire and respect the late George Albee, Howard Markman, and Ricardo Muñoz for their work in prevention science. Although they’re world-renowned experts in their fields, their work has yet to be integrated into the mainstream, the way it deserves to be.
Howard Markman has had best-selling books and he’s even been on Oprah. But some years ago when I asked him about the extent to which his work had diffused within society, he responded “a drop in the bucket.”
Unfortunately, he’s right!
What will be Psychology’s Space Program?
Various fields have broken barriers and reached milestones, resulting in a collective shift of imagination. For aviation, it was defying gravity, reaching the moon and going beyond. What might it be for psychology?
I propose that for psychology, the public first needs to know and believe that it is possible to prevent or reduce psychological distress – because people cannot desire something that they don’t even know exists. Then we will be poised to vaccinate (metaphorically) our world against violence and depression – two of the most widespread public health issues of our time.
The behavioral sciences offer us the psychological equivalent of vaccines. These include programs that can prevent violence and depression. Just as vaccines don’t prevent all illnesses, these “psychological vaccines” cannot prevent all problems. Nevertheless, when used in a systematic and ongoing way, they will yield the following benefits to millions of people:
Improve quality of life
Reduce health care costs
Reduce the incidence of depression and violence.
Challenges in Translating and Communicating Psychological Research
One of the challenges in improving health through the translation of psychology is that we have a plethora of theories. If we dig around enough in the literature, we find that they all, in some way or another, account for some degree of change.
While this may be a researcher’s dream, it’s also a translator’s nightmare.
Additionally, we’re flooded by masses of data informing us about complex problems with multi-factorial etiologies. This makes it difficult to create tidy sound bites – which are frequently the most that an oversaturated and time-starved public can realistically take in.
What we need is a means of addressing problems in a way that is simple, without being simplistic; and we need to do so in a way that promotes hope and self-efficacy on the part of the public.
Lessons from Preventive Dentistry
During my search for doctoral programs in psychology, I came across George Albee’s question “What is the mental health equivalent of fluoride?” It was a critical question that strongly influenced my approach to psychology.
In 2002, I immersed myself into the world of depression prevention and violence prevention. The various approaches to understanding behavior were intellectually interesting – but equally frustrating. It was difficult to find clarity and consensus.
In 2005, while leading an international nonprofit organization focused on violence and depression prevention, I attended a program for nonprofit leaders at Stanford. I heard Robert Sutton talk about innovation – and how one way to innovate is to look at advances in one field, and transfer those processes to another.
Sutton’s words empowered me to go to the next level – to go beyond fluoride and look for additional lessons within preventive dentistry that could advance the field of mental health.
Metaphors for Self-Regulation
I began with the widely-known phrase “mental floss,” to symbolize self-regulation – a construct common to the prevention of depression and violence. But in 2007, I discovered that term was copyrighted by a magazine. After having incubated “mental floss” in my head for some years, I was disappointed and frustrated.
During that time, I was a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, where Albert Bandura and Philip Zimbardo were my sponsors. My time with them amounted to “marinating my brain” as I deepened my search for cost-effective public health methods to address the global problems of depression and violence.
Now I must confess that I don’t always floss my teeth everyday. I floss often and see its value. But each time I floss, it’s effortful, not automatic like brushing my teeth. My patients brushed daily, even when they didn’t floss regularly. And brushing one’s teeth is much more of a universal activity, as more people in the world brush their teeth than ever floss.
From these insights, I realized that it was no great loss to let go of “mental floss.” Even more important than flossing is brushing – and out of that I arrived at “Brush Your Mind.” And the act of brushing one’s mind meshed harmoniously with Albert Bandura’s writings on agency and self-regulation.
A Weird Idea that Works
Sometimes talking about “Brush Your Mind” was like a flash back to my high school nerd moments, when I spoke out about propellants in underarm sprays that harmed the environment. People were amused – but no one cared enough to let their under-arms stink or even switch to a roll-on. Now, here I was a grown-up talking about a goofy sounding concept to promote mental health and sometimes I got the same looks I got in high school.
So, I took solace in three things:
Pediatric dentistry gave me poetic license to use humor and silliness – because they are as essential to our profession as drills and needles.
Robert Sutton’s book, Weird Ideas that Work, gave me hope that “Brush Your Mind” just might be one of those weird ideas that work.
And most importantly, although other people ridiculed me, Albert Bandura and Philip Zimbardo never did. They took my ideas and idealism seriously.
After my time at Stanford, I continued R & D on my own, working out details of the mental toothbrush. In 2013, I produced an animation video of Brush Your Mind and showed it to Samuel Dworkin (also a dentist-psychologist at the University of Washington), and Donald Meichenbaum.
My peer-reviewed video received two thumbs up.
Emboldened, I submitted an editorial on this topic to the Arizona Republic. The responses I received from the Editor, mental health professionals, and lay readers (from the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia) were gratifying.
Now I know.
As strange as “Brush Your Mind” might sound, it’s a sound idea after all!
From Sutton: The lateral transfer of successTranslation: Roll out “Brush Your Mind,” modeled after “Brush Day and Night” – a global public-private partnership that extended to over 25 countries, and which I co-lead in 2010 when I was Head of Public Health at the World Dental Federation in Geneva.
From Zimbardo: Keep your messages clear, focused and easily understandable.Translation: Stay true to science, and make the content practical and accessible – even to children and adults of varying literacy levels.
From Bandura: Promote self-efficacy, model the desired behavior, and lots more…Translation: Join me and find out!
If we, as humans, can be so creative and ingenious as to explore the farthest reaches of outer space, surely we can make life here on Earth better for everyone. It doesn’t call for rocket science – we can do it with behavioral science.