During your daily activities, what determines whether you achieve the result you want? What are the factors that establish whether you get pleasure from doing a particular task, and whether you are satisfied with the outcome? When you wake up do you look forward to the day ahead? And in the evening do you look back on your day with satisfaction?
This is the second blog in a series about the meaning, purpose and pleasure of everyday life, seen through the analogy of an umbrella. In the first blog post (here) I used the canopy of the umbrella to illustrate the meaning and purpose of the things you do each day. This blog looks at pleasure and satisfaction, using the umbrella spokes as the analogy. The spokes hold the umbrella open; without them the canopy can’t provide cover for you in the rain. And so in this illustration of the umbrella of life, the spokes produce the outcome of what you do, and therefore determine your level of satisfaction and pleasure.
Most of us think that our skills and capabilities are soley responsible for the outcome of what we do. And this is what most of the health services focus on; the body and brain, your personal abilities. However, the things you do, where you do them, and how you do them don’t operate in isolation. The difference with an occupational therapy approach is that we not only look at your personal skills, but also at the environments in which you do things and the characteristics of the task itself, then put these together as an interactive model. These three ingredients of what you do interact to produce an outcome – not only the result of the activity, but whether the purpose has been achieved and if it’s been enjoyable and worthwhile.
Once you have clearly defined why you do the things you want to do and need to do (your umbrella canopy of meaning – explained in the first of this series), only then can you analyse whether you are satisfied with what you actually do. The umbrella canopy helps you hook into meaning and purpose. The ingredients are the factors that produce the outcome and therefore determine satisfaction and pleasure.
This is not simply a “yes/no” response to interminable lists that ask, “Can you do…?” Living is about so much more. The questions that should be asked are: Do you enjoy what you do? Do you feel safe? Does it matter if you do it well? Can you consistently do things when you need to, and do you have the energy and resources to do them when you want? How useful is this? Is it valuable or rewarding?
Returning to our umbrella analogy, these are the spokes that hold up the canopy. You need an integrated system of spokes to hold up your umbrella, to keep it open and provide cover from the rain. It doesn’t really matter what the spokes are made of as long as they are strong enough and plentiful enough to collectively keep the canopy firmly aloft.
In this blog post, we’ll look at the details of the ingredients – the factors that influence the outcome of what you do, and how they all interact to determine your pleasure and satisfaction. We’ll look at the three types of factors that make up the PEO model of occupational therapy practice – Person, Environment and Occupation. Firstly, we’ll look at the details within each category and then we’ll look at how they interact to produce the result you want (or don’t want).
When you are able to analyse the different ingredients of what you do (this is what occupational therapists call task analysis), you can look at changing some of the ingredients to change the outcome. Sometimes this will involve swapping some of the factors that used to work for you with different factors (different types of umbrella spokes) that can still produce a gratifying result. In other instances, it might involve looking at a completely different outcome that produces the same meaning and purpose.
This way of working helps you understand the interconnections of all the factors and then to anticipate what changes can be made to make your way of living easier and more achievable and, therefore, have a life style that is more workable and enjoyable for you. This is quintessentially occupational therapy.
The first ingredient is the Person. This is your physiology; your body and brain working together. It is how you move, how you think, how you feel – your body systems and functions.
Your person acts as a system of elements that affect each other, a continuum of responses within your body and brain. Your body senses something – you hear the sound of a car approaching very fast, your stomach rumbles, you see a familiar face in the shopping centre, you smell burning toast or a delicious coffee aroma, you feel a dull aching pain in your back, you think a fearful thought. Your body (usually your brain, but not always) receives the signal and makes sense of it – what does it mean? What needs to happen? And then your body responds with movement, thoughts or metabolic processes. This produces an outcome that triggers another set of sensory input for your body and brain to deal with. Your brain is constantly filtering and managing this round-the-clock inflow of sensory information, consciously or unconsciously and even when you are sleeping.
In the context of the things you do in your daily life, your responses are generally what we call your skills and abilities – your body sensing, analysing and then acting. Let’s take the example of a car approaching as you walk across the road.
Your body will send sensory messages to your brain about the car approaching (speed, estimated time of arrival). The quality of the information – and therefore its usefulness – will depend on whether you have good hearing and vision.
Your brain will then start to analyse the information using your cognitive and emotional skills to develop a plan of action. However, if you are highly distractable your brain might not focus on the urgency of the situation; or if you have difficulty filtering through all the possibilities and scenarios you might not create a plan of action quickly enough.
Your brain sends the plan of action to your body, and if your bones, muscles and nerves work well, they will carry out the plan.
Therefore, for you to safely get out of the way of the car, you need accurate sensory information sent to your brain, well honed cognitive and emotional skills to come up with an appropriate plan, and good movement skills to carry out the plan.
The combination of input, analysis, and output produces your skills and capabilities. The complexities of body and brain work together to produce an outcome – a movement, thought, behaviour, activity, or inaction. Your skills and abilities constantly change over your lifespan – the developmental stages of childhood, adult learning through study and work, social interactions and changing family roles, your personal life-stages as they evolve, illness and injury that can be temporary or long-term. These all affect one or more stages of the input-analysis-output continuum.
This is the person ingredient of occupation – the first of the three categories of ingredients.
For a more detailed explanation of the body-brain continuum, and how changes can occur throughout your life span, read chapter 3 of my book “Bit by Bit: reclaim meaning, purpose and pleasure in every day life” (available in paperback, ePub or Kindle versions).
The second ingredient of your occupations is the environment in which you do things. We live in a multitude of different environments that all interact to influence what we do and how we do it. Perhaps the most tangible is the physical environment, which is the geography of where you are – the combination of the built environment, the natural environment, places and spaces. Examples of how the physical environment influences our daily lives are: the difficulties that stairs or uneven ground impose on someone who has difficulty walking, poor vision or is pushing a stroller; the benefits of lots of natural light in the home of someone who has depression in contrast to dark, dingy rooms; a well-fenced open space providing safety for a child with an over-abundance of energy; the facility of good seating in a shopping centre to ease fatigue and facilitate conversation and connections within the community.
We also do things within emotional and social environments – the people around us, our connections and relationships with them. The pleasure you derive from cooking a family meal is influenced greatly by the reactions of the people who eat the meal – their compliments, appreciation, criticism or ambivalence may also affect how you go about cooking another meal tomorrow. You might accidentally cut yourself when preparing food while you are very emotionally upset or distracted by people around you even though your physical skills (your person skills) are perfectly capable of using a knife without incident and haven’t changed since yesterday. It’s difficult to get out of bed in the morning when it seems as if the drudgery of getting through the day is all that lies ahead, whereas waking with the realisation that today is the day of a much anticipated event instantly makes it easier to get up and going. These are all examples of the influence that the social and emotional environments can have on the outcome of what you do, as well as the effect they have on your satisfaction and enjoyment.
The economic, cultural, organisational, and political environments also influence what you do, how you do it, and the outcomes of your actions and activities. The music you listen to and your style of dance is likely to be influenced by your cultural connections. Having a stable income will have a big influence on your choice of home and other lifestyle options. The “rules” of your local library will guide how much noise you make while browsing the book shelves. Your work culture, particularly if you work in the public service, is influenced by changing political environments. And so at any particular time and place there are multiple environments determining and shaping the outcomes of the things you do.
Think about a time when you sat down with a book to read. There are multiple environments that affect the ease, comfort and enjoyment of your reading. The chair design and cushioning will affect your comfort; the height of the seat will influence the ease of getting in and out of the chair. Good lighting will help you see the page without shadows. The temperature surrounding you will affect your enjoyment – an air-conditioned room on a hot summer’s day, a cool breeze while sitting in the park, sitting in front of an open fire while it snows outside in contrast to a cold empty room. You will be affected by neighbours using a chain saw to do their tree trimming or a quiet neighbourhood with bird song, being able to choose to listen to music or having someone else’s music imposed on you. Part of the environment is your choice of book – favourite authors and engaging subject matter versus reading because you ‘have to’. Reading political commentary or cartoons that are current versus historical will likely provide a different experience. Family members arguing around you, delicious smells wafting in from the kitchen as someone else cooks your dinner or the smell of burning toast may affect your enjoyment. None of these environmental factors change your ability to sit and hold a book, to read, interpret, and understand language, i.e. your person skills. They may change whether you are able to concentrate in that place at that time, but they don’t change your personal concentration skills. They all change the outcome, in particular your level of enjoyment.
You can make deliberate choices about some of your reading environments to change the outcome and enhance your enjoyment (your choice of chair, being inside or outside, in the middle of the family melee or in a quiet retreat). Other parts of the environment, such as the neighbour using the chain saw, are not entirely within your control.
Environments are essentially the context in which you do things. The numerous environments interact to provide a layered context to the things you do. When you are able to analyse all the different environments there are often a surprising number of ways you can alter them. Changing the environment will change the outcome of what you do without needing to change your person skills. And as you change the outcome you will also change your level of satisfaction and enjoyment.
The third ingredient is the characteristics of the occupation itself – the way you go about doing things and the implications of what you hope to achieve. The methods and strategies you employ to do particular tasks, how efficiently you do them, how safe your method is and how long you take to do a task will all affect the final outcome. The meaning and purpose – your intended outcome and what you hope to achieve – will influence how you perceive the outcome, and therefore how satisfied you will be with the result.
We all know there are different ways of doing the same task. If you are looking for a car parking space at the shopping centre, do you drive up and down the rows looking for a vacant spot? Do you scan along each row as you drive along the head row? Do you look for someone coming out of the shopping centre and follow them to their car? When you make a cup of coffee, do you use a coffee machine or use instant? Do you add milk first or last? The different car parking strategies will all (hopefully!) find you a parking spot. The way you go about making a cup of coffee will be very influenced by your personal taste preferences. Different ways of doing a task, often based on what has worked for you in the past, produces a result that you hope will match your expectations.
It is self-evident that doing things in a different way can change the outcome. But it needs to be explicitly said so that you can consciously and deliberately use this to change the outcome of activities that are challenging from other perspectives, particularly where the person factors have changed as a result of illness or injury. By exploring different ways of doing things and how this will influence the outcome, you can use occupational factors as a deliberate strategy to achieve the outcome you want.
Meal preparation is a good example to illustrate these points. If you are preparing a meal purely as a survival task for yourself only, your cooking style and methods are likely to be very different than when you are preparing Christmas lunch for the extended family. Preparing a survival lunch may require no more preparation than opening the fridge to see what is available to put in a bread roll. Whereas preparing a Christmas feast may involve poring over cookbooks, sending emails back and forth between family members about who will bring what, and ordering specialty foods in advance. The actual “doing” of your survival lunch will be very different to how you go about producing a Christmas meal.
You might be able to very efficiently produce a cheese sandwich, but your level of satisfaction with cheese sandwiches for an everyday lunch will be very different to your satisfaction with preparing cheese sandwiches for Christmas dinner. Same task, same physical outcome, but a very different sense of achievement because of the different meaning and purpose of preparing that particular meal.
In making your cheese sandwich, there are different ways of going about this task: you might choose to buy sliced bread, sliced cheese and skip using butter; some people prefer to gather all the ingredients before starting the sandwich while others fetch things as they go; grated cheese or thick slices; salad, meat or egg as extras; bagel, crisp roll or sliced bread. These all produce different tastes and textures, and a different physical outcome. The method you choose will be influenced by the other ingredients of occupation, e.g. hand dexterity or concentration span (person ingredients), your weekly food budget or your cultural influences (environment ingredients). And your personal taste preferences will also play a big part.
Different ways of doing things require different physical movements and different thinking skills. So the way you go about doing a particular task can have different results, even though your own abilities haven’t changed. Buying off-the-rack clothes from the local shopping centre will produce a very different result to buying fabric and sewing your own design. The method you choose will first depend on the purpose of the task – whether the main reason is to engage in a creative process or whether you simply require some clothes. It might depend on how well your sewing and creative skills match the type of outfit you want. Or it might be dictated by time constraints or budget. Each method requires very different physical skills, as well as different thinking and creative skills. They require different amounts of time and energy and will produce a very different sense of achievement and satisfaction – same task of “acquiring clothes”, different purpose, context, and outcome. One is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other; they represent different methods of going about a task in different circumstances and for different reasons.
As with the other ingredients, the characteristics of occupation have many aspects to them, some a lot more obvious than others. The way you go about doing things often changes as your life evolves.
Another characteristic of occupation is time. Some of the things we do are very dependent on being able to do them in a certain amount of time. Ask a 100-metre sprinter how much difference 1/100th of a second makes in an Olympic race. For a farmer in the middle of the harvest season 1 minute may not make a lot of difference, but 1 hour or 1 day may be crucial. Serving up a hot meal has time constraints in terms of being able to sit down and enjoy it before it gets cold. Other meals that are served at room temperature are not so reliant on time during the preparation and serving process. There are other tasks where taking extra time to get detail and precision correct is very important. Tai Chi exercises require slow, controlled movements to achieve maximum benefit; the slow movement of a piano sonata demands time and nuance even though you may be physically capable of playing it three times as fast.
Time is also important within the context of the whole day. A particular task or occupation may not matter if it takes a long time, but in the context of all the other things you want and need to do, taking a lot of time to do one task may influence your enjoyment of the day as a whole.
Another important aspect of looking at the characteristics of occupation is to look at different activities that achieve the same meaning for you within the context of this current stage of your life and lifestyle. We tend to do this automatically throughout life with sporting and outdoor types of pursuits without thinking “different activity, same meaning and purpose”. The way we participate in sports tends to change as our bodies age even though the fundamental purpose remains the same. Our hobbies and leisure pursuits (the leisure and learning domain) evolve as we move through different life stages (principally in response to time and money available). So the activity you choose to achieve a particular meaning, purpose, or pleasure can change as your circumstances and stage of life also change.
The characteristics of occupation are not only the methods you use. Timeliness, accuracy and the occupational meaning of the activity will also influence the outcome. How well you think the outcome matches the intended meaning and purpose determines your level of enjoyment and satisfaction.
These three broad categories of influencing factors interact to produce the outcome of what you do. There are interactions within each category, as well as interactions between the categories. The crucial point is that it is the combination of factors from each of the groups that produces a result – not just the way your body and brain function. Therefore, and here’s the really important point, you only have to change the ingredients from one of the groups to change the result, to have a different outcome that better aligns with your intended meaning and purpose, hopes and aspirations. This immediately gives you a threefold wider scope for change than if you were to concentrate only on your person, on your physiological or psychological skills.
This approach gives you a framework to look at the interactions of all the factors and helps pinpoint the factors that can most easily be changed to produce your desired outcome for your everyday life. By starting with a review of what you do that gives meaning and purpose to your life – the umbrella of occupation – and looking at how all of the ingredients shape the degree of fulfilment and enjoyment you derive from the things you do – the umbrella spokes – you can make small changes that aren’t overwhelming and don’t take all your energy. This is fundamentally what sets apart the occupational therapy approach to change; you can open up a whole range of new possibilities by looking at all the influencing factors of person, environment, and occupation. And take the pressure off your body and mind.
To move forward, you only need to change one aspect of your person, environment or task.
Looking down on the top of an umbrella you don’t always see the spokes, but you know they are there when the umbrella canopy is open. You don’t necessarily know what the spokes are made of or how many there are; what matters is that the canopy stays open.
Where to from here?
Think about your general daily routines and activities. What one thing in your daily routine would you like to be able to do more consistently, with more enjoyment and confidence, with less pain, effort or distress? If you have read the first blog in this series and chosen a canopy category to work on, you might like to use this task to adjust your spokes.
Think about the broad categories of ingredients – person, environment and occupation – and choose just one category or spoke to analyse.
A handy hint: if you have had a recent accident, illness or life-long diagnosis, you will probably already have spent a lot of time and effort working on your person spokes – on developing physical and cognitive skills and strategies. If this is the case, I strongly recommend you look at the other spokes as your first point of change, to take the pressure off your body and brain for now.
Keep in mind that detailed strategies for working with spokes is beyond the scope of this blog post. For now, try making one small change:
- How can you apply the concepts of the spokes to this particular occupation/activity?
- How can you re-frame the above examples so they relate to your circumstances?
- Think broadly about the physical (built) environment as well as the small detail of how you set up a specific task.
- Are there parts of the sensory environment you can take away (the uncomfortable or distracting senses) or can you add soothing, comforting or energising sensations?
- What are the family, social and cultural influences that you might not have consciously thought about previously?
- Ask your friends and family how they go about specific activities; challenge yourself to try a different way.
Start with one small change today. And let me know how you fare.
This information is an excerpt from my book “Bit by Bit: reclaim meaning, purpose and pleasure in everyday life”. The book explains the whole umbrella concept and has some exercises to get you started with your Umbrella of Life. It is available in paperback, ePub or Kindle versions.
My Starting Pack (here) is an email-based workshop that is a starting point for working with the umbrella theory. The Umbrella Stand follows on with 8 weeks resources to help you explore all aspects of your umbrella. It will help you understand the most important and meaningful aspects in your daily life (as distinct from what you actually currently do) and then help strengthen the spokes (the ingredients) to ensure your umbrella can stay open.
The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton is a beautifully written book about how the built environment influences our pleasure and satisfaction of daily life. A good read if you’d like to delve more into this one aspect of the environment spokes.
I’d love to hear about any resources you think would be useful. Post them in the comments section below.