He Waka eke Noa

Written by Carl Davidson, Chief Social Scientist at Research First

In the months following the Christchurch earthquakes there was a brief flowering of profound optimism, not only in Christchurch but across the nation. An optimism for what we as Kiwis had become in that moment. While it lasted, amid the destruction and uncertainty, our world really did become a kinder, gentler, and better place.

Despite all the talk of our exceptionally resilient spirit as New Zealanders, the reality is that psychologists have known for a long time that adversity can bring out the best in people. William James, who is often called the father of modern psychology, wrote in 1906 about how communities needed ‘the moral equivalent of war’ to mobilise the best from their members. James’s point was that a heightened sense of stress was necessary to overcome what he called “the ordinary prides and shames of social man” in order to bring people together for the greater good.

There is no doubt adversity can bring us together, but it’s rarely enough to keep us together. That sense of belonging and kinship has clearly, despite the media’s best efforts to tell us otherwise. The reality is that just hoping that things will get better is rarely enough.

All of which raises an important point: Following the events of 15th March, is there anything we could do differently to hold onto the spirit of inclusion and manaakitanga that we saw emerge throughout New Zealand?

Psychology suggest there is, and offers two interesting starting points.

The first is something called ‘The Fresh Start Effect’. This effect builds from research that shows people are more likely to change their behaviour on certain dates or at certain ages (what the researchers call ‘temporal landmarks’). This research shows you’re much more likely to run your first marathon at 29 or 39 or 49 than you are at other ages. In fact, you’re more likely to do all sorts of things when facing a birthday with a 9 in it. Similarly, the first of the month is a common date to begin new behaviours (like a diet or a digital detox), and the first day of the year is synonymous with resolutions for change.

The really useful part of The Fresh Start Effect is that while these ‘temporal landmarks’ have meaning, they are also arbitrary. The meaning in them is largely the meaning we ascribe to them. Consequently, 15th March can easily become such a temporal landmark for all of us.

But those landmarks are only really relevant because of what we do differently as we cross them. And this is where the second idea from psychology might be useful. This is the notion of ‘small wins’. It comes from the work of Karl Weick, who argued that most problems we care about seem too big for any one of us to confront. As a result, it is easy to feel helpless and do nothing. The smarter response, he argued, was to focus on the small steps that can help move us toward a solution.

Weick defined these small wins as “a concrete, complete, implemented [steps] of moderate importance”. Following 15th March, these wins might be in how you behave toward someone, or how you talk to them, or even just how you think about them. Weick’s small wins are the kind of thing that on their own might seem unimportant but that collectively build toward a new consensus.

The combination of a Fresh Start and Small Wins hardly resounds with the rhetoric of a moon-shot, but the events of 15th March aren’t going to be addressed with grand gestures alone. Instead, we are going to need days of ‘tiny triumphs’. That is how we build a sustainably kinder, gentler, and better place for all New Zealanders.

In the words of Ghandi - we need to become the change we want to see in the world. Step by step, day by day. And eventually, we’ll look back and identify the temporal landmark responsible for monumental change.

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