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Change
4 min read

The art of encouraging

After uncovering the enchanting story of how Prince Albert encouraged Queen Victoria, Belle Tindall explains why it's not only children who crave the art of encouragement.
Under a gilded arch, a statue of a young Queen Victoria sits, between two standing figures.
The Queen Victoria statue in the House of Lords.
Queen Victoria 1819-1901 Reigned 1837-1901 Supporting figures: Justice & Clemency Bas-reliefs: Science Commerce Industry / Useful Arts, Fully-rounded carving by John Gibson , © UK Parliament, WOA S88 heritagecollections.parliament.uk

In the Prince’s Chamber of the House of Lords sits a mighty marble statue of Queen Victoria. 

She is sitting on her throne, holding both her sceptre and her crown, hemmed in on either side by two figures who represent justice and mercy. Her expression is strong, her posture is powerful, she is visibly assured and confident in her identity and role as Queen.

You can view the statue, in all its glory, on Parliament's website.

To say it’s striking is an understatement. It’s simply unmissable.  

And yet, the most remarkable thing about this statue is not that it exists, there are nine similar figures in London alone. No, what’s so notable about this statue is where it exists, and why.  

The story is an admittedly enchanting one. Prince Albert commissioned this particular statue of his wife, and had it precisely placed so that it greeted her head-on as she stepped out of her Robing Room and made her way to the Chamber of the Lords. It had one purpose and one purpose only - to give Queen Victoria courage when she was likely to need it most. 

And that’s exactly where it still sits, its colour may be long faded, but its impact is not. It sits as somewhat of an alter to this historic romance, but more profoundly, as an ode to something that is notably overlooked in our culture: it is an ode to the practice of encouragement.  

Psychologist and Professor Y Joel Wong powerfully defines encouragement as  

‘The expression of affirmation through language or other symbolic representations to instil courage, perseverance, confidence, inspiration, or hope in a person(s) within the context of addressing a challenging situation or realizing a potential’.  

When defined this way, it is clear to see just how integral such expressions of affirmation are to the cultivation of a flourishing life. And yet, Prof. Wong also observes just how underestimated, understudied, and undervalued the art of encouragement is. The vast majority of research that has attempted to theorize encouragement places its focus exclusively on early childhood development, implying that they believe it to be an essential need that humans simply outgrow. And yet, while such an idea floats around on an academic level, it’s likely that we each feel a sense that this is simply not congruent with personal experiences. The delight we feel upon learning the story behind Queen Victoria’s statue in the House of Lords is surely evidence that this kind of encouragement from another person is something that we continue to crave well into adulthood.  

I would suggest that the underestimation of the practice of encouragement may be a subtle symptom of the individualistic culture we now find ourselves in.  

What individualism may starve us of

The political and social philosophy of individualism can be dated back to the late 1700s, primarily as a reaction to the French Revolution. Since then, it has been re-framed and refined countless times, perhaps most influentially by Emile Durkheim in 1893 and Max Weber in 1947. Each philosopher foresaw a society that looks strikingly like ours, here in the 21st Century. A society which expects individuals to grow, learn and flourish independently of each other, which values self-definition, self-sufficiency, and self-actualisation, which ultimately encourages a self-centred and goal-oriented life.  

In his 1841 essay, Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote that ‘nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind’. According to this school of thought, the rights and convictions of the individual supersede the duties of the community, and the Western world is arguably steeped in this very notion (of course, there are exceptions to the rule - the NHS and welfare system being two prime examples).  

To condemn individualism completely seems to me to be too simple of a judgment; the notion that one is responsible for their own actions undergirds much of our justice system, our right to question institutions and power structures is integral, while the freedom that each person has (in theory) to pursue their own passions and convictions is a wonderful thing. And yet, it could be argued that the emphasis it places on individual success feeds competition and comparison, which is consequently starving us of empowerment and encouragement.  

Perhaps this is one reason the theorizing of encouragement is notably neglected in so much psychological study.  

Further to that, maybe this is why stories such as Prince Albert commissioning a statue of Queen Victoria, or Marilyn Monroe famously sitting front row at every one of Ella Fitzgerald’s shows in a notoriously segregated club, or the Barcelonian crowd at the 1992 Olympics who erupted in applause as Team GB’s 400m runner, Derek Redmond, weepingly limped across the finish line with a freshly-torn hamstring, affect us so profoundly. Because encouragement is profoundly absent from our culture - and we miss it.  

Christianity and the emotional life 

 Christianity, as you can imagine, has an awful lot to say about the emotional life of humanity and the key ingredients involved in human flourishing. Although it stresses the individuality and dignity of every single human being, while also emphasising the agency (or ‘free will’) of every person, that is largely where its relationship with individualism comes to a halt. To untangle the inherent value of community from Christianity is a mean feat indeed.  

In his book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford writes that Christianity is supposed to make us  

‘full of passion for each other’s minds, hearts, souls, and bodies’ because it is in this curiosity and passion that we ‘recreate as best we can some fraction of the absolute and inimitable love behind everything.’  

This certainly doesn’t leave much room for an exclusively self-actualising existence.  

If Francis Spufford is correct, if Christianity’s worldview has even a little sense to it, then it’s possible that our success is directly linked to the success of others. Individual victories, communal victories, collective losses, personal losses – they are, to a point, inseparable from each other. If this is the case, it is worth suggesting that the art and the impact of encouragement may well be worthy of far more of our attention.

Column
Change
Character
Psychology
1 min read

Look out for the outliers

Seeing the good qualities in others lifts them, benefits us, and makes the world better.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A office worker wearing headphones looks out of a hectic and loud office space around which people are moving
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

I was talking to someone the other day. She is a website developer and she’s just changed jobs. She is not a loud person, but anyone who meets her knows she is a person of quality, of depth and presence. She emanates a humble confidence. In her old job, she worked in a quiet, fairly sedate, office where she was given the space and the time to bring all her creativity to bear on whatever brief she was given. She was known and appreciated. 

But her new job – the job she started last week – is a bit different. Her new colleagues are loud and outspoken. Silence is unknown in their office. They like to work to a soundtrack. The drum and bass keep thumping, and the banter never stops flowing. She’s finding it hard to fit in with her new team. And things weren’t made any easier when, after a few days, her new boss took her aside for a pep talk.  

What was the problem? She was ‘too quiet’.  

It hurt to hear that. It broke my heart to think that anyone could be so blind. How shortsighted do you have to be, to view the grace and peace someone carries as a problem to be solved? In a world of distressing noise and clamour, she is precisely the kind of person every office needs to temper the insanity.  

I’m not worried about her. She’s bright and innovative. She’ll work it out. Either her new boss will see sense, or she’ll leave. And if she does, the queue of employers looking for someone just like her stretches round the block. She’ll be okay. 

But it got me thinking about the kind of psychology I study. In my research, she would be called an outlier.  One of those people in a team or a family who don’t quite fit in. Not because they are weird or awkward, but because they possess some positive quality the rest of the gang don’t have. They are the creative exuberant in a team who prefer doing things by the book. The hilarious joker in a pack who like to take things seriously. The conscientious worker trying to get on with the job in an office that would rather play now and work later. The kind one in a family of cutthroat competitors.

At the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated.

The thing is we all have a unique contribution to make to the world, a one-off fingerprint of strengths and abilities never to be repeated in anyone else. In research these have been called Signature Strengths, the unique combination of positive qualities that make you you. And the weird thing is that we don’t have to try that hard to be them. If you are naturally kind, or wise, or grateful, or disciplined you won’t be able to stop yourself being that way. They come effortlessly to us. And if someone tries to stop us being the loving thoughtful faithful person we know ourselves to be, it is like losing a limb. If we find ourselves in a context where the most beautiful things about us are unwelcome – like my friend the website developer – it is like being rejected, right to the core.  

But here’s the cool thing. If we can live by our Signature Strengths – if we can wake up each morning and ask the question, how can I use my unique positive qualities in a new way today? – it leads to remarkable improvements in wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown that those who live like this, thinking about how they can bring what is best in them to the opportunities and obstacles of each day, report increased happiness in living. Not only that, but they also show reduced anxiety, stress and depression. It turns out being good is good for us. Who knew. 

That’s not the whole story though. To really be our best, we need other people to spot these strengths in us. If they don’t, we feel confined, unable to be ourselves in some way. When I ask people what it is like not to be able to bring their best qualities to the people around them, they come up with some pretty dark images. It is lonely, isolating, a desert, a fog, a prison, like being trapped in a cage. And when researchers ask people why they consider leaving their current job, their answers often reflect something like this. Work-life balance and salary are no doubt important, but often, at the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated. Something good we wanted to give has not been received. We feel unseen. 

So that’s why I say: look out for the outliers. Who is it in your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood, who goes underappreciated? Who do you know who has something good to give, but needs some help to give it? Because if we can learn to see those invisible beautiful qualities in the people around us, we not only give them the joy of being known, we also invite more light and flavour into the world. Life becomes a little less grey. 

I just hope my friend’s new boss can learn this while he still has the chance. It is tough for her to feel so misunderstood, but it’s worse for him. She can move on, but he has to remain in an office deprived of the humble compassion she would have brought to it. It’s a question worth asking. What gift of beauty and goodness are we excluding from the world because we failed to see past the packaging?