In 1953, at the end of the Korean War, thousands of US prisoner-of-war (POW) soldiers were released and repatriated back to the US Army and then home.  When the process was complete, the death toll in the Korean POW camps was a staggering 38% – the highest in US military history.

It seemed to go against the initial recorded information regarding treatment of POWs at the camps.  They had had adequate water, food and shelter.  Their medical care had been somewhat satisfactory – wounds and illnesses were looked after. They were not subjected to different types of physical torture.  Most bewildering of all was that often the camps were not surrounded with walls of wire topped with concertina razor wire and there were no armed guards – yet no one tried to escape. This is the opposite of what was found in Japan and Germany after the war ended.

Why was the death toll so high?

Major William E. Mayer, a leading army psychiatrist, commissioned a study of 1,000 POWs.  What he uncovered was a new illness in the hearts of these men – a syndrome of pervasive and extreme hopelessness.  The US soldiers called it “give-up-itis.” Mayer defined it as “marasmus” or “lack of resistance and acute passivity.”  It was not uncommon for a soldier to wander into his hut, cover himself in a blanket in one of the corners, and be dead within two-three days. How could hope be eradicated so completely from the souls of soldiers?

Through his interviews, he discovered that the North Koreans had perfected four devastating techniques of psychological warfare.  First, informing on others was encouraged.  The POWs were given small rewards like treats or cigarettes when they snitched on each other.  Neither the informer nor the offender were punished.  The intent was to shatter trust between the soldiers.

Second, extreme self-criticism was encouraged.  The POWs formed small groups where soldiers confessed all of the bad things they had done along with any of the good things they could have done but failed to do.  They confessed to each other, not to their North Korean captors. The goal was to erode self-respect and personal worth.

The third major technique was to break down loyalty to others, especially to the POW leaders and their country.  They did this by slowly and insidiously undermining a soldier’s allegiance to his superiors and his country.

And the last devastating scheme was to withhold all positive emotional support while inundating soldiers with negative emotions.  For example, if a soldier received a supportive letter from home, the captors withheld it.  If it was a letter containing bad news from home, the letter was delivered immediately.

The North Korean guards had created devastating prisons of hopelessness that had life-long lasting effects on all of the survivors of those camps.  They had shown that negativity kills!

Early in his career, a young American psychologist happened to come across Major William Mayer’s study of the Korean POWs.  What he read altered the entire focus of his career and life.  At the time, he was struggling with the focus of traditional psychology on treating people by finding out what is wrong with them.  He simply asked the opposite question:  “what happens if we focus on what people do right, on their strengths?”  Five decades later, he was recognized as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology by American Psychological Association and is known as the founder of the Clifton Strengths Finder which continues to be used by the Gallup organization today.

Near the end of his career and, as it turned out, near the end of his life, Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D., along with his grandson and best-selling author Tom Rath, wrote a short best-selling book titled How Full is Your Bucket.  In it, he set out his Theory of the Dipper and the Bucket, an easy metaphor to incorporate positive thinking into our daily lives:

“Each of us has an invisible bucket.  It is constantly emptied or filled, depending on what others say or do to us.  When our bucket is full, we feel great.  When it’s empty, we feel awful.

 Each of us has an invisible dipper.  When we use that dipper to fill other people’s buckets – by saying or doing things to increase their positive emotions – we also fill our own bucket.  But when we use that dipper to dip from other’s buckets – by say or doing things that decrease their positive emotions – we diminish ourselves, emptying a bit of our buckets.

 Like the cup that runneth over, a full bucket gives us a positive outlook and renewed energy.  Every drop in that bucket makes us strong and more optimistic.

 But an empty bucket poisons our outlook, saps our energy, and undermines our will.  That’s why every time someone dips from our bucket, it hurts us.

 So we face a choice every moment of every day:  We can fill one another’s buckets, or we can dip from them.  It’s an important choice – one that profoundly influences our relationships, productivity, health, and happiness.”   From How Full is Your Bucket, Tom Rath, Donald O. Clifton, Gallup Press, New York, 2015, p. 5

So there it is.  Now the question remains:  are you a bucket dipper or a bucket filler?  Do you create castles of hope or prisons of hopelessness?  It’s a choice that only you can make.

Key Point

Imagine this:  if you fill 2 buckets a day and the owner of those buckets does the same, more than 1000 buckets will be filled at the end of 10 days.

 So what now?

  1. Prevent bucket dipping. Start by asking yourself if you are adding to or taking from the other person’s bucket in each interaction
  2. Focus on the bright spots, what is going right. That doesn’t mean avoid the negatives – they are part of the daily life around us.
  3. Develop positive relationships with others. Build on the emotional support that comes from these relationships.
  4. Give spontaneously and sincerely. Giving can be simple and doesn’t have to be anything big or tangible to be successful. It can be a gift of trust or responsibility, a smile or something worthwhile you read that will help someone’s day.
  5. Reverse the Golden Rule: Do for others what they would like to have done to them.  Avoid the “one-size-fits-all” approach to recognizing or appreciating others. Be specific and focus on the personal meaning to the other person.