First World Problems

Re-examining our assumptions about our lives can be difficult, scary, and even life-altering.  So when a friend asks you to do that, one could either choose to view that request as a gift or challenge.

The request wasn’t so much of a request but a statement suggesting that positive psychology tends to address First World Problems.  This particular statement is sticky:  I can’t seem to answer it without feeling somewhat defensive.  That reaction of defending the status quo is probably not all that unusual.  Actually, my entire life has been spent on First World Issues, because, well I live in the First World.  It’s not such a great excuse at my age, or any age for that matter given the globalization of the economy and social media.

Though I’ve been feeling defensive, I also was not able to let go of the guilt and the question itself until I brought it up in class.  Fortunately for me, the collective wisdom is vast, especially in this program.   Of course there is the “you can’t solve all of the world’s problems, so pick the ones that matter most to you,” or “I’ll help elevate everyone including those that are passionate about Third World problems.”  My personal solution at that time was that I should spend my energy on things that I’m passionate about and spend my money on those areas that need the most help.

I shouldn’t be surprised any more regarding how the universe works because the next day a potential opportunity arose for me to directly help those that are helping the impoverished.  For one course, we completed service learning projects for nonprofit organizations.  All of the presentations and projects were creative, impactful and inspiring.  One group worked with an organization based in New York who raised money to build schools in areas of need in Africa.  The organization needed a Do It Yourself strengths training program, and they chose Gallup StrengthsFinders instead of VIA (Values in Action;  I volunteered to go train them in person (my sister lives in NY), but only just now realized that helping nonprofits is how I can give to Third World citizens in my own unique way without having to travel to Africa.

Our own service learning project served an equally inspiring organization:  a nearby chapter of the Boys & Girls Club of America.  We developed a strengths training program too, but this training was designed to train the trainer:  the staff will help the use find the best way to use their strengths.  The goal is to help their 2300 participating youth to maintain their authenticity by intentionally and optimally using their strengths in their own unique way.  It was truly an honor to work with such talented, dedicated and loving people who have devoted their lives to helping the at-risk youth in their community.  I have also decided to volunteer to help them with the next phase of the project.

Honestly, I did not notice the link to the earlier conversation until I sat down to write.  But it speaks to the power of asking the question and being receptive to the answer.  For me, processing ideas through writing is an important tool to help me process and understand what that answer is.

I would love a business or practice that focused only on helping nonprofits, schools and universities become positive organizations, not only for their staff but for those that they serve.  While I don’t believe that business plan is financially viable, I can always do what I can, where I can.  But perhaps I should be instead asking, “how do I make this a viable business plan?”  Maybe I should figure that out in my next blog.


A Surprising Birthday Gift


My amazing birthday party!

By birthday tart:  a true fire hazard

I haven’t felt quite the same since three days before my 50th birthday. I feel like I’ve lost something.

You see, I have always held my preconceptions about my world and myself quite close to my heart.  In fact, that hold is a sensation around my heart and chest.   I know that our emotions are actually generated within our brain, but I believe they’re manifested by muscle constrictions and relaxations in our gut or chest.    This particular preconception has told me, every day for most of my life , that I’m not going to get what I need.  That I’m neither seen nor heard. And it feels like a tightness in my chest that only goes away when I make a deliberate effort to relax it and open my heart and trust to the world.

I have been aware of this belief for a number of years and know that feeling ignored or disrespected is one of my hot buttons.  You know – the kind that can send you into an irrational fury or to tears for what seems to others like no apparent reason.  Physically, it’s a welling feeling in my chest that seems to rise up to a boil as my chest squeezes in like a boa constrictor.  That is the nature of our schema, after all.  And I feel like I’ve done a better job each year of being aware of when those feelings surface and then managing them so they don’t ruin my day, afternoon, or even hour.  But they still surface.

So on my 50th birthday, or rather starting three days beforehand, my friends and family have been conspiring to make me feel loved and appreciated.   A surprise birthday party, complete with friends and family coming from across the country.  A champagne party with birthday tarts afterwards, followed by words of appreciation from my loved ones.  Fifty candles, truly, fire hazard notwithstanding.  And not one but two birthday tiaras (I’ve never had one of any kind), one with sparkly gems and the other with pink feathers.    Gifts galore, flowers, meals out, and all kinds of birthday wishes across electronic media in the ensuing days.  It feels as if not a single person has failed to try to make my birthday as special as possible.

You may recall my blog about dreams being the portal to our personal mythology.  I had a dream last night about deciding that if I wanted to, I could fly.  So I did.  I flew for the heady feeling it provided.  I flew for exploration.   I flew for expediency.   I flew because I could.  The only other time I had a flying dream, I was riding on the back of my then-husband.  The flight was not within my control, ala Kate Winslet on the bow of the Titanic, quite literally.  This flight was on my own will and volition, and it lasted what seemed like most of the night.

So my unexpected 50th birthday gift is an increasing lightness in my chest borne from the love of my friends and family.  Thank you, dear friends and family, for the most amazing and memorable gift ever:  being in my life.

Nine Reasons It’s Great to Turn 50

Some people seem to be traumatized when they hit a big birthday.  Not me.  Though I loved the 40’s decade, I’m absolutely thrilled to be hitting 50 this week.  Why?

  • Wisdom/perspective – I was a pretty stupid young woman.  I worried about things that were unimportant, beyond my control, or just none of my business.  Things can still get under my skin but much less frequently and intensely.  Instead, I choose to find forgiveness, acceptance, and a sense of opportunity where I previously felt anger or frustration.
  • Self-knowledge – I know myself so much better now, even though I thought I knew myself well back then.  I, like everyone else out there, have some pretty darn amazing qualities which I am finally learning to appreciate and develop.  The inner journey is as enriching and exciting as anything else in our external world, and well worth the trouble.
  • Self-acceptance – I like myself so much better now that I’ve decided to quit hating on myself.  How ridiculously unfair and counter-productive is that ticker tape of self-criticism.  It’s not motivating.  It’s damaging and abusive.
  • Reasonable body self-image – I try to tell every young woman to enjoy the great body you have, even if you think it’s not so great.  Bodies of all ages are beautiful, so be proud of the health and stamina you have now and enjoy it.
  •  Security – Financial and career security does wonders for my peace of mind and well-being.  My career isn’t over by any means but I don’t have to worry about proving myself any more.
  • Deep relationships – There is something distinctly different between a new friendship and one you’ve had for decades.   I have unspeakable gratitude for the relationships I have with dear friends and family that span the ages.  In addition, I’m better at nurturing relationships now instead of piling on damaging and unhelpful expectations.
  • Not taking life for granted – Seeing loved ones die and facing one’s own mortality reminds me of how precious life is.  I think this is lesson I will learn much more deeply as time goes on, but for now, I’m aware that each day on earth is a precious gift.
  • A sense of connection – In my advancing age, I’m also much more in tune with the connection between us.  It’s not just my personal relationships, but this connection spans all of nature and humanity.  This connection fuels my sense of purpose and love for all.  This sure beats feeling all alone in the world.
  • A sense of wonder – Allowing myself to be open to the wonders of life and the world feels like it has opened up a universe of beauty and awe.  What if we can approach life with the openness of a child?  Perhaps we can find kindness, beauty and wonder even in the inane and insipid.

It’s hard for me to imagine the 50’s being a better decade than the 40’s but I’m going to make it even more amazing.   Wrinkles, sagging, grey hair, and fading memory aside, I’m going to embrace this new phase of my life with zest and a sense of discovery.    What can you do differently to engage with your life more completely?  You don’t have to wait until you’re 50!

Taking the Fear Out of Self-Awareness

That inward journey is scary. You never know what you will find.  Will I like what I discover about myself?  Will I hate it?  Will I find that I’m fundamentally flawed and deficient if I go there?

Perhaps we can agree that even the most saintly heart on the planet experiences envy, greed, selfishness, aggression, hate and despair at one time or another.  We are human, after all, and being fraught with imperfection is a truth we all share.  Ignoring that fact is kind of like ignoring the fact that my teeth will rot (and will give new meaning to the phrase ‘dragon breath’) if I don’t brush them.  Sticking my head in the sand about what is universally true does not change that reality.  Similarly, accepting our imperfections will not magically make them worse either.

I argue that our imperfections are not a problem; they are, in fact, an opportunity for growth and improvement.  In addition, our imperfections make us beautifully human and relatable.  I was talking to a student recently who described a peer as ‘perfect.’  This perfect young lady was so intimidating, no one could imagine dating her.  How does she share her fears, insecurities and struggles when no one can imagine that she has any?  How do you share your fears and insecurities with someone that doesn’t have any?  How can you feel seen if no one can see you?  Distancing yourself from emotions is a recipe for emotional isolation.

Instead, I argue that we should we focus on our strengths instead of our imperfections.  Our imperfections are there.  We accept them.  But trying to fix our weaknesses feels defeating and counterproductive because it is.   In addition, what we may call our weaknesses are sometimes actually strengths that are being poorly used.

Identifying and optimizing use of our strengths helps us feel energized, successful and authentic.  We can also develop strengths we didn’t realize we had and expand our repertoire of skills.  Finally, we can use our dominant strengths to improve in the areas we’re not so strong.  In this way, we address our weaknesses without giving them power.

Yes, this is about power.  Our personal power.  By refusing to acknowledge or accept our personal truths, we give power to what we will not name or discuss.  By shedding light on our Voldemorts and managing them in a positive way, like Harry Potter we reclaim our power and ability to grow and change in ways we could not have imagined.

Now what’s so scary about that?

Roadmap for Joy

I’ve noticed my levels of joy and sense of well-being have gone up steadily over the last 3-4 years.  I spent a few moments reflecting on what changed for me that enabled this almost overwhelming sense of positive emotion each day.  I’m not sure I can identify all the parts, but here’s my best effort:

  • Letting go – Giving up that control freak side of me was huge.  In other words, really accepting what I cannot control and not letting it bother me has done wonders for my peace of mind.
  • Perspective – Part of that letting go is knowing that even the current situation is not the end of the world.  Things can always improve and they could always be much worse. I can increase the odds of improvement happening by making it happen!
  • Being present – I know many of you hate meditation, but not being stuck in the future or the past constantly has allowed me to have my mind blissfully blank – but aware – for periods of time.  It’s a welcome time-out for my brain and allows me to take in the beauty of the moment instead of being stuck ruminating in my head.  Note: meditation is not the only way to accomplish this!
  • Becoming more open – Being open means not subscribing to my fear or limiting self-concepts.  I can try new things, be open to talking to strangers, be more curious about things that might otherwise go unnoticed.  I feel so much more calm and interested now that I’ve given up my assumptions about myself and the world.  This also has led me to my spiritual journey – a whole new world in and of itself.
  • Getting to know myself – All of the above has enabled me to explore my inner and outer world with fresh eyes.  How refreshing to re-examine my self-talk and negative scripts and decide that I don’t need them or want them anymore!   How do others see me?  How does my self-view help or hinder me?  How can I make my self-talk more positive and encouraging instead of being my own worst enemy?  What surprising new things will I learn about myself now?
  • Deciding to love myself – This is the next logical step after getting to know myself anew.  I did decide to give myself the love and nurturing I need instead of expecting others to provide it to me.  This decision and the resulting confidence was incredibly liberating and fulfilling, which then circled back to improve all of the above.
  • Loving the whole – By deciding to love myself I am also deciding to love ALL of humanity and mother nature, not just parts of it.  I can’t fully love the world if I don’t love the part that I contribute to it.  We’re all part and parcel, you see.

I had to do an exercise recently where I was supposed to write about some ideal future version of myself.  It was a difficult exercise because I’m having trouble envisioning how life can be even better than it already is.  In a way, I’m glad I can’t envision it because then life will continue to surprise me.  Also, having too narrow of a vision tends to be limiting; as good as my imagination is, reality can be so much better.

However, I also know that envisioning a great future is sometimes the first step to realizing it.   Though my self-vision is somewhat limited I am much more able to envision a more positive, healthy and happy world, where all the world’s community of people, animals, plants and ecosystems are flourishing.  What if we each cultivated our individual well-being, but in doing so bring others along with us?  As we grow and flourish, we commit to helping others do the same.  When a community or family is impoverished, it is difficult for the individual to thrive.  “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  We can create the tide.  Join me.

The Surprising Things That Bring You Joy

I don’t know about you but I grew up most of my life living as I ‘should’.  I should be good at science.  I should love to do mothering things.  I should love to eat healthfully and exercise.  I should love to be selfless and generous.

No one ever said I should try to be my authentic self.  So I never did.

Those teenagers who stereotypically go through the ‘I just have to be me!’ stage are expressing their authenticity angst.  I never went through that.  Though I worked hard to be a model student and daughter, I struggled to feel like I excelled in those roles.  It seemed I was never good enough for anyone else.  In reality, I wasn’t good enough for myself.  I never understood why, until recently.

To me, it boils down to authenticity.  I have had this simmering passion underneath my nerdy, science, good girl self.  That passion is positive psychology and helping others to be the best possible versions of themselves.  Therefore, little things that help me feed that passion bring me joy.

I’m still that nerdy science gal, but now it’s in positive psychology.  I never considered myself a writer, but strangely writing this blog gives me joy.  Sometimes it feels like an obligation, especially when I set a strict schedule for myself.  OMG, I’m going to be a day late?  Lately, I’ve given up any pretense of being able to abide by my own schedule as school and work have taken over my every waking moment the last few months, and especially last few weeks.  The advantage of a chaotic life is you give up a little more of that sense of control.

Lately, to just sit down and write again is just like a guilty pleasure.  Often I feel I’m just writing for myself, which is enough for me these days.  But when I learn that I’ve impacted someone in a positive way, then it only fuels my motivation to do what I love.

So thank you blogging  community for helping me cultivate my passion while helping me to learn about myself and our world at the same time.  You’re a huge part of the reason I jump out of bed every morning!

My Humiliating Art Escapade

Surreal dog in real surroundings

Surreal dog in real surroundings

Two stores, three hours and $3.99 later, I realized I finally found the class assignment (710:  Positive Psychology and the Humanities) that fulfilled my prophecy about my lack of artistic self-efficacy.

My attitude about engaging in the humanities to promote well-being has been oddly (for me) cynical.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the humanities as a whole.  I think I have a weird bias about how it’s personal and individualized, and I think that part of me inexplicably feels like it’s wrong to go digging into something so personal.  Fortunately, I have been pleasantly surprised most of the semester to find that digging in has been illuminating and worthwhile.

Until now.

Admittedly, it’s probably more pessimistic self-fulfilling prophecy.  Or perhaps it reflects that I really am poor at art.  I am the only person I know who made a C in art in middle school.  The common reaction to that is usually, “how does someone make a C in art in middle school?”  A good question and one that defies an answer to this day.  In retrospect, my elementary school teachers probably passed me on finger painting because they thought I had potential in other areas.  Fortunately for me.

Enter 710.  Simply coming up with an art project was difficult and painful.  It’s not that I haven’t tried to be artistic over the years: I’ve tried knitting, scrapbooking, and making jewelry, all in the name of self-enrichment.  I think I actually have done a respectable job in most cases.  However, I have found that I repeatedly am simply trying to get through it as quickly as possible so that I can move on to more interesting things.

I chose a compromise project for this blog that required little skill and some creativity.  I chose paint-by-numbers.  Artistic, no.  But I decided a creative twist would be a perspective-shifting exercise where I switch the colors assigned to the respective numbers. I ended up with a red and blue dog, a sort of Warhol-esque-ian outcome.  I like how the painting looks realistic in terms of the carpet and umbrella stand but surreal only with regard to the dog.  It sort of reminds me of myself – a stranger in a not-so-strange land.   I also admit I enjoyed seeing what colors resulted when I mixed the paint.  For you paint-by-number novices, I had to mix up to 3 colors together.  Wooooooo!  And in terms of mindless entertainment, it was kind of fun, as was Chris’s affirmation that I potentially have discovered a new business opportunity in paint-by-numbers-number-shifting.

So maybe this assignment wasn’t so bad after all.  Getting to write about it, as I learned earlier in 710, makes it even better.



My Perspective-Shifting Experiment with Art

I contemplate life and death in this painting by Rousseau

I contemplate life and death in this painting by Rousseau

Though music and philosophy have been shown to help change perspective as a route to well-being (see Art and the Humanities Shift Our Perspective), the visual arts may be particularly adept at helping viewers modify perspective to improve their well-being.   Art plays many roles which potentially contribute to well-being including remembering, providing hope, managing sorrow, rebalancing ourselves by providing clarity of our good qualities, self-understanding, growth and appreciation.   Several of these roles may use perspective-shifting:  we get to know ourselves, we re-evaluate experiences, we see new reasons to move forward with hope, we learn that we are not alone in our suffering, and we become aware of the beauty in our everyday life.  Art is a reflection of ourselves and the human experience, and viewing art through the eyes of the artist provides us a different perspective of ourselves and our world (see de Botton, 2013).

This perspective shifting concept came alive to me at the Barnes Museum as I was forced, no required, to sit in front of one painting that I found compelling.  I chose Scout Attacked by a Tiger, by Rousseau.  Though I didn’t think I would gain much from investing 20 minutes staring at a painting, I quickly began to associate the painting with various aspects of my life and world.  First, I realized the dark theme of the painting paralleled my preferred choice of novels – suspense and mystery novels.  I have been told by a professional writer that such books help the reader feel in control of a scary world.   The killer is caught.  Justice is served.

Next, the composition of the painting also spoke to me during my contemplation.  The central focus of Rousseau’s painting is the dead scout, recently mauled by the tiger.  However, his companion survives and is poised to kill the tiger:  Man triumphs over the cruelty of nature.  Surrounded by this macabre scene is the beauty and order of the jungle, lavish and richly colored with a lovely symmetry to the plants that surround and seem to emanate from the death.  The jungle itself and light of the sky above also provide a rich contrast to death, and reminds one that life and death are inseparable and are integral to the natural order of the world.   I re-evaluated and was reminded of reasons to move forward with hope.  In other words, my previous sense of need to control a chaotic and scary world shifted to a more accepting posture after completing the assignment.

The Barnes Museum itself was an exercise in shifting perspective.  The museum eschewed the linear, two-dimensional portrayal of art, instead opting for a multidimensional, multimedia approach (see article by Panero, 2013).  Barnes’ art arrangement is also an art form and a means of artistic expression;  Barnes happened to use masterpieces as his medium.  Like my experience with Scout, after an initial “huh?” I was blown away by how this shift exploded my perception of art, and in several ways, my world.

The ability of art to shift the perspective of the artist and the viewer provide interesting possibilities for the study of well-being.  Since the humanities is a form of human expression, then humanities and the arts can be studied across time, distance and context.  For example, traditional psychology involves use of undergraduate psychology students participating in a contrived experience where they are told they are being tested for X but are really tested for Y.  However, psychologists may instead study alternative forms of human expression.   For instance, the World Well-Being Project (see references listed on  studies human expression in the form of social media to unravel the nature, prevalence and frequency of positive emotion across the world.  Likewise, one could study the work of an artist such as Renoir over time to understand how life circumstances such as chronic pain and illness influences artistic expression.  Thus, one could study art, literature, music, philosophy or other works from the humanities to study well-being.

In this context, the Barnes Museum provides an evocative exploration of human expression.  The nonlinear arrangement of art illuminates relationships, ideas, stories, and images that would have been previously unknown.   To the degree that the art on a single wall of the Barnes spans the globe, time, theme and media, Barnes is connecting previously unseen but nevertheless important dots for the viewer.  Those connections, now evident to the patient observer, provide changes in perspective and renewed understanding of ourselves, either to improve our personal well-being or for new avenues of scientific exploration.

In summary, the humanities are a form of human expression that allows both the creator and observer of the art to improve their well-being.    Perspective change can help the artist repair mood, constructively ruminate and build positive emotion.  The observer can benefit from the broadened perspective and positive emotion conveyed by the art by simply improving their mood or health, or by shifting their own perspective.  That change of perspective may foster hope, help manage sorrow or isolation, inspire, educate or provide new avenues for research.


de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Panero, J. (2011). Outsmarting Albert Barnes. Philanthropy Magazine. Retrieved from

Art and the Humanities Shift Our Perspective

The good life or well-being, also known as eudaimonia are described by Seligman (2011) as consisting of PERMA (positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment).   The attainment of this complex but important state can be argued to be one of man’s central life pursuits.   To the degree this is true, then man’s attention and expression will reflect this pursuit.  Thus, since the humanities are a form of human expression, and our expression will reflect our pursuit of well-being, the humanities can help individuals develop a better understanding of well-being.  Lessons in how to live a meaningful and good life are evident and pervasive in great works of literature, art, religion and philosophy (for example, Pawelski, 2013; de Botton, 2013).  However, visual art forms such as paintings often use an important and effective mechanism to foster well-being, i.e. through improving perspective.

 Using the arts to change perspective may take many forms.  First, creating art can change the artist’s perspective.  As summarized by Ivanhoe (2013),  joy and self-transcendence are available to the masters when they lose themselves in their work when the work becomes of a second, acquired but spontaneous nature according to Kongzi (Confucious).  That self-transcendence broadens the artist’s perspective beyond themselves and their daily experience.

Second, while an artist is engaged in the creative process, positive emotion and mood repair may result.    Mood repair mediated by positive emotion is more effective than pathways that employ venting or distraction (Dalebroux, Goldstein & Winner, 2008).    Dalebroux also states that rumination can extend the duration of negative emotion, but when used properly, rumination can help one move forward and grow when facing a challenge.

When positive emotion such as joy and self-transcendence exist as often occurs during the creation of art, an individual’s perspective changes via a phenomenon called Broaden and Build.  According to Fredrickson (2009), with positive emotion comes a more expansive perspective, creativity and integration.   The latter creates excellence and achievement thus creating more positive emotion, resulting in a positive upward spiral of well-being.    To the degree that this wider perspective and creativity can then be conveyed through the art form itself to the viewer, listener or reader, then the artist can subsequently grow and enhance the well-being of others.

Though much remains unknown about the impact of the humanities on the viewer, reader or listener, the recipient of an art form can benefit in many ways from the broader perspective of the artist and enhance their well-being.    According to Ivanhoe (2013), Konzi says that listening to music has an enchanting power that “arises from our underlying desire to discover, fit into, and give ourselves over to something larger and more meaningful than our personal pleasures and desires.”     Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012 ) describe how listening to music can improve physical health, create positive emotions , diminish negative emotions, and help one feel energized.   In other words, the observer’s well-being may be enhanced by art because of increases in meaning, positive emotion, feeling energized and a net improvement in health.

The broadened perspective of the artist or writer may also help the observer broaden their own perspective.  For example, cognitive reappraisal is identified as one possible mechanism by which music mitigates stress (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012) . Similarly, an important philosophical tool called reflective equilibrium requires one to use an iterative approach to consider multiple perspectives in explaining as many of the facts as possible (Tiberius, 2013), thus widening the perspective of both philosopher and reader.

Perhaps this perspective shift and subtle changes in wisdom is what draws us to participate in the humanities.  How will you shift your perspective today?


Dalebroux, A., Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2008). Short-term mood repair through art-making: Positive emotion is more effective than venting. Motivation and Emotion, 32, 288-295. doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9105-1.

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York: Crown Publishers.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (2013). Happiness in early Chinese thought. In S. David, I. Boniwell, & A. Conley Ayers (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 326-336). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pawelski, J. O., & Moores, D. J. (Eds.). (2013). The eudaimonic turn: Well-being in literary studies. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011).  Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Free Press.

Tiberius, V. (2013).  Philosophical methods in happiness research.  In  S. A. David, I. Boniwell, A.C. Ayers, (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Happiness.  (pp. 315-325). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N., & Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health, and wellbeing (pp. 405-423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.