“Other People Matter”

Our professors told us that this quote by Chris Peterson summed it all up on our first day in our positive psychology graduate program.   At the time, I thought to myself “oh sure.”  But it’s true.

Here’s what I learned:

  • People in positive relationships are physically healthier and heal faster.
  • People in positive relationships have more positive emotions and are more resilient. Positive relationships help children become more resilient.
  • People who give have more positive emotion than those who receive.   Also, givers tend to be more successful than takers.
  • The meaning and purpose we feel in our lives largely pertains, ultimately, to our impact on others.
  • Our motivation to do a task depends on whether we can relate the task to impact on others or relevance to a larger goal.
  • Positive relationships enable an organization to rise to the next level.
  • Employee engagement is causally related to profitability and strongly related to having a best friend at work.
  • Our well-being is directly related to how much social time we get each day. Studies show that 5-6 hours per day provides the peak amount of well-being.
  • Our entire community impacts our well-being.   The friends of my friends and the colleagues of my colleagues can measurably impact how I feel each day.

In other words, the people in our lives make our lives worth living and also help us to live a good life.  The opposite is also potentially true.

Therefore, is your attention, energy and priorities where they should be?

What You Doin’?

How much of your day is spent mindlessly doing what we always do?  Granted, much of our day has to be just that; having to consciously do every task as if we have never done it before would take all of our effort and attention.  But perhaps a few of the things we believe to be necessary tasks, are really not necessary at all.  Perhaps they’re even harmful or counterproductive. I challenge each of you to re-examine your day as you go about it.  Just one day.  Pay close attention to what you do and why you’re doing it.  Are you acting out of habit, necessity, desire, or because of someone else’s (or your own) expectations?  What are those expectations? I would suspect a significant part of our day is spent without deliberate intention.  We may find that once we carefully examine our motivation for each task, that most of our tasks are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. But likely, some fraction will not.  Some of our tasks are done out of habit of what we tend to notice or believe.  For example, if I only notice what makes me tired, then I will feel tired and find ways to rest.  If I notice things that give me energy, I will feel energized and continue to pursue those tasks.  If I notice things that make me feel sad, I’ll feel depressed and need to find ways to soothe myself.  These beliefs and habits tend focus our intentions, and thus our actions.   That is fine, as long as the task and beliefs are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. What would happen if you gave up those observations, tasks, beliefs, and assumptions that divert you from your life’s plan?  Or just modified them?  What if you then took that increasingly precious time and energy and did something that would feed or nourish your spirit? I think it’s easy as a parent or spouse to get into habits of doing things for other people, even if it’s not good for them or they’ve outgrown it.  I recall a conversation a long time ago when we discussed asking our six year old to start getting his own breakfast.  At first it felt like we had suggested we amputate a good leg.  But guess what?  He did a great job (except for the one time when he tried to put a chicken thigh in the toaster). If you can identify one thing that you have been doing out of habit that you now realize you should change, consider adding this new perspective to your daily outlook.  Remember, what we notice is habit, how we tend to think about what we notice is usually habit, and what we do as a response is often habit.  We can change our habits if they are not serving us well. Go on.  Change something.  Create new habits, perspectives and beliefs that nourish your spirit.    

Optimism 101

Are you annoyed by those pesky folk who always think things are going to come out OK? If so, then maybe you are a pessimist, a person who tends to view the glass as half empty.   Perhaps you also like to argue with optimists that you are right, that we should all take a more cynical view of the world and our future.

Actually, it’s a pointless argument. The glass half full analogy illustrates the concept nicely. Both parties are right. So it’s merely a matter of which way you choose to view it.

And yes, it is a choice. You may have an inherent tendency to go one way or another, but you do not have to be a slave to your tendencies.   That choice is both a blessing and a curse, because it means you can change but it also means it will take effort.

“Why should I change? It’s worked well for me all my life,” you might ask. I’m so glad you did (even if maybe you didn’t)!

Optimists do better in life. They’re more successful (with the exception of lawyers), more resilient, they have a longer life and better health, especially with regard to depression. They make more money than pessimists. I also suspect that people would prefer to work with and be with optimists. I would also add on a personal level that I feel much better in general when I choose an optimistic perspective. Feeling negative makes me feel pretty lousy.

So if you’re a life-long pessimist, how do you change?

  • Challenge catastrophic thoughts – Treat those thoughts as if they were coming from someone else and challenge them. Not landing the job does not mean I’m a failure. It may mean that the job market is competitive and/or I need to beef up my resume or interviewing skills.
  • Use your strengths – Using your strengths also decreases depressive symptoms. A free strengths test is at authentichappiness.com or workuno.com, or you can pay for the Clifton StrengthsFinders which provides a detailed report and analysis. Once you get your strengths assessment, commit to using them intentionally every day.
  • Challenge your perspective – Pessimists think good events are temporary and local but bad things are permanent and pervasive; optimists are the opposite.   If you’re not sure where you stand, take the optimism test at authentichappiness.com. It’s free! Then pay attention to how you interpret yourself and your world view and challenge those pessimistic thoughts. Keep doing it, and you may see a shift in your pessimistic tendencies.
  • Read a book – The book on the subject is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.   He says it so much better than I ever can.

Those of you who are still skeptical about the value of being more optimistic can also consider the degree of optimism that you may wish to achieve. Scientists also advocate that optimism stays within the zone of realistic, as opposed to endorsing the extreme that may result in passivity and unrealistic thinking (as in: this warrant for my arrest will turn out fine so I won’t do anything about it).   So more is better, but only to a point.

I contend there should also be room for dreamers and out-of-box thinkers. We need to be able to dream to make big changes, but do so responsibly. So you are the judge of how you walk that line. Dream big and then take a realistic optimistic approach to achieving it. The odds are in your favor.

250 Blogs and 1 Degree Later

Something about a milestone makes you want to sit back and reflect. So after having completed my 250th blog and now starting on a fresh Word document (no, not all 250 blogs are on one Word document), I thought I’d take a retrospective of the last 1.5 years since I’ve started blogging.

In November 2013 I primarily wrote about my kids and my failed marriage. Though my focus was quite different back then given that I’m now an empty nester and about to be remarried, I’m struck by how I was talking about the principles of positive psychology throughout the blogs even then. Forgiveness, gratitude, perspective, growth, acceptance, pride, relationships and love.

Yet I’m not the same person I was back then. Yes those heart-felt emotions are still there. But now I’m aware of the body of evidence and work that surround those concepts, what they mean for our well-being, and how science shows that those emotions are not accidents. Or they don’t have to be.

Fortunately for me I’ve been an amateur positive psychologist my whole life. I’ve learned and applied those principles in a world where I am the primary subject. Just like any other area where you’re re-inventing the wheel, it was a long and slow learning process only recently accelerated at warp-speed by going back to school. I remember one of the best days of my life was when my girlfriend told me my perspective was all about this new field of positive psychology, and then suddenly I had something to sink my teeth into.   Now I feel like I’m trying to live by those principles every day, every minute, and I could not feel more joyous or engaged with my life.

We are practitioners, not clinicians. I don’t do therapy, though I do have coach training (which is distinctly different from therapy BTW) from outside the program. Instead, we focus on the good things in our lives and on ways to build them both in individuals and organizations in order to grow well-being, a concept distinctly different from ‘happiness.’ We do not diagnose, analyze the past, or treat mental illness.

In school, my mission to help others become the best possible version of themselves crystallized. Sort of. Like any other calling (as I view callings), I have a direction, and now I have the tools. I have this blog, and the pedestal of the lectern, and hopefully venues in the future through which to live my mission.

In this manner, I can change the world, one person at a time. How about you?

Starry-Eyed Idealist

Be practical.  Be realistic.  Be careful.  Don’t trust others.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I know.  I don’t want to get burned or get my hopes up unrealistically.

But I also don’t want to live my life feeling like I can’t trust and hope.

We learned in school about realistic optimism:  being optimistic in a realistic way.  I think those authors were providing caution to people like me who tend to assume the best intentions from others and the best possible outcome.

I understand the theory and even agree with it to some degree.   However, there are two problems with that concept from my perspective.  First, what is realistic to one person is unrealistic to another.  In other words, we are not a good judge of our own reality.  On one hand, we might be unrealistically optimistic, but we may likewise be unrealistically negative or pessimistic.  I know anecdotally that a large number of us have a negative ticker tape dialogue running through our heads:  I’m not good enough.  I’m not deserving.  I’m unattractive.  No one likes me.  I’m not deserving.  I’m not smart/good at math/good at athletics.  I don’t belong.  I’m not loved.   We notice those things that confirm our belief (confirmation bias) but ignore the data that refute it.  In so doing, we create our own reality.

Running through my great, 50-year old wisdom is my ticker tape that I don’t belong and that I don’t have many friends.  I used to actually say that aloud.  And I would always notice when I’m not included or when I’m alone, each observation confirming my belief.  But some time ago I decided to challenge that belief and look for instances where I do belong, when my friends reach out to me, when I’m included or even celebrated and seen authentically by my friends.  Back then, I might’ve thought it was realistically optimistic to hope that I would have outside my best friend circle (3-4 people generally; this fact did not sway my belief mind you) another circle of at most 3-4 modestly good friends.

As you might guess, when I started intentionally looking for signs of friendship and affection, I started to see it everywhere.  Now I feel I have friendship in huge abundance – not that I’m ‘popular’ by any means – but that I have a wide circle of friends and affectionate acquaintances.  The graduate program that I’ve almost just completed expanded my circle of friends by more than 37 people.  In the old days, my ticker tape would’ve had me feeling like they’re not friends/they don’t care for me like the other classmates/we’ll never stay in contact.  I’m not naive enough to believe that all of us will be buddies forever, but with some effort I will be able to maintain contact and friendship with several of them and even expand the circle to other alumni and people in the positive psychology community.

In addition to not being a good judge of our own reality, the second problem with realistic optimism is that it will cause us to play it too safe sometimes.  Innovation takes leaps of faith, and if we all quit dreaming, where would our dreams be?

I can hear the naysayers out there saying that I’ll be disappointed or hurt by being hopeful or optimistic.  My answer to that is that I’d rather put myself out there to be hurt and disappointed on the rare occasion than to live my life without trust, intimacy, love or hope.  Yes, I’ve been burned, but I can honestly say that I’m more likely to be pleasantly surprised.  Life is not supposed to be free from pain or disappointment.  It’s part of the human condition and to close ourselves to that pain also requires that we close ourselves to pleasure and joy.

So when someone accuses me of being a starry-eyed idealist, I thank them for the compliment and say I would’t have it any other way.


Love/Hate Dynamic in Relationships

You know that thing in your partner that you first loved, now hate (or something in between)?  You’ve probably suspected if not known that the love/hate dynamic is very common and real.  Relationship expert Harville Hendrix describes this phenomenon as the imago.

Imago refers to our tendency to seek partners that reproduce our childhood wounds.  On some level, we find comfort in the familiar, even if the familiar is the behavior we find hurtful.  We seem to be experts in using our Spidey Sense (we usually call it ‘chemistry’) to know who will be able to reproduce those wounds for us.  That person makes us feel complete and whole because we yearn to be with someone who has learned to curb their wounding tendencies.

That is, until we discover that they haven’t curbed their wounding tendencies.  They still open those same wounds, but maybe in a different or somewhat improved way.  In addition, these are old wounds they’re opening up, and so we continue to have a visceral response to them.

The good news is that you can ditch that partner that causes you to curl up into a fetal position.  The bad news is that you’re going to keep being attracted to the same type of person after you’ve sent your old partner packing.  Then you’re back to square one, just several years and maybe several partners later.    The good news (#2) is that nature intends for you to learn how to deal with these issues (thus the multiple chances).  The good news (#3) is that your partner is the perfect foil for you to rise to the challenge of dealing with those wounds because as you rise to meet the needs of your partner, you simultaneously heal yourself.  That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think?

For example, if my wound has to do with me feeling unlovable, I will be very sensitive and reactive when someone is not affirming.  Maybe they don’t notice I went to a lot of trouble to cook dinner or plan a vacation, but oddly I will be attracted to that type of person.   But I may have a tendency to not put forth effort to avoid the risk of being rejected or criticized.  Notice this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because I am unlikely to be loved if I am not exerting myself in the relationship

On the other hand, he may have his own issues – he is used to feeling deprived, so will tend to notice deprivation not generosity, and thus tends to be critical rather than complimentary.  I can help him heal his wounds but being proactive and calm about meeting his needs instead of withdrawing even if I am not complimented or thanked.  By being able to take the risk of giving without expectation heals my own unlovability while helping him manage his deprivation.  His job would be to see the love and contribution without criticism and allow himself to be vulnerable enough to be cared for.  In so doing, he would be healing his wounds and also helping me to do better with my unlovability.  Thus, the imago is potentially a healing partnership where both parties collaborate to heal themselves and each other.

More good news (#4) is that by finally dealing with these issues, you’re likely to give your kids a better chance of dealing with their own childhood wounds.

The bad news (#2) is that this is not easy work.  As discussed in many previous blogs, that self-awareness and inner work is scary and hard.  We have to be willing to accept responsibility for our unhealthy perspectives and behaviors and be willing to make changes.  Those of us who are (recovering) perfectionists, this means accepting our humanity and flaws.  Those who are considering embarking on this path of self-discovery might be comforted to know that they are not alone with regard to their flaws.  I felt an odd sort of comfort knowing that these books that were written describe thousands of people just like me.  We’re all on the same path of discovery; we’re just in different places of the journey.

The alternative is living for years with strained relationships where we are constantly in a  love/hate, blame/self-justifying cycle.  When I’m in blame/self-justifying—mode, I just feel like I’m building a wall around my heart and it’s difficult to let anyone in.  As Dr. Phil says, “would you rather be right, or happy?”  I would go so far as to say, “would you rather be right/alone or happy/healed/nurturing/loving/supportive?”  You have nothing to lose (though it may feel like you do) and everything to gain by opening your heart up to love, acceptance and forgiveness.   Be brave. You’re not alone.

Enjoy Your Relationship – Take a Break

Reunions.  Photo credit:  tonyconigliophoto.com

Reunions. Photo credit: tonyconigliophoto.com

We’ve been doing a little experiment about pleasure and separation.  Chris has been traveling due to work lately and we’ve just completed the longest separation we’ve ever had.  The separation hasn’t been easy, though somewhat mitigated by communication technology.  After all, we’re in the honeymoon stage of our relationship where it’s difficult to be apart, though it would’ve been much harder had I been left caring for a family on top of it.

So what’s so great about separation?

Psychological theory tells us that separation can improve the pleasure in our relationships or anything else we value.  First, sharing an experience is more pleasurable than giving a gift.  For example, doing an outing with the family will bring more pleasure than giving an expensive bauble or toy.  The physical gift is subject to the hedonic treadmill: the pleasure wears off quickly and then it must be replaced with something bigger and better.  Enjoying an activity together is not subject to the hedonic treadmill, so spending time together will be of lasting enjoyment.

Second, we can savor the anticipation.  I didn’t do too much savoring when our reunion was more than a week away, but as we got down to the last 3-4 days, I was savoring the anticipation like crazy!  In other words, delaying gratification can increase your enjoyment of the experience.

Third, the more effort we put into something, the more we value it.  So having a long separation followed by a long trip to the reunion means I put a lot of effort into this reunion and the time together has been precious.   I’ve also tried to savor every minute we’ve been together – I’m blogging now because my sweetie is sleeping.

Finally, to make sure we have a really great visit, we should finish it off with something memorable.    The Peak-End rule states that my recollection of an event will be dictated by the peak and the end experiences.  I will not remember much about the duration, so the short nature of the visit is not relevant.  So I will remember the really lovely bath he lovingly prepared for me and hopefully lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant on the way to the airport.  Then I can savor the short, hard-earned but sweet experience of our visit when I return home.

I’m not so sure about the old adage about how absence makes the heart grow fonder.  But absence can clearly increase your overall pleasure.  You may not be separated from your sweetheart right now but you probably are separated from someone or something that you love.  Get the most out of that separation by savoring, putting effort into the reunion, and making the ending count.

Civil War Post-Traumatic Growth

Recently I visited the Tredegar National Civil War museum on the banks of the James River.  My homework assignment was to visit and cultural museum and write about what the museum said about well-being.  The museum is housed in a beautiful old ironworks building that I have never visited even though it is adjacent to my favorite spot in all of Richmond.  The facility originally manufactured railroad and locomotive parts beginning in 1830, but during the Civil War the facility made blankets and stored patterns for casting munitions.

Once I entered the museum, I realized with dismay that a museum about the bloody and acrimonious Civil War would not be an easy study in well-being.  The park ranger that chatted with us did not help with my assignment as he focused on the political tension and negative emotions that fueled the start of the conflict.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel that the exhibits, presented in as neutral a political tone as possible, was about post-traumatic growth enabled by focusing on the positive aspects of this bloody and divisive conflict.  For example, the exhibits avoided mention of the impact of brother fighting brother, the number of casualties, and the economic devastation of the South.  Instead, it showed the brave blacks that fought for the cause, the abolitionists that helped slaves, the hospitals with a high success rate, the artistry of the photos taken at the time, the success of the region prior to the war, the hopes and dreams of each side, and the traditions of the region.

To me, I felt there was much pride displayed regarding the identity of Richmond during this era.  I believe the positive explanatory style on display helps us to accept and psychologically manage what was our horrible history, and allows us to move forward and grow from the experience.  Indeed, today Richmond is a beautiful and thriving city that is not defined by the mistakes of the past.  We still have racial and ethnic tension – we were the capital of the Confederacy after all – but Richmond has largely made peace with our chequered past and managed to retain Southern pride without the angry overtones that accompany the defeated.

Despite having ended more than a century ago, I know the echoes of that terrible conflict still resonate in our region.  The symbols of the war are a source of pride for some but a continued source of pain for others.  What more can we do to heal those old wounds?  How can we find the best route going forward  incorporating, not ignoring, the lessons of the past?  How do we do so honoring all sides involved?

Myth: Assh*les Get Ahead

It’s true that the myth above is false:  You don’t have to be Donald Trump to get ahead.  It’s also true that some do despite being jerks, but for a given amount of talent and hard work, you’ll get even farther by being collaborative and generous.

In his book, Give and Take, Adam Grant turns the dominance paradigm for success on its head.  Grant studied all kinds of people from medical students to salesman and found the same surprising theme again and again.  Though the givers tended to be at the bottom portion of the performance curve, they were also at the top.

Why is this?

Grant says that givers are liked and so others go out of their way to promote their success.  Givers are generous of their time and resources, share credit, work to ensure the success of the group over their self-interest, and use a collaborative style of communication.  Givers are not afraid to ask for help, be uncertain or show their vulnerability.  Takers, on the other hand, use dominance and a powerful communication style, hog the credit and limelight, and will work to advance their own interest.  Takers rarely will be willing to show their vulnerability and instead work to display their mastery and dominance.  Matchers, those who try to balance the give and take so it comes out even, tend to punish takers and reward givers.


If you think about it, we are social and hivish creatures.  We have succeeded evolutionarily because we have been willing to work together.  Those that get out of line and try to take too much are punished with gossip and retribution, according to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis.  In other words, the givers will help the group and species advance, while the takers will be punished by the group because they advance themselves at the expense of the group.  While the taker strategy might pay off in the short run, gossip will ensure that everyone knows who the takers are.

The implications of this research are that if I am presented with a choice for self-interest over helping another, that helping not only will help advance my community, but it also is good for me in the long run.

So it’s really true:  It’s better to give than receive.  This giving doesn’t have to mean going out and volunteering and giving all your money to charitable causes.  There are so many ways to give in large and small ways alike.  Find a way to make it your own that is in line with your authentic self and which feeds your soul.  See how you can make your corner of the world a better place and you will find yourself a better person.

Super Bowl and Well-Being

The clan.  Photo credit:  Tonyconigliophoto.com

The clan. Photo credit: Tonyconigliophoto.com

I’m a big fan of technology but one of the potential downsides, as we all know, is the risk of isolating ourselves instead of engaging in ‘real’ relationships.  We most often think of those relationship casualties as those of an intimate nature, but what about the group and community bonding we’re giving up? As society has become more individualistic over time, our communities just don’t seem to have the coherence they once had.

Since the baby boom generation, we value mobility and independence over community, where neighborhood is now just a place to sleep at night.  I have literally lived next door for years to neighbors that I have never met.  It always struck me as odd that a sense of neighborhood unity and coherence was only present at times of distress and disruption:  after a hurricane or big snow storm or a national tragedy like 9/11.  But that on-again, off-again sense of community has always been my reality.  Even places that might provide a sense of community bonding, such as school or work, have largely failed to coalesce for me into feeling like an integral part of the whole.  I have spent most of my life feeling like a lone wolf that periodically joins the pack.

But it’s not always that way.  My leadership development programs and my current master’s program have had a very different and distinct sense of community and team spirit.  Getting together has felt like one huge warm bosom of camaraderie and good will.  We’re in it together, and any egos or agendas are left at the door.  Though the master’s program is large enough such that I am not intimate with every classmate, I nevertheless feel we are all one big family.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

What do we give up by losing this sense of community in our daily lives?  Ultimately, humans are pack creatures.  We have huddled together around fires for millennia, and to be isolated in front of the computer or TV in our work or homes is counter to our instinct and basic human nature.  Our species has used collaboration to enable the community to survive and thrive.  Individual self-sacrifice is even necessary occasionally for the species to survive and flourish.  That sacrifice is still evident among those in the armed forces and first responders who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect and advance our communities and nation.

This transition from feeling alone to an integral part of the group is a distinct phenomenon called the hive switch by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind.   The switch from individual interest to group interest makes the individual feel like a part of a whole, provides energy to the group, and elevates the group from the ordinary to the sacred.   We are rewarded physiologically for this switch via a release of oxytocin, the hormone that enables the feeling of connection.

Organized sports and religion continue to provide access to this feeling of community.  The rituals of sports and religion activate the hive switch (imagine the spectators at the Super Bowl), though modern religion is losing the ability to provide the feeling of community in this increasingly individualistic society.   So, regardless of how you may feel about organized sports or religion, they do provide a useful service in the provision of the essential human need to belong. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when my master’s program ends and I’m left with a void that was my community and family-away-from-home.  I’m not a big fan of organized religion or sports, so I’m unlikely to find a surrogate in those arenas.  Perhaps I can use technology to my advantage here and find people of like interests in my area to meet with, either by joining a pre-existing group or organizing my own. What do you do?  Do you have your community or are you like me, a lone wolf who occasionally circles with the pack?