The New Mythology

If you’ve ever felt lost or directionless, you’re not alone. According to Joseph Campbell, author of the Power of Myth, modern man has lost his mythology or guide to life, and it’s no surprise that we sometimes feel like we’re missing something. Campbell is a comparative mythologist who has studied stories from across time and culture. He says that man’s stories are remarkably similar across different religions, fables, and myths, and have served as man’s guide to life for millennia.

But today, according to Campbell, modern man has lost its mythology and so has lost his way. Religion seems less relevant in our modern age (“eye for an eye” seems archaic), and we’ve not found a suitable replacement that will help us find the path to the good life.

Or have we?

As a society, it seems to me that we’ve turned to science as our new religion. The scientific method allows us to ask questions and find answers to them instead of attempting to interpret God’s will from a book or our clergy. But does the scientific method teach us about the good life and finding meaning and purpose?

A decade ago, I would’ve said No. But today we have positive psychology. Positive psychology is the scientific discipline that studies well-being.   It’s not just the ‘happy science’, but studies the utility of all emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and creating satisfaction in all domains of life.

Many theories exist about what constitutes well-being, but as a graduate of the Penn MAPP program, I tend to go with the father of the discipline, Martin Seligman, and author of Flourish. According to Seligman, well-being is comprised of PERMA, positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement. In other words, we can create personal well-being by developing each of these aspects in the various domains of our life. Tom Rath, author of Well Being: The Five Essential Elements, states that the 5 domains of our life include career, social, community, financial, and physical well-being.   Five components, 5 domains. Roughly 25 areas to improve one’s life. You can almost make a grid and start filling in the squares for things to do to improve your life.

Don’t mind if I do:


  Career Social Community Financial Physical
P Plan a get-together
E Blog
R Walk with friends
M Donate to charities
A Use my strengths

So just going down the Financial column, I can ask myself, “how can I create meaning through the financial domain?” Donate to charities that I feel can create the impact that I’m looking to support. “How can I create positive emotion and engagement with or through my community?” Write my blog!

You may not be able to figure out how to put something in every square. Or maybe you can. If you can’t figure it out, ask a friend or family member, and you can improve your relationships just by starting with the exercise itself.

Science. Data. Tables. Method. Experiment with your life! You might like the results.

Our Unique Genius

I believe that each one of us have some unique genius. I don’t mean an overall DaVinci-good-at-everything genius, or even genius that you could put in a jar or on a Tshirt and sell. I mean that there is something each of us is unbelievably, jaw-droppingly good at.

Since becoming a StrengthsFinders coach, I believe this more than ever. It’s hard not to be completely in awe when looking at someone through the lens of their strengths.

But it’s really more than our strengths. Remember, according to Gardner, there are 9 different types of intelligences though we tend to only measure only IQ.

Then there is the thing that we long to do and are passionate about. If you were to draw a Venn diagram (hm, not a bad idea; maybe I’m good at figuring out new applications for the Venn diagram) you could see where they all intersect and voila, there’s your genius. Your pattern of strengths, passions and excellence are all as unique as your DNA.

So, what is it for you? Do you know?

If not, why not?

Gardner's intelligences

Gardner’s intelligences


Being A Problem for Others

Thought Exercise:

1. When was the last time you felt ‘put out’ by someone else? Maybe they didn’t give you the service you wanted at the store. Your friend was talking too much. A colleague won’t do his job. You kid keeps acting up.

2. Now consider when the last time you considered how you were someone else’s problem.

(crickets chirping)

Most of you probably were able to give an example of each and maybe many of you found it easier to give an example to the second question.

But for those of you who had difficulty with the second question, I ask that you consider the possibility that you may be perceived as difficult without knowing it.

Most of us are not trying to be difficult. It just comes naturally to me! We just get caught up in our own, narrow perspective and have trouble seeing it from someone else’s viewpoint. The more certain we are of our perspective, or of being right, the more likely we are to be a problem for someone else.

Wow. Say what you really think, Susanna.

I know being wrong is pretty scary for a lot of people, especially those of the perfectionist persuasion.   The problem is, everyone is wrong at some point. And even if hypothetically it’s possible to always be right, life and perspective are not black and white. That’s why eyewitness accounts vary so much – we tend to notice and interpret things differently, so our world views and realities differ. I used to have endless arguments with people about the best flavor of ice cream, or something equally subjective. You see, I hate being wrong!

However, I have also learned that by taking the approach of being less certain about my claims that I don’t have to feel like I’m wrong. In other words, if someone makes a claim that I disagree with, I try to take the tack of, “well, I don’t know for certain, but feel pretty sure that Cherry Garcia is the best flavor in the world.” That way, when I’m proven wrong (which is pretty much all the time), I hadn’t staked my ego and self-respect on the line and can concede graciously. For example, the claim “all Red Sox fans are evil” maybe could use a little room for doubt?

I love Byron Katie’s technique of flipping the assumption to create room for doubt and other perspectives. To flip my previous assertion, “all Red Sox fans are evil”, I can flip it and say “all Red Sox fans are good” and examine the truth in that statement. Even better, I can explore the grain truth of the statement “I am evil,” referring of course to how I’m judging strangers based on the flimsiest of rationales.

When I can see the grain of truth in the “I am evil” statement, I can now see how I am creating a problem for others. If I practice this exercise whenever I get stuck in the blame game, I can see my role in the problem and move to fix it.

After all, my actions, assumptions and feelings are all I ever have any control over. And by being able to shift my views and habits to be more balanced, I will be less likely to be stuck in a victim or blaming mindset, and more likely to feel empowered and ironically, in control.

Now that I feel better, let’s go watch baseball!

“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?

Jumping to Conclusions

It’s oh so easy and deliciously fun to jump to conclusions about others’ motivations, especially when we can feel indignant and justified while making others out to be petty, small-minded, or selfish. We can decide they’re a jerk, an a**hole, a biyotch, or (favorite expletive) and feel superior to them.

It’s great fun until someone else does it to us.

But that’s different, we say.   We’re right.

What I’ve learned is that everyone has their perspective which is just as valid as our own, regardless of whether we understand it or agree with it.  Failure to at least try to understand someone else’s perspective can be damaging to morale and relationships and undermine a group’s effectiveness.

I have to admit that some people are particularly difficult to understand and it may be tempting to just write them off as narcissists, selfish or small-minded. And I may not always be wrong when doing so. After all, even a broken clock is right twice per day. So for all of those times (since I can’t ever really know when I’m right) when I find myself indulging in negativity, complaining, or self-justification here’s what I try to do.

First, I must acknowledge that I form some judgment or assumption when I form a conclusion.   There may be a belief attached to that. For example, if my friend is in the habit of offering something to me that she knows she cannot deliver, I may decide she’s manipulative (a judgment/assumption/conclusion). But if I examine my underlying belief (it’s her job be honest with me so that I feel safe or valued), I can see what the real issue is and have a conversation with her and/or make a decision about what her friendship is worth to me.

Second, I can examine my own role and potential hypocrisy in this situation. It’s easy to cast blame on others, but much harder to take ownership of one’s own contribution.   A great starting point for this self-reflection is as follows: if I’m accusing her of manipulation, there is probably some element of manipulation that I myself am employing such as getting mad if she doesn’t do what I want.

I also may be hiding a belief from myself that is potentially unflattering. For example, my underlying belief in the above scenario might really be that my affection for her is predicated on her doing something for me.  I may be very unwilling to admit this to myself and instead rationalize the conflict to say it’s about honesty.   I can test my assumption by asking myself whether her company alone is sufficient for me to continue our friendship. Or perhaps I pressure her to do things for me that she’s not comfortable doing? Is this her way of getting me off her back?

Finally, I can also do an exercise where I envision other reasonable explanations for her behavior. She might simply be an unrealistic and overly optimistic planner who is sincere in her offers at the time.   She might have every intention of making that promise work, but later find she’s too busy or overwhelmed.   She might be misusing one of her strengths if she’s tired or stressed out. In other words, I am now looking at my friend from the point of view of her humanity, not her failures.

These exercises are not necessarily designed to get someone else off the hook after behaving poorly. They are intended, however, to help one get a new perspective on what was previously a very one-sided internal dialogue.

There are multiple benefits to making this effort in such situations. For example, trying to see the conflict from another’s perspective will smooth the way when discussing the issue with them. You’re less likely to make her defensive if you’re not leading with an accusatory tone. Also, it’s much easier to forgive someone when you consider or realize that you have contributed an equal or significant part to the problem. And that forgiveness, as Suzanne Somers once said, is a “gift you give yourself”. That gift to yourself is peace of mind and the power to retain your equanimity and positive emotion.

Therefore, engaging in such exercises means that you can potentially be rewarded psychologically and emotionally for your efforts. Like other skills, these actions get easier with practice, as do the concomitant benefits. So what do you have to lose besides your premature conclusions and resentment?

What Are Men Good For?

Let me count the ways.

This extremely loaded question can only be asked and answered by a pro.  (And that is not me BTW.)   In his book, Is There Anything Good About Men?  How Cultures Flourish By Exploiting Men, social psychologist Roy Baumeister asks and answers this question.

Baumeister describes the way men and women differ in the social domain:

–       Women are more social and less aggressive than men stereotypically but are slightly more aggressive in close relationships

–       Men are more aggressive in general; they value relationships less than women

–       Women are more motivated to build intimacy

–       Men may be more social to make a superficial network of relationships

–       Men are more helping in communities; in intimate relationships women are more helpful than men

–       Women are more emotionally expressive which fosters intimate relationships; men are more evolved to lie to gain advantages

–       Women lean towards promoting equality and commonality; men (and large groups) lean towards equity (based on contribution) and distinction.  Of note, commonality, communal and cooperative behavior are better for intimate relationships, but are less advantageous in economic systems

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  I’ll bet you were ready to get pissed off.

Maybe you are pissed off.   And just think how pissed off you’d feel if you replace the word “Men” in the title with the word “Women.”  I know some of our classmates, when hearing this lecture, reacted strongly to the lecture.  However, I don’t believe we have to interpret these trends as black/white or all/nothing.  They’re just trends, tendencies.  Not rules.   We humans are so complex and unpredictable that we defy rules.

Even if generalizations and stereotypes are more true than false (as defined by more than 50% do X or Y), it doesn’t mean that we, as individuals, have to reinforce and subscribe to the stereotype.  I can lie too and defy the trend.  I can choose distinction over commonality in some situations and break the mold.

The point is, in the end we have autonomy as long as we have awareness.  It’s harder to have autonomy when I allow my subconscious processes rule my behavior and never question those processes or choices , especially when those choices give me a poor outcome.

So whether you agree or disagree with Baumeister, perhaps Baumeister’s work can help raise your consciousness about the topic so that you can decide whether to defy the stereotype.



Webucator’s Most Marketable Job Skill Campaign – Emotional Intelligence

No, emotional intelligence (EQ) is not a line item on your resume.  But EQ impacts all of your interpersonal interactions (and their impact on you) as well as how you interview and promote yourself to others.  Employers may not be looking for emotional intelligence directly in your resume or letters of reference, but your ability to manage yourself and get along with others will nevertheless come across loud and clear.

For example,  if you can’t work well with others, it may show as a lack of productivity since so much of what we do requires teamwork and cooperation.  The tone of letters of reference will also reflect whether you are emotionally intelligent, since if you cannot manage yourself or others, that deficiency is likely to come across specifically or in the tone of the letter.  Lack of EQ will especially come across loud and clear in the job application and interview stage.  Those with good EQ will seem the type others wish to work with and the interview is likely to go smoothly.  They will demonstrate that they respond effectively and appropriately across various situations in school, at work and during the application and interview stages.  A good EQ is also required of good managers and leaders.

That’s not to say that those who lack emotional intelligence are doomed to a lifetime of unemployment.   But if I’m lacking EQ then my talent and productivity will have to be considerably higher to make up the deficit.  The level of EQ required also will vary depending on the position and the person doing the hiring.  And a high EQ is no substitute for actual competency or hard work.  However, the ability to know and manage emotions is a basic life skill that provides the baseline for success in our personal and professional lives.

Not high on EQ?  Don’t worry – unlike IQ, EQ can be learned and developed.   It takes some introspection and some work, but it can be changed.  If you are already high in EQ, then good for you! Keep growing your EQ skills, they can only serve you well.

Note:  Some websites such as Webucator offers free training to improve your technical skills that you can use to supplement the array of soft and technical skills that you can use to market yourself to future employers.


Who Are You Without Work?

I’m at the state in my life where many of my long-time colleagues are beginning to retire. Even looking back to my Dad’s retirement, it became clear to me that those who don’t have an active and full personal life will struggle to transition into retirement.

Part of the issue for those folks is the loss of their professional identity as well as just how to fill their time.   Filling the time can be hard. I spent roughly three years working 20-30% time while my kids were young and by the end of it, I was ready to go crazy.   There was also a definite transition period where I reconsidered myself from initially as a full-time tenured professor to part-time working Mom. It did not actually take that long, as I recall, but I also hadn’t spent most of my life with that identity at that point in time.

We’ve had a taste of that discretionary time this week as Chris and I vacationed in Paris. This week, we’ve had no agenda. No plans. No obligations. We can cook if we want, or eat out. The hotel maids clean our room. We can be as hedonistic as we want …. though hedonism gets old pretty fast (note: it hasn’t gotten old just yet).

I admit it’s been impossible to completely turn off work. Jet lag has meant we’ve had hours of being awake at odd hours and, well, I might as well go through my email. But we’ve largely turned off the work brain and just focused on being together, exploring and being present. Even my passion for positive psychology and training has been shut down this week.

Sort of. I know you’re thinking about me blogging this week but the blog is more for me than for you. I often will start writing without an end in mind; indeed I have no answer for this question that I posed to myself as I sat down to write. I know I am still ‘me’ without my day job but not sure who I am without my passion, as it so completely defines me right now.

The good thing about a passion though is that I can do it anywhere, whether my employer chooses to support or condone it, or whether or not I’m on vacation. My passion is my pleasure and my joy and provides meaning to my day and my life.   I like that it’s not dependent on a title or position at work, or the approval of someone else. I never thought I’d be one of those people that say that they will always want to work, because work to them is play.

Perhaps when our job is our passion, we jump out of bed to go to work each day, we can’t believe we get paid to do this work, and we never want to retire.

I realize that only 30% of people have that feeling about work.   Another 30% are perfectly happy with the status of their work being a career, not a passion, and another 30% are searching.   I don’t believe everyone must have an calling/passion to be happy. However, after our work and family raising responsibilities diminish we may struggle to find that meaning in our daily activities and could potentially leave a gaping void.  So even if you’re not searching right now, pay attention to what brings you joy, ease, and excellence. You may want to fall back on it some day.

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?

Learning Patience

Our strengths are our weaknesses (and fortunately, visa versa, because I’d be in big trouble!).  My creativity, zest, and desire to get things done are great assets – until they’re not.  Put me behind a slow driver or in front of someone who doesn’t get it or wants to deliberate, or in the middle of a slow, boring process and I’m at my worst.  Impatient, antsy, impulsive and hyper are adjectives that have been used to describe me.

I’ve figured out a way to turn that frown upside down and turn my liabilities into an asset.  I’m not talking about the upside of the creativity/zest/activator.  I’m talking about the downside.

I like to use the story of the Buddha – sorry, bear with me once again – as a metaphor.  The Buddha liked to keep a student nearby who was impatient, antsy, impulsive and just generally annoying.  Someone once asked him why he insisted on keeping the student so close by and the Buddha said, “She is not my student.  She is my teacher.” (haha I am the Buddha’s teacher!)

I’ve always told that story in relationship to difficult people, but in this context I’m telling it in relation to myself and when I am my own worst enemy.  One of the things I have had to struggle with the most in my lifetime is that voice in my head (mine, that is) that is constantly somewhere else.  That voice is in the past being unhappy about something.  That voice is in the future worrying about something.  That voice is in the present complaining about something or someone, usually myself but often someone or something else.  Unfortunately/fortunately the antidote for that voice is being present, and meditation is the best exercise for that.

I have to admit that I don’t meditate that much these days but I do work at being present on an ongoing basis.   The little devil in me in the form of impatience, boredom or annoyance are the perfect cue to practice being present:  I’m not exercising either these days (but I will.  soon!) so I do some isometrics.  I stop to practice gratitude and appreciation of the beauty around me.  I use my compassion for someone who is going as fast as they can or doing the best that they can.  I stop and think about my loved ones.

I’m embarrassed to say that these opportunities to practice being present are all around me as I’m frequently resisting the urge to be bored or annoyed.  I’m proud to say, however, that I think I’ve reached a milestone because an usually long and tedious responsibility has recently become a pleasant and enjoyable occasion.  I imagine my being present also improved the experience for those around me as I stopped fidgeting and looking completely unengaged.

I can’t help but reflect once again that our shortcomings are our opportunities.  If we fail to look at our shortcomings we are missing out on probably what we need the most to cultivate our well-being.  I once was unable to look at my shortcomings at all, but by thinking of them as strengths on an effectiveness spectrum, I can see them for all that they offer.  Where in your life have you been stuck and given up looking for a solution?  You have the tools and skills already.  Take  a fresh look and make it happen!