The 40% That We Control

It’s true that the majority of our happiness is out of our control. 50% is due to our genetic makeup and 10% to our environment. But that means the remaining 40% is entirely within our control!   That’s huge!

So on a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?

Regardless of your answer, you can move that number closer to the happier end of the spectrum just by making small shifts.   Our habits of the mind are just that – habits. They can be broken and healthier habits can be chosen to replace them.   Even optimism and forgiveness can be learned (see Seligman’s book Learned Optimism, Kushner’s How Good Do You Have to Be or Worthington’s Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving). We can create daily practices of gratitude and kindness and make a point of savoring special or even ordinary moments in the present or future.

Taking care of our mind and body is also critical to our happiness. We all know we’re supposed to exercise our body and eat healthy food, but what about our mind? Our mind needs exercise and nourishment too in the way of mindful practice (being in the present moment, not the past or the future) and focusing on the positive. Our mind’s negative habits are the psychological and emotional equivalent of perfecting the art of watching TV and eating Girl Scout cookies.   Mindfulness, gratitude and focus on the beauty of the present moment are what nourish our spirit. Though meditation is the mac-daddy workout for mindfulness, other mindful practices such as yoga, tai chi or prayer are also great exercise for our mindfulness muscle.

Finally, our connection to others and the natural world should also be nurtured.   Relationship skills are not routinely taught, yet are an essential life skill. Forming healthy, meaningful relationships and giving to others in an authentic way is well worth the investment of time and effort. Furthermore, connecting to nature takes neither time nor practice. We simply need to be present and appreciative when stepping outside.

So you see, happiness is not really that complicated though it often seems so hard or even impossible to attain. Excessive focus on status, money, problems or our inadequacies is a misuse of our 40%. Instead, prioritizing mindfulness, positive emotion and connection helps to maximize your 40% in the best way possible.


Karmic Balance Sheet

I believe in karma. Maybe it’s hopelessly naïve of me to think that some kind of reckoning happens somewhere, sometime, based on how we live our life and whether we’re good to our fellow man. Some believe it happens in the afterlife, but I believe it happens right here on earth during our natural lives.

This notion is hard to reconcile when we see a**holes who are successful, enjoying the fine life, while many good-hearted people struggle to pay the bills.

We know that money does buy happiness, but only up to the point where our basic needs are met.  Above that, happiness depends on our personal characteristics rather than our external circumstances.   Therefore, being materially successful is no guarantee for happiness or a sense of wellbeing. In other words, material wealth is not a good surrogate measure for success if defined in terms of emotional, psychological or spiritual abundance.

If we view success from an emotional perspective in terms of whether we have love, friendship, meaning and purpose, or a sense of peace and satisfaction with our lives, the karmic balance sheet makes more sense. If I wrong someone, even if I don’t acknowledge it to myself, I sense this injustice on some level. The Arbinger Institute says I will tend to create conflict to justify my actions, and negative emotion results.

Carrying negative emotion and creating conflict creates further problems that manifest in my own life. For example, I know when I’m grumpy, especially if I don’t acknowledge it, things tend to go wrong, people tend to resist me, and I tend to get more frustrated and angry. Though I may have gotten that sale, job or promotion and thus the sweet new BMW at the expense of someone else, I will in some manner pay the karmic price.

Disconnecting our definition of success from material wealth provides a currency that balances justice in the world. Good prevails. Doing the right thing pays off. Good people “win” because they sleep with a clear conscience and enjoy a sense of peace, meaning and purpose. Changing our definition of success means that we value what is most important, including recognizing the unsung heroes that actually help make the world a better place.


Profits and Loss (photo source)   



Have you ever reached a big goal only to feel completely let-down and anticlimactic?

Been there. Done that.

I spent much of my early career thinking, “I’ll be happy when….” And when “when” actually happened, I wasn’t happy at all. In fact, in one case, it felt like the worst thing that ever happened to me.

At the time, I knew one reason why that happened. To reach my goal, I had to spend all of my time and energy on tasks that I enjoyed, but wasn’t particularly good at or passionate about. Achieving that milestone did not change that dynamic, much to my surprise.

In hindsight, I would add two more reasons for that happiness-turned-trauma. First, I know now that happiness is a choice we make every day, whether we’re celebrating or struggling. An external event or fancy toy may influence my happiness, but in the end, it boils down to making a choice for happiness each day, each minute.

Second, part of my happiness requires that I have a meaningful goal.   In the absence of meaningful goals, I’m merely settling for the pleasure I derive from my life and past accomplishments. Don’t get me wrong – nothing wrong with enjoying those pleasures. However, for me, I must always be working towards something meaningful, else those pleasures feel somewhat hollow.  Dad learned this lesson when he reached his major life’s goal too.  Interesting.


Hedonia (doing good) vs Eudaemonia (feeling good) –

The image above explains this dynamic. In the end, life boils down to the balance between hedonia (feeling good) and eudaimonia (doing good). One without the other simply feels incomplete and imbalanced. Expecting to feel happy and fulfilled with only one, and not the other, just doesn’t seem to work.

Where are you on this grid? How do you find the right balance between doing good and feeling good?

I’ll Be Happy When…

What came to mind when you read this sentence stem? Did a couple of goals pop into mind?

On my list during my lifetime included: when I pass this test, when I finish school, when I get that job, when I go on vacation, when I get married, when I have a family, when the kids are independent, when I get promoted, when I retire.

Sometimes those goals were not quite as lofty or distant: when I get home, when I finish that project, when/if I get that grant.

I’m old enough to have actually achieved most of those milestones. And yes, I am actually happy when I reach one of those milestones.

For about a nanosecond.

Given this bad habit of living in the future, writing my annual report has become one of the best days of my year. That exercise requires me to acknowledge all that I got accomplished during the past year instead of my usual MO of just breezing by those milestones without even so much as a mental pat on the back.

Sick, right?

Have I just gotten into some weird habit of perpetual delayed gratification? Or have I developed some masochistic Puritanical guilt for enjoying life? Regardless, my underlying dysfunctional belief system includes the lie that I have control over the future and that my external world determines my happiness.

Living in the past is just as bad. Living in the past may mean ruminating on ‘what if’ regret statements or harboring resentment from past transgressions. Sometimes these misdeeds happened decades ago; I sometimes hear (adult) people complaining about resentments that have occurred during childhood.

Alarming, right?

The dysfunctional belief system around living in the past includes the lie that someone else or something else from my past is in control of my current happiness.

You can see the fallacy of both future/past foci: that external events control my happiness. No.   Rather, how I choose to arrange my inner world determines my happiness.

Furthermore, that choice is pretty much the only thing I have any control over at all. I have absolutely no control over the past except for how I choose to view the past. I have little or no control, really, over the future. I can influence the future, yes, but control? No.   9/11 taught me that lesson.

So it seems to me that the best option is living in the present. Living in the now means to be totally engaged with my present reality. The task at hand. My immediate environment. The person I am with. Whether I choose to judge my current circumstances as fantastic, pretty good, or awful, or to just acknowledge it without judgment. That choice will determine how I feel in this moment.

Consciously make that choice in this moment to create love, awe, and inspiration and refuse the choice that create anxiety and resentment. It’s in your control.

Sweet, right?

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?

Increase Pleasure (Without Using Drugs)

Flourishing consists of both “feeling good” and “doing good.”  Learning more about pleasure, or “feeling good” can therefore help us thrive.  In other words, feeling good is, well, good for you!

A Yale University researcher, Paul Bloom, has a theory of about pleasure based on the principle of essentialism.  Essentialism refers to the fundamental nature of an object which determines its value to each person.   Essentialism is believed to be an adaptive mechanism that has allowed humans to quickly categorize objects as valuable or dangerous.   We quickly and early in life learn which stimuli will give us pleasure (a ripe peach, an attractive mate) or which we should avoid (a rotting carcass, sex with a family member), though some of life’s other pleasures may not necessarily enhance our survival (looking at a beautiful painting, drinking a fine glass of wine).

So, here are certain principles regarding pleasure and how you can increase your pleasure intentionally (note: these should all be done within your lifestyle and budget!):

  • Status items – designer and name brands, luxury items and indulgences signal that we have a certain desirability by association with status objects.  Even choosing something small like bottled water (arguably not one of life’s necessities) can be a status symbol and bring pleasure.  You don’t have to own such status items; experiencing the work of a master (artist, musician) also will bring pleasure.
  • See or touch awe-inspiring celebrities or public figures – other people’s “magic” can make you feel special as well.  Did you know you can see Galileo’s finger in a bell jar in a museum in Florence, Italy?
  • Food – seek out the food that you believe will bring you pleasure.  Because you’re right.  It will.   Chocolate always does the trick for me.
  • Attire – dress in a way that shows your value to others.  Yes, it can be worth the effort sometimes.
  • Mate – find an attractive and desirable matee.  Even better if that person has “status” or is someone you love (OK, that’s in the DUH category)
  • Make a choice – Simply choosing an item or having it given as a gift increases its value to the owner.   Second guessing yourself decreases pleasure, so avoid that behavior if you can.  Actually, having too many choices decreases pleasure so avoid those stores with 1000 choices of a single item.
  • Keep things – the longer you keep something, the more valuable it is to you over time, and thus the more pleasure it will bring.  This is especially true for sentimental objects, so keep those safe and visit them on occasion for an enjoyable trip down memory lane.  I have an unworn suit that has been in my closet for so long it must be worth a fortune by now.
  • Exert yourself for something worthwhile– the more effort you put into any of the above, the more you will enjoy and appreciate it.  For example, if you worked hard to get that hot mate or fancy car, you’ll enjoy them more than if they just fell into your lap, so to speak.  If you use your talents/strengths to accomplish the task, and the more meaningful the task, the more you’ll enjoy the process and the outcome.  This is the “do good” part of thriving.  So, help the little old lady across the street and make sure you put a lot of effort into it!
  • Savor the good memories and good stuff – when choosing how to interpret an event, choose a favorable, positive interpretation over a negative one (yes, it is a choice).  Savor the positive emotions from that experience by taking a trip down memory lane or telling the story to an appreciative audience.   Focus on the highlights or the best parts of the memory and imagine in detail what it was like in those best moments.

In conclusion, the essentialism theory for pleasure reveals how to maximize our pleasure out of the every day objects and people in our lives.  The pleasure can be related to simply owning, touching, seeing or eating something, or can be taken a step further by using effort to obtain or accomplish something.  The latter can  be further enhanced by using one’s strengths to accomplish a meaningful task.  You can use these principles to proactively plan a great day for yourself.  Enjoy!

Source:  Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works, 2010, WW Norton & Co, New York.

A Perfect Balance of Talent and Virtue?

We all want to have talent and virtue in abundance.   Aristotle believed that happiness is not possible without excellence or virtue.  So give me talent and virtue.  Lots of it.   But is it possible to have or overuse talent and virtue to where they become a bad thing?

Aristotle also believed that virtues such as courage and temperance are best when exercised in balance.  Too much courage, he says, makes someone rash and belligerent.   Too much modesty can make someone shy.  Extremes of virtue (too much or too little) then become a vice.   Instead, Aristotle contends, that we should use reason to exercise our virtues like Goldilocks does: “just right” (he didn’t quite say it that way).

Similarly, the Clifton StrengthsFinder identifies the top 34 strengths that people use to be successful.  We can think about our strengths as either being in the “balcony” or the “basement”.    The former refers to optimal use of our strength, the latter when we are using our strength ineffectively or even counterproductively.  For example, my Input strength gets in my way when I start asking too many questions.   I need the data.  The 411.   This can be disruptive, annoying and intrusive when I’m in the basement with it, but I can also be a glorious source of useful information when my Input is exercised correctly.

Again, I would contend that reason, or I would call it wisdom, is what separates the basement from the balcony, the virtue from the vice.    The right balance is circumstance-dependent, so the same formula doesn’t work in every situation.  Wisdom and experience allows us to find that sweet spot as much as possible. But since every situation is different, we’re unlikely to hit it every time.  Or are we?

Let’s suppose for a moment that all  the talents and virtues are identifiable and quantifiable and that there are 100 of them.  I have all 100 and I use them all the time in just the right manner.  In other words, I’m perfect.

Yeah, right.

I know some of you think that you’re pretty darn close to that, or should be.  I know that because I used to be that way too.  This is perfectionism, and the need for perfectionism is the opposite of acceptance.   Acceptance is an important virtue and as humans our reality is that perfection is neither possible nor desirable.  First, perfection leaves no room for growth or improvement.  By definition, that’s stagnation.  What’s perfect about that? Second, stagnation and the smugness that often accompanies people who think they’re perfect is downright unappealing.  .  Third, everyone has a different interpretation of reality, and so even if you’re objectively “perfect,” someone will disagree.    Finally, the tendency to believe one is perfect will prevent one from actually seeing where a fix is needed.  So, which is more likely to be closer to perfect, something that is never improved upon, or something that undergoes continual improvement?  It’s ironic, then, that belief in perfectionism actually encourages the opposite.

This is the folly of human nature.  It takes wisdom to recognize and learn from it, forgiveness to feel OK about it, and humor to laugh at it.   This is how we thrive.