What is Your Cashew? How Curiosity Leads to Happiness (and Sometimes a Nobel Prize)

 

Richard Thaler knew it when he saw it. Knew it when he felt it. All around him, people were telling him very clearly with their actions that they were not robots.

And yet, when he reported to teach his classes at the University of Rochester, he was faced with a field (economic research) that willfully refused to acknowledge that people are, well, people.

People are human. We have emotions. In the words of the book that Thaler would later publish, people misbehave. But his academic colleagues, as he saw it, were willfully ignoring reality and devoting themselves to studying “fictional characters.”

“They might as well be studying unicorns,” he said.

I can attest to this—I showed up at the same department of the same school to get my MBA in Markets and Organizations about 10 years after Thaler left the school to develop his own body of research. Lots of formulas. Lots of assumptions.

But I was there to learn economic theory, so I stayed in Rochester to learn how people were supposed to behave, while Thaler went on to study how they actually “misbehaved.”

The move worked out pretty well for him—he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics for his groundbreaking work in the field he’s often credited with founding: behavioral economics. His work recognizes the intersection of human behavior and economic decision-making and concludes that, to understand economics, you must understand people.

Thaler’s curiosity about people led him to observe humans as they were—not as the textbooks and supply and demand curves he left behind for me to study said they should be.

I recently learned that his curiosity was piqued by a tree nut.

While at a dinner party in graduate school, he noticed fellow students chowing down on cashews before dinner, in full awareness that what they were doing was going to ruin their appetite. So he moved the nuts into another room, and his friends roundly thanked him for removing the temptation and ending their snacking.

Thaler had stumbled upon his own theory of economics—and happiness.

Without the temptation of the nuts, “we realized that a) we were happy, and b) we weren’t allowed to be happy, because a first principle of economics is more choices are better than fewer choices,” Thaler told Chicago Booth Magazine in 2015.

His curiosity about how fewer choices could lead to better decisions and more happiness opened the door to his entire career of profound understanding.

“Newton had his apple. I had my cashews,” Thaler said.

Curiosity is one of the 24 character strengths in the VIA Strengths Survey that can be a pathway to sustaining a happy and meaningful life.

But, as Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, points out in this video clip, it’s not just curiosity that brings us happiness and meaning in life, it’s acting on that curiosity—because the things we focus on become the building blocks of our lives.

We can identify and build our curiosity just as we can build on any other strength that we possess. If you haven’t done so yet, take the VIA Strengths Survey and see where curiosity ranks in your inventory of strengths.

Your curiosity may not lead you to the Nobel Prize, but could it lead to a more interesting relationship with the people close to you? Could it lead to a shortcut that helps you meet a challenge in your life? To a creative breakthrough that renews your confidence in yourself? To a happier life?

What is your cashew?

Thanks to Sandra Knispel of the Rochester Review for her interview with Richard Thaler, which I drew upon for this piece.

Everything Is Not Always for The Best, But We Can Make the Best of Whatever Happens

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I’ve heard (and repeated) that many times throughout my life. I’ve said it looking forward, trying to console someone who’s suffered a loss about what the future will be like. I’ve said it looking backward, trying to connect the dots between today and something that happened long ago.

Maybe you’ve said it, too, or its cousin: “It’s all for the best.” That’s what’s called positive thinking—a mental and emotional attitude that focuses on the bright side of life and expects positive results.

Today, I’m quite suspicious about both these adages, because they leave out the most important thing about dealing with loss or finding meaning in our life: what we choose to do beyond just thinking about it.

I had a dear family member (now deceased) who challenged me to understand the difference by the way she talked about the traumas in her life, including the loss of one of her children. She had been through some dark times and, to make matters worse, was a quiet (but quietly noticeable to those around her) alcoholic.

I can’t say where her mind went when she was (drinking) alone. But she had an insatiable appetite for positive thinking when she was with us—keeping the conversation on the wonderful (her favorite word) things that were happening in her life.

It must have been her way of coping—but, by keeping us away from her vulnerability, it kept many of us at arm’s length from the authentic part of her very loving and generous soul.

As much as I cared for her, I could feel myself tuning her out. I would try to deflect conversation that I knew she wanted to expound upon. I just didn’t want to keep hearing about all the wuuuunderful news when I knew that there were other parts of her life—and mine—that were also interesting and important to discuss.

Thinking only about what’s positive in our lives is not only ineffective, it’s borderline delusional. Positive thinking is not the same as positive psychology for one big reason: Stuff happens.

On certain days, things are really bad. In our world, this seems to be happening more and more lately. Disasters strike. Loved ones pass away too soon. People are thrown into poverty and disability. Feuds turn violent. Justice is not served. Relationships blow up. Laws are passed (or repealed) in service to the powerful instead of the many. Things happen that I would definitely say are not for the best, not for some grand, transcendent purpose.

Not what you expected to read in an article about positive psychology? Well, I’ll say it again: Positive psychology is not positive thinking. In fact, I’d say that where positive thinking ends is where positive psychology starts.

Ignoring—or putting a purely positive spin—on the crap hitting the fan is little more than a stiff drink of whiskey. It may numb the pain and help you feel better (or at least different) temporarily, but it doesn’t change what’s happened. And it doesn’t change our mindset about how to truly be resilient in the face of the real world.

Keeping ourselves ensconced in the positive can be useful, and those around us may appreciate it in certain situations, but it also can keep us from looking at what’s really happening and keep us at a distance from our authentic and thriving self.

Positive psychology does not blindly ignore the suffering around us, or in us. It doesn’t try to sugarcoat the traumas or explain them away as some kind of divine plan that we have to trust is “all for the best.”

It’s not only the study of what’s good, or what’s just, or what’s beautiful that leads to our happiness. It welcomes all those aspects of life—but does not guarantee them. It does not require faith that everything will turn out okay. Because, if we are being honest, sometimes things do not turn out okay.

Positive psychology instead offers us this guarantee: Whatever stuff happens, we can make the best of it.

The key word here is “make.” With the tools and teachings available through Wholebeing Institute and other positive psychology communities, you can find the meaning and purpose in life, find pleasure, find your strengths, find the other people in your life that matter, find the stories that give meaning to your life, find the path to flourishing. What you look for, you can find—and make.

Then, when stuff happens (and it will), you can make the best of whatever it is.

This post was originally created for Wholebeing Institute as a part of my installment series on the fundamental concepts and stories of positive psychology.  For the entire series, or to sign up now for a free two-part video training series and free e-workbook on evidence-based tools for flourishing, click here.

Finding What You Look For: The Shift from Fault Finder to Benefit Finder

Report cards.

As the father of three daughters, I’ve reviewed my share of them. Every single time, whether it happens at home or live in the classroom at the parent/teacher conference, I catch myself doing the same thing. Waiting for…

That moment.

I am sitting in a tiny chair meant for students. I am holding the report card in my hand, scanning quickly over the dozens of feedback statements that detail my young daughter’s performance. The teacher sits across from me. She’s probably talking to me, but I don’t hear a word. I am locked in. Way ahead of her, looking for it. It must be there somewhere.

Nope. Nope. Nothing here. Nope. La dee dah. OKAY OKAY blah blah blah. Nope. THERE!

There it is! What she needs to work on. Okay. There’s another one. Oh, right. That again. Gotta talk to her about that. She must get that from her mother. I thought we had fixed that last year.

I sit back in my chair and open my ears again. Did I miss something?

What I’ve most likely missed is the teacher sharing what it’s like to have my daughter in her classroom. What she seems to enjoy and how she contributes to the learning environment. Where she puts her energy. What triggers her joy.

In my frantic moment of searching, I found exactly what I was looking for: those few, and, almost always, modest little things that my daughter was stumbling over.

Which is to say, I’ve missed the point entirely.

Maybe you have meetings likes this at work. I did. Where, from the minute the discussion gets underway, the talk is about where the sheet is hitting the fan, and focused on finding faults instead of benefits.

If so, you know how it goes—the faults jump out, followed immediately by exasperation, annoyance, or worse. The discussion becomes entirely about trying to find a way out of the dilemma—who is causing this and what to do with (or to) them.

My experience in corporate life—15 years at some pretty innovative and sophisticated marketing organizations—tells me that this is rarely as useful as it seems at the time. When the meeting concludes, the team feels like it has made some progress by identifying the problems—and everyone is kind of worked up to fix them. But we also are left with doubt and discouraged that this stuff still keeps happening.

We leave with a list of things to do and the feeling that maybe things are worse than we had initially imagined.

What if we had spent some time examining what was working well? Centering the discussion on topics like an interpersonal collaboration that prevented a problem from mushrooming into a disaster, plans that are rolling out as scheduled, the small wins that happen every single day and go unnoticed, yet are the very reasons we are viable as a company?

Finding benefits isn’t about patting ourselves on the back. It’s about more deeply understanding the work we do—and drawing on our strengths to make the organization (or relationship) stronger.

Finding benefits isn’t about ignoring faults. Being confident about what’s working well is simply the best way to understand how to address what isn’t.

We don’t get stronger by dwelling on our weaknesses. Short term, we get stronger by using the muscles that are already strong to assist and build the muscles that need development. Longer term, we possibly even shuffle priorities to let the stronger muscles do more work until we determine if and when the weaker muscles can handle the strain.

So, this school year, I’m imagining a new approach to my parent/teacher conference.

I walk into the classroom, where the teacher greets me and walks over to the desk. Before I even look at the verdict, before we even sit down, I ask, “So what’s going well for her?” or perhaps “What do you like most about having her in the classroom?” or “When does she seem to be most focused and happy in her learning?”

With that line of questioning, I hope to get to the heart of the matter: the gifts she can develop to better herself and those around her.

Then comes the real payoff: When I go home and talk to my daughter about her report card, that conversation can be centered on her joys rather than her frustrations.

Did you see the look on that kid’s face at the end? Even if your reactions aren’t quite as vivid as that of the dad in the video, if your team or your children are anything like my middle schooler, you already know that benefit finding is a much more fruitful approach.

This post was originally created for Wholebeing Institute as a part of my installment series on the fundamental concepts and stories of positive psychology.  For the entire series, or to sign up now for a free two-part video training series and free e-workbook on evidence-based tools for flourishing, click here.

No Willpower Needed: From Rituals to Lifestyle Change

Discipline is like patriotism—in theory, we may all be for it, but each of us can have vastly different interpretations of what it actually is. Is patriotism guarding the flag to reflect the beauty of our freedom, or burning it in protest to reflect the very same thing?

Likewise, to some, discipline is a value—the moral fiber to refrain from what’s bad. To others, it’s behavior—the fortitude to push through resistance or complacency in search of a higher goal.

Several years ago, when I was a new father trying to figure out how to raise a young family, I fell into a job with perfect timing. I became an editor of parenting books and discovered with great relief another definition: Discipline is teaching. I loved this one, since I thought it reflected better on my self-image. I could see myself much more clearly as a teacher than as a disciplinarian.

I thought I had a fair amount of self-discipline, at least in certain things, like working hard, meeting deadlines, training for sports, and being vigilant in the protection of my children.

Yet when it became necessary to impose discipline on my kids, that was something else entirely. It seemed a little arbitrary and self-serving. I mean, wasn’t the real reason I wanted my daughters to behave properly as much for my sake as theirs?

Like people who shy away from excessive displays of patriotic symbols because of the injustices that have been perpetrated in the name of the flag, I hesitated. I was happy to teach, but did not want to be the kind of dad who tried to impose his will at every opportunity. It was their childhood, not mine.

 

 

When I enrolled in the Certificate in Positive Psychology (CiPP) course with Wholebeing Institute at Kripalu,  the course teachings took me one step further and I found an even better definition of discipline: overrated.

The basic idea here is that, at our age, we each have a certain amount of self-discipline. And no matter how many vows we might make to develop more, in order to meet some new goal in our life, there’s only so much to go around. (This may explain why in those other areas of my life, like late-night eating and social media, I have been unable to demonstrate the discipline to do what I know is best for me.)

Despite every good intention, if we set goals that require self-discipline levels that we are unable to sustain, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and aggravation.

Do the words “constant struggle” sound familiar?

Rest assured, there’s a better way to raise ourselves up to new heights without relying on miraculously finding new caches of discipline—through ritual.

Ritual is yet another word that can strike us in different ways. I recently had a session with a shamanic healer who shared with me his understanding of the power of rituals to help transform the parts of us that defy logic and language.

The rituals that he uses in his work are experiences of sound and symbolism that he, and the ancestors who passed along their knowledge to him, believe can move us into new realms without prolonged analysis or painful acts of discipline. His teaching is that the rituals he performs can move us in ways we could not consciously move ourselves alone.

While that’s not the kind of ritual that we became familiar with through CiPP, it draws on a similar concept—that sometimes it is better to think less and act more.

When we can translate a goal into a series of acts that can be performed regularly and routinely, we grow around those tasks in the direction we want to go. It is no longer a constant struggle; it becomes a way of life.

The classic example is that most of us don’t have to wrestle every day to summon the discipline to brush our teeth. We simply do it by rote (or mindfully) in pursuit of our goal of good health and hygiene. And we’ve been doing it that way for years and years. Every morning. Every evening. Not a struggle at all.

When it’s something new we are looking to add to our lives, we can find success with a similar approach. With transformation in mind, we can see the benefit of performing some kind of small behavior every day for 30 days. Yes, it might take an ounce of discipline to get ourselves started—but it can deliver pounds of results.

Each small step we take can build and build to a crescendo of action that becomes effortless (like the magical footage at 2:32 of this video).

One Day At a Time

With daily repetition, tiny actions quickly move from discipline to ritual. And from ritual to habit. And from habit to lifestyle. At that point, when this new skill has become part of your lifestyle, it’s suddenly more challenging to stop doing something than to continue it. (Imagine if I told you to stop brushing your teeth for 30 days!)

In fact, when I began to look at it this way, I realized that it wasn’t that I lacked the discipline to refrain from late-night eating and Facebook hovering, it’s that these actions had inadvertently become rituals in my life. I didn’t need more discipline, I needed new rituals.

The rituals we adopt become the girders on which we build our life, even when it feels like we’re being dragged around by the fleeting ebbs and flows of emotions and fatigue.

Fall is my favorite time of year to launch new initiatives in my life (less pressure than New Year’s resolutions). It’s a perfect time to challenge myself to do a 30-Day Practice, to do the little things it takes to move my life forward.

 

This post was originally created for Wholebeing Institute as a part of my installment series on the fundamental concepts and stories of positive psychology.  For the entire series, or to sign up now for a free two-part video training series and free e-workbook on evidence-based tools for flourishing, click here.

‘Lion’ Named Running Movie of the Year

Lion, the Academy Award-nominated film based on the true story of a child’s accidental separation from his family in India, has been selected Running Movie of the Year by TakingMulligans, a website that explores the emotional side of running.

The movie depicts the young Saroo’s natural reliance on running, not as a sport, but as an integral part of how he lives his life.  Saroo, played as a child by Sunny Pawar, doesn’t run for fitness or personal records, he runs because he is compelled to by circumstance. He runs because he can and because he has to.  In running, Saroo finds deliverance not only from imminent and nefarious threats to him as a child, but also later in life, in the imagery and emotion that the activity has seared into his memory.

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Sunny Pawar plays the young Saroo in Lion, Taking Mulligan’s 2016 Running Movie of the Year

 

It is for this poignant, visceral and dramatic demonstration of the power of running to protect us physically and nurture us emotionally that has distinguished Lion as Running Movie of the Year.

Running serves the hero of the story in several pivotal ways.  First, in a practical way: it is how the small child navigates the harsh realities of living in his tiny village. He runs to do his work and return safely to his home.  He even finds safety in a mad dash for medical care after a startling childhood accident. Running also becomes his escape route when threatened by child kidnappers who prey upon his vulnerability.

Finally, when the boy, now grown into a man, and played by Academy Award nominee Dev Patel, seeks to reconstruct the clues to his childhood, running serves him one more time. As he relives the moments of his youth, he sees himself again through the eyes and emotions of that running child (with a little help from Google Earth).  Through the imprint that running to and through his village has made in his memory, the grown-up Saroo unlocks the answers of who he is and where he comes from.

 

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Throughout Lion, the Academy Award-nominated film, the hero finds safety, deliverance and life-altering redemption in the physical and emotional gifts of running. (photo by Mark Rogers)

Other nominees this year included ‘Race,’ the story of  Jesse Owens and his triumphant victories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the days leading up to World War II, and Sully, the story of pilot Chesley Sullenburger, who found running to be a source of strength and emotional refuge which contributed to (and helped him deal with the aftermath of) his daring landing of a passenger jet in the Hudson River.   Sullenburger was featured in this Runners’ World article when the movie premiered.

Taking Mulligans’ Running Movie of the Year is chosen to reflect how running is more than just a sport or fitness activity, it can unlock emotions and serve as a catalyst for change and positive developments in life.

Mulligan Moment of 2016 – Running Edition

As loyal readers of Taking Mulligans know, the disappointing circumstances of my final high school track meet started a thread of endeavors that led me to, more than 30 years later, write an upcoming book and two major features stories for Runners’ World (The Mulligan Mile, Cross Country Romance).   I can only imagine where Justin DeLuzio’s final college cross country race will propel him.  Other than a cornfield.

In November, he was about a mile into running that race for Gwyneed Mercy University, when a deer blindsided him and knocked him airborne– and into the viral running clip of the year.   Click below for ESPN’s coverage of it.

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CLICK HERE for Viral Running Clip of the Year

Getting knocked down may win you viral clip of the year. But it’s what’s not on this clip that won him our Mulligan Moment of the Year– getting back up to finish the last 4 miles of the race.   And what’s more, it’s a few thoughts he shared in this interview with NPR that resonated most with Taking Mulligans.  Listen and you’ll hear some good advice for going forward into 2017.  Surprisingly, he’s not the one in the interview that encourages us to get back up when we get knocked down.  His advice?  No resentment.  Be grateful.  Be aware.

And for that, Justin DeLuzio, an actuarial science student from Limerick, PA, wins Running’s Mulligan Moment of the Year.

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CLICK HERE for Talking With Justin  to hear and read an interview with Justin.

 

 

 

 

Mulligan Moments of 2016 – Public Activism Edition

Sometime a mulligan is more than just a mulligan.  It’s a way forward that breaks abruptly with the past and establishes a whole new perspective on the world.  Here are two Mulligan Moments that may be harbingers of new understanding and appreciation of what’s best about our great nation and the towns that we live in.

The most startling and emotional moment came at the contentious location of Standing Rock, when a gathering of veterans offered a very public apology for transgressions of the United States government, military, and citizens upon the native peoples of the land of North America.  Seeking forgiveness is a humbling step.  And accepting forgiveness is a tremendous gift to all parties involved.  May this moment be the mulligan that heals and protects  and brings peace and justice to our nation and our Native American family.

 

A dear friend and inspiration of mine, Joyce Marin, pointed out that that not only do people have comeback stories, but a town can too.  Joyce, the executive director of RenewLV, reminded me of Iron Works Catasauqua and the work of their municipal council to push this project forward over the last 10 years.  According to Joyce, this year the council, led by Vincent Smith, Catasauqua, PA’s borough council president, passed the mixed-use zoning required to take a former industrial site and turn it into a new 13 acre walkable-bikeable neighborhood connected to their downtown.   May it be the start of something even bigger for what may become the Lehigh Valley’s Mulligan Town.

 

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