All posts by takingmulligans

AWAKEN: Don’t Let It Go, Let It Be—The Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

The greatest gift of our emotions is the awakening they provide us. When we can stay with our emotions, even our most difficult ones, they become stepping stones to being fully alive in our humanity.

In the third and final step of renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s “Three Steps to Courage: Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions,” I share with you my understanding of the teaching she provided to hundreds of students gathered earlier this year in Vermont at Pema Osel Do Ngak Choling, the East Coast study and practice center for the Mangala Shri Bhuti sangha.

In this post, we’ll look at:

Step Three: AWAKEN through being in direct experience of those emotions, which hold the wisdom of our shared humanity.

This is often taught as “letting go.” During some of the most troubling times in my life, using the idea of letting go of my emotions provided great relief.

I would imagine the feelings coming in through the front door of a house, and then breezing through the house. I would focus on opening the back door of the house and having the troubling emotions just whip themselves right out, leaving me calmly in peace.

I think Ani (Sister) Pema, as she’s known to her students, might say “Not so fast!” to that strategy.

She prefers to think of this stage not of letting go, but “letting be,” which immediately struck me as a more powerful way to approach this task.

To me, it’s not “letting go,” because by no means are we casting away our emotions. We are instead being kind to them, learning from them, turning them over in our bodies and minds in order to find the aspects of them that can inspire us to be the people we want to be. As we let our emotions be, they become our teachers, not our prison guards.

In other words, when we let them be, they let us go.

Think about it this way. What if I told you to let go of, or “get over,” all the positive emotions you feel in life? What if I tried to convince you that, to be happy, you must stop feeling love, compassion, understanding, ecstasy, and joy? I hope you’d think I was crazy! Those emotions are the good stuff—the parts of our life that we cherish the most. We feel them when we are at our best.

Pema Chödrön teaches us that the other emotions, the difficult ones, are also the good stuff when we understand them for what they are—seeds of wisdom nestled in the challenges of the human condition.

There is no more benefit from transcending our “negative” emotions than there would be from transcending our “positive” emotions. In these emotions, we find our humanity—and each other’s.

In terms of positive psychology, I would say the difference is in how we feel and cultivate the multitude of emotions we let be. While we benefit from feeling our loneliness, jealousy, anger, and other seemingly toxic emotions, we don’t necessarily benefit from cultivating those emotions or reaching deeply into them such that they crowd out the heartfelt positive emotions.

Instead, we acknowledge the difficult emotions and compassionately reflect on the circumstances and patterns that keep reintroducing these emotions into our life. In that way, we can transform those emotions into wisdom, while moving away from the storylines that keep bringing these emotions into our lives.

Ani Pema shared another way to think about this awakening to our difficult emotions.

When we try to stop feeling our emotions, it’s like we flash-freeze them. We bind them up and try to keep them from affecting the rest of our lives.

“But where will we find our water?” she asks. “Where will we find refreshment? Where we will find life itself? In the ice cube.”

When we thirst for wisdom, we don’t throw out the ice cube. We sit with it, we warm it, we melt the habitualness that hardens our perspectives and perpetuates our suffering. It may feel cold, but it is useful to stay with our “ice cube–ness” in order to understand the flow of water—our wisdom—within us.

Here’s an ice cube visualization that may help you in meditations that center around melting the ice within you.

Strong emotions can awaken the tenderness of our hearts and unite us with all others who are suffering. When we grow our feelings of love for our own unique set of emotions and “Me-ness,” we move along the path toward feeling love and compassion for others, even those we are in conflict with—toward a “We-ness.”

This also gives us access to the humanity of others. Or, as Ani Pema put it, “I use the frustration of feeling that emotion to know the experience of everyone who has felt this emotion.”

This viral video from Denmark, titled “All That We Share,” vividly and memorably makes this point. We have much more in common with others than we realize.

Keep in mind that our emotions are among the most ecstatic and significant beauties of being human. They drive our life energy, they fuel our creativity, they form our love and empathy. One can say that all the wisdom that we seek is found in our emotions. There lies our happiness.

To the degree that we can truly feel not only positive but also difficult emotions, and be patient with them, that’s the degree to which we can understand others. In this way, we stand in our own shoes and know that this is all a part of us, and we can now walk in the shoes of others who share our human condition. This gives us permission to explore our interdependence with others.

In other words, you are not isolated by your emotions. In fact, our emotions are EXACTLY what connect us to each other.

TRANSFORM: Mind-Blowing Meditations That Help Us Be With Difficult Emotions

What emotions are most difficult for you? According to Pema Chödrön, it is in those emotions that we find the seeds of wisdom we most need in our lives.

Earlier this year, I attended a retreat with her entitled “Three Steps to Courage: Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions.” I’m taking a few posts to explain what I learned in hopes that you can apply some of these lessons in your life and with your positive psychology clients.

In this post, we’ll look at

Step Two: TRANSFORM the emotions without judging them.

What do we do as we sit with the difficult emotions? The work is to recognize their inherent wisdom and explore their contours.

For example, consider the emotions that surround spending time by yourself.

Do you experience that as loneliness or as aloneness? Loneliness brings up feelings of sadness, maybe regret, isolation. Whereas aloneness can be a valuable, peaceful state, giving you the space to be yourself while still feeling connected to life and the living. The difference between the two might merely be the storyline that you’ve bought into about spending time alone—and whether you dive into that storyline or refrain from reacting to it.

When we refrain, we hit the pause button, interrupting the storylines that urge us to escape from the difficult emotion. In step two, we move on to transforming—kind of like hitting the slow-mo button. We connect with the emotion and examine it with tenderness.

Feel it. Accept it. This frees us from reactivity and makes our emotions more accessible to us. We’re not going to dwell inside the depth of the feeling, but we do need to acknowledge it to relieve our fear of it.

Going back to our example, when feelings of loneliness arise, we first catch the “hook” of the emotion by acknowledging the feeling. Then we interrupt the storyline of that emotion and refrain from acting to escape from—or go too deeply into—that emotion.

Instead, we stay with the emotion and increase the spaciousness around it, so we come to a cooler, more detached acceptance of it—rather than picking a fight with it. We safely acknowledge feeling lonely, then wrap that feeling in a blanket made of other aspects of our life where we feel connected, even when alone.

It can be frustrating to have difficult emotions come up time and time again, derailing us from more pleasant thoughts or activities. Yet that time spent simply being with the difficult feelings is necessary in order to gain access to the wisdom of that emotion.

Here are three ways to start extracting that wisdom in ways that blow away our preconceived notions of how we identify with our emotions.

1. Shift a nebulous feeling to a more physical, tangible, sensory one.

This can be done with a little game that Pema described, which could be called “Qualities.” Take the feeling and start to describe it using questions like:

If this feeling were a color, what color would it be?

If this feeling were a temperature, what temperature would it be?

If this feeling were music, what kind of music would it be?

Continue with other qualities, like sound, touch, a piece of art, a genre of movie, a pair of shoes, a famous person, food, etc. Don’t worry about being so precise about the description—just name what comes to mind when you start to hold it in these ways.

2. Shrink the difficult emotion by seeing it as something tiny that’s being consumed by an ever-expanding perspective.

This way, you’re not fighting to eliminate the emotion—you’re just understanding it as a small piece of a larger sense of your self and your place in the world. You can think of that difficult emotion as

A tiny drop of water being consumed by the oceans of the world

A single bead of sand losing itself in the beaches and deserts of our planet, among all the planets

A tiny speck of light disappearing among the stars of the galaxy, among all galaxies.

In this way, you blow away the notion that this emotion defines your identity—it is merely one of emotions you can safely experience in a rich and diverse life.

This is now my favorite meditation when difficult emotions arise. For me, it’s helpful to visualize how miniscule that emotion is within me, much like this video simulates the mind-blowing scale of our physical world and our place within it.

3. Work with the emotion through a guided Tonglen meditation—the lovingkindness meditations for which Pema Chödrön is well known.

Through these meditations, we expand our perspectives from ourselves to all beings, and with this expansion, we wish for happiness and love to come not only to us, but also to all.

Here’s a short excerpt from one of her guided Tonglen meditations.

Trying to repress a “bad” feeling doesn’t work, because that feeling gets so much attention that it ends up governing the rest of our emotions. It’s like trying to keep the emotion in a cage, where it rattles around and reminds us of its desire to break free and threaten us. Every day, we have to vigilantly check it to make sure the lock is in place and the cage is secure.

That emotion, as harmful as it may be to us, has a place in our lives—but it’s not healthy to have it stalking our minds day and night. It’s more useful to let that emotion roam wild on a wide and expansive terrain, where it can live on its own but not threaten and constantly bother us where we live.

When it is set free, there’s no need to kill that emotion or flee from it, for it is no longer an imminent threat to us. It’s a small animal roaming far and wide across the entire continent.

Next week, in my final post about the retreat, I’ll share with you my understanding of how refraining and reframing culminates in unlocking the wisdom of our emotions. That’s Step Three: AWAKEN through being in direct experience of those emotions, which hold the wisdom of our shared humanity.

REFRAIN: Your First Step to Courage Means More Than Just Counting to 10

I was fortunate to spend a weekend earlier this year listening to the teachings of Pema Chödrön at a retreat at Pema Osel Do Ngak Choling in eastern Vermont. Her talks, on the topic of “Three Steps to Courage: Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions,” immediately helped me shape my responses to the emotional challenges in my life. I’m writing a few posts to explain what I learned, in hopes that you can apply some of these lessons in your life and/or with your positive psychology clients.

Your First Step to Courage: REFRAIN from escalating the storyline and acting on your emotional reactivity.

On the surface, this might seem like the old adage “Count to 10 before you say something you might later regret.” But the kind of refraining that Pema describes goes much deeper than a mere pause—with the result being that we don’t have to face those “count to 10” moments as often.

It’s not just refraining from an action, but also from the mental pattern underlying the reactivity that you’re trying to hold off.

For example, Pema calls on us to

● Refrain from escalating the anger that makes you want to shout or threatens to take over your mood

● Refrain from feeding the blame that makes you want to call out others or beat yourself up

● Refrain from self-degradation that leads you to treat yourself poorly or give up hope.

If there was anything approaching a mantra for this weekend, it was “Feel what you feel”—which isn’t so different from “permission to be human.” There is nothing imperfect about our difficult emotions, and we can let go of any urgent need to escape them.

The actions, words, and thoughts that we conjure up when we suffer difficult emotions are all different ways of exiting that emotion, and they tend to reinforce our storyline.

For example, shouting at someone isn’t really feeling our anger, it’s leaving our anger and rushing into blame or aggression. Being brusque or snippy with someone isn’t feeling our resentment or envy, it’s leaving those feelings to reinforce the internal storyline that we’ve created about who that person is or what injustice they’ve done to us.

Some of us have shorter fuses when it comes to this kind of refraining. We go right from the trigger to the action. We justify our shift in mood or aggression by throwing up our hands and saying, “It is what it is,” or “That’s just the way I am.” Ani (Sister) Pema suggests that’s actually not who we are. That rush to act or explain away is, in fact, a habit, a story that we have cultivated over time. Now we expect our hair trigger to go off whenever “they” provoke us. That reaction has become our normal.

Yet, when we work on these propensities through refraining, not only do we get better at holding our powder, but also an almost magical shift happens: “They” start to “change.” Or at least it seems that way. What’s really changing is our perceptions of them.

In Ani Pema’s words, “When you work with your anger, then people stop making you angry. When you work with your jealousy, it seems like there is no longer anyone to be jealous of.”

She laughed at how reminiscent this is of the words of the quintessential hippie, Wavy Gravy, who remarked, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, it isn’t funny.”

Pema Chödrön’s Four Stages of Refraining

Stage 1: Recognize That You Are Hooked

“Robots, activate,” is the computer-generated call to action in the TV series BattleBots. It’s the moment when the bout between two fighting robots is about to get real—the controllers are locked in and the robots are pointed toward the fight.

That is essentially what happens when someone or something flips the switch on our emotions and we are locked into a suddenly uneasy state of mind. There is no turning back; these emotions are now in control, steering us into battle.

Pema describes this feeling as “shenpa” (sometimes spelled shempa), an attachment to a habitual reaction. Here’s Tamara Levitt, head of content for the meditation app Calm, offering some suggestions on how to recognize these attachments and free ourselves from them.

Stage 2: Feel What You Feel

Now we shift out of the intellectual activity of recognition into the physical stage of sensory perception. We stop ourselves from exiting the emotion through action or bringing up the storyline that we assign to these emotions. Instead, we move toward these feelings through meditation or simple awareness exercises, like tuning in to our body:

● Where are you holding this emotion?

● How is that part of your body contorting to hold or resist the feeling? (Notice your chest tightening, arm going weak, brow wrinkling, etc.)

You can also stop to consider how your other senses shift:

● What sounds do you hear?

● What does your skin feel like?

● What kind of taste is in your mouth? What makes it subside?

● What is the difference between when it feels overwhelming and when it feels like you can handle it?

By focusing on these tangible manifestations of your shenpa, you ground it and give it contours and, as such, boundaries. It becomes something you are experiencing, not who you are. Now you have space to notice what storylines your reactions tie into.

With kindness and affection toward yourself, consider a few questions:

● Is it a familiar pattern?

● Is this an effective way to respond—has this reaction brought you success?

● Is your reaction masking something else that lies deeper?

● What kind of structure are you giving this feeling—how have you endorsed it, institutionalized it within you?

You might not get answers to all of these questions right away, but they help to put some perspective and distance between you and the trigger, so that you can get back your bearings more quickly.

Stage 3: Interrupt the Storyline

Release yourself from the narrative that there is something wrong here. There’s no need to hate or even reject the storyline, but there is no obligation to continue to dwell on it, either.

This is where Ani Pema emphasizes the role of meditation, for it is through meditation that we can train our minds to do this. When we meditate, we practice recognizing when our mind wanders and gently bringing it back to the object of our meditation.

It’s that coming back, that return to ourselves, that author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg describes as “the magic moment.” Returning to our focus, again and again, is the true practice.

Here’s a body scan meditation from Sharon for bringing awareness to the sensations of your body.

Stage 4: Relax and Soften

This is where we open ourselves to the feeling without becoming overwhelmed by it. Rather than trying to destroy the feeling or even contain it, we let that feeling be as we expand the space within us to hold it, along with all the other emotions of our human experience.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll take you through my understanding of the next two steps for working compassionately with difficult emotions:

Your Second Step to Courage: TRANSFORM the emotions without judging them.

Your Third Step to Courage: AWAKEN through being in direct experience of those emotions, which hold the wisdom of our shared humanity.

Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions: My Time with Pema Chödrön

I signed up immediately.

A Facebook friend, remarkable health coach and yoga instructor Jessica Sandhu, had alerted me that Pema Chödrön, the revered American Buddhist nun and best-selling author of such works as When Things Fall Apart, would be teaching a weekend program in Vermont.

I didn’t even stop to see what the topic was—Ani Pema, as nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are referred to, is a meditation rock star, and I’ve wanted to sit with her since listening to her on cassette tapes in my first Subaru (I’m on my fourth now, and sadly, no cassette player).

When I realized that her talks would be on “Three Steps to Courage: Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions,” I was even happier. This would be my big chance to summon the courage to step away from all the dark emotions that keep me from feeling and being my best.

Yet to my surprise, what I found is that real courage—and the source of true transformation—comes from stepping toward those difficult emotions.

The courage Ani Pema describes, and what I’d like to share with you in upcoming posts, is the courage to break from the habitual reactivity and burning cravings that we have surreptitiously integrated into our lives. We do this by moving our awareness toward those fires, not ignoring them or trying to stomp them out at the first sign of smoke.

Here’s how.

Step One: REFRAIN from escalating the storyline and acting upon your emotional reactivity.

Step Two: TRANSFORM the emotions without judging them.

Step Three: AWAKEN through being in direct experience of those emotions, which hold the wisdom of our shared humanity.

With these steps, Ani Pema teaches that we can expand our emotional range and develop the resilience to be true to our nature, even as circumstances roil around us. My upcoming posts will take us through each step and explore what we can learn from her perspectives.

As I’ve sat with her teaching in recent weeks, I’ve come to think of our capacity to be with difficult emotions as analogous to being with our own beating heart. Imagine what a healthy heartbeat looks like on a EKG machine: some scattered little ups and downs, then a huge jump up and drop down, signaling the heart’s pumping action. Compare that to what a failing heart looks like: little to no amplitude in the heartbeat, slower and slower beats. No ups, no downs, just flatlines.

So keep that in mind—being healthy isn’t about eliminating the ups and downs, it’s about embracing them. In fact, it’s about widening the range and variability of how our heart responds to the rigors of life.

That’s how I came to think of Ani Pema’s teaching: It’s not our goal to eliminate the emotional ups and downs of our life and face the world in a detached, unfeeling state. Those feelings are gold—they are what make us human and bind us to each other in compassion.

The goal of being human is to feel it all—without indulging too heavily in the emotions that keep us from being who we want to be.

In so doing, we expand our range of emotions, understand better how they affect us, and respond with clear thinking and kindness to ourselves—so we can use the transformative energy of those emotions to keep showing up at our best.

What’s more, like that heartbeat sending vitality to our bodies, the ripples of us being at our best expand like waves throughout our life, even to others who are suffering.

In keeping with her Buddhist traditions, Ani Pema referred to this work during her talks as “arousing bodhicitta”—the act of building our compassion and sending it out to the world to alleviate suffering.

Here’s an earlier teaching from Pema Chödrön on the nature of bodhicitta.

She emphasized this point within the first few minutes of her first talk at Pema Osel Do Ngak Choling, the East Coast study and practice center for the Mangala Shri Bhuti sangha in eastern Vermont. By working on ourselves, we can encourage others to live happier as well, she said—which, in turn, feeds our need for meaning in our lives.

I knew, right then and there, that she was on common ground with those of us in the field of positive psychology.

Seems to me that the ripple effect she describes is a key element of what’s considered the most famous and most succinct finding of positive psychology, coined by pioneering researcher and teacher Chris Peterson: “Other people matter.” Peterson’s mantra captures the heart of compassion and lovingkindness.

My next post will get us started on this common path by taking our first big step: refraining. If that sounds like just doing nothing, think again. Refraining is an active, deliberate process that requires our undivided attention—and makes all the difference as we learn to be with difficult emotions.

Calling Up Our Fears — and Dialing Them Down

Last night, I was on the phone talking to potential voters.  My final call of the night happened to be to an 83-year old woman named Ann, who was gripped with fear and outrage at the prospect of immigrants marching toward our nation’s border. Listening to her rant, I felt it all: sick to my stomach that this would drive her vote this November, anger at the media and government for manipulating her vulnerability, compassion for an elderly woman in a panic.   So we each went to bed in fear.  Ann, with those TV images blinking in her mind, and me, in fear of her fear and what that means for the election and decisions facing our nation.

How can we go this way? What can we do with the difficult emotions that controversies like these bring into our lives? What are these fears doing to us as we lie awake at night, or immobilized in the morning?

Then I remembered what a nun taught me. Three Steps to Courage

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Our fears can teach us something important–if we have the courage to be with them.

Not just any nun, but Pema Chödrön, the meditation teacher and best-selling author of books like The Places That Scare You and When Things Fall Apart.    I spent some time with her at a retreat earlier this year, and she very methodically and gracefully taught us her secret of moving forward in demanding times and through personal adversity.   Her advice, “Three Steps to Courage:  Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions” will be helpful for all of us, no matter what we are going through that is challenging us.

My understanding of her teachings are being published in a series of posts on my blog at Wholebeing Institute, a leader in the field of positive psychology education and outreach.

The first of these posts is up now and can be found at Three Steps to Courage.

Translate and Conquer: Find the Words That Work Best For You

 To me, positive psychology is more than just one thing.

So when I talk about it, I find myself describing it in different ways and reading the reactions from people I’m speaking with to see what is connecting with them.

I call it the science of happiness. The study of what works. The secrets of human flourishing. Modeling what people are doing well instead of trying to figure out what’s going wrong with them. How to get from pretty good to even better.

When I explain in my imperfect ways, a few people seem to be familiar with the work, although more seem to confuse it with positive thinking. The most common reactions are a mix of smiles, head nods, and the occasional condescending look that says, “Isn’t that nice.” (And yes, it actually is nice.)

All in all, most people just don’t know whether positive psychology is self-help mantras, something more easily achieved with antidepressants, or an academic subject that might be good for someone they know (like their miserable sibling or overbearing boss) but couldn’t possibly help them.

But I’ve begun to notice a distinctly different reaction when I use this description: “the study of peak human performance.”

“Wow. That sounds great.”

“That must be fascinating.”

“I could use that!”

It almost seems like the idea of performing at your peak is a more socially acceptable or, at the very least, more understandable concept than the goal of simply being happier.

But to me, they are two petals of the same tulip. Happiness is you at your peak.

So if it’s easier to talk about peak performance, by all means, let’s use that as the doorknob that opens up the door for our message to be heard.

In the language of human performance, we are at our peak when we enter a state of flow—when our work becomes almost effortless and timeless, and we achieve both peace and productivity.

This happens when:

  • • Our direction is set, whether on a specific goal or in a specific discipline
  • • We’re free from distraction and indecision and grounded in the here and now
  • • We are aware of both the pleasure of the work and its challenges
  • • Our work is well matched with our strengths and ability—not so easy that we’re bored and not too difficult to be unattainable.

It’s easier to understand the implications of this peak when our performance is measured by something like sports. We can see with our own eyes the height that a high jumper can reach at her peak. We know when we set a new personal best in a race, or when we are really crushing the ball (and our opponent) in our friendly-not-so-friendly weekly tennis match.

That’s why sports psychology has grown so much since it was introduced in the United States—most likely by psychologist Coleman Griffith, who founded the first American sports psychology lab at the University of Illinois in 1925. The lab closed within about a decade, and Griffith went on to work with the Chicago Cubs, whose on-the-field futility did not exactly move this area of study forward in the public eye. The modern-day heir to the title of “father of sports psychology,” at least in baseball, was perhaps H. A. Dorfman, author of The Mental ABC’s of Pitching: A Handbook for Performance Enhancement. In a New York Times article by Rick Wolff, the Dorfman approach was described as follows:

“In his gruff, profanity-laced way, he regarded traditional sports psychology approaches like ‘take a deep breath’ or ‘think only positive thoughts’ as nonsense.”

Hmm … so sport psychology isn’t positive thinking. Then what is it?

“I hold a mirror up to your face,” Dorfman would say.

I call that awareness.

And, in this case, a 3D masterpiece…

Wolff goes on: “The key was that Dorfman would then demand: ‘What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do to make the appropriate adjustments?’ His approach was all about the ballplayer’s taking responsibility and being accountable. Force him to find his own way back to success. And by doing so, he will be even stronger than before.”

I call that action.

So whatever aspect of positive psychology you focus on, keep working to translate the concepts in the ways that are most effective in your life or with your clients.
Keep in mind that, in the intensely competitive and painstakingly scrutinized profession of major league baseball, this approach has been responsible for turning around the mental and physical performance of some of the sport’s greatest peak performers, including Roy Halladay, who took to handing out copies of Dorfman’s book to the young pitchers he worked with on the Philadelphia Phillies.

Halladay, who was recently killed in a plane crash off the coast of Florida, had been sent down to the minor leagues when he found Dorfman’s advice and used this “awareness in action” to transform himself into one of the dominant pitchers of his era, racking up two Cy Young Awards, a post-season no-hitter, and a perfect game.

If that kind of approach can have such immediate and career-altering effects in a demanding and physically rigorous occupation like major league baseball, I believe it can also have lasting and transformative effects for the rest of us, too—no matter what we call our fields of dreams.

If you build it (awareness in action/mindfulness/positive psychology), they (the peak performance/flourishing/happiness) will come. No matter what you call it.

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.