Category Archives: Positive Psychology

The study of what works.

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.

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.

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.

It’s Better to Give AND Receive: Unwrapping Our Gifts

The early days of a new year are my designated time for cleaning up, cleaning out, consolidating, and turning my attention to what I’ve been missing. I often find valuable nuggets amid the rubble of my office that I can use to direct me toward the next waypoint on my journey.

Amid this year’s stacks of papers and stupefying collection of random stuff* that somehow ended up in my office, I find two gifts.

The first is smaller than my computer mouse and wrapped in purple paper. I remember watching the store clerk (possibly at Kripalu) wrapping it, but can no longer recall what is inside or who I intended to give it to.

The other gift creates a different dilemma. It’s a bag of chocolates that I received in 2016 and never opened. I realize this only after I send a lovely thank-you email to the person who gave it to me, thinking it was a gift from this Christmas. Needless to say, Jenny was a little confused about my expression of gratitude—and we both wrote off the mistake as a side effect of midlife memory loss.

But, in fact, it was much more than that.

You see, I seem to have some kind of clinical blind spot about gifts—I like to buy them, but often get cold feet about actually giving them. And, while I like to receive them, I often don’t actually unbox or use them for a long time (if at all), and have even been known to leave them unwrapped.

Let’s just say this was not the first time that I was able to place this year’s Christmas gifts next to last year’s as they sat new in their boxes, stacked neatly for 12 months in the far corner of my office.

As I write this, both of these “gifts” still sit there in limbo—gifts in name only, since one was never given and the others, not really received.

Before you jump to the conclusion that this makes no sense (with which I would wholeheartedly concur), take a minute to consider the thought that dawns on me as I look at these artifacts.

Are these abandoned gifts signs of something deeper? Maybe I (and maybe you, too) have other “gifts” that have been hoarded or unappreciated.

What gifts do we have in our lives that are similarly ferreted away—ensconced in some kind of veil that keeps us from knowing what’s inside us?

Are there character strengths, talents, skills that we have developed that we’ve kept to ourselves? Do you have resources, ideas, or support that are available to be given freely, but something is keeping you from doing so? What do we have that can help someone else?

Or, conversely, are there gifts that we have failed to appreciate the way these kids have?

Are we ripping open our wrapping with gratitude and embracing all our gifts? Is there something inside us that we’ve declined to receive or to fully integrate with who we are as a person? Do you sit there, like I have, and look right past what’s been there all along?

Are people trying to reach out to you? Are you enjoying, embracing, and enhancing your life with the compassion and joy that life is offering you?

Is love being offered? Forgiveness? Empathy? Collaboration? Are you too set in your ways at work to be inclusive of others who can help? Are you too proud to let people share their resources and unique contributions with you? What are you refusing?

At work, do you really take the effort to find out what you and your colleagues can contribute beyond what you’ve been allowed to do?

At home, could you be a tiny bit more vulnerable, and more deeply appreciate what your family is giving you now? Or are you stuck measuring your loved ones solely by what you want them to be in the future?

For it is truly better to give and receive.

May this new year of 2018 be the time we share more of the gifts we have for others, and appreciate and accept the abundance that is right in front of us.

I’ll start by tasting these chocolate caramels. It’s never too late for that.

*For the record, this heap included a lost flathead screwdriver (whose replacement I bought just last week), a set of puzzle books, a Buddhist coloring book, mulling spice kits, a magnetic refrigerator clip, sunglasses, a $30 Justice coupon, an old iPad, a new Amazon Fire, automobile repair receipts, ticket stubs, four courtside seats to upcoming 76ers games, a hand-strengthening gadget, two and a half phone chargers, an old credit card, a camera, reader glasses, and a bottle of Icelandic water.

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.

How (and Why) To Enjoy Every Toothache

How is your toothache feeling today?

If you actually have a toothache (or headache or some other physical discomfort), I hope it’s feeling better. If you don’t have one, I hope it feels worse for just a second.

I’m not being sadistic, really.

If you are like me, you did not wake up this morning and declare how happy you were to not have a toothache. Or not to be grieving some kind of tragic loss. Or not to be deep in a personal drama immobilizing you with fear.

All those things happen from time to time. They have all happened to me at various points in the past several years. And when I am in such pain, such drama or dire circumstances, it is hard to think of anything else. I just want that toothache to go away. I want that person to come around and see things my way. I want a friend to get her health back.

So that toothache that you don’t have? Imagine you do have it, for just one sharp second of pain. Then another. Imagine how awful that tiny little inconvenience is—how it disrupts your thinking and can compromise your whole day. Now imagine the blessed relief you feel when it finally goes away and you are where you are right now—without that toothache.

When things like toothaches happen, they force us to pay attention—and when they pass, we celebrate.

But today, I didn’t give attention to all the joyful things that are already in place—or celebrate the cessation of pain. I didn’t celebrate what is for what it is. I didn’t acknowledge the beauty, the safety, or the love in my life.

I just laid in bed, like I do so often, thinking about the little things that were bothering me, the crappy stuff I really didn’t want to do today, the slurry of emotions that had somehow crept into my mind overnight.

I’m lazy. When I’m doing well, I tend to just coast and enjoy it—until I’m not coasting anymore. I turn to tried-and-true positive psychology tools like a gratitude journal only when I’m struggling the most. And that practice, undertaken for a few minutes before I go to bed, never fails to help ease me into a better place. Even if I don’t write them down religiously, making a mental list of what I’m grateful for reminds me of a guiding principle of positive psychology that Tal often describes as “What we appreciate, appreciates.”

In other words, what we bring into awareness will grow in value.

It’s not just through the practice of a gratitude journal that we can do this. It can happen throughout the day, over and over again. When we stop to see and acknowledge and give words to what we appreciate, we create the awareness of what’s working in our lives. Not just what’s wrong, but what’s strong.

This is especially true and powerful when we appreciate the people in our lives.

This morning, when I woke up, I made the decision to appreciate the challenges, pitfalls, and yucky feelings I had when I woke up this morning. So they grew a little. I gave them audience, and they responded with a command performance. But it could have gone differently.

Luckily for me, I had the impetus to write this today, to help remind me that there are other aspects of my life that wait politely in the wings, waiting to be appreciated—and grown.

Luckily for you, you made it this far to help remind yourself to do the same.

 

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.

Your Pulse Is Not Your Heart: Permission to Be Human

For some reason, I find it difficult to find my own pulse. Which tends to remind me of a limitation we often have: We are not always in the best position to see our own humanity. It’s why a considerable field of study called psychology rose up to illuminate aspects of ourselves that others can help us see.

This notion—that we lose sight of our humanity from time to time—is one of the guiding principles of positive psychology. It is known as Permission to Be Human. To me, this means much more than just admitting that we make mistakes (we do) or asking forgiveness (we should).

To me, Permission to Be Human is more about looking at ourselves—taking our own pulses.

Try this. Grab a timer and take your pulse right now. Maybe you’ll be better at this than I am. (I ended up just buying a heart rate monitor.) Place your index and middle fingers on the underside of your wrist, just below the base of the thumb. Count the number of beats (pulses) for 15 seconds. Take this number and multiply by four to find your heart rate in beats per minute.

Okay, now that you’ve got a number, tell me. Is it good or bad?

I hope you didn’t answer that. Here’s why: That number changes all the time. It’s sometimes higher and sometimes lower. Did you just walk up a flight of stairs? Have you been sitting down for a while? When’s the last time you ate? Did you exercise earlier? What time is it? Did you just think of something you forgot to do? Did you just yawn? All of these things can affect your heart rate. It rises and falls with variability triggered by the situation you are encountering.

Watch this video for look at HeartBot, the drawing machine that is controlled by the heartbeat of the viewer.

HeartBot Imaging

Our changing heart rate is an analogy for what it means to give ourselves (and others) Permission to Be Human. To accept the emotions we have at any given moment as part of who we are—and not worry too much about labeling them as good or bad. Whatever emotions we feel in the moment and whatever actions we are undertaking that trigger those emotions, they need to be understood in the context of our broader lives.

Our first job is to be aware of our emotions and accept them for what they are—temporary responses. Then we can work toward the goal of broadening and building our positive emotions in light of what we’ve learned about ourselves.

Physical training and nutrition can guide us toward heart-rate responses that signal and orchestrate our health and well-being. So, too, can we guide our minds toward healthy responses to our emotions as we process them. We can train our bodies to be stronger and our minds to be more resilient, capable of success and sustainable happiness.

Keep in mind that the art of being human can shift us toward peak performance through both mind and body. That’s been described in a phrase that makes me smile: Permission to Be Magnificent.

Magnificent, in my estimation, is simply another word for human.

 

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.