Category Archives: Positive Psychology

The study of what works.

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.

Something From My Dad

My dad didn’t make it to Veteran’s Day this year.  As you’ll see from the context of my eulogy below, he passed away last week.  But Louis N. Cinquino left us all with something.  Something I explain in my remarks below. If you look closely in the picture of his Army Company N (or any photograph, for that matter), you’ll find him– and it.  If you can’t, then keep looking.

 

Company N Army APB #1
Here’s the bunch of guys he started with in the Army with, many of whom never made it home to enjoy the incredible fruits of their victory. Happily for me and my family, my father did. But now he’s gone to rejoin his boys, where they can relive the stories of their lives and find what he always taught us to look for.

 

I have to say, that growing up I remember feeling a little bit like royalty. Like there was something special, something noble about our family.

I guess it never crossed my mind that royalty doesn’t live in a two-family wooden shingled house, the same one my parents moved into 67 years ago on the day they were married. Or that royalty doesn’t work as a tool-and-die maker and medical records librarian and take one vacation a year to your relatives’ house in New Jersey. Royalty doesn’t pack a brown paper bag lunch every day— and bring that same paper bag home every night to be used again tomorrow.

So why did I feel like royalty? Because I got to live with the king.

The king was a man who liked everyone he met and became a leader in every group or organization he was involved with. A man who did what was right and expected us to as well. A man who saw the good where others would overlook it, and appreciated the tiniest of blessings.

If he was a king, he was the King of the Little Things— the things that don’t get written about, except clumsily by adoring sons. The king of showing up for your kids’ sporting events. The king of volunteering to visit Veterans in the hospital on Christmas morning while your little prince and princess are impatiently waiting to open their haul of presents. The king of endless stories about Italy, the king of the tomatoes, the basil, the garlic. The king of waking up early to make breakfast and play with his grandchildren. The king of playing cards. The king of picking beans for a penny a pound. The king of cardoon.

In recent years, he became the king of waking up every day and dressing himself. The king of doing his exercises. The king of rubbing his wife’s back. The king of not complaining.

The king still had the warm handshake and his enormous machinist’s hands. The king still had the big smile. The king still could make you feel important whenever you were with him.

The puzzling thing I feel today is trying to understand how the King of The Little Things bequeathed to us such Big Things. And I’m not just talking about a garage full broken hand tools, bottles, ladders and scrap lumber. (Which we do have available at a good price.) What I’m talking about is how all of us— not just his family— are left with a huge piece of his immense heart, a massive dose of his good nature, his straight up goodness.

You don’t have to be his son or daughter to inherit his legacy. Just by being here today, you’ve already proven your birthright to the treasures he left behind —and keep in mind he didn’t just leave them TO us, he leaves them WITH us, IN us.

The greatest of these was love. And yet for my dad it was more than love— for he didn’t just love us abstractly, he cared for us. He didn’t just imagine his love, he lived it. He was a great man in all the little ways we remember — his gentle sweetness, his willingness to serve, his optimism and perseverance.

That’s what he’s given us— and what we ask of him to keep giving us now that he has moved into his new address.

In the past few days, I can’t help thinking there must be a lot of people in heaven right now getting the full Louie treatment— you know. He pulls up a chair with someone new that he meets, smiles, listens and asks questions, tells a few stories and listens some more until he finds what he is looking for— that connection, that love.

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It’s there. Our job is to look for it.

 

My cousin told me the other day that my Dad gave her some of the best advice she’d ever received. Something he told her years ago that she always remembered, something she still thinks of whenever she meets someone new. Something I want to leave with you today, something he left with us to carry forward.

Something that kept him going from his early days on the South Side of Batavia to World War II in the South Pacific, from the south block of Myrtle St to the southern shore of the Oatka Creek at the Village Green. Something he found in appreciation of all the people who cared for him when he was no longer able to care for us. Something that he sought and found everywhere, every day and embraced as the truest sign of God’s love— at home, at work, at church, at meetings, with his dearest friends and people he just met.

That something is that We ALL have something in common. It’s our job to find it.

Today, we don’t have to look far to find what we have in common: We love the king.

On behalf of my mom, Rita, my brothers Michael and Anthony and my sister Liz, we thank you beyond these humble words for being here today and for being a part of my Dad’s life. He will continue to live on in us whenever we are at our best.

Legion Dad close up
Luigi Cinquino, King of the Little Things

The King is dead. Long live the King.

 

Burn Off Your Emotional Trash — With Or Without Calories

At many points over the past three years, my mind has felt like an episode of Hoarders. Thoughts, goals, fears, intentions, ideas, laments all piled up in great debilitating piles of rubbish, blocking the doorway to a peaceful, creative life.  Throughout, two things in particular helped me sort out the mess: physically demanding exercise and writing sh*t down.

At times, the exercise involved as much basketball as I could find.  I believe I peaked at 6 days in row of intense pickup games (in addition to a handful of 3 mile runs and chasing my little one around the playground). On over 50 legs, that’s the equivalent of LeBron playing back-to-back triple overtime games then chasing a cat up the stairs at the Empire State Building).

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If you look closely, you will see for yourself the surprising truth. Both feet have actually left the floor.

At one point, I sent away for the P90X exercise program and did the weight exercises in my basement fairly religiously, 4 or 5 days a week. I then moved on to exercise classes at the gym– TRX, dumbells, butts and guts, even the occasional Zumba class.   Anything that I could put on my calendar and make it a point to attend and have an instructor shout at me to work harder.

I think you can see how a regimen like that would help clear the mind, basically by wearing out the body.   It also helped me lose 19 pounds, which I have put back on, taken off and put back, taken off and put on again, leaving me basically where I started.

Yet even though my weight has cycled as my exercise imperatives wax and wane depending on whether I’m currently signed up for a specific race, the other mind-clearer of mine has continued to progress in a more progressively linear growth.

The gentler, more refined method I used to keep my mind clear, I still practice regularly– writing.  It doesn’t burn any calories or trim my love handles, but enables me to give voice to all the fears, doubts and challenges of the day.  Writing is something I can do in solitude while resting, where I can be emotionally naked and just let it flow out as way to flush my system of all the toxins that had built up. Basically like taking an emotional crap and crying helvetica tears.

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Writing gives your feelings dimension and helps bring your emotions out of the shadows.

I was never one to keep a running log or food diary.  To coin a phrase, I just did it. Why waste time writing about training, when I could just be training.  I could care less to know later what I did or didn’t do. My body will tell me that. The scale will tell me that.  My fat pants and skinny jeans would fight it out and tell each other to go to hell as they vied for my belt.

Yet when I intensified my training for the big races, I found that I was learning so much about my body so quickly that my head was spinning constantly– and I needed to write to sort out the trinkets from the treasure.  In trying to cut seconds off my fastest mile time, or to run my first cross country race in 35 years (look for the story in the September Issue of Runners World), I realized I could leave nothing to chance.

What I found was counter-intuitive to me.  The more I wrote, the more I ran.  The writing didn’t take away the time from running– it freed up the mental energy that I needed to keep going when the training got more difficult.

By writing stuff down, I could let go of the thoughts and doubts and pain and not carry it around with on my runs any more.  Plus my writing gave me a magnifying glass to look at the little details of my life and a telescope to see the big picture— to gradually become aware of what was really going on inside me, as I recorded my thoughts when I got back from runs.   I even sometimes use a dictation app to capture the thoughts as I stand, dripping sweat on my patio– too much of a human sprinkler to walk in my house and leak all over my computer.

One way or the other, whether through exhaustion or exposition, and when my life is working best, both, it helps me to clean out my closet of emotions and lighten the load that can weigh me down.

So I can go faster when I need to, and slower when I want to.

 

 

 

 

 

[basketball photo credit: Thom Hogan]

Who’s Your Blanco? 3 Ways Great Coaches Raise You Up

In the Disney movie McFarland, USA: Championship Run, the story of a Latino high school cross country is told through the eyes of the coach, played by Kevin Costner, who the boys dub “Blanco” because of his name, Mr. White.

In true Disney fashion, Blanco does it all in the movie, from rising out or his own checkered past to getting the most out of every kid on the team and inspiring the community to support them on their road to the state meet. This is the first weekend that the film is available on DVD.  It’s worth renting, as I reported in my previous post, Rent–and Run!.

Did you ever have a Blanco in your life? A coach who made a difference to you and helped shape you into the athlete you were then and the person you are now?

What I define as great coach is one who gets more than more.  By that I mean,  a  good coach gets more from you than you could get by yourself.   But a great coach gets even more– more than others ever expected of you and sometimes more than you even knew was there.

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Kevin Costner with the fake Kevin Costner (aka the real Mr. Jim White).

 

Here’s 3 traits that I’ve found in the great coaches that I’ve worked with in a variety of sports.

1.  Establish the Framework for Practice –  This is sometimes thought of as instilling discipline.  But to me, it’s so much more than that.  A good coach can try to keep discipline with a firm hand, cracking down on behaviors destructive to the team. But a great coach pragmatically builds your tolerance for practice by giving you a self-building path.  She isn’t forcing you to behave or work, she is showing you how to build a pyramid, by laying before you the blocks of useful training that you put on top of each other to lift yourself up to the pinnacle.

It’s not about discipline, it’s about establishing work habits that result in a better you.

2. Inspire You to Keep Going – Any sporting activity provides a few opportunities for success, and a huge assortment of places to quit or fall short of applying yourself.   Teams and players that win big usually display winning habits all the way through their training– not just in some fairytale clutch ending.  In McFarland USA, whatever success the team gets isn’t because it gets lucky, or because all of a sudden they believe in themselves and decide to run harder.  Their championship run builds day-by-day as they grow into their own power as athletes.  This happens, in part, because of their own work habits, and in part, because Blanco has an unwavering belief in them and a willingness to share that vision in grand terms.  That vision carries them when doubts and fatigue and circumstance threaten to have them settle for less.

It’s not just believing in yourself — that’s merely self esteem, which is necessary but not sufficient.  It’s believing in the work that will transform you into a champion. Then doing it.

McFARLAND, USA..L to R: Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran), Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar), Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), and Damacio Diaz (Jamie Michael Aguero)...Ph: Film Frame..?Disney 2015
Motivational speeches don’t amount to a hill of beans if a coach doesn’t teach skills and establish a framework for practice.

3. Teach You Something You Don’t Know – An athlete who works hard in a structured, motivated way has a great advantage over the competitors that don’t work as hard.  But that’s hardly enough.  Most athletes work very, very, hard.  Competitions involve great tests of skill and strategy– and if you are only in better shape, but can’t execute the maneuvers of your sport, you can only go so far. This often plays itself out in youth athletics when a player grows up faster than his peers and physically dominates them along the way.  But tide turns when the peers catch up, because they have played for years as scrappy underdogs, learning the little ways to get better when they are at a physical disadvantage.  The late-blooming athlete then can coordinate his new physical self and apply this skill with tremendous success, where the early-bloomer finds it too late to build those skills that are suddenly necessary.     A great coach teaches the skills and strategy of the game at every opportunity, whether they are needed at that moment or not.

A good coach helps you practice. But keep in mind, practice does NOT make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.  If what you are practicing is fundamentally flawed, it’s not really helping you.  A great coach makes sure that what you are making permanent are the skills you need for winning.

Who’s your Blanco? What did they do that helped you get more than more?

 

 

 

 

Rituals are the Spice of Life

Perhaps it’s nothing more than the rituals of life that propel us and give us the will to keep going.

The mechanics of ‘now I do this’ and ‘then I will do that’ determine what actually gets done. It certainly is true when crisis or depression hit as we are reduced to our most basic patterns.  It is also what breaks down in those cases of high anxiety and which leaves us trapped in a suspended state of animation, when we can’t even resume those rituals and carry on.

Rituals are at the core of high performance preparation—a plan, a to do list and set of goals to accomplish, to reach for. It may not seem so lofty when the goal is ‘now I put on my underwear’ and ‘now I floss’ but rituals are the ladder we’ve built our existence upon– and linking them to bigger tasks can move us surreptitiously toward achievements that have been out of our grasp.

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When you’ve been at your best, what rituals were you practicing?

Is a regularly scheduled track workout a ritual? Is it a ritual that my mom put the coffee into the coffee pot before she goes to bed rather than in the am before she’s about to pour the water into the machine?  I think it’s probably something deeper about who are at this time in our lives– and what we want to be propelled toward.

What I see with my parents now is it literally is that ritual is what keeps them going. It’s what was missing for my mom when my dad was first in the nursing home. “Now what do I do?,” she would say. You could see she was drifting, with nothing to replace the tasks and organizational needs that were in place when they were both home—the home of everyone of their 65 years of marriage—the home where they spent about 358 days of each of those 65 years. The rituals became more than habits, they became instinctual survival techniques. Is it a ritual that a robin go out looking for worms each day? Call it what you want—it’s what keeps them alive.

Rituals are not permanent like habits or addictions can be- but they are lasting. They don’t define us entirely but they do put a cover on our book and show the world what we spend our time doing. Yet we also have our internal rituals, that the world does not see yet what perhaps are even more defining who we are every day. Where we keep our anxiety—how we hold our stress—where our minds go when we are sad, shaken, in doubt, fearful.

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The paradoxical cup of coffee– the omega and alpha of creativity.

Yet there is a paradox. The rituals that sustain us can also appear to be traps of boredom and lifeless, mindless exchanges that sap life of its newness. For isn’t creativity the antithesis of ritual?  Yes but. Yes but some of us need to first be bored to create. Some of us need the calming waters of ritual to clear our minds to build, to recharge for change. The repetitive ritual is the steady, flat foundation on which we build. That foundation is where the rituals end and the creativity starts that set the course for how we assault the world. A cup of coffee on the couch before the day starts may be the last act of boredom as well as the first act of creative expression that day offers.

What are the rituals that you, intentionally or not, work your way through during your day?  Do they support what you want to accomplish today? Do they also lead you toward the larger endeavors that you aspire to?  Can you attach to them something tiny and easy that can slowly build into a better version of you?