Votes for Women!

“I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.” – Sarah Grimkés, abolitionist, feminist, and writer (1792-1873)

One hundred and seventy-five years ago today, the long march toward women’s suffrage began. Three hundred men and women convened in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women. There was a lot about which to talk.

In 1848, women were subject to the guardianship of their fathers (if unmarried) or husbands (if married). They could not own property, hold bank account, sign contracts, retain their scant wages, or receive an inheritance. They were denied educational opportunities. If they divorced their spouses, their husbands assumed full custody of the children irrespective of his quality of character or interest. Women could not serve on juries, hold public or ecclesial office, or vote. Nonetheless, they were liable for payment of taxes, leading to a sustained experience of “taxation without representation.”

Under Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s leadership, the assembly listened to addresses from passionate speakers, voted on resolutions, and crafted a Declaration of Sentiments patterned after the Declaration of Independence. While provisions related to voting rights were hotly debated, Stanton held firm on their inclusion, arguing that a woman’s participation in democratic elections would prove the linchpin to securing other reform. She prevailed, and 100 delegates affixed their signatures to the document.

From this initial spark, the smoldering embers of a movement began to dot the countryside until the outbreak of civil war in 1861. As most of the activists were staunch abolitionists, they focused their energies on securing freedom for slaves. They were bitterly disappointed at war’s end to see the passage of constitutional amendments granting suffrage to African American males yet continuing to deny that right for women.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In 1869, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the all-female National Woman Suffrage Association to press for voting rights on a federal level. Lucy Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association which welcome male advocates as members and pressed for voting rights on a state-be-state basis. Both cultivated tireless efforts by the membership and leveraged print media, rallies, and lobbying to press for social reform. Yet, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention, very little progress could be reported. Only Wyoming (1869), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), and Idaho (1896) had full female suffrage. Women’s rights improved modestly. By 1900, three-quarters of states let women own property, two-thirds let them retain their wages, and a few public universities admitted exceptional women.

After a lull during the first decade of the 20th century, Washington, California, Kansas, Arizona, and Oregon granted voting rights for women. A new generation of women came to the fore to take up the mantle of women’s suffrage. Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt brought forth the union of the two major suffrage associations to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) with the dual focus of federal and state activism. Harriot Stanton Blatch formed the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women and launched publicity campaigns to raise awareness and support. Alice Paul orchestrated a march on the U.S. capital days before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913. It drew 5000-8000 participants and 100,000-300,000 spectators and some notably bad behavior (e.g., tripping, slapping, spitting, heckling, cussing) from men who opposed to movement. One month later, 531 women marched the route in reverse to deliver petitions to each member of Congress.

Wilson declared support for women’s suffrage in 1916 but did very little to support it. That same year, Paul formed the National Woman’s Party and organized daily pickets at the White House with signs that read: “How Long Must Woman Wait for Liberty?” and “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” Over 1,000 protesters gathered at the White House for his second inauguration. They decried Wilson’s call for global democracy in the wake of World War I while refusing to support full democracy at home.

The administration’s response to these unfailingly peaceful protests was to place the agitators in jail, violating their right to free speech and assembly. Conditions in prison were deplorable, and the women were mistreated by the guards and superintendents. They suffered mightily physically, mentally, and emotionally. Not willing to conceded defeat, they organized hunger strikes and let their plight be known outside the jailhouse walls. Suffice it to say, the activists were a real nightmare for Woodrow Wilson.

On January 9, 1918, President Wilson called for the enactment of women’s suffrage during his State of the Union address to Congress. The House passed the constitutional amendment 274-136 shortly thereafter; the Senate stalled the vote until October and defeated the bill. Alice Paul organized another march that December and ramped up the protests. When the 66th Congress was sworn in on May 19, 1919, both chambers took up the vote for women’s suffrage and passed the legislation.

Because a constitutional amendment requires ratification by two-thirds of the states, the battleground moved from the federal to state houses. By Spring 1920, 35 states voted for the amendment and 8 against. Of the remaining holdouts, Tennessee seemed the most likely to secure the final affirmative vote. The Tennessee Senate supported the amendment with a 25 to 4 vote. The initial vote in the State House came in at a dead heat: 48 to 48. After intense debate, Harry Burn, a 24-year representative from East Tennessee, changed his vote to the affirmative citing his moral rectitude and the influence of his mother.

It took seventy-two years, 480 campaigns, 56 state referendums, 47 attempts to add suffrage to state constitutions, and 19 biannual campaigns to 19 Congresses to walked the distance between the 1948 Seneca Falls convention to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. As Carrie Chapman Catt said:

“Young suffragettes who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragettes who forged the first links were dead when it ended.”

Charlotte Woodward Pierce was the lone signatory of the original Declaration of Sentiment to witness the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She was 91 years old when first eligible to vote but was too sick to go to the polls. Though a devoted suffragette her entire life, she never was able to cast a vote.

We’ve made progress in the last 100 years with a gaggle of social, legislative, and economic reform. Pew Research reports that women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, up from 65 cents in 1982. Four out of nine Supreme Court Justices are women. We have our first female Vice President, a record 128 serving in the House of Representatives (29% of the chamber’s total), and 25 serving in the Senate (25% of the chamber’s total). That’s good, but not great considering that slightly more than half of the U.S. population is female. But here’s the rub: Only 68% of women eligible to vote actually exercised that right in the last Presidential election. Moreover, only three-quarters of eligible women are registered to vote.

The country has issues that threaten our future security, livelihoods, and cohesion. Big money interests exercise a disproportionate influence in the affairs of State. But for democracy to work, it asks all of us to take our responsibilities as citizens seriously – to become informed participants in democracy and exercise our right to vote.

Please take time to separate the wheat from the chaff in media reports to discern the truth. Understand the issues put before you. Do some research on candidates for office – their character, skills, experience, and positions on policy matters. And then vote your conscience at every election.

If this post has piqued your interest, consider reading Votes for Women: American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot by Winifred Conkling.

Why I Believe in Early Childhood Education

enrichment activityWith the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I see clearly that I hit the jackpot when born into my family of origin. My parents were intelligent, loving, conscientious caregivers whose life decisions were consistently in service of my brother’s and my best interests. We enjoyed stellar public education with engaged parents on the academic and social fronts. We profited from a gaggle of enrichment activities. And my folks did the hard work of molding us into independent, responsible, principled, resourceful, caring human beings.

I never thought much about the manifold blessings of my upbringing until I spent a year working with The Oregon Community Foundation on volunteerism in early childhood, courtesy of an encore fellowship. I did a lot of reading on the subject and was stunned by the extent to which one’s earliest developmental experiences set the course for future success.

In Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky identifies seven essential life skills for which each child ideally achieves mastery during the formative years:

  • Focus and Self-Control, which encompasses paying attention, adapting to priorities flexibly, holding information in one’s mind while working on it, avoiding distractions, and resisting temptation while working toward larger goals.
  • Perspective Taking, which enables the child discern how others think and feel, and understand what they might want and need.
  • Communicating, which entails the development of a broad vocabulary, finding the right words to express thought and feelings, and listening attentively to others.
  • Making Connections, which involves putting things into categories, noting the relationships between them, and recognizing that something can represent or stand for something else
  • Critical Thinking, which relies upon the ability to identify problems, specify desired outcomes, explore alternative solutions and their pros/cons, select and options, evaluate its efficacy, and regroup, as needed.
  • Taking on Challenges, which cultivates a growth mindset in which a child narrates abilities as skills that can be developed.
  • Self-Directed, Engaged Learning, which helps the child self-actualize through curiosity, exploration, and disciplined study.

These skills form the foundation for a child’s future across abroad range of metrics – e.g., scholastic achievement, economic independence, health outcomes, social prowess, community engagement, avoidance of juvenile justice, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse.

While the home environment accounts for the lion’s share of a young child’s readiness for learning when they enter kindergarten, early interventions in Pre-K learning environments can help course correct for disadvantaged children. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child highlights the following 5 numbers when articulating the importance of early childhood development:

  • Brain architecture develops rapidly during the first few years of life. The 700 new neural connections formed every second build the foundation upon which later learning, behavior, and health depend.
  • By age 3, children born to college-age parents develop vocabularies 2-3x the size of those born to parents without a high school education. The latter enter school at a substantive disadvantage absent exposure to a language-rich environment.
  • Childhood adversity increases the probability of development delays by age 3. The more risk factors – e.g., poverty, caregiver mental illness, child maltreatment, single parent, substance abuse, low maternal education, crime – the greater the chance of delay.
  • Children who experience 7-8 adverse experiences in childhood triple their risk of heart disease in later life.
  • Every dollar invested in early learning environments for low-income children reaps a $4-$9 benefit to society by reducing special education, welfare, and crime, and increasing tax revenues from program participants.

Those of us who reaped the rewards of secure adult attachments, ample resources and opportunities, effective skill and knowledge development, and social capital (connections) owe a huge debt of gratitude to the caregivers and communities who supported us. We can express our thanksgiving by lending our support to public and private programs that provide affordable housing, economic support, and equitable access to early childhood education. It’s the least we can do.

The Big Purge Is Upon Us

I’ve written several posts on the merits of Spring cleaning in concert with annual efforts to rid our household of unneeded items. With a clear intention to downsize, I’m glad that we chipped away at the task over the years. This week, that rooster has come to roost.

We put our house on the market a week ago in hopes that we might attract interest prior to the coming school year. We’d spent a week-plus cleaning and decluttering before photo shoot and made sure the yard was in tip-top shape. I dreaded the placement of the lock box on the front door and the implied requirement to keep the house tidy consistently. But that’s the deal when selling a house.

The opening day for showings brought three couples to the house all of whom were interested in buying it. By the end of Day 2, we were under contract for sale! We’re slated to close escrow by month end and have up to 59 days thereafter to rent the place back. Now the real work begins.

downsizing decisionsMy sister-in-law preceded us in this daunting task by a few months. I am taking her stellar piece of advice: Do something every day to make progress toward moving.

While I have a high degree of confidence that this deal will go through, I’ve decided to focus on activities that are nearly invisible to a prospective buyer’s eye. Should the house have to go back up for sale, I want it to look appealing. As such, I’m tackling the closets, drawers, cabinets, and garage shelving first. First up: Going through all of our files. I’m on Day 3 of that exercise. Who knew we had so much stuff! In file-by-file and paper-by-paper, I’m figuring out what we need, what we can scan, what we can recycle, and what must be shredded to protect sensitive information. Almost finished!

A good friend has made prolific use of Internet-based marketplaces to sell things (or give them away). So, my next stop will be a coaching session to get me familiar with options for ridding the house of things I know we will not need. (Some negotiation may need to take place when it comes to garage stuff!) She has offered to help, and I’ll gladly let her keep the proceeds for the sake of paring down my “to do” list.

My husband and I need to take another tour through our closets to make sure we still want the clothes that we have and that they still fit. I see a Goodwill run in my future.

Upon close of escrow, we’ll start tackling the large pieces of furniture and the artwork. A few questions have popped into mind:

  • Do we really need to have a full bedroom set in the guest room given that the drawers are always empty?
  • Do we really need to have desks given that we’re both retired? Could we make do with a simple table, a computer stand, and a filing cabinet?
  • Do we really need a kitchen dinette and a dining room set?
  • Should we keep all the home exercise equipment or move into a place with easy access to a gym or workout room?
  • Do we need to keep all those D.I.Y. supplies given that we rarely D.I.Y. anymore and will likely have access to my nephew’s treasure trove?

Since we have a general idea of the type of place we’ll rent or buy next, we already know that a fair amount of what we currently own just won’t fit. (And we don’t really need it!) Some we’ll try and sell. Some we’ll donate to charity. And some may be of interest to the new homeowner. I’m not concerned about finding new homes. I just need to bake in plenty of time to attend to the mechanics of bidding them all goodbye.

For the most part, I’ve faced this downsizing challenge with aplomb. I’ve shed some tears all the while knowing that selling the house is the right thing to do. I’ve had “déjà vu all over again” as I recall doing this same activity with my parents over the years. It’s a bit jarring to come to terms with the fact that it’s my generation’s turn to pare back on the things we’ve owned and make changes to the lives we’ve led. On the plus side, I anticipate a sense of relief when I’m on the other side, having substantially lightened my load.

When Change Comes A-Calllin’

“Change is the only constant in life.” – Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

Everything changes. Geopolitics. Economies. Climate. Weather systems. Bodies. Emotions. Thoughts. Relationships. Jobs. Life circumstances. Housing. It’s a fact of life. We best get used to it.

The good news: Change is good for the brain. As noted in Cultivating a Healthy Brain at Any Age, purpose, learning, and discovery provide stimulus for the brain that increase the density of neurons, synapses, and dendrites. Brain networks that operate with greater efficiency, complexity, and reserves are less susceptible to disruption or decline. When we break out of habitual patterns, our brains step up to the challenge and adapt and grow in response.

The bad news: Change can be uncomfortable, sorrowful, stressful, unwelcome. We may face an uncertain future that calls into question our sense of stability and calm. We may worry about our ability to come out the other end whole. And we may lose a lot of sleep while in its grasp.

home for saleI find myself in the midst of a big change. The lovely home in which I’ve shared so many wonderful times with family and friends goes up for sale tomorrow. My husband and I have realized that it’s just too much house and too much yard. In addition, we face the realistic possibility of a relocation to another part of the country to be close to family as we enter the next chapter of our lives. My heart tightens as I gaze into my verdant backyard and watch the squirrels, bunnies, and birds pay their daily respects. I grieve the potential loss of a community in which I have very deep roots. And I dread all the work that it’ll take to downsize and pack all the while hoping that the things we will no longer need might be repurposed.

I’m leaning into my mindfulness training to cope with this turn of events. The practice of R.A.I.N. helps me bring an interested attention to what is going on with body and mind. In particular:

  • Recognize: I’m paying attention to grief as it arises rather than stuff it down.
  • Allow: I’m letting those sensations just be without judging them. It’s OK to feel sad. That’s part of the human experience. And it’s OK to just sit with that sadness. Resistance would only increase and prolong suffering.
  • Investigate: I’m bring an interested attention to the experience. I try to locate where I’m feeling grief in my body and see how it changes over time. I’m naming the other feelings that go along with grief – fear, anxiety, trepidation, anger. I’m exploring the assumptions that undergird the feelings as well as the stories I might be telling myself about it. (My worrying mind can spin quite a yarn about what the future holds!) I can say to myself: “Oh, those are just thoughts or feelings or sensations.”
  • Nurture: From the wisest and most compassionate part of myself, I can serve up love and support.

It’s a simple practice yet surprisingly powerful. It acknowledges and provides attentive care for the difficult circumstance without getting ensnared by it. As I sit with whatever arises, I notice that the sensations don’t last very long. They come and go like waves in the ocean. And with a little bit of distance, I can simply observe their movements.

Mindfulness also teaches me to live my life moment-to-moment – to simply take in the experience of life through the sensory doors. As such, I needn’t spend much time grasping for a former existence that has seen its glory days. I needn’t fixate on what is yet to come. I can experience this day, right now and meet new challenges and opportunities as they arise. I’ve been down this road before. I know that I can handle it.

I’m still not wild about change – even if it’s good for my brain. But I’ll confess to having a bit of excitement over what new adventures lie on the horizon.

Is Quitting OK?

“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” – Kenny Rogers as The Gambler

Famed football coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” He embodies that indominable spirit that would never give up no matter how rough the road ahead. Dr. Angela Duckworth affirmed his sensibilities in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Her research showed that grittier people experience more success, live longer, and enjoy healthier emotional lives.

Best-selling author and international chess champion Annie Duke takes a different tack in Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away. She notes that while grit can help you stick to worthwhile enterprises, it can also keep you stuck in things that no longer merit your time, talents, and resources.

Let’s face it: We make decisions in the context of uncertainty. We don’t have all the facts up front. We can’t foresee the impact of good or bad luck. We can’t even predict how we’ll feel about things as we go along. Our goals and preferences may change. As such, quitting is an appropriate response when the expected value of further effort no longer passes the minimum threshold for sustained effort. It gives us the opportunity to invest in more profitable ventures and reach our goals faster.

Dukes acknowledges that most of us have trouble pulling the trigger on an initiative once we’ve gotten started. She identifies several impediments:

  • When our present circumstances seem OK, we don’t engage in the requisite mental time travel to see how the future might shape up. We stick with the status quo and just keep on keeping on. Then when things start to go south…
  • … we focus too much on what we’ve already invested (“sunk costs”) rather than keeping our eyes on future costs and benefits. And because we don’t want to close accounts in losses, we may double- or triple-down on our investments in the attempt to create some kind of win. Unfortunately, the greater the sunk cost, the harder it is for us to quit.
  • It’s hard to quit when we feel a sense of ownership over the things, beliefs, and decisions that got us into the game. This “endowment effect” is particularly strong if we’ve built something from the ground up.
  • There’s no feedback system to validate the wisdom of quitting. We can’t create alternate realities in which different choices play out. It makes us anxious to quit for fear that we might live to regret that decision.
  • We like to cultivate a positive self-narrative. In our minds, quitting says we were wrong simply failed in execution. We may even tell ourselves that we just didn’t have what it takes to see it through.

These impediment plague all of us – even cognitive scientists whose research provides these insights. Duke offers these strategies for helping avoid the stayed-in-the-game-too-long pitfalls:

  • Be really picky about the things to which you lend your commitment. Persevere only in things that matter, that bring you happiness, and that move you toward your goals. Set aside everything else to free up resources to pursue what matters. Stop sticking to things that weigh you down!
  • Create a pre-commitment contract – states (measurable conditions or accomplishments) and dates (time frames for achievement) – that identifies requirements for staying the course. Then think about the conditions under which you would quit – a.k.a., “kill criteria.” Have an “unless clause” for every goal.
  • Tackle to hardest part of the project first. The sooner you identify obstacles that aren’t worth your while (or even possible) to overcome, the sooner you can switch to something better.
  • Have a Plan B (and perhaps C, D, and E) in your hip pocket to enable you to pivot quickly should conditions warrant a change. Hold fast to an exploratory mindset.
  • Find someone who cares deeply about you and doesn’t have a problem telling you the cold, hard truth when the need arises. Take the blinders off and listen to what they say.
  • Create a diversified portfolio of opportunities so that you aren’t overinvested in any one thing.
  • Celebrate progress.
  • Give yourself partial credit if you choose to stop something you started.

Bottom line: Life is too short to squander it on losing or unrewarding bets. Take it from a highly successful poker player:

“Contrary to popular belief, winners quit a lot. That’s how they win.”

Don’t Waste Time Fussing Over Inconsequential Decisions

choicesMy last post provided an overview of Annie Duke’s decision-making process when contemplating an important move in her life – e.g., moving to a new city, purchasing a home or car, taking a new job, hiring an employee, etc. She assesses preferences, payoffs, and probabilities and documents her assumptions, facts, and analyses for post-decision assessment. She also balances her inside view of the world with an outside perspective. It takes time and effort, but it yields a more accurate picture of the road ahead with all its challenges and obstacles and increases the likelihood that she’ll realize a good result.

While she argues for an appropriate investment in time for big decisions, Duke is quick to point out that we often squander valuable time on inconsequential ones. For example:

  • A study commissioned by Seated (a restaurant mobile app) reported that American couples spend two-and-a-half hours a week negotiating what type of meal to eat.
  • The Nielsen Total Audience Report suggests that we spend 45 hours per year choosing our live or streaming content on TV.
  • Retailer Marks & Spencer claims that men take 13 minutes daily and women 17 minutes daily figuring out what to wear.

Those three activities combined yield a total of 254 to 278 hours of analysis paralysis, or roughly 16 to 17 days’ worth of waking hours. Is that really necessary?

Duke’s litmus test for investing her time rests in figuring out the penalty for a lower quality decision. If low, then make the decision quickly. If high, slow down. Alternatively, consider the impact of a decision in a week? A month? A year? If it won’t matter all that much, then put your foot on the accelerator.

Decisions that repeat offer little reason to go slow. Order a meal (or hedge you bets and order two for sharing with a friend). Watch a show and switch if it doesn’t prove engaging. Choose an outfit. The opportunity to make a different choice will present itself forthwith. In the meantime, you save time and gain additional insights on preferences to inform future choices.

If the available options present comparably attractive outcomes, go fast. These circumstances typically carry an inner voice that says: “I can’t decide because they’re all good choices.” That means the decision is easy. You’ll enjoy a favorable outcome no matter what.

Another trick to speed decision making involves asking yourself: “If this option were my only choice, would I be happy with it?” Then separate the options that you’d find satisfactory from the ones that fall short of joy and choose one of the foregoing.

Duke characterizes some choices as “Two-Way Door Decisions” – i.e., ones in which it’s as easy to enter the decision as it is to exit. For such choices, go fast and gain experience. If it’s a “One-Way Door Decision” – i.e., a high impact choice with a high cost to quit – then see if there are low impact decisions you could make ahead of time to inform the looming high impact choice. In tandem, seek additional information that might illumine a preferred path.

Finally, you can speed decision processes by making “category decisions” that dictate what you will and won’t do – e.g., foods you’ll eat, investments you’ll make. Don’t relitigate items for which you’ve already made considered choices.

How to Make Better Decisions

Take a minute and think about a good decision you made in the past year. Consider the factors that weighed into your decision and the process you used to make it. Now think about a bad decision and the factors and process that went into making it. Now ask yourself: To what extent did the outcome of your decision effect your assessment of the process that led to it?

In How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, Annie Duke argues that most of us are not very disciplined in making decisions and judge our efficacy based on results. A good outcome leads us to believe that we made a good decision; a bad outcome leads us to believe that we made a bad one. This bias causes us to repeat a bad decision process if the result was favorable and avoid a good decision process if the result proved disappointing.

We also fall prey to hindsight bias when the outcome proved less than stellar. Our inner critic (and perhaps friends and family) say: “How could you not have known that this decision would turn out so badly?” We may even lead ourselves to believe that we’d had a key insight but chose to ignore it. The bad outcome inevitably casts a shadow over what we actually knew (or could have known) at the time a choice was made. It makes it hard to see that some information was available before the decision and some revealed later.

Another form of clouded memory might be characterized as the inevitability bias. After the fact, we take a chain saw to our decision tree, leaving the lone branch associated with the outcome that came to pass. We forget about all the other ways that our decision might have panned out.

Finally, luck intercedes between decision and outcome. We tend to ignore good luck when the outcome is favorable and overplay bad luck when the outcome is bad. Just look at the words we use to characterize the influence of luck:

Role of Luck

Albert Einstein famously said “the only source of knowledge is experience.” Annie Duke reminds us that we need clarity when reflecting on it to gain wisdom.

So, how would Annie Duke guide our decision process?

For consequential decisions, she recommends a 6-step process with a healthy chuck of recordkeeping for post-outcome assessment:

  1. Identify the reasonable set of possible outcomes for a given choice under consideration.
  2. Identify the payoff(s) associated with each outcome in terms of progress toward a goal, monetary impact, time, self-esteem, quality of life, relationships, or other vital metrics. Rank order them by preference based on what you’d like or wouldn’t like given your values. Be attentive to the size of the payoff.
  3. Estimate the likelihood of each outcome unfolding. You may be tempted to use common language to express probabilities – e.g., almost certain, probable, likely, good chance, possible, toss-up, unlikely, improbable, doubtful, nearly impossible. If so, make sure you’ve defined what these terms means quantitatively, even if it’s just a range of values. This exercise is crucial if you are working with others as their interpretations may differ widely from yours!
  4. Assess the relatively likelihood of outcomes based on what you like and don’t like for the option under consideration. Does the upside outweigh the risks?
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 for other options under consideration.
  6. Compare the options to one another.

With its focus on preferences, payoffs, and probabilities, this discipline encourages decision makers to think carefully about the range of options and all the things that might go right or wrong on the journey from choice to outcome. It also shines a spotlight on information – what you know, what you might be able to find out, and what will likely remain uncertain. It may challenge you to think: Would I be shocked if things turned out a far cry from what I might expect? If so, why might I be wrong in my assumption set? What information might I discover that would change my perspective? She admonishes us to be on the look-out for corrective information, and be open-minded to it.

Even with the best of intentions, we’re subject to bias when in the midst of our decision-making process. For instance:

  • Our confirmation bias leads us to filter in information that affirms our beliefs and filter out that which challenges them.
  • Overconfidence makes us prone to accepting what we believe without challenging it.
  • Availability bias causes us to give greater weight to our direct experience than the statistically significant evidence from a broad cross-section of individuals.
  • Recency bias makes us believe that our recent experience is likely to recur.
  • The illusion of control causes us to give insufficient weight to external factors and luck in our probability calculus.

In short, we get trapped inside our own views and neglect the wealth of insights made possible by an external perspective. The outside perspective sees the scales more clearly. It can identify blind spots, information gaps, wishful thinking, and the like, and illumine the path to improvement. We lend balance to our inside view by:

  • Educating ourselves on what is true for most people when facing this situation. Find survey data and get success rates for various endeavors. That data informs the assessment of the difficulty and opens our eyes to potential obstacles.
  • Actively seeking out what others know without contaminating their assessments with our analyses and opinions. Make sure that they have a reasonable basis from which to offer information or render opinions. Go outside the echo chamber and listen to those with opposing views.

A final suggestion for improving decision quality would be to conduct a pre-mortem. imagine the day after a decision has come to fruition with an outcome that didn’t measure up. List up to 5 reasons why things failed. Then consider what you might be able to do now to remove obstacles, course correct midstream, or hedge bets to lessen the impact of an unhappy ending. Contemplating bad outcomes helps inoculate from an adverse reaction that could trigger an emotional (bad) decision. On the flip side, imagine a great outcome and list up to 5 things that contributed to success. That assessment emphasizes critical success factors necessary to reach the desired end game.


It has been nearly 6 years since I first stumbled upon the term epigenetics. It’s the study of how our behaviors and environment regulate the way our genes work. One might refer to it as the science of living DNA. Thanks to a wonderful lecture series by Dr. Charlotte Mykura entitled Epigenetics: How Environment Changes Your Biology, I have a little better understanding of how this mechanism works.

In my rudimentary understanding of DNA, I pictured pristine, straight-edged, double-helix strand with a left twist. When called into action, I assumed that it “unzipped” to allow its code to be copied and then “zipped back up” to its previous state. The latter is mostly right, the former not so much.

DNA with attachmentsAcetyl groups, methyl groups, and proteins of all shapes and sizes bind to DNA causing portions of it to remain open and active, and other portions to lie dormant. Scientists refer to DNA with all its molecular attachments as chromatin. Euchromatin refers to open DNA that expresses its genome; heterochromatin refers to tightly packed, “sleeping” DNA. Far from the neat and tidy lines of genetic code, DNA contorts into wild 3-D shapes, takes on and shakes off attachments, and wiggles around in response to neighboring organic material.

In addition to the influence of molecular attachment, DNA expression can be affected by what happens outside the cell’s nucleus. DNA relies upon messenger RNA to carry information its codes to ribosomes for protein synthesis. MicroRNA in the cytoplasm can break down mRNA such that no protein gets made. Or, another RNA string might get spliced into the mRNA strand and alter expression of the gene. And PRotein infectIONs (PRIONs) within the cytoplasm can manipulate proteins after they’ve been formed, generally not for the better. (Apparently, this mechanism was at play with the outbreak of Mad Cow disease.)

In short, if you think your genes determine the life you will lead – for better or worse – think again. While a subset of your encoding remains active and stable, a whole lot can be influenced epigenetically by your environment.

Here are some examples of how epigenetics plays out in our bodies:

  • While every cell in the body contains the same DNA, epigenetics impacts how the cell behaves based on its location. For example, if it’s in the gut, it will use its programming to digest food, produce vitamins, support healthy immune function, and eliminate waste. It knows not to grow hair, teeth, or toenails in that environment even though it has access to the codes to do so!
  • The brain is a hot bed of epigenetic activity. It’s the mechanism through which the brain learns and grows, building complex neural networks and pairing back connections that are rarely used.
  • Our immune system also provides a stellar example of epigenetics in action. It has the ability to adapt dynamically to new pathogens and develop targeted responses that will eliminate them.
  • The fetal environment exerts a profound influence on a child’s epigenetic structure. If the mother starved during pregnancy, the child’s DNA will have far less DNA methylation, causing excess conservation of fat and elevated risk of diabetes type 2. If the mother produced high levels of cortisol during pregnancy due to stress, the child will develop more cortisol receptors and be predisposed to anxiety, schizophrenia, and/or autism.
  • Persons living with obesity have a different epigenetic signature in their guts than thin persons, making it more difficult to process fat and sugar. Moreover, when fat accumulates in the blood vessels, it influences the surrounding cells epigenetically, making them proinflammatory.
  • Food is the largest environmental impact on epigenetics. When we eat healthfully, we promote a healthy expression of our genes. While an obese person may face a steep climb to reverse years of poor dietary choices, the body will respond favorably in time.
  • Exercise is good for epigenetic health. DNA methylation has been correlated with muscle loss and frailty in older adults. Methylation shows signs of removal after just 20 minutes of cardio exercise. Moreover, biochemical signaling molecules released during exercise travel to the heart and lungs, exerting a positive epigenetic effect that decreases the risk of disease.
  • Pollution damages DNA epigenetically by overwhelming our natural cellular repair mechanisms and disrupting DNA methylation. Both lead to increased risk of cancer. While it may be difficult to avoid external pollutants, we can certainly minimize our exposure by not ingesting contaminants. (In other words, don’t smoke!)
  • We experience epigenetic drift as we age. Formerly tight coils of DNA can become open and floppy; formerly active DNA can curl up and go to sleep. Both influences can lead to random gene expression with adverse health consequences.

I really found the lecture series fascinating and would encourage those who have Wondrium subscriptions to view it. I am truly amazed by the marvel of the human body and how it works. I’m also encouraged to sustain healthy habits to encourage forwarding epigenetic expression.

Thoughts We Think Per Day

neural network

At a talk I attended recently, the speaker posited that the average person thinks tens of thousands of thoughts per day of which 95% are the same as the day before. My experience aligns somewhat with incessant repetition, but I took issue with a mind that conjured up a new thought every couple of seconds. Moreover, I wondered: How in the world would someone measure the frequency and content of thoughts scientifically? Time for a little research…

Early attempts at thought measurement relied upon self-reporting. Presumably, subjects kept a tally every time they found themselves thinking a thought and marked whether it was a novel one. Of course, the very act of interrupting a thought for reporting purposes would disrupt the brain’s natural processes. And I suspect that such reports were not entirely reliable.

With the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, scientists gained the ability to detect patterns in brain network activation and tie them to discrete objects (e.g., faces, houses). Not surprisingly, it takes a lot of work and a chunk of change to map the thought pattern for each object. Given the mind-boggling number of objects in the world, the current database proves woefully incomplete to track what people think. Moreover, the complexity of mapping thought patterns ratchets up considerably given that each thought also reflects the subject’s relationship to the object – e.g., perceiving, believing, fearing, imagining, remembering. So, I don’t place much weight in aforementioned speaker’s characterization of our daily thought patterns.

I managed to stumble upon a report by Dr. Jordan Poppenk and his research assistant Julie Tseng from the Centre for Neuroscience Studies in Queen’s University, Kingston, ON opted that gave me something solid on which to stand. They eschewed concerns about what people think in favor of determining the frequency with which subjects transition from one thought to the next (a.k.a. their mentation rate). It turns out that this inquiry can be measured reliably using fMRI data. They published their methodology and findings in the July 2020 issue of Nature Communications.1 Though I found the text rather dense scientifically, I’ll try to explain in simple terms what I think it says.

Poppenk and Tseng’s scientific progenitors took fMRI scans on subjects as they watched well-crafted movies. Participants displayed similar brain activity patterns in widespread low- and higher-order areas. These studies showed how movies exert control over our cognitive states and identified the associated neural circuitry. Poppenk and Tseng suggested that a similar mechanism existed for spontaneous thought. They reasoned that both activities involve a shift in focal point during which new information integrates with existing representations to move a storyline forward.

They analyzed fMRI data from 184 participants taken while watching a movie and at rest. They used the latter to distinguish random fragments of neural activity from contiguous, worm-like segments that arose in response to an attractor (or focal point) that stabilized neural network configurations. Having developed the means to map and measure thought worms2 for minds at rest, they applied their methodology to the fMRI data associated with movie watching. They verified that their worm-like constructs held psychological relevance. They also validated the hypothesis that a mind at rest displays the same thought architecture as a mind in a stimulus-controlled environment. As they stated in scientific jargon:

“Based on the centrality of semantics to thought, we argue these transitions serve as general, implicit neurobiological markers of new thoughts, and that their frequency, which is stable across contexts, approximates participants’ mentation rate.”

Poppenk and Tseng measured the average median thought transition rate across movie-viewing and at rest to be 6.5 transitions per minute. Assuming an 8-hour sleep cycle, that corelates to over six thousand thoughts per day. They also detected higher mentation rates for persons associated with neuroses. That finding is consistent with such individual’s susceptibility to distraction and excessive self-generated thoughts.

While advancing knowledge of the erstwhile mysterious brain, Poppenk and Tseng advocate for additional research to explore and build on their findings. Beyond satisfying intellectual curiosity, their research could lead to early detection of neurosis, schizophrenia, ADHD, etc. and open up the possibility of accelerated life-enhancing intervention.


1 See article entitled “Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism” at
2 Thought worms are adjacent points in a simplified representation of activity patterns in the brain. They reflect consecutive moments when a person focuses on an idea.

Sustaining Happiness

“If you want to reap long term emotional benefits from a happiness activity, you need to devote persistent effort.” – Sonia Lyubomirsky

As I hearken back to the original post in this series, I land once again on the finding that 40% of our happiness level can be attributed to our intentional activity. Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky provided 12 evidence-based strategies with which to invest intentional effort in The How of Happiness. She closes the book with five overarching practices to sustain happiness.

sustaining happinessArchitect positive emotion. Create lots of happy moments that engender feelings of joy, delight, contentment, serenity, curiosity, interest, vitality, enthusiasm, and satisfaction. Positive emotions beget positive thinking. They encourage us to be more productive, active, healthy, friendly, helpful, resilient, and creative. They help us achieve our goals and set new ones.

The book presents an interesting hypothetical of a windfall gain of a large sum of money. Rather than blow it all on a fancy car or new home, the happier person spends it gradually over time on lots of joyful experiences. One big jolt of happiness wears off quickly. A series of happy moments creates an upward spiral of positivity.

Experiment with timing and variety. Even the best laid happiness plans can succumb to hedonic adaptation. We get used to them and fail to get the “happiness hit” that we’d like. Try spacing activities out and varying their content to keep the experience fresh. Avoid making them rote or treating them like chores. For example, count blessings once a week rather than every day. Or designate a “do-gooder” day and concentrate giving and volunteerism on that day. Shake things up periodically and see what works best.

Get social support. As Lyubomirsky says: “Any change in behavior that requires effort and dedication will be easier if spouse, children, friends, parents, siblings, coworkers are supportive.” They can work with you to remove impediments to your behavioral change. They can provide tangible support, comfort, and motivation. And they can offer feedback and encouragement. Lyubomirsky cites a 4-month weight loss experiment with two groups. Of the folks who dieted with friends, 95% completed the program and 66% kept the weight off for 6 months. Of the folks who dieted alone, 76% completed the program and only 24% kept the weight off for 6 months.

Make a commitment. A happiness program takes time and sustained effort. Participants must resolve to do it, learn the tools of the trade, do the work, and maintain a constancy of effort long term. The desire for change must be deep-seated; intrinsic motivation makes all the difference.

Make happiness a habit. I’ve read quite a few books on the power of habit. They’re forged when we inculcate a behavior in response to a specific cue or circumstance in anticipation of a reward. While it takes repetition to groove a habit, the behavior eventually becomes automatic in response to the trigger. We don’t think or decide; we just do. As such, we’d do well to go on autopilot with our versions of Lyubomirsky’s happiness strategies. We’ll reap the greatest amount of joy for the least amount of effort.