Category Archives: Psychology

The Love Lab

happily marriedThe Good Life Project podcast recently featured a segment on marriage with Drs. John and Judy Gottman, PhDs. They’ve spent decades unearthing the “science of relationship” by placing thousands of couples under a proverbial microscope and seeing how they interact with one another and how they respond physiologically to one another. Dubbed The Love Lab, their research center has been in operation since 1986 at the University of Washington. Its sophisticated mathematical models can predict reliably the future course of a relationship based on observed behavior. You can read all about it in John Gottman’s book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail… And How You Can Make Yours Last.

Love and respect provide the foundation for every healthy marriage. Partners model these qualities by consistently serving up at least five times as many positive feelings toward the other as negative. These feelings include showing interest, expressing affection, being thoughtful, being appreciative, showing concern, demonstrating empathy, being accepting, joking around, and sharing joy.

Healthy marriages navigate conflict successfully. The Gottmans identified three models that work in stable marriages:

  • Validating: These partners choose their battles carefully and remain calm while listening attentively to one another’s perspectives. Each acknowledges that the other has made valid points and gives them due consideration. They see themselves as a team and look for middle ground on which they can both comfortably stand.
  • Volatile: These partners hear each other’s viewpoints in the heat of the argument. They don’t try to understand as much as persuade. They see themselves as equal, independent sorts who revel in the intensity. Their battles may be epic, but their make-ups are even grander. They live and love passionately.
  • Avoidant: These partners are conflict minimizers who dodge and hedge to avoid confrontation. They value individuality in union and do not attempt to persuade or compromise. They agree to disagree and trust that their bond is strong enough to overcome stand-offs. They don’t press the issue under the assumption that it’s not worth working through.

In addition to embodying a functional style for disagreement, healthy couples use “repair mechanisms” in the midst of disagreements to ensure that they do not spiral out of control. They include:

  • Reminding one another of their mutual love and respect
  • Defining or commenting on the process and where things currently stand
  • Taking note of when the discussion goes off topic
  • Requesting space to finish one’s thought
  • Letting the other know when a comment or attitude has caused pain

Gottman defined unhealthy styles of disagreement as either Hostile/Engaged or Hostile/Detached. In the former, the partners argue hotly, often using insults, name-calling, put-downs, and sarcasm. They don’t communicate with the intent to forge understanding. Hostile/Detached approach conflict by being emotionally uninvolved.

Unhealthy marriages manifest toxic negativity that proves corrosive over time. The Gottmans deem these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Criticism constitutes attacking the other party’s character or personality as a means of assigning blame. For example: “You didn’t take the garbage out again. You are so lazy.” Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to lodge a complaint when one’s partner chronically foregoes a previously negotiated responsibility. However, the complaint shouldn’t mutate beyond the specific behavior into a global attack. A complaint is specific and begins with an “I” statement rather than a “You” statement. It also provides a way for the person on the receiving end to be a hero. Revised example: “I am frustrated about the garbage situation. It would take a load off my mind if you could remember to take care of it every Monday night.”

Defensiveness occurs when one feels victimized or attacked and chooses to take up a defensive position. It can manifest as denying responsibility, making excuses, lodging a cross-complaint, yes-butting, whining, and displaying agitated or closed body language (crossing arms and/or legs, shifting weight from one foot to the other, grimacing).

Contempt suggests an intention to insult and psychologically abuse one’s partner. It comes from a place of moral superiority and manifests in insults, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, and body language (curled lip, rolled eyes). It elicits shame in the other person and weakens their immune system. Contempt may be the most damaging of the Four Horsemen.

Stonewalling provides no communication, no eye contact, no response. It conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness. While suggesting detachment, physiological measurements suggest that the stonewaller experiences a heightened state of arousal (“fight or flight”) and may use it to combat the feeling of being overwhelmed.

When these four behaviors take root, the relationship may experience a downward spiraling of discord. Fortunately, there are strategies that all couples can leverage to strengthen their partnerships and avoid suffering.

  • Schedule discussion of contentious topics when both have the time and energy to address them with civility. Focus on one issue at a time; don’t try to process a backlog of issues all at once.
  • Structure disagreements – e.g., stay on topic, hear one another out, validate the other’s perspective by “walking in his or her shoes,” persuade, negotiate, and then resolve.
  • Communicate nondefensively. Choose a positive mindset toward your partner. Give voice to your thoughts with the intention of being heard and understood (without walls going up!) Be an engaged listener. Exhibit open and loving body language.
  • Stay calm. Keep breathing. Check your heart rate. Notice tension-inducing negative thoughts and replace them with positive, validating, soothing ones. Take time outs as needed to settle down.
  • Practice, practice, practice. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Keep honing behaviors that work until they become automatic.

While all of the foregoing insights came to fruition in the context of marriage, they apply equally well to family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Understanding Psychotherapy

psychotherapy

“I want to capture the process by which humans, struggling to evolve, push against their shells until they crack open.” – Lori Gottlieb

It’s rare that I pick up a health-related book and get so I can’t put it down until I reach the end. But Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone fit that bill.

I was introduced to the author via the podcast Go Ask Ali. As part of a series on relationships, host Ali Wentworth dedicated a few episodes to creating a better relationship with yourself. She’s a proponent of therapy for the simple reason that we can open up the possibly for substantive personal growth by just talking to a skilled professional. To that end, Ali’s guest,  psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, provided guidance about what to look for in a therapist, what to expect out of the relationship, how it can help, and why it matters to anyone seeking to create a better present and future for themselves.

Unfortunately, our culture stigmatizes psychotherapy. We consider those who seek out this level of support as being somehow weak, or not having their acts together. Because we fear being exposed for our less-than-perfect selves, we “armor up” and put on public faces to mask our struggles. That strategy may render us stuck in a mode where we’re constantly trying to change our pasts or control our futures. It may disconnect us from who we truly are. We need help to get unstuck. As Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Lori’s book takes the reader inside the therapeutic relationship through the aegis of four case studies as well as Lori’s direct experience of treatment. (Yep, therapists need therapists, too!) While drawing you in to each of the patient’s story, she provides commentary about how a skilled therapist deftly navigates the terrain to build trust, get to the heart of the individual’s challenges and pain points, and discern a healthy path forward. For the therapeutic relationship to bear fruit, the patient must have the ability to “accept feedback, tolerate discomfort, become aware of blind spots, and discover the impact of their histories and behaviors on themselves and others.” It’s a process that unfolds over time – when the patient is ready to “go there.”

Therapists don’t fix our problems. Lori tells us: “They ask light questions until something happens – internally or externally – that leads [patients] to do their own persuading.” Even when we gain the insights and discover a new way of being, we will not experience a perpetual state of bliss. Life will still bring challenge and heart ache. But as the Buddha said:

“Peace, it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. Peace comes from within.”

If you’ve ever considered talking with a therapist and want some sense for how that scenario plays out, this book would be a good starting point. It’s deeply personal, forthright, poignant, at times humorous, and and all-around good read.

Love Languages

As a marriage counselor, Gary Chapman has worked with scores of couples for whom the joy of partnership had faded and faced the looming prospect of separation. These folks did not lack concern for one another, but simply felt as though their emotional love tanks were perpetually dry. Through these encounters, Chapman discovered a fundamental truth: people speak different love languages. If we want our relationships to last, we need to identify – and learn to speak – the language that most resonates with our partners.

five love languagesChapman characterizes these emotional dialects in The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Mastery of a given dialect presumes the sincere intention of building others up and demonstrating commitment to their well-being. It is not to be used to manipulate behavior for personal gain.

Love Language #1 – Words of Affirmation – expresses appreciation for other’s good qualities or behaviors and demonstrates belief in their potential. It provides encouragement to pursue initiatives that we know to be deeply meaning to our partners without pressure to take action. It’s our vote of confidence. When making requests of our partners, we express our needs in a way that affirms our partners’ worth, abilities, and free exercise of choice. We give them the opportunity to do something meaningful for us, and acknowledge their contribution once completed. We also make a point of sharing our heartfelt appreciation for our partners with others. It fosters an aura of positivity that lifts up our partners in the retelling.

Love Language #2 – Quality Time – calls for giving our undivided attention to doing things with our partners that they enjoy. If the time spent focuses on quality conversation, we engage in sympathetic dialog where both parties share experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires in a friendly and open manner. We commit to really listening. If it’s a shared activity, we dive in wholeheartedly knowing that we’re creating a memory bank of shared experiences on which we can both draw in the future.

Love Language #3 – Gifts – provides a tangible expression that our partners know what lights us up and invested the time and energy to get it. It says: “I was thinking about you.” Unless this token of appreciation is wildly mismatched with the giver’s means, it usually isn’t about the amount spent. It’s the thought, intention, and effort that went behind it.

Love Language #4 – Acts of Service – entails doing things your partner would like you to do. These acts must be things that genuinely matter to one’s partner and given freely as an expression of love. They typically require some thought, planning, time, effort, and energy. They may entail examining – and abandoning – stereotypes about the roles that men and women have assumed historically in partnership.

Love Language #5 – Physical Touch – entails holding hands, kissing, embracing, caressing, and sexual intercourse. It may show up as highly charged moments of encounter or casual gestures that manifest in small ways throughout the day. For those for whom this is their love language, to touch their bodies is to touch their hearts. It’s a powerful communicator of love.

If we ignore our partner’s love language, it’s akin to ignoring the needs of a garden. If we don’t weed, water, and fertilize, the garden will die a slow death. Even if our partner’s love language does not come naturally to us, make the choice to learn it anyway. It’s an even more profound expression of love.

How do we identify our love language? The author suggests contemplating answers to the following questions:

  • In what way do your regularly express your love to your spouse? (You may be doing for them what you hope they’ll do for you.)
  • What does your spouse do or fail to do that hurts you most deeply? (You may equate that action – or inaction – as a love barometer.)
  • What have you most often requested of your spouse? (You may be giving your spouse hints about what makes you feel loved.)

Finally, don’t expect your partner to have E.S.P. (If you find it challenging to identify your love language, imagine how challenging it would be for your partner!) Do the work to figure out what fills your emotional tank, and then have a forwarding dialog with your partner about it.

As the Beatles famously sang, “All we need is love.”

Primal Instincts

Any inquiry into the workings of the human mind must take into account thousands of years of evolutionary development. This trajectory accounts for the acquisition of skills and knowledge as well as the shaping of our moral impulses. Robert Wright provides his views on the latter in his book The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life.

Charles Darwin revolutionized scientific thought with the publication of his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. He argued that organisms most skilled in adapting to their environments realize the greatest advantage in propagating their genes to succeeding generations. Over time, this advantage translates into fundamental changes in the nature of the populace as a whole; the species evolves. Darwin dubbed this phenomenon natural selection.

evolution

Wright argues that natural selection shapes human sensibilities at a subconscious level. The primal urge to pass along our genetic material governs our beliefs, drives our behaviors, and undergirds the social order. As with biology, that which proves most successful in generating progeny persists. That’s Social Darwinism.

Take our mating rituals. A substantial difference in male and female reproductive capabilities creates a delicate negotiation between the sexes. A man’s prodigious capacity to share genetic material compels him to pursue unrestrained copulation. A woman’s limited reproductive capacity argues for selecting mates carefully based on their capacity to make parental investments. Moreover, she wants her offspring to enjoy the benefits of paternal care uncompromised by the products of outside dalliances. Dowries may have been institutionalized to compensate males for narrowing the field of opportunity. Chastity laws most certainly gave males a measure of surety that the offspring to whom they pledged their time and resources perpetuated their genes.

Social Darwinism extends beyond one’s comportment to include preferential treatment for those in our gene pool – i.e., kin selection. It compels us to bestow more kindness, compassion, and generosity on those with whom we are in league to ensure the survival of our lineage. We may even be willing to make sacrifices in their behalf so long as the degree of relatedness overrides the cost of foregone procreative opportunities.

While we favor kin, visible benevolent acts raise our social capital. It sends a message that we are worthy of relationship and establishes a bond of gratitude with the people we serve. Those who maximize friendships and minimize antagonism through reciprocal altruism hold a distinct evolutionary advantage. By contrast, exploitation damages relationship, fosters grievances, and subjects us to public shaming, none of which benefit our procreative agenda.

Hierarchies always appear in groups; the collective ethos determines the “pecking order.” Those higher up on the social ladder have an evolutionary advantage over those beneath them. Traditionally, male hierarchies have been subject to change and challenge; female hierarchies have been more stable and cooperative. The desire for advancement leads to a cognitive bias. It enables us to see ourselves in a flattering light while having a keen sensitivity to other’s flaws. It also gives us the ability to render arguments forcefully without undue concern for the merits of our positions or the presence of inconvenient truths. Winning promotes status and gives our genes a leg up.

Social Darwinism argues that morality takes shape within a context of primal impulses that compel us to advance our genetic material to subsequent generations. Natural selection drives us to be prolific, not virtuous, magnanimous, or happy. So, how does a civil order come into being?

Scientists developed computer simulation models to figure out which behavioral strategy proved most effective in proliferating one’s genes. Dog-Eat-Dog did not win out. Tit-For-Tat proved victorious – i.e., doing unto others as they’ve done unto you. Once established, a system of reciprocal altruism reinforces social cohesion in a way that builds an ever-expanding web of trust. It creates a stable environment for procreative success. However, Tit-For-Tat falters in the context of substantive migration in and out of the group. It also proves ineffective when dropped into a context rife with deceit.

Given all of the foregoing, it’s not surprising that the world’s great religions seek to tame humanity’s animal appetites by challenging their adherents to live in accordance with high moral ideals and surround themselves with the faithful. It creates a peaceable kingdom and confers a genetic advantage. This advantage gains momentum with expansion in the collective of followers.

I realize that there may be a thin line connecting Social Darwinism to this site’s theme of healthy living. Twenty-first century humanity is a far cry from the hunter-gatherer societies that characterized the overwhelming majority of our time on earth. Yet, I think there’s merit in being aware of the extent to which primal instincts play a role in our cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, and gender biases. We can see their underpinnings and call upon ourselves to rise above them. We can also appreciate the merits of reciprocal altruism and adopt the practice in our daily lives.

How to Beat the Do-Nothing Blues

today's plan

As COVID continues to threaten our health physically, the call for quarantining and social distancing may prove equally detrimental to our mental health. Even perennial optimists may find it difficult to put on a happy face day-after-day, week-after-week, and month-after-month in this altered reality.

For good measure, I decided to read David Burns’ Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and see what he had to say about warding off the blues. (And he has a lot to say!) The book is chalk full of content about the nature of depression, the tools that can be used to combat it, and the clinical research that demonstrates the effectiveness of Burns’ methodologies. My Achilles Heels are “do-nothing-ism” and its twin, procrastination.

I’ll confess that I’ve done a whole lot more binge-watching on television that I can ever remember in my entire lifetime. Of course, I’ve never logged so many hours in Home Sweet Home as I have over the past 9+ months. Yet even with a full complement of high quality viewing options, I find that I feel rather low when I’ve spent too much time in front of the tube… even when pursuing other activities concurrently. It makes me feel like I’m stagnating, and that’s not a concession to COVID that I’m willing to make.

Burns suggest that I create a Daily Activity Schedule with the following elements:

  • A prospective hour-by-hour plan for how I’m going to spend my day
  • A notation as to whether each activity relates to mastery (M) or pleasure (P)
  • A rating (1-5) of the difficulty of the activity
  • A retrospective look at what I actually did

A journal kept faithfully will help me become aware of how I spend my time (which may prove startling!) It provides the opportunity to balance work, personal development, play, and connection. It creates structure to motivate action in the present and provide opportunities for continuous improvement in the future. And Burns claims that laying out and adhering to plan lifts mood.

To address procrastination, Burns asks that I list all of the tasks that I’ve been putting off. He suggests that I give them ratings of how difficult I think it will be to complete each one, and how satisfying it will feel to cross them off the list. Once they’ve been added to my Daily Activity Schedule and completed, he then recommends returning to those predictions to see how the actual experience compared to the predicted one. I may find that I’ve overestimated the level of difficulty and underestimated the reward (or relief!) Again, his research shows that productivity and self-confidence tend to go up when following this simple program.

For larger “to dos,” Burns advocates the tried-and-true method of breaking larger projects into manageable tasks. This strategy combats the tendency to feel overwhelmed and provides milestones at which one can celebrate victories and note progress toward goals. For peace of mind, it may even make sense to simply say, “I’m going to work on this task for X hours today and then put it away.” It alleviates the pressure to make sweeping progress and lets the mind and body know when it’s time for a break. (My husband used this approach to good effect when we moved a dump truck full of fresh fir bark from the driveway to the back yard. He never despaired of how much was left to do; he simply focused on ending each day’s activity with a “cold one” and a good meal.)

While I’m generally not big on using these types of tools, I’m willing to give them a go as I start the new year. I’m quite likely to spend several more months in quarantine, and I’d really like to have something to show for it other than heightened familiarity with Netflix and Amazon Prime series. I’ve got a pretty good start on my “procrastination list,” and several burgeoning file folders with paperwork that requires review and/or action. Let’s see how much momentum I can build for plowing through it all. Of course, I may decide that some things just aren’t worth my time and attention… and that’s OK!

Finding Happiness

According to adherents of Buddhism and stoicism, pursuing external goods or trying to make the world conform to your wishes amounts to striving after wind. Happiness can be found only by breaking such attachments and cultivating an attitude of acceptance. Dr. Jonathan Haidt begs to differ. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Haidt builds a compelling case for a different psychological equation:

formula for happiness

The set point refers to one’s genetic predisposition toward optimism or pessimism. Optimists have ready access to positive emotional states (comfort, warmth, contentment, pleasure) and find silver linings in dark clouds. Pessimists expect poor outcomes and experience a higher incidence of anxiety and depression. Though you may not have come out on the winning side of the cortical lottery, studies have shown that said genes only confer a modest (and controllable) influence on one’s mental state. You can counteract your set point! (Read Dr. David D. Burns’ book Feeling Good for more information.)

Our external conditions have a profound impact on our happiness. A noisy and/or unsafe neighborhood can make us feel chronically irritable or anxious. A nasty daily commute can start and end our workdays in an agitated state. Unhealthy relationships can engender chronic stress. And we don’t do well in environments where we lack control or feel shame. By contrast, we generally experience contentment when our surroundings are peaceful, our daily routines are devoid of chronic stress, and our lives are filled with strong personal and professional relationships. Conditions are real, and these externals matter!

Voluntary activities provide opportunities to bolster happiness. Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, PhD argues that people are happiest when they experience a state of “flow.” This state is characterized by total immersion in a task that piques our interest, provides challenges that align with our abilities, fully engages our attention, and provides benchmarks to measure progress. Such endeavors prove captivating in the moment and gratifying in the aftermath. Likewise, we find pleasure when we forge friendships or build community with companionable folks. Strong social relationships make for strong immune systems, faster recovery from illness or surgery, reduced risk of depression, and longer, healthier lives.

NOTE: Haidt makes the point that activities connect us with people while objects often separate us. Spend money on group festivities and you feel enriched by the experience. Spend money on expensive possessions to impress others and you feel impoverished. Word to the wise: Stop conspicuous consumption!

Research also suggests that cultivating virtues through daily practice and repetition leads to happier lives. Benjamin Franklin took this advice to heart and created a weekly checklist to provide focus for his endeavors and hold himself accountable. (Click here to download his list.) According to Haidt, virtues that top most lists today include:

  • WISDOM: curiosity, love of learning, judgment, ingenuity, emotional intelligence, perspective
  • COURAGE: valor, perseverance, integrity
  • HUMANITY: kindness, compassion, love
  • JUSTICE: good citizenship, fairness, leadership
  • TEMPERENCE: self-control, prudence, humility
  • TRANSCENDENCE: appreciation for beauty and excellence, gratitude, spirituality, forgiveness, humor, zest

Haidt conceives the virtues as “excellences that build character strengths.” When practiced faithfully, they become engrained habits that lead us to right speech, right action, and right livelihood. We become persons who are more effective in our personal and professional lives and more appealing to others.

At the end of the day, Haidt argues that happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. It is clearly within our purview to control many of the conditions, activities, and habits that give rise to happiness. While attachments may bring pain, they can also be the source of great joy. As he says: “Through passionate attachment to people, goals, and pleasures, life can be lived to its fullest.”

Is Happiness All in Your Mind?

“Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and, on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.” ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

happy facePersonal development coaches often tell us that we are in the driver’s seat when architecting lives full of purpose, fulfillment, and pleasure. If we control our perceptions of reality, we control the world in which we live. Armed with a rosy outlook and confidence in our ability to co-create the future, we can point our ships toward fruitful destinations and take full advantage of the opportunities that present themselves along the way. At best, we find this perspective empowering and use it to enrich our lives and those around us. At worst, we berate ourselves when we’re unable to find or capitalize on our personal mojo.

In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Dr. Jonathan Haidt sheds light on this mind-over-matter psychology with the benefit of scientific research.

Our brain structure reflects millions of years of evolutionary development. While we have an oversized neocortex relative to other mammals, we retain ancient structures – i.e., the limbic system or “lizard brain” – geared toward ensuring our survival. It responds to stimuli in ways that that call for feeding, fornication, fight, flight, and freezing. It also sets off a gaggle of other bodily responses with the intent of protecting our lives and/or propagating our species. When the limbic system runs the show, it takes a good deal of effort for the neocortex to bring our behaviors into awareness and exercise control.

As I discussed in Our Guts Have Minds of Their Own, the human body also comes equipped with a “second brain” (dubbed the enteric nervous system) with 100 million nerve cells to manage our gut’s biochemical activities. Haidt suggests that this lower body intelligence may do more than simply digest food and manage immune function. It may respond to sensory input in a way that drives insights, decision-making, and behavior beyond our conscious control. One might say that there’s thought behind our gut feel.

As with the enteric nervous system, our brains attend to most of its daily functions without the benefit of conscious thought. The autonomic nervous system regulates bodily functions, such as the heart rate, respiratory rate, pupillary response, skeletal muscular activity, and sexual arousal. We’re also creatures of habit. When learning a new routine, our brain activity remains high from start to finish. Once a routine has been mastered, brain activity elevates only when encountering the initial cue and when reaping a reward for a completed task. We’re on autopilot between points A and B. (That’s why it’s so hard to break engrained habits!)

Finally, our brains are highly adept at rationalization. As Dr. Baba Shiv and others have demonstrated, we make decisions emotionally and then filter all subsequent facts through a lens that supports our previously rendered judgment. Feelings come first; reasons are invented on the fly. Again, it’s how we evolved to survive. Per Haidt, this internal “wiring” explains why it is so difficult to win an argument. Morality is like beauty; it lives within the eye of the beholder. Once entrenched, it’s hard to dislodge and even harder to persuade others of its merits.

So, what does all this have to do with happiness? It tells us that our consciousness is not as powerful as we might have thought. Haidt likens it a rider atop an elephant, where the elephant represents all the parts of the brain over which we have little or no control. The rider has the ability to influence the elephant’s path, but only if the elephant is motivated to move in that direction.

If life is indeed shaped by how we perceive it, Haidt reminds us that such perceptions happen quickly and (largely) unconsciously. Furthermore, our survivalist nature causes us to give far greater weight to perceived threats, setbacks, and violations than it does to opportunities and possibilities. It takes effort and training to overcome this negative bias. We need to work with our “elephant brain” to move it in forwarding directions. Haidt advocates three methodologies:

  • Meditation to focus attention non-analytically and break attachments, thereby taming and calming the elephant
  • Cognitive therapy to catch negative thoughts, name the distortions, find alternate patterns of thinking, and change behaviors accordingly
  • Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to ease symptoms of moderate to severe depression, as needed

In my next post, I’ll dive into Haidt’s formula for happiness and explore evolutionary responses to achieve it.

When Adversity is Your Friend

My last post took a brief look at three untruths that authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff claim diminish young people’s ability to prepare effectively for the real world. I’ve had occasion to think about one such untruth this week in an on-line class – i.e., what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

sadnessMy instructor asked the group to reflect upon their relationship to failure. He asked: In what ways have you failed in the past? How did you experience it? To what lengths did you go to avoid it? I had no trouble coming up with examples:

  • Romantic relationships that had their moments but then went south (some due to a serious lack of judgment on my part!)
  • Friendships that hit bumps in the road and did not recover
  • Group affiliations that either lost cohesion or left me feeling like the odd-woman-out
  • Promising career trajectories that never reached their potential
  • Would-be avocations for which I simply lacked the talent, drive, or interest

I could go on and on… I’ve had some heart-breaking doozies in there, but I’ve never felt undone by any of them. Quite the contrary – I think they’ve made me a better person. Dr. Jonathan Haidt refers to this phenomenon as the “adversity hypothesis.” It says that people need adversity, setbacks, and even a modest amount of trauma to reach their highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development. Of course, he’s not talking about experiences that would induce Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) or chronic stress. Rather, challenges, failures, and dashed expectations can have healthy outcomes. Here’s why…

Adversity reveals hidden abilities that change one’s self-concept. We find that we are stronger than we might have realized and have access to coping mechanisms that can help us move forward. We can handle the upheaval and are less likely to become anxious the next time a challenge presents itself.

Adversity strengthens relationships and helps us “separate the wheat from the chaff” in our social circles. We feel love and gratitude toward those who were there for us during the crisis. We recognize that these relationships are the real treasures in our lives. We give less emotional weight to the relatively insignificant matters that temporarily disrupt our lives.

Adversity helps us put on the brakes and take stock of what we’re doing with our lives. We get to ask ourselves: Is this really how I want to spend my time? Am I working toward the right set of goals? Are my values aligned with the people and organizations that currently play central roles in my life? Should I throttle back on my activities and spend more time “being” instead of “doing”?

Adversity can be a great teacher if we take the opportunity to draw lessons from it. I can’t think of any past challenge from which I didn’t learn something about myself, my values, my choices, my environment, and my relationships that proved instrumental for making positive change. Admittedly, some of the insights took time to manifest, and some of the adjustments were painful to put into effect. But I’ve learned to identify and appreciate the upsides of a downer experience.

Haidt serves up a four-part recipe for surviving adversity: (i) Be an optimist. Train yourself to find the positive side of life. (ii) Build a strong support network. Sympathetic friends can be healing balms for life’s wounds. (iii) Have faith. Let it be a source of strength and a guidepost for your response to adversity. (iv) Write about the trauma with the intent of making sense of it. Lessons learned can take the sting out of unfortunate circumstances, ward off future episodes, and provide the impetus for course corrections on life’s journey.

Three Great Untruths

Starting in 2013, Professor Jonathan Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff took note of disturbing trends among college students. They witnessed tendencies to exaggerate danger, use binary thinking (e.g., right vs. wrong, us vs. them), and amplify emotional responses. These cognitive patterns manifested in:

  • A rise in political polarization and cross-party animosity, leading students to retreat into self-confirming bubbles
  • Elevated anxiety and depression while fixating on negative feedback, catastrophizing, and experiencing a sense of threat to their well-being
  • A belief that challenge of any nature inculcates weakness, not strength
  • Loss of risk taking in which there is a possibility of failure
  • Excessive parental supervision alongside a growth in campus bureaucracy

These patterns create an environment that Haidt and Lukianoff believe render young adults less able to deal with the world that they’ll enter upon graduation. They present their analysis and remedies in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. They take aim three great untruths with which this generation has been raised.

Untruth #1: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. This distortion imparts a sense of fragility to its adherents. They fail to view challenges as a means to gain strength, competency, and confidence. In the extreme, they consider ideas that do not align with their worldview threatening and render them easily hurt. When this dynamic overtakes a university setting, the authors argue that it fails to teach students the essential skills of critical thinking and civil disagreement.

This untruth flies in the face of human biology. We build strength by challenging our skeletomuscular frame to lift increasingly heavy loads. Our immune systems elevate their ability to stave off disease by responding to viral loads and developing antibodies to address them. We expand our neural networks by learning new things that stretch our capacity to think critically. And we develop emotional intelligence by exercising mastery over our emotions, believing ourselves capable of meeting challenges, and managing relationships effectively. In short, when we shrink from trials and tribulations, we atrophy… and that’s not healthy.

Untruth #2: Always trust your feelings. This belief deems feelings reliable barometers of truth. While compelling, thoughts and feelings can distort reality when deprived of reliable evidence. Common distortions include mind reading, fortune telling, catastrophizing, labeling (prejudging), discounting positives and overemphasizing negatives, overgeneralizing, dichotomous thinking, personalizing, blaming, comparing unfairly, should-ing, etc.

Ancient wisdom tells us that nothing brings misery unless you think it; nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) leverages this tradition by helping patients break the disempowering feedback loop between negative beliefs and negative emotions. It teaches folks to examine their beliefs and focus on contra evidence. It distinguishes between intent and impact, and promotes polite and respectful interactions.

Untruth #3: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. This tenet establishes “us” and “them,” and invites us to ignore, disrespect, and/or dehumanize “them.” It preys upon an innate wiring for tribalism that “binds and blinds.” It draws upon a deep well of fear and protectionism that leads us to believe that our very survival is at stake. It invites us to display some of our worst behaviors and feel righteous about doing them.

This untruth plays out in sharp relief in our daily headlines; it is tearing us apart as a nation. We need to recognize the underpinnings of these sensibilities and the forces that enflame them. We need to resist their influence. The remedy is simple: Lift up our common humanity and shared interests. Engage in civil dialog with an open mind. Learn to be tolerant of different worldviews and find ways to coexist peaceably.

I will leave it to interested readers to explore the full exposé and note the extent to which the collegiate experience resonates with society at large. At the end of the day, I found Haidt and Lukianoff’s core thesis compelling:

“Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your goals if you… seek out challenges, free yourself from cognitive distortions, and take a generous view of other people.”

Watch Your Mouth!

I grew up in a household with zero tolerance for profanity. Dad may have used colorful language away from home, but it wasn’t countenanced within earshot of Mom. Of course, I still managed to add these terms to my vocabulary and have been known to use them from time to time. But I kept a lid on them in my mother’s presence to her dying day.

I just finished reading Dr. Benjamin K. Bergen’s book entitled What the F?: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. Dr. Bergen teaches at UC San Diego and serves as the Director of its Language and Cognition Lab. He’s also the nephew of one of my brother’s closest high school friends.

watch your mouthThe book explores the cognitive and social science of swearing. Dr. Bergen tells us that profane word origins have their roots in religion (e.g., taking the Lord’s name in vain), sexual acts, other bodily functions, and insults/curses. Every culture has its own collective of taboo words that are deemed unsuited for polite company. Yet such words typically have synonyms and/or “sound alike” words which we feel free to use without reproach. Our “bad words” change over time. Some become so commonplace that they are no longer considered offensive. Erstwhile innocuous words can be transformed into something taboo. (I’ll forego the concrete examples and assume that you can use your imagination.)

Here are a few “fun facts” about the blue side of language.

Survey data suggests that Americans do not agree on what constitutes acceptable levels of swearing in common discourse, on the airwaves, or in other forms of media. We still regulate language usage via the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Yet even these bodies do not have well-documented guidelines to govern how ratings get assigned to content.

Arguments for restrictive use of language focus on a supposed link to aggressive or violent behavior. Dr. Bergen discusses attempts at proving this thesis scientifically and notes that a definitive correlation cannot be asserted. Likewise, some argue that we encourage lazy use of language by tolerating profanity in public forums. The evidence does not support that thesis either. In fact, it would appear that masters of profanity have above average language skills across the board.

However much we disagree on the use of profanity, body scans reveal that we all seem to know which words are inbounds versus out-of-bounds. When we swear, our pores tend to open up and increase sweating. We evince an emotional response when we see a swear word. We also use extra brain cycles to self-monitor should we run the risk of blurting out some colorful tidbit when we feel it would be inappropriate. Thank you pre-frontal cortex!

Of course, if you bang your finger with a hammer, stub your toe, or watch yourself careening into another car while sitting behind the wheel, you may experience a lapse in linguistic control. Spontaneous eruptions of 4-letter words frequently occur when we are highly agitated, frustrated, angry, or in pain. Scientists deem such usage healthy in that it relieves tension and facilitates rapid recovery. Brain scans suggest that the limbic system (a.k.a., our “lizard brain”) may be a repository for foul language.

As a correlate to the excited profane utterance, persons who suffer brain damage to the primary language centers of the brain often retain use of swear words. Such words are the most difficult for persons with Tourette’s syndrome to control. And folks who suffer the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease may continue to retain access to excited utterances that are reactive, impulsive, and spontaneous.

Slurs fall into a separate category from other swear words, taking their place atop the offensiveness leaderboard. They aren’t merely crass language forms that could be represented by more genteel ones; they are built to hurt. They are used to dehumanize members of a race, ethnic group, class, gender, or sexual orientation. They’re intended to elevate the “in group” and force the defamed group out. Exposure to slurs carries adverse psychological, social, and financial consequences. They should not be used. Period.

I’ve been party to conversations where acquaintances attempt to defend their use of slurs because: (a) their intentions were honorable, (b) they didn’t realize that a word ruffled feathers, (c) the word never used to be a problem in the past, and/or (d) folks shouldn’t be so sensitive. It’s easy to espouse such claims when speaking from the dominant group. And, yes, language use changes over time, and it takes some effort to stay on top of things. My suggestion: Thank whomever brought it to your attention and update your language filter for next time. Why be defensive when you can choose to be respectful and gracious?