Category Archives: Psychology

Let Habits Do the Heavy Lifting in Reaching Goals

let habits do the heavy liftingAs Dr. Wendy Wood tells us in Good Habits, Bad Habits, most of us set goals and intentions and then effortfully control our actions to attain them. Behavior control through self-control is not as effective as behavioral change through altering contexts.” Contexts provide cues that trigger habitual behavior. Rather than work against the contexts and cues that give rise to bad habits, use thoughtfulness and creativity to establish contexts that work in your favor.

Arrange your life to reliably, unfailingly cue your desired habits. Locations, people, time of day, and/or other actions trigger habits.

  • Set aside the same time every day for exercise. Better yet, make a date to exercise with a friend or sign up for a group class at the appointed hour.
  • Tie an activity that you really enjoy doing to a behavior that you want to become automatic. For example, give yourself permission to indulge in an hour of pleasure reading (or embarrassingly mindless TV) while working out on the treadmill. Restrict that indulgence to treadmill time. Make it something to which you look forward.
  • Swap a good habit for a bad one – e.g., make your midday snack a deliciously healthy protein shake instead of a bag of chips.

Set yourself up for success.

  • Get a pill box and set up a week’s worth of vitamins at the start of each week. Take vitamins with every meal.
  • Load up the refrigerator with heathy snacks – carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes – and keep the cupboards free of junk food.
  • Plan recipes for the week, make a shopping list, and make sure you have all the ingredients on hand for meal preparation. To save time and energy, create “set lists” and rotate among them. (Most of us tend to operate off the same basic meal plan.)
  • Pack a lunch for work. It’ll ward off temptation and save you money.
  • Surround yourself with people who share your goals and stand ready to cheer you on. Tap into their wellspring of ideas to adjust your patterns and stay the course.

Leverage friction.

  • Use cash instead of credit or debit cards to elevate consciousness about every dollar you spend. When out of cash, don’t make any more purchases.
  • Remove temptations from the house and workplace. Make it really inconvenient to succumb.
  • Move the TV to a room that is as far away from the kitchen as possible. Have crosswords, sudokus, jumbles, etc. available for distraction when bored.

Break bad habits by getting out of ruts.

  • Take a walk with a friend or partner after work rather than immediately veg in front of the TV. Use stimulating conversation to unwind.
  • Turn off all screens 1-2 hours before bedtime and read a book, take a soothing bath, meditate, or the like. Don’t disrupt a good night’s sleep by binge watching your show d’jour. It’ll be there tomorrow!

It may take a little effort initially, but once you consistently repeat behaviors in response to cues, your desires will start to change. You’ll prefer the things that feel familiar, predictable, and easy. And it won’t feel like a “death march” to get where you want to go.

Beyond the benefit of supporting goals, habits keep us steady during times of stress. The familiar routines help us cope with our feelings and give us a sense of control. And as we get through the waves of anxiety, we think more clearly and act consciously and wisely.

Three Pillars of Habit Formation

“The more of the details of ordinary life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher power of mind will be set free for their own proper work.” – William James, psychologist

In my last post, I introduced readers to Dr. Wendy Wood’s book Good Habits, Bad Habits and the concept of two minds – one geared toward active cognition, and the other driven by force of habit. The latter are forged when we inculcate a behavior in response to a specific context/cue in anticipation of a reward. In time, the behavior becomes so automatic that our reasons for acting and the expected outcome become unimportant. We get triggered and go on autopilot.

context, repetition, rewardIf we want to get rid of a bad habit, neither knowledge nor willpower provide much help. Context is king. As a case in point, roughly half of all American adults were smokers in the 1950s. A Reader’s Digest article published in 1952 warned of its deleterious effects. The Surgeon General published a damning report in 1964 which gave rise to warning labels on all cigarette packs. Yet by the early 1970s, 40% of American adults still lit up. With the passage of the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act in 1970, cigarette manufacturers were prohibited from advertising or selling their products via vending machines. Airplanes, public transit services, and commercial buildings gradually migrated to nonsmoking status making it inconvenient to smoke. This sea change in context drove the smoking population down to 15% today.

Contexts create forces that trigger cravings and/or habits. We’ll use up a lot of energy if we try to resist. Or, we may succumb to old patterns before noticing that they’ve engaged. It turns out that we’re so obsessed with the power of decision-making that we underestimate how much our actions are affected by our environments.

Proximity wields tremendous power. We’re drawn to what is visible and easily accessible. If you want to quit smoking or eat less, steer clear of temptation. Don’t walk down the grocery aisles that feature forbidden foods. Steer clear of the hors d’oeuvre table. We’re also profoundly influenced by people in close orbit. We do what they do (or don’t do). If their example chronically sabotages our efforts, it may be time to adjust our social circles.

We can also serve our best interests by making effective use of friction. We can reduce the friction that holds us back from exercising good habits – like exercise. Either roll out of bed and get it done without thinking, or find a gym that’s on the flight path to or from work. We want to increase friction toward things we don’t want to do. For example, I don’t keep ice cream in the house. When those cravings strike, I’d have to make the effort to go to the store to buy it, and, far more often than not, I won’t bother.

Repetition is our friend when establishing forwarding habits. We must willfully decide to repeat a behavior again and again and again until it becomes second nature. Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than 21 days to lock and load a new behavior. For example, habitually eating healthy food takes ~65 days, on average; exercising regularly takes longer (~91 days). The more complex the habit, the more time and effort it takes to get in the groove.

Of course, we’re not blank slates when trying to forge new habits. Wood describes our days as “a squabble of contradictory habits happening just under the surface of our consciousness.” As such, we need to fight off the pull of old habits while trying to install new ones. Changing contexts works in our favor because it disrupts the cues that otherwise send us headlong into action. If that’s not possible, we can slow down the pace of life to notice what we’re doing (and why we’re doing it) before taking action.

Rewards matter. As Wood says, “context will smooth the way, and repetition will jump start the engine, … but reward gets habits to operate on their own.” When experienced right after the associated action, rewards set up a neural basis for habit formation through the release of dopamine. It stamps the details of the rewarding experience into memory. In the best case scenario, rewards are an intrinsic part of the activity itself. Preparing savory, healthy food delights the palate. Exercising releases endorphins that elevate mood. Exercising with friends  combines a wonderful social experience with an activity for which our bodies will thank us.

So, rather than relying on knowledge or willpower, let’s exercise our creativity in setting up our contexts, behaviors, and reward systems to achieve our goals on autopilot!

The Human Brain Has Two Minds

Dr. Wendy Wood opens her book Good Habits, Bad Habits with a familiar story. A woman wanted very much to lose weight. To bolster her efforts, she set a firm intention, made a public declaration of her goal, and secured support from her peers. Unfortunately, this seemingly well-conceived plan did not produce the desired result. The excess body weight remained along with the added burden of defeat.

I’ve lived through that disheartening cycle many times. I’ve set out to lose weight and/or exercise regularly under the assumption that the right combination of motivation, willpower, and social supports would get it done. I’d tell myself: How hard can it be to push yourself away from the table or find 30 minutes a day to work out? As it turns out, harder than I thought…

behavior influenced by our two mindsOur minds are composed of two separate but interconnected mechanisms that guide behavior. Our executive control function provides the resources most of us leverage in pursuit of goals – e.g., planning, working memory, attention control, problem solving, progress monitoring, and willpower. These energy-intensive faculties are well-suited to tasks that require substantive mental lifting – e.g., learning new skills, navigating unfamiliar circumstances, sifting through complex problems, setting goals and crafting action plans to meet them. We don’t need them for the myriad of routine tasks that fill our waking hours: brushing teeth, getting dressed, walking, even (by and large) driving a car. For life’s mundane activities, we rely upon subconscious habits that receive signals and cues from the conscious mind and then go to work on their own.

Dr. Wood studied college students to measure the amount of time they were engaged in activities without thinking about them. Overall, they spent 43% of their time on auto-pilot. Some activities proved more mindless than others: taking care of hygiene (88%), completing tasks at work (55%), watching TV (48%), exercising (44%). A subsequent multigenerational study (ages 17-79) revealed the same 43% of habit-driven activities with no material difference among age groups or personality profiles. However, longer work days and higher stress environments heightened use of mindless habits.

This bifurcation makes evolutionary sense. There are limits to our executive capacity. We get tired. Our attention wanders, and motivation wanes. To conserve our thinking power for the truly consequential, we use shortcuts to trigger behaviors without going through the effort of thinking about them intensely. In fact, we can pretty much make any behavioral habitual so long as we do it the same way repeatedly in response to a cue. But here’s the rub: The same mechanism that inculcates healthy behaviors also codifies undesirable ones. And once habits have been formed and seated into the deep recesses of our minds, they have real staying power.

Because habits work outside our conscious awareness, we fail to recognize the power they wield. Our overconfidence in our ability to act on thoughts, feelings, and intentions renders us blind to unconscious influences. For example:

  • We tend to eat most or all of what’s on our plates; bigger plates encourage more caloric intake than smaller ones. The same holds true for bags (or buckets) of popcorn at the movie theater.
  • If unhealthy snacks stare us in the face every time we open the pantry, we’ll be primed to think about them and face an overwhelming desire to partake.
  • When engaged in social activities, we tend to eat the snacks that are closest to us. (Word to the wise: Find a seat by the crudités!)
  • If we follow the same patterned response after work – drop the keys, grab a cold drink, plop on the sofa, check the iPhone – we probably won’t throw on our running shoes and go for a jog. It’s taxing to ask our tired minds to exercise decision-making and willpower.

A fascinating study revealed that persons who scored the highest in self-control seldom reported having to resist temptation. They forged habits in which beneficial actions became their default choices. Their environments and life patterns supported their high level goals without creating a sense of deprivation. By contrast, folks who scored low in self-control constantly battled desires that conflicted with their goals. Their habits did not work in their favor. They had to work hard to keep their impulses under control.

Recognizing the efficiency with which the unconscious mind works, Dr. Wood advocates forging habits that align with our goals. This strategy preempts the battle between conscious decision making and habitual, automatic responses. But we need to understand how habits work if we want to harness their power… a topic I look forward to covering in next week’s post.

The Brave New World of Choice Architects

Have you ever thought about how many decision points that cross your path on a given day? Turn on the TV and you’ll find a mind-numbing panoply of channels with live and streaming viewing options. A quick glance at your Smartphone reveals dozens of news and social media feeds vying for your attention. A simple trip to the grocery store presents tens of thousands of products from which to choose. We may relish our freedom of choice, but our lives would come to a grinding halt if we stopped to consider all available options!

Enter the choice architect. Folks in this nascent profession organize the context in which we make decisions in such a way that it alters our behavior in predictable ways without forbidding any options or significantly changing our economic incentives. For example:

  • A cafeteria’s layout and tray size determine in large part the type and quantity of food patrons choose to consume.
  • The default option on retirement plan enrollment impacts the number of employees who avail themselves of this opportunity. Those who must consciously opt out of the program tend to save more than those who must consciously opt in.
  • Sweden’s Vision Zero and the Netherlands Sustainable Safety provide examples of innovative street design that cause drivers and pedestrians to make better choices at troublesome intersections, thereby saving lives.

Drs. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein provide a window into this fascinating subject matter in NUDGE: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. They begin by recounting a host of shortcuts we use when making decisions:

  • We use rules of thumb to avoid having to stop and think deeply about what we are doing or deciding.
  • Starting points (a.k.a. anchors) exert a strong influence on our decision process. If we believe a product should cost X, we’ll be resistant to any upward pressure on pricing. But if we’re introduced to a premium version of the product, we’ll be prone to action when given the option to purchase a less expensive one.
  • We assess the likelihood of risk by how readily an example comes to mind (a.k.a. availability), not by its actual mathematical probability. For example, vending machines kill many more people than sharks, but the publicity surrounding shark attacks makes us fear them more.
  • We render judgments based on stereotypes… even when our social consciousness admonishes not to.
  • We tend toward optimism and overconfidence when assessing our ability to complete a project in a given time frame (a.k.a., “above average” effect).
  • We have loss aversion – i.e., our pain at losing is twice the amplitude of our joy at winning.
  • We tend to stick with our current situation rather than make changes (a.k.a. the “status quo” effect)… which is what makes default settings so powerful.
  • Framing influences thought processes. For example, we feel much better about a surgical procedure that carries a 90% success rate over one associated with a 10% failure rate, even though the two metrics are equivalent.
  • We make mindless choices based on what is in front of us – e.g., shoveling junk food into our mouths on autopilot just because it’s there.
  • We follow the herd. Social influence is powerful! Moreover, groups tend to stick with established protocols even as new conditions and needs arise.
  • Priming improves the ease with which certain information comes to mind. It can also motivate us to action. It can take the form of a suggestion, sensory input (e.g., a visual cue), or an intention. It can also be associated with removing barriers and making something really easy to do.

All of the foregoing gained footholds across thousands of years as human beings figured out what they needed to survive. The more complex our lives, the more we look for ways of lowering our cognitive load. A benevolent choice architect can make our lives easier. The authors argue that this discipline is especially useful for decisions that are difficult and rare, for which feedback is absent or delayed, and for which decision makers have difficulty translating the options into terms they understand.

So, what are the characteristics of benevolent choice architects? They make it easy for folks to choose options that is most likely to result in the choosers’ highest good which still providing the means to explore alternate paths. These choices may be guided by filters that narrow the playing field. They are attentive to default settings – e.g., one-time purchase versus auto-renewals, regular versus custom installation. And they present signals and/or incentives that are consistent with the desired actions.

Of course, “bad actors” could avail themselves of the same behavioral science research to achieve their own aims. The authors argue for developing rules to control fraud and abuse and elevate transparency and neutrality.

We may bristle at the thought of choice architects controlling our lives, but we are definitely subject to their influence. “Nudges” are everywhere, even if we do not see them. A such, it behooves us to align ourselves with reputable individuals and organizations and trust that their gentle nudges steer us in the right direction. A few practical suggestions:

  • Bolster your savings through payroll deductions, especially if the company offers to match your funds!
  • Improve your health by hanging out with healthy people. You’ll eat better quality food and exercise more.
  • Focus on news outlets that dedicate “air time” to interesting and/or inspirational stories; take a break from the anxiety-inducing headlines. Don’t make the latter easy to access or grab your attention.

Naming Emotions and Experiences

The latest Brené Brown book – Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience – had me waiting in a very long queue at the Beaverton Library. Her research, her distinctive voice, and her passion for improving the human condition resonate with me. They help me make sense of the world and improve my experience of it.

In this latest book, Brown serves as a cartographer who explores the land of human emotion and experience for purposes of creating a map the rest of us might follow. This enterprise began by asking 7,500 people to identify all of the emotions that they could recognize and name when they’re experiencing them. The average person only came up with three – glad, sad, and mad. To say the least, Brown deemed this lack of emotional literacy highly problematic.

“Our connection with others can only be as deep as our connection with ourselves. If I don’t know and understand who I am and what I need, want, and believe, I can’t share myself with you. I need to be connected to myself, in my own body, and learning what makes me work.”

In short, if we are unable to name our emotions and experiences and discern their relationship to feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, we’re navigating the journey of life without a map. By contrast, when recognize and label our emotions and experiences accurately, we enjoy greater emotional regulation and psychosocial well-being.

Brown organized findings according to states of being when emotions or experiences arise. It afforded her the opportunity to draw distinctions between sensibilities and how they operate in those contexts. Here are the topics covered:

  • Places we go when things are uncertain or too much: stressed, overwhelmed, anxiety, worry, avoidance, excitement, dread, fear, vulnerability
  • Places we go when we compare: comparison, admiration, reverence, envy, jealousy, resentment, schadenfreude (i.e., experiencing joy at other’s misfortune), freudenfreude (i.e., experiencing joy at another’s good fortune)
  • Places we go when things don’t go as planned: boredom, disappointment, regret, discouraged, resigned, frustrated
  • Places we go when it’s beyond us: wonder, awe, confusion, curiosity, interest, surprise
  • Places we go when things aren’t what they seem: amusement, bittersweet, nostalgia, worry, rumination, cognitive dissonance, paradox, irony, sarcasm
  • Places we go when we’re hurting: anguish, hope, hopelessness, despair, sad, grief
  • Places we go with others: compassion, pity, empathy, sympathy
  • Places we go when we fall short: shame, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, perfectionism
  • Places we go when we search for connection: true belonging, connection, disconnection, insecurity, invisibility, loneliness
  • Places we go when the heart is open: love, heartbreak, trust, betrayal, defensiveness, flooding, hurt
  • Places we go when life is good: joy, happiness, calm, contentment, gratitude, foreboding joy, relief, tranquility
  • Places we go when we feel wronged: anger, contempt, disgust, dehumanization, hate, self-righteousness
  • Places we go to self-assess: pride, hubris, humility

Brown asserts that knowing and applying the language of human experience are prerequisites for supporting meaningful connection with ourselves and others. The practice of meaningful connection entails:

  • Developing grounded self-confidence with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement
  • Acting with courage and integrity to present your authentic self when being with other people and committing to walking side-by-side with them
  • Practicing story stewardship by asking people how they are feeling, listening deeply, and honoring the sacred nature of their lived experience

As Brown says, “story stewardship is not walking in someone else’s shoes; it’s being curious and building narrative trust as they tell you about the experience of being in their own shoes.” Learning the language of emotion and experience makes this task possible.

Empath Survival Guide

My last post marked the second anniversary of COVID-19 quarantine with a discussion about adversity and resilience. I shared strategies for getting through a tough time, among them having support from family, friends, colleagues, and/or folks who share your experience.

handsI’ve been blessed to have such a collective to weather challenges that have cropped up throughout my life. I’ve offered my shoulder to cry on plenty of times as well. Yet engaging deeply with others’ difficulties has often proven problematic. I wind up losing sleep, living with pain and sorrow for days, or feeling anxiety over what their future holds. When sharing a recent episode with a friend, she introduced me to Dr. Judith Orloff’s Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.

The human brain comes equipped with mirror neurons that fire when an individual performs an action and when the individual observes the same action performed by another. They play a critical role in learning and serve as an underpinning for empathy. An empath can be said to have a hyperreactive neurological system that readily absorbs the positive and negative energies, emotions, and/or physical symptoms that others transmit. They’re sensitive to body language, tone of voice, and other cues. They may lack filters to shield themselves from sensory input. When overstimulated, they may experience emotional burnout.

If you happen to be a deeply feeling person and don’t want to hide in a cave to protect yourself from emotional overload, Dr. Orloff offers several pieces of practical advice:

  • Make it a habit of taking excellent care of yourself – eat well, exercise, breathe the fresh air, relax, meditate, sleep. Keep your “batteries” charged to full capacity.
  • Learn to inhabit an imaginary shield to protect you from negativity. Perhaps visualize a white or pink light surrounding you from head to toe.
  • Get grounded in nature – literally. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Imagine that you are a tree with roots that provide a firm anchor. If you cannot connect with Mother Nature in the moment, visualize the experience.
  • Create a tranquil inner space that you can visit on a moment’s notice.
  • If at peak physical or emotional capacity, pull back and unplug for a time. You cannot be present for others if you’re tapped out.

If you face a particularly toxic energy that cannot be avoided, Dr. Orloff serves up another collective of useful strategies:

  • Ask yourself: Do these emotions belong to me or someone else? If the latter, return to sender.
  • Step away from the source of negative energy – at least 20 feet – and limit further contact.
  • Set boundaries without discussion or apology.
  • Visualize cutting a cord between you and the source of your discontent.
  • Plan alone time to regroup and rejuvenate. Consider taking a hot bath in Epson salt. It’s heaven!
  • Spend time in nature – the real thing!
  • Take a technology break. Life can do what life does while you’re off-line.
  • Practice loving kindness meditation – for yourself and others.
  • Get plenty of sleep; take power naps.
  • Be fully present in your body. Notice what you’re feeling without judgment or recrimination. Remind yourself that it will pass.
  • Breathe!

Adversity and Resilience

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

This week marks the second anniversary of our COVID-19 quarantine. We’d heard rumblings of a global pandemic the prior month, but the news hit home when a nearby community choir sustained an 87% infection rate from the presence of a lone COVID-positive singer. That could easily have been one of my choral groups!

Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the virus and had the benefit of a double-dose of vaccine and a booster shot. But we remain well aware of its impact on senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions. We’ve hosted a few socially distanced gatherings and ventured forth from our home judiciously to run errands, enjoy fellowship, and take in a noteworthy cultural event. Yet our lives have been altered radically from their pre-pandemic rhythms. We may never reclaim the “old normal.”

supportive friendI take heart from a lecture I viewed recently by psychologist Catherine A. Sanderson of Amherst College. She began by noting that people have tremendous ability to adapt to negative events. Once the initial shock of it wears off, we can pull together our resources and find a new way of being in the world. We can challenge ourselves to find positive aspects of the event or condition – new inner strengths to tap, renewed depth to relationships, new perspectives on life, heightened spirituality, increased capacity for empathy, altruism. We may even find ways to enjoy simple pleasures.

Adaptation takes time. The greater the challenge, the more difficult the recovery. It doesn’t happen by accident. It is a discipline that must be cultivated through practice. Admittedly, those who excel in self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and optimism have an easier time of it. It also helps to have a strong base of support through family, friends, colleagues, and faith community. Yet no matter what our circumstances, Dr. Sanderson encourages us to think about loss within the context of a positive frame. Here are 5 strategies that help:

  1. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy food, get some exercise (preferably in the fresh air), and make a habit of getting a good night’s sleep. These practices support our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
  2. Find meaning in the experience. Making sense of a loss or sustained drama helps us cope with it. It supports recovery.
  3. Build and maintain connection. You are not alone. Others have gone through a similar ordeal, experience it now, or will encounter it in the future. Take solace in the shared experience and encourage one another to soldier on.
  4. Write about it. When we commit our experience and feelings about it to paper, it forces us to confront our circumstances, gain perspective, and exercise a modicum of control. It’s a venue for moving forward rather than get stuck in an endless cycle of rumination.
  5. Practice positive thinking. Zero in on the good things that happen daily and commit them to memory. Capture them in a gratitude journal.

When adversity strikes us in measured doses, it can bolster our resiliency. We gain the sense that we can cope with challenges. It increases confidence that we can manage future stressors. And we learn that we can pull together with others to find a way through difficult times.

Finally, as a bookend to the opening quote, all of the foregoing presumes that one is not dealing with catastrophic loss or multiple crippling circumstances concurrently. We need not burden those of us who are profoundly broken with the admonition to find silver linings unless and until some form of restorative healing can take place.

The Science of Change

“The secret to a better life is not to eradicate the impulses that make us human, but to understand them, outsmart them, and whenever possible, to make them work for us rather than against us.” – Angela Duckworth

In prior posts, I’ve discussed the psychology of change, the ADKAR model for change management, and strategies that reinforce good habits. I now add Dr. Katy Milkman’s contribution to the subject through her book, How To Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Here are evidence-based strategies to help us effect change and sustain it.

how to changeStart fresh. A new beginning provides the impetus to disrupt established behaviors and adopt new ones. It can be a date on a calendar (e.g., first of the month, birthday, anniversary), a meaningful life event (e.g., cross-country move, promotion), or an unsettling wake-up call (e.g., health scare). The bigger the landmark, the more likely it supports a break from the past. “Blank slates” are powerful!

Find ways to make change fun. The prospective gratification in achieving long-term goals can be thwarted by the unsatisfying nature of short-term behaviors to get there. Though we’d like to rely upon a self-discipline that keeps our eyes on the prize, we all have a present bias and a tendency toward impulsivity. Rather than put a consistent strain on willpower (and thereby have less of it for other tasks), we need to find ways to make it enjoyable to do the right thing. Temptation bundling pairs the challenging activity with one you crave doing – e.g., reading a page-turner while on the treadmill (and only when on the treadmill), or watching Netflix while chopping fresh vegetables to prepare a healthy meal. Gamification – i.e., adding fun to a monotonous task – also brings joy to the moment. As a recent Peloton bike convert, I can attest to the fact that this company has broken the code on how to make spin classes fun!

Make a binding commitment. We’re far less likely to get off track when we give ourselves “handcuffs.” Consumers build savings when they voluntarily sign on for accounts that assess penalties for early withdrawals. (A ceramic piggy bank that lacks easy access to deposited coins also works!) A publicly stated pledge displayed prominently may do the trick as most of us are loathe to let ourselves and others down. If this strategy seems daunting, start with a bite-sized commitment and work up to larger ones.

Create reminder systems. As a species, we are astonishingly forgetful. We forget half of what we learned in 20 minutes, 70% in 24 hours, and 80% in a month. As such, we need to establish cues that trigger positive behaviors in service of our long-term goals. For example, I keep a running tally of health-promoting activities on my desktop, and I’m motivated to check all the boxes every day. I also use “yellow stickies” on the bathroom mirror for irregular commitments. The very act of creating a reminder system and cuing behavior counters our tendency to flake out. It can also help us break big goals into smaller chunks.

Make a habit out of doing the right things. When we set our default behaviors wisely, we’ll opt into good behaviors without thinking about it. For example, my morning routine includes exercise. I get out of bed, attend to my ablutions, and then exercise for 30-60 minutes before breakfast. I don’t give myself the option of deciding whether or not I feel like doing it. When we face repeat decisions, we deplete willpower and open the door to a natural inclination toward laziness. When forming a new habit, try piggybacking it onto an established habit. Be careful not to make it too rigid or onerous. It either won’t stick, or it’ll become dislodged when life throws you curve balls.

Take care to bolster your self-confidence. We often fail to meet our goals (or even set them in the first place) because we don’t believe we have the capacity to change. Beliefs touch our emotions, direct our attention, influence our motivation, and affect our physiology. To counter a tendency toward resignation, we can build affirmation into the process and allow for leniency and “do overs” when we falter. We can also build ourselves up by learning to be our own advice-givers rather than subjecting ourselves to unsolicited commentary, however well intentioned.

Choose the company you keep wisely. Social influence carries tremendous power. Established norms create peer pressure that can work in our favor… or not. Surround yourself with folks who share common interests and whose circumstances align with yours. (Dr. Milkman notes: “For social influence to work, there can’t be too stark a difference between overachievers and those in need of a boost” lest it prove demoralizing for the latter.) Encourage one another. Share life hacks. Leverage social accountability.

Stay the course for the long haul. Transformative change requires constant vigilance. Obstacles – temptation, forgetfulness, self-doubt, sloth – stand ready to reassert control. Acknowledge their presence and use the tools described above to undermine their influence.

Data-Driven Happiness

researchI’ve written a few posts on happiness based on books I’ve read on the subject. They’ve largely focused on strategies for increasing our baseline positivity and sense of satisfaction. For a slightly different take on the matter, I read Arthur C. Brooks’ book Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America and How We Can Get More of It. He looks at the empirical data – i.e., who America’s happiest people are – and draws inferences from it. He asserts that happiness is in the nation’s best interest because happy people treat others better, are more charitable, act with greater integrity, and are better citizens. Here’s what his research says:

People who practice religion tend to be happier and more optimistic than their secular counterparts. On average, they’re better educated and more worldly. In addition to the comfort provided by their belief systems, they tend to have larger families, enjoy a vibrant community of support, and sustain a strong service ethic.

Marriage is good for happiness. It provides a basis of support for the parties and encourages social connection. Higher quality marriages correlate with a higher degree of happiness. Such marriages are influenced by 5 factors: shared chores, good housing, adequate income, good sex, and faithfulness.

Children do not create happiness in marriage. In fact, they can be stressors. But children do confer meaning – i.e., a deep sense of purpose while assuming the mantle for nurturing the development of a human being. They also provide the feeling of unconditional love. Both sensibilities counterbalance the happiness handicap. Of note is the fact that childless seniors have not been shown to be more depressed or lonely than seniors with children. In later years, friendship matters more than family relationships.

Happiness and freedom go together. Societies that enjoy political and economic freedom engender greater happiness than restrictive or oppressive regimes. However, people who claimed the greatest moral freedom were less happy than those who voluntarily adhered to moral precepts. Reasonable boundaries are good for us. Excess choice may prove overwhelming, leading to indecision and/or chronic regret. Optimal happiness is a function of individual liberty, personal morality, and moderation.

Work is an authentic source of happiness. We feel good when we enjoy what we do, find meaning in our contributions, and believe ourselves to be in charge of our destinies. An earned living instills self-confidence alongside the joy of achievement. Money and benefits matter less than success. People hate the prospect of being unemployed. Idleness is associated with elevated misery.

Easy money (e.g., lottery winnings) does not confer happiness. After the initial euphoria, we adapt to our new lifestyles and return to our baseline happiness.

Possessions do not make us a happy. Like easy money, we adapt readily to newfound possessions and return to our baseline happiness. We become unhappy when comparing our possessions with others and finding ours wanting. Craving makes us unhappy.

Generosity makes us happy. People who give charitably are happier, and happy people tend to be the most charitable. Donors find meaning in supporting organizations aligned with their interests and values. Volunteers feel a notable uptick in morale, self-esteem, and social integration when being of service.

In sum, happiness correlates with traditional values – faith, family, freedom, nonmaterialism, opportunity, hard work, and charity. Not surprisingly, the author notes that conservatives have been shown to be happier than liberals.

Brooks provides quite a few suggestions for public policy based on his research. Given that his book was published in 2008, I wonder how his findings might change in light of political and sociological developments during that past 10+ years.

Understanding 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 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 an all-around good read.