Category Archives: Psychology

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.

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.


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.