Category Archives: Psychology

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.

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?

The Happiness Curve

the happiness curveHave you ever heard about the U-shaped curve that predicts your life satisfaction based on your age? If you’re old enough, you’ve likely experienced it. If not, researchers tell us that it exists across all cultures the world over. And apparently, it even affects other primates (though I can’t begin to know how they measure chimpanzee happiness!)

According to Jonathan Rauch in The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, our twenties start out full of promise, opportunity, and optimism. We’re overly rosy about our prospects for good health, professional success, marital bliss, and longevity. We think bad things happen to “the other guy.” We view our lives as fun, exciting, adventuresome, and full of possibilities.

Optimism wanes as we reach our forties and fifties. We take stock of our circumstances and become resigned to what we will (and will not) achieve and who we will (and will not) become. We may feel that we have peaked professionally and personally. We dwell on the past and feel regret for the mistakes we’ve made and the chances that we’ve missed. Our disappointment may be inflamed by comparisons with peers who seem to have made so much more of their lives. And we may be sandwiched between responsibilities to our children and our aging parents.

Our youth-oriented society may have predisposed us to thinking that our elder years would be less joyful. Paradoxically, they’re not. We get happier as we get older!

Stress declines after age 50 just as our capacity to regulate our emotions improves. We feel far less regret, accepting what we can’t control and being grateful for the lessons that life has taught us. We focus on the here and now and direct our attention toward the positive aspects of life. We take criticism to heart intellectually but not emotionally. We know who we are and what we are capable of doing. A bump in the road is not a referendum of our worth.

In our senior years, we don’t narrate accomplishment in the language of achievement, competition, and keeping score. We’re far more oriented toward connection and community, investing our time and energy on issues and relationships that really matter to us. As Andrew Sullivan states: “The worldly ambition that I might have had I increasingly see as distractions from the life I really want to live.”

So, what do you do if you are in those dreaded middle years? Here’s Jonathan Rauch’s advice:

Recognize that you are not alone. We all experience a dip in life satisfaction during our middle years. It’s a natural and healthy transition from our youth to our elder years. Expect a measure of regret and disappointment. Feel what you feel without beating yourself over the head about it.

Interrupt the inner critics whether they’re taking you to task for your thoughts/behaviors or making you feel “less than” someone else. They’ll only drag you down at a time when you need to be lifted up.

Train yourself to live in the moment without judgment. Try meditation, tai chi, yoga, qigong, or the like to help quiet the mind and focus on the here and now.

Find a support group with whom you can enjoy fellowship and share your experience. Folks generally feel better when they have nonjudgmental, fact-based conversations about their midlife malaise. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge with friends, consider a trusted adviser or counselor. Avoid isolation!

Consider small steps to relieve your pressure points and let a little sunshine in. It turns out that we’re generally not good at understanding what makes us happy, and we’re rather bad at determining what’s making us unhappy. Move incrementally, logically, constructively to reduce the odds of impulsive mistakes. Change should be integrative, respecting your values, accumulated life experiences, and opportunities.

Be patient. Let time be on your side. Know that it will get better.

Finally, remember that the truest form of wealth is social, not material. Invest in life-affirming, support relationships and communities.

Healthy Differentiation Promotes Closer Ties

I happened upon notes today from Ronald W. Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. While I’m no longer involved in church leadership, the book provided some reflections on differentiation that merit discussion.

Each one of us experiences two primal forces: the need for togetherness and the need for individuality. We’re biologically wired to live in community. We need one another for fellowship, to survive physically and emotionally, and to ensure the perpetuation of our species. But we also relish our ability to act and think for ourselves. (Many view “rugged individualism” as a defining American trait!) So how do we balance these forces in our own thoughts and actions? And how do we navigate difference within community while still maintaining harmonious coexistence?


Individuals promote the balance of forces by striving for a state of healthy differentiation. Internally, they have the capacity to distinguish objective facts from subjective interpretations and emotions. This clarity gives them the ability to:

  • Perceive accurately what’s happening in any given situation; they don’t make mountains out of mole hills or create threats that aren’t there
  • Think clearly and wisely about available courses of action and the consequences of each
  • Identify and express their opinions and beliefs without the need for acceptance, understanding, affirmation, praise, or agreement to feel OK
  • Act flexibility in evolving situations, taking into account their own reactivity and the actions of others
  • Live their values and commitments in integrity

Differentiation empowers them to be in charge of themselves in the moment even when their history, emotions, and/or compatriots might otherwise motivate behaviors that are misaligned with who they really are. They know what they stand for and how they want to act in the world. They have clarity around their emotional junk and take responsibility for it. And they’re clear on the emotional baggage that lands outside their purview.

Why is differentiation so important? Because sometimes the togetherness force can be expressed as a call for everyone in a group to think, feel, and behave in the same way. The community may have difficulty tolerating and working through difference. It may view dissension as disloyal. It may put pressure on everyone to fill expected roles. In unhealthy systems, closeness gets conflated with sameness.

By contrast, healthy communities tolerate difference and conflict, treating them as normal and expected parts of being human. High differentiation in a group setting inhibits behavior acted out of the anxiety or tension of the moment. It slows things down. It allows time for reflection and dialog. It enables people to be more available and attuned to one another.

Differentiation helps people develop a sense of connection, intimacy, and mutual understanding without loss of self. Togetherness becomes a state of attraction and genuine interest rather than an attempt to satiate neediness. They can enjoy forthright communication, openness to ideas when facing challenges, and a higher level of cooperation in effecting resolution. And each takes responsibility for his or her own participation in the process.

Richardson asserts that differentiation is THE basic requirement for effective leadership. It calls leaders to define an emotionally separate self within relationship while still being deeply connected to others. It proceeds in love with full respect for the others’ individuality and desire to live in communion.

We’re accustomed to leaders being “take charge” individuals. But Richardson argues that one of their main jobs is to be a less anxious presence in emotionally charged circumstances. To do so, they must be:

  • Aware of their own levels of reactivity
  • Able to contain their own emotional reactions
  • Separate feelings and interpretations from facts
  • Act on the basis of their principled beliefs for the benefit of all
  • Stay calm and focused without getting caught up in others’ reactivity

An effective leader helps the group become more objective and rational. He or she creates the space for the group’s accumulated wisdom and experience to rise to the challenge and discern a way forward.

Effective leadership tactics: Be calm and soft-spoken. Ask questions and show interest to foster curiously. Listen attentively, restating others’ perspectives to ensure you’ve understood them. Be open to (and respectful of) differences of opinion. Look for common ground on which to build. Don’t let discomfort force a rush to judgment or quick solution.