Category Archives: Psychology

Fulfilling Our Need for Belonging

As a socially-oriented being, I am most at peace when surrounded by trusted family, friends, and colleagues. I relish being part of a cohesive group and feel rather lost without it. For me, it ranks right up there with food, water, and air as essential to life. So I was naturally drawn to Dr. Brené Brown’s latest book, entitled Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.

Dr. Brown opens the book with a story from her childhood that punctuates the pain we suffer when feeling disconnected from our families and/or peer groups. Most of us could probably mine our histories and narrate similar experiences. Yet she challenges the notion that belonging can proceed from the outside in. Such motivation could result in conformity that thwarts our ability to be authentic. Rather, the table stakes for deep feelings of connection are two-fold: belonging thoroughly to ourselves, and believing thoroughly in ourselves. From that ground of being, we are free to be fully present with others without sacrificing who we are.

togethernessShe defines TRUE BELONGING as “the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

Dr. Brown acknowledges the difficulty in forging connection in an increasingly cynical and divisive world. It calls upon us to listen with an open heart and be more curious than defensive. It speaks to the need for tethering difficult conversations to our shared humanity while allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and uncomfortable in the process. To that end, she serves up a set of guiding principles to illumine the path ahead.

PEOPLE ARE HARD TO HATE CLOSE UP. MOVE IN. It’s not easy being in the presence of someone whose background, experiences, and perspectives are radically different from your own. It’s especially hard when standing on different sides of a debate about which you are especially passionate. Yet it remains vitally important to respect that individual’s human dignity and offer the courtesy of listening with the intent to understand. If we can navigate difference in a way that deepens mutual understanding and instills compassionate, we have the opportunity to transform conflict and create something new and beneficial.

SPEAK THE TRUTH TO B.S.; BE CIVIL. Dr. Brown makes a distinction between lying (defying truth) and bs-ing (dismissing truth). The latter shows up when we feel compelled to weigh in on something we don’t know or understand and/or we lack faith that facts or truth can be discerned. It muddies our capacity to be authentic with ourselves and others. That being said, the call to mount a challenge still comes with the mandate to approach one’s self or others with generosity, empathy, and curiosity. Mutual respect allows us to ask questions and explore differences within the context of a safe space.

HOLD HANDS. WITH STRANGERS. When we show up for one another to share the joys, sorrows, and everything in between, we lose our capacity to deny our human connection. It takes us out of a “we” versus “they” paradigm. It enables us to realize that we are all part of a collective experience that is greater than ourselves. It opens the door to a sense of meaning and positive affect that can help us live longer, more rewarding lives.

STRONG BACK. SOFT FRONT. WILD HEART. A strong back gives us the courage to be ourselves, speak our truth, and do what we believe to be right. The soft front creates the requisite vulnerability to experience love, joy, trust, and intimacy. The wild heart is “the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid, all in the same moment.”

Dr. Brown acknowledges that many of today’s alliances are born of shared contempt for others. She deems them “counterfeit connection.” They reflect a deep spiritual crisis that diminishes all concerned. Though less overtly harmful, the desire to conform to a group’s norm at the expense of one’s inner compass can be equally damaging. Separation from a comfortable situation can prove unnerving, but author Jan Hatmaker offers the following consolation:

“The loneliest steps are the ones between the city walls and the heart of the wilderness, where safety is in the rear view mirror, new territory remains to be seen, and the path out to the unknown seems empty. But put one foot in front of the other enough times, stay the course long enough to actually tunnel into the wilderness, and you’ll be shocked how many people already live out there — thriving, dancing, creating, celebrating, belonging.”

Lessons from the World’s Happiest People

“Trying to make yourself happy almost always fails… The challenge is to reshape your life so that you’re constantly being nudged into well-being.”
– Dan Buettner

world's happiest peopleIn The Blue Zones of Happiness, Dan Buettner shares research findings that tell us the world’s happiest people combine the 3 Ps of happiness (pleasure, purpose, and pride) in amounts that are just right for them. They’re passionate about their personal and professional pursuits yet never lose sight of their need for joy, fellowship, and relaxation. They take great satisfaction in what they’re doing and what they’ve accomplished. They embody the best versions of themselves because the communities in which they live make it easier to adopt life-affirming behaviors.

Buettner challenges us with the question: “How can you set up your life so your circumstances nudge you into behaviors that make you happier?” He responds by exploring six areas in which evidence-based design principals can promote a happier life:

COMMUNITY DESIGN: Trustworthy civil servants (politicians, police); clean environment (water, air, land, noise); minimal urban sprawl; people-friendly streets for walking and cycling; high civic engagement and volunteerism; access to nature; affordable health and dental care; healthy food (farmer’s markets); healthy public policy to curtail smoking, drugs, obesity.

WORKPLACE DESIGN: Visionary, trustworthy, compassionate management; position tailor-made to interests, talents, values, and preferred work hours; minimal commute time; friend(s) among colleagues.

SOCIAL NETWORK DESIGN: Prioritize family and friends; hang out with happy people; nurture a small group with whom you share interests and values; join a club; cultivate a strong relationship with a life partner; be realistic about parenthood.

HOME DESIGN: Declutter; add plants (and reap the air-filtering and visual benefit!); maximize natural light; create a family gathering place; play music; adopt a pet; optimize the bedroom for sleep.

FINANCIAL WELL-BEING DESIGN: Leverage automatic savings plans; pay off debt; give experiences, not things; make friends with financially secure people with who you share values.

INNER LIFE DESIGN: Know your purpose; learn the art of being likeable; focus on others; get out of your comfort zones regularly; practice meditation.

Buettner also convened a “Blue Zones of Happiness Panel” – a team of experts whose task was to identify effective strategies for improving long-term happiness. After a great deal of discussion, they whittled their list down to a “Power 9.” Not surprisingly, they resonate with Buettner’s design principals.

  1. Love Someone: The right partner determines 90% of personal happiness.
  2. Inner Circle: Have at least 3 friends with whom you share your lives and provide meaningful support. Give the nod to folks who embody the virtues and behaviors to which you aspire.
  3. Engage: Get active in your community. Stretch your personal boundaries. Do something!
  4. Learn Likability: Be an interested and attentive listener. Practice generosity and empathy.
  5. Move Naturally: Exercise at least 30 minutes per day. Find ways to weave movement into your daily routine.
  6. Look Forward: Set your sights on meaningful goals, create plans to achieve them, and monitor progress.
  7. Sleep Seven Plus: Get a good night’s rest. Happiness drops by 30% when sleeping <6 hours per night.
  8. Shape Surroundings: Set us your home, work, finances, social, and inner life to promote happiness.
  9. Right Community: Live somewhere that promotes well-being.

I heartily suggest that you pick up a copy of the book and check out the rich content that Buettner provides. It’s a great resource for kick-starting the New Year.

The Psychology of Change

Drs. James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente spent years working with clients who were ensnared by destructive personal habits. Time and time again, temporary behavioral adjustments just didn’t stick. Of New Year’s resolutions, 77% last for 1 week, 55% for 1 month, 40% for 2 months, and 19% for 2 years.

So they combed the available research and conducted studies on their own to develop a solution to this vexing problem. They summarized findings in their seminal book Changing For Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward.

As the book title indicates, the model identifies six stages of change. They are:

PRECONTEMPLATION: Individuals exhibit no intention of changing. Defenses include denial (“I don’t have a problem”), minimalization (“it’s not that bad”), rationalization (“everybody does it”), projection (“it’s not my fault”), and internalization (“I’m too weak to change”). External pressure and/or impactful events tend to provide the impetus for action.

CONTEMPLATION: Individuals acknowledge their issues and take initial steps toward a plan of action. They experience internal resistance based on a fear of failure and concern that their new selves won’t fit in with their environment. Individuals get stuck in this phase when they substitute planning for action, fixate on the need for certainty, or wait for the right moment to begin.

PREPARATION: During this phase, individuals devise the specific steps that they’ll follow during the action phase. Their plans may include grand gestures or a series of small steps, depending on the nature of their issues and personal predilections. This phase is also a time when they’ll commit to their personal transformation. Commitment presumes willingness to act and confidence in a favorable outcome.

ACTION: Individuals institute their plans and make adjustments as new opportunities and challenges present themselves. The biggest threats to sustained action include taking preparation lightly, lack of willingness to make the requisite sacrifices, believing in “silver bullets,” and/or doing the same old things and expecting different results.

MAINTENANCE: Successful behavioral maintenance demands long-term effort and revised lifestyles. In addition to distancing from unhealthy triggers, individuals should review their reasons for initiating change, acknowledge their successes, be brutally honest with themselves when facing temptation or missteps, and have support systems at the ready.

TERMINATION: Individuals have confidence in their ability to sustain change without temptation or reversion to old patterns. (I wonder if anyone truly reaches the stage at which sustained vigilance no longer becomes necessary…)

Drs. James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente also defined 9 change processes – i.e., activities that help individuals modify their thinking, feeling, or behavior:

  1. Consciousness raising through increased situational awareness and/or access to information
  2. Social liberation due to influences in the external environment that support change (e.g., an advocacy group)
  3. Emotional arousal caused by a significant experience that elevates one’s awareness, depth of feeling, or commitment
  4. Self-evaluation which results in a thoughtful appraisal of one’s circumstances and a vision of the person one might become when freed from the problem
  5. Commitment which comes from taking personal responsibility (privately, then publicly) for the problem and execution of a viable action plan
  6. Countering which entails substituting healthy behaviors for unhealthy ones
  7. Environmental control which minimizes the possibility of a problem-causing event
  8. Rewards that reinforce positive behavioral change
  9. Helping relationships that provide assurance, support, understanding, and acceptance.

Exhaustive research suggests that successful change entails use of the right processes at the right stages of change, as follows:

change processes

Change is not a linear process. It often entails two steps forward, one step back. Here are a few lessons that the authors have learned to help patients persevere:

  • Take heart. Only 20% of the population conquers long-term issues permanently on the first attempt.
  • A lapse is not a relapse. We can recover from slips, learn from them, and continue toward our goal of permanent change.
  • Guilt and self-blame undermine confidence in the ability to succeed. Learn to silence them by simply re-engaging positive behaviors and moving forward.
  • Change takes more time, energy, and money than we anticipate. Be patient. And consider all 6 change processes during the action phase. (Will power alone won’t get it done!)
  • Don’t use the wrong change processes at the wrong time. It risks instilling misinformation, depleting will power, or substituting one bad behavior for another.
  • Be prepared for complications and learn to be nimble when addressing them.
  • Beware of mini-decisions that become maxi-decisions (“I’ll just keep some chips and cookies in the cupboard for company”).
  • Because distress (anger, anxiety, depression, loneliness, social pressures) encourages relapse, be sure to have concrete plans to address them before they take root.

Daring Greatly with Dr. Brené Brown

Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance from the relationship.”
– Dr. Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW

connectionI asked a good friend recently to name authors who inspire him. Dr. Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW topped the list. She’s a research professor at the University of Houston who started her academic journey with a quest to answer two questions: “What is the anatomy of human connection, and how does it work?” Her research quickly surfaced a need to understand vulnerability and its role in forging meaningful connection. It also led her to study the nature and impact of shame given its corrosive impact on vulnerability. Two powerful Ted Talks explore these topics:

Having watched these YouTube videos, I opted to check out three of her books. I highly recommend each of them. To whet your appetite, I’ll provide a brief introduction here.

In her 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brown describes practices that enable readers to “let go of who you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.” Based on her research, the people who consciously and courageously engage in “wholehearted living” adhere to the following 10 guideposts (as quoted from the book):

  1. Cultivating authenticity: Letting go of what other people think
  2. Cultivating compassion: Letting go of perfectionism
  3. Cultivating a resilient spirit: Letting go of numbing and powerlessness
  4. Cultivating gratitude and joy: Letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark
  5. Cultivating intuition and trusting faith: Letting go of the need for certainty
  6. Cultivating creativity: Letting go of comparison
  7. Cultivating play and rest: Letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth
  8. Cultivating calm and stillness: Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle
  9. Cultivating meaningful work: Letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to”
  10. Cultivating laughter, song, and dance: Letting go of being “cool” and always in control

Each of these guideposts represents a practice that must be nurtured on a daily basis. Based on my experience, some integrate more easily into our habits and rituals than others.

In her 2012 book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown looks at the principal impediment to wholehearted living – SHAME. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame preys on our self-worth and thwarts our ability to be authentic, to open ourselves up to others in nurturing relationships, and to persevere in the wake of adversity, set-backs, or disappointments. It gains power over us when it is shrouded in secrecy.

Dr. Linda Hartling, PhD describes three common strategies in response to shame: (i) Moving away by withdrawing; (ii) Moving toward by seeking to appease and please; and, (iii) Moving against by attempting to gain control over others or the situation. Each of these strategies has the capacity to damage connection and corrodes self-worth. Per Dr. Brown, the antidote is a practice of shame resilience that helps us move through the experience with our values, self-esteem, and relationships intact. This practice entails:

  1. Noticing the feeling of shame as it occurs and understanding its trigger(s)
  2. Getting to the bottom of what’s causing the feeling while creating space for loving and compassionate self-talk
  3. Reaching out to those who have earned the right to hear our story and have the capacity to bear the weight of it
  4. Giving voice to what happened, what you’re feeling, and what you need to move forward

This process takes courage. But as Dr. Brown says, “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

In the 2015 book Rising Strong, Dr. Brown addresses the reality that “if we are brave enough often enough, we will fall.” As such, we need an approach for picking ourselves back up and getting back in the game. As with shame resilience, it demands a “reckoning” to name our feelings and get clear on their underpinning and impact. It calls for honesty about the stories we’re making up about the situation, the other players, and ourselves to determine what’s truth, what’s old patterns of thinking, and what’s good old self-protection. It results in a new ending that affects positive change in the way we engage in the world. Dr. Brown punctuates each of these concepts with evocative stories that provide illustrations of the circumstances, internal dialogs, interpersonal dynamics, ordinary acts of courage, and triumphs that go hand-and-hand with “rising strong.”

Clearly, I’ve barely skimmed the surface of the rich content contained in Dr. Brown’s books. Again – I highly recommend that you take the time to read her books and/or watch her TED Talks. Her research, findings, and recommendations consistently accord with my life experience. Her organizing principals for the practice of “wholehearted living” offer sufficient depth to be genuinely useful without burdening them with undue complexity. Her writing style appeals to the “scientist” within me while also giving me a good chuckle. And she clearly models the behaviors that she hopes to instill in others.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Perhaps the most famous line in our Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” A 2016 Harris poll suggests that we are not doing so well in the happiness department. We scored a 31 out of a possible 100, down from 34 the prior year. Our relatively low level of happiness may seem counterintuitive given the fact that we count ourselves among the wealthiest nations in the world. But perhaps the old adage is true: Money doesn’t buy happiness.

So what makes people happy?

happinessDr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, PhD, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, has spent his career exploring that very question. He is a leading researcher in positive psychology and is renowned for his seminal work entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. This post presents key concepts from that oft-cited book.

Happiness isn’t about the wealth we amass, the things we collect, or the accolades that accrue to our names. It’s about inner harmony. It’s defined by our capacity to take action in ways that allow us to harvest the genuine rewards of living.

People are happiest when they are in a state of “flow.” This state happens when we are fully engrossed in voluntary activities that stretch our bodies and/or minds to accomplish something worthwhile. These experiences share most (if not all) of the following characteristics:

  • They involve tasks that we reasonably believe we have the chance to complete.
  • We have the ability to concentrate on what we are doing because the task has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.
  • We act with such deep and effortless involvement that we temporarily let go of our everyday worries, responsibilities, and frustrations.
  • We feel some sense of control over our actions. We may not actually BE in control, but we know that we can control how we feel and respond to the situation at hand.
  • Our ego disappears in the moment.
  • The sense of time is altered. Hours can seem like minutes.

Some describe this sensation as being “in the zone.” They’re moments when we’re fueled by the subjective rewards of doing things, not the promise of recognition for our achievements. And while we tend to lose ourselves in the moment, we often gain a stronger sense of self after the experience ends. We’re enriched by new skills and fresh achievements that increase our self-confidence and encourage pursuit of new and interesting challenges.

Note that the flow experience must arise from voluntary action. When we feel that we are engaged in a task against our will, we deplete our psychic energy. That being said, each of us may need to take on seemingly unpleasant tasks from time to time. I find that substituting the phrase “I choose to…” rather than “I have to…” transforms the experience. I’m clear about my motivation and the consequences of inaction. As such, I don’t squander (as much) energy grumbling about it or devolving into victimhood.

“Someone who is in harmony no matter what he does, no matter what is happening to him, knows that his psychic energy is not being wasted on doubt, regret, guilt, and fear, but is always usefully employed. Inner congruence ultimately leads to that inner strength and serenity we admire in people who seem to have come to terms with themselves.”
– Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, PhD

When facing adversity, Dr. Csíkszentmihályi recommends a confident yet egoless response. Find ways to function harmoniously within the present environment rather than express dominance over it. Pay attention to what’s happening in the world at large, not your perception of your own needs or your socially conditioned desires. Discover new solutions by focusing on worthy goals and moving obstacles out of the way.

Finally, Dr. Csíkszentmihályi offers this simple formula for cultivating “flow”:

  • Set worthwhile goals.
  • Find ways to measure progress.
  • Become immersed in the activity; pay attention to what’s happening and learn to enjoy the immediate experience.
  • Develop new skills.
  • Raise the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

Five Pillars of Positive Psychology

“The good life is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification.”
– Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD

Early in his career, Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman followed the well-worn path of his peers and predecessors in the field of psychology. He studied human disorders and strategies for alleviating the associated suffering and/or undesirable behavior. His research also unearthed a phenomenon known as “learned helplessness” in which animals failed to escape or avoid unpleasant (even painful) circumstances if they had been subjected to them repeatedly. He wondered: If animals are capable of learning helplessness, are they also capable of learning optimism? Fast forward a host of research later, he got his answer: YES!

Positive psychology leverages the tools of its trade to amplify positive behaviors and traits. Its goal is two-fold: Exploring what makes life worth living, and defining the means through which these conditions manifest sustainably. The gold standard of well-being is “flourishing.”

According to Dr. Seligman’s research, a life well lived rests upon the following five pillars:

Positive Emotion: Such emotions include feelings of pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and the like. They have a strong sensory component and are tied to experiences or memories, as well as our attitude toward them. While transitory in nature, positive emotional states produce many long-term benefits, including: increased access to love, friendship, and community; openness to new ideas and experiences; strength and agility in the face of setbacks and challenging circumstances; and, creative, constructive, and generous thinking. And, of course, positive emotional states just feel better! Strategies for producing or amplifying such states include:

  • Practicing gratitude
  • Rewriting your past by forgiving, forgetting, or recasting bad memories in a constructive light
  • Putting present day troubles in a box so they don’t bleed all over everything else in your life
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Savoring life’s pleasures in the moment (especially with others)
  • Taking stock of life annually and developing actionable plans to course correct

Engagement (a.k.a. “Flow): This state of mind occurs when pursuing activities for which we become thoroughly immersed and absorbed. They demand skill and effort and leverage our signature strengths. In their pursuit, our sense of self vanishes, and time seems to stop. When present in professional endeavors, they are a source of gratification that far outstrips wages and other tangible benefits.

Meaning: When our personal and/or professional endeavors contribute to the greater good, they provide fuel for deep commitment. A profound sense of satisfaction accompanies the knowledge that we are part of something greater than ourselves and that our lives matter.

Accomplishment: Mastery, victories, awards, and other tangible expressions of achievement often bolster well-being whether or not they are associated with positive emotion, “flow,” or meaning. Something within us enjoys rising to a challenge and proving ourselves capable of a worthy result. We pursue these activities for their own sake.

Positive Relationships: Human beings are social animals. As such, most of the enabling conditions for building a life worth living are relationship-oriented. In the company of close friends, family, and associates, we savor everyday moments, we experience the “flow” of seamless collaborations, we find purpose for our existence, and we share our triumphs and defeats.

As an “action item” in response to this reading, I decided to avail myself of Gallup’s StrengthFinder 2.0 tool. I figure you’re never too old for a fresh round of insight! The on-line assessment identified my five “signature strengths” and provided a descriptive narrative of each one. The report also included an “action planning tool” to help me capitalize on these strengths and incorporate them into my daily routine. Well worth my investment in time and modest amount of money.

If you are interested in Dr. Seligman’s work, here are two of his signature writings:

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD (©2002)

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD (©2011).