Category Archives: Psychology

Make Your Hours Happier

“Merely thinking about time pushes us to spend our time in more personally fulfilling ways.” – Cassie Holmes

I am fascinated by the science of happiness and delighted that it has become a topic of inquiry. It tickles me that there are evidence-based strategies for increasing happiness, and I try to incorporate them into my daily life. And why not? Happiness makes us healthier, kinder, more confident people.

happier hoursI just finished reading Dr. Cassie Holmes’ book Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most. She arrived at her research focus honestly. She was a working mom who chronically experienced time poverty – i.e., feeling like there just weren’t enough hours in the day. Tempted to chuck her demanding job, she did some preliminary research. It turns out that the least happy people are those with too little discretionary time (<2 hours/day) and those with too much of it (5+ hours/day)! She opted to become a skilled “time investor” by challenging herself to find purpose in her expenditures and a solid happiness return on investment.

An obvious starting point was limiting the list of things to be accomplished in any given day. For each of us, that effort must be informed by how we’re actually spending our time and rating the extent to which those activities contribute to our happiness. Based on a survey of 900 working women, Daniel Kahneman reports that people are happiest when connecting socially and least happy when commuting, working, and doing chores. No real surprise there. But let’s go deeper.

Humans are social animals. We depend upon others for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy tells us that loneliness is detrimental to our health. The happiest people cultivate close friends, strong family ties, and romantic attachments. They invest in relationship, feel known by their associates, and engage in reciprocal sharing. We need to make time in our lives for connecting with others. It’s not a luxury to be indulged when everything else gets done; it’s mission-critical for health and happiness.

Research tells us that happiness and meaning are intertwined. Fun activities are experienced as meaningful, and meaningful efforts make us happy. We’re willing to take on activities that aren’t joyful if we can tie them to a broader purpose and/or long-term goal. However, excess alone time, “have to” tasks, and time-wasters make us unhappy. The latter includes screen time (TV, social media, internet surfing) which we think makes us happy but actually doesn’t.

With work consuming a healthy chunk of most folks’ days, it’s crucial to identify a higher order purpose for those efforts. Simply making money won’t stimulate motivation or engagement. Ask: Why do I do the work I do? Why does doing that matter to me? How does it reveal what I care about deeply? The answers to those questions cast work in a different light and make it feel more fulfilling and fun. It also informs how time gets spent at work – e.g., when to say YES and when to say NO. Social connection should layer on top of work; the happiest people have authentic personal engagement at work.

Of course, there are a lot of involuntary daily activities that are part and parcel of living in this world. Cassie has some concrete suggestions to make them less unpleasant:

  • Outsource tasks and reclaim some of your precious time. If you don’t like housework, shopping, cooking, gardening, or the like, there are competent professionals and services to tackle those activities for you. Meaningful use of that saved time will matter a lot more than things you otherwise might have purchased with the money.
  • Bundle less pleasant tasks with something you enjoy. Listen to podcasts or audiobooks when commuting or doing housework (if you haven’t hired it out). Indulge in your favorite streamed TV show when doing meal preparation. Talk to a friend or family member hands-free when commuting or running errands.
  • Schedule your daily chores in a single time slot and just get them over with. That approach reduces the start-stop times and the mental overhead of dreading doing them. Reward yourself with something positive immediately thereafter.

Learn to savor life’s little joys. Through hedonic adaptation, we have a tendency to stop noticing good things that happen repeatedly. Recognize that all these wonderful moments are finite; treasure every one of them. Create rituals that transform the ordinary into something special. Take breathers between pleasurable experiences (e.g., eating ice cream) to recapture the joy of the first encounter and/or add variety to an otherwise repetitive activity.

Train your mind to be present in the moment and relish each experience. Give your self a true break on weekends from all the hustle, bustle, and interrupt. Let yourself “be” rather than constantly “do.” Practice meditation to elevate your sense of presence and your capacity to ignore distraction. Shut the door and give yourself physical space to concentrate when needed. Put your phone away!

Let some of your time go unscheduled and hold fast to those moments. Give yourself the space to think, reflect, write, or simply breathe in the fresh air outdoors.

Overcoming Negative Self-Talk – Part II

In my last post, I discussed the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that impede performance, decision-making, relationships, health, and happiness. I also summarized research-based strategies that each of us can enact to turn the tide on destructive rumination courtesy of Dr. Ethan Kross’ book Chatter. This post focuses on social support as a resource.

Kross tells us that people are compelled to talk about their negative experiences with others. The more intense the experience, the more they’ll want to discuss it and the more frequently they’ll revisit it in conversation. We crave connection with others when we are hurting. Unfortunately, venting can heighten negative emotions rather than quell them. And we may wind up pushing people away or elicit a response that doesn’t help us move forward.

We need two kinds of support when in throws of a downward spiral, each delivered in the right measure at the right time.

  • We need emotional support to address a wounded soul in need of tenderness and compassion. Kross notes that we don’t need to provide the entire backstory to get it. A recounting may heighten our emotional pain. And we don’t need to enroll our companions in our side of things. We just need a bit of human connection to help us start to pull ourselves out.
  • We also need cognitive support to help us figure out what we’re going to do. With the right listening skills, gentle nudging, and questions, a good friend or colleague can help us gain distance from our turmoil, cool down our emotions, and start the process of identifying practical solutions.

As noted, support needs to come “in the right measure at the right time.” An overly rational response at the onset of a crisis could increase suffering and send the unintended message that the person who hurts is wrong or foolish. An overly empathetic response could amp up the hurt, anger, disappointment, shame, etc. and make it difficult to change perspective.

comforting a friendThough we may be anxious to relieve another person’s suffering, some folks need space when processing their pain. Overt acts of emotional or cognitive support could prove detrimental to their process and the relationship. Such instances may call for nonverbal forms of support. One could pick up the slack on chores, cook meals, run errands, or brings flowers. Sometimes, an affectionate touch says it all.

Kross suggests that different kinds of issues call for support from different types of folks. Some may be particularly good at dealing with work-related issues. Some may show skill in the realm of family dynamics. Others may excel in addressing friendship and matters of the heart. Still others may be experts on health. He suggests creating a “Board of Advisors” whose members span the various competencies we’d need to address life’s vicissitudes.

If ritual provides a source of comfort, it may help to seek out those who share in your traditions. As a case in point, I recall how anxious I felt when facing my first 3-hour written exam at the Duke Divinity School. The chaplain held a service of communion before the exam for all interested parties and made fresh baked bread for the occasion. Steam escaped from the bread as she broke it, and this amazing aroma wafted in the air. My nerves settled right down. I became clear-eyes and focused.

Social media can be an asset or a liability in troubled times. When tragedy has struck a community, it can be a place to connect with those who share your sorrow. It provides reassurance that you are not alone. Yet it too must eventually move from simply sharing an experience to a way forward from suffering. And for deeply personal experiences, social media can be salt in the wound. It may induce envy and trigger self-defeating dialog.

Finally, if no one is around when a difficult mood strikes, you can always gaze at a picture of a loved one. The break in thought pattern and influx of warm emotion can be a healing balm.

Overcoming Negative Self-Talk – Part I

Human beings have an “inner voice.” It’s the radio station to which our brains attune when not engaged actively in other matters. Its objects of attention are overwhelmingly me, myself, and I. When healthy, it provides a lot of useful services. For instance:

  • It serves as a holding tank for information and helps us make sense of the world.
  • It reflects on decisions we’ve made and how they impact our lives.
  • It provides a means to control our baser instincts and emotions as a function of our upbringing and cultural conditioning.
  • It reminisces about the past, considers alternate futures, and bends the imagination toward unlived lives.
  • It keeps track of goals and encourages us to stay the course.
  • It maintains a personal narrative that undergirds our sense of identity.
  • It helps us discern our values and desires.

In Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, Dr. Ethan Kross suggests that this capability confers a survival advantage. We learn, change, and improve through self-reflection. We consider options before proceeding with a course of action. And we are alert to obstacles and dangers that could impede forward progress. Unfortunately, our inner dialogue can also devolve into a cyclical pattern of negative thoughts and emotions that impede performance, decision making, relationships, health, and happiness. For example:

“Who did I think I was taking on all of this responsibility? I’ll never be able to complete the project on time.”

“It has been 6 months since the accident, and I still can’t get over what happened. I keep reliving the experience over and over and thinking about what I should have done.”

“My boss is a real jerk. He never appreciates the time and effort that I put into each assignment. He doesn’t say a word when my work is picture perfect. He only comments when he finds a tiny mistake. I hate my job.”

When chatter hijacks our inner voice, Kross says “we zoom in close on something, inflaming our emotions to the exclusion of all the alternative ways of thinking about the issue that might cool us down.” This loss in perspective hogs neural capacity and interferes with normal executive functioning. We may falter in decision-making and wallow in paralysis by analysis. Automatic, learned skills on which we rely may break down. And the stress of it all may impact gene expression in a way that impacts our health.

Kross serves up several proven strategies to help us disrupt our ruminations and restore clarity of thought. They help us “zoom out” and put some distance between the thinker and the vexing thoughts so that a new conversation can take place. His recommendations:

  • Change the subject in the inner dialog from the first person to the second or third person. Instead of “I feel anxious,” try “[Your Name] is feeling anxious” or “one feels anxious in this circumstance.” The alternate language instantly puts the inner voice into a totally different frame. Moreover, use of neutral subjects (“you” or “one”) normalizes the speaker’s experience – i.e., everyone feels that way sometimes. (“If they got through it, so can I!”) Kross reports that “distanced self-talk allows people to make better first impressions, improves performance on stressful problem-solving tasks, and facilitates wise reasoning.” Moreover, it’s a fast and highly effective life hack!
  • Imagine that the circumstance is happening to a close friend. Talk to yourself as if you were comforting and advising that person.
  • Consider looking at the scenario as if you were a fly on the wall and reporting findings to third parties. Acknowledge multiple viewpoints and see if you can reconcile opposing positions.
  • Broaden your perspective. Rather than getting mired in the issue at hand, consider how this episode fits within the grand narrative of your life. Let it just be a moment that will pass.
  • Reframe the experience as a challenge and not a threat. Remind yourself that you have the wherewithal to overcome obstacles. Narrate your body’s stress response as being in a high state of readiness for the task at hand.
  • Do a little mental time travel. Consider how you’ll recall this episode in a year, 5 years, or 10 years. Again, let it just be a moment in time.
  • Try journaling in the style of an investigative reporter. Write about the experience from the perspective of a dispassionate narrator.
  • Use ritual to your advantage. A ritual can be any sequence of behaviors that are infused with meaning. You can draw from your cultural conditioning, or create ones specific to a habitual challenge. Rituals can clear the mind of useless chatter and help prepare for what comes next. Famous athletes leverage this tactic to ease tension, calm their nerves, and focus their attention.

If working from the inside out doesn’t float your boat, try working from the outside in. By creating order in your environment, you can increase your sense of control. Self-efficacy is a proven strategy to relieve anxiety. Alternatively, take a walk in nature. The sights, sounds, and smells of your surroundings captivates the mind and draws attention away from the nagging issue. The more awe-inspiring the vista, the greater the benefit. Stuck with an urban landscape? No worries. Breathless imagery and nature documentaries can do the trick.

How Self-Justification Works

Have you ever had the experience of looking at family members, friends, or colleagues and thinking: How could these intelligent, thoughtful, sane persons believe in [name that topic] despite all the evidence to the contrary? You may even try to influence their perspectives with facts only to find that they double down on their positions. Guess what? It’s not about them. It’s human nature. And we all have blind spots. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore this terrain in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

self-justificationTavris and Aronson claim that the engine that drives this phenomenon is cognitive dissonance. It’s a state of being when we hold true two disparate concepts in our minds at the same time. It makes us really, really uncomfortable, so we’ll go to great lengths to quell the contradiction. As a case in point, we can’t reconcile a self-image that says “I am a sensible, competent person” with the notion that “I’ve advocated a belief that is categorically wrong.” So, we’ll let in all of the arguments that continue to reinforce our belief and find ways to discount that which contradicts it.

Tavris and Aronson use a pyramid as a representation of how we form (and stick to) beliefs. When we’re sitting at the top of the pyramid, we’re open to seeing all of its facades. If we start heading south on one of its sides, we can still climb back up to the top if we catch ourselves early in the descent. But the further we traverse down that side, the greater the commitment to sticking with it. When we get to the bottom, it’s the only perspective that we can support. Moreover:

“The more costly a decision in terms of time, money, effort, or inconvenience and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made.”

The source of much dissonance lies in our beliefs that we are smarter, nicer, more ethical, more competent, more reasonable, more humble, etc. than average. We go to great pains to preserve these self-concepts and filter our daily experience through them. We may not even be aware consciously of all the little lies we tell ourselves and blind eyes we turn to prevent the acknowledgement that we’ve made mistakes and foolish decisions, or committed harmful acts. To do so would threaten our sense of self. Moreover, our neuro-wiring comes with a predisposition to distort memory in ways that cause us to forget discrepant and discomforting information.

The book explores case studies of self-justification in relationships, psychotherapy, academia, business, politics, the judiciary, science, and medicine. It exposes the dark side of prejudice and how our we/they sensibilities can cause us to justify mistreatment of those we perceive as different/inferior. It provides ample evidence of self-justification’s universality and the great harm it causes when left unchecked.

Knowing how dissonance works will not make us immune to its effects. We all have psychological blinds spots. However, we can strive to bring them into awareness and catch ourselves before getting into trouble. Some tips:

  • Acknowledge the fact that we believe our judgements to be less biased and more independent than others and that our dialog partners feel the same way. Make an effort to be attentive, respectful, and curious about their perspectives. Ask questions. Explore. Give them the benefit of the doubt. You’re more likely to preserve relationship and just may learn something!
  • Check memories with independent accounts to increase the likelihood that you’ll approach the truth rather than your brain’s sanitized perspective.
  • Beware of culturally entrenched convictions – e.g., venting anger makes you feel better. (It doesn’t. It escalates anger.) Look for objective data from controlled experiments funded by neutral parties to guide your thinking.
  • Discuss major decisions with persons who (like you) are still in the process of making them. Don’t rely on testimonials as these witnesses will be steeped in self-justification.
  • When feeling hostility toward a person or group, do a generous deed in their behalf. You’ll start to see them in a warmer light. It’ll also encourage generosity toward others (“virtuous circle”).

At the end of the day, the authors tell us:

“Our greatest hope of self-correction lies in making sure we are not operating in a hall of mirrors in which all we see are distorted reflections of our own desires and convictions. We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off.”

No Regrets?

In late 1960, famed French chanteuse Edith Piaf introduced the world to a signature song “Non, je ne regrette rien” (translated “No, I do not regret anything”). NYT best-selling author Daniel H. Pink takes this sentiment to task in The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Takes Us Forward.

regretRegret is a common human emotion. The World Regret Survey found that 82% of participants felt regret at least occasionally; only 1% said they never felt it. Regret relies upon our ability to travel back in time cognitively, reimage our pasts and a different unfolding of events, and take on blame for having acted or failing to act. Regret is overwhelmingly associated with an expectation of better outcomes.

Pink identifies four themes into which most of our regrets fall:

  • Foundation regrets reflect a failure to be responsible, conscientious, or prudent in a way that has jeopardized our life’s stability. Common foundation regrets revolve around education (e.g., “I should have gone to college.”), finances (“I should have saved more money.”), and health (“I should have taken better care of myself or gotten treatment sooner.”) They often arise because we overvalue now and undervalue later.
  • Boldness regrets entail a failure to act in a way that would have led to a richer life. They may erupt in a single moment (e.g., “If only I’d taken that chance.”) or be an accumulation of choices that unfolded over time (e.g., “If only I’d made choices to reflect who I truly am instead of what people expected me to be.”) Career, romance, travel, and adventure prove to be fertile ground for missed opportunities.
  • Moral regrets arise when we make choices that are out of alignment with our conscience (e.g., “If only I’d done the right thing.”) These regrets cause us the most grief and revolve around causing harm, cheating, being disloyal, subverting authority, and/or desecrating treasured values, persons, or institutions. They assault our sense of our own goodness.
  • Connection regrets occur because we have taken action (e.g., “If only I’d kept my big mouth shut.”) or left something undone (e.g., “If only I’d reached out and stayed in touch.”) that has  harmed relationship. While rifts are more dramatic, drifts are more common. Both prove problematic. According to Harvard’s long-standing Study of Adult Development, close relationships promote health and happiness far more than money or fame.

These four core regrets are the photo negative of the good life. When we know what people most regret, we can reverse the image and see what they most value. Studies show that we regret inaction more than action by a three-to-one margin. Inaction regrets increase with age.

Viewed properly, Pink argues that regret offers three important benefits:

  • They provide the impetus for making better decisions in the future and help us avoid “trap doors.”
  • We perform better today so as not to fall short this time. We are more attentive and persistent in our work.
  • When we think counterfactually about past events, we endow those moments with greater meaning because we know how the stories unfolded. We can use these reflections to course correct now.

We realize these benefits when we place regret in the proper context and avoid unproductive rumination. Here are three strategies to do just that:

  • Self-Disclosure: Name the regret aloud to yourself, in a written or audio journal, or to a close family member or friend. Denial is taxing and keeps you stuck in inaction. Putting it out there relieves that burden and gives us the means to organize and integrate our thoughts. It moves us from the realm of emotion to the realm of cognition. Feeling gives rise to thinking which gives rise to action.
  • Self-Compassion: Extend yourself the same care and attention that you would offer a dear friend. It doesn’t abrogate responsibility but offers a kind and protective means for confronting difficulties and moving forward.
  • Self-Distancing: Zoom out and look at the situation from the perspective of a detached observer and/or subject matter expert. Then analyze and strategize. This perspective strengthens thinking, enhances problem solving skills, and deepens wisdom. If the event or decision just occurred, one may fast forward 5 or 10 years in the future and consider strategies and options from that point of view.

Where possible, take action. As the Chinese proverb suggests: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” Seize upon what you can control and let the rest go. Find a redemptive narrative that allows for silver linings.

Let Habits Do the Heavy Lifting in Reaching Goals

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

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

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

Set yourself up for success.

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

Leverage friction.

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

Break bad habits by getting out of ruts.

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

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

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

Three Pillars of Habit Formation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Human Brain Has Two Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brave New World of Choice Architects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naming Emotions and Experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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