Category Archives: Psychology

When Rational Decision-Making Isn’t Rational

decision makingI like to think of myself as a rational decision maker. I define the scope of a given problem and the desired outcomes. I examine the available options and delineate the pros and cons. I weigh the options and then make the optimal choice. But I had my eyes opened years ago when my husband and I attended a seminar entitled The Emotional Side of Decision Making by the Stanford Business School’s Baba Shiv.

At the time, the prevailing wisdom on decision-making accounted for two factors: the hard data (e.g., size, style, price, performance) and “soft” factors (e.g., personal preferences, perceived status, one’s emotional state at the time). But Dr. Shiv’s research revealed that emotions are a separate – and crucial – element in decision making. In particular, at some point in the decision-making process, folks make emotional commitments to their choices. Thereafter, all further input runs through filters that support these subconsciously rendered “emotional decisions.” And this mechanism holds true for men and women.

While eye-opening, this phenomenon makes sense when we consider that the brain is fundamentally wired for keeping us alive. If we’re being chased by a wild beast intent on making us its dinner, we don’t want to spend a lot of time deliberating on the optimal path when arriving at a fork in the road. We want to commit and fully invest in the chosen direction.

Dr. Shiv also demonstrated that we make these “emotional decisions” relatively quickly. As a case in point, researchers took a close look at student evaluations of college-level courses. Such evaluations are routinely administered at the conclusion of the semester. But researchers decided to take a preliminary read on student satisfaction after one lecture, after 10 minutes of one lecture, and after a 10-minute video in which the volume was muted. It turned out that there was a very high correlation between all of these readings. In other words, professors have a really short amount of time to make a good impression!

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Dr. Barry Schwartz offers some other surprising insights about decision-making:

  • We tend to give higher weight to a vivid personal story about a company’s offering than an independent analysis based on thousands and thousands of readers (a la Consumer Reports).
  • We judge the value of an item in relation to “anchor” items. An $800 suit will seem like a bargain in relation to $1500 suits, but overpriced when surrounded by $500 suits. Ergo, companies often create a high-priced model for which they may get few takers so that their lesser priced items will seem all the more attractive.
  • We love discounts and hate surcharges. Ergo, if we’re planning to spend $100 cash for an item, we’re happier being told that we’d get a $10 discount for cash from the regular $110 price than to find out that purchasers on credit will be assessed a $10 premium over the regular $100 price. Yet we’re still forking over the same $100!
  • We tend to be risk-averse with respect to potential gains and loss-averse with respect to potential losses. Apparently, we don’t get all that much incremental satisfaction from maximizing a potential payout. But if we stand to lose something, we’re much more likely to engage in risky behavior to avoid taking the hit.
  • In a similar vein, we don’t handle “sunk costs” very well. If we’ve paid money for something and it turns out to be a losing proposition, we’ll stick with it even if it causes us grief. This insight made me chuckle. It reminded me of a time when my husband and I went to a movie that we absolutely hated. I wanted to leave after the first hour; he wanted to get his money’s worth and stay to the end!
  • Once something has been given to us, we are disinclined to give it back or trade it for something else. It becomes “ours.” That’s why companies don’t worry so much about offering money-back guarantees; they know that few people will take advantage of them!

All of the foregoing suggests that we aren’t as rational in decision-making as we might think we are. My take-aways: I’m going to be a little more aware of how companies market their wares to me. I’m going to pay a bit more attention to the inner workings of my mind and challenge myself with the cold, hard facts of a given situation. If I’m especially insightful, I may just notice what my gut is telling me… and why. And if I’m not happy with a decision, I’ll encourage myself to move on!

Introduction to Family Systems Theory

hanging mobileI served as a chaplain years ago at Rex Healthcare in Cary, North Carolina while completing several units of clinical pastoral care curriculum. A major focus of study was a discipline referred to as family systems. Its basic premise is that nothing happens in isolation within a family. Should one member undergo a major shock or change, there is a ripple effect across the entire system. It’s a bit like a mobile – touch one element and the entire structure wiggles and wobbles until it reaches a new equilibrium.

We used Dr. Ronald Richardson’s Family Ties That Bind as a reference text. It’s well worth a read even if you never plan to provide pastoral care. It creates a framework through which you can better understand yourself and your relationship to folks in close orbit.

Richardson reminds us that every family and every relationship has rules – whether spoken or unspoken. When members play by the rules, the family experiences harmony and balance. (The “mobile” is steady.)

Young children learn the rules overtly or through punishment for transgression, the most effective of which is withdrawal of affection. Because children are so dependent on their parents, they’ll suppress the objectionable parts of themselves rather than risk alienation. Home-grown family members tend to assimilate the rules readily. Members by marriage may face significant challenges!

Of course, no two people can share an intimate relationship without unearthing substantive differences between them. Difference evokes anxiety to a greater or lesser degree; sameness feels comfortable and validating. So, it’s not uncommon to put forth subtle (or not so subtle) cues to try and get our partners to be more like us. Unfortunately, our partners’ responses may not be forwarding:

  • Compliant ones respond to the pressure by going along to get along. They stuff their personal predilections and behave as though there is no difference. While this approach creates the illusion of closeness, the parties never get the opportunity to know themselves or one another.
  • Rebels fear conformity yet lack the security to move forward independently. They remain stuck in conflict with the party or parties against whom they’re trying to take a stand. The gap between the parties widens. And while fighting against the “other,” rebels never set their own goals and pursue their own paths.
  • Isolationists withdraw – either physically or emotionally – because they cannot be close without experiencing a great deal of anxiety. They may feel powerless to change the dynamic and simply deny their need for connection.

As tensions escalate between a pair, one may attempt to establish a triangle with a third party, a group, or an issue. It allows for the formation of a coalition that brings further pressure on the “other.” It provides additional support and strength to the party who is feeling weak. Common family triangles include Father-Mother-Child (to control the child) and Grandparent-Child-Parent (to control the parent). The appropriate response to tension in relationship calls for doing the hard work of resolving outstanding issues one-on-one without bringing in third parties, outside issues, or so-called “experts.”

True intimacy challenges us to become well-differentiated, emotionally mature individuals. It means that we:

  • Gain clarity on our own beliefs and needs without being defensive about them
  • Maintain a sense of self when close to others and self-sufficiency when distant
  • Appreciate and enjoy difference between ourselves and others
  • Live by rules for relationship that make sense for us
  • Use facts and feelings to communicate effectively
  • Listen attentively and ask for clarification on others’ wants and intentions
  • Negotiate resolution to differences without creating “triangles”
  • Openly accept responsibility for our mistakes and make amends
  • Refuse to play the roles of persecutor, victim, or rescuer
  • Own our own upsets, distress, needs, etc. rather than blame others or circumstances for them
  • Develop healthy ways to cope with anxiety

Is Success All In Your Mind?

mindsetIn Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol Dweck makes a powerful argument that the views we adopt for ourselves profoundly affect how we live our lives. In particular, her research demonstrates a positive and substantial advantage to those who live with a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.

Here’s how she characterizes the two:



Core Belief Intelligence and competencies as innate endowments that are set at birth. Intelligence and competencies as qualities to be developed with passion, toil, and training.
Work Ethic Seeks to minimize effort and get by with natural talent; considers hard work fruitless. Views effort as a means of continuous improvement and the path to mastery.
Challenges Avoids trials; thrives when things are safely within their grasp. Seeks out challenges as a means to stretch themselves and learn new skills.
Failures Experienced as a haunting trauma for which they’ll either assign blame or make excuses. Recognized as a problem to be faced, processed, and learned from.
Self-Assessment Tends to be either overinflated to stroke their egos, or deflated in response to setbacks. Assesses their own abilities accurately – neither inflated or deflated.
Criticism Ignores constructive feedback and denigrates the source. Evaluates feedback and its source and learns from it.
Success of Others Feels threatened; wants to take them down. Finds lessons and inspiration; wants to emulate.

Dr. Dweck develops these concepts in the context of achievement in school, sports, business, and relationships. For example:

  • Great teachers believe in the growth of intellect and talent. They set high standards and teach a love of learning all the while nurturing achievement through purposeful effort.
  • Great athletes with a growth mindset: (i) find success in doing their best while learning and improving; (ii) use set-backs as “wake up” calls to redouble their efforts; and, (iii) take charge of the process that brings – and sustains – success.
  • Business leaders with a growth mindset constantly ask questions and confront the hard truths. They can look failure in the face while still maintaining faith in their organization’s ability to succeed.
  • People with a growth mindset can understand, forgive, and move on when confronted by disappointment in relationship. Their fixed mindset counterparts feel the sting of rejection/judgment and may seek revenge to even the score.

At the end of the day, mindsets are just beliefs. Just because some people can do things better than others with relatively little effort does not mean that others cannot acquire those skills. Even artistic skills can be cultivated, as amply demonstrated by self-portraits drawn by inexperienced artists before and after a mere 5 days of training. We simply need to develop practices that open our minds and give ourselves the requisite time for our potential to flower… with effort and coaching, of course.

One final note: While we may have a growth mindset in one area of our lives, we may fall into the trap of a fixed mindset in others! We need to recognize the qualities that help us success in one area and apply them elsewhere.

New Year, New Me?

The start of the new year feels like a clean slate on which I can architect a new me. And like ~40% of my fellow Americans, I’m drawn to the idea of making resolutions. Yet for all my good intentions, the data suggest that only 40% of resolutions last for 2 months, and a dismal 19% for 2 years.

I’ve written previously on the psychology of change, the science of habit formation, and the ADKAR system of change management. These posts are all worth a second look when contemplating lifestyle adjustments. I’m also a fan of Dr. BJ Fogg, a Behavior Scientist at Stanford University.

Fogg lists the Top 10 mistakes folks make when launching self-improvement initiatives:

  1. Relying on willpower for long term change.
    From other research, I’ve learned that willpower is like a muscle that can get fatigued by excess use. Reserves get depleted by too much stress, too little sleep, too much temptation, and the like. For long term success, you need to conserve this precious resource and consider ways in which to support it.
  2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps.
    Big changes require much higher motivation and a great deal more attention to behavioral triggers. While it can be done, it’s much easier to break big changes down to baby steps and build success upon success.
  3. Ignoring how environment shapes behavior.
    When leading the same old life with all the same old triggers, it’s likely that the same old behaviors will emerge. To change your life, you need to change the context in which you live.
  4. Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones.
    It’s hard to break free of entrenched habits. In fact, when the voice inside our heads says “don’t do X,” all we can think about is X! It’s much easier to groove a new pattern and think about doing it.
  5. Blaming failure on lack of motivation.
    There are a whole lot of reasons why we have trouble sustaining change. The secret to success lies in making new behaviors easier to do.
  6. Underestimating the power of triggers.
    Neuroscience tells us that triggers play a BIG role in the things we do. If we want to break bad habits – or forge new ones – we need to be attentive to triggers that set us in motion.
  7. Believing that information leads to action.
    The psychology of change tells us that information supports individuals when they are coming to awareness of the need for change or contemplating making a change. Thereafter, it doesn’t provide much of a behavioral boost.
  8. Focusing on abstract goals rather than concrete behaviors.
    Successful change starts with getting specific about the behaviors that will lead to desired outcomes. For example, it’s not enough to say, “I want to lose 10 pounds.” The plan needs to address how that weight loss will come about – e.g., cutting X number of calories out of daily consumption and/or increasing baseline metabolism by exercising vigorously Y number of minutes per week.
  9. Seeking to change behavior forever, not for a short time.
    “Forever” is a daunting word. It seems like an insurmountable goal that brooks little tolerance for slip-ups. Alcoholics Anonymous understands this concept. The organization has helped thousands of individuals loosen the grip of addiction by practicing sobriety “one day at a time.”
  10. Assuming that behavioral change is difficult.
    Fogg assures us that behavioral change isn’t hard when supported by the right process.

So how does BJ Fogg look at change?

In simple terms, Fogg tells us that we must Trigger the desired behavior when we are Motivated and Able to do it. All three factors must be factored into process design. He illustrates with a story.

baby stepsSuppose you wanted to lose a bit of weight and improve fitness. Unfortunately, this New Year’s resolution combined with a gym membership have never gotten it done. So instead of the big lofty goal, try a simple behavioral pattern: Every time you go to the bathroom, do 20 abdominal crunches. “Get-Fit-Lose Weight” provides the motivation, the trip to the restroom provides the trigger, and the 20 sit-ups requires a bit of floor space. Groove that into a pattern for a while, then bump the reps…

What tiny steps might put you on the path to change?

How Do We Get Rid of Bad Habits?

Popular software programs provide a feature that enables users to capture programming sequences that they use habitually. It saves time and improves accuracy on repetitive tasks.

As it turns out, our brains have a similar mechanism. It manages this function in our behalf automatically. In fact, a 2006 study by Duke University revealed that 40% of our daily activities take advantage of these stored sub-routines. Charles Duhigg explores this fascinating subject in his book in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

The brain’s basal ganglia provide the means to capture and store patterns of behavior, a process referred to as “chunking.” When chunks combine to form habits, our brains can process other thoughts, or simply enjoy a quiet moment.

Other members of the animal kingdom form habits. In fact, they’ve helped researchers figure out how habits work.

For example, scientists measured brain activity in rats as they learned to navigate a maze in search of cheese. During the learning phase, brain activity remained high from the time they entered the maze (their behavioral “cues”) until they reached their rewards (cheese). Once they’d mastered the routine, brain patterns were only elevated when encountering the initial cue and when reaping the fruits – or should I say, cheese – of their labors.

brain activity and habit formation

Of course, we don’t lock in on every pattern of behavior in which we’ve engaged. The reward must be sufficiently compelling to fuel anticipation for it. Craving powers the habit loop.

Once we’ve learned a habit, it remains in our memory banks indefinitely… or, at least, a really, really long time. Unfortunately, our brains don’t discern between “good habits” and “bad habits.” Even when we work hard at bypassing the latter, “bad habits” can re-emerge at any time.

So how can we reset our wiring so that we don’t get tripped up by our “bad habits”?

First and foremost, we need to amp up our awareness so that we don’t get caught operating on autopilot. We need to identify our “cues” – that is, the triggers that cause us to launch our bad habit loops. We also need to get crystal clear on the rewards that fuel these loops.

For example, suppose I find that I consistently break away from my home office at 3 pm to watch a little TV and nosh on whatever happens to be readily available in the refrigerator. I’d ask myself: What’s really going on at 3 pm that triggers this behavior? Am I bored? Fatigued? Restless? Tapped out? What payoff am I getting from watching TV? Am I simply looking for a way to give my mind a break? Or do I really think that I’m getting some form of creative input by my daily dose of Netflix? Moreover: Am I really hungry, or am I simply finding another avenue to relieve boredom?

After getting a handle on the cues (triggers) and cravings for reward, it’s easier to think creatively about launching different routines. For example, if my 3 pm date with the TV and the refrigerator reflects a need to take and break and clear my mind, I could simply take a short walk with my dog when the urge strikes.

Duhigg describes the Gold Rule of Habit Change as follows: Keep an old cue, deliver an old reward, but insert a new routine. A “competing response” disrupts an old habit. However, a new routine can only replace the old one when it is accompanied by faith that it will work – that is, faith that things will get better, and faith in one’s coping mechanisms when facing temptation, discomfort, or suffering.

When substantive lifestyle changes are at stake, it’s helpful to identify and strengthen keystone habits. When these habits shift, they have the power to dislodge and remake other patterns. For example, the keystone habit of regular exercise tends to make people eat better, smoke less, improve sleep patterns, experience higher productivity, and feel less stress. It creates a structure in which other forwarding habits flourish while delivering a series of self-reinforcing “small wins.”

Within the realm of keystone habits, willpower reigns supreme. Strengthen willpower in one area of your life, and you reap benefits in others. The bad news: Willpower is a bit like a muscle that can get fatigued by excess use. The good news: It is aided and abetted by tactics that conserve its energy – e.g., removing temptations, drawing attention away from triggers, consistently focusing on the prize.

Finally, as social creatures, we’re often helped (or sabotaged) by the company we keep. We increase our odds of success by placing ourselves within communities that support and reinforce habits that we hope to manifest every day.

Emotional Intelligence

In the original Star Trek television series, the emotionally attuned Dr. McCoy frequently locked horns with the uber-rational Mr. Spock. McCoy wanted to factor in the human side of the equation when making crucial decisions and found Spock’s computer-like judgments harsh. In turn, Spock feared that the good doctor’s emotional sensibilities would be his undoing.

Whether we deem them valuable or not, emotions are central to how we navigate circumstances that are too important to leave to intellect alone. They sound the alarm in the face of danger and prompt immediate action. They fuel our drive to set and pursue goals. They create powerful memory imprints that guide future decisions; they streamline options and highlight attractive choices. And they give us the means to bond with a mate, build a family, and live harmoniously in community.

At a time when the Mr. Spocks of this world were regarded in highest esteem, Daniel Goleman published his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. He argued that one’s genetically-endowed intellect represented perhaps 20% of the factors that determine life success. Luck, breeding, and confidence add to the mix. But it’s the emotionally adept people who truly have the edge.

emotional intelligencePsychologists Peter Salovey and John Meyer define emotional intelligence as:

  • Being in touch with one’s own emotions as they happen without being consumed by them or caught up in judgment about them
  • Exercising mastery over our emotions – not by controlling when we have them or what they’ll be, but by determining how long they will hold sway
  • Motivating oneself based on a belief in one’s ability to meet challenges and finding solutions as they arise; delaying gratification, as appropriate
  • Recognizing emotions in others and providing empathetic responses
  • Managing relationships effectively – e.g., putting others at ease, shaping encounters, wielding influence, mobilizing and inspiring others, forging intimacy

Emotional intelligence gives us the capacity to take full advantage of our cognitive abilities, powers of concentration, and other talents. We lose ourselves in the moment without the burden of self-consciousness or emotional static. In fact, this ability to enter “flow” is a prerequisite for mastery in one’s craft.

Anger, anxiety, and depression diminish our capacity to learn and sabotage academic performance. Anger is a seductive emotion given its penchant toward self-righteousness and revenge. Venting amps up the brain’s arousal; successive anger-provoking thoughts add fuel to the fire. Chronic worry – i.e., rehearsing what might go wrong – creates a low level of anxiety that becomes impervious to reason. It’s not conducive to generating novel solutions or fresh ideas. Grief and bereavement for losses is healthy; they go awry when morphed into chronic depression. Options to address these unhelpful emotions:

  • Cognitive reframing – i.e., intentionally narrating circumstances in a positive light
  • Distracting oneself with a pleasurable, non-addictive activity
  • Exercising to release endorphins
  • Engineering a success (self-confidence booster), no matter how small
  • Laughing, which makes folks think broadly and associate freely.
    (Note: Good moods bias thinking in a positive direction and help lay down congenial memories.)

Empathy is a key social ability. It equips the individual to understand other people’s feelings, to view the world from their vantage-point, and to respect differences in opinions and sensibilities. Strong relationship skills also include:

  • Being a good listener and asking relevant questions to draw others out
  • Distinguishing between what someone says and does from one’s own judgments and reactions about them
  • Being appropriately assertive rather than angry or passive
  • Mastering the arts of cooperation, conflict resolution, and compromise
  • Organizing groups into effective teams; exercising leadership

Organizational superstars ply their social skills to establish dense networks of relationships on multiple fronts. The quantity and quality of relationships help them buffer stress. Emotional support confers healing power in times of trouble. Strong social connections tend to be associated with high functioning immune response.

Family life is our first school for emotional learning. Parents who possess a solid understanding of emotional intelligence have an advantage in shaping their children’s future. Seven key ingredients impact a child’s capacity to learn: confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness, capacity to communicate, and cooperativeness.

For those whose childhoods fell short of textbook grooming in emotional intelligence, there are evidenced-based programs to cultivate emotional intelligence. They cover emotional skills (e.g., identifying, assessing, and managing feelings), cognitive skills (e.g., reading and interpreting social cues), and behavioral skills (e.g., sending relationship-forwarding signals to others via verbal and non-verbal cues).

True Grit

“I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic.”
– Will Smith, Actor

Dr. Angela Duckworth, PhD bristles when people attribute greatness to “natural talent.” She understands our tendency to believe that superstar achievers somehow arrive fully formed – i.e., that their particular geniuses arise spontaneously. But natural ability merely suggests a potential for high achievement. What we do with that endowment makes all the difference. She explores the means through which greatness is acquired in her seminal book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

gritGrit is characterized by enduring devotion. While passion serves as the compass that guides the long and winding road to mastery, enthusiasm comes readily to many who never start or complete their journeys. Perseverance creates the uncommonly successful individual who sustains quiet determination in the face of obstacles and the array of shiny new distractions.

If grit is a keystone to success, can it be developed over one’s lifetime?

Dr. Duckworth’s research says YES! She identifies four psychological assets that cultivate grit from the inside out:

INTEREST: A gaggle of research suggests that when people follow their passions, they experience greater job satisfaction and life happiness. Yet it’s a myth that the act of falling in love with our pursuits is sudden and swift. The science tells us that passion entails discovery, followed by development and a lifetime of deepening. It takes curiosity to engage in the exploration and a willingness to be an unskilled, awkward beginner. Interests take root after multiple encounters and thrive amid a chorus of supporters.

PRACTICE: Experts consistently apply effort with the goal of continuous improvement. They set stretch goals and work on weaknesses. They solicit and act on feedback. They engage in tireless repetition until they’re reached their goals and the associated skills become second nature. Then they start the process all over again. Experts are also attentive to the times of days and forms of practice that prove most effective for them. Routines are their friends.

“Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.”
–  Don Chambliss, Sociologist

PURPOSE: Passion intensifies when interest/expertise connects with other people, plays a role in a bigger picture, and serves as an expression of deeply held values. This level of engagement typically appears after self-oriented interest and self-disciplined practice. Prosocial sensibilities feed our basic human need to connect and our desire to be useful. Some refer to it as fulfilling a “calling.”

HOPE: Gritty individuals look for temporary and specific reasons for their setbacks and have confidence in their ability to overcome them. They believe that intelligence and competency can be improved with effort. They learn from their mistakes and seek out experiences that will make them stronger and better. They practice positive self-talk and ask for help when needed.

Dr. Duckworth also says that grit can be cultivated from the outside in; attentive parenting and supportive coaching can help young people develop it. As a case in point, a 1978 study by Warren Willingham found that the number one indicator of success in young adulthood was follow-through – that is, multi-year participation in extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, debate team, marching band, orchestra, choir, dance). This engagement cultivates industriousness while affording the opportunity for skill improvement and achievement.

Psychologically wise teachers can have a tremendous impact on student learning. For example, they can critique yet challenge students as follows: “I’m giving you feedback because I have high expectations and I know you can reach them.”

Individuals do well when encouraged to think of themselves as persons who overcome adversity. When something unexpected crops up, they’re asked to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. As she says:

“To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”

The reward? Grittier people live longer and enjoy healthier emotional lives.

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.