I think it’s fair to say that most parents want their children to succeed in school. If, in effect that is the case, then I guess the question becomes – how? How do children achieve academic success and how do their parents help them? I’m sure there are many ways…, I guess. One way I know works is having a growth mindset. According to Standford professor Carol Dweck a growth mindset leads to academic success. Carol Dweck is considered a pioneer in the study of human motivation. She is best known for her research on mindsets. According to Dweck we have two ways to look at our abilities, intelligence and skills, with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. From these two different mindsets come two very different ways of behaving.
People with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence is fixed, it can’t grow nor change. People with a fixed mindset believe they are who they are and that’s just how it is. “I’m really not a math person.” “I’m this way and that’s just who I am.” “You’re the writer, your brother is the scientist.” Are all examples of fixed mindset thinking. I have what I have and I can’t do anything about it. What makes academics challenging in the face of a fixed mindset is the belief that you can’t do better, because you only have a certain amount of ability. As a result of this belief people with a fixed mindset tend to give up more easily, they tend not to persist.
People with a growth mindset believe that with effective effort they can grow and change and improve. People with a growth mindset believe that they can become better versions of themselves. “I didn’t do well on my math test, next time I’m going to test myself while I’m studying, I bet that will help me do better.” Is an example of growth mindset thinking. What makes a child with a growth mindset academically successful is the proactive behavior that arises as a result of the belief that they can do better. Children with a growth mindset persevere more, they are undaunted by adversity, failure and challenges. They don’t worry about seeming dumb because they know they can get smarter – they can grow their intelligence.
The beauty of the idea of a growth mindset is that it can be fostered. As parents and teachers we can help our children cultivate a growth mindset. In the coming weeks I will be writing about what the research shows fosters a growth mindset.
The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right, the Declaration of Independence says so. The operative word here being pursuit. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t say you are guaranteed to be happy just because…, it says you are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness.
So what is happiness anyway? Before I tell you what happiness is, let me first tell you what it isn’t. It’s not marrying prince or princess charming, it isn’t having all the money in the world. Happiness isn’t a destination. Happiness isn’t being in a good mood all the time and smiling all the time. It isn’t avoiding upsetting or negative feelings (actually it’s quite the opposite).
So how is happiness defined? According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky happiness is defined as a combination of feeling positive emotions and experiencing a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. I’d say the positive emotions part is pretty self explanatory. So what gives our lives meaning, makes them good and worthwhile? Well, many things give our life meaning and value – organized religion, social support is a big one, service – as in doing for others, goal achieving, among other things. Let me give you an example. For the most part parents believe that children give their lives meaning and value. Children aren’t always a source of positive emotions (to put it mildly) but most parents unequivocally claim that, in the big picture, their children give their lives meaning and value and thus are a great source of happiness.
The last part of Dr. Lyubomirsky’s definition is important because we all engage in activities that, at the moment might not bring us positive emotions, they might not make us happy or bring us joy, however when all is said and done, these activities bring us immense satisfaction and happiness. It is kind of counter intuitive to the idea of happiness and the whole notion of positive emotions as a source of happiness. However, if we are talking about real, lasting happiness this idea is very important. Think about it, when you work really hard on a project that turns out well, you might not feel happy while you are working hard, but when it’s over you feel immense happiness and that happiness lasts for awhile. Same goes for when you exercise, try something new or do anything that challenges you. If being happy is so important, then I believe it is just as important to be aware that the activities that give our lives meaning and value and happiness might not be the same (by a long shot) as the ones that give us immediate positive emotions.
Our self-talk is a key resilience skill. Being aware of what we are telling ourselves when we experience difficulty offers us the opportunity to take the unproductive, unrealistic, inaccurate thoughts that are causing us to feel and behave in self-defeating ways and challenge them. Like someone standing up to a bully, when we challenge our thoughts that are destructive, we can stop the damage they inflict on our well-being and happiness.
Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves. If we aren’t aware of what we are saying to ourselves, it’s hard to change our thoughts. When this happens, when we can’t hear our self-talk, we can at least try to be aware of the cognitive distortions we are using. While cognitive distortions can be automatic, we can usually listen for certain words we are using – shoulds, terrible, always, never, etc, which signal a cognitive distortion. Once we notice these words we can begin to challenge the thoughts which encase these distortions.
There are many ways to challenge cognitive distortions, the goal of challenging our cognitive distortions is to find a more realistic, balanced way to explain to ourselves why something happened. It’s like being the judge of your own thoughts – are these thoughts facts or opinions. If our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real then they are opinions not facts, therefore we can replace one belief for another one. We can look for a more accurate, balanced belief to replace it with. When we challenge our cognitive distortions we are making our thinking more accurate. When we think more accurately we tend to feel less bad. Please note – we are not going for thinking positively, we are going for thinking more accurately and feeling less bad. This is a very important distinction, the objective is a more balanced and helpful way of thinking. It’s important to emphasize that we will not eliminate all difficult emotions when we challenge our cognitive distortions, that’s not what well-being is about.
Again, what we are going for when we challenge our thoughts is accurate, realistic thinking, the kind of thinking that is in your own best interest. We are NOT looking to eliminate negative feelings. Knowing how to cope with the whole spectrum of feelings is part of being resilient. We are looking to eliminate inaccurate, unrealistic negative feelings.
I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember, in order to function in this world we need to make sense of it (and right now that’s no easy task). We make sense of it by explaining to ourselves why things happen. The more mentally flexible we are, the more accurate we can be in our explanations as to why a given situation took place. The more accurate we are in our explanations the more resilient we will be. Most of us have consistent ways of explaining why something happened, we have patterns of explanations. Within those patterns of explanations we all use what we call Cognitive Distortions or Irrational Beliefs.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause people to see reality inaccurately. They are beliefs that are irrational and inaccurate and are usually associated with negative feelings. We all have cognitive distortions and we tend to use the same distortions repeatedly. The thing about these errors in thinking is they happen automatically, we don’t intentionally think inaccurately, but we do. And the thing about cognitive distortions is that we feel bad when we think distortedly. When we perceive an event distortedly or irrationally we are negatively impacting our well-being. Remember our thoughts drive our feelings and behavior. By thinking distortedly we are making ourselves feel worse than need be.
So for example, in the face of an upset, I can say to myself “Why am I always (over generalization) reacting this way?! I shouldn’t (should statements) feel this way, this is just terrible (catastrophizing.)” or I can say to myself, “Why am I reacting this way! I really wish I didn’t feel this way, but I do. I know it will pass soon.” The content of what I am saying to myself is very different in each case and will have a different effect on my subsequent feelings and behavior. Always, shouldn’t and terrible are cognitive distortions. If we can hear what we say to ourselves in our efforts to make sense of the world, especially the cognitive distortions we use, we can harness that ability in order to be more accurate and flexible in service of reframing our thoughts or challenging our beliefs
Remember, resilience is not only the ability to overcome adversity, it’s the ability to accept what is beyond our control and make the best happen. There really isn’t much we can do about what life sends our way, but there is a whole lot we can do about how we deal with it.
During times like these I can’t stress enough the importance of social support. I know, social support right now is what we are all craving and what remains most elusive. However social support comes in many forms. Remember social support is not defined by the quantity of people in our lives nor the physical presence of the person. Social support is defined by the quality of our relationships. You don’t have to be face to face with a person to have a quality relationship. And research is really clear, social support is correlated to well-being. In case you doubt the importance of social support this is a video on a very well known longitudinal study called the Harvard Study, it explains the importance of social support.
In case you still continue to doubt the importance of social support, this is a wonderful podcast (done at the beginning of the pandemic) on the research on social support and how to beat the sense of loneliness during these times. Dr. Laurie Santos is a Yale professor. In 2018 she offered Yale’s most popular class entitled Psychology and the Good Life.
So, in an effort to make the best happen, to help yourself be more resilient, I see this as an opportunity to build community, reach out to people. Call people, skype, zoom, facetime, conference call whatever you choose but reach out. Keep in contact. Be creative about reaching out and being in contact. And be flexible about your expectations.
I have spent countless hours teaching about the importance of a growth mindset and how to foster it. At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about the importance of self-compassion. I just love the idea of self-compassion. As Kristin Neff says we are harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. I believe we all could use a little more self-compassion nowadays. So how does a growth mindset and self-compassion relate? Well, I just read this article on how to silence your inner critic and learned how they relate.
The voice of our inner critic can be so loud that it makes it hard to hear our voice of self-compassion. Besides we really aren’t as well versed in self-compassion as we are in self criticizing and now is NOT the time to be criticizing ourselves (much less anyone else). One of the motivators for self criticism is when we feel we aren’t or haven’t been good enough – we fell short of a standard we held for ourselves. We yelled at the kids, didn’t help with schoolwork, had to cancel something, the list can be endless. During this difficult time, it’s very easy to not feel good enough.
I find the idea of holding ourselves and our loved ones to the standard of goodish as opposed to good a wonderful idea! Goodish gives us the room to grow, to learn, to improve, it rolls a growth mindset and self-compassion into one idea and makes us more resilient. Goodish implies we are on a learning curve, kind of like when we use yet in a growth mindset conversation. To me goodish means we have the desire to be good and the self-acceptance to acknowledge and allow that stuff can happen along the way. Goodish implies tolerance for being human, plus the hope that we will improve and become a better person. When we expect ourselves to be goodish we hold ourselves to a high standard knowing that there is always room to grow.
So…what does the world of goodish look like? Well, let’s say you’re on a business call (zoom, skype, facetime, you pick it) and despite the fact that you threatened your kids with their lives, your son comes running in yelling mommy, mommy. And of course you get very upset. Well that reaction would be from your old world of good. In your new world of goodish your reaction is different. Here are a few options:
If you are using self-compassion you could say to yourself, “Well that didn’t go the way I wanted it to go! I wish it had gone as I had expected it to go. The times are difficult, I did the best I could, I bet most parents have a story to tell about their kids disturbing their calls.” You might take a few breaths, treat yourself to something special (self-compassion) and share the story with a friend (social support).
You could take a moment to access your thoughts. Are you saying to yourself, “Well, that was awful, I’m so embarrassed. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for the kids to ever listen.” You could then challenge your thoughts. You could ask yourself, “Am I thinking in all or nothing terms (awful). Am I using “exaggerating” words, such as never, always, forever, need should, or must (ever listen).” You could try replacing “awful” with something like “not how I wanted it” and you could replace “hard for the kids to ever listen” with “they didn’t listen this time.”
Please note that in the examples you are using your ability to be flexible. Also please note we are looking for goodish, nothing more. We are looking to use the resilience skills that best work for you to go from miserable to less miserable. We aren’t looking to go from miserable to elation. Going from miserable to less miserable allows you to feel good enough to continue going, which is what will allow you to make sustainable change.
Welcome to the new world of goodish!
Resilience is the ability to overcome adversity. Actually, it’s not simply the ability to overcome adversity it’s the ability to overcome adversity effectively. It’s the ability to navigate through difficulty so as to come out of it as you were or even better. We can overcome adversity in many ways. According to Dr. Lucy Hone, a well-being and resilience expert and associate researcher at AUT University, there are three strategies to help you be more resilient.
1. Knowing that suffering is part of life. According to Dr. Hone, knowing that suffering is part of life staves off a sense of entitlement. It keeps us from asking, “Why me?” Asking why me tends to make us feel worse, by making the person feel alone. Implicit in the question why me is thinking the person suffering is the only one doing so. This idea reminds me of one of the components of self-compassion – common humanity vs. isolation. Knowing that suffering is part of life ties us to the shared human experience. While suffering is grueling, feeling bad for feeling bad makes it even more grueling. Thus, having a keen awareness that suffering is part of the human experience allows us to be resilient.
2. Carefully choosing where you direct your attention. We are the arbiters of where we place our attention. We can choose where we decide to shine our mental spotlight. As I’ve said many times, the negative calls to us, we are hardwired to focus on the negative. Having said that however, we also know that with effort we can focus our attention where we choose. Again, I’m not advocating for closing a blind eye to difficulty, much less feeling its effects. What I am advocating for is being proactive. I’m advocating for choosing what’s best for you and subsequently placing your attention there.
As Dr. Hone says, resilient people have a way of tuning in to the good around them. This is called benefit-finding or hunting the good or focusing on the positive. Benefit finding is defined as experiencing positive outcomes following adverse life events. This means we have to choose to find the good in order to experience those positive outcomes.
3. Ask yourself: “Is what I’m doing helping me or harming me?” What a simple but powerful question! We don’t always act intuitively in our own best interest. Asking yourself this question gives you the ability to act in your own best interest. Asking yourself this question gives you control over your actions. It allows you to respond rather than react. It gives you the opportunity to take a beat and proceed thoughtfully. When we respond to a situation, because we are in control, we tend to feel better about ourselves. Asking yourself if what you are doing is helping you or harming you can be applied to every context. Is what I’m thinking helping me? Is what I’m doing helping me? Is how I’m behaving helping me? “
In conclusion, when life gets tough I encourage you to try these strategies. I also encourage you to have realistic expectations about the effects these strategies will have. The only way real change happens is gradually.
This week I’ve been thinking about hope and optimism. Hope and optimism tend to be used interchangeably therefore I’m going to make life easy and stick to the word hope. Hope is defined as believing the future will be a brighter one and knowing how to make that happen. Research is really clear – hope and psychological well-being are correlated. And I believe that at a time like this, hope is of the utmost importance for our survival, let alone well-being. Having hope is what will get us through!
I want to make something very, very clear. When I talk about hope I’m not talking about blind hope and I’m not talking about ignoring the difficulties in life. This is not an either/or proposition it’s an and proposition. I’m talking about feeling the entire spectrum of feelings AND including hope. However, I’m talking about a realistic hope, one that acknowledges the reality of the situation, enables us to deal with it and looks forward to making the future brighter. Usually this kind of hope is called realistic optimism (remember I’m using the word hope just to make things easier). And has a lot to do with our thoughts (See last weeks posting).
I know these are uncertain times. What’s the future going to look like, will the virus come back, will there be enough testing, will the kids go back to school in the fall, what will that look like, and on and on the uncertainty goes. Even though the future is uncertain it doesn’t mean we can’t have hope. The beauty of hope is, irrespective of what is happening around you, if you are a hopeful person you will always find things to be hopeful about. The beauty of hope that it can happen during the tough times. Actually, at least for me, when things get tough, is when I am most hopeful. Hope is what gets me up in the morning after having had a bad day – the knowledge and excitement that I can make the new day a better one gives me hope. Remember a lot about being hopeful is what you tell yourself, your thoughts.
The beauty of hope is that since it is a belief in a brighter future and in one’s ability to achieve that future, hope prompts a person to action. And action fosters a sense of self-efficacy and self-control and when we feel self-efficacious and in control we feel good. In other words, put in very simple terms, when you are hopeful you act and when you act you tend to feel better.
So how do we have hope? There are many ways to help yourself be hopeful. Your Best Possible Future Exercise was developed by Laura King and has been proven to substantially increase hope. Hope researcher Shane Lopez says that the best way to be a hopeful person is to have hopeful people in your life, according to him hope is contagious. And last but not least, Action for Happiness does a monthly calendar on actions you can take everyday to increase happiness. Their Optimistic October calendar is full of hopeful ideas.
One of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember our thoughts are just beliefs we make real. Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves – what our thoughts are, which can be problematic especially during times of adversity. Theory tells us that anxiety comes from thinking about the future and depression from thinking about the past. So, for example, when you start to think about what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, or next fall, you will start to get anxious. When you start to think about what you should or should not have done, the regrets of the past, you will most likely start to get depressed. Where does that leave your thoughts, you ask? It leaves them in the present, in the moment, in the here and now. So when you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed the best way to help yourself out of those feelings is to pull your thoughts into the moment. How do you do this, well that’s where all the previous skills we’ve talked about come in as well as the title of this email. When you find yourself in need of diverting your thoughts, when you are anxious or depressed and don’t want to feel that way, use any one of the resilience skills you have learned about, to pull your thoughts into the present. Remember flexibility is critical to well-being and resilience.
So for example self-compassion is a great way to pull your thoughts into the present. When you are anxious or depressed being kind to yourself, as opposed to beating yourself up (which is what most of us tend to do), is a very effective way to bring your thoughts into the moment. Acknowledging your anxiety or depression, not judging yourself for feeling the way you do is a great beginning. Then instead of saying to yourself, “Why am I feeling this way!” saying to yourself, “I bet most people are(would be) feeling this way, I’m really not alone in how I’m feeling,” brings your thoughts further into the present. And finally being able to tell yourself I feel X right now but these feelings will not last forever, further brings your thoughts into the present.
Focusing on your character strengths is another great way to bring your thoughts into the present and to make good happen. So when you are feeling anxious or depressed deploy some of your signature strengths. Remember character strengths are the traits we all have which allow us to be at our best and being at our best makes us feel good and feeling good brings us into the present. So, when you are about to undertake anything, it doesn’t matter what, consciously channel some of your strengths to help you do it. Channeling a strength takes your mind off the past or future and brings it into the present, it allows you to attend to the activity at hand. So, for example, when I write these emails, sometimes I wonder, will this email be good, will it help, will it…, when I deploy humor, perseverance and kindness (some of my signature strengths) I am able to simply focus on writing the email at hand, no wondering about all the wills (the future) and I feel less anxious.
Now for gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most simple, elegant and effective ways to bring your thoughts into the present. Count your blessings, think about what life would be like without something wonderful, or just plain and simply give thanks to someone – phone a friend, grab an offspring, reach out to a family member, tell them how grateful you are to them for… Gratitude is an amazing way to bring your thoughts into the present, it’s a win/win for everyone.
So, in summary, when you feel anxious it is because you are probably thinking/worrying about the future. When you feel depressed it is because you are probably thinking about the past. If you drag your thoughts into the present, into the moment you will help yourself feel less anxious or depressed. Remember we aren’t going for elation we are going for less of what we are already feeling.
I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Contrary to what most people think, in the face of difficulty, or any event for that matter, it is our thoughts not the event that cause us to feel and react. What we tell ourselves will either perpetuate adversity or stymie it. Our thoughts are our explanation as to why something happened. Our thoughts are our way of making sense of life, they are our way of understanding why X event took place. In order to effectively deal with life we must understand why things happen. For example, you have a fight with your best friend. How upset you get and what you subsequently do is based on what you tell yourself about that fight, how you make sense of it. Do you say to yourself, “Every close relationship has its ups and downs, I’ll just give it time. I think we were both in bad moods. I’ll call Jane tomorrow.” Or do you say, “Well there goes that relationship, she’ll never want to talk to me again and I don’t really want to talk to her. She is always getting mad. I’m never going to call her again.” If you explain the incident to yourself by saying every close relationship has its ups and downs as opposed to she is always getting mad and we’ll never talk to each other (both viable explanations) the subsequent behavior is very different. The results of these two different ways of thinking prompts two very different outcomes. Our explanations help us or hinder us. Our thoughts either allow us to deal effectively and go forward or not.
Our explanations of an event are based on a multitude of factors. However, simply put, our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real. If this weren’t the case then we would all hold the same beliefs and behave in the same way. If this weren’t the case we would all have the same explanation for the same event. But we don’t. Furthermore, more often than not, we usually aren’t aware of our explanations of events. For many, a large portion of their explanations reside in the realm of the unconscious. And therein lies the challenge to resilience. The more aware we are of what we say to ourselves in the face of adversity, the easier it is to be resilient. If we can hear our thoughts then we can make ourselves more resilient.
The beauty of this idea is, much like life, you can’t control the event however, you CAN control the thoughts that arise as a result of the event. So, if you are aware of what you are saying to yourself, let’s say for example during this difficult time, and what you are saying is not conducive to resilience then you can challenge your thoughts to help yourself become more resilient. This is not always an easy task, but it is one well worth the while.
In summary, when you find yourself feeling off, bothered, or just plain upset, search for your thoughts. Ask yourself, “What am I saying to myself?” Once you become aware of what you are saying to yourself, take those thoughts, one by one and challenge them. Ask yourself, “Are these thoughts accurate, would a jury of 12 of my peers say the same things, would my best friend say this?” Use any technique that works for you to break up the counterproductive thoughts. Remember our thoughts are just beliefs we make real. You can replace one thought for another one. Remember, you are not going to change radically, you are not going from upset to elated, you are going to go from upset to a little less upset.