I consider myself a positive psychologist. Not really sure what that means, but ever since I did a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology I felt like I found my niche. I believe pursuing well-being and happiness and flourishing are a valid goal in life. While alleviating pain and disease is important for a good life, for psychology I’m dubious as to whether alleviating disease is the only route towards increasing well-being and experiencing happiness.
Having said all of this I’m not completely convinced that happiness and well-being as most people conceptualize it is always attainable. First let’s define happiness, I think the most common definition is experiencing positive emotions. According to the Greater Good Science Center Magazine happiness involves feeling positive generally and about life overall. I’ve come to believe that it’s not always possible to feel positive in general or about life overall.
Life happens, suffering happens, ill-being happens, there’s no getting away from it. After many years of teaching about resilience and happiness, I’ve come to embrace the idea that maybe feeling less bad is a goal that is almost as worthy as feeling happy or experiencing well-being, it is a positive psychology concept. I’m not advocating for feeling less bad all the time, but I am advocating for some self-compassion during those times of difficulty and opting to try and feel less bad. I find myself telling students that if you add up feeling less bad over time, it could feel pretty darn good. Many times feeling less bad is easier to achieve than feeling happy.
Starting today what can you do differently to accept the idea of feeling less bad as good enough? Well first understand what happiness really is, dismystify the concept, most people feel they should just know what happiness is. Next, during those difficult times practice self-compassion. And lastly, plain and simply give yourself permission not to always need to be happy.
I’ve never met a person who doesn’t want to be happy. So what is keeping us from being happy?
Actually the Declaration of Independence tells us what is keeping people from being happy. Most people focus on the happiness part of the pursuit of happiness. They seem to over look the pursuit part, as I see it this is a big problem. As I’ve said many times, contrary to what most people think, we aren’t entitled to be happy just because we think we are, or because we wake up in the morning or because … you name it. Happiness is really hard work.
Why don’t people work as hard to become happy as they do to become physically fit, learn something new or make more money? I think it is because many people have the misconception that happiness is a destination. The belief is, if I (fill this in with anything – marry, make more money, have fun) then I will be happy. Happiness is not a destination, it’s not Miami Beach. Happiness is more like Disneyland. You can visit it, and you can visit more and more often the harder you work at it. The irony here is that, in theory, working hard and achieving something tends to make us happy, except most people don’t know that, so they just feel sorry for themselves for having to work so hard (at something that should just happen). No one leaves this earth having lived happily ever after without having worked hard at it.
Starting today what can you do differently to work hard to make yourself happy. You can set goals, achievable, relevant ones. Ones you can break down into small steps, so that you can actively pursue them. You can join a group, a charity, a religious group or a political group. Being part of something bigger than yourself gives life meaning and it also makes you feel good. You can learn something new, preferably something that will challenge you. According to Michael Csikszentmihalyi the most productive state a person can enter is a state of flow, when the task at hand is challenging but not overly challenging. The bonus here is that learning something new also gives us a sense of achievement and according to Martin Seligman achievement is a pillar of happiness. You can learn some form of mindfulness meditation. Again learning something new tends to make people happy. And needless to say learning to be mindful, being in the present also tends to make us happy.
Starting today what will you choose to do differently?
How often do you think about the questions you ask? Actually now that I think about it, the question I really want to ask is, How often do you ask questions bearing in mind the result you want?
Like I’ve said before questions create our reality, honestly they create the world we live in. What do I mean by this? Most of our actions and interactions are initiated by a question. Let me give you a few examples. When I woke up this morning one of my first questions to myself was do I want to exercise? (the answer is usually no, but I still ask the question) Sometimes I will then ask myself how can I motivate myself to do exercise. I then go on to ask myself a slew of other questions which will subsequently form my day.
An example of how questions initiate our interactions and subsequently create our reality is when parents ask children how their day was? The answer usually is a FINE and maybe an eye roll – not exactly the kind of interaction most parents hope for. Most parents tell me that the ensuing interaction is not very gratifying. Nevertheless parents still continue to ask the same question.
What I’m proposing is to start thinking about the outcomes you want and then formulating your question based on that. Let me give you an example. I know exercise is good for me, I usually feel good after I’ve exercised, so I would like to exercise. I’ve found that instead of asking myself do I want to exercise today, if I ask myself when am I going to exercise today, it is more likely that I will exercise. That small change in the question begets a different outcome. The same with asking your children how their day was. What do you really hope to get from that question? Do you want to bother your children (keep asking the same question), annoy yourself (again keep asking the same questions) or learn more about your children’s lives (“Which class did you find most interesting today?”), forge a closer relationship (“How was that test you studied so hard for last night?”), let them know you are interested in them (“Were you able to talk to Jane about the misunderstanding you had?”)? Bearing in mind the purpose of the question I suggest you change what you ask.
Starting today what can you do differently? Take time to think about what results you want when you ask a question and formulate your question based on that information. Do I want to know…(How was the presentation you gave?), do I want to have a laugh (What was the funniest part of your day?), do I want to know more about my child (Who did you have lunch with?) (Obviously this is all based on knowing your child and what is going on in their life). Remember the more specific and targeted your question the better the answer. The more you do this the easier it will become.
Starting today what will you do differently?
Who doesn’t want to be happy? As I’ve said before I think it is pretty safe to say most people want to be happy. What keeps them from being happy? I believe the many myths of happiness keep people from being happy.
The biggest myth of happiness is you are who you are, as in you can’t get happier. Granted some people have a sunnier disposition than others and we do have what is called a set point for happiness, however, this does not mean we can’t make ourselves happier. We might not become as jolly as our jolliest friend, nevertheless, with a little effort, we can make ourselves happier, we can move that set point.
The second biggest myth of happiness is believing when I get that raise, promotion, married, children I will be so happy. Happiness isn’t a state we can achieve, it isn’t an end product, it’s a by product. Happiness isn’t a place you can arrive to and stay permanently if you work hard enough. Happiness is a place you can go to more and more frequently, but not a place you can hope to stay permanently. The irony here is if you can accept this fact you can visit happyland more often and for longer. Extrinsic goals don’t bring us happiness.
Another myth of happiness is believing that when you become happy you only experience positive emotions. This is very far from the truth. Happiness is about experiencing the whole range of emotions equally. Granted the optimum is experiencing more positive emotions than negative, but not experiencing any negative emotions does not equate to greater happiness. Experiencing only positive emotions doesn’t bring us happiness
Another myth of happiness is believing that material goods bring happiness. Because of hedonic adaptation this notion is very far from true. We adapt easily to both the good and the bad, when we get that raise, that big house, the shinny car or whatever, truth be told we will adapt to it, the joy will wear off and we will move on to wanting the next thing. Material goods don’t bring us happiness.
Starting today what can you do differently? You can start by being more realistic about being happy. When you feel bad, instead of trying to push the bad feelings away, invite them in. I’m not suggesting to wallow in anger, self-pity, jealousy etc, etc, I’m suggesting to acknowledge the feeling, feel the feeling, it will make it easier to move on. You can remember that material goods don’t bring happiness, however, how you use those material goods does. Remember doing for others and being with others brings happiness.
Starting today what will you do differently?
Yes/no or maybe. Which is it, or is it? Thinking in terms of either/or can be very useful. Binary thinking is a great way to compress information, it allows us to respond quickly to a dangerous situation. Compressing information helps us survive. It helps us to make quick decisions. Putting our thoughts into categories helps us begin to process our thoughts, it’s an important starting point. The operative words being starting point.
When we leave our thoughts in categories we are doing ourself and others a disservice, we are failing to see the entirety of the interaction. Cognitive distortions are good examples of binary thinking, should/should not, fair/unfair. Cognitive distortions are a great example of compressing information albeit a dysfunctional form of thinking. When we think in terms of good/bad, pretty/ugly, right/wrong, my way or the highway, etc, etc we are missing the nuance of life. This type of thinking does not allow us to think flexibly and makes our lives more difficult.
Flexible thinking is important because it allows you to calibrate your response to the situation at hand by seeing all the colors of the story. This in turn allows you to choose your response as opposed to reacting. So instead of basing your response on feelings or thoughts that might not be rooted in the moment flexible thinking allows you to see all your options and choose the most appropriate response. Flexible thinking makes life better because by allowing you to respond appropriately to the situation at hand you are also enhancing your relationships. You are enhancing your relationships because you are responding from a place of current experience.
How do you become a flexible thinker? I believe the best way is begin is to be curious. Why is this the way it is, why did that person say that, what does that mean? Being curious motivates you to understand the other person’s perspective. And seeing something from someone else’s perspective is the essence of flexible thinking and empathy. Make a list of as many other alternatives as you can think of. Another way to become a flexible thinker is to practice mindfulness. Taking a moment to react will give you the opportunity to respond effectively. There is something to be said for counting to ten.
If self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish the tasks they set out to do and one of the ways to instill a sense of self-efficacy in your child is to give them the opportunity to master as many tasks as possible where does that leave all the helicopter, lawn mower and good intentioned parents out there?
I believe it leaves them standing next to their children instead of taking over for them. Let me explain. Most parents hate to see their children suffer. Whether it be a difficult task, an upsetting encounter or … you name it. The instinct is to say let me help you. But what does help mean? Is help taking over and doing what needs to be done? Or is help standing next to your child and saying, “Ok, let’s try this again” and standing next to your child while they try again and maybe again and maybe again? Remember when your child started to walk and fell down. Did you jump in and tell him to sit down, not to bother to try again or did you offer your hands so they could hold on while they tried it again.
I believe that the best way to teach your child to be self-efficacious and to have great self-esteem is to stand next to your child, to offer them your hands. What I mean by standing next to your child is being there for your child, being a resource, a kind smile, a gentle encouragement, a warm hug, but not robbing your child of their opportunities of mastery by taking over for them when they are struggling. I know most parents take over in good faith, their hearts are in a great place but the result, the message they send their child when they do this is not conducive to self-efficacy. The message they send is, “You can’t do this, I can, it’s not worth trying (no need to persist).” Standing next to your child on the other hand is saying, “I believe in you, I’m here for you and will help you if you need (not take over) and will be here until you achieve what you want and you got this.” Keep going, keep trying, it’s worth it, you can do it, I’ll be here next to you. That’s the difference between standing next to your child and taking over.
Starting today, when your child struggles, where will you choose to stand?
We all experience hardship and difficulty in life, what keeps some people upbeat and optimistic while others get down and pessimistic, is their explanatory style.
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and leading authority on optimism/pessimism, a person’s explanatory style can lead to optimism or pessimism. A person’s explanatory style refers to how a person explains to themselves the causes of events. A person’s explanatory style lies along three dimensions – permanent/temporary, pervasiveness/localized and personal/external. Pessimists explain negative events as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists explain negative events as temporary, localized and external. Let’s break this down.
Permanent refers to how reversible a negative event will be. Will the negative event last forever and/or happen over and over. Or is the negative event time bound and/or be a one shot deal. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you don’t get a promotion. You say to yourself, “I’ll never get promoted” (permanent) vs “I didn’t get promoted this time, thank heavens there’s another review in a few months” (temporary). Whereas the second explanation was temporary, I will have another chance, the first explanation is permanent, I will never get promoted. You went from not getting this promotion to never getting another promotion.
Pervasiveness refers to how many areas of a person’s life the negative event will bleed into or permeate. An example of pervasiveness is when the cake you are baking doesn’t turn out you say to yourself, “I give up I just can’t cook, I’m done” vs “This was a hard recipe, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but dinner sure was good.” Do you let the failed caked take all the joy out of every part of your cooking or do you realize that the failed cake means that this one time this one cake didn’t turn out well and has nothing to do with anything else in regard to your cooking.
Personalization refers to how much blame (not responsibility, blame, there’s a difference) a person takes for the negative event. In the failed cake examples above do you say, “I can’t do anything right!” vs “That was a hard recipe, it was a very confusing recipe.” Do you blame yourself or do you realistically acknowledge how hard the recipe was.
Being aware of what you say to yourself, your explanatory style, in the face of adversity is the first step towards becoming a more optimistic person.
The questions we ask create the world we live in. The questions we ask determine our actions. Not only do questions determine our actions, they also determine our interactions.
The answer we give to the questions we ask pave the road we walk on. They pave the road we walk on by determining where we place our focus. Most people tend not to give too much thought to their questions. However, if questions create the world we live in, it might be a good idea to pose the type of question that creates the type of world we’d like to inhabit. And the thing about questions is we ask a lot of them, all day long.
For example you get up in the morning and ask yourself, “What shall I have for breakfast?” This question determines your subsequent behavior, the road you shall walk down. The answer you give to this question can take you in many directions and create a variety of outcomes, it can create all kinds of worlds. If you answer, “Well I’ll just have something quick,” you might grab the cold pizza left over from last night. If you answer, “I’d really like to have something healthy and nutritious,” you might consider whipping up a bowl of oatmeal. The answer to your original question plants the first paver on the road to a type of life. So maybe, instead of asking yourself, “What shall I have for breakfast?” consider changing the question by asking yourself, “What is the healthiest thing I can have for breakfast?” If you want to loose weight. Or if you are in a hurry but still want to eat healthy, “What’s the quickest, healthiest thing I can have for breakfast?” Remember the questions you ask create the world you live in.
Questions also determine our interactions. Your child/spouse/roommate comes home from school/work and you ask, “How was your day?” The answer you get will determine the ensuing interaction. Do you get a grunt, a roll of the eyes, a “Fine!” or a long complaint of what went wrong? So maybe instead of asking “How was your day?” How about changing up your question and asking the kind of question that will create the kind of world you’d like to live in? If you want a pleasant light interaction, maybe “What was the best part of your day?” would be better. If you want an in depth conversation, maybe “What was the most interesting part of your day?” would be better.
Remember, most people don’t pay too much attention to the questions they ask. Also remember, however, that questions create the world we live in. What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of questions do you need to ask to have that world? Starting today begin to ask the kinds of questions that create the kind of world you want to inhabit.
We all experience good events in our lives, however that does not necessarily mean we appreciate them, much less savor them. Truth be told we tend to be a deficit oriented society. We tend to focus more on the negative, the bad and what’s wrong than on the positive, the good and what is going well. I would venture to say that most likely more good things happen to most people in a day, however, the one bad thing is what usually sticks, it overshadows all the good. This doesn’t have to be the case.
We can choose to engage with the world differently. It’s not easy, it takes effort but it is possible to consciously choose to savor the good. According to Bryant and Veroff savoring is defined as any thoughts, or behaviors capable of generating, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment. Savoring is like swishing a positive experience around in your mind. Savoring is about turning something good into something even better.
According to Bryant and Veroff savoring can occur in three different time frames. We can savor the anticipation of something good to come. We can savor the present moment. Or we can savor the memories of good times past. As long as you savor, the time frame doesn’t really matter.
Now the question becomes how do we savor in the different time frames. If you are an anticipatory savorer you can plan in as much detail as possible the good things to come. If you are a present moment savorer you can learn to really immerse yourself in the moment by focusing on a particular sense as opposed to mental reflection. If you are a savorer of memories, take pictures of good times, keep reminders of good times and look at them as often as possible.
Again, as long as you are able to savor, the time frame does not matter.
By some accounts we spend half of our awake time talking to ourselves. This self-talk can be very helpful – when we practice a speech, work out a problem or memorize something, our self-talk is very valuable. Our self-talk becomes less valuable, even detrimental when it turns negative, when it becomes rumination – anxiety ridden images of the future or a compulsive rehashing of an incident, that doesn’t serve our best interest. When this type of self-talk takes over, when we become so wrapped up in our thoughts we lose perspective and begin to believe our thoughts are universal truths and we start to feel bad, it’s a sign we need to put some distance between our thoughts and our behavior.
Psychological distancing gives us the ability to see things from a different perspective. It gives us the ability to be in the moment, be flexible and see our thoughts for what they are – beliefs we make real. Psychological distancing is the ability to see our thoughts as constructs of reality as opposed to reality itself. It’s the ability to distinguish between feeling bad and being bad, for example. Let’s say you bombed a presentation and you feel bad about it. When you are able to distance yourself from your thoughts you are able to say to yourself, “I feel badly about doing so poorly on that presentation, next time I will prepare more” you give yourself some time to feel bad and you are able to move on. The ability to place distance between your thoughts and your actions, to be able to see your thoughts for what they are, makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.
How do you get psychological distance? There are several ways, but first you must hear what you are saying to yourself. Once you can hear your self-talk you can say your name. Shifting from the first person, I, to the third person, Jane, automatically puts distance between you and your thoughts. It might sound awkward but it is a very quick and simple way to put distance. Another way is to ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend about this situation?” If a friend did poorly giving a presentation would you tell them to feel badly or would you encourage them to put it into perspective? These are just a few of the many ways there are to gain psychological distance and to become more resilient.
A person with a growth mindset believes they can grow their skills, intelligence and abilities with effort. A person with a fixed mindset believes they are who they are, their skills, intelligence and abilities are fixed. When you have a growth mindset constructive feedback is seen as an opportunity to grow and get better results, it is welcomed. When you have a fixed mindset however, you believe that no effort achievement proves how smart you are, feedback would imply effort. When you have a fixed mindset challenges, mistakes and corresponding feedback is perceived as a threat to the ego instead of as an opportunity to grow and improve.
What is constructive feedback? It is information about how a person is doing and what they can do to achieve a better outcome. Constructive feedback is not criticism because it is never about the person, it is about what the person is doing and how they can do better.
How can you offer constructive feedback? Constructive feedback first focuses on what the person did well, then on what can be improved and how they can improve. Much like effective praise constructive feedback needs to be process oriented, specific, timely (when possible) and kind. Remember, the goal of feedback is to help the person learn and improve, not to hurt their feelings. Constructive feedback entails offering small, constructive, specific steps that will improve performance.
An example of constructive feedback is, “You are on the right track, this is a really good beginning, you aren’t quite there yet. You need more information about the main character. How about reading more about the subject.” Remember constructive feedback is supportive, process oriented and specific.
I think it is pretty fair to say that when people fail they feel bad. Put plain and simply failure doesn’t feel good. Starting today I would like to propose a reconceptualization of failure!
First, failure is inevitable if you are going to stretch yourself, try new things, learn more, it is to be expected you won’t do everything well the first time around, you might fail. When you started to walk you probably fell down a bunch of times, it didn’t stop you from learning to walk, you had a growth mindset, you kept going and learned to walk. Can you imagine if you hadn’t had a growth mindset, you’d still be crawling around. What I’m getting at is that failure is inherent in learning anything new.
Starting today I’m encouraging parents to applaud their child’s EFFORTFUL failure. Effortful is in capital letters because I’m not suggesting children just go around failing, what I am suggesting is if your child tried something new, difficult, or challenging and failed, he/she should be celebrated. Actually if your child tried anything really hard that was new or not and failed, I’m suggesting that you applaud them. And then of course ask, “What did you learn?,” “Going forward what will you do differently?” Remember failure is information. It’s information about what we can do differently and better next time, it’s the only way to learn.
If we feel bad when our children fail and then make our children feel bad when they fail, we are sending the message that either 1) they should never try anything new or out of their comfort zone, they should only stick to doing things in their comfort zone and easy or 2) they are expected to be perfect no matter what they do, they are put in a box labeled talented and shouldn’t do anything to dispel that.
A growth mindset means that you believe you can grow your intelligence, your abilities, or skills. It means you will make mistakes and know you will learn from those mistakes. So next time your child fails congratulate him/her and without judgment talk about the failure.
Studies show approximately 8% of the people who set goals achieve them. If setting goals and growth mindset are related then the next question becomes how do we effectively achieve our goals. It would seem that the ability to exert self-control would be beneficial when it comes to setting and achieving goals. Actually research shows that the ability to exert self-control is correlated to a variety of positive outcomes, ranging from academic success to better relationships.
Self-control is defined as the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors in the face of temptations and impulses. Basically self-control is about regulating a short-term impulse for a long term gain. Self-control is the ability to make decisions that will move us toward our long-term goals, even when those decisions don’t feel as good as short term temptations.
Research suggests that we spend a lot of time during our day exerting self-control, resisting desires – that second piece of cake, the next youtube video, those new shoes. Research also suggests that self-control is a limited resource, that can get used up. In other words, if you perform a task that requires a large amount of self-control, you will have less self-control available to perform subsequent tasks.
How do we develop self-control? There are many ways. I believe one of the best ways is learning to breathe. Learning to breathe offers you the ability to put space between the impulse and the action. Another way to put that distance is by focusing on something else, a book you just read, the meal you will eat, anything that will take your attention off the object of temptation. Imagining the object of temptation as something toxic is another option. Another way to foster self-control is by rewarding yourself or punishing yourself. Reward yourself for exerting self-control and punish yourself for not exerting self-control.
It bears repeating, the ability to exert self-control is correlated to a variety of positive outcomes.
How do goal setting and growth mindset relate. When you have a growth mindset you believe that you can grow your intelligence, your abilities or skills. Fundamentally goal setting is a declaration of a belief in a growth mindset. Goal setting is defined as the process of identifying something you want to achieve and establishing measurable steps and timeframes. In essence goal setting is the concretization of the process of change. Therefore another way to foster a growth mindset is to learn to set effective goals. How do you set effective goals?
The most common way to effectively goal set is by establishing SMART goals. The acronym SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound. When you set a goal using the SMART framework you are setting yourself up for success. By being as specific as possible you are not leaving anything to chance, as such you are increasing the likelihood of reaching your goals and in this way reenforcing your growth mindset.
Another approach to setting goals is called WOOP. WOOP stands for wish, outcome, obstacle and plan. WOOP is a practical way to take good intentions from wishes to goals. When you WOOP you figure out what you want, why you want it – the outcome, what will get in the way of getting what you want and then how you will get to what you want bearing in mind potential obstacles. Personally I like WOOP because it helps you foresee obstacles and plan for them.
Whatever approach you choose, effectively setting goals is the epitome of a growth mindset.
If we assume most parents want their children to succeed in school and a growth mindset fosters academic success then I guess the question becomes how do we foster a growth mindset? According to Carol Dweck there are several ways to foster a growth mindset. You can teach your children how the brain works. You can praise your children for effort rather than intelligence. You can incorporate the word yet into your vocabulary. You can teach your children how to set goals. You can teach your children how to have self-control.
Today I would like to talk about effective praise. There are two kinds of praise, effective praise and ineffective praise. What makes one effective and the other ineffective? If the point of praise is to promote self-esteem, reinforce good behavior and encourage children to succeed, then I would venture to say that the way most parents praise their children is ineffective – it doesn’t achieve the intended goal. Telling a child, “Good job, Champ,” doesn’t achieve any of the afore mentioned goals – it’s ineffective.
What is effective praise? Effective praise also known as process praise, as its name suggests, highlights what the child did in order to succeed. Effective praise doesn’t label, it doesn’t judge, it simply tells a child what you saw happened and how you feel about what happened. Let’s say your child does well on his/her math test. Instead of saying, “Wow, you’re amazing!” you can simply say, “Wow I bet you really studied hard, I’m so proud of you.” And you can add, “Tell me about what you did to make this grade?”
For many parents, this type of praise is not very satisfying, it doesn’t convey the joy and enthusiasm they feel in the face of a child’s success. However, if we are honest, praise is not for the parent to feel good, it’s for the child to feel good and to continue to succeed and what the research shows is that effective praise accomplishes this goal. Children, when praised effectively, feel a sense of pride and self-efficacy – they feel good about themselves. And at the end of the day when a child feels good about themselves they will most likely be academically successful.
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 that 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 how happiness is defined, 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. You don’t achieve happiness as a permanent state. 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.
Awareness of 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 difficult times I can’t stress enough the importance of social support. I know, when social support is most elusive, it can be what we most crave. 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, difficult times can be 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.