I Was Wrong

No, not about how to properly load the dishwasher, I’m very right about that.

I was wrong about the merits of Positive Psychology, a newish subfield of psychology dedicated to the study of happiness or “subjective well-being”. When I read the literature, I believed it was based upon solid social science. Ruth Whippman taught me otherwise.

As referenced in Michael Schien’s subtly titled Forbes piece, “Positive Psychology is Garbage”, Barbara Ehrenreich does the same in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Writing in Forbes, Schien explains Seligman’s success, the pseudo-intellectual founder of the movement:

“When describing his concepts, Seligman uses big words about statistics, mathematical equations, and empirical data. For most of us, this serves as the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat—it seems authoritative, so we don’t question it.”

Guilty as charged. Later, he adds:

“It’s a lesson you would do well to follow. When trying to get people to pay you for your ideas, present them in terms that have the whiff of science whenever possible. Equations. Data. Statistical analysis. Remember, it’s not that the science itself actually matters, it’s the appearance of science that counts.”

I’m left believing happiness is partly the result of being born to happy parents. Other things that tip the balance from despair to joy include a good night’s sleep, a few close friends, healthy food, sunshine, art, physical activity, and socially redeeming work.

But without equations, data, and statistical analysis, I don’t expect anyone to pay my list any attention.

Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

Once a Week Write Down What You’re Most Thankful For

We tend to take the most positive aspects of our lives for granted—good health; family; friends; a roof over our heads; freedoms; or warm, sunny, weekend days in October. It’s especially important that family and friends feel truly appreciated, because when they feel unvalued, those all important relationships suffer.

If you don’t stop to count your blessings on occasion, you’ll probably succumb to negativity. My friend is right when he says, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Curse the darkness with any regularity and people will avoid you. When that happens, negativity usually spirals downward.

University of California, Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky studies “happiness interventions”. Her research team asks, what if, with just a few behavioral adjustments, we could maintain a high level of happiness throughout our days, our years, or even our entire lives?

Here’s an interesting experiment of theirs. One set of volunteers was asked to keep a gratitude journal once a week, while another was asked to do so three times a week. Those who counted their blessings once a week exhibited a marked increase in happiness–but those who did so three times a week displayed no such uptick. Lyubomirsky speculates that for the latter group, gratitude became a chore, or worse, they ran out of things to be grateful for. The initial burst of happiness was thus deflated by monotony and irritation.*

While pondering this research, and writing this, I’ve been thinking about my mom. As is true for all octogenarians, her health isn’t what it used to be and my dad’s sudden death almost two decades ago was an understandable blow to her happiness. I can’t truly walk in her shoes, or understand why this author wants to die at age 75, but I’m confident even she would benefit from starting a gratitude journal.

Scratch that. Especially she. The more challenging one’s life, the more important it is to account for every last blessing. Starting a gratitude journal is an admission. An admission that gratitude doesn’t come naturally, it requires intentionality.

As always, I appreciate your reading.

* as described by Mark Joseph Stern

The Great National Happiness Rat Race

Just one of many money phrases, sentences, and paragraphs from a recent NYTimes blog post by Ruth Whippman, a Brit living in California. Whippman beautifully articulates what I’ve long thought. She leads with an Eric Hoffer quote, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”

Notable nuggets:

Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it.

Thomas Jefferson knew what he was doing when he wrote that “pursuit of happiness” line, a perfectly delivered slap in the face to his joy-shunning oppressors across the pond. The British are generally uncomfortable around the subject, and as a rule, don’t subscribe to the happy-ever-after. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy, it just seems somehow embarrassing to discuss it, and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask them if they like you.

Evidence of this distinction is everywhere. Blindfold me and read out the Facebook statuses of my friends, without their names, and I will tell you which are American and which are British. Americans post links to inspirational stories, and parenting blogs packed with life lessons. (British parenting blogs tend to be packed with despair and feces.) My American friends post heartwarming messages of support to one another, and often themselves, while my British cohort’s updates are usually some variation on “This is rubbish.”

Even the recent grand spectacle of the London 2012 Olympic Games told this tale. The opening ceremony, traditionally a sparklefest of perkiness, was, with its suffragist and trade unionists, mainly a celebration of dissent, or put less grandly, complaint. Still, this back door approach to national pride propelled the English into a brief and unprecedented stint of joyous positivity — lasting for the exact duration of the Games. For three weeks I was unable to distinguish my British friends’ Facebook statuses from those of my American ones.

The transformation wasn’t absolute of course. . . . Our queen, despite the repeated presence of a stadium full of her subjects urging in song that she be both happy and glorious, could barely muster a smile, staring grimly through her eyeglasses and clutching her purse on her lap as if she might be mugged.

Cynicism is the British shtick. . . . By contrast, in America, happiness is work. Intense, nail-biting work, slogged out in motivational seminars and therapy sessions, meditation retreats and airport bookstores. For the left there’s yoga, for the right, there’s Jesus. For no one is there respite.

While the British way can be drainingly negative, the American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Happiness should be serendipitous, a by-product of a life well lived, and pursuing it in a vacuum doesn’t really work. This is borne out by a series of slightly depressing statistics. The most likely customer of a self-help book is a person who has bought another self-help book in the last 18 months. . . . Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 33 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.” It’s a fair chunk, but a figure that remains surprisingly constant, untouched by the uptick in Eastern meditation or evangelical Christianity, by Tony Robbins or Gretchen Rubin or attachment parenting. For all the effort Americans are putting into happiness, they are not getting any happier. It is not surprising, then, that the search itself has become a source of anxiety.

So here’s a bumper sticker: despite the glorious weather and spectacular landscape, the people of California are probably less happy and more anxious than the people of Grimsby. So they may as well stop trying so hard.

 

Why Are You Preoccupied With How Others Perceive You?

The real question of course is why do we care about how people, in many cases whom we don’t even know well, think about us? Odd how often we willfully hand over how we feel about ourselves to the vagaries of total strangers.

Kraznic has an excellent chapter on money in Wonderbox. He writes eloquently on how status anxiety begets mindless consumerism. We all suffer from status anxiety in different ways and to different degrees. I’m convinced we all suffer from it more than we realize or are willing to admit. Who me? Status anxiety?

When Sixteen spends half an hour on her hair before school, her status anxiety is easy to detect. And developmental psychology helps us understand the normalcy of that, but I will probably never fully understand women and their hair. I realized this anew after receiving an email from my sissy about my mother whom she’s helping move into a new apartment building for seasoned citizens. Today Mother Dear was getting her hair “done” for the first time by the new apartment building’s stylist. And my sissy provided the long distance play-by-play:

Mom is sure the girl will be horrible. We had R take photos from every direction of her newly done hair last week, put it on the iPad and I just showed the photos to the hair girl. She has been doing hair for 42 years so we’ll see.

Picturing the picture taking and thinking about my mom’s anxious pessimism made me chuckle, but then just as quickly they made me think about how we never entirely stop caring about our status.

What are others going to think about me when they see my hair? What about the lawn? How does it compare to the neighbors? The car? The wardrobe? The size of the ring? My waistline, muscles, curves, complexion? The kitchen countertops? The gas grill? The cupboards? The whole damn house? How about the social calendar? The number of friends? The friends’ status? The job title? The salary? The vacation destination? The long-distance triathlon finishing time? The blog readership? The children’s athletic success, academic success, college choices? Their job titles? Their salaries? And the beat (down) goes on.

Madison Avenue is genius at playing on our status anxiety, but it’s too simplistic to blame advertising execs for the sum total of it. There’s something deeper at work, something rooted in human nature. In prehistory, I imagine there was fire envy. “Damn, just look at that family’s raging fire. Yeah and their spears are insanely sharp and hella lethal.”

The goal isn’t to not care at all, it’s to care much less especially about what anonymous others think. When Nineteen was seven her second grade teacher asked me to do a guest lesson on China which I had recently visited. Knowing Seven’s social life was hanging in the balance, I planned a meticulous lesson based on three open-ended questions and some slides from which her classmates and she could deduce answers. Afterwards I bent down and asked, “How’d it go?” And I’ll never forget her words because they were the highest praise I’ve ever received as a long-time, successful educator. “You were perfect Dad.” I want my students to like my courses. And I want my Saturday morning running friends to laugh at my ribald jokes. But I care most about what my wife and daughters think about me.

Tonight, when fifteen other cyclists and I hit the base of Bordeaux in Capitol Forest, and the climb is on in earnest, all we’ll hear is one another’s heavy breathing. The prize for being the first one to the top? Status as the “King of the Mountain”. The same game I lived to play in construction sites forty plus years ago. Everyone will know who the biggest badass is on the return into town.

If I start providing other examples of how I routinely succumb to status anxiety, this post would be my all-time longest, and no one wants that. So let me end with a twist on status anxiety just to illustrate how irrational its grasp can be at times.

I wrote once before that, in 2008, I bought a seal gray Porsche Cayman. It was beautiful and drove entirely different than any other car I’ve ever owned. Mother-Dear says, “You can’t love something that can’t you love back,” so suffice to say, I liked it a whole, whole lot. Originally, that is. Over time, I grew self conscious, increasingly uncomfortable about what other people thought of me when they saw me in it. Did they think that I thought I was better than them because my car was way faster, more expensive, and stylish? A lot of people probably buy Porsches exactly for that reason, but I couldn’t shake the self consciousness. And so I sold it. To a German Microsoftie.

Why did I care so much about what people at church or work thought about what I drove when they don’t really know me? [Dear Microsoftie, I’d like a do-over, a Porsche-based exercise in overcoming status anxiety. Make like Carly Rae and Call Me Maybe.] Ultimately, why do I care about what anyone outside of my family thinks about my (amazing) hair, my (splendid) kitchen counters, my (now completely forgettable) car, or my (still-to-be-determined) triathlon time?

Recovering from training with la ultima status symbol—Australian labradoodle extraordinaire.

I Am the 1%

Not based on my five figure salary, my Kirkland Signature wardrobe, my penchant for water at restaurants, or my municipal golf courses of choice.

I am the “one percent” based upon health, meaningful work, beautiful surroundings, good friends, and a loving family.

Turning fiddy in a few months. My peers are showing varying degrees of wear and tear. Their setbacks help me appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to afford healthy food, to have time to exercise daily, to have access to quality medical care, and to feel younger than I am.

My work matters. How fortunate to get paid to help young people write, teach, and think through what they believe and how they want to live their adult lives. And remarkably, every seven years I get the ultimate gift, time to press pause and read, think, write, rest, renew.

Half the year I get to cycle in unbelievably beautiful mountain settings, swim in an idyllic next-door lake, and run on wooded trails and sleepy residential streets. In the summer it’s almost never hot or humid and there are no bugs that would prevent one from eating outside. There are no hurricanes and hardly any lightening, but I reserve the right to amend this post if I someday survive the overdue Shake.

I often climb the mountains, swim the lake, and run the trails with excellent friends. Fitness fellowship.

My extended family is a blessing. My wife and daughters especially so. Apart from one very bad leg, they’re healthy and happy. My Better Half and I just returned from visiting First Born at Leafy Midwest Liberal Arts College. Most nineteen year-old college students would be semi-embarrassed by visiting parents, but for some reasons ours was off-the-charts warm, inviting, and appreciative the whole time. Even invited her Spanish teaching mom to her Spanish class and took us to great student a cappella and modern dance concerts.

When we first arrived on campus, Spanish teaching mom went to meet her at the Language Building. I read in the “Libe”. At the appointed time I headed across campus to meet up with them. Turned a corner and there she was walking by herself to a piano lesson. Cue the killer off-the-ground hug.

We stayed in a room in this house which a woman left to the college with an unusual condition—that it always be available as a student hang out with the necessary ingredients to bake cookies.

Home Base

The suggested donation for staying there was $30/night. We had twin beds in a smallish room. The first hints of winter crept in through the window next to my bed. I could whizz while simultaneously brushing my teeth in the tiny bathroom.

But looks can be deceiving. No one would suspect that inside this humble house, in one of the modest rooms, a One Percenter slept contentedly.

Living Peacefully and Joyfully

During Sunday night’s Skype session with Nineteen I learned she’d been on a nice walk with KN, the uber-nice mother of one of her best friends, who was visiting Midwest leafy liberal arts college for Parents’ Weekend. On that walk KN revealed that she has read three books that I’ve recommended. Cool dat. Note to self: Make a batch of “I read PressingPause.com” t-shirts to give to subscribers and loyal readers. No doubt a future status symbol*.

I have another book recommendation for KN. I don’t read books consistently enough, as a result I don’t get through all that many, as a result, I choose what I read carefully. I don’t know if I’ve ever chosen as well as in 2011. The ten month long hot streak continues with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine (2009). So good I read it twice, the second time taking nine pages of notes since I plan on using it in a future writing seminar.

Irvine says the public’s preconceived notions about Stoicism are wrong. Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked to make the world a better place. The goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions like anger, anxiety, grief, and envy. Musonius Rufus (Is there a better jazz/funk name?) said that “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow those who live in accordance with Stoic principles. Would be Stoics, Irvine writes, will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire—most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they will turn their attention to the pursuit of tranquility and virtue.

The word “tranquility” is hardly ever used in conversation today, probably because few of us experience much of it, but it’s the central concept of the book. Irvine says “Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular joy.” On a scale of one to ten, what’s your tranquility quotient?

The bulk of the book is about how to practice Stoicism. Irvine does a great job of adapting the Ancient Roman philosophy to modern times. He acknowledges that people should choose a philosophy of life that fits their personality and that Stoicism won’t be for everyone. He points out that in some significant ways Stoicism and Christianity overlap; consequently, they can be complementary.

For Irvine the greatest problem is that few people have any coherent philosophy of life. As a result, they succumb to mindless consumerism; consequently, at the end of the road they often regret that they’ve squandered their time. What is your philosophy of life? To what degree does it shape your day-to-day actions?

The body of the book is a description of five Stoic psychological techniques and Stoic advice on ten topics such as dealing with other people, anger, old age, and dying. Probably best read with a significant other or a small group of friends who you can discuss it with.

* Any graphic artists out there interested in creating a PressingPause logo? If so, please email me (see the “contact” tab at upper right).