Sunday, October 1, 2017

A little less L&L, a little more R&R

“The whole world can't lick us but we can lick ourselves by longing too hard 
for things we haven't got any more - and by remembering too much.” 
– Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

“You cannot find strength by loathing.” 
– Lailah Gifty Akita


We long for cloudless days, a slimmer body, time off, fine wine, erotic love, a long life, fame and fortune. We long for justice, happy endings and long, restful evenings. There often seems no end to the things for which we long.

In the world of private thought, “longing” seems the most natural of human forces. What power they hold! Longing incites our imagination and motivates us to help those we love and those who suffer.

But, there are perils. Longing can hijack our lives and, too easily, cause disappointment, suffering and, in extreme cases, depression. When we long, it is said, we risk losing the moment. Can we resist? Unlikely. Instead, our challenge is to identify when longing turns from idle wonder to unhappiness – that is worth knowing.

Which leads to our first three questions: What do you long for? How much time do you spend longing? and Do your longings energize or enervate?

And then there’s loathing – longings’ evil twin. We long for Friday afternoons and loath Monday mornings. We long for the “good ’ole days” and loath daily demands. We loath public speaking, final exams, traffic, taxes, and household chores, and long for the moment they’re complete. 

What do you loath? How much time do you spend loathing? and Do your loathings lift you up or drain your spirit?

Our challenge is not to resist, says author Steve Hagen, but to recognize when longing and loathing interfere with our lives. Says Hagen: “When you notice that your mind is caught up in longing and loathing – leaning toward or away from something – don't try to stop it from leaning. As we've seen, trying to make a leaning mind stop leaning is just another form of leaning. ('I really want not to have a leaning mind'). Just be aware when your mind is leaning, and realize what leaning of mind actually is. With practice and attention to this moment, your mind will, of its own accord, lean less.”

As for rest and relaxation, healthywellbeing.com encourages us to listen to relaxing music, to sleep, to stretch, or do yoga. Or, perhaps, do nothing at all. They suggest that we: 1. Schedule time to rest and relax; 2. Ask for help from friends and family to take care of the kids; 3. Cancel unimportant appointments; and 4. Share housework/chores and responsibilities with others.

So, when opportunity strikes, try a little less L&L and a little more R&R.  You’ll be healthier for it.


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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Is marriage on the way out?

The statistics are clear: with each passing decade fewer Americans are marrying, and fewer still are committed to the need for, and necessity of, the institution.  The reasons are clear but the long-term impact is not. 

Two statistics stand out:

·        Never married: by the year 2040, the Pew Research Center estimates that 25% of Americans will have never been married.

·        Life priorities: the Center posed this question to adult Americans of all ages: “Which statement best reflects your view? Society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority, or society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.” Of those ages 18-29, 67% said society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children. 

Why the retreat from marriage? 

Psychologists, economists and analysts cite a wealth of factors, among them:

·        The independence hypothesis: now that women have surpassed men in terms of college degrees and the wage gap is narrowing, their increased economic independence reduces their need for marriage;

·        Changes in technology, the law and cultural norms: the stigmas of cohabitation and children born out of wedlock are weakening, and technology has reduced the risks of premarital sex; and

·        Welfare programs: author Charles Murray, a political scientist for the American Enterprise Institute, argues that government welfare benefits and welfare policy has contributed, and possibly caused, the retreat from marriage.

The Big Shift

Without question, the traditional family model is fading – the fact is, this trend has been apparent for decades. In modern marriages (referred to, by some, as “hedonic” marriages), “there is little gender-based division of labor” and “consumption benefits are paramount,” according to professors Shelly Lundberg and Robert Pollak, in their article “The Evolving Role of Marriage: 1950-2010.” Lundberg and Pollak point out that where marriage once focused on production of household services, it now has shifted to investing in childrens’ human capital (clearly there are other driving forces – for older couples, for instance, marriage is both a symbol of commitment, and a desire to care for one another).  Said Lundberg and Pollak: “In our view, long-term commitment is valuable in early 21st century America primarily because it promotes investment in children.”

At first glance, of course, this shift sounds desirable – after all, who isn’t in favor of supporting the next generation? The data is clear: those who can invest heavily in our children continue to marry, while those who cannot are less inclined to tie the knot (added Lundberg and Pollak: “For couples who lack the resources to invest intensively in their children . . . marriage may not be worth the cost of limited independence and potential mismatch”).

It all sounds reasonable enough. Except for one thing: this trend is creating a huge gap in “equality of opportunity.”  So more attention to equality of opportunity, not marriage per se, may be the golden ticket needed to lift up future generations.

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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Are you stressed? Worry not, it might just be a good thing!

It may be time to rethink your view about stress.  

It isn’t always a bad thing.

Stress, we’re now learning, is part of our body’s survival system, a motivational force that helps us grow and accomplish tasks. Some researchers, in fact, maintain that it strengthens our immune system and boosts memory.

So let’s pause, for a moment, to distinguish good stress (known as “eustress”) from bad, and who better to teach us than Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Upside of Stress” who holds degrees in psychology and humanistic medicine.  Said McGonigal in an interview with goop.com:

“The most basic [notion] that’s faulty is the premise that there’s only one stress response, and that every time you experience stress you’re in a toxic state. That’s fundamentally not true. The body has a whole repertoire of stress responses. Sometimes when we experience stress we’re experiencing a state that is healthy, that makes us resilient, that makes us more caring and connected, that makes us more courageous. The experience might be physically similar in some ways to stress states that we would describe as debilitating anxiety or other negative stress states, but they are not toxic. There are a lot of different ways to experience stress.”

Stress, of course, is a neutral term (much like the word “diet” which now is associated solely with losing weight), defined by Hans Selye in 1936 as a “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” But over the years, McGonigal points out, it has come to be associated with “almost everything that defines what it means to be human.” Adds the Institute of Stress (yes, there is one, in Fort Worth, Texas): “Stress is not a useful term for scientists because it is such a highly subjective phenomenon.” 

Harnessing Eustress

Villanova University’s Division of Student Life offers a series of solid tips for managing stress. They define stress as “the body's way of rising to a challenge and preparing to meet a tough situation with focus, strength, stamina, and heightened alertness.”  Their seven tips (which, though geared to students, might help all of us) are:

1. “Avoid overscheduling;

2. Be realistic – don’t try to be perfect, no one is;

3. Get a good night’s sleep;

4. Learn to relax;

5. Treat your body well;

6. Watch what you’re thinking; and

7. Solve the little problems – learning to solve everyday problems can give you a sense of control.”

Kimberly Snyder adds five additional tips, four common ones and one that’s somewhat unique – her five:  acceptance, breathe, meditate, exercise and volunteer (apparently, there’s strong research to support the notion that volunteering counteracts negative stress).

Stress and Decision Making

And how does stress affect your decision-making process?  A research study published by the National Institutes of Health* reports two major findings:

1.      Positive vs. Negative Outcomes – When we’re feeling stressed (probably the bad kind), we tend to overemphasize the positive outcomes and minimize the negative outcomes (the authors maintain that this is “possibly due to stress-induced changes in dopamine in reward-processing brain regions”); and

2.      Risky Decisions, Male vs. Female – Explained the authors: “Stress alters decision strategies – but in opposite ways for men versus women. . . Stress amplifies gender differences in strategies during risky decisions, with males taking more risk and females less risk under stress.”


* “Both Risk and Reward are Processed Differently in Decisions Made Under Stress”, authored by Mara Mather and Nicole Lighthall

Sunday, May 28, 2017

How many bumps have you had today?

“We can’t have a crisis tomorrow.  My schedule is already full.” – Henry Kissinger

Looking for a bump-free day?  So am I. But I shouldn’t be.

A more realistic life-view would accede to the “Theory of Six Bumps,” which states simply: each day will surprise us with six bumps, that is, moments that we fail to anticipate, but must deal with nonetheless. The dog gets sick and does her business on the carpet (bump #1) . . . a friend desperately needs a ride to drop off his car (bump #2) . . . on our way to the office, we realize that we forgot one critical piece for the afternoon meeting (bump #3).

Bumps, of course, come in all shapes and sizes (misplaced keys, traffic at a standstill), and if we’re lucky, most bumps will be mild in nature. Certain ones may consume our lives for a stretch (e.g., sickness and weather-related tragedies), but the true casualty is our dream for a bump-free day. It may be time to revise that dream. Instead of anticipating a day free of mishaps (hope springs eternal), embrace the notion that, every day, you’ll encounter six bumps (some more demanding than others).  Rest assured, they’re coming.

Some time ago I shared the Theory of Six Bumps with my sister, and less than 48 hours later she called and reported, “Well, I’ve already had my six bumps today.” It was 10:30 in the morning (ouch!) and, as best I can recall, the bumps involved a parking ticket, a broken coffee pot and a computer glitch – not an ideal morning! I immediately thought to myself, then shared with my sister: “Well, it looks like you’re clear for the rest of the day.” She laughed, then recounted the frustrating details of her morning.

I often give voice to my bumps. Rushing to a morning meeting, I spot a traffic jam up ahead. Inside I’m thinking: “Bump #1”. Hours later, on the checkout line, I discover that I don’t have my credit card (bump #2) because I gave it to my daughter (an altogether different kind of bump). Once home, I realize that I’ve neglected to shut off the outside water valve and discover that the water line has burst (bump #3, and a sizable one at that).

Of late, one particular bump stands out: it’s Saturday morning, around 9:30am, when my wife hears a strange noise emanating from the air vent.  Within minutes we realize what’s happened: an animal is trapped in the duct system. As my frustration begins to mount, that this Saturday is about to disappear, I smiled to myself and said aloud: “Ah, bump #1.”  Six hours later the problem was resolved (I call this a “multi-hour bump”). And while frustration was still a part of my profile, the recognition helped immensely.

Might a bump-free day lie in your future?  Don’t count on it. Instead, just sit back and relax – and count ‘em if you wish.  But know this – the bumps will arrive again tomorrow . . . and the day after that.

Embrace ’em.  It’ll make life a heckuva lot easier.


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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Introspection: are you doing it right?

When it comes to making ourselves feel better, by talking to ourselves or thinking through a problem, it’s easy to believe that we know what we’re doing. 

Perhaps not.

Let’s take self-talk. Research out of Ann Arbor maintains that we’re probably not doing it right. A study conducted at the University of Michigan’s Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory reveals that using your name – that is, your actual name – when you talk to yourself has a world of benefits (e.g., “I need to let that go” vs. “Steve, you need to let that go”).  Said the research abstract: 

“. . . These findings demonstrate that small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self during introspection . . .  influence their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, even for vulnerable individuals.”

The research was led by Director Dr. Ethan Kross, and through seven exhaustive studies he and his colleagues concluded that talking to yourself in the third person “promotes self-distancing” and “may be useful in helping people cope not only with depression and anger related to ruminating over the past but also social anxiety surrounding the future.”

Why such a difference? Said a Bitofnews.com report, analyzing the Kross findings: “Self-advice delivered the through the first person ‘I’ . . . puts you in dangerously close proximity to your inherently egocentric self of sense . . . and thus hinders your ability to maximize your competency potential.” Kross and colleagues frame it this way: self-talk that uses your own name “allows people to transcend egocentric viewpoints.”*

The Limits of Introspection

Self-talk aside, what about our internal thought processes? Said author David Sze, in a stirring piece for the Huffington Post: “We give great weight to our introspections, but psychological research tells us that introspection is often a highly inaccurate source of self-knowledge.” Sze added: “An over-reliance on introspection trips one up – decreasing performance, reducing decision quality and even undermining self-insight.”

Sze identified three areas which inhibit introspection:

1.      Biases corrupt introspection. “We go through life with rose-tinted glasses glued to our faces, and we often forget that they are there,” said Sze. “Significant biases include the inclination to see oneself in a positive and socially desirable way (positivity bias), the tendency for people to interpret events in accordance to their previous beliefs and expectations (perceptual confirmation), and the need for self-consistency.”

2.      We cannot perceive or correct biases. Noted Sze: “These subconscious biases cannot be identified through the lens of introspection [and] even if we become aware of our skewed judgments, we find it hard to determine the specific level by which the bias had affected us.”

3.      We cannot penetrate our unconscious. Why can’t we access certain thoughts? It’s not because we repress them, it’s because of how our brain is constructed, and operates, maintains Sze. He explained: “Many researchers adopt the idea of the adaptive unconscious. These processes are not unconscious due to Freudian repression; they are unconscious due to the architecture of the mind.”

What to do?

Sze urges us to focus on two elements: 1. Education; and 2. Process Time. On the former, Sze encourages us to educate ourselves about various cognitive biases (and the situations where they may occur), and learn about possible corrections for these biases.  He notes: “We need to avoid underestimating our susceptibility to biases and overestimating the amount of control we has over our mental processes.”

Second, Sze recommends that we give ourselves the gift of time: “Researchers found that people who had limited time for reflection, or were under cognitive load (e.g., running out of mental RAM) were more likely to display positivity bias. . . . We are much better introspecters when we have sufficient time, energy, and focus (e.g., no multitasking).”

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* Reportedly, according to the bitofnews.com report, when we use our actual name it activates the brain’s cerebral cortex (the brain area linked to thought, awareness and perception). By comparison, when we use “I” in a sentence it activates the brain’s amygdalae, the brain’s emotional center.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

Will a messy desk make you more creative?

It may be time to mess things up.

If you’re looking to boost your creativity, it may be time to forgo neat and clean, to dispense with the notion that a tidy desk always equates to higher productivity. 

In a series of experiments, University of Minnesota marketing professor Kathleen Vohs and colleagues found that individuals experience a creative boost when working in a messy environment (what Vohs calls “visual disorder”). The takeaway, of course, is that when it comes to productivity – at work, at home, in school – messy has its place, alongside neat and clean. In Vohs’ research paper: “The Psychology of Messiness: How Disorder Can Make You More Creative,” her abstract emphasizes that: “. . . different environments suit different outcomes.”

So aside from “visual disorder,” what other elements promote creativity?

Drink Wine, Create a Mind Map, Keep Moving

These are three of a series of ideas shared by The Young Entrepreneurs Council, which reached out to its members to suggest ways to boost creativity.

1.      Drink Wine – Urged Erika London, founder of iAdventure.com: “Allow your employees to unleash their ideas outside the confining walls of an office over a glass or two of wine. You’ll be surprised how quickly the combination of a relaxed environment, and some vino will transform a casual hang out into an innovative meeting . . . .”

2.      Create a Mind Map – Explained Nathalie Lussier, foundation of Nathalie Lussier Media: “Start with a topic or question, and mindmap your way around it. Don’t censor yourself as you come up with all the surrounding topics and bubbles that go with your initial topics. This type of ‘hyperlinked’ thinking is what allows us to come up with new ideas. You can also go really deep on a thread, which can help spur creativity in other threads of your mindmap.  Mindmap as a group, and this takes on a whole new life!”

3.      Keep Moving – Shared Erica Dhawan, co-founder of Galahads: “To think creatively, keep moving. . . . Simply taking a walk while talking about important things makes the conversation more meaningful, so why do we sit in conference rooms instead of walking and talking? To think creatively. . . . What do I do? Bollywood dance breaks! Seriously — I have Bollywood-inspired Innovative Moves workshops.”

Thetinylife.com offered 10 tips of its own, we share three here:

1.      “Extend your social circle. . . . We often find ourselves in the company of very similar people with overlapping viewpoints on things . . . But I have found some of the most growth occurs when two groups of people come together. . . . The other viewpoint can also tease out weaknesses that need to be addressed.”

2.      “Take a shower. I thought I was the odd one when I said my best thinking happens in the shower.  I don’t know what it is about taking a shower, but it brings a clarity and peace that can be hard to find in the modern world.  Well it turns out that I am not as weird as I thought, because a study has been done about the power of showers to spur creative thinking.”

3.      Get tactile – try a white board, in place of a computer screen. “I am standing, writing fast [in a] stream of consciousness. When I am mulling something over, I am pacing, tossing a ball, doing something other than sitting still.  I think the big space of the white board and hand writing are key.  Often after a session like this, I will copy the board into a mind map on my computer.”


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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Do you have a winning mentality?

“It’s time that each and every one of us make our decisions out of what we stand to gain, not what we might lose.” – Ian Robertson, “The Winning Effect”

If you’re a professional athlete, winning is clearly a priority. Take the current NBA or NHL playoffs, it's win and advance. Lose and go home. It’s a simple formula – for pro athletes, their livelihood depends on it.

But in many ways, so does ours.

Psychologists affirm what we know intuitively, that each of us is genetically programming to strive, to seek, to excel.  In the world of sports, the lines are clearly drawn, yet these same competitive forces guide our relationships, our careers, our decisions and our thoughts.

Competing - in sports and in business – has always been a central part of my life. I can still remember the day, many years ago, when a close friend told me, point-blank: “You’re the most competitive person that I’ve ever met.” I didn’t take kindly to the remark, and soon came to regard my burning desire to win as a negative force (I rated winning as a +1, and losing a -9, so I was highly motivated to win, to avoid losing!). Over time, however, I’ve come to realize that the competitive drive inside all of us – if harnessed in the right fashion – can help us grow, contribute and succeed.    

Two types of life success

In his book “The Winning Effect,” author and psychology professor Ian Robertson explains two types of life success (in an interview with bgtrustonline.com):

 “Success has two main elements to it . . . The first is objective success, that is you win a gold medal or a Nobel Prize or you get an Oscar nomination – by external standards you are successful. The second aspect is success in achieving goals which are authentic in terms of your own values and aspirations in life. By definition, only a few people can be successful vis-à-vis the first type of success but, potentially, everyone can feel successful in the second type.”

The desire to win, according to Robertson, is brain-altering: “Success increases testosterone in both men and women [which] in turn increases the brain’s chemical messenger dopamine, and that alters brain function.” So striving to win – on or off the court – is part of our physiological makeup. 

How can we fully harness, and appreciate, our desire to excel?

1.      Realize that planning and technical skills come first. Jeffrey Spencer, in a piece for psychologytoday.com, notes that: “All prolific winners know that life structure and soundness of action always precede talent and will in creating success. Just look around, there’s no shortage of people with incredible talent and will that have dismal, unfulfilled lives because they never developed the planning and technical skills to manifest their ambitions.” 

2.      Avoid trying to emulate a high achiever (if you’re a parent, don’t “hide the ladder”). Robertson maintains that trying to “follow in the footsteps” of a mentor or parent is a dangerous path. Explained Robertson, in the interview with bgtrustonline.com: “If your parent is very successful, but doesn’t accurately portray the bumps along the way to that successful stage [referred to as ‘hiding the ladder’] then, particularly if you admire your parents, you have an enormously high goal for yourself.”

3.      Embrace your desire to win (however you define it). Offered J. Patrick Dobel, in his blog “Point of the Game”: “The desire to win leads to testing oneself against others as a way to increase one's own development as a human and athlete. The outcome of these encounters can be . . .  personal growth . . . . These tests also generate innovation . . . .”

4.      Improve your success skills. Robertson emphasized, in that same interview, that: “Becoming a consistent winner is a learned skill anyone can learn at any time. We should never shy away from practicing or improving on our success skills as every time we succeed we pay homage to the gift of our talents, the opportunity to succeed, to our mentors, and the chance to inspire others to become their own champions . . . It’s time that each and every one of us make our decisions out of what we stand to gain, not what we might lose.”


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