Happiness Takes Work (Are you doing it?)

morning-sunWe treat happiness as passive, something that comes when we are lucky, that is somewhat out of our control.  We talk about “being” happy, not feeling it. Is this truly how happiness works? According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of positive psychology at UC Riverside, maybe not. In an interview with Dan Ariely, Lyubomirsky said “It takes ‘work’ to be happier.”

While we don’t have total control over how happy we are, we can influence a notable portion of it. Lyubomirsky explains that our happiness- that is, how happy we feel day-to-day- is 50% genetic, 10% determined by our life circumstances (these are both outside our immediate influence), and 40% our behavior and daily activities (which we do have control over). (read more…)

What an A*hole! …or Learning to Assume the Best

okeefetreeIn an experiment conducted by behavioral economist Dan Ariely, four pairs of stockings were laid out on a table at a mall, and women passing by were asked which of four they liked best. They all picked one, and most chose the pair all the way on the right. The women cited a variety of reasons for their favorite–this pair had nicer texture or color. Yet all four pairs were identical. In his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Ariely explains:

“We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.” Our left brain, he says, is our interpreter. The part of us that “spins a narrative from our experiences.”

(read more…)

Two Minutes in the Closet
Power Poses Can Change Your Life

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Feel more powerful, assertive, and confident in just two minutes by striking a pose and making yourself big.  It sounds like a sleazy sales pitch, but it’s not. We learned about “power poses” from a TED talk (oh, maligned TED talks!) by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School. Cuddy studies how people judge each other and themselves and her recent work is about linking nonverbal communication – body language – to hormones, feelings, and behavior.

Cuddy’s research shows that body language has a significant influence on judgement, affecting everything from who we ask on dates, to who we vote for, to how we think about others and how we think about ourselves. Maybe you’ve heard of studies that have shown that people who are forced to smile even when they are not happy actually report feeling better? Cuddy’s work builds on this idea by studying how nonverbal communication – in this case, poses that express physical dominance and assertiveness – influences how we feel about ourselves, and therefore changes how we behave.

Cuddy found that these poses powerfully influence feelings and behavior by literally changing our brain chemistry. By testing hormone levels after having study subjects hold a power pose for just two minutes, she discovered that people’s testosterone increases, increasing our risk tolerance significantly, and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, decline. In other words, changing how we hold ourselves physically, even for a short time, can change our attitudes and beliefs about ourselves, making us feel more powerful, assertive, and confident.

Instructions for power posing based on Cuddy’s research are illustrated here. All you need is two minutes, privacy, and willingness to try something that, yeah, feels a little weird.

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Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes! See whether these affect your next date, work presentation, or interview and report back to us. We’ll be doing the same.

Next Year: I’m just going to be happy where I am

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It’s almost the New Year– you might associate this with champagne, the ball dropping, maybe time to burn off the holiday cookies. I think of New Years Resolutions!

I usually love self-improvement schemes and to do lists, but this year, I’m trying a new approach. Sure, goals can be helpful, especially if you are trying to change something specific. But I was recently struck by Leo Bautista’s (author of Zen Habits) attempts to de-clutter his life, including getting rid of goals. He points out:

“Goals (wanting to improve) are not consistent with contentment (being happy with where you are).”

Eliminating them, he realized how unnecessary they actually are. He found he still accomplishes a lot, simply because he loves what he does. Not setting any specific goals feels exciting to me. I can listen more to what I want to do in the moment and trust that it take me where I want to go.  There are still things I want to accomplish, but doing them can come when I pause and ask myself, “What do I want to do now?” Not “What should I be doing?”

Simply put, like Leo, I want to love what I do. The “shoulds” of New Years resolutions imply that there are things that I need to do— and need to make myself do. Instead, getting away from betterment, from the feeling that something needs to be fixed, feels liberating. Perhaps this is related to the stage of life I’m in– school has built in goals, so we get used to achieving, accomplishing and working towards something specific. We graduate and have to figure out our adult lives, and goals help us start to create the life we want. Now, I’m pretty content. While there are still plenty of things that could be better, there’s no hurry. I want to focus on what I do have and let improvement come gently.

In his TED talk, Shawn Achor describes that if you are happy, then you will be successful– rather than the other way around! If our ultimate goal is to be happy, which I think mostly means being present and open to what comes, then setting specific goals is unnecessary- and worse: sets you up for failure. This year, instead of resolutions, I’m letting go of the feeling that things need to be fixed. I’m going to focus on being happy with what is.

Here’s to 2014– Happy New Year!

Image: Ray Ewry of the USA in action during the standing high jump event, for which he won the gold medal.

Bad Language

CASS COUNTY COURTROOM - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Earlier this year, my coach David observed that I tend to default to describing things as “good” or “bad” rather than using more accurate – and less judgmental – words. He scolded me about it, in the way that only someone whose job is to not let you get away with your bullshit can. “Why use value judgements when describing your feelings about something? I try to stay away from those. They’re lazy and unhelpful.”

He was right (of course he was right). Describing something as good or bad is often simpler than thinking about, or explaining, our actual feelings. “Good” and “bad” are such accepted descriptors, despite the fact that they are rarely the most appropriate choice, that we barely notice using them. “Good” and “bad” conceal more complex, honest adjectives, and their overuse neutralizes their actual meaning. Think about all the times you have used the word “good” because it seemed like the politest, most expedient way of expressing, “everything is fine; no further inquiry necessary.” In this way, “good” is like a shield, deflecting more questions. “Bad” can be similarly discouraging of real examination. Is something or someone actually bad, or would it be more accurate to say it was disappointing, upsetting, or tiresome?

David’s larger point about using words like “good” and “bad” to describe things is that they are value judgements, and value judgments aren’t helpful when thinking about your own feelings or behavior (or someone else’s). Value judgments don’t encourage gentleness and patience with ourselves and with others. I had been using “good” and “bad” so generically that at first I balked at this point. But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed. Language matters, and “good” and “bad” subtly signal expectations and judgments that we may not even recognize. Barry Evans, author of The Myth of the Experienced Meditator, wrote about this in relation to meditation:

Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is.

Without realizing it, I’d been slotting many of my opinions and emotions into the two giant buckets of “good” and “bad.” Since having this tendency pointed out, I’ve tried to be more precise and descriptive when I speak and write. Not just with “good” and “bad,” either, but with any that word that feels like a generic placeholder for a more expressive, more accurate, and more meaningful one. By shifting away from using words that are value judgments, the nuance and the complexity of a feeling can come out. Something can be both annoying and worthwhile, frustrating and fulfilling, or exciting and unsettling. It’s difficult not to default to the words I’m so used to; it requires actual concentration on my part. I am still only successful some of the time. But I’ve noticed that it helps me think about my feelings in a less judgmental way, and to be gentler on myself and with others.

Image: Cass County Courthouse (1937; Library of Congress)