Category Archives: HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING

GRATITUDE MAKES LIFE BETTER

by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.

(c) Can Stock Photo Inc

The Thanksgiving holiday was originally  established to celebrate of the blessing of the harvest. But, in modern America, Thanksgiving  day  has become more of a social event for families, focused on fun, food, football, and the anticipation of Black Friday sales. Thinking  and talking about the blessings in our lives is no longer an important part of the Thanksgiving holiday or of our daily lives. And, something significant has been lost.

Gratitude is about more than simply saying thank you. Studies have found that being grateful has many benefits. For starters, it helps us to recognize and appreciate what we have, freeing us from the preoccupation with what we don’t have. Gratitude is about truly appreciating what’s good in your life, including those things that you usually take for granted. It turns out that regularly focusing on feelings of gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to increase happiness and well-being. Many studies have shown that gratitude increases life satisfaction, enhances  emotional  and  physical  resilience,  strengthens  relationships, helps to puts life and challenges into perspective, reduces depression and stress, and helps us to move forward when we feel stuck.

So, this Thanksgiving, be sure to take some time to think about the blessings in your life, and if appropriate, use the opportunity of the Thanksgiving holiday to let those you love know that you consider them to be among those blessings. And, for those who dread Thanksgiving due to family tensions,  or  painful  memories  that  are  triggered,  gratitude  can  be  a  helpful  way  to manage the emotional challenges experienced at the holidays. Rather than just focusing on the distressing aspects of the family gathering, or distressing memories, try to think about what  you appreciate either in your  family  or  in  other  areas  of  your  life.  And,  don’t  reserve  the gratitude mindset just for Thanksgiving. If you make gratitude a permanent part of your life, you will experience its power as you reap the many benefits it brings. Below are two activities that can help you to make gratitude a regular part of your life.

1) GRATITUDE JOURNAL

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 A simple but very powerful exercise is the gratitude journal. At the end of the day, write down three things that happened that day for which you feel grateful. The things you list don’t have to be big; they can either be small things you experienced during the day that you appreciate, or they can be bigger things in your life. Do this for at least a week, and if you begin to see benefits, continue to do it on a regular basis. You don’t necessarily have to continue to do this daily. This activity can equally effective if done on a weekly or even bi-weekly basis, so do whatever fits best for you.

Instead of making a list of items, you can also try writing more extensively about a particular thing/experience/relationship for which you are grateful.

2) GRATITUDE LETTER   

(c) Can Stock Photo Inc

The gratitude letter is another powerful exercise that can help increase gratitude. This exercise involves writing a letter to someone who has had a significant positive impact on your life, but whom you have not formally thanked. It can be a mentor, grandparent, or anyone who has helped you in a meaningful way in your life. In your letter, describe what that individual did specifically that was helpful, and the impact it had on you. The length of the letter is unimportant, and it’s not absolutely necessary to send it in order for you to reap the benefits of doing this exercise. Assuming that you are willing to have your letter read by the individual about whom it is written, a really powerful addition to this exercise is to personally deliver the letter and read it to that person.

 

(c) Can Stock Photo Inc.

LEADING WITH YOUR STRENGTHS

[Happiness and Well-Being Series, Part 13]   by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.                                  “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies   within.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Would you be able to name your personal strengths if you were asked? Many people can’t, either because they take their own strengths for granted, or because they think of themselves primarily in terms of shortcomings. But, research has found that we benefit greatly when we’re able to recognize and embrace our own strengths. In fact, numerous studies have shown that regularly using our strengths can lead to enduring increases in happiness, well-being, life satisfaction, optimism, confidence, achievement, vitality and resilience, and can help to decrease stress and depression.

 LEARNING TO RECOGNIZE YOUR STRENGTHS

There are different ways you can begin to recognize (or recognize more of) your own strengths. For example, you can begin to clarify some of your top strengths by answering the following questions:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What fulfills you?
  • When are you at your best?
  • What motivates or energizes you?

There are also a number of assessment tools available to help identify your strengths. One  particularly useful assessment tool is called the VIA Character Strengths Survey. It measures 24  character strengths: creativity; curiosity; love of learning; perspective; judgment; bravery; persistence; honesty; zest; love; kindness; social intelligence; citizenship; fairness;  leadership; forgiveness; humility; prudence; self-control, gratitude; hope; humor; spirituality; appreciation of beauty and excellence. If you take the VIA survey, you’ll receive a personalized rank ordering of these 24 strengths. Your top 5 – 7  strengths are considered to be  your “signature” strengths –  i.e. the ones that come most naturally to you.

IDENTIFYING AND USING YOUR OWN CHARACTER STRENGTHS

I highly recommend that you complete the VIA Character Strengths Survey, so that you can learn to identify and further enhance your character strengths. It takes only 15 minutes, and it’s free.  Once you’re able to recognize and appreciate your signature strengths, you can make a point of using them to improve your life. Studies have found that people are “at their best” when they’re most able to use their signature strengths. What follows are some ideas for powerful activities that can help you to further develop your top strengths (or any of the other strengths that you’d like to augment):

  • AT YOUR BEST

    Write about a time when you were ‘at your best’ – i.e. when you acted in a way that you think reflects the best of who you are. It can be a time when you did something you felt good about, when you were successful in some way, and/or when you overcame some type of obstacle. It can be recent or something that happened a long time ago. (Of course, there may be many examples that would fit this description, and you can do this activity for as many of them as you like.) Review what you’ve written, and try to search for the strengths you demonstrated in that situation. You might be amazed at how moving and powerful this activity can be.

  • RECOGNIZE HOW YOU’VE USED YOUR SIGNATURE STRENGTHS IN DAILY LIFE

    Take a close look at your top 5 – 7 VIA character strengths, and think about other times/ways you have used them. Write down as many such instances as you can recall.  If you want, you can ask your friends and family for examples of when you have demonstrated some of these strengths.  Be sure to continue to call on those strengths regularly in the future.

  • USE YOUR SIGNATURE STRENGTHS IN A NEW WAY

    Take one of the signature strengths you have identified, and for a week, use that strength in a new way every day. Studies have found this exercise to be very powerful. Here are a few examples of things you can do: if creativity is a signature strength, choose an object in your home and find a new and unusual use for it, or take a class in some type of creative activity; if curiosity is a signature strength, attend a lecture on a topic about which you know nothing, or go to a restaurant that serves a type of cuisine you’ve never had; if perseverance is a signature strength, make a list of things to do, and do one thing from the list every day; if social intelligence is a signature strength, every day make someone feel at ease. These are only a small number of possible ways to use and increase character strengths. For more ideas, you can see Peterson’s more complete list (Peterson, 2006, p 159- 162). You can also find ideas at Via Character Strengths Blog.

  • USE YOUR STRENGTHS TO HELP WITH GOALS AND CHALLENGES

    Keep a list of your top 5 -7 strengths handy, and look at it frequently. Think about how you have used your strengths recently, and then consider how you can use your strengths going forward. Think about some goals you would like to pursue, and then think about how you might be able to use your strengths to facilitate progress toward your goals.

If we all did the things we were capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” – Thomas Edison    

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

Biswas-Diener, Robert; Dean, Ben (2009-05-18). Positive psychology coaching: putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004) Character strengths and virtues: A handbook  New York. Oxford University Press.

Peterson, Christopher (2006-06-28). A primer in positive psychology (Oxford Positive Psychology Series) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Free Press. Kindle Edition.

Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011-04-05). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Atria Books. Kindle Edition.          

VIA Character Strengths Blog:  http://www.viacharacter.org/blog/category/via-strengths-exercise/.

VIA Character Strengths Survey: http://www.viacharacter.org/www/                           

If you haven’t yet read the twelve previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness & Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                                       Happiness & Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                      Happiness & Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                                 Happiness & Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness & Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence                                                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 9: Mindfulness                                                                                     Happiness & Well-Being, Part 10: Mindfulness II
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 11: Finding Flow                                                                                Happiness & Well-Being, Part 12: Making Life Choices

MAKING LIFE CHOICES

[HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 12] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D

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                    (c) www.canstockphoto.com

“Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” ~Alfred D. Souza                                             

Life is filled with difficult choices, and making decisions about long-term goals can be especially challenging.  When we select long-term goals, we generally try to choose the ones we think will make us happy. But, accurately predicting our happiness can be very difficult because no matter what strategies we use to try to sort out what we want, we’re susceptible to cognitive biases that can mislead us.  To minimize the influence of these biases, it’s helpful to understand how they can affect the decision-making process.

BIAS #1: SELECTIVELY FOCUSING ON THE MOST SALIENT FEATURE – Most of us are inclined to selectively focus on one salient feature of a choice we’re trying to make, while overlooking or minimizing other features. Although the element we emphasize may appear to be the most important feature, by approaching the decision in this manner we’re likely to be underestimating the effect other features will have. To reduce the impact of this bias, we need to step back to look at the bigger picture, and give some thought to how we feel about the features we may be minimizing.

BIAS #2: OVERESTIMATING THE LONG-TERM EFFECT ON OUR HAPPINESS – A subset of the focusing bias is the tendency to concentrate primarily on how we think we’ll be affected by a decision in the short run, even if we’ll be living with the decision for much longer. It’s important to remember that over time we adapt to change, and as we adapt, the intensity of whatever we’re feeling about that change diminishes. In order to learn more about what it might be like to live with this choice over time, it can be useful to talk with others who have experienced it on more than just a short-term basis.

BIAS #3: PUTTING TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON THE OPINIONS OF OTHERS – All of us are susceptible to being influenced by external opinions and social pressures. Some of us may even trust the opinions of others more than our own. As mentioned above, it’s definitely a good idea to seek the input of others who may be able to offer us a different perspective, especially if they know us well and also if they have experience with the choice we’re considering.  But in the end, our own personality, values, strengths and interests should play a more prominent role in our decision than the opinions of others.

BIAS #4: TRYING TO MAKE THE “PERFECT” CHOICE – If we convince ourselves that there is a “perfect” choice, we’re likely to be disappointed. Further, those who look for perfection risk being caught in “analysis paralysis.” Instead of being immobilized by fear of making the wrong choice, we need to recognize that there is no perfect choice, and aim for a choice that’s “good enough.”

Beyond correcting for these cognitive biases, it’s important to remember what we’ve been discussing throughout this Happiness and Well-Being series: external factors account for only 10% of our happiness whereas the smaller choices that we regularly make account for up to 40% of our happiness (e.g. see Happiness and Well-Being, part 1).  We need to remain mindful of the fact that our happiness isn’t determined by making “perfect” decisions, and it isn’t a steady state.

Happiness has more to do with how we view and approach the opportunities and challenges in our life. It has more to do with making choices that are inherently rewarding for us, that add meaning to our life, and that honor our own values and strengths. And, it has more to do with cultivating significant social connections, with allowing ourselves to appreciate and enjoy the moment, with understanding what’s really important to us, and with being grateful for what we have. But, even knowing these things, the reality is that in the midst of dealing with the pressures and stresses we all experience, it’s easy to lose track of things that  give meaning to our lives, and instead end up focusing on things that don’t really matter in the long run.  We need to keep in mind that where we focus our attention influences not only the types of choices we make, but also significantly impacts our happiness and well-being. So, from time to time, it can be very useful for each of us to focus on the bigger picture and think about what truly matters. 

THE BIGGER PICTURE
Research on hospice patients offers a big picture perspective on the choices all of us make in life. Hospice workers interviewed their patients about the regrets they felt as they faced the end of their lives. The workers then summarized the top 5 regrets of their dying patients: (1) I wish I hadn’t worked so hard; (2) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; (3) I wish I had let myself be happier; (4) I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self; (5) I wish I lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.

You can see from these answers that when the hospice patients came face-to-face with their mortality, it changed their perspective about some of the life choices they had made. Like most of us, they probably took a lot in their lives for granted, lost sight of their real priorities in the face of the pressures and stresses in their lives, and placed undue importance on some things that didn’t really matter in the long run. Because they were willing to share this perspective with us, we have the advantage of being able to use their wisdom to think about our own choices as we go forward. So, put some real thought into what it is that you value and what gives your life meaning and purpose.  Then, try to honor and live out your values, and factor them into both the big and small choices in your life.


ACTIVITY: SEEING THE BIGGER PICTURE IN YOUR OWN LIFE
Write a letter summarizing your life, your values and your accomplishments up until this point.

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(c) www.canstockphoto.com

  1. Of the things you’ve done, which are most meaningful to you?
  2. What memories bring you the most pleasure?
  3. As you think about what you want to put in the summary, what do you learn about your strengths, talents, interests, and values?
  4. Does thinking about these questions help you to recognize some things you might want to do (or do differently) as you go forward in your life?

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Biswas-Diener, R  & Dean, B (2009). Positive psychology coaching: Putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Biswas-Diener, R. & Diener, E. (2010). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. Wiley Publishing. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. Penguin Group US. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Jane McGonigal “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfBpsV1Hwqs

 

If you haven’t yet read the eleven previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness & Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                                       Happiness & Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                      Happiness & Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                                 Happiness & Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness & Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence                                                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 9: Mindfulness                                                                                     Happiness & Well-Being, Part 10: Mindfulness II
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 11: Finding Flow

FINDING “FLOW”

(c) www.canstockphoto.com

HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING [PART 11] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D

“I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.”  ~ Thomas A. Edison

  • Do you ever get so absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time, and become oblivious to everything else? What types of activities affect you this way?

If you’re familiar with how it feels to be so completely immersed in an activity that everything else literally recedes from conscious awareness, then you have experienced what psychologists call “flow.” In a flow state (athletes sometimes refer to it as “being in the zone”), concentration is effortless and complete, giving rise to a sense of competence and control. Being in flow is the essence of being in the moment. And, studies have found that quality of life is substantially enhanced when people regularly spend time participating in activities where they experience flow.

It’s helpful to be able to identify which activities tend to promote flow experiences for you. If you think back over the years, you may recognize the presence of flow in a number of the activities you’ve enjoyed. Perhaps you’ve experienced flow during activities such as painting, playing an instrument, gardening,  running, cooking, playing video games, or any one of a large number of other solo activities. Maybe you’ve had flow experiences during dyadic cooperative, goal-oriented activities like intense conversations, two-person games such as chess, two-person physical activities such as dancing or golf, and so on. You may have had group flow experiences in situations where people were gathered together for activities such as team sports, band, choir, theater productions, rock concerts, work teams, brain-storming activities, drum circles, or any other goal-oriented group activity. It’s worth noting that participation in group flow activities stands out for many people as being among some of their most memorable experiences.

Though many people spend a lot of free time watching TV, flow isn’t likely to be experienced during passive leisure activities. While they can be enjoyable and relaxing in moderation, passive leisure activities don’t generally contribute much to overall happiness and well-being. In fact, contrary to what many people believe, spending a great deal of time in passive leisure activities is more likely to lead to boredom and dissatisfaction

NECESSARY CONDITIONS FOR FLOW

It’s possible to experience flow in almost any activity, provided the activity involves the synthesis of challenge and skill. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first introduced the concept in the 1960s, three of the primary conditions necessary for flow to occur are: (1) having a clear goal; (2) receiving direct and immediate feedback about progress toward that goal; and (3) achieving the correct balance between challenge and skill. The goal needs to be challenging but manageable, and very clearly defined. Since flow involves intense focus, it’s best to eliminate unnecessary distractions (e.g. cell phones, etc.) when you are taking on a challenge.

FINDING FLOW IS ABOUT FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE BETWEEN ANXIETY AND BOREDOM

Flow is especially gratifying when both the challenge and the skill level are high. However, if the challenge is too high relative the skill level, the activity will cause stress and anxiety. And, if the challenge is too low, it will lead to boredom. Flow can be found in the area that lies between anxiety and boredom.  For challenges that are too difficult, flow can be achieved by: (1) breaking the task into smaller, more manageable steps; and/or (2) by seeking training or assistance to help obtain the requisite skills. When the task is too simple, the way to achieve flow is to increase the complexity of the challenge by developing new and more interesting ways of approaching the task.

SOME SIMPLE WAYS TO GET MORE FLOW INTO YOUR LIFE

IDENTIFY YOUR PREFERRED FLOW ACTIVITIES: Based on the descriptions above, try to identify activities where you’ve experienced flow. Make a list of those activities, and make an effort to do them more often. If you find yourself becoming bored with an activity, you can increase the level of challenge so that you will be able to continue to experience flow. But, don’t increase the level of challenge too much, or it will cause you anxiety. When you find the right balance between boredom and anxiety, the activity should be quite enjoyable and you are likely to be in a flow state.

DEVELOP STRATEGIES FOR EXPERIENCING FLOW IN ROUTINE TASKS: When you have to do mundane, boring tasks (e.g. cleaning) you can generate a flow experience by simply incorporating an achievable challenge into the activity. In order to stay interested in the activity, the challenge should be slightly out of reach, so that you are always pursuing a manageable goal. For example, if you are cleaning and you wish to experience flow, you can challenge yourself to do the cleaning faster, or in a different manner than usual, such as using your non-dominant hand. If you are waiting for a bus or a doctor appointment, try setting a goal that you can work on while you wait, such as seeing how many words you can think of that begin with a particular letter.

SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS ON FLOW

The research on what facilitates flow has important implications for use of leisure time in general, and for people heading into retirement in particular. At a minimum, it suggests a need to add variety, challenge, and ideally meaning to leisure activities, especially if you are no longer working at a job.  Since studies have found that it’s rare for people to adopt new interests in retirement, it’s helpful to establish flow-inducing interests and activities before retirement, whenever possible.  But, if you’re in retirement and you haven’t yet established any flow-inducing hobbies, it’s never too late to make a point of identifying some and adding them to your life. In fact, no matter where you are in your life trajectory, finding ways to integrate healthy flow activities into your life is an easily accessible and powerful way to increase your happiness and well-being.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

Achor, S. (2013-09-10). Before happiness: The 5 hidden keys to achieving success, spreading happiness, and sustaining positive change. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (Eds.). A life worth living: Contributions to positive psychology. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.). [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. More Than Sound LLC. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Goleman, Daniel (2013-10-08). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Kotler, S. (2014-03-04). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

McGonigal, Kelly (2015-05-05). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

 

Happiness & Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                                       Happiness & Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                      Happiness & Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                                 Happiness & Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness & Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence                                                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 9: Mindfulness                                                                                     Happiness & Well-Being, Part 10: Mindfulness II

 

MINDFULNESS II

silhouette composta da colori che medita

More Simple Ways To Practice Mindfulness                                                 [Happiness and Well-Being, Part 10] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.

“Give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

A Review Of The Basics: As we discussed last time (Happiness and Well-Being, Part 9), mindfulness meditation is a specific way of paying close attention to moment-to-moment experience, without judging or trying to alter the experience in any way. Mindfulness skills take time to develop, and when first learning mindfulness, expect your mind to wander a significant portion of the time. But, with practice your concentration will improve.

Begin a mindfulness meditation by selecting an object for focus, such as concentrating on the sensations in your nose or your abdomen as you inhale and exhale. Once you have established concentration, you can begin to widen your focus to include your sensations, thoughts and/or emotions. As you do this, you may find yourself noticing things that you might ordinarily overlook. The goal is to notice them without judging, accepting or rejecting them: just acknowledge your experiences with an attitude of curiosity, and then allow them to pass. As you practice mindfulness meditation, you may begin to recognize that all thoughts, emotions and sensations are temporary. While meditating, if you find yourself latching onto particular experiences, or thinking about the past or future, you can return to the present moment by once again focusing on your breathing.

SOME SPECIFIC APPROACHES TO PRACTICING BASIC MINDFULNESS MEDITATION

Body Scan: This approach to mindfulness practice involves simply noticing the sensations in different areas of your body.  Begin at the top of your head, and slowly and methodically work your way down to your toes. Notice the sensations in each area as you scan, and just allow those sensations to pass. Do not attempt to relax or tense your muscles. If you are drawn to scratch an itch or shift position to get more comfortable, try instead to just notice it and let the sensation pass. The goal is to become more aware and accepting of your experience, not to change it.

Attending to External Stimuli: Anything you can perceive may be used as a platform for mindfulness meditation. As with other approaches to mindfulness, try to simply notice your sensations with an attitude of curiosity, and then allow them to pass. You can focus on any of external stimuli impacting your senses, or you can choose to concentrate on one specific type of sensation. Practicing mindfulness of external stimuli can help you to become less reactive to them.

Awareness of Emotions: In this type of practice, you simply notice and name your emotions, allowing them to pass without judgment. Part of the purpose of doing this is to begin to recognize that emotions – even painful emotions – come and go, and don’t last forever. When choosing mental events as the object of meditation, resist the temptation to analyze your thoughts and feelings. By building your capacity to notice and experience thoughts and feelings as they come and go, you can diminish your reactivity and enhance your ability to tolerate difficult experiences and painful emotions.

Cultivating The Skill Of Nonjudgmental Awareness: Sometimes people find the goal of nonjudgmental awareness to be elusive because self-judgment can be a deeply ingrained habit. If you find it difficult to suspend self-judgment during meditation, here are a few strategies that can help:

Meditating on self-judgment: Begin by focusing on your breath for a few minutes. Then shift your focus to watching your thoughts, and whenever you notice a judgmental thought, just silently say “judging,” and then return to watching your thoughts.

Loving-kindness meditation: This approach also begins by focusing on the breath,  and then shifts to silently repeating a mantra such as “may I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be free from suffering,” or “may I accept whatever comes,” and/or other similar mantras. After you get comfortable with directing a loving-kindness meditation toward yourself, you can then expand it to include others.

Using imagery: Another way to avoid latching onto judgmental thoughts during mindfulness meditation is to utilize “letting go” imagery. Begin by focusing on your breath, and then widen your focus to include your thoughts. As you begin to focus on your thoughts, instead of simply noticing them, imagine that your thoughts are bubbles in a stream and watch as they appear and disappear. (Any visual metaphor that similarly depicts the concept of impermanence can be substituted.)

The forgoing techniques are just a small sampling of some basic ways to begin to practice mindfulness meditation. Since these descriptions are necessarily very succinct, you may wish to get more detailed descriptions of these strategies by looking at one or more of the suggested readings below. In addition, if you want to more fully experience the large array of benefits that mindfulness meditation can bring, you will need to learn more about it by either taking classes, finding a mentor, and/or seeking out additional resources on the topic. You can also download guided meditations from the web (e.g. http://www.mindfulness-solution.com/DownloadMeditations.html).  No matter how you choose to learn about mindfulness meditation, if you are willing to make a commitment, invest time and energy, and practice on a regular basis, mindfulness can have a powerful positive impact on your happiness and well-being.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Boyce, B. (Ed.) (2011-03-08). The mindfulness revolution: Leading psychologists, scientists, artists, and meditation teachers on the power of mindfulness in daily life. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Hanh, T. N. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Hanh, T. N. (2012-02-07). The art of mindfulness. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. More Than Sound LLC. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012 ) Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment and your life. Boulder, CO.: Sounds True, Inc.

Mingyur Rinpoche, Yongey (2007). The joy of living: Unlocking the secret and science of happiness. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Siegel, R. D. (2009) The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. Guilford Publications [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.

 

If you haven’t yet read the nine previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness & Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                                       Happiness & Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness & Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                      Happiness & Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                                 Happiness & Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness & Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence                                                               Happiness & Well-Being, Part 9: Mindfulness

 

“More Simple Ways to Practice Mindfulness Meditation” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.

MINDFULNESS

[Happiness and Well-Being, Part 9] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.

“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake.” – William James

  • Do you sometimes find that you haven’t really been paying attention to what you’ve been doing, and have instead been running on autopilot?
  • As you’ve gotten older, do you sometimes find it more challenging to maintain focus on things you’re doing?

Sometimes we simply don’t pay attention to what we’re doing in the moment. Perhaps we’re multitasking, or lost in thought about something that’s not even related to what we’re actually doing. And, when driving a car, most of us have had the rather unnerving experience of suddenly realizing that we can’t recall how we got from one place to the other. An alternative to this probably familiar ‘mindless’ state is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a specific way of paying close attention to your moment-to-moment experience, without judging or trying to alter the experience in any way. There are different approaches to practicing mindfulness, but all are essentially a form of meditation.

Research has shown that mindfulness meditation is associated with many physical and emotional benefits: it supports the immune system and helps people with a variety of medical and psychiatric disorders, including heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and stress-related issues. Learning to simply observe experiences and thoughts without forcing, judging, accepting or rejecting them, has been found to diminish their ability to provoke automatic, potentially destructive emotional and physical reactions. In other words, mindfulness reduces emotional reactivity and breaks the usual connection between negative thoughts and negative emotions.

Brain imagining studies have found that regularly practicing mindfulness changes the brain in ways that promote happiness and well-being. These studies have shown that mindfulness leads to an increase in the number of neurons in areas of the brain involved in attention, concentration, self-regulation, positive emotion, and the creation of new memories. Mindfulness meditation appears to increase the speed capacity of nerve impulses too. Studies have also found that mindfulness leads to a decrease of neurons in the area of the brain most reactive to stress. These important brain changes undoubtedly underlie the many medical and psychiatric benefits associated with regular mindfulness practice.

It is also worth noting that regularly practicing mindfulness has been shown to protect against changes in cognitive functioning that are sometimes associated with normal aging. Older meditators have been found to perform better than same age non-meditators on tasks that involve attention, working memory, perceptual speed and some of the other higher level cognitive functions that help to organize and order behavior. Studies have also shown that it is never too late to reap the benefits of a regular mindfulness practice: when beginners received only 8 weeks of basic meditation training, they began showing some of the same brain benefits that were found in the experienced meditators.

INTRODUCING MINDFULNESS INTO YOUR LIFE
Mindfulness can be practiced formally or informally. Formal practice involves regularly setting aside time to practice mindfulness meditation. The general recommendation for developing a formal practice is to begin with brief periods of meditation, and then gradually increase the duration as you strengthen your ability to maintain a mindful state.  The more you practice, the greater the benefits you will experience over time. If possible, beginners may wish to aim for 20 minutes a day of formal practice, and over time increase the duration of practice to 45 minutes.  But, even if you are only able to devote smaller amounts of time to practice, you will still experience some benefits.

Concentration Practices:  The first step is to learn to increase your capacity for concentration (also called “concentration practices”). There are a variety of possible concentration practices, but the simplest involves merely focusing on the sensation created in your nose or your abdomen when you inhale and exhale. When using your breathing to help develop your concentration, it is not necessary to breathe deeply, or to change your breathing pattern in any way. Just breathe naturally and focus your attention on how it feels. This exercise may seem very simple, but it is much more challenging than you might expect. As you try to maintain focus on your breath, your mind will undoubtedly wander; when you notice this has occurred, simply bring your attention back to your breathing, without judging yourself for becoming distracted.  Some people find it easier to maintain focus if they silently name what they’re doing (e.g. “breathing in,” “breathing out”), or if they silently count their breaths. Developing the ability to remain focused during meditation is a learning process that takes time, patience and a lot of practice.

Informal Practices: Whether or not you choose to develop a regular formal mindfulness practice, it’s important to recognize that virtually anything you do can potentially be done mindfully instead of mindlessly. It’s a matter of putting energy into developing the habit of paying attention. Pick a few activities that are a regular part of your life, and make a decision to do them mindfully all the time. In this way, you can start to associate the activity with being mindful, which will increase the chances that you’ll remember to pay attention when you engage in those activities. As an example, you can wash the dishes mindfully, you can shower mindfully, you can eat mindfully, you can walk up and down the stairs mindfully, you can go for a walk mindfully, etc. Instead of thinking about other things while you engage in the activities you select, focus exclusively on remembering to pay close attention to the sensations and actions involved in what you are doing. You will, in a sense, be “single-tasking.”

NEXT TIME:  More on mindfulness, including additional ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life.

Audrey Berger, Ph.D. has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 33 years. In her life coaching practice she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and creating a new life after divorce/loss. She also works with an array of other life issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. You can learn more about her life coaching services, and find out about receiving a complimentary coaching consultation, at www.turningpointlifecoaching.com. Audrey can be reached at: info@turningpointlifecoaching.com or at (585)292-0095.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Boyce, B. (Ed.) (2011-03-08). The mindfulness revolution: Leading psychologists, scientists, artists, and meditation teachers on the power of mindfulness in daily life. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Hanh, T. N. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Hanh, T. N. (2012-02-07). The art of mindfulness. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. More Than Sound LLC. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

Mingyur Rinpoche, Yongey (2007). The joy of living: Unlocking the secret and science of happiness. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Siegel, R. D. (2009) The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. Guilford Publications [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.

 

If you haven’t yet read the eight previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                             Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                Happiness and Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                          Happiness and Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                         Happiness and Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring                                                                                        Happiness and Well-Being, Part 8: Positive Reminiscence

 

“Mindfulness” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.

POSITIVE REMINISCENCE

[HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 8]  by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.                                                                                                      “Pleasure is the flower that passes; remembrance, the lasting perfume.” ~ Jean de Boufflers  Have you ever noticed how much happiness you can experience by simply thinking about a special memory in your life?  Many studies have found that savoring positive memories is a powerful way to promote and strengthen positive feelings in the present, especially for older adults. Positive memories can bring us joy, and they can even help us to cope with, and recover from, some of the difficulties that we all encounter in life. Fortunately, no matter what challenges we currently face in our lives, we all have within us the ability to transport ourselves to another time and place.

Research has shown that by recalling times when we felt truly happy, we are able to experience those same feelings again – sometimes even with the same intensity that we felt during the original event. Possibly because positive reminiscence is a relatively simple and accessible way to promote happiness in the moment, some studies that have found that the more time people spend remembering positive events from the past, the more they tend to enjoy the present. Some researchers have even been reported that positive reminiscence contributes to increased self-esteem and greater optimism about the future.

A number of studies have identified some things that can help to fine-tune the process of positive reminiscence. Taking mental snapshots of positive events as they occur, and memorizing the details, facilitates future recall of your happy experiences; as pleasurable as it can be to collect and save memorabilia, it turns out that simply bringing positive memories to mind is a more effective way to promote happiness. Also, when engaging in positive reminiscence, it is best to stay emotion-focused, since analyzing positive emotions has been shown to detract from the experience.

 Although remembering happy times doesn’t require any special strategies, there are a number of structured positive reminiscence activities that are worth your consideration. Over and above the fact that these activities can be quite enjoyable, they can also help to strengthen your brain wiring for positive emotions, enhance your resilience, and facilitate your overall happiness and well-being.

POSITIVE REMINISCENCE ACTIVITIES

Make a list of your happy memories: This list can include both special events from your life as well as any generally happy experience you are able to recall. Set aside time to select and recall the individual items on your list, and in each instance, bring to mind as many details as you can. Immerse yourself in the memory, and pay close attention to the feelings you experience.

Share Memories: Research has found that reminiscing with others about a shared memory is especially likely to evoke strong positive emotions (e.g. joy, accomplishment, amusement, contentment and pride), particularly as we get older. This can, of course, be done informally, but there is also a more formal approach that you can try. In the structured version of this activity, you and a friend each make a list of 3 -5 of your own happiest experiences. Then take turns sharing those memories with one another. As you describe a specific memory, include the following details: where you were; what was happening; what you were doing; who else was there; what made it such a memorable and positive experience; how you felt at the time; and how you feel now as you recall it. Try to really picture the experience and savor the memories. When you are the listener, help your partner savor their memories by paying close attention and asking questions that will help to enrich the experience for them.

Work with specific positive emotions: Instead of making a list of positive memories, you can begin by working with specific positive emotions. For this activity, choose a specific positive emotion, and then generate a list of times when you remember experiencing that emotion. Think of as many instances as you can, and for each instance, include as many details as you can recall. Your positive emotions portfolio can evolve over time, as you remember more experiences, and as you have new experiences that you would like to remember later.

If you have chosen to focus on one specific emotion for this positive reminiscence strategy, consider repeating it for a variety of positive emotions. If you proceed in this manner, you can then create resource boxes (or, if you prefer, computer folders) for different positive emotions. Linger over the process of creating these boxes/folders and use it as an opportunity to really savor each emotion and the associated memories. In each box or computer folder, include anything that can serve as a trigger for a particular positive emotion: photos, songs, written descriptions, letters, etc. Savor new positive experiences as well, and then integrate descriptions, photos or other mementos of these new experiences into the resource box/folder you created for the associated emotion. After a while you will have a wonderful array of resources for different positive emotions, which will be available to you whenever you wish.

Accomplishment Savoring – Think back over the years of your life, and make a list of things you’ve achieved. To facilitate recall of your achievements, it may help to generate a separate list of your achievements for each decade of your life. Include both large and small achievements. Include items that are meaningful to you, regardless of whether they would be seen the same way by others. What makes you proud of this accomplishment? What positive feelings do you have now, looking back on it? Who else was involved? What setbacks or challenges did you have to overcome? What skills and abilities did you use?

 Next time: MINDFULNESS

 

Audrey Berger, Ph.D. has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 33 years. In her life coaching practice she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and creating a new life after divorce/loss. She also works with an array of other life issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. You can learn more about her life coaching services, and find out about receiving a complimentary coaching consultation, at www.turningpointlifecoaching.com. Audrey can be reached at: info@turningpointlifecoaching.com or at (585)292-0095.

 REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

Biswas-Diener; Diener, Ed (2010-01-22). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Kindle Edition. Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Bryant, F. B. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Cohen, G. D. (2008-07-31). The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Cozolino, L. (2008). The healthy aging brain: Sustaining attachment, attaining wisdom. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition]

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

 If you haven’t yet read the seven previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                             Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                Happiness and Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                          Happiness and Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset                                         Happiness and Well-Being, Part 7: Savoring

“Positive Reminiscence” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.

SAVORING

[HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 7]

“Enjoy the little things in life…for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.” ~ Robert Brault
  • Do you frequently find yourself multitasking, or rushing around trying to get everything done?
  • Do you spend a lot of time using your computer, tablet, or cell phone, or watching TV?

It’s important for each of us to take the time to slow down, turn off the technology, and allow ourselves to just enjoy the moment; we can help ourselves to do this by learning how to savor our positive experiences. Savoring the things we enjoy increases the pleasure we experience in the present moment. It also strengthens the brain wiring underlying our positive emotions, helps us to better manage stress, and promotes our overall happiness and well-being (see Happiness and Well-Being, part 3).

LEARNING TO SAVOR LIFE’S JOYS

Paying close attention to your senses, and to the experience of pleasure, is the key to savoring.  To savor life’s joys, you need to actively allow yourself to bring about, appreciate, enhance and prolong your positive experiences, without guilt or feeling like you’re wasting time. Even if you already make a point of savoring special moments in your life, you can derive further benefit by also savoring positive things that you experience more regularly: the beauty around you; the music, sensations or tastes that you love; time spent with family or friends; and so forth.  When you are savoring something, try not to analyze the experience, since that will diminish your pleasure. Instead, simply focus your attention on enjoying the experience.

Although savoring is a process that increases your pleasure in the present moment, the situation that you’re savoring doesn’t have to be occurring in the here and now: you can bring joy into the present moment by savoring the memory of a positive past experience, or by savoring the anticipation of a positive future event. Studies have found that each type of savoring is associated with unique benefits: people who are good at savoring positive experiences occurring in the present moment tend to show less susceptibility to guilt, shame and depressive feelings; those who are skilled at savoring memories of positive past experiences show reduced susceptibility to stress; and those who are adept at savoring the anticipation of positive future events show an increased level of optimism.

If you don’t naturally savor what’s positive in your life, it’s a habit that can be easily developed and incorporated into almost any lifestyle. What follows are some specific strategies that can help to promote savoring. Try out some of these approaches, and continue to use ones that you like. Adopting a variety of strategies will help to keep your experiences fresh and interesting.

Strategies that promote savoring:

Celebration – When you have worked hard for something or accomplished a goal, take time to really appreciate and celebrate your success. Do something special for yourself. You can involve others in this activity as well.

Sharpening perceptions – Focus on specific elements of your experience and block out other elements. For example, if you are eating a piece of chocolate, rather than eating it quickly without thinking as we often tend to do, slow down and really focus on the sensation. Put the chocolate in your mouth, close your eyes, feel of the chocolate on your tongue, and delight in the taste.

Absorption – Allow yourself to get totally immersed in an experience, and try not to think. Don’t think about other things you should be doing or focus on the ways in which the experience could be improved.

Memory-building Studies have found that happier people have a habit of taking a mental snapshots of successes and positive experiences as they occur. By paying attention to the details and memorizing vivid images, it becomes easier to recall and enjoy the experiences later on. You can also build memories by taking actual photographs, or by journaling about an enjoyable event. Whether you use mental snapshots or physical keepsakes, this process allows you to more easily reminisce about it later and re-experience some of the pleasure you felt when it happened. [Next time we will further discuss the topic of savoring positive memories.]

Gratitude Journal (Counting Your Blessings) Experiencing and expressing gratitude can be seen as a form of savoring, because you are recognizing the blessings in things that can otherwise be taken for granted. Gratitude can be about either significant or mundane things in your daily life, or it can be about the powerful emotional gifts you receive from connections with other people. The topic of gratitude has been the focus of a great deal of research in recent years, and there is simply no question that practicing gratitude can significantly contribute to happiness and well-being. A very useful gratitude activity is the gratitude journal.

A gratitude journal involves writing down three to five things in your life for which you are currently grateful. Lyubormirksy (2007) has found that the best frequency for keeping a gratitude journal is once a week. However, other people might get better results with different frequencies for journaling – anywhere from daily to bi-weekly, so choose whatever frequency works best for you. Other gratitude journaling strategies include: writing more detail about one specific thing or writing about what your life would be like without some of the blessings you have. Of course, you can try a mix of all these strategies.

Next Month: POSITIVE REMINISCENCE                                    

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

Biswas-Diener, R. & Dean, B. (2009-05-18). Positive psychology coaching: Putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Biswas-Diener, R. & Diener, E. (2010-01-22). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Bryant, F. B. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

 If you haven’t yet read the six previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                             Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                Happiness and Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism                          Happiness and Well-Being, Part 6: Developing A Growth Mindset

“Savoring” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.

DEVELOPING A GROWTH MINDSET

[HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 6] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.

“If we all did the things we were capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves”
– Thomas Edison

  • Does fear of failure sometimes prevent you from doing things you want to do?
  • Do you sometimes focus a lot of your energy on trying to prove yourself?
  • When you experience a setback or failure, are you likely to give up and conclude that you lack the ability to reach your goal?

In recent years, psychologists have recognized that there are two very different mindsets that people can hold with regard to their own abilities:  a fixed mindset or a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). Those who have a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are set for life and tend to focus on proving themselves. Those who have a growth mindset recognize that their abilities can be enhanced through effort, so they focus on developing their abilities instead of trying to prove themselves. If you answered “yes” to one or more of the questions above, you may be approaching things with a fixed mindset.

Studies show that if you believe your abilities are fixed, you are less likely to take risks and more likely to avoid challenges, which can end up limiting your potential. On the other hand, if you believe you have the capacity to grow and improve, it can strengthen your willingness to take risks, accept challenges, and persist in the face of failure or rejection, which in turn can enhance your potential.

Fixed and growth mindsets can impact virtually any ability, including intelligence, academic performance, career achievements, physical abilities, etc. Having a fixed or growth mindset in one area does not necessarily mean you will have that same mindset with regard to all of your abilities; you may see yourself as capable of learning and growing in one area, but not in another.

HOW TO DEVELOP A GROWTH MINDSET

If you find yourself thinking that one or more of your abilities is fixed, try to remember that this belief is almost certainly incorrect. With sufficient effort, perseverance and planning, it is possible to grow and improve in a wide spectrum of areas. When you encounter a setback or failure, the strategies discussed in the article on Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism will help you to diminish your distress. But, if you focus only on helping yourself to feel better, and you give up on your goal because of the setback, you may end up unnecessarily limiting your potential. While it makes sense to let go of goals that don’t fit with what you really want in your life – or that are unreachable due to circumstances that are truly beyond your control – abandoning a goal because you don’t think you have the ability to succeed is almost certainly selling yourself short.

So, when you experience rejection or failure, first recognize that you most likely do have the ability to reach your goal (or some version of your goal), but that you might need to employ different strategies to get there. In the event that you really don’t have the ability at present, if the goal is really important to you, it may still be possible to develop that ability over time. The following ideas and strategies can help you to cultivate a growth mindset in virtually any area:

CATCH YOURSELF GROWING:  When you encounter a setback or failure, ask yourself “what did I do right/well in this situation,” “What have I learned from this setback?” and “What works, and what needs to be adjusted or eliminated?” These questions will help you manage the emotional impact of your setback, and help you to identify some new strategies you can use to reach your goal. And, don’t forget to give yourself credit for all your efforts – those that were successful, as well those that weren’t.

REWIRE YOUR BRAIN:  Imagine what it would be like to overcome the feeling that you lack the ability to achieve your goal, and visualize yourself knowing that you can. Come up with some things you can tell  yourself, to help yourself recognize and remember that with the right amount of effort, and some good strategies, you can do it. Write those things down, and review them every day until they become part of your mindset.

CAROL DWECK’S (2006) PROCESS FOR CULTIVATING A GROWTH MINDSET: (1) recognize that how you performed, or what you experienced in a given situation, doesn’t define you or your potential; (2) challenge any beliefs that your abilities are fixed; (3) remember that your purpose isn’t simply to reduce your distress, but to move forward toward your bigger goal; and (4) make a concrete plan for achieving your goal. Your plan may involve adjusting your approach or breaking the goal down into smaller pieces. The critical issue is to have a plan that is very specific and clear: what will you do, when will you do it, and where will you do it? Visualize the steps you will take, and then hold yourself accountable for implementing each step of your plan. If your efforts toward your goal are blocked or frustrated in some way, make another plan; this could even involve learning new skills or seeking help from others. Heidi Halvorson (2010) recommends that you also include the following component to your plan: identify obstacles you might encounter and clarify how you will address those obstacles. (See “The Trouble With New Year’s Resolutions” for more information on pursuing and accomplishing goals.)

As you work toward achieving your goal, you may find it helpful to take some inspiration from a great inventor:

“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  ~ Thomas Edison

Next Time: SAVORING (TAKING PLEASURE IN THE PRESENT MOMENT)

Audrey Berger, Ph.D. has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 33 years. In her life coaching practice she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and living well in the face of life challenges such as chronic illness or creating a new life after divorce/loss or breast cancer treatment. She also works with an array of other life issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. Since coaching can readily take place on the phone, you can coach with Audrey no matter where you are located. To learn more about Audrey’s coaching services, and to arrange a complimentary coaching consultation, go to http://www.turningpointlifecoaching.com. Audrey can be reached by email at info@turningpointlifecoaching.com or by phone at (585) 292-0095.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Dweck, C.  (2006-02-28). Mindset: The new psychology of success. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Halvorson, H. G. (2010-12-23). Succeed: How we can reach our goals. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Seligman, M. E. (2011-08-10). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life (Vintage). [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.

                                          ————————————————————-

“Developing A Growth Mindset” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.

If you haven’t yet read the five previous posts in this series, click on the links below so you can learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                             Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism                                                                Happiness and Well-Being, Part 5: Overcoming Pessimism and Self-Criticism

OVERCOMING PESSIMISM & SELF-CRITICISM

canstockphoto15299774[HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING, PART 5] By Audrey Berger, Ph.D.

“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward”  Thomas A. Edison.

When things go badly for you, do you tend to blame yourself, and believe that things will probably continue to go badly for you in the future (i.e. think pessimistically)? Or, are you more likely to assume that it’s a temporary setback and that things will get better (i.e. think optimistically)? It should be obvious that these two different ways of thinking about difficulties are likely to promote very different emotional and behavioral responses. For example, when things go badly, those who think pessimistically typically respond with significant distress and anxiety, and may even experience feelings of defeat; those who think optimistically are likely to experience less distress and anxiety, and are apt to be more focused on how they can improve things as they go forward .

We now know that how we feel depends, to a large extent, on which information we attend to in a given situation, and how we interpret that information. Studies have shown that even though we each receive up to 11 million bits of information per second through our senses, our brains are only able to consciously process around 40 – 60 bits per second.  This means that we regularly miss vast amounts of information, and that we only attend to a sliver of reality. In recent years, psychologists have begun to recognize that emotional reactions can be changed by helping people to adjust where they focus their attention and how they interpret the meaning of an experience.

So, if you are prone to pessimistic thinking, and are susceptible to the resulting anxiety and distress, remember that there are almost certainly many alternative perspectives and interpretations that you are not considering, and that that both can be adjusted: you can change where you focus your attention, and find different ways to think about the information you select.

The first step is to try to become aware of what you’re thinking when things don’t go well; if you realize that you’re being self-critical and expecting that things will continue to go badly in the future, you can take action to shift to a more helpful perspective. It is not recommended that you try to simply suppress negative thoughts, because that may cause them to become even more powerful and persistent. But, there are strategies you can use to help you manage and modify any unrealistic pessimistic thinking. It is best to be prepared with some of these strategies, so you can quickly interrupt what could otherwise become a downward spiral of self-criticism and worry. What follows is a sampling of some strategies you can try.

REDIRECT THINKING: The simplest and fastest way to block ruminations is to distract yourself and refocus your attention onto a constructive and absorbing activity. Create a “rumination escape kit” ahead of time and keep it handy. In your kit, include anything that can serve as a healthy distraction that you can use to quickly shift your attention when needed. Simply interrupting the negative downward spiral is often enough to contain and even reverse it.  Negative emotions can sometimes provide clues about things that may need your attention, but rumination and negative downward spirals don’t benefit you. You can schedule a later time to think about/sort out the issue, in order to better address it; after scheduling a time when you will revisit the issue, use distraction to redirect your thoughts for now. The key here is to interrupt the rumination. But, if you have enough time , an effective and enduring way to shift your mindset is to challenge your negative ideas about the cause, meaning and implications of the negative event.

PRACTICE ARGUING AGAINST YOUR PESSIMISTIC AND SELF-CRITICAL BELIEFS:  Disputing your beliefs with evidence you have not been considering is the basic framework of this approach. Brainstorm as much evidence as you can to dispute your beliefs, and then identify more useful, but realistic, beliefs. Recognizing more benign or even positive ways of viewing the situation can significantly alter how you think and feel, as well as facilitate your ability to acknowledge and address issues that do need your attention. Sometimes it can help to imagine that your pessimistic beliefs are the assertions of someone else, rather than your own. We are often much better at fighting back when criticism and negative thinking comes from someone other than ourselves. To build your capacity to dispute your pessimistic beliefs, try writing them out, and write down evidence that you can use to dispute those beliefs.

SELF-COMPASSION JOURNAL:  Instead of arguing against self-critical beliefs, another alternative is to use self-compassion. When you are being self-critical, write down those thoughts and the feelings they provoke. Next, think of an imaginary friend who is kind, loving, accepting and compassionate, and write a letter to yourself about the situation from the perspective of this imaginary friend. Have your friend express love and support as s/he responds to your self-critical thoughts and painful feelings with acceptance and compassion. After writing the letter, leave it for a while, and then come back and read what you wrote, allowing yourself to really feel the love, support, compassion and acceptance expressed by your friend.

SELF-COMPASSION MANTRA: Another version of the self-compassion approach is to create a mantra that you can use whenever you are inclined to be self-critical. You can modify the language of the mantra, but the example provided by Kristin Neff (2011) is to repeat to yourself some version of the following phrases the moment you realize that you are being self-critical or feeling distressed: “I am having a very hard time right now.  Everyone feels this way sometimes. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion I need.”

MEDITATION AND RELAXATION TECHNIQUES: Meditation and relaxation strategies are also helpful, but they need to be practiced regularly. We will discuss the issue of meditation further in a future article in this series.

You may recall that last time we discussed how shifting from pessimism to optimism involves three elements: (1) cultivating realistic optimism, which we covered in the last article in this Happiness and Well-Being series; (2) neutralizing unrealistic pessimism, which we’ve addressed today; and (3) developing a growth mindset, which is so fundamental to optimism that we will focus exclusively on this issue next time.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS

Colman, J. (2012-10-16). Optimal functioning: A positive psychology handbook. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Goleman, Daniel (2011-04-12). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Halvorson, H. G. (2010-12-23). Succeed: How we can reach our goals. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com                                                                              
Neff, Kristin (2011-04-19). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com

If you haven’t yet read the first four posts in this series, read them now to learn more about Happiness and Well-Being:

Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1: Can You Make Yourself Happier?                                            Happiness and Well-Being, Part 2: Developing Happiness Habits                                             Happiness and Well-Being, Part 3: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4: Cultivating Optimism

 

OVERCOMING PESSIMISM AND SELF-CRITICISM by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website.