Archive for Depression and Mood

Rewire Your Brain for Happiness: Why What You Think About Is What You Think About

This time of year, I’m reminded of the connection between gratitude and happiness and the need to get more of both. I’ve noticed people tend to spend more time focusing on what is wrong and not enough about what is right in their lives.

For some people, it’s their job. People in professions like tax accounting, auditing, and law may be even more focused on the wrong—the mistakes—because that’s what they are trained and paid to do: to find the wrong and fix it.

What happens when we focus on what’s wrong more than what’s right? Harvard researcher Shawn Achor calls it the Tetris Effect. I call it “What You Think About Is What You Think About.” Granted, Shawn’s title is catchier, but mine is more descriptive.

Four years ago, a Google search for gratitude + happiness yielded 14.6 million results. This month, the same search yielded 25.8 million results. That’s 11.2 million more instances of gratitude + happiness online. Now that in itself is something I’m grateful for, and it makes me happy. That means more people discussing, researching, writing about and considering the combination of gratitude and happiness at reputable institutions such as The New York Times, Harvard, Psychology Today and Forbes.

In a research study, 27 Harvard students were paid to play the videogame Tetris for multiple hours a day, three days in a row. In the following days, the students reported they couldn’t stop seeing the Tetris shapes everywhere they looked. Their brains kept trying to rearrange everything—from buildings and trees on the landscape to cereal boxes on the shelf in the grocery store—to form a solid line so as to advance to the next level of the videogame. They couldn’t stop seeing the world as sequences of Tetris blocks!

This is caused by a natural physical process that actually changes the wiring of the brain. These new neural pathways warped the way these students viewed real-life situations. When people are focused on something—anything—their brains adapt and hone in on those circumstances and events.

A tax accountant may be terrific at her job, but when she brings her way of looking at the world home, she will miss seeing all the good in her life and may be on the road to depression. The same goes for the great attorney, who may be terrific in court but not so much at home, where family members feel like they are participants in a deposition.

Think about what you think about. When you notice something good happening, really notice it. Relish it. The more you can take notice, the more you will begin to see. Revisit my blog post What Went Well to learn a great technique for boosting your awareness and gratitude for the happy moments in life.


Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principals of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.

“Let Me Not Die While I Am Still Alive.”

Stormy Sky Clouds
And other lessons from an untimely death.

I think I have a lot in common with 391,833 other Facebook users. I don’t want anyone to miss the essence of Sheryl Sandberg’s message from June 3 sharing her feelings and realizations from the 30-day religious mourning period following her husband’s unexpected death.

My thoughts keep going back to her Facebook post on losing her husband, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Goldberg. What she shared can make us all stronger, more emotionally intelligent and better parents, children and friends.

She now understands the one-line prayer, “Let me not die while I am still alive,” shared by her childhood friend, now a rabbi.

She understands that “when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.”

And empathy—Sheryl shines a new light on the power of empathy. In the past, she would have thought exhibiting empathy would look something like trying to reassure someone things would get better or—as many of us do—to put a silver lining on it, “Well, at least you had a great marriage for 11 years,” or “Thank goodness you have your children.”

Sheryl says it’s all about truth. “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, ‘You and your children will find happiness again,’ my heart tells me, yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, ‘You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good’ comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple ‘How are you?’—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with ‘How are you today?’ When I am asked ‘How are you?’ I stop myself from shouting, ‘My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?’ When I hear ‘How are you today?’ I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

She also learned that resilience can be learned. Her friend Adam M. Grant taught her about the three components that create resilience: “Personalization—realizing it is not my fault. He told me to ban the word ‘sorry.’ To tell myself over and over, This is not my fault. Permanence—remembering that I won’t feel like this forever. This will get better. Pervasiveness—this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy.”

Thanks for sharing, Sheryl. We’ve looked up to you as a highly successful female executive and bestselling author. Your book, Lean In, inspired us women to get out there and claim our place in the world of business. Your recent Facebook post inspires us and teaches us how important it is to choose meaning and life, impart empathy and learn to be resilient. How are you today?

Links to other articles and blogs on Sheryl’s post can be found at The New York Times.

The Path to Happiness May Be . . . Backward?

Contemplative Girl at Forest Bridge with Stone Path over Creek Diptych

You know those days when everything seems to go wrong? When you tell yourself you are not going to trip on that extension cord, you are not going to mention that painful topic to your friend, you are not going to burn your hand on that pan you just pulled out of the oven—and then you do all three simultaneously?

There’s a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Wegner calls it ironic process theory, and it has to do with the backfire effect of thought suppression. Ironically, trying to quash a specific behavior or thought tends to trigger that very action or thought.

The preposterous blunders that riddle the plots of sitcoms and screwball comedies may have a basis in reality, after all.

The White Bear Challenge

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions over a century and a half ago. Wegner confirmed this hypothesis in white bear challenges conducted at Harvard’s Mental Control Laboratory.

Wegner uses the term “the precisely counterintuitive error” to describe the experience of being irresistibly drawn to the result we’re seeking to avert.

Edgar Allen Poe calls it the “imp of the perverse,” and it also accounts for those strange, self-destructive impulses we experience when in proximity of danger, such as being tempted to leap off a cliff or unlatch the car door while hurtling down the freeway.

Metacognition Malfunction

Wegner traces the cause of this phenomenon to a malfunction in our metacognition process. Thinking about thinking is a handy talent, but it can short-circuit when we apply it to thought suppression.

Like a self-reflexive programming script that gets stuck in an infinite loop, the self-monitoring process dominates our consciousness. This means we constantly think about the thought we are trying not to think about as our brain reminds us not to think about it.

The Power of Suppression

Practicers of reverse psychology, advertisers and romance novelists all understand the power of suppression. Tell someone not to do something, and they’ll be tempted to do it—even if the thought never occurred to them before.

Experiments reveal that grieving individuals who try to suppress their grief take longer to recover from loss. Subjects told to repress sexual thoughts show higher levels of arousal than those told not to suppress such thoughts. The hearts of anxiety disorder patients beat faster when they are listening to a relaxation tape. When two groups of people are told about the same unhappy event, the group told not to feel sad ends up feeling worse.

The Antidote

What does ironic process theory have to do with happiness? Journalist Oliver Burkeman argues that it could hold the key to a counterintuitive approach to happiness. Drawing on several millennia’s worth of philosophy, religion and science as well as his own international adventures, Burkeman explores this theory in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Quoting John Stuart Mill (“Ask yourself whether you’re happy, and you cease to be so”), Burkeman suggests we can only glimpse happiness in our peripheral vision—never directly. Just as looking at the sun can blind the viewer, seeking happiness through get-happy-quick schemes not only fails to produce it but may even result in greater misery.

Where Positive Thinking Goes Wrong

The cult of positive thinking (different from the scientifically based positive psychology movement) that has dominated the self-help shelves for decades may be causing more harm than good.

Research shows that daily affirmations can escalate self-critical thoughts among those with low self-esteem. This is because we tend to reject messages that contradict our sense of self, according to self-comparison theory.

In The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, neuroscientisit Tali Sharot writes that optimists—while healthier and happier—may not be as grounded in reality as pessimists, overestimating the degree of their control over circumstances.

Barbara Ehrenreich even goes so far as to suggest that the corporate pressure to be yaysayers instead of naysayers helped trigger the recent Global Financial Crisis in her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

The Benefits of Negative Thinking

Burkeman posits that continual attempts to suppress negative feelings such as insecurity, fear of death, uncertainty, failure and sadness may be a primary cause of unhappiness.

Surprisingly, the path to happiness may lie in not only acknowledging but actively embracing these negative feelings, thus sapping them of their destructive power.

In our next post, we will explore actions you can take to practice the negative approach to happiness.

Develop Positive Rituals to Increase Emotional Intelligence

Meditation in the Workplace

As we begin to understand our responses to situations, we can more effectively regulate and manage our emotions. My Master in Management class, “Working with Emotional Intelligence,” encourages students to build more awareness and confidence in their ability to understand and strengthen their emotional intelligence.

Our habits are expressed through four domains: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Every thought, feeling and action has an energy consequence; it can either be energy-producing or energy-draining.

We can manage this flow of energy through oscillation—cycling between expending and renewing our energy—which leads to high performance when balanced. Positive rituals or habits enhance and renew our energy levels and are the key to sustained high performance and focused full engagement. The feeling that accompanies these positive routines and sustains the energy renewal is that of appreciation or gratitude.

My challenge to the students this week: Explore your habits or routines that enhance or renew your energy levels. What fills you up and helps you restore your balance, sense of confidence and balance in life?

Look at all of the domains: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. What are the routines for each?

If you do not have any, what would you like to incorporate or practice?

Physically, perhaps a walk around the block or a 10-minute stretch twice a day will renew your energy levels. Examples of emotional boosts include writing or journaling for 15 minutes each morning or evening with a focus on that which brings you joy or gratitude (see my blog post What Went Well). Positive mental rituals could be researching something you are passionate about or strategizing action steps to reach a goal. The spiritual focus could be meditating, positive affirmations or prayer.

I encourage you to practice one or two of these behaviors. As you practice them, take the time to feel the sense of appreciation and gratitude for this gift to yourself. Let that feeling soak into all of your senses and let yourself be with it for as long as possible. Please share your experiences.

Make the Connection for a Happier Life

Wizard of Oz: Scarecrow Dorothy and Tin Man

One of the key predictors of happiness is connectivity—feeling a sense of community. Some of us find our community with work colleagues. Others find it among a circle of friends outside work. In this new economy, many of us find ourselves relocating or perhaps working in an unfamiliar industry where we are establishing a new sense of community.

Last week I attended the Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. (SOREDI) Business Conference, and a colleague commented that I seemed to know everybody there. Well, I didn’t, but it occurred to me that I did know quite a few people. And it made me feel happy. I like people and like to create connections. Some of these connections have developed into full-fledged friendships. Others have created solid ties in business arenas where I can be helpful to others—like being an advisor to entrepreneurs through SOREDI’s TAG Team (Technical Advisory Group) and the Sustainable Valley Technology Group (SVTG) Board of Mentors. I feel a connection with Southern Oregon, its people and its businesses, and this has a noticeable effect on my happiness and well-being.

Try it for yourself! See what you notice. Here are a few places you might find connections:

  • Service organizations like Rotary, Lions and Soroptimist
  • Fundraising events such as Taste of Ashland, JPR Wine Tasting and Best of Britt
  • Chambers of Commerce and other pro-business organizations like SOREDI and SVTG
  • Your health club
  • Places of worship
  • Classes—academic and enrichment
  • Clubs focused on something you’re passionate about, like running, beer-tasting, cooking, skiing, wine appreciation, hiking, gardening, books …

Another way I have found to make connections is through social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook (Capiche). I’ve made some remarkable contacts through both social media channels and maintain them online and in person.

Blogging is another way to connect with people. You don’t get the one-to-one contact, but you are keeping your name and brand front and center. I am always delighted by the readers who acknowledge me as a colleague or subject matter expert. Reading my blog gives them a sense of knowing me, and sometimes that’s all it takes to spark a connection.

Making connections is critical to a person’s happiness and sense of well-being. Please share your ideas on creating connections by commenting on my blog. The stronger our connectedness, the stronger our community—and the greater our collective happiness.

The 5 Ways to Well-Being

(thanks to social economist Nic Marks for this research)

The five ways to well-being are a set of positive actions that have been developed to help people get started on their way to a happier life. While we all have different circumstances and different likes and dislikes, these five ways are broad enough for you to find your own style of happiness. Try them out at work and in your daily life. See how well they work for you and tell us how effective they are!

Connect …

With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.

Be active …

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

Take notice …

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savor the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

Keep learning …

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favorite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.

Give …

Do something nice for a friend or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.

How to Avoid “Blue Monday”

Dancing in the Rain with Umbrella

Feeling a little down? Unmotivated? Think you need to do something about it? You’re not alone. Every January, we’re subjected to a pseudoscientific study in the national news known as “Blue Monday.” It started in 2005 when Cardiff University psychologist Cliff Arnall devised a formula he claimed would reveal the most depressing day of the year.

Arnall created a mash-up of timely topics such as bleak weather conditions (he’s from the UK), personal debt, time since Christmas and time since failing in our New Year’s resolutions. And since it also was his premise that we all hate Mondays (because of work), Arnall decided the most depressing day should crop up on the third Monday of January or thereabouts. That’s January 20 this year.

I challenge you to beat Blue Monday.

Start by stepping back and looking at those promises you made—those New Year’s resolutions. Do they sound a lot like, “I will lose weight,” “I will go to the gym more,” “I will drink less” or “I will spend less?”

Rainbow UmbrellaWhat if you reframed these resolutions and created intentions? It’s a well-proven fact that you get more of what you focus on, so why not focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want? Oh, and don’t try to do everything at once. Give yourself the opportunity to focus on one change at a time. Small wins add up.

For example, “I wiIl create more personal health starting with a more nutritious diet,” or “I will learn new ways to enjoy increasing my fitness, starting with a Zumba class two times a week.” This strategy sets you up with a powerful offense and relieves the need to rely on willpower. Set your intentions. Strengthen your offense. Create the space for what you want more of and celebrate the small wins.

By the way, in 2008, Arnall flipped the equation and deemed June 20 the happiest day of the year. He measured time outdoors and outdoor activity, connection with nature, socialization with neighbors and friends, positive childhood memories, warm temperatures and eminent holidays.

I’m more inclined to get behind the logic of this day and live it fully—after having realized some of my New Year’s intentions.