How Do You Find True Happiness?…Research Suggests: Seek Risk, Not Immediate Reward

In the August 2013 edition of  “Psychology Today”, research psychologists Todd Kashden happy childrenand Robert Biswas-Diener make the following bold claim: “One of Life’s sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky, uncomfortable, and occasionally bad”.  This claim piqued my interest, especially in light of a previous blog I wrote wherein I feature a video of JFK stating, and I paraphrase, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.  Kashden and Biswas-Diener have devoted a considerable amount of time researching the life styles, values, and habits of people who self describe as having the happiest of lives.  “Happiness”, as defined by the researchers, means not just the ability to experience fleeting moments of joy.  Rather, they are examining the lives of people who feel peaceful, contented, and accepting of both themselves and the lives they have created.  So, what are the secret ingredients of such lives as these?  Kashden and Biswas-Diener have identified five key personality traits and behavioral characteristics that seem to be associated with people who are mostly,… just happy.  Here are the five.

#1 Curiosity, and the willingness to satisfy it

The most surprising finding coming out of the research relates to this idea that our most satisfying life experiences come out of the times when we feel most afraid, and most out of our personal “comfort zone”.  Quoting directly from the “Psychology Today” article, “It turns out that activities that lead us to feel uncertainty, discomfort, and even a dash of guilt are associated with some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of people’s lives.  Happy people, it seems, engage in a wide range of counterintuitive habits that seem, well downright unhappy”.  So, what would lead someone to do something that was risky, and/or uncomfortable?  The answer is simpler than you might think. Happy people are insatiably curious…and this curiosity impels the person to satisfy the “need to know”. To quote the article again, “Curiosity, it seems, is largely about exploration—often at the price of momentary happiness. Curious people generally accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it is the most direct route to becoming stronger and wiser” As the researchers note, “Curiosity—that pulsing, eager state of not knowing-is fundamentally an anxious state”. I had never thought of curiosity as being akin to anxiety, but of course it is. Anxiety is often about “fear of the unknown”. Curiosity moves that anxiety into action.

#2..The ability to see the forest and not focus on the trees

In the article it states that “satisfied people are less likely to be overly analytical and detail-oriented…..The happiest people have a natural emotional protection against getting sucked in by the intense gravitational pull of little details”

In my view, this is a really hard one to fight.  The culture puts such emphasis on accomplishments such as grades, performance reviews, and general “conscientiousness”. Doing well often means paying attention to the details. Yet, apparently the happiest people tended to perform less well  on these measures.  Perhaps the answer lies in trying to give up on the ultimately impossible quest for perfection, and engage in more activities that are just joyful in and of themselves and not oriented toward producing a  “perfect” product.

#3 Be An Unjealous Friend

I resonate completely with this one.  Given that close friendships are closely allied with happiness, its no surprise to me that ..”the happiest people are the ones who are “present” when things go right for others—and whose own wins are regularly celebrated by their friends as well.”. What I know though, is that I’m quite capable of jealousy, particularly when I feel it could, or should, have been me that lives in “that” house, or has “that” much money…or whatever it is. What I have tried to do recently is turn my feelings of jealousy into a motivating factor.  That is, rather than “why does she have that and not me”…it can be “wow, if she has that, maybe I can too.  What would I have to do?…This feeling is much more expansive, and allows me to truly rejoice in the good fortune of my friends and relatives.  Then, when I have good fortune, I will have good friends to celebrate with.  Bottom line is…what’s the use of joy and good fortune if you have no one to share it with?

#4 Don’t Hide from Your Negative Emotions

In this article the researchers talk about the importance of recognizing and accepting that life is full of disappointments, and using the feelings that are engendered to develop self-understanding and compassion.  Here the importance of “naming and claiming” the emotion is emphasized as well as communicating your feelings to others who may or may not be involved directly in how you are feeling. In the article they talk about the skill of “flexible responding” to situations that make us feel uncomfortable, fearful, or angry.  “Flexible responding” means you don’t “go off” on the traffic cop who issues you the ticket, for example, but you may express your frustration in an appropriate way.  Flexible responding also means the ability to tolerate emotional discomfort, as you give yourself time to discover the source of it, and craft a more useful response.

#5  Above all, strive for Balance

Number five is the one that brings all of the others together, in my mind.  It seems to me it goes along with the Buddhist idea of living in the present and living each moment to the fullest, while also planning for the future and being realistic about the constraints of time and other physical realities. Maybe it also means noticing, and appreciating, the details of a situation without being so caught up that we lose “the big picture”.  This is where the real “art form” of living comes in, in my view, and no amount of scientific research can possibly capture the essence of that experience.  We just know it when we feel it…that sense of just knowing we are in the “flow”.  Hopefully these five principles will give some insight as to how tweak our lives in order to feel this flow, more of the time.



The Key To Managing Difficult Emotions…First, Turn Toward Your Pain

file000166887896 When we experience deep emotional pain our first impulse is to get away from the feelings as quickly as possible….just make them go away.  Escape is accomplished in a variety of ways. We may, for example, distract ourselves through TV, books, or movies.  Or….when the pain is particularly acute and pervasive, we might find ourselves seeking out the help of prescription or non prescription drugs. Alcohol can also become an effective means of escape.  In truth, the culture supports all of the above  mentioned activities as ways of coping when life gets hard.  And…lets be honest, these coping mechanisms do work.  Furthermore, we sometimes do need some temporary relief from unbearable emotional states. The problem is, in my view, that the relief is often just temporary. If no time and energy is invested into discovering the source of the pain, it will keep on coming back…and back…and back.  To make matters worse, the pain can resurface with more intensity…like a splinter that has lodged itself under the skin and now has become infected. So…what can we do?  How can we face intolerable emotions such as anxiety, fear, shame, and anger without becoming overwhelmed with the emotion itself?

     In his book, entitled  “Emotional Intimacy”, the relational psychologist Robert Augustus Masters suggests that the key is to gently move “toward” our pain, rather than away from it.  We must find a way to get close enough to the pain so that we can observe it in great detail, and yet we need enough distance so we can feel that our pain is only a part of us…not the whole of us.  Dr. Masters advocates that we become “intimate” with the feeling and texture of our emotions, as a  “participant observer”.  This is different than merely talking about emotions, which keeps the experience up in our heads…to be analyzed over and no avail

Becoming a “Participant observer” is a skill that we can learn from the teachings of mindfulness meditation. In this meditation practice, the meditator learns to step back from his experience and “observe” what is going on in the physical  body as emotions are experienced.  For example, during the anxiety state, my pulse is racing, my palms are sweating, and I can’t breathe.  If we can “drop down” into our bodily sensations and simply “be with” them, without judgment, we are automatically not “in” them in the same way.  We have created the necessary separation to feel them, and yet place them more into the background of our experience rather than the foreground.  With the feeling more in the background, we can turn it around in our mind and examine in from all sides.  Where does this feeling come from?  When did I first have it?   Can I bring some compassion to myself so that I can begin to heal?

Developing the “participant observer” stance to your emotions does not mean that you won’t still have challenging emotional episodes where you will feel overwhelmed.  Dr. Masters cautions against believing that we can somehow ”transcend” emotional states and wipe them out from our experience. He calls the attempt to do this the “spiritual bypass”. We are, after all, not gods, only very flawed human beings doing the best we can..and that isn’t a bad thing.



“Friend” Yourself First…..Its Your Most Important Relationship


Facebook can be a great way to make new friends, stay connected with old friends, and reconnect with even older friends.  I  sometimes wonder though, if all of the incessant social networking we do can have some unintended consequences. My fear is that as we spend more and more time “connected” as it were, we will begin to lose touch with the experience of being silently and deeply connected to the one person we really need to understand..that is ourselves…Here is why I am concerned:

What If Your Best Friend Could Be Found In The Mirror?

What If Your Best Friend Could Be Found In The Mirror?  

        There is a universal human need, I think, to be connected to other people in a deep and intimate way.  We all long to be loved, accepted, and deeply understood, by one or more true friends in whom we can confide our deepest secrets.  Old friends are particularly valuable because of the history we have with them. They have seen us at our ”best” and at our “worst”.  Through it all they continue to love us, and the memories we share provide a sense of meaning and continuity in our lives.

      Consider then the one person who has been with us from the very beginning.  It is, of course, our very personal “yours truly”.  It is us.  Because we are conscious, and able to form elaborate short and long term memories of our experiences, we can think about what is happening and consider how we feel about it. The way I see it, we actually have a relationship with ourselves, and like all relationships, it takes time and careful nurturing to make sure it’s a positive and supportive relationship. Ideally, I would say, we want to become our own “best friend”. We want to know, understand, accept, and yes, even love ourselves. From this strong foundation of self  love and self acceptance I think we can have the best chance for healthy relationships with others.

       I know some people will automatically cringe when they hear the words “self love”.  Often this term conjures up the image of the typical “narcissist”….the man or woman who is completely “full of him/herself”. It’s actually quite the opposite.  In the Greek legend, Narcissus is a man who is constantly fascinated with his own image in the river. Narcissists need to have their “greatness” constantly reflected back to them by other people, so they “use” people for this. In fact they are internally “empty”, and they can never be filled up enough.  Underneath their outward conceit and bluster, there is very little self love.  True self love, and self esteem are very different from narcissism. It has to do with acceptance of all of who we are, the admission of flaws, failure, and vulnerability.  I think it also has to do with the constant quest for self understanding. Through such understanding we can create a sense of worthiness that comes to us from the “inside out” rather than the “outside in”

    So, back to facebook again, my concern is that having a million “friends” on facebook, will create the illusion of connection while allowing the constant user to neglect the most important relationship of them all. How ironic would it be if we spend so much time “checking in” with others, that we stop checking in with ourselves.



You Don’t Have to Hide Your True Self…Discover The Power Of Shame Resilience


There are few emotions more difficult to tolerate than shame..the warm flush that curses through your body, the feeling of wanting to sink through the earth and disappear.  We have all felt it.  So what is the origin of our shame?  More importantly, what can we do to move through our shame experiences with a sense of integrity and wholeness? To answer this question, I turn to the groundbreaking research of Dr. Brene Brown, a social work PHD at the University Of Texas,  who has done extensive research on the topic of Shame Resiilience.

photo of a woman covering her face in shame

photo of a woman covering her face in shame   

Dr. Brown argues that the experience of shame is fundamentally a feeling of profound “unworthiness”.  Those who are most vulnerable to shame feel essentially “unlovable” at the core.  The inner dialog of a person feeling deep shame consists of statements such as, “I am stupid”, “I am bad”, or  classically, “I hate myself.”  The focus of a shame experience is on the deeply flawed self.

It is easy to see how the origin of shame is in childhood. Imagine a child being repeatedly “shamed” by influential adults who tell him directly that he is stupid, or bad,. The culture itself can also be “shaming”.  Consider, for example the messages that little girls get about having the perfect “thin” body.  Those who don’t have this body, learn to be ashamed of the body they do have.  Shame can also be created in a family with impossibly perfectionistic standards.  The children in such a family may be exceptionally high achieving, but they may also be carrying a painful burden of secret shame at never being “good enough”. As Dr. Brown points out “Perfectionism is the incubator for shame”.

So, what can be done about our shame experiences?  Dr. Brown explains that these experiences won’t go away, but we can learn to move through them with greater ease and comfort.  We can become more resilient.  Here are the steps:

  1. Recognize when you are feeling shame.  If possible, remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.  Get some distance as you remind yourself  that “This is shame”.  “I am feeling shame”.  Try to identify the trigger.  It may be obvious, or it may not.
  2.   When you have distance, tell the story of what happened and how you felt to a trusted friend.  Take your shame out of hiding, and bring it into the light .  This will reduce its power over you. It will also bring in the empathy that will soothe you and allow you to feel less “alone”. As you tell your story you may discover that something you have felt “shame” over is really just a matter of some behavior that you feel guilty about.  You may have treated a friend badly, for example, or accidentally hit “send” to the wrong person on an email. These are examples of your “behavior”, as opposed to  the whole of  “you”.  Moving from shame to guilt is a good thing because you can atone for guilt…not so for shame.
  3. Become aware of all the “self shaming” inner  dialog you engage in throughout the day, all of the times others shame you, and all the times you are shaming others.  All of it has to stop if you want to stop the “shame spiral”. The reality is that shame begets shame so that if you are “shamed” you may have learned to escape from your shame by shaming others.  All of it has to stop.

So…I invite you to come out from behind your shame, and feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Tell your story to someone you can trust.  The truth is,  you will be loved because of all of your imperfections, not in spite of them.



Are You Anxious About Facing Change In Your Life?…Be Inspired By The Words Of JFK to Choose What Is Hard, Not What Is Easy

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy declared that before the decade ended, we would land a man on the moon. Specifically, the president’s words were “We choose to land a man on the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. Although JFK would not live to see it, his dream was realized on July 20th 1969, in the nick of time.  His words were challenging and spurred on an amazing accomplishment.  I found myself thinking about the true meaning of these words just the other day when I was at the gym of all places

The idea of something being unbelievably hard occurred to me as I attempted to complete just one “Push-up”, then one “squat”, and one “lunge” during my “Old ladies” personal training session. My stated goal is to gain upper body and “core” strength, and just to feel better and stronger.  I thought this would be quite straightforward, but was totally unprepared for how friggin hard it would be…just plain physically painful and hard….not fun at all. My trainer for this project is easily half my age, but he is teaching me that developing a strong body is much the same as developing a strong mind, a courageous spirit, or a resilient emotional life. All of these endeavors take persistent practice, and incredible determination.  The muscles get fatigued, my trainer tells me, but this is good because it encourages them to grow.

I think it is much the same with “pushing” ourselves in other areas of life.  As a long time sufferer of anxiety, I know that, among other things, anxiety is a disorder of avoidance. What I mean by this is that, in order not to feel the anxiety, us anxious people will go to great lengths to avoid those things that will, or may, make us anxious. This explains how people develop persistent fears of flying for example, or leaving the house. It is, after all, just human nature to avoid these things if we can, in favor of safer and less risky things…like staying home, watching TV, or  using  substances like alcohol.

Insidiously, overcoming many anxieties means moving toward the exact thing that makes us afraid…much like me moving toward completing that “push-up” even though every fiber of my being is protesting loudly. Does it hurt?  Absolutely!. It has been explained to me, though, that there cannot be any gain without the pain.  The trick is to push just hard enough to get that gain without pushing so hard that injury results.

I like the fact that muscles grow best when the strength training is every other day, rather than every day. It seems to me that our psyche also needs periods of rest in between periods of pushing beyond our comfort zone. The periods of rest allow for integration and assimilation of new experiences at a slow and measured pace. Like the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.

So, the way I see it, only one important question remains.  What is the “walk on the moon” that you would like to accomplish?… My advice?  Go for it, but don’t expect it to be easy.  Choose it precisely because it is hard.