I recently spent 4 days with Positive Psychology practitioners from around the world sharing new research and applications from our field. Almost 1600 from around the globe flocked to Melbourne to converse and connect. Each day was informative in new ways and there were many opportunities to cement and integrate current applications to our Positive Education model. My top 5 takeways include:
1. There is a happiness microbiome
Professor John Cryan taught us all a new word, psychobiotic. Cryan’s research looks at targeting gut health through individualized microbiomes. Cryan reminded us that the brain/gut connection is not new research, in fact Hippocrates’ believed that ‘all disease begins in the gut’. His talk touched on prebiotics and fecal transplants and I am excited to see what will come next from his labs. His reminder to us all “Mind your microbes”.
2. There are multiple happiness genes
Meike Bartels delivered a jam packed talk that showed the progression of the search for the genetic components of happiness. The good news, although there is definately a genetic component to happiness, you control your genes. They do not determine your happiness. A large-scale international study of over 298,000 people, isolated the parts of the human genome that could explain the differences in how humans experience happiness. First there were 3 specific genomes identified, then 300 and Meike shared her belief that we will eventually discover thousands. The big idea- heritability does not limit chance of happiness. There is most likely a genetic predisposition to be more or less happier. The environment impacts this. Ultimately our genes will influence what types of interventions and practices are most effective- a one-size-fits-all approach just won’t work.
3. Positive technology shows that not all tech is bad.
Lyle Unger from UPenn gave a fabulous talk about technology that supports happiness. In this age of stress and anxiety there is a lot of commentary about the impact of technology on mental health. I have always been a believer that technology is just a magnifier of an individual- it can boost or deplete wellbeing depending on what app and how you use it. Unger’s work supported my belief. The session also reminded us to be cautious in our interpretation of data. Perhaps the individual drawn to apps that deplete wellbeing are already languishing when they start using the app. We cannot blame technology. Personally, I use Insight Timer and listen to Podcasts daily. I loved this talk because it was based on what is right with technology (similar to our strengths-based way of working in Positive Education)
4. The research won’t help without business support.
Gabriella Rosen-Kellerman chaired a session on industry partnerships in the behavioral sciences. I wasn’t sure what it would be about but when I saw the panel that included Martin Seligman, Roy Baumeister and Sonja Lyubomirsky, I knew I was in for a treat. Gabriella represents BetterUp, a fabulous tech group out of San Fran who combining the latest advances in scientific research with digital technologies transforming people and workplaces. Gabriella reminded us that research means nothing without application. BetterUp is set to invest $15-20 million in its lab over the next five years because they know people are a company’s biggest investment. And if the lab can provide the evidence-based practices that can help people flourish, the return might be mind-boggling. I am hopeful to see an app for educators in the near future!
5. The second wave is cresting.
Michael Steger, Tim Lomas, Ryan Niemiec, and, Itai Ivtzan shared their thoughts on the second wave of Positive Psychology.– whose focus is more holistic – encompassing both hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. We were reminded that a fish is only as healthy as the water it swims in. The context and system both matter in wellbeing. The panel hilighted the importance of increasing the level of nuance and perspective to further our understanding of human flourishing.
Teachers often come to self-compassion work looking to help their students to be a little easier on themselves. It might be a seed planted after a crisis like a suicide or when they hear (once again) the nauseating stats around teen depression, anxiety, and debilitating levels of stress. (1 in 4) Parents and educators alike want to help kids to feel less compulsion around getting straight A-s, getting into an Ivey, or graduating at the top of their class. Social media isn’t to blame and yet when a maturing person with an under-developed pre-frontal cortex (decision-making part of the brain) is tasked with homework, volunteer work, sport, music, and a navigating the complexity of social life, it’s easy to see how anyone can get caught up in behaviours that range from self-deprecating to self-sabotaging.
What is Self-Compassion
The science of self-compassion is new. Most of the research is less than 15 years old. Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer are the reigning experts and their site SelfCompassion.org offers a wealth of resources. Eighty percent of us are more kind to others than we are to ourselves. 80%! Self-compassion happens when you treat yourself in a way that is:
Self-compassion feels expanding and it provides you with permission to be imperfect, or perfectly imperfect as I like to say.
Why Be Self-Compassionate?
People often see their lack of self-compassion as motivating. They also mistake self-compassion for self-indulgence. Self-compassion has even been labeled as weak. I like to remind adults that modeling self-compassion is really the only sure-fire way to show the younger people in your life how to treat themselves. Telling you child or a student not to be so hard on themselves rings untrue and inauthentic is we aren’t living self-compassionately first.
What Does Self-Compassion Look Like?
Mindfulness versus over-identification. This refers to an individual’s ability to recognize something without catastrophizing. In the case of a student, one C in biology can send them on a downward spiral where they now won’t get in to University and now the rest of their life is ruined because all they have ever wanted to do is practice medicine. Seeing the C as one mark on one test rather than an indicator of potential or latent ability is self-compassion.
Common humanity versus isolation. We are all in this together. We all experience some successes and some failures. We all feel sad or angry at times. When an experience connects rather than disconnects you, you are being self-compassionate.
Self-kindness versus self-judgment. When you make mistakes and use a growth mindset to see them as part of the process rather than proof that you are somehow inadequate you are offering yourself kindness. Our youth need reminders that part of being human and growing up is learning to do hard things.
If you need to improve your self-compassion, know that you are not alone! There are many simple ways to get better at treating yourself with respect.
Talk to yourself like a self-compassionate person would. “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. Let me be kind to myself in this moment”
There are a variety of guided meditations that follow a loving kindness philososphy. I love these ones on Chris Germer’s site.
Using Soothing Touch. Our bodies are wired to release compassion inducing chemicals like
oxytocin when we feel skin to skin contact. Hold your own hand. Give yourself a gentle brow, cheek, and chin massage. O r give yourself a hug. These all release opiates that help regulate moods.
Self-Compassion is good for you.
People who are self-compassionate are also more motivated, more proactive and less likely to procrastinate. They are more compassionate to others and they are more able to cope with life’s difficult moments.
What is the Difference Between Kindness and Self-Compassion?
They sound an awful lot alike however compassion prompts action which leads to elevating the suffering.
One More Reason (this one isn’t about you)
Research on mirror neurons has shown that we have something called empathic resonance. This means the sadness we feel on behalf of someone else is not less than our personal sadness. The reverse is also true. The emotions you are experiencing are contagious to those around you. You might be unintentionally spreading your emotional heaviness to your family, your friends and your colleagues. In the words of author Jack Kornfield
“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete”
Emotional intelligence (EI) is popping up everywhere- from Facebook to LinkedIn there’s more and more buzz about why EI is the new IQ. Emotional intelligence includes your ability to recognize what emotion you are feeling and to manage that emotion in a way that allows you to use the emotion rather than becoming overwhelmed by it. It also includes your ability to accurately interpret and respond appropriately to the emotions of other people. It is involved in your capacity for resilience, motivation, empathy, reasoning, stress management, communication, and your ability to read and navigate sticky social situations. Understanding the strengths of your own Emotional Intelligence and being able to convey these strengths on a CV, resume, college application or in an interview will help you in achieving your goals.
Once thought of as part of the soft skills of employment, leaders are now recognizing that hiring enthusiastic employees who have a growth mindset and high emotional intelligence matters. It’s easier to provide training for the so-called hard skills that to help someone increase their EI.
Daniel Goleman, author of What Makes a Leader, suggests working these types of questions into any interview process:
“Tell us about a time that one of your weaknesses had a negative impact on your work team’s performance.”
“Tell us about a situation in which you became frustrated in a professional setting and you were able to redirect these feelings in a positive manner.”
Social Skills Question
“Describe a situation involving your work team where you were able to manage conflict
within the group to help them move forward.”
“Share an actual situation that happened at work that showcases your ability to consider
other people’s feelings in your decision making.”
“Is there a work-related situation you can tell us about where you put a lot of energy and
effort into an important project that went unnoticed or unrecognized by others?”
Good candidates arrive ready to answer questions like these, great candidates address the areas of motivation, empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation and social skills right in the application or on their CV.
Selling Yourself Means Knowing Yourself
If you are interested in emotions, learning about them will satisfy your curiosity. If you depend upon emotional knowledge in your job, learning more about emotions would likely help.
Taking time to learn more about your unique strengths might mean reading Strengths 2.0 and taking the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment.
Once you have a list of words that describe you in, pick the ones that feel like a vital part of who you are and incorporate them into how you describe yourself. Weave them into your CV or cover letter or use them in interview answers. When you know yourself and can speak confidently about both your areas of strength and the areas where you could grow, you show yourself to have Emotional Intelligence. If you think you need a little help increasing your EI this blog post has some great exercises. Or check out the fabulous Ramona Hacker’s TED talk.
Becoming more aware of emotional intelligence has no downside. When you increase your self-awareness you level-up your ability to interact with people in a way that allows you to get more of what you want. Make yourself impossible to ignore!
“No doubt emotional intelligence is more rare than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in the making of a leader. You just can’t ignore it.”
This week an amazing group of professionals gathered at Claremont Graduate College for the Western Positive Psychology Association’s conference delving into Evidence-Based Applications in Positive Psychology. I was lucky to present 2 sessions.
10 Years of Positive Education discussed the top 10 mistakes my team at the Institute of Positive Education sees as they reflect on our decade of delivering positive education and what successes ensued once we learned from our mistakes (a little growth mindset modelling). In Is Wellbeing Enough? I led a discussion about measurement of wellbeing and its role in organizational psychology (because what gets measured matters!). Presenting to such an engaged group of Positive Psychology experts certainly had me feeling in the flow which was another focus of the day- recognizing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi– “Father of Flow” and Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management who will be retiring at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year. Mike shared his story beginning with reflections on how his family’s displacement post WW2 led to a serendipitous meeting of Carl Jung where the seeds of his passion for psychology were planted. He also touched on his hope and perspectives for the Future of Positive Psychology. This post will delve into the science of flow and why it impacts wellbeing.
According to Csikszentmihalyi there are 8 states of engagement. We know that engaged living is a predictor of wellbeing, life satisfaction, and enjoyment at school or work.
A flow experience has nine characteristics:
What you are doing balances challenge with skill level. Like Goldilocks, the task cannot be too hard or too simple- there is a sweet spot of difficult but not too difficult that encourages flow and is just right.
The task allows for some level of direct and immediate feedback- when walking a balance beam your feedback is either falling off, staying on, or almost falling and then recovering. The feedback is part of the process.
There is a clear goal.
Action and awareness of action are merging. You are able to participate and reflect on your participation almost simultaneously.
You are absorbed in the task. There is engagement and there is not distraction.
You have a sense of personal control. You are impacting the outcome with your effort in a palpable way.
Your lose any self-consciousness. You are not thinking about how others respond to what you are doing, you are just doing.
Time seems to either stand still or pass quickly. There is a warped sense of noticing the passage of time in a positive way.
The task itself is intrinsically rewarding. You aren’t there for the medal or gold star, you are there because the activity that gets you to the medal is important.
When people talk about flow state, they often use terms like “in the zone”, “total absorption”, “feeling at one” or “peak performance”. As Csikszentmihalyi said in his book Finding Flow.
” Contrary to what we usually believe, the best movements in our lives are not the passive, receptive relaxing times…The best moments usually occur is a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.”
What happens to Your Brain When You Are In a Flow State?
Transient hypofrontality– the focused thinking part of our brain gets a rest and other parts and functions of our brain to become more predominant (like creativity)
Dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex quiets– This is the part of your brain that deals with executive functions such as impulse control
Medial pre-frontal cortex becomes highly active
The neurochemistry of flow floods your body with performance enhancing chemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, serotonin allowing for amplified learning, motivation, and creativity.
Often thought of as a solitary experience, we now know that flow can be experienced together. In fact the flow experience is quite contagious- when we see flow happening on the soccer pitch or at a musical performance, we get a bit of the beneficial chemicals for ourselves.
Interestingly. even though most people would might prefer leisure to work, people experience flow 54% while working compared to 18% at play according to one of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies.
Want More Flow?
Seek feedback on your performance
Have clear goals
Find the sweet spot of challenge and skill
Reflect on when and where you feel flow most
Give yourself time- rushing is a flow-blocker
I’m compiling a list of activities that seem most connected to flow. Send me yours and I will add it:
dance tennis swimming horseback riding drawing singing tennis playing an instrument public speaking juggling
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.
Dietrich, A. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and cognition, 12(2), 231-256.
When scientists discuss wellbeing they look at the domains of PERMA as discussed by Martin Seligman and add H for physical health.
Knowing what is needed to create optimal health and wellbeing is one thing but actually forming the habits of regularly doing what you need to do to thrive is an entirely different skillset. This article is going to take a look at the science of habit formation with the goals of helping you to gain mastery over the tools to be happier by implementing strong habits of mental health.
Habits can be changed if you understand how they work. When you combine the science of habit formation with positive psychology interventions and practices you get:
more positive emotion
less negative emotion
Habit formation is a function of neurology. It happens in the brain and is reflected through all the systems of your body. In science the patterns of habit look like this:
In yoga traditions dating back thousands of years, we see the same pattern with different words:
Samkara is a memory, conscious or unconscious. Sometimes the memory is at the genetic level. The samskara is in the causal body which is also sometimes called the subtle body where the essence of the individual is enlivened.
Another way of thinking of this is:
Any time you want to change a habit the key is to replace an old belief with a new one. This happens right before the action/karma/routine phase.
One way to do this is through willpower. Contrary to what many people believe, willpower is not an asset but a learnable skill. It’s true that it can feel depleted over the course of the day. This can be largely due to fatigue, hunger, thirst or even limiting beliefs about yourself and your ability to resist temptation.
When I think about forming habits I like to draw on advice from the experts. These strategies are super helpful and there are lots to choose from:
Pairing. Attache something you want to do to something you already do. Keep the vitamins you always forget beside your toothbrush. Allow yourself to binge-watch Netflix when you are on the treadmill.
Reward. The classic star chart. Keep a chart. When you have 30 gold stars get a reward. Ensure the reward aligns with your goal (ie Don’t reward 30 days of running with an ice cream, instead choose a reword of new running pants or a fitbit)
Streak. This refers to making a chain of days in a row. If you use Insight Timer to time your meditations it will show you your number of uninterrupted days. When you have 99 in a row it’s motivating to not have to start over.
Unpairing. Sometimes you will only exhibit an undesired behavior in a certain context. For example may people only smoke when they are drinking. If you decide that you can do one or the other but not both together you have successfully unpaired the habit.
Accountability. Get help. Find some friends who will help keep you accountable. When my husband decided he wanted to work out every day, I would text him a photo of me at the gym, in yoga, or hiking. This took advantage of his competitive nature and got him hooked so he could respond to my texts with one of his own.
Stick. Sometimes the carrot just doesn’t work If rewards aren’t your thing try a crazy punishment. If you are a republican pledge to donate $500 to the democrats if you don’t stick to your diet. This negative reinforcement tied to how you define yourself can be very successful!
Changing habits begins with a belief in the possibility of change. If you need more motivation to get started, try these great books.
The World Health Organisation believes that depression will become the number one cause of the global disease burden by 2030. Mental health is a growing concern globally. As parents, we are expecting our children to change the world but we aren’t giving them the tools they need to make this happen. Days like World Mental Health Day shine a spotlight on awareness. Bell’s Let’s Talk has us talking about it. We need to also do something, but parents are given a mixed message about what this is.
Give them space, but don’t let them spend too much time alone.
They need friends to flourish but the wrong friends can cause social stress and anxiety.
Are you pushing too hard? Or maybe you aren’t pushing enough?
If you advocate are you a helicopter? If you don’t help them are you negligent?
How much technology is too much? Is not enough possible?
Is she eating enough? If you ask her about her eating will it cause an eating disorder?
Is he gay? Maybe he wants to use “they”. If ask ask will I make it worse?
When I heard Lynn Lyons, anxiety expert say “anxiety- if your child has it, it’s your fault. If it was nature- you. If it was nurture- also you” it helped. I have one child with autism, one with hypothyroid, one with Crohn’s disease and one with dyslexia. I come from a family who don’t historically manage anxiety and stress well. I don’t need to know the why; the genetics, the environment, the things that happen in life outside my control. I need to know how to best help my children be confident, kind, and curious.
My best advice to other moms trying to navigate parenting without a GPS, figure out what you want them to be then get out of their way and let them while keeping in mind:
Connection Matters– No not internet connection. Although your teens will claim that internet connectivity is the most important type of connectivity actual human connection is one key to mental wellness. With teens, friendships can become all encompassing. I like the advice of child psychologist and parenting expert Gordon Neufeld who reminds us“ Absolutely missing in peer relationships are unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other, the willingness to sacrifice for the growth and development of the other.” Children need to have an adult mentor in their lives who they feel unconditionally attached to. Parents can help curate these relationships with people who model the values, work ethic, and lifestyle they want for their children.
Kids Need a Purpose Too– Gone are the days where “because I said so” was a reasonable answer. We all need to feel that we matter; that our lives have meaning. Kids too! They want to know why they need to learn math, how science will help them become a soccer star, and how eating too much sugar affects their bodies. They need to understand their value as a person. And if they develop a passion, they need space to follow it (even if playing a viseo game or making YouTube videos seems like wasting time to you). As Patrick Cook-Deegan at The Greater Good Science Center said “Teens are naturally driven to seek new experiences—and that may be the key to helping them develop a sense of purpose in life.”
Let Them Be Themselves– For teens, figuring out who they are is confusing. They thought the liked certain clothes and hairstyles and music and food but then they started to realize that they liked these because their families were pleased when they looked a certain way, ate certain things, or behaved a certain way. In order to test out what they really like they need to put a little distance between themselves and their parents. According to Dr. Shefali Tsabary, author of The Conscious Parent, “Dysfunctional teenagers don’t emerge overnight. They are the result of years of subjugated authenticity and false promises. They have been dying a slow death and now have to fight a daily battle just to feel alive. No teen wants to be “bad.” They simply don’t know any other way to be. The child who grows up to be a defiant teen does so because of a lack of authenticity, a lack of containment, or a lack of connection to the parents—or a combination of these.”
Show Don’t Tell– You want gratitude, model gratitude. You want happy children, work on being a happy parent. You can’t tell your child to calm down if you are yelling at them. Don’t want sarcasm? Stop being passive aggressive. If you lose your cool, model apologizing. If you make a mistake, model owning it. If children never see their parents fail they will grow up believing perfectionism is attainable and when they make a mistake they will feel small and ashamed.
Spend Daily Time on Wellbeing Boosting Practices– Think of meditation, walking in nature, reframing, or learning about your strengths as flexing your happiness muscle. We go to the gym regularly. Take care of your mental health in the same way. Waiting until something goes wrong makes it a whole lot harder. Proactive mental habits will help the healthy and buffer those experiencing a mental health challenge. If your teen is intersted to join you, great! If not, that’s ok too- happiness is contagious. If you boost yours, it will impact theirs!
Have a teen story that might help or inspire another parent who’s about to hit bottom? Please share!