This is a post in progress, just to let you know that there are some findings about psychology and success.

Here, Phil Zimbardo writes this great paper when he is APA President in 2004: “Does Psychology Make a Significant Difference in Our Lives?” (this is also a very interesting history of psychology). Also, here is the site that was born from this paper:, which illustrates in which fields psychology has made some significant inroads and found results that people can and do implement (I like the post here on multitasking).

And here is a nice 2002 Forbes article on the “Psychology of Success”.

Sometimes you think that because you have a thought, that it is the truth. But, often your own thoughts can fool you. How many times have you thought, “Everything is going wrong, and there’s nothing I can do,” and then you come out from that into new great things (and sometimes new bad things). Life changes. Things change. You can’t believe every thought you have – you wouldn’t believe every word that someone else says to you, so why believe every subconscious half-thought of your own head? You can use those thoughts that are productive and useful to move you forward, but if you have negative thoughts that spin in a downward spiral, then it may be that at that point, the ticker tape in your head is on automatic, and that it may be useful to switch it around.

It’s funny that people respond to themselves differently than they would to their friends. I just had a unusual time where I wasn’t sure this was going right, or that was going right, etc. And it just made me so upset at myself to I know that if I were to step aside and if my friend were saying the same things… I know what I would tell her! Isn’t that so often the case – when a friend asks for advice on work, on romance, on school, on organization, on home buying, on exercise, etc., you know exactly what to suggest and recommend, but when it’s your life… so often you don’t know! Why is that? Why doesn’t your “intuition” or other advice-giving center kick in when it’s for you as much as it should when it’s for someone else?

Is it because:
* You don’t want to make a mistake (a mistake in your life is more costly than advice for your friend’s life – because after all that was only advice; in the end, the friend makes the decision herself)?
* You don’t believe the counterarguments when it’s about you?
* You want to feel down and dark for a while?

Those are all valid. But let’s break them down. You don’t want to make a mistake – so what?! So you make a mistake. “Do not fear mistakes, there are none,” says Miles Davis. Everything you go through can make you not go through that same thing later. Everything somehow shapes you.

You don’t believe in counterarguments when it’s about you? Yes, this is an ego thing – not in a bad way! This is just a matter of – like the ticker tape beliefs – thinking that if a thought comes from you, then it maybe doesn’t need to be counterargued. That’s just not true! A million times, I will tell you that this is just not true! Your mood, your latest food, the rain, smells around you, the news that day – everything can affect you, and when you have a thought, it may just be a reaction, and something to say, “Thanks for coming, but you’re not really real.” You can have two thoughts, “this food is good for me” or “this food is bad for me.” And the funny thing is that both viewpoints may be valid. Ice cream can be bad for you, or good for you – simply because deprivation in the long run may not work for your personal body system. Broccoli can be good for you for the vitamins, or can be bad for you if farmed in some certain strange way. Everything is arguable. Including your thoughts.

You may want to feel dark and down for a while? The strange, strange, strange thing is that people who go out and FORCE themselves to have a good time anyway usually make themselves feel better. This is especially true of people that have a good time, or better yet, do something FOR someone. Doing something for another person often immediately makes the first person feel better – Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues did a study with a control group, a group that chose one day in a week in which to do act kinds for people, and a group that did something kind everyday. The researchers asked the participants to continue this for six weeks and at the end of the six weeks, the control group had slightly decreased happiness from the start of the study, participants that had done kind things every day were much unchanged (and the researchers postulate that this is because the kind acts were not anything unusual and became habitual for that group), and participants that had done kind things on one day of each week reported significantly increased levels of happiness (i.e. well-being).

performing acts of kindness increased peoples' happiness

And about going out and having a good time, there is a great study about bowling alone: participants that were introverts and did not want to go out bowling were taken out to go bowling with strangers, and they showed markedly increased levels of satisfaction after bowling with strangers than before.

So your own advice-giving center may not kick in naturally for you. Still, it would if you were talking to a friend. From an article on relationship advice:
“For example, take a young couple who goes out for a romantic dinner for the first time after the birth of their first child, but spend the entire evening arguing over silly things, and return home deflated. The woman, whose read plenty of articles on “marriages that deteriorated after the first child’s birth”, is panic-stricken and flooded with difficult thoughts of divorce. These thoughts can get so out of hand that she begins planning her visitation arrangements and tries to imagine how she’ll manage raising the child on her own. If a friend would have told her the same thoughts, she would have undoubtedly dismissed them. She would have likely pointed out that it is difficult to be romantic when you don’t sleep more than three hours a night, and when you worry during the meal that the baby might wake up crying and the babysitter won’t be able to calm him down. It is easier for us to encourage others, but when it is happening to us, we have a hard time dealing with the false thoughts. Therefore, it is helpful to treat them as if they were voiced by another person whose principal goal is to make us miserable. At the next stage we must conduct an internal argument with those thoughts, resist them with all our persuasive willpower, and prove to ourselves that they are not grounded in reality.”

So, in short, be a good friend to yourself! Pretend you are your best friend and play! Make up other ideas and explanations for yourself that will let you see the big picture, and that will make you act more productively than stewing in those not-helpful thoughts.

Take-away: Pretend you’re your best friend, and talk to yourself kindly, productively, encouragingly – the way you might to your really good friend!

Source for acts of kindness study: Lyubomirsky, S., Tkach, C., & Sheldon, K. M. (2004). [Pursuing sustained happiness through random acts of kindness and counting one’s blessings: Tests of two six-week interventions]. Unpublished raw data.

James Pawelski, Philosopher and Positive Psychologist, has put an acronym to William James‘ four steps to creating a habit. I mentioned this in passing before, and now I’ll introduce you to the handy acronym: SNAP

1) S: Start Strong – Launch the new habit decisively.
2) N: No exceptions – Never make an exception to the new habit.
3) A: Act when promted – Act “on every emotional prompting,” i.e. whenever you want to act on the new habit, be sure to do so!
4) P: Practice! – Do it every day. Exercise the new habit every day.

At the same time, I’ll be posting later about Changing for Good, which is a super book about the psychology of changing a habit. And the main point of that book is that you can’t take a step you’re not ready for. And James and James’ SNAP training is for the action phase of taking on a new habit or breaking an old one. There are several stages before the action phase which involve getting ready to and convincing yourself that you need to create the new habit.

But, surely if you are in the action phase, if you are ready to change something, then ask yourself every day, am I doing it? Am I doing SNAP? These are four fun questions just in order to have a structure. Enjoy!

Update: James Pawelski reminds me that the P in SNAP refers to not only daily practice of the particular habit, but more importantly to the general practice of using the will. It is focus, discipline, self-regulation. William James believed that “we need to do something strenuous every once in a while – even if it’s not directly related to the habit we are trying to create. This, he believes, will keep our wills strong and in good shape,” says James Pawelski.

This is an expression that my friend Margaret really likes to use, “We are human beings, not human doings.”

But maybe sometimes we are human doings. There’s a wonderful brief blog entry by Jeanie Marshall about how people can act both in ways of achieving and reaching for their goals and in ways of allowing and taking in what’s around them without strain. Jeanie says, “At a very early age, most of us are taught to go after the things that we really want. We are often told that the willingness to fight is the indication that something is worthwhile. To fight, compete, and achieve are lifted up as important values. … If you have had such a cultural conditioning, it can come as a real shock to hear that what you need to do is “allow” or “be in the flow” or “relax.” These can seem like really soft or surreal ideas if you have proven yourself by doing things, by taking charge. … In my view, it is not such a paradox. Perhaps that is because I do not advocate replacing outward action with inward reflection; I am advocating a balance.”

To me, there’s something very soothing in the cadence of her words. Plus, what she says is a nice way to resolve the duality of the human beingness and the human doingness: you can have both. She continues, “Being, allowing, being in the flow, and opening are qualities that help you to remember and provide balance for doing whatever you do. Doers already know how to do; doers need to learn how to be, in order to recognize their wholeness. If every breath is only an out-breath, there is no in-breath to provide more air to sustain the next breaths.”

Martin Seligman, known as the father of Positive Psychology, says in his Authentic Happiness that one of the most powerful ways to increase happiness in the present is to savor more, to more fully enjoy the moments of life. Since so many lives are about action and activity, what are the ways that we can slow down and savor?

Fred Bryant has done research on savoring and writes that there are four different ways that people savor, that people enjoy the moment. And several of these may appeal to you greatly. (I learned about this theory of savoring from Karen Reivich, who heard Bryant present this four-types model in a talk). Everything in life is personal, including how you like to enjoy your downtime.

You can keep a brief log for the next two days to see when you are enjoying the moment, in which of these four ways are you really enjoying it? Are you …
* Basking: Receiving praise and congratulations
* Thanksgiving: Experiencing and expressing gratitude
* Marveling: Losing self in the wonder of the experience
* Luxuriating: Engaging one’s senses fully

Here’s a visual interpretation:

Bryant's four types of savoring

For example, enjoying the fresh salad during dinner is … luxuriating,
looking at the sunset can be … marveling or luxuriating, or even thanksgiving,
hearing someone compliment your cooking and saying “thank you” is … basking,
seeing a little child smile at you can be … thanksgiving.

Karen Reivich states that when you separate savoring out this way, you have a range of possibilities to choose from. It’s like deciding on a mild sage green for a paint color for the bedroom, as opposed to forest green or swamp green. You’re more in control of how you perceive savoring when you start to break savoring out into its components. And according to Diener and Myers, personal control is one of the four main components to happiness.

It’s like having a peacock’s tail of possibilities to choose from.

Bryant, F. (1989). A Four-Factor Model of Perceived Control: Avoiding, Coping, Obtaining, and Savoring, Journal of Personality 57:4, 774-797.
Bryant, F. (2003). Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI): A scale for measuring beliefs about savoring, Journal of Mental Health, 12, 2, 175-196.
Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (1995). Who is happy? Psychological Science, 6, 10-19. “In study after study, four inner traits mark happy people: self-esteem, a sense of personal control, optimism, and extraversion.”

Can you recognize yourself in any of these … ?
* “I’ve never been lucky in (choose one: money, career, love).”
* “Sure, I could have done better if only my parents had….”
* “Well, how am I going to have a healthy outlook after what I’ve been through?”

These things are the blame game. These are examples of blaming as a way of remembering past hurts. And they do hurt. And they are hurts.

And your mind grows addicted to that hurt the more you repeat it and retell that hurt. Your mind starts to look for that hurt in new situations as a way of reinforcing it. It starts to rely on it. And as with anything that becomes uniquely yours, your mind actually redeciphers it to be a good thing. It’s part of a small cognitive dissonance that mind thinks, “Well, I’m a good person, I like myself, so this bad thing has got to just be part of me – what can I do?, it’s just part of me, and I’m a good person.” And then, somehow, without you even being aware, the mind massages the message just a little to be simply, “That pain is part of me.”

The two books mentioned in the previous post overlap on this interesting concept of the person’s ego identifying with the person’s pain.

The Power of Now says that if there is a negative feeling, such as anger, guilt, self-pity, or depression, then that feeling is tied to the body as long as the mind continues to dwell on it and to play out scenarios. In this sense, the author Eckhart Tolle says that the body is connected with the pain in a “pain-body.” Furthermore, Eckhart Tolle describes “ego identification with the pain-body” as that sense that there is something of “my story” or “my life” in that cycle and that there is a pleasure that the body retains from identifying with that pain and that history.

In Get Over Yourself, Tonya Pinkins talks about letting go of the ego, dropping the drama, and getting over the victim and saint self-stories. Both the victim story (“Oh, I can’t do anything right because of all these terrible things that happened to me”, “I have a million perfect reasons to be depressed, and you would be too if you’d been through what I’ve been through”) and the saint story (“I am not going to follow my dream because it might hurt some of my close ones,” “I will switch to my dream job once the kids are in college”) are crutches for not acting now. Both stories tie negative feelings, such as guilt or self-pity to the ego, to the core identity of a person.

Breaking that ego and pain-body identification is, in short, “getting over yourself.”

There’s a set of questions that I heard about today for the first time. They could be useful as questions to ask yourself when you’re goal-setting and planning to create a new habit or change an old habit.

Ken Blanchard created this system, and it’s called SMART Goals. The idea is that when you’re planning, here are the areas you can ask yourself about:

* Specific: What specifically are you going to do? What do you ultimately want to accomplish? How? What are the steps?
* Measurable: What will you keep track of? How will you keep track?
* Accountable: To whom will you be accountable? Who else knows that you’re doing this and can share in your small or large successes?
* Realistic: What are your concerns about achieving this plan? How does this differ from when you may have tried something similar before? How can you ensure that the goal is attainable? Is the timeframe realistic?
* Timely: When do you expect to see results? Are there intermediate milestones?

What’s nice is that it’s a simple acronym, and using it can make sure that you cover a lot of the bases of setting a goal. You’ve probably come across Ken Blanchard with the One Minute Manager.

Wouldn’t it be strange if you learned that yes, you can make brand new habits, and that the brand new habits can stick, and yet . . . that the old habits are still somewhere deep in your brain, and given an old triggering environment, the old habits may return?! That seems like the exact opposite of what you would want to hear on Jan 2, getting ready for the New Year and for new habits.

There’s actually valuable information in this – it’s the information of ‘be careful.’ Be careful not to fall into your old habits and old environments in which those habits fester.

Bob Condor of a Seattle newspaper writes, “What [Ann Graybiel] has found is that the brain never completely deletes old patterns, say, smoking, eating junk foods or, yes, riding a bicycle, from the basal ganglia region deep in the brain’s neural structure. Instead, those habitual patterns “retain memory of context,” such as a cocktail and conversation for an ex-smoker or potato chips in the pantry for the junk-food snacker.”

Ann Graybiel

Ann Graybiel is a Neuroscientist and Professor at MIT. Her latest researach about the basal ganglia brain region appeared in the journal Nature in October, 2005. In short, Connors argues that you can beat yourself at the same old game. By keeping the resolution and the new habits at the forefront of your mind, you can act successfully towards creating new habits and setting aside old ones. Connors suggests several verified techniques: do the new habit consistently, write your goals down, and do not put yourself into environments in which old habits are easily triggered (“Just the sight of a piece of chocolate can reset all of those good intentions,” says Graybiel).

This echoes the thoughts of philosophers from Aristotle to William James. Aristotle says, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Continue reading

Every once in a while, “happiness” hits the news. A few months back, it was the research that laughing makes for a happier life (including the journalists’ recommendations to watch more Jay Leno). Now, the latest is that researchers at Harvard and at Penn State say that the largest predictors of happiness are:
* physical health,
* relative income,
* education, and
* marital status.

The researchers Tach and Firebaugh used data of 20,000 people aged 20 to 64 from the 1972-2002 U.S. General Social Survey, a national survey taken every one-two years (more articles: here and here). I think the most interesting part is the first point – physical health is the primary contributor to happiness. The press, in a fascinating way, focused on the second point: “relative” income over “absolute” income. Specifically, the research states that for people making $20,000 more than the average in their peer group, their happiness increased by 10%. (It’s not clear from the press yet whether it’s relative health, realtive education, and relative marital status that contribute. Is everything “catching up with the Joneses”?)

I like the analysis by James Joyner that this result about “relative” income is very similar to the research of Robert K. Merton on “relative deprivation.” Merton found in his study of the American soldier that the military police and the air corp had different attitudes toward promotion. In the ranks of the military police, there was little promotion and everyone was generally happy whereas in the air corp, there was significant promotion for many people, and yet people saw their co-workers getting promoted and felt “relative deprivation.”