Category Archives: Happiness

This Week’s Happiness Homework . . . Acts of Kindness . . . from the University of Montana

This is the assignment for my happiness students at the University of Montana. Check it out.

About a decade or two ago, the concept, “Random acts of kindness” gained traction. Now, about a decade or two later, I’m a little sad that random acts of kindness has become the most common way we talk about kindness. I say this despite the fact that I’m a big fan of randomness.

For your assignment this week, I’d like all of us to break away from the randomness mentality and embrace intentionality.

Intentional acts give us—as actors in the grand theater of life—greater agency. Instead of being stuck with a script someone else wrote, when we embrace intentionality, we become the author of every scene. Rather than randomly responding to opportunities with kindness, we can exert our will. What this means is that when an opportunity for kindness pops up, we already have a plan . . . and that plan involves creatively finding a way to respond with kindness. How cool is that?

Let’s think about this together.

Toward whom would you like to demonstrate kindness? A stranger? If so, it might feel random in that you might act kind in a moment of spontaneity. But your spontaneity—although wonderful—is a moment when your intentionality (to be a person who acts with kindness) meets opportunity. In this way, even acts toward strangers that seem or feel spontaneous, will be acts that reflect your deeper values and character.

Maybe you’d like to intentionally be kind to a friend, a parent, or a sibling. Again, this requires thought and planning and the ability to step outside yourself. Assuming that others want what you want can backfire. You’ll need to step into another person’s world: What would your friend, parent, or sibling appreciate?

To stay with the theater metaphor, you’re the script-writer and you’ve written yourself into this performance. For this week, the script or plan includes a character who values kindness and who watches for opportunities to share that value with others. You’re that character.

Your job is to translate your kind character into kind action. I don’t what that will look like for you. Maybe you don’t either. That’s the magic—where opportunity meets planned spontaneity.

Your other job is to write a summary of this experience (100 to 300 words) to Dan and me and to post it in the correct Moodle destination.

Have a fabulous week!

John SF

This is a photo of the James River in Richmond, Virginia this past Sunday evening.

James River Richmond

 

 

What the World Needs Now is Gratitude — Your University of Montana Happiness Homework for the Week

Globe

Gratitude Homework

Although it’s true that most everyone experiences gratitude, most of us don’t intentionally create time and space to express gratitude. That’s why this week’s happiness assignment is all about intentional expressions of gratitude.

This assignment is part contemplation, part writing, and part action. Use the following steps:

  1. Identify someone toward whom you feel or have felt appreciation and gratitude. You may have plenty of options. It’s likely a good idea to choose someone toward whom you believe you haven’t yet expressed enough gratitude.
  2. Write a gratitude note to that person. Include in the note why you feel gratitude toward to the person. Include specifics as needed, as well as words that best express your sincere heartfelt feelings toward the person.
  3. Find a way to express your feelings directly to your gratitude target. You can read the note in person, over the phone, or send it in whatever way you find best.

Remember, your plan is to express gratitude. What that means is that you need to drop any expectations for how the recipient of your gratitude should or will respond. Don’t focus on their response, instead, focus on doing the best job you can expressing the gratitude that you sincerely feel.

If the person loves hearing about your gratitude, cool. If the person is uncomfortable or not positive or silent, that’s okay. Your goal should be within your control—meaning that all you can control is your end of the communication and not how the communication is received.

Turn in a short report to Dan and me about your gratitude experience and put it in the appropriate Moodle bin. Tell us, (a) what it was like to write the gratitude message, (b) what it was like to deliver it, and (c) how it felt to express your gratitude. If you get inspired, feel free to repeat this gratitude experiment a second or third time.

Like last week, your report to us doesn’t need to be long—unless writing it is a pleasant experience for you—in which case, you can linger and write longer.

Good luck and although I know I can’t control the outcome of this experience, I hope you find it fun and meaningful.

 

A Letter to My Happiness Class on Why I Called BS on the So-Called Law of Attraction

Adler Heart Brain

[This is a letter to my happiness class]

Hello Happy People,

When happiness class ends, sometimes I wish we could continue in conversation. You may not feel that way. You might be thinking, “Thank-you Universe! Class is finally over.” But as a long-time professor-type, on many days I wish we could keep on talking and learning. I know that it may not surprise you to hear that I’m feeling like I’ve got more to say:).

This week (Tuesday, February 11) was one of those days. Many of you made great comments and asked big questions. But, given that time is a pesky driver of everything, I/we couldn’t go as deep as we might have. Here’s an example of a question I loved, but that I felt I didn’t go deep enough with:

“Do you believe in the Law of Attraction?”

This is a fascinating question with deep and profound contemporary relevance. At the time, if you recall, I had dissed inspirational statements like, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it” as “just bullshit.” Then, in response to the question of whether I believe in the so-called Law of Attraction, I said something like “I don’t completely disbelieve it” . . . and then pretended that I was in possession of a scientific mental calculator and said something like, “I believe things like imagining the positive can have a positive effect, but it might contribute about 3% of the variation to what happens to people in the future.”

Not surprisingly, upon reflection, I’m thinking that my use of the word “bullshit” and my overconfident estimation of “3% of the variation” deserve further explanation. Why? Because if I don’t back up what I say with at least a little science, then I’m doing no better than the folks who write wacky stuff like, “You can if you think you can.” In other words, how can you know if what I say isn’t “just bullshit” too?

At this point I’d like to express my apologies to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale for referring to one of his book titles as “wacky stuff.” However, in my defense, I read the book and I still can’t do whatever I think I can do . . . so there’s that . . . but that’s only a personal anecdote.

Okay. Back to science. Here’s why I said that positive thinking, as in the so-called “Law of Attraction” might account for only about 3% of the variation in life outcomes.

Back in the 1980s, I did my thesis and dissertation on personality and prediction. At the time I had four roommates and I felt I could predict their behaviors quite easily on the basis of their personalities. However, much to my surprise, I discovered that social psychology research didn’t support personality as a very good predictor of behavior. Turns out, personality only correlates with behavioral outcomes at about r = 0.3 or r = 0.4. You might think that sounds big, because you might think that r = 0.3 means 30%. But that’s not how it works. If you do the math and multiply the correlational coefficient by itself (as in 3 x 3 or 4 x 4) you get what statisticians call the coefficient of determination (in this case, 3 x 3 = 9% and 4 x 4 = 16%). The coefficient of determination is an error-filled effort to predict specific future events, as in, if your r = 0.3, then, if you know r, then you can be about 9% accurate in predicting an outcome.

Please note that everything is error-filled, including science, and including me and my shoot from the hip efforts at estimation and prediction. When I say error-filled, I’m not disrespecting science, I’m just acknowledging its limitations.

Okay. Back to the so-called Law of Attraction. In class I was calculating in my mind that if well-measured personality traits like extraversion or introversion only account for about 9-16% of the variation in behavioral outcomes, then the so-called Law (which I’m inclined to rename as the Hypothesis of Attraction) would likely account for significantly less variation . . . so I quickly did some mental math and “3%” popped out of my mouth. What I should have said is that humans are remarkably unpredictable and that personality barely predicts behavior and situations barely predict behavior and so when we hypothesize what might influence our future, we should be careful and underestimate, lest we appear foolishly overconfident, like many television pundits.

Somewhere around this time, someone asked if I thought the authors of books who advocated things like the law of attraction really believed in what they wrote or just wrote their books for profit. My response there was something like, “I don’t know. Maybe a bit of both.” To be perfectly honest—which I’m trying to be—one of my big concerns about things like the law of attraction is that they’re used to increase hope and expectations and typically come at a price. I don’t like the idea of people with profit-driven motives luring vulnerable people with big hopes into paying and then being disappointed. Sometimes I ask myself, “If someone has their life together so much that they discovered a secret to becoming wealthy by visualizing wealth, then they should already be so damn rich that they should just share their secret for free with everyone in an effort to improve people’s lives and the state of the planet!” The corollary to that thought is that if somebody says they’ve got a powerful secret AND THEY WANT TO CHARGE YOU FOR IT, my bullshit spidey sense sounds an alarm. Go ahead, call me suspicious and cynical.

Now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of positive thinking. A huge fan. I believe positive thinking can give you an edge, and I believe it can make you happier. But I also think life is deeper than that and multiple factors are involved in how our lives turn out. I don’t want to pretend I’ve got a secret that I can share with you that will result in you living happily ever after with all the money you ever wished for. On the other hand, I do want to encourage everyone to embrace as much as you can the positivity and gratitude and kindness and visions of your best self that we’re talking about and reading about for our happiness class. I want you to have that edge or advantage. I want you to harness that 3% (okay, maybe it could be 7%) and make your lives more like your hopes and dreams.

Later, another student asked how we can know if we’re just fooling ourselves with irrational positivity. Wow. What an amazing question. At the time, I said, we need to scrutinize ourselves and bounce our self-statements or beliefs off of other people—people whom we trust—so we can get feedback. One thing I’d add to what I said in class is that we should also gather scientific information to help us determine whether we’re off in the tulips or thinking rationally. Self-scrutiny, feedback from trusted others, and pursuit of science. . . I think that’s a pretty good recipe for lots of things. It reminds me of what Alfred Adler once wrote about love. . . something like, “Follow your heart, but don’t forget your brain!”

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. I hope your weekend is a fabulous mix of following your heart, and hanging onto the science.

John SF

Happiness Homework: Savor Now, Feel Better Later

Captain America

We all know how to savor chocolate or wine or the cheesecake that tastes like you’ve made it to heaven. When it comes to gustatory experiences, savoring is natural.

Funny thing, savoring successes, beautiful scenery, a poem you hear on the radio, and other potentially positive life experiences often (but not always) feels less natural. That’s too bad, because researchers have repeatedly found that taking a moment to savor the moment in the midst of a busy day can increase happiness and decrease depression. We should try to remember to savor more often.

For this week the plan is for you to pick one savoring assignment from a menu of research-based savoring activities (below). Each of these activities has research support; doing any of them might make you feel significantly more happiness or less depression. Here are your options:

  • Engage in mutual reminiscence. Mutual reminiscence happens when you get together with someone and intentionally pull up and talk about fun, positive, or meaningful memories. I was with my dad last week and did a bit of this and it was nice. Now I have memories of us remembering our shared positive memories.
  • Make a list of positive memories. After making the list, transport yourself to reminisce on one of the memories. You can do this one by yourself. Retrieve the memory. Play it back in your mind. Explore it. Feel it. Let your brain elaborate on the details.
  • Celebrate good news longer than you would. This is easy. You need to track/observe for a positive message or news in your life that feels good. Then, let your mind linger on it. Notice how you feel. What parts of the news are especially meaningful and pleasant to you? Extend and celebrate the good news.
  • Notice and observe beauty. This activity is mostly visual, but you can listen for beautiful sounds too. Let yourself see color, patterns, and nuanced beauty in nature or in art. Linger with that visual and let its pleasant effects be in your eyes, brain, and body. Notice and feel those sensations and thoughts.

As usual, write a short report to Dan and me about your experiences and put it in the appropriate Moodle bin. This report doesn’t need to be long—unless writing it is a pleasant experience for you—in which case, you can linger and write longer.

Happiness Homework: Your Best Possible Self

Art Heart

You all already know about optimism and pessimism.

Some people see the glass half full. Others see the glass half empty. Still others, just drink and savor the water, without getting hung up on how much is in the glass. Obviously, there are many other responses, because some people spill the water, others find a permanent water source, and others skip the water and drink the wine or pop open a beer.

Reducing people to two personality types never works, but it never gets old either. Your activity this week is what we call an optimism activity. It’s called the Best Possible Self activity and it’s supposed to crank up your sense of optimism. That’s cool, because generally speaking, optimism is a good thing. Here’s what the researchers say about the Best Possible Self (BPS) activity.

[The following is summarized from Layous, Nelson, and Lyubomirsky, 2012]. Writing about your BPS (also seen as a representation of your goals) shows long-term health benefits, increases life satisfaction, increases positive affect, increases optimism, and improves overall sense of well-being. Laura King, a professor at U of Missouri-Columbia developed the BPS activity.

King’s BPS activity was a little more extensive than what I’m recommending below. Here’s the assignment:

  • Spend 10 minutes a day for four consecutive days writing a narrative description of your “best possible future self.”
  • Pick a point in the future – write about what you’ll be doing/thinking then – and these things need to capture a vision of you being “your best” successful self or of having accomplished your life goals.
  • You can upload all your writing or just a summary into Moodle for Dan or me to read.

Being a counseling and psychotherapy theories buff, I should mention that this fantastic assignment is very similar to the Adlerian “Future Autobiography.” Adler was way ahead of everyone on everything, so I’m not surprised that he was thinking of this first. Undoubtedly, Adler saw the glass half full, sipped and savored his share, and then shared it with his community. We should all be more like Adler.

Four Questions to Help Keep Your Focus on the Positive

Brain Image

Everyone agrees that the human brain is amazing. Perhaps the most amazing quality of human brains is the ability to shift focus. In an instant and at will, you can shift your focus from a current life conundrum, to the big toe on your left foot, to your dreams for the future, and to a memory from 1st grade. You can explore all these things—at least superficially—and then move on to the meaning of existence and the possibility of life on Mars all in less than one minute. In fact, as you were reading this, I’ll bet you were able to touch on all those thoughts.

Although shifting attention can feel random, it’s a power that most of us should learn to use more intentionally.

We’re using several methods for helping students intentionally harness their attentional focus in the Art and Science of Happiness course at the University of Montana. One method involves homework. Another method involves in-class and happiness lab activities. A third method (and the one featured here), is intentional and regular use of self-reflection. To accomplish this, we ask students to answer four reflection questions every two weeks.

Here are the questions, along with a small sampling of anonymized student responses:

  1. Over the past two weeks, what lecture content stood out to you as most important to you in your life?
  • “The sleep lecture and what you can do to sleep better, and what causes nightmares and night terrors”
  • “Happiness doesn’t have to ALWAYS be present in order to be happy.”
  • “I really enjoyed the lecture about the three steps to cure nightmares.”
  1. Over the past two weeks, what classroom or lab activities do you recall as most important to you in your life?
  • “All of them have been influential . . . and hope to continue these assignments into the future.”
  • “Having a happy song playing at the beginning of class is such a great way to start class.”
  • “The hand-pushing activity about how we should go into a situation with a plan.”
  1. Over the past two weeks, what positive changes have you noticed in yourself or in your life?
  • “After doing the 3 good things activity at night I felt relaxed and in a better mood.”
  • “I’m working on my sleep schedule which has felt good.”
  • “I found the sleeping tips to be really helpful in my own life and help me to improve my sleep.”
  1. Over the past two weeks, what activities, interactions, or thoughts have you experienced (outside of class) that were especially meaningful to you?
  • “Finding something inspirational.”
  • “More positive outlook on life.”
  • “I experienced being able to change my thoughts on a negative day by looking at three good things and able to remember that even on bad days there are still good things to remember.”

As I look over the students’ responses to these questions and the homework assignments, I feel like I’m catching some positive psychology contagion. I’m grateful to be able to teach this course and inspired by the students’ efforts to apply positive psychology principles to their lives.

Happiness Homework — Week 3: University of Montana

Stone Smirk

This week we’ve only got one active learning assignment (see below). That’s probably because there’s a Moodle quiz later in the week and, of course, there are things for students to watch and listen to, like these:

  1. Listen: Science vs. Podcast – All Aboard the Snooze Cruise https://gimletmedia.com/shows/science-vs/o2hx57
  2. WATCH: Hacking your brain for happiness by James Doty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4TJEA_ZRys
  3. Listen: The Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Episode: Teens and Depression — https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/teens-depression/id1170841304?i=1000383659996

And here’s the active learning homework for the week!

Active Learning Assignment 5 – Your Favorite Relaxation Method

As you likely recall from the Thursday, January 23 lecture, in 1975, Herbert Benson of Harvard University published a book titled, The Relaxation Response. Benson wrote that for humans to achieve the relaxation response, they needed four components:

  1. A quiet place.
  2. A comfortable position.
  3. A mental device.
  4. A passive attitude.

For this assignment, your job is to identify and practice your favorite relaxation method. The good news is that you don’t really need a quiet place and a comfortable position (although they help, they’re not essential). But you do need a mental device and a passive attitude.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, for some people, the act of trying to relax creates anxiety. This is a puzzling paradox. Why would trying to relax trigger anxiety?

The intent to relax can trigger anxiety in several different ways. For some, if you try to relax, you can also trigger worries about not being able to relax. This is a relatively natural byproduct of self-consciousness. If this is the case for you, take it slowly. Self-awareness can trigger self-consciousness and self-consciousness can trigger anxiety . . . but time and practice can overcome these obstacles.

For others, a history of trauma or physical discomfort can be activated. This is similar to self-consciousness because the turning of your attention to your body inevitably makes you more aware of your body and this awareness can draw you into old, emotionally or physically painful memories. If this is the case for you, again, take it slowly. Also, manage your expectations, and get support as needed. Support could come in the form of specific comforting and soothing cues (even physical cues), an outside support person, or a professional counselor or psychotherapist.

Trauma and anxiety are common human challenges. Although trauma and anxiety can be terribly emotionally disturbing and disruptive, the core treatment for these problems usually involves one or more forms of exposure and can be traced back to Mary Cover Jones. You can read more about Mary Cover Jones and her amazing work on my blog: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/06/04/the-secret-self-regulation-cure-seriously-this-time/

Okay, that’s enough of my jibber-jabbering. Here’s your assignment:

  1. Try integrating your favorite relaxation method (no drugs please) into your daily life. You can do it for a minute here and there, or 20 minutes all at once.
  2. Write me a paragraph or two about how it went. Include reflections on (a) what helped you relax more? and (b) what got into the way of you relaxing (obstacles)?
  3. Write me a paragraph about how you might try to do more relaxing in the future—including how you will deal with those pesky obstacles.

Thanks for reading and have a fantastic Sunday.