Category Archives: Writing

Happy Habits for Hard Times

Smoothies

Being that we’ve been hanging out together (aka sheltering in place), Rita and I are teaming up to offer a series of videos with accompanying written materials and activities. We’re calling these videos and resources the “Happy Habits Series.”

We’ve written these materials and produced these videos with COVID-19 in mind, but please know that we know there are lots of other excellent resources available for coping with COVID-19. By no means do we have a corner on the market on how to be happy and healthy, nor do we think that what we’re offering is particularly special.

You might be wondering, “So, why are Rita and John doing this?” For the answer, go back to the first sentence, and then combine that sentence with the fact that we’re not sure what else we can do to be helpful (other than washing our hands, practicing social distancing, and sheltering in place).

And now, a word from our sponsor: The Happy Habits Series is a production of the University of Montana College of Education and Rita and John S-F.

Here’s installment #1. For the accompanying corny video, click here.

Two Habits that Involve Taking Control of What You Can

You can control many components of the physical space around you—things outside yourself, but within your control. You can change visuals, sounds, smells, temperatures; you can even move locations. If you’re like most of us, you know you can proactively make these changes, but sometimes, you forget. Here are a couple of reminders.

Happy Habit # 1

Using Music

Let’s start with something simple. Music. You can pump an upbeat song into your headphones or in the airwaves around you. Music triggers emotions and memories. Sometimes our emotional responses are all about the music itself. Other times they’re about personal associations or memories. For example, when Grandpa Pancake listens to We are the Champions by Queen, he’s transported back to positive college football memories, whereas the song, “Put the Lime in the Coconut” always returns him to a summertime automobile crash he experienced with his sister. You can probably guess why.

For Bossy Pants, the Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is the most reassuring tune ever, though also quite nostalgic. She also plays Eva Cassidy for hours on end. Whether mood-altering or memory-inducing, music is a powerful tool in the toolbox for living well. In fact, researchers report that engaging in musical and dance activities are associated with increased subjective well-being.

Give this a try:

  1. Select a song that triggers positive emotions for you. If you really feel like picking one that makes you cry instead, that’s okay. Emoting either direction is helpful, but we’re all about focusing on what you can do to elevate your mood right now.
  2. Listen to the song at least two or three times and just let the song do its work. Sing along or dance a little. Or both.
  3. Pay attention to memories and positive feelings. Smile. Tear up. React in whatever ways feel natural. Welcome your emotions.
  4. Play it again or move on to another favorite. Maybe even play something new. You’re building resilience for the rest of the day. If you find yourself humming your song in a Zoom meeting or while doing the dishes, so much the better.
  5. And though this suggestion belongs in a later Happy Habit, send a mental thank you out to the musicians and all the people involved in bringing those tunes to your ears.

Happy Habit # 2

Forest Bathing

Music is one method for altering your outer environment. Now let’s move on to something physical: Forest bathing. Yes, forest bathing brings to mind naked nymphs flittering around a crystal pond or, for some of us, skinny dipping in Seeley Lake. In Montana, beautiful outdoor scenes are everywhere. If you’re lucky enough to be able to do social distancing by immersing yourself in some naturally awesome surroundings, do it. But even if you can’t get out to the perfect spot, we encourage you to try this. Here’s the scoop:

In 2018, happiness researcher Dr. Qing Li wrote a book called Forest Bathing which includes this guidance:

In Japan, we practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.

This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”

First, find a spot. Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.

The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.”

Japan is a tad more crowded than Montana. If they can manage forest bathing there, we have no excuse. Dr. Li is an impressive researcher. Forest bathing can be a great habit to establish and maintain. To watch a forest bathing video from CBS News, click here.

Music and forest bathing are the first two Happy Habit activities in our Happy Habit Series. If you’re interested, you can watch our encouraging (and home-made) video, try these assignments, and pay attention if they work for you. Have an open and observant attitude. Nothing works for everyone, but these are well-researched strategies. Feel free to chime in with a blog comment or two. Nice, positive comments of course.

Once again, here’s the link to the video: https://studio.youtube.com/video/KPw7KncPQXc/edit

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re finding just the right balance of social distance and social connection.

Spirituality and Happiness: Summarizing the Happiness Class Spirituality Panel

Kid Art

Today we had a spirituality panel in the Art & Science of Happiness class. Featured guests were Community Chaplain, Courtney Arntzen, Lama Tsomo, and Rabbi Mark Hayim Kula. Rita S-F was also featured as the panel moderator. I sat on the side of the room, desperately seeking enlightenment.

Over the years I’ve taken to poking fun at the highly regarded statistical procedure called meta-analysis. I like to make fun of it because, in essence, meta-analytic findings are a summary of a summary of a summary. Today, in our class, the distinguished panelists were given tiny shreds of time during which they offered brief anecdotes, summaries, analogies, and facts about their three spiritual traditions. Providing them with such little time was a disservice that we all tolerated in the service of experiencing 80 minutes of their wisdom. And now, I’ll be doing that disservice a disservice by trying to summarize a few salient points. Meta-analysis never looked so deep.

In this oversimplification of the rich and amazing information we experienced today, I’m including a prequel, a dialectic, and a sequel. Here’s the prequel.

Lama Tsomo began by pointing out that when we stub our toe, our whole self hurts. She followed up with how Tibetan methods are useful for getting us out of our individual ego, and noted that although we should love our neighbors as ourselves, many of us aren’t all that good at loving ourselves. In the end, she put us all together in a metaphoric ocean where we are both all interconnected, but all individuals.

Courtney Arntzen began with a heartfelt apology, “For ways my faith has hurt or wounded you or told you that you’re not enough or not loved.” She followed this with the old testament message of loving the lord with all your heart and soul and strength, combined with the new testament message of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Rabbi Mark asked the students if they’re feeling happier from their experience in the class. Some heads nodded. I wanted to leap up and tell everyone on the class that they God Damn better be feeling happier, but that seemed spiritually inappropriate for someone seeking enlightenment. Then Mark said that his final exam for the class would be “Are you happy?” He went on to discuss how one of the Jewish commandments is to be happy and pursue joyfulness.

Overall, and here’s where my silly oversimplification feels terribly limited, I thought the main messages coalesced dialectics. In case you’re not carrying your counseling theories textbook with you all the time (yet), here’s a definition for dialectic: “A dialectic is a process where learning is stimulated from the integration of opposites” (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2018, p. 90; yes, quoting myself hereJ).

All three spiritual disciplines featured today emphasized that happiness for the self is directly related to the happiness you offer others. Whether it was all of us being interconnected in the ocean, or the message that to dismiss the other is to negate God’s work, I kept hearing how deeply important it is for us to love ourselves well and to love others just as well. Rabbi Mark suggested that we carry two different messages, one in each pocket. The first, we should pull out when feeling down, “The entire world is was made for you.” The second is good to read when feeling overconfident, “I am a mere speck of dust.” Yes! Learning from dialectics.

Eventually the conversation leaned into forgiveness. Everyone embraced the idea that we can be quick condemn ourselves and others, and that forgiveness is a decision or empowered choice. We need to get beyond who’s right and who’s wrong. We need to accept grace for ourselves, but also for others. None of us is perfect; we are all striving. More dialectics.

Some small fireworks were ignited twice. Rita asked Courtney about her thoughts on whether self-esteem was evil. Turns out, Courtney not only had thoughts about that particular idea, she also had feelings. She made it clear that because we’re all God’s creation, “instead of negating what God loves, I try to be compassionate and kind to myself.” She extended that principle to loving one’s neighbor and to loving and being a steward of the universe.

Toward the end of the panel discussion Rabbi Mark and Lama Tsomo were readying themselves for spiritual combat, but Rita, being mindful of time, transitioned to the next topic. Lama Tsomo lamented that lost opportunity because, “I wanted to debate, because Jewish debate is a great way to get to the truth.”

Although I’m sad to have missed out on a good old Buddhist-Jewish debate, I think we managed to get to some truth anyway.

To end, Lama Tsomo led us all in mindfulness meditation. She gently recommended that we meditate with our eyes open, because we want to go through life with our eyes open (and keeping our eyes open also reduces the chances of falling asleep while meditating).

My take home message for the day was something like this, “I need to meditate with my eyes wide open in order to illuminate my mind to the idea and action that psychological, spiritual, and religious practice is a practice that requires repetition and a commitment to being perfect creations who imperfectly strive to act out values of loving others, loving ourselves, and loving God (aka the great ocean of wisdom).”

Thanks to Courtney, Mark, and Tsomo. Thanks also to Rita and to the Happiness class.

I am grateful.

I am still practicing.

 

 

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.

 

The Day the GOP Died

Mad Bomb

There’s a new song on the internet. An appalling remake of an old song.  Aside from making me depressed when I’m working on happiness, listening to the new song reminded me of an old blog post I wrote in June, 2018. I used words and imagery from Don McLean’s American Pie to write of my disappointment with the GOP. Although I submitted this piece to a few news outlets, there was only one taker: Me. That makes sense because I almost always publish my own blog posts.

Skip this if you’re sick of political stuff.

The Day the GOP Died

By John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.

A long, long time ago, the Grand Old Party stood for family values, moral standards, and apple pie. Now, with Trump as leader, it’s more like family torture, infidelity, and borscht.

Less long ago (Thursday, May 31, 2018), former House Speaker John Boehner quipped: “The Republican Party is kinda taking a nap somewhere.” Boehner was drinking a bloody Mary at the time, so maybe we shouldn’t blame him for not noticing that his former party’s nap has already lasted nearly two years.

Given there’s no chance the GOP will get woke, it’s time to say, “Bye, bye American GOP.”

The GOP was mortally wounded on a Super Tuesday back in September, 2016. In seven states, the Party of Lincoln voted to nominate Donald Trump for President. Sure, “Lying Ted” won a couple states and a few #NeverTrump folks were hanging on, but the die was cast, probably in some Trump casino, where the GOP’s mortal soul was traded for unlimited gaming opportunities. No longer was the GOP about marriage, civility, and moral virtue. Instead, along with Trump, so-called Republicans were embracing race over rights, disrespecting gold star families, degrading and sexualizing women, and undermining family values. And there was that White Nationalism thing. His crown stolen, Lincoln would have been apoplectic.

Resuscitation attempts failed. The Access Hollywood recording created a ripple of discontent and the gnashing of a tooth or two. But hey, it was locker room talk, and everyone knew who had the votes and who had the money. Jeff Flake and “Liddle Bob Corker” gave us hope, but our hope quickly gave way to calling respectful Black football players sons of bitches and making parents cry and children scream. Opposing Trump was too costly. Not only would there be hate mail, hate email, hate instant messages, and hate signs posted on your lawn, there would also be death threats, lost fundraising revenue, and lost elections. Republicans like balanced budgets. Opposing Trump did not pencil. #NotWorthIt. DJT would refuse to yield.

Later, the GOP voted that a generation lost in debt was preferable to confronting their friendship with the devil. Obsequious coveting of the naked emperor became de rigueur. Satanity laughed at tweets about pig’s blood, shitholes, and witch hunts. Fox News had spoken.

Even later, or perhaps earlier, there was Russian meddling, references to Rocket Man, and about 50 departures from the White House staff or cabinet. Going along, the GOP normalized talk about sex, presidential lies, and fantasized audio recordings. There were payments to porn stars, pay to play with China and Indonesia, and open theft of our national morality, with Trump metaphorically riding away in a taxpayer paid for golden golf-cart. The evangelicals were copiously ignoring the growing cracks in their church bells.

Mostly the GOP lay in a Boehner-nap, awakening only briefly for intermittent nips of bloody Marys and rye. A few free market optimists imagined the GOP was saving its strength for one last-ditch effort to #DumpTrump. But, right about then, because the three politicians I admired most were already dead anyway, the rest of the GOP joined them. The Republican Party, upon whom we could formerly count for at least a façade of morality, had its thousand points of light torn away like a Puerto Rican roof. Final confirmation of the GOP’s death occurred in July with continuing news from the Mexico border that made us shiver. John McCain’s angel was in a body cast, because he was “Dying anyway.”

The GOP, having given away its moral authority to speechless speakers, vapid veeps, and the money man, is no longer grand, no longer old, and no longer alive. The Party of Lincoln is dead. Let’s drive our Harleys to the coast and pray that the Party of Trump is short-lived.

*********************************

John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist, professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, and author of eight books. The views expressed here are solely the views of John Sommers-Flanagan, and not representative of the University of Montana or Don McLean.

And here’s the youtube link for the new song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQPeVJQaUSw

 

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.

Happiness Homework: Week 4 — Thought Monitoring

Goldilocks and Bears

Active Learning Assignment 6 – Thought Monitoring

Humans are thinking beings. You can try arguing the opposite, but that would require thinking.

Sometime around 1637, René Descartes said it this way,

“Cogito, ergo sum.”

The English translation,

“I think, therefore I am.”

Cool stuff.

After several decades of studying psychological theory, I’m finally ready to make my own fancy Cartesian philosophical statement about human thinking. It’s less succinct than Descartes, because, well, I’m not Descartes. Here we go. First, in Latin (because even though I only typed the words into the Google Latin translator, using Latin makes me sound smarter).

“Cogito ergo sum ego possit cogitare et in tempore angustiae triumphi.”

Now, in English.

“I think therefore I am able to think myself into trouble or triumph.”

Inevitably, the more we think, the more we’re able to create personal misery. Alternatively, as we know all too well from political or romantic or employment or online relationships, we humans are also quite capable of rationalizing behaviors and describing ourselves in ways that makes us feel and sound better than we are in reality. We easily and naturally think our way toward trouble and triumph.

One popular contemporary term that speaks to miserable and unhelpful thinking is “overthinking.” Overthinking refers to excessive analysis around actions or decision-making. Overthinking is usually considered a less-than-optimal style that sometimes leads to paralysis by analysis.

Unfortunately, although life is better when we avoid overthinking, “underthinking” (although it hasn’t caught on), is equally bad. Underthinking results in impulsive and thoughtless behaviors and decisions.

As if life wasn’t already hard enough, like Goldilocks, now we have to avoid overthinking and underthinking, and find just the right amount of thinking.

All this brings us to our current happiness assignment.

  1. Using the six-column model demonstrated in class (on Feb 4), track the relationships between your situational triggers, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. One or two examples is sufficient.
  2. Write one paragraph about anything you learned about how your thoughts and behaviors affect your emotions (for the better or for the worse).
  3. Come to the lab on Thursday (Feb 6) ready to discuss anything you may have discovered about how your thoughts and behaviors affect your emotions.

Just in case you need it, here’s a longer description of how to do the six-column technique: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2014/02/18/how-to-use-the-six-column-cbt-technique/

Good luck and may the happiness be with you.

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.