Monday, March 31, 2008

Twist and Shout

Like many animals, rats put in new situations run the perimeter, presumably learning about their new environment. In fact, according to Esther M. Sternberg in The Balance Within, if you placed electrodes in their brains to map out the cells that are active during this exploration, you'd see that they matched the shape of the new environment perfectly. If they are able to learn, they learn the environment and their anxiety at the newness wears off.

Extrapolating wildly from this, you might wonder how a person, with all these pictures of their life in their head, complete with dead ends and diabolically treacherous twists and turns, ever breaks out of their maze. I'm fascinated by the people who are able to do so, and equally by those that are not.

According to Sternberg, if you're a low-stress-hormone Lewis rat, you'll explore your environment vigorously, presumably open to change. If you're a high-stress-hormone Fischer rat, you'll cringe in the corner, presumably, not so open to change. No worries; even the Fischer rat eventually learns the new environment, it just seems a lot more fraught with anxiety, if I may anthropomorphize for a moment.

Back to us, how can we adapt? Again, from the rats, it seems that once the new environment becomes more familiar, they're more comfortable.

So taking that very basic observation, one useful self-statement might be to assure oneself that it'll be okay, you'll get used to it. Whatever "it" is. The new job, the new city, the divorce, the death.

Now I'm going out on a limb to say that I'd have to guess having something familiar in a new environment would also allay some anxiety. You know how it feels when you move and unpack your stuff. It's a comfort to see the stuff, whether it's nice and almost-new or crummy and ready for the Salvation Army.

Sternberg goes on to talk about how relationships can also serve as buffers for the stress of change. Mind you, given the link between chronic stress and impaired immune function, this is all pretty critical. So we need change, we all experience lots of change, but too much prolonged change can make us sick. Like I said, life presents diabolically treacherous twists and turns. But also intriguingly engaging twists and turns.

So my recommendations: use positive self-statements (e.g., this is all going to work out), break out some comfortable objects (and light those candles, or whatever makes you feel good), rely on friends and other significants, and, when it comes to the treacherous twists and turns, put on some music and shake it up baby.

You know, Twist and Shout (The Beatles).

Saturday, March 29, 2008


I'm still taken with the idea of grit and what keeps the tough going. Have you read about these three guys who ran, yeah, ran across the Sahara. Yeah, the desert. See an article about one of them, Charlie Engle, former drug addict, now ultramarathoner:

How about the 70 or 80 year olds who regularly run the 26 plus mile kind of marathons?

It seems incredible that some people are able to do the most remarkable things by sheer force of will. After all, it doesn't take much intellect to run a marathon. I'm not sure there's even an innate ability required.

But the passion, that can't be learned. You have to love it. At the risk of repeating myself, I'd really like most of my friends and people I work with to think more seriously about the passion thing.

There are plenty of reasons to try to do things you're passionate about. You're more likely to get into a state of flow if you're doing something you love and are good at. You're more likely to be good at something you love. Or is it you're more likely to love something you're good at. Does it matter?

It's never boring when you have passion. You can be persistent and diligent, or gritty, when there's a true connection to what you're doing.

Too many of us do things because we "should," we'll make more money, it's easy, and the like. I'm not saying work has to be hard, but there's a certain satisfaction you feel about a difficult job well done that's a bit thrilling. Not like a rollercoaster thrilling, but warmly, satisfyingly ultrathrilling.

You don't have to run an ultramarathon to feel that thrill. Dig deep and find your passion, and get gritty.

See some ultragrit in Rescue Dawn or The Great Escape.

Friday, March 21, 2008


I am an old man, but in many senses a very young man. And this is what I want you to be, young, young all your life. Pablo Casals.

Good advice, especially on the day I attended a funeral. I'm thinking, Frank Sinatra, Young at Heart.

What was really inspiring about the service, was how the mourners were so into the pastor's remarks and so carried away by his positive messages. The basic idea was that this was Chapter One for the departed and the mourners alike.

I don't think you have to believe to be able to see it that way. You only had to know John a little, to know he saw it that way.

The pastor gave permission for people to be distraught, to cry and mourn. Most important, he gave them permission to move on. He pointed out, aptly, that John would have wanted it that way.

The pastor also talked about how John touched everyone he met in a special and positive way. It makes me realize again how important and meaningful it is to reach out to people in even the smallest ways. There were a lot of people there to say goodbye. There was a lot of love in that room.

You'll be missed, and remembered.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Doing Something vs Nothing

Would you believe that economists study soccer goalkeeper's responses vis-a-vis how such split-second decision making might relate to economic decisions? Well, they do (see NY Times article,

The gist is, most of us perceive, along with goalkeepers and stock market investors, that doing something is better than doing nothing. It turns out that the goalkeeper's ability to stop penalty kicks is actually better when they do nothing, i.e., stand in the middle, than when they do something, i.e., choose a side.

Now you're wondering how I'm going to apply this to something that could possibly be relevant to the usual subjects of my blog.

I'm thinking of how I've been hearing from people that they need to do something, when I'm thinking they may need to do nothing. I know, I know. I'm generally very action, change oriented. But there are situations...

Specifically, I'm thinking stay-at-home moms who decide they ought to be doing something more "meaningful." I'm thinking people in reasonably good relationships who think they ought to be in "better" relationships. I'm thinking people who aren't in relationships who think they ought to be in "a" relationship. Then there are people who think they should move someplace, retirees who think they work at something and adolescents who think they should change something (usually something scary about their physical appearance).

I'm not saying that things don't sometimes, even often, need to change. But clearly we often have difficulty just being and letting things be.

As the researchers suggest, "nothing is sometimes better than something."

Try The Beatles: Let it Be.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Plan Continuation Bias

In the study of airline safety, we know that when problems force a pilot to have to decide whether to continue or change course, something called plan continuation bias can get in the way.

Plan continuation bias is the tendency of people to continue to follow their original plan, even in the face of evidence that the circumstances have changed. Apparently, we have an unconscious bias in thinking that leads us to follow our original course of action, particularly when we are close to the end.

I'm thinking of waiting in line in the bank. Once you pick the line, you stand in it for awhile, and the longer you stand there the less you want to move. You've already invested in the line. You've put in some time. It's too late to change now.

I'm also thinking of life choices. You've been in the job for umpteen years, you've been in the relationship for as many, you've lived in the city forever, and so on.

It's just another thing that gets in the way of change.

The way we usually try to cope with cognitive biases and distortions is to:

Identify the thought: for example, I'll never find a job I'm happy with.
What's the evidence for it?: It seems like it would be really hard to find something better.
Come up with alternatives: Maybe I need to look around a little and explore options.
Change behavior accordingly: Start researching new job ops.

I think it's quite possible, likely even, that we blindly go through lots of days, relationships, habits, etc., without really considering the evidence. Do I really want this, enjoy this, need this, like this?

Consider the possibilities. After all, life is a highway (TomCochrane).

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Self-care not selfish

One of the things I notice in my clients is the way divorce allows people to settle into themselves. For years, you’ve been a “we,” a “husband” or “wife.” Now you’re just an “I,” a “father” or a “mother,” along with your other roles of child, aunt, teacher, etc. Divorce pushes the realization that we are actually alone in this thing called life.

So where am I going with this? This is supposed to be an upbeat blog, right? Positive psychology focus and all.

Well it is really awesome to be able to make choices that are specifically and totally for you. What I hear a lot from people is that they have to think first of others, then of themselves. After all, it’s selfish to think of yourself, right?

Wrong! You HAVE to think of yourself, because more than likely, no one else is going to have your best interests at the forefront. I’m not saying people don’t care about you. But let’s face it, no one cares about your well-being the way that you do.

The same people that worry about being too selfish are constantly surprised when others do not act selflessly. Look at the words we use to describe these behaviors: selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed, entitled. They’re all negative.

So here’s the deal. Step one is to think about what you need. Step two is to consider how that might affect others you care about. Step three is to decide what makes sense for you given steps one and two. I think this probably makes sense in marriage as well as in divorce. Caring about and for the self. Let’s call it self-care, not selfish.