TIME psychology

How to Stop Worrying

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Ever feel like you can’t turn your brain off? Worried about how to stop worrying? We all deal with this when life gets challenging.

There is a way to overcome worry that doesn’t involve alcohol or a straitjacket.

The answer is thousands of years old — but now science is validating those ancient ideas. You’ve probably even heard of it: Mindfulness.

Yeah, it’s all the rage now. But nobody ever seems to really explain what it is or how to do it.

Let’s fix that.

You Are Not Your Thoughts

What is mindfulness? In his book, The Mindfulness Solution, Ronald Siegel, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, gives a pretty good answer.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:

The working definition of mindfulness that my colleagues and I find most helpful is awareness of present experience with acceptance.

You might say: But I’m aware. I’m present. I’m accepting.

And I’d say: No, you’re not.

You’re not aware; you’re staring at your iPhone.

You’re not present; you’re worrying about the future.

You’re not accepting; you’re shaking your fist at traffic because the world doesn’t match the vision in your brain of how it “should” be.

Very often, we’re all stuck in our heads.

We’re not taking the world in; we’re just listening to the stories we tell ourselves about the world, trusting the endless parade of thoughts flitting through our heads instead of actually paying attention to life around us.

One of the fundamental tenets of mindfulness is that we all take our thoughts way too seriously. We think our thoughts always mean something. In fact, we think we are our thoughts and our thoughts are us.

And that’s one of the reasons we worry so much and experience so many negative emotions — because we take our thoughts about the world more seriously than the world itself.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:

Mindfulness practice brings all sorts of insights into the workings of the mind. Perhaps the hardest to grasp is the idea that thoughts are not reality. We’re so accustomed to providing a narrative track to our lives and believing in our story that to see things otherwise is a real challenge.

You know as well as I do that all kinds of ridiculous thoughts go through our heads. And sometimes you know not to trust them. When you’re tired, drunk, angry or sick you don’t take your thoughts as seriously.

Mindfulness says you should go a step further. Because you have lots of crazy or silly thoughts all the time. And they can make you anxious or bring you down.

(For more on how to never be frustrated again, click here.)

The great psychologist Albert Ellis said we should dispute our irrational thoughts. Great advice — but it can be difficult. You have to be exceedingly rational for it to work.

And sometimes disputing those thoughts can be like a “Chinese finger trap” — the more you resist, the more they ensnare you.

So what can you do?

Observe. Don’t Judge.

Sometimes you can’t easily dispute those worrying thoughts. So mindfulness simply says: let them go.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:

Mindfulness practice helps us avoid the trap of counterproductive thoughts by learning to let them go.

You can’t turn your brain off. And even if you meditate for years you can never fully clear your mind. But you can see those troublesome thoughts, recognize them, but not get tangled in believing them.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:

Remember, this practice is not about emptying the mind, getting rid of difficult emotions, escaping life’s problems, being free of pain, or experiencing never-ending bliss. Mindfulness practice is about embracing our experience as it is—and sometimes what is can be unpleasant at the moment… We usually try to feel better by decreasing the intensity of painful experiences; in mindfulness practice, we work instead to increase our capacity to bear them.

And scientific research shows this really works. People feel better and are more engaged with their work after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:

Dr. Davidson and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn recruited a group of pressured workers in a biotechnology firm and taught half of them mindfulness meditation for three hours per week over an eight-week period. They compared this group to a similar group of coworkers who were not taught meditation. On average, all of the workers tipped to the right in their prefrontal cortical activity before taking up meditation. However, after taking the eight-week course, the meditating group now had more left-sided activation than the nonmeditators. The meditators also reported that their moods improved and they felt more engaged in their activities.

I know, I know: Easier said than done, Eric.

Ignore your thoughts? Let them just float by? Sounds great but how the heck do you do that? Especially when they’re emotionally powerful feelings like worry.

(For more on how to deal with anxiety, tragedy or heartache, click here.)

The key is attention. Yeah, that thing none of us seems to have anymore.

But there’s a way to get it back.

Don’t Distract. Immerse.

I’ve posted before about how important attention is to happiness. And one of the key practices of mindfulness is meditation, which has been shown in scientific studies to improve attention.

While I’m a huge believer in meditation, yes, it can be hard and takes time. Is there another way? Yup.

Next time you’re worrying, remember that your thoughts aren’t real. Life is real.

So turn your attention to your senses. To the world around you. (No, not to your smartphone.)

How does that cup of coffee smell? Did you even notice the people nearby?

Don’t distract yourself. Immerse yourself in the world around you.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:

The approach teaches people mindfulness practices with a particular emphasis on not taking any thoughts too seriously but rather staying grounded in sensual reality here and now… Instead of fantasizing about the next moment of entertainment, you can turn your attention to the sights and sounds of standing in line, buying a cup of coffee, and walking down the street. Instead of getting frustrated because the train is late, you can study the other passengers (discreetly), notice the architecture of the station, and attend to the sensations in your body as you sit and wait. There is always something interesting to do—just pay attention to what is occurring right now.

(For more on how to meditate and be happier, click here.)

I know what some of you are thinking: The worries keep coming back, Eric. Smelling the coffee didn’t make them go away.

No sweat. We have tools for this.

Noting And Labeling

Rather than dodging, disputing, or distracting (which can all lead to you just wrestling with those ideas further) acknowledge the thoughts. “Note” them.

You’re not avoiding your thoughts. You acknowledge them… and then turn your attention back to your senses. To your breath. To the feel of the chair beneath your butt. To the person next to you.

For thoughts that keep playing like a broken record, try “labeling” them. Siegel suggests giving the thought a funny name that trivializes it: Oh, that “it’s not going to work out” tape is playing in my head again.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:

When the thoughts arise, label them silently before letting them go. You don’t need very many categories. You might choose labels such as “planning,” “doubting,” “judging,” “fantasizing,” obsessing,” or “criticizing.” The particular labels aren’t crucial; what matters is using them to avoid being captured by stories or repetitive tapes. Once you label a thought, gently bring your attention back to the breath. If you find that your attention is repeatedly carried away by particular stories, try making up a humorous label for them. Give these greatest hits their own names, such as your “I blew it again” tape, “I can’t get no respect” tape, “I never get what I want” tape, and so on.

Sound like silly, hippie nonsense? Well, you know those worries that bring you down and make you sad?

A study found mindfulness therapies were just as effective as antidepressants. In fact, many who practiced them regularly were subsequently able to ditch their medication.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:

In another, more recent study, MBCT was shown to be as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapses of depression and allowed many subjects to discontinue their medication.

(For more on how to be happy and successful, click here.)

Okay, let’s round this up into a simple system you can use.

Sum Up

Here’s how to stop worrying and start being mindful:

  1. You are not your thoughts. Sometimes they’re downright ridiculous. Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true.
  2. Observe, don’t judge. Acknowledge the thoughts, but let them float by. Don’t wrestle with them.
  3. Don’t distract, immerse. Do not check your email for the 400th time. Take in the world around you. Turn to your senses. That’s real. Your thoughts and the stories you tell yourself about the world aren’t.
  4. Note or label intrusive thoughts. Yeah, the thoughts fight back. Acknowledge them. Give the intrusive ones a funny name.
  5. Return to the senses. Really pay attention to the world around you.

And when I say to pay more attention to the world around you, that doesn’t just mean things. It’s also people.

What ends a lot of relationships? “You don’t pay enough attention to me.”

When we endeavor to let the thoughts in our head go and embrace the world around us, we can focus more attention on the ones we love.

As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, in a number of Asian languages “mind” and “heart” are the same word.

So mindfulness isn’t a cold or clinical process. It might as well be translated as “heartfulness.”

Let the thoughts float by and turn your attention to the people you love.

Join over 185,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

4 Rituals to Keep You Happy All the Time

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Tim Kreider got stabbed in the throat.

The knife went in two millimeters from his carotid artery. He describes those two millimeters as the difference between being “flown home in the cargo hold instead of in coach.”

Luckily, he made a full recovery. How does he describe the event?

“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

He was so grateful to be alive that for the next year, it was impossible for him to be unhappy.

Via We Learn Nothing: Essays:

Except for the ten or fifteen minutes during which it looked like I was about to die, which I would prefer not to relive, getting stabbed wasn’t even among the worst experiences of my life. In fact it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. After my unsuccessful murder I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year.

This is the power of gratitude.

No, I’m not encouraging you to get stabbed in the neck but we’ve all felt how happy being grateful can make us.

In fact, happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky says gratitude is one of the things the happiest people on Earth all share.

Gratitude is arguably the king of happiness. What’s the research say? Can’t be more clear than this:

…the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.

Gratitude is one of the most scientifically validated ways to increase happiness.

Via Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity:

Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait—more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion. Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and gratitude as a discipline protects us from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. People who experience gratitude can cope more effectively with everyday stress, show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health.

But there’s one problem with gratitude — it wears off. Inevitably, we all end up taking things for granted.

And Tim Kreider wasn’t any different. What happened after that year of lucky-to-be-alive bliss?

He went back to normal.

Via We Learn Nothing: Essays:

You can’t feel crazily grateful to be alive your whole life any more than you can stay passionately in love forever— or grieve forever, for that matter. Time makes us all betray ourselves and get back to the busywork of living. Before a year had gone by, the same everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back. I was disgusted to catch myself yelling in traffic, pounding on my computer, lying awake at night worrying about what was to become of me. I can’t recapture that feeling of euphoric gratitude any more than I can really remember the mortal terror I felt when I was pretty sure I had about four minutes to live.

We all have moments of gratitude. The question is how can we stay grateful and happy all the time?

You need to build gratitude into your routine instead of making it a lucky accident.

Below are four rituals, backed by scientific research, that can help you stay grateful and happy. You don’t have to do them all and you don’t have to do them every day.

But working one of them into your schedule on a regular basis can go a long way toward keeping you smiling.

1) Count Your Blessings

This technique has been proven again and again and again. Here it is, explained by its originator, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman.

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well…Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.

That’s it. Just put a pen and paper by the bed, write down three good things that happened to you that day and why they happened. Then go to bed.

Does it really work? Yeah.

Via Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity:

People are 25 percent happier if they keep gratitude journals, sleep one-half hour more per evening, and exercise 33 percent more each week compared to persons who are not keeping these journals.

Do you need to do it every day? Nope. People saw optimal results when they did it once a week.

(For the secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)

So you thought about the good things that happened to you. Know what else can help? Thinking about if good things didn’t happen to you…

2) Absence Of A Blessing

It must feel great to win a gold medal in the Olympics. But surprisingly, research shows it feels better to win a bronze than a silver. Why?

People who win the silver think about how they didn’t win the gold. Those who get the bronze feel grateful to have received a medal at all.

Research shows that when you imagine that an important positive event in your life (like meeting your spouse) never happened, it makes you appreciate it more, makes you grateful — and happier.

Via Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity:

Thinking about the absence of something positive in your life produces more gratitude and happiness than imagining its presence. What would your life be like if you had not met your spouse? If you did not live in your current neighborhood? If you had not had that chance encounter with the stranger on the plane who later became a business associate?… By taking something away in our minds, we become more aware of benefits that we still have but previously took for granted. Mentally subtracting something good from your life can make you more grateful for it. Think of an aspect of your life for which you feel grateful and then write about the ways in which this might never have happened (e.g., “what would have happened if I had never met my wife?” as opposed to “I am so grateful to have met my wife”).

For bonus points you can actually subtract something positive from your life. Not forever, mind you.

In my interview with Harvard professor Mike Norton, author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, he explained that taking a break from something you love and “making it a treat” can boost appreciation and happiness:

…if you love having coffee every day, don’t have it for a few days and and then when you have it again, it’s going to be way more amazing than all of the ones that you would have had in the meantime.

Yes, this scientifically validates that Netflix binges make you less happy than watching shows weekly. Sorry.

(For more on the shortcut to bonding with a romantic partner on a deeper level, click here.)

What’s the third ritual? This one will surprise you.

3) Thinking About The Bad Can Be Very Good

The ancient Stoics knew this. So did the Samurai.

Think about something awful that happened. How did you grow from it? How did it make you appreciate what you have?

Via Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity:

Sometimes even when bad things happen they can ultimately have positive consequences, things we can now be grateful for. Choose an experience from your life that was initially unpleasant and unwanted. Try now to focus on the positive aspects or consequences of this difficult experience. As the result of this event, what kinds of things do you now feel thankful or grateful for? Has this event benefited you as a person? How have you grown? …How has the event helped you appreciate the truly important people and things in your life? In sum, how can you be thankful for the beneficial consequences that have resulted from this event?

Every year, Tim Kreider celebrates his “stabbiversary.” He remembers the day he got stabbed in the throat — and how lucky he is to still be alive.

Via We Learn Nothing: Essays:

Once a year on my stabbiversary, I remind myself that this is still my bonus life, a round on the house.

(For more on what you can learn from the Samurai about always being your best, click here.)

Okay, time to bring out the big guns. This one is the thermonuclear bomb of gratitude and happiness…

 

4) The Gratitude Visit

Tons of research shows gratitude improves relationships:

So what’s the best way to show gratitude to people you love — and make yourself very happy?

Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has done something for you. And then read it out loud to them.

This can boost happiness for three months.

Via Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity:

One of the most effective ways to deepen your own gratefulness is to write a letter of gratitude to an important person in your life whom you’ve never properly taken the time to thank and then visit that person to present him or her with the letter. Studies published in the most rigorous scientific publications show that the gratitude visit can increase happiness and decrease depression in the letter writer for as long as three months after the visit!

Bring tissues. You will cry. They will cry. You will both be very happy. And it will be something you will never forget.

(For more on how to write your letter and make yourself and someone you love incredibly happy, click here.)

Okay, let’s round these techniques up — and add in one more little thing that’ll make you happy right now.

 

Sum Up

Four ways to boost gratitude and happiness:

  1. Write down three good things that happened to you that day before you go to bed.
  2. Imagine something meaningful to you never happened. Then appreciate how lucky you are to have it.
  3. Think about something bad that happened to you — and how it made you feel lucky to have gotten past it and how you have grown.
  4. Do a gratitude visit. Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has done something for you and read it out loud to them in person.

I’m grateful for a lot of things. My supportive parents. My friend Gautam’s awesome “interesting people” dinners. My buddy Andy’s weekly Friday lunches…

And you, dear reader, I am grateful that you take the time to read what I write.

Even if you don’t get around to doing any of the four things above, I encourage you — right now — to send a thank you email or text to someone who has been good to you.

In my interview with Harvard happiness researcher Shawn Achor he said this tiny gesture can make a big difference in your happiness. He’s tested it over and over:

The simplest thing you can do is a two-minute email praising or thanking one person that you know. We’ve done this at Facebook, at US Foods, we’ve done this at Microsoft. We had them write a two-minute email praising or thanking one person they know, and a different person each day for 21 days in a row. That’s it. What we find is this dramatically increases their social connection which is the greatest predictor of happiness we have in organizations.

Do it right now, before you forget. Research shows that gratitude isn’t just correlated with happiness — gratitude causes happiness. Simply put:

It’s not that happy people are grateful. It’s that grateful people are happy.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

5 Things You Need to Know About Coffee the Wonder-Beverage

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 180,000 readers and get my free weekly email update here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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How to Coach the Best Performance Out of People, According to Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition.”

Break down proper technique, quickly correct errors and get them to repeat until it’s second nature.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 percent were compliments. Only 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 percent were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodeled the right way, a sequence that appeared in Gallimore and Tharp’s notes as M +, M −, M +; it happened so often they named it a “Wooden.” As Gallimore and Tharp wrote, Wooden’s “demonstrations rarely take longer than three seconds, but are of such clarity that they leave an image in memory much like a textbook sketch.”

And…

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players. This, not that. Here, not there. His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. He was seeing and fixing errors.

And…

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

He taught in chunks, using what he called the “whole-part method”— he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning (which might be retitled laws of myelin): explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition. “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens— and when it happens, it lasts,” he wrote in The Wisdom of Wooden. “The importance of repetition until automaticity cannot be overstated,” he said in You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned, authored by Gallimore and former Wooden player Swen Nater. “Repetition is the key to learning.” Most people regard Wooden’s success as a product of his humble, thoughtful, inspiring character. But Gallimore and Tharp showed that his success was a result less of his character than of his error-centered, well-planned, information-rich practices.

And these techniques don’t just work with sports.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

“We started approaching the school with the idea of, what would John Wooden do?” Slowly, steadily, KEEP began to take off. Reading scores rose, comprehension improved, and the school, which had previously lagged far behind national averages in standardized test scores, was soon exceeding them by a healthy margin. In 1993 Gallimore and Tharp’s KEEP project received the Grawemeyer Award, one of education’s highest honors…

Join over 180,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Here’s the Secret to Loving Your Job, According to Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

People whose jobs allowed them to use their signature strengths — those qualities they were uniquely best at, the talents that set them apart from others — were consistently happier:

We hypothesized that the amount of positive experiences at work (job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, meaning) is a function of the extent to which the situational circumstances at the workplace allow for the application of an individual’s signature character strengths. For the description of the individual a reliable and valid instrument already exists, but not for the environment. Hence, the newly developed Applicability of Character Strengths Rating Scales (ACS-RS) with information on its reliability and validity were also presented. A sample of 1,111 adults filled in the ACS-RS and measures for possession of character strengths and positive experiences at work. The ACS-RS was reliable by means of internal consistency and inter-rater reliability. It proved to be valid in several ways being sensitive to: (a) the differences in the applicability of trait-relevant behavior in formal versus informal situations by showing higher applicability of the character strengths in the latter; (b) the differences between traits regarding their applicability across situations; (c) people’s disposition to choose situations fitting their dispositions by showing positive relationships between the degree of possession and applicability. Moreover, correlations between applicability of strengths and positive experiences increased with the individual centrality of the strengths. The more signature strengths were applied at the workplace, the higher the positive experiences at work. This study showed that character strengths matter in vocational environments irrespective of their content. Strengths-congruent activities at the workplace are important for positive experiences at work like job satisfaction and experiencing pleasure, engagement, and meaning fostered by one’s job.

Source: “The Application of Signature Character Strengths and Positive Experiences at Work” from Journal of Happiness Studies, June 2012

This method has been verified multiple times. It also increases the amount of flow you experience at work. Leveraging signature strengths is also one of the secrets of the most creative people.

So how can you put this to use? Via UPenn happiness expert Martin Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness:

  • Identify your signature strengths.
  • Choose work that lets you use them every day.
  • Recraft your present work to use your signature strengths more.
  • If you are the employer, choose employees whose signature strengths mesh with the work they will do. If you are a manager, make room to allow employees to recraft the work within the bounds of your goals.

You can also use it in your personal life. Doing this can increase happiness for months:

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full months later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Here’s How You May Be a Conversational Narcissist

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

“Conversational narcissists always seek to turn the attention of others to themselves.”

Via The Art of Manliness:

Conversational narcissists always seek to turn the attention of others to themselves. Your first reaction to this statement is likely, “Oh, I don’t do that, but I know someone who does!” But not so fast. Conversational narcissism typically does not manifest itself in obviously boorish plays for attention; most people give at least some deference to social norms and etiquette. Instead, it takes much more subtle forms, and we’re all guilty of it from time to time. Everyone has felt that itch where we couldn’t wait for someone to stop talking so we could jump in; we pretended to be listening intently, but we were really focusing on what we were about to say once we found an opening.

Yes, you’ve done this. We all have. What’s it look like?

Support-Response

James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob: Oh yeah? What models have you looked at?

Shift-Response

James: I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob: Oh yeah? I’m thinking about buying a new car too.
James: Really?
Rob: Yup, I just test drove a Mustang yesterday and it was awesome.

In the first example, Rob kept the attention on James with his support-response. In the second example, Rob attempts to turn the conversation to himself with a shift-response.

Isn’t this a normal part of conversation? It depends:

To summarize, it’s fine to share things about yourself, as long as you loop the conversation back to the person who initiated the topic. The best rule to follow is simply not to jump in too early with something about yourself; the earlier you interject, the more likely you are to be making a play to get the attention on yourself. Instead, let the person tell most of their story or problem first, and then share your own experience.

And:

Once someone introduces a topic, your job is to draw out the narrative from them by giving them encouragement in the form of background acknowledgments and supportive assertions, and moving their narrative along by asking supportive questions. Once their topic has run its course, you can introduce your own topic.

Otherwise you end up being the jerk who thinks they’re the center of the universe.

Sometimes simple interactions can seem complex. There’s a whole science to charisma but the best, briefest and most bulletproof summation of how not to come across badly is from Dilbert creator Scott Adams:

Be brief and say something positive.

Join over 180,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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The 8 Things The Happiest People Do Every Day

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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4 Secrets to Becoming Luckier, According to Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

  1. Be open to more opportunities,
  2. interact with a large network of people,
  3. break routines and
  4. keep a relaxed attitude toward life.

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

…lucky people pay more attention to what’s going on around them than unlucky people. It’s more nuanced than that. Here’s where being open to meeting, interacting with, and learning from different types of people comes in. Wiseman found that lucky people tend to be open to opportunities (or insights) that come along spontaneously, whereas unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine, fixated on certain specific outcomes.

In analyzing behavior patterns at social parties, for example, unlucky people tended to talk with the same types of people, people who are like themselves. It’s a common phenomenon. On the other hand, lucky people tended to be curious and open to what can come along from chance interactions. For example, Wiseman found that the lucky people had three times greater open body language in social situations than unlucky people. Lucky people also smiled twice as much as unlucky people, thus drawing other people and chance encounters to them. They didn’t cross their arms or legs and pointed their bodies to other people and increased the likelihood of chance encounters by introducing variety. Chance opportunities favored people who were open to them.

Wiseman believed another type of behavior played an even greater role in success. Wiseman found that lucky people build and maintain what he called a strong network of luck. He wrote:

Lucky people are effective at building secure, and longlasting, attachments with the people they meet. They are easy to know and most people like them. They tend to be trusting and form close relationships with others. As a result, they often keep in touch with a much larger number of friends and colleagues than unlucky people. And time and again, this network of friends helps promote opportunity in their lives.

This was Wiseman’s core finding: You can create your own luck. “I discovered that being in the right place at the right time is actually all about being in the right state of mind,” he argued. Lucky people increase their odds of chance encounters or experiences by interacting with a large number of people. Extraversion, Wiseman found, pays opportunity and insight rewards. And that makes perfect sense: Chance opportunities are a numbers game. The more people and perspectives in your sphere of reference, the more likely good insights and opportunities will combine…

And…

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

After identifying a group of people who identified themselves as unlucky, he shared the main principles of lucky behavior, including specific techniques. As Wiseman described it, “For instance, they were taught how to be more open to opportunities around them, how to break routines, and how to deal with bad luck by imagining things being worse.” Wiseman included exercises to increase chance opportunities, such as building and maintaining a network of luck, being open to new experiences, and developing a more relaxed attitude toward life, as well as ways to listen to hunches and to visualize lucky interactions. After carrying out specific exercises for a month, participants reported back to Wiseman. “The results were dramatic: eighty percent were happier and more satisfied with their lives— and luckier,” Wiseman summed.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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This Body Language Means You’re About to Be Cheated

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Via Wray Herbert, author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits:

Then they isolated the specific cluster of cues that were actually present when volunteers successfully detected others’ self-serving intentions. Again and again, it was a cluster of four cues: hand touching, face touching, crossing arms, and leaning away. None of these cues foretold deceit by itself, but together they transformed into a highly accurate signal. And the more often the participants used this particular cluster of gestures, the less trustworthy they were in the subsequent financial exchange.

To learn the 4 secrets to reading body language like an expert, click here.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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5 Secrets to Dealing With Regret, According to Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

1) We regret things we should have done but didn’t do. The areas that top the list are education, career and romance. Not spending enough time with friends and family is up there too. The dying had these regrets:

– I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

– I wish I didn’t work so hard.

– I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

– I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

– I wish that I had let myself be happier.

2) Setting ambitious goals instead of conservative ones leads to more satisfaction later.

3) We’re more likely to regret purchasing things. We’re more likely to regret not purchasing experiences.

4) You can reduce regret by comparing yourself to those less fortunate rather those more accomplished than yourself.

5) Studies show we consistently overestimate how regret affects us. We anticipate regret will be much more painful than it actually is.

Join over 180,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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How to Improve Self-Esteem: A New Secret From Research

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

It seems we all want to know how to improve self-esteem these days.

Life can be hard. And who is usually hardest on you? Yourself. There’s that negative voice in your head criticizing you. And sometimes you can’t shut it up.

So the answer is to boost your self-esteem, right? We’ve seen an explosion of this kind of thinking lately, that self-esteem is the answer to everything.

But it’s had some negative effects on the world too — like an epidemic of narcissism.

Via Self-Compassion:

This emphasis on high self-esteem at all costs has also led to a worrying trend toward increasing narcissism. Twenge and colleagues examined the scores of more than fifteen thousand college students who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1987 and 2006. During the twenty-year period, scores went through the roof, with 65 percent of modern-day students scoring higher in narcissism than previous generations.

Oh, and there’s one other teensy weensy little problem with trying to boost self-esteem to deal with that critical voice…

It doesn’t work.

Self-Esteem Ain’t The Answer

This focus on improving self-esteem got to the point where the State of California started a task force and gave it $250,000 a year to raise children’s self-esteem.

They expected this to boost grades and reduce bullying, crime, teen pregnancy and drug abuse.

Guess what? It was a total failure in almost every category.

Via Self-Compassion:

Reports on the efficacy of California’s self-esteem initiative, for instance, suggest that it was a total failure. Hardly any of the program’s hoped-for outcomes were achieved.

What?!? Self-esteem is supposed to cure everything, right? Wrong.

Research shows self-esteem doesn’t cause all those good things. It’s just a side effect of healthy behavior. So artificially boosting it doesn’t work.

Via Self-Compassion:

In one influential review of the self-esteem literature, it was concluded that high self-esteem actually did not improve academic achievement or job performance or leadership skills or prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem appears to be the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviors.

(For the science-based secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)

Uh-oh. The cure-all is a cure-nothing. So what do we do?

Researchers have found an answer to feeling much better about yourself — but it’s not improving self-esteem.

Forget Self-Esteem. Try Self-Compassion.

Stop lying to yourself that you’re so awesome. Instead, focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not. Why?

Research shows increasing self-compassion has all the benefits of self-esteem — but without the downsides.

Via Self-Compassion:

The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion appears to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, with no discernible downsides. The first thing to know is that self-compassion and self-esteem do tend to go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem—self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened.

Self-compassion reduces anxiety. Self-esteem doesn’t.

Via Self-Compassion:

Participants’ self-compassion levels, but not their self-esteem levels, predicted how much anxiety they felt. In other words, self-compassionate students reported feeling less self-conscious and nervous than those who lacked self-compassion, presumably because they felt okay admitting and talking about their weak points. Students with high self-esteem, by contrast, were no less anxious than those with low self-esteem, having been thrown off balance by the challenge of discussing their failings.

When you’re self-compassionate you feel less embarrassed when you screw up. Self-esteem doesn’t help here.

Via Self-Compassion:

Another study required people to imagine being in potentially embarrassing situations: being on a sports team and blowing a big game, for instance, or performing in a play and forgetting one’s lines. How would participants feel if something like this happened to them? Self-compassionate participants were less likely to feel humiliated or incompetent, or to take it too personally. Instead, they said they would take things in their stride, thinking thoughts like “Everybody goofs up now and then” and “In the long run, this doesn’t really matter.” Having high self-esteem, however, made little difference. Those with both high and low self-esteem were equally likely to have thoughts like “I’m such a loser” or “I wish I could die.” Once again, high self-esteem tends to come up empty-handed when the chips are down.

Want to feel more self-worth? Guess who wins? Yup. Self-compassion.

Via Self-Compassion:

…self-compassion was clearly associated with steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. We also found that self-compassion was less likely than self-esteem to be contingent on particular outcomes like social approval, competing successfully, or feeling attractive. When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect—rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals—our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.

And guess who’s more likely to be narcissistic? Those with self-esteem, not self-compassion.

Via Self-Compassion:

In fact, a striking finding of the study was that people with high self-esteem were much more narcissistic than those with low self-esteem. In contrast, self-compassion was completely unassociated with narcissism. (The reason there wasn’t a negative association is because people who lack self-compassion don’t tend to be narcissistic, either.)

Research also shows self-compassion even makes you less likely to procrastinate. It also boosts happiness and reduces stress.

Want a better love life? Self-compassion improves romantic relationships. Self-esteem doesn’t.

Via Self-Compassion:

The results of our study indicated that self-compassionate people did in fact have happier and more satisfying romantic relationships than those who lacked self-compassion. This is largely because self-compassionate participants were described by their partners as being more accepting and nonjudgmental than those who lacked self-compassion… High self-esteem, it should be noted, did not appear to do a whole hell of a lot for couples.Self-esteem was not associated with happier, healthier relationships, and people with high self-esteem weren’t described by their partners as being any more accepting, caring, or supportive in their relationships than those who lacked self-esteem.

(For more on shortcuts to bonding with a romantic partner on a deeper level, click here.)

I could go on and on. But I’m sure you’re already saying, “Just tell me how to do it, Eric!” Fair enough.

Don’t Worry. It’s Not Hard.

There are a number of ways to boost self-compassion but I’m going to focus on one here because it’s epically simple:

I want you to talk to yourself. Nicely.

Next time that voice in your head starts saying critical things, reframe the thoughts into something positive and forgiving.

Via Self-Compassion:

The best way to counteract self-criticism, therefore, is to understand it, have compassion for it, and then replace it with a kinder response… Reframe the observations made by your inner critic in a kind, friendly, positive way.

Sound silly? Tell that to the Navy SEALs. Positive self-talk is one of the methods that showed the best results in helping them get through their incredibly difficult training.

Talking to yourself out loud can make you smarter, improve your memory, help you focus and even increase athletic performance.

Maybe you’re not buying it. Talking to yourself not doing it for you? Imagine someone who loves you saying the kind words instead. Research shows this delivers serious results.

Via Self-Compassion:

Practitioners first instruct patients to generate an image of a safe place to help counter any fears that may arise. They are then instructed to create an ideal image of a caring and compassionate figure… The training resulted in significant reductions in depression, self-attacking, feelings of inferiority, and shame.

Say you blow your diet and eat a whole bag of cookies. Now that voice in your head is beating you up. How would your loving grandma address the issue? Probably with less criticism and more like this…

Via Self-Compassion:

“Darling, I know you ate that bag of cookies because you’re feeling really sad right now and you thought it would cheer you up. But you feel even worse and are not feeling good in your body. I want you to be happy, so why don’t you take a long walk so you feel better?”

You need to dispute the negative thoughts and reframe them into something positive. Every time that critical voice starts yammering, instead imagine Grandma giving supportive advice.

You forgive others all the time. You need to start forgiving yourself more often.

(For more on quieting that voice in your head, click here.)

Okay, let’s round it up and put it to use.

Sum Up

Next time that critical voice in your head starts going and you think you need a self-esteem boost, instead reach for some self-compassion:

  • Reframe whatever the voice says into something more positive.
  • If it helps you more, visualize a compassionate figure and have them say it to you.

Yes, it’s that simple.

When we focus on self-esteem, we often build ourselves up by comparing ourselves to others. In the end, this is a losing strategy. Even if we come out ahead, it still distances us from other people and that’s no path to happiness.

By remembering that everybody screws up you not only engage your compassion muscles but you also draw yourself closer to others. You’re not better or worse. We’re all imperfect. And that’s okay. And it unites everyone.

As researcher Kristin Neff explains in her book:

Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.

Join over 185,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Related posts:

How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips

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New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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