TIME psychology

The Difference Between Seeing and Observing

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Don't just focus, be a good noticer as well

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes teaches Watson the difference between seeing and observing:

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

“Frequently.”

“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The difference between seeing and observing is fundamental to many aspects of life. Indeed, we can learn a lot from how Sherlock Holmes thinks. Noticing is even something that Nassim Taleb has chimed in on with Noise and Signal.

In the video below, Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman, author of The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See, discusses how important it is not just to be able to focus, but to be a good noticer as well. What he’s really talking about is observation.

A number of years ago I had an opportunity to notice and I failed to do so and it’s been an obsession with me ever since. On March 10, 2005 I was hired by the U.S. Department of Justice in a landmark case that they were fighting against the tobacco industry. I was hired as a remedy witness. That is, I was hired to provide recommendations to the court about what the penalty would be if, in fact, the Department of Justice succeeded in its trial against the tobacco industry. I had spent a couple hundred hours working for the Department of Justice including submitting my written direct testimony which had been submitted to the court.

I was scheduled to be on the stand on May 4 where the tobacco industry attorneys would be asking me a series of questions. On April 30, a number of days before my May 4 testimony I was in Washington D.C. to meet with the Department of Justice attorneys to prepare for my time on the stand. When the day started the Department of Justice attorney that I had been working with said to me, “Professor Bazerman.” This occurred long after he had learned to call me Max. He said, “Professor Bazerman, the Department of Justice requests that you amend your testimony to note that the testimony would not be relevant if any of the following four conditions existed.”

He then read to me four legal conditions that I didn’t understand. When he was done talking I said to him, “Why would you ask me to amend my testimony when you know that I didn’t understand what you just said to me.” And his response was because if you don’t agree, there’s a significant chance that senior leadership in the Department of Justice will remove you from the case before you are on the stand on May 4. To which I said, “Okay, I don’t agree to those changes.” And his response was, “Good. Let’s continue with your preparation.” I was jarred by the fact that something very strange had occurred. But I was overwhelmed in life. I was trying to help this case and I didn’t quite know what had occurred. But to this day I’m critical of the fact that I took no action. I did appear on trial on May 4 and the trial ended in early June.

But on June 17 I woke up in a hotel room in London. I was working with another client at the time. And I woke up early at 5:00 a.m. and I opened up The New York Times web edition and I read a story about Matt Myers, the president of Tobacco Free Kids, who had come forward to the media with evidence about how Robert McCallum, the number two official in the Department of Justice, was involved in attempting to get him to change his testimony. And I then read basically the same account that I had experienced back on April 30. Matt Myers had the insight to know that he should do something with this information about what had occurred in terms of the attempt to tamper with this testimony. And at that point it was straightforward to come forward to the media to speak to congressional representatives about what happened. And my own role received media attention as well.

But to this day I’m still struck by the fact that I didn’t come forward on April 30 when, in the back of my mind I knew something had occurred. The reason I tell you this story is because I think a lot of our failure to notice happens when we’re busy. It happens when we don’t know exactly what’s happening. But I think it’s our job as executives, as leaders, as professionals to act when we’re pretty sure that there’s something wrong. It’s our job to notice and to not simply be passive when we can’t quite figure out the evidence. It’s our job to take steps to figure out what’s going on and to act on critical information.

***

Follow your curiosity and learn about why your decision making environment matters.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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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

How to Stop Worrying

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

How to Improve Your Memory Skills

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Focus on what interests you

Answer by Kevin Horsley, author of Unlimited Memory, on Quora.

Many people are focusing their energy on concern about memory loss, but few focus on how to keep their memory. What you focus on will dominate your reality, so rather focus on what you want and not on what you don’t want.

Nobody has ever taught you how to use your memory. I believe that there is no such thing as a good or a bad memory, only a good or bad memory strategy.

Many of the things you call memory problems, like forgetting your car keys etc, are quite normal and can be solved with a bit of attention and a better memory strategy. To keep your memories you need to store them effectively and if you follow these few principles then you will be able to remember more:

1. Catch your memory doing things right — Too many people become members of the ‘Bad Memory Club’ and focus on the 5% of the time that their memory fails them. If you think you have a bad memory, it means you have a good one because you can remember where your memory has gone wrong. Think about how much data you already have stored in your memory. Think about what an incredible memory you need just to have a conversation. You have to listen, create meaning from your store of millions of references and then search your memory for a response. Your memory does a lot right, so ask yourself, “How does my memory serve me – how did it serve me today?”

2. Get interested — As you get older you narrow your focus of attention. You know what you are interested in and therefore focus more on those things. Uninteresting things are not attended to and therefore not remembered.

3. Practice single tasking — To create a memory we first have to pay attention. In this day and age we are filling our lives up with interruptions, like social media, and we are dividing our attention and we wonder why we can’t hold onto information for long periods of time. We are training ourselves to become scattered by creating a state of ‘busyness.’ When you multitask, you divide your attention and you will never be as effective as focusing on only one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth!

4. Bring information to life — Our mind never wonders away, it only moves towards things and to information that is outstanding, important and interesting. We want to make information ‘sticky’ and the only way to do that is to surprise the mind by turning information into an exciting movie or image. Just because you have seen or heard something doesn’t mean it will stick, but if you use your imagination the information will become more outstanding. My surname is Horsley and if you just repeat it over and over, there is no guarantee that it will stick, but if you see a Horse putting on Lee jeans and you make it vivid and alive then it is hard to forget.

5. Connect to what you already know — If you wanted to remember that the Zulu word for dog is inja, then you could think of an injured dog. The Zulu word for Snake is inyoka, so imagine a snake in your car. If you connect the new information to what you already know then you will strengthen your memory network. If you consciously do this then the more you know the easier it will be to get to know more. The older you get the more general knowledge and references you acquire. So theoretically if you apply this principle, the older you get the better your memory should become.

6. Review — As we get older we don’t review enough. The average person will only remember about 18% of information just 28 days after studying it. That is why it’s important to go over information that is stored in your memory in order to keep it fresh in your mind. If you haven’t thought about someone in years you can’t be expected to recall information about them instantly. We have to review our memories to keep them alive. No matter how many times you learn something, you will have to start over from the beginning if you let yourself forget it. Review your memories over longer and longer periods of time and keep them ‘alive.’

There is so much you can do to keep your memory and improve your concentration. I hope this helps.

This question originally appeared on Quora: What is the fastest and best way to improve my memory, cognitive skills and span of concentration?

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TIME Education

How to Turn Elementary School Teachers into Emotional Detectives

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Strengthening the bond between educators and pupils can get to the root of behavior problems and bullying

About four years ago, I found myself asking a question many teachers ask their students: “Why would you do something like that?”

I was sitting down with a fourth grade student I had just been asked to counsel. I had success at getting to the bottom of students’ issues and I had earned a reputation as a teacher version of “Columbo.”

The student had been sent to the principal’s office for hurting another kid during recess. The reports were that he had also kicked another student for taking his place in line. I had worked with this student in the past for similar behavior toward peers. Now the behaviors were getting worse, and the parents were not responding. The boy answered my question about his motivations by saying, ¨Students were cutting in front of me,” and, “Two days ago they were calling me names.”

I had this realization that I was expecting the student to somehow psychoanalyze himself and come up with a grand justification for his behavior and actions. -Asking the “why did you do it” question did not help me to solve the issue — and I realized it never would. It was simply a fall-back question for adults when they were not sure what to do.

This was the beginning of my attempts to engineer ways for myself and other teachers to take care of the emotional lives and mental health of our students.

I first knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was in middle school in Michigan. I got paid a $25 stipend for running a basketball clinic with little kids and discovered I was good at motivating students. As I pursued teaching, I moved to California, and became an assistant in a classroom with students that had developmental disabilities, emotional disturbances, and aggressive behaviors. This environment, along with excellent training, challenged me to figure out how to support students with multiple challenges and give them a better quality of life. I currently teach two special needs classrooms at Canalino Elementary School in Carpinteria.

Every good teacher I’ve talked to wants to build better relationships with their students. But lack of time is a major barrier. A typical classroom has 25 to 30 students and if a teacher devoted just 2 minutes to each student, that would add up to an hour every day, which would have to come out of valuable instructional time in this academic-focused (and test-crazy) era. And even if they had time, teachers rarely have the resources to handle social, emotional, and mental health challenges. Improving professional development in this area would help. So would clear, practical, and efficient protocols that are used school wide.

What teachers most need is the ability to teach students strategies and techniques to meet the expectations of a challenging school day. To this end I developed the “Think Time” protocol — a process for identifying student’s needs by connecting their feelings and actions. My brother, a fellow teacher and a mentor to me, and UC Santa Barbara student psychologists worked with me to create a paper-and-pencil form that took teachers through the steps of asking students questions such as “What were you feeling before the problem occurred?” It gave them suggestions to pass on to students—for example, conveying that, “a better choice next time, rather than acting out, would be to ask to speak to the teacher privately.”

Here is a typical example: A student was sent to me after getting multiple warnings for disrupting the math lesson. The teacher reported that the student struggled to sit still and focus, blurting out answers without raising his hand, and was disrupting the students at his table by fidgeting and tapping his pencil. When we began, he was asked to identify his feelings from a chart. He chose energetic, excited, and anxious, which helped me understand his impulsive behaviors. The student then listed the actions that were connected to his feelings— in this case, (blurting out and fidgeting). Once I better understood the feelings that motivated his actions, I realized he just needed to choose a more socially appropriate way to cope with his feelings. We settled on having him discreetly step outside the classroom, take a 3 minute break to move around, and return to the lesson ready to try again.

Of course, not everything was smooth when I began to roll this program out at my school. Teachers struggled to find the time to sit down with students and go through the process. They had trouble finding the right replacement behaviors, and struggled to understand the true purpose of the process.

So we improved the protocol by providing training to teachers that explained the rationale, created and implemented lessons for students, revamped the questions teachers should ask students, hired mentors to assist the teachers, and made the process digital.

After these tweaks, teachers reported that students were using replacement behaviors which increased instructional minutes and improved communication with parents. But we also realized that we were only reaching the students with chronic disruptive behaviors (typically 2-5 kids per class). What about the needs of the other students?

Students with difficult behavior are not the only ones who struggle emotionally. Students often internalize feelings and lack the ability to express there needs appropriately, which makes it nearly impossible for teachers to recognize what is motivating their actions. We tested a “positive version of Think Time,” where all students could record things they were proud of, or simple acts of kindness that showed good citizenship.

From there, we developed the “check-in system.” This system teaches students how to reflect on their feelings routinely and to express them appropriately to get their needs met.

Our helloyello.net web app allows students to let teachers know what’s going on in their lives good or bad, wrong or sad, daily. And the app gives teachers the opportunity to “close the loop” quickly — within seconds— to strengthen their relationships with students.

The results have been stunning. For instance, a teacher recently shared with me that her student checked in that she was struggling to stay awake at school because her baby brother’s crying was keeping her up at night. The teacher closed the loop by letting the student know she had read her check in and asked if she could email her parents. The teacher sent a friendly email to the parents, who in turn were grateful and quickly solved the problem at home.

“Check-ins” are particularly good at addressing bullying. Students feel safe reporting problems on the playground or in the bathroom since they can confidentially reach their teachers without having to tell them face to face, in view of the bully. In one example, a student wrote about feeling bad because he participated in teasing someone; teachers, armed with additional information, are able to step in before the conflicts escalate.

Our HelloYello team is confident our procedures can help other schools in California. My school, Canalino Elementary is a Title I school, meaning at least 40 percent of students come from low-income families. Many of our students are also English language learners, requiring us to take extra care to find ways to make sure the kids understand the questions and the behaviors expected of them. Of course, schools better off than ours also struggle with the emotional well being of their students.

Taking care of our students’ social and emotional health isn’t an end just in itself. Research studies have shown that social and emotional well-being has a significant impact on student achievement. Teaching students to express themselves appropriately, with reasoning and evidence, is a recurrent theme in the Common Core Standards. Teachers cannot help students achieve their academic potential or demonstrate how much they’ve learned if they do not know how the students are feeling, what they are thinking, and what’s going on in their daily lives.

Brandon Sportel has been selected as the Carpinteria district teacher of the year, and Santa Barbara County teacher of the year. He was the California winner of this year’s Milken Educator Award.. He wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zocalo Public Square.

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

How Play Enriches Our Creative Capacity

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Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

“When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity”

“Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.” — Greg McKeown

The value of playing cannot be over-stated. From Einstein and Seneca toSteve Jobs and Google.

“Bob Fagan, a researcher who has spent fifteen years studying the behavior of grizzly bears, discovered bears who played the most tended to survive the longest.” Jaak Panksepp concluded something similar in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, where he wrote, “One thing is certain, during play, animals are especially prone to behave in flexible and creative ways.”

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg Mckeown argues that “when we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality.”

Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged.

Play fuels exploration in at least three ways.

First, play broadens the range of options available to us. It helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made. It opens our minds and broadens our perspective. It helps us challenge old assumptions and makes us more receptive to untested ideas . It gives us permission to expand our own stream of consciousness and come up with new stories.

Or as Albert Einstein once said, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought , I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” (As found in János: The Story of a Doctor.)

Second, play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain. You know how it feels: you’re stressed about work and suddenly everything starts going wrong. You can’t find your keys, you bump into things more easily, you forget the critical report on the kitchen table. Recent findings suggest this is because stress increases the activity in the part of the brain that monitors emotions (the amygdala), while reducing the activity in the part responsible for cognitive function (the hippocampus)—the result being, simply, that we really can’t think clearly.

Play causes stress to (temporarily) melt away.

Finally, as Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in brain science, explains, play has a positive effect on the brain. “The brain’s executive functions,” he writes in Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, “include planning, prioritizing, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, deciding, analyzing— in short, most of the skills any executive must master in order to excel in business.” Play stimulates parts of the brain involved in logical reasoning and carefree exploration.

Hallowell continues:

Columbus was at play when it dawned on him that the world was round. Newton was at play in his mind when he saw the apple tree and suddenly conceived of the force of gravity. Watson and Crick were playing with possible shapes of the DNA molecule when they stumbled upon the double helix. Shakespeare played with iambic pentameter his whole life. Mozart barely lived a waking moment when he was not at play. Einstein’s thought experiments are brilliant examples of the mind invited to play.

Perhaps Roald Dahl said it best: “A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

Join over 50,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

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.

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Elon Musk on How To Build Knowledge

Elon Musk at the GPU Technology Conference in San Jose, California on March 17, 2015.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images Elon Musk at the GPU Technology Conference in San Jose, California on March 17, 2015.

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

"Most people can learn a lot more than they think they can"

Elon Musk recently did an AMA on reddit. Here are three question-and-response pairs that I enjoyed, including how to build knowledge.

He knows how to say I don’t know.

Previously, you’ve stated that you estimate a 50% probability of success with the attempted landing on the automated spaceport drone ship tomorrow. Can you discuss the factors that were considered to make that estimation?

Musk: I pretty much made that up. I have no idea :)

Everyone has that one teacher…

I’m a teacher, and I always wonder what I can do to help my students achieve big things. What’s something your teachers did for you while you were in school that helped to encourage your ideas and thinking? Or, if they didn’t, what’s something they could have done better?

Musk: The best teacher I ever had was my elementary school principal. Our math teacher quit for some reason and he decided to sub in himself for math and accelerate the syllabus by a year.

We had to work like the house was on fire for the first half of the lesson and do extra homework, but then we got to hear stories of when he was a soldier in WWII. If you didn’t do the work, you didn’t get to hear the stories. Everybody did the work.

Finally, his answer on building knowledge reminds me of The Five Elements of Effective Thinking and the latticework of mental models.

How do you learn so much so fast? Lots of people read books and talk to other smart people, but you’ve taken it to a whole new level.

Musk: I do kinda feel like my head is full! My context switching penalty is high and my process isolation is not what it used to be.

Frankly, though, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Follow your curiosity to Elon Musk Recommends 12 Books.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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

coffee-beans
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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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What the Josh Duggar Fiasco Can Teach Us About Pedophilia

It raises familiar questions with no easy answers

Want a challenge? Try feeling sorry for a pedophile—those guys (and they’re almost always guys) who lust for children, stalk children and may eventually molest or rape children. Even in prison they’re targets of violence from other inmates. When a murderer finds you morally repugnant, you know you’ve fallen far.

That universal loathing is on display again with public outrage around the news that reality TV star Josh Duggar, 27, of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, responded to allegations that he molested five underage girls when he was 15, saying that he “acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret.”

There is more unknown about these charges than known: How old were the girls? What did the molestation involve? These and other questions are critical to understanding both the psychology and the alleged criminality at play.

But let’s address the worst possibility—that the girls were not teens like Duggar, but much younger. That he was drawn to them as an adult pedophile is drawn to a child, and that under the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist, he would be diagnosed with clinical pedophilia. What does that mean for him—and for society?

Pedophilia is thought to be a relatively rare condition, afflicting from 1% to 5% of men, and a vanishingly small number of women. Admittedly 1% to 5% is a wide range, but unlike people suffering from, say, depression or phobias, people with pedophilic stirrings are not likely to step forward for treatment. Pedophiles are sexually drawn to children exclusively and as a group, prey on same sex and opposite sex children more or less equally. The condition has nothing at all to do with homosexuality.

Psychologists stress that not all child molesters are pedophiles and not all pedophiles molest. Only about 10% of known child abusers are thought to be clinical pedophiles. In most non-pedophilic cases of child abuse, the crime is an act of violence, of rage, sometimes a result of trauma. Often molesters were themselves molested in childhood—anywhere from one third to three quarters of them—though the studies on which these findings are based are often called into question because they rely on trusting the abusers to tell the truth about their past.

What’s barely in dispute anymore is that true pedophilia is a disorder with physiological roots. Scans of pedophiles’ brains show less connective white matter than the brains of other people; other studies show that pedophiles have a greater tendency to be left-handed, that they score poorly on visual and spatial tests and that they may even be shorter, on average, than other males. All of this points either to the genes or prenatal womb environment, or both, meaning that pedophilia is innate, unchosen and as fixed as anyone else’s sexuality.

“None of us decides the sorts of people we’re going to be attracted to,” says Dr. Fred Berlin of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, in Baltimore. “We discover that, and that’s true too of people who discover they’re attracted to children. This is not the result of a choice.”

That’s where treatment becomes hard, and where sympathy—if you’re inclined to feel it—may be warranted. In the days in which homosexuality was punished, gays and lesbians spent their entire lives either denying themselves a sexual outlet or doing so furtively and fearfully. That led to profound suffering—made all the worse because it was unjust suffering. In a sexual encounter with another consenting adult, no one generally gets hurt—and the laws in most countries have finally come around.

But there will be no such coming around in the case of pedophilia, nor should there be, because by definition a child incapable of consent will always be hurt by the act. That means therapy for pedophiles—with luck before they act, but certainly afterwards.

Part of this may involve libido-lowering drugs; part involves an abstinence strategy similar to what’s used in day-at-a-time groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. And part involves other kinds of group support, such as the website Virtuous Pedophiles, for people who recognize their disorder and are determined not to act on it. That can work.

“Virtuous pedophiles make the point that pedophilia is by no means synonymous with child molestation,” says Berlin. “Some people can control their urges on their own or with a group. Others who have those attractions with perhaps a higher degree of desire may need more intervention, including medicine.”

In one study of 300 patients Berlin treated, only 3% who fully complied with treatment re-offended within five years. Among men who receive no treatment, 18% re-offend within three years.

There are no good answers for pedophilia, only less bad ones. Fury at men who hurt children is not misplaced, but nor is appreciation for those who struggle with their disorder and keep it under control. No one would choose to leave a child alone with an untreated pedophile. But no one would choose to be that pedophile either.

Read next: Arkansas Police Destroy Record of Josh Duggar Investigation

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Vincent van Gogh on How To Live

Self-Portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
De Agostini Picture Library—Getty Images Self-Portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

"A victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly"

Van Gogh didn’t become popular until shortly after his death. To this day it’s unclear whether his letters drove the initial interest in his art.

The anthology Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, contains 265 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which is nearly a third of all the surviving letters he penned.

On the third of April, 1878, in a noteworthy letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh sheds light on his intentions about how to live.

I’ve been thinking about what we discussed, and I couldn’t help thinking of the words ‘we are today what we were yesterday’. This isn’t to say that one must stand still and ought not try to develop oneself, on the contrary, there are compelling reasons to do and think so.

But in order to remain faithful to those words one may not retreat and, once one has started to see things with a clear and trusting eye, one ought not to abandon or deviate from that.

[…]

As far as being an homme intérieur et spirituel is concerned, couldn’t one develop that in oneself through knowledge of history in general and of certain people of all eras in particular, from biblical times to the Revolution and from The Odyssey to the books of Dickens and Michelet? And couldn’t one learn something from the work of the likes of Rembrandt or from Weeds by Breton, or The four times of the day by Millet, or Saying grace by Degroux, or Brion, or The conscript by Degroux (or else by Conscience), or his Apothecary, or The large oaks by Dupré, or even the mills and sand flats by Michel?

It’s by persevering in those ideas and things that one at last becomes thoroughly leavened with a good leaven, that of sorrowful yet always rejoicing, and which will become apparent when the time of fruitfulness is come in our lives, the fruitfulness of good works.

The ray from on high doesn’t always shine on us, and is sometimes behind the clouds, and without that light a person cannot live and is worth nothing and can do nothing good, and anyone who maintains that one can live without faith in that higher light and doesn’t worry about attaining it will end up being disappointed.

Vincent believed that one must pay the price to achieve the kind of success that was deserved — “that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.”

He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune.

[…]

Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good, and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.

Woe-spiritedness is quite a good thing to have, if only one writes it as two words, woe is in all people, everyone has reason enough for it, but one must also have spirit, the more the better, and it is good to be someone who never despairs.

Living means we will inevitably experience sorrow and disappointment.

If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but it’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious. It is good to love as much as one can, for therein lies true strength, and he who loves much does much and is capable of much, and that which is done with love is well done.

[…]

If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.

Love is the best and most noble thing in the human heart, especially when it has been tried and tested in life like gold in the fire, happy is he and strong in himself who has loved much and, even if he has wavered and doubted, has kept that divine fire and has returned to that which was in the beginning and shall never die. If only one continues to love faithfully that which is verily worthy of love, and does not squander his love on truly trivial and insignificant and faint-hearted things, then one will gradually become more enlightened and stronger.

The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.

It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.

It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so, or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’, but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. Even in the most cultured circles and the best surroundings and circumstances, one should retain something of the original nature of a Robinson Crusoe or a savage, for otherwise one hath not root in himself, and never let the fire in his soul go out but keep it going, there will always be a time when it will come in useful.

We must launch out into the great sea of life.

Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.

So let us simply go on quietly, each his own way, always following the light ‘sursum corda’, and as such who know that we are what others are and that others are what we are, and that it is good to have love one to another namely of the best kind, that believeth all things and hopeth all things, endureth all things and never faileth.

And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool.

We are today what we were yesterday, namely ‘honnêtes hommes’, but ones who must be tried with the fire of life to be innerly strengthened and confirmed in that which they are by nature through the grace of God.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters is a collection of some of Vincent van Gogh’s best letters which shed light on a remarkable talent and his artistic notions.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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