TIME psychology

7 Ways You Can Easily Increase Your Willpower

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Hand reaching for chocolate chip cookie jar Mike Kemp—Rubberball/Getty Images

In general, people have an overly positive vision of themselves and their abilities.

But what’s the one thing surveys show most everyone will admit they have a problem with?

Self-control.

And who is most likely to give in to temptation?

Ironically, it’s the people who think they have the most willpower.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

Research shows that people who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted. For example, smokers who are the most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are the most likely to relapse four months later, and overoptimistic dieters are the least likely to lose weight.

So how can we really increase willpower? What does science have to say?

I’ve posted a lot about the subject — from research to interviewing the foremost expert on the subject. Let’s round it all up and make it useful.

Here are 7 ways you can increase your own willpower and live a better life:

 

1) “Keystone” Habits Are A Magic Bullet

Everyone wants a magic bullet. One pill that fixes everything. The closest thing in the area of willpower is what are called “keystone habits.”

The primary one is exercise. What’s so special about running or lifting weights? It doesn’t just give you more discipline at the gym…

It also makes you eat better. And helps you use your credit card less. And makes you more productive at work. And more patient with loved ones.

Exercise leads people to create other, often unrelated, good habits:

When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly… “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”

Going to the gym is too much for you? Try food journaling. Just write down everything you eat, every day. It’s another powerful keystone habit.

(For more on why this works, go here.)

So if you’re going to do anything, keystone habits get the best bang for your buck. What else should you do every day?

 

2) Do Important Things Early

Leading self-control researcher Roy Baumeister, has found that willpower is limited.

It’s highest early in the day but as we make more decisions, it empties like a gas tank.

This leads to a simple answer: do the most important things first. As the day goes on it will only get harder to face big challenges.

When do most self control failures happen?

At night. Roy explains:

The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening. Diets are broken at the evening snack, not at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. Impulsive crimes are mostly committed after midnight.

(To see the schedule that the most productive people use, click here.)

So your willpower is limited. What else can this tell us about the best way to use it?

 

3) Improve Willpower By NotUsing Willpower

Productivity guru Tim Ferriss says willpower is overrated. We have a limited amount of it, so relying on it is a bad idea.

Research shows we don’t use much willpower when something is a habit, when our behaviors are automatic.

How do you build good habits? Here’s a fantastic interview with Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit:

Building new habits is too hard, you say? Then try this:

Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.

Hide the cookies and put your running shoes next to the bed.

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

Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.

People who think they have a lot of willpower expose themselves to more temptation — and eventually cave. So don’t rely on willpower.

(More on building good habits here.)

Now comes the part where I contradict myself…

 

4) Use Willpower To Build Willpower

I know, I know… I just told you not to use willpower, now I’m telling you to use willpower. What gives?

Baumeister compares willpower to a muscle. When you use it too much, it gets tired and gives out.

But by exercising it, over time it gets stronger. So you don’t want to rely on willpower for everything. You want to rely on habits.

But you want to make sure to tap into willpower a bit every day, always pushing yourself a bit to grow that muscle over time.

How simple can your daily self-control exercise be? Merely working on your posture can produce willpower benefits.

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

Unexpectedly, the best results came from the group working on posture. That tiresome old advice—“Sit up straight!”—was more useful than anyone had imagined. By overriding their habit of slouching, the students strengthened their willpower and did better at tasks that had nothing to do with posture.

(For more self-control exercises go here.)

Simple is good, right? Want to know other crazy simple things that can help? Want to improve willpower in your sleep?

 

5) Fundamentals: Eat And Sleep

Yes, improving willpower is as easy as eating and getting enough sleep.

When I asked Roy Baumeister the easiest way to quickly boost self-control he simply replied, “Just eat something.

Want to wake up full of willpower? It’s as easy as getting more sleep at night.

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

We shouldn’t need to be told something so obvious, but cranky toddlers aren’t the only ones who resist much needed naps. Adults routinely shortchange themselves on sleep, and the result is less self-control.

(More on how to get a great night’s sleep here.)

Eating and sleeping not easy enough for you? Here’s something even easier.

 

6) Procrastinating Can Improve Willpower

Ever been so lazy you put things off that you actually enjoy? This can actually boost self-control.

You don’t even have to say no to every temptation to gain discipline. Just postponing them can help too.

Research shows telling yourself “Not now, but later” is far more powerful than “No, you can’t have that.”

From Willpower: Resdiscovering the Greatest Human Strength:

…people who had told themselves “Not now, but later” were less troubled with visions of chocolate cake than the other two groups… Those in the postponement condition actually ate significantly less than those in the self-denial condition…

Anything other than just giving in helps strengthen your willpower muscle.

Delay, distraction, or even caving in a defined way can help increase discipline.

(Learn how to beat procrastination here.)

Okay, now’s the time for the bad news…

 

7) You’re Going To Screw Up… But That’s Okay

You’re going to give in to temptation. That’s not defeatist; it’s reality. But what matters is what you do after.

Feeling the urge to beat yourself up over your lack of willpower? Don’t do it. No Mea Culpas are necessary.

Blaming yourself reduces self-control. Showing self-compassionincreases it.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion— being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure— is associated with more motivation and better self-control.

People who cut themselves slack go on to keep trying — and end up succeeding.

(For more on increasing your resilience, click here.)

So how does all of this fit together?

 

Sum Up

Give the 7 a try:

  1. “Keystone Habits” Are A Magic Bullet
  2. Do Important Things Early
  3. Improve Willpower By Not Using Willpower
  4. Use Willpower To Build Willpower
  5. Fundamentals: Eat And Sleep
  6. Procrastinating Can Improve Willpower
  7. You’re Going To Screw Up… And That’s Okay

I’m sure to some people this sounds hard and lonely. But it doesn’t have to be a solitary thing.

Relationships improve willpower: the best way to accomplish any change is by having a supportive group of friends around you.

And the reverse is true as well: willpower improves relationships:

…the more total self-control, the better the relationship fared. Multiple benefits were found for having mutually high self-control, including relationship satisfaction, forgiveness, secure attachment, accommodation, healthy and committed styles of loving, smooth daily interactions, absence of conflict, and absence of feeling rejected.

Willpower is one of the first steps in improving any area of life — and it’s good to know that self-control isn’t selfish.

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Related posts:

How To Be Resilient: 8 Steps To Success When Life Gets Hard

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

What Can You Learn From the Toughest Leadership Job on Earth?

ANTARCTICA-BRAZIL-NAVY
Brazilian navy captain Sergio Lucas (R) looks on aboard the Brazilian Navy's Oceanographic Ship Ary Rongel as it goes through the Beagle Channel on its way to Antarctica on March 2, 2014. VANDERLEI ALMEIDA—AFP/Getty Images

Imagine you’re heading up a team stationed in Antarctica. And your relationship with some of the crew members goes sour.

There’s nobody else to enforce your authority. In fact, there’s no one for hundreds — if not thousands — of miles.

And you can’t fire anyone. Everyone has a critical role. How do you even punish them?

How can you take things away in a situation where everyone only has the minimum amenities to begin with?

And there’s no one to get much advice or counsel from.

Do you take a stereotypical military perspective and crack the whip? Apply the pirate model and have someone walk the plank?

Research has been done on the subject — and the tough guy stuff wasn’t effective.

What worked? Being democratic and listening. In the harshest conditions you need the softest touch.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

During the early 1960s, the Navy Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit (now the Naval Health Research Center) conducted a series of studies concerning leadership at small Antarctic stations. In that research program, Nelson (1962) found that esteemed leaders tended to possess a relatively democratic leadership orientation and a leadership style characterized by greater participation in activities than traditional for a military organization. Further, the esteemed leaders developed individual relationships with each of their crew members and reportedly sought the opinions of individual crew members about issues directly concerning them.

Now even the extraordinary leaders didn’t just play mom toward the team.

Good leaders were still aggressive, industrious and emotionally disciplined — but they were focused on group harmony.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

Popular leaders tended to be more self-confident and alert, but they differed most from unpopular leaders by exhibiting greater emotional control and adaptability and maintaining harmony within the group. The latter trait again emphasizes the motivational component of effective leadership; that is, the esteemed leader takes the time to speak personally with crew members and do whatever is necessary to preserve group solidarity. Many ineffectual leaders probably know that they should make these efforts, but they refrain because of insufficient motivation.

Crew members didn’t expect a leader to be a superman who had all the answers — in fact, that was a bad sign.

When there was a technical problem they wanted the expert in that area to make the decision.

They wanted policy decisions to be made by the leader — but only after input from the group.

And the only time they really wanted a take-charge, decisive dictator was in times of crisis.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

In general, Nelson found that a specific leader’s status and esteem in a small Antarctic group were determined by the manner in which three types of decisions were made. First, crew members expected technical or task specific decisions to be based on consultations with the appropriate specialists and individuals involved. Second, crew members expected decisions about general or routine station policy matters that would affect all personnel, such as scheduling of housekeeping and recreational activities, to be made by the leader following consultation with the entire group. Third, crew members expected leaders to make decisions regarding emergency matters as quickly and autocratically as necessary under the circumstances.

So in the toughest place in the world, tough leadership didn’t work. It was those who listened and collaborated who thrived.

 

So What?

You don’t lead a group in the Antarctic, you say? I think we all do now.

The autocratic, military style doesn’t work in the modern office either.

What’s most people’s biggest problem in the workplace? Hands down — their boss.

Via Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management

Researchers have been studying organizational climate for more than 50 years and routinely find “that 60% to 75% of the employees in any organization — no matter when or where the survey was completed and no matter what occupational group was involved — report that the worst or most stressful aspect of their job is their immediate supervisor.”

And bad employee-boss relationships have negative effects on the whole company.

People who hate their boss take more sick days, do less work and are more likely to quit.

Via Nice Companies Finish First: Why Cutthroat Management Is Over–and Collaboration Is In:

There’s a growing body of research indicating that bad bosses hamper productivity, which results in smaller profits and lost business. University of Florida researchers found that people who work for abusive bosses are more likely to arrive late, do less work, and take more sick days even though they may be physically fine… this kind of employee-manager abusive relationship resulted in a workforce that “experienced more exhaustion, job tension, nervousness, depressed mood and mistrust.” These workers were also less likely to take on additional tasks, such as working longer or on weekends, and were generally less satisfied with their jobs. Also,employees were more likely to leave if they were involved in an abusive relationship than if they were dissatisfied with their pay — proving the old maxim that people quit bosses, not companies.

Even extraordinary leaders must learn the best ways to fight their number one enemy: hubris.

The military style dictator attitude won’t fly anymore. In fact, that style probably never even worked that well in the military.

Research shows the best Navy leaders have been supportive, not harsh.

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

This isn’t only true in corporate settings. In environments thought to be even more stoic than corporate America—like the military—leaders who openly express their positivity get the most out of their teams. In the U.S. Navy, researchers found, annual prizes for efficiency and preparedness are far more frequently awarded to squadrons whose commanding officers are openly encouraging. On the other hand, the squadrons receiving the lowest marks in performance are generally led by commanders with a negative, controlling, and aloof demeanor. Even in an environment where one would think the harsh “military taskmaster” style of leadership would be most effective, positivity wins out.

So even the toughest guys know that being tough isn’t always what gets results.

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Checklist: Are you doing these five things to be more effective at work?

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

How to Get Happy RIGHT NOW: 7 Quick Ways to Feel Better

No theory here.

No nightly exercises for months.

You’re feeling sad or angry.

How do you get happy fast?

 

Sex, Exercise, Socialize

When researchers survey 5000 people from 83 countries, what do they learn about happiness?

We’re happiest when we’re having sex, exercising, or socializing.

Via Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life:

Using smart phones, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University collected a large sample of experiences and associated happiness. They also measured “mind wandering.” Their database currently contains nearly a quarter million samples from about five thousand people from eighty-three different countries who range in age from eighteen to eighty-eight and who collectively represent every one of eighty-six major occupational categories. Their findings confirm what had been found previously: happiness is high during sex, exercise, or socializing, or while the mind is focused on the here and now, and low during commuting or while the mind is wandering.

 

Try Smiling

Researchers asked people to do a bunch of different exercises to quickly increase happiness. What was most effective? Smiling.

Via The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life:

More than 26,000 people responded. All of the participants were randomly assigned to one of a handful of groups and asked to carry out various exercises designed to make them happier… When it came to increasing happiness, those altering their facial expressions came out on top of the class— powerful evidence that the As If principle can generate emotions outside the laboratory and that such feelings are long-lasting and powerful.

 

Downward Comparisons

Research shows comparing yourself to others can make you feel better — but only if you compare yourself to those worse off than you:

“Generally if people compare themselves to those who are worse off, they’re going to feel better,” continues Bauer, now a research associate at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and a clinical psychologist at Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Associates of Toronto. “When they compare themselves to people who are better off, it can make them feel worse.”

 

Do Your Taxes

Complex cognitive tasks like doing math can alleviate a bad mood:

…recent experimental findings have demonstrated that performing a cognitive task can take the edge off negative emotional responses and help people put things into a more neutral perspective ( Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990; Van Dillen & Koole, 2007)… The idea is straightforward: stuff your head with numbers, instead of irrational ideas about getting back together with your ex.

 

Take A Nap

Studies show we can process negative thoughts quite well when we’re exhausted — just not the happy ones. So get your rest.

Via NurtureShock:

Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine. In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But they could remember only 31% of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket.”

 

Let’s Review

So, again, the seven are:

  1. Sex
  2. Exercise
  3. Socialize
  4. Smile
  5. Downward comparisons
  6. Do your taxes
  7. Nap

(I’m not recommending you try them all at the same time… but if you do, I want to hear about it.)

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What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

Mastering the Art of Conversation: 7 Steps to Being Smooth

In The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, Catherine Blyth gives some great tips on handling the subtle nuances of polite interaction.

Here are seven of my favorite bits:

 

How To Make Small Talk

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

Whatever the context, old friends or new, it is best if speakers respect five principles:

  1. Put others at ease
  2. Put yourself at ease
  3. Weave in all parties
  4. Establish shared interests
  5. Actively pursue your own

 

How To Make A Solid Introduction

Mastering the art of conversation has to start somewhere, so you have to know how to begin. Here’s a solid formula.

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

An effective introduction is small-ad brief, splicing in only two ingredients per person:

A (who they are) + B (why they are relevant)

The salient information is not so much formal title (royals, snobs, and servicemen excepted) as how you relate to one another or the event (housemate, client, mother-in-law, single male drafted in for ladies like you). Identify points of contact, charge people up, and you have a connection.

 

How We Judge A Successful Conversation

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

Research has found that with a serious topic or a good friend, we measure a conversation’s success by how enthralled we were by what the other person said. Whereas, the less familiar the other person, the more trivial the topic, the likelier we are to rate the experience by our own performance.

 

How To Make A Conversation Progress

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

Discussion should enlarge by exploratory increments. Pace matters. Too neutral, too long, and you’ll both transmit beige personalities, but accelerate to war’s evils right away and her son will be a brigadier. Instead, use discreet hints to flush the other person out.

If in doubt, the stair to intimacy has four steps:

  1. Courtesies (“Hello, how are you?”)
  2. Trade information (“So what brought you here?”)
  3. Trade opinion (“Isn’t this music unusual?”)
  4. Trade feeling (“Yup, I hate it.”)

Pose questions that circle the personal, noting whether the other prefers a sharp or gentle approach, and adapting accordingly. Andalthough small talk aims to please, don’t make this too obvious.

 

Great Conversationalists Listen More Than Talk

To help doctors be better listeners, their responses are graded from 1 to 6 with the “empathic communication coding system.”

The higher the number, the better.

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

6: Shared feeling/experience

5: Confirmation of an emotion’s legitimacy

4: Pursuit of the topic

3: Acknowledgment

2: Implicit recognition (but changing the topic)

1: Perfunctory recognition (autopilot)

0: Denial/contradiction

 

Two Powerful Pieces Of Advice

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

  • Hear what people are really saying as opposed to what they are telling you.
  • Directness is a privilege of intimacy.

 

How To End A Conversation

There are a number of phrases that can politely signal the end of a chat.

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

Arrangements: Talk of the Next rings the knell for Now.

Any statement starting “Finally,” “Lastly”: Suggests an agenda is nigh complete.

Satisfied Customer: A labeling comment to convey a job has been ticked off the list, “Well, I just wanted to check everything was okay.”

Farewell by implication: Pre-goodbye goodbyes: passing regards to the wife, etc.

Past tense: To kill the Now without committing to future encounters, say “It was great seeing you again,” “This was fun.”

Time’s winged chariot hurrying near: That oh-so-pressing world you must be getting on with, or the missus will kill you, or the shops will have run out of Christmas trees, or the kids will be starving…

Mustn’t keep you: To suggest that you’re halting the other person’s day is polite…

I would love to continue with this post, but I wouldn’t want to keep you.

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TIME psychology

How to Be Optimistic: 4 Steps Backed By Research

Should you see a glass as half empty or half full?

If you want to live a better life, and you care what research has to say, there’s a clear answer to this question: half full.

Scientific research has come up with a long list of benefits to being optimistic. Here are just a few:

  1. Optimism is associated with better health and a longer life.
  2. Research has shown that practicing optimism and gratitude causes (not just correlates with) an increase in happiness.
  3. The army teaches soldiers to be optimistic because it makes them tougher and more persistent.
  4. Being socially optimistic — expecting people to like you — makes people like you more.
  5. Expecting a positive outcome from negotiations made groups more likely to come to a deal and to be happy with it.
  6. Optimists are luckier. Research shows by thinking positive they persevere and create more opportunities for themselves.
  7. Optimistic salespeople are more successful.

The list goes on and on. Being optimistic is one of the ten things I recommend you do every day and something associated with great lives.

On the flip side, UPenn professor and happiness expert Martin Seligmanexplains pessimism is very often a negative:

Research has revealed, predictably, that pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors: Pessimistic life insurance agents make fewer sales attempts, are less productive and persistent, and quit more readily than optimistic agents. Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades, relative to their SAT’s and past academic record, than optimistic students…

But it turns out many of the common methods for becoming more positive are bunk. Standing in front of the mirror saying cheery things doesn’t help.

Via Learned Optimism:

Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes (“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”), but by learning a new set of cognitive skills… We have found that merely repeating positive statements to yourself does not raise mood or achievement very much, if at all.

So are we doomed if we’re not naturally optimistic? Don’t worry, Frodo, we’ll get you back to the Shire.

Here are the 4 steps that can turn pessimists into optimists — or even make mildly positive people very positive.

 

The 3 P’s

It all comes down to what researchers call “explanatory style.” When bad things happen, what kind of story do you tell yourself?

There are three important elements here. Let’s call them the 3 P’s: permanence, pervasiveness and whether it’s personal.

Pessimists tell themselves that bad events:

  1. Will last a long time, or forever. (“I’ll never get this done.”)
  2. Are universal. (“You can’t trust any of those people.”)
  3. Are their own fault. (“I’m terrible at this.”)

Optimists, well, they see it the exact opposite:

  1. Bad things are temporary. (“That happens occasionally but it’s no big deal.”)
  2. Bad things have a specific cause and aren’t universal. (“When the weatheris better that won’t be a problem.”)
  3. It’s not their fault. (“I’m good at this but today wasn’t my lucky day.”)

Seligman explains:

The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

And when good things happen, the situation reverses:

  1. Pessimists think good things will be short-lived, are rare and random.
  2. Optimists think good things will last forever, are universal and of their own doing.

What’s the ultimate result of this? Pessimists often quit. Life feels futile. And when life feels futile, you stop trying and frequently get depressed.

So now we understand the kind of thinking that underlies these positions… but how do you go from one to the other?

Research shows you should act like a crazy person… Okay, I’ll be more specific.

 

Argue With Yourself

How do you train a puppy not to poop on the carpet? It helps to catch him in the act.

When things don’t go your way, that voice in your head is going to tell a story. Check which explanatory style it’s using.

Is it saying bad things are going to be permanent and universal? Are you blaming yourself? That’s pessimism.

Watch your thinking and flip the script on the three:

  1. Change permanent explanations to more fleeting ones.
  2. Change pervasive responses to specific ones.
  3. Change personal reasoning to not-all-my-fault perspectives.

This doesn’t have to mean lying to yourself.

Do you really “always screw this up”? That’s probably not accurate. Was it100% your fault? Almost everything has multiple causes.

By remembering the 3 P’s and flipping the script, research shows you can make yourself more optimistic over time.

But that raises an interesting question: why would anyone ever want to be pessimistic? There’s a reason.

 

Pessimists Are More Accurate… But Pay A High Price

Plain and simple, pessimists see the world more accurately than optimists do.

Via Learned Optimism:

Overall, then, there is clear evidence that nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving direction and depressed people tend to see reality accurately.

Wow. So when negative people say happy people are “lying to themselves”… sometimes they’re right.

The reason you predict your friends’ behavior better than they do is we’re all realistic about others’ actions and too optimistic about our own.

And if you’re in a job where seeing potential problems is vital and there are high costs to being wrong, pessimism can help you.

Via Learned Optimism:

…judiciously employed, mild pessimism has its uses…. The company also needs its pessimists, the people who have an accurate knowledge of present realities. They must make sure grim reality continually intrudes upon the optimists. The treasurer, the CPAs, the financial vice-president, the business administrators, the safety engineers— all these need an accurate sense of how much the company can afford, and of danger. Their role is to caution, their banner is the yellow flag.

Pessimistic entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed. Optimistic gamblers lose more money. The best lawyers are pessimists.

In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman explains:

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers… The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities.

But while it makes lawyers better at their job, it comes at a high price.

Guess why lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to end up divorced?

While seeing bad things as potentially pervasive and permanent helps them do their job, it also carries over to their personal life:

The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

Excuse the pun, but there is an upside to pessimism. So when should you be optimistic and when should you be pessimistic?

 

Ask Yourself “What’s The Cost Of Being Wrong Here?”

If I’m up for double murder I want a pessimistic attorney looking for all the problems in my case.

The engineer designing my car better be a rampant pessimist — his mind eagerly identifying every imaginable point of failure.

But do I want to walk around all day imagining the worst that could possibly happen? No way.

Whenever you’re unsure if optimism is the right way to handle something ask yourself: “What’s the cost of being wrong here?”

Via Learned Optimism:

The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. The pilot in the cockpit deciding whether to de-ice the plane one more time, the partygoer deciding whether to drive home after drinking, the frustrated spouse deciding whether to start an affair that, should it come to light, would break up the marriage should not use optimism. Here the costs of failure are, respectively, death, an auto accident, and a divorce. Using techniques that minimize those costs is inappropriate. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, use optimism.

Seligman calls this balance “flexible optimism.”

Pessimism is a tool. Have it in the garage like a snowblower. You don’t need it every day but occasionally it’s valuable to have around.

So how do we tie all this together?

 

Sum Up

Want to be more positive? When problems arise, dispute negative thoughts by making sure your explanations are

  1. Transitory, not permanent.
  2. Specific, not pervasive.
  3. And the causes are external, not “all-my-fault.”

Pessimism can be a useful tool when the downside is big, but used as your default it makes life feel futile and hopeless.

And what does research say predicts achievement better than intelligence, grades or personality?

Hope.

There’s a reason pessimism brings us down: human nature is designed to hope and strive, not to be fearful and defensive.

Yes, pessimism might be slightly more accurate — but it’s no way to live a life.

Join over 90,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will Make You Happier

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

How to Be Resilient: 8 Steps to Success When Life Gets Hard

“Stick with it!”

“Be resilient!”

“Never give up!”

I see a lot of stuff about resilience, persistence and grit. What I don’t see is a lot of legitimate info on how to actually increase those qualities.

How can we be more resilient? How can we shrug off huge challenges in life, persist and — in the end — succeed?

So I looked at the most difficult scenarios for insight. (Who needs resilience in easy situations, right?)

When life and death is on the line, what do the winners do that the losers don’t?

Turns out surviving the most dangerous situations has some good lessons we can use to learn how to be resilient in everyday life.

Whether it’s dealing with unemployment, a difficult job, or personal tragedies, here are insights that can help.

 

1) Perceive And Believe

“The company already had two rounds of layoffs this year but I never thought they would let me go.”

“Yeah, the argument was getting a little heated but I didn’t think he was going to hit me.”

The first thing to do when facing difficulty is to make sure you recognize it as soon as possible.

Sounds obvious but we’ve all been in denial at one point or another. What do people who survive life-threatening situations have in common?

They move through those “stages of grief” from denial to acceptancefaster:

Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

They immediately begin to recognize, acknowledge, and even accept the reality of their situation… They move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance very rapidly.

What’s that thing doctors say when they’re able to successfully treat a medical problem? “Good thing we caught it early.”

When you stay oblivious or live in denial, things get worse — often in a hurry. When you know you’re in trouble you can act.

Nobody is saying paranoia is good but research shows a little worrying is correlated with living a longer life.

(For more on how a little negativity can make you happier, click here.)

Okay, like they say in AA, you admitted you have a problem. What’s the next thing the most resilient people do?

 

2) Manage Your Emotions

Sometimes when SCUBA divers drown they still have air in their oxygen tanks. Seriously.

How is this possible? Something goes wrong, they panic, and instinctively pull the regulator out of their mouth.

Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

M. Ephimia Morphew, a psychologist and founder of the Society for Human Performance in Extreme Environments, told me of a series of accidents she’d been studying in which scuba divers were found dead with air in their tanks and perfectly functional regulators. “Only they had pulled the regulators out of their mouths and drowned. It took a long time for researchers to figure out what was going on.” It appears that certain people suffer an intense feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered. That led to an overpowering impulse to uncover the mouth and nose. The victims had followed an emotional response that was in general a good one for the organism, to get air. But it was the wrong response under the special, non-natural, circumstances of scuba diving.

When you’re having trouble breathing what’s more natural than to clear an obstruction from your mouth?

Now just a brief second of clear thinking tells you this is a very bad idea while diving — but when you panic, you can’t think clearly.

Rash decision making rarely delivers optimal results in everyday life either.

Resilient people acknowledge difficult situations, keep calm and evaluate things rationally so they can make a plan and act.

Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

Al Siebert, in his book The Survivor Personality, writes that “The best survivors spend almost no time, especially in emergencies, getting upset about what has been lost, or feeling distressed about things going badly…. For this reason they don’t usually take themselves too seriously and are therefore hard to threaten.”

(For methods Navy SEALS, astronauts and the samurai use to keep calm under pressure, click here.)

So you know you’re in trouble but you’re keeping your cool. Might there be a simple way to sidestep all these problems? Yeah.

 

3) Be A Quitter

Many of you might be a little confused right now: “A secret to resilience is quitting? That doesn’t make any sense.”

What do we see when we look at people who survive life and death situations? Many of them were smart enough to bail early.

Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

“…It’s a matter of looking at yourself and assessing your own abilities and where you are mentally, and then realizing that it’s better to turn back and get a chance to do it again than to go for it and not come back at all.” We are a society of high achievers, but in the wilderness, such motivation can be deadly…

The best way to take a punch from a UFC fighter and to survive a hurricane are the same: “Don’t be there when it hits.”

You quit baseball when you were 10 and quit playing the piano after just 2 lessons. Nobody sticks with everything. You can’t.

When the company starts laying people off, there’s always one guy smart enough to immediately jump ship and preemptively get a new job.

And some people are smart enough to realize, “I am never going to be a great Tango dancer and should double my efforts at playing poker.”

And you know what results this type of quitting has? It makes you happier, reduces stress and increases health.

Via Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain:

Wrosch found that people who quit their unattainable goals saw physical and psychological benefits. “They have, for example, less depressive symptoms, less negative affect over time,” he says. “They also have lower cortisol levels, and they have lower levels of systemic inflammation, which is a marker of immune functioning. And they develop fewer physical health problems over time.”

You can do anything — when you stop trying to do everything.

(For more on how to determine what you should stick with and what you should abandon, click here.)

Okay, so maybe you can’t bail and really do need to be resilient. What does the research say you can do to have more grit? It sounds crazy…

 

4) Be Delusional

Marshall Goldsmith did a study of incredibly successful people. After assembling all the data he realized the thing they all had in common.

And then he shouted: “These successful people are all delusional!”

Via Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success:

“This is not to be misinterpreted as a bad thing. In fact, being delusional helps us become more effective. By definition, these delusions don’t have to be accurate. If they were totally accurate, your goals would be too low.” Goldsmith noticed that although illusions of control expose people to risk of failure, they do something else that is very interesting: they motivate people to keep trying even when they’ve failed… “Successful people fail a lot, but they try a lot, too. When things don’t work, they move on until an idea does work. Survivors and great entrepreneurs have this in common.”

Crazy successful people and people who survive tough situations are all overconfident. Very overconfident.

Some of you may be scratching your head: “Isn’t step one all about not being in denial? About facing reality?”

You need to make a distinction between denial about the situationand overconfidence in your abilities.

The first one is very bad, but the second one can be surprisingly good. See the world accurately — but believe you are a rockstar.

Via Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success:

Denying or distorting a bad situation may be comforting in the short term, but it’s potentially harmful in the long run because it will be almost impossible to solve a problem unless you first admit you have one. In contrast, having an especially strong belief in one’s personal capabilities, even if that belief is somewhat illusory, probably helps you to solve problems… A useful, if somewhat simplistic, mathematical formula might be: a realistic view of the situation + a strong view of one’s ability to control one’s destiny through one’s efforts = grounded hope.

(For more on what the most successful people have in common, click here.)

So this is how superheroes must feel: there’s definitely trouble, but you’re calm and you feel like you’re awesome enough to handle this.

But we need to move past feelings. What actions are going to see you through this mess?

 

5) Prepare… Even If It’s Too Late For Preparation

Folks, I firmly believe there is no such thing as a “pretty good” alligator wrestler.

Who survives life threatening situations? People who have done it before. People who have prepared.

Now even if you can’t truly prepare for a layoff or a divorce, you can work to have good productive habits and eliminate wasteful ones.

Good habits don’t tax your willpower as much as deliberate actions and will help you be more resilient.

How do you survive a WW2 shipwreck and shark attacks? Keep preparing for the future, even when you’re in the midst of trouble.

Via Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience:

As the days went by, he continued to concentrate on strategies for survival. At one point, a rubber life belt floated by and he grabbed it. He had heard that the Japanese would use aircraft to strafe shipwrecked Americans. The life belt could be blown up through a rubber tube. He cut the tube off and kept it, reasoning that if the Japanese spotted them, he could slip under water and breathe through the tube. He was planning ahead. He had a future in his mind, and good survivors always concentrate on the present but plan for the future. Thus, taking it day by day, hour by hour, and sometimes minute by minute, did Don McCall endure.

One caveat: as learning expert Dan Coyle recommends, make sure any prep you do is as close to the real scenario as possible.

Bad training can be worse than no training. When police practice disarming criminals they often conclude by handing the gun to their partner.

One officer trained this so perfectly that in the field he took a gun from a criminal — and instinctively handed it right back.

Via Make It Stick:

Johnson recounts how officers are trained to take a gun from an assailant at close quarters, a maneuver they practice by role-playing with a fellow officer. It requires speed and deftness: striking an assailant’s wrist with one hand to break his grip while simultaneously wresting the gun free with the other. It’s a move that officers had been in the habit of honing through repetition, taking the gun, handing it back, taking it again. Until one of their officers, on a call in the field, took the gun from an assailant and handed it right back again.

(For more on how to develop good habits — and get rid of bad ones, click here.)

You’re expecting the best but prepared for the worst. Perfect. Is now the time to de-stress? Heck, no.

 

6) Stay Busy, Busy, Busy

What’s the best way to survive and keep your emotions in check when things are hard? “Work, work, work.”

Via Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience:

Remember the saying “Get organized or die.” In the wake of trauma, “Work, work, work,” as Richard Mollica wrote. He is a psychiatrist at Harvard who studies trauma. “This is the single most important goal of traumatized people throughout the world.” The hands force order on the mind.

When things go bad, people get sad or scared, retreat and distract themselves. That can quell the emotions, but it doesn’t get you out of this mess.

Resilient people know that staying busy not only gets you closer to your goals but it’s also the best way to stay calm.

And believe it or not, we’re all happier when we’re busy.

(For more on what the most productive people in the world do every day, clickhere.)

You’re hustlin’. That’s good. But it’s hard to keep that can-do attitude when things aren’t going well. What’s another secret to hanging in there?

 

7) Make It A Game

In his book “Touching the Void,” Joe Simpson tells the harrowing story of how he broke his leg 19,000 feet up while climbing a mountain.

Actually he didn’t break his leg… he shattered it. Like marbles in a sock. His calf bone driven through his knee joint.

He and his climbing partner assumed he was a dead man. But he survived.

One of his secrets was making his slow, painful descent into a game.

Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

Simpson was learning what it means to be playful in such circumstances: “A pattern of movements developed after my initial wobbly hops and I meticulously repeated the pattern. Each pattern made up one step across the slope and I began to feel detached from everything around me. I thought of nothing but the patterns.” His struggle had become a dance, and the dance freed him from the terror of what he had to do.

How does this work? It’s neuroscience. Patterned activities stimulate the same reward center cocaine does.

Via Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience:

And tellingly, a structure within the basal ganglia is activated during feelings of safety, reward, and simply feeling great. It’s called the striatum and drugs such as cocaine set it off, but so does the learning of a new habit or skill and the performance of organized, patterned activities…

Even boring things can be fun if you turn them into a game with stakes, challenges and little rewards.

And we can use this same system for everyday problems: How many resumes can you send out today? Can you beat yesterday?

Celebrating “small wins” is something survivors have in common.

Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. That is an important step in creating an ongoing feeling of motivation and preventing the descent into hopelessness. It also provides relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation.

(For more on how to increase gratitude and happiness, click here.)

You’re a machine. Making progress despite huge challenges. What’s the final way to take your resilience to the next level? Other people.

 

8) Get Help And Give Help

Getting help is good. That’s obvious. But sometimes we’re ashamed or embarrassed and fail to ask for it. Don’t let pride get in the way.

What’s more fascinating is that even in the worst of times, giving help can help you.

By taking on the role of caretaker we increase the feeling of meaning in our lives. This helps people in the worst situations succeed.

Leon Weliczker survived the Holocaust not only because of his resourcefulness — but also because he felt he had to protect his brother.

Via Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience:

When his fifteen-year-old brother Aaron came in, Leon was suddenly filled with love and a feeling of responsibility for the two boys. He was shedding the cloak of the victim in favor of the role of the rescuer. Terrence Des Pres, in his book The Survivor, makes the point that in the journey of survival, helping someone else is as important as getting help.

Sometimes being selfless is the best way to be selfish. And the research shows that givers are among the most successful people and they live longer.

Via Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why:

Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you’re a rescuer, not a victim. And seeing how your leadership and skill buoy others up gives you more focus and energy to persevere. The cycle reinforces itself: You buoy them up, and their response buoys you up. Many people who survive alone report that they were doing it for someone else (a wife, boyfriend, mother, son) back home.

(For more on how helping others can also help you, click here.)

So once the threat is passed, once the dust has settled, can we have a normal life again? Actually, sometimes, life can be even better.

 

Sum Up

So when life is daunting and we need resilience, keep in mind:

  1. Perceive And Believe
  2. Manage Your Emotions
  3. Be A Quitter
  4. Be Delusional
  5. Prepare… Even If It’s Too Late For Preparation
  6. Stay Busy, Busy, Busy
  7. Make It A Game
  8. Get Help And Give Help

To live full lives some amount of difficulty is essential.

Via Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience:

Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist who treats post-traumatic stress, said that “to achieve the greatest psychological health, some kind of suffering is necessary.”

You can meet life’s challenges with resilience, competence and grace.

And when the troubles are over, science agrees: what does not kill you can in fact make you stronger.

Join over 90,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will Make You Happier

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

4 Life Lessons That Lead to Happiness, Success and Longevity

University of California professor Sonja Lyubomirsky details the things research shows the happiest people have in common.

Via The How of Happiness:

  1. They devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.
  2. They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have.
  3. They are often the first to offer helping hands to coworkers and passersby.
  4. They practice optimism when imagining their futures.
  5. They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment.
  6. They make physical exercise a weekly and even daily habit.
  7. They are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., fighting fraud, building cabinets, or teaching their children their deeply held values).
  8. Last but not least, the happiest people do have their share of stresses, crises, and even tragedies. They may become just as distressed and emotional in such circumstances as you or I, but their secret weapon is the poise and strength they show in coping in the face of challenge.

I guess the blog post could end here. You’ve got your answer. But did you just want trivia? Or do you actually want to get happier?

The internet has become a firehose of ideas we never implement, tricks we forget to use.

Reading a list of things is easy. Implementing them in your life can be hard.

But it doesn’t have to be. Let’s get down to business.

 

“Happiness Subscriptions”

Here’s an interesting fact about happiness: frequency beats intensity. What’s that mean?

Lots of little good things make you happier than a handful of big things.

Research shows that going to church and exercising both bring people a disproportionate amount of happiness. Why?

They give us frequent, regular boosts.

Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker says it’s really that simple: the things that make you happy, do them more often.

We have designated work hours. We schedule doctor appointments. Heck, we even schedule hair appointments.

We say happiness is the most important thing but fail to consistently include it in our calendars.

Research shows 40% of happiness is due to intentional activity. You can change your happiness by up to 40% by what you choose to do every day.

happiest-people

And much of what you do, you do on autopilot. 40% of what you do every day isn’t the result of decisions, it’s due to habits.

Via The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

See where I’m going with this?

Happy things need to be a habit. Part of your routine. Part of your schedule.

Stop waiting for random happy events, you need a “happiness subscription.”

So how do we take that list and make them things we actually do every day instead of more forgotten trivia? Let’s get started.

 

1) Wake Up And Say ARG!

Even scientific happiness advice is often corny. I’ll say that now so we can get it off the table…. But it works.

And this is why you might want to say ARG when you wake up. It’s an acronym that stands for:

  1. Anticipation
  2. Recollection
  3. Gratitude

I’ve written about the importance of a morning ritual and how research shows your mood in the morning affects your entire day. So start right.

Anticipation is a powerful happiness booster. It’s 2 for the price of 1: You get the good thing and you get happy in anticipation of the good thing.

So think about what you’re looking forward to. Got nothing you’re looking forward to? Schedule something.

Recollecting great moments has a related effect. Memories allow us to relive the good times and kill stress.

Via The How of Happiness:

People prone to joyful anticipation, skilled at obtaining pleasure from looking forward and imagining future happy events, are especially likely to be optimistic and to experience intense emotions. In contrast, those proficient at reminiscing about the past—looking back on happy times, rekindling joy from happy memories—are best able to buffer stress.

And 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.

And the combo often leads to optimism. Another powerful predictor of happiness.

So, corny as it may be, wake up and say ARG! And then do a quick bit of anticipation, recollection and gratitude.

(For more on optimism click here.)

All that’s fine and dandy. But what do you do once you’re out of bed?

 

2) Savor Your Morning Coffee

Take a moment and really enjoy it. Smell it. Taste it. Appreciate it. Corny? Maybe.

But other research shows savoring — appreciating the good moments – is what separates the happiest people from the average Joe.

I imagine some of you are saying, “Well, I don’t drink coffee.” And please imagine me saying, “That’s not the point.”

It can be anything you do every morning.

And embedding savoring in our little daily rituals is powerful becausestudies show rituals matter.

Here’s Harvard professor Francesca Gino:

You can think about rituals that you yourself might engage in prior to consumption experiences. What they do, they make us a little bit more mindful about the consumption experience that we are about to have. Because of that, we end up savoring the food or whatever we are drinking more, we enjoy the experience more, and in fact, we’re also more willing to pay higher prices for whatever it is that we just consumed. Once again,rituals are beneficial in the sense that they create higher levels of enjoyment in the experience that we just had.

(For more on how savoring can make you happier click here.)

So what other habit can we build into our schedule that boosts joy? How about one that can make you as happy as sex does?

 

3) Sweat Your Way To Joy

When you study people to see what makes them happiest you get three answers: sex, socializing and exercise.

Via Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life:

Their findings confirm what had been found previously: happiness is high during sex, exercise, or socializing, or while the mind is focused on the here and now, and low during commuting or while the mind is wandering.

People who exercise are, across the board, mentally healthier: less depression, anger, stress, and distrust.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

A massive Dutch study of 19,288 twins and their families published in 2006 showed that exercisers are less anxious, less depressed, less neurotic, and also more socially outgoing. A Finnish study of 3,403 people in 1999 showed that those who exercise at least two to three times a week experience significantly less depression, anger, stress, and “cynical distrust” than those who exercise less or not at all.

Don’t like exercise? Then you’re doing the wrong kind.

Running, lifting weights, playing any sport… Find something you enjoy that gets you moving.

(For more on how sweating can increase smiling — and make you smarter too — click here.)

Okay, time to head to work. What’s the best thing to do when you start the day? It’s not about you — but it will make you happier.

 

4) The Five Minute Favor

Who lives to a ripe old age? Not those who get the most help, ironically it’sthose who give the most help.

Via The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study:

We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest. Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.

And a great way to do that without taking up too much time is Adam Rifkin’s “5 Minute Favor”:

Every day, do something selfless for someone else that takes under five minutes. The essence of this thing you do should be that it makes a big difference to the person receiving the gift. Usually these favors take the form of an introduction, reference, feedback, or broadcast on social media.

So take five minutes to do something that is minor for you but would provide a big benefit to someone else.

It’s good karma — and science shows that, in some ways, karma is quite real.

Yes, some who do a lot for others get taken advantage of. But as Adam Grant of Wharton has shown, givers also succeed more:

Then I looked at the other end of the spectrum and said if Givers are at the bottom, who’s at the top? Actually, I was really surprised to discover, it’s the Givers again. The people who consistently are looking for ways to help others are over-represented not only at the bottom, but also at the top of most success metrics.

(For more on the best way to get happier by being a giver, click here.)

Alright, you have to start work for the day. Ugh. But there are ways that work can make you happier too.

 

5) Life Is A Game, And So Is Work

Like the research shows, the happiest people have goals.

Via Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life:

In his studies, the psychologist Jonathan Freedman claimed that people with the ability to set objectives for themselves—both short-term and long-term—are happier. The University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has found that working hard toward a goal and making progress to the point of expecting a goal to be realized don’t just activate positive feelings—they also suppress negative emotions such as fear and depression.

Many of us feel like work can be boring or annoying but the research shows many of us are actually happier at work than at home. Why?

Challenges. And we reach that state of “flow” only when a challenge presents itself. So how can work make us happier?

Three research-backed things to try:

  1. To the degree you can, do things you’re good at. We’re happier when we exercise our strengths.
  2. Make note of your progress. Nothing is more motivating than progress.
  3. Make sure to see the results of your work. This gives meaning to most any activity.

(For more on getting happier by setting goals click here.)

Enough work. You’ve got some free time. But what’s the happiest way to use your free time?

 

6) Friends Get Appointments Too

You have mandatory meetings in your schedule but not mandatory time with friends? Absurd.

One study says that as much as 70% of happiness comes from your relationships with other people.

Via The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People:

Contrary to the belief that happiness is hard to explain, or that it depends on having great wealth, researchers have identified the core factors in a happy life. The primary components are number of friends, closeness of friends, closeness of family, and relationships with co-workers and neighbors. Together these features explain about 70 percent of personal happiness. – Murray and Peacock 1996

Why does church make people so happy? Studies show it has nothing to do with religion — it’s about the socializing. It’s scheduled friend time.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

After examining studies of more than three thousand adults, Chaeyoon Lin and Robert Putnam found that what religion you practice or however close you feel to God makes no difference in your overall life satisfaction. What matters is the number of friends you have in your religious community. Ten is the magic number; if you have that many, you’ll be happier. Religious people, in other words, are happier because they feel connected to a community of like-minded people.

And if you have the cash, pay for dinner with a friend. Money definitely can make you happier – when you spend it on other people.

Via Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending:

By the end of the day, individuals who spent money on others were measurably happier than those who spent money on themselves — even though there were no differences between the groups at the beginning of the day. And it turns out that the amount of money people found in their envelopes — $5 or $20 — had no effect on their happiness at the end of the day. How people spent the money mattered much more than how much of it they got.

Harvard professor and author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, Michael Norton explains in his TED talk:

Don’t have the cash for that? No problem. Take turns paying. Duke professorDan Ariely says this brings more happiness than always paying half.

(For more on how to have happy friendships click here.)

What’s the final thing happy people have in common? They cope with adversity. So what should we do when life gets tough?

 

7) Find Meaning In Hard Times

Research shows that a happy life and a meaningful life are not necessarily the same thing.

It’s hard to be happy when tragedy strikes. But who lives longer and fares better after problems? Those who find benefit in their struggles.

Via The How of Happiness:

For example, in one study researchers interviewed men who had had heart attacks between the ages of thirty and sixty. Those who perceived benefits in the event seven weeks after it happened—for example, believing that they had grown and matured as a result, or revalued home life, or resolved to create less hectic schedules for themselves—were less likely to have recurrences and more likely to be healthy eight years later. In contrast, those who blamed their heart attacks on other people or on their own emotions (e.g., having been too stressed) were now in poorer health.

In many cases, Nietzsche was right: what does not kill us can make us stronger.

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

A substantial number of people also show intense depression and anxiety after extreme adversity, often to the level of PTSD, but then they grow. In the long run, they arrive at a higher level of psychological functioning than before… In a month, 1,700 people reported at least one of these awful events, and they took our well-being tests as well. To our surprise, individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths (and therefore higher well-being) than individuals who had none. Individuals who’d been through two awful events were stronger than individuals who had one, and individuals who had three— raped, tortured, and held captive for example— were stronger than those who had two.

So when you face adversity, always ask what you can learn from it.

(For more on how to make your life more meaningful — without terrible tragedy — click here.)

See that? I took the eight things happy people do and squeezed them into just seven habits. You can thank me later.

Now how do we tie all of these happiness boosters together?

 

SUM UP

If you want every day to be happier try including these seven things in your schedule:

  1. Wake Up And Say ARG!
  2. Savor Your Morning Coffee
  3. Sweat Your Way To Joy
  4. Do A Five Minute Favor
  5. Make Work A Game
  6. Friends Get Appointments Too
  7. Find Meaning In Hard Times

We’re all quick to say happiness is the most important thing… and then we schedule everything but the things that make us happiest. Huh?

So what’s going to make you happy today? Have you thought about it? Is it on your calendar?

Reading happiness information is useless trivia unless you use it and you won’t use it unless it’s part of your routine.

If happiness is the most important thing then make it the most important thing.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME psychology

The Myth of the Diseased Immigrant

Border Patrol agents process a group of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, mostly women and children, found walking near the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, June 18.
Border Patrol agents process a group of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, mostly women and children, found walking near the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, June 18. Jennifer Whitney—The New York Times/Redux

The debate over the border crisis has descended to a sad—and depressingly familiar—place

Want to know how far we’ve sunk? Here’s how far: There was never any chance at all that we would handle the crisis of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children running for their lives and arriving at our border with any maturity or grace at all. There was never a chance we’d take them in, get them fed and settled, and then consider sensibly how we can address the immigration-emigration mess on both sides of our border—and on our border—while working to send the kids safely home.

Instead we got the usual circus, the usual call to send in the troops, lock down the border, impeach the president—because, well, why not?—and under no circumstances to consider the comprehensive immigration reform bill languishing in the House. And now, at last, we have arrived at the inevitable sub-basement level of the debate. Now the nativists and xenophobes have played their nastiest—and least surprising—card: the border must be secured and the immigrants sent back because they are, of course, diseased.

That ugly cawing has been growing in the past week—and a lot of it has come from the usual sources. “Our schools cannot handle this influx, we don’t even know what all diseases they have,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). Alan Long, the Mayor of Murrieta, Calif., where sign-waving protesters blocked buses carrying immigrants detained at the Texas border, argued, “[Y]ou don’t ship people that are ill and contagious all over the country.”

In a letter to the Centers for Disease Control, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) added his addled voice: “Many of the children who are coming across the border also lack basic vaccinations such as those to prevent chicken pox or measles. This makes Americans who are not vaccinated—and especially young children and the elderly—particularly susceptible.”

But as numerous sources, most notably The Texas Observer and the New Republic, have reported, the immigrants have more to fear from us than we do from them. The fact is, children from Guatemala, where health care is fully subsidized by the government, have a better chance of being vaccinated than kids in Texas, where one in six people is uninsured. The fact is, in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala again, the vaccination rate for measles is 93%, compared to 92% in the U.S.—and it’s much lower in some poorly vaccinated pockets like New York City, where there has been a recent measles outbreak.

The myth of the diseased immigrant is not exclusively an American phenomenon. All cultures exhibit it and none can completely avoid it. The behavior is deeply, deeply rooted in our brains—specifically in our amygdalae, where base feelings like rage and suspicion and impulsiveness lie. As I write in my upcoming book The Narcissist Next Door, this form of tribal narcissism—of elevating your group above others—was essential for our early survival. The clan that knows you best is the one that is likeliest to protect you and feed you and keep you alive. Wander too far from the campfire and you may run into the alien other—unfamiliar people who would just as soon eat you as say hello. So we’re hardwired to see them as strange and menacing and the people we know as familiar and good.

In the modern era, that simplistic truth becomes harder to sustain, so we lard it up with invented justifications: it’s not that people from the other side of the border are innately bad, it’s that they pose a particular menace. Their frail genes will weaken our hardy stock; their dark-skinned men can’t resist our light-skinned women; and, inevitably, they bring diseases that can strike us all dead.

The nativists and their raging amygdalae have always made claims like this and surely always will. The measure of a culture is not in silencing them—they will never go completely quiet—but in marginalizing them. They are free to descend to—and live in—the sub-basement of the debate. Everyone else is welcome to come up and enjoy the daylight.

TIME psychology

The Leadership Secret Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg Have In Common

Apple Debuts New Operating System
Steve Jobs in 2010 Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

What You Can Learn About Leadership From Jobs And Zuckerberg

Robert Sutton:

We all have imperfections and surrounding yourself with people who can do things you can’t is really essential. If you just look at Zuckerberg, the guy is very, very focused on the product and is probably not particularly great interpersonally. So on one hand you could say, “Oh, he is a flawed person,” but the smarter thing to notice would be, “Isn’t it impressive that he surrounded himself with people who have offsetting skills?”

…I spoke with one of the members of Jobs’ team who worked with Steve almost 20 years — going back to the NeXT days. He said as Steve got older he knew what he could do and he knew what he couldn’t do. He became very good at learning how to surround himself with people who could both implement his vision and could offset the skills that he didn’t have

What great leaders do is they build a team that enables them to succeed.

The Perfect Team Size

Robert Sutton:

…one of the lessons that comes through from Richard’s research is that when you get a team size over five or six, the performance of your team will start declining quickly. Once you get to seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven people, the percentage of time that people spend on coordination issues and maintaining good interpersonal relationships expands dramatically. That becomes the dominant problem in the group, instead of doing the work itself.

There is some evidence we talk about in the book that if you think somebody is a lousy leader and they are in charge of a big team, try cutting it in half and see if your lousy leader becomes a competent leader.

Team Structure Must Adapt To The Situation

Eric Barker:

In the book you mention a study of World War 2 POW’s that showed survival differences between groups which changed their structure versus those that maintained their prior hierarchy.

Robert Sutton:

God knows how they get these data sets. It was almost every POW held by both Japan and the United States. The question was, did the POW’s put in a strict hierarchical military structure as they always had or did they allow it to be more decentralized? What they found was that in the camps where they changed the structure, allowed decentralization, allowed people to make localized decisions and to have more autonomy and more freedom — that the death rates were considerably lower.

That’s an example of when you have a mindset or set of behaviors that work in one situation, sometimes you have to throw away your tools and do something else. The mindset or perspective you’re using right now, ask yourself if it works in the new situation or for this particular decision.

Great Leaders Focus On The Bad

Robert Sutton:

For a leader to make positive change, the focus needs to be on getting rid of the bad stuff first. When you do that it makes way for goodness to spread…If you don’t get rid of the bad stuff as the first order of business — whether that’s incompetence, stealing, corruption, whatever — then I think that you’re really in trouble.

Getting rid of the bad first was the hallmark of great leaders and we saw that sort of behavior over and over again.

How To Make Better Decisions

Robert Sutton:

To make a decision most people just say “Where do we want to be a year from now? And what stops us from getting there?” Instead, try going “back to the future.” Sometimes they call it a “pre-mortem”. Imagine you already succeeded or you failed.

Imagine it’s 2015 and we failed at rolling out our IT implementation. Just that simple sort of cognitive switch leads people to be much more realistic, and more fine-grained in the analysis of what they need to do.

I use this myself. I say, “Jeff should I go on this trip?” Jeff always says the same thing, “Okay. It’s three months from now. Imagine you’re there, how do you feel?” Instead of thinking how nice it might be, imagine you’re there and sort of looking back from the future. Gary Klein, the psychologist who has been pushing this, he has studies that show people make better decisions when they do this.

Recommended Books

Robert Sutton:

Orbiting the Giant Hairball. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. If you’re trying to be a creative person in a large system, I suggest you read that.

My two dear friends from IDEO, Tom Kelley and his brother David, just had a book come out called Creative Confidence. That’s a great book; just came out.

Creativity Incorporated. It’s by Ed Catmull, who is the President and driving force behind Pixar. He has great advice about how to lead a creative company.

The Most Important Thing To Keep In Mind When You Take A New Job

Eric Barker:

You’ve been teaching MBA students at Stanford for 30 years. What is the best piece of advice you give them?

Robert Sutton:

When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with — because the odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you. You can’t change them. If it doesn’t fit who you are, it’s not going to work.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME sexuality

My Hellish Youth in Gay Conversion Therapy and How I Got Out

James Guay is Against SB1172
James Guay Mark Avery—Orange County Register

It was a painful process, but I also experienced freedom in knowing I had done my best to change before recognizing that it wasn’t possible.

Would I truly go to heaven, despite being gay?

This question haunted me growing up. My earliest and most influential childhood memory is being 4 years old and “accepting Jesus into my heart.” Did I truly know what that meant—or was I looking for love from my parents?

I was raised in a strict, fundamentalist Christian household in Los Angeles, where homosexuality was referred to as “an abomination to God, worthy of eternal damnation in hell.” At church, at school and at home, being gay was rarely acknowledged and, when it was mentioned, described with contempt as the worst sin—comparable to murder, rape and child molestation.

I didn’t want to experience the pain of eternity in hell. I didn’t want to be despised by everyone around me. And so, when I was 16, I went to weekly meetings with an “ex-gay” Christian psychologist who tried to change my sexual orientation.

The harmful practice of sexual orientation change efforts—also known as ex-gay, reparative or sexual conversion “therapy”—involves attempts by a therapist to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) clients. In fall 2012, California became the first state to ban licensed mental health practitioners from using this practice on minors; I testified in favor of the legislation. I wept when I heard the news that the bill had been signed into law. And I celebrated when the U.S. Supreme Court recently denied an appeal by anti-gay groups that sought to overturn the ban.

I was 9 years old when I recognized my attractions for the same gender. Praying to God every night and pleading with Him to take my feelings away didn’t work. Practically living, eating and breathing the Bible didn’t work. I tried repressing and denying who I was—but nothing changed inside of me. I was taught by my pastors, parents and peers to hate myself—and that worked.

My family attended Grace Community Church in Sun Valley. John MacArthur, head pastor for more than 40 years, has always had a strong anti-gay perspective. In a recent video, he tells parents to “alienate, isolate, not have a meal with and give over to Satan your homosexual adult children.”

I was bullied and harassed in middle school and at Los Angeles Baptist High School. I would stand on cliffs, fantasizing about killing myself. Fortunately, my fear of experiencing worse pain in hell for eternity kept me from actually committing suicide.

My saving grace was competitive gymnastics. I felt a sense of mastery over my body, whereas I wasn’t able to control my same-gendered attractions. I used the physical pain of gymnastics to numb the emotional pain.

When I was 16, my parents saw self-inflicted cuts on my arms. I confessed that I was struggling with same-sex attractions. They were concerned and wanted to help me change so that I could join them “in eternal life with God.” My dad found a Christian psychotherapy group practice that dealt with issues my church didn’t want to deal with, like satanic ritual abuse and homosexuality. I was so tormented that I begged my Dad to let me see the “ex-gay” psychologist after they had an argument over the fee.

For a year, I attended weekly individual therapy sessions where I was encouraged to blame my distant relationship with my father and over-involved relationship with my mother for my same-sex desires. I was also guided to “remember” an original wounding—in particular, sexual or physical abuse—that I had not experienced. The main cures were to build “healthy same-sex non-sexual friendships,” become more “masculine” and date girls.

Initially I felt better. I wasn’t alone. I even quit gymnastics for a few months to fully dedicate myself to changing my sexual orientation.

I also went with my dad to conferences put on by Exodus International, the nation’s largest ex-gay organization. At 16, I was the youngest participant among 300 others struggling with their sexual orientation and religious beliefs. In breakout groups, we learned about how to become more “manly.” We were told that if one walked, talked and sat different from others of our gender, this was evidence of dysfunction that could be altered to instill heterosexual desires.

And I read books and listened to audiotapes about how to have a “corrective and healing relationship with Jesus Christ.” These materials talked about how the “gay lifestyle” would create disease, depravity and misery. I was convinced that doing what I was told would change my attractions—and confused about why these methods supposedly worked for others but not for me.

I eventually realized that this “treatment” wasn’t working for me—or for others. It was a painful process, but I also experienced freedom in knowing I had done my best to change before recognizing that it wasn’t possible.

At 20, I attended my last ex-gay conference. Shortly thereafter, I fell in love with a man. My love for him felt natural. My experience was nothing like what I had been told about the evil and impossible nature of same-sex relationships.

In 1991, I attended my first Halloween in West Hollywood, a place I had been told was a gay ghetto of the worst kind of sinners. I discovered something quite different, and it opened my eyes to hopeful possibilities. I saw people smiling, dancing and celebrating their authentic selves. I saw couples and friends enjoying life. I wanted that, too.

My journey out of self-rejection was not easy. At the time, I was living with my parents. They eavesdropped on me and learned about my relationship. They gave me an ultimatum: If I broke up with my boyfriend and started seeing another Christian psychologist who specialized in sexual orientation change efforts, they would continue to support me while I tried out for the U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Team. If not, I would have to move out.

I moved out a week later, on Easter Sunday. It was an extremely painful departure. When I didn’t make the Olympic Team, I transferred to UC Berkeley to join their gymnastics team—one of the only college gymnastics teams at the time that was truly gay-friendly. I joined a gay support group and saw several therapists in my twenties. In my thirties, I began my long-term work with a psychotherapist who helped me to break through my residual shame and self-harming behaviors.

Psychology became my new spirituality. It helped me to make sense of what I endured in childhood. And it turned out to be my calling. Today, I have a psychotherapy practice in West Hollywood where I work with LGBTQ clients to help them recover from homophobic environments and experiences.

My own family found some peace. Throughout my adult life, my father apologized for kicking me out of their home for being gay. Two years ago, a week before he passed away, he told me that we would be reunited in heaven because of my childhood acceptance of Jesus. He had evolved. His admission was a final act of love and desire for connection.

I’m so relieved that California, and now New Jersey, have laws to protect LGBTQ youth from this dangerous practice. It means that fewer teenagers will be placed in the position that I was—a position of self-rejection and self-loathing. But sexual orientation change efforts are still being practiced across the United States, on both minors and adults. As someone who underwent this damaging “therapy,” I’m heartened by efforts like #BornPerfect, a new campaign that aims to bring about a nationwide end to the practice. That message—that we are all worthy no matter who we love—is one that every child should receive.

James Guay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in West Hollywood, California. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

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