Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Five Elements of Happiness

What is happiness?

Philosophers and artists have tried for centuries to answer that question. Maybe that is because the definition varies so widely from person to person and from place to place. But did you know that there are conditions that can be met, even given a wide variety of personal preferences, that are more likely to result in people reporting that they are happy?
"Happiness" by Eric Castro. Used under CC license.

Positive psychology  is a movement in the study of mental health that sets out to explore what makes life worth living, what makes for good communities, and what it means to have a happy life. Positive psychology, as a movement in psychology, is only about 15 years old.

The best idea we have is that happiness occurs when five basic principles are met. They are: 1)Positive emotions, 2) Engagement, 3) Relationships, 4) Meaning, and 5) Accomplishment. This is often referred to by the acronym PERMA.

Here is a brief look at the individual parts of the PERMA model of happiness.

1. Positive emotions

The emotions we are experiencing at a given moment can color our perceptions of our life in general. Positive emotions include feelings like joy, enjoyment, pride, tranquility, excitement, anticipation and curiosity.

It may seem difficult to simply feel more positive emotions, but this depends on how you conceptualize the task. While we can't just flip the "positive emotions" switch inside of us, there are certain behaviors and actions which we know will give us positive feelings. Being able to do those behaviors and actions means that we can increase our authentic experience of positive emotions.

2. Engagement

Here, the idea of "being engaged" in something means having just enough challenge to be interesting, but not to much as to be frustrating. There is no limit to the number of activities that can produce that feeling of engagement. What is important is that the activity activate a sense of "flow."

Flow is the state of being absorbed in a project or task. It is often characterized as a state of full immersion in an activity.This is the mental state you are in when you are doing something you enjoy, and you look up at the clock and realize it's several hours later than you thought.


Humans are social animals. We crave intimacy with other humans on multiple levels: Friends, acquaintances, passing socialization and close partnerships. People who report feeling more connected to others report higher levels of happiness.

Just as it is important to build and maintain relationships, it is also important to be able to differentiate between healthy relationships and toxic ones. Relationships that are codependent, one-sided, or abusive are detrimental to our health. Learning how to be choosy in relationships is an important skill for happiness.

4. Meaning

Knowing that we are a part of something larger than ourselves, and being able to participate in the process of discovery of what that something might be, is an essential part of happiness. It may sound excessively academic, but the discovery of meaning in life is one of the most significant parts of our happiness. 

In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes: "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked." "In other words, part of the process of finding meaning in our lives is understanding that we are finding meaning at all.  

5. Accomplishments

Being able to look at something and think, "I did that" is the basic sense of accomplishment. Setting a goal and achieving it makes us feel good about ourselves, and feeling pride in the things we do can make us happy. Successes in the past make us feel more optimistic about the possibility of future success. Part of being present with our accomplishments means remembering the times in the past when we accomplished something.

But accomplishment is not just about success. Setting goals and not succeeding gives us an opportunity to develop resiliency. Some theorists have proposed that resiliency is one of the most significant predictors of success and happiness in life.


Flourish, Martin Seligman.
The Happiness Project, Grethen Rubin

Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Can Happiness be Taught?Daedalus journal, Spring 2004

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Perfectionism: What it is and what you can do about it.

What is Perfectionism?
  • Do you feel that what you do is never good enough?
  • Do you have a hard time accepting critique? 
  • Do you procrastinate because you believe that you need more time to get things right?
If you answered yes to any of these, you may be engaging in perfectionism. In our culture, we often see perfectionism as a good thing--it's a sign that someone has high standards. It turns out, however, that perfectionism is not good for you.

According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is rooted in this thought: "If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame." In other words, perfection is not really about having high standards at all. It's about you, and your fear of being shamed, judged or blamed. 

Perfectionism is usually marked by a cognitive distortion called all-or-nothing thinking. Basically, this is seeing the world in stark black and white, and believing that the alternative to "perfect" is "failure."

In the movie Talledaga Nights, Will Ferrell's character gives us an example of perfectionist thinking. The interviewer says, "You either win, or crash the car trying to win." Ferrell replies with a great example of all-or-nothing thinking: "If you ain't first, you're last!" 

How does perfectionism cause problems?

There are many ways that perfectionism causes problems in our lives. Here are just a few. 
  • Fear of failure: Perfectionists may feel as though their self-worth depends on a single activity or outcome. If they do not succeed at this one thing, they are failures. 
  • Fear of mistakes: Perfectionists often avoid doing tasks for fear that they will make mistakes. This can be the cause of procrastination. 
  • Shoulding: Perfectionists believe that they "should" act a particular way. Further, they believe that others "should" do certain things, and may become frustrated when these expectations are not met. 
  • Believing others have it easy: Perfectionists often believe that other people have an easier time achieving success than they do. 
What can I do about perfectionism?

Perfectionism does not have to cause misery! It can be addressed by altering some basic thought patterns. Of course, changing thoughts takes time and dedication, but in this case it is worth the effort. Some ways to start challenging and transforming perfectionism are:
  • Set reasonable expectations. When you feel depressed or anxious about a situation, let that be a clue that your expectations are probably unrealistic. Ask yourself what a more realistic expectation would be, and make an effort to hold that expectation. 
  • Confront the fears of not being perfect by asking, "What would happen if I make a mistake?" If all the outcomes are survivable, then not being perfect is not so  bad. 
  • Practice being comfortable with being imperfect. Learning to be present with distressing emotions is a powerful skill. 
  • Recognize that "the best you can do" is not the same as "perfect." Your best effort might still be flawed. 
  • Recognize that perfectionism is a very common problem, and you are not alone. No one in the world is perfect, yet many people try to be. Recognizing that others are struggling in the same way can create connection. 
  • Focus on the process of doing an activity, not just the end result. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Eleven Errors in Thinking that are Making You Miserable

The way we think directly effects the way we feel. You probably already know that. But what you may not know is that the thoughts that make us unhappy tend to fall into predictable categories. Cognitive therapists have studied these categories of thinking, and call them "cognitive distortions." 

Like the name implies, a cognitive distortion is a way of thinking about situations in the world which does not match up with reality, and which produces negative emotions. Aaron Beck, the creator of cognitive therapy, developed the idea of cognitive distortions. David Burns refined some of the definitions of the more common cognitive distortions.

Want to change your mood? Change your thinking. 
It is important to recognize that cognitive distortions are both inaccurate ways of looking at reality, and that they make us unhappy. First, recognizing that the distortions are not actual representations of reality can really help us when we challenge them. When we discover that we are seeing things through a cognitive distortion, we can recognize that we are not seeing the truth about a situation.

Second, the fact that cognitive distortions are often at the root of negative emotions means that we can change the way we feel by changing what we think.

Below is a chart listing eleven common cognitive distortions. Read through the chart, and see if you recognize them in your own thoughts. If you do, you can ask yourself what a more accurate way of viewing the world might be. 

All-or-Nothing Thinking Seeing things in black-and-white, without shades of gray; believing that the only alternative to perfection is failure.

Example: I am trying to eat less sugar, but I eat a candy bar for a snack. I think, “I've blown my whole eating plan, so I might as well forget it completely.”

Overgeneralization Making grand generalizations from very limited evidence.

Example: I plan to go on a hike, and it rains. I start to think, “This always happens. I never get to do what I want.” I've made a generalization about my life from one experience.

Filtering Focusing on exclusively negative aspects of a situation, rather than seeing the whole picture.

Example: I give a presentation to a group, and one person tells me that they didn't understand what I was presenting. I think, “It was a terrible presentation.”

Disqualifying the Positive Dismissing positive events as not representative of reality.

Example: After I have a night out with friends, I think, “Well, that was nice. But it was only one night, and my life is usually lonely and no one spends time with me.”

Mind-Reading Assuming knowledge of another person's thoughts, beliefs, judgments, opinions.

Example: I spill something on myself while at a dinner party, and I think, “Everyone here thinks I'm a slob!”

Fortune-Telling Predicting a negative future.

Example: I am preparing for a test, and I think, “Why bother to study? I'm just going to fail anyway.”

Catastrophizing Seeing any negative event as a catastrophe.

Example: I get pulled over for speeding, and I think, “Now my insurance is going to go up, and that's going to be a financial disaster!”

Emotional Reasoning Believing that things that are strongly felt are also true.

Example: I feel frightened of flying, so flying I believe that flying is dangerous.

Should Statements Believing that people should always do what is expected of them, or what is “morally” or “ethically” correct.

Example: I feel that I am basically a caring person, so I believe that I should be in a healthy relationship.

Labeling Applying labels as a result of specific events. For example, thinking “I'm a loser.”

Example: I make a mistake at work, and then I think, “I am a failure.”

Personalization Believing that events that occur in the world are personally directed towards you.

Example: I am stuck in traffic due to construction, and I think, “This always happens to me!”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ten Great Love Songs with Terrible Messages

I'm a big fan of music. I once got a thank you card from a former student that said, “Thank you for teaching me how to do therapy, and for teaching me about 80s rock music.” I felt pretty proud of that. 

Sometimes the lyrics in a particular song make me cringe, and it is even worse when those lyrics come in an otherwise great song. So for fun I made a list of some of my most cringe-worthy songs. But what's important about this list is that these are all really good songs that just happen to have a terrible message. They have great tunes, fun beats, neat hooks... and a dysfunctional way of looking at love.

So here they are, my Top Ten Great Love Songs with Terrible Messages, in no particular order. 

10. All You Need is Love, The Beatles.

This is a perfect example of the kind of song I mean--great tune, fun to sing, kind of sloppy in that "I can belt this out and not feel self-conscious" way. Groovy. Except that it's a lie of the highest magnitude. You also need self-knowledge, emotional regulation, positive affect, positive regard, trust, shared meaning, appreciation, gratitude... and the list goes on. Enjoy the song, but don't take it to heart.

9. Baby It's Cold Outside, by Frank Loesser
(Honorable mention to other rape-y songs, like “Blurred Lines” and “Lightnin' Striking.”)

Its got a nice melody, and it's a duet, which is always fun, but the message just can't be ignored. This song is about sexual assault. It wraps the whole thing up in a cute little package and calls it "seduction," and that's exactly what is so damaging.

8. Every Breath You Take, The Police

Seriously, call the police. This is a stalker's manifesto. Sting himself said, "I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it's quite the opposite."

7. He Stopped Loving Her Today, George Jones.

The singer describes the love this man has for his ex until he dies. While it might be a romantic notion to hold onto our past loves out of loyalty and devotion, it is a recipe for an unhappy life.

6. Jolene, Dolly Parton

Seriously, who doesn't love this song? It's so much fun, and it's been covered by practically everyone. But the lyrics... well, the song doesn't recognize that the man in question has agency and responsibility in his own choices and actions.  "Don't take him just because you can" kind of speaks for itself.

By the way... have you heard the slowed-down version of Jolene? It's amazing.

5. It all Depends on You, Henderson, DeSylva, and Brown.

This is an old classic. The lyrics go, "I can be happy/I can be sad; I can be good/or I can be bad; It all depends on you." This is a pretty good description of codependency.

4. As Long as He Needs Me, Lionel Bart.

This song comes from the musical Oliver!, and it's incredibly disturbing in its context. Nancy, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, sings this little gem after her boyfriend Bill physically assaults her to get his way. She then reprises the song later in the musical, right before Bill beats her to death with a stick. I swear I am not making any of this up.

3. I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, Lerner and Loewe

Another song from a musical, this time My Fair Lady. Henry Higgins sings this as he realizes that he loves Eliza Doolittle. Lovely tune, but it's possibly the least romantic thing ever said. Try it yourself--go home tonight and tell your significant other, "Sweetie, I've grown accustomed to your face." (Actually, don't try that. Bad idea.)

This is is actually one of the most common problems in relationships. As people stay together, they get used to each other. Growing accustomed to one another is actually a bad idea for your love.

2. My Man, Charles, Pollock, Willemetz, and Yvain.

This is so much fun to sing at karaoke. It is also one of the saddest victim songs on the planet. Today, this song is most frequently associated with Barbra Streisand, who sang it in the musical Funny Girl. In the past few decades, Streisand has taken to apologizing to the audience right before she sings it, referring to it as a "dependent victim song." (Also, Streisand's version takes out the reference to domestic violence that was in the original version.)

1. You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Donaggio and Pallavinci.

Originally, the lyrics were in Italian. Dusty Springfield belted the English version of this song out in 1966, and it's been a classic for singers with powerful voices ever since. The same singer who gave us the sex-positive "Son of a Preacher Man" gives us this message of "my needs don't matter, as long as you're near me."

You don't have to say you love me? Yes, yes you do.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Three Things You Can do to Improve Your Relationship

Be a super couple! (I know... cheesy.)
After my post on Five Relationship Destroying Behaviors to Stop Right Now, I received two kinds of responses. The first was, “Easier said than done.” I agree with that, and I may address that later. The other kind of response was, “Great, now tell us what we can do to improve our relationships.” I think that's a great idea, so here you go. Below is a list of three things that I have seen make significant changes in the relationships that I have worked with in couple's therapy. (I was going to list five things to improve relationships for the sake of symmetry, but I decided to go with three instead because I wanted this list to be
shorter and more manageable.) Try them out, and see if you don't agree with me. 

1. Go on a date with your partner once a week.

This is probably the single best piece of advice I can give. sounds pretty simple, but many people who have been in relationships for a long time stop dating. It is really amazing how much of a change just going on a date once a week can make in a couple's life. If you want to improve your relationship, establish a weekly “Date Night.”

The reason that date night works is simple: It strengthens what we call the "marital friendship.” Basically, if you don't like the person you partnered with, you are unlikely to have a happy relationship. Remembering how to like them is an important part of improving your relationship.

Because couples often forget how to date, I've come up with “Rules for Date Night.” Here they are:

  1. Date night is a special occasion, planned in advance. It isn't “Hey honey, let's go out tonight.” It's something you set in your calendar. It doesn't have to be a long date. If your schedule doesn't allow, it doesn't even have to be at night. It does have to be planned in advance. (Reason for this rule: The anticipation that date night is going to happen is just as useful in improving your relationship as the actual date itself.)
  2. Date night is an occasion to do something different. It does not have to be something fancy or elaborate, but it has to be something somewhat different. Try a new restaurant. Cook a new recipe together. Watch a movie that isn't something you would “typically” watch. Take a class. Play miniature golf or drive a go-cart. Do something that is out of the ordinary. (Reason for this rule: You want to generate dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that is produced in response to novelty.)
  3. Date night conversations are limited to topics that are not serious. This is not the time to iron out the details of your mortgage refinance, or to talk about your disappointments in life. Do that on another occasion. (Reason: Couples fall into patterns of dialogue, and this rule will make sure that you spend the time feeling positive emotions, and not arguing or stressing.)

Perhaps the most common objection I hear to date night is, “But my partner I already do that! We go on dates all the time.” Great! Move on to suggestion #2. But before you do, ask yourself if you follow those three rules. Do you plan it in advance, set aside the time to do something relatively novel, and limit conversations to topics that are enjoyable? If you do not, then you are not dating: You are hanging out with your partner. Hanging out is great, but it's not dating


2. Share the best part of your day.

Research shows that couples who share the best parts of their day experience positive affect in their relationship. It sound simple, but it has a double benefit. One, it helps you stay connected to your partner's life. And two, it associates your partner with positive memories.

So here's what I recommend: Once a day, in the evening, take your partners hand. Look at them and say, “What was the best part of your day?” Then you do the same. That's it--pretty simple. So do it for a week and see what happens. 

3. Tell your partner something you appreciate about them—and tell them regularly.

As we get more comfortable in relationships, we start to take things for granted. We get accustomed to the things that once made us happy. The fancy term for this is “hedonic adaptation.”

As a result, we stop telling our partners how important they are to us, or how they make us feel, or what we appreciate about them. The problem is that the little moments of reflection and appreciation are not incidental to relationships: They are essential for the continuation of our love for our partners.

So make it a point to tell you partner what you appreciate about them. I call this “cultivating an environment of appreciation.” (That's not a term I invented, but I cannot remember where I learned it. Let me know if you know the source.) When I ask my clients to do this, they sometimes tell me that they already do this. But when I ask for details, it turns out that they do not. They may say “thank you” if their partner does the dishes, or something like that, but they do not make a routine practice of telling their partner their appreciation.

Try to make it a habit to tell your partner something you appreciate about them several times a week, or even every single day. And, I encourage you to prepare for this. Here is a list of positive traits. Go through the list and check off all the ones that apply to your partner. Then, make it a point over the next few weeks to tell your partner each one, over time. You can even make this a game, in which you try and suit the exact trait to a specific event that occurs. For example, you might notice your partner driving your kids to a sporting event, and say, “I appreciate all the work you do to parent.” Or, you might notice your partner in a new shirt, and say, “I am grateful to have such a handsome husband.”



A note on usage: In this post, and from this point on, I will be using “they/them” as third-person singular pronouns. I am aware that traditional English grammar requires “he or she” and “him or her” instead. I am choosing to break this rule of grammar in respect for individuals whose gender may not be described by those pronouns. I'm including this note for my trans* and trans* friendly friends and clients, but mostly for my mother, who is a retired professor of English. Yes, Mom, I listened to you, and you raised me to know the rules. You also raised me to advocate for tolerance, so this is what I'm doing. Messrs. Strunk and White will just have to forgive me.