Book Review-Emotion and Adaptation

Everyone feels emotions. Even those who seek to suppress their emotions through stuffing or addiction still feel them. However, most of the time, we don’t consider how our emotions come to be or how they’re threaded through our evolution. Shining a light and focusing our attention on our emotions is what Emotion and Adaptation seeks to do.

I came to this book through a very winding route. Some years ago, I read Destructive Emotions, which is a conversation including both the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman. Since then, I had read more of Paul Ekman’s work in Telling Lies and Cracking the Code. I’ve read much of the Dalai Lama’s work in An Appeal to the World and My Spiritual Journey. I also read Emotional Awareness, which shares some of the continuing conversations of Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama. However, it was the challenge put forth in How Emotions Are Made that caused me to dig back through my notes and to discover a comment that Dr. Ekman made to the Dalai Lama about the book Emotion and Adaptation.

The challenge is whether emotions are universally formed and have a singular physiological signature that defines them or whether emotions are the result of a set of forces that don’t cause them to end up in predictable patterns as much as they create clusters of related feelings. Where How Emotions are Made criticizes the established thinking about emotions, Emotion and Adaptation takes the long view and mostly affirms the existing thinking while indicating, in places, that what we know about emotions is incomplete.

Appraisal

At the heart of the question is how emotions are formed and Lazarus’ assertion in Emotion and Adaptation is that emotions are formed based on the appraisal of the environment. That is that emotions are our response to what we believe the impact of the situation will be to us. We’re constantly scanning the environment to assess it for threats and opportunities. These assessments – whether correct or not – become the basis for our emotions.

Lazarus believes that emotions come from a primary appraisal of the relevance of the environment to our goals. The first part of the appraisal is a filter as to whether the environment is relevant to any goal. If it is relevant, then the next step is the evaluation of whether the current environment is congruent or incongruent. That is, the environment is appraised to whether it helps move us forward in our goals or backwards. Finally, we consider how important this goal is to our self-identification.

There is a secondary appraisal that is engaged to assess attribution of the environment – whether we’ll receive credit or blame for the situation, our coping potential, and whether we expect that the situation will get better or worse.

The coping potential component of the secondary assessment is very much like willpower (see Willpower) and hope (see The Psychology of Hope). The secondary assessment isn’t an assessment of the person-environment relationship. Instead, it’s an assessment of our personal capacity. It’s about whether or not we can rise to the challenge.

Emotional Intensity

Where our assessment of the relationship between the environment and our goals drives us towards an emotion, the intensity of the emotion is created by the level of threat or opportunity with relationship to the goal and our commitment to the goal. The more committed to the goal we are, the more intense our emotions will be when there is a threat or opportunity towards it.

When we feel strong emotions, we would do well to consider how committed we are to the goal – and why we feel the goal is threatened or strengthened by the situation.

Hidden Goals

One of the key challenges that people face with their emotions is that they feel opaque. It’s not possible for most people to peer into the construction of their emotions – a point discussed at length in How Emotions Are Made. Because emotions just seem to happen, it’s difficult to even determine what caused the emotion to erupt in the first place.

When viewing emotions as the response to our assessment of the impact of the environment on our goals, it’s important to recognize that not all goals are the same for everyone. Still, some goals are universal. Survival is, generally, one such goal. The other class of goals are unique to us and our perceptions of ourselves.

Some of our personal goals are apparent in our explicit understanding of ourselves and what we want. Another set of personal goals are not explicit and are tacit things that we want but cannot articulate. (See Lost Knowledge for more on tacit vs. explicit.)

In seeking a better relationship with our emotions, it’s relatively easy to disassemble the factors leading to our emotional responses by evaluating the common or explicit personal goal impacted and the way that we feel that goal is impacted. While the connection we make unconsciously may be faster and richer than our conscious awareness, we can with work generally expose the components that led to the emotional reaction.

However, uncovering the cause of emotions which are driven by tacit goals is substantially harder. This is both because tacit goals are necessarily unconscious and because they don’t always make rational sense. Often, the tacit goals that provoke emotion are goals to protect ourselves – from hurts that we’ve previously felt.

Historic Hurts

There’s a bit of recursion going on to say that some of our emotions are based on previous emotions. However, there is lots of loops in nature, history, and evolution. The assessment of the environment is heavily biased towards the things that have harmed us in the past. So, at one level, we have a goal to not be harmed that is universal. In fact, Jonathan Haidt spoke of care/harm as a foundation for morality in The Righteous Mind.

At a more detailed level, we’re working to prevent the specific hurts that we’ve felt. If we’ve been hurt by someone close to us in a romantic relationship, we may find ways to protect ourselves from this pain. Sometimes, in this case, we’ll seek to isolate ourselves and to prevent intimacy. (See Intimacy Anorexia.) John Gottman’s word is “stonewalling,” which expresses the defensive nature. (See The Science of Trust.)

The fact that people respond based on their history is a fact. The question is what we do with that knowledge. Do we ignore our history and accept that there are hidden hurts that will drive us, or do we seek to acknowledge the past hurts and learn to adjust our assessments of our probability of being hurt that way again, so that we’re willing to take appropriate risks? (For more on the topic of trust, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy.)

So often, our emotions that rise to the surface like a geyser are stirred in our history of hurts that we aren’t even conscious of. We are, in many ways, still assessing the situation like a child – or younger adult – who has been harmed deeply and is positioning to prevent the hurt from happening again.

States and Traits

It’s in the processing of these hurts that we land ourselves in the murky land between emotional states – that is, our moment to moment emotions – and emotional traits – our predisposition or characteristic emotions. One can be happy or generally happy. Typically grumpy or just grumpy in the moment. How is it that these are related?

There’s an intervening stop between the state and the trait that may be helpful in enhancing our understanding. We can have an emotional state of happiness or we can have a general mood of happiness. A mood is a continuance or predisposition towards an emotion over time – but not as a permanent state of the individual. A mood then is the first extension of an emotional state over time.

Moods are like the emotional record getting stuck in a groove. The same emotions seem to keep reoccurring until someone bumps the table and causes the record to jump into a new groove. That is, someone in a mood seems to have the same emotional states more frequently than others.

Extending this across time, what if an emotional trait is simply a magnet that pulls emotional states back towards a set of states that are familiar, common, and comfortable?

If we consider this in the context of hidden hurts, we can see that sometimes the environment is assessed positively or negatively for a while until something substantial changes the assessment, and thus we get a mood. Hidden hurts, which aren’t dealt with, can keep pulling a person back to an assessment that leads them to have the same emotional states across time.

The more we can address the hidden hurts, the less pull they have to keep us in a mood or even develop an emotional trait. The more that we can help ourselves feel safe in the recognition of these hurts, the more we can help ourselves feel safe.

Startle vs. Emotion

With any definition, the challenges are always at the edges. What is an emotion and what is not? When it comes to this question, the challenge is often defining what it is to be startled. If your view is that emotions are caused by appraisal of the environment, what sort of appraisal can be made in the milliseconds between a loud noise and the resulting jump? The answer is – of course – not much. Thus, it makes sense that Lazarus might define startle as a reaction rather than an emotion.

Largely this makes sense. The startle itself doesn’t influence mood, and though it forces the reticular activating system (RAS) to turn the attention dial up to 12, it doesn’t directly seem to have an emotional component. (See Change or Die for more on the RAS.) The physiological impact of adrenaline release seems to increase the tendencies for anxiety and fear – but these can easily be explained by the endocrine system without need to ascribe direct emotive qualities.

So just like moods or emotional traits aren’t necessarily emotions but rather are factors that influence emotion, so, too, are there physiological and neurological events like the startle response that are not emotions either.

Feeling Safe

Safety is an illusion. We believe that we are safe when we are only relatively safe – or unsafe. Our technology has limited the devastation that Mother Nature can unleash. We’ve found ways to reliably provide shelter and warmth for most humans. We’ve learned how to avoid food borne diseases and we eliminate harmful bacteria from our water. In many ways, our lives are safer than they have ever been – and yet we’re still not objectively, completely safe.

A car or plane crash can still into our homes, killing us. For all that matters, we don’t know that there’s not an invisible, asteroid-sized object on a collision course with Earth right now. There is no way that we can guarantee that we are actually safe. We can only say that we feel safe – or not.

Our emotions are not driven by our actual safety. Our emotions are driven by our perception of our safety. We can walk within feet of a lion and feel safe – if we’re in a zoo. It isn’t the lion itself that creates our fear. It’s the possibility that the lion might eat us. We evaluate the probability and even possibility that we might be harmed – and decide whether we should be afraid or not.

The key opportunity in Lazarus’ work is the opportunity to create the perception of safety to change the appraisals that people make and therefore their emotions. Albert Bandura’s work demonstrated that even those people with strong phobias can be relieved of the phobia through progressive introduction of safety. (See some of his work in Moral Disengagement. I covered my book review about the mechanisms and the cases.)

Adaptive and Maladaptive

One of the interesting questions that arise with emotions is whether they’re adaptive or maladaptive. That is, would most people believe that the response was proportional to the situation? In the context of our hidden hurts, this is problematic. If we recoil from a touch and get anxious, is that adaptive or maladaptive? With no history of pain, one would say that such an emotional reaction would be maladaptive. However, put in the context of someone who has been physically abused, the anxiety is a reasonable response.

A better way to view adaptive and maladaptive may be to view the response in the context of whether the response moves someone forward to their collective goals. So, is the emotion itself and the corresponding behaviors congruent with moving someone forward towards their goals or moving them further away? Adaptive behaviors move us closer to our goals and maladaptive ones move us further away. When our emotions are adaptive, they encourage adaptive behaviors.

Afflictive or Non-Afflictive

Where Western psychology uses the measurement of adaptive and maladaptive, Buddhism uses afflictive and non-afflictive. Rather than measuring the behaviors that result from the emotion, Buddhism acknowledges that the emotion itself can be helpful or harmful. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains the profound and multifaceted impact of stress on our bodies and minds (see my reviews regarding the physical impact, the psychology and neurology, and the causes and cures of stress). Nelson Mandela wrote, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Resentment is a poison – an emotion that would be easily described as afflictive, because it harms you but not the other person. Conversely, caring for others seems to have positive physical and psychological benefits.

While we can’t directly control our emotions, we can look for opportunities to shape them by encouraging non-afflictive, adaptive responses and discouraging emotions that cause us emotional distress.

Emotional Distress

If you were to look through DSM-5 for diagnosis criteria for the various psychological problems that are cataloged, you’d find a common thread. That thread is the fact that the diagnostic criteria almost uniformly include some form of emotional distress. Emotional distress is the key to psychopathology. However, emotional distress in and of itself isn’t psychopathology. Even with the definition of depression, there is care taken to avoid short-term negative mood. Depression is reserved for when the feelings are persistent over a longer period of time.

Coping Skills

Your car breaks down or, more precisely, catches on fire while you’re driving it, resulting in a total loss. You’re in the position of needing to get a new car immediately. Your emotional reaction isn’t going to be positive, but it will be very different if you’ve got the money saved up to buy the new car you want with cash vs. having to accept something you don’t want and still being concerned about the car payment if you don’t have the money to replace it. The difference in how you feel has very little to do with the actual event and has more to do with your capacity to cope with it.

While this is a practical example, the same holds true for the loss of a friend when you have many friends as compared to you have few friends or you find it hard to make new friends. You’ll react differently to job loss if you feel like you’ll have no trouble finding a new position when compared to if you’re concerned that you’ll find anything – or that you won’t be able to make enough to live with what you can find.

Our emotional response is driven by our belief in ourselves and our capacity to overcome. Martin Seligman and his colleagues once believed that you could learn helplessness. However, more recent research by his colleagues teaches us that we actually learn control or the illusion of control. (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion of control, and The Hope Circuit for learning control vs. learning helplessness.)

When we teach ourselves and others that we have more control of our world, we minimize the intensity of emotions and generally make them more positive.

The Relationship Between Cognition and Emotion

It may be apparent at this point that there is a relationship between cognition and emotion. In fact, I’ve been encouraging the thought that our cognition can shape our emotion. By subtly shifting and changing our appraisals, we can shift our emotions. We can do this by changing our goals or exposing conflicting goals that balance out the appraisal as not good in some respects and good in others. However, I’ve largely ignored the impact that emotion has on cognition.

Drive explains that time pressure focuses thinking in a way that limits the development of alternate solutions. Thinking, Fast and Slow explains how negative confirmation bias can send us into a downward spiral. Our emotion has the greatest influence on our cognition by shaping what options we’re able to consider. This is one of the reasons why having a community of supportive, authentic people can be a powerful forward force in your life.

Depression and Grief

Depression is a critical topic for today’s world. It’s moving into the position of being the world’s largest health concern. It’s been the subject of Choice Theory, Warning: Psychiatry Can be Hazardous to Your Mental Health, and scores of other books. Depression is the reaction to loss, whether that be a tangible or a psychological loss. Grief, on the other hand, is related but different in that it is focused on the activation of resources for coping with the loss. Where depression appears to just happen to someone, grief is the process of recovery.

If you were to point to one thing that we could do to relieve human suffering, it would be to help people move from a focus on the losses that they’ve experienced and towards the capacity that they have to recover. In other words, it would be moving people from depression to grief. Instead of being victims of the loss, they become reactionary to it. (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly, and Change or Die for more on victimhood.)

The Necessity of Emotions

While emotions may at times be unpleasant and unwanted, they’re necessary for life, happiness, and joy. In my experience, I’ve seen the severe psychological distress created by people who are not able to express their emotions, because they’ve been told that emotions are scary or unsafe. The resulting misery and sometimes catastrophic breaks in reality are tragic.

Perhaps if you can understand where emotions come from and how they form, you can remove the fear of emotions and instead harness them to help move you to a place of happiness and joy. It’s not possible to blunt out the negative feelings without blunting the joy that life can bring, and most of us can’t live without some joy. Maybe that’s why there’s Emotion and Adaptation.

Book Review-A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives

Individually, compassion and courage make sense. Compassion is the awareness of the suffering of others and the desire to minimize it. Courage isn’t the absence of fear but the willingness to overcome it. Putting these together, we discover a subtle fear in being compassionate and what can be done to develop the courage to do so. That’s what A Fearless Heart is about – developing the courage to be compassionate in the face of circumstances, thoughts, and feelings that make that difficult.

Magic Penny

It was years ago now when I heard the song for the first time. I was in a grade school choir room, and the song was our next learning. It was an odd song. It was about giving something away and getting more. The first part of the lyrics of this Malvina Reynolds song begin:

“Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

“It’s just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many
They’ll roll all over the floor.”

Most things in life, if you give it away you have less. However, this magic penny – and, more importantly, love – is something you get more of the more you give away. I’ve mentioned before (see The Art of Loving) that there are three Greek words for the word we call “love” in the English language: eros, romantic love; philos, or brotherly love; and agape, which is God’s love or global love. I’ve also mentioned that agape and compassion are essentially the same thing. (See The Book of Joy.) So, what we have in this little song is the truism that, when you demonstrate your compassion for others, you become more compassionate – not less.

In the zero-sum game that most of us live with daily (if someone else wins, then we lose), it’s hard to understand how compassion begets compassion and how our worlds are enriched when we enrich the lives of others. The more that we live our lives for others, the more we get out of it for ourselves.

The Paradox of Happiness

I’ve mentioned before the two goddesses of wisdom (Lakshmi) and wealth (Sarawati). If you pursue wealth, it will run from you; but if you pursue wisdom, wealth will be attracted to you. (I covered the story in my review of The Heretic’s Guide to Management.) A similar thing happens with happiness. When we stop worrying about our own happiness, and we’re focused instead on the needs and happiness of others, we find that happiness comes our way.

Hedonistic happiness is a treadmill requiring increasingly greater amounts of pleasure to feed the same level of happiness (see Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this). However, value-based happiness driven by our love (compassion) for our fellow man becomes an enduring characteristic of joy. To become happy, we then need to not worry about our happiness and instead focus on the happiness of others.

The Pit of Loneliness

If happiness defines one side of a continuum, loneliness sits on the opposite side. Loneliness is a painful form of suffering where we feel separate and apart from the others that we share this planet with. (See Loneliness for more.) Our compassion for one another helps to bridge the gap that loneliness creates by connecting us.

Empathy means that I understand this about you. Compassion, as mentioned above, is awareness of another’s suffering and the desire to minimize it. Thus, empathy connects us through understanding, and compassion connects us through action. Empathy’s near enemy (explained momentarily) is sympathy. Sympathy is based in understanding but separates by pity. Instead of being, I understand this about you, it’s an understanding that you don’t want to be where the other person is. (See Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism for more.)

Near Enemies

Near enemies is the idea that there are two concepts where one is bad but seems to be the same as a virtuous one. The two seem similar but really operate very differently. A Fearless Heart claims that the near enemy of compassion is pity, but I would refine this, as stated above, to say that sympathy is the near enemy of empathy, and pity leads to sympathy instead. Because I believe that compassion is built on empathy, this is a distinction of degree. Fundamentally, I believe that the presence of pity prevents the connection necessary for true compassion.

Near enemies are responsible for people not desiring a desirable state. Compassion is confused with submissiveness, weakness, or sentimentality. People fear compassion, because compassion isn’t seen as innate part of all of us (see Spiritual Evolution) or as a necessary trait.

Fear of Compassion

On some level, it’s difficult to conceive of someone who would be afraid of compassion. At another, it’s all too easy to see subtle forms of fear in our ability to give and receive compassion. Whether it’s an aversion to feeling indebted to someone else or the queasy feeling that we’re not enough if we need someone else’s compassion, we realize that there are times that both giving and receiving compassion can be difficult.

Paul Gilbert was the first to schematize fear of compassion, defining it as three different categories of fear: fear of compassion for others, from others, and to oneself. He defined this in more detail by articulating statements that we could rate how much we identify each.

  • Compassion for others:
    • People will take advantage of me if I am too compassionate and forgiving.
    • If I am too compassionate, others will become dependent on me.
      • I can’t tolerate others’ distress.
    • People should help themselves rather than waiting for others to help them.
    • There are some people in life who don’t deserve compassion.
  • Fear of compassion from others:
    • I am afraid that if I need other people to be kind they will not be so.
    • I worry that people are only kind and compassionate when they want something from me.
    • If I think someone is being kind and caring toward me, I put up a barrier.
  • Fear of compassion for oneself:
    • I fear that if I develop compassion for myself, I will become someone I don’t want to be.
    • I fear that if I am more self-compassionate, I will become weak.
    • I fear that if I start to feel compassion for myself, I will be overcome with sadness and grief.

Just because you’re afraid of compassion doesn’t make it any less the right approach. By identifying what the fears are, it’s possible to make them smaller.

Teaching Fishing

The cliché is you should teach a man to fish rather than give him a fish. Teaching him can feed him for a lifetime and giving him a fish feeds him for a day. However, this is substantially easier to say than it is to do in many cases. Compassion is a place where our best and highest work creates solutions for the other person that allows them to be self-sustaining in the future and not need any additional help to relieve their own suffering.

This aspect of helping people be more self-sufficient is both critical and often lacking. People who have psychological issues are often prescribed drugs that they’ll be on all their lives, making them dependent and never fully healing. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more on the problems with these prescriptions.) Even counselors and psychologists who try to resolve problems with their patients often fail. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about effective and ineffective counseling.)

A different approach to psychology – and helping people to thrive – is what has been called “positive psychology.” It’s a movement founded by Martin Seligman and one he continues to champion today. Instead of focusing on deficits and gaps, positive psychology helps the patient to see that they already possess the things they need to be happy and to thrive. (See Martin Seligman’s book Flourish and Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity for more.) As we’re helping others, we should simultaneously be helping them to see the capacities they have within themselves. (See Motivational Interviewing for some more ideas on how to affirm people in their strengths.)

The Only Way Out Is Through

There’s a belief that people who are calm are in control of their emotions. The belief is that they can keep them at bay and constrain them even in the toughest times. This is a false belief. Emotions that are repressed and denied have a way of oozing their way to the surface and causing havoc. It’s a truer statement to say that people who are good at controlling their emotions just have a better awareness and acceptance of their emotions.

It’s not possible for the rational self (the rider in the elephant-rider-path model discussed in The Happiness Hypothesis) to restrain the emotions permanently. However, with a better relationship – driven by acceptance – there will be fewer times when the emotions will fight to have control. It’s acceptance of the emotions that are being felt, that our rationality can properly assess that we’re not in much real danger – and therefore dramatic actions are not called for.

It can be true that we’re threatened, but, to some degree, we choose what is a threat and what is a challenge to be overcome.

Challenging the Threat

There are two key components of ego-resiliency – which is a goal that everyone has. One of those is the ability to perceive difficulty as a challenge rather than a threat. Instead of looking at the lack of knowledge to do something, you can view it as an opportunity to learn or a challenge to be able to demonstrate that you can do things.

It’s cliché to describe problems as opportunities, but that really is the case. Edison’s work to find the incandescent lightbulb is similarly cliché, but in it rings a bit of truth. Edison’s work wasn’t always a commercial success. From his first patent for a voting machine to his extensive work trying to find alternative sources for natural rubber, it wasn’t that Edison was uniquely gifted to never fail. His unique gift was in his perspective that the things that he faced were challenges and not threats.

Adversity and the Rubber Ball

The other component to ego-resiliency and effective recovery from hardship is the capacity to bounce back from adversity. The agrarian saying is, “If the horse throws you off, get back on.” It’s simple to say, but harder to do – both physically in case of a horse and proverbially in the face of adversity causing a defeat. However, for the most part failure isn’t fatal.

What that means is that, though we may get knocked down and feel like we’re losing or failing, it isn’t permanent. The ability to recognize that the problems aren’t persistent – that they’re temporary and not pervasive – but are localized to one or a few small areas of our life can allow us to understand that adversity can get us down, it just can’t keep us down.

Vulnerability

There’s a bit of vulnerability in accepting that we’re going to get knocked down from time to time. There’s a bit of acceptance in our imperfect and often frail nature to know that we aren’t invincible. While we all intuitively know we’re not perfect, and we’re going to die, and vulnerability is a cloak that we’ll always wear, we seek to deny it from ourselves and from others.

The paradox of vulnerability is that to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we must feel safe – we may not need to be safe, we just need to feel it. To admit our vulnerability, we must accept ourselves non-judgmentally. To be vulnerable with others, we’ve got to trust that they don’t intend us harm. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more.)

Self-Pity

Like anything, there can be too much of a good thing. Being vulnerable often leads to humility. (See Humilitas for more.) However, if we don’t non-judgmentally accept our vulnerability, we may find ourselves in the pit of self-pity. We may discover that we’re self-absorbed with only our limitations and our faults. We become so focused on ourselves that we can’t see that others have vulnerabilities too.

Self-pity is a form of self-absorption, where our fear and lack of self-compassion have limited our view of the outside world. It’s natural and normal that our focus is pulled towards intense and immediate threats; however, it’s not natural when those threats aren’t real and when they persistently prevent us from seeing the real world. (See The Anatomy of Peace for boxes that distort our perspective.)

Dysfunctional Relationships

It takes two to tango, they say. Relationships necessarily involve two people. While we may believe that we’re the root cause of everything that is wrong in a relationship or lament our poor decision-making that led us to be a part of a dysfunctional relationship, the reality is that one or even a few bad decisions does not poor judgement make. Every relationship has its dysfunction. The real question is what your role is in removing the dysfunction, either by changing your responses or exiting the relationship.

More than any other aspect of our world, relationships is key. Research supports our need for social connection, intimacy, and closeness – and in many areas of the world, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain and build connections. Having self-pity because we don’t have enough relationships or have too many dysfunctional relationships doesn’t help us.

Checking In

Whether it’s alone in a room or with a group of people, one way to be present and shape the future of your relationships with others – and with yourself – is to perform a check-in process. The process is simple but often overlooked. Whatever specific approach you take to get there, checking in has two goals. The first goal is to acknowledge your reality, including your thoughts and feelings, whether they seem reasonable or not. The second goal is to recognize your desire for the conversation, for the relationship, or for yourself.

The process of checking in helps you to reach clarity about where you really are and where you really want to go. Collectively, this makes finding the path between the two much easier to find even if the path itself isn’t easy. If the path doesn’t seem easy, maybe you need A Fearless Heart to guide you.

Book Review-Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

Is happiness a skill? Most folks are looking for happiness – like searching for the lost city of Atlantis or the fountain of youth. However, few people look at happiness as a skill that can be cultivated. However, that’s the central idea behind Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Matthieu Ricard is a scientist turned Buddhist scholar who believes that happiness isn’t something that you find, but it’s something that you develop.

Wiring in Happiness

Ricard isn’t the only one who believes that happiness comes from changing the patterns of our thoughts. It’s not that our external circumstances don’t matter when it comes to happiness, it’s just that it matters much less than we believe. We’ve heard stories of the lottery winners who, after a short time of happiness, return to their normal sense of happiness – or, rather, being unhappy. While we can’t change the circumstances around us, as much as we might like to, we can change our responses to the circumstances.

It was 2007 when a flight out of LaGuardia was cancelled, causing me to route through Regan National in Washington, DC. I mentioned that experience in my review of Stumbling on Happiness. I’m far from being able to say that I’ve got it all figured out, but, in that post, I share how different responses to a flight being cancelled could lead to anger and frustration or gratitude for the opportunity to read a book about happiness.

It wasn’t the external circumstances that changed – both passengers faced the same problem of a cancelled flight – but the responses are very different.

Rick Hansen in Hardwiring Happiness believes that it’s possible to change the way we think and thereby develop more happiness. It might be more accurate to say that Hansen encourages us to savor the happiness that we do have and remain grateful, so that we can be happier with our everyday life.

Healthy Mind

What Daniel Gilbert called a psychological immune system (in Stumbling on Happiness), Ricard would call a healthy mind. Instead of resisting the negative circumstances, Ricard encourages us to have our thoughts be healthy all the time. It’s not an antibody that your immune system releases in response to an attack, but is instead a natural part of daily living.

A healthy mind is free from troublesome internal conflicts. A healthy mind apprehends reality clearly – for the most part – and adapts quickly when a gap is discovered between perception and reality. The way that the person perceives themselves is also grounded in the way that they actually act. They aren’t always “minding the gap” between who they say they are and the way they actually behave. There’s a sense of peace that the way that they live their life is the way they want to be.

The Illusion of Control

Much of the reason why people aren’t happy is because they believe in the illusion of control. Those people afflicted with depression can apprehend the fact that they have no control more readily than the optimists among us who continue to believe that they have control even when they have none. (See The Hope Circuit for more on this.) The illusion of control helps us cling onto hope even when the chances are very slim. Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explained that there are two components to hope – willpower and waypower. Waypower is basically the belief that you know how to affect change. (Willpower has a more or less classical definition; you can find out more about this in the book titled Willpower.)

The illusion of control may give us hope – but, as Miller explains in Compelled to Control, it’s all too easy for us to believe that we have control of other people. The result is dysfunctional relationships that aren’t helpful in leading us towards happiness.

Pleasure and Joy

I read in Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships and Life that many people know what trust is until you ask them to define it. When you do, you’ll invariably hear a definition of trustworthy and not a definition of trust. I believe a similar thing happens when you ask someone to define joy. Rarely would someone respond with a clear definition to this question. Even in The Book of Joy, definitions for joy are hard to come by. What is most frequently shared for joy is something shallower, more incidental, and fickle – pleasure. Pleasure may not have the lasting value that joy has, but it’s much easier to articulate.

Where pleasure is about the moment, joy is about the enduring characteristics of a person or situation. That’s great but how do you develop joy? Ricard explains that joy is the outward expression of the happiness that a person feels inside. It is happiness radiated on to others.

Integrated Self Image

We are quite literally and figuratively the center of our universes. We see everything from our eyes and construct reality through our senses. Our brain is designed to make leaps of inference. (This is the System 1 of Daniel Kahneman’s systems model in Thinking, Fast and Slow.) We’re designed to jump to conclusions. We use everything that we “know” to guide our predictions about what will happen next. The ability for us to predict what will be next is a remarkable feat of evolutionary engineering.

Evolution even equipped us with tools to help us adjust our prediction failures – to refine the efficacy. Jokes, it seems, are designed to test our predictive capacity. Laughter is the response to a failure to correctly predict – at least in a comedy club. (See Inside Jokes for more.) However, the correction mechanisms for our predictive capacity are hampered by the ego’s defenses and our need to be perceived as perfect to the outside world. (See Change or Die for more on our ego defenses.)

When we see ourselves in a distorted way – by failing to accept all of ourselves – we perceive the world in a distorted way. If we’re looking through ourselves through wavy lenses, we see the rest of the world in the same way. As a result, it’s critical that we learn how to see ourselves clearly so that we can see the world clearly. We won’t really end up with a perfect perception of the world – but at least we can work without any core distortions that are hard to find – and fix.

Constructing Happiness

If happiness is a skill, then how do we develop it? In other words, how do we construct happiness. The answer is a sort of side-step. I mentioned in my review of The Heretic’s Guide to Management that A Philosopher’s Notes spoke of two Hindu goddesses:

Lakshmi is the traditional Goddess of Wealth. The problem is, if you go straight after her (by constantly chasing the bling) she’ll tend to avoid you. Saraswati’s the Goddess of Knowledge. If you go after her (by pursuing self-knowledge, wisdom and all that goodness), an interesting thing happens. Apparently, Lakshmi’s a jealous Goddess. If she sees you flirting with Saraswati she’ll chase after you.

It turns out that happiness may be naturally attracted to wisdom in the same way that wealth is attracted to knowledge. Happiness has relatively consistently been related positively to age – you’re happier as you get older. There’s a peak in our 70s – when our bodies tend to start failing to a greater degree.

A different way of thinking about this, and the approach that Ricard takes is that if a wise man can be happy, then happiness must be possible. In other words, he solves the belief that happiness – sustained happiness – is unattainable. If there are wise men who were previously not happy but now are, then our ability to reach happiness is a measure of our willingness to pursue the wisdom that leads to it.

Obtaining wisdom is not necessarily a straight path either. However, it is a known path. It’s one that people have pursued for centuries. Hard work and dedicated practice can make anything possible – even wisdom and happiness. (See Peak for more on how to reach the pinnacle of any endeavor.)

Emotional Regulation

From the outside looking in, it appears that people who are happiest have overcome their negative emotions and have controlled their emotions into a channel of only positive experiences. However, this view is not correct – at least for those that I know. It’s more accurate to say that the people who I know who are the happiest are more in touch and in alignment with their emotions. They’re not transcending their emotions as much as they’re accepting and shaping them – what Ricard calls regulating them. Daniel Goleman – who wrote the foreword for Ricard – would likely agree, as this aligns with his beliefs about the development of Emotional Intelligence.

Looking at Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model from The Happiness Hypothesis, it’s not that the rider has usurped control from the elephant, rather that the elephant and rider have developed the kind of relationship that the elephant accepts the gentle hand of the rider even when it would have other ideas. That is the person is so integrated in their thoughts and feelings that they play together rather than as separate ideas.

Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in How Emotions Are Made that the separation that we’ve created between emotional areas of the brain and non-emotional areas are fiction and that we find that the neural circuitry that drives our thoughts is interconnected with the circuitry associated with emotion. Ricard notes, “The traditional languages of Buddhism have no word for emotion as such. That may be because according to Buddhism all types of mental activity, including rational thought, are associated with some kind of feeling, be it one of pleasure, pain, or indifference.” In short, our emotions may not be separable from our thoughts.

It’s more accurate to say that those who have happiness haven’t learned to transcend their emotions but rather have come to find a way of accepting them as a part of themselves.

Controlling but Not Repressing

Another way to think about this process is the idea of controlling emotions without repressing them. In the practice of meditation, we learn to accept our feelings and then gently guide our thoughts back to the object of meditation. The same approach is useful with our emotions.

When we gently recognize our emotions without reaction or judgement, we create a space where they can develop completely. Allowing them to develop completely doesn’t mean acting on them, it only means that they’re not shunned, judged, or repressed. Emotions, like thoughts, are subject to the Zeigarnik effect. That is, incomplete thoughts or emotions are given greater weight in our minds. (See The Science of Trust for more on the Zeigarnik effect.) So, repressing an emotion may drive it underground, but it will also strengthen it at the same time.

When we repress emotions, we believe they are shameful or that we shouldn’t be having them. This judgement separates the ability to control our emotions from repressing them. Acceptance is necessary for us to work with our emotions, rather than trying to repress them.

Loneliness and Depression

The striking statement “Fifteen percent of Americans report experiencing an intense feeling of loneliness once a week” captures part of the problem with trying to develop happiness. That statement is a scary contrast to the happiness that Ricard is speaking about. In my review of Loneliness, I explained that loneliness has nothing to do with being alone. It’s about feeling alone and disconnected. We cannot completely quiet our yearning to be with other people. It’s wired into our very being. (See Spiritual Evolution for more.) However, curing loneliness isn’t as easy as placing someone in a room full of people. It’s much harder for people to develop the trust necessary to be really seen and understood so that they can be vulnerable and thereby in a real relationship with others. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more on this.)

Accompanying loneliness at the other end of the happiness continuum is depression. It’s clinically recognized and too often medicated. Depression is like trying to fill a tub when the drain is open. It’s like having all the energy sucked out of you. It drains away your happiness. While there are chemical and clinical causes for which treatment is essential, there are also interesting perspectives, including Dr. Glasser’s, who suggests in Choice Theory that we may have more choices to make than we realize even when it comes to depression.

If depression is a choice, then perhaps happiness is a choice too. Perhaps to be happy, we must choose to do the things that we know will lead to happiness. One of those might be to read about Happiness.

Book Review-Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself

I didn’t really intend to spend so much time investigating Buddhism. Mark Epstein was recommended reading for me as I tried to integrate Western thoughts on positive attachment and Buddhist beliefs that attachment is the root of suffering. As I read Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, I began to see how both traditional Western psychotherapy and Buddhism revolve around finding a way to align our thoughts with reality. It’s not that we don’t need ego, and that it should be crushed or destroyed – nor does it mean that we should necessarily inflate it to be bigger than it should be.

In The Trauma of Everyday Life, Epstein looks at a few small components of Buddhism centered around the concept that life is suffering. In Advice Not Given he walks, chapter-by-chapter, through the Eightfold Path, introducing the traditional thinking and integrating Western psychology. However, he starts by framing the primary work of the path: our ego.

Our Ego

It’s the one affliction that we all have in common. We all have egos. We’re constantly tending to the size and shape of our ego – or it’s running amuck and causing havoc to us and to others in our lives. Unrestrained, the ego implores us to be bigger, better, stronger, richer, more attractive and more. The result is a constant nagging fear that we won’t be enough. It’s a self-doubt that is hard to shake. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on being enough.)

Conversely, some degenerate the ego and believe that it’s bad. John Dixon in Humilitas says, “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” That is, those whose ego is sufficient to operate with conviction are confused with those whose ego is out of control. (See The Wisdom of Not Invented Here for a collected set of ego references.)

Enlightenment

A Hunger for Healing quotes a Zen (Buddhist) saying: “After enlightenment, draw water, chop wood.” Advice Not Given repeats this as, “after ecstasy, it is said, comes the laundry.” That is that while the Eightfold Path – and all self-reflection may lead to enlightenment– it doesn’t alleviate our need to be in the world and attend to our material needs and duties. After all, enlightenment (or awaking) doesn’t make the ego disappear, it changes our relationship to it.

The Eightfold Path to enlightenment is:

  • Right View
  • Right Motivation
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

Before looking at each component, it’s important to pause and address the use of the word “right.” Epstein makes a point that the word doesn’t have to be translated to right as in “correct.” The original word could also mean “realistic” or “complete.” Epstein shares that he thinks of it as balanced, attuned, or fitting. This is important, because there’s no one “right” way to walk the path. There is a way of walking the path that is balanced or attuned to you, your needs, and the needs of the world around you.

Let’s walk the path as Epstein did.

Right View

Accepting reality as it is – not as we want it to be – is hard. It is, however, necessary to be in harmony with it. The right view has us constantly seeking to accept reality for what it is. The Serenity Prayer includes, “Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it.”

Too often, we see something unpleasant or discomforting, and we turn away from it. We seek to avoid the suffering of this life and only make it double. Right view isn’t eliminating suffering, but it’s changing how we approach it, so that it’s no larger and no smaller than it should be. It’s recognizing that both happiness and suffering – and everything else – is temporary. We don’t need to grasp onto it too tightly.

Right Motivation

We all have unconscious desires that drive us. Right motivation suggests that we don’t have to be at the mercy of our neuroses. By shining light into the dark places of our soul, we can come to know them – and address them in healthier ways. We must, of course, admit that the dark places exist. We must accept that there are parts of ourselves that we don’t yet know and some that we may not like.

Motivation also means a balance between the need to develop wisdom and the need to cultivate compassion. Epstein recounts more than one situation where a hermit was admonished for not living in the world. Buddha made a point of having his monks go out into the community each day to keep them connected to the world and realize that they weren’t above or apart from the rest of the world.

Right Speech

Traditionally, right speech is about refraining from harmful talk, like lying, gossip, and such. However, it can have a deeper meaning about not just the talk that we share outwardly with others but also with the talk whispered under our breath and our self-talk. If people heard what we say to ourselves about ourselves, they would be appalled. We speak to ourselves in such a compassionless and unfair way – and we continue to allow it.

Right speech leads us to pay attention to the space between thought and action to create more space and give us greater opportunity to intervene before harmful words or actions occur. Sometimes that intervention is to prevent us from adding more meaning than is there. (See Choice Theory and Argyris’ Ladder of Inference for more on how we add meaning.) Sometimes that intervention is to assess whether what we’re thinking is just a thought or whether it is reality. Too often, we believe that we know reality, when we’re just making a series of assumptions.

We can create a space where we’re open, accepting, and inquisitive about our inner lives and the inner lives of others. In this space, we can process our thoughts and emotions, comparing them with reality and enabling us to prevent past hurts from being borne out into the future.

Right Action

Right action is about not acting destructively. This means many of the things that make God’s top ten list (also known as the Ten Commandments): killing, stealing, etc. It also includes things like excessive drinking, which didn’t make God’s top ten list but are addressed in the Bible. It’s important to recognize, as the Dalai Lama has pointed out, that all religions fundamentally operate in the same direction – towards love. (See The Book of Joy for more.)

Much of right action could be compared to The Marshmallow Test. It’s denying our selfish, immediate needs in the service of greater rewards in the future. It’s difficult to delay our gratification and be willing to confront difficult decisions when they don’t fit with our previously established ideas or vows.

We have to live in the world – even when what is happening to us in the world isn’t what we planned. If our lives aren’t going along the script that we had planned, we have to accept that and only take the actions that we can to move us forward – without an attempt to overcontrol things.

Right Livelihood

Everyone has to make a living –but you don’t have to do it in a way that is deceitful or exploitative. The heart of right livelihood is finding a way to live which enriches your life – and the life of others. Making money is necessary. However, making money while preying on others isn’t.

Right Effort

The middle way – neither living in self-denial or indulgent materialism – is what right effort is about. It reflects the nature of life where both extremes on a continuum are bad. Only a middle path balances discipline and love. Children, as Donald Winnicott noted, need “good enough” parenting that doesn’t over indulge nor neglect the child for them to develop normally. Children need challenges, but, at the same time, they need to know that they’re supported.

Like strings on an instrument that can be too tight or too loose, we need to find the right grip on the things we work at so that we neither over- nor under-control. This delicate balance – the middle way – isn’t easy, but the result of the rightly-tuned string is good music. The result of the rightly-tuned life is happiness.

Right Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a bit of a misnomer. The word used is sati – which means “remembering.” When we’re being mindful, we’re remembering to pay attention to the world – and ourselves. Mindfulness isn’t anything special or additional that must be done. It’s not something that’s done only in the midst of meditation. Mindfulness is a way of viewing things where you keep an eye on your own mental processes.

In the learning and education space, it’s called “metacognitive.” In the Buddhist context, it’s keeping a distant eye on the processing that’s happening, so that we’re more aware of it.

Right Concentration

In terms of teaching, concentration is typically taught before mindfulness, because it’s useful in the process of trying to be mindful. In truth, we’re not taught how to concentrate in our schools or societies. Though concentration is a powerful force – like how focusing light makes a laser that can cut metal – it’s not something that most folks know how to do.

Together

Together, these ideas are the path towards enlightenment. However, even those on the path may find that they are buffeted by the waves of uncertainty and change. If you’re trying to find peace, Advice Not Given counsels, it’s important to remember that the waves are a part of the ocean. They rise, and they descend, but they’re all a part of the ocean.

Perhaps my favorite part of Advice Not Given is the ending. “Our egos do not have to have the last word.” Our egos may keep us from accepting advice, but it can’t stop us from reading Advice Not Given.

Book Review-The Trauma of Everyday Life

Trauma is everywhere. It spares no one. The constant march of time propels it forward without end. It’s The Trauma of Everyday Life that Buddha spoke of when he used the word dukkha. It’s the suffering that we all face. Mark Epstein in The Trauma of Everyday Life succeeds in helping to explain some fundamentals of our mental worlds as they intersect in Western and Buddhist philosophies.

Suffering

A man was being followed. Every street he turned onto, this figure followed. He ran, and the figure ran, too – as fast as he did. Every step, the figure followed. As he slowed, so did the figure. It was half an hour before the man realized that he was running from his shadow. That’s the experience that we have in life when we seek to avoid suffering. Wherever we go, suffering and trauma is there. We cannot escape it, because it’s an inescapable part of our lives.

Buddha called it dukkha, which is most typically translated as “suffering,” but the literal meaning is closer to “hard to face.” In Jewish and Christian traditions, it’s described that we live in a fallen world. The brokenness, pain, and suffering we experience are – according to the tradition – a result of the original sin. They’re a part of our existence now.

In Buddhist writings, there is a story of a woman carrying her dead baby and looking for a physician to bring the baby back to life. The Buddha told her to bring back mustard seeds from a family that had never known death. Of course, she couldn’t find any family who hadn’t experienced death. In the process, she realized that she wasn’t alone in her suffering and finally let go of her baby.

Suffering is a universal and unfortunate part of our lives, but we can’t run from it; we must accept it as a truth rather than try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

It’s Not Your Fault

Suffering or tragedy is not your fault. It’s not “ye of little faith” that causes the suffering. You didn’t do anything wrong. Even with Buddha’s belief in karma, he believed that perhaps only one in eight bad things that happen to a person is related to their bad karma. That is even the most consequential view. The good or bad you did that was reflected back to you didn’t necessarily lead – in his opinion – to suffering. Suffering is, as was the first noble truth, simply a part of life.

When you accept that suffering – or “trauma,” the word Mark Epstein uses – is a fundamental part of our world, you can let go of the shame and guilt that you’re receiving suffering as the consequences for your living. You can address only the suffering and not the feelings that the suffering brings up.

The Path Through Suffering

Many people believe that the way to happiness and joy is to avoid suffering. This is like the idea that mental health is the absence of mental illness. (See Flourish.) Both are fallacies. Joy isn’t the absence of pain and suffering. Joy is something else.

In fact, the path to joy isn’t in the opposite direction of suffering – it’s through it. In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and The Dalai Lama speak of the path to joy – and to how their joy led them both through struggles. If we stop short of joy at inner peace, we find that it too takes a path through suffering – not around it.

We can’t avoid suffering, we can’t run in fear that we may be hurt. Instead, we walk through it, not minimizing the suffering but acknowledging it as impermanent – only temporary. When we choose to run away from the possibility of suffering, we cheat ourselves out of a whole life and spend our time running from our own shadow, pretending that we can get away from suffering.

A View of Suffering

The pain we feel from something that goes wrong, misses our expectations, or harms us is only the first thing. What is more challenging – and longer lasting – is the harm that we cause ourselves by the perspective we take to the suffering.

Consider a beautiful vase in a store that you see crash to the ground. Though it is bad, you’re likely to not feel much. When the same vase is in your home and it’s a prized possession, because you bought it on your last vacation with your mother before she died, it will likely bring more suffering. The vase itself is the same. The meaning that we assign to it – and the perspective on the loss – is different. It’s that difference that causes the pain.

Another point of view is the old story about two Buddhist monks who had taken a vow to never touch a woman. Seeing a woman struggling and in need of assistance across a river, one carries her to the other side. He continues for the rest of the day with his companion, who finally explodes, “How could you carry that woman? You took a vow.” The first monk responds, “I only carried her across the river; you’ve carried her all day.” In one perspective, the monk was responding to the greater need for compassion than the limitation of his vow, and, in the second, the broken vow was unforgivable.

The first monk presumably suffered with the conflict between his vow to not touch a woman and his commitment to cultivating his compassion. This conflict was suffering – but briefly held as he moved on. The other monk presumably felt the same conflict but carried the suffering as his companion carried the woman.

Suffering is less about the objective pain or discomfort that we feel and more about how we view that pain – as having meaning or being pointless. (For more, see The Hope Circuit.) The way that we process the pain is substantially more important than the pain itself. (See Flourish for the difference between post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth.)

Basic Buddhist Meditation

There are many kinds of meditative practices and perspectives on those practices. However, the most basic meditative practices in Buddhism are about watching your breath or body. The idea is not that you’re trying to change anything. Instead, you simply watch your thoughts and gently guide them back to your breath.

Not only is there no condemnation if your mind wanders, there is an expectation that it will wander. Even the most practiced meditators find that their mind wanders from time to time, and they simply lead it back gently and firmly, like you would a child.

Embedded in this practice is a paradox. People often come to meditation to change their life, to make pains disappear, or to feel less anxiety. The meditation itself isn’t trying to change anything. People change through these practices while they’re not trying to change anything.

Impermanence

One of the things about our breath is that it is constantly changing. Each breath is slightly different from the last, like snowflakes gently drifting down into our consciousness before melting away. All of life is like these snowflakes, which are here for the moment and then gone or changed the next. Our perspective that things are permanent is an illusion.

Scientists typically prefer to picture time as being laid out along a line and that we are simply moving along that line. Everything that will happen has – in essence – already happened. While this challenges our belief in our free will, it helps us visualize impermanence. We don’t expect that our home will exist in the same way that it does forever – or that we’ll even own it. Instead, we can recognize that everything that we feel is permanent really isn’t.

Absolute-isms

We like to believe that the world is much more cause-and-effect than it really is. We like to forget that there are probabilities in everything. We believe that we’re going to drive to the store safely – even though there is a small chance of an accident. These absolute-isms that things are going to be OK are what allow us to function. (See Change or Die for more on this.) Trauma can take these absolute-isms from us and force us to deal with our world in a more realistic way.

For me, losing my brother to an airplane accident was probably my singularly worst moment. In addition to losing a brother and a friend, I had to confront that even the best pilot and mechanic could have a set of things happen that he couldn’t compensate for. I had to come face to face with knowing that, no matter how good a pilot he was, it wasn’t enough.

Emotions

The mistaken impression of most is that Buddha transcended emotion. He eradicated it from his life and from the things that burdened his spirit. However, in truth, it’s more accurate to say that he learned how to come to terms with his emotions. He didn’t fear that they would overtake him and run amuck. Nor did he berate himself for negative (or afflictive) thoughts. He learned to simply allow his emotions to pass by as he saw them.

So many people want relief from the pressures of their emotions. The result is they turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, and other maladaptive coping strategies to allow them to numb themselves from their unpleasant emotions. This approach is different than the approach of learning to work with your emotions.

The Problem of Attachment

Buddha was surrounded by those who thought that the path to enlightenment was found through denying oneself and through inducing more suffering. However, as Buddha articulated, life is suffering. There is then no reason to try to add to it. There is enough suffering. Conversely, there were those who believed that there was no reason to suffer, that they should live life to its fullest and be materialistic in their desires. This too, he thought was wrong. Thus, he developed a middle way, which acknowledges life for what it is and still seeks to make it better.

In the middle way, Buddha realized that there is nothing wrong with pleasure. The problems that most people ascribed to pleasure were really problems with attachment to the outcomes, objects, and people that are necessarily impermanent.

Integrated Self Image

Epstein speaks of Buddha’s dreams and how he learned how to accept himself fully. He didn’t trouble himself with second-guessing. He accepted his bad parts – and his good parts – as one integrated person. He isn’t the result of one decision, one thought, or one action. He’s one collective whole. This is a concept that I’ve written about before in my reviews of Rising Strong, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Clearly, it’s a recurring concept and important to me personally. I believe that developing an integrated self-image is key to surviving The Trauma of Everyday Life. What do you think?

Book Review-The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It

It’s rare that I choose to take a contrary view to what an author (or set of authors) says in their book. However, I did when I started digging into The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. It’s not that I don’t think that organizations have a role to play in helping their employees avoid burnout – or recover from it if they get there. That’s not the issue. I believe that employers are responsible to their employees for good working conditions, and getting the most from employees means helping them be their best in life.

The issue is whether I choose to place blame or not. Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter put crosshairs on the organization to blame them for employee burnout. The problem is that this is no fairer than placing the blame on the employee. In truth, there’s no blame to be had. It’s circumstances that cause people to burn out – whether they’re employees or entrepreneurs or volunteers. People burn out. We need to stop that no matter what the cause.

Dim View

My first highlight from the book is, “The workplace today is a cold, hostile, demanding environment, both economically and psychologically. People are emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted.” I see this as a dim view. It presumes that every organization is an inhuman place that squeezes the soul out of their employees. While I’m sure that there are organizations like this, there are equally as many that have a caring relationship with their employees.

Maslach and Leiter continue by listing the CEOs who they believe have excessive compensation packages and how things aren’t fair for employees. I’ll agree that many executives are overpaid. I’ll agree that it’s sad that, by 1994, the ratio between the CEO and the average “industrial wage” had jumped to 187:1. However, at the same time, I recognize the bias in the statements. As Richard Florida uncovers in The Rise of the Creative Class, the creative class is different than the working class or the service class. While Florida has primarily petitioned for the rise of wages for the service class – who are receiving the lowest wages – so, too, does the working class receive less compensation than the creative class. To compare CEOs – in the creative class – with those in the working class is capturing more than just the bias between leadership and the workers. It’s capturing a differential based on skills.

So, again, there are things that corporations can – and should – do to help employees recover from burnout and avoid it in the first place, but the perspective of Maslach and Leiter seems pejorative.

Burnout Misalignment

Maslach and Leiter write, “Burnout is always more likely when there is a major mismatch between the nature of the job and the nature of the person who does the job.” While this true, it misses the essential point. Burnout happens when people don’t believe that they’re effective at accomplishing their personal goals. As a result, when the organization’s goals aren’t aligned with one’s personal goals, or the role a person is in and their skills and natural tendencies are mismatched, there will be misalignment. This misalignment will diminish the capacity for a person to meet their personal goals.

So, at one level, there is truth that there’s an increase in burnout when the goals of the organization aren’t matched with the individual’s goals. However, at a completely different level, this is about how burnout surfaces in the ability of the individual to meet their goals.

The great opportunity that exists for organizations is in the capacity to allow employees to bend their personal goals towards those of the organization and for the organization to likewise bend towards the will of the employees. We see this in the recent tendency for organizations to have corporate responsibility statements and the trend towards B Corporations. (See Red Goldfish for more.) When employees are able to bend their personal goals towards the unified goals of the organization, the alignment will help to create a sense of community.

Community

Developing a community is a messy process. Bringing together people with different values and perspectives is necessarily messy. However, the resulting solutions and raw performance can be amazing. (See The Difference for more on how diversity of thought can be powerful.) Whenever you bring people together, there will be conflict. Maslach and Leiter write, “what is most destructive to a sense of community is chronic and unresolved conflict.” However, John and Julie Gottman would argue that unresolved conflict is a part of every intimate relationship. It’s not the presence of unresolved conflict that is the measure of a bad relationship but rather how it’s managed. (See The Science of Trust for more.)

Furthermore, I teach that conflict comes from only one of two sources. The first source is a difference in perspective. I see things one way, and you see it a different way. With good practices for dialogue, we can eventually discover what these perspectives are and, frequently, align them. (See Dialogue and Motivational Interviewing for good tips on how to discover and resolve perspective differences.)

The second source of conflict is value misalignment. Steven Reiss speaks of his 16 motivators (in other words, values) in The Normal Personality and Who Am I?. Johnathan Haidt discusses different foundations for morality (values) in The Righteous Mind. When you get the macro and micro values aligned between the organization and the person – and particularly from one person to another – much of the conflict evaporates.

Understanding of both perspective and values precedes the development of a firm community. However, while Maslach and Leiter see a sense of community as the ultimate goal to be aspired to, the writings of Richard Hackman, in Collaborative Intelligence, state that communities (or, in his terminology, “teams”) need to be permeable to accept new members. When the community becomes too insular and defined, it can reject attempts for new people to enter it. In today’s organizations, where turnover is an expected result, we must consider how we form our teams and our community.

Communities occur at all levels of the organization. Often, leadership is threatened or at least confused by allegiances to the community instead of to the broader organization. Communities are about developing mutual trust, and trust is contextual. Some trust is expressed in the local community of the immediate team and other – different – trust is expressed at the organizational level. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more on the dynamics of trust.)

Ultimately, we don’t want community; we want productive teams that can collaborate (work together) towards the goals of the organization.

Mutual Respect

Two of our basic human needs are to be accepted and respected. Acceptance is a prerequisite to working on diverse teams but is generally well understood. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) Respect is, however, often confused with agreement. It is possible to respect someone else’s perspective, values, and, ultimately, position even if you don’t agree with it. Respect starts with acceptance of the other person and their right to hold a different a position, but it builds upon it. Respect is built with the understanding of the other person’s position – even without agreement. (See The Titleless Leader for more on respect.)

Respect develops as people have the self-awareness to accept others, the conversational (dialogue) skills to truly understand the others’ positions, and the trust that the others will accept and understand you.

Basic Survival Mode

One of the quotes in the book from a high school teacher ends with, “So I’m just in a basic survival mode now.” This is a form of burnout. There’s no yearning, no reaching, and no trying. In short-term situations, this can be useful and necessary. When you’re in “survival mode,” you clamp down on the demands that are being made of you so that you can have time to recover. The problem is that sometimes people get stuck in basic survival mode without the opportunity to get out of it.

Survival mode clamps down on the demands that are being made so completely that it’s often impossible to start the self-care that allows you to recover, because self-care is in itself a demand. When employees are in this position, the best thing that the organization can do is to develop and implement techniques for temporarily supporting an employee – to give them a little slack that they can use to make investments in self-care. This could be systemic support like offering discounts on health care if they commit to a health regimen. It’s important that any support that doesn’t have secondary benefits be defined as temporary, so that the employee learns to stand on their own and doesn’t lean on the support as a crutch.

Sustainable Pace

A valid concern for burnout in today’s world is the reality that we are often working at a pace that is not sustainable. Every business struggles with short- and long-term priorities. It’s dividing in a way to try to ensure that day-to-day operations continue while finding ways to make strategic investments that pay off and allow for greater expansion, more revenue, and greater sustainability. However, in most organizations, this looks like trying to divide four by two and get four.

What we’ve learned from agile software development practices – and life – is that there is such a thing as a sustainable pace. We can push past the sustainable pace for a while, but to do so draws upon our reserves that eventually must be replenished. Organizations are at risk of increasing burnout when they’re unable to recognize the sustainable pace of their employees and only push them past it infrequently and in times of real need.

Fairness

The feeling that things aren’t fair – because they don’t meet your values of meritocracy or some other measure – are another friction point that makes it harder – but not impossible – for employees to avoid burnout. Fairness is fairly relative, being based on someone’s values and cultural expectations. For instance, in union shops, promotions are expected (and sometimes contracted) to be made based on tenure rather than merit. In some Eastern cultures, nepotism is the rule. If you approach an organization with the expectation of one system and find another, you’re likely to believe this isn’t fair. If organizations say one thing and do another, you’re likely to feel frustration, which will rob you of your power to get things done.

For my own sense of fairness, Maslach and Leiter have a wealth of great content in The Truth About Burnout. I just believe that sometimes they were so into the details that they missed the point. In a few places, I feel like their pejorative perspective on companies doesn’t reflect the symbiotic relationship that employees and companies are developing today. However, don’t take my word for it: read The Truth About Burnout for yourself and see what you think.

Book Review-Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive

There are sometimes in life when you just feel fried. You feel like there’s nothing more that you can do. You’ve given it all. This is the feeling of being burned out. In Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, Joan Borysenko seeks to help us all prevent that feeling from becoming one of long-term burnout.

Depression

As I’ve journeyed through this conversation around burnout, depression has been a constant shadow. (Some of the related works I’ve reviewed are Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement, Burnout: The Cost of Caring, Acedia & Me, and Women’s Burnout.) Depression is a class of disorders that are officially recognized in the DSM-5. It is, however, deceptively broad. There are so many diagnostic options, and, unofficially, there seems to be many causes.

The literature on burnout seems to indicate that there is a relationship – and that burnout predicts depression in some cases. This isn’t to say that burnout is always the cause of depression, but rather that it is sometimes the cause of depression.

This relationship – and the fact that depression is predicted to be the second leading cause of medical disability on Earth makes burnout an important concern. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for about the predicted prevalence of depression.)

Attached to Outcomes

Burnout thrives on the energy of high achievers. It’s at home in an environment where it can consume drive and spit out the results. In this way, burnout is no different than yeast that converts sugar into alcohol or makes bread rise. Burnout uses the fuel for its own conversions. One of the aspects of high achievers that makes them so susceptible to burnout is their zest for accomplishments.

Zest for accomplishments isn’t a bad thing. It drives us towards results. However, when we become too attached to outcomes, we forget what makes life worth living. We also miss the subtle cues that life gives us on how to be happy and go with the flow of life instead of against it.

Learning detachment is one of the goals of Buddhism as a philosophy. It is believed that pain comes from too much attachments to things – including outcomes. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on detachment.)

Life in Hell

One of Borysenko’s comments is that some forms of therapy make life in hell a bit more palatable. In other words, they don’t change the fundamental conditions that lead to the bad situation. Certainly, the use of some antidepressants falls into this category. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more on the use of antidepressants.) Though, many times, we can’t change our situation, and all we can do is to find a new – and better – way of dealing with it, there are times when the right answer is to change the circumstances.

The problem is that it’s complicated to untangle a life that’s gotten wrapped around burnout or snagged by the way that we grew up. Just like a tangle of cords, sometimes the first step is to create a bit of slack, so you’ve got room to move. That could be in the form of self-awareness or awareness of the problem. It could come in a different – more balanced – perspective of where you are in a situation. It can sometimes be a change in the situation. There’s no one answer.

Whatever strategy you choose to help get out of the pit of burnout, the key is to ensure that you don’t stay near where you started. Once you get out, it’s important to get away from what led you to problems in the first place.

When the Solution is the Problem

Borysenko relates the story from the Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) study of an overweight woman whose doctor saw a problem with her weight. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE.) She, however, saw her weight as a solution. Having been raped, she gained a hundred pounds so that she would be overlooked, and she wouldn’t have to face the risk of being raped again. (At least, this was the thinking.)

Sometimes, in conversations with addicts, they don’t see their drinking or drugs as the problem, it’s the solution. It’s the way that they can block out the painful feelings. They can use them to recapture a zest for life that they long to grasp, even for a few more moments.

Addictions (including eating) are just maladaptive coping strategies. They’re coping strategies that may have initially been effective, but they progressively took more and more control from us. They became compulsive and more dangerous.

Whenever assessing a situation, we need to consider whether what we view as the problem isn’t really a solution to some other problem. Sometimes the problem we see is perceived to be small in comparison with what the “problem” solves. It’s like a medication that has a long list of nasty side effects, sometimes people take it because it’s better than the alternative.

Stress Resilience

In the end, what all of us want is the ability to become resilient. We’ve discovered that we can’t stop the waves of change and challenge. Instead, all we can do is change how we respond to them. Instead of experiencing profound stress and burnout, we learn to accept the waves and not become overwhelmed by them.

Borysenko quotes the work of Kobasa and Maddi in their research about stress management during a time of profound change. They believe that three Cs are essential to this skill:

  • Control – There is the perception of some degree of control. (See The Hope Circuit.)
  • Challenge – Is what you’re facing a real challenge or threat to survival, or simply something that must change to meet new circumstances?
  • Commitment – The willingness to “show up” in all aspects of life.

The Bad with the Good

Whenever looking at research, it’s important to realize that there is some good even in the bad. The Cult of Personality Testing explains the issues with the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) – and I agree with those assessments. However, McClelland saw three categories in it that allowed for a greater understanding of people and why they become burned out.

  1. Need for Achievement – Some individuals have a greater need for achievement.
  2. Need for Affiliation – Some people have a greater awareness of their need to be connected.
  3. Need for Power – Some people need more power over others, perhaps as a way of compensating for how unsafe they feel.

Giving Yourself Away

One of the core things that causes burnout is the fact that the burned-out person tries to give themselves away. They give of themselves – too much – because they perceive that they have no value. They perceive that their needs aren’t as important as the needs of others. If you want to keep from becoming burned out, or Fried, you have to accept that you have value.

Book Review-Women’s Burnout: How to Spot It, How to Reverse It, and How to Prevent It

It might seem that I lack a fundamental characteristic that would make me able to use the information from Women’s Burnout: How to Spot It, How to Reverse It, and How to Prevent It; however, it’s a book that is most frequently referred to as a core book on burnout. It’s cited far more frequently than Freudenberger’s other book, Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement. That seems largely because, in Women’s Burnout, Freudenberger and North outline a 12-step continuum of burnout. In my continuing research of burnout, I had to make sure I read the classic.

Self-Awareness is Key

Very early in the book, the point is made that self-awareness is a critical step in battling burnout. The point is reiterated both subtly and directly as the book unfolds. The more clearly that you understand who you are, what you stand for, and where you’re going, the more clearly you can withstand the temptation to slip into burnout.

Of course, self-awareness is easy to say but difficult to achieve and perhaps more difficult to maintain. The more you become self-aware, the more you change – and thus the more you must consider who you are again.

Lies, Shame, Expectations, and Guilt

Much of the writing in Women’s Burnout speaks to the situational components that predispose women to patterns of thinking which aren’t helpful. The expectations are set up that a woman must be willing to deny their own feelings so that they can be charming – or entertaining, or pleasant, or whatever other words were used in their childhood. It’s not – generally – acceptable for a woman to have a voice. Changing social roles and perspectives are still in a state of flux, where the old Leave it to Beaver roles that many women’s mothers had are clashing with the expectations of today.

The unspoken message is that women today should be able to have everything. They should be able to keep a perfect home, a perfect marriage, and a perfect career. If they don’t, there is something wrong with them. After all, other people have it, what makes it so that I can’t? What is the flaw in me?

The lie is “if I could just work harder, or toughen myself up, it would all be working.” Of course, this isn’t a realistic or self-compassionate view. It’s built on shame and guilt. The chief concern when arriving at burnout isn’t how to be self-compassionate but is instead how to regain previous levels of productivity. If the voices are sending messages of shame and guilt — they will need to be altered to a more self-compassionate message.

Altered Thinking

When caught by the pull of burnout, we often find ourselves in denial. Denial isn’t all bad. It allows us the luxury of continuing to endure unreasonable pressures for the short term – but we can’t remain in denial forever. At some point, we need to accept reality; but until we do, denial has many tools:

  • Suppression – Active denial of the information, whether conscious or not.
  • Displacement – Feelings are transferred to another object, person, or situation.
  • Humor – A sleight of hand designed to distract from a serious condition or situation
  • Projection – Like displacement, there is a transference to another object, person or situation, but this time to shift the blame.
  • Fantasy and Daydreaming – The invention of a reality that’s more interesting or preferable to distract us from the reality we actually live in.
  • Selective Memory – Quickly sweeping ideas from consciousness and forgetting about them, so that they can’t be recalled.
  • Lying – Both denying to our self and to others that the situation exists. (However, denying to ourselves wouldn’t be considered a lie by some – see Telling Lies.)
  • Self-Labeling – Excusing behaviors as a part of your character – and minimizing them. “That’s just the way that I am” denies that there is a problem.
  • Selective Incomprehension – “I don’t know what you mean that I’m not myself.” Here, you deny the problem by making it difficult for the person who is trying to gently confront you to articulate the problem in a way that you can both understand.

Stress

Stress is a useful adaption that allows animals to survive. However, the way that we as humans process stress is the source of many health problems today. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.) While some stress can be useful, we often hold on to stress too long. There are some events that will cause us stress that we cannot change. However, one thing that we can do is to keep from holding on to that stress. It’s one thing to have the stress, it’s quite another to keep experiencing it. Here are five ways that Freudenberger and North say that we extend stress:

  • Backed-Up Anger – When we don’t allow ourselves to express our anger, we keep reliving it. Understanding that anger is disappointment directed (see Emotional Awareness) can help us release it and let it go. However, if your family didn’t accept any displays of emotion, this can be hard.
  • Denied Hostility – Failure to accept hostilities of our past, our broken and bruised places, makes it hard to live as people unintentionally keep bumping into these raw places.
  • Neglected Needs – When you don’t learn to tend to your own needs, you’re constantly feeling a “soul hunger” that keeps you from being whole.
  • Guilt – Though the word used is “guilt,” I’d suggest that it’s closer to shame. When you don’t believe that you’re good, you’re in constant state of fear that you’ll be found out. On the guilt side, you’re constantly having to make difficult tradeoffs that make you feel pain.
  • Low Self-Esteem – If you don’t think that you’re inherently valuable – or valuable enough – even small stresses linger as you wonder if they’re because of something you’ve done.

Reliving Family Dynamics

Imagine walking up to your new home and expecting the key that unlocks your parents’ home to unlock yours. On the surface, this seems silly. You wouldn’t expect that their key would open your lock. However, every day, we attempt to use the patterns we witnessed and experienced with them in our new relationships. The way that your family of origin worked is the way that you expect that your family will work today.

Each of us had a role to play in our family of origin, but those are not the roles that we should be playing – or should expect to be playing – today. Can you identify yourself in the following?

  • Appeaser – Quieting arguments or flare ups
  • Neutralizer – Anticipating and diverting trouble
  • Referee – Mediating the rules of balance and fair play
  • Caregiver – Providing sympathetic support for everyone
  • Sparkler – Garnering attention to divert attention from other problems and issues
  • Comedienne – Using humor to deflect confrontations, suspicions, and anger
  • Troublemaker – Provoking passion to gain attention
  • Leave-taker – Threatening a hasty exit to maintain control of the situation
  • Quiet absorber – Remaining mute though this implied consent.

It turns out that we’re mostly reliving these roles in our adult lives – or at least we may be – and these roles can be unrealistic and can lead to burnout.

Stages of Burnout

According to Freudenberger and North, the 12 stages of burnout are:

  1. Compulsion to Prove
  2. Intensity
  3. Subtle Deprivations
  4. Dismissal of Conflict and Needs
  5. Distortion of Values
  6. Heightened Denial
  7. Disengagement
  8. Observable Behavior Changes
  9. Depersonalization
  10. Emptiness
  11. Depression
  12. Total Burnout Exhaustion

They’re careful to say that the stages aren’t a strictly linear sequence with people having to go through each state. However, it’s clear that there’s a perception that each stage is more critical than the previous. There’s a sense that the higher you are in the stages, the more critical your state is.

What Is Wrong with Me?

Sometimes when reading a book, you see a single phrase that captures something that the author has been trying to convey for pages. The message has been hinted at, teased, and walked around but never addressed directly.

Sometimes the thought is so present and at the same time hidden that, when it finally is crystalized, you want to palm your forehead and say, “Duh.” When I stumbled across a quote that said, “Sometimes, I wonder what is wrong with me?” I realized that this is a key feeling or perspective that is deeply felt by those in burnout. There’s an inner shame that they’re not able to live up to their expectations.

Whether the expectations are internally or externally driven, they’re, well, expected. As a result, when you don’t meet them, there must be something wrong with you. This feeling of shame (see Rising Strong) so permeates with the feeling of burnout that you forget that it’s there.

The key to addressing the problems of burnout may be self-awareness, but part of it is the awareness that it’s not that there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing you need to add to be the person that you need to be.

Drugs

The topic of drugs was woven throughout Women’s Burnout. The use of uppers and downers – coke and marijuana – was in no way hidden. There were two very interesting comments that reveal the challenges with addiction. First, one woman began budgeting coke into her monthly budget, like paying the mortgage or her car payment. It wasn’t an optional thing any longer, it was a requirement to live. Second, most people use drugs to escape their lives. Drugs as a broad category allow people to escape something painful in their lives for a time. Women in burnout, it seems, use them differently. They use them to regain their vigor. (See Chasing the Scream for more on drugs and addiction.)

They look to feel more fully alive, to recapture some of what the burnout had taken from them – and, at the same time, get the energy to do the same things that caused burnout in the first place.

Women’s Burnout isn’t itself a drug, but it may just help you recapture some of what’s lost – though you likely won’t continue doing the things that lead to burnout in the first place. If you are or know someone who may be suffering from burnout, it’s a better solution than drugs.

Book Review-The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism

Martin Seligman is the father of positive psychology. In The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, he chronicles his life and the life of positive psychology. While I’m not generally prone to reading biographies or autobiographies, The Hope Circuit isn’t exactly that. Instead, it’s a view into the world that led to one of the most important course corrections in psychology.

Academia

Academia, on the one hand, represents the potential for intensely mind-expanding experiences, where your life is altered in positive ways. On the other hand, academia can be a backbreaking slog through the submission of grant proposals and articles.

Seligman describes his mind-expanding experiences with conversations that weren’t in a classroom but instead in the Wilson Lodge at Princeton. He explains that he has spent much of his career trying to replicate these conversations, since he believes that they’re the heart of what university is about. Universities can concentrate scholars who think and care deeply about topics. Bringing them together has the capacity to change their lives and the lives of everyone. After all, we owe a great deal to the Medici family in Venice for bringing together a diverse set of masters to ignite what we would call the Renaissance. (See The Medici Effect for more.) These experiences are inherently life-expanding and life-giving.

Conversely, Seligman admits that his “batting average” with grants and articles getting published is around one in three. It’s quite easy to see how someone could – and would – become disenchanted when they realize that much of their best work would go undiscovered, unrecognized, and unfunded. Seligman even shares one of the loose ends from his professional career around our sexual development, which hasn’t ever been followed up on.

Learned Helplessness

Seligman is perhaps most well known for his work with Steve Maier and the discovery of learned helplessness. That is, animals will learn that they can’t control their circumstances and will just lie down and “take it” instead of trying to escape the pain.

From the outside looking in, it should be obvious that the dogs could escape the pain. They simply jump over the barrier, and they’re safe. But it wasn’t obvious to the dogs. They had learned that nothing they did changed their circumstances, so they just accepted the shocks without any attempt to flee.

Interestingly, Seligman distinguishes his life from the dogs that were in the experiment by saying that he never gave up, even when he got depressed.

Depression

The newly-arrived assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Jim Geer, walked into Seligman’s lab and said, “Those dogs are depressed.” Seligman then spent much of the next 10 years trying to understand to what depression is – and, more importantly for the rest of us, what psychological factors might make people more or less immune to depression.

While far from having a single answer, Seligman’s path took a turn from helpless to optimistic, and he continued to look for factors. Optimism might hold the key to preventing depression from grabbing ahold of someone and bringing them down.

The prevailing understanding of depressives is that they’re afflicted by an inaccurate perception of the world and their lack of control. However, research shows that depressives’ perceptions are more accurate when they have no control. They believe they have no control. It’s the optimists that are wrong in that they believe they have substantially more control when they have none – their average estimate was 35% control. Control – or perceived control – it seems was a component of depression.

Control

Seligman and Maier were wrong. Helplessness wasn’t learned. Belief of control was. The default operating mode of the brain is to assume that things outside of oneself aren’t controllable. It’s a part of our control network that manages the how we feel about our situation.

The default mode when facing pain is the activation of dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), which releases serotonin (5-HT), which causes a series of releases that produce passivity and panic. That happens whether an animal is trained with “learned helplessness” or not. However, Maier himself identified that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) creates a set of new proteins that shuts down the DRN.

So, while they were wrong about helplessness being learned, they had the fundamental actions right: the lack of control produced helplessness. It turns out that our perception of control is the hope we can do something about our struggles.

Hope

In my opinion, hope is the most powerful force in the universe. It allows us to reach for the stars and dig into the depths. Hope is what powers us through difficult – seemingly impossible – situations. And hope is based on the idea that things can or will change. For most of us, the perception of the change agent in hope is ourselves. In those with learned helplessness, they’ve not learned the illusion of control. (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion.) Those with learned helplessness believe that things will always remain the same, because they can’t see anything that will change their situation and have no belief that they can have any impact.

C.R. Snyder in The Psychology of Hope broke hope into willpower (see Willpower) and “waypower.” Willpower is our belief that we can change things – and the courage to try. Waypower is our belief that we know how to change things – or the belief that it’s a solvable problem.

Though much of psychology has been focused on the past (and the hurts you acquired there) and the present (how you feel), hope moves us in the direction of the future. It’s a worthy goal when you’re looking to find a way for people to live out happy lives. It turns out that the way you think about your setbacks and the perception you have of your future makes a great deal of difference.

Attribution

The way that we attribute our failures along three dimensions dramatically influences their impact on us – and our ability to remain hopeful.

The first dimension is the internal vs. external dimension. Do I believe that I’m responsible for the problem or someone else is? Is the problem about me or the environment? Believing that I am responsible indicates an internal “locus of control.” In other words, I can – but may not choose to – change or address the problem. (My review of What Got You here Won’t Get You There speaks about the value of internal “locus of control.”)

The second dimension is whether the situation is temporary or permanent. There is a big difference between “I failed to make the three-point shot” and “I always miss three-point shots.” This is an area where Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset can be helpful.

The third, and final, dimension is whether the situation is specific or global. “I’m bad at geometric proofs” is different than “I’m bad at math.” The specific may be true but the global can almost never be true.

Viewing things as external, permanent, and global is a recipe for depression. Optimists tend to see problems as internal, temporary, and specific – expecting to get better the next time. While no one is an optimist or a pessimist at everything, each of us tends towards one of these directions.

Internal and External Validity

Controlled experiments hold a great deal of allure. It’s like a mathematical proof showing what causes what. Done correctly, you can seemingly answer a question completely. The problem is that the question is often very tiny. If the question is too large, it’s too hard to hold all the control variables in check and keep the experiment under control. Controlled experiments that answer tiny questions can be replicated by others and thereby validated. That’s the internal validity – they prove that, in these circumstances, X causes Y. In other words, they’re replicable. That’s the intrinsic beauty of them.

The problem with internal validity is that the real world isn’t neat, orderly, and controlled. Instead, the real world has complex problems and messy solutions. You can’t keep a fence around the real world to keep it out of your experiment. You can’t isolate all the variables with enough controls. However, what you can do is prove that something works in many (but not necessarily all) environments. You get the external validity that it works in the “real world” while accepting that the results aren’t as consistent or clear.

Both are absolutely necessary. You need the seeds of an idea to be created before it can be planted in the fertile soil of the world. However, no seed that isn’t planted becomes the plant it’s destined to be. Seligman, over his life, did both kinds of research but admits that external validity holds more interest now than internal validity. Perhaps that’s why he speaks of the Values in Action work that Chris Peterson did with reverence.

Values in Action

There are numerous personality type tests. I mentioned the Values in Action (ViA) test, available at www.authentichappiness.org for free, in my review of Seligman’s book Flourish. The test standard is largely alone in helping people find and leverage their greatest personality strengths – with the notable exception of the Clifton Strengths Finder test. (See Strengths Finder 2.0 for more on that test.) Tests like the Enneagram (see Personality Types), Reiss Motivation Profile (see The Normal Personality), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DiSC, etc. are all other ways to view personalities. There are also a host of other tests that are used more as weapons than ways to help. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.)

ViA allows you to focus on the values that are the most important to you and, in doing so, find ways to enjoy yourself and the life you’re creating with those around you in a more meaningful way.

Gross Domestic Happiness

Everyone has seen reports with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on it, but the problem is that this measure doesn’t account for any of the things that make life worth living. It doesn’t account for friends and colleagues and relationships that enrich our lives. It values suffering, as those who are suffering consume products and services to alleviate their pain, while making no allowance for the loss of joy.

Maybe we need a new measure with components that we don’t yet know how to measure. Maybe instead of measuring the GDP, we should be measuring the Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH)– maybe then we can find a way to see how the things we’re doing to ourselves and others are making the world a better or a worse place. Maybe if we were focused on GDH, we’d all be in search of our own happiness and read The Hope Circuit.

Book Review-How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

It’s sort of like sausage-making. You know what emotions are, but you’re not sure you want to know what goes in them. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain takes you through the journey where emotions aren’t consistent across cultures – or even people. The journey, if you’re willing to believe it, flies in the face of the thoughts of dozens of researchers. I’m not convinced that Lisa Barrett has all the right answers with How Emotions Are Made – but at least there are some things to think about.

Ekman FACS

I’ve been a fan of Paul Ekman’s work for some time. (See Emotional Awareness, Telling Lies, and Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code.) Even the Pixar movie Inside Out is a brilliant story around emotions and how our rational and emotional selves co-inhabit the same body. Fundamental to Ekman’s work is the belief that microexpressions reveal what someone is thinking very quickly and briefly. The premise of his work is that the microexpressions response is a recognizable pattern that happens before your conscious mind has the ability to stop it.

From a neurological point of view, there are some reasons to support this thinking. There are separate sensory pathways that get differing levels of processing, some of which allow you to trigger fight or flight reactions very quickly. However, Barrett says that the research doesn’t support Ekman and his perspective that microexpressions are real and consistent.

The problem is that I’ve looked at the research – including the research cited by Barrett – and though it identifies a set of problems with the theory, including the problem of emotions not being distinct, the research is far from saying that the entire model is bad. Even research that was unable to replicate the findings of microexpressions universally across the face indicates that there is something happening.

Ekman himself says that you must exercise caution in that, even if you feel strongly that a microexpression indicates the presence of an emotion, you can’t determine why that emotion was triggered. There may be reasons why other experiments partially replicated the findings. It can be that microexpressions aren’t sufficiently distinct or that the experimental controls didn’t contain unexpected variables.

There are training programs that have been created from Ekman’s work on microexpressions – including his Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and training programs created for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The criticisms Barrett levels seem squarely pointed at the lack of efficacy of the training program for DHS. Having created training programs for many years, I know that there is a winding road between the lab and the lieutenant. Who knows whether the concept is bad, or the training wasn’t effective?

System 1 and System 2

Daniel Kahneman’s work Thinking, Fast and Slow is a powerful explanation of how we think. He uses an idea of System 1 and System 2: System 1 takes the most common, everyday tasks and refers to the more calorically more expensive System 2 when it can’t handle the job. Once something is habitualized, it ends up in System 1. It’s automatic. System 2 is deep and rational thought.

Kahneman is careful to say that he views these as mental models rather than specific indications of brain regions, but many have said that System 1 is the basal brain, including the amygdala, and System 2 is the prefrontal cortex. Barrett asserts that this localization isn’t true, that emotions are composed from all over the brain, and that the lack of an amygdala isn’t enough to suppress emotion.

Here, there are many pieces. Kahneman’s work is based off earlier work of researchers who have moved on to a three-part model instead of a two-part model. My friend Paul Culmsee finds this distinction particularly interesting while I do not. For me it’s just a refinement of a model.

What’s more interesting to me is the nuanced nature of our learning of the brain. Barrett speaks about how Broca’s area isn’t the only component of the brain necessary for speech. As luck would have it, I just recently finished The Tell-Tale Brain, which speaks extensively about how speech works from a neurological point of view. At one level, Barrett is correct that speech isn’t exclusively processed in Broca’s area. However, syntactic structure does appear to be centered in Broca’s area – and that is most commonly used in the creation of speech.

Because there is still so much that we don’t know about the brain, I think it would be premature to indicate that there isn’t a space where emotions are rooted or triggered.

Degeneracy

Many neurons can create the same outcomes. It’s a process that builds redundancy into our brains. For instance, there may be multiple pathways today that can trigger the same fear response. It’s the principle of degeneracy – multiple paths leading to the same result. This concept seems to be inefficient; however, the inefficiency results in resiliency, something that evolution may have needed more. Donella Meadows cautions in Thinking in Systems about over-optimization and the lack of resiliency. Nassim Taleb is slightly more direct in his criticisms of over-optimizing the system in The Black Swan and Antifragile.

The degeneracy and plasticity of our brains allow us to recover from seemingly unrecoverable brain damage. Neuroscience has found that brains will rewire themselves to support the needs of the individual, whether it’s the larger hippocampus for London cab drivers (who need more spatial memory), or it’s how the normal workload of a damaged portion of the brain is taken up by other parts of the brain.

Simulations

Barrett notes that one of the brain’s primary purposes – if not the primary purpose – is prediction. It makes models of the world around us and then uses those models to predict what will happen next. In the book Incognito, it is made clear that we’re not perceiving reality. We’re perceiving some made-up idea that our brains have concocted.

We use these concoctions as models and run simulations – what Barrett calls predictions. Gary Klein was clear in his belief that we develop these models unconsciously, and we use them to provide predictions. (See Sources of Power for more.) Ultimately, we adjust our predictions when we perceive that our predictions are incorrect.

The problem is that sometimes our ego prevents us from accepting the mismatch between reality and our predictions, because it’s unwilling to give up its grip on the perceptions that it holds. Sometimes we become blinded to the discrepancies in the world and our beliefs. This sometimes manifests in disorders like schizophrenia. In these situations, it’s difficult for the person to continue to realign themselves to reality and to prevent their perceptions from drifting too far. Somehow the mechanisms, like humor, aren’t sufficiently effective to hold perception and reality into relative alignment. (See Inside Jokes for more on humor as a correction mechanism for predictions.)

Interpreting Interoception

Most people can describe bodily sensations which match their moods. Before taking a test or performing on stage someone might discover they have “butterflies in their stomach.” This is perceived as an indicator of anxiety. If you ask someone how they felt the first time they were kissed or when preparing for a special date, they may report the same feelings. In fact, you’ll infer the emotion that I’m trying to convey with “butterflies in my stomach” based on the context. You’ll assume I’m excited or anxious depending upon the context. We have learned to listen to our bodies and evaluate how we feel about something based on the way that our bodies are reacting. Our heart rate quickening may be a result of a spark of fear.

The problem that Barrett raises is that we can – and do – interpret our bodies signals incorrectly. We believe that we’re becoming attracted to someone – when we really have the flu. (Her example from the book.) Sometimes the things that we interpret as coming from our mental state are just side effects of our body doing its normal processing.

Our brain can and does make wild predictions about what is happening to our bodies on very little evidence.

Affect, Arousal and Valence

Affect, as described by Barrett, is a general sense of feeling – not an emotion, but simply a feeling. Other definitions say that affect is the expression of emotion. Affect is described as having two dimensions – arousal and valence. Arousal is how alert or relaxed you are – effectively, the relative state of the competing sympathetic (aroused) and parasympathetic (non-aroused) systems. Valence is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel.

I can say that I use an exercise in my information architecture workshops where I hand folks emotion words and ask them to categorize them. The intent is to indicate the degree of difficulty that sometimes occurs with content that you’re unfamiliar with. One of the most common dimensions that students attempt to categorize emotions into are positive and negative. Interestingly, Buddhists believe that emotions are afflictive or non-afflictive rather than positive or negative. (See Emotional Awareness.) Their point is that anger, for instance, can be non-afflictive if it motivates you to address the disappointment (anger is disappointment directed) and afflictive if it paralyzes you or causes you to ruminate.

Categorization

Barrett points out that, when we create categories, we’re not discovering similarities in the world, but rather we’re creating them. When my students are categorizing, they’re creating mental structures that allow them to simplify objects into categories that they can work with. These categories don’t objectively exist in the world, but they exist inside the heads of my students.

For each category, there’s a representative prototype. That is, for “furniture,” you’ll see a specific object. For most folks, it’s a chair, a couch, or a table. (I’ve done this exercise a few times.) If you put rugs into the furniture category, it will be difficult for other folks to find it there because the specific item looks and “feels” nothing like the prototype. Therefore, developing information architecture is difficult. You must recognize that not everyone sees things the same way, and there will be some items that don’t fit the prototype. Once you’ve created a category, you’ll fall into the trap of the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation) and be unable to think that others don’t know about the category.

Concept Development and Prediction

It’s a simpler model to think about information being processed linearly, from individual sensations up through concepts and into our perception. However, the reality is that the process isn’t linear. Things don’t flow only in one direction, from the many sensory neurons to the neuron clusters making up concepts. Instead, as we learned in The Tell-Tale Brain, the path is bidirectional. The information is fed upward, and as concepts are formed and predictions are made, that information is fed back into the neurons that are working on less-processed data.

We push data back from our concept into what we see, in some sense distorting it by amplifying the attributes that match our expectations. This isn’t a desirable situation but rather an adaptation. It is how evolution allowed us to be successful with so little processing power. We swing the spotlight of attention to the areas that are the most interesting. We identify ways of recognizing things that don’t require further processing and ways of identifying those that do.

We like to believe that the concepts we see are independent of our beliefs or predictions, but this isn’t the case. We see, as Chris Aryris said, what we expect to see. (See Organizational Traps.)

Words, Collective Intentionality, and Emotions

Barrett argues that emotions are social realities. They are, in a sense, a way of communicating our inner state to others. She further argues that having a word – or a name for the emotion — makes this substantially easier than having an emotion for which we have no word. (Actually, in some places, she implies it can’t be done, and in others, concedes it’s possible, just difficult.)

So, I’ll concede that our emotions are more complex than we’d like to believe. There’s more going on than a simple amygdala hijack. (See Emotional Intelligence.) There are ways of reducing sensitivity to amygdala hijack. There are factors – like adverse childhood events (ACE) that make it more likely. (See How Children Succeed.) So are our emotions constructed from our previous experience and our skills? Yes. However, I’m not convinced that this means that we have to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

I often think of Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) The rider can’t control the elephant when the elephant really wants something. However, I think of the rider-elephant relationship, and how your emotions can be calmed when the elephant (emotion) trusts that the rider (rational reason) will respect it and keep both the rider and the elephant safe. Building that metaphoric trust is the way that I believe we get better at managing our emotions.

I still don’t believe that I’ve figured out How Emotions are Made – and though I’ve got dozens of issues with Barrett’s sometimes skewed data and logic, the challenge of our assumptions about how emotions work makes it worth the time. Who knows, maybe you’ll figure out How Emotions Are Made.