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I recently heard Harvard Professor Ellen Langer present a keynote address on mindfulness, a topic she has studied for over thirty years. Her new book, Counterclockwise, summarizes decades of research on both mindfulness and the mindless use of labels. She discusses several fascinating studies that highlight how powerfully our thoughts impact our bodies.

One study, aptly named Counterclockwise, looked at how we label ourselves using the somewhat arbitrary designation of age. Two groups (experimental and control) of elderly men were sent on week long retreats. The experimental group was instructed to live for that week as if they actually were twenty years younger. They talked about current events from twenty years earlier as if they were happening in the present and were treated by staff like they were younger. By the end of the retreat, the men who essentially acted as if they were twenty years younger showed physical signs of enhanced youth, like greater flexibility, memory, and muscle mass. The powerful effect of labeling works to both enhance and diminish youth. For example, men who are physically reminded of their age by balding or gray hair, tend to show other signs of age, like disease, earlier than their non-balding, graying counterparts.

Most people have heard about the placebo effect: patients feel better after taking sugar pills that they believe are real medicine. Usually, we talk about the placebo effect in a dismissive way; it is seen as detracting from the real intervention or medicine. Ellen Langer turns this reaction on its head by begging the questions: Why does the placebo effect work? And what if we devoted our energy to understanding and enhancing the placebo effect?

Placebos work because we believe an intervention or medicine to be effective. Beliefs are a form of labeling: “yes, this intervention/medicine will help me.” If these labels, our beliefs, can impact our bodies in positive ways, why not harness that power?

Ellen Langer’s work made me realize the power of labels and the importance of being mindful of them, whether they be labels of age, disease, beliefs, likes, or dislikes. Labels start a chain reaction that can either enhance or detract from our lives; either de-motivate us or motivate us; either tire us or energize us.  I choose to be mindful and label intentionally and positively.

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IMG_5468A small Irish man in tight leather pants with a larger than life persona recently reminded me of the power of “peak experiences.” Those who have had the opportunity to see U2 live would likely agree that Bono has a gift for making performances transcendental. He links songs to current events, humanitarian efforts, and activist causes, literally singing for a mission. This, combined with his outstanding flair for the dramatic, make his concerts emotively powerful, thought-provoking, and truly unique.

Ask anyone what they were doing on September 11th, 2001, and they will describe their experience in vivid detail. While intense unpleasant emotions elicit vivid memories, the same holds true for intense pleasant emotions. Abram Maslow defined “peak experiences” as “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment” where we feel unified with the world around us. Like being in a state of “flow,” we lose track of time and self-consciousness; but peak experiences also include transcendental feelings like awe, amazement, joy, and ebullience.

Peak experiences, like weddings, graduations, and certain concerts, to name a few, provide us with landmarks of positive experiences that we can recall and savor throughout our lives. What defines an event as “peak” is subjective. The importance is not so much what makes an experience a “peak,” rather when and how often we have those experiences.

Some people think it is impossible to pursue or create peak experiences, arguing that they need to happen spontaneously and unexpectedly. I agree to a certain extent. However, many of us know that certain types of experiences will likely bring extreme joy into our lives; therefore, we can prioritize them. I attended the U2 Elevation tour in 2001 and knew, based on my previous experience, that the 2009 concert would be equally amazing. The tight black leather pants did not disappoint!

The best athletes and performers intuitively know that high standards and challenging goals motivate them to succeed greater and greater accomplishments. Olympian Michael Phelps keeps a list of his swimming goals on his night stand and speaks readily about the importance of stretch imagesgoals.

Several years ago, I decided to stretch myself. I have always loved dancing, playing music, acting, and other forms of artistic expression, but I have never felt at ease up on stage. Eventually, with some practice, I performed with excitement, confidence, and joy at the annual Middle Eastern Dance festival to a sold-out crowd. Not only did I feel comfortable doing so, I felt exhilarated!

The research on goal-setting argues that the best goals are both “challenging” and “specific.” Stretch goals can always be broken down into smaller, less risky, steps. But starting with smaller goals that are too easy to accomplish may lead to a lack of motivation. The accomplishment of achieving that stretch goal ultimately leads to a boost in self-esteem; with one caveat – stretch goals can backfire in areas where we feel particularly vulnerable, sensitive, or have already experienced multiple failures.

So, try setting a goal that will challenge you and make you see yourself in a new way if you ultimately accomplish it. What’s your stretch for 2009?

  • Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide by Caroline Adams Miller
  • Hollenbeck, J.R. & Klein, H.J (1987). Goal commitment and the goal-setting process: Problems, prospects, and proposals for future research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(2), 212-220.
  • Latham, G.P. & Yukl, G.A. (1975). A review of research on the application of goal setting in organizations. The Academy of Management Journal, 18 (4), 824 – 845.

If you live in Bergen County, New Jersey, don’t try to go to IKEA on Sunday. It is, IKEA Bergen Countryin fact, the only IKEA store in the United States closed on Sunday. This is due to an ordinance that, despite multiple attempts at repealing, still requires all retail stores in a highly populated and commercial county to stay closed every Sunday. While Bergen County represents an unusual extreme, many stores and restaurants across the world stay closed one day a week either by law or by choice. This tradition that has roots in many different religions seems to be mandated in secular domains as well. It appears that the benefits of rest extend beyond the spiritual – and both religions and states alike feel compelled to remind us.

I first learned about the idea of designing a sacred day from a Jewish Life class I attended in preparation for a mixed-faith marriage. I was brought up with the tradition of food, family, and attending worship on Sundays; which his not unlike a traditional Sabbath day for Jews on Saturdays. But the progressive Rabbi leading this class opened up a new possibility – the idea of custom designing one’s own day of rest by asking the question: What helps me feel rested and nourished each week?

Each of us has different values, needs, and expectations. Some people feel rested after large gatherings of their friends, family, and community. Some people feel rested by taking a solitary hike, bike ride, or swim. Some people wind down by reading. Some rejuvenate by attending a religious service, meditating, or praying. I love to clean the house, write, and cook in solitude, which provides me time to reflect and gather my thoughts, followed by a relaxing evening with my husband.

I believe a day of rest becomes sacred when we define it according to our own rules and standards. What does your sacred day look like?

by Allison Aboud Holzer

In my work at Yale, I think and talk about emotions every single day. Recently, I got certified to administer and interpret the only ability-based assessment in Emotional Intelligence called the MSCEIT (Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test), designed by the original creators of Emotional Intelligence. According to this model, there are four sub-categories of Emotional Intelligence skills:

  1. Accurately Recognizing emotions,
  2. Using emotions effectively,
  3. Understanding emotions, and
  4. Regulating emotions.

Most people score higher in some EI skill areas than others. The research tells us, however, that emotion regulation (#4) predicts success in relationships, school, and work more than any other skill area. The ability to regulate one’s own emotions and the emotions of others turns out to be a vital life skill.

What is emotion regulation? Jonatan Mårtensson captures the essence of emotion regulation when he said: “Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf.”

Essentially, emotion regulation is the ability to make conscious decisions about how to express, internalize, communicate, and experience emotions. It’s what allows some people to remain calm in the face of extreme danger, to think rationally in an emotionally charged situation, and to handle difficult circumstances in ways that maintain, rather than damage, relationships with others.

Many people think of emotions as irrational and unwieldy; but in reality, a moment of time exists between a trigger event and our reaction to it. Using simple strategies like taking several deep breaths, taking a walk, or distracting our thoughts for a few seconds can buy us extra time to contemplate how we want to react to the situation in a way that cultivates our own well-being and relationships with others.

Emotion regulation is quite personal. Not only do strategies vary depending on the person using them, but they also vary by emotion. For example, when I’m feeling frustrated, it helps me to take a few deep breaths; however, when I’m feeling anxious, breathing doesn’t help me as much as exercising or taking a short walk.

The challenge of this bliss tip is to become more conscious about how you regulate (or don’t regulate) your emotions effectively. Try keeping a journal for a week and writing about the various ways you handle your emotions and the effectiveness of these strategies. If you aren’t the journaling type, have a discussion with a friend or read a related book. The process of self-discovery will undoubtedly lead to a new level of awareness that can only enhance your EI skills!

by Allison Aboud Holzer

My high school Latin teacher, Mr. Aylor, used to pride himself on telling puns and witty jokes to make sindercudlearning Latin fun. I remember his favorite: “I once had a pupil named Iris. Day after day in class she kept winking at me! Finally, I said to her, Iris, put a lid on it!” Mr. Aylor also loved to tell us about unusual Latin roots to modern words. For example, the origin of the word “rumination” comes from the Latin word ruminare, which literally refers to the act of cows chewing their cud. While modern use of the word rumination can still sometimes refer to chewing food, in most cases the term is used to describe excessive worrying.

This cud chewing metaphor turns out to be quite appropriate in terms of how most people experience the act of worrying. While fear and anxiety about an upcoming event do not necessarily lead to rumination, they might. Essentially, rumination starts with a basic fear or worry, in the form of a negative thought that our minds chew on over and over and over again until the thought becomes all consuming. It sounds like a big downer, right? And yet people ruminate because they think the act of worrying will actually be productive.

As Van Wilder (movie) says, “worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.”

Not only is ruminating unproductive, but it actually diminishes well-being by increasing stress and negative emotions. There is some evidence that the tendency to ruminate is hereditary. One of the Big Five personality traits, neuroticism, is a genetically inherited trait that correlates with high rumination and lower levels of happiness, positive emotions, and well-being.

But, here’s the good news for worry-prone people: while genetics are powerful, they only account for about 50% of our tendency to ruminate. There’s some wiggle room to spit out the grass and move on to greener pastures!

Turning off the rumination switch, however, requires mental self-discipline and willpower – the same kind we use to remember to brush our teeth every night and stick to a new healthy food or exercise regimen.

Reducing rumination requires building a new kind of mental muscle. It gets stronger by practicing the act of letting worry go with the same consistency, dedication, and perseverance applied to lifting weights, swimming, or jogging. And fortunately, like working out, this sort of exercise is more difficult at first, gets easier over time, and eventually becomes a routine that is easily missed.

  • Lyubomirsky S, Nolen-Hoeksema S. (1995). Effects of self-focused rumination on negative thinking and interpersonal problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(1),176-90.
  • Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(3), 504-511.
  • Papageorgiou, C., & Wells, A. (2004). Depressive rumination: nature, theory and treatment.

by Allison Aboud Holzer

Two important things help us achieve our goals: letting go of past mistakes and envisioning future success. Psychology research supports that expressive writing about one’s goals has numerous benefits for health, emotional adjustment, resiliency, motivation, and well-being (Smyth, 1998), while also increasing the likelihood that the goals will be achieved. How does expressive writing help people let go of emotional baggage and take hold of a more empowering future?

First, something about the writing process helps us organize our thoughts in new ways and frameworks. We begin to create new narratives for our pasts and our futures. Taking ownership of our stories makes us feel more in control, benefiting our resiliency and self-esteem. Second, writing about our “most cherished” selves captures our values and our priorities, and helps us gain insights about how we can use these qualities into future endeavors. We begin to feel less conflicted about our goals as we gain a better understanding of our true motivations and feelings (King, 2001; Pennebaker, 1998). Finally, imagining future success can boost psychological well-being and motivation, improving the likelihood of achieving the goal (King, 2001; Pham & Taylor, 1999).

Psychologist Laura King studies two specific types of beneficial, expressive writing assignments: “best possible selves” and “lost possible selves.” For this Bliss Tip, try out each one of these two writing assignments:

  1. Lost Possible Selves: Write for 20 minutes at a time about different experiences for 3 days in a row. Here are your specific instructions: “Think about a goal in your life that was once very important to you; but, due to life circumstances, you can no longer achieve this goal. If only you had been able to achieve this goal of your past, what would your life have looked like? Now, write about what you imagined.”
  2. Best Possible Selves: Write for 20 minutes at a time about different experiences  for 3 days in a row. Here are your specific instructions: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”

The Best Possible Selves sound fun, but why write about regrets? Writing about past mistakes and goals that no longer make sense for our lives can help us come to terms with them and replace regret with resolve.

  • King, L. A. (2007). The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  • King, L. (2001). The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27 (7), 798 – 807.
  • King, L. (2004). Lost and Found Possible Selves, Subjective Well-Being, and Ego Development in Divorced Women. Journal of Personality, 72 (3), 603-632.
  • King, L.A., Hicks, J.A. (2007) Whatever happened to “What might have been”? Regrets, happiness, and maturity. American Psychologist 62(7), 625-636.
  • Pennebaker, J.W., et al (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 2, 239-245.
  • Pham, L.B. & Taylor, S.E. (1999). From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance . Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(2), 250-260
  • Smith, J.M. (1998). Written Emotional Expression: Effect Sizes, Outcome Types, and Moderating Variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66 (1), 174-184

by Allison Aboud Holzer

It seems obvious: a Freshman in college is trying to decide between majoring in Econ or Biology and asks current seniors in both majors for their perspectives, right? A couple is cover-mid_tradedeciding between purchasing a home in two different neighborhoods and asks current neighbors in both about how they like the area, right? A career switcher is interested in the biotech and pharma industries and interviews people working in both before deciding which to pursue, right? These are definitely the right ideas, but, unfortunately, few people actually practice them when faced with challenging decisions.

Harvard Psychology Professor, Daniel Gilbert, discusses this dilemma in his book called Stumbling on Happiness, and recently published new research on the topic. Two new studies found that we are much more accurate predicting future happiness about a college major, neighborhood, or job industry, if we simply seek out neighborly advice. Unfortunately, however, few believe this to be true; therefore, few actually do this. Instead, we have a tendency to make decisions based on what we think will make us happy (called “mental simulations” or “forecasting”). The result is frequent inaccuracy about future happiness.

Gilbert’s article quotes the 17th century writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld, who suggested that “Before we set our hearts too much upon anything, let us first examine how happy those are who already possess it.” His research supports this hypothesis, which seems like common sense. So, why don’t we do this?

The simple answer is that we humans like to believe that we are unique. We believe so strongly in individual differences that we discount others’ experiences and expect ours to be different. Gilbert suggests two reasons why others’ experiences are not so different than our own: 1) emotional reactions are instinctual even when specific beliefs and opinions differ (both pro-life and pro-choice people will feel angry when their beliefs are threatened by the passing of a new law), and 2) the people in our social networks tend to share similar values and personality traits. Nevertheless, “when we want to know our emotional futures, it is difficult to believe that a neighbor’s experience can provide greater insight than our own best guess.”

But since seeking neighborly advice is the best way to make a decision, this Bliss Tip asks you to take a leap of faith this year when making big decisions by asking others about their experiences. Not willing to act on faith alone? Try it out with smaller decisions first, like where you’d like to try dinner tonight!

  • Gilbert, D.T., Killingsworth, M.A., Eyre, R.N. & Wilson, T.D. (2009). The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice. Science (323), 5921.

by Allison Aboud Holzer

Some people are natural nesters. When we first moved to New Haven, I couldn’t even sleep at night knowing that boxes were left unpacked. My home space is a haven to me and I need to be surrounded by images of people I love and souvenirs from memories I cherish in order to relax. I have a friend from college who, not to make a gender stereotypical comment but, seriously needs a woman’s touch to make his home cozy. Imagine white walls everywhere and just the bare essentials – clean and tidy, but completely impersonal.

A researcher named Barbara Kerr has studied the characteristics of what she defines as “happy homes.” One of her findings is that happy homes have pets, plants, and pictures! Before you jump out of your seat to make a run to your local florist – let me clarify that this finding is a correlation; there is no causal evidence to suggest which comes first, the chicken or the egg. In other words, it’s unclear whether happier people tend to be drawn to pets, plans and pictures; or, whether or not pets, plants, and pictures actually help make people feel happier.

Evidence to the latter is mostly speculative at this point. We know that pets have a positive impact on our moods (see Bliss Tip #1) for multiple reasons. It may be that the act of nurturing and deeply caring for another being, whether a pet or a plant, brings us a sense of fulfillment in our lives.

What about pictures? Well, we can argue that seeing pictures of people we love or other items that spark memories of joyful events encourages us to engage in something called “positive reminiscence.” Simply savoring past positive memories gives us a mood lift.

However, the truth is that pets and plants require a certain level of time commitment and may not be for everyone. So, I will focus on the third point about pictures and personalizing the home. For those of you feeling inspired by this post, here are a few ideas to get you started…

  1. Find and display pictures around of yourself and/or your spouse (or siblings) throughout your childhood, next to one another at around the same age.
  2. Create a Snapfish or Kodak album collage for each year that includes the top 1-3 photos from each major even of the year. Stack them around your house where you (and guests) can easily find them and browse through them.
  3. Collect one item – ticket stub, rock, napkin, be creative! –  from each family vacation that represents the spirit of the trips and display them around the house to savor those memories.
  4. Create and display a family tree! There are many software programs to help do this, or you can make one of your own.
  5. Ask your grandmother or parents for items from their childhood and place them around your home.
  6. Mark your calendar to rotate your pictures at least once a year to keep them fresh.
  7. Place photos of friends and family in unexpected, but visible, places – like inside drawers you open often.

As you get busy personalizing your home, send me your creative new ideas to add to this list!

  • B Kerr and C Chopp – Encyclopedia of Creativity, 1999
  • Robert Biswas-Diener and Ben Dean, Positive Psychology Coaching, 2008

by Allison Aboud Holzer

What’s sugar got to do with living a purposeful, meaningful, and blissful life? Both the presence and absence 250px-agave_tequilana01of it impacts how we feel. Scientific research shows that refined sugars and simple carbohydrates temporarily elevate mood (Prasad, 1998; Horton, 1987). The key word here being “temporary.” As many of us know, refined sugar treats quite effectively provide a short-term mood fix or bliss-boost.

Children seem to understand this intuitively. In my work at Yale, I visit multiple classrooms a year to see how students are learning and implementing Emotional Literacy in the Classroom (ELC) (Brackett & Rivers, 2008). This program teaches students how to develop strategies to regulate their emotions. Initially, before they learn more effective long-term strategies, students often voice eating ice cream or other sweet snacks as a way to feel better.

In the short-term, sugar provides a boost – but ultimately we crash and then need to consume more to quick-fix again, creating an unhealthy cycle of highs and lows. Long term sugar dependency may lead to mood swings, depressive feelings, and rumination about cravings, much like addictions to caffeine or other chemicals. Some people argue an abstinent approach is necessary to kick the sugar addiction, much like an alcoholic trying to stay sober. And for some, this strategy might work. Just the taste of sugar (refined or artificial) initiates cravings to eat more, making it even harder to resist.

For most people, however, this all-or-nothing approach is unrealistic and perhaps unhealthy. Psychologists who study goal setting report that repeated failures to meet overly ambitious goals ultimately reduce self-esteem and motivation. While “stretch goals” may be highly effective motivators, usually this is the case in areas when some level of motivation and confidence already exist. When feeling stuck or unmotivated, it is a more effective strategy to break goals down into small, concrete, and achievable benchmarks that enhance our self-esteem and motivation as each benchmark is achieved.

The long-term benefits of reducing sugar are clear: lower risk for disease, fewer cravings and mood swings ultimately contributing to a more balanced, content and serene life! So, without making Bliss Tip #16 an unrealistic “stretch goal” to make an extreme lifestyle change, instead I recommend simply reducing refined sugar in your regular diet in three new ways this year, like committing to use agave nectar to sweeten your coffee. If you don’t know how, order the book Get Sugar Out!

Breakey J (1997). The role of diet and behavior in childhood. Journal of Pediatric Child Health, 33: 190-194.

Horton JR & Yates AJ (1987). The effects of long-term high and low refined-sugar intake on blood glucose regulation, mood, bodily symptoms and cognitive functioning. Behavior Research and Therapy, 25: 57-66.

Prasad, C (1998). Food, mood and health: a neurological outlook. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 31(12) 1517-1527.

Yudkin J (1982). Pure, White and Deadly: The Problem of Sugar. Davis Poynter, New York.

Welcome to the Pursuit-of-Happiness.org Bliss Blog!

POH is an organization committed to the pursuit of happiness through education. This blog offers a forum to discuss happiness, positive psychology, fulfillment, and other related topics. While POH has created this forum for community learning and discussion, please note that blog entries reflect the opinions of the individual bloggers and not the POH organization. I invite you to peruse the site and respond with your feedback and insights!

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