Saturday, December 16, 2017

Inspirational Quote – December 16, 2017

“Go after your dream no matter how unattainable others think it is.”

Naysayers…they’re everywhere! If I think back on how many times people told me I couldn’t do something, which to me was merely a challenge, my life would be completely different. If you have a dream, a desire, a mission, follow your heart! Taking that leap of faith off the cliff will either teach you to fly or teach you to swim!

Susyn Blair-Hunt

Great Writers on the Letters of the Alphabet

Late in life the English poet, novelist, essayist, and social justice advocate Sir Stephen Spender asked artist David Hockney to draw each letter of the alphabet, then invited twenty-nine of the greatest writers in the English language to each contribute a short original text for one of the letters. Among them: Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, Martin Amis, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Ted Hughes, Ian McEwan, Erica Jong, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Iris Murdoch. The result was the 1991 out-of-print Hockney's Alphabeta sublime addition to the canon of imaginative alphabet books, with all proceeds going toward AIDS research and care for people living and dying with AIDS. Enjoy those available here on Brain Pickings!

Friday, December 15, 2017

What Can a Historian Reveal About Positive Psychology?

A Q&A with Daniel Horowitz, who investigated the history of the positive psychology movement in America.

The field of positive psychology has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Now almost everywhere you look, you see articles in mainstream publications about the science of happiness and emotion, purporting to tell us the secrets to achieving a happier life.
Historian Daniel Horowitz, professor emeritus at Smith College, became fascinated with the rising popularity of this scientific movement. But he was also disturbed by some of the larger social and political themes many in the field seemed to ignore—things like wealth inequality, racism, and the benefits of collective political and social action. He decided to take a closer look at where the movement started and who was contributing to its popularity, as well as what might be missing from the discussion.
The result of his research is his new book, Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America. Horowitz’s book is full of interesting insights into the positive psychology movement and its proponents, as well as an engaging criticism of a science that may be more nuanced than its proponents claim. His book points toward the need for more rigorous science, as well as an understanding of the political implications of particular research questions.
I spoke with Horowitz to ask him about what we can learn from the history of positive psychology and how he hopes the movement will evolve. Below is an excerpt of our interview.
Jill Suttie: How do you think understanding the history of positive psychology helps us to understand the science better?
Daniel Horowitz: Historians think differently from experimental scientists. We’re interested in why ideas emerged at a particular time, what contexts shaped them, and how those working now on these ideas drew on other thinking from the past. Doing that enables historians to see where ideas started. And, since it’s hard these days to avoid seeing discussions of happiness daily in the media, I thought it would be important to explore where and how the science of happiness started. People should be well-informed about positive psychology, because it is a field that is shaping the lives of millions of people.
JS: You argue in your book that the science of positive psychology has been influenced by social and political movements during its development. Can you explain that?
DH: There’s no one-to-one relationship. Just because in the 1970s America hit a very rough patch for a number of reasons doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going be directly reflected in the work of science. Scientific studies, as you know, have their own logic.
But the choice of what to study doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s shaped by a number of things—the desire to get a Ph.D., to finish your work, to get a job, what your mentor has studied. It’s also shaped by these larger forces.
For example, post-traumatic growth is a key concept for positive psychologists. It has a long history, going back to 1946 when Viktor Frankl published Man’s Search for Meaning. I can see references to his work in the footnotes of people who later studied post-traumatic growth; so, the idea that we grow from terrible, horrendous experiences—in his case, working as a doctor in the concentration camps—is not just floating out there by itself, but can be traced to Frankl’s work and the horror of the Holocaust.
For a historian, events have power. And they have power to shape what historians do, what literary scholars do, and what scientists do. It’s not as if a scientist reads about the election of Ronald Reagan or the change in the Immigration Act in 1965 and decides to engage in a certain kind of scholarly endeavor. It’s not that simple. But these things are floating around, and external events—political and social events—are just one of many factors that govern scientific research.
JS: You write that mainstream positive psychology resonates with cultural conservatism, especially among those who emphasize tough character traits over empathic or compassionate ones. What do you mean by this?
<a href=“”><em>Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America</em></a> (Oxford University Press, 2017, 320 pages)Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America (Oxford University Press, 2017, 320 pages)
DH: Before Martin Seligman’s 1998 Presidential Address of the American Psychological Association, there was an immense amount of scientific work on happiness. Seligman, more or less, invented the term “positive psychology,” although it had been used before by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. But Seligman had a tremendous influence in shaping the field, among many factors, by his ability to marshal resources from foundations, from private donors, from governments, etc. So, when I say mainstream positive psychology, I mean in part that strand shaped and promoted by Martin Seligman.
What’s interesting about positive psychology (or happiness studies) is the wide range of political perspectives that are offered in the field. Despite accusations that academic fields have been overly shaped by those on the left, positive psychology is actually a place where people in the field occupy a wide range of political positions.
What does this mean? It means that the work of different scientific researchers is influenced by different political questions. Richard Layard is interested in how to use government to achieve greater happiness. There’s a major initiative in Britain surrounding mental health, for example. It’s based on the argument that you get more gross national happiness if you lift people out of poverty than if you give more money to the upper 0.1 percent.
Seligman’s work with the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program—how to help soldiers who have had consecutive services in Afghanistan and Iraq—is shaped by his belief that toughness and resilience are what matter. That’s more of a conservative view.
[Greater Good Science Center founding director] Dacher Keltner has focused on how compassionate touch is essential to people’s well-being, and therefore putting people in solitary confinement deprives them of those essential daily human interactions. His interest in the importance of touching to people is, in part, because of a decision to pursue a certain line of research that has policy implications.

JS: In your view, how does the Greater Good Science Center’s work fit into positive psychology?
DH: It’s clear that the Greater Good Science Center reports on things others don’t and calls for interventions that many other psychologists don’t. For instance, race and racism, gender, and social class are greatly understudied among most cognitive psychologists. But the Greater Good Science Center focuses on these and on interventions that most people in the field don’t talk about—how to overcome racism, how to talk to our children about politics, about the anger we see in this society, about environmental degradation and climate change. These are big issues with very little discussion in the field overall.
There are a lot of studies about whether being involved in a marriage or a certain kind of school classroom makes people happy. But we have almost no study looking at whether joining a political organization or a political protest makes people happy or not. We don’t know whether joining a labor union or not makes people happy or increases their well-being. So, it strikes me that there are vast areas of human activity in the United States that are understudied.
JS: You write that mainstream positive psychology has moved away from studying happiness as a positive emotion and toward eudaimonia—an Aristotelian view of well-being based on a virtuous life. What are the consequences of moving in that direction?
DH: I think it’s clear that hedonic pleasures—like back rubs or eating chocolate—don’t offer much in the long run. Though important to people for the moment, they are not important for them in the long term or in their more global sense of well-being. The movement away from—or in addition to—hedonic happiness, and toward a focus on meaning and purposefulness, is to be fully welcomed and embraced, because that shift helps scientists and people like me understand the importance of a much broader range of experience.
JS: You write about the economist Daniel Kahneman’s influence on positive psychology. What did he contribute?
Dr. Daniel HorowitzDr. Daniel Horowitz
DH: I love his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, and how it emphasizes the difficulty we have predicting the results of decisions we make. I find that to be so powerful and important in positive psychology.
For example, there are two ways of measuring happiness in the scientific literature: experienced and remembered happiness. Researchers who focus on remembered happiness tend to conclude that we are happier, in general, than researchers who focus on experienced happiness do. Kahneman focuses on experienced happiness; so, his work is a very important warning not to overestimate how happy we are, and not to rely too heavily on certain ways of measuring happiness.
His emphasis on the difficulty of predicting the consequences of our behavior also seems to me to be a warning to positive psychologists to be very careful in their assumptions. Exercises that work in the laboratory or in survey research may not, in fact, be as effective as we think. His skepticism and caution are quite important to remember. 

JS: How have neuroscientists like Richard Davidson impacted the field of positive psychology?
DH: I think his studies of the neuroscience of happiness are powerful and interesting. His testing of monks and others who have had decades of meditation is really important work, and it has implications for how we should live. Although I’ve never meditated myself, I admire his work enormously.
Also, Davidson’s work reminds us that it’s not just genetics that influences happiness, but how the brain works. Neuroscience research like his has broken open this field. We may be on the verge of really discovering the neuroscience of happiness—the brain chemistry, the brain structure of happiness—that may well enable us to make strides in [practical] interventions.
JS: Do you think criticisms of positive psychology research have been addressed adequately?
DH: Criticism about countering the excess emphasis on positivity, and calling for an emphasis on the negative as well, has been well understood and taken to heart. There’s also a worry within the field of moving too fast from a bench science or experimental science to popularization. But there’s not as much focus on that as I’d like to see.
There are a lot of people—like Gretchen Rubin, Martin Seligman, Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman—who’ve popularized positive psychology and are read by tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. I’m fascinated by the kind of excitement that their books conveyed—about how they can transform your life. That’s a danger of exaggeration, caused by too much quickness to move toward popularization.
On the other hand, the benefits are enormous. And certainly Greater Good has been part of that. I don’t want to deny for a minute that tens of millions of people, if not more than that, have been transformed by mindful meditation, by adopting aspects of Buddhism, by cultivating more resilience or compassion or altruism. There’s no doubt in my mind that those scientifically verifiable conclusions have influenced and improved the lives of many.
JS: What do you hope people will take away from the book?
DH: I have hopes that some of the things I say will encourage more political dialogue across ideological lines. I hope that some of the issues I raise in the book—immigration, class, etc.—will become more widely studied. I’d like to know whether being in the Tea Party or in Black Lives Matter impacts people’s sense of well-being. I don’t think those studies exist, and I’d like to see them.

Inspirational Quote – December 15, 2017

“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”

That first step to change is always the hardest. We struggle with letting go of old habits and embracing new ones. We fear taking a risk. Intellectually, we can find a thousand reasons not to try. As we close out 2015 and begin a brand new year, let’s make a solid commitment that for every resolution on our list, we will make the decision to “try!”

Susyn Blair-Hunt

Julian Treasure on 5 Ways to Listen Better

In our louder and louder world, says sound expert Julian Treasure, "We are losing our listening." In this short, fascinating talk, Treasure shares five ways to re-tune your ears for conscious listening -- to other people and the world around you.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Why Do Some People Resent “Do-Gooders”?

When others feel resentment toward you, doing well is a double-edged sword.

Whether it’s reaching a professional milestone, attaining a health goal, or doing a good deed, accomplishments should be a source of pride. But sometimes the warm glow of our success is overshadowed by an unexpected side effect—the not-so-positive reactions of other people.
On the one hand, success can benefit others by providing a source of motivation or inspiration. For example, one study found that cancer patients preferred hearing about patients who overcame their illness to hearing about those who were worse off—the success stories provided them with hope and useful information. And research on basking in reflected glory suggests that we often take pride in the success of in-group members, even if we’re not directly involved in it—sports fans are a classic example.
But other times, success is met with less positive responses, and outperforming others can put a strain on relationships and even lead to outright rejection.
One surprising domain where this can play out is in the patient-provider relationship. Researchers recently examined what happens when physicians advertise their physical fitness, a common practice in online profiles. Does a physician’s success in maintaining a healthy weight inspire by example, or does it backfire?
In one study, participants viewed a series of online physician profiles; some mentioned fitness (e.g., “To keep myself fit, I like to hike, bike, and exercise”) and some did not.
The results showed that overweight and obese participants were less likely to say they would choose a fitness-focused physician to be their doctor, and this relationship was explained by a greater anticipation of negative judgment. In other words, participants were less interested in working with physicians whom they believed might disapprove of them based on their weight.
A similar pattern occurs in our perceptions of “do-gooders.” Behaving according to one’s moral principles seems like a laudable goal, but it, too, can make others feel implicitly judged. One study found that when a group of non-vegetarian college students were asked to list three words they associated with vegetarians, nearly half listed at least one negative word, such as annoyingarrogant, or crazy.
But what was especially interesting was that those who viewed vegetarians more negatively were also more likely to expect that vegetarians would view them negatively, suggesting that a fear of moral reproach might underlie negative views of vegetarians. Supporting this idea, when the threat of moral reproach was experimentally boosted, the researchers found that it increased negative evaluations of vegetarians.
Because doing well (or doing good) can mean facing negative social reactions, people are sometimes reluctant to share their accomplishments or highlight their strengths, and might even “play dumb” to avoid making others feel threatened or uncomfortable. While some degree of modesty may be socially appropriate, chronic self-deprecation can be personally costly, especially when it leads to self-defeating behaviors such as intentional failure.
“Behaving according to one’s moral principles can make others feel implicitly judged”
―Dr. Juliana Breines
Is there a way to highlight success and expertise without suffering social costs, and without alienating those one may be best positioned to help?
In follow-up studies, the researchers who studied physician choices examined the effects of two potential strategies physicians could use: 1) admitting to fitness struggles, and 2) emphasizing that their own fitness choices are personal and don’t bear on their judgments of others.
The first strategy had little impact on patients’ attitudes. The researchers speculated that this may be because the fitness struggles were framed as relatively minor and part of an overall commitment to healthy living, so the patients’ fear of being judged remained. In some settings, revealing imperfections can be humanizing and increase likability, but this may not always be the case.
The second strategy was more effective: When fitness-focused profiles emphasized non-judgment of others’ choices, both overweight and non-overweight participants tended to find those individuals more appealing. For example, expressing an interest in fitness was less threatening when it was paired with statements like, “It’s important to me that I help my patients to meet their own personal health goals” or “Everyone has their own definition of a healthy life and what it means to be healthy for them.”
These findings suggest that we don’t need to downplay personal triumphs to avoid negative social consequences, as long as we make it clear that we don’t look down on others as a result.

Inspirational Quote – December 14, 2017

“By being yourself you put something wonderful in the world that wasn’t there before.”

How much time to we spend comparing ourselves to others? I wish I had her hair, his money, their house… When we do this, our serenity and inner peace go right out the window! Instead of lamenting what you don’t have, turn your perspective around by acknowledging the unique and wonderful presence you bring to the world. Whatever we focus on grows stronger, so make it a point today to celebrate the real you!

Susyn Blair-Hunt

Fly by Light Music Video

In the shadow of our nation's capital, high school students face more than just the challenges of schoolwork. They have to deal with inner-city gangs, drug dealers, drive-by shootings, a lack of role models, and little parental support. It can be a struggle just to stay alive -- which is why many D.C. teenagers never graduate. The Fly By Light program seeks to break this cycle with a series of after-school workshops culminating in an 8-day nature retreat. For many of them, it is their first time leaving the city, hiking in the woods, cooling off in a creek, uncovering difficult emotions, or expressing their feelings through art. Let this music video from the program wash over you like a cool stream, move you with raw emotion, energize you with the beat of drums. It is the sound of transformation, self-acceptance, friendship, and hope for a brighter future.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How to Help Students Believe in Themselves

New research on hope suggests that believing that you "can" is critical to success.

“She’s just going to be a maid anyway.”
This was the reason given to me by a fifth grade teacher as to why I, a student teacher at the time, shouldn’t give extra help to a child who was working hard to improve her reading.
Once my shock at this disturbing statement wore off, I realized that the teacher’s beliefs and assumptions were potentially jeopardizing the quality of life and future aspirations of this student. Bar none, reading skills are essential to life. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with domestic work, what if this student wanted to become a cancer researcher or an airline pilot or a Pixar animator?
As educators, the most important—and rewarding—part of our work is to recognize the vast potential within our students and to help them see it within themselves, and then support them in reaching that potential.
In other words, we need to help them cultivate hope.

What is hope?

Researchers have taken hope, a somewhat ephemeral concept, and made it practical. 
Hope is about one’s ability to achieve goals. It has been linked to greater academic achievement, creativity, and problem-solving skills, as well as less depression and anxiety.
Hope requires two components: pathways and agency. A “pathway” is a roadmap to reaching a goal, one that is created by the student and that includes alternate routes when obstacles arise. “Agency” is the student’s belief, motivation, and confidence that he or she can achieve the goal.
While both pathways and agency are central to hope, new research being published soon by the journal Learning and Individual Differences suggests that agency might be the more critical part of the equation.
Dante Dixson and his co-authors found that “high hopers” (students high in agency and pathways) and “high agency thinkers” (students high in agency, but low in pathways) had better academic and psychological outcomes, including the belief about their chances of success in the future, when compared to “low hopers” (students low in agency and pathways) and “high pathway thinkers” (students high in pathways, but low in agency).
“Looking towards the future with positive expectations is a powerful force on the present as it affects present decisions, thoughts, and behaviors,” writes Dixson.
Thus, if students can cultivate agency—and, subsequently, hope—by believing in their potential success and examining how their current behaviors may affect their future, then they might engage more in school and persevere towards a more ambitious goal, especially when the road to that goal gets rocky.

Three ways to cultivate hope

While hope researchers have created a fantastic method for developing students’ pathway abilities (which I wrote about back in 2012), cultivating agency is a bit trickier because it involves a student’s history, beliefs, self-concept, and motivations. That’s a complex psychological mishmash, at best, but even so most people develop at least some sense of agency.
The key is to develop the student’s feeling of self-efficacy, or the belief that one can succeed in a task. According to Dixson, self-efficacy is the “can” phase of a task, whereas hope is the “will” phase. In other words, believing that one can accomplish a goal is vital to developing the will to do so.
“Looking towards the future with positive expectations is a powerful force on the present”
―Dr. Dante Dixson
First and foremost, educators need to create an emotionally safe learning environment. Students’ desire and motivation to learn and succeed are increased when they feel safe to take risks, make mistakes, and just flat-out fail, with no fear of humiliation, shame, or other unlovely repercussions.
Research on self-efficacy suggests that building on past successes is central to believing in one’s ability to achieve in the future, as is seeing others around you succeed. However, some students may not have many accomplishments to pull upon, or they may be growing up in an environment or society where, due to circumstances beyond their control, opportunities are scarce, obstacles are abundant, and success feels elusive.
While there is no silver bullet that will solve all these challenges immediately, here are three research-based ideas for educators who view developing a student’s sense of agency as imperative to their work.
1. Become mindfully aware of what’s going on inside. In order to change our beliefs about ourselves, we have to first know what they are. But that’s the thorny thing about beliefs—we’re often not conscious of them or how they drive our choices and behaviors. This is where the practice of mindfulness can help.
According to Albert Bandura, the foremost expert on self-efficacy, people often rely on their physiological reaction to a situation or task to decide whether or not they are capable of handling it. For example, if a student experiences severe anxiety the night before giving a public speech, she may believe that she does not possess the ability to give the speech and, therefore, decide to be sick the next day.
The practice of mindfulness can help us observe that our bodies or emotions are telling us something is not quite right, which then allows us to describe what we are experiencing. Just naming the experience can help us act with awareness: We can more easily identify the underlying belief that is causing this reaction, choose not to believe it (because mindfulness teaches us that we are not our thoughts), and replace it with a more positive thought. At that point, we can consciously choose a more constructive action.
Indeed, researchers found that students who have a more mindful disposition—particularly those who can observe, describe, and act with awareness—have greater self-efficacy and, thus, bounce back from failure more easily.
2. Be gentle with yourself and change your narrative. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to develop the “acting with awareness” phase of mindfulness. (To be frank, I have found it to be a never-ending journey, as life has an uncanny way of presenting us again and again with situations we’re not quite sure how to handle.)
And for those of us who have the habit of beating ourselves up when we make mistakes or fail at a task, cultivating this ability is particularly challenging. We may be able to notice that we’re anxious and name the emotion, but overcoming the habituated belief of “I am not capable and hence a loser and therefore will never succeed at anything” can take a lot more effort.
In that moment, if students can learn to practice self-compassion, speaking kindly to themselves and realizing that making mistakes is part of the human experience, then they may be more likely to alter their beliefs. Indeed, one study found that students who judged themselves had a weaker sense of self-efficacy, whereas self-compassionate students had more.
But it’s not enough to soothe yourself with kindness. Changing the underlying belief or narrative that caused the emotional upset is also required. In the same study that linked mindfulness to self-efficacy, the researchers found that positive reappraisal of a situation—a form of positive self-talk, a technique that hope researchers have discovered is used by “high hopers”—related to one’s ability to bounce back from failure.
Take the student who mindfully overcame her anxiety to give her speech. What if she still doesn’t do very well? Rather than getting overwhelmed with a feeling of failure, she might instead remind herself that many people fear public speaking more than death and that giving speeches takes practice—and then she might go easy on herself and pat herself on the back for actually doing it!
3. Check our own narratives about students. I’d like to think the fifth grade teacher I mentioned at the beginning would be horrified if she knew the potential impact of her statement on the student’s personal and academic life. After all, the relationship between educators and students is the heart of teaching—and research shows again and again the tremendous effect, both short- and long-term, this relationship has on students.
Yet it takes work to make what might be unconscious conscious, and to know what may be most helpful to students.
To start, educators should take note of whether they hold a deficit mindset about one or more of their students. In other words, is the focus on students’ weaknesses—or their strengths? But we need to go beyond thinking about just the student, and consider our beliefs within the larger socio-political context.
For example, Jeff Duncan-Andrade argues that when we believe all students can be successful if they just work hard enough—e.g., show grit or play by the rules—then we might not be acknowledging structural impediments to the success of marginalized students. This, writes Duncan-Andrade, “largely delegitimizes the pain that urban youth experience as a result of a persistently unequal society.”
Instead, Duncan-Andrade suggests that educators need to stand with the youth and the communities they serve, humanizing and sharing the burden of their despair and rage. More than that, teachers need to work against the ideology that privileges some over others.
“We cannot treat our students as ‘other people’s children,’” writes Duncan-Andrade. “Their pain is our pain.”
Every student deserves the chance and has the right to explore his or her glorious potential.
Helping our students to believe in themselves when perhaps no one else does and working with them to cultivate hope where seemingly there is none are two of the greatest gifts educators can offer to our youth.