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If You Want to Change Something, Measure It

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.
― H. James Harrington

It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind the nature of the particular subject admits. – Aristotle

Our ability to learn is based on feedback.

If I bump my head on a cabinet, the pain lets me know to duck next time… or to change the layout of my cabinets! If a conversation sparks my interest, that spark lets me know to pay closer attention. If I feel awful whenever I spend time with a particular acquaintance, that awful feeling tells me to reconsider spending more time with him.

There is a whole field of study of psychophysiology and biofeedback that is dedicated to helping people learn to control aspects of their physiology, including certain brainwaves, in order to achieve greater relaxation, lowered blood pressure, and other psychological and health benefits.

But we don’t need that level of sophistication in order to make use of biofeedback. Our own bodies, and many common devices, give us plenty to go on… if we pay attention. This holds the key to taking charge of much more of our psychological and physiological existence than many of us know.

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Using Hope Effectively

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

When we think of emotions that can be dangerous, particularly for managing money and investing, we usually think of things like greed and fear. But there are other emotions that can get us into big trouble. Including hope.

But there’s a way to manage hope so that we’re able to have our dreams for the future, and then make them happen in the real world – if that’s possible.

Greed is a kind of hunger for things in themselves, disconnected from any genuine well-being, and regardless of the consequences. Fear speaks to the need for security – including that deep primal need for survival we talked about an earlier column.

Hope speaks to wishes for potential future flourishing.

A significant portion of our psyche leans toward the future. Our self-concept holds an evolving image of the person we want to be – always a bit better than we are now. Hope is the emotion that draws us toward that image, and the vision of the life we want to lead.

Hope lies at the heart of our aspirations and ambitions; our dreams and wishes. It fuels us to strive for goals and achievements.

It can also lead us to wish for things we cannot have, aspire to achievements we cannot reach, and fantasize dreams that we cannot fulfill.

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A Simple Tool for Managing Emotions

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

Getting overwhelmed or misled by our emotions can be a source of significant trouble. Emotions are not simple, but sometimes there are simple actions we can take to manage complex things. Today let’s look at a simple way to avoid getting overwhelmed by your emotions.

  • When people were treated for phobias, practicing this simple skill lowered their fear by over 18%, and their psychological reactivity by over 27%. They also were less constricted generally, shifting from feeling a sense of threat to a sense of opportunity.
  • When feeling stress, using this technique led to people having 40% fewer alcoholic drinks when they went to a bar or party than those who did not use this technique.
  • When feeling angry with someone, those using this technique were 40% less verbally and physically aggressive than those who did not.
  • Rejection brings with it actual pain. When feeling rejected those using this technique showed less activity in the parts of the brain connected to physical and emotional pain.

Using this simple tool can help us to deal with emotionally upsetting situations with a greater sense of calm and competence.

Okay, enough buildup, here’s the skill:

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What We Remember… and What we Don’t

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

We each have, in effect, two selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self. Understanding the difference can help us make the most of our best times, and minimize the memory of our unpleasant ones.

Imagine that you’re asked to hold your hand in ice water for sixty seconds. It’s unpleasant and painful; not something most of us would choose to do for fun.

Now, imagine that you’re asked to do the same thing, same temperature, but then once that 60 seconds is up, continue holding your hand in the ice water for another 30 seconds. The only difference is that the additional 30 seconds will be one degree warmer than the first 60 seconds.

Which would you choose? Read More

A Sense of Awe

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, MasteringHappiness

After my workout, I stopped at the cliffs above Capitola, overlooking the Monterey Bay. It had just rained lightly, so the air was crystal clear, and the brownish gold of the kelp beds at low tide made a vivid contrast with the blue gray ocean. The little bit of sun that peeked through the clouds lit a meandering path across the water and through the center of the wharf.

The Monterey Bay looks very tame from the shore, but it drops off quickly, reaching a depth in some places of over two miles; like an undersea Grand Canyon. During the right time of year it’s not unusual to see humpback whales, dolphins, and a whole host of other cetaceans pretty close in. I didn’t see any on this particular day, but I know they’re out there; along with the harbor seals and sea otters providing comic relief.

Then there are the sea monsters… the great white sharks, among other dangers. Those are the things that keep me mostly swimming just a bit inland in a chlorinated pool.

I force myself to stop on these cliffs almost every morning, because I know it’s important for me. I began doing this several years ago, when I noticed I was getting too caught up in day to day anxieties and concerns. The five to maybe ten minutes I spend gazing out at the protected expanse of the largest ocean on earth gives me something I need – something we all need, a fundamental requirement for our happiness and well being actually… and something that is all too easy to be oblivious to in these days of iphones, kindles, and reliably traumatic 24 hour news cycles.

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Taking the Mystery out of Panic and Anxiety

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, MasteringHappiness

Panic: Of “Pan,” the God of woods and fields who was the source of mysterious sounds that caused contagious,  groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in  people in lonely spots.

—World English Dictionary

At the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., the outnumbered Athenians, led by their brilliant general Miltiades, took the Persians completely by surprise, sending them into a fit of terror thought to have been brought on by the god Pan—a panic—leading to a remarkable victory. The Athenians lost 192 men to Persia’s 6,400.

Panic and panic attacks—anxiety that seems to hit you out of the blue—can be extremely debilitating. It can make it difficult to function, and its unexpected nature can lead to a general feeling of anxiety, wondering and never knowing when we might get hit by it.

Though we usually think of panic and anxiety as psychological phenomena, most of the symptoms of panic anxiety are actually physical: dizziness, shortness of breath, hot flashes, chest pain, racing heart, sweating, trembling, choking, nausea, and numbness. Only three symptoms are psychological: fear of dying, fear of losing control, and feelings of unreality. That so many symptoms are physical may turn out to be more important that we have thought.

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The Importance of Self-Reflection

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

In Greek and Roman Mythology, Narcissus stared at his own reflection, so absorbed in his own image he was oblivious to anybody else. The idealized image that he saw withdrew him from the world. He was in an emotional vacuum, devoid of anything but what he wanted to see.

But aside from Narcissus, and those suffering from the psychological condition of narcissism, our own self-reflection can provide us the kind of useful assessment that allows us to live up to our own standards.

Researchers Robert Wicklund and Shelley Duval discovered back in the 1970s that when people were in front of a mirror and told they were being filmed, those people changed their behavior in very positive ways. They worked harder, gave more accurate answers to questions, were more consistent in their actions, and acted more consistently with their values.

About a decade later, Charles Carver and Michael Scheier looked at this in more depth, and within their larger explorations of self-awareness and self-regulation, found something fascinating.

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Understanding Our Social Nature

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

Our social nature has huge benefits, and underlies much of our resilience and success as a species. But it can also steer us in bad, sometimes disastrous directions, and can be used to manipulate us.

We are social creatures. We influence one another, we care about each other, we follow each other and are able to cooperate and act together as a team.

We’re also cultural creatures. We learn from each other – and learn most effectively by watching what other people do. It matters to us what other people say and think and do. The accumulated knowledge and habits and standards of the ages become part of our own self-concept.

For much of what we do, this works extremely well. For small bands of hunter gatherers, which is how mankind has spent most of our existence, it’s been essential for our survival and flourishing.

And yet these very qualities can be used against us to manipulate us into accepting, doing, and buying things that work against our deepest values, that we can come to regret, and that sometimes can lead us into horrible tragedy. They make cults possible; they make the most murderous regimes and criminal gangs possible. They allow us to be passive when emergency action is necessary. Read More

Building a Foundation of Safety and Trust

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

There’s a vow that, if taken by romantic couples, would go a long way toward establishing safety and trust, and limiting much of the pain that couples commonly experience – much of the pain that couples commonly inflict upon one another.

There will be pain in any relationship, we hurt each other without even trying. There’s plenty of conflict in the very best of relationships. John Gottman has found in his research that in successful marriages about 69% of conflicts never get resolved. So a happy marriage isn’t about the absence of conflict, or an absence of hurt.

It all comes down to how we treat each other given that there is conflict, and times when we unintentionally hurt each other.

In other words, it’s what we do or do not do intentionally that makes the difference.

The vow that I suggest to make between the two of you is this:

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