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Experiential Learning & the Value of Personal Narrative in teaching {{Growth Mindset}}

Hello rethinked…* ! I have been travelling quite a bit these past few weeks, but last Friday I had the chance to attend a great Mindset workshop at Riverdale Country Day School run by the wonderful Mai Kobori and Lisa Grocott from Parson’s THRIVING learning lab. The workshop was a bit of a prototype on how to use experiential learning and personal narrative to instill the idea of growth mindset. Elsa has a great summary post about this construct here. Generally the idea is that a person with a fixed mindset believes that their ability at a given thing is fixed and unchanging, and therefore puts in less effort (since effort is meaningless) and is less likely to seek challenges or take risks. Alternatively, students with a growth mindset believe that ability is flexible and improves with effort and practice. We all hold different fixed or a growth mindsets in a variety of domains (and we hold different ones for different things). For example, I may believe that my running ability is fixed, but my reading ability can grow.

Lisa and Mai used this video below to drive the concepts home, and I think it does a really great job of summarizing the basic findings around this construct:

In the workshop, we discussed times in our own lives when we experienced the symptoms of a fixed mindset, thought about metaphors for these ideas, and then we broke into groups and developed short narratives using Adobe Voice that presented the transition from a fixed to a growth mindset using metaphor. The use of personal narrative in small groups cultivated trust and encouraged vulnerability which undoubtedly strengthened the program. Additionally, I think the method of inventing and creating stories to instill the growth mindset is a great way to teach these concepts in an engaging way. Prior to this, I had mostly heard of lecture-based approaches where students learn that their brain is a muscle. If I were a teacher, I would definitely use this method in my own classroom.

I worked in a group that focused on the idea of effort seeming futile. We all shared our own personal struggles with fixed mindset and ultimately developed the following short story using carnival games as a metaphor. We sought to express the idea that effort seems futile when you aren’t actually measuring effort (but rather chance), and perhaps you should refine your instrument and take a new perspective before throwing in the towel. Check it out below:

While we only had about 20 minutes each to develop our videos, it would be interesting to give students more time with this tool to see what they could develop. Ultimately, I see a TON of promise in using this sort of pedagogy to promote character education.





{ Looking at Limitations As a Source of Creativity } Phil Hansen: Embrace the Shake …*

“Embracing the shake, for me, wasn’t just about art and having art skills; it turned out to be about life and having life skills. Because, ultimately, most of what we do takes place here, inside the box, with limited resources. Learning to be creative within the confines of our limitations is the best hope we have to transform ourselves and, collectively, transform our world. Looking at limitations as a source of creativity, changed the course of my life. Now, when I run into a barrier, or I find myself creatively stumped, I sometimes still struggle, but I continue to show up for the process and try to remind myself of the possibilities.” – Phil Hansen

Some deeply important truths and buckets of inspiration in this great TED talk from artist Phil Hansen!

 rethinking > inventing …

{ truths } 

“Once I embraced the shake, I realized I could still make art. I just had to find a different approach to making the art that I wanted.”


“After having gone from a single approach to art, I ended up having an approach to creativity that completely changed my artistic horizons. This was the first time I had encountered this idea that embracing a limitation could actually drive creativity.”


“As I searched around in the darkness, I realized I was actually paralyzed by all of the choices that I never had before. And it was then that I thought back to my jittery hand–embrace the shake. And I realized, if I ever want to get my creativity back, I had to quit trying so hard to think outside the box and get back into it. I wondered, could you become more creative by looking for limitations? What if instead of painting with a brush, I could only paint with karate chops?”


“Limitations may be the most unlikely of places to harness creativity, but perhaps one of the best ways to get ourselves out of ruts, rethink categories and challenge accepted norms. And instead of telling each other to seize the day, maybe we can remind ourselves, every day, to seize the limitations.”

Learn to Cultivate Gratitude & Forgiveness to Enhance Satisfaction About the Past …*

Learn to Cultivate Gratitude & Forgiveness to Enhance Satisfaction About the Past ...*  | rethinked.org -Photograph: Elsa Fridman

Today, let’s review what Positive Psychology has to say about happiness in the past. In a nutshell: the single most effective way to change your satisfaction about the past is to change your thinking:

There are three ways you can lastingly feel more happiness about your past. The first is intellectual—letting go of an ideology that your past determines your future. The hard determinism that underpins this dogma is empirically barren and philosophically far from self-evident, and the passivity it engenders is imprisoning. The second and third variables are emotional, and both involve voluntarily changing your memories. Increasing your gratitude about the good things in your past intensifies positive memories, and learning how to forgive past wrongs defuses the bitterness that makes satisfaction impossible. (82)



To the extent that you believe that the past determines the future, you will tend to allow yourself to be a passive vessel that does not actively change its course. Such beliefs are responsible for magnifying many people’s inertia. (66)


We live in a society that promotes the venting of emotions. The cultural assumption about feelings is that they must come out and be expressed for if they are not, they grow and fester within us leading to resentment, pent up frustration and ultimately, poor health. Interestingly, the research shows a completely different story:

  • Depression & The Invention of Cognitive Therapy – Aaron (Tim) Beck found that there was no problem getting depressed people to re-air past wrongs and to dwell on them at length. The problem was that they often unraveled as they ventilated, and Tim could not find ways to ravel them up again. Occasionally this led to suicide attempts, some fatal. Cognitive Therapy for depression developed as a technique to free people from their unfortunate past by getting them to change their thinking about the present and the future. Cognitive therapy techniques work equally well at producing relief from depression as the antidepressant drugs, and they work better at preventing recurrences and relapse. (69)
  • Dwelling on trespass and the expression of anger produces more cardiac diseases and more anger. Anger is another domain in which the concept of emotional hydraulics was critically examined. America, in contrast to the venerable Eastern cultures, is a ventilationist society. We deem it honest, just, and even healthy to express our anger. So we shout, we protest, and we litigate. “Go ahead, make my day,” warns Dirty Harry. Part of the reason we allow ourselves this luxury is that we believe the psychodynamic theory of anger. If we don’t express our rage, it will come out elsewhere—even more destructively, as in cardiac disease. But this theory turns out to be false; in fact, the reverse is true. (69)
  • The overt expression of hostility turns out to be the real culprit in the Type A-heart attack link. Time urgency, competitiveness, and the suppression of anger do not seem to play a role in Type A people getting more heart disease. In one study, 255 medical students took a personality test that measured overt hostility. As physicians twenty-five years later, the angriest had roughly five times as much heart disease as the least angry ones. In another study, men who had the highest risk of later heart attacks were just the ones with more explosive voices, more irritation when forced to wait, and more outwardly directed anger. In experimental studies, when male students bottle up their anger, blood pressure goes down, and it goes up if they decide to express their feelings. Anger expression raises lower blood pressure for women as well. In contrasts, friendliness in reaction to trespass lowers it. (70)

So if venting our anger and frustration only makes us feel worse and endangers our health, what can we do to increase our satisfaction about the past? Seligman suggests cultivating gratitude and forgiveness:

Insufficient appreciation and savoring of the good events in your past and overemphasis of the bad ones are the two culprits that undermine serenity, contentment, and satisfaction. There are two ways of bringing these feelings about the past well into the region of contentment and satisfaction.

  1. Gratitude amplifies the savoring and appreciation of the good events gone by.
  2. Rewriting history by forgiveness loosens the power of the bad events to embitter (and actually can transform bad memories into good ones). (70)


Numerous studies have shown the benefits of cultivating gratitude which increases joy, happiness, and life satisfaction. Just head over to the Greater Good Science Center for a plethora of reviews on the benefits of gratitude.


In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes two gratitude interventions to try out in order to cultivate your capacity for gratitude:


Select one important person from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. (Do not confound this selection with newfound romantic love, or with the possibility of future gain.) Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this; my students and I found ourselves taking several weeks, composing on buses and as we fell asleep at night. Invite that person to your home, or travel to that person’s home. It is important that you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance; a simple “I just want to see you” will suffice. Wine and cheese do not matter, but bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. When all settles down, read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression and with eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you. (If you are so moved, please do send me a copy at Seligman@psych.upenn.edu) (74)


Set aside five free minutes each night for the next two weeks, preferably right before brushing your teeth for bed. Prepare a pad with one page for each of the next fourteen days. The first night take the Satisfaction with Life Scale and the General Happiness Scale and score them. Then think back over the previous twenty-four hours and write down, on separate lines, up to five things in your life you are grateful or thankful for. Common examples include “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” “God for giving me determination,” “wonderful parents,” “robust good health, and the “Rolling Stones” (or some other artistic inspiration). Repeat the Life Satisfaction and General Happiness Scales on the final night, two weeks after you start, and compare your scores to the first night’s scores. If this worked for you, incorporate it into your nightly routine. (75)


We cannot control the memories we carry inside us. What we can control however is our focus and interpretation of these memories. We can cultivate gratitude to shift our focus towards experiencing more positive memories and we can cultivate forgiveness to alleviate the hurt of negative memories.

Forgiveness must be given freely and voluntarily if it is to be effective. Whether you decide to forgive someone for a past wrong is entirely your choice. Moral implications of that choice aside, I would like to point you to the research on the benefits of forgiveness:

In the largest and best-done study to date a consortium of Stanford researchers led by Carl Thoresen randomly assigned 259 adults to either a nine-hour (six 90-minute sessions) forgiveness workshop or to an assessment-only control group. The components of the intervention were carefully scripted and paralleled those above, with emphasis on taking less offence and revisiting the story of the grievance toward an objective perspective. Less anger, less stress, more optimism, better reported health, and more forgiveness ensued, and the effects were sizable. (81)

Forgiving is much easier said than done, but perhaps you will find a helpful entry point into forgiving through psychologist Everett Worthington’s acclaimed 5 step process to forgive REACH:


Recall the hurt, in as objective a way as you can. Do not think of the other person as evil. Do not wallow in self-pity. Take deep, slow and calming breaths as you visualize the event. (79)


Try to understand from the perpetrator’s point of view why this person hurt you. This is not easy, but make up a plausible story that the transgressor might tell if challenged to explain. To help you do this, remember the following:

  • When others feel their survival is threatened, they will hurt innocents.
  • People who attack others are themselves usually in a state of fear, worry, and hurt.
  • The situation a person finds himself in, and not his underlying personality, can lead to hurting.
  • People often don’t think when they hurt others; they just lash out. (80)


A stands for giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness, another difficult step. First recall a time you transgressed, felt guilty, and were forgiven. This was a gift you were given by another person because you needed it, and you were grateful for this gift. Giving this gift usually makes us feel better. But we do not give this gift out of self-interest. Rather, we give it because it is for the trespasser’s own good. Tell yourself you can rise above hurt and vengeance. If you give the gift grudgingly, however, it will not set you free. (80)


C stands for commit yourself to forgive publicly. In Worthington’s groups, his clients write a “certificate of forgiveness,” write a letter of forgiveness to the offender, write it in their diary, write a poem or song, or tell a trusted friend what they have done. These are all contracts of forgiveness that lead to the final step. (81)


H stands for hold onto forgiveness. This is another difficult step, because memories of the event will surely recur. Forgiveness is not erasure; rather, it is a change in the tag lines that a memory carries. It is important to realize that the memories do not mean unforgiveness. Don’t dwell vengefully on the memories, and don’t wallow in them. Remind yourself that you have forgiven and read the documents you composed. (81)

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

Just Ask: Amanda Palmer, Humans of New York, and the Art of Connecting

I’m a big fan of questions as a vehicle for intellectual growth. Recently I started thinking about questions as a vehicle for interpersonal growth.

When alt-rock musician Amanda Palmer launched a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign to cut an album, her donations mushroomed to $1.3 million.

In her much-discussed 2013 TED talk, with 5.6 million views to date, she makes the case that digital music should be free and shareable, and that fans should support musicians directly.

But one aspect of her talk, “The Art of Asking,” made me uncomfortable. On tour, Palmer asks her fans for a lot more than money. She posts requests on Twitter — for meals, places to stay, instruments, opening acts, a neti pot — and her fans provide. Her art of asking struck me as a bit audacious, a bit narcissistic.

Around the same time as Palmer’s talk, I discovered Humans of New York, the photoblog created by Brandon Stanton and popularized in a bestselling book (Amazon) and a HONY Facebook page with 6.1 million followers to date.

The HONY formula is quite simple: Stanton approaches strangers, asks to photograph them, and interviews them. He then posts their portraits online, along with a pithy excerpt of their conversations.

But these are no ordinary conversations between strangers. As an interviewer, Stanton often probes his subjects’ inner fears, regrets, and pain.

A few examples from the past week.

Screenshot 2014-06-11 06.54.34






Over the 15 months that I have followed Humans of New York, I have been moved again and again by the candor and authenticity of Stanton’s subjects. More than that, I’ve been amazed by the response. Not just the exponential growth of Stanton’s audience, but the demonstrations of empathy and support in that audience. Occasional replies will be essay-length outpourings of shared experiences — the best of which are “liked” by thousands and rise to the top of the comments chain.

Among the tens of thousands of HONY’s fans who write enthusiastic replies are hundreds willing to go a step further. Through crowdfunding, Stanton raised money for a horse-crazy boy with special needs to visit a dude ranch with his parents, for kids in Bedford-Stuyvesant to attend summer camp, and for a family to adopt the sibling of their Ethiopian-born child. In each case, the crowd has vastly outpaced the fundraising goals, often by a factor or two or three.

A recent post spurred a striking grassroots call to action.


A man shares an intimate and painful memory, and nineteen thousand people, many wiling to send money and even travel to New York, express interest in the idea of throwing him a party. [The HONY site doesn’t clarify if this is happening, and comments seem to be closed.]

HONY regularly inspires outpourings of concern and affection like this.

In fact, HONY sometimes makes me think that the general public is just waiting around for opportunities to help, to mend past pain, to offer support to perfect strangers. I suspect this is, in a way, true. HONY seems to speak to a very real hunger for meaning and connection that many of us have. I call this “the HONY Effect.”

What struck me recently, then, was the connection to Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk. The good will among strangers that HONY inspires would not be possible but for one act: Stanton asks.

I think the roots of real connection as simple as this.

And on second viewing, Palmer’s talk is not at root about the music industry. It’s not even about asking, really. It’s about creating a connection. And more than that, it’s about what’s possible when people feel connected to each other.

The media asked, “Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. How did you make all these people pay for music?” And the real answer is, I didn’t make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you. (…)

For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars.

[I blog and tweet] not just about my tour dates and my new video but about our work and our art and our fears and our hangovers, our mistakes. And we see each other. And I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other.

What Palmer and Stanton seem to have demonstrated is that a sense of connection may be all it takes to spur people to be open and generous.

They just need to be asked.

Self-Authoring & The Three Types of Happiness: Past, Present & Future …*

Self-Authoring & The Three Types of Happiness: Past, Present & Future ...*  | rethinked.org -Photograph: Elsa Fridman

As you can likely tell from our review of positive psychology thus far, happiness is a much more nuanced and layered term than we generally acknowledge. Seligman differentiates between three kinds of happiness: happiness in the past, present and future:

It is crucial to understand that these three senses of emotion are different and are not necessarily tightly linked. While it is desirable to be happy in all three senses, this does not always happen. It is possible to be proud and satisfied about the past, for example, but to be sour in the present and pessimistic about the future. (62)

Here is a quick breakdown of each:

Positive emotions about the future include:

  • Optimism
  • Hope
  • Faith
  • Trust

Positive emotions about the present include:

  • Joy
  • Ecstasy
  • Calm
  • Zest
  • Ebullience
  • Pleasure
  • Flow

Positive emotions about the past include:

  • Satisfaction
  • Contentment
  • Fulfillment
  • Pride
  • Serenity

I will write a post about each of the three dimensions of happiness as there is so much interesting research and Seligman proposes numerous exercises to translate all that research into tangible impact in your life, but today I’d like to write about a fascinating intervention which I did last summer: Self-Authoring.

Self authoring which was designed by clinical and research psychologists from the University of Toronto, McGill and Erasmus University is based on research which shows that writing exercises can help people confront their past, understand and improve their personalities in the present, and increase the chances that their futures will be meaningful, productive and healthy.

The Self-Authoring Suite is a set of four online programs, designed to help you write thoughtfully about your present, future and past. Each program presents you with a series of web pages that simplify the process of writing. Step by step, you will be presented with specific, relevant questions, each addressing some key element of your life, each accompanied by the information necessary to answer such questions.

The Present Authoring program comes in two forms. The Virtues program helps you identify your strengths and to use them more effectively. The Faults program helps you identify your weaknesses, and to limit their destructive potential.

The Future Authoring program helps you formulate a comprehensive vision of the future, three to five years down the road, and to transform that vision into a detailed plan. You will be questioned about key aspects of your life (including relationships, career, health, habits, interests), and guided through the process of considering each, deeply and practically.

The Past Authoring program helps you write an autobiography, so that you can produce a complete, well-organize account of your past experiences. It asks you to divide your past into seven epochs or stages, to identify the important experiences of each, and to thoroughly consider the positive and negative effects of those experiences.

Each program requires careful thought, and takes several hours to complete. It is better to complete the writing over several days, partly so you have time to think, but also because sleep appears to aid the process.

There is solid scientific evidence that such writing will improve your mental and physical health and help ensure that your life will follow an interesting, satisfying and proper course. 

The full Self-Authoring tool costs $30 and I highly recommend it. I found the experience to be healing and empowering. It was a wonderful tool for reflection and helped me reframe some of the narratives I had been carrying around with me from childhood in a much more productive and positive manner. It also provided a helpful framework through which to design my becoming–my growing into the person I strive to be.

Side Note: I’d like to make it clear that I am not affiliated with any of the authors and programs that I recommend on the blog, everything I write about are things I am interested in or have tried and found helpful.

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

{ [re] discover & [re] think } Next Week Is Rethinked Archive | Inspiration Week Over On Our Twitter …*

{ [re] discover & [re] think } Next Week Is Rethinked Archive | Inspiration Week Over On Our Twitter ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman

Hiya, rethinkers *

Just wanted to give you a heads up that I will be unplugging a bit next week and going on an adventure (need to nurture my cognitive diversity!) Karin, Jenna and I will be posting a new post daily on the blog as usual but I’m going to be doing something a little different with our Twitter—Rethinked Archive / Inspiration Week. I’ll be tweeting some of our most intriguing and popular posts from the archives and sharing inspiring quotes on play, creativity, curiosity and other topics we get particularly excited about here at rethinked *

Here’s a little sample of the inspiration to come on rethinkedteam this week:

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke


“Before familiarity can turn into awareness the familiar must be stripped of its inconspicuousness; we must give up assuming that the object in question needs no explanation. However frequently recurrent, modest, vulgar it may be it will now be labeled as something unusual.” -Bertold Brecht


“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” -Albert Einstein

Find Out Which Of Your Life’s External Circumstances Have A Strong Effect on Your Happiness & Life Satisfaction …*

Find Out Which Of Your Life's External Circumstances Have A Strong Effect on Your Happiness & Life Satisfaction ...* | rethinked.org

On Tuesday, I shared the happiness equation that Seligman puts forth in Authentic Happiness:

H = S + C + V

Where H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control. (45)

We looked at the (largely genetic) factors that affect your set range, now let’s take a look at the C variable—the external circumstances of your life that affect happiness.

MONEYMoney Has Little or no Effect Once You Are Comfortable Enough & More Materialistic People Are Less Happy

Would more money make you happier? The data says yes, at both an individual and collective level, but only up to a certain point:

Overall national purchasing power and average life satisfaction go strongly in the same direction. Once the gross national product exceed $8,000 per person, however, the correlation disappears, and added wealth brings no further life satisfaction. (53) 

In very poor nations, where poverty threatens life itself, being rich does predict greater well-being. In wealthier nations, however, where almost everyone has a basic safety net, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness. In the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. Even the fabulously rich—the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over 125 million dollars—are only slightly happier than the average American. (53)

In the same way that how you think about stress is more important than how much stress you experience in influencing your health, Seligman notes that, “how important money is to you, more than money itself, influences your happiness.” (55)

Materialism seems to be counterproductive: at all levels of real income, people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole, although precisely why is a mystery. (55)

MARRIAGE – A Robust Effect on Happiness & Life Satisfaction, But Perhaps Not Causal

Unlike money, which has at most a small effect, marriage is robustly related to happiness. (55) Happily married people report much greater levels of happiness than non-married people. However, people in unhappy marriages report lower levels of happiness than non-married people. The relationship between marriage and happiness remains unclear—is it that happy people are more likely to get married than depressed people who tend to be more withdrawn or the other way around, the verdict is still out.

The National Opinion Research Center surveyed 35,000 Americans over the last thirty years; 40 percent of married people said they were “very happy,” while only 24 percent of unmarried, divorced and widowed people said this. Living with a significant other (but not being married) is associated with more happiness in individualistic cultures like ours, but with less happiness in collectivist cultures like Japan and China. The happiness advantage for the married holds controlling for age and income, and it is equally true for both men and women. (55)

SOCIAL LIFE –  A Robust Effect, But Perhaps Not Causal

Very happy people differ markedly from both average and unhappy people in that they all lead a rich and fulfilling social life. The very happy people spend the least time alone and the most time socializing, and they are rated highest on good relationships by themselves and also by their friends. (56) 

NEGATIVE EMOTION – Only a Moderate Effect on Happiness & Life Satisfaction

Contrary to popular belief, having more than your share of misery does not mean you cannot have a lot of joy as well. (56)


Life satisfaction goes up slightly with age, pleasant affect declines slightly, and negative affect does not change. What does change as we age is the intensity of our emotions. Both “feeling on top of the world” and being “in the depths of despair” become less common with age and experience. (58)

HEALTH – Subjective Health, Not Objective Health Matters

Objective good health is barely related to happiness; what matters is our subjective perception of how healthy we are, and it is a tribute to our ability to adapt to adversity that we are able to find ways to appraise our health positively even when we are quite sick. (58)

Moderate ill health does not bring unhappiness in its wake, but severe illness does: When disabling illness is severe and long-lasting, happiness and life satisfaction do decline, although not nearly as much as you might expect. Individuals admitted to a hospital with only one chronic health problem (such as heart disease) show marked increases in happiness over the next year, but the happiness of individuals with five of more health problems deteriorates over time. (58)

EDUCATION, CLIMATE, RACE & GENDER – No Effect on Happiness & Life Satisfaction

Turns out that none of these variables have much of an effect on happiness and life satisfaction.

Education – Even though education is a means to higher income, it is not a means to higher happiness, except only slightly and only among those people with low income. Nor does intelligence influence happiness in either direction. (59)

Climate – While sunny climes do combat seasonal affective disorder (winter depression), happiness levels do not vary with climate. People suffering through a Nebraska winter believe people in California are happier, but they are wrong; we adapt to good weather completely and very quickly. (59)

Race – At least in the United States, is not related to happiness in any consistent way. In spite of worse economic numbers, African-Americans and Hispanics have markedly lower rates of depression than Caucasians, but their level of reported happiness is no higher than Caucasians (except perhaps among older men). (59)

Gender – Gender has a fascinating relation to mood. In average emotional tone, women and men don’t differ, but this strangely is because women are both happier and sadder than men. (59)

RELIGION – A Moderate Effect on Happiness & Life Satisfaction

Survey data consistently show religious people as being somewhat happier and more satisfied with life than nonreligious people. (59)

Religious Americans are clearly less likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, divorce, and kill themselves. They are also physically healthier and live longer. Religious mothers of children with disabilities fight depression better, and religious people are less thrown by divorce, unemployment, illness, and death. (59)


Are you surprised by any of these results? Which areas of your life bring you the most happiness?

This concludes our review of the external factors that influence happiness and life satisfaction, next week we turn to the good stuff—the internal variables of happiness, over which you have a much greater degree of control.

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

Rethinking Work/Flow

Screenshot 2014-06-04 13.57.13

It’s not news that engagement at work — or the lack of it — is a problem for many. But with all the bad news about work that’s been coming across my screen, I’m having an even harder time doing the work that’s on my screen.

First I read Sunday’s New York Times op-ed by the Energy Project‘s Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath:

Just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent. For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.

Then yesterday it was David Brooks on his loss of focus at work:

Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war. I toggle over to my emails when I should be working. I text when I should be paying attention to the people in front of me. I spend hours looking at mildly diverting stuff on YouTube.

And then I watched some highly diverting “stuff on Youtube”: “Humpback Whale Shows AMAZING Appreciation After Being Freed From Nets!

(You know you want to click.)

Then yesterday, TED’s “Work Smarter” playlist beckoned from my Facebook feed. Of 12 videos in the playlist, I chose — naturally — Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work,” a talk by basecamp co-founder Jason Fried.

The front door of the office is like a Cuisinart, and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits, because you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there, and then something else happens and you’re pulled off your work, and you’ve got to do something else. Then you have 20 minutes, then it’s lunch. Then you have something else to do. Then you’ve got 15 minutes, and someone pulls you aside and asks you this question, and before you know it, it’s 5 p.m., and you look back on the day, and you realize that you didn’t get anything done. 

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When I was in grad school, I spent many, many hours at my desk, usually in front of a computer. The work was always challenging. When I didn’t like or understand the expectations of the assignment, the work became stressful. But when I felt equal to the challenges of the work and I could express myself in my work (not unusual in design school), the work became fun.

This feeling of flow was deliciously addictive — and I experienced first-hand its power in an educational context. I became so interested in the role of flow in creativity and learning that that intersection — the psychology of creativity and learning — became a major component of my master’s thesis.

To me, the holy grail of all work is flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a major figure in the creativity-research wing of cognitive psychology, first coined the term flow as “an effortless yet highly focused state of consciousness.” 

The key to flow lies in the many essential conditions that make flow possible:

  • intrinsic motivation (the task is appealing in and of itself) 
  • clear goals and immediate feedback
  • a sense of challenge balanced with a sense of skill
  • action merged with awareness
  • freedom from distractions, self-consciousness, and worry of failure

Screenshot 2014-06-04 13.58.25

Interestingly Csikszentmihalyi was not studying creativity when he first identified these factors. He was researching human enjoyment.

Given what he believed to be the “vague, unfocused, constantly distracted condition of the normal mind,” he wanted to understand the circumstances that allow people to achieve intense, sustained focus over a prolonged time. In those who achieved it, this focus seemed to inoculate them against fatigue, doubt, and other factors that would typically undermine motivation and decrease effort. 

Years later, when he studied creative people, Csikszentmihalyi realized that the characteristics of flow were nearly identical to the characteristics of deep enjoyment.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research echoes the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, whose research reveals the role that motivation plays in human achievement of all kinds. (I’ve previously suggested one particular Ryan-Deci study as excellent reading for teachers.) 

Humans naturally thrive when working toward meaningful goals. That is, intrinsically motivating activities (which are meaningful by definition) give us a desire — and stomach — for work, including the hard work of learning and creativity. Humans are wired to be learn and be creative, but we only reach our full learning potential and creative potential when we experience strong motivation. And experiencing that motivation requires freedom from self-consciousness and worry of failure, as Csikszentmihalyi found:

In flow, we feel that our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action. In everyday life we sometimes feel that the challenges are too high in relation to our skills, and then we feel frustrated and anxious. Or we feel that our potential is greater than the opportunities to express it, and then we feel bored. Playing tennis or chess against a much better opponent leads to frustration; against a much weaker opponent, to boredom. In a really enjoyable game, the players are balanced on the fine line between boredom and anxiety. When the challenges become too great for the person to cope with, a sense of frustration rather than joy creeps in — at least for a while.

Between anxiety and bordeom lies flow: Csikszentmihalyi

Between anxiety (too-high stakes) and boredom (no stakes) lies flow. And learning.


This notion that flow lies between anxiety and boredom is, I would argue, easier to grasp when expressed in terms of high- and low-stakes endeavors. High-stakes endeavors tend to sharpen one’s mind and energies, but the scale and import of such endeavors can overwhelming, even paralyzing. A low-stakes endeavor tends to be approachable and nonthreatening, but its relative unimportance makes motivation hard to come by.

However, there are two “sweet spots,” i.e., tasks that are neither anxiety-producing nor boring: lower-stakes tasks that are fun, and high-stakes tasks that one consistently feels competent enough to achieve.

Whether it’s proving the Pythagorean theorem, creating a video for a class, or writing a master’s thesis, any endeavor flourishes when in flow. Flow exists only in the absence of anxieties that often surround significant challenges, be they learning challenges or creative challenges.

Therefore, as educators, our efforts to banish boredom, anxiety and fear from our classrooms must be continuous and vigilant.

One strategy to do that? Make more room in the curriculum for learning through creative self-expression, for making — and be sure to integrate creativity into both learning objectives and assessments.

Screenshot 2014-06-04 14.00.11

Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.

{ The Happiness Equation } A Look Into Some of the Factors That Affect Our Experience of Happiness …*

Last week I wrote about the evolutionary function of positive emotions, now I’d like to turn our attention to some of the intrinsic factors that affect our enduring levels of happiness. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes the following “happiness equation”:

H = S + C + V

Where H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control. (45)

Today I will focus on the factors outside of our voluntary control (S) that determine our set range of happiness. (Don’t worry, we’ll soon get to the many things under your voluntary control that you can do to enhance and amplify your happiness.)


Seligman differentiates enduring levels of happiness from momentary happiness. This is important because the ways in which you increase the one are not the same as the ways in which you increase the other and the goal, of course, is to amplify our enduring happiness:

Momentary happiness can easily be increased by any number of uplifts, such as chocolate, a comedy film, a back rub, a compliment, flowers, or a new blouse. […] No one is more expert on this topic than you are. The challenge is to raise your enduring level of happiness, and merely increasing the number of bursts of momentary positive feelings will not accomplish this. (45)

Seligman identifies three key variables that keep each individual’s levels of enduring happiness within a relatively set range over the course of one’s life: the high heritability of personality traits, a baseline level of happiness (also likely genetically inherited) and our inevitable adaptation to the good things we have in life which leads us to take them for granted and reap less positive emotions from them over time.

{ THE STEERSMAN } We each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion which may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness.

According to various studies on the psychology of identical twins and that of adopted children, it appears that roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance:

The psychology of identical twins turns out to be much more similar than that of fraternal twins, and the psychology of adopted children turns out to be much more similar to their biological parents than to their adoptive parents. All of these studies—and they now number in the hundreds—converge on a single point: roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance. (47)

Don’t despair just yet, as Seligman points out, “high heritability does not determine how unchangeable a trait is.”

Some highly heritable traits (like sexual orientation and body weight) don’t change much at all, while other highly heritable traits (like pessimism and fearfulness) are very changeable. ( 47) 

{ THE HAPPINESS THERMOSTAT } We each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion, and this range may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness. 

A systematic study of 22 people who won major lotteries found that they reverted to their baseline level of happiness over time, winding up no happier than 22 matched controls. The good news, however, is that after misfortune strikes, the thermostat will strive to pull us out of our misery eventually. In fact, depression is almost always episodic, with recovery occurring within a few months of onset. Even individuals who have become paraplegic as a result of spinal cord accidents quickly begin to adapt to their greatly limited capacities, and within eight weeks they report more net positive emotion than negative emotion. Within a few years, they wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who are not paralyzed. Of people with extreme quadriplegia, 84 percent consider their life to be average or above average. These findings fit the idea that we each have a personal set range for our level of positive (and negative) emotion, and this range may represent the inherited aspect of overall happiness. (48)

{ THE HEDONIC TREADMILL } Causes you to to rapidly & inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted

Another barrier to raising your level of happiness is the “hedonic treadmill,” which causes you to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. As you accumulate more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise. The deeds and things you worked so hard for no longer make you happy; you need to get something even better to boost your level of happiness into the upper reaches of its set range. But once you get the next possession or achievement, you adapt to it as well, and so on. There is, unfortunately, a good deal of evidence for such a treadmill. (49)

  • In less than three months, major events (such as being fired or promoted) lose their impact on happiness level.
  • Wealth, which surely brings more possessions in its wake, has a surprisingly low correlation with happiness level. Rich people are, on average, only slightly happier than poor people.
  • Real income has risen dramatically in the prosperous nations over the last century, but the level of life satisfaction has been entirely flat in the United States and most other wealthy nations.
  • Recent changes in an individual’s pay predict job satisfaction, but average levels of pay do not.
  • Physical attractiveness (which, like wealth, brings about any number of advantages) does not have much effect at all on happiness.
  • Objective physical health, perhaps the most valuable of all resources, is barely correlated with happiness. 
  • There are limits on adaptation, however. There are some bad events that we never get used to, or adapt to only very slowly. The death of a child or a spouse in a car crash is one example. (49)

Here’s a wonderful TED talk from Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Dan Gilbert on the Surprising Science of Happiness, where he looks into some of the very factors, notably the impact bias, at work behind our hedonic treadmill and happiness thermostat.

In conclusion, the S variables (your genetic steersman, your set range and the hedonic treadmill) tend to keep your level of enduring happiness generally stable across your life span.

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

Kelly McGonigal: Rethink Your Beliefs About Stress To Become Healthier …*

The whole world looks different if you just put your hand in your chin and think.” -Kenya Hara

Not only does thinking differently about things change one’s perspective, it can also change our biology as this TED talk from health psychologist Kelly McGonigal demonstrates. McGonigal’s big idea is that by changing how we think about stress, we can become healthier, radically so:

Let me start with the study that made me rethink my whole approach to stress.This study tracked thirty-thousand adults in the United States for eight years and they started by asking people how much stress have you experienced in the last year? They also asked, do you believe that stress is harmful for your health? And then they used public death records to find out who died. Some bad news first, people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increase risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful, were no more likely to die. In fact,, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study—including people who had relatively little stress. Now the researchers estimated that overs the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you. 
[ . . . ]
And this is really what the new science of stress reveals—that how you think about stress matters. So my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to get rid of your stress, I want to make you better at stress.
 [ . . . ] 
…hopefully the next time your heart is pounding from stress, you’re going to remember this talk and you’re going to think to yourself, ‘this is my body helping me rise to this challenge.’ And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you and your stress response becomes healthier. 
Watch McGonigal’s talk to learn more about the positive health benefits of reframing stress and learn about its relationship to courage and being social.
put your hand in your chin & rethink …


Kelly McGonigal: How To Make Stress Your Friend via TED, published September 4, 2013

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