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Month June 2014

{{girlification}} of science and engineering toys: the good and the bad

Lately I’ve been noticing an increase in the number of advertising campaigns that touch upon the messy realities of sexism and the subtle ways in which women are enculturated into gendered careers, lifestyles, and mannerisms. One particular issue – that of encouraging young girls towards STEM fields and cultivating their interests in science, engineering, and math – seems particularly important.

A recent ad for Verizon brushes on how girls are discouraged from the science world at an early age:

I find the discourse interesting because there are many different ways in which we can encourage young girls to partake in science and engineering activities. One method is to “girlify” these toys and tools, and this has been both applauded and criticized, both for equally valid reasons.

For example, Goldiblox is a company (that I supported back as a kickstarter!) the develops engineering toys based on narrative play, to help integrate engineering into the types of play that female children generally are most attracted to.

Their philosophy, below explains this idea:

At GoldieBlox, our goal is to get girls building. We’re here to help level the playing field in every sense of the phrase. By tapping into girls’ strong verbal skills, our story + construction set bolsters confidence in spatial skills while giving young inventors the tools they need to build and create amazing things.

In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math…and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered “boys’ toys”. By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.

We believe there are a million girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet. We think GoldieBlox can show them the way.(Source: http://www.goldieblox.com/pages/about)

Alternatively, the whole “girlification” of engineering toys has generally been considered a huge failure for Lego. As explained beautifully by feministfrequency.com, the new Lego Friends” sets marketed for girls are entirely pastel pink and purple. These Lego girls live in “HeartLake” city which is a heavily gender-stereotyped world where the Lego girls can do their hair, take care of the home, and get their pets groomed, among other limiting roles. Most critically, the Lego Friends dolls don’t integrate with all of the pre-existing Lego sets, further segregating girls’ Lego play.

In many ways, both Goldieblox and Lego Friends are toys that are built on the idea that girls and boys have different styles of play. Yet while Goldieblox seems liberating in adding engineering to storytelling, Lego Friends seems constricting in forcing girls to conform to a gender stereotype.

Another controversial use of “girlification” is Made With Code, Google’s initiative to get girls more involved in computer science through code-based projects that include DIY jewelry and making music. As Mindy Kaling explained  (she emceed an event),  

I was very traditionally girly. I thought [coding] wasn’t very social. I thought it was for boys. I thought it was solitary and not fun. I was into Latin, which is 100 percent more boring than coding. But I was into it because of the way that it was sold to me in high school. It was really social, and I felt like cool people were doing it and that’s why I wanted to do it. If coding can be sold that way, that’s awesome. (Source: http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/06/who-wants-to-build-mindy-kalings-apps.html).

Ultimately, I’m torn on whether or not these sorts of tools help to reinforce stereotypes or to break them down. I was definitely a tomboy as a child, and I played with “boy” Legos and similar construction sets without any thoughts about whether or not these toys should be for me. However, the reality is that our world is one where many girls are taught to be “girly,”  and if “girlification” works at engaging this population in engineering and science, we’ve opened that door for millions of girls who would have otherwise never dared to try building with Legos, or coding, or engineering. Perhaps the most important issue is ensuring that these marketed toys are in no way lesser than or more limiting than their male-marketed counterparts. For example, the Lego Friends sets could have been far more effective if they simply integrated themselves into the pre-existing Lego World, even if they included some pink and purple blocks.

What do you think about this approach to encouraging young girls in Math and Science?


{ Serendipity Playdates } Sharing Moments With Strangers & Opening Ourselves Up for Discovery …*

{ Serendipity Playdates } Sharing Moments With Strangers & Opening Ourselves Up for Discovery …* | rethinked.org

A couple weeks ago, I went on vacation with my cousin. We spent a few days in New Orleans before renting a car and slowly making our way to Memphis. Other than the joy of being reunited with one of my all time favorite people, the food (those shrimp Po’ boys and bread pudding!!!) and the thrill of discovering new places, I was delighted by all the serendipitous encounters we made along the road. Travel is a wonderful platform through which to achieve something I aspire to in all aspects of my life: to make the ordinary unknown, to experience each moment with a beginner’s mind. There is a very peculiar type of freedom that comes from travelling; a sort of exchange between the physical bags one packs and the metaphorical baggage one leaves behind. Routines are disrupted, assumptions questioned, awareness and empathy are reinvigorated as experience is made fresh. As travelers, we are more open to other people, more interested in their stories, and they, in turn, are more open to ours.

I’ve been back in New York for two weeks now and have noticed that what I had left behind is quickly settling back in. I long for those in-between moments of connection and story sharing that kept occurring throughout our trip, but my assumptions about what it means to talk to strangers are quickly taking back their turf. And the truth is that it can actually be quite difficult, in the course of our daily lives, to find strangers who are willing to exchange moments for the sake of exchange, with no “ulterior motives.” There is the occasional chance encounter in coffee shops and parties but often, as an adult, I find that most opportunities of meeting strangers are weighed down by expectations of romantic interest or professional networking.

While I’m always happy to talk about creativity, design, learning, play, empathy and cognition till the sun comes up, what I would really like is to share stories and moments with you, the ones that stand out in Technicolor tones in our memories. I want to know about the softness of your grandmother’s hands, the dent left in the pillow by your sleeping cat, the time you got lost in the woods.

Admittedly, this may be cheating a bit because if you’re reading rethinked * we’re not complete strangers. But here is what I propose: let’s do an experiment in engineering serendipity, let’s share our stories and a moment on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Let’s meet up and go on an adventure, let’s get lost in an unknown part of town or go for a stroll in the park. If you’d like to set up a serendipity playdate with me, please email me at elsa@rethinked.org.

I’m also going to go park myself this coming Wednesday (July 2nd) from 12:30  to 4:00 pm at Café Lalo on 201 West 83rd St (btw. Amsterdam and Broadway). If you’re in New York and have some free time, stop by, say hello, stay awhile.

Let’s share tea & stories

{ The Good Life vs. the Pleasant Life } Building Psychological Capital By Investing In Experiences That Produce Flow …*

{ The Good Life vs. the Pleasant Life } Building Psychological Capital By Investing In Experiences That Produce Flow ...* | rethinked.org

Last week, I wrote about the different types of happiness in the present: the pleasures and the gratifications and dove into various ways to enhance and amplify the pleasure in one’s life. Today, let’s focus on the gratifications, specifically on how they differ from the pleasures. The distinction is important as it frames the difference between the ‘Good Life” and the “Pleasant Life”–a life of growth and authenticity versus a life of ephemeral pleasures.


While the pleasures are about the surging of positive emotions, the gratifications are characterized by a complete lack of emotion– a full immersion in the moment and lack of self-consciousness. As I mentioned in my post last week, what Seligman calls the gratifications is, essentially, interchangeable with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s concept of flow

From Csikszentmihalyi’s research, we know that the experience of the gratifications/flow is characterized by the following components:

  • The task is challenging and requires skill
  • We concentrate
  • There are clear goals
  • We get immediate feedback
  • We have deep, effortless involvement
  • There is a sense of control
  • Our sense of self vanishes
  • Time stops (116)


Seligman makes a fascinating analogy with the field of economics, suggesting that in the same way that we can accrue economic capital – “resources that are withdrawn from consumption and invested in the future for higher anticipated returns,” we may be endowed with a capacity for accruing psychological capital. And the way in which we build this psychological capital is through pursuing the gratifications.

When we engage in pleasures, we are perhaps just consuming. The smell of perfume, the taste of raspberries, and the sensuality of a scalp rub are all high momentary delights, but they do not build anything for the future. They are not investments, nothing is accumulated. In contrast, when we are engaged (absorbed in flow), perhaps we are investing, building psychological capital for our future. Perhaps flow is the state that marks psychological growth. Absorption, the loss of consciousness, and the stopping of time may be evolution’s way of telling us that we are stocking up psychological resources for the future. In this analogy, pleasure marks the achievement of biological satiation, whereas gratification marks the achievement of psychological growth. (117)

I find this idea of psychological capital growing from engaging with activities that produce flow rather intuitive, but Seligman backs it up with research:

Flow is a frequent experience for some people, but this state visits many others only rarely if at all. In one of Mike’s [ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ] studies, he tracked 250 high-flow and 250 low-flow teenagers. The low-flow teenagers are “mall” kids; they hang out at malls and they watch television a lot. The high-flow kids have hobbies, they engage in sports, and they spend a lot of time on homework. On every measure of psychological well-being (including self-esteem and engagement) save one, the high-flow teenagers did better. The exception is important: the high-flow kids think their low-flow peers are having more fun, and say they would rather be at the mall doing all those “fun” things or watching television. But while all the engagement they have is not perceived as enjoyable, it pays off later in life. The high-flow kids are the ones who make it to college, who have deeper social ties, and whose later lives are more successful. This all fits Mike’s theory that flow is the state that builds psychological capital that can be drawn on in years to come. (117)


To summarize, we now know that there are two very different qualities of happiness in the present: the pleasures and the gratifications. Further, we know that the former produces evanescent positive emotion while the latter builds up our psychological capital. Back-rubs and pumpkin pie are wonderful and should be savored, but if we want to grow our psychological reserves we need to be seeking out and creating experiences for ourselves that produce flow. Yet, so many of us routinely choose the pleasures over the gratifications–spending our evenings mindlessly flipping through the channels instead of writing a story, painting a portrait or otherwise engaging in activities that require the activation of our strengths. This is a question of motivation, the pleasures are cheap and easily accessible while the gratifications require effort and hold the possibility of failure and stress:

To start the process of eschewing easy pleasure and engaging in more gratification is hard. The gratifications produce flow, but they require skill and effort; even more deterring is the fact that because they meet challenges, they offer the possibility of failing. Playing three sets of tennis, or participating in a clever conversation, or reading Richard Russo takes work—at least to start. The pleasures do not: watching a sitcom, masturbating and inhaling perfume are not challenging. Eating a buttered bagel or viewing televised football on Monday night requires no effort and little skill, and there is no possibility of failure.  (119)

But if we want a full life, a life of growth and directed change, we must be willing to endure and, in fact, seek out the challenges that produce flow:

Such people [those seeking the pleasures exclusively] ask, “How can I be happy?” This is the wrong question, because without the distinction between pleasure and gratification it leads all too easily to a total reliance on shortcuts, to a life of snatching up as many easy pleasures as possible. I am not against the pleasures; indeed, this entire chapter has set out advice on how to increase pleasures (as well as the entire panoply of positive emotions) in your life. I detailed the strategies under your voluntary control that are likely to move your level of positive emotion into the upper part of your set range of happiness: gratitude, forgiveness, and escaping the tyranny of determinism to increase positive emotions about the past; learning hope and optimism through disputing to increase positive emotions about the future; and breaking habituation, savoring, and mindfulness to increase the pleasures of the present. (120)

When an entire life is taken up in the pursuit of the positive emotions, however, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found. The right question is the one Aristotle posed two thousand and five hundred years ago: “What is the good life?” My main purpose in marking the gratifications off from the pleasures is to ask this great question anew, then provide a fresh and scientifically grounded answer. My answer is tied up in the identification and the use of your signature strengths. (121)

We’ll examine the signature strengths next Tuesday–what they are, how to identify them and how to build them up.


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

“Creativity ≠ Magic.” Repeat 10 Times.


For those of us who grew up thinking creativity was an endowment you either magically had or unmagically didn’t have, today’s creativity research offers some welcome food for (re)thought:

  • Creativity is the product of consistent effort, not innate talent or divine intervention.
  • It’s about showing up no matter the circumstances, not about waiting for the right mood or moment to strike.
  • Creative thinking can be strengthened through practice.
  • Even wildly successful creative people get stuck occasionally.
  • What distinguishes many wildly successful creative people is that, when they are stuck, they rely on proven strategies for getting unstuck.

In short, creativity ≠ magic. 




In my last piece, I wrote about Conditional Design, a collective of designers whose creative process entails strict adherence to fundamentally arbitrary rules. What began as a parlor game /slash/ productivity experiment has put Conditional Design on the creativity map. Over the past three years, their programming-inspired strategy has become the basis for the collective’s popular workshops and 2013 book (Amazon).

Several decades earlier, the musician Brian Eno and a friend, painter Peter Schmidt, developed Oblique Strategies, a deck of 100+ cards offering unusual prompts for overcoming creative blocks. The project was born when the two friends learned that both of them kept ad hoc lists of strategies for responding to creative anxiety, time pressure, and other dampers on creativity.

Oblique Strategies contains simple prompts: Do something boring, Just carry on, Listen to the quiet voice, and Only one element of each kind. The idea is to draw one card from the deck and follow it even if it feels strange or makes little sense.

Though there’s no penalty for putting a card back and picking another, the idea is to move forward, not wait for perfection.



In a candid 1980 interview, Brian Eno described how Oblique Strategies was born from creative “panic”:

The panic of the situation — particularly in studios — tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working, and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.

If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case — it’s just the most obvious and — apparently — reliable method.

The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt this attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt that attitude.”

Now in its sixth edition, Oblique Strategies‘ success reveals the usefulness of unexpected and random pathways for overcoming creative blocks. In other words, tactics that do not rely on reason, that are completely unburdened by the creative context, are often the most effective in dismantling the deer-in-the-headlights “panic” that undermines creativity.

After all, when you are blocked, nothing feels right. Oblique Strategies is a reminder that the best action is any action.

Source: Oblique Strategies (Images)

{ Enhance Your Well-Being, Health & Relationships …* } Free Online Compassion Course Starting Tomorrow (06.25)

I’m taking a short break from writing about the Positive Psychology cycle of my rethinked*annex project today to highlight an exciting free learning opportunity: The Compassion Course Online brought to you by Thom Bond. The Compassion Course is “for anyone who is inspired to have more compassion, understanding and harmony in their lives and in our world.” Sign me up!

Now in its fourth year, the Compassion Course will impart and demonstrate ways of thinking, speaking and acting that will help you enhance and nurture your capacity for compassion and nonviolent communication:

The Course starts with foundational concepts and practices that help us understand what engenders compassion and what blocks it. As the year progresses, we work with more advanced practices and processes that help us bring more compassion into our everyday lives.

Throughout the course we work on progressively deepening levels with self-empathy, empathy, emotional triggers, anger, beliefs, dialogue, appreciation, requests and more. By the end of the year, the course covers over 50 concepts and differentiations.

Once you sign up for the course, you will receive a weekly message via email, which will include:

  1. A concept to learn
  2. A story to illustrate the concept
  3. Practices to integrate the concept into your life
  4. Links to reference materials and important updates

You will also have access to a growing global online community:

All Compassion Course participants can be part of our Private Online Community Resource Site. It includes course updates, links to audio resources, documents, exercises as well as multiple message boards, to connect our community 24/7. This year we will be adding video content as well.

The first weekly message will go out tomorrow, so make sure you sign up today. In the meantime, you may want to head over to Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and check out all of their wonderful resources on what compassion is, how to cultivate it and how it can enhance your health, well-being and relationships.


The Grand Canyon Trail of Time: Interactive Museum Exhibits and Embodied Cognition

Two weeks ago I went on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. In addition to hiking and exploring one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, I loved learning about the geology of the area and the earth science involved in the creation and continued evolution of the Canyon.

One of the coolest educational bits of my trip was a walk along the Trail of Time. This 2.8 miles interpretive walking timeline trail winds along the Southern Rim and every handful of steps there were pieces of rock layer or vistas with stories to explain their place in the timeline and how the Grand Canyon formed. Every meter of the walk signifies one million years, and my journey through the trail helped me to understand the magnitude of geologic time.

These sorts of exhibits are powerful educational tools to teach scalable large or small concepts. The American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium has a similar walk – Scales of the Universe – where the SIZES of very very big very very small objects are put into perspective through comparisons along a 400 long walkway. In my college Astronomy class, my professor used objects like tennis balls and the length of our lecture hall to give us a combined idea of the vast sizes and spaces between planets and solar systems in our universe.

One mechanism behind the effectiveness of these tools is embodied cognition (an idea that Karin expands upon in this post). While many models of human thinking over the past half century have focused on a model of abstract thought, recent cognitive learning science and neuroscience research has shown overwhelming evidence that cognition is inextricably tied to perception. Therefore, grounding learning in perceptual experiences, thought modal simulations, bodily states, and situated action can increase students’ deep understanding of concepts. Perceptually-grounded cognition research has indicated numerous ways to make learning more meaningful by embedding it within the ways a learner interacts with her world, integrating learning with experiences (Black, Segel, Vitale, & Fadjo, 2012). Embodied cognition models prescribe learning environments where motions and actions are congruous with mental processes. The trail of time uses human motion to drive in the concept of vast periods of time and sensory tactile and visual experiences to help learners better understand the look and shape of the geologic formations.  After sweating through a long walk across the millions of years of geologic formation, one can begin to truly understand how long it took for the earth to form the beautiful canyon below.



Reflect on What You Can Put Your Agency Behind, On What You Can Be For, & Through Hard Choices, Become That Person

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition.That the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse, but a godsend.” – Ruth Chang

In this splendid TED talk, philosopher Ruth Chang examines the misconceptions and unexamined assumptions that govern our understanding and handling of hard choices. She invites us to rethink how we frame the act of choosing between unequal alternatives, where each option is better in some ways than the other but neither is better overall. Rather than agonizing over trying to uncover the “right” option in such a situation, we should celebrate and enact our agency in creating the right reasons for ourselves. This is a modern take on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola‘s Oration on the Dignity of Man. Way back in 1486, Pico della Mirandola unhinged mankind from the Great Chain of Being, highlighting the agency we each possess in choosing and fashioning our own nature. It is this very agency, this power we have to choose who we shall be[come], that is the defining characteristic of the human condition, he argued. And it is through the hard choices we make, claims Chang, that we enact this great human power we all have to shape our being and embrace the fullness of our humanity.

{ t r u t h s

I think the puzzle arises because of an unreflective assumption we make about value. We unwittingly assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are akin to scientific quantities, like length, mass and weight. Take any comparative question not involving value, such as which of two suitcases is heavier? There are only three possibilities. The weight of one is greater, lesser or equal to the weight of the other. Properties like weight can be represented by real numbers — one, two, three and so on — and there are only three possible comparisons between any two real numbers. One number is greater, lesser, or equal to the other. Not so with values. As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t. We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of lengths and weights, has the same structure as the world of ought, of what we should do. So if what matters to us — a child’s delight, the love you have for your partner — can’t be represented by real numbers, then there’s no reason to believe that in choice, there are only three possibilities — that one alternative is better, worse or equal to the other. We need to introduce a new, fourth relation beyond being better, worse or equal, that describes what’s going on in hard choices. I like to say that the alternatives are “on a par.” When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose, but one alternative isn’t better than the other. Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value, in the same league of value, while at the same time being very different in kind of value. That’s why the choice is hard.

Understanding hard choices in this way uncovers something about ourselves we didn’t know. Each of us has the power to create reasons. Imagine a world in which every choice you face is an easy choice, that is, there’s always a best alternative. If there’s a best alternative, then that’s the one you should choose, because part of being rational is doing the better thing rather than the worse thing, choosing what you have most reason to choose. In such a world, we’d have most reason to wear black socks instead of pink socks, to eat cereal instead of donuts, to live in the city rather than the country, to marry Betty instead of Lolita. A world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons. When you think about it, it’s nuts to believe that the reasons given to you dictated that you had most reason to pursue the exact hobbies you do, to live in the exact house you do, to work at the exact job you do. Instead, you faced alternatives that were on a par, hard choices, and you made reasons for yourself to choose that hobby, that house and that job. When alternatives are on a par, the reasons given to us, the ones that determine whether we’re making a mistake, are silent as to what to do. It’s here, in the space of hard choices, that we get to exercise our normative power, the power to create reasons for yourself, to make yourself into the kind of person for whom country living is preferable to the urban life.

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am. I am for banking. I am for chocolate donuts. This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.


So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

Pleasures vs. Gratifications – Understanding & Enhancing the Various Types of Happiness In the Present …*

One aspect of Positive Psychology that I find most exciting, is the way in which it nuances our understanding of happiness. We tend to view happiness as a single, static entity– something to possess or to be. Positive Psychology frames happiness as a multifaceted and dynamic process involving a wide range of emotions and magnitudes. It is not an all or nothing endeavor, happiness is a process–the journey is the destination— and it comes in many shades and intensities. So far, we’ve examined some scientifically vetted ways to increase happiness about the past and enhance positive emotion in the future, today we’ll turn our attention to understanding happiness in the present. Positive emotion in the present is divided into two main categories, what Seligman terms the “pleasures” and the “gratifications:”

The pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components, what philosophers call “raw feels:” ecstasy, thrills, orgasm, delight, mirth, exuberance, and comfort. They are evanescent, and they involve little, if any, thinking. (102)

The gratifications are activities we very much like doing, but they are not necessarily accompanied by any raw feelings at all. Rather, the gratifications engage us fully, we become immersed and absorbed in them, and we lose self-consciousness. Enjoying a great conversation, rock climbing, reading a good book, dancing, and making a slam dunk are all examples of activities in which time stops for us, our skills match the challenge, and we are in touch with our strengths. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures, they involve quite a lot of thinking and interpretation, they do not habituate easily, and they are undergirded by our strengths and virtues. (102)

For those of you familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work, you will no doubt have noticed that the gratifications are interchangeable with the concept of flow. Seligman devotes an entire section of Authentic Happiness to the gratifications, which we will look at next Tuesday.

For today let’s focus on the pleasures, what they are and how we can enhance and amplify them in our daily lives. The pleasures can be divided into two categories–the “bodily pleasures” and the “higher pleasures.” The distinction between the two has to do with the degree of concscious thought that they require:

THE BODILY PLEASURES These delights are immediate, come through the senses, and are momentary. They need little or no interpretation. The sense organs, for evolutionary reasons, are hooked quite directly to positive emotion; touching, tasting, smelling, moving the body, seeing and hearing can directly evoke pleasure. (103)

THE HIGHER PLEASURESThe higher pleasures have a lot in common with the bodily pleasures. Like the latter, they have positive “raw feels,” are momentary, melt easily, and habituate readily. But they are considerably more complex in what sets them off externally. They are more cognitive, and they are also vastly more numerous and more varied than the bodily pleasures. (104)

The high-intensity pleasures include rapture, bliss, ecstasy, thrill, hilarity, euphoria, kick, buzz, elation, and excitement. The moderate-intensity pleasures include ebullience, sparkle, vigor, glee, mirth, gladness, good cheer, enthusiasm, attraction and fun. The low-intensity pleasures include comfort, harmony, amusement, satiation, and relaxation. (104)


As Seligman notes, no one is more expert on the things that bring you pleasure in your life than you are. What Positive Psychology can offer are tools for enhancing the pleasures that you enjoy.


When I was seven years-old, my family moved to the Netherlands and I discovered a veritable passion for Gouda cheese. I simply couldn’t get enough of it and decreed, with the characteristic pomp of young children, that it was all I wanted to eat for lunch. My mother complied and everyday, along with fruits and vegetables, I would find a Gouda sandwich in my lunchbox. My love affair with Gouda lasted a full month until one day, I opened up my lunchbox and found I had lost my appetite. My beloved Gouda now looked like plasticky orange slabs and I longed for the Brie and Camembert of my homeland. I went home that evening and proclaimed the Gouda age over. The issue with all external stimuli from which we derive pleasure–whether it be cheese, the smell of lavender, or a Fragonard painting–is that we are neurologically wired to stop responding to it once we are repeatedly exposed to the stimulus.

Rapidly repeated indulgence in the same pleasure does not work. […] this process called habituation or adaptation, is an inviolable neurological fact of life. Neurons are wired to respond to novel events, and not to fire if the events do not provide new information. At the single-cell level, there is a so-called refractory period such that the neuron simply cannot fire again for a time (usually a few seconds). At the level of the whole brain, we notice events that are novel and disregard those that are not. The more redundant the events, the more they merge into the unnoticed background. (105) 

Luckily, Seligman shares two potent antidotes to our innate tendency to habituate to external stimulus: strategic spacing of the pleasures and engineering surprise.


One key way to keep habituation at bay is to engage in strategic spacing and diversification of your pleasures:

Inject into your life as many events that produce pleasure as you can, but spread them out, letting more time elapse between them than you normally do. If you find that your desire to engage in a particular pleasure diminishes to zero (or below, to aversion) when you space it far enough apart, you are probably dealing with an addiction and not a pleasure. (106)

Try to find the optimal spacing that keeps habituation of your pleasures at bay. If you love the music of Bruce Springsteen, experiment with listening both more and less frequently. You will discover an interval that keeps his music freshest. (106)


The second tool that Seligman proposes to keep yourself from habituating to your pleasures and losing the positive emotions that they create is one that I found particularly interesting, which is to engineer surprise for yourself and others:

Surprise, as well as spacing, keeps pleasures from habituating. Try to take yourself by surprise—or, even better, arrange it so that the people you live with or otherwise see frequently surprise each other with “presents” of the pleasures. It does not need to be on the scale of a dozen roses from the florist. An unexpected cup of coffee will do, but it is worth five minutes each day to create a pleasing little surprise for your spouse, your children, or a coworker: his favorite music on when he arrives home, rubbing her back while she is recording receipts on the computer, a vase full of flowers on your officemate’s desk, a simple note of affection. Such acts are reciprocally contagious. (107)

What an excellent design thinking challenge that is: how might we engineer more surprise into our daily lives and those around us?


Savoring, which is divided into four mechanisms: “basking (receiving praise and congratulations), thanksgiving (expressing gratitude for blessings), marveling (losing the self in the wonder of the moment), and luxuriating (indulging the senses)” (109) is about enhancing our experience and awareness of the present moment. There is a nascent field of study focused on better understanding the mechanisms of savoring, pioneered by Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff of Loyola University, and their research gives us five tangible techniques to cultivate our capacity for savoring:


  1. Sharing with others – You can seek out others to share the experience and tell others how much you value the moment. This is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure.
  2. Memory-building –Take mental photographs or even a physical souvenir of the event, and reminisce about it later with others.
  3. Self Congratulation – Don’t be afraid of pride. Tell yourself how impressed others are, and remember how long you’ve waited for this to happen.
  4. Sharpening perceptions- Focusing on certain elements and blocking out others.
  5. Absorption – Let yourself get totally immersed and try not to think, just sense. Do not remind yourself of other things you should be doing, wonder what comes next, or consider the ways in which the events could be improved upon. (108) 


Much like savoring, mindfulness enables us to be fully aware and engaged with the present moment and counters our innate tendency to “act and interact automatically, without much thinking.” There are loads of available resources and articles on mindfulness and if you’re interested in learning more about its benefits and tools for enhancing your capacity for it, I highly recommend a visit to Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center website. As a preview, Seligman sites the following study from Ellen Langer on the effects of mindfulness:

Ellen Langer, a Harvard Professor and the leading academic in the field of mindlessness, had people try to butt into a line of office workers waiting to copy material. When the would-be-queue-jumpers asked, “Would you mind if I cut in front of you?” they were refused. When they asked, “Would you mind if I cut in front of you, because I have to copy something,” they were allowed to cut in. Langer has developed a set of techniques for making us more mindful, allowing us to see the present moment anew. Underlying these techniques is the principle of shifting perspective to make a stale situation fresh. Tenth graders, for example, are assigned a history chapter about Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One group reads the passage from the perspective of Douglas, asking what he would think and feel, and from the perspective of his grandchild as well. This group learns much more than one that is just assigned to learn the material. (110)

Mindful attention to the present occurs much more readily in a slow state of mind than when one is racing future-mindedly through experience. The Eastern practice of meditation comes in many forms, but almost all of them, done regularly, slow down the speeding Western mind. (They almost all are well documented to dampen anxiety as well.) This in turn supports a mindset that is attentive to the present. (110)


In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes the following exercise to practice the various mechanisms that he shares for enhancing your pleasures:

I assign you (as I do my students) to have a beautiful day. Set aside a free day this month to indulge in your favorite pleasures. Pamper yourself. Design, in writing, what you will do from hour to hour. Use as many of the techniques above as you can. Do not let the bustle of life interfere, and carry out the plan. (111)

Why don’t they assign things like that in k-12?!


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

Pleasures vs. Gratifications – Understanding & Enhancing the Various Types of Happiness In the Present …* | rethinked.org

My cat, B, a natural expert on enhancing the pleasures …*

{ Rethinking Creativity } Why are Constraints Freeing?

When you imagine the work life of a great artist or musician, do you picture a person of unbridled creativity? A vessel from which ideas continuously flow?

For many of us, the creative life conjures such images. When we consider creative people from afar, we tend to focus on what they have made — not the process by which they have made it. While we sit over here feeling blocked and uncertain, creative people are over there, idea after idea flowing from their hands and taking shape in the world. For lack of information, it can appear effortless.

But I’ve learned over the past couple of years (to my relief) that even highly productive creative people often feel blocked and uncertain. They are often stuck.

The difference is that they take action, even when they don’t feel like it. Perhaps especially when they don’t feel like it.

While developing my MFA thesis, I researched designers and artists who deliberately use constraints to free up the creative process and increase productivity. That research profoundly shifted my perception of creative people. Now I believe that many (if not most) creative people are creative because they do get stuck — and they develop successful methods for getting unstuck.

I find this idea incredibly liberating: Perhaps the main distinction between creative people and me is not that I get stuck and they don’t. It’s that their methods for getting unstuck really work, and they  faithfully rely on those methods.

Over the next weeks I’ll be sharing some examples of designers and artists who specifically use constraints to sidestep the psychological challenges of creative work — the aforementioned blocks and uncertainty.

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“The process is the product,” according to the Amsterdam-based design collective Conditional Design. Conditional Design first came together around a common interest in programming and design processes whose input comes from humans rather than from code. Though they eschew labels such as “generative design” and “code art,” the algorithmic aspect to their work is undeniable. 

The designers create each piece collectively, according to strict rules they have devised for that particular piece, just as in a game. In the Conditional Design methodology, “constraints sharpen the perspective on the process and stimulate play within the limitations.”

In other words, constraints jumpstart the design process by prescribing specific actions. They dramatically reduce the available design methods as well as the different forms the final product can take. And since the experience of the “game” is fun, the process itself becomes a driving motivation. In fact, the group initially developed this methodology as a kind of game night for graphic designers.



A rather simple example of Conditional Design’s work is “Cellular Relationships.” The process involved drawing circles according to the following directions:

  • Draw a cell that intersects one or two cells of another color. 
  • The center point of the cell must be outside the intersected cells. 
  • Find the points where your circle intersects with other cells and connect them with straight lines. 
  • Erase all enclosed cell segments that result from the intersection. 
  • If your cell intersects two cells, draw a baby cell within one of them. 
  • Cells can only be impregnated once. Repeat.




“Drop Fringe Garland Red Green Blue,” a piece commissioned by Items magazine in the Netherlands, was governed by more complex rules.

  • Draw a continuous periodic line from left to right. 
  • The line is defined by its period and its amplitude. 
  • Each period consists of max. 6 line-segments until it repeats. 
  • The line-segments are constructed from: red = diagonal lines;
    green = diagonal lines and vertical/horizontal lines;
    blue = vertical/horizontal lines. 
  • The period of each new line is either the same size, double the size, or half the size of its predecessor. 
  • The amplitude of each line is the same and overlaps half of the previous line. 
  • Color the smallest fields that emerge from intersections. 
  • Repeat.

The collective developed this process-based design tactic for practical reasons as well.

After writing our [Conditional Design] manifesto, we decided to use these evenings to create work. Through these workshops we could define better what we were trying to talk about. Every week one of us have to come up with an idea, and then within that evening we had to do it. We built a system where we could document it easily and present it to the outside world directly [i.e., photographs shot from above]. 

Not every result was a success. But in the aggregate, the methodology yielded a compelling body of work.

Both the failures and successes of the evenings were sent to the outside world. It was difficult to keep this going… 

Quickly after starting the workshops, we began getting questions about exhibitions. Somehow we started becoming professional with the space, which was meant to be an amateur place where we could just play around. We are trying to find a balance right now. 

To me, what’s remarkable about the CD methodology is that it seems to harness intrinsic motivation, if unconsciously. In other words, the collective credits “human programming” as the inspiration for Conditional Design, yet it developed a tactic that it continues to pursue for its own intrinsic delight.

In that light, it’s not surprising to learn that CD’s casual “game night” tactic yielded lucrative work after the group developed and reified the tactic as “conditional design.”

Today, the collective has published a book on this methodology and is regularly invited to hold workshops at design schools and companies. By honing a process so deliberately — and documenting it — they transformed process into product.


The use of constraints in creative practice is a powerful reminder that
what distinguishes creative people is not having creative ideas. It is taking action upon having a creative idea.

Constraints make taking action easier. And in the case of Conditional Design, they are the creative idea and the action rolled into one.

Source: Helen Armstrong and Zvezdana Stojmirovic, Participate: Designing with User-Centered Content (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).

Cultivating Optimism & Hope to Enhance Well-Being, Performance & Positive Emotions About the Future …*

Cultivating Optimism & Hope to Enhance Well-Being, Performance & Positive Emotions About the Future ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman

Today, we’ll examine how to increase one’s positive emotions about the future by learning how to cultivate our capacity for optimism and hope. As you’ve seen in my previous posts on the theory of positive emotions, and increasing satisfaction about the past, the various shades of happiness we experience over the course of our lives have very important effects on both mental and physical health. This holds true for optimism and hope:

Pessimists, I have found over the last two decades, are up to eight times more likely to become depressed when bad events happen; they do worse at school; sports, and most jobs than their talents augur; they have worse physical health and shorter lives; they have rockier interpersonal relations, and they lose American Presidential elections to their more optimistic opponents. (24)

While some people seem naturally more inclined to view the glass half-full than half-empty, the muscle analogy that pervades most of behavioral psychology also applies in the domain of optimism and hope. Both of these capacities function much like physical muscles which, when exercised correctly grow and develop. So don’t despair if you tend to be pessimistic, with a little work, you can learn to become more optimistic and hopeful and reap the many benefits of these positive frames.

Optimism and hope are quite well-understood, they have been the objects of thousands of empirical studies, and best of all, they can be built. Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at work, particularly in challenging jobs, and better physical health. (83)


As we saw last week, the narratives we construct about our lives have enormous implications on our happiness and well-being, both mental and physical and one of the most powerful ways to increase well-being is to rework our beliefs about what happens to us and take charge of creating a more productive narrative. Pessimism and optimism are also tightly linked to the explanatory styles we use to frame the experiences in our lives and are defined by two basic dimensions: permanence and pervasiveness. Whether you view events and moods as permanent or temporary and universal or specific has great implications for your happiness and well-being.

Optimistic people tend to explain the bad events they experience as both temporary and specific to this one event. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to view the misfortunes that befall them as universal and permanent.

Pessimists have a particularly pernicious way of construing their setbacks and frustrations. They automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive and personal: “It’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything, and it’s my fault.” […] Optimists, in contrast, have a strength that allows them to interpret their setbacks as surmountable, particular to a single problem, and resulting from temporary circumstances or other people. (24)

Interestingly, the pattern is reversed when appraising good events: optimists view their good fortune as permanent, pervasive and personal while pessimists see it as temporary, specific to that one event and the result of luck rather than personal intervention.


Similarly to optimism, hope results from our explanatory style when appraising the events of our lives:

Finding permanent and universal causes for good events along with temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope; finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune and temporary and specific causes of good events is the practice of despair. (92)


So, concretely, what can you do to increase hope and optimism in your life? Much like enhancing satisfaction about the past, increasing hope and optimism is about reframing how you explain your life to yourself. The first step to building optimism and hope is “to realize your beliefs are just that—beliefs. They may or may not be facts.” (94) When negative thoughts creep up, you need to recognize them, learn to dispute your internal monologue and replace the negative thoughts with more productive beliefs. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes the “ABCDE Model” as a helpful framework through which to recraft your beliefs:

  • A stands for adversity
  • B stands for the beliefs you automatically have when it occurs
  • C stands for the usual consequences of the belief
  • D stands for your disputation of your routine belief
  • E stands for the energization that occurs when you dispute it successfully

By effectively disputing the beliefs that follow an adversity, you can change your reaction from dejection and giving up to activity and good cheer. (93)

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman shares four techniques for making your disputations convincing and thus translating this mental act into tangible benefits: evidence, alternatives, implications and usefulness.


The most convincing way of disputing a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect. Much of the time you have facts on your side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are so very often overreactions. You adopt the role of a detective and ask, “What is the evidence for this belief?” (95)


Almost nothing that happens to you has just one cause; most events have many causes. If you did poorly on a test, all of the following might have contributed: how hard the test was, how much you studied, how smart you are, how fair the professor is, how the other students did, and how tired you were. Pessimists have a way of latching onto the worst of all these causes—the most permanent and pervasive one. Here again, disputation usually has reality on its side. There are multiple causes, so why latch onto the most insidious one? Ask yourself, is there any less destructive way to look at this?

To dispute your own beliefs, scan for all possible contributing causes. Focus on those that are changeable (not enough time spent studying,) specific (this particular exam was uncharacteristically hard), and non-personal (the professor graded unfairly). You may have to push hard at generating alternative beliefs, latching onto possibilities that you are not fully convinced are true. Remember that much of pessimistic thinking consists of just the reverse, latching onto the most dire possible belief—not because of evidence, but precisely because it is so dire. It is your job to undo this destructive habit by becoming facile at generating alternatives. (96)


Reality may be against you, and the negative belief you hold about yourself may be true. In this situation, the technique to use is decatastrophizing.

Even if the belief is true, you say to yourself, what are its implications? It was true that the dinner was not romantic. But what does that imply? One bad dinner does not mean divorce.

How likely, you should ask yourself, is the worst-case scenario?  (97)


Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than its truth. Is the belief destructive? When you break your diet, the response “I’m a total glutton” is a recipe for letting go of your diet completely. Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can sympathize with that sentiment, but the belief itself may cause more grief than it is worth. What good will it do me to dwell on the belief that the worlds should be fair? Another tactic is to detail all the ways you can change the situation in the future. Even if the belief is true now, is the situation changeable? How can you go about changing it? (97)

To practice disputing your pessimistic beliefs and reframe your explanatory style, Seligman suggests the following exercise:

During the next five adverse events you face in your daily life, listen closely for your beliefs, observe the consequences, and dispute your beliefs vigorously. Then observe the energy that occurs as you succeed in dealing with the negative beliefs. Record all of this. These five adverse events can be minor: the mail is late, your call isn’t returned, or the kid pumping your gas doesn’t wash the windshield. In each of these use the four techniques of self-disputation. (98)

Do it in your daily life over the next week. Don’t search out adversity, but as it comes along, tune in carefully to your internal dialogue. When you hear the negative beliefs, dispute them. Beat them into the ground, then record the ABCDE.

  • Adversity:
  • Belief:
  • Consequences:
  • Disputation:
  • Energization:


Hope this review of hope and optimism was helpful. Thursday we’ll take a look at the various types of happiness in the present.


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

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