Tag perception

The Link Between Power, Courage & Empathy …*

The Link Between Power, Courage & Empathy ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

If you draw a series of parallel lines closely together, and then another series across them at an angle, you have the simplest visual example of the dialectical process. Cross-hatching as they call it. You have the first series of line, then you have the second series in opposition to the first. But out of the two you get a series of diamonds.

Now, if you look at these diamonds, remembering that every one has had to be drawn, you are overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the task. The diamonds are like the future we work for. Yet, courage. The first series of lines is there. All we have to do is to cross them.

– John Berger, A Painter of our Times, 1958

In a fascinating article recently published on The Greater Good Science CenterWhen Courage Goes Bad, Jeremy Adam Smith examines Cynthia Pury’s research on courage–how we experience, perceive and attribute it to others. Courage, it turns out, is often used as a currency of power–we attribute it to those who share our goals while withholding it from those whom we perceive as being outside our self-defined groups.

In the article, Adam Smith examines a recent social media post which stated, “As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!” The post was accompanied by a picture of toy soldiers and went viral, being shared almost a million times. This is a prime example of how we tend to frame courage as a zero-sum game–by calling Caitlyn Jenner courageous, the author of that social media post felt we were detracting from the ‘real’ courage of American armed forces. The withholding of attributing courage to someone’s actions is very much linked to an absence of empathy for their experience. The good news is that how we frame courage is very much a choice. We can choose to see it as a finite resource and guard it jealously only for our own self-perceived groups, or we can choose to acknowledge the vast plurality of human experiences and understand that ultimately, courage depends on the series of lines we each choose to cross.

. . . *

Pury’s research suggests that courage is something we grant to validate certain goals and withhold to invalidate others. While it might seem as though Jenner and an American soldier could both be courageous, in fact we appear to feel a strong impulse to treat courage like a finite resource that goes to some people but not others. Just as we sometimes withhold empathy or compassion from out-groups, so we will refuse to grant that people can be courageous if we don’t approve of their goals or values.

[ … ] 

Pury’s research has found that courage is more likely to emerge when a person sees a meaningful goal and then believes he or she has the ability to achieve that goal, a product of cognitive appraisal she calls “process courage.”

A man is more likely to run into a burning building to save kittens if he has the training and equipment to do so. A man who runs into the building without those things might be seen as courageous—but not, perhaps, very smart. A third man who has the training and equipment but doesn’t see saving kittens as a worthy goal would simply stand on the sidelines. So whether to take action depends on a person’s goals, as well as evaluations of personal risk and his own ability to achieve the goal.

But how will observers view that private decision? Here’s where things get interesting—and debatable.

Much, argued Pury, depends on whether other people share the goal in question. To the community of people who have transitioned from one sex to the other, Jenner is a hero: an accomplished male athlete who was willing to embrace a new celebrity identity as a woman. In this view, it took personal courage to go public with a very intimate decision—and by doing so, pave the way for others with less social power and wealth to follow the same path. She had the resources to create an image for others to pursue.

The conservative reaction was very different. To conservatives, Jenner’s goal—to raise the visibility of transgendered people—is socially destructive.

To a degree, it’s a problem of empathy and group affiliation. “If it’s your lived life, you know that that transition is really important and you value that goal because you’ve pursued it yourself,” said Pury. You would also know firsthand all the barriers and hostility that Jenner would face. Knowing something about her struggle might make her courageous in your eyes.

But to conservatives, all of that pales in comparison to the goal of maintaining rigid barriers between men and women, a dichotomy on which they say the American family depends. In the pages of the National Review, Doug French framed courage as resistance to the trend Jenner represents.

“By refusing to speak, we contribute to the notion that even conservatives understand that something is wrong—something is shameful—about our own deepest beliefs,” he writes. French (an Iraq veteran) is not willing to attribute courage to Jenner, instead granting it to members of his own self-defined group, people who share his values, experiences, and goals.

Source: When Courage Goes Bad by Jeremy Adam Smith via The Greater Good, published July 16, 2015

Alberto Giacometti on Being In the World As A Rethinker …*

Alberto Giacometti on Being In the World As A Rethinker ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

Naples, 2014 – Artist Unknown …*


I’ve been trying to get up earlier recently and to motivate myself to get out of bed before sunrise, I have made the first hour of my day all about play and reflection. I read books that are just for pleasure, I journal, I drink my coffee unhurriedly, I look out into the darkness and listen to the birds begin to stir while my cat purrs besides me. It’s splendid.

This morning I was reading some interviews with Alberto Giacometti, and found the following passage to express splendidly so many aspects of what it means to be in the world as a rethinker …* From being able to live comfortably with the unknown (and the unknowable); being willing to reconstruct anew one’s understanding each day; questioning one’s assumptions daily without letting ego or fear get in the way; not letting one’s ideas and work become too precious; to being able to appreciate the intrinsic joy and inherent rewards of the process. Hope you will be as inspired by this glimpse into Giacometti’s experience as I am 

I do not work to create beautiful paintings or sculpture. Art is only a means of seeing. No matter what I look at, it all surprises and eludes me, and I’m not too sure of what I see. It is too complex. So, we must try to copy simply in order to begin to realize what we are seeing. It’s as if reality were continually behind curtains that one tears away… but there is always another …always one more. But I have the feeling, or the hope, that I am making progress each day. That is what makes me work, compelled to understand the core of life. And to carry on, knowing that the closer one gets to the goal, the further it retreats. The distance between the model and myself tends to increase continually; the closer I get, the further away it moves. It’s an endless search. Every time I work I am prepared to undo without the slightest hesitation the work done the day before, as each day I feel I am seeing further. Basically I now only work for the sensation I get during the process. And if I am then able to see better, if as I leave I see reality slightly differently, deep down, even if the picture doesn’t make much sense or is ruined, in any event I have won. I have won a new sensation, a sensation I had never experienced before. 

Source: Why Am I A Sculptor? – An Interview with André Parinaud

. . . *

{ 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.

{ Rethinking Resilience, Part III } Falling into Traps

arcade claw game

Don’t Fall For Them

One of the sources of un-resilient thinking is our natural tendency to make inductions — that is, to reach general conclusions based on specific instances.

In many instances, induction is a useful form of reasoning: it helps us determine, for example, that a seemingly threatening situation is in fact dangerous and ought to be avoided in the future.

But in the case of adversity, our reliance on induction can lead to overwrought and inaccurate interpretations of difficult situations.

In The Resilience Factor, a 2006 book that I began to unpack in my last post, psychologists Andrew Shatté and Karen Reivich share Aaron Beck’s research on common “thinking traps” — cognitive shortcuts that we may not even be aware we are making.

The un-resilient and inaccurate beliefs we sometimes have when faced with an adversity (remember the ABC sequence of Adversity – Belief – Consequences?) occur because we’ve fallen into one of eight cognitive traps:

1. Jumping to Conclusions, ie, making assumptions without the relevant data

2. Tunnel Vision, ie, ignoring favorable feedback and seeing only the negative aspects of a situation

3. Magnifying and Minimizing, ie, emphasizing the negative aspects of a situation and de-emphasizing the positive ones

4. Personalizing, ie, reflexively attributing problems to deep-seated and immutable aspects of one’s character (this “why” belief tends to cause sadness and depression, as discussed in my last post)

5. Externalizing, ie, blaming problems on external forces, including other people (this “why” belief tends to cause anger)

6. Overgeneralizing, ie, explaining the cause of a problem by assassinating your own character or someone else’s

7. Mind Reading, ie, believing we automatically know other people’s thoughts, or expecting other people to know our thoughts

8. Emotional Reasoning, ie, letting our feelings create distortions in our thinking

rethinked...* logo

How do we avoid thinking traps?

Shatté and Reivich recommend analyzing a recent un-resilient moment to uncover the underlying Adversity – Belief – Consequences sequence. Using the eight thinking traps as a guide can make it easier to identify the inaccuracies  in one’s beliefs. 

I didn’t have to look very far to recall an un-resilient moment in my own life.

The Adversity:

Recently I took my daughter and two dear out-of-town friends, a brother-sister pair, to a movie. Afterwards all three kids clamored to play arcade games at the theater. Since this was a special occasion, I was happy to oblige. I distributed tokens to each of them. The sister tried a claw machine — the kind where you try to get a metal claw to grasp a stuffed animal. It ran for less than five seconds and hardly grazed the stuffed animals inside. So much for that game.

The kids were rightfully indignant, and the boy and my daughter searched for better games to spend their tokens on. The boy tried a similar game of a different design (poking vs clawing), but with equally frustrating results.

Seeing the looks on their faces, I shelled out money for more tokens. The boy used four tokens to play a driving game, which he enjoyed well enough. But the others didn’t want to try it, so his sister tried yet another claw machine. It was broken outright and stole her tokens. At this point, my daughter was looking around desperately for other options.

Not wanting to invite more disappointment, I suggested the kids all forget about the remaining tokens and take some silly pictures in a photo booth. They’d get a memento of the nice day we had just spent together — how could that go wrong?

After the first shot, it was clear that the forehead of the oldest child was the only thing high enough to be in the frame. “Stand up! Squeeze together!” I yelled. My daughter, being the smallest, wasn’t able position herself in the frame quickly enough for the second shot. While the others mugged for the camera, my daughter flung herself out of the booth in tears. I lifted her and tried to hold her in position so she would appear in the next shots, but she squirmed out of my arms sobbing.

We waited in silence for the prints. Shot 1: the boy’s forehead. Shot 2: blurry movement of everyone. Shot 3: the side of my daughter’s head up against the camera. Shot 4: a decent picture of the two bigger kids.

The Consequences:

Unable to keep my own disappointment in check, I said out loud, “Well, that was a disaster. Let’s go.” A very un-merry band, we left the theater. You never would have guessed the kids had just spent almost two hours watching a movie they loved and gorging on treats. And I was more bent out of shape than any of them.

rethinked...* logo

Shatté and Reivich say that most people fall into a few thinking traps repeatedly — though the traps often aren’t entirely distinct from each other. In this instance, it didn’t take much analysis to recognize all eight traps in my inaccurate Beliefs.

With the thinking traps as a guide, I was able to identify my beliefs — and perceive their inaccuracy — pretty readily.

My Beliefs:

Jumping to Conclusions and Tunnel Vision: I took the kids’ disappointment to mean that the entire afternoon was ruined, and that my efforts to entertain them had failed.

Magnifying and Minimizing: I immediately forgot that I had begun by warning the kids that they might be disappointed. And I overlooked the fun we all had as the boy played the driving game.

Personalizing (and Overgeneralizing): I took the games’ lousy design to be my fault. Had I been a more resourceful and quick-thinking grown-up,  I would have successfully prevented these problems.

Externalizing: I resented my husband for introducing our daughter to arcade games in the first place.

Mind Reading: I felt sure the kids were absolutely crushed.

Emotional Reasoning: Feeling powerless and frustrated made me think less clearly.

rethinked...* logo

So how do we avoid these eight “thinking traps” in the moment? Shatté and Reivich offer simple questions that help us avoid each of them:

Jumping to Conclusions: What evidence are you basing your conclusion on? Are you certain, or are you guessing?

Tunnel Vision: What is a fair assessment of the entire situation? What is the big picture? How important is this one aspect to the big picture?

Magnifying and Minimizing: Were there any good things that happened? Did I do anything well? [Alternatively, if you tend to dismiss the negative, ask: Am I overlooking any problems? Were there any negative elements that I am dismissing the importance of?]

Personalizing: Did anyone or anything else contribute to this situation? How much of the problem is due to me and how much is due to others?

Externalizing: What did I do to contribute to this situation, if anything? How much did others contribute, if anything?

Overgeneralizing: Is there a narrower explanation than the one I’ve assumed to be true? Is there a specific behavior that explains this situation? What does impugning my character (or someone else’s) buy me? Is it logical to indict my character and/or worth (or another person’s) based on this specific event?

Mind Reading: Did I ask questions of others or make assumptions about their thoughts? Did I make my beliefs or feelings known directly and clearly? Am I expecting the other person to work hard at figuring out my needs or goals?

Emotional Reasoning: Do my feelings accurately reflect the facts of the situation? What questions must I ask to distinguish fact from feeling?

rethinked...* logo

The challenge, of course, is keeping these questions in mind when you’re seized by emotions. Fortunately, making a habit of identifying the ABCs of difficult moments — noting the thinking traps you most often fall into — is the most effective way to develop more rational and accurate thinking in the heat of the moment. Keeping a record of challenging moments you face — and unpacking the ABCs so that you can observe how inaccurate Beliefs may have led to un-resilient Consequences in your behavior — is a key recommendation.

Other steps detailed in The Resilience Factor are specifically designed to help maintain resilience in the heat of the moment. I’ll be looking at them in future posts.

{ Rethinking Resilience, Part II } Yes, You Are What You Think

You Are What You Think


In my last post, I wrote about positivity in the face of tragedy. And I wondered whether resilience amounts to a numbers game where positive thoughts outweigh negative ones. After all, cultivating gratitude helps offset negativity bias — our natural tendency to highlight and remember negative experiences more than positive ones. In some way that raises the possibility that giving time and mental space to happy, joyful thoughts reduces the impact of challenges and setbacks.

In my rather unscientific way, I do believe in this possibility. If I burn my daughter’s birthday cake but immediately make an effort to reflect on her health and happiness, I know I can ward off my sudden urge to stomp around the kitchen. But too often my brain seems to short circuit, and I find myself indulging in behavior more appropriate to a six-year-old.

So this past week I turned back to a book I read five years ago: The Resilience Factor by researchers Andrew Shatté and Karen Reivich. I remembered that it offered helpful strategies for increasing resilience — and that it was a very, very dense read. My memory was right on both counts.

In an ongoing series at rethinked…*, I’ll be sharing my process of unpacking those strategies and putting them to use.

rethinked...* logo

Increasing resilience is a matter of constructively handling setbacks, challenges, and new experiences. Shatté and Revich put forward 7 steps for increasing resilience.

Three “Know-Thyself Skills” provide insight on how you see yourself and the world, and why you react as you do. They help you understand how your mind works and build self-awareness. They give you a map of your beliefs, feelings, and behaviors, and how they are interconnected.

1. When you are faced with an adversity, deconstruct the resulting thought process into Adversity vs. Belief vs. Consequence. Those beliefs often involve inaccurate and overblown interpretations of the adversity. (“Learn Your ABCs”)

2. Recognize common cognitive errors that lead to those interpretations (“Avoid Thinking Traps”)

3. Identify the core values that underlie those beliefs (“Detecting Icebergs”)

Four “Evaluation and Change Skills” identify the most realistic causes and outcomes of a challenge. They help you accurately assess a challenge so that you can make constructive choices about how to respond to it. They help you keep non-resilient thoughts at bay in real time.

4. Test the accuracy of your interpretation of the adversity so that you can address it more effectively  (“Challenging Beliefs”)

5. Avoid what-if “catastrophizing” by identifying realistic outcomes (“Putting it in Perspective”)

6. Sidestep stress and anxiety with breathing, positive imagery, and relaxation (“Calming and Focusing”)

7. Examine the situation realistically in the moment by engaging strategies 4, 5, and 6 before counterproductive thoughts take hold (“Real-Time Resilience”)

rethinked...* logo

I found Step Number One — “Learn your ABCs” — immediately useful. It provides a concrete framework for deconstructing the irrational thought process that challenges often cause. It helps unpacks the mental domino effect into a three-piece sequence: Adversity-Belief-Consequence

A: Identify the triggering Adversity 

Adversities can be major or minor: facing a test; doing poorly on a test; too many demands on your time; being late to an appointment; dealing with other people’s anger; burning a birthday cake. They can involve new experiences.

B: Identify the Beliefs you have about the adversity  

The authors call these “ticker-tape beliefs” — the running interior monologue that erupts when you’re faced with a challenge.

Let’s say I burn my daughter’s birthday cake. I’m instantly flooded with a tangled mess of beliefs: It’s completely unsalvageable. She’s going to be crushed. I’ve ruined everything. I always do this. How could I be so stupid? I’m a crappy mom. Why is it my job to bake this dumb cake anyway? 

And so on.

[Side note: Putting those beliefs in writing is instructive: In the momentthose inchoate thoughts feel inevitable and fitting to the utter disaster at hand. Now their exaggeration is objectively much clearer.]

The authors point out that are two types of “ticker-tape” beliefs, ones that look back and others that look forward.

i. Causal beliefs (or “why?” beliefs) look back. They give false explanations for the adversity. They operate along three dimensions:

  • Viewing the adversity as your fault or not — ie, me or not-me
    How could I be so stupid? 
  • Viewing the adversity as constant and permanent, or not — ie, always or not-always
    I always do this.
  • Viewing the adversity as all-encompassing or not — ie, everything or not-everything
    I’m a crappy mom. 

ii. Implication beliefs (or “what next?” beliefs) look forward. They often incorrectly anticipate the result of the adversity.

  • She’s going to be crushed. I’ve ruined everything. 

The key point is that it’s this tangled mess of beliefs  — all of them incorrect — that leads to C-Consequences — not the adversity itself, which is a slightly burned cake.

C: Identify the Consequences of A and B, above — ie, your feelings and behaviors

Something I find particularly interesting is the apparently universal correspondence between common negative emotions (Consequences) and specific “ticker-tape” Beliefs:

That’s not fair! —> Anger comes when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly or been thwarted in the pursuit of a goal. This is a “why?” belief that focuses on external causes, ie, by blaming others. (Why is it my job to bake this dumb cake anyway?)

Something’s been taken from me —> Depression and sadness occur when we believe we’ve lost something real — like a relationship, job, or loved one — or intangible — like self-worth.”  This is another “why?” belief, but it tends to focus on internal causes of problems.

I made a mistake —> Guilt occurs when we believe we have failed to self-regulate (by procrastinating, bingeing, failing to exercise, overspending) or when we believe we have broken commitments to others (by neglecting family and friends, and by cheating — ie, I’m a crappy mom.). Like depression and sadness, guilt stems from a why belief and focuses on internal causes. 

I can’t believe they saw me screw up like that —> Embarrassment occurs when we believe we have lost standing with people whose opinions matter.

This is going to turn out terribly —> Anxiety and fear occur when we anticipate that a situation is going to pose challenges or cause discomfort

Though a bit cumbersome, applying this analysis reveals how I went from a slightly burnt cake to a potent and paralyzing mix of anger and guilt.

The ABCs framework gave me a powerful tool for distinguishing between the adversity and the tangled mess of reactive beliefs that the adversity evokes. Once I make that distinction, I more readily see that my feelings of anger and guilt have little to do with a slightly burnt cake and everything to do with two strong, emotion-laden beliefs — it’s not fair! and I made a mistake — which I overlaid on the cake. As the authors put it:

With resilience, your feelings and behaviors in the face of an adversity will be productive, appropriate responses to the facts of the adversity. Without resilience, they may be knee-jerk reactions to your ticker-tape beliefs.

rethinked...* logo

Coda: A slightly-shaved-down birthday cake was given a generous overlay of frosting — and was met with wide, happy smiles.

Stay tuned for more steps for increasing your resilience.

In the meantime, let’s try to hold on to the moments in life when things turn out far better than we fear.

{ Rethinking Resilience, Part I } Positive Thinking, Negativity Bias, and Why I’m Leery about Lear

Spalding High-Bounce Ball


I was a bit jarred this week by a New York TImes piece about kids in a Syrian refugee camp performing a Shakespeare play. King Lear, to be precise.

“‘The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,” said its director, Nawar Bulbul, a 40-year-old Syrian actor.'”

Say what, now?

To be sure, teenagers and dark, depressing stories are often a good combo — but I think that the “dark” and “depressing” should be relatable. Had the Syrian kids put on Hamlet, Othello, or Romeo and Juliet — any of the tragedies that deal directly with power struggles, personal weakness, difficult parents, dishonesty, friendship, love  — I wouldn’t balk. I could even see many of Shakespeare’s history plays, often excluded from high school curricula, resonating with these young refugees, given their first-hand experience with suffering caused by political machinations. But the choice of King Lear distressed me.

I taught King Lear to 16-year-olds for several years. But, truth be told, I am not convinced that teenagers — even Syrian teenagers who are alternately scared and bored by life in a refugee camp — will be, or even should be, deeply or personally moved by a story that is largely concerned with filial impiety, physical infirmity, dementia, and mortality (mortality by natural causes, that is). Those are the concerns of old folk. It almost seems biologically right that teenagers would shrug them off.

rethinked...* logo

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately. Or to put it more accurately: I’ve been thinking about other people’s resilience (on an epic scale) and my own (on a pretty mundane scale).

The epic scale came into sharp focus for me at a wonderful TEDx event I attended recently, entitled “Resilience: Consider the Uses of Adversity.” I would love to go into detail here, but I will wait until the event videos go online and you can watch them yourselves. In the meantime, if you need a gauge of what I mean by epic resilience, know this: one of the presenters was the woman whose three young daughters and parents perished on Christmas morning two years ago in a horrific house fire in Connecticut. Witnessing her strength, grace, and candor as she shared the painful and unfinished story of her survival — that was a once-in-a-lifetime gift I will never forget. Hers is epic resilience.

So the fact I can be felled by an overbaked birthday cake or a new dent in the car is a hard thing to accept — and a difficult thing to admit.

rethinked...* logo

The literature on fostering resilience emphasizes the importance of positivity and optimism. One widely accepted practice championed by Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology Center at UPenn (the birthplace of Angela Duckworth’s research on grit in students) is cultivating gratitude. For now, I’m focusing less on the method itself and more on its underlying rationale.

Gratitude is an effective means of increasing resilience because it helps counteract an inconvenient quirk of our psychological evolution: negativity bias.

Negativity bias is our natural tendency to highlight and remember negative experiences more than positive ones. Taking the time to feel and express gratitude, then, deliberately and explicitly incorporates positive thoughts and emotions into our daily existence. This points to the underlying characteristic of all resilience training: emphasizing positive experiences and foregoing the habit of interpreting one’s actions and one’s circumstances negatively.

Despite questions about its methodology, an attention-grabbing 2005 paper in American Psychologist that touted an optimal positivity ratio for flourishing — 2.9 positive exchanges for each negative one — is still regularly cited today. And not surprisingly — there is something comforting in the notion that resilience boils down to a numbers game, along these lines: Fill your mind with enough positive thoughts to outnumber the negative ones, and you’ll be more resilient. 

To be sure, not all positive thoughts are created equal. Hours spent watching cute cat videos don’t count. Conversely, not all negative thoughts are damaging. Sometimes they are necessary for our safety.

But within reason, it is safe to say that laughter and joy — and regular expressions of gratitude, which help maintain our ability to laugh and feel joy — constitute some of the best soil for seeds of resilience.

rethinked...* logo

Which brings me back to why I’m leery about King Lear.

I assume the director chose Lear as a reflection of the Syrian children’s suffering, which is tragically part of their day-to-day existence. And I accept the argument that such suffering can benefit from the affirmation and catharsis of expressing and releasing one’s own pain through the story of another.

As Edgar says in Act III of Lear:

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.

And to be clear, the Times piece gives plenty of evidence that the kids felt pride and value in the performance.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that a play of “laughter [and] joy,” which Lear simply is not, would have created sorely needed positivity for those kids.

Let’s assume a genuinely happy play would have led to positive thoughts outnumbering negative ones in the minds of those kids, even if only for a short while. For me, this presents two questions:

What benefits — what reframed perspectives, what relief from negativity and trauma, what new ideas and possibilities — might those kids have had access to?

To what extent does the principle of positive thinking mean that occupying a space of pain and suffering, even in art, may be counterproductive to healing? 

rethinked...* logo

In my next post, I’ll be looking at the seven steps for increasing resilience as laid out in Andrew Shatté and Karen Reivich’s underappreciated 2003 book The Resilience Factor. Reivich is a co-director of the Penn Resiliency Program, a “group intervention” and resilience training course for late elementary and middle school students.

In the meantime, I’ll also be looking for answers to those two questions above. If you have answers, I invite you, as always, to comment.

Jeanette Winterson On Reconnecting With Our Imaginative Selves Through Art …*

Jeanette Winterson On Reconnecting With Our Imaginative Selves Through Art ...* | rethinked.org

I think people are often quite unaware of their inner selves, their other selves, their imaginative selves, the selves that aren’t on show in the world. It’s something you grow out of from childhood onwards, losing possession of yourself, really. I think literature is one of the best ways back into that. You are hypnotized as soon as you get into a book that particularly works for you, whether it’s fiction or a poem. You find that your defenses drop, and as soon as that happens, an imaginative reality can take over because you are no longer censoring your own perceptions, your own awareness of the world. Most of us spend a lot of time censoring everything that we see and hear. Does it fit with our world picture? And if it doesn’t, how can we shut it out, how can we ignore it, how can we challenge it? We are continually threatened in life, it’s true. But once you are alone with a book, and it’s also true with a picture or with music, all those defenses drop and you can enter into a quite different space where you will learn to feel differently about yourself.” – Jeanette Winterson

Source: Jeanette Winterson, The Art of Fiction No. 150 via The Paris Review, published Winter 1997


I’d love to know what books, pictures or music have helped you connect with your imaginative inner self? Let me know in the comments below *

Barbara Kruger On How We Define “Artist” & How That Affects Who Considers Becoming One …*


“I think one of the reasons that I thought about art is that I was one of the few kids in my class–there are always a few–who knew how to draw. And of course it had to do with this replication of the real–that if you had that talent, then you were an artist, which of course is a very simplified way of being an artist. It’s a skill set but it’s not necessarily an art. 

I didn’t think I’d be an artist because I didn’t know anything about art and came from a very poor working class family in Newark, New Jersey. And no one in my family had really gone to college and I certainly didn’t know about the art world or what it might mean to have the luxury of objectifying my experience of the world, stuff like that.”  – Barbara Kruger

How might we reframe the definition of the artist so that all students– not just the few that possess a specific skill set or parents who can afford the time and resources to take them to galleries and museums–may consider and embrace their artistic potential?

How might schools democratize creative confidence?

Source: Barbara Kruger – Design Matters with Debbie Milman Archive: 2005-2009 via Design Observer, published April 13, 2007

{ Dirty Car Art & Bicycle Symphonies } Finding Wonder In The Everyday And Creating Delight Out Of The Ordinary …*

At the heart of our team, mission and work is a deep commitment to framing and experiencing the everyday and the mundane with delight, curiosity and wonder. We seek to make the ordinary unknown in an attempt to better uncover its vast untapped potential to make life more salient, human and fulfilling. But it is sometimes all too easy to lose track of this perspective, to become distracted by the superficial and overlook the magic of the mundane. I was thrilled to come across the works of the two artists featured below–Scott Wade –The Dirty Car Artist– and composer Johnnyrandom–whose art, each in his own way, is about finding wonder in the everyday and creating delight out of the ordinary. A welcome reminder of what’s important.

delight & rethink…


“Through music, I want to change the way that people perceive their surroundings and I hope this will inspire others to look at every day objects with more curiosity and wonder.”

Johnnyrandom | Bespoken from Johnnyrandom on Vimeo. [ Hat Tip: Making Music With A Bike  via Colossal, published January 15, 2014 ]

Composer Johnnyrandom breaks new ground with musical compositions made exclusively from everyday objects. His debut single, “Bespoken”, explores the full potential of sounds generated from bicycles and their components, transcending the role of traditional instrumentation as the accepted method for creating beautiful and thought-provoking music. 

Head over to soundcloud to sample a breakdown of selected sound elements combined in Bespoken – from tire inflating to handlebar tube hits. You can also download the full single on iTunes.

 [ …*

“It’s weird because dirty cars are so much a part of our culture and when we see a dirty car we think, ‘Oh God, that’s ugly, it’s an eyesore, you have to go wash it.’ When you can turn that into beauty, then it challenges our perception of what’s beautiful, what’s not beautiful. Plus, dirty car is a mobile art gallery.”  – Scott Wade

The Dirty Car Artist – Scott Wade [ Hat Tip: Dirty Car Art, by Scott Wade via My Design Stories, published January 13, 2014 ]

Friday Link Fest…*

Friday Link Fest...* | rethinked.org | Photo by Elsa Fridman

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and the nonlearners.” -Benjamin Barber


Five Ways that Games are More than Just Fun ~ They make us more social; They empower us to be creative; They help us develop empathy; They make us act playful and silly; They force us to tinker.  via GOOD, published August 1, 2013.

How Your Morning Coffee Can Make You a Better Designer ~ Tim Brown on how conscious observation, followed by iterating and testing potential solutions, can transform activities we take for granted. via GOOD, published August 2, 2013.

Why Some Great Ideas Catch And Others Don’t ~ Anesthesia caught on overnight, while antiseptic took decades. Why? via FastCo.Design, published July 30, 2013.

Literature Therapy Program Delivers Personalized Reading Lists ~ Bibliotherapy is a prescription reading service from the London-based cultural enterprise The School of Life that offers curated reading lists tailored to an individual’s struggles or personal situation. Patrons of the service book one-hour assessments with The School of Life for an in-person, telephone or Skype session with a well-read advisory team composed of an artist, a novelist and an independent bookstore owner. Instant prescriptions of recommended fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction are given at the end of the consultation, with a full prescription following within a few days. via PSFK, published July 29, 2013.

A Do-It-Yourself MBA? This Guy Did It–and So Can You ~ Victor Saad wrote his own masters-level education plan before becoming an entrepreneur. Now, he has founded an institute, The Experience Institute, to help others do the same. via Inc., published July 29, 2013.

The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers ~ via James Clear, published July 29, 2013.

Five Ways to Ease Your Envy ~ Envy is a state of desiring something that someone else possesses. It’s a vicious emotion that can crush self-esteem, inspire efforts to undermine others’ successes, or even cause people to lash out violently. It also just feels horrible. So what can we do to disarm the green-eyed monster when it strikes? Here are five suggestions. via Greater Good Science Center, published August 1, 2013.

How to Kill Creativity ~ Teresa Amabile on the three components of creativity and the six general categories of managerial practices that affect creativity: challenge, freedom, resources, work-group, features, supervisory encouragement, and organizational support. via Sage Publications,  published July 12, 2006.

Unstoppable Learning ~ Learning is an integral part of human nature. But why do we — as adults — assume learning must be taught, tested and reinforced? Why do we put so much effort into making kids think and act like us? In this hour, TED speakers explore the ways babies and children learn, from the womb to the playground to the Web. via NPR TED Radio Hour.

Organize an Office Recess and Create Your Own Game ~  A toolkit to organize an office recess and create your own game. via GOOD, published August 1, 2013.


Babilawn: Ornamental Air Conditioning Attachments ~ American designers Daniel Licalzi and Paul Genberg have developed a solution to help aid the visual pollution caused by air conditioners sticking out from one’s window. Influenced by the hanging garden’s of Babylon, ‘Babilawn‘, the faux grass mat attaches to the top of the A/C unit, giving users the opportunity to decorate their ‘lawn’ with miniature ornaments such as a white picket fence, yellow or blue daisies, and even a garden gnome. via designboom, published July 30, 2013.

“Uncarriable Carrier Bags” Remind Us, Cheekily, Not To Carry Bags ~ Mother London really wants you to stop carrying plastic bags, and the ad firm will shame you into compliance if necessary. Their yellow Uncarriable Carrier Bags are overlaid with pictures of objects that you wouldn’t want strangers on the street–let alone your own mama–to see you with. via FastCo.Create, published July 31, 2013.

Cakes Shaped Like Planets Have Scientifically Accurate Cross-Sections ~ via design taxi, published July 31, 2013. 

14 innovative & practical solutions to today’s most urgent education challenges ~ The 2013 WISE Awards Finalists from around the globe represent some of the best and most creative work being done in education by non-governmental organizations, charity groups, cultural institutions and the private sector. The 14 projects demonstrate practical solutions to today’s most urgent education challenges. Selected by a pre-Jury of international education experts, the project Finalists showcase unusual approaches to issues of access, quality, and employment needs. via WISE.

Could This Cardboard Furniture Replace Your Ikea Chairs And Bookshelves? Cardboard furniture for the urban nomad. Chairigami’s furniture is made from recycled cardboard and there’s no assembly required: They don’t use any glue or fasteners.~ via FastCo.Exist, published July 29, 2013.

Nobel Prize Winners Are Put to the Task of Drawing Their Discoveries ~ “The idea was, basically, to portray them in a way that was fun, personal and creative,” says Volker Steger. “I wanted to visually link them directly to their discoveries.” via Smithsonian Magazine, published July 23, 2013.

Look, No Grid! NYC Reimagined As A Circular Metropolis ~ Mapmaker Max Roberts‘ original designs aim to challenge conventional map dogma, a lot of which he says are outdated. Rather than emphasize straight lines, clean angles, and geographical accuracy, Roberts’ maps embody a more nuanced approach to mapping, one that combines aesthetics with usability. via FastCo.Design, published July 29, 2013.


Find Your Creative Flow State ~ “Happiness is absorption.” – T.E. Lawrence. via Jason Silva’s Shots of Awe project, published July 30, 2013.

8 Things We Simply Don’t Understand About the Human Brain ~Despite all the recent advances in the cognitive and neurosciences, there’s still much about the human brain that we do not know. Here are 8 of the most baffling problems currently facing science. via io9, published July 29, 2013.

%d bloggers like this: