Coaching in the Age of Coronavirus

There are so many tips online these days for how to survive the pandemic or what to do during lockdown that I’ve been hesitant to add any, but since so many of us are stuck at home with time on our hands and a jumble in our heads, I thought I’d highlight a few things I’ve found helpful.

The first has been to set some goals: not big lofty goals or enormous challenges that will feel burdensome, but simple choices to focus on things I care about that will occupy my mind and keep me moving forward in a time when I might otherwise feel stuck – at home, in the limits of my life, and in the obsessive tendencies of my mind.

Have something you’re working toward:  learning a simple skill or craft or about a subject that interests you; a moderate physical challenge like a series of pushups or a weekly yoga practice; a book you’ve been curious about but never given yourself the time to read before. Do something simple and achievable that you can feel good about, and that’s different than just what you need to do to get by.

Various combinations of these have gotten me through these last few months, and though I still sometimes feel stir-crazy, my online painting class (thank you Art Students League) or Yoga with Adriene or Insight meditation Zoom sessions have been a huge help.

So has learning new coaching skills, like Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model, or IFS. For use both in psychotherapy and in coaching, IFS is a way of understanding our own minds that I’ve found particularly helpful at a time when so many of us are spending more time isolated with our own minds than ever before. Living in lockdown can be a bit like being on your own home meditation retreat (or mandatory home confinement) without the guidance of a teacher or connection to a community, which makes it far more difficult to learn from the experience.

Schwartz’s IFS model is ultimately a way of making friends with our own minds – the good, the bad and the ugly. In his view, we all have different parts of ourselves that emerge and take over and lead us at various times — and often lead us astray. Like a family where different members play different roles in the system (Schwartz started out as a family therapist) we’ve each developed these internal voices or “parts” in response to various experiences in our lives. Each serves a different function, so has different goals and interests and means of conveying them. We may have an inner critic that tells us we’re stupid whenever we make a mistake, for example, or a part of us that’s afraid to try new things. Those parts might have developed because as children we got in trouble for making mistakes, or were shamed if we tried and failed at something. We’ve internalized those responses, and now those parts are battling other parts of ourselves that long for learning, growth or adventure. The critical or fearful voices aren’t bad: they developed for a good reason, to try to keep us from getting hurt. But by now, if they’ve become too dominant, they may be more destructive than helpful, keeping us stuck in internal turmoil.

The IFS model isn’t about banishing those internal voices, but about getting to know them, developing understanding and compassion for them, and ultimately, helping them channel their energies or interests more constructively. In Schwartz’s theory, while we all have these inner parts that often work against one another, we also all have a “true self” or core wisdom that we can access, which allows us to hear and accept the various voices, and learn from but not be ruled by them. Acting from our core wisdom or true self – in others words, self-leadership – is the goal of IFS therapy or coaching.

You can learn more about Schwartz’s model here or through his audiobook, Greater than the Sum of Our Parts. The model can be applied in various settings, including, when used carefully by a well-trained therapist, to situations of serious mental disturbance. But as a coaching method, IFS can help us all sort through some of the noise in our minds that keeps us feeling stuck and dissatisfied. Whether you’re trying to endure the isolation of a lockdown or having conflict in a relationship or feeling stuck in your career, it’s really helpful to identify and come to know the various parts of yourself that are rushing in and trying to tell you what to do. They’re often arguing with each other, so it can be hard to discern what each is saying above the cacophony. Schwartz’s model is all about doing just that:  disentangling the parts so we can hear, listen to and learn from each of them, and ultimately re-direct their energies and interests to guide us in more constructive ways.

If you’re feeling stuck, anxious, or just exhausted by the monotony of pandemic life, consider taking this opportunity to slow down and really listen: what are the different parts within you, and what are they saying? What might you ask them, and what could you learn? What do they want for you, and what do they need? And what can they teach you about how old patterns of thinking may be getting in your own way?

Beyond Coronavirus

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It goes without saying that these are difficult times, and a lot of people are suffering.  It’s important to keep that in mind, and for each of us to do our best to help in whatever ways we can.  It’s also important to keep in mind that this interruption in business-as-usual offers possibilities for imagining a different, and perhaps ultimately better, future.  How might each of us contribute to that?

From futurist Matthias Horx, via Insight meditation teacher Jill Shepherd:

The world as we know it is dissolving. But behind it comes a new world, the formation of which we can at least imagine…

A massive loss of control suddenly turns into a veritable intoxication of the positive. After a period of bewilderment and fear, an inner strength arises. The world “ends”, but in the experience that we are still there, a kind of being new arises inside.

In the middle of civilization’s shutdown, we run through forests or parks, or across almost empty spaces. But this is not an apocalypse, but a new beginning.

This is how it turns out: Change begins as a changed pattern of expectations, perceptions and world connections. Sometimes it is precisely the break with the routines, the familiar, that releases our sense of the future again. The idea and certainty that everything could be completely different – and even better.

 

The Optimism of Uncertainty

distressflagwhEvery January for the past several years I’ve joined activists in front of the White House to protest the indefinite detention of 40 Muslim men at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.  This year, January 11 marked the 18th anniversary of the prison’s opening.

I took the train to Washington in January with a mixture of anxiety and dread.  Anxiety that no one would show up, because who even remembers that the Guantanamo prison is still open?  Dread because this would be yet another year where, regardless of how many people did make the effort to travel to the White House to protest, the protests would be falling on deaf ears: Donald Trump, whose support is needed to close the prison, couldn’t care less.

Still, there was something beautiful in the annual ritual.  This year I had a filmmaker and cameraman with me, and the short film they created captures that.  It shows ordinary Americans of all ages traveling from across the country to Washington, DC. Many of them fast for several days before the event, in solidarity with the men who’ve undertaken hunger strikes in the prison. They gather and sleep on the floor of a local church until the day of the anniversary, when they put on orange jumpsuits and black hoods to represent the plight of the 40 men still indefinitely detained, most without charge or trial, in the US military prison in Cuba.

This year, we marched from the White House to the Trump International Hotel.

“I don’t think there’s any futility in that,” Reverend Ron Stief, director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture, told us. “Human rights is a long game… We owe it to the detainees who remain there never to stop.”

The president may not have been listening, but the protesters were connecting with each other, while calling the attention of passersby who knew nothing at all about their cause.

“What is Guantanamo?” a young woman who’d recently come to the US from Argentina asked me as I stood among the crowd at the rally, listening to the various speakers. She’d been drawn to the protest while walking through Lafayette Park that sunny Saturday afternoon.  I explained what it was; she stayed to listen longer.

Most activists are exhausted these days, and our actions can easily feel futile.  But it’s helpful to remember we’re all playing a long game, and that there’s beauty, even joy, in just showing up for it:  to support one another, to raise our voices together, and to call everyone’s attention to something larger than ourselves.

In his essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” the historian Howard Zinn wrote:

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Self-Compassion It

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I was in a meeting at the Pentagon recently, seated at a table surrounded by uniformed military officers and dark-suited government officials. The meeting was tense, with the officials all insisting the Defense Department was doing the right thing and I and my colleagues from other human rights organizations pointing to our evidence that in many situations, it had not. We didn’t seem to be making any progress.

At some point I glanced down at my wrist and realized I was wearing a red rubber bracelet that said in prominent white letters: “Self-Compassion It.”  I’d been given the bracelet upon completing an eight-week training course in “Mindful Self-Compassion,” and had been wearing it as a reminder to use the tools I’d learned.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Still, in this buttoned-up professional setting, I was instantly embarrassed. I sheepishly tucked my hand under the table, slid the bracelet off and stuffed it into my handbag. The idea that I would be seen considering “self-compassion” in a meeting of senior warriors seemed absurd.

The idea of mindful self-compassion can sound silly, trivial and self-involved. But it’s actually anything but.  As Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, the psychologists who created the Mindful Self-Compassion course explain, self-compassion has been scientifically proven to be critical to well-being.

Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion isn’t based on pumping yourself up to believe you’re better than anyone else.  That keeps you in a judging mindset, so as soon as you screw up, you feel worthless again.  Self-compassion is instead having compassion for yourself — not for your accomplishments, but simply because you’re a human being, flawed like everyone else, and deserving of compassion nonetheless.  Once you acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect to deserve compassion, you naturally start feeling compassion for the other less-than-perfect people around you. In other words, it’s helpful not only for yourself, but for everyone you encounter.

Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, explains this all very well.  But most convincing to me was Neff’s story of how she’s applied it in her own life.

As a small child, her son was diagnosed with autism. She felt a huge range of emotions — including disappointment, sadness, grief and fear.  She had recently learned self-compassion techniques on a week-long mindfulness retreat. She describes how flooding herself with self-compassion allowed her to feel her full range of emotions — including the shame she felt at some of her reactions.  Only by accepting those emotions with compassion rather than judgment could she fully experience them, to the point where she could accept and then acknowledge that she was strong enough to handle the situation. Not that it was easy, but it gave her a critical tool to deal with the challenges.

After that, when her son would start acting out — screaming and flailing in public,  for example, as some autistic children do —  she would comfort herself for her feelings of confusion, shame, stress and helplessness. That calmed her enough so she could respond wisely and compassionately to her son, instead of lashing out in anger or wallowing in self-pity.

Neff’s experience illustrates why self-compassion is so valuable.  It allows us to face our situation, whatever it is, with compassion instead of judgment. That allows us to look at the situation more honestly and thoughtfully, and to choose more carefully how we want to respond.

If I’ve made a mistake, for example, instead of immediately criticizing myself as “stupid”, I can forgive myself for not being perfect, acknowledge the mistake, and look more closely to see what happened and what I’d want to do differently next time. Giving myself compassion instead of criticism allows me to move forward. On the other hand, if I immediately beat myself up and feel worthless, I’m going to try to hide from or forget the situation immediately and avoid looking at what I did at all.  And I’m more likely to repeat the same mistake again.

The feeling of compassion, much like the feeling of love, has positive physical effects on our bodies, too. Scientists have shown it increases oxytocin, which has a calming effect on our nervous systems; it improves vagal tone, which helps the body reduce inflammation; it improves relationships, which has an anti-ageing effect, and, well, it just feels good.

The feeling of judgment or self-hatred, on the other hand, creates anxiety, which has a decidedly negative impact.  Chronic self-doubt and anxiety harm the heart, immune and gastrointestinal systems. Plus they just make us feel lousy.

Compassion “involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering,” writes Neff. “It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help – to ameliorate suffering – emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.”

Self-compassion thus places us in the sea of common humanity and allows us to extend the same compassion to ourselves we would instinctively offer to a good friend, a small child, or favorite pet.  It allows us to acknowledge what’s happening, including our suffering, with kindness rather than with judgment.  For those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to be ruled by self-judgment, that’s a huge relief.

“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” writes Neff.

It’s hard to be a human being in a difficult world. Our social and professional settings can make us feel like we constantly have to prove ourselves, to measure up, to justify our worth. As obvious as it sounds, no one’s perfect: we all make mistakes, even if we’re trying our best, usually in less-than-ideal circumstances. The simple response of kindness – both for ourselves and for others – can go a long way.

Time Out

imagesI’ve written almost nothing on this blog since the inauguration of Donald Trump. Partly I think it’s because I’ve been so outwardly focused – fixated on the daily, minute-by-minute news of the disturbing, twisted, often absurd machinations of this new administration that I haven’t taken the time to stop and think much. When I have, usually because all my anger and frustration has exhausted me, what surfaces is primarily a sense of defeat, resignation, and depression.

The other reason I’m not writing is because I’ve been seeing the world around me as rapidly deteriorating, so everything else seems trivial. I just haven’t been able to muster the energy to think of something positive or hopeful or encouraging to write about. And nobody needs more bad news to read. There’s plenty of that available already.

Of course, when I do stop to think about it, I’m not actually seeing the world deteriorate.  I’m reading, watching and hearing about it. It’s the focus of the news, of my Facebook and Twitter feeds, of ordinary conversation with friends, neighbors and colleagues.

What I’m actually seeing on a day-to-day basis hasn’t changed that much — except maybe the buds bursting up in February or the snowstorms in mid-March, which were definitely disturbing.  Still, most of what I’m seeing is exactly the same as what I saw when Barack Obama was president:  the same buildings and trees outside my window, the same people and dogs on the street, save for a new baby or puppy that’s recently arrived. My physical and visual world, my own life circumstances, haven’t really changed much.

Of course, lots of other peoples lives have changed, especially if they’re undocumented immigrants or Muslim, and I recognize that I’ve been shielded from the immediate effects of Trump’s policy changes by my relative social privilege.

Still, it’s amazing how much our consciousness and sense of the world and of ourselves in it can change based on what we’re reading, watching or listening to: the material our minds consume.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we can access news from all over the world in such an up-to-the-minute way and know what our government, for example, is doing. On the other hand, having that option can really take us away from ourselves, what we want and care about, and from doing the things and living our lives in ways consistent with that.

In “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau wrote: “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention.”

As the Buddha taught, what we frequently dwell upon determines the shape of our mind.

Many of us can’t just turn off the news, of course, and I don’t think we should.  We need to know what’s happening in our political system, and the real consequences it has for millions of people, and for the entire planet, to even begin to try to change it. But taking time to reconnect with ourselves is also key to staying in touch with what’s important to us and to recognizing our own inner strength and resources, despite the mayhem in the political world.  It’s also key to refueling — we need to re-connect with a sense of peace, with joy, with beauty, in order to replenish the energy it takes to continue fighting against these larger forces that threaten to overtake our better natures.

In Harper’s this month, Walter Kirn writes of driving from Western Montana to Las Vegas, without looking at or listening to the news the entire time. He finds it eye-opening, revitalizing, and oddly political: “In a supposedly post-factual time, deep attention to the passing scene is a radical act, reviving one’s sense that the world is real, worth fighting for, and that politics is a material phenomenon, its consequences embedded in things seen.”

I learned recently of the death of an acquaintance, someone I knew slightly but not well, and it struck me that even in our occasional encounters, he had touched me deeply.  I remember him as open, kind, gentle and wise — all qualities I admire, and would like to have more of.

We don’t tend to think about it, but we influence other people all the time, through even our most ordinary interactions. Taking time away from the public drama to reconnect with ourselves seems key to understanding that, and to reminding us that we can choose how we relate to the world. And that’s really the only way we can even attempt to leave our best impression on it.

No Expectations

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There’s a classic zen story that goes like this:

A young man approached a great master and asked to become his student. The student asked the master: “How long will it take me to become a master?”

“15 years,” replied the master.

“So long?” asked the young man, looking disappointed.

The master reconsidered. “Well, in your case, 20 years.”

The young man was alarmed. He persisted. “What if I devote every waking hour to learning this art?” he demanded.

“25 years,” replied the master.

“You’re talking nonsense,” the student said, angry now. “How can it be that if I work harder, it will take longer to achieve my goal?”

The master replied: “If you have one eye fixed on your destination, then you have only one eye left with which to find your way.”

I love this story, which I heard here from the Insight Meditation teacher Deborah Ratner Helzer, because I think it encapsulates a dilemma many of us face. On the one hand, we want to achieve great things, and set high expectations for ourselves; on the other, all those expectations can become exhausting and ultimately, demoralizing.

There’s a whole success industrial complex of coaches and self-help gurus that tells us high expectations are important to increasing our chances of success. Studies show that children expected to do poorly at school generally do, for example, while those expected to excel are more likely to get A’s and please their teachers and parents. And some psychologists claim high expectations make us more likely to pursue challenges, which raises our sense of effectiveness and ultimately, our levels of happiness.

I understand that logic, but it also makes me uncomfortable. I can feel my heart start to race and my stomach tie into knots as I scramble to think of what more I should be trying to accomplish, what I haven’t done already, and whether I really can or even want to achieve these new heights I ought to be reaching for.

I think part of the problem is that many of these studies conflate self-confidence with high expectations. The two concepts are actually very different.

It’s one thing to feel confident that you can take on a challenge. It’s quite another to expect yourself to succeed at something particular before you’ve even tried it. That assumes an entire path to getting there, which may or may not turn out to be realistic, or the path you even want to take.

Expectations are a fixed destination determined at the beginning, on which we keep one eye at all times. This can distract us from the learning and flexibility we need to adapt to conditions, which will inevitably change along the way. Expectations are, by their very nature, set points identified early on based on external benchmarks held up as representations of “success.”

The word “expectation” itself derives from the Latin for “to look out for,” which suggests a looking outward for something that will happen to us, rather than inward for something we can do. In Italian, the verb “aspettare” can mean to expect, but it primarily means “to wait.” It’s a reminder that expectations are something we watch and wait for – not something we ourselves can make happen. So rather than motivating, expectations can be, by their very nature, dis-empowering. And if we keep striving to attain something that’s out of our control, we’re likely to end up feeling defeated.

Still, we need to have goals and a direction if we want to accomplish anything, including continuing to grow and learn and feel competent — all basic human needs. I prefer to think of these as aspirations rather than expectations. To aspire is to “direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving.” It’s more about setting a direction than about reaching a particular endpoint.

Interestingly, “aspire” comes from a Latin word meaning “to breathe.” Setting a direction allows us to let go of worrying about the outcome, and leaves us room to breathe, and fully experience the journey, along the way. Aspirations acknowledge the unpredictability of the journey, and the larger context we’re operating within. They don’t make demands that things go a particular way, they simply point us onward in a particular direction we’ve chosen. The final destination, or achievement, which will depend on circumstances as they arise.

This way of setting goals also turns out to be more consistent with scientific evidence about the kinds of goals that lead to true happiness. According to Self-Determination Theory, we’re intrinsically motivated to pursue goals that satisfy three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence. That is, we’re more likely to persist with our goals if we’ve chosen them ourselves, they connect us to others, and they give us an opportunity to demonstrate our competence or skill in some way.

Those who choose goals set by someone else and motivated by external rewards, on the other hand, such as wealth, image and status, are less likely to stick with them. They’re also likely to suffer a lot more striving to achieve them, since, as psychologists Kenneth Sheldon and Tim Kasser have found, motivation by external factors tends to distract people from their underlying psychological needs and encourage people to engage in pursuits they don’t inherently enjoy.

Achieving goals set by external expectations is also often self-defeating, because we’re less likely to be happy even if we achieve those goals. And repeatedly striving for something that we believe will make us happy but doesn’t can lead to what psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” – the belief that there’s nothing we can do to improve our situation. That can lead to depression.

Of course, knowing what we value, making our own choices and being comfortable with them isn’t easy, especially when we’re bombarded with other people’s ideas of success and expectations for us. And that inevitably influences – especially when we’re younger – the expectations we set for ourselves.

It influences our expectations of others, and of the world around us, too. Yet we can’t control what other people – or governments, or companies, or institutions – do. We can only do our part, as best we know how: with positive intentions, awareness of our immediate impact and careful consideration of the potential long-term consequences of our actions. If we expect things to happen according to our desires and our timetable, we’re likely to get frustrated and give up. I see this in clients – and have felt it myself – over and over again. Instead, we need to set our course based on our current values, and pause to fully appreciate any progress we make along the way.

To condense this all into a handy reminder, I’ve broken it down this way:

To aspire is to:

Accept where/how/who you are
Set self-concordant goals
Practice being present
Intend your best self
Re-calibrate your goals along the way
Enjoy the ride.

Rebecca Solnit captures beautifully the spirit of this idea in her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.

Love and Activism

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A few years ago I was on a nonprofit leadership training retreat, when everyone had to go around the circle and declare their “purpose.” This was the sort of exercise I dreaded, so I scrambled to come up with something plausible I could say that wouldn’t be too embarrassing. Then I heard one of the retreat leaders announce that her purpose was “love.”

My eyes widened and it took all the energy I could muster to keep from rolling them. “Love?” I thought. “Really? And this is a professional leadership training?”

It’s easy to be cynical about the word “love.” It’s exploited to sell products and convince us we need lots of self-improvement to be worthy of it. In Hollywood movies or on TV, it’s mostly young beautiful women who find it (the movies are much more forgiving to men), prompting the rest of us to feel we should rush out and buy whatever we can be duped into thinking might allow us to make ourselves over into that image. The obsessive focus on the self that creates actually leads to the opposite of love: self-consciousness and self-loathing, as well as a cramped and defensive view of everyone else.

The popular view of nonromantic love, meanwhile, is the perfect immediate family, consisting of mother, father and several children, all happy, attractive, posing perfectly for their envy-inducing snapshot on Facebook.

I’ve since gotten to know that retreat leader better, and I don’t think she meant any of those things. I think she was talking about a far more expansive, and healthy, understanding of love, one that leads to the opposite of self-consciousness, narcissism, and envy; one that instead helps dissolve the boundaries between ourselves and the world around us, opening up greater possibilities for engagement, and for joy.

The research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls this “positivity resonance.” Fredrickson is a professor at the University of North Carolina and a leading researcher in the study of positive emotions. Her book, Love 2.0, offers an intriguing and I think really useful look at the whole concept of love: what it means, when it occurs, and the powerful physical and psychological effects it has on us – and its potential to connect us to a much broader range of people in the world.

Not surprisingly, Fredrickson finds that love is nothing like what we see in the movies. It’s not something you fall into or have unconditionally or need to find from that one special someone you’re searching for. It doesn’t require commitment or long-term bonding or even shared values, although those things can help create conditions that encourage it. But in itself, love is an often fleeting feeling you can have when you connect with almost anyone, including a complete stranger, under the right circumstances. It has a powerful impact on our bodies and our health, and literally synchronizes people as their brain functions mirror one another’s. Studies show the experience of this sort of love actually creates a broader perspective and understanding, of ourselves, of the other person, and of everything around us. What’s more, its quantity is unlimited; it’s an emotion we can develop and increase, regardless of our current relationship or family circumstances.

Obviously, this isn’t specifically romantic love, although that’s one form of it. But the kind of love I’m talking about doesn’t depend on finding any one perfect “soulmate” somewhere out there in the universe. It’s simply, as Fredrickson defines it, “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being, and is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”

What I like about this view is that it so clearly corresponds with actual human experience, and defies the silly cultural expectations that love be everlasting, unconditional, or limited to one person at a time. Rather, just as we experience it, love is an ever-shifting emotion that comes and goes, arises and fades away. It’s not exclusive. It’s not a unique feeling you reserve for one partner, or for immediate family or friends.

Positivity resonance is literally a “back and forth reverberation of positive energy.” Indeed, brain imaging studies done by Princeton professor Uri Hasson have shown that connection between two people actually creates synchronized changes in both people’s biochemistry. Hasson and his colleagues have shown that parts of people’s brains literally into sync during emotional moments – what Hasson calls “brain-to-brain coupling.” It’s how we understand each other.

The impact of this emotion on our bodies is astonishing. Love or positivity resonance strengthens the vagus nerve, which reaches from the brain down through the body to the abdomen, and touches most major organs along the way. The vagus nerve plays a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s stress level. A strong vagus nerve, or high vagal “tone,” as its measured, means the parasympathetic nervous system is working effectively to reduce the negative impact of stress on the body — slowing your heart rate after a frightening experience, for example. Scientists view vagal tone as a reflection of the strength of the immune system; a strong vagal tone make us more resistant to a broad range of diseases, including heart failure, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, and even some cancers.

Love also affects our bodies by increasing levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has long been known to be critical to mother-child bonding and sexual connection, but it’s also been found to increase during much more subtle emotional and social interactions. Oxytocin triggers the release of serotonin, which leads to increased feelings of happiness and reduces levels of stress. (Most anti-depressant medication similarly tries to increase the brain’s serotonin levels.)

The encouraging thing about all this is that it’s largely within our control. Increasing this sort of love is ultimately about letting yourself be open to it. Sure, there are formal practices designed to induce loving feelings, like lovingkindness meditations, or reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, which can be very effective. (Fredrickson has studied these practices and finds that if done over time, they actually increase vagal tone.) So, too, can simply increasing awareness of the positive impact true connections can have.

Daily interactions, with colleagues at work or neighbors in the dog park, for example, can take on a new meaning. Instead of merely awkward small talk by the water-cooler or bleary-eyed encounters picking up dog poop in the morning, they become opportunities for increasing positivity resonance and better health.

Positivity resonance can support social activism as well. Instead of focusing only on achieving a particular outcome, which may be elusive, the possibility of connecting in a real way with others doing the same thing –- and experiencing the same frustrations — can give our advocacy work a whole other purpose.

This sort of “love” can help counter the burnout advocates so often feel in another way, too. Focusing on the problems of the world and seeing few easy solutions can quickly lead to pessimism, despair and depression. Focusing on positive feelings for those who you might benefit, on the other hand — what lovingkindness meditation does — can really lift the spirit.

Meditations on love and kindness or positive interactions with neighbors, colleagues or clients won’t stop wars or save the planet or directly help those suffering the consequences of those disasters. But if practiced regularly and sincerely, they can renew our sense of hope by changing how we feel towards other people, including those most harmed by the world’s problems. And that can help keep us motivated to do what we can to help.

The Demoralizing Science of Success

063b6cfOne of the most interesting subjects in the field of Positive Psychology is the science of human motivation and success. Why are some people so motivated and so successful? Why do some people not even bother to try? And how does that correlate with human happiness?

I find this all fascinating. But I also find it tends to make me crazy. The other night, for example, I listened to a lecture by psychologist Tal Ben Shahar, who explained a range of psychological studies showing that high expectations of ourselves leads to higher self-esteem and higher levels of happiness in the long run, even when we fall short of those expectations. It was somewhat counterintuitive, since I would have thought that lowering our expectations would make us feel better, because we’d be more likely to meet them.  Studies show, however, that seeing ourselves try to meet our own high expectations actually changes our view of ourselves, which raises self-esteem, even if it also means we fail more often.  Higher expectations, if grounded in reality, also tend to lead to eventual success.

All good as far as it goes. But the longer I listened to the lecture, the more I found myself in turmoil. Were my expectations high enough? I wondered. Had I settled for too little in my life? Should I be setting my goals higher, and if I did, what would they be?

Ben Shahar went on to explain the impact of our environment on achievement, and how we can create an environment that “primes” us for success, even subliminally encouraging and cheering us on. That’s good news.  Still, I found myself in a bit of a panic: is my environment encouraging enough? Should I have more photos of friends and family on my walls?  Would that feel supportive, or oppressive?  And what about inspirational quotes? Would those subconsciously help me even if I tend to find them cheesy?

By the end of the lecture I felt like crap. Now obsessing about my lack of achievement, I looked up one of my favorite positive psychologists, Ellen Langer. A researcher and professor at Harvard, Langer has published 11 books on mindfulness and is an accomplished self-taught painter. I can never be as successful as her, I despaired.

The science of success wasn’t motivating me, it was deflating me.

It’s great to want to be your best self, but knowing what or who that even is can be a lifelong work-in-progress. I think the key to making that process “successful” is to learn to enjoy the ride along the way. Comparing yourself to your role model of the day, on the other hand, is a recipe for despair, depression, and demoralization.

The Beat Generation writer Seymour Krim has a wonderful essay called “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” that encapsulates what I’m talking about.

“At 51,” he writes, “believe it or not, or believe it and pity me if you are young and swift, I still don’t know truly ‘what I want to be.’ I’ve published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who’s Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I’m as open to every wild possibility as I was at 13, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat. One life was never quite enough for what I had in mind. “

“That’s because I come from America,” Krim continues, “which has to be the classic, ultimate, then-they-broke-the mold incubator of not knowing who you are until you find out. I have never really found out and I expect what remains of my life to be one long search party for the final me. . . . and I don’t really think that the great day will ever come when I hold a finished me in my fist and say here you are, congratulations.”

Positive Psychology seems to arise out of that American tendency to take advantage of every possibility available to us. Which is a lot of pressure. With all this psychological understanding, now, it’s not enough merely to be successful by conventional measures, but we have to realize our truest deepest visions, too. It’s a nice goal, but trying to meet it can be exhausting.

This is where I think we can learn a thing or two from Buddhism. Unlike positive psychologists who speak of unmasking your true, best self and then succeeding wildly, Buddhism speaks of the self as a constantly evolving and changing, ephemeral concept. There is no fixed self to unmask, no core we need to improve. Sure, we have tendencies and inclinations and strengths and weaknesses based on causes and conditions in our past – whether our genes, family, society, education, or whatever. And those may or may not be helpful to us now. But the goal is not to try to remove all those to reveal some true self that you then have to shine and polish. It’s to see them all as clearly as we can and to work with them. Acknowledge their influence, and then, with the wisdom we have today, choose what we want to develop, let go of or build upon.

The purpose of mindfulness practices like meditation are to learn to see and discern the various thoughts and influences that have led you to this place, so you can make clearer and wiser choices from here. That may include choosing more helpful influences in your future.

If you approach your own efforts with heartfelt compassion for the self you have become, you’ll be much more able to take advantage of the wealth of scientific studies on happiness and success. Because only by seeing and accepting who we are now can we begin to truly consider who we want to be and where we want to go.

Success, then, means simply continuing to move in our chosen direction.

Some Simple Career Advice

images-4I sometimes hear from recent college graduates struggling to start their careers. They want to know how they can get into human rights work, or journalism, or some combination of the two, and they think that because I’ve done both I’ll have the answer.

I don’t, of course. Career paths are rarely linear, and both public interest law and journalism have changed so much over the years that my own circuitous career path hardly seems relevant. Inevitably, I’m afraid, I end up dampening their enthusiasm with my cynicism about most jobs these days, particularly in law or journalism. Not that some aren’t great, but many people in their 20s have a lot of illusions about what they imagine to be their ideal careers, based on very little actual knowledge. The sooner they rid themselves of those the better.

There are really only two pieces of advice I end up giving: the first is to let yourself be drawn toward what you really enjoy. Try to shield yourself, at least somewhat, from other people’s expectations and your own insecurities, and think about what you really love to spend your time doing. Then go learn about what kind of work would allow you to do mostly that.

Once you’ve figured that out, try things out. You may really care about the environment, for example, but find that working at an environmental agency or advocacy organization is a total bore. You might really care about justice, but find that working at a law firm or even the social justice organization you admire most just keeps you stuck in front of a computer all day and feeling isolated. Don’t decide how you want to spend your life based on an abstract topic or issue: find out what the work entails doing all day. If that doesn’t inspire you, don’t do it.

These sounds like really obvious points. But it’s taken me many years to learn this myself; and I have to keep re-learning it.

I went to law school wanting to fight poverty and inequality; I ended up, seduced by the prestige of judicial clerkships and “impact litigation,” in a public interest job that sounded great on paper, but which I couldn’t stand.

I quit and went to journalism school. After that I did some interesting work that I’m proud of, and I took a lot of risks. But after ten years, the field had changed far more quickly than I’d expected and I was no longer excited about pitching stories to elite newspaper or magazine editors so they could pay me a pittance to do a lot of really hard work. My interests, my admiration for the field, and my tolerance for that level of insecurity, had all changed.

I’ve tried to combine the two fields of journalism and public interest law in my human rights work, and I’ve had some success doing that. But all work has its limitations, and I am still learning to appreciate what really interests me and the types of work I need to do to feel fulfilled. Coaching has been an important part of that.

All of which comes down to this really obvious but frequently-ignored advice: find a way to do the things you most enjoy and care about.

The psychologist Kenneth Sheldon and his co-authors Richard Ryan, Edward Deci and Tim Kasser flesh that out a bit, based on a wealth of psychological studies, including their own, about what makes people happy. They conclude:

“People seeking greater well-being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of: a) goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty and popularity; and b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them rather than goals they feel forced or pressured to pursue.”

My own 20 + years in the workforce certainly bears that out.

Bernie Sanders, the Optimist

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One of the most common criticisms I hear of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is that he’s too angry.

Americans are famous for being upbeat and optimistic. We’re raised to believe in “the American Dream” in which anyone can rise up from poverty to be a huge success. Anger –- particularly about the reality that lots of people don’t have access to that dream — doesn’t fit so well into that equation. (Unless, perhaps, it’s satisfied by scapegoating other people — the Donald Trump strategy.)

Hope, on the other hand, has always been a runaway bestseller. Bill Clinton, “the man from Hope” – his hometown in Arkansas – is still one of the most popular American presidents ever. And Barack Obama got himself elected promoting “the Audacity of Hope,” as he called his 2006 memoir. His vague promises of hope allowed the electorate to project all sorts of their own hopes and dreams onto him. Seven years later, many are sorely disappointed.

Thomas Frank, in his 2014 Salon essay The Hope Diet, cynically dismissed all the hopefulness in American politics as a way of duping the citizenry into complacency while leaders do what they want. Rather than a motivating force to engage the public, hope is something politicians “bring with them…ensuring this fanciful substance flows our way doesn’t require them actually to, you know, enact anything we’re hoping for. On the contrary, they can do things (like Clinton’s deregulation or Obama’s spying program) that actually harm their constituents, and then tell us, as Barack Obama tweeted after the 2012 election, the definition of hope is you still believe, even when it’s hard… This is the opposite of accountability.”

Perpetual war, extreme inequality and rampant injustice seem to be the norm these days, so one can be forgiven for feeling a little less hopeful. I think that’s why Bernie Sanders’ anger can seem, at least to some of us, highly appropriate.

Anger makes us uncomfortable, but it can be motivating. It signals something is wrong. And being on the lookout for something wrong may be the appropriate approach to the systems and institutions that hold so much power in our society. One can be angry at, or even cynical about, those institutions, and still be optimistic about individual human potential for change.

It’s a stark contrast to the approach of Donald Trump. Like Sanders, Trump is angry and cynical – but his wrath is aimed at specific groups of people, such as immigrants and Muslims. He’s not a cynic about our institutions, which have helped him amass huge wealth while providing only a $7.25 federal minimum wage that Trump has suggested is “too high.”

Although the media doesn’t generally tout Sanders as an optimist, it strikes me that his views are highly optimistic about human potential. This sort of view is encapsulated by the work of leading “positive” psychologists, such as the Harvard researcher Ellen Langer. In her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Langer explores how beliefs about aging affect and in some cases dictate our physical and mental experience of it. (This is also relevant to the criticism that Sanders is “too old” to be president.) Langer is not concerned with the statistical probability of something happening. She’s interested in what can happen. That’s far more motivating and relevant when you’re talking about make change. For example, I don’t really care if it’s statistically unlikely that I’ll run a marathon next year. If I really want to do that (I don’t, particularly, but you get the idea) there’s a lot I can do to make it happen.

That to me is what hope is about, whether personal or political. It’s what motivates and encourages us to improve our lives and our world.

I think it’s why I like Bernie Sanders. There’s something about his willingness to see and state clearly the powerful influence of concentrated wealth in our society and its control over all of our major systems and institutions that’s refreshing. It may come across as angry, but it’s not pessimistic. His candidacy is all about offering the possibility of a new form of governance that roots out that outsized influence.

Of course, his ability to actually accomplish that within the existing American political system is another matter – and may reasonably influence whether voters wants to place their hopes in him. Still, it’s a good example of how one can be appropriately cynical about systems and institutions, and still be optimistic about the possibility of well-meaning individuals to join together to change them.