Two young women laughing and drinking coffee.

Happiness is Contagious … Literally!

Most of us, at some point in the past few years, have found ourselves a little bit more attuned to the sound of a cough. Our alarm bells go off, and this can be summed up into one word - "cough, cough"  coronavirus. Yes, I know, not another story about corona and your mental health! Well luckily, that’s not what this story is about. But it is about something else that turns out to be contagious: moods. Yes, just like catching corona (or any other sickness you may be trying to avoid) you can also catch someone else's mood - and it’s backed by science. Researchers found that through a process called ‘social contagion’ moods can spread from one person to the next in various ways. No doubt most of us have experienced how others’ bad moods can affect us negatively. We easily feel down, or sad, or angry when others around us emote those same feelings - especially those we are closer to. But what about positive emotions, can they be contagious? And if so, to what degree? Research by Nicholas Christakis from Harvard University suggests that happiness, like the flu, can spread from person to person. When people close to us, in terms of relationships, or even physical proximity become happier, we do too. For example, when a person who lives within a mile of a good friend becomes happier, the probability that this person’s good friend will also become happier increases by 15%. An even more striking finding in this study suggests that the effect can go beyond direct links and reach a third degree of separation: When a friend of a friend becomes happier, we become happier, even when we don’t know that third person directly! Perhaps this is just another small reminder of why your mom was right when she told you to ”choose your friends carefully!” Interestingly, the concept of ‘social contagion” also explains why the old notion of trying to become happier by comparing yourself to the less fortunate (i.e. those who have more troubled relationships, less money, worse health, etc…) does not often work. You see, if you compare yourself to those who suffer more, and thus have more negative moods, you expose yourself to the negative moods as well. And, if you accept that moods are contagious, then comparing yourself to the less fortunate can actually affect you more negatively than uplift your spirits. Moods thus are not just contagious, they’re very contagious. In a world where depression is the leading cause of disability, and it’s estimated that 5% of adults globally suffer from it (according to 2021 World Health Organization data), a little boost in happiness can go a lot further than you think. The key takeaway is that if you work on your own happiness while also surrounding yourself with happier people, it’s not only good for your well-being, it will make others around you happier, and those who are close to them happier as well!  This is the powerful ripple effect of happiness. I hope you choose it when you can! Dr. Tal Leead has more than 25 years of clinical experience and runs her own private practice in California primarily focused on positive psychology. Her first best-selling book Happier Being: Your Path to Optimizing Habits, Health & Happiness has already sold thousands of copies and received praise from world-renowned meditation expert Sharon Salzberg, amongst many others. She has also been published in magazines such as Thrive Global and Psychreg.
Read More
Depressed woman

The Pebbles Can Pummel You

Determining whether a person is clinically depressed is not an arbitrary decision. Psychiatrists follow strict guidelines specified by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and look for at least five of the following nine symptoms lasting at least two weeks: Feels depressed most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by subjective report (e.g., feels sad, empty, hopeless) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful) Feels markedly diminished levels of interest or pleasure when engaging in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by subjective account or observation) Significant weight loss when not dieting, or weight gain or decrease, or increase in appetite Sleep disturbance Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down) Fatigue or loss of energy Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide I include these criteria not only because I want readers to know that depression can manifest in many ways but also to underscore the importance of seeking professional help if they apply to you or a loved one. Over the years I have diagnosed, hospitalized, and treated many patients with the full range of the symptoms described above. But there are also many who qualify for an “almost diagnosis”—not mentally ill by clinical standards but lacking positive mental health. When I first opened my private practice, most of the new patients I took on were at an inflection point. They sought help to assess a life-changing decision or to understand a relationship, or they were in the midst of a significant transition, often following a loss. The chronic issues in their daily lives did not take center stage. Today more and more patients come to see me because of the ups and downs in their daily lives. They are feeling worn out and worn down by the daily grind. Women seem to feel it the most. Almost half of the women surveyed said they frequently experience daily stress, and more than 40 percent said they feel as if they don’t have enough time. Their lives are nonstop, with a to-do list that seems bottomless. Often a lack of vitality only amplifies their stress. Patients often just give up and sigh, “I guess that’s just life.” The hassles of day-to-day living— the annoying, anxiety-provoking, and frustrating experiences that are embedded into everyday life— are a significant source of stress. Seemingly minor occurrences—an argument with a child or partner, an unexpected work deadline, arriving late for an appointment, missing a train, or dealing with a malfunctioning computer—all contribute. One study’s results indicated that watching the news and losing your cell phone are among the top ten daily events that stress people out. Even a long line at your local coffee shop or not having hot water for your morning shower can be enough to put you in a terrible mood. We know it’s absurd to allow something minor to ruin a minute let alone a day. We try to dismiss these daily irritations as irrelevant or as the “first- world problems” they are. We tell ourselves that they don’t matter in the long run. But they do. Many assume that major life events like divorce, the death of a spouse, and the loss of a job are the most virulent causes of stress, but a University of California, Berkeley study confirmed that so-called microstressors are the ones we need to watch out for: “[T]hese kinds of stressors have been taken for granted and considered to be less important than more dramatic stressors. Clinical and research data indicate that these ‘micro- stressors’ acting cumulatively, and in the relative absence of compensatory positive experience, can be potent sources of stress.” The impact of challenges that occur during everyday living on both a person’s physical and mental health cannot be underestimated and are, in fact, better predictors of health than major life events. This excerpt is from Everyday Vitality by Samantha Boardman, published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Samantha Boardman.  Dr. Samantha Boardman is a Positive Psychiatrist with a private practice in Manhattan. She is a Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry and Assistant Attending Psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College. She received her B.A. from Harvard University and a Medical Degree from Cornell University Medical College, where she was awarded the Oskar Diethelm Prize for Excellence in Psychiatry. 
Read More
Portrait Scandinavian woman holds the flag of Finland in the background on the premises of the cafe.

Finland Named the World’s Happiest Country — Again

Despite a year of pain, suffering and uncertainty, annual World Happiness Report shows a growth in kindness. Finland is still the happiest country in the world. That’s according to the 2022 World Happiness Report, which is released each year by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. This is the fifth consecutive year that Finland has taken the top spot in the report, which ranks countries according to national happiness in addition to reporting on specific areas of happiness and well-being. Once again, Nordic countries fared well, with five landing in the top 10: Finland Denmark Iceland Switzerland The Netherlands Luxembourg Sweden Norway Israel New Zealand Closer to home, the U.S. moved up from its No. 19 position last year to the No. 16 spot this year, while Canada dropped to 15th place — a substantial fall, the report authors noted, from its No. 5 position in 2012. Two countries that have been top of mind around the world recently — Russia and Ukraine — both landed in the bottom half of the world happiness rankings, at No. 80 and 98, respectively. The rankings were compiled before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the analysts will follow how the situation affects not only those two countries but disrupts the global level of happiness. Of the least happy countries, Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Afghanistan ranked last. A 10-Year Retrospective This is the 10th anniversary of the report, and its authors used this as an opportunity to look at how public interest in happiness has evolved over the past decade. However, during the report’s release on Friday, Jon Clifton of Gallup noted that they have been compiling data on happiness for 17 years. “Experts have figured out how to count everything, but nobody was tracking how people feel,” he said. “So, we set out to quantify how much anger they feel. How much sadness. How much stress people feel.” The findings over the years have been both useful and eye-opening. Clifton noted that this year’s data indicates that stress, sadness, anger, and worry have reached a record high. “All five of those have been rising for 10 straight years,” he said. “So, as we celebrate the International Day of Happiness, don’t forget the people who are unhappy.” Prosocial Behaviors Prevail One of the most positive findings of the report was that prosocial behavior increased globally from 2020 to 2021. Using donations, volunteering, and helping strangers as metrics, researchers found that around the world, we became more willing to help one another. Although this prosocial behavior occurred at different levels or in different ways, depending on the region, every region showed some sort of increase — often at “remarkable rates not seen for any of the variables we have tracked before and during the pandemic,” report authors noted. John Helliwell of the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and one of the authors of the report, said that areas where people had a greater feeling of trust in their government officials and in their communities were better able to weather the negative effects of the pandemic. That’s consistent with findings of studies that have shown communities with high levels of trust tend to show more resilience during such crises as tsunamis, earthquakes, accidents, and storms. “The places where trust was high fared better during COVID. It was people who were reaching out, and who were seeing others reach out,” Helliwell said, emphasizing the role this played in offsetting the drumbeat of bad news played out through the news media. “Life evaluations continue to be strikingly resilient in the face of COVID-19, and the pandemic of benevolence was one of the supporting factors.”
Read More
Cute portrayal of a range of different emotions

Make Your Happiness Last Longer by Embodying All Emotions

To embody an emotion is to expand the experience of an emotion to as much of the body as possible. When we do that, we are able to tolerate and stay with the emotional experience for much longer; and our thinking and behavior in relation to the emotion improve. The practice of embodying emotion is of value to both unpleasant emotions such as sadness and pleasant emotions such as happiness. The strategy of embodying emotions is based on the latest research findings in affective neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and body psychotherapy. How can embodying the emotion of happiness improve a person’s well-being? When we expand the experience of happiness to as much of the body as possible, we are able to increase, stay with, and enjoy our happiness for a much longer period. Our thinking and behavior will improve to support that we remain happy longer, by making our thinking and behavior more positive to enhance and support our happiness or by exposing and resolving our thinking and feeling that do not support our happiness. And, because unpleasant emotions are associated with states of increasing stress and dysregulation and pleasant emotions with states of decreasing stress and increasing regulation in the brain and body physiology, embodying pleasant emotions such as happiness can improve our health and energy as well as make us more resilient in the face of life’s challenges, consistent with the findings in positive psychology that people who are happier tend to be healthier and more resilient, physically and psychologically. How we can enhance the practice Positive Psychology through the Practice of Embodying Emotions Positive psychology emphasizes the important role positive cognitions, emotions, and behaviors can play in increasing our wellbeing any therapeutic process. Just as there are any number of positive cognitions and behaviors, there are also any number of positive emotions. However, most if not all psychotherapy approaches work with only a limited number of pleasant and unpleasant emotions, influenced by the academic research on emotions that usually focuses only on a limited number and vocabulary of emotions. Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP) in its primary clinical strategy of the practice of embodying emotions works creatively with a large range of emotions including the always-present and often-overlooked sensorimotor emotions, psychologically meaningful body states such as  feeling good or feeling as though each cell in the body were eating chocolate, for example. We often have more access to such positive sensorimotor emotions and are able to embody them with greater ease than the basic emotion of happiness. At times, expanding positive emotional experiences in a body is made difficult by the body shutting down due to its inability to tolerate an unpleasant emotion. When the chest is constricted against the experience of grief, it is hard to feel joy there let alone expand it from there to other places in the body. In such instances, practitioners of positive psychology can work to free the body for the experience and expansion of positive emotions in an efficient manner by having the unpleasant emotion of grief embodied first, as expanding unpleasant emotions has been shown to be quite effective in increasing one’s ability to tolerate them and in freeing the body from defenses against emotions. RAJA SELVAM, Ph.D., is the developer of Integral Somatic Psychology, an approach based on the paradigm of embodied cognition, emotion, and behavior in cognitive and affective neuroscience. He is the author of The Practice of Embodying Emotions: A Guide to Improving Cognitive, Emotional, and Behavioral Outcomes.
Read More
A child holding a school book.

How Positive Education Can Help Students Flourish

When young people are given to the tools to find happiness within themselves as well as others, everyone wins Walt Disney used the noun “plus” as a verb, meaning to improve something that you are working on or already doing. I think that is what we have to do with education in all sectors. We need to “plus” it. We are living in some of the best times of humanity, as Steven Pinker has claimed in his recent book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.“We live longer, healthier, safer, wealthier, freer, more peaceful and more stimulating lives than those who came before us,” Steven says in a recent New York Times interview. “And by ‘we’ I don’t just mean we in the West. This progress is encompassing the world.”At the same time, we live in volatile times: The future is uncertain, and the state of some of our institutions, our cities and movements is threatened globally. How do we work to ensure that we pass the baton to future generations with the best possible hope of continuing that progress? Talking to Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.—a founder of positive psychology and positive education—a few years ago, he said, “We just need a time machine....” We were talking about how one could possibly engineer the “good life,” a life filled with meaning and purpose. How could one prospect one’s future? If you could have a time machine, you would be able to see the various moves and strategies you employed, the serendipitous path you lit out upon to thrive in later life. This is the question that educators, schools, colleges, universities, parents, students, policymakers and governments face. How do we engineer thriving, positive lives? If we could do that, we would indeed be able to change the world for the good. Positive psychology—its founding and expansion to fields such as economics, politics, neuroscience, cognitive science, sociology, anthropology and beyond—has begged the question, “Why are our institutions not positive?” This is most poignant when we think of our young people and their education. The various tragedies in U.S. schools and universities has brought this to the particular attention of our nation and the world: Why are schools not shaped with positivity, thriving and well-being at the core? Wouldn’t learning and results on standardized assessments be improved if all of our schools, public, charter and independent, focused with priority on the well-being of our students? Wouldn’t our children be safer and better prepared for their futures? The Promise of Positive Education Positive education proposes that at the center of institutions of learning are a set of interrelated components, PERMA, that have to be addressed as a matter of extreme priority in order to have educational organizations that help students thrive. PERMA stands for: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments. Seligman suggests that if we could suffuse these elements more convincingly and intentionally in all of our educational organizations, not only would we have better learning outcomes, but more importantly, we would have better life outcomes for everyone leading to a better society. “But our schools and universities are doing a great job,” educators around the world claim. And it is true that on some metrics, schools around the world show student improvement on standardized assessments, but at what cost? Obviously, it depends on what you are measuring. At the same time, there is a massive increase in global mental health problems and opioid abuse across all ages in the United States. Even our social media platforms that claim to “do good” or “connect people” are correlated with users’ increased depression, flawed critical thinking and decreased well-being. Something seems terribly wrong. It is as though at some point we took a wrong turn that made it appropriate to define our value as human beings via a grade, a score or the number of followers we have. We have also come to believe that learning is just hard and is a game, rather than a lifelong endeavor of self-improvement and, although by necessity is “desirably difficult” at times, is also joyous. We have become distracted from seeking a capacity for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives and have become obsessed with credentialing and capitalistic gains rather than humanistic success. Innovation to Stand the Test of Time So, how do we resolve this? I think the answer is simple. We recalibrate our entire system of education globally through positive education. This is already happening in many places all over the world. However, these are small sparks, prompted by individuals and institutions interested in how to translate valid cognitive science and social science research into everyday practices in schools and universities. For positive education to work it needs to become the norm; it needs to be just good education. Too much of what happens in our learning centers is through an ever-accelerating cycle of trends that crash upon schools like waves crashing against the shore. These “waves” have an effect, and then the effect disappears to be followed by yet another new set of waves of innovation. Positive education needs to be the norm. It needs to be a matter of a shift of assumptions and beliefs that permeate all school and university environments. We have to believe that to learn well, we need to tend more effectively to the social and emotional well-being of our young people. If we could put that at the center of what we do in all of our educational institutions, we would have better learning, better citizens, better corporations, better countries and a better world. Why is this so difficult? It is because the older generations, people like myself, in my fifties and in charge of schools and school systems, still believe that well-being is secondary to learning rather than a means to it. In order to change that view, we need to assure the elements of PERMA have primacy in the culture of all of our educational organizations. We need to prize the development of character strengths and ethical decision-making as equally important as the development of literacy and quantitative understanding. We need to ensure that our teachers and professors model the very social and emotional capacities and maturity we seek to develop in our students. We need to figure out more effective ways to provide good formative feedback to our students about the development of their moral and character development just as much as we provide feedback on their intellectual and academic development. In the past, I have felt that these issues and a global call for a positive education movement were more of a call to educators and to our students. More and more, I think that this is a matter of broader justice. It is a matter that is pertinent to all of us as global citizens. It is a way to save a world that is perhaps on an errant path. We need to work on increasing the potential of our youth in every country, which would be a worthwhile thing to do as we have seen through the young people in Parkland, in Malala Yousafzai who is fighting for girls’ education worldwide and in the activist voices of young people globally who are fighting oppression while seeking both justice and opportunity. Instead of being focused on GDP or even global happiness, we should be focused on a PERMA index with parents, governments, schools and universities seeking to work in concerted and collaborative ways to increase the PERMA in their own country and others. This is something that need not be debated infinitely since it is pragmatic, backed by science, and, I believe, within grasp for every individual and organization that has enough wherewithal to look positively to the future and ensure the thriving of our young people. We need to “plus” education, thereby “plussing” our countries and the world. We all need positive education. This article originally appeared in the October 2018 edition of Live Happy magazine. Dominic Randolph is the sixth Head of School at the Riverdale Country School, a Pre-K–12 independent school in New York City, and a founder of the Character Lab and Plussed+
Read More
Live Happy's Positive Lessons from the Pandemic

Positive Lessons From the Pandemic

Although much has been researched and written about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected mental and emotional well-being around the globe, most of that research has looked at its negative effects. During the International Positive Psychology Association’s (IPPA) Seventh World Congress last week, held virtually for the first time, some of the world’s leading positive psychology experts shared the lesser-known ways the pandemic has had positive outcomes for individuals and for society.Dr. Antonella Delle Fave, professor of psychology at the University of Milano in Italy, offered the keynote presentation, “Eudaimonia: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” providing insight into some of the lesser-publicized effects of the pandemic. Her research looked at how factors such as resilience and social support affected individuals.The studies clearly show the importance of good mental health, she said.“Mental health was shown to play a protective role against PTSD,” she reported, referencing a study that indicated 33% of people considered themselves to be flourishing during the pandemic, while 9% landed in the “languishing” category. The rest of the survey respondents fell somewhere in between those two extremes.“People who were languishing were at higher risk of developing PTSD during the pandemic. Positive mental health was a predictor of less severe symptoms.” Building Resilience Individual resilience showed a direct correlation to such things as depression, anxiety and stress in countries around the globe. But those who practiced healthy, resilience-building skills fared far better than those who did not. For example, studies from Norway and the U.S. showed that people who participated in physical activity were less susceptible to depression and anxiety. Other factors found to bolster resilience included support from family and friends, proper sleep habits and prayer or meditation. “Resilience seems to be one of the primary resources across nations and populations,” Delle Fave noted. “Studies around the world are in agreement about the positive role of resilience in well-being and the negative correlation between low resilience and anxiety.” Discovering Happiness Based on Delle Fave’s research, the people who were able to thrive and flourish during lockdowns looked at the pandemic through a different lens. That not only allowed them to feel more at ease in the moment but often created lasting change in their lives, such as: Many people reevaluated what was important in life, such as being healthy and having social support. They also reevaluated how they spent their time and what was valuable to them. This led to rediscovering lost interests, changing their relationship with work and becoming more self-aware. A large number of people strengthened relationships with their family and friends. “People who increased their social connections saw higher levels of wellbeing in all countries,” Delle Fave said. “What this showed us was that interaction with family and friends mattered. Social support was an important contributor to wellbeing.” Steps to Well-being Other researchers looked at specific ways people maintained their well-being and built resilience during the pandemic. A study headed by Lea Waters of the Centre for Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne in Australia identified several interventions that were shown to be successful in managing the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic. They included: Finding meaning. Having meaning in life helps buffer the effects of adversity and has both physical and psychological advantages, Waters’ report shows: “People who report higher levels of meaning in life also are happier, express more frequent and strong positive emotions, endorse and use their character strengths more, have more satisfying relationships and are viewed as more desirable potential friends, help others more, feel better subjective health, report fewer health symptoms [and] have better functioning immune systems.” Practicing self-compassion. Treating oneself with kindness is an effective way to cope with high-stress situations, and that proved true during the pandemic. People who practiced self-compassion during the pandemic reported less fear and a greater sense of emotional safety. Creating a gratitude practice. One study conducted during the pandemic showed that many people were grateful even during the pandemic. Over 56% of respondents reported being grateful, which ranked higher than any other positive emotion, such as happiness or hope. And it was a strong predictor of happiness after the pandemic. “The more grateful people were, the more they reported positive self-changes. This is important because people can increase their levels of gratitude with simple practices such as journaling.” Implementing such practices can have a significant effect on how well an individual manages such adverse conditions as, say, a global pandemic, and Waters said she hoped the research would provide a path forward to help individuals increase their resilience and wellbeing in a post-pandemic world. “[We] hope that the cultivation of these outcomes continues beyond this crisis and leads to sustained positive outcomes,” she said.
Read More
Songwriting with Soldiers

Veterans Reconnect Through Music

Jay Clementi knows what it takes to write a hit song. The Nashville-based singer, songwriter and producer has mastered the art of the musical hook, penning hits for such artists as Luke Bryan, Martina McBride and Dierks Bentley.  But some of Jay’s most meaningful work will most likely never make the charts or even find airplay on the radio. And he’s absolutely fine with that. “When you write a song commercially, you always have an eye to the radio and what could be a hit,” he explains. “You’re writing truth, but you’re also making up stuff. This is so different. It’s a completely different focus.” As one of a dozen or so songwriters working with the SongwritingWith:Soldiers (SW:S) program, Jay uses collaborative songwriting as a tool for healing. The program combines positive psychology tools with the power of music to foster a rich healing environment for military men and women who are either veterans or on active duty. “They’re soldiers, and they’re brave in so many ways, but [opening up like this] is a different kind of bravery,” Jay says. Creating a Connection The seeds for SW:S were planted in 2012 when Mary Judd, a specialist in creative communications and positive psychology programming, reconnected with her childhood friend, Texas singer/songwriter Darden Smith. Darden was moved to action after performing at a U.S. military hospital in Germany and wanted to find a way to use his skills to help those who were serving in the military. Mary, who had experience at organizing events such as happiness retreats, saw the potential of applying positive psychology principles to a songwriting environment. The two were convinced they could combine music and positive psychology to help the lives of soldiers and held their first retreat in October 2012. “I think all of us can relate to the power of a song and what it can do for us, both physically and emotionally,” Mary says. “We are not a music therapy program. What happens at our retreats is very therapeutic and cathartic, but we always emphasize that we are not therapists.” Still, the songwriters are picked based on their ability to connect, communicate and empathize with their military collaborators. In addition to Jay and Darden, artists participating in the program include Grammy Award winners and hit makers including Radney Foster, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Gary Nicholson, Mary Gauthier and more. The program has become so popular that Mary Judd is in the process of creating a curriculum to train more songwriters in the SW:S principles. “I really felt strongly, based on the happiness research that I’ve studied, that the moment [we have with the soldiers] is such a spark,” she says. “We wanted to fuel that to do more, so we put a lot of intention into how to build the program, what we do beforehand and what to do after.” The weekend begins with a meet and greet where military members, and sometimes their families, gather together with the songwriters in a casual reception. That casual time is meant to break down walls, release anxiety and familiarize them with the songwriting process. “They write a song together that very first night, as a group,” Mary says. That helps prepare them for the next day, which sees each soldier sitting down one-on-one with a songwriter to come up with a song. There’s no pressure to dig deep; they’re just sharing their experiences. “Whether it’s funny or sad or tragic or triumphant, the songs tell their story,” Mary says. During the time they’re not working with a songwriter, participants are offered workshops on reconnecting with their creativity through art, cooking, photography, journaling and more. There are sessions on yoga and breathing meditation, and Mary offers workshops on principles of positive psychology such as mindfulness and character strengths. “This really is a positive psychology-based coaching program,” Mary says. It just happens to have a killer soundtrack. Changing Lives With Lyrics The SW:S program has proven to be more than just cathartic for soldiers; it’s been life saving. “Not just from a, ‘I’ve found myself again’ point of view, but from a literal, ‘I was going to kill myself because I felt so isolated, but this helped me to bridge that gap so I’m not so isolated anymore’ way,” says A.J. Merrifield, who served in the U.S. Army from 2002 to 2011 with multiple tours in Iraq.   “This isn’t just a little creativity exercise, it’s not basket weaving as a way of distraction, but rather a genuine and important way of helping those who are returning from the crucible of war, loss and sacrifice to communicate.” A.J., who first attended a SW:S retreat in April 2013, says the experience made him feel less isolated and helped him learn to reconnect—an important but often challenging ability for any military member. “The whole point of SongwritingWith:Soldiers is to help bridge the gap between veterans and others, whether it be other veterans or civilians,” says A.J., who now volunteers with the organization. “I’ve found that it also helps bridge the gap within ourselves, too, accessing some of the thoughts and feelings we either try to forget or don’t like to acknowledge. It helps us deal with and confront those feelings.” On his retreat, A.J. teamed with Jay and fellow military veteran Chris Chirco to write "A Call to Prayer." “It grew out of a discussion that the three of us had…about the dichotomies of faith in a combat zone, how the experience can make or break your faith, the feeling of loss when losing a comrade and how you deal with those things,” he says. The song deals specifically with the loss of one of his soldiers, SPC Clinton R. Upchurch. “In a way, this song keeps him alive, too, by keeping his name out there, keeping those memories fresh—that’s something I’ll always be grateful to Jay for.” Taking the Music Mainstream The program has been transformative for the soldiers, but it has also deeply touched the songwriters who participate. For singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier, SW:S has become a calling that she turned into her latest album, Rifles and Rosary Beads. “Using songs and songwriting to connect people who have been disconnected because of a traumatic event is just a natural fit for me,” she says. “I’m excited about being given this privilege to work with people who want to do this work, who want to get better. We’re losing 20 veterans a day to suicide because of war trauma. There is a crisis, and writing songs with veterans is helping on some level to address it.” Rifles and Rosary Beads features 11 songs written with soldiers, and Mary donates a portion of every sale to SW:S. The album is nominated for the Album of the Year by the Americana Music Association and has earned widespread critical acclaim.   “Taking something difficult and turning it into something beautiful helps move trauma out of the brain in ways that are quite profound,” she says. “I think that’s what I’m on earth to do, to help show the resilience of the human spirit. If I look at this record and the songs I’ve written over the last four years with veterans, in the end, even the most harrowing [songs] are about love. “Because in the end, love is what saves us all.” 
Read More
Person taking notes at a desk.

Which Kind of Goal Setter Are You?

I love that the beginning of the year is a special time to focus on self-improvement. I hate that it often provides an even bigger chance to miserably fail and feel bad about myself for months to come. As a positive psychology researcher, I want to crack the code of successful resolutions. My husband, Shawn, and I decided to conduct a goal-setting experiment, using only ourselves as subjects. We would employ two very different approaches toward achieving our goals, and at the end, compare data. The results have forever changed how I set and achieve goals and improved my self-image in the process. I’m hopeful our experience will help you better understand which approach will work best for your brain and give you the highest chance of goal-setting success. Experiment design The experiment would take three months, and we did it over the summer when the pace of life felt slower. Shawn would follow the science. I would try something completely crazy. We’d each document our results and compare final notes after Labor Day. The control group: Shawn Shawn followed the science to a T, and he was a lovable nerd through this process. Based on the research, he developed this formula: (Specific + Tracked) x Varied = Success Specific—Research shows that while it is good to have big goals, it is best to break them down into small, specific goals. That gives the brain more opportunities for “wins” as we achieve those milestones, which can act as fuel for the future. One of Shawn’s goals was to meditate more; he added a 30-minute session each week on Sundays. Each time he sat down to meditate on a Sunday, his happiness over that win fueled his meditation practice the following week. Tracked—Here is where Shawn’s true scientist came out. He developed a detailed spreadsheet that listed all his goals and tracked percentage progress to the finish line. He even made a bar graph. He applied the research he featured in his book Before Happiness that shows that when the brain sees it is 70 percent or more toward the finish line, it actually speeds up progress. That’s why exhausted marathoners sprint for the finish line. One of his goals was to play tennis four times with a friend he rarely sees. After just six weeks, he was excited to see that he was 75 percent of the way to his goal. Varied—Shawn came up with a range of goals. He wanted to swim a certain number of laps nonstop by the end of the summer, read a certain number of new books for fun (no research books!) and go on three dates with me. I’m so happy for diversification! And no work goals this time because work was busy enough. This followed the research that shows that by varying the areas of your life in which you have goals, accomplishments in one area can help motivate you in others. The experimental group: Michelle I called my approach to the experiment “The Summer of NO Goals.” Yep, you read it right! First, the back story: I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve. A. Lot. What this means is that I always have goals. I get swept up in the excitement of “how great it would be” to do this or that. I go for a run and instantly think, “I should run every morning. How great that would be for my body. I am going to run two miles every morning from now on.” I do it for three days. And then I am on to the next great idea. The worst part is that I have often felt bad about constantly not following through. And then we had our son Leo, who is now 2 1/2, and I have even less time to do anything. But that has been a blessing in disguise, as you’ll see from my formula. Mindful + Tracked + Play = Joy Mindful—Just simply deciding I was not going to set goals for myself during the summer didn’t mean my brain didn’t try to do it anyway. I had formed a habit of it. So I needed to cultivate mindfulness to consciously observe my thought patterns. When I did go for an occasional run, I didn’t let my thinking rob me of the joy of that run by plotting and planning the next 365 runs. I just tried to stay in the moment. I watched my breath go in and out as I jogged. I looked at the trees. Most times I practiced this simple mindfulness technique and felt refreshed, and that feeling made me want to run more. At the end of the summer, I had run 22 percent more than the previous three months. Tracked—Since I had no tangible goals to track, I decided to track progress in all areas of my life. I kept a list of small work projects I accomplished, how many times I went swimming, the number of times I played with Leo in the sandbox, etc. This tracking started to show me two things. First, I do a lot of awesome things during the course of an average day or week so there is no need to feel bad about myself. Second, I started to see how much I do of each kind of activity and which ones bring me the most joy. By consciously moving time from something that is not as fun like answering emails to something that is fun like playing in the sandbox with Leo, that 20-minute swing in the middle of the day energized me for the rest of it. Play—This one was simple. Every time Leo asked me to play, I tried to say “YES!” There are a lot of things that can wait, from doing the dishes to those pesky emails. I want to savor this time with him now while he is young, even if it means having a slightly messy house for a time. Play is memorable. Dishes are not. Results Shawn accomplished 96 percent of his goals for the summer and felt great about it. During my summer of no goals, I was blown away by my long list of accomplishments. I also had shifted approximately 9 percent of my time away from draining activities toward energizing ones. Small shift, great rewards And after the experiment concluded, I was recharged and ready to set goals again. Personal growth starts with each of us understanding what we need right now to inspire and propel us. That’s when applying the science helps. This year, Shawn’s formula might work perfectly for you, or you might need a mindful recharge like I needed. Or maybe it’s time to be your own scientist and come up with a new formula. What’s your approach to goal setting in the new year? Is there one goal you’d like to share? Join the discussion with me on Facebook at Read more: Let Technology Revolutionize Your New Year's Resolutions SHAWN ACHOR is best-selling author of the The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Shawn’s TED Talk is one of the most popular ever, with over 5 million views, and his PBS program has been seen by millions. Learn more about Shawn at MICHELLE GIELAN is an expert on the science of positive communication and how to use it to fuel success and the author of Broadcasting Happiness. Formerly a national news anchor for CBS News, Michelle holds a masters of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Learn more at
Read More
Woman boxing in a gym, gloved hand striking straight into the camera.

Face Failure Head On With These Essential Tools

I’ve been afraid of one thing my whole life: Failure. Whenever I think I might fail at something, my body launches into a full-blown panic attack. My heart races, my breath quickens, I can’t get enough air to my lungs and I’m sure I’m going to die. My reaction may sound a bit extreme, but fear of failure plagues all of us at one time or another. Perhaps you’re afraid to love after the last break up. Perhaps you’re afraid to ask for a promotion again after being rejected. Everything worth having comes with the risk of failure. And so we hold ourselves back. Maybe it’s easier to live alone than risk a broken heart, or to stay in the cushy job you hate than risk failing at a more challenging job you would really love. But to live a full, happy life, you must take that risk. The key is to know that you can recover from failure. If you know how to handle it, failure can even be your friend. The perfect child My failure anxiety started young. I am the youngest of three siblings, and my parents pinned a lot of their hopes and expectations on me to achieve: pressure to get perfect grades, have lots of friends—to be the best at everything. And when I wasn’t perfect, I would quit and pretend I didn’t care. I couldn’t let anyone find out how imperfect I was. So I avoided my dreams in order to avoid the possibility of failure. In my 20s, I knew I wanted to be a writer, speaker and coach. When a top Los Angeles literary agent rejected my first manuscript, I was crestfallen. For the next five years, I barely wrote a word and continued in my unhappy corporate career. Self-hatred and denial set in. Read more: Moving Past Perfection Breaking free of fear I tried to convince myself that life was fine, but my body knew better. I experienced migraines and severe depression. Every month, I begged my psychiatrist for more medication. And though I was a healthy 34-year-old, I came down with shingles. Something had to change. My mother told me to use my failure as fuel. I made a list of every regret, dream, fear—everything I wished I had done but hadn’t and began doing them one by one. I traveled the world alone, bought a boat, ran a marathon, and eventually went to graduate school. Failure is the precursor to success I have failed many times since making that list. When I first applied to graduate school, I was rejected from every single program. When I held my first group coaching program, no one signed up. And guess how many signed up for the second one? Zero again! I crawled into bed crying and swore I would never try again. But I did try again a month later, that third time, three people signed up. Now, I regularly get more than a dozen women signing up for each coaching retreat. Read more: Show Up and Succeed Fuel for growth Humans are resilient. Think of how many times you failed to walk as a toddler before you got it right. That resilience is still inside you. The question isn’t if you’ll fail, but what you will do with that experience. Will you shrivel up and hide? Or will you stand tall in your effort, gain wisdom from your failure, and get back out there to accomplish your goal? The latter is called “grit.” University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance toward a long-term goal. Her research suggests that the grittier you are, the more successful you will be. So next time failure (or fear of it) rears its ugly head and you want to hide, try this instead: 1. Acceptance Venting, denial and self-blame in the face of failure can lead to a sense of powerlessness and something called “learned helplessness,” which is closely linked to depression. But according to positive psychology founder Martin Seligman, Ph.D., you can also choose to learn optimism. When you fail, you can see it as temporary, isolated and opportunity for growth. To fail and come back again—that is strength! We all fail and most of us feel ashamed when we do. The sooner you accept this human truth with kindness and self-compassion, the happier you’ll be. Research from NYU’s School of Medicine shows that acceptance, versus suppression, reduces anxiety and suffering. Plus, research from 2014 shows that self-compassion can improve resilience, optimism, and self-efficacy. Accept that you’ll never be perfect. Rather, laugh at yourself for wanting to be perfect and move on. 2. Positive reframing Too often, our lesson from failure is not to try again. That holds us back from love, purpose and joy. Instead, reframe failure as an opportunity to learn new skills, enhance creativity, and become a better problem-solver. Find the nugget of wisdom, strength or courage in your failure and apply it to the next opportunity. Then get back on track and focus on your long-term goals. ­­­­ 3. Stay focused on the long-term goal All successful people have one thing in common: Failure. Think about Apple’s original MacIntosh, or times when Michael Jordan missed the game-winning shot. If Steve Jobs or Michael or J.K. Rowling had given up easily, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy their eventual colossal successes. When you fail, step back from the momentary challenge and remember the bigger prize. Angela Duckworth’s research found that achieving difficult goals requires sustained focus over time. 4. Take a risk! It’s simple enough: You won’t get anything unless you try. Start with something small. Let yourself fail. Do it again and again until you succeed. Let that small success be fuel to try something a bit bigger. The more you overcome fear of failure, the more motivated you will be. And if you need help getting over fear and going for your dream, get support. Hire a coach or join a support group that will help you identify the base of your fear and motivate you to move forward. You deserve to live fully. You deserve to thrive! I wish I could tell you that failure no longer scares me—quite the opposite. I’m afraid every single day. I just know what to do with it now: Be compassionate with myself. Laugh with myself. Gain wisdom from the failure. Reframe it as fuel. And try again. Read more by Carin Rockind: Nothing Compares to You Listen to our podcast: 5 Steps to a More Confident You With Carin Rockind. Carin Rockind is a speaker, author and coach with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania.
Read More
Kids in the classroom.

4 Ideas Shaping the Future of Education

With adolescents increasingly experiencing anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness, the need for change on a global scale for our youth has never been greater. The formation of the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) in 2014 paved the way to apply to education the principles of positive psychology, which research shows creates better outcomes, both academically and emotionally, for students. IPEN members advocate that developing students’ character strengths and well-being are as important as academic achievement to their future success and happiness. The organization’s goals include changing educational policies to recognize and include positive education principles and to then help put such programs into place. Although many positive education initiatives have been developed around the world, IPEN brings them together. “We needed a way to share best practices and try to form all of those disparate things that are happening into a global movement,” explained Lord James O’Shaughnessy, chair of the IPEN steering committee. In July, IPEN held its inaugural Festival of Positive Education in Dallas, offering workshops and presentations to some 800 attendees from more than 30 countries. Academics and positive psychology experts traded ideas on introducing classroom practices. Although the event was geared toward education, it provided plenty of takeaways for life outside of the classroom. Here are four of our favorites. 1. Grit takes a team Author and psychology professor Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., has almost single-handedly brought the word “grit” to the forefront of conversation. But she said an individual child’s grit isn’t the only factor that determines his or her success. “Grit is not just something that you have yourself, it’s also the resources you have with other people.” That means we can increase our grit by drawing upon the strength of those around us, and we also can help boost the resilience and grit of other people in our lives. “When I interview people…who have accomplished incredible physical feats, you have to realize they have around them people who don’t let them quit. Sometimes, it’s not their grit [that drives them], it’s the grit of people who care about them,” Angela said. She emphasized that such encouragement is different from forcing others to participate in activities they aren’t passionate about; grit is about learning to persevere when times are difficult, when your team isn’t winning or you’re no longer at the top of your class. “What a powerful thing to wake up and say, ‘We do things when they’re hard.…we never lose hope; we are the ones who look for hope and change.’ ” 2. Parents: Positive psychology's missing piece? Today, positive psychology is accessed in many different ways: Organizations teach its principles to improve business practices; higher education institutions make it part of curriculum and even elementary and high schools are finding ways to include it. Where it’s still lacking, though, is in reaching parents directly, said Lea Waters, Ph.D., founder of the Australia-based Positive Detective, a school-based well-being program. “The topic of parenting has been neglected in positive psychology,” she said, noting that from 2006 through 2014 only 1.7 percent of the articles published in positive psychology journals focused on parenting. “It’s a missing piece of the puzzle.” Finding a way to do that may present a challenge for positive psychology practitioners, but it’s a problem that should no longer be ignored, according to Lea. “Not every child goes to school; many of them are home-schooled,” she points out. “And not every adult goes to a workplace every day. How are we going to reach them?” 3. Focus on the positive Being mindful of what you’re focusing on matters more today than ever before, said contemporary historian Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. As co-founder and first director of the Centre for Contemporary British History and co-founder of Action for Happiness, he offered unique insight into the intersection of world politics and positive psychology. And never, he said, has global politics been in greater need of an infusion of positivity. When the media focuses on what’s wrong with a country, a leader or a political group, he explained, it creates a fearful, negative mindset that permeates an entire culture and can have long-lasting repercussions. Individually, we can begin changing that mindset by re-evaluating what we listen to and where we focus our energy. “There will always be demagogues who try to pull people apart. They work on fear rather than operating on a positive vision,” he said. However, “…there will always be people who define themselves primarily by their humanity. Positive psychology pulls us toward what we share in common with others.” Learning to appreciate our commonalities instead of arguing over our differences is critical to how we progress globally. “We must encourage our sense of identity, based on our common humanity. Those who would see our differences as something to be feared and separated will only lead to a more violent, divided world.” 4. Check the facts As a broadcast journalist, Michelle Gielan knew the importance of checking the facts in her stories. But as a positive psychology researcher, she’s found that same skill can help each of us improve our well-being. The Broadcasting Happiness author reported that people who read negative news could actually have positive reactions, but only if they were offered solutions to the problems they’d just read about. A study she conducted with Arianna Huffington found that when readers were offered solutions, they not only showed an improved attitude toward the news they’d just read but also increased their overall creative problem-solving abilities by 20 percent. “If we can remind the brain that there is a path forward in one domain, we actually empower [ourselves] to take positive action and become more creative problem solvers in other areas.” To do that, she recommended a three-step fact-checking process to overcome negative thinking and obstacles: 1. Isolate the negative thought. “When someone is overwhelmed, you start by finding out what, at the core, is stressing them out?” For example, if someone is stressed out about work, find that core thought—such as the fear of missing an important deadline. 2. List known facts. “Strip out the emotions,” she suggested, then examine the truths surrounding that negative thought. In the case of work, that might mean listing what needs to happen in order for that deadline to be met, and what obstacles stand in the way. 3. List the new set of facts that can illuminate the situation. This could include looking at who else could help meet this deadline, or even considering seeing if the deadline can be extended. “It’s not about disproving the old story, it’s about seeing the rest of the picture,” she explained. “If we can guide people to this solution-focused and resource-focused response…that’s when you empower them.” Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy magazine.
Read More